Tuesday, December 27, 2011


How To Prove You're Not Conscious


I've spent a few more weeks reading about free will and the varieties of compatibilism and incompatibilism. And—much to the regret of some of my readers, I suppose—I haven't changed my mind. I still don't think that we can make real "choices" at any given moment; I feel that all of our choices are predetermined by the laws of physics and chemistry, and I think that all the attempts to save the notion of free will via philosophical "compatibilism" are unconvincing.
Well, Jerry, since your choices are predetermined by the laws of physics and chemistry, in what way could "you" have "changed your mind"? Indeed, what "mind" do you have?

And my feeling that the common notion of free will—that at any given time, if the past history of an individual and all of her molecules were replicated, she would always choose the same way—was confirmed by discussions I had with three scientist colleagues. None of these colleagues had thought much about the problem of free will, but all of them, when pressed, thought of "free will" in the way I've characterized it. Further, all of them raised the similar objections to my claim that we have no free will in that sense: Wouldn't that lead to nihilism? What about moral responsibility? But can't people be persuaded to act in a certain way?, etc. This is an anecdotal and small sample, but it's a sample of smart scientists, and all of them initially conceived of free will as the ability to make decisions independent of the laws of physics.
And why not! They are all just doing what you apparently cannot help doing yourself ... assuming that you can "change your mind" ... not to mention that your readers can choose to regret your failure to see the point.

Coyne gets a little closer to the problem when he says:

[R]easoned argument is still an environmental influence which can impinge on the brain to affect people's decisions ... [W]hether or not someone is responsive to reasoned argument is itself determined by the laws of physics.
What, exactly, is the physical and chemical means that "reasoned" ... as opposed to "unreasoned" ... argument "impinges" on the brain? In any event, of course, by whatever means, it results in Coyne having no "reason" to believe that his arguments are any more "reasoned" than William Lane Craig's.

It gets worse. After referring to fMRI experiments "showing that one can predict the outcome of a decision up to seven seconds before the subject is conscious of having made a decision" (without citing to how we measure when someone becomes "conscious" ... whatever that might mean in Coyneism ... of a decision versus when they can report it to others), he says:

Now I'm perfectly aware that the "predictability" of the results is not perfect: it seems to be around 60%, better than random prediction but nevertheless statistically significant. I think, though, that as our ability to image and understand the brain improves, the predictability of which decision the subject will make will improve.
Um... let's say we couldn't explain 10% of evolved phylogeny by present evolutionary theory and scientific results. Would that be grounds for denying that evolution occurred? I most certainly hope not! And just what does he base his choice on to believe "the predictability of which decision the subject will make will improve" ... other than that he was determined to believe that by the velocity and vector of all subatomic particles on their way out from the Big Bang ... assuming we had any choice to believe the evidence for or against the Big Bang, that is.

To me, free will means "I could have decided otherwise," and if we can't do that, then we don't have free will. We have something else, and I wish that philosophers would use another term if they're compatibilists.
Right after you choose to use another term for "changing" your "mind".

Sunday, December 25, 2011


Merry Winter Solstice

All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him -- at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off; -- and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man -- one man -- can't keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It's thus he does it of a winter night.

- "An Old Man's Winter Night" by Robert Frost

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Danger, Will Robertson!

In the Giles County Ten Commandments case, the court has granted the plaintiffs permission to proceed anonymously. The judge has made clear that he will not tolerate any "leaking" of the plaintiffs' names or, should they come out, any harassment of them:

It is the intent of this Order to preserve the anonymity of the Plaintiffs to the greatest extent possible while affording the parties sufficient information to fully and fairly address the issues raised in this action. Any person failing to comply with the terms of this Order may be subject to contempt proceedings and penalties that may include fines and/or incarceration.

The Court further instructs that no harassment, threats, intimidation or interference with the Plaintiffs will be tolerated and violators will be subject to contempt proceedings.
While Liberty Counsel, the school board's attorneys, will be apprised of the names, they must insure that all "paralegals, legal assistants and other support staff" that are given the names are "first provided a copy of this Order, reviews it, understands it and understands that he/she is bound by its terms." In other words, if the names are leaked and that is traced to them, they and/or their bosses will be in front of a pissed-off Federal judge with no excuse that they didn't know they were in contempt of the court.

