Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Life's Purpose

In the documentary The Nature Of Existence, one of the things that stood out to me was just how poor some of the answers people gave were. For example, a Christian wrestler gave the purpose of existence to be recognising Jesus as our Lord an savior - which I guess for him is luck he was born into a society (and probably a family) that just happened to hold that as true.

Now I don't take that person as a bastion of Christian dogma. What I do wonder, however, is where someone goes from there. By accepting Jesus they've not only found the purpose of existence but fulfilled it - many of them doing so as children. Could trivial answers like this be the motivation behind belief in the rapture? Is it the underlying motivation behind proselytism - as what else is there to do?

A belief taken as a child or a young adult has to on average last some 70 years, through coupling and raising a family, through trials and tribulations that the world brings, through the good times and bad, and in the end dying. How much of that purpose is related to any of that? Perhaps one could make the argument that it does so in a secondary sense, as it allows for things such as community and a means to get through hardships. But if that's meant to be the purpose-driven life, as Rick Warren puts it, then it hardly seems a purpose worth having.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Atheism And Morality

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers received an email from a conservative atheist about whether one can be an atheist without being a progressive. From the email:
Can one be a conservative and atheist at the same time? It seems to me that atheism goes hand in hand with progressivism, which is not my thing...

And PZ's response:
It is entirely true that one can be an atheist, in the very narrowest sense of the word as someone who does not believe in gods, and a conservative.

I do wonder how statements like "in the very narrowest sense" can be justified. Aren't the metaphysical questions separate from the political and social questions that conservatism addresses? Surely the arguments against the existence of gods are something that can be understood and embraced by any person irrespective of their ideology.

It does, however, make me wonder just how such beliefs could be justified sans religious beliefs. While it may or may not be bad theology, there are those who push such views justified by their religious beliefs. I have no stake in the theological argument, nor do I think the theological argument should get a free pass, but I would be hard-pressed to think on what grounds one could hold the views that the conservative atheist put forward.

My personal opinion is that while these metaphysical positions surely do impact on and resonate with our political leanings, to claim ownership of political views into that metaphysics is making an unjustified step. The worst thing that could happen is if we tightly couple moral views to metaphysical ones.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Pyrrhic Arguments

Some arguments are just worth winning, the intellectual ground sacrificed is just too great. Ken Miller's argument for an interventionist deity that worked in the uncertainty of quantum mechanics would be one of those instances because it treats an interventionist deity as indistinguishable from no deity at all.

These arguments are Pyrrhic victories, and it baffles me as to why people would want to take them. I've found this in creationist arguments often when something that's treated as bad design or a remnant of evolutionary history is searched for even the most tenuous of function in order to serve the view that it was all designed by an omnipotent being.

Biologists treat the appendix as a vestigial organ, the argument goes, but the appendix plays a [minor] role in our immune system so it has function. of course that doesn't address what a vestigial organ is, but it does seem to save the day on the topic of useless design - except...

The appendix can also cause problems, it's prone to infection itself and can be both very painful and potentially fatal. And it can be removed without serious problem, so what little it gives is hardly something that gives a supposedly omnipotent omniscient deity credit. As a design solution, it's hardly an elegant one, and conjures up the problem of evil. It might be a victory of rhetoric, but the cost is far too great.

I think part of the issue is that, in general, we aren't good at thinking through the implications of what we say. And in a discussion, not being able to answer a question is in a lot of cases worse than giving a bad answer. After all, it takes understanding the topic at hand in order to be able to show why its not a good answer. So I would suggest that it's an exercise we all should try to do, to see whether or not such arguments give us a victory worth having. Otherwise arguments just serve as a rhetorical tool - something that does nothing to advance a position and will be picked apart by knowledgeable opponents.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

A Priori Dualism

When it comes to the notion of minds, it's something that we are all intimately familiar with. "Cogito, ergo sum" is something we all can recognise instantly and understand the implications.

I think this, however, gives the false impression that we can understand the nature of minds a priori - or at the very least grounds for individuals to argue as such. The success of explaining phenomena in the universe in terms of physics is something to take into account. After all, we are organised compositions of cells, which in turn are organised compositions of atoms. And modern brain sciences are confirming the notion that the mind is material, from brain injury to brain scans to magnetic stimulation of targeted areas - a physical mind is an inescapable conclusion.

