Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Effectively non-existent

Excellent post from PZ Meyers: Effectively non-existent.  He quotes Roger Ebert (who needs news when we can all just link to each other) who says:

Science has no opinion on religion. It cannot. Science deals with that which can be studied or inferred by observation, measurement, and experiment. Religious belief is outside its purview, except in such social sciences as sociology, anthropology, and psychology, where even then not the validity of the beliefs but their effects are studied.

This particular claim seriously winds me up, and it winds PZ up too.  PZ however is better at explaining why:

In the United States today, we have tens of thousands of priests, rabbis, mullahs, pastors, and preachers who are paid professionals, who claim to be active and functioning mediators between people and omnipotent invisible masters of the universe. They make specific claims about their god’s nature, what he’s made of and what he isn’t, how he thinks and acts, what you should do to propitiate it…they somehow seem to have amazingly detailed information about this being. Yet, when a scientist approaches with a critical eye, suddenly it is a creature that not only has never been observed, but cannot observed, and its actions invisible, impalpible, and immaterial.

So where did these confident promoters of god-business get their information? Shouldn’t they be admitting that their knowledge of this elusive cosmic beast is nonexistent? It seems to me that if you’re going to declare scientists helpless before the absence and irrelevance of the gods, you ought to declare likewise for all of god’s translators and interpreters. Be consistent when you announce who has purview over all religious belief, because making god unobservable and immeasurable makes everyone incapable of saying anything at all about it.

Anyhow, read the whole thing, he makes the point far better than I ever could.

Intelligent Design and the Credit Crunch

At first sight there might not seem to be much connection between the belief in Intelligent Design and the ongoing meltdown of the world’s financial systems. I think there are some interesting parallels to be drawn though, that help explain perhaps some of what went wrong.

Intelligent Design (ID) is the belief that some or all parts of the universe were designed by something.  At it’s most basic the belief is driven by the idea that some of what we perceive in the world around us is so complex, or well-designed, that it could not possibly have arisen through simple processes driven by the laws of nature.  That it must have been “designed“.

One oft cited example is the human eye.  This, some claim, shows such a marvellous degree of fitness for it’s purpose, such remarkable appositeness, that it could not have arisen through nature.  This is a property known sometimes as irreducible complexity.

This of course leads to a most interesting question – what is the limit of what can be produced by simple laws?  How can we spot something that has been created by “design” and one that has been created systemically.

Well, there is one property that tends to be exhibited by goal-seeking systems,as opposed to designed results.  That is the presence of local maxima.

You can think of goal seeking systems, such as evolution, as systems that attempt to maximise one or more properties.  The example I’ll show below is a very simple one, but imagine it extended to encompass multiple properties in many dimensions.

Imagine we start at a certain time and the thing we’re trying to maximise has a certain value.  We make some modifications to the available “knobs” we can twiddle, and step forward a step in time.  We discover this property is at some new position.  If this position is better than the previous one, then we’re winning.

Systems like that often find local maxima – the highest local point.  Here’s a lovely diagram from Wikipedia that illustrates it.

If we are somewhere in the little hill under “local maximum” then in attempting to find the “best” solution we will fail – but we will find the local maximum. There are algorithms that can improve on this sort of thing, such as Simulated Annealing, however all of them have the same property, ultimately, of  a lack of what we could term “vision”.

So, do we see this in the human eye?  In fact this sort of thing is found throughout the “design” of every life form you can examine – in the case of the eye, it is is built “backwards and upside down”, requiring “photons of light to travel through the cornea, lens, aquaeous fluid, blood vessels, ganglion cells, amacrine cells, horizontal cells, and bipolar cells before they reach the light-sensitive rods and cones that transduce the light signal into neural impulses- which are then sent to the visual cortex at the back of the brain for processing into meaningful patterns.” (Dr. Michael Shermer, as quoted by Christopher Hitchens in his book “God is Not Great”, pg.82).

The human eye is very poorly “designed” in fact.  It contains many local maxima in it’s construction, showing it’s systemic roots.

