Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The weekend before Christmas, a very close friend passed away suddenly under relatively shocking circumstances. She lived out of town, but had been supposed to drive up and stay with us starting last Thursday, as she does for most holidays. She apparently kept a very detailed diary, which continues to provide her family and us with more and more stunning revelations to heap upon the already tragic story.

Sometimes people succumb to the temptation to refer to "the real Nicole," i.e. the side that she showed us, as if the heretofore-unseen facets of her personality were somehow not a part of reality. With the caveat that it might have been better -- given that she was already dead -- if we had never found out about the other facets, now that we know about them, I think this is the wrong approach. It is simply the other side of the coin that labels everything we knew about Nicole as a "mask", some kind of illusion to hide a dark reality. Neither is correct. We all have many facets, and they are all equally real, all an inescapable part of what composes the whole.

I'm not really a condolences kind of person, so I'm turning off comments for this post. Instead, you can keep our family in your thoughts. And maybe sacrifice a goat or two.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Feel good? Do good? Not in my church, young man!

Via RichardDawkins.net comes a disturbingly credulous article from CNN about a minister/theology professor who published a book called Almost Christian, regarding some supposedly horrible decline in religious passion among youth. Ho hum. One line really struck me, though:

Many teenagers thought that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good...

The article then goes on to have the author/minister/theologian explain why this is a bad thing.

So much for religion being a force to make people happy. You think God simply wants you to feel good and do good? No no no, we can't be having that! Why, thinking that the point of life is to be enriched and to enrich others... that's practically humanism! No no, the real God wants you to be miserable and sexually dysfunctional and afraid of eternal hellfire. I guess you got the wrong impression with this whole "Love one another" business. See, that's just a mistranslation. In the original text, what Jesus actually said was, "I hate fags, I hate women, now give me your damn money." Feel good and do good?!? That's the devil talking!

Yeah so, anyway... message for my son: Feel good. Do good. Be yourself.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I feel bad for Chris Maloney, but he's still a quack

Oh dear. Maine naturopath Chris Maloney is at it again, this time sending a cease and desist letter to PZ Myers (who, it should be noted, hasn't said anything about Maloney in months).

I actually feel a little sorry for the guy. There is a grain of truth to the sentence in the letter that reads, "It is one thing to make statements against a particular profession -- it is another thing entirely to attack a particular practitioner, injuring his reputation by calling him a quack." Of course, the fact that they are two different things does not always make the latter bad... some people need to have their reputations injured, lest they retain an ability to con, fleece, or otherwise injure other people. In this case, Maloney is bringing it on himself by thinking he can silence criticism on the Internet. It's entirely foolish -- but I'm also struck by a certain naivety about it. I do kinda feel bad for the quack. If only he'd learn to keep his mouth shut...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A "War on Christmas" Checklist

h/t to FriendlyAtheist for linking this video on why Christians are not being oppressed in the United States. Only problem with the list in the video is that, while everything in their is true, the Glenn Becks of the world will deny bits of it. Also, not to get all accomodation-y, but the opening card saying that Christians are the oppressors is going to sabotage any attempt to make this video resonate with people who do believe in the mythical War on Christmas.

So here I have culled the checklist down to only those things which I think are so indisputable that even Bill O'Reilly wouldn't deny it. Obviously you don't want to link "War on Christmas"-believers to this blog -- but feel free to copy-and-paste this link, without credit, to anybody who asserts that Christmas is under siege.

Things that Christians can say that no other religious group in the US can:
  • I can expect to get the day off for my faith's holidays in almost any job.
  • I can easily find books, in virtually any bookstore, accurately describing the beliefs and practices of my faith.
  • I can go into a non-specialty store and find decorations specific to my faith's holidays.
  • I can go into a non-specialty store and find greeting cards specifically designed for my faith's holidays.
  • I can go into virtually any music store and find music pertaining to my faith and my faith's holidays.
  • I can easily find various paraphernalia -- bookmarks, T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, jewelery, etc. -- that pertain to my faith, my faith's symbols, and my faith's holidays, in numerous non-specialty stores.
  • I can put up decorations around my house and in public view pertaining to my faith's holidays without worrying that people will judge me negatively or think I am "weird."
  • I can easily find a group to worship with and carry out my faith's rites and ceremonies.
  • I can easily find spiritual counseling in my area from someone who shares my faith, often paid for by health insurance.
  • I can easily find support groups and charities organized by people of my faith.
  • I don't have to worry that someone will tell me my faith isn't a "real" religion.
  • I can easily find holiday specials on TV that depict people celebrating my faith's holidays.
  • I can expect the media to try and accurately portray my faith's views on any political matter.
  • I can walk onto any campus in the country and find a group dedicated to my faith.
  • I can be pretty sure I won't cause a huge controversy or a moral panic if I try to open a community center for my faith.
  • In virtually every election I have voted in, at least one and often both of the major candidates share some variant of my faith.
  • The majority of Americans identify with some variant of my faith.
Whatever your feelings are on religion, it ought to be crystal clear that Christians are not being oppressed in the United States. I hope this list has demonstrated that beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Torture is useful after all!

Well this is a new one for me... Intelligence gathered from the use of torture may have helped bring WWII to a close.

Except that it was the Japanese employing the torture in this case, and the "intelligence" they gathered turned out to be absolute hogwash.

According to Wikipedia, it seems a B-29 crew was captured shortly after the massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and were interrogated to see what they knew about the atomic bomb. Under extreme torture, the pilot panicked and made up some silly story about how the US had hundreds of bombs ready to go, and that Tokyo and Kyoto would be hit in a matter of days. (For extra chuckles, I am told by a source whose reliability is unknown that the pilot also made up some baloney story about the physics behind it, which must be read to be believed.)

Now, if the Japanese had known the truth (that actually Tokyo would be bombed in a few weeks, not a few days, and that a fourth bomb wouldn't be ready for another month or two) would that have changed their mind? Perhaps not. But still, this is really a beautiful demonstration of the dubious value of torture as an interrogation technique. It's doubtful the pilot was being clever... it seems he was scared shitless and in severe pain, and just said whatever came to his mind that he thought would satisfy the interrogators. Torture's great at producing information -- but whether that information is accurate or not, it's a crap shoot at best (and probably worse than a crap shoot, since there is some evidence that torture gives victims the incentive to lie).

Go torture!

The Republican War on Statistics

Ah, sample size. We all know that sample size can be a real problem. Too small of a sample, and you get all sorts of spurious results. This is especially true if your population is huge but your sample is small.

But what would you say about a study with a population of about 400,000, that actually sampled a full 28% of the population? Oh my god, this is a statistician's wet dream. A sample that large and that comprehensive, assuming there are no major selection biases, you can basically get the precise answer for the entire population. It would take an astounding coincidence for that to be misrepresentative sample.

And yet... and yet... In the Senate hearings on DADT that are going on right now, at least three Rethuglican senators (McCain, Inhofe, and Brown... oh joy, tools all around) have expressed concern that the Senate committee report on the possible repeal of DADT "only" sampled 28% of the 400,000 or so active military personnel. Inhofe even said that 28% "isn't very much."

Wow. I mean, even for these lying sacks of shit, that's just... just... I'm speechless.

This would be like a baseball player, who hit a home run every third time he swung at a pitch. "Hmmm, I dunno, one in three isn't very much. I don't think that guy's very good at hitting home runs..." Oy.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Reason for the Season...

