Wednesday, June 30, 2010

All Motion Is Relative And Yellow+Blue!

This site is interesting. It's someone's treatise, I suppose, and they're actually making a fun and oft-unspoken point about Galileo. But I bring it up for one reason.

Every time I find a page like this - some lone person expounding on their views about ultimate reality - they inevitably have such ugly webpages. Look at that. Red and blue and yellow and black. Like a taxi ran over some oversized smurfs. Complete with erratic use of large fonts.

It's such a petty thing to notice, but man. You know what? I'm going to tell him. He seems like someone with interesting thoughts, but if Einstein's papers looked like this he'd have never gotten out of the patent office job.

Atheism and Reason!

Now and then, I browse Uncommon Descent's threads. There's something I've seen happen there so many times that I find it fascinating.

Again and again, I see atheists/agnostics show up to argue that something can, in fact, come from nothing utterly uncaused. Literally that. That it's entirely possible for something to exist suddenly, for no reason, uncaused, out of utter nothingness.

If I didn't see it happen at least a dozen times, with my own eyes, I would have never believed anyone was doing this. I've even seen an evolutionary biologist do it on UD (though he later backed off.)

What also fascinates me is that some of these same people claim that *this has been observed by scientists*. Seriously. They claim that scientists have reported, "We have seen things (Virtual particles being particularly popular here) pop into and out of existence from absolute nothingness, uncaused." And they inevitably add that this is okay, because it's only really tiny things that do this. Except maybe universes sometimes.

I have nothing to add. No witty remark, no snideness. Words fail me. People believe this. And many of these people think people who believe in God are the irrational ones.

Friday, June 25, 2010

One Problem with Intelligent Design!

I do have a lot of criticisms of Intelligent Design, at least those ID proponents with a Christian mindset. Here's one way to sum it up.

Here is Genesis 1 according to the NIV New Testament.

Here is what I sometimes think the entirety of Genesis 1 says in the minds of ID proponents.

My point is this: Notice that in Genesis, God creates a lot of things - everything, of course - before getting to man. And God keeps declaring these things to be good. Not 'Good, because man can really use these things!' Just plain good.

I think, of course, man is made in the image and likeness of God. But the idea that 'the whole point of the cosmos is specifically human life' just seems a bit odd to me. Not that it's necessarily false, mind you, but it's not what I take away from Genesis.

One reason I bring this up is because the ID mindset tends to view everything through a very specifically human lens, regarding everything on earth as somehow ultimately coming down to useful for humans. The idea of things existing for their own sake - because they are, in fact, good - just seems elusive to many with that mindset. In fact, one point of opposition to any kind of evolution seems to be, "What the hell was God thinking, making all those dinosaurs before humans could do anything with them! They could have made great pets or zoo creatures!"

Mind you, I think there's quite a lot of truth there. Earth and evolution both seem awfully convenient in many ways, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth from many atheists engaged in atheological apologetics tries to downplay this immensely. (Putting off tremendous vibes of, "No no no, you don't want to view evolution as teleological in any way! Just... no. Please don't do that.") But, it doesn't seem like it should be regarded as the whole story.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Blagojevich!

You go to these big Democratic multi-billionaires ... and you ask them all to give 2, ... a couple million each ... That's all they got to do for Valerie Jarrett... that's not hard for them.

What I find most curious about this sort of thing is, just how common is it? And I'm not going to pretend this is somehow a Democrat thing or a Republican thing. But Blagojevich seems to come up with this idea so casually that I wonder how common it is in America.

Notice, by the way, what Blagojevich's plan here was: He'll start a charity, a few well-off Democrats will throw some money his way - hey, it's a worthy cause! - and coincidentally he'll live quite a nice, comfortable, relatively work-free life.

You do know a charity can pay its employees, right? And that this pay can be six figures easily?

By the way: Did you know that Presidential Library Foundations are considered charities? I wonder what the salaries of the heads of those things (Usually the president, if living, apparently) tend to be. 0$?

I found it pretty interesting that most presidents tend to be buried at their presidential libraries nowadays. Betcha thought people stopped buildings pyramids a long time ago, eh?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Scalia!

Ilion just posted a link to Scalia giving a speech at a school.

I like Scalia. When I wanted to be a lawyer, he was a model for me to follow.

Here's the depressing thing: Most of Scalia's best, brightest work is in his dissents:

Much of the Court's opinion is devoted to deprecating the closed-mindedness of our forebears with regard to women's education, and even with regard to the treatment of women in areas that have nothing to do with education. Closed-minded they were-as every age is, including our own, with regard to matters it cannot guess, because it simply does not consider them debatable. The virtue of a democratic system with a First Amendment is that it readily enables the people, over time, to be persuaded that what they took for granted is not so, and to change their laws accordingly. That system is destroyed if the smug assurances of each age are removed from the democratic process and written into the Constitution. So to counterbalance the Court's criticism of our ancestors, let me say a word in their praise: they left us free to change. The same cannot be said of this most illiberal Court, which has embarked on a course of inscribing one after another of the current preferences of the society (and in some cases only the counter-majoritarian preferences of the society's law-trained elite) into our Basic Law. Today it enshrines the notion that no substantial educational value is to be served by an all-men's military academy--so that the decision by the people of Virginia to maintain such an institution denies equal protection to women who cannot attend that institution but can attend others. Since it is entirely clear that the Constitution of the United States--the old one--takes no sides in this educational debate, I dissent.

Which, oddly enough, is why I'm somewhat unimpressed by Thomas Sowell's stern warnings about the US's possible descent into tyranny. Quoting Sowell:

If our laws and our institutions determine that BP ought to pay $20 billion — or $50 billion or $100 billion — then so be it.

