Sunday, 27 December 2009

Keeping Fresh A Classic

Retro-gaming is fun, but it does have one drawback. Graphically, games tend to look dated very quickly. So while the gameplay stays great, one can't help but notice that what was shiny and new a few years ago is now bordering on the unpalatable.

Enter Serious Sam HD

For those unfamiliar to the gaming world, Serious Sam was one kickass game back in 2001. While Duke Nukem Forever was still delayed and everything had suddenly become about multiplayer deathmatch, Serious Sam was a reminder that mindless violence can be done so well. And it wasn't some big budget enterprise, but a team from some obscure country. And it kicked arse. Serious Sam and its quasi-sequel Serious Sam: The Second Encounter meant hours of fun and some great visuals and technology all rolled into one. Could a sniper rifle work in a fast-paced action shooter? Evidentially yes.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago, after a disappointing real sequel I had moved away from such games and into the darkside of online multiplayer or into an RPG hybrid - depending on the day. So imagine my surprise when browsing Steam one day I come across the following trailer.

I was sold, well not then and there on the spot. I waited until Steam's holiday special and took advantage of the low low price. After all, it's an 8 year old game... Gah, I'm distracted. Anyways, back to what I was saying. I finally got a chance to sit down and give it a spin today. And what was it? Exactly the same game I remember playing 8 years ago, only it looked better. Looked much better. Not photo-realistic, not some weird hybrid , but still Serious Sam only in HD!

And this got me thinking, there are so many more games I'd love to play again if not for the off-putting graphics. I'd be all over System Shock 2 if it looked like its spiritual successor. Just glad that Blizzard is doing this next year, hopefully deviating as little from the original as possible.

Overall I applaud this effort, and look forward to playing the HD version of the superior Serious Sam: The Second Encounter due out next year.

The Argument From Existence

This morning while doing my checking of blogs, I came across a debate between Victor Stenger and William Lane Craig. Now after a few minutes of Craig talking, my baloney detection kit went off. And it was not for the initial pandering to the audience, but for the first of his six lines of evidence. What he calls: the argument from existence. Or to put it in a way that would be more familiar - why is there something rather than nothing?

The argument goes as follows:
  1. Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence: either its own nature or an external cause.
  2. The universe exists
  3. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is an external, transcendent, personal cause.
  4. Therefore, the explanation of the explanation of the universe is an external, transcendent, and personal cause.

And there you have it. Something exists, so it has to be God. At the start of part 2 in the linked playlist, he gives an explanation of why it has to be God. Abstract elements such as triangles can exist on their own nature(1), while planets and galaxies need an external cause(1). So since the universe cannot exist by its own nature, it needs an external cause. And while a triangle cannot create a universe, an intelligent mind fits the description of something that exists by its own nature. Therefore one needs God to create the universe.

Now obviously there are some concerns with such an argument. The first concern I have is with the nature of the examples following to the conclusion. Mountains, planets, and galaxies do have external causes, but these external causes are neither personal nor greater than the effect. Take mountains for example. Now while one could argue that the forces of plate tectonics are greater than the mountains themselves, but the cause is not personal by any means.

Stars would be another example. The collapse of hydrogen clouds is external to the star itself, but the process that allows for the formation of stars is by no means greater than the star itself. And again, it's by no means personal. Only 300 years ago, Newton's laws posited the motion of the stars and planets, but the creation of planets and stars was the work of an almighty creator.

So to me there is no grounds to justify such a bold statement. The only personal structures made by personal beings are humans. Galaxies, stars, planets, mountains, and mountain dwellers have all been shown to organise without needing an external, transcendent and personal cause. So why would the universe itself need one?

The next concern I have is the notion of an intelligent mind being an abstract. The problem with such statements is that such a notion is completely alien to us. An intelligent mind such as the one we have doesn't exist from its own nature, rather it has an external cause. A few billion years of evolution has built the intelligent minds we have today. We have big brains housed in solid bone that can barely fit through the birth canal.

And an intelligent mind doesn't exist of its own sake either. By all evidential accounts, intelligence is a product of physical brain activity. In other words, intelligence the way we know it has a physical foundation. What does it mean to have an intelligent mind that doesn't have a body? How can such a mind just exist for its own sake? It might be possible that one does, but we have no reason to suspect that it can - let alone does.

The next concern I have with such an argument is of what caused the universe. Why can't the universe just exist necessarily? Or at the very least, why can't whatever build the universe exist necessarily? Maybe it's more than just abstracts that exist by their own nature. Quantum fluctuations happen all the time where particles pop into then out of existence. Could the quantum nature of reality exist necessarily?

This argument really pushes credulity. Somehow the universe needs a creator but the creator can necessarily be? As per (2), the universe exists. We can all agree on that. So why complicate matters further by positing an extra entity to explain explanation? All it does is push the logic one step further out. Agnostics / atheists don't ask "who created the creator?" to sounds quasi-philosophical, it's because positing the necessary existence of such a being as being self-evidence is nothing more than special pleading. A universe can't exist by itself, but an intelligent mind can?

The last concern is one I can merely echo from physicists, the universe as it is understood is a universe that can exist from nothing. As Victor Stenger argues, something and nothing can be defined in terms of physics with nothing being much more unstable than something. Lawrence Krauss argues that a flat universe is a universe where the total energy is zero. The negative energy of gravity balances out the positive energy of matter. According to Krauss, zero total energy and quantum fluctuations can produce a universe. We don't need to posit a creator.

For those concerns above, I reject that a personal deity is necessary for my existence. It may be that there is a god behind it all, I don't know. As it stands I have no idea of where universes come from and what lies behind the observational reality. It might even be impossible from our vantage point to have a theory of everything.

So when the question is put to me of why there is something rather than nothing, I don't respond by asking "why there is God rather than nothing" or any other concerns listed above. Instead my reaction is, if there weren't something then we wouldn't be here to ask why there is something rather than nothing. From our own existence we can infer that there's something, that something is necessary. But why? Well that seems to be asking the wrong question, only valid in the same fuzzy metaphorical sense of asking why do birds have wings. It's promiscuous teleology, and we really should know better than that by now!

Part 7: Summary

From the series: 6 Ultimate Reasons Not To Be An Atheist?

In summary
The most surprising element is at the end of the video, where the authors tie these six "fallacies" to every word written in every book by the new atheists. Now of these six points, only one really stands out as a necessity: point 4. Maybe point 5 if one was to be generous. But as much as I try, it might be undesirable but irrelevant for the other four points. The problem with making appeals to consequences based on desire is that one is at best making the case for it being undesirable as opposed to wrong.

In The God Delusion for example, Dawkins spends a good portion of the book discussing morality. Not in terms of what ought to be, but a discussion of the evidence. Some philosophical hand-waving is not going to take away the points Dawkins makes about the origins of morality or the problems associated with claiming morality comes from God?

The problem as I highlighted in the first post is that they see atheism as an alternative world-view, which it is not. Atheism is the implicit or explicit rejection of the notion of interventionist deities. It's the not-belief, non-belief, it doesn't actually define anything. It doesn't make any positive claims about the nature of anything, yet it is being treated as if it should.

I tried in these refutations to get past such semantic distinction and move onto practical discussion. I'm not sure if I've succeeded in this, for some it might appear as if I'm shifting the goalposts. And I did in a way, but I think I did it in such a manner that made it relevant. Like the point on absolute truth, the makers of the video made an incredibly weak argument, but instead I chose to pursue an explanation befitting of the question asked. I feel this is a more intellectually honest way of going about it, because just countering their arguments is hardly going to counter their objections. A bad argument for a real problem doesn't go away with destroying the bad argument.

What I saw in this video was a couple of teenagers who are looking for an ultimate defeater argument of atheism, yet all it did was highlight that they haven't seriously considered what it actually means to be an atheist. They haven't read the books (a good place to start would be John W. Loftus' Why I Became An Atheist) nor are they very familiar with the concept. Given they link to a Conservapedia article on atheism, they aren't going to really understand.

And that's the problem, they just don't understand what they are arguing against. Because they don't understand, they can't develop effective arguments against it. Instead what is concocted is an elaborate straw-man that sounds good but will only resonate with others who also don't understand.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Part 6: Truth

From the series: 6 Ultimate Reasons Not To Be An Atheist?

#6 Atheism cannot account for absolute truth
The rationality on the video doesn't really grasp the full implications for the problem of absolute truth. It's answer doesn't actually give an answer, it just pushes the problem back to beyond our grasp to a mind outside of time. To have rationality presupposes a rational mind, apparently.

Consider a moth. Now we can see that a moth would spiral into a candle and get consumed in the flame. Yet that mechanism has served the moth quite well in the millions of years before there were candles. A moth can navigate by light with no knowledge whatsoever. The implication being that the structure of the world is itself a limiter, and life by natural selection can build means to operate within the world.

The argument itself is somewhat bemusing in that it uses the qualifier absolute then all it does is try to argue what argued back in point four. And since that is covered, it should be that nothing needs to be explained. Though it would be a missed opportunity to talk about the nature of absolute truth.

