Archive for November, 2011

The oddity of time …

November 28, 2011

So, yesterday I finally changed the shower head/hose in my shower. I bought the shower head a while ago while it was on sale — ” a while” meaning “at least a couple of years” — but since my shower head was still in good shape I never got around to installing it. Part of that was because I wasn’t certain how easy it would be or if I’d need anything else — like that tape for the socket — to do it. But this weekend I was losing pressure in the old hose and figured I just go ahead and do it, since that one was getting a bit old and worn.

It took me 10 minutes.

This is a consistent thing with me; I’ll put something off because I think it’ll take a long time and it ends up being a lot shorter than I thought. The opposite occurs when I’m cooking, though; it usually takes me longer than I budgeted. But a lot of the time I’ll put off work or something because it might take me too long, and it ends up being short. You’d think I’d have learned by now.

That being said, it’s probably better to overestimate than underestimate time, especially when doing things like essays.

And the winners are …

November 25, 2011

The games that I’ll be playing over the next little while and trying to finish are:

Catherine
Oblivion
The Record of Agarest War Zero

Catherine is an interesting game, but the puzzle sections can be really hard, even on the Ultra Easy mode. I need to make sure that I have a more open-ended period of time to play it in so that I don’t get stuck on a puzzle section and then have to hope and pray to beat it or lose all those lovely extra lives I’ve picked up or end up quitting in frustration right before I have to go to sleep. So it’s a Friday evening/Sunday afternoon thing.

Oblivion is here because I have a vacation coming up, and a long game like that is perfect to play when I can dedicate something like four or more hours a day to it instead of merely two.

So I need something for the times when I’m not playing Catherine and want something that I can play quickly. Right now, I’ll try Record of Agarest War Zero as that game. I’ll also use it should I manage to finish Catherine.

This does break my rule about not playing more than one game at once, but, meh, that wasn’t working anyway [grin].

I’m Doing it Again …

November 22, 2011

As you all know, I have a slight problem finishing or sticking with games. I even dedicated myself to finishing some of them and managed to finish Shadow Hearts: Covenant for a grand total of two games finished this year. Which is better than my previous rate.

The latest problem started when I was poking around with a couple of games and then re-upped to CoH. I decided to try “The Witcher 2″ while keeping CoH as a background game. Then I found “Dragon Age: Origins” and, being disappointed with “The Witcher”, moved on to it. Then I got busy, and so left DA: O for a while. By the time I’d gotten back to it, I discovered that I’d missed one of the characters I wanted to recruit — Leiliani — and was at a Fade portion that didn’t appeal to me. I also picked up “Catherine” and “Enchanted Arms”, and since “Catherine” is by the same guys who did the Persona games and is similar, I wanted to start playing that one, so I moved on from DA:O to it. But “Catherine” is a game that replaces the combat with a puzzle system that’s really hard, and where I end up retrying again and again to beat a level (on the plus side, since I’m on the ultra easy mode I now have about 80 continues left [grin]). Because it takes so many retries to get to the interesting section — the story part — which is worse than the Personas ever were, this isn’t a game that I can play for an hour or two in the evening without either going well overtime — since you can’t save in the middle of a block puzzle — or getting absolutely nowhere. So that can’t be my main; maybe I can play it Saturday night or Sunday afternoon or something

In addition, I was browsing on TVTropes, and found my way to Dating Sims. And then found “Record of Agarest War”. And found “Zero”. And it sounds just like my type of game. And it comes with a soundtrack in the Limited Edition. I’m a sucker for soundtracks. I also grabbed “Disgaea 3″ (despite not having finished 2 yet), “Folklore” (even the duplication sounds cool to me, and it was cheap), and “Cross Edge”. So all of these go on the list. And I’ve been looking at getting a new version of “The Sims”. That’s one long list.

So, I have to completely rework what I’m going to play when. I’ll be doing that over the next few days and you can sing along.

I get far too distracted by shiny objects …

That time of year again …

November 21, 2011

So, Christmas is coming up, and I went out and bought some new Christmas CDs last week. On the way home, I listened to one of them, and suddenly noticed “Hey! That’s ‘Winter Wonderland! And I didn’t once translate it to ‘Walkin’ ‘Round in Women’s Underwear’! … Until right this instant.”

Sure enough, next time I heard that song on that CD I did the translation again.

Song parodies strike again!

Facts, Non-facts, Science, Religion, Philosophy and All of That …

November 21, 2011

Well, you’d think I would have commented on this given that the last time Coyne went on about facts and philosophy I commented on it twice, But I’ve been a little busy with an essay and a board game and playing Dragon Age: Origins. So, a little late to the party, let me comment on Coyne’s dust-up with Ward over facts, by looking at the latest post entitled Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?.

To start with, note that the title is misleading, and yet not misleading all at the same time (I’ll get to that in a moment). Coyne’s first line expands “fact” to mean “facts about the world or universe.” As stated in the post of mine that I just linked to, depending on what Coyne means by “world or universe” I might either agree but be completely apathetic about that, or I might disagree strongly. But it turns out that before even getting into the underlying issues there’s a fundamental disconnect between Ward and Coyne that makes that challenge pretty much pointless. In his article, Ward says this:

Scientific facts are, of course, relevant to many religious claims. But not all facts are scientific facts – the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the miracles of Jesus, with the creation of the cosmos and with its end. The interesting question is not whether religion is compatible with science, but whether there are important factual questions – and some important non-factual questions, too, such as moral ones – with which the physical sciences do not usually deal. The answer seems pretty obvious, without trying to manufacture sharp and artificial distinctions between “hows” and “whys”.

Coyne tries to contextualize his reply in terms of science, broadly construed — “Those facts, I contended, could be established only by science “broadly construed,” that is, via reason and empirical observation” — and then moves on to quote his challenge:

I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.

There are two immediate problems here. The first is that Ward is not, in fact, using that definition of science, and so never actually made that claim. Coyne, then, is challenging Ward to demonstrate something that Ward never claimed. Ward’s reply makes this even more clear (quoted from Coyne, so Coyne ought to be aware of it):

What I do claim is not so controversial, namely, that many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true, even when there is no way in which any established science (a discipline a Fellow of the Royal Society would recognise as a natural science) could establish that they are true or false.

