Saturday, 31 July 2010

Morning Scepticism: Accommodationism

Getting indignant at those who profess an incompatibility doesn't make a case for compatibility. The whole argument over accommodationism would go away if someone could do more than to say there's not necessarily an incompatibility between science and religion and give an account that could satisfy both believers and be true to the science.

Friday, 30 July 2010


"Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking." - Bill Maher

Thursday, 29 July 2010

More On Free Will

To many determinism prohibits free will because the inescapable fact that all actions are an expression of the laws of physics. Take Anthony Cashmore's[1] definition of free will:
I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.
While I'm sure most people would agree that free will defined that way cannot exist, all one has to do is define free will as being something else and the definition fails. Imagine the same example but for the concept of life:
I believe that life is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological organisms that is something more than the interacting non-living matter of the organism.
In other words, how do you get life from non-living matter? Many ask this as if there's a great distinction between the living and non-living. Those who believe in distinguishing life from non-life aren't advocating a vitalist difference, so to define life as believing in some form of vitalism doesn't actually explain anything useful, and is misleading by trying to explain away something of great value.

A parallel is moral relativism. If I advocate fox hunting and you think it abhorrent, what sense is it useful to say that it's true for me that fox hunting is good and for you it is bad? It doesn't address the issues of concern[2] which still remain at the heart of the disagreement. Trying to explain free will in terms of a definition that everyone would agree couldn't be true doesn't address the issues surrounding what it means to be free.

Stopping A Thrown Ball
Imagine two children throwing a ball to each other in the front yard of the house. One of the throws is too hard and off-target and is heading straight for a window. You are standing nearby and are within reach that would prevent the ball from hitting and therefore breaking the window.

You can probably make an educated guess as to the "decision making" process of the brain. The desire to stick one's hand up comes from the laws of physics in the most trivial sense, but really it's the patterns of brain cognition that are able to map objects, movements and consequences. To highlight this, consider the same scenario only instead of the ball flying into a window think of it falling harmlessly on the ground. The consequence of it moving into the glass matters in the cognition of whether to stop the ball or not.

The same laws of physics are applied in each situation, the same agent - the only difference was an "awareness" of the consequences. Same goes for the situation where in the focus on the throwing the lack of awareness of their being a window in the path. In this situation, the agent doesn't realise there would be consequences for letting the ball go.

Cartesian Theatre[3]
Take the Cartesian form of cognition, that there is an immaterial source that drives the material vessel. We can think of examples analogous to this idea: a woman driving a car works fine in illustrating this mind-body problem as it is classically thought. Think of the original Terminator movie where the view from inside the terminator was one much like our own but except with a few visible calculations. Which is to say this does nothing to tell us how the Terminator artificial intelligence works.

People make a homunculus argument[4], a non-explanation masquerading as something explanatory. So when faced with a regress boiling down to a physical brain interacting, it's easy to interject "that cannot be free will!" as if the only possible experience is of will as a single indivisible entity.

Yet how would such an entity calculate how to express that will? We can just chalk it off to something immaterial and not think about it. The idea of an immaterial will is equivalent to magic. It's not about how it happens but that it can in ways we can't fathom.

Apply such an entity to the situation with the ball. So instead of having a brain that calculates the consequences and acts accordingly there's a will that does the same, only through some supernatural means. As agents now we can act to influence outcomes as much as an immaterial will can, only difference is that we can dissect how a material mind can work and find ourselves as victims of circumstances.

It wasn't me, it was my neurons!
I think the contention lies that the indivisible element is not the element which we experience. But that really shouldn't be a problem, if you think otherwise stick a knife through your hand and see whether the pain is any less illusory. That pain can ultimately be reduced down to brain activity acting on impulses doesn't make it go away. This is the difference between reductionism and greedy reductionism.

That consciousness is a composed entity shouldn't pose a problem. After all, how does a desire created by the firing of synapses differ from one that is immaterial? Being able to blame the agent for their actions apparently. If the will is the ultimate source then it has an ultimate responsibility. But as finite beings we can't have that to begin with, decisions are finite and contingent.

Take the example again of the ball throwing, what could an immaterial will do that is different to what a material will could? If one desired not to have their window broken, then it wouldn't matter whether the desire was immaterial or material. The same capacities, the same abilities to produce a different potential outcome (either the window gets smashed or it doesn't) and the same fact that there is only one outcome.

The problem is that the will reduces down to the laws of physics, so while this kind of will that desires an outcome is indistinguishable in action from an indivisible will, with the divisible will one can always point to the decision being out of their control. So while the subject can experience a sense of self and all the pleasure and pain that comes with it, when it comes to responsibility we treat that will as an illusion. This is Cartesian thinking taped over materialism, no wonder it comes out as absurd!

Our sense of will is us as much as anything else, material or immaterial it doesn't change that ultimately we are saying "this is the self". We have decision-making processes which can work already in the sense we want them to. To want otherwise is essentially to want the capacity for randomness in decision-making.

An argument from knowledge
I think we already know that we are decision-making machines. At the age of 5 I was put in school where they tried to teach me ways of thinking and behaving; to read and calculate, to consider and take lessons. So much is invested in education because education is about giving mind tools, to mould someone's actions and understanding.

We aren't free from the laws of physics but we are free in the way that matters - to be able to evaluate the world and make judgements that matter. Back to the ball scenario. If someone didn't understand what a window was then why would they feel the need to stop the ball from crashing into the window? After all, the decision is made by someone for the purpose of preventing a possible future in which the window shatters. Knowing what the outcome is changes the abilities of an agent.

To put this into much higher stakes, imagine someone being put in a room that had a button which would launch an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Without knowing what the button does, how can the person be held responsible for pressing it? But if they did know what the button would do and what the consequences of that would be, then they are responsible because they affected a potential outcome.

It's the assurance of MAD[5] that prevents nuclear war, the knowledge of what nuclear warfare would do ensures that no-one wants to be the one who starts it. Each brain doing its own calculations still in the bounds of the laws of physics yet despite the hair-trigger nature of nuclear payloads there hasn't been any nuclear weapons used in warfare since WW2. That should say something about the nature of free will.

As Dan Dennett puts it, we shouldn't be looking to physics for free will but to biology[6]. It's natural selection that creates agents of evitability, our capacity of abstract thinking and accumulated knowledge that gives us the capacity to be morally-accountable agents. In that sense we are much more free than a bowl of sugar or a bacterium or a dog, because we can and do act on what we know. That is a free will that should be as desirable as any versions of free will on offer.

[1] - Cashmore, A. R. 2010. The Luretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107:4499-4504.
[2] - Philosophy Bites: Simon Blackburn on Relativism
[3] - Daniel C Dennett. (1991), Consciousness Explained
[4] -
[5] - Mutually Assured Destruction
[6] - Video lecture: here.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Another Reason To Vote For The Sex Party
The Australian Sex Party says Family First approached it about doing a preference deal for the federal poll.

The Sex Party says an adviser to Family First Senator Steve Fielding made contact with a proposal.

Family First federal chairman Bob Day said he had spoken to the adviser, who denied any offer was made.

He said it was a campaign by the Sex Party to discredit Family First.

"One of their key aims was to stop Family First and this story's obviously part of that attempt to discredit," he said.

"But I can assure you that it is completely false. We would not, have not, and would never contemplate such an arrangement."

The Sex Party's president Fiona Patten remains adamant approaches were made.

She says they were made by telephone, email and at Melbourne Airport.

"I was kind of a bit stunned that they would be approaching us and I couldn't see that there was anything that we had in common," she said.

Ms Patten supplied the ABC with copies of emails.

She said the Australian Sex Party would be urging voters to put Family First last among their preferences.

Senator Fielding's office said meetings were routinely held with other political groups.

A spokesman confirmed an adviser had met with the Sex Party, but said there were meetings with all the other parties to discuss policy and candidates.

I'm not a big fan of how votes in the upper house work, you can either put down a 1 against a particular party or fill out a number against every individual candidate. The first way essentially puts your vote through a preference system beyond your control, the second way is time-consuming and increases the chance of casting an invalid vote purely through error. But any party that advocates putting Family First last is fine in my books.

The fact that Family First would even contemplate making a deal with their ideological opposite shows the underhanded nature of this process. It's anti-democratic, instead of relying on the will of the people it's relying on back room deals. But hey, that's what got Fiskal Fielding into parliament in the first place. 2% of Victorians voted Family First, but thanks to preference deals he is one of the balance of power in the senate.

I said "another reason" yet without providing reasons to vote Sex Party in the first place. They probably aren't going to win a seat, but that's what the preference system is for. To show demand for a civil liberties party is worth at least trying to direct preferences through them, it's to say "yes, I am in favour of protecting and furthering the rights of individuals" even if they don't have a realistic chance.

The Health Care Complaints Commission has investigated two complaints about the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), a non-profit organisation registered in New South Wales that provides information about vaccination. The complaints alleged that the AVN provides incorrect and misleading information about vaccination.

The Commission’s investigation of the complaints focussed on the material presented by the AVN on its website

The Commission’s investigation established that the AVN website:
  • provides information that is solely anti-vaccination
  • contains information that is incorrect and misleading
  • quotes selectively from research to suggest that vaccination may be dangerous.

On this basis, the Commission recommended to the AVN that it should include a statement in a prominent position on its website to the following effect:
  • The AVN’s purpose is to provide information against vaccination, in order to balance what it believes is the substantial amount of pro-vaccination information available elsewhere.
  • The information provided by the AVN should not be read as medical advice.
  • The decision about whether or not to vaccinate should be made in consultation with a health care provider.

The Commission recognises that it is important for there to be debate on the issue of vaccination. However, the AVN provides information that is inaccurate and misleading.

The AVN’s failure to include a notice on its website of the nature recommended by the Commission may result in members of the public making improperly informed decisions about whether or not to vaccinate, and therefore poses a risk to public health and safety.

Hearing some of the fallout over this story, it's interesting that the AVN keeps claiming it is not an anti-vaccination site. One of the claims Meryl Dorey made was that they seek to provide a balance of information to counteract the one-sided information stream from doctors and the government. In other words they are creating informed choices by providing the information that would otherwise be unavailable.

On the face of it, that sounds like a reasonable position. We want people to be as informed as possible and that includes taking negative information. If doctors and the government are being misleading then they should be called out.

But that's not what's happening here. Perhaps that's how Meryl Dorey rationalises what she's doing and it might even make for a good media sound-byte, but it's hard to pretend that's what's happening when one is doing so by presenting misleading information.

The point of contention with putting the warning up from the HCCC was that it labelled the AVN as "anti-vaccination" which the AVN insists that it isn't[1]. Yet what else can one describe the position of the organisation as? They give misleading information about vaccinations and promote the dangers of doing so, even to the point of harassing the parents who lost a young child to a vaccine-preventable disease!

If the government and doctors are hiding information about the risks of vaccines then there's reason to make that information available. But if that's to be done, it has to be done in an honest manner, to present the contradicting information fairly. But to cherry-pick facts, to provide false and misleading information and especially to do so with no context is going to be anything but informative. It's disinformation, not helping people make an informed choice but reducing the capacity to.

Providing someone with false information doesn't help informed consent, it makes someone less informed. If the AVN wants to argue that it isn't anti-vaccine then it should be providing the information in as accurate and in as contextual manner as possible. But of course they won't do that, instead just pretending that doctors and the government is hiding negative information so they keep their anti-vaccine agenda.

The result of this is vaccine-preventable illnesses will make a return and children will die. Not just those who aren't vaccinated (not that a child should be blamed for a parent's actions) but those who are too young and a small percentage of those who are vaccinated. The loss of herd immunity puts more at risk than just those who free-load off the rest of the herd.

In all this it is often forgotten that the reason we aren't seeing outbreaks of polio or smallpox is because vaccines are incredibly effective. Vaccination eradicated smallpox![2] This was a virus that killed up to half a billion people in the 20th century alone! And it was eradicated in our society. And how many polio cases do we hear about in Australia now? It's gone because of vaccines.

I'm sure that the people at the AVN and its supporters don't want children to come to harm, but the inevitable consequence of their position is that many children will get sick and some of those will die from illnesses that were otherwise preventable through herd immunity. In the face of knowledge on vaccines, for the people of the AVN to continue their ideological struggle which puts parents who are also concerned for the welfare of their children off vaccinating means that they have blood on their hands.

Any public health decision should be done in the face of knowledge, to act out of ignorance is not making an informed choice. When it comes to vaccines we can see the health benefits that come with it, and the problems associated with the reduction of herd immunity. To ignore such evidence and spread misinformation about vaccinates not only puts the children of those parents at risk but puts society at risk.

If the AVN wants to be a health watchdog then it should try to be objective as possible, so even if they (the members) personally believe that vaccines are harmful they can only be informative through objectivity. If vaccines are truly harmful then present the evidence and let people put their own narrative over it. To provide a narrative then cherry-pick evidence to support that is only going to lead to the suffering and deaths of more children. It's ideology, not science!

[1] -
[2] -

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Hard Problem Of Free Will

The death of mind-body dualism should be the death of free will, no matter what we do we can't escape that we are composed of physical objects all of which act according to physical laws. Thus any decision we appear to make is merely the summation of physical properties and contingency. We don't have the power to change the future despite how real our decision-making process feels. Contra-causal free will is dead.

Many grudgingly acknowledge this, just as there is the acknowledgement that quantum uncertainty can't help with the problem of free will. Random or contingent, both don't help with the fact that our decisions are still the product sum of forces below the conscious level.

Yet the debate continues about whether we have free will, compatibilism[1] is the philosophical position that despite determinism there is such thing as free will. Yet as much as compatibilism is desirable, it does feel like someone is trying to put lipstick on a pig. Because no matter what the musings it is seemingly impossible to answer the hard problem of causation, because someone couldn't have done otherwise that what they did, because that would be breaking the summation of the processes that led to it.

A recent paper published in the PNAS[2] compared the belief in free will to vitalism:
It is the author’s contention that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism—something biologists proudly believe they discarded well over 100 years ago.
And that because the laws of physics are uniform, we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar! The paper is well worth a read because it does give the scientific case as to what one could possibly mean by agency having responsibility. Can we as agents be responsible for our actions? Anthony Cashmore argues that any sense of responsibility is an illusion and thus no we can't be accountable.

