Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Aboutness: A Reply to Victor Reppert

Victor Reppert: What is it about one physical state that makes it about another physical state? That's the question being dealt with here.
What is it about a mental state that makes it about a physical state?

Suppose you think of a tree. What makes that thought about a tree?

It seems to me that you know it is about a tree because your thought of a tree is a mental model of past experiences or potential experiences of a tree.

A tree usually has a trunk, roots, branches and leaves and so does my mental model. Of course, I can alter my model of a tree and imagine a tree, say, without roots. But what makes a mental model about an actual tree is my ability to recognize the corresponding tree if I saw it.

In general, it's difficult to model a thing that we would not recognize. The model always has at least some recognizable properties. For example, I can conceive of the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby. Though I may not initially know what the kidnapper physically looks like, I do know what experiences relating to a person would lead me to recognize him as the kidnapper.

So, if we look at a computer (as [the previous commenter] suggests), we can see that the computer's manipulation of Shakespeare fails to be about the plays or the subject of the plays because 1) the computer is not dealing in a model of the subject of the plays, and 2) the computer is (presently) incapable of recognizing what the model of the plays is supposed to represent. The computer has only a stored representation of the play. It has no experiences, nor software for modeling those experiences, so it's file containing the play isn't about the subject of the play.

However, none of this precludes us creating a computer that can model its experiences, and can recognize the implications of its models. We might have to give the computer a corporeal existence (or a simulated corporeal existence) before it will understand what the plays are actually about, but it could be done.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Map: Probability and Miracles

Suppose we consider an event that is extremely unlikely. Resurrection is a good one. About 10 billion people have lived, and none have been resurrected. That means we can put the odds of being resurrected at about 1 in 10 billion.

Then someone claims that a prophet was resurrected, and that this resurrection is so improbable that it must be a case of divine intervention that validates the divine nature of the prophet.

However, the probability that someone makes up such a story in any 100 year period is close to 100% (because every century has its own bizarre fictions). Let's say that a story is so peculiar that we think the story unusual. Let's say that the story is so bizarre that we think it a one in a million shot.

Well, we will find that there's a 1 in a million chance that the miracle is made up, and a one in 10 billion chance that the story is true. That makes for a factor of 10,000 against the miracle.

If we are rational, we have to conclude that the miracle did not occur. It might have occurred, but the odds are so small that it's not worth our consideration.

In general, we conclude that any deity who tries to communicate with us using such one-time miracles is hoping we'll be irrational.


The objection to this claim is that, since Jesus is the son of God, resurrection is not improbable for him.

This is a ridiculously circular argument. Let's go back to step one:
someone claims that a prophet was resurrected, and that this resurrection is so improbable that it must be a case of divine intervention that validates the divine nature of the prophet.
It is because Jesus was resurrected that Christians believe Jesus is the son of God. The so established divine status of Jesus cannot then be the reason why we think he was resurrected in the first place.

Another objection is that my argument rules out resurrection as a divine intervention ever being persuasive. However, this objection goes nowhere as long as the deity keeps on doing the resurrections under laboratory conditions. Yes, I have difficulty believing that illusionist David Copperfield actually made the Statue of Liberty disappear. It's too improbable a miracle. And yet with enough evidence, the statistical weights can be moved, and I can be convinced that Copperfield has the powers he pretends to have. The same goes for God.

Finally, they point out that my argument doesn't disprove the Resurrection with certainty. True, but there are lots of things that are 10,000 to 1 against that we don't believe in. So why believe in the Resurrection?

Stumbling Blocks

Authority, perhaps? The Bayesian argument for the Resurrection was recently described (wrongly) by William Lane Craig, a highly respected figure in Christian circles. I don't think Christians want to call him on this atrocious attempt at statistical argumentation.

The Map: Probability and Evolution

Many people, including myself, have failed to appreciate the degree to which the basic evidence for evolution undermines a theory of design. Common descent is a near fatal blow to any theory of design.

In neo-Darwinian Evolution (NDE), every life form can trace its lineage back to the very first, most primitive life forms. The tree of life has no floating branches that begin in mid air. Everything is attached to the same trunk. More generally, evolution could consist of two intertwined trees of life, but even then, there are no floating branches.

In contrast, a designed tree of life can have floating branches. Indeed, every branch could be floating, or just one, or any number in between. For example, a designer could have chosen to make man (or gazelles) a separate floating branch with no ancestors on the tree of life. Or the designer could have chosen to make each family a different branch. Or each species. Or any combination of the above. There are millions of species, so there are at least trillions of topologies of descent that one can imagine given generic design.

