Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Stupid, It Burns!

Right up front I've got to say I'm no fan of Deepak Chopra. For some reason, his brand of nonsense is a big seller. Even my dear sweet mother asked me to get her Deepak Chopra books for her birthday once. He's a very able snake oil salesman, I'll give him that.

That said, this morning I came across a piece he wrote in the Huffington Post refuting evolution. Which would be fine if he could even grasp the topic, but no. Instead he harps onto intelligent design as an explanatory leap and then gives his account of problems in biology.

1. How does nature take creative leaps? In the fossil record there are repeated gaps that no "missing link" can fill. The most glaring is the leap by which inorganic molecules turned into DNA. For billions of years after the Big Bang, no other molecule replicated itself. No other molecule was remotely as complicated. No other molecule has the capacity to string billions of pieces of information that remain self-sustaining despite countless transformations into all the life forms that DNA has produced.
Nature takes creative leaps by new mutations that allow for new exploratory paths to be explored. The simplest way to think of this is culturally, look at modern electronics. It was only ~65 years ago that the transistor was invented, from there an explosion of advances took place with that at the core. Why is it that for 200,000 years our species didn't invent computers or mobile phones, but in the end of the 20th century there was an explosion of technology?

As for his statement about DNA, how does he know that there wasn't any other molecule that replicated itself? There are something like 1023 stars out there, has he explored everyone from the beginning of time to say that it didn't just happen? Our vantage point is this planet. As for the capacity to explain DNA, there's a lot of stages in between inorganic molecules and DNA, including organic molecules that can be seen forming in space and even in experiments on earth. To go back to the transistor example, the invention of the transistor was not made with mobile phones in mind. Why should we expect DNA to have come about with us and bees in mind?

2. If mutations are random, why does the fossil record demonstrate so many positive mutations -- those that lead to new species -- and so few negative ones? Random chance should produce useless mutations thousands of times more often than positive ones.
And Chopra here shows his complete misunderstanding of natural selection. Mutations are random, but natural selection weeds out bad mutations. Darwin even lays this out in The Origin Of Species, bad mutations that offer a disadvantage to the organism fail to get passed on, while any mutations that give an advantage, however slight, do. It's not that hard to grasp, yet Chopra has taken his misunderstanding of the principle and run with it.

3. How does evolution know where to stop? The pressure to evolve is constant; therefore it is hard to understand why evolution isn't a constant. Yet sharks and turtles and insects have been around for hundreds of millions of years without apparent evolution except to diversify among their kind. These species stopped in place while others, notably hominids, kept evolving with tremendous speed, even though our primate ancestors didn't have to. The many species of monkeys which persist in original form tell us that human evolution, like the shark's, could have ended. Why didn't it?
Evolution doesn't know anything, the pressure to evolve is not constant either. Different selection factors drive different rates of change. And if an organism is perfectly suited to its environment, why should we expect the morphology to change? It's no mere accident that the jaw of a dog and the jaw of the thylacine are almost identical in shape, or that sharks, ichthyosaurs and dolphins have similar streamlined shapes.

4. Evolutionary biology is stuck with regard to simultaneous mutations. One kind of primordial skin cell, for example, mutated into scales, fur, and feathers. These are hugely different adaptations, and each is tremendously complex. How could one kind of cell take three different routes purely at random?
Because natural selection is the opposite of random. Advantageous mutations accumulate.

5. If design doesn't imply intelligence, why are we so intelligent? The human body is composed of cells that evolved from one-celled blue-green algae, yet that algae is still around. Why did DNA pursue the path of greater and greater intelligence when it could have perfectly survived in one-celled plants and animals, as in fact it did?
For design to imply intelligent, it wouldn't actually tell us anything. If an intelligence designed our intelligence, what designed the designer's intelligence? Intelligence was obviously selected for, brain size increased dramatically over the last few million years. And looking at the command of technology in that time, from crude hand axes, to fire, to the development of language, etc. Having a big brain for a bipedal animal comes at a huge cost. Babies are born premature and are more helpless, women die in childbirth. What is 2% of our mass, takes 20% of our oxygen. The brain evolved, it seems ,because the disadvantages of a big brain were outweighed by the advantages it gave.

6. Why do forms replicate themselves without apparent need? The helix or spiral shape found in the shell of the chambered nautilus, the center of sunflowers, spiral galaxies, and DNA itself seems to be such a replication. It is mathematically elegant and appears to be a design that was suited for hundreds of totally unrelated functions in nature.
Why do certain mathematical shapes form? Because these shapes conform to the laws of nature. In God The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger, he shows how such forms appear purely out of the laws of physics. But again, an emergent property is being mistaken for a divine hand.

