Sunday, 31 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Invisible Hand

The link between the free market and the forces of evolution is something I have seen made on more than one occasion, both biologists making the case for evolution through analogy and from people arguing for an unregulated free market. Yet I wonder of those who understand how evolution works if they really want a market run in much the same way. The process is incredibly wasteful, cruel to all but a lucky few, no forward planning, and much contingent on external factors; why would anyone want a society based around such a process? Even if we grant that it can work, the way it works doesn't make it in any way desirable.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Mind Creationism

In the 150 years since evolutionary theory has been in the spotlight, a substantial amount of evidence has been built up showing not only that evolution took place but how it did. Even among those who reluctantly accept this fact, the new battleground is the brain. To follow their logic through, it's saying that evolution might be able to build an eye, but it can't build processing software for that signal. The tiger's dagger teeth are just fine, but a human's brain-designed dagger is proof of a brain designer!

Friday, 29 October 2010


"It's not like the Tea Partiers hate black people. It's just that they're shockingly willing to believe the appalling horseshit fantasy about how white people in the age of Obama are some kind of oppressed minority. That may not be racism, but it is incredibly, earth-shatteringly stupid." - Matt Taibbi

Morning Scepticism: Coin

If you're uncertain about an important life decision, there's always a coin-flip. Yet if you have lots of coins, you can buy a magic 8-ball for the same purpose. And if you have even more coins you can consult with a psychic. And even more coins will net you a birth chart. The goal is to make that coin-flip seem like it's something more than chance, to obscure the action enough that it's becomes psychologically useful. But it would be a much less expensive exercise and just as useful to just flip the coin, because you still get to keep the coin afterwards.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: ETI

While I think fine-tuning gets causality backwards, let's grant the principle that the laws of physics are that way because they support life. What can we say about how those laws came about? While many people might invoke the supernatural, there's a perfectly natural explanation at hand. What about an advanced life-form in a different universe that arose under different conditions which in turn created our universe for the purpose of making carbon-based life? From our vantage point we couldn't distinguish between a divine creator and an alien one, hence that even if the argument is taken at its own value cannot get to where some people wish it to take them.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Wrong

If people come to beliefs for non-rational reasons (they do), and once those beliefs form they then rationalise those beliefs (they do), then it stands to reason that people see holding beliefs they've come to for non-rational reasons as being perfectly rational to hold. This makes us lousy judges of our own beliefs. So the idea that one could be wrong doesn't go far enough, rather it should be what one is wrong about because chances are that you're not only wrong but wrong about a lot of things. If you're not taking on board the objections of others then you're probably going to be stuck in your own rationalisations.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Raptor-Jesus

Any invocation of the anthropic principle as evidence of a divine creator should be coupled with an explanation of why the principle shouldn't apply to any other life-form that has ever lived on this planet. This is only fair given what we know about evolution, we are a product of the environment just like every other life-form. If conditions weren't right then none of this would exist in its current form, yet who takes that conditions were just right for the existence of velociraptors to mean that there's a Raptor-Jesus?

Monday, 25 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Definition

There is a difference between how we define something and how we conceive it. The question of morality for example is not one of definitions but one of conception. As much as people can argue over different schools of thought, it's still around a particular conception. In this sense it's impossible to define morality out of existence because the concept still remains.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

A Justification For Atheism

Ideas must first be coherent before they can be scrutinised. If I were to ask "do you believe in Quixido?" would it make any sense to comment on the ontological status of Quixido without knowing what Quixido is? When it comes to God we do at least have a fair idea of what the conception of God is. While many would disagree over God's nature, there's at least a general sense by which the concept can be understood. Far from Quixido, God involves a consciousness and intelligence whereby the universe in some capacity represents an expression of that intelligent conscious will, and generally speaking it has some interest in the affairs of humanity.

So an atheist in the very broadest is someone who rejects that notion, it's a descriptor for those who do not think such an entity is a valid one. This is to be distinguished with noncognitivists who have no idea of the concept, and strong agnostics who take such an entity as being unknowable. For myself I tend to fluctuate between atheism and agnosticism depending on the specifics put forward because depending on how God is conceived determines its coherence.

Is God possible?
When it comes to the conception of God as being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, the existence of such a concept is seen to be incompatible with the existence of evil. Such a conception of God can be ruled out, and indeed much time and effort has gone into addressing this concern. The problem of evil is justification for being a strong atheist, at least in respect to conceptions of God that involved absolute power and absolute goodness.

Likewise other traits are problematic. To be both omnipotent and omniscient brings contradictions (can God act in such a way that even he won't know about?), as does the trait of omnipotence on its own (can God make a rock so heavy that he can't lift?). These kind of proofs though are at least to me unsatisfying because while they ground God in definition they don't capture the essence of what God is. Someone praying for God to cure their cancer doesn't concern themselves with the paradox of omnipotence, but curing cancer irrespective of limits to such traits is something God is meant to be able to do.

Then there's the problem of the supernatural. Can something supernatural act within the natural world? If something is acting in the natural world what stops it being natural itself? Can something simultaneously be in and outside of time? Can something outside of time experience or be said to have a thought? Such problems would make some conceptions of God impossible too, again grounds for strong atheism.

Is God plausible?
While some conceptions of God can be ruled out a priori and thus we have justification for strong atheism, this doesn't cover the range of different conceptions that could be reasonably called God. Perhaps while not impossible, there's good reason as to why they aren't there.

A weak atheist could state that there's no good evidence for God. While absence of evidence doesn't make evidence of absence, the lack of any good instances of observed intervention count against an interventionist deity. An undetected and undetectable deity is indistinguishable from there being no deity at all. Claims are often made, sometimes miraculous in nature, but these claims have to be put into context of those who claim alien abduction and those who fake bleeding statues and the fallibility of human memory. The reliability of the testimony has to be weighed against the possibility of false testimony. This is the problem of miracles.

A weak atheist could also state the problem of design. While it is said design requires a designer, any intelligent design we know (a pocket-watch for example) comes not ex nihilo but from a complicated designer. The ability to make a watch is something that has evolution both biologically and culturally to allow for such design. "Who designed the designer?" isn't just a witty retort, it's highlighting that a designer doesn't solve the problem of complexity that its being used to explain in the first place.

