I can defend both Lawrence Krauss and philosophy!

Philosophers are still grumbling about Lawrence Krauss, who openly dissed philosophy (word to the philosophers reading this: he recanted, so you can put down the thumbscrews and hot irons for now). This is one of those areas where I’m very much a middle-of-the-road person: I am not a philosopher, at least I’m definitely not as committed to the discipline as someone like Massimo Pigliucci, but I do think philosophy is an essential part of our intellectual toolkit — you can only dismiss it if you haven’t thought much about it, i.e., aren’t using philosophy at all.

So I’m pretty much in agreement with this post about the complementarity of philosophy and science. In fact, I’ll emphatically agree with this bit:

Scientists and mathematicians are really doing philosophy. It’s just that they’ve specialised in a particular branch, and they’re employing the carefully honed tools of their specific shard just for that particular job. So specialised, and so established is that toolkit, that they don’t consider them philosophers any more.

I’ll also agree with the flip side, where he defines philosophy:

Philosophy’s method is bounded only by the finite capacities of human thought. To the extent that something can be reckoned, philosophy can get there. As such, philosophy will never stop asking “why”.

But then I start to quibble (oh, no! I must be infected with philosophy!).

So what this is really saying is that science is a bounded domain of philosophy, while philosophy is unlimited, which sounds like philosophy has the better deal. But I’d argue otherwise: what’s missing in philosophy is that anvil of reality — that something to push against that allows us to test our conclusions against something other than internal consistency. It means philosophy is excellent at solving imaginary problems (which may be essential for understanding more mundane concerns), while science is excellent at solving the narrower domain of real problems. Science has something philosophy lacks: a solid foundation in empiricism. That’s a strength, not a weakness.

I think that’s where philosophers begin to annoy us, when they try to pass judgment using inappropriate referents — which is also how scientists like Krauss can annoy philosophers. And philosophers are so good at rationalizing disagreement away while carping on others. For instance…

Because scientists have a rather poor track record when it comes to doing philosophy.

Sam Harris’s attempt to provide a scientific basis for morality springs to mind, where he poo poos metaethics only to tread squarely in a metaethical dilemma. Or Richard Dawkins and his dismissal of religion as a false belief system, meanwhile dismissing the rather significant psychological and cultural functional roles it has played throughout human history, and may still play today.

Or Krauss, who without a hint of irony, suggests that good philosophers are really just bad scientists, when in fact he’s a good scientist doing philosophy badly. His definition of “nothing” comes not from within science, but is a grope in the dark for a definition that conforms with his particular theoretical predilections. That’s not how one defines things in polite (philosophical) circles, as David Albert pointed out.

After stating that scientists are philosophers and that science is a branch of philosophy, we’re now told that scientists do philosophy poorly. So is he saying that scientists must do science poorly? I know who’s not going to get invited to my next cotillion, that’s for sure.

Rather, scientists do their brand of philosophy very, very well — philosophers seem to be playing a two-faced game here of wanting to claim science as one of their own when they like what it accomplishes, but washing their hands of it when they don’t like it. Nuh-uh, people, you want to call us philosophers, you have to live with the stinking chemicals and the high energy discharges and the reeking cadavers now too.

His examples aren’t persuasive. I’ll skip over Harris, I’m not particularly fond of his efforts to explain morality, but the Dawkins complaint is weird. He does not disregard the immense psychological and cultural roles of religion: in fact, those are reasons why he and I both detest religion, because we’re aware of all the harm it does and has done. That we think the physical and psychological harm is enough that we should change it is not a sign that we’re doing bad philosophy at all; it’s a sign that we scientifical philosophers consider reality and empiricism to be extremely important factors in our thinking…apparently to a greater degree than many non-scientifical philosophers.

As for Krauss, I thought the Albert review was awful — typical unbounded philosophy with no anchor to the truth. Krauss’s definition of “nothing” was not just a grope in the dark. It was a definition built on empirical and theoretical knowledge of what “nothing” is like. Krauss is describing the nothing we have, Albert is describing the nothing he thinks we ought to have. Krauss is being the scientist, Albert is being the philosopher, and the conflict is driven because the philosopher is unable to recognize the prerequisites to doing science well.

I think that appreciating the boundaries of both disciplines as well as their strengths is important for getting along. Krauss may not have appreciated what philosophy has to offer, but a substantial reason for the friction is the smugness of philosophers who disrespect the functional constraints required for doing good science. Scientists don’t get to be “bounded only by the finite capacities of human thought”. We also have to honor the physical nature of reality.

In my head I have the capacity to flap my arms and fly. In the real working world…not so much.

I can only read Plantinga for the lulz

In a review of a new book by Alvin Plantinga, Christopher Tollefsen claims that Plantinga, “one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries”, has “systematically dismantled…the claims of the new atheists”. I think we can take that about as seriously as his assessment of Crazy Alvin’s status as a philosopher.

I have zero interest in Plantinga’s “philosophy” — what I’ve read of it convinces me that it’s nothing but deranged Christian apologetics gussied up in academic dress, and the words of Plantinga himself pretty much have persuaded me that I couldn’t address him without frequent invocations of the frolics of shithouse rats. But I am interested in how these gyring rodents see the New Atheists — it’s always such an easy confirmation that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

The claim of the new atheists is that Darwin’s “Dangerous idea,” as Dennett calls it, proves that there is no divine agency responsible for the world. As Dennett explains, “an impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.” But the claims of Darwin show no such thing: even if Darwinism accurately identifies the mechanism by which evolution has occurred, Plantinga notes, “It is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God, and that it could not have produced our world without that guidance.”

The emphasis is there in the review; the first sentence just sings with ignorance. Here they are, carping at those New Atheists, and the first thing they say about them is blatantly false: no New Atheist claims to have a disproof of any god. We’re extremely forthright about saying it, too: Richard Dawkins explicitly laid out a scale of belief in The God Delusion, and it seems that every ferocious critic of that book never bothered to read it, because they were all stunned when Dawkins repeated the same thing on television: we don’t have absolute certainty about the nonexistence of a deity. We’re very confident that you might as well go on about your life as if gods don’t exist, but that’s about it.

Plantinga’s reservations at the end of that paragraph are also very silly. Evolution is the mechanism by which species have been shaped throughout the history of the world, and that is a fact; we can concede that there are other mechanisms besides natural selection (and in fact, we study them), and that one possibility, offered so far without evidence, is that intelligent entities have manipulated our ancestors. We don’t think it’s likely or necessary, but OK, it’s possible that one could find evidence supporting such a scenario.

As for Plantinga’s assertion that intelligence was required to create the diversity of life we have, well, please Alvin, at least wipe your filthy feet before spasming out on the carpet.

But there are things that I, as a New Atheist, am certain about, even if I remain open to the possibility of evolutionary interventionists of an undefined nature.

I am certain that “god” is a useless term. It’s utterly incoherent; some people babble about the god of the Christian Bible, which is an anthropomorphic being with vast magic powers and the emotional stability of an 8-year-old on meth. Others talk about an all-pervasive force in the universe, or use meaningless phrases like “the ground state of all being”, or chatter about a reified emotion like “love”. The really annoying thing about discussions with these people is that they’ll cheerfully switch definitions on you in mid-stream. Getting battered because the whole concept of an omnipotent being existing in the form of an Iron Age patriarch in the sky is silly? No problem! Just announce that god is everywhere and in you and that god is love. Trying hard to justify your regressive social policies using an amorphous principle like love, and finding the atheists turning the whole principle of benignity back on you? No problem! Just announce that god so loved us that he became a man, and if you’re opponents reject that concept, they’ll be thrown into Hell by God the Judge.

Plantinga is an excellent example of this theological muddle. On the one hand, he wants to argue for a cosmos-spanning Mind; on the other, a bigoted narrow being with a chosen race and a preferred position for sexual intercourse, who wants to be cosseted and praised for all eternity. Pick a clear definition for god, and be consistent about it, please. And then persuade all the other theologians that your definition is the correct one. Then come argue with the atheists when you know what the hell you’re talking about.

I am certain that theists have no credible evidence for their claims. Oh, sure, they can say their holy book says so, which is a kind of weak evidence; they can recite anecdotes; they can point to people who believe. But that’s about it, and it’s not adequate. I want to see independently verifiable empirical evidence that can be assessed independently of one’s sociocultural background; I want to see the stuff that would convince a Christian that Islam is an accurate description of the universe, or vice versa, and that would persuade a scientist that here’s some preliminary support for a phenomenon that is worth pursuing. Theologians don’t have that. They’ve never had that.

Religions have grown most often by the sword, or by fostering fear and emotional dependency, or by hijacking secular institutions and forcing beliefs on others, but they never expand by right of reason. Why isn’t a specific god-belief a universal, like mathematics or physics? Because unlike math or physics, religion doesn’t actually deliver on its promises. The power of religion has always been in psychological manipulation of the human mind, empowering a priesthood at the expense of genuine human advancement and understanding.

I am certain that evolution occurred. The evidence is in; the process occurred and is occurring, there are no known barriers to natural processes producing modern life from proto-life/chemistry over the course of 3.8 billion years, and all the evidence we do have shows modern forms being incrementally modified versions of earlier forms. We don’t know all the details, of course, and just maybe someone somewhere could discover a real hurdle that could not have been overcome without intelligent aid, but I know for a fact that no creationist has ever come up with a defensible objection, and that nearly all the creationists who pontificate so ponderously on the impossibility of biology, Plantinga among them, always turn out to be profoundly ignorant of the science. There’s a good inverse correlation between knowledge of biology and certainty that evolution can’t work.

So Plantinga-style arguments, that evolution cannot occur without intelligent guidance, therefore god, leave me cold. They begin with a false premise, easily refuted by the evidence, and therefore the credibility of their entire line of reasoning collapses. This true of all of the Intelligent Design creationism arguments that rest on showing natural selection (it’s the only mechanism they’ve heard of, sadly) doesn’t work, therefore you have to accept the only other alternative they offer, which is godly intervention. Not only is it bad science, it’s bad logic.

Unfortunately for them, the alternative to taking potshots at an explanation that works is to provide specific positive evidence for design, and they can’t do that. For instance, they could say, “My designer enhanced human brain performance by introducing a specific allele of microcephalin into select populations 37,000 years ago”, but then they’d have to face those awkward, demanding questions from scientists: “How do you know? What’s your evidence? Why couldn’t natural mechanisms of genetic variance have produced that specific allele?” And we know they can’t cope with those questions, because their only reason for believing that is that they wish it were so.

That’s all Plantinga has got: a peculiar historical myth-figure that he can’t define without making his whole enterprise look ridiculous, a total lack of reasonable objective evidence to support his myth, and a reliance on criticizing a science he doesn’t understand in the hope that if he stirs up enough doubt, people will cling to his myth rather than all the other myths swirling about in the confusion of his own creation. It’s pathetic. And this is from “one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries”? How sad that would be for philosophy, if it were true.

A Krauss concession

Lawrence Krauss annoyed quite a few people with his jokes about the uselessness of philosophy in recent talks. He has now published an apology — he actually has a qualified dislike of certain kinds of philosophy, that which ignores empirical evidence, but otherwise appreciates the views of many other philosophers.

So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize. I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality. To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.

Conservative self-identifies with single-celled brainless organism

Among my usual flood of daily email, I frequently get tossed onto mailing lists for conservative think tanks. Why? I don’t know. I suspect that it’s for the same reason I also get a lot of gay porn in my email: not because I follow it or asked to be added, but because some tired d-bag with no imagination thinks its funny to dun me with more junk. The joke’s on them, though: I might keep it around and skim the stuff now and then to get inspiration for a blog post, and then click-click — a few presses of a button and I add the source to my junk mail filter, and never see it again.

No, I didn’t get inspired by gay porn today, but by drivel from some freakish conservative think tank called the Witherspoon Institute, about which I know next to nothing except that they’re another of those organizations that cloak themselves in the Holy Founding Fathers of America to promote illiberal non-freethinking anti-government BS. This latest is by a philosopher criticizing a book about modern reproductive biotechnologies. He doesn’t like ’em. Not one bit, no sir.

But you know an essay from a philosopher is going to be pretty much worthless when it opens and closes with references to… C.S. Lewis. I don’t know why that man gets so much happy clappy press from believers. I suspect he must have sold his soul to the devil.

Anyway, the bizarre part is in the middle, where Justin Barnard is poleaxed by the author’s, Steven Potter’s, willingness to destroy human embryos. Potter apparently considers several of the sides of the debate, but fails to come down on the side of the Religious Right, that is, that embryos are absolutely and undeniably full human beings from the instant of fertilization, instead espousing the dreadful notion that the definition of personhood falls into a huge gray area.

Potter’s own attempt to wrestle with the morality of destroying human embryos is philosophically, if not biologically, confused from the start. He begins by claiming that “each egg and sperm has the potential to make a person.” Biologically, this is simply false. Gametes, by themselves, have no intrinsic developmental potential for human personhood. Of course, Potter knows this. So his use of “potential” is likely more latitudinarian. Still, three pages later, Potter describes the zygote as having “remarkable potential.” “It can,” he explains, “turn itself into a person.” Ironically, Potter fails to recognize that this potentialist understanding of human personhood is at odds with his rather surprising admission of the embryological facts. Potter writes, “Of course we all began as a zygote. Everyone does.” What is shocking about this concession is what it so obviously entails–an entailment that seems lost on Potter. If I, the human being I am today, “began as a zygote,” then the zygote that began the-human-being-I-am-today was me–i.e., it was a human person. It was not merely a cell with “remarkable potential” to become me. It was me.

If anyone is confused here, it’s Barnard. Of course each egg and sperm has the potential to form a person, especially when we throw biotechnology into the equation, as the book he’s reviewing explicitly does. We already have techniques to revert and differentiate a sperm cell into an egg. For that matter, given time and research, we’ll be able to reprogram just about any cell into a totipotent state, and clone someone from a cheek swab. Does Mr Barnard regard every cell he sheds as a potential person?

Perhaps he wants to argue that a sperm or egg cell doesn’t have the potential for personhood without a human assist. But then by that limitation the zygote has to be excluded as well — no human zygote can develop to term without the extreme cooperation of another individual. Try it; extract a fertilized egg and set it in a beaker by your nightstand, and wait for a baby to crawl out. Won’t happen. A uterus and attendant physiological and behavioral meat construct, i.e., woman, is also an amazing piece of biotechnology that is a necessary component of the developmental process.

But the real blow to this whole “potential” argument is damaged irreparably by Barnard’s last few sentences — was he going for a reductio here? Is the entire essay an exercise in irony? ‘Cause that dope was dumb.

Yes, Mr Barnard began as a zygote. That does not mean the zygote was Mr Barnard. My car began as a stack of metal ingots and barrels of plastics; that does not imply that an ingot of iron is a car. My house began as a set of blueprints and an idea in an architect’s mind; nobody is going to pay the architect rent for living in his cranium or on a stack of paper in a cabinet. The zygote was not Justin Barnard, unless Justin Barnard is still a vegetating single-celled blob, in which case I’d like to know how he typed his essay.

Since Barnard claims to be a philosopher, I’ll cite another, a guy named Aristotle. This is a quote I use in the classroom when I try to explain to them how epigenesis works, in contrast to preformation. Aristotle did some basic poking around in chicken eggs and in semen, and he noticed something rather obvious—there were no bones in there, nor blood, nor anything meatlike or gristly or brainy. So he made the simple suggestion that they weren’t there.

Why not admit straight away that the semen…is such that out of it blood and flesh can be formed, instead of maintaining that semen is both blood and flesh?

Barnard is making the classic preformationist error of assuming that everything had to be there in the beginning: I am made of bones and blood and flesh and brains and guts and consciousness and self-identity, therefore the zygote must have contained bones and blood and flesh and brains and guts and consciousness and self-identity.

It didn’t.

Why not admit straight away that the zygote is such that out of it selfhood may arise, rather than maintaining that the zygote is the self?

In that case we have to recognize that the person is not present instantaneously at one discrete moment, but emerges gradually over months to years of time, that there were moments when self was not present and other moments when self clearly was present, and moments in between where there is ambiguity or partial identity or otherwise blurry gray boundaries. This is a conclusion that makes conservative ideologues wince and shy away — I think it’s too complicated for their brains, which may in some ways be equivalent to the gormless reflexive metabolic state of the zygote — but it is how science understands the process of development.