Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-11-26

In the mental world, the evidence for the universality of causal laws is less complete than in the physical world. Psychology cannot boast of any triumph comparable to gravitational astronomy. Nevertheless, the evidence is not very greatly less than in the physical world. The crude and approximate causal laws from which science starts are just as easy to discover in the mental sphere as in the physical. In the world of sense, there are to begin with the correlations of sight and touch and so on, and the facts which lead us to connect various kinds of sensations with eyes, ears, nose, tongue, etc. Then there are such facts as that our body moves in answer to our volitions. Exceptions exist, but are capable of being explained as easily as the exceptions to the rule that unsupported bodies in air fall. There is, in fact, just such a degree of evidence for causal laws in psychology as will warrant the psychologist in assuming them as a matter of course, though not such a degree as will suffice to remove all doubt from the mind of a sceptical inquirer. It should be observed that causal laws in which the given term is mental and the inferred term physical, or vice versa, are at least as easy to discover as causal laws in which both terms are mental.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 8

In a lecture on cause and its application to free will, Russell takes time to note that causal laws apply to the interactions between different mental phenomena, or between mental and physical phenomena. I find free will to be a very difficult concept, in that among the people who believe it exists, they are almost universally certain it does not exist in computers, and yet are unable to give any sort that qualitative difference that withstands careful scrutiny. I'm working on a post looks at a typical example of this position.

This will be the last Quote of the Week to feature Russell, at least for a while. I've downloaded some Kant and some Nietzsche, so I expect they will be featured over the next few months.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-11-19

The world is not what it is. We should put out that silly "but it's human nature!" argument to pasture. At one point, a large percentage of the U.S. population was enslaved. Not long ago, women couldn't even vote. Even more recently, over 90% of the population thought inter-racial marriage was immoral. The world changes every day, and silencing criticism by claiming that things are the only way they can be is small minded and utterly incorrect. Women feel harassed when subjected to cat calls each time they leave their house. I would feel precisely the same. And since they are the ones getting harassed, you don't get a say in how they should feel. The behavior is unacceptable and society should stand against it.

Siro, JazzFanz post

We constantly see claims of nature used to justify inequality. This race has specific traits, that gender tends to act a certain way, the other sexuality shows deviance, etc. However, one of the real truths is that primate nature is plastic, adaptable, and responds to its cultural surroundings. Since humans are primates, this includes us.

One great, real-world example are the Forest Tribe Baboons, who had a dramatic shift in culture when the largest, most aggressive apes were killed off rapidly due to unusual circumstances. All over the world, baboons were known for their use of violence within a tribe to establish order, but within a couple of generations, this tribe turned to more pacifistic and cooperative models of organization. Culture can be changed. I don't advocate killing off our perpetrators of egregious racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc., but I do advocate fighting them.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-11-12

Between philosophy and pure mathematics there is a certain affinity, in the fact that both are general and a priori. Neither of them asserts propositions which, like those of history and geography, depend upon the actual concrete facts being just what they are. We may illustrate this characteristic by means of Leibniz's conception of many possible worlds, of which only one is actual. In all the many possible worlds, philosophy and mathematics will be the same; the differences will only be in respect of those particular facts which are chronicled by the descriptive sciences. Any quality, therefore, by which our actual world is distinguished from other abstractly possible worlds, must be ignored by mathematics and philosophy alike. Mathematics and philosophy differ, however, in in their manner of treating the general properties in which all possible worlds agree; for while mathematics starting from comparatively simple propositions, seeks to build up more and more complex results by deductive synthesis, philosophy, starting from data which are common to all knowledge, seeks to purify them into the the simplest statements of abstract form that can be obtained from them by logical analysis.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 7

I have areas of agreement and areas of disagreement with this post. I would put both mathematics and philosophy, as well as fields of study like constitutional law, largely in a class of knowledge referred to as formal knowledge. For me, this is knowledge derived from systems we set up, such as logic, uses propositions we assert to be true. In this sense, it is true mathematics, philosophy, or the law would be the same in any alternate world, as long as you hold the assumptions that they make to be unchangeable.

