Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Appearance of Legitimacy

Japan have suffered a setback in putting whale meat on the table with their "scientific program" being labelled a ruse by an international court. Of course, the Japanese knew it was a ruse too (their disappointment was expressed in the denial of tradition, not of what they could have learnt from slaughtering whales), yet it was a ruse they needed to keep up for international obligations.

This same kind of legitimacy is presumably what Russia sought with the referendum in Crimea, or any dictator does with a "poll". It's the kind of ruse that fools nobody, yet it's enough to fend off simple criticism. Russia doesn't care about having a fair election any more than a dictator does, yet the burden is now on those who say it's unfair - a burden that really can't be met beyond suspicion.

The example I want to highlight, though, is scientific creationism. What should be said about all creationism is this - any starting point other than the science will exclude it from being science. It's that simple. The goal of science isn't to vindicate any doctrine, religious or otherwise, but to use observation to develop and test theories. Creationists fall afoul of this because they already have the answer.

Yet creationists want scientific legitimacy. While many will affirm that the bible is their starting point, they are also quick to criticise any scientific claim that seemingly contradicts that. They also crave people with qualifications - real qualifications if possible, but degree mills in the absence of those. They even have their own "scientific" journals where people submit "real" research.

What is interesting is exploring what the response to that should be. Science, of course, needs to be an open enterprise and people need to be able to explore avenues wherever they lead. At the same time, scientists need to guard against pseudoscientists who are looking to use the scientific process to serve their own ends.

What we end up with, sad to say, is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The complaint was that Intelligent Design isn't being given a fair go by the scientific community, and proponents are finding that their support of Intelligent Design is meaning losing academic credibility. It sounds appalling, which it would be if it were the case.

There is a perceived circularity with scientific orthodoxy. Intelligent Design, to be a legitimate view, needs to have academic support. But since the evolutionists are the ones in charge of what gets called science, Intelligent Design cannot get the academic support it needs. In other words, the orthodoxy rigs the game by excluding any person or paper that might be sympathetic to ID as simply being anti-science.

Of course if this were really circular, then it would be utterly astounding that science progresses at all. Yet science does, and the ideas accepted by the biological community now are not the same as 50, 100, or 150 years ago when Darwin first published. The big deal is made of the orthodoxy because it's a convenient scape goat standing in the way of perceived scientific legitimacy.

What Expelled did was tie cases of ID proponents being fired or denied tenure to the fact that they were ID proponents. That in turn was tied into the wider narrative of academia trying to exclude God from the picture. What this does is gives a reason for the lack of legitimacy. They are serious scientists doing serious research promoting a serious view, but the atheistic evolutionists stand in their way. (One of the most baffling things about Expelled is how much of the film is about Richard Dawkins' atheism, from theologians discussing it to Ben Stein drilling Dawkins on what gods he doesn't believe in.)

The argument so far has been made without context. If we were to put ID into a cultural and historical context, ID an incarnation of creationism in an attempt to give it scientific legitimacy at least as far as what gets taught to students. ID is aimed at school boards, politicians, and at the wider public. It craves scientific legitimacy not because God should be vindicated in science, but because scientific legitimacy is what counts as far as what is taught in science class. If ID were to limit itself to being an expression of natural theology, there'd be no issue. But as the wedge document confirms, the motives of ID proponents is to ultimately bring people to Jesus.

Thus scientists are put in an awkward position. If people want to use the appearance of scientific legitimacy for their nonscientific ideas, then scientists have to guard against it. But if they do guard against it, they are accused of guarding the orthodoxy against proper scrutiny. Proper science is brought down to the level of pseudoscience by virtue of pseudoscience being able to better posture itself as legitimate science persecuted by the orthodoxy.

The value of real science is that what is the mainstream now had to be earned through the scientific process. Just as a real democracy requires an open political process. The pale imitation of dictatorships fools no-one even though it's an attempt of dictators to appease their critics. The same goes for creationists pretending to do science. They aren't doing so because they want to find the truth - they know their truth already - but because it's what's expected of them.

The problem is that their pale imitation isn't the same thing as doing real science, and real scientists call them out on it. The irony of it all is that scientists standing up for science has become to be seen an expression of ideology, while ideologues craving the appearance of scientific legitimacy as the persecuted minority standing up for Truth.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Review: God in the Age of Science? by Herman Philipse

Generally speaking, one can divide religious critique into two categories. The first is to attack religion as a political institution, whereby the social effects of religion are examined and subject to scrutiny. The second is to go after the truth status of religious claims. While these two categories have some overlap, it's worth remembering that truth and utility aren't the same thing.

