Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Revisiting The God Delusion

It was December 2006, I had just finished* university and was going to visit my dear sweet mother in Southern Queensland. To get an idea of this journey, this involved taking a late-night 3 hour train journey to Sydney, spending a few hours sitting in an internet cafe before flying ~1500km to Southern Queensland on an early morning flight. Having some time between check-in and boarding, I browsed the airport book store and there I stumbled upon it.

One of my house-mates pulled me into this whole discussion, bringing me into scepticism, into the creation / evolution controversy, and ultimately the God debate. Dawkins' book was one that he mentioned and so upon seeing it I promptly snapped up a copy. I still remember reading the first chapter on the plane, Dawkins' rhetorical style was engaging and thought-provoking. Over the coming weeks I worked my way through the rest of the book, and by the end I had been transformed.

For several months after reading the book I was on a high, I couldn't help but admire the intricate nature of the biological world. I noticed an aspect to reality I had never contemplated before, and all this came with the confidence that for years that started to wane with being an atheist. Questions of morality and meaning, staring at the potential of behavioural nihilism as defined by (now I know to be ignorant) theists - The God Delusion gave answers that the theists claimed they had a monopoly on.

Fast forward about 2.5 years, subsequently I've explored the subject much more and spent a great deal of time injecting myself into the debate thanks largely to web 2.0. I've read several more books by the "new atheists", yet I still held Dawkins' book above the rest. My copy had been lent out so unfortunately I couldn't revisit it, and since the book has made such a profound impact on the debate it was only natural that my recollections of the book would be clouded by the positive and negative feedback by atheists and theists alike.

One of the most common objections I saw was how unrefined Dawkins' argument was; that he went to great lengths to disprove the old testament God which wasn't the god of the modern theist, and that his arguments missed the mark. 2.5 years of complaints about a caricature of Gods that doesn't really exist, that his philosophy was wrong, that he made simplistic arguments akin to straw man attacks.

So last month I did something I should have done a while ago, I revisited the book again; this time in the form of an audiobook. It didn't take long to finish, the portability of the format combined with the engaging style once again drew me in. I remembered just why I considered it such a profound piece of work. It is incredibly polemic, outrageous, offensive, blasphemous, yet unlike Hitchens' God Is Not Great there was substance behind the rhetoric.

This is not to say I agree with everything in this book, there were still many parts I found as bad upon second reading as I did the first. His central argument concerning statistical improbability, while it may be a fairly sound argument, can be dismissed by the theist on the same grounds as a theist knowing that God really really hates fags. Not that a theist can really say that God hates fags, but it's hardly going to be convincing.

Furthermore this line of argument can lead to a misunderstanding of natural processes. Take abiogenesis. Dawkins talks about it in The God Delusion purely in terms of probability, using the notion that in a universe of this magnitude that even an incredibly unlikely set of circumstances for our earth would be probable enough in a universe of this size. It may be so, but those picking up The God Delusion without knowing much on the subject of abiogenesis would feel that the argument for abiogenesis is down to chance. Indeed, this is what Antony Flew objected to when renouncing his atheism.**

So where was the objection to the old testament God? There wasn't really, mentions of the old testament were in the context of the argument of morality. Not to reject the notion of the God who killed the first-born Egyptians, but to demonstrate that the morality of modern-day Christians does not come from the bible!

His attacking of this notion of a particular god that isn't what theists believe in? The book centred on the very notion of gods, it was the underlying substance Dawkins ripped apart. It would be like ripping apart homoeopathy on the very foundations then having that argument dismissed because it left out just how it was mixed***.

Upon reading it again, I didn't have that same transformative experience. Rather I was left with a greater appreciation for what the book is. It really was worth revisiting and I'm glad I took the time to do so. Now that I've made further inquiry into topics raised in the book I can appreciate it all the more. Dawkins talked about one of the goals in the book being consciousness raising, and in my case he has succeeded.

*Technically this isn't true, I still had work placement to go but this was in effect the transition point between being a student and entering the work force.

**This was before The God Delusion was released, and when explained that abiogenesis has scientific merit Flew claimed he was misled by Dawkins.

***Ben Goldacre, you've gone much out of your way to appease the arguments of those who don't deserve a response, much less will listen to you.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Fine Tuning Argument Against God

Omnipotence is a funny characteristic. Logically it seems impossible, so any entity that embodies said property cannot exist. The argument goes like this:
1. Either God can create a stone that he cannot life, or he cannot create a stone he cannot life.
2. If God can create a stone that he cannot lift, then he is not omnipotent.
3. If God cannot create a stone that he cannot lift, then he is not omnipotent.
4. Therefore, God is not omnipotent. [From V. Stenger - God The Failed Hypothesis]

Many such arguments can be made: Can 2 + 2 equal anything other than 4? Can a triangle have more than 3 sides? And so on... it seems like omnipotence is simply a characteristic muddled with inconsistencies. But to let those be for the moment, I don't want to engage in sophistry. Rather what I wanted to get at was the fine tuning argument in relation to omnipotence.

The fine tuning argument is essentially positing that certain aspects of nature need such delicate precision in order for us to exist that they are best explained by a "fine tuner", i.e. God. Now there are many different things in nature to point to as examples of fine tuning, though in the last ~150 years all things biological have been accounted for by natural selection. That we adapted for the environment, and not the other way around. Still there are many fortunate "accidents" such as the distance from the sun or that the ratio of electromagnetic force to gravity is just right for stars to live long enough for complex life to evolve.

When it is said that God made man in his own image, in light of evolution that has come to change in what it means. Rather than physical form, it is now taken to mean as spiritual. While some allege a separate infusion of a soul with our ancestors, it can be taken to mean that a completely naturalistic explanation is compatible with what was once regarded a supernatural one.

So the fine tuning argument these days is made in regards to the coming about of intelligent life who seek meaning and purpose. And we know under the laws of physics for this to be true, given that we exist. But the question remains, did God have any choice in making the universe the way it is? That is to say could the laws of physics in any other form bring about purpose-driven intelligent agents?

If there are any other incarnations of the laws of physics that can bring about life, then it follows that fine tuning is irrelevant. If there are many potential universes that can hold life, then why should the one we reside in need fine tuning as an explanation? On the other hand, surely an omnipotent entity could come up with an infinite amount of ways to build a reality by which intelligent life could arise.

To argue fine tuning is a bad argument, it's nothing more than "we exist, therefore God" and looking for sufficient qualities of the universe that seem essential to our way of being. This is not to say that a deity didn't create reality in such a way to encompass us, rather it is to say that there's an irreconcilable problem created by positing an omnipotent fine tuner.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The Fool Hath Said...

Random thought for today...

When arguing religion, it seems a common line for a believer to quote Psalms 14:1 "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." As if somehow having a reference to atheism in the bible makes it foolish. This of course leads to some witty comebacks, my favourite of which being akin to "the wise man says it out loud".

But not to be completely dismissive of such statements, for there is a grain of truth to it. To say "there is no God" with ones heart (a.k.a. intuition) is as bad as pronouncing the opposite - that they know God to be in their hearts. While it is easy to fall into the trap of rationalising beliefs one comes to for non-smart reasons, knee jerk reactions get us nowhere intellectually. Instead the desire should be to have an intellectually defensible position, one that is as honest as can be about explaining the world for what it is.

If I were to write the proverb, it would probably be along those lines.
"The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. For such statements should never rely on matters of the heart. Does thou not hath eyes and ears? Does thou lack a mind? Questions of the heart should remain in the heart, thou dost not thinketh through love or art. But questions of nature are questions of the mind, and thou shalt not find knowledge until lest be the desire to know."

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The Placebo Effect

A random thought...

If someone is taking alternative medicine, is it right to mention that is the placebo effect at work? After all, if it is indeed the case that the solution is having a positive effect then what value is there is destroying the one thing that could possibly work?

To tell someone that they are taking a placebo is to destroy its effects. That is, of course, unless they don't believe you. Then telling them will have no effect whatsoever and the placebo effect remains!

Though chances are that if someone is taking alternative medicine (an oxymoron if there ever was one) then they aren't going to suddenly stop believing in its healing powers. Just hope that if it's a loved one that such negative reinforcement between treating illness and quack cures will mean that if the condition is serious they'll seek tested medical treatment.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Philosophy At The Office

Death and taxes are the only certainties in life, yet it's a damn good bet that at some stage you'll work what would be considered a meaningless job. Yet the workplace, apart from the bed you sleep in is the place where you spend most of your time. The people you work with you see more than your family and friends. Yet this is the modern privilege, this is the reward for advancing knowledge to such an extreme level that jobs completely superfluous to our survival needs are generated.

What I want to explore is certain philosophical issues, put into the context of being an office worker. Like most philosophy, it'll be 20% insight, 30% common sense, and 50% self-indulgence, but I want a place to contemplate such issues that confront me on a day-to-day basis. On a project that is like watching a head-on collision in slow motion, I still find myself caring about what is going on. As a junior developer, I find it is all beyond my control; yet I still feel an obligation to the process and a significance that belies my lowly status.

Like my sporadic book reviews, I expect this to be an intermittent addition to the blog. My occasional contemplates trying to make sense of what seems a senseless endeavour. I don't know what to expect from it all, I'm hoping that maybe by writing it out I'll learn something about myself. This blog is meant to be a splatter of a train of thought, externalised and formalised into something coherent. My hope out of all this is that I gain some insight into the whys that come up every time (and it is frequent) that I descend into a state of futility. There has to be something to make it all worthwhile....