On the other hand, Russell wrote these lectures in 1914. long before the Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorems and Paul Cohen had proved the independence of the Continuum Hypothesis in set theory. We can certainly talk about one possible world where the Continuum Hypothesis is true, and another where it is not true. In that case, we can't say mathematics will be identical in these two possible worlds. The would hold true for any branch of philosophy (or any other formal system). We will always come across unprovable statements, which may be true or false, and discuss possible worlds for each case. The assumptions of mathematics are not unchangeable, but instead, up to the decision of the mathematician.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-11-05

US deaths from ebola = 1
Annual US deaths from the flu = >3000, as high as 49,000 over the past 40 years

US ebola infections = 3 (maybe 4, only 2 transmitted in the states)
Annual US flu infections = between 5% and 20% of the population get the flu, approx 200,000 are hospitalized from it annually

% of US populations panicking over ebola = >90%
% of the US population that thinks flu shots are worthless = ?%, but apparently anyone who follows Bill Maher. Link.

% of US population that are morons....well you can do the math.

LogGrad98, JazzFanz post

I don't have anything more to add to this one.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-10-29

I'm extremely opposed to a country that can run people out of town through denying them goods/services just because the owners of the business are bigoted jagoffs. On most things I'm pretty libertarian, but in this instance the Feds and state have a legitimate interest in protecting the rights of their citizens by intervening.

Nate505, JazzFanz post


I make no promises that Nate505 endorses every, or any, word of my commentary.

Does a state owe its citizens the right to be able to conduct business? Do other citizens have the right to de facto prevent citizens from conducting their business, or even inconvenience them in the conducting their business? Some people think that owners should be allowed to act upon their bigotry when serving the public, but I disagree. Being part of a community demands a certain level of respect for every other member of that community. You don't have to approve of them, or like them, but there is a reason that we refer to the minimum effort of acknowledging them and engaging with them as members of the public as being civil. It's a foundation of our civilization. It's what we owe every member of our community.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-10-22

I do not see any reason to to suppose that the points and instants which mathematicians introduce in dealing with space and time are actual physically existing entities, but I do see reasons to suppose that the continuity of of actual space and time may be more or less analogous to the mathematical continuity. The theory of mathematical continuity is an abstract logical theory, not dependent for its validity upon any properties of actual space and time.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 5


Can you tell what I have been reading lately?

Russell regularly regales against philosophers who put their metaphysics as being, and here he sets his own standard for himself; the best he does is work with something somewhat analogous. I've been talking about philosophy as constructing models for reality since the very first of this blog. We never can know if we have a perfect model of reality, only if we have one that's working for our needs.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-10-15

There is not any superfine brand of knowledge, obtainable by the philosopher, which can give us a standpoint from which to from which to criticize the whole of daily life. The most that can be done is to examine and purify our common knowledge by an internal scrutiny, assuming the canons by which it has been obtained, and applying them with more care and precision. Philosophy cannot boast of having achieved such a degree of certainty that it can have authority to condemn the facts of experience and the laws of science.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 3


Russell was a logical realist, in that he believed the principals of logic were basic facts; I am closer to being a fictionalist, in that I believe they are constructed by humans, for humans, and have been used to create a useful model that is simple enough to be understood and flexible enough to handle many things. So, I would agree with this quote from Russsell even more strongly than, perhaps, he would.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Quote of the week, 2014-10-08

But if human conceit was staggered for a moment by its kinship with the ape, it soon found a way to reassert itself, and that way is the "philosophy" of evolution. A process which led from the amoeba to man appeared to the philosophers to be obviously a progress--though whether the amoeba would agree with this opinion is not known.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 1

Of course, we know that evolution does not teach there is a process from amoeba to men, but rather, that amoebas and men have a common ancestry of a population of single-celled animals that we might call (for the purposes of this discussion) early eukaryotes. I don't know if Russell was aware of this inaccuracy or not; he makes this sentence in the process of describing philosophical positions, not biology, and so moves on quickly to philosophies that supposedly use evolution as a basis (of which he is not fond).

