Thursday, May 07, 2015

Why Lisp?

A number of people have contacted me about a comment I wrote yesterday on Hacker News asking me to elaborate, e.g.:
my impression is that lisp is *only* a different notation. Is that correct, or am I missing something? I don't see why it is so important that lisp code matches the data structure (and my assumption is that the match is the answer to 'why lisp') - am I overlooking the importance of macros, or is there even more that I'm still not aware of?
The answer to this question is long, so I thought I'd go ahead and turn it into a blog post.

The short version of the answer is that Lisp is not merely a different notation, it's a fundamentally different way of thinking about what programming is.  The mainstream model is that programming consists of producing standalone artifacts called programs which operate on other artifacts called data.  Of course, everyone knows that programs are data, but the mainstream model revolves around maintaining an artificial distinction between the two concepts.  Yes, programs are data, but they are data only for a special kind of program called a compiler.  Compilers are hard to write, a field of study unto themselves.  Most people don't write their own compilers (except occasionally as academic exercises), but instead use compilers written by the select few who have attainted the level of mastery required to write one that isn't just a toy.

The Lisp model is that programming is a more general kind of interaction with a machine.  The act of describing what you want the machine to do is interleaved with the machine actually doing what you have described, observing the results, and then changing the description of what you want the machine to do based on those observations.  There is no bright line where a program is finished and becomes an artifact unto itself.  Yes, it is possible to draw such a line and produce standalone executables in Lisp, just as it is possible to write interactive programs in C.  But Lisp was intended to be interactive (because it was invented to support AI research), whereas C was not (because it was invented for writing operating systems).  Interactivity is native to Lisp whereas it is foreign to C, just as building standalone executable is native to C but foreign to Lisp.

Of course, there are times when you have no choice but to iterate.  Some times you don't know everything you need to know to produce a finished design and you have to do some experiments, and the faster you can do them the better off you will be.  In cases like this it is very helpful to have a general mechanism for taking little programs and composing them to make a bigger program, and the C world has such a mechanism: the pipe.  However, what the C world doesn't have is a standard way of serializing and de-serializing data.  And, in particular, the C world doesn't have a standard way of serializing and de-serializing hierarchical data.  Instead, the C world has a vast array of different kinds of serialization formats: fixed-width, delimiter-separated, MIME, JSON, ICAL, SGML and its offspring, HTML and XML, to name but a few.  And those are just serialization formats for data.  If you want to write code, every programming language has its own syntax with its own idiosyncrasies.

The C ecosystem has spawned the peculiar mindset that thinks that syntax matters.  A lot of mental energy is devoted to syntax design.  Tools like LEX and YACC are widely used.  In the C world, writing parsers is a big part of any programmer's life.

Every now and then someone in the C world gets the bright idea to try to use one of these data serialization formats to try to represent code.  These efforts are short-lived because code represented in XML or JSON looks absolutely horrible compared to code represented using a syntax specifically designed to represent code.  They conclude that representing code as data is a Bad Idea and go back to writing parsers.

But they're wrong.

The reason that code represented as XML or JSON looks horrible is not because representing code as data is a bad idea, but because XML and JSON are badly designed serialization formats.  And the reason they are badly designed is very simple: too much punctuation.  And, in the case of XML, too much redundancy.  The reason Lisp succeeds in representing code as data where other syntaxes fail is that S-expression syntax is a well-designed serialization format, and the reason it's well designed is that it is minimal.  Compare:

XML: <list><item>abc</item><item>pqr</item><item>xyz</item></list>

JSON: ['abc', 'pqr', 'xyz'] 

S-expression: (abc pqr xyz)

The horrible bloatedness of XML is obvious even in this simple example.  The difference between JSON and S-expressions is a little more subtle, but consider: this is a valid S-expression:

(for x in foo collect (f x))

The JSON equivalent is:

['for', 'x', 'in', 'foo', 'collect', ['f', 'x']]

Rendering that into XML is left as an exercise.

The difference becomes particularly evident if you try to type those expressions rather than just look at them.  (Try it!)  The quotes and commas that seem innocuous enough for small data structures become an immediately intolerable burden for anything really complicated (and XML, of course, like all SGML-derivatives, is just completely hopeless).

