Friday, December 31, 2010

A Treatise on Probability, Ch 4

In this chapter, Keynes critiques the Principle of Indifference (abbreviated P.I.) which is his own name for what Bernoulli called ‘The Principle of Non-Sufficient Reason.’ The principle states that when several alternatives are possible—and yet there is no information whatsoever to prefer one over another—each alternative should be given equal probabilities. Suppose you are picking up a friend at the airport and don’t know which gate they will arrive at. What is the probability of arrival at gate A versus not-A? The P.I. calls for assigning P(A) a value of 1/2, or more generally 1/n where n is the number of known alternatives. Unfortunately, this principle quickly leads to paradoxes, which Keynes demonstrates in this chapter.  His goal is not to demolish the P.I., but instead refine it.

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 2

Given how often we deliberate over tough choices and decisions, it seems intuitive that the future is not settled.  The proposal that God is omniscient (knows all past, present, and future facts) leaves one to puzzle not only whether omniscience is possible, but whether human free will and omniscience are compossible.  At first glance, divine foreknowledge of future events seems to imply that those events could not have been otherwise.

Rea and Murray don't reject open theism right off the bat:
"Surely, then, it was true yesterday that you would today be reading a book. Suppose someone had said yesterday, 'You will read a book tomorrow.' Given that you are reading a book, what they would have said certainly wouldn't have been false.  And it is hard to take seriously the idea that their statement might have been neither true nor false.  So it would have been true."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Apologetics methods

In my last post, I mentioned three basic responses to skepticism.  It occurred to me that apologetic methods fit nicely with this:

Skeptical Response Type
  1. Yes, but granted my epistemology, skepticism is not the default position
  2. Actually no, your epistemology does not grant that position 
  3. I can fulfill your epistemic requirements and thus persuade you to repeal your skepticism
Apologetic Method
  1. Reformed epistemology apologetics.  See James Kelly Clark's article, "Without Evidence or Argument: a Defense of Reformed Epistemology."
  2. Transcendental arguments for the existence of God.  More here
  3. Classical and evidentialist apologetics.  For an overview of evidentialist approaches, see this article.  I'm not even going to attempt summarizing classical apologetics.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Philosophical Skepticism

This article gives one of the clearest expositions of philosophical skepticism that I've come across to date. "Responding to Skepticism" by Keith DeRose.  Also check out his shorter article, "What is Epistemology?"

Ordinary skepticism

Skepticism holds that some set of claims is unknown or unknowable. I'll draw a rough distinction between philosophical skepticism and ordinary skepticism. Generally, philosophical skepticism operates against a broad set of claims, and leaves open the question of knowing anything at all. On the other hand, ordinary skepticism applies to a more narrow domain such as metaphysics, theology, or non-empirical science. It assumes that we already know something.[1]

At the philosophical level, the debate is anything but settled over what constitutes knowledge, and more interestingly how beliefs are justified. On the other hand, the ordinary skeptic speaks from an epistemological framework to which he is already committed. Thus, if something is not known (let's fold knowledge and justification together for now): it doesn't measure up to whatever standard his framework demands. Likewise, if something is unknowable: it is outside of the bounds of his framework.

So if a skeptic says, "skepticism is the default position," we might simply grant it. Why? Because it doesn't immediately pose a threat to anyone but the skeptic, should he wish to acquire a new belief.  What he really intends to say is, "given my epistemology, skepticism is the default position." It seems at least three types of response are possible:

1. Yes, but granted my epistemology, skepticism is not the default position
2. Actually no, your epistemology does not grant that position [2]
3. I can fulfill your epistemic requirements and thus persuade you to repeal your skepticism

[2] The first and second responses might involve some specific claim (aliens exist) or a branch of claims (supernatural events)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

If naturalism, then no beliefs

Perhaps the default position regarding belief in God oversteps naturalism's boundaries?

"It is of course obvious that introspection strongly suggests that the brain does store information propositionally, and that therefore it has beliefs and desire with “aboutness” or intentionality. A thoroughgoing naturalism must deny this, I allege. If beliefs are anything they are brain states—physical configurations of matter. But one configuration of matter cannot, in virtue just of its structure, composition, location, or causal relation, be “about” another configuration of matter in the way original intentionality requires (because it cant pass the referential opacity test). So, there are no beliefs."

- Alex Rosenberg (link)

See critical responses here,  here, and here.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The default position and the burden of proof

A variety of claims are circulating the internet (and no doubt elsewhere) regarding the title of this post. Michael Shermer claims that skepticism (as an approach to claims) is the default position, so we'll take him at his word and skeptically evaluate his claim. Other atheists, such as George Smith, claim that lack of belief in gods is more akin to a factory default setting for the human brain:
"If the religionist is bothered by the moral implications of calling the uninformed child an atheist, the fault lies with these moral implications, not with the definition of atheism. Recognizing this child as an atheist is a major step in removing the moral stigma attached to atheism, because it forces the theist to either abandon his stereotypes of atheism or to extend them where they are patently absurd." (George Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God)
In future posts, I will take a few chops at these claims to see what's underneath.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 1

This textbook normally costs over 50$, but the Kindle edition is only 15$.  I might as well notate my way through it.

Murray and Rea begin by narrowing their scope to Western monotheistic religious traditions, which aligns with their primary goal "to provide a properly representative introduction to the field of philosophy of religion as it has developed in English-speaking countries over the past fifty years..."

The first three chapters discuss the attributes of God.  An important distinction is drawn between "God" as a proper name and "God" as a title (i.e., referring to the "President of the United States" instead of "Ronald Reagan").  Philosophical theologians are more interested in the latter.  "On the other hand, if and when 'God' is used as a title, we can learn quite a lot about what God is or would be like simply by unpacking our concept of the role associated with the term 'God.'"