7. What happens when simple molecules come into contact with life? Oxygen is a simple molecule in the atmosphere, but once it enters our lungs, it becomes part of the cellular machinery, and far from wandering about randomly, it precisely joins itself with other simple molecules, and together they perform cellular tasks, such as protein-building, whose precision is millions of times greater than anything else seen in nature. If the oxygen doesn't change physically -- and it doesn't -- what invisible change causes it to acquire intelligence the instant it contacts life?
Life has had over 3 billion years of adapting to the environment. If it was advantageous for a mutation to give rise to such molecular machinery, then why should we expect anything else?

8. How can whole systems appear all at once? The leap from reptile to bird is proven by the fossil record. Yet this apparent step in evolution has many simultaneous parts. It would seem that Nature, to our embarrassment, simply struck upon a good idea, not a simple mutation. If you look at how a bird is constructed, with hollow bones, toes elongated into wing bones, feet adapted to clutching branches instead of running, etc., none of the mutations by themselves give an advantage to survival, but taken altogether, they are a brilliant creative leap. Nature takes such leaps all the time, and our attempt to reduce them to bits of a jigsaw puzzle that just happened to fall into place to form a beautifully designed picture seems faulty on the face of it. Why do we insist that we are allowed to have brilliant ideas while Nature isn't?
But there are plenty of fossils showing the gradual evolution of birds. There are feathered non-avian dinosaurs. Fossils showing the gradual changing of feet, the development of wings, and the eventual loss of reptilian features such as teeth, claws and tails. This seems to be that Deepak Chopra can't understand the vast time scales and the gradual accumulation of mutations over time. And that he's looking at forms as final products that one must jump from one to the other instead of looking at each form as an intermediate.

9. Darwin's iron law was that evolution is linked to survival, but it was long ago pointed out that "survival of the fittest" is a tautology. Some mutations survive, and therefore we call them fittest. Yet there is no obvious reason why the dodo, kiwi, and other flightless birds are more fit; they just survived for a while. DNA itself isn't fit at all; unlike a molecule of iron or hydrogen, DNA will blow away into dust if left outside on a sunny day or if attacked by pathogens, x-rays, solar radiation, and mutations like cancer. The key to survival is more than fighting to see which organism is fittest.
Natural selection is a metaphor that describes what happens. It's not a tautology, it's in the same sense as Adam Smith's "invisible hand of the market". Coming from the notion of artificial selection where breeders choose traits they think desirable, natural selection is simply describing that in nature those traits that help pass on the genetic code are going to be inherited. Why would we expect anything else?

10. Competition itself is suspect, for we see just as many examples in Nature of cooperation. Bees cooperate, obviously, to the point that when a honey bee stings an enemy, it acts to save the whole hive. At the moment of stinging, a honeybee dies. In what way is this a survival mechanism, given that the bee doesn't survive at all? For that matter, since a mutation can only survive by breeding -- "survival" is basically a simplified term for passing along gene mutations from one generation to the next -- how did bees develop drones in the hive, that is, bees who cannot and never do have sex?
Cooperation can evolve in competitive areas. Under game theory, reciprocal altruism shines as a stable and mutually beneficial relationships between individuals. As for the bees, if the drone bees who cannot have sex aid in the survival of the reproductive process (by gathering material, protecting from predators, etc.) then it fits the evolutionary framework quite well. The problem here seems to be thinking purely in terms of the individual, not on the DNA itself (and what builds on it).

11. How did symbiotic cooperation develop? Certain flowers, for example, require exactly one kind of insect to pollinate them. A flower might have a very deep calyx, or throat, for example than only an insect with a tremendously long tongue can reach. Both these adaptations are very complex, and they serve no outside use. Nature was getting along very well without this symbiosis, as evident in the thousands of flowers and insects that persist without it. So how did numerous generations pass this symbiosis along if it is so specialized?
In Richard Dawkins' new book, The Greatest Show On Earth, he gives a good account on how symbiotic relationships form by looking at "intermediate" stages in constructing a symbiotic relationship. Nature might be able to get along without symbiosis, but again symbiotic relationships can be mutually beneficial. I house quadrillions of bacteria within my digestive tract, and in return they help break down what I eat. Win-win it would seem. Again Deepak's misunderstanding seems to stem from thinking of evolution purely in individual terms.

12. Finally, why are life forms beautiful? Beauty is everywhere in Nature, yet it serves no obvious purpose. Once a bird of paradise has evolved its incredibly gorgeous plumage, we can say that it is useful to attract mates. But doesn't it also attract predators, for we simultaneously say that camouflaged creatures like the chameleon survive by not being conspicuous. In other words, exact opposites are rationalized by the same logic. This is no logic at all. Non-beautiful creatures have survived for millions of years, so have gorgeous ones. The notion that this is random seems weak on the face of it.
Again to point at Dawkins' new book, he gives a good account of an experiment done with guppies. In these guppies, it was to test sexual selection against natural selection. For a good account read the book, but to quickly summarise: predation led to less elaborate displays. Why are there birds of paradise on New Guinea and not in England? I find it hard to believe that Chopra can see that it serves no obvious purpose, just watching a few seconds of an Attenborough doco on them should give away that the elaborate displays are to attract mates. Studies have been done showing that certain birds' reproductive success is related to the size of their tail.

