Archive for March, 2007

Harris in L.A.Times

Sunday, March 18th, 2007

This article by Sam Harris makes the point that “Within every faith one can see people arranged along a spectrum of belief.” and that “The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the Dominionists — men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working to turn our country into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John Calvin’s Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals — who aren’t sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally — deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality.”

What is missing is an attempt to answer the question why those in these outer circles believe as they do – and without that Harris is just preaching to the choir.

And it is neither effective nor true to assert that “there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in a cave”. For some a “good reason to believe” might not be based on reason (but might be just because it feels good) and for others it might be based on reason applied to misinformation (as when a usually reliable source lies to me I may later claim to have had good reason based on past experience to believe the lie).

Kudos to Fox News ?

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

Thanks to Theodore Labadie who posted the link on the ‘Transforming Langara’ listserv, but this is not surprising. The interview subject is promoting the purchase of “carbon offsets” and the opportunities for fraud in that are so magnificent that no self-respecting greedy mogul could possibly hold back for long.

Robert Lanza’s “New Theory of the Universe”

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

This is generally well-informed nonsense from a very smart nut.

Journalist Boasts of Anonymity

Sunday, March 11th, 2007

A Washington journalist announces that for a period of over 24 hours the only person who chose to read his free on-line bio with any care was a “self-appointed hall monitor”. If someone was paying me in the hope that others cared enough about my thoughts to buy papers to read them I might be less sanguine about drawing attention to this apparent lack of interest in me and my work.

Math Awareness Month

Friday, March 9th, 2007

April is Mathematics Awareness Month and this year the American Mathematical Society, the American Statistical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics have announced that the theme for Mathematics Awareness Month 2007 is Mathematics and the Brain.

Faces Just 6 Pixels Wide

Friday, March 9th, 2007

This post by Stephen Downes presents an interesting link, but I don’t agree that it supports his thesis about human reasoning. Pattern recognition at this level is characteristic of many species and devices, and it’s a capability that is probably necessary for human reasoning whether or not such reasoning is based on rules and language.

In fact, it seems to me that if such a thing as distinctly human reasoning exists, then it shares many features with other more rudimentary forms of reasoning, but to say it is “based on” these is similar to saying it is based on biochemistry (or even physics if you want to go that far down into the foundations).

But if, as the base of human reasoning we are looking for  a characteristic which distinguishes it from other forms of reasoning, then language is not enough since it appears that language at some level is practiced by other species. Some people suggest that an awareness of contingency is key, but anyone who has watched a cat learning to control a mouse may be inclined to disagree. But unless Chimp research proves otherwise it may be that the language of contingency is unique to us (and perhaps also that of propositional truth though I suspect that a chimp who can lie to keep a friend from finding a treat might eventually be trained to recognize and label the lie of another). Failing that it may just be that the concept of a distinctly human form of reasoning is a mere conceit based on quantity or scale rather than anything qualitatively different.