Still, I agree that the early eukaryotes may not consider either lines of their descendants to have progressed.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Quote of the week, 2014-10-01

Everyone knows that to read an author simply in order to refute him is not the way to understand him; and to read the book of Nature with a conviction that it is all an illusion is just as unlikely to lead to understanding.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 2

I am far overdue to respond to some posts by TheOFloinn. I will try to keep this in mind in my responses.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Suggested Kickstarter: Augie and the Green Knight

There's another interesting children's book on Kickstarter, Augie and the Green Knight: A Children's Adventure Book.



This one is already funded. An magical adventure about a skeptical, science-minded girl in a world of fantasy. What's not to love?

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Suggested Kickstarter: The Freethinker's Book of Fables

There's 17 days left in this Kickstarter.

The Freethinker's Book of Fables

I'll be contributing.

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Knowledge, but little mastery

I've been doing a lot of reading of others, but haven't had much to say in a blog post lately. One of the things I've realized is that every blogger engages in a lot of repetition, making the same points over and over in response to new circumstances. So far, I haven't been motivated to do that. So, that's why I have not said much lately. However, I'm thinking about starting up again. I do have a point of view that I don't see expressed often, i.e., that formal knowledge (the understanding of the creation of argumentation forms and their use) is a distinct type of knowledge from either empirical knowledge (gained from experimentation and exploration in the natural world) or first principles (basic values and understandings that we hold without evidence).

While I'm still mulling that over, today's comic from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal hit another dimension of some things I've read.

One of the notions I've read is that science changed from understanding the natural, in an appreciation of Aristotle's four causes and an attempt to encourage them, to an attempt at mastery. In particular, that science has abandoned the notion of form (the proper shape of something, that the something always seeks to emulate) and purpose (the reason for something to exist, with a thing's goodness being tied up in how well exhibits/accomplishes this reason). Supposedly, this freed up science to be about mastery of the world and shaping it into want men wished it to be, as opposed to what it was supposed to be.

The problems with this view are numerous, and I have discussed some of them before. However, one I don't recall mentioning is that it diminishes the sense of wonder, awe, and helplessness we feel at our inability to master nature. We had to give up respecting made-up natures to appreciate actual nature. It was a good trade.

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Gaming review, 11/23

Four games this week, which wasn't bad for the day after the holiday.

We started off with 7 Wonders, no expansions.  I don't usually go the military route, but I was dealt Rhodes, so I played to my strength.  It was a five-player game, but two of the players had a total of one game of prior experience.  The five-player games seems to have a lot of resources compared to the one for four and three players.  I came in first.

Next up was Cloud 9, light filler while the other group was finishing up their game.  Again with five players, I guessed poorly, and came in fourth.

Third was the only new (to me) game of the evening,
Beowolf:  The Legend
.  You start off with a hand that has some of five types of resources, and use those resources in two different types of bidding.  There is blind bidding, where everyone bids once by laying cards face-down, and round-robin bidding, where you have to beat the previous bidder to stay in the round.  Every player gets to choose a prize after each type of bidding (sometimes the last couple of choices are actually penalties). There are also opportunities to improve your hand or score in between bidding rounds.  The group travels the board with Beowolf together, the only random aspect is the drawing of cards.  I had a nice time with it.

I ended the evening with Alien Frontiers.  We had to play a shortened game because the venue was closing, with three players.  The winner had seven points, the other two had six.

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Gaming review, 10/26

Only two games this time.

I started with a 4-player game of Seasons. The person teaching it had only played 2-player games before, and said 4-player was much more chaotic. Some of the cards had the opposite impact of what I expected (making things easier instead of harder for the opponents, for example). We ran out of power cards, and had to decide on-the-spot to reshuffle the deck (a gap in the rules). There is, apparently, a more difficult level with trickier power cards. I came in second. I would try it again, but I don't think I'll be calling for it.

The second game was Dominion, a game that uses a different set of ten types of cards from a huge selection (I think there are well over 100+ card types) to go with standard sets of money and victory point cards. It plays differently every time. This time, I completely misread the card Fool's Gold. In a three-player game, I came in second (and third was right behind me), but with less than half the points of the victor. I think this was my fifth game. I just might be getting the hang of it.

