13 December 2005

Definitions

When I was at university, one of our lecturers (who was described as a ‘philosophical skinhead’ by one reviewer) held a seminar on Xeno's paradox of infinity. The discussion went something like this:

Student (doing the presentation): A ball bounces an infinite number of times, and so never stops.
Rocky (for ‘twas his name): No, a ball bounces an infinite number of times, and then stops.
Student (becoming agitated): That’s not right; the concept of infinity involves not stopping. That’s why it’s infinite.
Rocky: No, it doesn't.

This went on for two hours. As the bell went, Rocky asked the student: ‘What do you mean by the term “infinite”?’ The student explained. And Rocky replied: ‘That's not what I mean’, and left.

We, poor astounded students, swore violently and took ourselves off to the pub to drown our sorrows in Guinness, cursing his name.

Two years later, I realised what he was getting at. The word ‘infinite’ is a negation, and we commonly assume that it is the negation of the word ‘finite’. But it is also the negation of the word ‘definite’. Rocky was using the second sense, and was saying that a ball bounces and ‘in-definite’ number of times, then stops. No paradox; no contradiction. If someone had actually challenged him on the definition of the term, we could all have retired to the pub a lot earlier and sung his praises instead. Needless to say, it’s one of the few things I remember about my philosophy degree.

07 December 2005

The Waiting

Today was a day of Waiting.

Waiting for a package is a nightmare for me. I got notification from Amazon two days ago that the thing had been sent. So it is possible that it will turn up today; and so my entire day revolves around the wait. I can’t go to the corner shop and get a pizza, in case the post comes while I’m out (no bad thing, actually, because I had a vegetables and pasta instead). The day went through, I think, four distinct phases:

8:00 - 10:00 Breakfast. No way the post will come that early, but the anticipation starts mounting.

10:00 - 12:00 Too early, but possible: I hear an engine in the street, and I almost leap to my feet; but then I look at the clock and remind myself that it is still too early.

12:00 - 14:00 Optimal time. Every vehicle which passes could be the post, and the number of times I stop whatever I’m doing and listen intently before sidling over to the window to check is ridiculous. At one point I even go downstairs to ostensibly check the postbox - well, perhaps the bell has broken overnight, and the postman (it’s usually a man) has left a card saying I can collect the package from the station. I leave the door to the hall open, so that the postman can come inside and call, which he’s been known to do.

14:00 - 16:00 Cooling off. I have to go to work at 16:00, so if the post hasn’t arrived by then, I won’t get the package before tomorrow, even if he does leave a card. So during this period I brace myself for the inevitable disappointment of not getting the goodies, having spent an entire day waiting with baited breath.

Then, suddenly, at 15:55 - I’m about to put my shoes on - the doorbell rings. I leap to my feet, grab the keys, and hurtle down three flights of stairs. I can see the postman through the glass; I open the door, and see he’s holding a package from Amazon - and he says:

"Can you take this for the guy on the bottom floor?"

Oh well, tomorrow is another day. I can’t wait.

28 November 2005

ID is as old as the hills

Scientists do not welcome teaching ID in science classes for the simple reason that, apart from NOT being science at all, it is a totally made-up construct built with the intent of sneaking religion in the science classroom by presenting it as a plausible scientific theory. 
—Ugo Cei, on the Dilbert Blog

That one’s easy to knock on the head at least. Wait for it… ID is older than Darwinism. It’s known as the teleological argument for the existence of God, and can be formulated as follows (I’m quoting the Wikipedia article):

  1. X is too complex to have occurred randomly or naturally.
  2. Therefore, X must have been created by an intelligent being.
  3. Y is that intelligent being.
  4. Therefore, Y exists.

In fact, the more cautious ID people would only go as far as step 2 above, and make no claims about which Y is that intelligent being (the FSM enters the argument at step 3, and as such, as I said a couple of days ago, is irrelevant.)

And the Wikipedia article also notes that Cicero (106 BC-43 BC - note BC) made one of the earliest teleological arguments:
When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers? (Gjertsen 1989, p. 199, quoted by Dennett 1995, p. 29)
Just to put that in context, Darwin first proposed the theory of natural selection in 1858. That’s nearly 2000 years after Cicero. There is nothing new or made up about ID. It is only a modern formulation of an extremely old idea; and if people keep shouting at the proponents of ID that they are only making it up in order to force religion into the science classroom, it’s no wonder they become indignant. The least we can do is have the common courtesy to acknowledge that the theory they are espousing is far, far older than anything that upstart Darwin ever thought of.