But the Constitution says that private property is not to be confiscated by the government without "due process of law."

Technically, it has not been confiscated by Barack Obama, but that is a distinction without a difference.

To which I can only say: And the lawyers and judges will start to debate what counts as due process. Just as they'll debate what our laws 'really' mean, what purposes our institutions 'really' serve.

Which means that Sowell's appeal to such things is, sadly, flawed. "Laws and institutions" are things in the hands of men, and if the men handling them have poor character or moral fiber (Is there really such a thing, sniffs a nearby academic), they won't be of much help.

After all, Sowell is referencing Hitler's rise to power. But Hitler's rise had a lot to do with - surprise - manipulating those 'laws and institutions', and relying on others' manipulation of them. In fact, my history classes taught that Hitler's Beer Hall Putzsch landed him with a rather short jail sentence, and that when Hitler finally achieved power he mostly left the judicial branch alone. Why? The explanation* was that the judicial branch was largely sympathetic to Hitler's stated aims anyway.

I think Obama is a schmuck, but I will not pretend that the problems of government started with this current administration. These are just the latest machinations of a sickness that's been growing for a long, long time.

(* Mind you, my teacher - like all teachers - could have been full of manure.)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Golfing!

White House spokesman Bill Burton on Monday said the president deserves some time to relax, and he doesn't “think that there's a person in this country that doesn't think that their president ought to have a little time to clear his mind.”

Not to be all populist, but has Bill Burton ever interacted with someone who didn't own any lien-free real estate (waiters and the guys who pump his gas don't count)?

I think a substantial number of people in the country think, "I sure would like to go golf to clear my mind. ... Well, fishing* anyway. But if I don't show up at work tomorrow my ass is fired."

But you can't fire a president. In fact, electing a president is tantamount to saying, "Alright then, you've got the job. You've got four years to do what you want, and after that is your performance review. Oh, and in practice you won't get fired unless you do something illegal. And get caught. And people care."

(* Not to bash golf. Golf is a sport, and anyone who doesn't think it is has never golfed. And if you think golf is easy or non-strenuous, here's my advice: Go to a driving range. Get a bucket of 20-40 balls. Hit them all. Tell me how you feel when you're done.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Obama!

World Sees Obama as Incompetent and Amateur? Really?

Funny. Seems like everyone I've heard talk about him ever since the primaries wouldn't shut up about how smart the guy was. Even from Republicans I know I've heard, "Well, I disagree with him, but I do think he's very smart and..." etc, etc.

I never jumped on that bandwagon. Hell, I never understood it, since I never saw what he did which was so brilliant. Giving good speeches (and then, only when in front of a teleprompter)? Talk about setting the bar low. He attended Harvard? That says more about one's dedication than their intelligence.

But, oh well - that's the past, and like most other failed popular opinions and political pundit moves, it's probably going to fall down the memory hole. If his approval ratings keep falling and his decisions keep being poorly received, everyone will just pretend that Obama was *always* seen as an incompetent amateur. Just like we've always been at war with Eurasia.

Or is it Eastasia? I forget.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hitchens versus Haldane!

Ed Feser links to a debate between Chris Hitchens and John Haldane.

Something about the very matchup seems foul. Like hearing that Chief Justice Roberts is scheduled to debate Glenn Beck on constitutional law. I get the mental image of John Haldane standing at a street corner holding a sign that reads "WILL DEBATE FOR FOOD". That's probably not his motivation, of course. Maybe he just wants to answer a popular atheist "thinker".

But Dawkins famously has refused to debate various Christians and theists on the grounds that he won't debate creationists (curiously, he debates creationists anyway, and the debates he avoids just happen to be against guys who most think would decimate him, such as William Lane Craig.) Is there any theist who's willing to say, "No, I have no interest in debating (insert New Atheist here). He's a putz and a lightweight."? Isn't it appropriate to have that attitude many times?

That's actually one problem I have with the current christian/theist blogosphere. So many are still fighting the New Atheists, and seemingly will jump on any offer to debate even the most scrubby "I am a wannabe Rational Response Squad member, who were each wannabe PZ Myers, who is the internet wannabe version of Dawkins, who himself wishes he could be Carl Sagan, who everyone forgets was not even an atheist" atheist blogger around. But the world seems to have moved on, and the lasting influence of the New Atheism movement has been to demonstrate that even atheists can be as self-righteous, obnoxious, and irritating as the worst of the christian set.

There's other problems with the whole "debate" approach as well, but that's what stands out to me. Really, I can't recall the last time I've heard of a theist debating another theist, or even another religious believer, on a religious topic. Given what I've said about multiverses, simulated realities, etc, I'd say there's far fewer 'atheists' or 'non-religious' out there than most people really think. Better to debate the Karen Armstrongs than the Dawkinses. Better to debate the neutral monists and panpsychists rather than the materialists.

Oil Gushing!

Oil could be gushing for up to 2 more years from the BP oil spill!

Is there any reason to think this leak really couldn't be plugged before that long? I admit it's possible - I don't know anything about plugging deep-sea oil leaks (and, others may charge, neither does the government or BP). But I get the vague feeling it's like a newspaper reporting that some plane carrying the president "may collide with the moon", if for some reason it doesn't run out of fuel or change its direction.

By the way, I notice that one way this leak is being dealt with is having ships vacuum up the oil that floats to the surface. If I were the CEO of British Petroleum, I'd demand the immediate return of that recovered oil to my company, arguing they were BP's property. Really, if the public is going to hate you no matter what, it's time to consider welcoming it and having fun while you can.

Then again, I think the CEO is already doing exactly that.

Friday, June 18, 2010

There's Maybe 20 People Max Discussing Science & Religion & Philosophy!