I'm not going to make a case for absolute truth, rather I want to make a case against absolute truth. Beyond logic, mathematics and the cogito - there is no absolute truth. And on this there are two limiting factors. First is the vantage point we have in viewing the universe, the fallibility of the senses and mind. Second is the indeterminacy that seems to be built into nature itself.

It's one thing to make statements such as 2+2=4, all triangles have 3 sides, or all bachelors are unmarried. Such statements are true by definition. As argued previously, one doesn't need to see the addition of two and two bananas to know that there would be four bananas there, just as one wouldn't need to survey very bachelor to see whether they are unmarried (or any for that matter). But for statements of particulars such as all cars are red, one cannot use the same inductive logic for all it would take is one non-red car to make such a statement false.

Take a ruler, one with a straight edge. At least to us it would look straight. But how would it go on the microscopic level, or for that matter on an atomic level? On the level of magnification that visible light is still active, even the straightest structures aren't deadly straight. For our purposes here in what Richard Dawkins calls middle world, it's good enough for what we need.

In the very small, it is a world alien to us. Quantum physics it seems is beyond anyone's grasp. Yet such a system of physics has one advantage, it has demonstrated resilience. One of the triumphs of 20th century science was a theory of quantum electrodynamics where Richard Feynman puts the accuracy akin to measuring the width of North America to the width of a human hair. Yet it is not absolute.

Laplace in the 19th century made the boast that if he had all the knowledge of the current state of the world that he could predict the future to infinity. In the 20th century however it was shown that one could not do such a thing. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle prevents absolute knowledge in such a manner, that as observers there is a limit to observation. If modern physics is indeed correct, then it is impossible to expect absolute truth.

But all is not lost. It's important to remember just what you are sitting in front of now. The computer that is allowing you to see this message is a device whereby the flow of electrons through semi-conducting material allows for logic gates. An average device sitting in any given home in the western world these days is capable of mathematical power that rivals the whole human species. The success of the scientific endeavour can adequately be captured in the pervasiveness of applications of knowledge in civilisation. Skyscrapers, rockets, global satellite networks, global communications network, supercomputers, eradication of diseases, vaccinations, antibiotics, turkeys, etc. The list goes on and on.

Long story short, science works. It's endeavour is far from perfect, it has the problems associated with human observation and inference, and it's limited by our place and time in association with observation. Say tomorrow a lab through mimicking natural processes is able to get from inorganic chemicals to replicating protocells - that scientists are able to achieve abiogenesis in the lab. This wouldn't solve how life arose on this planet, we don't have the ability to see exactly what happened. Rather it gives us a model for how it could.

Science doesn't deal in TruthTM. It's a means of modelling reality, working out how reality works. Our desire for a God's eye view is something unobtainable, and a dangerous endeavour. Science is what we can know despite being fallible, the wise words of Jacob Bronowski in his wonderful series The Ascent Of Man. Even better is the wise words of Obi-Wan Kenobe "Only a Sith talks in absolutes". It seems that those who aspire to absolute knowledge are pushing themselves down a dangerous path. It leads to intolerance, a rigidity of dogmatism that any person should wish to avoid. To err is human, instead we find those trying to control others by making absolute moral proclamations unfettered by consequences or rightness.

Unlike other rebuttals, I want to finished with the aforementioned Bronowski from an episode of The Ascent Of Man called Knowledge or Certainty. Early in the episode he made the profound pronouncement "There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy." The following video sums up the notion of absolute knowledge for me.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Part 5: Logic

From the series: 6 Ultimate Reasons Not To Be An Atheist?

#5 Atheists cannot believe in the absolute laws of logic
It seems like the ultimate defeater argument and destructive to any empiricist. As it is laid out, logic indeed cannot be empirically measured, nor can it be proven by example. Take two blocks and two more blocks and one has four blocks. If one were to measure this empirically, then the problem of induction would apply. We couldn't take two apples and two apples and be certain that there would be four apples, or that if we repeated the experiment that it would give the same result.

So there are in effect universals, and it's these universals that are means to understand the empirical data. So the universals aren't empirically-derivable in the same sense as forces. We empirically measure the force of gravity, but while we can measure the the sum of angles on a drawn triangle, the drawn triangle is only a representation of the idea of a triangle. No amount of drawn triangles will be sufficient to draw the conclusion that a triangle must add up to 180 degrees.

The problem being is that if these abstract forms aren't measurable in nature, then how can it come to be that they are universals? While gravity almost certainly exists and is measurable, the same cannot be said for the law of identity or the law of non contradiction or the law of excluded middle. Even 2 + 2 = 4 cannot be understood to be a universal unless there is a form by which it could be universal.

So again it's pertinent to ask whether it is necessary. It would seem like it is necessary if logic is the basis of all thought, but to explore the concept some more. Say logic is a human-derived system, that the law of identity is something that the human mind has created in order to understand the world. Does it make it any less wrong to build an argument on the basis of logic without it being universal?

To put it another way, does being able to add 2 and 2 to get 4 rest on the ability to account for the abstract itself? Here I could contend otherwise, it's not contingent to put mathematics as anything other than a human construct to be able to use it. Do I need to account for the existence of a shovel in order to use one? No. But the fact that a shovel exists needs some explanation. So in there I will concede that yes the laws of logic do require explanation.

So how would positing a god help with this? I don't think it will for the same reason as I don't think that positing a god helps with morality. It comes back to a question of God's omnipotence, the old classic of whether God can make a four-sided triangle. Now one might say "that's absurd" by very definition a triangle has to have three sides so if it had 4 sides it's not a triangle. And thus the absurdity of the proposition is shown.

Are the laws of logic dictated by God? In other words, could the laws of logic be anything other than they are? Is the law of identity true only because God says it is, or is the truth of the law of identity external to the truth of God? If it's external to the truth of God, then how does theism solve this problem?

It could be that the law of identity is only true because God says so. But consider the implications for this position. Take the abstract of 2 + 2 = 4. If it were that theism solves this problem, then 2 + 2 = 4 is only true while God holds it to be true. It could be on a whim that 2 + 2 = 5, or 2 + 2 = pi. This clearly is absurd, the absolute nature of 2+2=4 is undermined by the fact that it couldn't be any other way.

So to that objection, it might be that the laws of logic are absolute and external to any notion of a deity. However, as an atheist you don't have the ability to recognise absolutes. So on that...

We ask the third question, how can an atheist account for the absolute nature of the laws of logic? They are self-evident. If they can't be any other way then what more needs to be said? Bertrand Russell in The Problems Of Philosophy gives a good account of universals and out they can be distinguished from matters of observation. That there are some probable truths and some universal truths.

Look at the text typed here. Immediately to the left of the word "typed" was the word "text". Regardless of the meaning of the words themselves the relationship in position is absolute. "text" is left of "typed" thus a universal relationship is established. Just as the relationship between two apples and two more apples being put together makes four apples. The general principle of relationships is based on universals.

Apples (the particular) is contingent on our observations, but the general principle underneath is not. We don't need to see that two phones and two more phones makes four phones, and two tissues and two more tissues makes four tissues. The relationship is self-evidently true.

This doesn't address the question of how we come to know these absolutes. Take something like a circle. Now when we see something circular, it's never an exact circle - only the appearance of a circle. One could draw a circle, take measurements and use that observation to reason about the circle, but the idea of the circle cannot be derived empirically. How would one measure pi for example? Now pi can be worked out mathematically from the idea of a perfect circle.

So to cut a long story short, to think of logic in the same way as boiling water is misleading. Although experience may be at the core of both, there is a means to distinguish between the abstract and the actual. The abstract holds absolute because it is not a measurement of reality, but of relationships that are universal. The laws of logic are not arbitrary concepts cooked up by the mind, but self-evident truths about reality. As for knowing probabilistic truths...

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Part 4: Reasoning

From the series: 6 Ultimate Reasons Not To Be An Atheist?

#4 To be an atheist you cannot believe that you can trust your reasoning
The argument is two-fold. The first part is that all we are is blind chemical forces. The second part is that evolution is not a solution as evolution breeds for survival and not for rationality. The first part again is greedy reductionism and has been dealt with in Part 2: Morality, so it won't serve to dwell on it further. The second part is far more interesting and touches on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. It is that argument which is interesting and there is much to be said for it.

The challenge of the EAAN is this, that natural selection doesn't select for beliefs themselves, it can only select for behaviour of beliefs. If a belief itself gives the right behaviour towards survival, then the truth of the belief doesn't matter. A true belief and a false belief that both give the same behaviour give the same result.

Consider the case of a child who is told to eat his vegetables. The first time he is told that eating his vegetables is good for him. He doesn't like the taste but does so on the belief that it will be good for him. The second time he is told that if he doesn't eat his vegetables he will burn in hell for eternity. He again doesn't like the taste but eats them on the fear of eternal punishment. In both cases the same behaviour that tends towards survival, so there is no difference between the truth (overall health) and the falsehood (eternal punishment).