Similarly, Dr. Terry Arbogast, Superintendent of Giles County Public Schools, and Jeff Young, Network Administrator for Giles County Public Schools will learn the names of the plaintiffs, under the same conditions, for purposes of determining the plaintiffs' "standing."

And the "good folks" of Giles County have also been warned.

Trust me, being in front of a pissed-off Federal judge with justification to fine and/or imprison you is an uncomfortable place.

Let's hope nobody's fervor overcomes their self-interest.

Friday, December 16, 2011



The Undiscovery Institute has admitted that Intelligent Design is not science:

Looking for a good metaphor to help explain the relationship between standard Darwinian biology and the new paradigm offered by intelligent design? In a podcast at our sister site ID: The Future, "Key Figures in Intelligent Design Measure the Impact of Discovery Institute," Biologic's Doug Axe has a fine one:
You can think about it in terms of the difference between mastering spelling versus mastering the art of writing. One could be a very good speller and a miserable writer and vice versa. In one case you're looking at the micromechanics of how you put letters together to make words but in the other you are looking at higher-level principles that allow good writing to take place, the principles you have to master in order to write well.

We feel that biology has been stuck, looking at the mechanics -- like spelling -- and it really has to move to a higher level where it embraces principles, and these principles are manifestly design principles. We think that life cannot really be understood until you move to that higher level.
What science does is look at the mechanics of the universe. The "higher-level principles" that go into the "art" of forming some "higher order" of understanding is the business of metaphysics and/or its country cousin, theology ... if it can.

Yes, those atheists who claim that science disproves all theism are doing the same thing. But the interesting thing is that those metaphysical beliefs don't show up in the scientific literature and aren't taught in public schools ... and neither does, or should, ID.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


So I Guess There Really Are "New Atheists"

... or so some people think:

I think I'd call this the Atheist Delusion. Many of us find it really hard to believe that Christians actually believe that nonsense about Jesus rising from the dead and insisting that faith is required to pass through the gates of a magical place in the sky after we're dead; we struggle to find a rational reason why friends and family are clinging to these bizarre ideas, and we say to ourselves, "oh, all of her friends are at church" or "he uses church to make business contacts" or "it's a comforting tradition from their childhood", but no, it's deeper than that: we have to take them at their word, and recognize that most people who go to church actually do so because they genuinely believe in all that stuff laid out in the Nicene Creed. ...

I think this is another important element of the New Atheist movement. We take religious people seriously when they tell us what they believe. We don't indulge in our own rationalizations, trying to second guess what they say and invent a more sensible excuse for their behavior: when someone tells me that they have faith that Jesus' second coming is nigh, I accept that they're a deranged and demented fuckwit rather than trying to cobble together a lofty sociological story about individuals fitting into community mores and building rhetorical interfaces to meld with group dynamics. Nope, they really believe in an apocalyptic messiah and are wishing the world would end in a catastrophe before they die.

I don't believe in fighting against the little social accommodations people necessarily make to get by. I do believe in fighting hard against bad ideas. And that's a difference between many atheists: do you see religion as a kind of social glue, or do you see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas? If you are in the latter camp, you're a New Atheist.


Tired Luskin

Well, well ...

Casey Luskin has topped himself in the irony-meter-slaying department. Regular Casey watchers will know just what a high bar that is.

Luskin is kvetching about Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True. You see:

The stated purpose of The Magic of Reality is to help kids understand both the content and nature of scientific knowledge. The real purpose is to get them to disbelieve in anything supernatural and to associate traditional religious beliefs with wacky superstitions that few have even heard of.
But we all know that Intelligent Design is all about science, not religion ...

But that's not the irony.

Then the Gofer General of the Discoveryless Institute, known far and wide for his towering scientific knowledge, whips out his philosopher's hat and pronounces:

Dawkins then feeds kids shaky logic about why they should never believe in miracles. Taking the tired old Humean approach, he claims that if someone seemingly trustworthy tells you about a miracle, your first inclination should be to believe the person is lying because "the 'miracle' of their lying would still be a smaller miracle than the [miracle] they claimed..." (p. 255) But doesn't this simply assume that miracles don't happen?

Uh ... no. It's an argument based on experience. Based on our experience, miracles are, at the very least, rare. Also based on our experience, people lying, being mistaken and engaging in self-delusion is, at the very least, common (hence Dawkins' examples of "wacky superstitions"). Therefore, when rationally considering the accounts of others or even of our own experiences, the presumption should be that "miracles" are very much less likely than that someone, ourselves included, is lying, mistaken or self-delusional.

