Monday, December 29, 2008


Reading Aristotle's logic. He treats "attributes" as real entities, just as mathematicians sometimes treat numbers as real things, much to my disdain. Thus, he talks about "essential attributes" -- those which cannot be separated from the thing while the thing remains what it is (e.g. "wet" is an essential attribute of "water" -- if it's not water, it's not water) and "accidental attributes" -- those which can be separated from the thing and yet the thing remain what it is (e.g. "black" is an accidental attribute of "dog" because a dog may be black, but may also be something other than black and still be a dog).

This strikes me as reflecting the same Realism as sometimes shows up in math -- treating "2" is a real entity, rather than merely a linguistic tool we use to describe a particular group of items in reality, or a particular concept in pure math. Or how we sometimes describe "perfection" as a real entity or attribute, rather than simply a linguistic tool we use to describe something that embodies what we wish it to be for a particular purpose.

But these attributes, like numbers, are merely artifacts of our categorization. "Brown" may be an accidental attribute of "dog," but not of "chocolate lab." The attributes have no real existence, except insofar as they are useful ways of categorizing reality in a way we can comprehend.

Does that make the labels useless? By no means. But once we start treating those labels as real, it seems to me that we get in trouble. In this case, we start arguing about whether a particular attribute is "essential" or "accidental" with respect to a particular entity. Is God "necessarily perfect" as Anselm argued? The whole discussion, unfortunately, is meaningless -- an argument over labels, and without substance.

That fundamental distinction between "reality" and "concept" makes thought so much clearer.

Concept is our way to describing reality, because without concept, we cannot relate to reality. Concepts without corresponding physical reality may be useful (e.g. "Love" describes a particular state of mind, but has no defined physical reality) -- however, they should not be treated as having reality as an entity (e.g. "God is Perfection and Perfection existsn, therefore God exists").

Sunday, December 28, 2008

True love.

"She introduced me to so many things: pasteurized milk; sheets; monotheism; presents on your birthday; preventative medicine." -- Dwight.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Class superiority

From Aristotle's Rhetoric, Book 1, Chapter 7:

"Again, if the largest member of one class surpasses the largest member of another, then the one class surpasses the other; and if one class surpasses another, then the largest member of the one surpasses the largest member of the other. Thus, if the tallest man is taller than the tallest woman, then men in general are taller than women. Conversely, if men in general are taller than women, then the tallest man is taller than the tallest woman. For the superiority of class over class is proportionate to the superiority possessed by their largest specimens."

Fascinating. We no longer use that measure for the superiority of the class. Today, we would object "You cannot overgeneralize -- you cannot say 'men are taller than women' when some women are in fact taller than some men." You can say "This particular man is taller than this woman" or "The average height of all men is taller than the average height of all women."

I wonder if this type of thinking also resulted in the sexism of the Greeks. They looked around for the "strongest, smartest, most powerful person," and they found a man (for whatever reason). Using Aristotle's reasoning, men as a class are therefore stronger, smarter, and more powerful than women. Particular cases are not seen as particularly important -- that is, that a particular women may well be stronger, smarter, and more powerful than a particular man.

The overgeneralization is then enshrined into law and thought, and women are subordinated as a class. All based on a poor syllogism.


From Aristotle's Rhetoric, Book 1, Chapter 8:

"A Democracy is a form of government under which the citizens distribute the offices of state among themselves by lot, whereas under oligarchy there is a property qualification, under aristocracy one of education. By education I mean that education which is laid down by the law; for it is those who have been loyal to the national institutions that hold office under an aristocracy. These are bound to be looked upon as "the best men," and it is from this fact that this form of government has derived its name ("the rule of the best"). Monarchy, as the word implies, is the constitution in which one man has authority over all. [1366a] There are two forms of monarchy: kingship, which is limited by prescribed conditions, and "tyranny," which is not limited by anything."

It looks like we use the word "aristocracy" in a different way than the ancients did. What we call aristocracy (rule by a few, rich people with old money and land, regardless of their educational/personal qualifications), Aristotle called oligarchy. We call call meritocracy (rule by the educated -- or "best" men), Aristotle called aristocracy.

I'm curious how that took place. Did the European oligarchs begin calling themselves "aristocrats" at this point, in an effort to legitimize their oligarchy by projecting the impression that they were not merely wealthy, but also educated, meritorious, and the best? Did the word then acquire negative connotations associated with those who used it? Was everybody else so uneducated that they accepted the label as given, rather than objecting "This is not an aristocracy! This is an oligarchy!"

Seems like (if this occurred) a similar phenomenon occurred with the term "fundamentalist." "Fundamentalist" means get back to the basics and don't get caught up in all the legalistic nonsense. But it was coopted by legalistic people, and acquired negative connotations associated with the people who used it, until now it means "legalistic" rather than "getting back to the basics." And of course the critics of "fundamentalism" simply coopt the label based on those who claim it, instead of objecting, "You are not acting like a fundamentalist -- you are acting like a Pharisee!"

I wonder how often word switches like that happen. Probably the word "liberal" too, which now describes those support government intervention rather than those who ascribe to the laissez-faire thinking of classical "liberal" thought ...

As a side note, he says that in a "democracy," the people distribute offices by lot (meaning by chance). That's very different from how we use the term democracy (the vote). Which societies were distributing offices by lot!?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Guilt and power

Suppose somebody felt that acting for the benefit of another person could only stem from guilt -- rather than a self-oriented joy at seeing someone else happy. They then have a choice: either they assume that guilt on themselves (becoming a self-sacrificial martyr), or they project that guilt onto others (becoming controlling and manipulative). Two sides of the same coin.

The result: if you offer them something out of kindness, they will turn it down, because they feel guilty. However, if they demand something out of you (citing your moral obligation to comply), they would judge you if you refused to comply.

That's how guilt destroys.

The only answer, I think, is a paradigm shift from guilt to enlightened pleasure. Enjoy receiving, because it is good. Enjoy giving, because it is fun.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Osmanli political-economic system

"Moslems alone were obliged to perform military service, and were thus alone eligible for the tenure of land. This was distributed as a reward for service and provided a source of recruitment in the form of military fiefs, free of taxes. Christians were exempt from military service, hence benefitted from no such landed rights. Instead they paid a head tax for the army's support. In the country districts this made them subservient in status to the landholding Moslems. Thus they tended to live and work in the cities and towns, where such civil disabilities were counterbalanced by economic advantage. But through voluntary conversion to Islam, the Christian became automatically an Osmlani, with his origins soon forgotten, enjoying freedom from taxation, the right to hold land, opportunities for advancement, and a share in the benefits of the Moslem ruling elite. Hence, at this stage of Ottoman history in Asia, the growing number of converts to Islam.

Feudal though it was, this Ottoman system of land tenure through military fiefs differed essentially from the feudal system in Europe, in that the landholdings were small and above all seldom hereditary. For all land was the property of the state. Thus at this stage there was to arise in the Ottoman empire no landed nobility, such as prevailed throughout Europe. The sultans retained absolute ownership of the soil they conquered. Moreover, as they continued to conquer, more holdings became available as rewards for more soldiers. Within the framework of this system Orkhan now organized, with the initial advice of his brother, Ala-ed-Din, a regular standing army under the sovereign's command, a professional military force on a permanent war footing, of a kind not to be emulated in Europe for a further two centuries."

Lord Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries, p. 33

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Inches and AUs

63,360 inches in a mile. 63,239 astronomical units in a lightyear. That's less than .2% different. What's up with that?

Saturday, December 6, 2008


A few weeks ago, I posted about my discovery that there wasn't a "dark ages," but rather a shift in the center of Christian civilization from Rome to Constantinople, where Christian civilization and scholarship thrived for another thousand years. Today, I discovered something else -- the "renaissance" was not so much a rebirth of interest in scholarship as an exodus of scholars from Constantinople in the last 50 years before it fell to the Muslims in ... coincidentally ... 1453 -- right at the beginning of the "renaissance."