Buridan's ass[3]
Imagine going to a restaurant you have never been to and seeing multiple things on the menu that sound equally appetising and cost the same amount. Unable to choose which meal is best, you get up and leave with an embarrassed look on your face. That's happened to you, right? I'm guessing not.

So lets say you choose one of the dishes and enjoy the meal, but afterwards you wonder if you made the right choice. The chicken was a little overcooked after all and the person at the next table who had the beef did nothing but compliment it. If only you had chosen differently, after all it was your choice...

...well no. It was the sum total of the laws of physics acting out from the big bang until the very second when you proclaimed to the waiter that you had the chicken. It felt like you were making a choice but if we rewound the universe to that moment again you would have had the same outcome of getting the chicken which was slightly overcooked and you'd be sitting around later pondering why you didn't take the beef. The best you can hope for is to learn for next time.

The selfish altruist
A parallel: Think of the notion of altruism. There are two classic notions of altruism, psychological and biological. We can see acts of altruism all through nature and even in ourselves, yet underneath this apparent costly action lies self-serving motivations. It is to be altruistic because of advantages it can bring[4].

One can take this underlying biological selfishness to dismiss the psychological phenomena, even going so far as to ask "how can one be altruistic when the underlying motivations are selfish?" Of course to call the biological process selfish is somewhat misleading as the biological process has the appearance of behaving selfishly but of course has no mind.

In that sense, it's not pertinent to talk about altruistic or selfish acts. What motivations are there? There can be none at all because matter has no mind, it just does. Daniel Dennett calls this kind of thinking greedy reductionism[5], like trying to explain a website to someone by talking about electrical fluctuations through semi-conducting arranged metal. Yes, ultimately a website can be reduced to such an explanation, but it's useless to explain it in that sense. Moreover it can be downright misleading to conclude that websites are merely an illusion!

Laplace's Demon[6]
From our individual point of view we are not able to see all the physical interactions that make someone do something. Even if we could successfully map a brain, the sheer number of calculations make it computationally impossible to derive that mental compulsion.

So we can imagine a God's eye view of what it would look like to something that determine what's going to happen next. If there were such an entity that knew any given state of a universe and how all interactions would interact, it would be able to work out what would happen next. From that we can gather that any action taken on the volition of an agent is really the sum total of all that came before it. We have to be causally determined, just as what comes next is determined.

Laplace's demon has been exorcised away by quantum mechanics, making the system we live in indeterminate. But still the causal problem remains for free will. Randomness or causality are inevitably at the heart of what it means to be a monist[7], free will as a contra-causal phenomenon is incoherent unless our will itself is contra-causal. Quantum indeterminacy does not give wiggle-room for the free will on offer.

So it goes.
It must be concluded that free will in the contra-causal sense must be false. We can't do otherwise than what can be done, our thoughts and actions are part of the causal process. The compatibilist and the incompatibilist both agree on this. So why the distinction?

It matters because we are decision-making agents. From our point of view, our actions can change outcomes. Think of the trolley problem[8], we have the power to pull the switch and thus change the outcome. The trolley can't do that, a chopped-off hand can't do that but we as individuals can. This requires no breaking of causality, whether the switch gets pulled is determined by the underlying brain chemistry but the outcome was not inevitable.

In the view offered by Cashmore[2], there is no distinction between a thrown brick and a brick thrower. Both are victims of circumstance and it is no more to blame someone from throwing a brick that smashes a window than blaming the brick itself. The mental state of the thrower is determined wholly by everything that came before.

Tackling The Hard Problem
The hard problem of free will is seemingly impossible to argue with, I can't deny the argument though I will say it's an unhelpful view to the point of being useless. The question sounds like "how can we have intelligence if all the parts are unintelligent?" While one could argue that intelligence doesn't exist because at the core matter cannot think, surely people would object that a dam is different to a beaver dam even if both are merely matter rearranging matter. The beaver has a programmed behaviour[9], human dams are the product of thinking.

Evolution can produce adaptations that exist for the same reason as a human mind would design[10], an example would be sonar which evolved naturally in bats and dolphins but was also designed by intelligent people and for the same purpose in each. Only in dolphins and bats the reasons for sonar aren't representative of the process.

Going back to that restaurant, I can't help but think that I was more than an observer in the process. The observer feels like Cartesian-like, that consciousness is not part of the decision-making process but merely an effect. I can't see why something like that would be useful in an evolutionary sense; not even to give the illusion of moral responsibility[2]. How is that not me making the decision, after all I'm the one who has the experience!

And therein lies my problem with the hard problem of free will. We as individuals have the capacity to think through causation and outcomes, yet this is treated no different than a brick flying through the air. Yet we are decision-making agents, we just can't help being that way. If we can think through consequences, then motivations become important. If a person intended to harm others and did so, this is motivationally different to someone who caused harm completely unintended. Cashmore's paper says there is no real difference between the two because either way they are all just the laws of physics playing out. One can be no more responsible for their moral actions than they can their design actions, a great painting merely the rearrangement of matter at the behest of other matter.

If we can be free in any sense, it's between the ability to pursue our desires and when those desires are stifled by the actions of others. There's a difference between signing a confession with and without coercion, likewise making a decision when calm and stressed. But that's just matter changing matter, that's all it is...

[1] -
[2] - Cashmore, A. R. 2010. The Luretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107:4499-4504.
[3] -'s_ass
[4] - For an explanation of this, read Richard Dawkins' book: The Selfish Gene.
[5] -
[6] -'s_demon
[7] - There is a good discussion of this in Bruce Hood's book: Supersense
[8] -
[9] - Read "The Beaver's Tale" in Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale
[10] - Dennett D(2009) Darwin's “strange inversion of reasoning.”. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 106(Suppl):10061–10065.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Believing In Santa

When I was really little, I remember believing in Santa Claus. I have a distinct memory of sitting outside one Christmas eve watching lights in the sky of what would be Santa with his glowing-nosed reindeer. This Christmas I don't expect to get any gifts of some magic fat guy, just from family. Somewhere between being 5 and 25 I lost the belief in the magic fat guy.

It is often asked what atheism has to offer, with the implication that theism has many rewards that would be lost with the absence of theistic belief. The afterlife being an obvious example, it's the promise of something that is otherwise lost with the rejection of a theistic belief. There are other examples, such as purpose in life or a moral foundation just to name two, that are examples of what an atheist loses in rejecting theism.

Now whether or not those are valid rewards (I would contend otherwise), I've got to wonder just why it matters to whether you believe or not.

Consider the belief in Santa Claus, that every year a magic fat guy who gets carted around by reindeer giving presents to children who have been good. If you get presents, it validates that Santa is real, if you don't get presents, it also validates that Santa is real because you must have done something. So presents or no presents, surely it is better to believe in Santa than not because of the reward on offer?

It would be great if this Christmas that a $300(AUD) device like a Nintendo Wii could just appear under my Christmas Tree without needing to be purchased. No factory in Asia full of workers and machines, just a set of magical elves working around the clock. And to think of the justice, good kids from poor families would get great gifts while brats growing up in rich families find their stockings full of coal.

Of course all this can't be disproved, we can talk of the implausibility of it all and appeal to Occam's Razor, even make self-justifying rationalisations when the evidence doesn't quite appear right[1][2][3]. Yet despite all the positives of this belief with very few negatives, I don't see many adult takers. Most people work out that Santa doesn't exist despite the positives that a belief holds psychologically and without being able to properly falsify the concept.

Perhaps believing in some form of theism provides comfort or gives a sense of understanding. Perhaps the rewards on offer that come with belief are desirable. No death and eternal bliss do sound good after all, just as free cool stuff every Christmas sounds good. But what does that matter to the belief itself?

It doesn't and that people choose to focus on that shows the issue isn't about the strength of the belief but the desire to keep believing. Imagine someone had said that evolution isn't real, what response would come? Would it be pertinent to focus on the majesty of the tale and the comfort that comes from understanding why you are the way you are? Probably not. Instead I'm going to bet that most people would focus on making an evidential case.

This is a reflection of the poverty of belief. It's not about defending the belief itself but why one chooses to believe. And if that's the case you should send me $10,000 right now because I have this friend in Nigeria...

But back to Santa. I don't believe in Santa even though I very much like to receive gifts. I can't disprove Santa's existence, but the whole story is so implausible and at odds with how the world works that it makes no sense to believe. I can't remember how I lost my belief in Santa but I did go from believer to unbeliever even though believing in Santa came with rewards that not-believing did not have.

So what did I gain from losing my belief? I don't know. I lost a supposed incentive to be good, yet I still try to be helpful and treat others well. I lost the reward itself, yet I don't have to justify why I'll be Wii-less again this Christmas. I lost the magic of the story, yet I can still partake in the festivities without.

These arguments surrounding the desire of belief itself are concessions that the beliefs are otherwise untenable to hold. They are nothing more than appeals to emotion, preying on the desires and being no better than a snake-oil merchant offering a glimmer of hope to a terminal cancer patient. The only difference between the belief in Santa and a belief in God is that as children we are meant to realise that Santa is a myth. The focus on the belief aspect of God shows that perhaps we should be doing the same with God!

[1] - Poor kids wouldn't get bad gifts if they were good and rich kids must be good
[2] - That they were in my parent's closet a month before Christmas IS Santa's way of distribution
[3] - Those receipts are just forgeries to throw me off track

Friday, 23 July 2010


"There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination." - Daniel Dennett

Monday, 19 July 2010

God Of The Pap

We should all be familiar with a "god of the gaps" argument. While making a "god of the gaps" type argument isn't necessarily fallacious, it does set God up as a substitute for human ignorance.

The general form of a "god of the gaps" can be surmised as follows:
  1. Phenomenon X is not understood
  2. X can be explained by God
  3. Therefore God explains X
Creationists love this type of argument, and it can currently be seen being used on such questions as the origin of life or the origins of space-time.

The argument is one to be avoided because it does nothing to explain X or God, instead looking for an explanatory gap by which to push more dramatic existential and moral claims. It's not only God explains X, but God explains X therefore you should accept Jesus as your personal saviour!

Consider an X from 300 years ago, the formation of the solar system. While Newton's laws could explain the motion of the planets, it could not explain where the planets came from. Thus a modern-day parable has spawned[1] all over a "god of the gaps argument". But since the French mathematician Laplace, there has been a means to explain solar system formation. The gap has been filled, the argument has shown itself to be useless.

Because the argument isn't so much about showing God's existence but having God as a necessity by which to push a different agenda. The arguments still persist because there will always be gaps by which we don't understand. Even if tomorrow someone was to show the steps how life could begin from interacting chemicals, it still doesn't solve the problem of how life began for us. But it would be a mistake to think that solving the gap for the creationist is going to make the creationist not believe.

Similarly I'd like to propose another mistake in attribution, a "god of the nebulousnesspap". But instead of finding gaps in human understanding, it's about finding the limitations of human language and exploiting that into a theological argument.

Examples of such arguments would be use of words that sound significant but offer little in the way of comprehension. To use the word transcendence for example, or to refer to God as a "sacred otherness". Or to refer to God as an infinite abstract... well you get the picture.

Such rhetoric puts God into a similar position as a "god of the gaps". It's putting the term beyond all limits, again I think for existential and ethical reasons. It's nothing more than a linguistic trick, a means to carry the baggage that comes with the use of the word God but without having to do anything in terms of quantifying it.

Both of these types of arguments should be sceptical red flags, signs that the person giving the argument is using rhetoric in place of substance as if ignorance or incomprehensibility are on par with clarity and knowledge.

Upon reflection, "god of the nebulousness" is a bit of a mouthful, perhaps something simpler and catchy might be more appropriate. Perhaps "god of the pap[2]"?

[1] - Read it here
[2] - Pap as in "Material lacking real value or substance"

Friday, 16 July 2010


"It doesn't matter how beautiful the guess is, or how smart the guesser is, or how famous the guesser is; if the experiment disagrees with the guess then the guess is wrong. That is all there is to it." - Richard Feynman

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Inaction On Climate Change

Consider a situation where a whole group of farmers have access to the same shared land in which to graze their cattle[1]. But there's a problem, there are too many cattle for the resources that the land provides. Because of overgrazing, the land is heading towards a state where soon no-one will be able to graze.

If any individual cuts back, then all they are doing is disadvantaging themselves - and not even one person making a sacrifice will be enough to stop the land. And if a system such as a set reduction or proportional reduction is imposed, there will still be those who find it unfair. The people who had few cattle are being punished because of the overuse of others, and those who are overusing it are being hit the hardest.

So the situation goes on and on until the paddock is destroyed because that's the only finality available. Any egalitarian option to try and allocate resources appropriately is lost because it is being imposed on an existing situation instead of planning for a new one.

So much of the climate change political debate revolves around this sort of reasoning. It's perfectly understandable that it would, but lamentable nonetheless. Australian emissions only account for about 1% of the global total, even if we chose to do anything all it would do is diminish the quality of life. Or that no deal that doesn't include the developing nations is worth doing. Or it's up to large polluters like the US and China to cut back.

In other words, the position many in Australia take can be surmised as follows: it's not our responsibility, we need everyone in agreement, and even if we did anything it wouldn't matter anyway. No matter what our objection, it fits into that situation of unfairness or futility.

In all this wrangling it's easy to forget just why there is such wrangling in the first place. Climate change is a real scientific issue. There's a reason why this destructive inevitability is being so hotly debated while the the end of the Mayan calendar is relegated to bad disaster movies. We can decry the unscientific society all we want, but at the core there is the understanding among most that right or wrong science is something to take seriously.

The kind of action that climate change requires makes it really easy not to do anything. It makes it easy to fall into climate change denial, it would almost seem obligatory to serve at the rationalisation of the inability to do anything about it. The self-justification of taking a stand against a discipline that really they know ought to be taken seriously is evidenced by the futility of an almost no-win situation.

No wonder so much of this debate is split along political lines. Instead of separating the science from the political consequences, the science has been associated so deeply with left-wing politics that it's no wonder that so many on the political right reject it. So many times I have been accused of being a tree-hugger for taking sides on what I thought was a scientific issue. I don't care if the left or right support it, I want to know what climatologists think!

Along the same lines, it's again easy to see why skeptic libertarians are more eager to reject the notion of anthropogenic climate change. What's needed to fix the problem goes against the political ideals they hold, so why would we expect them to give up their cherished political beliefs in favour of problems? No, it must be their rejection of climate change is because climate change is wrong[2]...

If a large asteroid was looking like it could collide with the earth, that fact would stand independently of any political action. If certain groups were opposed to this concept it wouldn't change that fact. Accusing astronomers of engaging in scaremongering, stating that NASA is just trying to monopolise funding, alleging that those dissenting against "collision theory" are being silenced in academia, saying that it would cost too much to do anything about it, making it clear it would destroy our frail economy, or even going so far as to accuse physicists of rigging the software that projects such a collision... making any of these accusations would look ridiculous and for good reason too! They are ridiculous, and they are equally as ridiculous when comparable accusations are being made against climate scientists.

The political action to be taken doesn't change the underlying facts. Climate change is not a left wing or right wing issue, it's an issue that evidentially needs to be dealt with. That it is championed by much of the left doesn't change the science underneath, that there are those who use the science to push their ideology isn't a reason to reject both[3].

How to deal with the problem is the political issue. As game theory and history[4] would suggest, actually coming to a solution that will address the underlying facts is not easy task. That people won't even recognise that there's a problem to begin with makes dealing with the problem even harder.

[1] - Taken from the documentary Nice Guys Finish First (available here)
[2] - The same way that a child dying from whooping cough isn't the fault of low vaccination rates against it
[3] - The IS / OUGHT distinction.
[4] - Deforestation on Easter Island for example

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Science Is Magic That Works

The title of this entry comes from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, and I think to the layperson this is a brilliant summation of science. It works, it evidentially works if you're reading this because you're not talking to a psychic[1], but because you're on a computer that has internet access.

So when someone utters the phrase:
The more you delve into science, the more it relies on faith.[2]
I really have to wonder what they are talking about. Yes, the current body of knowledge that we call science is very anti-intuitive and we as laypeople essentially rely on the expertise of those telling us.

This problem isn't only on the frontiers of knowledge, however, it applies for most of what we know. We are surrounded by devices which we don't have anything more than a superficial understanding of how it works. Take the television, it's a device that has been in homes for more than half a century now, yet as consumers we couldn't be more removed from how the technology works. We don't know how it works but we know that it does.

Take the WW2 cargo cults. They would build replicas of the technology they saw the Americans using including straw planes and wooden headphones[3]. It's as if having the form of those technology would make the technology work, like a child making a television out of a cardboard box. Yet we do have working televisions, as we do working planes and working headphones (I'm listening to music right now). Science really does appear like it is magic that works!

But magic in this sense is like a stage magician, the product is an illusion to the underlying explanation. No prayers, no incantations, no sacrificing livestock, just technology that harnesses the underlying nature of nature. Much in the same way that we don't need to rely on magic to see that objects fall downward. Harnessing the power of electricity is no more magic than harnessing the power of gravity.

It's unfortunate that we are shielded from how the devices we use work. Because underlying that technology is the scientific explanations that would otherwise seem mystical. Jon Stewart's example was anti-matter as something he is asked to accept of faith. Except that anti-matter is the science underlying PET scanners. It's not only something that can be created in high-energy particle colliders - it serves an everyday use! Yet it is another device that we have no idea about how it works, it is indistinguishable from magic.

The third of Arthur Clarke's three laws of prediction is as follows:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.[4]
This holds painfully true. iPods are really just magic song bricks and medicine is God pills[5]. We don't know how they work, they just do. It's no wonder that people fall for magic products like perpetual motion machines or homoeopathic remedies, a nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat[6].

Science as a process would not be able to operate if no-one understood it. In that way, it's the opposite of faith. Theories that are in principle unfalsifiable are unfavoured[7], and theories that don't adequately explain the data are modified or discarded.

It does seem like an exclusive discipline, far removed from anything we do on a daily basis. But in principle any person should be able to partake in the process. To get an education in the tools and processes, to read the studies and look at the empirical data, and see whether it checks out. Many people from many different backgrounds around the world do this already, science transcends culture because of its strive towards objectivity.

And even without doing that, there are plenty of books put out by those experts in order to explain it as clearly as possible to the layperson. In addition, there are radio programs, podcasts, public lectures, online information and a lot of public outreach. While it may be incomprehensible to many, there's at least the effort to share the knowledge. And if nothing else, we all benefit from these advances... that you're reading this right now attests to that.

[1] - Because psychics don't exist
[2] - Jon Stewart
[3] - Read about it here
[4] - Clarke's three laws of prediction
[5] - The Daily Show is not all bad.
[6] - Say no more! Say no more!
[7] - A theory that explains everything explains nothing. Psychoanalysis is a great example.

Friday, 9 July 2010


"Reductionism is true in a sense, but is seldom true in a useful sense" - Martin Rees

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The False Balance

[This is also posted at the Canberra Skeptics Blog]

It would be odd to expect unanimous appraisal for any idea, even among experts. Humans aren't perfect computers, they bring their own biases and influence into what they do. So while there might be overwhelming consensus for a given idea among experts, chances are there will be dissenting voices.

Science is no different to any other discipline, while objectivity is the name of the game it must be remembered that science is a human enterprise. People make mistakes, see patterns that aren't really there, impose their beliefs into their interpretations, etc. But while there is always this problem, the process helps make it as objective as possible - evidenced by the totality of science on our daily lives.

Because we are all not experts in nearly everything, we rely on expertise to help us make as informed a choice as possible. But of course we as individuals also have biases too, so how do we overcome them when looking to experts for information?

A second opinion?
Imagine upon results from a doctor hearing you have lung cancer. She explains to you what those tests were and why the results indicate the problem. This might all be compelling but surely you'd want to make sure this is true, so you go to another doctor, this time a lung cancer specialist. He runs the tests and confirms with your first doctor that you do have lung cancer. And then just to be sure you go to a third who again confirms the diagnosis. And then a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth - all confirming lung cancer.

Eventually you come across a doctor that says you don't have cancer, that those other doctors are paid by pharmaceutical companies to peddle their expensive cancer treatment drugs. Instead the tests are just showing inflammation which would go away with some echinacea and some reflexology.

Now all of those doctors might have similar expertise in terms of qualifications, and there are two different diagnoses as to what it could be. On the one hand you have cancer, on the other inflammation. In the absence of any medical training yourself, how can you trust one over the other?

Say there were 10 doctors: nine who would interpret the evidence as cancer and one who would see it as inflammation. If you went to two doctors, there are 45 different combinations you could end up with. Only 9 of those 45 combinations would have the inflammation diagnosis. In other word, 80% of people if they went to two doctors would not even know that there would be a disagreement. If someone went to see 3 doctors, there would be 120 combinations of which 36 would have inflammation as a minority explanation and 0 that have it as a majority. 70% of people would still be unaware of the potential diagnosis.

Voicing the contrarian
But what's the harm, I hear you ask, of putting alternate opinions of experts on the table? After all, the 1 doctor might be on the fringes but he is still a doctor. He's spent time studying medicine and the human body, even if he might disagree with others he is still qualified as an expert.

The harm is what it does is loft the opinions of one expert at the expense of many others. It's saying that an expert's opinion is proportional to how fringe that opinion is among other experts. In the case above, the opinion of the inflammation doctor is worth 9 times as much as one who thinks it is lung cancer because there are 9 times as many doctors who would think its lung cancer.

So if on a subject like evolution that there are something like 99% of biologists who support evolution and 1% who are creationists, then holding creationism and evolution as equal ideas is giving the opinion of creationists 99 times as much weight as those who oppose it.

The importance of expertise
The false balance comes by taking views espoused by experts as equal regardless of where the weight of expertise lie. It's not to say that the doctor saying inflammation is wrong because he is in the minority, but that us as non-experts should take into account where the weight of expertise lies. Otherwise we run the risk of choosing which experts to listen to based on our own bias, which is as useful as not having any experts at all.

It's easy to see obvious bias where an expert is up against a non-expert (climatologist vs politician, biologist vs preacher, doctor vs naturopath) but when its two experts up against each other, there is a grave disservice done to the audience. It's not taking a random sample of two experts from the field, it's deliberately seeking out dissenting voices as if having disagreement means balance. Fringe views do not mean controversy, it just means creating a false balance and does a disservice to the general population and to the disciplines being misrepresented.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Homoeopathy Is Nonsense, Can We Please Move On?

When it comes to a lot of alternative medicine, I take a sceptical but not dismissive approach. While some things might be based on outmoded ways of thinking, there might be some unforeseen benefits because people can believe in the right things for the wrong reasons. This is the nature of evidence-based medicine, if it works then I don't see a problem with its use.

Where I do draw the line is where there's no possible plausible mechanism. I am referring to homoeopathy, where by now it should well be established that there is no possible way it could work! Not only has it failed tightly-controlled empirical measure, but there is no underlying mechanism that could possibly work, the process sees to that.

A lot is made of how much a homoeopathic solution goes through, and homoeopaths don't seem to see why it is a big deal. It's a big deal because it's taking out any possible possible means of having any form of material solution. And that's just it, the claims aren't about a material solution. So it should be non-controversial that reasonable people would reject it on those grounds alone. For homoeopathy to work, there needs to be something beyond what we understand about how nature is.

But why are we still talking about it?

This is obvious nonsense, it at one point might have seemed to be a miraculous cure but testing has clearly demonstrated that homoeopathy is indistinguishable from a similarly administered placebo. At what point can we take the discipline behind the shed with a shotgun?

This is the problem I find with a lot of ideas that keep seem to come back. It doesn't matter how many times it's shown not to work, there are those who still cling to the belief. It's time for homoeopathy to die because we know that there's no hope of finding positive results. Keeping it in the public eye is now a health hazard, we know better and having people put their trust in it is a health risk not only for them but people around it. When there's the promotion of homoeopathic vaccines or homoeopathic malaria drugs, or even homoeopathic flu remedies - all of these extend the risk to others. And as for giving homoeopathic remedies to children?!?

Homoeopathy needs to die because health is a serious issue. People are harmed by the use of homoeopathy, people die because they put their trust in it. To argue otherwise is to be wilfully ignorant, through which the safety of individuals at risk as well as society as a whole. And while I have little doubt that homoeopaths truly believe their product works, but the fact remains that they are putting the safety of others in jeopardy. It's time to move on, homoeopathy may at one stage have looked promising but now it is clearly unscientific.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Runaway Trolleys And The Problem Of Evil

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?
This is the trolley problem as proposed by Philippa Foot, giving the utilitarian imperative to save five at the expense of one. While not responsible for the situation, you as an individual have the power over the outcome. It's a terrible outcome either way, but your actions either way determine the consequences. You either flip the switch ensuring the death of one, or you fail to flip the switch and allow for the death of five.

While there are many variations on this thought experiment and various forms of objections to it, about 90% of people would throw the switch to save the five at the expense of one. Meanwhile, change the thought experiment just slightly so that instead of flipping a switch you push a fat guy then a mere 10% of people would still do it. Such an experiment is akin to harvesting a healthy patients for the organs to save five dying ones.

I'd contend that we have the obligation to participate because we have the power to change the outcome. Consider seeing a drowning child at a pool and being the only one with the ability to rescue the child. Would it be excusable to let the child drown on the grounds that its not your problem? Action of omission is still an action. We are forced into making unthinkable decisions over the power to change an outcome.

Sometimes it is a choice between the lesser of two evils. Should one get an abortion or carry to term a rape baby? It's a dilemma that too many women each year are forced to choose between. What about in war attacking buildings containing civilians because there are known terrorists inside? And consider medical expenses, is it worth a hospital spending huge amounts of money to keep alive one person when that money could pay for hundreds, even thousands of treatments for others?

When it isn't a choice between two evils, such as diverting the runaway trolley onto an empty track, surely then it becomes a matter of harm prevention rather than degrees of it. By action of omission it is causing the unnecessary deaths of five, even if you weren't the reason they were in that situation in the first place.

Enter the problem of evil. As told by David Hume, it is as follows:
"Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"
Such arguments show the contradictory nature of a reality containing an omnipotent omniscient omnibenevolent deity with suffering and pain. While I don't think such a deity is worshipped by many, many claim that their respective deity has those attributes and thus it is a powerful argument against particular forms of theism.

To take the first trolley problem, we understand that there are two outcomes in our control. We are limited to either pushing the switch or refrain from pushing it knowing that either way we cannot prevent harm but only limit the degree. An omnipotent entity has no such restrictions by definition with an infinite number of ways to prevent harm from coming. In that sense, it is like the trolley problem where it's a choice between acting to prevent harm and allowing harm to pass.

Should we consider a person wicked if all they had to do to save a life was to push a button? I would argue that they are. This is illuminated by a comparable situation, finding a baby drowning in a bath where all it would take to save the baby is to reach down and pick it up.

The trolley problem is very much one in a vacuum, it's asking a question without regard of the many factors. It doesn't say who the people are which would matter a lot. If the one was your child and the five were strangers, would you still throw the switch? What if the 5 were convicted rapists and the one was a rape victim? (this is a mad philosopher remember) The problem is to illustrate how we would act in an abstract sense without complicating the thought experiment through too many variables.

The reason I've made this post was something I read recently regarding Christopher Hitchens getting cancer. In defending against the accusation of a benevolent deity giving Mr Hitchens cancer, the response was that God didn't give Mr Hitchens cancer but allowed it to happen as if there's a distinction between the two.

As soon as you start explaining events in terms of deities it starts raising questions why one thing happens but not another. The outcome is saying some genuinely horrific things, like that your daughter's rape was a test of your faith or that an infant dying of SIDS was because the infant was evil. Any rationalisation of the horrors will do because they illuminate the problem of evil so vividly.

This thinking is often taken to absurdity, think of those taking 9/11 as retribution to America for working towards a secular society or those who take any natural disaster as again a punishment for immorality. In each case the evil is manifest as the divine workings of a deity, demonstrating the deity is by no means benevolent.

No matter what the reason Hitchens got cancer (and I wish him all the best in a quick and as painless as possible recovery), a deity that can intervene had the possibility to prevent it. It is like a runaway trolley which would only require the touch of a button to prevent harm. The problem of evil is an insurmountable one because it shows the described nature of God being incompatible with the nature of nature.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Getting Rid Of Big Government

I'd be willing to bet that most people don't like a big government. Conservatives hate it, liberals distrust it, and libertarians want to do away with it altogether. And while we are on the subject, regulation is little more than red tape that stifles legitimate competition. And don't get me started on all those nanny state laws designed to protect us from ourselves...

You know what, I'm going to bet that if you ask people where they stand on most of these talking points they would be unanimously against them. In the modern day world of sound-byte politics it should come as no surprise that these are perpetual talking points. Is anyone for unnecessary governmental expenditure? And in that lies my problem with such rhetoric. It's essentially meaningless!

Just what do you stand for?
It's so easy to be cynical when it comes to politics, perhaps a little too easy. With media sound-bytes portraying disingenuous politicians whose focus is on getting elected appealing to what we want to hear without saying anything that might hold them to account, the process is horrible and it's no wonder people distrust politicians. But it's important to remember that we are the selectors, we vote for these people and thus we need to take politics as a reflection of ourselves.

I say this because it needs to be remembered that we're in this situation now because we talk politics in sound-bytes. We don't know what proposals really entail any more, dress it up in words like national security or liberty or talk about the economy and beyond that we don't really know anything. We've reduced politics to polemic sound-bytes, everything from the environment to education is barely more than taking sides.

What amazes me is that issues like abortion and gay rights have the potential for elections to be decided around. That Bush was elected in 2004 on a pro-life anti-gay platform typifies the reason why I think there are so many cynics. It has turned into moralising, where politicians personal values become the issue. And perhaps that's in-part because we can easily understand what someone believes but not the consequences of any given policy.

Big Government as an issue in a way is a consequence of this type of thinking. Issues like gay marriage and abortion are issues that we are emotionally tied to, while the nuances of banking regulation are not. We can see the large percentage of money from our pay-checks but don't a connection between that and what the government does with the money. Figures like billions get thrown around which our mind can't even begin to adequately comprehend - it's no wonder we find Big Government bad!

That way we can say its too big without specifying how. Talk of cutting public service jobs as if those people were mere statistics. Ask for cutting taxes without knowing what taxes are doing. We don't have to know specifics because the specifics don't affect us. If we talk in generalities we can make ideological points without ever needing to substantiate it, and that's what Big Government has come to embody!

Drowning the baby in the bathwater
Of course there is the expectation of wasteful spending in government, each individual system cannot be micromanaged through democratic scrutiny, much like shareholders don't go through their company's books with a fine-tooth comb. It's the general overall health that matters.

But perhaps in terms of value for money, the illusion that the corporate enterprise as a profit-driven approach would be looking to maximise profits while a government does not. What is unnecessary doesn't get done, and a government cannot operate like that. Imagine a school system which was profit-driven. It should be about maximising outcomes for the students, ultimately schooling is an integral part of society. It's not to say a profit-driven approach cannot work, but that the outcomes are sufficiently distinct to warn against the approach. Surely having better educated children is the goal of the education system.

This is where I feel we run the risk of wanting to drown the baby as well as getting rid of the bathwater. The baby is just going to keep needing a bath so getting rid of the baby stops the necessity of bathwater. Sounds crude, but this is exactly what some propose in order to get rid of excess government fat. Why need the government at all? The services the government provides can be done without government, and by the free-market process should be much more efficient.

Before we drown the baby, perhaps it's important to ask why we have babies in the first place. Is our goal the best value-for-money education system or the most effective? Do we want the cheapest possible health system or a healthy society? I'm going to guess that the value for money is a secondary consideration for most people. For me personally, I want an education system that values education. I want a health system that looks after the health of people. I'm quite happy for these to be government programs because accountability lies within providing the services.

At the bottom line a broke government can't function. It needs to remain viable as well as providing those essential services. From my perspective, it's such a shame that so much money is thrown into defence at the expense of other services. It's understandable why, security is a huge issue and no-one wants to be thrifty when it comes to national defence. It has been taken to absurd proportions but is the bloat in military spending reason to get rid of the military altogether?

The dirty secret
No-one is an island, indeed no island is an island any more. We are interconnected, firstly from the self to the family and community in which we live, then from the community to the greater area. And so on until we hit state, country, and now beyond that. Each of us isn't working as individuals trying to get our own, we are a social species who have social obligations. We benefit from living in this social structure.

If an alpha male wolf doesn't share enough with other wolves in the pack, they rise up against the alpha. Perhaps analogous to the role of us as individuals. If we all don't prosper from our social situation then we are fostering the demise of society. The reach of the modern person has pushed to extremes the inequity of wealth, breeding resentment among the have-nots who are forced to work against their will for just enough to survive.

Dreams of a revolution are just that, the dirty secret is that the society we have around us now is one built for our prosperity. We have running water, an education system, health, welfare, access to general services, food, infrastructure - all this and much more are considered basic standards for living. And so they should be!

The government are a means to an end, and in a democracy there is at least a partial sense of ownership from the individual and the society to the government itself. They aren't some external force, but a culmination of internal ones. We lose democracy the moment we treat it as a monarchy. We stop having a representation of the will of the people and create Big Government.

If we want to get rid of Big Government, we need to change our attitude towards the democratic process. Government is an expression of us as a society, its prosperity is our prosperity and vice versa. Until that is realised Big Government will remain as a threat. This is the consequence of using rhetoric with little substance, it creates a bogey man instead of looking to address real issues.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

The Principle Of Stability

It must be incomprehensible at times to look up at the universe and not see intelligence. After all, we are agency-seeking apes. Detecting intelligence and looking for intentionality is what we do best. In navigating through social situations, and trying to understand the motives of other bits of matter, it's a very useful trait. When it comes to nature, not so much. We know now that order in species is a result of the evolutionary process, and order in nature is but an expression of the laws of physics. As Dan Dennett might put it, ultimately there are those who want an ultimate skyhook to explain all those cranes. Enter fine-tuning arguments.

Consider the anthropic principle in its most basic form: that the conditions of the universe must be that which allow for observers to exist. It's a truism by definition, if the universe couldn't harbour the kind of life observing it then there would be no observations of it. We know the universe can support us because we are here.

Various forms of fine-tuning are inevitably proposed to explain just why were are here. Certain types of fine-tuning can be explained already. For example, that we are so suited to the planet we live on can be explained by evolutionary theory. Or that the planet has a stable orbit and is the right distance from the sun can be explained by the huge number of planetary systems that there would be. etc. But there are some things that seem yet unexplained.

While there are non-controversial explanations for particular aspects, there are still aspects of nature which we don't understand. There is not yet a theory of everything, so it's no surprise to see a whole host of arguments based around seemingly improbable aspects of the universe. I think it's quite silly, because there are so many things critical to our existence it means that any any change means we don't exist.

I think the problem stems from our vantage point. We are looking at a universe 13.7 billion years old, we aren't seeing the process but the result. Like us being a result of 3.5 billion years of evolution, that evolution produced us does not mean that evolution was designed to produce us. Likewise, us existing in the universe does not mean the universe is the way it is for our existence.