...is because the winter is drab and depressing in northern latitudes. Deal with it.

I probably don't need to tell that to most readers of this blog, but I need to get this out of my system anyway. The evidence for this simple fact is overwhelming. Is it just a coincidence that every single culture living in northern latitudes has some sort of mid-winter festival involving fire and lights and feasting? The winter festival was our ancestors' way of dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Late December through February are depressing up here, and we all could use some cheering up.

Further evidence that a Christmas-like winter festival long predates Christianity is the infamous condemnation of Christmas trees in Jeremiah 10:3-4:

3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. (KJV)

So that pretty much settles that. The "reason for the season" is to spread some good cheer at a time when those of us who live in harsh wintry climates could really use it.

Now let's be clear about what this observation is not. This is not a volley in the mythical "War on Christmas". This observation does not seek to undermine the religious observance of Christmas whatsoever. The true "reason for the season" may be far more pragmatic than a religious celebration, but the fact that for many people it takes the form of a religious celebration is (more or less) fine by me.

And that's why I am writing this post. There exists a certain subset of people, who, when they see non-Christians celebrating a winter holiday, get this absurd notion that we are co-opting and diluting/distorting their religious celebration. For anyone with even the slightest clue about the history of Christmas and other mid-winter festivals, that's just absurd.

Christmas is one in a long line of many, many, many winter festivals -- and that's okay! It's even okay that Christmas as celebrated by the majority of Christians borrows heavily from pagan traditions that predated the Common Era. (As surely every educated adult knows by now? I hope??) There's nothing wrong with syncretism, despite God's aforementioned condemnation of it in Jeremiah (the Jews were big on enforcing their cultural distinctiveness, you see). Christians are quite welcome to join the whole rest of the world (at least those living in cold climates) in having a nice cheery festival this time of year, with their own spin on it.

But please. Spare us the accusations of cultural co-option. That's just stupid, and any educated adult ought to know it by now. Maybe you can argue that the primary reason for Christmas is to celebrate Jesus' birth. But the general reason for festivals in the December time frame (as well as the reason for the scheduling of Christmas -- remember, virtually all theologians believe Jesus was definitely not born on December 25th) is to combat the winter doldrums. Christians who believe otherwise really need to get over themselves.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Before, During, and After

I don't usually blog much about home improvement, but I figured I ought to do a follow-up post to the one about venturing into the crawlspace above my kitchen. It was a success. I won't bore my readers with details of the other various kitchen renovations we have been doing (painting all of the cabinets, stripping wallpaper from and painting the walls, removing an old non-functional built-in double oven and replacing it with new shelving, replacing the faucet, etcetera etcetera...) but I figured I'd do a brief pictorial chronicle of the soffit upgrade.




Boo-yah. It would be even more effective if I had included the atrocious wallpaper that was on there before (the wall had already been painted below the soffit in the "before" picture, which I know is totally the wrong order to do things, but we kept waffling on whether or not to take out the soffit before Thanksgiving). Anyway, I figure there has probably been many a past homeowner of this house that cursed that awful defunct soffit, and finally it is gone thanks to me. Feels good.

Imagine No Religion - by 2100?

Occasionally blogger abb3w -- who has done a lot of interesting work with the GSS -- has a fascinating blog post where he/she analyzes the rise of the so-called "nones" (those with no particular religious affiliation) according to birthdate. The result is a surprisingly good match with a logistic "S" curve (I'm sure I knew what that was once upon a time, but no longer -- but it sure is shaped like an S!), which if extrapolated shows the "nones" exceeding 90-95% around the year 2100.

This is a highly idealized model of course, and nobody can predict the idiosyncratic nature of future history. But even the historical data is encouraging.

Update: Since some people are obstinately not getting it, let me make some clarifications.

First, as a reasonable person might have guessed from the heavily caveated second paragraph of this post, as well as the presence of a question mark in the title, I am not claiming any sort of certainty about whether this trend is real or not. In fact, it seems just as likely to me that it's not than that it is. I just thought the data abb3w turned up, in particular the close fit with a logistic curve, was intriguing.

Second, as abb3w made clear in the original post, and as I made clear in the comments, even if this trend is real it says nothing about religious belief -- it only speaks to religious affiliation. The so-called "nones" include SBNR types and so forth, for example. I thought that this was obvious from abb3w's post, and I didn't really intend to imply anything other than, "Hey look, abb3w has a cool post," so I felt it unnecessary to state this up front. But since I'm being accused of "intellectual dishonesty" for failing to spell it out for my less astute/more paranoid readers, I have chosen to update the post to reflect this. By the way, I still find the trend encouraging, because while I think that theistic belief in general is not compatible with critical examination, I think that vague personal theistic beliefs are usually not particularly harmful. (They may even be beneficial to some people, but I think the jury is still very much out on this one, and I feel it would be elitist to claim that some people "need" their comforting delusions without possessing very solid evidence to support that position)

Third, although this seems plain as day to me, I now find it necessary to point out that this post was not intended to be polemical. If you want polemics, just browse my blog for a bit, you'll find plenty. But this post is not included there. I'm not trying to "persuade" anybody of anything. I think it ought to be clear that no atheist living in America in the year 2010 is going to find the Argument from Popularity at all persuasive! As such, I would not attempt to employ it to convince others either. It is a rather lousy argument, after all. The percentage of people who are religiously affiliated, or who believe in God, or whatever, are completely independent from the truth value of any given theistic proposition, which itself is completely independent from whether or not religion is a force for good. These are all entirely separate issues. Again, if you want to hear me make an argument in regards to the truth of religion, or in regards to the positive/negative effects of religion, one will not have to look far in this blog -- but this post is not it. This post does not even fringe on those questions.

I hope all is clear now.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I really need a male friend and a beer right now

The American male culture of not showing fear or other perceived signs of weakness may be emotionally stunting, but damn, now and then it can have it's advantages. I'm scared out of my wits right now, but if I had a male friend and a beer in my hand, I'd be cracking jokes and ready to dive right into the job.

Some backstory... we are renovating our kitchen, and there is this thing coming down from the ceiling (we are calling it a soffit, which I guess it technically is, although usually when you say "soffit" in relation to kitchens, you are talking about the part of the ceiling that comes down above the cupboards) that has nothing in it but a single recessed light (which might as well be on the ceiling proper) and a bunch of insulation. No ducting, nothing. We haven't quite figured out why anybody would have put it in to begin with. It looks safe to remove, so... we're gonna do it.

This fucker is coming out.
You can see the soffit in the picture to the right. Sorry for the bad lighting; the electricity is off in the kitchen (for obvious reasons). You can see the soon-to-be-former recessed light hanging out, and then a pole that I stuck up in there. I'll tell you why the pole in a second.

As I mentioned, the thing is stuffed with insulation. I had originally been anticipating a god-awful mess, a veritable rain of insulataion, at the point when I planned to saw the drywall out -- but then my sister suggested there is probably a crawlspace above the kitchen, and maybe I could shovel the insulation out first. So there is, and as intimidating as crawlspaces can be, on reflection I think that is the right solution.

