Sunday, April 06, 2014

Anti-Dualist Observation Number 1: The Rotation of Hyperion

The chaotic tumbling of Hyperion during its orbit of Saturn. Watch out for the brief appearance of Saturn!

The above YouTube video shows the chaotic tumbling of  Hyperion, an irregularly shaped moon of Saturn. I believe this little speck of dust in the immense tracts of space is telling us something profound about the nature of reality. I have watched the video time and again and haven't found myself getting bored with it, especially in the light of what Sir John Polkinghorne says about Hyperion:

The highly complex character of physical causality in a realistic situation is illustrated by the tale of Hyperion, one of the moons of Saturn. This irregularly shaped lump of rock, about the size of New York City, is observed to be tumbling chaotically as it encircles its planet. A simple estimate of the effectiveness of quantum physics in suppressing chaos, even when applied to a large object like Hyperion, leads to the conclusion that chaotic motion should not last for more than a finite period, in this case about thirty-seven years. While Hyperion has not been under observation for quite so long a time, no one expects that it is shortly about to return to orderly behaviour. It turns out that what will prevent this happening is a further influence, environmental in its character, which must be taken into account. The effect is called decoherence, and in its turn it suppresses typical quantum effects. Decoherence arises from the fact that Hyperion is bathed in a sea of low frequency radiation, partly coming from the Sun and partly from the universal cosmic background radiation that fills the universe. Interaction with this radiation represents a kind of repetitive 'measurement' process, continually erasing quantum fuzziness and restoring a classical-like situation, thereby preventing the quantum suppression of chaos from tightening its grip. It is rather like someone trying to get to sleep who continually asks himself 'Am I asleep yet?', thereby keeping himself away. The decoherent suppression of quantum suppression will keep Hyperion tumbling for a very long time to come. (Exploring Reality. Polkinghorne, SPCK 2005)

Now, I'm not so sure that decoherence theory is the full explanation of the apparently discontinuous jumps of the Quantum State vector (See here for some of my reasons why), but where I have common ground with the decoherence view is that whatever quantum leaps are, they happen regardless of sentient observation. It's fascinating to realise that as we look at Hyperion's tumbling rotation we are in effect watching the effects of those disordered but tiny quantum "jumps"* as they are magnified up by the butterfly effect to an observable level. These leaps keep shifting the rotation onto new rotational path histories. If these "path histories", as per chaos, diverge with time it will mean that no regular pattern of rotation will be observed. But quantum wave motion means that in time these paths start to defocus thus damping the chaos. However, before this defocusing can take effect the next quantum jump has shifted the rotation onto a new focused path history.

In some ways this fascinating observation fits in well with the anti-dualist theme of this blog: The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum observation tends to create a radical separation between mind and matter, by regarding matter as a mathematical system that, as per the calculated probabilities, throws up unambiguous observations for sentience; otherwise without the observer matter is thought to remain in a state of ambiguity. In contrast I have been coming to the view that while yes matter does throw up observations for human sentience, matter itself is a form of intelligence in action in as much as it comes to unambiguous conclusions without the need for a human observer. This is a theme I am, and am hoping, to develop. Such a view is of a piece with the realisation that human conscious cognition has a point by point conformity with brain function, a function which in the final analysis is the activity of a highly sophisticated quantum object.

Who'd believe that a lump of tumbling rock could be so telling!

* In decoherence theory the jumps are actually only apparent; a result of the perturbations introduced by environmental chaos cancelling out quantum wave dispersion and causing the system to remain relatively focussed. 

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

More God of the Gaps from North American ID.

In a blog debate between evangelical atheist Larry Moran and “IDiot” (as Moran calls them) Vincent Torley about the significance of the similarities between the genomes of humans and other primates, Moran succeeds in drawing Torley out on just how his God-of -the-Gaps version of intelligent design is supposed to work.

I’m currently doing a series of posts on one of Torley’s posts that appeared on “IDiot” web site Uncommon Descent. In that series I critique Torley’s dualist theology, a theology that leads him to posit a Natural forces did it vs God Intelligence did it dichotomy. However, in this particular post I want to show-case Torley’s own admissions on just how he thinks God might do his bit by tampering with the “natural” scheme of things. The following snatches of the dialogue between Moran and Torley are very telling indeed. 

First over to Moran:

Moran: The genomes of chimpanzees and bonobos are remarkably similar to the human genome. In terms of sequence similarity, they are more than 98% identical in the regions that can be aligned. This, of course, is due to the fact that they descend from a common ancestor in the recent past (about 5 million years ago).
Intelligent Design Creationists don't agree. Many of them do not accept common descent and macroevolution so they make up stories that account for the similarity based on what they think god might have been thinking when he created chimps and humans. (My emphasis in bold)

My Comment: Moran is right on there: North American ID is a soft science based on “what they think god might have been thinking when he created chimps and humans”. What compounds the problems of North American ID is that the “IDiot” culture Torley represents claims to not identify the more precise nature of the intelligence involved. Thus “God” is replaced with the apparently non-committal term “intelligence”. This of course could include “little green/grey man” intelligence; in which case we are explicitly dealing with a tinkering homunculus who is working very much within the physical regime of the cosmos. Who knows what motivates such entities and how they think? Soft science indeed! This is far from the immanent totalizing God of Christian theology.

Anyway, Torley claims to have some kind of insight into how this intelligence might think. This is what he says (as quoted by Moran):

Torley: In his post, Professor Moran (acting as devil’s advocate) proposes the intelligent design hypothesis that “the intelligent designer created a model primate and then tweaked it a little bit to give chimps, humans, orangutans, etc.” However, he argues that this hypothesis fails to explain “the fact that humans are more similar to chimps/bonobos than to gorillas and all three are about the same genetic distance from orangutans.” On the contrary, I think it’s very easy to explain that fact: all one needs to posit is three successive acts of tweaking, over the course of geological time: a first act, which led to the divergence of African great apes from orangutans; a second act, which caused the African great apes to split into two lineages (the line leading to gorillas and the line leading to humans, chimps and bonobos); and finally, a third act, which led humans to split off from the ancestors of chimps and bonobos.
"Why would a Designer do it that way?" you ask. "Why not just make a human being in a single step?" The short answer is that the Designer wasn’t just making human beings, but the entire panoply of life-forms on Earth, including all of the great apes. Successive tweakings would have meant less work on the Designer’s part, whereas a single tweaking causing a simultaneous radiation of orangutans, gorillas, chimps, bonobos and humans from a common ancestor would have necessitated considerable duplication of effort (e.g. inducing identical mutations in different lineages of African great apes), which would have been uneconomical. If we suppose that the Designer operates according to a "minimum effort" principle, then successive tweakings would have been the way to go. (Emphases in bold are mine)

My Comment: That really says it all: This concept of ID is of the tinkering, tampering One, whose thinking Torley thinks he understands and who makes the occasional appearances to solve the computational problems of the cosmic processes with a tweak of His magic wand. His is a black-box intelligence eminent to the processes of life. This leaves evangelical atheist Larry Moran with the easy job of making fun of Torley:

Moran: Interesting. One imagines the creator visiting Africa about 15 million years ago and fiddling with the genome of the ape ancestor so that two distinct species are formed. One leads eventually to orangutans and their extinct relatives and the other is the progenitor of the other extant apes and their extinct relatives.
Then the creator gets busy with beetles, or other planets, and lets things evolve on their own for a while, accumulating and fixing alleles at the rate we expect for evolution. Then the creator comes back for a visit about five million years later, having gotten bored with beetles. He (she?) tweaks the genome of some African ape so that a new species arises. The old one is the ancestor of modern gorillas and all the other related species that have gone extinct and the new species becomes the ancestor of chimps, bonobos and humans.
Now the creator turns his attention elsewhere for a few million years as those ape species evolve (insects need attention and his creation on Titan is in peril). Back he (she?) comes about five million years ago to tweak another two species into existence—one that will give rise, by evolution, to several species of Australopithicus, several species of Paranthropus, and several species of Homo (Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo sapiens. The other will eventually lead to over-sexed bonobos, the main goal of the exercise, I assume.
I think that what Vincent Torley is saying is that this is all consistent with the data I posted because most of the time these species are evolving just as we would expect. That's why the sequence differences between chimps and humans corresponds to what we expect from evolutionary theory. The reason this is misleading is because it omits the key mutations that god inserted every five million years or so in order to make modern gorillas.
There is, of course, no evidence that Torley's scenario is true and no evidence that a creator exists. I thank Vincent Torley for showing us just how ridiculous the Intelligent Design Creationist movement has become if this is the best they can do.

My Comment: Clearly the foregoing is an elaborated caricature, but it is caricature justified by Torley’s view of the eminent tweaking, tinkering, tampering intelligence, who fills in when “natural processes” can’t do the job. One can almost see in Torley’s vision God flying around in a spaceship from planet to planet doing the kind of stuff that gods (or little green men) do.

For myself I reject Torley’s God vs. Nature dichotomy and see God’s intelligence as immanent rather than just eminent to the cosmic process. This immanence is expressed in as much as the cosmic process is intelligence in action; that is, it is using intelligence’s universal process of search, reject, find and select. This view of mine would, in Moran’s eyes, likely make me just as big an “IDiot” as Torley, but at least I would like to be hung for right kind of theological idiocy, and not for the kind of dualistic idiocy Torley represents.

Addendum:  03/04/14: I can live with being thought of as an "IDiot" by Larry Moran, but he can hardly be blamed for using an appellation like this: Christianity has become so extreme in some of its expressions (particularly in North America) and inseparable from right-wing and anti-science sentiments* that "IDiot" becomes a commensurate symmetrical response; recall that Uncommon Descent is not just a site that questions evolutionary theory but also hosts YECs. Moreover, it is likely that the extreme fundamentalists have also helped stir up and justify the indiscriminating atheist savagery we see amongst PZ Myers "raiders", with which agreement or treaty is all but impossible. But talking about indiscriminate savagery think also of the behaviour of the raging religious right which includes (and has included) characters like Alex Jones (Professional conspiracy theorist), William Tapley (End times conspiracy theorist), Barry Smith (Millennium bug conspiracy theorist, now dead), Kent Hovind (Right wing conspiracy theorist), Ken Ham (Conspiracy theorist by interest), John McKay (Ham's ex-business partner and religious crank), Glen Beck (Mormon conspiracy theorist) etc. From their number one will hear detractors accused of the most heinous sins, depravity and blasphemies. Doctrines of total depravity has given them a susceptibility to conspiracy theory. In their world to be a heretic is to simply question the divine authority of their opinions and therefore a profession of Christian faith doesn't proof one against these savage accusations! If I had a choice I'd much prefer being called a common or garden "IDiot"!

* The artificial distinction that some Biblical literalists try to make between observational and historical science is a reliable shibboleth for anti-science attitudes: They don't see that the real variable is not historicity but the degree of logical remoteness of the ontology being investigated.

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Yet Another YEC Starlight "Solution": He can’t be Serious!

 According to one Biblical Literalist Andromeda is in front, not behind, most of those star!. But then perhaps he’ll claim that those “stars” are just specks of dust in front of Andromeda catching the light? After all, we’ve never been there, so how do we know?

A recent post on Uncommon Descent (March 25) by Young Earth Creationist S. Cordova adds to the pile of dime-store attempts to solve the YEC star light problem; yes Mr. Cordova I think you have probably got it wrong (again):  

Cosmologists Say Last Week’s Announcement About Gravitational Waves and Inflation May Be Wrong. :-)
Hey, I want to take a chance at being wrong too. Here is my shot at being wrong, I agree with Katirai: Andromeda has 1 star, not billions.
Professor of Astronomy YP Varshni published in 2005 that quasar Ton 202 is only about 700 light years away, not 3.3 Giga light years. If quasars are close, why not everything else? And if everything else is close, then galaxies are close, and if galaxies are close, the Andromeda galaxy isn’t billions and billions of stars but rather a single star surrounded by gas, debris, and maybe planets. Do you believe your eyes or do you believe the multiverse advocates?

I don’t think the distance to the stars and the nature of galaxies is in the same league as still emerging science; unlike many of the details of Big Bang theory and exotic objects like quasars these things are not up for fundamental revision. Unless, that is to say, one is a fundamentalist like Cordova; and it probably helps if one temperamentally leans toward the view that the academic establishment is all part of the tax-payer-funded-one-world-government conspiracy intended to defraud us!

Notice how once a again we have here another YEC starlight “solution” where we see no progressive development in YEC cosmology: Cordova’s proposal doesn’t build on a foundation of preceding YEC work but sets out on a completely different departure to what has gone before; e.g. it’s nothing like Jason Lisle’s solution to the problem which in turn is very different to Russ Humphrey’s solution. If anything Cordova’s attempt is even more crackpot than Lisle’s attempt which at least doesn’t radically revise the size of the visible universe. Such a revision has huge implications for all that established work involving triangulation, star magnitudes, variable stars, proper motions, spectral data, Novae, red shifts, Russell-Hertzsprung diagram, Olber’s paradox, background radiation etc – all that is thrown to the winds as part of either an intended conspiracy or a world wide conspiracy of mistaken interpretation based on a preconceived world view.

The common factor with YECs, however, is the epistemic conceit which stakes all on a dogmatic misinterpretation of the meaning of ancient texts written in the context of mythological and pre-scientific societies, and then calls this misinterpretation “God’s Word”.

This haphazard pile of half-baked cosmologies isn’t science but YEC culture thrashing about for an answer to its hardest and biggest problem; namely, the size of the cosmos in comparison with the rate at which the stuff of matter moves around in the depths of space. However, as far as the Biblical literalist community is concerned this thrashing provides uncritical and ignorant YEC followers with some straws to cling onto; it leaves the impression that the issue is in hand with apparently plausible alternatives to the established view being proffered. But the work of these YEC theorists can have the more insidious effect of appearing to show that the data from deep space provides fit to such a diversity of radically different models that no conclusions about the nature of the cosmos can be made, thus neutralizing the Starlight problem by simply muddying the waters. In short the strategy of the YECs has the effect of suggesting that anything goes because the essential nature of the cosmos is unknown and unknowable; after all they could claim that “We’re not out there, so how do we know?

This muddying of the waters strategy harks back to the work of Whitcombe and Morris in their book The Genesis Flood. After discussing a speculative theory that proposes light only takes about 15 years to travel from the most distant stars they tell us:

We do not propose to evaluate this theory but only to point out that all cosmological theory is still highly speculative. The very fact that such a theory can be developed and seriously considered demonstrates that astronomy has nothing really definite as yet to say about the age of the universe. (Page 370, 1974)

With the job of undermining the necessarily a priori epistemic assumptions of rational readability and intelligibility the work of  the YECs is done: Astronomy has nothing really definite to say….and instead we’ll stick with our literal reading of texts written in a pre-scientific mythological era. As far as I’m concerned it is time ill spent challenging every detail of the desultory anti science activity of these Biblical literalists.

But really this post on UD by Cordova is all very disappointing; I thought UD was better than this. Doesn’t the cosmos have a rational readability and intelligibility about it? Whatever next? The Sun is not a nuclear burning star? Geocentrism? Flat Earth? Moon landings a hoax? Reptilian conspiracies? After all, who knows, we’re not there as eyewitnesses! It looks to me as if UD is becoming cranky; but perhaps it was cranky all along anyway and I was just being too generous: It is one thing to challenge The Theory of Evolution but it is quite another to overthrow well established science carefully constructed over many years of observation; unless of course one sees this as just part of a huge anti-God conspiracy! (and probably one-world-government funded at that!)

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Evolutionary Theory Not a Fact says Biochemist

Who or what is driving evolution?

And guess who said it? None other than evangelical atheist Larry Moran.

In a post entitled What is evolution? Prof Moran provides a one-liner definition of evolution:

Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations.
This is a good working scientific definition of evolution; one that can be used to distinguish between evolution and similar changes that are not evolution. Another common short definition of evolution can be found in many textbooks: “In fact, evolution can be precisely defined as any change in the frequency of alleles within a gene pool from one generation to the next.” Helena Curtis and N. Sue Barnes, Biology, 5th ed. 1989 Worth Publishers, p.974

That definition is extremely general. It is simply telling us that heritable genes change from generation to generation; over long enough time this change is likely (but not necessarily) to entail phenotypical changes as well. It is notable that this definition stops short of stating just what produces the change. In fact this catch-all definition is not much stronger than saying that organic forms change over time: Because the fossil record betrays phenotypical changes over long periods this in turn implies genetic change and therefore evolution. It follows then that the fossil record is strong evidence that evolution, in the very general sense of mere change, has occurred.

So, given this background we can see why here the good Prof writes:

Neil deGrasse Tyson said that the theory of evolution is a fact. This is not correct. Evolution is a fact. Evolutionary theory attempts to explain how evolution occurs. Some of the explanations, like natural selection, are facts but many aspects of modern evolutionary theory are still hotly debated in the scientific community.

That’s intriguing; so Larry accepts that the detailed engine/mechanism of evolution is a theory and not a fact! Too true! But the definition of evolution he has given is so general that it could also include changes due to the tinkerings of a homunculus intelligent designer or anything else for that matter!

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Right Wing Campaigner

A fitting postscript to my last post is provided by William Tapley, self-proclaimed "Third Eagle of the Apocalypse". Here he is in full song campaigning for Mormon Mit Romney the republican party presidential candidate during the 2012 US general election. Tapley has a whole series of "prophetic" videos on YouTube, so here is a gentle initiation into his arcane insights:

If that sickly video wasn't death by nausea, try the following; it  should finish you off completely:

Fundamentalist Christian republican campaigner Bill Tapley. Is it just me or does he have a passing resemblance to Ken Ham? I wonder if Romney was thankful for Bill's efforts?

Alex Jones, professional conspiracy theorist, once complained that David Ike's Lizard conspiracy is as if someone supporting an otherwise "fine dessert" of basically sound conspiracy ideas took a dump in the middle of them. I wonder if Mit Romney felt something like that about Tapley? But is it really possible to get more crazy than Jones' conspiracy theories and the Mormon history of America? Seemingly it is: As one commentator has remarked "Tapley gives batshitcrazy a bad name.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Public vs. Private Polarisation.

The Parting of Ways

North America has a strong right-wing lobby, a lobby whose understanding of the phrase small government is invested in their belief that the flow of wealth in laissez-faire markets is a fix-all regulator and exclusive panacea for society’s ills. They may even apply this small government ethos to academic and noetic endeavors where otherwise risky blue skies research must be government funded because of a lack of any immediately obvious return on investment. The passion of these right-wingers (which includes some quite extreme fundamentalists and gun tooting conspiracy theorists) has help fuel a public sector vs. private sector polarization. One outcome of this is the anti-academia feeling one finds amongst right-wingers and conspiracy theorists. I have recently come across two examples of this on the blogs of PZ Myers’ and Larry Moran, who as public academics (and atheists at that) probably feel got at.

In this blog post PZ Myers publishes an open letter from conspiracy theorist and fundamentalist Kent Hovind who according to Wiki is currently serving a goal sentence for tax avoidance by fraud. Hovind, who is likely to believe that government is populated by criminals if not the anti-Christ himself, feels completely justified in not paying taxes that he thinks the government has no right to claim. Hovind may see himself as a libertarian hero who is being persecuted by an anti-Christian public establishment in league with the one-world-government conspiracy. As Hovind writes to Myers:

I am NOT in prison for “tax fraud.” I did NOT break any laws but the government probably did……CHALLENGE- PZ, When I get out and can travel I will come to your university at my expense and debate you on the evolution topic. Since you are using tax dollars to promote your religion… and the burden of proof is on you I would like you to supply the 5 or 10 best evidences for evolution above the level of minor changes within kinds as the basis for the debate. (My emphases in bold)

The scientific naivety of the man can be judged from him thinking that a few items of evidence would decide the matter; but that is by the by. The thing to notice here is the deliberate way in which Hovind juxtaposes his willingness to fund himself against Myers being a tax funded academic. Perhaps Hovind sees his tax loathing as a general American historical tradition going back to the Boston Tea Party. Like some other right wingers he’s still fighting the War of Independence!

Hovind is a fundamentalist extremist who with clear conscience engages in criminal activity because he believes he is working for a greater good; in this sense he compares with the Islamic bombers. To people like this the democratic intuitions of government are held in contempt. My experience of fundamentalists is that they can be dangerous, sometimes very dangerous. This is because they have little compunction in applying maximum duress in order to further a cause they hold with absolute conviction. I have come across other fundamentalists like Hovind who will use the laws of a civic society in order to put pressure on people; another example is the Witness Lee Brotherhood.

Another sign of fundamentalist epistemic arrogance is seen in Hovind referring to PZ Myers as an “atheist”; that is, by using quotes, a practice that Myers queries. What I think to be at the bottom of this practice is the common fundamentalist misinterpretation of Romans 1:18-32, a passage which is read by them as a reference to atheism (when in fact it is referring to idolatry). From this passage some fundamentalists argue that atheists are not genuine atheists at all but in actual fact they believe in a God whose truth they are wilfully suppressing in unrighteousness. The implications of this is that these fundamentalists have a tendency to distrust the genuineness of any testimony that contradicts their beliefs; they are inclined see a bad conscience or even total depravity behind those who contradict their version of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist beliefs about the basic depravity of their antagonists have precedence over any testimony a person offers of himself. This is why I think there is usually very little point trying to relate to the self–assured fundamentalist. Relationships can’t proceed on the basis of this underlying distrust.

Now, it would be completely wrong to put the North American ID community in the same extremist category as Hovind and yet they too have been sucked into to the polarising fields of the public vs. private contention.  This becomes clear in a blog post by atheist Larry Moran where he publishes the contents of an attack on him by IDist Michael Egnor. Egnor's attack on the publicly funded scientific community is vociferous:

The funny thing is that Moran has had a few self-pitying posts about the reductions in public funding for science (particularly bogus science like AGW "research").
He doesn't see that the two issues are related. If you tell the public that they're idiots, and you link your anti-religious hate to science, why would you be surprised that after a while the public tells scientists to "go get your paycheck from someone else."
Science is an overrated endeavor. Obviously there have been substantial advances, but most of them have been in applied sciences like medical research and engineering, not ideology-infested "disciplines" like climate science and evolutionary biology. Ninety-five percent of the scientific literature is garbage, most of it is irreproducible, and most of the rest is irrelevant except to tenure. A lot of published science is so dodgy with data and logic that if it were a financial prospectus the authors would be prosecuted by securities authorities. And of course scientific literature is a prospectus, attracting hundreds of billions of research dollars annually.
Incompetence and fraud seem to plague particular kinds of science. Think about it: what exactly have climate scientists and evolutionary biologists done for you lately, except take billions of tax dollars and then compare you to Holocaust deniers if you question them or call you idiots if you believe in God and drag you into court if you talk about God in public or if you don't want their materialist religion taught to your kids in your schools?
People are starting to catch on. There's a simple solution. Defund these credentialed losers who hide behind their worthless "science." They have no marketable skills -- many would require remedial training to work at the drive-through window at McDonald's ("Larry, we know you're new to the restaurant, but you really have to stop telling the customers that they're IDiots -- they pay your salary").
So aim at the scientific disciplines they infest and take their money away. We don't need just-so stories about evolution, about surviving survivors and randomness generating all of life, and transparent frauds like the crowd in Climategate.
Time to pull away the teat.

There is a tremendous irony in all this: Government funded science sinks enormous amounts of cash because it is dealing with the discovery of irreducibly complex ideas. The search for these ideas demands much seeking, finding, rejecting and selecting and this process consumes huge resources; those resources are needed to jump the cognitive gaps as it were. On the other hand laissez-faire markets are less likely to jump such large cognitive gaps as they work using short term “greedy algorithms” with the low intelligence needed for small gap jumping! This is just so ironic it’s breathtaking!

Addendum 21/03/14: A recent blog post on Myers blog is relevant to the above topic. This post references work done in psychology on the connection between the "libertarian" right wing, conspiracy theorists and science denialists. The pronounced psychological complex which manifests itself in the paranoiac illusions of the conspiracy theorists and the fundamentalists is in sympathy with the anti-government anti-academic libertarians. The common factor amongst all parties seems to be a rejection of the public sector and government as the natural domain of malign intelligence, evil, and conspiracy. This is turn leads to the rejection of public domain based science like climate change and evolution; and even in some cases  heliocentricity, a spherical Earth and the Moon landings.  I have to say here however, that it all seems a very American malaise.

End Notes
Note to Self: Glen Beck, is another conspiracy theorist (Mormon in this case) who is worth keeping an eye on as an example of the kind of client I’m referring to above
Some relevant links:

My Mathematical Politics series:

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Quest or Quixotic?

When truth is our quarry the imagination is an essential tool. But it can go horribly wrong….

In a blog post dated 6th March and entitled “The Knights Errant Sally Forth” PZ Myers responds to an article on Network Norwich and Norfolk by James Knight. In Myers’ post there are some initial comments on atheism and morality. There seems to be common agreement between Myers and James that in principle atheists can be just as moral as anyone else. Although this question is interesting and provocative I won’t pick it up in any detail here except to say that atheism does have an epistemic problem that tempts moral and ontological nihilism. But having said that we must acknowledge that theism is plagued by the opposite problem of a lurking epistemic arrogance which in turn has a tendency to quench all self-doubt with consequences amongst fundamentalists we are all too familiar with.

However, having stirred the seething pot of anti-theistic zeal that is Myers blog, James succeeds in getting some interesting and useful responses from Myers. In a later blog post I hope to pick up some of Myers points but for now I’ll simply quote part of his text with the salient issues emboldened:

Knight’s second paragraph is a complaint that Hitchens’ didn’t tell them what evidence for their god would be acceptable, which is a fair complaint. Or it would be, if there weren’t another problem: define God. I can’t tell you what would be evidence for or against it if you’re not going to settle down and get specific about this god’s properties and nature. Is it an anthropomorphic being with a penis that can impregnate human women? Is it a vast eternal cosmic intelligence that encompasses the entire universe and manipulates matter and energy with its will? Is it benign fluff, a happy feeling of love that permeates us all? I suspect he’d tell us some meaningless noise about a “ground state of being”, which seems to be the universal bafflegab right now to avoid answering the question.
  You know, this is the big difference. If you tell a scientist that their evidence doesn’t distinguish between two alternatives, it’s the scientist who thinks hard about the problem, comes up with what would be differing consequences of an experiment if his hypothesis was valid or invalid, and does the work. We actually love this part of theorizing, thinking through the implications of a hypothesis and then testing them. And that’s a process that involves getting specific about the details of our hypothesis.
Theologians, on the other hand, hate that part. We can ask them what the difference would be between a universe that had a god and one that didn’t, between a god that answers prayers and one that doesn’t, between a Christian god and a Muslim god, between a Catholic god and a Protestant god, and they love to tell us that the differences are profound, but not anything specific. And then they yell at us that we haven’t given them the criteria that we could use to discriminate between the alternatives. And then, most aggravatingly, if we go ahead and make some predictions ourselves about what the universe ought to be like if there is or isn’t a god, they yell even more that their god isn’t like that, we used the wrong premises, we didn’t address their idiosyncratic view of a god…which is always conveniently tailored to circumvent whatever test we propose.
Do you theological wankers even realize that as the proponents of hypothesis about the nature of the universe, it is your job to generate testable hypotheses about how it all works? And that we, as agents in opposition to your nonsense, would be overjoyed to have you say something explicit about an implication of your ideas that we could test? Actually, I think you do know, because you so invariably avoid presenting any useful descriptions of what your philosophy entails. We keep waiting. And right now, your silence and the vacuity of what few feeble replies you make are just added to our stockpile of evidence that you’re all farting theology out of your asses.

If I have time I will deal with these contentions in due course. For the time being, however, I’ll leave a comment on the following quote which also appears in Myers post. It leads into to some significant questions about epistemology:

Watch out, here comes the egregious relativism, which sounds like something straight out of Answers in Genesis ….I really despise the vacuous Well, we just interpret the evidence differently argument — it’s a lie. Over and over, I see it said in order to defend ignoring the bulk of the evidence. …..elves have no evidence for their existence, have posited powers with no known mechanism, and are arbitrary, ad hoc, bizarre explanations for a perfectly ordinary object.

Flippant caricature about elves aside, the kind of interpretative relativism Myers speaks of is the downside of humanity’s necessarily creative efforts as it seeks to make sense of the cosmos: Witness, for example, the arbitrary relativism in Biblical literalist Jason Lisle’s “mature” creation model of cosmology; this model returns to the old literalist rescuing device of signals arbitrarily created in transit. Lisle’s use of the ASC coordinate system is in effect a piece of creative sophistry that succeeds in blinding both himself and his ignorant following to the inherent (self) deceit of his model. There are millions of bits of evidence out there that matter is interacting with itself over millions of light years, but Lisle effectively tells us to forget all that because he can synthesise any evidence he wants with a sweep of his hand – God just made like that, thereby declaring the signals the cosmos is sending us to be unreadable if not downright misleading. How can Lisle get away with this?

What we call evidence is by and large a very small sample subset of the theoretical narrative that embeds it. Ergo, it is quite possible to embed the same evidence in a huge variety of highly fanciful and irrefutable narratives that “explain” the evidence. The conspiracy theorists typify this wanton creative theorizing. Lisle’s ASC model is of a similar ilk; he has given himself the freedom of countless adjustable variables which allow him to invent all but any scenario to “explain” the data.

So what distinguishes a rational theoretical narrative from the endless and arbitrary special pleading such as we see from Lisle and the conspiracy theorists?  The answer to that question is rational a priorism; that is, humans are cognitively set up a priori to judge what is reasonable; in particular we assume our world is by and large sending us reliable, intelligible and coherent signals about its state of affairs; that is, we assume this world has a stable rational integrity about the stories its signals tell; this is the rational heuristic built into our thinking.

But this a priori heuristic is delicately balanced and can be overridden by culture and/or insanity factors; as a consequence we can either over use it or under use it. In the latter category the Biblical literalists override the rational heuristic using a misreading of scripture that almost treats it as a closed ended text book of mathematical axioms. They do not take into account the lessons that the signals of history are sending us; namely, that the Bible is very much a human book showing all the traits, and foibles of human authorship, in many cases telling us less about God than it does about proprietary human conceptions of God *1. Above all they fail to do justice to that fact that Biblical interpretation is subject to the open endedness of its historical connection; this open endedness is brought about by the practically limitless hinterland of information one can receive about a particular historical connection. At the bottom of literalism is, I submit, an epistemic insecurity whose compensatory reaction is to seek certainty in a closed ended axiomatic-like interpretation of scripture rather than the less than certainness associated with the rational heuristic of our mental tool kit.

For the rational mind to work it must proceed against a background of assumptions about the integrity and intelligibility of the signals it receives. Without this background successful theoretical creativity is stultified as the imagination becomes swamped with the infinite possibilities of an otherwise bizarre and incoherent world. It is ironic that fundamentalists are effectively challenging this assumption as a consequence of their dogmatic mechanical literalism. In fact if pressed Biblical literalism can even subvert belief in the integrity of God.

But on what basis have we the right to assume the intelligibility and integrity of the signals our world sends us? Clearly Myers, like the rest of us (or at least most of us), is making use of a heuristic which although is likely to be probabilistically imperfect nevertheless guides our science. Myers is therefore making an a priori judgment about the basic integrity of this heuristic. But the conspiracy theorists will not be impressed by any claim that this heuristic has evidence to back it up, because in the final analysis the same evidence can, as Jason Lisle and other Biblical literalists have shown, be synthesized using quite bizarre and/or conspiratorial narratives*2. What we are left with is a reliance on our a priori good sense as to what is rational. For Myers who is making this kind of a prior judgment about integrity, coherence and intelligibility there is little or no absolute basis for his judgment other than the appeal to “It feels right”. Fair enough, I agree it does feel right. In contrast the fundamentalists and conspiracists don’t just feel they are right they are certain they are right. But I advise atheists to not to go to the opposite extreme and tread the postmodern path of hyper skepticism which may be the consequence of failing to find logically obliging grounds as to why “It feels right” and why we know what we know. For in going to this extreme one becomes like the cyclist who wonders how he manages to keep balance and then promptly falls off his bike. The nihilism and anti-foundationalism of postmodernism are ever the temptation of atheism. Our starting point must be “In the beginning Coherence, Intelligibility and Integrity….” (Compare Proverbs 8 where we find a priori wisdom or reason personified). Our epistemic pilgrimage is a knightly one in as much as heroic hope rather than certainty drives it. But if that a priori basis is invalid the search for truth becomes a quixotic quest.

*1 Once one realizes that this processes is under the Sovereign Management of an immanent God “The Word of God” as a metaphor for scripture re-emerges.
*2 A demand for prediction can to a certain extent call the bluff of the fundamentalist fantasists and conspiracy theorists. But this really only works for the hard sciences; the soft sciences (which often deal with issues which significantly impact our world view) have much more the character of retrospective sense making narratives and do not always lend themselves to successful prediction making. Soft sciences are therefore far more dependent on the a priori assumption that the cosmos is rationally readable.

Some relevant links:

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