After Darwin made his prediction about common descent, we did not know as much about the fossil record. Nor did we know about DNA and genomes. It was possible that we might have found that humans only coincidentally look like apes, and that we might not have even had DNA. Or maybe apes would have had a triple helix instead of a double helix for their DNA.

That's not what we found. We found that all life appears to trace its line back to a common ancestor. Thousands of research projects have shown this to be the case. We share most of our genome with apes, and we even share accidental mutations, in a pattern that proves we are related by a common ancestor.

Bayes' Theorem demands that we grant NDE a huge boost factor in our confidence, and a corresponding huge suppression factor for generic design. Simply put, there's only one way to do descent with NDE, and (more than) trillions of ways to do it with generic design. And after we look at life, we find life did it like NDE. We should therefore favor NDE over generic design by factors of trillions.

Here's an analogy. I have two boxes. Each box is filled with shuffled decks of cards. In the first box are normal decks of playing cards. Each deck in the second box is special, and contains 52 copies of the Queen of Spades. You don't know which box is which, but you go to the box closest to you. You draw a deck, then turn over the top card. It's the Queen of Spades. What are the odds you're looking at the box of ordinary card decks? Well, though it's unlikely, it's still possible that you went to the box containing ordinary decks, but you're 52 times more likely to be looking at the box of special decks. You cast aside the rest of the first deck and pick up another. It too has the Queen of Spades as the top card. Again, it is possible that this is a box of ordinary decks and that you've just been unlucky. Very unlucky, but it could happen. Eventually, the probability that you went to the box of ordinary decks becomes so small that you have to conclude that you're looking at the box of special decks.

This is our situation. Not saying anything about a designer, we must say that each of the designer's design decisions is equally likely. And yet the evidence clearly shows that the generic designer would have had to make the one design (against trillions of others) that evolution would make.

(I mention a "generic designer" because advocates of Intelligent Design are loathe to say anything about the designer, despite the fact that they have no one in mind but God.)

So, the bottom line is that a generic designer is effectively ruled out by common descent.


The objection to this argument was that the assumption of equal probability for each possible descent design decision in not scientific, but theological, because what God would do is not something to which one can apply probability.

It's really rather perverse that theists first obscure God by talking about a generic designer in scientific terms, but when we try to reason about a generic designer scientifically, we are told we cannot do that without getting all theological. I was also told that the probability of the designer choosing a particular course of descent was "I don't know" and that "I don't know" cannot be plugged into an equation.

When I raised the counter-objection that probability is specifically designed to apply to unknowns, I was taken on a ride wherein the entire field of probability analysis was brought into question.

Stumbling Blocks

Were it to be shown that evolution alone could explain life and our mental faculties, the concept of objective morality would be at risk. This is confirmed by the kinds of discussions that arise when NDE is discussed in conjunction with morality. Therein, Christian theists blame the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin on evolutionary biology, as if the way we developed historically implies a murderous political philosophy.

I hate to bring it back to psychoanalysis, but theists have no answer to the probability argument. They are simply ignoring it because it is inconvenient.

The Map: Objectivity

If you've read the posts so far, you've seen that, for the theist, everything centers on morality. People have to objectively deserve a punishment or reward. This inevitably leads us to ask what is required to establish something as objective.

There are several definitions of the term objective. Objective can mean inter-subjective, i.e., that people can come to some agreement about a convention. However, what we are looking for is a meaning of objective that roughly equates to "true independent of our present beliefs about it." This appears as a desire to know "The Truth" about the world.

We are handicapped because everything that comes through our minds is filtered by our experiences which are subjective. We have no way to know whether or not we are brains in a vat that dream the world as we see it. So "The Truth" as children like to think of it is a non-starter. There is no way to know a truth beyond experience because experience is our window on truth.

However, we are intuitively aware of a distinction between objective and subjective. And we can devise rigorous tests for objectivity and subjectivity.

My claim is that objectivity is a word we give to properties of things that appear to be distinct from ourselves. A good example is taste in food. I like chocolate. We believe chocolate exists objectively, and that it contains fats and sugars. However, my liking chocolate is about my interaction with chocolate, not about the chocolate itself. We would not say that chocolate objectively contains doctor(logic)-likability. We could say that, but then we would obliterate all subjectivity by hiding it in objective likability properties, and that starts to look silly from certain perspective.

