Monday, May 14, 2018

Deconversion Is Never Simple. Until it is. Then It's Really Simple.

Unlike some atheists, I do not think that religious delusions are an actual mental illness. This frequently-encountered claim comes from a reading of the DSM-IV (or is it up to V now?) which defines a delusional mental illness in exactly the language that describes religious fervor, but then makes an unjustified ad-hoc special exclusion for "religious" delusions. And they define "religion" as ... well, they don't.  You just know it when you see it.

from Wikipedia, "List of Cognitive Biases"


But to claim that ordinary misinformed delusions including religion are a mental disorder carries a tacit assumption that the human brain is somehow a perfect cognition machine and could only be wrong when defective.  This assumes the brain was created to be perfect, or has evolved to perfection. When exposed, this assumption is obviously dumb.  The human brain (and body) is so obviously anything but perfect in the healthy natural state.

Cognitive biases and built-in fallacies in the natural way a healthy human brain functions are more than enough to account for religious experience. We have the Bias of Agency which makes the brain assume something it doesn't understand is evidence of some agent acting in the environment. We have Confirmation Bias which makes confirmatory evidence apparent and suppresses disconfirmatory evidence. We have Motivated Reasoning in which something we need to be true in order to avoid unpleasant emotions or social isolation can quite readily be made to seem fully true by the brain. These are all things that a healthy, normal brain does.

Overcoming these natural thinking defects requires an overlay of artificial thinking tools that Nature has not provided us with, but which humans have invented, passed on, and perfected over the last 10,000 years in particular, and which we now use to be better thinkers. We can, when trained, identify, avoid, correct, and overcome fallacious reasoning, cognitive biases, emotional biases, and social motivations that favour a dodgy conclusion over a correct one.

But it is quite unpopular in the PC Age to suggest that some mental disorders are the sufferer's own fault - that they may be the result of an incorrect utilization of the brain by the brain's owner. My experience is precisely that - practically all of my own neuroses (anguish, self-destructive tendencies  and suffering) and some of my psychoses (clinical pathologies e.g. depression) are the result of me using my brain in dumb ways, and correct themselves when I can be bothered to use my brain in smart ways.

However there has been clinical evidence found that serious mental disorders are more prevalent among the fervently religious. Unknown is whether this is causal (religion messes up people's brains and lives), contra-causal (pre-existing mental illness attracts people to religion), both, or just a coincidence. It would be helpful if religions in their position of privilege and platform would actually teach people effective ways to manage common disorders such as depression, anxiety, addictive/compulsive behaviours, etc. But they offer mere placebos instead, and I think they don't even want to know anything about how the brain really works lest their fragile mythology about humans come into question.

In order to fix problems of mind, like fixing problems in a car, it is absolutely prerequisite to understand how the thing operates. We must accept the brain as a physical machine and not as a magical conduit to/from a perfect infallible agency. Think for even a moment about the concept of "sin." If the Free Agent Ghost Hypothesis were correct, there would not be such a thing as sin, because the ghost would have the agency to decide not to sin. But we see daily examples of devoutly religious people sinning repeatedly, and they don't know why. "Oh the devil is tempting them!" Well then do we have free agency or don't we? No - observed human behaviour does not support the ghost hypothesis. Only the brain as a conditioned environmental modeling survival machine fits the data.

When I learned how to operate the brain, I discovered free agency for the first time and "sin" in my life as a devoutly religious man simply vanished. Shortly thereafter, without sin I found I no longer experienced guilt. Without guilt, religion was somehow just not as important as it used to be. When I didn't need religion to be true anymore, both socially and personally, the motivated reasoning fell, and within weeks the apparent logical cohesion of my religious beliefs had vanished into thin air, exposing the many negative and harmful aspects of it as well as all the logical inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies of it. Without religion, being a happy, good, and decent person is easier than ever and life has far more meaning and wonder. But religions teach that people like me are sinful and are lying about not believing in order to not face my sins. Religion does itself no favour by employing such demonstrably, provably dishonest troll tactics.

Does it matter to me that everybody who was ever a part of my life and who is still religious assumes I must be engaged in some vile sinful acts as the only possible explanation for why I am no longer religious?  I could experience that feeling if I wanted to, but I choose not to use my brain in that way.  Got better things to do with my neurons.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Best Arguments for Gods

Are these the best arguments for the existence of gods?  If so, then the case for gods and goddesses is looking pretty bleak, to be honest.  These are the best arguments, such as they are, that I encounter from time to time from those who are determined to rescue my soul, and I have to say I am rather underwhelmed by their quality and persuasiveness.  I am fairly disappointed at how evidently ambivalent people are about the welfare of my soul, if these arguments are any reflection.

Keep in mind that an Argument is not Evidence.  It is merely the line that connects evidence to a conclusion. The biggest problem with most arguments in support of the existence of gods and goddesses is that even if the arguments were not fallacious or disjointed they still do not actually link back to or produce any good evidence.  But we will be lenient today and allow the advocates of gods to give me their best shots.  Let 'er rip!

"The Bible says so."  Many people when asked why they think gods exist will immediately turn to scriptural authority.  Why I am unmoved by this argument stems from the fact that by this logic we should also believe in Spiderman.  And why stop there: we should all be worshiping Gandalf, Frodo, and Bellatrix LeStrange too, if we admit this line of reasoning.

Flippancy aside, we are compelled to examine biblical authority more closely to determine if there is any reason whatsoever to take it seriously.  The evidence we have for biblical origins and authorship, both from contemporaneous independent historical records, from textual analysis of source documents and related historical documents, and from artifacts and physical archaeology is that many of the individual "books" of the bible are straight-up forgeries which are not at all what they pretend to be.  A few books are genuine and sincere stand-alone religious texts, but such things are not unique in the world and certainly not unique to the abrahamic gods.  More than enough of the bible is outright fraud to compel us in all honesty to reject the content as a whole as having a supernatural origin.  There is every reason to regard the bible as fraudulent, and no reason to take it seriously or at face value. It should be read and studied as the historical fabrication that it is.

Genesis and Exodus for example are not at all contemporaneous to the supposed events they portray, but instead date to about 450 BC.  Archaeology and contemporaneous historical documents and artifacts positively prove that the events described therein never occurred and the main characters were very definitely not historical figures.  Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua etc. were all just stories someone made up, often by plagiarizing much older fictional tales from different contexts entirely.

The New Testament is even worse: while there likely was a real Paul who helped unite a cluster of mystery sects in about 50 AD, about half of the Pauline Epistles found in today's bible are widely acknowledged as later forgeries, likely composed in order to strengthen one particular sect's claim to hegemony.  The Gospels date from at least 70 AD, and are contradicted by contemporaneous accounts, borrow from and rewrite each other, and belong to a genre of acknowledged fictionalized pretend histories of purely mythical figures.  They are not recorded oral histories but carefully crafted allegories fashioned by anonymous writers familiar with Greek literary devices, tropes, and constructs, but strangely unfamiliar with the language, peoples, religions, and customs of Palestine. By examining the bible, I am persuaded that Jesus Christ was an entirely mythical construct based on the older Angel Joshua of Judaism, and never an actual living historical person.  So, in other words, no.  The bible is provably factually wrong in countless instances, is very clearly and obviously a man-made  and ever-evolving fiction, and does not authoritatively prove that there ever were any gods at all, any more than comic books prove there is a Spiderman.

"People don't know how to be Moral until God decrees what is and is not Moral."  They call this the argument from Objective Morality, but it is neither objective nor moral.  What the believers in gods have is an arbitrary morality that is fundamentally immoral, as I explain here and again here.  The idea that morality and ethical behaviour in humans and human societies is entirely attributable to the existence of gods is a bad argument for gods precisely because it is false.  Godless humans and human societies somehow find their way to ethical standards of behaviour that often exceed those of religious societies.  Hell, even packs of chimpanzees and dogs have a basic moral sense that guides their behaviour.  You can't tell me they got that by reading the bible. 

So let's look at that bible one more time.  The various gods described in the bible beginning with a minor actor in the Caananite pantheon of gods and goddesses are savage, sadistic, primitive assholes whom no one today would describe as "moral."   The jealous, overly-sensitive volcano god Yahweh seems to have a real inferiority complex and keeps trying to convince everyone through his bloodthirsty rage that he's the greatest of all the many, many gods.  And we're supposed to learn morality from that?   Later gods (or possibly the same god slightly grown-up) seem to care a little too deeply about provincial politics and is more than happy to spend the death and suffering of his people for short-term political or territorial gains.  Look, no thinking person takes the bible seriously, and if you actually read the thing you wouldn't be spouting off about how "moral" the utterly barbaric bible is. 

Religious societies are more likely to abuse the human rights of its citizens, especially of women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, political minorities, and  sexual minorities (e.g. transgender people, homosexuals, etc).  How do they justify the objectively immoral inflicting of suffering and abuse on the powerless?  Religion and the ridiculous arbitrary behavioural code they have confused with and substituted for actual morality.

