Archive for the ‘Religion’ 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.

Replace with Synonym, Put in Italics

Jerry Coyne and Andrew Sullivan are having a conversation about suffering and religion.

Jerry Coyne writes:

Humans do not have a unique capacity to “rise above suffering.” Every animal rises above suffering. It has to, if it is to live and leave offspring. It’s ADAPTIVE to be resilient!

Andrew responds:

One feels as if one is talking past someone.

Yes, resilience is obviously built into our genetics, but my point was the unique ability to transcend suffering, not just endure it.

Replacing a word with another word isn’t an argument. I don’t know why religious people think this is true (it’s probably one of those transcendent things). But if I were to interpret Andrew’s response, perhaps thinking too deeply about what he was even trying to say, I would respond this way:

In my humble experience, humans respond to suffering in two ways. They either forget their suffering (or more precisely, the reality of the suffering becomes duller over time) or they consciously (or unconsciously) avoid things or thoughts that they know cause suffering. Contrary to pop psychology, consciously recalling traumatic events in order to “deal with them” is incredibly damaging. That’s why PTSD is so insidious. Soldiers with PTSD can’t bring themselves to forget the extreme suffering they went through in the war zone. Their brains won’t let them forget. And that’s some of the most profound suffering I can imagine. I wish Andrew would give an example of someone ‘transcending suffering’ to better know what he meant. The only example he did give (getting over the pain caused by a close friend’s death) is (even if tragic) really not valid. As Coyne notes, and Andrew helpfully ignores, atheists experience the same exact phenomena in response to the death of a loved one. What Coyne doesn’t say, but I think he implies, is that there are bookshelves full of examples of other mammals expressing the same kinds of mourning behaviors that humans express. There are what look to be evolutionary precursors to the kinds of supposedly spiritual or transcendent behaviors that make humans unique. There are also examples of animals which starve themselves to death in response to stress or the loss of offspring.

If I were to guess, I would say that Andrew wouldn’t particularly disagree with anything I’ve written here. And yet he disagrees. But who knows why? I think the one who knows the least about why is Andrew himself. I certainly have no idea.

Blatant Huckster is Blatant

You might think that a moderator should not, when introducing the parameters of a supposedly intellectual debate on the existence of the so-called Kerishten deity, first plug his own book, and then go on to offer the audience a magazine subscription, and then try and whore out religious pamphlets to college students. Within the first two minutes.

Oh, you naive, quotidian peasant.

Watching this debate between Christopher Hitchens and various religious-clerics-or-whatever still has some merit, though, if only to watch Hitchens interject mercilessly in between some pretty weak sauce apologia. Which is entertaining every now and again.

A Persuadable Ohio

George Packer, a writer for The New Yorker, has an article up that everyone ought to read. And if you don’t feel chills down your spine, in either anger or hopefulness (or both), then you are perhaps not human.

“Meigs County is one of the worst,” Price said as we drove. “We’re going to a racist area—I won’t lie to you. I have heard, pardon my French, ‘Get the fuck off my porch, I’m not voting for no nigger.’ ” A few days earlier, she had twice been chased away by dogs. Price canvassed for Obama alone day after day, with a can of Mace in the car. She had learned not to wear an Obama T-shirt. People didn’t react well—they seemed to take it as someone telling them whom to vote for.

She parked on a street that ran along the foot of the rock face looming over Pomeroy. It was early afternoon. There was no sign of life on the street except for two boxers in a yard, unleashed and barking at us. Price told me that their collars would register a shock if the dogs crossed a buried wire.

“I’m not scared of my home town,” Price said. “I’m a pretty tough girl. Gotta be.”

She had a list of voters—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—and we began to go door to door. Some of the residences were boarded shut, some were trailers with appliances lying out front. One or two were large, lavishly decaying houses with overgrown gardens. A front porch was sealed off by fallen branches.

A middle-aged woman in a nightdress peered out of a screen door. Price began her pitch.

“If the election was held today, have you decided who you’ll vote for?”

The woman hesitated, then turned away to speak to someone inside. A man’s voice called out, “We’re not voting this year.”

Price noted this on her sheet and thanked the woman.

She didn’t leave the sidewalk to speak to the owner of the two snarling dogs. He said that he would probably vote for McCain, because he was a veteran. A shirtless young man in his underwear, who seemed to have just woken up, said that he was an Obama supporter and knew a few others. There was an AIDS ribbon tattooed on his right shoulder. “The ignorant ones that don’t vote, they say Obama’s a nigger and he’s going to be assassinated,” the young man said. “That is classic Meigs County.” Farther down the street, two women and a little girl—three generations of a family—were getting out of a car. The grandmother said that she was undecided. She thought that McCain was wrong on the war, but she wasn’t sure about Obama. Price left her with some literature and her phone number.

At the door of a trailer, Price knocked, then knocked again. Finally, the screen door opened a few inches. A white-haired, white-skinned ghost of an old woman identified herself as Betty.

“If the election was held today, have you decided who you’ll vote for?”

“ ’bama.”

My Absence

Sorry about not making any posts in awhile. I found a place that gives me that green papery stuff in exchange for my participation in a chair-sitting competition. It goes like this. If I can sit in a chair for eight hours, tapping my fingers against lightly-springed buttons according to certain specified rules, I get to take home some of that green papery stuff. And then I get to trade it for foodstuffs, propellant for my vehicle, and many other luxuries.

OOH OOH OOH! And I have a whiteboard. A really big whiteboard. I puts maf on it. Hehehe…

Anyways, I’ve had to adjust my sleep schedule a bit, which is why the posts are lacking. I’ll get right back on that.

Pirates, Kitties, and People Talking to CCDs

Honestly, who watches TV anymore when you can watch YouTube instead? Aside from Battlestar Galactica last Friday, I haven’t turned a TV on once in the past three weeks. And here’s another reason to perpetuate that habit.

There’s a bloke on YouTube named Paul Harrison. He’s a former Christian (as of six years or so ago, I believe), and he runs a channel where he discusses his former Christianity, atheism, and intelligent design, and reviews Christian apology books. Take a look see.

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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