Scholars who left Constantinople in the 15th Century:

Manuel Chrysoloras -Florence, Pavia, Rome, Venice, Milan
George Gemistos Plethon -Teacher of Bessarion
George of Trebizond -Venice, Florence, Rome
Theodorus Gaza -First dean of the University of Ferrara, Naples and Rome
John Argyropoulos -Universities of Florence, Rome, Padua teacher of Leonardo da Vinci
Laonicus Chalcocondyles
Demetrius Chalcondyles -Milano
Theofilos Chalcocondylis -Florence
Constantine Lascaris -University of Messina
Henry Aristippus
Michael Apostolius -Rome
Aristobulus Apostolius
Arsenius Apostolius
Demetrius Cydones
Janus Lascaris or Rhyndacenus -Rome
Maximus the Greek studied in Italy before moving to Russia
Ioannis Kottounios -Padua
Konstantinos Kallokratos
Barlaam of Seminara -Teacher of Boccacio
Marcus Musurus -University of Padua
Michael Tarchaniota Marullus -Ancona and Florence, friend and pupil of Jovianus Pontanus
Leo Allatius -Rome, librarian of the library of Vatican
Demetrios Ducas
Leozio Pilatus -Teacher of Petrarch and Boccacio
Leo Allatius, portrait in the Collegio Greco of Rome
Maximus Planudes -Rome, Venice
Leonard of Chios -Greek-born Roman-Catholic prelate
Simon Atumano -Bishop of Gerace in Calabria
Isidore of Kiev
Elia del Medigo -Venice
George Hermonymus -University of Paris, teacher of Erasmus, Reuchlin, Budaeus and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples
John Chrysoloras -scholar and diplomat: relative of Manuel Chrysoloras, patron of Francesco Filelfo
Andronicus Contoblacas -Basel, teacher of Johann Reuchlin
John Servopoulos -Reading, Oxford; scholar, professor
Johannes Crastonis Modena, Greek-Latin dictionary
Andronicus Callistus -Rome
Gerasimos Vlachos -Venice
George Amiroutzes -Florence, Aristotelian
Gregory Tifernas -Paris teacher of Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples and Robert Gaguin
Nikolaos Sophianos -Rome, Venice: scholar and geographer, creator of the Totius Graeciae Descriptio
Totius Graeciae Descriptio
Zacharias Calliergi -Rome
Mathew Devaris -Rome
Antonios Eparchos -Venice, scholar and poet
Maximos Margunios -Venice
Mathaeos Kamariotis
Nikolaos Loukanis -Venice
Iakovos Trivolis-Venice
Janus Plousiadenos -Venice, hymnographer and composer

So there was no "renaissance of knowledge after a long period of religious superstition." All the smart people were living in Constantinople until the city was taken over by foreign invaders. Those scholars spread throughout Christian Europe, bringing their knowledge with them, and bringing the light of philosophy and science -- which had grown vastly during the 1000 year Christian empire -- to the dark, ignorant continent of Europe.

Just as the "Dark Ages" was merely the shift in cultural power and influence from Pagan Rome to Christianizing Constantinople, the "Renaissance" was merely the shift in cultural power and influence from Christian Constantinople to Christian Europe.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The beginner.

"Whom would these men [of the establishment] fear most, psychologically, and least, existentially? The brilliant loner. The beginner. The young man of potential genius and innocently ruthless integrity, whose only weapons are talent and truth. They reject him instinctively, saying that he doesn't belong. To what? Sensing that he would put them on the spot by raising issues they'd prefer not to face. He might get past their protective barriers once in a while, but he is handicapped by his virtues -- in a system rigged against intelligence and integrity. We shall never know how many precociously perceptive youths sensed the evil around them before they were old enough to find an antidote, and gave up in hopelessly indignant bewilderment. Or how many gave in, stultifying their minds. We do not know how many young innovators may exist today, and struggle to be heard. But we will not hear of them because the establishment would prefer not to recognize their existence, and not to take any cognizance of their ideas." -- Ayn Rand.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Expanding Earth Revisited

Results of a long discussion with a bunch of geologists. That's not to say that they agree with me -- far from it -- they stated in no certain terms that I am a "jackass." But as is usually the case when dealing with academics, I learn the most valuable information in spite of rather than because of its source.

There are three lines of evidence to support the idea that the Earth is expanding, with the oceans constituting the increased surface area: They are geologic, biological, and historical.

The geologic ones are the most compelling, so I'll begin there:

1) As is well-known, the continents adjacent to the Atlantic fit together, that the Midatlantic ridge traces their breaking point, new crust is continually being created at the Midatlantic ridge, and the oceanic crust gets progressively older the further one gets from the Ridge. To verify that, take a look at the image to the right, which shows sea crust ages with red youngest and blue oldest.

2) What's not so commonly known as that the Americas fit with Australia and the Asian trench system as well.

a) Look at Australia and South America. The nub on the Eastern cost of Australia fits into the indentation in South America. Also, look at the East Pacific rise. Although turned slightly clockwise and elongated slightly, it's a perfect fit for Western coast of South America. That turning and elongation is reasonably explained by the existence of another ridge, running from the East Pacific rise to the Chilean coast, and itself producing new crust.

b) Look at the trench immediately off of Kamchatka, headed south to the Mariana trench. Notice that if you slide that trench along the curve of the Aleutian trench, it would be a perfect fit for the Western Coast of North America.

3) So the continents fit together like puzzle pieces on both ends. Is it proof that they were once connected? No. But the evidence that they fit on one end is just as good as the evidence that they fit on both ends, because it is based on identical facts. It seems to me, then, more reasonable to conclude that they were one once linked on both ends than to conclude they were once linked on only one.

4) Also interestingly, the sea crust is substantially younger than the continental crust. Like ... the oldest sea crust dates to approximately 250M years, while the continental crust dates to approximately 4B years. While those dates are based on questionable methods and shouldn't be taken as gospel, they do provide stong evidence that the Atlantic and Pacific (at least the Pacific East of the trenches) formed at the same time. Standard theory, of course, has it that all the continents were bound in Pangaea, and then split, floating their way back into the Pacific, which is (presumably) growing ever smaller. In that scenario, of course, we would expect the Pacific to be older than the Atlantic -- after all, the Pacific was already there when Pangaea broke up. But interestingly, it's not. Both oceans are the same age. And much younger than the continents.

5) The trenches in the Pacific experience extremely frequent earthquakes. There's really no question about that. But a little known fact about those earthquakes is that the earthquakes less than 300km from the surface at tensional, rather than compressional earthquakes. What that means, in simple terms, is that the wave characteristics of the earthquake indicate that it was caused by crust pulling apart, rather than being pushed together. Standard theory explains this as being a result of the downward moving, subducting slab being pulled away from the crust above it. The "Benioff zones" are also used to bolster this conclusion. As in the earthquake map above, earthquakes occur at progressively greater depth as one moves away from the center of the Pacific. This is seen as consistent with increasing depth of the slab subducting under the Asian plates.

There's a problem with that interpretation, however. Specifically: the "subduction" zones don't look like one rock going under another. The trenches, for example, are enormously deep, and steep -- usually less than 5 degrees from vertical. descending quite quickly. (Don't be fooled like I was by pictures that show them to be super-steep -- the vertical scale is consistently exaggerated, even on 3d images without a scale). They are also generally quite wide -- often approximately 50km wide. Is that what we'd expect if one giant piece of rock was being pushed under another? No way. First of all, we would expect compressional, rather than tensional earthquakes, as the subducting slab pushed against the continental slab. We have the opposite. We would expect a moderate slope toward the subduction zone that showed us the direction of motion of the slab. Instead we have a flat seafloor, followed by an enormous drop in a nearly vertical direction. Further, while we have direct physical evidence of new crust being formed at the ridges, we do not have direct physical evidence of old crust slipping under the other crust at the subduction zone. Finally, if one plate is slipping another another, we would expect an immediate rise in the crust that's on top -- but we don't have it. We have a volcanic zone some distance beyond the trench, but no slow rise right there to account for the "buried" ocean crust.

It simply does not look like subduction is happening.

But what if those trenches are not caused by subduction, but by stretching? What if the giant, steep trench is caused by the two plates pulling apart rather than being forced together? Well, we'd expect it to be steep (which it is) look the slope of a glacier when an iceberg breaks off. We'd expect it to be wide (which it is), rather than narrow, as it was continually being pulled apart. We'd expect a lot of earthquakes (which there are) from the pulling motion. We'd expect volcanos on the continental side, as the pulling motion "loosened" crust further toward the continent, creating passageways for lava from the mantle to reach the surface. Finally, we'd expect the earthquakes to get deeper and deeper as one approaches the continent (Benioff zones), as earthquakes only occur in brittle Earth, and the mantle is (except in its uppermost regions) plastic and not given to Earthquakes, and continental crust is much, much thicker than oceanic crust, allowing Earthquakes to occur at much deeper levels. Finally, we would expect the earthquakes (at least in the crust) to be tensional, rather than compressional. Which they are.

