Class Warfare Blog

June 21, 2018

Will Science Ever Solve the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will, and God?

The above title is that of an article in Scientific American (July 2018) by no one less than the inestimable Michael Shermer. The subtitle is “Are consciousness, free will and God insoluble mysteries?”

Even more fascinating is Mr. Schermer’s answer: yes!

Actually, this answer is quite puzzling. In his piece Mr. Shermer quotes British biologist and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar who wrote: “Good scientists study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them.” This, I think is correct. The scientific ego is boosted by actual results and so scientists shy away from problems deemed intractable, unsolvable. But, until one tries to solve a problem, how does one know whether it is beyond them? And, even if it is beyond us now, how can we know it will be beyond us forever?

I am of the camp that we will understand all three and, in fact, have good starts on all three questions. The problem is not the issues themselves completely (labeled as “final mysteries” by Shermer), but involves the attitudes of the audiences receiving the conclusions.

For example, if you came up with an ironclad proof that the Christian/Jewish/Muslim god did not exist, how many people would say “Well, dang, and all along I though God was real. Foolish of me, don’t you think?” And how many would say “I don’t not believe such secular nonsense!” (Go ahead, guess; I dare you!)

The audience here has a different standard of proof than scientists have. If you accept something as proven only when it reaches the standard of a mathematical proof, no scientific proofs could be had at all, but if you establish the level of proof to be as good as “the sun will come up tomorrow,” then the Christian, etc. god is proven to not exist already (in short, the claimed supernatural powers are in conflict with one another). This level of proof is good enough for scientists who use no divine mysteries in their works, even though they may still participate in their local church communities (which may have absolutely nothing to do with the existence of any god or gods).

Similarly, the general public will never accept the idea of a deterministic universe as they feel, that is feel in the first person, that they are “free” to make their own decisions. The idea that we are not free to do just that undermines all religions, social justice structures, etc. so do not expect the general public to accept that there is no such thing as free will. (I do not accept the deterministic arguments at this juncture as there are any number of problems with the current deterministic interpretations, including a signal-to-noise problem of immense size.)

It is rare that I find myself in disagreement with Michael Shermer, but one of the rock bottom principles in science is that authority has no place. So, in this case, our opinions differ.

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June 17, 2018

Ignorant or Duplicitous? … You Decide

I ran across the oft repeated quotation from Isaac Newton just now “I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily.” This quotation is from the second edition of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin for Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), one of the most important scientific publications in the entire history of western science.

Like Einstein, Isaac Newton is oft quoted as an example of a scientist who “believed.” Exactly what they believed is often overlooked.

Isaac Newton was notoriously thin-skinned and he received a great many objections and criticisms from the publishing of the first edition of the Principia with dismay (like Michael and Beyonce, the book only needs its first name). One of the criticisms was that Newton’s work explained the motions of the planets so well there was no longer a need for God’s guiding hand to keep the planets moving in their perfect orbits. In a direct response to that accusation, Newton inserted a new paragraph into his second edition making it clear that he still believed all his laws had been created by God. In other words, he didn’t think such a statement was necessary in the first edition!

Make no mistake about it, Newton was a creationist. He did believe in “God,” but this was the mid to late 1600’s and the consequences of not believing were quite dire. Plus, what Newton actually did believe would not pass muster with the theists constantly repeating the quotation above.

From Wikipedia, “According to most scholars, Newton was Arian, not holding to Trinitarianism. In Newton’s eyes, worshipping Christ as God was idolatry, to him the fundamental sin. As well as being antitrinitarian, Newton allegedly rejected the orthodox doctrines of the immortal soul, a personal devil and literal demons.

Now, what do you call someone who rejects the trinity, didn’t hold with Jesus being called a god, didn’t believe in immortal souls (and therefore the afterlife, Heaven, Hell, etc.), the devil, and demons? Is there a Christian sect today which can check off all of those boxes? Like Einstein, Newton was at most a theist viewing nature as the only god worth studying.

Also, Newton’s “daily” Bible studies weren’t exactly orthodox. Also from Wikipedia:

“Newton spent a great deal of time trying to discover hidden messages within the Bible. After 1690, Newton wrote a number of religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible. In a manuscript Newton wrote in 1704 he describes his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible. He estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060. In predicting this he said ‘This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.’”

