Uncommon Sense

February 9, 2017

Hey, Alfie, Whatsis?

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 1:01 pm
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As regular readers know I am a hot and cold fan of philosophy. In a recent series of blog posts Sam Harris and a noted philosopher got into an unexpected and very protracted disagreement over what the word “truth” meant.

These discussions make me want to gouge my eyes out and go looking for an honest man. They are right up there with claims for there being “objective moral principles.” Hey, if all humans were to disappear, the physical universe would still be there (not that we would know as there would be no “we” left). That is objective reality. All morals, however, would disappear. That is the definition of subjective. Why is there any discussion of this?

These discussions prove that determined intellectuals can fuck up just about any reasonable discussion.

April 20, 2016

Combating Our Own Stupidity

I was recently scanning a transcript of a podcast featuring Sam Harris, a noted evolutionary psychologist and atheist, and Max Tegmmark, an MIT physicist and cosmologist. Much of what I read concerned the nature of reality and whether we could ever really understand it. Here is a sample (Dr. Tegmmark speaking):

There’s no doubt in my mind that our universe knows perfectly well what it’s doing, and it functions in some way. We physicists have so far failed to figure out what that way is. We’re in this schizophrenic situation where we can’t even make quantum mechanics talk to relativity theory properly. But that’s the way I see it. Simply a failure, so far, in our own creativity. Not only do I guess that there is a reality out there independent of us, but I actually feel it’s quite arrogant to say the opposite.

While I tend to revel in such discussions I find myself getting peeved. Mostly it concerns a lack of pragmatism. Quantum mechanics and special relativity are least in fields that overlap and we can point to small areas in which they seem to conflict. Whether they actually do conflict is yet to be determined. But scientists, like house painters, just tend to use the tool that is called for. A painter encountering a nail to be driven doesn’t insist that he is a painter and painters use brushes and rollers and sprayers, he just picks up a hammer (Gasp, a carpenter’s tool!) does the job and gets back to his painting. He doesn’t bemoan the fact that there isn’t one tool that will both paint walls and hammer nails.

In physics there is a desire for, a desire not a logical indication of, what is in general called “unified theories.” These are theories that cover stuff from soup to nuts. Recently with the discover of the Higgs boson, the so-called God Particle, there was a confirmation of the “Standard Theory” which is a theory designed to explain all of the subatomic particles and their interactions. For some reason, people seem to want this theory to be coupled with the theory of how to make a foolproof Hollandaise sauce.

Science deniers use every failure to “unify” this or that branch of science with another as a failure of a rational material worldview. They understand neither the science nor the rationality but they just know it is wrong.

I wish we would stop playing into the hands of the religious Luddites in this manner. Trying to unify the four forces of nature or Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics is great fun, but is hardly necessary. In the case of Newtonian and quantum mechanics, the realms in which each holds sway do not overlap and hence is no problem to any physicist. We did just fine with Newtonian descriptions of speed and energy and momentum and forces when we didn’t even know quantum mechanics existed. The reason quantum mechanics surprised us and seemed weird (still does) is because of our own stupidity. We assumed the laws of physics governing ordinary objects would also govern those of sub atomic size. We had no basis for the assumption, we just had this really good tool (Newtonian mechanics) that seemed to work great in similar situations, so we tried it … and it didn’t work. (Picture our painter trying a hammer a nail with a paint brush.)

We even go so far as to beat ourselves up over why we haven’t been able to unify whole bunches of theories to date. I mean the theories work so well and reality is reality, so … gosh shouldn’t we be able to make all of our descriptions of the universe work together?

So far the answer has been “no” and maybe there is a simple reason for this. There are no universal mechanical tools (It saws, it hammers, it paints, it welds, it sand blasts, it wrenches, it screws,…!). There are no universal electronic tools. So, why should a single physical description of reality have to include absolutely everything?

I know it is worth a try (to find a universal theory of everything physical) but folks, please don’t take it so seriously that not finding one, something you don’t even know exists, is considered a serious flaw. It took 50 years to find the Higgs boson. Considering how much of the Standard Model of Subatomic Particles the HB makes up, the effort to find a theory of everything might just take several thousand years of looking, if it is there to be found.