For icing, add the fact that the trenches on the Asian side of the Pacific fit the coast of North America perfectly.

Strong evidence, it seems to me, that the trenches are caused by tearing, rather than subduction.

6) Expansion without subduction. One more important point in the realm of geology. An oceanic ridge surrounds the entire continent of Antarctica. The necessary implication is that there is expansion southward. In order to absorb that new crust (and keep the size of the Earth static), there must be a subduction zone going East to West around the Earth. But there is no such beast.

So enough geology. There's also evidence in biology.

1) This map shows the present-day distribution of marsupials. Interestingly, they're found in Australia and the Americas. Now don't get me wrong -- fossils of marsupials have been found on all seven continents (including Antarctica). But the fact that marsupials survived to a much later date in the Americas and Australia supports the idea that the continents were linked, such that Australia was ecologically and biologically linked with South America -- more linked, in fact, than to the ecosystems in between.

2) Giant animals in the past: The fossil record is full of animals that could not survive in today's gravity. Arthropods bigger than humans. 3-ft long dragonflies. 2M millipedes. Giant claw reveals the largest ever arthropod" (2007), Biology Letters. And let's not forget the dinosaurs -- 350lb flying creatures, enormous saurapods, etc. No way in the world they could make it in today's world. Yet somehow, they used to. How? Maybe reduced gravity on a small world?

Finally, some historical references:

Plato wrote in the Timaeus:

"For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent."

What a strange lie. That is, if it is a lie.

But let's not forget old Genesis.

Gen 2:5: "For the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground."

Gen 6:11: In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up.

Gen 10:25: And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided.

Also strange historical references. That is, unless something crazy and cataclysmic happened to the Earth's geology, causing massive changes in continental configuration.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


"Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." -- Francis Bacon.

What is philosophy

Reading through "Philosophy: who needs it" by Ayn Rand. Greatness. And it left me with the question: what is philosophy?

Possible definitions:
1) Philosophy is opinion about unknowable things, and arguments to support said opinion;
2) Philosophy is opinion about the fundamental nature of being, which is knowable, and arguments to support said opinion.
3) Philosophy is the tools and structure to one's thought -- the ideas we bring to our experience in order to process experience and determine action.

I think that in practice today, most people use one of the first two definitions -- non-philosophers typically use the first one; philosophers typically use the second. But I don't think either is meaningful. I don't think philosophy is about opinions or arguments to support opinions. I think philosophy is a toolbox of logical, moral, and aesthetic precepts that we bring to our experience and choices. I think it's less about what our opinions are, and more about how we form our opinions. I think it's less about the destination, and more about the process.

Does that mean that opinions are pointless? No. But I think those opinions (when meaningful) fall outside the purview of philosophy. That is to say, my opinions about how what gravity is are not "philosophy" -- there are "science." My opinions about what good art is are not "philosophy" -- they are "taste." My opinions about how I ought to behave are not "philosophy" -- they are my morality.

Philosophy is the tools by which I come to those opinions. It is the practices of deduction, induction, and abduction. It is the practice of identifying and defusing logical fallacies. It is the practice of always defining terms precisely prior to their use.

And those tools of philosophy serve us everywhere -- in love, politics, art, work, and children.

I think that the emphasis placed on "opinions" in philosophy courses is misguided. I think that opinions should be identified, but that the meat and potatoes in philosophy should be in the reasoning that goes into those opinions, rather than the opinions themselves. That is to say, the point of a philosophy class should not be to figure out whether you are Hegelian, Kantian, and Randian. The point of a philosophy class should be to figure out how to think about all the questions raised by those people, and thereby learn how to think about the questions raised by our lives.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Science as process or community

I got into an interesting argument with a prototypical scientist-who's-been-taught-facts-but-hasn't-been-taught-how-to-think, and he made the following argument:

Science, ungtss, is a community, where everyone discusses and argues and adds to the body of working knowledge through the every changing process of research. The corpus of that research is called "THE PEER-REVIEWED LITERATURE."

I responded (in pertinent part):

Science is not a community. Science is a process -- the process of observation, analysis, and interpretation of facts. Kuhn did a great job describing and analyzing what science as a community yields -- institutional stubbornness and refusal to give the facts a fresh look.

He responded:

Man oh man, I love seeing the anti-intellectualism at work! The blatant disregard for how science is done or practiced! I'm glad you are not a doctor, Ungtss...I'd hate to see your clinical trials...Science is a community, populated by people. Your weird aristotelean/neo-platonic "science" would require that, EVERYTIME WE TRIED TO STUDY SOMETHING, we'd have to independantly come up with gravity, hydrdynamics, etc. The peer-review literature lets us draw on the knowledge and expertise of many other workers, providing us with data and interpretations that no one individual could ever match.

I found his response fascinating, because it illustrates two different understandings of what science is. To him, science really is an organic community of people. Put 10 scientists in a room and ask them what they think about an issue, and you have "science." It's personal, charismatic, and subjective.

To me, science is a process. Put 10 scientists in a lab and let them do their thing. Then examine their results. Experimentally supported results are Science -- or in the case of competing explanations for a given phenomenon, Science is the last explanation standing after the others have been falsified. Science is not exclusive to the scientific community. It is a process that can be done by anyone, but which is done primarily by the scientific community, because they are uniquely suited to do so. However, just because they are uniquely suited to perform science does not mean that whatever opinion they have is "scientific." Their beliefs are still subject to the scientific method which (unfortunately) few of them are actually taught at a philosophical level.

This really reflects the difference between the views of Feyeraband/Thagard and the views of Popper. Popper thought science was a process. Feyeraband and Thagard thought science was whatever scientists think.

What difference does this make?

1) It makes "scientists" like this monkey respond very personally to every challenge to their ideas. Challenge their opinion, and you are not challenging an objective experiment -- you are challenging their status as part of "science" -- and it makes them very angry.

2) It leaves "scientists" like this monkey unable to critically evaluate and interpret the facts, and vulnerable to group think -- because science is primarily about what the other scientists think, not the logical basis for their opinions. Present them with a challenging fact, and they don't know what to do with it. They'll just attack you personally as not being as "scientific" as they are.

3) It slows down the process of science, because scientists are not in the habit of challenging what "the scientific community" thinks -- they are in the habit of reading what all the other supergeniuses think, and concurring.

4) It makes "scientists" like this monkey attack any challenge to their paradigm as "anti-intellectual." Because if I am science, and you are challenging me, then you are challenging science.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Why "scientists" don't get it.

Article from "The Scientist," Volume 22, Issue 10, Page 29

"What makes Science 'Science'" by James Williams

As a science educator, I train science graduates to become science teachers. Over the past two years I've surveyed their understanding of key terminology and my findings reveal a serious problem. Graduates, from a range of science disciplines and from a variety of universities in Britain and around the world, have a poor grasp of the meaning of simple terms and are unable to provide appropriate definitions of key scientific terminology. So how can these hopeful young trainees possibly teach science to children so that they become scientifically literate? How will school-kids learn to distinguish the questions and problems that science can answer from those that science cannot and, more importantly, the difference between science and pseudoscience?

Undergrad course in history and philosophy of science
Here are some of the data from the 74 graduates that I've surveyed to date:

• 76% equated a fact with 'truth' and 'proven'

• 23% defined a theory as 'unproven ideas' with less than half (47%) recognizing a theory as a well evidenced exposition of a natural phenomenon

• 34% defined a law as a rule not to be broken, and forty-one percent defined it as an idea that science fully supports.

• Definitions of 'hypothesis' were the most consistent, with 61% recognizing the predictive, testable nature of hypotheses.


Only a few of the graduates had studied any history and philosophy of science, and therein lies the problem. The majority had high quality degrees and some had doctorates in a science discipline, so it wasn't that they were not well qualified in science. It was just that their study of science had been utilitarian, a means to an end with the end being a practicing scientist. They had not been given any grounding or instruction on what makes science 'science.' It was not their fault: history and philosophy of science was an optional part of their degree programs and many could not see the point of it.


(End of quote).

That's the exact conclusion I'd come to in explaining how so many "scientists" can be so completely ignorant when it comes to the nuances of philosophy of science. Of course, this author goes on to lump "creationists" in with the anti-science crowd, but that only assumes his particular philosophical definition of science -- and as with all issues in philosophy, definitions are malleable and debatable. The point is, scientists aren't being educated in the issues of philosophy of science -- why in the world do we trust their opinion on things they've neither studied, practiced, nor shown any competence in, as a group?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Dark Ages?

