Saturday, October 23, 2010

Egnor's questions

Bjørn inspires me to answer Michael Egnor's questions. It's actually not a bad summation of the "Big Questions", even though some of the ordering and phrasing is clearly meant to have a polemical element. Still, probably worth each individual going through it.

Before I start, I do have to say that, first, as Bjørn points out, all that is required to be an atheist is a lack of belief in gods. The way Egnor begins his post is analogous to a philately club president asking, "If aphilatelists don't collect stamps, just what the fuck do they collect?" Clearly a dumb question. Even if we are charitable and assume Engor is specifically trying to understand the Gnu Aphilatelists, who have made a lot of press lately opposing the influence of stamp-collecting on public policy, and pointing out rampant examples of misogyny, homophobia, and child abuse that have been regularly occurring at philately clubs... he implies that "[i]f New Atheist belief can only be expressed by negation of the beliefs of others," that this is inherently a bad thing. It's not. If I protest against Canada's sanctioned baby seal harvest, that position can only be expressed as the negation of another's -- so what? When you are opposing something you believe to be damaging, naturally that opposition must be described as, um, er, an opposition. I don't see a way around that.

Lastly, Egnor's "New Atheism Cliff Notes", while I realize they were meant to be tongue-in-cheek, contains a very objectionable one: "Theists are IDiots". No, many theists are not IDiots. IDiots are idiots. Some theists (like Egnor) are indeed IDiots; some theists are idiots but not IDiots; hell, some atheists are idiots but not IDiots; and of course, many theists are neither idiots nor IDiots. I think all brands of theistic belief are kinda silly at best, and usually rather, well, idiotic.. but that doesn't mean the people who believe them are idiots. I do some idiotic things, too; we all do. But the difference is, while I may do idiotic things like I dunno, drink too much at band practice when I know I have an early meeting the next morning (not that that would ever happen...since last Thursday), I'm not out there demanding that any political candidate that gets my vote must also be foolish about how much they have to drink on a work night. In fact, it would be better if they didn't, eh? In any case, Egnor is being unfair. We only think he is an IDiot, not all theists.

Okay, with the caveats out of the way, each individual Gnu -- each individual thinking person, for that matter -- ought to at least give some thought to these sorts of existential questions, and Egnor's list, while it contains some red herrings, is not a bad jumping off point. Let's do it!

1) Why is there anything?
Coincidentally, I revisited this question in a recent post. This is a difficult question, and I have a few ways of approaching it. I will reserve one type of approach for Egnor's second question, but for this one, I think I will use a new tactic I developed in that recent post.

So what are we really asking? Any answer to this question which falls in the subset of "anything" would, by definition, fail to answer the question. Why do bananas grow on trees? Because of banana trees. No, not an answer. So really, what are we asking? We are asking, "What is the nothing that caused there to be anything?" Well that's easy! Nothing.

Of course, this comes off a bit snarky, but I think it's a better answer than anything else you will get. Physics might give us some pretty satisfying answers for how the universe came to be given very simple laws (I'll tackle that in the next question) but by definition it must start out with something, some law or way of evolving the "anything." If you want to know why that exists, you're out of luck. And God is not an answer; in fact it's a rather stupid answer because God is most definitely "something". Don't give me this Uncaused Cause bullshit, because that's just an assertion. Why do bananas grow on trees? Because of an Uncaused Cause that caused them to appear there. Yeah, you lose, try again.

2) What caused the Universe?
Here I will fall back on the physics-oriented answers. A popular one is that "nothing" (as in nothingness) is unstable. Another similar answer is that even in nothingness, there are constantly virtual particle/anti-particle pairs being created and then annihilated as result of the natural fluctuating of the quantum field. Certain rare events could conceivably cause those fluctuations to result in a spontaneous symmetry breaking, and thus the Big Bang. Stephen Hawking appears to mount yet another answer in his new book, one which seems to be similar to multiverse theory, and which he claims only depends on gravity.

Moreover, logic is not a fundamental law of the universe; it is an emergent property that works rather well at the macroscopic level. It just may be that in the first few picoseconds after the Big Bang, asking what "caused" a thing is just using misleading language. Sure, things still had to obey physical laws, and the math seems to describe those crucial existential moments pretty damn well so far. But to try to take a high level logic of "event A caused event B, which in turn caused event C" etc., and apply it to that time in the history of the universe... I suspect it's a futile endeavor. Might as well ask about the tensile strength of an electron. Both concepts are real, but... the former does not apply at the scale of the latter.

