Thursday, 22 December 2011

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Writing, from Thinking

The thought provoking Lesley has provoked some thoughts, which, in line with her post, has given me the urge to write them down.

I'd agree with the sentiment of spiritedcrone's comment - that writing is prayer; though from an atheist perspective I'd say writing and meditation, or simply productive exploratory thought, are part of the same process, and writing is the foundation of all productive thought, including philosophy, maths, science, poetry, prose, fiction. If we are flexible enough with the medium then any of the visual, audio, tactile arts fall into the same pattern.

The point being that to write (or paint...) is simply a means of recording and organising one's thoughts for a productive purpose. Even if that's in a personal journal that no one else ever sees - and in this respect a blog is a brilliant medium for sharing some of our thoughts, whether we offer them up as words of wisdom, or as appeals for interaction. We are our own librarians.

I'm often struck by how often I have thoughts I wish I could record, but don't have the means. Driving and listening to a radio broadcast and knowing that some of my ideas will be gone by the time I can record them. I often walk listening to podcasts, and for repeated ones I know that on a previous hearing I had a thought about some point but can't recall it. Despite this frustration, so far, I've resisted carrying a separate voice recorder, to record my thoughts, because I'd have to spend further hours transcribing them. I'm waiting for the thought-transcription gizmo - maybe an app on the iPhone version 20.0. Or a separate device - the iThink?

I feel that without writing, my life would be an endless stream of fleeting events and ephemeral thoughts that would rarely lead to anything. I want to feel in control of my thoughts, and writing gives me this control. And this from someone who thinks there is no free-will - at least not as many of us normally think of it. I want (ok - this organism has a biological urge) to learn something from the electrical impulses that flit through my brain. The biological mush between my ears doesn't have the appropriate fidelity when it comes to recording ideas. We need other tools.

How many of us who are parents have held on to the treasures that are the shool work or our children.

My father was keen on electronics in it's early days. I have a notebook of his with jottings and drawings. It's not prose. My wife has notes and the odd letter of her mother's, tucked into her mother's bible. They're the only writings we have from them, and as little as they are they are valuable to us. It seems so little. But, archaeologists drool over any fragment from the past of human inscription - even if it's only the scraping of lines on a bone. We take what we can get.

How many are lucky enough to have family treasures of writings from dead parents or grand parents, or even ancestors you never knew? How many are published? What does it feel like to be a descendant of Darwin, for example?

Transcribing our thoughts, from cave paintings, through hieroglyphs, to writing as we know it, has been maybe the greatest invention of human beings. Writing has given us the capacity to do more than simply conceive of continuity. It has made it real for each of us, within our personal lives; and for some it has made them effectively immortal, at least to others if not themselves.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Why Islam?

One theme comes out in comments by some Muslims on recent programmes about Islam, "Why pick on Islam?"

I'm not a fan of any faith, given that they all have dodgy interpretations. But Islam seems to be at the centre of many faith conflicts. I just happened to catch a few recent episodes of BBC Radio 4's Beyond Belief.

Try these episodes, while you can:
07 Feb 2011 - Sunni/Shia Tensions - Islam v Islam
24 Jan 2011 - Ayodhya - Hindu v Islam
17 Jan 2011 - Egypt - Christianity v Islam

In addition to the victim question, "Why pick on Islam?", there's also the other element, of minimising the extent to which Islam is often interpreted in a violent manner, such as the persecution of apostates, as described in the 17 Jan episode.

Maybe Muslims feel they are the centre of criticism. But maybe that's because there is plenty to criticise.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Anticipating Islamaphobia-phobia, Again

I think that sometimes those that criticise Islam are seen as Islamaphobes, as if they make stuff up about the extent to which homophobia exists in Islam; or about or how women are viewed; or about how kafirs are viewed; or about how kids are indoctrinated in faith schools; or about the political nature of Islam. As if there is no rational reason to be concerned about Islam, or the reluctance to criticise Islam.