Occurred to me today that the old secular narrative that sees the Dark Ages as a reversal of progress and culture is false -- and an example of selection bias. Proponents are able to maintain the story by focusing on the decline of the Italian peninsula, rather than noticing that the capitol of Roman empire and European culture had simply moved -- to Constantinople.

Emperor Constantine (the first Christian emperor) moved the capitol of the Roman empire to Constantinople (previously Byzantium, today Istanbul). So a Christian Emperor never ruled in Rome. Constantine moved the capitol because Rome was just no good -- it was isolated, and subject to flooding and Malaria. So when we think of Christian Rome, we mustn't think of it as centered in the city of Rome -- because it never was.

The Roman Empire of Constantine (which "scholars" call the Byzantine Empire) was never called the Byzantine Emperor by anyone who lived there. In fact, no city named Byzantium existed under this "Byzantine Empire." Its residents called their empire the Empire of the Romans.

So, no longer the Capital of the Empire, the city of Rome declined and ultimately fell in 410. But that was insignificant. The Capitol of Christian Rome, Constantinople, stood untoppled until the 13th Century. And while Rome was in ruins, the new capitol of the Roman Empire was thriving, economically. Classical science was retained and expanded upon. Justinian made huge legal and political reforms. The magnificent Hagia Sophia was built.

Then, Plague decimated the population in the 500s, and the Muslims seized the moment to attack -- Muslims, incidentally, who were advancing mathematics and science to previously unknown heights.

The story is not one of "Christianity took over and culture stopped." That fiction is maintained only by ignoring that fact that the Capitol of Rome and the center of European civilization moved from one city to another.

The story is very clearly one of "The center of culture -- Christian culture -- and the Roman empire -- moved from the Italian Peninsula to Constantinople."

Monday, August 11, 2008

Check and Balance

The US government is usually portrayed as a system of checks and balances. It occurred to me that much more of our system is based on checks and balances than just the 3 branches of government. For example:

Our market system is based on checks and balances -- consumers' unlimited demands are checked by producer's prices. Producers' unlimited desire for profit is checked by consumer choice. Producers' willingness to take shortcuts in ways consumers' can't identify or fight is checked by the regulators. Regulators are checked by the laws of the legislature.

It also occurs to me that the vote is better seen in terms of check and balance than as actually determining our leaders. Everybody knows an individual vote is never of any significance, because the margin of victory is always more than one. However, the vote does function as a check and balance -- because elected officials are (at least somewhat) checked by the reality that if they tick off the electorate, they'll get fired. We don't get to decide who leads us -- our leaders are selected by party officials, lobbyists, special interests, and connections of the rich. But the leaders we don't get to select are bound by the reality that if they piss enough of us off, they'll get fired. It's not really a representative government -- but it is a check and balance. Seen in that light, it seems less naively noble; but at the same time, it appears to actually accomplish its purpose.

Wittingly or unwittingly, our system appears to work because it makes sure nobody has unbridled choice, but everybody has an incentive to push their own agenda.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Psychology of persecution

Seems to me there are two possibile explanations for why people persecute others for their beliefs:

1) A genuine disagreement over the issues, a belief that such people are morally reprehensible and/or dangerous for holding them.

2) A cynical desire to maintain their power and position by stifling opinions that draw their own authority into question.

The first is possible, I suppose. But I lean toward the second, because it seems to me that persecution occurs in all realms of human intercourse, both religious and secular -- but is rarely led by people who don't have an economic and/or political stake in the outcome.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm sure there are many troops in these wars who genuinely believe the enemy is bad -- but it seems to me they're just pawns who have been deceived and emotionally manipulated by leaders who always have a personal stake in the outcome.

Consider the Catholic Authorities trying to maintain their hold on Europe through the inquisition. Given the unfalsifiable nature of their claim to authority, could they afford an alternative whose claims were equally unfalsifiable drawing their own into question?

Or evolutionary biologists insisting so rabidly that no alternative is worthy of consideration. What would happen to the funding for their research if it were acknowledged that their theories are absurd?

Or Republicans and Democrats (whose policies are often indistinguishable) using the rhetoric of ideology and morality, and then turning around when in power to do things totally counter to what they said. What would happen to their power and ability to draw contributions and alter the law to benefit themselves and their friends if the other side's moralizing went unanswered?

Or Muslim clerical authorities who use law to stifle religious dissent. What happens to the religious authorities' power if others are free to question it?

And on and on and on ...

It occurs to me that if one attempts to take on these forces through ideology -- through arguing about ideas -- one is simply wasting one's time; because the oppression is not itself about ideas -- it's about the power and authority of those whose ideas are being questioned.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Rewriting history

Offhand, the other day, I told my then-fiance, now wife, that (with only a very few exceptions) everybody in the educated classes of Europe knew the world was a globe from before the time of Jesus. She was shocked. She'd been told a thousand times (as I had) that everybody thought the world was flat before Columbus.

In fact, Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-200 B.C.) calculated the circumference of the Earth to startling accuracy. 1700 years before Columbus.

Columbus' bold move was not to assert that the Earth was round, but rather his adoption of the Ptolemaic (rather than Eratosthenesian) circumference of the Earth. The ptolemaic calculation was, of course, much smaller, and ultimately wrong. But he thought the Earth was much smaller than previously believed, and therefore thought he could survive the voyage to Japan.

Right? No. Desperately wrong. He just got lucky there was another continent in the way.

But why the widespread lie about medieval folks believing the Earth was flat? I had TEACHERS teaching me that lie.

Or consider this limerick, in which the author breaks down the galileo affair to a conflict between "natural laws versus mystical cause."

The facts, of course, are radically different.

First of all, neither side was arguing about naturalism vs. supernaturalism. Both sides believed in a Creator. The debate was about whether the Sun revolved around the Earth (The Ptolemaic System) or the Earth revolved around the sun (The Copernican model).

So scratch one.

Secondly, this "mystical cause" theory (you know, the ptolemaic system) was devised by a pagan, not a Christian.

So scratch two.

Thirdly, this "mystical cause" was developed through the scientific method -- Ptolemy observed the physical universe, and developed a system to explain his observations. Turned out his system was wrong -- but it was certainly not based on mysticism. Quite the contrary, it was based on science.

Scratch three.

So what you had, actually, was the Church adopting secular science as dogma. And then the secular science turned out to be wrong, the Church didn't want to let it go.

Analogous to the adoption by many churches (like even the Big One, Catholicism) of the ludicrous doctrine of common descent? Perhaps.

But most importantly, perhaps, Galileo's model was inferior to the ptolemaic system, because he insisted the orbits of the planets were round. On this score, Galileo fell far short of his contemporary, Kepler. Galileo rejected Kepler's (correct) idea that the planetary orbits were eliptical -- because he thought circles were more "perfect" than elipses.

But the funny thing is, because Galileo refused to accept the eliptical orbits of the planets (as calculated by Kepler), his mathematics were actually inferior in their description of reality than the ptolemaic system Over the millenia, ptolemaic astronomers had added in all sorts of ad hoc adjustments to match their geocentric system to observed reality -- absurdly complex and ultimately wrong, but a much more accurate description of the observed fact's than galileo's circular orbits.

So why this whole thing about how Galileo was this "martyr for science?" Seems to me to be another anticlerical fiction -- a little rewriting of history that confirms the popular impression that the church opposes "science."

So who does things like this? Well in the case of Columbus, it was a guy named Washington Irving. In the case of Galileo, I suppose it's the morons writing and passing along limericks that rewrite history to serve their own purposes.

What I really don't understand is how people can actually make up stories to support their argument. As though the truth of the matter is less important than persuading people. Secular Fundamentalism strikes again, I guess.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Senses of "evolution"

The word "evolution" is used in so many senses that it's often confusing. The most commonly used senses I've heard are:

* Development of an individual ("I started out as a mathematician. But I gradually evolved into an engineer").

* Development of an idea ("Continue the discussion, and brainstorm, until your ideas evolve into something you can put into use.")

* Development of a design ("Cars evolved from the relatively primitive Model T to the modern Hybrid.")

* Adaption of an organism ("Organisms vary naturally, and those best suited to their environment tend to spread.")