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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Gaming Reveiw, 9/29

I'm part of a monthly gaming group, and I've decided to use this blog to keep track of what I have played there.  I'll also be returning to other topics soon.  The games we played last night are below the fold.

We strted with an 8-player game of Tsuro of the Seas, which I had not played before.  I had only played the original Tsuro once, but I prefer it.  The addition of daikaiju (sea monsters) and the larger board seemed to prolong the game while reducing the strategy.  I came in fifth.

Next was Cartegena, which uses a pirate theme behind a modular board and a game based on jumping symbols.  The strategy was deeper than I thought it would be from the description, even though we were playing with hidden cards.  There are some very difficult decisions because if you jump to a lead, your opponents can use your piece to jump even further.  I took an early lead against four other players and managed to keep it.

Third was Cloud 9, a nice, light filler.  I guessed badly  on a couple of turns, and took fifth place out of five.

We finished with Zooleretto, which had an interesting combination of luck in drawing tiles and skill in trying to get the tiles you want and avoid the ones you do not want.  I mis-guessed what a couple of my opponents would do, and came in second out of four, but not a close second.

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Review of DieCon 12

Last weekend was DieCon.  It's a game convention in Collinsville, IL.  I haven't been to a convention in 25 years, so I was nervous, but really excited as well.  I had a great time, and saw many of the regulars I see from the St. Louis Board Games group at Meetup.com (I'm in the meet-up on the last Friday of the month, Metro East).  I had a great time, and plan to go back next year.  The facilities were spacious and comfortable, and everyone was pleasant.  Below the fold I will discuss all the game I played and my reaction to them.

My first session was Friday, 7pm, for Morris Cubed.  This was a three-dimensional version of Nine Men's Morris.  It was the work a a nice gentleman named Alan, who has apparently sold one set to far.  The third dimension made the game interesting, but I think it created a sort of leader effect, although perhaps no more than in the regular game.  In each game, the winner was able to create a very stable structure in two of the three dimensions, one that was difficult to attack.  We split two games.

Friday at 9 was Dominion, the only game at the convention that I had played before last weekend. This was my third time playing, and I started to understand some of the ideas behind reducing your deck. I played two five-player games, coming in second and fifth.

Saturday at 9am was Quicksilver, a game about racing airships across a terrain.  It was a basically-finished, unprinted game (the link is to the Kickstarter).  There were some important choices, but not really difficult choices, and there was a small amount of player interaction, but it was basically a racing game.  The person running the game arrived late, and I left shortly before the game ended to get to the next game on time, but was on track to finis 3rd or 4th, I think.

The following game, Puerto Rico, is one of the classic in the modern game era. I started with a corn farm under the standard rules (and so a slight advantage, it seems), and I was pleased with my game, except I made a big mistake on the final turn, and wound up not scoring points that turn. I was 5th in a 5-player game, I think, but could have been third.

After a break, at 2 pm I was scheduled to play Ninja, but the person who was scheduled to run the game never showed up.  For a short while, I played Abalone with someone who had just showed his niece how to play. It was a lot of fun, and winning certainly enhanced the experience. Then, someone else came by who happened to know Ninja, so we started that game. It's a game with one side having hidden movement while the other side is trying to catch them, and I did not really enjoy it much.

Next up at 4pm was a play test of the very raw Minimum Wage Gorilla, by Split Second Games, who also are doing Quicksilver. Minimum Wage Gorilla is a blind bidding game with a cute theme. I think the game was slightly too long, long enough that I made it a point to increase my bidding force by "hiring" more gorillas in three of the first six rounds (since only one person can hire at a time, this was a commitment of resources). It gave me a large advantage for later rounds, and I won fairly easily.

I ended the evening with the only four-hour game I selected, Le Havre. I was in a five-player game. There were an increasing number of choices as the game went on. I think I made some short-term decisions that were inferior to some 4-5 turn plans. Since with 5 players it is a 28-turn game per player, planning ahead 4-5 turns can pay off well. I came in third, though, and I had a good time doing it.