So, I was following a comment thread elsewhere about the interface between science and religion. One contributor seemed to have great and interesting points which I've rarely seen brought up before, so I tried to contact them for some more discussion.

Turns out I knew them. In fact, I've found this person more than once before, going off similar observations. And I've bumped into other people more than once the same way.

I also notice that the same names keep on popping up in comments section after comments section of blogs/sites with related themes (Science & Religion, Christianity, etc.) And, of course, you also get the 'anonymous' people who sound suspiciously like other prominent posters.

More and more it's seeming as if that a tremendous amount of blog comments in a given 'area' are courtesy of a surprisingly small handful of commenters. And of course, far too many times you'll find a 50-100+ comment thread where most of that bulk is courtesy of 2-3 people.

I don't have a particular point here, I suppose. Only that it seems like so much internet traffic and blog popularity is driven by small groups of people with way too much time on their hands (myself being one). There's something wrong with blogging culture, and the comment culture that goes with it.

Something for me to ponder.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Gods, gods, God, god, aliens, agents, designers, and Designers!



I recently talked about how Nick Bostrom's argument is either an argument against Darwinian evolution, or an argument that demonstrates ID can be entirely naturalistic, even at its most wild. Let's focus on the "naturalism" issue a bit more.

One of my favorite posts by the brilliant Ed Feser is The Trouble with William Paley. Probably one of his less favorite posts, since I've brought it up about ten times during my blog-via-comments phase (Thanks for that summary, Cogitator!). What I find remarkable about it is that Ed's view of "naturalism" seemingly could include lowercase-g gods without issue: Zeus, Thor, etc. Not the God of classical theism, but those "lesser" gods? Sure.

And I've found that many others, including naturalists, seem to take views similar to Ed's. Such that the idea of powerful beings from other planets seeding our planet with life is naturalism (otherwise Francis Crick wasn't a naturalist), just as our living in a simulation is naturalistic (otherwise Nick Bostrom, Sir Martin Rees, and others are flirting with or are committed to non-naturalism), etc. And frankly, once someone is talking about life on our planet, or our entire universe, being the result of an intentional act by a powerful being or beings... really, doesn't that sound like good ol' fashioned polytheism/supernaturalism to you?

Now, there's of course the standard reply. "But those are just powerful aliens! Not gods!" My response is, I fail to see a difference that matters. Ed does have a point that the God of classical theism is quite a different thing, drastically so, than Zeus. I would add that some other conceptions of God (Say, most versions of Brahman, or even Berkeley's God) are also damn different from Zeus. But how different is Zeus and the gods of Olympus from Nick Bostrom's programmer, or even Crick's seeding-the-universe-with-life society? Frankly, not too much. "Degree, not kind", as they say.

Of course, this wreaks havoc on some traditional thoughts about many things, history included. One of the supposed benefits of modern science is that it has aided in banishing superstition, which is of course associated with "supernaturalism". But suddenly that no longer seems to be the case. Take the typical example - "Lightning is caused by thunderbolts hurled by Thor!" But if Thor is a naturalistic being, then that was just a questionable naturalistic hypothesis. And having control over lightning can't itself be sufficient to call someone a supernatural being anyway, or else I just supplied pictorial evidence that the supernatural is real at the start of this post.

Oddly enough, one point of all this is that advances in technology are the naturalistic atheist's greatest enemy.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Nick Bostrom's Patch

The Phantom Blogger has notified me of a new paper by Bostrom meant to address some perceived difficulties in his argument. Interesting stuff!

In fact, very interesting, because I think Bostrom's "patch" does a great job of illustrating exactly how much stress he places on "ancestor simulations". So much so that it introduces a problem with his argument - when Bostrom says "ancestor simulations", he really means it. These aren't even general simulations of an evolved world, but simulations specifically of the ancestors of the very post-human population in question. It's hard not to get the impression that Bostrom thinks that technologically advanced civilizations may or may not decide to run ancestor simulations, but the one thing that's certain is they never decide to run any other simulations of note.

I also note that any civilization technologically advanced enough to run such simulations is apparently "post-human" by necessity. Some conversation could be had there, but really, I'm content with rolling my eyes, grinning, and saying "Transhumanists. Whatcha gonna do?"

Still, continued dwelling on the conversation leads me to ask another question I think would be awkward for Bostrom, as well as others:

Would an "ancestor simulation" be an example of Darwinian evolution?

Now, this doesn't seem to be the case. Every ancestor simulation is expressly designed and put into motion by intelligent agents. Every one of them has real teleology - extrinsic teleology, no less, the kind ID advocates in particular zero in on. Indeed, their results are all predetermined by their programmers (remember, these really are "ancestor simulations" according to Bostrom - they don't simulate AN evolution, but A SPECIFIC evolution.)

But this threatens to recast Bostrom's argument such that one of the following must be true:

(1) The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a posthuman stage
(2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running a significant number of ancestor simulations is extremely small
(3) Darwinian evolution is false for far and away the majority of conscious beings.

Of course, one could always bite the bullet and say "Well, a simulation of evolution can still rightly be called Darwinian, even if the results are predetermined and even if evolution was fully guided, complete with the outcome(s) being known." But then, there's no barrier to being both an ID proponent and accepting "Darwinian" evolution. What's more, actual "randomness", "lack of guidance", "lack of foresight", etc all become inessential to Darwinian evolution.

So, here's the million dollar question: Is Nick Bostrom a "Darwin Doubter"?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nick Bostrom: Young Earth Creationist!

Been thinking lately about the simulation hypothesis, which I continue to regard as a downright fascinating idea.