Helm on impassibility

"There is a second reason having to do with language why impassibility is suffering an eclipse. 'Impassibility' is a negative term. Even when properly understood, and then applied to God, it tells us what God is not, or what God cannot do, rather that what he is like and can do. Such a negative approach to thinking about God is nowadays regarded as being too vague and insubstantial for the modern Christian church. For the modern church is impatient with learning what God is not like, she wants to know what God is like, and in particular she desperately seeks reassurance that God is like us—that he is accessible to our imagination, and especially in need of reassurance that he is our emotional peer. This is one reason for the current stress on biblical narrative, on the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language of Scripture, and on Christology 'from below,' as is evidenced (in different ways) by the prevalent social trinitarianism, and by the appeal of 'open theism.' Put in conventional theological terms, in the modern Christian mind the language of divine immanence swamps the language of divine transcendence. And impassibility is part of the language—part of the 'grammar'—of divine transcendence."

-Paul Helm, "Divine Impassibility: Why Is It Suffering?" (link)
See also, "Aquinas on Divine Impassibility." (link)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Modal Argument for Dualism

Here is Plantinga's paper, "Against Materialism."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In search of Olympus

"What the sciences tell us is that it is very difficult to be rational. What I deny is that there is some position of 'skepticism' that is some intellectual Mount Olympus from which we can escape our tendency toward bias. Leaving the fold doesn't cure it. Getting an Outsider Test diploma doesn't cure it. What we have to do is make a lifelong effort to think well, and that remains difficult whether you are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, or an atheist."

-Victor Reppert (link)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Eternal and Everlasting God

When a philosophical theologian expresses his concept of the most perfect being, he must defend his choices against other alternatives expressions. We might ask a painter, 'Why did you choose a particular shade of red for that bush?'; 'Doesn't that tree clash a bit with it's surroundings?'; or even 'Can a picture really depict your backyard at dusk?' Similarly we might ask a philosophical theologian, 'Why did you choose to define God this way instead of that?'; 'Doesn't that idea about God clash with your other claim about God?'; or even 'Can language ever hope to realistically depict what a perfect being would be like?'

These are all good questions, but I'll focus on a very simple distinction related to the second. I've been playing around with a paradox to find the strongest way to state it. I consider this an application of the principle of charity, which compels us to always reconstruct the strongest form of an argument, if we intend to deal with the argument.
One of the questionable premises: 3) At all times, God desires to receive worship.
There are at least two basic ways to understand God's relation to time. One view is that God is an eternal or timeless being. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “He who goes along the road does not see those who come after him; whereas he who sees the whole road from a height sees at once all those traveling it.” [1] Is this consistent with the premise above? It appears not. If the above premise places a temporal index on God, and yet God is timeless, then how would a timeless being be temporally indexed?  However, it looks like a temporal index can be placed on the predicate (having desires) without applying to the subject...or can it?  Another way of seeing God's relation to time is that of an everlasting being. This is the sense in which the premise would be correct if it applied to God: namely, that God exists throughout the entirety of time. The psalmist declares, "For the Lord is good, and his mercies are everlasting." [2] Of course, the translation committee may have decided to use 'everlasting' instead of 'eternal' for precisely the purpose of making that distinction, so don't get too impressed.

Here's the real humdinger: suppose God is eternal and everlasting?

Let ID be the (eternal) intrinsic property of having desires
Let ED be the (everlasting) contingent property of having desires about actual objects*
Let S be the temporal state of affairs 'God's being worshiped'
Let EW be any being other than God, an eligible worshiper

Another revision of the set
1) God is a perfect being
2) God has ID
3) God has ED|any actual state of affairs
4) God has ED|S only if S obtains
5) Prior to God creating EW, S does not obtain
6) Prior to God creating EW, it is not the case that God has ED|S

No contradiction is apparent, but let's think about the premises.  If God knows all past/present/future states of affairs, then 5 is false. Premise 4 will likely be rejected by the likes of Plantinga, who give possible worlds some sort of ontological status.  And 4 must be true in order for the move from ~S to ~(God has ED).  It also appears that relative to an everlasting being: all actual states of affairs are known (and exist) regardless of their temporal index. If S is actual, then God desires it at all times. So even if S is actual at t2, but not t1: God knows S for all values of t. That appears to be the eternalist view of time.  Perhaps a presentist might have his own objections.

Even though there is no paradox, there are still problems. What does the second premise actually mean? Does God desire Himself timelessly? Well, Christians might agree with that...but then why create anything at all. And now we have arrived at what I think is the true heart of the matter. If God is intrinsically perfect, why did He create anything at all?  Feel free to make corrections to this post.

[1] Summa Theologica, Part I (14)
[2] Psalm 100:5
*It seems to me that a temporal state of affairs entails that an object exists. So contingent on any temporal state of affairs obtaining, God has ED with respect to whatever objects subsume that state of affairs. God desires rocks, rock concerts, and rocket fuel, and the Rockettes.   This assumes a Reformed view of sovereignty.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Email about the 'Desire' contradictory set

A friend emails:
I think the main problem with the that it doesn't properly see God as an eternal/timeless say that "At time t God is x" is always false, where x is any intrinsic attribute of God.  You could say "At time t God did (felt, spoke, etc.) x toward the world".  In that case, x is relational toward the temporal universe and can be true of God.

So, to say "At all times God desires the actual state of affairs" is to say something intrinsic to God, and is technically false, or possibly meaningless if you include non-temporal facts into "actual state of affairs".  What would it mean for "At time t, a timeless being desired a timeless state of affairs"?

So, statement 5 is false because even though God desires to grow the number of worshippers, He does so exactly at the rate He desires.  To God, the actual state of affairs is the totality of history plus all that is true timelessly.
I agree, and might add that stressing immanence over transcendence seems to be a powerful current in contemporary Christian thinking about God (but don't get me wrong, immanence must be true to some degree to distinguish theism from deism, and even more so with Christianity); and more to the matter at hand, apostates often retain whatever ideas about Christianity they formerly held when arguing against it.  "Young intellectuals are abandoning the warm fuzzy faith of their parents," is the standard explanation given for the growth of secularism and even New Calvinism in America. Regardless, a post on impassibility might be fun...stay tuned!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Revising the contradictory 'Desire' set

My previous set was a bit vague, so I'll try to improve it a bit:

Let S be the state of affairs 'God's being worshiped'
Let EW be any being other than God, an eligible worshiper

1) God is a perfect being
2) A perfect being only desires obtaining states of affairs*
3) At all times, God desires S
4) Prior to God creating EW, S does not obtain
5) God desires a non-obtaining state of affairs
6) God is not a perfect being

Just the symbols:
G is P
P only desires A
At all times, G desires S
Prior to G creating EW, S is ~A
G desires ~A
G is not P

This isn't much of an improvement.  Premise 3 is enticing because it seems like a statement of immutability, but I don't think it's the correct expression of immutability.  There is the issue of transcendence and immanence.  Premise 2 might be permissible on some view...perhaps from the transcendent vantage point all states of affairs are temporally indexed.  So God knows the proposition 'David types on his computer at t' to be true, and also desires the state of affairs 'David's typing on his computer at t.'  I've probably made an egregious error.

*Hard actualism?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Did God ever lack the property of receiving worship?

I spy something non-existent
Mike Doolittle (a.k.a. "The A-Unicornist") suggested three propositions that together imply a contradiction:

1. God is perfect
2. A perfect being needs nothing
3. God needs to be worshipped

Is the Christian committed to a contradiction here?  Two different sets of propositions come to mind:

1) God is a perfect being
2) A perfect being has no desires
3) God desires to be worshiped.  Therefore, God has a desire
4) Therefore, God is not a perfect being

Great-making Properties
1') God is a perfect being
2') A perfect being possesses all great-making properties *
3') God lacks the great-making property of receiving worship
4') Therefore, God is not a perfect being

Both arguments have questionable premises.  Let's start with 3'), which looks to me to be plainly false.  Why is a God that is worshiped greater than a God that is not worshiped?  Can God worship himself and thus instantiate His own great-making property?  Above all, an unstated premise requires defense:
5') Receiving worship is a great-making property.

What is a Great-making property?
A great-making property is a property that is intrinsically good to possess.  "A great-making property is any property, or attribute, or characteristic, or quality which it is intrinsically good to have, any property which endows its bearer with some measure of value, or greatness, or metaphysical stature, regardless of external circumstances." [1]  For example, suppose there is a gunman on the roof of my office building.  In those circumstances, it would be good for me to stay indoors; yet, we wouldn't say that staying indoors is intrinsically good.  We would say that staying indoors is good when there is a gunman on the roof.  Likewise with receiving worship: it is good when there are worshipers and an object worthy of worship.

What if all goods are extrinsic, and thus there there are no great-making properties?  Well, that possibility creates it's own problems.  If all great-making properties are extrinsic then there is an infinite regress of property dependence.  We have another rendition of the cosmological argument which inquires as to where all this property dependence business got started.  I'm sure there are approaches to this problem, but let's dispense with it for now and just assume that there are intrinsic great-making properties.

It looks to me like receiving worship doesn't qualify as a great-making property and thus the argument is unsound on those terms.

What about desire?
Mike D later comments on his post that, "A 'desire' would fill this context, as something that gives something of value to God."

But this is simply reinforcing what 2) already states.  Why shouldn't the Christian agree with 2) and reject 3) (on that reading of "desire" mind you)?  Since Mike D is interested in scriptural definitions:

Can Mike D provide an example from the Bible that necessitates the view that worshiping God confers additional value to God?  

There is a distinction between 'ascribing value to x' and 'being conferred value by x.'  Here's a silly analogy to illustrate the point.  Mike is sitting idly on a park bench, and up strolls the cutest girl that ever walked the earth.  She proclaims to Mike her desire for him to compliment her so that she might give him a little smooch.  Mike responds, "You clearly aren't the cutest girl in the world because if you were then you wouldn't need me to tell you that you are the cutest girl in the world."  

Leaving aside the non-sequitur there, perhaps what the girl intended to express to Mike was more along the lines of, 'In order for you to get a smooch, I must first get a compliment.'  Thinking about this analogy a bit more brings up some interesting debates about the way the Bible describes God-human interaction.  "If you do x, then I will do y."  Well, why not just do y if you're an all-powerful being?  The problem gets more difficult when God is said to be meticulously provident over all creation (was it even possible that ~y?).  There are plenty of exegetical discussions to be had along those lines, but for now it looks like we have good reasons to doubt Mike D's paradox, so I'll leave it at that.  I think his paradox is a fruitful one though, since it brings up so many other discussions.

