Monday, 24 February 2014

Complexity, creation and watchmakers

In this post I'll put aside any supernatural aspect of a god.  Let's just consider him (it's almost always 'him') as a being who has the power to create a universe and work what appear like miracles within that universe.

What is the point of there being such a being?  He is usually thought of as explaining the origin of our universe, and setting things up so that complex organisms such as humans will appear.  He also watches what humans do, and may contact them and change reality for them (which will be considered miracles).  There is this belief that the complexity around us needs a creator.

What kind of complexity would make us think of there being a creator?  We know from Darwin's work that biological complexity can arise by itself without any need for intervention.  Provide a source of low-entropy energy, such as sunlight, and biological systems can make use of the low entropy to grow and reproduce.  Biological systems are good at creating disorder through their activities and their metabolism, after having put the order in sunlight, chemical energy, or other organisms acting as food, to good use.  

So, complexity alone isn't enough to need a creator.  But what about something that has clearly been designed by a mind?  To use Paley's example:
 a watch found by itself on the ground would make us believe there was a watch maker.  This is not wrong.  (Where Paley went wrong was to use a watch as an analogy for life, but watches aren't alive, and they don't reproduce and they don't experience natural selection.)  But a watch, with a manufacturer's name inscribed on the back, would be a very good reason to believe in a watch maker.  There is an explanatory gap.  Why is there this gap?  Because it doesn't seem reasonable to believe that chance alone could produce such a watch.  We look for a cause of the watch.

However, there are situations where a watch maker isn't needed, and these situations are to do with beginnings.   Imagine a vast barren universe, filled with nothing but wandering atoms.  The universe is very dull, and is neither expanding or contracting.  Just atoms, wandering around at random.  In this situation bizarre things happen to principles that we usually consider to be laws of Nature.  The Second Law of Thermodynamics which states that entropy will always increase to a maximum turns out to be a general guideline, not a Law.  Given disorder and enough time, order will appear.  The time involved may be hard even to write down mathematically let alone conceive, but order will happen.  Given enough time and a universe filled with particles moving randomly, a fully-operational watch will appear, even with a name apparently inscribed on the back.  The watch will run down, stop, and even decay due to quantum effects in a time brief beyond measure compared to the time taken for the watch to appear.  Given enough time, the watch will appear, again and again... because given eternity, anything physically possible can happen.  

The watch that appears out of chaos does not need a watchmaker.  It's possible (inevitable if you wait long enough) that a fully functional watchmaker could appear out of chaos and would live long enough to make a watch, but the combination of watchmaker and environment is so much more complex that a watch alone, and ill take so much longer, on average, to appear than a watch alone, that if you find a watch in the middle of chaos, it's vastly more likely that the watch appeared without the need for a watchmaker.  

So, when we deal with beginnings, simple arguments about design just don't work, and there is another possibility I have not mentioned for ending up with a watch: out of chaos a quantum fluctuation of the right kind occurs so as to create an inflationary state which expands vastly and then stops, dumping energy into newly created space and time, resulting in a Big Bang.  Galaxies and stars form, planets appear from dust and gas around stars,  Life appears on planets, and then evolves over billions of years.  Eventually, a technological civilization appears and someone decides to make a watch.  That sounds incredibly complicated, but it's likely that the quantum fluctuation that started it all off is much, much less complex than a watchmaker and enough life-sustaining environment to allow the making of a watch.  What this means is that if you find a watch and you have no other evidence, by far the most probable origin for that watch is a spontaneously-appearing universe - vastly more probable than a spontaneously-appearing watchmaker.
So, to insist on some original watchmaker is an extremely poor idea of how you ended up with a watch than to suggest that a universe appeared by itself.  Even if this universe does in some way resemble a watch with the manufacturer's sign engraved, the suggestion that this universe was the result of a cosmic watchmaker is still a very bad idea for how everything began - it's vastly more reasonable to suggest that the watchmaker arose through natural processes in his universe.

Gods really don't work as places for explanations of how things got started.  There are always vastly simpler alternatives, such as spontaneous universes.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

What the mind isn't - abandoning epiphenomenalism

The Hard Problem of consciousness remains the subject of intense debate and discussion in science and philosophy.    In this post I will argue that one view of the way that physical brains are associated with consciousness - epiphenomenalism - isn't a coherent view.

In order to understand what epiphenomenalism is, here is a representation of what is said to happen in a brain and conscious states in epiphenomenalism:

P represents a physical state of the brain.
C represents a mental (conscious) state.
M represents a mapping between P states and C states.

Non-interacting dualism or epiphenomenalism looks like this:

C1    C2   C3
 |    |    |
 M    M    M
 |    |    |
P1 → P2 → P3 → …

Physical states cause each other and also result in conscious states.  Now it may seem to be a problem for those who support this model of the relationship between brain and mind to explain how physical brain states can result in someone talking about truly about epiphenomenalism being real? – how can a 'P' state be at all related to a 'C' state?  This can happen because if the relationship between P states and C states (the mapping 'M') doesn't vary, then each P state represents its corresponding C state, and so a physical being can talk about epiphenomenal conscious states without inconsistency – it's not absurd.

Or is it?  Does this really work?  The answer is that it doesn't work, and to see why we need to perform a thought experiment.  Imagine someone with a brain implant.  This implant affects mathematical thinking, and it can be turned on and off by someone other than the person with the implant.

With the implant off, the person with the implant does some mental arithmetic.  Suppose the sequence of physical and conscious states are as follows, as he or she thinks through a simple sum:

Step Physical Conscious

1 '1' '1'
2 'add' 'add'
3 '2' '2'
4 'equals' 'equals'
5 '3' '3'

Now, the implant is turned on, and the sequence of states is this

Step Physical Conscious

1 '1' '1'
2 'add' 'add'
3 '2' '2'
4 'equals' 'equals'
5 '4' '4'

Both the P state and the C state have changed in step 5.  This is due to signals from the implant affecting the brain.

Looking at the C states, the indirect causal connection between these states doesn't work with the implant on.

However, looking at the P states causality is still working fine, because what produced the state in step 5 was a predictable combination of state 4 and the implant signal.

So it's conceivable that the same conscious state doesn't necessarily always lead to the same subsequent conscious state.  The possibility of additional physical contributions to the physical states means that we aren't justified in insisting that the physical states represent conscious states.

Other problems for the idea that physical brain states can be thought to be about epiphenomenal conscious states is to do with the relationship between physical and conscious states – 'M':

Dancing Qualia

Changes in how conscious states arise from physical brain states have no effect on physical brain states.  Such are the subject of the thought experiment known as 'Dancing Qualia'.  Suppose you see a red rose and say 'that rose is red'.  Then, you are shown the rose again, but the physical to conscious mapping is changed so that the conscious experience of the rose is 'green'.  You will still, as a result of physical brain states being unchanged, say 'that rose is red'.  The philosopher David Chalmers says that one of these two statements from you is true and the other false.

If we assume epiphenomenalism, then, because physical brain states don't represent conscious states – the experienced relationships between conscious states don't necessarily correlate to causal relationships between physical states (as in '1 plus 2 equals 4' above) – so the statement 'the rose is red' doesn't have a causal connection to the epiphenomenal conscious experience of 'red'.  Both statements above about the colour of the rose are true, because when the word 'red' does not refer to the epiphenomenal conscious experience of red, but the physical brain state representing 'red'.

What is 'M'?

Another problem for epiphenomenal consciousness is that even if it were true that physical brain states did represent conscious states, there is no representation either in physical or conscious states of the nature of the mapping M between those states. Even if there was a possible sense of the mapping being of different kinds  M1 and M2, there is no way for a physical brain state to represent the difference between M1 and M2.  In terms of conscious experience, this means that all you get is qualia, you can't get from conscious experience why you get qualia.

But what does 'qualia' refer to?  We have seen from the Dancing Qualia thought experiment that the word 'qualia' cannot be said to refer to anything in epiphenomenal conscious experience.  The only thing 'qualia' can refer to is representations in physical brain states – there are qualities of experience, and they are physical: encoded in brains.

Epiphenomenal consciousness is incoherent, as when you try to pin down what it is it vanishes like a mirage.  The words we use to describe epiphenomenal consciousness cannot in reality refer to any actual epiphenomenal consciousness, only physical representations in brain states.  The semantics of epiphenomenal consciousness can never reach such a consciousness.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Poetry and the Mind

While watching a fine conversation between Father George Coyne and Richard Dawkins I came across yet again (from Father Coyne) the insistence that there are aspects of human behaviour and culture that indicate to him that we are more than just material beings.

This is a huge mistake and a profound misunderstanding of what science has shown us about what we are.  We are more than atoms, even though we share atomic nature with other living organisms, and even with the rocks of the Earth.  We are atoms and particles in organised and dynamic patterns, and what such patterns can produce is rich beyond anything we can easily comprehend.  Although brains aren't much like computers we have built so far, they work by the processing and storage of information, as do computers, and our experience of what computers are capable of gives us only the smallest glimpse at what a brain, which is just as material as a computer, can do.  There is no difficulty in accepting that brains can have information patterns that have meaning, and that brains can allow patterns to interact in ways that we experience as thought.  Indeed, we know what some of the areas of the brains do when it comes to interpreting and expressing meaning, and we know that other areas of the brain are involved in allowing us to have experiences, including emotions.

There is no reason at all to believe that any aspect of human art or culture needs anything more than the fabulously complex interactions of patterns of information in the cells of our brains.  Atoms, arranged as a result of biological evolution and human experience, are perfectly capable of writing poetry.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Following Boghossian

I'm British, and we Brits have a resistance to motivational speaking. We would rather people didn't make a fuss.  So when I first saw a video of Peter Boghossian talking about faith I was discouraged because it left me with the impression of someone with a 'preachy' style, which would be, for me at least, a barrier to getting the message - if someone gets preachy my reaction is that they are trying to bullshit me.  

After a while I gave Peter another chance and watched a talk he gave on the importance of authenticity.  I was blown away.  What I saw was someone with an honest message and clear thinking, and a really fresh and inspiring approach to challenging ideas.  Dealing with irrationality can be frustrating and draining, but Peter explained clearly why we should do it and how we could be effective.  It was a reminder to me of what the point of argument really is, a point that can easily get lost.

I then read Peter's book "A Manual for Creating Atheists", which I think is misleadingly titled (sorry Peter,) as it's really about practical application of the Socratic Method ('street epistemology'), and it's full of great advice about how to achieve the most important goal for supporters of rationality - getting people to think: far more valuable that any 'leap to atheism'.

I don't mean to sound like some sort of convert, because I am always cautious, and I'm not entirely in agreement with Peter's definition of faith ('pretending to know things you don't know'), but I now always try to follow his advice about authenticity - for example I always make sure I'm not making claims beyond my knowledge, not even as a debate ploy.  

So thanks to Peter, and to others - whatever your beliefs, follow what he does.  You won't be disappointed, and you might even be inspired and encouraged. I was.

Writing about philosophy of mind is way hard!

I'm finding writing about certain aspects of philosophy of mind deeply frustrating. Not in a bad way, but I'm increasingly puzzled as to why I almost always fail to get across the point I want to make. This point has been described in the philosophical literature, and in my view it challenges any view of the mind which isn't simply physical and reductionist. It has been labelled 'self-stultification', which basically means putting yourself in a position where you can't justify what you are saying. It's so simple, and yet I find it incredibly difficult to get people to see that this point even exists. An example is the issue of quantum consciousness. For bizarre reasons, some people (even respectable scientists) think that consciousness must have a quantum aspect, and yet this makes no sense at all, as there is no evidence that such a quantum aspect is needed, and so the reason for this belief must somehow arise from some subjective aspect of consciousness. But this is nonsense for two reasons: 1. How could anyone possibly know what a 'quantumy' aspect of experience actually felt like? 2. Quantum effects don't even contribute the kind of information that could possibly lead anyone to think "Woah! That thought felt really quantum!". So, even if quantum effects were present, they could not be reason for the thought "consciousness is quantum". "Quantum consciousness" is a self-stultifying position; it's self-defeating, because the thing can't be the reason for belief in the thing.

This is not a difficult concept, and whether or not certain ideas of philosophy of mind are true or not, it's certainly an issue that needs to be considered. And yet I struggle again and again to get the idea across.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Thought Experiment - what is the mystery of consciousness?

Zoom right in.  Here are atoms, familiar particles, nucleus, electrons.  Ignore the nucleus - all the action is the electrons, binding and flitting between atoms.  There is much strange here, but nothing we haven't seen before.  It all follows quantum mechanics, reality matching our calculations to parts in billions.  These atoms could be anywhere, from a droplet of water to the heart of a star.

Zoom out.  Now we see large molecules, the information-rich structure of which reveals that we are looking at biology.  Even so, there are no new laws, no new particles or forces.  It's the domain where the quantum fades into the classical Newtonian.  We can use simpler models to understand what's going on, because quantum effects smear out, the throw of each individual quantum dice has little effect.  Normal physics applies, as quantum electrodynamics averages out to become familiar chemistry.

Zoom out.  Now we see cells.  Cells with tens of thousands of connections.  The connections tell us that we are within a brain, as nowhere else in biology do cells reach out and touch so many others; a hundred billion neurons, each only a small number of cell-steps from any other.  The cell count shows us it's an intelligent brain: human, but it need not be - a young whale has as much volume of brain as a human, and an adult considerably more.  But this is a human brain, linked to human biology.  Still, no surprises for the physicist, the chemist or the biologist; indeed the physicist sees only common atoms and electrons doing what atoms and electrons do throughout our world.  To the physicist, a brain is no more interesting than a lump of rock.  Cause and effect flow smoothly from atom to atom, electromagnetism and gravity the only forces that respond to causes and have effects that matter.

Zoom out.  The pink jelly of a brain, safe within a tough skull.  Holes in that skull allow nerves to spread out from the brain and touch whole body.  Anywhere can send signals to the brain, anywhere can feel pain (except the brain itself!).  Some of the nerves control muscles, allowing movement.  Watch.  Some of those nerves are firing now.  Nerves to the face, the lungs, the lips, the mouth, the vocal cords.

Listen.  The firing of nerves leads to a voice, which says "the mystery of consciousness".

This is the paradox - the reason why we say that consciousness is mysterious is utterly lacking in mystery.

So what, exactly, is the mystery?

Sunday, 9 February 2014

A response to Pigliucci's "New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement"

A recent paper by  Massimo Pigliucci describes what he sees as "scientism" in the output of the "New Atheists".  There are some points raised which deal with real issues in some of the writings of the so-called "New Atheists" (such as how Sam Harris deals with moral values in his book "The Moral Landscape") and yet the premise of Pigliucci's paper seems deeply flawed - the validity of the term "scientism" is far from established, and the label "New Atheist" isn't coherent.

It has been said that "New Atheism" appeared as a phenomenon in response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a necessary reaction to the taboo against criticising religious faith, as faith could no longer be seen as a harmless personal matter.  But is this really true?  There seems to have been little if any coordination between the "Four Horsemen" of New Atheism - Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens.  Harris seems to have been motivated by 9/11 to start writing, but Hitchens' book critical about Mother Teresa "The Missionary Position" was first published in 1996.  Dawkins atheist activism was first made public in a TED talk in 2002, as a reaction to religious attacks on science in the USA.  Dennett's rather mild book "Breaking the Spell" (2006) was not an atheist rant but was an attempt to encourage the study of religion as a natural human phenomenon.  So, there was no founding event of a "New Atheist" movement, simply a label applied to a group of writers, philosophers and scientists who happened to be visibly discussing religion.  The label "New Atheist" is not a useful one, as it's far from clear what it's actually labelling.

As for scientism, Pigliucci breaks this down into two aspects - the first is the over-use of the label "science" for a range of human activities and the second is the rejection of the importance of philosophy.  There is much to discuss here, such as the question of what is a useful definition of science, and the question of moral realism and its relation (if any) to empiricism, but that's not what concerns me about Pigliucci's paper.  What concerns me is trying to associate these issues with atheism.  There is a much broader clash between science and philosophy, and there is no necessary or even useful connection with atheism.  

Rejection of philosophy by scientists is nothing recent.  The Physicist Richard Feynman said "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds".  Another physicist, Stephen Hawking, has a well-known antipathy towards philosophy.  There is on-going mutual distrust between much philosophy and science which for science takes the form of a rejection of the idea that philosophy has anything at all to contribute to our understanding of reality, and for philosophy takes the form of a tendency to drift away from naturalism and physicalism.  This is a fascinating and important area of conflict between two great areas of human understanding, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with an atheist movement, and to try and look at it in that very limited context is to misunderstand the scope and depth of the conflict.

Let's try and drop the "New Atheist" label.  It's misleading and unhelpful when trying to understand the history of belief (and lack of belief) and the fascinating interactions between philosophy and science.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Don't do "privileged"

I have been thinking a bit about the business of "calling out" people as "privileged". I don't feel comfortable about it, and I keep finding out new reasons why. Of course, it can be extremely annoying having people make the same tedious ignorant points again and again, but there is a good reaction to that, which is to tell such people that you just don't want to engage with them, or that your conversation is a "safe space" only for those who are involved in the particular issue. I don't like the calling of people "privileged" because it is just saying "you are wrong" and then refusing to say why, which is rude and lazy. Sure, the privileged person may well be being rude and lazy, but that's no excuse to do the same. Saying "privilege" is also question-begging, as it assumes that the person you are calling out will recognise that they have privilege and react to that. It's making an argument which assumes that the argument has already been partly won. Saying "privilege" also denies the possibility of valid shared experience.

To change society there needs to be conversations, and education. If you aren't in the mood for such interactions, that's fine - say so. Don't give your opponent a verbal kick in the form of a "privilege" accusation and run away - that's lazy and achieves nothing when it comes to making society better.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Beliefs matter

Freedom of belief is vital, but freedom to be left alone without criticism of your belief only fully works if you are able to live an isolated life - hermits can believe what they like with no consequences for the rest of the world. But in a democracy what you believe can dramatically change the lives of others.

The racist views of the BNP are one example, and widespread fear of difference can lead to mainstream parties trying to resist the BNP by making xenophobic noises. Another awful example is the serious rise in diseases like measles and whooping cough because of the belief that certain vaccines were harmful. That kind of belief can lead to disability and death of others, and it's a moral failure to sit back and insist that such beliefs are merely personal matters.

 Creationist views deeply change the way people view the world. In countries like the USA, they lead to a widespread belief that global warming need not be dealt with because God made promises in the Bible. Such views could lead to the deaths of tens if not hundreds of millions in generations to come. 

Science is about doing our best to find out what is actually true, and it's neither arrogant or pompous to work hard to educate people about what science finds when it impacts our lives and the lives of those of future generations. In the long term, that education (or lack of it) will be the only thing that matters.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Why I'm a socialist

I believe that a society should be based on empathy and a sharing of burdens.  I also don't support the idea of governments being judgemental about how people live their lives - for example, there should not be government concerns about enforcing the 'Protestant Work Ethic'.   Although there have been many changes, our Western societies are still rather stuck in a class-based view of how things should be organised:  the deserving wealthy upper class have got where they are through hard work or good breeding and should clearly have advantages over the lesser and feckless lower classes who, if they were given too much in the way of benefits, would do nothing but sit around drinking beer and watching reality TV.  In between are the middle classes, who aspire to being financially upper class, but manage to get by without particular hardship or any great happiness.

The economic situation today is that there is vast wealth in our societies, combined with an extreme imbalance of distribution of wealth.  The reason is that over the past few decades taxes for the higher income brackets have been cut dramatically based on some vague idea of wealth trickling down, and at the same time investments activities have been de-regulated allowing the savings and mortgages and pensions of the middle and lower classes to be used in vast risky gambles by investors, gambles which resulted eventually in the 2008 crash.  And, of course, it has been the middle and lower classes who have had to pay the price of those gambles in the form of austerity measures.

This simply isn't necessary.  The vast wealth around today (literally trillions of dollars in tax havens) only needs to be slightly redistributed to remove the need for any austerity measures at all.  Policies such as the Robin Hood tax on banking would mean that universal health care could be provided at no cost to the users of that health care.  Cuts in astronomical defence spending would mean that quality education to university level could be provided at no cost to the students or their families.

Finally, benefits could be provided even to those who can't be bothered to work, benefits which would anyway be fed back into the economy through the consumption of goods and services.  

We are vastly wealthy societies.  That's why I'm a socialist, and why I believe in universal education and universal health. 

Creationist answers aren't answers.

Something I have noticed about creationist-type arguments that really does fascinate me is the way that they confuse 'who did it' with 'what happened'. For example, they will respond to the question of how the first life appeared with 'God made it', but that isn't an answer to the question. Even for a believer there should be interest in what actually happened that constructed the first life forms, and for many believers there is that interest. What interests me is that it took me some time to realise the confusion about answers - it's subtle, and might only be noticed once it's been pointed out. Also, I have never seen this point raised in discussions. 

The Bible or Koran aren't science books - they only name the actors in the religious drama. What even believers can accept (and very many do) is that we also need the detective drama of science, where the investigators find out how how things were actually done, because 'by magic' is just so dull!

Monday, 3 February 2014

What do religions support?

A friend has written this piece, in which he puts the case that Islam doesn't support blasphemy laws:

I strongly support his motives, but I do have a problem with his position, which is that what a religion supports is surely what it is used to support, and many do use Islam to support blasphemy laws. This is a difficulty with faith - opposing faith-based positions usually cannot be reconciled because there is no commonly accepted objective standard for what the truth is. To change minds, you have to step outside the framework of faith. An example is same-sex marriage - that has become increasingly accepted in societies even though most religious faiths have been preaching against such marriage. Now that it is becoming accepted, some believers retro-fit gay marriage into their belief system and insist that their faith accepts gay marriage.

The problem I have is this - because faith is so much about interpretation, it can be used as a support for extreme views, not because the faith necessarily directly supports such views but because it is the nature of faith to provide succour to almost any belief. The Bible says do not kill, and yet that has never prevented the actions of Christian terrorists. Buddhism says that there are no gods that matter, but that doesn't stop some Buddhists believing in gods. Islam may indeed be against blasphemy laws, but that doesn't stop many Muslims insisting that blasphemy should be punished and there should indeed be laws against blasphemy. Religions let believers feel that they are personally expert on moral issues without having to go through all the tedious business of studying moral philosophy. If you have a prejudice against gays or women, religion allows you to feel comfortable with such beliefs. If you are an extremist, theism allows you to feel you have been personally inspired by god. My problem isn't so much with any specific religion - it's with the nature of religion itself.