One thing that struck me about Nick Bostrom's original thoughts on it was how his emphasis was specifically on a certain type of simulation: the "Ancestor Simulation", which would simulate not only a world, but also all of their evolutionary development, etc, starting from the Origin of Life or the Big Bang.

At the time I thought, "Huh. Well, THAT is awfully specific." I mean, there's a lot of programs one could code up with the amount of processing power Bostrom's imagining could be kicked around. And a lot of programs which could feature conscious beings (if you accept Bostrom's premises, of course). Why assume that the ancestor simulation is the only relevant one to think about? Why not any other number of possible simulations that would include simulated worlds and conscious beings? From what I read, those possibilities went unmentioned by Bostrom. Even by Chalmers, with his Matrix paper.

A few days ago, it finally hit me as to why.

Imagine the NPCs in World of Warcraft were conscious. This would qualify as a simulated universe, I think, in the sense Bostrom is talking about: Conscious beings, interacting in a virtual world, etc. Now, admittedly there is an in character storyline for the origins of various things. Typical fantasy fare: Created by godlike beings, corrupted by demonlike beings. Dwarves originally carved from stone and starting off as robots, then receiving the curse of flesh and becoming similar to how dwarves are now. Etc, etc.

But, of course, all that backstory is a load. In reality World of Warcraft went online a few years ago, kingdoms and all, programmed into existence. They didn't even decide on the backstory/origins for these guys until years down the line, most likely. The archaeologists that the dwarves have can find evidence after evidence about their true origins (being rockmen, the curse of flesh, etc), but that just isn't how it went down.

You probably see where I'm going with this.

A technologically advanced civilization with tremendous processing power at its fingertips, capable of simulating fully conscious beings, could damn well make a world look like it's 14 billion years old. The sims' scientists, their every measure, would find results consistent with this. And yet, it wouldn't necessarily be true for them. Maybe the programmer wanted to "accurately" simulate a given period of time. Maybe the programmer is being imaginative. Maybe a million things, many of which entail that the history virtual scientists are discovering is bupkis. Just as, when a scientist creates a simulation of this or that phenomena, he doesn't necessarily import the entire history since the Big Bang into the simulation. It's just not his interest.

But that means, if we have reason to suspect we live in a simulation, it seems we have tremendous reason to view our evolutionary history as fictional. Last Thursdayism is in play, as is 6000 years-ago-ism.

Here's the part I particularly love. Bostrom, along with Chalmers and others, have dug in their heels and insisted that the simulation hypothesis is a naturalistic one. Which I suppose they'd have to - if the idea of our living in a simulated universe was supernatural, then confirmation for the supernatural exists all over the place, right here and now. In fact, we're supernatural beings, even if it's only in relation to our simulations.

I think the ramifications of this are far reaching, radically so. For one thing, it makes Young Earth Creationism conceivable as a naturalistic hypothesis. YECs, in fact practically all religious claims, can almost entirely be reconceived as naturalistic.

So why did Bostrom focus on 'ancestor simulations' in his simulation papers? I can't help but wonder if it's because he wanted to avoid arguably the single most grievous scientific sin in the modern world: Doubt of evolution. But if it's possible to simulate universes complete with conscious inhabitants, that - and other kinds - of doubt are introduced. I agree with Chalmers that this doesn't entail that simulation theories are necessarily skeptical hypotheses in the sense of forcing us to doubt that there exists an 'external world', or doubting the possibility of knowledge, etc. But, it introduces skepticism enough.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Texas School Boards!

Well, originally I figured this topic was too uninteresting to get into, but a dispute elsewhere made me decide to comment further. Pardon me if I'm all rude and blunt.

For anyone who hasn't heard of it, the Texas School Board intends to considerably revise their textbook guidelines. This is news because the TSB seems to be packed with conservatives, and thus their changes are injecting undue bias into the school books. Because, I don't know. There wasn't any bias there before?

This is a cue for everyone to get all worked up and see this as yet another conservative attack on science or education or history or... you know the schpiel, I'm sure. Bias in state education? Politicization of what students learn? Shocking.

Pardon me if I'm not surprised about all this. In fact, pardon me if I find it to be ridiculously unsurprising, rather par for the course, and that if anything that I outright encourage this coming to pass because it highlights the inherent dangers of state education. The idea of being able to teach history in an "unbiased" way is something I regard as very difficult to accomplish, and in practice impossible once the subject has been politicized and is being taught under the auspices of the state.

Now, I understand the typical mantra in reply here: A person is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts! Teaching history in a biased way doesn't mean that history really unfolded that way!

Wonderful. But this misses a sadly important point: People who inject bias into history or education aren't necessarily concerned that what they teach may be incorrect. When the Soviets doctored photos to remove inconvenient once-allies, I doubt any of them thought that they were thereby changing actual historical events. They simply realized that, while not everyone is entitled to their own facts, they could damn well convince people of certain "facts", truth be damned.

To pull an example out of thin air - if a person wants to convince everyone that Thomas Jefferson was an atheist (Ignore all that stuff about swearing on God's altar and the deism, etc!) because they're interested in, here and now, promoting atheism and making history seem more atheist-friendly... the fact that the actual historical facts of the matter don't line up with what they're saying may not, and chances are will not matter. That there are actual professional historians out there who can correct this and provide powerful evidence to the contrary only matters if many people will hear from and be convinced by those historians. And that's assuming that there isn't a nice manufactured controversy to point at among even the professional historians.