So here I stand, with the crawlspace open and a halogen light shining into it, completely shitting my pants about going in there. It was bad enough opening the door -- I expected a gollum to jump out and bite my face off, or at the very least for a big pile of dead bodies to come rolling out and knock me off the ladder. The fact that I don't believe in monsters is cold comfort when you are by yourself, on a ladder, opening a creepy looking door that you anticipate crawling through in the near future.

It's a mess up there. To get my bearings, I stuck a pole up through the hole where the recessed light is, so I can see how far back I will need to go.

There's this weird perceptual effect... if I walk from the garage (where the crawlspace entrance is) to the kitchen, I would estimate the soffit is maybe 10-15 ft away from the entrance.
"Your mission, should you choose to accept it..." (The pole is circled in red)
But when I peer through the crawlspace, my estimate is more like 25-30ft!

If only I was holding a cold beer and had a guy friend here. That old male conditioning would kick in, and I'd just take a big swig and say (imagine frat boy voice here) "Let's DO it! Hell yeah!" But alone, beerless, and with no incentive to conform to a specific gender role... damn, this sucks.

Friday, November 5, 2010

de Waal's in over his head

Frans de Waal writes a response to all of the comments he got on his previous article, which went on and on about how morality clearly had a natural origin, then at the end said, "But maybe we need religion to be moral anyway!" de Waal seems like he is not aware of a lot of what has been said on this already. I could not manage to read his whole response (I read the first one, it was disappointing, and this one is just aggravating). But I want to comment on two things:

Even though 90 percent of my text questions the religious origins of human morality, and wonders if we need a God to be good, it is the other 10 percent — in which I tentatively assign a role to religion — that drew most ire. Atheists, it seems (at least those who responded here) don’t like any less than 100 percent agreement with their position.

Sigh. The reason you're getting so much "ire" over that particular 10% is because it has a hidden implication that us atheists (including de Waal!) may be less equipped to be moral than our deluded counterparts. That's offensive. I mean, imagine if he had written a piece in which he hints that Islam might be inferior to Christianity when it comes to keeping people moral, and then was all surprised when Muslims get pissed off at him. Duh! Of course that is going to piss atheists off. In fact, I don't understand... is de Waal saying he himself is less moral?

I understand that de Waal is trying to draw a distinction between societal effects and individual effects. But that kind of comes across as elitist ("I don't need religion to be moral, but the unwashed masses do!"), and in any case, the way he put it in his previous column and the way it just came out of left field with no evidence was really off-putting. "Morality clearly has nothing to do with religion... but now I'm going to say, for no reason whatsoever, that our society might become immoral without it!" WTF. Of course that raised our ire.

Those who wish to remove religion and define morality as the pursuit of scientifically defined well-being (à la Sam Harris) should read up on earlier attempts in this regard, such as the Utopian novel “Walden Two” by B. F. Skinner, who thought that humans could achieve greater happiness and productivity if they just paid better attention to the science of reward and punishment. Skinner’s colleague John Watson even envisioned “baby factories” that would dispense with the “mawkish” emotions humans are prone to, an idea applied with disastrous consequences in Romanian orphanages.

Double sigh. So, he hasn't followed any of the discussion surrounding Harris' controversial idea? First of all, a lot of atheists think he's full of it, and that morality has to stem from arbitrary conventions. (I fall somewhere in between) So he's representing a false dilemma here: Old-time religion vs. Harris' radical idea. Um, no. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, a huge amount of the discussion about Harris' idea is in regards to similarities and differences between past Utilitarian and Utilitarian-esque ideals. de Waal is late to the game here if he think he's enlightening anybody by pointing out that Utilitarianism is not only insufficient, but has a real dark side. Get with the program.

Of course, he follows that with the dumbest fucking comment of all:

And talking of Romania, was not the entire Communist experiment an attempt at a society without God?



Can I get some of what you've been smoking, de Waal?

Yes, Communism in its two most high-profile manifestations, as well as many others, tried to enforce a society-wide atheism, but that's not central to the Communist experiment. Look the fuck up what Communism is. It has nothing inherently to do with godlessness, it has to do with economics and distribution of resources. And yes, it turned out to be a big failure. It turned out to be an even bigger failure because those high-profile manifestations were also brutal dictatorships. Did it occur to de Waal that maybe the human rights disaster in Communism was partly because the people were forced to abandon their religion, which is not what any sane person is discussing.

Gah. Fuck you, de Waal. You're an idiot.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Another [--------] for Paladino/Edwards

I previously blogged about my confusion regarding a sign that said "Another Democrat for Paladino/Edwards", but was placed on a freeway off-ramp where clearly there was no Democrat for it to be referring to.

I now think I was on to something much more significant -- and to my surprise, I cannot see that any other bloggers or news sites have described this curious issue:

That appears to be the only official campaign sign the Paladino camp has released since naming a running mate.

Prior to the running mates being named, I saw similar numbers of Cuomo and Paladino signs. Since I live in a fairly liberal part of town, it was slanted a but more in the Cuomo direction, but I still saw a sprinkling of the old "I'm mad too, Carl!" signs.

In the first couple of weeks after Edwards was named as Paladino's running mate, I only saw a single Paladino/Edwards sign (the aforementioned one from the freeway offramp). Now they are starting to appear, albeit in smaller numbers than I would have expected -- and here's the crazy thing: All but one or two of the signs I have seen have either had "Democrat" blacked out with marker, or the "Another Democrat for" area of the sign (which is in a small font) cut out. (I'll try to get some pictures tomorrow)

That's right. Some genius decided to only print campaign signs that said "Another Democrat for...", and of course given the left/right polarization we are in right now, no Paladino supporter wants to identify themselves as a god-hatin' Democrat! And FWIW, I can understand: I had an Obama sign up in my yard in the run-up to the '08 prez election, and I try to think back and imagine if the only sign available had said, "Another Republican for Obama/Biden"... would I put that in my yard? FUCK. NO.

What the hell were they thinking?! Seriously, I am now seeing a massive skew towards Cuomo/Duffy signs, even in more conservative parts of town, in my opinion most likely because conservatives wouldn't be caught dead with the current Paladino campaign material. Not that Paladino had much of a chance to begin with (these populist nutbags tend to flounder once they get enough public exposure, because then even the easily-deceived start to notice that they are batshit insane) but could it be that this boneheaded "Another Democrat for" decision is enough to put the nail in the coffin for his campaign?

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.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Can there be evidence for God? Can there be evidence for a Halting Oracle? For the Hidden Variables Interpretation?

The volley between Jerry and PZ over whether there could even in principle be evidence of a "god" continues apace, with other bloggers weighing in as well. Okay, my turn!

First of all, I think Jerry and PZ are both failing to define their terms clearly enough. Both of them seem to recognize this problem, but then just go on ignoring it, like everybody "knows what they mean." PZ has made a whole lot of noise, some of it surprisingly sloppy (am I mistaken, or in one post did he argue that "I haven't ever seen any of this evidence" implies that "no such evidence could even in principle exist"?!), but if I may, I think I can boil his argument down to two assumptions, the first of which I definitely agree with, the other which I think is controversial:

1) Anything "supernatural" by definition does not exist, because if something we previously though were supernatural were shown to exist in the physical world, then it would be, by definition, "natural."

2) A necessary feature of a prospective god is that it must be supernatural.

Fair enough, but it seems to me to be begging the question.

