Thursday, 30 May 2013

Tom Waterhouse Is Not Your Friend

When it comes to advertising, I'm of the firm opinion that a fool and his money are soon parted (it certainly happens to me more often than not). It's not that I'm unaware of the pernicious power of advertising, but that influence is not the same as determination, and I fully endorse putting more responsibility on individuals to make up their own minds. In other words, banning is merely a cover-up for a failure in education.

I really don't have strong feelings towards live odds being part of a broadcast. And as far as targeting problem gamblers, to me it would make more sense to fight for sensible poker machine legislation. Unfortunately, there's not enough political will to overcome the clubs, but there does seem to be enough political will to overcome Tom Waterhouse.

Since Aussie rules is my winter sport of choice, my exposure to Tom Waterhouse has been limited to ads and news stories. But it is the ads I want to talk about, because I think they warrant the heuristic of the title - "Tom Waterhouse is not your friend".

What distinguishes Tom's ads from other ads is how personal me makes it. When I first saw his ads last year, he used his insider knowledge as a credential to be the best source for gambling. This struck me as odd as I wasn't sure just how that insider knowledge would help the punter (the fallacy of the dubious advantage), but now I've come to realise it's part of making Tom Waterhouse seem personal. It's not a business, it's his business - a very important psychological distinction.

It's a clever strategy, but a psychologically misleading one. There's no meaningful difference between Samuel L Jackson being a celebrity spokesperson for bet365 (their slogan should be "Gambling motherfucker, do you do it?"), nor is there any meaningful distinction between Tom Waterhouse and a mouthpiece. So when Tom advertises that he's willing to give money back when the scores are within a goal, how good this deal is depends solely on the odds are relative to other gambling companies.

On one level, all this is fairly obvious. We know that it's another business, and that it's appearances. But the thing to remember about cognitive biases is how they distort our thinking. Even with conscious knowledge, our biases are still present in our cognition. It's why it helps to remember that Tom Waterhouse is not your friend, as the presentation of the company is geared around the personality behind it.

If one is still sceptical, just remember that the whole reason you see Tom Waterhouse on TV is that he's able to buy advertising space with the profits he makes from you. Would a friend do that?

That's Not Religion!

According to the research discussed in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast And Slow, our cognition is geared towards stereotyping. The main example from the literature was a description of a woman who was given a short profile, and participants were asked to rate how likely each statement was. It was highly likely that she would be active in the feminist movement, not likely that she was a bank teller, but more likely that she was a bank teller who was active in the feminist movement.

The fallacy is that there's a smaller set of bank tellers who are active in the feminist movement than there are bank tellers in total. So it stands to reason that it's more likely that she is a bank teller than both a bank teller and being active in the feminist movement. The mistake is that although there are less feminist bank tellers than there are feminists, being a feminist fits better with the profile than bank teller does.

This cognitive tendency seems to me a good explanation for a persistent apologetic - the cry that whenever anything bad happens under the name of religion of "that's not religion". (Or the slightly more sophisticated version - "that's not true religion".)

This apologetic is hardly limited to anti-atheist apologetics, but has served a useful purpose throughout history of branding other religious people who disagree as atheists. I used to think of this move as nothing more than a rhetorical ploy, but now I've come to accept that it's (mostly) uttered in full sincerity.

The fallacy was made explicit by Antony Flew with the No True Scotsman fallacy, but making the fallacy is not the same as the reasons why the fallacy is made. And because it's an informal fallacy, it might not be at all obvious why it's fallacious to distinguish between the two cases. Is the critic arguing engaging in equivocation, or is there some special pleading going on by the proponent? A deeper examination is almost always needed.

One of the things that's prominent in the critics of religion when faced with the apologetic is to ask what the difference is. This seems the right question to ask. While it might just be obvious to someone that two concepts don't share a resemblance, illustrating that difference is another matter.

The importance of being able to correctly identify where the criticism lies is the only way to make sense of the criticism. Even if the criticism is misguided, it's important to identify where the thinking has led astray - there's no reason to think that critics are any less biased in this respect than proponents. The important point is to recognise the need for rational exploration because our biases, make it all too easy to shrug off what seems like misguided criticism.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Fodor vs ID

A few months ago, I was on a facebook group where an ID proponent kept posting numerous links to pro-ID articles, coupled with grandiose points about the death of Darwinism. One thing that struck me about the links was link linking to Jerry Fodor, a philosopher who made a big splash a few years ago as the coauthor of a book called What Darwin Got Wrong. I took this opportunity to go back over what Fodor was (and wasn't) saying, to see how well Fodor's view sits with Intelligent Design. Long story short: it doesn't.

The sources are linked below for anyone who is interested. Listening to his discussions, Fodor said nothing that would even indicate that an intelligent designer was needed. He seemed quite content with accounts of biology involving the classic examples of enhanced survival value. His main contention was that the examples followed from the biologist's understanding of nature and not from the theory itself. His charge against Darwin was that Natural Selection is empty, and isn't a theory that can predict anything without biologists using the theory as a ventriloquist dummy.