* The story of the origin and history of life ("Life appeared as a spontaneous, self-replicating protocell, and developed through variation and natural selection into everything we have around us today.")

What's interesting to me is how loosely many evolutionists use the terms. I once made the old argument that "similarity does not imply common descent any more than it implies common design because there are "intermediate forms" among cars, but we all know cars didn't evolve" to an evolutionist. His response was puzzling -- "Of course cars evolved, you idiot -- look at the changes in them over time!"

I found this to be amazing. The fundamental difference between change in gene frequencies stemming from unguided, natural processes and the "evolution" of cars through the intelligent effort of hundreds of thousands of engineers over the course of a century" seemed to be totally lost on him.

Similarly, I remember watching a youtube video by other evolutionists in which the narrator said, "If it can grow, it can evolve." The fundamental difference between an individual changing due to inborn programming and change in gene frequencies stemming from unguided, natural processes appeared to be lost on her, too.

Then today, I ran across this blog by a PhD, in which he rather extraordinarily says:
"But we most certainly do not need fossils to demonstrate the fact of evolution, as we are surrounded by evolutionary intermediates right here in the modern world. In fact, if we didn't have any fossils at all we would still conclude - from the living organisms that surround us - that evolution happens..."

In what sense is he using the word "evolution" here? Does he mean changes in gene frequencies due to unguided natural processes? If so, then how does he know that organisms are intermediates without a fossil record to show a path of development from a common ancestor to the divergent species? How can one conclude that organisms are "evolutionary intermediates" without identifying their common ancestor which would necessarily only be found in the fossil record?

These "scientists" never seem able to grasp that point. They don't seem willing or able to effectively define their terms in this area such that criteria can be effectively applied to test whether reality corresponds with theory.

The real question about "evolution" is not whether organisms adapt to their environment through variation and natural selection. That's obvious, and was known well before Darwin ever showed up on the scene. The real question is also not whether many organisms have similar characteristics. That's also obvious, and was known long before Darwin ever showed up on the scene.

The real question about evolution is unguided, universal common descent. The idea that everything descended from a single protocell that came about by happenstance and subsequently diverged into all life through variation and natural selection alone. That's the only point of contention.

Does this guy seriously think you can make claims about history without looking at the historical evidence of fossils?

If he does, he's an idiot.

But I don't think he does. He probably never sat down to really think through what he means by "evolution."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Realms of inquiry

I was reading a book about the early middle ages (around the time of Justinian) called "Justinian's Flea" -- great book, incidentally -- and the author noted that while early medieval architects and engineers were extraordinary geometers, able to calculate and measure complex shapes, etc, they were very poor at the physical aspects of engineering -- e.g. managing stress, torque, etc. That reminded me of the classical Greeks and their mastery of, and indeed obsession with, geometry.

And it got me thinking, that maybe human inquiry can be broken into three phases:

In the first phase, extending from the beginning of human history to the Renaissance, we investigated primarily the abstract -- geometry, the "forms," numbers, and abstract theology. We had no particular interest in, much less mastery of, the physical. In fact, many explicitly despised the flesh, epitomized in neoplatonism.

In the second phase, extending from the renaissance until today, we have investigated primarily the objects within our environment -- biology, physics, chemistry, psychology, medicine -- all are increasingly detailed investigation of the things within our environment. Our ability to conduct these inquiries is in fact dependent upon our mastery of abstractions -- in other words, without the ability to think that was developed during the age of abstraction, we would be unable to grasp the physical universe, so as to understand it.

But we still do not understand the environment itself. What I mean is this: we don't know what gravity "is" -- we don't know why the physical constants are what they are -- we don't understand the relationship between space and time -- we don't understand the "origins" or lack thereof -- of the universe.

And perhaps the next stage of inquiry could (will?) be into the nature of the universe itself. Einstein made some real headway into it -- but the contradictions between relativity and quantum mechanics seem to indicate that there is something deeper -- more fundamental -- about the universe than we as yet understand.

Maybe, just as our mastery of the abstract gave us the ability to grasp the physical, so our (impending?) mastery of the physical will give us the ability to grasp the nature of the universe itself?

Of course, such an understanding would be predicated upon mastery of abstraction and the physical -- something many cosmologists, materialists, and theists aren't much interested in. They preach hypothesis and speculation as somehow "science."

But understanding the universe itself would require a much deeper, more nuanced mode of thinking -- because unlike logic (in which propositions can be tested against rules) or physical reality (in which propositions can be tested against experiment) there is as yet no way to "test" propositions about the environment itself, because we have nothing to test them against.

Maybe someday?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Institution and influence

Seems to me it's important to distinguish between institutions (organized, people-filled organizations) and influences (people and ideas that change things), and, more importantly, to make sure we correctly categorize different ideas and things.

Consider, for instance, organized religion. As an institution, it is notoriously corrupt. From the very beginning, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have struggled with corruption from within -- the religions' very holy books say so.

But things take on a very different flavor if you evaluate religions as "influences" -- comparing them to the surrounding milieu, and asking what direction they pulled.

If you compare the Inquisition to the religious liberalism of today, it looks horrible. But what was the context?

Trial by Ordeal was a major determinant of "justice" from ancient through medieval times.

Hammurabi wrote, "If any one bring an accusation against a man," Hammurabi wrote, "let the accused go to the river and leap in. If he sink in the river, his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if [the accused] escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death."

This practice was still common in Western Europe through the Early Middle Ages. The Old-English, Proto-Germanic, and Dutch words "ordel, urteil, and oordeel" take their definition explicitly from the practice, meaning "Judgment, verdict."

Indeed, the term ordeal itself still bears this form of legal process as its primary definition

Who forbade bishops to participate in it? Pope Innocent III. He introduced compurgation instead (the accused vows his innocent, and his innocense is vouched for by a required number of other people). Justice? Not really. But much better than what came before it. And who brought that change about? The Christian author of the Albigensian Crusade, of all people.

Also consider what was happening prior to the crusades to heretics. Mobs in the streets, hunting down heretics at whim. The Albigensians themselves killing a papal envoy sent in peace.

The Inquisition, as horrible as it was, was a step forward from the "justice" of the rest of the world at the time.

Slavery, also. Slavery is explicitly permitted in both the Old and New Testaments. But not unqualified slavery. While the Greek and Roman pagans were permitted by law to kill, rape, torture, and abuse at will, the Jews and Christians were not. Jews were enjoined in Exodus 21:1-6 as follows:

“When you buy a Hebrew slave, six years shall he serve; and in the seventh shall he go out free, for nothing. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and the children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself. And if the slave shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: then his master shall bring him unto God, and he shall bring him to the door or unto the door-post, and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.”

Also, Exodus 21:16: "Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death."

The ideas that slavery was temporary (only 6 years, or voluntarily after that), and that kidnapping and stealing slaves was wrong, were revolutionary. Even in the 19th century, the slaves brought to America were initially captured by Africans who raided rival villages, capturing and selling whoever they could to the whites.

And there was no "6 year rule" in the American slave trade.

In other words, the slavery of the 19th Century still violated the rules set in Exodus 3-4 thousand years prior.

And it was a heck of a lot better than the slavery going on in the Greco-Roman world.

So if you look at organized Christianity as put into practice, you often see many abuses and immoral behaviors. But if you look at organized Christianity in its cultural context, things start to look significantly different.

The key, it seems to me, is to evaluate innovators based on what differentiated them from their cultural context, and not what they retained. Thus if I am a racist in a town of racists, but I challenge the idea of slavery, then I should be evaluated for the innovation or influence I sought, rather than the culture baggage I retained.

Consider Constantine, for example. Certainly a brutal, superstitutious emperor in a time of brutal, superstitutious emperors. But he was unprecedented in his banning of gladitorial fights, and his introduction of religious tolerance.

Or consider the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Certainly it promulgated a number of stereotypes of blacks held by many at the time; but it was revolutionary in its opposition to slavery. She should be evaluated not by the cultural baggage she retained, but by the new ideas she brought to the table.

Or consider Martin Luther. Judgmental, dogmatic and and racist, certainly. But he also lived in a judgmental, dogmatic, and racist time. How did he differ from his cultural context? He fought indulgences, fought for individual thought with respect to religious truth, fought against superstitious worship of relics ... insofar as he differed from his cultural context, he was a pretty good guy.

Does that mean we don't criticize the old culture? Of course not. Racism, slavery, and inquisitions are all bad things. But I think when we evaluate the people involved, we need to distinguish their radical flashes of insight (which are to their credit) from their cultural baggage (which, it seems to me, is less their fault than their heritage).

