Saturday, February 9, 2013

Outakes From A Dysart's Restaurant Commercial

I haven't been to Dysart's Restaurant in Bangor Maine.  

Illusory Foundations of Materialism 2a

In his autobiography,  the great logician and mathematician, Bertrand Russell presented the decisive moment his older brother, Frank, launched his intellectual career by beginning him on Euclidean Geometry.   Bertrand Russell was eleven.   As well as being a great logician and mathematician, Russell was probably the most renowned professional atheist of his time*.  As befits a budding professional doubter,  the younger boy wanted to know why he should accept the axioms of plane geometry without proof.   His brother didn't have an answer except to point out that unless he did accept them they couldn't go on.

I had been told that Euclid proved things, and was much disappointed that he started with axioms.  At first I refused to accept them unless my brother could offer me some reason for doing so, but he said,  "If you don't accept them we cannot go on",  and I wished to go on,  I reluctantly admitted them pro tem.  The doubt as to the premises of mathematics which I felt at that moment remained with me, and determined the course of my subsequent work.

Bertrand Russell:   Autobiography, volume 1 page 32

There is, to date, no absolute logical proof of the foundations of geometry, nor, as Russell found to his crushing disappointment in the late 1920s, of mathematics.  The proof, famously provided by Kurt Godel, would seem to be that those don't exist within human reason.  After more than two millenia of looking for them with some of the finest of human minds, call me skeptical, but I believe that kind of logical closure is as imaginary as other human quests for dreams of perfection.

There was, obviously, a strong emotional desire in young Bertrand for an absolute logical and intellectual certainty that is, simply, not available.  If that absolute certainty is unavailable for the artificial forms of geometry and numbers, all of them human creations abstracted from humans' experience of the physical world, why would anyone expect absolute logical and intellectual certainty for less refined aspects of human experience?   I think it's exactly that emotional desire for certainty that ruled large parts of Bertrand Russell's thinking and writing.  He says that his conditional  acceptance of the axioms of geometry was motivated by a desire to get on with the subject.  He obviously wanted to have geometry more than his imagined perfection, for the time being.

Euclidean geometry is an application of the methods of logic as well as mathematics.  All of mathematics is reliant on the human practice of logic, all mathematical proof is founded in logic. The consequence of that is that if any logical flaw is discovered in an exposition of mathematical propositions,  the proposal fails.  Mathematics rests on a basis of logic and, again, as was famously demonstrated by Godel, logic has no absolute foundation in itself.  It rests on something that is far more disreputable in today's culture, human experience and persuasion.  That has been known for far longer.   For example, there is no logical reason to believe that because in every case you can conceive of it to follow that if a = b and b = c that a will equal c in each and every possible case. We believe that out of our common experience of the external world.

I'd go farther than that and point out that the first part of that, a equaling b is, clearly,  a human construct.  a is not b but it is held to be equal to b.  a is also not identical to b,  even if every single other thing about them is the same.  b could be something exactly like a for every other purpose except that b was not a.  There is at least that aspect that they don't share,  a is not b.  Equality would include that aspect of difference.  That relationship of equality of two separate objects is the product of human thought, not an intrinsic attribute of a and b.  And the statement can be even more problematic.   If we say that a equals a and that b also equals a, then we have set up two different meanings for the relationship of equaling, both identity of something to itself and functional similarity of a thing to something other than itself.  Obviously, in that case, the relationship of equality would not always be equal to itself.  We can determine that from the imaginary entities "a" and "b" which we are capable of giving a similarity that real things don't really have.  For real things that have an existence separate from human imagination, those relationships become even more tenuous through the differences between things held to be equal**.

We are accustomed to ignoring problems like that in cases when every single person in the world would maintain that a equals b but that is the case.  Like the axioms of plane geometry, ignoring their equality is an invention of human convenience is something that works.   If someone denied that common experience, they would be held to be irrational.  We create that equivalence out of our abstracted experience of the physical world.  We maintain that their equality is a useful idea because it works.  It is a creation of human utility.

What can be said of the impossibility of an absolute foundation of logic separable from the far less than absolute foundation of human experience is even more true of higher level intellectual activity. Logic and mathematics are two of the foundations of science.  Any scientific proposal that can be refuted by a failure of its logical or mathematical basis fails as science.  Or that should be the case if the public promotion of science is honest.   Far from being the verification of logic or mathematics, science is their ward.   As repugnant as the idea is to many atheists who believe science is the absolute test of everything, science isn't even the proof of itself.  Science relies on belief as certainly as mathematics or logic, there is no separable higher level of any of those products of human experience that is independent of that fact.   It is extremely rare for a scientist to admit that, especially, in my experience, for an atheist to admit it.   One of the few examples I know is found in Joseph Weizenbaum's  great and tragically unknown book,  Computer Power and Human Reason:

The man in the street surely believes such scientific facts to be as well-established, as well-proven, as his own existence.  His certitude is an illusion.  Nor is the scientist himself immune to the same illusion.  In his praxis, he must, after all, suspend disbelief in order to do or think anything at all.  He is rather like a theatergoer who, in order to participate in and understand what is happening on the stage, must for a time pretend to himself that he is witnessing real events.  The scientist must believe his working hypothesis, together with its vast underlying structure of theories and assumptions, even if only for the sake of the argument.   Often the "argument" extends over his entire lifetime.  Gradually he becomes what he at first merely pretended to be; a true believer.  I choose the word "argument" thoughtfully, for scientific demonstrations, even mathematical proofs, are fundamentally acts of persuasion.  

Scientific statements can never be certain; they can only be more or less credible.  And credibility is a term in individual psychology, i.e.. a term that has meaning only with respect to an individual observer.  To say that some proposition is credible is, after all to say that it is believed by an agent who is free not to believe it,  that is, by an observer who, after exercising judgement and (possibly) intuition, chooses to accept the proposition as worthy of his believing it.  How then can science, which itself surely and ultimately rests on vast arrays of human value judgments  demonstrate that human value judgments are illusory?  It cannot do so without forfeiting its own status as the single legitimate path to understanding man and his world. 

Immediately after that rather bracing idea, Weizenbaum placed the myth of scientific certainty in its undoubted and highly dangerous social context:

But no merely logical argument, no matter how cogent or eloquent  can undo the reality that science has become the sole legitimate form of understanding in the common wisdom.   When I say that science has been gradually converted into a slow-acting poison, I mean that the attribution of certainty to scientific knowledge by the common wisdom, an attribution now made so nearly universally that it has become a commonsense dogma, has virtually delegitimatized all other ways of understanding.

The rest of the book is a brilliantly argued analysis of the problems coming from that most common of faith holdings.

I think Joseph Weizenbaum's confessions of the real nature of, not only science but of logic and mathematics is one of the bravest intellectual acts I've ever encountered.   He questions the status which science claims and which is claimed for it and asserts that foremost creed of modern life is dangerous.  With it he jeopardized his credibility with less rigorous thinkers, his professional standing and the usual foundations of atheism.   I've never encountered another atheist who so basically impeached the intellectual conceit that most of the articulation of atheism is based in.  The use of  science and logic in atheist polemics against religion requires that their own dependence on belief, on persuasion be ignored or denied in a sputtering display of derision.

*  Though, officially, Russell was an agnostic. There's a case that he stole that position from Joseph McCabe who will figure in a later post.   Today Russell's position has remained in atheist culture whereas McCabe has been eclipsed.  I think there were political reasons in the post-war period cover up the period of atheist history that McCabe represents.

**  In nothing else is the problem so undeniable as the frequent holding that people and other living beings are interchangeable objects.   What began in the 19th century scientific sexism and racism that made generalized statements about women, men,  Black people,  "Redskins" etc.  is matched today in the ubiquitous faith in the genetic determinism of organisms, the resurgent expression of the same faith.  The dependence of that faith on the allegedly scientific study of twins, the assertions of identity based on a shared genome ignores the fact that even identical twins raised together do not share the same identity but are, in fact, individual people.  Even when the twins, themselves, deeply want to believe otherwise.

Even clones are not identical to the "parent", not even on the most basic level of physical appearance.    Organisms are not abstractions that can be manipulated like angles made by intersecting lines, they cannot be rotated and mentally superimposed on each other, becoming identical.  Even real lines in real space can't really be manipulated into identity.  How much less can organisms, which exist as independent beings in reality be scientifically squeezed into the same kind of imaginary, geometric non-space.  Even those ants I mentioned the other day are individuals.  If science can pretend they are for every desired purpose, that doesn't change the fact that the purpose of science is not a comprehensive and exhaustive description and manipulation of the lives of individuals within an ant colony.   Yet so many people today are content to pretend that human beings are interchangeable vehicles of DNA, ignoring even the differences in that famous molecule and the variability of its functions in even individual cells.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Comment On An Article About The Prospects Of Making Contact

with those really, really close planets that might have life on them.

“If someone posts a message that takes 13 years to get there and is waiting for an answer they'll be 26 years older by the time that gets there. I think that's what's called a "stilted conversation".

Atheists Granted Indulgences* by PZ Myers

* It should be known from here on as The PZary Indulgence. 

Note:  We seem to be about to lose electricity, here in New England so I'm going to repost this piece I first posted last September. 

It's a growing problem, the intellectual decadence that flows from the atheist blogs.   As I mentioned in my recent series on Darwin, Eugenics and Haeckel,  most of the people who claimed that Darwin has nothing to do with either of those do so from the position of never having read any of what the relevant people said about it.  Including Charles Darwin.  Some of them rely, at best, on secondary sources which are often motivated by ideology.  And  most of those I've encountered argue out of tertiary garbage only occasionally based on secondary sources,  when they're not also based on other tertiary garbage or complete lies.  But it gets even worse than that when an atheist demands the privilege of speaking out of absolutely no knowledge at all.

