Thursday, March 05, 2015

AT&T update: out of the frying pan, into the fire

An update on our on-going nightmare with AT&T: after two weeks, four technician visits to our house, and I don't know how many phone calls to CSRs and supervisors, they were finally able to get our internet connection back up and running today.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that somehow they managed to break our phone line in the process.  It was working this morning, but just as the internet tech was leaving we noticed that we didn't have a dial tone on our main phone line any more.  We've been down for a few hours now and they have not been able to figure out what the problem is, except that as far as anyone can tell, the problem is far upstream of our house, and the fact that it happened at the same time that we were fiddling with the internet connection is just a coincidence.

But it's a damned odd coincidence.  Damned annoying too.

[UPDATE:] They fixed it.  Whew!

Monday, March 02, 2015

A libertarian data point

We don't have to wonder what life would be like if the Ayn Rand faction of the American TEA party has its way.  They are doing that experiment in Honduras.  The results, unsurprisingly, are not pretty:
[T]he police ride around in pickup trucks with machine guns, but they aren’t there to protect most people. They are scary to locals and travelers alike. For individual protection there’s an army of private, armed security guards who are found in front of not only banks, but also restaurants, ATM machines, grocery stores and at any building that holds anything of value whatsoever. Some guards have uniforms and long guns but just as many are dressed in street clothes with cheap pistols thrust into waistbands. The country has a handful of really rich people, a small group of middle-class, some security guards who seem to be getting by and a massive group of people who are starving to death and living in slums. You can see the evidence of previous decades of infrastructure investment in roads and bridges, but it’s all in slow-motion decay. 
I took a van trip across the country, starting in Copan (where there are must-see Mayan ruins), across to the Caribbean Sea to a ferry that took my family to Roatan Island. The trip from Copan to the coast took a full six hours, and we had two flat tires. The word “treacherous” is inadequate—a better description is “post-apocalyptic.” We did not see one speed limit sign in hundreds of kilometers. Not one. People drive around each other on the right and left and in every manner possible. The road was clogged with horses, scooters and bicycles. People traveled in every conceivable manner along the crumbling arterial. Few cars have license plates, and one taxi driver told me that the private company responsible for making them went bankrupt. Instead of traffic stops, there are military check points every so often. The roads seemed more dangerous to me than the gang violence. 
The greatest examples of libertarianism in action are the hundreds of men, women and children standing alongside the roads all over Honduras. The government won’t fix the roads, so these desperate entrepreneurs fill in potholes with shovels of dirt or debris. They then stand next to the filled-in pothole soliciting tips from grateful motorists. That is the wet dream of libertarian private sector innovation.
 Well worth heading over to Salon to read the whole thing.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

AT&T: the saga continues

We just closed out the second day of AT&T technicians trying to figure out why our uVerse internet isn't working.  We had three techs here today for a total of nine hours, and they still weren't able to get it to work.  One of the three really seems to know what he's doing, and he claims to have found and fixed all kinds of problems with the lines leading up to our house.  Despite this, it's still not working.  He says he has no idea how it could ever have been working.  And yet, it was.  For two weeks.

He's coming back tomorrow to work on it some more.  Stay tuned.

Friday, February 27, 2015

AT&T just accused me of being a racist

Just when I thought things couldn't possibly get any more frustrating, an AT&T supervisor essentially accused me of being a racist.  I've been going around in circles with them all day about having a technician enter our house.  I'm a little leery about letting strangers into the house after learning that the government has used repair people to do end runs around the fourth amendment.  I'm not quite ready to put in my tin foil hat, but I would like to know how it can possibly be the case that rummaging around inside our house will fix the problem.  After all, it was working for two weeks with our existing wiring, why would it not work now?

So we were at an impasse: I refused to let anyone into the house until they could answer that question, and they didn't have an answer (probably because there is no answer, because the problem is almost certainly not inside our house).  At that point the person I was talking to -- a supervisor no less -- volunteered that if I had a problem with the particular technician who showed up today that they could send "an American technician instead."

That just rendered me speechless.  Yes, I get that there are racists out there for whom this would be an issue.  But I would think that AT&T would tell their people to wait for the customer to take the initiative to make the request rather than volunteering, essentially, "If you don't like our dark-skinned people, we can send you a white guy."

I really am going to have to set up a way to record these calls so I can post them on the internet.  It looks like this drama is going to be dragging on for a while.  The next episode is scheduled for tomorrow at 11, when another technician is going to come to do God only knows what inside our house.

(BTW, and just for the record, I actually did offer to let today's technician come inside the house, but he declined.)

AT&T: the nightmare continues

Today a technician from AT&T showed up to try to restore our uVerse internet service that was cut off a week and a half ago for no apparent reason.  After three hours, one factory reset, and one new modem, we are still without service.  The tech told me that the underlying problem was that our service had been "upgraded" from DSL to vDSL, and this was incompatible with our house's wiring.  (Our house is only five years old, so the wiring is not exactly ancient.)

OK, so can I get switched back to regular DSL?

Maybe (the tech wasn't sure) but to do that, I am going to need to call AT&T and start an entirely new work order.  So a week and a half into this nightmare I am back to square 1.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

An AT&T service nightmare

It's unfortunate that nowadays the only way to motivate big companies to provide even a minimally acceptable level of customer service is to resort to public shaming.  I am in the midst of the most nightmarish catch-22 scenario I have ever experienced in my life (and that is saying something because our cable provider is Comcast.)  The situation is so complicated I hardly know where to begin.

The TL;DR version is: our AT&T uVerse internet stopped working last Wednesday (nearly a week ago now) and they haven't been able to fix it.  I have lost count of how many different people I've talked to, but twice I was assured that the problem would be fixed and it wasn't, and now I'm being told that the problem can't be fixed and they have to start over from scratch, re-install our service, and give us a brand new account.

Here's the long version.

We had two services from AT&T: a regular residential phone line (known in the trade as a POTS line, or Plain Old Telephone Service) and a DSL line, which is a separate signal carried over the same copper wire as the phone line.  A few months ago I started getting notices from AT&T that they were discontinuing the DSL service and I would have to switch over to uVerse.  It turns out that uVerse is actually DSL, but the signal is carried over a fiber optic instead of a copper cable.  In our case, the fiber doesn't go to our house, it stops a few block away (I'm not sure exactly where) and the signal is converted to copper.  The upshot is that from our point of view, uVerse and DSL look exactly the same, except that they gave us a new uVerse-branded modem to replace our old DSL modem.

I resisted switching to uVerse as long as I could because I am a big believer in the if-it-aint-broke-don't-fix-it school of thought.  (And I'm sad to say I feel quite vindicated by the quagmire I find myself in.)  But the writing was on the wall, so I signed up.  They offered me a phone-plus-internet package for less than I was currently paying, so it seemed like a good deal.

On the day of the installation, though, I got my first nasty surprise.  The phone line that was packaged with uVerse was not our old phone line, it was a VOIP (voice-over-IP) line carried over the uVerse internet.  I didn't want a VOIP line, I wanted a POTS line (ask me in the comments if you want to know why) so I had to cancel the initial order and place a new one for internet-only service.

The installation was re-scheduled, and they had some problems that caused it to take all day, but they finally got it working.  And for about two weeks I was a happy customer.  The uVerse line seemed to be more reliable than the old DSL line, which had a nasty habit of going off-line at random times.

Then last Wednesday evening we came home to discover that the uVerse internet was down.  I noticed this right away because we don't have cell coverage at our house, so instead we have a microcell, which is connected to the uVerse internet.  When the internet stops working, so does the microcell, and so do our cell phones.

I thought the problem might just fix itself, so I waited until Thursday afternoon to call AT&T.  I immediately got a runaround.  Tech support told me that the problem was with the billing department, and the billing department told me that the problem was with tech support.  I was transferred back and forth between tech and billing four times that day, but by the end I was assured that the problem would be fixed the next day (Friday, the 20th), and that someone would call me to follow up.