Thus a person who keeps 9 cultural prejudices and overcomes 1 is a cultural innovator. We can't blame people for being unable to overthrow every bias of their upbringing. We can only credit or blame them for the things (good or bad) that they bring to the table -- how they differentiated themselves from their environment.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


What up NOW, San Jose del Cabo!?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Expanding Earth?

Stumbled across an interesting idea today (no better way to start off your wedding day than with a little "pseudoscience," I guess!) -- the idea that the Earth is expanding. Saw some very convincing graphics showing four very interesting things:

1) Asia, America, and Antarctica fit together perfectly, if the Earth is 40% smaller than it is today.

2) America, Europe and Africa do not fit together perfectly today, unless the Earth is 40% smaller than it is today.

3) In fact, all continents fit together perfectly, if we assume a 40% decrease in the Earth's size. In such a scenario, there are no oceans. Just shallow seas. Like the ones we see in the geologic record.

4) The plate surrounding Antarctica has a zone of expansion surrounding it, without any subduction to suck up the extra "ocean crust."

I find this idea to be very interesting. Seems much more reasonable than the alternative, where we're expected to believe that the continents slid around, bouncing against each other, with billions of tons of rock sliding under other rock. And try as I might, I can't find any mainstreamer who can explain what motive force makes these continents move around so much, nor show me large-scale areas of subduction ...

Those are two big holes that are filled by an expanding Earth. Plus the shapes of the continents, which only fit on a smaller radius ...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Selection mechanisms and stupid professors.

PZ Myers responded with typical ignorance to an article by Medved today.

Medved cites two books recently released, that argue that many Americans are genetically disposed to active, aggressive, ambitious behavior, because of the selection mechanism that brought them here. Basically, you had to be really adventurous to voluntarily give up your life in Europe and start fresh on the frontier, so the genetic trait causing that adventurous spirit became overrepresented in the US.

They authors further argue that this selection mechanism differentiates the blacks whose ancestors were brought against their will, by slavers, from those blacks who came voluntarily, in the traditional vein of the ambitious immigrant.

Myers, in an unusually profound moment of stupid, portrayed this idea as racist. How dare Mr. Medved portray the descendents of slaves as lazy, etc.?

But that's not what Mr. Medved even said.

Racism is differentiating based on race -- saying, "Blacks are this way because they are black; whites are this way because they are white."

These guys are differentiating based on the selection mechanism that brought people to America. Thus "stay-at-home white Europeans" are in the same category as "slaves brought here against their will." Similarly, "White immigrants who came out of a sense of adventure" are in the same category as "Black immigrants who came out of a sense of adventure."

There's simply no racism to be found. The argument is that people who come out of a sense of adventure tend to pass that trait on to their descendants, regardless of race, and those who come (or remain) for some other reason do not have such an over-represented adventurous spirit.

Regardless of race.

How is it that people (like Myers) who have been through so much schooling can be so transparently stupid? I don't know. My little sister, a particularly precocious Junior in college, could see right through this bogus argument. Why is Myers unable to maintain logical thought? I don't know.

Maybe there's another selection mechanism in academia: "Those who can, do, and those who can't, teach." Not universal, of course. But maybe a factor?

As to the idea itself, I find it intriguing, but I'm also skeptical of "genetics explains everything" arguments. I'd be more inclined to believe that the selection mechanism favoring an adventurous spirit created a culture of ambition and energy, which continues to attract people who think the same way, and perpetuates itself through the acculturation process.

I'm open to the idea of a gene, of course; but until they actually find the gene i reckon they should shut up about it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Oktar II

Got a tip on a site that posts decisions and briefs on the Oktar case. It's right here.

First impressions: They really need to get a better translator for the documents -- it's virtually impossible to cut through. They also need to quit wasting time on the rhetoric, and focus on the facts.

However, the facts, as presented, appear to show the following:

Oktar and over 30 other members of the NSF (National Science Foundation) in Turkey were charged with the Turkish equivalent of Criminal Conspiracy. The case was tried in a "State Security Court" -- military courts of limited jurisdiction, which have jurisdiction over Conspiracy charges.

The first court to consider the case had to recuse itself, because the prosecutor was affiliated with one of the plaintiff's attorney (sounds like an ethics violation to me).

The second court transferred it to the third court, which found that it lacked jurisdiction because no finding could support a conspiracy charge or any other charge triable in that court of limited jurisdiction.

A bunch of other courts then all weighed in, saying they lacked jurisdiction, for (presumably) a variety of reasons.

In 2005, a court finally heard the case. They dismissed the allegations against 35 of the defendants, because statute of limitations had passed. The last six defendants were then acquitted on the merits.

Then, in 2007, another Court decided to reevaluate the case under a law that had been passed in 2005.

Keep in mind, this occurred after the alleged offense had been committed (not permissible in any Western judicial systems), and after a full acquittal (double jeopardy).

It also appears that the allegations of "setting up an organization for a criminal purpose" rests on no evidence that the organization was intended to commit a crime -- although there may have been (and I don't know yet) someone within the organization that committed a crime. That, of course, would not meet the standard of a conspiracy charge.

How many violations of procedure can we pack into one case?

Monday, May 12, 2008


Recombination hotspots

Ran across an interesting article here. Key quote:

The researchers also identified particular patterns in the DNA that play a role in hotspot activity. ‘That is very exciting because it takes us closer to understanding how recombination is controlled,’ explained Dr Gil McVean, the other senior author. ‘It looks as though there are patterns in DNA which effectively say “recombine here”. Finding out more about that is a step along the road to understanding one of the major mechanisms shaping genetic variation and its consequences.’

The idea that our genome "knows" where and how to recombine is fascinating. It leaves us with two questions: "How does it work?" and "How did it happen?" The first question is purely scientific -- it will doubtless be fascinating, but is unlikely to be particularly controversial. The second question introduces a lot of speculation and philosophy, and is likely to raise a lot of fists on all sides.

From an evolutionary perspective, the answer to the second question is, "More really lucky mutations we can't comprehensively name or describe, but can infer, based on the paradigm of common descent via mutation. Species which randomly developed the capacity to vary in areas of the genome where variation is useful (and not varying in the areas where it is not) had a competitive advantage, and spread."

From a creationary perspective, the answer is, "Maybe the Creator intended to build in the capacity for rapid variation to allow species to adapt quickly to changes in environment, and to continue replenishing diversity."

Neither of those interpretations is particularly falsifiable. Neither of these interpretations will interfere with the ability of scientists to empirically study the mechanisms of the targetted variation.

Nevertheless, both sides will no doubt use the fact of targetted variation to support their own paradigm, and attempt to "debunk" the alternative.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


This may be the first time I've agreed with Dawkins. At least in part. Specifically, his statement that the idea of "purpose" in the universe is inextricably linked to theism.

The first important point is my premise that "purpose" is inseparable from "mind." You can't have purpose unless you have a mind. And to infer purpose in something is to infer that a mind had purpose for the thing.

We can of course infer purpose from the remnants of human or animal actions -- but that is because those beings have minds. To infer purpose from the arrangement of the solar system, or the existence of biological life, is to infer that a creator exists, and arranged matter in such a way as to put his purpose into action.

It's also important to remember, though, that just because there's purpose in the universe doesn't mean we have to like it. There is purpose in a slaughterhouse -- but that doesn't mean the cows know what it is, or should like it if they did.

There's a third issue as well. Just because some things in the universe reflect a divine purpose (like say the origin of life), does not mean that everything in the universe reflects purpose. The shape of a particular mountain, or the cancer of a particular friend, may well be just as purposeless as they appear.

The question of whether there is purpose in the universe is inextricably linked to the question of whether the universe was designed. But the question of whether we like that purpose is a separate one entirely. And just because some things may reflect purpose does not mean everything does.

Science and Magic

Evolution and Intelligent Design are typically characterized as "Science" and "Magic," respectively.

But it occurred to me the other day: intelligent design of life is being performed every day, by scientists. They are genetically engineering and modifying life; they are even working diligently on creating it from scratch (and have succeeded, it seems, in creating a virus, although people debate whether viruses are actually life or not). At the very least, self-replicating RNA has been assembled from scratch by humans.

So intelligent design and modification of life is clearly science. If it isn't, then why is it being performed by scientists all over the world, every single day?

