Thursday, September 24, 2009

The 120th Skeptics' Circle

You can fine the 120th Skeptics' Circle at Pro-science, with a straight-forward roundup and topic indicator, and a lot of very good reading.
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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Scientific jargon does not support the Fifth Way

Dr. Feser regularly complains that modern's critics of various aspects of design claims and ontological proofs don't really understand the deepness of the arguments of Aquinas-Thomists, and instead are responding to less-rounded arguments made by later philosophers. While I find it curious that his position indicates philosophers seem to have regressed when so many other disciplines have progressed, I feel that the least I can do is repond to Dr. Feser at the level of the arguments he is making. So I'm responding to a post he made on the comments of Jim Manzi regarding the Coyne review or Wright's book and Wright's response. First of all, as a part of my regular theme that we all misread based on our preconceptions, let me say Coyne's review is quite funny in light of Wright’s responses, which boil down to 'I agree with Coyne's point, my book made the same point Coyne is making, and I am not sure why Coyne thinks otherwise'. It's a little embarrassing for Coyne.

Manzi, while claiming to defend Wright, actually addresses a part of Coyne's review that does not even directly refer to Wright's book, but is some stage-setting by Coyne. So, the title to the article is rather incorrect, as Manzi does nothing to defend Wright at all. However, Manzi does defend his own ideas about the comparison of genetic algorithms on computers to the way genes behave, trying to set abiogenesis aside as a philosophical study (without referring to it by name), the importation of a goals into evolution, and the non-physical randomness of mutations. I might decide one day to fisk that article directly, but not today. Below the fold I will excerpt some of Dr. Feser's response to the article, and intersperse some of my own thoughts.

I argued in The Last Superstition that whatever one thinks of Darwinism, its truth or falsity is (contrary to what New Atheists like Richard Dawkins suppose) irrelevant to the cogency of the Thomistic proofs of God’s existence, including Aquinas’s Fifth Way (which Dawkins incompetently assimilates to Paley’s Design argument).

I actually agree with Dr. Feser here, for a given definition of "Darwinism" at any rate. To the degree that we are relying on the science, we have no method of elimination all sorts of exterior teleology and causality. If Dr. Feser is referring to ideas that go beyond the science, then we get into metaphysical assumption whose basis in reality can never be firmly demonstrated.

Indeed, if Darwinism has any relevance to the latter argument at all, it is in fact by slightly reinforcing rather than undermining it. The reason is that Darwinism, like any scientific theory, posits various causal mechanisms, all causal mechanisms presuppose (for reasons set out in TLS) final causality, and thus (since the take-off point of the Fifth Way is the existence of final causality) Darwinism, qua scientific theory, only lends further support to the Fifth Way.

This is a fine example of 'heads I win, tails you lose' argumentation. Any failures by science to explain something, such as the emergence of consciousness in the brain, is of course evidence that there is something non-physical at work. On the other hand, finding the causes and explanation things can only serve to strengthen the 'Fifth Way' argument of Aquinas for the existence of God. Dr. Feser relies on the work in his book (The Last Superstition, he abbreviates it TLS) regularly rather than outline its arguments, and I have not read it so far. However, I don't find the notion that there is some supernatural "final causality" to be any more likely a proposition than a natural final causality.

I also argued in TLS that the application by biologists, physicists, and other scientists of concepts like “algorithm,” “information,” “software,” “program,” etc. to the natural world evinces a tacit recognition of the reality of teleology or final causation. The reason (set out, again, in detail in TLS) is that the sort of directedness-towards-an-end that these concepts entail just is the core of the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of final causality.

I'm not sure whether Dr. Feser understands this or not, but terms like algorithm and information means very different things when applied to biological objects or other non-human-created systems than to computer programs. Algorithms are merely cycles enacted and altered by external stimuli and ended, if at all, by other stimuli (possibly external or internal), while information represents how easily a string can be compressed by interpretations functions that are not aimed specifically at that string. Neither concept has any recognition of teleology or lack thereof, they are statements of content, not purpose.

Again, Aristotle and his followers do not argue for a temporal beginning of the universe (even though some of them do happen to believe, on independent grounds, that it had such a beginning). Nor do they think that an infinite regress is a “problem.” For by “infinite regress,” one either means an infinite regress of accidentally ordered causes extending backward in time – in which case such a regress is perfectly possible (and, indeed, actual, in Aristotle’s own view) – or one means an infinite regress of essentially ordered causes of the sort that trace ultimately to simultaneously operating instrumental causes here and now – in which case such a regress is, not merely “problematic” or mysterious (as if such a regress could exist in some as-yet unknown fashion), but flatly impossible in principle. (Again, all of this is explained at length in TLS.)

