Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dodgy Flaky Logic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C1: What a mess!

C2: Better go back to the drawing board!

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

Corollary 2: Take a day off instead

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Chaoskampf, Cancer and Conspiracy

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Misplaced Concreteness: The Theology of the Homunculus.

Is there an homunculus behind the scenes driving evolution?

Astronomer Otto Struve (1897 – 1963) is quoted as saying this:

An intrinsically improbable event may become highly probable if the number of events is very great….It is probable that a good many of the billions of planets in the Milky Way support intelligent life. To me this conclusion is of great philosophical interest. I believe that science has reached the point where it is necessary to take into account the action of intelligent beings, in addition to the classical laws of physics.

This statement is of IDlogical interest on several counts.

ONE: As Struve tells us sufficient trial resources (in terms of planet numbers in this case) can turn the improbable into the probable. But Struve is thinking in mere billions; this in itself is far from sufficient. For life to be generated with a realistic probability we must select one or both of two mathematical conditions: 1) An a priori physical regime which constrains the physical possibilities to such an extent that trial resources quantified with a mere 3 digit logarithm are capable of reaching life, and/or 2) A physical regime which is capable of returning trials whose number can only be quantified with a very large logarithm. *1

TWO: Interesting to note that Struve sets up an intelligence vs. physical law dichotomy –  at first sight this looks very much like the kind of thinking behind the explanatory filter epistemic of the de-facto Intelligent Design movement. But unlike the North American ID community I doubt very much that Struve was arguing from a subliminally theological position. More likely he was arguing from the point of view that “Law&Disorder” physics is a primary causal agent, whereas intelligent life is a secondary causal agent derived from physics; i.e. life is a product of the cosmic physical regime. I suspect that Struve is following the mainstream academic view that separating out physical action and intelligent action in to different categories is not a fundamental category division but one of utility: Deriving life from physical first principals is analytically difficult (if not impossible) making necessary an artificial discipline division where a higher level phenomenon like life is dealt with more descriptively by biologists.  In a similar way geologists who deal with complex geological processes don’t always work back to the first principles of physics, but cut the knot by talking about a separate category of “geological forces”; that’s not to say, of course, that geologists believe “geological forces” have any vitalistic basis. Likewise, most biologists are likely to believe that the kind of intelligence Struve is talking of would trace back to the generating power of basic physical processes. Needless to say atheists would favour this philosophy, a philosophy which doesn’t take intelligent agents as a given with all the potential there of smuggling in the divine. Of course, the de-facto IDists believe exactly the opposite; for them intelligence (subliminally, divine intelligence) must be taken as a given when reckoning up creative processes.

THREE: In the foregoing we’ve seen how intelligent action is put into a different category to “natural forces”, although for atheists this is done for utilitarian rather than fundamental reasons. It is surely ironic that this manoeuvre readily leads on to the Intelligent Design community’s explanatory filter epistemic. In this epistemic intelligent action is effectively placed on the same logical level as Law&Disorder explanations. In fact in most everyday contexts the explanatory filter of the IDists is robust; after all, something like this epistemic is used by archaeologists when they are trying to decide whether an object is an artifact or of natural origins. In short the explanatory filter is exactly the method one uses when one is faced with the possibility of action by either humans or aliens; but what about for God?

FOUR: That the de-facto ID community use the explanatory filter, a filter comfortably used by archaeologists and implicit in Struve’s statement above, says a lot about de facto ID theology.  This theology is a dualist theology where God has become an homunculus-of-the-gaps default agent of causation who acts almost within the cosmos and is invoked as an explanation when “in principle” physical explanations are difficult if not impossible to find. As I’ve complained many times before on this blog, this theology has the effect of setting up two mutually exclusive categories of causation, namely the physical and the divine. We know of course that what the de-facto ID community obliquely refers to as an “Intelligent Designer” is, behind closed doors, identified with God rather than aliens. God thereby becomes  a distinct “cause” to be lined up in an identity parade of all the other possible agents of “causation” that work within the cosmos. This has the pernicious effect of placing God very much inside creation like some super-alien, violating at a stroke both His eminence and immanence.

Moreover to talk of God being a “cause” also does an injustice to God. The notion of “causation” is itself very much a concept derived within the context of the contingent patterns of behaviour displayed by the physical universe; causation, in fact, can become difficult to define or even undefinable in connections where we are dealing with timeless patterns and/or disorderly patterns. Admittedly when talking about God it is almost impossible to do so without using metaphors based on our experience of this world, but some metaphors are not as good as others and to rank God as an agent of causation in a very literal sense is particularly insidious; the fallacy of the Kalam argument is a sign of this.