Jerry, on the other hand, seems to reject the first premise! He seems to think there is a definition of "supernatural" that would allow a thing with that trait to exist -- even though it wouldn't exist as part of the "natural" world? I don't understand that, and I would need a pretty specific definition of "supernatural" before I would accept it. A number of commenters at WEIT have mounted attempts, but I remain unconvinced by all of them.

So my opinion had been somewhere in between... I reject the possibility of the supernatural (by definition!), but I don't think that possessing supernatural traits is a prerequisite to godhood. Therefore, I thought that, while the evidence would have to be pretty staggering, we might imagine sufficient evidence to convince me of the existence of a being worthy of the appellation "god".

An exchange with Ben Goren has altered my thinking with this somewhat. I still think it's a question of definition, but he has convinced me that there is a particular aspect that is rather fundamental to most useful definitions of "god(s)", and that if I accept that as part of the definition, I must state that I cannot imagine any evidence that would convince me of the existence of god(s). I will stop just short of saying there can never be such evidence, but a case for this type of god(s) would have to first address some important theoretical objections before the evidential case could even begin.

First, the critical aspect of the definition. Let me try and state it as specifically and formally as I can:

Any being which is referred to as a "god" must either a) have created sui generis everything that exists, or b) be part of a pantheon that is either collectively responsible for creating or contains one or more members who created sui generis everything that exists.

If we further assume that said "god" has any type of volition, which seems reasonable given the apparent features of all major religions (oh noes, apophatic theology FTW!), then Ben Goren argues -- and I agree -- that such a god cannot by definition exist. If it exists, and it created everything that exists, then it must have created itself sui generis, and there is not even in principle a way by which a being with volition could create itself sui generis. It just doesn't make sense. It would have to have had volition first, and volition is something, therefore it's not sui generis!

Of course, this is a logical proof, and apparently sound logical proofs have turned out to be wrong before based on hidden assumptions that were not apparent until some new leap forward in understanding was achieved. So I don't reject the possibility that it could be wrong. And FWIW, I stand by that, despite the fact that I am about to constrain it even more.

Ben Goren responds that this may be so, but that the soundness of this proof is comparable to the soundness of the proof of the Halting Problem. Of course, I have not formalized it (probably someone somewhere has?) but in general I agree with Ben. So could there be evidence that would convince me that a Halting Oracle could be implemented in a Turing machine? Well, maybe, but I can't imagine it.

I'd prefer to talk about the Hidden Variables Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, mostly because it's fresher in my mind than the Halting Problem. Bell's Theorem proves that, unless QM is just plain wrong, there can be no hidden variables. (And we're not talking wrong like "Newtonian mechanics is wrong because it over-generalizes a special case of general relativity", we're talking wrong like "Aristotelean physics is wrong") It does so by making predictions on the behavior of entangled particles, known as Bell's Inequalities.

In a nutshell: If there were some hidden variable, then the sum of the probabilities of a certain set of outcomes should be greater than or equal to the probability of another outcome -- because if that latter outcome were true due to some hidden variable, it would entail that all of the other outcomes would also necessarily have been true, if that's what we had been measuring for.

Turns out Bell's Inequalities are violated all the frakkin' time in quantum mechanics, and we can confirm this with observation. And confirm it we have -- again, and again, and again, and again. Bell's Inequalities just plain aren't obeyed. This is a fact of reality.

So any consistent theory of physics which attempted to predict the outcome of quantum interactions based on a heretofore unknown variable -- some trait or state of the particle that we didn't yet know about -- would have to begin by explaining how Bell's Inequalities were violated. If it couldn't do that, then regardless of whatever kinds of copious evidence is amassed in its favor, we would be justified in discounting its accuracy.

(That said, if somebody was able to, say, consistently predict a priori where an individual electron would hit the screen in the double-slit experiment, and this experiment were easily replicated... then we'd be wise to listen up to her theoretical explanation, even if that explanation failed to address Bell's Theorem. Unless and until that were addressed, though, I think we would still provisionally assume that there was some other phenomenon facilitating the prediction, rather than a heretofore hidden variable.)

So it is with a Creator god. I cannot imagine what evidence would convince me of the existence of a Creator god, and any such case would have to begin by mounting a satisfying explanation of the apparent existential contradiction discussed above. Unless and until that contradiction were satisfactorily addressed, we would have to provisionally assume that said god(s) came into existence via some natural process, rather than the other way around -- regardless of any other evidence. That includes your 900 foot Jesus scenarios. Heal as many amputees as you want, turn the Pacific Ocean into 2001 vintage California Cabernet Savignon, prove to me the existence of an afterlife, maybe even show me that you are powerful and benevolent enough to be worthy of worship -- I still ain't buying the Creator thing until you explain that part of it to me.

Now, maybe the Creator aspect is not entirely necessary. It depends on your definitions, of course. I think that's part of where Jerry's going with it (though I think he fails in refusing to nail down what he means by "supernatural" in a meaningful way) and I think that's okay. It leaves you vulnerable to challenges like "are the programmers of the Matrix gods?" or "Is Q from Star Trek a god?", but I don't necessarily think those challenges are insurmountable. (If the programmers of the Matrix made me sing crappy songs, asked for ten percent of my income, and played mean tricks like "Stab your son -- psyche!", then yeah, that pretty much sounds like Yahweh to me...)

So there's my final answer: If you mean the Creator god, then no, I cannot imagine any evidence that would convince me -- although there is an important caveat that my inability to imagine such evidence does not necessarily rule out its existence, though it puts some pretty strict conditions on what form the evidence would have to take. If your definition of god is more expansive, of course, then all bets are off.

Friday, October 15, 2010

I try my hand at explaining part of the double-slit experiment

Having read quite a bit of Elsevier's quantum physics series (and experiencing the accompanying existential crisis), I feel like I have a way of explaining some of the more baffling aspects of the double-slit experiment in a way that ought to make sense to someone with just a minimal amount of background in physics and math.

Wikipedia has a decent resource on the double-slit experiment, so if you are unfamiliar with it and want detailed information, please go there. I want to focus on two particular aspects of it: the "spooky" effect of a single electron interfering with itself, and the fact that observing which slit the electron passes through eliminates the effect. So I will describe in my own words just enough of the experiment to cover those aspects. If you are already familiar with that, you can skip below the fold.

Feynman has famously said that all of quantum mechanics can be deduced from the double-slit experiment, but it is usually presented to students as an illustration of wave-particle duality -- that fundamental particles "behave like particles some of the time, behave like waves other times." (Really it would be more accurate to say that the macroscopic approximations of "particle" and "wave" both bear some resemblance to the true reality of the quantum field, but I digress...) The basic setup of the double-slit experiment is that you shoot a beam of electrons or photons or whatever through a screen with two very narrow slits cut in it, and project that onto another screen.

With both slits open, the interference pattern you see on the second screen is what you would expect to see if you sent a wave at the screen. There are ways of modifying the setup to also make it seem like it is particles (hence the "duality" notion) but I'm going to skip ahead some hundred-plus years and mention a more recent experiment that ought to really blow your mind: This interference pattern shows up even if you only fire one electron at a time. You see one electron hitting the second screen at one place a time, so that seems like it's a particle. But if you keep firing them, the place where these individual particles end up will eventually form a wave-like interference pattern -- as if each electron was interfering with itself somehow.