The comeback argument usually sounds something like "If people didn't think there would be an ultimate justice, they wouldn't be afraid of doing whatever they wanted all the time - steal, kill, rape, and be atheist."  Really?  What "people" is that you're talking about?  Normal people don't need to be threatened with hell in order to want to do the right thing and create through their own acts the sort of world they'd like to live in.  If the fear of eternal torture in hell and a watchful, vengeful god is all that is keeping you from doing horrible things to your fellow humans, then what you are is a psychopath and I hope you never stop believing in hell.

"The Universe had to start somehow, and it could only be Gods."  Couldn't it though?  That is a bold assertion to make without evidence.  Why could not the universe posses entirely natural causes, origins, and workings?  Everything we know about this universe so far, after just a few centuries of serious investigation, is that it is entirely naturalistic and requires no universal intelligent agency or supernatural finnanglings in order to function as it does.  We also understand (or should - see my earlier series of posts beginning with this one) that the universe is not fully deterministic.  This fact ruins the deistic fancy that some god or goddess magically poofed the universe into existence for some obtuse purpose and then stood back and allowed it to carry on naturally in the fulfillment of a divine master-plan.  That plan would only work if the universe and nature were indeed fully deterministic.  But it is not, and your gods and goddesses would be compelled to constantly tweak and nudge the universe in its random wanderings back onto the divinely specified trajectory. We explicitly see this exact thing not happening, as well as the positive absence of a mechanism by which this could happen from outside the universe.  The only agency observed to marginally influence the course of Nature is that of Man, and that of a few other animals on this planet.

If you see a symmetric web hanging with dew in the morning, only determined willful ignorance could license you to assume it was the act of some supernatural agency.  Even a rustic innocent understands that it was the work of a spider, an animal fully competent to carry out such modifications to the environment. Sometimes designs have a designer, and sometimes designs emerge without one.

But the most damning flaw of this bad argument for gods, that everything that exists could only exist if it had an intelligent agent as its prime instigator, is this very argument itself.  If we were to foolishly be persuaded by this baseless assertion, accept it as valid and apply it evenly, then we would be in the awkward position of having to respond to the objection that if Gods exist, someone or something must have created them.

"Logic and Reason can only exist as a result of the Gods inventing them."  Oh for fuck's sake, not this puddle of donkey cack.  Really?  Have you never even seen a logic or a reason, much less used one?  OK - I may have to break it down to toddler level for the fundamentalists out there who are fond of this nonsense garbage argument and who (by straining hard enough) somehow find it persuasive.  But first it seems necessary to seize the narrative and talk about one of my favorite subjects - Mathematics.  Math means Quantitative Reasoning and encompasses the fields of Logic and Geometry.  Math is essentially the taxonomy of the properties of quantities and functions (identifiable groups of quantities, e.g. the points on an idealized circle or sphere).  The claim is that these properties and their relationships could somehow only exist if an invisible wizard casts a magic spell or something.  Could they really not exist simply on their own?

But to be fair, let us allow the question and conjecture an entirely godless universe - I know, rather inconceivable, but bear with me.  Suppose this utterly god-free universe contained an asteroid.  And then suppose there was a second asteroid, one that was not merely the first one all over again.  Now if we, who are not present (because this is a godless universe, remember) and thus cannot see this, but instead merely speculate that these asteroids exist, proceed to count the number of separate asteroids in the universe, do we not arrive at the result, being one asteroid plus another asteroid?  Do we not empirically see what we shall designate as Two asteroids?    Even in a godless universe one plus one makes two, an empirical fact which requires no proof, nor derivation from a priori axioms, nor magic, nor divine imprimatur.  Now let us imagine as a thought-experiment that the two asteroids crash into one another and each breaks into two pieces.  Is it not an empirical fact that if this
were to happen, then the asteroids now number two times two, and also two plus two, namely four?  What this demonstrates is that it is entirely possible for math to exist of its own accord, waiting only to be discovered by an animal at least as competent at counting as a Labrador Retriever.

Math (and by extension Logic and Reason) is not an invention, but a discovery.  While mathematical notations and methodologies are certainly invented, the properties and relationships of quantities and functions themselves can only be discovered.  While whiny post-modernists hipsters in their bourgeois parlors playing middle-class word games reassure themselves that math is just a subjective eurocentric cis-male construct, in the real world math exists whether we know about it or not, or are capable of using it or not.   A circle's circumference of unit diameter was 3.14159... long before pi was known to humans, and long before an oblate spheroid planet following a precessing elliptical orbit around an unremarkable sun formed on which people would eventually understand any of this.  The surface of a sphere has ever increased as the square of the radius, and the volume as the cube, even before the first stars and galaxies formed and light shone in concordance with these facts, and would have done so whether gods existed or not. 

Attributing the existence of logic and reason solely to either the existence of magical invisible sky people or to human culture is equally willfully ignorant of the true nature of any of those things.  In small words: this argument is bad, silly, and dumb. It does not work.

"The orderly universe is finely tuned to support human life and this proves that some Gods probably did it."  Ah the Fine Tuning argument.  This one backfires on the godologists rather spectacularly, which is why I quite enjoy getting this one.  Consider first the orderliness of nature - the sun rising, the tides and seasons coming and going in regular succession as though rehearsed by a master-orchestrator, the exact conditions by which we experience life, and so on.  This is sometimes floated as a separate, standalone argument.  Setting aside the fact that at large timescales the universe is nowhere near as orderly and predictable as this argument requires, this was once a compelling reason to suspect there may be gods about.  It was certainly one possible explanation for things, once upon a time.  Which gods, though ...?  That was always an open question.  But the fact that things were a little too orderly and predictable, like clockwork, should have been a clue that perhaps this was not an agency at work, but the result of some mechanistic system, like a clockwork.

However that all changed the moment we learned how gravity works and that all of this orbiting stuff is exactly what can and would occur whether gods existed or not; whether they intervened or not.  Astronomy including the true nature of the earth, sun, planets, stars, and other bodies detectable in the heavens are all understood well enough now that the presumption of some supernatural agency keeping it all going is no longer justified on this basis, and is indeed laughably unfounded.  This universe works exactly the way a completely god-free universe would work, and not at all the way a god-controlled universe should work, according to all the things godologists certify about their gods.

OK so the universe is doing nothing other than following physical laws.  But how do we know some gods didn't decree those very laws? How is it not fine-tuned just for us?  Nope - sorry, you're indulging in a "begging the question" fallacy, so let's step back from some of those built-in assumptions.  This universe is not necessarily fine tuned just for us - it may be an accident that we are here discussing this universe at all.  It may seem perfect for us, but is there any other way we could possibly be having this discussion?  I know how difficult it can be to understand the logic this objection, having once been strongly motivated to see it as good evidence for gods.  But bear with me:  If we accept that Life in our present form requires some very fortuitous initial conditions and some lucky breaks along the way, then by even having this discussion we presume that those conditions are factual.  It may not actually be the case that we or something like us could only be here under these exact conditions, but we'll allow this for the present.  So, what are the odds?  One in ... five?  How many planets and solar systems are out there that are just right for life?  How many universes are there or have there been?  We do not actually know, and so we cannot assert that this one is too improbable to have happened by chance.  So we are left with this: it either happened by chance, or by some natural cause which somehow favors these conditions, or by the design of some powerful supernatural agency.    The mere fact that we are here wondering which one it is neither presupposes nor precludes any one of these three possibilities, because these are the only conditions under which we could be wondering this in the first place.

If this universe is exquisitely fine tuned to favor anything, it favors (as we physicists now know) the production of as many Black Holes as possible.  But, however, there may be natural, physical reasons for this which we may learn eventually, so we are not justified in assuming the existence of some Black Hole God who crafted this universe purely based on His Holeyness' preferences.  So don't go throwing out all your action figures of a guy being murdered to death on a big "t" and replacing them with photos of Stephen Hawking, which is what the Fine Tuning argument would require if you were to absolutely insist upon its validity.

"Human beings and human societies are self-evidently the result of divine creation."  Again, at one time in the past this might have been a compelling reason to suspect the existence of some invisible magic man with a plan.  Even if one accepts divine creation as the best explanation, there is still an awfully long way to go before any one particular god or religion can be awarded the credit for it. But even in the pre-scientific age there were reasons to doubt this claim.  A lot of outlandish and ad hoc explanations had to be invented over time in order to account for facts about humans and their societies that did not fit the "gods did it" hypothesis.

Of course today there are well-tested and compelling hypotheses that account for everything we see in humanity without invoking the supernatural.  I will not present or argue here the oceans of evidence that support the fact and theory of human evolution, the indisputable facts from molecular biology that place homo sapiens sapiens squarely in the animal kingdom right in among the chimpanzees, the fact that nothing about humans is qualitatively outside the range of animal behaviour or competence, but only quantitative extensions of animal behaviour. The God Squad claims that gods are the only explanation for the existence of us.  To address that claim, all that is needed is one viable alternative theory that withstands every determined attempt at falsification.  I do not have to positively prove that the alternative explanation is true; I only have to point out that it exists and is not contradicted by any evidence we have in order to dismiss the claim that only gods could have done it.  It is demonstrably false that only some gods could have done it.  While perhaps gods might have done it, this is definitely not the only explanation, nor even the best explanation.