It is unfortunate that critiques of the utility of religion are taken as the reason for critiques on the truth of religion. It's not that God is a nonsense notion, it's that atheists have some psychological hatred of theism as it is practised that leads to the denial of God altogether. It's unfortunate because the critiques of belief itself are ignored as some outcome of one's impression on the utility of religion, they remain largely unaddressed. Explain the "reasons" for atheism and explain away the need to address atheism.

Herman Philipse's book completely focuses on the second category. This category is further narrowed by the distinction between natural theology and revealed theology, where the focus was almost exclusively on natural theology. The question the book explores is what to make of a concept like God in light of modern science, and is largely an exploration of the case made by the philosopher Richard Swinburne.

To understand the way Philipse laid out the critique, it's worth exploring the three dilemmas Philipse proposes the theist has to answer:
Claims about God's existence are (a) factual claims, or (b) non-factual claims.
If (a), religious belief (c) needs to be backed up by reasons evidence, or (d) it does not.
If (c), this can be done by (e) methods completely unlike those used by scientists and scholars, or (f) like those methods.

Although there are a few exponents of (b), the claims themselves are prima facie (a) claims. "God exists", is for most people an attempt to say something true about the world, and not just an attitude they take to it. For (d), there are a couple of chapters devoted to exploring the merits of Plantinga's argument for reformed epistemology. But the real concern is the answer to the third dilemma, with Richard Swinburne's cumulative inductive case for the existence of God taken as the paradigmatic example of how one ought to approach God in the age of science.

The chapters addressing Plantinga are instructive to the tone of the rest of the book. While Plantinga has weaved an elaborate logical defence, of ad hoc claims, bare assertions, defeater-deflectors and defeater-defeaters, one might be curious as to what purpose Platinga's argument would achieve. At no point do we have any evidence that our brains possess a sensis divinitus, let alone that it's actually at work in religious experiences, that it's faulty for most people, but less faulty for monotheists, and reliable when it comes to Christian beliefs. Yet this idea gets two chapters of logical objections!
v But the vast majority of the book is taken up with a critical analysis of Swinburne's ideas. His argumentation style, much like the opening of the book, often involves particular dilemmas, followed by why each horn of the dilemma is problematic. For dilemma 3 above, the danger of choosing (e) is choosing methodology that has no respectability among intellectuals, while the danger of (f) is that it opens God up to empirical disconfirmation.

The exercise begins by seeing whether Swinburne is successful in casting God as a successful theory in the way scientific theories are. Swinburne's approach is correct, but unfortunately God is not up to the task of being a proper scientific theory. There are obstacles to this, such as God being an irreducible analogy, or using personal terms to describe something that doesn't fit our use of personal language.

To examine Swinburne's inductive argument, he sets aside his earlier criticisms before forcefully showing the problems with Swinburne's approach. Some of the errors are quite technical, such as whether some of Swinburne's arguments are successful C-inductive arguments, but there's a lot of food for thought at each stage. The end result (predictably) is that Swinburne's approach simply doesn't have the predictive power attributed to it.

Like Plantinga's argument, there were times when the exercise bordered on the absurd. God being the simplest thing there is because infinites are simpler than non-infinites mathematically. Philipse deals with this argument early, but as a justification this keeps coming up in Swinburne's inductive argument. One could simply point out that since there is no way of measuring God, there is no way of knowing how simple God is, but the joke goes beyond the pale when Swinburne insists that infinite things are simpler than finite things of the same kind. It takes a lot of complexity to have finite persons with finite knowledge, but an infinite person with infinite knowledge is simple?!
Is this book worth reading? It's a tough question to answer. There are many ways of addressing the truth questions of religion, and whether one feels it's worth digging into this book depends on whether natural theology is seen as the best way to assess the truth. This is in contrast to revealed theology (the specific doctrines of theistic religions) and in contrast to the idea that theology is a pseudodiscipline.