The most commonly encountered statement of that privilege on the blogs comes from P.Z. Myers in defense of his friend, Richard Dawkins'  radically minimalist scholarship in his The God Delusion.   In many reviews from real scholars, a number of them atheists, it was noted that Dawkins made his would-be, two-fisted, final slam-down of theology firmly standing on the shoulders of such specialists as Douglas Adams and Carl Sagan.   In fact, it would seem from that book and his response to those critics, that Richard Dawkins knows quite a very little about theology other than that he does not like it.  I'm unaware of any evidence that he has, in the ensuing years, corrected that gap in his education.   Since the book comes from a man who held an endowed chair at Oxford University as he wrote the it, his exposition from ignorance raised a number of objections.  

To his rescue came P. Z. Myers, an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota at Morris and, more importantly, the owner of Phrayngula blog*, with his"Courtier's Reply" .  "The Reply" is rather repetitious and mostly trivial** but, in order to prevent P.Z.'s  nay-men choir from pulling out the old "quote mining" charge, I'll give it as he did, in full.  I will, though, underline what seems to be the substance of it. 

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed— how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

To paraphrase, I'd say it meant, P.Z Myers is upset that his friend Richard Dawkins is being criticized for  neglecting to know enough on a topic he wrote about in what was supposed to be a serious book by an Oxford scholar.  And the best he can do is pretend that it's not a requirement of serious scholarship to know what you're talking about.   And the excuse for not knowing what you're talking about is that you don't need to know what you're talking about when P.Z Myers and Richard Dawkins don't like the topic of Dawkins' book.  Which is, apparently, an acceptable intellectual stand among many atheists. 

P.Z. Myers is taking a stand not much different from the stand that Galileo complained of  to Kepler:

.... what would you say of the learned here, who, replete with the pertinacity of the ass, have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope?  What shall we make of all of this?  Shall we laugh or shall we cry?   Trans. from The Crime of Galileo by Giorgio de Santillana 

Apparently Myers has taken up the same standard of intellectual conduct that Galileo struggled against from scholastic scholars upholding geocentric astronomy.   Which, since "The Courtier's Reply" amounts to an atheist plenary indulgence to expound ignorantly, isn't that strange.   According to him you don't have to know what you're  talking about before you write a mighty tome on the subject from an endowed chair at Oxford University.   Or from his position at The University of Minnesota at Morris.  Which I'm sure many of his colleagues at his own university would disagree with.  And it's a privilege that I've heard asserted all over the atheist blogs. 

Science seems to be entering into a decadent period in which scientists who are fully as arrogant as a pantomime Cardinal in anti-religious mummery, declare themselves competent to expound on things that they not only demonstrate they have never studied but which they admit they've never studied declaring that their superior scienciness  is a virtue that allows them to expound of in complete ignorance.   Considering that, in his "Reply" post one of the reviewers he critisized by name is H. Allen Orr, whose scientific credentials are definitely more credible than Myers' and, I'd say, more than match Dawkins, his arrogance isn't just to non-scientists. 

There have always been jerks like that in science,  relying on the reputation of science and, in a few instances, their specialized and particular achievements to allow them to bluff through any other topic.  But, today, that intellectual dishonesty is entirely out of hand.   It reaches the zenith of its foolishness when the sci-guys complain on being called on their ignorance by people who know what they're talking about.   Maybe PZ should be told that his "Reply" makes him sound like one of the lying, hypocritical and pompous twits he invented to pompously assert atheists don't need to know what they're talking about .    And there's not so much as a stitch of thread to cover his self-exposed shame.   I thought it was about time someone told him that. 

* It is an astounding fact to some of the blog atheists I've discussed Myers with that he isn't the major figure in science or scholarship they imagine.  Once, in preparing a blog post about teaching science, I asked several biology teachers I know, who all have undergraduate degrees in the subject, what they thought about P.Z. Myers.   Three of them had no idea who he was and the fourth said he never bothered with blogs, being a teacher took all of his time. 

**  When I first read it I couldn't believe any serious people who ever had to write a jr. high school paper would take it as anything but P.Z. writing a slacker-quality blog post on a day he had nothing to say.  But it's gained a currency among blog atheists along such  ideas as "a Poe" and "quote mining" and it's worth saying something about.  Among blog atheists, The Courtier's Reply is taken on as a rule of logical discourse, a universal acid to dispose of any observation that the atheist doesn't know what they're talking about.   The idea of university professors and teachers speaking up for discourse out of ignorance, and doing it with a fable riddled with logical fallacies and just plain stupidity is pretty discouraging. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Science Should Face Facts Not Front Matierilaist Fables About Evolution

Consider how frequently self-appointed skeptics and atheists assert the unreliability of other people's beliefs about their own thoughts, saying that anyone who believes anything about their own, personal experience is unreliable if not that the person is delusional. That is something that is commonly done when it is something the "skeptic" doesn't like. But the same "skeptical" atheist will then assert as truth what ethologists and evo-psy scribblers say about what is going on in the minds of animals and ancient human ancestors who can't even tell us what they believe about their experience.