Just to summarise, Chopra offers these words:
I don't know who will bother to read all these points, which I have had to truncate. But if you think the answers are in safe hands among the ranks of evolutionary biologists, think again. No credible scientific theory has answered these dilemmas, and progress is being discouraged, I imagine, thanks to fundamentalist Christians. By hijacking the whole notion of intelligent design, they have tarred genuine scientific issues with the stain of religious prejudice.
Yes, I read all the points. I found that reading a couple of popular accounts of evolutionary theory were enough to see that Chopra doesn't understand even the basics. It's not like this knowledge is hidden in obscure textbooks, it's there on bookshelves in any half-decent bookstore. So before concluding that no scientific theory has answered these dilemmas, perhaps it would be wise of Chopra to actually read up on the matter. If he honestly thinks that he has the insight that demonstrates the cornerstone of modern biology is false, then he is deluded. Though perhaps he does understand them and is just hoping those reading do not. But we'll see.

It seems, like many, he's been caught up in the cultural dispute over evolution. Which would explain him weighing in against those who are Fundamentalist Christians. But therein lies the problem, he's arguing against a straw-man based on popular misconceptions of evolution. The extensive use of the word random and taking on this discrete notion of forms means that once again a false prophet has come foretelling the death of evolutionary theory. Though from a peddler of new-age woo I shouldn't have expected anything else.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Price Gauging

I was a big fan of the first Bioshock game, it wasn't quite System Shock 2 but it still offered a good story and gave enough hair-raising moments that I hit F6 more often than needed. So on February 9th comes the release of Bioshock 2, something which I'm looking forward to playing. I've held off buying a physical copy because, well, I knew it would be on Steam. And that it was, retailing at a mere $80USD for us Australians.

While that's about the same price I would pay retail, I was a little confused. Steam usually gives good prices on games. They don't have to worry about packaging, distribution, retail surcharge. Basically the advantages of Steam is that all you are paying for is data and data distribution (which is essentially nothing), which should save costs. And this is the sacrifice to have a permanent non-resellable item. Unlike my physical copies, I can't just give away unwanted Steam games.

So what do I find when I get on the UK and US stores? That it's retailing on both those stores about $30 cheaper than it is in Australia. What the?!? For decades Australian gamers had to pay more for games than their American counterparts, so finally when we have a global distribution network systems are put in place to keep the same region-locking anti-competitive practice in place. It's exactly the same product, it's exactly the same distribution, yet we're still locked into the pricing practices that may have been an excuse back before online distribution.

When it's buying in a retail store, fair enough. I can and do buy games at that price when need be. But when it's blatant price gauging like this where I'm being in effect charged extra for the same product just because I live in the wrong country.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Forever

Looking into the future, being able to predict and plan for future events is something fundamental to human nature. For one, it enables us to predict the consequences of particular behaviours and thus make decisions. We aren't the only species to do this, but it seems that we do it to an extent unmatched in the animal kingdom.

This opens up a new problem though, time itself becomes largely illusory. Academically we can think of a month, a year or even a decade ahead, but we have no idea how to grasp onto that. Having lived 25 years now, I can't really say what it feels like to live for decades. Memory is fragmented, a childhood memory can be as vivid as something I experienced yesterday yet I have no mental means to appreciate the length of time that can be externally measured by the movement of the earth around the sun.

Yet without being able to grasp the time frames associated with our own life, somehow we often think in terms of the eternal. That there is hang-ups over the certainty of death, and the futility of action thereof. Somehow the ultimate overtakes the proximate and the fear of existential nihilism becomes overwhelming.

Being able to project into the future brings academic fears as distinct possibilities. We know that in the next two billion years the earth will be uninhabitable. In another 5 billion years or so, the sun will die. Yet before that, there is always the possibility of a massive caldera or a giant meteor hitting the earth. And yet I have to look both ways when crossing the street.

In the before-time, risks could be seemingly mitigated by a strict moral code. If there was an earthquake or flood, it was because of the actions of the people in the society and it was a form of divine retribution for such behaviour. Thankfully this kind of thinking is merely a vestigial reflex these days. Even when there is intentionality of malevolent action on the part of the agency the reflex rears up. But that's another story.

Back to this notion of forever. That the notion of futility comes hand in hand with the inability to put our projections into perspective. The desire for ultimate meaning, for permanent vindication or admonishment for particular actions belies finite nature of our existence and influence.

