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.