Which, by the way, isn't to say I think the TSB is being tremendously deceptive or biased. I rather suspect they think they're correcting past bias (and they probably are to a degree) and are emphasizing things that 'should' be emphasized (And what 'should' be is a fight itself.) And I also think that the entire fight, right or wrong, highlights the considerable dangers of mandatory public schooling, or placing children's educations so largely in the hands of the state - and also the utter naivete of anyone who thinks such systems can be "fixed" to any degree approaching acceptable or reliable. Or who think that people politicizing history really care about accuracy over effect.

What I do reject is this suggestion that the TSB is doing something new and radical, and that there was no bias in state education previously - or that bias can actually be removed in so politicized a republic with various camps who have increasingly less in common as far as values go. Better to regard public education as a perpetual political and social warzone and engage in the fights there openly, while cultivating a culture that avoids the mess entirely (home-schooling, autodidactism, certification over degrees, etc).

Chomsky by way of Feser

Ed Feser has yet another great post up touching on a favorite topic of mine - namely, the emptiness of the words "physical", "material", and (not discussed, but implied) therefore "naturalism".

Ed actually takes a different tact from me on this, insofar as - while his quoted Chomsky makes it clear how empty physicalism is ("as soon as we come to understand anything, we call it ‘physical’") - Ed thinks there's one definite and particular line in the sand that can't be crossed. Sayeth Ed:

There is, however, another, more fundamental and indeed absolutely “non-negotiable” component of the mechanistic picture of the world inherited from the early modern philosophers, one well-known to regular readers of this blog: the rejection of Aristotelian formal and final causes.

Formal and final causes, of course. Those, Ed maintains, are for the most part expressly banished - scientists and philosophers may be grasping to figure out what the 'material' even is (Really, does it make sense to call it the 'material' anymore, given that?) But what they do "know", or at least insist upon, is that formal and final causes can't be a part of the real picture. Those must be banished.

So, where do I disagree with any of this?

The disagreements are pretty minimal, but here are my thoughts on it.

* Ed himself points out in TLS that moderns have a tendency to 'slip into' Aristotilean talk, or at least come across as if they are in their explanations, without realizing it. I agree with him on this, in a number of ways. But I think that illustrates that A) most modern philosophers and scientists, or 'physicalists', don't even have formal/final causes on their radar, and B) to the extent that they do, they're usually gross misunderstandings - the usual "rocks fall to earth because they consciously want to" talk. (Frankly, that seems more at home with panpsychism to me.

* Chomsky is pointing out that the Cartesian conception of matter is gone, and has not really been replaced. Indeed, I wonder if he'd argue it's only gotten worse (since Newtonian views were at least partially, but still deeply, modified by quantum mechanics). And Ed himself notes that regardless, 'science' has never kicked formal/final causes out the door - philosophers have, and they didn't do so justly. In fact, if I read TLS right, part of their reasoning for performing this 'kick' was political expedience, as well as material expedience (in the sense of, hey, let's focus on the 'easy' problems. Final/formal cause questions are too 'hard').

So what am I getting at? Simply this: I think there's more people who, knowingly or unknowingly, embrace 'formal' and 'final' causes than Ed suggests. And I think that what is primarily resisted are particular formal and final causes - those unpopular ones of western religion and civilization, the Catholic church's, etc.

I think I've already done it once or twice, but yet again I point at Stanley Fish's Are There Secular Reasons?, if only because he explicitly talks about teleology and formal/final causes - and admits that the 'secular' people who were supposed to have given them up, are smuggling them in as far as politics, law, and social order are concerned. I suspect that this sort of 'smuggling' isn't limited to those spheres either.

So, amateur and nobody that I am, I offer this up for consideration: Maybe, even here, the number of actual "naturalists" has been greatly overestimated. Maybe, for all the gesturing to the contrary, what's being encountered is just a new, weird breed of teleologist.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Stuart Hammeroff!

I don't have a very high (or low) opinion of Quantum Consciousness types, but I always enjoy reading about Stuart Hameroff pissing off an entire conference of atheists, at least if his own version of the story is true.

Of particular relevance:

In November 2006 I was invited to a meeting at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California called “Beyond Belief” (http://beyondbelief2006.org/). Other speakers and attendees were predominantly atheists, and harshly critical of the notion of spirituality. They included Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Patricia Churchland, Steven Weinberg (the least venal), Neil deGrasse Tyson and others who collectively vilified creationists and religious warriors. But the speakers also ragged on the notion of any purpose or meaning to existence, heaped ridicule on the very possibility of a God-like entity (and those who believed in such an entity), declared that scientists and philosophers should set society’s moral and ethical standards, and called for a billion dollar public relations campaign to convince the public God does not exist.

Near the end of the first day came my turn to speak. I began by saying that the conference to that point had been like the Spanish Inquisition in reverse - the scientists were burning the believers. And while I had no particular interest in organized religion, I did believe there could be a scientific account for spirituality.

After pointing out faulty assumptions in conventional brain models for consciousness and summarizing the Penrose-Hameroff theory, I laid out my plausibility argument for scientific, secular spirituality, suggesting cosmic connections and influence in our conscious thoughts occurred via quantum interactions in microtubules. I closed with a slide of the DNA molecule which emphasized it’s internal core where quantum effects rule, suggesting a Penrose non-computable influence in genetic mutations and evolution (aimed at Dawkins in the form of a quantum-based intelligent design).

At the end a few people clapped loudly, but most sat in steely silence. The moderator and conference organizer Roger Bingham said I had enraged nearly everyone in the room. Indeed, I had raised a stink, and felt (happily) like the skunk at an atheist convention.


I didn't notice that bit about 'influencing evolution' until this reading, which does a great job of explaining why the reaction would have turned icy. Suggesting quantum interactions having a role in the mind/brain is one thing. But screw around with evolution - suggest it may be guided, suggest it may have a goal - and many simply atheists lose it.

