Thursday, 31 March 2011


When I see notions of the afterlife in film and television, I get the impression that our conception of what the afterlife is meant to be is just this life we have right now, but unhinged from the material. The dead are still portrayed as being very much alive. Without brain processes how do they think? Without material bodies, how do they experience? What could it possibly mean to be outside of time?

Our capacity to conceive of the transcendent is made incoherent by the sheer amount of the natural world we shift beyond the natural. This natural baggage makes the transcendent so alluring, it's taking what is great about the natural and removing those aspects that limit our existence. But it leaves an incoherent mess, one that is too problematic to consider in any meaningful way - leaving any thoughts on there being such a possibility as unexamined wishful thinking. And because of that, no matter how alluring the idea of an afterlife is, there's just no reason to take the notion seriously.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Self

What am I? In which I mean, what does it mean to be me. Am I my body? In which case, would I cease to be me if my foot were amputated? If my vision starts going, would my glasses be an extension of myself? Perhaps it is not so much by body, but my mind which concerns me. After all, we could theoretically remove or replace almost all of one's body and there would still be the sense of I.

So perhaps I am a mind, "cogito, ergo sum". But what about a mind is me? Is it my thoughts? My experiences? My memories? My mental states? My desires? These change over time, get damaged or degraded with age. As far as I can see, I is the sum total of all these things, a unity that can be reduced but not abandoned. Am I an I without thoughts? No one thought makes me I, but I requires thought. My memories fade, get distorted, or even invented, but I has memories even if those memories aren't necessary for I.

No doubt there's some continuity to the process. Is I the one who had my childhood? Am I the same I as the I who as a teenager had a different outlook on life than I now? Does I become a different I as time goes on?

The I seems an obvious irreducible entity, that can be wholly reduced away. Of course there's an I, it's the most obvious fact in the world and perhaps the only fact about the world we can hold with certainty. But to pin down what I is leaves nothing left, there's nothing we can grasp that is irreducibly I. For I is a unity of many different things that I is composed of.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Technology In Football

while there are many considerations for whether technology should be used in a particular sport, perhaps a case can be made on how much decisions can affect the outcome. If a bad refereeing or umpiring decision has a greater chance of affecting the outcome, then surely that would be an argument for technology being used.

Football (soccer), I think, is the sport most amenable to the use of technology to assist referees. The scores are low and decisions can have a great impact on the outcome of the game. For a long time, the game in Australia was considered by a joke because of problems such as diving - a strategy that stemmed from how important getting awarded a penalty can be. Feigning can get another player sent off, as well as disrupting the flow of play. At times, the stakes are just so high that cheating or mistakes by the referee can have such a profound effect on the outcome that if there's the capacity to reduce that then surely it's for the good of the game to do so.

It's not saying that the technology needs to be perfect, but to ignore that technology can assist in the face of mistakes by referees having such profound outcomes is not an ideal solution, for fans, teams, or referees. It's not for the good of the game.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Jesus, Explained?

We are the storytelling ape, weaving narratives as explanations. Growing up in a society that has historical roots in Christianity, how is it that people explain the narrative of Jesus? When I was younger I used to think that Jesus was like any other mythical figure, a fictional entity made up in much the same way as Hercules or King Arthur. My younger self would make analogies to fiction, and even now I'm still sympathetic to such analogies. After all, the existence of Kings Cross Station doesn't mean from there a train departs to Hogwarts.

That was my attempt to explain the unknown in terms of what was known. I knew of legends, I knew of fiction, I knew of the capacity for storytelling, and I knew of different beliefs - in that context it's hard to find the "Jesus as lord" story convincing. I remember in scripture class as school questioning the propensity of evidence as well as the problems of passing on information orally. It was what I knew.

I remember other such accounts. Jesus described as a con artist, or a great magician. I've read accounts like Jesus being a noble man and the miracles added later, or that claims become more exaggerated as time has gone on. There are also those who claim that Jesus was God and it all really happened as the accounts suggest, though I find that view really stretching credulity.

Looking back on it now, I wonder how any such accounts are justified? Apart from the Jesus-as-God, they're all plausible scenarios, but is coming up with a plausible scenario enough? If we take the reasonable assumption that there was one chain of events, then those differing scenarios can't all be right. The scenarios themselves are possible explanations, reasons to doubt, but not themselves explanations.

In actuality, the reason such possible narratives all work is because there's very little in the way of what is known. Any number of narratives fit, and that is more problematic than a lack of apparent narrative. In light of how little is actually known, how can anyone form strong beliefs about what Jesus was - if Jesus was anything at all. We just don't know.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Idealising Art

What makes something art? It's a question that many ponder over, some with more systematic approaches than others. About a decade ago, I remember there being a story on the news about the New South Wales gallery purchasing a post-modern artwork for a large sum of money that was just a large white canvas painted white. Why a gallery would spend such a large amount of money on a piece like that probably has a good reason from an artistic perspective, but the news description was in such a way to make it seem like anyone could have painted it and it was a waste of taxpayer resources.

In general, people don't need to be sold the worth of art, people are more than happy to spend money on art in various forms, and of the means to experience art. The sound quality of a hi-fi system and the clarity of a screen are worth nothing without music and cinema which to utilise the technology.

And in such a world where we vote with our currency, it might seem odd that the arts would need any investment at all. It's just "high art" that fails to be financially viable, where people fail to see the value or see it merely as elitism masquerading as intrinsic worth. And if art is really just subjective, then why does one's opinion matter more than another?

