Sunday, September 30, 2007


If Dawkins et al insist with their zeal to promote evolutionary theory as an inherently atheistic doctrine - which could be construed as a matter of faith - he may well be handing a rope to the creationist brigades. The US First Amendment forbids the teaching of faith in schools and it would be at least ironical if the creationists could use that to evict Darwin from the classroom.
I've only just noticed that ironic spectre, which appeared at the close of Tristan's Religion advances despite science (and thanks to Dawkins) (13/9/2007, Science), and which raises the question, what is religion? Defining religion (8/7/2007, Religious Tolerance) is surprisingly difficult (it's fortunately clearer that evolutionary theory is just applied maths:) but as Kile says:
For Schleiermacher the sine qua non of religion was experience; a vibrant, deep, and transcendent feeling of the divine which caused him to define religion as "absolute dependence". This feeling of dependence is what Schleiermacher sees in all of the world religions as the tremendous sensation invoked at the thought of standing before what is Supreme in the universe.
What I especially like about that definition is that it excludes the socio-political aspects of organised religions, except insofar as they are media for numinous experiences (since that was always a good distinction to draw:)
......Ironically, the etymology of "religion" suggests that the sciences—the study of Creation if we've a Creator, and if not then the study of what is Supreme in the universe—might be counted amongst the religions (even though they aren't inherently atheistic, and atheism isn't a religion, although it is a belief that isn't empirically justified); as Jung says:

Religion appears to me to be a peculiar attitude of the mind which could be formulated in accordance with the original use of the word religio, which means a careful consideration and observation of certain dynamic factors that are conceived as "powers": spirits, demons, gods, laws, ideas, ideals, or whatever name man has given to such factors in his world as he has found powerful, dangerous, or helpful enough to be taken into careful consideration, or grand, beautiful, and meaningful enough to be devoutly worshiped and loved.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Poincaré Quotes

Science is built up of fact, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.

Between the elements of a continuum there is a sort of intimate bond which makes a whole of them, in which the point is not prior to the line, but the line to the point.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Nothing much...

Not much work done this week, too many distractions, such as a discussion About Faith (into which I managed to introduce some maths, though (incidentally, some of the deeper issues raised by that discussion are currently being examined at Truth and Purpose):)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

My God!

My conception of God got (rather appropriately, if presumably accidentally) a perfect score on a test of its plausibility, due to my ticking just 3 boxes: (i) my God is the "Creator (of all that exists)," (ii) a "Perfectly Free" agent, and (iii) "a being with whom one can have a personal relationship."
......Do-It-Yourself Deity heads this list of games at TPM, and said of my conception:

The metaphysical engineers are happy to report that, to the best of their knowledge, the God you conceive is internally consistent and could exist in our universe. But they are less sure that what you have described deserves the name of God. She is not, for example, all-powerful. A God which knows everything or is totally benign may be a wonderful ideal, but is she really a God unless she has ultimate power?

We suspect that your God is not the traditional God of the Christian, Jewish or Muslim faiths.

Not traditional? The creator of this Universe, and a personal God? Whatever...
......Anyway, had I said that God was "Omnipotent (all-powerful, able to do anything)," I'd have had the problem (according to the engineers) that S/he couldn't make 2 + 2 equal 5; and of course, nor could S/he have made it so that S/he was always nothing, but so what? Surely a perfectly free person with absolute physical and spiritual power over at least this Universe would be a God... Presumably, with such a reading of "all" I shouldn't have included "Creator," since I don't think that God must be self-created (which I suspect is impossible:)
......Incidentally, the reason why I excluded "all-loving" was the possibility of including evil acts in the quantification; but the engineers missed that, and said instead that I'd have to give up the personal relationship, in that case (I can have a personal relationship with someone only if there's something that S/he doesn't love?)
......(And why were the implausibilities of omniscience overlooked, e.g.
......Incidentally, I'm not religious, as such (once a Methodist, I discovered that I hate singing), but if I was going to be then according to this test I should consider:
1. Reform Judaism (100%)
2. Liberal Quakers (96%)
3. Bahai (91%)
4. Unitarian Universalism (86%)
5. Mainline - Liberal Christian Protestants (80%)
6. Orthodox Judaism (78%)
7. Sikhism (78%)
8. Neo-Pagan (75%)
9. Mahayana Buddhism (73%)
10. Islam (69%)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Is there a Point?

I've actually managed (accidentally) to do something relevant this week, as I'm currently commenting on an argument that points don't exist...

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why Phi

In a shift of historic importance, America's colleges and universities have largely abandoned the idea that life's most important question is an appropriate subject for the classroom. In doing so, they have betrayed their students by depriving them of the chance to explore it in an organized way, before they are caught up in their careers and preoccupied with the urgent business of living itself. This abandonment has also helped create a society in which deeper questions of values are left in the hands of those motivated by religious conviction - a disturbing and dangerous development.
Anthony Kronman continues in Why are we here? (16/9/2007, The Boston Globe), which you can read via the post that brought it to my attention: Why Do We Need the Humanities? (18/9/2007, The Frontal Cortex), which ends thus:
Keats realized that just because something can't be solved, or reduced into the laws of physics, doesn't mean it isn't real. Some mysteries will always persist,even in this age of science. That's why we need the humanities.

(Over in Britain, there's no historic shift in Oxbridge admissions; other recent finds were some cute bees asphyxiating a predatory hornet on YouTube, explained at Neurophilosophy and Not Exactly Rocket Science, the ever-weird Margaret Thatcher illusion, explained at Mixing Memory, some thoughts on what Sets might be, some problems with AC, some funny illogic and, to see how pretty one's fictional soul can be, meet one's 'daemon' here:)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Science and Omniscience

When Patrick notices that he has overlooked something, he knows what it is like for him to notice that, but it seems odd that an omniscient being should know that... Unless that being was Patrick's creator (to whom he need be no less transparent than his own conceptions are to him) perhaps; but did Patrick overlook anything?
......Let SDL = God doesn't believe that SDL expresses a true proposition. On page 145 of The being that knew too much, Patrick argued that a rational person who believes that SDL is nonsense, and also that God believes only truths, would have to believe that God doesn't believe that SDL expresses a true proposition, whence (since that appears to be SDL) that rational person would believe that there was a truth (expressed by SDL, apparently) that God doesn't know... but appearances can be deceptive. Why should any rational person believe that nonsense could express a true proposition? (I argue here that sentences like SDL are nonsense, and as Michael said:) “You can’t say you are talking nonsense by talking nonsense, since to talk nonsense is not to say anything. But having talked nonsense, you can go on to say that it was nonsense, and now you are talking sense.

......Anyway, bad arguments against omniscience (e.g. those that work only within set theory) aside, the following is an argument against it that goes (paradoxically) via a possible motive for the creation of a world not unlike that described by our best-tested science (an argument given more briefly earlier): Something that no sapient being (or telepathic beings, etc.) could possibly know is the full extent of what s/he doesn't (they don't) know. How could s/he rule out, for example, the existence of similar beings of which s/he was unaware? Maybe there are none (and if some, then there is something s/he doesn't know), and maybe s/he even believes that there are definitely none (although that would be foolish), but how could s/he know that? No one can have empirical access to places that are completely cut off from those s/he inhabits (by definition), so s/he could not know empirically that such places (which s/he knows are of a possible kind, since s/he inhabits one) are not inhabited by such beings (of which kind s/he is one), and how else could such propositions (about what would be, by definition, an external world) be known?
......So, even a relatively perfect being (which is, after all, the sort that we might expect to exist, much as we might expect a unified theory of physics to be elegant) might know that s/he could not be so absolutely omniscient. And rather than remaining ignorant, it would surely be better to be able to create ways of probing such unknowns (for which s/he would need to be able to change, and so exist in something like time, but since this would be better, that need not be a privation), whence s/he might want to explore such possibilities (as much as possible) by creating opportunities (insofar as s/he is capable) for such possible others to act (in some place to which s/he would therefore have empirical access:)
......Such a creator would therefore be perfectly compatible with all we know scientifically (and also religiously (to a less definite degree (naturally)))... A list of agreements would therefore be tedious, in a blog (here I'd rather ask, what is incompatible with that hypothesis?); but in short, if it was me I'd want first to find the limits of my natural place, insofar as I could discover such limits (and if not, I'd want to invent some), so that then I could make something like a bridge there (if I didn't discover something like that there already), something like a blank sheet of paper—something, in short, like this Universe, in which relatively simple physical laws allow a wide variety of agents, with little need for intervention (whence atheists note that if there is a God, he must be lazy). Of course, it may well be that there are no such others, that the quest would be endless; but therefore I'd make my paper (so to speak) beautiful, and recyclable (e.g. by having my creatures all return to my place for debriefing:) One day my walls might be found scribbled upon though, so I'd've built them to facilitate a wide range of responses too...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Arguments (for atheism)

The carnival of the godless is in town (lock up your doubters:)

A Bad Argument (for atheism)

A famous sceptical scenario, BIV, asks you to imagine a disembodied brain (otherwise just like yours) in an alien scientist’s laboratory, being stimulated in such a way that that person (who’s brain it is), say X, seems to be in a world just like the one around you... and then asks, how do you know that you are not that person, X? The scenario is regarded as a sceptical one because it seems (the brain being disembodied) that X would not have real hands. But I think that X would have real hands if X was you; what would not be so real (as the things around us, by reference to which we all correctly interpret the word “real,” within our language) would be your brain (the one in the alien’s laboratory)—and so your brain might rightly, were you X, be thought of more or less as you now think of your soul (about which we know little). To ask, are you in such a BIV world? is to ask, do you have a soul? And to ask, does this Universe have a Creator? is to ask, is there such an alien scientist? But not even Dawkins would argue that since our hands do exist, therefore God doesn't!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Continuity, Unity and Infinity

I’m back in Glasgow wondering, what are continua? Things that extend smoothly, is the obvious answer, but what is extension? And while things presumably extend smoothly if they contain no gaps that contain something else (whence they are unities), what if the space through which they extend is discrete? So what makes intuited space a continuum (so to speak)? Whilst we think of it as extended because it contains many things like our own body (e.g. many users of our own language), so might something more discrete (e.g. a finite matrix). So presumably another criterion is that those parts of a continuum that are not points must all be endlessly subdivisible (whence continua have infinitely many parts). But that is insufficient, as the rational number line is not thereby excluded, from being the shape of space itself (even though it does not contain the diagonal of the unit square)... (To be continued:)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Science is Built of Facts

Those bricks are red.
More precisely their hue
is brick-red, which is to say
that when lit in the usual way
they reflect that sort of light
(marooned by my sight).

That sentence is true.
When its words are read
as usual, as they were written,
they reflect a thought that’s right.
(As naught are thoughts uncaught
by captions for actual actions.

Those leaving leaves mean
that the trees won't be seen
for this picture of a sunset
escaping its wooden net...
Being becoming nothing
(comes to this


Saturday, September 08, 2007

What Katy Did

Once upon a time, Andy found a caterpillar, called it Katy, and showed it to his friend Bobby. Eventually Katy turned into a butterfly. “That’s Betty,” said Bobby. “No,” said Andy, “that’s Katy.”
......Now, is there a fact of that matter, about whether or not a caterpillar, and the butterfly that it changes into, are the same individual? I don’t see how there could be. On the one hand they have the same genetics, but on the other hand they have very different brains. And consider how, whereas a zygote divides into two cells of the same individual, an amoeba divides into two different amoebas, although maybe it would not be too unreasonable (if a little unnatural, from our human perspective) to regard that division as the original amoeba getting itself a disconnected multicellular body. Et cetera...
......But we’re rushing ahead of ourselves; so let’s return to Andy showing Katy the caterpillar to his friend Bobby. If names refer directly to the named objects, there must have been some definite object there, to be called by that definite name, ‘Katy’. Both Andy and Bobby knew (we may suppose) what caterpillars are (and what butterflies are), so that object was presumably the caterpillar in question—there was, of course, only one caterpillar there, Katy (and only one language being spoken, English), but then, for example, either that individual, Katy, had the property of sometimes having wings, or it did not. In short, either Bobby was wrong about the butterfly, or Andy was (? Although it’s probably just my failure to grasp the concept of direct reference, my intuitions being descriptivistic:)

Friday, September 07, 2007

Philosophy is Boring

A detective novel written by a good philosophy student would begin: "In this novel I shall show that the butler did it." The rest will be just filling in the details.” (Jonathan Wolff:)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Is this Irrational?

Radio 4’s Beyond Belief last Monday was a discussion about embryos (and as far as I can recall it was) between a Scientist (a gradualist, defending the current 14 day rule), a Muslim (who thought that using embryos up to at 40 days, at least, was OK) and an Anglican, say A, who argued that human embryos acquire human rights at the moment of their conception, on the grounds that their humanity (in the relevant sense) is an all or nothing affair (which they certainly have after they’re born, and lack before they exist), whereas embryonic development is indeed gradual (or so I recall—there’s a listen-again feature at the above link, but I’m using my local library’s computers, and being quiet:)
......Towards the end of that 30-minute-programme, A was asked how he would respond to this scenario (more or less:) There’s a fire in a hospital, and A can choose to save either a baby, or else 5,000 embryos (which may have been created for implantation, rather than experimentation), but not both. Naturally A said that he would save the baby, and although my recollection is fuzzy, he began by saying that we don’t always do the right thing, which sounded fudgey. But after posting yesterday’s post, it occurred to me that such a scenario might have yielded a better example of a proposition that was (rationally) regarded as implausible and yet (rationally) believed.
......Incidentally Christopher’s original question explicitly concerned propositions of an ethical nature, as well as the attribution of more physical properties to objects (as in yesterday’s post); and incidentally my first suggestion (in a deleted comment on Christopher’s post) was that we might find it implausible that a certain picture was not beautiful (e.g. because of believing art experts, who say that it is beautiful) whilst simultaneously (and not irrationally) believing that it was not beautiful (as we look at it—cf. the checkerboard illusion:)
......Anyway, whereas A might know how to save a baby, he might be less sure of what he would be doing with a collection of frozen embryos—e.g. moving them might damage them more than a fire could, for all A knows. And although the scenario might be tweaked to eliminate such uncertainties, note that A had deduced that embryos probably have rights, from what was essentially a lack of information about their (apparently continuous) development as human beings; so there would naturally be more uncertainty in A’s belief that embryos have human rights than in his belief that babies have them. And since the effect of such uncertainty upon a decision naturally increases with the value of what rides upon that decision, hence it would not necessarily be immoral (or irrational) for A to save the baby’s life.
......A could believe quite rationally that saving the baby would be best, because it is only implausible (not obviously false) that saving the baby would (ethically) be better than saving the embryos, hence saving the baby would (ethically) be better than saving the embryos—that is so even if 5,000 people should, all else being equal (tweaking the scenario if necessary), take precedence over one person (this is quite standard, e.g. see the opening paragraph of Hawthone and Stanley's forthcoming Knowledge and Action), but as A pointed out, such Utilitarian assumptions might not be valid (e.g. if each life had infinite worth) and were certainly inappropriate to that radio programme, whose issue was medical scientists using (or killing) embryos, not failing to save them (cf. a doctor choosing to save six people rather than one, which might be reasonable, compared with a doctor killing one person in order to get organs to save the lives of the six, which would be insane:)

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

What is rational?

