Monday, December 22, 2008

Gregory Chaitin

Anyone who is interested in "The meaning of life the universe and everything" type stuff needs to keep tabs on Gregory Chaitin's work, such as this:


and this

Is God a computer programmer?

I have a feeling this guy lacks enough inhibition to not worry about being a bit of kook. He may frighten the life out of some people! A bit of eccentricity can go a long way in science. Have a look at his splashy web site! It would be wrong to say that Greg is going places, because he is probably already there.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Quantum Decoherence

Quantum Decoherence looks to be an idea that has a lot going for it. In fact it seems to tie up so many lose ends that I find the notion extremely attractive myself. As an explanation of the apparent sudden and random discontinuous changes of the quantum mechanical state vector decoherence is just so neat. This web site sums up the theoretical attractions of decoherence theory. I have reproduced some of these attractions below (with my additional comments in brackets):

No additional classical concepts are required for a consistent quantum description. (A sharp distinction between macroscopic classical systems and microscopic quantum mechanical systems does not exist)

There are no particles (The universal ontology is a uniform one of waves only. The cosmos doesn't contain any dirty gritty bits, only smooth voluptous waves)

There are no quantum jumps (No probabilistic discontinuous jumps of the state vector)

There is but ONE basic framework for all physical theories: quantum theory (No extra physics is needed to account for quantum jumps; we have the physics already in the form of various wave equations - we just need to apply these equations to the measurement of quantum systems with macroscopic systems)

There is no time at a fundamental level (That is, because all quantum equations are reversible, the cosmos is in principle reversible and time is an artifact of boundary conditions, end of story; in fact end of story telling as well)

Finally the Decoherence web site adds:

It is a direct consequence of the Schrödinger equation, but has nonetheless been essentially overlooked during the first 50 years of quantum theory.

What a deal. It’s hard to resist. No new theory; just the correct and insightful application of quantum equations, an application that’s been overlooked for the last 50 years. The whole thing leads to a seamless, ‘in principle’ smooth and deterministic physics with no need to lash on any ad hoc random jumps of the state vector. On this view the randomness of quantum theory is not absolute but only apparent. It is a product of the entanglement of quantum systems with the chaos of macroscopic objects used to measure quantum phenomena thus leading to the apparent, repeat apparent, random changes in state of microscopic systems.

One question I need to look into is this: What does decoherence theory say about the case of not detecting a particle in a designated state? The failure to detect a particle in a state means that it must be in the orthogonal complementary state, which is in fact a superposition of many states. Can entanglement account for the apparent jump in state associated with not detecting a particle?

Decoherence theory has the touch and feel of a winner, especially as its reduction of explanatory entities is very much in the spirit of Occam’s razor.

However, I have my doubts. I have long noted the analogues between quantum theory and the probability envelopes of random walk and I am now fixated on the idea that probability envelopes of a special quantum kind are incarnated as a “real” world ontology. These analogues suggest that we go the whole hog and expect these envelopes to behave like other probability envelopes when a change in information occurs: that is the envelope “collapses” or at least suddenly changes its form under certain circumstances. I may well be backing the wrong horse, but the reason why I take the application of these analogues seriously is indicated below. In the following I note the parallels between quantum envelopes and conventional probability envelopes. In the following I use ‘real’ probability envelopes and not complex envelopes. So for a state represented by |p) we have |p) = (p| .

If we have two probability envelopes or ‘states’ |p) and |q) each of which pertains to one of two separate (= ‘orthogonal’) coordinates then the state of the composite system is a two dimensional probability envelope that effectively can be represented by the ‘outer product’ |p)|q), as in quantum mechanics proper.

Imagine that we have a particle in a probability state represented by the envelope |p) and we have another probability envelop on the same coordinate which is some kind of detecting ‘field’ or state, |q), that is capable of capturing the particle in state |p). Under these conditions the probability of the particle being captured by the detecting state is equal to the inner product, or ‘intersection’, (p|q) as in quantum mechanics proper.

The algebra of quantum envelopes looks suspiciously like a kind of probability calculus but with real probabilities being replaced by “complex probabilities”.

The foregoing “state algebra” doesn’t produce any dynamics: that can be added with Schrödinger’s equation; as I have suggested in my book this equation has a close relation to the random walk diffusion equation.

To my mind quantum theory is too closely related to random walk and probability calculus to dismiss the notion of real collapses (and discontinuous changes of state). This need not be the Copenhagen type collapse which posits the presence of an observer. In my interpretation of quantum theory, the presence of a “detecting” or “capturing” state is sufficient for a possible collapse or a sudden change of state according to probability. I’ll be frank and admit that I’m expecting the collapses to be real because otherwise I’m confounded by the similarities with probability calculus. I’ll candidly admit that I’m applying an anthropomorphism in expecting the similarities of quantum theory with probability calculus and random walk not to be wasted. For me decoherence is an anticlimax, a solution by those who have either lost the plot or couldn’t see it in the first place; it cuts across my expectation of uncovering a meaningful, coherent story. (Although, of course, decoherence has its own cluster of alluring points as I have indicated above)

These ideas are, of course, highly speculative, kooky and frankly look to be rather dangerous conjectures to back. But then I’ve no reputation to lose. In contrast decoherence is the safe solution, the tidy deterministic solution; it’s the solution that we know in our hearts to be the likely one if we believe the universe to be a relatively prosaic closed system and not open-ended. In my opinion it’s the solution for the boys and not the men. However, if experimental work does skew the evidence toward the decoherence picture then count me out; I’ll have to concede and admit that the world is more boring than I expected!

Which theories we tend to support, need I say, is not merely a function of experimental data, (which in any case is often not a sufficient sample to settle the matter), but also a function of idiosyncrasies in our background, our sense of analogy, our feel for elegance, what we are expecting to see, and even what we are hoping for. Vested interests and group identification also have a role here.These motivational factors have, needless to say, connections with background agendas, world views, hopes and aspirations. I don’t think it is wrong to have these background hopes and views, it’s only human; but it is well to be aware of them and how they are subtly influencing one’s hopes and expectations and how one interprets the data. Do not let these background influences hide in the subconscious. Be prepared to face them, challenge them, change them, and above all never, never, never, be the slave of them and allow them to string you along. If a world view betrays you and fails as an interpretive structure in the face of contra indicators, throw it away as you would a broken tool. Never fall for the fidiest trap.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Protecting The Innocent

Prompted by the response I got to my last rather provocative post I thought I would press on and think a little more about the atheist poster campaign. A quick look revealed few details about the thinking behind the campaign other than someone suggesting that it was a light hearted campaign avoiding the unforgivable sin of a preachy didactism. Therein is the rub: how does one promulgate atheism when some of its conclusions suggest that no one should tell anyone else what to believe? The implementation of militant atheism has a consistency problem.

Dividing the population roughly into the three categories of: 1. True believers, 2. True atheists and 3. The rest who have a spectrum of views, then with which of these constituencies does the atheist campaign cut the mustard? Without some feedback it’s a difficult question to answer, but let me hazard that campaigns by either atheists or believers to garner support do best with their neighborhood constituencies; that is, with those who are closest to them in sentiment and thought. From this ‘local’ constituency ‘converts’ to the cause are reeled in and the broad mass of stay at home agnostics are at least encouraged to make sympathetic noises.

Publicity campaigns put out by embattled subcultures maybe less a rallying call to a target constituency than to the subculture itself. By giving that subculture a sense of identity, a sense of purpose, a sense of control, a sense of having the situation in hand, and a sense of destiny fulfillment, a vigorous foray into the world beyond can be a morale booster for a marginalized community and a way of avoiding brooding thoughts. The campaign may also serve as a gesture to disconcert diametrically opposed subcultures with a message of strength, confidence and vitality. Although I am not sure how the atheist campaign went down in its natural constituency, it is in this latter sense, if no other, that the atheist poster campaign has failed. This poster campaign is perceived by many Christians as extremely weak, weak to the point of being a laughing stock. Much of that is down to very deep differences between the world view logic of atheism and Christianity.

As I suggested in my last post strong conviction, vehemence, and above all community vibrancy and purpose are very high up on many Christian’s perception of what constitutes evidence of veracity: that is, for many Christians the existence of a faith community that knows what it believes further encourages faith and thus faith is self reinforcing. (I am critical of using faith to justify faith but that is by the by). What is important to note here is that it reveals why the atheist campaign, with its use of the word ‘probably’, looks so weak to many Christians. In the eyes of many Christians no group with a vibrant community ethos could advertise itself so weakly. If the idea of the campaign is to convey that one shouldn’t be preachy why even bother to preach that? How can such an incoherent message be put out by a vibrant purpose driven community? Ergo, the message Christians are getting is that the community dimension of atheism is bankrupt.