I do think there are some legitimate points in these concerns, however I think the reduction of funding for "high art" is problematic. For one, it turns art into a business. There's value to art that is irrespective of profitability. And by judging on profitability, it's on mass consumption rather than intrinsic value. With mass consumption comes many arbitrary reasons for success, change and contingency play a role. Also, knowledge doesn't necessarily mean elitism; someone can enjoy something without it being a projection of a status of superiority.

If nothing else, I think a reason to fund "high art" is a recognition of a worth to art as an ideal. That art has the power and capacity to move and inspire, and to give artists as well as the public the capacity to indulge in this activity irrespective of market forces. If we can't recognise this intrinsic value, then all we will have is what we consume, and thus we'll have cheapened art to mass indulgence. Not to say there's anything wrong with mass indulgence, just that it's not sufficient to capture the ideal, and if we bank on anything that's insufficient then something core to the concept will be lost.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Astrology's Utility

I'm a avid non-astrologer. As a means for understanding the world, it's as pseudo-science as one can get - with no plausible mechanism, good reasons for seeing the patterns as artefacts of the mind, and evidentially doesn't describe what its meant to do. Astrology isn't dominant in our culture, but newspapers still carry star signs and there are people who look to the star signs as determining personality. It's total nonsense, and I cannot stress that enough.

Recalling my childhood I remember, however, where astrology did have a utility. It was something that helped form a bond between my brother and aunt, who had close birthdays and shared the same star sign. She got him a blanket with a lion that he really loved as well as a stuffed toy. His star sign, in other words, was used to enrich his childhood.

This is just one case where astrology has had a positive influence on the world. Would they have bonded over other things? Perhaps, but because of the belief in astrology it seems that there was this bond in particular. As Douglas Adams put it, it's people thinking about people.

I can recognise that utility without supposing that astrology is true. I can also recognise that positive outcomes like this exist while maintaining that astrology is harmful nonsense. Because it's not these experiences that make astrology harmful, but that these experiences don't contribute to the truth value of astrology and it's in the apparent truth value of astrology where harm can result. The utility of astrology doesn't mean the truth of astrology.

Friday, 25 March 2011


"I think that when your theology becomes contingent on which interpretation of quantum theory you embrace, you are treading on very thin metaphysical ice." - a_ray_in_dilbert_space (Pharyngula commenter)

Why Science Cannot Justify Miracles

We have an understanding of how we expect the world to work. This gives us a base level on interpreting anomalous events. The label miracle can be used for so much, but in general it's shorthand for what we consider a violation of how the world works. So if we have a conception of how the world works, and there's a violation of that conception, that proves a miracle, right?

Well, no. Massimo Pigliucci in his book Nonsense On Stilts gives an account of why this isn't so. While I recommend the book, I'll try to illustrate here his argument.

Imagine a violation of nature took place, a glass of water before the eyes of many turned into wine. Magicians were on hand to witness there was no foul play - they could not detect any. Many scientists did chemical analyses of the contents of the glass, showing that there was pure water before the transformation, and wine after the transformation. In other words, there was no possible explanation anyone could come up with to explain what had transpired.

In this case it seems pretty clear that a miracle happened. It's not even that it's not yet explained, but that it was in violation of what was known about nature. There lingered the possibility of foul play, but none could be detected and the exercise was conducted in such a way that it could not be regarded as having happened - the best one could have is the suspicion of foul play. So does this prove it was a miracle?

Again, no. Miracle in this sense is not an explanation, but merely a label of ignorance. Since we don't know what happened, how can we say it's caused by supernatural intervention? We can say that what happened is in violation of what is known about the natural, but that just means that perhaps our conception of the natural is lacking. To get to the supernatural from the natural would mean having to discount all possible natural explanations, a task which is impossible for the simple fact that we don't know everything about everything.

If we're going to call the miraculous as violations of nature, then we're left with the impossible task of proving that such events took place. Because violates what is known about nature doesn't mean that it's not natural, but this is what happens when one deals in negative definitions. You just can't use science to prove the miraculous, for all you've done is say that science says we don't know.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Victims Of Circumstance

[this post contains plot information about Breaking Bad, so if you haven't seen the show be warned]
I've been watching season 3 of Breaking Bad, and the question of responsibility is one that continuously comes up. Where does blame lie in any one event? There's always a series of complicated factors, where a number of people are implicated by themselves or others.

Take the ending of season 2, where two planes collided in mid-air. As it turns out, a distracted air traffic controller made the mistake. But the air traffic controller was distracted because his only daughter had just died from a drug overdose, and that drug overdose wouldn't have happened if the main protagonists hadn't befriended her which got her back onto drugs... and so on.

In the way we focus on moral problems, we seek responsibility and thus someone to blame. And in a case like this, where does the blame lie? At least one of the pilots failed to evade and keep an awareness of what was going on. The air traffic controller also failed in his responsibility, but why was someone in that condition put in that position? It's a failure of management and failure of the system. But it's also true that if the girl hadn't OD'd that the accident would not have happened, so there is in some sense a responsibility there too. But the girl was her own person and knew what she was getting into, just as if events hadn't transpired in the previous residence of the protagonist, he would have never met her.

