Thursday, December 26, 2013

The New Two Cultures

The Two Cultures was originally a talk by C.P. Snow which became a book. Snow was pointing out the scientific illiteracy of those humanities-based academics who looked down their noses at scientists, those unwashed peons who couldn't recite Cicero or Virgil.

With the passage of time, Snow's point has become outdated as science and technology have increased in importance, while an education in the classics is seen as quaint and effete more often than as the essential mark of a gentleman. However, it seems to me that there is a new dichotomy to which attention needs to be drawn. I'm going to call the two sides "evidence-based" versus "agenda-based".

Science and mathematics are the primary examples of evidence-based academic disciplines. If you're going to put forward a hypothesis in these fields, you'd better have evidence to back it up. That evidence takes the form of theory and observation in science, and deductions from the axioms of formal systems in mathematics, computer science and some philosophy. Medicine is starting to embrace the evidence-based approach, and in law, there has always been an expectation that you will use "evidence" such as precedent, legislation and the constitution to make your case.

I'm sure it's possible to take an evidence-based analysis in the humanities also, for example by using textual analysis to support your interpretation of a poem, say. But the humanities seems to be the home of an alternative approach which I call agenda-driven. This is precisely the reverse approach; you start with a conclusion based on your agenda, and instead of looking for evidence to support it, you then interpret the world through the lens of your chosen agenda.

Whether it's radical feminism, critical race theory, cultural Marxism or whatever, the MO is the same. You start by assuming that the whole of society is misogynistic, racist etc., and you are required to see the world through the filter of this unquestionable assumption. Everything you see is taken as evidence to strengthen your initial assumption; nothing can possibly weaken it.

In this respect (and many others), agenda-driven studies have far more in common with religion than they do with science. What's more, there seems to be an increasing tendency to denounce the evidence-based approach as masculine, exclusive and oppressive, while agenda-driven approaches are declared to be more inclusive and social-justicey, and more aligned with the "feminine energy" - and other such gobbledygook.

If you doubt me, check out:
  •  Newton's Principia = Newton's Rape Manual
  •  "E=mc2 is a sexed equation because it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us."
  •  Scientists haven't solved the Navier-Stokes equations of fluid mechanics because fluids are icky and feminine. Nothing to do with the fact that NS is a nonlinear parabolic-hyperbolic set of equations that cannot be solved in closed form.
 As a scientifically trained person, I find it appalling that ideologues are trying to encroach on areas of study where an evidence-driven approach is essential. If they get their way, kiss goodbye to any prospect of making progress and accumulating knowledge in these fields. But hey, at least we'll be joining hands singing Kumbaya and nobody's fee-fees will be hurt except for those evil patriarchal privileged males.

In a subsequent post I plan to address the essential difference between science and religion. There is a reason why scientific knowledge has increased explosively in the last few centuries, while theologians are basically restating the assertions of Thomas Aquinas 800 years later, and still haven't decided whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and Son or the Father alone, the burning question which split Christianity into Eastern and Western factions long ago.

Feminists often bemoan the shortage of women in STEM fields, yet at the same time, the more extreme seek to emasculate science and turn it into a religion in the name of gender uniformity. How is that supposed to be empowering?

More later.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Is "agnostic" a useful concept?

I've fallen behind with my blogging, not that it matters since nobody reads this blog anyway. But here are some thoughts on a subject I've been thinking about lately.

In everyday language, an agnostic is someone who is "halfway" between being an atheist and a religious believer, or perhaps someone who sits on the fence and makes a virtue of refusing to take a stand one way or the other. Of course, popular usage is quite different from the sense originally intended by Thomas Huxley: the position that humanity can never know one way or the other whether a god or gods exist. Either way, I question the usefulness of the term.

Huxley's claim might strike one as being rather sweeping and dogmatic in itself. After all, at one stage scientists might have said with confidence that humans can never know whether there was a big bang, whether there are black holes, and so on. But since then, observational evidence has piled up steadily to the point where it is overwhelming.

On the other hand, Huxley's claim is vacuous in a sense. You can never know with 100% certainty that the chair you're sitting on right now exists, or the computer or device you're using to read these words. Your brain could be floating in a vat in an evil scientist's basement lab, connected to electrical cables which feed inputs generating the illusory universe you perceive.

Not to mention that a chair and a computer are more or less well-defined entities; most people can agree on whether something is a computer or not. God, however, has never (as far as I can see) even been defined well enough that a debate concerning his existence is worth having. God is an incoherent concept. The old-style image of a bearded man in the sky is simply wrong, but the vague, abstract god of "sophisticated theology", who vanishes behind a smoke screen of semantic masturbation, is what a scientist would call "not even wrong".

Anyway, Huxley's claim suffers from a serious problem. How would you test it, even assuming you had a satisfactory definition of the god-thingy to which it referred? How could you show it to be true or false? It seems to me you would need to know whether God's existence was the true state of affairs or not, thus violating the premise unless you are either God himself, or some sort of highly advanced alien.

A claim that can never be tested, even in principle, is not a useful claim in my opinion. Is the popular usage of the word "agnostic" any more useful? I'm not convinced it is.

In western society, when people call themselves agnostics, it's very likely that it's specifically the christian god they want to avoid taking a stand on. They feel as free as everyone else, christians and atheists alike, to dismiss out of hand the existence of Thor, Ra, Zeus, Ahura Mazda, Quetzelcoatl, and so on. So in a sense, if you call yourself an agnostic, you are giving the christian god a free pass that other, equally imaginary and discredited gods don't get.

It seems to me that many self-described agnostics are simply atheists are lack the guts to come out of the closet. Of course this could be a wise decision if they live in the bible belt (which encompasses a great deal more of the US than the Deep South). Then there are the agnostics - thankfully less common - who lack intellectual curiosity and love to intone sophomirically, "A pox on both your houses." (Vince Bugliosi's wretched book "Divinity of Doubt" is an exemplar of this attitude.)

Of course, in this as in many other areas of life (including feminism), labels don't really matter - actions do. Don't judge people by how they choose to label themselves, but how they live their lives.

I would guess that many people who call themselves agnostics, and a surprising number of self-proclaimed christians, are functional atheists - they live their lives as if there is no god.They don't act like there is some cosmic tyrant looking down on them 24-7 and preparing to toss them into the Lake of Fire to scream forever in infinite agony after they die, if they fail to cross and dot all their T's and I's while on earth.

Of course you are free to label yourself as you please, but when you use that label in public, you have a responsibility to think about whether you are accurately presenting yourself to the world, and if not, why not? Are you using the term "agnostic" simply to avoid the perceived stigma of atheism? Or are you hedging your bets, genuinely unsure whether a god or exists or not? In the latter case, how does your belief affect your behavior? What is the point of a belief if it makes no difference to your behavior?

I strongly believe that the more atheists who come out of the closet, the better. The US has a severe case of atheist phobia and needs desensitization therapy. It needs to see as many ordinary, everyday people as possible coming out as atheists.

For me, being an atheist does not mean I claim absolute knowledge that no god exists. It simply means that in the total absence of evidence for the supernatural, I am entitled to live my life on the working assumption that it does not exist. If you're a functional atheist, I would encourage you to think about what your working assumption is. Are you in fact a closet atheist? Then come out of that closet!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Radfems for Rape

The mindless mantra of victim feminism, "Don't teach women how to avoid rape, teach men not to rape" is bad enough. But I am really sickened by a trend I've recently noticed: discouraging victims of sexual assault and domestic violence from going to the police.

Apparently, the police are just another weapon of Teh Patriarchy to rape and oppress women. Reporting rape to them never helps, and only makes things worse! Proof: some anecdotes the skepchix managed to come up with.

Anyway, a consistent message is emerging from the Fempire: don't report rape to the police, because Patriarchy. And in the very next breath, they rant and rave that the crime of rape is vastly underreported because Patriarchy!

Apparently the Social Justice Warriors have no problem sacrificing women's safety on the altar of their ideology. Sickening bunch of hypocrites.