Thus since multiple beliefs give the same behavioural outcome, it cannot be taken that the true belief is reliable because all it can confirm is that it is a potential truth that gives the right behaviour.

So to ask the first question, is it necessary? And finally I'm going to answer that yes it is necessary. It seriously undermines the atheist position if they have no ability to determine with confidence anything about the reality we reside in. It really is a defeater argument as Plantinga puts it. But beyond the conceptual, it's pertinent to point out just what needs to be explained.

Firstly it needs to be explained as to the evidence from the ascent of man. That is to explain tools, cave paintings, fires, domestication of animals, agriculture, civilisation, technological advancement, etc. What humans have achieved, because whether there is a god or not where we find ourselves now and what we find in our past remains the same.

Secondly it needs to be explained as to why there are so many different contradicting beliefs out there. Why some people believe in one god, why some believe in many, why some believe in ghosts, or spirits, or psychic powers, or electromagnetic theory, or gravity, or a geocentric universe, or anything else for that matter. In other words, so many contradictory beliefs out there that any explanation has to account for why so many have wrong beliefs.

Thirdly it needs to be explained how one can distinguish between true and false beliefs. This one is the clincher, for it is not enough to offer a means by which a belief could be given as true. And since there are so many false beliefs out there, how can one distinguish between what is a true belief and what is a false belief?

Okay, so for a theist how do they get around their own defeater argument? Well revelation could be one answer. But revelation doesn't pass the third criteria, for even if revelation were real how would we be able to distinguish between revelation and poor reasoning? This is the problem of claiming revelation, for even if it were really a god and really a good god, it still wouldn't be able to be distinguished - because merely being convinced isn't enough.

Another possibility in conjunction with revelation is that a good god intervened in the evolutionary process in order to allow us to gain true beliefs. But again this fails, this time because it fails to explain why there are so many false beliefs out there. Why was it that the Mayans sacrificed virgin girls to appease the sun god? Why is it that many now are convinced that not only psychic powers exist but that they have them? The fact that there are so many contradictory beliefs rejects this notion.

What could be the clincher is that we didn't evolve, but were created. This way we were created in almost perfection, and it was the fall resulting from eating from the tree of knowledge. It can account for why there are so many false beliefs out there, but still it fails because it means we can't know that it's true. the story is consistent, but it fails to break away from the problem of not being able to discern between true beliefs and false beliefs.

Furthermore the creation solution conflicts with all empirical data. If creation were true and the story of the fall being true, then why does all the empirical evidence suggest otherwise? Why is there a progressive fossil record in the ground? Why are there fossil genes and pieces of genetic code? Why is it that observations of the speed of light being constant extrapolate to measurements of distant galaxies being billions of light years away? Either we can't trust our senses and reasoning capacity, or creation doesn't fit with the evidence.

If Plantinga's argument is valid, then it is theism that is in trouble. One can't simply destroy our ability to reason without destroying one's own position. For it follows that if there was a good god then we should be able to trust our sense data and reasoning processes. But because our sense data and reasoning processes by those who study the natural world clearly point to evolutionary origins, then one has to conclude that evolution in some capacity can shape both the sense data and reasoning processes.

So how can evolution build a solid foundation for epistemology? Evolution selects for survival, this much is true. But survival is not simply reproduction of the genes. To think of what we as a social species has to do: be able to navigate the environment, avoid being killed / eaten, find a mate, interact socially, cooperate with others, raise children, etc. In any case, while survival of the genes is as far as one can reduce the process to, natural selection has built a vast array of structures to help facilitate that exchange.

It's been well established that evolution can build structures like eyeballs. But what good is an eye without the ability to process the information? To think of it another way, what good is a security camera without a means to see the input. One need to capture input and process it in such a way that would enable the survival. Without doing such, evolving a processing unit or an optical device would both be useless on their own.

So evolution is going to not only select a better eye, but select a brain that can use that input to elicit an appropriate response. In effect, we get mostly accurate senses not from having the organs alone, but a means to process the electrical impulses in a manner that makes the environment make sense. It gives a survival advantage, not just survival.

So what of beliefs? It should be established above that evolution can give us mostly reliable sense data as it would confer a survival advantage. But beliefs themselves aren't encoded into our DNA, thinking processes are. For instance, babies have an innate sense of gravity. They also have an innate sense of agency. And evolution-wise, both are essential. It's no accident that our visual range corresponds with the peak output from the sun's black body radiation. Just as it's no coincidence that we are wired to detect gravity or agents in the world.

So what of beliefs? Well there are the beliefs we form about the world through experience that correspond with what we see and measure. Some of these beliefs are testable here and now, that A corresponds with B. For example, I could test a belief about gravity by dropping something multiple times. If I see a pattern emerge, as we are pattern-detecting creatures, then I might be able to infer a rule.

This brings about 4 possibilities, being right (believing a truth, rejecting a falsehood) and being wrong (rejecting a truth, believing a falsehood). Certain beliefs are self-selecting, but as for the rest? Think about the ascent of man. Primitive tools getting gradually more complex. The domestication of animals and plants leading towards artificial selection. So beliefs themselves can be directly useful towards survival. Needing the right type of rock to make a hand axe or an arrow head, knowing the migratory paths of animals, selecting qualities directly seen on the animal. etc.

Again there's so much to explain and little space, so I'll finish with this. Beliefs themselves can be testable, and by having predictive beliefs and generally reliable sense data, there's the possibility to see whether a given belief can be true or not. Right now I'm sitting in front of a device that is built on the foundation of physics. Semiconductors made into logic gates, it's something that has come by measuring reality. Evidentially we have reliable enough beliefs to make computers, for how could the computer be even possible without having some ability to reason and measure reality? Evolution itself is not going to necessarily lead to all true beliefs, but with our evolved senses and reasoning abilities it would be absurd to think that the belief that electromagnetic force and magic smoke are equal explanations for how a computer works belies the process by which it was made.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Part 3: Free Will

From the series: 6 Ultimate Reasons Not To Be An Atheist?

#3 Atheists cannot believe they have free will
To put the argument another way, the essence of man is natural and therefore is a slave to natural law. So even in terms of non-causality, such as random quantum fluctuations, free will cannot be as ultimately we would be slaves to the natural process. Any sense of control we have would be merely a sense, it doesn't follow that we can have real control.

I have a water bottle next to me. It might be that I feel thirsty and consciously decide to take a drink. But in reality the brain is merely acting on causation, it was causal factors in my brain that made me feel like taking a drink and causal factors that led me to pick up the water and take a drink. While it felt I made the decision, it was merely an expression of the underlying laws.

Imagine a robot that was running a software program. The robot might be incredibly advanced, it might be self-aware and be able to self-reference. And while it is interacting in the world, it might have a series of different inputs that get processed in order to make a decision as to what to do next. But at no stage is the robot doing anything beyond what its software says to do.

So to ask the first question, is free will necessary? Again, it's an appeal to consequences and has no bearing on the truth of the matter. We might desire for there to be free will, but that doesn't mean there is free will. Just as I might desire for my water bottle to magically replenish, but I know that I'm going to have to go to the tap instead.

The challenge isn't just part of a materialist world-view, it's being increasingly confirmed by modern neuroscience. It's not enough to say it's a problem for atheism, because it is a problem for all views that aren't merely engaging in sophistry. The science is pointing very clearly towards all decision making being the product of brain activity, and atheists are in no worse position than any other.

So many experiments ranging from electrically stimulating certain parts of the brain to seeing how particular chemicals work. From measuring how stimulants such as music light up certain areas of the brain to even seeing how those with brain injuries make moral judgements; there's just so much indicating that the brain is what we have to work with.

It might be that the brain is not the whole story, that there's something beyond the material - in which case it would need to be observed just how that immaterial interacts with the material. Until it's demonstrated that it exists, it's nothing more than speculation and not worth consideration. But if like the science suggests that the brain is the whole story, then can the notion of free will be compatible with causality?

So how could a theist solve this? As stated above, the main problem of free will lies in that it seems that our decisions indeed are made by the brain. So to argue that we have free will in the contra-causal sense, one must first show that there's such thing as contra-causal decision making.

Such an idea is ultimately inconceivable, what does it mean to be in control? Say there is a dualistic element in our brain. What sensory input would be sent? Would it be raw data or processed data by the brain? And once it got there, what process would happen? How would the homunculus make such a decision? Appealing to dualism doesn't solve the problem of free will in any way we can comprehend because of the mechanisms we know underlying any decision don't give the desired outcome.

Take the example of eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Take the approach that eve truly did not know better. After all, she had no knowledge of good and evil. She ultimately had to make a choice without knowing the consequences. Such actions would be in effect random, for she did not know right from wrong. Now how was such a decision made? Does it even matter?

I would contend that it doesn't matter and that it serves as a distraction from the real issue at hand. The key is that she wasn't aware of right or wrong, and acted before being able to make a moral decision. Think of a monkey with a gun, if the monkey shoots the gun can it really be responsible in the same way that an adult who knows the consequences can?

As I said above, it could be something else. But such contra-causal decision making is inconceivable to us and serves nothing more than writing "then a miracle occurred". But it doesn't matter, for we work on the level of agents and agents who have knowledge and morality.

So how can we account for free will? It seems the best means would be to argue compatibilism, that is to say that free will is compatible with determinism. Philosophers such as Hobbes and Hume have taken this position, and in the modern day Daniel Dennett has written extensively on the subject.

Take a nut crushing machine, all the machine does is crush nuts, it checks whether there is are nuts under it and then smashes the nuts with a heavy hammer. Say the machine fails and a human face is mistaken as a pile of nuts - the machine comes down and kills the person. The machine has no responsibility in this case. Now say it was a human who pressed the button to crush the nuts. She sees another person on the machine and still decides to put the button. The person would have responsibility in this case. Why?

The person in this case is aware of the action and aware of the consequences for the action. If she pressed the button, she would crush the person. Far from acting blindly, she had knowledge as to the ramifications of the action. It's not whether she could have acted differently if the universe was replayed, but whether she would have acted differently had she no knowledge of the consequences.

We have evolved brains, it goes without saying. Our brains are capable of projecting into the future, understanding the proposed consequences for an action, making moral decisions, etc. A woman is sexually assaulted. It turned out that the assailant was mentally retarded, and didn't have a capacity beyond a two year old. So while his body pumped out testosterone, he had no ability to know whether what he was doing was wrong. Contrast that with a fully developed man who knew that it was wrong but still acted anyway.

There's a lot to say and not much space. I won't pretend to think I've solved the philosophical quandary, merely summarised what I see as the argument for compatibilism. It's not whether I can violate the laws of physics, but whether I'm able to understand the ramifications. Yet that isn't enough for some.

The eye can be evolved, the processing of the information can be evolved, but why can't the course of action be evolved too? Surely if the kitchen is on fire, we would want our brain to act accordingly to the input. It's really not a good time to make pancakes or sit down to plan next year's holiday, one could do such things but it would be best to make an appropriate choice. A fire might mean call the fire brigade and get to safety, does it really make such a difference when the potential options at any given time are ultimately decided by physics?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Part 2: Morality

From the series: 6 Ultimate Reasons Not To Be An Atheist?

#2 Atheists cannot believe there is objective moral law
To put the argument another way, humans can recognise the force of gravity because it exists. And even without knowing where gravity comes from, it doesn't change the fact that gravity is there. So it follows that an atheist can recognise an objective morality because an objective morality exists. But the nature of morality is unlike gravity, while gravity is a blind force morality is personal. So it follows that if there is objective morality in nature, then there must be a personal (i.e. interventionist) deity responsible.

So again to subject it to the established criteria, is objective moral law necessary for any particular world-view? And like with meaning, I think the answer is no. Again it's an appeal to consequences. We might desire objective moral law, society might even be contingent on having a moral law, but without objective moral law being necessary it doesn't reflect on the truth of whether there are interventionist deities.

What reach does objective moral law have. Is it contingent on the human species existing? Once it exists, does it have any reach beyond our species? Take killing another for example, does it hold that it is objectively wrong for one man to kill another on the surface of Mars? What about at the centre of our galaxy? Or in the far reaches of the cosmos? I would contend not, that is to say morality is a local phenomenon entirely contingent on our existence.

The obvious does need to be pointed out, humans do indeed have an innate moral capacity, a sense of right and wrong and act on moral impulses. This however doesn't necessitate objective moral law any more than sexual attraction necessitates an objective form of what is attractive. I would say the argument ends here, but I would be remiss if I didn't explore the nature of the question further.

So how can a theist account for morality? The question that any theist needs to answer is what is known as The Euthyphro Dilemma, which goes "is it pious because it is loved by the gods or loved by the gods because it is pious". Or to put it in modern terms, is murder wrong because God says it's wrong or does God say murder is wrong because it is wrong? The first part of the dilemma puts any God-given morality as arbitrary, the latter means that any attempt to reconcile morality through God is begging the question.

The argument in this video comes in the form of an authority, that we can only have morality because of a higher authority (God) gave moral instruct. It seems that those who made the video take the first option, that it is obedience to an amoral entity - lest the argument go ad infinitum or falls into a circular definition.

In the video they fall into what Daniel Dennett calls greedy reductionism by the removal of any possible authority in the material world. After all, it's all just material - blind forces acting indiscriminately. One can't help but think back to Carl Sagan's Cosmos where he laid out the raw materials that make us. The point he's trying to make is that life is more than just the atoms that make it up.

This straw man continues in making an analogy with the chair. That we have no moral obligation not to break the chair as the chair has no personal connection to us. They neglect the obvious, the chair isn't an intelligent agent. The chair itself may not have a moral obligation, but if the chair was owned by a friend they wouldn't take "materialism means no obligation" as a valid excuse.

I'd go so far as to say that theism cannot account for morality, the appeals to authority make no sense for the same reason as it doesn't make it right if a leader of a country proclaims a moral dictum. This sense of objective morality is obedience, it's right for the same reason a parent is right when telling a child what to do. It's an infantile way of looking at what is morality, and given its importance to us as a species it is deserving of something better.

Which brings me to how an atheist can account for morality. I'm not going to argue for objective moral law, rather for how certain moral maxims fall out naturally and how we've come to regard some morals as near universals. And far from morality being an exercise in authority, it's something that comes from the self.

I can already hear the cries of moral subjectivism, yet this could only apply if humans lived in complete isolation. To go back to the chair example. If it were just an individual and the chair, then what is there to stop you from breaking it? Perhaps the consequences of having a broken chair. But if the chair was owned by another, then the relationship between the agent and the chair is changed. Breaking someone else's property could affect your relationship with them.

In there a rule emerges, purely out of the self. Acting in a particular way has consequences, and certain actions can help or hinder others and affect ones relationship to them. It stems from a recognition of one's relationship to the environment around them.

It doesn't end there, game theory can show stable survival strategies fall out of repeated interactions even when weighting is put towards "cheating". In the thought experiment of the prisoner's dilemma, at each interaction it pays to defect. But when the situation is put into repeated interaction, reciprocal altruism emerges as a dominant strategy even though against any one individual it can at best break even.

So what of maxims? While such behaviours like murder and lying are still present, too much of such elements and there is a breakdown of society. The murder rate cannot exceed the birth-rate, too much lying and there's the loss of a vital component of success and fostering relationships. While they are not absolute, they are as close as we can get to objective morality.

There's so much to say on this subject and very little space, so I'll just quickly say this. Evolution can give us a sound base as to why we are moral, but it can't prescribe morality. For such precepts like the golden rule, it can explain why we aspire to it but not why we should aspire to it. It's important to note that we have the capacity to take on ideas, and to think through actions to their perceived consequences. This capacity for knowledge of outcomes gives us the ability to learn from actions in the past and work towards our future.

Monday, 21 December 2009

All Swans Must Be Green

The classic example of the problem of induction is the statement "all swans are white". Yet this statement was demonstrated to be false upon the discovery of the Australian Black Swan. The logic is pretty simple behind this, if P is not true then ~P. So the statement follows that the discovery of the black swan is that not all swans are white. Not that all swans are black or even that all swans must be green. Yet this is the fallacy of the creationist.

You presume too much
The strategy is quite simple and much employed. Instead of building a positive case for special creation, it's proof by negation, if not natural cause X, then supernatural cause. So much time is dedicated to destroying "Darwinism" as if natural selection is the only natural cause that it could possibly be, and because natural selection doesn't work (in their eyes) it follows that it must be that God did it.

This line of argument suffers from bad logic. That if one thing cannot be explained by evolutionary theory in its current form, then all it does is highlight a hole in evolutionary theory. It doesn't follow that none of evolutionary theory could be true, or that it was created by God. Instead of recognising the new gap for what it is, it's taken that the entire theory is wrong and that special creation by the Judeo-Christian construct of God is true. In other words they have found a black swan and from there concluded that all swans must be green.

Bring yourself back to a time before 1858, and imagine yourself as an evolutionary biologist testing the then popular idea for evolutionary theory of Lamarkian inheritance. You want to demonstrate the mechanism in action so you take a lab mouse and cut off its tail. Then you breed the lab mouse with another lab mouse who also had its tail cut off. And to your dismay, the offspring have tails as do their offspring.

By the current creationist rhetoric of today, by that experiment you have proved creation! After all, the natural mechanism didn't work so there must be a supernatural mechanism at work. Of course the problem in logic should be obvious now. ~P just means ~P. It doesn't mean R.

The presumption made is that God is the alternative, so all they have to do is get rid of the current natural explanation and thus God. Yet in reality all it does is point out a gap in our knowledge. If Lamarkian inheritance doesn't work, then all we can take from that is that we know that Lamarkian inheritance doesn't work. So the presumption that if not current mechanism X then God is as absurd as concluding from finding a black swan that all swans must be green.

Chasing skyhooks
Because of the aforementioned presumption, any argument turns into an argument from personal incredulity. In the case of evolution, those who believe that destroying natural selection will mean JesusTM, no matter what they cannot be convinced of even the possibility of the process working. In effect, their whole case relies on not understanding how the process could work.

Consider some of the arguments that are used against evolution. "Evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics", "most/all mutations are harmful", "function X is irreducibly complex", "you can't get specified information by chance". Now such arguments have been demonstrated wrong or irrelevant many times before, I don't need to go over them again. But consider why such arguments are used.

These arguments rest on the premise that all swans must be green. If it did turn out that current evolutionary theory couldn't build irreducibly complex functions, what does that say about what did? It doesn't imply that God came down and muddled with DNA to create those IC structures.

To borrow the terminology of Dan Dennett, the creationists want a skyhook. They can see that there are cranes rising up high from the ground, so by destroying the crane structure they hope to prove that the skyhook will still be there. So whatever crane is being touted as the crane by which the hook hangs, attacking that structure becomes the goal.

By this stage in the game, there is already a concession that evolutionary cranes do exist. The microevolution cranes have proved impossible to knock down, so it is posited that although those cranes are real, they are merely hanging off the skyhook that is God. 150 years since The Origin Of Species and every attempt so far to knock down the crane of natural selection has shown the resilience of the crane, while discoveries of other cranes have been made. As yet, no skyhooks.

Logical underpinnings
Since the whole enterprise rests on the false premise that all swans must be green, I don't expect this line of attack on evolution abate. The fact that there are any white swans at all means that there's going to be the persistent effort to firstly demonstrate that the swans only appear white, and secondly to search for any non-white swan to invalidate the premise.

If one bases their arguments about swans on observations, they are subject to revision upon future studies of swans. But if one doesn't even try to base their arguments about swans on observations, then they'll forever be trying to discredit evidence that doesn't fit their arguments. Whether one can reason philosophically that all swans must be green is irrelevant to the reality of the colour of a swan.

They Make It Sound So Appealing
Just one day after it was made official, there are calls to shelve changes to the code of practice for commercial television stations.

Television programs like the crime series Underbelly thrive on on-screen nudity and raunchy sex scenes. And while they attract controversy, they also corner huge audiences.

Now, the Christian group Family Voice Australia is worried that a new code of practice gives commercial TV networks the green light to push the boundaries of decency further.

Ros Phillips, the group's national research officer, says she is concerned that it waters down the guidelines to allow explicit pornography at 9pm, "when many children are still watching".

What has piqued her concern is a change to the guidelines for sex scenes in programs rated MA. Previously, the industry's code of practice required sex to be portrayed discreetly.

But the new guidelines only require sex scenes to follow the storyline and not be high in impact.

"Higher than what?" says Ms Phillips.

"As we've seen over the years, what one person thinks is high is not necessarily what the program manager for Channel 10 thinks."

That is a reference to a long running stoush over the Channel 10 show, Californication.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority has upheld a complaint by Family Voice about one of the show's sex scenes.

"Absolute ... it was a threesome and it was extremely explicit," she says.

"I won't go into details, but if it wasn't for that word 'discreetly' in the guidelines, that complaint wouldn't have been upheld."

But media commentator Sue Turnbull from La Trobe University in Melbourne says the group is overreacting.

"If this particular group don't know what real pornography looks like, then maybe they should see some, so that they can actually make the kinds of distinctions that the people that are doing this classification make every day," she said.

Family Voice Australia is also worried about new guidelines for the new digital channels the networks have launched.

While the core channels will still be required to show only G-rated programs in the hours before and after school on weekdays and in the mornings at weekends, the new channels will not be.

"The new digital televisions provide all sorts of capacities for parents to lock their children out," says Ms Turnbull.

"In fact, if this family organisation is being really sensible, what it should be doing is talking about sex education, media education, media literacy.

"And what parents can actually do in the home as responsible parenting just to ensure that their kids know what's out there, know how to cope with it and are not traumatised by something that they might come across that can just kind of switch on past it and go 'yeah, I don't want to look at that'."
I liked Californication when it first came on the air. I got bored of the show midway through season 2 which by that time had descended into the formulaic escalated by the ever-more improbable storyline. So I stopped watching.

I remember that threesome scene. And that counts as porn? This demonstrates that we don't need an internet filter, it seems that if that is what counts as porn to this group then the internet is self-censoring enough already. From memory, the scene was quite funny. Like most of the sex in that show, it seemed more for comic effect than arousal.

But to be serious for a moment, once again the notion of a nanny state is rearing its ugly head. The guidelines for free to air already put such content on at a late time, but that never really seems to be good enough. The fact that there is a ratings system already should be enough to inform parents about how to make decisions affecting their parental responsibility for their children. But no, it's not enough.

Sue Turnbull makes a lot of sense here, and it's a shame that these moralists don't go down such a pragmatic path. Like the abstinence-only education proponents, it seems to be that those moralists are set on pushing their agenda (in this case the removal of sex from television) than it is for better practical outcomes for children. Why not put forth opportunities to help parents on how to use new technology? Why not push for more awareness of ratings? Instead we get hyperbolic rhetoric and the hysteric cry of "won't someone please think of the children!?!"

What adults watch in their own homes is their business. The law is already quite restrictive on what can be put on television at what times. Even on at adults-only times I've seen sex scenes cut from movies, profanity cut from dialogue, violence reduced, etc. Even something innocuous like Homer Simpson's infamous line "To alcohol, the cause of and solution to all of life's problems" doesn't air with the reruns of that memorable episode.

And what is all of this over? Essentially nothing. You can see more arousing television at 9am on a Saturday morning, just that they call them music clips. There's more arousing imagery put on billboards to advertise pretty much everything. Even a recent trip to a clothing store was full of scantily-clad women suggestively posing. Porn at 9pm? I wish. Hyperbolic rhetoric makes the concept sound so much more appealing than the reality.

Part 1: Meaning

From the series: 6 Ultimate Reasons Not To Be An Atheist?

#1 Atheists cannot believe that there is purpose and meaning to life
It's quite the knock-out argument. The universe is nothing more than indifferent forces acting indiscriminately. Life itself is nothing more than one expression of those laws of physics, as are meteors, supernovae and black holes. For there to be meaning and purpose to life, there needs to be meaningful and purposeful creation.

The first question that needs to be asked, does there need to be purpose and meaning to life itself? Might as well say that a world-view fails because it doesn't have pink unicorns in it. The truth of the world-view is in no way affected about whether there is meaning to the process or not.

Consider the implications of arguing for what Daniel Dennett calls belief in belief. The argument isn't whether to believe in what is true, but what is desired to be true. To put it simply, one could believe that through psychics they can talk to deceased loved-ones. They could engage with psychics and have an overwhelming emotive experience where they come away believing they've connected with their dear departed. But in no way does it mean that physics can really communicate with the dead.

So the notion is dead in the water, it doesn't affect the notion that there's no god in the slightest. But it's hardly satisfying to leave it there.

The next question is what can an interventionist deity to do solve this meaning problem. Well to take the simple answer, by act of purposeful creation it gives inherent meaning to the process. But is it really that simple? I would contend not. Consider the following.

If this argument holds, then it would mean that robots would have meaning while people not because people created robots intentionally and purposefully. Indeed any creation of man would have meaning because of intentionality. We are purposeless beings that give a purpose by intentionally creating with purpose in mind.

But it goes further in its implications than just that. One wonders how there could be meaning in the first place. Is meaning inherent in god? Or is it something else? Is it the intentionality that creates meaning? If so, then all meaning needs is intelligent agents acting causally. Gods at best add that there could be meaning to life, but it is a huge concession and does nothing for meaning in our lives.

Which brings me to the third question, where does this leave the atheist? An atheist doesn't need there to be inherent meaning to life, nor does one need inherent meaning to lead a meaningful life. Richard Dawkins would object to the statement that he admits that it's all an accident, he would agree that there's no meaning but would argue against it being an accident.

If a brick is flying towards a window, is it an accident that the window breaks? No, it's just blind forces acting. The accident comes from intentionality, the thrower of the brick might have been aiming for a different target in which case the window smashing was accidental. But as for the physical forces at play, the forces did exactly as they do. Not accident, not purposeful, just are.

It's important to remember just how we got to be the way we are. The process of evolution works on reproductive success, thus those organisms better suited to life are going to have more offspring. In effect, the process of evolution creates purpose for the organism as it gears an organism towards reproductive success. No intelligent agent necessary, the process is going to inevitably make survival machines.

The meaning that we know to be meaning is not from our creation by an intelligent agent, but our interaction in the world. It seems a leap here so I'll explain. Since the way our minds work have been shaped to find significance in relation to the survival of our genes. We see purpose in relationships with others, in having and raising children, in making technology, in telling stories, in actions that affect others. To think of meaning as anything more is to anthropomorphise reality.

So how does an atheist see meaning in the universe? We see meaning in ourselves, in our actions and in our interactions as causal intelligent agents. Our actions have consequences for not only ourselves but for others as well, and we can recognise as such. So there doesn't need to be purpose to life itself because the process of life generates beings that have purpose.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

6 Ultimate Reasons Not To Be An Atheist?

I was doing my Sunday morning check of what videos my favourite Youtube Vloggers had put up for me when I came across this video that Youtube recommended:

6 ultimate reasons why atheism fails as a world-view. Interesting. In the disclaimer at the beginning it says:
This video does not argue for God's existence...
It simply shows what atheism does not but CANNOT account for.

The first thing I'd want to point out is that atheism is not a world-view. You might as well say that not collecting stamps fails as a hobby. The reason for this is simple, atheism is the not-belief, so what follows has to be what the god hypothesis answers that one who is of the belief that there's no such thing as interventionist deities would also have to account for. But to be as charitable as possible, the question is not the validity of atheism itself but of those who profess to be atheists. And from there, let's precede.

So to me there are three questions that stem from each challenge. First question is whether it is necessary. That is will the position hold without being able to account for that. If it is necessary to explain, then two more questions follow. Firstly, can theism itself account for what is being explained? Secondly, in the absence of gods, what is a means to explain it?

The first question should be self-evident. That is if the proposed unanswerable question is not necessary in a world-view, then why should it matter one way or another to the truth of a proposition? If it is desired but not necessary, then the best that could be argued for is belief in belief - that is to persist in a delusion for a reason beyond the reasonable.

To ask what theism can explain is important. It's all well and good to call an interventionist deity an uncaused cause for example, but does that really hold up as a proof for God's existence? Can it follow that an uncaused cause can be interventionist in relation to being inside a causal reality? Just because the argument can be made that non-belief cannot answer a necessary question, it doesn't follow that just because a proposition is out there supporting theism that it is a valid argument or can explain what an atheist can't.

Regardless of whether it is necessary or whether theism can explain it, it hardly seems intellectually satisfying to leave it at that. The questions exist because they hit home at who we are. There's not much in saying "well you can't account for it either". Though for some there may be unanswerable questions, for others tentative answers. It might be that I don't know what I'm talking about, that I've missed some philosophical subtlety in the argument, or that I've made any number of logical fallacies in my arguments.

Part 1: Meaning
Part 2: Morality
Part 3: Free Will
Part 4: Reasoning
Part 5: Logic
Part 6: Truth

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Won't Somebody *Please* Think Of The Children?

Looks like the great firewall of Australia is going to go ahead. But it's okay, it's only blocking what we don't need to see anyway. Maybe no longer would we have to face the scourge of the hidden link to meatspin or lemon party, or nervously laugh at the contents of Encyclopedia Dramatica. And when a friend links to a disturbing video, we can be safe in the knowledge that it will be a dog eating its own faeces as opposed to two girls.


There's no doubt that the internet is has some pretty disturbing content. The seedy underbelly of a liberal society on display for anyone to see. And that seems to be the problem. While most of us can get by just fine without knowing what it's like to view the most vile disgusting behaviour humanity has to offer (I for one will die happy never seeing Paris Hilton naked), there's always someone who is willing to push the limits.

While some of the content proposed to be filtered I would love to see gone, I just can't support such a proposal as what is on offer. Beyond all else it is invasive and invasive to the freedom of adults to choose what is right for them. The principle of liberty, that the freedom to swing my fist ends when it connects with your mouth, this is what is at stake.

Taking on child abuse, rape, murder - where the liberties of one is being violated by another - maybe there's a case to be had. As there may be a case for voluntary filtering to assist parents. But mandatory filtering for all? No thank you. Helping parents to prevent a child from seeing a penis penetrating a vagina is different from banning the image for all.

Maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. A society is a society of law, and the law must be upheld to maintain society. By having products where one can subvert the law, it makes a mockery of democracy. So I hope that Mr Conroy will speak to the transport minister about implementing the same technology in motor vehicles.

Cars, trucks, motorbikes can sometimes do in excess of 200km/h! Now where on any of the roads can anyone do more than 110? What I propose is that all vehicles be fitted with devices that cut off the engine whenever a car exceeds 120km/h. It's the speed limit +10. Now I know that's risky, as it will give people the ability to drive up to 10km/h outside the law, but it's a good start.

Though it doesn't need to be only that way. With this new GPS technology around, we could stop speeding once and for all. The technology is there now to enforce the mandatory speed limit all over the country. It could stop many accidents and many lives!

After all, there's no reason why cars should go higher than the fastest that is permissible on the roads. And such measures to my mind would be much more beneficial than putting a filter on the internet. Yet why isn't such a device being proposed? Or for that matter, devices that ensure that anyone behind a wheel is sober? Maybe it's the cost of such a system.

More likely methinks is such a system is unnecessarily intrusive. And in this matter, it's actually directly relevant to the law. The internet filter is not going to do that, and any harm it does prevent is merely incidental. Instead it's just something the government can look to be doing in order to "help" in raising children. Though how blocking the internet of everyone will do that remains to be seen. If Joe-sixpack has no children or Joe-computernerd can protect his system up, then does it matter so much that they might enjoy trolling on 4chan? Or if they are into fetish porn, who am I to say they can't watch that just in case my hypothetical children might stumble across "Adam and Steve in Extreme Anal Bondage 7"

What the internet shows is an insight into humanity, and one that it seems that some can't stand the sight of. It's paradoxically simultaneously in ones home and for everyone to see. And if it turns out that society is not as "moral" as it was perceived to be, then obviously the disconnect needs to be blamed on something. And while any real evidence of the dangers of the internet or the effectiveness of a filter are lacking*, such empirical shortcomings don't stop in the way of hijacking sensationalism.

It seems odd that such a situation would be preferable to actually helping spread awareness or offering parents support. That the government is being misleading by pointing to other western countries as justification, conveniently omitting the optional nature of such filters, just goes to show that once again the group pushing for the moral high-ground are pushing moral bankruptcy. The least one should be able to expect on issues of ethical significance is openness. Cherry picking data, talking up the dangers that present to children and misleading the public about the nature of the systems are not something a liberal democracy should do.

There may be an issue to explore, there may be legitimate concerns, the interest of protection of some content in regards to the safety of individuals. But this is not playing out this way, sensationalism and the grab for morality is what is on offer; highlighting once again what an ineffective and weak opposition means in a democracy. No pressure to get this bill right, no means to keep this bill accountable - not that I expect the Australian conservatives to be any better sadly.

The paradox of the internet leaves it in a different situation from other media we consume. It's not just consuming, but also contributing. And because of the interactivity, that is reason alone to step very carefully around the technology. It does have privacy in a way that other media doesn't. It's an open forum, one that companies are spending much energies to make as safe as possible for children. Long story short, the net will give what people put into it. So much for free will...

*to my knowledge

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Teleology And Coconuts
Two scientists at the Melbourne Museum have recorded the first case of tool use in an invertebrate animal.

The veined octopus, Amphioctopus marginatus, selects, stacks, transports and assembles coconut shells as portable armour.

Many octopuses use available objects such as shells and rocks for shelter, but that is not considered tool use.

Dr Mark Norman says what makes these animals so special is the the planned future use of the coconut shells.

"It comes at a cost, carrying these shells in this awkward way and it's a fantastic example of complex behaviours in what we consider the lower life forms," he said.

"I think these sorts of behaviours are everywhere in nature. There's really complex behaviours that we write off because we think we're the clever ones."

He and colleague Dr Julian Finn spent more than 500 hours diving in remote waters off Indonesia to observe and film the animals.

They watched the octopuses dig out coconut shells from the ocean floor and empty the shells of mud using jets of water.

Dr Finn says it is not unusual for octopuses to live inside coconuts but it is how the veined octopus uses the shells that is unique.

"It gathers them together, it stacks them like bowls, covers its whole body over bowls, lifts them up and then trundles along on its arm tips until a predator comes or there's a threat," he said.
Like bricks being designed for smashing windows (or is it the other way around?), it seems that the octopus has finally caught on to the grand design of the coconut. Sticks are designed for poking out eyes and hills are designed for rolling down, now it seems that the octopus has finally cracked the teleological purpose that has eluded humanity until now. Coconut shells are for armour.

Like a wasp protecting its store of caterpillars with a pebble, it can't just be an accident that the coconut shell can be used to protect an octopus. And selection simply cannot account for it, for where are the shells of Brazil nuts and peanuts that show the intermediate stages? No such a perfect fit can only be befitting of a grand designer who made coconuts for the purpose of armour for his likeness. Therefore God exists and that God is Cthulhu!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Arguing A Historical Jesus

As mentioned before, my lessons in Christianity among other things were largely centred around Jesus being a historical fact. A man called Jesus lived and the gospels are a historical and corroborative account of his life. The argument then follows that since the narratives are true, then it follows that the miracles are true. Thus Christ really was born of a virgin, walk on water, heal the sick, raise the dead, and in turn conquered death himself.