The other thing perceived by vehement Christians is that atheism has nothing to celebrate, no object of celebratory focus. OK so there is no God. Fine. But we need something else to celebrate and to be the focus of our community. What will that something be? Atheist attempts to find a focus for celebration have sometimes gone horribly awry. They have created quasi-religious objects that have been used to oppress such as the Maoist and Stalinist personality cults or fantasies about a social utopia to be ushered in by the triumph of a highly idealised notion of the working class. It is perhaps no surprise that Theravada Buddhism has become popular amongst westerners who reject the notion of God but still hanker to reconnect with something spiritual. But unless one is to become a Buddhist monk this is far too individualistic for the community ethos.

The evangelical Christian cannot think about his/her joys and worries apart from his/her object of celebration and the community in which that celebration takes place. (S)He may not be able to articulate it but instinctively the simplist Christian will see the pathological logic in a slogan that first suggests the object of his/her community celebration doesn't exist, and then tells him/her to stop worrying and enjoy life! What will seem even more perverse is that the whole slogan is conditioned by a mere probably. Not only does that appear inconsistent with the rancor and militancy of some forms of atheism, but to the Christain who finds it difficult to think in terms other than a 100% conviction the message is farcical :"So these atheists are telling us to give up a celebrating community that brings joy and addresses worries merely because they think God probably doesn't exist? Why don't they come and join us? We know there is God, We know He brings joy. We know He shoulders our burden of worry". Isaiah 53:4: "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows". The PR people at atheism central have really got their work cut out if they want to compete with this. They're going need all the "probably" they can get.

Finding a rationale for community celebration and its concomitants of purpose and vibrancy is, it seems, the biggest problem for atheism. It’s no good just telling everyone there is probably no God, because when everybody believes there is probably no God what next? This is atheism's major ‘theological question’ a question that parallels the theist’s problem of pain in that both tend to generate subtle and convoluted answers. Nietzsche’s death of God theology lead him to posit his concept of infinite recurrence which enabled him, in spite of the death of God, to escape nihilism by the skin of his teeth and say ‘yes’ to life and could once again celebrate it. But for the man in the street this is unlikely to cut much ice and so atheism continues to teeter on the brink of nihilism’s abyss. A candidly frank atheism has to admit that in the final analysis there is tragedy at the heart of the human condition. Courageously acknowledging this tragedy and having the strength and imagination to face up to it and make the best of it is about as spiritual and hopeful as it gets in atheism. Either that or one adopts a self mocking jocularity that tries not to take the whole thing seriously – such as we see in the atheist poster campaign. As Morpheus said to Neo in the Matrix, atheism only claims to offer the truth. But is it even doing that? Atheism’s difficulties and obscurities over purpose, meaning, epistemology, ontology and above all community ethos provide little grip on the anti-foundationalist slippery slope down into individualism and postmodernism. Little wonder that the poster campaign was so muted.

Atheists like my fellow blogger Larry Moran often liken theism to a belief in Father Christmas. Although I have never admitted it to the good Professor there is in fact a compelling point here. Father Christmas, commercialism apart, is for children a very life affirming character. For many children he contributes to the warm glow and magic of Christmas and therefore provides a focus of celebration and a reason to say ‘yes’ to life. With this parallel in mind it could be plausibly maintained that belief in a kind of a Divine Cosmic Patriarch is one way the human mind copes with and bypasses the social and conceptual difficulties introduced by atheism, difficulties to do with how the mind gets its purchase on reality and conundrums about community purpose. Religion, the opium of the masses, is a way of protecting the innocent from thoughts of a cold dispassionate world out there, knowledge of which threatens to blow the mind. But this theory actually cuts both ways and is also a danger to atheism: it really does suggest that should the God shaped hole be filled, if only with a myth, it can contribute beneficially to a community’s peace of mind. Even when there is no peace between communities driven by different mythological stop gaps, a sense of purpose, hope, social cohesion and destiny is present in opposing communities; that’s why religious wars can be so polarized, fanatical and vicious.

As for myself I was never brought up believing in Santa: my parents always made it clear to me there was no such figure and that it was only a fun game. My mother is a believer and my father would liked to have been a believer but he could never raise the faith. Hence on count one I never faced the disappointment of discovering Santa to be a comfortable lie that readily served as an analogous model that could be ported to religion. On count two I never had to face the social pressures of a community with a self supporting belief. So for me the choice of atheism or theism was always a choice, always a matter of investigation, exploration, seeking, pilgrimage and a quest to find the primary explanatory object that sources the cosmos.

I have come across Christians who were once true atheists and who have become as convinced of their Christianity as they once were of their atheism. These are the sort of people who don’t do things by halves and champion their latest cause with almost sanguinary zeal. It is surely significant that the ex-atheists I have met interpret positive affirmation and strong conviction as a sign of integrity and may criticize anything less as lacking in authenticity. Conversely I suspect you will find true believers who have swapped to true atheism who are as all-out for their atheism as they were for their Christianity (Jonathan Edwards?). Some Christian zealots admire the sheer conviction of the true atheists, perhaps sensing a deep kinship. As one true believer said in a comment probably directed at myself: “Our atheist friends … show more conviction than most believers, what has happened?”

It is one of my many pet theories that at the opposite ends of the belief spectrum many atheists and believers have telling commonalities in their mindsets: the ontology of some versions of atheism looks suspiciously like an inverted version of Gnosticism; the Gnostic believes salvation comes when sublime particles of spirit are freed from the corruptions of profane matter. For the atheist it’s the other way round: secular salvation comes when reactionary and residual superstitions about the supernatural haunting the interstices of matter are exorcised with profane reason. Both parties see the cosmos through an implicit dualism that divides the cosmos into configurations of insentient gritty matter pervaded by a mystical ‘supernatural’ spiritual world. Whilst the atheist by definition declares the epistemological intractability of the latter to be tantamount to nonexistence, he may yet retain the dualist’s notion of a gritty insentient matter.

Dualism’s sharp distinction between the two categories of materialism and spiritualism cries out for the latter’s immaterial existence to be challenged. But although the single category of a one-substance ontology is elegant it too provides no guarantee against epistemological intractability. Conventional science currently creates its explanatory structures from two classes of object: 1. Mathematical laws of relative algorithmic simplicity (This covers chaos as well as the non-chaotic) or 2. Configurations of high disorder that admit statistical description. Both of these objects are mathematically tractable from a human point of view*. However, in the infinite region between the high order of elementary algorithms and the monotonous complexity of maximum disorder there are undoubtedly mathematical objects of unspeakable complexity and size that are well beyond the capability of the human mind to handle. It’s no surprise then that we are not using them as explanatory structures. If such exotic objects should be the deeper explanation for the cosmos their mathematical intractability would also imply an epistemological intractability. However, some people might advise us that as there are probably no such objects, we should stop worrying about it and have a happy Christmas. Disbelief, as well as belief, is also a way of protecting the innocent.

* Footnote.
At one level high disorder actually betrays the existence of epistemic intractability: hence the use of probability.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Probably the Worst Poster Campaign in the World

As I have already suggested the atheist Bus ad campaign has somewhat played into the hands of the Christian community. The December edition of Christianity magazine reports on the clash between a committed life and self affirming philosophy and the inevitable non-committal nihilism of atheism as follows:

Christian Thinktank Theos made a £50 donation to the campaign. Paul Wooley, director of Theos said “We donated the money because the campaign is a brilliant way to get people thinking about God. The poster is very weak – where does ‘probably’ come from? (Editor: I told you they would probably laugh at ‘probably’!). Richard Dawkins doesn’t ‘probably’ believe there is no God. And telling people to stop worrying is hardly going to comfort those who are concerned about losing jobs or homes in the recession, but the posters will still prompt people to think about life’s big questions. Campaigns like this demonstrate how active atheists are often great adverts for Christianity.

Rev Jenny Ellis, spirituality and discipleship officer said “We are grateful to Richard for his continued interest in God and for encouraging people to think about these issues. This campaign will be a good thing if it gets people to engage with the deepest questions of life”.

Like the probabilistic agitations of quantum mechanics which abhor utter emptiness, the restless human psyche probably cannot unthink the God concept and therefore God, if he probably doesn’t exist, is conspicuous by His apparent probable absence. The true atheists are those who are utterly unconscious of the putatively probable absence of God, as perhaps animals are. Likewise we aren’t aware of the blind spots in our eyes because there are simply no neurons in those spots to complain about the absence of input and therefore there is no consciousness of the retinal hole. Christians will therefore welcome a group of people who are so conscious of the cosmic sized “God shaped hole” that they shout loudly about its probableness from the sides of buses traveling around London! No wonder Christians are not merely probably financing the project but have actually put some money in! Hahahahahaha!

My advice to all good atheists is: get religion and then you can really get in there and start exposing the irrationalities of religion from the inside. Christianity and religion in general, is a self-affirming crowd phenomenon where belief, commitment and vibrancy are their own evidences. Atheism by definition cannot attempt to emulate this. As the Christians of old said “We can out think you, we can out live you and we can out die you!” The atheists probably can't do that!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Ghost and The Machine

James Knight, the Network Norwich columnist, asked me the following question. Posted below it is my reply.

Do you think the cosmos is platonic just in the mathematical sense or in another way too? I'm just making sure that when we speak of the cosmos we are both using platonic in the same terms. How are you using it?

Hi James,

The following answer to your question impinges upon some issues that I have been pondering for years: in particular why is that in our culture the “irreducible intuitive” is so often pitted against the “reducibility of mechanism?” This theme I see in almost everything: from H. G. Well’s “The Time Machine” where the Eloi are pitted against Morlocks, through the Cartesian ghost in the machine and ‘left brain’ versus ‘right brain’ traits, to charismatic verses non-charismatic. This seemingly irreconcilable dichotomy has now consumed my theoretical deliberations for many years and constantly makes unexpected appearances in my writings (See this link for example ). Here is my attempt to address this issue. It is in fact a very pressing matter because for many years I have been very alienated from evangelicalism. I have put that down to a swing in mainstream evangelicalism toward ‘right brain’ faith expressions and this has become the de-facto version of Christianity in some quarters. There has, in my view, been a consequent loss in authenticity and this has threatened my faith. So, the stakes here are very, very high and I find myself defending my faith from other people with faith. Paradoxically I don’t find atheists anywhere near as threatening!

The short answer to the question is: I use the word ‘platonic’ to refer to the world of mathematical constructions and models. These constructions are explored with the likes of number theory, geometry, set theory, computational theory etc. The most salient feature of this world is its debatable ontological status; it seems to be a world of possibility rather than actuality. Many (if not all?) objects in the cosmos can be modeled using a subset of platonic mathematical constructions isomorphic with them. Cosmic objects are platonic in as much as they may be isomorphic with mathematical objects. A much longer answer is probably necessary when one realizes that there are some tough conundrums here.

At first sight the fundamentals of mathematics are disarmingly minimal, undemanding of an elaborate physics to host them. Take for example the Turing machine: it seems to ask for little more than two discrete sequences (the tape and procedural steps) and a state transition diagram (=software). From this simple model the whole of mathematics seems to open up. Many versions of material reality could host such a simple machine and its computational equivalents and therefore there seems no lack of clarity or mystery in trying to conceive mathematics: it is devoid of that ‘right brain’ mystique; it is, seemingly, the progeny of the ‘left brain’, a paragon of mechanism.

But the self-referencing intricacies and enigmas come in thick and fast once we get reflexive. For a start if we allow the Turing machine to analyse its own mathematics (meta-mathematics) up pops Gödel’s theorem and Turing’s halting theorem. Also there is this question: Is the concept of mathematics intelligible without at least a minimal physical world able to host the mechanical reifications of its computations? Is there truly an independent platonic world that mathematics inhabits irrespective of the existence of a material ontology? And where does the mind fit in all this? Is the activity of an apparently ‘mindless’ mechanism of elementals, such as we find, in a Turing machine, the essence of mathematics? Or does mathematics only exist by virtue of a preexisting mind that can conceive it?

Mathematics appears to transcend a particular material instantiation of its objects whether that instantiation is a Turing machine or some other model of computation. The objects of mathematics can in principle be instantiated on a variety of media ranging from Searle’s beer cans to silicon chips. Therefore the essence of mathematics is to be found over and above material instantiation. Mathematics is about abstraction from material reification; it is about classes of activity and pattern and these things are not necessarily tied to a particular substantive realization. Abstraction, class and pattern are intelligible only as pure concepts inside an up and running mental context which can then handle.

These are difficult issues, but for a theist their resolution is likely to be bound up with the concept of Divine Aseity (see also your concept of absolute reason) Like you I favour the view that mathematics betrays the a-priori and primary place of mind; chiefly God’s mind. The alternative view is that gritty material elementals are the primary a-priori ontology and constitute the foundation of the cosmos and mathematics. But elementalism has no chance of satisfying the requirement of self explanation as the following consideration suggests: what is the most elementary elemental we can imagine? It would be an entity that could be described with a single bit of information. But a single bit of information has no degree of freedom and no chance that it could contain computations complex enough to be construed as self explanation. A single bit of information would simply have to be accepted as a brute fact. Aseity is therefore not to be found in an elemental ontology; elementals are just too simple.

In the search for Aseity elementalisation leads to an ontological dead end because elementals have a lower limit complexity of one bit, a limit beyond which there is no further room for logical maneuvering that could resemble anything close to self explanation. In contrast complexity has no upper limit and hence if Aseity is to be found at all, it must reside at the high end of logical complexity, perhaps at infinite measures of complexity with some kind of reflexive self affirming properties, such as we find in your “there is one true fact” example.

Like you James I’m attracted to Berklian idealism and/or a phenomenological philosophy, because taking sentient complexity as the fundamental given seems to provide a better chance of solving the philosophical conundrums over the nature of the mathematical abstractions, self explanation, and consciousness. However, I can find no necessary objection to the idea that sentience, particularly Divine sentience, may be able to engage in some kind of mathematically reductive self description; but in doing so such description would be no more than sentience describing itself in terms of its own ontology; something similar happens when a programming language is used to write its own compiler. As you say “…..personality is not something that we can turn on itself and identify outside of the layering we put in. I think personality is too big for such isolated imputations.”, If I understand that correctly then yes, personality cannot be described with something beyond itself; but in the final analysis personality, particularly God’s personality, may be big enough to cope with its self description in terms of its own ‘substance’. So sentience is at once both reducible and irreducible. Reducible because it may be mathematically reducible, but irreducible in that it cannot be reduced to an ontology other than itself. This may help satisfy the twin but seemingly contradictory intuitions of the reducibility and irreducibility of sentience.

There is often distaste for the idea that somehow reductive descriptions of sentience are possible. This distaste may result because our self-conscious first person ontology, something which is very sacred to each of us, is trivialized if a reductive description of sentience is used as Trojan horse to smuggle in a profane materialist ontology. It is one thing to attempt a reductive description of sentience in terms of the cognitive artifacts of sentience, but it is entirely another to surreptitiously swap a first person ontology for an elemental materialist ontology whilst attempting to carry out this reduction. A descriptive reduction is an entirely different thing from an ontological reduction. In any case I would question the intelligibility of the whole notion of a gritty “material” cosmos “out there”: if I am right then the fundamental particles of the cosmos are not solid little quarks or strings but cognita. Quarks and strings demand a complex mathematical context to be intelligible. The philosophical problems in this area seem to result of an attempt to relate incommensurables; mind and matter. My own opinion is that one or the other has to go and since ‘material’ noumena are far less real than the first person experience it is the former that has to go.

I have always had grave doubts about the intelligibility of an ontology of “material” elementa pictured to be lurking out there somewhere beyond sentience. It is surely ironic that many Christians are at one with many atheists in picturing such a conception. It is ironic that the default Christian folk philosophy is that of a “materialism plus” ontology – that is, a basic off the peg materialist ontology is supplemented with a “spiritual world” of demons, sprites, angels and of course God himself, all of which haunt the interstices of our gritty earthly reality in the manner that the human “spirit” is supposed to haunt the human body: the ghost in the machine. This is of course Cartesian dualism. For theists dualism actually leads to a tripartite reality: 1. God. 2. The Spiritual World 3. Matter. It all smacks of the classical Gnostic view of particles of spirit somehow trapped in a profane material world, a world that owes its creation to a demiurge; after all, the feeling goes, how could a perfect spiritual God have anything to do with a world of grimy matter? In the light of this default philosophy it is no surprise that Christians across the board are so utterly alienated from their world and are retreating into the mysteries of the “right brain” and the mysteries of the inner self where the unaccountable machinations of intuition replace mechanism. There follows the great Christian cop out from having to account for itself by simply declaring “It’s all in the heart”. In its more extreme expressions salvation for the Christian Gnostic is an escape from the ‘evil’ material world through states of altered consciousness.

Christian dualists are never far from atheism; they hover on the abyss of atheism. If for some reason their concept of a haunted reality should betray them and they react against it, they find a profane materialism purged of sacredness ready to welcome them. And the betrayals do happen: crises in leadership, failure of their religious paradigm to materialize in the form prophecies, blessings, healings and revivals, and the whole creaking show patched up by a bullying authoritarian leadership, well versed in spiritual spin.

I don’t accept a three substance or even a two substance cosmos: I am striving for an integrated vision, not the horribly fragmented vision of contemporary Christian Gnosticism that has lead to the incompatibilities between heart and mind, right and left brain, intuitive Christians and analytical Christians. But an integrated one substance vision is not the same as pantheism. Ultimately what distinguishes substances apart is differences in logical configuration, and configuration is about pattern, abstraction and classification and therefore about mathematics and therefore about mind. And so a one substance vision when looked at more closely is capable of resolving itself into a multi-category, multi-substance vision.

There is, in fact, one very fundamental category division to be found in this one substance vision. We are patterns of mind stuff, but of an entirely different genus to God himself. We and our cosmic context seem to be in that part of the mathematical spectrum that counts as mere possibility: we are too simple as logical constructions to possess the property of Aseity. Our patterns of sentience have no necessary existence and it is this that distinguishes us sharply from the substance of Deity and Aseity. So in one sense the greater cosmos is composed of two very different substances: God, the sentience that necessarily exists, and everything else created ex-nihilo and sustained at His pleasure.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Heiddeggerian Artificial Intelligence Part 2

After reading Hubert L Dreyfus paper on Heiddeggerian Artificial Intelligence I was left with many impressions and thoughts, but amidst it all I had the feeling that he is onto something. Dreyfus is a philosopher and is thus inclined to speak in very general, abstract and impressionistic terms. Take this key comment by Dreyfus, for example:

Rather, acting is experienced as a steady flow of skillful activity in response to one's sense of the situation Part of that experience is a sense that when one's situation deviates from some optimal body-environment gestalt, one's activity takes one closer to that optimum and thereby relieves the "tension" of the deviation. One does not need to know what that optimum is in order to move towards it. One's body is simply solicited by the situation [the gradient of the situation’s reward] to lower the tension. Minimum tension is correlated with achieving an optimal grip.

I think I understand that: The goals one aims for are not literally envisaged by our minds but are implicit in that one is less aware of goals than how one is supposed to move toward them. The situations confronting us cause a response but not necessarily by way of an internalized model that allows us to envisage the goal of that response. However, if Dreyfus’ ideas are to be realized in hardware and software how does one reduce terms like “optimal body-environment gestalt”, “tension”, “soliciting” “optimal grip” to bits, bytes and “if then elses”?

From the outset I was immediately attracted to Dreyfus phenomenology: phenomenology is a philosophy founded in the realization that our experience of the world and our thoughts about it are to all intents and purposes the extent of our cosmos. This existential philosophy side steps the horrendously intractable Cartesian problem surrounding the ontological distinction (if any) of noumena and cognita by positing conscious cognition as the effective center of our cosmos. From Dreyfus phenomenology follows his starting observation:

[T] he meaningful objects ... among which we live are not a model of the world stored in our mind or brain; they are the world itself.

Dreyfus starting point makes for a huge economy in his version of AI: A complex model of the world does not need to be carried around in our heads when in fact our experience of that world, delivered to our brains by our senses, will probably serve far better: all we are asked to do is to react to that perceived model and not to exhaustively envisage it. The real world is in effect our 'core memory' and we are but the depository of the neural 'algorithm' that tells as how to react to the contents of that 'memory' as we move around our world. In particular, if the world itself is our model then we don’t have to internalize a model of how it reacts to our actions. In principle our actions could have vast and ramifying effects on the rest of the world and a comprehensive internal model of reality would have to include the logic required to model these knock on effects; the problem of trying to somehow cater for the possibility of these escalating effects is called the “frame problem”.

Dreyfus looks to be a fairly abrasive character and uses general terms that can be very slippery. It is easy to misinterpret him and anyone who tries to use Dreyfus' ideas and turn them into something workable is probably taking a similar risk to those who attempt to articulate the meaning of the Holy Trinity and open themselves up to charges of heresy. Dreyfus is a hard task master. He is AI's prophet of doom and as is the prerogative of prophets of the infinitely complex he tends to work apophatically; that is, he is much clearer about what human intelligence is not, rather than what it actually is. Perhaps this is a good thing because there has been so much hype and over optimism in AI that it cries out for a judgmental preacher. It is very difficult to do justice to the infinitely complex and the scientific equivalent of charges of blasphemy and idolatry as humans attempt to create images of our their own selves reminds us not to be too complacent about progress in the face of simplistic and unrepresentative models. Did I just say ‘model’? Aren’t they the things that Dreyfus says we shouldn’t be using?

My own guess is that human intelligence solves the frame problem in a plurality of ways. The ‘absorbed coping’ that Dreyfus talks about may well be found in intelligent organisms like ourselves; his view is that such organisms are dynamic systems coupled to their environment via stimuli which are not processed using representations and models, but these stimuli succeed in ‘soliciting’ the right responses without the use of representations and models. It is likely that humans have inherited this computationally economic modus operandi. And yet it seems to me that humans also appear to model the world computationally in the internal Cartesian sense: Humans can and do reflect on ‘external systems’ and can anticipate their behavior without coming into contact with them and being prompted by them. However, often this reflection may make use of pencil and paper jottings and various external contrivances that help prompt thinking, thus betraying the roots of human intelligence in organisms coupled dynamically to their environment. If the human mind does do symbolic modeling it may not actually be very good at it as a standalone system.

There is one other characteristic of the human mind suggesting that “Dreyfus is right but....”. In a connectionist model of the mind, everything is connected to everything else through pathways that may be no longer than ~ Log(N), where N is the number of neurons in the brain. Thus when attention is focused on one activity like say language translation, the whole of the mind’s accumulated connectionist experience is never far away in access terms and thus the whole domain of an individuals experience can be brought to bear on a problem. The mind has the potential to use the widest frame available to it and there may be no artificial frame or relevance boundary arbitarily drawn within the domain of one’s experience. In short the human mind may not even attempt to solve the frame and relevance problems and instead throws all its knowledge resources at the situations it meets. Learning never stops and the human mind is therefore always placing contexts within new contexts. Problem solving truly is an open ended activity.

Human intelligence uses three modus operandi:
1. Heiddeggerian: Human intelligence uses the world itself as its own model.
2. Modelling: Human intelligence has a mental facility to model, but that facility betrays an inheritance from 'Heiddeggerian' organisms by making frequent use of 'external' world contrivances such as pencil and paper.
3. Isotropy: Human intelligence, via connectionism, does not attempt to impose any a-priori limitations on what knowledge resources are relevant to a situation. That is, it doesn't attempt to solve the frame problem.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Heideggerian Artificial Intelligence

Here is a link to a paper on Artificial Intelligence sent to me by Stuart. I’m still absorbing the contents of this paper, but in the meantime here are a few lines of hot mail conversation that I had with Stuart whilst I was still reading this paper.

Timothy says:
I’m hoping to do a blog entry on it (the paper)
Stuart says:
Yes. It is an interesting paper
Timothy says:
Stuart says:
Better towards the end when he discusses Freeman(?)'s stuff

Timothy says:
I'm on that bit now
Stuart says:
Yeah. AI has been a bit of a failure. Which is why the phenomenological perspective in HCI and AI has been very important
Timothy says:
I agree. AI was even starting to look a failure as far back as the seventies. In the 60s I swallowed the message that we would have HAL machines by the end of the millennium, but then I has only 14
Stuart says:
Haha. Yes. You can be forgiven. I think Dreyfus is a bit harsh but unfortunately he's right
Timothy says:
Looks like it (Editors note: well, we shall see!)
Stuart says:
Even simple things like computer vision end up facing the solve-all-AI problem. Divide-and-conquer research strategy doesn't work. And perhaps we can argue that this is present in other disciplines
Timothy says:
Yes everything taps into a myriad associations. Similar with language translation: you can't translate everything without an enormous cultural knowledge.
Stuart says:
Well indeed

I must admit that Stuart’s comment about the divide and conquer strategy failing gave me a slight attack of the jitters: Does it mean that an incremental evolution can’t evolve intelligence in a piece meal, step by step fashion? ID here we come? In fact what of our own ability to solve problems given that we have a limited quantum of intelligence? It may well be true that certain problems are insoluble given a limited 'step size' whether that step size is limited by random walk or by human capabilities. However whether or not it is possible to solve any problems at all depends on the existence or otherwise of those “isobaric” lines of functionality conjectured to run continuously through morphospace. In the case of biological evolution those lines must be lines of self sustaining (=stable) funtionality.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Bus to Nowhere

In this article in the Spectator, author Melanie Philips quotes Richard Dawkins saying “A serious case could be made for a deistic God”. Dawkins made this statement at the beginning of his second debate with Oxford Mathematics professor John Lennox. Reading between the lines it seems that this was a defensive reaction to the first debate (which I haven’t seen) where the uncompromising Dawkins came head to head with someone who has a strong grasp of philosophy and science and who would very likely expose the loopholes in absolute atheism. Not surprisingly in the second debate Dawkins was cagier about his absolute atheism and instead went on to attack the much more vulnerable specifics of faith. When faced with someone like John Lennox the turkey shoot is over for Richard Dawkins.

However, Dawkins statement sits well with the atheist bus poster campaign projected for the New Year which uses a slogan reading: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life". “Probably” no God? I read subtext as: “We might just possibly have got it wrong, but we don’t think there is a God”. The redneck fundamentalists, for whom the very certainty of belief and experience is the clinching exhibit-A evidence for God’s existence, will laugh that one to scorn! I almost feel sorry for the atheists who by definition can’t match the fundamentalists in convinced fervor! Zealous evangelism and atheism simply don't mix!They are not going to be able to take on the vehement believers by playing them at their own game: if anything this rather lame slogan campaign will play into the hands of those believers for whom uncompromising conviction is evidence of veracity. Even the relatively moderate Methodists are welcoming the atheist campaign as it least putting the concept of God on the agenda; once one entertains the God concept, even just as a remote possibility, one is half way to faith - all that remains is for the “God meme” to be switched on! These atheists haven't got the foggiest idea about how the religious mentality works, least of all that of the fundamentalists.

The trouble with atheism, or at least a fair minded and reasonable atheism, is that in the final analysis it is a self referencing conceptual object that doesn’t allow certainties including itself. It’s a bit like the ground state in quantum theory. Quantum mechanics prohibits the absolute emptiness of nothing: on either side of nothing there is cloud of matter and antimatter! For absolute atheism the only way is up. The tentativeness of human knowledge demands that one can’t declare that God doesn’t exist, only that he probably doesn’t exist. Absolute atheism has only one state: complete disbelief. Theism on the other hand has many states. If you are an absolute atheist there is nowhere else to go other than into one of the various states of belief … or perhaps a superposition of several states of belief!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Absentee Diety

Here is an intriguing phenomenon: two atheists have popped up in a discussion thread on the Christian web site Network Norwich, one of whom created the thread and dubbed it “Religious Twaddle”. He then went straight in with all guns blazing declaring the backwardness and irrationality of religion. Not surprisingly he got a rather visceral response! Depending on how or if they respond to my own rather late-in-the-day input, it appears that we have here two atheists who, like many theists, see the question of God’s existence swinging very much on the subject of Divine "intervention": That is, these atheists believe there is no evidence of such "intervention" and that in any case the "proven laws of science" obviate any intervention or involvement by God. Hence, it’s then down to the "interventionist" believers (and there are plenty about) to provide evidence that God does intervene every now and again and punctuates reality with "supernatural" events. Presumably this anthropomorphized category of God, a category deeply rooted in the mind of believer and unbeliever alike, is of a God who relies on the laws of science to run the cosmic show when He is absent on holiday, sleeping or has to use the convenience. Presumably these atheists believe that since the number of well documented "interventions" is close to nothing, then absence of evidence of God is evidence of absence and you can't be more absent than not existing. Shucks, I never thought of that one.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The End of The Logical Line

It has long been clear to me that the conceptual artifacts of science are a means of pattern description; some patterns are simple and can be reduced to elegant equations and other patterns, like say random sequences, are complex and remain as unreduced data, constrained only by statistical description. The two objects of elegant equations and statistics are beautifully joined in the composite of Quantum Theory.

The noumenalogical/ontological status of descriptive theoretical artifacts is philosophically problematic, but one thing that the subject of computation has made clear: the pattern description of science classifies as a form of data compression. This data reduction/compression is obliged to stop at some point with an incompressible kernel of ‘brute fact’.

Given that computation has provided such a clear insight into the process of scientific pattern description one is left wondering whether science really ‘explains’ anything at all in an absolute sense, if indeed ‘absolute explanation’ is an intelligible concept. In science we are in effect merely discovering how to compress myriad diverse potential observational protocols into elegant theoretical descriptions.

The data compression embodied in a theoretical artifact feeds the intuition that with a reduction in mathematical complexity there comes a concomitant reduction in mystery. Theoretical constructs, it seems, are converging toward a narrower and narrower ‘mystery gap’. In fact a naive and erroneous extrapolation might suggest that the ultimate conclusion of our theoretical endeavors will be a description string of zero length thus ending all mystery! Of course, this is mathematical nonsense; an irreducible descriptive kernel always will remain. But for the philosophically naive the reduced ‘strings’ of theoretical science look like small logical gaps that may one day be eliminated completely. Hence naive atheism believes the squeeze is on for the naive God of gaps theists. And yet here is the irony: naive atheists and naïve theists think in exactly the same categories: viz that science is a logical gap reducing process. However, unlike the naive atheists who wish to eliminate the apparent logical gaps, the naive theists yearn for irreducible gaps as the savior of faith, whether in the form of irreducible complexity or as the ‘in yer face’ gaps of miracles. The naive atheists seek to minimize the gaps, whilst the naive theists do all they can to either retain or maximize the gaps. And yet both intuitively seem to agree on one point: namely, the view that theoretical explanation renders Deity, or more precisely Aseity, redundant.

Somehow the view is held by both naive atheism and naive theism that a protocol element explained within a theoretical context somehow reduces its burden of contingency. But in an absolute sense the complexity of the phenomenon remains: at least in terms of the number of existing protocol elements which remain the same, albeit described with an elegant mathematical object. The compelling philosophical gut feeling that Liebnitz’ principle of sufficient reason is hiding somewhere isn’t satisfied and on that issue success at elegant pattern explanation takes us no further forward.

It is a telling irony that someone such as myself is likely to be accused of being a deist by both theists and atheists: the reason for this accusation is that both parties have the same philosophical categories. Both parties hold the view that explanatory structures reduce the burden of contingency and hence conclude that a well explained phenomenon, like say the evolution of life, may be thought of as serving notice on any deity (or aseity) with the job of managing and sustaining it.

But to confuse our theoretical artifacts with ultimate explanation is a bit like saying that the elements of a computation are created and sustained only by their program. The program is only a means of describing the computation – there is of course the much deeper background reality of the hardware which creates and sustains the individual computation events. And so as far as I am concerned the hunt for Asiety goes on.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


If this story (whose link I picked up from Uncommon Descent) is correctly reported, then it's a sample of what some members of the Royal Society will do to an evolutionist who makes the very mild suggestion that it might be a good idea to give at least some space to rebuffing creationist concepts in class should they be mooted by pupils. The evolutionist in question is Professor Michael Reiss who said that creationism should be discussed in science lessons if pupils raised the issue. The subsequent controvesy, partly resulting from Reiss' words being mistintrepreted as a recommendation to teach creationism, lead to his resignation.
It's all so horribly reminiscent of the inquisition and the fanatical ferreting out of heretics on the slightest whiff of heresy. In this context the ID community’s rubric “Expelled” doesn't seem so far from the mark. I may not (yet) agree with their main thesis, but I’m behind the Uncommon Descent's criticism of the Royal Society. This isn’t science; this is politics; no, make that 'this is religion'.
The Pharisees of Science: Good and fair minded science is crucified at the Royal Society
They strain out a gnat but swallow the camel (Mat 23:23ff)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Nebulous Notions

Here’s an interesting book: “The Cloudspotter’s Guide” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. Well written as well as entertaining, this book is working against the twin prejudices of the commonplaceness of clouds and the bad press they get. The book has no truck with sayings like “I’m under a cloud” and does an excellent job of introducing the silver lining of the subject. Ever since reading it I’ve been looking up at the sky with renewed awareness and increasing understanding as I have honed my cloud categorization skills; if indeed something as woolly and varied as clouds lend themselves to categorization. As is often the case naming and categorization brings new recognition sensitizing one to a world often looked at but never really seen. In order to change my perspective I have tried to see cloudscapes as if I am looking down on them rather than up at them. This book not only opens up an understanding of clouds but also an appreciation of the beauty of the prosaic as it comfortably mixes art, science and adventure in one volume.

We may think clouds to be too banal a subject to lead to profundities, yet for Pretor-Pinney it occasionally leads into to some very deep waters indeed:

1. Like global warming….

According to Pretor-Pinney, “Clouds are the wildcards in climate change predictions.” Clouds blanket as well as reflect heat and so have competing effects on global warming. Moreover, according to Pretor-Pinney “..we are so ill equipped to anticipate what a rise in global temperatures would mean to the nature of cloud cover”. In the face of uncertainty Pretor-Pinney, taking a hint from Pascal's wager, adopts a ‘better safe that sorry’ policy toward CO2 emissions.

These questions over global warming reminded me of the occasional articles about the subject posted on William Dembki’s Intelligent Design blog, Uncommon Descent. Usually these posts are very critical of Global Warming sciences. See for example this post by DaveScott. In the comments section I express surprise at DaveScott’s claim that the CO2 scrubbing effects of precipitation aren’t taken into account in global warming models.

This is not to say that I’m a convert to Uncommon Descent’s jaundiced view of global warming sciences. Actually I’m not going to get into this argument as I’ve got my hands more than full with the ID/evolution issue. In any case I tend to go along with Pretor-Pinney’s better safe than sorry policy*. However, that Uncommon Descent should sing an off beat tune on global warming is perhaps not too surprising: as a result of their ID views they probably feel marginalized and beyond the pale of the larger scientific community, so perhaps the alienation and distrust they already feel toward the academic community makes it easier from them to revaluate global warming sciences and come to a contrary position.

One thing that my dabblings in the ID/evolution debate have shown me is just how far human factors drive the logical facades of scientific endeavour. It seems to me that it is not too strong a language to describe many evolutionists and ID aficionados to be “converted” to their cause and crowd factors are never far away: group identification, group protection, those you call liars and those you trust, those you hate and those you admire, those who repel you and those you follow. Above all there are strong vested interests in group worldviews and in their defence there even arises the old ‘champion’ idea. Dissenting scientists William Dembski and Michael Behe, in their resistance against the evolutionary scientific establishment, rerun the time honoured and archetypical battle of David and Goliath.

As an academic of conflict studies once put it: Opposing sides often have the feeling that their bastard is much worse than anyone else’s bastard, and so hatreds run deep. Nervous persecuted minorities and even majorities may fancy they see a malign and secret conspiracy behind their particular bastard. But perhaps I’m not immune from fancying I see conspiracy lurking behind the scenes: I am just a little concerned about Uncommon Descent’s connections and whether this impacts upon their view of global warming. Conversely many fear that global warming is a scare story used to excuse political control.

2. Like science verses art…

Using quotes from Thoreau and Keats Pretor-Pinney typifies how so often the poetic/artistic mentality sets its teeth against science:

Thoreau: You tell me [the colouring of the clouds] is a mass of vapour which absorbs all other rays and reflects the red, but that is nothung to the purpose, for this red vision excites me, stirs my blood, makes my thoughts flow… what sort of science is that which enriches the understanding, but robs the imagination?

Keats: Do not all charms fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy? Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings, conquer all mysteries by rule and line, empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine – unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made the tender-person’d lamia melt into the shade.

Pretor-Pinney observes humouressly:

I can see what Thoreau and Keats mean. But they do sound a bit like the arty kids in class taunting the science nerds. Having opted for all sciences at secondary school, I have painful memories of bullying classmates goading me for emptying the haunted air, and gnomed mine. OK, they might not have quite put it in those words, but the sentiment was the same.

And so the apparently competing polarities of science versus art, analysis versus intuition, cold description versus beauty, demystification versus mystery, knowledge versus feeling, head versus heart are sustained. But why? Why is this polarization such a common theme? Why does the elementalisation that science appears to introduce grate so with the poetic mentality, a mentality that revels in unreduced experience? Why do people hark back to an imagined rustic idyll when life was more instinctual and intuitive? Why are the objects and activity of science regarded as soulless? Why is science’s analytically reduced reality considered so profane in comparison with the unreduced reality of the mystic? Is the analytical left-brain to be forever at odds with the intuitive right brain? These are questions that I think I will leave for another post!

On the last page of his book Pretor-Pinney tells of the ‘right brain’ response of an Australian glider pilot who surfed the morning glory clouds of northern Australia: “Up in the clouds you can’t help have a belief in the creator”, said the pilot who I suspect would be unable to reduce this compelling intuition into its components. It is surely not a coincidence that the doyens of the intelligent design movement make so much of the concept of the irreduciblity of organic complexity as they seek the edge of knowledge, an edge beyond which heartfelt religious intuition is mooted as the guide rather than cold analytical skills (a view I would dispute).

As for Pretor–Pinney he favours a symbiotic rather than schismatic relation between left and right brain reactions (after all the two halves do live in the same skull and one therefore suspects a complimentary relation between such close partners). So let me leave the last words to him:

Cloudspotters will float above these petty divides between science and art – float above them like our fluffy friends. For us there is no contradiction in regarding the clouds in ways that both stir our blood by exciting our imagination and enrich our understanding with ‘cold philosophy’.
I heartily agree. Perhaps having your head in the clouds is not such a bad idea after all.

The web site of the cloud appreciation society can be found at:

* I’m inclined to follow Pretor-Pinney on this, but there seems to be unknowns round every corner. Who knows the perturbing effects on economic realites of the costs of emission efficiency?

Friday, August 01, 2008


Everyone with a theistic worldview is Dawkins bashing nowadays. I’m not a natural atheist basher myself: Given the human predicament the atheist position is at least plausible and deserves some respect and consideration, especially as much of the religious world is not only crackpot but is so horribly blighted by a mindless bullying hegemony. However, although I’m not a natural enemy of atheists, the impassioned and polarised state of the debate, especially in America, forces one to choose sides. Protagonists like Richard Dawkins seem determined to make enemies of all who don’t subscribe to their take on the subject of Primary Ontology, which to be fair is a highly speculative topic that really demands a tentative and trial approach rather than a violent melee of “we don’t take prisoners” crusaders. Ok then Richard, have it your way; you’ve got a thoroughly alienated enemy here. Happy now? To this end I reproduce below an otherwise private article I wrote in 1993 that was a response to Richard Dawkins’ article in the New Statesmen in 1992. If you can’t beat the Dawkins bashers join them! Makes a change from fundamentalist bashing I suppose!


Knotes on Richard Dawkin’s article “Is God a Computer Virus”, New Statesmen Dec 1992

by Tim Reeves 18/9/93

Revised January 1997

1) RELIGIOUS RAMBOS exercising their believing muscles, nervous wimps in religion, wild red blooded Catholics, and virtuoso believers skilled in the arts of believing the unbelievable, are all some of the characters one meets in Richard Dawkin's article "Is God a Computer Virus” (New Statesman, Dec. 92). I found the subject matter of the article laughably caricatured and I wasn't sure how seriously the proposition was to be taken. But having heard and read Dawkins in the past I think he is serious, although he takes far from seriously those who are the subject of his thesis. His ideas do have a bearing in some quarters, especially the cults, but for myself I found it difficult to identify the faith of some of the people I meet, or my own faith, with what Dawkins describes. However, if Dawkins is right, then it is unlikely that I could make such an identification, because it is no doubt part of the survival strategy of the "faith virus" to be difficult to detect by victims. It is, therefore, difficult for a person of faith to oppose the faith virus theory by attempting prove that they are not a victim, because the theory probably implies that the virus is likely to induce its victim to try and do this any way in order to enhance its survivability. Thus my opposition, as a person of faith, will hardly count as evidence. In this respect Dawkins faith virus theory is remarkably like the faith virus itself in that one can say of both, to quote Dawkins, "Once the proposition is believed it automatically undermines opposition to itself"!! The faith virus theory is also self-referential like the faith virus. But I am not going to be too hard on Dawkins here; Self reference, particularly of the self supporting stable kind, as I will go on to show, is not necessarily a bad thing. But let us note the irony in Dawkins thesis !

2) THE PENULTIMATE PARAGRAPH of the article is really the most interesting bit. Here, after considering and lampooning (harpooning?) those wallowing in the sea of faith, this solid, no nonsense, bah-humbug biologist attempts to put his intellectual anchors down on what he thinks is the firm bedrock of science. As we know, this bedrock, in a philosophical sense, is far from firm. Who is going to tell him ?

3) AS DAWKINS SMUGLY throws out an anchor in the penultimate paragraph it seems to me that his anchor simply catches on to the very raft on which he is standing. His justification of science in terms of exacting selective scrutiny of concepts, non-capricious ideas, evidential support, repeatability, progressiveness, independence of cultural milieu etc., itself appears to be a scientific view of science, presumably based on some juxtaposition of a theoretical conception of science and observations of it. Now, I don't want to be misunderstood here; some might think that this scientific self referencing is sufficient to rubbish Dawkins, but for myself, not only do I tend to agree with his views on science (although they need further scrutiny), but I find no a priori problem with self-description, self-reference, or self-justification. For the moment, however, let us be aware that it is happening, covertly, in this penultimate paragraph, where Dawkins anchors science to science, and let us, once again, make a note of the irony.

4) RUSSELL'S PARADOX, which was a famous contradiction arising from self-referencing or self-descriptive statements, was solved by doing not much more than simply disallowing such self-referencing. However, this solution, although valid, was highly artificial. Self-description and self-reference can and do exist, but if we allow them to exist in our knowledge there is a price: Self-description and self-reference are forms of feedback, and therefore if we accept them we also have to accept that in analogy with systems where feedback exists, we will have the possibility of both stable and unstable conceptual behaviour. The stablility of non-contradictory thinking contrasts with the unstable world of contradiction where we find a cognitive analogy to the oscillatory or chaotic behaviour produced by certain types of feedback. The liability of unstable cognition is a consequence of the human ability to have knowledge about knowledge, and it becomes a possibility as soon as we allow even subtle updates in what we know about our knowledge to register themselves as part and parcel with that knowledge. Of course, in mathematics, one can attempt to rule out this conceptual feedback, but in the real world of cognition it exists, and Russell's solution, although fine for set theory, is only an artificial device.

5) I HAVE A THEORY that at least part of the reason for the demise of 18th century rationalism was the rather unnerving effects of conceptual feedback. With the early success of science and the consequent feeling that the race was onto a good thing, it is not surprising that eventually a rational view of rationalism would be attempted. Thus, as in various philosophical endeavours understanding sought to understand itself, what was to prove a very dangerous loop was quietly closed, and a trap was set for any who might leave the straight and narrow. A little knowledge was to prove a dangerous thing, and so in a series of philosophical debacles the painful signals of conceptual feedback started to flow like blood in a previously constricted limb. Extreme empiricism in the form of positivism discovered unstable feedback as soon as people started asking whether the verifiability principle was verifiable. Kant, in his search for a-priori synthetic knowledge about the world, failed to get to the other side of the cognitive interface we have with it, and was left dumbfounded by the result that mind appeared to be justified by mind, and he virtually lost contact with the "external" world. Darwin sensed the possibility of unstable feedback as he mused over how an evolutionary system, which appeared to be governed only by a survivalist ethic, had any obligation to produce minds that could understand evolution. The ulterior motives that sometimes lurk behind reflections such as these can be highly self-destructive. On many issues (but certainly not all) high standards of empirical verification and/or testing are possible, and this is capable of supporting a healthy level of scepticism because providence allows its satiation with sufficient empirical demonstration. However, this scepticism has a tendency to become more extreme, thoroughgoing and demanding, perhaps as a result of a proud desire for intellectual self sufficiency founded on "absolute" knowledge. And so, as if in a judgment on the abuse of providence, this scepticism is permitted to start to doubt and therefore undermine the a-priori methods, assumptions, and mental toolkit that providence supplies in order for scepticism to go about satiating itself in the first place. Thus, without taking the utility of these gifts of providence for granted, human scepticism remains deeply unsatisfied. It is as if the stomach, in it’s craving for food, was to start digesting itself.

6) THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES are served by a meritocratic elite, holders of strange and deep secrets who express themselves in obscure technical and mathematical language that not many can fathom. This knowledge, some may say, and many appear to accept, is the key to the mystery of life, the universe, and everything; every academic subject is just a footnote to physics; the physicist Richard Feynmann called the social disciplines pseudo science, and the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawkin writes the wave function for the universe! Whether right or wrong, the attitudes underlying this sort of thing, are asking for trouble; some of the gut feelings at the bottom of both religious and secular humanism are offended here.

At the heart of humanistic endeavours there seems to be a necessity to have a basic a-priori optimism about the possibilities open to human achievement and its ability to eventually attain peace, justice and fairness. If this, what sometimes appears to be crass optimism, didn't exist it is unlikely that humanistic projects, like Marxism (and Fascism), for example, would ever get off the ground. Hence, it may be felt that a situation where an intellectual elite hold the keys of all knowledge just can't be right; it cuts across humanistic optimism; it isn't fair, it isn't accountable, it isn't egalitarian; surely the universe is amenable to a more socialist approach? Worst of all, I suspect, is that it also cuts across some people’s own taste for intellectual hegemony. So, it is with great glee that some of these people pounce on the discomfiture of science found in the great feedback debacles, where the physical sciences appeared to lose something of their absoluteness. Moreover, Kant had showed that the human element must be highly active in the pursuit of knowledge. So, in the battle for academic and intellectual hegemony there have been those who, jealous of the position and achievements of the physical sciences, have so emphasised the human element in the quest for knowledge that one can be forgiven for thinking that they are suggesting this element is all there is to it, and that human and cultural studies are therefore more fundamental. Some of the more extreme disciples of social historicism, objective idealism, dialectical materialism, existentialism, and subjective idealism appear to be consumed by ‘science envy’. There may be something to be said for all these points of view, but when they become fortresses in the battle for intellectual domination, the trappings of offence and defence do not help toward an impartial consideration of them. It is as if opthalmists were to claim that the meaning of life, the universe and everything is to be found by studying the eye. After all, a case could be made for this in as far as much of life revolves round sight! The motives behind the intellectual anti-science culture are not only clear, but it is also clear that it is a culture that has potentially worse conceptual feedback problems than the physical sciences. The latter may claim, (although it can never assuage absolute scepticism) that the world of physical laws is unchanged by thought and culture, and that science therefore has the effect of anchoring knowledge. But if, in contrast, knowledge is only part and function of culture, then as it seeks to know that culture (of which it is a part) it will in turn change that culture, thus in turn altering itself. Therefore, it will find itself following a moving target leading, perhaps, to a runaway feedback situation resembling a dog chasing it's own tail. Perhaps a run around of this kind is precisely what is happening in our society!

7) CONCEPTUAL FEEDBACK is inevitable, but an important question is, is the feedback we are interested in stable? If it was not possible to attain stable knowledge we could not know about this instability ourselves in a stable way because if we did, then it would, of course, contradict this condition of universally unstable knowledge. However, if some truly stable knowledge existed, then a stable belief in stability could be part of that stability, and therefore, a-priori stable conditions admit the possibility that we could know of this stability in a stable way. (Got that?) At least a modicum of a-priori stability is required for stable knowledge; we would not be the creators of this stability - it would just have to be accepted and exploited, as probably happens in the physical sciences. Moreover, the physical sciences seems to be blessed with a high proportion of solid and reliable types who tend not to endlessly analyse their assumptions, thus closing the feedback loop, but instead are inclined to go ahead and exploit their "hard", "firm", "soft", and sometimes thoroughly "wet" brainware to the full. No wonder the social and human disciplines find progress more difficult! If some of the students of these disciplines concentrated less on making a style out of defining and redefining themselves, of constantly being insecure about making assumptions, and of tampering with a mental toolkit they don't understand, along with various other behavioural affectations, then they might find progress easier! I therefore have great sympathy with Dawkin's implicitly self-referencing, but stable, characterisation of science. However, one may ask what, apart from gut reaction, makes Dawkins object to some of the equally stable "faith viruses" he describes?

8) THE ARTICLE FAILS to elucidate the reason for this gut reaction because it gives little space to the question of just what characteristic makes a virus a virus. If all that characterises a virus is that it is a resilient self-perpetuating packet of information then I suppose one might argue that knowledge of how to open a door is a virus. That latter is a concept that spreads from human to human and even cats and dogs have been observed to catch this very successful cognitive virus. In this sense any useful piece of information becomes a virus. But what marks out a useful piece of information from a virus is the former’s role in relation to a larger context; what distinguishes the door opening concept from a virus is that the former takes part in a wide symbiosis: Without the door opening concept life as a whole would become very difficult, whereas without a virus life is not difficult; on the contrary life's identity and stability is usually enhanced by the absence of a virus, whereas the absence of useful information not only diminishes life’s identity and stability, but may even make life impossible because life is dependent on useful information. In contrast, life is not necessarily dependent on a virus, although the virus is inevitably parasitic upon life and therefore necessarily dependent on it. In a strange inversion of transactive justice the virus may even exact a cost on the host for the privilege of helping to maintain the viral identity; namely chaos in the host. In a word the virus gives nothing and takes all just short of the final extinction of the host. So, is the God concept of this ilk? I would say no; it is part of a wider symbiosis, and a lot more than that!

9) THE NARROW CONFINES of extreme forms of reductionist materialism, dialectical materialism, social historicism, objective idealism, existentialism and subjective idealism may be dogmatic about what can be, but for myself I found that I could never claim to know enough to be able to say "there is no God". For all I knew the notion of God could be both intelligible and real. Take the issue of intelligibility: Is the concept of God so diffuse that it is meaningless? Dogmatic "intelligibility atheism", like "ontological atheism" founders on the inevitable finiteness of experience and knowledge; my concepts of complex things such as "personality", "human beings", social interactions and even complex computer behaviour may also be rather diffuse. But clarity comes with experience and learning, and, moreover, there seems to be a rough rule that the less trivial and more significant something gets the less amenable it is to the immediate senses and lower cognitive functions. If God existed, then like many social entities, there was going to be a problem for me in grasping both the meaning and reality of God. No "proof of God" was ever likely to be found that was big and complex enough and I could no more expect to "see" God than I could expect to "see", other than metaphorically, a personality or a society. What should one do when faced with these uncertainties? Should one commit oneself to atheism, God, or nothing at all? To me there seemed to be no middle way. Like a man in an aircraft going down in flames, I had only two options: stay with the aircraft or bale out. But I had an advantage over the man in the burning aircraft: He could make a wrong decision; the plane may or may not crash badly or he may or may not muff the parachute drop. Christian living appeared to do good things to people, things that a thorough going secular philosophy failed to do. So even if this God business was rubbish I had little to lose by giving it a try. Born out of uncertainty and the need to act was the realisation that, as Pascal noted, opting for God was the better half of the bet. I couldn't go wrong. So I made my choice and it turned out to be the best thing I ever did! And so it should have been; absence of proof or disproof proves nothing; if God was logically meaningful and ontologically real, and moreover personal and relevant to my existence, then positive evidence was obliged to come along eventually. It has been said that assertions of existence are scientifically intractable because one has to look all over the place to prove or disprove them; however, the logic changes a little if that which is asserted to exist comes looking for you!

10) LACK OF BALANCE is how I would describe Dawkin’s article in New Statesman. In trying to maintain a balance myself, I would acknowledge that there might be circumstances to which Dawkin’s ideas apply, but there are also religious connections to which they do not. For myself, and some other nervous wimps in religion, Dawkins ideas are inapplicable because experience, evidence, reason and philosophy play an important role in nuturing and maintaining faith. For example, the inevitable level of giveness in the universe, the consciousness discontinuity, historical evidence re the life of Christ and His resurrection, personal experiences and the synchronous nature of certain events in one's life, all act in the germination and maintenance of faith. Of course, in comparison with the kind of secular intelligentsia that Dawkins represents one might appear as a mistaken fool about all this, but, nevertheless, we are talking here of something far removed from the sort of "faith" described by the article. In the article we find reference to a kind of fideist and gnosto-dualist faith that is self supporting in the sense that it loves itself more and more as it is less and less contaminated by the profanity of evidential or reasoned support of any kind.

Much more could be made of the "compost" of experience, and evidence that help nourish the seeds of faith during growth, but I would like to pick up something which is more in line with the theme of self-reference.

11) DAWKINS IS RIGHT, in a sense, that a faith like the Christian faith does have a considerable conceptual stability arising out of its self-referential nature. However, this self referential stability exists not in the way described in the article, but as a result of the Christian belief in a loving personal God. To see this, contrast it with the opposite view, namely, that the world, apart from oneself, is primarily and fundamentally apersonal and/or disinterested. Influenced by a belief (for such it is) of this sort, one may rightly question and feel sceptical about whether one's knowledge represents anything at all; apersonal parties and/or principles, by definition, carry with them no a-priori absolute guarantee of the representational nature of any knowledge. The belief that the universe is primarily disinterested and/or apersonal is not only inclined to violate the foundation of knowledge, but it may start to undermine itself as one may wonder whether this belief itself actually represents anything. The result is that you are either left with nothing or next to nothing, or less honestly you fudge the issue by becoming philosophically diffuse and won't dare admit to holding to anything resembling a belief in truth. At most there might be an acknowledgement of the utilitarian value of beliefs (presumably itself a belief). This tendency toward nihilism, or at best "minisculism", instability and confusion contrasts with the stability of a belief in a personal loving God. If I hold such a belief I am more likely to see accurate representational knowledge as an outcome of God's love for me. Needless to say, the very belief in a loving God is itself seen as the providential outcome of that love because it is believed to be imparted by a God who desires to reveal to us not only truths, but above all Himself. This belief is self-referencing, but it is, of course, highly stable because it is self-affirming. Moreover, it encourages a proactive growth in knowledge, as this growth no longer seems a pointless exercise; in this context knowledge is believed to mean something. Therefore, if there is a God, the belief in God will further reinforce itself as further knowledge and experience of God's love and providence is sought for, and inevitably gained. This growth and reinforcement will depend on that knowledge and experience being of the corroborating kind; but for it to start at all one must first start with God. My view is that to do so is to concur with an essential component of one's metal toolkit. There is no way one can from an absolutely sceptical basis "prove" this starting point without getting into unstable conceptual feedback cycles; we just have to assume it and exploit it. We are absolute dependents whose first premise is "In the beginning God ...."

c. T.V Reeves 1993

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Celebrity Death Match: Dembski vs. Bentley

The Swot
The Hulk

Here’s an unusual and novel juxtaposition of protagonists: see here and here. William Dembski, Intelligent Design guru, does a Todd Bentley meeting! It vaguely reminds of the spate of postmodern films that bring incommensurable super heroes into collision: e.g Miss Marple vs. The Terminator or something like that.

I didn’t know whether to put this post on “Quantum Non-linearity” or on “Views News and Pews”, so I’ve posted it on both. It is clear, as the second link reveals, that Dembski was left with a very unfavourable impression of Bentley (I dread to think that it could have been otherwise). It’s interesting to see that Dembski made the very same observation that I made when I went to a Benny Hinn meeting: “…the exodus from the arena of people bound in wheelchairs was poignant.” But I hasten to add that I did not, like Dembski, travel many miles to get to my meeting: in order to save rental costs the financially savy Hinn organization, conveniently for me, decided to bring their show to Norwich football ground which is less than 20 minutes walk from my house. I certainly did not drag my family along; instead I went, as usual, in the capacity of an amateur researcher with camera and notepaper.

One of the commentators on Uncommon Descent takes Demsbki to task for even giving Bentley’s ‘healing miracles’ the slightest of credence from the outset. Fair comment except that Demsbki has a severely autistic son, and so he was understandably vulnerable to the ‘clutching at straws’ effect. Typically of this kind of Christian scene there is an exploitation of the emotions associated with the unknown, especially fear of the unknown. It’s all to easy to follow a false trail for something you really want: you hope against hope that the next corner or the next horizon will reveal the vista you are longing for. It never comes, but whilst you are in a state of ignorance the sheer hope strings you along. And when the carrot of hope fails to lead you up the garden path, there is the stick of fear, fear that an inscrutable and unknown god might just be revealing himself in the utterly unpalatable and who knows what displeasure he will visit upon those who do not swallow it. It’s all a very Pagan view of God: it is a ministry that trades on fear, ignorance, numinous dread, submission, and above all on the notion of an unaccountable angry god whose actions are to all intents and purposes arbitrary. Pagan practices down the ages have thrived on this: I'm reminded of a burial site next to the Cursus in Dorset where a Neolithic woman and children were found buried by archeologists who had a sneaky suspicion that they were uncovering a tragic story of human sacrifice: what satanic things humans can screw themselves up to do when they believe they are sanctioned by the Divine.

Is there a connection here with Intelligent Design theory? I hope not. I respect the efforts and faith of Dembski and his many followers who are carrying out a valuable critique of evolution and are presenting worthy challenges to people who think they believe in evolution. However, one of my niggles with ID theory is that introduces an arbitrariness. In ID theory “Intelligence” is used as a kind of wild card or black box notion: “Intelligence is as intelligence does”. The broad sweep of paleontological change, which at least presents a prima facie case for evolution, then fails to cohere; it is like a story that seems to be a story but of which we are told is no story after all. I have yet to find out how ID theory accounts for paleontological history and so far ID seems to be a theory of negation, a case of showing that evolution isn’t possible. After that it’s the old the shrug of the shoulders, the appeal to the inscrutable and the wild card, and sometimes there is the dark hint that anyone asking deeper questions are rushing in where angels fear to tread.