Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Challenge for Christian Moral Realists

Here's a quick challenge for all Christian moral realists out there who honestly find the moral argument for God's existence compelling. 
  1. Please name for me a single example of your favorite objective moral value or duty.
  2. Prove it.
Seriously.  Prove it.  You people love to spend hours upon hours bragging about your absolute moral foundations and the objectivity of good and evil, so in theory this should be trivially easy.  For example, perhaps you think that killing babies is objectively wrong.  Okay, fine.  Prove the truth of that proposition: "It is objectively wrong to kill babies."  What axioms and rules of inference do you exercise in order to arrive at that conclusion?  What truth assignment functions did you use and why?  Because honestly, I don't think any one of you have ever once tried to seriously apply a single instance of your own moral philosophy.  So put your money where your mouth is and actually demonstrate moral objectivity in action.  Don't just assert that objective morals exist - prove it.

Now before you even think about submitting a response, there are several pitfalls you need to be aware of.  Starting with...

Number 1:

Personal intuition and personal experiences are subjective.  In fact, that is literally the most subjective form of proof you could possibly offer.  Just because murdering babies "feels" really wrong to you, that does not make it objectively so.  What feels absolutely wrong to you could just as easily feel absolutely right to me, and vice versa.  So what exactly can you appeal to that extends beyond our personal, subjective preferences in order to settle any dispute?  Again, we're looking for a proof; not your naive gut reaction.   

Number 2: 

Human consensus is still subjective.  I don't care if a billion people around the world all unanimously agree that killing babies is wrong.  A billion subjective evaluations does not prove objectivity.  Five hundred years ago, societies from around the world all happily assumed that slavery was perfectly okay, even though today we all tend to think it's evil.  So for all we know, maybe killing babies is perfectly good, and everyone on Earth is simply mistaken to think it's evil.  Who exactly are you to claim otherwise?  What is your proof?  

Number 3:

Christian moral realism is antithetical to consequentialism.  You are therefore not allowed to make any appeal to the positive or negative consequences of our actions with respect to the health, happiness, or well-being of human social groups.  That's my moral philosophy, not yours.  You rejected that the moment you became a Christian moral realist.

Number 4:

Don't even think about mentioning the word "God" in your proof.  Ignoring the fact that God is literally a subjective agent, by definition, the whole point of the moral argument is to prove God's existence in the first place.  You therefore don't get to use God to prove the objectivity of any moral values because the existence of objective moral values is already supposed to serve as your proof of God.  So unless you want to reduce the moral argument to a vapid, circular joke, then this is not a form of argument you get to use.

There you have it, guys.  Show us what you got!  Prove the objectivity of just one moral value or duty.

Well?  I'm waiting...

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Part 9: Unintelligent Design

There's a reason why science and religion don't get along well with each other.  They just can’t help it.  The two institutions are diametrically opposed in every philosophical respect.  While science is an investigative process designed to foster a pragmatic understanding of reality, religions are cultural memes that seek only to propagate themselves from one generation to the next.  Science recognizes our basic psychological weaknesses and even takes active measures to expunge them from our thinking.  Religions, however, openly exploit our cognitive biases as a means of deliberately engineering conformity in their membership.  Science presumes human fallibility, meaning that any conclusions we may ever reach, no matter how confident they may make us feel, must always remain open to questioning, testing, revision, and even possible dismissal.  Yet many religious organizations will happily declare an unwavering conviction to their sacred dogma, even to the point of admitting outright that no amount of evidence or logic will ever change their minds, no matter what [1].

This is exactly why religious apologists are always so awkwardly antagonistic whenever it comes to matters of science and scientific method---the very rules which govern them are completely antithetical to their entire sense of epistemology.  Yet the conflict can only grow worse over time, because scientific discoveries are always directly challenging core theological claims.  For instance, if the Bible is interpreted literally as the true and inerrant word of God, then it necessarily follows that the Earth is barely six-thousand years old, with all of its inhabitants having been specially created in the present forms we see today [2].  The first human male was forged out of literal dust from the Earth, followed by the first human female out of the first man's rib.  This single human couple incestuously spawned the entire human race, which expanded rapidly from its ancestral origins somewhere in the vicinity of the Euphrates river valley.  Then, at some point along the way, a talking snake came along and convinced the first woman to eat forbidden fruit from a magic tree, thereby corrupting the entire natural world with a sudden outburst of sin and death.  Finally, the only way to rectify matters is, naturally, through a ritual blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of the entire world and redeem our species from an eternity of spiritual separation from our timeless, immaterial creator [3].

Now compare this view with our modern understanding of geology and evolutionary biology.  The Earth is not 6,000 years old but well-over four-and-a-half billion.  Life is not the special creation of any cosmic, immaterial agents, but most likely an emergent property of rote organic chemistry operating on self-replicating nucleic acids.  Human beings are not the product of some top-down organization, but rather a long chain of inherited allele variations, gradually molded by genetic mutation and natural selection.  Humanity did not descend through a genetic bottleneck of only two individuals, but instead branched off from earlier hominid populations distributed throughout Africa.  There was nothing close to any mystical Garden of Eden, and therefore no original sin, no global flood, no Fall of Man, and no point in dragging out a savior to redeem us from it all in the first place.

This is a huge discrepancy that Christian apologists cannot ignore, and it goes a long way toward explaining the massive bone they have to pick against the theory of evolution.  If the modern scientific paradigm is correct, then the Bible is wrong, plain and simple.  Not merely erroneous, mind you, but grossly, inexcusably, and embarrassingly bungled at every conceivable level.  Apologists therefore have no choice but to oppose evolution at every turn, because it represents such a direct existential threat to their spiritual and cultural identity.  However, they can’t just imprison heretics like they did the good old days, because fortunately most of us are now protected by secular, constitutional governments.  Nor can they just flatly reject science out-of-hand, either, because it obviously works so well at improving all of our daily lives.  So they have to resort to roundabout cultural and political initiatives, instead, like creationism, creation science, and of course, intelligent design.