Sunday morning, 9am, I went off to Hawaii, at least in the imagination. There were only three of us. I think I was lucky on the initial turn, in that there was an option available that mean I would have as many movement points as I needed for the rest of the game. I fell behind early, but made up for it in the final scoring and eked out a one-point win.

Next on the itinerary was London, and again there were only three of us. I think I got lucky in the early going, and was able to choose a couple of high-cash options the first time I collected for my layout. Even so, I found myself doing some intense calculations trying to get my cards to come out with the proper count. I managed to pull out a win here, as well.

My final game was another gem by Alan, called Brigade.  We each started with 18 brigades, which we cold group into divisions and corps (but not armies). Grouping carried power advantages, but disadvantages in mobility. I played with a pleasant young man, Alan watching on, and again split two games. I really enjoyed this game.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My take on the shooting of Trayvon Martin

 There's an aspect of the Trayvon Martin shooting I have not seen discussed much. It's probably due to the limited circle that I read. Most people seem eager to justify Zimmerman's actions, such as The Wagist. He has a theory that Martin actually initiated a first confrontation with Zimmerman, and then attacked Zimmerman when Zimmerman initiated the second. Even if you grant all this, and everything else he proposes, giving Zimmerman every reasonable consideration that is available, it does not change that Zimmerman is a murderer, at least ethically and morally (legally, I'll leave up to the justice system). I'll discuss more below the fold.

First, though, let's be clear: to the degree that race exists at all, Zimmerman is white. Any of his features will be found in people of European ancestry. Hispanic is a cultural background, not a race. He looks white, and gets treated as if he is white by strangers. He’s white in every effective way.

So, Martin was a young black man in an unfamiliar neighborhood in the South being followed by a white man. Martin was alone and unarmed; for all he knew there may have been many people in the car. The first thing that would have come to my mind was being killed (maybe lynched, maybe dragged behind the car, maybe just being beaten). It's not a huge likelihood, but it's a notion you can't get out of your head, either. Martin visibly reacts to the potential threat by pulling up his hood and walking faster. This reaction is visible to Zimmerman.

At this point, Zimmerman knows that Martin is aware of being followed. Zimmerman has deterred the potential (in Zimmerman's eyes) crime, just by making the potential (in Zimmerman's eyes) criminal aware there is a someone watching. Further, a burglar had just been arrested, lowering the chance of Martin being a burglar. Zimmerman has done his duty in the neighborhood watch; there is no reason for him to keep following Martin. Yet, he does keep following Martin.

According to the theory at The Wagist, at some point Martin knocks on the window of Zimmerman’s car and asks Zimmerman why Zimmerman is following Martin. At this point, Zimmerman could say he’s keeping watch, and has called the police. Instead, Zimmerman lies about following Martin. As Martin walks off, Zimmerman then has the choice to stop following Martin at this point. Instead, he follows Martin again. So, if this theory is true, Martin is now being followed by a strange man who has lied to Martin about following Martin. That raises the danger level even more in Martin’s eyes.

Whether the theory is accurate or not, Martin starts running. So, now Zimmerman has actually chased off the (to Zimmerman) potential burglar. Even though he has not seen a crime, he has scared the kid/young man away. In terms of protecting the neighborhood, there is nothing to be gained from further pursuit, because Zimmerman hasn’t seen anything illegal. He’s only seen a kid/young man walking along, and maybe had a short conversation where Zimmerman lied about what he was doing. When you run someone off, you don’t pursue them if you are just trying to protect your turf. You pursue them if you are looking to confront them (at least, where I grew up). Zimmerman pursues. Even if Zimmerman is not intending to confront Martin, Zimmerman is creating a situation where it looks like Zimmerman’s intention is to confront Martin.

