Monday, July 28, 2008

Doesn't God care about overpopulation?

Headline: "Canadian Woman Gives Birth to 18th Child." Explanation (from the father): "We never planned how many children to have. We just let God guide our lives, you know, because we strongly believe life comes from God and that's the reason we did not stop the life." See post below.

Added July 30th: Yet another example of utter stupidity.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Pareidola and "the God illusion"

As the bottom of this blog page states, I'm an exponent of the thesis that humans are not, despite what one might prima facie think, particularly smart organisms. The following pictures are cases of pareidolia: Random textural "patterns" in various quotidian objects (mis)interpreted, like a Rorschach inkblot image, as significant (e.g., as Jesus, the Virgin Mary, etc.).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Does reality have a liberal bias?

At the White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner in 2006, Stephen Colbert declared that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Is this true? Consider the following few points:

(i) A recent study published in The Forum found that only 15% of professors at U.S. universities identify as conservative, while an overwhelming 72% identify as liberal.
(ii) A New York University study recently found that “individuals with conservative ideologies are happier than liberal-leaners,” but that the reason for this asymmetry of subjective well-being is that “conservatives rationalize social and economic inequalities” more than liberals.
(iii) One finds a revealing prima facie statistical relationship between education level and political orientation. (There are of course notable exceptions among both conservatives and liberals, and it’s worth keeping in mind that although an education may incline one towards a more rational, fact-based worldview, it does not entail that one assume such a posture.) Take some of the most prominent ideologues of the conservative pole: Sean Hannity, an “indifferent student,” dropped out of New York University, never to earn a college degree; Rush Limbaugh, whose mother reports that “he flunked everything,” including a Modern Ballroom Dancing course, dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University, never to earn a college degree; George W. Bush, a self-described “average student,” received “mostly Cs” at Yale University; Karl Rove, who is probably least well-known as an MC, (apparently) dropped out of three colleges (he stayed in college to avoid the Vietnam draft), never to earn a college degree; etc. One the antipode of the political sphere, one finds the paradigms of liberal thought, most of whom are highly educated, rational, and fact-based in their worldviews; e.g., Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn, Keith Olberman, Rachael Maddow, etc.
(iv) Take note someday of the Junk Science articles written by fideist Steven Milloy for the Opinion section of Very often, one finds headlines such as “Global Warming Alarmists Aim to Lower the Standard of Living,” while just below, in the Science section, one finds headlines such as “Report: North Pole May Be Ice-Free This Summer.” I wrote Milloy about this embarrassing discrepancy—viz., that on the very same page, apposed one section apart, a pontifical opinion piece claims that arguments for global warming are specious and alarmist while a peer-reviewed science paper (or AP article summarizing the paper) states just the opposite—and his editor, Barry Hearn, replied as follows: “You'd have to ask FNC's editors why they uncritically post AP items, or site layout or anything else. […] The root cause here would seem to be NOAA's fundraising oportunism [sic] waving the ‘warming’ flag.”

It's no surprise that Bush has consistently cut funding for education. As George Orwell once said, “hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance.”

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hitchens and Falwell

An absolutely hilarious interview, on FoxNews, with Christopher Hitchens about the late Jerry Falwell's timely demise.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Song #5

This song is entitled "Smile (The Arboretum)." It was inspired by the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Planes, outside of Boston. The lyrics are: Blue mist skies/I miss your sighs/Green washes to white eyes/Smile/Flitting field/Sways in the breeze/Shadows of blissful ease/Smile all day long/Cool spring air/All through my hair/Movement is everywhere/Smile/Restless mind/Some peace to find/Nature for humankind/The arboretum.

Smile (The Arboretum) - Victor Eremita

Friday, July 18, 2008

Humanism vs. Scientism

The following is an email I sent to a friend—an aspiring neuroscientist—who espouses a rather pejorative, and surprisingly common (especially, my wife reports, at institutions such as MIT), view of the humanities. The question posed was: If you had to choose between science and the humanities to propagate through/to society for its amelioration, which would you choose? His answer was, of course, the former, on the assumption that the humanities are (what Bertrand Russell calls, in Education and the Good Life) "ornamental" rather than "instrumental," and that disciplines with instrumental value are axiologically better than those with mere ornamental value. Here it is:

The answer would depend entirely upon the purposes of "spreading" it to society; and these purposes might depend on the nature of that society itself. For example, the modern era of Baconian "technoscience" is marked by (i) (borrowing from Weizenbaum's critique of AI) an "imperialism of instrumental rationality," (ii) a "technological mood," and (iii) what some thoughtful critics of modernity call "reverse adaptation."

The first points at the ability of clever educated people today to solve increasingly abstruse problems—i.e., to acquire means to an end, but (very often) without questioning the end itself. (E.g., we know how to build thermonuclear weapons, but fall short with respect to the more reflective, thoughtful, philosophical task of determining why we build them.) The second points to a natural offshoot of the capitalist ideology (which has deeply penetrated even—or especially—science): one begins to see nature (including other human beings) as "standing reserves"—as objects for exploitation (Heidegger). The third points to the fact that, along with the first two, the standards and criteria by which we judge the value of technology are universalized, now being applied to everything (Langdon Winner). The point is this: the statement that you'd choose science over philosophy because it (philosophy) is not "useful" is loaded with unexamined and thoroughly "normative" notions about what ought to count as valuable; and these unexamined notions are not self-evident, but must be justified before one accepts them. In other cultures—indeed, some would argue, in far more enlightened cultures, even though their capacity to manipulate and deform nature (thanks to science) was less developed—the usefulness of X was not the criterion by which X's value was determined. Again, in our capitalist milieu, it's common for people to uncritically assume that use alone (or at least primarily) is criterial of value; but this needs to be examined.

Two points: (1) I'd be very careful about "discipline chauvinism," especially without familiarity of the disparaged discipline (e.g., philosophy, literature, etc.). As someone (part of a growing number) of academics who "swing both ways"—towards the humanities and science—I encounter individuals on both sides with a rabid and often highly irrational abhorrence for those on the other side. This is very upsetting, since (at least in my experience) the primary reasonStructures, in which he adduces a substantial amount of empirical (i.e., historical) evidence to show that scientific theories do not in fact describe reality, and that one theory replaces another, over generations, not through a rational process in which evidence is objectively examined, experiments are carefully performed, etc., but rather through a merely rhetorical process of persuasion and, for lack of a better word, coercion (although such coercion is subtle and insidious). And again, there is a lot of empirical evidence supporting this, which at least renders it plausible. for such a posture is that these hard-core exponents (of humanism or scientism) are simply unaware of what the other side does, what it offers, what it accomplishes, what it is about, etc. For example, many scientists would be surprised—and, I think, rather enlightened—to discover extremely robust "metascientific" theories that see the enterprise of science as no more progressive than, say, the enterprise of painting (which clearly doesn't move forward). In fact, the most cited book of the twentieth century was Kuhn's

(2) It would help, I think, to read those SEP articles to get an idea of what exactly philosophers do. (Incidentally, I should add that almost every major scientist since the Scientific Revolution has been an omnivorous reader—and active contributor!—to the philosophy of science, including: Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Hawking, etc. Darwin, Morgan, Watson & Crick, Gould, Pinker, Dawkins, etc. just to name a few that come to mind; as well as many in numerous other scientific domains. Thus, a pejorative view of philosophy offends not just philosophers, but most of the "great" scientists as well ;-) Philosophers of science, for example, ask the most fundamental—and therefore difficult—questions about science: What are theories? What are laws of nature? What does it mean to explain a phenomenon? Is science really objective? etc. These issues have attracted attention of many great philosophers and scientists, and they turn out to be many orders of magnitude more stymieing than might be thought at first glance. It would take many books to explicate them in detail—but the point is simple: Such questions are not in the least superfluous, but concern, in the most fundamental way, the very validity, rationality and objectivity of science.

Thus, the philosophy of science adds a profound richness and depth to one's understanding of science as a (maybe the best?) "strategy" for acquiring knowledge about the universe. Suddenly, what was once accepted without critical reflection becomes an entirely new and extraordinary realm of intellectual curiosity: If theories explain through the formulation of laws of nature, how is Darwinian theory explanatory, since it posits a mechanism rather than a universal generalization? Or, if the theoretical entities that scientific theories posit don't really exist (as many of the greatest scientists and philosophers of the mid-twentieth century claimed), then what good is science as a source of knowledge? Or, if our observation is always influenced by the theories we hold, can scientific experiments ever really be objective?

This is a long email, I know—but far, far shorter than it ought to be. [...] Anyway, I've convinced many humanists of the value of science, and I'd love to convince you of the value of philosophy as well. Talk to you later, Phil

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Song #4

This song, entitled "A New Historiography," takes its lyrics from Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; the audio is of astronauts during a space shuttle takeoff. The best feature of the song, which, incidentally, I don't think is quite as good as others (see below), is the bassline. (From The Science of Dreams album, which put to music texts from notable philosophers, scientists and mathematicians.)