* I've chosen to avoid crowding up this premise with unnecessary distinctions.  A more precise rendition: God possesses the largest possible array of compossible great-making properties.  An objection could then be raised that there is no such thing as the largest possible array of compossible great-making properties, so God can't possess such a thing (much like saying God can't possess the largest rational number because there is no such thing).  I'm not sure if that particular objection is in the literature, but I've heard a similar objection to the 'greatest possible good' and 'greatest possible world' theodicies.
[1] V., Thomas. Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology. Regent College Pub, 2002.  p. 35

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Treatise on Probability, Chapter 3

Must all probabilities be expressed as quantities?
All this talk about ‘degrees of belief’ might lead one to wonder how to measure such degrees (assuming they can be measured). Are they counted or weighed? Keynes begins by surveying a few other opinions on the matter. One opinion is that a numerical comparison of two probabilities is possible, though in practice it it may be impossible.  Much like counting the number of cells in the human body…we assume that there is such a number even though we don't know it. Some things are weighed and others are counted, but this is merely a limitation on our knowledge.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Plantinga on the sufficiency of natural theology

"I don't think philosophy can show you one way or the other that there is such person as God. I think there are some pretty good arguments for God's existence (philosophical arguments), but I don't think they are sufficiently strong to support the kind of belief that most Christians actually have." (emphasis mine)

"Alvin Plantinga - American Masters of Apologetics Pt.3."Unbelievable?. Premier Christian Radio: 7/26/2008. Web. 14 Nov 2010.(streamed audio).

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Subjective probability assessments and the Bayesian method

I've been reading John Loftus for about 5 years now, a considerable sample size.  The chart below represents (rather facetiously) an assessment of topics, of which any one might come up as the main subject of a blog post. Now, let's assume my pie chart could have been created using one of two methods.  Both methods start with the same list of topics and then rank them, but each method suggests a different approach to ranking, and perhaps even a different interpretation of what the ranking means.  

1. How frequently the topic has been the main subject of a post
2. My degree of belief that the topic will be the main subject of the next post

Assuming we must rely on memory, an approach to #1 might be to rank each topic's probability in relation to the others on the list.  (Remember this is just a subjective ranking.)  Given this approach, we will  end up with a nice tidy list where the probabilities add up to 1, and each probability is relative to the list.

With #2, the approach could be different.  I think we're less inclined to make our probabilities coherent (add up to 1) when we think in terms of 'degree of belief', and perhaps for good reason.   When asked about degree of belief, we are apt to consider additional evidence beyond mere frequency.  For example, we might hold an additional belief that John gets more frustrated with Christians during the holidays.

But is this an unfair characterization?  My perception of the frequencies (in #1) might account for additional evidence (such as John's holiday disposition) whether or not I realize that it does.  For instance, the fact that his posts tend to gravitate towards "Christians are deluded!" during the holidays could very well be the reason I believe John is more frustrated with Christians during the holidays.  Should we characterize this "fact that his posts tend to.." as a property out there in the world, a degree of belief, or both?

How do we sort things like this out, assuming we have good reason to?  One promising approach to critical thinking about probability is called the Bayesian method.  This method starts with a process for ranking one's degrees of belief with respect to some set of propositions, and when new evidence comes to light those degrees of belief are updated (recalculated), and thus the change in our degree of belief in some proposition with respect to new evidence can be accounted for mathematically.  The hardest part about this method is simply figuring out where to start.  What is the probability of any given belief we already hold?  One way to answer this question is to ask another one, "Would you rather bet on belief x or bet on the chance that a fair coin toss will land heads?"  If you think your belief is more likely than heads, now you're a little closer to knowing your degree of belief (more than 50% sure).  After we get that nailed down, things fall into place as new evidence comes along.  Critics of the Bayesian method accuse it of being overly subjective, yet it isn't clear to me that other approaches to interpreting probability are exempt from subjectivity.  Regardless, each approach to probability might prove useful in different situations.

Bayesian theory can also lead to a humanistic vision for the optimistic outlook that may have been previously marred by the sense that philosophy might never reach agreement on much of anything.

"The model of reasoning that I am inclined to accept is that everyone starts where they start, and then conditionalizes their belief systems on the evidence. And then, maybe, however many generations it takes, we can reach a consensus." - Dr. Victor Reppert, in a discussion about his essay on the probability of miracles.

This looks very similar to scientific optimism.  A scientist might say, "given enough observations, humans will eventually develop a coherent theory of the physical world."  A Bayesian might say (eg., Dr. Reppert), "given enough evidence, humans will eventually develop a coherent (shared) set of beliefs about the world."

Notice how the Bayesian account didn't put physical in front of world?  Of course, a materialist will define evidence as purely physical (remember, we're talking about a Bayesian definition of evidence here).  But it isn't clear to me that evidence qua evidence must be physical in a Bayesian model.  Perhaps I'm wrong about that?  I'm not sure.  Dr. Reppert is a theist, so I can only assume that he believes humans will ultimately converge on a belief system that minimum...not eliminatively [sic?] materialistic?  But yet science, by it's own lights, is headed towards reducing the world down to some ultimate materialistic explanation.  So why is Bayesianism headed in another direction?  Perhaps there is a catch regarding one's view of the mind here?

What if science eventually reduces the mind down to some strictly materialistic explanation?  Could a Bayesian continue to hope that humans might eventually converge on a system of beliefs that is compatible with (bare bones) Christianity or theism?  At face value, I don't see any reason why one can't include religious experience in their probability model.  However, I don't see the optimistic side of all this (as a Christian).  To me, it seems that one's belief/non-belief in God will determine which direction Bayesianism takes you.  But then again, how does one account for the man that doesn't believe in God and then encounters some set of experiences that persuade him otherwise (and vice versa for apostates)?  How does one account for John Loftus' Outsider Test for Faith, which seems to suggest that we should provisionally "reset" our prior probabilities (with respect to one's religion) back to a neutral position, and then have a look at the evidence relative to that.  Looks like I have much more thinking to do about this.

Dr. Reppert has posted his reply over at dangerous idea.  And in case any readers are (inexcusably!) unaware of the Monty Python reference:

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Discourse in the blogosphere and the protest effect

The lowest and most debased modes of blog communication might be called the protest effect.

A few observations about protests:
1. Protests are neither personal nor individualistic (duh!).  There are "signs" and "ideas" and "crowds" and  
    "the opposing team."