There is clear and unequivocal evidence - vast quantities of myopically coherent evidence - that humans and all other living things were not created in their present forms, but have evolved.  Therefore any explanation about the origins of life must account for the proven fact of past and present evolution of life to be considered at all.  Could gods have utilized evolution to manufacture us?  If they did, we must assume they are comfortable - sanguine even - with the evolutionary imperfections, useless vestigial structures, and mental and physical weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our species, as well as patient with the millions of years of pre-human primates and at least a hundred thousand years of modern but pre-monotheistic human beings.  It is not at all self-evident that some gods did this for any coherent purpose, and the gods hypothesis is very far from the best explanation while lacking any explanatory or predictive power.  In terms of testability, the creationist hypothesis fails again and again - fails to find evidence of intentional design, and fails to account for very un-design-like phenomena in biology.

A once-compelling subset of this argument is the argument of the human Self and conscious self-awareness.  For a long time it could not be understood how the thing we all experience could possibly emerge naturally from a wet and springy 1300-g blob of 90 billion neurons. However this bastion of magic has fallen in the path of Science.  Consciousness is no longer an unassailable mystery but is even now being unraveled and explored as an entirely natural phenomenon.  I often did and still sometimes do boggle at the fact of finding myself existing as a conscious being.  How did this happen?  Why am I me?  However there are now some very plausible, testable, and continually improving hypotheses about how the brain as a machine produces conscious experience and the illusion of a Self that do not involve, invoke, or rely on theology or the supernatural in any way.

"There was this one guy who was sick, and then he wasn't sick anymore, and so ... Ta Da! Gods!"  The argument from miracles is difficult to deal with because the claims are slippery.  The evidence of the actual events diffuse conveniently into obscurity, or the tale spins out to ever more fanciful variants.  Unexplained occurrences or healings are simply that: unexplained.  To make a Deistic much less a Theistic claim on this basis requires that you first produce incontrovertible evidence that the event actually took place, and then show precisely how all alternative ordinary explanations fail.  Then you have to show evidence of the proffered explanation - that some particular god and no other did it.  In most cases this is merely assumed.

But most of the miracle stories out there have serious authenticity problems.  It is possible to show in some cases that the event could never have occurred, and that key facts are contradicted by independent evidence.  In other cases it is simply impossible to verify any of the details.  And in the small number of verified, documented occurrences, there are easily other less marvelous, sadly banal, and vastly more probable explanations.

There will always be the unexplained in this world, however.  Just keep in mind that unexplained is merely unexplained - it no more justifies belief in gods than it justifies belief in Harry Potter.

"I personally felt a feeling, saw a thing, &/or heard a voice, and gods are the only possible way this could ever happen."  OK - this is probably the only argument I take seriously because this was my own ultimate fallback once upon a time.  So, I get it.  "I know what I know, I saw what I saw, I felt what I felt."  As a believer my only concern about the argument from testimony was that other people who believed the wrong stuff about the wrong gods kept getting the wrong answers using this exact same methodology.  If God was sending these telepathic messages to my brain, then why were other people getting similar but factually incorrect or even directly contradictory messages?  Why was God gas-lighting me so hard in this really mean way?

There are field dressings and apologetics for this problem, but I found no real satisfactory answer until I learned that the brain basically works by hallucinating everything all the time.  Mostly the hallucinations should closely reflect what is going on in the real world around you, but this isn't strictly necessary.  It is not just possible, but quite common for a brain to produce hallucinations of sight, sound, voices, or feelings as required and at a moment's notice.  And the nature of hallucination as the normal mode of braining is that you cannot readily tell when the hallucination is tracking reality or when it has gone off the rails. You have to be constantly vigilant and always testing your experience to verify that it is tracking reality; and even then the brain can fool you for lengthy periods of time.

Personal "spiritual" experiences are not evidence of actual gods, but are evidence of belief in gods.  You can condition a human to believe in practically any absurd thing, and the person will have internal experiences that confirm the belief to him.  Some people talk to or even see ghosts, which are entirely an imaginary thing.  Some people see aliens, bigfoot, mermaids, fairies, or an endless array of phantasms limited only by imagination but strongly influenced by the memes to which the person had previous exposure.  If your proof of a particular god is by telepathy only, then you essentially have no proof.  And your hallucinations are inadmissible evidence that I too should infer anything from your claims. I've had hallucinations, too.  I know all about them. And people who were raised with entirely different beliefs have entirely different hallucinations.

The godophiles invent a lot of excuses for why the gods only communicate cryptically, through numerology or astrology, through obtuse word games, in ways that are completely identical to hallucinations, or through specific people with whom he/she/they/it insist on dealing exclusively.  But why must that be the case?  If there were real gods about, they would certainly be capable of revealing themselves in indisputable ways, and have no real need to be so evasive.  It turns out the only way we know anything at all about these gods is through humans making the claims without proof, evidence, or valid argument.


I reject the existence of gods and goddesses, and denounce their expounders as dishonest frauds.  There is no good reason to assume that such things are real or are anything other than bedtime stories for children.  If I am wrong, show me evidence that is concordant with no other explanation.  Better yet, produce specimens of your gods for examination.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Follow-Up On The Follow-Up On Fake Deter-Minism

Ok -  WHY do I think that Classical Thermodynamics alone without the help of quantum indeterminism is sufficient to destroy the unfounded belief in a deterministic universe?

You will need to know a little bit of Physics to become fully persuaded by this line of reasoning.  No - I lie.  You will need to know a LOT of Physics.

But I will endeavour to make it understandable to the lay person who wants to understand at least what this line of reasoning consists of.


Could the Universe go backwards?
Classical Newtonian interactions - nay even Relativistic Newtonian interactions - are time-reversible.  Newtonian Mechanics consists essentially of conservation of all momentums for either elastic or inelastic collisions, which includes the famous F=Ma law that expands momentum conservation to account for forces and fields.  Running the video backwards of any experiment in which particles interact using Newtonian Mechanics does not produce any violations of Newtonian physics, or specifically the three Laws of Motion that are the foundation of classical physics.

Interactions of individual particles in a thermodynamic body, whether solid, liquid, gas, or plasma, are individually Newtonian and hence time-reversible.  Individually, you can run each collision backwards without violating any physics.  From strictly a Newtonian point of view, all processes in the universe should be totally reversible.  This is the very reason, when you think about it, why many people are wedded to the idea of Determinism and feel that all future states of the universe are pre-determined by the initial state.

However, Entropy destroys information.  This makes Thermodynamic processes basically irreversible.  A large collection of particles, each interacting in strictly Newtonian fashion, can only proceed in the forward direction of time without violating basic Thermodynamic physics.  Why is this?

The reason for this is fundamentally statistical: higher-entropy states are vastly, ridiculously more probable than lower-entropy states simply because there are so vastly many more of them.  (Entropy is essentially a statistic which measures the degree to which energy in a system is evenly distributed throughout the system.) The probability is overwhelmingly that in any given transition from one state to another through the cumulative effect of countless Newtonian interactions of countless particles, that transition will be from a relatively rare lower entropy state to a relatively more abundant higher entropy state.  Note also that many higher-entropy states are physically indistinguishable from one another.  Going backwards even one step is just so ridiculously improbable such that it literally could never happen in the entire lifetime of a universe.

So, putting these two concepts of physics together, if we start from some initial state and roll time forward, each collision, each trajectory, each vibration of each particle perfectly obeying reversible Newtonian physics, following the laws of Thermodynamics we inevitably reach states of higher and higher entropy.  At some point let us decide to stop the video and run time backwards, supposing we were able to magically do this - say perhaps in a simulation.

From that higher entropy state, if we attempt to run the clock backwards and get back to the initial state of the system, we find that the information about that state has been lost - destroyed actually - by Entropy, and we will not be able to find that initial state again.  Even if artificially forcing the system into impossibly lower and lower entropy states, what we find is that although we manage to wrangle the system back into some minimum-entropy state, it is not the SAME minimum-entropy state that we started out in.  We do not get the initial conditions back again - the initial conditions that were supposedly deterministic of all future states of the system.

If you can get to the same or an indistinguishable higher entropy state from any number of initial states, and if the individual interactions are time-reversible, and by reversing time we do not get back to the one initial state because the information about that state has been erased by entropy, then that means that either initial states of thermodynamic systems are NOT deterministic of all future states, or that Thermodynamics is wrong.

And Thermodynamics is demonstrably not wrong.

To summarize the case against Determinism by Physics:

  • The N-Body System is ultimately chaotic and any given future state is in no way inevitable whether by initial-state ambiguity or by non-inevitable system perturbations. By what means?  Perhaps ultimately by the stochastic Gravitational Wave noise from the Big Bang itself that permeates the universe.  Any infinitesimal perturbation of a chaotic system is all it takes to tip it into a wildly divergent state trajectory over time. 
  • Thermodynamic systems are never Deterministic on a microscopic scale because initial-state information is erased by Entropy and is thereafter irrelevant and non-determining of subsequent states.
  • Finally, at the Quantum level Determinism doesn't stand a chance; even Causality has issues and must be regarded as at best an emergent property of more complex, large-scale physics.   The initial state of the universe at the Big Bang cannot be understood without Quantum Physics plus some other stuff we don't even know about yet, meaning that the initial state itself must have been ambiguous and undetermined, and subsequent states were random rather than causal consequences of that state.
In the end, Determinism from Physics is a purely speculative nonsense concept and is not a real feature of this universe.  Do Not base anything you think, including any conclusions about Free Will, on the nonexistent error known as Determinism.  Nothing is inevitable here except perhaps Entropy.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Follow-Up on Determinism: It's Still Fake News

The most well-reasoned objection to my demolition of Determinism was posited by none other than myself (who could be more qualified?) and is as follows:

Consider the example of the remarkable engineering masterpiece known as the Curta calculator, which was presented as having arithmetic competence as an emergent property possessed by none of its components individually.  Using the Curta to calculate the recursive formula X = R*X*(1-X) for R around 3.6 results in an essentially random (chaotic, technically) sequence of X's.  The evolution of values may not be apparently deterministic in the sense that values follow some consistent pattern; but if you started with the same seed value you would get the same sequence time after time; thus the sequence is determined and hence Deterministic.  

The Curta Type II Calculator
True enough, and fair enough.  Testing Determinism in this manner requires further exploration, since in practice as I pointed out to myself above, it does not seem to rule out Determinism.  However, when examined carefully, this procedure does not actually constitute a fair test of Determinism, because the calculator cannot handle infinity decimal places.

Chaos has the property that any infinitesimally insignificant variation in initial conditions or perturbation of subsequent states can produce an arbitrarily large divergence in outcomes at some future time less than infinity.  To contradict Determinism, we would have to show that with initial conditions specified with even infinity decimal places, the outcome is still not inevitable.    The Curta Type II (released in 1954) has 11 input digits, 8 counter digits, and 15 result digits. Alert Readers may notice that none of those numbers is infinity.  The effect of this is what we call quantization of the results, or in popular parlance, "round-off error."  This means that at every calculation, the result is forced artificially into one of a relatively few allowable values which are "rounded off" to the nearest decimal place retained by the mechanism.  Therefore the result does not accurately reflect the actual theoretical result of the algorithm.

The consequence of quantization is that at each step, the evolution of the process is reset to a fixed, known value.  There just isn't ever enough time for the true chaotic nature of the algorithm to evolve if it keeps getting reset to one of a relatively small number of possible values.  The only fair test of this form of non-determinism would be to see whether, with infinity decimal places, one result diverges from the result of previous experiments when the initial conditions are infinitely identical and infinite precision is retained at each step.

Why do I think that would be the case?  Purely mathematically it shouldn't happen in an idealized calculation.  But an infinity-digit version of the Curta calculator (the actual Universe, effectually) is a thermodynamic object, and those digits are represented by components which are thermodynamic bodies subject to entropy.  With infinity digits, the chances are good (100%, I'd say) that there will be random errors in the calculation eventually, making it impossible to obtain the same result twice in a physical process, thus making any given physical result not inevitable.  The evolution of the universe is essentially a physical (analog) calculation of the of states of the universe as time progresses.  While ultimately the states experience quantization similar to a 15-digit calculator's round-off error, this quantization is small enough to still allow plenty of uncertainty to creep in.  In addition, quantum uncertainty (à la Heisenberg) introduces its own bit-errors into the evolution of states.

Any limited calculator isn't a true representation of chaotic behaviour.  Only unlimited decimal places can accurately carry out a chaotic calculation, and when you have that many decimal places you will also have a meaningful probability of digit (or bit) errors.  These facts taken together essentially require that any two physical embodiments of a chaotic system must diverge from perfectly identical initial conditions and are thus in no way Deterministic.

An example of a non-deterministic calculation being carried out is human genetics.  The calculation is essentially, "let's combine two genomes and find out what happens, then combine that one with some other combination, and so on, generation after generation."  To do this calculation perfectly with the same result in any two hypothetical "runs" of this experiment starting from identical initial genomes requires that there be no computational errors.  Ever.  In reality, every human has something like 20 or 30 random errors (known as "mutations") in their genome.  Due to the thermodynamic nature of the mechanisms for encoding the genome and carrying out the replication, truly random, stochastic errors are inevitable and no result is ever "evitable" or assured, pre-determined, unavoidable, inescapable, or whatever the polar opposite of inevitable may be.

Notice that in a crowded cell where particles are constantly interacting with each other and with electromagnetic fields, quantum indeterminism does not really enter into it because quantum states are constantly being collapsed and re-formed at every interaction.  While others may, I do not think that randomness ultimately depends on quantum indeterminism, but that thermodynamic stochasticity is more than sufficient to provide for true in-principle and fundamental randomness in any physical system.

Therefore, it is inevitable that you are a Mutant; but what kind of mutant was in no way predetermined by physics.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Free Will Versus Determinism

Certain scientists who seem to have only recently discovered philosophy on wikipedia have announced that finally, at long last, they and they alone have solved the question of Free Will for good and all.  Popular thing-sayers such as Sam Harris have informed us that because of a thing they read about called Determinism, there can be no free will.  Meanwhile professional philosophers such as Daniel Dennett who have spent just a wee bit more time on the subject say "Bollocks! Determinism is entirely compatible with Free Will; although Free Will might not be quite what you thought it was."
A simple mechanism which, when assembled, produces the emergent competence of performing arithmetic calculations even though no one of its parts has this ability!  Curiously, if used to compute x = r*x*(1-x) repeatedly with r chosen to be around 3.6, this simple mechanical device cannot even be said to be deterministic.

I would like to point out at this juncture that the title of this post is an unadulterated lie.  It is a lying, lying lie in every possible way.  It is lying about Free Will, it is lying about Determinism, and it is lying about the Versus part, too.  Hopefully the remainder of this post will make up for these despicable lies by acquainting you with some small part of the truth.

We start with Determinism.  This is the idea that the universe proceeds like a clockwork, obeying physical laws such that given the initial conditions, all future states of the universe can at least in principle be predicted in advance or calculated in retrospect.  The very idea came to prominence in response to Newton's physics in the late 17th C when philosophers, impressed by slightly improved (but by no means perfect) predictions of planetary orbits, began asking, "What if someday the planet's positions really COULD be predicted accurately forever?  And what if everything in the universe also worked just like that? Would that not mean that everything, every future state of the universe including human behaviour, would be predictable and thus predetermined by the initial state of the universe?"

Well, yes, it might mean that IF the universe worked that way.  People forget that key word, "if," and make the mistake of assuming that rigid-body Newtonian physics applied to a handful of structureless bodies is all the physics that the universe has or needs.  But "Deterministic" Newtonian physics could not even predict the planets' positions very accurately over a few hundred years; and in the case of Mercury, hardly at all.  Determinism as we shall see is a complete lie and a fiction.  It never existed, even in Newton's day, and doesn't exist now.

First of all, there are WAAAAAY more than seven bodies in the universe.  With more and more interacting parts, even perfectly classical Newtonian systems become chaotic over shorter and shorter periods of time.  Even with as few as N=3 single rigid bodies interacting in a system, you need to have infinitely precise information  - 12^N measurements out to infinity decimal places each - on the initial state of the system in order to make accurate predictions of the system's state out to large timescales, still more for an infinite timescale.  The Universe itself is not large enough to contain that infinite amount of information nor does it have enough matter in which to encode that infinity of information.

But whether or not the information of the initial conditions is encoded in anything other than the initial universe itself, the precision required for long-term determination of a chaotic system cannot itself even exist given the known limitations of matter, space, energy or, well, universes themselves.

Therefore I assert that the existence of sufficient information to make a chaotic system predictable and therefore determined at all time is not a thing that can exist in the universe; or in other words, it's not a real thing even in this simplest case of a universe with an unreasonably small and boring number of rigid bodies obeying Newton's boring version of physics.  Even in that simplified universe, there is no such thing as Determinism.

It gets worse though.  With any more reasonable number of bodies in the universe (say, a few million) Newtonian physics is no longer a suitable representation of physics.  Mind, it still can be used to describe individual short-term interactions between particles and energy; but the cumulative state of the universe is now a statistical, stochastic thing which any one of countless initial conditions could equally well produce.  That universe has an average kinetic energy represented by Temperature, an average potential energy represented by Pressure, and average quantities for particle sizes and masses represented by density and an equation of state.  Trajectories of individual particles and the momentary interactions between individual particles are meaningless, unknowable, and at best short-term phenomena with no long-term influence on the future states of the universe; only cumulatively do they have any influence.  In this realm of Thermodynamics, there is no Determinism.

But it gets even worse than that.  Bodies in the universe are not, as assumed up to this point, individual rigid particles.  They are thermodynamic globs of particles - solids, liquids, gasses, plasmas.  They have practically infinite numbers of possible internal states that can have at best only statistical representations such as pressure, temperature, and average density.  These thermodynamic systems are the bodies that interact in approximately Newtonian ways.  Each of these bodies contains not merely a few thousands or millions of identical particles, but unimaginable numbers of great varieties of particles.  Practically a universe within itself, a single grain of sand contains more individual particles than the number of grains of sand on the beach from which it is plucked.  Even the external parameters (e.g. the mass and shape of a grain of sand) have an unknowable infinity of possibilities, not to mention internal configurations.  The universe is a thermodynamic universe of innumerable thermodynamic universes, thus increasing the indeterminism of the universe exponentially.  It is Random raised to the power of Random.  Determinism disintegrates in a single grain of sand, and still more so on the greater beach of existence which is an ever-shifting system of forces, matter and energy obeying mainly Newtonian laws.

But we're not done destroying Determinism yet.  This absurd idea needs to be obliterated right down to the level of the fundamental nature of matter, energy, and existence itself.  You've probably heard of Quantum Mechanics; and some small part of what you've heard might even be correct.  While Quantum Mechanics predicts and requires that bodies consisting of more than a few thousand individual particles must always obey Newtonian Mechanics to an absurdly high degree of precision, those individual particles themselves have entirely different rules of engagement.  In fact, at that scale the notion of a particle as a tiny pellet of matter is something of a convenient fiction - merely an efficient way of maintaining an accounting of quantum numbers for charge, mass, energy, spin, and other quantities which must obey certain strict rules in order to interact and transform.

Let us take an atomic nucleus as an example.  A nucleus is a particle which itself is an arrangement of protons and neutrons that are all stuck together.  Let's pick as an instructive example one having 55 protons and 75 neutrons, which by convention we know as a Caesium 130 nucleus.  Protons have a unit of positive electric charge each, and are thus in a continual state of repelling each other with tremendous force owing to how close together they are.  This repulsive force would ordinarily overwhelm the inherent contact stickiness that these particles have for each other, causing them to fly off in opposite directions at high velocity; but the additional 75 neutrons surrounding and embracing those protons provide almost enough extra adhesion to keep this nucleus together.  Just three more neutrons are all that would be needed to render this nucleus perfectly stable forever.  But as it stands the poor hapless Cs130 nucleus is always just on the verge of breaking apart.

When will it do so?  At what time?  In what fragments and in what directions?  These questions have fundamentally no answers within the universe, even in principle.  Even the "when" question for an individual Cs130 nucleus can only be answered with the evasive, "any moment now, or possibly never."  A large assemblage of Cs130 nuclei can at best be treated statistically: on average, half of those nuclei will blow up within the next 29.21 minutes, and the remaining half anywhere from then until the end of time.  There is not even any underlying mechanism at work which could in principle be used to predict and determine the time of decay.  Physicists have searched for such an internal mechanism for a century and have found instead only the opposite: more indeterminism at every level.

By using the word "Determinism" in the title of this post, I was lying to you by allowing you to think Determinism was even a real thing in physics.  It is not in any sense a real thing, as we have seen.  At best, simple machines of only a few moving parts isolated from the messy, noisy universe can be treated as deterministic for specific periods of time.   But liquids, gases, complex systems of solid objects, very large objects, very small objects, thermodynamic systems, chemical systems, and, most importantly, biological systems cannot even theoretically be regarded as deterministic for any length of time, much less from the beginning of time throughout eternity.

While in a sense physics determines chemistry, and chemistry determines biology, and biology determines you, this line of reasoning uses a subtly different definition of the word and is not what is meant by Determinism with a capital D.  The kind of Determinism that could potentially have any impact on Free Will is the kind that states that all future states of the universe are able to be perfectly predicted by and are thus determined by the initial conditions of the universe.  In other words, the present state of the universe was absolutely inevitable and pre-determined, as are all futures that ever will be observed. And that, says physics, is Bollocks.

However, it may not even matter that Determinism from Physics is a silly fiction, because I was also lying about the "Versus" part.  Free Will and Determinism, as Prof. Dennett, pointed out, really have nothing to do with one another.  So what if your actions are Determined by something?  You'd better hope they are, actually.  Where would we be if all our actions were the result of random coin-flips, dice-rolls, card shuffles, or noise-based stochastic random number generators?  I mean, other than in the midst of a D&D game.  Hard-core believers in the fiction of Determinism may still complain that such processes are (as they believe) the determined results of make-believe physics and initial conditions in their make-believe universe.  But even allowing for that, would a coin-flip make you feel any better about your self-determination than having your actions locked in by something like reason, reflex, habit, or animal instinct?

The point is that whether your actions are determined by physics (no way), by chemistry (hmm...), by biology (quite possibly), by reason (sometimes), or are merely random noise, you are still accountable as a morally competent agent, even if (or particularly since) that agent is not some supernatural entity.  Even if a moral agent is really just a complex process and not an entity as such, that agent could well meet the requirements of  Moral Competence:

  1. The agent must have something of significance to gain or lose - livelihood, freedom, security, any of the fundamental needs or problems of a perishable organism.
  2. The agent must have the in-principle ability to select among any of several actions and privacy of mind for concealing its intentions until advantageous to reveal them.
  3. The agent must have at least the competence to make a judgement in its own best interest, regardless of whether or not it chooses to do so.  
Just as chaos emerges from complexity as a system acquires more and more moving parts, and just as temperature and pressure emerge as a system acquires more and more particles and becomes a thermodynamic gas, and just as Design emerges from a large number of natural selections with evolutionary pressure, and as Competence emerges from assemblages of large number of individually incompetent parts, and just as what we might call "intelligence" emerges from a large number of dumb little neurons in a brain, why then is it so difficult to accept that "Free Will" emerges from a sufficiently large number of stimuli, needs, impulses, influences, memories, desires, fears, information, rationale, instincts, and yes, even the occasional coin flip?

This leads to the final lie I need to correct: Free Will.  By referring to it, I have dishonestly mislead you into thinking that both you and I knew what Free Will even was.  Well, what is it?  This question remains unexamined by the people who rush to condemn it as impossible on the basis of something else that is even less possible (i.e. Determinism).  In struggling through the largely incoherent Sam Harris thesis, I find myself wondering whether he thinks Free Will is by definition a supernatural force of some kind.  A form of magic consisting of a disembodied Mind-Without-Brain, a sort of Ghost With A Plan that makes choices and steers its Meat Machine through life in order to fulfill the plan.  

At any rate, that is explicitly what theists think Free Will is.  And gods have the most of it, presumably.  As an aside, one notes with mild disinterest that the numerous gods promulgated by the various abrahamic mythologies cannot be regarded as having any Free Will when taken as presented. These gods have nothing to gain or lose because they are "perfect" and "eternal." They lack nothing and thus can neither be rewarded for their rare good acts nor punished for their frequent evil. The gods have no choice nor privacy of mind if we listen to their backers who insist they know exactly what the gods like, dislike, want, or ever will do. We are often told for example that the gods "cannot lie" or must unavoidably reward or punish us, etc, effectively limiting their possible actions and freedom. Failing the first two criteria for Moral Competence, gods cannot be regarded as morally competent and thus cannot be regarded even as free agents, or possibly even as agents at all. But that is no surprise to those who already realized that gods are nothing more than fictional characters in a bronze-age comic book.  

At any rate, the debate about Free Will has become a proxy battleground, in my personal experience, for the war between Naturalism and Supernaturalism.  I have been accused of defending Supernaturalism for little more than explaining that Determinism does not actually follow from Physics!

To be clear, by explaining how Determinism fails, I have not left open the door to Supernaturalism.  Instead, all I have pointed out is that Physics does not produce Determinism, not even in Newton's time.  Very little in the universe is inevitable, particularly on the scale of the short lives of Meat Machines From Planet Earth (which by the way would be an excellent name for a rock band).  It was not inevitable that smart monkeys evolved to look like we do.  Neither was it inevitable that the continents and coastlines of Earth appear the way they do, nor that the craters on the moon are precisely in those positions.  Perhaps only black holes and heat death are inevitable in this universe and are thus pre-determined.  But none of the details, particularly the humans, monkeys, dogs, spiders, and even bacteria, are necessary, unavoidable, inevitable consequences of this universe, even in principle.  Aside from even existing, each can and does make choices.  Simple organisms make simple choices: Left or right? Up or down?  Eat or avoid?  How they produce or arrive at that competence is not relevant to the fact that they do posses that competence.  Complex organisms make complex, abstract choices:  Rook or Knight? Red tie or blue?  Spend or save?  Mac or Windows?

In the case of the intractable problem of defining "intelligence" we get much further by instead talking about Competencies.  Similarly, Free Will is best defined as just one more layer of competence that organisms have to one degree or another.  Free Will is not some magic Ghost With a Plan.  Free Will is merely the competence to engage with and navigate a complex world.  

However, there is another thing that could be meant by Free Will that is neither the opposite of physical predetermination nor demonic possession.  It rests on the idea that the Self makes choices according to some set of values.  We know that this isn't actually how decisions are made most of the time: usually the brain makes a decision calculated to stave off emotional discomfort and satisfy some need; and then the rational human uses the cognitive parts of the brain to make up a clever post-hoc excuse for doing whatever that is.  Some people say that is not Free Will, but just the organism making "you" do stuff, (as though "you" and the organism are different actors), and if choices are in any way influenced by society or psychology, then it ain't no free will.  Well, no, I say that is still the organism's Free Will at work; just that actions are once again not mere random noise undetermined by anything at all.

But if you want a "higher" level of free will such that your actions are not predetermined by your brain's conditioning or your automatic emotional responses to stimuli, then that's another thing entirely.  In that sense, most of us filthy monkey-men never develop a free will and are entirely at the mercy of our condition and conditioning.  By engaging in intentional manipulation of the cognition of the brain by tactics involving impulse control, momentary suspension of cognition, intentional management of emotional states, or other forms of "mindful" reflection as some describe it, individuals can and do develop the ability to exert higher degrees of rational determination of their actions and thus can better control the trajectories of their lives.  If this is what is meant by free will - determination exclusively by rational reflection -  then again we see it has nothing to do with either Determinism from physics or choice-determination by external stimuli, nor is it in any way a supernatural phenomenon. 

That augmented form of free will is yet another emergent property or competence of the brain, which in the case of a self-reflective, mindful individual, has been turned in to a sort of GPU that runs the individual's selected apps in place of the evolutionary default operating processes that even monkeys use to navigate the world in the execution of their Free Will. It is still not evidence of ghosts with plans, and it is even further removed from Determinism from Physics, Chemistry, Biology, or Ecology.  This kind of free will advances even to the level of non-determination from human society, and even ultimately from psychology. 

"Wah! But Determinism!  A computer executing code is Determinism!  Wah!"

Nope!  Even if the hardware is entirely Deterministic within the timeframe of the experiment (one hopes that it is), a software program running on a hardware platform does not absolutely inherit the property of Determinism from the hardware.   Of course software algorithms are a long way from being complex enough to exhibit emergent properties of "higher" competencies.  There is also the problem that a mere algorithm abstracted from any particular hardware will struggle to qualify as Morally Competent because it will always lack the problems or needs of a perishable organism.  But the whole point is that as a system becomes more complex, new (higher level) properties emerge and old (lower level) ones dissolve.  

You may be able to pre-determine the behaviour of a watch that is wound up and running perfectly; but you will never be able to predict the exact way in which that watch corrodes and decomposes if left unattended in a riverbed for a few decades.  And as any system becomes more complex than that watch (a very simple mechanism, really), then less and less can be pre-determined about it.  If a system becomes sufficiently complex to exhibit emerging competencies of choice, then predicting its behaviour using physics becomes wholly impossible, and new more complex models are required.  These must include models of biology, sociology, and psychology, but will never have the accuracy or precision of physics or even chemistry.  

Therefore what ever the definition of Free Will, and whatever kinds of Determinism you want to talk about, there simply is no vital connection between the two ideas, and one certainly does not preclude the other.  Also, while certain meanings of Determinism demonstrably do not exist as realities, in no way can it be said that Free Will does not exist, for most of the definitions applied to it, with one exception: 

There are no Magic Ghosts with Plans; we Meat Machines are free to do as we please.






Sunday, February 4, 2018

Universal Consciousness - Destroyed Some More

One of the most prevalent arguments used to support the belief in a Universal Consciousness - a vaguely defined form of new-age religious deism - is the argument from Quantum Physics.  Frauds like Deepshit Choke-Ya are fond of making claims along the lines that quantum physics proves that the nature of reality is controlled by Consciousness or some shit.  Well, I am here to tell you that Quantum Physics has absolutely nothing to say on the subject of consciousness, and definitely does not support the nonsense notion of a universal consciousness.

Nobody knows what anyone really means by "universal consciousness" other than it is a kind of non-denominational substitute for gods or goddesses - universal magical powerful agencies that, like, do shit and stuff.  Allegedly.  But we do have a really good idea of what quantum physics is, which I will attempt to convey to you now.

Quantum physics (more properly Quantum Mechanics or QM) is a mathematical method of making very precise predictions about subatomic particles, their properties, their behavior, and their interactions.  The most important tool of QM is the Schroedinger Wave Equation (SWE), the solutions to which correspond to valid physical configurations of matter, energy, momentum, spin, and a number of other fundamental quantum numbers (i.e. quantitized physical values).  If you're not solving the Schroedinger Wave Equation, then you, my friend, are not "studying" Quantum Physics.

QM does make some astonishing predictions about the behavior of subatomic particles, however.  Less well known is the fact that QM makes some very boring predictions about every-day-sized objects.  QM predicts and requires that everyday objects like baseballs and people must behave exactly according to Newtonian mechanics.  That's right - QM says Newton was right!

Also, in QM an electron may go backwards in time as a positron.  But you, my friend, are not a single subatomic particle.  You are a thermodynamic Process involving large numbers of interacting particles, and as such YOU may only proceed forwards in time.  And you can also never enter a black hole either, except by having all your atoms ripped apart in the process.  So don't go getting any ideas.  This shit applies to individual subatomic particles only and to nothing else.

Among the more astonishing predictions made by QM is that a single particle can appear to be in several places at once.  This is not actually so, but it is a consequence of an interpretation of QM which insists on maintaining the fiction of particles as actual objects.  In reality, particles are merely conceptual collections of quantum numbers - energy, charge, momentum, spin etc - which must all follow rules of interactions that proceed from solutions to the SWE.  For example, energy may only enter or leave the electromagnetic field in whole quanta for a given wavelength of light.  Thus a photon (a quanta of light) is a very useful fiction, since it helps us keep track of energy and momentum being put into or removed from electromagnetism through interactions with matter.

When the object-permanence stumbling block is removed, then the prediction about propagating quanta being in more than one place at a time becomes less astonishing, and is actually what one would expect.   The famous two-slit experiment demonstrates that light actually does propagate in the form of waves, and also proves that electromagnetic energy is also quantitized.  The electromagnetic wave passes through both slits while a quanta of energy from the e/m field is deposited on a screen at a specific point on the other side.  No actual little ball of light called a "photon" magically passed through two places at once.  A photon does not exist in-transit.  It only "exists" at the point of production and again at the point of absorption (i.e. during any interaction) as an accounting fiction for keeping track of energy and other quantum numbers which must be conserved.

Another astonishing "prediction" of QM relates to the Observer Effect.  There is no Observer Effect.  Let me be clear on that.  The "Observer Effect" obtained its name from a mis-translation of a German research paper and is nothing more interesting than the fact that particles are affected by their interactions with other particles.  Duh!

The requirement that energy, momentum and other physical values must be quantitized has the effect that no measurement can ever be made without radically interfering with a particle, if not actually destroying the particle and turning is parts into something else.  Any measurement made on a particle requires that some form of particle interaction take place, and no interaction takes place without there being an effect on the particles involved.  Therefore the "Observer Effect" is really the interaction-measurement effect.

While philosophers wrongly argue that there can be no Observation without a Mind to do the observing, they missed the point that most interactions take place without any measurements being carried out; and most measurements are made without anyone even looking at or being aware of the data.  I guess they never heard of data acquisition electronics which operate just fine without human intervention.  The interaction-measurement effect therefore does not in any way imply or rely on the existence of a Mind.  Therefore the unsupported extension of this concept to the idea that Consciousness keeps the universe together is based on error and is completely wrong.  As Wolfgang Pauli would have said, "That's so far from being right, it's not even wrong!"  Meaning that there is no way to even fix the notion to make it a less wrong notion.

QM is only spooky and mysterious when one attempts to interpret it using overly-simplistic concepts like particles as little objects that bounce around like billiard balls.  A particle is not an object, but a collection of quantum numbers tied together by events and interactions.  They are mathematical, accounting objects, not little beads or pellets of matter.  When physicists properly think of them like this, then we do not have to invent outrageous and confusing analogies to the everyday world in order to understand or explain them, and fraudulent con-men cannot claim that modern physics empirically supports their new-age religion scams.



Universal Consciousness - Destroyed

In 1994, Nobel Laureate Francis Crick published a landmark book called The Astonishing Hypothesis in which he urged the scientific community to begin regarding human consciousness as a valid subject of scientific investigation. Until that point, the vast majority of people including scientists (myself included) felt that there was something not quite biological, physical, or scientifically reducible about human consciousness; or at least that this would always be an intractable problem.

Since that time, enormous advances in neuroscience have occurred, assisted by previously unimagined new capabilities in imaging technology and the computer technology that enables them. It is now mainstream, well-supported scientific consensus that consciousness is entirely biological in origin.

A specifically "conscious" part of the brain has never been identified, but consciousness is clearly exclusively associated with brain activity observed via fMRI.  There are also these things called drugs which, when you put them in your brain, alter consciousness and make you think and feel differently, almost like you're a different person.  Also it is well known that if the brain becomes injured, the way you think and feel and even your personality can completely change.  Finally, if the brain breaks down and stops, like, brainalyzing or whatever, then you aren't conscious at all anymore.

It is clear from all evidence that without a brain, there is no consciousness, even if scientists can't agree on exactly what consciousness is.   But an understanding is gradually emerging that consciousness may not be quite what we thought it was - an entity or an algorithm of some kind - but rather that it is really just a deep pile of competences layered upon one another from which the sense of being a Person emerges. As those competences are removed one by one, so fades the sense of Self and consciousness. Therefore it is less useful to ask, "what is consciousness?" and instead investigate neuro-biological competence, including the interesting question of what is required for Moral Competence.

Ants have about 250,000 neurons, and you can make them run around crazy by poking sticks at them. That is something they are competent at doing.  Dogs have about 2.2 billion neurons, and they can count to three, but they also eat their own poops. Humans have about 86 billion neurons - not just the ones that can do calculus, but also including the ones that purchase whole life insurance and are dumb.  It is therefore clearly not just the number of neurons, but how they are connected and how they function.  In other words, the brain requires conditioning in order to have high levels of competence and therefore consciousness.

As an aside, we might wonder what would happen if we had a lot more neurons.  Would we be super-duper intelligent?  Would we develop, like, telekinesis or something?  Well, elephants have about 250 billion neurons, about 3 times what we have.  While they have pretty good memory, they evidently do not posses the power of telekinesis, or even the power of instagram.  Although some of them are known to be exceptional artists.

So, we find that there is no single part of the brain that is "the consciousness." There are, however, specific parts, circuits, networks etc that are responsible for individual competencies.  Consciousness is what emerges when all these competencies are combined, and consciousness is a kind of measure of the number and diversity of our competencies.

Neither is there any sharp line between conscious and not conscious. Lots of neurons = lots of neural competence; a few neurons = a few competencies; zero neurons = zero competence. Ants have fewer competencies than dogs, which have fewer than humans. Plants have a few limited competencies, and so might possibly be regarded as having a minimal degree of consciousness, even though they have no actual neurons.  They do have some specialized cells called bundle sheath cells that behave somewhat like neurons.

Rocks have no competencies whatsoever, no internal functions or organized structure other than random crystallization grain structures, and are therefore in no way conscious at all by any measure or definition. Some may argue for the consciousness of ecosystems, but only to the extent that living systems have evolved any identifiable competencies.  But there is absolutely no question of there being anything remotely like a "universal" consciousness in the sense of rocks or other inanimate objects being self-aware or having feelings or opinions.

Only the highest levels of competence endow a very few mammal species (notably humans) with a competence for self-awareness and the level of consciousness we associate with that sense of Self. Why did other species not get that even with far more evolutionary time under their belts?  Well, they evidently did not need that particular competence for survival, or small evolutionary steps in that direction were of no advantage to them. Only humans are so physically regressive and degraded that we could only survive by being super aware, individual, and clever.

As early as 200,000 years ago, humans were basically physically as we are now, including our 86 billion neurons.  If 190,000 years wasn't enough for us to invent Porsches and Breguet wrist-watches and Apple eye-phones, then what was so special about the last 10,000 years?

Software.  It took a while, but once the ecosystem of human brains had become fertile enough ground for a new form of evolution to start taking place, bits and pieces of a new operating system began falling into place using a kind of fitness-for-survival driving force.  Social orders developed, and our brains gained that competence.  Language developed, and again 86 billion neurons were sufficiently large to accommodate languages.  Crafts developed, using language as a stepping stone so that skills could be transmitted virally.  Technologies developed which benefited success-driven software evolution by creating more human brains to infect.  These include agriculture and animal husbandry, larger social structures, writing, fighting, money, irrigation, housing, clothing, etc.  All these ideas form the suite of thinking tools that we use to think about ourselves - in other words, to be conscious.

Can there be consciousness without a brain? If you imagine seeing a ghost (that isn't actually there because you're hallucinating which is something brains are very competent at doing) and that ghost visibly has zero neurons in total because it's invisible and floating in the air, then what are the chances that the ghost is a conscious being that is super intelligent and has also magic ghost powers?

Zero. The answer is zero probability, to infinity decimal places.  If there are no functioning neurons (a necessary but insufficient condition), then there is no functional competence and hence zero consciousness.

"But what if the ghost has Ghost Neurons? Huh?"

Ok - you exponentially amp up the improbability of this nonsense by suggesting that it requires the further existence an even more improbable thing.

Sure - why not.

So - do these ghost neurons of yours also use ghost chemical neurotransmitters? What are they? How do they work? What are they made of? Can you murder a ghost by spraying lysol on it? Do your ghost neurons produce electrical impulses using actual electrical charge? Or is it some kind of never-before-detected form of ghost electricity? What keeps these ghost neurons together in a body? Ghost velcro? What is the source of the ghost neuron's energy? Does the ghost have a respiratory and circulatory system as well? Or does it run on ghost batteries?


Keep in mind that every time you have to propose some stop-gap ad-hoc new thing to keep the hypothesis from unraveling, you exponentially increase the improbability that some thing exists which has never been observed (actually, positively observed to not be there) and which would require the invalidation of mountains of established fact. And don't try hiding in the gaps of scientific knowledge - these are small and dwindling. The Argument from Ignorance is basically, "you don't know some minor detail, therefore vast swathes of my imaginary nonsense are proved conclusively." Can we hold you to that when that knowledge gap is eventually filled?  Or will you continually move the goalposts?

You've heard of Occam's Razor? Well - get ready for Newton's Flaming Laser Sword of Truth. It's just like Occam's razor, but way more dangerous and devastating to bullshit. It works like this. Anyone who asserts the existence of a Mind in the absence of a Brain is under the obligation to produce logical observable consequences of that assertion. If they fail to do so, the assertion must be dismissed as effectively proven false.

One such potential observable consequence of the existence of Mind without Brain is that dead people should be able to pass real information to the living. Also, that new, real, and accurate information should be able to be received by prophecy alone.

Unfortunately, no real, accurate, specific information has ever been received from the dead or from prophecy, at a rate distinguishable from random chance. All practitioners of "talking to the dead" have been proven to be frauds who use mere parlor tricks, and their "information" is so nonspecific it has become a generic cliche'.  "Does anyone in the room have, perhaps, an elderly relative who has died?"  Um, no - we're all AI robots here.

Also, no prophecy has ever produced reliable new information (not previously known), and "prophets" almost universally miss a lot of really important and obvious stuff. "Prophets" are also almost always known to be frauds and criminals, and are therefore most untrustworthy in the first place.

This state of affairs must be regarded as powerful positive evidence in condemning the notion of Mind without Brain. No brain, no mind. Of that we can be absolutely certain.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

In Defense of Dillahunty's Agnosticism

Matt Dillahunty has articulated what I consider to be the most lucid and reasoned explanation for why he should be an agnostic atheist as opposed to the "hard" variety.  He states that while there is no good evidence or argument that would compel him to accept the outrageous and absurd claims of religions, he also admits that he is unable to meet the burden of proof required of someone who claims to know with certainty that there are no gods or goddesses.

I happen to agree, from what I know of him, that in all likelihood Matt Dillahunty is not able to meet that burden of proof.  Most people on the planet would not be capable of meeting that burden of proof.  However I would not go so far as to claim that the burden of proof is impossible to meet, or that no one on the planet can now or ever do so.

So, hypothetically, what would it take to be able to definitively state as a matter of demonstrated fact that gods and goddesses are not real?  That there is definitively and provably no god?

Step one is to recognize that "god" is a word linked to a broad and poorly-defined category of nebulous, shape-shifting ideas. Attempting to connect such a word with any actual evidence is like trying to state anything definitive about Zlypph.  Who or what is Zlypph?  Not telling.  You have to figure it out and prove that it is or isn't real.  Well, this is a pointless task, unless we can attach some actual meaning to this worn-out placeholder.

We therefore go right ahead and do exactly that - attach some actual meaning to the word that is more than the vague bewildered gooey feeling ignorant people get in their brains when they are sad or can't comprehend something.  We must pin languages' most shape-shifting word to a specific meaning, such as "a universally powerful intelligent agent."  Even without all the adornments that various religions hang onto this definition or the numerous properties, characteristics, agendas, likes or dislikes that vary from one god to another, this, surprisingly, is enough for us to proceed.

Now, let's imagine that an individual has access to some unspecified but sufficiently large amount of reliable knowledge.  And by "reliable" I mean of course scientific knowledge.  Science as we know is the most reliable process for knowing things.  Compared to Science, every other way of knowing is no better than random guessing, and often considerably worse.  This is a direct result of the way Science always seeks disconfirmation rather than confirmation.  It is almost impossible for a false hypothesis to withstand skilled and determined efforts to disconfirm it using repeatable empirical evidence and unassailably rigorous analysis consisting of both logical and quantitative reasoning.  Only something that is reasonably true, that is, having a reasonable concordance with the real universe, can stand up to that kind of treatment.  And so, scientific knowledge is the only reliable knowledge.

Using unlimited access to this scientific knowledge along with the resulting comprehension of the natural laws, principles, processes, matter, objects, forces, fields, effects, or phenomena of the real universe, including the biosphere and its development on this planet, such a broadly informed person could be in a position to ask himself, "Is there some all-powerful (or nearly so) Agency at work in the universe?"

In order to answer in the affirmative, our polymath scientist would have to identify two enabling circumstances that are necessary but insufficient conditions.  In simple terms, these two things have to be found in order for gods to be real; but even then only producing an actual specimen would prove it beyond doubt.

Those circumstances are as follows:

1. We must see evidence that such an agency is or has been active.  We must observe objects, circumstances, processes or incidents that positively have no natural explanation or ordinary human or animal agency as their cause.  So far, all of the vast quantity of evidence that we have can be readily accounted for using natural processes or animal/human agency.   There is no evidence that the universe is or has been influenced in any way that only a powerful universal Agency could produce.

2. We must be able to identify specific processes or mechanisms by which this influence occurs or could occur.  That is, what is the entry point or point(s) of contact between this Agency and the physical universe?  We have thoroughly and meticulously scoured all of the possible physical interactions over a wide range of energy levels from the smallest weakest particles to the most powerful forces and objects in the cosmos. What we know is that there are three and only three forces operating on matter and energy: the strong nuclear force, the electromagnetic/weak nuclear force, and the gravitational pseudo-force.*  We know and it has been demonstrated that there are and can be no other forces operating in these regimes.  We know how those forces work and all the ways that matter and energy interact through those forces.  We know that, within the limits that can possibly affect objects ranging from electrons up to massive stars, there is no other way for the physical universe consisting of matter and energy to be influenced other than through these forces acting on these particles.

The absence of evidence where that evidence MUST exist is definitive evidence of absence.  Therefore there is positively no supernatural, no magic, no ghosts "outside" the universe sticking their hands in and tweaking or nudging it, or any such thing.  The mechanisms that would enable such influence to occur would have been evident exactly in the places we have been searching.

We also have zero evidence that such influence has been taking place, and certainly with nothing like the regularity that theists claim it is occurring.  Again, the absence of this evidence is the evidence.

If you have been paying close attention, you may now be objecting that we have actually been evaluating the claim that gods exist, rather than the claim that they do not.  We have actually assumed the burden of proof of the deists/theists.  But a careful examination of the scientific evidence allows a sufficiently informed individual to conclude that the evidences or lack thereof for one claim are the same as for the opposite claim.  In particular, that the singular absence of evidence for the claim made by deists is precisely all the positive evidence needed to meet the burden of proof required of the gnostic anti-deist.

Now, if theists propose an even more narrowly specified god having particular qualities, properties, likes and dislikes, taking specified actions at specified times, then it becomes even easier to locate the (lack of) evidence required to disqualify and dismiss such claims, again positively.  The positive presence of a big empty hole where the theists' evidence was supposed to be is itself the evidence.

Not everyone has access to a sufficiently deep and broad range of scientific evidence and knowledge sufficient to enable one to positively conclude that the theists' evidence is actually missing.  It's too easy for most people to not know for certain that the evidence is not in some other field with which they are unfamiliar.  Theists take advantage of this information segmentation or compartmentalization and deftly shift from one claim to another depending on what areas his debate opponent is least familiar with.  But it is not impossible for some generalists in the basic sciences with informed interests in a wide range of other fields in pure and applied sciences to actually be capable of synthesizing all the information necessary to positively, definitively conclude that there are no gods.

My perception is that there are typically more hard atheists among scientists than among other walks of life. But I do not fault Matt Dillehunty for remaining agnostic.  On the contrary, I applaud his honesty for refusing to claim that he can meet the hard atheist burden of proof.  But he should not also fallaciously conclude that since he cannot, no one can.

Nor do I call for Matt to change his position.  He should not, and I support him in his position.  For one thing, his acceptance of scientific evidence without actually understanding or evaluating that evidence would be nothing more than an appeal to authority, which is just one more of the unreliable ways of knowing things that rational people deplore.  But more importantly, Matt can do what few hard atheists can: connect and engage with people.  Matt can build bridges, whereas scientists like me are only good at being divisive and intolerant.  He is more gifted in that area than I can ever be, precisely because of his refusal to adopt the hard atheist position.  No, Matt, we need you where you are.  You're good.








*But what about dark matter/dark energy?  We don't know what those are yet, so there could still be gods and magic, right?  Wrong.  These effects are not observed except on objects the size of a galaxy or bigger.  So we ordinary people, stars, and planets are unaffected by these forces.  But Your Mama should be more careful.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Evidence versus Arguments: A Guide to Knowing with Greater Certainty



We've all heard of logical fallacies - those errors of reasoning that can lead to unreliable conclusions but which seem convincing to someone motivated to believe.  There is a complete taxonomy of fallacies, and some people rejoice in observing them in the wild, like bird watching.

Image result for ham subBut there are just three particular fallacies I want to discuss here.  One is a subset of  Red Herring fallacies, called the Fallacy of Relative Privation.  Red Herrings generally are a response to a position that instead of addressing the evidence for the position or the arguments that connect the evidence to the position's conclusion, simply changes the subject. For example:

"How about cancer, huh?  Pretty bad stuff, am I right?" 

"How DARE you minimize the suffering of people with heart disease!"

We've all seen exchanges like this in internet comments sections, and we can all recognize that the respondent is an irrational person.  The first person has evidence which leads him to conclude that cancer is a bad thing, and the second person disagrees on the basis that something else exists which they perceive as being just as bad or worse.  This Fallacy of Relative Privation leads the respondent to the unreliable conclusion that the first statement is somehow incorrect.

Another of my favourite fallacies is the Fallacy of Four Terms Via an Equivocation Error.  Cool name, huh?  The Four Terms refers to the fact that a classical syllogism has exactly three terms, not four; and slipping in a fourth (or fifth or sixth) term invalidates it.  Basically, it states:

If A = B, and if B = C, then A = C.  

But if we introduce a fourth term, we get:

If A = B, and C = D, then A = D.  Or A = E.  Or G = H.

This reasoning is clearly flawed.

What makes a Four Terms fallacy hard to spot is the addition of an Equivocation Error, i.e. you disguise the fact that B and C are not actually the same thing.   While almost impossible to do using mathematical notation, it's pretty easy using the good ol' English Language.  A great example is attributed to Lewis Carroll:

If we accept that nothing is better than Eternal Bliss, 
and that a Ham Sandwich is better than nothing, 
then a Ham Sandwich is better than Eternal Bliss. 

Clearly.  Fun Fact:  This syllogism was not found in an early draft of the Koran.

The equivocation error is that nothing is not the same thing as nothing.  Get it?  No?

Then let us rewrite the syllogism as follows:

Given: the set of things greater in value than Eternal Bliss is empty.
Given: a Ham Sandwich is greater in value than any Empty Set. 
Therefore, a Ham Sandwich is greater in value than the set of things that are greater than Eternal Bliss.  

This exposes the fallacy, since it is not Eternal Bliss that a Ham Sandwich is greater than, rather the set of things greater than Eternal Bliss, which happens to be an empty set, since we have accepted (without evidence as it turns out) that Eternal Bliss is the greatest possible thing.

Therefore, if someone offers you the choice of a Ham Sandwich, or Everything that is Greater than Eternal Bliss, you take the ham sandwich, without question.  Because the other thing is an empty set; in other words, nothing.

But if given the choice of a ham sandwich or Eternal Bliss, then you have to start asking for evidence of the existence of both Eternal Bliss AND this alleged ham sandwich.

This leads us to the relationship between arguments and evidence.  An argument is just a way of drawing a continuous line between the evidence and some conclusion.  A fallacious argument is like a broken line: the conclusion is not necessarily connected to that evidence.

But it should be recognized that there can be any number of lines (arguments) connecting the evidence to a conclusion.  If one line is broken, that does not exclude the possibility of some other solidly connected line

This leads me to the third fallacy I wished to discuss: the Fallacy Fallacy.  Just because an argument is fallacious doesn't mean that the conclusion is automatically wrong.  It just means that the argument is wrong.  In other words, the line is broken and the evidence and conclusion are not connected in that particular way.  Perhaps by some other way, but not that one.  The conclusion could still be right by some other unknown argument or on the back of some different evidence.

However, without at least some kind of evidence, all the greatest arguments in the world are meaningless.  The lines leading to a conclusion have to lead back to something.  They have to originate somewhere, from some kind of evidence.

I have seen a lot of different arguments for the existence of gods or goddesses.  Hell, I invented some of them myself.  The fact that I now find all of them in some way fallacious isn't even the most relevant point.

The real point is that there is no evidence that does not support some other, more concordant conclusion, or that does not require further baseless assumptions, e.g. invoking the supernatural.  In many cases, the arguments for theism lead back to nothing - no originating evidence whatsoever.

In spite of the Fallacy of Four Terms via Equivocation, if someone offers you the choice of a ham sandwich or eternal bliss, take the ham sandwich. Lewis Carroll's argument may be dodgy, but the conclusion was still sound: a (real) Ham Sandwich is infinitely better than (nonexistent) Eternal Bliss.