Thursday, January 28, 2010

The 129th Skeptics' Circle

You can now find the 129th Skeptics' Circle over at the blog maintained by The SkepVet. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, and probably won't for a while, but I am eagerly looking forward to it.
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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Would Data be immune to woo?

Recently, there was a post over at Respectful Insolence on the possible anti-vaccination leanings of Brent Spiner, who played Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In particular, Orac wrote:
I realize Data is a fictional character, but, even so, I wish that the spirit of Data would infuse the actor who played him and drive out the Malibu-inspired woo that has apparently lodged itself into his brain.

Naturally, thus leads me to the question of why we assume Data would be woo-free. Given that he is free of emotional responses and uses logic alone to formulate his world, will that suffice to keep woo out of Data's understanding of the world? What role does logic play in the separation of superstition from fact? I will give my impressions and understandings below the fold.

First, I want to briefly reiterate what logic is: a formal system of combining definitions, and operations in a well-defined manner to derive results based on those axioms, definitions, and operations. In classical Western logic we accept certain fundamental notions and classification as the starting points. For example, that propositions can be meaningfully discussed, that every proposition must be assigned a value of True or False, that you can invert the truth value of a proposition by negating it, what it means for one proposition to imply another, etc. All of these assumptions are needed just to form the calculus of logic, the well-defined manner we use to derive true propositions from other true propositions. Then, we need to throw into the mix our undefined objects and axioms. We need undefined objects because you have to have a starting point. The alternative is that if you try to define everything, at some point you will be using term A to define term B, when A has already been defined in a manner that B is important to the definition of A. So, we avoid this circularity by allowing some term to be undefined. Axioms now have a key role to play: they describe the behavior of the undefined objects. We can then define other objects based on the undefined objects. As an example, in a typical geometry class, I note that there are four undefined notions: a point, a line, a plane, and space. We describe what we intend these things to represent, but you can formally define them with using circular terminology. Then, we introduce axioms like Line Creation (there will be one line connecting any two points) to describe one of the relationships between lines and points. We introduce definitions based on these concepts (rays, line segments, angles, etc.). We generate theorems to show what other statements our axioms and definitions imply under the accepted logical calculus. So, logic can be used to show what you accept has additional consequences you may not have realized.

However, one thing (among many) that logic is not is a validation system in any but the barest sense. Sure, logic can occasionally be used to produce contradictions that derive from a given set of axioms. That's really not saying very much. First, to be effective at all as a means of persuasion to change the axioms involved, there has to be a prior commitment to make a change when a contradiction is reached. However, real life is full of situations that seem contradictory and yet persist, saying that are both accepted as true when saying the opposite. For example, the advice offered by "haste makes waste" is seemingly opposed to "a stitch in time saves nine". We have ways of resolving those pieces of advice, of course. However, this skill gets carried into other types of contradictions as well. So, producing contradictions, the only form of validation logic is capable of, is not protection against accepting all sorts of outright nonsense. Indeed, many people who accept axioms like "Properly understood, every word of the Bible is completely true" are skilled at using logic to defend their positions, because logic can be used in cause of woo just as easily as in the cause of skepticism.

This means I don't see Data necessarily having a special protection from woo by virtue of his thought proceeding from a logical calculus only. Whatever skeptical traits Data would possess would be a matter of programming. The more his programming was set to look for, find, and act upon patterns, the more likely Data would have wooish beliefs. One example is the show where the Enterprise-D is stuck in a time loop where it keeps blowing up at the end. Data uses the occurrences of a highly unlikely aggregation of 3s appearing to decide to follow the suggestions of Riker, who has three buttons on his collar, as opposed to 2.5 for Data. Data was eager to find a sign or symbol, and made A rapid, spur-of-the-moment pattern connection with no evidence that the connection is causal in any way. What could be wooier?

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The 128th Skeptics' Circle

At Ionian Enchantment you can find the 128th edition of the Skeptics' Circle. Greg Laden's post is particularly interesting to me.
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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

He doesn't tease me

Daughter#2 just told me that last night about Son#1. I don't know how it is in other families, but just everybody in out seven-member clan is on the receiving end of an enormous amount of teasing. That includes Son#1. He takes all of the with a reasonable amount of good will, most of the time. However, he never teases anyone. He'll smile, laugh, and even engage in mock rage. But he has no desire to tease anyone else.

I don't know if that is typical of people with PDD-NOS or other autism-spectrum disorders. It's a curious thing.
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Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Aristotelian Teapot

A little over a year ago, I created a post on Russell's teapot(Long may we drink!), and how the objections being offered to the analogy did not seem well-founded to me. However, I will fully admit that I did not understand a couple of beliefs regarding the Aristotelian version of God. For example, as occasional commentator Thomas pointed out, any concept of a God that moves or changes, like the Invisible Pink Unicorn (IPU) or the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) will be vastly different from the Aristotelian concept.

However, Russell's Teapot doesn't actually move or change very much. Below the fold, I discuss whether it can be turned into a comparable God to the Aristotelian god. I'll do this by looking at the four arguments of Dr. Feser's that I discussed in part five of my review of his book and seeing if they can be applied to a suitable version of the Teapot (lmwd).

For the Teapot to be the Unmoved Mover, it needs to be something that is immune to change. The normal idea is that this means it is pure form, since in traditional Aristotelian metaphysics material changes, and form does not. However, I think these ideas are outdated. We now know that biological forms do change. For example, the form of a horse has changed from Hyracotherium some 52 million years ago to the modern horse. Since forms can change, the unchangability of the Unmoved Mover can not be a product of being pure form. Thus, the Unmoved Mover does not need to be pure form; it can be an unchanging combination of form and material. The Teapot, sitting as it does in the center of the universe, unchanging, never moving, uses its vast power to activate the chains of potential from all actualities. In addition, you can put water and tea leaves into it, heat the water, and pump the tea out, all without making any change to the Teapot (lmwd) itself. Truly the Teapot (lmwd) is the very embodiment of the Unmoved Mover, realizing every potential, plus making a great cup of tea.

Being the Teapot (lmwd) in no way interferes with taking on the role of the First Cause (who joins forms to material things), the Supreme Intelligence (who maintains final causes for substances so they can be approached), nor the Form Keeper (who keeps real the forms of things that don't exist, like unicorns). After all, whatever means are available to the pure-form God of classical Aristotelianism are also available to the Teapot (lmwd). So, the Teapot (lmwd) is not refuted by the adoption of Aristotelian metaphysics. I'm sure this will come as a surprise to everyone who thought that a metaphysical system rejected by religious people hundreds of years ago would hold the key to disproving a modern philosophical analogy.

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