A weak atheist could also state the problem of physical minds. As far as empirical inquiry into the nature of the world, the evidence clearly points towards mind being an emergent property of physical forces. Altering the brain alters conscious experience. Damaging the brain affects cognition. This leads to problems for the nature of God as well as notions like a soul or an afterlife that are tightly-coupled with some concepts of God.

A weak atheist could also state the burden of proof. While an atheist cannot disprove God they cannot disprove Thor or Ra. Nor could they disprove Santa for that matter, or an alleged china teapot orbiting between Earth and Mars too small to be detected by any instrument. The burden of proof is on the one making the existential claim, because there's an infinite number of things that cannot be demonstrated. A weak atheist would be justified in stating the absence of a good case for God is a good case for atheism.

Is God necessary?
Despite problems associated with concepts of God, there are those who say that it doesn't matter about the problems associated with God or how unlikely it is because God is necessary.

The most common of these is the first cause argument, that natural causes cannot account for existence itself. The notion of a prime mover went out the window with the notion of a clockwork universe, with notions like the arrow of time and causality probabilistic rather than definite. And even if the argument did hold it is at best an argument for deism, but the question of if a natural cause requires a supernatural one, does a supernatural cause require a supersupernatural one?

While the teleological argument is in occasional use for life itself, it is commonly found today in the cosmological constants. In essence, the universe is fine-tuned for life because if some of the variables are off by only an a fraction then life as we know it wouldn't exist. While whether there are any fine-tuned variables is a debate for physicists there's a more fundamental problem with this reasoning. There's no reason to assume that life, and more specifically us, is the focal point for the laws of physics. Evolutionarily so much owed to our existence is a product of contingency that it makes no sense to privilege us more than any other life-form.

The argument from morality is another necessity that could be said to be only the product of a divine being. The most basic objection to this is that evidentially we can see degrees of what we could consider morality in other animals. Morality, evidentially, clearly is an evolved trait and requires no further explanation.

The transcendental argument argues that for absolutes there needs to be an absolute mind. 2+2=4 because God holds it to be true is one such transcendental argument. But this argument holds 2+2=4 could just as easily be true as 2+2=231214 2+2=white. It makes absolutes arbitrary, and if by their nature universal then why bother posit a deity to explain it in the first place?

Is God explainable?
While there are many things wrong with the concept of God, there's something to be said for the cultural and psychological factors that enable belief in the first place.

The first challenge to God is that it's just the construct of our culture. The reason that we're asked about the Christian conception is that we've grown up in a predominantly Christian society. Instead of being asked about the historicity of Muhammad ascending to heaven on a winged horse, we are told about the historicity of Jesus conquering death. No dining in Valhalla for us in the modern western world or breaking the cycle of Samsara, just eternal punishment or reward because of the sacrifice of the Godman on the cross. Furthermore that construction has changed throughout history, the Old Testament has God fighting battles while these days God shows Himself by burning the image of Mary into a grilled cheese sandwich.

But what accounts for the belief itself? We have evolved certain ways of thinking. We are intuitive physicists, intuitive biologists and intuitive psychologists. These processes are important as they allow us to distinguish between different interactions. We are wired for agency and in particular human agency. Even seeing design is something intuitive for a lot of people.

In modern times we have seen the birth of religions, Mormonism is less than a couple of centuries old while Scientology is approaching its 60th birthday. Then there's the New Age movement where not only are there claims of extraordinary powers but personal belief in possessing them. Alien abductions, conspiracy theories like 9/11 being an inside job or the staging of a moon landing, these are part of our culture despite their respective implausibility. New beliefs in crazy unsupportable things arise all the time and some even gather significant support even though there's no good reason for it to do so. In this respect, explaining God belief is just one of the many weird things that permeates in our species without good reason.

Of course being able to explain the cultural phenomenon doesn't mean the phenomenon doesn't exist, but what it does do is take away the sense that the fact that it's so pervasive in and of itself dictates further insight.

The position of atheism is justified for a number of reasons. That there are no good reasons for God is sufficient grounds for weak atheism, and that there are good reasons against thinking that such a construct is likely if it's even possible. Arguments for the necessity of God don't make such a case and sometimes are downright absurd, and the case is made even worse as God is perfectly explainable as a personal and cultural construct without any need for there actually being such an entity. The case for atheism is very solid, and should give any theist pause for thought. The notion that we should all be agnostic in the weak sense seeks to neglect what is already known on the subject, taking one's personal ignorance and projecting it onto people at large.

Creationist Logic

If you've watched Expelled, perhaps you wondered why the only scientific argument really brought up was the origin of life. Or wonder why Creationists spend time talking about just how tenuous the laws of nature that permit our existence are. Nothing to do with evolution you say? Well that's because you're not seeing the big picture.
  1. Evolution explains the diversity of life.
  2. The case for evolution is well established.
  3. Evolution cannot explain the origin of life.
  4. Even if evolution could explain the origin of life, it cannot explain the laws of physics that permit it.
  5. Creationism explains the origin and diversity of life.
  6. Creationism explain the physics that permit life's existence.

  7. Therefore Creationism is a superior explanation to evolution.

And there you have it, creationist logic. The case against evolution these days is the case against evolution taking place to begin with, and from there concluding that God must be involved. And since God must be involved there's no need to posit evolution because God can create in any way He wants. And since there's an account of how God did create as revealed to Moses there exists an explanation. It's so sciency it burns!

Of course if pressed on the science, remember that while evolutionists might be able to explain the complexity of the eye they can never explain the complexity of the cells that make up the eye!

Morning Scepticism: Expertise

To become an expert in anything it takes about 5,000 hours of dedication to the discipline. So to be an expert even in a single field is no lean feat. We have an education system that can teach some of any one field, but never enough for anyone to come away with expertise. It teaches more than what's necessary but not enough to be particularly useful, and really could do more harm than good because people will ultimately be ill-equipped to be a good judge of information yet not recognise that fact.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Merit

The idea of judging by merit sounds good but it's almost impossible to achieve. It's not that merit is unfair, but that objectivity is problematic. Even if you take the notion of genetics out of the equation, there's still bias based on culture, on circumstances, on the discretion of whoever is judging on merit. The pretence of self-determination and the blame that comes with failure is in-part unfounded. This is not to completely dismiss any notion of a merit-based system but to highlight its limits.

Friday, 22 October 2010


"I don't think of the problem as between socialism and capitalism but rather between the suppression of ideas and free ideas." - Richard Feynman

Morning Scepticism: Feedback

When it comes to security, the positive feedback loop of the system makes it really hard to advocate being sensible. Because in effect you're arguing for greater risk, even if that risk is negligible. Not quite sure how full-body scanners actually decrease the threat of terrorism or how not letting children do things without supervision is putting the child at risk, but I must keep reminding myself that security is about the feeling of control. Because however remote, we can't forgive ourselves if a terrorist could have been thwarted by a scanner or a child was abducted.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Tools

Cognitive dissonance theory can apply to so much of life. For example in the workplace, there's resistance to using free tools not for the stated reason of a lack of support, but because they have to justify why they paid huge amounts of money for tools that aren't being used. Otherwise they have to come to grips with the fact that developers think their choice in tools was wrong, and not only wrong but wrong and expensive. And they're too smart to make such a mistake like that, so it must be for support reasons and some bollocks about TCO which makes their choice of tools right.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Astrology

It would have to be out of desperation that anyone would leave important life decisions to some chumps vague interpretation of stars and planets. I can appreciate that life sometimes seems out of control, that there's confusion over what to do and the need for assurance over life-changing decisions. But astrology is pure interpretation and from a really tenuous source at that. How could such a tenuous source of validation be anything other than temporary and fragile?

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Why

It's been said in attempts to make science and religion distinct that science explains the how and religion explains the why, but I would content that for a lot of why questions it would be incoherent to ask religion and unrepresentative if they weren't scientific. A simple illustration is sight. To ask "how do we see?" is perfectly accepted in the realm of science, but "why do we see?" will inevitably misrepresent if not grounded in science. To rubbish the why question or resign it to religion would guarantee that the answer won't be of value. It's not to say that all why questions are scientific, but that the distinction between different kinds of inquiry is not so clear.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Lack Of Belief

Morning Scepticism: Dreams

What's not to like about the idea of the American Dream? It's simple, desirable, appeals to the best in people, and hits on the productivity that comes with competition. Unfortunately it drags along the notion that if someone is a failure they deserve to be it. But people seldom get what they deserve, they get what they can negotiate. And while there are always ground-up success stories these exist because they contrast with all those who don't. The limited social mobility is entrenched and because all those who don't succeed in the possibility that they could if only they applied themselves (hah!), are punished for failing to do so. And any ideal that punishes for what is a necessary outcome is a really shitty ideal to hold.

But as far as its memetic success, it's an idea that's able to get people to vote against their own interests for the potential of something better. And that's really impressive, if not somewhat disturbing.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Philosophy Is Dead

When Stephen Hawking says philosophy is dead, he seems to be saying that when it comes to fundamental questions about our reality we are at the point where these questions are now scientific, so to address them philosophically is going to hinder rather than help. It's amazing that people can read a statement like that from a book on cosmology and think it a valid counter to say philosophy is dead is itself a philosophical statement.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Pyrrhic

I wonder if liberal theologians ever feel that in order to defend their beliefs they reduce it to vague abstracts that have no significant meaning beyond the metaphor itself. At what point do they sit back and realise that the notion they profess to revere has been deformed beyond all recognition?

Friday, 15 October 2010


"There is a long tradition of philosophers trying to tell scientists what is and isn't possible, and later scientific developments have often proved the philosophers wrong." - Samir Okasha

Morning Scepticism: Complexity

There's a particular degree of irony in those creationists who dismiss evolution because life is "too complex" because those who say it adhere to a myth that explains that God created man out of dirt and the "breath of life". Nothing about complex biochemistry there at all, which might constitute grounds for falsification right there.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Nothingness

I'm having a failure of language when it comes to describing myself in time. It's all okay until I go back as far as 1983, then I'm at a loss. How can one possibly describe them-self before they existed? It's an incoherent proposition. I'm not the atoms since those come and go, nor anything else of that manner. Does this satisfy the condition that something can come from nothing? If not, then from whence did I come?

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Teaching The "Controversy"

I think I've figured out why creationists love the notion of teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, it's because if you just teach evolution then those weaknesses don't come out. So instead of having a public that's educated about the topic, there's a host of creationists who have a fundamental misunderstanding of what evolution is and just engage in apologetics on talking points they have been told invalidate evolution. I've found myself time and time again answering the same fallacious objections only to find that the person raising them has no clue as to what they actually mean.

From the outsider perspective, it's actually funny reading creationist lesson plans. Because right there they have the chance to give the children a proper education in what evolution is even if they don't have to believe it, and instead they give a whole bunch of reasons that evolution couldn't work. Surely if evolution was as broken as the creationists make it out to be then a proper education on the subject matter would make those objections glare out. But no, it doesn't work that way. They have to highlight just what is wrong with evolution instead of affording the child to think about the concept and find those errors themselves.

One would be inclined to think that the reason they take this approach is because the case for evolution is so strong. It's an unconscious admission of the apparent validity of evolution because the only way they can teach it is to lie to children about it in the hope that those children won't learn any better.

Morning Scepticism: Intervention

It's understandable that when a loved one is suffering through a life-threatening medical condition that if they are devout they will attribute the improvement to the grace of a benevolent deity. Though I wonder why a benevolent deity would put the loved one through such suffering in the first place. The only rationale is that without the suffering there is nothing to be thanked for, stopping a tumour in its early stages is undetectable but stopping it once it turns terminal is a visible miracle. So what good is a miracle if no-one can recognise it? The suffering therefore is a necessary part of the exercise, the hardship is so the benevolent deity can get the credit.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Elitism

The word elitism unjustifiably gets a lot of flack. There's nothing wrong with striving to the best of your abilities, to not just sit and accept what can be improved shouldn't. We ought to and do want the best; we don't watch a bunch of average people play football rather want the people who have trained for decades and are at the pinnacle of the profession. The problem of elitism is the desire to entrench social inequalities, to take away the notion of merit and achievement and put them to only those who are born of the right ethnicity/religion/gender/etc.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Grandma Gambit

It's often argued that atheists should just shut up for a number of reasons. They hurt the cause of science education, they don't understand faith, they are misinformed, they'll make everyone turn gay and have non-stop abortions, etc. One such argument is the grandma gambit, the idea faith gives a lot of comfort to dear sweet granny and telling her would break her heart. While many take the grandma gambit and perhaps there is reason not to make Grandma worry about your eternal soul, the implications of this argument is that we should treat everyone who has religious belief as if they were old and frail.

While I think grandmas in general are tougher than we give them credit for, most people aren't dying grannies. Any time this gambit is offered it should be shot down by everyone else believers included. Because the insinuation is incredibly insulting, that people can't even handle vocal disagreement on their beliefs. Even beyond the personal insult it's a very condescending view of humanity in general.

But perhaps it's a historical warning, after all much blood has been spilt in the name of religion. But if this is the case then there's even more reason to openly discuss it while in a much more secular and safe environment. Making a stand isn't good idea during the Inquisition, but if it's the case that it there is religious fuelled violence then during a largely neutral time in history is the best time to confront it. Though I doubt most people would take this line of argument.

Rather I think the reason for the argument is nothing to do with the frailty of believers but that discussion could cause doubt among the faithful. And since their religion is the One True Faith™, this is not only going to mean that people turn away but that's at the risk of eternal torment. The consequences are much much higher than can ever be adequately fathomed by the human mind. For the same reason that the Shroud of Turin has the perception of being genuine, because despite all the evidence of it being a Middle Ages forgery if it helps bolster someone's belief in Christ as saviour then the lie by omission is justified.

That's what the Grandma Gambit is designed to do, it's designed to shut down debate. It's a weak case but in a society where religion is a taboo subject to begin with the argument is at least somewhat effective. And if believers who use the gambit want to engage in what essentially amounts to a pyrrhic victory, then let them being the condescending ones. Because no matter why the gambit is used the insulting condescending implications of the gambit are there for all to see.

Morning Scepticism: Relevance

A critique of astrology involving the lack of causal relation between the stars and us, constellations being an artefact of the earth's relative position, and empirical studies show there's no link between star sign and behaviour is don't going to satisfactorily be counted by complaining that the non-astrologer doesn't know what Mars being in ascension signifies. Likewise, could people please stop complaining that atheists don't know theology? It's as irrelevant as a non-astrologer understanding that Leos are passionate or something.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Complex

There's inevitably going to be someone who brings up complexity as a means to talk about contentious phenomena. Sometimes it is to refrain from the responsibility of needing to provide an explanation, such as to wave away criticism of psychic powers because the mind is too complex to understand why psychic powers aren't a good explanation. But there's also a warning, that to take a phenomenon as reducing it to simple explanations could misrepresent it. To highlight the complexity of the brain in order to stop the reduction of "how can matter think?" is not to say that complexity causes consciousness, but a reminder that it's not going to be understood through a simplistic understanding.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

A Lifestyle Choice?

We are living in a very artificial environment these days, we have modified the environment in such a way to make it safe and pleasurable. Looking around my humble dwellings I see many products that give comfort, security and entertainment which would be unfathomable to even recent ancestors of mine. While I can reflect on just how far our species has come, it also serves as a reminder of just how much I can control certain aspects of my life. I for a large part choose my lifestyle.

Of course I'm lucky in a way, having been born in a wealthy country with much advanced technology and societal values (cue the cultural relativists) means that I'm able for a large part be self-determined. While my socio-economic status still restricts me in many things, for instance I don't have a solid gold throne, it's still enough that I can make decisions about what I want to do with my life within my means. I say I, but really my decisions are connected to my family, my social group, and the greater society around me.

Because of this, I think, it's often forgotten that we are still natural beings who are limited and in-part controlled by our nature. It's a fact of life that we're going to die, and for most of us it's going to be a slow degenerative process. Likewise we have certain drives and desires, we have to eat for example. One of those drives is sex, and that's why abstinence-only education fails. People have sex and its a fact of life. And sex can mean babies, and babies mean an investment of resources so that the cycle can continue once more.

When I was a kid I wondered why there were some adults who hated children, because adults to be adults by necessity were kids first (I wouldn't have put it that way when I was a kid). It was hating a necessary fact of their existence and that's a very confusing thought for a child to have. Yet now I'm an adult (well, legally) I can see it from a different perspective and at least empathise with that view.

So what does the artificial environment and babies have to do with one another I hear you ask? Babies are something we can to a large extent control through artificial intervention. Contraception is a wonderful thing, it enables people to have sex with a much reduced risk of pregnancy. And for those who don't want children there are more permanent interventions to be had. Our education and our circumstances mean that we can reflect on that choice, so in general people can choose whether or not to have children.

One question I remember from Ethics at university for whether an action was ethical was "what if everybody did this?". For this situation it's tricky because if everyone had kids then the population would experience unsustainable growth and if no-one had children then there would be no replacement population. So in order to make a sustainable population that doesn't spiral out of control it would seem that individuals have to make different choices about how many kids to have.

And that's just it, it becomes a choice. But is it a choice in the same way that's it's a choice like getting a pet or even a couch? If someone chooses to have children then that's their choice, the reasoning goes, but why should I have to pay for parents to help raise their children when my lifestyle choice doesn't get that funding? After all I don't have kids, so shouldn't the government be helping me with getting a kick-arse home theatre system if I so choose? They won't even fund my dog, I have to pay for my dog's food and collar, the reasoning continues, yet parents get government money to feed and collar their children. It's unfair that the government is rewarding people for one particular lifestyle choice (and an annoying one at that) but not mine.

And so the argument goes. If you want children then you should be responsible for it, everything from the act of coitus up until the child leaves home. After all, we can be responsible thanks to birth control. If someone is thinking of having unprotected sex and didn't consider the financial and time investment 15 years down the track, then it's their own damn fault. And even if you don't use birth control before the act, there's post-coital methods like the morning after pill or abortion. And even if that's not enough then you can give the baby up for adoption. So what excuse do people have left not to take responsibility for the child? Why should the government fund that lifestyle choice?

The simplest answer I can give to this line of reasoning is that a dog or a couch can't become a doctor. I can see the value of a dog as a companion animal but I can't see it growing and distributing food. My couch is nice to sit on, but it's not going to write a book or do research. The fact that children turn into adults is sufficient reason to consider the difference between having a child and having a puppy. It by necessity is more than an investment in lifestyle, it is an investment in its long-term survival.

And that's exactly why it cannot be viewed as a lifestyle choice. Because while any individual can choose to have children or not, the more that choose not to have children are putting a strain on the long-term survival of a society. Instead of investing the time and money directly, they are seeking to avoid any sense of responsibility. Taxation and benefits for raising children is an offset of that lack of direct investment, a realisation of the necessity of replenishing a population and working towards ensuring its continuance.

In the west family planning combined with other health and technological benefits already mean that birth-rates are dropped even towards unsustainable levels. Education and in particular education of women has meant that there's already great control, so it does seem odd that anyone would complain about couples having children receiving government benefits. This is why I think such arguments are made about lifestyle costs, because the moment one reflects on the fact that children are a needed continual resource the decision not to have children becomes a selfish one. And worse still it promotes a form of classism, where the poor are demonised and made into scapegoats because they didn't take the adequate steps to reflect the long-term investment that child-rearing is. The fact of the matter is that certain people need help, to begrudge them is absurd and to deny them is both abhorred and a sure way to perpetuate the cycle. It gets to the point where this argument is not about anyone's lifestyle choice but wanting to punish people for doing things they wouldn't do themselves.

As sceptics we are meant to aspire to use our critical thinking faculties, but I think at times this is taken too far. We can forget that our passions are what drive us to use reason in the first place, that voice of impartiality that brings us beyond the subjective and be able to make cases external to the self. Because of that some sceptics shun what it means to be human, taking reason and rationality to the point of abstractness that it misses key points about what it means to be human. Yet reason is what we use because we care and these arguments stem from that fact, and that only serves to reason away what makes life worth living.
"Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." - David Hume

Morning Scepticism: Quality

It's not be fruitful and add, it's be fruitful and multiply. And this happens regardless of whether someone holds Genesis 1:28 as a command from God. And multiply we have, in the last 200 years the human population has increased from about 1 billion to nearly 7 billion. There's only a finite amount of resources available and they are being pushed to the limits already, is there really any good reason not to educate on family planning and birth control? We've multiplied enough already, why is the opposition to pro-life pro-choice instead of pro-quality?

Friday, 8 October 2010


"Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)" - Alan Sokal

Morning Scepticism: Spiders

I have a fear of spiders, can't stand the creatures. Even when I know they're harmless or behind glass they still make me incredibly uncomfortable. Even looking at pictures puts me on edge. Despite knowing that there's no real danger, I still can't shake off the phobia. Yet it doesn't mean that from my phobia I conclude there really is something to fear about spiders, that my knowledge is insufficient to validate my intuitions. The reaction shouldn't be a triumph over reason.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Glorious Contingency

Tonight I saw mentalist Philip Escoffey perform. Great show, fantastic show, a show everyone should see!

But enough about the show (go see it), something occurred to me while waiting for the show to begin. Until Monday I didn't even know this show was on. I found out about it, out of all things, by buying a coffee. While I was waiting with my wife for the coffee I happened to see his name on a local magazine, and looking in there I found out he was performing tonight. If I hadn't gone to get coffee, I wouldn't have known this performance was on and thus would have spent this evening doing something very different. It helped that I did know who he was from an appearance on The Skeptic Zone, but the difference between me seeing the performance and not was a cup of coffee.

It's little things like that which remind me how much of my life is beyond my control, and that the most innocuous of events can be the triggers for something much more meaningful. Though there was some bad with the good, getting hazelnut syrup in my long black didn't work as well as I would have hoped it would.

So, ummm, yeah. Go see Philip Escoffey!

Morning Scepticism: Gradualism

When we say knowledge is a cumulative process, it's fairly easily understood what that means. To take one area where I have some knowledge: computing. I didn't desire to learn overnight then woke up with a memory full of tools and procedures, rather it's come through years of use, study, exploration, and communication with others. It's a gradual process. Yet if I were to graph it, there would be points of stasis, points of rapid change, dead ends, and new directions. It would be mistake to conclude that it's not gradual because of these fluctuations in significance and periods of change. Stasis and rapid change is part of a gradual process.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Methodology

One component of the ID movement was to tackle the underpinning assumption of science: methodological naturalism. By including only natural explanations, it was said, science is making a commitment that excludes possible explanations that lie beyond that narrow scope. Yet where are the theoretical constructs and observations derived from a different philosophical commitment that can give better methodological success? They don't exist, the complaint amounts to little more than the ID advocate wishing to inject God into the process, as if "then a miracle occurs" actually explains something.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Limits Of Science - Continuing A Discussion

This is a bleed-over from a discussion started on the blog Debunking Christianity where I am a very infrequent commenter, on a quote from the new Stephen Hawking book: The Grand Design. If you want to see the previous argument follow the link and read the comments. This is in reply to Rob R and now it has turned into a discussion on the nature of science.

You're seeing this in a very black and white way. Some questions are just not scientific to ask, but that doesn't make science inept. For example, I'd say science in principle could explain why we desire for dignity and worth. But that wouldn't give dignity itself. Where does that fit in your view? Science in one sense is very capable of explaining who we are, but in another sense it is not.
I actually don't. The lines are blurry. I grant that science can say some things about who we are. But where it can't, it is regarding the most profound aspects of our existence.
Science doesn't need to give dignity, but that doesn't change that the methodology in principle could explain how dignity is felt, why dignity is needed to be felt, and what purpose dignity serves. What you're asking for is justification, which you're never going to find in science. But that doesn't take away from the point that science can explain who we are.

This other sense, where science just hasn't gotten around to explaining, but is in fact just categorically inept is where philosophy and theology demonstrate their explanatory power (which and thus their epistemic worthiness). So with theology, this isn't merely a matter of a God of the scientific gaps, but a God of a gap in science which is there because science doesn't belong there.
I grant that philosophy has a role complementary to science, even to examine science itself ("There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination." - Dan Dennett), but that doesn't draw away from Stephen Hawking's point about modern cosmology nor does it mean theology has any domain of relevance whatsoever. I wonder what theology as a discipline can illuminate on anything that philosophy can't, or illuminate anything at all for that matter.

and yes, there is overlap here. Since theology has so much explanatory power for who we are, it has explanatory power for the most important profoundly interesting entities in the universe that we have encountered in our immeadiate universally accessible experience... us! conscious passionate valuing beings. And nothing would be worth anything without the subjective beings from whence worth arises. And if theology explains the most important entities universally available to our experience in this universe, you can bet that the universe itself isn't out of the scope of what theology has to say.
Theology can have a lot to say, whether any of it is true is another matter entirely. Take astrology for example, it has a lot to say about people's personalities, about their lives, about the events on earth. Yet we don't take astrology as a serious discipline. Just because people can make predictions about personalities doesn't mean that those personality predictions map to reality. Plenty of people take horoscopes seriously, believe that star sign develops personality, and use birth charts as a means to understand their destiny. We could take that has having great explanatory power - about us! But we don't take astrology seriously, it's for people who don't understand that constellations are merely artefacts of the relative position of the sun in our galaxy and that any patterns seen are imposed by our minds. Likewise those personality traits that are linked to star signs show no empirical merit whatsoever.

Astrology has plenty of explanatory power, yet the discipline suffers from having no plausible account for said explanatory power and contradicting empirical validity. Likewise I'd say anything theology attributes to who we are is taking something that arose in the evolutionary process and claiming it as God-given. The attributes we have got that way because they were selected-for by the environment, mutations that gave a survival advantage carried on. So how can we claim that this falls under theology any more than personality falls under astrology?

But when it comes to the state of love itself, we aren't in the realm of science any more. I don't use science to tell me how to love, I just experience it.
Exactly, but interestingly, you don't even have to go to something as lofty as love to run out the aptitude of science. The mere experience of color is a problematic one. Try to explain to a person born blind from birth how to identify blue and distinguish it from other colors without relying on accidental associations (blue is the color of the sky, or your mother's eyes) if he were to be cured. It's not possible. This linguistic disconnect would even be problematic for hypotheses which are linguistic in nature, yet this aspect of our existence doesn't yield to analysis that can be expressed linguistically in and of itself, but only in how it is layered into our experiences. Associations with wavelengths eye structures and neurologically maps just aren't going to shed any light on that and make it any less non-linguistic. We can only refer to it and label it as experienced. It's not some equation that we can dissect further.
But modern neuroscience is starting to be able to probe experience, it's now opening a frontier and again this would be where it would be important to have a strong scientific background where previously it was a philosophical question.

Though on this issue, one of my friends used to do volunteer work at a science centre. He told me a story of one deaf girl who was with her mother going through a sound and colour exhibition. Because she was deaf they were going to skip it, but he decided to try to explain it to her. Long story short, he was able to help the deaf child understand what it was like to listen to music through analogy and an understanding of the science involved. Of course that doesn't touch on the experience of it, but it does illustrate the relationship between the insight that comes from scientific inquiry and the ability to understand it.

I know what you are saying though and I had a similar discussion with gearheded. I came to the conclusion that science itself uses more than one notion of truth, in our understanding of different paradigms. Scientists do indeed say that newtonian physics is false, yet scientists and engineers will also do research and develope technologies and make predictions on the basis of Newtonian physics and they will not think of their conclusions thinking as wrong at all just because it isn't worked out for greater precision than many of our crude scientific devices (ones that don't have anything to do with quantum or relativistic measurements). And even in daily life, when I for example drive down the road, I don't even give it a thought that my speedometer is wrong just because it is not absolutely precise or that I couldn't even read it to such an absolute sense. I understand that there is a pragmatic notion, but when science advances, scientists are very much interested. And yet, when we want to advance science, we do regard some of these theories as false precisely because they fail to be absolute, because when we do with them what we need to do with physical forumulas, extrapolate and predict, they fail. It's because they are not absolutely true that we look for the next theory that succeeds where this one failed. It is very much a persuit towards absoluteness that scientists like Hawking are seeking a "theory for everything".
I think this suffers from the notion that there is a God's eye view of reality and that's all that matters. What I don't get further is how this is a problem for science, it's the strength of the discipline. Perhaps I don't understand what it's like to take an absolutist mindset to anything, but I really don't get why it's a problem that a discipline has fallibility as part of the process. Relativistic physics didn't so much replace Newtonian physics as show that it has boundaries. Newtonian physics is still used because it works, the boundary cases where it doesn't work aren't relevant to engineers.

Remember that I am defending the use of the word knowledge for science. Not Truth™ but knowledge. You're making the case around a word that I'm not trying to use. Again I think you're trying to see things in a very black & white way.

While we could say that low end sciences are looking for pragmatic truths, extending, high end physics are perhaps really after truths favorable to more of a correspondence theory.
I'm not sure how you distinguish between the two. Think of heat death in our universe, it's an implication that came out of a theory initially done to find the greatest efficiency a steam engine can have. Would work done on thermodynamics count as high end or low end physics to you? Is there some demarcation between the two? The puzzles that vexed Darwin from which evolutionary theory arose didn't exactly stem from trying to solve the big question of being, but his theory certainly does hit on that.

Are you saying that because Newtonian physics has been superseded by Relativistic physics that apples hung in mid-air awaiting the outcome?
I actually don't know that relativity completely replaces everything Newtonian. It would motion wise, we just don't use it because the effects are imperceptible and impractical. Is gravity and general relativity the same way? I suppose. So either that part wasn't superceded or the description of apples falling to the ground can be described with far greater accuracy (albeit an unmeasurable and unpragmatic accuracy).
That's irrelevant to my point. There I was distinguishing between facts and theories, that is to say the explanation for why an apple falls isn't needed to know that an apple will fall.

They're justified through repeated inquiry and empirical validation.
until we run into the experiments where they fail to do what these theories are supposed to do, make predictions through extrapolation and then realize the need to do something more accurate. Well, they'er still useful, but again, for the purposes of high end physics, for the purpose of advancing science to explain the fundamentals of the universe, they turn out to be wrong.
Again it seems you're coming from this absolutist mindset. Either we have a god's eye view, or that we can only ever aspire to it. Why does this straw man come up time and time again? I'll state it clearly. Science does not show absolute truth! It cannot by its own methodology, so even if the was such thing as absolute truth there's no way one could come to it through scientific inquiry. But I'm not defending that position and have already gone to great pains to distinguish from it.

Science works, it's neither merely a pragmatic truth nor a view from a hypothetical vantage point. Facts can be known, theories can be validated. It's just not a matter of avoiding falsification but a matter of being able to make good explanations of how things are.

So you recognize that science is inept on some of the most important issues of human meaning.

I don't get why you need to show science inept at answering non-scientific questions. It's like finding triumph in the view that economics is hopeless at cell division. I explained my position before, science in principle can answer questions of just why it is people feel meaning. In principle, it can explain how the feeling of meaning comes about, how we evolved to be able to feel it, and even why it is important to us. But it can't explain what meaning is - those are questions for philosophy, and it can't explain how it is to experience meaning - that is something we find for ourselves.

That you didn't agree with my interpretation or John's interpretation of Hawking doesn't invalidate the discussion that took place.
The statement Stephen Hawking made I find completely non-controversial, it's obvious what he meant by it. Are you honestly going to say that you can tackle issues of cosmology and the fundamentals of our universe without having a good working knowledge of physics? If so, please illustrate. And as for what John said, I can't say what he meant by it but I would agree with such as statement as I have illustrated already. Of course science can explain who we are, if you try to explain anything about the human condition without looking at our evolutionary history then you're doing it wrong. Yet at the same time the questions you are complaining that science can't answer aren't scientific questions. They make so sense to ask scientifically any more than asking a historian to comment on planetary motion, because after all planets have history too...

I wish more skeptics (if that is your perspective) would get it that science isn't everything to our most important pressing questions.
Science isn't everything, of course it isn't. But to try and illustrate one more time of what I mean. Take music. I listen to music that I enjoy. Now lets say that scientists are able to work out exactly why it is I listen to the music I do: that they can to brain scans on me and see what areas of the brain light up, they can look at my genetic code and brain structure to see what kind of patterns are there. And from a whole host of observations and well-supported theories they are able to tell me exactly what music I like and furthermore can recommend me music that would suit me better than everything I listen to currently. Yet I don't need science to tell me what music to listen to, I do it out of the desire for experience.

That doesn't make science inept, on the contrary science can answer many of the pressing questions. When it comes to why we have the attributes we have: evolution. It explains who we are and where we came from and why we are the way we are, there's just no getting around it. Yet in one sense it doesn't matter where we came from because those tools work fine without that knowledge. An accountant can crunch numbers fine without any knowledge of the philosophy of mathematics or the pressing issues surrounding professional mathematicians. Just as I can have a brain fully (in principle) explainable by science which means I'll live my life much in the same way as my ancestors did. The pressing issues that might be important to me are (in principle) explainable by science, but it hardly matters whether they can be explained or not for practical purposes. Because from my subjective experience it doesn't matter why I feel love or empathy or anger, and it doesn't trivialise my experience whether science can explain it or not.

Morning Scepticism: Hijacked

I've always found the question "without God, how do you have meaning?" really odd. Aside from not really seeing how God creates meaning to begin with, those who ask it don't dedicate their lives to God. Apart from believing in God, it's hard to see how their life really differs from mine or anyone else's. The only real functional difference is in the potential for an afterlife and that if you do the wrong thing God might give you brain cancer. Beyond that it's the same reality we reside in. So unless life is dedicated to God then the simple answer is "the same way you do".

Monday, 4 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Reasons

It's not enough that a cuckoo bird lays its egg in that of another bird, but the baby cuckoo then pushes the other eggs out of the nest. The reason for this is to maximise the amount of care for the cuckoo, not that the cuckoo chick realises this. Reasons must exist independent of a mind to represent them, for the cuckoo chick without conscious awareness of its action nonetheless does so because of the benefit for doing it. As agents, we can represent these reasons and from that utilise it. But there's no denying that someone who builds a nut-cracker, a chimpanzee using a rock, or a bird with a strong beak all are for the same reason: they crack nuts.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Craning Morality

Craning Morality

Because a previous attempt to explain morality resulted in an untenable skyhook, here's my bumbling attempt to explain a foundation for morality that doesn't need some magic explanation. The common argument against naturalistic morality is that without a mind moral facts cannot exist, hence any attempt to put forth morality without a moral giver by necessity has to be subjective. While I think there are problems with the notion of a moral-giver (see: The Euthyphro Dilemma), the lack of any naturalistic account is something that is a concern to many.

What morality is
In one sense it should be obvious that morality can be entirely embedded in naturalism, it concerns how we ought to behave. And aside from behaviours that are aimed at the potential next life, behaviour affects here and now. If you steal from someone, while that may result in you reincarnating as a leper in this life the action affects both you and the other person.

Irrespective of whether there's a supernatural, there is still the natural. And since no person is an island, there will inevitably be interactions. And since individuals can have conflicting goals and desires, there will be disputes. Our actions affect others and their actions ours, so it's not hard to see why there's a need for distinction between how one does behave and how one OUGHT to.

I can't think of any mammal that has no social interaction whatsoever; mammary glands pretty much guarantee there's some form of interaction. The reason I bring this up is to highlight that the environment has been shaping us for hundreds of millions of years in how we behave and how we interact with others. The implication being that a lot of how to get on with others is part of who we are already, not that the OUGHT follows from the IS.

Emergent properties
One criticism of naturalism is the statement 2+2=4. This is not a material fact, so the implication is that one needs a mind to hold the statement as true. The reason mathematics works, it is stipulated, is that God holds the mathematical truth as universal. Which upon the slightest reflection is absurd. When you combine a banana with another banana, it's not that you have 2 bananas on God's insistence. The relationship would exist independent of a mind. It's just that we have a mind that can recognise that fact.

I bring this up because I believe moral facts exist in such the same way. Looking for morality in an atom is about as valid as looking for mathematics. You can't scientifically show what a 2 is, it's an abstract concept after all, but it would be downright absurd to think that it requires anything more than naturalism.

A knife doesn't cut because of the infinite imagination of the designer, it cuts for the same reason a sharp rock does. A rock doesn't need to be designed or have any mind behind it to cut, again it's am emergent property that a designer than look to use. A bird's beak can crush the shell of a nut, likewise so can a chimpanzee with a rock. The only difference is that the rock technology is a sign of intelligence while the beak is just natural selection at work.

Moral facts could exist in much the same way. As animals we need to eat, to not eat is to bring duress and eventually a painful death. This is a fact to contend with when confronted with a starving man. This fact might be weighed along with a whole host of other moral facts, think of a doctor cutting off an arm to prevent an infection spreading compared with someone chopping off another's arm because he didn't like the man. There's loss of the arm and the pain in both cases, yet it would be hard to say both actions are the same. The doctor's taking into the fact that his action would save the patient's life.

If for example sex didn't have an emotional bond to it, that would surely change how people feel about sex outside of a relationship. That there are issues such as the breakdown of trust and jealousy as it stands wouldn't be taken into consideration if they weren't there.

Other minds
Because no man is an island, and philosophical zombies make for little more than good solipsism, the question becomes how as someone who interacts, cooperates, and competes with others deals with the fact that others they are dealing with are also in that position. We are dealing with the problem that other people may have different or competing interests to us.

A way to think about this is flocking. Certain birds flock, and there is advantage in doing so. But flocking is an emergent phenomenon, no top-down flock-maker to keep the flock together. If birds were just flying randomly then there would be no flock, so there must be some order to it. Yet all any individual bird is doing is obeying a few rules in local conditions and the form of a flock is emergent from that. If any bird doesn't obey these rules and just flies randomly then they could lose the benefit gained from being part of that flock.

Yet what if a bird could think about how best to flock, one that would be able to see the process unfold and see a way that gives greater efficiency and protection. If the bird tried to do it alone then the bird would be put at a disadvantage and the new technique not adopted. But suppose the bird could tell others and other birds could think it through and then take it on board.

As intelligent agents with somewhat of a reliance on culture, we are able to do that. We can reflect on those hard-wired beliefs and even our cultural ones and see whether they are the best they can be. This can be done not just for our own ends (though we can do that) but beyond that too. By having others follow particular rules it could lead to greater societal outcomes.

Why bother?
Of course even if there were moral facts and we can recognise the best of them, it still leads the question as to why we should follow them? The answer should be pretty obvious, it's in your own self-interest to do so. Two reasons for this: personal and societal. Acting for gain against the moral facts can harm others which can in turn affect your relationships with others, as well as the problem that such behaviour has on society in general. Steal and people will be less trusting, not just of you but of people in general. This relationship isn't only for negative actions but for positive ones too.

The problem of other minds is that other minds have the same dilemma facing them. They have to make choices about what's in their best interest just as much as you do. Any decisions must be inherently subjective, because while they may largely overlap each person is doing what they think is best. The Golden Rule, the bastion of ethical thought exemplifies that the process is inherently subjective isn't necessarily a bad thing. But it does leave the problem of what others OUGHT to do beyond having them act in your best interests.

But questions of motivation are necessarily subjective, the advantage we have as individuals is the ability to influence others and think through our actions, of how we OUGHT to behave. We can modify our behaviour and in part the behaviour of others. Like the flock of birds, we shouldn't need anything more than individuals acting within a small set of rules that the flock pattern is emergent, rather than trying to maintain the flock pattern by getting individuals to to fly within some magical construct of what a flock ought to be.

Morning Scepticism: Hammer

Like building a good toolkit, acquiring an array of mind-tools is something immensely useful for practical thinking. Anyone can pick up a hammer and swing it without much training, but can we expect anyone to be able to think scientifically with facts alone any more than giving someone a router, some wood, and plans and expect them to build a cabinet? Perhaps it is too much to expect people to be able to take on board science without first preparing their minds for scientific thinking. And if they've formed beliefs on science before they've learned to think then psychology suggests that they most likely will never lose their unscientific beliefs.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Libertarianism

Let's say that libertarianism is the best political system the world has ever seen. We could determine this by looking at the failings of other systems then check to see whether those failings exist in libertarianism. If they don't or at the very least are no worse than other systems, then you have to conclude that libertarianism is the only political system worth considering...

... the sad thing about this kind of rhetoric is the frequency which I encounter it. Start with the premise that libertarianism is great then defend against any faults others perceive. This way doesn't specify what reasons to suppose libertarianism is a good political position to begin with, but that's not what presuppositional apologetics is for. It's designed to steel an idea against criticism, not extol its virtues. It's nothing more than a rhetorical trick, but expressing moral outrage over being taxed doesn't fly with everyone.

Friday, 1 October 2010


"Everything is the way it is because it got that way" - J. B. S. Haldane

Morning Scepticism: Carbon

It's obviously true that the universe has to be in such a way as to permit our existence, otherwise we wouldn't be here to comment on it! Those who invoke the anthropic principle in evidence of a cosmic designer are merely pushing the argument from design from our biology to explaining biology itself. It's an argument that concedes that evolution works, but only because a designer made evolution. But I suppose they have a point, how else do we explain the size of a carbon atom without concluding that it's because God loves us?