So, the Credit Crunch.  Here we have another example of a system – one we optimistically call a Free Market.  Here we have another goal-seeking system.  Individual players are supposed to maximise their profits without indulging in coordinated planning.  Such planning is in fact frowned upon – cartels, price fixing and insider trading are illegal.

Again we see in the leaden hand of the market that it finds local maxima, not global ones.

Each individual system’s attempt to find the maximum manages to find at best only local maxima.  Certainly they may do better than the simplistic example above – they may continue past the tiny foothills tomorrow in search of a better hummock next month, however their horizons are relatively short, and they must show progress upwards, at least by the next quarterly statement.

This of course is fine when local maxima are acceptable, but just as the human body would have profited greatly from a designer, so would our financial system, as is now painfully revealed.  You cannot blame the players for following the rules, just as you cannot blame our genes for our rubbish eyes.  They were only following the rules.

Blame must be laid, in the case of this financial disaster, on the regulators and politicians who believed that markets were somehow magically able to find the best of everything.  They just cannot, and to expect them to is the same as expecting evolution to produce perfection.

It is almost amusing to note, of course, that many of those in the US who do not favour intelligent design in markets do believe in it for mammals.  A bizarre confluence of opinion that would be funny if, as Andy said today, we weren’t actually living here.

pwned by e coli

Top quality snarking.

A little thought experiment

From the Friendly Atheist:

Nearly a third of the inmates in the Creek County Jail were baptized Thursday night in a corrugated steel horse trough set up in the jail’s kitchen.

Seventy men and 12 women were baptized Wednesday, the second time baptisms have occurred in the new jail, which opened nearly three years ago.

The Rev. Luis Torres, chaplain of the Creek County Jail and pastor of the First Assembly of God in Sand Springs, said a baptism was held in the old jail six years earlier.

He attributed the high number of baptisms to the work of the 75-some volunteers who lead worship and teach Bible studies at the jail and to convicted inmates’ realization that they soon will leave the jail for hard time in prison.

“And,” he said, “in the last four years, there’s been a surge of the move of God, a revival. Inmates that have found the Lord are telling other inmates about it.”

Inmates are not allowed to be baptized until they have gone through an orientation, with teaching about the meaning of baptism, and have “accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their savior and want to follow him,” Torres said.

Mr Atheist, as an American, is mostly concerned about The Constitution – but surely there’s a wider point here. So lets imagine they weren’t becoming Christians, but were joining Islam.

How do y’all reckon everyone would feel then?

Prayer as alternative medicine

So, apparently prayer isn’t 100% effective at treating diabetes.  The parents believe she died because they didn’t have enough faith.  The mother believes the girl could still be resurrected.

The really scary part of this is the comment thread, where one of the commenters uses it to push some local medical insurance outfit, on the grounds that maybe the parents prayed instead of going to the doctor because they couldn’t afford it.  That would be attributing them with too much sense, clearly, but the idea that an 11-year old girl might not get medical treatment for diabetes because her folks can’t afford it is frankly even more objectionable than their dangerously irrational beliefs.

Go, Team America.


This is really funny.  Go on, read all the way to the end.

As a pastafarian…

Soldiers wot think

There is something horrific about this. The Israeli Defence Force, which is probably the most competent army in the world (recent cock ups notwithstanding) have philosophers in their ranks.  And the stuff they are reading and applying is weird.  You would not like to be anywhere near these guys when they execute their theories in hardware:

We read Christopher Alexander, can you imagine?; we read John Forester, and other architects. We are reading Gregory Bateson; we are reading Clifford Geertz. Not myself, but our soldiers, our generals are reflecting on these kinds of materials. We have established a school and developed a curriculum that trains “operational architects”.’4 In a lecture Naveh showed a diagram resembling a ‘square of opposition’ that plots a set of logical relationships between certain propositions referring to military and guerrilla operations. Labelled with phrases such as ‘Difference and Repetition – The Dialectics of Structuring and Structure’, ‘Formless Rival Entities’, ‘Fractal Manoeuvre’, ‘Velocity vs. Rhythms’, ‘The Wahabi War Machine’, ‘Postmodern Anarchists’ and ‘Nomadic Terrorists’, they often reference the work of Deleuze and Guattari. War machines, according to the philosophers, are polymorphous; diffuse organizations characterized by their capacity for metamorphosis, made up of small groups that split up or merge with one another, depending on contingency and circumstances. (Deleuze and Guattari were aware that the state can willingly transform itself into a war machine. Similarly, in their discussion of ‘smooth space’ it is implied that this conception may lead to domination.)