In my recent arguments with Jeffrey Shallit, a computer sci-guy- mathematician at the University of Waterloo,  one of the problems seems to be that he, like most of the educated class of the English Speaking Peoples,  has a misconception of the state of the art of the science of evolution.   Among mathematicians and scientists that misconception is, really, inexcusable.  It's extremely simple to demonstrate that the science rests on an extremely small fraction of the relevant information which a theoretically complete science of evolution would require.

We've all been brought up to have many articles of faith about some of the most complex of science and in no area is this more true than the study of evolution.   I've come to believe that's true because evolutionary science has become so polluted with ideological and political extras that it is prone to producing faith positions founded in ideological struggle in place of science.  And I'm only talking about those of us who accept the fact that evolution is a fact.

Perhaps Shallit, as many a scientist who doesn't specialize in evolution, and many who do, has a much inflated conception of how much is known today about what is, beyond a doubt, the largest and most complex phenomenon, only partly susceptible to scientific methods, that science proposes to study.   I say partly because in the 3.5+ billion years long, trillions of organisms vast "thing" that  comprises evolution, the vast majority of the physical subject matter is lost through rot, consumption, erosion, and being unfound, crushed, in the vastness of geological change.

And those are just the theoretically observable physical aspects of evolution.  Evolution is also an historical science,  dealing with the lives of organisms, singly, in groups and in the entire biosphere, which are among the most relevant of events that impinge and have impinged on all aspects of change in species over time.  Any events that had an effect on evolution during those trillions of lives that are unrecorded are lost to science, forever.

A brief consideration of the dimensions of time and numbers in evolution as compared to the history of human evolutionary study reveals just how little of that is available for science.   The attempts to reconstruct those lost events are so fraught with susceptibility to misconception, misunderstanding and, most often of all, professional and ideological interest and wishful thinking, that the products derived from that should be called "lore" not science.   And that is probably charitable, in many cases.  Much of what is passed off as science is intentional ideological promotion instead of reporting on the observation of physical evidence.

It  is undeniable that the fraction of what is reliably known about evolution constitutes an extremely small part of one percent of the defined phenomena science proposes that the science of evolution covers.  And it's quite possible that list of included phenomena, today, is far from complete.  My expectation of any phenomenon known in that puny amount of detail is that people making general statements about it are more likely to guess wrong than right about the entire thing.  It doesn't much matter how you feel about the consequences of that level of ignorance or how extremely inconvenient the consequences of it, what you don't know really does matter.  I'd have thought that, considering the truly infinite field of mathematics, that a mathematician might have gotten his mind around a problem like that.

And that's about what is vulnerable to study by scientific methods.  The entirely relevant issues of thoughts and related behaviors of sentient beings, perhaps, especially of the more intelligent of those, are entirely hidden and ideas about them are frequently wrong.  Which is what the "skeptical" debunkery mentioned in the first paragraph is based on, only, clearly, not when it suits them to pretend otherwise.  In nothing is that more true than in human "study" of the minds and motives of animals.  Even those close to us in the tree of life are, honestly, incomprehensible.

For animals, today, as much unlike us as ants, bees and wasps, generally living in colonies consisting of sterile, non-breeding,  siblings all belonging to different biologically determined castes in service to a breeding sister who is the mother of them all, including the smaller number of males, the idea that their thoughts and minds are comprehensible to human beings is bizarre.  Even to human beings, who grow up to make their way to teach at Harvard or Oxford.  There is no reason to believe that even the admitted expert, E.O. Wilson, can comprehend what the mind of an ant is like, what it is like to function from the point of view of an ant.   How that isn't relevant to an alleged study of "ant behavior" should be asked before getting on with academic publication.

When you consider the problem of one human being understanding another one,  the idea that even the foremost human myrmecologist can do that is justifiably considered superstition and socially and academically enforced pretense.   Consider if, as I'd guess is likely, that ants are not the unvaried, barely thinking, beings we imagine out of our ignorance for our convenience. To be getting on with publication.

It is convenient to the allegedly scientific study of behavior to pretend that even people are far simpler than they are.  People can, sometimes, honestly testify as to what's going on unseeable, in their minds but, they are frequently mistaken about that.   Admit your own experience, how well you can report that is incomplete, at best.  And admit that without that report, nothing of anyone's  internal experience is available to anyone but them.   There is every reason to suspect that, as with the artist of that 35,000 year statue who left no record of what they were thinking I wrote about the other day,  what people and ants today are thinking is not susceptible to science.  Actually, without any articulation of it,  there is no reason to pretend that it is.

And that's not even taking into account how scientific assertions about behavior are based only in the few individuals studied.   Of those ants in their jillions around today, an extremely tiny sample are available to be watched by researchers, for a limited amount of time.  Ants in even the recent evolutionary past and many others,  presumably in species unknown today, thought and acted unrecorded for purposes of scientific observation and can't honesty be said to be available to science.  That is true for all but the infinitesimally tiny fraction of animals studied in the history of evolution, including even the direct ancestors of modern humans, which can never be observed with the rigor to honestly constitute science.

Every single thing that can be said about thought is the product of the mind of the person saying it. That is even more so of the person talking about minds other than their own, commenting on what they can't know first hand.  That fact determines the quality of what can be said about it.  There is nothing to look at and measure and identify to report as something that can honestly aspire to objectivity.  Behavioral "scientists"  are using their own experience and the lens of their particular professional training to come up with ideas about that behavior and what is behind it.  It is inevitably distorted and polluted by that fact.  Consider how rare it is for an academic writer on behavior or cognition to come up with observations radically disconfirming their previous assertions.  Any explanation of behavior is susceptible to that inevitable distortion.  Even more than that, any idea proposed about that is susceptible to being the product of the interested  imagination of the ethologist or other "scientist".   It might have nothing to do with nature, at all.  It might be merely imagination reported as reliable information.  There is no process of logical verification, such as that possible in mathematics, that can verify the reality of anything said about behavior.  Unlike the physical bodies and even observable behaviors that can be described and measured,  thoughts today and, even more so the lost past, cannot honestly be subjected to scientific study.

When Shallit wasn't replacing opposing arguments and evidence with recitations of authorities and derision,  he was asserting the scientific correctness of Sociobiology, the briefly popular "science" that E.O.Wilson instituted in the 1970s.   In a very short time, in the face of its opponents pointing out its lavish application of assumptions about living species, asserting "behaviors"  present in species clear across the vast field of taxonomy and other deficiencies, it was intentionally turned into "Evolutionary" Psychology, in which those assertions were made about the lost past, leaving "scientists" free to make conjectures without the inconvenience of reviewable observation of living beings.

All of this alleged biology replaces observable, measurable, physical evidence with conjecture.  The practice of making up stories  and calling it science is endemic to psychology and other social sciences, it always has been through out their history.  It is not surprising that, whenever it is desired, that kind of story telling is asserted to be biological science.  Today it's all the rage among that most tenuously asserted and self-interested of so-called "sciences", economics.  Profitably telling rich people fables about their virtues and their money as biology is probably as sure a sign of complete decadence in a branch grafted on to real science as it is possible to find.

Periods of decadence, often related to the self-interest of an entrenched, financially rewarded establishment, happen in academic fields.  I think, in the face of the extremely small amount of real information available on which to base the serious study of evolution, the fact of the behavioral and other aspects of that problem honestly being unavailable and the desire to make a name with what are purported to be vastly important discoveries,  evolutionary science will be found to be more prone to that than some other areas of science.   The real relevance of the behavior of organisms to evolution and the impossibility of honestly studying that with science in order to make general statements about it is a guarantee that "behavior" will be the vehicle leading the truly scientific study of evolution into decadence.  If real biologists choose to accept baseless lore as science, there's not much anyone else can do to protect the integrity of the subject.  I'm not optimistic that things will improve, there being so much professional prestige built up in opposition to that integrity.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

I'm Not Ashamed To Say This Goes Way Too Far

In looking up the activities of the prominent member of CSICOP, "Humanist", writer for Free Inquiry, the "Human Sexuality Editor" at Prometheus Books (the atheist version of Regnery) and all round fixture of recent organized atheism and pro-pedophilia advocate- board member of Paidika,  the late, Vern Bullough, I found out that there is a pedophile version of Wikipedia.  I won't link to it, I won't name it, I won't advocate you look at it.   What next?  Pro-Anorexia Wiki?   Hit Man Wiki?  Puppy Torture Wiki?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Making Up Stories Calling Them Science and No One Bats An Eyelid

One of the rather charming experiences of going through old writing about science is reading the confident, informed, progressive knowledge of the rightness of the latest science, how it overturns the ancient superstition or absurdly wrong beliefs of earlier times and that the present day now knows the truth.  Sometimes the writer invites the audience to smile over the naivety of what used to be believed.  Only, sometimes, that declaration of confidence turned out to be too quickly made.   Of course, today, scientists and, even more so, the non-scientific writers of science journalism know better.  They never would make that kind of mistake.

I came across Jeffrey Sallit's "Recursivity" blog while researching a quote that interested me.  He is a professor in the Computer Science department of The University of Waterloo,  listed online as a mathematician.   I posted a comment on one of his recent diatribes against his colleagues talking about religion, which led to a discussion of two topics in the social "sciences".  I will write about the second one as part of the series I'm working on but the first one is so easily discussed that it hardly needs research.  I've previously written on both.

I'll begin by pointing out that  three days into the dispute Shallit hasn't produced arguments but has depended on reciting names,  Hamilton, Haldane, Maynard-Smith, not what they claimed but merely a litany of their names.   Those experienced with atheist debating tactics will know this is the infamous "argument from authority" which atheists so often hold is a logical fallacy which religious people are addicted to.   Shallit has not quoted any of his cited authorities to refute my points, nor do I believe on the basis of having read some of them he could.  If he can he has had three days of my pointing out his failure to back up what he was saying to do it

And, also familiar to anyone who has disputed much with online atheists, his other weapon is mockery,  repeated assertions of crackpottery.    Something that atheists are always whining about, "ad hominem".   I'm sure that's his appeal to the prejudice of his usual atheist audience, which is the entire purpose of that debating tactic.