The reason that Lisp is so cool and powerful is that the intuition that leads people to try to represent code as data is actually correct.  It is an incredibly powerful lever.  Among other things, it makes writing interpreters and compilers really easy, and so inventing new languages and writing interpreters and compilers for them becomes as much a part of day-to-day Lisp programming as writing parsers is business as usual in the C world.  But to make it work you must start with the right syntax for representing code and data, which means you must start with a minimal syntax for representing code and data, because anything else will drown you in a sea of commas, quotes and angle brackets.

Which means you have to start with S-expressions, because they are the minimal syntax for representing hierarchical data.  Think about it: to represent hierarchical data you need two syntactic elements: a token separator and a block delimiter.  In S expressions, whitespace is the token separator and parens are the block delimiters.  That's it.  You can't get more minimal than that.

It is worth noting that the reason the parens stick out so much in Lisp is not that Lisp has more parens than other programming languages, it's that Lisp as only one block delimiter (parens) and so the parens tend to stick out because there is nothing else.  Other languages have different block delimiters depending on the kind of block being delimited.  The C family, for example, has () for argument lists and sub-expressions, [] for arrays, {} for code blocks and dictionaries.  It also uses commas and semicolons as block delimiters.  If you compare apples and apples, Lisp usually has fewer block delimiters than C-like languages.  Javascript in particular, where callbacks are ubiquitous, often gets mired in deep delimiter doo doo, and then it becomes a cognitive burden on the programmer to figure out the right delimiter to put in depending on the context.  Lisp programmers never have to worry about such things: if you want to close a block, you type a ")".  It's always a no-brainer, which leaves Lisp programmers with more mental capacity to focus on the problem they actually want to solve.

And on that note, I should probably get back to coding.  Iteratively, of course :-)

[This post has been translated into Chinese.]

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Drawing The Line: making the case for idea-ism

This post has been too long in coming.  I've been busy coding.  (Actually, I've been busy writing documentation, which turns out to be even more time consuming.)

A while back I promised commenter Luke that I would answer two questions:

1.  How can reason not be circular?

2.  Why is idea-ism (still searching for a better name) a better basis for morality than Christianity (or anything else for that matter)?

I answered the first question in a previous post.  The bottom line is that reason "grounds out" in the fact that the universe has discernible regularities in it, and our brains have hard-wired into them the ability to attach labels to those regularities.  We call that ability "language," and "reason" is an extension of language.  This post tackles the second question, at which point my outstanding rhetorical obligations will be fulfilled and I can get back to working on my startup :-)

First, a reminder of what idea-ism is, what it claims, and what it does not.  Idea-ism is the axiom that moral behavior is that which advances the interests of memes or ideas.  It is important to note that idea-ism is an axiom.  I can't prove it.  In fact, no system of morality can be proven because morality is not a question of fact.  The question of whether it is right to cut people's heads off for apostasy cannot be resolved experimentally.  Morality is a matter of social choice.  It is a question of what kind of world we want to try to strive for.  Which immediately raises the question: who is "we"?

This, I claim, is the more fundamental question.  Disagreements about what is moral really boil down to disagreements about where to draw the boundary between "us" and "them."  The meaning of "love thy neighbor" really depends on the meaning of the word "neighbor".  Back in Old Testament times your neighbor meant a member of your tribe.  The bloody genocides in Joshua that New Atheists gleefully point out as contradicting the sixth Commandment aren't contradictions at all, they are simply a reflection of how the line between "us" and "them" has shifted over time.  The idea that "all men are created equal" is a modern invention, a product of the Enlightenment, and it is nowhere near being universally accepted.  Nearly fifteen years after 9/11, Americans still go apoplectic over the death of nearly 3000 innocent civilians but (mostly) casually brush off the deaths of over 100,000 equally innocent Iraqi civilians.  And yet somehow we still manage to think of ourselves as the Good Guys.  That is because the 3000 who were killed were Us, and the 100,000 (or however many it was) were Them.

There is nothing wrong with drawing a line between Us and Them.  In fact, it is a necessary, even fundamental part of life.  Life is not possible without separating a replicator from its environment somehow.  Some barriers are natural (cell membranes, physical organisms), others are artificial (city walls, national boundaries), and still others are non-physical social constructs (family, ethnic group) but the fact that these boundaries exist is inescapable.  The trick is drawing them in the right place.