"The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe, and of living things, are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." [4]

Notice how right out of the gate, design theory has effectively declared its own bias in advance by explicitly defining itself in terms of an implied rejection of evolution.  It's a classic hallmark that underscores one of the deepest philosophical failures of the entire creationism movement.  When it comes to the theory of evolution through natural selection, creationists don't just see yet another scientific explanation for some natural phenomenon.  They see a literal "war of the worldviews" between the righteous forces of special creation and the evil onslaught of materialistic evolution [5].  It's an absurdly tribal mentality that just ignores the infinite space of logically viable alternatives, opting instead for a distinct us-versus-them presumption in the search for the truth.  Consequently, they make no testable, empirical predictions on behalf of the design hypothesis, but instead spend all of their time bashing against evolution---as if the mere virtue of some other theory being wrong or incomplete automatically guarantees that their theory gets to be right.  It’s a textbook example of our favorite logical fallacy known as the false dichotomy, and again, guys with actual PhDs will continually fail to recognize it to this very day.

To demonstrate, simply consider the famous watchmaker argument of William Paley [7].  It's a classic go-to thought experiment that represents the principle line of reasoning behind virtually all intelligent design arguments.  Basically, all it tries to show is that intelligent agents tend to imprint some form of empirically detectable signature on the material objects they create [8].  Consequently, if we can only learn to detect this signature in living organisms, then we can presumably use it to prove that life on Earth must be the product of an intelligent agency.  Thus, as a demonstration case, we are most commonly asked to imagine a granite rock placed in our left hand followed by a gold-plated pocket watch placed in the right.  If we are then asked to determine which object is the product of intelligent agency, as opposed to blind geological forces, which object should we pick?

Obviously, the immediate intuition is that the pocket watch was designed by intelligent agents while the granite rock was not.  Therefore, as the argument goes, there must have been some empirical evidence that led us to this conclusion.  Furthermore, since this was an almost trivial distinction that we can render upon rote, visual inspection, it immediately stands to reason that we can likewise trust in that same perception when investigating complex biological structures.

For example, take the bacterial flagellum, which is an almost universal favorite among proponents of this argument.  Upon close inspection, it certainly does appear to resemble a kind of outboard motor on the nano scale.  It’s a spectacular biological machine, composed of a brilliant arrangement of complex, interrelated parts.  How on Earth could any material process like evolution ever hope to produce such a structure?  After all, it’s not like everything just fell together by random happenstance; nor can I personally imagine any particular line of decent by which natural selection could put it together.  Therefore, evolution cannot possibly be responsible for the bacterial flagellum, leaving us only with an intelligent, supernatural, immaterial agent, who just so happens to be Yahweh, the omnipotent God of the Bible.

That may sound like an obtuse parody of a sophisticated philosophical position, but it really is the basic train of thought behind all intelligent design arguments.  If it looks designed, then it must be designed, and heaven forbid that any natural process ever hope to mimic such an appearance.  Sometimes they’ll even try to dress it up with pseudo technical-sounding jargon like specified complexity or irreducible complexity.  But no matter what they call it, the end result is still always the same classic fallacy of arguing from ignorance. Human scientists cannot yet explain some biological thingy to my satisfaction in every last conceivable detail, so therefore a magic wizard in the sky must have done it. 

But hey, let’s suppose we’re feeling generous and immediately grant the contention that evolutionary biology is nothing but giant hoax, spawned by the devil himself.  Barring any alternative theories to distract us, what exactly can we learn from the watchmaker argument, in and of itself?  Because for all the social bias and political motivation at work here, there really is an interesting philosophical question worth exploring.  Namely, how does one “detect” design?  That is to say, how do we differentiate between an object of purely natural happenstance, as opposed to the deliberate fabrication of some motivated agent?

This is not an easy question to answer, but we can at least begin the discussion by asking ourselves a basic, philosophical question: Is it really all that impressive to “detect” the presence of design within a pocket watch?  After all, it's not exactly a difficult thing to do when the manufacturer openly announces that fact in the form of recognizable markings scribbled all over the casing.  Or if that’s not convincing enough, we can even visit the factories where they’re made and shake hands with the actual designers in person.  We also know, with a great deal of confidence, that we will never encounter a single, natural source of pocket watches anywhere on planet Earth.  There are no geysers, no rivers, no caves, and no fields where pocket watches just burst out of the ground or fall from the sky, fully formed. 

So of course we easily recognize the apparent design in pocket watches because we already know beforehand that they’re designed!  The core premise of the whole watchmaker analogy is nothing but a blatant philosophical cheat.  It’s like giving you the answers to a test before administering the actual test.  If the idea of design detection really is as valid of a concept as proponents claim it to be, then in principle we must be able to demonstrate it under controlled, laboratory conditions.

For example, consider the two material objects shown above.  As you can see, they appear to be nothing more than a couple of rocks that I randomly grabbed off the side of a mountain.  However, one of these rocks is special, in that it’s been hand-crafted with deliberate intention for an express purpose.  What that purpose is, or how it was crafted, I'm not going to say.  All you know is that one of these objects is perfectly natural in its origins while the other has been specifically “designed” by an intelligent agent.  Your job is to identify which is which, and do so with statistical reliability.

Notice how it's not nearly so simple of a distinction anymore, is it?  And when you stop and think about it, why would it be?  Rocks are just arbitrary arrangements of material stuff, and the mere virtue of being tampered with by some agent does not magically endow them with any empirically detectable “essence of design."  It therefore doesn't matter what methodology you think you have, because the very idea itself is logically incoherent.  The only meaningful distinction that exists between an object of nature versus an object of design is, ultimately, the designers themselves.  Who were they?  What tools did they use?  What processes did they follow?  What goals did they serve?  How can I replicate them?  What tangible, empirical manifestations can we expect to observe and test accordingly, depending on the competing theories?  These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered in order to logically defend any design inference and not some cheap appeal to rhetorical intuition.

But of course, creationists have no compelling answers to any of these questions other than a very strong insistence that biological systems just really-really look designed, and that no natural process could ever be the reason why.  Sometimes they’ll even admit openly that intelligent design theory cannot actually comment on either the identity or the methodology of their alleged designer [9]; only that somewhere, somehow, for some reason, He just did it anyway.  Yet then, when speaking behind closed doors to their fellow Christians, they just take it for granted that of course the designer was absolutely the God of Christianity, and thank goodness science has finally proven His existence [10].