2. The content of the protest signs is not intended to be rationally persuasive.

3. The content of the man's speech who holds the megaphone is not intended to be rationally persuasive.
    Perhaps if two opposing men hold a megaphone, they might exchange some rhetorical volleys.

Now imagine that every man is given a megaphone, and you'll understand the level of communication happening on some forums and blogs.  This is especially true of apologetics blogs, where even a post about ice cream is bound to end in the classic show down between "your world view led to Hitler!" and "you believe bronze age fairy tales!"

One thing is for sure, once a blog has a large group of disagreeing can be a big problem.   The blog administrator has to decide whether to invest time deleting or moderating comments, or just disable them completely.  Perhaps in a future post I will develop some more thoughts on debating in the comment box.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Scruton, the death of philosophy, and some musing

I won't be blogging all my notes on this book, but the first chapter was too good to resist. No sooner had I gotten past the third page of A Short History of Modern Philosophy, than I encountered a provocative statement. "The nature of philosophy can be grasped through two contrasts: with science on the one hand, and with theology on the other." (emphasis mine)

Scruton goes on to describe how the scientific endeavor gives rise to questions, some of which are beyond it's ken. Consider a question of the form, 'Why did event x happen?' Scientists fire up their machinery and go to work answering it: "Event x happened because of preceding event y and condition z." But then the question arises, 'Why did event y happen?' and so forth.

This seemingly endless series of events ultimately prompts a different sort of question: 'Why should there be any events at all?' Machinery of a different sort is needed here, and thus is philosophy (though not exhaustively so). It makes sense to me why the average person disdains philosophy, since philosophy operates at the limits of human understanding, and deals with things at the most ultimate and abstract level. Those who say 'philosophy is dead' would do better to say that 'philosophy is stagnant.' Personally, I might accept that it all boils down to Plato and Aristotle, but I don't accept that it doesn't boil or shouldn't be boiled.

A possible future world?
Perhaps philosophy will die with the love of wisdom. When we finally reduce ourselves and the world around us to the real fundamentals. When all the special sciences and their generalized conceptions of things become mere visual aids for the finite mind. When only a computer can hold the true conception of fundamental reality. And yet even then we find that most simple and elegant formulations are only slightly better than quantum mechanics, which was only slightly better than classical mechanics. In an ironic deus ex machina, the universal laws themselves are reduced to mere neural structures in our skulls that happened to correspond with the the external world to whatever degree that we attempted to detect it.   Elegance is a grand illusion, there is no pattern.  The universe played a cruel prank on us: a dance into a dark room. We've no one to thank and no one to curse. That would be quite a world. And yet the pragmatist leans back to stretch, and says "yeah but it still works."  Perhaps metaphysics was the first act in the Theatre of the Absurd, and pragmatism will follow intermission.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Squatting ad nauseum

a) Performing squats after a big breakfast nauseates me

b) Performing squats after a big breakfast makes me nauseous.

If squatting after breakfast makes you sick, then a) seems technically correct, but b) is frequently used in common parlance.  

Unfortunately, b) means that squatting after breakfast makes you sickening (to others), which might be true depending on what you ate.  Either way, avoid a heavy stomach on squat day, for your own sake and others.

Unless you're as crazy as these guys. Legend has it that Arnold used to venture out into the woods of Austria with booze, tobacco, and a 250 pound barbell.  He and his buddies would perform 100 squat repetitions per set, and who knows how many total sets.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

A Treatise on Probability, Chapter 2

We know many things simply by contemplating the objects of direct acquaintance (experience, understanding, and perception). We can can leverage this direct knowledge to arrive at indirect knowledge about other propositions. For example, perhaps we know the proposition “3 horses—red, green, and blue--crossed the finish line” and we wish to know something about the proposition “The red horse crossed the finish line.” What moves must we make to arrive at knowledge about the red horse crossing the finish line? We must know a secondary proposition that expresses the logical relationship between the two propositions. In this case, that proposition would be “p bears probability-relationship .33 with respect to proposition h.” Yet how did we come to know this secondary proposition? By directly perceiving a logical relation: in this case certain axioms of probability. I’m not sure if that example is perfect, but it’s the best I can do.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Disenchanted Naturalist's Guide to Reality

"The Disenchanted Naturalist's Guide to Reality" by Alex Rosenberg

(H/T: Patrick Chan)

Also, here is an article by Thomas Nagel that explains the various facets of reductionism.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Does Kant's categorical imperative generate a contradiction of the will?

I'm not sure, but two well-informed chaps had a good debate over at Rocky Mountain Phi.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Richard Dawkins and lovers of wisdom

During a recent debate, Richard Dawkins said that asking why things exist is a meaningless 'silly question.' Many folks are up in arms about this, but what exactly is so novel about this attitude? Ever hear of the verification principle? Haven't these questions been declared invalid ("mental discomfort") or else incoherent in some way long before Dawkins? Maybe I'm missing something...wouldn't be the first time.

Related note: there is a paper on my desk by Dr. Michael Sudduth entitled, "Is Human Language Adequate to Talk About God?" At this point, a full examination of his paper wouldn't be very fruitful; but regardless, reading over papers like this helps me get a sense of things before deciding where to dive in. At some point maybe I'll blog on my approach to tackling complex arenas outside of academia. It's not perfect, but works well with my hectic life which currently consists of: working (business analyst/software consultant), adjusting to married life (almost 5 months now!), appreciating and playing music, reading, writing (a little), and of course trying to reflect on it all.

Anyways, here is another video with Dawkins expanding on his silly question theme a bit more:

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Is this a typo?

I'm reading through Probability: A Philosophical Introduction.  I have read this page about 10 times and have concluded there is either a typo in the book or a hole in my head. 