I'll be interested to see what is shown in this programme, Dispatches: Lessons In Hate & Violence , beyond this clip.

Be prepared for the backlash of denials. It's happened before, here in 2007, where complainants managed to convince the police that Channel 4 had it wrong. It appears that if the religious make enough noise, if they can be offended enough, their voices will be heard. But, it didn't end there. There is, or was at that time in 2007, a distinct bias towards tolerating Islamic intolerance. As shown here.

It's not just police that are in denial. Every Islamist's favourite non-Muslim Brit, George Galloway, can be relied on to back them, no matter how vile they are. Here, from 2008, is his response to another dispatches programme that had similar evidence. The ridiculous GG doesn't get how biased he is here. GG seems to lose the plot entirely, and takes on the manner of a berating Islamist speaker. Does GG really think those investigated would say what was recorded under cover if it had been in the open? And GG has the nerve to lecture on interviewing, while making his own political speech. He's right of course, that there are extremist Zionists and Christians. Some of the crazies on the recent Louis Theroux story from the West Bank, and his reports on US Christians attests to that. But to use this to sidestep the points made in the programme on Islam is just bollocks.

I wonder if the new programme will help the government reconsider its position on faith schools. Sure, most faith schools won't be like this. But faith schools, indeed faith itself, facilitates this. Because faith, ultimately, relies on accepting stuff on authority. The ultimate authority may be claimed to be God, but in practice it's the authority of those that claim the authority to interpret the words of God.

And when a religion inherently advocates strong sanctions against those within the religion that criticise it, or against those that want to leave it, or against those that fail to meet its most stringent requirements, then that adds to the stranglehold it has on reason, criticism and scepticism. And when it uses the mechanism of taking offence to attempt to censor non-Muslim criticism of Islam, the results are fiery. I wonder what claims of Islamaphobia will emerge, and to what extent various non-Muslim organisations and individuals ignore the points made in the programme because of their phobia of Islamaphobia - heaven forbid that a post-modern liberal relativist give up their relativism for the sake of common sense and evidence.

So, I'll look forward to the responses to the Dispatches programme as much as the programme itself.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is such a tricky one that it requires persistent vigilance.

Scientific American for November carries the story based on Marc Hauser's problems, the nature of which hasn't been made clear yet. Some suspect fraud, but the more generous view is confirmation bias.

"Two factors make combating confirmation bias an uphill battle. For one, data show that eminent scientists tend to be more arrogant and confident than other scientists. As a consequence,they may be especially vulnerable to confirmation bias and to wrong-headed conclusions, unless they are perpetually vigilant. Second, the mounting pressure on scholars to conduct single-hypothesis-driven research programs supported by huge federal grants is a recipe for trouble. Many scientists are highly motivated to disregard or selectively reinterpret negative results that could doom their careers. Yet when members of the scientific community see themselves as invulnerable to error, they impede progress and damage the reputation of science in the public eye."

"The very edifice of science hinges on the willingness of investigators to entertain the possibility that they might be wrong."

"The best antidote to fooling ourselves is adhering closely to scientific methods. Indeed, history teaches us that science is not
a monolithic truth-gathering method but rather a motley assortment of tools designed to safeguard us against bias."

"As astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife and co-author Ann Druyan noted, science is like a little voice in our heads that says, “You might be mistaken. You've been wrong before.” Good scientists are not immune from confirmation bias. They are aware of it and avail themselves of procedural safeguards against its pernicious effects." [my emphasis]

At least it's reassuring that scientists are keeping an eye on each other, given the difficulty of keeping an eye on oneself. It's about the best we can expect. And given this is the case, it illustrates the paucity of any 'other way of knowing'.

More on Marc Hauser here.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

What Do New Atheists Actually Believe?

Discovery Institute has Michael Egnor asking this question...

And he has some specific questions...

1) Why is there anything?
2) What caused the Universe?
3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something? 
7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
8) Why is there evil?