The other mind-blowing part of the experiment I want to talk about is what happens if you put a detector at one of the slits, so that it still lets the electron pass through, but now you know for each electron which slit it passed through. Suddenly, the interference pattern disappears! Why would observing it have any effect? Spooky, right?

And now, I will try to present what I think is a fairly easy to grasp explanation of how this is happening, by talking about the concepts of configuration space and decoherence. In order to make the explanation very simple, I am going to say a few things that I know are flat-out wrong, but that I think are "close enough" to the gist of things so as to illustrate the idea -- so be kind. This is not meant to instruct in quantum physics (like I'd be even remotely qualified!) but rather to show how something "kind of like" quantum physics could demystify these apparently bizarre effects.

Okay, so first the idea of configuration space. Imagine we have a 2-dimensional universe with only two particles in it. And for simplicity, let's say that the physics in this universe only care about the position of the particles. We could describe the entire state of that universe with a 4-component vector: (xa, ya, xb, yb). Those four numbers would tell us everything there was to know about that universe.

So now let's imagine a 4-dimensional space where the four axis are xa, ya, xb, and yb. Each point in this 4-dimensional space corresponds to one possible state of our little mini-universe.

Okay, now let's "imagine" (yeah right) a space with some 1080-odd dimensions, corresponding to everything there is to know about every single particle in the known universe. (It really should represent the state of the quantum field, but whatever) Any point in this "configuration space" corresponds to one possible state for the known universe to be in.

It turns out that one of the things quantum physics tells us is that -- very roughly speaking -- if your universe starts out at a particular point in this configuration space, what happens next is dependent on information about other parallel universes in nearby points in the configuration space. Well, somewhere a quantum physicist is having a heart attack right now, because it's not really like that at all -- but close enough for now. The point is that another possible universe that is very "close" in configuration space can affect what happens in your universe, but possible universes that are farther away exert little to no effect.

Okay then! On to the double-slit experiment. When I fire an electron -- a single electron -- at the screen, it could pass through the left slit or the right slit, apparently at random. Think of those two possibilities as two possible universes -- really, it's two massive sets of possible universes corresponding to all the other random shit that is happening at that time, but for now, just pretend it's only two. Those two universes are really damn close together in configuration space, since the only thing that is different between them is whether one single electron veered left or veered right. And as we already stated, quantum physics tells us, very roughly speaking, that two universes that are close together in configuration space can have an influence on each other.

Conceptually speaking, it's not that the electron in "our" universe is interfering with itself... instead, it is being interfered with by the electron in that other parallel universe! (IMO, the notion of subjectivity here -- "our" universe, a "parallel" universe -- is a complete illusion, but I think it is fine to visualize it this way for the purposes of this post)

That can only happen, remember, because the universes are so close together in configuration space. If for some reason those two possible universes got separated from each other in configuration space, then they wouldn't be able to interfere with each other anymore, because they'd be too far away.

Enter the sensor. We put a sensor at one of the slits, call it the left one. Now, we have one universe (really a set of universes) where the electron goes left and the sensor is triggered; and another universe (again, really an unimaginably large set of universes) where the electron goes right and the sensor is not triggered. This sensor does not exist sui generis outside of either of the universes -- it is part of the universes themselves. It is made of particles, and probably quite a few of them, even if it's a very small and simple sensor. And as such, when the sensor triggers or doesn't trigger, that affects where said universe finds itself in configuration space.

Furthermore, it doesn't take a particularly complicated sensor to put those two universes so far apart in configuration space that they can no longer affect each other. Even more so if a human happens to read the sensor! That phenomenon -- when a small divergence in configuration space (i.e. one particle going left or right) snowballs into a large divergence in configuration space (i.e. by causing a sensor to trigger or not trigger) is called quantum decoherence.

And it's happening all the time. In fact, it's the normal state of things. That's why we usually "don't observe quantum effects" at the macroscopic level. Usually, two universes (or really, sets of universes) don't stay close enough together for long enough to influence each other in any way that we humans can later observe. It's only by carefully constructed setups, like the double-slit experiment, that we are able to get "our" universe to cruise along close enough to a "parallel" universe for a sufficient amount of time to notice them affecting each other.

But they do effect each other, all the time. And if they didn't, the laws of physics as we know them wouldn't work.

I've got one more mental picture for you, somewhat ripped off from a diagram Elsevier drew, but simplified enough to describe in words. Imagine a 3-dimensional space. The Z-axis represents time, and the X and Y axes are stand-ins for what's really a gazillion different dimensions that we aren't going to visualize: Namely, the quantum state of the electron, and the sensor.

We fire an electron at the screen. Even before it hits the slit, there's still a bunch of possible different quantum states of the sensor, the electron, etc., so we're not just talking about one universe... but for our purposes, it's one pretty coherent thread. So visualize this universe-thread as a tube in our 3-space, forming a circular cross-section in the X/Y axes, and travelling upwards in the Z-axis (i.e. forward in time).

Now we hit one slit or the other. Our universe-thread now splits into two tubes, one corresponding to the left slit, and the other corresponding to the right slit. But that's such a tiny difference, that even though the center of the tubes has shifted a bit, they still overlap -- a lot. In fact, it's not really two tubes, it's more like a figure-8, or like a standard AC power cord. The overlap allows them to influence each other in "quantum"-like ways, like the weird phenomenon of an electron apparently interfering with itself.

Suddenly, one universe-thread encounters a sensor. Uh-oh. A whole shitload of particles change states in rapid succession, and WHAM! that tube splits off from the figure-8 and goes shooting off into the sunset. Now we really have two distinct tubes, two completely independent universe-threads. One of them (where the sensor didn't trip) is still going straight-up the Z-axis, but the other suddenly had a violent diagonal shift that sends it off to another part of the X/Y plane altogether. Now they don't overlap, so they can't interfere with each other. And hence, that spooky "observer" effect.

Again, I reiterate that I was speaking very approximately throughout. For instance, to say that the universes "interfere with" each other is really not quite right -- it's really about quantum amplitudes (which are represented by a complex number) flowing through configuration space. But for everything in my account, I think you could at least make an analogy to quantum physics.

My hope is that by avoiding talking about the specifics, I've presented it in a way that makes intuitive sense. The idea of parallel universes affecting each other is still freaky shit, but at least now it all seems like physics, rather than weird uncaused phenomena and consciousness-causes-collapse nonsense. (In fact, I am now convinced that the very phenomenon of "wavefunction collapse" is, as Wikipedia puts it, "just an epiphenomenon of...quantum decoherence." Which is rather unfortunate, since one of the songs my band plays uses the sudden collapse of a quantum waveform as the central metaphor, but whatever...)

Comments are welcome.

What "Democrat for Paladino?"

I saw a campaign sign for that jerkoff Carl Paladino yesterday, in his bizarrely-chosen dark-red-on-black color scheme. This wasn't the usually "I'm mad too, Carl!" (is the reference to The Network intentional???) Instead, it said "Another Democrat for Paladino." Presumably whoever's yard it is in is proclaiming they are a Democrat who has chosen for some bizarre reason (racism? classism? homophobia? outright stupidity?) to support Paladino.

Only it wasn't in someone's yard. Or in front of a business. Or anything like that.

It was in the patch of grass surrounded by one arm of a cloverleaf-style expressway offramp.

Hence my question: What Democrat?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Perhaps I'm finally reaching that existential crisis...