But I just love the mental image of Stuart Hameroff cheerfully giving his speech about science proving 'secular spirituality' and quite possibly dualism, then looking out at the audience, wondering where all the applause is.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Stephen Hawking!

I'm half-amused, half-depressed to hear what is apparently the first thing to come to mind to Stephen Hawking when asked about God:

“What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of that God,” Hawking told Sawyer. “They made a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible.”

It's the Pale Blue Dot move all over again. Aka, "If humans are so special, why are elephants so damn big?" I wonder how Hawking would react to someone mentioning that Deepak Chopra must have more salient insights on the origin of the universe, on the grounds that Chopra has more fans.

Edit: Also.. accidental? Seriously, accidental?

Of course, there's also this line.

When Sawyer asked if there was a way to reconcile religion and science, Hawking said, “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

Will win? They're fighting?

Of course, this is where it becomes important to start really examining those terms: Science. Religion. Authority. Reason. Observation.

Someone who says "Science will win against religion!" is like a magician on a stage. It can be impressive, but only until you get onstage and look around with a careful eye. Then you see what's going on, smirk, and head back to the casino to play more Texas Tea.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Quote of My Own

A favorite quote from Vox Day's "The Irrational Atheist:

What I remember most about that summer day wasn’t the Red Hot Chili Peppers or any of the big-name bands, it was the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. It wasn’t any of the painful feats performed by the Torture King or the Amazing Mr. Lifto that burned their way into my brain, either, but Jim Rose enthusiastically bellowing “It is science!” every time cinder blocks were attached to nipples or broken glass was devoured. “It is science!”

But torture, even public self-torture, is not generally considered to be genuine science, no matter how entertaining its observers might find it to be. The National Academy of Sciences does not recognize torture as one of its thirty-one disciplinary sections and its practitioners have not historically been admitted as members, at least not on that sole basis. Nor can every act performed by a genuine scientist be legitimately described as science; if the bear’s proverbial actions in the woods are not classifed as science, the scientist’s should not be, either.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Science and value.

The more I think about it, the worse the state of 'science' seems to be in our modern era. At least in terms of science being understood as science, and science's boundaries being known and respected.

I refer again to Stanley Fish's Are There Secular Values?. Walk around someday - even in a supermarket - and just try to count how many times you'll see scientists (usually in the form of organizations representing what the public considers to be scientists) engaging in and endorsing one value over another (even 'modest' ones, like 'good health' or 'protecting the environment').

Speaking of ID...

Want to know what I consider to be the biggest shame of the online Intelligent Design sites?

Well, first the upside: They have some great contributors. I really enjoy reading Thomas Cudworth, Cornelius Hunter, Mike Gene, Bradford, etc. I disagree with them often, but they are certainly engaging. Even approachable.

But that approachability is the downside. You know what 99% of every ID author's time is spent doing online?

Arguing with rude, pissy nitwits in comments sections.

Seriously, go to any ID blog and that's where you'll see the majority of their energy focused. It's such a damnable shame.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Language! Comments

The Phantom Blogger made some comments regarding my Language! post, and since I started to run at the mouth (well, the fingers) I figured I'd convert my response into a whole new post. TPB's comments in italics:

When I said mistakes I meant that since evolution doesn't work through a perfect linear process just through the selection of whats good, then all the needless stuff could be referred to as mistakes or as simply useless (if the theory actually holds).

Selection of what's 'good'? 'Needless'? 'Useless'?

I'm not trying to pick on you or split hairs here, so forgive me if I'm coming across like one of those guys who'll flip out at a spelling mistake in an internet discussion. It honestly isn't my intention. But my focus here is how colored language, even relatively common language, has become by value-laden terms and ideas - by the very people who insist that science is supposed to be scrubbed of such things.

When people call a mutation random all they are saying is that it has no end goal or purpose.

Alright. But since when is science capable of determining end goal or purpose? Since when is this even an interest of science?

See, I keep running into this problem: The standard line for coming down on ID is that science cannot rule on such questions of 'purpose' or 'end goal' or 'design'. My response to that is, fair enough. But that means this 'purpose' and 'end goal' talk is off the table - across the board.

If it's only a violation of some imaginary rule for science when ID people do it, but when ID critics do it (Avise being the latest) it's A-OK, I call - forgive my language - bullshit.

If science isn't in the business of final causes, if final causes and purposes and goals are the stuff of philosophy, then let's keep it out. But that also means removing the negative judgments. There's a name for doing this sort of thing half-way: Bias. Corruption. Hypocrisy.

We have not created any philosophical criteria for whats good and bad a-prior, if its even possible to do such a thing.

Various philosophers have ideas on this front. There's always Aquinas and Aristotle. Are their systems perfect? Probably not.

I'm not demanding scientists develop that criteria either. More the opposite: It's outside their field, it opens a can of worms, etc. But I don't think we should accept, say.. "Well, it's hard to do. So you know - whatever the scientists come up with must be good enough."

I'm not necessarily sure that through finding something with no observable function, that science can detect, and then saying that for all intensive purposes its junk, is really that unscientific, in may be bad philosophy though, the reason we attach words like "junk" to these functions is because we are looking at the data through the vale of the Theory of Evolution, and it would suggest that things with no function are just left over junk, from the thousands of random mutations that have taken place throughout the history of our genome.

Well, here again is the problem. Evolution is just one more process like any other, like oxidation, reproduction, etc. But processes can be used by (even created by) intelligent agents. Hell, we demonstrably use 'evolution' in programming at this point. We use it in animal husbandry.

