Sunday, March 31, 2019

Can a Scientist find common ground with a young-earth creationist?

This is a response to this post by Jimmy Weiss.  For more background, see this.

Let me start with the positive: I am grateful to Jimmy for taking the time to write his article.  I asked him to do it because we had been having a very cordial, constructive, and, at least for me, instructive discussion on Reddit and I wanted to be able to share that with a wider audience.

Second, one of the things that impressed me about Jimmy was his intellectual honesty.  In my experience, many Christians when confronted with some of the more odious parts of the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) become defensive, or even get offended.  Jimmy didn't.  He tackled all of my questions head-on without ever flinching.  Needless to say I was not much persuaded by his answers, but just the fact that he was willing and able to provide them at all impressed me.  I actually learned a lot.

Third, I think we really do have some common ground.  Jimmy is willing to take math and science pretty seriously, and I (I like to think) am willing to concede when my position is on less-than-rock-solid ground.  For example, I believe that life began through a process of abiogenesis despite the fact that science has not yet figured out how it happened, or even how it could have happened.  There's a lot of (plausible, at least to me) speculation about how it might have happened but no one has yet been able to convincingly fill in the details.  Nonetheless, I believe very strongly that science will eventually fill in the details, but at this point that is an article of faith.  Yes, science has a pretty good track record of filling in details (which is the basis of my faith) but as investment advisors perennially remind us: past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Unfortunately, that's kind of where my optimism ends with regards to Jimmy's article.  He starts out with his own speculation about our common ground:
I believe that Ron and I are agreed on all but one of these preconditions.  As I understand them, in order for us to be able to make any sense at all of the universe, we have to accept a few basic axioms.  The first is that the laws of logic are absolutely true.  These laws include: 
(A) The Law of Identity, which states that something is what it is, and whatever exists must have a specific nature. 
(B) The Law of Non-Contradiction, which states that something cannot be itself and not itself at the same time, in the same way, and in the same sense. 
(C) The Law of Excluded Middle, which states that a statement is either true or false, with no third option.
He doesn't say which of the three is the one I'm presumed not to agree with, but in fact I don't agree with any of those three.  I have a pretty nuanced view of ontology, so I don't accept the continuity of identity in general, and certainly not as an axiom.  (I have no idea how Jimmy got the idea that I would accept this.  I pointed him to the 31 Flavors article several times, and we never actually discussed this "law of identity".)

His formulation of the "law of non-contradiction" gets into the same muddy waters as continuity of identity. I certainly accept something that could be called a "law of non-contradiction", but I wouldn't characterize it the way he does in terms of "things being themselves".  I would simply say that if you find yourself having concluded that P is true and NOT P is also true, then you've done something wrong.

With regards to the law of the excluded middle, there are clearly statements for which this is not true, e.g. "Donald Trump is a scoundrel" or "Polar bears are beautiful." Even seemingly straightforward statements like "Socrates is a man" can be problematic. That statement was (probably) true at one time, but it isn't true any more because Socrates is dead.

So I'm going to just ignore all that and take my own stab at a starting point that I think (hope?) Jimmy (and everyone else) will agree with.

I hereby propose the following hypothesis (or perhaps I should say "I hold this truth to be self-evident"):
The most reliable information you can possibly have about reality is your own subjective experiences.
It seems self-evident to me because your own subjective experience is the only information that you actually have direct access to.  I dub this Ron's Law of Reality or RLR just so we can refer to it.  Note that by "subjective experience" I include things like the subjective experience of reading a book or having a conversation with someone or seeing someone perform a scientific experiment, or even performing one yourself.

I don't know if the RLR is actually self-evident, but just in case it isn't let me advance an argument for it: think about what it would be like to receive reliable information about reality that was not part of your subjective experience.  Somehow you would find yourself knowing something, but you would have no idea how you came to know it.  Not only that, but you would not even be aware that you possessed this knowledge, because that awareness itself would be part of your subjective experience.  That knowledge and the means by which it was acquired would have to somehow be completely hidden from your conscious self.

Now, there are some things that are kinda sorta like that.  For example, your heart beats whether or not you are aware of it, and so you might say that you "have information" about how to make your heart beat even though you are completely unaware of what that information is or how you got it.  I would say in that case that this information is not resident in "you", it is resident in your body, and your body is not you.  The you to which the RLR refers is the thought processes inside your brain, or, if you prefer, your soul.  (In that regard you (pun intended) could consider the RLR to be a tautology because I've simply defined "you" as "that which has subjective experiences.")

Assuming you're still with me on that, I think we can go a little further before we really start to diverge.  There are some aspects of subjective experience that are common to the vast majority of human beings.  For example, our subjective experience divides up into two regimes, which we call "being awake" and "dreaming".  "Being awake" is more coherent than "dreaming".  In both regimes we perceive the existence of other agents with which we interact, but the cast of characters across episodes of "being awake" tends to change more slowly than it does between episodes of "dreaming".  Furthermore, "being awake" is subject to more uniform laws and constraints than "dreaming".  When we are awake there is a lot of regularity and limitations: we can't fly unassisted.  The sun and planets move in predictable patterns.  And, moreover, everyone agrees on a vast range of these experiences while "being awake" whereas everyone's subjective experience while "dreaming" seems to diverge.  Different people have different dreams, but, at least to a certain extent, we all seem to have very similar subjective experiences while "being awake" (though even here there are divergences, such as the question of whether or not something tastes good).

All this is, I hope, uncontroversial, perhaps even to the point of tiresomely belaboring the obvious.  But bear with me, there is a reason for this, because what I am going to say next is going to be far less obvious.  The divergence between science and religion occurs, I believe, in what happens next: having lived for a while and accumulated some subjective experiences, a human being naturally comes to ask some Deep Questions.  In particular, I think there are two different Deep Questions that people naturally ask.  They are both perfectly good questions, but which one you choose to ask first has a profound impact on your thought processes from that point on.

The first Deep Question is: What are the laws that govern my subjective experiences? (And in particular, what are the laws that govern the regularities of Being Awake)?

The second Deep Question is: What is the purpose of my having subjective experiences in the first place?

My thesis is that the first question leads to science, the second to religion.

(N.B. I am using the word "purpose" here to refer to what philosophers call teleology.  To restate my thesis in more technical terms, the difference between science and religion is that religion accepts teleology as an axiom (or at least as a possibility worth putting considerable effort into pursuing) and science doesn't.  I'm sure this is not an original idea, but it doesn't seem to be very widely appreciated either.)

I am a Scientist (which I capitalize to distinguish it from being a lower-case scientist, who is someone who does science for a living.  An upper-case Scientist is someone who accepts science as a reliable process for learning about reality) so I choose (or perhaps chose in the dim and distant past) to ask the first question.  But there's nothing wrong with asking the second question instead.  It's a perfectly respectable question.  And if you choose to ask that instead it leads down a very different road.

For starters, in order to ask what the purpose of having subjective experience is you have to accept as an axiom that it is at least possible for there to be such a purpose, otherwise the question makes no sense.  Likewise, if you are going to ask the first question then you have to accept as an axiom that it is at least possible that there are laws that govern the regularities of subjective experience (at least those parts that have regularities).

If you start with the first question, then you discover that there are laws that govern a lot of our subjective experiences, at least the wakeful ones.  Moreover, these laws are at root quite simple and elegant and have very wide-ranging applicability.  The heavens are not, as the ancients once believed, fundamentally different from the earth.  The stars are made from the same stuff that we are and operate according to the same laws.  It all hangs together quite nicely, and by the time you learn enough of it you get to the point where if someone proposes something to you that doesn't fit the laws of physics you reject it out of hand because it just doesn't make sense at this point that some random thing should violate the laws of physics.


If you start with the second question, and hence the presumption that it is at least possible for there to be a purpose to subjective experience, then Jimmy Weiss's arguments start to make a lot more sense.  That argument goes something like this (and Jimmy, please correct me if I get part of this badly wrong):

The subjective experiences we have while we are awake are very powerful evidence that there exists some kind of objective reality which we call the universe (on this religion and science mostly agree).  The natural next question to ask, if you're on the teleology track, is: what is the role of the universe in the purpose of our subjective experience (which is, keep in mind, what we are endeavoring to discover)?  And the natural answer is that the universe exists for the purpose of allowing us to exist so that we can have subjective experiences.  In other words, it was made for us.

(Or something like that.)

By the time both camps get around to asking Where did the universe come from? they have already diverged past the point of reconciliation.  Science gets you to the Big Bang, at which point it kind of throws up its hands (at least for now) and says, "We just don't know."  But more than that, science says, "It's OK that we don't know.  Not knowing is a perfectly normal state of affairs.  We'll figure it out some day.  In the meantime, don't worry about it."