While there is great irony in Casey (whose logical and philosophical abilities are, at the very least, rare) proclaiming that the arguments of David Hume (whose logical and philosophical abilities are, at the very least, common) to be "tired," that's still not the megadose.

Here it comes:

Those who are familiar with the law will immediately recognize what Dawkins is doing: he's trying to exclude evidence from consideration whenever it challenges his case. He's acting more like a lawyer who's been paid by a party to vigorously defend one particular position than someone who is dispassionately seeking truth.
Woo Hoo! Casey Luskin, a lawyer paid by the DI to vigorously promote the overthrow of "scientific materialism" and restore "a broadly theistic understanding of nature," is accusing others of doing exactly what his own job description is.

There is more that could be said about Luskin's "argument" and even Dawkins' but, really, why bother after that?

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Some Philosophy

There's a couple of interesting philosophical discussions online.

Massimo Pigliucci takes on the idea that consciousness is an illusion in "You don't really exist, do you?":

One more thing strikes me as strange from the point of view of the "consciousness is an illusion" school of thought. Its supporters have no account of why this illusion would evolve. If we take seriously the commonsensical idea that consciousness aids deliberative reasoning, then we see that it has a (important) biological function. But if it is just an illusion, what's it for? Now, as a biologist I am perfectly aware that sometimes in evolution shit just happens ("spandrels," as Stephen Gould and Richard Lewontin referred to structures that seem adaptive but are in fact byproducts of evolution). But if a large amount of metabolic energy used up by the brain goes into maintaining the illusion of consciousness surely one wants an answer to the question of why did natural selection bring this situation about or — if consciousness is a spandrel — why does it persist in the face of what should be strong selection against it. We know that when organisms don't need complex structures/functions natural selection quickly eliminates them (for instance, in the case of eyes for cave animals).
Somewhat related is Stephen Law's article, "Naturalism, evolution and true belief," on Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism:

Plantinga supposes that what unguided evolution favours, in the first instance, is adaptive behaviour. As to what causes that behaviour, evolution doesn't care. True beliefs, false beliefs, something else – it's all the same to evolution. It is only the result – adaptive behaviour – that is preferred. ...

Consider the suggestion that there exist certain conceptual constraints ["CC"] on what content a given belief can, or is likely to, have given its causal relationships to, among other things, behaviour. ...

[G]iven such conceptual constraints exist, unguided evolution will indeed favour true belief. Consider our thirsty human. He has a strong desire for water. He'll survive only if he walks five miles south to where the only reachable water is located. He does so and survives. Suppose this adaptive behaviour is caused by a certain belief/neural structure. If there are conceptual constraints on belief content of the sort I envisage, and if a belief/neural structure in that situation typically causes subjects to walk five miles south, then it is quite likely to have the content that there's water five miles south – a true belief. Were our thirsty human to head off north, on the other hand, as a result of his having a belief/neural structure that, in that situation, typically causes subjects to walk five miles north, then it's rather more likely that the belief in question is that there's water five miles north. That's a false belief. Because it is false, our human will die.
Have fun.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011



Well, relevant to recent discussions about Jerry Coyne's version of "determinism," we have Coyne himself now saying:

I've just returned from a two-hour lecture and Q&A session at the Woodlawn Charter School, a public school run by the University of Chicago on the South Side of the city. Some of the high-school biology students are reading Why Evolution is True, and I gave a presentation on the evidence for evolution—with a tiny bit about why religion prevents Americans from accepting evolution, for I was asked to mention that topic—followed by an hour of questions.

Some of the questions were good, and some of the students really interested, but there was also a lot of religious pushback. One student, I was told, sat through the entire lecture muttering about how she shouldn't be forced to listen to this stuff since it went against her faith. Another student's "question" was to inform me that she was offended that I said that Adam and Eve never existed (I talked about the human bottleneck of 1200 people), and asked me how I knew that. ...

It's all a bit depressing. These kids are not southern fundamentalist Bible-thumpers: they are disadvantaged black kids who were simply brought up in religious homes or among religious peers. And there's no doubt that that upbringing is rendering many of them resistant to the idea of evolution. I spent an hour showing them the evidence for evolution, and some of them were simply impervious.
Well, of course they were "impervious," Jerry ... since you have confidently "opined" that they are incapable of any choice in the matter. Why would you expect these automatons to be anything but impervious to your faux "reason" and "logic" and "evidence" that you were spouting simply because "every physical atom and electron" in your brain just happened to be in that particular position at that moment?