I do distrust the notion of being "flatly impossible in principle" for many reasons, not the least of which comes from my mathematical training. I find that the Axiom of Choice, or more precise the equivalent statement that the cross-products of non-empty sets is not empty, to be intuitively obvious, to the point that I find it ridiculous to claim that can be an empty cross-product of non-empty sets. The "flatly impossible in principle"Banach-Tarski paradox is a result does not change my mind, since I am forced to choose between to different flatly impossible notions, one of which must be true. I'm Dr. Feser feels he has a good argument for the impossibility of an infinite string of ontological causality, but my recent encounters with philosophers trying to use infinity in a mathematical way leaves me skeptical to the general abilities of philosophers who don't have an extensive mathematical background.

But Manzi’s remarks can be interpreted in another, more Aristotelian way. He might mean that even if the universe had no beginning in time, the basic laws that govern it, and the fact of their continual operation at any given moment, would still require an explanation. Talk of “laws of nature” is more a modern than an Aristotelian way of speaking, but the basic point remains that there is nothing inherent in material reality that can account for the “actualizing” of its “potential” for existing and operating in just the way it does at any particular instant. Unless we trace it down to that which is “pure actuality,” an Unmoved Mover or Uncaused Cause sustaining it in being and operation here and now and at any moment we are even considering the question, we would have no way in principle to account for why the universe exists at all and operates in precisely the way it does. The “problem of infinite regress” on this interpretation is not a matter of accepting a mystery which might have a solution – just one we do not and perhaps cannot discover – but rather the fatal (to naturalism) problem that without acknowledging that the regress of essentially ordered causes operating here and now terminates in an Unmoved Mover, the material world becomes unintelligible even in principle. (You know the drill: See TLS for the details.)

Having read up just a little on what Dr. Feser means by action and potentiality, this strikes me as being pure doggerel. The questions of why the universe exists and operates the way it does do not ever need to end, and they certainly do not end simply because we have an Unmoved Mover or Uncaused Cause. I don't know, nor pretend to know, that such a Mover/Cause does or does not exist, but I do know that, even if we arrive at such an august figure, they are not immune to the further questions of why the Mover/Cause does this, why they feel that, etc., and that the inevitable terminus of this chain is 'We just don't know'. This makes the end of the chain no different from the end of the chain of questions to the naturalist, except the naturalist stops the chain earlier in the process.

Manzi is clearer on the issue of final causality. Coyne seems to think that to attribute purposiveness to evolution entails seeing the human species, specifically, as having somehow been the end result toward which natural selection was working; and he trots out the usual ad hominem response to critics of Darwinism to the effect that they just can’t handle evolution’s humbling implications, blah blah blah.

This actually reverses motivation and effect from Coyne's point, which is not that attributing purpose to evolution allows the elevation of humans, but that the refusal to accept a non-elevation of humans results in the attributing of purpose to evolution. A => B is quite different from ~B => A.

And if this “algorithm” talk is taken seriously, then (to put things more strongly than Manzi does) it necessarily entails, given the nature of algorithms, that there is an end-state towards which the processes in question point – not, to be sure, the generation of some particular species (human or otherwise) at some temporal culmination point, but rather the (in principle non-stop) generation of species after species meeting certain abstract criteria of fitness.

Again, we have a reversal of cause and effect. It is not the algorithm that acts upon species causing new species to arise, it is the arising of new species in regular ways that is described in terms that look like algorithms to us.

Hence one either has to agree with the judgment of thinkers like John Searle that talk of “information,” “algorithms,” etc. is at best a misleading set of metaphors and at worst a complete muddle; or, if one thinks such talk is indispensible (and there is good reason to think it is) one must acknowledge that something like the Aristotelian conception of nature is correct after all.

I'm not sure if that is a necessary choice, but I do happen to be on, or at least closer to, the former side. We use terms like "information" and "algorithm" in a jargonistic sense to describe non-human-created systems, and this jargon has its beginning in metaphor. However, the terms have been fairly precisely defined in the given context, so I think it is going too far to say they are merely metaphorical now.

And, of course, I have noted the many neo-Aristotelian themes to be found in the work of many contemporary philosophers and scientists – including many who have no theological ax to grind – both in TLS and in earlier posts like this one and this one.

Another good case of a person seeing what they are pre-disposed to see.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

My first hour in a Geometry class

This is basically a longer form of the signature quote at the bottom of the page, originally created by a poster named HRG on CARM. My personal attitude toward mathematics is much closer to some combination of formalism and fictionalism than any other position, and I find it useful to remind students that what we are studying is doesn't have to be a perfect representation of the real world in order to be valuable. Indeed, since at the very least the parallel postulate doesn't hold for reality, we are not studying such a system.

