Friday, March 13, 2015

The First Law of Holes and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

The First law of holes: If you’re in one stop digging.
Right wing and fundamentalist Christians dig in over the 2nd law of thermodynamics!

The North American Intelligent Design community continues to seek justification for their “God-of-the-Gaps” dualist theologies. In a post on ID web site “Uncommon Descent” entitled The illusion of organizing energy dated March 10th somebody who signs on as “niwrad” makes the well-worn but erroneous claim that the Second Law of Thermodynamics contradicts evolution. Quoting niward’s first and end paragraphs:

The 2nd law of statistical thermodynamics states that in a closed system any natural transformation goes towards the more probable states. The states of organization are those more improbable, then transformations spontaneously go towards non-organization, so to speak. Since evolution would be spontaneous organization, evolution disagrees with the 2nd law. 

To sum up, the 2nd law in the context of statistical thermodynamics, provides a fundamental reason why naturalistic origin of life is impossible. To resort to energy doesn’t solve the problem, because energy is not a source of organization, rather the inverse: uncontrolled energy can cause destruction (= non-organization). Only intelligence is a source of organization, and as such can explain the arise of life, the more organized thing in the cosmos.

niwrad’s motivation for this argument, as I have remarked before, is clear: As part of the “Homunculus ID” community niwrad’s aim is to first find a physics based argument against evolution, with all the associations of rigor and prestige that goes with physics, and then use it to support an implicit Natural forces vs. God theology. From the second quote above the drift of niwrad’s line of thought can be seen: He’s dichotomizing “naturalistic origins” against “intelligent intervention”, and by intelligent intervention we know he really means God did it!.  That niwrad has, or is at least moving toward, an interventionist theology of life’s generation is evidenced by this quote:

…systems that are KO, do not self-repair and remain KO until an intelligent intervention.

niwrad’s first mistake is that he sets up a straw man as I hope to make clear from the following quotes:

Notice that control has even to organize the energy itself powering the system. If energy really had the organizing capability evolutionists believe, one would ask why systems theory does such distinction in the first place…..
Energy can power the systems, but never can create the organized system in the first place. In short, energy is the fuel, not the engine…..
In all definitions of “energy” there is nothing that could lead us to think that energy is able to transform improbable states into probable states. Consequently, energy cannot change the situation of the 2nd law: energy cannot create organization, which always implies highly improbable states.

The inherent straw man here doesn't cut the mustard with me, although it clearly does for niwrad. His concept, mischievously attributed to "evolutionists", of a concentrated but otherwise undifferentiated lump of energy somehow having the power to organize may have its roots in the following general observation: To thrive biological systems require a low entropy energy source such as the Sun in order to reproduce. As organisms reproduce they are effectively annexing and organizing matter and the low entropy energy consumed by life in this process is then exhausted at a higher entropy. The upshot is that in spite of life’s ability to co-opt matter into ever greater organized communities this increase in organisation can only ever be local and the net result is always an upward trend in global entropy: The growth of life consumes low entropy but exhausts (or excretes) high entropy thereby more than offsetting the organization introduced by life.

As a specific example of the foregoing general fact consider the following scenario: Imagine we have a well-insulated and sealed box with the right internal temperature containing the appropriate nutrients and some fungal spores. Without any inputs or outputs it is possible for these spores to generate some highly organized fungal structures thereby effectively annexing and organising relatively large amounts of matter taken from the nutrient bed. But in spite of the local increases in order as the fungi grow and thrive there is, of course, an increase in global entropy. In fact in time this isolated system will run down completely and the fungi will die once they have exhausted the supply of useable low entropy energy. Thus, local organization increases are a temporary phenomenon allowed by the 2nd law, a law which doesn't prohibit the appearance of local pockets of order although it does prohibit increases in global order.