How could they 'accept' evolution if they had no ability to choose?

Monday, December 05, 2011


Immorally Religious

Well, the Giles County (Virginia) School Board's attempted dive into posting of Ten Commandment in a public school is that much closer to the bottom of the empty pool of Constitutional law on the subject.

A judge declined to dismiss a lawsuit challenging a display of the Ten Commandments in a Giles County school Monday, setting the stage for a long legal battle.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski said there are too many unknown facts about the case to immediately throw it out for legal reasons.

"Facts matter, so how can I grant a motion to dismiss?" the judge said. "You can't just apply a one-size-fits-all because the facts are very different" in prior court cases involving the Ten Commandments in public buildings.
That refers to Liberty Counsel's (and probably the worst lawyer in America, Mathew Staver's) claim that the school board had nothing to do with the present display, despite all the evidence to the contrary that I've already mentioned.

When the decision is filed online, I'll share any juicy bits.

But that doesn't come close to exhausting Liberty Counsel's and Staver's disingenuousness:

Urbanski delayed ruling on a second issue -- whether the student and a parent who joined in the lawsuit can remain anonymous -- while lawyers try to work out an agreement.

The case has stirred such acrimony in rural Giles County that identifying the student would subject him or her to harassment or worse, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit.

But keeping the names secret runs counter to the fundamental principle of open courts, an attorney for the school board said.

"You can't simply defend a case in the dark," said Mathew Staver of the Christian-based Liberty Counsel. "You can't shadow box when you don't know who's punching."

Staver objected to a protective order suggested by the ACLU that would allow the plaintiffs to keep their current pseudonyms of Doe 1 and Doe 2 and allow them to avoid a court appearance by testifying through deposition.

Although the school board's legal team would know the plaintiffs' identity, the ACLU wants a protective order that would bar them from sharing that information with the board.

"Don't you think that might be appropriate when you have the chairman of the board of supervisors calling these people anonymous cowards?" Urbanski asked Staver at one point during two hours of oral arguments in which he peppered both sides with questions. "That didn't just come from a man on the street, that came from a public official."

The judge was referring to a comment made by supervisors Chairman Eric Gentry during a school board public hearing, that Giles County "won't let an anonymous coward tell us how to run our business."
There is only one issue where the identity of the plaintiffs is remotely relevant and that is "standing." Essentially, if one of the plaintiffs was a student in the school when the display was posted, there is standing. That fact is easily determined by affidavit, in camera examination and documentary evidence from the school. There is no "punching" required by the plaintiff ... if the plaintiff has standing, either the school board's actions were constitutional or they were not and it matters not a whit whether the plaintiff was "offended" by the display; was an atheist, a theist of some sect that does not honor the Ten Commandments or was a Christian who just didn't want officious government bureaucrats foisting their viewpoints on him or her at taxpayer expense.

The only possible reason to reveal the identity of the plaintiffs is so people like Eric Gentry and the other allegedly "good" people of Giles County can make their lives hell and, perhaps, drive them into dropping the suit.

Once again, the people who so loudly proclaim their moral superiority, disprove it at every turn.


Sunday, December 04, 2011


Philosophy (Lite)!

Jerry Coyne has an interesting post about "scientism." A guest blogger, Dr. William Widdowson, an emeritus professor of architecture and interior design at the University of Cincinnati, contends that:

Scientism (sensu stricto) began as a label for the doctrine that truth is fixed, a priori and universal; that inductive science is the only means to its discovery and certainty is a realistic outcome. This doctrine was rejected by a particular group of philosophers of science belonging to a tradition pioneered by Charles Sanders Peirce in the late 19th c., carried forward by William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead in the early 20th c. and later by Fredrick Hayek, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend, and Thomas Kuhn during the mid-20th c.
Even a quick Google search reveals that Peirce, Feyerabend, Hayek, Popper and others (including Wittgenstein) have addressed the issue. It would take more effort than I'm willing at this point to expend to determine if Widdowson's characterization of the original sense of the term is correct and it's not what interests me in the first place.