Yet this account doesn't give any credence for ID, nor does it cast doubt on existing processes to be the organising principles that biologists demand. The charge is simply that it's not Darwin's theory that describes how this happens. Biologists and philosophers of scientists have argued back as to why Fodor is mistaken on this account, but it doesn't change that Fodor's view isn't pro-ID.

So why are pro-ID advocates using Fodor to promote their view? My guess is for the same reason as they promote Thomas Nagel's recent attack on evolutionary theory - ID amounts to little more than Darwinian criticism. Even Behe's main argument (Irreducible Complexity) is that certain structures cannot evolve by a Darwinian process. Even if that were true (it isn't), it doesn't follow that a designer did it.

Fodor's arguments against Darwinism don't even begin to support ID. Any ID proponent who uses Fodor is using his views like a ventriloquist dummy.
A discussion between Fodor and scientist-turned-philosopher Massimo Pigliucci:

A discussion between Fodor and the philosopher Elliott Sober:

Grayling On Fine Tuning

Previously I mentioned how I had some suspicions of AC Grayling's analogy on fine-tuning, and now that I've gotten past the point in his book where he discusses design arguments, I can discuss those suspicions.

The fine-tuning argument, as far as I can tell, tries to make the case that the universe being the way it is demands an explanation. Or to be more specific, the configuration of the universe has the appearance of design for harbouring life. Of all the possible configurations of the universe, a very tiny fraction could even have life. So the best explanation for the fact that the universe has the appearance of design for life is that it was made by an agency who wanted life.

My suspicions about Grayling's analogy were due to the seeming disconnect between an improbability of a contingent history and the improbability of something with a design-like appearance. In other words, we wouldn't be able to appeal to a contingent history to explain away the design of a watch even if contingent history is a factor in watch-design. So when he says on page 80:
The 'Goldilocks dilemma' of my personal existence, and that of the universe's parameters and laws, is exactly the same thing.
I think that Peter S Williams had a fair reason to take exception with it. It doesn't obviously seem like the same thing at all, and requires further justification.

Grayling, however, hits the nail on the head with the final paragraph of the chapter:
We exist because the parameters are as they are; had they been different, we would not be here to know it. The fact that we exist because of how things happen to be with the universe's structure and properties entails nothing about design or purpose. Depending on your point of view, it is just a lucky or unlucky result of how things happen to be. The universe's parameters are not tuned on purpose for us to exist. It is the other way round: we exist because the laws happen to be as they are.
It's an important point to make. We necessarily live in a universe that can support us, so if any appeals to fine-tuning are to hold, they would have to show something more - that the universe was made for us. Of course we are going to be a product of whatever the universe can permit, and if the universe was any other way we wouldn't be here, but the same can be said of everything else that exists in a universe of the same configuration. Just as we exist, so do ants, and asteroids, and galaxies, and gamma ray bursts. All of it is a consequence of how the universe is. The fine-tuning view would be that everything else in the universe is a by-product of a universe designed for our purpose - a completely anthropic and unjustified assumption - rather than of us being a consequence of things being as they are.

This is what bothers me about fine-tuning arguments: any reality in which we exist is necessarily able to hold us. If we were made of a different material under a different configuration, the same argument would apply equally well. The reason being is that we are complex entities, dependent on things being as they are for that complexity to emerge. In between the two quotes from the book above was an illustration of this absurdity involving Dr. Pangloss from Voltaire's Candide:
"Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles."
We can see the absurdity right there. That the nose holds spectacles doesn't mean the nose is formed for the purpose of wearing spectacles. That the universe harbours human life doesn't mean the universe is formed for the purpose of human life. Even if the universe was purposefully designed so that 13.8 billion years later our species would emerge and God would show himself in Jesus form, the apparent design of the universe doesn't warrant that conclusion. Grayling's book explains why.

The Three Debates

I've been reading through AC Grayling's The God Argument recently. One of the things the book stresses is that there are actually three debates instead of one going on between atheists and theists. It's a point well worth making, especially as those issues can become muddled in the process of any discussion. They are:
  • Epistemological - theism vs atheism
  • Political - theocracy vs secularism
  • Ethical - religious vs humanism
The discussions can sometimes overlap, but it's a good thing in general to try to separate out the discussions. One can be a believer, while still supporting secularism in politics, or see merit in adhering to a religious ethical system while still being an atheist. It's also important to note that the justifications of the political / ethical debates are often grounded in epistemological claims. However, I'd question what value there is in arguing over the role of religion in politics by getting into the justification for biblical literalism (for example).

The debates also have sub-debates, such as science vs creationism in the case of the epistemological, or what role religious voices have under a separation of church and state. Even when it comes to ethical considerations, there's a strong overlap between humanism and any religious ethic, which would allow for debates on particular issues.