Consider the following statement: "What's the point in giving to charity? You're not going to solve world hunger." This to me is the problem of the expectation of the infinite. The action seems to need an ultimate solution in order for some to think it valid. Not that it might help provide food and / or medicine to those in need and act to slightly alleviate their suffering, but it has to be ultimately meaningful instead of fleetingly significant.

Yet why do anything at all? It's ultimately futile, it's ultimately for nothing. The disparity as to how we experience time and how we project final significance is part of modern religious apologetics. Especially in the Creation / Evolution controversy, there are many who use the threat of nihilism to get people to shy away from "Darwinism" and towards God.

Each of us represents a 3.5 billion year unbroken chain of replication, that is to say our ancestors were the lucky few throughout history that were able to take all that the environment threw at it. Of all the species that died out, of all the individuals within surviving species that didn't reproduce (necessarily so), each one of us is that unbroken sequence of survivors.

3.5 billion years is a long time. A really long time, a really really long time. It's unfathomably long. Your life is but a fraction of that. Even in terms of homo sapien, the species has survived for about 200,000 years. For less than 10% of that time, homo sapien has been able to farm and domesticate livestock. For less than 10% of that time, there has been the concept of 0. For less than 10% that time, we have known that germs cause disease. And for less than 10% of that time, we have had the internet in the average person's home. The average life constitutes ~0.0004% of the entire length of our own species. In terms of life as a whole it's ~0.00000002%!

To think in terms of ultimates has the problem of not being able to adequately grasp time scales. To think of our actions any more than a few generations down the line is projecting into total inadequacy. Even if the sun will make the earth uninhabitable in a billion years, a billion years ago there wasn't multicellular life. It was only 400 million years ago that land vertebrates emerged, 200 million years ago that mammals emerged, 50 million years ago that monkeys emerged, and only 5 million years ago that our ancestors came down from the trees.

The point being that projecting that far into the future makes no sense. Just as it makes no sense that what we do now affects what happens on a similar planet to earth that may exist in the Andromeda galaxy. We are finite beings occupying a finite place where our actions have finite consequences. That we can affect the continuum of life in other species, that we can affect the quality of life for individuals - these are things that are in our control.

It must be recognised that we don't have the ability to make ultimate actions, but that doesn't mean that our actions are meaningless. Even if one wanted to transcend their life with particular actions, there is cause for that now. We are all indebted to the first people who made primitive tools, over 2 million years and ~50,000 generations benefited. We are all indebted to those who first mastered fire, around 1 million years and ~25,000 generations have benefited.

I could go on with all different inventions that one time or another have immensely benefited subsequent generations. The person who first domesticated grain might not have any descendants nor do we know their name, it's lucky that we can even attribute any of these early inventions to a culture let alone a person. The action has transcended the individual and culture and is now at the heart of civilisation.

Countless people have benefited from certain actions in the past, evidence that actions live beyond the self and into the world around and through time. And that's taking the most extreme examples. Even in our daily lives our actions are recognised not only by the self, but by those they affect. An insignificant life is still one that can't help but flourish in meaning. We are intentional agents so we can't help but find meaning in action!

If nothing else, I hope I've made the case that we should be wary of thinking in ultimates as it goes against our finite nature. That time is a fuzzy concept and that there is no difference between 1,000 years and 1,000,000,000 years when projecting. Part of losing this sense of ultimates is losing the sense of absolute responsibility, which might be comforting but gravely erroneous. There is the here and now, and even the not to distant future where the immediacy of actions makes them meaningful.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Special Pleading Makes My Brain Hurt

Michael Behe is an interesting fellow. He may or may not be the next revolutionary mind in biology, if shown to be true he may have settled the God question in the affirmative (or at very least put the Raėlians into overdrive) and if his concepts are vindicated then he'll go down in history as the man who changed everything. It opens up a scientific revolution, Nobel Prizes, immense fame and glory await.

But the rallying around the Darwinian paradigm is suppressing him from radically transforming the scientific landscape. There's the equivalent of a warning label on his university's webpage, written by scientists who are being caught in the backlash of his radical idea. Biologists are still refusing to talk design - sticking to the tried and true (only a theory) random heritable mutation and selection that makes what we call Darwinism.

Who knows, science may need to include astrology in its definition. It might be that complexity might require a designer. And that designer must be supernatural because explaining complexity with complexity just means a further explanation for that complexity (i.e. watch implies watchmaker but watchmakers don't exist ex nihilo). Maybe there are limits to the Darwinian process, whereby other processes might need to come into play. And one obvious candidate is design.

It might be that Behe is being attacked on philosophical grounds as opposed to scientific grounds. The review of Darwin's Black Box by H Allen Orr sounded like a scientific rebuttal but that must only be to my layperson eyes, just as Ken Miller's Only A Theory had what I thought were scientific objections to the claims made by ID but again I chalk that up to my non-biologist status. Savage reviews by Jerry Coyne, Sean Carroll and Richard Dawkins show true Darwinian colours that keep ID down. No science in those reviews...

