Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Limits Of Science When Discussing God

There are a few blogs I try to read whenever something new is posted on them. One such blog is Rationally Speaking, an excellent if not a little too infrequent source of stimulating commentary. One recent post was asking for comments on the limits of science when discussing God. I made a comment on the thread, but I wish to expand it here. My position, science has plenty to say on phenomena associated with God so take away the phenomena and there's nothing left to explain.

A homoeopathic counter
I also happen to listen to quite a few podcasts, one of them being The Skeptic Zone. One a recent episode, they had an except of a "debate" between a sceptic and a homoeopath in New Zealand. In response to a claim there's no active ingredient in homoeopathic solutions, the homoeopath claimed the sceptic was a materialist and thus couldn't appreciate that homoeopathic medicine works but just not through natural means.

Homoeopathic medicine does work - just as good as a placebo. Studies have shown that there's no increased effect from taking homoeopathic solutions over placebos in double-blind trials. So in my mind it is reasonably fair to say that homoeopathic medicine doesn't have any discernible effects, so regardless of whether it's a natural or supernatural mechanism there's nothing to explain.

A potential homoeopath counter would be similar to the Last Thursdayism, that there is an external force at bay that just happens to have the same efficacy of a placebo. It's just a matter of philosophical distinction; because the sceptic won't recognised supernatural causes, they can't appreciate that there's a difference between a placebo and a homoeopathic solution. In other words, because of the limitations of science I'm dismissing what is an issue of philosophy.

Just what am I needing to explain?
In this case I would say there's nothing actually to explain, yet philosophically it would seem that I'm pinned. So when they make claims such as "like cures like", or "dilution increases potency" I can't say that it's bunk because it's only bunk in my material understanding of causation.

I wonder, though, what good this actually does. If there's no real effect to point to, what exactly am I being asked to explain? And this is where my concern lies with those who say God is outside scientific inquiry: it's being posited that there is an interventionist deity acting in our reality - surely this claim itself is a scientific claim.

When people say they heard God's revelation, surely this is a scientific claim. Somehow they are positing that their natural forms had somehow interacted with the supernatural. To explain this position further, people may call ghosts supernatural but the alleged evidence for ghosts always involves being able to sense them - usually by vision or touch. Likewise when someone hears God's voice, surely that involves some form of physical interaction that should be present in the real world.

When people try to turn it into a philosophical issue, I can't help but feel that they are trying to have their metaphysical cake and eat it too. Can science comment on the veracity of homoeopathic medicine any more than it can on the question of God? If there are no measurable phenomena to explain, then are we engaging in anything more than sophistry?

Science-informed atheism
I agree it would be fallacious to presume that atheism is a scientific position, but at the same time it would be fallacious not to think that science influences our thinking on God. What is the problem of evil, if not taking observation (suffering exists) and then placing that up against the notion of a benevolent deity?

What does it mean to attribute anything to God? Can one say that God is benevolent, let alone omnibenevolent? Can one say that God knows, let alone is all-knowing? To say "God loves you" is utterly meaningless without understanding what love is, and the more that is learnt about love through scientific inquiry changes what it means to attribute it to God.

It's impossible to shy away from grounding one's world-view in the reality we reside in. The thought experiments made are grounded in our own understanding of how things work, for example the brain in a vat conjecture. We simply cannot discuss reality beyond our experience in it.

Using the word science in the most broad sense is critical to our understanding. While the God question might strictly be a philosophical issue, it simply cannot be addressed without appealing to our knowledge and our experiences. Science as a discipline can't help but have a say on the notion of gods because claims about god stem from and / or involve reality.

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

A Sydney man who became an overnight millionaire after gluing a coin to his doorstep had more than one type of luck working in his favour, according to feng shui experts.

The retired police officer won almost $2 million in a BoysTown lotto after following advice in an article on the ancient Chinese art.

Association of Feng Shui Consultants president Elizabeth Wiggins says three types of luck have to align for such events to occur.

"We have our heaven luck, which is our Chinese astrology, and that's the luck we're born with," she said.

"We have our earth luck, which represents our environment, and that's where feng shui falls into place, so how does our environment affect us?

"Then we have our man luck, which is basically how we decide to live our life. Are we positive people? Do we do the right thing?

"I'd say that in his Chinese astrology there was some kind of indication that there was some unconventional wealth coming to him. Maybe in addition to that his feng shui's quite good."

But Ms Wiggins says the most important fact is the ex-policeman bought a ticket.

"Because if he didn't buy the ticket and didn't use his man luck he wouldn't have won," she said.

So Ms Wiggins says racing out to place money under your doormat will not necessarily bring riches.

"If it was that easy we'd all be doing it. Many things have to line up for something like that to happen," she said.

The feng shui expert says placing money at the entrance of the home symbolises wealth coming to the occupants.

"Tradition says that the energy coming through our front door will give us an indication of whether your home supports your ability to make money," she said.

So many things wrong in such a little space. Firstly, people win lotteries. Statistically there has to be winners every now and then. Secondly, every time there's one winner there's bound to be many losers. We don't hear about the statistical majority. Thirdly, that one person kissed their lottery ticket or was wearing lucky underwear when they purchased it, has nothing to do with the outcome. Fourthly, using the words feng shui experts as an authoritative means on how the world works decries the importance of expertise. Finally, this is all total nonsense. What is it doing in the news?

To give a personal example, a few years ago I won a ticket to the Big Day Out. Positive thinking? I don't see how. More that I messaged in the dead of night when they were giving away tickets hourly, because I thought it would maximise my chances purely on the fact that most people are asleep. Even then, I just got lucky. Wasn't born that way, wasn't my environment, I just happened to be the right person at the right time.

That people want to attribute intentionality to good fortune makes sense, that they want to feel in control of what essentially are random events, that they are trying to detect patterns in the world. It's what humans do. But the flip-side of that is seeing patterns that aren't there, trying to attribute intentionality to what are random elements beyond our control. And unfortunately, there are plenty of people out there who will claim dominion of what is out of our control.

And that's fine, I suppose. If people think that kissing dice will help them win at craps or that gluing a coin to the doorstep will help bring them fortune, that's their business. Publishing it as if it were news though? This is just selling people on credulity. This is tabloid journalism, and bad tabloid journalism at that on what's meant to be a reputable website. It's pushing nonsense claims without even so much as a critical eye cast over such nonsense.

Someone winning the lottery is not news, that they read "advice" out of a magazine beforehand is completely irrelevant. Feng shui may attempt to try to explain how following the advice implies causation, but what is their explanation? An appeal to a mystical force. I'd like to see if placing money under your doormat at all can affect the outcome of lottery, surely this can be tested. I'm going to bet there's no more statistical significance to that than the number of people who wear boxers over briefs when purchasing tickets.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Bearing False Witness

There's been an annoying creationists infesting the comments of pharyngula in recent weeks. Well his inanity finally got him plonked, and his response? This. His argument that "Atheist's can't handle the truth"? Darwin make a comment that shows that the eye evolving is absurd. What he quoted was this following passage from The Origin Of Species:
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of Spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
Game over for atheists right? If only we had read Darwin's Origin past the bit where he pronounced the death of God[1] and failed to see the point where he showed that he was having us on. There must be some explanation for this... it's missing half the quote
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of Spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei ["the voice of the people = the voice of God "], as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.
So it seems Darwin was using a rhetorical device to make a prediction, that his theory does have an explanation for the eye. Two things come to mind.
  • First: If you're going to make a post saying "atheists can't handle the truth, it's important to make sure that your post doesn't actually lie. By omitting the lines after what was quoted, it's completely changed what Darwin was stating - creating a false impression and lying by omission.
  • Second: The truth of evolution or atheism do not rest on what Mr Darwin said. So even if it were in context, even if it was Mr Darwin's view, it wouldn't make one bit of difference to how modern evolutionary theory stands today - nor would it say anything of the question of whether there are such things as interventionist deities. Quoting Darwin on hereditary for example wouldn't disprove modern evolutionary theory. And again, evolution != atheism. Atheism is a philosophical position on the existence of interventionist deities and doesn't rest on the words of Mr Darwin or the truth of evolution. It's a massive category error.

Sadly this is typical creationist dishonesty, and these are usually the same people who claim that you need God for morality. Wasn't there something in the bible about bearing false witness[2]? Surely if one had intellectual honesty, they would strive for accuracy, to make sure they aren't misrepresenting what they are quoting and try to argue the points on their own merits. It would be dishonest to do otherwise.