There are some possible places to draw the line between us and them that are clearly wrong.  For example, the idea that "all life is sacred" is obviously problematic.  The malaria parasite, for example, is alive, but I hope I don't have to convince you that it would be a mistake to argue that curing malaria would be immoral as a result.  Likewise, there are people who consider parts of their own bodies to be "the other" and believe that they would be happier as amputees.

This is clearly a pathology but it is still worth reflecting for a moment on why it is a pathology: it's not just because hacking off your own limbs makes most people queasy.  If morality were determinable by majority rule then torture and genocide would have been perfectly moral through most of human history.  It would be nice to have moral principles which were timeless and not subject to the whims of fashion.

One possible story to tell about the reason that Apotemnophilia is a pathology is that it is destructive to life.  A desire to chop your own limbs off puts the genes that produce this behavior at a significant reproductive disadvantage relative to its competitors.  That seems plausible enough, but it has a significant problem: this argument would seem to apply equally to homosexuality.  Surely genes that produce brains driven to mate with members of the same sex are at a significant reproductive disadvantage relative to genes that produce brains drive to mate with the opposite sex.  And yet homosexuality (in my view) is neither pathological nor immoral.

(Aside: it is worth thinking about how the genes for homosexuality do manage to survive as such a large proportion of the population.)

This, then, is the problem: is it possible to give a principled account of morality?  By which I mean, is it possible to construct a theory of morality that is not vacuous, that is not equivalent to, "Moral behavior is whatever people who think like me consider moral", and that can embrace variations in human sexuality and religious beliefs while rejecting pathologies like Apotemnophilia and ISIS?  My claim is that idea-ism is such a theory.  Moreover, I claim that idea-ism is the only such theory.  It may or may not be the only possible such theory, but it's the only one that I know of, and I've been looking for a long, long time.

Before I describe why I think idea-ism is such a theory, let me quickly review the moral landscape and explain what I find lacking in the competition.


Religious theories of morality are easily rejected as non-principled because they require an arbitrary adoption of some holy text or creed.  A principled theory of morality must be able to resolve moral dilemmas without resorting to asking what most adherents of the theory think is moral.  Religions can't do that, with the canonical contemporary example being the question of marriage equality: is it moral for gay people to marry?  Some Christians say yes, others say no.  Both sides can cite scripture to support their position, and there is no way (AFAICT) to resolve the question without resorting to some extra-scriptural criterion.  That makes Christianity non-principled, and all of the world's other religions have the same problem.  (One could even take this as the defining characteristic of religion!)


I've written extensively about this in the past so I'll just summarize: the problem with Humanism is that it (by definition!) takes man to be the measure of all things, so it axiomatically relegates primates, cetaceans, elephants, intelligent aliens and artificially intelligent robots to second-class moral status.  When pressed, most people who self-identify as Humanists will readily disclaim this definition, but that just leads to the next problem: having rejected the very definition of their self-identified creed, there is nothing to replace it with.  There are a lot of alternative formulations of the intuition that lead to the coining of the term "Humanism", but none of them work.


Sam Harris adopts the axiom that moral behavior is that which advances the interests of conscious beings.  Harris writes:
For my argument ... to hold, I think one need only grant two points: (1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences relate, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world.
This seems innocuous enough, but in fact Harris makes a third, tacit assumption: that the relative merits of one person's life versus another can be objectively determined.  Not only that, but he assumes that the determination is so easy to do that it cannot possibly be the subject of any legitimate dissent.
Anyone who doesn't see that the Good Life is preferable to the Bad Life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion about human well-being. Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc. enjoyed in the context of prosperous civil society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in a steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?
As I argued in my review of Harris's book, yes, we must, at least if we want a principled account of morality.  Because the fact of the matter is that Harris's views on what constitute the Good Life and the Bad Life are heavily biased by his status as a privileged western secular male academic.  If one is to seriously take the interests of conscious beings as the axiomatic basis of morality then one must take seriously the fact that some conscious beings have very different views from one's own, and it is not possible to reject those views on the basis of Harris's axiom.  Radical Muslims believe that the Good Life is serving Allah, and that this is worth sacrificing earthly comfort for.  On what principled basis can we reject this view?  We can't do it on the basis of Harris's axiom; radical Muslims are every bit as conscious as Sam Harris is.