Monday, October 7, 2013

God cannot be omniscient or omnipotent

In classical theology, God is held to be 3-O: omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. For centuries, critics of theism have argued against the coherence of this picture of God by invoking the Problem of Evil. In this context, evil should be understood as not only malicious acts by humans, but anything that causes suffering, including tsunamis, droughts and other types of "natural evil". The Problem of Evil can be stated as follows:
  1. If God is omniscient, he is aware when evil is about to take place.
  2. If God is omnipotent, he is able to prevent evil from taking place.
  3. If God is omnibenevolent, he would act to prevent evil from taking place.
  4. Evil takes place.
  5. Therefore, God cannot be all three of omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent.
Apologists respond to the Problem of Evil with theodicies - arguments that, for example, the evil that takes place in the world is part of a greater good, or it is necessary for character-building, and so on. None of these arguments strike me as convincing, or indeed as anything more than ad-hoc and somewhat desperate attempts to shore up the classical theological understanding of God.

Alvin Plantinga has put forward a rather technical free-will defense which purports to let God off the hook. The details aren't important here. While not everyone accepts the validity of Plantinga's argument, the focus seems to have shifted from the Logical Problem of Evil (why is there any evil at all) to the Evidential Problem (why is there so much evil in this world).

It should be pointed out that if you use any free will-based theodicy, you're backing away from the assumption that God is omnibenevolent. He is only benevolent up to a certain point. He looks for a trade-off between benevolence and humans having free will. So, as far as I'm concerned, a strictly 3-O god is still logically inconsistent.

However, in the present post, I want to leave omnibenevolence aside and saw off the other two legs of the stool - omniscience and omnipotence. I intend to do this by invoking the Butterfly Effect, which has entered the realm of pop culture (it's even the title of an Ashton Kutcher movie) but is actually a profound mathematical result regarding the limits of what can in principle be known about the world.

The effect is usually stated in terms of a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rainforest, resulting in a tornado forming a few days later in Texas. It's important not to think of this in classical terms of a chain of cause and effect, with each link in the chain pointing unambiguously to the next and previous links. Chaotic systems - the kind we are talking about here - don't work like that.

Imagine two scenarios which are identical except that in one scenario the butterfly flaps its wings at a certain instant, and in the other, the butterfly doesn't flap its wings at that instant. The two scenarios evolve differently due to this tiny difference in initial conditions. The difference amplifies exponentially due to the nonlinear feedback in the system, with the result that in one scenario a tornado occurs, and in the other, there is no tornado. This is what scientists call sensitive dependence on initial conditions, and it is the hallmark of chaotic systems.

Now, the point is that at the instant the butterfly flaps its wings, there is no way to know that a tornado will result. In another scenario, the flap of the butterfly's wings might actually prevent a tornado that would otherwise have occurred. There's just no way to predict the behavior of the system with any accuracy more than a few days ahead of time, because the slightest rounding error will amplify exponentially until it overwhelms the predicted solution, making it radically different from the actual behavior.

"But," says the apologist, "God is infinitely more powerful than all the computers that humans have created."

It's not a question of throwing more computing power at the problem. If you used all the computers on earth to predict the weather, you might gain an extra day of accuracy. Double the number of computers, and you might gain an extra few hours. Double it again, and you might gain a few minutes. But there is a fundamental mathematical restriction on how far in advance you can predict the weather, and even God is subject to this restriction, because the atmosphere is a nonlinear chaotic system.

With me so far? Now, what about omnipotence?

Lack of omnipotence follows logically from lack of omniscience. Suppose God wanted to cause or avert a tornado a week from today. He wouldn't know how to do it, because he wouldn't know which butterfly might become a causal factor by flapping or not flapping its wings.

And the atmosphere is not the only nonlinear chaotic system. The solar system is also chaotic. During its early history, there may have been hundreds of Mars-sized planets which were constantly colliding. It would have been impossible to predict in advance that the earth would have a large moon which stabilizes its rotation and gives us seasons, that it would have oceans due to bombardment by icy comets, that the dinosaurs would be wiped out by an asteroid collision 65 million years ago, and so on. So if God was planning since before the Big Bang that the earth would eventually support human life, it's a fantastic coincidence that his plans actually came to fruition.

At this point, the sophisticated theologian would typically sniff haughtily and say something like: "Once again you show your narrow, limited understanding of God. Obviously he isn't bound by petty scientific restrictions. He exists beyond space and time, and sees the whole history of the universe at a glance."

I'm not sure such airy assertions are even meaningful, let alone true. How can a conscious being exist outside of time? Consciousness is by definition a temporal sequence of brain states. If there is no time, there is no change in brain states and therefore no consciousness. The only kind of thing I can imagine existing outside of time and space is an abstract concept such as a mathematical theorem, not a conscious being with which one can have a personal relationship.

Anyway, my main point is that there are limits to God's knowledge - he can't be omniscient, because it's not possible, even in principle, for anyone to be omniscient. The cost of gaining knowledge of even the gross future behavior (let alone the fine details) of a chaotic system increases exponentially, and you hit a wall long before you get anywhere near omniscience. And since perfect control requires perfect knowledge, omnipotence is not possible without omniscience.

In conclusion, not only is omnibenevolence on shaky ground but omnipotence and omniscience aren't looking too good either. 3-O God doesn't have a leg to stand on!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I forked oolon's repo and stored it on a dongle...

As a software professional, I was interested to learn that the source code for The Block Bot is open source and freely available for anyone to look at and copy. I downloaded it and looked over it, but I haven't had time to examine it in detail, nor can I say for sure that the code on Github is the same as the code running on oolon's server. However I would like to make a couple of points.

Firstly, my understanding is that there is a list of people with admin privileges including oolon, Aratine Cage and an unknown number of other people who can add twitter users to the list. One of the ways they can do this is by sending a tweet to the block bot, specifying the person to be blacklisted and the level the person is to be added to. In addition, if the hashtag "spam" is included in the tweet, the target is not only added to the block-list but is also reported to Twitter as a spammer.

So while it's not the case that anyone blocked is also automatically reported for spam (as has been erroneously stated on some web pages), that capability exists and is open to abuse. Personally I think Twitter screwed up by adding the "report spam" functionality to the API and allowing bots to use it. A captcha should be required to report spam, at a minimum, to reduce abuse of this feature.

Oolon claims that just getting blocked will not in itself lead to your account being suspended. Of course he can't state that as a definite fact unless he's privy to the internal workings of Twitter, but even if he's technically correct, I think he's being disingenuous. What you have to understand is that Twitter's procedure for suspending accounts is highly automated and based on heuristics which Twitter keeps tweaking. Meanwhile, other people are busy reverse-engineering the system and figuring out how to game it to get people they don't like suspended. Do a google search for "twitter gulag" and "reply trap", and you will get an idea of the type of games that go on.

One tactic I've seen very often is that someone is added to the block bot and then some atheism-plus person - quite often oolon himself, or his sidekick Aratina Cage - will then start bombarding the blockee with tweets, and encourage other block bot users to do the same. This happened recently with @tkmlac being dogpiled on out of the blue by A. Cage and cronies. This looks a lot like classic "reply trap" behavior - the point being to provoke the target into replying. If you have been blocked but send more than a certain number of tweets to the people who have blocked you, it triggers a Twitter heuristic and you get suspended.

While we can't prove the block bot is being used with malicious intent, based on the observed pattern of behavior this seems quite likely. The bot certainly lends itself to such underhanded activities and automates them to a degree. In a way it's ingenious what oolon has done - he's succeeded in getting hundreds of people to give him control over their twitter accounts, to do with as he pleases. He can not only block on other people's behalf, he can post or delete their tweets, or basically do anything he likes.

Here again oolon is exploiting a shortcoming of the Twitter API. Not to get too technical, but when you authorize an app to access your twitter account, you have to give it a certain level of privileges. Some apps can post tweets on your behalf, others can't, depending on how much privilege you authorize. The problem is that the set of possible privileges is way too coarse-grained - it's pretty much all or nothing. Ideally (if I were running the block bot and wanted to use it in good faith) there should be a privilege level that specifically allowed an app to block on your behalf but do nothing else, and the block bot would only need to request this level of access.

So to sum up, there are worrying indications that the bot is being used in ways other than advertised, and people who sign up for it are giving away much more control of their account than probably most of them realize. This is why I would never use it nor encourage anyone else to use it, quite apart from the problem of letting someone else (whose agenda may not be the same as yours) control what you can and can't see on Twitter.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"Mild pedophilia" and major drama

I love Richard Dawkins' books. I think they are masterful examples of explaining science clearly and simply for a general audience. But when he speaks off the cuff, or tweets, he has been far less successful. His usual clarity seems to desert him, and he has to spend far more time explaining and doing damage control than he spent on the original remarks.

It's not always his fault. I've seen many tweets from him whose meaning seemed perfectly clear, and yet hordes of people were working themselves into a frenzy condemning him for saying the opposite of what he actually said. Some people just don't have adequate reading comprehension skills. And quite a few, I suspect, have it in for Dawkins to begin with, and they will see what they want to see. Or even understand perfectly well what he is saying, and still attack a strawman.

PZ Myers, never one to miss a chance for intellectual dishonesty, channels Oliver Cromwell. Many others are gleefully joining in the dogpiling. It's quite an astonishing display of victim-blaming by those who have the privilege of not having been victims. Perhaps some "STFU and listen" is called for here?

I've previously blogged about my own abusive childhood. I was groped on a couple of occasions, mostly by bullies at school, but the non-sexual physical, emotional and psychological abuse that I suffered was far more damaging.

It seems pretty clear to me what Dawkins is saying - the molesting that he personally experienced did not do significant lasting damage to him, though he acknowledges that there are degrees of sexual abuse and many victims had a more severe and harmful experience than him. Groping is bad, tearing someone's clothes off is worse, forcible penetration is worse still. This isn't rocket science, people!

When did the FTBullies become more morally absolutist than Bill Donohue? Why must they immediately jump to the most uncharitable possible interpretation of every word out of Dawkins' mouth? Okay, we know the answer to that one - they hate his guts, but lack the intellectual wherewithal to refute him.

So here's a final question: if Richard Dawkins can find it in his heart to forgive the man who groped him, rather than nursing a grudge for decades, who the hell are Myers & co. to condemn him for doing so?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

God commanded it, the Israelites did it, and that settles it.

There's still a great deal to talk about when it comes to morality, but the previous post was getting pretty long and I had to end it somewhere. But since I brought up William Lane Craig and the Divine Command theory of morality, I can't resist making the following point.

Craig, it will be remembered, raised eyebrows when he defended the slaughter of the Canaanites as recounted in the Book of Joshua. Craig had been importuning Richard Dawkins to debate him for some time, and Dawkins used Craig's defense as a convenient excuse to decline.

Now, I'm sure Craig is personally a reasonably moral guy, and doesn't approve of genocide as a general principle. However, he's hamstrung by his biblical literalism and his Divine Command Theory. If God commands genocide, then genocide must be A-OK.

At the same time, Craig realizes that the Book of Joshua, with its blood-soaked tale of the Israelites massacring their way across the Promised Land in search of lebensraum, is horrific to modern sensibilities. Its obvious evil has to be explained away. Craig twists himself into a pretzel trying to do so.

The irony is that by acknowledging that God's command to commit genocide has to be "spun" in order to be made palatable to the modern reader, Craig is undermining one of his own favorite arguments for God's existence, the one that goes: "Absolute morality cannot exist without God, absolute morality exists, therefore God exists."

If God were the one and only source of morality as Craig believes and argues, no spin would be necessary because no-one would feel any horror at the idea of Canaanites being wiped out. You could sum it up with a bumper sticker: "God commanded it, the Israelites did it, and that settles it."

By trying to spin the story, Craig is tacitly admitting that there is another source of morality - our own human judgment. We can recognize that genocide is evil, independently of what any ancient dusty scrolls have to say. If the bible god existed, the supremely moral act would be to say to him: "Fuck you, asshole, I don't care if you send me to hell, I still won't worship you." That's what I mean by Good despite God.

Anyway, Craig's argument backfires on him and strengthens my contention that we are inherent decision-makers on morality whether we recognize it our not. Continued human progress (and even survival) depends on realizing this fact, getting better at making decisions, and doing so on a basis of rationality and empathy for our fellow creatures.