So the challenge does not get off the ground; Ward and Coyne are using two completely different definitions of science to argue about what science can do or can’t do, or in Ward’s case more about what it actually does and is willing to do. Coyne’s challenge, then, to give an example of something non-empirical does not, in fact, address what Ward means by non-scientific, and Coyne needs to recognize that.

From this, we can see the other problem, which is that Ward is not, in fact, claiming that there are any facts that have been demonstrated by non-empirical means or even non-scientific means — although, put in terms of what Ward considers science, it’s obvious that there are — but is simply claiming that there are some facts and interesting non-facts (here is where it becomes clear that Ward is indeed treating the term “fact” the same way Coyne is, which is not the way people like myself or Russell Blackford use it) that cannot be done scientifically and would have to be done non-scientifically. Even if we have yet to prove one of those facts, we can clearly ask what sorts of things could not be scientifically known, once we know and agree what science is and what science is limited to. So the challenge, again, does nothing to refute the claim that Ward actually made.

From there, we can move on to other problems, the first being why Coyne thinks that he can indeed use the definition of science, broadly construed. What does his definition mean, anyway? If he means to say that any attempt to use empirical observation makes it science, then he’s unfairly limited the fields of philosophy and theology, neither of which refuse to use empirical observation when it’s appropriate. Which, it seems, would make them scientific. However, they don’t think that every interesting fact — and here I’m using “fact” more in line with what Blackford thinks it is than how Ward takes it — can be only accessed empirically. Some of them can be gotten non-empirically as well, and some of them can’t be gotten empirically at all. Which leads to the other meaning, which is that science insists on using empirical verification. This leaves more room for philosophy and theology and their work and subject matter — since neither insist on it — actually making it so that philosophy and theology can be credibly called separate ways of knowing from science, since they reject one of the fundamental assumptions of science. But then it does seem like philosophy, at least, can credibly argue that at least some of the things that they are interested in are non-empirical, but that they can still know them through non-empirical means. And this is at least part of what Ward is after.

Ward decides to respond to Coyne’s challenge thusly, but again it’s not the same sort of challenge, so we’re going to get them talking past each other again:

Here is an example: my father worked as a double-agent for MI6 and the KGB during the “Cold War”. He told me this on his death-bed, in view of the fact that I had once seen him kill a man. The Section of which he was a member was disbanded and all record of it expunged, and all those who knew that he was a member of it had long since died. This is certainly a factual claim. If true, he certainly knew that it was true. I reasonably believe that it is true. But there is absolutely no way of empirically verifying or falsifying it. QED.

Note especially the two key statements here (since the commenters, at least, didn’t catch them):

If it’s true, Ward’s father knows it to be true.
Ward reasonably believes it true.

There is nothing here about whether Coyne should reasonably believe it true, or Ophelia Benson, or anyone else. These statements are reasonable (the second may be open to some doubt, but I’ll get into that later) and Ward is claiming that there is no way to empirically verify or falsify it, as science would insist. Ergo, this is a known fact for Ward’s father, probably a known fact for Ward (depending on how one interprets “justified” in justified true belief) but empirical verification was not, in fact, required for that knowledge, and is not required now.

Coyne replies with this:

If that’s the best that Ward can do, then I claim victory. A “fact” is not a fact if all the evidence supporting it has vanished or is inaccessible. It’s the same as my baby sister’s claim that my father (whom she worshipped) could fly if he wanted to, but “he simply doesn’t want to.”

The problem is this: what is meant by “evidence” here? Coyne clearly means “empirical evidence”, but then what does he count testimony as? If Ward’s father was trustworthy, in a position to know the proposition, and there is no reason to think he is lying, why is that not sufficient for knowledge? The relation between testimony and knowledge is a complex and deep one that has been examined in detail philosophically (I once did an entire 4 month tutorial as a Masters student on that topic, where I concluded that it can give you knowledge under the conditions where testimony is reliable). Given that discussion, it’s difficult to say that it can’t be evidence at all. And it’s evidence that Ward possesses, along with the other evidence of his father’s trustworthiness as well as how it makes one incident in Ward’s life fit and explains why that happened. All of this, taken together, would, it seems, justify Ward in saying that he knows that that is true, even as it might not justify it for others. And Ward harps on this exact point when talking about the Resurrection:

When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional). But those claims are not verifiable by any known scientific or historical means. That is why we make judgements about such claims in the light of our more general philosophical and moral views and other personal experiences- (i.e.) whether we believe there is a God, whether this would be a good thing for God to do, and whether we think we have experienced God.

Ward is saying that there is evidence for the Resurrection, but it is not convincing. So we decide whether to believe or not on the basis of our other beliefs, which may result in different beliefs depending on what other things we believe. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that reasonable beliefs of that sort rise to the level of knowledge, but Ward doesn’t actually say that either. While I interpreted the “Dad is a double agent” story above as a knowledge claim, it doesn’t have to be. It just needs to be, for Ward, something that he can reasonably believe. Which may mean that someone else can reasonably believe something different. Only if a knowledge claim is being made can you insist that no other belief can be reasonably believed. Which, I think, is a very important distinction to make, since it suggests that both theists and atheists can have reasonable or unreasonable beliefs about the existence of God, and it is why they believe that makes the difference, not what they believe.

Coyne goes on to talk about distinguishing factual claims from facts:

Ward and Houston should know better: a “factual claim” is not a “fact” unless there is evidence to support it. It is a “factual claim” that some people have seen fairies, or that the Loch Ness Monster swims in the vasty deep. But empirical investigation hasn’t supported these assertions. Think of all the factual claims made by those who are delusional, or mentally ill!

So, let’s distinguish the factual claims from the facts here:

Proposition: Fairies exist, and X saw a fairy.
Fact: X had a sensory experience that in some way looked like a fairy.
Factual Claim: X’s experience indicates that fairies exist.
Disputed Fact: Fairies exist.

