Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Salvation in Certainty

In a New York Times opinion piece, Garry Gutting writes:
In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.
So why are there so few of us? Probably because the dark Unknown conjures our greatest fears. So however tenuous an argument we must construct, we seek salvation in certainty.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Causality and Action at a Distance

Causality cannot be conceived of as a touching of "substances" where one thing alters the other through physical transfer. There is no question that proximity affects the likelihood that one state will follow another. Nonetheless, to assume physical contact is required is incorrect as action at a distance seems to be possible under certain circumstances. Rather, causality must be conceived as a mere observation that one experiential state follows another.

If we consider the simple case of our sun rising to a ritual drum beat, we are tempted to conclude the view of causality that I propose is flawed. The sun does not rise because we beat our drums before dawn. However, for an outside observer to draw such a corollary is not unreasonable! To assume it cannot be the case because the drums do not "touch" the sun would be far more unreasonable. The falsehood of the causal relation between sun rise and drums becomes apparent only once the ritual drum beat ceases and the sun still rises.

Determination of causality requires the possibility of "flipping a switch" (i.e. the possibility of falsifying a theory). If a phenomenon can be decoupled from another, there is no causal relationship. If it can't, then causation is determined regardless of the informational distance between the phenomena.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Can you be morally responsible?

Galen Strawson argues that you can't be morally responsible for your actions regardless of whether the world is deterministic or not. An op-ed piece in the New York Times outlines what he calls the "basic argument". Essentially:
  1. You do what you do at any time because of the way you are.
  2. So in order to be ultimately responsible, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are – at least in some mental respects
  3. But you cannot ultimately be responsible for the way you are in any respect
  4. Therefore, you can't be responsible for anything you do.
Which is utter nonsense. Strawson fools us by first saying that it's irrelevant whether the world is deterministic. He then makes a first premise that presumes determinism, i.e. that you do what you do because of the way you are. This can only be true if the world is truly deterministic. If it is not, then step 1 in his "basic argument" does not hold. It is false that we do what we do because of the way we are if the world is not predetermined.

But Strawson snares us in a knot that seems to lead us to accept his deterministic position in step 1. Because it would seem that if we don't do what we do because of the way we are, then how can we be held responsible for what we do? Our action becomes a completely random event. Like a coin flip where there's no telling what will happen. How can we be held responsible for such a random thing? The reason insanity is a legal defense is because if someone's actions are completely dis-jointed – one thing does not reasonably lead to the other – a person cannot be held to account. And no one wants to admit their own insanity.

What Strawson fails to consider is that the world can be seen as a set of potentials and not in terms of either/or. Yes, once an event has occurred potentials cease to be just that – possibilities – they become actualities that are either true or false, black or white. But prior to the point of actualization, the outcome is merely predictable to a given degree. It is the degree of possibility that is crucial to moral responsibility.

Absolute uncertainty is equivalent to a 50/50 chance. Or, on a scale of 0 to 1 where 0 means it will never happen and 1 implies inevitability, absolute uncertainty would be the same as a potential of 0.5. Moral responsibility exists at neither of the extremes between absolute uncertainty (i.e. 0.5) and complete certainty (i.e. 0 or 1). It exists in varying degrees somewhere between 0 and 0.5 and 0.5 and 1.

Before I get back to moral responsibility, let me first address freedom as well, which is intimately linked to moral responsibility. Freedom can only exist if the world could have been different than it is. Freedom implies a degree of randomness, of various future possibilities that could actualize into concrete facts of the past. Freedom does not exist at positions 0 (the impossible) and 1 (the inevitable). It does, however, exist anywhere in between these two polarities. The distance between the closest extreme (0 and 1) and absolute uncertainty (0.5) is equivalent to the degree of freedom.