Yet pretty much all arguments brought against the physicalist conclusion* all come from that internal view. The idea, it seems, is that for one to demonstrate the dualist nature of the mind one only has to think about it. While brain sciences are advancing, and technology is increasing the capabilities of what can be empirically observed, dualists are doing nothing to ground their arguments in empiricism.

It seems obvious enough what needs to be done, have a dualistic model that sits within the brain sciences where it can be put to the test. Descartes proposed the pineal gland as a potential solution to the mind-body interface problem nearly 400 years ago, these days the best we get are transmitter receiver analogies that don't pin themselves down to anything that's empirically useful.

The simplest way to put it is that we don't know the nature of what makes a mind through introspection. We can consider how a mind works, what kinds of phenomena need explanation, but none of that says anything about what makes a mind. This is where the necessity of empirical investigation comes in, because unless we want to appeal to magic we won't know what makes a mind by thinking about minds.

* At least the arguments I have come across

Friday, 27 May 2011


"Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and heretic." - Ludwig Wittgenstein

Using Heuristics

So much unnecessary argument could be avoided if people took general heuristics to be a guide rather than an absolute. That they don't work in every scenario doesn't mean they have no utility whatsoever, or that they have worked in the past makes them an absolute. People really do a disservice to arguments by arguing for extremes.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

2% Beef Lasagna

Look at the image above, on the packaging it looks like a lasagna bursting with meat. And they proudly boast "100% Australian Quality Beef". Yep, all 12 grams of it, for reading the ingredients (shown below) beef makes up a total 2% of all that's gone into it.

Of course, with the way its advertised you wouldn't expect that to be the case. After all, who needs to look at ingredients on something labelled "Beef Lasagna" to ensure it actually has a decent amount of beef in it? By contrast, I saw a lasagna in the store today with 22%.

It's not like it just happened to be all pasta and sauce either, they used vegetable protein as a meat substitute. For something advertising itself as being beef and touting the merits of the quality of the beef, how is this anything other than cheating the consumer? Might as well take out those 12 grams of meat and sell it as a vegetarian lasagna instead.

Friday, 13 May 2011

A Case For Retributive Punishment

As the argument goes, if everything in the universe is determined, then we are determined too. It seems something everyone can accept, but for some this destroys any possibility of having free will. Thus, the argument goes, any form of retributive punishment is left over from a prescientific understanding of action.

I'm personally a compatibilist, but for the sake of argument, let's assume there is no such thing as moral responsibility because of this determinism. If people have no moral control, then what good does it do to punish them?

I can think of two reasons in which retributive punishment would be desired. First: if our psychology worked through negative feedback; that punishment was an important means to be aware of the wrongness of such an action. Perhaps retributive punishment, may be a means to show the seriousness and the unacceptability of such behaviours. Second: if such punishments were a means to deter crime; that as agents that can predict future states and desirability of outcomes, the notion of retributive punishment was itself a preventative measure.

This is not to say that because we can justify retributive punishment that any form of retributive punishment is acceptable, or that one is justified in wanting harsher treatment for individuals - after all, they're still humans and torturing someone who has committed a crime for example won't uncommit the crime. But that even if we have no moral responsibility in the way that an incompatabilist would describe does it mean that therefore retributive punishment is never warranted.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

The Humanism Grounding

At any point if a belief or set of beliefs gets to the point where human sympathy is cast aside and there's a failure of empathy, then those beliefs warrant a serious reexamination. Surely any belief worth holding has human interest at heart. So if it has human interest apart, yet the application has the net effect of dehumanisation, then perhaps the message has been taken the wrong way.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Secret Handshake

There's only so much time and effort one can put into engaging with people who aren't willing to listen. Doctors need to spend time being doctors, not dealing with conspiracy claims about Big Pharma. Governments have countries to run, not to bow down to every crackpot conspiracy theorist who has some claims that need debunking. Climate researchers need to do science, not answer FOI request after FOI request because someone can't accept the reality of global warming.