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Outrunning The Tortoise

Back in classical Greece, where was a philosopher by the name Zeno existed. He listed 8 paradoxes that were preserved in the work of Aristotle. Possible the most famous paradox is Achilles and the Tortoise. The paradox does something like this:
In the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, Achilles is in a footrace with the tortoise. Achilles allows the tortoise a head start of 100 feet. If we suppose that each racer starts running at some constant speed (one very fast and one very slow), then after some finite time, Achilles will have run 100 feet, bringing him to the tortoise's starting point. During this time, the tortoise has run a much shorter distance, say, 10 feet. It will then take Achilles some further time to run that distance, by which time the tortoise will have advanced farther; and then more time still to reach this third point, while the tortoise moves ahead. Thus, whenever Achilles reaches somewhere the tortoise has been, he still has farther to go. Therefore, because there are an infinite number of points Achilles must reach where the tortoise has already been, he can never overtake the tortoise. Of course, simple experience tells us that Achilles will be able to overtake the tortoise, which is why this is a paradox.

There are scientific and mathematical objections to such reasoning, my favourite being that there's a finite limit to how low the sequence can go (can't get smaller than Plank time). But to me, the paradox serves as an apt analogy to the reasoning methods justifying intelligent design.

The analogy is as follows. The tortoise is God, it has the head start in the race. While science is Achilles, starting from scratch and rapidly progressing. While playing the role of Zeno is the intelligent design advocate, creating a "paradox" by which science will never overtake God as an explanation.

The pattern goes as follows. Define pattern X. Explain how X cannot come about by the current accepted processes. Point to instances in nature that fit pattern X. Therefore current accepted processes are bunk, conclude God did it. A proof by definitions, so who needs evidence?

A good example is irreducible complexity, it's a proof by definitions. Much like Achilles can't ever overtake the turtle because of the infinite series needed to overtake the turtle, natural selection can never explain how system which requires all components could be built gradually.

One can see that Achilles could overtake the turtle in a matter of seconds, but the paradox remains! Can irreducible complex systems evolve? Of course, and it has been known how for around 90 years now. In Behe's efforts to make a proof by definitions he neglected the scientific literature showing just how such systems could evolve.

Intelligent Design proponents are sitting on the sideline, yelling whatever they can to invalidate the obvious fact: Achilles overtook the tortoise long ago. So while mountains of papers are pouring into the scientific literature showing with more and more certainty that we evolved, the cdesign proponentsists are looking for a paradox of their own by which they can dismiss the volumes of evidence.

So much time is spent trying to talk about the inadequacies of natural selection, it's disbelief that Achilles could possibly overtake the turtle. That way, all they have to do is reject natural selection and design wins by default. No mechanism, no testing a hypothesis against evidence or making predictions, but that evolution can't explain it therefore God did it.

Every accumulated piece of scientific evidence in favour of evolution propels the theory further and further in the metaphorical race. Even when science starts from the null hypothesis and God from a presupposition, there hits a point where the accumulated evidence "outruns" the presuppositionist position. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, so much so that all the cdesign proponentsistscan do is try to downplay it as "not enough evidence for me". Achilles has past the tortoise long ago...

Alien Abduction

I've spent a lot of time on this blog using the tools of scepticism to go after religion, I haven't spent as much time as I should have applying it to other areas. After all, scepticism is such a valuable tool so using it only to attack the sacred cow is not going to do much more than preach to the choir. On a forum I frequent, the question was put forward whether if you believed you were abducted by aliens would you tell others? And this topic I think is great for showing the difference between plausibility and parsimony.

Is it plausible?
Does life exist on other planets? If so, is it complex life? If so, is it sentient life? If so, is it sapient life? If so, is it sufficiently advanced in technology to achieve interstellar travel? Barring actual contact life on other worlds, these questions cannot be answered definitely. But this doesn't mean that we can't be at least make informed speculation on the matter.

Firstly we know of a species that answers all but the last criteria: us. This world is teaming with life, and we are complex, sentient, and sapient. While interstellar travel is not yet possible, interplanetary technology (at least robotically) has been developed. It sounds tautological, but it is significant - the universe has the capacity to host intelligent life. So far it is looking plausible, but...

... our understanding of physics is beginning to show up the limitations of what can be achieved. The nearest stars are light years away and there's a finite speed that one can move to. Light travelling from alpha centauri take 4.3 years to reach earth, moving at a mere 300,000km per second. And even with constant acceleration, one could never get near that speed as the closer one gets to the speed of light the heavier an object gets needing more and more acceleration to move faster. Travelling the great distance just doesn't seem possible. However...

