Sunday, December 28, 2008

Materialism: more than just one flavor

The Maverick Philosopher, aka Dr. William Vallicella, (he likely will be of my faovrite sources when I don't have a topic off the top of my head) has recently written concerning the topic of eliminative materialism, and a topic thus presented itself. Vallicella is certainly an intelligent and deep thinker, but not without his bias and, as all humans are, prone to insufficient contemplation regarding ideas that seem to support that bias.

Without going into the level of detail in the post, Vallicella describes the difference between eliminative materialism (which says that mental states don't exist) and identative materialism (the idea that mental states are equivalent to specific physical configurations in the brain, he did not use this exact term). After casting a jibe at the sanity of the eliminativists, he then proceeds to try to equate the two positions. Apparently he finds the identitarian position too difficult to rebut standing alone, so it must be tied to the more radical position.

On the face of it, there is a difference between saying that X does not exist and saying that X = Y. For the latter claim seems to presuppose that X does exist. But when X and Y belong to disparate categories, the difference appears to vanish. For example, is there any difference between saying that God does not exist and taking the Feuerbachian line that God is identical to a unconscious anthropomorphic projection? Suppose someone says, "God exists all right — it is just that God is an anthropomorphic projection." The proper response to such a person is to dismiss such obfuscatory rhetoric as tantamount to the claim that God does not exist. For God is not the sort of thing that could be a projection. Whether or not God exists, the concept of God is the concept of something that is a se, from itself, whence it follows that God cannot have the status of an anthropomorphic projection. So a claim that God does have this status is a claim that God does not exist.

Similarly, is there any difference between saying that mental state M is token-identical to physical state P, and saying that M does not exist? If M reduces to P, and M has all and only the properties possessed by P, then all there is is P, and the reduction is tantamount to an elimination.

The first paragraph is a poor analogy, simply because Vallicella must create an opponent who confuses whether God exists with whether the concept of God exists in order to make Vallicella's point. A putative God would be external to the mind of the opponent, and the mistake of equating it to an internal construct seems a little too elementary for the usual sphere of discussion Vallicella finds himself in.

As for the second paragraph, this is a very poor equivocation. Certainly, the identity theorist does eliminate facets of the ontological status of mental states with respect to the position of the dualist, so an elimination has occurred. However, not all eliminations are equal,and the identitarian position does specifically say our mental states are exactly that. Eliminative materialists would argue that almost all of our understanding of the mind will need to be re-worked, while identity theorists don't see the need for that sort of overhaul. It's one thing to say that happiness is the equivalent of a specific cascade of neural interactions, it's quite another to say that happiness is a false understanding of the workings of the brain.

On a personal level, I tend to accept identitarianism. I believe that when I am happy, angry, thirsty, etc., this is saying something real about me.
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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Titan Day approaches

Sure, in previous years it was known as Christmas, as it will be known in future years. This year, it's Titan Day.

For the old-time boardgames, who remember Avalon Hill, Titan was one of the classic games to play. It plays differently, but very well, with 2-6 players as long as you don't mind the knock-out feature. I had my rear handed to me several times by some very good gamers. Old copies were selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars.

Well, Titan is being re-printed by Valley games, and I will be getting a brand new copy in 2 days. Except for 1856 and 1870, I have not bought a serious board game above the level of India Rails/Munchkin in about 20 years. Yes, I have been maried almost 20 years, how did you know?

Son#2 has been getting bored with Munchkin and Yu-Gi-Oh lately, so I am hoping this will be something for us to play together, perhaps with CharityBrow joining in every now and then. I expect Son#1 will be disinterested, as usual, and the younger three will not be up to the game for a while. Hopefully this will give him a taste for more interesting games.

Edited to add: we did in fact start of game of Titan, and he caught on better than I expected. Here's to many more in the future.
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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Confederacy denialism

Denialism seems to always come from political motivations. For one example, back in the 1960s, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Republicans saw an opportunity to take the South out of the hands of Democrats, the infamous "Southern Strategy". Naturally, part of the Republican rhetoric became the partial rehabilitation of the Confederacy. After all, there is no honor in fighting for the right to enslave and/or oppress. Thus, new reasons for the rebellion/secession must be produced and defended.

This takes us to a comment by Martin Cothran, spokesperson for Focus on the Family in Kentucky and author of vere loqui, in particular of this comment:

I may not have explicitly disagreed before about slavery being the primary aim of the Confederacy, but I'll do it now. The issue was state's rights primarily, with slavery being an aggravating factor. Lincoln said several times that he would not order an end to slavery in the South. The issue was only newer states, so it was unnecessary for the South to secede in order to maintain slavery.

Slavery did become the primary justification of the war on both sides later in the war when Lincoln used the Emancipation Proclamation as a means to provide the North with a moral reason for he war. He needed a moral crusade to inform the Northern psyche, and slavery was ready at hand for the purpose. The Southern newspapers bit on it, and began to offer rationales for slavery.

But the idea that slavery was what the Civil War was about is, as I said, an oversimplification.

Well, any war has multiple justifications, and the Civil War is not an exception. However, the primary reason was certainly slavery, and to claim otherwise can only be denialism. All we need to look at are the documents produced by both sides in between the first secession (South Carolina, 1860-DEC-20) to the outbreak of hostilities (1861-APR-12).

We can start by looking at the proposal of people who were tryingto avert the war. Our first stop is the Critenden Compromise. This was a Constitutional amendment of six items and four proposed Congressional resolutions. Every single one of these items directly concerns slavery. Next, the Corwin amendment specifically calls out the institution of slavery. It was passed by Congress, signed by Buchanan (which had no formal significance),and passed by two states, says "No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State." There was even a three-week Peace Conference, which proposed an amendment of seven sections, each section specifically addressing slavery, and the last sentence of the last section only addressing the rights of citizens (but not states). So clearly, in eyes of the people trying to preserve the Union and avoid war, slavery was the main issue.

How about the people leading the fight for secession? Well, we can start with the Cornerstone speech, delivered by Alexander H. Stevens, the first Vice-President of the Confederacy. He says, "The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution." Years later, when trying to correct some of the supposed misstatements of the recorded version of his speech, he reiterates this claim, "Slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession;". Of course, the best source of all is the reasons the states themselves give for secession, which we have for South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas. All four of them refer to slavery generally, and the status of fugitive slaves in particular, while only one mentions economic reasons. So, we see from both sides that slavery really was the principle casue, not an afterthought or aggravating issue.

The argument concerning fugitive slaves is particularly ironic, because it amounts to an argument against the rights of Northern states to decide when people should be considered free. In that regard, the secessionists were anti-states-rights.