So, those who quote the above statement incessantly as an example of a “scientist who believed” thus supporting the idea that faith and reason are compatible, are they ignorant or duplicitous? Personally I think more people grasp upon anything that supports their beliefs out of plain old confirmation bias than there are theists who actually know what is what and who are deliberately obscuring the truth to show The Truth™. This I believe is a consequence of evangelism. Few are equipped to do it correctly.

June 8, 2018

Other Ways of Knowing

In the on-going conflict between science and religion that either doesn’t exist (because the two are compatible) or shouldn’t exist (because the two are incompatible), science types, like me, are accused of scientism, the thrusting of science into areas of human discourse where it doesn’t belong and, more specifically, stepping on religion’s toes. How dare, the critics say, science tell us anything about morality or aesthetics or … religion?

There are, they say, “other ways of knowing” than science. With regard to religion, specifically. they mention: faith, dogma, scripture, personal experience, and revelation.

So, let’s look at this.

First, what we call science is what originally was called “natural philosophy,” which was a branch of philosophy, just like ethics, politics, epistemology, logic, metaphysics, and aesthetics. When the scientific method was devised to make studying the natural world more effective, many of the categories of nature (chemistry—the study of the transformations of substances, biology—the study of living organisms, etc.) came to be called sciences. But the employ of the scientific method did not really remove those studies from philosophy. The scientific method can be employed in all kinds of studies that no one would call “sciences.” For example, history, or economics, or sociology, auto repair, or well, you name it. The scientific method is a way to generate new knowledge and can be employed in a vast number of places, even ethics.

So, to say that science is overstepping its bounds is foolishness. If it can be employed successfully it will because it is the only method so far that has demonstrated the ablity to create new knowledge.

Now, on the flip side we have the “other ways of knowing.” In turn:

Faith What is faith but an expression of belief. Both faith and belief are expressions of “knowing” things that are not generally accepted as being true by having evidence. So, where did this “faith” or “belief” come from? Who explained what it is that is to be an object of faith? Can that person be trusted? Are you sure they are not mistaken? How would you tell? This is not a way of knowing, it is a claim of knowing something that is not in evidence. Faith is not a way of knowing so much as it is a claim of knowing. It is an answer to the question “How do you know that?” “What do you know?”

Dogma The dictionary definition of dogma is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” Basically if a religion says you must believe something because it is true, but they do not attempt to prove the truth involved, that is dogma. Every church, and there are tens of thousands of them, has their own dogma. How can you tell which of them is indeed correct? Could none of them have been mistaken? How will you resolve contradictions between the various dogmas? In science there is no dogma, nor are there “authorities.” If you don’t accept something scientifically, you are free to examine all of the evidence and test it for yourself. The information/evidence is made public, along with the data and procedures used to acquire the data.

Scripture Scripture is just things written down. Most religions have some sort of scriptures. Most religions disagree with regard to the content of what was written down, so how does one tell whether their scriptures are real or true? Jewish scholars have now admitted that the first five books of their “book” are a fictional back story for their people. This is a form of wisdom literature as fairy tales used to be, that is precautionary tales as to what will happen to you “if …” simply told as if they had already happened as an implication that they could happen “again.”

It has been pointed out repeatedly that all of the books of the Bible have unknown authors who have unknown backgrounds. We not only don’t know who wrote those books, we don’t know why those books were written either. Without those “facts,” we therefore cannot tell whether the books were divinely inspired. Ask yourself, what are the signs in a writing that the writing was inspired by a god? If such signs exist, they could be highjacked by a gifted fiction writer to ends that we cannot necessarily perceive.

It is probably an act of desperation that many evangelical religion’s statements of faith indicate that their scriptures were true and correct in their original versions. (This is a dogma, by the way.) No one alive today has seen such an original document. The texts we have today were mostly created from translations of fragments of copies (of copies of copies …) that were centuries older than the dates they were claimed to be written. That most such fragments differ from one another proves that the copies have errors in them. So, how do we know what the errors are?

