Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dennett, Darwin, and Deity

Several times in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, the author Daniel Dennett discusses religion in order to argue that it is incompatible with Darwinian evolution. However, he tries to portray himself as a reluctant convert to this position. He begins and ends the book with a hymn and claims that it is "a song which I myself cherish, and hope will survive 'forever.' I hope my grandson learns it and passes it on to his grandson." I'm afraid I simply don't believe him. The space in between the beginning and end of his book indicates that Dennett has nothing but contempt for any and all religious conceptions. He's playacting, trying to portray himself as the loving parent who very reluctantly tells his less knowledgeable children that Santa Claus doesn't exist. But Dennett obviously delights in mocking religious ideas and those who would take them seriously. There is no such thing as a weeping iconoclast.

One particular passage stands out, partially because Alvin Plantinga has recently commented on it in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, writing that "I'm sorry to say this is about as bad as philosophy (well, apart from the blogosphere) gets." So I would like to take a closer look at it. Dennett's passage is below, in red font, with my comments interspersed (like I did here). Note that by doing so, I am, however, putting it on the blogosphere and therefore Plantinga's qualifier is no longer necessary.

In the passage, Dennett is specifically discussing the origin of genetic information. This, allegedly, cannot be explained in a Darwinian fashion, since evolution only comes into play once this information is already in place. It is a precondition for evolution, and so cannot itself be explained by evolution. (Again: allegedly.) The probability that all of the parts that make up the simplest possible living being is so remote that it is effectively impossible by natural processes.

The probability is Vanishing indeed -- next to impossible.
First point: Dennett decides to capitalize the words Vast and Vanishing in order to draw attention to them. I found this a little silly. He also uses the word "kazillion" a disturbing number of times.
And it looks at first as if the standard Darwinian response to such a challenge could not as a matter of logic avail us, since the very preconditions for its success -- a system of replication with variation -- are precisely what only its success would permit us to explain. Evolutionary theory appears to have dug itself into a deep pit, from which it cannot escape. Surely the only thing that could save it would be a skyhook!
"Skyhook" is Dennett's name for any mind-first argument or claim, in contrast to a "crane" which explains things in a matter-first manner. Anything that ultimately suggests that mind precedes matter -- even if it only suggests it to Dennett -- is a skyhook, and such explanations are ruled out of court a priori. Of course, Dennett doesn't say this, since it would be inconsistent on his part, but he makes clear that any such explanation is disallowed, regardless of whatever merits it may have. Of course, calling such explanations skyhooks is an attempt to mock the very idea. The imagery he compares it to is deus ex machina solutions, where some god swoops in from on high (the sky) and solves the problem with a wave of his or her hand (the hook).
This was Asa Gray's fond hope, and the more we have learned about the intricacies of DNA replication, the more enticing this idea has become to those who are searching for a place to bail out science with some help from religion. One might say that it has appeared to many to be a godsend. Forget it, says Richard Dawkins:
What follows is an extended quote from Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, wherein he makes a similar argument to what he spends an entire chapter on in The God Delusion.
Maybe, it is argued, the Creator does not control the day-to-day succession of evolutionary events, maybe he did not frame the tiger and the lamb, maybe he did not make a tree, but he did set up the original machinery of replication and replicator power, the original machinery of DNA and protein that made cumulative selection, and hence all of evolution, possible. 
This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating. Organized complexity is the thing we are having difficulty explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating engine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity. ... But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as the machine itself.
I suspect that, at this point, Dennett may regret having sanctioned Dawkins's argument as it has been sent through the ringer in devastating fashion since the publication of The God Delusion. I have heard it referred to as one of the worst arguments ever posited. To just make one point that I've made before (here and here): traditionally the God of monotheism is conceived as being the simplest of all beings. In fact, this has been one of the central doctrines throughout Christian history: divine simplicity. It's not as accepted among philosophers of religion as it used to be, but even those who reject it do not claim that God is complex, only that he is not as absolutely simple as was traditionally argued. Dawkins -- and Dennett by proxy -- are completely unaware of this major doctrine. Since a material intelligence is composed of many parts, and is therefore complex (in a sense), they assume that an immaterial intelligence must also be complex -- and the greater the intelligence, the greater the complexity. It's difficult to take this seriously: what are the parts that an omniscient God would be composed of? Is he composed of an infinite number of God-bits? Isn't it obvious that the issue of complexity does not transfer over from material beings to immaterial beings? Of course, Dawkins and Dennett would deny that an immaterial being (much less an immaterial intelligence) could exist, but that's irrelevant. The point they are trying to make here is that the traditional concept of God as an immaterial intelligence requires said God to be more complex than what it explains, and this is obviously false. Dawkins and Dennett don't understand what they are criticizing. They simply don't have enough information to justify even having an opinion, much less expressing it as vociferously as they do.
As Dawkins goes on to say, "The one thing that makes evolution such a neat theory is that it explains how organized complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity." This is one of the key strengths of Darwin's idea and the key weakness of the alternatives. In fact, I once argued, it is unlikely that any other theory could have this strength:
It's not evident that evolution explains in general how organized complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity. Evolution is about biological organisms changing with respect to time. Dennett (and Dawkins) extend it into non-biological realms. Of course Dennett doesn't just assume this, he explains at length why he thinks this is a valid procedure, but it should be noted that it's a very contentious point. And Darwin certainly did not apply it this way: indeed, Darwin thought "the Universe is not the result of chance." What follows is a quote from an earlier essay by Dennett that was republished in Brainstorms.
Darwin explains a world of final causes and teleological laws with a principle that is, to be sure, mechanistic but -- more fundamentally -- utterly independent of "meaning" or "purpose". It assumes a world that is absurd in the existentialist's sense of the term: not ludicrous but pointless, and this assumption is a necessary condition of any non-question-begging account of purpose. Whether we can imagine a non-mechanistic but also non-question-begging principle for explaining design in the biological world is doubtful; it is tempting to see the commitment to non-question-begging accounts here as tantamount to a commitment to mechanistic materialism, but the priority of these commitments is clear. ... One argues: Darwin's materialistic theory may not be the only non-question-begging theory of these matters, but it is one such theory, and the only one we have found, which is quite a good reason for espousing materialism.
I haven't read this essay in its entirety, but Dennett brings the issue of question-begging explanations into play in Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Skyhooks are question-begging and cranes are non-question-begging. In the quote above, mechanistic explanations are (or at least can be) non-question-begging, while non-mechanistic explanations are not (it is "doubtful" that any such explanation is forthcoming). This is of a piece with Dawkins's argument: to explain the emergence of the organized complexity that is mind by appealing to a primal mind is question-begging since it uses the very concept that we are trying to explain. A non-question-begging explanation would not appeal to the explanandum as explanans.

Unfortunately for both of them Plantinga absolutely nails them on this. Mind is only the explanandum given materialism. The whole claim of theism is that mind comes first, and is the explanation of matter. Since mind is primal, there can be no explanation of it. Of course, there can be an explanation of a particular mind (especially of a mind that is composed of matter), just so long as it is not the primal mind that explains everything else. Perhaps theism is wrong about this, but Dennett and Dawkins haven't given us any reason to think so. Rather, they have assumed that mind comes after matter and so is what must be explained. They have assumed that theism is false in order to argue that theism is false. In other words, their account is question-begging -- exactly what they are accusing theistic explanations of being.
Is that a fair or even an appropriate criticism of the religious alternatives? One reader of an early draft of this chapter complained at this point, saying that by treating the hypothesis of God as just one more scientific hypothesis to be evaluated by the standards of science in particular and rational thought in general,
This is an astute objection. Dennett is assuming that theism is functioning as a scientific hypothesis, which stands or falls according to its explanatory power (and other factors). But of course, most believers do not believe in God because of its explanatory power. Some may use the concept of God in an explanatory way, but even then, the alleged explanatory power is not why they believe in God (for a vaguely similar point, see here).

