Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Guardian's atheist defender of ignorance and superstition

Andrew Brown of the Guardian newspaper denies that it makes any difference whether most people's beliefs about how our universe works, which he labels "our stories", are true or false.  In his recent article "Virginia Heffernan's creationism is wrong but makes good sense", he also argues that it makes "good sense" for people to give justifications for their factual beliefs that provide zero probability of establishing that their factual beliefs are true.  He argues that only some small minority of people who specialize in building useful things need to have some narrowly focused skills required for them to be productive.  Therefore, he argues, only those people need to be epistemologically and ontologically competent within only the confines of their expertise.  But is work time specialization really the only place and time epistemological and ontological competence is needed?  

If we imagine two different countries, one where all citizens are epistemologically and ontologically competent and one where, outside of their narrow areas of work time specialization, all people are epistemologically and ontologically incompetent, which country would you rather live in?  Which country would you prefer shared a border with your country?  After all, our conclusions about how are universe works, and how we go about reaching these conclusions, influences many of the other decisions we make, including the laws we favor, our lifestyles, what and who we accept or reject morally, who is our friend or enemy, whether we ourselves are reasonable or unreasonable, rational or irrational, etc.  

People who choose creationism over evolution, regardless of whether they do this because they find creationism aesthetically more pleasing, or morally uplifting, or meaningful, or any other such entirely inappropriate reason, are asserting that humans are not primates with a common ancestor with other apes.  This is a factual claim, and as such it is not merely a story, and it is not a choice we make like selecting a novel to read.  Factual claims are foundations upon which we construct our laws, our morality, our aesthetics, and our decisions generally, including daily decisions and important decisions impacting not only ourselves but others around us.  To say, as Andrew Brown does, that "they are the clash of two competing stories", and "it is a story which derives most of its power from the way that believers suppose that it is true", is to wrongly trivialize the basic task of making true/false judgements down to the level of picking a novel in a bookstore.

Have we become so accustomed to the fact that epistemological and ontological incompetence are widespread that we have become inured to it?  Do we prefer to scapegoat the rich, the politicians, the boss, the big corporations, particular other religions, for all problems because that is easier?  Is this why people who know better keep making bad excuses that such incompetency is OK as long as it is other people doing this, not me and not my children?  We are told people will forever be stupid so give up, we have no way to reliably make any true/false decisions so one method is as good as any other, one person's truth is another person's falsehood, the primary function of holding true/false beliefs is something other than accurately modeling reality, etc.  Yet some of the same people who argue thusly for denying or ignoring this problem also advocate for public policies which are themselves responses to the symptoms of this same problem.  This refusal to deal with the underlying source of the problems that they argue against thus carries with it a whiff of pusillanimity.

The reality is that, insofar as anything at all has importance, what we believe is true about how our universe works and how we justify our beliefs are also important.  These are actually fundamental.  The Enlightenment was a major positive achievement for humanity exactly because it was about humanity getting a better grip on reality from a commitment to better epistemology and ontology.  Andrew Brown's populist defense of post-modern relativism is lazy, it is bad excuses for bad epistemology and ontology, it is regressive and harmful Counter-Enlightment advocacy. Virginia Heffernan's creationism is not merely mistaken, it is also foolish, there is no good sense to be found there.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ways of knowing

Theists tend to claim that by applying theological principles we can determine not only that a god really exists, but the actual identity of this real god.  They then argue that atheists fail to take theology seriously and thus fail to acknowledge the strong justifications for theism.  We atheists tend to think theists are wasting their time on chimeras because theological principles are incapable of discriminating between what is true and what is false about how our universe works.

We can divide questions about truth into at least three categories:  what could be true, what is true, what should be true. The what should be true category can be further subdivided into moral and aesthetic judgements. That which is good/beautiful should be true while that which is bad/ugly should not be true.

Atheists start with the could be true question, compare the could be scenarios against the data, which consists of the empirical evidences, and then conclude that the could be true scenario which is the best fit with the available data identifies what is true.  Theistic theology mostly either does not do this, or does this in a biased, incomplete manner.  This is because theistic theology instead tries to derive conclusions about what is true on the basis of combining what could be true with what should be true.  An example of this is Pascal's Wager which argues that we could be punished by a god who should exist for the purpose of imposing an after death reckoning for before death misbehavior.

Theists complain atheists are being too narrow and closed minded by rejecting this sort of reasoning from theological principles.  Yet we all have excellent reason to think that we cannot derive what is true conclusions from what should be true principles.  Everyone experiences conflicts throughout their lives between what should be true and what is true.  People should not become injured, should not become sick, should not forget things, should not lack food or shelter, should not die, etc.  So atheists are merely guilty of being consistent when they reject reaching any is true conclusions from should be true derived principles.

God exists and has a particular identity versus gods do not exist are competing statements asserting alternative contingent truths that separate our actual world from all the other worlds we might have imagined.  The only way to reliably evaluate such competing statements about how our universe works is empirically.   No judgement about good/bad or beautiful/ugly is involved.  Because moral and aesthetic statements entail these additional judgements they are arguably different kinds of truth, and we cannot reach conclusions for such should be statements only empirically.

Yet empirically determined conclusions about how our universe works are needed to properly anchor our moral and aesthetic judgements.  Our moral and aesthetic judgements are built on top of our empirically derived prior conclusions about how our universe works.  Our subsequent judgements regarding what is good/bad and beautiful/ugly are informed by our true/false conclusions.  People who build their true/false conclusions about how our universe works from their moral and aesthetic judgements (a.k.a. from theological principles), although often well-intentioned, are making a mistake, like a home builder constructing a house underneath its foundation.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Belief and English language deficiency

Many people have recognized that English vocabulary is sometimes deficient and some have tried to add words, usually without success.  For example, many of the world's languages do not have gender-specific pronouns. Others, however – particularly those which have a pervasive system of grammatical gender (or have historically had such a system, as with English) – have gender-specificity in certain of their pronouns, particularly personal pronouns of the third person.  Problems of usage arise in languages such as English, in contexts where a person of unspecified gender is being referred to, but the most natural available pronouns (he or she) are gender-specific.  Michael Newdow tried to encourage us to substitute re, rees, and erm for gender non-neutral he, his, and him.

There is a similar, but more subtle,  problem with the words belief and proof.  The word belief is broad, it encompasses both justified and non-justified beliefs.  The word proof is narrow, it designates an established fact.  The problem is that we lack a good noun for properly justified belief that falls short of proof.  

One symptom of this vocabulary deficiency is that some people overuse the word proof.  If you see a link to an article with a title like "proof of existence of god" or "disproof of existence of gods" the best course of action is likely to not click on that link.  Another result is that some people refuse to utilize the word belief on the grounds that they do not want to taint their well justified beliefs with the unjustified beliefs of the hoi polloi by sharing the same noun.

I do not know of any efforts to coin a new word that is synonymous with justified belief.  The obvious problem is that the same hoi polloi will misuse the new word much like they already misuse the word proof.  The goal of avoiding a "guilt by association" type of taint by utilizing a more obscure vocabulary also has a cost. Using a different word implies a different entity, but the entity itself is the same here. Belief is not the problem to be avoided. The problem is holding beliefs that are poorly justified.

There are some people who go so far as to claim that belief is the problem.  I strongly disagree.  A belief is what we have whenever the available evidences overall have a favored direction.  I keep encountering people who claim that atheism is about having no beliefs.  Yet I can no more not have a belief about the existence of gods than I can not have a belief about the existence of Leprechauns.  The evidences do speak on these existence questions, the evidences are not neutral, and therefore the corresponding belief follows. We can expect one set of evidences if those entities existed, and a different set of evidences if they do not exist.  

With an ultrasound we can detect pregnancy.  That is proof.  With Leprechauns, as with gods, as with the supernatural more generally, we can only infer. It is still proper to utilize the word proof in contexts where conclusions are inferred provided that there is a consensus of the experts that the conclusion is true. Without this usage restriction the word proof becomes too political and loses much of its meaning. There is a sense in which we arguably do have such a consensus -  scientists de-facto abandoned supernaturalism several centuries ago. Unfortunately many scientists are unwilling to acknowledge that this constitutes a consensus answer to this question.

Evidences can speak loudly by being consistent and pervasive, which is the case here. We do not need proof to have properly justified strong beliefs. Mind is an natural emergent property of particular physical configurations of matter-energy, matter-energy is not a supernatural product of a non-physical mind - so we believe.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Defining supernatural

A mutually exclusive, yes or no, binary type of decision can be simple to make.  For some decisions we can directly observe the physical presence or absence of something and reach a definitive conclusion.  But we often have no direct access to the answer and therefore we must infer a conclusion on a best overall fit with the available evidences basis.  The conclusion is now going to be a probabilistic estimate, and therefore will represent a location on a continuous line joining the two end points.  The binary, one or the other, proposition is thus converted into a continuum by the decision making process.

However, it is impractical to assign a particular probability number to our conclusion since we typically lack enough information to be that precise.  Fortunately, Baysian probability analysis is still viable with only three discrete outcomes:  Positive, neutral, and negative.  We can assign the evidences one of three values, 1, 0, and -1 so that we can accumulate evidences into a single sum.  Every evidence for the proposition adds to the total, every evidence against subtracts from the total.  Does this conversion of our proposition from its original binary form to a discrete line form indicate that our proposition is incoherent and meaningless?  No, this is merely the unavoidable outcome of the fact that we are not omnipresent and omniscient so we often need to retreat to approximate Bayesian probabilities to infer a conclusion.

Many propositions are not well defined.  For example, we may ask if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  We cannot even begin to reach an approximate probability estimate until we have a definition of intelligent life that includes a criteria which can be utilized for evaluating the evidences.  The criteria selected to clarify the proposition will often unavoidably be somewhat arbitrary.   Does this arbitrariness and ambiguity in the definition of a proposition indicate that the proposition itself is incoherent and meaningless?  Lets try to answer this by identifying a criteria for intelligent life.

Our relationship with our pets, for better or worse, is limited by our inability to converse with them.  So we can specify as a meaningful criteria for intelligent life the ability to symbolically communicate with an extensive vocabulary.  There is still ambiguity here about what qualifies as extensive, but since inferring on the evidences is an approximation anyway we are not likely to benefit much from a more precisely defined proposition. Inferring on the evidence can be a coherent and meaningful activity even when we lack a precisely defined proposition.

We may sometimes need more than one criteria for evidencing a particular proposition.  Furthermore, we may decide that each criteria by itself evidences for the proposition.  This results in a complex proposition.  When we apply the evidences we may find that according to one of the criteria the proposition is affirmed, but according to the other criteria the proposition is disconfirmed.  Does the possibility of a such a paradoxical result mean that all complex propositions are incoherent and meaningless?  Again, the answer is no.  The possibility of such a paradoxical result is merely the unavoidable outcome of combining inference with a complex proposition.  Nevertheless, we should try to avoid making the proposition more complex than is necessary to reduce the risk of a paradoxical outcome.

In their excellent essay "Does Science Presuppose Naturalism?" (the correct answer is no), philosophers Yonatan Fishman and Maartin Boudry propose a complex, three criteria definition of supernatural.  I think their definition is a good start, but is unnecessarily complex and too weak.  I am going to propose a simpler and more stringent definition using their proposal as a starting point.

I will drop the criteria that they label as (2), which is that the phenomena "exist outside the spatiotemporal realm of our universe".  Although this criteria is associated with the supernatural, I want to keep the proposition as simple as possible and this criteria is not essential.  I will then modify the criteria they label as (1) and reverse the order of the two remaining criteria. This results in the following two criteria for identifying supernatural phenomena:  (1) They suggest that reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like, particularly in a sense that implies a central role for humanity and human affairs in the cosmic scheme and (2) they operate in ways that fundamentally violate our current scientific understanding of what is permissible within the constraints set by natural laws.

The first criteria is important because it enables us to distinguish natural laws from supernatural laws.  We need to be able to make this distinction to apply the second criteria.  The second criteria is important because it defines the scope of what is possible within the natural framework.  Many people greatly underestimate the capabilities of the laws of nature and as a result of this ignorance are overly dismissive of the viability of naturalism.

The existing natural laws are incomplete. Therefore the quality of residing outside the scope of natural law is an insufficient condition for identifying supernatural phenomena.  Natural phenomena occurring outside the incomplete natural law framework are to be expected.  This is why the criteria says that a fundamental violation of a natural law constraint must occur. 

These two criteria can be combined into a single criteria.  This results in the following definition of supernatural phenomena:  They suggest that reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like, particularly in a sense that implies a central role for humanity and human affairs in the cosmic scheme, and they operate in ways that fundamentally violate our current scientific understanding of what is permissible within the constraints set by natural laws.  This requires an initial categorization of the existing scientific laws of the universe as being either natural or supernatural, which is done using the first half of the combined criteria.  A violation of at least one natural law is now a requisite indicator of supernatural phenomena, but is by itself insufficient.  Because we approach claims of supernaturalism skeptically, we will also require that the violation evince a mind-like, judgmental or supervised, purposefulness.

One common objection to any attempt to define supernaturalism is that the supernatural concept is always ruled out because it violates Occam's Razor.  But Occam's Razor is a rule of thumb focused on dropping superfluous adornments, its not a fundamental law for disregarding the direction of the evidences.  Another common objection is that all evidences favorable to supernaturalism should instead be interpreted as evidence of an advanced technology civilization trying to fool us.  This is a mirror image of the perspective of some theists that evidences favorable naturalism are really favorable for god.  Some people assert that supernaturalism entails unpredictability, undetectability, and similar attributes that place it outside the reach of evidences, rendering any attempt to evidence supernaturalism futile.   This is actually false, supernaturalism entails no such particular set of attributes (the previously referenced essay by Fishman and Boudry addresses this).

Supernaturalists are inclined to try to argue that the current scientific laws of the universe are themselves supernatural.  One argument that our laws are supernatural is the Fine Tuning argument.  Victor Stenger, among others, argues that the premises of the Fine Tuning argument are false.  But even if the Fine Tuning argument was valid, our current scientific laws predict a multiverse, and combining the Anthropic  Principle with a multiverse undermines the Fine Tuning argument.  Another argument that our laws are supernatural is the First Cause argument.  However, the consensus of cosmologists is that modern cosmology has no need for a non-natural first cause. It is difficult to avoid concluding that our universe overall is indifferent to humanity and to life more generally.  Even people who should know better nevertheless avoid this conclusion for psychological and psychology related political reasons (people prefer to believe that our universe is about us).

Merely accepting the possibility of supernaturalism being evidenced doesn't produce such evidence or otherwise render our universe any less naturalistic.  On the contrary, the fact that supernaturalism could be evidenced, but is not, is all the more reason to conclude that our universe is naturalistic.   As philosophical naturalists, we can and should be willing to acknowledge that if our universe did evidence supernaturalism then we should be supernaturalists.  Best fit with the evidences, despite its limitations, is the only viable method we have to accurately model our universe.  At the end of the day the goal of our beliefs about how the world works is to accurately model reality, not to reach any particular, fixed conclusion.