Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Worldviews and Progress

I think there's a very strong correlation between one's religious and political outlook and one's perception of historical progress.

There's always room for improvement, but I don't think you'll find any reasonable metric by which man has failed to make progress on a per-capita basis. Wars are less deadly (even accounting for the Holocaust), torture is less common, health is better, psychiatric treatment is better, people are less likely to fly into a rage, people are less likely to approve of murder (or rape or torture) by their own tribe, there's less crime, a lower infant mortality, more opportunity, far better labor conditions... the list goes on and on. Quality of life is improving dramatically.

Consider a recent story I heard on the radio. Authorities are shocked that the U.S. rate of maternal death during childbirth spiked to 13 per 100,000. Tragic indeed. But at the start of the 20th century, the rate was about 1 in 100. It's almost 100 times better today than it was a century ago. And the rate is thought to be increasing because, among other reasons, women have the option to have children later.

There are certainly new dangers. We now have an ability to destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons. And, if nukes were in regular use, one might be justified in citing a lack of progress, but they haven't been used since their debut. They guaranteed the peace for decades.

And yet I have noted a cynicism on the part of right-wing and religious bloggers. In a recent comment here, someone suggested that the Dark Ages were no worse that the present age. What a bizarre statement.

How is it possible for an informed person to maintain the perception that we're not making progress?

Perhaps the detractors find the dynamics of modern society scarier than the world we leave behind (with its myriad of ills). Yet, this, too, would be a strange phenomenon. Would anyone truly be so disturbed by the modern world that they would be more comfortable living in a society where disease claimed 50% of children before adulthood? Is the freedom of their neighbor to watch pornography worse than slavery? Is their own freedom to watch pornography worse than the black death? One has to wonder.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Enemies of Reason

Richard Dawkins has a new TV show in the UK called The Enemies of Reason.

You can see it now on YouTube. It's great stuff. Let's hope that PBS picks this up.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Richard Carrier: One of the most important voices on the Internet

On his blog, Richard Carrier takes on an evil and insidious scheme to rewrite history. Christian authors and their supporting bloggers are becoming Dark Age deniers.

The Dark Ages are a bit of a problem for Christians. You see, classical civilization had science, mathematics, medicine, roads, irrigation, even democracy in places. But when Christianity became dominant in Rome, all of that came to an abrupt end. Christians, with their demand that no alternative viewpoints be heard, swept across the Western world, destroying libraries and silencing the voices of reason. Not for a year. Not for a century. But for at least 800 years. Talk about a holocaust!

Of course, this tends to look rather bad for Christianity. And for a long time, Christians had to admit that the Dark Ages were not their finest hour (or their finest 7 million hours).

But now, things are different. People aren't paying attention. Christians have learned that if you just keep lying, you probably won't get called on your bullshit. So the Dark Ages are now... a wonderful, conservative breath of fresh air after the irrational exuberance and excesses of the classical age.

There was no Dark Age, they say. People prefer the term "Middle Ages" now. True. But as Carrier says, any time you lose 90% of your knowledge, that's an age worthy of the term DARK!!!

Instead, the Christians tell us that the inventions of the Middle Ages were underrated. They claim that there was dramatic progress, but it just seemed like there wasn't any. Yes, folks, roads were an expensive luxury, an excess of the Roman era!

As a physicist, I can tell you that the sciences were pretty much died when Christianity put its boot on Europe's neck. There's a long litany of Greek advances, followed by nothing until the Renaissance. And those advances made in the Renaissance were imperiled by the church. Christians also say that the church was not against Galileo's work, only Galileo's bad attitude, and his sloppy experimentalism. Yeah, that's what it was. The church was so concerned about systematic error and statistics that they put Mr. G under house arrest for publishing his results. Funny thing is, the church also banned any mention of heliocentrism. Puts the revised Christian history of science to shame for the lie that it is.

