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 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.

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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.