Wait, what am I saying? I don't feel right, and I haven't since I listened to Behe on Point Of Inquiry last night. It was all going well and good until about 15 minutes into the interview when DJ Grothe asked him why he was so critical on "Darwinists" for not providing a mechanism for particular features yet not providing one himself. His answer could be summed up as follows: (don't just take my word for it, listen to the podcast yourself)
The asymmetry in burden of proof comes from what is trying to be explained. It's the appearance of design that needs explanation, and one cause of the appearance of design is design.
And on the surface that sounds quite reasonable. The same argument was made some 300 years ago regarding the structure of the solar system. Isaac Newton wrote "This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being". So 300 years later, such structures can somewhat be explained by the Nebula Hypothesis. So since there are problems associated with the Nebula Hypothesis, it follows that it must be evidence for a designer.

It's just going to take an astrophysicist to write a book or two about the limits of cosmology to explain natural formation and thus design. While they can no more claim credit for the argument than Behe can for Irreducible Complexity (It's Herman Muller's idea), they can kick up a fuss about the problems of methodological naturalism and cry persecution from the Swedenborg sympathisers in academia who aren't addressing the problems of the model.

Where such argument falls apart however is the necessity of mechanism. The nebula hypothesis, though not perfect, has at its core a viable mechanism for how such systems could arise. If design was the default, then it should be preferred as a plausible explanation with or without a mechanism that allows for the design of solar systems.

Solar systems aside, what about life? Replace Darwinism with Lamarckism and the argument still stays the same. Lamarckian inheritance can account for longer necks on a giraffe, but how can it account for a neck in the first place? And why is it that there are such big horns on a moose when generations of head-banging should reduce the horns to nubs? Since Lamarckian inheritance can't explain these features and design can, we must conclude design.

Applying Behe's logic to 200 years ago shows the problem with his position. No known mechanism, therefore design. Destroying Lamarckian inheritance in the absence of knowledge of Mendelian inheritance, evo-devo or epigenetics does not automatically fall back on a design hypothesis. It just shows that no answer is known.

That there isn't a mechanism is a grave concern to any appeal to design, because it can never escape being simply the alternative to any known theory. Knock natural selection off, and then all it is doing is biding its time until a new evolutionary paradigm comes along. Then repeat, knock down the new paradigm and then wait until the next one.

The danger of such thinking is that it puts proponents of the negative in the position where their entire position relies on them showing that whatever they are arguing against is wrong. No matter what it has to be that the paradigm is wrong, leading to essentially an argument from ignorance. Indeed, many of the reviews accuse Behe of this very fallacy, that he does not understand natural selection and thus arguing a straw man.

It's special pleading, special pleading that sounds superficially valid but underneath is utterly vacuous. There's simply no reason to think of design on a universal scale because we don't know of any force capable of design. We can speculate hyper-intelligent aliens or conceive of gods, but we don't know whether they are there since we have no evidence of them being there.

Now it could be that intelligence was involved in processes, it can't be ruled out. It's just there's no reason to rule it in. The problem of the argument is that for design to be valid this way, it means ruling out every possible explanation that could be; let alone what is being proposed now. Otherwise one might think they have proved design by defeating Lamarckian inheritance.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Natural Theology

Again I'm going to point out my utter incredulity at the creationist mindset, and my utter inability to follow creationist logic. This is not to do with their false dichotomy of chance or design arguments, nor to do with their argumentum ad consequentiam meaningless immoral existence arguments. This is about God being the author of Nature, yet the insistence to shape Nature into the creation myth found in Genesis.

Natural theology has been around for thousands of years, it's nothing new. But surely if one were to believe that God is the author of Nature then it would follow that the word of God comes through understanding nature itself. If there is such a disparity between a story being proclaimed to be a historical account of the universe and between the scientific understanding of the universe, why should the story be preferred to the measured account?

The engagement in this kind of thinking is a story of special pleading. For while we know that humans author stories, it's alleged that the story of the bible was written by God. Meanwhile the story that the universe provides as measured by humanity is one that believers would say that is authored by God, yet this information is met with almost universal dismissal because of its contradiction to the bible.

Yet at the same time that so many question the foundation of rationality without God, that without God how can we trust our senses, or our capacity to reason? Such an argument is self-defeating if one is to reject science and critical thinking, and value myth more highly than measurement. It's rejecting the very faculties that is being said could only come from God.

It seems odd that the expectation is that God communicates to the world not in the intricate design of creation but through ancient storytelling or modern translations thereof. As part of the English speaking audience, should there be the expectation that the King James Version is a result of divine inspiration in translation any more than any other translation done in history? For that matter, why do we expect the initial Hebrew to be God's word?