The category of system I've talked about in the foregoing paragraph only works by way of the biological machinery and information that has been “front loaded” into the system in the form of the fungal spores. This machinery and information provides a kind of constraint on the random thermal agitations of the system which means that as the global order in the system runs down it passes through states where local increases in order are allowed; the miracle brought about by the machinery of life is that it permits a situation of local order increases in the face of a global entropy increase. This means that what niwrad thinks of as a move to improbable states is in fact a move to probable states; these states turn out to be states where a local increase in order is highly probable. Moreover, to use niwrad’s dichotomized language, this system is entirely natural and entails no “Intelligent Intervention” in the dualist sense that people like niwrad habitually think of it. Of course, this life creating system needs the “front loaded” information in the form of spores, but it is precisely here that niwrad and many other Intelligence-of-the-Gaps theologians err.

For if evolution is to work in the way the academic establishment tells us it does and remain "natural" then it must work in a similar manner to our sealed box system. It is on this matter that niwrad makes his big mistake of completely underestimating the comprehension of at least some of the sophisticated evolutionary academic establishment as he tries to get past us his distorted straw man: Viz that those evolutionists believe mere undifferentiated and concentrated energy is enough to bring about organisation. Rubbish!

Using the isolated and sealed box as a prototype we infer that in evolution the global entropy of the solar system runs down, but as with the isolated and sealed box physics permits local increases in order, such as the creation of life .......and that creation occurs because there is present some kind of front loaded informational mechanism. niwrad and an unholy communion of right wing and fundamentalist Christians are unwilling to give credit to those atheist evolutionists who do understand the need for this front loading:  See for the example the comment section of  this blog post of mine where it is clear from the comments made by atheist Joe Felsenstein that he understands the need for this “front loaded” information, information which he sees being present in the fitness space that guides the random diffusion of the evolutionary process. He himself believes that this fitness space is implicit in physics and has given reason why he thinks this is so (Follow the links and see his post on “Panda’s Thumb”). Of course as an atheist Felsenstein doesn't feel there is reason here to then invoke theology, but the point is he completely understands the need for the a priori provision of information in evolution; although to him the origin of this information in physics is rather mysterious, a mystery which he leaves to the physicists.

Like other God-of-the-Gaps creationists niwrad sees himself fighting against what he habitually thinks of as the “naturalism” of evolution:

In this context the alleged naturalistic origin of life stated by evolutionism is a non-sequitur.

Well, the sealed box system disproves that idea! This is niwrad's second big mistake: Life can be generated by so-called naturalistic origins if providenced with the right "natural" information; something which I suspect the Divine Mind is more than capable of. But for niwrad and his right wing and fundamentalist friends this won't do because it would look too much like "naturalism", something against which they have staked all in the polarised stand-off against atheists. They would much prefer a creation absent of any life generating capability as that would give more support for those God-of-the-Gaps interventions: God-of-the-Gaps thinking is actually  prompted by the ID community's so-called explanatory filter; an epistemic method which when used in a theological context simply amounts to “Natural forces can’t do it, therefore God did it!”. These right-wingers won’t budge from their misconceptions about the true status of the Second Law of Thermodynamics because their stake in their erroneous position is far too high for them to back out now; in short they have backed themselves into a corner, or if you like, dug themselves into a hole. In being so intransigent they are doing untold damage to the Christian cause.

***
My own position re. this subject is that there is, in fact, no front loaded information in physical systems that facilitates them delivering biology in realistic times and that it is unlikely physics as we know it is up to this task – although I could be wrong here, this is my current thinking. More about my own exploration of this subject can be read in the links below. There are two strands to this thinking: a) Theological: That the immanence of God suggests something more than just a sustaining and intervening presence as per the homunculus IDists and b) Physical: That the physics of quantum mechanics looks suspiciously like a form of proactive declarative cognition with potentially huge parallel resources available.  

