Archive for April, 2010

Moral confusion indeed (Part 1) …

April 28, 2010

Sam Harris has posted a decently long attempt to clarify his position as expressed as TED.  Since I’ve been criticized for not getting it right and working on a simplified version of it, I thought it’d be worth checking it out.  And there are a number of issues in it that Harris simply doesn’t get right.

Link to the full thing is here:

I had originally meant to do this in one part (and have it all posted by now) but it’s already long and the last part is likely to be about as long as what I have now.  So here’s part 1, and I’ll try to have the second and last part up sometime after the weekend.

So, let’s start off with a fairly minor point:


Some of my critics got off the train before it even left the station, by defining “science” in exceedingly narrow terms. Many think that science is synonymous with mathematical modeling, or with immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn. There are many tools one must get in hand to think scientifically—ideas about cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc.—and many come long before one starts worrying about mathematical models or specific data.


This is in fact, a common problem when people with a scientific background or leanings try to get involved in things like this:  railing agaisnt overly narrow conceptions of science and countering with overly broad ones.  He says that science represents our best effort to understand what’s going on in our universe.  I claim that he’s wrong, and that it’s  philosophy that does that, and that there are distinct methods and methodologies between science and philosophy.  I would also disagree that when I walk about in every day life or when I’m sitting here, at work, trying to figure out why my code isn’t working the way I thought it should that I’m doing science, even though I’m certainly trying to figure things out in all cases.  Science, like it or not, has a particular methodology and a methodology that is formalized.  Peer review and having experiments be available for peer review and repetition are key parts of that.  And that’s what makes science good, and makes it superior to every day reasoning and makes it superior at studying the world itself — as opposed to concepts — than philosophy.  Whenever a scientist wants to imfringe on some other field and make it science, they almost always do so by taking away from science that which gives it its greatest successes.

(Some have objected in the past that my view would seem to make things like astronomy not sciences.  I don’t really see that as an objection, but would note that they rely on repeatable empirical observations.  Every day reasoning and philosophy don’t; everyday reasoning is empirical but doesn’t require repetition or validation by anyone else, and philosophy is not limited to the empirical.)

Harris also starts off with a comment on the objective/subjective distinction:


“There is also much confusion about what it means to speak with scientific “objectivity.” As the philosopher John Searle once pointed out, there are two very different senses of the terms “objective” and “subjective.” The first relates to how we know (i.e. epistemology), the second to what there is to know (i.e. ontology). When we say that we are reasoning or speaking “objectively,” we mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counter-arguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, etc. There is no impediment to our doing this with regard to subjective (i.e. third-person) facts. It is, for instance, true to say that I am experiencing tinnitus (ringing in my ears) at this moment. This is a subjective fact about me. I am not lying about it. I have been to an otologist and had the associated hearing loss in the upper frequencies in my right ear confirmed. There is simply no question that I can speak about my tinnitus in the spirit of scientific objectivity. And, no doubt, this experience must have some objective (third-person) correlates, like damage to my cochlea.  Many people seem to think that because moral facts relate entirely to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologically “subjective”), all talk of morality must be “subjective” in the epistemological sense (i.e. biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue.”


At first, I wasn’t sure why this bothered me, and on re-reading it I was going to pass it by.  But then I read Carroll’s comments and figured it out: the claims here are, in fact, missing the point about why people are upset about his linking morality to something that seems subjective in the first place.

Carroll actually defines what he means when he worries about it not being objective:


“There are not objective moral truths (where “objective” means “existing independently of human invention”) …”


I disagree with Carroll about there not being objective truths and disagree about his precise way of talking about “objective”.  However, since Harris spends most of the article talking about Carroll, it would have been a good idea for him to address this idea of “objective”, or even the idea of “objective” that causes problems for morality.  And the idea is essentially this: we don’t want it to be the case that morality is determined by the individual.  If I do A and believe it moral, and someone else does ~A and believes it moral, it had better be the case — if we’re going to be objectivists — that there is a fact of the matter about that, and that that fact is that at most one of us is right.  Tying morality to well-being or consciousness — which are both subjective and personal — risks making moral judgements personal, in the sense that only I can judge whether or not the action is moral.  Harris clearly doesn’t want to go that road, but his comments here don’t in any way say anything.  Even relativists allow that there may be an objective fact about morality: that it is relative.  That’s not what the debate is over.  The debate is over whether or not a rule like “Don’t lie” can ever be an objective fact.  Relativists say “No”.  Objectivists — and, I repeat, I am one — say “Yes”.  Both of us think that Harris might have — and probably does have — a problem.  The relativists think he might have a problem because he’s taking an objectivist stance but seems to be relying on a mechanism that proves them right.  The objectivists think he might have a problem because he’s taking an objectivist stance but seems to be relying on a mechanism that is subjective in a way that leads to relativism.

You don’t get around that by talking about epistemological objectivity and refusing to actually show how his “well-being” doesn’t lead to the problems the opponents seem to be worried about.


I’ve now had these basic objections hurled at me a thousand different ways—from YouTube comments that end by calling me “a Mossad agent” to scarcely more serious efforts by scientists like Sean Carroll which attempt to debunk my reasoning as circular or otherwise based on unwarranted assumptions. Many of my critics piously cite Hume’s is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time.  Indeed, Carroll appears to think that Hume’s lazy analysis of facts and values is so compelling that he elevates it to the status of mathematical truth: 

Attempts to derive ought from is [values from facts] are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they’ve done it, you don’t have to check their math; you know that they’ve made a mistake.

This is an amazingly wrongheaded response coming from a very smart scientist. I wonder how Carroll would react if I breezily dismissed his physics with a reference to something Robert Oppenheimer once wrote, on the assumption that it was now an unmovable object around which all future human thought must flow. Happily, that’s not how physics works. But neither is it how philosophy works. Frankly, it’s not how anything that works, works.”


Wait.  So Harris thinks that the “is/ought” distinction is just a left-over from Hume and so, what, that he doesn’t even have to address it?  That if someone says “You’re trying to use an is to get an ought” he can just say “And that’s perfectly acceptable, and if you don’t like it you’re just clinging to Hume”?  The is/ought distinction is a major piece of philosophy.  It’s brought up in multiple fields and is, in fact, generally considered reasonable.  Yes, some argue that it isn’t true, but for the most part if you walk into a discussion about morals and simply assume that is can imply ought, at the very least all of the philosophers will want you to have an explanation for how that can work.  If you don’t have one — and Harris doesn’t seem to have one, since he simply asserts that it’s bad philosophy — then be prepared to have then claim that you don’t know what you’re talking about.  It’d be like someone walking into a biology conference with a lovely theory on how things develop that completely ignores evolution, and then when challenged on that says “Well, evolution could be wrong”.  Yeah, maybe it could, and maybe the is/ought distinction is wrong, too, but simply asserting that it is doesn’t in any way help your case.

See, here’s why the is/ought distinction is credible.  Imagine that I’ve built a deck.  And you go and look at it, after it’s done.  Can you tell, just by looking at it, if I meant to build it that way, or if there were places where I made mistakes?  Is the play in the seats deliberate or a reflection of my poor building skills?  You don’t know.  You’d have to ask me.  But that’s going beyond an is to an ought, since I can tell you what it should have been because how it ought to be is judged — in that case — precisely by what I intended it to be.  So, you are no longer appealing to is, but are appealing to ought.

Just as you can’t determine ought from is for my deck, you can’t determine what ought to be considered moral from what is considered moral.  We can be wrong.  Society thought that slavery was okay at some point, and now we all think it immoral.  Which is is the right one?  You can’t tell by looking at what we thought, but instead have to reference a real, objective, ought standard.  So Harris owes us an explanation of where he gets his ought from, or how he manages to get that from is.  He hasn’t done so, and simply flatly denying the problem is not the way to defend himself on that score.

For your education, here’s Carroll’s actual point in context, where he definitely says more than Harris is addressing:


Harris is doing exactly what Hume warned against, in a move that is at least as old as Plato: he’s noticing that most people are, as a matter of empirical fact, more concerned about the fate of primates than the fate of insects, and taking that as evidence that we ought to be more concerned about them; that it is morally correct to have those feelings. But that’s a non sequitur. After all, not everyone is all that concerned about the happiness and suffering of primates, or even of other human beings; some people take pleasure in torturing them. And even if they didn’t, again, so what? We are simply stating facts about how human beings feel, from which we have no warrant whatsoever to conclude things about how they should feel.

Attempts to derive ought from is are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they’ve done it, you don’t have to check their math; you know that they’ve made a mistake. Or, to choose a different mathematical analogy, any particular judgment about right and wrong is like Euclid’s parallel postulate in geometry; there is not a unique choice that is compatible with the other axioms, and different choices could in principle give different interesting moral philosophies.”


Two times where Harris doesn’t address his opponent to address his supposed points. 


Carroll appears to be confused about the foundations of human knowledge. For instance, he clearly misunderstands the relationship between scientific truth and scientific consensus. He imagines that scientific consensus signifies the existence of scientific truth (while scientific controversy just means that there is more work to be done). And yet, he takes moral controversy to mean that there is no such thing as moral truth (while moral consensus just means that people are deeply conditioned for certain preferences). This is a double standard that I pointed out in my talk, and it clearly rigs the game against moral truth. The deeper issue, however, is that truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: It is, after all, quite possible for everyone to be wrong, or for one lone person to be right. Consensus is surely a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.”


Okay, so my question is: where did he say that?  The closest I get on a skimming is this:


Morality and science operate in very different ways. In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse. If I believe in the Big Bang model and you believe in the Steady State cosmology, I can point to the successful predictions of the cosmic background radiation, light element nucleosynthesis, evolution of large-scale structure, and so on. Eventually you would either agree or be relegated to crackpot status. But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale — but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it. Who decides what is a successful life? It’s ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.”


This seems pretty reasonable.  Tying it back to the “is/ought” distinction that Harris pointedly ignores, Carroll’s claim can, I think, be summarized as “Science wants is, and thus once we get is we’re done.  Morality wants ought, and so getting is does not mean getting ought.”  Harris’ comments don’t address that.  At all.

This is totally unacceptable in any sort of rational reply.  I shouldn’t have to read Carroll’s post to get Caroll’s objections, or at least a good idea of them (there could still be some misunderstandings).  But it doesn’t seem to me that Carroll is actually saying what Harris thinks he’s saying.  So far, this response is utterly vacuous and misses all the critical, key points that Harris does need to address.  And it doesn’t seem to be the fault of who he’s replying to.

I’m trying to be kind, but it is frustrating when he seems to not only be ignoring thousands of years of philosophy, but even what his opponents really are saying.  And at least the first one will not get any better.


Strangely, Carroll also imagines that there is greater consensus about scientific truth than about moral truth.  Taking humanity as a whole, I am quite certain that he is mistaken about this. There is no question that there is a greater consensus that cruelty is generally wrong (a common moral intuition) than that the passage of time varies with velocity (special relativity) or that humans and lobsters share an ancestor (evolution). Needless to say, I’m not inclined to make too much of this consensus, but it is worth noting that scientists like Carroll imagine far more moral diversity than actually exists. While certain people believe some very weird things about morality, principles like the Golden Rule are very well subscribed. If we wanted to ground the epistemology of science on democratic principles, as Carroll suggests we might, the science of morality would have an impressive head start over the science of physics. [1]”


The footnote is more interesting:


Perhaps Carroll will want to say that scientists agree about science more than ordinary people agree about morality (I’m not even sure this is true). But this is an empty claim, for at least two reasons: 1) it is circular, because anyone who insufficiently agrees with the principles of science as Carroll knows them, won’t count as a scientist in his book (so the definition of “scientist” is question begging). 2) Scientists are an elite group, by definition. “Moral experts” would also constitute an elite group, and the existence of such experts is completely in line with my argument.”


So, let’s test Harris’ theory by comparing scientific experts (scientists) with moral experts.  I’ll make the totally reasonable claim that the closest thing we have to moral experts are moral philosophers.  So, let’s look at this reasonably: how much do moral philosophers agree on philosophy?

Well, anyone who has ever taken an introductory class in moral philosophy should be able to answer this: hardly at all.  Just in my limited study, here is a list of all the moral systems that are contradictory and incompatible and yet are still considered potentially valid:  Aristotelean, Stoic, Hedonism, Epicureanism, Betham’s Utilitarianism, Mill’s Utilitarianism, Kantian, Rawlsian, Hobbesian Social Contract, and Evolutionary.  And I know I’m missing some.  And I have an idea for one that isn’t on the list yet.  So how in the world could you ever conclude that moral experts agree more than scientific experts?  The Golden Rule is not a generally accepted principle in moral philosophy, as it is disagreed with and in some cases considered inadequate.  While moral intuitions do play a role and are testable — and thus are things people can agree on — no one says that just because we have an intuition that X is moral it means that X really is moral and that any moral system where X is immoral is wrong.  And vice versa.

I’m not sure why Harris is going on about consensus, since it doesn’t even seem to be Carroll’s point and even if it was that’s a point that would be better left to the side as something that no one really need consider.  But if he’s going to take it seriously, it would be nice if he would seriously examine the actual work on the subject to realize that there really isn’t all that much consensus at the level that he wants.  And remember that he himself wants to appeal to moral expertise over every day moral reasoning, so he’s gonna havet’a address how it is that moral experts can’t agree on all of this.

Okay, so now we get into sections where Harris might actually start to, you know, prove his claims.  I’m really looking forward to this ….


There are many things wrong with this approach. The deepest problem is that it strikes me as patently mistaken about the nature of reality and about what we can reasonably mean by words like “good,” “bad,” “right,” and “wrong.” In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What’s the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.” Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here’s the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is—again, by definition—the least interesting thing in the universe.

So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already far too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of values does not appear to me to be an arbitrary starting point.”


Annnnnnd … I’m disappointed.

Harris seems to be trying to derive his entire view from a relation to consciousness.  That should mean that he takes a well-defined and fairly strong view of what it means for values to relate to consciousness.  But note that here he uses all sorts of vague words around this.  He starts from “consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value” which says nothing about what that means but seems nicely strong, and then asks what would happen if someone said “No, morality is not related to consciousness at all”.  And this just dismisses that as not being of interest to anyone, as if he doesn’t even need to argue for that.  What gives?  Does he simply mean that, say, any moral code has to be something that conscious beings can think and understand?  Well, duh, but so what?  That doesn’t mean that the properties of consciousness itself  have any relevance to what is or isn’t moral, or that we should start from consciousness as opposed to starting from, say, the definition of morality to figure out what is or isn’t moral.  In short, his last sentence isn’t supported by his claim, unless he can actually argue for and explain in what sense morals have to relate to consciousness.  Which he never does.  So I’m going to go with “Conscious beings have to be able to understand it” and then claim that that can relate to no actual consciousness at all of anything in the world, but only of rules and reason.  Which will, of course, demolish the idea that somehow “well-being” is the determining factor, but if he doesn’t like it he’s free to define his terms and argue for them.


Now that we have consciousness on the table, my further claim is that wellbeing is what we can intelligibly value—and “morality” (whatever people’s associations with this term happen to be) really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the wellbeing of conscious creatures. And, as I pointed out at TED, all the people who claim to have alternative sources of morality (like the Word of God) are, in every case that I am aware of, only concerned about wellbeing anyway: They just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell). And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the wellbeing of conscious creatures—are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of wellbeing in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I’ve read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit). The doubts that immediately erupt on this point seem to invariably depend on extremely unimaginative ideas about what the term “wellbeing” could mean, altogether, or on mistaken beliefs about what science is.”


Well, we’ve still got the vagueness in play: what does he mean by “well-being”?  See, the Stoics could be said to have based their view on “well-being”, as they defined it as being the proper goal for humans.  From there, they got that it had to be reason itself and actually defined it so that emotion and actual benefit to the person — and even a happy life for that or any other person — were irrelevant to morality.  This is not a stance that, I think, Harris would buy … but it fits in with his poorly defined idea of “well-being”.  Aristotle was similar.  Kant did “duty” from reason.  And so on.  Before Harris can make any claims about how other notions are parasitic on “well-being”, he needs to tell us what “well-being” is.  This is what he should start with and beat us over the head with repeatedly; it is not something that he can leave for his book.

So, would a view like the Stoics be a candidate for being based on his view of “well-being” or not?  If yes, how?  If not, why not?

Defining your terms is the first step, not the last one.


“Similarly, there are people who claim to be highly concerned about “morality” and “human values,” but when we see that they are more concerned about condom use than they are about child rape (e.g. the Catholic Church), we should feel free to say that they are misusing the term “morality,” or that their values are distorted. As I asked at TED, how have we convinced ourselves that on the subject of morality, all views must count equally?”


Here’s where my being an objectivist — but one that holds that the is/ought distinction is valid — comes into play.  I do not, of course, assert that all views must count equally.  However, I will state that if all you have to offer are your views and you have not proven that your views are correct, then your view is no better a priori than anyone else’s.  Your view needs to be justified by solid, rational argument, and when someone asks how you decide between cases of conflicting moral views your answer had better not be “Well, some aren’t right”.  Yes, some aren’t right.  Which ones?  And how do you that the view that you think is right is really right?  Why should anyone accept that their view is wrong if you consider it wrong?

You prove this by defining your terms and working through logical arguments to show that, yes, you’re right and they’re wrong. Harris bobs and weaves, picking out one example, judging it by his own standards, and then saying “Well, see, we can say they’re wrong”.  No, you can’t say they’re wrong unless you can prove it, and to do that you have to have the same moral goals and principles, and if you don’t then, well, be prepared for a long, pointless discussion on it.  This sort of problem is what makes people think relativism is true, not because people don’t agree but because no one can find moral principles that everyone rationally agrees upon.  I disagree with them, but to dismiss it so casually is to disregard, again, thousands of years of moral philosophy.


“Everyone has an intuitive “physics,” but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter), and only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. Everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much intuitive morality is wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective wellbeing) and only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal wellbeing. Yes, we must have a goal to define what counts as “right” or “wrong” in a given domain, but this criterion is equally true in both domains.”


1) He misrepresents the goal of science, since the goal is, in fact, just to figure out how things are.  In fact, Kant argued rather well that even if it turned out that there really wasn’t matter, we could still do science as is, since it would describe what we experience and could apply happily to that domain. 

2) Moral experts would question Harris’ goal, so he needs to prove the goal first, and then he can appeal to intuitions being wrong to explain certain ideas.


So what about people who think that morality has nothing to do with anyone’s wellbeing? I am saying that we need not worry about them—just as we don’t worry about the people who think that their “physics” is synonymous with astrology, or sympathetic magic, or Vedanta. We are free to define “physics” any way we want. Some definitions will be useless, or worse. We are free to define “morality” any way we want. Some definitions will be useless, or worse—and many are so bad that we can know, far in advance of any breakthrough in the sciences of mind, that they have no place in a serious conversation about human values.”


See, you have to prove that well-being the right goal before you can just dismiss people who don’t agree with your goal.  Harris is going about this backwards: when asked to prove or support his goal, he dismisses them out of hand.  Scientists at least should do the opposite: dismiss it only when they can’t prove their stance.

Would this mean that I can just dismiss Harris, if I wanted to be scientific about morality?


“One of my critics put the concern this way: “Why should human wellbeing matter to us?” Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and profoundly stupid questions. No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying.”


Well, see, for logical coherence, what we have are definitions that describe certain behaviour: they produce true statements if all the premises are true.  You can ask why that matters, and the existence of fuzzy logic, inductive logic, and even abduction are really good examples of what we get when we do.  But, if I want a deductively valid statement, then the laws are designed to fulfill that goal.  Yes, the goal is an axiom, but it’s both something that people can reject and is something that people can accept.  I’m not sure what he’s getting at with historical veracity; if you’re doing history, you care because you want to make true statements about history.  As for experimental evidence, we care because it is a method for getting at a goal that we, through science, agree is good.  But Harris is wading into an existing debate, that of morality, and simply asserting that “maximizing well-being is the defining goal”.  Many people have disagreed with him, and some have probably agreed with him (if he knew what he was talking about).  Why should we accept that his goal is the overarching, overwhelming, determining one?

Let me put it this way:  I accept that a good moral code will probably increase the well-being of everyone.  However, I consider that tangential; it is not the case that a good moral code will be a good moral code because it increases overall well-being, but that a good moral code will have as a side-effect the increase of overall well-being.  What can Harris muster against this claim?  All his is evidence will conform, and to attack my point is going to get into a debate over axioms … unless he can prove his case.  (Or I can prove mine, I suppose).  Harris, then, needs to prove his case.  But instead he merely dismisses all opposition.

Let’s look at transitivity.  It is, in fact, quite possible to define a mathematical system where = is not transitive, and A = B and B = C does not imply that A = C.  Someone who defined such a system would not be an imbecile; they would simply be using a different mathematical system.  The imbecile in this story would be the person who insists that their system isn’t the right one because it isn’t transitive.  Guess what side Harris is on?

(Note that the person with the intransitive system would be an imbecile if they tried to use their intransitivity in a system that defined = as transitive.  So it goes both ways.)

Coyne on “What Darwin Got Wrong”

April 23, 2010

Jerry Coyne has done a joint review of Dawkins’ “The Greatest Show on Earth” and Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s “What Darwin Got Wrong”.  I’m not all that concerned with Dawkins’ book, and think that it might go too deep for my limited interests.  However, after reading Coyne’s review, I am interested in “What Darwin Got Wrong”, for two reasons:

1) Because after reading the review I think they might have a point.

2) Because after reading the review I wonder if they’ve also gone insane.

It’s never good to judge a book by the writings of someone who has a stake in them being wrong, since all sorts of misinterpretations can occur.   So, to tell if 2) is right, I have to read it myself to make sure that the insane claims really are insane.  But I can deal a bit with 1), by looking at what Coyne says about it and seeing if his replies might make sense against insane points but not against sane points (we might end up agreeing on the same points, oddly enough).

Coyne’s “ad” for his review is here:

The review — and it was most gracious of the magazine to allow it to be put up for free on-line, at Coyne’s insistence, so kudos to both — is here:

(We start on page 3 because that’s where I’m going to start; the previous two pages talk more about Dawkins’ book which I don’t think I’d object much to, so …)

So, let’s start with Coyne’s criticisms:


“… let’s examine F&P’s claims. These fall into two groups. The first is that scientists have recently discovered a lot of things about genetics and development that make natural selection look ineffective:

        “Contrary to traditional opinion, it needs to be emphasized that natural selection among        traits  generated at random cannot by itself be the basic principle of evolution. Rather, there must be strong, often decisive, endogenous constraints and hosts of regulations on the phenotypic options that exogenous selection operates on.”[reformatting of the quote is my screw-up; this section is a quote from “What Darwin Got Wrong”]

In other words, Darwin’s assertion that species are “quite plastic” is wrong: organisms are so constrained by their biological nature that they’re not free to change, even if it would be good for them to do so.”


Whoa.  Wait.  That’s not an “in other words”.  That doesn’t seem to be what F &P-P (Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini) are actually saying.  In fact, just from that quote they seem to be saying the precise opposite: that in order for any sort of external selection to work, there has to be constraints on the organism, and so you can’t just get random changes selected for.  This seems pretty reasonable, as if it was completely random changes you could get an awful lot of changes that either didn’t relate to the previous ones that were successful or that were, in fact, fatal, and even fatal to a more developed organism.  And it seems to me that this notion of constraints is, in fact, precisely what Dawkins uses to deny that natural selection is actually “random”; you can’t get any change, but can only get changes that are allowed by the DNA expressions and structures of the organism.  You don’t just get wings, but you first get small changes, selected for, that can develop over time into radical changes, but it doesn’t just happen at random.

Now, how much this impacts the ideas on either side is an open question, but I don’t get a good feeling when even I — and, I admit, I’m not an expert in biology and, quite frankly, hate doing it, personally — can look at a quote and think that the interpretation of it is somewhat lacking.


Let’s look at one of these: phenotypic plasticity. This refers to the ability of a phenotype–an observable trait or characteristic of an organism–to change within a single generation in response to environmental fluctuations. This is what happens, for instance, when you get a tan. If you have an outdoor cat, its fur gets thicker in winter. The plumage of Arctic animals like the ptarmigan, ermine and Arctic hare changes color from brown to white as winter comes on. Even the lowly brussels sprout has sophisticated plasticity: when it detects that a sprout-eating butterfly has laid eggs on the plant, it changes its leaf chemistry to attract parasitic wasps that destroy those eggs.

F&P imply that somehow–they’re not clear about how–this ability to undergo adaptive developmental change within a generation prevents natural selection from causing genetic change between generations. But that isn’t the case. In fact, far from being an impediment to natural selection, the ability of an individual to adapt to a changing environment is a product of natural selection! Individuals who can tan in the sun (and thus prevent melanomas) have an advantage over those whose pigmentation is fixed. Cats are better off if the length of their fur suits them to the seasons. Genes that are able to respond to predictable variation in the environment will always outcompete those that produce only a fixed (and hence episodically maladaptive) trait.”


This might be a fair interpretation of their claim, and if this is their claim then, yes, they’re nuts.  But let me posit this: Imagine that we have a beneficial trait — say an increase in brain size — that mutates into an organism.  But, just by sheer “luck”, it happens to only propogate amongst cat-like creatures that don’t have the ability for their fur to grow thicker by the seasons.  Now, from what Coyne has just said above, we know that growing thicker fur confers an advantage.  Does it confer a greater advantage at that moment than increases in brain size?  If it does, then selection will weed it out, not because it isn’t advantageous but because it is correlated with another trait that isn’t advantageous.  Now, let’s imagine another trait, like having lighter coloured fur (so it stands out more in the environment).  But let’s say that it happens to be the case that it mainfests in the animals whose fur can thicken.  It, then, should survive as long as it is not so deterimental to the organism that it drops its survival below that of the animals that do not have the “thicken fur” trait but do have the “brain size increase” trait.

Now, it would be a fair argument to say that this case is fairly contrived, and I concede that.  My concern is that it seems to me that, in principle — at least at this time — you couldn’t tell the difference.  Why is this a problem?  Well, it means, to me, that attempts — particularly problematic in evolutionary psychology (which is where I encountered and hated it), but which seem to be common in everything dealing with evolution — to explain a trait by assuming it is beneficial and then finding an explanation for how it could have been beneficial seem pretty dangerous, and that if there is disagreement it is really hard — if not impossible — to tell who’s right.  If someone claims that a trait is a free-rider, and other people claim that it has benefits (but don’t agree on the benefits) at least for traits developed over the long term we really don’t have a way to settle that.  That’s something that should give biologists some pause, at least.  (I’ll address the examples where we can, later.  I tend to like to go in order, which can be confusing but makes my life easier [grin]).


Indeed, virtually none of the biologists who study the “constraints” described by F&P share their dim view of natural selection. That’s because, over and over again, selection has wrought the most improbable and unpredictable changes in animals and plants. F&P claim, for example, that selection could never produce winged pigs because of developmental constraints: “Pigs don’t have wings because there is no place on pigs to put them. There are all sorts of ways you’d have to change a pig if you wanted to add wings. You’d have to do something to its weight, and its shape, and its musculature, and its nervous system, and its bones; to say nothing of retrofitting feathers.”

Haven’t F&P heard of bats? Bats evolved from small four-legged mammals, probably resembling shrews. You could say the same thing about shrewlike beasts that F&P did about pigs: how could they possibly evolve wings? And yet they did: selection simply retooled the forelegs into wings, along with modifying the animal’s weight, shape, musculature, nervous system and bones for flying (no feathers needed). One of the great joys of being a biologist is learning about the many species in nature whose evolution would appear, a priori, impossible.”


Okay, see, I’ve read about the “pig” example, and every time I’ve read it I’ve ended up interpreting it as really this argument: “It’s not the case that pigs don’t have wings because wings aren’t beneficial to pigs, or that there was some ‘have wings’ trait that was selected out by natural selection.  Pigs don’t have wings because they’ve never, ever, exhibited a trait that could lead them to wings.  Pigs just don’t have any ‘wing-creating’ trait, and never exhibited one.  Selection only works on what can be selected for, and if a trait — even in its basic stages — doesn’t manifest it will never be selected for, no matter how beneficial it would be for the pig to fly”.  And this seems pretty reasonable to me.  Any attempt to say “pigs don’t have wings because there is/was no benefit to them developing wings” is, in fact, neither empirically nor philosophically sound.

But this in no way discredits the theory about bats.  We can in fact presume that some precursor of wings did develop in bats, and in some way that filtered through a number of adaptations until they had full wings.  Whether or not all of those — or even most of those — adaptations were selected for as opposed to being free riders seems, to me, to be an open question, but that bats did develop wings and did so gradually from shrew-like creatures is, to me, undeniable.

So, if F & P-P really do say what Coyne interprets them as saying, they’re insane … but that’s not how I’ve taken that every time I’ve read it.  I’ll have to read the book to say for certain.


“But wait a minute. If you translate that last sentence into layman’s English, here’s what it says: “Since it’s impossible to figure out exactly which changes in organisms occur via direct selection and which are byproducts, natural selection can’t operate.” Clearly, F&P are confusing our ability to understand how a process operates with whether it operates. It’s like saying that because we don’t understand how gravity works, things don’t fall.”


If F & P-P are really saying that nothing ever gets selected for on the basis of benefit, then they’re insane.  But I think the biggest issue is this: how can you say that natural selection is responsible for our traits when you don’t know how many of our traits were propogated through the species because they were beneficial or because they were free riders on other things?  If, say, 90% of our traits were either free riders or free riders until an environmental change made them beneficial, you can’t say that things like: brain size, consciousness, eye sight, bipedalism, opposable thumbs, etc , etc are the way they are because of natural selection, since any and all of them might have developed as free riders.  And if it could be the case that the vast majority of our traits could owe most or all of their presence to free riding, doesn’t that make natural selection less important, and other factors more so?  And so shouldn’t we stop just looking for benefits to explain traits?

Now, Coyne does have a reply to this.  Before I discuss it, I want to make it clear that I don’t deny that traits can persist and propogate because they are selected for on the basis of benefit to reproduction.  There are clearly some cases where this occurs, and Coyne’s examples may well be of such cases.  The issue, for me, really is how we determine this generally, not in specific cases.  If Coyne can prove that a specific case is certainly chosen by natural selection, then I’m more than happy to grant that case (and hope that F & P-P would as well).

So, the peppered moth:


Here’s a more realistic example. Perhaps the most famous case of natural selection in action is the color change that occurred in Britain’s “peppered moth” over the past 150 years. Before the Industrial Revolution, these moths had white wings speckled lightly with black, although avid collectors found a few all-black mutants. As pollution from manufacturing increased the concentration of suspended particles in the air, black moths became more numerous, and eventually predominated in many places. When clean air laws reduced Britain’s pollution in the 1950s, the evolution of wing color reversed, and in most places the white color once again became common. The difference between white and black moths was shown to reside at a single gene.

What caused these evolutionary changes? There were several theories. One was that the target of selection wasn’t the moth’s color but the survival of caterpillars that, while not showing the color differences of adults, happened to be affected by the same gene. Another suggestion was that natural selection acted on color: perhaps sharp-sighted birds picked off moths whose color contrasted with that of the trees on which they rested. In unpolluted woods, lichen-covered trees are light-colored but turned black as pollution increased. This would give a selective advantage first to the dark-colored moths and then, as pollution abated, to light-colored moths.

F&P would presumably counsel us to give up at this point, since we can’t, they say, distinguish between the counterfactuals of selection “for” larval survival and “for” adult color. But we can! Breeding experiments in the laboratory showed that the survival of caterpillars couldn’t explain the increase and subsequent decline of the black form. In contrast, field experiments that involved observing predation on dead moths of different colors fastened to trees of different colors, and on live moths of different colors released in unpolluted woods, showed that selection on color was strong, easily able to explain the evolutionary changes observed in nature.”


I think this is a pretty strong case, so let me nitpick that last statement a bit: his claim is that the observations showed that colour is able to explain it.  Does that mean that that is what happened?  What if there was an unobserved gene that simply allowed black moths to better survive in polluted areas than the whiter ones?  You might still see selection by predation, but that wouldn’t be what was doing most of the work, even if the claim was that it was strong enough to do so.  How would we test this claim?

And this is in a case where we have lots of readily available data, and one could still raise — pointless, I admit — doubts.  Now, let’s take the list of traits that humans or even pigs have.  For how many of them could we do that sort of analysis?  How many of them can we prove exist only because of a benefit?  The stegosaurus example is not the only case where we really have no way of proving it, one way or the other.

See, there’s an additional problem here.  To be selected for, a trait has to develop.  And so someone might be able to find a case where that trait did develop because of a benefit.  But it has to be in the gene pool first, which means it has to a) manifest and b) survive.  Take our black-coloured moths.  There were black-coloured moths — as far as I know — before the industrial evolution.  It wasn’t the most common trait, but it was there.  So why was it there?  Because it benefitted?  Unlikely, and absolutely false if Coyne’s explanation is the right one.  So black colouring, then, was a free rider that simply happened to end up beneficial when the environment changed.  So, then, it is reasonable to ask what the peppered moth is an example of?  The trait is not explained by natural selection, but the numbers of individuals with that trait is.  I suspect that F & P-P want explanations for why they have that trait (black-colouring) and don’t really care about why most moths don’t exhibit that one.  And the explanation given, it seems to me, doesn’t explain how they got that trait in the first place (and, interestingly, seems to work against it).

So, if we have a trait that is bad enough to limit the number of organisms but survives anyway, then it seems that “selection” didn’t operate on that trait.  How many of these traits do we have?  I don’t know, but I’m not convinced that anyone else does either.

A quick final comment about artificial versus natural selection.  Artificial selection dodges all of these issues because it selects for specific traits: the breeding and culling are aimed precisely at getting that specific trait to manifest.  Natural selection, as F & P-P point out, does not.  It aims at getting an organism that reproduces.  Because of this, artifical selection as an explanation for why a specific trait is as it is is a good and reasonable and testable and settleable explanation.  But with natural selection, all we have is “It lived and reproduced”.  We don’t know why.  We don’t know if it was the trait that we are looking at that made the difference or if it played any real role at all in the survival and reproduction.  There is an intensely complicated relationship between all the traits in an organism and its environment that confuses things.

In essence, you can’t apply natural selection explanations to one trait alone.   You always have to consider all the traits and the envionment the organism it was in to get an explanation for any particular trait.  If F & P-P want to simply draw attention to that, I’m on their side.  If they want to claim that therefore natural selection never happens, they’re insane.  And without invoking the Fallacy of the Golden Mean, from both my experience and from my reading I strongly suspect that the real point is somewhere in between.  Heuristically speaking, it usually is.

TV shows on DVD and me …

April 19, 2010

I’ve liked watching TV shows on DVD for quite a while, but it was only recently that I discovered that I liked them better than actually watching TV.  Who’da thunk it?  So, in about the fall, I decided that I could replace my cable subscription with my decently sized and ever-growing collection of TV shows on DVD.  The benefits — in my opinion — were:

1) There’s always something that I want to watch available when I want to watch TV.   That includes Sunday afternoons and early evenings.  That wasn’t the case with cable.

2) Since I can watch series over and over again, it’s actually more cost effective.  Cable was something like $50 a month, and so in 5 or 6 months I could get one series … which I would easily watch for that many months, with repeats.  They also only get better in terms of entertainment hours per dollar.  I’m down to about $1 – 2 an hour on some of my favourite series.

3) You can watch a number of episodes all in a row, meaning that if you’d really like to see how that mini-arc turns out you only have to wait for at most a day or two, and not several weeks.  Sometimes you can watch the entire thing in one day.

The biggest problem is that it doesn’t work well for really mindless entertainment: if you have a half-hour or an hour to kill you can’t just toss it on and find something for noise.

So, when I decided this last fall, I also had another conundrum: what to do about the PS2.  See, I was greatly underusing my PS2 until I offloaded it to a TV cart I have hooked up to an old Amiga monitor, which let me watch TV while playing on the PS2.  I didn’t play the PS2 with DVDs, but I still want to use the thing.  So what I did is set-up the PS2 — still on the cart — in my spare room, facing a desk where my laptop sits.  I play DVDs on the laptop to give a decent background while playing on the PS2.  It’s working pretty well.

Thus, my new page, which is probably not interesting to anyone.  I’m just going to put up what I’m watching in case anyone finds it interesting, or wants to watch what I watch and give suggestions.  I’ll try to keep it updated, and it’ll even help me remember what I want to do.  So, everyone wins.

Myers’ Sunday Sacrilege …

April 19, 2010

I probably could start a series talking about these, but then again I don’t necessarily have a lot to say about them.  This one, especially.  I have a couple of comments but don’t want to wade into details of advertising and why everyone lies in advertising (almost certainly even the people Myers likes) and don’t care much for that sort of debate over the abortion issue anyway.  So, just a few thoughts:

Let’s start with the cracker.  Hey, in this case he’s talking about it, so it’s a good time for me to comment on it.


There they go again, making my point for me. I do not think Christians or crackers are sacred, not because I devalue human life, but because “sacred” is an invalid rationale for doing so; the value comes from the individuals themselves, not from some imaginary decree from a nonexistent ghostly entity. It is also a great shame that Catholics so obliviously and so willingly equate themselves with crackers; they assume that because I would abuse a piece of bread, I would treat human beings in exactly the same way…apparently because they think that cracker is just as precious as a person.

That’s a rather gross and dangerous error. A cracker is a flat piece of ground up vegetable matter, baked and processed, mostly inert, sold with the intent of being further broken down in someone’s digestive system. Throwing it in the trash in no way implies that a complex and dynamic being can be similarly disposed of, or be casually destroyed and consumed. Sane people have an appropriate perspective on the relative importance of foodstuffs and human beings. Crazy people can’t tell the difference.”


I do agree that the claim that Myers would like to hammer nails into all Christians is, at best, an amazingly strong case of hyperbole.  That being said, I didn’t like the action he did take and don’t like the stance he takes here on “sacred”, because he seems to contradict himself.

So what didn’t I like?

First, I didn’t like the underlying message he was trying to get across, repeated here.  To him, the Host is nothing more than a cracker, basic foodstuffs, and so it isn’t sacred … no matter how much Catholics think it is.  But the problem with this can be seen by referencing his own statement: ” … but because “sacred” is an invalid rationale for doing so; the value comes from the individuals themselves, …”.  And yes, it does, but perhaps not in the sense he thinks.  Sacredness or value comes from the impressions of people; what is valued by a person is, in fact, nothing more than what they value.  And that decision is personal, something that each person has to decide for themselves.  When this story first broke, I tried to explain the issue and why this wasn’t a reasonable move by comparing it to the glasses worn by Yomiko Readman in the anime series “Read or Die”.  She wears glasses, but doesn’t need to wear them.  She wears them because they remind her of someone that she cared about.  Now, imagine that someone decided that they didn’t think that that was reasonable, and so deliberately went out of their way to break them to teach her that glasses are things that correct eyesight, and don’t have any value outside of that.  Would we think that right?

Most of the responses I got were variations on: “That’s different; it’s reasonable to value glasses that strongly for that reason”.  To which my reply was: “But that’s my point.  You feel that the person who tried to do that would be doing something that isn’t acceptable because you can understand why she feels that way.  You don’t think that for the ‘cracker’.  But it isn’t any more acceptable to deliberately destroy something that someone values just because you don’t agree and/or can’t understand why they do value it.”

And that’s the key here: Catholics value the Host.  They think it sacred.  Myers has a point that the people involved in the original incident over-reacted.  But, then, when informed that he shouldn’t take it out of the church the student should have simply returned it, said he didn’t know, and apologized (which I don’t think he did).  Again, the over-reaction was there, did exist, and should have been challenged, but you don’t do that by completely ignoring the fact that the people do grant it value just because you don’t.

Which leads to my second problem:  the method was a terrible way to get across the point that at least some Catholics were over-reacting to the incident.  This is pretty much because of the first problem: Myers was treating it like he thought it should be treated and basically ignoring how Catholics actually did feel about it.  By treating it so cavalierly, he didn’t get people thinking about whether or not they were taking it too seriously, but instead just a) got them mad and b) gave them justifications for thinking that going after the student who took it out of the church was a good idea.  After all, look why Myers did to it, that thing we value.

When this came out, an idea that I was pondering — but would never implement, because I ain’t an activist — was to set-up outside that church with something like M&Ms or Reese Peanut Butter cups or maybe best of all, nicely baked cupcakes.  Offer them for free, but insist that they have to be eaten right there, at that time.  Inevitably, someone would ask to take some home for their wife or kids or neighbours.  Tell them “No, it has to be eaten here”.  Inevitably, someone would get upset and say that that was a stupid restriction and that this was being taken way too seriously … at which point, point out that now they know how that student and most atheists felt.

Now, some would insist that this wasn’t the same thing, and there might be an argument that it isn’t.  But, at least, you’d get them thinking.  They wouldn’t be getting mad at you for not respecting them and their right to value what they want to value, for whatever reasons they want to value, but would instead have to think — one hopes — about how things look to people who don’t share their values.  Which could lead to an understanding of why you don’t impose value on anyone else.

And making them think about and grasp that people value different things and that there’s nothing wrong with that is a much better lesson than them getting upset because someone wants to graphically display that they don’t share your values because they think them stupid.  The latter leads to fights, the former might even lead some of the Catholics going after the student to — gasp — apologize.

Two more minor points:


“A couple of additional points: notice how clever I was in not saying precisely when the fetus becomes a human being? That’s because there is no sharp magical border, it’s grey and fuzzy all the way.”


This is the reason I had to make the previous post on his views of morality before doing this one, because there he talks about cases where science can settle facts and act as a cop in some of those matters, and here where a scientific fact would be useful he backs away.  While there would be some philosophical issues involved in the morality of abortion, I think it would be pretty safe to say that if science took a stand on when a fetus counts as a human being the law at least could say — with some philosophical justification — that since it isn’t in the business of enforcing morality in all cases and since it needs an objective measure to judge by, the scientific definition is the best it can do.  Science might even be able to give us something that would show up on an ultrasound so that doctors know when they can’t.  And we could add in exemptions for “life of the mother” and possibly “case of rape”.  So it’s curious why science has so little to say here, when it seems like if it did say something it would be of enormous benefit.

The last point relates to why Myers doesn’t want to say:


“That’s a social and personal decision. Don’t even ask me when — I’m a guy. I don’t have the same responsibilities as a pregnant woman, so I don’t get the same privileges.

Also, some people are ‘uneasy’ about the whole abortion thing. Fine; don’t get one. Your personal feelings of yuckiness shouldn’t be a factor in deciding what other people do. Churches make me queasy, but I’m not planning to criminalize attendance.”


This is something that needs to be settled at the social and legal level, but I disagree that women — since they get pregnant — are the ones who should decide this or have any special privilege in this debate.  I would counter that we don’t usually let people decide when something can be damaged, harmed, or destroyed by the people who might gain a benefit from doing so.  We’re supposed to be doing this objecively and rationally no?   Well, then, what does the experience of pregnancy give rationally to this debate?  Either we can determine this rationally by appealing to the facts – -at which point their personal experiences are either proveable facts or should be ignored — or else you want to settle this irrationally.

I think we need to settle the abortion question based on good, solid, objective philosophy and law.  Giving women special privilege because of their emotional connection and experiences belies that.  And I don’t see how anyone can posit that I’m wrong and still to maintain that their position is rational.

Myers on morality …

April 19, 2010

P.Z. Myers has posted some answers to some questions that he was asked before a debate.  They’re actually pretty good; he’s going to have me not disliking him if he keeps this up.  But I do have some problems with them.

First, ignore the reference to the other debate and Fox News.  I’ve never watched Fox News, don’t care about it, and about the only reason I can think of to pay any attention to it can be summed up in a thousand groups on yahoo and other picture blogs (searching for “newswomen” and “legs”, specifically).

So, onto the actual answers to the questions:


1. Can science provide a morality to change the world?


Science merely describes what is, not what should be, and it also takes a rather universal view: science as science takes no sides on matters relevant to a particular species, and would not say that an ape is more important than a mouse is more important than a rock. Don’t ask science to tell you what to do when making some fine-grained moral decision, because that is not what science is good at.

What science is, is a policeman of the truth. What it’s very good at is telling you when a moral decision is being made badly, in opposition to the facts. If you try to claim that homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural, science can provide you a long list of animals that practice homosexuality freely, naturally, and with no ill consequences.”


Well, kudos for not trying to argue that science can or generally does do morality.  There might be people who argue that, but at least Myers is essentially saying “Not my concern”.  Where he loses me, though, is when he talks about science being “a policeman of truth”.  He’s right that science is really good at figuring out strict empirical facts, and so will be brought to bear when the determination of moral/immoral relies on that.  So his abortion example seems, to me, to work quite well.  The problem is with his homosexuality example, because of additional issues that come into play.

The claim is that someone says “Homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural”.  Myers retorts that science can settle it by pointing to animals in nature that are also homosexual and suffer no ill consequences.  Well, other than not reproducing, one presumes, which given evolution seems pretty bad.  However, that’s not really the problem.  The problem is that given the fact that it really is in the minority, it’s an open question over whether or not a minority of animals having it is enough to make it “natural” in the sense the original person meant it.  After all, cancer occurs in animals, and so in some sense it really is natural, we don’t consider it natural in a sense that it is right, and that we would want to encourage it or treat it as the equivalent to not having cancer.  And there are harmful natural things, too: poisons, our sweet tooth, etc, etc.  So there’s a reasonable charge to be made that Myers’ evidence for natural is devolving into equivocation, however unintentionally: that isn’t what they meant when they said “not natural”.

But wait, it gets worse.  Myers is using this as an example of science being a policeman and filtering out a bad moral claim.  The problem is that the badness could well be starting ahead of this.  So putting aside that science’s definition of natural and the moral definition of natural might not be the same, it might be reasonable to ask “Who says that something being natural or unnatural has any moral meaning?”  After all, cancer is natural (in some sense) but it is moral to want to eliminate it.  Posting on blogs is not natural and yet sometimes is morally good.  So, why should we think that something being unnatural means it’s immoral?

Thus, the key discussion point in the debate over homosexuality, to me, seems to be this: is it something like cancer, bad and should be eliminated medically?  Is it something like a sweet tooth, not great and shouldn’t be encouraged, but not overly problematic?  Is it something like having blue eyes, just a state that’s in the minority?  Is it something like watching Survivor, where we don’t understand why people like it but, hey, if it floats their boat, more power to them?

You aren’t going to settle this with science, because there is no empirical fact of the matter on this.  You’ll settle this with philosophy, whose job it is to figure out not only what these answers are, but when the answers to these questions should be left to science.  Philosophy is the cop and judge, science is the medical examiner giving the DNA evidence (sometimes literally).

Myers backslides a little here:


“However, I would suggest that science would also concede that we as a species ought to support a particular moral philosophy, not because it is objectively superior, but because it is subjectively the proper emphasis of humanity…and that philosophy is humanism. In the same way, of course, we’d also suggest that cephalopods would ideally follow the precepts of cephalopodism.

So don’t look to science for a moral philosophy: look to humanism. Humanism says that we should strive to maximize the long-term welfare and happiness of humans; that we should look to ourselves, not to imaginary beings in the sky or to the imperatives written down in old books, to aspire to something better, something more coherent and successful at promoting our existence on the planet.”


The problem is that there is a bit of equivocation here between “humanisms”.  He’s in some sense right that most morality is aimed at and can be aimed at the right morality for humans.  I disagree, personally, since I think that the right objective morality will follow from what it means to be moral not from what it means to be human.  But putting that side, that sort of humanism is not  “we should strive to maximize the long-term welfare and happiness of humans; that we should look to ourselves, not to imaginary beings in the sky or to the imperatives written down in old books, to aspire to something better, something more coherent and successful at promoting our existence on the planet.”  We could come up with a human-based morality that has, as a consequence, that humans should allow themselves to wiped out if the choice was between humans and all other life on the planet (a contrived example, to be certain, but reasonable).  And that sort of humanism is not compatible with well-known views like that of the Stoics, who did fit into the first definition of what is proper for humans (being rational agents).  And if God exists, it might well fit within the parameters of the proper moral code for humans to do what God says (see Vox Day in “The Irrational Atheist” for a good example of the argument, even if I disagree with it).  So, no, humanism as stated in the second paragraph isn’t humanism as stated in the first.  Science might prefer the first form of humanism, but has no cause to prefer the second.  It’s up to philosophy to figure out if the second is right, or if something else is.  Being Stoic-leaning, I’m saying that the second isn’t right [grin].

The second question:


2. Are science, religion, and communism complementary, conflictual or mutually exclusive of one another?

Science and religion are definitely in conflict. Again, science is only acting as a policeman, though: it’s firing up the sirens and flashing lights to pull over the priests and tell them that claiming authority on the basis of an imaginary man in the sky is fallacious and discredits your entire paradigm. Rethink the basis of your beliefs, and maybe we can get along.”


The problem here is that if science is really being the policeman here, it’s doing so on the basis of incomplete information, since science has not, in fact, proven that God doesn’t exist.  Many people say that science has proven that you shouldn’t believe in God, but since determining when it’s okay to believe something probably fits into epistemology, that’s still the job of philosophy.  From the philosophical angle, extending Myers’ analogy it’s like a judge listening to the cop and a driver the cop has ticketing arguing over what the speed limit is in an area where the sign has been removed, and the cop is saying that his map says it was 60 and the driver is insisting that his GPS said it was 80, and the judge looks at all the evidence and says “Neither of you have proven the other guy wrong” and tosses it out.  If science had “God does not exist” as scientific fact, then Myers’ claims about the incompatibility of religion and science and that religious people have to rethink their beliefs would have some validity.  But he doesn’t, so they don’t.  He’s welcome to engage in epistemology and figure out when things should be believed, though, as philosophy — for better or for worse — is a pretty welcoming field.

Last question:


3. How will we motivate people, and with what moral paradigm to change the world?

As I’ve said repeatedly, science doesn’t provide a morality. What it does provide, and what I optimistically and subjectively think will motivate people, is that it provides rigor and a path to the truth of the world. I know, I could be cynical and suggest that what people really want is delusions, distractions, and reassurances to help them hide away from reality — but what I’ve noticed is that people who accept reality seem to be better able to deal with it, and are often happier and more content. And further, they are better prepared to change the actual world, rather than burying themselves deeper in their fantasies.”


Funny, I thought that it was philosophy that gives rigor and a path to the truth of the world, including that of science (since philosophy created science).  And Myers is going far beyond science here into some really, really bad philosophy to argue that the people who disagree with him — on religion, presumably — want to hide behind delusions and illusions and don’t want to face reality.  I want to face reality, but I’m not sure that he’s right that religion and God — or gods — just ain’t there.  And he can’t prove it.  So, why should I accept his view of reality over my own?  If he wants to challenge that, step up to the epistemological plate and we’ll hammer it out.  But I’m not going to be convinced by a pure assertion that all that is real is scientific and that if I don’t agree with his claims that religions aren’t real I must be hiding from reality (even though science really hasn’t said “There is no God” yet).

The big issue here is that, to me, what we have between science and philosophy is a relationship where philosophy started the project, found a way that was really good at figuring out some things about the world, and then hired out some contractors — science — to go and get all the details about it.  Now, some of those contractors — and Myers isn’t really one of them — are coming back and saying that the only thing of interest in the project is what they’re doing.  Meanwhile, philosophy is sitting on top and telling the contractors how they should be doing things, sometimes helpfully and sometimes — just like any managing group — in ways that really screw things up and show no understanding of that part of the project. 

So, what we need is for philosophy to remember that science is really good at figuring out empirical facts, and to be careful and diligent in referring things to science when science really is best-suited to answer the question, like in Myers’ abortion example.  On the other side, science has to remember that sometimes philosophy really does know or do things better than it does and that those questions might be the really interesting ones.  Both sides have to be very careful to be aware of when they’re stepping on the other sides’ toes.

If this happens, we might actually be able to settle questions of morality and even religion at some point.

Star Wars and theism/atheism …

April 18, 2010

I’m planning on doing a post on Sam Harris’ clarifications of his moral stance (or his new one?) but right now I’m too tired to do it justice.  So here’s a funny page I made for a newsgroup once.  Oddly enough, I also made it when I was working overtime trying to get code in and/or bugs fixed, which might say something about my state of mind when that happens [grin]:

Well, we all know that there’s a bit of debate over what to call atheists and theists.  Dennett suggests “brights” for atheists, and others have submitted similar terms.  Some object to even having a term at all.  But I think I can come up with some terms that not only neatly summarize the positions but tie into popular culture as well, and I can even come up with a motto for the atheists!

“I want proof, not leads” – Admiral Ozzel, “The Empire Strikes Back”.

In the movie “The Empire Strikes Back”, Admiral Ozzel represents the epitome of the atheist position.  He sees evidence that the Rebels might be on Hoth.  It is — as I believe Piett comments — the best lead they’ve had.  But he insists that that isn’t sufficient, even going so far as to point out to Darth Vader — a man with a propensity for killing subordinates who tell him things he doesn’t want to hear — that there are a lot of uncharted settlements and that it could be pirates or smugglers.  In short, that there are other possible explanations and so the evidence doesn’t warrant the belief.  Only Vader’s faith-based insistence that the Rebels are there moves the movie along because they actually do find the Rebels on Hoth.

The interactions between Vader, Ozzel and Piett also seem indicative of how the debates generally go.  Ozzel lectures Vader like he’s a child, his faith-addled brain incapable of understanding that just because one has a small amount of evidence that that doesn’t consitute proof.  There are all sorts of other reasons why those things might be there, and Vader shouldn’t set the course of the fleet simply based on that.  Vader, however, is having none of it; the Rebels are there, he has faith that they are there, and that’s where they’re going.  And at the end, Ozzel glares angrily at Piett for supporting Vader’s whims with his weak insistence that believing the Rebels are on Hoth or might be on Hoth is better than believing nothing at all.

Because of this, I suggest that the term for atheists be “Ozzels”.  We can divide this into two camps: committed and uncommitted Ozzels (unfortunately, there’s no other openly skeptical character so that we can have character names for each).

How would the movie have been different if Ozzel had gotten his way?  Let’s start with the “committed Ozzel”, a man who wholeheartedly believes that the Rebels are NOT on Hoth:

“The Rebels are not on Hoth”, would be his battlecry.  He would insist that resources be taken away from the Hoth system and focussed elsewhere, because the Rebels clearly aren’t in that system.  After all, he reasons, the Rebels require civilized planets for bases — or bases near civilizations — for recruitment.  How can they rebuild their forces so hidden?  And he knows that they had starships at their base, because that was the victory that brought them to the attention of the Empire.  Where are the starships?  No, it is ridiculous that they would be in the Hoth system, which only means that they must be elsewhere.   Because of this, the Empire never finds Hoth and most of the movie never happens.

The “uncommitted Ozzel” simply sticks to the motto “I want proof, not leads”.  So presented with the evidence, he insists that it could be things other than Rebels.  Leading to interesting conversations with Piett:

“Admiral, we are now seeing X-wing fighters leaving Hoth, which are the primary starfighter of the Rebels”.

“Bah, other groups use those as well.”

“We’ve seen two with Death Stars painted on the sides, indicating pilots who flew against the Death Star.  The only squadron in the galaxy with the right to do that is Rogue squadron, because of Wedge Antilles and Luke Skywalker.”

“The pictures aren’t clear enough to discern that it is absolutely a Death Star.  It could be a depiction of any round space station.  Also, even if it was, it could simply be an attempt to garner undue respect against their enemies.  Surely you don’t expect scum to be honest when intimidation is at stake.”

“We’ve intercepted reports that they are addressing each other as ‘Luke’, ‘Wedge’, ‘Commander Skywalker’ and ‘Commander Antilles'”.

“The same deception, Captain.”

“We’ve now spotted the Millenium Falcon.”

“Al YT-1300 freighters look the same, Captain, and they’re a popular smuggling vessel.  In fact, this only adds evidence for the deception theory; clearly they’re trying to promote a false association with the heroes of the Rebellion to intimidate their opposition”.

They never go to ANY planet to search for the Rebels, and most of the events in the movie never occur.