Friday came and went.  The problem persisted and no one called.  So on Saturday I called again.  Tech support again told me that the problem was in billing, but billing was closed and wouldn't open again until Monday.  But "rest assured" they would take care of everything on Monday.  (This time a supervisor did call and left a message on my answering machine assuring me that I did not have to worry.)

You can probably guess where this is going.  Monday came and went.  Problem not fixed.  No follow up call.  So I called AT&T for a third time.

I will spare you some of the details.  The story has changed this time around.  Instead of, "We know what the problem is, we can and will fix it, don't worry" the story I am now being told is that my account has been cancelled but they don't know why and they can't find out.  There is no way to fix this problem.  My only option is to sign up for uVerse internet all over again.

Funny thing, though: AT&T's on-line portal shows my account is still active.  I can log in, look at the account status, and the ultimate irony, see how many days are left until I get my first bill.  So although AT&T seems to lack the technical competence to actually provide the service they contracted to provide, they somehow still seem to managing to muster the wherewithal to take my money.

When I got off the phone with the last person I spoke with I was told to expect an immediate call back from someone who would take my order for new uVerse service.  It has been over an hour since then and no call.  As far as I can tell, I am stuck in permanent limbo with no internet service, no way to fix it, and no way to shut off the bills.  The perfect storm of corporate incompetence.

[UPDATE] Latest word from AT&T: my account was cancelled.  They have no idea why.  The only way to recover is to re-install uVerse.  So they need to send a tech out, despite the fact that it's already been installed once.  Earliest this can happen is Friday.  They very generously offered to waive the installation fee this time.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Why QM is the only possible theory of nature

Just stumbled across this absolutely gorgeous explanation of why quantum mechanics is the only possible theory of nature that both allows for complete knowledge and probabilities.  It's one of the best written pieces of science popularization I have ever read.  It takes you from zero to a pretty deep understanding in just a shade over 1000 words.  It's brilliant, almost a work of art.  If you're interested in QM, this is well worth the five minutes of your time it will take to read it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

No, Rudy, this is what not loving America looks like

If Rudy Giuliani wants to call out American citizens for not loving their country he really should start with Michael Hill, who runs an organization called the League of the South.  Among other things, the LoS is organizing a celebration of the 150th anniversary of John Wilkes Booth's assassination of "the tyrant Abraham Lincoln".  And if that left any doubt in your mind that Mr. Hill does not love America, there's this:
America stands for the projection of raw power for its own benefit. It does not propagate the Christian gospel nor does it seek to preserve traditional nations and cultures, especially those of the white Western world that used to be known proudly as Christendom. No, America is a destroyer of true nations and traditions, all in the name of “progress.” American is, in reality, a huge experiment in Enlightenment liberalism gone completely haywire. 
As a traditional Christian Southerner, I want no part of “America.” I’m not talking about a particular piece of land in the western hemisphere; rather, I am talking about an idea, a proposition, a regime, a way of life. I am a Southerner, an old-fashioned Christian. The status of “American” is my antithesis. 
Now before you tell me to “Love it or leave it” and pack up and move somewhere else, let me explain. The South, Alabama in particular, is my home. It is also a captive colony of this American monstrosity. Yes, many of our citizens have, wittingly or unwittingly, embraced Americanism for either survival or profit. I have not, and I intend to convince my fellow Southerners to join my side. I do not intend to leave Alabama or the South. Nor do I intend to leave them in the clutches of America. I intend to fight, and if necessary kill and die, for their survival, well-being, and independence. 
I intend to use this website and other means at The League’s disposal to point out why the South cannot and must not remain under America’s control.
If Rudy Giuliani really cares as much about love for country as he is putting on, then I call on him to call out Michael Hill, who is using his first amendment rights to openly call for treason against the United States.  But I'll give you long, long odds that Mr. Giuliani will not do that.  I'll also give you odds that Mr. Hill does not vote Democratic.  And I'll double down and say that these two facts are not unrelated.  Mr. Giuliani, before you next criticize the president for not loving his country, I suggest you read Matthew 7:3-5.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

31 Flavors of Ontology

Ontology is the study of existence, or, to put it in philosophy-speak, it is "the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality..." yada yada yada.  You can go read the wikipedia article if you like.  It can all be summarized in a pithy slogan: existence is not a boolean value.  And because it's not a boolean value, people get themselves wrapped around the axle arguing over whether something (like God or the quantum wave function) exists or does not exist.  It is simply not the case that it must be one or the other.  Existence comes in different flavors, and arguments about existence are often isomorphic to, "Ice cream is good because it tastes like vanilla!  No, ice cream is bad because it tastes like pistachios!"  (Serious philosophers actually wrestle with questions that are essentially the same as, "Does imaginary ice cream taste good?")

It's incredibly easy to sink into semantic quicksand when talking about this stuff.  This is because the universe has played a trick on you by supplying you with a continual stream of overwhelming evidence that the universe is populated by material objects that exist in particular places at particular times, and that have a continuity of identity such that it makes sense to say things like, "The vase on that table exists."  The reason that continuity of identity matters is that it's required to make sense of the phrase, "The vase on that table."  For that phrase to make sense, the vase that is on the table now has to be the same vase that is there a microsecond from now.  If this were not so, then the vase on the table at time T0 might have existed at T0, but at time T0+epsilon it no longer exists.  Instead, it's a different vase that exists at T0+epsilon (and a different one yet again at time T0+2epsilon).

This probably sounds like I'm being pedantic, because it's just obvious that material objects like vases do have continuity of identity.  The evidence for it is just overwhelming.  But despite the overwhelming evidence, it is in fact not true.  And you don't even have to get into quantum mechanics to see that it is not the case.  All you have to do is to try to define what "the same thing" actually means.  When you do this, you run headlong into the "ship of Theseus" problem, which is so-called because of the manner in which it was first described by Plutarch around the time of Christ:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
Replace the word "planks" with "atoms" and you have a modern version of this puzzle: if you replace every atom in an object with a different but identical atom, do you end up with the same object or a different object?  The collection of atoms you end up with after the replacement process will be completely indistinguishable from the collection you started with, so on what possible basis could you call the new collection "different"?

This is not an academic question.  The atoms in your own body are continually being replaced in exactly this way.  None of the atoms in your body today are the same as the atoms in your body when you were born.  In fact, even the arrangement of atoms in your body changes.  So in what sense can you say that you are "the same person" that you were when you were born?  Or even last year?  Or yesterday?  Or a minute ago?

Or consider this: suppose I take a tree and cut it down.  Is it still a tree?  Suppose I mill it into lumber and build a house out of it.  At what point did it stop being a tree and start being a house?

OK, OK, I hear you saying, the temporal and spatial boundaries of the identities of things referred to by words are fuzzy, but surely that does not cast doubt on the proposition that while a collection of atoms is arranged as a tree or a house or whatever, that that tree or that house actually exists in point of metaphysical fact, does it?  Well, yes, it does.  Why?  Because atoms themselves are just arrangements of sub-atomic "particles".  (And, of course, I put "particles" in scare quotes because sub-atomic particles are not really particles, but I don't want to get lost in the quantum weeds.)

To take an example that is prosaic to the modern mind but would have been every bit as esoteric as quantum mechanics to a person living a mere 100 years ago, consider the question, "Does software exist?"  Surely the answer is "yes".  Surely humanity has not built a multi-billion-dollar industry on a delusions.  Surely there is some salient difference between software and (say) leprechauns.  But if you try to get a handle on what software actually is you will find it to be every bit as elusive as a leprechaun.  What is software made out of?  What is its mass?  What color is it?  (Notice that we can actually give a meaningful answer to that last question for leprechauns: they are green!)

No sane modern person can deny the existence of software.  And yet it is clear that the manner in which software exists is very different from the manner in which trees and houses exist.  They obey very different laws of physics.  Trees and houses are made of atoms which obey conservation laws.  Software is made of bits, which don't obey conservation laws.

But the manner-of-existence of trees and houses shares one very important feature with the manner-of-existence of software: both depend on arrangements.  What determines if a particular collection of atoms is a tree or a house is their arrangement.  What determines whether a particular collection of bits is Microsoft Word or Mozilla Firefox is their arrangement.