I've been reading an excellent series on quantum physics the last couple of days. It's really helping me intuitively grasp some of the ideas there, at least as much as it's possible to intuitively grasp the quantum (i.e. real) world.

I've noted before that some people -- like myself -- feel liberated by an atheistic/scientific worldview, that it is simultaneously a relief (because the theistic worldview is so terrifying) and a sense of wonderment; whereas others -- like my wife -- while willing to accept the truth, feel a great existential disappointment about the whole thing.

One of the things Elezier's series pushes is that he is a proponent of the Many-Worlds hypothesis. All fine and good; in many ways I already found that the most reasonable of the many quantum interpretations (I wanted it to be the Hidden Variables hypothesis, but Bell's Theorem handily disposes of that). Still, it didn't particularly trouble me, because even if there would be an uncountable number of separate "me"s a picosecond from now, at this exact moment in time it still seemed there was one definite "me" -- perhaps with a gazillion twins in other alternate worlds, but there still seemed a certain subjective reality to the "now-me", even if there was no objective preference for this particular possible reality.

But Elezier's writings, in particular this post, has me now sort of discounting even the subjective reality of the instantaneous "now-me". It is difficult to put this into words... but somehow I was more or less okay with the thought of there being a single thread of "me-ness" hurtling through a vast space of possible histories, as opposed to the picture Elezier is painting in my head: That this idea of "possible histories" is itself an illusion, a hallucination brought about by the decoherence of various volumes of configuration space.

My mental image before was of a vast infinitesimally branching tree, an uncountable number of timelines springing out of each other, with parallel "me"s riding along each possible branch. Now I just see a static volume within an uncountable-dimensioned configuration space -- for which I might arbitrarily choose a cross-section and call that a subjective reality, but which doesn't exist independently of the rest of the configuration space in any sense whatsoever.

I guess, ironically perhaps, the most disturbing change in thinking is from a quantized tree of possible realities into a great smeared smudge of a single reality -- a reality that is sans even an instantaneously identifiable subjectivity. You could not take every "possible reality" and give it a serial number, and then choose a particular serial number and look up all of the serial numbers of the parent realities that led to it.

And that's the loss, I guess. I used to think that if I could pause reality and somehow "step outside of it" (this is a thought experiment, remember), that I could pick out one unbroken line of the infinite possible histories and say, "This is 'me', right at this moment, and this here is 'my past.'" It doesn't work that way. It's just one great big smudge. If I wanted to pause reality and "step outside of it", I couldn't just choose a point in configuration space and extract a "me" from it, I'd have to choose a compact volume of arbitrary size that hadn't yet decohered -- and even then that particular smeared-out "me" (which is already a much less satisfying "me" than an enumerated point would be) could not trace a line through configuration space -- or even a multi-dimensional tube throw configuration space, for that matter -- and say, "This was 'my past.'" "I" have no past. Just a big smear of quantum amplitudes.

Finally, that existential angst hits me. I'm going to go have some coffee; I may be nothing more than a smear of particles with no past and no future, but coffee still seems to taste good.

Addendum: Wow, the very next post in Elsevier's series deals with this problem of there being no "objective population count," as he puts it. GMTA or something. He's mostly dealing with it in showing that it is not a valid objection to the idea of decoherence, though. Still leaves me with the existential crisis. Jerk...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Importance of Being a Dick, Part II

If I get a chance today, I'd like to spend quite a bit of time poring over Phillip Kitcher's recent essay on "militant" atheism, as well as Dan Dennett's response (posted at WEIT for the time-being). Both of these guys are serious thinkers, and despite Kitcher's facepalm-inspiring invocation of the "militant" canard, he seems to be saying some mostly downright reasonable things.

But even before I get a chance to read it in depth, I want to point something out: The content of Kitcher's essay, though it purports to be a critique of the Gnu Atheism, is actually a huge win for our side. We are seeing the Overton Window in action here folks. As Dennett points out right in the first paragraph of his response:

I went to some lengths in Breaking the Spell to distinguish two spells one might consider breaking: the taboo against looking "too closely" at religion, holding it up to the same harsh light of rational probing to which we subject all other important phenomena, and the spell of religion itself....Kitcher ignores my distinction but in fact is in nearly perfect harmony with my positions on them. His essay is an example of breaking the first spell: he writes with unflinching candor about the shaky status of any religion adopted on what he calls the belief model, and uses that spell-broken perspective to look hard at the prospects for keeping...perhaps the only surviving mode of religion that can provide the benefits he wants to preserve...

(italics in original, bold added)

This is exactly right -- while Kitcher is kinder to the institution of religion than most Gnu Atheists (myself included), he does not pull any punches in regards to the implausibility of the truth claims of religion. And as a result of the visibility of the Gnu Atheism over the past several years, he can write this and still seem downright conciliatory. Imagine if he had written this in, say, 2000 -- Kitcher would have come off as the strident and shrill one!

Although Kitcher's use of the word "militant" and his digs at a somewhat strawmanny version of Gnu Atheism are unfortunate, overall it seems to be a very candid and mature discussion of the role of religion in society. Just as with the media reaction to Stephen Hawking's comments on God, it is the Gnu Atheists who have paved the way for that kind of public discussion.

Keep it up, dicks!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Various answers to "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

My favorite answer to the question is, I'm afraid, ripped off from a commenter on some blog or other (maybe WEIT) whose name I can't recall. (Edit: Mikko K. points out it was a commenter going by the handle AnswersInGenitals over at Jason Rosenhouse's blog. Thanks!) So with apologies due credit finally:

In order to properly frame the question, we must remember that, at this very moment, there are non-existent philosophers in a non-existent universe asking themselves why there is nothing rather than something.

In order to get a more serious answer, I think we need to try rewording the question. First attempt: "What caused there to be something rather than nothing?"

I think that as we peel back the cosmological onion, it becomes difficult to meaningfully speak about "causes". I recognize this is somewhat of an evasion, and it is admittedly a deeply unsatisfying answer. But it may be the most technically accurate answer. Take multiverse theory: It may turn out to be ridiculous to try to apply the concept of cause-and-effect outside of any given universe -- in which case, asking "What caused the multiverse to exist?" would be one of those phrases that is syntactically correct but semantically meaningless.

Because this is so unsatisfying, let's try one more attempt at rewording the question: "What is the 'nothing' that caused there to be something?"

The Ultimate Answer is below the fold.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Why is it legal for insurance companies to charge a co-pay for flu shots?

This seems like a no-brainer. For healthy and relatively young (31) people like me, my personal benefit from getting the flu shot is in many ways less than the net benefit incurred by other more vulnerable people in the population. There is a huge societal benefit to having as many people get flu shots as possible, whereas my personal benefit is more modest.

As I understand it, co-pays don't directly affect insurance companies' bottom lines all that much. (Instead, they make their profit by denying coverage as often as possible, but that's a separate rant) The main purpose of co-pays is to make it so that the insured has a personal cost as well, with the idea being that they will be less likely to get unnecessary treatments. In other words, it is an attempt to bring the insured's personal cost-benefit tradeoff more in line with the overall cost-benefit.

But for a treatment in which there is a major positive externality, a co-pay is just ridiculous. You're moving the insured's personal cost-benefit tradeoff in the wrong direction.