It makes no sense if God is both author of The Bible and Nature that the accounts of The Bible contradict Nature almost completely. It would mean that there has to be deception either in Nature itself or in the accounts, bringing forth the problem of evil and the distinct possibility of a malevolent deity.

Yet all this is avoided by keeping God as the author of Nature and humanity as the author of The Bible - that it's not an infallible account of the universe but humanity's way of reaching out and understanding their place in the context of the divine. It is a strange inversion of attribution to expect it to be otherwise.

Argumentum Ad Consequentiam

Imagine there were two people standing at a waterfall, considering the possibility of jumping down. Both of them are hesitant to do so, but for different reasons. The first person considers it dangerous because of the possibility of rocks at the bottom which could kill her. The second person considers it dangerous because a transdimensional alien could be at the bottom where it will devour him.

Both beliefs have a finality in terms of consequences. Both beliefs if true hold disastrous, the outcome is infinitely undesirable. But what of the beliefs themselves? Is it fair to hold off from jumping on the basis of either belief? Imagine if you were to ask each of them for advice on whether to jump, would you take each statement as equal?

Now such a question is loaded with assumptions. This is of course unavoidable, and important to illustrate the point I'm trying to make. In the first example, gravity is something that most people are aware of and falling onto a hard surface is something that most of us would want to avoid. For some, the consequences would be enough to put them off jumping even if there weren't rocks there. That there could be rocks is enough.

With the other example of reasoning, how many would consider a transdimensional alien that devours humans a threat? Perhaps there are some. Perhaps they are science fiction fans who have just stumbled upon quantum mechanics, multiverse theory, xenobiology and happened to be watching Return Of The Jedi might somehow be cautious of it. But most, however, would just ignore such a reason not to jump.

From that, the problem of the appeal to consequences should be apparent. One cannot derive truth from consequences, but can derive consequences from truth. A transdimensional alien popping into our reality at the bottom of the waterfall the moment one jumps in would be a disaster consequentially, but with no reason to suspect that such an event is possible the threat is an empty one.

Pascal's Wager is useless in this respect. As an argument from consequences, it has no foundation of truth at all. And if the consequences don't match up with one's beliefs, then there's just no reason to take heed of the consequences. If one isn't already disposed to the strong possibility that Christ is lord, then Pascal's Wager doesn't follow.

If one doesn't have that predisposition to Christianity, then in order for Pascal's Wager to be effective the case must first be made that the consequences are real. Otherwise it's just like being told there's a transdimensional alien at the bottom of a waterfall. The consequences that stem if a particular belief is true depends on the if, and if the if is not established then there's no reason to consider the consequences.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Dream Of Science Fiction Authors Everywhere

Ever since the dawn of robotics, man has dreamed about having sex with one. At least according to pretty much every science fiction movie and book on the matter. Just think back to the movie Blade Runner, does the romance between Deckard and Rachael become any more or less weird if Deckard is a replicant too? The point being, for as long as there has been the vague notion of anthropomorphic robots there has been the desire to make one that would be able to have sex with us.

And so enter 2010, and there's a company claiming to have just that. A computer controlled sexbot! One that will not only move in different ways, but have distinct personalities and even email you updates on your favourite sporting teams. See the video below.

Okay, that's getting a little weird. Of course the big question is "how does it work?" and I couldn't find any videos showing the sexbot in action; which upon thinking about it is probably for the best. But still, there is a curiosity over how such a device functions, a lifeless mechanical blow-up doll and a feature list. Not very compelling stuff at all. Yet there seems to be a positive response already, so if the technology develops further - how long until it will be that sexbots become the sex aid of choice for the general population? Or will this forever be a niche market for people unable to find a partner? Could it put them off trying?

Perhaps there was something to that Futurama episode on the matter...

Friday, 8 January 2010

In Taking Lessons Of Outrage From Fundamentalist Islam (further news here)
Victoria's Police Association has reacted angrily to a cartoon in an Indian newspaper depicting one of the state's officers as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Delhi Mail Today newspaper published the cartoon in response to the murder of Indian student Nitin Garg in Melbourne last weekend.

The cartoon shows a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood wearing a Victoria Police badge, with a caption that reads: "We Are Yet To Ascertain The Nature Of The Crime."

Police Association secretary Greg Davies says it is highly offensive to suggest police are not properly investigating the murder.

"To say that our detectives are going slow on this, or for some reason trying to protect somebody, is incredibly offensive and wrong," he said.

"It's based on nothing but obviously a slow news day in Delhi.

"The identity of the offender from the homicide in Footscray isn't even known at this stage, so we don't even know what nationality the offender is.

"To say it's a race-based crime is not only premature, but stupid."

The Police Minister, Bob Cameron, has added his voice to the condemnation of the cartoon.

Mr Cameron has rejected suggestions detectives aren't working hard enough to catch Nitin Garg's killer.