Personal Experience There are people who claim they have a personal relationship with a god, that they can feel “his presence.” I have talked with few people who make this claim but I would like to hear how they can tell what they claim they can tell from their feelings. I am willing to grant them their feelings, but not their interpretation. For example, many people can claim the feeling of “a powerful presence.” How is that interpreted as being male or female or is that just assumed? How can the feeling of “power” be interpreted? How do we know we are in the presence of, say, a powerful human? I suspect we read the clues of dress ($4000 suit, military uniform, etc.) and behavior (expecting orders to underlings to be obeyed instantly, etc.) or we know the identity of such a person ahead of time. So, if one is a believer ahead of time and feels a powerful presence when meditating or “praying,” the identification is assumed rather than established. No one seems to report a “feeling of power” associated with the words, “Hi, Bill, this is Yahweh.”

Revelation Revelations are second hand compared with personal experience. These come from people who claim “God told me … something or other.” The supposed apostle who helped create “Christianity the Religion” and who claimed he was an expert on Jesus, never met the man; he got all of his information through a great many revelations, or so he said. How can we tell whether these people are not deluded or liars? (Said apostle defended claims he was a liar in scripture!) There are many people who crave attention who make outlandish claims as to their education levels, job histories, friendships, and life experiences. Some of these charlatans are seeking political office or jobs and are often enough caught out in their lies that we all have heard stories to this effect. How can you tell who is and who is not telling the truth?

Also, in the entire history of revelation in your particular religion, has any objective knowledge been reported? Has a method to avoid the plague been told or how washing your hands leads to less disease or that there is a medicine in citrus fruit what will help prevent scurvy? Is this really a “way of knowing?” Do even the major prophets tell us anything we did not already know?

Back to Science Is there any form of increased knowledge that involves anything other than scientific enquiry? How about the other branches of philosophy? (My ethics teacher said that in 4000 years of ethical philosophy, we have not yet been able to define the phrase “is good.”) How about theology? How about apologetics?

In many of these religious and quasi-religious approaches the same people who tell us that “we cannot know the mind of god,” tell us exactly what their god was thinking and going when <fill in the blank here>. Clearly they are making that shit up.

The term “scientism,” is simply a pejorative. The people who write about it cannot even define it. It is an attempt to discredit science before it is applied to ideas they hold dear. Science is, indeed, a way of looking at things, but it won’t go away because of flabby arguments centered on the deliberate misuse of words like “faith.” Scientists do not have “faith” that the sun will show up in the morning sky, we have confidence that it will based upon thousands and thousands (millions really) of observations, in other words evidence. Religious faith is believing something based upon little or no evidence, scientific expectations are based upon pragmatic evidence, which is why science works and faith does not as “a way of knowing.”

So, the next time you hear or read the term “scientism,” or hear or read that someone “doesn’t have enough faith to believe in evolution,” you know you are in the presence of a purveyor of the Big Lie, someone who believes that there are mystical ways of “knowing” that we must acknowledge, even though they cannot show even the slightest reason for us to so believe.

May 30, 2018

Great Minds Think Alike!

Filed under: Business,Science,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 7:41 am
Tags: , ,

Over at GFBrandenburg’s blog he comments on the Monsanto GMO study I mentioned in my past post and includes a link to an article detailing it. Check it out.

Surprise: GMOs *Reduce* rather than Increase crop yields

 

May 29, 2018

GMO Skepticism

A recent research effort showed than in some areas, anti-science attitudes are strongly correlated with religion (surprise, surprise). In other areas, there were correlations with science knowledge or rather the lack thereof, supporting those who think that science education is an effective way to combat anti-science attitudes.

One such example of the latter involved the safety of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The researchers found that those who possessed more science knowledge favored GMOs and those with less science knowledge did not.

I have a fair amount of science knowledge and I do not favor GMOs … currently. My attitude was bolstered by the release … finally …. of studies that show that, once again, Monsanto Corporation is bilking the public. Monsanto created “Roundup” a weed killer that actually worked. The problem with Roundup is that if you spray it on a weed and accidentally spray a patch of lawn, it dies too. Roundup is a vegetation killer. So, Monsanto created GMO crops (corn, wheat, potatoes, whatever) that would resist the effects of Roundup, boosting the sales of Roundup as a weed-control agent for farmers and by creating a massive market in their new Roundup resistant seeds.

Monsanto promised increased yields using the new seed and Roundup weed control. So, is that what happened. Well, the study is now in and the difference between Monsanto-focussed fields and control fields is zero, zip, nada. Gosh, you spend that much more money and you’d think it just has to be better. well, it is … better for Monsanto’s bottom line.