The point being that when we're in a complicated system where many individuals interact, there's a shared responsibility. At any one point in a chain of responsibility like that, we can find a role that someone played that if they had done otherwise then there would have been a different outcome and the crisis averted. But at what point can we stop this regress? Do we accept our role in anything, or dismiss our significance in everything?

The view that no-one is responsible seems as absurd as seeing there is one person at fault. But where does responsibility lie? Perhaps the way of looking at responsibility for the possibility of blame is the wrong way to go about it. That maybe we can look at the responsibility for our own actions and whether or not those actions in particular contribute to the problem, for if we start looking into chains of events then we're always going to find some level of culpability. If things were different they would have happened differently, it's the nature of contingency.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011


I eat meat, despite knowing what the animals go through. I also understand that many of the products I consume are products that are at the expense of hard work and quasi-slavery of people in foreign countries. My clothes are probably made in sweatshops in the third world. Many of the foods I eat are possible because it's cheaper in terms of labour to have these products shipped in from overseas, and that's at the expense of natural wilderness. I indulge in pleasures like wine and scotch despite the costs of making such products, and I do love my computer and other such devices that the manufacturing and running costs are problematic for the environment. And not to mention all the time I've spent in planes, they're useful transport but at what cost?

Now I could take a stand against all of this. If by eating chocolate I'm promoting child slavery, then that does leave a bitter taste in my mouth. And the clothes I buy do mean that my prosperity is at the expense of people who are just trying to scrape together the ability to survive. And that my electricity and travel needs as well as the products I buy mean contributing to the problem of global warming is of greatest concern to me, I really don't like the fact that my existence is contributing to the destruction of the planet.

The way I see it is that I'm one giant hypocrite. Self-consistent in my hypocrisy, but a hypocrite nonetheless. The way I rationalise it away is that if I stopped all I was doing, it wouldn't do anything to alleviate the problem, so all I would be doing is depriving myself for the sake of feeling morally better. And I don't think I would feel better if my actions amounted to nothing more than at least trying to remove myself as one of the problems. It's hypocritical, yes, but at least it's consistent.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Why I Am A Physicalist

There seems to be an irreconcilable divide between the world of the physical and the world of the mental. It's so intuitive that the mind is distinct from the body, yet what is a mind without one? It's also so intuitive that life is distinct from non-life, yet this idea has been shown to be nothing but an artefact of the mind. At the core all life is chemistry, and the hard problem of life has dissolved in the last 100 years or so of scientific investigation.

Yet the mind doesn't have that apparent capacity of irreducibility, as David Chalmers puts it, there's the characteristic of what it's like to experience that cannot reduce to to the functional. So life can be seen as a different expression of the physical, but how does the mind reduce to that? This is the hard problem of consciousness, and one that won't go away any time soon.

So why am I a physicalist then? Surely the best position would be one of refraining from judgement until such time as a strong case has been made. And I think if the question were taken in isolation, this would be the case. But if we take the question seriously, it has to fit into the wider context of what we know about the world. After all, we are overwhelming surrounded by the physical, we don't know of any non-physical substance or force. What we're left positing is that there must be a unobserved stuff completely unlike what is physical, yet has the capacity to interact with the physical. It might be so, but we're left positing a complete new substance that itself is unexplained.

In addition to being composed of physical things, all interaction in our body points to purely physical measures. Our sensory material is all physical, information is sent through physical interactions, and processed in the physical brain, where again physical signals are sent through to cause physical movement. As far as what's observed, that's it. There could be something else involved, but there's no interface in the brain observed to show this.

Along this line, regions of the brain have been identified in what role they play in cognition. Through a number of lines of evidence this is well established. From observation of loss of function, through brain injury, to fMRI, to transcranial magnetic stimulation - there's overwhelming evidence that the brain is the fundamental component to cognition.

Then there's a comparative argument from nature. Other animals have similar behavioural functionality to us. In terms of what we can do, the difference seems to be the degree to which we can do it. If there's something to our mind beyond the physical, then do these other creatures share it? If not, do we need to posit anything more?

So what are we left not explaining? The first-person ontology of the mind, and that seems the hardest to overcome because its what we recognise as being the mind. But that leaves a huge problem to overcome. If physical accounts for everything causally, then what the mind is reduced to is not the mind as we know it. After all, we have the experience of thought to action. If the body does all that, then any sense of control we have is illusory.

We're left with an epiphenomenalist account where the mind is but a passive observer. But it gets worse, for if the mind is merely an observer of the body, then if there's no body then there's a cessation of experience for the mind. When our body ceases to function, what is there for the mind left to observe?

It's problems such as these that make dualism seem undesirable, in addition to the already problematic attempt to integrate the non-physical into our apparent physical reality. It seems odd to posit that it's all physical, but it's overwhelmingly where evidence and reason leads. The lack of a good physicalist account of a theory of mind, or qualia, or intentionality, are interesting questions for philosophers of mind to ponder over. But the absence of explanation or apparent reconciliation aren't really sufficient to ignore what the evidence overwhelmingly points to - that we are physical beings, and the mind is no exception.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Zombie Animals

A thought experiment:
The factory farming business sure was profitable, but it caused problems for the owners. The CEO of one company was sick of the death threats against him and his family, the sabotage of farming equipment, and protests, that he decided to do something about it. His solution? To hire a team of artificial intelligence and genetic engineers to zombify his animals.