An agent that acts with complete predictability is a mindless creature indeed. Such an agent is, in fact, not an agent at all, nor is it a creature. It is a thing, a substance acted upon. It's the imprisoning feeling that creeps up on us as we think about determinism. On the other hand, an agent that acts with complete freedom at all times is an insane agent. Complete freedom is not as attractive as it's hyped up to be. Complete freedom is another form of mindlessness, a state of complete chaos, a world without rules, without laws. A completely free agent is as mindful as a tossed coin (i.e. not at all).

Moral responsibility assumes a mindful degree of freedom. What do I mean by this? I mean that to be responsible for ones actions, one must generally act in a neither completely free way (i.e unpredictably) nor in a fully predictable manner. Importantly, only experience can tell us how probable somethings might be, because once they actualize we can no longer speak of them in terms of how probable as particulars they are. This process of actualization where potentials collapse (and disappear) into a resolution is what gives us that feeling that things were meant to be. It's what gives us 20/20 hindsight. A mindful degree of freedom is a heuristic process that looks at similar past events and universalizes these particulars into possible futures, thereby potentiating future actions.

Strawson is just plain wrong in stating that we "do what we do at any given time because of the way we are". More correctly, we had a potential to do what we eventually did at any given time because of the way we were. The difference in the latter statement may seem picayune but in fact the slight alteration is vastly important and prevents us from falling into Strawson's trap. Like so many seemingly rational but ultimately nonsensical arguments, it relies on false premises that at first glance seems true and then applies prepositional logic we have a hard time refuting. We end up having to agree that the moon is made of cheese or that God exists necessarily.

That things have potential is not so strange if we consider randomness to be a fundamental part of how our universe moves from present to past. If the world is inherently unpredictable to some degree, if anything has a minute albeit perhaps highly unlikely chance of occurring, then moral responsibility can exist. Just as evolution culls out stability from chaos, there is a process by which we cull our potentials to act in certain ways in certain circumstances. If a person is deemed to have the potential to alter their potentials to act good (think of this as meta potentials, or as that which we call free will), then they can be held morally responsible. The internal random events that "cause" us to either be selfish or charitable are neither entirely linear nor entirely unpredictable. Saying someone is a morally responsible person is simply saying that someone exists within a mindful degree of freedom.

I will surmise that a mindful degree of freedom is when there's roughly an 80% chance that we will set ourselves up to do the "right" thing (that which is morally expected) at the moment we are forced to make a decision. Note that there are only two levels of potentials here: the potential to act a given way, and the potential to alter the potential ways you will act. There's not infinite regression of turtles upon turtles upon turtles. Which leads me to the idea that our obsession with and incorrect assumptions about causation is what partly allows Strawson to bamboozle us.

If we divide the world into two distinct groups of that which acts on and that which is acted upon, Strawson can more easily hoodwink us. We scoff at the notion that a rock has a "mind" and consider humans the only things with a truly free will, a mind. The universe is black or white. Mind is there or mind is not there. Things are determined, or they are not determined. When we free ourselves of this notion (no pun intended), we can begin reclaiming some responsibility for what we do in this world.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Humans in Nature: Feral versus Wild

Wild animals are split into two groups: "truly" wild and feral. Is the distinction of any importance and what does it imply about our world view?

Editors of Wikipedia seem to think the differentiation is important. On feral cats Wikipedia states "[Feral cats] are not to be confused with wild cats or with stray cats (alley cats)." The attitude expressed on horses is somewhat more measured but still takes care to make a distinction: "A feral horse is a free-roaming horse of domesticated ancestry. As such, a feral horse is not a wild animal in the sense of an animal without domesticated ancestors."

In contrast the entry on boars/pigs struggles with the differentiation: "Domestic pigs quite readily become feral, and feral populations often revert to a similar appearance to wild boar; they can then be difficult to distinguish from natural or introduced true wild boar (with which they also readily interbreed). The characterization of populations as feral pig, escaped domestic pig or wild boar is usually decided by where the animals are encountered and what is known of their history."