But if you're on the teleology track, not knowing how the universe came about is not OK because it leaves a crucial question unanswered: if the universe was made for us, who (or what) made it?  A universe made for us but by nothing makes no sense.  Remember, we're assuming teleology (or at least the possibility) as an axiom here.  It might be possible that the universe was created by nothing, but that is (on the teleological view) the kind of extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence, and ignorance doesn't qualify.  We have to keep looking for the answer.  And, happily for us, there is an answer: the universe was made by an exceptionally powerful, potentially ineffable entity, i.e. a deity, who made it for us, and hence cares about us.

And it's all downhill from there.  (Note that I don't mean that to be pejorative, though I did mean it to be slightly humorous.  What I mean is that once you get this far, the remaining arguments are pretty straightforward by comparison.)

One of the things that atheists often ask about religious people, and particularly about YEC's is, "How can they possibly believe that crazy shit?"  Because some of the things that YECs believe make absolutely no sense whatsoever in light of modern scientific knowledge.  The difference in the age of the universe between the YEC view and the modern scientific view is six or seven orders of magnitude.  That's the equivalent of estimating the distance from Los Angeles to New York as a couple of millimeters.  It's simply ridiculous.

Well, the way they get to believe "this crazy shit" is (I claim) by starting with the teleological question and taking it very seriously.  For a scientist, an answer that is wildly at odds with the data makes no sense.  But for a YEC, an answer that denies the existence of purpose (or even merely throws in the towel) makes no sense.  So... the universe must have been created by a deity for us, and who therefore cares about us.  How do we make progress from there?  Well, it seems reasonable that if such a deity existed, it would have made arrangements (because it cares) for us to make further progress, and lo and behold there is this book that purports to be exactly that (that is, the means for making further progress).

On this view, the Bible is not mythology, it's the fulfillment of a prediction made by our theory!  And it provides a very satisfying answer to the teleological question: our purpose is to reconnect with  this deity that created us!  And, as a bonus, that reconnection will right all of the wrongs that have happened in this life, so not only do we get an answer to the Big Question, we also get an eternal and infinite reward!  What reasonable person could possibly argue with that?

And this is the reason I respect Jimmy Weiss.  He really takes this seriously.  If the Bible really is the Word of God, then it must be the case that the universe was created in six days, because that's what the Bible says.  I have a lot more respect for that than I do for self-identified Christians who cherry-pick the Bible.

It's no crazier on its face than accepting that we don't really exist, that objective reality is an illusion, because that's what Schroedinger's equation says.  It is in this regard, in our willingness to unflinchingly accept the logical consequences of our core beliefs even when they turn out to be deeply unintuitive, that I consider myself and Jimmy Weiss to be kindred spirits despite the fact that we end up in very different places at the end.

An atheist and a YEC walk into a bar...

Enough politics.  Let's talk about religion.

Ever since I was a kid growing up in the deep south I have been mystified by how people can believe in God.  Note that I didn't say "why people believe in God", because that's a different question.  I think I understand the why (it helps people deal with existential angst); it really is the how that I have trouble understanding.  To me, it has always been self-evident that the Bible is a work of mythology, and so for a long time I was firmly of the opinion that the only way that one could sustain a belief in God was through ignorance.  This belief was reinforced by the people I tended to hang out with, mostly other atheists, who spent a lot of time and effort promoting rational arguments that religion is false.  (A commonly held view in the atheist community seems to be that the scourge of religion persists on this earth simply because atheists have been insufficiently diligent in spreading the seeds of enlightenment.)

Ironically, this theory is contradicted by data.  A lot of atheists seem to think that religion and education are universally anti-correlated, but this turns out to be false.  There is some truth to it, but one of the many noteworthy exceptions is American Christians.  (Jews and Hindus also tend to have significantly better than average educations.)  It was also contradicted by my personal experience.  Like any good atheist, I spent a fair amount of time arguing with religious people, and over the years I noticed two things: first, my arguments never seemed to persuade anyone (though it was not uncommon for me to offend people by reading certain Bible verses to them).  And second, a lot of the people I was arguing with were actually very smart and somehow managed to sustain their beliefs despite being well aware of all of the apparent absurdity.

This matters.  People's beliefs about religion vs. science sometimes get translated into policy, and getting it wrong can have grave consequences.  Accordingly, I think it's important to develop an understanding of the mindset that leads people to believe differently than you do rather than just dismiss them as ignorant knuckle-draggers (or, if you're religious, as incorrigible hedonists lacking a moral compass).  One of two things has to happen: either you'll learn something that will help you focus your own message and make it more effective, or you might come to realize that you were actually wrong about something.  Either way, that feels like progress, so over the past few years I've spent quite a bit of time hanging out with and talking not only to religious people, but also to believers of extreme views that seem completely crazy to me, including lunar landing denialists, flat-earthers, and creationists.  It's been a very interesting experience.  I've been fairly impressed with the sophistication of their arguments, even though, of course, I vehemently disagree with them.  It has forced me to think deeply about the foundations of my own beliefs, because although (say) a flat-earther's arguments seem absurd to me, refuting them turns out not to be quite as easy as you might think.

The fundamental problem is that today's world is much too complicated for an individual to figure out everything on their own, so you have no choice but to trust somebody.  No one has the resources to obtain first-hand evidence for everything they believe.  If you're an atheist you (almost certainly) adhere to certain beliefs because of something you read somewhere rather than (say) an experiment that you personally did, and that means that you have to trust that the author is not mistaken or trying to deceive you.  Now, there may be a sound reason to trust the author of (say) a scientific paper, but most people who put their trust in science don't actually give that a lot of thought.  They just hew to formulas like: if it is published in a peer-reviewed journal it's probably true (and vice versa).  And they will continue to believe this even in the face of evidence to the contrary published in a peer-reviewed journal!

There is a sort of social hierarchy of respectability of the sorts of trust that people choose to adopt.  At one extreme are scientists and members of the clergy of established religions like Christianity and Islam.  At the other extreme are the flat-earthers, lunar-landing denialists, alien abductionists, and Bigfoot hunters.  Somewhere in between are the young-earth creationists (YECs) who believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant Word of God, and that therefore the world was created in six 24-hour days about six thousand years ago, that Noah's ark was real, and that Charles Darwin is the spawn of Satan.  (FYI, that link is to an article about Ben Carson, the famous neurosurgeon, currently serving as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Trump Administration.  Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist, and hence a YEC.  And he is quoted as saying that Darwin's evolutionary theory "was encouraged by the adversary," i.e. the devil.  So "spawn of Satan" is really not much of an exaggeration here.)

These groups are minorities whose identities are defined by unfashionable beliefs, and so their adherents often feel beleaguered by modern society.  As a consequence, it's not easy to get them to talk to someone outside of their group.  They often view outsiders as the enemy.  But I've recently had the rare opportunity to have an extensive discussion with a YEC who was willing to engage with surprising confidence and intellectual honesty.  Over the past few weeks we've had what is quite possibly the longest civil exchange between and atheist and a YEC in the history of the world.  The thread started to get out of hand, so we decided to reboot the discussion here because Blogger is a better venue for extensive discussion than Reddit.  My correspondent's name is Jimmy Weiss, and his opening salvo is here.  The opportunity to have this kind of discussion with a knowledgable YEC is rare, and I am grateful to him for being willing to put himself out there in this way.  The differences between YEC and established science are quite stark, and it is not an easy position to defend in today's world.  Jimmy does quite an admirable job.

This introduction turned out to be quite a bit longer than I intended, so I will put my actual response to Jimmy in a separate post later today.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Something doesn't smell right about the Mueller report

Let me confess up front to having an enormous bias here: more than just about anything else in the world, I want to see Donald Trump go down in screaming flames, if for no other reason than that he is a colossal asshole and I hate seeing assholes win.  I also have more than a few policy disagreements with him, so even if he wasn't such an odious louse, I would still want him to go down in screaming flames.  And of course I am not alone in this.  A lot of people were hoping the Mueller report would be the beginning of Trump's undoing.  So I don't know how much of what I'm about to say is colored by my disappointment at how events have unravelled.  And yet... something's not right here.

For starters, our process for uncovering wrongdoing by the president is deeply flawed.  Despite the appearance that Robert Mueller was being objective and patriotic, the fact of the matter is that he was, notwithstanding Trump's occasional tweets to the contrary, a Republican, and so he could have a partisan bias.  There's no check-and-balance on Mueller.  If he decides to put his thumb on the scales in favor of the president there's no one who is going to stop him.  But even if Mueller is exactly what he appears to be, a professional doing his job fairly, objectively, and competently, there is still the problem that his work is being filtered by William Barr.  Remember, we don't know what the Mueller report says.  All we know is what William Barr says it says, and we know that Barr is strongly biased in favor of the president.

But even if Barr is being completely honest about the contents of the Mueller report, the process here is still deeply flawed.  If you want to uncover someone's wrong-doing, you don't give prosecutorial veto power to someone who was appointed by and is beholden to (indeed, works for) the subject of the investigation.  Congress is supposed to be the governmental body that keeps the president in check, but that only has a chance of working if Congress has some way of learning the actual underlying facts unfiltered by people with obvious conflicts of interest.  So there's that.