June 6, 2014

Oh, Yeah, Take This …

Filed under: Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 1:22 pm
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Sam Harris’s blog is one of my favorites. On it he recently issued a challenge in the form of a contest (with a substantial cash prize, mind you, no cheapskate Dr. Harris) with the topic being to refute his thesis in his book “The Moral Landscape” that a scientific basis for morality could be found. Here is the prize winning essay (www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-moral-landscape-challenge).

The good doctor doesn’t allow comments on his website as he has neither the time to read them nor the staff to monitor them (plus he is a target, literally, because of his critiques of the Muslim religion, amongst other things). Consequently I am writing my comment about the refutation here. I state this up front so you can go elsewhere if this bores you.

The basis of the refutation is that there is no scientific definition of what “is good” means. And as Sam Harris used as an analogy the health business (doctors, nurses, etc.) the refutation basically says that since “good health” cannot be defined scientifically that medicine is in the same position as is a scientific morality, having to start with axioms of what “is true” to have any purchase whatsoever.

This is where I wish to start setting my hair on fire. I feel someone capable of evaluating such arguments as I majored in chemistry in college and minored in philosophy, also having read a great deal of philosophy. I remember my ethics professor pointing out that in 4000 years of recorded philosophy that philosophers had yet to answer a single question. His comment came in a very long discussion (taking up weeks) of what the phrase “is good” meant. This is in contrast to churchmen who have answered virtually every question, but incorrectly, e.g. Question: How old is the Earth? Answer: 6018 years. Wrong.

Since I am an academic I am used to this approach of taking somebody by the scruff of the neck and shoving their face into the bark of a tree and then screaming in their ear “Can you see the forest? Can you?” So, let us take a step back, shan’t we? The purpose of any system of morality is to guide people in making decisions that affect other human beings. Were you alone on the planet, I doubt the subject of ethics or morality would come up (although some now are trying to extend human ethics to include other conscious animals, let’s not go there for now as this is complicated enough as it is).

So, let me address the issue of health scientifically. Here is a scientific poll:
Q1 Would you rather be sick or well?
a. sick
b. well
c. don’t really care
What do you think the results would be if several thousand people were to seriously answer this question? Is there any doubt that 95+% of ordinary people would answer “b”? Would you not be suspicious of anybody answering a or c? Do you think the results would depend upon culture or ethnicity or age or . . . ? No, I don’t either.

So, we have scientific poll results saying that the hugely vast majority of human beings would rather be well than sick (or we would if we were to do this poll). So, does an academic concern over being able to scientifically and accurately define “sick” and “well” affect the interactions you might have with other people that involve the morality of these situations? I don’t think so.

This is by no means cut and dried. Let’s go back to the early days of the United States—the Revolutionary War period. Smallpox was a constant threat to our armed forces. (The British soldiers had either already had it and survived or been exposed to it enough to not get a bad case (they were somewhat immunized).) The radical idea cropped up that one could avoid the fatal aspects of smallpox by giving oneself a mild case of the disease (thus creating an immunity) and some douty Americans voluntarily did this, that is they chose being sick over being well. Of course, this is not a general condition we are addressing here, we are addressing a trade-off of choosing a mild short-term illness versus the possibility of a disfiguring and possibly fatal illness later. So, probabilities come into play. If you had to make this choice, would you prefer scientifically determined probabilities of death/disfigurement from a full-fledged case of smallpox versus the possibility of the mild case getting out of hand or would you prefer an “educated guess” by your health professional, the guy over there with the leeches?

If we step back farther, we see that scientific methods applied to medicine have resulted in better health outcomes for most of us and longer lifespans, too. So, wouldn’t it follow that having scientific information available any time a decision of questionable morality needs be made be a naturally good thing?

A system of morality should provide guidance when you have to make decisions that affect other people. (I think you should have autonomy over yourself up to an including suicide, but this is debatable.) Part of the problem is that some of us believe in absolute rules of morality and some of us do not. If you are a believer in moral absolutes, you will have a hard time accepting any scientific moral system as it will involve probabilities and not absolutes. I tend to think that people who believe in god-given absolute morals are deluding themselves. (They have to be god-given to have the authority behind them to make them absolute.) Such morals are wishful thinking on a grand scale. I say this because if the moral codes of say, Christians, were absolutes, a Christian would never murder anyone (Thou shall not commit murder.) because even if they avoided punishment in this life, punishment in the hereafter would be so extreme as to make such an act insane. And, of course, Christians, do murder people from time to time. So, whether you think such cases are clear evidence of insanity, at least you have to admit those rules do not work . . . especially the one about coveting your neighbor’s wife! The wishful thinking is that any god-given morality has to be more effective than any socially devised moral code we could come up with. Or possibly people like the fact that if someone does get away with it now, they won’t later; it is hard to tell.

The even sillier thing is if we do create a scientifically based moral code, how different could it be from the ones we have now? Are we going to come up with something that says it is okay to steal small things from rich people because they will hardly miss them but not okay to steal from poor people who need everything they have and more? I don’t think so.

It is clear to me that people have created the gods and therefore they created all of the “god-given” moral codes, along with the others (not god-given) and by and large these are pragmatic, “can’t we all get along” kinds of rules. We are not talking about the rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission, we are talking about general guidelines to help people who write such laws/regulations prevent fraud and abuse of others.

Need we worry about academic/scientific definitions of what it means “to steal” or should we take a step back and ask people, in a scientific poll, whether they want their goods stolen or not? Can we not accept the feelings of others as a basis to establish a scientific moral code? Are we not just trying to get along with one another, doing the most good and the least harm? Why is this so hard?

April 3, 2013

Are You an Islamophobe? No? Neither is Sam Harris

Filed under: Politics,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 8:24 am
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Recently Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape, and Free Will, was accused, once again, of Islamopobia. In his response, Dr. Harris stated that he didn’t believe there was such a thing. Sam Harris is not an Islamophobe by any stretch of the imagination, but there is such a thing as Islamophobia.

Islamophobia is the irrational fear of Islam. Examples of this are the idiots in this country going around passing state laws banning Sharia law, Sharia being the religion soaked justice of Islam. This is irrational because no one is proposing that we adopt any part of Sharia, nor is anyone saying Muslims have a right to use Sharia under the guise of religious freedom.

Sam Harris is not an Islamophobe as he has, for example, read the Koran (Quran?), have you? He has studied the effects of fundamentalism in Islamic countries and has pointed out that the goal of Islam is to extend Islam to cover the entire world. Also, Islam’s victims tend to be Islamic women and children, killed or mutilated by their male relatives for besmirching their honor or violating the teachings of Islam. These are the people who embrace female circumcision, because we wouldn’t want women to enjoy sex, now would we?

Sam Harris’s concerns about Islam are not irrational, they are quite rational, hence he is not an Islamophobe.

Which brings us to the quality of our political discourse. In this age of Fox (sic) News journalism (sic) the first response to any political pronouncement is name calling and label affixing. Now, I am not beyond calling a moron a moron, but this is not the first step in a useful, civilized discussion.

Sam Harris, as a prominent atheist, is often plastered with ridiculous labels such as Islamophobe, because it is a signal to others that “you do not have to take this person’s pronouncements seriously.” On the conservative right in this country, the word “liberal” was chosen to serve this purpose. If someone was branded a liberal by Fox (sic) News or Rush Limbaugh, then any good conservative knew that they didn’t need to pay attention to the thinking of that person. (“There is nothing to see here, move along.” I never pass on a good Start Wars reference.) Sam Harris also has concerns about the quality of liberalism in this country and has been quite critical of liberals himself, but in a thoughtful way, not in a knee jerk way.

But if I have learned anything in my many years in politics, is it is your harshest critic’s opinions that you have to pay the closest attention to. They are the ones that are taking apart your words and using the finest comb to find flaws in them. But when one’s critics resort to name calling, virtually admitting they have given up on fair criticism, one has lost any opportunity to benefit from that criticism. And the discourse suffers.

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