So, more directly: What caused the Universe? I don't know, and nobody is sure... But physics is beginning to offer some rather mathematically elegant answers. Those answers may turn out not to be particularly existentially satisfying -- but the Universe is not here for our existential edification, we're responsible for working that one out on our own.

And given the context of Egnor's questions, I have to add: "Goddidit" is en even less existentially satisfying answer, at least for me. "Fluctuations in the quantum foam" leaves the romantic part of my brain asking, "That's it?" But "Goddidit" leaves the romantic part of my brain asking, "That's it?" and the logical part of my brain crying, "You've got to be fucking kidding me..."

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
Taken in isolation, this question is a tough one, and as I already hinted at in my answer to the first question, I suspect it might be unanswerable.

A modified question, though, is quite answerable: "Which poses greater explanatory difficulty: regularity or irregularity?"

If we think about the types of answers that would be required to explain regularity and/or the existential challenges posed by the lack of any satisfying answer, those answers/challenges pale in comparison to what would be required for an irregular/lawless universe. For our universe, the only question is why it should obey this small set of mathematically simple laws -- a set which is shrinking all the time, as we find how to derive more complex behavior from simpler behavior. For a lawless universe, every single event has a "why" attached to it! And even worse, if a lawless universe developed organisms stable enough to ask these sorts of questions, then you have some serious explaining to do. Why should all of these random lawless events result in humans?! That's just bizarre.

Again I cannot escape returning to the theistic subtext of Egnor's questions: I always find it surprising that people think an ordered universe obeying simple laws is evidence of a god. I think quite the opposite! One of the most convincing pieces of evidence I can imagine for a theistic explanation of the universe would be if matter and energy obeyed no consistent laws whatsoever, and yet still we had humans and trees and rocks and dirt (and two horses)... well holy shit, that would pretty much imply there had to be some sort of Intelligent Designer orchestrating the whole thing, wouldn't it?

4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
Okay, I'm going to need to look this one up, because I'm not familiar with the Four Causes... but before I do, first I need to point out that Aristotle's achievement was in practicing an unprecedentedly rigorous brand of philosophy, in tackling questions where before the best answers had been of the "zeusdidit" variety. His achievement was not in having outlined a particularly good philosophy, not by modern standards. So before I even Wikipedia this, my expectation is that it will be a big shrug.

Okay, looked it up. It's not as bad as I expected, and I think that Aristotle's classification of causes is just reasonable enough that I can answer Egnor's question: I believe in the first three as properties of the physical world (with caveats -- Aristotle's understanding of 20th century physics is weak at best :p ). I believe that "final causes" exist only as abstractions in the mind of sentient beings -- and that those minds only exist (again with caveats) as a result of the first three causes. (Note that something which approximates "final causes" exists in nature as a result of natural selection... but it's not really the same thing. As Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini so impetuously and unceasingly point out in their recent aggravating book, you can never formally say with perfect certainty that a particular trait was "selected for" in order to satisfy a particular selective pressure. There's always the theoretical possibility of a pleiotropy, genetic drift, or whatever as the actual "cause". And as F&P also point out -- like people didn't know this? -- natural selection has no mind, and therefore can have no intention in mind. No, "final causes" do not exist in nature. A seed does not exist for the purpose of becoming an adult plant -- the seed just exists, and natural selection has caused it to be a thing which turns into an adult plant. Purposes are the exclusive realm of sentient beings.)

I think I've satisfactorily answered the question, but before I move on, a comment about Aristotle and physics... yeah, the first three causes were an awesome attempt at a taxonomy of physical causation -- for c. 350 BC. But now we know it's pretty wrong. For instance, the first cause, "material cause", is really a subset of "formal cause" -- the material a thing is made of is a function of the form of it's subatomic particles. And in order to make the causes comprehensive, we have to stretch -- really stretch them. Does "efficient cause" cover quantum chromodynamics? Hmmmm....

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
Now that's the sixty-four thousand dollar question, in'n't it? I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on this one, mostly because it requires a book-length treatment to even approach the question. (See Douglas Hofstadter's I Am a Strange Loop for an excellent, if flawed, attempt. Although I have not yet had the pleasure, I understand Daniel Dennett has done great work on this topic as well.) For now, suffice it to say that, at the very least, we have some damn good explanations for how a purely objective reality could give rise to beings who looked, acted, and quacked like conscious beings with subjective experience... and since I think Chalmer's P-zombies don't hold up to scrutiny, I suspect it might just be philosophical fair game to say that the positive result on the Duck Test justifies the existence of subjective experience.