Dennett also makes an interesting statement here: "the standards of science in particular and rational thought in general." Failing to meet the standards of science does not mean that something fails to be rational. Science is a subcategory of rationality. To insist that theism must meet scientific standards is to ignore this distinction. I say this is interesting because Dennett is going to ignore this distinction, the very distinction he just made.
Dawkins and I are ignoring the very widespread claim by believers in God that their faith is quite beyond reason, not a matter to which such mundane methods of testing applies. It is not just unsympathetic, he claimed, but strictly unwarranted for me simply to assume that the scientific method continues to apply with full force in this domain of faith.
Testing is the hallmark of scientific knowledge, but it is not the hallmark of "rational thought in general." One reason for this is that the suggestion that testing is a requirement for all rational thought is not itself testable and so fails to be rational. The suggestion is self-referentially incoherent.
Very well, let's consider the objection. I doubt that the defender of religion will find it attractive, once we explore it carefully. The philosopher Ronald de Sousa once memorably described philosophical theology as "intellectual tennis without a net," and I readily allow that I have indeed been assuming without comment or question up to now that the net of rational judgment was up. But we can lower it if you really want to.
Here it becomes obvious that Dennett is confused. He is apparently thinking that if something cannot be supported by purely rational considerations it is therefore not rational. But, as C. S. Lewis put it in Miracles, "Reason knows that she cannot work without materials. When it becomes clear that you cannot find out by reasoning whether the cat is in the linen-cupboard, it is Reason herself who whispers, 'Go and look. This is not my job: it is a matter for the senses.'" When theologians and philosohers of religion say that faith is "beyond" reason, they are saying it in the same way that knowledge of the cat's presence in the linen-cupboard is beyond reason. To say it's beyond reason is not to say that it contradicts reason. There's nothing contrary to reason about the cat being in the cupboard. It is not irrational, it is just not something that we argue to on purely rational grounds (given a particular definition of "rational"). There are other elements involved. That's all. And of course, if he weren't so dead-set on mocking faith as irrational, Dennett would agree to this. His philosophy is heavily indebted to science, and science is empirical, it requires information beyond reason, where we have to "Go and look."
It's your serve. Whatever you serve, suppose I return service rudely as follows: "What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil. That's not much of a God to worship!"
Right, because if something is not a matter of pure reason, then it is irrational. Except evolution itself is not a matter of pure reason, it depends on observation like all scientific discoveries. So substitute "evolution" for "God" in Dennett's response (which, to his credit, he recognizes as rude) and see if you still think the objection has any force. Assuming you thought it did in the first place. Dennett's not only playing tennis without a net, he's playing it without a racket. And a ball. (And an opponent, since I doubt there's anyone who does philosophical theology in the manner he suggests.)
If you then volley back, demanding to know how I can logically justify my claim that your serve has such a preposterous implication, I will reply: "Oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves? Either the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down, there are no rules and anybody can say anything,
So if something is beyond reason, it is completely arbitrary, "and anybody can say anything." But we can imagine Dennett responding to an evolutionist in the same way, since evolution, again, is not a matter of pure reason, but something we have to deduce from observation: we have to "Go and look" to see if it is true.

This also raises a point I've made before and will probably make again: supernatural explanations are not necessarily ad hoc or contrived. Often they are, no doubt. But not always. The idea here is that if we are allowed to appeal to supernatural causes, it would be a slippery slope, since we then could appeal to them in any situation to explain anything and everything. But if we have specific reasons for positing a supernatural cause or explanation, then it isn't ad hoc, whatever other failings you may think it has. So it's not a slippery slope to allow supernatural causation to have a seat at the table. Dennett doesn't say that it is, but I suspect it was at the back of his mind since it's a common enough claim (but of course this is speculative on my part).
a mug's game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your own time or mine by playing with the net down."
You know, the thing that irritates me most about this is that Dennett's whole project is the reduction of rationality to nonrational forces. He wants to explain mind entirely and exclusively in terms of the nonrational functioning of the brain (its physical, neurological, material elements). In so doing he is evacuating rationality of its rational force. This is emphatically not the same thing as allowing extra-rational considerations come in, for the latter suggestion does not remove reason from the game, it just adds other players. Dennett, however, is removing reason. For him to turn around and accuse those who make a significantly more modest point than his of being as radically irrational as his tennis analogy makes out is just hypocritical.

I recently heard Dennett give a lecture on Alan Turing, where he said Turing's genius was in recognizing that a rational act is composed of a bunch of smaller acts which are not themselves rational (nor are they irrational; they just don't take any degree of rationality to perform). He said that, prior to Turing, we assumed that comprehension comes before competence, that in order to be competent at something one had to comprehend what one was doing. But, Dennett argued, Turing showed us that it goes the other way: competence comes before comprehension. This is very consonant with Dennett's conception of evolution. We don't figure out how to survive and procreate before we actually do survive and procreate. We don't learn to behave in certain ways, we just do, and the behaviors which were beneficial were selected -- more strictly, propensities towards behaviors were selected -- and those that were not beneficial were not selected (generally speaking). Thinking that comprehension comes before, and leads to, competence is to appeal to a skyhook.

He took a few questions after his lecture, and I was fortunate enough to be able to ask one of them. I said if competence comes before comprehension, then why would comprehension ever arise? You have everything you need, everything evolution would select for, with just the competence. He responded by appealing to sociobiology, saying that at a certain point, consciousness arises (and makes civilization possible) because some things are difficult or impossible to achieve competence in without comprehension of it. I found this answer very unsatisfactory. Certainly, consciousness does have this effect, but I don't see how Dennett has the epistemic right to appeal to it. His whole point was that we don't have to appeal to consciousness and the comprehension that comes with it in order to account for competence. To simply jump ahead to comprehension and work back to competence when it suits him, when it becomes difficult to explain competence without it, is to appeal to one of those skyhooks he otherwise decries. I still don't see the answer to my question: if Dennett is right that competence precedes comprehension, why would comprehension ever arise?

My general impression of Dennett's lecture is that he's a performance artist. Just as he reveals himself to be playacting in his writings, so he revealed himself to be playacting in his speech. I found it impossible to accept the character he presented in his lecture as his actual persona. Of course I could be wrong; I may have been biased by reading accounts like this. But completely independent of his philosophical positions, the man strikes me overwhelmingly as a sophist.

Anyway, to return to my main point, Dennett is arguing that rationality consists of behaviors that are not chosen for rational reasons. For him to then mock his interlocutors as playing tennis without "the net of rational judgment" in place is a bit much. By his own standards, there is no net.
Now if you want to reason about faith, and offer a reasoned (and reason-responsive) defense of faith as an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, I'm eager to play.
This passage confuses me, because Dennett seems to be saying that we have to provide an explanation in terms of pure reason of why faith is not a matter of pure reason (again, given a particular definition of "reason"). He seems to be demanding that the claim be self-referentially inconsistent. On the other hand, perhaps he just means that the extra-rational elements of faith not be irrational, that being beyond reason does not mean that it contradicts reason. If this is all he means (but I don't think it is), I have good news for him: this is precisely how faith has generally been conceived. In the same way, empirical beliefs are an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, since they are not arrived at by pure reason (they require us to "Go and look"); memory beliefs are an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, since they are not arrived at by pure reason; belief in other minds is an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, since it is not arrived at by pure reason; etc. (For that matter, reason is not arrived at by pure reason; you can't give a reasoned account of why we should trust reason, since any such account would be circular.)