It could be that the differentiation merely provides additional historical information about the origins of particular organisms. In this view it is not a value statement about the existential appropriateness of specific organisms in particular biotopes. However, if this were true, all entries about feral animals would probably only be footnotes in the wiki article that describes the animals' taxa. Whereas feral pigs is just part of the article about wild boars, feral cats have their own entire entry. Clearly, the distinction is more than a mere technicality.

In distinguishing between "wild" and "feral", we emphasis our impact on nature. "Wild" represents a state of the world untouched by humans, whereas "feral" represents a state of chaos caused by glitches in our efforts to tame our environment. Number one, I believe life is far more adaptive than we think. Number two, we are part of nature and should not be thought of as intruders. "Feral" does not mean an organism that is inappropriate to its environment. It simply means an organism that is adaptive and can more easily transition between an environment where humans are actively involved and one where humans are absent. Hats off to pigs and cats!



Friday, May 21, 2010

Ex nihilo

There's nothing that ever came from something in its entirety. Everything is ultimately creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). Every state is unique since if it weren't unique it wouldn't, properly speaking, be a state at all (a distinctly recognizable configuration of things). Some states may resemble one another so closely that they appear to in fact be the same. But the temporality of existence implies that even such semblance is but that, semblance. So if every state is unique, then newness comes out of nothing. That which was not, that which was nothing, now in fact is something (it has come into being).

However, when we say "nothing comes from nothing" (ex hihilo nihil fit), we are probably implying that everything has an efficient cause. Every distinct state is proceeded by some other state, without which the distinct state would not have come into being. But if everything has a cause, then what caused the very process of causation itself? We could say "God", but what does saying "it is God" mean? Does it not have any meaning? Or does it simply mean "I don't know"? If the latter, then why not simply say it? Saying it is God seems to imply we understand what in fact caused causation itself (which we don't).

Or we could say that causation is eternal. But then the very axiom that everything has a cause must be put into question! We must instead separate everything into two categories, that which comes from something and that which does not (the eternal, the universal, the uncaused). As we have deepened our investigation into the microcosm, what once seemed firm, unbreakable, possibly even eternal, has proven to be of only fleeting existence. What we once perceived as the very substance of matter can decay. And matter and energy are aspects of the same thing. We could say that one comes of the other. But what does come of mean? Emerge out of? Does one, then, exist in the other?

In software engineering I'm confronted with emergent behavior on a daily basis. Such behaviors are ways that the system as a whole acts because of the way the components interact. The behavior is not apparent in the behavior of any one single part of the system. For example, imagine a procedure that moves an element across the screen horizontally (it increases or decreases the value of X in a pair of X,Y coordinates). And another that moves it vertically (it affects the Y value). If I apply one or the other procedure, the element will behave as predicted within the procedures themselves (it will move vertically OR horizontally). But if I apply both simultaneously, the element will move diagonally.

Diagonality can bee seen a composite of the two (the element moves horizontally AND vertically). But we can only predict in exactly what direction the element will move by looking at BOTH procedures. The point I'm trying to make is that looking at any single procedure will tell us nothing about the actual movement of the element. The direction in which the element moves can only be understood when we analyze the interplay of the two procedures. It's important to note that a separate procedure is not required for each cardinality of the screen (which would require a very large number of procedures to move a an element around the 0,0 to 1024,764 coordinate space of the screen).

In physical space we have the same phenomenon of emergence. In physics we talk about the forces acting on an object. And to predict how an object will act, we have to analyze the interplay of all forces affecting the object. The behavior of the object does not emerge out of some singular process. Its behavior exist only in the space between the components and not in the components themselves. Analyzing gravity alone tells us nothing about the course of a football. The motion of the ball does not exist in gravity. Nor in the forward motion of the athlete's foot. Nor in the wind that blows across the field and the elasticity of its substance. The motion exists only in the interplay of them all. Although a result of each individual force, the motion is unique, distinct and something entirely new. The football's motion does not come from them but from between them. From the negative space, the nothing, that we can only see when we look at them as a whole. And ultimately, ex nihilo.