To be honest, I'm baffled that insurance companies don't voluntarily fix this. Surely, getting all of their insured to get flu shots would reduce their overall costs? But if the insurance companies won't do it, the gov't should. It should not be legal for a health insurance company to charge a co-pay for a flu shot, or for any type of vaccination for that matter.

So much for Spinoza...

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal reveals shocking new information about "Einstein's God."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The "Draw Nothing" Protest

The New Humanist reports that "satire appears to be dying, as editors go one step further by displaying a fear of publishing anything that comes close to satirising the widespread fear of publishing anything that comes close to depicting the Prophet Muhammad." A cartoon which did not depict Mohammed, but whose punchline was "Picture book title voted least likely to ever find a publisher… ‘Where’s Muhammad?'" was rejected by upwards of 20 newspapers.

Unfortunately, I am not an influential cartoonist. Or an influential anything, for that matter. But if I were, the protest I would suggest is for established cartoonists to pick a "Draw Nothing Day". For your cartoon that day, turn in an empty panel or panels. That's it.

There are many people who support free speech but who feel uncomfortable drawing Mohammed, not just for fear of getting blowd up, but out of a genuine respect for others' religious sensibilities. (That would not be me, of course) So we would not ask these people to draw Mohammed, and in any case, even if it were realistic, getting major US newspapers to publish cartoons of Mohammed would probably result in copious death and violence. (Fucked up, eh?) But surely an empty captionless frame could be drawn?

Anybody like this idea? How would we get cartoonists on board?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unscientific America: Lots of cool facts, but they all support the opposite conclusions!

I don't think I am going to finish Unscientific America. It's getting really frustrating. There are lots of interesting facts, followed by M&K baldly asserting the exact opposite of what a reasonable person might conclude from those facts.

Chapter 4, for example, is about the events that unfolded during the 1990s. M&K characterize the decade as one of contrasting gains and losses for science. On one hand, you have a pro-science president, the dot-com boom, and a proliferation of popular science books. The authors cited by Mooney as being on the forefront of those books are:

Carl Sagan... Stephen Hawking... Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennet, Jared Diamond, Richard Feynman, James Gleick, Stephen Jay Gould, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker, and E.O. Wilson

Notice anything about that list? Virtually all of them are well-known to be atheists, and the few who aren't we can mostly infer their atheism from their writing (e.g. given Jared Diamond's comments about the origin of religion in Guns, Germs, and Steel -- he basically says that religion started as a useful tool for recruiting people to fight and die for your budding nation-state, even when it yields no benefit to them -- it would be difficult to picture him having a kind view of it!). Two of the list are half of the Four Horsemen, and a few others have made openly hostile comments towards religion (e.g. Krauss, Feynman). Now you can even add Hawking to the list of those who fail Mooney's "respect" test. Only a single person on the list -- Gould -- has advocated for faith-science reconciliation.

Granted, M&K seem to acknowledge this -- the picture they paint is of these popularizing scientists becoming overconfident ("hubris" and "triumphalism" are two words that are tossed out) and that in turn causing them to make a grave error in criticizing religion. Then they assert, without any evidence that I've been able to find yet:

...there was also an occasional undercurrent of arrogance and superiority that led the movement in less constructive directions. The third culture's frequent attacks on religious belief were perhaps most damaging.

[citation needed]

Seriously, I'll take a single anecdote at this point which supports the frequent assertion that the Gnu Atheist hostility towards religion has done any damage whatsoever to science. If Mooney can track down a single religious person who says, "Well! I was all set to accept evolution as fact, but then I read The God Delusion, and since Dawkins is such a dick, I became a creationist." I have yet to hear one person make such a claim! Oh sure, I've heard plenty of third parties claim, "I am religious and believe in evolution, but Dawkins/Coyne/whoever is a real dick and that makes me sad." But where is the damage to science? I still don't see it. (A related challenge, which again I have yet to hear an answer to, is: Name one social movement, at any point in history, which was sabotaged because its advocates were too outspoken.)

On the contrary, I imagine I could mount some evidence that this controversy may have even helped science in the public eye. At the very least, I can provide anecdotes... though it is rare, people have been won over by the books of the Gnu Atheists. It is probably not a statistically significant number, but it does happen. More importantly, perhaps, can we really deny that countless hordes of people read books like The Selfish Gene only because they first became interested by the publication of The God Delusion? (I count myself among that group, FWIW) I was unable to find any direct sales data, but this Google Trends graph is revealing... a short-lived spike when The God Delusion was first announced, and then continuing unabated since its publication. Note that the search term "selfish gene" didn't even register before then.

Instead, M&K go on to cite lots of data bout how terribly creationist and anti-science Americans were during those years... but M&K had already provided a much more straightforward explanation for this not two pages earier: An anti-science Republican-dominated congress led by Newt Gingrich, and a media obsessed with UFO conspiracies and psychics. Oh fuck, but we can't blame politicians and the media! Everybody's already done that! Nope, it's the fucking scientists' fault. Has to be. Never mind that we don't have any data to support that, and our own data that we present even contradicts that. It's still the fucking scientists' fault, because we said so, and we think we can sell a book saying that.


My wife had been picking up the book and flipping through it occasionally, and she went straight to chapter 8 -- after which she said, "You're totally right, this guy is a douche." heh... So I skipped ahead to Chapter 8, and here are my thoughts.

First things first: The primary reason I got this book was to see for myself if Mooney and Kirshenbaum presented Crackergate honestly. They did. All of the relevant details were there. Sure, their spin was different than mine would be, but it was perfectly valid -- I do not feel they distorted the events at all, they simply presented them in a tone which disapproved of PZ and Cook while sympathizing with the Catholics -- and well, that's no different in principle from me employing a tone that disapproves of the Catholics, sympathizes with Cook, and praises PZ. I do not find anything worthy of criticism in their recounting of Crackergate.

Of course, as soon as they are done with the telling, M&K fall into the usual pattern: Assert that the cause of science has been irreparably damaged by these events, with no supporting evidence whatsoever. Did Catholic acceptance of evolution or general opinion of science have a sudden dip after Crackergate? Hell, fuck statistics, do M&K have a single anecdote of a Catholic saying, "I used to just LOVE science! But then that mean old PZ stabbed a cracker, and now I am a Young Earth Creationist and I am serving on the Texas School Board"? No they do not. Not even an anecdote. Just assertions that, well, it made people sad, so therefore it must have been bad for science!

I'm sure Crackergate made many Catholics very sad. And we can debate the ethical/moral/philosophical validity of PZ's protest in that light. PalMD, for instance, has said he found Crackergate "distasteful" even though he seems to agree with the basic point being made. That's a valid position to hold, and while I think the cracker-killin' was awesome, I respect PalMD's opinion as well. But M&K are trying to assert that Crackergate harms the image of science, and that's a whole other kettle of fish. That is not just a philosophical position; you need to support that with data! And they fail to do so -- or at least, if they do, it's buried in some part of the book I haven't read. Meanwhile, they've thrown lots of data at me that contradicts their position...

And once again, we can make the exposure argument. How many people "came for the godlessness, and stayed for the science?" How many people found Pharyngula because they heard about Crackergate, and then discovered an interest in evolutionary and developmental biology? Well, I know of at least one blogger who fits that description... I don't have hard numbers here, of course, but neither do Mooney and Kirshenbaum. So the question is whose speculation you find most plausible, and since M&K have failed to even posit a plausible mechanism or provide a single anecdote, I have trouble taking them seriously.

