Archive for the ‘Evolution’ Category

All Dualism is Sloppy Dualism

This is in response to a post at Good Math, Bad Math by Mark Chu-Carroll.

In it, he criticizes Phil Plait for what, to me, sounds almost boringly obvious. Phil sez:

You might want to use the same reductionist reasoning on humans too, and say we are nothing more than machines and have no free will, no choice but to obey whatever laws of physics command us. And I cannot discount that, but I suspect we are richer than that. The laws of physics are not binary; they don’t say to us “Behave this way or that.” There are huge, perhaps even uncountable numbers of choices that lie before us. It’s not just a matter of cranking all our atomic states and field equations through a black box and determining what we must perforce do; there are probabilities involved, so that our actions may be predictable in a sense but are not fundamentally determined in advance

I wouldn’t necessarily put it that way, but I agree with it.

Mark counters:

This is what I call “sloppy dualism”… He’s claiming to argue in favor of a purely scientific universe, with no room for the supernatural. But he tries to sneak a little bit of space in to the fuzziness of how things work to make room for his own free will.

I think Mark is much too caught up in the philosophical and religious history of dualism here. I would rephrase Phil’s statement this way: that complex biological interactions (and thus physical interactions) give rise to the illusion of free will. And this illusion is of such persistence and seeming complexity that, to any being under its spell, it simply feels real. And objectively speaking the presence of this illusion clearly classifies objects in the universe. A nebula does not have this ‘free will’, because it doesn’t exhibit the requisite complexity. But a human being does.

Mark objects to classifying objects this way, calling it a kind of dualism. And I ask: why? Using the term ‘dualism’ for this kind of thinking offends the historical definition of that term. Phil’s description isn’t anything less than completely materialistic. There are no spirits involved. There’s simply a hierarchy of physical laws with a range of complexities. At the lowest hierarchy are ‘simple’ objects, such as electrons and muons and atoms that express relatively simple behavior. At the higher echelons are more and more complex objects and phenomena, like ‘free will’. But these higher echelons obviously depend on the lower ones and are determined in some way by them. Whereas the spirit and body are only connected via divine intervention in a classical dualism (and are completely detached otherwise), Phil’s ‘dualism’ is nothing of the sort. And so I would argue that it doesn’t make sense to even put it in those terms.

What Phil is doing is asserting that we are, somehow, different. He starts off OK; the way that physics appears to work, things are not completely deterministic. There’s a lot of fuzziness and probabilistic nondeterminism.

But moving from non-determinism to choice is a problem. If you’re consistent, and you reject non-physical entities and influences in the world, then you are no exception.

It’s not a problem at all if this choice only appears to be a choice to the one making it. If I were to further interpret Phil’s description of choice, I would appeal to a kind of complex if-then ‘rule’ schema. If A happens, I will choose B1. But there are mitigating factors C, D, E, and F. If C goes a certain way, but D doesn’t, I will choose B2 and not B1. But if C, D, and E are all go a certain way I’ll choose B3. One can imagine this schema extending into a very large ‘tree’ of if-thens, perhaps with some degree of probability in the decision-making. To a being controlled by such a schema it would appear that they had innumerable choices at every turn–the definition of free will. To that being’s biology, however, there would exist a very definite rule set.

Is this how free will works? Perhaps not. But this is what biology suggests. This is how all other kinds of organisms work. They have rules for responding to stimuli. If you imagine the simple rule set for a paramecium scaled up a billion, billion fold, it’s not hard (at least in my mind) to fathom how free will (or the illusion thereof) arises.

There’s no scientific reason to believe that we have free will. There’s no buffer zone that we’ve found in any of the physical laws of how the universe works to make room for free will. There’s non-determinism; but there’s not choice.

Yet. I suppose we should give up, though, in light of these destructive arguments. 🙂

Choice is the introduction of something, dare I say it, supernatural: some influence that isn’t part of the physical interaction, which allows some clusters of matter and energy to decide how they’ll collapse a probabilistic waveform into a particular reality.

There’s definitely no scientific reason to believe that.

There’s nothing wrong with believing that there’s something more than the simple physical to the world; something that allows this thing we call consciousness. But it’s not a scientific belief. And for all his hedging, Phil is clearly saying that he believes that the math of physics isn’t, and can’t be all that describes how the universe works. And once you make room for that kind of supernatural, it’s hard to explain just why your kind of supernatural belief is perfectly rational, and someone else’s kind of supernatural belief is silly.

This is really a weaselly argument. Nothing is a scientific belief until it’s demonstrated in an experiment. That doesn’t mean that some arguments aren’t more scientific than others, that some arguments aren’t more presupposition and wish-thinking than others, and some arguments aren’t more based in facts than are others. I hate to trot out the cliche, but the belief that unicorns don’t exist is not a scientific belief nor a rational one. But my confidence in that belief, based upon everything I know and everything science and history tells me, sets it apart from a toddler’s belief that unicorns really do exist. To think otherwise is post-modernism at its core.


Wow, They Can Disagree

First I learn from Tyler DiPietro that DaveScot (also lovingly referred to as “DaveTard”) managed to utter something reasonable for once in his life.

Then I go searching on Uncommon Descent and find DaveScot actually arguing (however placidly) with the Uncommonly Dense over the connection (or more accurately, lack thereof) between natural selection and Nazism.

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More on Scientific Theories

In the prelude to his quantum mechanics textbook Principles of Quantum Mechanics, R. Shankar describes several features of the progression from older scientific theories to newer ones, and how the older ones are related to the newer ones:

  • There is a domain D_n of phenomena described by the new theory and a sub-domain D_0 wherein the old theory is reliable (to a given accuracy).
  • Within the sub-domain D_0 either theory may be used to make quantitative predictions. It might often be more expedient to employ the old theory.
  • In additional to numerical accuracy, the new theory often brings about radical conceptual changes. Being of a qualitative nature, these will have a bearing on all of D_n.

This is a nice way of thinking about it, I think.

Logic: You’re Doing It Wrong

Mark Chu-Carroll, over at one of my favorite blogs, Good Math, Bad Math, writes about the discussion over Expelled::

…what strikes me is that we haven’t paid enough attention to something even more important than whether or not there’s a link between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the nazis.

Suppose that it was true that Darwin’s writings about evolution were the primary thing that motivated the Nazi’s genocide against the Jews, the Romany, and all the other “undesirables” that they killed. Forget, for a moment, that the linkage is a crock. Pretend that it’s the truth.

What difference does it make?

Does the truth become less true because some idiot used it to justify something awful?

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Scientifically Proven

In what may be the stupidest attempt at research using the Internet in history, I decided earlier today to google around and try and find the origins of the phrase “scientifically proven”. Yes, I hear you guffawing.

What I found instead were scientifically proven aromatherapy remedies, hangover remedies, fitness remedies, alternative “medicines”, anti-vaccination testimonies, baldness remedies, cosmetics, “junk” (i.e. boob, vag, and schlong) enhancers, and a BBC story on the hue of Jesus’ skin. I can has masochism?

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Sciencin’ Ain’t Easy

The Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin is miffed because smart Finnish kids understand modern science. No really. An international study measuring education in 57 countries found that Finnish 15-year-olds are precocious little beasts. They scored first place in science, and near the top in both reading and math.

But Luskie is all QQ:

However, part of the test, which was created by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, may be a measure of nothing more than whether a student believes in evolution. For example, see the sample test question, Question 3, Evolution:

Which one of the following statements best applies to the scientific theory of evolution?

A The theory cannot be believed because it is not possible to see species changing.
B The theory of evolution is possible for animals but cannot be applied to humans.
C Evolution is a scientific theory that is currently based on extensive evidence.
D Evolution is a theory that has been proven to be true by scientific experiments.

Clearly Casey isn’t very good at that lawyerin’ stuff, because his argument is like.. moronic. The question isn’t testing about knowledge of or belief in evolution per se, but about the definition of a scientific theory. Watch this. I’m going to remove all references to evolution from the question.

Which one of the following statements best applies to a scientific theory?

A A theory cannot be believed if it’s not possible to observe it happening directly.
B A theory doesn’t apply to humans.
C A theory is currently based on extensive evidence.
D A theory has been proven to be true by scientific experiments.

Once you take away all mentions of evolution, you can see how truly nuanced the question really is, and what it’s really getting at. The first answer is clearly wrong. If it was true, then theoretical science would be impossible. The second answer appears absolutely absurd. The third and fourth answers seem plausible, and the difference between them is subtle. Weeding out answer D requires the student understand that science doesn’t “prove” things, since all scientific theories can ever be are models. The only answer left is C, which makes perfect sense.

Ironically, the misunderstanding of this one question by Luskin perfectly illustrates why he doesn’t understand what science is.

Less QQ, more pew pew, Casey.

Wounds Are Designed for Bleeding

Mike Dunford over at The Questionable Authority writes about the rejection of the Discovery Princetitute blog from He made one excellent point (among many) that deserves to be fondled lovingly. In a totally platonic way, of course. Unless you’re parents aren’t around. Then it’s totally cool. Uh.. anyway.

He writes:

The scientific community’s distaste for the Discovery Institute isn’t caused by intolerance for dissenting views. It’s the effect of the years that the Discovery Institute has spent publicly attacking science and scientists.

Well, this just sums up the problem with the ID movement, and on multiple fronts. This misconception, this idea that everything has an agenda, a clear, directed creative purpose behind it is just factually wrong. It’s obviously wrong. It’s wrong when it comes to evolution. It’s wrong when it comes to criticisms of ID. It’s wrong when you’re talking almost everything. The weather has no agenda behind it (although I suppose most creationists would believe it does). An ant dying accidentally under my boot has no agenda behind it. Follicle bacteria imbibing your dermal sebum has no agenda behind it. “Agenda” simply isn’t a prominent feature of our universe, numerically-speaking. Even if you believe in a prime mover, that’s only ONE process out of the infinitely many processes which has an agenda. I mean, come on.. our beloved, oh-so-perfect species can barely keep its head straight on most occasions. It’s only through GRADUAL, PROGRESSIVE processes that society is enhanced, not perfunctory moral crusades.

Just put the science down for a minute. You’re out of your league. Take a look at your assumptions first. If you want to be a scientist, that’s what you have to do. Once you’ve taken a nice long pilgrimage, oh prodigal son, you can come back and apologize for your wrongdoings. And then you can do all of the cool stuff that scientists do. Peer pressure.. PEER PRESSUREEEE.. DON’T YOU WANT TO BE COOL LIKE US?