So in hindsight it comes at no surprise that people quibble over whether Jesus was real or not. Of course if the story were entirely made up, then that would be the easiest way to defeat Christianity. But like those positing that the fossil record is fake to dismiss evolution, such a view doesn't appear to reflect the reality of the situation. Now I take the view that the question of a historical Jesus is a meaningless one, it's asking the wrong question.

A hooded mystery
Growing up in an English-derived culture, the myth of Robin Hood should be familiar to us. This 12th century outlaw who stood up against tyranny while the noble king was off fighting for God and country (mainly God) would have been the perfect analogy. Except that this seems to be false, the myth didn't start there but was altered in the 16th century to be that tale. It's a good thing I decided to check out the Robin Hood story before launching into a very complex and false analogy which would have been based on the tale I've heard in the 20th century.

But no matter, the myth may have been altered through time but it doesn't take away from the point I wanted to make - that is the distinction between a historical figure and a legend. So lets take the Robin Hood character and ask, what does it mean for Robin Hood to be a historical figure? i.e. what can be said about the man himself that sufficiently ties the mythic narrative to the exploits of a real person?

It seems that on some accounts, it would be preferable to say that if there was someone called Robin Hood who was an outlaw, then that's sufficient to cast him as a historical figure. The real Robin Hood didn't live in the forest with his merry men, wear green, seduce the lovely maid Marion, or rally against the forces of tyranny.

The problem I see with this view is now that while the myth may be coupled with actual events, the actual events don't reflect the narrative of the myth. It's all well and good to say that there was a historical Robin Hood, but he's not at all what we expect Robin Hood to be. To highlight this further, maybe it needs to be a little more absurd. Santa Claus will do. Now there are plenty of historical stories of men giving gifts on Christmas from many different countries. Yet do we talk about the bearded figure who really should be worried that his workshop will be in danger of sinking next summer?

In other words, there seems to be an equivocation brought in between real people and the "historical" narratives as we understand them today. A real Santa doesn't mean flying reindeer, a real Robin Hood doesn't entail the merry men, and a real Jesus doesn't entail driving out the money lenders from the temple. Thus why I think it asks the wrong question whether Jesus was a historical figure. How does the legend match the historical actuality of events?

The problem of miracles
No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish. - David Hume
The above quote highlights the problem that comes with positing the miraculous. This isn't a categorical denial that miracles (in the sense of a violation of natural law) could happen, but rather at the nature of believing in such things.

So with the narrative being littered with miracles, how confident can one be that the gospels are a reliable source? Now I know some who posit that the miraculous is what shows Jesus to be what he truly is, that the implausibility actually adds to the possibility that Jesus is the real deal. So lets take that to be true for one moment. Lets say that all the miracles of the New Testament did indeed happen. So the gospel narratives are in-fact historical eyewitness accounts. How can we satisfy the problem of miracles as stated by Hume above?

This to me is where the problem lies. We weren't there to witness the events, and even if we were we wouldn't be able to safely say that what we witnessed was a violation of natural law or merely an illusion. After all we have plenty of experience with illusionists but no experiences with the violation of natural law. What we are relying on is the interpretation of individuals to what they think they saw independent of the events that actually transpired. In other words, we can see Uri Geller bending spoons but seeing the bending of spoons doesn't follow that a violation of natural law (or indeed an unknown natural phenomenon) actually took place.

So even being the most generous we could be to the accuracy of the narrative, we could not in all conscience accept the narrative to be true. We just couldn't be able to distinguish between an interpretation of events, dismiss all other possibilities that such events happened naturally, account for lying or trickery, reinterpretation, exaggeration, the fallibility of memory, etc. So while it could indeed have happened as stated, we have no good basis to believe that it happened that way.

A house of cards
Back to the question of whether the narrative matches with the actuality of events. Hopefully by now I've established the problems associated with taking the biblical Jesus as a historical Jesus. As much as it would be an easy dismissal of the concept, whether Nazarene existed in the 1st century CE or not doesn't matter so much. Neither does whether the gospels between themselves can put a consistent picture of what happened in the tomb. These are trivial points that really don't to my mind capture the issue.

Pointing to the addition of Mark 16:9-20 or the modification on Josephus' work in the 4th century to make Jesus a more historical figure really only serve to cast doubt on the untenable assumption of historical acuity of the gospel writers themselves. It doesn't satisfy the problem of anecdotal eyewitness evidence, even if those witnesses were second hand seeming a good rebuttal or that witnesses 2 and 3 plagiarised from witness 1.

At what point would a historical charismatic cult leader qualify as the man behind the legend? Does the exclusion of actual miracles still make the biblical Jesus a historical one? What if the events that took place in John involving the money lenders never happened? Or that the words attributed to him are really a collective of profundities proclaimed by a variety of holy men? If parts of the Jesus story were written to fulfil Old Testament prophecies, does it still count as being a historical Jesus?

This is why I find the question of a historical Jesus quite irrelevant. Whether there really was a man or not doesn't factor into why I don't believe. Even if there was a man behind the myth, it doesn't necessitate miracles or prescribed events. Putting a place, time, and even person onto the myth means that there is still the myth to contend with.

To me it comes down to if someone wants to believe, it's a matter of faith. If one has faith that the particular narrative is true, then no matter what inconsistencies, additions, impossibilities, etc. there's going to be no way to shake someone out of that.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Of Scepticism And Denialism

What is it about climate change that makes people think they are experts in it? I guess it doesn't matter too much, chalk one more up for Dunning-Kruger. Perhaps it's the politicising of the issue. It matters to us, so we're going to be McExperts while the few trained in the relevant sciences battle it out in academia. I'd love to be able to rip apart the claims made in "climategate" but I don't know how to address it correctly. Rather what I want to talk about is the tone of scepticism. Does the evidence warrant the conclusion?

The situation
It's important to remember what is being alleged here. That tens of thousands of scientists are colluding together in order to cook up a non-existing threat. They are subverting the general peer review process, falsifying data, and worst of all working together to lie to the public in regard to the consequences of the current lifestyle we live. Or at the very least trying to serve their own careers by getting funding.

To allege a conspiracy is a pretty big deal, especially one involving so many people. It would mean that tens of thousands of people would all have to collaborate to keep the secret. Not telling their friends or family for one, and given the public nature of this controversy would have to be lying to the public, politicians, industry groups and even to friends and family. That's a lot of people needing to keep their story straight.

But maybe there's something a little more obvious, maybe the people perpetrating the "conspiracy" are doing so unwillingly, they might all be ideologues who have reasoned to themselves that something that ain't true is - and it's something that fits with a radical political agenda that supposedly these tens of thousands of scientists all share.

It's not fair to treat it like a religion given that the people involved are the ones who have the relevant expertise to address the claims. That is to say there would be thousands of people equipped with the ability to see that the data doesn't line up. That there would be many who could see that it's fake. So there should be many with the relevant expertise who could uncover this conspiracy at any time.

This is to try and paint what the emails need to demonstrate - that they need to be significant enough to match the extraordinary nature of the narrative. It's not being alleged that the amount attributed to human activity might not be as much as before where the scientific process will correct it, but of mass fraud to hide that there's no human-induced climate change.

The smoking gun?
Now these emails are meant to be sufficient enough to demonstrate the ramifications of what's being argued. In all honesty, do these emails meet, exceed or even tend towards to the notion that there is mass fraud being perpetrated on a grand scale?

One reason I would argue against this is the nature of the scientific enterprise. It really is cut-throat and people make a name for themselves not by going with the tide but against it. They may be ridiculed and scorned by the scientific community, but ultimately if the data fits then fortune and fame beckon. It's by no means perfect, but the system has proved to work time and time again. Not to give complete trust to the process, but to recognise that on a whole the scientific endeavour has a good track record.

So the question to ask would be does the contents of the email make a sufficient case for widespread fraud? This isn't just finding damning sentences with no regard to context, but taking context into account and the significance of what is said, is there reason to suspect the entire enterprise is fraud? If someone for example said that they have doubts over AGW, is this dissenter being silenced? That is to say that such a person hasn't made such a view public through the peer review research.

This is not to try to be facetious, rather to put in perspective the level to which the evidence needs to be in order to justify the logical implications of what is being proposed. I confess, as soon as the word conspiracy is brought up, I tune out. Conspiracies beyond a few people are just so implausible. But I could be mistaken, I haven't read the emails nor do I have an intimate knowledge of the reasons for climate change beyond the basics. I await the results of the investigation. But what gets me is the denialism masquerading as scepticism, the denialists are pretending that their the sceptics and over what?