Inside the procedure MOVE X (which moves the screen element left or right), Y exists only as a constant. The existence of Y might be a hint that it's possible to move the element up and down. But it presumes that someone analyzing MOVE X knows what the tuple X,Y (which is being passed in and out of the procedure) represents. Any assumption of the nature of Y is pure conjecture. The quantity X, by the very nature of MOVE X, is known to be at least a variable. The name of the procedure hints to us that it's a positional variable. The quantity Y, on the other hand, might not represent positionality at all. Perhaps it's intensity (how dark the dot is). It's irrelevant how unlikely it is that it's not a definition of position in a Cartesian space. As we move away from the function of the procedure, we venture further and further into conjecture. The whole system cannot be unfolded from MOVE X.

Clearly, one state does not exist in the other like some infinite fractal. If it did, we would be able to extrapolate the motion of the screen object from the application of a single procedure. In terms of efficient cause, the best we can do is to say that this preceded that which came before such. One class of states seems to invariably be followed by another class of states. And after extended observations, distinct patterns emerge. And causality seems established. And laws are postulated. But how firm are they? Can they, like the atom, be broken asunder, or are the eternal, absolute and infallible? Is it just our understanding of them that is incomplete? Are they perfect and of divine nature?

It would seem more consistent to assume that nothing is impervious to decay and creation. That nothing is eternal, universal and perfect. And that even causation, the laws of nature, are subject to this fundamentally destructive and life giving principle. Where did it come from? From nowhere, ex nihilo, from the simple truth that something came into being, proven by our very own awareness of our existence, the act of writing and reading this here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Fable Agreed Upon

There's been a lot of talk about the Texas board of education lately. The board has revised the state's social studies curriculum due to what members of the board perceive to be a "liberal bias" in current texts. However much I may disagree with the proposed changes, I can't but be lightly amused by some of the claims that these conservatives are messing with historical reality. It's not that they aren't constructing a coherent conservative artifice. They are. But all curricula are in fact an artifice assembled to create a coherent foundation for our current mindset. The historical reality people like Noah Baron believe to exist, and which the Texas Board of Education is messing with, is but a hazy collection of imperfect records. This haziness is why the past is so difficult to reconstruct (and why convicting someone in a court of law can be very tricky). Historical truth is rather elusive and very unlike scientific experiments that can be replicated in near exactness.

Most certainly, any truth value set aside, what portion of the past and our current body of knowledge that we choose to highlight is crucial to where we are headed tomorrow. Therefore, the curriculum for social studies is inherently political in nature. Ask yourself, why is it that we spend so much time studying American history? Why do we not immerse our children with the same vigor in studying the Caliphates?

We should not treat with scorn and ridicule conservative attempts to alter curricula of public schools. It would be better to honestly and openly speak about how politics affect our curricular choices. There may indeed be a "liberal bias" in current text books. We may have chosen to shine our flashlights at things that justify our modern secularism. But perhaps that's not such a bad thing after all.

As Bonaparte's jaded adage goes: What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history ? A fable agreed upon.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Service not to the Nation, but to the Constitution

It should be imparted on us all, that when we serve, it's not the nation that we honor but the Constitution. It's the Constitution and the ideals for which it stands that we serve. It should be for the Constitution that we should be willing to give our lives. And it should be imparted on us that this is indeed a noble cause, nobler than any nation. Not to defend our tribe, but to defend our fundamental rights. And our right to choose our living within the constraints of our Rule of Law. And that the ideals embodied in our Constitution are neither unique nor constrained to our insignificant nation which is a mere wrinkle in time.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Risk of Progress, a Hypothetical Problem