I don't expect the conservative Christian Republicans to give up this brand of denialism any time soon. It's no coincidence that every time a major party candidate has ties to a white-power organization, it's a Republican. They need these votes to win elections.
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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Skeptic's Circle #102

The 102nd edition of the Skeptic's Circle is at Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes, and instead trying to convince us we are religious, he's trying to convince a currently notorious politician to mend his ways. Bing can certainly be acerbic from time to time, but he also seems to be devoted to lost causes (which explains his being acerbic).
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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Santa and Algebra I

On Sunday two my kids (Daughter2, aged 7 and Son3, aged 5) were treated to "Shop with a Cop" at the local Wal-Mart. I greatly appreciate my home town for taking the time and spending the money like that, my kids had a rough summer. The kids even got a picture on Santa’s lap. Daughter2 asked me out of the blue if that was really Santa. So in the custom in which I was raised, I said it was a person who was helping Santa. I believed in Santa until I was 12, so I certainly don’t see the hurry of changing her belief.

Actually, of my other three (Son1 at 16 with PDD-NOS. Son2 at 15, Daughter1 at 12 with ADHD), only Son2 has figured out that when I talk about the "Santa Clause Game", it really is a game not based on an actual person. I’ve been calling it a game since my kids could talk, so that has allowed him to make a transition from believer to game-player with no remorse at losing his beliefs (at least that I can see). It’s nice to think I’ve had a couple of good ideas as a father.

We also recently gat a report on Son1’s progress in his Pre-algebra class, which the teacher says is probably too easy for him. Next year he might well be in a regular Algebra 1 class in high school. It’s hard to describe how pleased and relieved you can be to see a son go from wearing diapers at age 7 to being partially mainstreamed less than ten years later. He owes it all to good teachers and his own hard work; his mother and I did almost nothing to direct him; we just let him become himself.

So, what does it mean for humans when you can perform algebra and still believe in Santa? Is the answer to that question "President George W. Bush"?
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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Russell's teapot -- not grandiose enough?

I visited the Maverick Philosopher, who also responds to comments under the name Bill Vallicella, about a week ago, as I like to do from time to time. He had the most interesting post on Russell's teapot and why he felt it was not a persuasive example, which seems to be a reprint of an earlier post.

Let's start things off with his quote of Russell:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

Vallicella first acknowledges the obvious points that just because there is no evidence A does not exist, we can not conclude A exists. However, he then seems to go into a third point that strikes me as not only being irrelevant to Russell's main point, but also completely avoids Russell's actual third point: belief in God, or the magic teapot, is not sustained based upon the evidence, but upon the inherited traditions and the tremendous amount of social pressure to be a believer. The number of believers who come to believe in God because of arguments like the Cosmological argument is very small, indeed. However, instead of addressing this point of Russell, Vallicella takes a turn which seems to take the analogy and discard it because Russell's teapot doesn't have a history of belief.

But the real appeal to atheists and agnostics of the Teapot passage rests on a third move Russell makes. He is clearly suggesting that belief in God (i.e., belief that God exists) is epistemically on a par with believing in a celestial teapot. Just as we have no reason to believe in celestial teapots, irate lunar unicorns (lunicorns?), flying spaghetti monsters, and the like, we have no reason to believe in God.

Sticking with Russell's teapot for the moment, why don't we have any reason to believe it exists? I'm drinking tea right now, and typically drink 2-4 quarts of iced tea each day. On the days where I don't drink it, I get headaches. I can certainly interpret that as a the divine retribution of Russell's teapot to my failure to offer an appropriate worship for the day.

But perhaps we should distinguish between a strong and a weak reading of Russell's suggestion:

S. Just as we cannot have any reason to believe that an empirically undetectable celestial teapot exists, we cannot have any reason to believe that God exists.

W. Just as we do not have any reason to believe that a celestial teapot exists, we do not have any reason to believe that God exists.

Vallicella does not provide a reason for making this distinction. It's just as well, because (S) is not a valid interpretation of Russell's proposition. Unlike the teapot, any putative omnipotent God certainly could offer us any manner of reasons to accept Their existence, of essentially any possible level of reliability. Of course, that such proof has not been offered is not proof of Their non-existence, but that is very different from saying we can not have proof.

Now it seems to me that both (S) and (W) are plainly false: we have all sorts of reasons for believing that God exists. Here Alvin Plantinga sketches about two dozen theistic arguments. Atheists will not find them compelling, of course, but that is irrelevant. The issue is whether a reasoned case can be made for theism, and the answer is in the affirmative. Belief in God and in Russell's teapot are therefore not on a par since there are no empirical or theoretical reasons for believing in his teapot.

This is an interesting standard of evidence: it doesn't matter if the arguments are compelling or not, they just have to exist and be made into a reasoned case. It occurs to me that this is not a difficult thing to accomplish for the Russell's teapot (the Teapot); I can make a reasoned case, that almost no one will find compelling, for it's existence. First is the evidence I have already presented, which we might call the Argument from Compulsion: when I stop performing acts of worship to the Teapot, I have physical symptoms. Then there is the Argument from Dominant Language: of all the Western European countries, it is England whose language has become the commercial language of the world, because they are known for drinking tea, and the Teapot has rewarded them for it. I will end this list with the Argument from Antioxidants: the Teapot wishes to encourage our worship, and so has made our worship healthy for us.

Another suggestion embedded in the Russell passage is the notion that if God existed, he would be just another physical thing in the physical universe. But of course this has nothing to do with anything maintained by any sophisticated theist. God is a purely spiritual being.

Here in the USA, for most theists, their putative God at one time or another had a very physical incarnation, and many of them believe He still has that incarnation. Now, if you are a Jehovah's Witness (JW), or some other sect who believes that Jesus was not God, then you might accept a purely spiritual God (as the JWs do). If Vallicella belonged to such a belief system, I do not believe he would enjoy the positive reputation he has among a variety of Trinitarian bloggers, so I will venture that he does accept some sort of physical part of God at some point in God's existence,and so does not himself believe God is purely spiritual.

Also, there is nothing in Russell's logic or analogy that relies on the Teapot being a physical thing. The analogy works perfectly well with objects that have no physical instantiation, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). I am curious how Vallicella can specifically note the FSM earlier in his post, and yet forget here that the FSM meets his criteria here for being a purely spiritual being.

Another problem with the teapot analogy is that God as traditionally conceived in the West is not an isolani — to use a chess expression. He is not like an isolated pawn, unsupported and unsupporting. For if God exists, then God is the cause of the existence of every contingent being, and indeed, of every being distinct from himself. This is not true of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. If there is a lunar unicorn, then this is just one more isolated fact about the universe. But if God exists, then everything is unified by this fact: everything has the ground of its being and its intelligibility in the creative activity of this one paradigmatic being.

That's a pretty remarkable jump, from simply being a purely spiritual being to being the grounding of the universe. More to the point, it seems to be saying that the analogy is invalid because this putative God has a good story behind it. Perhaps Vallicella is unaware of how easy it is to compose such background stories for the Teapot. For example: the Teapot did create the universe just to put our planet in the perfect position to grow tea and have a species to worship it through drinking that tea. That the universe is perfectly suited for the drinking of tea is all the proof you should need for the Teapot.