Martin has now done everything that can be expected of him to avoid a confrontation. He walked faster, possibly confronted Zimmerman for an explanation, and then ran off. Zimmerman has pursued Martin throughout, never identifying himself as part of the neighborhood watch or anything other than a white man following a black man in the South. So, when Martin sees Zimmerman again, after running off, he has two choices: lead this stranger to his father’s house (assuming he hasn’t got confused in the dark, unfamiliar neighborhood and even knows where it is in his excited state), or confront him directly. We know from the girlfriend’s testimony that Martin yells at Zimmerman a request for why Zimmerman is following him (possibly for the second time). Zimmerman refuses to answer the question (possibly for the second time), and instead demands that Martin has to explain his presence. Maybe Zimmerman didn’t intend that to be a threat, but I would have heard a threat behind it (black men considered to be in places they don’t belong are regularly reminded of such with beatings, and worse). Martin quite possibly responds to the perceived threat by attacking Zimmerman. A fight ensues; the gun Zimmerman brought to the confrontation Zimmerman initiated goes off; Martin is dead.

Of course, if someone feels I’ve overlooked something that would cast things more favorably on Zimmerman, feel free to let me know, and I will amend this post if it is reasonable. However, this description is as much in Zimmerman’s favor as I can reasonably skew this. The end result is that Zimmerman brought the gun and initiated the confrontation; he’s ethically responsible for Martin’s death. Zimmerman hid what he was doing at least once; he’s morally responsible for Martin’s death. As I said, I’ll leave legally for the upcoming trial.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

On the limits of formal systems

You can do some very interesting things with formal systems, such as chess, philosophy, or mathematics. You can create true beauty that has the advantage of being eminently useful or making a personal profit. You can make predictions from baseline assumptions and expose inconsistencies. However, there are many things you can’t do, and one of the easiest ones to forget is one of the most important: you can’t prove something using formal logic that exceeds your assumptions. I discuss this further below the fold.

I will start with one of the illustrations that we use for implications, a Venn diagram.


The basic idea of any implication is a subset. The conditions that create the hypothesis (what you assume to be true) are a subset of the conditions that create the conclusion (what you are demonstrating to be true). Since the entire calculus of classical log can be expressed using implications and the word “not”, that means that all of classical logic is basically a verbose form of set theory.

One aspect of this notion is that all implications are downhill, or at best level, in the restrictions imposed upon the model by the statements involved. You reason from the more restrictive, harder to match, less flexible model to the less restrictive, easier to match, more flexible model. This is the only way implications can work, therefore the only way classical logic can work.

Of course, sometimes the implication is just not there. You find yourself with a hypothesis that covers too much ground, and has too much flexibility to support the conclusion.


You can make a couple of choices at this point. One of the most common ones is to increase the number of hypotheses. When you require that all the various hypotheses are true, you are restricting your model even more. You wind up with a much smaller model, as you can see by the blue region.


Now, if we combine the previous two diagrams, we can see that adding additional hypotheses has allowed us to restrict our starting model to the point where we can prove the conclusion.


Of course, most philosophy, and for that matter most mathematics, is done with commonly spoken language as opposed to a formal language. This makes it easy for people to sneak in hypotheses, often without even being aware that is what they are doing. This is even truer when the proof is particularly important to them, such as when it is being used to support a religious position. For example, if someone tells you about a proof that the existence of change (an unrestrictive, easily matched, flexible starting point) can be used to prove the existence of God (a moderately restrictive, not as easily matched, less flexible conclusion), you know that something will be incorrect even before you dig into the proof. Using logic and metaphysics, you can’t prove the existence of God unless you assume such strong hypotheses that, by comparison, God’s existence is less restrictive option. Logic just does not work that way.

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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Geometry proofs are backwards

While I have not been technically on hiatus, I have been playing a lot of Civilization IV lately, rather than blogging. Yes, I realize the latest release is Civilization V. However, by staying one step behind the curve, I get several benefits. I can buy a complete set at a single time, instead of buying all the expansions separately, and the price is much reduced that way.

Meanwhile, I'm still teaching Elementary Geometry on Saturday mornings. One of the most important aspects of the course is teaching proofs. While there is a subset that will use the geometry itself, there is a larger group that will require training in the type of thinking that these proofs use. Anyone working in the legal field, for example, will need to know how to put together a proof. Yet, the traditional way of writing proofs seems backwards to me.

This is how I typically present on proof on a test:












Notice that the statements are on the left, while the reasons for those statements is on the right. That is backwards to me. Americans read left-to-right, and that puts the statements as something that comes before the reasons when you read a proof. However, the reasons are the connections between that line of the proof and the lines that precede it. Formally, you take the prior information and the reason, put them together using a law of logic or two, and produce the statement.