But hey, let’s ignore all of that again and summarily grant the entire contention that human beings really can empirically measure the presence of “design” in material objects.  Given that, would it not also stand to reason that we likewise possess the capacity to differentiate between “good” design and “poor” design?  After all, biological structures must have been designed for a reason, right?  So what's stopping us from objectively measuring their capacity to meet certain goals?  If they just so happen to fail outright, then what does that imply about the competency of this alleged designer?

For example, consider the blind cave tetra of Central America. It certainly appears to be a perfectly normal fish at first glance, except for this strange, bulbous mass of tissue growing out of its head.  It’s weird, because it looks an awful lot like a kind of pseudo-eyeball, yet doesn’t actually provide any functional vision for the fish.  So ask yourself, what good is a broken visual receptor on an organism that spends its entire life cycle in perfect darkness?  Is that a good design or a bad design?

Or better yet, consider the human vermiform appendix attached to your very own colon.  It's a little, dangling sac that apparently performs no significant role in human biological function, as evidenced by the fact that people remove them all the time without ever suffering any tangible side-effects.  Yet every year, hundreds of thousands of these things will spontaneously erupt into painful infections, usually bursting open in a septic mess when left untreated [11].  You really therefore have to wonder, what kind of idiot designer deliberately installs a ticking time bomb of misery and death into His supposedly “special” creations?

Or my personal favorite: smallpox!  Everything about this virus is suitable only for the infection and mutilation of human hosts on a global scale.  More people have been scarred and killed by smallpox than from all the combined wars and natural disasters in human history.  If such a thing were truly "designed" by an intelligent agent, then it could only be described as the greatest biological weapon of mass destruction ever created.

We can do this all day.  There are thousands more examples of this stuff scattered all throughout the scientific literature.  Biomechanical structures are rarely, if ever, optimal in their apparent functions, and often times serve no other purpose than the continual propagation of pain and suffering.  Intelligent design is therefore more than just bad logic and bad science, but also ridiculously bad theology. The argument itself is an argument for a weak, incompetent, and vindictive deity!

Notice how we’ve mostly ignored the actual science of evolutionary biology itself, and intelligent design is still objectively wrong on every philosophical level there is.  It makes no testable predictions, it builds a false dichotomy, it argues from ignorance, it strawmans the opposition, it attempts to prove a negative, it makes incoherent presumptions, and it ultimately argues for a deity that can only be described as a malicious idiot.  The only reason why anyone would ever find this garbage compelling in the first place is because we can't help but intuitively perceive the world in terms of deliberate actions being exercised by consciously motivated agents.  It therefore doesn’t matter how awful or fallacious intelligent design may be, because the end conclusion is always going to feel intuitively satisfying to a na├»ve, unskeptical audience.

It's important to understand that whenever we compare things like pocket watches against things like bacterial flagella, there's a very critical distinction that apologists always overlook.  Namely, bacteria are alive while pocket watches are not.  That means a self-replicating biological organism subject to billions of years of inherited allele variations and environmental selection in reproduction.  It's a perfectly natural and unguided process, physically guaranteed to produce complex, interrelated structures, even to the point of directly mimicking the apparent foresight of human engineers.  It's also a terribly sloppy, inefficient process, that has no regard for the well-being of sentient creatures and also no choice but to make do with every bad decision handed down to it from previous iterations.  It’s perfectly self-consistent, it makes testable empirical predictions, it can be demonstrated on demand, and it has countless practical applications with real, economic value.  It explains everything that intelligent design doesn't, which is why evolution is the only theory of biodiversity with any pragmatic merit.  

But let’s face facts.  None of this matters to the true believers because truth is simply not their ultimate goal with these arguments; it's self-defense!  They despise the idea of empirically predictive modeling within a rational, scientific framework because they know perfectly well that Christianity would never be able to survive under such scrutiny.  Proponents even admit openly in their own internal documents and public lectures that the very existence of intelligent design is little more than a glorified "wedge"---a purely political initiative intended solely for undermining American science education, thus paving the way for Christian dogma to dominate popular culture [12].  This is not just some wild conspiracy theory, either, but a matter of public record already proven decisively in a court of law [13,14].  So let's stop deluding ourselves under the naive pretense that this is some kind of rational debate against honest, intellectual opponents.  Christian apologists hate science, because science is philosophically incompatible with faith.  They have to destroy or subjugate science by any means necessary, because failure to do so can only mean a complete sacrifice of all cultural relevance in the 21st century.  Intelligent design is nothing but an instrument in that goal, motivated entirely by petty religious intolerance, and not by any sincere regard for objective reality.

  1. See, for example 
  2. Answers in Genesis - Why Shouldn’t Christians Accept Millions of Years?
  3. Genesis, Chapters 1-3
  4. See the following references:
  5. Some sources:
  6. Some references on agenticity:
    • Heider, F. and Simmel, M., "An experimental study of apparent behavior," The American Journal of Psychology, Vol 57, No 2, pp 243 -- 259 (1944)
    • Heberlein, A. S. and Adolphs, R. "Impaired spontaneous anthropomorphizing  despite intact perception and social knowledge,"  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Vol 101, No 19, pp 7487 - 7491 (2004)
    • Shermer, M. "Agenticity: Why people believe that invisible agents control the world,"  Scientific American, Vol 300, No 6, pp 36 (2009)
    • Kelemen, D., "The scope of teleological thinking in preschool children," Cognition, Vol 70, No 3, pp. 241 - 272 (1999)
  7. William Paley, Natural Theology (1802) - "In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer.  But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (...) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (...) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation." 
  8. Dembsky and Wells, The Design of Life - page 165: "Often, when an intelligent agent acts, it leaves behind an identifying mark that clearly signals its intelligence.  This mark of intelligence is known as specified complexity.  Think of specified complexity as a fingerprint or signature that positively identifies that activity of an intelligence.  Unlike irreducible complexity, which is a qualitative notion, specified complexity can be quantified and falls within the mathematical theory of probability and information."
  9. Casey Luskin - Straw Men Aside, What Is the Theory of Intelligent Design, Really? - "ID is not focused on studying the actual intelligent cause responsible for life, but rather studies natural objects to determine whether they bear an informational signature indicating an intelligent cause. All ID does is infer an intelligent cause behind the origins of life and of the cosmos. It does not seek to determine the nature or identity of that cause."
  10. Stephen Meyer - Intelligent Design - Stephen C. Meyer, PhD  
  11. Acute Appendicitis Statistics by Country (link).  US rates are about 1/400
  12. Wedge Strategy - "Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."
  13. Kitzmiller v. Dover
  14. Judge John E. Jones III - "It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."