Now we can turn to theists, who do happen to have individuals for the committed and uncommited portions.  For the committed, we have Vader: “The Rebels are there!”.  And for the uncommitted, we have Piett: “It’s the best lead we’ve had.”

And we can, in fact, look at how things might have been different if things went differently for these people as well, starting with Vaders:

Imagine that instead of Hoth, their first report of airspeeders had come from another fringe world first:

“My lord, we have a report from a probe droid on Aargonar.”

“The Rebels are THERE!  Set course for Aargonar.”

(After finding out that they aren’t there) “My lord, we have a report from a probe droid on Altyr 5”.

“The Rebels are THERE!”

And so on.

The only good thing to say about it is that eventually they would have come to Hoth.  It’s also suprisingly consistent with the movie, and so might actually have happened.

Now, for Pietts.  The Piett would have sent a small reconnaisance force to determine if the Rebels really were on Hoth, while preparing the fleet to move into the Hoth system should more evidence come in.  He would have drawn resources from other areas that were showing less results in order to facilitate this.  This likely would have alerted the Rebels to the fact that the Empire was on its way to discovering them, they would have fled earlier and therefore had less losses.

If the report had come in from other systems first, it might have delayed the deployment of resources to Hoth and delayed the discovery of the Rebels.

So, I hearby submit that strong atheists be called “committed Ozzels”, weak atheists be called “uncommitted Ozzels”, strong theists be called “Vaders”, and weak theists be called “Pietts”.

Additionally, simonsaysbye suggests that we need to have terms for the strongest and most irrational on both the atheist and theist sides, so I will provide:

For the irrational theists, oddly enough “Vaders” still works.  After all, who can forget the scene in Star Wars, where his reply to an underling who doubts the Force is “I find your lack of faith disturbing” accompanied by choking the life out of him.  This seems to fit religious fanatics quite well; they find lack of faith quite disturbing and seem quite willing to kill to remove that disturbance.  We can divide “Vaders”, then, into “fanatical Vaders” (for irrational strong theists) and “non-fanatical Vaders”.

For the irrational atheists, I’ll use simonsaysbye’s definition and use “Rancors”.  Their reactions aren’t really driven by any actual belief, but they lash out blindly at any pain inflicted against their stance in a pure emotional rage.  The most minor pain is met with the over-riding command “ATTACK!”, even if the target seems more intent on destroying themselves than the Rancor.

If one finds oneself reacting as a “fanatical Vader” or a “Rancor”, one may need to take a step back and re-examine their lives.

For once, we agree … kinda.

April 17, 2010

Well, it’s unlikely that P.Z. Myers and I will agree on a lot, and when we do I won’t write about it because, well, it’d have to be something trivial, but I sort of agree with him here and want to talk about it in light of my “Much ado about nothing … ” post.  But dont worry, I’ll disagree with him soon enough.  In this post even.

There’s a big stink over how P.Z. Myers went after some guy somewhere who complained about a science textbook referring to creationism as a myth, and someone else — Michael De Dora — called him out on that, claiming that there was an issue here.  P.Z. Myers, as is his wont, fired back, and others fired back, and it’s a nice brouhaha.  So, let me get the agreement out of the way first:


“So forget the whole complaint about tone. Let’s deal with the substance. This is where we differ, and where I think De Dora is an idiot. This is all about a dunderheaded creationist complaining about a textbook that called his superstition a “myth”. Here’s the full quote from the book, Tobin and Dusheck’s Asking About Life(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll):

In the 1970s and 1980s, antievolutionists in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana passed identical bills calling for “equal time” for teaching evolution and creationism, the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian god in six days. But a court ruled that the “equal-time” bill was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state.

And to put it in perspective, that was a small part of a two page section of the text that summarizes the legal history of efforts to keep creationism out of the public schools. It is not a book that condemns Christianity, carries on a crusade to abolish religion, or calls believers delusional; it is moderate, entirely polite in tone (praise Jesus! It meets the most important criterion of the faitheists!), and plainly describes an entirely relevant legal and social issue for biologists in non-judgmental terms. It does use the accurate, factual term “myth” for what creationists are peddling, and that’s as harsh as it gets. It is exactly what the less rude proponents of evolution teaching should want.”


I agree with him.  Okay, exactly what the less rule proponents should want might be a stretch since, yes, “myth” has an unfortunate connotation, and it might have been better phrased as “… creationism, the religious view that …”.  Not only would that be just as accurate, it would also better highlight the issue and the court’s ruling, since it would be showing that creationism was a religious view which, duh, can’t be taught in a public school without violating separation of church and state.  And having read De Dora, it really does sound like he’s just saying “Look, the phrasing is unfortunate and we should avoid doing it.” 

I don’t think that this was worth making a big deal over.  De Dora’s article probably didn’t need to be written, and no one should be giving Zimmerman — the parent complaining — a second thought.  Even with the unfortunate phrasing, no one should get upset by it.  This is a non-issue that we should chuckle a little over and simply stop talking about it.

And here’s where I disagree with Myers: no one would be talking about it if he hadn’t gone off on a rant about.  Read De Dora’s article (linked in Myers’ post).  The post there, at least, is based entirely on Myers’ half-baked rants about how we should be teaching that all religions are myths in biology class — and not in the legal sense, which is the defense that some have been using of it — and seemingly strongly stating that science should attack religions directly in science class.  De Dora went after that but, to me, in some sense does seem to be taking the initial stance too far, but he expressed his opinion which is pretty mild.

And how does Myers respond to that?  By calling De Dora:


“. De Dora was foolish, stupid, lacking in strength of character, and indulging in masturbatory sloppiness while contributing to the cause of the enemies of reason. I’m not backing down because Pigliucci has a dictionary.”


He also went on to attack the CFI for daring to allow De Dora to post such a view, and then attack Pigliucci’s defense of him on an ad hominem attack that Pigliucci is De Dora’s friend … even though Pigliucci flat-out admits it and says that that wasn’t why he was defending him.  People in the comments from the CFI stated bluntly that they allow views from all sides, even sides they disagree with, and even pretty much said that they disagree with De Dora here.  This didn’t stop Myers at all.

Look, let me educate Myers in some basic truths about debate and arguing.  I shouldn’t have to do this — since he’s clearly as smart and educated on these matters as I am — but let me try:

1) If someone says something you disagree with, that doesn’t mean that they’re stupid, idiots or holding any particular motivation for their comments that you dislike.  It means they disagree with you.  I disagree in some sense with De Dora, but I don’t think he’s an idiot.  I think he’s worrying about nothing.

2) If you’re arguing with someone, it’s probably a good idea to try to figure out what they’re really saying before replying.  De Dora seems to be most worried about a “slippery slope”, where science starts attacking religions directly, which is what you flat-out said.  That would violate separation of church and state.

3) Agreeing that someone you disagree with has a point is not “siding with the creationist”.  It’s agreeing that they might have a point in this case.  That’s all De Dora and Pigliucci are doing.  The question is: are they right, or are they wrong?  It is utterly irrelevant who it is that they are agreeing with.  Surely you would agree that truth is truth, no matter where it comes from?  And that you say this when you’re trying to explain what your real objection to his content is certainly seems like an issue to me; using an ad hominem — “You’re defending a creationist” — is never about content.

4) Attacking a site that talks about general issues for allowing both sides of the debate and ranting about how they shouldn’t allow that is bad.  They should be allowing it, even if you think the argument idiotic.  Heck, even if you can prove the argument idiotic.  That sort of rhetoric does no one any good.  Sometimes stopping, taking a breath, and removing some of the rhetoric to get at the heart of the point — say, that De Dora’s view is unscientific — would probably work better.

Let me end with agreeing with Myers again, though:


If a science teacher can’t even flatly state that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 6000, because philosophers will complain about epistomological boundaries, we’re doomed. If the effect of biology on society can’t even be mentioned in a textbook, then the relevance of the science is being sacrificed on the altar of religious submission. Getting enmired in these pointless philosophical “subtleties” when the facts are staring you in the face is a recipe for the further gutting of science education in this country.”


I agree.  State the the world is 4.5 billion years old.  And if a student then asks “Well, how come my religion says that it’s 6000”, answer that science has come to that conclusion.  If they want to persist, though, don’t try to convince them their religion is wrong in science class.  Simply tell them “This is the scientific fact that science goes with” and refer them to philosophy or theology if they want to examine the patch-up of “God made it look that way”.

Just as there are lines that religion can’t cross — to get into science classes — there are lines that science can’t cross.  Science is bound to teach the scientific facts, and that’s where their line is.  As long as they do that, they’re fine.  But the line is fuzzy.

So, some respectful dialog on where that line is would be appreciated by all, I think.

Much ado about nothing …

April 17, 2010

There are two new issues that are making the rounds among the boards about religion, and to me they relate strongly in, at least, my reaction to them: I think that there’s a lot of fuss over things that people probably shouldn’t be making a fuss about.  Both are at “Why Evolution is True” (and other places), so that’s a convenient one-stop shop for my comments (I don’t claim that he originated either).

So, the first:


Fears about kids learning evolution aren’t limited to the Bible Belt. The, a website for the community of Weston, Connecticut, reports that a local intermediate-school teacher, Mark Tangarone, has prematurely retired after a flap about evolution:

Mr. Tangarone, a 17-year veteran of the Weston school system, claims that a program he wanted to teach about Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln was rejected by the school administration because it involved teaching evolution — the scientific theory that all life is related and has descended from a common ancestor.

“I find it hard to believe that in this day and age that a teacher such as myself can be ordered to eliminate the teaching of Darwin’s work and the theory of evolution,” he said.”


Well, unfortunately, as it turns out, he wasn’t.  According to the curriculum of that district, evolution gets taught in the 8th grade.   He was teaching 3, 4 and 5, and a gifted class.  Here is the E-mail that he got from the principal:


” “While evolution is a robust scientific theory, it is a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life. I could anticipate that a number of our parents might object to this topic as part of a TAG project, and further, parents who would object if evolution was part of a presentation by a student to students who do not participate in the TAG program.”

He further stated, “Evolution touches on a core belief — Do we share common ancestry with other living organisms? What does it mean to be a human being? I don’t believe that this core belief is one in which you want to debate with children or their parents, and I know personally that I would be challenged in leading a 10-year-old through this sort of discussion while maintaining the appropriate sensitivity to a family’s religious beliefs or traditions.”

In conclusion, Dr. Ribbens said, “In short, evolution is a topic that is not age appropriate, is not part of our existing curriculum, is not part of the state frameworks at this point in a student’s education, nor a topic in which you have particular expertise. For all of these reasons, the TAG topics need to be altered this year to eliminate the teaching of Darwin’s work and the theory of evolution.” ”


And his reply:


“He said he does have the necessary background to teach the program as he is certified to teach science and social studies for grades K-6. He also has a six-year degree in gifted education.”


“Mr. Tangarone said he thinks it was a tragedy and loss for the students not to study Darwin’s voyage. “The information they would have garnered would have influenced their whole year. Being prevented from learning about this at a young age is a travesty,” he said.

He was also critical of the school administration. “Statements justifying censoring evolution and reprimanding me for gathering information from colleagues is deeply disturbing,” he said.”


First, no, according to the board he doesn’t have the necessary background to teach that, as he is accredited to Grade 6, and the board says “We teach this starting in Grade 8”.  Nor is a degree in gifted education any indication that he understands evolution any better than any layman off the street. 

Second, if he thinks that evolution should be taught to children in its entirety that’s his right, but his approach should be to get the curriculum changed, and not try to do an end-run around the curriculum and the standards it sets and then complain when it is pointed out that that isn’t part of the curriculum for a reason.

Now, the principal does put some other things in there, but it seems to me that the principal is right.  While on the global warming case he was allowed to go outside the curriculum, the principal is basically saying that there’s a lot more involved in this to do it properly because of the other issues — which no one can deny exist — and that younger children might not be able to understand how all of those philosophical implications matter.  Because of this, if it’s done improperly parents could be offended and upset about how that was handled.  The principal didn’t have faith that the teacher or the student giving the presentation could handle that.  And so denied it.

Essentially, to me the conversation was like this:

“I want to do this evolution thing.”

“Well, there’s a lot involved in that and there are reasons why we don’t generally teach the full theory until grade 8.  I’m not sure that everyone involved would be able to handle those extra issues.  Do something else.”

“You don’t want to teach evolution!”

Why should this guy come across as a hero, as opposed to a whiner?  This reaction is, in fact, a much ado about nothing that really ticks off moderate people; surely there are real cases where evolution is being problematically limited in schools as opposed to this one where, basically, the answer is “We don’t teach it in grade 3.”

The other case is about “National Prayer Day”, and how a court ruled it was unconstitutional:


Ruling on a suit filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (yay Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor!), Federal judge Barbara Crabb found that the proclamation of a National Day of Prayer violated the Constitution’s provision for separation of church and state.  Crabb ruled that the official proclamation amounts to a governmental call for religious action.   According to MSNBC:

“It goes beyond mere ‘acknowledgment’ of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context,” Crabb wrote. “In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience.”

But Crabb also says her order does not block any prayer day until after appeals in the case are exhausted. “


I always get very suspicious when courts start trying to interpret motives, but there’s a big problem here.  Why can’t it be seen as the government encouraging all people who do pray to all pray together on one day?  What did the government say the purpose was?

Let’s take a look at the other national days in the U.S.:



So, let’s use her reasoning and say that every thing on this list has as its main purpose to pretty much encourage all citizens to participate/acknowledge/accept the event being commemorated.  So, does “German-American Day” bother anyone, under that model?  Isn’t it discrimination to promote one identifiable group over another?   And isn’t “Greek Independence Day” worrying?  Why is the U.S. celebrating and encouraging its citizens to celebrate the independence of another nation?  I read the wiki on it, and it doesn’t look like the U.S. was involved in it especially. 

Let’s look at how wiki describes the purpose of these events:


“U.S. law provides for the declaration of selected public observances by the President of the United States as designated by Congress or by the discretion of the President. Generally the President will provide a statement about the purpose and significance of the observance, and call on the people of the United States to observe the day “with appropriate ceremonies and activities”. These events are typically to honor or commorate a public issue or social cause, ethnic group, historic event or noted individual.”


Now, wiki’s not reliable for anything, and certainly not more than a judge when talking about law, but it seems like the purpose of these things is to single out a group or a cause and, as stated, have people celebrate it appropriately.  Which also means not celebrating it, BTW; I don’t think everyone participates in the events I’ve listed before.  So, then, what’s the problem with prayer?  Well, she could have a point that it encourages a specific activity that has a religious connotation, but that’s fairly weak.  But it might technically work.

But here’s the rub: Why was this taken to court in the first place?

So, there’s a national day to pray.  There are other days that include prayer, and one general day for those that pray to pray for whatever they want to pray for.  Why is this a big deal?  Why is this something that an organization launched a lawsuit over?  Did they even think about suggesting an alternative — National Day of Prayer, Meditation, and Contemplation perhaps?  Is this really such a big deal that so much time and money was spent fighting it?

See, the problem is this, speaking as a moderate (and not an American, either, since I’m Canadian): This really is minor.  If anyone got horribly offended at any of the other things on the list — and there are a few, as I’ve pointed out — and tried to take that to court,  we’d laugh at them.  But not here.  This is a big deal, and well-known secularist names are on the side of “This is a really, really big deal”.   And I can’t see why.   Is this the biggest issue of discrimination facing people who don’t have a religion?  If this is so serious, maybe atheists and secularists don’t have all that many problems.

Except, in some cases, they clearly do.  We have a big stink over one school deciding that evolution was too controversial to be taught at what they consider an age-inappropriate grade when there are school boards that are either talking about including creationism or ID or eliminating evolution.  We have people complaining about National Prayer Day or a traditional prayer before public meetings or a traditional cross or display of the Ten Commandments when most Americans won’t vote for an atheist President or want to actually have laws that reflect a particular religion.

And this is the problem: if people are so vocal over the little things, the moderates get irritated, and get distrustful.  There are lots of people — I’m one of them — who have no issues with atheists or secularists and would like to get along with them, but it’s hard when they seem to foam at the mouth at any mention of religion and start trying to use the courts to enforce that.  Sure, for some of the minor issues the courts might be appropriate, and it’s a lot harder to change social circumstances and opinions than it is to win a court case.  But fighting and winning these sorts of battles doesn’t help you change opinions.  It only makes people dislike and dismiss you.

Jerry Coyne on applying science to the supernatural …

April 14, 2010

So, here, Jerry Coyne talks about applying science to the supernatural:

It’s nice when I can start by agreeing with someone, so let me agree with this, especially since it’ll be important later:

“But science certainly can’t “do everything.”  It can’t relieve the tears of a bullied child; it can’t bring civil rights to blacks and gays; it can’t bring peace to Israel and Palestine. Still, many of the answers to these questions can be informed by scientific analysis.  If our answer to the question about abortion involves knowing whether a fetus can feel pain, well, that can—in principle—be studied scientifically.”

I agree with this.  But one of the big frustrations I have is that a lot of people thnk “informed by scientific analysis” means “replaced by scientific analysis”.  I have had someone argue that fetuses don’t feel pain, and therefore abortion should be allowed, and spend a lot of time arguing that fetuses can’t feel pain and that science has proven that.  They spend little time trying to show that the fetus feeling pain matters, or is the overriding concern, and their arguments there were generally poor and easy to refute with simple thought experiments.

A lot of the evolutionary morality arguments turn out the same way.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen an argument of “We have mirror neurons that are involved in empathy, so that’s our evolved morality!” without ever stopping to ask if empathy and acting on it really is or really is always moral.  Someone with even an introductory course or reading in moral philosophy can name at least two if not three moral systems that would reject that (off the top of my head, Aristotle, the Stoics and probably Kant).

Some try to link it back to game theory, which reduces to benefit, either to yourself or to a society.  There are many, many moral systems that reject that benefit — to oneself or even to a society — determines what it moral.

So, yes, if we determined that empathy was the foundation of morality, the mirror neuron stuff would be really interesting and relevant to it.  But we kinda have to settle that first, and far too often too many people from the science side wander in with some scientific data and/or common-sense and expect to solve all of the problems that philosophy hasn’t solved in thousands of years.  Good luck with that.

Now, let’s look at the things that Coyne thinks science has proven about religions:

“The earth was suddenly created, complete with all its species, 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.  This was falsified by science.  The falsification likewise goes for other religions’ creation myths, like those of Hindus and the Inuits.”

I agree with that; right now, if you want to dispute this, you’d have to either reject science or claim it wrong.  Those who argue for God creating a misleading world run into theological problems, in that there’s no reason for God to do that and He never said He did that.  So, theology can — and would have to — be mustered against the theological patch-up, but the science — and the facts — seem uncontrovertible.  But even here, there’s a philosophical/theological component that the science can’t touch, which is the claim — that I dont accept, I hasten to add — that the science reveals that answer but is wrong anyway because God is misleading it and, by extension, us.

“God put the earth at the center of the solar system and the universe.  Also falsified.”

I agree.  However, this was one of those invalid inferences that I like to talk about; there’s nothing in the Bible that insists that this be true.  I don’t know of any religion that holds this anymore, but I might be just undereducated in the matter.  Most of the mainstream ones don’t.

“God is both omnipotent and benevolent.  Falsified by the data.”

Ah, well, nothing lasts forever.  Here’s where he takes his first steps outside of what science can talk about.  This seems to be a reference to “The Problem of Evil”, and it certainly seems risky to make this a claim about what science has tested when it’s an oft discussed philosophical argument.  The crux of this is  that science can assist in this but can’t settle the question.  If we are talking about evil, it would be hard to imagine that science can find evil since it can’t define what “evil” means; there’s not really a good naturalistic definition of it.  And there’s no good definition of evil at all, actually.  So we can ask the question: would a benevolent being allow there to be a world with suffering in it?  But remember that this started actually from all-good, not benevolent.  And so what does good mean?  If it means moral, then we’d have to ask if it is moral for a being to not remove all suffering they come across.  There are reasons to think that there may not no moral obligation to remove all suffering that one comes across.   So could God be doing this to fulfill some other purpose and not have any moral obligation to actually give us a world without suffering?  Could the suffering be beneficial in some way, so that a world without suffering is worse than a world with some suffering?  We don’t really want to think so, but we can all see potential benefits from suffering and overcoming it to achieve goals.

At any rate, science can tell us whether or not the world has suffering in it.  It can’t tell us if a benevolent being really can’t create or allow a world that has suffering in it.  So, no, not falsified by the data yet, since there’s no data to answer the really pertinent question, and it isn’t likely that there’ll be any scientific data to settle it any time soon.  This seems like one of those questions that science can’t answer.

“All humans descend from Adam and Eve, who also lived a few thousand years ago.  Falsified by genetic data.”

Well, we already agreed on the last one, about the thousands of years.  I think that story metaphorical anyway, so I agree with this, or at least have no problems with it.  Let’s move on then …

“Praying for sick people makes them better.  Falsified by the intercessory prayer study.”

Actually, even scientifically this isn’t a safe claim.  The study was terribly artificial and has a number of questions.  For example, do you have to be of a particular religion for it to work?  I don’t recall that being that controlled.  Do you have to be of the same religion as the person you are praying for?  Do you have to care about the person you’re praying for?  If you’re praying for a lot of people for a short period of time, could that impact your prayer and therefore the results?  Does how you pray matter?

All of these are confounds, arising from the fact that the scientists didn’t understand the conditions under which prayer was supposed to work “in the world” before they formulated the study.  Let me make this clearer and put aside any cases of bias with this thought experiment: imagine that I prove that prayer does help sick people, but prove that the method for that is a transfer of energy caused by shared good feelings and is not related to any deity at all.  And let’s then imagine that someone says “Well, how do you explain that this study failed to find it?”.  It would be very simple for me to at least appeal to the “Caring” example, and probably almost all of the potential confounds to show why that study didn’t find those results.

So, even without gods, we can see that there are confounds in the study so that it might not actually prove that prayer doesn’t help.  You don’t get to use studies that didn’t understand what they were trying to study — logically so, since if there is any mechanism for this to work we clearly don’t understand it yet — to prove something false.

“People who lived in the past can be reincarnated as modern people, complete with their earlier memories.  Investigation has shown no evidence for this.”

I actually thought that most reincarnation claims claimed that the people didn’t remember their past lives, but that the past lives could be recovered with dramatic methods — say, hypnosis — and that some personality traits were best explained by that.  I’d agree that this has not been demonstrated, at least in part because we don’t know how things like phobias come into being.  Some are obvious; people have bad reactions to something and form a phobia.  But some seem to come out of left field.

At any rate, it’s hard to claim that this is in any way tested when the best you can say is “We don’t know”.