This is connected with the fact that one can argue from general facts about the universe to the existence of God, but not from such facts to the existence of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. Thus there are various sorts of cosmological argument that proceed a contingentia mundi to a ground of contingent beings. But there is no similar a posteriori argument to a celestial teapot. There are also arguments from truth, from consciousness, from apparent design, from desire, from morality, and others besides.

That Vallicella fails to see how much these arguments favor to the Teapot jut as much as his putative God seems to be due to some blindness or lack of imagination on the subject.

The very existence of these arguments shows two things. First, since they move from very general facts (the existence of contingent beings, the existence of truth) to the existence of a source of these general facts, they show that God is not a being among beings, not something in addition to what is ordinarily taken to exist. Second, these arguments give positive reason for believing in the existence of God. Are they compelling? No, but then no argument for any substantive philosophical conclusion is compelling.

The interpretation of the evidence to provide inductive support for a putative God fails to account for the lack of specificity: the same arguments can be used to support any such construct, including the Teapot or the FSM.

People like Russell, Dawkins, and Dennett who compare God to a celestial teapot betray by so doing a failure to understand, and engage, the very sense of the theist's assertions. To sum up. (i) God is not a gratuitous posit in that there are many detailed arguments for the existence of God; (ii) God is not a physical being; (iii) God is not a being who simply exists alongside other beings. In all three respects, God is quite unlike a celestial teapot, a lunar uncorn, an invisible hippopotamus, and suchlike concoctions.

I am quite at a loss to explain why anyone should think the Teapot analogy any good. It leaks like a sieve

To sum up, each of Vallicella points can be applied equally easily to the Teapot, much less the FSM. His own critique of the argument fails under the weight of the expectations he feels the need to employ for his God.
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101st Skeptics Circle

The 101st Skeptics Circle is up at Ionian Enchantment, with an African flavor.
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Saturday, December 6, 2008

What a game!

I'm too cheap to get both cable and satellite dish, and I refuse to give up cable remarkable on-demand library (as much formy families sake as mine). In my area, thismeans I don't even get an option to buy NBA League Pass, so I watched my first Jazz game ofthe season last night. It was not exactly thre\illing watching Toronto lose by 27, but I really enjoyed it. If that's how good we are without Boozer, how good will we be with him back?
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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nagel's folly Part 3 -- Comparisons of ID to other types of expanations

Today I am discussing another problem with the paper authored by Dr. Nagel, which supports teaching Intelligent Design in public schools. As a reminder, Jake Young at Pure Pedantry discussed why naturalism is essential to science, in Part 1 of this series I noted that evolution is not incompatible with design, and in Part 2 of this series I noted that there is no reason that being an atheist would make you a believer in evolution. Today I'm going to write about Nagel's comparison of the scientific investigation of ID with investigation of other sorts of phenomena, why such investigations are or are not possible, and how ID does or does not suffer the same sort of fundamental defect. The four notions mentioned are ghosts, telepathy, creationism, and ID.

What would it take to justify the claim that there are propositions such that the discovery of evidence against them can qualify as science, but evidence in favor of them cannot? Someone who accepts this view would probably extend it to propositions about ghosts or extrasensory perception. Research showing that effects that some benighted souls have attributed to ghosts or mental telepathy can be explained in a perfectly naturalistic way would count as science, but any argument that the evidence does not support those explanations, and that significant experimental or observational data are better explained by ghosts or by ESP, would not count as science, and could therefore be ruled out of consideration. On this view it would not even be a false scientific claim.

With regard to ghosts, I don't know what effects Dr. Nagel could be talking about about. How do you test for the presence of a ghost? How do you verify this is a successful test? I have seen magicians duplicate the feats of various psychics, while claiming is it all based on natural abilities, so you can't rely on physics to tell you if there are actually ghosts present. This is outside of science because we can not even verify if we have a functional test.

With regard to telepathy, and various other forms of ESP, there have been a variety of scientific studies done to determine if there is an effect to study. To my knowledge, all of the tests, when performed under controlled conditions, have determined that there is no reliable effect to study. If ESP is something that is supposed to used reliably at need, or under specific, reproducible conditions, then you obviously can study it scientifically. However, if ESP is presumed to be a phenomenon that appears and disappears without warning, for no reason, then it is immune to study because you can never have a true negative result.

It seems to me that in this respect ID is very different from young earth creationism, and the “creation science” that it spawned. There are people who believe, on the authority of the Bible, that God created the earth and all the creatures on it about six thousand years ago. The fact that this proposition is inconsistent with various scientific theories of cosmology, geology, and biology does not make it a scientific claim.

The claims of creationists may not be in agreement with science, but they can certainly be investigated by science. The very fact that there is a disagreement with science means that some sort of claim about science is being made. So, the fact that this proposition is inconsistent with various theories cosmology, geology, and biology does make it a scientific claim. It is a claim that leads to predictions of what we should expect to see with regard to cosmology, geology, and biology. Some scientific claims are just wrong.

Biblical literalism is not a scientific hypothesis because it is not offered as an explanation of the empirical evidence, but is accepted as a divine revelation. So long as no observations about the natural world are offered in its support, it is not even a false scientific claim. When, however, in response to the finding that the teaching of creationism in public schools was unconstitutional, the producers of creation science tried to argue that young earth creationism was consistent with the geological and paleontological evidence, they succeeded in putting forward a scientific claim, even though their reason for doing so was that they believed it to be true on other grounds, and their arguments were easily refuted.

When the assumption of a six-thousand-year-old earth led to predictions and interpretations that were scientific claims, it was because the original claim was scientific.

A scientific hypothesis can be false and unsupported by the evidence. That is a good enough reason not to teach it to schoolchildren. It is not necessary to argue that it is not science, not even hopelessly bad science.

Well, at least we agree here.

ID is very different from creation science. To an outsider, at least, it does not seem to depend on massive distortion of the evidence and hopeless incoherencies in its interpretation. Nor does it depend, like biblical literalism, on the assumption that the truth of ID is immune to empirical evidence to the contrary. What it does depend on is the assumption that the hypothesis of a designer makes sense and cannot be ruled out as impossible or assigned a vanishingly small probability in advance.

What ID has not done, does not do, and apparently will never do is give us a prediction about the world, a scientific claim, that can be tested. Regardless of how likely you think the notion of a designer is, the question remains: what is the testable evidence of a designer's footprints? Can you devise a functional, scientific test for a designer's involvement? We can rule out or confirm any designer that gives us a prediction, a testable entity. ID has not produced this entity.

Once it is assigned a significant prior probability, it becomes a serious candidate for support by empirical evidence, in particular empirical evidence against the sufficiency of standard evolutionary theory to account for the observational data. Critics take issue with the claims made by defenders of ID about what standard evolutionary mechanisms can accomplish, and argue that they depend on faulty assumptions. Whatever the merits, however, that is clearly a scientific disagreement, not a disagreement between science and something else.

I agree that many of the anti-evolution presented are at least arguments about science, and can be discussed in that venue. However, until ID can offer us something to make predictions, something to test, ID can never be science, no matter what the status of evolution.
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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Nagel's folly Part 2 -- Evolution, believability, and the Constitution

Today I am discussing another problem with the paper authored by Dr. Nagel, which supports teaching Intelligent Design in public schools. As a reminder, Jake Young at Pure Pedantry discussed why naturalism is essential to science, and in Part 1 of this series I noted that evolution is not incompatible with design. Today I'm going to write about Nagel's contention that being an atheist makes you more likely to believe in evolution.

It's interesting that historically, atheism was associated with the belief that the universe, life,and human were always in basically the same state that they are today. It was not until the discoveries of biologists in the 19th century that atheists accepted the idea of common descent.

Nagel says:
It would have to be argued that the assumption that divine intervention is impossible, or too improbable to be considered, is on a par with the assumption that the literal truth of the Bible is not immune to empirical counterevidence[sic], and that just as the latter is a constitutionally permissible presupposition of the teaching of science, so is the former. In other words, not considering divine intervention a possibility is just a basic epistemological condition of modern science, a condition of scientific rationality, and cannot be constitutionally suspect, in spite of the fact that it is a religious assumption.

This is part of the issue leading into this error: the notion that science says divine intervention is impossible. Science actually says divine intervention is unmeasurable and unpredictable, therefore not useful as predictive element. It's ruled out of science because of being undetectable and non-useful.

Judge Jones cited as a decisive reason for denying ID the status of science that Michael Behe, the chief scientific witness for the defense, acknowledged that the theory would be more plausible to someone who believed in God than to someone who did not.12 This is just common sense, however, and the opposite is just as true: evolutionary theory as a complete explanation of the development of life is more plausible to someone who does not believe in God than to someone who does. Either both of them are science or neither of them is. If both of them are scientific hypotheses, the ground for exclusion must be that ID is hopelessly bad science, or dead science, in Kitcher’s phrase.

This is wrong because Nagel has missed the chain of reasoning. Being an atheist dos not make you more likely to accept evolution, as opposed to believing in a static universe for example. Being an atheist means you are more likely to accept that the naturalistic explanation, the one that has been tested and proved, without adding any sort of need to superimpose a additional beings into the process, but it does not guide to to a specific natural proof. The evidence leads you to evolution.

That would be true if ID, like young earth creationism, can be refuted by the empirical evidence even if one starts by assuming that the possibility of a god who could intervene cannot be ruled out in advance.

Nagel has this relationship backwards. It is precisely because it makes claims that can be refuted that YEC is at least making scientific claims. I have yet to hear one ID claim that was capable of being tested, much less refuted.

So far as I can tell, however, no such refutation has even been offered, let alone established.

Nagel does not say what there is to refute.

What have been offered instead are necessarily speculative proposals about how the problems posed by Behe might be handled by evolutionary theory, declarations that no hypothesis involving divine intervention counts as science, and assurances that evolutionary theory is not inconsistent with the existence of God.

Nagel is apparently not aware that there have also been direct refutations of many of Behe's claims the types of evolution that have or have not occurred, corrections to his description of fitness spaces, etc.

It is also emphasized that even if evolutionary theory were false, that would not mean that ID was true. That is so, but it is still not a sufficient reason to exclude it from discussion.

The reason to include ID is to provide positive, testable evidence for ID. 20 years after Edwards, the ID movement has not even come up with a testable prediction. So what's to discuss?
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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Nagel's folly Part 1 -- evolution is not in oposition to design

Back in September, Dr. Thomas Nagel, an accomplished philosopher are NYU, authored a paper supporting the teaching of the position of intelligent design (ID) in school and criticizing the findings of Judge Jones in Kitzmiller vs. Dover (hat tip to vere loqui). Over at Pure Pedantry, Jake Young discussed why Dr. Nagel is wrong from the viewpoint of the philosophy of science, specifically whether science can ever look at supernatural causes and ID can be considered science. I don't need to reiterate his points, but there are a few I'd like to add over the weekend. Today I'm going to focus on one of the earliest and most fundamental errors in his paper: the notion that evolutionary theory is in opposition to the notion of design. The misunderstanding seems to form the heart of his arguments.

From the beginning it has been commonplace to present the theory of evolution by random mutation and natural selection as an alternative to intentional design as an explanation of the functional organization of living organisms. The evidence for the theory is supposed to be evidence for the absence of purpose in the causation of the development of life-forms on this planet. It is not just the theory that life evolved over billions of years, and that all species are descended from a common ancestor. Its defining element is the claim that all this happened as the result of the appearance of random and purposeless mutations in the genetic material followed by natural selection due to the resulting heritable variations in reproductive fitness. It displaces design by proposing an alternative.

First of all, Dr. Nagel is overlooking some 15 other mechanisms involved in evolution. It's one thing to say you doubt something happened by random mutation and natural selection, it's another thing to say you doubt something happened through random mutation, gene duplication, frame shift mutation, gene flow, recombination, cellular symbiosis, environmentally generated changes to DNA decoding, protein changes (prions, etc.), natural selection, sexual selection, random genetic drift, kin selection, speciation, punctuated equilibrium, extinction/competition/invasive species, mass extinction events, and parasitic/symbiotic relationships.

More importantly, evolution does not displace design. I'm not sure how much Dr. Nagel (or myself :), for that matter) understands of the history of biology from the 19th century, but the word "random", in this context, has always been understood by me to be a relative term, that mutations are random as opposed to being dictated by the needs of the organism in its environment, random as opposed to Lamarckian. The classic examples include things like the giraffes don't have long-necked children because they stretch their own necks looking for food, or even if a bear loses his tail fishing in the water, his cubs will still have tails. The power of the Lamarckian meme is significant, you find such stories in the folk tales of people on six continents. The only design notion that the "random" of evolutionary theory opposes is Lamarckian design.

With regard to ID, there are at least two different ways that modern evolutionary theory is compatible with a designed outcome: the notion of a front-loaded system, where the universe was initially arranged to produce life, and the notion of a God who makes small adjustments in evolutionary history, using means that could have had a natural cause as well as a supernatural one. Science offers no position on these notions of design.

The contention seems to be that, although science can demonstrate the falsehood of the design hypothesis, no evidence against that demonstration can be regarded as scientific support for the hypothesis. Only the falsehood, and not the truth, of ID can count as a scientific claim. Something about the nature of the conclusion, that it involves the purposes of a supernatural being, rules it out as science.

Neither is a scientific claim. Perhaps Dr. Nagle is listening too much to the Dawkins and similar philosophers in this regard. Science can rule out certain claims about the natural world that have a religious origin, such as an Earth less than ten thousand years old, when using the assumption that there has been no supernatural intervention in the processes described. However, ultimately it can't even rule out Last Thursdayism. It's a philosophical choice to say the universe acts now as it has always acted, not a scientific one.

I'll get another part or two up this weekend. Happy Thanksgiving.
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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Arrogance and ignorance, a hefty brew

IlĂ­on said...

I am taking time today to respond to a post by Ilion, a commenter on a few blogs I visit from time to time. Comment #11 on this post had so much stupidity that I felt a response in the thread would be unfair to the host, Dr. Reppert of the blog “dangerous idea”.

To be honest, I am not completely sure Ilion is genuine. The difficulty is distinguishing between parody and reality in creationist circles is well-known. However, for today, his operating style has been consistent for long enough that he has forfeited the benefit of the doubt, so I will treat him as if he were not a parody.

Ilion's remarks will be in italics.

Amusingly Misnamed Person:

Ilion is responding to Doctor Logic, who happens to be an atheist. It is very typical that he will not even be so polite as to use a chosen handle. Ilion has generally made it clear that atheists are not worthy of polite replies.

The comments of Doctor Logic,to which Ilion was responding, will be bolded.

"Right-wing Christians love to whine about potsmodernism, but their tactics are no better. You think 1+1=2? TEACH THE CONTROVERSY! Maybe it equals 5. Now, students... debate!"

I think examples based on science here, such as intelligent falling , rather than an example from a formal system like mathematics, would be a better choice.

Oddly enough, one never sees physicists, for example, claim that *any* theory of physics is as firmly established as 'modern evolutionary theory' ...

No, physicists have their own well-established, non-controversial theories that they use to compare other theories to. Why should they go outside their specialty? Biologists don't seem to be this lucky, pretty much every theory they have gets attacked by some sort of fruitcake or quack, so they need to go outside their specialty.

...(which, by the way, is neither modern, ...

Apparently a theory that has produced hundreds of new research papers this year alone is not modern enough for Ilion, as opposed to his 1600-year-old-book.

...nor evolutionary, ...

Ilion seems to ignorant of the history of evolutionary theory, as well.

... nor an actual theory, ...

I'm not sure if Ilion is ignorant of what a scientific theory is, or just the science thathas been done and continues to be done based on evolutionary theory. I would not be surprised if it were both.

... and thus I always put the phrase, which I seem to have invented, ...

Ilion does not allow his ignorance to diminish his ego.

... not that there was any great mental difficulty involved in the invention, in mocking quote marks).

It almost goes without saying that if Ilion accomplished it, it required no great mental difficulty.

In arithmetic, which the Amusingly Misnamed Person, following general "Darwinist" practice, imagines he can co-opt in support of 'modern evolutionary theory,' that '1+1=2' is a necessary truth, it is *true* and it cannot be otherwise in any possible world.

Ilion is also ignorant of mathematics, by the way. In a world with a single, indivisible object, it makes much more sense to use 1 + 1 = 0, since there is no “2”.

This truth is logical and is supported by rigorous logic (unlike "Darwinism"). And, in fact, as '2' is merely the name for '1+1' (i.e. counting once more past one), to say '1+1=2' is exactly to say '1+1=1+1.'

Ilion, who seems to think mathematical constructs have some sort of internal reality, confuses the construction of “2” with the supporting of “1 + 1 = 2”.

Moreover, with arithmetic, we do not teach our that '1+1=2' by trying to outlaw all denials of that truth -- imagine arithmetic in the hands of "Darwinists!" Rather, we teach the children that '1+1=2' by *demonstrating* that it is true (something "Darwinists" will never even attempt with their pretend theory).

Of course, “Darwinists” are, to my knowledge, non-existent, so they don't do much. People don't worship Darwin the way that Ilion venerates his magic sky pixie. On the other hand, biologists have demonstrated evolutionary theory in numerous ways.

What's even more amusing about Amusingly Misnamed Person's ploy here is that science isn't even about truth, in the first place -- at any rate, for the past two centuries or so, since the "free thinkers" managed to redefine it, it hasn't been about actual truth.

Ilion is always upset at the notion that what we believe to be correct today may be proven wrong tomorrow. In his limited mental capacity, this is the same thing as lying, as far asI can tell.

So, on the one hand, 'modern evolutionary theory' not only isn't actually true (for it is illogical, and illogical things are necessarily false) ...

Ilion's not very knowledgeable about the limitations of logic, either.

... but it also isn't actually scientific, and on the other hand, even if 'modern evolutionary theory' were actually scientific, it could still never rise to the level of the truth that '1+1=2,' for mere science cannot do that.

Yes, he really is saying that Mt. Rushmore could never achieve the perfection of a the original artist's drawing of Mt. Rushmore, and that this makes the drawing superior.

ALSO, if Gentle Reader is *really* paying attention, he will notice that the Amusingly Misnamed Person does not himself really have a problem with post-modernism ... rather, he whinges because "Right-wing Christians" condemn post-modernism,

More correctly, because right-wing Christians use post-modern argumentation while decrying post-modernism itself.

even as he employes post-modernist "argumentation" to lie about "Right-wing Christians."

Ilion presents no lies from Doctor Logic.

Amusingly Misnamed Person: "For your information, Ilion, evolution predicts several basic things that have been verified. Common descent (all species related), common architecture and common composition (no titanium, nuclear-powered mice) and a fossil record in which animals and plants appear in a developmental series (no Cambrian rabbits)."

What an illogical (and irrational) fool this Amusingly Misnamed Person is.

"Evolution" does not "predict" these things. And they have not been "verified."

Ilion is only three-fourths wrong here (which may be a personal best for him in the area of biology). Evolution does not predict common descent, and its implicaitons in a common architecture and a common composition. Evolution could operate equally well with independent descent. Of course, Ilion is wrong in that evolution does imply a developmental series, and wrong in that all of the above has been verified.

Amusingly Misnamed Person's examples are, rather, merely an example of the illogic and circularity of "Darwinist" "thought:" posit 'X,' ignore any evident against 'X,' claim 'X' is "verified."

Ilion assumes that his own method of thought regarding Scripture is followed by everyone.

Gentle Reader, if he is observant and thoughtful, will recognize that my response to the Anonymouse exactly (and devastatingly, once the truth of the claim is grasped) answered his not-seriously-asked question "So, what's the weakness?" but pointing out that 'modern evolutionary theory' is inherently illogical and that the "logic" of it entails the denial that we can reason, that we can know truth, that our minds (which is to say, ourselves) actually exist.

Readers will find my direct response to that post on the page itself. I am unaware that any biologist thinks evolutionary theory entails the denial of the human ability to reason, Ilion apparently pulls this conclusion from his rectum.

So, 'modern evolutionary theory' is both irredeemably illogical and utterly anti-rational -- what further weakness does a *rational* person demand to have explicated?

The terms “irredeemably illogical and utterly anti-rational” apparently are synonymous to “I don't agree” when Ilion writes.

Common descent: "Evolution" neither "predicts" nor "verifies" the doctrine of common descent.

As noted above, Evolution does not predict common descent. It does verify common descent.

And it cannot, even in principle, be verified,

The principle for verification is quite simple, though seemingly beyond Ilion. You make hypotheses about observations that would follow from common descent, then you investigate to see whether these observations hold. You can also make observations that would be possible should common descent not be true, and investigate to see if those observations hold. So far, common descent has passed all tests.

much less proven

Proof is for alcohol and formal systems (like logic or mathematics).

-- for any evidence adduced to support the doctrine can *also* support other beliefs, including the belief of "special creation."

Actually, no evidence can in principle support special creation, because no evidence can dispute special creation.

But then, "Darwinists" do detest proof and logic, do they not?

I don't see the point in speculating on the likes and dislikes of near-mythical concoctions.

Rather, the doctrine of common descent is an fundamental assumption of "evolution" -- and which assumption, by the way, they themselves are quietly abandoning these days.

Should new forms of life be discovered, with which we do not share a common ancestry, then naturally common descent will be limited only to the life forms to which it does apply.

Yet, count on it: they will never say something so simple as "We were wrong about that."

An orthinologist says that there are no green recorded swans, and then two years later a green swan is discovered. Ilion demands a statement of error, even when no error is apparent.

And, when they've fully abandoned it, and the textbooks have been reprinted, they will try to claim that it is a "creationist lie" that they ever did claim that common descent is the truth.

Ilion has some concocted tale in mind, probably, but is likely ignorant of the reality.

Logically, one cannot "verify" what one has assumed and one certainly cannot *prove* what one has assumed -- at best, one can show that the evidence does not contradict the assumption. But that, of course, requires that one look at all relevant evidence, ...

Something biologists are only too happy to do.

...which is something "Darwinists" are ever loath to do.

Again, I see no point in speculating on mythical creatures.

Common architecture: Once again, this is not a "prediction" of "evolution." It is rather, a common observation. Moreover, as evidence for 'modern evolutionary theory,' it is quite underdetermined, which is to say, it can also be used as evidence for many other beliefs, including the belief of "special creation."

Common composition: Once again, this is not a "prediction" of "evolution." It is rather, a common observation. Moreover, as evidence for 'modern evolutionary theory,' it is quite underdetermined, which is to say, it can also be used as evidence for many other beliefs, including the belief of "special creation."

The inaccuracies noted above apply here.

Amusingly enough, there are some organisms which are a bit "uncommon" -- yet "Darwinism" claims to "explain" them also.

I see no point in speculating on the purported claims of mythical creatures.

For instance, it was long thought that there were only twenty amino acids in use in biology -- and this was touted as evidence for, or even "proof" of, "Darwinism." Yet, for the past several years it has been known that there are at least twenty-three amino acids in use in biology -- and the former claim that the "universal genetic code" (now called the "canonical genetic code") was evidence for, or even proof of, "Darwinism" has been quietly sidelined.

I see no point in speculating on the purported claims of mythical creatures.

However, in biology there has been no abandonment of common descent simply because a few bacteria, or there descendants such as mitochondria, use a slightly variant coding. In fact, the notion of variant coding was discussed even before the first such code was discovered.

Now, another amusement about these two "new" amino acids is that they are coded for by regular "old" codons which in most organisms code for the "standard" (or "canonical") amino acid. Which is to say, there is no *chemical* requirement that some particular combination of base-pairs codes for some particular amino acid.

Well, duh. This has been well-known for decades.

No Cambrian rabbits: All hail the Glorious Circle! Goodness, where would "Darwinists" be if they could not "argune" in circles!

They would still be mythical creatures.

Amusingly enough, the knowledgable "Darwinists" know -- and some will even admit it -- that the fossil record" cannot logically be used to support 'modern evolutionary theory.'

I see no point in speculating on the purported claims of mythical creatures. Biologists, especially those who study fossils, know that fossils do support evolutionary theory.

The *reason* there are no "Cambian rabbits" is because a rabbit fossil is -- by definition -- not Cambrian.

A fossil is defined by the age of the rock in which it appears. Should rabbit fossils appear in Cambrian rocks, they would be Cambrian rabbits.

Moreover, that "developmental series" the Amusingly Misnamed Person touts is a figment of the imagination -- it doesn't actually exist.

Except, it does. Ample examples are available all over the internet.

And, worse, there are many places in the world where hundreds of square miles of "older" fossils are *on top of* "newer" fossils.

Well, duh. The earth is geologically active, so sometimes large chunks of rock get moved, turned upside-down, etc. There are geological indicators for this, which do not depend on biology or fossils.

REMEMBER: a "mechanism" or "theory" which "explains" everything and its denial, and by the same means, explains nothing.

An excellent description of creationism.
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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Someone to have a beer with?

When we pick a leader of the most powerful country in the world, why is this a factor? Can you imagine picking a computer technician on that basis?

This year it's Sarah Palin (or if not a beer, at least the CILF). While not even her folksy charm is enough to rescue Republicans after the disaster of the last eight years, the need for a President who is likeable, as opposed to intelligent and capable, still dismays me.
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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Coming out the other side

Well, I heard I waslosing my job on April 4, and that led to a six-month depression. I'm back to work now, and hopefully coming out of it.

Meanwhile, my youngest is 90% potty-trained, Son2 has discovered dating, and CharityBrow took a job on the side. So, life goes on, no matter what.

One more thing: I want to add my voice to the chorus of derision that resulted from the selection of Palin over many more competent Republican women.
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Friday, March 28, 2008

Ben Stein (sort of) helps the skeptics

The 83rd Skeptics Circle is off and running. Where the time go? Besides work, family reunion, etc.
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Monday, March 17, 2008

The 82nd Skeptic's Circle is up, and Happy Jihad tries to convince us we are really religious. I'm not sure about that.
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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Good Ears

My hearing has never been good. It's been adequate to pass hearing tests, but I've always been a "volume up" kind of person. When I was a kid, people would ask me why I was yelling, and I often cant hear the difference between an A or an A-flat unless they are played consecutively.

Son#1 has very good hearing. So good that I wonder how much sleep he really gets sometimes. We have two dogs, and every now and then they need to be let out in the middle of the night. It wakes #1 just about every time. Last night I was downstairs listening to an interview, and he yells down to turn the noise down so he can sleep.

It used to be a problem when he was younger, and it sometimes still is. He has trouble dealing with #4 and #5 crying. He gets confused and overwhelmed, and the result is even more yelling, shaking of fists, etc. Sometimes he just walks out of the house to get away from it all. Other times, #2 will get all teen-age-moody, and while we're trying to get him to not take it out of others, #1 will hear the conversation from another room. #2's opinion is very important to #1, and it is difficult for #1 to understand that sometimes #2 just says things to be hurtful, not because he thinks they are true.

Still, I have to give him credit. #1 works very hard at being accepting. What he really wants is peace, love, and harmony, and he knows that means sometimes he has to overlook #5 throwing toys down the stairs, or at least letting Mom and Dad handle it instead of taking matters into his own hands. All part of the jouys of family, I guess.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What woo means to me

Sometime the pain caused by woo isn’t in the harm of the treatment itself, or even the delay a harmless woo can cause in seeking real medicine. Sometimes it’s in the guilt and self-torture that woo inflicts upon those who use medicine.

My wife (who has used the handle Charity Brow) sometimes has trouble with forgiveness, and that goes double for herself. Back in the days when we first learned about Son#1’s condition, my sister (who is extremely smart and generally very level-headed) had been sharing some of the anti-vaccination woo with me, and I bought into to it, at least somewhat, for a while. Naturally, while looking into Son#1’s condition, we came across the putative vaccination-autism link, and since we did have him vaccinated, Charity started blaming herself for his condition.

Naturally, as time passed and I looked deeper into the putative connection, I found that the connection was not real, that autism-spectrum disorders seem to have genetic links. I remembered that Son#1 was never normal in behavior, even as an infant. Of course, when they are three months old, every thinks that a baby entertaining itself, paying focused attention to things, not requiring attention or contact, etc., is a good thing. You never think that might mean he has a problem later on. Of course, I don’t know if there is a connection or not, I only have my anecdote that his symptoms where evidence that early, I don’t know if there any studies on the infancy behaviors of autism spectrum children. Still, between that and the science, it’s more than enough to convince me that there was no connection to the vaccines.

Charity knows in her brain that there is no connection. However, she stills feels guilty, still feels responsible, still can’t forgive herself. She stills cries about it, or gets angry with herself over it from time to time. I don’t need any more reason to despise the practitioners of woo than that. For me, it really is personal.
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Friday, February 15, 2008

The 80th Skeptic's Circle

The 80th Skeptics Circle is off and running. Bug Girl left me a Valentine reminding me to proof-read more carefully. :)
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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Probability and the 15 Mechanisms (edit: now 17)

I'm expanding on a couple of different posts I made at the Skeptic's Annotated Bible Discussion Board, one of my favorite hang-outs. Basically, you see a lot of probability discussions in IDC literature. This is one more reason why they are nonsense. They generally looked at random mutation (that is, the replacement of one "letter" in the DNA with another letter) and natural selection.

There are at least 15 (now 17) different mechanisms involved in evolution:

Mechanisms that increase diversity in a population
Random replacement mutation in DNA
Gene duplication
Phase shift mutation (Edit: Frame shift mutation)
Gene flow from other species
Environmentally generated changes to DNA decoding
Protein changes (prions, etc.)

Mechanisms that alter allele proportions in a population
Natural selection
Sexual selection
Random genetic drift
Late addition: Kin selection

Mechanisms that operate at a level above populations
Punctuated equilibrium
Extinction/competition/invasive species
Mass extinction events
Late addition: Parasitic/symbiotic relationships (note this is different from the symbiosis that occurs at the genetic/cellular level).

To do a probability calculation, you need to account not only for the probabilities of each of these mechanisms, but also for the independence of every possible subset of these mechanisms. that would be 32,768 (2^15) (131,072, 2^17 now) possible subsets, so any probability calculation would require you to factor in 32,768 different probabilities. The next IDC document I see that uses more than 10 factors will be the first.

Just one more way IDC falls short of even it's own goals.

Edited for spelling. I'm really much better at spelling long-hand than typing. Really.

Edit to add more to the list.
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Saturday, February 2, 2008

Clarification on ID versus IDC

This will be my first post promoted from the comments. I make a distinction between Intelligent Design, Creationism, and Intelligent Design Creationism.

Intelligent Design is a legitimate philosophical position and world view. I see no problem with Paley's watch or Gonzalez's priviledged planet. They are not science, of course. There no test involved, just "that looks too good to be by chance". It's not my opinion (I am a naturalist), but I'm not aware that anyone has to share my opinion, and I don't claim I can prove naturalism beyond reasonable doubt.

Creationism is a view subject to scientific scrutiny. Either the world is 6,000 years old, or it is not, and you can form various tests and make predictions. Sure, it's been falsified in dozens, if not hundreds, of different ways, but it at least tries to put facts into play. Many leading Creationists are just plain dishonest, and others create highly fanciful scenarios in which their finding might be right, except for the half-dozen other predictions these scenarios make, so the view gets rejected. Of course, ultimately you can't disprove miracles, so you can't disprove the concept of some God making the workd 6,000 years ago (or last Thursday) with all the signs of apparent age. However, outside of varyng degrees of applying that scenario, their predictions fail. I used to be a Creationist, and I have respcet for many that I know.

Intelligent Design Creationism is a blend of the worst traits of the two. It's a claim to scientific rigor for a philosohical postion, a basic category error. You find the dishonesty of the practitioners prevalent in the postings of many of the leading proponents, especially those affiliated with the Discovery Institute. These supposed scientists do no science, complain about not being heard when they don't offer anything to hear, claim persecution where none can be shown, quote mine as badly as the worst Creationists, and oftentimes lack the dignity to admit the smallest of errors. As far I can tell, the primary focus of their movement is to sneak in their version of what science should be through general-public politics. I have no respect for such people, just pity for the public they dupe and fleece.
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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Probability, and a stupid error by me

In case anyone is reading this who doesn't know the background, I was engaged in a lengthy discussion concerning statistics and the types of inferences that were or were not valid from them. During this discussion, another person proposed a simple probability problem, and I made an error in evaluating the answer. I think we disputed on this in well over a hundred posts before I realized the mistake I made. It wasn’t the first time, and I have been on the correct side of such exchanges more often the wrong side, historically. That’s about all I expect.

Recently when referring back to this discussion, the other poster said I had made a specific kind of error. Since I had made a completely different error, I thought I should be correct about the type of oversight I had made. Rather than possibly do another hundred posts on probability in a message board actually devoted to the Utah Jazz (JazzFanz), I decided to bring that discussion over here.

The problem: your partner flips two coins in secret, and you choose one at random and it is heads. What is the probability the other one is heads?

My incorrect reasoning: there were four possible outcomes from the flip: TT, HT, TH, and HH. All four outcomes were equally likely. However, you know that TT did not occur. Therefore, among the three remaining possible flips, two of them would have tails, and one would have heads, so it is twice as likely the other coins is tails as heads. The probability is 1/3. Yes, it was stupid of me.

His (correct) reasoning: we have information only about one coin, and no information about the other. The probability is 1/2.

However, he seems to believe the problem was with my methodology, rather than the implementation of that methodology, so I want to be clear that the correct methodology is this: you have to adjust by the probability that heads would be shown for each type of flip. I did that for TT, by saying it was not possible, but I did not do so for the HT or TH groups. In each case, the odds of revealing heads at random (H) is 1/2, so you have to adjust for that in the calculation of the probabilities. Basically, you are twice as likely to get a head from a HH combination as from HT or TH. In terms of odds, it's [1/2 * P(HT) + 1/2 * P(TH)] : 1 * P(HH), or 1:1, making the probability 1/2.

If his method is easier, why did I use mine? Habit, I suppose. Looking at all the possibilities lets you answer a deeper range of questions than a mere comparison of knowledge method. For example, you can use it to evaluate the following question.

You get an offer to play a game. The rules are you flip two coins. You must reveal one coin, and it must be head if you have one. If the other player guesses the value of the second coin, he gets $1. For the game to be fair, how much should you get when he is wrong?

Edited to remove vertical bars and for clarification.
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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mom's pants

You'd think that I'd have remembered from back when I was a teen, but no such luck. Yesterday my second son (14) wore a pair of his mother's pants. Not the first pair I gave him, mind you. I told him the first pair actually was his mother's pants, so of course he refused to wear them. I gave him another pair (only things clean) and told him they were his brother's, that was OK. Back when I was that age, it never would have been acceptable for me to wear Mom's pants, but you forget these things sometimes.

Of course, his older brother (15) has had occasion to wear Mom's pants from time to time too. He doesn't mind. Sometimes you keep busy reminding yourself of all the these he does mind, of the things he needs to keep his life in balance, you don't notice the things he accepts with a peep that would annoy any other youth. Amid keeping a ready supply of eggs and toast, making sure the french toast is not late, etc., you don't even realize that he doesn't care if he's wearing Mom's pants to school.
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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Price is Right for science

I just saw a game called “Pathfinder” on The Price is Right. You move from square to square, trying to make educated guesses about the next digit in the price of a car, based upon what you know of the car. When you get it wrong, you try to get another chance to make a new guess. That’s not too different from what scientists seems to do, they try to make good guesses, advance a square, and their prediction turns out to be right or wrong. Being right is always better, but even being wrong just makes it easier to be right next time.

Now, compare that to Intelligent Design/Creationism. They already have decided the path, so they say the price of the car has to change to match the path they see. They keep going on to the same squares, over and over. Not much like science at all, it seems to me.
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Friday, January 18, 2008

78th Skeptics' Circle

I have been remiss in not linking this earlier. The 78th Skeptics' circle has convened, including my very first post. I actually did feel honored.
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Robert Fischer, In Memorium

Bobby Fischer has died.

When I was a kid, I studied his games, especially the match against Spassky. The US press give him the golden-boy treatment, of course. Those of us who played with passion admired him. Looking back, though, it is any different than admiring Allen Iverson or Russell Wallace today? Good players, but also cases of being less than they could have been.

He took himself from being a force to being irrelevant in 1975, and played on the fond memories and patriotism of our country to help fund a re-match in 1992 with Spassky, where the chess was decidedly not up to current GM play. Yet to the end, he apparently thought he was still a great player.

Rest in peace, Fischer.
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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Beat the Nuggets!

I really dislike the Nuggets (Denver, not chicken). I haven't liked Carmelo Anthony ever since he whined about Kirilenko being inthe All-Star game. I'm not fond of George Karl. I have respect for Iverson as a player, but on a personal level he represents so many things about professional athletes that show they often simply don't appreciate how lucky tehy are or the responsibilities that should go with that much acclaim. I never liked Camby either, and Martin always seemed like a bully (although if the Jazz had signed him, he would have been *our* bully). I don't know the Jazz will, or even can, win in Denver tonight, but this is one game I would really like for them to win.

Edit to add: oops, tomorrow night. :(
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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Morality is bigger than that

Lot’s of people discuss on whether there morality is subjective or objective. I’ve been thinking lately that the entire argument is both too dismissive and irrelevant.

Regardless of from where you think morality comes, it’s a complex social structure made up of many parts. Some of these parts are close to universal, others vary considerably by culture. I have never heard of a culture that approves of random killings, rape, or stealing from your fellow tribesmen. Whether the reason is the need for a stable society or some putative God laying this down, I have no problem conceding that a few of these precepts could be labeled as objective. At the same time, most issues that deal with sexuality, slavery, and the right to make war on people not well known to you have had varying expressions in a wide variety of seeming stable, healthy cultures. I see no reason to consider morals in these matters to be anything other than subjective. Any basis for morals perforce will be the product of arbitrarily chosen principles. Trying to force the whole concept of morality into one place or the other is unworthy of a topic rich in context and subtlety.

Also, in the final matter, it is of no consequence whether the morals of your culture are subjective or objective. If you believe they come from some putative supernatural revelation, you’re going to follow your source for the most part. If you see them coming from other principles, you’ll still be following those principles. Either way, when you violate the standards of your own morals, you’ll feel the guilt, and when you violate the standards of your culture, you’ll risk facing punishment. Whether they are subjective or objective makes little difference there.
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Monday, January 7, 2008


Lucky is how we felt from the time he was born. Our first child was healthy, happy, and very independent for a baby. He would amuse himself for a couple of hours, needing no attention at all except when he ate or needed a diaper change. He was so beautiful that, when he was eight, we had an agent come to us inside a grocery store and ask to represent him as a model.

Of course, that was not going to happen. He couldn't stand being touched by strangers, or having a constantly changing routine. His language skills were well below age level. When he got upset, he would bang things repeatedly. It was autism, exactly, certainly not Aspberger's nor Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. It's Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified, in the autism spectrum.

Still, we never had to buy him a bicycle helmet to keep him from damaging his head. He was a little sensitive to loud noises and to smells, but not overly so. We had a fairly normal life. We were lucky, compared to many.

Today he plays the trumpet in the high school concert band. He washes dishes on occasion, rakes the yard, and plays Yu-Gi-Oh! with his brother and his brothers friends. Of course, he has no friends of his own, and doesn't seem to particularly want any. He's quite content with Word Searches and SoDoKu (he needs some help with the three-star puzzles). He wants to have his own apartment when he grows up (although I think a group home is more likely). In many ways he's more reliable and helpful than many of the kids I grew up with. We still feel lucky to have him, every day (well, almost every day).
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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Logic: everywhere or nowhere?

I just finished digesting Dr. Victor Repperts article, "The Argument from Reason", over at and was disappointed with one aspect in particular. Dr. Reppert describes how a formal system works in one paragraph, and them much later disregards the same properties when discussing a different formal system.

On the other hand, if I am playing chess, and I am missing a pawn, I can get a penny, a button, a half-eaten carrot, or just about anything else to play the role of a pawn. This is because unlike the frisbee[sic], the pawn's role is purely symbolic, determined by convention.
That seems clear, and I agree. Chess is one type of formal system, basically a instantiation of rules and procedures. Formal systems can be applied to a variety of objects with no change tot he structure of the system. They form a sort of model. Dr. Reppert seems to forget this in a later paragraph, though.

But principles like the laws of non-contradiction apply universally. Contradictions cannot be true in Phoenix, in Houston, in Antarctica, on Venus, in the Virgo cluster, in the furthest nebulae, or even in Southern California. From what particular experience could our knowledge of this have come?
Equally true would be, "But principles like the diagonal movement of bishops apply universally. Bishops cannot move orthogonally in Phoenix, in Houston, in Antarctica, on Venus, in the Virgo cluster, in the furthest nebulae, or even in Southern California. From what particular experience could our knowledge of this have come?" Of course, the obviously true answer would be that we set up the rules of chess the same everywhere, otherwise it's not chess. The same reasoning applies to logic. Any time you set up a system where you only accept two logical values (true or false) and only allow each statement to have one of those values, you get a formal system where the law of non-contradiction obtains. There is no experience this comes from, any more that there is an experience of a real-life bishop that never walks forward straightly. It's a feature that we built into the system, not one innate in the universe.
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