At times there are arguments that aren't worth pursuing with particular people, not because the arguments aren't important but that the people either don't know enough about it to argue it properly (Dunning-Kruger effect) or have an agenda of which they'll use innocuous sounding arguments to mask some otherwise unfavourable aspects.

Perhaps one way to filter this is to have the equivalent of a secret handshake, that by looking for key words of phrases that indicate that a discussion will take place in good faith. Some topics are by their nature volatile but are worth discussing nonetheless.

Like any lock and key system, it then becomes a matter for those looking to discuss that they would be otherwise excluded (because of the volatile nature) by finding that key. The inverse problem is that someone can unwittingly find themselves locked out or accidentally opening the wrong lock through a careless use of language.

One could envisage an intellectual minefield: a landscape scattered with potential trappings that only the most skilled and knowledgeable about the terrain could safely navigate it. The rest, however well-meaning, are doomed to eventually hit the minefield if they choose to enter at all. Some topics are just not safe to visit, for they have been subject to such intellectual manipulation that the only safe way to avoid accidentally stepping on a minefield is to not step in at all.

The handshake has gotten so elaborate that it has morphed into a near-Herculean quest.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Lip Service

I'm sure when it comes to the issue of global starvation, there wouldn't be a single person who would deny that it's a problem. But then what? Are we all going to rally together to make sure to feed the world? Perhaps agreement isn't all there is, paying lip service to an ideal is a nice way to size up someone morally, but it really doesn't accomplish anything.

Monday, 9 May 2011


As important as arguments are, it's just as important (or even more-so) to see where the arguments are coming from. If someone was brought up to believe a particular holy book as being true, it's relevant to point that out. After all, other people are brought up to believe a different holy book.

Of course that doesn't reflect on the truth of the claims, it might be that one holy book really is true while another is false. So to take that fact of motivation and contingency to extrapolate a falsity is being unreasonable.

Deflecting an argument on global warming for example by attacking someone's source of information would be another example of this, it's attacking not the argument itself but the "argument behind the argument". In come cases, this meta-defeater might be justified - someone parroting statistics from an unreliable news source is such a case. But I think there is a danger in overusing this approach.

As humans we have many unconscious motivations for things, and it could very well be that our unconscious motivations are the ultimate reasons behind our reasoning. Hence if one could have a theory of unconscious motivation that explained argument X, then how different is that to someone parroting an argument they read in a newspaper?

The difference is two-fold, firstly it's a matter of known attribution. A creationist quote-mine for example can usually be traced back to a creationist website. How do we trace back unconscious motivation through the brain? The second is how easy it is to create a story of unconscious motivation. Any number of stories could explain motivation, and one that might be true for one person might not be true for another.

And finally I think the greatest danger is that if we're going into the realm of the unconscious, then any hope for rational discourse is lost. We don't have access to our unconscious biases, so how can we reason at all? It sets the dangerous precedent of not addressing anyone's argument and instead trying to weave an acceptable meta-argument that can explain the argument itself. Once we start digging into the reasons for the reason, then we're losing any capacity to engage in rational dialogue.

This is not to say that people aren't biased or that people don't have unconscious motivations, or that we shouldn't strive to find our own. But for a rational and reasonable dialogue to work, unconscious motivations should be at best a framework rather than a centrality of discussion. We all bring our individuality into every discussion we enter, and that's to be expected because we're human. Dealing in unconscious motivations, however, brings us into the territory of unfalsifiable accusations - after all, who can adequately deal with what is said to be their subconscious motivation?

Sunday, 8 May 2011

A Thin Veil Of Ignorance

On the internet, we have relative anonymity. While perhaps we're giving away much more personal information than we would care to, at the same time in any given interaction there's not much known about personal details on one's life. This also has the added advantage of being able to hide those things that normally form part of our social interactions. For a large extent, unless one divulges otherwise, there's no age, no gender, no sexual preference, no ethnicity, no socioeconomic background, beyond what is present in the use of language itself that is.

Yet hiding behind the walls of text, we are still people who have those qualities. At the end of the day my writings are that of me, of my thoughts and experiences with all the contingencies that form my existence.

I wonder if it's a good thing that we're hiding behind the veil. On the one hand, we have that anonymity that enables us to treat people without respect to those contingent qualities. Yet on the other, those qualities are very much a part of who we are as people making the posts. Is the veil of ignorance a means to get past those cultural factors and treat each other equally, or does it hide the problem just out of sight that a flicker of wind will bring out?

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Academic vs Intuitive Plausibility

When I hear about something like homoeopathy, once I learn of what it is I can't see any way in which it could work. There's just no scientific plausibility to such a notion at all. Yet intuitively there's always the question of "what if?" And no matter how much I can read on homoeopathy and see it academically as nonsense, I have the intuitive notion not to dismiss it. If homoeopathy could work it would be great, to be able to take a pill that would cure cancer.

I can understand why negative positions don't sit well with people, and why it would seem dogmatic to reject the possibility of something. But being open-minded cannot simply be accepting any old claim, because claims on their own feel more plausible than may be warranted by the evidence.

That same intuitive plausibility is why I still take vitamin C tablets when I have a cold, even though I understand academically that there's no real effect. After all, it might work.

Friday, 6 May 2011


"I have as much authority as the Pope, I just don't have as many people who believe it." - George Carlin


Bringing up solipsism when it comes to a discussion of knowledge is the argumentative equivalent of setting off a nuclear explosion to settle a fight.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Wagering Doomsday

If anyone wants to put a date on when the world is going to end, can I have their things? If someone is going to go to the trouble of naming an exact time or date the world is going to end, then with it should come the accepted responsibility for being wrong. If they want to preach that there will be no tomorrow, then they should back that up with action.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Climate Change Conversation

The scientific debate over climate change is just that: scientific. It's a part of the debate that the overwhelming majority of us do not have a say in. Yet the debate over climate change doesn't end there, what we ought to do about it socially and politically are conversations where climate scientists and laypeople have just as much interest and say in how to go about it.

Should we work to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases? Put more investment into alternate energy sources? Should we even do anything at all? Should certain industries be maintained despite their causal relation because they're vital to a nation's survivability? Should the focus being on adjusting to the changes? What about protecting biodiversity?

Many of these questions have scientific components to them, the approaches should at least have some scientific plausibility to it. Virgin sacrifice or getting the world to repent for their sins in all likelihood are futile means of going about it.

But for most of that the decisions are beyond our control. Where we have power is in who we vote for, and how we react personally. We have the power to make changes in our own life, and to engage other individuals to do the same.

The worst thing to do would be to mistake the much needed conversation on climate change as a scientific conversation. There's just so much to discuss without pretending that we can be professional climate scientists.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Scientific Climate Denialism

Most of the arguments I encounter for climate denial end up boiling down to a conspiracy. The scientists themselves have manufactured the controversy so they have job security and/or get grants, or the scientists are all left-wing ideologues wishing to push their socialist agenda on the world, or that the scientists are merely puppets for government who want to use climate change to push for a greater role of government. These are the kinds of arguments that anyone can deal with, really, as they're arguments about the role of human behaviour and politics - something most of us could see whether or not there was anything even remotely plausible.

But the foundation of climate change is a scientific one, and that's one point where most of us just don't have the qualifications to assess the evidence. So when I see people arguing against climate change on scientific grounds, I wonder what the purpose in it is. Not only are they not qualified to assess the evidence, but who they're talking to isn't qualified to assess that case.

It's interesting reading those cases, because like their evolution-denying counterparts, they make it seem as if the entire case is so obviously false. If it really was that easy to show the case is falsified, then why not formalise it into a manuscript and send it off to a journal like Nature or Science?

There's just something odd about those who will argue against scientific consensus among non-experts, because if they're truly a flaw in the science the best arguing the case among laypeople is bragging rights at a future change in paradigm. Making a scientific argument among non-scientists is not going to change the science, and worse still such an argument isn't going to have the appropriate feedback that any good science needs.

If one truly believes they have a good scientific case against climate change, then they should formalise it and put it up for criticism. But to only argue among among non-experts that climate change is bad science doesn't do anything useful - unless your aim is political in nature. But then that would just be opposing climate change for political reasons, and we're back to trying to rationalise away the scientific consensus.

In any case, if you think that climate change is bad science - show that to be the case. How? By getting off the internet, and start writing papers to submit to science journals. Because, what's more likely? That climate scientists who have spent their careers researching in the field have overlooked something that you, a layperson, was able to show wrong, or that perhaps the science isn't as feeble as you make it out to be...

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Climate Conspiracy

I recently came across one of the dumbest arguments for a conspiracy against climate change. The argument goes like this:
  1. Governments have it in their own interests to push what will give them more power.
  2. Climate change would give governments more power.
  3. Governments control the funding of climate science.

  4. Therefore, the government is controlling scientific consensus.
Let's for the sake of argument say that what's presented is logically consistent. After all, people do work to give themselves more power and in politics this is no exception. In order to address climate change, it's going to need government intervention of some kind, because the lack of intervention is clearly not working now. And the government does fund the science, and scientific results can get tainted by the vested interests of those funding it - for example drug research done within corporations finds a lot more positive data than when the tests are done independently.

So why do I call it a dumb argument? Because the argument is so implausible that any apparently plausibility is superficial. The atom bomb was an entirely government funded and operated project, yet we got the atom bomb out of it. So right there we see that government funding doesn't necessarily mean bad science.

Likewise, it's hard to see how a collection of governments is coming together to all tow the same line. Each government agency has a separate funding path, and even the most enthusiastic enthusiastic government towards the reality of climate change is barely doing anything. Many governments who are funding the research have had very prominent people who have publicly called into question the science. In Australia, the government even tried to stop scientists speaking out on doing something about climate change.

And even if governments were behind the public fa├žade supported climate change, it's just as easy to make an argument that they're not doing anything because it's damaging to the economy. That while it might mean more power potentially, going against those who have a vested interest in not doing anything (mining companies for example) would mean being on the end of a strong effort to take them out of politics. Life is a lot more complex than just one issue...

Then there's the matter that scientists won't necessarily go along with it. Scientists are the people who make a living by looking at the data, if all they're doing is towing a global government line, then that's no longer doing science. And besides, scientists make a name for themselves by showing something new or different - it would have to mean that those 97% of relevant experts who accept climate change is mainly caused by human activity would all be under the payroll and none had minds of their own or an eye to the data. Now that's really pushing credulity!

So while the argument is at best superficially plausible, there's one key thing missing: evidence. If what is being argued is true, then there should be serious signs that the consensus is merely a global government fabrications. Documents showing the manufacturing of the party line, science bodies only giving out funding to those who are willing to use their credentials to push the party line, that the data that's been analysed doesn't show anything that the scientists say it does.

We don't see any of that. At best, this argument is logically consistent nonsense. But but really this argument is so weak that it's amazing that apparently smart people will come up with such tripe as if they have no understanding of science, politics, or of human psychology. It's really pathetic, and unfortunately (from my experience) all too common among climate change denialists.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Thor Inference

One criticism levelled at intelligent design is that often the arguments amount to god-of-the-gaps where the designer is placed in a gap of our knowledge. An example would be that since we don't know how the bacterial flagellum developed, to invoke a designer would just be taking a gap in our knowledge and saying "God did it".

The response I often hear to this is that calling it a god-of-the-gaps argument is misleading, but that design is a positive inference based on what we know about designers. What we sceptics see as an ad hoc invocation of the supernatural is really taking the best explanation in terms of what we know.

The problem is, however, that the best explanation doesn't mean good explanation. Take the bacterial flagellum, if the evolutionary sequence leading to a bacterial flagellum could be discovered then what makes a designer any worse or better of an explanation? It's just the best explanation in the absence of a good explanation.

But to highlight the absurdity of this design inference, take the idea of lightning. Thousands of years ago people didn't know why there was lightning and invented gods to explain it. The problem with those arguments, however, is that there was no grounds for supposing agency was behind it. But now that people have come to be able to generate lightning, does that mean that now agency is a better explanation? And of course since we don't see people nor aliens in the sky making the electricity, one would assume it's of supernatural causation.

Sometimes the "best explanation" is indistinguishable from having explanation at all...