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such bizarre theoretical justification for murder.

Intelligent design

My arse.  via mefi.

Existential angst

Everybody gets bouts of existential angst, and each generation seems to invent it’s own. For the last few generations the focus of that fear was mostly Mutually Assured Destruction by nuke. Now the environment seems a worthy subject to fret about.

There is a bigger subject to worry about though, if you feel you lack sufficient angst. It’s a little theoretical and geeky, but what the hell.

It’s called the Fermi Paradox. Over lunch in 1950 one day the physicist Enrico Fermi was discussing the lack of evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations with colleagues. At one point he asked “Where is everybody?“. This has come to be known as the Fermi Paradox. Become an important physicist and even random lunchtime rants become Capitalized.

Initially it was thought of as a pretty silly question, but over the years it has gained in significance. We have gathered a vast amount of evidence about the universe and two things seem pretty clear:

  1. Intelligent life ought to be everywhere. We’ve got a vast, ancient universe full of niches that could occupy intelligent life.
  2. We can’t find any

So. Where the hell are they? There are a whole bunch of possible explanations, although obviously we can’t know which is true. The reason for the angst is that few of the explanations are very nice.

Here’s a selection:

God: God exists. He created the universe specifically for mankind for ineffable reasons of his own. We are the pawns of an omnipotent and omniscient being whose purpose we cannot even guess, and He chose not to create extraterrestrials. The stars may not even be real, but just painted on the inside of the Heavenly Firmament. Even death may be no escape from His grasp.

The Simulation Argument: Computers will continue to gain in power until it is easy to run an entire simulation of a planet, at a detail sufficient to provide consciousness (or the illusion of it) to parts of the simulation. In such a world, may millions of organisations may choose to run simulations for their own purpose. In this world, the odds against us being in the real universe are pretty slim – in fact this is almost certainly a sim. c.f. God.

The Weak Anthropic Principle: Actually, for some reason we don’t know, intelligent life is vanishingly unlikely. The vast majority of possible universes are sterile spaces, vast orrerys unpolluted by life. Ours would be, except we happen to be here to observe it which is purely chance – after all, we have to be here to observe it.

Life is hard: Many many intelligent lifeforms have approached civilization only to be destroyed. The combination of resource usage and the advent of mass death weapons proves too challenging for almost all life, and they die out. We too will probably become extinct through our own actions.

Ascendency: There is a spiritual element to the universe unknown by the majority of us. Intelligent life is rife, but with awareness of this spiritual sphere they have ascended there to dwell in whatever marvels it provides.

Singularity: We are approaching a point of technological singularity where the rate of change becomes asymptotic and ‘takes off’. At this point we can make no predictions beyond the singularity. Every intelligent civilization reaches this point, and we cannot know what happens next.

Resource extinction: There have been starfaring civilizations, however competition for resource is intense and few have survived. Most solar systems are surrounded by the looted wrecks of planets. They haven’t reached us yet, but when they do we will be obliterated.

Upload society: The technology required to run a sentient being on different hardware turns out to be pretty easy. By uploading yourself to virtual communities you gain immortality and massive control over your environment. As resources dwindle this becomes the default choice. There are vast numbers of intelligent civilizations, but they are resident in nanoscale computers, living complex and ineffable lives that we cannot perceive.

They are hiding: They know we are here, and are watching us. For their own reasons they are hiding, perhaps in collusion with shadowy terrestrial government agents.

I am sure there are some more I’ve missed too, probably including the real explanation. It could of course be a mixture of all of them. All of those explanations send a shiver down my spine though, although some seem nicer than others.