Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Last Allowed Prejudice

Actually there's two: this and people with southern accents.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thought of the Day

"Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime."
Ummm...why can't we do both?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Web Resources

This category of links on the sidebar take you to non-blog websites which I think are excellent (spoiler!) resources. Many of them provide quick access to very important writings.

The first is Bible Gateway. This site's value lay primarily in that it contains numerous translations of the Bible, including 20 in English, combined with a search engine to find words, phrases, subjects, or particular verses.

The Catholic Encyclopedia is next. This is an incredibly extensive collection of articles on church history, theology, and all things Catholic. It's excellent, although most of it was written pre-Vatican 2, which means it doesn't have an inclusive view towards Protestantism. But it's still an excellent resource, and highly recommended.

Next is the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. This is a collection of multiple writings from Christian history, including works of theology, spirituality, philosophy, commentaries, and on it goes. They're constantly adding new texts. Some of it, like the writings of the Church Fathers, is available elsewhere, such as the Catholic Encyclopedia. But CCEL is the best one-stop shop for Christian writings through the ages.

I added Early Modern Philosophy to the list a few months ago. It's fairly limited, focusing on a handful of the most important authors and texts, but it's still helpful. Run by the philosopher Jonathan Bennett.

EpistemeLinks is a linkwell to philosophy sites. It's not a collection of writings itself, but links to other sites that focus on particular authors or subjects, including texts of many works throughout philosophical history. Very valuable.

Internet Classics Archive does the same thing as CCEL, but instead of collecting specifically Christian writings it collects the writings of ancient authors, whether they be plays, poetry, political commentary, history, philosophy, or theology. Also very valuable.

Islamic Philosophy Online collects many of the most important writings of Muslim philosophers and commentary on them, as well as contemporary writings (like this one). If you look up particular Muslim philosophers on EpistemeLinks, many of the links go to this site. Islamic philosophy is something of particular interest to me, and it doesn't seem to me to get the attention it deserves in the West, to our detriment.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent collection of in-depth articles on philosophical topics. It's an ongoing project, which means there are plenty of gaps where important topics do not yet have their own entry. But it's incredibly extensive on the subjects it addresses, and worth spending a lot of time on.

Finally, I'm including Wikipedia (that's English; it's available in many other languages as well) because it's the most extensive online encyclopedia of everything. Often, I'll link to it on a general subject, even though it has pretty daunting weaknesses. In my experience it's reliable, although when the subject is politics, the people who write the entries are constantly trying to "silence" their opponents. Other than that, though, it's helpful.

Update (3 Sep 2009): I've added a few more links; see here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

An Interesting Reaction

One theistic argument is the moral argument (or axiological argument). It's the idea that in order to say that there are actual moral rights and wrongs, we have to presuppose a sort of metaphysical anchor or ground for these values that transcends individual cultures and epochs, something in fact which looks very much like the Judeo-Christian God. If we reject such a ground, then we are left with pure relativism, where nothing is actually right or wrong. This may be OK when the issue under discussion is whether you should be completely forthcoming on your taxes, but when we point to horrific atrocities, it becomes very difficult to say that there is simply nothing morally wrong going on.

However, rather than defend this argument, I want to point to an interesting reaction to it. Many atheists who hear the moral argument misunderstand it to mean that atheists cannot be moral people or upstanding citizens. If you need to believe in God in order to believe that rape is wrong, then you're essentially arguing that if you don't believe in God, then you must not believe that rape is really wrong. But of course, this isn't the argument. The point, rather, is that the moral judgment "rape is wrong" -- made by theist and atheist alike -- must have a metaphysical ground in order to be valid. Thus, according to the moral argument, the atheist is being inconsistent in affirming that rape is wrong while denying that God exists. But this does not mean that atheists don't know right from wrong.

Now part of the reason I find this reaction interesting is that I could present a parallel argument which almost certainly would not provoke the same reaction. Say, for example, I argued that in order for mathematics to be possible we have to posit a metaphysical foundation for numbers, a Platonic realm of forms, which is best understood as the mind of God (such arguments have been made). So in order to affirm that 2 + 2 = 4, we have to presuppose something like the Judeo-Christian God. How many people would misunderstand such an argument to mean that if you don't believe in God, you don't really believe that 2 + 2 = 4? I suspect very few, if any. Yet this argument is exactly parallel to the moral argument: in order to affirm X we have to presuppose a metaphysical foundation for it that is best understood as God.

So why are some people so liable to misunderstand the moral argument? Again, I suspect (although I could very easily be wrong) it's because our views on morality are inextricably bound up with our views of ourselves: what we do and what we think should be done says a great deal of what kind of person we are. So when someone tells an atheist that her worldview is inconsistent with believing that rape is wrong, she reacts. Instead of realizing that the moral argument is saying something about the relationship between her worldview and moral beliefs, she only sees it as saying something about her moral beliefs, and thus about herself: whether she is a good person.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Quote of the Day

...if we had no call to question the truth of scientific principles except in the interest of maintaining that of conflicting ethical principles, I think many would be inclined to drop the latter -- to treat moral distinctions as pointing to nothing real beyond modes of feeling and believing which arise under certain conditions in men's minds. There is, they might say, no knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, because nothing that happens really is any of these. There is only a discoverable connexion of events really happening and producing consequences, with feelings of pain and pleasure and the use of certain words, including words such as 'approval' and 'disapproval', to signify these feelings and their connexion with what produces them. Not every one would be satisfied with this account; some, with the best consideration that they could give to the question, would say that this was not what they meant when they said of anything that it was good or evil, right or wrong, that men ought or ought not to do certain actions; that in so speaking they recognized something for which if an account of the real left no room, it could not be correct. But others would dissent, and that without self-contradiction.

If, however, the principles underlying the scientific account of what the world really is, and how what really happens in it is related to what passes in the minds of men, were as little consistent with maintaining the distinction of truth from error as with maintaining that of good from evil or of right from wrong, then however shattering to the sufficiency of this account may be the denial that these principles are altogether true, I see no alternative to denying it. For the scientific account, though not claiming to be good or right, claims to be true; and it cannot reasonably do this, and abolish the possibility of knowledge.

Yet surely it does abolish this possibility. In the extreme instance of a Behaviourist account of the mind, that seems obvious; for if thought is laryngeal motion, how should any one think more truly than the wind blows? All movements of bodies are equally necessary, but they cannot be discriminated as true and false. It seems as nonsensical to call a movement true a a flavour purple or sound avaricious. But what is obvious when thought is said to be a certain bodily movement seems equally to follow from its being the effect of one. Thought called knowledge and thought called error are both necessary results of states of brain. These states are necessary results of other bodily states. All the bodily states are equally real, and so are the different thoughts; but by what right can I hold that my thought is knowledge of what is real in bodies? For to hold so is but another thought, an effect of real bodily movements like the rest. An intelligence not determined by what falls within this bodily system to which belong the conditions producing our thoughts might, if it were capable of knowing both the events in that system and the thoughts of it which these determine, discover under what conditions bodily events within the system produce thoughts of it agreeing with what this extraneous intelligence knows it to be, and under what conditions not. But the thought determined by these conditions could not know what the extraneous intelligence knew without being itself also extraneous to the system within which, nevertheless, the conditions determining it are supposed to lie. These arguments, however, of mine, if the principles of scientific theory are to stand unchallenged, are themselves no more than happenings in a mind, results of bodily movements; that you or I think them sound, or think them unsound, is but another such happening; that we think them no more than another such happening is itself but yet another such. And it may be said of any ground on which we may attempt to stand as true, Labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum.

That the principles, then, on which rests the scientific theory of the world are absolutely true is not only inconsistent with ethical theory; it is inconsistent with there being knowledge, or even true opinion. And therefore with themselves; for they claim to be matter of knowledge, or at least of true opinion. Since that is so, we are not required to make our ethical theory consistent at all points with the scientific account of the world; if our ethical theory is to be true, it must not be built upon the principles of the scientific account, or require their unquestioned acceptance. And this result, if correct, is of importance, and illustrates the necessity to Ethics of a metaphysical foundation.

H. W. B. Joseph
Some Problems in Ethics

Saturday, January 10, 2009


OK, now imagine instead of a political debate, it's a religious debate; between an atheist and a Christian. And now imagine that instead of saying "9/11" the atheist says "evolution."

Of course, this would entail that the undecided voters are agnostics. But I have a higher view of agnostics than that.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Anthropic Principle for Misanthropes, part 3

In part 1 I explained what the Anthropic Principle is: in order for life to exist anywhere in the universe at any time in its history, multiple conditions must be met which make it virtually impossible that the universe would be hospitable to life if left to its own resources. Since the universe is hospitable to life, it follows that it was not left to its own resources: Something that exists independently of the universe made it so that it would be able to support life. In part 2, I dealt with several objections to this monotheistic conclusion. In this post I'm going to take a look at two more objections to it. I saved these two for their own post because they require a fuller response than the others.

1. "Maybe there are an infinite number of universes and this just happens to be the one with all the necessary conditions for life." This is known as the multiverse hypothesis (also called the "many worlds" or "world ensemble" hypothesis; Humphrey's been blogging on it lately), and it has some gynormous problems. The first is that it violates Occam's Razor. This is the idea that the simpler explanation is more likely to be the correct one. Often, atheists misunderstand this to mean that a qualitatively simpler explanation is preferable, and then argue that an omniscient and omnipotent God would be the most complex explanation imaginable. Unfortunately, at least for their case, there are two difficulties with such an understanding. First, it just flies in the face of the doctrine of divine simplicity. This is the view that God is the least complex entity in existence, and was held by most of the Christian theologians and philosophers in history, although it's fallen on hard times recently. But even if we ignore that, this argument completely misunderstands what is meant by simplicity. It's not that the cause of an effect must be understood as ontologically simple; it's that it must be numerically simple: the more entities you have to posit, the less likely your theory is correct. In other words, Occam's Razor is the claim that the quantitatively, not qualitatively, simpler explanation is more likely to be true.

To apply it to the case in point, the multiverse hypothesis has to posit an unfathomable or infinite number of universes in order to account for one universe having the necessary conditions for life. By contrast, Monotheism posits the existence of one causal agent who brought the universe into existence with the necessary conditions. Obviously, the latter is the simpler explanation, and so according to Occam's Razor, we should prefer it to the multiverse hypothesis.

The second problem with the multiverse is as follows: if you watched someone flip a coin a million times and it came up heads each time, you could either conclude that it's fixed in some way (maybe it's a two-headed coin) or you could conclude that there are an infinite number of coins being flipped and you just happened to see the one that came up with a million heads in a row. The gambler takes the chance on the latter and so bets that the coin is due to come up tails on the next flip. But 1) even if it is an honest coin, it only ever has a 50-50 chance of coming up tails at any particular flip. It isn't "due." This is the gambler's fallacy. The multiverse hypothesis, however, does not commit the gambler's fallacy, it commits 2) the inverse gambler's fallacy. Basically, regardless of whether the gambler was right to think the coin is due to come up tails, his assumption that it's an honest coin would only be valid if he actually saw all the other infinite number of coins coming up with all their different results. When you have a sample of one, it is much more rational to conclude that the game is fixed. (This, incidentally, is a further response to the third objection in part 2, that we cannot draw any conclusions about probability because we only have the one universe to work with.) So the fact that we have a universe that appears rigged is best explained by the hypothesis that it is, in fact, rigged. The universe is the way it is because someone decided it should be.

Third, no one has been able to come up with a multiverse that does not itself have a beginning as well as numerous anthropic coincidences of its own. So it doesn't evade the question of why the universe can support life; it just forces us to ask it again with slightly different terminology.

Fourth, the supposition of other universes by itself does not evidently lead to a solution of the Anthropic Principle. As William Lane Craig writes,

even if we conceded that a multiple universe scenario is unobjectionable, would such a move succeed in rescuing us from teleology and a cosmic Designer? This is not at all obvious. The fundamental assumption behind the Anthropic philosopher's reasoning in this regard seems to be something along the lines of

8. If the Universe contains an exhaustively random and infinite number of universes, then anything that can occur with non-vanishing probability will occur somewhere.
But why should we think that the number of universes is actually infinite? This is by no means inevitable, not to mention the paradoxical nature of the existence of an actually infinite number of things. And why should we think that the multiple universes are exhaustively random? Again, this is not a necessary condition of many-worlds hypotheses. In order to elude the teleological argument, we are being asked to assume much more than the mere existence of multiple universes.
Finally, the multiverse hypothesis is just as metaphysical as the monothestic hypothesis. For those who don't like metaphysics in their science, the multiverse is no better than saying "God did it." So it's not a choice between one theory that's metaphysical and one that's not (or perhaps one that's less so); it's a choice between two equally metaphysical solutions, one of which commits fallacies and one which does not.

2. "These characteristics are just for life as we know it." Another way of stating this objection is that life accommodates itself to its surroundings. Observing how the universe just happens to meet the necessary criteria for life is like a puddle observing how the pot hole just happens to be shaped for the puddle to fit in it.

So let's clarify our terms. When we refer to life in this context we mean physical life, life that is composed of matter, i.e. atoms. Moreover, in order for something to be physically alive it must be capable of processing physical energy to perform work; when a living thing stops processing energy we call it death. Now of course, one may simply say that there may be non-physical life out there. Certainly. In fact, most religions maintain that there are entities that are not physical. They're called angels. Or one could say that non-living material entities are alive in some sense; perhaps each rock is conscious for example. But this would merely be ascribing an occult property (rather than a physical property) called "life" to physical objects; as such it would also be a form of non-physical life. And if one is willing to accept the existence of a non-physical realm in order to explain the Anthropic Principle, there can be no objection to the monotheistic explanation of it. In order to avoid such an explanation, therefore, this objection must say that the Anthropic Principle only applies to physical life as we know it.

In order for a physical entity to process energy, it must have complex molecules which are physically capable of such processes. Complex molecules are those that are based on atoms that are able to form a large number of bonds with other atoms. There are only three elements capable of forming complex molecules: silicon, boron and carbon. Silicon can only form about a hundred amino acids, which is insufficient for physical life. Boron is rare, and poisonous to life where it does exist in concentration; plus, wherever boron exists, carbon exists in much greater abundance, so it's not very likely to happen. Thus, when we discuss the necessary parameters for life, we refer to carbon-based life. One might think if the laws of nature were different it would change the situation. True. The Anthropic Principle shows that if the laws of nature were different, physical life could not exist at all.

Now some might suggest that I'm simply not taking the concept of "life as we know it" far enough. I'm still working in terms of atoms, and perhaps if we look into the subatomic realm, we would find ways for different types of atoms to form into different types of molecules that could then form living creatures. The problem here is that the ability of atoms to form bonds is directly related to the configuration and properties of its electrons. So the capacity for something to be alive in a physical sense is based on the basic properties of atoms, and thus of matter. Now the question arises: would it be possible to alter the basic properties of electrons or other subatomic particles in such a way that they would still be able to form into complex molecules capable of processing energy to perform work? To the best of my knowledge, the answer is no. The properties of electrons, protons, and neutrons as well as their interaction are some of the most dramatic examples of anthropic coincidences. Their masses must be precisely what they are, their decay processes must be precisely what they are, their ratios to each other must be precisely what they are, etc. in order for life to exist. For example, the ratio of electrons to protons that were created in the Big Bang must be exactly the same number to within one part in 1037 in order for their charges to balance out. Otherwise, the electromagnetic force would have dominated gravity and prevented the formation of planets, stars, and galaxies.

One might still object, though, that if completely different subatomic particles were created in the Big Bang which then formed completely different atoms and molecules, it would be possible to have a different type of life. But as soon as we're positing a completely different type of matter, it becomes difficult to continue calling it matter. In other words, this would (again) be just as metaphysical a solution as the monotheistic one. Moreover, at this point, we're positing different universes in order to explain the Anthropic Principle, so for this suggestion to have any force it must be wedded to the multiverse hypothesis with all of its failings. Thus, the monotheistic solution to the Anthropic Principle is preferable.

There's one more installment to go. Stay tuned.

Update (13 Feb): See also part 1, part 2, and part 4.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

I'm looking over an old Mars Rover...

The two Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were designed to last three months. They just hit five years and they're still going. They're like the Energizer Bunny of space.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Year in review(s)

I think blogs are at their best when they act as watchdogs over the mainstream media. Patterico is an excellent example. He devotes much of his blog to criticism of the Los Angeles Times, and then summarizes it all with one big post at the end of the year. Here's his extensive summary for 2008.

However, it is primarily a political critique from the right side of the political spectrum. If you're in the mood for something a little more lighthearted, just read Dave Barry's prospective look at 2008.

Update (11 Jan): Retro. Retrospective look at 2008. Arrrgh!