Arrangement is everything.  Planet earth has had more or less the same repertoire of atoms since it was formed four billion years ago (modulo the odd asteroid) but an endless variety of different kinds of things that consisted of nothing more than those same old atoms arranging and re-arranging themselves into different patterns.  (And, of course, the atoms themselves are just different arrangements (scientists call them "states") of the quantum wave function.)

However: just because arrangement is everything (or everything is an arrangement) doesn't mean that there aren't useful distinctions to be made between different kinds of arrangements.  Atoms are arrangements (states -- same thing) of the quantum wave function, but the kinds of phenomena that the wave function can directly produce are very limited: a dozen or so fundamental particles that arrange themselves into a hundred or so (depending on how you count) different kinds of atoms.  That's it.  That's all quantum mechanics does on its own.  Not really very interesting.

But once you get to atoms, something fundamentally new happens: you get chemistry.  Atoms interact with each other in ways that are fundamentally different from the way in which the quantum wave function arranges itself to produce atoms.  Of course, the behavior of atoms are still constrained by quantum mechanics.  Nothing magic happens when atoms produce chemistry.  But the level of complexity rises by orders of magnitude.  This is what is meant by the slogan "classical reality emerges from the quantum wave function."

To get to us humans, you have to go through at least two more of these "quantum leaps" (no pun intended): you have to go from chemistry to life, and you have to go from life to brains.  Each of these transitions introduces fundamentally new kinds of behavior which "emerge" each from the level before.  Again, no magic, no suspension of the laws of physics, just ever increasing levels of complexity.

Brains are not the final step in this process, however.  Mice have brains, but they can't do math.  Eventually you get to brains that are big enough that they can emulate Turing machines and do math and other symbolic computations.  Somewhere along that path they invent language as well.  Once they've done that, multiple brains can arrange themselves into villages, city-states, corporations...

Arrangement is everything!

So... do you exist?  Do atoms exist?  Does life exist?  Do corporations exist?  Does music exist?  Do leprechauns exist?  Yes.  All of these things exist.  They all exist as arrangements of something.  Leprechauns exist as ideas, as fiction, as arrangements of thoughts in people's brains.  Brains exist as arrangements of atoms.  Atoms exist as arrangements (states) of the wave function.

Each of these "levels" is an ontological category.  The right question to ask is not, "Does X exist."  The answer is always "yes".  The right question is, "What is the nature of X's existence?" or "To which ontological category does X belong?"

So let us ask the right question: to which ontological category do you, the thing that is reading these words, belong?  Most people think that they belong to the ontological category of material objects, that is, the same ontological category as trees and houses.  But that is wrong.  Your body belongs to that ontological category, but you -- the thing that is reading these words -- do not.  The thing that is reading these words is not your body: if (and please pardon the gruesome imagery) someone amputated all of your limbs and replaced all of your internal organs with artificial equivalents, you would still be you.  But if someone deprived you of oxygen long enough to render you brain-dead, you wouldn't.  (That's why we talk about "kidney failure" but not "kidney death", "brain death" not "brain failure.")  You are a computational process, reified as an arrangement of electrical impulses in a human brain.  Because we do not yet know how to copy software out of brains the way we can out of computers, you (the software process) are tightly bound to your brain.  And because we do not yet know how to replace all other parts of the human body, your brain is tightly bound to your body, and that is why you (the computational process) feel a particular kinship with your body.  But nonetheless, you and your body are not only distinct, they exist in different ontological categories.  Your body is a material object.  You (the thing that is reading these words) aren't.

Some important things to note about ontological categories: once you get beyond the basics (QM -> atoms -> chemistry -> life -> brains) things get very complicated.  It is not clear how many ontological categories there are beyond brains.  Music, fiction, math, law and language are five different OCs that I can come up with just off the top of my head.  There are probably more.  The boundaries between them are not crisp, and they don't form a hierarchy.  All of them fall into the meta-OC of "mental construct".

So, my claim about God is: God belongs in the ontological category of "myth" with is a subset of the ontological category of "fiction" which is a subset of the ontological category of "mental construct".  And if any of that sounds at all like I'm being pejorative or dismissive about God then you have not understood a single word I've said.

This is not to say that you can't disagree with me.  There are two ways you could do this:

1.  You could argue that God belongs in a different ontological category.  In which case you have to tell me which ontological category you think He belongs to.

2.  You could argue that God transcends ontological categories, or that He is the sum total of all ontological categories.  But if you want to take that position, then you will have to explain to me how that statement contains any information, because defined that way "God" seems to be nothing more than a synonym for "everything".  (And so my next question will be: how can the Bible and Jesus -- or anything else for that matter -- possibly have any kind of privileged status with respect to "everything"?)

Let the games begin.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Free will and moral agency

I never imagined that my post about reframing theodicy would strike such a nerve.  I really intended it to be a throwaway argument, a little intellectual curiosity, nothing more.  But between the original and the followup post, it spawned the longest comment thread in the ten-plus year history of this blog.

Even more interesting, the more substantive question raised in the followup post -- what happens when we abnegate our moral intuitions? -- has gone almost completely ignored.  I do want to eventually shift attention back to that, because I think it's an even stronger argument against Christianity (and religion in general) than the theodicy thing.  But first I wanted to address a question raised by @Luke:
[A]re you predicating this argument on God having some sort of actual free will, but humans having no such thing?
The question of free will lies at the heart of all moral issues because without free will there can be no moral agency.  If a tree falls in the forest and hits someone in the head and kills them we do not count this as a moral transgression on the part of the tree.  Why?  Because the tree has no free will and hence no moral agency.  Likewise, if someone is "mentally ill" (whatever that means) and they kill someone, or if a wild animal kills someone, we do not count those as moral failures because animals and mentally ill people do not have moral agency.

So we arrive at the age-old philosophical question: is free will (whatever that means) a pre-requisite for moral agency?  Most people intuitively believe that it is, and this is the reason that many people intuitively recoil from Calvinist theology, despite the fact that it follows logically from premises that most Christians would say they accept.  In particular, mans' free will is logically incompatible with God's omnipotence (or all-powerfulness, or whatever it is you want to call it).  It is to the Calvinists credit that they recognize this and accept that man has no free will.  Some of them (AFAICT) will even swallow the next bitter pill and concede that man has no moral agency, and that if this grates on your moral intuition, then your moral intuition is broken.

One thing you can't fault Calvinists for is being hypocrites.

But there is still this teensy-weensy little problem: if you abnegate your moral intuitions, then you no longer have any basis for distinguishing good and evil.  Maybe suffering is good.  Maybe Hitler was doing the work of God.  Maybe "all-loving" doesn't mean what you think it means, and the Inquisitors really were doing what was best for their victims (or should we call them "clients"?)  The fact that these suggestions make most people queasy can in no way be taken as evidence that they are wrong because, by assumption, your intuitions are broken.  If I go on a killing spree, or rape children, who are you to say that I am wrong?  In fact, I can't possibly be wrong because I have no free will, and hence no moral agency.  Everything that happens simply happens as a consequence of God's will, because (quoting @wrf3) God is the only being with free will.

This is a logically consistent position.  In fact, it is the only possible position that is logically consistent with any reasonable concept of God's omnipotence or all-powerfulness or whatever you want to call it.  Man's will can either trump God's or it can't.  And according to Calvinists, it can't.  Because God created us, we are His playthings, to do with as He pleases.  It would be fascinating to see just how far @wrf3's logical consistency will take him.  He wrote:
Why a dinner thinks it can disagree with the one who cooked it seems to me proof that a part of our moral intuition is wrong.
I wonder: if I were to kidnap Bob and cook him and eat him, would he object?  What if I did that to his children, would he object then?  On what possible grounds could he object, having abnegated his moral intuition?  [Note to the NSA: No, I am not actually threatening to kidnap and eat Bob and his children.  This is a thought experiment.]

If it is not self-evident to you that there is something horribly, horribly wrong here then there is nothing I can possibly say to convince you otherwise.  You are a lost soul.  I pity you (and I really pity your children!)