It's for that reason that I think that there's a lot of things would agree on if the debate wasn't so holistic and adversarial. I think that's why I get so disappointed when discussion is framed in terms of worldviews; it's a tactic that needlessly polarises, as well as obfuscating issues that don't demand it. Secular and ethical discussions aren't helped by getting people entrenched in their existing worldviews, which is perhaps why the move is so appealing (see: wedge strategy). But is unnecessarily divisive, and since there is so much that we already do agree on, I don't see the point of trying this strategy. The three debates are all interesting and important in certain respects, but become problematic when carelessly mixed.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Liar, Lunatic, or Lord - A Review Of Safety Not Guaranteed

WARNING: contains spoilers

CS Lewis' gambit for how to approach the divinity of Jesus is probably the best fit for how Safety Not Guaranteed is played out. The idea is simple: a man takes out an ad for a companion to travel back in time with, and a journalist takes two interns to investigate it.

Here's where the apologetics comes into play. The first thing to see is whether or not he's a liar. Is he a real person making a real claim? Turns out he is, so liar is ruled out. What about lunatic? Well, the film certainly indicates that way. He's a crank who argues with physicists online, stalks government laboratories, talks up his own intelligence, and has delusional thoughts about a dead "ex" who is both not dead and was never his girlfriend.

If the movie left it at that, it wouldn't be so bad. It could have made a point about delusions and how they rule our lives. Indeed, for most of the film it appeared that was what they were doing. In parallel with the crank, the journalist chases down an old girlfriend whom he had idealised beyond all recognition. His moment of realisation comes in the film, yet the film vindicates the delusions of the would-be time-traveller.

To put in nicely, it's incredibly lazy storytelling. It's effectively a "miracles happen" ending, with no regard for establishing plausibility or keeping with the spirit of the rest of the film. Why do this? My hunch it's that it's for the same reason as people are drawn to the Lord part of the trilemma - prior plausibility doesn't fit well into intuitive thought. The most likely scenario is that people are simply mistaken.

Perpetual motion machines are impossible, yet people still build machines that they claim work. People of excessive intelligence and personality can harbour incorrect and even delusional beliefs. Indeed, given the range of things that people can believe, it should be the expectation that extraordinary beliefs even among the most extraordinary of individuals is still the norm.

For Safety Not Guaranteed, taking the Lord path of the trilemma meant quite the elaborate special effect sequence. I cannot help but think that money would have been better spent on a rewrite, but then again, I'm the sucker who paid to rent the film.

Big-c Cake

Cake, n. (1) A piece of cake that can be both kept and eaten.
(2) A solution to the problem of having one's cake and eating it too achieved through the use of capitalisation.

Caking, v. A rhetorical misdirection in order to rescue a concept from fatal objections via capitalisation. His argument relies on Caking the concept of good.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Pin Analogy

I was listening to the Unbelievable podcast today, which consisted of a discussion between AC Grayling and Peter S Williams on the topic of Grayling's new book: The God Argument. The book, incidentally, is sitting on my shelves waiting for me to find the time to read it. The discussion centred around Grayling's portrayal of the arguments for God, with Williams and the host highlighting what they saw as the problems with Grayling's thinking on the arguments.

It might be worth getting into the discussion around the moral argument another time, but for now I want to focus on an analogy that Peter Williams gave for the fine-tuning argument. The analogy goes something like this: lets suppose I've taken your bank card and I've tried to withdraw money from an ATM, but I did not know your pin. Yet despite this limitation, I was able to guess the pin and withdraw the money. It seems really improbable that I was able to do so, and you'd be sceptical that I was able to do so without that knowledge. For a four-digit pin, that's ~1/10000 chance. Yet when we look at all the ways the universe could exist, the fraction that allows for something even remotely like life is near infinitesimal. It follows that just like we see someone guessing as an unlikely explanation, that to say the universe happened by chance for our benefit is an unlikely explanation.

The next step, as far as theism is concerned, is to use design as a way of providing an explanation. This analogy is contrasted with Grayling's own analogy of trying to think about all the unlikely circumstances that would lead to his existence - that things had to happen for his parents to meet and for them to reproduce when they did, and so on back through the ages, whereby the chain of events is incredibly improbable, yet that fact doesn't require any other explanation.

While I do have suspicions about Grayling's argument in the way it was presented, I'll reserve judgement until I've read his book. Prima facie, Williams looks to have a point about the inadequacy of such a statement, but I think that Williams analogy is a step in the wrong direction. The reason has nothing to do with how to calculate the probabilities of life and how universes come about - as I lack the sufficient knowledge of physics to even begin to ponder the meaning of the question - but that in what we do know about the history of life in this universe, Williams' analogy seems utterly nonsensical.

Contingency already plays a huge role in the world as it is now. If the non-avian dinosaurs weren't wiped out by catastrophic events 65 million years ago, then there wouldn't have been the rise of mammals, the evolution of hominids, and even analogies like the ATM machine one. Yet the extreme unlikelihood of those events for our existence don't suggest that we should think of the plate tectonics and killer asteroids as being guided by a purposive designer for our benefit.

Even if the universe could be argued to be improbable on its own, it seems apparent that we cannot tell the story of our own existence without invoking chance and contingency in a sufficient and explanatory way. For the analogy, it's worth reflecting on just how lucky we are to be here with no other explanation beyond the happenings of how life evolved on this planet given the circumstances of the planet. The pin analogy makes it seem like the idea of fine-tuning means that we're the product of this fine-tuning. Yet there's no reasonable reason to think this is so.