There’s more (including a claim that Jonah probably didn’t survive in a whale because no one else has, even though a supposedly superhuman — at least — being was involved), but we can stop there.

The problem is that in a large number of cases, Coyne is either drifting into philosophy by making claims about what science has said or is overstepping the bounds of the scientific data.  I would agree that “natural” and “supernatural” are poorly defined, but think that naturalists are to blame as well, by including odder things in science than were originally considered supernatural (perhaps later I’ll expand on that).

However, let me advance a philosophy that is neither the bad kind of tautology or is misguided about this.  Let’s presume that science makes a naturalistic assumption and has a definition for what it means for something to be natural.  Then, what is supernatural is both a) defined (as not natural in that sense) and b) cannot be tested by science, since science’s naturalistic presumption would proceed based on methods that preclude things that aren’t natural.

So, this isn’t a tautology — or, at least, not in a bad way — because I’m not saying that the supernatural is just what science can’t study.  Instead, I’m letting science define what it can’t study and then looking around to see what’s left.  And, interestingly enough, the only way there couldn’t be anything that at least could be supernatural is if science’s definition of “natural” simply means “existent”.  Which, we can all see, would be dirty pool.

Now, I’m not necessarily going to say that there is anything that’s supernatural.  But what this does is show that in order for science to claim that it can study the “supernatural”, they’re either going to have to make all those things natural or claim that they don’t just study the natural.  I’m fine with either, or with the potential split.  I just need to know what the terms mean.

Philosophical Writers Guide: Space: 1999 – Breakaway

April 14, 2010

So, finally, the first review.   This is for Space: 1999, and the very first episode: Breakaway.  I’ll do the miniseries for nBSG soon, hopefully this weekend.

So, first, Breakaway.

It starts with a scene of the Moon, and some workers arriving somewhere in a Moon buggy.  Victor Bergman and Helena Russell are in a chamber and  say that they’ll be watching them closely, but they don’t say why.

Now, this scene highlights a couple of issues with the acting.  Barry Morse as Victor Bergman does a good job displaying some emotion, including frustration and humour, but Barbara Bain is just really, really wooden.  When Bergman expresses a little light surprise at her being thorough in monitoring the brainwaves, her reply is “Yes, I am.” in a complete monotone with almost no facial expression, while Bergman even shows expression in asking the question.  This won’t change that much any time soon.  I commented to someone else that her acting would have made a good Vulcan, but no, Vulcans usually are more expressive.

I’m not sure if this was intentional — trying to show her as an emotionless medical/science-type — or just poor acting, but it really, really stands out in this entire scene.  Especially when contrasted with Barry Morse’s acting.

Anyway, we move away from the workers and the brain monitoring to show an Eagle, containing the new Commander, Koenig.    The first thing to note is that a stewardess brings him some coffee, which is odd on an Eagle.  Well, it might have made sense at the time, but we never see Eagles used for that sort of transport anywhere else, and some of them are armed, so it seemed a little odd.

Anyway, the purpose of this scene is to introduce Koenig and demonstrate that he’s being brought in to command Moonbase Alpha over Gorsky, the previous Commander.  The Commisioner who tells him this makes it clear that he’s being brought in to ensure that the manned flight to a new planet that’s been sending signals to Earth — called Meta — goes off.  They stress Meta, but if I recall correctly this gets underplayed for the entire series, despite it being so prominent here.  But a bit more on that later.

So, we return to the work crew, and things are looking good and they’re about to head back.  However, one man — Nordstrom — starts developing increased brain activity and starts going insane and attacking the other worker.  They start fighting in zero-G, and while that’s done well, it’s a little jarring to see Nordstrom pick up and toss the other person around and then see him slowly float into things.  It’s hard to feel that there’s any threat in the fight seeing that.

However, Nordstrom shakes off the other person and charges into some kind of field, collapsing and, it looks like, cracking his helmet.  A close-up zooms in to show us that his eyes are almost purely one colour.

And then we hit the opening credits.

Now, I’m only going to talk about the “This episode” credits this once.  The music is good, and the disjointed scenes fit well with the music.  But the scenes are just disjoint enough to be irritating and just clear enough to give things away.  But it’s not bad.

And I just realized that nBSG does the same thing in its intro.  Huh.

Anyway, back to the show.  Koenig arrives and meets Bergman.  They reacquaint themselves and Bergman fills Koenig in on the fact that people are dying.  Now, something odd happens here.  Koenig asks if it is the virus infection that’s killing people, and Bergman seems to indicate that it is.  But later, that seems to be ruled out completely, with no real indication of what caused any change.  So, what’s going on?  Was Bergman lying?  Indicating that it wasn’t while saying it was?

Anyway, we proceed on and Keonig meets the former Commander, Gorsky.  Gorsky says that he’ll be available for a few hours if Koenig has questions … but we never really hear from him again.  Here’s where the commentary comes in.  We might think, reasonably, that this is how the meeting between the two would go, and that the offer would be made.  But there’s no purpose to it, other than to possibly hint at it being important later.  But it never seems to pay off.  Now, what might have been interesting is if Gorsky had stayed around and had still been on Moonbase Alpha went it left orbit, because then we’d have potential battles between Koenig and Gorsky, the former and new Commander, with people taking different sides due to differing loyalites.

But none of that happens.  We’re told he’ll still be around and, it seems to me, we never see him again.  At that point, we’re hitting a Chekov’s Gun moment: why mention his being available if it doesn’t change anything?  Heck, they could have shipped him off on the same Eagle that Koenig arrived on and nothing would have changed.

About the only thing it does add is to provide some justification for saying that Gorsky is handling it well, but again it’s irrelevant how he took it.

Moving on, Koenig walks through the base and we make it clear that he knows lots of people here and so was here before, and then we get to the main office and Koenig immediately asks that if it’s not a virus then what is it.  Maybe Bergman really said “No virus”, but it isn’t clear.

Anyway, Bergman convinces Koenig to talk to Dr. Russell even though he thinks that Gorsky has said enough, and there are hints that Gorsky was hiding things and not letting her report her findings.  Bergman had hinted that it looked like radiation but couldn’t be, and Russell says the primary crew for the Meta mission are going to die, and that while the back-up crew looks fine, since she has no idea what caused the deaths she has no idea if they’ll be okay or be affected immediately after launching for Meta.

Now, I’m going to harp on this, but Barbara Bain’s acting is really, horribly wooden here.  At one point, she says “The choice … is yours” in a wooden tone that fails to capture any drama whatsoever, and really sounds like someone acting.   I’d hate to harp on this, but her woodeness — mostly in the first season — is one of the things that I started this to comment on, so, yeah, I’m gonna harp on it when it stands out.

Koenig, after seeing the sick men and being sure that they won’t be able to fly, talks to a pilot — Carter — about being ready to go with the back-up crew.

Koenig talks to the Commissioner again, and the Commissioner says that Russell is wrong about it being radiation.  Koenig browbeats the Commissioner into not sending anymore nuclear waste for a while until they can rule out radiation leaks, by promising to get the Meta probe launched if he does.  See, it turns out that the Moon was storing a lot of the nuclear waste from Earth in various storage areas, which is where those men were working.  This is not a good thing.

Koenig then berates Commissioner Simmonds for lying to him about the condition of the men, and Simmonds says that they have to hide the possibility of failure or else the Meta project might get cancelled.

Koenig then decides to check out the area himself, and asks for people to go along.  Bergman and Collins, the pilot, volunteer, and they fly over Area 1 to get to Area 2.  Koenig wants a closer look, and Bergman says there’s no radiation leak at that site.  They move on, but we can see Collins acting a little strangely as they move away, and we hit the commercial break.

Now, one thing I noticed was that the pilot has a full suit on (minus the helmet), but the passengers don’t wear anything at all?  Why?  Is there some big risk to the pilot that won’t apply to the passengers?  Is it so the pilot will survive even if the passengers won’t?  Are they really that scared of cracks in the windshield?

Anyway, they arrive at Area 2.  There’s still no radiation, but Collins eventually goes nuts and tries to break out of the observation room — where he’s standing with Koenig and Bergman — by cracking the glass with his helmet (he’s not wearing it at the time).  They eventually manage to stun him, and just as they get him out of the room the window implodes from the pressure with no further pounding, which is a nice touch.

It turns out that almost all of the effected flights fly over, you guessed it, Area 1.  It is a landmark, after all.  It turns out that it isn’t radiation, but magnetism that’s screwing up people’s brains, which is pretty interesting.  You could have magnetism messing up the neural connections and things in the brain, it seems to me, and it’s interesting that something so old came up with it.

Area 1 starts spewing off major lightning and heat effects, burning out all their cameras and messing up the Eagle that goes to check it out, which is how they figure out that it’s magnetic interference that’s causing the problem.  Koenig pilots it out himself and nearly gets himself killed, leading to a confrontation between himself and Russell over it, which makes no sense.  She barely knows him, so either she feels it’s her job as a doctor to do that or she’s just a busy-body.  Bergman would have made more sense on that issue.

But Koenig’s reaction to her “We want answers, not heroes” line is pretty funny, as he replies, “I didn’t know you cared”, eliciting a facial response from her!  Surprise, I think …

So, Bergman explains the whole magnetic thing here, and everyone had been flying over that.  And since, Area 1 kinda went boom when they discovered the magnetic problem, and Area 2 is a lot larger.  It might go boom, too, and that would be bad.

Can you see what’s coming, kiddies?

Anyway, they send a remote controlled Eagle to read the magnetic readings of Area 2 to see if it’ll cause a problem, because while it won’t risk anymore lives there’s nothing that can go wrong with something remote controlled in a magnetic field, right?  Anyway, as the Eagle is landing the magnetic field surges and the Eagle crashes.

So Koenig tells the doctor that she was right, and it was radiation: magnetic radiation.  Funny, but I didn’t think that magnetic fields ever counted as radiation, but Koenig might not know the difference.  They are sitting on a pretty big bomb, though.

Anyway, they call Commissioner Simmonds up, and they decide to get some Eagles in the air to try to spread the materials out to avoid a chain reaction.  Now, my problem here is that they didn’t think to try to evacuate?  At all?  There are hundreds of people on the base, and after this they’re ready to evacuate at the drop of a hat (Operation: Exodus).  With Earth that close, they didn’t even start thinking about it?  Maybe they needed all their Eagles to try to avoid the explosion, but a back-up plan surely wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

Anyway, it doesn’t work.  The Moon is blasted out of orbit.  Koenig considers trying to return, but due to the oddities in the trajectory and orbit the computer can’t predict whether or not they’ll make it.  Rather than trying, Koenig decides to not evacuate and to see what happens.  I think that his decision is like Janeway’s in Voyager, but it makes more sense.  If they’d used a similar reasoning in that show, people might have found it less unacceptable.

There’s also a news report from Earth about the impact on the planet now that the Moon is gone, which was a nice touch and went over well.

We end with them potentially heading towards Meta, but that won’t be a major part of the story going forward.

So, what’s my take on Breakaway?  It was pretty good, actually.  Some things get introduced that don’t really pay out, like Gorsky, Simmonds and Meta.  And they dragged out some things, like flying shots.  But overall, it was well-done.  Koenig really seems torn by the decision over whether or not to return to Earth, and he has good reasoning for the decision he makes.  Barbara Bain’s acting causes issues for a main character — she’s in the main credits — but Morse and Landau do a good job with their characters.  It was entertaining and set up the series fairly well.  Overall, a good episode.