Friday, October 2, 2015

What is Truth?

If I had to name the single most frustrating aspect of modern, popular debate, it would have to be the openly adversarial nature on which it all appears to operate.  Rather than work together on building a better understanding of our world, we instead seem to be more focused on scoring philosophical points against the "opposition."  Often times, this might even be by design, like in a courtroom setting where both advocates must dogmatically argue on behalf of their clients’ best interests.  The rest of the time, however, it seems to just happen spontaneously---as if no one really knows what the rules are when engaging in this process.  That's why so much philosophical debate in this world feels a lot like trying to play a game of chess against an opponent who thinks that this is supposed to be checkers.  Without some formal agreement over what truth is and how to recognize the truth when we see it, then there is simply no way to productively engage with opposing points of view.

To me, this presents a very strong incentive to just sit down and summarily examine the question of "What is truth?"  Fortunately, in the context of philosophical and mathematical logic, there are actually very well-established answers to this question.  It's just that you wouldn't really know it because no one ever seems capable of spelling them all out within a single, comprehensive reference.  That’s why I feel personally motivated to present my findings on this issue.  It’s a perfect opportunity to explicitly lay the foundations of basic epistemology for everyone to see, such that we can finally begin to hold each other accountable to a more rigorous set of philosophical rules.

To begin, it's important to understand that any time we talk about a thing like truth, we're not talking about some intrinsic metaphysical quality of reality itself.  Technically, what we're really talking about is a property of propositions.  That is to say, propositions can either be true or they can be false, but there is no such thing as raw "essence of truth" interwoven into the fabric of space and time.  Speaking more formally, a truth value is classically defined as a member of a binary set that contains the elements "True" and "False"  [1].  The purpose of this set is to serve as a kind of marker for linguistic propositions in order to help us measure their epistemic "correctness."  What exactly that means is open to some interpretation, but we can give it a rigorous definition through a mechanism known as a truth assignment.  Speaking formally again, a truth assignment (also called a truth valuation, or an interpretation) is defined as a mapping function between the set of simple linguistic propositions and the set of binary truth values.

If that sounds a bit technical at first, then just think of it like this:  Imagine me writing down a simple proposition on a post-it note and placing it in front of you.  In your left hand is a giant rubber stamp that says "true" while in your right hand is a another giant rubber stamp that says "false."  Your job is to decide which label deserves to be stamped on this note.  So ask yourself, how do you go about doing that?  Do you just arbitrarily stamp things randomly?  Or do you apply some set of rules that give your labels a more significant meaning?  Whatever answer you give to this question is effectively your truth assignment function.  It's an algorithm that takes simple linguistic propositions as an input and then determines a binary truth value as the output.

Now let's take it one step further.  Suppose you've stamped a dozen or so of these post-it notes with truth values, when suddenly you feel like connecting them together into more complex arrangements.  For example, maybe you think two true propositions connected left to right should also be stamped with a value of "true."  Or maybe you think two false propositions connected top to bottom should always be "false."  Maybe you think propositions stamped with "true" on the top should all be stamped with "false" on the bottom, and vice-versa.  These are all perfectly valid operations, and represent the role of logical connectives contained within the scope of propositional logic.  We like using logical connectives because they allow us to literally "connect" propositions together, thereby creating more interesting propositional formulas.

Notice also how there's nothing physically forcing us to stick with only a binary set of truth values.  For example, maybe you think truth would make more sense if we used a ternary set of values rather than binary.  It's a perfectly valid conception that's even used in practice today by scientists, engineers, and mathematicians [2].  Some systems of logic even treat truth as a continuum value rather than a discrete set [3], and again find use in modern scientific applications.  There is no objectively right or wrong answer except for the collective say-so of human philosophers in our ultimate quest for a meaningful conception of truth. 

This is all pretty standard material so far, and can readily be verified in most relevant textbooks on the subject [4,5].  However, something you generally won't find is an official stance over the precise nature of an ideal truth assignment.  It's as if we're all experts at manipulating truth values once we have them, but no one knows how to go about assigning those actual truth values in the first place.  That's a real shame, because this question represents the heart of what an idea like truth is supposed to philosophically encapsulate.  At best, we only seem to have this vague notion that truth should, in some way or another, represent a kind of "correspondence" between the set of linguistic propositions and the factual state of affairs in objective reality.  True propositions are those which effectively describe the real world as it really is, while false propositions do not.

This is a fairly common epistemic concept that philosophers like to call the correspondence theory of truth.  And at first glance, it does seem to be a pretty intuitive definition.  Unfortunately, there's also a glaring hole that needs to be addressed.  Namely, what exactly is this "correspondence" thing you speak of, and how do I recognize it when I see it?  For example, consider a simple proposition like "the Moon is round."  Is that true or false?  According to correspondence theory, the best we can say is that if the Moon is round, then it is "true" that the Moon is round.  Since that's obviously just a vapid tautology, correspondence theory of truth hasn't really told me anything about how to assign truth to propositions. 

But let's take it even further.  What if I stand outside one evening and simply look at the moon directly with my own eyes?  That way, if I see a generally roundish object, then I can legitimately say that the Moon is round, right?

Well, no.

For example, what if there was some kind of optical illusion brought on by the atmosphere that makes squareish things appear round?  Or what if I'm just looking at a giant photograph of the moon, or maybe some elaborate hologram?  Maybe it's all just an hallucination brought on by drugs, or perhaps a really vivid, lucid dream.  Maybe I'm being tricked by a magical demon, or maybe I'm really just a brain in a vat, plugged into some kind of matrix simulation.  I simply do not know, and what's more, I can't know.  No amount of reason or evidence can ever allow me to perfectly determine objective reality as it really is.  Correspondence theory of truth is therefore useless because it offers no way to differentiate between all of these competing  scenarios.  So if we're ever going to make any progress in building a viable epistemology, then we need to operate under the basic constraints that nature has given us.