Cult of denial
I use the word cult as hyperbole, though I feel that there's something truthful in the characterisation. I say this not to offend but to explain the difference between being sceptical and labelling yourself a "sceptic". And we should be sceptical of climate change, we should be sceptical of everything. But to my mind a sceptic is one who follows the evidence where it leads them as opposed to taking an ideological position. Unfortunately my dealings with "sceptics" and seeing "sceptic" pundits in the media is that they aren't sceptical, they have an ideological position which they are adhering to.

Again I can't fault people for being ideological, they are human. What I am calling out is when the ideology is so blatant that it clouds the assessment on the issue. Now I hear you say, there are plenty of ideologues who support climate change. I agree, but it is a red herring. The question is how closely does the conjecture of ideologues match the evidence?

A couple of notes for concern is with the "sceptics" is how easily they'll tap onto anything that means climate change isn't real. I remember seeing the head of GM on The Daily Show / Colbert Report (can't remember which one) talking about a survey of scientists who doubt man-made climate change. I've also heard this brought up by a few "sceptics". But it's a poor survey. Creationists use a similar tactic to deny evolution.

Another similarity I see to the creationist movement is to label those who support Anthropogenic Global Warming as a religious cult. Similar to the creationists use of Darwin. It's something I see come up all the time, labelling anyone who believes in human-induced climate change as basically faith-based. Again, this isn't an issue of peoples beliefs but a scientific position. Is the science flawed? Is it wrong? The beliefs of the supporters shouldn't matter. It seems the logical steps followed equate to the faith of people (not everyone knows everything) with the article in question being a faith. It does not follow and "sceptics" do themselves a disservice by such a blatant error of thinking.

To get back to the emails, do the emails really implicate the entire scientific discipline of science? As put above, this is not quote mining to find the most damning comment, but taking the emails in context and using them to not misrepresent those in action. This to me is where the big question over the whole "controversy" lies. Does the evidence point to AGW being a conspiracy? Does it undermine the data presented by the IPCC and destroy what is the scientific consensus? I'm sceptical of the "sceptics" on this one. This is a dead give-away that many involved are showing their ideology, that they are looking for anything that might put a hole in what they don't want to be true.

It's quite sad that so many who are accusing others of being ideologues are showing themselves to be just what they are accusing others of. And for what? This is what I really can't grasp. The ferocity of those trying to deny human-induced climate change doesn't match with any particular ideology, yet there are indeed denialists.

Someone who is seeking the truth should be looking for good evidence to support their position, and they should be willing to change their minds if the evidence dictates. Seizing on bad evidence as proof is only serving to openly demonstrate pre-existing conclusions. It all might be a conspiracy, this might seriously impact on the IPCC position and the general scientific consensus surrounding climate change. I don't know, I have my doubts because that would mean conspiracy. But it may be the case. But right now, acting with certainty that this destroys all notions of AGW is not being sceptical in the least. It's finding something that fits the narrative of an implausible story, and that's one for the conspiracy theorists.

An Inversion Of Reason To Point Out The Obvious

I've got to say I enjoy listening or reading Dan Dennett. Currently I'm pushing myself through Consciousness Explained and I've got to say it feels like he's lead me through the rabbit hole and suddenly a few pages of I've found myself in a strange reality where I have no idea what's gone on. Right or wrong, he really makes it sound so simple as if all it takes is an inversion of reasoning followed to its logical conclusion.

So looking on his university website, I came across a recent paper of his titled: "Darwin's Strange Inversion Of Reasoning". A very interesting paper seeking how Darwin's evolutionary thinking flipped the way we think about agency and structure. A watch without a watchmaker? Structure without agency? Natural selection provides the answer.

And so the argument from design dies another death. To me looking at it in the year 2009, it might now appear obvious. "Well of course it has to be that way" I can say comfortably without having to come up with the idea myself. Well the idea is out now. And no matter how many watches or houses or any other human-designed object, it just doesn't apply to animals. Why?

Think of the relationship between a watch and a watchmaker. The watchmaker puts a number of intricate and complex parts together to perform purpose. In other words, if I want a watch I need one manufactured for me. What if I wanted a puppy though? To get a puppy I go to a puppy-maker; i.e. a bitch that has given birth.

But how could this be? An intelligent agent didn't design and build me a puppy for the purpose of going for walks and throwing a ball to. Agency is involved, but it's by no means intelligent; and certainly not intelligent in the way that a human creating a robopuppy would be. If left to its own devices, the puppy would grow into a dog and then serve to start the cycle all over again. The purpose of a puppy is to make more puppies perhaps?

This argument runs into an ad infinitum, that there must be an infinite sequence of puppies going back. Yet the science shows that both the earth and the universe itself are finite. So there can't be an infinite sequence. So there was created the first dog by a magical being? Design might not have died just yet.

Life is mutable, changing over time. Dogs for example were domesticated some 15,000 years ago, and all forms of dog come from that original domesticated pack of wolves. It seems that my puppy-maker didn't always make puppies of the form I see now. Over 100 breeds and they all come from the same stock a few thousand generations ago.

So my greyhound-maker and my poodle-maker at one stage in their history made neither poodles nor greyhounds. If we follow this back, at another point it no longer made dogs. Or mammals. Or tetrapods. Or vertebrates. Or animals. Follow it back far enough and it becomes parent and eventually there's the starting point of life.

And there you have it. Back some 3.5 billion years to a pre-biotic state. The evolutionary process builds life and by the nature of the process it builds life that is adept at surviving in its environment. To posit a watchmaker is not only unnecessary, it requires a break in the process - and as David Hume would have PHILO argue, to do so on no basis of experience is speculative.

Darwin's strange inversion of reasoning allows us to reconcile the observations of how the natural world works, at the same time as explaining why there was a mismatch between such observation and our intuition to attribute structure to agency. Dawkins isn't exaggerating when he said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

Being Dragged Kicking And Screaming Towards Equality

The Sydney diocese of the Anglican Church warns the election of a second openly gay bishop in the US means a split in the worldwide Anglican Communion is inevitable.

The Los Angeles Episcopalian church elected 55-year-old lesbian Reverend Mary Douglas Glasspool as assistant bishop on the weekend, the first lesbian elected to the role.

Despite the appointment, she still needs a majority of the National Episcopal Church to formally approve the position.

The election of Gene Robinson five years ago as the first gay bishop in the US caused deep rifts in the Anglican Church.

The world head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, says the election raises very serious questions for Anglican Communion as a whole.

"The election of Mary Glasspool by the Diocese of Los Angeles as suffragan bishop elect raises very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole," he said in a statement.

"The process of selection however is only part complete. The election has to be confirmed, or could be rejected, by diocesan bishops and diocesan standing committees.

"That decision will have very important implications."

The Sydney diocese has been vocal in its opposition to the election of gay and lesbian clergy, and Bishop of South Sydney Robert Forsythe says the latest appointment is disappointing.

"I understand that homosexual people are real people who need loving commitment to Christ and helping to live faithful lives," he said.

"But to endorse this as a leader of the church sends in my view entirely the wrong message and is inconsistent with discipleship to Christ.

Split 'inevitable'

The worldwide Anglican Communion had agreed to a freeze on the election of gay clergy to stem a possible major rift within the church, and Bishop Forsythe says a split now seems inevitable.

"The Anglican Communion as a united body is now history, and now we are seeing a complete restructuring of relationships," he said.

"I think that is what the event is showing. Communion as a united body is now history.

"I am not saying this one event changes everything. It just continues to cement the trajectory towards a restructuring of the Anglican Communion in the world.

"I think it (a split) was inevitable before this frankly, but yes, I think it is inevitable now."

'Series of bluffs'

Dr Muriel Porter, an Anglican laywoman and commentator, says she welcomes the election of Mary Glasspool, and says the majority of people within the Anglican church will not have a problem with a lesbian bishop.

"We've had threats of splits going back now over 20 years. I think it is a series of bluffs," she said.

"If the church had to split - and I hope and pray it won't - [but] if it had to split over an issue of principle, in some ways it might be better than us living constantly with our nerves jangling, with the threat of split and the threat of all these terrible things constantly hanging over the church's head.

"We might actually be able to get on with things.

"So I am actually not fazed or frightened. I am actually proud of the Americans for standing by the principle of inclusion both for women and gay people."
Can this notion now that religion and morality go hand in hand die now? It's pathetic that bigotry and persecution are tolerated when they come in the form of religion. It's especially pathetic that at the same time we recognise that there is bigotry in the church, we still look to the church as a bastion for morality. There's a disconnect there, that we can recognise the value call being wrong but because it interferes with the dogma... oh lord, all hell will break loose.

Maybe all seething Anglican churches can put up on their message boards next week "God hates fags". Though this is unfair, this is the 21st century and we have a new enlightened church. "God doesn't hate fags, he just doesn't think them teaching the dogma is appropriate given Romans 1:32"

Really, do those who believe in God think he has nothing more important on his agenda than a female bishop that might have kissed a girl and liked it? It's quite simply absurd, this really should be a non-issue. Religion has shown that in the 21st century that as a whole it is playing catch-up to the moral standards of the age. Dragged kicking and screaming into a state of tolerance.