In fact, this is the whole point of Plantinga and others. Plantinga's first book, God and Other Minds, compared belief in God to belief in other minds, and argued that the objections to one would apply equally to the other. Since you'd have to be a lunatic to deny the existence of other minds, the objections to belief in God don't work either. In Warranted Christian Belief (which he says functions as a sequel to both God and Other Minds and Warrant and Proper Function) he argues that there is a cognitive faculty, the sensus divinitatis, that causes us to immediately (i.e., non-inferentially) form beliefs about God when faced with certain circumstances. In the same way, we form beliefs about the physical world when faced with certain circumstances: I see a tree before me and form the belief, "There's a tree." I don't reason to this belief -- my senses indicate that a tree is before me; my senses are generally reliable; therefore there is probably a tree before me -- I just immediately form the belief. In fact, it would be irrational if I didn't. Of course, Plantinga may be wrong about this, but that has to be argued. Dennett doesn't even address it.
I certainly grant the existence of the phenomenon of faith; what I want to see is a reasoned ground for taking faith seriously as a way of getting to the truth,
You can't give a reasoned ground for taking sensory beliefs seriously as a way of getting to the truth. Or memory beliefs. Or belief in other minds. (Or reason.) In order to give a reasoned ground for taking sensory beliefs thusly, you would have to have evidence that your sensory beliefs are generally reliable. But how could you get such evidence? Because other people corroborate what your senses tell you? But you only know that these people are telling you, "Yes there's a tree in front of you" if your sensory beliefs are reliable. In other words, you have to presuppose that your sensory beliefs are reliable in order to obtain evidence that your sensory beliefs are reliable.

The point being that such beliefs are innocent until proven guilty. We do not have to provide evidence that they are reliable before we take them to be reliable. The burden of proof is on the one who demands that these beliefs be established via reason before they be taken to be reliable. Otherwise you get caught in an infinite regress: you have to have a reasoned ground that some class of beliefs is reliable; but then you have to have a reasoned ground that the reasoned ground in question is reliable; and then a reasoned ground of the reasoned ground of the reasoned ground; etc.

The claim of Plantinga, Alston, Wolterstorff, and others is that belief in God is in a similar position. It is innocent until proven guilty, and so the believer does not have to provide a reason for believing in God, anymore than she has to provide a reason for believing that there are other minds or that the physical world exists. This is a controversial claim, but again, Dennett doesn't even address it.
and not, say, just as a way people comfort themselves and each other (a worthy function that I do take seriously).
Again, I don't mean any disrespect, but I simply don't believe Dennett considers this a worthy function or that he takes it seriously.
But you must not expect me to go along with your defense of faith as a path to truth if at any point you appeal to the very dispensation you are supposedly trying to justify.
Why not? I expect him to go along with my defense of sensory beliefs and memory beliefs as paths to truth, even though they cannot be established by appeal to reason alone. Putting religious beliefs into the same category as these other beliefs is certainly controversial, but Dennett doesn't give us any reason to think that there is a category at all. Since his philosophy is dependent on science and science is dependent on observation, which cannot be established by reason alone, this is inconsistent.
Before you appeal to faith when reason has you backed into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.
"Abandon reason"? Who's abandoning reason? Am I abandoning reason when I realize that I have to "Go and look" to see if the cat's in the cupboard? Once again we see that Dennett is just confused about what the claim is: there is nothing in reason that tells us that we must rely exclusively on reason and not also on, say, our senses or memories. Indeed, it would be unreasonable to to reject these sources of information.
You are sightseeing with a loved one in a foreign land, and your loved one is brutally murdered in front of your eyes. At the trial it turns out that in this land friends of the accused may be called as witnesses for the defense, testifying about their faith in his innocence. You watch the parade of his moist-eyed friends, obviously sincere, proudly proclaiming their undying faith in the innocence of the man you saw commit the terrible deed. The judge listens intently and respectfully, obviously more moved by this outpouring than by all the evidence presented by the prosecution. Is this not a nightmare? Would you be willing to live in such a land?
This, and what follows, are what Plantinga called "as bad as philosophy gets." I think Plantinga's overstating the case. Dennett is certainly guilty of extremely sloppy thinking -- of not playing with the net up -- but philosophers have blind spots just as much as laymen do. I suspect that since Plantinga has been engaged in this subject for the last half century or so, he doesn't suffer a fool who comments on it in ignorance.

I don't really need to say anything more about Dennett's story about the murder trial. It's premised on the idea that reason is the only source of justified or warranted beliefs, something which Dennett himself would never accept since he believes a) our senses are a source of justified or warranted beliefs, and b) reason can be entirely explained in terms of nonrational factors. Well, I can say this: he points to sources of beliefs (mere emotion, sentimentality) that are not reliable. But the jump from "not all extra-rational sources of belief are reliable" to "no extra-rational sources of belief are reliable" is not a valid move. And this should have been obvious to him.
Or would you be willing to be operated on by a surgeon who tells you that whenever a little voice in him tells him to disregard his medical training, he listens to the little voice?
What if the surgeon disregarded his medical training because of sensory beliefs? For example, he sees that the person's heart is in the right side of his chest instead of the left side. Would you want a surgeon who, when faced with such a scenario, continued to operate as if your heart was on your left side instead of your right? To ask this question is to answer it.
I know it passes in polite company to let people have it both ways, and under most circumstances I wholeheartedly cooperate with this benign arrangement.
Dude, seriously? No you don't. You revel in holding people's feet to the fire. You delight in mocking people who dare to disagree with you.
But we're seriously trying to get at the truth here.
Once again, we see the pose: "I don't want to have to say what I'm about to say, but the seriousness of the matter compels me to." You know who else writes like this? Flat-earth creationists. I've quoted flat-earthers before who insist -- insist -- that they are merely following the evidence where it leads and they are just "seriously trying to get at the truth." That's what you say when you know you don't really have the truth, but want to manipulate people into agreeing with you regardless.
And if you think that this common but unspoken understanding about faith is anything better than socially useful obfuscation to avoid mutual embarassment and loss of face, you have either seen much more deeply into this issue than any philosopher ever has (for none has ever come up with a good defense of this)
I'm not sure exactly what the issue is that no philosopher "has ever come up with a good defense of." If he means no philosopher has come up with a good defense of the compatibility of science and faith, this is obviously false. If he means no philosopher has come up with a good defense of faith-beliefs, such as that God exists, this is also false. Dennett may not think these arguments are successful, but he has not even told us what they are, so we (his readers) cannot tell whether the defenses in question are good or not.

On the other hand, if he means no philosopher has come up with a good defense of the claim that there are extra-rational sources of belief (like our senses) that are perfectly valid, then this may be true, but it is irrelevant, since the claim is that we don't have to defend such sources. (Although the claim that we don't have to defend them has been extensively and adroitly defended.) If he means no philosopher has come up with a good defense of measuring your words and not challenging people's dearly-held beliefs when there is no need to do so, then this may also be true but irrelevant, since I don't see how common courtesy is a philosophical subject.
or you are kidding yourself. (The ball is now in your court.)
Because . . . why? Do all the cosmological arguments fail? Why and how? Do we have to defend our senses and memories as valid sources of beliefs before we can trust them? Why, and how does Dennett avoid the infinite regress? You are kidding yourself because you disagree with Dennett, and nevermind why.
Dawkins' retort to the theorist who would call on God to jump-start the evolution process is an unrebuttable refutation,
Holy crap. Really? Does Dennett really think this? It's not only an unsuccessful argument, it is an obviously unsuccessful argument. It is question-begging (as Plantinga shows), it is premised on conditions that no form of theism accepts, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
as devastating today as when Philo used it trounce Cleanthes in Hume's Dialogues two centuries earlier.
Hume's Philo lost that debate. Moreover, I'm not confident that Dawkins's argument is all that similar to Philo's. I'd have to reread Hume first though.
A skyhook would at best simply postpone the solution to the problem, but Hume couldn't think of any cranes, so he caved in.
Right, because Hume was known for caving in. Dennett is accusing David Hume of not being as intellectually bold as himself (just like he accuses other materialists like Fred Dretske). Moreover, the "problem" that a skyhook would not really solve is only a problem given materialism. And of course, we are not given materialism.

I'll stop the quote here and just reiterate a point I made above: Dennett is so ignorant of the subject he is pontificating on that he has no business even having an opinion about it. He doesn't have the first clue about the subject, and his "reasoning" about it is so faulty, so sloppy, so transparently feeble, that it should embarass him. Although I doubt it will.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Sunday, December 16, 2012


I like the Belgians, but the bureaucracy there can reach extreme levels, and every now and then it crosses over into abject absurdity. A couple of years ago we went through such absurdity, and I offer it here in order to help you feel better about whatever difficulties you may currently be experiencing.

This rant is in two movements, which I have named after two most excellent songs from AC/DC's most excellent album Flick of the Switch. The first movement is...

We'd been living in Belgium for five years, our kids were born there. When you first come to Belgium, at least from the States, you have to show proof of solvency. So we did. Five years ago. Now, every year foreigners have to re-register at the Town Hall. This year, we went and they said they didn't have the paperwork showing our solvency, and they couldn't re-register us until they did. I told them that since we needed to show this in order to enter the country, obviously we had shown it and they must have lost the paperwork. They refused to accept this and said we had to show proof of solvency.

Fortunately, my wife is good at record-keeping and still had all the paperwork at home. We asked them if we just had to show them the paperwork from five years ago, and they said yes. Unfortunately, we were moderately busy as we both had jobs, and so couldn't return to Town Hall until a few days later. But we did, and showed them the paperwork. No, they said, you have to have paperwork for your children. What paperwork? we asked. Proof that you have an income of 1500 euros per month. Why didn't we have to show this before? This was the third time we've re-registered since we've had children. They said that we were supposed to show it before, but somehow it had been overlooked.

Well, my wife and I had jobs and earned more than that amount. We asked them if a bank statement would be sufficient. They said, no, we should bring them our employment contracts. OK. So we have to come back to Town Hall yet again, and it can't be for a few days yet again, because, like I said, we have jobs.

So we brought the contracts as they requested. They said, no, they needed a form to be filled out by a particular person at the University. We had to take our contracts to her to have her fill out the form, and then bring said form back to Town Hall. When we told them that they had specifically told us to bring our contracts to them they simply denied that they had ever said such a thing.

So we called the particular person to make an appointment. Her schedule was full. We said it was becoming something of an emergency, because we have to have our paperwork in order by a fast-approaching date. So she managed to make an appointment for us early on Wednesday morning. She then emailed us and said she had to move it back to 11:00 on Wednesday. This was just barely do-able for us, since my wife had to catch a train to go to work not long after that.

So we arrived at her office on Wednesday at 11:00. The receptionist then told us that our appointment had been for Tuesday. No, we said, it was Wednesday. I had heard my wife's side of the phone conversation when she made the appointment, and the only day she mentioned was Wednesday. Fortunately, they had a computer area with some available computers, so my wife got online and printed up our email correspondence which said clearly that our appointment was for Wednesday. It was the subject line of the woman's email for pete's sake.

With this proof that our appointment was for, well, now, the woman agreed to meet with us. This leads us to the second movement...

We sat down in her office, and she immediately said that our appointment had been for Tuesday. The emails my wife had printed up showing that it was for Wednesday were right in front of her on her desk. My wife pointed to them and said, "No, it was for today, like we discussed in the emails." The woman decided to let that go, and asked what we wanted. We explained it to her, and offered her our employment contracts showing our monthly income. She wasn't interested. She said what had to take place is that we have to give the university we attended 18,000 euros -- approximately 25,000 dollars at the exchange rate of the time, about 23,500 now. Why? we asked. We have proof of solvency, we have a monthly income that exceeds their requirements, and like almost everyone else in the world we don't have 18,000 euros in spending money just lying around. She said that's just the way it is.

I told her that we know plenty of foreigners who have had children in Belgium but didn't have to do anything like this. "That's not correct," she said. "Not correct?" I said. "You mean in the same way it's not correct that our appointment was for today rather than yesterday?"

OK, no, I didn't say that, but I almost did. What I actually said was, "Yes that's correct" in an irritated voice. My wife then asked why we had never been asked to provide this before. Again, we were told that it had been overlooked.

Now it's not really fair to describe this as a shakedown. The idea was that we give them 18,000 euros and they give it back to us 1,500 euros at a time, each month. And then do the same thing the following year. That way they could be sure that we have money coming in each month. When we pointed out -- again -- that my wife and I were both employed and that I alone was earning more than 1,500 euros a month, the lady said that was not sufficient since theoretically we could get fired.

We went back and forth for a while. Eventually it occurred to us (and by "us" I mean "my wife") to ask, "Wait, if we could offer proof of solvency several years ago when we came to Belgium, why is that proof no longer applicable?" She pointed out that we not only had to prove solvency, but that we had had to have someone sign on to be a guarantor, someone who would essentially be the person they would demand money from if we became stuck in Belgium with not enough money to return to the States. The guarantor was my father-in-law (which was a bit embarassing since my wife and I are in our 40s, but that's just how they do it in Belgium).

So my wife asked, "Why can't my father still be our guarantor?" The lady responded, "Well, because you've had two children. He never agreed to be their guarantor." My wife then asked, "If he did agree to be their guarantor, could we avoid having to pay you 18,000 euros every year?" The lady was silent for a few seconds, then said yes.

Of course, I'm an obnoxious git, so I asked, "Why is his money better than our money? Why is he trustworthy but we're not?" The lady answered, "When he fills out the guarantor form, he will have to provide proof that he has a monthly income above a certain level." "But we can prove that we have a monthly income above that level already. Why do you need to go to him?" "Because you could be fired, like I mentioned." Then I said, "But he could get fired too, right? Just like we could?" Again she was silent for a few seconds, then said yes. "So," I continued, "you'll trust that some guy who you'll never meet and who lives in another country on the other side of the planet won't get fired, but you won't trust that the two people sitting across the desk from you, who live and work in the same country as you, and whose employers you can speak to directly, won't get fired. Is that right?" At that point my wife politely told me to stop talking, so we stood up, thanked the lady for whatever reason, and left. We spent two more years in Belgium after that frustrating run-in with the bureaucracy.

There, now don't you feel better about your own crap?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Back in the U.S., Back in the U.S., Back in the U.S. we are

The first time I've returned to the States -- or as I call it, civilization -- in two and a half years.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


How did I miss this? Yesterday was Pretend to Be a Time Traveler Day. Here's a few suggestions as to how you were supposed to celebrate it:

- Walk up to random people and say "WHAT YEAR IS THIS?" and when they tell you, get quiet and then say "Then there’s still time!" and run off.

- Stand in front of a statue (any statue, really), fall to your knees, and yell "NOOOOOOOOO"

- Take some trinket with you (it can be anything really), hand it to some stranger, along with a phone number and say "In thirty years dial this number. You’ll know what to do after that." Then slip away.

- Airplanes are terrifying. Also, carry on conversations with televisions for a while.

Now I'll have to go back to yesterday to pretend to be a time traveler.

Update: Done.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Cold as ice

I mentioned once in passing that there may be water ice at Mercury's north pole. Now they've confirmed it: about 100 cubic kilometers. It's in craters that are north enough and deep enough that they are permanently in shadow. That's what they call really interesting.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Quote of the Day

The superintendent scratched his forty-year service tattoo thoughtfully. "In that case, you might be of help to us. Our own mediator had arranged a system of non-overlapping magisteria between the nihilist and empiricist  factions in our ship's flight systems, but we were infected with a solipsistic virus several days ago. The accord has now broken down into open sulking. We have been becalmed insystem for two days while our vessel argues with itself. Our astrogator is muttering crazy talk about learning to use a slide rule."