If A=>B, then if P(B)=1, P(A)=1

So if A entails B, then if the probability of B is 1, the probability of A is 1....huh?  Isn't that affirming the consequent?

A - John finished the race first place
B - John finished the race

John finished the race first place entails that John finished the race.

The probability (epistemic) that John finished the race is 1...we watched.  But suppose several horses crossed the line at the exact same time (as far as we can tell from the nose bleed section), so we have no evidence about first place other than the above entailment and the proposition "Either horse 1, 2, or 3 won first place."  So how in the world do we know that the probability of John finishing first place is 1?  Shouldn't our credence be .33 that John won first place while we wait for the announcement?  Actually... A=>B doesn't seem to be relevant at all.

Confirmed as a typo by Dr. Mellor himself.  He informed me that the fallacy of affirming the consequent only applies to material implication and not entailment (logical implication).  The reason isn't quite clear to me, but there are more important things to tackle.  Suffice it to say that A->B is not exactly the same as A=>B.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Assessing the limits of human performance

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Duger have written a very thorough article, entitled "Swifter, higher, stronger...up to a point? Or beyond? The limit of human performance." 

A tidbit in case you aren't sure if you should click:
"I don't believe there are fundamental physiological principles that have not yet been discovered.  Performance is limited by the physiological regulators, and things like VO2max, running economy, threshhold running pace and thermoregulation are known to be regulators.  So we're either wrong, or we're still waiting for that one-of-a-kind human being who possesses physiological stats never seen before.  That wasn't the case in the 1950s - they were good athletes with exceptional but expected physiology, and it was lack of professionalism and training/diet, along with "vision" of what might be possible that limited them."

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Treatise on Probability, Chapter 1

In chapter one, Keynes lays out his terms.  He begins by distinguishing direct knowledge and knowledge attained by argument.  With respect to the latter, what does it mean to say that a proposition is probable?
"The terms certain and probable describe the various degrees of rational belief about a proposition which different amounts of knowledge authorize us to entertain."
So we have two sets of related propositions: for now, let's label them as evidence and conclusion(s).
"Between two sets of propositions, therefore, there exists a relation, in virtue of which, if we know the first, we can attach to the latter some degree of rational belief."
I'm interested to see how Keynes will show that such a relationship exists.  Furthermore, it seems we must know about this relation between evidence and conclusion before we can rationally affirm anything about the probability of the conclusion. 

Questions that come to mind
1. How do we quantify the degree to which evidence confers support on a conclusion? 
2. How do we know this relationship, and how does that knowledge give rise to a degree of rational belief? 
3. Is one's degree of rational belief commensurate with the degree to which evidence confers supports on the conclusion?

Keynes says there is a "purely logical" relationship between the evidence and the conclusion.  So while we may not have certainty about the truth of the conclusion, we may have certainty about the appropriate degree of  belief that one should rationally hold with respect to that provocative!  'Hmm so I'm not sure about x, but I'm perfectly certain about the degree to which I'm not sure about x.'  I couldn't put the book down at this point.

The first chapter drives home the point that the stated probability of a conclusion is relative to the evidence or "corpus of knowledge."  Add or subtract relevant evidence and the probability of the conclusion may change.  But doesn't this imply that rational belief is subjective, since not everyone considers the same evidence when assessing the probability of conclusions?  Not quite.

Subjective Sets of Propositions
Propositions can be given differing probabilities with respect to differing bodies of evidence.  Person A has evidence 'a', and person B has evidence 'b'.  When assessing some proposition p, A and B needn't have the same rational degree of belief in p, since these may be different:
1. The probability of p given a, or P(p/a)
2. The probability of p given b, or P(p/b)

As a second example: ask me tomorrow, and my degree of belief might have changed due to new evidence.  So it's all mushy relativistic psychology stuff right?  Wrong. 

Objective Relations Among Propositions
The evidential content may vary, but the degree to which evidence confers support on the conclusion is "purely logical."  This again raises the issue in question #3.  He has more or less used 'degree of rational belief' and 'degree to which y confers evidence on x' synonomously in the first chapter.  He does mention this towards the end:
"I do not believe that any of [the initial terms and definitions] accurately represent that particular logical relation which we have in our minds when we speak of the probability of an argument."
So perhaps my head scratching is warranted, and things will become clearer as we move along.  For now the overall idea seems clear.  Let x be a conclusion and y be some set of propositions given as premises in a probabalistic argument.  When Keynes says 'x is probable' he means 'x is probable given y', which is longhand for P(x/y).  Thus, when one has knowledge of P(x/y), they can have a rational degree of belief in x.  What I'm not sure of, is if P(x/y) is .75 then is my degree of rational belief in x also .75?  All this talk about having knowledge of P(x/y) raises some epistemic questions, which Keynes will address in chapter 2.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nagel on Cosmology

"...the existence of our universe might be explained by scientific cosmology, but such an explanation would still have to refer to features of some larger reality that contained or gave rise to it. A scientific explanation of the Big Bang would not be an explanation of why there was something rather than nothing, because it would have to refer to something from which that event arose. This something, or anything else cited in a further scientific explanation of it, would then have to be included in the universe whose existence we are looking for an explanation of when we ask why there is anything at all. This is a question that remains after all possible scientific questions have been answered."

- Thomas Nagel, "Why is there anything?" in Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperment (Oxford University Press: 2009), p. 28.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A thought experiment, so to speak

Well now I've gone and done it: unintentionally spouted off a wild suggestion made in a poem...a suggestion that hasn't quit nagging me. Is it possible that writing on the computer is reducing my ability to think and express thoughts clearly? There's only one way to find out!

The rules:
1. Any posts labeled as "Notebook" will be originally recorded in a notebook, and then typed here
2. Only minor edits can be made on the computer (spelling, grammar).
3. Only written sources can be referenced while writing. No Google.