Dawkinsists insist upon the irrationality of all religious thoughts (seemingly oblivious to the cogency of McGrath’s, for example), and even I would oppose rationality and postmodernity—but what is the sense of such statements? What do we mean by ‘rational,’ in such contexts? Surely not just that we agree with our communicants’ presumptions (although we might legitimately use the word that way), so presumably rationality has something to do with our beliefs being coherent (with each other) and proportionate (with all the evidence).
......Unfortunately our beliefs arise from inherently catastrophic processes. Each of us must interpret empirical data according to an existing system of beliefs (if we are being rational) and yet that system might be modified catastrophically (in the mathematical sense, even whilst we are rational) in the light of the new evidence. Such processes may occur (in a very obvious way) even within science, when scientific paradigms change, but surely they must be occuring within each of us much of the time (if we are not fixated, rather irrationally, upon the first system of beliefs that we acquired).
......Consider the checkerboard illusion. Naturally we first see that A is darker than B. We then discover that A is actually the same shade as B but even so, when we look at the checkerboard again we still see that A looks darker than B. We may now think “that A looks darker than B,” instead of “that A is darker than B,” but at the moment of looking we surely form, if only very briefly, the belief that A is darker than B, and we are not then being irrational, it is just that thinking takes time—even rational belief revision takes time. And of course, the relationship between the bulk of our beliefs and reality is rather more complicated than in that simple example, whence the actual coherence and proportionality of our beliefs would seem to be more of an ideal than a possibility.
......The problem is that, for our beliefs to be proportionate, they should depend upon how the world is, so we are rather at the world's mercy when it comes to being rational (we are not to prejudge matters too much since rationality, no less than postmodernity, is opposed to prejudice). So I fear that my use of ‘irrational,’ when describing Postmodernism for example, may be little more than hypocritical rhetoric—hypocritical because I find myself unable to say what precisely I mean, in such contexts, by ‘rational.’ As I’m about to embark on a PhD in (analytic) Philosophy, I clearly need to understand what we (at least) mean by ‘rational,’ and ‘logical,’ and so forth, and so I’d be interested in what others take such words to mean...
......Can you imagine, for example, Dawkins being abducted by aliens, real aliens? (If not then change this example:) Given such quantities of first-hand experiences (which would not amount to scientific evidence of course, since such empirical data would be too private), Dawkins might change his beliefs about UFOs. But of course, had another man come to him earlier with such a story, Dawkins would surely have told him to consider seriously the probability that he had imagined the abduction. So when Dawkins returns to Earth, and as that empirical data turns into memories of a rather strange character (amongst his ordinary ones), Dawkins might naturally (and not unreasonably) revert to his sceptical beliefs. His friends would no doubt be pleased by his (apparent) return to sanity.
......But now suppose that the Pope was somehow shown all the primary data (and presented with all the reasoning) that atheists (who we may suppose, for the sake of this example, are right) find so important. He might lose his faith, at least temporarily. But now, when the Pope similarly reverts to his earlier beliefs (and regards that primary data as, perhaps, the work of the devil), would Dawkins say that that was reasonable? He might not; and indeed, for a Dawkinsist to regard the former but not the latter as rational would be one legitimate use of the word ‘rational.’ But we are associating rationality with objectivity (and even the Pope presumably hopes for coherent beliefs).
......And we are associating rationality with the proper weighing-up of all the available evidence—such as we might imagine both Dawkins and the Pope were attempting, at key moments within those fictions. Being rational involves choosing between one set of beliefs (with their explanation of the data) and another set (with their explanation), so it hardly stands opposed to being in two minds about things, from time to time. And whilst those two examples are naturally rather odd, that was just to keep them simple. People who try to think things through (and especially analytic philosophers, who positively seek out problematic cases) will often find themselves in analogous situations, often with little rational expectation of making up their minds any time soon. But in various situations, one set of beliefs might be more appropriate.
......Let S = “That spatula was made on another planet,” in the first example, and “That statue did not cry real tears” in the second, and let X = Dawkins, and the Pope respectively. Then X will end up with a lot of evidence of one kind for S, and a lot of evidence of another kind for not-S. (Incidentally the checkerboard illusion illustrates those two kinds, and for an example of further complications consider the St. Petersburg paradox:) So, it is easy to see that the weight that X ought to give to each sort of evidence (as X thinks rationally about the world) is a function of X’s involvement with the world—whence there could even be times when the evidential bases (for the two belief sub-systems) are incommensurable (this post defends my previous post:)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

What's in a name?

For the first time in a while I’ve had comments deleted from another blog; it’s not that I’m upset (as it’s obviously entirely up to the blogger, what s/he allows on a blog), it’s just funny given the name of the blog, i.e. Show-Me the Argument, as the deleted comments were just arguments in defence of the one (rather sad by itself) comment that wasn’t deleted!
......In brief, Christopher posted the following question: “Let us suppose that S has good reason to believe “p is not plausible”. Can S also have good reason to believe p?” Since it’s obviously true that if S gives p a low subjective probability (or finds p implausible) then S cannot rationally give p a high subjective probability (or believe p), hence I chose (not uncharitably) to interpret the question more broadly, in a variety of ways. Now, it’s totally fair that, since I was therefore answering an irrelevant question (in abundance), my comments were deleted, but why not all of them? Why would someone leave in (at the time of posting) that one, rather sad comment of mine, and Andrew’s two replies (to my comments), when those comprised (a somewhat unbalanced) part of an irrelvevant argument? (I’m not really bothered but I’ve noticed, in the past, that blogs need to contain some colour occasionally, alongside their true observations and balanced arguments, so I’m hoping that this short rant will satisfy my readers’ bloodlusts:)