Friday, December 30, 2005

The "S" word

Over at Xooglers I recently posted a note about all the people who have been writing me asking for advice on how to get jobs at Google and sundry other things. In a fit of pique regarding certain aspects of my correspondents' style, I employed a certain anglo-saxon epithet which nominally means excrement, but which I employed in a more colloquial and idiomatic style merely to provide emphasis and a little more semantic interest than a word like "things".

Will Ray posted an interesting comment on my choice of terminology. It's interesting because he seems to object to my use of the "S" word, even though he doesn't actually come out and say it. Instead, he engages in some armchair psychoanalysis of my character. (I won't comment on the accuracy of his assessment except to observe that there's hardly any sport in diagnosing someone -- anyone -- as insecure, especially someone who has chosen computer programming as a profession.)

I don't really care so much about what Will Ray thinks, but I am concerned about the possibility that I might offend people by using an expletive, even where the use is defensible. Personally I've never understood why people get so upset about certain words. It's even more puzzling to me that it's acceptable to use these words if you change the spelling even though everyone still knows exactly what you mean (e.g. F***). But regardless, I have become keenly aware of the fact that one can completely undermine one's position just by being an a*****le, to say nothing of the fact that there's just no need for it.

So now I am torn. On the one hand I really don't want to offend anyone, but on the other hand I don't want to give the appearance that I agree with those who think that using swear words is a Terrible Thing. (I also don't want to give the appearance that I'm caving in to pressure, for fear that this will encourage more Will Rays to crawl out of the woodwork to critique my writing or catalog my personal failings.) So should I go back and edit that entry? Post an apology? Do nothing?

Quite the moral quandry, this one.


Upon reflection I have decided to go back and edit the entry. I decided this for a couple of reasons, but the overriding one was that Xooglers isn't my blog, it's Doug's blog, and I don't want my bad language to reflect poorly on him. I guess I'll just have to risk giving Will Ray a reason to feel smug. Will, if you're reading this, don't be under any delusions: I didn't do it for you.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

21 Grams

A rhetorical question for those who believe that the soul weighs 21 Grams:

Does that mean that as long as a fetus weighs less than this it cannot possibly yet contain a soul and therefore it's OK to abort it?

And another thing....

As long as I'm on the topic of being frustrated by people undermining their arguments with the wrong choice of words, I'd like to say a word about the abortion debate in the U.S. Not about abortion mind you, just about the debate, which is framed as being between the "pro-choice" side, which is for abortion, and the "pro-life" side, which is against abortion.

No! No! No! And a thousand times no! People who are pro-choice are not "for abortion"! (Well, maybe some of them are, but there are crazies on all sides of an issue.) No sane person could possibly be "for abortion" any more than they could be "for amputation" or "for mastectomies." All sane people agree that abortion is a bad thing and that the fewer of them there are the better. The only disagreement is over the best mechanism to use to minimize the number of abortions. The "pro-life" side thinks that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to make abortion illegal and throw people who attempt to provide them in jail. The "pro-choice" side is too busy cramming its head further up its metaphorical butt by allowing the myth to persist that they are "for abortion" to have anything coherent to say about the matter at all. (Hm, what was it I was just saying about how descending into obnoxiousness tends to undermine one's argument? Does that still hold when one is calling one's own side names?)

I fear, though, that there are too many people with vested interests in the status quo of stalemated debate for any real progress to be made, even when the path is so clear.

Why do atheists have to be so obnoxious?

I am constantly frustrated by atheists who write beautiful and lucid expositions and then completely undermine their arguments by being obnoxious. I can certainly understand the temptation to descend into name-calling (e.g. "Our Christian enthusiasts are evidently too stupid, as well as too insecure, to...") but it serves no purpose. I was going to paraphrase what came after the elipsis, but it hardly matters. No one but the already (un)converted is going to read past that phrase.

I have the same problem with U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III's blistering rebuke of Intelligent Design in the Dover, Pennsylvania case. Obivously I agree with his decision, but did he have to use the phrase "breathtaking inanity" to describe the ID position? The only effect it will have is to convince the ID proponents that Jones was prejudiced against them and they need to redouble their efforts.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A fine bit of irony

Amidst the kerfuffle over the liberal assault on Christmas it is deliciously ironic to note that there actually was a time in American history when serious attempts were made by Christians to ban the celebration of Christmas.

UPDATE: Turns out that you don't have to go into history to find Christians who are against Christmas.

Even some major denominations, including Baptists, which today trumpet the birth of Jesus with carols and yuletide symbols, dismissed Christmas as unimportant, even pagan, until the early 19th century. Another was the Pasadena-based Worldwide Church of God, which until a major theological upheaval in 1995 had forbidden its members to celebrate Christmas. Some members then left the church and affiliated with breakaway churches that continue to hold Christmas at bay.

Monday, December 12, 2005

On Writing

Since I've started posting on Xooglers a number of people have written to compliment me on my writing (thank you all!) and to ask for pointers. So here in a nutshell is what I've learned about writing.

There are two main ways to learn to write:

1. Read
2. Write

I'm not trying to be glib. I think that really gets to the nub of the matter. You can't really be taught to write well, sort of like you can't really be taught to program well. You can be taught the basics -- grammar, structure -- but to get from there to really being good at it you have to figure it out on your own. I wish it were otherwise.

There are two main things to keep in mind as you write:

1. Everything comes out shitty the first time. You have to debug writing the same way you debug code.

2. Good writing is dramatic, and drama is all about conflict. This is why crappy experiences make much better stories than pleasant ones.

There's a wonderful episode of The Simpsons that illustrates this point beautifully. Marge goes on a crusade to eliminate violence from television -- and she succeeds! The result is an episode of Itchy and Scratchy where they just get along. It is, of course, stultifyingly boring (and at the same time uproariously funny).

So let it be written.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Queasy about Christ

I don't want to be a religion-basher. I recognize that religion plays an important role in many people's lives and serves a genuine human need. But, to be perfectly frank, I get a little queasy about Christianity some times. (I get a little queasy about Islam too, but I know so little about it that I can't discuss it intelligently.)

There are two main facets to Christianity. The first has to do with how we live our lives here on earth (love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, etc.) I have no quarrel with that. It's the second aspect that makes me nervous, the one having to do with what happens after you die.

The problem is that a strict reading of Christian doctrine says that anyone who has not accepted Jesus as their personal savior is damned for all eternity. It says so right there in John 14:6. "No man cometh unto the father but by me." (Funny that none of the other Gospel writers thought to include this little tidbit, but who am I to second-guess the inspired Word of God?)

Let's try to put this eternity thing in persepctive. Let's say a person lives to be 100. That's 36525 days (more or less -- it depends on exactly where the leap years fall), 876,600 hours, 52,596,000 minutes, or somewhere in the neighborhood of three billion seconds. Most people would agree that next to the span of an entire human lifetime, a single second is pretty insignificant.

And yet a second is an infinitely greater portion of a human lifetime than a human lifetime is a portion of eternity. Eternity is a dreadfully long time. A lifetime (or any finite amount of time for that matter) is a mere blip by comparison, all but imperceptable against the vastness of the infinite. All of the human suffering that has been endured since the beginning of time is nothing compared to the anguish of even a single soul that dies without having accepted Christ.

Against the prospect of eternal damnation, nothing else matters.

I think very few Christians have really come to grips with this and what it implies. If you accept John 14:6, then unless you are a truly cold-hearted son of a bitch you must dedicate your life to converting as many people as you possibly can by whatever means necessary. You cannot allow doubts about Jesus to be voiced for fear that they will lead someone to lose their faith. The consequences of that are immeasurably worse than a thousand holocausts, a million Stalinesque purges, billions upon billions of 9/11s.

John 14:6 leaves no room for doubt of any kind. In fact, it leaves no room for anything but an absolute dedication of your time here on earth to cementing your relationship with Christ, and getting as many of your fellow humans as possible to do likewise.

I think this is the reason that we're seeing discontent about people saying "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas". If "happy holidays" causes people to think that it's somehow acceptable not to believe in Jesus, that's a truly terrible thing. In fact, if it causes anyone to doubt that Christ is the Way and the Truth and the Light and no man comes to the Father but through Him, then merely uttering the phrase is in fact a heinous crime, vastly worse than murder.

Viewed in this light, the current grumbling is actually a pretty restrained response.

The Right Answer, I think, is to recognize that it's possible that whoever wrote John just might have embellished the truth a bit. After all, none of the other Gospels mention this quip, and you'd think that they would considering how important it would be if it were true. Remember, if John 14:6 is true, nothing else matters. But this requires the capacity for humility and doubt, something that seems in short supply among many self-professed Christians noawadays.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Welcome to the new PC

By which I mean Political Correctness, not personal computer.

A professor of religious studies was beaten after making comments deemed insulting to Christianity.

He has also, as a result, resigned as chair of the religious studies department of the University of Kansas, and withdrawn a course he was going to teach on creationism and intelligent design.

For now at least, is seems the terrorists have won.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Suddenly feeling the pressure

I previously reported on my experience installing a pressure reducing valve on the main water inlet to our house. Well, it seems there's still some kind of problem. We've been noticing that one of our showers occasionally starts to drip water. I had thought that it was a bad seal in the show spigot (it's kind of a cheap fixture). Today it started dripping again and just on a hunch I went outside to check the pressure gauge that I installed on the main water line.

It read 130 PSI.

Holy shit! That's double what it should be, and 40 PSI higher than the maximum pressure that the pump is able to produce.

This is really bizarre. I have no idea how the pressure could have gotten up that high. The inlet pressure at the main is 30 PSI and the pump only pushes that up to 90. Somehow we're getting an extra 40 PSI from somewhere, and it's getting past the PRV, which is set to 65 PSI and is supposed to be good up to at least 150 PSI on the inlet.

The only thing I can think of is that we have an air bubble trapped somewhere in a hot water line. Maybe the air is heating up, expanding, and compressing the water in the pipes in the house. It seems pretty farfetched, but that the pump could suddenly produce twice the pressure that it normally (and that this would coincide with a failure of the PRV) seems pretty farfetched too.

As the King of Siam would say, is a puzzlement.

If anyone has any idea what might be going on here please let me know before my pipes burst.

Monday, November 28, 2005

ID and economics

Just happened to stumble, (by way of this interesting essay) onto a piece that talks about the parallels between Intelligent Design in biology and socialism/communism in economics. Worthwhile reading.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The God Who Wasn't There

... is the title of a documentary film taking a skeptical look at Christianity. It's pretty well done, and worthwhile viewing for anyone interested in dipping a toe into the waters of religious scholarship. (Warning: it can be hazardous to your faith.)

Becoming one with the pipes

It's been a while since I posted anything here, mainly because my time has been occupied dealing with some broken plumbing in our house. We have low water pressure coming in from the main so the builder installed a Grundfos MQ booster pump. Alas, the MQ has a few quirks, not least of which is that it is not adjustable and produces about 95 PSI. So when you turn on a tap in our house it starts out as a trickle, and then transforms into a gushing torrent.

The situation came to a head, so to speak, when a few weeks ago the plastic (!) fitting that attaches the outflow pipe to the pump failed, resulting in a rather spectacular geyser of water at the side of our house.

I went through half a dozen different plumbers, plumbing supply shops, and don't even know how many web pages to try to figure out what to do about it. Everyone was telling me something different. Some said I needed a different kind of pump. Others said, no, the MQ is top of the line, you need a pressure regulator. Still others said I don't need to do anything, 95 PSI is not too high.

I finally decided to go with the pressure regulator since that seemed to be the least disruptive solution. Again I had the very devil of a time finding someone who would do the work for me. There must be an awful lot of demand for plumbing services in Southern California. I actually had one come out and spend an hour evaluating the situation and then never even got back to me with an estimate. Go figure.

If you want something done right you've got to do it yourself. So I got myself a propane torch, some lead-free solder, a can of water soluble flux and a pile of copper fittings and installed the damn thing myself. Here's the result:

It looks quite good (if I do say so myself), and it doesn't leak (well, not much). But mainly the pressure in the house is now down to a more reasonable 65 PSI. It feels good to get something like that done.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Where are the good guys?

So Saddam didn't use chemical weapons during Desert Storm (because he didn't have any) but now it appears that we did. Not that this should come as too much of a surprise in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the ongoing opposition by the Bush Administration to the McCain amendment to outlaw torture.

It's official

The International Space Stations is now officially useless. (It's been unofficially useless pretty much since its inception.)

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Now why didn't I think of that?

I'm not quite sure whether this is an indication of how badly screwed up the patent system is in this country, or a brilliant idea that I wish I had thought of.

A method of doing business includes: ascertaining an invention record; identifying an inventor; estimating a cost to breaking the invention record; indicating to a sponsor that the inventor intends to invent sufficiently many inventions to break the invention record; providing evidence to the sponsor that the inventor is capable of inventing sufficiently many inventions to break the invention record; and inciting the sponsor to pay for at least a portion of the cost at least in part by offering to the sponsor at least one of: at least a portion of royalty rights relating to the inventions; and at least a portion of media rights relating to the inventor.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Friday, October 14, 2005

Stoner's revenge

I've long been convinced, mainly after reading this book, that the national hysteria about marijuana is just that. Now there's a new Canadian study to back me up:

While most addictive drugs, legal or illegal, have been proven to slow down or inhibit the growth of brain cells, a new study shows that marijuana might do just the opposite.

It might still be too early to claim pot smoking makes people smarter, but a new study from the University of Saskatchewan shows that some of the ingredients that make up marijuana can actually stimulate brain cell growth

Friday, September 30, 2005

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Metaphysics of Chocolate

Phil posed the following question:

How do you know it's wrong to kill innocent people?

This is an old and venerable question. Plato tackled it in 350 BC and I think he actually had the last word on it for over two thousand years. But not any more.

The religious take on this question is that the only way to know this is through divine revelation; there is no scientifically tenable source of morality. If all there is is a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest rat race then there is no reason at all to avoid killing innocent people if it provides me with a survival advantage. Abandoning God would therefore plunge the world into anarchy.

But Plato points out a problem with this view. What if God said that it was OK to kill innocent people? Would that in fact make it OK? (And if you are tempted to answer that God would never say such a thing, I suggest you read the book of Joshua.) Or is even God bound by some higher transcendent morality? If so, where does that come from? And if not, how are we to distinguish between God and Satan?

Mankind has been wrestling with this problem for over two thousand years. When progress is that slow it is often fruitful to reframe the problem. So instead of tackling the question of morality I'll instead address a different but related problem on which I happen to be an authority: how do I know that I like chocolate?

This immediately begs a number of anicllary questions: what does it mean to know something? What does it mean to like something? What is chocolate? What is I? Is it in fact the case that I like chocolate? (Is it possible to know something that isn't actually true?)

The difficulty of the problem of morality does not arise because morality is a particular thorny issue, it arises because it's so easy to tie yourself into philosophical knots over anything, even chocolate, that there's hardly any sport in it. It isn't morality that's problematic, it's the quest for absolute certainty. But as a Scientist (in the spiritual sense) I know that I can never be absolutely certain about anything, even my passion for chocolate.

The reason I "know" (or think I know) that I like chocolate is that I have memories of having eaten chocolate in the past and enjoying the experience. These memories are so vivid and their grasp on my psyche is so strong that it often feels like there is an external force (the Hand of the Cocoa God?) overriding my free will and causing me to seek out and consume chocolate even when I know (or think I know) that I probably shouldn't have any more. (Just last night, I swear this is true, my wife made the most delicious batch of chili I have ever had in my life (chocolate is actually one of the ingredients) and I ate so much of it I gave myself a stomach ache. So there I was feeling ill and bloated and I still had a craving for some Nutella!)

Now it is entirely possible that all this is a result of some kind of mental illness, that I don't really like chocolate at all, that I'm simply addicted to it, or that all my pleasant memories of chocolate consumption are halucinations, or that I don't even really exist at all. (I actually consider this to be a very real possibility.) But I'm perfectly content to use Occam's razor to reject all these possibilities and simply say that "I know I like chocolate" is an adequate description of my mental state with respect to myself and chocolate, and to assume that anyone who doesn't understand what I mean by that is either mentally ill or being intentionally obtuse.

I know it is wrong to kill innocent people in much the same way that I know I like chocolate. Somewhere deep in my being there is some transcendant force outside of my conscious experience that drives me to eat chocolate and avoid killing innocents. I have a moral instinct (or a moral intuition) just like I have a chocolate instinct. And so do most people.

Now, it is legitimate to ask where this moral intuition comes from. There are three schools of thought on this. The first is that we humans have the free will to choose moral action, but this is strongly at odds with my personal experience. I find I cannot choose to believe that killing innocents is morally acceptable, even if God Himself were to come to me and say it to my face.

The second school of thought is that we have been endowed with this moral intuition by God (or that we foolishly endowed ourselves with this moral intuition by partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Regardless of how it came about, having acquired this moral intuition by whatever means, it now transcends even God. This is consistent with Jewish theology which holds that even God is subject to the Law.

The third school of thought is that this intuition evolved. Assuming you accept evolution at all, it is so glaringly obvious that this must be the case that it hardly deserves an explanation. Having evolved a big enough brain to make tools and harness fire it's not a big leap to see how those same brains could be used to realize that teamwork has survival value, and that groups of humans who can be trusted not to kill each other are more likely to survive than those who cannot be so trusted. This view is even consistent with Biblical theology; it explains why, for example, the slaughters described in the book of Joshua are not immoral. It is not necessary for the moral instinct against killing extend to all the members of the species, just wide enough so that there is survival value obtained through cooperation in the group to which the moral edict does extend. As humans have evolved the net has been cast wider and wider, going from family to tribe to city-state, to nation-state, and only now, furtively, to the entire species and even other species as we continue to grow and evolve.

How cooperation and morality evolved has been fleshed out in exquisite detail by Robert Axelrod using computer simulations. This work is less than twenty years old, and represents one of the great advances in the understanding of morality in the history of mankind. This work would not have been possible without the advent of the personal computer.

It is indeed an exciting time to be alive.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Response to anonymous

The response to the latest comment on the Intelligent Design thread got long enough that I decided to elevate it to a new post.

All I'm trying to do is point out that there is philosophy involved in teaching science since most science classes are taught with the unspoken assumption that the senses are the only valid way that humans can gain knowledge.

No, most science classes are taught with the unspoken assumption that the senses are the only valid way to gain scientific knowledge, which is true by definition. I agree that this definition is often unspoken, and that is indeed unfortunate. But there's no more philosophy involved here than there is in saying that words are the only way to write literature.

(This is what I'm referring to as strict empiricism a la Locke.) It is a philosophical position, yet it's taught in schools without any mention of philosophy.

It's been a long time since I was in school so maybe things have changed, but in my day such topics were only ever touched on in history class, and then only in advanced placement classes, and then only to mention in passing that there was this philosopher named Locke who had these ideas that turned out to be very influential and so forth. Never once did anyone even hint at the idea that Lockian empiricism was "true" in any metaphysical sense.

I think you may have taken the term empicicism differently, so I want to make sure we're communicating right.The problem is that knowledge arrived to by other sources than the senses (usually knowledge of morality) is usually demoted to 'opinion' since it is not obtained by science.

Why "demoted"? And why is this a problem? The fact of the matter is that people by and large agree on what their senses tell them (so much so that we have few qualms about labelling the occasional person who sees and hears things differently as "mentally ill"), and by and large do not agree on much of anything else. This is a distinction worth making.

I'm not accusing you of committing this fallacy; I'm merely trying to point out a problem. Perhaps you haven't run in to this problem as often as I have, but it really bothers me whenever I see it since it's metaphysically sloppy.

Why? It's you saying opinion is inferior to empiricism, not me. I have actually argued the exact opposite.

So in summary: empiricism is very important since without it science is nigh impossible. (Hello aristotelian abiogenesis!) However, when it claims to be the only valid form of knowledge, (what I am calling strict empiricism) it is stepping into the realm of philosophy.

That's a straw man. No one (except perhaps Richard Dawkins -- we scientists have our fanatics too) argues that empiricism is the only valid form of knowledge.

Tell me what you think: what constitutes a valid source of knowledge? How do you know it's wrong to kill innocent people?

