Saturday, 30 April 2011

Tooth Fairy

Near-death experiences prove dualism in the same way as a child from a penniless family receiving money for her tooth proves a tooth fairy. An argument from ignorance is still an argument from ignorance even if the solution is not apparent.

Friday, 29 April 2011


"Best explanations are not only coherent, they are testable; they have predictive power; and they fit not just the facts of the case but other known facts as well." - Julian Baggini

My Future King?

Today, the second in line to be King of Australia is getting married. My care-factor is the same as the care-factor for the Swedish royal wedding or a celebrity wedding (i.e. none at all), yet this is meant to be my king. It's a really odd thought, but that's the absurdity that is the anachronism of European colonialism in the 21st century. Someone halfway around the world has an official title that effectively means nothing.

Every time I think of the monarchy, that scene from Holy Grail comes to mind:
Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Homoeopathy Dilemma

The 1023 campaign has tried to highlight to the general public that homoeopathy didn't work, the idea was to demonstrate that there was nothing in it. If you ask non-homoeopaths about homoeopathy, many people will say it's a form of herbal medicine. It would be fair to say that many are unaware of what homoeopathy is, let alone how it is meant to work.

Yet professional homoeopaths are aware that there's nothing in it. After all, it's not the material that matters but the vibrations of the material that stem from the process. So what good does it do to point out something that is not claimed to be there in the first place?

And therein lies the dilemma. Since many people think that homoeopathy is a form of herbal medicine, should it be attacked as such? If it's attacked on grounds that it's understood, homoeopaths have every right to say that what is being attacked is not homoeopathy. But what good is it to go after the "true" homoeopathy if people have a misconception of what homoeopathy is?

This applies to more than homoeopathy, of course, as there's plenty out there where the general perception differs from the "academic" one. What good does it to show an internal contradiction in a particular theodicy, for example, when such musings have no bearing of the beliefs of millions?

Perhaps an argument from completeness might be justification. That is, if someone who supports homoeopathy is under the false impression that homoeopathy is herbal medicine, then they could always fall back on homoeopathy working for them even if theirs no active ingredient. Or that one could perhaps find a theologian who can justify a global flood even if they can't themselves.

The great thing about the 1023 campaign is that I think it transcended specifics by simply showing that homoeopathy doesn't work. Taking an "overdose" of "sleeping pills" and not only being perfectly fine but not sleepy at all demonstrates that no matter what people say homoeopathy is, it doesn't live up to the claims made of it.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Always One Too Many

When people say there are too many abortions in society, do they have a figure in mind of what's acceptable? 100% abortions would be unacceptable, obviously, as would a number that kept the birthrate too low for a sustainable population. But what then? Would any abortion that was done as a means of birth control be one too many? Would any abortion be too many?

The problem of course is that we can easily find examples of where we can validate a sense of outrage. That we could easily do better by eradication of such waste. Perhaps it's easy to give examples of teenagers who got pregnant instead of staying abstinent and then using abortion to shirk their responsibility.

Another example is taxation. It's easy to feel outraged over government waste, that one's tax level is always going to be too high because there's always government spending on useless things. I remember a few years ago a news report complaining about a painting that the New South Wales government spent a 6-figure sum to purchase which was white paint on white canvas. Not purchasing that would have saved each New South Wales taxpayer around five cents!

The kind of argument is somewhat deceptive, as it provides a small point of agreement with the implication being the implicit support of total eradication. It's easy to gesture to a reduction, but to what extent does it entail? For those who wish to see an end to abortion, getting pro-choice people to agree to wanting to reduce abortions is really an implicit mandate for condemning the practice. Likewise libertarians will see any and all taxation as stealing, using waste as the mandate for a reduction from what there is now.

Sometimes it is important to argue for reduction, and reduction can be a good thing. Perhaps it's important to reduce spending in a time when the budget won't allow for it, but then it's too high in regard to an external constraint. The Iraq War might have cost the American taxpayer hundreds of billions at a time when there's a high deficit, but is the outrage in that case really about the money or the act of war? For those opposing the war, they would do well to steer away from the costs because their outrage is not with the fiscal cost but with war itself.

But reduction for reduction's sake is a weasel argument, a means to gather support for a position that people would otherwise find unfavourable, through finding smaller favourable elements that both sides can agree on. If I agree that funding the high arts is a waste of taxpayer money (I don't, for the record) it doesn't mean that I think taxes could or should go lower. Likewise if I agree that using abortion as a method of birth control is something bad (I don't, for the record) it doesn't mean that I wish to see the end of abortion.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Interpretations And Data

Right way to analyse a phenomenon:
Here's some data, how shall we interpret it?

Wrong way to analyse a phenomenon:
Here's my interpretation, why do you deny the data?

Too often I see people taking the data and interpretation as if one implied the other. Take near death experiences, for example. If someone thinks that near-death experiences mean that the mind and body are literally separated, then all they've done is taken their interpretation of near-death experiences as being proof of something that's not so. Near-death experiences may well fit into a physical model, after all the experiences don't show that the physical wasn't involved.

Another example is fine-tuning. If there is only a certain range of parameters in the universe that allow for our existence, does that mean that the laws of physics were made for our existence? Of course not. But the interpretation of the extreme improbability is so often put alongside the data as if one implied the other. And again, those who are sceptical are put into a false dichotomy of either denying the phenomenon or accepting the interpretation of it.

Standing back and thinking whether or not the interpretation holds or if its the only interpretation is what's needed. Near-death experiences for example might mean dualism, but that has further implications for mind and body and need to be explored elsewhere. Fine-tuning for us also holds for ants and asteroids, so perhaps the interpretation that it means the universe was created for us isn't so tightly coupled as some make fine-tuning out to be.

The mistake is best highlighted by thinking that the tooth fairy as visited because one's tooth has gone and money has been left in its place. Just because people say that's what tooth fairies do...

Monday, 25 April 2011

Game Review: Portal 2

Back in the final days of my computer science degree, I was introduced to the game Narbacular Drop; a student-made game made. As a concept it was really novel, and as a computer science student it was amazing to see what a group of students were able to come up with.

I really enjoyed the original Portal, it's very clever in its execution and kept a dark sense of humour throughout the game to keep it interesting. The only problem I found with it was how short the game was and how immediate its finish. Playing through the game last week it took less than an hour from start to finish and I wasn't really trying. But in terms of the concept and what to do with it, Portal is a very remarkable game.

Portal 2 was a worthy sequel, taking what was great about Portal and expanding it. It added enough new features to the environment to make for a variety of puzzles (there's only so much you can do with two portals and the first game had that covered) and gave much more of a story. Possibly the best way to describe it would be to say that Portal was the tech demo and Portal 2 was the proper execution.

But what I think was its stand-out element was its dark, sometimes morbid, humour that was present throughout the story and in a variety of ways. From a psychotic AI with a penchant for personal insults, to an entrepreneur with a reckless disregard for anything (including money or safety) getting in the way of results, there's always something to laugh at in the process.

The game, unlike the original, was long enough. It kept its novelty the whole way through, and only at a few points did it feel like there was no obvious direction to go and I had gotten myself into a dead end. If there was one quibble about this game compared to the original, it's that the ending song was better in the original. The co-op mode is also a welcome addition. When your mistakes kill others, it's comedy. But when their mistakes kill you, it's not very funny at all!

In a year which promises Duke Nukem Forever (finally), Elder Scrolls 5, and possibly Diablo III, Portal 2 has made a very compelling case for Game Of The Year already. If you loved Portal (who didn't?), then Portal 2 is a must buy.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Impossible Calculation

The utility of any moral system is surely measured in its ability to help make moral decisions from first principles. If it can't do that, then what's the point? This is one major problem I have with forms of divine command theory, its predicated on what that which is divinely-commanded, yet how can we establish what is divinely-commanded and what isn't from first-principles? It's a non-starter, instead a platform which people who have presuppositions about what constitutes divine knowledge push it as absolute truth.

I can agree with Sam Harris that religion does not provide a good framework for questions of morality. I can stand with him in condemning the action throwing battery acid in a child's face for learning to read as being morally wrong. I can even agree with him that there are certain actions that are better than others, and certain actions that would do nothing but cause harm, and even to the point that some of these create moral obligations. But I disagree that science is the foundation of such statements, or that it should be treated as such.

My problem with Harris is two-fold. First is that by calling it a scientific issue is writing off the importance of philosophical contemplation even when there's empirical considerations. Philosophers from Anthony Appiah to Simon Blackburn have taken Harris to task over this issue. Second, and more importantly, what he's advocating is useless.

I think the best that could be said for Harris' position is that it frames morality in real terms, taking the talk away from abstracts and into a view that is accessible. And for examples of moral horrors, like female circumcision or ritual sacrifice, it allows for saying its wrong for factors that are external to cultural authorities.

But now that we've granted that, then what? How do we apply such a framework to issues like euthanasia or abortion - two issues that provoke great passion from people on both sides of the issue. Is it even possible under what Harris is proposing to calculate objective answers to such questions? I'm sceptical because I don't think we could ever calculate it; there would always be a dispute between the weighting of certain factors and what are the relevant considerations of well-being. And no amount of data collection, to me it seems, is going to resolve the issue. And that's assuming that data-gathering is something practical to begin with.

Even down to Harris' pet example, the burka. Let's say we put burka wearers in fMRI machines and it turned out that 75% of them had a positive response to the burka, while 15% were neutral and 10% a negative one. Would that then make it moral? What if the numbers were slightly different? What about other factors like social cohesion or a diminished sense of worth, a lesser prosperity overall? If you ask most people who are against a burka why, the standard answer would be that it oppressed women.

In a discussion with Richard Dawkins, Harris tried to interpret the results of the trolley problem in terms of a consequentialism taking into factors such as mental anguish we might feel if we did such an action. Pushing a rally fat man off a bridge into the path of a trolley might lead us to mental anguish, but what of the years of potential medical operations for the morbidly obese man and his family watching on as he slowly gets worse - perhaps the doctors who would otherwise have to intervene in bypass surgery might be thankful for not having to participate in such operations. Not to forget the tax / insurance burden which helps collectively many people, but perhaps producers of food might suffer.

I can agree with Harris that science has a role in moral decision making, after all we are talking about how our behaviour affects others. Our nature is relevant to moral decision making, it would make no sense to have moral prescriptions that weren't relevant to our nature. Likewise, an understanding of consequences for our actions is very important too. The various empirical disciplines if they're not informing our moral decision making to my mind make us weaker for it.

But in terms of having a practical means of making moral decisions, what Harris is advocating doesn't really help. Moral reasoning has to have that utility, that ability for us to take such a view and apply it to how we act. I can accept the premise that Harris puts forward, but it's hardly substantial enough to put into good use. If the goal is just to have some grounding for right and wrong to overcome moral relativism and divine command theory, then I have no problem with what Harris is putting forward. But that's only the first step, and a step that has been dealt with by many moral philosophers the world over.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Organic Fair Trade

I really do like the idea of fair trade, though when looking at fair trade products, often they have the word organic in near proximity. I can understand why that is, that many people who would be willing to buy fair trade are the kind of people who would also buy organic food. But as one person who values the role of modern technology in our food production, to me organic represents a backwards approach to farming. Organic is not a sustainable farming model, nor is it best practice for the yield of the crops.

Perhaps at this stage, fair trade needs to be organic because the people more willing to buy fair trade are those who buy organic food. But if it stays this way, fair trade will be little more than for those in affluent countries to pretend their doing something positive in the world.

Friday, 22 April 2011


"Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man." - David Hume

Substantiating Memetics

The concept of memes was interesting when I first heard it, became metaphorical the more I learnt about it, and now I consider it as not having any explanatory power. Yet there is still some superficial plausibility to it the idea, and that was highlighted on a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory.

In the episode, two of the characters decided to spread two rumours to see whether or not there was a differential success in the rumour spreading among social groups. One, a hot piece of gossip, the other not. Of course the gossip spreads and memetics is shown to be a success!

If that's all memes are, then it's not really saying much. Meme would be a vague metaphor, useful as a short hand for ideas that spread quickly but little more. It's hardly showing the value of memetics, and especially not of the analogy between memes and genes and the invocation of a Darwinian framework. In other words, if memes are like genes then we should see memes modifying themselves in order to continue to thrive and becoming better replicators.

It's a lot harder to think of examples of the latter case. It's likely that there are examples out there (the term meme itself is probably a good candidate in that it started out as a Darwinian replicator and has changed to become a term for a rapidly-spreading cultural unit) but in terms of what people mean when they say meme, it's not really anything more than a vague metaphor.

It seems that meme has become somewhat of what Dan Dennett calls a deepity. That is an idea or phrase that is true in a trivial sense, and in another sense sounds profound but is intellectually hollow. Of course some ideas spread better than others, but the earth-shattering implications of memes just doesn't pan out.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Sweatshop Conundrum

While slavery is gone, we still face the problem of exploitation in our modern society when it comes to products. We can fight for fair working conditions and compensation in our own quarters, but in a global economy, it can be much cheaper to use less affluent societies to produce what are consumed elsewhere. If we're not willing to subject people to those working conditions in our own society, aren't we being hypocrites by consuming products made by people in such conditions?

I find the conundrum in buying such products in that I don't think there's a good answer to what we should do. We are legitimising the practice by supporting the product, but those people who work in such conditions don't do so out of a sense of self-punishment, they're in a bad enough situation that they have to work in order to survive.

Now I don't want to even suggest that it's a moral thing buy sweatshop clothing because those people need those jobs, it would be the worst pretence to even suggest something along those lines. Rather I'm trying to highlight the conundrum I see in such exploitation. While ideally the problem would be avoided by banning such products, the best way I can see to look to solving the problem is to buy fair trade products where possible.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Disaster Insurance

Insurance, in order to remain a viable business, needs to be profitable for insurers in the long run. Someone is paying for any insurance bonus one gets, just like with poker machines that have a set margin of return. If someone wins big, it means that multiple people have lost - and that excludes the margin the poker machine companies take out.

In terms of a disaster fund for Australia, I can't see why insurance is a better option than ensuring enough money is put aside. Perhaps it's for the short-term access to funds, but in the long run I can't see how insurance is a good idea. It seems inevitable that we're going to be paying more than what it would cost just to take care of it ourselves, otherwise who is paying for it?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Something From Nothing

"Why is there something rather than nothing?" In some ways, it's the most puzzling question of all. Because even if we can explain everything about the universe, (e.g. why there are humans is because of evolution; why there is matter is because of energy) what we cannot explain is why there is anything at all.

There are many problems with such a question, the main one is that we assume that nothing is the natural state of things. We know that there has to be something but how can we assume that it all came from nothing? Some cite the big bang as showing something came from nothing, but any superficial resemblance to the question is a product of the inadequacy of language.

And it's there where a grave concern lies. Our capacity for language is something astounding, evolutionary speaking, there's no animal that even comes close to what we have in terms of communication skills. Yet how could we possibly expect that language to be able to properly comprehend something like the origin of the universe? Perhaps if we can gain a sense of conceptual clarity then the question can be asked in a more meaningful way, but when there are those who take "quantum vacuum fluctuations" are something, or complain that the scientific answer doesn't satisfy the philosophical question, it's reducing the question to a mere word-game*.

*If theists say that something comes from nothing, does that mean God is nothing? Check-mate, theists!

Monday, 18 April 2011

My Ideal Rusty Nail

When it comes to scotch, it seems a heresy to use it in a cocktail. Cocktails are for lesser drinks, not for drinks that are to be enjoyed for what they are. Likewise Drambuie as a scotch liqueur is incredibly good on its own, richly complex with herbal and honey characteristics to complement the underlying scotch. Yet I immensely enjoy a good rusty nail. My ideal recipe is:
  • 3 parts Glenlivet 12YO
  • 2 parts Drambuie

I find this works well because the Glenlivet is not very smoky, so it makes for a nicely balanced drink. The Drambuie takes the edge off the alcohol as well as giving it an immediate up-front intensity, then in mid palate comes what I can only describe as a malt bomb going off in my mouth.

Best served without ice.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Coercion Through Dishonesty

Recently I've been seeing advertisements warning against using drugs by highlighting the chemicals that might be used in the product. The chemicals are no doubt toxic ones, but the question is whether such chemicals can actually have negative health effects in the quantities taken with the drug itself. If not, for all the best intentions, the campaign is relying on the same fallacious foundation that the anti-vaxxers and opponents of modern agriculture rest their arguments on.

When it comes to something like drug information, it's easy to turn a blind eye if the product helps people stop taking substances that can be dangerous in other ways. Cigarette ads that highlight all the different chemicals in cigarettes are guilty of the same thing. it's coercion through dishonesty, not through providing wrong information, but implicitly inferring false concerns.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Impossible Moral Epistemology

Let's say, hypothetically, that a form of divine command theory is true. That the only ontology in which objective morality makes any sense is one grounded by God. Now comes the question of epistemology - how do we know what's good? No matter what premises one puts as the grounding of the ontology, there's simply no way of deriving what is right or wrong. Rather we're left making the subjective judgement based on our own nature, reason, revelation, or perceived authority. And even after all that we're still none the wiser.

There's the problem that we simply cannot recognise what is good as we have no objective way of knowing it. The sacrifice of holding such a moral ontology is the absolute devotion of faith that the morality one is taught or feels a deep inner conviction towards is the morality - just like everyone else. To hold such a moral ontology, to my mind, is giving up any chance at moral knowledge for the sake of necessitating God.

Friday, 15 April 2011


"Creationists make it sound as though a 'theory' is something you dreamt up after being drunk all night." - Isaac Asimov

Good Theology

As an atheist, I'm really not into the position to judge whether something is good theology or not. I can point out implications, inconsistencies, and absurdities, but I don't have any basis for what makes something good theology. As such, if someone makes an argument on the basis of their interpretation of scripture, can I really say that they're interpretation is correct?

Ken Miller, for example, argues that ID proponents are wrong on theological grounds. I've heard some people argue that there is hell and some argue that there isn't. I've heard some theologians cite the first two books of Genesis to show that it's not meant to be taken literally, while others say that it should. And to me, that's just fighting over how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Only Coincidence?

Normally I don't engage in internet surveys, but last time I was moving house I did one relating to phone companies. I had some pretty bad things to say about my phone carrier in the survey, and a few hours later my phone was cut off. Coincidence? Yes. My phone was meant to be cut off anyway, though they did it a few days early. But of course that one action followed the other made me see a connection between the two. Even though I know it's silly to think that one action caused the other, on some level I can't help but see a connection between the two. Training the mind to distinguish between the obviously absurd with the intuitively linked is harder than it sounds.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


It's often said that if atheism were true, there would be no ultimate justice for our actions. The wicked would go unpunished and the good would go unrewarded. While there's no universal requirement for justice to exist, isn't the lack of justice in an afterlife an imperative to working towards justice in this life? Surely if we know that this life is it, and we abhor injustice and wicked deeds, then that's motivation to do something about it.

If it could be said in atheism there is no ultimate justice, then it theism there is no motivation to do something about it.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Kinds Of Determinism

One objection to the notion of moral responsibility is one of determinism. That is, if we can't help do what we do, then we are not responsible for it. Discussions about materialism often hinge around the assumption that if it's all physically determined there's no sense to have moral responsibility.

But physical determinism isn't the only kind of determinism out there that people use to take away moral responsibility. Biological determinism, and societal determinism both plays roles in diminishing our sense of responsibility of action. So I want to write a short list of the kinds of determinism out there, and how they are perceived to undermine that sense of responsibility. Whether they do or not, that's another story. But for now here are the main factors to consider.

* Physical Determinism
Physical determinism can be summarised as everything that happens in the universe is determined by the prior state of the universe. Thus as physical beings, we have no control over what happens - what happens is determined by the jiggling of atoms in accordance with fixed laws. Thus for some, there is no responsibility in determinism, for how could things be otherwise?

* Biological Determinism
Biological determinism can be summarised that many of our impulses and behaviours are caused by genetic and epigenetic factors. The question of the permissibility of homosexuality centres around whether homosexuality is actually a choice, that is to say that people are through biological factors gay.

* Cultural Determinism
Cultural determinism can be summarised as that someone is a product of their culture to the extent that cultural beliefs and practices dominate the behavioural outcomes of the individual. Someone brought up in a culture that taught racism, for example, would turn out racist themselves. Social problems are often blamed on units of culture, like violent television, music, or video games, that are seen to be the negative factors that cause crime.

* Circumstantial Determinism
Circumstantial determinism can be summarised as that someone's circumstances in life are what lead to behaviours. Abused turn into abusers, poverty perpetuates poverty, criminals breed criminals; in other words, the positive and negative aspects of one's life are dictated by the prior circumstances in their life.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Christianity And The Evidential Problem Of Miracles

The Shroud of Turin is often held up as relic of Christ, even though there's no evidence that it actually was the burial shroud of Christ, and there's very good evidence to suggest that it was a middle-ages work of art.

There's a modern day story spread that Darwin recanted on his deathbed, something that is completely made up. The person in question who Darwin was supposed to have recanted to didn't visit Darwin during his final days.

Many statues, mainly of the Virgin Mary, have been made to weep in order to appear miraculous.

Faith healers use a variety of deceptive techniques as part of their performances.

A group of people committed suicide, convinced that by doing so there was a spaceship behind the comet Hale Bopp, where their suicide was casting off bodies to take them to the next level.

There are many people who are rewriting history to make United States a Christian nation, despite the secular nature of the origins of the country.

I could go on with examples, but it should be clear by now. These are the kinds of behaviours that we know people are capable of, especially when it comes to religious belief. For us to look back at the accounts of the New Testament and early Christianity, is the only good explanation that Jesus really was who he is made out to be in the gospels?

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Objectifying Wine

When it comes to trying wine, studies have shown that there's a huge psychological component to the experience. For example, if you give people the same wine and change say to some that it's a $90 bottle while to others its a $10 bottle, the wine will be rated more highly if it's given a higher cost. The same white wine dyed to look red will taste sweeter for those who drank the white. Most interesting was a study that found under double-blind trials, general wine drinkers would prefer a cheaper wine to a more expensive one while professional wine drinkers prefer the more expensive but don't notice much of a difference.

When I first heard about how perceived cost can affect quality, I was quite shocked. The next time I went wine tasting I decided to try the wine before looking at how much it cost. One interesting find was a wine I rated really highly (an Otago Pinot Noir) turned out to have a price tag to match. It did make me feel somewhat vindicated that I was getting the quality from the wine, rather than imposing it psychologically.

But upon thinking about it more, the experience of the wine is what is being measured. I can't separate my psychology from the experience, and as much as I like the notion of the wine valuing itself, the reality is that the wine is only part of the experience. There's just no grounds for thinking that the wine itself needs to be the dominant factor. I can understand why people would like it to be, after all the taste and feel of the wine is what seems to be the totality of the experience. But a good wine is necessarily more than that, it's a means to an end and not the end in itself.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Friday, 8 April 2011


"Isn't it interesting how physics concludes that life is possible given the constants of nature as they are? God could have created the universe in such a way to make life impossible under pure naturalism (a 6000 year old earth, etc), yet apparently we are to believe that he did so in a way which still makes sense under naturalism. Wouldn't it be miraculous if the universe couldn't have possibly have created life - yet still did. THAT would require a serious explanation, however the fine-tuning argument as-is isn't a threat to the naturalists ontology." - Reasonably Aaron

The Joy And Sorrow Of Programming

I probably swear more at my work computer than I do anywhere else. Being a professional programmer means I'm in a job where there's certain moments of satisfaction and certain moments of frustration that accompany the skill. When things go right, the job is very rewarding. Puzzle solving is its own reward, so to get paid to do it professionally is about as good as it can get. But of course those moments are tempered with the frustrations that come with not being able to find solutions or having to rework entire conceptual frameworks in order to solve the puzzle. So in that sense it can be a really frustrating and stressful job. Combine that with all the issues that come with development cycles, business requirements, testing, etc. and those moments of satisfaction can at times seem a distant memory.

My extended family often ask me about how I like my job. I say it is what it is, which probably says something about my communication skills more than my work. The truth is that at times I really like being a programmer, and I can't imagine a job I'd rather be doing. Perhaps a few more years of being in the industry will make me so jaded as to question just what I'm still doing, as seems inevitable with most programmers, but for now I still enjoy the job for the merits of the job. It's infuriating, frustrating, intolerable, and at times futile; but has the capacity to provide such satisfaction to keep it a desirable activity.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

A Conversational Debate

It's always interesting to hear a public debate because it has the virtue of exposing people to a way of thinking they're not normally willing to listen to. Perhaps if nothing else, there's value in that. As a platform for getting to truth, however, it makes as much sense to put credence into a debate performance as it does a news soundbyte.

What I find much more enlightening, however, is a more conversational approach to debating. Instead of having two people giving set presentation, have them talk through issues and try to come to a point of understanding. One great example of this was a dialogue between Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, where I think there was much more to be gained out of it precisely because of the format. It's not about one-upping the opponent, nor about overwhelming the opponent with numerous objections, but a way to highlight contentious issues and work them through.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Naturalism, Defeated?

[a short dialogue exploring a naturalist's "dogmatic" denial of the supernatural]

I'm a detective working a major murder case. As far as cases go, this case is as open-and-shut as it could get. The physical evidence is overwhelming, the scene of the crime is littered with forensic evidence that all points to one suspect. The victim's blood is on his clothes and in his car, the murder weapon was own by him and residue from firing the gun was found on the suspects hand. The suspect had been seen in the area by many witnesses, entering the premises before the gunshots were heard and left afterwards. The answering machine of the victim had shown that the suspect had left a number of threatening messages including detailing how the victim was to be killed that matched the crime scene.

At trial, I was brought in to testify. I detailed the evidence above, talked about the evidence and how it was obtained. I argued about how it all pointed to the one subject, the quality and amount of evidence was so overwhelming that beyond all reasonable doubt the defendant was the killer. Then the defence lawyer cross-examined me.

"Are you an atheist?" he asked.
"I don't see the relevance of that." I responded.
"It's important in your assessment of the evidence. Are you an atheist?"
"I am."
"So is it fair to say that in your world-view you only consider natural causes?"
"That's a fair assessment."
"Do you consider only natural causes in your line of work?"
"They're the only causes I can consider."
"What you're saying is that when making the case against my client, you didn't consider the supernatural?"
"I did not."
"So how can you say it was my client, when you won't consider that this was a supernatural event?"
"The evidence against your client is overwhelming, as I demonstrated before."
"You did nothing of the sort, you presented no evidence against my client."
"I presented many different lines of evidence that all showed the same account."
"What you presented relied on your philosophical world-view."
"It doesn't matter what I believe, the suspect had the victim's blood on his clothing. The DNA matched."
"But did you consider that DNA analysis matched because demons interfered with the equipment?"
"I did not."
"And did you consider that the witnesses who place my client at the scene were in-fact under demonic possession?"
"I did not."
"And what about the voice analysis on the answering machine?"
"That was done in collaboration with the phone company and using the latest pattern recognition software that showed the harmonic frequencies on the tape matched the suspect, and the call was made from his phone."
"Again you're only considering natural causes. How do you know that wasn't Satan on the tape, and that Satan didn't modify the computer system to show my clients records?"
"I can't know that."
"Precisely. And when you say that the suspects gun was the murder weapon, did you think about God creating the gun ex nihilo to match what your forensics said?"
"I did not consider that."
"In other words, you have no evidence against my client."
"I have plenty of evidence."
"As we've established, it's only evidence when interpreted within your philosophical world-view. You have no case against my client, only your religious fervour to remain an atheist."

At that point I got up from the witness stand and punched the lawyer.
"You assaulted me!"
"No I didn't."
"I saw you punch me."
"That's a powerful demon tricking you."
"Other people saw you punch me."
"That's the powerful demon tricking them too."
"I have bruising on my face."
"That's just angels having a party."
"My blood is on your hand."
"That's not your blood, as my DNA analysis machine will show - if it comes back as your blood it just means a demon is messing with the results."
"But you're an atheist, you don't believe in any of that."
"And evidentially, when it suits you, neither do you."

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


When it comes to medicine, for the most part I really don't care whether or not people want to treat their illness with whatever they think will work. I obviously don't want people to die because they thought that homoeopathy could cure cancer, but for the most part I'm not concerned so much with every quack treatment someone thinks will work.

However I am concerned when those medical choices directly affect other people. For every person who tries to treat a cold or flu with vitamin C and zinc means that what's contagious is not being treated. In effect, many of our medical decisions have a direct medical impact on other people.

There's only so much we can do in terms of individual prevention, the communal nature of many illnesses mean that our responsibilities lie beyond just ourselves. Not just to ourselves, but to others too, we have an obligation to work towards finding out the best possible information and acting on it. If your health depends on me doing the right thing, are you really not going to be attributing some blame towards me if I acted against what was the best information for the sake of my beliefs?

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Possibility Of Design

The main kind of design we are familiar with is a top-down design, a goal-driven design process where results can be achieved through conscious planning and processes. This can be summed up as "if we see a watch, we infer a watchmaker". But there are bottom-up design processes too, where structure and function are emergent properties of the process - not of a conscious design. Cats know how to have sex, not how to grow a baby cat from a sea of chemicals.

The Ultimate 747 argument rests on the notion that top-down design requires a sufficient amount of complexity in order for there to be top-down design. A watch may be made by a watchmaker, but the watchmaker is something that needs accounting for too. And on top of that, the watchmaker has a big brain and spent time studying the craft in order to become a watchmaker. So given we know that the only top-down designers that we know themselves need further explanation, then if the universe was made by such a designer then that designer must too need to be explained.

Some theologians and philosophers counter that God requires no explanation, nor is God complex. That God is the ultimate simplicity, and that complexity only requires to material components. But in saying so, it misses the point of the exercise. If we define God as being the undesigned designer, it makes us wonder how that could possibly be the case. The only unaccounted design we know is emergent, and the top-down design in itself is never without explanation.

From what I can tell, the argument from design is left stripped of its power. Perhaps one could make the case that God's unaccounted nature is part of the definition of what it means to be God, and account for God's capacities through an ontological argument. But already the design analogy has lost its capacity. A unaccounted top-down designer is logically possible, but from what we know about design we just can't reasonably infer it and have good reason to be sceptical of such an argument.

Arguments from design for them to be useful must show top-down design, and not just through the absence of a bottom-up approach. Otherwise design arguments are going to have that problem of being completely counter to how we know design to be in nature. It's possible, but not worth considering.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Free-Floating Rationales

Why does a turtle have a hard shell? Why do tigers have large teeth and claws? Why do some plants develop spikes? Why does a cuckoo chick push other eggs out of its parasite nest? Why are toxic animals often brightly coloured? Why are there non-toxic butterflies that have a similar appearance to toxic species? Why are mammals in the Arctic often white? Why do some insects resemble plant material? Why does a spider make a web? Why do birds make nests? Why do trees in rainforests grow high in the sky with only leaves growing on the top?

Any number of these questions could be asked, and they would be meaningful questions with real answers. The answers are all found in the context of evolution. A tiger's teeth need to be able to rip flesh, as to be a tiger means needing to eat flesh. If a tiger were herbivorous, then we'd expect the predatory features not to be there.

Yet here I am thinking about the problem in terms of rationales. My bias as a sapient creature is seeing things how something with a mind would. Of course it's obvious to me that a tiger's teeth are for ripping apart flesh, just as a herbivores are for grinding plant material, just as a spider's web is just like our fishing nets for trapping pray. But unlike our fishing net, what does a spider know about building a web? Does a spider know that it builds a web in order to catch prey? It doesn't know anything, it just does it. So the story, it seems, is an invention of our own minds.

Enter what Dan Dennett calls free-floating rationales. Of course a spider builds a web to catch its food, just as a tiger has evolved teeth that are better at ripping flesh. These rationales exist, but aren't represented anywhere. The rationale is a maximisation of function, spiders that have better web-building genes do better than spiders that don't. Thus over evolutionary time, we should see spiders that are great at building webs because they're the ones that pass on their genetic material.

Perhaps then, it is our mind that has been shaped by natural selection, rather than our mind projecting onto nature. The obviousness of the structure of the tooth as being for the purpose of tearing through flesh might be just as obvious as thoughts that a tooth is for tearing through flesh.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Negative Arguments

Deductive arguments are useful, but limited in application. When it comes to the truth of a matter that relies on observation, evidence, and conceptual clarity, then negative arguments become logical traps. Worse still is if the entire case is based on a negative argument, then all the argument becomes is an argument for ignorance. It might all logically follow, but it would tell us nothing useful about the position that's being argued for. I'll illustrate this with two examples.

First, suppose there's an argument that tries to deductively prove that the universe had a supernatural origin. A deductive argument could go something along the lines of "If the universe didn't come about naturally, then it must have had a supernatural origin", fleshed out with reasons why a natural origin is a contradiction. The problem with such an argument is two-fold; firstly that one cannot rule out every possible natural scenario so it could never be satisfied, and secondly that supernatural isn't adequately defined except as "not natural". The argument doesn't tell us anything about how the universe came about.

Second, consider the Euthyphro dilemma. It's as effective a deductive argument as there could be, smashing apart the notion that the divine has any part to play in morality. But what could we say from there? That there's no such thing as morality? That it justifies the position of the person who brings up the Euthyphro dilemma? Of course not. Whatever case there is for morality isn't settled with that argument, it just rules out what a case is not.

The greatest danger with negative arguments is that if one's position is dependent on the contrary being false, then there is the danger of falling into an argument from personal incredulity. And to me, that's why it's important to focus on making a positive compelling case, and seeing negative arguments as a way to tease out implications of particular lines of thought. Otherwise we are dressing up ignorance as explanation.

Friday, 1 April 2011


"Galileo was a man of science oppressed by the irrational and superstitious. Today, he is used by the irrational and the superstitious who say they are being oppressed by science. So 1984." - Marc Crislip

The Power Of Evolution

If the eye is held up by creationists as indicative of God because of it's intricate complexity and function, yet that is perfectly explainable by evolution, then surely that attests to the power of evolution. So then why would the brain be any more of a problem for evolution than the eye?

Of course creationists don't accept that the eye did evolve, but the empirical evidence for it is overwhelming. And every time a creationist tries to make the case of how complex and optimal the eye is, it's really giving the case that evolution as a process is a lot more powerful that people give such a process credit for.