How I got here
I recall (sometime during middle school) learning to write a research paper the old fashioned way. Making an outline, numbering note cards, and then (and only then) penning a paper. Around the time the Windows 3.1 operating system became popular, I started my plunge into the world of technology, eventually getting a bachelor's degree in computer information systems. Something which has only occurred to me recently, is that during my entire college career I never indexed a note card. I spent a lot of time playing around with MS Word: manipulating visual aids (bullets, pictures, alignment, spacing, margins, page breaks, etc.), but the writing itself consisted of rapid spurts of thinking (brain diarrhea if you'll forgive the analogy), with some Googling in between to see if things were coming out okay. After enough thoughts had been dumped onto my computer, and enough information gathered from the internet, it was simply a matter of raking over the paper a few times to make sure verb conjugations matched and grammar was reasonable. Of course, being a computer info systems major didn't require much writing, so these experiences were largely drawn from papers written in general education classes such as history, philosophy, English, and interpersonal skills. My present worries about literary (or even cognitive) atrophy aren't restricted to the computer: also there are simply too many things eating away at my attention. So, I'm going to write the old fashioned way: in a notebook. I'm also trimming my Google Reader to a few blogs of interest. I will focus more on my current book reading list: A Treatise on Probability by John Maynard Keynes, Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, and At Home by Bill Bryson.  So perhaps the overall goal is to reduce the flow of useless chatter that seems to have become a natural part of my daily life.  Hopefully some modest gains in thinking and writing can be made, or at least the relationship between the two can be improved.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A holistic understanding of who you are

"Imagine opening up any web page or application and being presented with an experience that’s entirely personalized to you. [...] The abundant social data that’s overwhelming our social streams not only presents a problem but the solution. Using natural language processing and semantic analysis to evaluate your tweets, status updates, like, shares, and check-ins, it’s possible to build a holistic understanding of who you are and what you’re interested in."

- Amit Kapur, former COO of MySpace

Friday, November 19, 2010

Debate Video: Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

It's probably an understatement to say that many people have been anxiously waiting to see William Lane Craig in a moderated debate with Richard Dawkins.  After all, many of the objections to the arguments Dawkins presents in his recent books are philosophical objections.  Well, this is probably about as good as it will get. I haven't watched yet, feel free to post thoughts if you do.

Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and Matt Ridley v.s.William Lane Craig, Douglas Geivett, and Rabbi David Wolpe

Wittgenstein on thoughtlessness

"Speaking thoughtlessly and speaking not thoughtlessly are to be compared to playing a piece of music thoughtlessly and, again, not thoughtlessly."

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1958), para. 341.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Arguing attendance & participation policies

I enrolled in an introductory philosophy course at the end my sophomore year.  Unfortunately early classes don't mix well with lazy students; to make matters worse, the professor strongly believed in factoring attendance into the final grade.  He called this an "attendance and participation" grade, but he described it as an attendance policy.  I can't remember how much it was worth, somewhere around 5-10% of the final grade.  I actually managed to read the textbook and get a B, but what is more interesting about this story is my attempt to persuade the professor that I deserved full "attendance and participation" credit even though I had only been in class about half the time.  I walked up to hand him the final exam and presented my case (whispering so that the others taking the exam weren't disturbed).  He ended up granting my request, but he never said if my argument persuaded him to do so (or if he already agreed).  Here is the argument best I can remember:

1. Many students attended class 100% of the time, but only participated 50% of that time
2. I attended class 50% of the time, but participated 100% of that time
3. Therefore, I should receive the same points that the half-assed perfect attenders receive

Reader challenge: is the argument valid, sound, and persuasive?  Counterarguments?

I should probably offer a definition for "participation": asking or answering at least one question during a class session (these were very small classes).

The essence of curmudgeon

"To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television.  No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.  That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to "join them tomorrow."  What for?  One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights."

- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A logic problem considered

This morning, the Maverick Philosopher posed a logic problem, and I decided to go all out and make a Venn Diagram...and why not, it's Wednesday?

The Argument
1. A necessary truth is true.
2. Whatever is true is possibly true.
3. Whatever is possibly true could be false.
4. A necessary truth could be false.

Healthy lifestyles, genetics, and youth

"Two large studies from Northwestern Medicine confirm a healthy lifestyle has the biggest impact on cardiovascular health. One study shows the majority of people who adopted healthy lifestyle behaviors in young adulthood maintained a low cardiovascular risk profile in middle age. The five most important healthy behaviors are not smoking, low or no alcohol intake, weight control, physical activity and a healthy diet. The other study shows cardiovascular health is due primarily to lifestyle factors and healthy behavior, not heredity."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Whack-a-mole Polemics (part 3)

"The present age… may be styled, with great propriety, the Age of Authors; for, perhaps, there was never a time when men of all degrees of ability, of every kind of education, of every profession and employment were posting with ardour so general to the press…"(Samuel Johnson, The Adventurer, 1753)

Fleshing out my ideas on blogging and public discourse has proven challenging, because the arguments intersect with debates about the Information Age and technology.  A strict series of post will only keep me anxious to make progress quickly; but if blogging has taught me anything it is this: the desire to publish quickly should be met with the stronger desire to write well.

Regardless, here is a conclusion I'm toying around with:
Typing on a computer tends to elicit a "think as as you go" mentality that normally characterizes verbal communication.  As mentioned in my recent poem: before the backspace key, writers were more apt to fully conceive of a thought before recording it.  Being 27 years old, I can't conceive of a world without word processors so this is a difficult thing to consider.  What role does the conscious and subconscious play in these activities (in short, I believe written communication requires more attentiveness than verbal communication)?  Does the speed with which we can record thoughts affect the quality of our thinking?  Regardless, it seems that blog activities (such as the predictable rhetorical volleys in the comment box) are closer to verbal dialog than traditional written exchange.  The urgency to respond to anything on the internet is much more immediate than with other written media.  Of course, what tends to be the case is not always the case.  Many blogs out there contradict these assumptions.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A pastoral perspective on wise communication

I think this relates nicely to my ongoing series of blog posts on blogging and public discourse.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Stream of Keyboard

How quickly do my thoughts proceed, to travel to the computer screen!
Slower only than words from lips, they jump right off the fingertips.