Now I will not argue that GMOs do not have benefits, that would be silly. I would argue that we need to look carefully at the benefits and the costs, especially the potential costs. In the Roundup study, the costs were high and the benefits almost nonexistant.

When I first became aware of GMOs, the big “product” was a more “machine harvestable” tomato that had better eating properties. The way this was achieved was to splice into the tomato’s genome some DNA contributed by a trout, yes, a fish. My argument to “go slow” on GMOs goes like this:

We have been genetically modifying crops since the beginning of agriculture. We did this first by choosing to use the seed from plants that gave the best harvest or the best quality of produce and eschewing using seed from lesser plants. Further down the road, we learned how plants propagate and learned how to cross breed plants to make sturdier hybrids. (This is how we pulled off the Green Revolution; we made “dwarf” versions of wheat and rice that had shorter, stronger stalks that could support heavier grain heads, then we used chemical fertilizers up the whazoo to boost the seed cluster sizes (and as a side effect, we have polluted our waterways with these chemicals creating dead zones in our seas the size of small planetoids).)

These “traditional” processes allow nature to have veto power over anything we try. Each stage of a hybridization either produces a viable plant or not. If not, it produces no seed and that possibility is vetoed. It is a little like breeding horses. If horses are bred to horses, the offspring are viable and can breed. If horses are bred to donkeys, you get mules which are viable but cannot breed (end of the road). If horses are bred with cats … ? No one has ever tried this you say. Hmm,  I wonder why?

In the modern GMO process, the genetic material itself is changed directly and nature only has a say as to whether the end product is viable. The result has not been vetted by nature other than in this manner.

So, how do you cross breed a tomato and a trout? If you thought a horse-cat hybrid was crazy, what the hell do you think of a tomato-trout hybrid?

Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. What happens to the trout genes in the tomato when the tomato’s genome gets out and interacts with the world at large? But, but, but farmers are used to hybrids that can’t reproduce, you argue. You should take it up with the farmers who are in court suing their neighbors who said the GMO crops they planted couldn’t possibly “get out” and start growing in their neighbor’s fields. (They did.)

Plus, hybridized crops do breed, they just don’t “breed true,” meaning you are much more likely to get the parent stock sprouting than the hybrid stock. I remember my father gathering up the tomato plants that sprouted in our compost heap each spring, replanting them, culling the “bad” ones, but then harvesting “heritage tomatoes” before that term was made common. They breed, just not true.

More info here.

May 26, 2018

Very Civilized Don’t You Think?

When we say someone or something is “very civilized,” that sounds like a complement, no? If we look at it objectively, however, such a thing is comparable to saying someone is oppressed. I will explain.

If the venue of major disagreements between scientists and theists, it is biology (actually just evolution) and cosmology that take the brunt of theist’s complaints. The theists apparently have no qualms with chemistry, or physics, or Wi-Fi, per se. But where science disagrees with scripture, there is intense apologetic efforts to either reject the science, or to harmonize it with scripture. There is even a branch of these apologetics called “theistic evolution.” (I am reminded of the old joke of the Russian claiming “we inwented it” for ever scientific discovery. Theists claim every positive scrap of science that supports their viewpoint and claims “God did it.”) The source of these disagreements is the “special nature” of human beings. Apologists don’t have a problem with evolution, full blown evolution, addressing the subject of slime molds or “lower animals,” but when they get to human beings, whoa there, you cannot make human beings subject to basic physical laws (haven’t you heard, we are special!).

In the U.S. our culture is steeped in this “special sauce.” Not only are human beings created in their god’s image (old man, burning bush, pillar of fire, whirlwind?) but, by God, Americans are exceptional among human beings! This general belief has lead to a general belief in the inevitability of civilization (our civilization, of course), I contend. We were destined to end up here, with all of this stuff, behaving the way we do. It was inevitable … and a damned good thing!

When one takes a look back at the historic path of civilization, it is littered with human misery for the majority of us. This, of course, is spun as being due to the sinful nature of man (and the superiority of the white race, and … ), but if you just look dispassionately, it is evidently not so.

We have lived collectively since hominids first evolved (2-4 million years ago). We traveled in family groups, being social mammals, but primarily for safety. (There is safety in numbers, still.) When families became tribes, sometimes the tribes got a little too large and they had to split up. This was because we were hunting and gathering which most people think means we wandered aimlessly. But we did not wander aimlessly, we followed a normal route. Whether this was like the migrations of butterflies or birds or reindeer or something we cogitated, we moved from site to site, harvesting what food there was and moved on to the next stop. When tribes got too large, they stripped too much food from the land and when they came around again, there wasn’t enough food that had regrown to support the group, hence the splits. When the groups were small enough, they could harvest food for many months in some locals, so they tended to build shelters and hunker down for a while and voila, villages were born. As we became quasi-sedentary, we also became open to the idea of agriculture because we were going to be there to harvest what we planted. Thus the seeds of civilization were born. Civilization began when we decided that a large permanent village was in order, a city. But the problem with cities is that there must be some way to store food to get a larger number of people through the rough patches between harvests. It is no surprise then, that the first civilizations happened when the conditions supporting the growing of grain were prevalent. (Grain could be stored by the simple expedient of drying it in the sun.) These conditions were: fertile soil (usually alluvial), a constant source of fresh water (a large stream or river) and bountiful sunshine. There were usually harvestable animals migrating over land and down the river, too.

The fly in the ointment was that agriculture took a lot more work than hunting and gathering. Evidence shows that people did not want this more arduous life and had to be coerced into that labor. The tools of coercion? Physical force and intimidation (“We’ll stay here and ‘guard’ your children while you go out and work in the fields.”) and religion. Since in the early days a hunting and gathering lifestyle was a short walk away, it appears that a great many “early farmers” took this route (they voted with their feet). This lead to more coercion and more defections and eventually to slavery. If you are going to coerce labor, might as well go whole hog and adopt a slave society. Neighboring villages to cities became sources of manpower (and breeding females).

It should not shock you that all of the early cities failed in short order (in nowhere near 100 years of existence) and that new cities were built atop the ruins of the previous one (Remember all of the Troy’s that Heinrich Schliemann found?). Since all of the factors needed to be there for a city, building elsewhere was silly.

The basic concept of “civilization,” that is living in cities, is that the labor of the many provided a surplus that the elite few could live off of … and not have to work as the many did. This “free time” created through the coerced labor of the many allowed the few to write poetry, paint paintings, sculpt sculptures, etc. but mostly they counted their wealth and worried excessively about slave revolts and how to keep them from getting uppity. (The racial resentment against Blacks in this country is based upon this residual fear, in my opinion.)

So, they expanded and fortified their “soldiers” and their “religions” all directed at controlling the system preserving them at the top. As things progressed, soldiers were needed to protect cities from the soldiers from other cities. So, war became possible because of the resources and needs of civilization. In each city, of course, the religious elites told the secular elites that their gods were on their side.

Science now tells us that when agriculture became prominent, “farmers” became physically shorter, weaker, less tall, and more disease ridden. So, what was in it for the “masses?” In a word, misery was what they could expect for most of their lives. I read one estimate that claimed that as late as the year 1800, half of all human beings were in some state of slavery.

But all of this was long ago, surely being “civilized” now is far, far different, you say. Is it? Most of the controls of the elites are now cultural. In this country, if you suggest that capitalism is not the best economic system for us, you will be shouted down or vilified or both. (Damned socialist! Communist! Heathen!) Capitalism is a system which codifies the coercion of labor of the masses to benefit the secular and religious elites. We use terms like “the one percent” and “the 0.1%” now but they really are just the wealthy elites. Our “democratic” government serves the rich and ignores the will of the people on such a regular basis that it has become “normal.” We talk about “wealth inequality” and do not do anything about it. Our system (Capitalism–US Brand™), is designed specifically to concentrate wealth and that is what it does. For short stints “reformers” can get power over the reins of government and roll back some of the systems in place, but by and large the rich use their money to buy power and use their power to get more rich. You may note that this is a positive feedback loop that always ends up in disaster for the masses (investors get bailed out, homeowners do not).

So, when a plutocrat describes something or someone as “being civilized” they are commending that thing or person as being in their “proper place,” either amongst the elites, taking advantage of the situation, or among the masses, whose “surplus labor” is making the elites richer and more powerful. Think of Sméagol saying “Yes, master, good master!” And while we may harbor evil thoughts against the masters, as long as we do not act on them, well, then we are “very civilized, don’t you think?”

 

May 20, 2018

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

I read a comment the other day that set my head spinning. The comment pointed out that up until around 1970, the only way to increase agricultural output significantly was to put more arable land into production. Basically that had been done to all effective extents by well before 1970. We now note how people are trying to put very marginal lands into production with predictable disastrous results. (Hey, let’s cut down that jungle and raise crops! … jungles have notoriously poor soils.)

But right about that time came the Agricultural Revolution, sometimes called the Green Revolution. We managed to increase crop yields for our staple grains (rice, wheat, corn, barley) by the simple expedient of growing these grains on shorter stalks. Shorter stalks are stronger and they can support heaver seed heads without falling over from being too top heavy. We practically doubled our yields per acre of these grains.

This I already knew. What the comment pointed out that the old “acreage limited” model of agriculture, which took about 10,000 years to run out, supported a global population of about three and a half billion people. The Green Revolution doubled our grain supplies and, if you are not aware, those grains also feed our cattle and other livestock, so represent fairly well the entire food supply of the world. (You will find grain of some type in 90% of the foods you can find in a local market.)

So, we doubled our food supply starting in 1970 or so and now the world population is about seven billion people. It is an axiom of population biology that organisms expand their populations up to the limits of their food supplies. The fact that our doubled food supply (from 1970 levels) matches our now doubled population (3.5 to 7 billion) supports the idea that we are at the end of the effects of the Green Revolution.  This second phase took less than 50 years. (Think about it! Three and a half billion more people in just fifty years.)

So, what is next?

Since there is no intelligence in charge of humanity, it is likely that corporations that are exploring the genetic engineering of food crops will work up a solution. I have written before that these shortcuts to different organisms have more risks associated with them than the procedures used before (up to and including the green Revolution). But let’s say they whip up something that works and it again doubles the yields of these grains, what then?

Well, history and biology indicate that we will double our population again, this time to 14 billion people. Imagine the impact on food distribution and electricity distribution networks, on transportation systems (cars and roads, subways, air travel, on the lives of us all.

What is really scary is that the reliance on the plants created under the Green Revolution has shrunk the number of species under cultivation to a very small number. When there is a much wider diversity of crops, crop failures are not widely catastrophic, but when they are but a few kinds of crops being depended upon, well, think of the Irish Potato Famine.

Nobody predicted the Bubonic Plague, otherwise know as the Black Death. This disease killed over a quarter of the population of Europe. So, what happens if some new agricultural blight, on the order of a plague, wipes out rice or wheat. Since there are only a few types of rice or wheat under cultivation it means that such a blight may wipe out all of the rice or all the wheat or very large fractions of those crops. The repercussions would not be pretty: massive famines, food riots, insurrections, whole countries destabilized, etc. (Take a look at what is happening in Venezuela currently, being a manifestation of just bad management.)

I guess my question is not “what is next?” so much as “to what end?” We haven’t developed enough political maturity to determine a fair and equitable distribution of resources. We still operate on a “get what you can” basis. (Exhibit No. 1 President Donald Trump) Is there any upside to doubling our food supply again, other than corporate profits for Big Ag Science corporations? Do we need another seven billion people on this planet? Are we prepared to handle the changes associated with such an event?

All of the answers to these questions are, of course, no. Herds of lemmings running off of cliffs is a societal meme we created. Lemmings are not so stupid as to do that. So, basically we, as a people, are projecting that behavior onto those animals. And, we seem quite capable from doing just that.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Note The word stupid is used as a pejorative meaning lacking in intelligence. Rather, it means “slow” as in “slow on the uptake” or slow to learn (it has roots similar to those of stupor). Really bright people can distract themselves in sophisticated ways so that what is glaringly obvious gets missed for a long, long time. That stupid, that’s the one I mean.

May 8, 2018

Thinking About a Flat Earth

Filed under: Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:18 pm
Tags: , ,

Look at all of that water! I wonder where the flat-earthers are going to put it?

The recent resurrection of the idea that the Earth is a flat disk (a zombie idea in that it will not die and stay dead) I believe is fueled by a certain iconoclastic feeling  amongst the “believers” to state something outrageous to get attention. This leads me to believe that the vast majority of “flat earthers” are male as female attention seekers tend to seek positive attention while male attention seekers seem to favor attention of any flavor.

I have come up with simple facts that prove this idea is wrong (for example, why do some of us experience night while others experience day at the same time; this you can test with a phone call; also why is it winter in Australia when it is summer in the U.S., etc.) but I decided to give it another try at some semblance of a “proof.”

The “standard narrative” is the Earth is roughly spherical, not perfectly so but it appears spherical to the naked eye. The diameter of the Earth has been measured to be 12,756.2 km and if it is spherical, that means it surface area is 510 million square kilometers, calculated using simple geometrical formulas. The continents have all had their areas measured and if you sum up those areas you get 148 million square kilometers. This shows the common knowledge that the oceans cover about three quarters of the surface of the planet while land covers about one quarter [(148/510) x 100 = 29%].

But if the earth were flat, a disk 12,756.2 km in diameter would have an area of only 127.8 million square kilometers. And that is not enough area to hold all of the continents, let alone oceans having almost three times the area of the continents.

If the flat-earthers decide that both sides of the disk are populated, they open up a whole other can of worms. People near the axis of the rotation (the earth would still have to rotate on its axis once a day to explain the light-dark cycle) would experience a very different feeling toward the ground than those living on the edge. I also wonder why people haven’t reported looking over the edge of the disk, now that there are no longer dragons to keep them from looking.

I do not expect this argument to convince any flat-earthers because, like committed Christians, they are committed to their belief and no amount of arguments or evidence will convince them otherwise.

The round Earth conclusion fits in well with all of the other bits and pieces of our knowledge, such as the earth was formed of rock and iron and nickel in a molten state and in the absence of outside forces such a body automatically forms a spherical shape. To make a disk it would have to have been spun like a pizza and what would have done that task? Apparently the flat-earthers either are ignorant of the evidence or, more likely don’t care. I encourage them to bask in their limelight as they get only 15 minutes of fame. After which time they go back to being just ordinary fucking idiots.

 

March 27, 2018

Determinism and Free Will

Filed under: Economics,Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:10 pm
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I have written more than a little about free will and this post is a supplement to that. I have been reading a little about the alternatives to free will, primarily determinism, which is a claim that every decision we make is caused by events outside of our control. I have no problem with that argument, just the driving of it home saying that Determinism Rules, Dude! I think this is yet another example of human exuberance to come up with an answer when we are not yet ready for one. This is my position of free will, too. I think most decisions are made sub- or unconsciously and we understand so little about those processes that to exclude them from discussions of free will thwarts any chance at a reasonable conclusion.

So, are all of our decisions caused? Are our behaviors ruled by the “cause and effect” that works so well in the sciences?

I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s works. I just finished “Fooled by Randomness” and have started “The Black Swan.” Mr. Taleb (he has a Ph.D. but doesn’t flaunt it) got his start as a financial instruments trader. He points out over and over, that most human activities are ruled by chance, yet we stubbornly refuse to admit that, seeing systems and patterns in behaviors and numbers that we believe show underlying structures that make things like the stock market predictable. He points to daily stock market reports, an example of which is “the market tumbled 1.7 points today, reacting to the announcement that blah, blah, blah.” He says that statements like this makes financial reporters entertainers rather than journalists. The market indices fluctuate during the day and from day to day. All of them fluctuate more than 1.7 points per day, so a change in any index of 1.7 index points cannot be distinguished from noise. Yet we insist on ascribing reasons to these fluctuations. We also know that the ocean’s tides rise and fall twice a day, so measuring the height of the water depends on what time you measure it. We also know that waves create artificial highs and lows that will move a float up and down in mere seconds. No oceanographer would mistake these normal fluctuations for changes that require action (like sea level rise), but we often do in settings like the stock market.

Our brains were shaped by evolution to do some amazing things. Unfortunately some of these things are counterproductive. For example, we judge the likelihood of something happening by the frequency we encounter that thing. This worked really well when we only encountered things in real life, like when was the last time you witness a murder directly, for example? But, we see the evidence of crime after crime on the nightly news day after day and conclude crime is on the increase; it is not; crime reporting on the news is on the increase, crime itself is decreasing and has been for decades. So, it is easy to fool ourselves using our very best mental skills.

