Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Pissing off Pirsig

I've just been rereading my recent post on "the art of religion", and I'm getting a strange feeling of deja vu. There are a lot of concepts in there that, on reflection, I blatantly nicked out of the early chapters of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert M Pirsig. This is the book that this blog was supposed to be about, back when I thought I'd be able to blog with discipline (ha!).

In ZAMM, Pirsig splits the world into two viewpoints: "classical" (logical, structured, analytic) and "romantic" (intuitive, free-flowing, perceptual). This is precisely what I was describing as the "scientific" and "artistic" approaches. So far so plagiaristic good.

But Pirsig spends the rest of the book dumping on this classification. He points out that the urge to classify viewpoints is itself a product of the classical approach. True romantics don't even think in terms of sciences and arts; all that they see is whether stuff resonates with them, whether it turns them on or off.

This also maps directly onto my post. It's noticeable that many people who are religious for "artistic" reasons like to describe their beliefs as scientific (e.g. scientology, Christian science, scientific creationism). This can be seen as a side-effect of their romantic viewpoint - they like the connotations of the word "science", so they attach it to their beliefs. Questions of whether this label is appropriate are as irrelevant as they are ugly.

I'm trying to say what I mean here without coming across as snide, which is quite difficult given that I'm about as analytical as it gets. I honestly don't mean to denigrate this behaviour - it's only from my viewpoint that it seems inappropriate. One could argue that the reverse behaviour - describing scientific concepts as beautiful - is just as inappropriate, and I'm guilty of that all the time.

Still, it's surprisingly hard for me to breach Pirsig's divide and see the world in terms of art not science. It's also mind-expanding, tolerance-inducing, and all that good stuff.

I'm aware that some people are bothered by my description of religion as an art rather than a science. If you're one of them, I'm more than happy to discuss whether religion succeeds or fails as a science - drop me a line in the comments section.

I'm still working in a different country from my primary source of intarweb, so it may be a few days before I respond.
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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Still scary

Read Flowers For Algernon again today. It still seriously freaks me out. I'm definitely developing a love/hate relationship with that book.

On the other hand, the existentialist dread it induced did inspire me to go jogging. Causing low-level damage to one's leg muscles is very life-affirming.
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Saturday, May 10, 2008

How to do it

Let's say you're a creationist, and you've decided to make a lot of noise about evolution. So you reach for your keyboard and start typing:

"The human eye is composed of so many different interlocking parts that it can't possibly have..."

STOP RIGHT THERE! You've just fallen for a schoolboy error: you're about to make an argument for which thorough, accurate and catchy refutations are available. Probably you read this argument in an ISCID pamphlet, right? Didn't you consider that evilutionists may also have read that pamphlets, and prepared themselves to rebut its claims?

Instead, and I cannot emphasise this enough, you should pick an argument that they haven't come across before. Dembski actually had the more mathematically-inclined evilutionists feeling uncertain for a bit. Behe managed to look convincing for at least half an hour. I repeat: the best arguments refer to areas of academia the evilutionist is unlikely to have hitherto explored.

Exhibit A:

"It's simple, really, but the best ideas always are. Make a graph whose vertices are all possible genotypes with two vertices connected if they are one mutational step away from each other. That graph is isomorphic to a Cayley graph of a certain matrix group with respect to a standard generating set. (Surely that's obvious?) Such Cayley graphs attach in a natural way to arithmetic Riemann surfaces, as I explained in obnoxious detial in Chapter Five of my thesis. It is now a consequence of Selberg's eigenvalue conjecture for such surfaces (which everyone just knows is true) that these graphs have weak expansion properties. That is, they have relatively small Cheeger constants, which implies that they fracture easily. Which in turn implies that evolution by natural selection can not move efficiently through the graph. QED."

Pure genius at work!
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Monday, May 05, 2008

The art of religion

Henry Neufeld is a really nice guy. He's one of those folks who, if he was a church leader in my area, I'd probably go to church with just for the sake of having more fun discussions. It helps that he has a fair amount of respect for skeptical atheism - and, unlike 99.99% of religious people, he actually understands what it means to be a skeptical atheist.

As a result, my discussions with him tend to throw up a significant number of conceptual gems. In particular, I draw your attention to this post on his site: Believing in Words and Symbols. The underlying theme is that he really only has one core belief: that there is Something out there. Everything else - the Trinity, the Resurrection - is really just a language, a set of myths that seem to convey the feelings he experiences.

It was only once I'd heard this concept expressed clearly that I realised I'd come across it before. Looking back, a number of books I've read and people I've spoken to have touched on the same thought: that the important part of religion is the central Mystery, and the rest is just the clothes we put on it. It seems to be a fairly common theme in the more mystical variants of religion - consider the Gnostic creation myths, for example, or the Buddhist koans. This kind of religion isn't a science - it doesn't claim to describe the universe exactly. Rather, it is an art that allows people to express their deep feelings more clearly.

Possibly the only reason I'm seeing this common thread so clearly is that I've reached a point in my personal journey where I'm able to appreciate it. When I was younger, I spent an inordinate amount of time making what I might describe as a scientific sweep of religion, searching through the stewpot of superstition for anything that might have real applications. I wanted to dissect demons, bottle angels, and unleash whatever power the mind might have.

Sadly, I was born too late. Whilst the early scientists might have deduced vaccines and antibiotics from old wives' tales, in this day and age almost anything useful in religion has already been ripped from its clutches and absorbed into the realm of science. There are no demons, no angels, and the only consequence of trying to "unleash the mind" is a mild headache.