But if you are not willing to take the Calvinist plunge, if you harbor the tiniest bit of doubt that resigning yourself to the unspeakable horrors of moral abnegation might not be the right choice, then  I have Good News: you do have free will (or at least the illusion of free will, and that turns out to be sufficient) and so you have moral agency.  You can choose good over evil, truth over lies, peace over war, order over chaos, justice over injustice.  It isn't easy.  It takes work.  It takes the willingness to accept responsibility, to be willing to make mistakes occasionally and learn from them, and to make your peace with the fact that you will fail to achieve perfection.  In short, it requires growing up.

But it beats the hell out of the alternative.  You can't make the world a better place if you reject the very idea that "better" actually means something.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Re-reframing theodicy

The comment thread in the original reframing theodicy post was getting lively again since wrf3 joined the fray.  As an anti-spam measure, all comments to posts older than 30 days have to be manually approved, and that was getting to be too much of a chore so I'm making this new post so that people can post comments without having to wait for me to approve them.

So, as long as I'm writing, a recap:

The theodicy problem is: how can evil exist in the face of an all-powerful all-loving God?  The stock answer to this is that God gave us humans free will, and we choose to use that free will to create evil. Moreover, we are somehow compelled to do this by virtue of some sort of Lamarckian inheritance of Adam and Eve's original sin of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

That's the story.  Let us leave aside the fact that this story is at odds with what it says in the Bible, and the question of how Adam and Eve could have had moral agency if they were not created with the knowledge of good an evil, and focus instead on the question of how do we actually know that there is evil in the world?

On its face it seems like an absurd question.  The existence of evil is just manifestly obvious, isn't it?  I mean, just look at all the suffering, the starvation, the genocides...

But there are two obvious problems with this line of thought, at least for Christians.  The first is that a lot of the suffering in the world is caused by things that are clearly not subject to man's free will.  Hurricanes.  Earthquakes.  Droughts.  Cancer.  Malaria [1].  And the second is that a lot of things that seem evil to modern sensibilities, like genocide and slavery, are actually condoned by the Bible, at least in the Old Testament.

So maybe these things aren't actually evil.  Maybe our moral intuitions are so broken that we actually cannot reliably distinguish between good and evil.  Maybe genocide and slavery really are good, at least under certain circumstances.

I don't normally raise this line of argument because most people consider it a straw man (and an offensive one at that) so I am supremely grateful to have a new commenter, wrf3, a living breathing intellectually honest Calvinist who is actually willing to stand up and admit that, on his worldview, one cannot rule out the possibility that Adolf Hitler was doing the work of God.  I have no idea how many Christians share this point of view, but I've had a face-to-face conversation with another Christian who admitted that he could not rule out the possibility that the 9-11 terrorists were doing the work of God, so wrf3 is not alone.

Now, my original argument was intended to side-step this entire issue by re-framing the problem in a way that didn't depend on the definition of "evil" but hinged merely on "salvation", which I am given to understand that Christians consider to be an axiomatically good thing.  My claim is that unsaved souls are logically impossible in the face of an omnipotent all-loving God.  And no one has refuted that yet, or even tackled it (because, well, it's a pretty strong argument).

But this question of what happens if you take seriously the possibility that your moral intuitions might be completely wrong is actually much more interesting, but not in a good way.  It is interesting the way playing with matches is interesting.  It leads to some very dark places from which it is very hard to escape.  Because you can't refute an assumption.

If our moral intuitions are not to be trusted at all, then we have to take seriously the possibility that we are wrong about everything.  Maybe our modern moral abhorrence of genocide is just a mistake, like our modern acceptance of extra-marital sex is (according to some Christians) a mistake.  Maybe the inquisition was a good thing.  Maybe slavery is a good thing.  Maybe racial integration really is a mortal sin.  (And, if we're going to go down this rabbit hole, maybe the Bible has been corrupted by man, as Muslims claim.  Or maybe it was written by Loki.)

I can't refute any of this.  It is not refutable.  The reasoning that leads to these conclusions is correct.  That is the whole point.

But (and this is crucial) just because the reasoning is correct does not mean that the conclusions are correct.  There are two ways to reason to false conclusions: bad reasoning (not the case here) and bad assumptions.  It is my fervent hope that enough people will decide that genocide is in fact evil that they will reject any premise that leads to the conclusion that it might not be.  If you accept suffering and killing and sickness and death as God's will, there is probably nothing I can say to dissuade you, because the distinction between good and evil is ultimately a choice.  All I can say is that I don't think you have chosen wisely.

---
[1] Fundamentalists actually argue that these things are caused by man's rebellion against God, but since I don't have any fundamentalists participating in the conversation yet I'm going to set this aside.  But if you are a fundamentalist, I would love to have you weight in on this.  The more the merrier.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics

[With apologies to Eugene Wigner.]

I was noodling around with some graphics code the other day to try to produce some schematic representations of water waves for a book that I'm working on.  I wanted to produce a little animation of what happens when you throw a stone into a pond.  It didn't have to be very flashy, I just wanted it to be qualitatively correct, that is, I wanted to produce a drawing of a wave that spread out from a central source and decreased in amplitude with time and distance from the source.  So I started out with the venerable sin(x)/x function:
That's a good start, but now I wanted to animate it, so I changed it to sin(x+t)/(x+t) and varied the time t from zero up to some positive value.  The result was this:
That was kind of what I was after, but time seemed to be running backwards.  So I changed the sign on my time parameter, i.e. sin(x-t)/(x-t), which yielded this:
Now my waves were moving in the direction I wanted them to, but they weren't being damped out.  A bit of reflection revealed the reason: because I changed the sign of my time parameter in both the numerator and the denominator of my function, I had reversed the not only the time direction, but also the damping influence of time, which I had gotten right the first time.  So the function I wanted was (apparently) sin(x-t)/(x+t).  When I tried that, I got this as my first frame:
That looked promising.  The graph had flipped itself upside down, but that actually seemed closer to the Right Answer, because when you throw a stone into a pond the first thing it does it to make a "hole" in the water.  So I advanced the time a bit, and got this:
WTF?  Where did that spike come from?  I didn't want a spike.  Water doesn't do that.  Water is always nice and round, not pointy.  This couldn't be right.  And yet, the rest of the animation actually looked pretty reasonable:
I spent several hours fiddling with it trying to tweak the function so that it did the same thing but without that annoying spike.  I tried changing signs, using a cosine function instead of a sine, you name it.  Nothing looked right [1].  And then it occurred to me (duh!) to take another look at what water actually does when you drop something into it.


There, right in the center of an actual physical water wave, was my spike!  It didn't have a pointy end: surface tension had made the point shrink up into a sphere, but the spike was unmistakable.  It was as if the math was trying to take me by the throat and tell me, "No, water really does work this way."

In retrospect it is actually obvious why water has to work this way.  You drop a stone into a pond and the stone makes a hole in the water.  The stone keeps falling through the water (because the stone is denser), and as soon as it has moved out of the way, water rushes back in from all sides to fill the hole.  All that water rushing in meets at the center of the hole, and because of inertia and the fact that water is not compresible, it has to keep moving, so it has to go somewhere.  The only place left for it to go is up.

In 1960 Eugene Wigner published a famous paper entitled "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences" which first pointed out this phenomenon, that math often "takes you by the throat" and forces you towards the correct answer even if it sometimes takes people a while to realize that this is what is going on.  I thought it was cool to experience this phenomenon firsthand.


---
[1]  The reason the spike is there, mathematically speaking, is that the function sin(x-t)/(x+t) must be zero when x=t and t>0, but the limit of the function as x->t from above is -1.  So at t=0 it has to look like -sin(x)/x, but at t=epsilon it has to have two zero-crossings at x = +/- epsilon.  The only way to satisfy that condition, along with continuity constraints, is to have a spike.  It is might even be possible to prove that no mathematical function can possibly produce all the desired qualitative characteristics of water waves (damping, forward motion in time, conservation of mass) without a spike, but that's above my pay grade.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Looking under the hood of the scientific process

TJ Radcliffe pops open the hood on the scientific process and lets you peer inside to see the inner workings in unusual detail.  He also has a pretty good description of what science actually is:
Science is the discipline of publicly testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment and Bayesian inference. As such, it is fundamentally about exploration. We have ideas, we test them, we let the results of those tests guide where we go next. In the end, we publish, because if not made public it is not science. People were investigating reality long before the Proceedings of the Royal Society saw the light of day, but they didn’t accumulate knowledge because they didn’t publish. Science is both intensely individualistic and profoundly communal.
(Compare and contrast the level of detail and self-criticism to, say, this.)

He also offers up this brilliant little gem:
When someone lectures you on the importance of being open minded, try responding with something along the lines of, “I’m open to any idea that we can figure out how to test, because if it can’t be tested it probably can’t explain anything. If it can explain a phenomenon, then it can act as a cause on other things, so it can be tested, because we can make predictions of other things that it is likely to cause. If it can’t cause anything other than what it’s being invoked to explain, then it really doesn’t have any meaning beyond ‘the thing that causes that’, and that’s pretty boring. So give me an idea–one idea, not ten–and let’s talk about how to test it, what other consequences it would have that we can look into. I’m totally open to any idea like that.” 
The practice of science is very much about learning where to look for plausible ideas, and focusing on looking rather than imagining as the first step on any search for a more plausible proposition. This is difficult because it requires us to accept that we don’t know what the problem is and we might not be able to find the actual source. Imagination is much more comforting than reality at times like this. But we should learn to trust ourselves, and look to the world to guide us. That’s the only way we’ll find more plausible propositions. People were imagining answers to hard questions for thousands of years before we learned the discipline of science, and we have precious little besides some decent poetry to show for it. We certainly never cured disease or ended hunger that way.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Lyft is even more evil than Uber

Yes, I get it.  Uber is evil.  But Lyft is worse.

Today I got a text message spam from Lyft.  I don't like getting text message spam, so I tried to log in to my Lyft account to update my contact preferences so I could opt out of future spam.

It turns out that it is not possible.  I tried everything I could think of: the Lyft web site, the app, the help center.  Nothing.  If you go to the Lyft help center and search for "cancel" or "opt-out" the only thing that comes up is how to cancel a ride request.

So, Lyft folks: I understand that you are under intense pressure from Uber and you need to do something.  But this ain't it.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Talk about missing the point

PETA, that is, the organization that calls itself People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, kidnapped and killed a pet chihuahua.

I am not one to be easily rendered speechless, but that did it.


Wednesday, February 04, 2015

This is why prominent atheists should not critique religion

BioLogos has an an interview with Bill Nye on the occasion of the publication of his new book.  It is nearly as painful to read as his infamous debate with Ken Ham was painful to watch [1].  The level of ignorance and tone-deafness he displays with regards to religion in general and Christianity in particular is equivalent to YECs who stand on the street corner and ask if your grandpappy was a monkey.
BioLogos: While you say your book has little to do with religion, you write in the book that it’s unreasonable to see any sort of divine “plan” in nature (p. 78). Paired with strong endorsements from many prominent atheists and agnostics on the back cover, can you see how many Christians would feel your book has an anti-religious agenda? 
Nye: Put briefly, no; I don’t perceive an anti-religious agenda, especially with regard to Christians and Christianity. The issue being debated was creationism, the idea that the Earth is 6,000 years old. As I understand it, this involves the Bible’s Old Testament exclusively. As I understand it, Jesus of Nazareth and his worldview did not come to be until the New Testament times.
Oh.  My.  God.  How can anyone not know that Christian theology holds that Jesus was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, that the Old and New Testaments form a seamless whole, that Jesus and Yahweh are the same deity?  There are all kinds of reasons one might be a Christian without being a YEC, but the idea that Christianity has nothing to do with the Old Testament is not one of them.

If you're going to critique something you should at least take the time to learn the basics of the thing you are critiquing.  This goes for scientists as well as everyone else.

---
[1] The reason the Nye-Ham debate was painful to watch was that Bill completely missed the most basic and fundamental point: Ken Ham, by his own admission, is not doing science.  Ken, again by his own admission multiple times during the debate, starts from the premise that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.  Ham gave away the game in his opening statement:
"I assert that the word “science” has been hijacked by secularists in teaching evolution, to force the religion of naturalism on generations of kids."
No, it is not that the word has been hijacked.  The word "science" is completely irrelevant.  You could call it fnorbage instead of science, it wouldn't make a clingleblat of difference.  What matters is that if you choose to use evidence, experience and reason rather than divine revelation as the ultimate arbiters of truth, you get better results, at least by certain quality metrics that most people care about.  And the evidence is overwhelmingly against the theory that the earth is 6000 years old.  Whether you call that science or fnorbage or squibbs and crackers matters not at all.

A public service announcement regarding 650-780-9288

If you call the number in the headline (650-780-9288) you will find that it has been disconnected.  The reason it is disconnected is because it used to be our home phone number, and we were getting so overwhelmed by robocalls (despite -- or perhaps because of -- being on the federal do-not-call list) that we finally threw in the towel and got an unlisted number.  At some point in the future, this phone number will be recycled, and some other poor unfortunate sod will probably end up getting the same deluge of marketing calls that we got.  But that is not the reason for this PSA.

The reason I'm putting up a PSA is that before this number was our number it (apparently) belonged to one Julian Carrillo and an associate of his named Maria.  The reason I believe this to be the case is that in addition to marketing robocalls we also often got calls for Mr. and Ms. Carrillo, mostly from collection agencies, but occasionally also from car rental companies and insurance companies.  On the off chance that anyone trying to contact the Carrillos tries to Google their phone number, I wanted them to find this: the phone number 650-780-9288 was assigned to me in June of 2010.  If anyone named Carrillo (or any other hispanic name) provided you with that phone number as theirs between June of 2010 and January of 2015, they were providing false information.  It is hard to imagine how this could be an honest mistake, as we have evidence that the Carrillos were still giving out this phone number more than four years after it was assigned to us.

As long as I'm on this topic, I will also mention this: the most egregious robocall offender was a company called (as best I can determine) Energy Upgrade California.  Their robocaller is very distinctive in that it opens with a woman's voice saying, "Due to the constant rise in energy costs..."  We heard this line on our answering machine so many times that I long ago lost count.  I tried everything to get them to stop calling, but they were relentless.  They are the cinder block that broke the camel's back and motivated us to get a new number.

I don't know if the company calling us was in any way affiliated with this web site.  I suspect not, because the web site seems kinda legit [1] while the phone version felt like a pretty shady boiler-room operation.  On several occasions I actually talked to one of their CSRs trying to find out who they were and what they were selling (and how to get them to stop calling!) but as soon as it became apparent that I was not a rube they hung up on me.

If you happen to be one of their victims, you have my deepest sympathies, and if there's anything I can do to help get them shut down I would be thrilled to do whatever I can to contribute to their demise.

---
[1] The reason I say "kinda legit" is that they claim to be affiliated with the California Public Utilities Commission.  If this isn't true, then this is a transparent fraud and I would think the attorney general would be all over their ass.  On the other hand, the site does not provide any traceable contact information, so that seems a tad fishy to me.  On the other other hand, the site does seem to be chock-full of real content, so if it's a scam someone put an awful lot of effort into making it look real.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The pope backpedals (sort of) on limits to offensive speech

Two days ago Pope Francis issued a clarification (which I would characterize more as a wishy-washy retraction) of his implicit endorsement of physical violence as an appropriate response to free speech that he made last week.  I enthusiastically endorse the excellent analysis by Jacob Sullum (thanks to regular commenter Luke for pointing me to that link!) and I encourage everyone to go read it in its entirety.

I want to reiterate the nature of my disagreement with the pope: it is not about human nature.  I agree, of course, that many humans instinctively want to respond to insults with violence.  That is not the point.