Ethical Culture and Utilitarianism

There is a little-known but venerable secular tradition in the U.S. called Ethical Culture.  Its root go back at least to 1877 and possible as far as 1793.  About the same time, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were developing the theory of moral utilitarianism.  At the risk of oversimplifying, these approach morals from a practical point of view, trying to generally say that moral behavior is that which "does the right thing" or "produces a good outcome."  Which, of course, begs the question: what is a good outcome?

Ethical Culture, Utilitarianism, and even Harris's theory have a hard time with trolley problems, where people's intuitions about moral choices vary not just on the basis of utilitarian outcomes but also on the basis of the particular circumstances of the problem.  All trolley problems have the same structure: you have a binary choice to make, and depending on how you choose, either one person dies or five people die.  The utilitarian prediction is that the former is always the moral choice, but this is not the case.  My favorite counter-example is the "transplant" variant:
A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor . Do you support the morality of doctor to kill that tourist to provide his healthy organs to those five dying persons and save their lives?
Most people would argue that it is not moral to harvest the man's organs without his consent, and I agree.  Utilitarianism has a hard time accounting for this.


My claim is that idea-ism is the only principled (as defined above) moral theory that produces conclusions that coincide with most people's moral intuitions.  You can, if you like, consider idea-ism to be a predictive theory of morality, or you can adopt it as prescriptive in order to provide guidance for moral behavior.

To review briefly, idea-ism is the premise that moral behavior is that which advances the interests (or, to be more specific, the "bio-diversity") of memes, or ideas.  It is, in other words, the choice to draw The Line around abstract replicators rather than around any particular set of genes.  Many common moral principles immediately follow from this, but as conclusions rather than as premises.  In particular, the particular value of human life follows because human brains are habitat for memes.  So are books and computers, and so burning books is generally immoral, as is destructive hacking of computers.

The idea-ism axiom can be justified on the grounds that because memes are replicators, they are life, and so idea-ism is the ultimate endorsement of the value of life.  But that's not quite true.  Idea-ism is not equivalent to the premise that all life is sacred.  The interests of memes and genes are often aligned, but when they are not, idea-ism says that memes win.  So the malaria parasite is alive, but because it can't think, it's not habitat for memes.  And because it destroys human brains, which are habitat for memes. the humans win, and developing a treatment for malaria is a moral choice.

Likewise, birth control, autoerotic and homosexual sex are all moral choices.  If you'd rather read a book than raise a child that's perfectly OK.  (On the other hand, if you'd prefer to raise a child that's OK too, because your child's brain will also be habitat for memes.)  Likewise, if you were born with the body of a man but you feel like a woman, then living as a woman is also perfectly OK, if doing that helps you think.

On the other hand, cutting off your own arm can rightfully be condemned as pathological if not immoral.  If you cut off your arm, you will (almost certainly) impair your own ability to survive and hence reduce the available habitat for memes.  Suicide is likewise immoral, not just because it directly destroys your own brain (habitat for memes) but because the emotional distress this will cause the people around you will very likely impair their ability to think.

In general, the ability to think is a very powerful moral lever.  A direct consequence of idea-ism is that impairing someone's ability to think is immoral.  So, all else being equal, causing someone emotional distress is probably immoral because it will impair their ability to think.  This is not to say that idea-ism leads to extremes of political correctness.  The detrimental effects of causing someone emotional distress have to be weighed against the value of the free exchange of ideas, which is beneficial to memes.  This is why "all else being equal" is an important caveat.  Offensive speech can causes emotional distress, but addressing this problem by trying to suppress offensive speech in general will work to the detriment of memes, because only those memes which don't offend anyone would be allowed to propagate.  So: simply insulting someone with the intention of causing them emotional distress is immoral.  Publishing offensive cartoons or writings with the intention of making a political point or spreading some other kind of idea is not.

Idea-ism easily condemns the actions of radical Muslims as immoral because chopping off people's heads and destroying ancient artifacts directly destroy memes and hence are immoral acts.

Hopefully by now the answer to the transplant variant of the trolley problem should be obvious: the reason it is not moral to harvest someone's organs without their consent even if it would save five people is that this would create pervasive societal fear that any time you go to the doctor you might not survive the encounter.  Clearly that would have a detrimental effect on people's ability to think.

I claim that idea-ism is principled, congruent with most people's moral intuitions, and free from pathologies.  Moreover, I claim that it is the only known moral system (though not necessarily the only possible moral system) that has all of these properties.  If anyone can think of a counter-example I'd love to hear it.