These days I'm attempting a more sophisticated analysis of religion - what might be described as a psychological sweep. Religion is a wonderful resource for students of psychology. Since very little reality-based testing occurs, it tends to attract and retain superb examples of cognitive bias and glitching. I'm of the strong suspicion that some of these are universal bugs features of the human brain - the question is which ones and why.

On a more complimentary note, religious traditions often contain ways of dealing with common cognitive issues that more "rational" approaches leave out. To quote Anton LaVey:

"One of the greatest of all fallacies about the practice of ritual magic is the notion that one must believe in the powers of magic before one can be harmed or destroyed by them. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as the most receptive victims of curses have always been the greatest scoffers. The reason is frighteningly simple. The uncivilized tribesman is the first to run to his nearest witch-doctor or shaman when he feels a curse has been placed upon him by an enemy. The threat and presence of harm is with him consciously, and belief in the power of the curse is so strong that he will take every precaution against it. Thus, through the application of sympathetic magic, he will counteract any harm that might come his way. This man is watching his step, and not taking any chances.

On the other hand, the 'enlightened' man, who doesn't place any stock in such 'superstition', relegates his instinctive fear of the curse to his unconscious, thereby nourishing it into a phenomenally destructive force that will multiply with each succeeding misfortune. Of course, every time a new setback occurs, the non-believer will automatically deny any connection with the curse, especially to himself. The emphatic conscious denial of the potential of the curse is the very ingredient that will create its success, through setting-up of accident prone situations. In many instances, the victim will deny any magical significance to his fate, even unto his dying gasp - although the magician is perfectly satisfied, so long as his desired results occur. It must be remembered that it matters not whether anyone attaches any significance to your working, so long as the results of the working are in accordance with your will. The super-logician will always explain the connection of the magical ritual to the end result as 'coincidence'."

Ever since reading this, I've taken to "warding off bad luck" by drawing a favourite symbol on my chest whenever I feel I'm tempting fate. It works surprisingly well.

Evidently this useful little trick was incorporated into Catholic doctrine a while back, and has lurked there ever since. What other gems of wisdom are waiting to be separated from the dross of accumulated memes?
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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Plantinga's unnatural naturalism

So, firstly, I'm back off holiday. Secondly, the rest of my life is starting to settle down. I currently work in a different country from the one I live in, which is causing some problems, but that still leaves me with the occasional snippet of time for blogging.

Thirdly, my sister just started a new module of her Philosophy degree: religious philosophy. Needless to say, this has resulted in many fun discussions. So far, though, it's all been window-dressing - I know the arguments inside out. Most of it stopped being interesting a while back, which is why these days I'm more focused on religious psychology.

One guy that did catch my attention, though, was Alvin Plantinga. This guy gets points for coming far closer than average to a reasonable summary of the skeptical atheist position. However, he still commits some howlers at time, which IMO betray a comparative ignorance of science and, in particular, evolutionary biology.

As an example, I draw your attention to his "paper" (actually more a lecture transcript) An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Eschewing all the philosophical language, the central point is that Godless rationality is self-defeating, since brains that evolved by natural selection don't give a damn about truth as long as they carry on surviving and breeding.

Anyone who's been in the skepticism trenches for a while will recognise this as a variant on the transcendental argument, aka the Argument from It's My Ball And You Can't Play With It. This is one of the more annoying arguments for God because any counter-argument you make can itself be interpreted by the theist as more self-refuting rationalism. Plantinga, however, lays the argument out clearly enough that the fault lines are visible, which is why I like him.

In his article, he summarises the evolutionary position as "beliefs are adaptive". He then uses a neat example to show why this could lead to "pathological beliefs" (beliefs that are adaptive but false) as easily as true ones. Imagine a critter that enjoyed petting vicious tigers, but thought that the best way to pet a tiger was to run very fast in the opposite direction. Then its beliefs would lead to the most survival-enhancing result (legging it) so would be selected for, despite being completely unreflective of reality.

Extending this logic further, the claim is made that a brain produced by unassisted evolution will not be particularly adept at picking true beliefs; rather, it will pick beliefs that cause survival. Hence, if we were produced by evolution, our cognitive systems would be so unreliable that we couldn't justifiably say we were produced by evolution. Catch-22.

There are two objections to this argument, one obvious and the other subtle. The obvious one is the classic "stopped clock" issue: although the critter's behaviour turned out for the best this one time, that doesn't mean it'll be effective in general. Plantinga's critter is going to spend far too much time running away from cute little bunny rabbits, which is a waste of time and resources. So its beliefs are still soundly beaten by the more reality-based position that tigers are scary and scary things should be run away from.

The subtle objection is to Plantinga's characterisation of the evolutionary position. What he is describing is not belief formation in humans. It is closer to belief formation (or the creation of equivalent neurochemical constructs) in nematode worms. Nematodes have only a few "beliefs", so it is possible for evolution to act on each of the worm's underlying rules-of-thumb in turn.

Humans operate by a different method. We are selected on the basis of our belief creation methodology - the generator of our beliefs - rather than the individual beliefs themselves. From evolution's perspective, this is massively more efficient because, rather than selecting for billions of different rules, you can just select for one generator and let it get on with it. The resulting creature will be able to adjust its beliefs on the fly when it meets new evidence, and will hence be more effective.

It's not immediately obvious whether there exist "pathological generators" that could reliably produce pathological beliefs, but I'd strongly suspect not. However, I'm open to informed argument.
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