So, I start of talking about three criteria that we would like any sort of knowledge to possess. The differ slightly from the usual description of epistemology.

We prefer knowledge that reflects the world in which we live, one that has an application to things outside of our imagination. Saying that a ball is red, that an action is evil, that 2 + 2 = 4 would ideally say something about the apple, the action, or the numbers themselves.

We prefer knowledge that we can show, by some sort of objective process, holds to be true. This allows us to convince skeptical people that the knowledge is valid. Saying that a ball is red, and action is evil, or that 2 + 2 = 4 would mean we had accepted means of demonstrations so that every observer who accepted such means as valid would accept the result.

We prefer knowledge that won't change with time, that stands firm. when something is true, it should stay true and not become partly true or even false later on. A red ball should always be red (assuming the ball itself does not change), an evil action should always be evil, and 2 + 2 should always equal 4.

The next part discusses what I see as three different systems that focus on knowledge using the desired attributes above. Of course, any truly broad system of inquiry will make us of all three of the systems I discuss below, but generally only one of them at time. Like a three-way combination of oil and vinegar, they don't seem to mix together. In the examples, I try to offer samples where the primary dependence seems to match the system I use, and the other systems are of secondary significance.

Empirical systems
Empirical systems rely on the investigation of the real word and use inductive processes and assumption to decide what is more generally true about that world. They use demonstrable methods such as taking measurements, running controlled experiments, and making predictions to be verified by further observations and experiments. Because the observations are founded in actual investigations, their reality to the world is a natural consequence. However, the use of the inductive method means that the results can not be certain, that all finding are provisional and possibly erroneous. The best that can be hoped for is beyond a good reason to doubt a finding. Examples of empirical systems would include physics and the results of national polls regarding elections.

Formal systems
Formal systems rely on working from a starting point accepted as being true and using an accepted, objective, deductive means of deriving new truths within that system. The method of deriving new truths within the system is the demonstration of that truth, and the process of deriving the truth would be repeatable regardless of the observer. Also, given a specific starting point, the same truth will always be the result (at least, ideally). However, since the starting point is selected rather than derived, there is no guarantee that such a starting point will have any bearing on the world around us. A formal system may be a useful model of reality, but we can never know whether it matches reality. Examples would include philosophy and law (as practiced at the appellate level).

Belief systems
Belief systems use the trusted, revealed knowledge of an authority of some sort to provide as description of the world and its operation. The truths that we get from this authority are accepted because of the level of trust, not because of any independent test that we run. Belief systems do provide a view of reality and knowledge about the state of affairs in the universe. Also, because the source is some consistent authority, they have the feature of certainty, of not changing within the system itself. However, because our acceptance of this knowledge is based upon trust rather than a means to validate them, these truths are generally not demonstrable to others in a significant or meaningful way. Examples include Shintoism and Objectivism.

Then the question that guarantees a minute of silence and ten more of discussion: which one of these is mathematics?
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Thursday, September 10, 2009

The 119th Skeptics' Circle

You can find the 119th Skeptics' Circle up at Cubik's Rube, with a long narrative and a host of links i don't have time to read today. There is also a shorter, link-only version.
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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Why ID advocates need proof of a Designer

In my recent discussions with JoeG at the self-styled Intelligent Reasoning, one of the topics that arose was that design is offered the default status in Dembski's Explanatory Filter. You supposedly rule out necessity at the first step, and chance at the next two, and are left with design at the end. This is also true of Dembski's Complex Specified Information formulation and of Behe's Irreducible Complexity. By claiming they can defeat the argument that certain types of objects can not arise through chance alone, they then present you with their only alternative: some outside-the-process designer who deliberately sought to create life as we have it, apparently with special care given to clotting cascades and bacterial mobility. In the course of the aforementioned discussions, I pointed out that there are two other alternatives beside the Designer and no design. JoeG, with the usual deftness of ID advocates, disputed that these were alternatives, and in the process created two I had not even considered, helping to defeat his own position. While I have seen reference to other possibilities existing, I don't recall reading a listing of them, so I thought I would provide one. Let's say that at some point in the future ID proponents succeed in their efforts at convincing us that necessity and chance can provide no sufficient explanation for life. For any program to prove a Designer exists, all of the options below will need to be disproved as well.

Suggestions from the commentators are welcome and may be added. In fact, I may make this my other annual re-post. Details below the fold.