A New Historiography - Victor Eremita

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Cavendish Principle

I post this because if you haven't seen it yet, you ought to! I suggest calling it the "Cavendish principle": The fundamental design of the Cavendish banana is just right or fine-tuned to allow it to be easily eaten. (Cf. with the anthropic principle.) Yet another empirical datum corroborating the theistic hypothesis of an intelligent designer.

(Incidentally, for a very interesting discussion of the anthropic principle in the context of optimization in the nervous system, see this paper in which I discuss the work of an amazing and brilliant professor at the University of Maryland.)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Taking the Theism out of Christianity

I recently came across an excellent debate between Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath (an Oxford theologian). While watching the (almost risibly cordial) exchange, it occurred to me—not for the first time—that atheists ought to make more of an effort in such disputations to distinguish between (i) theism (the belief in God or many gods), and (ii) theism’s particular manifestations (Christianity, Hinduism, etc.). The reason is this:

If one takes the ontological question of God’s existence as an empirical matter, then neither the theist nor atheist can prove, with absolute certitude, that God either does or does not exist; rather, the answer must be probabilistic. Ultimately, as Dawkins puts it, the universe is exactly as one would expect it to be if there was no God. Thus, while atheists cannot flat-out "falsify" the theistic hypothesis (there's nothing in the universe, no datum or set of data, one can point at to prove that God doesn't exist, only things to
suggest he doesn't), there is nevertheless a very strong argument against it.

But there is a far stronger argument against theism's particular religious manifestations, such as Christianity. Indeed, add to the initial implausibility attending theism a massive boat load of additional implausibilities that the Christian religion introduces. Not only do Christians claim that God exists, but they also believe that:

- God is three-in-one (the insoluble modalism vs. tritheism debate)
- Jesus was both fully human and fully divine (see post below, “Could Jesus have been an atheist?”)
- Jesus will return “someday soon” to rapture up the believers (apocalypticism in the Bible)
- Etc.

These are even more problematic than theism, and I think it would help atheists to be more explicit about them. Dawkins, for example, frequently attacks (in the video) McGrath’s Christian faith through general statements about, e.g., the lack of evidence for a God (where these arguments are applicable without modification to other religions as well), rather than through Christianity-specific critiques, such as those put forth by, e.g., Bart Ehrman in Misquoting Jesus. The point, of course, is to compound the theological difficulties of Christianity by saying: “Not only is the belief in God—any God—an uncogent position, but the specific claims made by your religion, Christianity, are highly implausible and untenable.”

I am still waiting for a book that ascends from the level of Christian specifics—the myriad problems (internal coherence, historical accuracy, etc.) of lower/higher textual criticism—all the way to the higher level of theological generalities—the ontological problem of God’s existence, theodicy, and so on.

What is the Number of the Beast? Is it 666?
According to the earliest copy of Revelations available,
P115, the number is not 666, but 616. Oops.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Song #3

This song, entitled "The Divided Line," has two parts: (i) The first is slow, and includes clips of Jacques Derrida speaking; and (ii) the second is fast, and includes clips of Jacques Derrida singing. Actually, what happened was this: I found an interview containing a long caesura, at the end of which Derrida says "uuuuuuh," and then continues. It just so happened that the tone of Derrida's "uh" fit the song's key, and so I cut and pasted the Derridian grunt into the song! Enjoy.

The Divided Line - Victor Eremita

Friday, July 4, 2008

Song #2

This song is entitled "Death is not Sexy," from the album The Science of Dreams. The idea behind this album (consisting of 11 songs, one of which is posted below) was to write music for and sing texts written by notable philosophers, scientists and mathematicians. The song below includes audio clips of Daniel Dennett discussing evolutionary theory, and the lyrics come from Kim Sterelny and Paul Griffiths' 1999 book Sex and Death (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the Philosophy of Biology). I composed and performed (in my home studio, if one could call it that) the music (produced on a synthesizer) and sang the vocal parts.

Death is Not Sexy - Victor Eremita

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Post of Combinatorial Creativity...

“Some of the principal extensions, together with some of their psychic and social consequences, are studied in this book. Just how little consideration has been given to such matters in the past can be gathered from the consternation of one of the editors of this book. He noted in dismay that ‘seventy-five per cent of your material is new. A successful book cannot venture to be more than ten per cent new.’”

– Marshal McLuhan, Understanding Media (1994)

It's interesting to note the different ways in which one (a philosopher, scientist, etc.) can be original. In some cases, for example, the problems/questions are clearly defined, lacking answers not because of some abstruseness or obscurity that obstructs the curious mind’s "epistemic" access to them, but for a wholly bland and purely practical reason, namely that no one has yet taken the time to solve them. This is to say, puzzle X remains a mystery not because X is particularly difficult to understand (one might say “intrinsically mysterious”), but simply because no one has gotten around to figuring it out.

A great deal of Kuhnian “normal science” work, it seems to me, is just taking the time to do the experiments; I realized this, again, in a bacterial genetics/genomics laboratory course I took several semesters ago. My group was assigned to research a specific mutation in the dnaE486 allele (the dnaE gene codes for the α subunit in the DNA polymerase III, which catalyzes DNA replication), the only one of several alleles that had not yet been researched. In this case, my group embarked on a research journey through uncharted territory—but we already knew something about this territory prior to our work, namely that it existed, that it was uncharted, etc. All we had to do was chart it. This marks a difference between us (and most scientists engaged in such “busy-work”) and, say, Albert Einstein, who had to discover that such-and-such a territory existed in the first place—a prerequisite, of course, for charting that territory.

I am reminded of a passage from Jacques Ellul’s magnum opus The Technological SocietyBell or Gray in 1876, or someone else in 1877 or 1878 or perhaps as early as 1875?” (Quoted in Winner 1977, 66-67). Indeed, I recall reading once that Heisenberg thought that if Einstein hadn’t devised his theory of relativity (first in 1905), then Hendrik Lorentz would have stumbled upon it eventually. And from this stems the “autonomous technology” thesis. (1964) in which Ellul notes that, as disciplines become increasingly specialized, genius becomes increasingly unnecessary for one to make an important contribution. Similarly, the anthropologist A.L. Kroeber argued that “inventions may be inevitable,” focusing on the increasingly frequent occurrence of simultaneity, with respect to discoveries or inventions, in science and other domains. As Kroeber states: “It is only a question of who will work the idea out feasibly. Will it be

On a tangential note: Nietzsche once said (I believe in Ecce Homo) that the truly original thinker is not he/she who sees something new altogether, but rather he/she who sees something new in what everyone is already looking at. This seems to map onto, roughly, Margaret Boden’s distinction between what she calls deep and combinatorial creativity: The former involves creating something completely new, unique or sui generis, while the latter involves reconfiguring “components” already present in novel ways. Like Nietzsche, Boden identifies true genius with the latter, with re-combining known elements into new configurations. The question then is: What is the precise relation between this distinction and the discussion above?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Why Believe in Evolution? Why not accept Creationism?

This essay, which the reader can find here, is a quick introduction to philosophical issues surrounding Darwinian theory. It is not a description of Darwinian theory itself—for that one should consult a textbook—but an exploration of such questions as: Why believe in evolution? Why is evolution a better explanation of the history of life than, say, the Bible (or Koran, or Buddhist mythologies, etc.).

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Paradox of Historical Reconstruction

In many historical disciplines, from archeology to geology, cosmology to biology, the further away, temporally speaking, from an event one is, the less accurate and detailed a description one can give of that event. This is for many obvious reasons: For example, the ocean floor moves away from divergent tectonic plate boundaries, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and towards subduction zones, such as those along the western coast of the Americas. This conveyor-belt motion is cyclical (every several billion years, I think) and, therefore, as the oldest part of the ocean floor is subducted, geological evidence of the past is lost forever. This applies, of course, to nearly all historical records, be them archaeological, paleontological, anthropological, etc.

In another -- and
paradoxical -- sense, though, sometimes greater temporal distance from an event actually results in more accurate and detailed descriptions. Indeed, even as evidence, for example, of long deceased life is permanently expunged through natural (and non-natural -- i.e., anthropogenic) processes, the total quantity of discovered fossils continues to increase, thereby enriching our understanding of the biota of past epochs. Furthermore, as scientists develop theories into increasingly sophisticated models or accounts of natural phenomena, lacunae in our knowledge (due to gaps in empirical data) can be "filled in" through rational extrapolation. In this way -- again, paradoxically -- greater distance along the diachronic axis can actually yield better knowledge of an historical event long gone.

Indeed, we can look forward to a more accurate theoretical understanding of the origin of the universe in the
future, which upon reflection seems (at least to me) to be an oddity.