This isn't writing, this is talking with my fingers.  

Writing was an ancient art when men chose wisely the stroke of the pen,
In fear of needing to make amends.

The quill by candlelight has long grown dim. 

Exponentially increasing streams of data: originating from humans and counted by machines,
You don't exist unless you can be reached by hyperlink.

Just keep pressing on.  The pistons of the machine drive on as words become 1's and 0's and my fingers refuse to stop.
Pause.  Meditate.  Think.  Create.

A new study on omega 3

Omega 3 fatty acids are all the rage these days, and studies keep stacking up to support the general conclusion that everyone should include them in their diet.  That could be a problem for people who don't eat fish, or people who don't want to take fish oil supplements.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Whack-a-mole Polemics (part 2)

This is the second post in a series that explores blogging as a medium of public discourse.  Some terms need to be defined, but hopefully I can avoid being pelted by featherless bipeds.

Plantinga on Science and Religion

"The point is that a mutation accruing to an organism is random, just as neither the organism nor its environment contains the mechanism or process or organ that causes adaptive mutations to occur.  But clearly a mutation could be both random in that sense, and also intended (and indeed caused) by God.  Hence, the randomness involved in Darwinism does not imply that the process is not divinely guided.  The fact (if it is a fact) that human beings have come to be by way of natural selection operating on random genetic mutation is not at all incompatible with their having been designed by God and created in his image.  Therefore Darwinism is entirely compatible with God's guiding, orchestrating, and overseeing the whole process.  Indeed it's perfectly compatible with the idea that God causes the random genetic mutations that are winnowed by natural selection.  Maybe all of them.  Maybe just some.  Those who claim that evolution shows that humankind or other living things have not been designed apparently confuse the naturalistic gloss on the scientific theory with the theory itself.  The claim that evolution demonstrates that human beings and other living creatures have not—contrary to appearances—been designed, is not a part of or a consequence of the scientific theory as such, but a metaphysical or theological add-on.  Naturalism implies of course that we human beings have not been designed and created in God's image, because it implies that there is no such person as God.  But evolutionary science by itself does not carry this implication.  Naturalism and evolutionary theory together imply the denial of divine design.  But evolutionary theory by itself doesn't have that implication.  It is only evolutionary science combined with naturalism that implies this denial.  Since naturalism all by itself has this implication, it’s no surprise that when you conjoin it with science—or as far as that goes anything else: the complete works of William E. McGonagall, poet and tragedian for example, or the Farmer's Almanac, or the Apostle's Creed—the conjunction will also have this implication [audience laughter]."

Plantinga, Alvin. "Science and Religion, Where the Conflict Really Lies." American Philosophical Association Central Division Conference. 2009. Debate.  (Online Transcript)

Whack-a-mole Polemics (part 1)

The blogosphere abounds with polemics. That is, many blogs are authored by persons whose primary purpose is to dispute views in opposition to their own.

Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business in which he argues that the mediums of public discourse (such as television and printed text) shape the content of that discourse.  I won't dissect his arguments here, but here is the basic idea:
"...every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards. This idea is the sum and substance of what the great Catholic prophet, Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the famous sentence, 'The medium is the message.'"[1]
Most of his analysis of television's shortcomings revolve around the non-propositional nature of television's content.  Images flash on the screen with no relevance to what appeared before them (consider the average fast paced news program with commercial breaks).  With a medium so rich in imagery, the overriding goal can become entertainment and amusement.  This outcome alarms Postman for many reasons.  For instance, when the public is expected to hold informed opinions about current political issues yet they rely on television for the majority of their information.  On the other hand, printed text is held in high regard by Postman, since it facilitates rational discourse.  "In a culture dominated by print, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas." [2]

Let's assume his thesis is correct.  How can we apply his analysis to public discourse in the blogosphere?  One philosopher and blogger made the Shakespearean observation that "brevity is the soul of blogging."  I would agree.  Over the next series of posts, I will briefly jot down my thoughts on public discourse in the blogosphere.

[1] Postman, Neil. "Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change." The New Technologies and the Human Person: Communicating the Faith in the New Millennium. Colorado, Denver. 1998. Address. (online transcript)
[2] Ibid. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th An. Ed. Penguin (Non-Classics), 2005. 51. Print.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Twinkie diet helps nutrition professor lose 27 pounds

Have your cake and lose weight too: that's what a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University is claiming.
For 10 weeks, Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, ate one of these sugary cakelets every three hours, instead of meals. To add variety in his steady stream of Hostess and Little Debbie snacks, Haub munched on Doritos chips, sugary cereals and Oreos, too.

His premise: That in weight loss, pure calorie counting is what matters most -- not the nutritional value of the food.
Let's think about his premise. It doesn't seem very controversial to me. Consuming less calories than you burn will result in weight loss, regardless of what kinds of food you are eating or abstaining from. If that's the case then "what matters most" is calorie reduction and not whether you accomplish this by dropping sweets, eating leaner cuts of meat, or cutting out the bag of pretzels. Haubs isn't saying that calorie cutting is the only thing that matters for weight loss. There might still be marginal benefits for one who chooses foods wisely, but there could also be a conflict between the goals of maintaining healthy eating habits and low calorie dieting.

Here are three conclusions people will likely want to discuss after reading the article: