February 10, 2005

Superstring cultists--tough luck

Posted by Curt at 08:37 AM | permalink | 1 comment

At the conjunction of this critique of reductionism in physics and this interview with Benoit Mandelbrot I think one sees the same basic dynamic at work: a devaluation of simplicity and generalization in math and science, what I suppose Mandelbrot might call “smoothness,” and a preference for the complex and the multifarious. To some extent this seems to cut against the basic scientific impulse to simplify, to generalize, which is what a law or an equation generally does. In Laughlin I think there is even a certain disillusionment with realism perhaps not totally dissimilar from that in the analysis of language by dear friend Wittgenstein. Although, by encouraging investigation of the specifics and intricacies of phenomena which seem to be superficially covered by the most general and basic laws and to give up idle speculation about the far nether regions of the universe in space and time which cannot in any way be corroborated, he seems to be trying to bring physics back into the solid world of relative certainties and reasonable evidence, it seems to me that this is a tacit admission that the theories which seem to cover and explain adequately all phenomena except for those extreme edges are in actuality insufficient to represent the richness of even the most mundane levels of reality.

Just as in the case of the over-heated discoveries of Wittgeinstein and Cambridge group, this sudden realization that the broad and universal physical laws established and the abstract shapes used to represent them don’t really reflect the full multiplicity of reality seems a little phony to me. I mean, isn’t that the entire point? Isn’t that abstractness and simplicity supposed to yoke all of that complexity within a reasonable level of comprehensibility sufficient to possibly predict other phenomena, or at least relate them to what we have already seen? Now maybe we see a revision in the valuation of these ideals, and in both Laughlin and Mandelbrot a movement away from final solutions, formulations and summations. Seemingly nothing out-of-the-ordinary about that, but if one ceases to regard oneself as capturing the essence of a phenomenon in an equation or image describing it, then that necessarily leads to a re-evaluation of the type of work one is doing and the standard by which it is judged. Let’s put it this way: although there are many rules which often govern both the form and content of a form (some, granted, quite idiosyncratic and individual), it would be quite ludicrous to suggest that a listing of those rules would be an adequate reflection or description of the poem, let alone itself be a poem, or equivalent to the poem.

Philosophically, I’m not troubled by this as many scientists seem to be. Despite the many declarations that Newton had discovered the very mechanism by which God controlled the universe, he himself complained famously that he felt like a dilettante on the shoreline picking up stones and shells that amused him while neglecting the vast ocean before him. This seems unnecessary if one regards theorems as essentially creations, not mirrors of nature, and hence judge the cathedral of scientific knowledge by its height above the ground rather than as an incomplete ladder to the heavens.

January 26, 2005

And Prospero broke his soap box

Posted by Curt at 04:26 PM | permalink | 5 comments

I may have bored everyone to death about this topic, but I have my last exam tomorrow, so here is my final thought about what distinguishes science. Most of the descriptions of science that I know of don’t really explain how science progresses without falling into a quaint mythology about approaching some metaphysical truth. Kuhn doesn’t, Popper doesn’t, Pierre Duhem doesn’t, and I myself have neglected to account for it to some extent.

I think the key is that science, at least experimental science, is essentially concerned with predicting the future. Every hypothesis, in essence, is a prediction about the future. What distinguishes science from other forms of prediction is the emphasis on verification, the insistence on framing predictions in such a way that when they are tested they can be decisively answered positively or negatively. In other, the goal is not to not be wrong but to achieve a definitive positive answer. Even a definite negative answer is preferable to none at all.

Some philosophers, like Duhem, claim that individual hypotheses can neither be verified nor falsified, because a whole body of theories and assumptions lies behind, and is implicated in, every hypothesis, and thus one can never be sure just what has been validated or failed. While that’s true, it is also nonetheless true that when the result of an experiment does not match a hypothetical prediction the hypothesis has been proven invalid as it stands. In other words, no matter what went wrong, the body of theories and assumptions that led to the hypothesis do not work as they now stand. Thus, things will have to be changed until they produce accurate predictions. Conversely, if a hypotheis is corroborated with a positive answer, the theories behind it stand validated until a hypothesis receives a negative answer.

In other words, experimentation does not serve to lead by induction to new theories, but rather theories serve to make possible specific predictions about the future which can be verified decisively. This at least is the goal. The goal is not a description which is true or corresponds to the truth, or at least that is not the immediate goal. When the facts or events are given, anyone can interpret them, and the fact that these events are known can mask the relative merits of the theory which interprets them. The idea that theories are validated by their correspondence to experimental results is tautological: the first condition of any theory is that it accounts for the experimental results that gave rise to it. But the only way to determine whether it is simply a theory to fit the facts or whether it is truly generalizable is to test it against unknown facts via prediction. Of course, predictions are almost always only approximately true, so the specific point of acceptability is not provided for by the general concept, but, at least in theory, decisive verification of predictions provides a simple, clear, and immensely useful criterion by which to evaluate theories. In my opinion, this explains much of the evolutionary capacity of science (I mean evolution in the more contemporary sense of diversification and selection rather than the old idea of teleological perfectibility).

If experimental prediction is the mark of science, this leaves the question of whether purely descriptive disciplines like zoology and areas like quantum theory where predictions are inherently statistical and ambiguous are scientific. Zoology and the like I think are, because hypothetical prediction inherently implies classification. In other words, by saying “under these conditions, such an event will happen,” one classifies, in other words sets parameters. The goal of zoology seems to be not simply to describe members of a group but to describe all the characteristics which define the group, set the parameters of the group, which is the first step towards making predictions about the group. So it is an element of science, but incomplete. As for quantum, I avow my profound ignorance of it, so let my opinion be taken in that light. As far as I understand, the stastical laws in that realm allow predictions in aggregate, so I am inclined to view it as still within the domain of science, at least in spirit, but of course the lack of decisiveness of statistical predictions gravely weakens the predictive power of science in this area, and I have already suggested that the rise of relativity and quantum in my view are intimately tied to the waning of the scientific age. Finally, it should be noted that while making correct predictions is the goal of science, that should be qualified by saying that the predictions are intended to answer general questions concerning the nature of things and establish specific knowledge. Optics or engineering, for example, are not science, although they once were, because all the major questions have been answered, and they no longer concern gaining further knowledge of the future and the universe, but rather in applying that knowledge to constructing specific objects.

So the goal and value of science is in predicting, and thus establishing knowledge of, the future, and the scientific method is the means of arriving at correct predictions. This is not to discard my earlier contention about the ideological basis of science, because the efficacy of prediction is based on the relative value of induction, and successful induction relies on the essential regularity and stability of the universe. In other words, in order to draw a general theory from a specific experimental result and vice versa, the universe must be considered as basically the same everywhere and at every time, which in turn implies that it be material, matter being defined as that which cannot change itself and is therefore static. It seems to me that if in quantum theory, for example, phenomena become genuinely dependent on the observeer in ways that are neither generalizable nor predicatable, it cannot continue to remain truly a science. It would seem to me that the branches of physics which are entirely theoretical are for practical purposes basically metaphysics.

This model depends on a linear notion of time. It might seem the opposite, that if the physical laws are eternal and universal time is actually opposed to this insofar as it represents dynamism, change. But in reality the sameness of the universe upon which science is predicated is not a a sameness at any particular moment, but rather a sameness of behavior. In other words, a view of the universe from a materialist perspective at any given moment shows that everything in the univese is different in the sense of being distinct. However, the idea is that under the same conditions all matter (or whatever you call the fundamental substances) will act in the same way. Without the steady march of time, this unity of behavior disappears, and there are simply a million disparate entities. Thus, space (and time) as properties of the universe are essential to science.

As for what the value of science is, I’m afraid I can’t generalize about that. From reading my recent posts one can most likely guess at my views, but I will simply say that one’s view of the efficacy of science in making the universe understandable will probably depend on entirely on whether one a) believes that linear time is a real property of the universe and b) if so, whether true induction is possible.

p.s. I should note that Henri Poincaré anticipates me in seeing the epistemological value of science as consisting mainly of its ability to make predictions rather than its descriptive correspondence to reality. However, he also thinks that theories are conventions and definitions of concepts, not true descriptions of physical phenomena based necessarily on experimental results. He thinks the conjunction of these two make theories relatively independent of their experimental bases, which he regards as a good thing because it creates a body of stable principles in which we can trust. I think that that is neither true nor a good value. The emphasis is on predicting correctly, not creating stable beliefs (if you want unchanging beliefs, what not join the Church?), and if generating true predictions is the goal, theories should be more rather than less sensitive to their experimental roots.

p.p.s. Since my exam was about scientific laws and causality, I should add that while scientific activity depends on a belief in time, not all scientific theories do: the law of conservation of energy, for example, I believe is essentially atemporal.

January 22, 2005

Einstein and Gödel, at the Königsberg café

Posted by Curt at 04:38 PM | permalink | 5 comments

About a month ago I wrote this entry which was, I think, somewhat misunderstood, at least by the one confirmed reader of it. In it I tried to argue that there are some fundamental problems involved in conceptualizing time which, in my mind, appear intractable, and hence its existence as a concept contradictory, impossible. To which it was replied that of course time has an existence, as a social convention, a mental framework. Of that I have no doubt-it would be impossible for me to refute even if I wanted to. My point was about metaphysics, not sociology, and in that regard I don’t think it was that much different from that expressed by St. Augustine regarding time: “if no one asks me what it is I know what it is, but if someone asks me I don’t know.” Or, even more notably, Kant, who regarded time, in addition to space, not as an entity, process, or property of the physical world, but as a filter of percpetion, the mental framework which orders our experience of the world.

Which brings me back to science. I just finished reading The Evolution of Physics, by Einstein and Leopold Infeld. Of course Einstein is justly famed for, among many other things, pioneering the idea of space-time. However, I was quite intrigued to discover, while perusing the science section at the National Library in Paris, that Gödel claimed that his late work on relativity and physics, upon which I touched in my earlier post, was inspired by an intense study of Kant. Now, assuming such a dour man as Gödel was not simply being facetious, the implications of this are immediate. In the (apparent) somewhat paradoxical act of tearing down the structure of Einstein’s work while bringing some of its deepest tendencies to fruition, he was working under the influence of a theory which denies the type of external, property-based existence which Einstein implicitly ascribes to time (and space)! As I understand special relativity (always a dubious premise, I grant you), it holds that space and time, as properties of the universe, are perceived differently at every point of view, or coordinate system, as he calls them. But for me it seems a question of the simplest explanation: if everyone is in a relative frame of reference with respect to space and time, is it simpler and more likely that time and space are real properties which are different at every point in the universe, or simply that they are perceived differently by each observer? It seems to me that if one takes Kant’s idea of space and time as elements perception and not of external reality, none of these problems come up, although there may of course be others. Again, it’s hard for me to say what Gödel’s interpretation of all of this is, since no one seems to have engaged and propogated his work on this subject much, but if he was following in the line of Kant’s thinking as well as the tradition of relativity, it would be interesting to see the resuscitation, by “a commodius vicus of recirculation,” of a very powerful and cogent point of view which has nonetheless been largely dismissed by scientists as non-pertinently metaphysical. Perhaps interesting also to note that, in dealing with Kant last year, I protested against his classification of space as a perceptual framework, and even managed to convince my philosophy professor that it is rather the fundamental visual property, before reversing myself and concluding that light is actually the fundamental visible property. Light is also in some ways the fundamental property in Einstein’s system, or at least the one constant in all of the warping of space-time, which somehow doesn’t seem so surprising now…

p.s. For all of those intersted in Spanish literature (which at this point probably composes nearly 100% of our readership), I also came across this article with the following sub-headline: “It is the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, a more important work than all of Einstein’s theories.” To the extent that the article follows up on this point, I think the claim about the inevitability of scientific discovery is at the very least highly disputable (and even if Cervantes’ work is more inimitable, that does not in itself mean that it is more “important”), but nonetheless a provocative idea, and gratifying to my humanities-leaning heart.

December 16, 2004

How very timely!

Posted by Curt at 04:01 PM | permalink | 5 comments

This article about Gödel and Einstein is really, genuinely fascinating, and shocking as well, even if exaggerated for dramatic purposes (as it might well be). It goes to show that, while I honestly don’t think the average scientist is consciously close-minded to revolutionary theories, as Kuhn might lead us to believe, the scientific institution possesses a uniquely hierarchic structure that does tend to impose orthodoxy to a much greater degree than might be readily believed.

On the other hand, I would think that the basic impossibility of time as commonly conceived would be intuitively obvious. Both the “present” and “future” are inconceivable, since all perceptions are basically reactive, and hence we perceive only what is already past. Well, actually I should revise that slightly: the idea of the present moment is both theoretically and practically impossible; that is not the case with the future, at least symbolically speaking, but since it’s unperceivable there’s also no reason to believe in its existence. Of course most people tend to extrapolate from various instances of cause-and-effect that they supposedly can observe, but since creation and destruction are also unobservable (manifestly one can only observe something so long as, and insofar as, it exists) there’s no reason to believe in that either.

Of course, as far as I understand it, that’s not what Gödel was arguing. I doubt that he was claiming that the process which we supposedly observe as time is an illusion any more than Einstein was claiming that the phenomena described by Newtonian physics don’t exist. But then again, if he had been that skeptical about time, he couldn’t have been a scientist at all, even a theoretical one. I’ve said before that science is not a method, it’s an ideology. It has certain underpinning beliefs that simply can’t be rejected and leave something which is still recognizably science. I think time is one of those fundamental assumptions, because it’s the only thing which guarantees the regular behavior of material phenomena, which is essential to all science.

So it is perhaps to the credit of those who have devised ad hoc properties of the universe expressly to refute Gödel as scientists, if not as intellectually curious human beings. I genuinely believe the age of science is coming to an end. Not that our technological world will evaporate, but without the confidence to advance theoretically on certain founding assumptions which have remained essentially unchanged since the 17th century, science will become engineering and pharmacy. I have a hard time feeling devastated about this. Ideas evolve, as they should, and there is no ahistorical idea on which our actual existence depends (I can’t think anyone would believe me oblivious to the irony of that statement, but perhaps a different metaphor would be more apt anyway: the periods of history as we are accustomed to think of them could be imagined as different countries. Science is the language of one land; we seem to currently be in the border-regions of another one. Note that this resolves the problems associated with the very idea of “evolution”).

p.s. The time-process is one of the big three of inconceivabilities in my opinion, along with free will and consciousness. For all that don’t get the idea that I’m denying the possiblity of time in reality, just that it can’t be imagined as an idea, and therefore can’t really serve as a basis for other ideas. The idea of time imposes the image of things welling out of some void to which we remain totally impervious and then later sinking back into them. But actually all we have in our minds at any time is a vast landscape stretching out before us; there is no such thing as an emptiness in our perceptions. Where in this did we come by the notion of cause and effect?

December 14, 2004

Aah, I love the smell of conjecture-and-refutation in the morning

Posted by Curt at 02:45 PM | permalink | comment

I took an exam today, so here are two final cool-down tirades:

  1. I could add to my critique of Kuhn that even a non-“revolutionary” has a natural incentive to refine or re-shape the paradigm governing his activity—fame and glory, certainly, if it’s a big breakthrough, but also just solving his problems, be they great or small. So in one sense you could say that the work of the individual scientist resembles more Popper’s conception of science as a whole, i.e. conjecture followed by refutation, as long as that is qualified by noting that refutation is actually where problem-solving begins, not where it ends. I think that Popper was wrong to think in terms of universal, objective, direct-experiment-produced refutations, and I think Kuhn was right to criticize it, but if it is not right to imagine an objective standard governing refutation of ideas, it still seems clear that on an individual basis scientists (and people at large, for that matter) have personal criteria for continuing to accept or discarding a view. But obviously if an idea which has been accepted is contradicted by evidence or another idea that contradicts it, in a subjective sense refutes it, the scientist won’t just abandon the whole issue, unless he just doesn’t feel up to it. He will try to solve the problem, either by reconciling his views, or replacing his old views with new ones, etc. That’s why I think it’s also wrong to talk about paradigms or models as “research programmes,” as Lakatos did. I don’t doubt that research programs exist, but they are chosen by the scientist who has accepted the paradigm but run into problems integrating it with his other views, not by the formulater of the paradigm. Because problem-solving is an effect of, well, problems, a list of problems to solve implies areas where the solution has failed. Obviously when someone offers a new paradigm they are offering a solution, not an unresolved problem. They may add mention of unresolved ambiguities or problems as a caveat, but that’s not the essence of their contribution, and has no imperative effect on what problems the future researcher takes up. In fact many of the problems that the solution eventually raises aren’t or can’t be anticipated by the creator initially. So all of these issues that philosophers of science have addressed, revolutions, conjectures and refutations, research programs, have validity, but those that formulate them have a tendency, like so many others, to over-emphasize the collective over the individual, and to see broad-scale processes rather than individual human activity.

  2. Last point: I’m getting sick of people saying that mathematics is abstract and essentially divorced from reality. I know, I’ve done it myself repeatedly, but when my philosophy of science professor repeated this old cliché again, I realized that in some ways it seems awfully ludicrous. I realize that mathematics is often not intentionally an attempt to model or describe processes observed in reality, but I think it would be difficult to conceive of an element of reality more fundamental than quantity. In fact to me quantity (as opposed to quality) seems virtually synomymous with external reality and objects. And so the basic properties of math are fundamentally real, even if the possibilities spun out from these properties haven’t yet been observed. I get the sense that the great advantages of math as a real property by some perversity are actually used against it. For example, the fact that everyone knows exactly what some number, say 6, is but can’t explain why is used as evidence for the view that it is self-defining and therefore fundamentally insular, that its identity is not rooted in the real. In fact, you could reverse that and say that it is simply a defect of language. Again, it’s often said that math is a language, but if we really take that seriously we must think of it as a language different than other human languages. Defining a quantity is like trying to render one language into another. There’s no such thing as a true translation, and between math and language the gap is far more profound than between English and French. I would say that language basically describes qualities and math quantities—math is so fundamentally objective that it simply can’t be described in terms of the subjective qualities that language describes, and vice versa. Again, my professor used the fact that 3+3=6 no matter whether such a combination actually exists anywhere in the world and will never change no matter how the world changes as evidence that math is fundamentally cut off from the world. But that’s like saying the expression “it will snow tomorrow” has no meaning or connection to reality if it doesn’t actually snow tomorrow. The only explanation I can think of for this view is that the correspondence theory has yet again been pushed way too far—you know, the view that the word “rock” must basically correspond to an actual rock. In this case, the fact that the word, or the number, is not actually the object itself is being used as evidence that it has no relationship to reality. But I think we can at least say this much: if external reality is held to be essentially objective, i.e. pertaining to objects, than math is more connected to reality than language. Unless anyone has any alternatives to those two, I think the pertinence of math to reality has been demonstrated. I assume most scientists concur, which is why the scientists who my professor praises as being more addressed to reality than mathematicians basically conduct their work in math. Granted math is not a good language for confessions, but fortunately for those, like me, more interested generally in working out what’s in their heads than in what’s going on around them, we still have language to deal with that.

December 13, 2004

Still blathering after all these hours

Posted by Curt at 04:56 PM | permalink | 1 comment

Well, I still don’t have much time, but I can’t resist adding just one or two qualifications to my other remarks, with numbers corresponding to my last post:

  1. It should be obvious that the equivalence of “science” and “natural science” is more than just a semantic issue or an abbreviation. The debates in the social sciences such as anthropology, psychology, etc. regarding whether they are sciences or not is somewhat misleading. Most of the people involved in these debates seem to think it is a purely methodological issue, but, as I have already indicated, the methodology of science arises from the materialist philosophy underlying it, so unless these other disciplines are similarly willing to accept that ideological baggage, they cannot integrate into the sciences. Case in point: psychology is now finally starting to be regarded as a true science almost purely via its association with and increasing dominance by neuroscience.

  2. I think Kuhn’s paradigm model is good for explaining the dynamics of research in what he calls periods of “normal science.” But the title of his major work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is misleading, because that’s just what he doesn’t really explain. As I said, he explains well how a generally accepted scientific principle functions, but not what happens during periods of change from one to another. I guess my criticism is equivalent to Derrida’s criticism of Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism: it explains how the structure endures, but not how it changes. And I would say that it probably never will if we regard the history of science as blocks of acceptance of a principle broken by intervals of confusion and doubt. I think Kuhn is confusing a difference in scale with a difference in kind. What I mean by that is that he seems to think of only the big ideas like relativity, quantum theory, etc., as being fixed principles, paradigms. Therefore the resolution of a smaller problem is merely “puzzle-solving,” but solving a big one is a “revolution,” a change in paradigm. In reality, every scientist is trying to solve problems, which inevitably entails giving up certain ideas and methods to arrive at a better description and understanding of a physical process. It’s just that in most cases the problem is not as large and involving as many minds as a change in the conception of the nature of light, or of the atom, etc. In short, even in periods of what he calls “normal science” I would say that scientists are doing what the “revolutionaries” do writ large. Now I admit that solving problems is not always accompanied by the belief that the most basic scientific principles must be changed, but what I am trying to say is that the process is essentially continuous. Scientists are always trying to solve problems preserving their most basic beliefs. Concepts like relativity or gravitation are not the most basic scientific beliefs, and when they conflict with a more fundamental one, usually revealed by experimentation, they are changed. But this is basically the same process that goes on every day with big problems and with small. So essentially science is either permanently in a crisis or never is; maybe one could even say that every scientist is a revolution in one man. Notice how this also makes the problem raised by his somewhat awkward likening of scientific revolutions to natural selection, the question of what criterion determines the “selection” of one model over another, unnecessary. If scientists are constantly seeking better explanations, as opposed to clinging dogmatically to one paradigm until a revolution sweeps it away, as Kuhn seems to imply, then the concept of conversion from one view to another is not anomalous. As for their actual reasons for prefering one to another, it’s irrelevant: most likely it varies by case and is not generalizable. So there.

p.s. Sorry if that point involved many acontextual references to one particular book, but a) I don’t have time to fill in the details and b) I doubt that Kuhn is unfamiliar to many of the readers (if any) of this site.

December 12, 2004

Jumbled thoughts (produced without caffeine!)

Posted by Curt at 10:38 AM | permalink | comment

Just two quick thoughts about science. I would expand on them more if I had the time, but I don’t:

  1. It annoys me when people, in my philosophy of science class and elsewhere, talk about science as a method rather than as a set of beliefs. Of course there is a method to science, but that’s not what makes it distinct from other areas of knowledge. It is especially galling when someone asserts that science is uniquely given to skepticism, to methodical investigation, to revision of its foundational beliefs, etc., in other words that it is the only truly “progressive” body of knowledge. But all of that only seems to be the case because, as Kuhn might say, we’re inside the scientific paradigm. When you really get down to it, science boils down to some materialistic beliefs that are essentially taken as datum, such as that everything is essentially physical, inanimate, material, and in motion. These have stayed more or less constant since the emergence of these beliefs, i.e. the mechanical philosophy, in the 17th century, and how can anyone think it a coincidence that this was also the start of the scientific revolution? I would defy anyone to find some purely methodological difference between science and all other forms of knowledge. They all come back to the founding materialistic beliefs. Empirical investigation? It doesn’t even make sense as a distinct form of investigation except in the context of scientific principles. It’s not just a matter of “basing beliefs on experience,” but a particular type of experience, i.e. observation of external physical phenomena. Abstract ideas are thrown out a priori as a source of experience, even though they are undoubtedly that, because thought as distinct from matter obviously doesn’t fit into the mechanical philosophy. That doesn’t mean that believers in scientific principles can’t believe in non material-things, like God, or love, or whatever else, but only when they are considered to be outside of the domain of science. The point is that all of that scrutiny and investigation occurs entirely within the fundamental mechanical beliefs, which must remain unquestioned. Science is simply the belief that everything within its purvew is purely material.

  2. Speaking of Kuhn, his idea of paradigms and scientific revolutions is very nice, but it seems somewhat, uh, less than rigorous in explaining, or really just describing how a “paradigm shift” comes about. He talks about scientific traditions as being wholly enclosed in paradigmatic assumptions, which is useful in opposing the weird metaphysical scientific dogma about direct experience with nature, but it’s too monolothic. In Kuhn’s view a paradigm encloses everyone in the time and place in which it is accepted, so that it is quite impossible to see outside its underlying assumptions. Again, it’s good for ridding us of the notion of objective criteria of observation, but overstated. I agree that one’s interpretation of perceptions are conditioned entirely by the ideas which we have been taught to associate with them, but I find it unlikely that any particular individual or scientist’s views coincide entirely with the so-called scientific paradigm of the day. Kuhn, for example, says that it’s impossible for us to regard a pendulum as anything other than a pendulum since the time of Galileo, whereas those in the Aristotelian tradition would have simply seen a swinging stone. But that just seems like nonsense. If everyone’s perceptions were totally circumscribed by the scientific paradigm current in their time, paradigm shifts would be impossible. I’m not disputing that all of the beliefs which condition are perceptions are not instantiated in something like some paradigm or another, just that this paradigm, even for scientists, is not necessarily equivalent to the current scientific dogma. Einstein, for example, must have had some beliefs in physical properties that superseded Newtonian physics, or he could never have questioned the latter, let alone provided an alternative to it. And this must have also been true of those who were led to doubt Newtonian physics but did not formulate a widely accepted alternative. In short, I would say that Kuhn is applying the idea of paradigm too broadly, except that I think the whole idea of a paradigm is too monolithic. Paradigms never seem to be universally accepted, nor does a revolution seem different in kind from “normal” scientific activity in kind, just in scale. All scientists are trying to solve problems and provide more satisfactory solutions, not just defend accepted dogma, but most of them are only successful in solving problems on a relatively small-scale, rather than on the massive scale required for a so-called revolution. Again, Kuhn says that normal science is fundamentally different from the activity that surrounds revolutions, but then he says that normal science itself produces the crises that lead to revolutions, which, if one throws out the unmediated-contact-with-nature model and assume that scientists existing within paradigms in times of normal science are both entirely circumscribed by paradigms and primarily concerned with defending them, seems basically impossible, except for some provident intervention of God, which actually seems to be how he essentially describes the inspiration that leads to the formulation of a new paradigm.

July 25, 2004

Vegetarian riposte

Posted by Curt at 05:01 PM | permalink | 5 comments

I planned to comment on my brother’s post but I thought I should do so a bit more publicly since I am, at least for the moment, a vegetarian (I say currently because I am studying in France next year, where I don’t have much hope of sticking by a vegetarian diet). It’s not much of a concession for me to acknowledge that any arguments for a moral “imperative” to vegetarianism are fraught with wholes because, like my brother, I have become radically skeptical of the entire notion of moral imperatives, not to say laws. I could explain my reasons for this at greater length, but suffice it to say that even if there were moral laws written in the sky to follow, obeying these laws would not seem to accrue much credit to us as moral beings, any more than one would be held to be morally virtuous for refraining from murder if one did so simply because it was against the law.

I also find no affinity for the utilitarian arguments, or indeed for utilitarian arguments in general. I imagine that simply by living a modern life in any capacity one is the beneficiary of so much misery and unhappiness that any petty cavilling about how best to serve the “greater good” amounts to an almost insultingly self-satisfied gesture, as if one could ever reconcile one’s lifestyle with the “greater good.” So let us all acknowledge that if we are basing our life choices off of utilitarian principles we are all hopelessly compromised. I don’t think our path to heaven will be paved by vegetarianism, whether evaluated on absolutist moral or utilitarian grounds.

That said, I will say that often in talking to non-vegetarians one encounters a defensive aggressiveness which seems a touch strange. This is evident, for example, in the person my brother cites who writes: “The only option left for you dipshits [vegetarians] is to buy some land, plant and pick your own crops. Impractical? Yeah, well, so is your stupid diet.” I must say I can’t quite understand this anger, which, as I said, is not infrequent among non-vegetarians with whom I have discussed the issue. After all, regardless of the merits of ethical-vegetarians’ arguments, by their moral standards they at least have a reason to feel anger towards non-vegetarians, since they view them as complicit at some level in murder, or at least wrongful death. But, as I said, I have observed a great deal more anger from non-vegetarians directed at the “stupidity” of vegetarianism than of vegetarians directed at the “evil” of meat-eating. And I wonder why, because for a non-vegetarian, vegetarianism is surely just a silly little superstition, just as harmless ultimately as going in for yoga or acupunture?

I suspect that this anger is built up as a defensive ring around a certain awareness of ethical vulnerability, because while I am sure that most non-vegetarians do not believe that human ethical norms are applicable to non-human animals, I suspect that at the same time most non-vegetarians do not have a skepticism towards the notion morality in general as extreme as mine. In other words, I assume that, even though they do not feel that meat-eating is a moral issue, I assume they do not reject the notion of morality as a whole. But if we do accept moral arguments as valid in general, then there are likely to be some real problems of consistency in justifying animal-killing. After all, the human right to kill animals is frequently justified on the basis of our superior intelligence, but since when is superior intelligence accepted as a valid moral distinction (pace Raskolnikov)? In other words, one could not (presumably) kill a mentally deficient person or an infant and justify it by claiming that one has a right to because one is more intelligent than them. So how can this justification have any currency when applied to animals? There is a similar inconsistency when people try to justify why in war it is morally permissible to kill people from another group or nation for the sake of the lives or lifestyles of the members of one’s own group.

My brother deals with this issue at some length and intricacy in his discussion of “marginal cases,” seemingly in hopes of deriving some sort of satisfactory general formula which defines our moral relationships to less intelligent humans, animals, etc. But I think the issue is much more simple than that. It seems to me that, generally speaking, we abide by a belief in the sanctity of life within the human community regardless of intelligence or other merits (with some obvious and flagrant exceptions). However, animals are outside the group, so none of the same standards apply. This may be a justifiable distinction biologically; I do not think that it is so by the standards of universalist ethics. But let us let that pass.

So why am I a vegetarian? I have no mathematically precise ethical justification for it, but I view that as an asset rather than a fault. Personally, I feel a certain tenderness towards many animals, and therefore I prefer not to have them killed for my food. Do I need any more justification than that? Especially because I feel that that is what in Hebrew is called chesed, the spirit of warm feelings toward another which is the impulse behind any “moral” actions, and without which morality is an empty shell of dogma. I reject the idea that I require or should attempt to provide any justification beyond my own sentiments. “Give me the world if you will, but grant me an asylum for my affections,” as the Czech artist Tulkas said. I do not hold non-vegetarians to be guilty of any greivous wrong, but I would at least request that subscribers to universalist moral codes consider the inconsistencies in a serious light and then either follow their commandments to their logical ends or abandon the pretensions, the “great illusions” of universalist ethics. As someone, I think it might have been Mark Twain, said: “Vegetarianism is a harmless enough thing, unless it give a man cause to feel abominably self-satisfied.” This is how I feel, too; if one cares for animals and their lives, then by all means, this is reason enough to treat them in a commensurate fashion; but do not assume that one’s feelings are universal.

Eat More Beef!

Posted by shonk at 12:21 AM | permalink | 4 comments

Having been brought up as a vegetarian,1 I think I can safely say that I’ve been exposed to the gamut of reactions that people have to vegetarianism, from the radical vegan perspective to the radical carnivore perspective. As an ex-vegetarian, I can also say that I’ve never heard a moral argument for vegetarianism that rang particularly true.

Maybe I should back up a little bit and give a little bit more of my own history. My parents have been vegetarians for my entire life and, in fact, since sometime in the mid-1970s (with the caveat noted in the footnote). They aren’t what I’m going to call “ethical vegetarians”; rather, their dietary choices were guided in large part, I suspect, by reading too much Paul Ehrlich, specifically his argument that people who cared about the environment and humanity should become vegetarians. This argument is based on the simple reality that producing edible meat consumes more resources than producing edible plant-based foods (there’s a statistic to the effect that it takes 7 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef). Since Ehrlich thought we were facing an ecological and humanitarian catastrophe in the form of a “population bomb,” he thought the only way to avoid mass starvation in the years to come was a switch to a vegetarian diet. Now, one could counter this argument with the fact that most grains and other crops consumed by livestock are extremely-low grade and not at all suitable for human consumption and that much of the land on which these low-grade crops are grown is incapable of producing human-edible food, but there’s still at least a kernel of validity in Ehrlich’s argument (of course, every single one of Ehrlich’s predictions regarding mass starvation, resource depletion and the like have failed to come to pass [just ask Julian Simon], but it’s undeniable that meat-production is more resource-intensive and that this may become important someday).

Having been raised by vegetarians, my opportunities for eating meat were generally pretty limited: school cafeterias and restaurants being the only real outlets. Despite some experimentation with McDonald’s happy meals and barely-digestible cafeteria chicken-fried steak, I pretty quickly settled into the family tradition of not eating meat. Of course I realized that this was unusual in the broader social context, but it felt normal. Not eating meat made for some awkward moments in high school and college, but by and large it wasn’t a big deal.

In fact, the only particularly annoying aspect of this lifestyle was the constant need to answer the question: “You don’t eat meat? Man, that’s so weird. Why?” A perfectly reasonable and perhaps even interesting question for the questioner to ask, but answering the same question again and again, especially when meeting new people, can get frustrating. This goes doubly when one’s answer is as boring as mine was: “Because it’s how I was raised”.

Of course, the conversation rarely ended there, since there had to be a reason for my being raised as such, so I got used to giving the explanation for why my parents are vegetarians: resource conservation, 7 pounds of grain for 1 pound of beef, etc. What was always most interesting to me was that most people I talked to had never heard this particular rationale behind not eating meat. In this day and age, most people, if they don’t know vegetarians personally, at least are familiar with the idea and know the standard justifications for it (this wasn’t always the case: in 19th century England vegetarianism was quite radical and was known for a while as “Pythagoreanism” before the vegetarians started marketing themselves a little better), but in my experience the Ehrlichian justification is still relatively rare.

The most common argument for vegetarianism is, of course, the one based on the notion that animals have a right not to be killed for human consumption. The animal rights approach of the ethical vegetarians is one that I’ve never identified with and I’ve always been quick to distance myself from that particular ideology (usually to the relief of those who asked me why I was a vegetarian). To me, it simply doesn’t make sense to argue that animals have rights equivalent to those of people, that there is a moral imperative not to kill them (I’m arguing here outside the context of religious beliefs; obviously, to the Hindu, there is a reasonable moral reason for not killing animals). Certainly it is aesthetically distasteful for animals to suffer unnecessarily, but such considerations don’t rise to the level of having moral force.

The most reasonable argument that I’ve heard for vegetarianism is the argument from marginal cases. As summarized in David Graham’s response to Tibor Machan’s “Why Animal Rights Don’t Exist”, terms are defined as follows:

So-called “marginal cases” are humans who lack the ability to reason or be held accountable for their actions but who are still considered part of the moral community and have a right not to be killed or made to suffer except in self-defense.

Examples are given of infants, the terminally senile, people with brain damage, the congenitally retarded, etc. In each instance the “marginal case” is, in terms of cognitive ability and moral development, essentially on the level of animals. Since such people are considered to have the right not to be killed, the argument goes, the same ought to be held for animals as well. Now, I think the inclusion of infants and the terminally senile on this list of “marginal cases” is disingenuous, but it’s certainly true that some humans are born with no more cognitive ability or moral sense than the average cow and that most people would think killing such a person for food is wrong, so the argument bears consideration.

Graham is also correct to point out that opponents of vegetarianism and animal rights typically ignore or gloss over this argument, and Machan’s attempt to deal with it is unsatisfying for precisely the reasons he mentions. However, as I persistent skeptic of absolute moral systems, I find Graham’s argument unconvincing as well. In my view, it seems doubtful that rights derive from an absolute morality; more and more I become convinced that rights derive from social agreements and interactions. People have the right not to be killed not because there’s a rule that says so written into the fabric of the universe, but because they agree not to kill others (which explains why I have no objection, in theory, to the death penalty, though I am against all implementations of the death penalty into practice). From this perspective, it’s clear that animals don’t have any particular rights, as they feel no particular qualms about killing whatever suits them (as with all general statements, there are exceptions: the family dog, for example, typically doesn’t attack the family and, not surprisingly, most families don’t eat their dogs).

That’s all well and good, but I seem to be tossing out the baby with the bathwater (literally). After all, the “marginal cases” that Graham mentions are no more capable than the average cow of agreeing not to harm others in any meaningful sense, so why can’t we eat babies or harvest the brain-damaged for their organs? In short, the basic answer is because the guardians of “marginal cases” protect their interests (and also, significantly, assume their responsibilities). If you insist on reducing everything to a property relationship, you could view “marginal cases” as the property of their guardians, making the killing of a “marginal case” wrong in the same way that stealing a car or burning down someone’s house is wrong. In a sense this is quite accurate, but I think it’s a bit misleading (as well as being too cold-hearted to be readily acceptable). A better way to view the situation might be as a sort of proxy relationship. The guardian assumes the responsibilities of the marginal case (that is to say, the guardian accepts responsibility for ensuring that the “marginal case” doesn’t injure or kill others) and, as a result, we accord the same rights to the “marginal case” as we do to a normal person.

Within this context, it’s easy to see the parallel to other animals. Wildlife preserves and pets are both examples of instances in which people assume a guardianship of certain animals, assuming the responsibility for ensuring that the animals in question don’t attack others or damage their property and, in return, everybody else agrees not to kill the protected animals. Even those who don’t think animals have any rights at all cannot coherently condone poaching on a private animal preserve or climbing over the neighbor’s fence to kill his pet dog. The point I’m trying to make is this: with all rights come responsibilities and if you’re going to argue for animal rights on the basis of “marginal cases”, then you need to assume the responsibilities that come with those rights in the same way that guardians of those same “marginal cases” assume their responsibilities.

Even if you don’t find all of the foregoing convincing, I want to proceed to one additional point: that ethical vegetarianism and veganism are usually (though not necessarily) very contradictory. Whenever I get into a discussion with a particularly fierce animal rights activist, I like to bring up (or link to, in the case of an online discussion) Maddox’s guiltless grill argument:

Well here’s something that not many vegetarians know (or care to acknowledge): every year millions of animals are killed by wheat and soy bean combines during harvesting season ( source ). Oh yeah, go on and on for hours about how all of us meat eaters are going to hell for having a steak, but conveniently ignore the fact that each year millions of mice, rabbits, snakes, skunks, possums, squirrels, gophers and rats are ruthlessly murdered as a direct result of YOUR dieting habits.

And the response to the usual rejoinder is obvious:

The defense “at least we’re not killing intentionally” is bullshit anyway. How is it not intentional if you KNOW that millions of animals die every year in combines during harvest? You expect me to believe that you somehow unintentionally pay money to buy products that support farmers that use combines to harvest their fields? Even if it was somehow unintentional, so what? That suddenly makes you innocent? I guess we should let drunk drivers off the hook too since they don’t kill intentionally either, right? There’s no way out of this one. The only option left for you dipshits is to buy some land, plant and pick your own crops. Impractical? Yeah, well, so is your stupid diet.

The point being that the majority of vegans (the ones that are honest with themselves, anyway) know their diet will cause the suffering and death of animals and that their decision not to embrace a lifestyle that would actually prevent that same suffering and death (i.e. planting their own crops and harvesting them in such a way as to prevent “collateral damage”) is based on practical, rather than moral, reasons. At this point, the justification for ethical vegetarianism devolves to consequentialism (“At least we’re causing less death and suffering than you nasty meat-eaters”), which I find deliciously ironic.

Maddox, of course, has his own response to this argument:

So what exactly constitutes as “prevention” of animal suffering? The moral vegetarians (not the ones who do it for religious or health reasons) love to chant “we’re trying to limit the suffering.” What the hell does that mean? If you eat wheat or soy, you’re not limiting anything. Unless you plant, grow and pick your own crops, you’re not doing everything you can to “limit” the suffering. You know deep down that you could help limit a whole lot more suffering, but you’ve chosen not to. You’ve chosen not to because your lifestyle is too convenient, and you’d have to give up too much, but nevermind that—you have a conscience to feel good about, and you can’t let a little thing like millions of violent deaths of field animals get in the way of your moral trip.

Which I think is a perfectly reasonable response, but in perusing the footnotes of his original argument, I came across a link to an article entitled “Least Harm Principle suggests that Humans should eat beef not vegan,” which takes the notion propounded by certain vegans that “we must choose the food products that, overall, cause the least harm to the least number of animals” and tries to determine what a person who subscribes to it should eat. The calculations aren’t particularly precise, but they suggest that a diet high in foraging ruminants like cows, calves, sheep and lambs would, if universally adopted, save hundreds of millions of animal lives when compared to universal adoption of a vegan diet.

This is predicated on the assumption that those ruminants would be foraging (i.e. no cattle feedlots, veal crates, etc.) and, as I said, the statistics used are overly simplified (e.g. there’s no justification given for the assumption that doubling ruminant consumption would replace poultry consumption), but the basic methodology seems relatively sound. What’s fascinatingly counter-intuitive is, of course, the conclusion: consistent application of the principles used by most vegans to justify their diet suggests that we should eat more beef and fewer grains.

Of course, as detailed above, I don’t buy the moral justification for veganism to begin with, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy the irony.

1 Strictly speaking, actually, I wasn’t a vegetarian, as we occasionally ate some fish. I mention this because “real” vegetarians and vegans would declaim me as a “former vegetarian,” but to the majority of humanity, someone who doesn’t eat animal flesh other than fish about once a month is pretty damned vegetarian.

May 27, 2004

Spontaneous order revisited

Posted by shonk at 02:00 AM | permalink | 5 comments

Back in September, I wrote a post critiquing the responses of Tim Swanson and Brian Doss (of Catallarchy fame) to Stephen Strogatz’ book Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life. Those responses an be found in Brian’s initial post and the ensuing comments thread and suggest that those studying spontaneous order would be best served by following Alfred Marshall’s advice to “burn the mathematics”. My post (which apparently lost the first paragraph or two in the switch to a new domain back in December), is called “Spontaneous Order” and also spawned a response from Neil.

Okay, with the citations out of the way, the issue of the day is whether I still agree with what I said back in September, now that I’ve just finished reading the book; and the answer is largely “yes”. In fact, I don’t think I went nearly far enough in my criticism of the notion that those studying spontaneous order should avoid mathematical formalism. For example, the following was my conclusive summary of the post:

My point is not to demonstrate that the study of spontaneous order is a mathematical discipline, nor that it should be. Rather, I just want to make the point that it has certain similarities to mathematics and, of course, will necessarily need to use mathematical tools in many instances. In fact, though I admit to not knowing nearly enough to be able to have any insights, it seems like mathematics, especially areas of study like graph theory and networks, might be able to shed some light on some of the applications of spontaneous order mentioned by Strogatz

Not very bold, right? Well, I hadn’t actually read the book yet. Now that I have, it’s abundantly clear that anybody who has actually read Strogatz’ book already knows that it is, at heart, a math book; the fact that it’s not publicized as such has more to do with the irrational fear most people have of mathematics. Virtually every result Strogatz cites is a result in pure or applied mathematics, with all the usual deduction and separation from empirical strategies that that entails. Many of these are proofs about idealized models of coupled oscillators, results which probably help explain how, for example, Thai fireflies flash in sync, but building an experiment to actually test this is so difficult that it apparently hasn’t been done to any degree of satisfaction yet (or, if it has, Strogatz doesn’t mention it). The same holds for, say, three-dimensional synchronicity, which has applications to cardiac arrhythmia, but which is discussed in the book purely in terms of mathematics and chemical reactions in a very special kind of fluid.

The point is this: right now, the mathematics of spontaneous order is both several steps ahead of and well behind the real world. It’s several steps ahead in the sense that mathematical explanations of synchronous processes seems, in large measure, to be ahead of the capability of experimental science to confirm (or deny, of course). On the other hand, mathematics is obviously very far behind the real world, as we can’t yet accurately model the spontaneous order that occurs between nerve cells to make our hearts beat, let alone the presumably much more complicated processes occurring within our brains. Whatever the case, reading Strogatz’ book confirmed my suspicion that, in fact, mathematics is essential to the emerging field of spontaneous order (as a side note, both Doss and Swanson, in the original Catallarchy post linked above, seem to reject mathematics because it conflicts with the principles of Austrian economics and the Austrians’ rejection of empirical economics is well-known; so my question is this: if Austrians reject empiricism as well as mathematics (i.e. deduction), how, exactly, do they advocate gaining knowledge? (Of course, I know the answer, but the Austrian-sympathizers would do well, in my opinion, to keep this question in mind)).

This all having been said, Sync was a bit too devoid of mathematical content for my taste, in the sense that, although almost everything in the book boiled down to mathematics, Strogatz explained most of the actual mathematical machinery in terms of analogies to runners on a track or audiences clapping or whatever, whereas I would have liked to see greater mathematical rigor (not necessarily the equations themselves, which are almost certainly too complicated to mean very much to the uninitiated, but rather a more rigorous argument, with references to actual mathematical principles, theorems, etc.). For example, when Strogatz says “[u]sing a theorem from topology, Winfree proved that a twisted scroll ring was impossible, at least as a solitary entity”, it would have been nice if he had explained what theorem, exactly, even if only in the endnotes. Or, as Neil says,

In fact, as [Strogatz] chronicled the mathematical history of sync as an abstract study, I found myself wanting various symbols and equations

As an ego-boost, I’ll point out that in the above quotation from my September post, my suggestion that graph theory and networks “might be able to shed some light on some of the applications of spontaneous order mentioned by Strogatz” was right on, as Chapter Nine of Sync is titled and devoted to “Small-World Networks”.

Now, a couple of quotations to think about (I’ve omitted one interesting and very extended passage, because I want to dedicate and entire, separate post to it, hopefully some time this weekend):

In other words, a dumb rule (majority rule) running on a smart architecture (a small world) achieved performance that broke the world record.