Well, here are my answers...

1) Why is there anything?

We don't know.

It's not that this question is nonsense, it's simply that we don't have access to the data that would answer it. From a philosophical perspective we have no firm response to the solipsist. The best we can do is say that what appears to be the case most forcefully to our minds and senses (given our senses might be an illusion of the mind) is that the material world is so convincing that we might as well use it as a model for reality until we figure out a better one that actually fits with those facts that the 'apparent' material world imposes on us.

For example, if we were entirely mental phenomena (or a single phenomenon) why can't we get past the apparent material death of another mind (or my illusion of another mind)? The material non-supernatural explanation fits this and many other problems so easily that it's a sufficient model for now.

The rest of the answers are given with respect to this point of view.

2) What caused the Universe?

We don't know.

So far we, and our instruments, haven't had physical presence far beyond our solar system, and in person not beyond the moon. So, all our observations of this universe are restricted to hypotheses based on remote (in time and space) observations. Some hypotheses have mathematical reasoning to lend them some weight. But really, we don't know.

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?

We don't know. We'd need to resolve problem (2) to get any further with this. We observe regularities, but we can't explain them in any deep sense.

4) Of the Four Causes in nature...

We don't know.

This is philosophy going beyond the bounds of available or accessible knowledge and is more akin to theology. 

Specifically, do final causes exists? Well, if we could answer some more questions on causality that would be a start. But then we come up against the same problem of accessibility of the data. And, the question isn't clear on meaning of 'final cause'.

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?

Given (1) this can only be answered in atheist materialist terms, and within that context the understanding of matter and how life is just a formation of matter in action, and from there on to evolution. I'll keep this short, but would be glad to expand on request.

All matter responds to interaction with other matter. Things bounce. At some basic levels we have explanations for this - such as the coming together of atoms of my skin with those of the table, where despite that fact that atoms are mostly space, the electric and nuclear forces stop atoms merging or flowing through each other.

Basic life is complex formations of matter. We still don't know anything concrete about the beginnings of life, abiogenesis, but the basic hypothesis is that early replicators began the process - try thinking of something like growing crystals, though even this seems an inadequate analogy. The problem with all of this, life, is that we only have life on this planet to examine, that the origins are in the distant past, and anywhere the same process began spontaneously it would be consumed by local chemical reactions or organisms.

Form there, simple single cell life forms react in very complex ways compared to simple elements and molecules - but their responses to contact with other inanimate matter and other living organisms is basically physical and chemical. They go around bumping into stuff, and when they do chemical reactions on their surfaces give rise to further activity.

Complex cells formed by the combination of different single celled entities - i.e. mitochondria. Complex multi-cellular organisms formed cohesive bodies and functionality was subsumed to different organs. In a soft celled multi-organ organism think of the combination like a turtle and its shell. The inner soft and delicate organs don't need protection from the environment if outer organs are dedicated to that task - e.g. skin. 

So, at this stage we have complex systems, of which one component is a nervous system that co-ordinates activity for the organism as a whole. Not all organisms use this approach - e.g. plants. But there seems to be a relationship between the motor capabilities of the organism and the complexity of its nervous system.

Given that one aspect of the nervous system is to respond to the environment in order to direct processes in the organism, and to direct it's motion, required to find food, one natural outcome is that the organism should be able to detect itself. No point in eating your own arm is there. And this is the basis for self awareness, which most organisms have to some degree if they have a nervous system that samples the environment.

Mammals have multi-mode senses - sight, hearing, touch... And these need co-ordination if they are to be useful. The chicken egg answer is that complexity of nervous system and co-ordination of senses probably evolved together, each effecting the development of the other.

It seems a natural progression that when an organism gets to a certain degree of complexity this self-sensing can include sensing the very internal processes of nervous system itself. In us this isn't complete, since there's a big part of our sub-conscious nervous system of which we're not aware. But basically subjectivity is simply what it appears like when an organism senses it's own nervous system in action.

