Friday, October 3, 2008

The Progression of Democracy

From Bondage to Spiritual Faith
From Spiritual Faith to Great Courage
From Great Courage to Liberty
From Liberty to Abundance
From Abundance to Complacency
From Complacency to Apathy
From Apathy to Dependency
From Dependency back to Bondage


[Guess that means we're about due for another period of Spiritual Faith.]

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Darwin's Doubt Redux

[Like a fly repeated battering itself against a window, I'm revisiting the topic of the dubious assumption that naturalistic evolution gives us good reason to think our beliefs are true.]

"With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?"

- Charles Darwin, in a letter to William Graham (Down, July 3, 1881), in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (London: John Murray, 1887), Volume 1, pp. 315-16.

Darwin was no intellectual slouch. If this "horrid doubt" could have been resolved simply by testing our convictions (or more generally, our cognitive faculties from whence our convictions spring) to determine their trustworthiness then why should Darwin have this concern? There are at least two reason why Darwin's doubt can't be addressed by testing. First, and most obviously, it begs the question, since it calls on us to assume the soundness of our cognitive faculties so they may adequately serve to judge the soundness of those self-same cognitive faculties. Second, testing our convictions does not address the core issue which is not the trustworthiness of our convictions per se, but rather their trustworthiness given Darwin's hypothesis of naturalism, operating within the confines of his evolutionary theory.

I think our convictions (or beliefs) are indeed trustworthy as a result of our having been created by a rational Mind who endowed us with a share of His own rationality. Given a rational Creator and His bestowing of rationality upon humans, it's expected that our beliefs would be by-and-large trustworthy. Does naturalistic evolution likewise lead to trustworthy beliefs? Darwin doubted it. I doubt it. So does noted philospher Alvin Plantinga. He summarizes his argument in the article, "Evolution vs. Naturalism: Why they are like oil and water" from the July/August 2008 issue of Books & Culture.

The first thing to see is that naturalists are also always or almost always materialists: they think human beings are material objects, with no immaterial or spiritual soul, or self....According to materialists, beliefs, along with the rest of mental life, are caused or determined by neurophysiology, by what goes on in the brain and nervous system. Neurophysiology, furthermore, also causes behavior....[What] evolution tells us is that our behavior (perhaps more exactly the behavior of our ancestors) is adaptive; since the members of our species have survived and reproduced, the behavior of our ancestors was conducive, in their environment, to survival and reproduction. Therefore the neurophysiology that caused that behavior was also adaptive; we can sensibly suppose that it is still adaptive. What evolution tells us, therefore, is that our kind of neurophysiology promotes or causes adaptive behavior, the kind of behavior that [results in our] survival and reproduction.

Now this same neurophysiology, according to the materialist, also causes belief. But while evolution, natural selection, rewards adaptive behavior and penalizes maladaptive behavior, it doesn't, as such, care a fig about true belief. As Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the genetic code, writes in The Astonishing Hypothesis, "Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truth, but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendents."


Consider a frog sitting on a lily pad. A fly passes by; the frog flicks out its tongue to capture it. Perhaps the neurophysiology that causes it to do so, also causes beliefs. As far as survival and reproduction is concerned, it won't matter at all what these beliefs are: if that adaptive neurophysiology causes true belief (e.g., those little black things are good to eat), fine. But if it causes false belief (e.g., if I catch the right one, I'll turn into a prince), that's fine too. Indeed, the neurophysiology in question might cause beliefs that have nothing to do with the creature's current circumstances (as in the case of our dreams); that's also fine, as long as the neurophysiology causes adaptive behavior. All that really matters, as far as survival and reproduction is concerned, is that the neurophysiology cause the right kind of behavior; whether it also causes true belief (rather than false belief) is irrelevant.


We must suppose, therefore, that the belief in question is about as likely to be false as to be true; the probability of any particular belief's being true is in the neighborhood of 1/2. But then it is massively unlikely that [one's] cognitive faculties... [would] produce the preponderance of true beliefs over false required by reliability. If I have 1,000 independent beliefs, for example, and the probability of any particular belief's being true is 1/2, then the probability that 3/4 or more of these beliefs are true (certainly a modest enough requirement for reliability) will be less than [10 to the -58th power]. And even if I am running a modest epistemic establishment of only 100 beliefs, the probability that 3/4 of them are true, given that the probability of any one's being true is 1/2, is very low, something like [.000001 to the 7th power].