I also am questioning to what extent subjective experience is real to begin with. We already know that personal identity is somewhat of a hallucination. The difficulty in isolating a true present makes me wonder if you even need to posit the existence of the hallucination. I don't know. These are very difficult existential questions, and almost by definition we cannot be equipped to know the answer.

In any case, I'm going to dodge this one for now just because it's too damn long and deep. Again in the theistic context: Even if I were convinced that some sort of immaterial soul was somehow "responsible" for subjective experience, these same questions would remain. After all, we already have a physical mechanism to explain how an organism could act as if it had subjective experience... why would a spiritual explanation of that same thing be any better?

6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?
This post is getting long... but I have to say, given a material answer to question 5, I don't see how this is even a question. The brain is a naturally selected aboutness machine... isn't it? It would be like asking how the pixels on my computer screen can be about something. They're built to do that. What's the question here? I guess I'm just not a good philosopher...

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
I've written quite a long post on this, so I'll merely direct there. In a nutshell: Mostly the latter, and there is no problem with that. (Nor does that make it relative... the fact that the sole reason I don't like to be kicked in the balls is because of an artifact of natural selection does not diminish the absolute fact that if you kick me in the balls for no reason, you are a fucking asshole! Some "morality" is purely relative, though in most cases I question whether that is truly moral. Most worthwhile morality is relative to our species, but not relative to culture or individuals -- within our species, it is absolute! And that's why I will not apologize for saying, for example, that FGM is a disgusting and barbaric practice, and "cultural tolerance" is not a valid reason to allow sick fucks to chop off little girl's clitorises. kthxbye)

The post I directed to has some ideas for a species-transcendent morality... but it's just that, an idea. I dunno if it makes sense. In any case, even if my ideas for a species-transcendent morality are sound, it still exists only as an inherent artifact of natural selection... it still requires natural selection to exist.

Notice that this is a much better answer than God-says-so. Even theologians agree that morality must exist independent of God, or else it's not morality. If the only reason child-rapin' is wrong is because you're afraid of getting burned in hell, that is not moral (and it's offensive to say so, by the way!). Even if we accept a belief in God, morality must exist independent of Her, with God helping us to determine what is moral rather than dictating it. Otherwise, it is not, by definition, moral.

8) Why is there evil?
Yo mama.

Sorry, post is long. On the home stretch now!

First of all, does Egnor mean "evil" or "Evil"? If he means the latter, then I don't believe in it. If he means the former, does he mean natural evil, like earthquakes and shit; or human-caused evil, like the Holocaust and New Country music; or both? I'll divide it up.

Natural evil exists because the universe doesn't care about us. In fact, in a way, natural selection could not work without natural evil... we are what we are because the universe is constantly randomly killing us, and it turns out that an error-prone digital method of replication allows us to develop better survival mechanisms in the face of this unending danger.

Human-caused evil exists, first, because of the same reason as natural evil. Humans are part of the universe, and there's no magic wand being waved with the incantation, "Universe, don't kill stuff." Moreover, there are all sorts of reasons for humans to behave in immoral ways. For one, it appears that fairly simple genetic mutations or brain injuries can "break" that mechanism, e.g. in the case of sociopaths. For another, there are models which predict evolutionary stable states (ESS) where some fixed portion of the population "cheats" due to their genetic makeup. And even those of us who are normally functioning "moral" humans have still evolved to only be moral some of the time... there are competing impulses, as well as a likely selective advantage to cheating "some" of the time. Lastly, our modern conceptions of morality and ethics are a prioritization and synthesis of our often contradictory and self-defeating naturally-selected moral imperatives -- so obviously our naturally-selected selves are not always going to be driven to behave according to this modern conception.

This again is a question that I think is fairly boring if you already have a material view of the universe. Why wouldn't there be bad shit in an unguided universe? It would be like asking, "Why is there yellow?" Well, there's a certain range of wavelengths of light... So what?

So there you have it. My answers to Egnor's questions. But notice, while I may have some answers in common with other Gnus, these are my own answers. You will tend to see the Gnus giving materially-oriented answers, but what form those take will vary highly from individual to individual. The Gnu Atheism is about opposing the destructive social and public policy influence of religion. Yes, Egnor, the Gnu Atheism is defined as a negative -- so what?

What Egnor asks would be like asking a bunch of anti-war protesters about their views on abortion. Oh sure, you might tend to get a high percentage of them being pro-choice, just because of the left-leaning association... but it will be by no means uniform. Anti-war protesters are defined as those who oppose war, not as those who have pro-choice views, etc. That opposition is made up of individuals, just like Gnu Atheism.

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