6) Why is the human mind intentional...

(5) pretty much answers this.

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)

It's a subjective (see 5) conceptual product that has evolved in a social sense, but is based on biologically evolved feelings of empathy and sympathy.

See here for more detail.

8) Why is there evil?

There isn't, in any objective sense, any more than there is moral law (see 7).

Evil is simply a classification of behaviour that humans typically ascribe to the behaviour of other humans. 

Sometimes it can be conflated with suffering generally, such as the as a consequence of natural disasters, but that notion is only the concoction of those religious people who think natural disasters are associated with demons or with divine retribution.

We don't ascribe the term 'evil' to thinks that animals do which if performed by humans would be classified as evil. This is again due to the confused thinking of the religious who think that humans have some special gift, or some special place in the universe, or some special relationship with some god or other, and that some or all of these misconceptions give special meaning to human actions we generally disapprove of.

Perhaps the main point I'd want to make is that theists are in exactly the same position. They don't know. But what they do is make up an answer with no substantiating data and claim that to be the case. They think that the combination of ancient tradition and pseudo-profound language gives credibility to their view, but it really exposes their gullibility to ancient stories from a time when such ignorance was excusable for lack of any reasonable data.

There has been no evidence for religious claims that can be substantiated by third party examination. All subjective personal claims about religious experience have plausible explanations in a materialist world view, where various results of brain sciences can replicate or account for those experiences.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Love - Something Humans Do

On Lesley's post Peter Rollins - What is Religion? I've been trying to understand what Rollins is saying, without much success. But in the ensuing comments I claimed that love is just something that humans do - my intended implication being it is nothing to do with a god, or specifically God.

Kathryn asked, "Why do you think this [love] is something humans do? Do you think it is a genetic fluke, or is there some purpose?", and I wanted to give a more complete response than I could in a comment on Lesley's post.

It's a fluke in one sense: the sense that it just turned out that way due to evolution, without any intentionality or direct design or purpose. But that 'fluke' is not to be confused with ID critiques of evolution that say evolution relies on impossible odds. Fluke, luck, random events, whatever we might call them, have a part to play in evolution, but the theory of evolution shows that other forces, such as natural selection, play on those flukes in order to cause some change that persists.

The significant point from an evolutionary perspective is that traits that have some benefit in some sets of circumstances are more likely to survive.

Some simplistic examples to make the point and put love in context (for sexually reproductive species)...

A genetic condition (e.g. a mutation) that caused infertility would not be passed on to the next generation at all. Another mutation that didn't effect fertility but did remove sexual lust would also die out quickly in most animals (though humans, with our cognitive abailities, could overcome this). An emotion like love may not be as necessary at all for short term survival, but may be necessary in some species for greater group cohesion, or perhaps mother-infant bonding. Both fertility and lust are necessary for reproduction in sexually reproductive animals, but love isn't.

But we can still see how love can provide a greater benefit than not experiencing love, for some species.

Fertility we count as a physiological trait, love as an emotional one, but lust we see more as something of both physiological and emotional - so, where's the divide between physical trait and emotional trait? When you get down to the chemistry of what's going on in the brain they are, all three, physiological traits, each with their own contribution to the survivability of a species (along with all other influences). We have no reason to suppose that love is anything other than this, and certainly no evidence that it has any special meaning or value outside the context of humans that, using our brains, give it meaning and value. it's not something we need to associate with God, despite that fact that theists tend to raise it to the level of the divine.

Evolution doesn't have a purpose as such - and so there is no purpose for love. There is a trivial descriptive sense in which, looking back, we might use a purposive description - e.g. 'the purpose of this gene sequence was to cause that trait to emerge...' (again, a simplistic view of genes) But this isn't purpose in the sense of an agent intentionally causing some trait to appear for particular purpose of his. We are used to attributing purpose to the things we do, and we can mistakenly attribute purpose to complex causal chains that are otherwise hard to describe. It can be helpful to describe causal chains with such anthropomorphic framing of purpose - but we need to be careful that we understand that this purpose isn't real, it's a metaphor for causality.