It is true that X’s experience of a thing that looked like a fairy may well not, in fact, make the disputed fact undisputed. But the reasons why are where things get interesting, because the reasons one may dispute the fact don’t have to be empirical or scientific. One can, for example, point out that someone who clearly saw a rock couldn’t have seen a fairy since, well, fairies don’t look like rocks. One can also point out that a very blurry image at distance is under conditions where sense perceptions aren’t reliable and which might not really indicate a fairy at all. And one can do empirical investigations and find inconsistencies, where if it really was a fairy you would expect to have also seen something else — some other, new evidence — and that evidence wasn’t there. But what you cannot do is simply say “Well, you think you saw a fairy, so that’s a factual claim but the fact ‘Fairies exist’ is not true, and so you did not really see a fairy” based on whether you think fairies could exist or not. You can form a reasonable belief that he did not see a fairy based on the argument that you don’t think fairies exist — the old “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” claim — but you do have to realize, as Ward says, that that classification depends on you, and also that this does not mean that suddenly there is no evidence.

In science, there are plenty of “factual claims” that don’t turn out to be facts. Cold fusion is one, the claim that bacteria cause cancer (for which a Nobel prize was awarded) is another. That’s why factual claims require verification, and why string theory, which also makes factual claims, is still in the hinternland of facthood: there’s no way we’ve yet discovered to test those claims.

As G’Kar once said, “Commendable, but what does that have to with …?” (He was cut off at that point). Should we believe that string theory is true? I can’t imagine why not. Do we have enough evidence even without direct testing to say that we know that string theory is true? It’s quite possible we do. Are we certain that it is true? Probably not. But who cares? If we can reasonably believe it or even know it without directly testing it, then why care about direct testing? Sure, it might be nice to have the confirmation, and that confirmation will, on occasion, reveal that we were wrong in the first place. But that does not change how we act towards the proposition until that occurs, does it?

repeat again for philosophers like Ward and Houston: factual claims are not facts. It is possible that Ward’s father was a double agent, but I won’t accept its truth until there are independent ways to show that.

Bully for you. Does that mean that Ward or his father are not completely justified in accepting its truth? What you can reasonably believe and what other people can reasonable believe are not the same thing. This does not make knowledge subjective in any way, it simply reflects the impacts of points of reference and points of view. As seen, this does not address Ward’s point at all.

Increasingly, I find philosophers like Houston presenting claims of theologians like Ward sympathetically. It’s almost as if there’s a bifurcating family tree of thought, with philosophers and theologians as sister taxa, and scientists as the outgroup. That seems strange to me, as I understood that most philosophers are atheists. I’m not clear why I’m attracting increasing opprobrium from philosophers, though one reason may be their irritation that I am encroaching on their territory.

Back in the old days of the Greeks, philosophy was supposed to be part of a well-rounded life; now any scientist who engages in the practice is criticized for treading on the turf of professional academic philosophers. Suck it up, I say to these miscreants.

When you remember why you were so irritated with Jerry Fodor and “Why Darwin Was Wrong”, you’ll know why we’re so irritated with you. Hint: It’s not because you’re encroaching, but because you’re encroaching and claiming to be right about comments you are making that simply don’t address the underlying discussions. You could start proving us wrong by finally acknoweldging that how you define science is not how the people you are opposing define science, and thus finally no longer attacking your opponents based on positions they do not hold.

And I’m Free … Free-Willin’ …

November 15, 2011

Jerry Coyne has once again decided to make a foray into the philosophical, continuing his off and on discussions of free will. I’ve commented before how science doesn’t support his determinisitic view as well as he’d like, and also gone over how what it means to make a choice is really important, so I’m not sure if there’s much more to say, but I will take on, again, Coyne’s understanding of philosophy … or lack thereof.

Note that someone else has taken Coyne to task over that in the comments, and Coyne replies:

And, contra what you said, I’ve read a great deal of literature on free will. You can say that I’m wrong, but not that I’m unacquainted with the problem and the proposed solutions.

To which my reply is that that sort of answer didn’t stop Coyne from accusing Fodor of basically the same thing in what Darwin got wrong. Mere acquaintance is not knowledge (and for those of you familiar with some epistemic theories, yes, the double meaning is intentional [grin]).

Anyway, onto the text. Coyne starts from here:

Now that materialism is the dominant paradigm in all the sciences, what on earth do we do about free will? If all of our “free” decisions are really predetermined—perhaps long in advance—by a combination of our biology and our environment, and our brain is simply a concatenation of cells that must obey the laws of physics and chemistry, how can any of our decisions be “free”? And if what we do for the rest of our lives has already been determined by the laws of physics—absent, perhaps a tad of quantum indeterminacy—how can we be held responsible for our actions?

1) Since materialism is a philosophical paradigm and as Coyne admits has been adopted by the sciences, why should philosophers care? If the acceptance is methodological, then philosophy can happily ignore that commitment and go on their merry way. If it is metaphysical, then philosophers don’t need to care that the sciences think it’s true if it has absurd or contradictory philosophical implications, such as insisting that we don’t really have free will.

2) Why is Coyne so certain that materialism means that everything is determined? What is his definition of the philosophy of materialism that insists that everything must be determined or else it isn’t material? As I stated when pointing out that science doesn’t support Coyne as well as he thinks it does, quantum events are not, in fact, determined. These things, however, are still considered material, last time I checked (and must be, or else Coyne’s statement is just plain wrong) now we have things that are material and not determined. Sure, you can say that they’re just random … but then on what grounds does Coyne insist that there cannot be any other possible material thing that fills in the intermediary position between determined and random? Not past history, experience or investigation, surely.

He does raise the issue, correctly, that responsibility is a problem here, which is good. But we need to see how that shakes out …

How do people conceive of free will, though? My own definition, which I think corresponds to most people’s take, is that if you could rerun the tape of life back to the moment a decision is made, with all the concatenations of molecules at that moment, and the circumstances leading up to it, remaining the same, you could have chosen differently. If you couldn’t, then determinism reigns and we’re not free agents, at least as most people think of them.

Philosophers don’t like that notion—the idea that we’re all puppets on the strings of physics. So they do what theologians do when a Biblical claim is disproven: they simply redefine free will in a way that allows us to retain it. Like the story of Adam and Eve, it becomes a metaphor, with a meaning very different from how it was once used.

Well, the first problem here is that Coyne’s take on the conception is a massively oversimplified one. The idea is that you could have, indeed, chosen differently, but that depends strongly on what is meant by choice. Does the concept of free will really insist on this specific example? Because it is so oversimplified, it is not, in fact, clear that most people do think of it that way, or at least in the way that Coyne thinks of it, especially since the “with all the concatenations of molecules at that moment” is almost certainly not part of it. And right here is where things start to unravel, since compatibilist philosophers can argue that if free will — whatever it is — is nothing more than something implemented in the brain and is material, then it would be nothing more than the actions of the concatenations of molecules, and so Coyne’s statement that we could not choose otherwise because of the state of our molecules would be true and yet would not in any way impact free will. This whole argument depends on his move from materialism to determinism in the first place, but that’s not a safe assumption.