Keep in mind, this isn't really about evolution for me - I'm not criticizing evolution here. I'm criticizing a specific field that's supposed to be stripped of value judgments, philosophy, and metaphysics, where those practicing in the field have thrown around so many value judgments in so casual a way that at this point it's second nature to use those words without thinking. And we're supposed to think Intelligent Design is the big threat?

Now, I realize that this is where a lot of people (Say, Jerry Coyne) will turn around and say: Well, look. Darwin's who we look to here, and Darwin's goal was to remove God from the picture. Darwin was anti-teleological, Darwin didn't think any Designer guided anything.

And my response is: If Darwin mixed metaphysics and philosophy into his theory, so much the worse for Darwin.

Language!

Codgitator over at Fides Cogit Actio has recently been on a language kick, specifically discussing attempts to de-bias language and science and so on via E-Prime. Interesting stuff.

See, I happen to love analyzing language, deciphering which words evoke what kinds of ideas, etc. And since I've also been thinking about Intelligent Design as of late, I wanted to share some thoughts that combine the two subjects. This time, put briefly. More of a food for thought thing.

* Is it purely scientific to refer to a mutation as an "error"?
* Is it purely scientific to refer to parts of the genome as "junk" for any reason?

No further commentary from me for now. Just something to think about.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Origin of the Universe! Pt. 2

And here we are with Part 2.

Now, there's really a lot that can be said with Vilenkin's book - a field day could be had with his embracing infinite numbers of multiverses alone - but there's a key point in Craig's review I want to highlight. Specifically how Vilenkin tries to grapple with the idea of the universe coming into existence from absolute nothingness.

Unfortunately, Vilenkin draws the mistaken inference that "The laws of physics must have existed, even though there was no universe" (p. 181). Even if one takes a Platonistic view of the laws of nature, they are at most either mathematical objects or propositions, abstract entities that have no effect on anything. (Intriguingly, Vilenkin entertains a conceptualist view according to which the laws exist in a mind which predates the universe [p. 205], the closest Vilenkin comes to theism). If these laws are truly descriptive, then obviously it cannot be true that "there was no universe." Of course, the laws could have existed and been false, in which case they are non-descriptive; but then Vilenkin's theory will be false.

It's important to read Vilenkin at p. 181 with his further thoughts at p. 205, as Craig indicates. At 181, you get the impression that Vilenkin is just stating his idea about "The laws of physics must have existed, even though there was no universe" as if it were obvious, and shrugging off how strange that sounds in order to justify his "tunneling out of nothing" (which he takes to mean as there being no cause required.) Skip to 205, close to his epilogue, and he takes a more humble tack:

The picture of quantum tunneling from nothing raises another intriguing question. The tunneling process is governed by the same fundamental laws that describe the subsequent evolution of the universe. It follows that the laws should be "there" even prior to the universe itself. Does this mean that laws are not mere descriptions of reality and can have an independent existence of their own? In the absence of space, time, and matter, what tablets could they be written upon? The laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations. If the medium of mathematics is the mind, does this mean that mind should predate the universe?

This takes us far into the unknown, into the abyss of great mystery. It is hard to imagine how we can ever get past this point. But as before, that may just reflect the limits of our imagination.


What I find particularly interesting here is how this contrasts with Vilenkin in a Closer to Truth video. There, Vilenkin passes over the idea of a personal God pretty quickly (Basically saying, 'I don't think any God would care what we do.') Let's put that aside.

But he also makes a strange move (aside from mentioning the problem of consciousness). Vilenkin says he rejects the idea of identifying God with the laws of nature for reasoning which amounts to 'Why give it another name? 'The laws of nature' suit them just fine.' On its own, that seems reasonable.

Here's the problem: That attitude only works if the laws of nature are what we think they are. I don't mean this in the sense of mere accuracy, but the actual nature of those laws themselves. Again, look at Vilenkin at 205: He's speculating that the laws of nature are able to exist independent of "space, time and matter", and he pins his ideas on the origin of the universe to exactly this existence. But he's openly wondering how the hell this can be possible, and he entertains in passing the idea that these laws could be the thoughts of a mind.

Refusing to identify the laws of nature with God sounds reasonable only so long as we're working with the common view of those laws - where they're just reflections of the results of empirical experiments. Once we're in a kind of full-blown quasi-Platonism where laws really and truly exist even utterly independent of space, time and matter and they may well be the thoughts of a mind, it's no longer reasonable. It's like saying that the idea of viewing the universe in totality as "God" is inane, then speculating that the universe may be Brahman, complete with self-consciousness and an eternal, single soul.

In the end, I think what Vilenkin is relying on here is almost a kind of word game. Imagine if I told you that the moon was made out of cheese. But I start to explain the particular kind of cheese this is - it doesn't come from milk. It doesn't go bad. Hell, it isn't edible. It has a crust, and minerals, and... etc, etc. Until finally I'm giving a very accurate description of what the moon is made of. But, did I prove that the moon was made out of cheese? How far can I get with this game before you jump up and say, "Hey! You're not talking about cheese anymore!"?

Well, what if I say that no God was needed to create the universe ex nihilo, merely the laws of physics. But, these laws existed before the universe did. They did not exist in space, time, or matter. In fact, they were able to bring space, time and matter into existence ex nihilo. How far can I get before you jump up and say, "Hey! You're not talking about the laws of physics anymore!"?

Origin of the Universe!

Alright, this is a favorite review of mine, courtesy of William Lane Craig. Note that you're going to need to create an account or something to see this full review. If you're interested in cosmology or apologetics (or both), I consider it worth it.

It's a review of Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes by Alex Vilenkin.

There's a lot of interesting ideas going on there: Vilenkin speculating that we live in an infinite multiverse, Vilenkin embracing the Many Worlds Interpretation for whatever reason... of course, what turns Craig's head is the following:

It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning" (p. 176).

