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: