Saturday, February 04, 2012

Moving on

Hi all. I'm officially closing this blog. It's over a year since I've last posted, so this probably won't come as a surprise to anyone.

Why, then, am I bothering to close it? Why not just leave it up in case I feel like re-starting in future?

Well, if I re-started, it probably wouldn't be here. My views are the same, but my pre-occupations are very different. These days I'm more of an economics geek than a science geek. I don't enjoy arguing with creationists or Christians. I have a slightly higher dating success rate. And I try not to wear my heart on my sleeve so much.

In short, a lot of the stuff on this blog would now be moderately embarrassing for me if it were ever linked to my real identity. Not so much because it's wrong, but because it doesn't match the image I present. Having someone find your early blog postings is like having your mum show them your baby photos.

At some point I may start blogging somewhere else, either under another pseudonym or with my real name. If you're interested in finding out where, leave a comment on this post.

So long and thanks for all the fish comments.
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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Theistic argument run-down

In a recent blog post, Larry Moran raised the question: what are the best arguments for God? The subtext here is that apologists and "faitheists" are always claiming that there are sophisticated arguments for God out there, but rarely seem to be able to describe them.

One commenter, Martin, has risen to the challenge:

A few off the top of my head:

1. Kalam cosmological argument
2. Argument from contingency
3. Plantinga's modal ontological argument
4. Maydole's modal perfection ontological argument
5. Fine-tuning arguments
6. Argument from reason
7. Evolutionary argument against naturalism
8. Moral arguments
9. is loaded with arguments

Not bad, and kudos to Martin for actually coming up with some concrete claims. Ideally he would have said which of these arguments he finds most convincing, but that's a different issue. Let's have a look down the list.

1. The Kalam cosmological argument

This is a variant of the standard fine-tuning argument, employed by apologist William Lane Craig. The standard version takes as its premise that anything that exists has a prior cause. This lays it open to the reductio ad absurdum that, since God allegedly exists, He too must have a prior cause (a meta-God), who must also have had a cause (a meta-meta-God) and so on. Not a terribly elegant explanation.

The Kalam version simply states that everything that has a beginning has a prior cause. Since God is conjectured not to have had a beginning, He therefore doesn't need a cause. Since the universe is conjectured to have had a beginning, it does need a cause, and God fits nicely into the gap.

This argument has attracted a range of criticisms. In particular, it has been argued that things do appear without prior cause all the time in quantum mechanics. Various effects in QM only make sense if "virtual particles" are continually appearing from nothing (in pairs so as not to violate principles of symmetry) and vanishing again.

Craig's defence is that these events don't really count because the particles aren't coming from nothing; they're arising from fluctuations in the background energy field of the universe. This is technically accurate. But it means it's Craig's assumption is impossible to test. If anything within the universe can take the universe as its "prior cause", what exactly would count as a refutation?

There are of course other criticisms, but I only have the one evening. At the very least, though, this argument cannot be considered a "proof" in the same league as mathematical proofs or scientific theories. Like most extant philosophical proofs it is linguistically fuzzy, and it relies heavily on intuitions that are of dubious worth in a non-Euclidean universe.

2. Argument from contingency

A big topic in philosophy has been the study of the distinction between "necessary" truths (1+1=2 can't not be true) and "contingent" truths ("Lifewish is sitting in front of a keyboard" is true but could be false). There is an entire system of logic designed for drawing these distinctions.

The theistic argument from contingency (aka the modal cosmological argument) basically points out that it is really really difficult to reason from the existence of necessary truths to the existence of contingent truths. Basically, how did the first universe-like thing (whether that be this universe, another universe, or something more exotic like an M-brane) come about?

Since the universe is contingent, it is argued, there must have been something to start it off. God, who is assumed to be necessary, is considered a good candidate for this.

I haven't even looked into this one and already I can see a few refutations. For example, under what circumstances can necessary things give rise to contingent things? If it is easy for this to happen, could there not be a necessary thing other than God that's capable of the task? If it is hard, how come God can do it? Intuitively it seems odd that a necessary God could give rise to a contingent universe; how would He know which universe to create out of the various options?

It's also open to question in what sense the universe is contingent. Even if it is contingent, maybe it's part of a multiverse that is in some sense necessary. There are various other options to be considered, any one of which is enough to screw up the chain of logic.

Again, this argument is a nice philosophical tetherball to play with, but it is not terribly convincing to anyone who isn't already convinced. It exhibits basically the same cracks as all the other regress arguments, albeit with a slightly fancier wallpaper covering.

3. Plantinga's modal ontological argument

The classic ontological argument is: imagine the greatest God it's possible to imagine. If that God were real, He would be even greater. But then He wouldn't be the greatest God it's possible to imagine. For consistency with our initial premise, we have to assume that this God is real.

Plantinga's variant attempts to translate the fuzzy concept of "imagine" into more rigorous modal logic (the logic of "possible worlds"). First, assume that, in some possible world, there is a God that is "maximally excellent" (I love that phrase, it's very Bill and Ted).

But a maximally excellent God would presumably have the power to reach into other possible universes than their own (otherwise you can imagine an even more bodacious deity). So they'd be maximally excellent in all possible worlds, including our one.

This argument seems to have been absolutely slated by every philosopher who looks at it, including Plantinga himself. (See here for discussion.) Plantinga argues that, since the premises are "rational" (by which I think he means "not obviously daft"), the conclusion must be rational.

All I can say to that is: rational? You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means. To me, and to most other skeptics, "rational" has a higher meaning than just "too complicated to understand, let alone critique". Security through obscurity is a bad principle to build a worldview on.

4. Maydole's modal perfection ontological argument

This is a relatively recent argument, and I hadn't come across it before. The original paper is behind a paywall, so I'm forced to rely on this forum post.

On investigation, this proof is like every other modal "proof" I've read: it smuggles in its conclusion via a complicated statement that sounds plausible until you think about what it actually means.

The statement: "If it's possible that there exists an x that is an F, then there exists an x so that it's possible that x is an F."

How it's being used: "If supremacy is possible then there must exist something that's potentially supreme."

Using this starting point, Maydole pulls a cunning trick. There is a standard theorem in modal logic that if something is possibly impossible then it's impossible. This makes more sense if you translate it differently: "If, from the viewpoint of some possible world, X is false in every possible world, then X is false".

By defining supremacy in terms of impossibilities, Maydole uses this theorem to create a sort of "potential world contagion" in a similar way to Plantinga's argument. Once the walls between possible universes are broken down, the possibility of God becomes the proof of God.

How to criticise this argument? Difficult without spending a full blog post on it - as with Plantinga's variant, the argument's main defence is its length (and I still only have the one evening). To start with, though, I would note that, in the version I linked to, statement P3 does not actually follow from statement M2.

I suspect that this error is a side-effect of the forum member's attempt to boil the argument down. But it demonstrates how fragile the argument is as a whole... and how little progress I can make without access to the original paper. I may research it in more depth at a later date if anyone is remotely interested.

5. Fine-tuning arguments

These have been refuted to death. The basic form is:

1) The universe (or some part of it) has a certain property with a certain value.
2) Human life wouldn't be able to tolerate a different value of that property.
3) Therefore God fine-tuned that property, because He cares about us so much.

Classic refutations:

1) Human life might not exist if the property were different... but some other wildly different lifeform might. In a universe with four dimensions, I wouldn't be typing this blog post. But a fifty-armed intelligent plasma cloud might be.

(See also Douglas Adams' puddle analogy).

2) Even if the property's value was an amazing slam-dunk, how many shots were there at the hoop? Many modern physical theories require there to be a ridiculously large number of alternate universes, each with slightly different attributes. Maybe we're just in the one of them that happened to be habitable?

(Note that there is no extant physical theory that requires God to exist...)

3) If God cares so much about getting the environment right for us, why is 99.9999etc percent of the universe uninhabitable vacuum? Why is 99.86% of the solar system's mass stuck inside the Sun, rather than being used to make more habitable planets? Why is 71% of the Earth's surface covered by relatively unhelpful water rather than fertile soil? God does not seem to be going out of His way to make things easy for us; why should the "fine-tuned" property be His one exception?

6. Argument from reason

Here I assume that Martin is referring to the transcendental argument. Roughly stated: in a Godless universe there's no obvious reason to think we'd be able to come to accurate conclusions. So, by arguing about anything (including God's existence), we are implicitly conceding that He exists.

I like to think of this as the Argument from It's My Ball And You Can't Play With It.

There are two really insanely obvious counters to this. Firstly, the ability to accurately model the behaviour of things confers a strong survival advantage. So we'd expect it to crop up occasionally in evolved species.

Such a creature might not be capable of discovering Ultimate Truths. But there's a pretty strong argument that we don't do that either.

Secondly, even if there were no Godless cause for rationality, this argument doesn't explain why God would be any more likely to create thinking organisms. Why would God not create mad creatures? Only by positing a very very specific God - a God that's naturally inclined to create sane humans - can we get to the conclusion. But then we might as well just posit a universe that is inclined to give rise to sane humans, and save ourselves the trouble of coming up with a proper causal explanation. This would make biology classes a lot shorter...

(In fact, many prominent believers have claimed that reason is in some way inferior. Why would God sully His hands with such an invention?)

Without dealing with both these counterarguments, the "argument from reason" is dead in the water.

7. Evolutionary argument against naturalism

This is just Plantinga's rehash of argument #6, focusing on the question of whether evolution can give rise to "true" rationality. Given his complete lack of understanding of evolutionary biology, I'm going with "no"...

See here for more discussion, if you're really keen. If you're a veteran of the Darwin Wars, or you're familiar with the classical transcendental argument, there's not a lot of interest here.

8. Moral arguments

In brief: people do good stuff, therefore God.

We're really scraping the bottom of the barrel here, I'm afraid. The evolution of morality has been studied in truly obscene depth (see for example Matt Ridley's book The Origin of Virtue). It turns out that, in a vast range of situations, moral behaviour follows directly from evolutionary premises.

For example, around some coral reefs there are big fish who get food stuck in their teeth. There are smaller fish who clean their teeth for them (thus getting a free meal). But what's to stop the feeder fish from eating the cleaner fish that groom them?

It turns out this does occasionally happen. But the cleaner fish have got very good at distinguishing individual feeder fish, and can recognise a back-stabber they've seen previously. So any feeder fish that goes rogue soon runs out of targets. It also doesn't get its teeth cleaned, which is not good if you've got a hot date in the evening.

It's harder to account for "heroic" (read: suicidal) morality - people throwing themselves on grenades and so on. However, I'd like to draw your attention to the principle of overcommitment. This says: I will do what I've promised to do, and I will do it in a really over-the-top fashion.

This can have useful effects. For example, if you're the kind of person who goes psycho and beats the crap out of people if they spill your beer, no-one is going to come near your glass. The "mutually-assured destruction" of nuclear war is another example. Paradoxically, by gaining a reputation as a nutter, you can

The converse is also true. By becoming the very avatar of all that is nice and friendly, you can get people to give you more slack than you'd get any other way. Think of the respect people have for those who spend their lives and money on charitable causes. It's an excellent way to get girls.

The problem with this is that you have to keep doing it. The moment you throw a comrade on the hand grenade rather than jumping on it yourself, your cover is blown (even if you aren't...).

9. is loaded with arguments

Maybe so. But at this point I'll draw your attention to a famous quote by Einstein. On being informed that the Nazis had published a booklet called "100 Scientists against Relativity", he commented "if they were right, one would have been enough".

Similarly, if God existed, one truly solid demonstration would be worth a hundred of the half-baked "proofs" I've dissected above.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Best skeptical film ever

Watson: You know, Holmes, I've seen things in war I don't understand. In India I once met a man who predicted his own death, right down to the number and the placement of the bullets that killed him. You have to admit, Holmes, that a supernatural explanation to this case is theoretically possible.

Holmes: Oh, agreed. But... It is a huge mistake to theorise without data. Inevitably one begins to twist facts to suit theories, rather than theories to suit facts.

- Sherlock Holmes (2009)

I am convinced that the scriptwriter for this film is a guerilla skeptic. It's bloody marvellous to see someone taking the mickey out of credulity, rather than the usual attitude of "it's not mainstream therefore it must be right".

Another great moment is the hilarious gypsy fortune-teller Holmes employs to try and scare Watson off getting married ("Oh, I see patterned tablecloths... oh... and china figurines, and... ugh! Lace doilies!"). And there's more, but first I should issue a SPOILER ALERT.

As it turns out, the villain (Lord Blackwood) has built an entire evil master-plan based on convincing people he has mystical powers. The first time we see him is overseeing the sacrifice of a young woman. When confronted by Holmes and Watson, he lures Watson into charging at him with violent intent.

And if Holmes hadn't been there, Watson would have died right then, untouched by human hand... Holmes stops Watson and points out the so-thin-it's-invisible skewer of glass extending from Blackwood's fingers to just in front of Watson's nose.

Trick 2: When in prison, Blackwood appears to put a spell of some kind on a warden, leaving him struggling in agony on the floor. This is a simple one to solve: the warden was bribed. Never underestimate the profit motive.

Trick 3: Blackwood is sentenced to death and hanged. But death is only the beginning! The stone on his tomb is broken, apparently from the inside, and his grave is empty (of Blackwood, anyway).

Holmes' solution: a special waistcoat with a hook near the throat, and the collaboration of the hangman (more bribery), allow Blackwood to survive his hanging. A drug-induced coma allows him to deceive the medical examiner. The tombstone was pre-broken then stuck back together with a water-soluble glue. When it rained the night after Blackwood's hanging, the glue dissolved and the stone fell apart under its own weight, releasing Blackwood.

Trick 4: It turns out that Blackwood's intended power base is a mystical (credulous) secret society that includes several MPs, judges, etc. One of the steps he uses to convince them of his "power" is to kill the Order's leader in his bath, again untouched by human hand.

Solution: A chemical painted round the rim of the bath that reacts with water to produce a rather nasty acid. Once the police drain the bath ("out of common decency" - idiots), the chemical is effectively undetectable. OK, so that's not exactly one you could figure out at home, but it's definitely another point for skepticism's scoreboard.

Anyway, you get the idea. There are some wonderful lines in it as well. My current favourite:

Member of the Order: "We know you don't believe in magic, Mr Holmes. We don't expect you to share our faith, merely our fear."
Holmes: "Of the two, fear is the more efficacious condition."

Well said, Holmes. Well said.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Oh the horror.

Taxpayers are funding the purchase of pornography for sperm donors, screams The Sun, with its usual tone of faux outrage (remember, this is the newspaper that invented Page 3).

According to other reports, men who come in for sperm donation are routinely provided with "porn magazines, a cup of tea and a biscuit".

But this misses the most important question...

...What kind of tea, precisely? Earl Grey is one thing, but in my opinion Assam is a perversion of all things holy.
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Thursday, September 09, 2010

In the news: Qur'an burning

Burn a Koran Day will go ahead.

OK, so I don't agree with fundamentalist Christians on a lot. Here's a list of exceptions to that rule.

1) They have every right to burn the Koran without fear of physical reprisal, either from their government or from other citizens.

2) They should have that right (and I'd feel the same if they were burning a book I valued).

3) People really are more afraid of upsetting Muslims than Christians.

4) Although I'm not terribly impressed by the individuals involved here, the real assholes of the piece are the folks in predominantly Islamic countries who whip up a riot at the drop of the hat.

Regarding point #4, can Gen. Petraeus & co please note: these people cannot be placated. They cannot be bought off by our silence on religious matters. And this is because they're not really doing it for religious reasons; they're doing it because it enhances their personal power in their local community.

As long as there are people who have a personal incentive to riot, riots will continue to happen. (If no excuse comes along, they'll make stuff up.) It's simple socioeconomics.

It's like trying to talk rationally with a belligerent drunk bloke who's accusing you of spilling his drink in a pub. It doesn't matter whether you really spilled his drink. He's not there to talk rationally, he's there to thump someone. All you can do is ignore, evade, or punch back.

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Monday, September 06, 2010

Was it something I said?

Last weekend, a gay guy tried to pick me up* at a club.

This doesn't bother me; if anything it's rather flattering. It's a free country and, although I happen to be straight, I'm not freaked out by people who aren't. I just did what I always did: acted friendly but noncommittal and ignored the fact that my forearm was being gently squeezed...

(Incidentally, this is great for helping me empathise with women in the same situation. But I digress.)

What does bother me is that this happens with curious regularity. Everywhere I go - pubs, clubs, bars - inebriated gay guys try to hit on me. I seem to have far more (inadvertent) success with homosexual males than I do with heterosexual females. Am I giving out mixed signals or something? Do I register a false positive on gaydar?

Inquiring minds want to know.

* Not literally, I'm 6'4" and 16stone so he'd have needed to be Arnold Schwarzeneggar. Who, as far as I'm aware, is not gay.
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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Religion stuff

There's a middle-aged couple who run the dry-cleaners down the road from me. In the past I've been a regular there, financial jobs like mine having a high formal-suit quotient. So I've got to know them quite well.

They're lovely people. Immigrants from Rajasthan (largest state in India), they've been over here a couple of decades now. They're really friendly and always make me feel welcome.

They're also quite religious. Once upon a time that would have been a problem for me, not because it bothered me but because it would start me ranting. I'd debated the God question online for so long that the thread of the argument had burned its way into my brain. In recent years I've been trying to train myself to resist this compulsion.

So when we started chatting about it, I did my best to shut up and listen. And what I learned was quite interesting to me. I've always been fascinated by small religions, and this couple are both passionate about one I hadn't ever heard of before, called "Santmat" (roughly: the way of the saints).

Santmat is a classic "medley" religion. Just as Sikhism originated in an attempt to meld Hinduism with Islam, Santmat claims that each of these groups has an equally valid handle on the truth. In particular, they each have genuine gurus, or saints - individuals in whom the spark of the divine burns most strongly.

In the usual three-blind-men-and-an-elephant fashion, these saints all perceive the same divinity, but interpret it to their followers in a way that is appropriate to the time and place in which they operate. Saying that one religion is truer than another is nonsensical; if each has a true saint at its heart, they are just as valid. If you don't find one religion convincing, that just means that you're not destined to become a follower of that particular guru.

For this reason, I'm not entirely sure that Santmat can be considered a religion in the normal sense. It's more a philosophy, a system for putting all the other religions in context. The part that does count as a religion is the Radha Soami Satsang Beas, which is a group formed around a particular lineage of saints.

Each of these gurus made more converts for the Radha Soami movement. The sociology of this is interesting. You must remember that in Santmat, the important thing is the saint you follow rather than the name you call your religion. So followers of each guru tend to see themselves as distinct from the other "waves".

For example, my friends from the dry-cleaners were converted by the guru Maharaj Charan Singh Ji. Although he passed away in 1990, I think they feel a stronger affinity for him and his "generation" of believers than they do for the current guru (Baba Gurinder Singh Ji, Charan Singh's successor). Certainly the religious literature they've been feeding me seems to focus on him. There's no acrimony; your choice of guru to follow is as personal as your choice of woman to fall in love with, and people aren't expected to have the same preference.

Generally a rather nice, innocent religious group, with no blots on its history. So do I find them convincing? Am I going to find a guru of my own?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is: probably not. Firstly, of course, I find their cosmology unconvincing. I don't see any particular reason to believe that we have souls, for example.

The Santmat rebuttal here is: I don't believe in souls because I listen to scientists; they do believe in souls because they listen to saints. We've just chosen different gurus.

But this misses the point. In short: how do you choose a guru?*

The Santmat approach is your basic touchy-feely "you just know he's the one" kind of thing. But this is a problem for me because, back in the material world, many people have felt like that about some very scary characters. Hitler was considered quite the role model at one point, as was Stalin (still is, in some circles).

So, in situations where we can test how good people are at picking good gurus, we find the answer is: not very.

But that's kinda nihilistic. If people are bad at choosing trustworthy gurus, how do I know my scientists can be trusted? After all, there are some scandals in the history of science too (cold fusion, Hwang Woo-suk's cloning research, I could go on all day).

The answer is nicely paradoxical. I trust the scientific community because I don't have to. They don't expect me to. When they tell me something, they also present me with the data to back it up, and the method that gave rise to that data, and I can go away and confirm it all for myself.

By and large I don't bother to check the data - it'd be very time-consuming and expensive. Fortunately, there are lots of other scientists who are generally willing to replicate experiments, especially interesting or controversial ones. Scientists keep each other honest.

I don't see any evidence that gurus have that kind of skeptical mindset. Until I do, I won't be believing in souls.

* I should mention that this question is explicitly raised in one of their books (ch2 of The Science of Spirituality). Sadly, I don't think they actually answer in plain language. As far as I can tell, the chapter just boils down to: you'll know him/her when you see him/her.

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