This is a fundamental philosophical concept known as the egocentric position, or equivalently, the problem of external world skepticism.  All it says is that for whatever sensory perception you may be experiencing at any given moment, there are limitless ad hoc explanations for what might be causing it.  Remember that I'm just a sentient agent trapped within my immediate mental awareness.  It's not like I can just crawl out of that awareness and directly perceive reality as it really is.  And even if I could, how exactly would I correspond linguistic propositions to those objective states?  What are the rules I have to follow and how do I apply them?  We simply cannot ignore the fundamental barriers that exist between reality, our perceptions of reality, and our linguistic frameworks for describing reality.

This is the part where many philosophers really begin to butt heads with each other, but there are at least a few general principles that most people do tend to agree on.  For example, one theory of truth that has great utility is known as the principle of mental incorrigibility, or simply empiricism.  All this says is that any honest statement of immediate sensory perception is automatically a true proposition.  For example, consider a statement like "I feel a pain in my foot".  Even if it turns out to be a complete illusion (like an amputee with a bad case of phantom limb syndrome) I still cannot deny the fact that I am definitely experiencing a distinct sensory perception that is unique from many others.  It therefore seems perfectly reasonable to just acknowledge our perceptual data for what it is, designate those experiences with linguistic markers, and then assign a basic truth value to such propositions accordingly. 

Another popular method for assigning truth to propositions is the use of axiomatic formalism, or for the sake of this discussion, rationalism.  Basically, all this system says is that certain "obvious" propositions, called axioms, deserve a specific truth-value by rote fiat.  For example, take the reflexive law of equality: A = A.  No one derived this proposition from any prior logical framework, nor was it empirically discovered hiding under some rock.  It was just asserted outright as "true" because mathematicians needed a concept of equality from which to build a working system of algebra.  

Once we finally settle on an agreeable set of axioms, it then becomes possible to generate new true propositions out of the old ones by exercising rules of inference.  For example, one classic rule of inference is the transitive law of equality: if A=B and B=C, then A=C.  Again, no one derived this rule from any deeper foundations, nor was it empirically discovered.  It was just asserted outright as a thing we're allowed to do with the concept of numerical equality.  Any new propositions generated in such a fashion are then called theorems, and represent the core driver behind all propositional and mathematical logic.

This might feel like strangely circular reasoning at first glance, and in all fairness, it kind of is.  However, contrary to popular misconceptions, axiomatic systems like math and logic make no effort to describe any objective sense of mind-independent reality.  Rather, a far better way to think of such systems is as a kind of highly formalized language.  Good axiomatic assertions are therefore not really circular so much as they are definitional.  That's why all logical and mathematical theorems are said to analytic in nature, because such truths are ultimately derived entirely from the raw meaning we impose on the terms themselves, and not from any direct connection they have to the external world.  One could even argue that this makes analytic propositions a kind of formal extension on the incorrigible, since anyone is internally free to define their own personal vocabulary however they like.

But what about the so-called synthetic propositions that actually do attempt to describe objective reality---that is to say, the world "out there" beyond purely mental processes?  For example, consider a proposition like "all bachelors are bald" or maybe "all dogs live on Earth."  How do I assign truth to propositions in this category?  Again, it's not like I can just pop open a can of reality and directly observe the facts of the matter beyond my senses.  Nor can I logically derive their truth from any assigned meaning to the words themselves.  So what do we do?

This is another point where things tend to get very confusing, simply because there are so many oddball truth assignments to choose from and no real official answers to turn to.  For example, suppose we decide to assign truth to propositions that reinforce our sense of personal identity or social status. Let's call this egotistical validation.  Granted, it might not be a very good system, but it's still a perfectly valid function that operates under well-defined rules.  Maybe you've even encountered this system yourself, like in religious or political discussions where personal emotions tend to run very high.

Another interesting class of synthetic truth assignment is called Biblical inerrancy, and simply says that no true proposition can ever contradict the records contained within the Holy Bible.  It's actually a fairly common truth assignment, typically emerging from religious fundamentalist organizations.  Truth, in their view, is basically whatever the Bible says.  So while it is tempting to criticize the implicit goals contained within such a definition, it is hard to ignore the clear, meaningful distinction it represents.

But let's face facts.  Those truth assignments are obviously arbitrary and completely unsatisfying because they make no effort to philosophically connect our beliefs with any objective sense of mind-independent reality.  Unless we can find a way to overcome the egocentric position imposed on us by nature, then no system of truth assignment will ever have any meaningful sense of merit.  That’s why so much of the philosophical debate in our world appears to be so pointless.  Most truth assignment functions utilized in practice are either needlessly arbitrary, brazenly self-serving, or deliberately obtuse.

To address this problem, I find that it helps to step back and ask ourselves a fundamental question about truth that surprisingly few philosophers ever seem to ask.  Namely, why is it so god-damned important to believe in as many "true" propositions as possible while simultaneously rejecting as many of the "false?"  What difference does it make at the end of the day?  For instance, consider a possible world where everything I believe about the universe just so happens to be categorically false.  However, every single time I make a decision based off of those beliefs, the consequences are maximally predictable and desirable for me anyway.  Likewise, any time I commit a single "true" belief to action, the outcome is never predictable or desirable for me at all.  Now let’s ask ourselves - given such a world, is it even meaningful to call any of my beliefs "false?”  And if so, why would I ever want to believe anything that was true?  I could spend my entire life being completely wrong about absolutely everything and actually be better off for it. 

This simple thought experiment represents the core principle behind a system of truth assignment generally known as pragmatism.  All this system has to say is that the only meaningful reason why anyone would ever bother believing anything at all is so that we can eventually use that information as a guide for our actions.  Decisions based on “true” beliefs will therefore manifest themselves in the form of controlled, predictable experiences, while decisions based on “false” beliefs will eventually fail in that goal.  Any beliefs that refuse to drive any actions whatsoever, even in principle, are thus effectively reduced to useless rhetorical gibberish.

To illustrate how this system might work in practice, simply imagine yourself standing at a busy intersection when suddenly you decide that you'd like to walk across to the other side.  Sure, you can axiomatically declare premises and logically deduce conclusions all you want, but sooner or later you're going to have to translate that information into a real, committed action.  So while you may think you're being very clever with all your intellectual presumptions and sophisticated rhetoric, I have yet to encounter a single philosopher who could successfully argue with a speeding bus.  Everyone, everywhere, is therefore universally bound to the same pragmatic process in our daily epistemology.  We collect empirical data, we formulate it as a rationally descriptive model of objective reality, we exercise a decision accordingly, and then we empirically observe the outcome.  If our understanding of traffic behavior is indeed "true," then we can expect to safely cross the street without incident.  However, if our model contains flaws or inconsistencies, then it's only a matter of time before we eventually find ourselves getting plowed by oncoming traffic.

This is what makes pragmatism the only epistemology with any viable sense of “connection” to the external world beyond our senses.  Because even if my entire reality is little more than a glorified matrix simulation or demon-spawned hallucination, then even that reality is still objectively real, and apparently operating in accordance with causally predictive patterns.  So if on the off-chance that my actions have any influence on the outcome of future events, then I can use those outcomes to gain real information about the rules governing my reality.  Beliefs drive actions, actions have consequences, and consequences are objective.

We can give this process a nice, technical-sounding name like pragmatic empirical rationalism, but really, it's all just a glorified way of saying science.  Because really, that's all science fundamentally boils down to; a formalized system of gathering empirical data, expressing it within a rational, predictive framework, and then testing those predictions against quantifiable actions and consequences.  We like basing our beliefs on scientific methods because it ultimately allows us to make real decisions in the real world with real, empirical consequences.  Mental incorrigibility and axiomatic formalism are not mere ends unto themselves, but essential tools for the greater purpose of pragmatically navigating the world. 
Notice also how the pragmatic framework implicitly captures many other familiar principles of both science and scientific method.  For example, consider the principle of fallibilism, which simply states that no synthetic propositional model can ever be assigned a value of "true" with any kind of perfect, universal certainty.  At best, we only know what to expect from such models if and when we ever happen to find them.  Consequently, all knowledge claims about objective reality must always remain open to possible revision when faced with any newer and better information.  Likewise, the principle of falsifiability states that we can indeed be perfectly confident in assigning certain models a value of false.  That's because the very definition of a false propositional model is one whose empirical predictions fail to come to pass.  Likewise, we can even use pragmatism to quantify the principle of Occam's Razor (also known as the principle of parsimony): given two propositional models that happen to make perfectly equivalent predictions, then the model containing fewer assumptions is automatically preferable.  After all, if both models are empirically equivalent either way, then you might as well just go with the one that takes less work to think about.
But hey, maybe that's being too presumptuous.  Maybe you think pragmatism is a terrible principle of truth assignment, and that we should all replace it with some "higher" form of understanding.  But let's be clear about what that entails. Without some ultimately pragmatic purpose by which to measure our beliefs, then they are effectively disconnected from any empirically predictive decision we could ever hope to make.  I could therefore openly concede every last proposition you have to say about reality, and literally nothing in my life would ever have change as a result.  That's why no one cares how many angels can dance on the head of pin.  Any answer we give is necessarily going to be trivial and vacuous.  We do, however, care a great deal about what medicines work best for treating cancer and why.  That's because any decisions we might hope to make on the subject are necessarily dependent on the final answers we give.  So unless your truth assignment can somehow facilitate my desire to solve actual problems and reliably predict the outcomes of my actions, then by definition and admission, it is irrelevant and worthless.  Pragmatic scientific method therefore is the ultimate measure of all philosophical truth. 


  1. Usually denoted as {T, F}.
  2. See tri-state logic
  3. See fuzzy logic
  4. Hodel, R. E, "An Introduction to Mathematical Logic," Dover Books (2013)
  5. Priest, G. "An Introduction to Non-classical Logic," 2nd Ed, Cambridge University Press (2008)

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Modal Ontological Argument in a Nutshell

Premise 1:  I define God as a maximally great being.

Premise 2:  I define maximally great beings as beings that exist necessarily.

Conclusion 1:  Therefore, I define God as a being that exists necessarily.

Premise 3:  I define necessary existence as existence in all possible worlds.

Conclusion 2:  Therefore, I define God as a being that exists in all possible worlds.

Premise 4:  I define the actual world as an element of the set of all possible worlds.

Conclusion 3:  Therefore, I define God as a being that exists in the actual world.

Premise 5:  I define "existence" to mean existence in the actual world.

Conclusion 4:  Therefore, I define God as a being that exists.

Conclusion 5:  Therefore, God exists.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Idealists Do Not Understand Quantum Mechanics

This is a response to Inspiring Philosophy and his fellow cohorts who seem to think that quantum mechanics somehow supports their theistic conception of monistic idealism.  However, rather than do a detailed analysis of any particular video, I'm just going to get to the heart of the matter by spelling out the foundational failings behind their entire utilization of quantum mechanics.  Because unlike idealists, I've actually studied quantum mechanics.  I've taken college-level courses, both at the undergraduate and graduate level.  I've utilized quantum mechanics professionally in my career to help design real-world devices.  Hell, I've even published original research utilizing quantum mechanics in peer-reviewed journals.  So when I speak on quantum mechanics, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am personally speaking as a real-life authority on the subject; maybe not as a distinguished expert, mind you, but at least as someone with a practical, working knowledge in the field.  That's why I feel compelled to offer the following summary statement of the entire "quantum idealist" philosophy:

Dear Inspiring Philosophy, Raatz, and all quantum idealists on YouTube,

I understand that idealism is important to you and that you must have put a lot of hard work into making your videos. But with all due respect, none of you dumb-asses understand quantum mechanics.  There is nothing about quantum mechanics that even remotely supports any of your arguments.  It is wholly dishonest of you to pretend to be experts in a field that you obviously have zero formal training in. 

Now before you go accusing me of arguing from authority, here is a summary breakdown of everything that's fundamentally wrong with quantum idealism.