Of course, the design is traditional. One of my retirement plans is to write a good textbook for teaching Geometry at community colleges (they have good texts for Pre-algebra, Algebra I, and Algebra, but Geometry seems to be confined to high-school texts. In today's world, that would mean creating video segments and an on-line interactive homework system (our college uses MathXL, but they have no Geometry test listed) as well as writing the book with a little less flash and a fewer pictures of kids. When I do, I think I will write the proofs with reasons on the left, and maybe moved up a half-line.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Evolution without teleology

The OFloinn recently posted on the existence of teleological principles in evolutionary theory over on his blog. TheOFloinn is certainly a better writer than I am. He writes with style, but that doesn't really make up for the lack of understanding regarding the material, or the lack of imagination being applied, which I'll discuss below the fold. I won't cover everything I dislike in his post, but hit a few items of interest. Overall, his point is to support the notion of importing formal and final causes back into science, which Artistotelians always seem to find lacking in scientific theories.

One of the early footnotes set an interesting tone.
Oddly, Mendel's work and the support from his Order are seldom mentioned during debates about church-science relationships.
The odd part is why a priest doing science, as ascientist, or a church sponsoring research into an area they do not find objectionable, would be relevant to the church-science debate. I don't think anyone objects to religious people doing science, or even science being funded by religious organizations. The issue with church-science relationships come from churches discarding, adjusting, altering, ignoring, and/or contradicting the results of science in order to preserve their preferred notion of reality. For example, when abstinence-only education classes (or people working in AIDS ministries) teach that condoms don't protect against HIV because viruses are smaller than the natural holes in latex, or when scientific funding is cut from research because a legal procedure is not supposed to be encouraged, or when children go unvaccinated because some people don't believe in puncturing the skin, the actions of the church affect everyone, even non-church members. I could only wish that sponsoring a few experiments was the extent of church-science relationships.

Later, after a recap of the well-known problem of defining a species, a solution is offered:
Darwin's problem with "species" was due to his dislike of and lack of background in philosophy; for "species" is first of all a philosophical term. It is in fact an example of formal causation, which Darwin and other Moderns are taught to deny. The form is that in virtue of which a thing is what it is.
Whatever else a species is, within biology it is not in any way a philosophical term, but one of mating potential. The fuzziness of the boundary for species does not make the idea philosophical; it means you can not quantize the concept in simple steps, but must treat it as a continuum. The putative use of form would not improve our ability to determine a species. My form is different from my third son's form (for example, we have different eye colors resulting from different eye coloration processes), even though due to the commonality within our forms, we are both of the human species. Trying to redefine species as a concept of forms adds no clarity at all to the species problem, and in particular does not alter the continuum to a simple categorization. This is an example of using a "problem" (which is not really a problem, except to people who like simple categories) to promote a position, when the position acutally does nothing to solve the "problem". TheOFloinn presents a type of thinking where the usefulness of forms is presumed, therefore forms are declared useful; that type of thinking offers no genuine insight.

Things get even more amusing when discussing the notion of finality in physical systems. We see a two-part attempt at evidence for them, which I'll address separately.
There is telos in physical systems.
1. Systems move toward attractor basins, toward equilibrium manifolds; chemical reactions run to completion, then stop. The equilibrium state may be an orbit or a resonating reaction, but this is still a "finality" to the physical process. An inanimate system tends to minimize its potential function, even if it does not intend to do so.
There is a confusion here between the achieving of a final state and the entry into stochastically equivalent interactions. Really, the only true final state of matter is complete entropy, the primary form of which is the lack of a structured form, the lack of telos. Chemical reactions run to increased entropy, stopping when the entropy is maximized, the form is least effective, and any interpretation of final cause has little play. You might say the 'final cause' of matter is to shed anything that looks lie final cause.
2. The evolution of species is more teleological than a river "seeking" the lowest attainable gravitational potential. Living beings have an integrated wholeness and possess inner principles that inanimate bodies do not. A petunia is a bag of chemicals; but it is not only a bag of chemicals. For so long as it is alive, it does things that a bag of chemicals cannot do. This is why biology at one and the same time "is not a hard science" like physics and chemistry, and also "a much harder science" than physics and chemistry.
This is an attempt to appeal to our sense that living things are in some sense superior, but it fails upon close examination. A non-living bag of chemicals identical in composition to a petunia will be undergoing processes that no petunia undergoes, just as the reverse is true. Further, I'm not convinced that biology is any less a hard science, or harder, that the more esoteric branches of physics and chemistry. Since the rvery basics reactions of biology are just physics and chemistry, it's really a matter of direction, not difference in hardness.