So first of all, as a scientist (in the spiritual/religious sense, not the professional sense) I do not know anything to an absolute certainty. That said, I know it's wrong to kill innocent people (and innocent living things in general) because I feel an instinctive revulsion at the thought, and many of my fellow humans also seem to feel the same instinctive revulsion. (There are a few exceptions. The instinct is strong enough that we generally call people who lack this instinct "psychopaths" -- unless they happen to be President of the United States.)

I saw somewhere on your site what could have been a Darwinian explanation of the Golden Rule--that is quite interesting to me since it has the potential to solve what has historically been the Achilles Heel of strict empiricism. Could you also elaborate on that?"

That will have to wait for another post, but the work was done by Robert Axelrod in 1985. You can read about it here and here. The first book was accessibly summarized by Douglas Hofstadter in the final section of this book.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Friday, August 26, 2005

The ink blot test

As the John Roberts confirmation hearing approaches, the debate on "activist judges" is heating up again. To my mind, Glenn Reynolds had the last word on this back in 2002 (and actually back in 1990). Findlaw also has a good review.

It's really very simple. The founding fathers explicitly anticiapted and rejected the argument that if a right is not enumerated in the Constitution that it doesn't exist. To this end they ratified the Ninth Amendment:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

It couldn't be clearer, and it never ceases to amaze me that the "intellectually dishonest" (as Reynolds puts it, and that is precisely what it is) strict-constructionist argument gets as much traction as it does because to accept it you have to completely ignore the ninth amendment. And indeed, that is exactly what the IDSC camp does. Robert Bork famously suggested that the Ninth Amendment is nothing but an "ink blot". I don't see how much "activist" a jurist can be than to say he's going to just ignore part of the Constitution because it conflicts with his ideology.

It amazes me that there is even one American who, after a comment like that, does not agree that running Bork out of town on a rail was the right thing to do. And yet there are tens of millions who hold him up as a symbol of liberalism run amok. Have none of them ever read the Ninth Amendment?

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

It's not that complicated. But given the Conservative capacity to bury its head in the sand it shouldn't surprise me too much that some people can look at those twenty-one words and see nothing but an inkblot.

What if they elected Saddam?

It could happen.

Hussein Supporters Rally Against Constitution
By Borzou Daragahi, Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- Up to 3,000 demonstrators waving portraits of deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and chanting slogans against the proposed draft constitution marched in a largely peaceful demonstration this morning through downtown Baqouba, a heavily Sunni Arab city 40 miles north of capital.

"With our souls, with our blood we will defend you, Saddam," some of the demonstrators chanted in a rare public display of support for the former Iraqi leader, now awaiting trial for crimes against humanity.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The First Amendment takes another hit

Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

No, it doesn't. It waves o'er the land of the secure and the home of the frightened.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

What part of "Thou shalt not kill" did you not understand?

Allow me to add my voice to the growing chorus of those condemning Pat Robertson's call for the assassination of Venezuela's president. I can't imagine how anyone could support Robertson after this, but there is no doubt in my mind that a mind boggling number of people will. Sigh.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

ID in schools, round 2

God works in mysterious ways.

There I was, scratching my head trying to figure out how to explain to my loyal readers (hey, a boy can dream, can't he?) where I've been the last five months, when along comes John Mark Reynolds with the perfect softball in the form of his response to my letter to him about Intelligent Design theory. Happily, responding to him turns out to be the perfect segue for explaining where I've been the last five months. So, off we go! (Quotes from Reynolds are in italics.)

When Michael Shermer, whose main day job is running a Skeptic advocacy group, is allowed to frame the debate no good can come of it. Shermer is not a scientist. . .

I happen to agree that Michael Shermer did an embarrassingly poor job of holding up his end of the argument. But it's not because Shermer "is not a scientist" or because "his main day job is running a Skeptic advocacy group." I don't think Shermer's profession (he's a writer by trade, by the way. Running the Skeptic Society is something he does on the side.) ought to have anything to do with it. Einstein was a patent clerk in 1905. Should he have been denied a seat at the table because he didn't have any academic credentials?

I bring this up because I'm not a scientist either, not any more. I used to be. I was a card-carrying scientist at a leading national research lab. I have a Ph.D. I held the title of Principal, which was the highest rung on the non-management career ladder. (Actually, it turned out there were higher rungs, but their existence was not publicly acknowledged.)

Having played the scientific/academic career game with a degree of success I believe I have a certain amount of insight into how one becomes one of the "big kids", as Reynolds so charmingly puts it. By some measure I was one of the "big kids." The truth is that becoming a "big kid" (by which is meant a "respected" academic, by which is meant someone whose papers get referenced a lot) depends as much on being a good marketeer as it does on being a good researcher or teacher. All else being equal people will tend to focus their attention where it has been actively drawn. Especially in the age of information overload there just isn't time for anything else.

Turns out I am an absolutely terrible marketeer. I won't get into details, but suffice it to say that my career hit a wall because I was not willing to compromise on certain principles. So last November I quit my job to start a new career in the movie industry. That's why I've not been blogging. Too busy shopping screenplays around.

I can't help but wonder, then, where I stand in John Reynolds' academic pecking order. Am I entitled to "frame the debate" because I was recently a scientist, or do I just get to be a "mirror" of other people's views because my day job now is to write screenplays and sell DVDs?

Having been through the experience I can say I think people put far too much weight on titles. I have met Ph.D's who were complete idiots, and people who dropped out of high school who were absolutely brilliant. The whole degree and title thing is largely a scam. But that's a topic for another day. I'll just point out that Einstein didn't have a Ph.D. and was working as a patent clerk in 1905.

Back to the matter at hand.

First, I think Reynolds and I have some common ground in the belief that public school science education sucks big fat honking weenies (though I suspect he might choose different terminology). Where we differ is in our belief about whether introducing Intelligent Design theory would make the situation better or worse. Reynold's position (as I understand it) is that it would improve the situation by illustrating the breadth of possibilities in philosophy of science and free students from the narrrow straightjack of methodological naturalism.

My position, following the mainstream of anti-ID-in-public-schoool-science-classes, is that ID is not science and ought not to be taught as such. I have no problem with ID in a comparative religion or history class. (The problem is that it is nearly impossible to design a comparative religion class that doesn't piss anybody off, but that's a topic for another day.)

So to respond to Reynolds' specific points:

Actually, I would argue that there is a possibility (if theism and psychological dualism are true), that science is held back by dogmatic adherence to MN [Reynolds originally wrote ID here but he meant MN]. Of course I cannot be sure that this is true.

In fact we can be reasonably certain that the exact opposite is true, that science has accomplished what it has only through a dogmatic adherence to MN. See below.

Science frequently claims to explain reality or even to exhaustively explain reality.

No, I don't think this is true. Where has any respectable scientist ever made such a claim? At best (or at worst depending on your point of view) I think you will find people who take it on faith that science has the *potential* to explain all of *physical* reality. You can also find people who take it on faith that physical reality is all of reality. But this is very different from exhaustively explaining reality."

Is reality limited to the physical?

No. (Actually, if you push hard on quantum mechanics you can make a pretty good argument that what we perceive as the physical world is not real at all. See this paper for an in-depth discussion of this fascinating tangent.)

If one wants to explore all of reality, then does one have to leave science by definition?

That depends on the nature of reality, which is, of course, an open question.

I will make this observation though: if you want to leave room in your worldview for the mysterious then you must, by definition, leave science. This is not a bad thing. Humans have two mutually irreconcilable psychological drives: they want to know, and they want to wonder. Science fulfills the former need, religion (and drama, and magic) the latter. The reason ID is not science is that it necessarily leaves a mystery about the nature of the designer. That is precisely the source of its appeal. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it's not science.

Reality is reduced for these "scientists" (doing philosophy without training) to those things that can be explained by science.

No, this is a straw man. Reality is not reduced. When one is doing science ones attention is focused in a way that leaves no room for the irreducibly mysterious (or the supernatural, or the divine). Focusing one's attention in this way is, empirically, effective with respect to certain goals (notably manipulating the physical world to one's own ends). And some people find that they can live fulfilled lives with their attention focused in this way all the time, just as some people can live fulfilled lives without romantic love, or without alchohol. This says nothing about reality. All it says is that different people focus their attention in different ways.

Let us agree that science then is limited to providing explanations of the physical (natural?) world.


The question then becomes: What parts of reality are parts of this merely physical world? Is human personality?

There are clear connections between the physical and chemical structure of the human brain and personality. Whether the brain is sufficient to account for *all* of the phenomenology of human personality is an open question.

This question is not much different than asking if weather is entirely part of physical reality, or if there are extra-physical agents (like Zeus) controlling where the thunderbolts fall. The only difference is that suggesting that the weather is purely physical doesn't seem to bother people as much as suggesting that they themselves are purely physical.

Is God?

That depends on what you mean by God. There are certain views (like Taoism) in which God is purely part of physical reality and others (like the fundamentalist Judeo-Christo-Islamic view) where He is partially physical, and still others (like the Deist view) where He is not part of physical reality at all, at least not any more.

Is there a Person (divine?) that did work in that cosmos? In that case, science would be limited (if an active God is true) in what it could explain even in the material world. That is: It could be the case that not all caused events in the material world have (at their base) physical causes. At their base are human actions subject to merely physical or functional explanations? Is a psychological dualism possible?

Yes, these are valid questions, but they are not scientific questions. They are meta-scientific questions. They all boil down to: is science sufficient to explain all of reality? That is an open question (but, again empirically, the number of areas where non-physical causation remains a reasonable possibility is monotonically decreasing).

One cannot just proclaim: "Science is what scientists do."

Yes, I always cringe when I hear Shermer say this. It's so obviously circular and non-sensical. He really ought to know better.

Science is the idea that one way to arrive at the truth about the physical world is not to argue about it from first principles (which is what people did for thousands of years) but rather to make direct inquiries of the physical universe, a.k.a. experiments. It's that simple. That is what distinguishes science from philosophy, religion, the law, drama, art, etc.

Of course, this simple idea leads to lots of complications, like how to interpret the results of experiments, but the core is non-negotiable: if you're doing experiments to arrive at truth you're doing science. If you aren't then you're not.

Why accept such a limitation, however?

Because this limitation turns out to be very powerful and produces useful results, like antibiotics, fertilizers, computers, and internal combustion engines.

It should be noted that accepting such a limitation when one is trying to do certain kinds of things (like cure disease) does not imply that one necessarily accepts that same limitation when one is trying to do other kinds of things (like create a beautiful painting). But it is wrong to try to ride on the coattails of the achievements of science by calling something scientific when it clearly isn't. It is not science's problem that religion has an inferiority complex.

If we do limit science, then interesting questions will still be examined, just "outside of science." All that will happen is that certain real things (perhaps psychological phenomenon) for example will be removed from "experimentation" in what we call "science." There will of course be experimentation in meta-science or some such "new" field.

No, if you do experiments then you're doing science. But to my knowledge no one has ever done, or even proposed, an experiement to test ID theory. Until that changes, ID isn't science.

Of course, this limitation did not exist until late in the history of science.

I would put this a different way: science itself did not exist until fairly late in he history of humanity. There were some false starts going back as far as the ancient Greeks, but real science as we understand it today is generally acknowledged to have begun with Newton (or, arguably, Galilleo).

Scientists frequently make statements with philosophical assumptions bulging out from them. My own position is that this is fine. . . and that everyone should get to present their point of view about "what is science" to students.

I vehemently disagree with this. One of the big differences between science and other areas of intellectual endeavor is that science has an external arbiter of truth, namely experiment. I suppose it might be true that "scientists frequently make statements with philosophical assumptions bulging out from them." After all, scientists are human too. But what counts in science is not your credentials, it is whether what you say jibes with the experimental results.

This is not a "point of view", it is a historical observation. Once you start letting experiments be the arbiter of truth you start to produce a certain kind of result that you do not obtain in any other way that anyone has been able to figure out. *That* is what makes this a useful definition, not just because I (or Feynman or anyone else) say so.

We have to accept that for years the prestige of science gained in one area has been used (in a bad argument) to support Naturalism or scientism.

Sure, but that is a whole other discussion. The prestige that religion has gained has been used in all kinds of ancillary ways as well. You don't fix the problem of people turning science into a religion by introducing more religion.

This [the claim that MN is the source of the power of science] is a strong statement and requires strong evidence.

Just look at your history. Every example of technological advancement (including, e.g. figuring out how to build gothic cathedrals) has been the result of people doing experiments. No technology has ever been produced in any other way.

If one defines science as control of the physical world by physical means

No, that is not the definition of science. The definition of science is relying on experiments to determine truth. The ability to control the physical world is a *result* of applying science. It is not the definition.

The notion that "truth" is best found by experiment is (it need not be said) a philosophical prejudice.

Another straw man. I never said that the truth is best found by doing experiments. Empirically, doing experiments is more effective at producing certain kinds of results, but this is an observation, not a prejudice (and indeed can be tested experimentally).

After all: What counts as an experiment?

That is an excellent question, and delving into the details would take us far afield. But the general answer is that it is a procedure designed to test a claim. To be considered a scientific experiment the result must be unambiguous and reproducible. (Note that the *interpretation* of the result need not be unambiguous, only the result itself.)

We cannot prove God exists physically, but we could devise ways of making His existence more or less probable.

Really? I'd love to hear about those.

In any case, saying "experiments are the way to the truth" is a good slogan,

It's more than a good slogan, it actually produces tangible results.

but leads to many, many questions. What will count as an experiment is one of them!

Indeed. That is a valid topic for a science class.

However, even if assume that this slogan is right, we could still do experiments without the MN assumption

No, you can't. MN is part and parcel of the definition of the word "experiment" in the sense in which it is used to define science.

If science no longer is about "truth," but about "finding physical answers" to "physical questions" let's make that clear.

Well, science is about "the truth" insofar as it chooses a particular methodology (experiment) to arrive at truth. This methodology is limited by definition (specifically by the definition of "experiment") to the physical. Science has never had as part of its *definition* any claim to completeness. It just happens to turn out (again empirically) to be effective across a very broad range of application.

Let's also NOT assume publicly or in scientific writings that all possible questions (What is the soul?) are therefore subject to scientific answers.

Yet another straw man. No one claims that all possible questions are "subject to scientific answers." However, it is the case (again empirically) that the reach of science seems inexorably to extend into areas that were once thought were not amenable to scientific inquiry. For example, science has made some progress in explaining the phenomenon of consciousness, which might be related to the soul (whatever that is).

Let's limit the scope of scientific investigation hubris. . .
Why? Hubris is not necessarily a bad thing. It takes a certain amount of hubris to stand up to the gods and the forces of nature and say, for example, "disease and floods and locusts are *not* punishments sent from God because we are sinners. They are physical process that we can understand and perhaps even control to our own benefit." The difference between science and non-science is not that one engages in hubris and the other one doesn't, it is that scientific hubris produces results that non-scientific hubris does not. That is the long and the short of it.

Instead, let's say: We don't know what is physical and what is not.

The problem is, however, that we do know a great deal about what is physical and what is not. And all indications are that nearly everything is physical, even things that one might wish were not.

Some things are best understood by experiment. Other things are not.

I certainly agree with that. In fact, it may well be that our own origins are best understood by some means other than experiment. But just don't call it science then, because it isn't.

One feels like sighing here. It is not hubris to follow Plato, Aristotle, Newton, Bacon et al in looking for intelligent design in the universe.