I could go on all night, but it's better to read some of Carrier's posts (especially here and here) on the topic rather than getting everything second-hand from me.

This is scary stuff. Don't let the revisionists excise their injustices from the historical records.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Progressive Naivete

There are a lot of Democrats and progressives lamenting the recent House decision to permit further government wiretapping without FISA oversight. Unfortunately, a lot of these well-meaning folk are calling the Democrats spineless surrender-monkeys. That's EXACTLY what the Republicans want. It's self-defeating and naive for progressives to strike at their own people in the name of ideological purity.

The recent bill is a 6-month stop gap measure. This is not the ideal outcome, but it's good strategy on the part of Democrats (and maybe better policy than having no surveillance at all). There's no point in Reid and Pelosi spilling valuable treasure just to go down in PR flames at the end of the day.

We should be playing up the story that Bush is threatening the Bill of Rights in the name of national security, and that the Democrats are taking the mature, sophisticated, nuanced and responsible position.

Knock the party on pragmatic grounds, if you must. Spin the results in your favor, and elect Democrats in 2008. Once we have a veto-proof majority (or a Democratic president), our government will start to look more like the humane, responsible and competent one we deserve.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Intuitions of Free Will

This is a rehash of a comment I made at Thinking Christian earlier this week.

Theists at TC argue that our intuition is that free will is incompatible with determinism (or determinism plus randomness). Consequently, they argue that free will cannot be physical. However, I think they confuse two intuitions.

Let's distinguish two circumstances:

(1) Irrelevant Choice: a final state arrives, no matter what choice you make.

(2) Deterministic Choice: your choice was fixed by past states of affairs (your preferences and computing ability are fixed by the past).

Do you see a difference between these two?

In principle, cases (1) and (2) might occur from time to time whether the universe were physical or not.

Irrelevant Choice could occur under supernaturalism, e.g., if an asteroid is about to hit your house, your choices won't stop it under physicalism and won't stop it under supernaturalism.

Deterministic Choice is typically associated with physicalism, but could happen under some forms of supernaturalism too.

However, Irrelevant Choice does not always occur under supernaturalism, and does not always occur under deterministic physicalism. Under deterministic physicalism, I still make decisions and can often prevent things from happening by my desire to avoid a final state, even if my choice and action could have been forecast in the past. I am aware that my actions and thoughts are affecting the future, and this awareness deterministically alters my course.

I think theists confuse Irrelevant and Deterministic Choice. Under Irrelevant Choice, though I still wouldn't say that I don't have any agency, it might be fair to say that I don't have effective agency vis-a-vis the inevitable event. That is, my thinking process, whether deterministic or otherwise, cannot stop the event.

But Irrelevant Choice isn't what physicalism entails. At least, it entails it no more frequently than supernaturalism.

Physicalism often entails Deterministic Choice, but it doesn't deny agency, the self, or decision-making capability.

Here's one more way to see the difference between the two cases. In Irrelevant Choice scenarios, the final state is consistent with any choice you make. (For example, the surprise asteroid will impact no matter what you decide.) However, in general, under Deterministic Choice, the final state must be consistent with your choice.

I look forward to getting a response from the folks at TC.

When Theism Is Like An M.C. Escher Drawing

There's a form of argument I've seen from theists that drives me bananas.

It generally takes this form:
Skeptic: To the extent that we can apply reasoning, I can prove X, given Y. We all agree that Y is the case, so X is the case.

Believer: I agree that Y is the case, but I deny X.

Skeptic: You object to my proof?

Believer: No. I deny your ability to apply reason to the problem.

Skeptic: Are you saying the world is illogical?

Believer: No. The world is logical.

Skeptic: You are agnostic about X?

Believer: No. I deny X.

Skeptic: Well, if you deny our ability to apply reason to the problem, how do you obtain a reasoned inference to your disbelief in X?

Believer: It's an inference to the best explanation.

Skeptic: Huh? How can you have an inference without reason?