My disagreement with the pope is two-fold.  First, the pope strongly implied in his original remarks that the human instinct to respond to insults with violence is a fundamental fact of life to which we must (perhaps even should) simply resign ourselves.  I disagree, and so does Jesus (hence my leveling a charge of hypocrisy against the pope).  This aspect of human nature is not a feature, it's a bug, and the pope should have said so.  He should have said, "Insults make us angry.  We want to respond to anger with violence.  I get that.  But Jesus teaches that we should respond to anger not with violence but with compassion and forgiveness, because anger is usually a result of emotional pain.  This is the thing that those who insult religion need to understand: their insults cause pain to their fellow human beings.  And while they have the absolute right to say whatever they want, we all have a moral responsibility to temper our actions with compassion."

That's what the pope should have said.  (And, Frankie, if you want to hire me as a PR consultant, I'm available.)

But the second aspect of my disagreement with the pope is that he singled out insults against religion for special treatment.  The problem with offensive speech is that offense exists only in the mind of the offended.  In the case of physical violence there is no disagreement about the harm: the life is lost, the bone is broken, the nose is bloodied.  But offense is subjective, a matter of taste.  I, for example, do not find the Charlie Hebdo cartoons at all offensive.  In fact, I think they are well within the bounds of reasonable socio-political satire (unlike, for example, "The Innocence of Muslims" which I did think was offensive.)  This raises the same unanswerable question that all matters of faith inevitably lead to: on what basis do decide who is right?  Are Muslims "legitimately" offended or are they being hypersensitive pussies?  (And, of course, if someone takes offense at my use of the (deliberately provocative) phrase "hypersensitive pussies" the same question applies recursively.)

Personally, in the Charlie Hebdo case I come down on the hypersensitive-pussy side.  This idea that creating an image of the Prophet is a grievous sin is a relatively recent invention.  Muslims used to create images of Mohammed themselves.  But it doesn't matter if I'm right or wrong about that (there is no way to tell, that is the whole point).  If we give in to the offense of Muslims, what about other people's offense?  What about my offense?  I am deeply offended by many things the pope says (like the garbage he continues to spew about homosexuality being sinful, women not being suitable for the priesthood, the unacceptability of birth control, yada yada yada).  Should the pope stop saying those things because they offend me?  Of course not.  Why should Muslims be entitled to more consideration than anyone else?

The elephant in the room is that the actual answer to this question is: because there are a billion Muslims, and some of them riot in the streets and blow shit up when they get offended.  But the correct response to terrorism is never to capitulate to the terrorists.  That simply emboldens them.  The correct response to terrorists, as it is to any bully, is to stand up to them, to say fuck you, no, you do not get special treatment simply because some of you are willing to violate the social contract.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Open mic night on Rondam Ramblings

Whew, I have just spent an inordinate amount of time responding to various dangling comment threads.  Despite my best efforts, I fear I may have left some points or questions unanswered.  If I did, I apologize.  If there's anything you'd like me to respond to that I haven't, please post it in the comments section of this post.  (If you're picking up a thread from another post, please include a link.)

My thanks to Luke and Publius for ongoing lively discussions!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Apparently the Pope needs to read the Bible more carefully

Pope Francis showed his true colors the other day:
“If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” Francis said while pretending to throw a punch in his direction. 
He added: “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
So... the pope just endorsed the use of violence against those who "insult the faith of others."  Well, you know what, Frankie?  Fuck you.  After taking the cardinals to task for developing spiritual alzheimers I thought you might be cool, but apparently you're just another in a long line of walking talking hypocrites.  It is you who seem to have the spiritual alzheimers, as you have obviously forgotten Matthew 5:39.  Or don't they teach that one in seminary any more?

[Beat.]

Yes, I really did just tell the pope to go fuck himself, I'm that pissed off.  You know what you don't do if you want to advance yourself as an advocate of peace?  You don't fucking endorse violence as an acceptable response to speech, no matter how fucking offensive it is!  So fuck you, pope Francis, and the horse you rode in on.  Think of all the suicide bombers who will hear your words and conclude from them that they are on the righteous path.  The blood of their victims will be on your hands and your tongue.

God damn what is the world coming to when an atheist has to school the pope on his own scriptures?

My parents neglected me when I was a child

I wasn't aware of this until today, but my parents apparently neglected me when I was a child.  Every week day from the age of six until ten I walked to school by myself. And back.  0.8 miles each way according to Google Maps.  I even walked in the rain and the snow (though I have to confess it was not uphill both ways).

Well, OK, I wasn't actually alone.  There were lots of other kids walking to school, and usually I would walk in the company of some of fellow neglected waifs.  Oh, and there was the crossing guard near the school.  But no parents hovering over us.  That was just the way things were done back in the day.

But apparently, letting your kids walk by themselves is child neglect.  Who knew?  I sure didn't.
It was a one-mile walk home from a Silver Spring park on Georgia Avenue on a Saturday afternoon. But what the parents saw as a moment of independence for their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, they say authorities viewed much differently. 
Danielle and Alexander Meitiv say they are being investigated for neglect for the Dec. 20 trek — in a case they say reflects a clash of ideas about how safe the world is and whether parents are free to make their own choices about raising their children.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The one question faith cannot answer

Sometimes things don't go as planned.  My Parable of the Free Beer seems to have landed with a resounding thud, so perhaps a word of explanation is in order.

First, in case it wasn't obvious: yes, it was intended to be an allegory about theology, and Christian theology in particular.  Replace "free beer" with "God's grace" and you have an almost verbatim transcript of sermons I have heard street evangelists deliver.  In fact, I remember one street preacher in Santa Monica back when I was making my movie literally take a five dollar bill out of his wallet and ask, "Who would like five dollars?" and then go on to say that God's grace was infinitely more valuable and "all you have to do is take it."  It wasn't literally free beer, but in those days you could still get a beer for five dollars.  (Maybe you still can.  I don't actually much care for beer.)

Second, it was supposed to be funny.  If you didn't think it was, well, go get yourself a sense of humor.  You can order one from Amazon nowadays.

Last but not least, the Parable was intended to make a serious point, namely, that without an independent standard (like evidence) how is an honest Seeker of the Truth supposed to choose from among the many religions on offer in today's market?  You've got Christianity, which comes in so many flavors it is like the Baskin-Robbins of theology.  Islam comes in two major varieties and handful of minor ones (like Sufism).  Then you've got yer Buddhists and yer Hindus rounding out the world's major religions.  But wait, as they say in the trade, there's more: there's Jews, Jains, Mormons, Scientologists, Raelians, Bahais, Satanists, Wiccans, and good old fashioned neo-pagans.  (Give me that old time religion!  It was good enough for grandpa so it's good enough for me.)

This is the question faith cannot answer: on what basis should one choose where to put one's faith?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Parable of the Free Beer

There is a classic logic problem that goes like this: you are on an island where some of the natives always lie and others always tell the truth.  You find yourself at a fork in the road where one branch leads to the village, the other into the jungle, and you wish to determine which branch is which.  There is a native standing at the fork, of whom you may ask one yes-no question.  What do you ask?

The usual, nerdy answer goes something like, "If I were to ask you if the left path is the way to the village, would you say yes?"  The problem with this answer is that the native may as well decide that by the time he sorts out the hypotheticals, the cannibals will have emerged from the jungle and had both of you for lunch.  So in the real world (and I may as well warn you now, this post will require a certain level of suspension of disbelief) he is as likely to say, "Bugger off" or "WTF?" as he is to say yes or no.

Martin Gardner suggested a brilliant, practical solution: you should ask, "Did you know they are serving free beer in the village?"  Then you ignore the answer, and just follow the villager whichever way he goes.

This solution is cute, but not without its issues.  It assumes, for example, that your interlocutor likes beer, that he doesn't have urgent business in the jungle, that he is not an "artful deceiver" willing to forego a shot at free beer in order to mislead a foreigner, etc.  Furthermore, it assumes that the native is not considering the possibility that you might be a deceiver, and that you are asking the question not because there is, in point of fact, free beer in the village, but that you have (as indeed you do) some hidden agenda that has nothing at all to do with beer.