— pg. 251 (Here, Strogatz is talking about the density classification problem for one-dimensional binary automata, where he and one of his students decided to re-wire the binary automata as a small-world network — where most of the connections between automata (think lightbulbs) are locally clustered, but a few are long-distance — and almost immediately, using the simplest algorithm imaginable, were able to solve the problem more consistently than the best algorithm using “dumb architecture”)

Barabási and his team pointed out that scale-free networks [like the Internet or protein interactions in yeast] also embody a compromise bearing the stamp of natural selection: They are inherently resistant to random failures, yet vulnerable to deliberate attack against their hubs. Given that mutations occur at random, natural selection favors designs that can tolerate haphazard insults. By their very geometry, scale-free networks are robust with respect to random failures, because the vast majority of nodes have few links and are therefore expendable. Unfortunately, this evolutionary design has a downside. When hubs are selectively targeted (something that random mutation could never do), the integrity of the network degrades rapidly—the size of the giant component collapses and the average path length swells, as nodes become isolated, cast adrift on their own little islands.

— pg. 257

Helbing and Huberman computed the long-term traffic patterns under a variety of different conditions. When there were only a few vehicles on the road, all the cars sailed past the slower-moving trucks without ever decelerating, while the trucks lumbered along at their maximum safe speed of 55 miles an hour. At higher but still moderate densities of traffic, some unlucky cars found themselves trapped behind trucks for a long time, with no room to pass or switch lanes.

At a critical density of traffic—about 35 vehicles in each lane per mile of road—all the cars and trucks spontaneously synchronized, traveling down the highway like a solid block. Remarkably, out of pure competition, with no coordinator or central authority, a large group of selfish individuals ended up in a cooperative state that was optimal for all of them. (Adam Smith would approve.) This state was optimal in the sense that the flux of traffic was as high as it could be: The number of cars and trucks passing through a given stretch of highway per hour was maximized. It was also the safest way for traffic to flow, because the drivers had no opportunities to change lanes or pass (the maneuvers associated with most accidents). Helbing and Huberman tested their model against data taken from a two-lane Dutch highway and found evidence of the predicted state. At the critical density, the car speeds were at their most stable, as measured by their velocity fluctuations, and lane changing and passing were minimized. Unfortunately—and as the model also predicted—the crystalline state proved to be delicate. At densities just above critical, it melted into a disorganized liquid state, which created opportunities for passing again, leading to unsteady, stop-and-go traffic.

— pgs. 269-70

“In individuals, insanity is rare, but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.”

— Nietzsche, cited on pg. 273

March 27, 2004

Statistics prove that God is dead

Posted by shonk at 02:00 AM | permalink | 6 comments

A while ago Elliot posted a rather scornful entry criticizing Richard Dawkins; while Elliot got a little carried away with the name-calling, I think he made some valid criticisms of Dawkins. Eventually, someone came across it on Google, fired off an email, Elliot cc’d the exchange to a high school friend in grad school, Neil and I got involved and the emailer responded. From that latest email:

There are lots of compelling reasons to reject or dismiss religious claims. I am not someone who comes to the discussion with no knowledge: I am an anthropologist, a student of comparative religion, and someone who has read every major religious text and many minor ones. To me, the best and really the only necessary argument against religion IS ALL THE DIFFERENT RELIGIONS. You are a Christian; great. But most people in the world are not. They have their own religions, that they believe just as fervently as you do yours, and that they “argue” for and find “evidence” for. But if yours is true, theirs are false. But if theirs are true, yours is false. A simple thought experiment: say there are 100 religions in the world. Each has an equal chance of being “true.” That means that each has a 1% chance of being true. That means that each has a 99% chance of being false. A recent study counted 33,000 sects JUST OF CHRISTIANITY. They must differ enough on some points to be different churches or denominations. So, the chances of any one sect “getting it right” is 0.003%. The chances of being wrong, whatever you believe, are at least 99.997%. Or, if there is no god at all, then 100%.
So you see, we atheists do not even need an argument! We bear no burden of proof, since we make no claims; we only question a claim—a claim with no good evidence for it and the odds stacked IMMENSELY against it. Evil schmevil, the point is that a theist believes against all odds.

So, statistically, we’ve proven that God is dead? I suspect even Nietzsche is rolling over in his grave at that.

Elliot promises a response, but I say: what’s the point in responding? Just because most religions are wrong on one count or another doesn’t mean they’re all wrong about everything. If one wants to argue religion based on demographics, one could just as easily point out that all religions share their rejection of materialism, meaning that the overwhelming majority of people and belief systems reject materialism. Hence, if we grant each worldview an equal probability of being “right”, then materialist atheism has a very, very tiny chance indeed of being correct.

I’ve addressed this whole argument from demographics thing before simply by noting that 20 million people can, indeed, be wrong. Although the approach is slightly different this time around, the basic cause remains the same: most people, even highly intelligent people, don’t understand numbers very well, especially in a statistical context. If we reduce an issue, be it buying a car or adopting a belief system, to a simple binary choice, then we’re going to get impressive statistics supporting both sides of the argument. Chevy may advertise that 20 million Americans bought the Lumina, but they conveniently fail to mention that this implies that 260 million Americans didn’t buy a Lumina. Similarly, an atheist can say “there’s 30,000 religions, so the probability that any one is right is, like, 0.003%”, but he usually fails to mention that this implies there are at least 30,001 different belief systems, including atheism, so he, too, only has a 0.003% chance of being right.

Another example of where a lack of quantitative literacy, to use Lynn Steen’s term, creates severe misconceptions arises in the context of the book I was re-reading today, Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac. In it, the protagonist/quasi-eco-terrorist/resident asshole, Sangamon Taylor, rails at several points about major polluters using the analogy of “an eyedropper-full of ‘compounds’ going into a railway tank car of pure water” to explain parts per million of pollutants for the TV cameras. Taylor goes off on a banana-peel-on-a-football-field rap, but he could also have countered by noting that one part per million of some noxious pollutant with a molar mass similar to that of water would mean 3 x 10^16, or 30 quadrillion, molecules of that pollutant in each and every drop of water in that tank car. In the chapter on asbestos in his excellent book A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos points out this counter-argument is also misleading, but the point is that there are scary-sounding statistics supporting pretty much any perspective you like.

Paulos has been trying his best to teach people a bit of basic mathematical literacy over the years, with books like A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper and Innumeracy, but I think it’s fair to say that there are still plenty of people who are easily manipulated by the use of statistics. It’s hard to disagree with Paulos and the likes of Steen et al. in Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy when they argue that “numeracy” or “quantitative literacy” is more important than ever in a society such as ours (even though the ideological slant in Quantitative Literacy is a bit grating).

Anyway, the point is that statistics can be misleading and deceptive even in instances where they are applicable. Getting back to the religion question, however, the larger point is that statistics aren’t even relevant to begin with. All they do is obscure the debate. If there is or isn’t a God, it really doesn’t matter how many people believe in him/her/it. To draw another analogy, just because the majority of people throughout the bulk of human history found slavery acceptable doesn’t mean they were right; by the same token, the fact that the majority of people throughout history were wrong about slavery doesn’t mean they were wrong about loving their children or any number of other beliefs they had. “Right” and “wrong”, if we stipulate that such things exist in the first place, aren’t subject to a vote.

March 18, 2004

Keep an eye on these...

Posted by shonk at 09:40 PM | permalink | comment

  • blog maverick — Mark Cuban, the controversial and always entertaining owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has started a weblog. Cuban isn’t afraid to name names or speak his mind and I enjoy how he likes sticking it to reporters. Yesterday he was talking to reporters while on the Stairmaster about his latest fine from the league and told them that, instead of answering their questions directly, he would address them on his blog:

    The satisfaction of knowing that each will have to explain to their editors what a blog is — and argue for who knows how long about whether or not BlogMaverick.com is an attributable source — crept over me and that jaunt on the gauntlet flew by.