Believer: I have lots of reasons to disbelieve X. But I still deny your ability to apply reason to the problem.
How does this sort of defense work?

The Alleged Limitations of Models
People are used to thinking that symbolic reasoning is very limited, and cannot be applied in many circumstances. Many times in debates, theists have argued that human thinking and behavior cannot be modeled statistically. This is false. The actual fact is that human behavior cannot be predicted with total precision (at least not yet), but that's not the same thing as statistical modeling. For example, if it were Freaky Friday, and your wife swapped bodies with your daughter, you would likely see the difference because their behaviors would deviate from the statistical norm. Indeed, without statistical models, there would be no such thing as personality.

Unwillingness to Question Assumptions
The theist's denial of our ability to model a thing is common whenever the thing is allegedly magical. According to most theists, humans are magical because they have magical free will, magical reasoning ability and magical moral sensitivity. It's fair to say that the theist's intuition is that these things are magical. That is, it is a natural, unjustified belief that free will is magical.

Yet, philosophy is all about questioning our beliefs. If a belief is not formally justified, we ought to question it. In the case of free will arguments, theists argue that our experience free will requires that the world not be deterministic. This is unsupportable because, if the world were deterministic, no one would notice the difference.

Circular Argumentation
When I am able to make a very persuasive Bayesian probabilistic case for my position, my argument is rejected because the odds have been tipped in circular fashion. This applies across their entire world view.

There are generally three categories of evidence that are cited by believers: historical, personal, and philosophical. None of these alone has persuasive force, and some theists admit that you have to examine the big picture. Unfortunately, this big picture examination consists of circular reasoning.

It goes like this. Examine the historical evidence. The evidence, say, for the Resurrection of Christ, is utterly abysmal. Even if we thought the odds of the Bible being a fabrication were a million-to-one against, we would still rationally have to believe that the odds of the Resurrection were at least a thousand-to-one against. "Ah," say the theists, "that's only if you ignore the philosophical and personal evidences! However, I don't have time to go into them all in this discussion of historical evidences."

Sounds potentially reasonable. Yet, when we discuss the personal evidences for miracles, and I point out that it is irrational to believe that a particular event was an answered prayer, the theist refers me to the philosophical and historical evidences (which they can't go into at that moment).

And, of course, when we discuss the philosophical arguments, we are told that symbolic rational inquiry is useless, just as it is when applied to the historical and personal lines of evidence.

The theist world view is like an M.C. Escher drawing. Each line of evidence looks as if it's supported by the other two lines, but in the grand scheme, none of the lines can support themselves.

Is there still a refuge left for the theist? One might argue that every world view relies on some unprovable statements. I think this is so. My unprovable truths are the axioms of rationality. I'm happy to state them, and happy to admit that I can't rationally prove the laws I use to reach rational conclusions.

However, the arguments against the theist's lines of evidence are not just neutralizing. They're destructive. For example, it's not rational to believe that it is likely that Christ was resurrected, or that the sunny weather is God's answer to a prayer, unless you're willing to believe lots of other improbable things are actually the case.

While the theist can't make a case just from the axioms of rationality, the theist could add in some new axioms. One axiom could be that, say, Christ was resurrected, even if, by the evidences, that's improbable. Another would be that, when I feel like a prayer is answered, it is answered. If these axioms are added to the theist's world view, the evidences will support their conclusion.

I think it's clear that this is a losing proposition. I can prove any conspiracy theory I want by resorting to additional axioms that have no supporting evidence. For example, a theory that JFK was shot by Martians can always be rescued by proposing the axiom that Martians exist, and the axiom that they have it in for any leader who meaningfully supports the space program. But this is absurd.

Sure we can always get to a conclusion by proposing axioms that make the conclusion necessary. We don't do it because, if we did, we would suck all the utility out of rational inference. The utility of rationality isn't merely in its ability to portray a consistent picture. It's power is in its ability to tell us which picture is more probable.