"We've got a great police force and we've got the homicide squad out there and they do a fantastic job and it just doesn't help anyone at all to have people from the sidelines throwing bricks," he said.

"We've got a good police force and we should let our police force go about their policing business in a sensible and a calm way."
It's an outrage to our country and ALL Australians should take the protest to the streets. First there was the monkey comment against our beloved cricketer Andrew Symonds and now this?

Firstly ALL Australians should boycott Indian goods. No more curries, no more companies that use Indian call centres, nothing. That we support such hatred and anti-Australian sentiment through consumption is only going to encourage this anti-Australian bigotry and the bigots who condemn us.

Secondly, ALL Australians living overseas should be protesting, with large signs that contain messages like "FUCK THE SPICKS WHO SAY AUSSIES ARE RACIST". Wear singlets, stubbies, thongs and the obligatory Australian flag as a cape. Make sure to carry a Fosters in one hand, sing the national anthem proudly and then Waltzing Matilda for good luck. And just for good measure, beat up any Lebs along the way, just in case they are thinking about coming down to Cronulla beach.

Thirdly, real Australians should be sending death threats to the cartoonist responsible, same for any news organisations that dare print such hateful and hurtful cartoons against our country. And not just empty threats either, make sure that those who have desecrated our country's honour will live the rest of their very short lives in hiding and under police protection.

Fourthly, any Indian embassy is a prime target to demonstrate one's outrage at the hurt that this cartoon has done for our national image. Bombs can be easily made, and sacrificing oneself for the country will be rewarded with 72 engraved letters on a national monument. Indian Embassies should tremble in fear at the outrage their country has caused Australia.

Finally, we Australians should take this opportunity to make cartoons of our own blaspheming the Jews. At a time of such outrage, it is only appropriate to call the Jews devils, deny the holocaust happened, and compare them to swine. We all know of the Jew-run media, so in a way it's their fault - just like 9/11 or the Bali Bombings.

And the greatest thing about taking such action is that Western liberal thinkers will give us intellectual apologetics justifying our extreme use of violence, blaming the bigoted Indians for bringing such hatred on themselves, and talking about how national identity is extremely important to Australians. Such actions are not the responsibility of those involved, But of the perpetrators to instigated the violence by their own bigotry, those who didn't understand the importance of nationality to Australians.

It's time we realised that free speech has its limitations. And that limitation can only be taken seriously under the threat of violence. When someone publishes something blasphemous or heretical, the only measured response is one where self-censorship will emerge through fear and potential repercussions. Until such drastic action is taken (and the immediate beheading of any of the Indian pigs who printed such filth), no-one will take the Australian right to be respected seriously. And by respected I mean to be free from any criticism whatsoever!

(Disclaimer: In case anyone is under any doubt by this stage, this piece is written sarcastically. The point was to highlight the disparity between the incident and response in the Muhammad cartoons controversy, and to condemn those liberal western thinkers who have acted as apologists for the extremist actions over a cartoon. The ability to criticise, to put forth one's expression, this should be as sacred a value as one has in society; an ideal for any western democracy to protect. To cower down to the threat of violence is giving into terrorism, and that there's even a single liberal thinker acting as an apologist for such actions is a tragedy. No matter how offended one is, violence isn't justified. No apologetics about the important to culture, the significance of beliefs, etc. It's not justified, period.)

On a serious note, how much must we murky the already murky of waters of culture by pushing forward with cultural relativism? That we are wrapping up identities of millions or sometimes even billions of people with a stringent set of values and cultural icons that serve for personal identity? There seems to be nothing more dehumanising that reducing individuals to a stringent product of their culture.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

A Gargantuan Error

It's important to grasp just how big an error is being alleged that scientists are making in the age of the earth. Because when one says 4.5 billion compared to 6 thousand, our brains just aren't really able to deal with the scope of gap between the two numbers. It's a factor of about 750,000, that is to say that if young earth creationists are correct - the scientists who have based their age on measurement are wrong by about 750,000 times.

This is an error of gargantuan proportions. Basically the creationist is alleging that a room about 7 metres wide is being measured to 5,000km. That's it, imagine you're standing in a house in Sydney and looking west, the scientist is through measurement coming up with an answer that would go past Perth and into the Indian Ocean.

Are they honestly saying that the scientists are that bad at their jobs that they could make such an astounding error? Well, it's not the scientists but the tools they use - allegedly. That the radiometric dating techniques are inaccurate. Again, even if they are inaccurate, why is it that so many different dating techniques with different half-lives all converge on the same data points?

In terms of analogies, what seems more likely is that in terms of the distance between Sydney and Perth, a creationist is one who alleged the distance is no more than the width of a typical bedroom. Or better yet, that the width of the room is 10 microns. When someone bases their age on the contents of a myth while the other tries to find the answer by measurement, is it really more likely that the ones doing the measurement will be off by almost 6 orders of magnitude?