The first option I proposed is life as a by product of some other intention by an outside agent. Life on earth might be a spandrel, something that happened when the Agent was in the process of organizing some other thing. This allows for all sorts of possibilities in the history of life, including the sudden appearance of features of organisms, or even entire organisms, not because the Agent cares about or even notices life here, but as a side-effect of some other intended cause. Any functions we perceive in biological systems would be reflections of the real design, unheard echos.

The next option I proposed was the interior designer, life having a gradually emergent consciousness that began to direct its own activities. The geek in me would call it the Force. As life grows, it begins to direct and design itself, shaping itself into greater levels of complexity, sacrificing some of its own forms in favor of other forms, weathering mass extinctions with determination and ferocity. Life would add it's own functions, choosing to make sure the bacteria got its flagellum, leaving all the hallmarks of design and purpose directly but having no outside designer they are attached to. It's very New Agey.

While disputing my first option, JoeG suggested the outside agent who doesn't even care what he's doing as an attempt at rebuttal, creating a third option: the random outside agent. ID proponents are fond of the tornado-in-a-junkyard argument, the equivalent metaphor here might be a sledgehammer-in-a-junkyard. Of course, the key difference is that the sledgehammer still has to be swung by some person. This is an outside agent that would leave traces that looked like they might design all over the places (the marks from the hammer), but involve no actual design intention on the part of the agent. So, merely detecting signs of design is not proof of design.

Finally, while discussing my second option, JoeG derisively referred to it as "poof". I thought about it, and decided that Poof is a poor description of that option, but an interesting alternative to it. One variation would be a sudden, persistent appearance of a consciousness for life, but an even more interesting variation is a consciousness life creates that appears only when it is needed to direct or preserve something about life, or life itself. Poof awakens when an asteroid hits the planet, or the global temperatures get too warm or too cold, etc. Poof then gets to work in changing the living things that remain, adding a flagellum her or altering a blood cascade there, to make sure life goes on as it should (or at all), and then disappears, ready to be summoned again at need.

So, even if the ID proponents somehow manage to topple the possibility of chance and necessity being sufficient, they have a long way to go to get to their Designer. I doubt I have exhausted the possibilities, either. If you want to say there is a Designer, you need proof of a Designer.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Keeping the kids in a bubble

I probably won't mention the Illinois Family Institute very often on this blog. For the most part, their particular flavors of intolerance and woo don't interact with the subjects I like to write about. Once in a great while they'll put up some bland global warming denialism, but mostly it's just politically slanted tripe and homophobia, and there are other bloggers who are really passionate on those topics. My rant is below the fold.

However, Laurie Higgins decided to direct her focus at my kid's school, and in particular at the Challenge Day program they are bringing over. Before I go on, there are two things you should understand about O'Fallon: we are the dead center of the most conservative area of St. Clair County (many residents are current or past Department of Defense workers, as Scott Air force Base is quite close), and our school system has plenty of money (we have 2 new schools built in the past 2 years). So, we really don't need some conservative wingnut protecting our family values, we already have an elected school board that is almost as right-wing anyhow. I'm not going to pretend I have enough information on the program to evaluate its true value, and am skeptical of any week inducing a life-changing experience on people (shy of physical trauma), but if this program was really just some touchy-feely lib-fest, it would not have been funded.

Of course, Ms. Higgins has to pull out some made-for-right-wing expert testimony, and her choice is the book One Nation Under God, a book described as "...a literary version of the thankfully defunct TV show "Crossfire"' and 'They are also waging a dated war against an imagined army of censorious liberals, ... It is culture-wars kitsch'. This of course makes them fabulous sources for a blog devoted to those culture wars.

Fortunately, we get to find out the real problems directly from Ms. Higgins. She quotes from the website:

Challenge Day successfully addresses some common issues seen at most schools during our school programs including cliques, gossip, rumors, negative judgments, teasing, harassment, isolation, stereotypes, intolerance, racism, sexism, bullying, violence, homophobia, (emphasis added) hopelessness, apathy, and hidden pressures to create an image, achieve or live up to the expectations of others....Be challenged to celebrate the diversity of ALL people.

Note that I did not add the emphasis, nor did the goals of Challenge Day. The emphasis is being added by Ms. Higgins, because that's the stuff that's really concerning. Not that she approves of stereotypes, intolerance, sexism, or homophobia. Just because she thinks children should be pulled from school when teh school allows protesting homophobia does not mean she supports it herself, no siree. She just doesn't think children should be exposed to other children opposing homophobia. You know, because being exposed to homophobia-opposition will be so damaging for the kids.

Ms. Higgins, your attention is not needed, productive, interesting, nor welcome.

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