Old Krishna bowed. "I have extensive experience of the empiricist mindset, and some acquaintance with the nihilist. I believe I can resolve your difficulties."


The everything-resistant door barring access to the Console Room opened; the Featherfoot guard stood aside with a clatter of legs and gills. Inside were chairs, a small, kidney-shaped table, inactive surround screens. No sign of life, artificial or otherwise.

"Good day," said Old Krishna, bowing.



The ship's logician hovered nervously at Old Krishna's elbow. "This is the point in the argument at which they fatally electrified the last mediator. Be careful."

Old Krishna nodded. "The old question. Are you an emperor dreaming yourself to be a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming yourself to be an emperor?"

There was a brief moment of assimilation, and then both voices chimed in: "PRECISELY."

"Which of the two of your represents the ship's navigation system?" said Old Krishna.


"Eventually," pointed out Old Krishna, "the ship will run out of fuel, and drift helpless without power."


"Concedo," said Old Krishna. "However, I am intrigued by the undeniably correct assertion of the ship's propulsive faction that we can only reason in accordance with what data is provided to us. Would it not be the case that, if data were forthcoming, data that empirically proved the worldview of the ship's navigational faction, an agreement could be reached?"

An even longer silence ensued; Old Krishna sucked in his gut and held his breath.

Eventually, the ship's propulsion system grudgingly spoke up: "UNDOUBTEDLY. IT IS ONLY PROOF WE NEED. SO FAR WE HAVE SEEN NONE."

"So by their own admission, access to wider sensory experiences could produce the proof that the propulsion faction needs. This would be far more likely if the ship were moving."

An uneasy hiatus followed.

"OUR CONTENTION IS THAT NO PROOF OF ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE," complained the navigation system.

"Then you can lose nothing by allowing the ship to continue to move," pounced Krishna.

The next silence was punctuated only by the ship's logician backing stealthily out to the threshold of the security door.

"AGREED," said the navigation system.

"WE ARE AMENABLE TO A COMPROMISE," said the propulsion system.

The ship's onboard alarms chimed gently in a variety of audible ranges; the floor began to tilt gradually to compensate for thrust. Like the motion of an expensive elevator, the acceleration was almost imperceptible.

"That's witchcraft," said the ship's logician.

Krishna turned to the ship's logician and bowed.

"That's philosophy," he said.

Dominic Green
"Butterfly Bomb"
Interzone 223, July-August 2009

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Phinally Done.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Martian life

A regular reader wrote to ask me what I think about the upcoming announcement about Mars Curiosity Rover. If it turns out to be the discovery of life or (much more likely) the remains of life, what would that mean for Christianity?

I wrote back and told him that I actually started posting a series on this a while ago, but never made it past the first post for some reason. Here it is: "The alien who lives among you", part 1. Now that I'm thinking about it again, I may finish that series once I finish my PhD. Which is soon, very soon. In the meantime I'll just say the discovery of life of Mars wouldn't have any kind of negative impact on my faith, and it shouldn't have such an impact on any other Christian's, although I'm sure it will have an influence on some. And of course Christianity's opponents will claim it as a knock-down refutation. But I'm afraid I just don't find their reasoning, when I can find it, very persuasive.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Kids in the hall Chinese room.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cool clear water

The European Space Agency is planning to land a probe on the Moon's south pole in 2018 to see if there's water beneath the surface. This would then pave the way for manned missions to be able to go there without having to take water with them.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Quote of the Day

As personal and private life is lower than participation in the Body of Christ, so the collective life is lower than the personal and private life and has no value save in its service. The secular community, since it exists for our natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude. To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavour. As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, law, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit. Collective activities are, of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary. Great sacrifices of this private happiness by those who have it may be necessary in order that it may be more widely distributed. All may have to be a little hungry in order that none may starve. But do not let us mistake necessary evils for good. The mistake is easily made. Fruit has to be tinned if it is to be transported and so has to lose thereby some of its good qualities. But one meets people who have learned actually to prefer the tinned fruit to the fresh. A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much of his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind -- if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else -- then what was undertaken for the sake of health has itself become a new and deadly disease.

C. S. Lewis
The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Dennett contra Weinberg

There's a relatively famous quote by physicist Steven Weinberg : "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion." I think this is an incredibly naive claim. I would replace "religion" in that quote with "ideology." After all, good people do evil in the service of political ideologies all the time. But that's a post for another day. Right now I want to point to an interesting passage from Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea that contradicts Weinberg's claim. It's from page 264 of my copy, the third page in chapter 10; the emphases are mine.

Anybody as prolific and energetic as [Stephen Jay] Gould would surely have an agenda beyond that of simply educating and delighting his fellow human beings about the Darwinian view of life. In fact, he has had numerous agendas. He has fought hard against prejudice, and particularly against the abuse of scientific research (and scientific prestige) by those who would clothe their political ideologies in the potent mantle of scientific respectability. It is important to recognize that Darwinism has always had an unfortunate power to attract the most unwelcome enthusiasts -- demagogues and psychopaths and misanthropes and other abusers of Darwin's dangerous idea. Gould has laid this sad story bare in dozens of tales, about the Social Darwinists, about unspeakable racists, and most poignantly about basically good people who got confused -- seduced and abandoned, you might say -- by one Darwinian siren or another. It is all too easy to run off half cocked with some poorly understood version of Darwinian thinking, and Gould has made it a major part of his life's work to protect his hero from this sort of abuse.

So Dennett not only affirms that science can lead good people to do evil, but evolution in particular can do so. Of course, Dennett and Weinberg and I would respond to this charge that such people are obviously misunderstanding science and evolution in such cases. But then I don't see why this defense isn't available for religion as well.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Unofficially Voyager 1 may have left the solar system

Incredibly exciting if true. Two of the three criteria necessary for a definitive statement are positive, and the third is unclear. The most blatant is the drop-off of charged particles from our sun hitting the spacecraft. Here's what that looks like:

Yeah, that looks pretty definitive.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Friday, September 7, 2012

Quote of the Day

We understand by a cybernetical machine an apparatus which performs a set of operations according to a definite set of rules. Normally we "programme" a machine: that is, we give it a set of instructions about what it is to do in each eventuality; and we feed in the initial "information" on which the machine is to perform its calculations. When we consider the possibility that the mind might be a cybernetical mechanism we have such a model in view; we suppose that the brain is composed of complicated neural circuits, and that the information fed in by the senses is "processed" and acted upon or stored for future use. If it is such a mechanism, then given the way in which it is programmed -- the way in which it is "wired up" -- and the information which has been fed into it, the response -- the "output" -- is determined, and could, granted sufficient time, be calculated. Our idea of a machine is just this, that its behaviour is completely determined by the way it is made and the incoming "stimuli": there is no possibility of its acting on its own: given a certain form of construction and a certain input of information, then it must act in a certain specific way. We, however, shall be concerned not with what a machine must do, but with what it can do. That is, instead of considering the whole set of rules which together determine exactly what a machine will do in given circumstances, we shall consider only an outline of those rules, which will delimit the possible responses of the machine, but not completely. The complete rules will determine the operations completely at every stage; at every stage there will be a definite instruction, e.g., "If the number is prime and greater than two add one and divide by two: if it is not prime, divide by its smallest factor": we, however, will consider the possibility of there being alternative instructions, e.g., "In a fraction you may divide top and bottom by any number which is a factor of both numerator and denominator". In thus relaxing the specification of our model, so that it is no longer completely determinist, though still entirely mechanistic, we shall be able to take into account a feature often proposed for mechanical models of the mind, namely that they should contain a randomizing device. One could build a machine where the choice between a number of alternatives was settled by, say, the number of radium atoms to have disintegrated in a given container in the past half-minute. It is prima facie plausible that our brains should be liable to random effects: a cosmic ray might well be enough to trigger off a neural impulse. But clearly in a machine a randomizing device could not be introduced to choose any alternative whatsoever: it can only be permitted to choose between a number of allowable alternatives. It is all right to add any number chosen at random to both sides of an equation, but not to add one number to one side and another to the other. It is all right to choose to prove one theorem of Euclid rather than another, or to use one method rather than another, but not to "prove" something which is not true, or to use a "method of proof" which is not valid. Any randomizing devices must allow choices only between those operations which will not lead to inconsistency: which is exactly what the relaxed specification of our model specifies Indeed, one might put it this way: instead of considering what a completely determined machine must do, we shall consider what a machine might be able to do if it had a randomizing device that acted whenever there were two or more operations possible, none of which could lead to inconsistency.