I want to illustrate this using a thought experiment, invoking the principle of stability. Another truism, the principle can be stated as stable forms last longer than unstable forms. We can understand this function already in terms of stable and unstable isotopes. Nitrogen-14 is a stable atom, but when bombarded with cosmic rays in the atmosphere transforms into Carbon-14. Carbon-14 is an unstable form of carbon and decays back into the stable Nitrogen-14.

Imagine rolling a die 1000 times and recording the sequence. A simple procedure but one that will generate a sequence of immense improbability 1.4x10778. Each role has a 1 in 6 chance of being any value yet the number you end up with is beyond all human comprehension of improbability. It produced a huge number, one that wasn't by any means inevitable but it did result through the series of chance rolls. It's only a problem to explain if you're expecting the outcome to be a particular 1000 roll sequence. This is why instead of looking backwards we should look fowards and ask whether a process could allow for the possibility of our existence instead of looking for improbable things in order to invoke an infinite improbability drive God.

If we go back far enough in time, we are going to do away with a lot of things. Life on this earth is but a few billion years old, our solar system only 4.6 billion years old. The heavy elements that we see in great amounts would eventually go to, for we know they are forged in stars and distributed by supernovae explosions. Eventually we get back before there's galaxy formation, to a universe where there's only light atoms (hydrogen, helium and a tiny bit of lithium) then before atoms can form, then before before there were particles like protons. Going back further we see elementary particles then back further a place before elementary particles where there were no fundamental forces.

Like the die experiment, look at the process going forward. It's not an aim to get what we have now, but to see what would happen if we took the process on the principle of stability. Stable things last longer than unstable things, so in the most unstable state imaginable, some form of structure should emerge. Consider this initial structural states as elementary particles. Now that there is a basic form of structure. With those particles interacting, there's always further possibility that bigger particles could be made. Not all interactions need to lead to bigger particles, but if only a small percentage of particles could form stable structures they should emerge on account of stable structures being more stable than unstable structures.

On the principle, this should continue until there are no more possible increments in complexity. So now we have a whole host of particles, some composites of many iterations of smaller particle collectives colliding, and some that are still elementary particles. Some of these particles may only be able to exist when the universe is energetic enough and should not be seen in the latter universe except through high-energy collisions. And some states of interactivity might not be able to happen until the universe is sufficiently cool enough to allow for them. Atoms might be a good example of this, not being able to form until 100,000 years after the big bang.

Perhaps now you have a state where you can have structural formations, composites of atoms interacting together in a new structure - like for example in stars. And in those new states, in turn new forms of structure might emerge, like atoms fusing together to form heavier atoms. And from there perhaps those atoms by their interaction will come together to form spherical structures, and on some of those spherical structures, organising principles there will allow for complex chains of molecules. Which in turn might serve as templates for creating copies of the complex chains. That process might become better at doing so, creating a new means of generating complexity. And so on...

By now the principle should be illustrated, that is to say that if we take the events looking through time instead of back at them we should tend to see the gradual emergence of more complex structures by pure necessity.

I'm not saying this is the way that it happened, or even that it could happen this way. It's a means to think about the problem in a different way. That we look backwards means we aren't seeing the process, instead seeing a whole lot that needed to be the way it is for us to exist. But why shouldn't there be a whole host of things necessary for our existence? We exist, therefore the universe must have the conditions necessary for our existence.

A parallel argument is invoked by those who support biological fine-tuning called Irreducible Complexity. This suffers from the same process, it's looking backwards at what there is instead of considering the process by which to get to it. Can evolutionary theory account for irreducibly complex structures? It can! Any mutation that is advantageous may through later mutation make it necessary. Thus the structure looks like it is evidence against a gradual process, but only because it's looking after the fact instead of considering how the process works.

And I think the same error in thinking in all fine-tuning arguments. It's looking for that which is hard to explain by conventional thought without giving consideration as to what can explain it. By attaching huge improbabilities to that particular structure, it makes it seem like it needs a grand explanation.

One final thought is that perhaps this line of argument falls into irrelevancy if humans aren't treated as a necessity. That it could result in observers doesn't mean that the goal of the universe was to have observers. Likewise that evolution created sapient beings doesn't mean that evolution was made to create sapient beings. That we did evolve and that we do have the capacity to observe the universe says nothing about the laws of nature other than they have to be that way necessarily. It's because we are here to observe that we know that, but they are not that way so that we can be here to observe. Putting us as the focal point generates the improbability because we are very improbable - just like everything else!

Promiscuous Teleology

Being fair, not all arguments are born equal. One argument that fails utterly is the argument from design, it is both philosophically impoverished and empirically unjustified. Yet so much effort is put into discrediting Darwinian evolution as if the only barrier to design being accepted is the current scientific paradigm. It isn't! Nonetheless implicit and explicit arguments from design still emerge as if they are proof of a divine hand in nature.

Reading Pharyngula, I came across this article. While the content of this article is horrible (PZ sums it up well), what I want to focus on is this one passage from the article.
As with many atheists, Hitchens’ non-belief got its start in childhood, when he heard a religious person say something that, even to a child, came across as dumb. With Hitchens’s mentor, it was something about the color of the sky and human eyeballs.

For me, there’s something inane about an adult beginning to base their adult worldview on something wacko recalled from childhood.
I have read God Is Not Great (which is my least favourite of the recent atheist literature) and the idea that the child Hitchens found as dumb was an argument from design that creeps into so much religious thinking.

What I find odd is that he's dismissing Hitchens as if it's a child not understanding an adult worldview. This couldn't be further from the truth! Design of that magnitude is something children normally impose on nature. There is a psychological term for that kind of thinking: promiscuous teleology.

This is not a child failing to understand an adult worldview, it's an adult failing to recognise that he has the explanation of a child. It's a childish inference, any adult making such an observation should be ashamed that they haven't grown out of childish thinking.

A bee has a different spectrum of light to us, it can't see the red we do but can see into the ultraviolet. There are flowers with patterns on them only visible in the ultraviolet, something our eyes can't detect but bees can. To us they just look plain, but to a bee they see the patterns that we can't detect.

Thus this kind of argument falls into absurdity. If our eyes detected at a different wavelength, then we would see things we don't see now, and would not see things that we do see now. Of course things are going to look to us a particular way no matter what way we can look. Is there any particular reason why we should value the colour of the sky or trees or water beyond that we do see them the way we see them?

If we could see in the range of bees, some flowers might seem even more beautiful. After all some of these flowers are that way to attract pollinators. Would that be proof of God's handiwork? What about if we were colourblind? The different shades of grey would be all that we know. Then trees would be a particular shade of grey and the sky another. And wouldn't it be just a perfect testament to God's handiwork that the sky is just the right shade of grey for us?

That a child thinks in such a manner is expected. It's how cognition has been shown to work through extensive psychological research. Adults, however, should be able to avoid such mental trappings. It's not a child trying to understand an adult worldview and failing, the adult worldview if it entertains such childish notions is right to be mocked by people of all ages.

But now, let’s talk, one grownup to another.* If your worldview at its core has this kind of thinking, then it isn't an adult worldview. If not, then you should be praising Hitchens for being able to see through such obvious falsity and correct him on what the belief really entails. Otherwise you can't claim that your worldview is adult, it is anything but. If you think like a child, don't be surprised if another child is able to see through it...

*I can't take credit for this condescension, this pure George Berkin