On the other hand, you have the two dominant "unintelligent origin of life" theories -- RNA world and metabolism world. But nobody's demonstrated how they work. RNA world says "Some RNA came together by sheer luck, and that RNA happened to have the capacity to reproduce." Metabolism world says "A primitive metabolism showed up first, and self-replicating RNA came later." Both are, of course, undemonstrated.

So given the choice between the observed, replicated, coherent explanation of a scientist or scientists intelligently designing life as is seen on a daily basis, and the unsupported, explained, "magical" explanations about how life came together by sheer luck ... which one is "science" again?

The only reason "ID" is considered magic is because of a particularly narrow and rigid theology: the idea that "God" (the creator) works only through 'magic,' not 'natural' means. Get rid of that assumption, and ID becomes significantly more "scientific" than any of the alternatives.

Which brings us to a second important point: what are we to do with this theology of "magic?" What is this "supernatural" of which we speak with reference to the Creator?

I don't think the word "Supernatural" means anything. If you define nature as "everything that is," (a reasonable definition, I think), then there cannot be anything "beyond nature," by definition. God may be somewhere well out of our experience -- he may not be visible from our point of view -- he may not be a part of His "Creation." But if He exists, he must be within the scope of "all that is," and must, therefore, be either part of nature of the substance of nature itself.

So if this God (or gods) created us, he must have done it by "natural" means. No other understanding of creation holds any real meaning.

How? No clue. As Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

I brought this up in a discussion the other day, and the gentleman objected, saying that he would define "supernatural" as things that cannot be observed and studied, and "natural" as things that can be.

I responded that this definition leads to a whole host of problems.

According to his definition, quarks were "supernatural" until we were able to observe and study them; at which time they become natural.

According to his definition, the boats used during the Trojan war were "natural" at the time they were used, but subsequently became supernatural when they were destroyed and were thus no longer available for observation or study.

Clearly, there are only two categories of things: things that exist/occur, and things that do not exist/occur. If something does not exist/occur, it is not supernatural -- it is fictional. And if something occurs, but we cannot observe it, it is not supernatural, but rather, not yet observed

All this comes down to bad epistemology -- a sin of which both evolutionists and creationists are often guilty.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Adnan Oktar

A well-known Islamic and Turkish creationist named Adnan Oktar was recently convicted and sentenced to three years prison. For what, we're not quite sure.

DISCLAIMER: I'm not arguing about whether he's innocent or guilty -- I don't know anything but what I'm reading on the web. But this case smells really bad.

Here's the Reuters account .

According to the story, he was accused and convicted of "using threats for personal benefit and creating an organization with the intent to commit a crime."

There are two causes for suspicion here:

1) "In that court case, Oktar had been charged with using threats for personal benefit and creating an organization with the intent to commit a crime. The charges were dropped but another court picked them up resulting in the latest case." In other words, Double Jeopardy.

2) "No further details were immediately available." In other words, we aren't given any of the facts underlying the allegations.

Procedural abuses by the authorities and vague claims always raise my hackles -- in my work, these have proven to be a common theme for trumped up charges.

Here is a video of a portion of a long press conference he gave a while back, to the European media. The rest of the press conference is on youtube, and is absolutely fascinating. What I found most interesting was the unsubstantiated allegations made by the reporter -- about his "suing scientists who talk about evolution." Oktar called the reporter's bluff, and the reporter had nothing to say.

That started to smell even more like trumped up charges.

And then you find blogs titled "Whoisharunyahya" that make all only generalized allegations, without any substantiating facts. I'm hurting here. Need more data.

I have a potential lead on what may have happened here. I didn't realize exactly how nuanced, subtle, and balanced his views were. He calls for tolerance of Jews and Christians here. He says that the Jews have a right to the land of Israel here.

Those two views are enough to make him a lot of enemies in the Muslim world. His opposition to Darwinism is enough to earn him no friends among the secularists.

This brings new light to the statement of a spokesman that "the judge was influenced by political and religious pressure groups." Maybe.

I'm open to the possibility that he's guilty. But I haven't seen any coherent allegations or facts to support them. Apparently he's also been accused of cocaine use, having orgies, molesting little girls ... and been acquitted each time. That makes these allegations stink even more.

Thank God for Due Process.

According to this blog, Harun Yahya got a ruling in Turkish courts blocking wordpress blogs in Turkey, for defamation and libel. I'm certainly no fan of censorship of any type, and I don't know much about Turkish defamation law. However, I do know that the few wordpress blogs I saw (like this one) about him were plainly defamatory and libelous. He was accused of just about everything under the sun, all without evidence.

Paradigm dependence

I often run into a phenomenon I've come to call "paradigm-dependent argument" -- there may be a philosophically proper name for it out there somewhere, but I haven't yet heard it.

There are two variants -- paradigm dependent evidence for a theory, and paradigm-dependent refutations of a theory. Both are related to, but not identical to, the informal fallacy of "Begging the question"

Paradigm-dependent evidence works like this. In order to provide evidence for a theory, you line up evidence; but the significance of the evidence in supporting the theory depends on assuming the theory is true in the first place.

For example: "The Bible is inerrant. As evidence, there is a passage in which it claims to be God-breathed, and we know God cannot breath lies!"

The evidence to support the conclusion of inerrancy is the passage in which "all scripture" is described as "God-breathed." However, the significance of this "evidence" depends on the assumption that the Bible is inerrant. If the Bible is not inerrant, then this passage could well be in error. And if the passage is in error, then it holds no significance in supporting the conclusion.

On the other side of the ideological chasm, evolutionists often use paradigm-dependent evidence to support the conclusion of common descent. For example, "Human and chimp DNA is overwhelmingly similar; therefore humans and chimps are closely related." However, this "evidence" depends for its significance on the assumption that humans and chimps are related. If humans and chimps are not related, then it's entirely possible that the designer or designers simply used very similar designs for the two, modifying the designs only insofar as necessary to achieve the desired differences.

The end result is that people can appear to be lining up all sorts of "evidence" to support a conclusion, but because of the nature of the evidence itself, it's not really evidence at all.

Paradigm-dependent refutations

This is basically the other side of the coin. I present evidence against your theory which depends for its significance upon the assumptions of my theory, or a strawman version of your theory.

For example:

The one I run into most often is the argument against design from "suboptimal design." It goes like this: Many aspects of the biological design of humans are less efficient than they could be. A competent designer would not design things so inefficiently. Therefore they were not designed.

This "evidence" depends on a straw-man assumption about design -- that the designer, must, of necessity, have intended to create life with optimal efficiency. But without that assumption, we're left with the possibility that life was designed to be efficient, but not perfectly efficient. Much like engineers today, compromises in efficiency have to be made to get the dang thing to work.

Therefore, the evidence depends for its significane on the tacit assumptions that "The Designer would have designed optimally," and "our conclusions of suboptimal designer are actually suboptimal." Without these two dubious assumptions, the "evidence" holds no significance.

The funniest thing of all is hearing scientists call the "design of life" suboptimal, when it is so vastly beyond our ability to design, construct, or even understand. Because we can imagine life being "better designed," (even though we can't even design or construct the most basic forms), we infer that the "Designer" was incompetent. Talk about Monday-morning, arm-chair quarterbacking.

A theistic example of this fallacy is the ontological argument. It goes like this: God is defined as "The being than which no greater can be conceived." It is greater to exist than not to exist. Therefore, if you conceive of God as not existing, you're conceiving of something less than "the greatest." Therefore, if you conceive of God as not existing, you're not really conceiving of God. Therefore, atheism is self-contradictory.

This argument depends on the assumption that "God is defined as 'the being than which no greater can be conceived.'"

But if an atheist instead conceives of God as "An imaginery conception in the mind of men without any corresponding reality outside the mind," then the ontological argument holds no power. The whole argument depends on a definition of God with which an atheist could reasonably disagree.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Old maps


Stumbled across an interesting old map today. It was composed by Orontaeus Finaeus, in 1532. The actual map is on the left. Polar projections of the Finaeus map and modern map are in figures 2 and 3, respectively.

It is clearly a map of Antarctica -- you can see the tip of South America in the lower right hand corner, and lines of latitude and longitude extending out from the south pole. South America is a little too close (it doesn't actually touch Antarctica in reality). However, there's really no disputing was it is. The similarity is eery.

Interestingly, Antarctica wasn't "discovered" until 1819. The first two expeditions in recorded history to actually see Antarctica were led by William Smith and James Bransfield in 1819 and 1820, respectively.