The artificial intelligence researchers came up with algorithms that would perform the basic functions of what the cows needed to survive and grow. Then the geneticists worked to make the brain develop as a physical representation of these algorithms. When neural activity happened, it merely performed computations like a computer. The cows performed as cows, but now the corporation had philosophy on its side. There couldn't be any question that the cows had an inner life without accepting that a computer does too. And since there was no inner life, the problems that the animal welfare advocates had dissolved.
There are two main kinds of arguments that advocates for animal rights use. There are arguments to do with sustainability, arguments that make the case that animals are a waste of resources and contribute to many environmental problems like climate change and destruction of the wider ecology to grow such creatures. The other arguments are about how meat-eating affects animals. Everything from living conditions and how they are killed, to questions over extending the same principles that we share with other humans.

Not surprisingly it's the latter arguments that really motivate people. We can think of environmental destruction as a negative, but it's hard to get attached to some abstract problem that we don't have any real control over. Refraining from eating chicken won't stop global warming or help the environment, but it will save a chicken from being killed. It's where we can have real impact and it fits right into how our moral systems work.

But there is one key assumption to these arguments, and that's of the capacity for sentience. How do we know that animals have the mental capacities analogous to ours? They just can't tell us, and even if they could it would be no guarantee. We just don't know what it's like to be a cow or a chicken, if it's like anything at all. We could observe their behaviours, examine their neurology, and we still wouldn't know if they have minds or we're projecting one onto them.

The point of this thought experiment is not to comment on whether animals have minds or not, but as a reminder that arguments of this nature have a limited utility. We could very well be projecting our biases onto what we eat, and this is at the expense of fighting for sustainable practices and other problems associated with the meat industry. Hooking into the "yuck" factor is very powerful, and evidentially a great motivator, but they aren't always convincing.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Living In The Abstract

When we don't really have to experience the consequences of our reasoning, we can justify some pretty absurd things. One memorable scene of All Quiet On The Western Front really highlighted this, where one of the soldiers who had fought the front line sat around as people who had experience of what the war actually was like talked tactics.

But this kind of reasoning happens all the time, the failure to empathise with the parties involved means that we are quick to judgement and condemnation; and on little more than the basis of moral disagreement. Voltaire is said to had opined “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” And what's more absurd than seeing people as mere pawns to achieve ideological ends?

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Highlighting The Importance Of Ecology

When protecting species, it's possible that times we empathise with the plight of the animal itself to the point where the bigger picture is lost. A panda or kakapo are iconic, and a rally call to save those particular animals, but what about less endearing creatures? When we're not dazzled by beauty, cuteness, or novelty, what then?

Perhaps a way to think about it is from an ecological perspective. Life, after all, to thrive has to be suited to the environment it lives in. And as no organism exists without some impact on the environment, it might be worth considering what role that organism plays. What flow-on impacts would extend from the loss of such a species? We could give a turtle a personality and wish to protect it that way, but its role as an underwater lawnmower is far more important because its part of the ecology that permits a sustainable environment.

Friday, 18 March 2011


"If there was a real case against human influence on climate, why is so much based on fabrication" - Ian Enting

What Evidence Would Persuade Me?

When it comes to the question of what would change your mind on a particular issue, it's meant to be a sign of an open mind to be able to come up with some form of evidence that would persuade you. But that standard is problematic, especially in cases when there's philosophical problems. For example, what evidence could convince me that the world started last Thursday in its current state as if time had passed? I'm not sure there's any evidence that could persuade me of that or the contrary. There's just no evidence that could satisfy that conclusion.

When it comes to the question of God I used to be all about the evidence, but I've been swayed away thanks to Massimo Pigliucci and PZ Myers, and now I don't think evidence could be sufficient. I think I need to make a distinction, however, because it's not saying my mind is made up and nothing can persuade me.

Firstly, I think there can be evidence of something, if there were interventionist agents affecting the world then that should be visible. That there's not good evidence of this counts against the notion of God. I suppose one could appeal to being able to work in undetectable ways, but that means that God is indistinguishable from no God at all.

However, this does not mean that evidence can be sufficient to establish God in the supernatural sense because the supernatural is not a coherent notion. Furthermore, we could not establish that God is 'uncaused', 'simple', 'eternal', 'immaterial', 'omnipotent', 'omniscient', etc. as all of those are beyond what is even possible to establish by evidence. Thus even if we did have evidence of something, it would be a leap of faith to say that it's God.

It's not a question of ontology but one of epistemology. Assuming God exists in the way that is described by theologians, we can never satisfy those attributes through scientific investigation. I think something god-like is hypothetically observable, but to say it's God is making unwarranted inferences.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

My Closed Mind

"Kel you already have your mind made up my friend there is no conversation going on it is what you believe or nothing. Perhaps one day you will wake up...Good luck to you my friend....BTW I live this shit and I am as healthy as a fucking horse...Don't visit doctors nor will I take a drug...Ciao."

This was from an exchange on facebook, where my crime was questioning the generic toxins as a medical threat, as well as self-diagnosis of gut fungus as a source of said toxins. Looking back at the thread, I'm not quite sure what I have my mind made up about, here are the comments I made in the thread.
What toxins are you trying to remove?
What toxins are involved in that, and how would a sauna or steam remove them?
Jxx, what toxins are those?
But if you can't identify what those toxins are, how do you know you're not chasing an invisible bogey man? Which impurities from your food come out through your skin? How is dirt and bacteria on your skin a "toxin"?

Don't get me wrong, I love saunas. I feel great afterwards. I just don't see how it has value as a medical treatment - especially not when it's used for such an ambiguous condition.
Unless you have oral or vaginal thrush, candida really doesn't cause any health problems. What toxins does candida release?
‎"Alcohol is the main one but others are included."
So how much alcohol does this fungus produce? And what are the other ones?
"It does cause health problems in the gut which then makes its way into the organs and into the brain."
What health problems? How does [candida] cause this?
This is my problem - there's no specificity here.
"It is not widely recognised as a physically proven condition by the mainsteam medical community but I have read more than enough stories of people realising they have it to be convinced it is real."
But if it's not established through peer review, then how do you know it's causing problems? If you're not checking for causal relationships, then you run the risk of not actually identifying the problem. *post hoc, ergo propter hoc*

"I will try my best to work out what it is by eliminating possabilities."
This is why we have trained medical professionals who can run diagnostics and use the best possible evidence to identify the problem. Self-diagnosis is a terrible idea!

In the end, it's your health. If it were me, I'd be worried since I'm not a medical professional and I don't have the resources to perform tests that I'm not doing what's best for me. But that's me, and you have to make that decision for yourself.
I don't know what would be best for Pxxxxxx, my contention here is that people are creating non-existent conditions based on superficial plausibility, and instead of getting tested indulge in self-treatment.

Again the idea of detoxing through diet is an ambiguous one. What toxins are removed? How does that make for better health? Again it sounds superficially plausible, but it becomes meaningless if it's not identifying what processes are involved.

So I'm not sure what I really have to wake up to, or how it's about what I believe or nothing. I kept deferring to medical professionals and argued against self-diagnosis, especially when it came to non-specific factors.

Who would have thought that arguing for getting tested and treated with the best available treatment would be a position that would draw the ire of anyone? It seems idiotic to suggest anything but!

I Know My Body

One case where we really don't know what's best for us is when it comes to health. We may be the only ones with the internal perception of our health, but we are not in the position to judge what is wrong with us or what treatments work or not. The best we can do is talk of our perception of feeling better or worse, or indirectly in factors that are visible from the outside such as visible recovery. Our perception counts for very little in the end, especially given the range of factors involved in perception.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Playing God

On the trolley problem, we are put into a position where if we do nothing five people die and if we act and pull the lever then only one person dies. It seems obvious that we should pull the lever, right? For some, apparently not.

I remember having a conversation with some friends about this, and one of them objected that he wouldn't pull the lever because that would make him responsible for that one person's death. That the one person was unavoidably put into harm's way by his action to pull the lever. So even if 5 people died as a result of his inaction, at least without acting he has no responsibility for what happened.

Yet isn't walking away from making a choice, making a choice? Choosing not to pull the lever when you had the power to do otherwise is making a decision that would kill 5. If you could have done otherwise, you're responsible either way.

Consider a parallel case where you're trying to escape from a burning fire. Carrying your dog, you're making your way to the exit. As your getting close and the fire is raging around you, you hear a child cry out. There's no time to first take the dog to safety then come back for the child, you have to make a choice. Either let the child die or let the dog die.

Would you say to the parents of that child that it's not your responsibility? You didn't put the child in harm's way, and by saving the child it meant letting your dog, who would otherwise be saved, perish. It's a horrible fate for the baby, but you didn't want to play God.

Do you think they would be convinced? Are you?

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Worshipping Ignorance

The supernatural is so often appealed to in terms of what we don't know that I'm not really sure if supernatural entities are anything more than manifestations of ignorance - manifestations of ignorance that look suspiciously anthropomorphic. We can know what it's like for something to be an agent, and to act with intentionality and purpose. Yet what do those mean when placed on the supernatural? It's a mystery, which is what you get upon deeper examination. After all, what is the greatest of all possible things if not completely incomprehensible?

So while us reductionists types are flailing about to be able to explain the inexplicable, if only we could see that our quest is futile because the best explanation for inexplicability is the ultimate expression of the inexplicable - God!

Monday, 14 March 2011

Engaging In Scientism

Perhaps I trust science too much. I know that science is a provisional enterprise, but it's hard not to take achievements like the computer or the eradication of smallpox as grounds to take a position that science is a very reliable methodology for determining how the world works.

Of course I accept that not all truths are scientific. 2+2=4 is true, but not scientifically true. All bachelors are unmarried by definition, not empirical measure. And no I don't think there's no truth in art. I do mock a priori philosophy, but I quote Hume when I do so and that makes it OK, right?

But on a whole, I think I do put a lot of trust into the power of the scientific method as a grounding for epistemology. Given how much of our modern world is shaped by the products of science it's understandable. So I think it's perfectly reasonable to expect empirical evidence when someone is trying to talk about nature; that conjectures about how things work are backed by more than the mere assertion. If this is engaging in scientism, then scientism is surely a desirable label.

And when the label is used against anyone who uses evidence and reason, the label becomes worthless.

Sunday, 13 March 2011


One of the great things about being cynical is being able to laugh at the naïve nonsense that people come up with to answer meaningful questions. I get various spam in my letter box from churches and meditation groups, and I get a good laugh out of them. It's not that I find the questions absurd, on the contrary I think they're tapping into key issues. It's not that I find the quest for answering such questions absurd, I think that people should be reflective on such questions. What I find so absurd is how useless the answers they give are, using words and phrases that don't really mean anything but sound insightful or enticing.

