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.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

What Is Post-Intelligent Design

Recently, New Atlas posted this article about machine-optimized design engineering. I immediately recognized it as a manifestation of what Daniel Dennett refers to in this video (and many others) as Post-Intelligent Design.
That's a load bearing engine block, optimized using a generative design algoritm
Engine Block designed using generative algorithms (New Atlas)

Intelligence-Free design consists of natural processes such as evolution and natural selection which result in incredibly complex and highly optimized solutions. Bird bones for example are highly optimized for strength-to-weight, elasticity, and flexure. The process of natural selection is demonstrably purposeless and non-goal-oriented.

Intelligent Design is the deliberate arrangement of components or materials to achieve a specific set of performance goals. It typically results in highly simplistic, geometric regular forms, owing in part to the necessity of making things easy to produce, and in part to only simple forms being amenable to manual analytical methods. Cars and bridges represent intelligent design processes.

Image result for bird bone section
Cross-Section of a bird bone
Post-Intelligent Design (PID) means that the engineer allows unintelligent computer simulations to recursively modify a design to achieve optimal performance, typically the lowest weight or size that achieves a specified strength. It can also refer to self-learning computer algorithms or computer systems that develop their own optimized code or networks. In many ways this is Intelligence-Free Design revisited, but now with purpose and goals which we give it.

Intelligent design blends smoothly into PID; there is no crisp transitional line. For instance when I design something really critical, I use analytic techniques ranging from paper-and-pencil, formulas & a calculator, right up to 3D FEA on a computer, in order to identify areas that are critically stressed, and areas that are under-stressed. An optimal design under the maximum design load case should be uniformly stressed, indicting that every bit of material is fully contributing to the device's function. I will then remove material from under-stressed areas and add material to over-stressed areas, and do the analysis again. I may even make new material selections (carbon fibre, high-performance alloys etc) to get the required result.  This cycle repeats for as much time as I have or until the goals are achieved within a tolerated margin.  Post-intelligent Design simply automates this process and gives the computer wider latitude to come up with optimal designs that meet the given constraints and performance goals.

One of the enabling technologies for PID is 3D Printing. This removes one of the constraints faced by Intelligent Design: the need to make designs in simple geometric figures that are able to be produced in real life.

The final obstacle to overcome is that 3D-Printable materials are not the highest-performing materials that we have. The relatively poor specific performance of thermoplastics, sintered metals etc is a major problem that makes generative designs that can only be 3D printed actually less useful than intelligent design using simple geometric shapes.  Naturally, a lot of smart people are working on exactly that problem.

In a PID world, it may be that no one person or even group of people knows how a piece of technology works, what certain features are for, or why something looks the way it does.  One only knows that it is optimized for a specified purpose. In such a world we become literally the god-like Minds whose values and desires guide and direct the autonomous evolution of a technological ecosystem.

Also in such a world, it will be possible, easy in fact, to deduce what those values are, since they will be reflected in numerous ways. In that world of our creation, it becomes incredibly important that we decide upon those values and ensure that they are objectively good - by which I mean supportive of our long-term survival and quality of life.

In the Intelligence-Free natural world, there is absolutely no evidence of any sort of guiding values at work. One can see this in humanity's past.

The Intelligence-Free universe gave homo sapiens lives that were, to quote Hobbes, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Our happiness and comfort or the "sanctity " of life obviously are not values held by the universe. But at some point around 10,000 years ago, give or take, we developed culturally-transmitted and ever-evolving thinking tools (Dawkins' "Memes") and immediately began Intelligently Designing our lives and our world. Human population then exploded.

A few hundred years ago, those thinking tools underwent another growth spurt, and Science was born - the meme that suggests that the most powerful and efficient way to determine fact from fiction was to try to disconfirm the hypothesis. Not coincidentally, in that short time not only has humanity completely overrun the planet but individual lives are now twice as long with vastly more interesting things to do and marred by dramatically less suffering.  We are no longer nasty, brutish, or short.  Well, most of us anyway.

We did that.  We did that ourselves.  We did that by Intelligent Design.  And now, it may be time for Post-Intelligent Design to step in and take over.  But what will our new job be?  We get a promotion.  We become the ones who decide what is important and what isn't.  We need to start taking that job seriously.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

I Have Been Evolving

A recent article published in BMC Biology presented evidence that 450 million years ago the common ancestor of present-day Spiders and Scorpions experienced a Whole Genome Duplication (WGD). 

A Whole Genome Duplication is when the offspring of an organism accidentally gets two complete copies of its genome, which its descendants then inherit.  While relatively rare, WGD's do occur from time to time, but usually don't lead to anything since by itself it provides no advantage to the individual.  However if the double genome hangs around for long enough before going extinct, it can provide twice the opportunity for evolution to test mutations while having a bit of a safety fallback in the form of the duplicate gene.  At least I think that's how it works.  

This pre-spider WGD seems to have been an advantageous one since probably all spiders and scorpions alive today are descended from it. WGD can essentially confer evolutionary superpowers on a line of organisms, enabling them to diversify rapidly and specialize dramatically. This is certainly true of spiders, of which there are an estimated 46,000 distinct living species, with many more yet to be discovered and classified. If you name any possible way to survive in nature, there's probably a spider that does it.

But that's nothing.  We vertebrates had TWO WGD's in our evolution. And look at us - we invented bug spray.  Take that, spiders.

I find evolution fascinating.  As Francis Crick put it, "Evolution is smarter than you."  Using nothing more than lots of time, lots of slightly imperfect gene duplication, and razor-sharp selective pressures, it results in incredibly subtle and clever solutions to the problem of survival.  

The turning point in our history was when we Eukaryotes decided it would be fun, instead of simply eating a bacteria, to adopt one as a pet and let it live inside our membrane. That's how we came to have things like chloroplasts, mitochondria, and golgi bodies inside us.

A similar thing happened to us again about 10,500 years ago when, instead of simply killing and eating an aurochs, we decided to try catching some and keeping them as pets. We would feed them, watch them mate, keep them alive, and then get lots of little baby aurochsen. That is the day we invented Veal. 

The lesson in all this is to never do anything exactly the same way always.  Change it up a bit.  Find what else works.

No automatic alt text available.
You Are Here: humans are the tip of a tiny twig on one of the right-hand limbs of the right-most branch.

Failure to Communicate

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

When rationalists or humanists talk about Morality, they could be thinking of any number of specific things.

They might be thinking of how people treat each other generally.  They could also be thinking of the decisions or actions we make that could have wider implications, e.g. for the environment or society.

They might be thinking of one's obligation to protect and educate the young, rather than exploit or neglect them. They could even be thinking that Morality is that same thing applied to the Aged or Disabled.

Morality is often applied to thinking about the treatment of animals.  Morality could even mean the considerations for or against inter-nation conflict, economic policy, trade, or actions taken in response to human rights issues.

But when you talk to a christian about morality, they are basically thinking of one thing.  To a christian, Morality means basically this:

Not touching yourself.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Twenty-One Questions About God - Answered

There is one weird fact that solves every difficult theological problem that has ever been posed.  Once you know and understand this one crucial fact, you become a Maser Theologian and can answer every question about God easily and without contradiction.

1.  Is God a male, a female, or a gender-less oozy gastropod of some sort?

Answer:  Neither, because gods aren't actually real things at all.

2.   Did God create evil?

Answer:  No, because gods do not exist.

3.  Will God forgive me?

Answer: No, because God does not exist.  Forgive yourself and try to be a better person.

4.  How is it that God and Jesus are the same being?

Answer:  Because neither of those things exist.  Jesus was never a real person, and there never were any gods at all.

5.  Did God create our spirits and give us free will?

Answer:  No, because there never were any gods at all, and the evidence is strongly against the existence of spirits.

6.  Will I meet God when I die?

Answer:  No, because no gods exist, and neither do you after you die.

7.  Does God know everything?

Answer:  No, because the idea of an all-knowing god is a testable proposition that fails on the basis of evidence.

8.  Is God all-powerful?

Answer:  No, because an all-powerful god is a testable proposition that fails due to the proposition being inherently contradictory and therefore absurd and self-negating.

9.  Does God want me to believe in him?

Answer:  No, because there are affirmatively no such beings in existence.

10.  Didn't God give us the bible to tell us that he exists?

Answer:  No, because gods are not real things.  The bible is as much a proof of a god as Marvel Comics is proof of a Spiderman.

11.  Did God send the angel Gabriel to instruct Muhammad?

Answer: No, because there never were any gods or angels at all.

12.  Is not the Pope God's actual representative on the earth?

Answer:  No, because gods are not actually real things that exist.

13.  Which religion is the right one?

Answer: Religion is wrong.  Religion is entirely a wrong thing, period.  Religion is a wrong process reaching wrong conclusions, and is full of wrong ideas and wrong people.  Religion is wrong about every single thing that makes religion unique.

14.  Did God empower Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt?

Answer:  No, because there are no gods.  Also, Moses was a fictional character invented around 700 BC based unimaginatively on half a dozen previous fictional characters and popular stories known from antiquity.

15.  Did God create Adam and Eve?

Answer:  No, because there never were any gods at all.

16.  Does God prefer that we worship on Sunday, or on Saturday?  Which is the correct Sabbath?

Answer:  Neither, because god isn't a real thing and worship is a wrong thing to do, being based on demonstrably false assumptions.

17.  Why does it seem like God allows terrible things to happen?

Answer: Because there is no such thing as gods.   You might just as well agonize over why the underpants gnomes are allowing so many bad things to happen.

18.  Does God hear and answer prayers?

Answer:  No, because there never were any gods at all.  Also, telepathic communication is disproved bullshit.

19.  Golly gee whiz, I'm pretty sure there is a God. My feelings and my church says so.

Answer: There isn't.  Examine why you think that, and look critically at all the evidence.  Lots of people have walked away from those unfounded beliefs once they realized that there was nothing in it.   They're just fine, and you will be just fine, too.

20.  But what if you're wrong?  Huh?

So - you're a gambler, are you?  Pascal's Wager, is it?  OK - let's play that game.  Given all the evidence, the probability of any god existing is vanishingly small, and the probability of that god being precisely the one you think it is, is again vanishingly small out of the infinity of all possible gods that might exist.  Now then, of all the possible gods, how many would be offended and angry if you guessed the wrong god?  Therefore if any gods exist, there is a high probability that you will have disastrously picked the wrong one.

Or you could just not play silly games of chance and follow the evidence where it leads.

21.  But couldn't there be a something, somewhere, and you can't prove there isn't!

Is that what you believe in?  A vague notion of a "something, somewhere?"  A non-interfering god that refrains from modifying the universe in any measurable way so as to remain undetectable?  Such a being is indistinguishable from the wholly non-existent, so it makes no difference whether you believe in it or not.

But all the specific gods, who believers claim must always modify the universe early and often and in specific ways, expose themselves to objective, empirical examination through evidence.  All the evidence is concordant with the non-existence of magic, the supernatural, or of gods, devils, spirits, ghosts, fairies, or leprechauns.  Most of the evidence directly implicates these facts,  while some of the evidence (to which theists cling) merely bears multiple explanations.

But the simplest explanation that is consistent with all the evidence and which provides the simplest, most believable and coherent answers to all theological questions is that there never were any gods at all.