You can confirm the general ignorance of Antarctica with other, later maps, such as the next one, a map by Henricus Hondius, reflecting the Earth as it was seen in 17th century eyes.

The south polar projection at the bottom reflects the belief of the day: no land.

So how did this Orontaeus get his map of Antarctica?

No clue.

Maybe he used old sources?

I found an article on this map on that inimitable fountain of everything evolutionary,, here. They debunk many apparently fantastic claims made by a TV series I've never seen. Although much of their debunking is paradigm-dependent (meaning their "disproof" depends on their own unproven assumptions), many of the claims made by the series do appear to be gross speculation.

There are a few important claims that doesn't touch, though: that the map was genuine, that it was written in 1532, and that it does, in fact, depict Antarctica.

That's enough to blow my mind.

Update I found a very reasonable explanation for this map, right here. The theory is that Finaeus based his map off the northern coast of Australia. This is confirmed because not only does it correspond to the northern coast of Australia pretty well, but one of the islands just above it is actually labeled "Java." Looks like he was speculating about what the rest of Australia might look like, and just happened to draw a map that looked a helluvalot like Antarctica.


Heard this one on the radio today, and liked it:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

-Robert A. Heinlein

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Causation, Label or object

A gentleman named Matt Ackerman made an interesting point. In my scheme of "label and reality," causation does not qualify as reality, because "causation" has no corresponding physical reality. He's right, of course. That's a logical outcome of my scheme i didn't see.

Is this outcome reasonable? Is causation not "real," but rather mere "concept?"

I tend to think so. Especially given the observations underlying quantum physics, it seems possible that causation is much less foundational to reality than traditionally believed.

What exactly do we mean by "causation?"

Seems like we are saying two things:

1) physical state of affairs b follows physical state of affairs a 100% of the time.
2) some aspect or aspects of the physical universe preclude any other outcome

Seems like causation is really just a label we put on those two assertions.

And now that I think about it, seems like both assertions can be proven false, but neither can be proven to be true, because the possibility of a counterexample always exists.

And since both assertions are loaded with room for doubt, we shouldn't be surprised that there is so much argument about causation. If we could observe it in itself, there'd be no problem. But it's really just a pair of assertions about physical reality, both of which are very difficult to prove. Maybe that's why there's so much interminable argument about causation. We treat it like a real thing, but actually it's just a pair of unprovable claims.

that's not to say that the assertions underlying all causation are always false. It's just to show that causation really is those two claims and nothing else, and that those two claims are pretty wily.

For example, consider "she made me mad." claim 1 is easily shown true -- first came her action, then came my anger. But the second one is hazier. Could I have responded differently to the same action? No way to tell. Determinist would say no chemicals and stimuli determine outcome. Freewiller would say yes -- you chose your reaction. Neither can be tested, because it was a one-time deal. Did she really "make me mad?" hard to say.

"the heat from the stove causes water to boil." correlation? Check. Claim about reality? Insert description of the properties of water that make it gas at 100C. Check. Causation proven? No. But good enough for me.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Nested hierarchies

Also during the long discussion yesterday, the topic of nested hierarchies came up. This caused me to look harder into the topic, to try and understand it. I found something interesting.

First, the main point. Evolutionists use "nested hierarchies" as evidence of common descent -- that is, life can be categories along certain lines, and there are no characteristics that violate those hierarchal categorization. Therefore, those hierarchies constitute the "family tree" of life.

When I first heard the argument, I was struck by how "label over reality" it was. That is, we categorize life according to certain characteristics, and then treat the structure of those categories as being "real." When if we picked different characteristics, we'd certainly have different hierarchies.

In fact, it seemed, there are all sorts of traits that violate the "rule of nested hierarchies."

So with this in mind, I started reading about the marsupials and monotremes, because they seemed to be a great place to start in looking into these hierarchies.

And what did I find? I found placental and marsupial variants of a bunch of different animals. All of the photos on this page are of MARSUPIALS, either alive or extinct. Yet we know instinctively, from looking at them, that they are eerily reminiscent of placental counterparts.

For example, there is the placental wolf, and the "tasmanian wolf," which was hunted to extinction in the 30s. The two species share all the major "dog" characteristics, except radically different reproductive systems, and, apparently, minor differences in the palate bone. So I kept looking, and I found the "marsupial sabertooth tiger," the "marsupial lion," the "marsupial anteater," the "marsupial flying squirrel," the "marsupial mole" the "marsupial badger (or tasmanian devil), the "marsupial mouse" ... and it didn't appear to be ending anytime soon.

All the sources I found treat all these animals as "convergent evolution" -- that is, the "tasmanian wolf" is not a "wolf" -- it is a "marsupial that happened to evolve a lot of the same characteristics as wolves, because it filled the same niche." Maybe I could buy this once. But how many times? Dogs, lions, sabertooth tigers, anteaters, moles, flying squirrels?

How many times did this "convergent evolution" happen?
Or maybe these "nested hierarchies" aren't as involable as argued. Maybe these organisms originated fully formed, in two distinct variants. Or maybe they originated in a single, primal form with the capacity for both forms of reproduction in the gene pool, which "fixed" due to genetic drift over time?

Whatever explanation you choose, these "nested hierarchies" start to look pretty silly when you have such a long list of organisms that have such similar placental counterparts, with only one significant difference: the reproductive system.

(I got all the photos straight off Google Images, and claim Fair Use, as this is a not-for-profit, educational purpose that uses documents only in small part).

Recurrent laryngeal nerve

I got baited into another long, fruitless debate with some gentlemen, but in the process, I learned some cool stuff about biology.

The recurrent laryngeal nerve is a nerve that runs from our brain to our voicebox to provide motor function and sensation to the voicebox. Interestingly, though, instead of running a direct route from brain to larynx, it runs from the brain, all the way down the neck to the chest, and then back up the larynx. It doesn't take the straight path -- it loops. Hence, recurrent. This occurs in a whole bunch of animals, including the giraffe -- where "taking the long road" adds meters of nerve.

One gentleman in particular used this as evidence of common descent -- after all, why would the nerve take this inefficient path from the brain down to the chest and back up to the larynx in animals as diverse as men and giraffes, unless the two species were related? Having never heard of this before, and finding it interesting, I googled "laryngeal nerve," to learn what it was. On a whim, I then looked up "non-recurrent laryngeal nerve" and I found this abstract, among others, which indicated that non-recurrent laryngeal nerves occur about 1% of the time in humans.

I brought this to the attention of the gentleman, and pointed out that given the regular occurrence of non-recurrent laryngeal nerves, it would seen that if such a path were advantageous, it would have been selected by now. Thus, the fact that the other variant is set (or nearly set) in the population indicates that the recurrent version may well have some advantage. There was also another abstract which indicated that the non-recurrent variant was quite deletarious during surgery, as it increased the chance of injury. That at least provided a potential explanation.

He never responded. I wish he had. He obviously knew some stuff about biology. He obviously had a lot to teach me.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Got into an interesting discussion with someone about the definition of "intelligence." As I understood him, he seemed to think that our concept of "intelligence" was something of an illusion, because animals (and, presumably we also) simply follow the laws of nature as applied through the genetic preprogramming we bring to the table and the stimuli we experience. Thus, he argued, there was no fundamental difference between the behavior of animals and the the behavior of the weather, except for the degree of complexity in the system.

Not wanting to get into an argument about free-will/determination, compatibilism/incompatibilism, or materialism/dualism, I argued that even if we are simply highly complex systems, we are fundamentally different than the weather, because we have the capacity to act with respect to preexisting desires. We don't just act in response to stimuli -- we interpret those stimuli with respect to desired outcomes (e.g. survival, happiness, reproduction, spiritual fulfilment) -- all things which the weather cannot do. In other words, we don't just see a hamburger -- we see the hamburger with respect to our own desire to eat, or our own desire not to die of heart disease, and act according to our desires.

The weather does not have preprogrammed ends or desires. We do. And that's what makes us intelligent.

Seems like there are three ways to view intelligence:

1) Illusion, as what appears to be intelligence is merely the systematic function of a highly complex system -- a system that reacts with 100% predictability based on genetic preprogramming and physical stimuli.

2) An external, spiritual "soul" that exists independently of the body.

3) The sum of an organisms desires, thoughts, memories, and plans that we bring to our physical stimuli. Whether or not these are purely material or an ethereal "soul," they are what makes us intelligent.