Imagine you had a solution you believed could indefinitely supply energy to all of humanity at 1/1000 of today's cost for alternative energy sources. The only problem was that you believed there was a fifty/fifty chance that when initiating the solution, it might instantly destroy a vast swath of life on earth, potentially setting us back thousands of years. Once initiated, the energy source would be just as safe as wind power. Would you flip the switch? If not, at what odds would you?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

In Defence of the Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus or apatosaurus? The great question that mystifies us all. Have you ever been corrected and told "brontosaurus is the old name, now its called apatosaurus!". 20 or so years ago this happened to me and I thought, fine ok, so it's apatosaurus. Just the other day, my 5 year old son and one of his friends were engaged in the same conversation. My, oh, my, I thought, the brontosaurus still lives on!

My curiosity was peeked. Why was brontosaurus the "incorrect" name? The brontosaurus, probably lacking any sophisticated system of symbolism and extinct since...oh...150 million years, couldn't care less. So what popular misconception were paleontologist fighting in their insistence it should be named apatosaurus? It must be some great misconception since apatosaurus falls off the tongue like an old piece of jello and brontosaurus thunders from the guts. At least in most Germanic and Romance languages, brontosaurus seems just the right name for a herbivore the size of this ancient beast.

Wikipedia...tack, tack, tack...ah...bronotosaurus an obsolete synonym of apatosaurus. Obsolete? Well, it can't be that obsolete given the discussion between two 5 years old kids anno 2010. After a little further reading, I find out that the controversy surrounds an issue of incorrect differentiation. Apparently a specimen named Apatosaurus ajax was hypothesized in 1877. 2 years later, another species is described under the name of Brontosaurus. But in 1903, it was deemed that the two were so similar that they aught to be considered the same genus. Therefore the Bronotsaurus was renamed Apatosaurus excelsus. The Apatosaurus might even have simply been a juvile Brontosaurus.

The Principle of Priority, article 23 of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature dictates that the name first used for a taxon (a group of organisms judged to be a unit) in a published piece is to be considered the senior synonym. Other names are deemed junior synonyms and should not be used. The case of the Brontosaur versus the Apotasaur seems to clearly fall under this rule. Case closed! I mean, If I go along and name something Jabberwocky and the next day someone else decides to name it the Cheshire Cat, just to grab the glory. That's just not proper! And we need some kind of rule after all to remain taxonomically sound. Right?

Hold on. Further reading reveals that both specimens were assembled and named by the great but sometimes careless paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh. So the fairness argument goes out the window. And honestly, the fairness argument is weak anyway. If someone manages to find a word which sound qualities better captures the thingness of a thing, that's the word to go for. We don't call a thump a pling after all. Thingness may we ambiguous, but clearly that massive heap of bones, that lumbering quadropede is best described as a thunder lizard (Brontosaurus), not a deceptive lizard (Apatosaurus).

I'm a software engineer and I don't take taxonomy lightly. Accuracy and clarity in class structures are important. We need guidelines for how to name things. But sometimes an ornery beaurocratic stick-to-the-rules attitude can cause more damage than good. Brontosaurus was on the level of T-rexity in capturing our imagination. For kids all around the world the Brontosaur was the emblem of the plant-eating giants. The name packed it all in and and expanded like a Lost World when whispered over yet-to-be-written essays and stories. I'm sure that in some the Brontosaurus even brought out the potential paleontologist. Give us back our Brontosaurs!

So what can we do? How can we, without espousing scientific confusion, get our daughters and sons to not stumble confusedly around the neighborhood with their aplaplapoposaurus toys, but to rumble and thunder to the beat of their mighty Brontosaurian friends? The answer, in my view, is simple: rename the entire genus from Apatosaurus to Brontosaurus. Let the mighty Bontosaurus excelsus be the measure of the taxon. If a fossil is deemed sufficiently deviated, let it be known under some other less spectacular name.

I believe the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature has the authority to overrule the Principle of Priority. How about it ladies and gentlemen?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

New START, Another Flawed Disarmament Treaty?