The real meaningful activity isn't the meditation or the prayer or the belief in God - one can do all those things without needing a church or meditation group. It's the fellowship and interaction that makes the difference. We are social animals, after all. It's hard to fault people for wanting to have others around in order to engage in activities that highlight what's important and meaningful, and I think the same for atheist groups or AA groups. It's not the communal aspect that's deserving of ridicule, but the ridiculous drivel that's put forward as insight.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Chimpanzee Stem Cell

A thought experiment:
The stem-cell debate had been dogging scientists. There was uncertainty over funding, supply of material, and the risk of even being arrested. Despite all the ethics committees and agreements on good practices, the denial by those who believed it an affront to human nature meant the issue was not going to go away any time soon. Contemplating moving to another country or another field of study seemed like good career moves, but there was a reason they were studying stem cells after all.

One day, a stem cell research lab had called a conference announcing that they would no longer work on human stem cells. They had developed a way of doing their research that allowed for work to continue. The process was two-fold. First they would take stem cells from a chimpanzee. Then they would reprogram these cells to have the genome contained to be identical to ours. Most genes were nearly identical to begin with, requiring only slight adjustments, and the rest were programmed artificially and cultured in bacteria. For all intents and purposes, it was identical to a human stem cell, but it wasn't human. Stem cell research could continue, but now harassed by animal welfare advocates instead of pro-lifers.

While this might be scientifically-impossible (or taking too much effort to be worthwhile), such a scenario is an interesting way to tease out just what is wrong with stem cell research. The objection that the process is destroying human life is taken right out of the equation. So we're left with what is identical to a human cell, but not derived from human cells.

Of course, this might create new objections. That science is destroying human dignity by engaging in such acts. Using chimpanzees in that way might (justifiably) spark a heated reaction. But I think the core problem is at the point of reproduction and that life begins at conception.

Friday, 11 March 2011


"There is no such thing as the scientific world. There is, rather, just the world, and what we are trying to do is describe how it works and describe our situation in it." - John Searle

Building A Large Toolkit

"If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail." This phrasing of the law of the instrument sums up the problem we all face in developing mind tools. If we've got one tool we always favour, then it's going to be misapplied and used in situations where it doesn't belong.

Building a large toolkit has drawbacks. It requires time and effort to learn them, as well as where they apply. And you'll never get the mastery in multiple tools the same way as if you focused on one or a few. But these drawbacks are worth the versatility that comes with having a wide variety of tools one can use well. Where there's specialisation required, let those with the mastery of those specialised tools do the job. Not everyone needs to be able to be a medical statistician or climate modeller, after all. But to have no knowledge of the tools that professions use is inviting the capacity of being sold nonsense under the guise of insight.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Biology Of Mind

We are evolved creatures, thus the mind is a product of evolutionary forces. Sometimes this is neglected for a priori musings about what the mind is, and problems get exacerbated by removing them from our biology an into the abstract.

So when I hear about particular problems of mind that seem to excite dualists, I really wonder just how closely they've thought about the problem. Have they taken into consideration the utility of such a function in an evolutionary perspective? Have they taken into consideration other animals that have similar behaviours to us? Have they identified something outside of the brain at play? If not, then why are we even considering something beyond the material?

The absence of a good account of organisation of thoughts into knowledge, or failures of the reduction of intentionality to brain states, doesn't to me seem at all good reasons to reject that it's causally reducible to the material. It simply says "we don't know", and warrants further investigation.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011


I often come across people who reject scientific facts and theories that don't fit into their own worldview. So when this worldview stems from an adherence to dogma, thus the reasons for rejecting science are because of a doctrinal presupposition, it seems only fair to say that science and religion are in conflict. After all, people are rejecting science for religious reasons.

As far as I can tell, the accommodationist sees it differently. Instead of the conflict being between science and religion, it's that the doctrinal presuppositions are a case of misinterpreting religion. After all, people who adhere to those same doctrines support science and its discoveries.

Partly my worry about the accommodationist position as I see it is that it's asking people to comment on the validity of another's approach to religion - that we're in effect needing to be mini-theologians and tell other people how to do their religion. And I'm really not sure to what extent we can do this. What's to say they're doing religion wrong? From the insider perspective, their view might be more consistent than the view I'm offering. And from the outsider perspective, the preference of a particular view is correlated to its compatibility with the outsider view.

Thus I find the accommodationist view hard to justify in supporting it. It's not to deny that there are those who have compatible religious beliefs, but that those compatible religious beliefs are compatible with those incompatible beliefs. A presuppositional commitment that necessitates an incompatibility won't go away because others don't take that presuppositional commitment.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Experience Or Experiment?

Our perceptual experience is a major part of understanding the world. Yet sometimes our perceptual experience can give seemingly contradictory accounts with previous experience, as well with the accounts of others. One interesting thing about our nature is that we have the capacity to turn perception onto itself and perceive how we perceive. As a result, science is now beginning to be able to explain what it is we perceive as a matter of brain function. The first-person recollection is able to be explained by experiment. But since the first-person experience is all we have, how are we to trust what the scientists say when what they're saying profoundly disagrees with our perceptions?

A thought experiment:
What should we trust more, our first-person experience, or the results of scientific experiment? Consider the hypothetical situation of someone who has an out-of-body experience, from there internal perspective they see themselves leaving their body and floating through the room. They are able to float through the door and into the corridor outside. The experience ends and they're back in their body. Standing in front of him is a neuroscientist utilising an electromagnetic device. The scientist explains that while the person was strapped into his chair, the scientist operated this machine, that sent electric stimulations to the brain's right angular gyris, a part of the temporal lobe. The person didn't have an OBE, just the illusion of it.

In this situation, what is more likely? The internal perspective gives a vivid account of experience, yet from a causal perspective the experience was a brain activity. Of course, this isn't a hypothetical situation, the technology exists already and this account parallels a paper published in Nature back in 2002. The experience seems at odds with the explanation, but the explanation has a causal role. Are we meant to dismiss that the scientist was there inducing the hallucination any more than when a brain tumour causes sexual thoughts towards young girls or that a stroke in the right occipital lobe leaves someone seeing phantoms rising out of the floor on their left-side?

Monday, 7 March 2011

The Cultural Stance

In our attempts to be able to successfully interact with unknown, we make a lot of assumptions about what that unknown is. We don't treat rocks, alarm clocks, and puppies the same way. Even in our interactions with people we're not sure what they're going to do, so we have to make assumptions about them. There are various ways one does this, a concrete way might be to base it off appearance and past experience with similarly-appearing people. A more abstract one would be to base one's predictions based on a person's star sign. While it might be insensitive and limited in how effective it can be to base assumptions off physical characteristics (e.g. "he's short and short people are quick to temper", "she's a redhead so she's got a fiery personality"), it's downright absurd to think that star sign has anything to do with personality type.

One stance that has utility is basing one's dealings off cultural norms where the person comes from. If the culture someone comes from has a strong focus on respect, it's generally going to be helpful to adhere to that when dealing with people from that culture. If a particular gesture is considered insulting in that culture, it helps to avoid it. It seems a fairly trivial observation these days that it helps to be aware of cultural differences than to be ignorant of them.

There is one concern I have with the cultural stance, and that's when it's over-applied. That instead of taking culture as one determining factor in an individual, it's taken as an over-arching determining factor. People cease to be intentional agents and instead become cultural ones; the cultural stance has shifted into creating the cultural entity. And if there's no other reason to reject it (and there are many), just consider the variation of personalities in our own culture.

It's a useful heuristic, but one that has the danger of being misapplied. We're all still people after all.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Moral Subjectivism

"I have subjective moral opinion, and you have subjective moral opinion. So how can you say that morality is objective when quite clearly you have subjectively different moral standards from another person. Moral truth rests inside your head." It seems hard to go from the subjective to the objective, what makes one moral truth better than another? If I think I'm right and you think you're right then if it's all subjective then there's seemingly nowhere we can go.

But perhaps this can be salvaged through analogy. Imagine two people drinking a wine. Both people are having a subjective experience of the wine, but both people are talking about the relation of their subjective experience to the objective characteristics of the wine. One might taste plum while the other tastes black cherry, and that would be subjectively true, but the wine has a particular chemical composition irrespective of the subjective experience. While the subjective judgement cannot be removed from the experience, the subjective experience may not properly characterise the objective elements that the subjective is trying to capture.

One might object that it might be all well and good for wine because at least there's a physical object that is to be measured, where can one go with morality? Yet we are referring to things outside ourselves when we make moral judgements. Many moral arguments centre around the suffering an action causes, to considerations of quality of life, and whether particular actions help or hinder another. These, in principle, can be debated and people have the capacity to change their minds of particular issues because of such considerations.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Respecting Theology

As one of those pesky Gnu atheists, I really don't have time for much theology. While this might make me seem that I'm basing my atheism on ignorance, I feel this is an unfair characterisation. The study of theology is about as much needed for my rejection of God as the study of astrology to reject astrology. I could give more examples of this, but I hope the point gets across without it.

When it comes to astrology, I take into consideration whether or not there's a correlation between the position of planets and stars and the effects on our lives. As far as I can tell, there is none. I take into consideration the correlation of star signs to personality types. As far as I can tell, there is none. I take into consideration the predictive success of astrologers to use the tools to be able to predict world events. As far as I'm aware, there's no evidence for this. So there's no prior plausibility to astrology, so what would I get out of studying it from an internal perspective?

To take theology as a consideration would mean showing how theology is necessary to the question of God's existence. As far as I can tell, it isn't. The burden is on those who believe it is to show why it is, otherwise the objection falls flat. It seems the best way to respect theology is not to take it as more than it is, after all we don't look to the contradictions in Genesis as the reason for rejection Creation. Internal inconsistency doesn't matter so much when the case is made irrespective to that.

Friday, 4 March 2011


"I am not much impressed with the people who say: "Look at me: I am such a splendid product that there must have been design in the universe."" - Bertrand Russell

Cost Of Conjectures

If you look at the conspiracy theories around 9/11, many of the allegations just seem so implausible that it's a wonder anyone takes them seriously. Take the argument that the government lined the building with explosives and it was a controlled detonation. To do this takes time and effort, setting up a demolition takes a long time. Not to mention that no-one noticed the personnel or explosives?

This is an example of when conjectures aren't properly costed. In this case, demolitions don't happen ex nihilo, they take people and time to set up. No-one noticed this? The argument might be sound, but each unaccounted assumption makes the whole proposition less plausible. Perhaps in the case of 9/11, truthers will say that there is evidence such as the nano-thermite, but this is merely anomaly hunting and doesn't even begin to explain why the evidence needed to support all assumptions isn't there.

By costs I don't mean money, but costs in terms of what it would take for an assumption to be correct. For example, going to the moon when the technology existed to "fake" such an event isn't meant to imply that Hollywood is a more plausible explanation because it's cheaper, but that Hollywood is a less plausible explanation because each assumption has an argumentative cost. To fake the moon landings there needs to be evidence of a mass cover-up, that all those involved with NASA including the astronauts need to be lying or themselves deceived, while all those evidence like craft, photos from space, moon rocks, etc. all need to be fabricated. Meanwhile where are the Hollywood people showing that they worked on recreating the moon landing? I would love to hear how those people did the experiment dropping the hammer and the feather in a vacuum. Very impressive stuff!

The underlying message is that anyone can construct an argument that fits a consistent narrative, it's what we do best. But to have the narrative be plausible needs each part of the narrative to be costed and backed with comparative amounts of evidence.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

"Just So" Arguments

When arguments are made in a vacuum, all kinds of nonsense can be justified. Take the argument that Big Pharma is conspiring to keep people sick because that way they will sell more products. I think there are two ways to argue against such an argument. The first is to show where it's wrong, that there are forces at play which invalidate such an argument. The second is to reject it until such times as there is evidence to support such an argument.

While the first route is a more tempting option, it's little more than an academic exercise. In the case of the medical dependence argument, I try to argue that there is competition and that if a product worked it would be better for a company to manufacture it because while it wouldn't have a continual income stream, it would have customers getting it on the sole basis that it worked. Second, in the case of medicine pretty much all we get has to undergo extensive testing for its efficacy. There are more reasons, but I think both of those are sufficient to defeat the argument.

But that's a fairly academic exercise. There's no reason to take the argument seriously to begin with. Even if the argument held, there would still be the problem that there's no evidence to support such a claim. It's wild speculation, and treating it as a serious idea only serves to validate nonsense. And worse than that, any crackpot who comes up with an argument could argue that they should be taken seriously just because they've strung a few words together in a somewhat coherent fashion. Sometimes it's better to just say "no" and put it to the person making the argument to make a case worthy of consideration.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Contingency & Belief

I'm in the significant minority of humans who ever lived in that I believe that the sun orbits the earth. It's a recent belief about the world to emerge, one that's only gained acceptability within the last 400 years. I live in a society now where this is a widespread belief, something handed down to me from parents, educators, and other cultural media.

I think it would be a mistake, however, to think that's sufficient for the belief itself. After all, I was also brought up to believe in psychic powers such as mind-reading and spoon bending. I was also taught to believe in some form of God, and that didn't stick either.

The problem with arguments from cultural imposition is that if something is handed down through culture, it doesn't necessarily explain away the belief itself. It's where elements of the beliefs are arbitrary in the sense that they differ from culture to culture where arguments from cultural contingency are effective.

If I were born in another time and place, my solar model would not have been heliocentrist, yet there are good reasons to be a heliocentrist. The persistence of the idea in the scientific community at a time when knowledge of astronomy has reached such a point where crafts can be landed on a planet hundreds of millions of kilometres away is a good indicator that the knowledge has validity.

Meanwhile a belief in aliens as an explanation for certain phenomena like sleep paralysis is as vague as positing demons. Both beliefs are representative of the time, but the preference of one over the other is arbitrary, as both as suitably vague. In this case the cultural contingency is that one belief cannot be preferred over the other.

At the core of the argument from cultural imposition is not the culture handing down the belief so much as the belief itself is arbitrary. The mode of transmission highlights its arbitrariness, not that cultural transmission makes it arbitrary.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Truth In Advertising Meat Products

Right now in Australian stores, when we buy chocolate we are presented with a choice in brands, but also a choice in how the product is made. Chocolate bearing the "Fair Trade" label come with the guarantee that the products of the product are made by farmers who are properly compensation and aren't the product of child label. As a facetious quip, when eating chocolate sans label, I remark "tastes like the sweat and blood of child slaves". It doesn't stop me eating and enjoying it, in fact it's the last thing on my mind when choosing and eating chocolate. What I care about are price, flavour, and the absence of milk.

It's not that I don't care about slavery, and in particular exploitation, it's just that in my role in the process as a consumer those don't factor into it. Even when I consciously think about it, it's a very academic exercise. The desire to have chocolate, money considerations, health factors, etc. Against those very real factors, the potential suffering is little more than an abstract concept.

I think that if I saw video footage of how the chocolate is made, it would change my moral considerations. This is a recognition of the role that passions play in our reasoning. when I buy eggs now, I buy free range. But it's largely an academic choice, an ought with no emotive emphasis. Seeing videos of chickens in the conditions in which they laid the eggs I think would make the moral factor of the decision a lot higher.

So if meat advertisement were reflective of how the animal lived and died, I think it would make the choice to eat meat more in line with how we think morally. This is not to argue that eating meat is right or wrong but that the way we talk about the morality of eating meat is not represented in our decision making process. Until such time, I think the moral outrage that many feel over eating meat is not going to be in line with how people think. Not because they're unreflective carnivores indoctrinated into the acceptability of eating meat, but because the process is divorced from our moral reasoning.