27 November 2005

Finally, a good defense of ID

After literally hundreds of posts on the Dilbert Blog, someone called Mark came up will a good defence of the principles of Intelligent Design. I’ll quote a bit:
They only propose that according to their theory logic demands a single uncaused cause for all and that various phenomena support the theory of design better than randomness and therefore the implication is intelligence.

That places the ID discussion on the very edge of science, where it becomes metaphysics in the sense of the word which Kant meant - what comes after physics. As such, it is a proper object of science, although hardly the kind of science you should be teaching in school rooms.
But the identity of this intelligence is beyond the scope of their theory just as it is beyond the scope of the theories of most astrophysicists who restrict their analyses to that of existence at its earliest moment and no further back.

And so it isn’t theology either. Now that is something we can get our teeth into. Thanks, Mark, for the interesting post.

Thought experiment of the day

I really must get round to posting something that isn’t a Dilbert Blog comment. But every morning I awaken, check my mail, and trundle over to Scott Adam’s place and read his latest wind-up. And a fine way to start the day it is too. Here’s an extract from today's post, followed by my comment.

Imagine that lightning suddenly carves into the side of the Washington Monument the words “I am God. I created you. Darwin was a nut.” And let’s say there are hundreds of witnesses who all have video cameras and capture it from multiple angles. Now imagine that the same phenomenon repeats every day for a month, each time on a different monument. Scientists study the phenomena and conclude that humans probably didn’t cause it, but beyond that, there are no further scientific clues about how lighting could seem so directed. If I crafted my thought experiment right, no one would have any idea how to devise a test that would confirm or exclude the possibility that God really did it. Hypothetically, being omnipotent and all, he would be capable of leaving no clues, other than signing his name. Therefore, any speculation as to the cause is not science. Here’s the question: Should teachers be allowed to tell science students about the lightning messages?

My (typically long) comment:

I remember one of my philosophy lecturers saying that, if someone presented him with a seemingly flawless argument for the existence of God, he still wouldn’t go away and start believing in God. Rather, he would expect that the flaw in the argument would become apparent to him sometime later.

My guess is that something similar would happen with your thought experiment: the mere signature, with lack of proof as to whether it was a hoax or the real thing, would lead most scientists to still treat it with the utmost suspicion. The dogmatists would say, it’s a hoax, because God doesn’t exist, and we’ll find a proof soon - remember crop circles? More cautious ones might say, we just don’t know, but that we’ll keep looking for an answer to the phenomenon.

God would find it very difficult to prove His existence to unbelievers in this day and age, I think. Merely leaving us The Commandments, vol. 2 would not impress many people. He’d have to make a public appearance at the very least.

As for the question of whether the phenomenon should be discussed (I notice that you didn’t use the word ‘teach’, and hope that ‘discuss’ is an acceptable paraphrase of ‘tell’) in school, well, why not? But if so, it would undoubtedly end up in the ‘Unexplained, because it's probably a hoax’ box, alongside the Loch Ness Monster.

However, I don’t ever remember being told about Nessie at school, but only encountered ‘her’ on pseudo-documentaries on TV. And I don’t recall ever being told about UFOs or crop circles, either. Because most schools are conservative places where the teachers teach what they’ve always taught. Very few teachers actually discuss current affairs with their pupils, preferring to wait until the subject enters the curriculum, or the canon of acceptable text-books. I know, I’m a teacher.

So I think it could be talked about, but it would be categorised as ‘unexplained’ at best, and even if some reactionary scientists were loudly proclaiming the existence of God as the only possible explanation, only reactionary teachers would actually let that affect what they actually considered teaching in class.

And here’s another thought: if the noise got loud enough, what’s the chance that proof that it was all a hoax would be found from somewhere? Did anyone meet the guys purported to have made the crop circles? God deciding to show up would be a major inconvenience, and Jesus would end up in the loony bin, or safely locked away in a maximum security prison in Iraq.