OK, it's a little terse, but I really should get back to work now.

The best way to answer anti-gay bigotry

With humor.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Answers to Tuese's Questions for Atheists

Tuese Ahkiong posed some questions for atheists, so I thought I'd take a whack at them.

• If the atheistic worldview is true, why do they knock people of faith?

I try not to knock people of faith, but I think there are two main reasons that people do:

1.  They think that ridicule is an effective means of getting people to question or abandon their faith.  (I think they're wrong about this, but some people believe it.)

2.  They think that faith deserves ridicule because of the bad effects it has on the world, like climate-change denialism, or ISIS and the Taliban destroying historical relics in the name of stamping out idolatry.

Also, some people knock faith because they are jerks.

• Aren't people of faith, as well as atheists, the way they are b/c of their genes, environment, family, upbringing, chance, indoctrination?


• Didn't the universe just randomly make people into atheist, murderers, Christians, Muslims, etc.?

That is a deep philosophical question to which I don't have an answer.  We humans (at least those of us who aren't Calvinists) like to believe that we have free will, and so we can choose not to murder people.  Whether we have free will to choose our beliefs, though, is a different question.  I feel like I don't have the free will to choose what I believe.  I believe based on evidence, experiment and reason, and I have no idea how I could do otherwise.

• If we're just cosmic accidents waiting to be annihilated, why make such a fuss about truth as if your life and truth really matter?

Because truth and life do matter.  Life is a pre-requisite for caring.  Non-living things can't and don't care about anything, so if you're going to care about anything you have no choice but to care about life.

Also, it makes sense that living things that have brains capable of caring about things should care about life because those genes that produce brains that don't care about life don't reproduce as well as those genes that produce brains that do care about life.

• If the world is just material, accidentally, randomly, chaotically, meaninglessly floating around, what does it matter if one is right or wrong?

Because the world isn't "just material, accidentally, randomly, chaotically, meaninglessly floating around".  The world contains living things, and living things evolve according to a process that includes both random variation and non-random natural selection.

And being right matters because being right gives you the gift of prophecy.

• Btw, what one thing do you know to be absolutely true about evolution?

It is the process that created all known living things.

• And how would the atheists know that people of faith are wrong or bad or misled unless they had some absolute standard to judge from?

We do have a standard: evidence, experiment and reason.  And we don't generally believe that people of faith are "bad".  But the problem with faith is precisely what you say: there is no standard.  You can choose to have faith in the Bible, or you can choose to have faith in the Quran, or you can choose to have faith in the Book of Mormon, or the Bagavad Gita, or Dianetics.  Without an absolute standard there is no reason to prefer one faith over another.

• Do atheists believe in absolute truth?

I don't know what you mean by "absolute truth."  But yes, we believe that there is a real world out there, and that some claims about the world are true and others are false.

• Where does absolute truth come from?

It is a property of objective reality.  And it's a remarkable property.  It didn't have to be the way it is.  There's no inherent reason that the world has to operate according to physical laws, but as far as we can tell, it does.  We don't know why.  Albert Einstein once said: the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.

• Did absolute truth just assemble itself in the Big Bang?

We don't know.

• Are morals absolute?

No.  But there are some universal moral principles that are wired into us by evolution.

• Did life come from non-life?

Yes, almost certainly.  We don't know exactly how yet, but there's no reason to believe that it was not a natural process.

• Did intelligence come from non-intelligence, i.e., DNA?

Yes. Intelligence evolved gradually, just like everything else.  Simple nervous systems evolved into more complex nervous systems, which evolved into small brains, which evolved into bigger brains.

• Did order come from disorder?

Yes, but only locally, and only with a net energy input.  In the case of earth, the energy required to power the local ordering process comes from the sun, which is becoming more disorderly over time.

• How do you know what you know?

Years of study and careful consideration.

• What is you?

I (the thing writing these words) am a software process, essentially computer program, running on a biological computer called a human brain that is the result of about four billion years (more or less) of evolution.

• How do you know that you are you?

Because there's evidence that I am me.  I can effect changes in the world (like writing these words) and other people provide evidence that I did in fact write these words by writing other words in response (I hope).

• Where do the laws of logic come from?

They come from the fact that computation is universal.  What this means is that all computational processes, whether they are running on an electronic computer or a human brain, can be modeled in one very simple way (or, if you prefer, in many ways all of which turn out to be equivalent to each other).  The theory of how this happens was first worked out by Alan Turing in the 1930s.

