Archive for April, 2012

More “Offense”

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

This time it’s christians taking offense (and getting support from the legal system in India) at the”blasphemy” of revealing the actual mechanism behind a purported “miracle”.

And yet (more…)

Taxes, Inequity, and Democracy

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Robert Reich’s ‘Thoughts on Tax Day 2012’ is worth noting if only for its reminder of two famous quotes.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.(1904): “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”

Louis Brandeis (1897):  “we may have a democracy or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

One reason for believing the latter was attempted in a much more recent quote.

Abbott Joseph Liebling (1960): “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

But this actually isn’t quite right. The cost of publication was never all that high and now it is negligible. And so it’s not the press but the audience that is hard or costly to obtain.

The reason Brandeis was right is because those with great wealth are better placed to buy or bribe the attention of voters to their message.

And the situation is unstable. Once a small class acquires more than half the wealth, that class has the power to buy more than half of the voters’ attention and with the not unreasonable assumption of total gullibility (ie every viewer is immediately persuaded by the last message heard) that is enough for them to further cement their position. And even without total gullibility it may still be possible to persuade the majority with sufficiently repeated exposure so a high enough domination of the economy may be sufficient to control the politics so as to be self-perpetuating.

Argument from Design

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Byron Jennings of TRIUMF has a blog at Quantum Diaries where his latest post challenges the Intelligent Design crowd to actually make some kind of testable prediction.

An alternative to making predictions, though, is just to declare the opposition in default for failure of postdiction and that is what  actually seems to be the preferred strategy of creationists. As Jennings says, “Being able to describe past observations is just the price to play the game, and with sufficient ingenuity, can usually be done.” Yes, and I am pretty sure that natural selection from random variations can in fact do the job. But given the effectively infinite variety of life, the task of explaining all past observations will never be done. When we have explained the eye that sees, then there’s the eye on the peacock’s tail, and after that the I of conscious experience, and then who knows what. If we don’t want to appeal to magic then the price of this game will never have been paid in full.  Of course finding the price of admission then becomes a game in itself, and we should thank those of little ingenuity whenever they come up with interesting puzzles for us to solve. (Yes, we have usually thought of whatever they suggest long ago, but we should still thank them out of politeness – and then ask them to go out and find us more challenging problems to solve.)

The Limits of Secularism

Friday, April 13th, 2012

British Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks claims to know The Limits of Secularism, but he seems to be confusing secularism with science rather than just considering it as freedom from religion.

The two essential roles that he reserves for religion are the answering of big questions and the support of community and fellow-feeling. But he seems unconcerned as to whether the purported answers are in fact true, and is blind to the way that faiths which unite their adherents divide them from others.


Evidence in Science and Religion

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Law professor Stanley Fish probably knows quite a bit about evidence, but from his recent article with the above title I am led to doubt that he really understands much about science.

In particular, his main point appears to be based on a misunderstanding, for he says:

What I do assert is that with respect to a single demand — the demand that the methodological procedures of an enterprise be tethered to the world of fact in a manner unmediated by assumptions — science and religion are in the same condition of not being able to meet it (as are history, anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology and all the rest).

When a scientist expresses the criteria of an experimental test in terms of the theory being tested, that is only a shorthand for those familiar with the theoretical context and the true test can always be expressed in terms that require no theory-specific assumptions. For example the prediction that “this collision will produce an output of that particle” is just shorthand for something that could be expressed (though at much greater length) in terms of statements like “if you set those dials this way then that needle will point to this mark”.

Energy, the Environment, and What We Can Do

Monday, April 9th, 2012

John Baez gave a Google Tech Talk on the issue. The slides include links to more detailed arguments and his home page also links to the Azimuth Project wiki is collecting information and ideas from a larger group of participants.

An Insecure Bunch

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Philosophers seem to always be worried about not being taken seriously as providers of answers to important questions. But Philosophy Is Not a Science and so it is foolish of them to expect that kind of respect. They do not provide answers but they do often provide useful (albeit arguably often meaningless) questions and/or commentary which challenge the presumptions of our language and are better interpreted as art intended to influence our mood and mindset than as providing any kind of authoritative answers to real questions.

Is Free Will an Illusion?

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

I guess it’s at least a way of generating traffic for The Chronicle Review and those who have written books and articles on the subject, but I don’t know if there’s anything really new being said – either in those articles or in the responses from Russell Blackford and others.

But I do generally seem to agree with Blackford on most things and no less so this time when he says “I’m coming to think increasingly that all this talk of ‘free will’ isn’t very helpful for understanding our actual situation, partly because we don’t seem to have much clarity or agreement about what it even means”.

I also like Blackford’s apparent suggestion in his second response to Jerry Coyne that determinism is to some extent a *requirement* for free will. If what I actually choose to do or think at any point is not a function of the immediately preceding mental state which I have by previous cogitation brought into being, then that indeterminacy denies rather than grants me the capacity to control my own mental destiny.

This is along the same lines as my own claim that determinism is a requirement for responsibility in that the idea of responsibility is based on the capacity for being influenced by a response to our actions (or by observation of responses applied to others) in such a way as to perhaps modify our future behaviour.

On Science and Theories

Saturday, April 7th, 2012

What Is Science? From Feynman to Sagan to Curie, an Omnibus of Definitions is collected by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings,

and John S Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts has The Knight’s Song, or What is a Theory?

My own take is that a science is any teachable art of making correct testable predictions. With any restriction as to method or attitude being superfluous to the definition (though not without compelling interest in practice).

And I would say that a theory is just any specific process for making such predictions – including explanatory theories (such as “the butler did it”)as predicting the results of further investigation (such as “you will find the money hidden in his room”), and mathematical theories such as analytic function theory or analytic number theory as being respectively the body of techniques of predicting and proving results a specific area or the possible results from  application of a specific class of methods.

Reason for Faith?

Saturday, April 7th, 2012

William M. Briggs » Good Friday: Rally For Reason With St Anselm’s Ontological Argument believes that one can “come to religion through rational argument”.

Of course, if one admits a wrong argument expressed in a superficially rational-looking form as a rational argument then one can come to anything through rational argument, but the claim to rationality depends on a willingness to see and acknowledge flaws in one’s argument.

It is irrational to persist in believing arguments which have been shown to be incorrect, and it is only slightly less irrational to repeatedly fall for false arguments in favour of a proposition just because you want to have a “reason” to believe it.

Frankly, the only faith for which I have any respect is that which admits it is *not* supported by reason. If the existence of God were provable by reason then there would be no reason for faith and so to claim to have made an act of willful faith would itself be unreasonable. (Except perhaps if belief in god were attributed to faith in reason, which then sets reason above God – which may well be a greater sin than not believing in “him” at all.)

P.S. While it is not “irrational” to make a logical error it is arguably stupid to do so – and since (at least in my experience) we all make stupid mistakes quite frequently, I suspect that those who are offended by the charge of stupidity are displaying a higher level of arrogance than that of which they accuse their accusers.