...there are ways within our current model of physics that aliens could come to earth. A journey could be made over hundreds / thousands of years and many generations. It could also be that the journey could be made with the aliens in a stasis of sorts, preserving them until they approached earth. And this is in our current understanding, it could be that current theoretical physics or even something new could throw open the possibilities of what is possible.

So while there are some concerns, it is still plausible that alien beings could visit this world even within our current model of reality. I would say that alien abduction is plausible, but is it a good explanation?

Is it parsimonious?
In order for it to be valid, two criteria pop up. Firstly whether the evidence itself is sufficient to substantiate the claims, and secondly whether there is a better explanation for the evidence. Positive claims require positive evidence, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Alien abduction is an extraordinary claim, so does the evidence fit the claim?

There is certainly some evidence to support the claims. Personal abduction stories are very compelling, and provide a powerful testimonial. Slightly diffuse from that is hypnotic regression therapy. Then there are other phenomena that while not supporting directly claims of alien abduction, would count as evidence. These include photos of alien craft, crop circles, and classified government documents surrounding alleged events.

Before talking about the strength of these lines of evidence, it must be mentioned is what is lacking. No alien artefacts, no alien organisms or human / alien hybrids, no alien technology, i.e. no hard evidence. Any of these would be a smoking gun, the extraordinary evidence needed is just not there. Without such evidences, there's just no way to overcome the extreme implausibility that is associated with the vast distances of space travel.

But what of the evidences that are out there now? Surely they deserve an explanation and at least add up to a tentative proposal that alien abduction is the best hypothesis to explain them. Is the evidence out of this world? Sadly no it isn't, and what is proposed can be explained without leaving this world.

The brain is a very imperfect memory device: it can hallucinate, see patterns where there are none, have false memories implanted and the imperfect memories that are there can be twisted and distorted upon future reflection. Testimony of aliens is as reliable as testimony of gods, fairies, ghosts, or any other eyewitness accounts. Science doesn't accept anecdotal evidence. Hypnotic regression therapy has no basis under which its accuracy can be accounted for, and much to show that it doesn't work (see: satanic cults)

Crop circles are an interesting case, they did seem genuinely paranormal until the guys who started the craze owned up to it. Likewise photographs of UFOs can be easily made, there's nothing special about the photos that show a need for further explanation. As for classified government documents concerning what was seen in the sky over the last 60 years or so? There was a cold war going on and a technological arms race.

There's just no need at all to suspect aliens at all, there are far more likely explanations out there without the need for appealing to the unsupported. Aliens just aren't a parsimonious explanation even if there is the slightest hint of plausibility to the concept.

I want to believe
One thing that comes up a lot is that if one works to dismiss a phenomenon (as I have done above), it must mean they are rejecting it because they don't want it to be true. i.e. one rejects God because they don't want to accept the consequences of the truth of God. I can say emphatically that I would very much like for there to be intelligent life found elsewhere in the cosmos. Indeed the potential for finding any life beyond our earth would be fantastic.

In that respect, scepticism is a tool against disappointment. It separates what we desire or wish to be true with what is most likely to be true. It eliminates the dangerous notion of credulity of happiness and aspires to seek as accurate knowledge as possible about the reality we reside in.

Friday, 4 September 2009

The Greatest Show On Earth

Can't wait for this book, I've got my copy on pre-order, so as soon as it ships in from the UK I'll once again immerse myself in the world of Dawkins' wonderful writing.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

An Ape Sits At A Keyboard...

...and that mostly hairless bipedal ape that we know and love as Richard Dawkins wrote the Weasel program, and put it in his wonderful book The Blind Watchmaker. It's not a simulation of evolution, rather it's showing how adding selection to random events is the opposite of pure chance. Yet creationists don't seem to get this and focus on it like it's anything more than analogy. I wrote a similar program last year, though I "cheated" by locking individual letters when they hit the right character. In the spirit of Creationists not getting it, I've written it again this time without cheating. [source code here]

I'm really surprised that creationists are calling for the source code, it's a very easy program to write. It took me less than an hour writing it in C++. Without "cheating" by locking characters, I was still able to generate a solution. And just to show it wasn't a fluke, I repeated the process hundreds of times changing the mutation rate and number of children; finding a maximum and minimum and an average.

It amazes me that still there are those who go on about the program. It's easy to write and it evidentially works. Anyone who doesn't think that it can or thinks that my code is somehow cheating is welcome to download it and try it out for themselves. Play around with the variables, I made it all parameterised so it is flexible enough to mess around with. How fast it works doesn't really matter, the important thing to take away from the program is that it does work.