 FIVE: For myself I prefer the metaphor of the cosmos as a giant thought pattern or story created in the mind of God; it’s as if an author like Tolkien created and maintained his world of Middle Earth in his mind rather than reifying it in physical print. This metaphor satisfies to some extent the theological demand that God is both eminent and immanent in relation to the very contingent patterns of our world. We are effectively immersed in God rather than God being a homunculus who is immersed in creation as an ancillary agent of causation, occasionally turning up to do something special. The immersed human perspective on the physical workings of our world is a bit like the perspective of someone zooming in with a powerful microscope and looking at the behaviour  of individual neurons of the human mind and then wondering where the intelligence is; one only finds that intelligence at the high system level, in the big picture.

Above all, this metaphor satisfies the theological requirement for the otherness of God: The patterns of our world are contingent with no logical necessity and therefore very much other than the presumed aseity of a God who hosts them. These contingent patterns have been dragged out of platonic space and reified in an act of creative divine thought. In the sense that these patterns have a kind of immaterial platonic existence prior to reification, gives them a platonic existential status that is independent of God's existence; i.e. they are other than God. So, just as Tolkien's Middle Earth is other than Tolkien, the cosmos is other than God. God and Tolkien create in as much as they reify pre-existing platonic patterns.

It is tempting to think of the distinction between God and creation as bound up with a distinction of “substance”. But identity of “substance” is a derived concept based on our experience of the macroscopic physical world where material object integrity is only maintained by clear spatial separations and demarcations. This concept of substance breaks down, however, in the microscopic world of identical particles where it becomes clear that distinction of substance can only be maintained by clear distinction in patterns of behaviour, patterns determined by such properties as charge and mass.*2 That is, “substance” is bound up with the extrinsic properties bestowed by patterning and is not an intrinsic property.

*1.  What do you do if the universe only has a very limited number of particles, say 10^80 and therefore has very limited “trial resource” capability? Simple; you use quantum mechanics, a method whereby the possibilities open to a collection of particles are all explored at once. Individual particles are then effectively “smeared” over large volumes.

*2. Identity of “substance” is a problematical concept in the context of sheer patterning. Consider for example a binary pattern where we have two separate digits both set to “1”. Our use of common language, a language used to dealing with distinct concrete objects, tempts us to talk of these binary digits as distinct entitles, as if they had their own separate "substance"; but if this were true it would be possible to swap the digits and then claim that each separate digit has been moved. But as per quantum statistics no change has actually taken place and the "swap" doesn't count as a distinct combinatorial item. Ergo, talking about “swapping digit positions” is only a figure of speech and is otherwise meaningless.

Relevant Links:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Road to Somewhere

Random drift/walk, backwards or forwards. As long as you don't come off the rails you'll end up somewhere.

There has been a little flurry on the internet about the question of the Zebra's stripes: What function do they serve and how did they arise?   Evangelical atheist Larry Moran offers a possible alternative to the adaptive explanation: 

There's a fifth possibility: maybe there's no reason at all and stripes are just an evolutionary accident.....The point is that the prominence of stripes on zebras may be due to a relatively minor mutation and may be nonadaptive. That's a view that should at least be considered even if you don't think it's correct. 

This answer no doubt fits in very well with Larry's philosophical position as does his interest in "random drift" as one of the mechanisms of evolution; he might be right, after all he's the expert. But he seems to have little cognizance of the actual role of randomness in the greater scheme of things: For standard evolution to have the slightest chance of getting results the "random diffusion" of evolution must be working within a very constrained space indeed. Yes, evolution may go "backwards" and "forwards" at random, but for that to happen the current theory requires  "rails" or "constraints", in terms of the fitness space*, to be a given.  This is something that Larry just hasn't wrapped his head round. Am I being stupid in wondering why?

Relevant Links: 

* If the fitness space is an "information" given then it follows that the problem of finding life has effectively been solved before the computation of evolution has started; This view is not a horse I'm backing. See

The  General Theory of Evolution: But it only works if you've got rails

Saturday, January 10, 2015

More Ham Fisted Science Denial

An illustration in a book by "America's leading science denialist"

For the record I thought I would make note of the latest blog post by Ken Ham. In his post he engages in his usual science denying gambit whereby he attempts to yet again attempts to prise apart observational and historical science - see "Creationists Don't Deny Science" 9th Jan. Evidence that this travesty is well and truly endemic among "Answers in Genesis" staff can be seen from the link that Ham gives to an AiG article: Viz:

I have dealt with this mockery of science in more than one post, and here is my latest post:

Let's face it; they are never going to learn. These fundamentalists have a great need to explain and justify to themselves their essentially anti-science, anti-academia ethos.

Interesting is Ham's quote of Karl Giberson who justifiably criticizes Ham:

....He [Giberson] states, “Science denialism is alive in the United States and 2014 was yet another blockbuster year for preposterous claims from America’s flakerrati. To celebrate the year, here are the top 10 anti-science salvos of 2014.” He then proceeds to list AiG as number one and even calls me “America’s leading science denialist.” But do creationists deny science? Of course not!

 "But do creationists deny science?" Of course they do! Also interesting is this further quote from Giberson:

[Ken Ham’s] greatest howler, however—and my top anti-science salvo of 2014—would have to be his wholesale dismissal of the entire scientific enterprise as an atheistic missionary effort.

....a sign of the fundamentalist marginalization that can sometimes lead them to embrace conspiracy theorism; they are at odds with such a large section of academia that this can encourage them to resort to conspiracy theories in order to  give account of their denialism.  But it's not just science they deny: they also have to deny history: For example, AiG's dating of the Genesis Flood conflicts with the dating of the pyramids and so AiG is in conflict with Egyptology as well.

History denial: No mention of this in the Bible, nor anywhere else for that matter!

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Epistemic Underwriter

We depend on the cosmos being dependable, readable, rational, coherent, intelligible and above all having epistemic integrity.

Here's one of the latest comments I found on Jason Lisle's blog. (Research Update August 2014) It's significant because I probably have common ground with  Lisle on this topic and would largely agree with him.

Stefan Frello says:
I should have been a little more precise. In order for a theory to be scientific, it should follow Occam’s razor. You should be able to make predictions from the theory, and it should be falsifiable (because it is convenient, If not for other reasons).
  • Dr. Lisle says:
    The problem with this answer is that it disconnects science from reality. That is, your view of science is that it is a way of answering questions that is “convenient” but not necessarily true or having anything whatsoever to do with reality. In the Christian worldview, science is a tool we use to answer certain questions about the actual universe. And it works because God upholds the universe in a consistent way with patterns that we can discover with increasing probability (though not necessarily certainty) using our mind and senses that God designed. But on your worldview, there is no reason to think that the procedures of science, including Occam’s Razor, have anything whatsoever to do with reality. Thus, your worldview cannot justify science as a method of obtaining empirical knowledge. And that’s been my point all along. Only Christianity can do this.

What I would add to this is that we come to God in an a priori way: "In the beginning God the Father and therefore the universe will make (some) sense because his creation will be coherent and intelligible". However, this approach can't be offered as "a proof of God" as I have heard some Christians suggest; we can only start with the basic ideas of cosmic integrity and rationality sourced in a personal God and then exploit this concept, a priori, as the corner stone of our epistemology. That is, we can't  infer God from an intelligible universe, but if we posit a God of integrity we can infer a comprehensible universe.**

If some atheists choose to exploit an epistemic that depends on an intelligible universe as a given "brute fact", then in spite of them not believing that the success of this epistemic is sourced in God, they too will reap the reward of noetic riches; although they won't be able to relate this success to any higher reason.... for them "it just is".

Good 'ole Jason Lisle - I agree with him for once! Where I would probably disagree with him is in a typically fundamentalist lack of generosity to atheists*: Atheists who trust the integrity and rationality of the universe as a given and consequently make scientific advances to the benefit of us all are doing God's work and are glorifying him. Moreover,  when I look at the general state of the religious world I can hardly blame them for being atheists. Fundamentalists of all religious brands give me the creeps and constitute some of the best arguments for atheism. But the sad fact is, atheism sometimes finds itself teetering on the edge of the chasm into nihilism, the abyss where the chaos monster lurks.

Relevant Links:

* Fundamentalists also lack generosity to fellow believers who don't follow their views (if indeed they even think of them as fellow believers). See for example the link below where we catch Jason Lisle thrusting blasphemies and heresies into the mouths of fellow Christians.
** But that said we have to acknowledge that often our world makes little moral sense - basically that's the problem of pain and evil.