In this post I want to consider the inverse problem: suppose you know the way to the village and a native comes up to you and says, "Did you know they are serving free beer in the village?"  How would you respond?  Assume for the sake of argument that you like beer, and all else being equal you'd rather pay less than more.  But in this case all else is not equal.  To act on the information that is (apparently) being provided to you, you have to walk to the village.  If you get there and discover that they are not, in fact, serving free beer then you have incurred, at the very least, an opportunity cost.  Since you are wise in the ways of wily natives, you decide to make further inquiries, and the following conversation ensues:

You: No, I did not know they are serving free beer in the village.  Are they in fact serving free beer in the village, or are you trying to trick me into showing you the way to the village?  Because if it's the latter, all you have to do is ask.  This isn't a logic puzzle.

Native: Oh no, I assure you, there is no trickery, and I have no hidden agenda.  They are indeed serving free beer in the village.  Do you like beer?

You: Indeed I do.

Native: Then why are you not at this very moment rushing off to the village?  It's right over there.

You: It's because I'm a little skeptical.  It seems odd that they should be serving free beer.  As far as I know, there is no reason for them to be doing so.  Is there a festival going on that I didn't hear about?  Or maybe the beer company is running a promotion?

Native: No, nothing like that.  The barkeep is just a particularly generous fellow.

You: I see.  So he sometimes serves free beer just out of the goodness of his heart, does he?

Native: Not sometimes.  Always.  Twenty-four by seven.  All you have to do is walk into the pub and ask.

You: That seems a tad implausible.  How does he stay in business?

Native: Tips.

You: You'll have to pardon me if I'm not convinced.

Native: Oh, it's true.  Ask anyone.  Say, Fred, come over here a second?

Fred: What can I do for you?

Native: This foreigner here doesn't believe that they serve free beer in the village.

Fred: Oh, they do.  I've availed myself of it many times.

[So you go to the village and enter the bar.]

Barkeep: Welcome, stranger!  What can I get for you?

You: I hear you're serving free beer.

Barkeep: Indeed we are.  And not just any old beer.  It's the best beer you've ever had.

You: Can't wait to try it.

Barkeep: Well, as soon as you're dead, you can.

You: What?!

Barkeep:  Oh yeah, didn't they tell you?  You can only have this beer in the afterlife.

You: I knew there had to be a catch.

Barkeep: It's not a catch.  This beer is so good that if you had it while you were alive your head would explode.

You: Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds?

Barkeep: Yeah, I know, but it's true.

You: What makes you think so?

Barkeep: Oh, the evidence is overwhelming.  People have written books about the beer.  2000 years ago people were actually able to try it.  And even today, while you can't actually drink it until after you're dead, you can experience it.

You: How?  (And what does it even mean to experience beer without drinking it?)

Barkeep: You have to believe in the beer, and then the beer will reveal itself to you.

You: That is the most absurd thing I have ever heard in my life.

Barkeep: Be that as it may, you really want to believe in the beer.

You: Why?

Barkeep: Because if you don't then when you die you will go to the Hostelry of Eternal Liquor Lossage, which is a very bad place.

You: What makes it such a bad place?

Barkeep: No beer.

You: Hm, that does sound unpleasant.  Can I take some time to think about it?

Barkeep: Sure, but don't take too long.  Once you're dead, that's it, no do-overs.  And you never know when you might get hit by a bus.

You: I'll be careful.  Thank you, and good bye.

Barkeep:  Good bye. Oh, before you go, take a copy of the Beer Insider's and Brew Lover's Encyclopedia.  It will tell you all about the beer.  How it was made, what makes it so special, why you can't get it any more except after you're dead...

[He hands you a thick book.]

You: Thank you.

[You exit the bar, making a mental note to be very careful to look both ways before you cross the street.  On the sidewalk outside you encounter another villager.]

Villager: Say, stranger, did you know that they are serving free wine in the next village?

Monday, January 05, 2015

Reframing theodicy

The latest round of my recent interaction with Publius made me realize that there might be a new move in the theological chess game known as theodicy.  The usual opening gambit is, "Why would an all-powerful God allow the existence of evil?"  And the usual reply is that evil is regrettable collateral damage caused by God's granting us free will, which is necessary for our salvation (at least that's the Arminian response.  I actually have no idea how Calvinists deal with the theodicy problem.  If I have any Calvinist readers perhaps you could enlighten me?)

But it occurred to me that evil is actually a red-herring.  The real question is: how can there be unsaved souls in the presence of an all-powerful all-loving God?  To put this in the starkest possible terms:

1.  Either it is God's will that I be saved, or it is not.

2.  If it is not, then God is not all-loving.

3.  If it is, and I can thwart God's will (by e.g. not believing in Him) then God is not all-powerful.

I think this formulation is more powerful than the usual one because it prevents playing evil off against salvation as the greater good.  Unsaved souls in the presence of an all-loving all-powerful god are simply a logical impossibility.  Hence, if I (or anyone else for that matter) reject God, then that rejection in and of itself is proof that God cannot be all-loving and all-powerful.

(Note that this argument does not depend on free will.  It doesn't matter why someone rejects God, only that someone does.)

Take that, Descartes!

---

Note: this argument does have one tacit (i.e. unstated) assumption.  See if you can figure out what it is.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Why I believe in the Michelson-Morley experiment

Despite the fact that I haven't been writing much lately, I'm still getting a few hundred pageviews a day according to Google, and I also picked up a few new subscribers over the holidays.  Whoever you are, welcome, and thanks for reading.

Regular commenter Publius and I have been mixing it up in the comments section of an old post about being an AI in a box.  In it, Publius asked:
Even Michelson & Morley looked for the Luminiferous Ether. You replicated that, right? Just didn't read about it in a book?
The answer, of course, is that no, I have not personally tried to replicate the Michelson-Morley experiment.  And yet, I believe the extraordinary claim that the speed of light is the same for all observers (with a few caveats).  So why do I believe that even though I "just read about it in a book" but I don't believe in Jesus despite the fact that I can read about him in a book too?

The glib answer is that I don't believe in Harry Potter either, despite the fact that I read about him in a book too.  But the real answer is much deeper than that.  It's "obvious" that Harry Potter is fiction and the Michelson Morley experiment is not.  But the reason this is obvious is not at all obvious.

The first-hand evidence I have for Harry Potter's existence is actually much, much stronger than what I have for Michelson-Morley.  I have seen actual photos of Harry Potter.  Not just still photos, but high-definition video.  Hours and hours of it.  And all of it is consistent with the written accounts, of which there are seven volumes written in my native language (so no concerns over mistranslations).  By way of contrast, I have no idea what Michelson or Morley looked like.  I wouldn't even know their first names if I hadn't looked them up.  I have never read their original paper, only second-hand accounts in text books and Wikipedia.  I have no idea whether the people who wrote the accounts upon which I rely ever knew Michelson or Morley (I suspect they didn't) or even read their original paper (I suspect they did, though I would not be totally shocked to learn that they didn't).

So it would seem that the actual evidence I have in hand even for the existence of Michelson and Morley is pretty thin, let alone that they actually performed the experiment they are purported to have performed, or that it had the outcome it is purported to have had.  After all, special relativity at first blush seems to border on the miraculous, and my acceptance of it on such thin evidence does indeed appear to be a leap of faith.

But it's not.

To see why, let's go back to Harry Potter.  I reject the proposition that Harry really exists (or existed) despite the overwhelming evidence that he does (or did) because there is a theory that explains the (apparent) evidence for Harry's existence better than Harry's actual existence.  That theory is: Harry Potter is a work of fiction.  It was originally written by J.K. Rowling, and then turned into films as a commercial venture.

Why is the Harry-is-fiction theory better than the Harry-is/was-real theory?  Let me start with a bad argument: Harry is fiction because there is no evidence of the wizarding world outside of the books and the movies.  The reason this is a bad argument is that this lack of evidence is actually explained by the Harry-is-real theory: the wizarding world takes great pains to keep itself concealed from the muggle world, so it is not at all surprising that there is very little evidence of it in day-to-day life.  Moreover, the reason that the wizarding world conceals itself has a plausible explanation: if the muggle world were to learn of the reality of the wizarding world, social order would collapse.