Number 1:

The heart and soul of all quantum mechanics is the Schrodinger equation.  Real quantum mechanics is accomplished by modeling some potential function into the Schrodinger equation, applying boundary conditions, and then solving for the corresponding eigenvalues and eigenfunctions.  Everything we know about the nature of subatomic particles is more-or-less expressible within this framework.  Yet quantum idealists make absolutely no effort to express their ideas in the same way.    Quantum mechanics therefore cannot possibly support idealism because idealists are simply not doing quantum mechanics in any meaningful mathematical capacity.

Number 2:

Quantum mechanics is philosophically antithetical to the entire idealist sense of epistemology.  That's because in order to effectively engage in quantum mechanics, you have to embrace several key principles of logical positivism [1].  For example, the analytic/synthetic distinction is a big one, as well as a soft form of verifiability criterion for meaning; principles, I might add, that Christian idealists are all more than happy to reject at almost every opportunity.  So once again, quantum mechanics cannot possibly support a single idealist argument because idealists themselves have already decided, in advance, to reject the core epistemic rules that govern it.

Number 3:

Quantum idealists constantly argue from authority in place of actual argument.  It's so brazen, too, that you can almost make a drinking game out of it.  Every time Inspiring Philosophy reaches some critical junction in his presentation, he almost never backs it up himself with any hard data.  He just splashes some guy's face on the screen next to a self-supporting assertion; as if we're all supposed to simply take that guy's word as gospel on an otherwise highly controversial subject.

I wouldn't even have that much of a problem with this, either, if he at least just stuck with mainstream scientific authorities, like maybe Stephen Hawking or Sean Carroll.  However, several of his most key arguments are supported almost entirely by the abject say-so of completely obscure figures with no authority at all.  For example, one name that Inspiring Philosophy loves to drop in his arguments is Henry Stapp.  I don't know any nice way to say this, but Henry Stapp is a complete scientific nobody - a "Spirit-Science" hack whose only claim to fame is that he co-writes books with Depok Chopra.  The guy has exactly zero technical publications involving any hard, empirical data or rigorous mathematical analysis.  Instead, all of his publications are long-winded rhetorical arguments, with the vast majority of them landing in purely philosophical journals and conferences.  Inspiring Philosophy is deliberately ignoring the entirety of mainstream quantum mechanics, choosing instead to build his entire case on the absurd ramblings of completely fringe crackpots.

Number 4:

The entire idealist argument relies on aspects of quantum mechanics that are known to be unresolved mysteries.  For instance, what is the proper physical interpretation of a wave function?  What constitutes a "measurement?"  Do particles obey local realism or not?  These are all actively debated questions in quantum mechanics with no real consensus beyond the standard Copenhagen interpretation.  So the moment someone comes along and starts pretending to solve all of these difficult issues, you can assume without hesitation that they're not being honest with you.  It's classic God-of-the-Gaps reasoning wherein some current hole in our scientific understanding of the universe inevitably serves as a breeding ground for supernatural explanations.  There are reasons why scientists aren't jumping to accept idealism as a new theory of quantum mechanics, chief among which is...

Number 5:

Idealists deliberately avoid making any hard, falsifiable predictions.  Instead, all they do is accommodate.  They're all more than happy to take prior existing data and then shove it into their preexisting paradigm, but never do they make any effort to predict a single piece of hard, empirical data that we didn't already know.

Even when they're actively trying to make predictions, they still completely fail.  For example, I once placed this exact challenge to Inspiring Philosophy, and his only response was that if idealism is true, then the universe is a hologram. 

Now that might sound impressive to layman, but Inspiring Philosophy doesn't seem to understand that people like me actually study this stuff for a living.  So let's just break this down, shall we?

For starters, it's pretty safe to assume that Inspiring Philosophy has no clue what a "hologram" is in any technical sense.  There's a lot of mathematical baggage that comes with a claim like that, and IP certainly hasn't been formally trained in any of it.  Instead, it sounds more like he just picked it up from a bunch of spirit-science websites, and thought it sounded cool.

Second, his "prediction" isn't really a prediction at all, because he didn't make it.  Professional cosmologists and string theorists are the ones talking about the potential for a holographic universe, and Inspiring Philosophy is apparently just riding on their coattails.  Again, that's not a prediction but accommodation.

Third, nothing about quantum idealism has any logical connection to holography, whatsoever.  Just ask yourself, how does the assumption of an immaterial mind-essence behind all of reality lead us to a universe where magnitude and phase information encode a three-dimensional geometry onto a two dimensional surface?  Where is the mathematical derivation of this principle?  Obviously, there isn't any, because Inspiring Philosophy has no clue what he's talking about.

Fourth, how do I measure "holograph-ness" of the universe?  Where do I point my telescope, and what empirical data am I trying to observe?  What is the predicted power spectral density of the cosmic microwave background?  How much red shift will type-1A supernovas produce and at what distance?  Those are the types of questions that have meaning for empirical predictions, and not some vague allusions to techno-sounding jargon. 

But hey, maybe I'm being too harsh.  Maybe there really is something to this whole "souls cause wavefunctions to collapse" thing.  So here's a challenge for all you quantum idealists out there.  Why don't you put your money where your mouth is and submit your findings to an actual scientific journal?  Not some hack philosophical forum or "Spirit Science" conference, but an actual, technical journal reviewed by experts in the field.  I know that I've personally had no trouble publishing findings of my own in those exact same journals, so what's stopping you?

Honestly, guys.  Who's kidding who, here?  Quantum mechanics is notoriously difficult stuff, and it takes years of training in mathematics and physics just to scratch the surface.  That's why it's so easy to spot a bunch of idiot fakers like yourselves, because you obviously have no formal understanding of the subject.  Unfortunately, that's also why it's so easy to just pretend to be an expert anyway, because none of your fan base has the slightest shred of education in partial differential equations, linear system theory, or stochastic processes.  Everything about your "quantum-idealism" argument is therefore only convincing to an audience that doesn't know any better.
Thanks for reading.

  1. "This philosophical approach of dealing only with questions that can be answered by measurement (or that are purely logical questions within some formal system of logic) and regarding all other questions as meaningless is essentially what is known in the philosophical world as “logical positivism.” It is the most common approach taken in dealing with quantum mechanics, at least at the elementary philosophical level…"  - David Miller, "Quantum Mechanics for Scientists and Engineers," page 7

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What the Hell is "Free Will?"