The Oxford Guide to Philosophy defines "scientism" as:

'Scientism' is a term of abuse. Therefore, perhaps inevitably, there is no one simple characterization of the views of those who are thought to be identified as prone to it. In philosophy, a commitment to one or more of the following lays one open to the charge of scientism.

(a) The sciences are more important than the arts for an understanding of the world in which we live, or, even, all we need to understand it.

(b) Only a scientific methodology is intellectually acceptable. Therefore, if the arts are to be a genuine part of human knowledge they must adopt it.

(c) Philosophical problems are scientific problems and should only be dealt with as such.

A successful accusation of scientism usually relies upon a restrictive conception of the sciences and an optimistic conception of the arts as hitherto practised. Nobody espouses scientism; it is just detected in the writings of others.
But Widdowson compares the "original" sense with:

"Scientism (lite)" has become a label for the doctrine that science is the only way to the truth, a doctrine rejected by theist apologists, accommodationists, and NOMAtics of all stripes because they are committed to the proposition that there are:

1. many other ways of knowing, or

2. many other kinds of truths, or

3. some combination of 1. and 2.

Briefly then, my point is that challenging science's claim to exclusivity by labeling it Scientism (lite) is very different from using the same label to challenge science's claim to certainty (Scientism-sensu strictu). If the apologists, accommodationists and NOMAtics presume to claim some of the legitimacy of the philosophy of science by borrowing its terminology, they could at least get it right.
But if "scientism" (not sensu stricto) is a term of abuse where there is no one simple characterization of the views of those who are thought to be identified as prone to it, it follows that there are no one simple definition of "Scientism (lite)" either, leaving it a term of counter-abuse.

The irony doesn't end there, however. Coyne was just counter-decrying the purported abuse by Massimo Pigliucci of not only Coyne, himself, but also of Alex Rosenberg. Coyne has praised Rosenberg in ways that make it clear that Coyne fits under the Oxford Companion's definition (b) and/or (c) above. Worse, Rosenberg just suggested that atheists should happily adopt "scientism" as "a positive term to describe a worldview that does not contain a supernatural being."



Smug's Game

Jerry Coyne is championing determinism again, this time in response to a post by Massimo Pigliucci. It is adorned, as we've come to expect, with the usual incongruous language: "I think," "none of it has convinced me," "My own view," etc.

But I ... um ... think that Coyne is missing some of Pigliucci's points. For example, Pigliucci cites to points made by Carl Hoefer in an article an the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, one of which is:

Predictability is an issue entirely separate from determinism, since we can have deterministic (chaotic) systems that are for all effective purposes unpredictable, and (possibly, more on this in a moment) stochastic (quantum) systems that are nonetheless predictable to a very high degree of accuracy.
Coyne seems to think this is just a statement of human limitations:

We can never have perfect knowledge of all conditions, and, as advocates of chaos theory (a deterministic theory) know, even tiny differences in initial conditions—differences that may be too small for us to measure—can produce radically different outcomes. Therefore, even if determinism reigns (and, if it does, there's no free will under my definition), that doesn't mean that we can predict our future behaviors from what we know now. But it does mean that there is only one set of behaviors that we can evince in the future: that is, we can never do other than what we do.
But, on the other hand, he also says:

As for Pigliucci's physics and philosophy on this issue, I disagree that "if you believe in laws of nature you do need to come up with an account of their ontology." Nope, all we have to show is that those rules hold ubiquitously, universally, and enable us to make predictions that work. (His argument here resembles that of theologians who impugn science because we can't explain the usefulness of science without God.) We don't need to come up with any stinking ontology to accept strict physical determinism at the macro scale.
But, if we can't, in principle, know enough to make certain predictions, how can we know that any rules "hold ubiquitously, universally, and enable us to make predictions that work"? It is, once again, Hume's problem of induction. As Pigliucci points out:

Because of chaos, it may very well be impossible on empirical grounds to establish whether the universe is deterministic or not, which would clearly take the debate out of science altogether ...
Lastly, Coyne accuses Pigliucci of being "a compatibilist, that is, someone who thinks that free will is compatible with physical determinism," despite the fact that the latter describes himself as "agnostic about determinism."

Coyne's hackles are up because Pigliucci descries the "smug attitudes" of Coyne and others toward determinism. It's unfortunate that Coyne proceeds to give yet another example thereof.

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