Additionally, even if that is what people think free will is — Nahmias denies this and gives some evidence, and there are more studies of this than just the one he cites — that doesn’t mean that that is, indeed, how free will should be conceived. The majority of people could be wrong. Philosophers are not, as Coyne puts it, redefining the term, but trying to clarify what it, in fact, really means. Why is he so certain that they — who have spent years and with access to all the debates over thousands of years — are wrong and Coyne and the person on the street are right?

The line about it turning into a metaphor is, in fact, just plain wrong. It remains no such thing. It may well change meanings from how that’s being used, but since philosophy is about conceptial analysis this is like saying that electricity change from how it was originally thought to be, or gravity. We thought it was something and turned out to be wrong about that. Oh, well; update and move on. If Coyne is unwilling to allow philosophy and theology to update their concepts then let’s hold science to the same standard and see how well it does (likely, not well at all).

What he doesn’t seem to realize is that we haven’t defined it out of existence, but rather science has shown that earlier “dualistic” views of free will, in which a spirit overrules matter, are simply wrong. If free will as most people understand it rests on a misconception, then correcting that misconception eliminates the common notion of free will. Our brains are our minds, our minds are what “appear” to make decisions, our brains are subject to the laws of physics, and there is no way to override those laws with some nebulous “will”. Q.E.D.

Congratulations, he’s refuted — he thinks — the common notion of free will. Wonderful. But who thought that that was the only or even the best conception of free will in the first place? The “dualistic” notion was never more than just an hypothesis about how it work, and hypothesis derived and supported, mostly, by the idea that matter was deterministic. When faced with accepting that everything was materialistic and therefore that meant that we can’t have free will, many people rejected materialism because it led to something that was absurd. What was absurd? The idea that none of our choices matter or do anything, that we are all doing nothing more than going through the motions. And it is this that philosophers are concerned about, and this that philosophers are trying to preserve with their “redefinition”.

Now, I’m sure that Coyne is familiar with the idea that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The idea that all of our mental deliberations are nothing more than going through the motions is certainly extraordinary; it undercuts all of our common experience and would make everything doubtful if it didn’t lead to the absurd conclusion that being convinced by the argument is something that is also pre-determined and that we are going through the motions on. So where is Coyne’s extraordinary evidence? He continually cites one study that doesn’t in fact test the most relevant behaviour and choices, and he’s also got a presumption that works well for situations that are not the really interesting ones. Hardly extraordinary. And without that, he has no cause whatsoever to chide philosophers for simply redefining something they don’t like; they have very good reasons not to like it and he doesn’t have strong enough evidence to address those reasons yet.

In commenting on Nahmias’ “redefinition”, Coyne says:

But all it does is describe the workings of our complex brains, which take in many different inputs before producing an output—a “decision.” We aren’t really free to “imagine future courses of action”: the fact that we do this is purely a result of our evolution, our personal history, and the structure of our brain.

Yes, most compatibilists will probably agree with that. Nahmias certainly seems to. But what they’re doing is identifying that the important thing about free will is choice, and so saying “Free will is choice, but we now know that choosing is a brain function, therefore free will is realized in acting on that specific brain function of choosing“. What it means to have free will is to be able to choose, and brains have a function called choosing, and so as long as you are exercising that, you’re choosing and have free will. And, in having free will you have moral responsibility. Choosing, then, is not an illusion, but an actual material process just like digesting, and you can say that “we” are responsible for our choices in the same way that you can say that the stomach is (mostly) responsible for digestion. It’s just a natural process, like any other. Not an issue.

Coyne presumes that it being part of the brain means that it is determined and not choosing in the right sort of way to impact free will, but he doesn’t argue it. But he needs to argue it. Why can’t they make the move? His big scientific push is to reduce, as we’ve seen, choosing to a brain operation, but that in and of itself does not mean that we don’t have an interesting notion of choice that can get us what we want out of free will and can maintain moral responsibility. And we certainly won’t be able to say that the term “free will” should be dropped until we know how this new data impacts that concept and what we meant by it. At that point, Coyne is quibbling over terminology in a field that is not his.

Note that I reject the compatibilist position for reasons similar to Coyne’s. I think that biological determination does mean that we don’t have any interesting form of choice, because since the brain events proceed one after the other they could do that without any actual phenomenal choice being made at all, or with completely different factors (so, you decide to get married because your consciousness says that you like cheeseburgers). It’s hard to imagine that there’s any real choice going on here at all. But I’m not insisting they’re wrong about this; I’m skeptical and think that without better arguments and evidence this isn’t the best solution. Coyne rejects it flat-out and insists it’s wrong to reconcile free will/choosing and determinism that way. Also, his rejection means that he turns choosing into an illusion, while mine says that the common experience is right and so the presumptions of science must be at least inadequate to deal with this case. How does Coyne expect to deal with someone like me who accepts his premises but then demands that he actually prove it and not presume it?

Ultimately, Coyne’s arguments are based primarily on presumptions and not on actual evidence, fact, or argumentation. I see no need to accept something that so radically contradicts our common knowledge until he knows far more than he does right now, and don’t see why that would be a problem. Nor do I see there being anything wrong with people trying to see how maybe if determinism is true we could still preserve free will and meaningful choice, even if I think it won’t work. That’s what’s going on here philosophically, and Coyne does not quite seem to get that.

All the Small Things …

November 11, 2011

It has at times puzzled me how small things can have an impact far greater than you’d expect give how, well, small they are.

The latest is the DVD of the TV series “ALF”. I recently found them on sale for a very cheap price, and so picked up the entire series. And I’ve been watching it, and at first blush it seems to be pretty much a perfect series to watch for the times when I’m playing or doing other things and want a bit of noise. After all, they’re moderately entertaining but you don’t have to pay a lot of attention to them in order to be entertained, and there isn’t a deep plot that will keep you watching. Perfect light, fluffy entertainment.

Except that it doesn’t have a “Play All” option.

But that really shouldn’t matter, right? Sure, it might be a bit annoying, but how hard is it to just select the next episode?

The problem is that the episodes are about 20 minutes long, and so to watch it I have to stop and select the next episode every 20 minutes. So:

- If I’m on the PC, I have to select every 20 minutes, no matter what I’m doing. It’s a big issue in MMOs and when I writing essays, not so much when I’m just playing PC games (except for ones with real-time combat) and not a problem when I’m just surfing.

- If I’m playing on the PS2, it’s a problem; I am only paying attention in the background and sometimes it’s hard to pause or save while playing on the PS2.

- If I’m doing various household chores, it’s a big problem; I don’t want to have to stop every 20 minutes just to change the background noise.

- If I’m reading, it’s a problem; I have to make sure that I have the remote control handy and remember to look up to, again, change the background noise.

- And, of course, it’s an issue if I’m watching while eating.

Of course, these are all the times that I’d want to watch ALF as opposed to something else like Babylon 5.

Now, other series do this as well, but of the ones I own most of them are 45 minute episodes. It’s easier to switch every 45 minutes — and time for it — than it is for every 20; at least you get a significant amount of time where you can watch it without worrying about changing it.

So, one small thing has turned it into something that I’d probably watch repeatedly a lot to something that I’ll probably watch again at some point.

Gabbin’ ‘Bout Cause …

November 9, 2011

So, David Colquhoun at Improbable Science weighed in on hy he doesn’t think philosophy has much to offer sciencew, and he uses a fairly peculiar example of causation linked to a diet study to talk about an error that he thinks some philosophers have made. He says a bit about it and I’m probably oversimplifying his view, but he isn’t all that careful so I think it’s fair to call him out on something that he says repeatedly, summed up in his conclusion:

Of course RCTs [Randomised Controlled Trials] are not the only way to get knowledge. Often they have not been done, and sometimes it is hard to imagine how they could be done (though not nearly as often as some people would like to say).

It is true that RCTs tell you only about an average effect in a large population. But the same is true of observational epidemiology. That limitation is nothing to do with randomisation, it is a result of the crude and inadequate way in which diseases are classified (as discussed above). It is also true that randomisation doesn’t guarantee lack of bias in an individual case, but only in the long run. But it is the best that can be done. The fact remains that randomization is the only way to be sure of causality, and making mistakes about causality can harm patients, as it did in the case of HRT.

So, essentially — and he says this repeatedly — to get at causation you have to do randomized controlled trials, and the key is the randomization. Otherwise, you can’t get causation. This is so out of whack with both philosophy and science that it’s really hard for me to decide which of my backgrounds I’m bringing to bear here. Randomization isn’t the only way to be sure of causality, and it isn’t even the best way. Its main benefit is that sometimes it’s the only thing you can do.

Let’s start by talking about the best way to find out about causation, straight from science: decide which factor you want to test for its effect, control for all other possible factors, and then alter that factor. So if you want to see how, say, a temperature increase affects the volume of a gas, you control for things like pressure, then change the temperature and see what happens. Then you can conclude that temperature increases cause the volume of a gas to expand, and voila … you have causation. And note that there was absolutely no randomness involved, and any introduction of randomness would spoil the whole experiment.

This carries on into common sense causal determinations. If I want to find out why my car won’t start, I go through and alter things while keeping everything else the same until the car will start. So I first, say, clean the battery cables, and try it. Then check the spark plugs. And so on and so forth. This is basically just second-nature to us, and this is how we do, in fact, find out about causation.

Now, there are indeed problems with this method. The first is that you have to be very careful that previous examinations don’t actually change your state. So, for example, if I don’t put the battery cables back on properly I’ve now created a new state and a new problem and so won’t actually determine the cause of my car not starting even if I do make the appropriate change, as I’ve introduced another cause (I do this a lot when fixing bugs while programming). A controlled science doesn’t have to worry about this too much, since it at least would identify what the new state will be even if it can’t quite reset it. But there is another problem that is quite relevant for the discussion Colquhuon is having: we often do not know or are unable to control for all of the potential confounds when we start the experiment. The field this is most relevant for is actually psychology, since not only do you have a massive amount of potential interactions and confounds those confounds can include the subjects changing their behaviour due to the test conditions.

Enter randomization. It allows the experimenters to not have to know what all the confounds are by presuming that if there are potential confounds they will be more or less equally distributed amongst the participants, especially with a large number of runs. But this isn’t some kind of excellent or precise methodology that works well at establishing causation. This is simply a workaround for the fact that we don’t know and can’t control for all the factors.

So, in terms of determining causality, it’s inferior to the normal practice. It requires more subjects and more trials than normal practice, and it also can’t detect as small a difference as normal practice because it has to always correct for statistical anomalies and the potential presence of another factor that is actually the cause of the change but which is only slightly unbalanced in your test set of participants.

So, the ideal way to look for causation is:

1) Control explicitly for every possible thing you can think of and can control.
2) Randomize to try to get rid of the things you can’t control for or didn’t think of.

But if you’ve exhausted all possibilities in 1), you don’t need to do 2). You do 2) only because you have no choice, not because it is some kind of Gold Standard for determining causation. 1) is the Gold Standard; 2) is the inferior workaround. God help you if you skip 1); you’re likely to screw up big time because there are just too many factors involved to get any sort of answer, and so you’ll miss finding the causations that are there and you were hoping to find.

Presumably, Colquhoun is very much aware of this, but if anything I’d suggest that philosophy could be of aid to him in making sure that he understands exactly what he’s saying when he says things like “randomization is the only way to be sure of causality”, which is, in fact, patently not true, as it’s a) not the only way and b) doesn’t actually let you be sure of causality anyway (due to potential confounds that you just missed).

From Witche(r)s to Dragons …

November 8, 2011

So, I recently switched from playing The Witcher 2 to Dragon Age: Origins, mostly because I managed to find a cheap copy of DA:O for the PS3, and the idea of being able to play while sitting on my couch was too tempting to pass up. But in doing so, I’ve discovered that I like DA:O a lot better. Why? Because DA:O makes me feel more like I’m in the game as my character, while The Witcher 2 made me feel like I was guiding Geralt through the world.

One of the reasons for this is customization … or the lack thereof. In DA:O, I get to create my character and get a semi-personal origin tale to get into the game proper. In The Witcher 2 … I get Geralt and get dumped right into the story, and particularly dumped into the story at a point in the middle of the story, where we then backtrack through the prologue that has already happened. Sure, the prologue in DA:O is also linear, but at least then I’m me going through it.

But the biggest reason, really, is dialogue. In DA:O, I decide pretty much everything my character says, specifically, even down to “Yes”. In The Witcher 2, for the most part I determine a general attitude and then conversation ensues. Sometimes Geralt says a lot of things before I get another change to say something. And sometimes what I want to say is not what Geralt says. So I’m basically telling him what generally to do and what generally to say. The Sims gave me more control over my characters than that, even with Free Will turned on.

So, I’m glad to have ditched the Witcher for the dragon. Oblivion is next on my list, and then I might get into Mass Effect 2 before returning to The Witcher 2. It might still be a good game, but without the feeling that I’m me in it I’m much less interested in it now than I was before.

The Haught/Coyne Debate …

November 6, 2011

So, I’ve just finished watching the debate (I skipped the last half of the Q & A because it was kinda boring me). The first thing to note is that in terms of sheer content — not looking at what was said or how good it was — Coyne’s presentation was packed with content, while Haught’s said relatively little. Taking notes on each presentation in preparation for this post, I took one page on Haught and three pages on Coyne. For a lot of it, it wasn’t clear what purpose some of Haught’s statements had, even if we don’t take it in light of this being a debate. But, more importantly, a lot of what he said simply seemed to be background and presentation rather than direct statements of position.

But we don’t judge presentations or debates strictly on how much you say. So what did each person say?

Let’s start with Haught. Early in the presentation, Haught used quotes about the universe having purpose, and the supposed consequences of the universe not having it. I know that some have criticized this as not in any way showing that the universe has purpose, but it struck me that the best way to interpret that is not that these quotes prove that the universe has purpose, but more about why it’s important for us, at least, to ask if there is one and, if there is, what that purpose is. I don’t think this was intended to prove that there is one; the frameworks presented later do more for that than the introduction did.

The main thrust of Haught’s presentation, though, is his idea of the hierarchical view, where the lower cognitive or intellectual levels cannot grasp higher ones. In the Q&A, he also talks about these as levels of explanation. And from this, he says that since we are at a lower level than the Ultimate, we can only grasp the Ultimate through things like symbols … and doing that is what he calls “faith”.

Haught makes an analogy to books, and if we translate the symbol notion in directly we can make more sense of the “monkey-to-adult” analogy. If a monkey looks at a book, the monkey only sees marks on a page. The child who knows the alphabet knows that these are symbols, but doesn’t really know what the symbols that are “words” really mean. The teenager can read the words and so knows what the symbols mean, but only grasps the literal meaning and not the deeper meaning that the words are trying to convey. The adult, then, is capable of understanding the deeper meaning of the symbols beyond the strictly literal. As Haught clarifies in the Q&A, there’s nothing wrong with each of these levels, but they are different explanatory or cognitive levels.

I’d add that sometimes what level you’re at depends, in fact, on what sort of explanation you’re looking for. Take the teapot example from the Q&A. If you are looking for a physical explanation for why water boils, the atoms explanation works fine and is all you need. But if you want the intentional explanation, then the physical explanation will not satisfy you and is totally extraneous, just as the intentional explanation is if you care about the physical one. They are different explanations and you cannot easily translate them into the other view and maintain their explanatory power, but for your purposes you don’t really need to; each explanation gives you exactly what you want for the purpose you have in looking for an explanation.

Of course, the explanations have to be in some sense compatible with each other, in that they can’t imply things at another explanatory level that contradict the explanations there. So you couldn’t, say, argue for an interpretation of a word or phrase in a book that contradicts the actual meaning of that phrase. That would introduce a contradiction, and you’d need to resolve it. But note that that does not have to mean that you reject the higher level on the basis of the lower; you don’t have to insist that the phrase means that so the higher explanation is incorrect. One can find other evidence that allows you to say that the author is not using the words in the way they are literally meant, and then contradict the lower level of explanation or, at least, sidestep it (yes, the phrase does mean that literally but that does not mean that that is really what the phrase is signifying). So some sort of resolution has to happen, but that in and of itself doesn’t indicate any interesting contradiction.

What Haught does have to do is demonstrate that this hierarchical view is actually true, and there is some level of explanation that needs to reference some kind of Ultimate Purpose. Haught appeals to two main arguments. The first is him basically arguing that the traditional theistic view holds this and also that this is basically what Christianity posits. While this may show how Christianity can see itself to be compatible with science, it doesn’t mean that it’s right to do so. The second is him pushing the meaning analogies to their utmost, but this again doesn’t prove that this view is correctly applied in the case of the universe. Just because books and tea boiling can have legitimate levels of meaning doesn’t mean that there is any actual level of meaning for the universe or, in fact, beyond human comprehension. And if meaning at least stops at the level of human comprehension, his arguments about the Ultimate Purpose and transcendence fall apart; there is no meaning for us to attempt to grasp — and fail to grasp — above our understanding.

However, this does indeed suggest that settling the question of whether or not there is this transcendent meaning is not, in fact, a question that can be settled by science, because science presumes that such a thing does not exist, and works well with such an assumption. You could argue that if there was such a purpose that you would see something in science that could point to the lack … but then we can look at tea boiling and books and note that at the purely physical and directly empirical level you simply don’t ever need to wonder about the higher levels of explanation. So you will never see a lack at the lower level unless you look higher.

And it seems to me that what separates science from fields like art, literature, music, philosophy and when we look at things like love is, in fact, this looking for meaning as opposed to simple meaningless or inert stimuli. This is, I think, one of the issues when psychology tries to do science on human behaviour; we seem to think that meaning and something of us and the personal is left out. The most radical form of this was behaviourism, and while we’ve made great strides since then there still is the issue of minimizing the intentional/personal in those fields, especially when we bring neuroscience into the picture.

That being said, Haught didn’t engage science directly for much of the presentation, which means that he didn’t really spend enough time demonstrating that they are, in fact, compatible.