So, there is nothing in our evolutionary past which could predict, in any reasonable sense, that love would turn out to be a trait that a particular species valued highly. There are clues available to the hindsight we have acquired through the development of the theory of evolution, based on our understanding of empathy and attachment that bond animal parents to young, and in some cases parents to each other. Insects have a very specific type of bond to their fellows nest, which is basically chemical. So, love (or its simpler animal parallel) isn't necessary for all animals to be evolutionarily successful - though for larger animals with more complex brains it may be particularly beneficial. We think it's beneficial for us - so much so we have learned to value it highly.

In this sense love is just what humans do, without it having any directive purpose. It's one of the many things we do, along with hate, fear, lust, empathy and many other traits. They all boil down to having emerged through our evolutionary history, and having been developed in our intellectual and cultural history.

Perhaps a better phrasing might be love is just what humans did in the past as a more refined development of empathy, but which we do now with more purpose and intent as we have come to appreciate it and value it.

We can reasonably explain the relationship between some of these things we do, in this simplified evolutionary context...

Personally and subjectively we like the feeling of love, and we dislike the feeling of fear. Our empathy makes us appreciate the same perspective in others, so we want love for others as well as for ourselves, and part of that is that we get additional pleasure from giving love, and even more from reciprocative love. And conversely we dislike fear, we dislike seeing fear in others, and so we want to alleviate the fear we see in others. And, on top of that we dislike seeing others cause fear, because of our empathy for the victims; and in a simple sense, just as a mother responds to defend her young with the animal equivalent of anger, so we respond with anger towards those that cause fear. These are strong innate emotional responses, honed in our history, with their origins lost in myth.

Many of our basic emotions have parallels in other animals, but have been developed into more refined concepts by us, probably because of the concurrent development of our language and our brain's ability to be more acute in our understanding of these emotions and the concepts we form about them. Just as a musician can develop a more acute sense of musical notes (an analogy Kathryn uses).

The problem is we don't often consider the simpler animal basis for our complex emotions - partly because of our ignorance of the evolutionary perspective. This ignorance was understandable for most of human history in which our reach back to the past was only ever measured in terms of a few generations. We could only develop myths out of that ignorance - ironically using the very creative imagination that later allowed us to come up with the science that helped us discover more plausible explanations.

The weight of those myths persists, and is maintained in varying degrees by a continued ignorance of the significance of what evolution is telling us, along with the willing, and sometimes not so willing, indoctrination in and bias towards those myths. Even those theists that have an understanding of evolution find it hard to accept the full implications of evolution and related ideas when they challenge their theological beliefs - they sometimes express a fear of the consequences of following the ideas through - e.g. the fear of the nihilism of atheism, in the absence of God.

To help a theist put this in perspective, consider some of the cosmological ideas that are floating around - many of which theists use as examples of how science has its own myths. In some respects our old myths parallel the current speculations about our cosmological origins - the old myths were speculations in the absence of data, just as some of our cosmological ideas are speculations in the absence of data. In some cases the mathematical theory of the latter replaces imaginative theology of the former, and so cosmologists might feel their theories have a greater legitimacy than theologies. But there may come a time, when we are better informed, when some our current cosmological speculations seem more like myths. So, this is how now atheists see theologies as outdated myths.

The deep history of religion is interesting, but I'm still largely ignorant about it. One particular book on my reading list is The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright. It appears to put the contingency of Christianity in perspective, effectively explaining the myth. It's the historical perspective that I need to know more about; and I suspect many Christians need to know more about it too, but without their own theological bias. If ever there was a case of the winners getting to write the history, theology is it - I don't think much of the history of theology sees the light of day. I don't know to what extent history of theology is taught in this respect. The book's website gives a good sampling of the book and is worth a read.