I've been seeing a lot of talk about free will lately, and I have to confess that I honestly don't know what that term is supposed to mean.  It's as if we all have intuitive "gut sense" of what free will is supposed to be, but then it always breaks down whenever we try and give it a hard definition.  Now I honestly want to know what free will is, and how to recognize a free agent if and when I should ever encounter one, but for some reason, nobody ever seems to give me a straight definition.  So to help cut through the ambiguity, I'd like to offer a simple philosophical challenge to everyone out there who sincerely believes in free will.  It goes like this:

Imagine yourself in a room, sitting at a table.  Across from you are what appear to be two identical twins.  They look the same, they act the same, and in all physical respects, they are as alike as two people can possibly be.  However, there is one key distinction that exists between them: one of them has free will, while the other one does not.  For example, maybe one of them had a brain aneurism that robbed him of the free will center in his brain.  Or maybe one of them is a kind of artificial organism, created in a lab, and programmed to look and act like a person in every superficial way, but without the "free will" part - that sort of thing.  Your only job is to tell me which is which.  Which one has free will and which one does not?

If that sounds a little unfair, then let's make it easy.  I'll grant you access to any measurement equipment you like.  If you need a functional magnetic resonance imager, then fine.  You can have one.  If you need to dissect their brain, then go right ahead.  Or if you need a mass spectrometer, then that's great too.  Anything you like, just so long as it is at least possible to access in principle.  For instance, time machines are obviously not an option because they they simply don't exist, and almost certainly never will.  I also cannot accept an answer involving other immeasurable, supernatural forces, like "the one with the soul has free will."  Otherwise, we'd just have to repeat the entire experiment over again to figure out what a "soul" is.  So unless you're prepared to go down that road, then just stick to the question at hand - what set of empirical data would you need in order to objectively measure the difference between a thing that has free will and a thing that doesn't?

Now I've gotta tell you, I've posed this problem before, and it is like pulling teeth to get a straight answer out people, especially when it comes to Christians.  For example, one very common response I've encountered is the idea that free will is somehow "immaterial," and therefore cannot be empirically quantified.  And that's fine if you want to think that, but it's also an open admission that free will effectively has no meaning. You've basically just told me that there is literally no way to differentiate between things that have free will and things that don't.  I could claim that rocks have free will, or that Canadians don't, and there would be no way to prove either of those assertions false.

Then on the rare occasions when I do find people willing to offer a coherent definition, they almost always refuse to follow it consistently.  For example, most common definitions of free will tend to involve things like "the ability to choose between different possible courses of action without coercion," or maybe something similar; which is again fine, until you realize that computer programs are also perfectly capable of meeting that exact same criterion.  Or maybe if not today, then soon, because it's really only a matter of time before artificial intelligences begin to mimic the cognitive capacity of human beings.  Yet once you start going down that road, most people will immediately begin to back pedal, saying that robots are just collections of transistors and therefore cannot possibly have free will.  And that's fine if you want to think that, too, but all it does is bring us back to the original challenge.  How do I tell the difference between a thing with free will and a thing without?  Why do sophisticated networks of neurons in human brains get to have free will, but not sophisticated networks of silicon transistors?  What's the difference?  Because again, if you cannot tell me the empirical difference between a thing with free will and a thing without, then there simply is no distinction between those two states.  It's just a word that has no tangible referent.

Thank you for listening, and I look forward to hearing your answers.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Model Logic Requires an Analytic/Synthetic Distinction

Something you may have noticed about Christian apologists is their constant abuse of modal logic.  You see this a lot with ideas like the modal ontological argument or in the concept of a "necessary" being.  It's ironic, because often times those very same Christians are more than happy to reject the existence of an analytic/synthetic distinction.  The very idea of modal logic itself is already an implicit formalism for the analytic/synthetic distinction.  They're trying to have their cake and eat it, too.

To illustrate, just look at what modal logic does.  When you really get down to the nuts and bolts of it all, modal logic is nothing more than a formalized system for talking about two distinct categories of proposition:
  1. Possible
  2. Necessary
When we speak of modal possibility, we are specifically talking about hypothetical descriptions of ways the world might have been.  For example, we might describe a "possible world" where Mitt Romney won the presidential election instead of Barack Obama.  Obviously, we don't actually live in that world, but there is no real reason we could not have.  It is simply a happenstance of natural events that we find ourselves in a world where Barack Obama is the president.

In contrast with modal possibility, we also have the idea of modal necessity.  These are propositions that must be true or false in all possible worlds.  For example, there does not exist a single possible world where Barack Obama both won and lost the 2012 presidential elections.  The reason is because losing is logically equivalent to "not winning."  So to both win and lose an election is to both "win and not win," which is a logical contradiction.  Since all contradictions are tautologically false, it is impossible to describe a coherent, hypothetical world where this ever happens.

Now compare these ideas with principles of an analytic/synthetic distinction.  For example, analytic propositions are those whose truth is evaluated purely on the basis of axioms, definitions, and logical rules of inference.  So when presented with a proposition like,

"Barack Obama both won and lost the 2012 election ..."

... we know immediately that such a proposition is analytically false.  The reason is due to the rules built into propositional logic and the tautologies that arise as a result.  It is not a statement about objective, mind-independent reality, but about the raw meaning contained within the words themselves and their corresponding logical operators.  All "necessary" truths are therefore functionally equivalent to analytic propositions.

Now compare this against a slightly modified proposition:

"Barack Obama won the 2012 election."

Notice how I cannot "derive" the truth of this proposition logically or analytically.  For all I know, the truth assignment to this could swing either way, and there is nothing immediately wrong with either case.  The only way to tell for sure is to investigate the matter empirically by making falsifiable predictions.  Both options are therefore perfectly "possible," with the correct answer based entirely on whatever outcome nature contingently decided to go with.  Yet this is exactly what defines a synthetic proposition!  Contingent possibility and synthetic propositions are just two sides of the same philosophical coin.

To me, this is just another one of those great examples of the utter incompetence of Christian apologetics.  It is logically impossible to embrace the principles of modal logic without simultaneously acknowledging some facet of the analytic/synthetic distinction.

You can't have it both ways, Christians!