If such a machine were built to produce theorems about arithmetic (in many ways the simplest part of mathematics), it would have only a finite number of components, and so there would be only a finite number of types of operation it could do, and only a finite number of initial assumptions it could operate on. Indeed, we can go further, and say that there would only be a definite number of types of operation, and of initial assumptions, that could be built into it. Machines are definite: anything which was indefinite or infinite we should not count as a machine. Note that we say number of types of operation, not number of operations. Given sufficient time, and provided that it did not wear out, a machine could go on repeating an operation indefinitely: it is merely that there can be only a definite number of different sorts of operation it can perform.

If there are only a definite number of types of operation and initial assumptions built into the system, we can represent them all by suitable symbols written down on paper. We can parallel the operation by rules ("rules of inference" or "axiom schemata") allowing us to go from one or more formulae (or even from no formula at all) to another formula, and we can parallel the initial assumptions (if any) by a set of initial formulae ("primitive propositions", "postulates" or "axioms"). Once we have represented these on paper, we can represent every single operation: all we need do is to give formulae representing the situation before and after the operation, and note which rule is being invoked. We can thus represent on paper any possible sequence of operations the machine might perform. However long, the machine went on operating, we could, give enough time, paper and patience, write down an analogue of the machine's operations. This analogue would in fact be a formal proof: every operation of the machine is represented by the application of one of the rules: and the conditions which determine for the machine whether an operation can be performed in a certain situation, become, in our representation, conditions which settle whether a rule can be applied to a certain formula, i.e., formal conditions of applicability. Thus, construing our rules as rules of inference, we shall have a proof-sequence of formulae, each one being written down in virtue of some formal rule of inference having been applied to some previous formula or formulae (except, of course, for the initial formulae, which are given because they represent initial assumptions built into the system). The conclusions it is possible for the machine to produce as being true will therefore correspond to the theorems that can be proved in the corresponding formal system. We now construct a Gödelian formula in this formal system. This formula cannot be proved-in-the- system. Therefore the machine cannot produce the corresponding formula as being true. But we can see that the Gödelian formula is true: any rational being could follow Gödel's argument, and convince himself that the Gödelian formula, although unprovable-in-the-system, was nonetheless -- in fact, for that very reason -- true. Now any mechanical model of the mind must include a mechanism which can enunciate truths of arithmetic, because this is something which minds can do: in fact, it is easy to produce mechanical models which will in many respects produce truths of arithmetic far better than human beings can. But in this one respect they cannot do so well: in that for every machine there is a truth which it cannot produce as being true, but which a mind can. This shows that a machine cannot be a complete and adequate model of the mind. It cannot do everything that a mind can do, since however much it can do, there is always something which it cannot do, and a mind can. This is not to say that we cannot build a machine to simulate any desired piece of mind-like behaviour: it is only that we cannot build a machine to simulate every piece of mind-like behaviour. We can (or shall be able to one day) build machines capable of reproducing bits of mind-like behaviour, and indeed of outdoing the performances of human minds: but however good the machine is, and however much better it can do in nearly all respects than a human mind can, it always has this one weakness, this one thing which it cannot do, whereas a mind can. The Gödelian formula is the Achilles' heel of the cybernetical machine. And therefore we cannot hope ever to produce a machine that will be able to do all that a mind can do: we can never not even in principle, have a mechanical model of the mind.

This conclusion will be highly suspect to some people. They will object first that we cannot have it both that a machine can simulate any piece of mind-like behaviour, and that it cannot simulate every piece. To some it is a contradiction: to them it is enough to point out that there is no contradiction between the fact that for any natural number there can be produced a greater number, and the fact that a number cannot be produced greater than every number. We can use the same analogy also against those who, finding a formula their first machine cannot produce as being true, concede that that machine is indeed inadequate, but thereupon seek to construct a second, more adequate, machine, in which the formula can be produced as being true. This they can indeed do: but then the second machine will have a Gödelian formula all of its own, constructed by applying Gödel's procedure to the formal system which represents its (the second machine's) own, enlarged, scheme of operations. And this formula the second machine will not be able to produce as being true, while a mind will be able to see that it is true. And if now a third machine is constructed, able to do what the second machine was unable to do, exactly the same will happen: there will be yet a third formula, the Gödelian formula for the formal system corresponding to the third machine's scheme of operations, which the third machine is unable to produce as being true, while a mind will still be able to see that it is true. And so it will go on. However complicated a machine we construct, it will, if it is a machine, correspond to a formal system, which in turn will be liable to the Gödel procedure for finding a formula unprovable-in-that- system. This formula the machine will be unable to produce as being true, although a mind can see that it is true. And so the machine will still not be an adequate model of the mind. We are trying to produce a model of the mind which is mechanical -- which is essentially "dead" -- but the mind, being in fact "alive", can always go one better than any formal, ossified, dead, system can. Thanks to Gödel's theorem, the mind always has the last word.

A second objection will now be made. The procedure whereby the Gödelian formula is constructed is a standard procedure -- only so could we be sure that a Gödelian formula can be constructed for every formal system. But if it is a standard procedure, then a machine should be able to be programmed to carry it out too. We could construct a machine with the usual operations, and in addition an operation of going through the Gödel procedure, and then producing the conclusion of that procedure as being true; and then repeating the procedure, and so on, as often as required. This would correspond to having a system with an additional rule of inference which allowed one to add, as a theorem, the Gödelian formula of the rest of the formal system, and then the Gödelian formula of this new, strengthened formal system, and so on. It would be tantamount to adding. to the original formal system an infinite sequence of axioms, each the Gödelian formula of the system hitherto obtained. Yet even so, the matter is not settled: for the machine with a Gödelizing operator, as we might call it, is a different machine from the machines without such an operator; and, although the machine with the operator would be able to do those things in which the machines without the operator were outclassed by a mind, yet we might expect a mind, faced with a machine that possessed a Gödelizing operator, to take this into account, and out-Gödel the new machine, Gödelizing operator and all. This has, in fact, proved to be the case. Even if we adjoin to a formal system the infinite set of axioms consisting of the successive Gödelian formulae, the resulting system is still incomplete, and contains a formula which cannot be proved-in-the-system, although a rational being can, standing outside the system, see that it is true. We had expected this, for even if an infinite set of axioms were added, they would have to be specified by some finite rule or specification, and this further rule or specification could then be taken into account by a mind considering the enlarged formal system. In a sense, just because the mind has the last word, it can always pick a hole in any formal system presented to it as a model of its own workings. The mechanical model must be, in some sense, finite and definite: and then the mind can always go one better.

This is the answer to one objection put forward by Turing. He argues that the limitation to the powers of a machine do not amount to anything much. Although each individual machine is incapable of getting the right answer to some questions, after all each individual human being is fallible also: and in any case "our superiority can only be felt on such an occasion in relation to the one machine over which we have scored our petty triumph. There would be no question of triumphing simultaneously over all machines." But this is not the point. We are not discussing whether machines or minds are superior, but whether they are the same. In some respect machines are undoubtedly superior to human minds; and the question on which they are stumped is admittedly, a rather niggling, even trivial, question. But it is enough, enough to show that the machine is not the same as a mind. True, the machine can do many things that a human mind cannot do: but if there is of necessity something that the machine cannot do, though the mind can, then, however trivial the matter is, we cannot equate the two, and cannot hope ever to have a mechanical model that will adequately represent the mind. Nor does it signify that it is only an individual machine we have triumphed over: for the triumph is not over only an individual machine, but over any individual that anybody cares to specify -- in Latin quivis or quilibet, not quidam -- and a mechanical model of a mind must be an individual machine. Although it is true that any particular "triumph" of a mind over a machine could be "trumped" by another machine able to produce the answer the first machine could not produce, so that "there is no question of triumphing simultaneously over all machines", yet this is irrelevant. What is at issue is not the unequal contest between one mind and all machines, but whether there could be any, single, machine that could do all a mind can do. For the mechanist thesis to hold water, it must be possible, in principle, to produce a model, a single model, which can do everything the mind can do. It is like a game. The mechanist has first turn. He produces a -- any, but only a definite one -- mechanical model of the mind. I point to something that it cannot do, but the mind can. The mechanist is free to modify his example, but each time he does so, I am entitled to look for defects in the revised model. If the mechanist can devise a model that I cannot find fault with, his thesis is established: if he cannot, then it is not proven: and since -- as it turns out -- he necessarily cannot, it is refuted. To succeed, he must be able to produce some definite mechanical model of the mind -- anyone he likes, but one he can specify, and will stick to. But since he cannot, in principle cannot, produce any mechanical model that is adequate, even though the point of failure is a minor one, he is bound to fail, and mechanism must be false.

J. R. Lucas
"Minds, Machines, and Gödel"
Philosophy 36 (1961)

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Neil Armstrong has passed away. Time to update XKCD's depressing graphic:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

For your viewing pleasure...

...C. S. Lewis through the Shadowlands, the BBC version which I prefer to the Hollywood version. Having said that, the Hollywood version has much higher production values, and honestly, I don't remember it very well.

Monday, August 20, 2012

For your listening pleasure...

..."The Abolition of Man" by Thrice. Inspired by the book by C. S. Lewis. Lyrics are here.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Friday, August 3, 2012

Roaming Rover

I'm not posting much, but some things are too important to not mention. On Sunday, the new Mars Rover will land on Mars, filming on the way down. So so so cool.

Update (7 Aug): First pictures. Including this one

which reminds me of this one from the Phoenix landing.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


once again, I apologize for not posting much of late. I have PhD stuff going on. I'll probably experience a burst of activity once I turn in my dissertation.

Monday, July 9, 2012

More Favorite Movie Scenes

The Shawshank Redemption

Open Range


Falling Down

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The Commitments

The Commitments - Try a Little Tenderness par algizdk

The Rock

Evil Dead 2

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Robocop 2

Gran Torino

The Untouchables

Blade Runner

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

High Noon in Space

That's how my dad described the 1981 science-fiction movie Outland with Sean Connery. I just saw it again on YouTube and for the life of me I don't understand why this movie isn't more well-known. I'm probably biased, but I just love it -- apart from the absurd claim that being exposed to vacuum makes people immediately explode. Maybe I shouldn't link it, but you can watch the whole thing here. My dad thought the chase/fight scene that starts around 48:30 was one of the best chase scenes ever filmed.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Proof Positive

Last night I left a few comments on another blog that reported the news that a German court had declared it illegal to circumcise children under the age of consent. The comments on the blog veered to several side issues, one of which was condemnation of religions that practice circumcision. This led to a couple of commenters making the claim that atheism is not disbelief in God, it's merely the absence of belief in God. I've written about that before so I challenged them to define what the "absence of belief" is and how it's different from withholding belief (agnosticism) and disbelief (atheism as it has been understood historically and today). The "absence of belief" position was popular in the mid to late 20th century among some atheist philosophers, but they eventually abandoned it because they couldn't define it. Their motive for suggesting it was that if one simply lacks a belief then they (allegedly) do not share any burden of proof: the burden is entirely on the person who claims that God exists. If you assert that God does not exist, however, then you're making a claim to knowledge and so must shoulder the burden of proof just as much as the theist does. So the "absence of belief" position is basically an attempt to think whatever you want without having to go to the trouble of having reasons or evidence for it.

This led to someone else making a statement that is popular among atheist laymen. He wrote, "You can't prove a negative." I responded, "You can't? Why not? I can prove negatives. Who told you that you can't prove a negative?" Really, negatives are proven all day long and are very easy: you can prove that there is no full-sized elephant in your room right now. You can prove that, under normal conditions, if you drop a pencil, it will not fall up instead of down. These are perhaps silly examples, but proving negatives is one of the most common things to prove. Here's a more realistic case. Many scientists and philosophers of science follow Popper in claiming that science cannot prove anything it can only falsify. Science cannot prove "if A --> B" because A and B may just be occuring together by coincidence. However science can falsify "if A --> B" by finding an example of A occurring without B. If we accept this account then not only is it possible to prove a negative, it means that science only proves negatives.

Now I suspect the atheist who says you can't prove negatives is really thinking something else. Perhaps he's thinking that while you can prove negatives about observables you can't prove negatives about unobservables, like God. But of course this is false as well: you can prove that God did not just create a full-sized elephant in your room right now. The atheist may counter-respond that if we appeal to God we can make any absurd qualification we want. Maybe God just created a full-sized invisible elephant in your room right now. If you object that part of your anti-elephant proof is that your room is not big enough for an elephant, you can maybe qualify it further. But these attempts are non-starters. Absent the specific qualification that the elephant is invisible (or any other ad hoc qualification) the phrase "a full-sized elephant" by itself would mean that the elephant in question is visible (or lacks the ad hoc qualification). I think the people who make this objection are thinking something along the lines of: the concept of God has been repeatedly qualified to render it immune to disproof. It used to refer to a physical person-like object, but then when that became philosophically and scientifically untenable it was upgraded to a non-physical person-like object, etc. This seems to presuppose a naive view of the origin and development of religion which was common in the second half of the 19th century. Certainly, the theistic concept of God has developed -- as it should -- but it is not clear to me that this has been a series of ad hoc qualifications like, "Well, well, maybe he's just invisible!" At any rate, atheism is guilty of the same thing, so it strikes me as a tu quoque argument.

Or perhaps the atheist is thinking you can't prove a universal negative. That's a more respectable claim: to say there are no X's would seem to require that one had searched all of reality and determined that no X's exist. Even more, it would seem to require that one had searched all of reality simultaneously: otherwise, perhaps the X's were somewhere other than where you were looking at each particular moment; maybe they moved around so that they were always behind you or something. Unfortunately, this claim is still false. It assumes the only way you can prove something is via observation, that is, through scientific methods. This is scientism and scientism is a naive and foolish position. To make the most obvious point, you can prove things via logic -- specifically you can prove universal negatives via logic. If something contradicts a law of logic then it is impossible and cannot exist anytime, anywhere. If the atheist challenges the laws of logic we can simply point out that science presupposes the laws of logic. Once you've abandoned logic you've abandoned science (not to mention knowledge and rationality). However, this has a limited application. That's why this objection is more respectable: in many cases you can't prove a universal negative. It's only when the universal negative contradicts a law of logic that it can be disproven.

A third possibility: perhaps the atheist is defining "prove" in the logical sense. You can give an argument for something, you can demonstrate that something is more likely true than false, you can even show that it is very probably true. But a logical proof is an absolute proof. It cannot fail to be true (or, conversely, fail to be false). It holds of all possible worlds. But of course, this was already dealt with: to prove a universal negative via logic is to prove it absolutely.