A better argument for the Harry-is-fiction theory is that it's consistent with our current understanding of the laws of physics.  If Harry Potter really exist(s/ed) that means that magic really exists, and all of our understanding of physics goes out the window.  This is a stronger argument, but it is still weak because it is in fact possible for our understanding of physics to be wrong.  But the ways in which it can be wrong are not open-ended.  For example, the odds that even the most radical revolution in physics would permit a violation of the law of conservation of energy are indistinguishable from zero.  And yet, that is exactly the sort of change that the reality of magic would require.  In every nook and cranny of Harry's world there are vast quantities of energy being employed with no apparent source.  (Indeed, that is almost the defining characteristic of magic.)  But even that is not really the slam-dunk argument.

The slam-dunk argument for the Harry-is-fiction theory is that it explains a lot of additional observations that the Harry-is-real theory does not.  It explains the fact that everyone -- including J.K. Rowling, her publishers, the filmmakers, the booksellers -- all of these people insist that Harry Potter is fiction.  It explains the fact that all known photos of Harry Potter bear a striking resemblance to the actor Daniel Radcliffe.  It explains why none of the Harry Potter films were ever nominated for an oscar in the "best documentary" category.  It explains why no university in the world has a department of wizardry.   It explains why even on the fringiest fringes of tinfoil hattery you will not find anyone who seriously advances the theory that Harry is/was real.  The scale of conspiracy you would have to envision to explain all that in the face of the proposition that Harry Potter is/was real surely boggles even the most credulous mind.

The situation with Michelson-Morley is exactly the opposite.  We have a huge community of scientists all insisting that Michelson and Morley were real people, that they really did the experiment they are purported to have done, and that it really did have the result that it was purported to have had.  Moreover (and this is crucial) this community insists that Michelson and Morley's results have been replicated many times since the original.  How many times?  I have no idea.  Can I name even a single person who has ever replicated the M&M result?  No, I can't.  So why do I believe it?

It's because I have a GPS in my phone.

What does GPS have to do with the Michelson-Morley experiment?  It's because of the way GPS works.  The receiver in your phone listens for signals transmitted by a few dozen satellites orbiting the earth.  By measuring the timing of those signals and comparing that with the known orbits of those satellites, a GPS receiver can figure out its location.  To be accurate, the math has to take the results of not only the Michelson-Morley experiment into account (which demonstrates special relativity) but also has to make corrections for general relativity, because clocks on the surface of the earth run more slowly than clocks in orbit.  If Michelson-Morley were not true, GPS could not possibly work in the way that it is purported to work.

The fact that my GPS does in fact work is something I can directly observe every single day.  I can walk around my block or drive around town or even travel to distant lands and see that my GPS at all times reflects exactly where I am to an astonishing degree of accuracy.  There are only three possible ways to account for this:

1.  GPS works exactly as advertised, and is therefore direct, firsthand evidence available to me (and everyone else) of the correctness of the theory of relativity

2.  GPS works some other way, and there is a vast conspiracy afoot to promulgate a false story of how GPS works for some nefarious reason that I cannot even begin to imagine

3.  GPS does not actually work at all, and the fact that it seems to work is some kind of freakish coincidence

I leave it as an exercise for you, dear reader, to work out which of these is most likely to be true.

Now, applying this sort of analysis to God is not nearly as straightforward as most people (on both sides of the debate) seem to think.  The situation is not nearly as cut-and-dried as it is in the case of Harry Potter and Michelson-Morley, where the overwhelming consensus aligns with all of the available evidence.  The reason God is problematic is precisely that the majority view does not align with the scientific evidence.  The result is two bad arguments, one on each side of the debate.

On the atheist side, the bad argument against God is exactly the same as the bad argument against Harry: God is not real because there is no evidence that He is real.  There are two reasons this is a bad argument.  First, most theories of God account for the fact that the scientific evidence for Him is thin: God doesn't want to beat you over the head with proof of His existence.  He wants you to come to Him of your own free will, and you can't do that in the face of incontrovertible proof of His existence.  And second, it's simply wrong.  There is overwhelming evidence, even more accessible to you as a human than the GPS evidence for relativity, that there is something crucial missing from the scientific account of reality.  That evidence is: the laws of physics are symmetric with respect to space and time, but you have a privileged reference frame that you call "here" and "now".  The laws of physics cannot account for that.  Most atheists deal with this by sweeping it under the rug and deciding it's not important.  But if you choose to attach cosmic significance to your own experiences (and, ultimately, your own experiences are all you have, so it is not at all unreasonable to choose to attach cosmic significance to them) then you have no choice but to go beyond (our current understanding of) physics.

On the religious side, there are a whole host of bad arguments.  Most prominent among them is the argument that God must be real because He has revealed Himself through the Bible.  Or the Quran.  Or the Book of Mormon.  Or the writings of L. Ron Hubbard.  That's the thing, there are so many versions of God's Word available, and they contradict each other, so they can't all be right.

Even if you just take the Bible and ignore all the others, it just doesn't hang together, and it particularly doesn't hang together with what most Christians seem to believe: that there is one God (though somehow made of three parts), that this God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, all-loving, that the OT and NT describe the same God.  Frankly, I don't understand how anyone who has read Leviticus or Joshua can believe that gentle Jesus, meek and mild, is the same deity.

In fact, the whole idea of an omniscient, omnipotent deity who requires blind faith to avoid eternal damnation makes no sense to me at all.  Omnipotence and omniscience are logically incompatible with free will, but free will is a pre-requisite for moral culpability.  So either God punishes people for things over which they have no control, or man has the power to thwart the will of God (and hence God is not omnipotent).  I see no other possibilities.

Another bad argument for God is that He must be real because the idea of a world without God leads inexorably to unbearable existential despair.  That's a bad argument because the truth doesn't care what you want.  The truth is the truth, and there's no reason to believe a priori that the truth doesn't suck.  Even if there is a God, there's no logical reason He has to be all-knowing all-powerful all-loving.  There isn't even any logical reason there has to be only one of Him.  Maybe the truth is not that there is a God, but that there are many gods.  Or maybe there is one God, but he's a trickster (or a spoiled brat), more like Loki or Trelane than Jesus.

An only slightly better argument is: I know God is real because I have personally experienced Him.  I've never heard anyone give an adequate account of how they know that what they have experienced is (say) Jesus and not Loki.  Somehow they Just Know.  And again, people claim that God tells them things that are mutually inconsistent.  Some people claim that God tells them to love thy enemies, others say God tells them to engage in jihad.  They can't all be right.  Since God has not seen fit not to reveal Himself to me in this way, I have no basis for separating the true claims from the false ones.

This same credit-assignment problem exists for ontological and cosmological arguments as well. Even if these were good arguments for some god (they aren't, but it's a moot point because...) they are not at all arguments for any particular god.  Fine-tuning could be achieved as well by a super-intelligent alien as by the God of Abraham.

A final bad argument is: look at all the sacrifices made by believers for their beliefs.  People would not endure such suffering if their beliefs were not true.  This argument is plainly false, because people sacrifice themselves for mutually-incompatible beliefs.  Early Christians martyred themselves for Jesus.  Today, Muslims martyr themselves for Allah.  In 1978, over 900 people died for Jim Jones and gave rise to the popular aphorism "drinking the Kool-Aid."

So there might be a good argument out there for believing in God, but I haven't found one, and it's not for lack of trying.  I've read the Bible (and the Quran, and the Book of Mormon, and the Bhagwan Bible, and a few others).  I've talked to Christians and Muslims and Jews.  (I've even talked to a few Scientologists, though frankly they scare the shit out of me.)  The theory that makes the most sense to me is that there are no gods, and people believe (or pretend to believe) because of a mixture of indoctrination, social pressure, and as a palliative against existential despair.

This theory explains most of the observed data, but not all of it.  In particular, Luke is still an unexplained anomaly, and that keeps me a little humble.

Happy new year, everyone!