Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Big Idea

Digital Cuttlefish commenter Margaret posted on FTB:

I think the scientific method (or skeptical inquiry, or whatever you want to call it) is the Big Idea, and that leads to knowledge of the universe, which makes the wiggle room for the existence of any gods smaller and smaller, which leads to the trivial conclusion of atheism (a trivial conclusion is a little idea, not a Big Idea).

Her reference to “skeptical inquiry” led me to boil that down to simply “inquiry” ... As in

“inquiry is the Big Idea that leads to knowledge of the universe, which makes the wiggle room for the existence of any gods smaller and smaller, which leads to the trivial conclusion of atheism.“

Objectivity and intent

As I zero in on what I can be objective about, I think I understand that, as long as my senses are accurate, then I can describe the physical attributes of an object. I meandered through my thoughts in these previous posts:
As I’d mentioned a while back, looking at the object from design and intentional stances (after Dennett) makes the state of “objectivity” much harder to achieve.

If I know the designer of an object, I can query her and discover what the object is designed to do. That can also uncover its purpose, because the designer, or the party that commissioned the design, will know what the object “intends to do”.

If the object is a living being, design and intent are truly difficult to be objective about, because we can only rely on our assessment of what the entity looks like it can do, and we can never be sure what the entity intends to do, in spite of what it might say or physically signal.

This all leads me back to my original seed: “can there be objective moral values?”

Final thoughts soon.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Objectivity and Design

I have a shaggy dog story about objectivity that goes a little something like this:

Devil’s PostpileIf I see a bright object in the distance, I might only be able to discern that it’s bright and it’s distant. I might not know if it’s real or a mirage. As I approach it, its outlines become clearer, its color becomes clearer, and I can estimate its size in relationship to its surroundings.

Even closer now, I see that the object is white, nearly a cube, rests on the ground, is about a foot-and-a-half in each dimension. But that’s all I know.

When I’m close enough to touch it, I can feel how rough or smooth it is, whether there are seams or cracks, I can even attempt to lift it to estimate its weight. I now know a lot more than I did several hundred yards ago. But I still don’t know what itis, only what it's description is.

I don’t know what the object is for ... What it's purpose is. I have no idea whether it is natural or manufactured, designed or undesigned, whether the hypothetical manufacturer was fulfilling an intention via the manufacture and placement of the object.

Devil’s PostpileThe object I’m using in this example is a salt lick - it has a designer, manufacturer and a purpose, but I only know that from hearsay, and my experience with other simple objects.

What if I had been approaching the Devil’s Postpile (image above)? Had I not known in advance that this structure is a natural cleavage occurring in the type of rock at that location in Yosemite, I might have inferred a designer and manufacturer and purpose for these objects.

And I would have been wrong. Without prior knowledge from which I could make an inference, I couldn’t have made an accurate judgement on the Postpile, whereas I could infer what the salt lick was. But I could have incorrectly inferred a design to the Postpile, based on my understanding of a salt lick.

I’d still have been wrong.

Without physical evidence of a designer and manufacturer, I cannot be objective or certain as to what the Postpile is.

This is where evidence is essential. And this implies to me that objectivity requires evidence - somewhere in our chain of reason - to be meaningful.

Pure reason can fail me, as it would have at Yosemite.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Is God necessary?

Is God necessary?

Bradley Bowen has a multi-part series (part 1, part 2 and part 3 so far) on this at The Secular Outpost - which I’ve just started to read.

Some preliminary thoughts:

merrily skippyYou hear the general argument that God is the “necessary” being without which the universe, or logic, or reason, or life (etc.) couldn’t exist. But this seems to be a bare assertion used by presuppositionalists and other apologist to skip merrily past the problem of not having an actual God in existence that might be capable of having these capabilities. It is a philosophical exercise. Nothing more.

1. First, to claim that “God is the necessary being for X to exist” requires that God, as I just mentioned, has to have a separate existence prior to associating him with the existence of something in the universe. This, of course, no one ever provides evidence for.

2. Second, no chain of logic or causality is demonstrated to establish that a God is “necessary” for these things. Natural explanations, although incomplete on the more fundamental topics of the universe and life, are not explained by asserting that they can’t exist without God. There’s no reason to believe a putative “being” is necessary for anything.

3. Third, assuming that God exists, how would one ascribe characteristics to God such as omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, externality (etc.) without sound argument or evidence? This is never done either.

4. Fourth, these characteristics of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, externality (etc.) are not such that we can prove that they exist. We have no examples of such things, and trying to bootstrap them into existence simultaneously with the assertion of God’s existence (the thing you’re trying to prove by ascribing these characteristics to) is not plausible, and undoubtedly not proven nor in evidence. We don’t even have coherent descriptions of them when they are considered simultaneously.

5. Fifth, there appear to be better alternative explanations for the phenomena that apologists believe that God is necessary for, even if he (it?) did exist.

So why is this train of thought considered worthwhile? If you’re a non-philosopher as I am, or a non-apologist as I am, it just seems stupid. It sounds harsh, dismissive, strident, whatever - it just seems stupid.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Trayvon Martin

After the George Zimmerman acquittal in the Trayvon Martin 2nd degree murder trial, I figured that a 24-hour cooling off period would be needed before I commented - as if my comments are needed.

TrayvonI was immediately furious, but here, 72 hours later, I think I understand better what happened. Chris Hallquist has a good summary of what can be said about “our typical liberal reaction” to the wrongful death of an unarmed black teenager. Read the comments - they're also mostly insightful.

Here’s how it boils down:
  1. Zimmerman was charged with Second Degree Murder
  2. The judge also offered a lesser ruling of Manslaughter
  3. there was reasonable doubt as to both charges, so that either ruling could not be obtained
  4. the “reasonable doubt” criteria is what keeps our judicial system one of the more liberal ones in the world - racial bias notwithstanding
  5. no one disputes that Zimmerman shot Martin
  6. a negligent homicide or involuntary manslaughter verdict might have been attainable, but was not charged

I’m still angry, sad and frustrated over the killing of Trayvon Martin, and Saturday’s acquittal of George Zimmerman, but I understand why it resolved itself that way.

Rest in Peace Trayvon.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Objectivity and Bayes Theorem


I'm still pondering objectivity - so I have to at least skirt the topic of how I’d arrive at a “most likely explanation” using a “thinking tool” like the abbreviated version of Bayes Theorem above. This formula (often referred to as “BT”) represents

“the probability (P) that a hypothesis (h) is true given all the available evidence (e) and all our background knowledge (b)”

Ptolemy got it wrong That’s actually a pretty simple way to choose between alternatives. Many of us apply this instinctively every day, although we don’t think about it in such formal terms. However, when we start to examine things from a more objective, less emotional point of view, we must be more honest and rigorous. How might we then use this formula for assessing the likelihood that causes of phenomena in the real world are what we think they are? I won't explain BT here, because I’m not an expert, but I can still use it as a pattern to help me assess whether something is more or less likely to be true.

Imagine that I’m an ancient human observing that the sun moves across the sky once a day. What are the possible reasons this happens? It could be any of the deities Ra, Surya, Freyr - or several others. It could be that the sun circles the earth on its own - as Ptolemy thought.There could be some other plausible explanations entirely. Since I assume that shit doesn’t just happen for no reason, I feel there is a explanation for the sun crossing the sky. Now, being honest and rigorous, I have to admit that, in this example, although the sun-god Ra is my choice as the real explanation for why the sun moves across the sky once a day, alternative explanations for this phenomena exist. Some alternatives I’m aware of, some, I’m not. Seeing as how I haven’t done a legitimate investigation into why the sun moves across the sky once a day, I probably need to assign each alternative an equal probability of being true, and then do some testing to raise or lower their individual probabilities based on the outcome of each test.

In probability speak, the sum of all probabilities for an explanatory hypothesis is 1 (or in gambler-speak: 100%). And since there is always more than one plausible explanation, then each alternative has a non-zero, non-one probability.

At this point, I can also say that, of the tens, or hundreds or thousands of plausible explanations, there may be millions or billions of implausible explanations that, although easy to dismiss, are not logically impossible, so they also have a non-zero probability. And they all contribute to that total of exactly 1.

Therefore, with the limited set of proposed explanations for the sun traversing the sky, my initial calculation ought to be:

  1. Ra did it = .2
  2. Surya did it = .2
  3. Freyr did it = .2
  4. Ptolemy was right = .2
  5. All other explanations = .2
... so that we then have a total probability of 1 - a 100% chance that our 5 hypotheses cover all possible explanations.

This is a key point - that every possible alternative that is not impossible should be considered to have a non-zero probability before you start gathering evidence. And that there are explanations that we don’t know about that we must acknowledge - here I group them as “All other explanations”.

When all of the hard work of investigating is done, it turns out that Ra and the gang were not the cause for the sun traversing the sky. It was the earth turning on it’s axis that made it appear the way it did.

We can approach the question of whether God exists the same way. We might even arrive at a similar conclusion.