So my telling of the thought experiment would be this: God leaves His signature on monuments all over the USA; this causes a major media uprising of


  • people claiming it’s true;
  • people claiming it’s baloney;
  • people claiming it’s terrorists;
  • people of other religions claiming that they are victims of religious persecution;
  • people of other religions praying for their God to do the same;
  • people claiming it was aliens;
  • people claiming that they did it - for 15 minutes of fame; and so on.

Then the media blitz would die down as we move on to the discovery of a breed of shark which seems to have developed legs, and eventually a scapegoat (sorry, proof based on legitimate science) would be found. It would be a couple of desperate comedians from Cleveland, or something, and none of us would be any the wiser.

24 November 2005

Why the Flying Spaghetti Monster misses the point

I’m afraid I've caught the ID/evolutionism bug. The following is based on a post I just made to Scott Adam’s blog, where I got infected in the first place. I made three pages of notes in the Chinese restaurant today, so there's more to come.

What I have been thinking today:

The Flying Spaghetti Monster, which several people provided links to, utterly misses the point of ID and so precisely provides more evidence for Scott’s point in his original post. ID needs only to say that the evidence could be interpreted as supporting either the existence of an intelligent designer, or a process of natural selection - in fact, all it needs to do is say that it neither proves one nor the other. That, despite all the protests, is a scientific/philosophical question, because it challenges our assumptions about how to explain the evidence, and about whether the evidence actually proves evolutionary theory or not. Any debate about which designer is the realm of religion.

So the Flying Spaghetti Monster theorists contend that FSM should be taught alongside ID, on the basis that God didn’t create the universe, the FSM did. Which means they’re attacking the religious agenda which they infer as being behind ID, rather than the actual point being made. And that comes under mistake #2: Turn someone’s factual statements into implied preferences [from the Scott Adam's Results of why I'm stupid post].

What is needed is to attack ID on it’s own terms. Ironically, that’s just what the FSM people see themselves as doing. But whether we claim that the designer behind the universe is God, a Flying Spaghetti Monster or a fur-ball is completely irrelevant to ID.

19 November 2005

The Dilbert Blog

I’ve become something of a regular over at the Dilbert Blog recently. About a month ago, Scott Adams launched the blog, and it has proved to be well worth a visit. Generally the posts are humorous, but a recent post dealt with Intelligent Design vs. evolution and prompted a great deal of fervour among the readers, much to Scott’s delight, I think. I myself printed out the first post on the topic and used it as a basis for a discussion in my Proficiency class, with the general gist being: what is the problem? Three people in a class had even heard of Intelligent Design, and none thought it was deserving of the controversy which it has obviously generated on Scott’s blog. Seems like it’s the hottest scientific America, but that no-one in Europe would even realise it was a topic. Very odd, and interesting reading.

So, I would absolutely recommend people stopping by Scott’s place and subscribing to his RSS feed. Intelligent, often surreal, controversial, and wonderfully funny. Even the comments are an eye-opener.

God’s Debris, by Scott Adams

There’s a couple of things I’d like to note about the book. When I was doing philosophy at university, I wrote an essay in the form of a dialogue about Wittgenstein in a pub playing chess with a guy called Frank (because, well, he was frank *groan*). I’m mentioning it here because of the comment I got back from the assessor, which was something like: ‘Pretty good for this sort of thing, but there's always a Wittgenstein and always a Frank.’ What he meant was that there is always a great thinker who teaches a ‘normal’ guy in this kind of dialogue, and the real philosophical classics which use this form square off two equals, both of whom have good answers to the good arguments of the others (precisely what Scott said the Intelligent Design vs. evolution debate didn't have.) In the kind of dialogue which has a Wittgenstein and a Frank, or an Avatar (the Old Man) and the Courier (as in God's Debris), what you end up with one character proselytising, and the other fumbling for words in an attempt to reconcile the new teaching with what they experience in everyday life. The result is that the Frank figure ends up with their world-view being changed, but only because they were unable to see the wool being pulled over their eyes, or were unequipped to deal with the assault even if aware of it. Now, put a Wittgenstein in a room with Avatar, and we'd have a very different dialogue.

Ultimately, I can’t say whether God's Debris is in this sense a flawed dialogue, or whether that is precisely Scott’s point: that we encounter people like Avatar all the time - politicians, scientists, journalists, priests, anyone who tries to convince us of anything - and they are constantly pulling the wool over our eyes. The Wittgenstein/Avatar debate rarely happens, because Wittgenstein wouldn’t bother, and so all we have are conflicting wool-pullers trying to shout the loudest, and the rest of us simply try to work out whose mast we are going to pin our colours to. Even my talk of Wittgenstein falls into this trap, as I’m setting him up as a ideal of sceptical rationality - but he’s still a teacher.

I’m just streaming thoughts now. ‘Avatar’, my dictionary says, had two main meanings: 1) a manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth - an incarnate divine teacher; and 2) an incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea. My guess is that Scott intends the second: that this Old Man is the embodiment of the idea that the wool is constantly being pulled over our eyes by people who seem to have an answer for everything, but actually say nothing.

How many people are aware of Popper’s falsification theory? The idea is that any scientific proposition must be testable, and indeed, the proper aim of science is to strive to falsify current theories, because no matter how much evidence you amass in support of a theory, just one iota of contradictory evidence will relegate it to the scrap-heap of history. Popper isn't talking science as such, but philosophy of science, or about the scientific attitude, if you will. And what was striking in the ID/evolution discussion on Scott’s blog was that the evolutionists would brook no challenge, merely amassing evidence upon evidence, which is scientifically irrelevant (and now I will be accused of being an ID supporter and an armchair philosopher). Yet we’re all familiar with the legal concept of ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ - that although there may be enough evidence to convict someone, such a conviction in no way represents The Truth, and should other evidence come to light at a later date the ruling may be overturned. So why is it that science (by which I mean the ID/evolution debate specifically, although it goes further than that, I’m sure), which historically championed knowledge over belief, has forgotten the principles on which it should be based and reverted to a form of belief? - Why? Because we’re all humans.

I mention Popper’s theory because the Introduction to God’s Debris reminded me of it: Scott warns the reader to be sceptical and try and work out what's wrong with what Avatar says. If you meet someone who seems to have a simple answer for everything, the only healthy response is to try and find out what is wrong with it. However, that isn’t a thought experiment, but a puzzle: we’re warned by the author that much of what Avatar says isn’t true, that it is simplistic, and we should be on our guard. A thought experiment would rather be, for example, to see how may readers would get to that point without being told to do so, or better still, how many readers, despite being forewarned, would still have their world-view radicalised. My guess is that this is the thought experiment, or rather, experiment in thought: will you like it, love it, hate it, analyse it, contradict it, absorb it; will it change your life, make you start a new religion, challenge your preconceptions, or convince you that Scott Adams is utterly vacuous and writes things he knows nothing about? The experiment is on us, as far as I can see, and another guess I’m willing to make is that this is the main reason why Scott made this e-book free: to find out how the experiment is going, by getting all of us to email him feedback and make posts on his blog. Just a guess, mind you, since I’m also quite willing to take Scott at his word when he says, ‘You won’t discover my opinions by reading my fiction.’ That should be obvious, but how many people will think that the rest of God’s Debris is actually What Scott Thinks and that this disclaimer is in fact the only lie in the book?

An interesting and provocative read, then, which I’m not going to claim that I understand the motives behind. But even if I met Scott in a pub and he told me what it was about, I’m still not sure I’d believe him ;-)

I know this post has turned into a bit of a rant, but I wanted to make another (semantic) point: the word ‘omnipotent’ is frequently misused in God’s Debris to mean ‘omniscient’, and maybe also ‘omnipresent’. ‘Omnipotent’ means all-powerful, ‘omniscient’ means all-knowing and ‘omnipresent’ means ‘in all places and times’. Much of the discussion at the start of the book is about God being omnipotent and therefore knowing everything, i.e. being omniscient. It is very easy to imagine a being who knew everything but was powerless to act, and also one which was all powerful but did not know the future, the past, or even the present - problem of God’s Free Will solved! Generally, God is said to be all three, but any one does not necessarily entail the others. Whether this confusion is intentional (as in, intended to confuse the Courier and/or the reader) or erroneous, I can’t say. But I quite like the idea of an amnesiac God.

Incidentally, I’m well aware of the innuendo in the third paragraph above ;-)