If evolutionary naturalism is true, then the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable is also very low. And that means that one who accepts evolutionary naturalism has a defeater for the belief that her cognitive faculties are reliable: a reason for giving up that belief, for rejecting it, for no longer holding it. ... No doubt she can't help believing that they are; no doubt she will in fact continue to believe it; but that belief will be irrational. And if she has a defeater for the reliability of her cognitive faculties, she also has a defeater for any belief she takes to be produced by those faculties—which, of course, is all of her beliefs. If she can't trust her cognitive faculties, she has a reason, with respect to each of her beliefs, to give it up. She is therefore enmeshed in a deep and bottomless skepticism. One of her beliefs, however, is her belief in evolutionary naturalism itself; so then she also has a defeater for that belief. Evolutionary naturalism, therefore... [is] self-refuting, self-destructive, shoots itself in the foot. Therefore you can't rationally accept it. For all this argument shows, it may be true; but it is irrational to hold it.


The argument isn't an argument for the falsehood of evolutionary naturalism; [or even, may I add, that our cognitive faculties are not, in fact, reliable] it is instead for the conclusion that one cannot rationally believe that proposition. Evolution, therefore, far from supporting naturalism, is incompatible with it, in the sense that you can't rationally believe them both.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Incomplete Penetrance and the Complexity of Belief

[I stumbled across this article by "Mike Gene" the author of The Design Matrix and thought it might be a good conversation piece.]

In genetics, there is a concept known as penetrance. This concept is typically most relevant with dominant mutations that cause disease and the idea here is that not all genotypes elicit their expected phenotypes. For example, consider the phenonmena of polydactyly in humans. This is where an individual has extra fingers and/or toes. Since this trait is caused by a dominant mutation, you would expect that anyone with the dominant allele would have this trait. Yet this is not always true. The concept of penetrance comes into play when we estimate how many with a particular genotype express the trait. For example, if 90 out of 100 people who are heterozygous have the trait, we’d say the trait is 90% penetrant.

So why is it that many traits show less than 100% penetrance? Two factors come into play – the genetic background and the environment. Whether or not a particular allele at a specific locus is expressed can be a function of the expression of other alleles at other loci. Thus, without the right genetic context, a particular genotype may not be expressed. As for environment, it is well known that it can work in conjunction with a genotype to determine whether a particular phenotype is seen. This means that certain traits will be expressed only in the right environmental context.

I mention all of this simply because it makes for a nice metaphor in understanding how humans believe. Many people share the naïve notion that a powerful argument for X should elicit belief X. If someone is thus presented with argument X, yet fails to adopt belief X, that person is then viewed negatively (i.e., they are stupid, deluded, or dishonest).

But let’s assume the argument is the allele (genotype) and the belief is the trait (phenotype). Whether the argument leads to belief depends on the context of background beliefs and experience that already exist (akin to genetic background) and the social setting (the environment). The argument for X may fail to elicit belief X simply because of incomplete penetrance. In such cases, the power of the argument for X is dependent on the context of other beliefs and knowledge and the way belief X plays out in social reality.

Such incomplete penetrance is not stupidity, delusion, or dishonesty. It exists as a function of the Complexity of Belief. We not only believe differently, but we think differently. Thus, an important lesson in life is to realize that other people are not extensions of your self.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Augustine: On The Trinity | 2

Since no one can love at all a thing of which he is wholly ignorant, we must carefully consider of what sort is the love of those who are studious, that is, of those who do not already know, but are still desiring to know any branch of learning... all cases the love of a studious mind, that is, of one that wishes to know what it does not know, is not the love of that thing which it does not know, but of that which it knows; on account of which it wishes to know what it does not know. Or if it is so inquisitive as to be carried away, not for any other cause known to it, but by the mere love of knowing things unknown; then such an inquisitive person is, doubtless distinguishable from an ordinary student, yet does not, any more than he, love things he does not know; nay, on the contrary, he is more fitly said to hate things he knows not, of which he wishes that there should be none, in wishing to know everything. But lest any one should lay before us a more difficult question, by declaring that it is just as impossible for any one to hate what he does not know, as to love what he does not know, we will not gainsay the truth of this statement; but it must be understood that it is not the same thing to say he loves to know things unknown, as to say he loves things unknown. For it is possible that a man may love to know things unknown; but it is not possible that he should love things unknown. For the word to know is not placed there without meaning; since he who loves to know things unknown, does not love the unknown things themselves, but the knowing of them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

PCs are ugly.

Of course everybody knows this. But, after spending an hour or so working with the IBM Thinkpad laptop my employer has graciously provided for my telecommuting, I'm so happy to be back on my Mac. From an aesthetic perspective, everything about the IBM, and every other PC laptop or desktop I've used over the years, falls between mediocre and offensive.

It starts with the dinky little stickers they slap on the machines (crooked). Then you notice the cheap construction and flimsy components. Then it's the trackpad. The trackpads on my Mac laptops have a nice-sized touch area a single clickbar unobtrusively incorporated into the design. The PC's trackpad is much smaller due their decision to surround it with not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4, but 5 buttons of various sizes and unknown functionality. Then you notice the red dot between the G and H keys. This is, or should be, a vestigial organ from the PC's pre-trackpad days, but it remains in adherence to the PC designer's policy (first codified by Microsoft) that many poorly designed and implemented options are better than a single well-designed and implemented one.

I could go on. But why dwell on the negatives? It works. And it's free. And I'm glad to have it. And every time I use it, it serves as a reminder of what Plato wrote: Χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά, beauty is difficult. And that life for a PC industrial designer must be easy.

And that Macs are insanely great.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Augustine: On the Trinity | 1

[Note: We've just begun reading this work in my philosophy discussion group. Over the next few months I'll occasionally post passages of interest and hopefully get a variety of perspectives on Augustine's thoughts. Let's start at the beginning...]

The following dissertation concerning the Trinity, as the reader ought to be informed, has been written in order to guard against the sophistries of those who disdain to begin with faith, and are deceived by a crude and perverse love of reason. Now one class of such men endeavor to transfer to things incorporeal and spiritual the ideas they have formed, whether through experience of the bodily senses, or by natural human wit and diligent quickness, or by the aid of art, from things corporeal; so as to seek to measure and conceive of the former by the latter. Others, again, frame whatever sentiments they may have concerning God according to the nature or affections of the human mind; and through this error they govern their discourse, in disputing concerning God, by distorted and fallacious rules. While yet a third class strive indeed to transcend the whole creation, which doubtless is changeable, in order to raise their thought to the unchangeable substance, which is God; but being weighed down by the burden of mortality, whilst they both would seem to know what they do not, and cannot know what they would, preclude themselves from entering the very path of understanding, by an over-bold affirmation of their own presumptuous judgments; choosing rather not to correct their own opinion when it is perverse, than to change that which they have once defended. And, indeed, this is the common disease of all the three classes which I have mentioned,—viz., both of those who frame their thoughts of God according to things corporeal, and of those who do so according to the spiritual creature, such as is the soul; and of those who neither regard the body nor the spiritual creature, and yet think falsely about God; and are indeed so much the further from the truth, that nothing can be found answering to their conceptions, either in the body, or in the made or created spirit, or in the Creator Himself. For he who thinks, for instance, that God is white or red, is in error; and yet these things are found in the body. Again, he who thinks of God as now forgetting and now remembering, or anything of the same kind, is none the less in error; and yet these things are found in the mind. But he who thinks that God is of such power as to have generated Himself, is so much the more in error, because not only does God not so exist, but neither does the spiritual nor the bodily creature; for there is nothing whatever that generates its own existence.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Words and their Meaning: Wiki

Wikiwiki means quick in Hawaiian. Why wikiwiki instead of just wiki is an etymological mystery, but it reveals telling sociological insights. One of the charms of Hawaiian culture (and island culture in general) is a slower and more reflective pace of life. Perhaps this is manifest in a language where even the word for 'quick' is twice as long as necessary and contains four syllables while our hurried, impetuous culture squeezes it into just one. However, in true imperialist fashion, the word has been abducted, stripped of it's native soul, and pressed into service as a quaint linguistic trinket in our frenzied, techno-centric culture.

Part of speech: noun.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Apology of Aristides, Section 5

[I've heard it said that the atheist believes in just one less god than the Christian and that the Christian is an atheist towards the many other gods that have been espoused throughout the ages and in other cultures. This statement assumes that the difference between polytheism, monotheism, and atheism is merely quantitative, and that deciding between those options is on the order of guessing how many beers remain in the refrigerator. Aristides points out how absurd was the polytheism of the ancient Greeks and in doing so points out the absurdity of that popular but fatuous quip.]

Let us turn further to the Greeks also, that we may know what opinion they hold as to the true God.

The Greeks, then, because they are more subtle than the Barbarians, have gone further astray than the Barbarians; inasmuch as they have introduced many fictitious gods, and have set up some of them as males and some as females; and in that some of their gods were found who were adulterers, and did murder, and were deluded, and envious, and wrathful and passionate, and parricides, and thieves, and robbers. And some of them, they say, were crippled and limped, and some were sorcerers, and some actually went mad, and some played on lyres, and some were given to roaming on the hills, and some even died, and some were struck dead by lightning, and some were made servants even to men, and some escaped by flight, and some were kidnapped by men, and some, indeed, were lamented and deplored by men. And some, they say, went down to Sheol, and some were grievously wounded, and some transformed themselves into the likeness of animals to seduce the race of mortal women, and some polluted themselves by lying with males. And some, they say, were wedded to their mothers and their sisters and their daughters. And they say of their gods that they committed adultery with the daughters of men; and of these there was born a certain race which also was mortal. And they say that some of the females disputed about beauty, and appeared before men for judgment.

Thus, O King, have the Greeks put forward foulness, and absurdity, and folly about their gods and about themselves, in that they have called those that are of such a nature gods, who are no gods. And hence mankind have received incitements to commit adultery and fornication, and to steal and to practise all that is offensive and hated and abhorred. For if they who are called their gods practised all these things which are written above, how much more should men practise them—men, who believe that their gods themselves practised them. And owing to the foulness of this error there have happened to mankind harassing wars, and great famines, and bitter captivity, and complete desolation. And lo! it was by reason of this alone that they suffered and that all these things came upon them; and while they endured those things they did not perceive in their mind that for their error those things came upon them.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Listen #1: Williamson

I was amused that this fine instrumental album was labeled "Explicit" on I suppose last track's title, "A Pleasant Goodbye From Whore" (mispelled at Magnatune) is the reason for this. If so then the King James version of the Bible needs a warning label. At iTunes they actually censured the title by spelling Whore W***e. "We're All Boned" slipped past. Go figure.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Apology of Aristides, Section 4

[LB Note: Materialists, who presume to deny the existence of a supernatural god might, these days, be too sophisticated to make shrine to a thing—yet they still have their gods. See, for example, The Selfish Gene.]

IV. Let us turn now, O King, to the elements in themselves, that we may make clear in regard to them, that they are not gods, but a created thing, liable to ruin and change, which is of the same nature as man; whereas God is imperishable and unvarying, and invisible, while yet He sees, and overrules, and transforms all things.

Those then who believe concerning the earth that it is a god have hitherto deceived themselves, since it is furrowed and set with plants and trenched; and it takes in the filthy refuse of men and beasts and cattle. And at times it becomes unfruitful, for if it be burnt to ashes it becomes devoid of life, for nothing germinates from an earthen jar. And besides if water be collected upon it, it is dissolved together with its products. And lo! it is trodden under foot of men and beast, and receives the blood of the slain; and it is dug open, and filled with the dead, and becomes a tomb for corpses. But it is impossible that a nature, which is holy and worthy and blessed and immortal, should allow of any one of these things. And hence it appears to us that the earth is not a god but a creation of God.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Apology of Aristides, Section 3

Let us begin, then, with the Barbarians, and go on to the rest of the nations one after another, that we may see which of them hold the truth as to God and which of them hold error.

The Barbarians, then, as they did not apprehend God, went astray among the elements, and began to worship things created instead of their Creator; and for this end they made images and shut them up in shrines, and lo! they worship them, guarding them the while with much care, lest their gods be stolen by robbers. And the Barbarians did not observe that that which acts as guard is greater than that which is guarded, and that every one who creates is greater than that which is created. If it be, then, that their gods are too feeble to see to their own safety, how will they take thought for the safety of men? Great then is the error into which the Barbarians wandered in worshipping lifeless images which can do nothing to help them. And I am led to wonder, O King, at their philosophers, how that even they went astray, and gave the name of gods to images which were made in honour of the elements; and that their sages did not perceive that the elements also are dissoluble and perishable. For if a small part of an element is dissolved or destroyed, the whole of it may be dissolved and destroyed. If then the elements themselves are dissolved and destroyed and forced to be subject to another that is more stubborn than they, and if they are not in their nature gods, why, for sooth, do they call the images which are made in their honour, God? Great, then, is the error which the philosophers among them have brought upon their followers.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Apology of Aristides, Section 2

Since, then, we have addressed you concerning God, so far as our discourse can bear upon him, let us now come to the race of men, that we may know which of them participate in the truth of which we have spoken, and which of them go astray from it.

This is clear to you, O King, that there are four classes of men in this world: Barbarians and Greeks, Jews and Christians. The Barbarians, indeed, trace the origin of their kind of religion from Kronos and from Rhea and their other gods; the Greeks, however, from Helenos, who is said to be sprung from Zeus. And by Helenos there were born Aiolos and Xuthos; and there were others descended from Inachos and Phoroneus, and lastly from the Egyptian Danaos and from Kadmos and from Dionysos.

The Jews, again, trace the origin of their race from Abraham, who begat Isaac, of whom was born Jacob. And he begat twelve sons who migrated from Syria to Egypt; and there they were called the nation of the Hebrews, by him who made their laws; and at length they were named Jews.

The Christians, then, trace the beginning of their religion from Jesus the Messiah; and he is named the Son of God Most High. And it is said that God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh; and the Son of God lived in a daughter of man. This is taught in the gospel, as it is called, which a short time was preached among them; and you also if you will read therein, may perceive the power which belongs to it. This Jesus, then, was born of the race of the Hebrews; and he had twelve disciples in order that the purpose of his incarnation might in time be accomplished. But he himself was pierced by the Jews, and he died and was buried; and they say that after three days he rose and ascended to heaven. Thereupon these twelve disciples went forth throughout the known parts of the world, and kept showing his greatness with all modesty and uprightness. And hence also those of the present day who believe that preaching are called Christians, and they are become famous.

So then there are, as I said above, four classes of men: Barbarians and Greeks, Jews and Christians.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Apology of Aristides, Section 1

Here follows the defence which Aristides the philosopher made before Hadrian the King on behalf of reverence for God.

...All-powerful Caesar Titus Hadrianus Antoninus, venerable and merciful, from Marcianus Aristides, an Athenian philosopher.

I. I, O King, by the grace of God came into this world; and when I had considered the heaven and the earth and the seas, and had surveyed the sun and the rest of creation, I marvelled at the beauty of the world. And I perceived that the world and all that is therein are moved by the power of another; and I understood that he who moves them is God, who is hidden in them, and veiled by them. And it is manifest that that which causes motion is more powerful than that which is moved. But that I should make search concerning this same mover of all, as to what is his nature (for it seems to me, he is indeed unsearchable in his nature), and that I should argue as to the constancy of his government, so as to grasp it fully,--this is a vain effort for me; for it is not possible that a man should fully comprehend it. I say, however, concerning this mover of the world, that he is God of all, who made all things for the sake of mankind. And it seems to me that this is reasonable, that one should fear God and should not oppress man.

I say, then, that God is not born, not made, an ever-abiding nature without beginning and without end, immortal, perfect, and incomprehensible. Now when I say that he is "perfect," this means that there is not in him any defect, and he is not in need of anything but all things are in need of him. And when I say that he is "without beginning," this means that everything which has beginning has also an end, and that which has an end may be brought to an end. He has no name, for everything which has a name is kindred to things created. Form he has none, nor yet any union of members; for whatsoever possesses these is kindred to things fashioned. He is neither male nor female. The heavens do not limit him, but the heavens and all things, visible and invisible, receive their bounds from him. Adversary he has none, for there exists not any stronger than he. Wrath and indignation he possesses not, for there is nothing which is able to stand against him. Ignorance and forgetfulness are not in his nature, for he is altogether wisdom and understanding; and in Him stands fast all that exists. He requires not sacrifice and libation, nor even one of things visible; He requires not aught from any, but all living creatures stand in need of him.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day

It's been nearly 6 months since I last posted here, or anywhere else for that matter. I can't say I've put the time to good use, but at least I've been able to fill it with a wider variety of activities then when I was obsessively mulling over posts and responses.

Even though I have not posted or even visited the blogosphere over these months, I still think of you guys often, almost daily to be honest. I hope you all are doing well.