If Shallit can do any better would seem to be a fading prospect as he's still carrying on the way he has for three days running.  We will see.


The easy part of it is my point about that famous 35,000 year old statue that was much in the news about three and a half years ago.   The one which was uniformly held by the "experts" to be typical of  men's sexually ideal woman, a way back in them thar days.

At the time it was announced and, by virtue of the sex angle,  all over the news, I read a lot of accounts, including the one linked to above,  and noted that the "experts" were making an awful lot of baseless assumptions about why it was made, who made it and what it represented to those folks, who all died more than thirty thousand years ago,  leaving no written record of what they or the artist thought of the thing.

Most telling of all was that none of the "experts" I'd seen quoted ever considered that the artist might have been a woman.  That it might be a self-portrait or a portrait of the artist's mother.  As their speculation cut out what was likely the thinking of, presumably, half of the population, the belief that their proposed ideal was "typical" of the time, is kind of deficient as science, not to mention mathematics.  Perhaps the artist was a lesbian.

They all seemed to think that it would have been typical of the ideal of women in the presumed society its imagined artist is presumed to have been a typical member of when there is no other known representation from any presumed "culture" of that period.  The next available one in time being made thousands of years after this one.   How a sample of exactly one example can allow them to know that is one of those mysteries of the divination so casually practiced in the  social and behavioral "sciences".  

For all we know the figure was the creation of a pre-historic chubby chaser who imagined women fatter than he'd ever seen,  or, maybe, it was an object of ridicule on account of its absurd proportions.  I'd wonder if the teensy-little head might be an indication of that being the case but I'd never call my guess work "scientific".  Maybe it was a satirical protest against a leaner though overly ample "ideal" or maybe it was a protest that fat is beautiful too.

We have no way of knowing how the artist saw their work, why they made it, how well it matched their intentions.  We don't know if more than one person worked it or if people as distant from each other as hundreds of years apart might have had a hand in it.  We don't know if they threw it away because it was a failed project or if it was an object of reverent veneration or masturbation.

In short, other than its physical description and a rough estimate of its age and that it was almost certainly meant to represent a female human being, nothing whatsoever is known about it.   None of the speculations on anything else can possibly be science because there is no way of knowing if what is asserted is a spot on identification of its significance to the artist and others in their society who saw it or if it tells us entirely more about the anthropologists and others who are going on about it today in such a sciency manner.

Physical description, yes, that can be science, storytelling about it, no, that can't be.

New Series

I'm writing a new series, related to the topic of the one I wrote last August and September.   I have decided to go more fully into one of the sections of that, one or more pieces that will take a lot of looking through my notes and trying to find online editions of things I researched the old fashioned way, from books.

It is possible that like that series, some of the parts of it will be posted out of order as they are completed.

Needless to say, I haven't yet gone back and reworked that series, as promised but still hope to put in a more final form what was written very quickly.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dissolving The Best Thing About Us in the "Universal Acid" of Natural Selection

Part 1:  The Problem of Goodness

In their eternal war against religious belief, one of the most popular arrows in the atheist's quiver is the problem of suffering,  how could a God who was good allow so much and such extreme suffering.  And it is a good point, one for which I'm unaware of an entirely satisfying answer. That is other than to point out that merely because we can't find a universally acceptable reason for suffering  is no evidence that there isn't an entirely good reason for a good and loving God to also permit suffering.  Our not being able to know something is no bar to its existence.

One idea on that question which I've found somewhat persuasive was that suffering is part of God's giving us freedom of thought and an existence separate from God's own will.  The idea that pain, used the right way, can provide a pathway away from selfishness and towards God is part of my cultural heritage as an Irish  exCatholic.   As much a part of that heritage is admitting that the ultimate answer to the question is a mystery, which is, actually,  a sophisticated approach to such an incomprehensible problem.   It is  far more sophisticated than the faith of scientism that all can be explained with human science.   As suffering is personal, perhaps any satisfying answer to the question of suffering is also personal.  An answer that meets the needs of the individual might suffice for that person but it wouldn't satisfy others with different experience and thoughts.

But atheism, in the post-Darwin period, has its own enormous problem, that of unselfish, generous behavior among people.   There is no way to reconcile acts and lives lived for the good of other people that costs the generous person, with natural selection.   Strict natural selection would dictate that generous acts, unselfish acts, would constitute an impediment to survival of the generous individual, favoring those who benefited from their generosity over themselves.  It is also a  reproductive disadvantage.  The theory of natural selection must see all individuals in terms of their being competitors in the struggle for survival and reproduction.  It reduces all individuals to mere machines with an imperative to reproduce.

That problem was apparent from Darwin's time, it has been something wrestled against by some and actively admitted by others who championed selfishness and greed and the opposite of generosity as a means of the superior to flourish and the inferior to beneficially die.  Eugenics, which arose directly and almost  immediately from natural selection, was and still is one of the most popular themes of those who champion an extreme Darwinian interpretation.  The history of biology, both before and after the Second World War is full of eugenicists  some, such as Fischer, Haldane and  Hamilton, directly advocating it, many others somewhat more coyly and covertly.

Even more obviously problematic and shocking were the assertions made by Darwin, Haeckel and others that infanticide, the murder by parents of their own children, was beneficial to the entire population.  Anticipating what is said below, those assertions, especially made in The Descent of Man and in  Ernst Haeckel's  Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte - which Darwin cited with the highest praise exactly on the issue of infanticide -  are a rather enormous problem for anyone who has tried to reconcile "altruism" with natural selection.  

Given the pathological history of eugenics, nihilism, advocacy for infanticide and other and related products of this materialist confrontation with morals, responsible for producing enormous amounts of suffering and murder whenever it has gained legal and political influence, I'd much rather have the problem of suffering to have to explain.   

Generosity as a problem is one that atheists have taken on with their ideological use of natural selection.  Any atheists who don't hold the theory of natural selection as an even more popular arrow against religion, can avoid The Problem of Selflessness but I've yet to encounter one who would give it up.   Among the many problems with their expropriation is that in their zeal to force the unselfish, generous behavior of human beings into their materialistic ideology they fall into a mental trap they always present as an exclusive fault in the religious, anthropocentricity.  They insist on analyzing the behavior of non-humans as being the same thing as human generosity, clearly maintaining that they can know the minds of animals as foreign to us as the hymenoptera.   And, surpassing any other such instance of human presumption I'm aware of, they claim their projection of human experience into ants and wasps is science.

Needless to say,  all of this is not done without serious damage to the concepts and experience of generosity, selflessness and love,  That abuse of making those into an abstraction in order to force them into the self-interested analysis that constitutes  natural selection,  is a serious issue.   "Altruism" squeezed into natural selection is negated into merely a different order of selfishness.   And calling the effort "science" gives those who do the illogical and impossible license to pretend they've explained what they, beyond a doubt, have not.    I have to say that this is probably as serious a crime against one of the few truly fine things about us as has been done.   I can't believe that any people who would willingly pervert the meaning of love in that way intend anything but a malignant purpose in doing it.  Making love selfish,  destroying the most basic meaning of love for their ideology, is a damning indictment of that ideology. 

Ever since college when I first read about the then new discoveries of genetic drift, a far more powerful explanation of change in species over time, I've been puzzled over the widespread denial of the possibility that natural selection was not the ultimate and only mechanism of the origin of new species.  If you want to enrage many biologists and, even more so, the Darwin fan club, point out that natural selection is just another theory which has changed fundamentally since Darwin first published it and which, like all theories, is vulnerable to questioning,  further discoveries and, most heretically, doubt.   Nothing must counter the presentation of Charles Darwin as an all seeing messiah of materialism.  The ultra-Darwinists either are ignorant of or cover up the fact that Darwin, himself, believed in the inheritance of acquired traits, something that would make natural selection quite impossible*.  It was not until the 1930s that natural selection was patched up with Mendelian genetics, providing it with a mechanism of inheritance that would allow it to be possible. 

I used to think that the vehemence of those who insisted on the absolute supremacy of natural selection was due to professional interest and the inherent conservatism of those with a published record and a professional imperative to not disagree with the common received dogma.   But I'm now convinced that is only part of the position that natural selection as an ideological requirement has among the respectable educated population.   It is exactly its use as a tool of atheist ideology** that requires it to be held to be an absolute law of nature,  the clearly wrong assertion that the fact of evolution is identical to the theory of natural selection.  

Natural selection as the first universally influential explanatory mechanism of evolution and a scientific disproof of the literal interpretation of the creation accounts in Genesis became one of the major cultural forces of the past century and a half.   It being the first such weapon of academic and popular atheism,  any proposal putting its usefulness at risk will be met with rage and derision.  That has happened even when it has been atheists who come up with relatively minor modifications to the theory, such as Gould and Eldredge's Punctuated Equilibrium and Gould and Lewontin's Spandrels.   

I've also come to believe that a great many of the purportedly scientific assertions of natural selection were motivated by their protection of natural selection as a weapon of atheism.  It is absolutely essential for people doing that for natural selection to be the ultimate and only explanation of evolution,  the thing that turns people into objects, every aspect of their lives, including their cultural and moral lives into mere expressions of physical objects and forces.  

Having looked hard at the history of atheists using natural selection as a weapon against religious belief,  I've been struck at how soon after On the Origin of Species was first published that Darwin's theory was used ideologically in that way,  asserting the scientific nature of of that ideological use***.  Huxley was one of the earliest, followed close on by Ernst Haeckel,  Herbert Spenser, Francis Galton, Karl Marx****,etc.  Within the first decade of natural selection as a published theory, it had become the foundation of what was probably the most significant advance in atheist belief after the early atomists.   

And it is still the major weapon wielded by atheism against religion, even as the vast majority of people who accept the reality of evolution, today, are religious believers.   Evolution is only a problem for that minority of religious people who are scriptural fundamentalists.  Other religious people, as early as Cardinal Newman and Asa Gray, found it was no problem for their religious belief.   I remember in the pre-Vatican II years having nuns  in the classroom, in full, traditional habit talking about how their religion was to be understood in terms of evolution.  There are few things that  infuriate many atheists more than a religious person who believes that evolution is the way in which God effected the creation of living beings on Earth.   That belief breaks their favorite weapon against religion in half, it also deprives them of their ability to put all religious believers into the category of science-denying, ignorant, yahoos.

That stereotype, presenting religious believers in an easily understood object of ridicule has probably been far more useful to the use of Darwinism as atheist tool than science has been.   And it is extremely ironic in my experience.  In arguing about some of these issues with large numbers of atheists in the past several years, some of them with degrees in science topics,  it has taken very little questioning to reveal that most of them are quite ignorant of the topic, their information more likely to be taken from popular media than primary source materials.   Most of the foremost champions of Darwin have never read The Descent of Man and certainly have not noted or looked at his citations in that book.   If they did that,  alone, they could not believe what they imagine they know  about many of their foremost cultural heroes.   If they read the history of the idea of natural selection they could not pretend that the idea, held as the supreme force in evolution,  has the power to explain a truly unselfish act done by a human being.   They could not deny that the ideological theft of generosity "altruism" by Sociobiology and "Evolutionary" Psychology sacrifices the meaning of the best thing about us, our deepest and most compelling good,  on their alter to natural selection.  

*  The geneticist H. Allen Orr's elucidation of the problem is the best short one I know:  This substrate neutrality argument is supremely important to Dennett. It -- and nothing else -- explains why selection can be lifted from its historical base in biology. It is what makes Darwinism so dangerous. But Dennett slips here. While it is true that many different kinds of substrate can be selected, it is simply not true that Darwinism works with any substrate, no matter what. Indeed Darwinism can't even explain old-fashioned biological evolution if the hereditary substrate doesn't behave just right. Evolution would quickly grind to a halt, for instance, if inheritance were blending, not particulate. With blending inheritance, the genetic material from two parents seamlessly blends together like different colored paints. With particulate Mendelian inheritance, genes from Mom and Dad remain forever distinct in Junior. This substrate problem was so acute that turn-of-the-century biologists -- all fans of blending inheritance -- concluded that Darwinism just can't work. Modern evolutionary genetics was born in 1930 when Sir Ronald Fisher cracked this problem: Population genetics shows that particulate Mendelian inheritance saves the day. It is just the kind of substrate needed for evolution by natural selection to work.

** As pointed out in an earlier post, the atheist blogger John Wilkins has admitted as much.

***  As a long time admirer of the great geneticist, Richard Lewontin, the frequent accusation made by today's ultra-Darwinists, that he inserts Marxist ideology in his critique of Sociobiology and "Evolutionary" Psychology,  rings as supremely ironic.   Malthusian ideology was the origin of Darwin's natural selection, its use by atheists to attack religion began immediately upon its publication and has continued, unabated  ever since. Much of that ideological use of natural selection has been presented as science, a species of "science" which has its own history of being extremely liable to becoming fashionable before it is utterly junked. 

**** The case of Karl Marx's enthusiasm for Darwinism is particularly strange as Charles Darwin, in endorsing Ernst Haeckel's  Freie Wissenschaft und freie Lehre  supported Haeckel's view that Darwinism was a refutation of socialism and, in fact, supports an aristocratic system, not democracy.  The overwhelming majority of Darwinists were capitalists,  including Darwin.  Many of them of them used Darwinism to support the most extreme versions of their ideology, Spencer, an obvious example.   I haven't looked into that matter exhaustively but I think, for Marx, the inherent materialism of Darwinism accounted for his enthusiasm for it.  If as obsessively careful a scholar as Marx can overlook the obvious truth, that other than it being materialistic, Darwinism is fundamentally destructive of his system, he has to have an overriding, extra-scholastic, motivation.   I strongly suspect it is Marx's hostility to religious belief that accounts for his massive oversight.   I have come to believe that hostility to religion has been an unstated motivation for a good part of the intellectual activity of the past two centuries.

In science, that is especially ironic, considering the obsessive, paranoid assertions of the ever present danger of religion being covertly inserted into science.  I've repeatedly asked atheists for examples of the successful insertion of religion into the formal literature of science and have yet to have them provide support for their contention.  

For the insertion of religion into science to work, it would have to be blatantly obvious because science can legitimately deal only with what the physical evidence shows and religion is not primarily concerned with physical evidence.  Or, rather, science should be all about physical evidence. It frequently has not been, especially in the alleged study of behavior.   Atheism, in the form of ideological materialism, can be far more successfully introduced into science unnoticed.   I am not charging all atheists with doing that, some atheists within science have the highest professional integrity and many are simply entirely more interested in their scientific work than in a futile and, frankly, boring ideological war.  Not all atheists have made that a major part of their formal work but many, especially in the allegedly scientific study of behavior, have inserted their ideology into their work and it's far past time that looking for that as a source of distortion is taken seriously.