• Is ok to torture babies for fun?

Of course not.

• Why or why not?

Because babies are habitat for memes.

• Where did the universe come from?

We don't know (yet).

• Does evil exist?  Does love exist?  Do non-material particulars exist like logic, numbers, ideas?


• Are ideas physical?

That depends on what you mean by "physical."  Ideas exist in the physical world, but they are not made of "stuff", they are made of "configurations of stuff" (the technical term is "computational state").

• Is logic material?


• Do non-physical particulars like logic, numbers, ideas, people's spirit or soul, love exits?


• Where do human rights come from?

They are a human invention.  And a damn good one if you ask me.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The difference between science and religion, take 2

In the comments section of an earlier post I advanced the following theory of the difference between science and relgion:
My definition of religion is the acceptance of claims on faith, i.e. without evidence.
To which commenter Publius responded:
I would make that "without scientific evidence." There are other forms of evidence - testimonial, personal knowledge, etc.
My knee-jerk reaction to this was to say that there is no distinction between "scientific" and "non-scientific" evidence.  Evidence is evidence.  You don't get to cherry-pick.  This is exactly the problem with young-earth creationists and lunar landing conspiracy theorists: they cherry-pick the evidence that supports their worldview and ignore the rest.

And then it suddenly occurred to me that I was actually making Publius's point for him.  It is not that religious people accept things with no evidence.  If everything is evidence and you don't get to cherry-pick, then holy texts and other people's beliefs are evidence.  The question is: evidence of what?  To me, holy texts and religious beliefs are evidence of human creativity and/or gullibility, but to a religious person they are evidence of God.  So there is a difference there, but pinning down exactly what that difference is turns out to be quite a bit more subtle than I suspected.  I'm still not sure I have it quite figured out.

Just to lay to rest the idea I'm imagining that there is a difference, let me lay out one very stark example.  Consider the theory that the Bible is the Word of God, which is to say, a privileged communication from the omniscient and omnipotent Creator of the universe.  Well, the Bible says this:
And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.  (Matthew 21:22)
This sounds to me like a testable prediction: if you ask for something in prayer, and you believe, then you will receive what you ask for.  This is an unrestricted offer.  It applies to "all things" and "whatsoever ye shall ask."  So let's give it a whirl: God, I wish for a pony.

[Wait, wait wait...]

Hm.  No pony.

Well, duh, of course there's no pony.  That's exactly what the theory predicts.  The offer has a catch.  To get what you ask for in prayer you have to believe, and I don't.  So that was not a fair test.

OK, so to conduct this experiment I have to find a believer to ask God for a pony on my behalf.  But then I will encounter another hitch: no believer will agree to conduct this experiment because "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord" (Luke 4:12) and asking for a pony seems a bit frivolous.

So let's try something non-frivolous: how about asking for the lost limbs of the victims of the Boston Marathon bomb to be restored.  That seems like a noble enough request.  Surely I can find a believer somewhere willing to make this request of God, if not on my behalf, then on behalf of the victims?  In fact, surely some believer somewhere has actually made this request already without my having to prompt them?  And if not this request, then for some other victim of some other malicious attack or accident that resulted in the loss of a limb?

And yet, in all of recorded history there has never been a case of an amputated limb being restored.  That is rather curious.  It seems to me that there are only three possibilities:

1.  No believer has ever asked for this.

2.  There is some reason that limbs are off-limits.

3.  Matthew 21:22 is wrong.

The difference between religion and science, it seems to me, is that science will unhesitatingly choose option 3 as the most likely, whereas religion will resist that conclusion with all its might.  Religion will twist and squirm and invent elaborate excuses, anything to avoid saying, "Yeah, there's something wrong with our holy text."

Science, by way of contrast, has no problem saying, "Yeah, there's something wrong with that theory."  In fact, it's woven into the weft and warp of the scientific process.  The very foundation of science is the recognition that the vast majority of theories are wrong, so it is entirely expected that any particular theory is wrong.  In fact, there is hardly any sport in finding a wrong theory.  The tricky part is finding a right theory because only a tiny minority of theories are right.

This is not to say that science-as-practiced by fallible humans always embraces correction immediately.  New theories often meet with initial resistance, but there is a sound reason for this: most theories are wrong, so given a random theory and no other information, the odds are very good that it's wrong.  The current set of accepted theories at any given time have already undergone some very strict scrutiny and filtering.  So the odds of a new theory being better than an old one is, a priori, very low.  And the odds get lower with every new improvement because science converges on truth.  Not always monotonically, but it does converge.

One of the starkest differences between science and religion is their respective attitudes towards scripture and scholarship.  Religions hold scripture and scholars in very high regard.  Science does not.  The closest thing science has to scriptures is the writings of great scientists, but hardly anyone actually reads those except historians of science.  Newton is the closest thing science has to a saint, but no one reads the Principia.  You will occasionally hear a "great scientist" cited as an authority, as in, "Einstein teaches us that the speed of light is the same in all reference frames."  But this is wrong. It is not Einstein that teaches us this, it is nature by way of experiments.  Einstein was just the first to tell the most parsimonious story.

So the difference between science and religion, it seems to me, is something like this: in science, at the end of the day, after all the transients caused by politics and human foibles have settled (and they always do), the experimental data wins.  In religion, it doesn't.  In religion, something else, like scripture or other people's beliefs or striving for "goodness", can trump the data.

You can see this reflected in some of the core arguments advanced for Christianity, which amount to something like: if the Resurrection didn't really happen, the consequences would be horrible.  Therefore, the resurrection must have happened.  It's not data that supports the conclusion, it's the horribleness of the consequences if the conclusion were not true.

The same can be said for science, by the way, because at the core of the belief that experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth is a fear of the consequences if this were not the case.  If God really exists, then we are at the mercy of a higher power that we cannot control even if we can come to fully understand it.  Science offers power through the gift of prophecy, but very little guidance on how best to use it.  So some people are understandably scared of having that power.  Others are scared of giving it up.  Welcome to the burdens of being human.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why some assumptions are better than others

All reasoning has to start from assumptions.  Assumptions by definition can't be proven or disproven. So how can we evaluate our core assumptions?  If we try to use reason, that reasoning must itself be based on some assumptions like, "Reason is the best way to evaluate assumptions."  But since that is an assumption, how can we evaluate it without getting into a infinite regression?

For that matter, how can I be sure that the concepts in my head, which I am here rendering into words, correspond to the concepts that form in your head when you read these words?  How do I know that what I mean when I write, say, "concept" is the same thing that you understand when you read the word "concept"?

Here's how.

I want you to clear your mind for a moment.  Close your eyes.  Take a deep breath.  Then look at the following pictures and their associated captions.

Paka moja

Paka wawili

Paka tatu

Paka nne

Paka wengi

Paka kubwa

mbwa moja

Now I am going to make some predictions:  If I were to ask you, "What does 'paka' mean?" you will reply, "cat."  And if I were to ask you, "What does 'moja' mean?" you will reply "one".  And if I were to ask you, "What does 'wawili' mean?" you will reply "two". And if I were to ask you, "What does 'tatu' mean?" you will reply "three".   And if I were to ask you, "What does 'nne' mean?" you will reply "four".  And if I were to ask you, "What does 'wengi' mean?" you will reply, "many".  And if I were to ask you, "What does 'kubwa' mean?" you will reply "big".

Was I right?  If so, how did I do it?  Here are some possibilities:

1.  I got lucky.
2.  I have a magical ability to predict or control your actions.
3.  God told me.

Now, I am going to tell you that none of those are the right answer.  Of course, just because I tell you that doesn't mean that I'm right.  I could be mistaken, or I could be lying.  But here is what I believe to be the right answer:  I have a model of you that allows me to predict some (but not all) of your behavior.  That model is (to a first order approximation): you are a human.  Because you are a human, your brain is hard-wired to pay attention to certain visual stimuli.  Among those visual stimuli that your brain is hard-wired to detect are the creatures known as "cats" in English, "gatos" in Spanish, "katzen" in German, "chatulim" in Hebrew, and "paka" in Swahili.  The reason your brain is hard-wired to detect cats is that this ability conferred a relative advantage in reproductive fitness to some of your distant ancestors, probably because their feline neighbors were more kubwa than your typical modern nyumba paka.  (And how you know how to say "house" in Swahili.)