Philipse does his best to argue for the relevance of natural theology as the approach one ought to take, and he aimed at the best natural theology has to offer in his arguments. The end result is something quite technical, but still full of interesting approaches to particular problem. The arguments themselves cover a wide range of philosophical topics, covering not only philosophy of religion, but questions of language, epistemology, mathematics, and meaning. In that light, the case for natural theology is not as esoteric as it seems prima facie.

One of the strengths of the book is that it pushes the issue of theology in the scientific age, and is full of dilemmas facing believers at each potential turn. In that respect, the book is incredibly useful for the current debate about whether science and religion are compatible. Anyone who has an interest on this question will find this book invaluable.

However, this is not a book about how religion is practised, nor is it a book about revealed theology, and the arguments sometimes get bogged down in logical problems when empirical arguments would have been more to the point. And for those who see believing in God as an act of faith, there will be nothing in this book to change their minds. But for those who find the question interesting, and for those who seek a modern understanding of how to address the question, this book is well worth reading.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Adopting The Rational Stance

As a programmer, it's not unusual to have to justify my position, or to have to think through a problem, as well as listen to others do the same. We argue on logic, on solutions, on frameworks, on practices to code - and all this in an environment where no two people completely agree on anything. Yet despite this, what doesn't happen (at least not in my experience) is seeing one programmer dismiss a proposition by finding some emotional "reason" the proponent might happen to hold it for.

Are computer programmers under the illusion that humans are purely rational beings who have not understood the role of emotion in cognition? Perhaps, though it seems somewhat unlikely that programmers are divorced from the human tendency to see rationality in their own views and emotion in the views of others. What seems more likely, however, is that it's quite irrelevant to the task at hand. That is to say, even if programmers aren't fully rational, it's still right to adopt the rational stance.

Yet this only seems odd in light of online discussions, where experience has taught me the harsh lesson that rationality is at best a front. Unconstrained by a shared goal, folk psychology tends to dominate. It seems quite ironic that in a state of anonymity we get even more personal.

What I fail to see, however, is much of a distinction between the two activities. To be sure, programming might often benefit from being highly constrained compared to some of the more open questions that people tend to fuss over, yet the aim of the activity is fundamentally the same. It's not whether we can be fully rational, but whether we ought to adopt the ideal of trying to be rational. Failure to do this would be like playing chess for the purpose of flipping over the board.

Any debate over ideas is an invitation to adopt the rational stance - to treat a problem as an object of rational thought, and assess the relative merits as if it were put forward by a rational agent. The goal, normatively-speaking, is not to worry about how an idea is held, but whether holding an idea is warranted. No easy task in practice, but as an aim it's evidentially achievable. Programmers do it everyday, and there's nothing special about programmers.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Book Review: Java EE6 Pocket Guide by Arun Gupta

A good programming book should cover three things: what the technology is, how the technology is used, and the why of the "what" and "how". As a pocket guide, Arun Gupta's Java EE 6 Pocket Guide could never have been more than just a brief overview on what is a sizable and extensive framework, the book does admirably in condensing down key features explaining what they are as well as demonstrations of their basic use. Gupta writes with clarity and with understanding.

The lack of depth does start to show with the illustrations of examples. They are merely snapshots of the various components in action. Combined with the well-written explanations, this might constitute a sufficient overview for someone trying to make sense of unfamiliar code (we've all been there), but it would be hard to see the practicality of such examples beyond that.

To give an indication of the content, I'll summarise one section where I'm quite familiar with the API (EJB). The Stateful Session Beans, it first gives a brief overview of what they are, then drops into a coding example of how to define them. Then there's another paragraph that goes through the relevant points from the code. After which there's further highlighting of other relevant annotations, then how to access them from the client.

The two areas I could see this book being useful is first for people who are trying to come at a Java EE system without prior familiarity with the language. Java developers making the professional crossover would fit into this category. This could also apply for people familiar with some aspects of the Java EE architecture who are needing to venture into unfamiliar territory. The other area would be as a cheat sheet for Java EE for those not wanting to rely on Google to get specific information on specific components.

This book will not teach you Java EE, but it will help those looking for a nice practical overview of unfamiliar features. And as a reference guide, it might be helpful for quick information about specific features written in an accessible and no-nonsense way.