Though I haven't yet ready the New START Treaty itself, it would appear that we have another flawed bilateral treaty. According to Keith B. Payne's article in the Wall Street Journal, the treaty could in fact lead to an actual increase in nuclear warheads. And the disagreement about the obligations New START imposes on the two parties already began, even before it was signed.

Further reading: Nuclear Stewardship Treaty

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Nuclear Stewardship Treaty

We have to come to terms with the awesome responsibility of being able to split and fuse atoms. There's simply no choice. And it's pollyannish to think we can just eliminate and disallow the production of explosives based on fission and fusion with the stroke of a few more bilateral treaties.

Looking back...at the Future.
Elie Wiesel is asked in 1988 the impossible question: If you had to choose whether you would do with the science of the 20'th century and its atrocities, or without the benefits of the science of the 20'th century and its atrocities, which would you choose?'
And the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the main multilateral treaty to control nuclear arms, although noble in its intent to safeguard us against this frightening and yet fascinating knowledge, did not provide us with the societal mechanisms needed to bridle these sub-atomic abilities of ours. The NPT was simply an attempt to freeze the world in a 1960's state and work backwards from there. Humanity never works backwards, if it can help itself. Humanity is hopelessly progressive. Which is why I have proposed a new treaty which takes into account that, despite our best efforts at disarmament, nuclear weapons will be part of our human condition for some time to come. I have called this new treaty the Nuclear Stewardship Treaty.

The treaty would still embrace the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weaponry as safeguards for national sovereignty. But, unlike the NPT, it would establish criteria for being a worthy steward of this dangerous technology; an incentive for not being a steward of nuclear explosives to begin with; foster cooperation among those who despite such incentives harbor nuclear weaponry; and establish the goal of eventually integrating all arsenals into a tightly safeguarded joint operation.


Its preamble would acknowledge the dangers posed by nuclear technology, whether peaceful or military. It would then state that those who choose to use and develop such technologies have awesome responsibilities for all of humanity. And that its military use poses a threat not only to those engaged in any given conflict but to all nations of the world.

The treaty itself would state that those who have chosen to be so called stewards of nuclear explosives must have appropriate national structures to prevent the use of nuclear explosives except under the most extraordinary of circumstances. Such threats would be defined as acts or events that truly threaten the very existence of humanity as such. There would be no mention of nuclear explosives as legitimate means to simply defend national sovereignty.

The appropriate national structures would be defined as:
  • A military and civilian infrastructure that can effectively safeguard its nuclear technology against those intent on harming others
  • A military that is under the command of a civilian government
  • A civilian government that has been chosen by the people through fair, honest and regularly recurring elections
The treaty would require stewards to cooperate in securing and safely deploying their nuclear explosives and formally establish an organization that oversees such cooperation. This organization would be the seed for a joint military command that provides not local but global security.

The last part of the Nuclear Stewardship Treaty would impose a form of tax on the stewards of nuclear explosives: stewards would be obligated to supply high grade fissionable material that can be used for civilian purposes to a common pool. Signatory nations that are not stewards would be entitled to a share of that pool based on some formula that takes into account their population and other relevant factors (such as GDP and capacity to produce energy). This last aspect of the treaty would establish a clear incentive to not develop and maintain nuclear arsenals.

Such a treaty would still embrace disarmament but recognize the reality that we live in an often extremely hostile universe . The ability to cause explosions through fission and fusion will not disappear from our body of knowledge without some catastrophe of cataclysmic proportions. And, yes, I recognize that a self-inflicted nuclear holocaust could be such a cataclysmic event. But this is the conundrum that we must live with as long as we continue to deepen our scientific investigations of the microcosm.



Why international trust and disarmament is not enough – The real threat of human insanity:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


Religious perspectives on nuclear weaponry:



Watch the full episode. See more Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.


Assessing the threats and the constant uncertainties:

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.