So what I am saying is that a subjective fact about a thing is a fact about my interaction with that thing, not about the thing itself. In other words, if you did not know anything about me, you would not be able to fix that fact by looking at the thing itself. Not knowing anything about doctor(logic), you could not fix the doctor(logic)-likability of Doris Day.

The challenge is that it is difficult for me, doctor(logic), to isolate whether a property of a thing is in the thing itself versus in my interaction with the thing. I hear the sounds of a Mozart symphony, and it sounds good. I am objectively sensitive to the sound of the music, but the aesthetic goodness of the sound is subjective.

I proposed two tests for objective properties, one of which is a limited version of the other. In the case of the Mozart symphony, it's possible to sense the sound independent of knowing that it is a Mozart symphony. However, it is not possible to sense the aesthetic goodness without hearing the the whole piece. I cannot sense the goodness alone, but I can sense the sound alone. If I could sense the goodness alone, I would have good reason to believe that the goodness was part of Mozart's symphony, and not simply my reaction to it.

The key to this test is blinding oneself to all but one property of a thing. If we can do this, then we have good reason to believe that this property is part of the thing and not a part of our interaction with the thing.

This isn't proof that goodness is subjective, but it is the only kind of distinction we can make. Were we to assume that the aesthetic goodness of a symphony is out there, but that some poor bastards are blind to it, then we could say the same of any property we can perceive. That would mean that if you like red wine more than white, you could argue that red wine was objectively better, and people who did not like it more were crippled in some way. And presumably, people who prefer white wine ought to seek surgery or counseling for their defect.

Returning to my test, we can try this on all sorts of categories that are normally regarded as subjective and objective and see how the test works out:

Subjective / Objective
Musical taste / Musical sound
Gastronomic taste / Food chemistry
Art taste / Geometry, color, texture
Cultural taste / History, political facts, traditions
Moral taste, justice / Actions, decisions, consequences, law

In these cases, we can see that it is not possible to isolate good art, good food, good culture, good morality, or good music from a thing. Yet we can isolate the objective properties of things in a fairly straightforward way.

For example, I can devise a way to identify the sugar in a food without tasting the food in its totality. I can even make a machine that will detect its sweetness. And yet I will never know whether it is good food until I taste it as a whole.

I described my two tests in detail here.

Now, theists could make (but haven't made) the objection that there are objective emergent properties of wholes. For example, they might claim that the goodness of a Mozart symphony emerges from the whole, and that even a complete analysis of beats and times and tones and structure would not reveal the holistic property of the piece. As a holistic property, this property cannot be isolated from the other properties that are relevant to that whole.

While this objection seems reasonable to me, it doesn't really help. We knew from the start that it was possible for some properties to be objective even if we could not make that distinction. The objection fails because, were we to accept that any perceived attribute of the whole is some objective holistic property, then again we would utterly destroy the subjective/objective distinction.


Alas, there are no serious objections that I have seen.

Theists will say that if there's no objective morality, then eating babies is okay, but since doctor(logic) does not subjectively believe eating babies is okay, eating babies must be objectively wrong. Their arguments are that bad. That's why they insist that moral relativists like myself should never use the terms ought or should.

Of course, they are begging the question to the max. An inherent feature of moral oughts is that individuals will claim one ought to do a thing, and act to enforce or encourage such oughts. This is the phenomenon we are studying. The question we are considering is whether moral oughts are subjective or objective, whether we possess oughts due to accidents of our nature or because we perceive a reality of oughts external to ourselves. It is irrational to then turn around and claim that the phenomenon does not exist unless moral oughts are objective and external.

Stumbling Blocks

Once again, it all comes down to morality. If there is no moral reality, how can we be trusted to do cultural good instead of evil?

The Map: Free Will and Determinism

Free Will and Determinism

We experience free will as
  1. Our having the ability to recognize choices before us,
  2. Predict the outcomes of those choices,
  3. Choose according to our preferences, and
  4. Have our choice make an apparent difference.
One thing that we don't experience with free will is our having analyzed all prior causes of our predicament and all prior causes of our preferences. So, clearly, free will has nothing to do with determinism.


Theists argue that we only have free will if we could make a different choice given identical initial conditions. They will admit that some determinism is required to make reasoned decisions, but they argue that total determinism would preclude a person making a different choice in the same situation.

I have never seen a good argument to back this up, and I don't think that any serious philosopher could support this view. Hume obliterated this old argument centuries ago, and it's embarrassing for humanity that we should still have to waste our time on the argument today.

Just because we would always make the same decision given the same initial conditions doesn't imply that our decisions don't matter. They most certainly do. If we didn't decide the way we decide, then the future would be different. The future is different because we decide the way we do. The theistic argument is like saying that the gravitational pull of Jupiter makes no difference because the gravity is deterministic.

We don't even need to assume that the mind is material. If my decision depends on timeless factors (e.g., syllogisms) , then my decision is still deterministic. I still had to make the same decision every time.

The situation is worse still. If my decision is not determined by the past, then it isn't determined at all. It's random. Indeed, that is the case in which our decisions don't matter and are not meaningful. It's ironic that theists are arguing for a form of free will in which our identities do not matter. And all of this just so that we can by punished for our identities later.

Stumbling Blocks

Theists cannot concede any of these points because, were they to accept them, divine justice most obviously breaks down. For theists, such a conclusion would be absurd in the existentialist sense of the term. People would no longer deserve to be punished or rewarded, and their theology would be pointless.

But the theist's position is inconsistent on two counts, though they may be less obvious.

First, they claim that "free" is a third category after "random" and "determined." This defies logic and the definitions of determined and random.

Second, and more subtly, the kind of freedom they seek robs us of the responsibility that would deserve punishment or reward.

The Map: Determinism and Randomness

Determinism and Randomness

An event is fully determined when every facet of the final state is determined by the initial state. The undetermined facets of the final state are random (a logical complement of determined).

There's a difference between apparent randomness and true or fundamental randomness. Apparent randomness arises when we simply have not found the elements of the initial state that determine the final state. True randomness arises when those undetermined facets of the final state are not determined by anything at all.

(Note: whether or not these distinctions are meaningful is questionable, but I'll get to that in my post on Meaning.)


Theists object that a random event would by uncaused, and that a thing that is not caused by anything else can only be caused by itself. This "self-causation" is absurd, they claim. This argument hinges on the principle that everything has a cause (The Principle of Sufficient Reason or PSR). Yet, this principle is invalid and unjustifiable vis-a-vis causality. There have been attempts to justify it, but the PSR is generally considered to be unpersuasive by modern philosophers.

The reason that it is defunct with respect to causality is that, if some truly random events occur, nothing breaks. Sacrifice the PSR and you won't notice.

The foundational problem with the PSR is that, for it to make sense, you have to stretch the terms 'exist' or 'cause' well beyond their limits. I write about this on my blog here.

A fine illustration of the futility of the PSR comes from Quantum Mechanics. If radioactive decays have a truly random element to them, life (and physics) goes on. As far as I can tell, the only things threatened by abandonment of the PSR are a bunch of untestable philosophical claims.

Conceiving of true randomness (if it exists) is quite a psychic shock. I remember that I rejected it at one time, though I rejected it for aesthetic reasons. However, the shock value of fundamental randomness now makes it a rather beautiful thing to my mind: a harmless idea upon which so few can look without fear.

Stumbling Blocks

Either Christians won't dare consider that the PSR might not hold in every case, or they have considered it and don't like the consequences.

If the PSR breaks down, if determinism and randomness are truly complementary, then there can be no justice as theists perceive it. Persons do not metaphysically deserve punishment or reward because their decisions were either fixed when God created the universe, or were mistakes beyond their control.

A breakdown of the PSR represents a threat to moral reality for theists.

The Map

I've generally had a good time debating theists on the blogs. It has been frustrating at times, but it has also been educational. My online discussions have given me new philosophical insights, and helped me map out the beliefs of theists. In this post, I'm going to attempt to draw this map as I see it. Of course, there will be many theists who will disclaim some of these beliefs, but I only write of what I have encountered.

The people with whom I have debated have not been the Bible-thumpers who can do nothing but quote verses from scripture. All of my debating counterparts have shown at least some rationality, often making the next anticipated move in a debate. Yet all of them seem to stumble somewhere.

In my opinion, none of them can state their foundational assumptions. They have a constellation of beliefs, but many of those beliefs go unquestioned. Theists take many beliefs at face value as self-evident facts. That is, they fail to consider the true implications of giving up certain assumptions, and so they fail to see that those assumptions are not necessary.

Generally, my opponents have had a hard time with definitions. I'm not saying definitions are easy to keep straight, but philosophy is pointless unless you can clearly define your terms and meanings. Consequently, it is common for theists to beg the question and claim that, say, free will is defined so as to be ruled out by determinism. Yet, free will, as we experience it, has nothing to do with determinism. If "experienced free will" is not what they are talking about, then they should at least state this clearly.

I had planned to present the entire map in one post, but I find that it's too daunting a task for a single post. I'll post the points on the map one at a time, and, if I can, I'll post a diagram connecting them all.

Thus far, the topics I want to discuss are:
  • Determinism and the Principle of Sufficient Reason.
  • Free Will
  • Probability Theory: Miracles
  • Probability Theory: Superstition
  • Probability Theory: Evolution
  • Theory of Meaning
  • Arguments from Rationality
  • The Problem of Evil
  • Ontology
  • Moral Progress

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Scientific Atheist

You scored as Scientific Atheist, These guys rule. I'm not one of them myself, although I play one online. They know the rules of debate, the Laws of Thermodynamics, and can explain evolution in fifty words or less. More concerned with how things ARE than how they should be, these are the people who will bring us into the future.

Scientific Atheist


Militant Atheist


Spiritual Atheist




Angry Atheist


Apathetic Atheist




What kind of atheist are you?
created with

Friday, May 04, 2007

Treating the Dead

A fascinating article in Newsweek discusses the resuscitation of the clinically dead:

"After one hour," he says, "we couldn't see evidence the cells had died. We thought we'd done something wrong." In fact, cells cut off from their blood supply died only hours later.

But if the cells are still alive, why can't doctors revive someone who has been dead for an hour? Because once the cells have been without oxygen for more than five minutes, they die when their oxygen supply is resumed.


"It looks to us," says Becker, "as if the cellular surveillance mechanism cannot tell the difference between a cancer cell and a cell being reperfused with oxygen. Something throws the switch that makes the cell die."

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


I've been debating over at Thinking Christian for a long time. I was surprised to learn that the Christians there are very superstitious. It's not what I expected.

Some people confuse superstitious belief with belief in the non-material. There's a big difference. Superstition is an alleged way of knowing, not a category about which stuff is known. For example, I can have a superstitious belief about the physical location of missing wedding ring. Obviously, the location of the ring isn't remotely non-material in nature. What makes my belief superstitious is the array of subjective data that I use to reach my conclusion. If I believe that the ring is located beneath an old tire because I had a dream that a pot of gold was hidden under a rubber tree, then my belief is superstitious.

Superstition relies on meaningful coincidence. The number 13 is said to be unlucky. If I win $13 on a slot machine, I anticipate something bad happening. If later that day I lose my wedding ring, I'll blame the loss on winning $13. Yet, had I later found a $100 bill lying on the street, I would not correlate that discovery with having won $13, because the number 13 is associated with bad luck and not good luck. In other words, I cherry-pick significant events to confirm my superstition, so my superstitious belief cannot be discredited through this methodology. Had I won $14, I would be upset about losing the ring, but would just say it was bad luck and think nothing of a connection between 14 and the loss. Superstition is an atrocious way to come to insight about anything.

Superstition seems to be much more powerful when it demands action on our part. We can't really help waking up on Friday the 13th, so most people just go about their day as normal. However, superstition holds more sway over us when we are decision-making. I consider myself very rational and relatively impervious to superstitious thinking, but even I feel a psychological tug when I do only 13 reps in my workout. My gut prefers to do 12 or 14.

Superstition becomes stronger still when ritual is involved. There is anxiety about not performing the ritual, and there is poor methodology in confirming the effect. I suspect that we all have the mental circuitry for this kind of thinking, but not all of us activate those circuits. Ritual supercharges these circuits.

The bottom line is that superstitious belief is a psychological trap, and ritualistic superstitious thinking is a psychological steel trap. Once you fall prey to this kind of thinking, you are guaranteed to have personal, subjective confirmation of your belief. If you believe that prayer will have an effect, it will. You will always find something you can attribute to having said the prayer.

None of this sounds remotely problematic to the theists over at Thinking Christian. I found this surprising. I honestly expected them to be above this sort of self-delusion. I can see how having a superstitious relationship with God would deeply affect their thinking. They are unable to put on the "No-God Glasses" as Julia Sweeney calls them. They cannot objectively consider questions about theism without betting on the number 13.

I wonder whether knowing of the existence of this trap is enough to entice a person to give up superstition.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Living Roof

The California Academy of Sciences is building a new facility in San Francisco. Not not just green metaphorically. The roof will be alive with plant life. I've always thought buildings should be put together this way. And not just because I like the Teletubbies.

See more photos at