Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On the difference between gradualism and relativism

Going back to Iliocnetrim's take on compromise, there is an interesting tidbit, almost a throwaway, that reveals a sadly limited mindset.

Just as it is impossible for you and me to compromise between my desire to murder you and your desire not to be murdered, it is likewise impossible to compromise between truth and non-truth. To put it bluntly: the world is black-and-white, after all.

It's quite popular these days to sing peans to relativism: to assert either that there is no such thing as objective truth -- especially in regard to morality -- or, that if there is, it cannot be known (and so, is unimportant). I refer to this "All The Pretty Shades Of Grey."

It the typical fashion of Ilion's black-and-white thinking, he confounds the existence of shades of grey with the existence of relativism. Lest the reader think I am judging on the basis of this one small blurb, rest assured that this is a regular feature of his writing. The existence of objectively quantified shades of grey, and of bi-valued relative positions, are so commonplace that such thinking can only be considered a departure from reality.

An example of the former would be the question of taking a shot from the upper elbow on a fast break. You can quantify the value of this shot compared to the standard value of a possession for your team when you reset the offense. There is no absolute true or false answer to taking the elbow shot, but the answer is quantifiable probabilistically, and the means of evaluating those answers are certainly objective. In any area of endeavor that allows you to evaluate outcomes numerically, you wind up weighing costs, benefits, resources, commitments, etc. and generate a large array of variables, very few of which will correspond to 1 or 0. This reasoning can certainly be extended to moral issues. Money spent on the support for underage mothers will cause fewer of them to desire abortions. Saving lives, at need for increased taxation: absolutely good or absolutely evil?

On the other hand, how about kid's programming that is designed around a toy line? I have no trouble conceding that you could say it is good or evil, but how would you show either objectively? This becomes a matter of personal taste, in many respects.

Well, I don't expect this sort of thinking to change Ilion's ideas anytime soon. For him there may always be just two camps, even though the world of black-and-white is itself not black-and-white.
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A man who eats dog dung

It's probably bad form to pick on a person like Ilion, but sometimes a nut just seems to ask to be cracked.

In a discussion on whether or not it would be good for the anti-abortion and pro-choice forces to combine efforts on reducing the need for abortions, Ilion compares this type of compromise to putting dog dung into ice cream and serving. No, I'm not kidding. Then, as mere days later, he offers up this gem on the nature of government.

Victor, that some level of governmnet is necessary does not at all mitigate the fact that government is an evil; nore does it even begin to mitigate the fact that government's sole method of funding itself is indistinguishable from a Mafia protection racket -- "Give us your money and do what we tell you to do or we'll kill you."

I guess we should all be grateful to Ilion for eating his daily dose of feces.
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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Discussion on evolution

Below follows a response to a long list of comments in the third post in my series on Nagel's articles. If I have any other regular readers who are bored by this, my apologies.

I decided to move the bulk of the post to the comments.


Before a detailed response, let me see if I can correctly summarize our disagreement. You seem to be claiming that the Modern Synthesis of population genetics with natural selection is defunct, out of favor, discredit, or something similar. I have been saying that the many additional mechanisms we are seeing recently are things that will be incorporated into the Modern Synthesis, and that complement it rather than replace it.

On that topic, consider this link (with a hat tip to Panda’s Thumb).

LH: What are the most exciting recent developments in systematics / comparative methods?

JF: The availability of genome-scale information is certainly one. The arrival of a generation of young researchers who are comfortable with statistical and computational approaches is another. But the most important development is reflected in recent work on coalescent trees of gene copies within trees of species. What this does is tie together between-species molecular evolution and within-species population genetics. Those two lines of work have been developing almost independently since the 1960s. But now, with population samples of sequences at multiple loci in multiple related species, they are coming back together. This is not another Modern Synthesis, but it is a major event that needs a name. How about the "Family Reunion"? Long-estranged relatives who have not been in touch are getting together.

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