Now, on to Coyne. The biggest issue here is that while Coyne himself declares this to be a philosophical problem, he doesn’t have a lot of arguments that address this as a philosophical problem. There’s one that comes up later that, if we reinterpret it, becomes one, but when we examine it that way we see it isn’t a very good one. If you are going to argue that science and religion/faith are philosophically incompatible, you do need to understand that arguing against specific religions doesn’t cut it. Yes, he was targeting Haught’s view specifically, but you do need to move beyond specific religions and specific differences in beliefs to make a full philosophical argument for the incompatibility of science and faith/religion.

The first thing to comment on is what was, it seems, mostly a throwaway point but that does indicate an issue in looking at this: Coyne starts by essentially linking science and religion being compatible with them being “buddies” as he puts it, or in having an interesting impact on each other. That, of course, is not what is required for them to be compatible. They may, as we saw in Haught’s presentation, be different levels of explanation or cognition, and so won’t have much to say to each other, but will form part of a complete picture. It will not suffice to show that science and religion don’t complement each other — and even that one will cause changes in the other — to demonstrate a real incompatibility.

His first argument is what I’ll call the “survey” point, as he produces surveys of various people and their opinions on whether science and religion are compatible. Many people think that they aren’t, and he also trots out the idea that scientists are far more atheistic than the general population. The problem is that this is, of course, a philosophical problem and philosophical problems are not settled by surveys or by what people think is the case, but by what is really the case. Which, I suppose, is true of facts in general. If 95% of people thought that the world is flat, that would not make it flat, and that a large percentage of people do not think science and religion compatible does not mean that they aren’t.

As for the scientists, we can pull an explanation for that out of Haught’s own talk: if you spend all your time using a method that presumes there is no higher level of explanation and so leaves the issues that faith addresses out of the picture, it can be very easy to simply not see the use of that level of explanation. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist and isn’t useful. If all you did was translate words in a book, you might have a hard time seeing books as more than simply literal words and instead seeing them as stories, but that would hardly mean that books do not contain stories.

Coyne moves from this to an argument based on rejection of scientific facts, and points out that many religious people would reject a scientific fact if it clashed with their religion. But the same sort of objection applies here: who says that because a lot of people would in fact do that that they should, or that that’s how religion is really supposed to work? If we take Haught’s explanatory/cognitive level explanation — which, we must remember, Coyne thinks he’s attacking — we can see as already stated that the levels of explanation have to be consistent at some level, and so will have to adjust to each other. Sometimes that will mean that the level of Ultimate Purpose will adjust to the physical, and sometimes the opposite. But any dogmatic notion of the direction of change is just plain wrong under that model, so this objection can be simply answered by “Those people are wrong”. Again, there is no philosophical point here.

And it leads to a philosophical objection against Coyne. Coyne’s argument is based on conflicts over scientific fact. But he gives the example of angels and, later, the resurrection as examples of problematic conflicting beliefs. But we have to ask whether those are, in fact, scientific facts. Science does not have in any of its models angels, and as Coyne says so far science has not found anyone else who has risen from the dead, but that does not make the non-existence of such things scientific fact. Far from it. At best, all you can say is that science doesn’t yet accept them, which is insufficient for Coyne’s point. We can contrast those “facts” with evolution and say that evolution is indeed a fact, and so does involve a contradiction with some interpretations of some religions. Which is why it must be dealt with in some way by those religions. But that does not apply to some of those other things, and Coyne must be careful to limit his supposed contradictions to actual scientific facts. But Coyne himself thinks that attempts to do these sorts of mappings problematic, and indicative of the problem itself. This, however, is patently absurd under Haught’s notion and is not supported under the general philosophical argument of compatibility and incompatibility. At this point, Coyne has not even established something like Larry Moran’s “Ways of Knowing” distinction, and so we have no way to judge in what sense Coyne thinks the two are generally incompatible, or how we should judge compatibility and incompatibility. So why would an interaction between the two — even one way — indicate incompatibility?

This carries on into Coyne’s point about how science rejects faith while religion embraces it. Yes, in some sense that makes religion and science incompatible, but does it make them incompatible in an important sense? It certainly means that while you are doing science you cannot be doing religion — but not necessarily vice versa — but is that sufficient to get at an interesting incompatibility? To use an analogy, it is absolutely true that in some sense walking to the store and driving to the store are incompatible, in the sense that you can’t do both at the same time, but does that mean that you should only ever drive to the store and never walk? Whether you walk or drive will be based on what makes sense at the time, which will be determined in large part by what your purposes or goals are. The same can be said if you take Haught’s viewpoint: which method you use — the one that includes faith or the one that rejects it — will depend on what level of explanation you’re after.

So all this indicates is that science and religion are not the same method. Well, duh. That’s not an interesting incompatibility.

Coyne then launches into his standard argument against the idea that some scientists being religious means that science and religion are compatible. The problem is that he still misses the contradiction with his first point, which relies on specific instances to make his case. All this does is do the same thing. If it is invalid here, it is invalid there as well.

His next point is where he ends up agreeing with Haught’s notion that science limits itself deliberately to specific assumptions, meaning in this case the naturalistic presumption. And assuming that there is only the naturalistic and ignoring purpose, science succeeds at what it does. Therefore, science is right to do so and the non-naturalistic approaches aren’t compatible and aren’t saying anything interesting. But, as we’ve seen, the first part about making the naturalistic presumption and even succeeding at it is not in any way in conflict with Haught; he will certainly agree that science can succeed quite well with its assumptions at the level of explanation that it’s interested in. But that does not mean that there are no other levels of explanation, or that science can indeed find all of them. As stated earlier, Haught and theologians still need to prove that there are such levels, but that’s an argument over correctness, not compatibility.

As we move through Coyne’s speech, it seems clear that Coyne’s objections are indeed less about compatibility and more about correctness; his objections are not that religion is not compatible with science, but that it is, in fact, simply wrong. It would be nice if Coyne would be clear and focused on that instead of cluttering the argument up with an attempt to link to the philosophical argument of compatibility.

Coyne then goes on to talk about specific incompatibilities of specific beliefs, but this, again, misses the point. You simply cannot make a general philosophical point by appealing to specific cases. What Coyne needs to establish is that religions, by necessity, must indeed arrive at contradictory results that cannot or should not be resolved. He does not in any way do that, likely because the idea is so staggeringly unlikely that no one who gives it even a moment’s reflection could take it seriously. It is far too easy to imagine religions that make no claims that could contradict science at any important level. All you’d need is a religion that says that it accepts all scientific fact and will adapt to it. So the general philosophical argument is difficult to make on these grounds, at least.