TheOFloinn also seems to easily confuse metaphor with meaning.
The very terms of evolution are redolent with telos.

Natural selection.
Adaptation.
Struggle for existence.
Striving to reproduce.
Even when we dive down deep into the gene, we find teleological terms like "information" and genetic "code."
Natrual selection is ultimately a probabalistic term, referring to long-term tendencies to survive, not any sort of true selection process. Adaptation is the outcome of the long-term survival tendency within a changing environment. The struggle for existence and the striving to reproduce are also fundamentally stochastic events. Information, when stored in a linear medium such as a gene, is maximized by randomness. The genetic code is really just the chemical process where amino acids are inserted based on a particular sequence. There is no need to telos in interpreting these concepts, and no advantage offered by so doing.

It is often said that these terms are just metaphors; but metaphor is the business of literature, not of science. No one has yet successfully "cashed out" terms like adaptation for non-teleological expressions.
Actually, metaphor is a mental shorcut, whether in literature or in science. Scientists use them to abbreviate, illustrate, and categorize. TheOFloinn is kidding himself about there being no translation of the metaphors into non-teleological language; the translations are easily available on-line. They're also longer and more cumbersome to a mammal brain with an inherent bias to look for purpose.

The essence of the Scientific Revolution was a shift in scientific focus from the contemplation of the beauty of nature to the enslavement of nature to man's dominion over the universe. ... Insight into nature is seldom touted; only its practical spin-off.
He must read other scientists than I. There's no shortage of eloquence on the beauty in the study of stars, zebraish, or rock formations from the same blogger that dismiss final causes as irrelevant and unnecessary.

Edward Blyth, who described natural selection twenty years before Wallace and Darwin (but who did not call it by that name), proposed it as the engine that maintained the species type by de-selecting variants that were not up to snuff. ... Now it is easy to see that Blyth was correct.
Both correct and incorrect. Natural selection does not tend to maintain the species type nor to alter it. To the extent that is metaphorically does anything, it increases the percentage of the population that can take better advantage of the environment. This increase may narrow or broaden the differences in a population over generations.

In an article that I have long lost, these factors were summarized as follows:

The genetic factor: the tendency to variation resulting from constant small random mutations in the genetic code; i. e., a variety of differing individuals within a species capable of transmitting their differences
The epigenetic factor: the tendency of interbreeding population to reproduce itself in a stable manner and increase in numbers; i. e., the maintenance of type
The selective factor: natural selection by the environment which eliminates those variants which are less effective in reproducing their kind; i. e., the agent determining in which direction species-change will take place
The exploitative factor: the flexibility of living things by which they are able to occupy new niches in the changing environment; i. e., a feed-back mechanism which guides the selective process toward a new type which can exploit new environmental possibilities
Which the Aristotelians among you may recognize as

Material cause
Formal cause
Efficient cause
Final cause

Naturally, we see near the end plea to the four causes of Aristotle. As usual, in evolutionary terms, it turns out that the appeals to formal and final causes are not actual causes at all. There is no tendency to reproduce in a stable manner (unstable reproduction occurs regularly), rather the actions of chemicals. I actually have no problem with the idea of form as a description of the processes undergone, but it does not act beyond the inertia supplied by the underlying physics, and the physics is neutral on the maintenance of some "type". There is no guidance of the selective process, merely a stochastic effect that increases certain traits among members of populations, and a primate species that found the shortcut of interpreting events as if they had a purpose to be a handy survival technique, even when the purpose was non-existant.

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