As for how the eye did evolve, much work has been done on this. I'll let Richard Dawkins explain just how the evolutionary process could build an eye.

[1] - Well maybe that was Nietzsche, but both lead humanity to nihilism, right?
[2] - It's only a commandment, it's not like it's as important as those passages that condemns homosexuality as an abomination.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Why Jerry Fodor Doesn't Have Laser Eyes

It's now over 150 years since Darwin and Wallace presented the case for natural selection, and by now you'd think it's a non-issue. But no, it's just one of those ideas that keeps sustaining criticism. Usually from creationists who are seeking to push their moral doctrine by pushing for the necessity of God, but in this case it's not to put God in there.

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini have fired a broadside at natural selection. First with an article two years ago, and now a book (and accompanying New Scientist article). After 150 years and plenty of experimental support, Fodor has come along and tried to argue the whole concept to be incoherent. Not an attack on evolution, just on the underlying mechanism touted to explain it.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater
The problem with reconstructing our past under current evolutionary framework is the danger of making post-hoc rationalisations that might not have any bearing on reality. That while there may be the potential to create a story for survival value that may not be the case. What we are describing might simply be a by-product of something else that was selected for, or just happened to be a product of chance.

The realisation is that not everything about us can be directly selected against. The question of why is blood red shouldn't be put down to anything that has to do with being selected for the colour. But there's little doubt that the reason the colour of blood is red to begin with is because of selection - selection on the ability to carry oxygenated blood cells.

And this is where I feel Fodor is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. From the extreme of using selection to explain everything to explaining nothing at all. Are polar bears selected for being white or selected for being camouflaged? It really doesn't matter because the fact that they're white means that they're camouflaged in their present environment.

Fodor has taken the metaphor of natural selection and turned it into a tautology. Skin may not be designed for getting dirty, but the fact that it can get dirty doesn't mean that there haven't been survival advantages to the way our skin is now. You don't throw the baby out with the bathwater just because the baby gets dirty in the first place!

Why don't pigs have wings? It's a simple enough question with a simple enough answer. Yet Fodor labours out this point as if there's something profoundly paradoxical about a world with wingless pigs in it. Flight has evolved multiple times in tetrapods, and there are many more animals who can't fly but can glide. But pigs aren't one of them, nor do they ever look likely to make it in the air.

The simple answer is contingency, the evolutionary algorithm can only ever modify what's already there. So wings develop not as extra appendages but as modifications of existing appendages. Birds didn't have wings spring up, but modified their arms. Same for bats, same for pterosaurs. Why would we expect winged pigs to begin with when nothing about their lifestyle should lead to such winged creatures?

The surprising thing is that Fodor seems to think this somehow contradicts natural selection, yet contingency has been part of modern evolutionary theory for decades now. Of course it's doing to be that way, descent with heritable modification, how can we expect it to be anything else? The constraints itself build what is possible through the process, the selection is what of those possibilities carry on.

Contingency and developmental constraints play a role, no doubt. But it's not the whole story, and doing away with natural selection is just as problematic as trying to explain every facet of life with it.

The necessity of natural selection
As a species we are essentially blind. All the colours of the rainbow is just a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. So why is it we can see only these frequencies of light? Natural selection does give an answer - it happens to correspond with the black body radiation of the sun as seen through our atmosphere. The European kestrel has a modification on its violet opsin gene that allows it to see in the ultra-violet. Why? It just so happens that its prey, the vole, signals with urine that reflects in the ultra-violet.

Meanwhile there have been nocturnal creatures sequenced, whose violet opsin genes have been shot to pieces. In dim-light, such abilities aren't really needed and thus not selected for or against. Just as moles or cave-fish are blind - it just doesn't matter to their survivability if they have sight or not. Makes perfect sense under natural selection.

Natural selection works because the algorithm works. It's able to filter through variation that arises because of the survival advantages and disadvantages that development brings. The process of accumulated advantageous or neutral variation, and the deletion of disadvantageous mutation as per the environmental constraints is what makes the idea so powerful. Evidentially it's not the answer to life, the universe and everything, but remove it completely from biology and nothing makes sense.

Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic." - Charles Darwin (The Origin Of Species, Chapter 4)