The next step for Coyne is to basically simply assert that the various patch-ups are admitting that it isn’t actually true. This isn’t, again, an attack on compatibility, but on correctness, except to the extent where he can cast doubt on methods religion can take to adapt itself to science. Unfortunately, neither the “The Bible is not a science textbook” nor metaphors establish the idea that those who use them are conceding that the Bible is not true. Return to the levels of explanation again. For the level that the Bible is purportedly at, do we need to get all the scientific facts right, or state them at all? Can we use metaphors instead? It certainly seems plausible that we could. Coyne can suggest that the Bible could have described it all like science now says things are, but would that have fulfilled the purpose? Gotten the meaning across any better? It’s unlikely. So these moves are not admissions that it isn’t true, but simply recognitions that literal truth is not required for the point. What Coyne is doing is like insisting that if I talk about someone walking to the store that if it turns out that person was never there then my thought experiment is simply untrue and therefore my whole philosophical project is just false. That’s ridiculous, and so we can see that the point here misses it.

But the metaphor example and the example of the Nicene Creed do potentially raise an important point, if Coyne fails to establish it. Coyne argues that any time something gets falsified it turns into metaphor, but some things cannot be turned into metaphor, like the things listed in the Nicene Creed. However, none of those involve conflicts with scientific fact either. It may well be the case that future scientific advances will absolutely eliminate the things Coyne talks about from the Nicene Creed, but that day is not today. If that happens, then there would be a conflict between science and that particular religion that may not be resolvable, and large numbers then may either change or drop their religion. But this does not indicate, again, a deep philosophical incompatibility; again, all this would demonstrate is that that specific religion may, one day, be absolutely determined to be false.

Coyne also raises the issue that while science gets answers, religion has not been able to answer any of its questions. When we consider that nothing else has been able to either without running into the same problems, we can reasonably ask how Coyne’s argument impacts Haught’s view. Haught considers these to be at different levels of explanation, and so that science can answer its questions while theology has had a harder time doesn’t mean anything unless science can answer them as well. And science dictating that there are no questions there — which is why they can’t be answered — doesn’t work because science can’t provide answers to questions beyond the scope of what it considers. Essentially, it would be like someone saying that Hamlet is the story of a man driven by the ghost of his father to kill his uncle and the tragedy that results insisting that people looking for deeper meaning are doing something wrong because they don’t at least currently agree on what that symbolic meaning actually is.

Coyne relies heavily on insisting that religion just “makes stuff up”, but even later when he tries to demonstrate that he provides little to no evidence of that. It’s a stylistic point based at least in part on a specific interpretation of a passage in the Bible, but it needs far more justification than Coyne gives it. One wonders if he considers any ruminations on meaning or anything not quite empirical to be “making stuff up” … and we can talk about art, philosophy and those other fields to make that seem unacceptably scientistic.

He goes on to talk about how convenient it is that the Ultimate being is “ungraspable”, without there being any argument made to establish that. Haught, however, argues precisely for why that is in his talk; the higher levels are incomprehensible from the lower ones, and Ultimate Meaning is clearly higher. Haught could be wrong, but in that context it is not ad hoc or tautological. He also relies on claims that something that is claimed to be invisible may equally well be non-existent, but this does not establish the “must” or “is” he needs to make his point.

Coyne then goes on about the problem of suffering and the problem of it inherent in evolution, but this only strikes at one God, the Abrahamic one. Yes, that is the one that Haught holds and so the one that Coyne focuses on, but even if the disproof worked it would not establish the overall philosophical point that they are inherently incompatible. At best, he’d get that that religion is wrong, not that science and religion are inherently incompatible.

Coyne then points out that science and religion have nothing to offer each other. But under Haught’s view of differing explanatory levels, they don’t have to. The “I want tea” explanation does not add anything to the physical explanation of boiling, nor does the physical explanation of boiling shed any light into the intentions of the person who put the tea on. So as an attack on Haught specifically it does nothing, and so it cannot establish an inherent incompatibility between science and religion since some religious views, at least, can escape it. And that’s even if it established it in the first place.

Coyne goes on to talk about the empirical authority science has, based on its successes. Which is fine, but does reduce to the question of whether or not the empirical is all there is, and if that’s the only interesting level of explanation. Philosophy specifically disagrees, and since Coyne is making a philosophical point here that does not necessarily allow for empirical resolutions he has to respect that, and cannot presume that being empirical means that only the things it says are right.

Towards the end, Coyne argues that the question is important because religion goes beyond simple private action, but into the public realm as well, mostly under its attachment to ethics. Coyne admits here that how science is used is not determined by science, but by things other than science, and religion is vying to be one of the things that determines that. But the problem here is that this nips his scientism in the bud; something other than science has to do this. What, then, is Coyne’s alternative? What alternative will he have that doesn’t fall into the dogma of thinking it has absolute truth in these fields and so making the same mistakes — or different ones from the same sort of cause — that he ascribes to religion? Also, considering the vast number of current ethical theories, why does he think that any alternative will get answers like science does, or get them validly? How does he know? Without a proven alternative, Coyne doesn’t have a real objection here; he doesn’t even know what would or wouldn’t be moral other than by relying on his own subjective intuitions,

Which carries over into his famous list of things that the Catholic Church is doing badly. Some of them are simply moral differences, and it isn’t clear which moral view is superior. For example, for divorce the Church does allow for marriages to be ended under extreme cases, but in theory those are supposed to be extreme (and they’ve done it for at least 25 years, since I learned about it in school as a child). For some of the others — like pedophilia and the cover-up — those are not the direct results of religion itself, but of human notions and failings. So this may be a reasonable attempt to establish why the question is important, but Coyne offers no scientific alternative and so we cannot see the way forward according to science … and so without a way forward, we have no reason to think that settling this in favour of science would be any better.

Ultimately, as stated earlier, the debate seems to boil down to correctness as opposed to compatibility. Haught needs to demonstrate that the levels of explanation he appeals to really do exist and are worth looking at. Coyne’s counters are all about religion being wrong as opposed to it being incompatible with science. Ultimately, here we have a remarkable lack of interesting clash … but a fair amount of interesting content.


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