    As Eric McErlain points out, “[t]his is great news — both for journalists and sports blogs.”

  • An investigation into logic — Over at mock savvy, Neil is starting a series of posts that will do precisely what the title suggests:

    The motive for this embarkation is self-interest; for me, the most effective way to elucidate the many discrete questions that arise during the course of a study is to simply envisage them in some prosaic form, provide possible answers along the way, and hopefully ending up with some quasi-satisfactory results.

    I, for one, am looking forward to it, as Neil has already shown a good deal of insight into the values and pitfalls of formal systems.

March 09, 2004

The poisonous embrace of ethics

Posted by Curt at 02:24 PM | permalink | 2 comments

While it may be true that I expend too many words in this blog attacking various targets right and left, without method or organization, I still sometimes feel that I don’t have enough time to challenge the legitimacy of all the heathen idols that I would like to. For example: “bioethicists.” I don’t think that this server has enough storage capacity for me to answer the question of why “bioethicists” even exist or why we should (or shouldn’t) listen to a damn thing they say, so this might be one case in which it would behoove me to move straight to specifics rather than, as is my wont, lingering among abstract first principles. Here is an excellent Glenn Reynolds posting, with numerous links, on the pseudo-controversy surrounding the “stacking” of the President’s Council on Bioethics, the body which has made quite an international name for itself in the last couple of years with its recommendations on stem-cell research, among other things. Well, who knows whether Bush or any of his minions would have been greatly influenced by this committee no matter what they recommended, but the point is that it provided a veneer of scientific and ethical legitimacy to the ban on stem-cell research and any other laws on bioengineering that the president chooses to propose, so its motives warrant examination.

Maybe the best example of the point that I am fishing my way towards is best demonstrated by this example that Reynolds links to, which ostensibly has nothing to do with bioethics, namely the feelings of the head of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, on the subject of eating in public. Well, fine, here is the relevant paragraph:

“Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone —a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.

I fear I may by this remark lose the sympathy of many reader, people who will condescendingly regard as quaint or even priggish the view that eating in the street is for dogs. Modern America’s rising tide of informality has already washed out many long-standing traditions — their reasons long before forgotten — that served well to regulate the boundary between public and private; and in many quarters complete shamelessness is treated as proof of genuine liberation from the allegedly arbitrary constraints of manners. To cite one small example: yawning with uncovered mouth. Not just the uneducated rustic but children of the cultural elite are now regularly seen yawning openly in public (not so much brazenly or forgetfully as indifferently and “naturally”), unaware that it is an embarrassment to human self-command to be caught in the grip of involuntary bodily movements (like sneezing, belching, and hiccuping and even the involuntary bodily display of embarrassment itself, blushing). But eating on the street — even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat — displays in fact precisely such lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. Hunger must be sated now; it cannot wait. Though the walking street eater still moves in the direction of his vision, he shows himself as a being led by his appetites. Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. Eating on the run does not even allow the human way of enjoying one’s food, for it is more like simple fueling; it is hard to savor or even to know what one is eating when the main point is to hurriedly fill the belly, now running on empty. This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if WE feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.”

I’m not sure that this view is “quaint,” but it is certainly “priggish” as well as petty-minded to an almost incredible degree (relevant Bill Hicks quote: “I smoke. If this bothers anyone, I recommend you look around the world in which we live, and shut your fucking mouth”) but that is only partly the reason I think it sheds light on the tone of the bioethics debate. Notice how he phrases his condemnation of eating in public. He does not say: “I don’t eat in public because I feel it shows a mawkish lack of self-control,” but rather: “This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if WE feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.” Granted, he does not say that there ought to be a law against eating in public, but he does say that it “ought to be kept from public view” much as, I suppose, vagrants are “kept from public view.” So Kass dislikes eating in public because he is disgusted by the fact that people feel so “liberated” that they can do whatever they like with no self-restraint, but Kass himself feels that people have so little ability to control themselves that they ought to be restrained from behaving as they see fit, even if those actions, like eating in public, have absolutely no effect on anyone around them (except, evidently, for Kass and those like him, who are “offended”). I leave it for you to judge who has more respect for individual self-sufficiency and self-control. I think this may shed a little bit of light on Kass’ mentality, and as arguably the most powerful “bioethicist” in the country, it seems somewhat relevant, especially if he is at all representative of bioethicists today, or even of the members of the President’s Council on Bioethics (who are all selected by him). And actually, that example, it seems to me, is a surprisingly exact corollary, minus the alleged ethical and religious issues involved, to the abortion debate itself, in which the views of those who insist on the ultimate control of the individual over themselves and all that is within their body are opposed to those who believe that, evidently, each person’s cycles of self-maintenance and reproduction are within the public weal to control. It is interesting that Kass, once again, this ostensible champion of “self-control,” should on this issue, as well, have so little regard for the determinative capacity of the individual.

I don’t know when life can be definitively established to “begin” among the unborn, but I do know that up until almost the moment of birth they are not self-sufficient life forms, any more than is a liver or a leg, and I am not sure that it can be consistently argued that fetusus, which have not biological independence nor self-sufficiency, are fully the moral equals of living humans, while animals, which have, are not. But in any case, while I have been trying to focus on the specific issue at hand to avoid blanket condemnations of “bioethics,” now I find that it seems less relevant to me whether the PCB is actually stacked with pro-lifers, or even that there is a ban on stem-cell research, than what it means that there is such a thing as the “President’s Council on Bioethics” at all. Presumably such a thing could only have arisen from the assumption that ethical considerations should shape public policy, which, as I have said before, is not only a common intellecutual error, but a deliberate falsehood and manipulation propogated to grant the law a moral legitimacy that it has no claim to. As for the field of “bioethics” itself, I can understand the need to fully grasp the actual scientific issues and concepts involved in a particular question in order to make moral decisions about it, which obviously most people outside of the scientific community do not, but at the same time I am equally inclined to imagine that the scientists doing the research in question, who presumably do, probably have as well-developed a moral intuition as the average citizen or “bioethicist,” and so I would guess that he or she would be able to assess the ethical validity of what they are doing just as well as a no doubt highly educated “bioethicist” (unless of course you believe that professors of ethics, by dint of their study of ethics, are actually more capable of making virtuous moral choices than everyone else). So maybe I have arrived at a more general condemnation of “bioethics” after all: it strikes me as a bit presumptuous to claim not only that special academic qualification is required to understand scientific research, which is defensible, but that it is also required to make moral decisions, which is not (I am aware that this criticism could be equally well-applied to ethicists in general, but I feel that ethics by itself has less of a forbidding air of erudition surrounding it than “bioethics,” and hence is less in need of iconoclasm; most people, by virtue of their moral intuition, would probably feel more confident to challenge Kant than they would Leon Kass).

March 05, 2004

And God is proved to exist!-and hence doesn't

Posted by Curt at 07:36 PM | permalink | comment

Science has often been called “the new religion,” but this latest scientific misadventure is what I believe would in economics be termed rent-seeking behavior in spiritual matters.

February 08, 2004

Aliens Cause Global Warming

Posted by shonk at 02:44 AM | permalink | comment

Please, do yourself a favor and read Michael Crichton’s speech Aliens Cause Global Warming. If you still have a few minutes, be sure to check out his Remarks to the Commonwealth Club, which touch on similar issues.

November 26, 2003

Handing out cheap coke

Posted by Curt at 08:26 PM | permalink | comment

Has anyone heard about this phenomenon of prescribing Ritalin and other ADD treatments to adults? I can't seem to link to the WSJ article where I read about it, but this article validates my initial reaction: "Oh, so now they're handing out cheap coke." I know not everyone is a great Nietzsche enthusiast like me, but it's getting increasingly difficult to contest his vision in the "Genealogy of Morals" of the whole world becoming a hospital or a madhouse where the sick patients treat each other.