One of our strongest mental skills is pattern recognition. It is so strong we see patterns where none exists, even in sets of random dots and numbers. In the case of financial markets we are making an even bigger mistake. In science we postulated first that invisible entities controlled the behavior of natural phenomena (spirits and ghosts). We then had a bunch of people argue that natural phenomena obeyed laws (the law of gravity, conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, etc.) and that the behaviors of physical objects was predictable based upon these laws and so they were! (Damn!) So, we came to believe in physical cause and effect. Now if we apply this belief to social systems, like financial markets and free will, will it also work? Well, the physical laws have an underlying structure that supports those laws existing. Do morals and financial markets and the like have such a basis? I do not think so, but more importantly, if there is it hasn’t been demonstrated that there is. In order to prove that nature was based upon laws, a whole lot of predictions had to be made and prove out to be right before people accepted that a root foundation for physical laws existed and could be relied upon.

But financial markets, well that’s another story. After every catastrophic collapse of some market or other, the market gurus go around and find one of their kind who predicted that the collapse would happen, and hype them as someone with special knowledge. The problem is that at any point in time, every possible outcome is being predicted and no matter what happens, you can find somebody after the fact that will have predicted correctly. This is not a successful prediction. In science, once you work out the laws involved, you can teach them to others and everyone ends up making correct predictions, not just a person here or there.

Human overreach in pattern-recognition puts, I suspect, too much faith in cause and effect, the underlying mechanism of determinism. We know that quantum mechanical effects are far from cause and effect rooted. We know that a great deal is “caused” by randomness. (If you go out to dinner, you are going to eat something. If you go to an Italian restaurant, you are very likely to eat something Italian. If …). Are we ready to conclude that free will is an illusion and all things are determined by cause and effect? I do not think so.

March 24, 2018

The War on Christianity, Again, Still?

Filed under: Religion,Science,Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 9:46 am
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Sometimes an ad is all it takes to get me thinking. This is a book ad I saw come up on BookBub:

Why Science Does Not Disprove God
By Amir D. Aczel
Does scientific advancement disprove the Bible? A renowned writer and mathematician says no — and argues that theories put forth by geniuses like Albert Einstein can actually bolster one’s faith in God!

At the same time I see myriad condescending questions on Quora website directed at atheists. My question is why all of the animosity from theists toward science? We are told that there is a War on Religion, a War on Christianity? If this is a war, it can only be a war as described by the Three Stooges. (Remember “The bazookas were bazooking: zook-zook!”) In reality, science does the  not give a rat’s ass about any gods, demigods, spooks, ghosts, demons, etc.

What I see is scientists doing science, but if a scientist achieves any prominence, especially in cosmology, or biology (hint: contains evolutionary theory), they are asked their opinion about god. Why on Earth would this question get asked of scientists when science has nothing to say about the topic? I suspect it is to show what atheistic, godless fiends scientists are, but that’s just a suspicion.

Many people point to the fact that most scientists are without religion. I argue that that is just a manifestation of education. The more educated you become, the less likely you are to be religious. It even holds true for divinity schools! I think that an education, any decent one, teaches you how to think and that leads to a rejection of religions, which ask you not to think.

The hurt and outrage of theists as to the damage science is doing to their fairy tales seems to be the cause. They seem to be constantly picking fights, then asking why we are so belligerent.

These are the same people who are claiming quantum theory proves god (it does not), or that the Big Bang theory proves god (it does not), or as in the book above why science does not disprove god (it does not because it has never tried). Often they get the science wrong, abysmally wrong. An amateur Christian apologist was wonder why, if the Theory of Evolution was a fact, at the top of every scientific article on evolution is the word “abstract.” Apparently the not very well learned apologist is not familiar with scientific publishing where the norm is to give a one paragraph (or at least short) summary of the article’s contents, called an abstract. This device allows busy scientists to figure out whether the article is worth a close reading. Logically, the heading for the abstract is “Abstract.” Sheesh.

Theists, listen, you gotta stop sending apologists to a gun fight with pea shooters; at least give them a knife or a real weapon.

I suspect that this fictional war being proclaimed on Fox News and elsewhere is due to a loss of prestige and deference religions used to have. There are so many people now who do not care about, or who actively question, these “rights” that religions traditionally have exercised that it is being noticed. And “tradition” is “just the way we have always done things” which therefore is hard on people when it changes. Data now show that religion is in decline in many areas of the globe and concomitantly in those areas in which religion is becoming less favored, the people are reporting to be happier. Could it be, as I am claiming, that religion is a tool of oppression, wielded by the elites to keep the masses in line, so their labor can be sucked off to the benefit of the religious and secular elites? Do you think?

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