This book was given freely as part of the O'Reilly Reader Review Program. The book can be purchased here.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Evolution and the God Debates

One of the most important aspects of any debate over a scientific issue is to separate out the science from the implications of the science. As non-experts, we aren't in a vantage point to comment on the scientific validity of certain propositions, as we lack the relevant expertise that would allow us to adequately assess the science. Thus any debate where we as non-experts try to comment on scientific validity is going to be a distraction from the real issues associated with the debate.

As non-experts on evolutionary biology, most of us aren't really affected by the debate over how natural selection works, or whether genetic drift is influential in the divergences between related species. Likewise, whether stochastic factors drive speciation doesn't matter to how we perceive evolutionary theory. Those are issues for experts to fight over in the peer review literature, and even if we think that we know the answer, our musings are not going to make a bit of difference because we are not part of the conversation biologists and philosophers are having with regards to evolution.

What we are interested in, however, and what we can have a say on, is how these facts fit into particular conceptions of how the world works.

It's easy to conflate the truth of evolution with the perceived implications of evolution, but it would be wrong to do so. As far as any debate ought to be concerned, it's only with the latter that we should concern ourselves with. If those particular implications are unpalatable, then too damn bad. I personally don't like the implications of what Nazism says about the human condition, but that doesn't give me recourse to deny the holocaust! And if I were to then deny the holocaust, people should rightly point out that my prejudices are seeping into my assessment of the history. As disturbing as I find the notion of genocide, it's a fact I have to live with*.

In terms of the god debates, arguments over evolution have been part of the conversation. I think there are three main reasons for this. The first is sociological, that there are many biologists who are also atheists taking part in the discussion. So there's the temptation to see the battle over evolution as being between atheists and theists, rather than as being an issue of science. Supporting this is that evolution-accepting biologists who are also theists such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins are attacked by other theists as being atheists themselves. In terms of ID, Philip Johnson's Wedge Strategy is built around changing the debate over evolution to a debate over the existence of God, though I wouldn't presume the strategy is a product of that line of thinking rather than causing that line of thinking.

The second issue would be a matter of theology, that evolution directly contradicts certain interpretations of creation accounts. It wouldn't matter in this case what the science says, because the supposition is that the biblical account of creation would be God's truth as opposed to the fallible truth of Man. There are a number of interpretations of the creation of man on this account, but what they all have in common is that they are based on scripture and have mankind as a special creation of God.

The final issue would be the philosophical inference to design, that without recourse to a particular theology, we would still have philosophical grounds for making an inference from the appearance of design in life to the cause of that design being the foresight and actions of a designer. We see a watch, we (reasonably) infer a watchmaker. We see something analogous to a watch in the natural world, so why wouldn't we then infer something analogous to a watchmaker as bringing about that order? Conversely, an atheist could argue that processes don't require a designer at all. Evolution by brute fact is one such process. So if evolution is true, then any designer would be superfluous.

With each of these three reasons, it's important to remember that such arguments are largely (if not wholly) tangential to the question of the science of evolution. In the first case, Philip Johnson and other ID proponents argue that science has been hijacked by philosophical naturalism, and thus biasing science away from design explanations. It's not a question of the validity of the science of evolution, but a question of the scientific enterprise itself. There are problems with Johnson's argument, but I won't go into detail here. In the case of theological issues, what the science says can be of no consequence to that view since Genesis is not a scientific text. It's only with the philosophical analogy to design that there's some overlap, namely whether the science has a coherence to it. And to that, again it's the science that would drive the arguments rather than the arguments driving the science.

What we are after, in effect, is a means of understanding the science in light of propositions in the god debates. If one is after a defeater argument for theism or atheism, then the science will prove a disappointment. The science may be able to rule on specific proposition (such as the age of the earth), but it requires further arguments beyond the scope of the science to make any sort of forceful point. The science of evolution does not imply atheism, just as the overturning of evolutionary theory does not imply theism. For both propositions, further argument beyond the science is required. The science itself should be left to the scientists.

*Some people take exception to analogies between holocaust denial and evolution denial on the grounds that the holocaust is morally repugnant, and its that moral repugnance the evolution-proponent is trying to capitalise on. But that would be missing the point that's being made. Holocaust denial is a view that is supported by a minority of scholars, and there are more scholars in the historical community who deny there was a holocaust than there are biologists who deny evolution. In each case it's a tiny minority, but the point would stand about non-experts trying to take a stance on the issue left for experts. On what grounds would we have, beyond our own prejudices, for favouring the extreme minority view among scholars?