No, it is hubris to claim that one is doing science, or contributing to science, by looking for intelligent design in the universe without doing (or even proposing) experiments.

If an advocate of ID were to propose an experimental test of ID we would not be having this argument.

we are making a point in philosophy of science which has implications on the practice of science.

No, what you (the advocates of ID in science classes) are doing is claiming to do science when you are not. You philosophers need to come to grips with the fact that in the last few hundred years we scientists have got this science thing pretty well figured out without your help, and that we've used it to better humanity's lot in ways that philosophy and religion could not and can not. This is not to say that philosophy and religion have no value; they do. But they are not science, and no amount of tortured logic, twisted definitions, or straw-man arguments will make them so.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Is Intelligent Design science?

Well, it has been a while, hasn't it? I'll tell the story of why I've been away for so long in another post. For now...

Living in Southern California I am fortunate to be in range of one of the finest journalists of our time, Larry Mantle, who hosts a show on our local NPR station called AirTalk. Larry has an extraordinary ability to tackle controversial subjects without bias, and to keep probing sensitive issues without actually pissing off his guests.

Today's show (which is not up on the KPCC web site yet) was a debate between Michael Shermer and John Reynolds about Intelligent Design (ID) theory. I thought the debate missed a couple of important points, which I sent to Dr. Reynolds in an email. He wanted to respond in his blog, so to facilitate that I'm posting the email I sent to him (lightly edited for blogging):

I listened with interest to your appearance on Larry Mantle's Air Talk this morning.

You kept making the point that adhering to methodological naturalism (MN) was somehow holding science back from certain kinds of progress. You also made the point that there is debate about what science is, and that philosophers are the ones best equipped to make this determination. You are mistaken on both counts. This can be demonstrated (somewhat ironically) with an elementary philosophical argument, to wit:

What distinguishes science from other arenas of human intellectual endeavor like drama, religion, law, etc. is that it produces certain kinds of results that these other arenas do not, e.g. antibiotics, semiconductors, nuclear weapons, etc. (One might go out on a limb and say that science seems uniquely suited among all arenas of human intellectual endeavor to produce results that allow humans to manipulate the physical world according to their desires, and that indeed this is the reason that people care so much about science and that we are even having this discussion. But this is not necessary to make the argument. All that is necessary is to agree that science produces results of a particular character, that these results "matter" in some sense, and that they are not generally produced by non-scientific endeavors.)

The *reason* that science is able to do these things is its adherence to MN. MN does not hold science back; quite the contrary. MN is an *empowering* constraint. It is the reason that science produces the results that it does. Science without MN is like drama without conflict. It is eviscerated. It has been robbed of its essential character.

This is not a deduction; it is an empirical observation. When one adheres to MN one produces "science-like" results. When one rejects MN one fails to produce such results. This is why all scientists (including Feynman, to whom you appealed to support your position) agree: science is the proposition that experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth (Feynman's words). Inherent in this definition is the MN assumption. That is what the word "experiment" means.

To suggest then that science would be well served by philosophers who wish to "free" it from the "constraint" of MN is rather like a non-lawyer suggesting that the law be freed from its dependence on legal texts. After all, textual law often offends our intuitive notion of "justice", just as MN often offends our intuitive notions of self or soul. Why not instead appeal to "intuitive justice" (as an analog to "intelligent design")? This is not a bad thing to wish for. Indeed, the law (and science) has many shortcomings when measured according to how well they fulfill all of mankind's needs. And indeed if you strip the text from the law you may actually end up with something worthwhile, but it will no longer be the law. Likewise, if you strip MN from science you may end up with something worthwhile, but it will no longer be science. It will be something else.

I would close by observing that if you (or one of your philosopher colleagues) succeeds in making an actual contribution to human intellectual endeavor by rejecting MN then your names will be remembered with the likes of the greatest philosophers that ever lived. Powerful ideas like MN (or textual law, or conflict in drama) do not come along every day. There have probably been less than half a dozen ideas of such power in all of human history. To embark on such an endeavor requires a certain hubris. I point this out not to discourage you (all human progress has been predicated on the hubris that such a thing as "progress" is even possible) but merely to point out the magnitude of what you claim to be doing, and why some scientists might take offense at the suggestion that philosophers wishing to discharge the MN assumption are contributing something to science.

A clarification: although I am very skeptical of the possibility of making fundamentally new contributions to the human condition by rejecting MN, clearly such contributions have been made in the past. (See e.g. my earlier post on logic envy.) There is no shame in this. After all, humans have been doing philosophy for a lot longer than they have been doing science, and so it's not altogether unexpected that the situation might have converged to a sort of steady state. Of course, it's entirely possible that philosophers are out there doing all sorts of cool new things that I'm not aware of. But I don't think anyone would argue that the products of science are much easier to discern in today's world. That is, after all, the reason I think we're having arguments over things like Intelligent Design in the first place.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

A lovely quote

"In Iraq and Afghanistan, would-be theocrats who think they're channeling God want to impose their narrow-minded vision on everyone else. In our country … oh, never mind"

-- Jacob Weisberg

Friday, March 18, 2005

Thirteen splendid little mysteries

New Scientist has a really cool story about 13 things that do not make sense. Obviously science hasn't got it all figured out yet.