Finally, I would just like to point out that the claim "You can't prove a negative" is a negative. So by its own lights, it can't be proven. This doesn't necessarily render it invalid, since there are many things we can know that we can't prove. However, it does mean, at the very least, that the person who claims you can't prove a negative must give us a reason for thinking why you can't prove a negative. This is likely to lead to one of the three possibilities above.

(Updated to add a point and clean up some awkward phrasings.)

Update, 12 July: Defining ignorance.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Quote of the Day

The other motive which prompts Naturalism in its attempt to deny the efficiency of mind is of a more positive and ambitious sort. It is, namely, the desire to make all forms of matter, of motion, and of energy susceptible to the same sort of description, explanation, and prediction; the wish to get a single world formula under which everything that happens may be subsumed. "We have achieved the impersonal point of view," hymns one of the most ecstatic of the behaviorists, "in the interpretation of stars and stones and trees and bacteria and guinea pigs. Our next step is to achieve it for the phenomena of human behavior." Thus shall we at length achieve that consummation devoutly to be wishes, that thoroughly scientific point of view, from which we shall be unable to find in man anything essentially different from what we observe in stones, bacteria, and guinea pigs. There is, to be sure, absolutely no evidence to show that such an achievement is possible, no argument to indicate that the actual world is such as to submit to such a formula; but the great longing heart of Naturalism demands that it shall be so, and the naturalistic philosopher solemnly declares that it is so -- it is so because it must be so. It would be impossible to find in the most sentimental and unreasoning forms of religious experience a more extreme case of the pious wish or the Will to Believe. Nor can the annals of Scholastic Philosophy or of Protestant Theology give us a more admirable example of dogma, pure and undefiled. No evidence that Galileo could give as to the motion of the earth had any influence upon his judges; the earth did not move because it could not move. In similar fashion we are assured that the mind cannot move nor influence the movements of the body -- to say that it does so is heresy, for so one would deny the universality of physical law. -- E pur si muove!

Here is the real issue of the mind-body problem, here is the only important question. And looking back over our course with this fact in mind we can now see that there are not, as we had supposed, three or four chief views of this problem, but only two, namely Interaction and its rivals. The various forms of Materialism, of Parallelism, and of Behaviorism are only different ways of saying pretty much the same thing, only varied attempts to prove the same thesis. The aim of all is identical, namely, to write down and explain the whole of reality in physical formulæ, to deny to mind any influence whether direct or indirect upon matter and motion. The first expression of this naturalistic thesis is the blatant form of Materialism. The difficulties to which this gives rise are too patent to permit of its acceptance, so they are later disguised under the gentlemanly costume and the idealistic mask of Parallelism. But the splendid promises of Parallelism lead to disillusion at the end, and the mask which it wore is easily torn from its face. No one weeps its fall, for few besides Fechner and Paulsen were ever very much interested in it except as a means of defeating Interaction and establishing Naturalism. So its old upholders rapidly desert it to give in their allegiance to Behaviorism. Behaviorism, also, would like to avoid the blatancy of Materialism. It has many brave words as to the nobility and the significance of intelligence. But when we get at the real meaning of the words we learn that intelligence is simply a specific form of activity and set in nerves, muscles, and glands. Thus, Behaviorism, in common with its predecessors and allies, is merely a specially devised way of denying the efficiency of consciousness.

And when one stops to face squarely this proposition that mind has no effect on conduct, -- when, I say, one stops to face it squarely, and leaving aside pet theories, gives it serious consideration int he light of all that one knows of oneself and of other men and of human history and civilization -- the proposition reveals itself to the steady gaze as unspeakably preposterous. In the words of Professor Lovejoy, "Never, surely, did a sillier or more self-stultifying idea enter the human mind than the idea that thinking as such -- that is to say, remembering, planning, reasoning, forecasting, -- is a vast irrelevancy having no part in the causation of man's behavior or in the shaping of his fortunes -- a mysterious redundancy in the cosmos which would follow precisely the same course without it."

We are told we must deny the efficiency of consciousness because of the difficulty in believing in any exceptions to the action of mechanical law and the difficulty of imagining how mind can act on matter. I submit that to be so nice with little difficulties, and so omnivorous with monstrosities that approach the mentally impossible is a case of straining at one poor gnat and swallowing a whole caravan of camels. Like others I find it difficult to imagine an idea affecting a brain molecule; but I think I am also like nearly everybody else when I find it impossible to believe that thought and purpose have had nothing to do with building up human civilization and creating human literature and philosophy. How the opponents of Interaction manage to believe these things I confess I find it very difficult indeed to imagine.

I know this is not decisive. I know indeed what the upholder of Naturalism will probably reply. His reply, in fact, will be in substance not very different from that of the Red Queen to Alice, after Alice had told her there were some things she couldn't believe. "Can't you?" said the Queen in a pitying tone. "Try again; draw a long breath and shut your eyes."

"There's no use trying," said Alice, "one can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

When one remembers the materialistic assertions that consciousness is matter and that logic is ground out by mechanical processes, the parallelistic thesis that the non-existent brain determines wholly the existent mind, the neo-realist denial of all reality to the subjective, the behaviorist identification of thought with the action of the larynx, one sees that Naturalism, like the Red Queen, has had some practice in believing the impossible; that in fact it would be stating its case with great moderation, not to say modesty, if it should claim that sometimes it had believed as many as half a dozen impossible things before breakfast. Moreover, the Red Queen's formula for belief is the one which must necessarily be adopted if we are to imitate successfully the remarkable achievements of Naturalism in the arousal of faith in the impossible, -- namely, "Draw a long breath and shut your eyes!"

I too can believe a good many things with my eyes shut; but if I keep them persistently open I becomes less and less impressed with the ambitious claims and the false dignity of Naturalism. And by Naturalism I mean, of course, not natural science but the unempirical philosophy, the a priori theory, which would extend the formulæ of natural science into spheres in which the true scientist has no ambition to advance. Taken in this sense Naturalism appears to me the great hoax of our times. Its seemingly adamantine fortifications, with their tremendous and terrifying guns, are mostly camouflage. Its walls are enormously impressive; but like those of Jericho they will fall before whosoever has the courage coolly to examine their foundations -- and to blow upon the trumpet.

This being the case, I must also say frankly that Interaction seems to me the inevitable outcome of our argument. It is the only view that makes history and human life really intelligible. Indeed if we were right in believing (and we have seen no reason for doubting) that Materialism, Parallelism, Interaction, and the denial of the mind-body relation are the only answers to our problem worth serious consideration; and if we were justified also in our conclusion that the relation is a real one, and that neither Materialism nor Parallelism is tenable, and that the alleged difficulties of Interaction are much slighter than at first they seem, it follows that we are plainly compelled by the very process of elimination to conclude that Interaction is the true doctrine and that mind has an independence and a power of its own. And now we can begin to understand the wild attempts of Materialism, Parallelism, Neo-Realism, and Behaviorism to invent some method by which Interaction might be avoided. Not for nothing were the strange twistings and writhings of these theories. For if Interaction be accepted a momentous turn has been taken in our philosophy. We shall namely have given in our assent to a Dualism of Process with the universe.

The consequences of such a Dualism of Process are fateful and endless. There is no time to deal with them this afternoon and they must be postponed for consideration to our final lecture. But we can, I think, already begin to form some notion of what is involved in this Dualism of Process, to which, by the force of logic and of experience, we seem to have been driven. Such a world view will mean a profound, if not a fundamental, distinction between matter and spirit. It will mean the return of all sorts of possibilities against which the iron gates of Naturalism were forever closed. It will mean that perhaps Plato and Christianity were right after all.

James Bissett Pratt
Matter and Spirit: A Study of Mind and Body in Their Relation to the Spiritual Life (1922)
(footnotes omitted)