But even more troubling to me is that there's just something very fishy about the way things have gone down in the last two weeks.  Mueller seemed to be on a roll, racking up indictments and convictions, and closing in on the president's inner circle.  The entire time, Trump was acting like a cornered animal, tweeting non-stop criticism of Mueller, accusing him of hunting witches and being a (gasp!) Democrat (there is no more serious insult in the Republican lexicon).  I've long since lost count of the number of times Trump called for the investigation to be shut down.  Hell, he fired James Comey in a failed attempt to shut the investigation down!  And then, all of a sudden, before Mueller released his report, Trump suddenly changed his tune.  On March 20, Trump suddenly stopped the criticism and said that the report should be made public, that people should see it.  That was two days before Mueller delivered the report which -- surprise, surprise! -- "exonerated" Trump.

Why would Trump suddenly change his tune so radically in advance of the report?  I can think of only one possible explanation: he knew the fix was in.  Just as I can think of only one possible explanation for his announcement during the campaign, on June 7, 2016, that he was going to give a "major speech ... discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons...": he knew about the infamous Trump Tower meeting that was scheduled to take place on June 9, and he knew (or at least he thought he knew) that that meeting was supposed to yield dirt on Hillary.  If that's not collusion, I don't know what is.

To quote Baby Herman, notwithstanding Trump's claims of total vindication (which even William Barr doesn't actually agree with), the whole thing stinks like yesterday's diapers.

And that's the real problem here.  The country is divided.  One way or another, we really need to know the truth, and having a report about possible wrongdoing by the president released only after the president has had a chance to "review it for accuracy" is not going to give the skeptics a lot of confidence that we're getting the truth.

Our legal system is supposed to be, for better or worse, adversarial.  It doesn't work if the prosecutor is working for the accused.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

There and Back Again

You may have noticed that the Ramblings have been quiet for a while.  It has been six weeks since my last post, which I'm pretty sure is the longest hiatus I've had since I first started writing this blog over fifteen years ago.  There have been two reasons for this.  First, I've been on the road.  Nancy and I took a two-month-long trip starting in Singapore, cruising across the Indian ocean to Cape Town, then going on Safaris in South Africa, Rwanda, and the Maasai Mara in Kenya.  It was pretty epic.

There was a time when I would have "live blogged" the trip with regular travelogues while away, but in this day and age I have come to question the wisdom of overtly advertising the fact that we are away from home.  An acquaintance of mine had their house robbed shortly before we left and apparently it sucks pretty badly.  All the evidence indicates that the perpetrators were professionals who knew they were away.  So sorry about that, but that seems to be the world we live in now.  If there's enough interest I might go back and write some travel retrospectives.  If you'd be interested in reading those, click on the "Right On!" reaction button below, or better yet, leave a comment.

The second reason I haven't been writing is that I've been engaged in a fascinating exchange with a young-earth creationist over on Reddit.  I think we may have set a record for the longest ever discussion between and atheist and a YEC on Reddit, possibly in the history of humanity.  I'll be writing more about that later, but what spare time I had for thinking about non-travel-related things on the trip went into that discussion instead of blogging.  (It's actually very hard to write quality blog posts without a good internet connection to look things up on.)

We flew back from Nairobi via Dubai -- 24 hours flying and a 12-hour time zone change -- so I'm still a little jet-lagged.  But in the meantime here are a few photos I took on the trip.

The leopard and her cub were at Sabi Sands in South Africa.  The gorilla was in Volcanos national park in Rwanda.  Rwanda turns out to be one of the best-kept secrets in Africa.  The extent to which that country has gotten its act together since the 1994 genocide is truly remarkable.  I would go back there in a heartbeat.

One of the highlights of the trip was the opportunity to get a much closer look than I ever had before at what African village life really looks like on the inside.  The lodge that we stayed at has developed a cooperative relationship with the nearby village.  The lodge uses some of its proceeds to help improve the lives of the villagers and in exchange guests at the lodge can come tour the village, meet the people who live there, and take photos without getting hit up for money or feeling like creepy voyeurs.  I'd heard stories of village life before, but this was my first chance to actually see it up close and personal.

This is Maria:

She is 50 years old.  She owns two cows, which makes her relatively wealthy by local standards.  Nonetheless, she has to walk 30 minutes each way to fetch water in a 20 liter jerrycan every day.

This is Maria's bedroom:

And this is a store that she opened in the village with the help of about $20 worth of capital from the lodge to buy her initial inventory:

(That's not Maria minding the store, that is one of her employees.)

That's what a startup looks like in rural Rwanda.