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Cannot Prove A Negative?

Recently, upon several recommendations, I picked up Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. I figured given the size of the book, if I start now I should finish before the end of the year. So last night when I had a spare 30 minutes or so before dinner, I settled down to read and the first thing he does is gives a puzzle for the reader. So much for just sitting and reading, I scrambled to get a pen and paper then follow his very simple system in order to solve the puzzle.

The idea was that in the system there were just letters: M, I, and U. And there were four rules to go with the letters
  1. If the string ended with an I, then a U could be added. e.g. UMI -> UMIU, MUIIUI -> MUIIUIU
  2. Anything following an M could be doubled. e.g. MI -> MII, MIU -> MIUIU, MUIIU -> MUIIUUIIU
  3. Three I's could be replaced with a U e.g.IIIIUI -> IUUI, UIIIUII -> UUUII
  4. Two U's in a row could be removed e.g.IUUMI -> IMI, UUIU -> IU

Now that those are out of the way, Hofstadter gives the seemingly simple challenge of getting from MI to MU. Pen and paper come out and I sketch what I think is a solution. All finished, man it was easy. Then reading on a few more paragraphs, I realise that I made a mistake. Sure enough, I look back and there was a misapplication of rule 2. Okay, try again.

The first thing is that you can work out the first few steps. To get anywhere, you first need to apply rule two twice. Otherwise you'll forever be caught in an infinitely increase sequence of MIU(IU(IU(...))). So one goes from MI to MIIII before some interesting things can happen.

20 minutes of trying different things and no luck. Sit down to eat dinner and watch TV and still no luck. Had the pen and paper sitting next to me, and even when I thought I had a revelation on how to do it, I just couldn't get there. I tried working backwards, hoping I would be able to see a solution if I could come from the other angle, but still no luck. Final throw of the dice was to think about it mathematically.

With the rules as above, I derived values. I is worth 1 and U is worth 3 (rule 3). So with rule one, It is a +3. Rule two is a x2, or a doubling. Rule four is a -6. M is completely irrelevant as it will always be the front.

The thing is I could go to infinity and not find a solution. Yet I don't have infinite time nor patience. If I want to say it's impossible to get from MI to MU, then I can't use my inability to derive a solution as evidence. It might just be I'm a moron or I've missed something tricky. If I want to say that it is impossible (as I was beginning to suspect), I need a means of demonstrating that. Hence mathematics.

In the last move, you need something that is divisible by 3. But with the operations allowed by the system, such a number could never come about. If you look at something derivable like MUIU, it is 3+1+3. Which is not divisible by 3 (to get a whole number). +3 or -6 will only ever land you on something that is divisible by 3 if the number was already divisible by three to begin with. Likewise, doubling a number will never get you to something divisible by 3 unless it is already divisible by 3.

So given the starting point is MI, one can never get to MU given the rules allowed in the system. Of course my demonstration rests on axioms that I do not care to prove in the same way, and for the sake of argument I'll call both axioms about doubling and adding subtracting multiples of threes to be self-evident.

So why write this up on the blog? Firstly, he won't give an answer in the book just yet. So instead of maybe having to wait several hundred pages by which time I've forgotten my working to see if I was correct, if I'm flawed in my thinking I want to have a record of it where there is the possibility of being shown I'm wrong.

Secondly, it demonstrates something about human reasoning. And I think this is what Douglas Hofstadter is trying to get across. That we can see patterns such as MIUIU as leading to infinities despite not having direct domain knowledge nor having the time to write out the infinite sequence to demonstrate it.

In about the same time as it took for me to give up on trying to find a solution, I could have written a program to do it all for me. It could have brute-forced, making a tree of all possible moves from each position and hopefully getting to a solution if one existed. But at what stage could I get the computer to recognise the point of futility? When it runs out of memory? When strings get passed a certain size?

This isn't a finite search space, it's an infinite one. The string MIU will increasingly get higher and higher with the only rule that can apply to it (rule 2). Such a brute force strategy would not be able to recognise such a situation without an explicit check for such circumstances.

So to bring this to a final point, consider the scenario. While I was looking for a proof, instead what I wound up with is a proof of impossibility. Now this is fine in mathematics, but it is not fine in matters empirical. Take the Douglas Adams concept of fairies at the bottom of my garden. Now I can't disprove there are fairies by digging and digging, nor can I disprove the existence of fairies logically. Does this mean I should believe in the fairies or at the very least be a fairy-agnostic?

No! The very fact that I cannot give an absolute guarantee that fairies aren't there in no way compels me to even consider that there are. Why am I meant to consider the possibility of fairies in the first place? To posit that I should be a fairy-agnostic or a believer in fairies seems to me to necessitate first a reason to consider that there might be fairies in the first place. The lack of philosophical or logical impossibility to the concept is not sufficient to place the notion of fairies as anything to worry about in the first place.