Most of the rest of Chapter 8 is your usual accomodationist claptrap, and we've heard it all before. "Faith and science must be compatible, because religious scientists do exist!" (never mind that their percentage is much lower than the genuine population, and in any case you cannot make a statistical argument in favor of a philosophical position) "Look at all these famous historical scientists" - M&K list Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Decartes, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Boyle - "who were deeply, devoutly religious!" (Never mind that every single one lived pre-Darwin, which totally doesn't count) "Scientists are out of step with the average American!" (no shit sherlock, that's what your fucking book is about! If you want to change the average, then by definition you must be out of step with it. You don't change the culture by agreeing with the status quo, idiot!)

There is one long paragraph, however, which I would like to quote in full, because it presents a novel accomodationist argument, not so much directly in favor of faith-science compatibility, but asserting that scientists are as a group less qualified to judge that alleged compatibility -- and yet I think that with a slightly different spin, it's a rather damning argument against faith-science compatibility!

Meanwhile, there's no question that America's scientific community is far more secular in outlook than the rest of the nation. A 2007 study revealed that whereas 52 percent of scientists at twenty-one leading U.S. academic institutions claimed to have no religious affiliation, that was true of just 14 percent of the broader U.S. public. And whereas 15 percent of Americans self-identify as "evangelical" or "fundamentalist," fewer than 2 percent of the surveyed scientists did. The study also revealed that far more than the general population, scientists tend to come from liberal or nonreligious family backgrounds. In fact, those scientists in the survey who professed religious beliefs tended to have grown up with them; childhood upbringing was a central factor in separating religious and non-religious scientists. The authors of the study concluded, "While the general American public may indeed have a less than desirable understanding of science, our findings reveal that academic scientists may have much less experience with religion than many outside the academy."

Well that just takes the motherfucking cake right there.

Okay, we're talking about faith-science compatibility here, right? And the study reveals that not only are scientists less religious, but that doesn't seem to be a result of abandoning science as a result of religion -- rather, it seems people who are religious are less likely to go into science in the first place. Almost as if their religious beliefs were "incompatible" with a career in science, hmm?

And the conclusion they draw is that since so few scientists were brought up religious, what would they know about faith-science compatibility?!? Wha????? What kind of bizarro world are we living in now?

By the same token, I suppose, we could observe that children who are raised in a non-smoking household are far more likely to grow up to become non-smokers than their counterparts who are raised by one or more smoking parents; therefore non-smokers on average have much less experience with childhood exposure to secondhand smoke; and so we are forced to conclude that non-smokers aren't qualified to talk about the dangers of secondhand smoke!

Oh wait, that's stupid.

Two paragraphs later, M&K make really the only statement that needs to be made on this matter:

The scientific case for rejecting [Young-Earth Creationism, etc.] is indisputable. But that doesn't make it persuasive to creationists or other religiously motivated evolution skeptics.

Correct! You are right! No matter how nicely presented the scientific arguments, no matter what "tone" is employed, they don't work. And this is why some of us have decided to attack the problem at its source: Religious motivation.

And in regards to that struggle, I would like to quote to M&K the words of a certain past acquaintance of Mooney's: You're Not Helping!

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Perfectly Cromulent Inoculation against Plantinga's Proof

I have already tackled Alvin Plantinga's modal form of the ontological argument in a previous post, but I've never been entirely satisfied with my response. I was pondering it again today, and I think I have come up with a better rebuttal -- although it's more an "inoculation" than a rebuttal, as I will explain.

The most controversial aspect of Plantinga's argument is not the S5 axiom -- although, frankly, I apparently don't understand formal logic enough to see how the S5 axiom is possibly supportable, it seems to me to lead to obviously absurd results -- but rather, the acceptance of the possibility premise. To review, Plantinga's possibility premise is that "Maximal greatness is possibly exemplified", where maximal greatness is defined thusly: "It is proposed that a being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world." (The definition of maximal excellence is not important for the purposes of this post) It has been argued that Plantinga is engaging in a form of begging the question here, in that when the listener agrees to this premise, she is agreeing to far more than she realizes.

Plantinga's response is that one could say this about any logical argument. And admittedly, he has a point: it is usually not fair to agree to a set of premises, and then when those premises lead to a result which one finds distasteful, to go back and revise the key premises until the result no longer holds. Otherwise, one could never mount any sort of logical argument whatsoever -- the premises would just be altered.

And thus I propose my inoculation against Plantinga's proof. This is a "proof" of sorts, which, via series of arguably objectionable premises, attempts to reach a result which is patently absurd. The point is that if a person rejects any of the premises in this proof, it makes it impossible for that person to agree to Plantinga's possibility premise. Thus, they are inoculated.

I start with a definition:

1. It is proposed that a proposition is perfectly cromulent if that proposition is true in all possible worlds.

And right off the bat, let's toss out our first premise:

2. There exist one or more propositions which are perfectly cromulent. (premise)

So what we are doing here is clarifying what we mean by "possible worlds". I would argue that if we want to take "possible worlds" at its face, then we must reject this premise. And I'm sure it is clear that if one rejects the premise at (2), one must also reject Plantinga's possibility premise -- for, if it maximal greatness were exemplified, then the statement "There exists a maximally excellent being" would be perfectly cromulent, and if (2) is false, there cannot be any perfectly cromulent statements.

But let's say we have a narrower definition of "possible worlds". Let's move on with another suggested premise, this time one we hope the listener will accept.

3a. If we can imagine a possible world in which proposition P is false, then P cannot be perfectly cromulent. (premise)

This really doesn't narrow the definition very much at all, but it does so in an important way. If a person agrees to premise (3a), then in regards Plantinga's argument, they have two choices: She can insist that she cannot even imagine a world without a maximally excellent being (in which case Plantinga's proof is superfluous!), or else she can admit that she can imagine such a world, in which case Plantinga's possibility premise once again breaks down: We can imagine a world with no maximally excellent being, therefore the proposition that "a maximally excellent being exists" is not perfectly cromulent, therefore the premise that "maximal greatness is exemplified" cannot be true.

Okay, so let's say the premise was rejected. Instead, let's substitute the negation.

3b. Even if we can imagine a possible world in which proposition P is false, P may still be perfectly cromulent. In other words, the imagined possible world is not actually a possible world.

I am having trouble imagining that a person might make this argument, but I want to cover as many bases as possible. It seems to me, however, that if one accepts premise (3b), it is rather hard to escape the next premise:

4. If a given proposition P is not proven to be false, then it is possibly perfectly cromulent.

If this premise is rejected, then I submit that the onus is now on the other person to say how we ever would determine whether a proposition is possibly perfectly cromulent. However, a person who has gotten this far and then rejects this premise is now free to agree with Plantinga's possibility premise if they wish.

Of course, if the premise is accepted, then we rapidly reach an absurd result:

5. For any given proposition P that has not been proven to be false, it is possibly necessarily true.
6. For any given proposition P that has not been proven to be false, it is necessarily true. (By that wily S5)
7. All propositions that have not been proven false are true.

Yes, one can still thread the gauntlet and agree with Plantinga's possibility premise. But most people won't -- and that's exactly the point. This forces people to clarify exactly what they are agreeing to before they accept Plantinga's premise.

Please, anyone who actually knows philosophy or logic, tell me where I went wrong!