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Another Solution(?) to OOL using Front Loading


Successful OOL theories (Origin of Life theories) have been hard to come by and I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that with regard to the detailed mechanism of OOL “Scientists haven’t got a clue”. However, the latest OOL attempt by physicist Jeremy England to tackle this problem is causing a minor flurry of interest. In the video above he gives a general run down on his ideas. His essential idea is that life is a successful way of dissipating a low entropy energy source into high entropy energy and therefore life is actually favoured by the second law of thermodynamics, a conclusion that is very ironic*1 (I hope to consider England’s views in more detail in a later blog post)

Not everyone is very convinced. In fact evangelical atheist Larry Moran is rather sarcastic. For myself, at this stage, I’m inclined to say “Perhaps, but probably not!”; England makes no appeal to the exponentiating power of the expanding parallelism that would be needed to solve the OOL problem in realistic time from scratch. It follows, then, that  in order for England’s proposal to work he must assume that suitable a priori information, probably in the form of some kind of generalised “Fitness space”*2 is front loaded into our cosmic physical regime; see my blog post here and atheist biologist Joe Felsenstein’s accompanying comments about the work of William Dembski. For me this is the undoing of England’s proposal: My expectation is that the cosmic physical regime doesn't have such blatant informational “front loading” and that the cosmos therefore has to work hard for its solutions, just as one expects any sensible algorithm to actually seek solutions and not have them built in from the start to be merely revealed in some kind of decompression process. However, in saying this I must confess that I’m using my very anthropomorphic a priori instincts about what would constitute a purposeful and teleologically useful computation to guide my expectations on this subject; after all I am a theist and that changes a lot, a priori.

Inevitably this sort of theory by England will lead to popular talk about “disproving God”, or “God being on the ropes”. In this connection see this web page at the Independent and this one at Salon.  Salon’s headline says:  

God is on the ropes: The brilliant new science that has creationists and the Christian right terrified

In my view Salon is being fair here because they are singling out “Creationists and the Christian Right”, terms which don’t cover all Christians by any means. This follows because the de-facto connotations of the term “Creationist”  is bound up with Young Earthist religious fundamentalism and the Christian right, sometimes the very far right. It is these right wing and fundamentalist Christians who are likely to have an underlying dualist theology of “God vs. Natural Forces”, a theology which tends to favour a “God-of-the-Gaps” account of creation. In this right wing context it is usually tacitly assumed that science cannot complete the account*3 of the origin of life in terms of “natural forces” and will therefore leave big gaps inviting the Christian right to fill them in with “God did it!” assertions. In fact this kind of logic is even found among the more sophisticated and less abrasive evangelicals of the de-facto Intelligent Design movement – see for example IDist V J Torley whose arguments have a very telling God-of-the-gaps vs. natural forces theme running through them. The kind of homunculus creator favored by God-of-the-gaps theologians is rooted in the very Western concept of the divine persona as a kind of jumped up tinkering engineer, a theology that many Western anti-theists also will share in concept form (only) and who are therefore engaged in frantic research that they hope will fill in all those scientific gaps with “natural forces”.

One of the driving forces behind the polarization of the two opposing sides who respectively argue in favour of “God” or “natural forces” seems to be political. The Christian right don’t have a very good relationship with the government paid servants of official academia. The Christian right, who are more likely to be on the side of big business*4 rather than big government, hate the sight of the government paid academics (whether they be Christian or atheist). Some extreme right wingers such as Mormon Glenn Beck and fundamentalist Kent Hovind perceive official academia to be part of a government conspiracy that is pushing theories like evolution and anthropogenic global warming in order to control and deceive us!


Footnotes.

*1 England’s work is another indication of the naivety of the Christian right wing who are forever trying to use the Second Law of Thermodynamics as an in principle disproof of evolution. It never seems to occur to them that the Second Law only tells us about the rather insensitive parameter of entropy, a parameter which as a global property of an isolated system does not dictate what is happening locally in that system. Moreover, from the perspective of a theist such as myself it would seem to be little problem for God to arrange a system where order can increase locally, but never globally; that is, the 2nd law is only telling us about the global entropy and nothing about any clever physics with which the Almighty has Providenced the cosmic regime to bring about the generation of life locally by feeding off high entropy sources in the process - in such a scenario the global entropy of an isolated system would always increase. The desire by the Christian right to find in principle reason against the "natural" generation of life traces back to their philosophical dualism expressed as a God  vs. Nature dichotomy; they see God as a kind of magical conjurer who does his supernatural stuff every now and then. The Christian right's views here are also bound up with their polarized political antipathy toward government financed academics who as a rule support standard evolution.

*2 See my configuration space series here. My work on configuration space resulted in my dispensing with the idea that this space contains a sufficiently connected set of stable organic forms to facilitate “evolutionary” diffusion. I then went back to my earlier ideas of the "Melencolia I" series.

*3 Incomplete description mustn't be confused with the grand logical hiatus (i.e. ultimate contingency) that pervades all our theories, descriptively complete or otherwise. See here: http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/contingency-and-grand-logical-hiatus.html

*4 There is a paradox in right wing thinking about business; On the one hand they are very much in favour of hands-off governments and market driven anarchism. This view, if implemented, leads to a loosening of controls thereby favouring towering business monopolies and plutocracies which end up looking very much like corrupt autocratic governments.

Other Relevant links:
http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/more-god-of-gaps-from-north-american-id.html
http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/misplaced-concreteness-theology-of.html


ADDENDUM 4/03/2015 Fundamentalist Intellectual Bankruptcy
The intellectual poverty of some members of the Christian right wing is no better illustrated than Ken Ham's unthinking dismal of England's OOL "solution". Completely unable to engage England's work Ham can do little more than dismiss it as obviously foolish and issue the usual religious threats as is the wont of the cornered and marginalized fundamentalist. Now, I think it very likely that England is wrong and neither do I think that standard evolution with its manifest necessity for front loaded information is right, But I'll at least give intelligent academics like England the respect and credit they deserve; after all, it is just possible that it pleases the Almighty to reveal the truth of the matter to such people.  The following blog entry was published by Ham. Very tellingly and disparagingly Ham talks about natural processes.  Ham represents a nadir in Christian thought.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Avoiding Dependency in Global Christian Mission

Spiegel Says (my emphasis): A goatherd with his flock on a road under construction north of Nairobi Kenya. Critics say Western aid, the way it is currently structured, has made recipient countries dependent on help from abroad.


Developmental aid for Africa from the West has long been of questionable efficacy; to cut a long story short this aid has so often encouraged unhealthy dependency. See for example this article on Spiegel Online:
See also the accompanying Photo Album:

Christian Mission has faced similar problems of unintentionally promoting African dependency on handouts.. Christian Missionary and Anthropologist Dr Jim Harries lives in Kenya and has spent much time pondering and writing about these problems. He is heading up the UK April 2015 conferences advertised here. Jim promotes a method of Christian Mission that uses local languages and local resources, without the potentially destabilizing effects of Western resources. Moreover, the use of local languages challenges missionaries to gain a deep understanding of the local culture and with it comes a much greater chance of reading the subtexts that tell us about the why's and wherefore's of Western project failures in Africa.

I may be presenting a paper at one of the conferences. If I do here is the abstract: 

De-polarising the dependency vs. independency dichotomy
What is at the bottom of the frequent failure of African development and Christian mission projects, projects prompted and assisted by Western Civilisation?  What prevents Western ways seamlessly grafting on to the African context?  This paper probes both the rural African and Western cultural mind sets and discovers incommensurability between the two. This incommensurability is very apparent in contrasting views about the source of “fortune”;  that is,  the hidden engine which drives everyday events.  Differences in the understanding of the nature of this engine lead to very different perspectives:  On the one hand the rural African has little inhibition about having a resource dependent identity but the downside of this is that it can compromise proactivity and responsibility. On the other hand the Westerner who feels he comprehensively grasps the underlying mechanisms that drive the cosmos may all too readily be prey to an unhealthy control freakery and an independence of the divine. Both perspectives have positives and negatives and constitute a thesis-antithesis pair crying out for synthesis.  This current paper, which grew out of a discussion document co-authored with Jim Harries , seeks a path between irresponsible dependency and the proud self-sufficiency of independency.

As the flint of Western thought grinds against the frizzen of Africa sparks are being produced igniting the fires of many fruitful discussions about African development. These discussions in turn could help address the problematical philosophical nihilism which so easily grows out of purely secular thinking thereby plaguing Western societies with deep existential crises.

(See also: http://www.vulnerablemission.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/OB_Spring_2014.pdf)

Spiegel says: Ideally, foreign aid should not offer anything that locals cannot do themselves. Expertise can be helpful, as here in Adama, Ethiopia. But foreign aid workers should not get in the way of local initiative.


Spiegel says: Many well known stars, such as Bob Geldof, have become heavily involved in African aid. But some say that we need to get away from the idea the more money necessarily means more help.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Evidence: Guide Lines but not Tram Lines

For the epistemically naive evidence is thought to lead straight to the Truth.

As usual evangelical atheist Larry Moran is keeping me on the hop with his interesting and thought provoking blog. This time it's a post about "Evidence for the existence of god(s)”. I reproduce the short post in its entirety below:


Evidence for the existence of god(s)

I am always on the lookout for evidence that some sort of god actually exists. The reason I'm an atheist is because I've never seen any evidence that's the least bit convincing. I keep asking for evidence but nobody ever supplies any. Somebody suggested to Barry Arrington that there was no evidence for god(s) and that really set him off [Astonishingly Stupid Things Atheists Say].

He responded with a list of all the evidence for god(s). Here's the list. I don't find it very convincing but some of you may want to head off to the the nearest church after reading the list.

  • The fine tuning of the universe.
  • The moral sense.
  • The fact that a natural universe cannot logically have a natural cause.
  • The fact that there is something instead of nothing.
  • The overwhelming odds against the Darwinian story being true (estimated at 10^-1018 by atheist Eugen Koonin).
  • The irreducible complexity of biological systems.
  • The vast amounts of complex computer-like code stored in DNA.
  • The miracles that have been reported throughout history.
  • My subjective self-awareness.
  • The fact that we do not even have plausible speculations to account for the origin of life.

Let me say straight away that in spite of being a theist myself I would claim that the list of "evidences" supplied by Barry Arrington is flawed on several counts. I won't go into details on that score here except to say that Arrington is part of what I refer to as the Homunculus  Intelligent Design movement, and although I would agree with the general thesis that one has to introduce the concept of intelligence a priori in order to make sense of life, I reject Homunculus ID’s Intelligence vs. Naturalism dualism (See here, here  and here for example). What I want to briefly comment on here is the concept of “evidence” itself, a question that I have aired more than once on this blog.

Except perhaps in very elementary epistemic connections it is wrong to speak of evidence as a kind of deterministic rail track that inexorably and necessarily leads to the truth and where the seeker of truth is portrayed as a passive dispassionate mechanical “follower” of the evidence. In contrast the actual assessment and interpretation of evidence that gives rise to very general theoretical explanations, especially when it comes to world view synthesis, is never going to be an exact science followed by passive dispassionate agents using a strict set of epistemic rules; in fact it is probably going to remain a very passionate fuzzy science.  As I have implied before, the human mind is highly proactive and creative in the hunt for meaning and explanation: If we think in terms of the joining of the dots metaphor (where the “dots” = “evidence”) we might be getting somewhere near the truth about how evidence and theorising works in practice;  in joining the "dots" we find that the arrangements of those dots stimulates a rich set of imaginative structures that exist in our minds, structures which in turn are no doubt a function of much experience. These imaginative objects are then used in the negotiations between theory and evidence. The upshot is that we move less from evidence to explanation than we do from a priori explanatory structures to evidences; although we must acknowledge that a bad fit between explanation and evidence ought to prompt us to at least keep our proposed explanations under review. In short, evidence is less tram lines that it is guide lines.

If the imagination (and probably the emotions as well) is highly proactive in the synthesis of evidences into unified explanatory objects, it should be no surprise that Larry Moran has found that claimed “evidences for God” don’t work for him, especially as this involves world view synthesis. These higher level world view matters cannot be said to rest on hard science and so opinions will differ. Consequently, I can respect Larry’s view (re. the existence of God) that “I've never seen any evidence that's the least bit convincing”. But to express the view that the evidence for God is not convincing is not quite the same thing as saying “there is no evidence for God”.  There is plenty of evidence for God in the sense that theists assimilate many evidences into a world view backdrop that incorporates those evidences, although of course for atheists like Larry Moran this assimilation will not ring true.

Barry Arrington is part of the polarised evangelical Christian vs. evangelical atheist North American scene where opposite sides of the debate slug it out together in uncompromising terms. It’s difficult not to get sucked into this battle because the respective sides see those who are not for them as being against them. For example, the evangelical Christian culture that Arrington represents is, in my view, too close to the paranoiac anti-academia right wing Christian fundamentalists for whom disagreement with their opinions is regarded as tantamount to siding with what they perceive as the Antichrist conspiracy ranged  against them. Consequently, cordial relationships are difficult if not impossible to foster even though one might be a fellow Christian theist.


Relevant links:
http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/its-science-larry-but-not-as-you-know-it.html

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Plenty of Fish to Fry Here


This video of atheist Stephen Fry responding to a question has impressed many; it is, after all, about that perennial problem of Christian theism, the problem of evil and suffering.  I not going to take up that difficult subject here, but instead I’m going to focus on the reaction of my favourite evangelical atheist Larry Moran. This biochemistry professor, it seems, is pretty much underwhelmed by Fry’s response and entitles his blog post “Stephen Fry blows it by assuming he knows the mind of god” and in it he writes this:

Many of my atheist friends think that Fry's response is fantastic because he really shocks the interviewer, Gay Byrne. That's naive. Most intelligent Christians have developed some very good rationalizations concerning the problem of evil. They've heard it all before and they know how to respond. One of the classic responses is that they cannot know the mind of god. But Stephen Fry knows the mind of god and this is puzzling because Fry is an atheist.

Larry Moran knows that Fry is treading very deep theological waters indeed and also knows that populist answers to theological questions, questions which have been pondered by theologians and scholars for centuries aren't going to impress those “Intelligent Christians” one little bit.  But let me read between the lines of Larry’s post, as I did when I commented on it in a Facebook entry as follows:

  ..well I suppose we can all, to a lesser or greater extent, get held up at the theodicy problem; but the crucial point is Stephen Fry is seriously thinking about theology and moreover relating it to empirical conditions! As evangelical atheist Larry Moran over on Sandwalk points out, this is a virtual defeat because it can be taken as an admission that the "God" concept has some (profound) empirical content. Evangelical atheists like Moran would much prefer to see "God" as a vacuous, obscurantist fairy tale object, devoid of all empirical meaning, rather like Russell's orbiting teapot or the tooth fairy. Moran senses that Fry, by grappling so seriously with theism, is admitting that "God", as a concept, is empirically meaningful, even if Fry himself doesn't believe God to be a reality. In Moran's eyes Fry is on a slippery slope that could conceivably lead to conversion!

In other words Larry would much prefer that Fry didn't get in bed with the theologians by effectively encouraging the debate to enter into highfalutin theological discussions about the internal consistency and/or questionable morality of the Christian creator God, as a concept. He would much prefer to simply declare the whole subject to be rationally off limits because, he believes, theology is basically non-empirical nonsense. He sees Fry playing theologians at their own game; but Larry wants to only play the game of what he thinks of as "just science". His efforts, however, are in vain; Larry’s post  attracts a very long theological looking comment thread where the character of God is thrashed out in detail. In one comment Larry throws up his hands and tells us what he thinks (My emphasis):

Theodicy is an example of the "sophisticated theology" that Christians claim we atheists are ignoring. It's what PZ Myers was mocking in the Courtier's Reply. We atheists have already lost the battle once we start debating the merits of theodicy because we concede the possibility that god exists and now we are just quibbling about his properties.

Larry wants to just sweep all that theological sophistry off the table without engaging its finer points; after all, to him it’s just so must time wasting casuistry. Trouble is, if Larry is to seriously criticize Christianity (as is Fry) he can’t avoid thinking theologically and I have caught him at it several times:  See for example here and here

PZ Myers thinks Fry's response is good but, however, a “fairly standard atheist answer”. What does interest me is the following comment by Myers:

Another factor, to me, is that if their afterlife were true, they expect us to stand before a deity as a supplicant, with a vast power differential, and then essentially grovel. There is no human dignity and no hope in their vision of death — your choice is to submit or suffer. If this god could see into our minds what we were truly thinking, then there is also no point to pretending, and it would know it: this would be a monstrous alien passing judgment on a humanity it regards as corrupt, debased, and wicked, and the only propitiation it could get from us is our terror…… Fortunately, there is no evidence and no reason to think we will continue to exist beyond the death of our bodies, or that there is such a cosmic tyrant, so I’m relieved that I don’t have to worry about a Christian afterlife.

The answer to this response is very much bound up with the personality of God; The vision Myers portrays here is of a God who is a very repugnant personality, someone who, if he existed, Myers wouldn't want anything to do with (and neither would I!). Myers is very much consoled, therefore, by his belief that this God doesn't exist. Western fundamentalism is unlikely to disabuse Myers of such an opinion because the fundamentalist God is the God of hell and hamnation (See also here, here and here for example). If God does exist then Myers really needs to meet him personally as does Larry Moran. In fact in his blog post this is what Larry would say if he met God after he had died….

My questions would be "Who are you? Which groups of humans (if any) got it right when making up a religion? Tell me about yourself and why you didn't reveal yourself to me."

Good question! Which group of exclusivist scriptural literalists have “made up” the right religion?One can find a different species of fundamentalism creeping out from under every stone one turns. I am inclined to answer this question with Hebrews 1 and Philippians 2 but there is no shortage of fundamentalist brands out there claiming that the gospel of Hebrews 1 and Philippians 2 only fully applies to those affiliated to their observant communities of strict practice and belief. So, I for one can’t be too hard on the opinions of Larry Moran, PZ Myers, or Stephen Fry for that matter.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dodgy Flaky Logic



The above, which I recently found on the web, is part of a formalisation of the ontological argument. With a few axioms and logical deductions there you have it, the holy grail of faith, a proof of God's reality! Print it out, laminate it and you'll have a pocket sized theorem for God's existence ready to pull out and read through when your faith is feeling a bit rocky or if you want to convert an atheist on the spot. 

But seriously don't bother; this formalisation is not exactly robust, in fact it is extremely flaky. The theological motivation for the argument is not in doubt: i.e. a desire to show that somehow God is a necessary being, a being with aseity - this is a highly plausible proposition for theists like myself who feel that the concept of absolute nothingness and in particular the non-existence God are probably contradictions (although we don't have proofs, of course). But the above is unlikely to be part of a sound demonstration of God's aseity. Basically this type of argument depends on sheer existence being regarded .... no make that "defined", as a "positive property". It then follows that God, as the greatest being one can conceive, must an have existence; this follows because God would fall short of being the greatest conceivable being if he lacked the "positive" property of existence.

One could no doubt write a book on ontological arguments of the above character, arguments which no doubt draw on Anselm's ontological argument of the 11th century. Below. however. are some remarks (R1 through R4) followed by conclusions and corollaries (C1, C2, Cor. 1 and Cor. 2) indicating where I would take my critical analysis:

R1:  The truth of the above line of argumentation is a logical trivialism that depends on definitions: Clearly if one is going to define "existence" as a positive property and then define God as the being with all possible positive properties it trivially follows from these definitions that necessarily God exists..... one is effectively simply defining God as an existing being. For if a being doesn't exist then that being can't be God, because God, by definition, must have the property of existence!

R2:  Axiom A2 is not axiomatic; consider for example the optimisation problem where two desired "positive" properties complete against one another:  For example, in aircraft design radar stealth can compromise performance positives.

R3:  A5 looks more like a subjective definition than an axiom. One man's positives may be another man's excrement. For example, radar stealth is positive for an attacker but not for the attacked.

R4: I'm unhappy with the treatment of extrinsic and intrinsic properties.  (See D2 above). Presumably various platonic mathematical objects stand in relationship to God in someway and therefore become extrinsic properties of God. Some of these platonic objects may be far from what we would subjectively evaluate as "positive". It follows, therefore, that God has non-positive extrinsic properties that imply God's properties. So, are these non-positive properties considered to be "essences" of God?

C1: What a mess!

C2: Better go back to the drawing board!

Corollary 1: I don't think I'll bother.

Corollary 2: Take a day off instead

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Chaoskampf, Cancer and Conspiracy

The Cancerous Chaos Beast: the mythology of the mundane and banal

For the second time in as many weeks we find evangelical atheist Larry Moran "warming" his heart in a perverse nihilistic sort of way with news that  randomness once again has a big influence in the affairs of this world; the first time it was random drift as one of the important engines driving evolution, this time its about 50% of cancers being caused by nothing in particular but a bit of bad luck. All this is very much in line with Larry's vision of an acausal world largely driven by meaningless forces, empty of purpose.  Funny part about it is that I'll have admit he may well be right about this; from spontaneous corruption of genetic information in cells to stray cosmic rays and background radio activity, such influences are unlikely to be traceable to any deeper causes. I also think he may be onto something when he says that this is a message that many people do not want to hear; the implication is that there is human resistance to accepting that meaningless, goalless forces can play a large and decisive role in life. Moran quotes David Gorski, a quote I reproduce below with my emphases in bold:

It’s understandable that humans crave explanation, particularly when it comes to causes of a group of diseases as frightening, deadly, and devastating as cancer. In fact, both PZ Myers and David Colquhoun have expressed puzzlement over why there is so much resistance is to the concept that random chance plays a major role in cancer development, with Colquhoun going so far as to liken it to ” the attitude of creationists to evolution.” Their puzzlement most likely derives from the fact that they are not clinicians and don’t have to deal with patients, particularly given that, presumably, they do have a pretty good idea why creationists object to attributing evolution to random chance acted on by natural selection and other forces.

Clinicians could easily have predicted that a finding consistent with the conclusion that, as a whole, probably significantly less than half of human cancers are due to environmental causes that can be altered in order to prevent them would not be a popular message. Human beings don’t want to hear that cancer is an unfortunately unavoidable consequence of being made of cells that replicate their DNA imperfectly over the course of our entire lives. There’s an inherent hostility to any results that conclude anything other than that we can prevent most, if not all, cancers if only we understood enough about cancer and tried hard enough. Worse, in the alternative medicine world there’s a concept that we can basically prevent or cure anything through various means (particularly cancer), most recently through the manipulation of epigenetics. Unfortunately, although risk can be reduced for many cancers in which environmental influences can increase the error rate in DNA replication significantly, the risk of cancer can never be completely eliminated. Fortunately, we have actually been making progress against cancer, with cancer death rates having fallen 22% since 1991, due to combined efforts involving smoking cessation (prevention), better detection, and better treatment. Better understanding the contribution of stochastic processes and stem cell bio
logy to carcinogenesis could potentially help us do even better.


So why does this pique my interest? It's because it has tell-tale similarities with the human tendency toward paranoia and conspiracy theorism; conspiracy theorism is the imaginative multiplying of the machinations of sentient entities behind the scenes thought to be engaged in deception and/or acts against us. The motive for conspiracy theorism seems in part down to an unwillingness to accept that mundane and banal factors often have a big role in fortune; we may be tempted to feel that that fortune is worthy of grander narratives to explain it, narratives whose star turns are evil Machiavellian agents. This can have the effect of dignifying and mythologizing human struggles against the chaotic and the random. Personification of human woes can be cathartic because it provides a sentient target that anger can be directed toward. Cancer, with all the difficulties in its successful treatment, is prime material for conspiracy theorism. And yet this is in spite of the fact that in Western Christian tradition, the concept of Satan has a close association with  idea of the chaoslkampf, the beast who emerges from the abyss of chaos, the seething cauldron of randomness.  Not really very heart warming stuff I would have thought!