Of course, none of this guarantees that you and I mean the same thing when we say or hear the word "cat".  It's possible that the features of cat-ness that my brain cues in on are different than yours, and that some time in the future we will discover that what you mean by "cat" corresponds more to what I mean by, say, "furry".  But that's not likely.  Why?  Because in the little experiment above I not only associated the word "paka" with images of (what I think of when I say the word) cats but also with numbers, and numbers are concepts that go with nouns like "cat" and not adjectives like "furry".  It just doesn't make sense (to me) to say, "one furry, two furries..."  Maybe "paka" means "furry thing".  But that doesn't make sense either because then the last image should have been labelled paka moja too and it's not, it's mbwa moja.  (And now you know how to say "dog" in Swahili.)

Why do I believe that my explanation of my (limited) ability to predict your actions is the correct one?  Because it explains more than the other possibilities.  Consider theory #1, for example.  The odds of my predicting your actions with as much precision as I can by pure luck are indistinguishable from zero.  It's not impossible, but it's extremely unlikely.  And every time I do it it -- every time I interact with (the things that I perceive to be) my fellow humans and get responses from them that make sense out of the myriad possible responses they could produce if they were simply choosing responses at random, it becomes more unlikely.

Theory #2 is not so easily ruled out.  In fact, I cannot prove to you that it's false [1].  So why do I reject it?  Because it lacks explanatory power.  My ability to predict your actions is limited.  I can predict that you will be able to figure out that "paka" means "cat" from examples, but I cannot predict what your favorite flavor of ice cream is.  Again, it's possible that I am lying about this, that I really can predict (or control!) your ice cream choice.  But that just begs the question: are there any limits to my prophetic abilities?  If so, what are they?  If not, why do I not use my omniscience to work my will on people more often?

The fundamental problem with theory #2 is that "magic" is nothing more than a synonym for "mysterious unknown process."  So theory #2 is not really a theory at all, it's an oblique way of punting on trying to come up with a theory.  The whole point of this exercise is to get a handle on my ability to predict the future, and invoking "magic" is essentially saying, "I don't know."  Magic is not a valid theory, not because it's necessarily incorrect (remember, I already conceded that I can't prove that my abilities are not magical), but because it cannot possibly represent progress.  Invoking magic is not an explanation, it's giving up on all hope of finding an explanation.

Theory 3 is even harder to dispense with.  God is not quite the same as magic because God is knowable, at least partially.  So how can I convince you that I am telling the truth when I say that my ability to predict the future is not a revelation from God?

One possibility is to make another prediction: I probably don't have to convince you that I'm telling the truth.  You almost certainly believe me.  In fact, you probably believed that I was not having revelations from God even before I told you.  Your belief was probably so strong that my positing divine revelation as an explanation for the results of the cat experiment seemed like pedantry.

Am I right?  If so, how did I manage that trick?

Why, the same way I managed the first one, of course: I have a model of you.  I have a model of you even though I have no idea who you are!  How did I come by that model?  Through a life-long and on-going process of generating hypotheses, testing them, and discarding the ones that don't fit the facts.  This goes all the way down to hypotheses about what words mean, and which words I can rely on to have the same meaning in your brain as it does in mine (like "cat") and which ones I can't (like "God").

Rationality grounds out in having everything hang together in a way that grants me the gift of prophecy that I demonstrated at the beginning of this post.  No other mental process has that property.  Prayer might grant you inner peace and harmony, but it does not help you build bridges or restore sight to the blind or increase crop yields.  This is not to say that prayer is without value.  Inner peace and harmony are much to be desired.  There is not much value in being able to build an iPhone if your life is a continuous nightmare of existential angst, though improving crop yields and inventing vaccines should not be lightly dismissed either.  It's a lot harder to achieve inner peace if you are sick or hungry than if you are not.

The point is: the apparent infinite regress of rationality bottoms out in its effectiveness, in its ability to confer the gift of prophecy and hence the power to change the world according to one's desires.  That still leaves open the very thorny problem of identifying or selecting those desires.  The hardest part of getting what you want is, very often, figuring out what it is, and in this rationality offers less help, though it does offer some.  I'll explore that in a subsequent post.

[1] In the middle ages thousands of people died painful deaths because of the impossibility of proving theory 2 to be false.

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!

[UPDATE March 12:] The nightmare is not over.  They are still billing me for my now-discontinued DSL service.  On hold with AT&T billing for 30 minutes and counting while they (supposedly) fix it... arrggghhh!!!

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.