Given that everyone who knows about WLC knows that the Kalam Cosmological Argument is one of his favorite arguments, you can see why Craig's writing such a review of this book. No matter what else Vilenkin may say, that's a feather in Craig's cap.

Now, there's two other things I want to point out. One today, one tomorrow. First this quote by Vilenkin, while talking about the ramifications of multiverses, in his view.

In the worldview that has emerged from eternal inflation, our Earth and our civilization are anything but unique. Instead, countless identical civilizations are scattered in the infinite expanse of the cosmos. With humankind reduced to absolute cosmic insignificance, our descent from the center of the universe is now complete (p. 117).

There are a lot of ways to pick apart this view. One, of course, being: Since when is being infinite in number a downgrade of importance? This is back to the "if God existed, the universe would be smaller / bigger!" argument, always one of the weakest around. No point spending time on it.

But, there's another problem. If we're going to play the multiverse game, well.. let's play. And Paul Davies has something interesting to say about the board:

These are murky waters, but they get even murkier when we scrutinise what is meant by the words "exist" and "real". In the Tegmark multiverse of all possible worlds, some worlds will have intelligent civilisations with computers powerful enough to create authentic-looking virtual worlds. Like in the movie The Matrix, it may be almost impossible for an observer to know which is the real world and which is a simulation. And if the simulation is good enough, is there any fundamental difference between the two anyway?

It gets worse. Mathematicians have proved that a universal computing machine can create an artificial world that is itself capable of simulating its own world, and so on ad infinitum. In other words, simulations nest inside simulations inside simulations ... Because fake worlds can outnumber real ones without restriction, the "real" multiverse would inevitably spawn a vastly greater number of virtual multiverses. Indeed, there would be a limitless tower of virtual multiverses, leaving the "real" one swamped in a sea of fakes.

So the bottom line is this. Once we go far enough down the multiverse route, all bets are off. Reality goes into the melting pot, and there is no reason to believe we are living in anything but a Matrix-style simulation. Science is then reduced to a charade, because the simulators of our world - whoever or whatever they are - can create any pseudo-laws they please, and keep changing them.

In other words, Vilenkin - at least by this interview - hasn't quite dropped us at rock bottom yet after all. Turns out there's still one more infinite drop we can be placed in, at least given his views and metaphysics: Downward. Not spatially, but in a simulation sense. Our fall isn't 'complete' unless we're in a simulation (of a simulation, of a simulation, of a...)

Of course, Vilenkin can walk through that door if he so wishes - Davies would say his theory practically demands it. But as Davies points out, the price to pay for that is a reductio of his position, in the form of dashing science once and for all. It turns out we haven't been studying 'nature' all this time after all. Nature's the next floor up on the elevator, so to speak. Chances are we're studying someone's computer simulation - and we're all Intelligent Design advocates now!

Amusingly, if Vilenkin (or others) would even try to refute this, they'd suddenly be changing their tune. Something along the lines of, "Sure, we're insignificant - but not THAT insignificant!"

What I'd really like to know is: Where would the Copernican Principle place us, given the prospect of simulation and Vilenkin's multiverses? Again, the answer's bound to be interesting.

Anyway, quite a lot can be said about what Vilenkin is discussing. (Such as, what are the prospects of 'reason' in the universe as pictured by Vilenkin?) But I'm picking up two themes. One is the multiverse/ID aspect. The other.. well, tomorrow, hopefully.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wikipedia on Physical Law!

Under the entry for "Physical Law":

In essence, modern science aims at minimal speculation about metaphysics. This results in spectacular efficiency of science both in explaining how universe works and in making our life better, longer and more interesting (via building effective shelters, transportation, communication and entertainment as well as helping to feed population, cure diseases, etc).

Modern science does such a great job because it studiously avoids metaphysics as much as possible, which has (insert metaphysical/philosophical judgments here)!

Science "builds effective shelters"? It makes "entertainment"? Is "science makes our life better" a scientific, metaphysics-minimizing claim?

It so often seems like the biggest boosters of science are the ones most dissatisfied with it - and they show their dissatisfaction by pretending "science" is doing what something else (usually an unreflective and simplistic philosophy or metaphysics) is actually responsible for.

And it also seems that one could make quite an interesting argument that "science" has done next to nothing for humanity. Engineering, on the other hand, has done some tremendous things (and to be fair, not all of them great.)

Of course, that argument should spook any science-booster, since it threatens to make engineering do to science what science supposedly did to metaphysics. Somehow a Futurama quote seems apt: "I'll build my own theme park! With hookers! And blackjack! In fact... forget the theme park!"

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Immigration Debates!

One problem I have with the way the immigration debate gets discussed stems from illegal immigrants almost always being presented as victims. Fleeing a poorly-run country, etc.

There are many, many failings re: the stock consideration of illegal immigrants, but one avenue I'd be tempted to explore is this: Does a duty, however slight or qualified, to one's own neighborhood exist, particularly in a democratic/western nation? To use the obvious example: If Mexico is for the most part - let's be blunt - kind of a shithole, is there any duty on the part of mexican natives to address this problem themselves?

What's interesting there is if the answer is yes, one has a duty to one's nation (or neighborhood, etc) that cannot be so easily abdicated, then to what degree can illegal immigrants be held responsible for turning their back on their country? (Of course, if they aren't turning their back on their country, then their presence is even more problematic due to dual loyalty concerns.) If the answer is no, that there is no duty to one's nation.. then how can one suggest that people in completely different nations have concerns about the country in question?

A related side question: How much harm has America caused Mexico specifically by being the wealthier, (for now) more stable and prosperous nation that can be illegally immigrated to with relative ease?