That was a long spanking for King Crocoduck

I mentioned before that I got into a conversation with Kevin Logan and Kristi Winters about this painfully narrow video on philosophy of science by another YouTuber, King Crocoduck. It’s patently obvious that KC knows next to nothing on the subject, and is really just desperately rationalizing his hatred of social justice.

The video of our conversation was recently posted. It starts at about 8:20, and goes on for THREE (3) HOURS. I’m sorry. Here, you watch it, I’ve got to trundle a cat down to the vet (ooh, she’s going to hate me, she does not like to go to strange places), and maybe I’ll be back by the time you’re done.

(Note: none of us are philosophers. We should have recruited one to join us.)

’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free ’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be

I’m working on the final exam for my introductory biology course which is laced with Darwinism, but also with the philosophy of science, and early on I’d introduced them to Occam’s Razor. I’d tried to explain to them then that while it’s a useful operational tool in designing appropriate experiments, it’s almost never true that the simplest answer is the correct answer, at least not in biology. And then I stumbled across this article on Simplicity in the Philosophy of Science by Simon Fitzpatrick that summed up that same point nicely.

It should be noted, however, that not all scientists agree that simplicity should be regarded as a legitimate criterion for theory choice. The eminent biologist Francis Crick once complained, “[w]hile Occam’s razor is a useful tool in physics, it can be a very dangerous implement in biology. It is thus very rash to use simplicity and elegance as a guide in biological research” (Crick, 1988, p138). Similarly, here are a group of earth scientists writing in Science:

Many scientists accept and apply [Ockham’s Razor] in their work, even though it is an entirely metaphysical assumption. There is scant empirical evidence that the world is actually simple or that simple accounts are more likely than complex ones to be true. Our commitment to simplicity is largely an inheritance of 17th-century theology. (Oreskes et al, 1994, endnote 25)

Oooh, I’ll have to make a note of that for the next time I argue with an Intelligent Design creationist who thinks complexity is a hallmark of design.

Unfortunately, rummaging around in philosophy articles is not a good way to come up with testable questions for a first year biology course, and I still don’t have a good idea on this topic for the exam. I suppose I could just put that quote on a page and ask them to explain why Crick and Oreskes would say such things, but for the sake of my sanity, I’m avoiding asking for long essays from freshman students. I’m sure my students could handle it, but then I’d have to read 50 such essays, and I don’t think I could.

The Matrixpunk esthetic must die

Sorry, I invented a label. It’s to describe a nonsensical fad that I keep running into. It’s like steampunk: romanticizing the Industrial Revolution by putting gears on your top hat, imagining a world run on the power of steam with gleaming brass fittings, rather than coal miners coughing their lungs out or child labor keeping the textile mills running for 16 hours a day, limbs getting mangled in the machinery. Or cyberpunk, a dark gritty world where cyborgs rule and everyone is plugged into their machines, and the corporations own everything, including those neat eyes you bought. Sticking “-punk” on a term implies to me an unrealistic cultural phenomenon in which everyone adopts a faddish esthetic that they think looks cool, but quickly dies out leaving only a relic population that doesn’t realize how deeply uncool they actually are. Try to live on the bleeding edge, discover that the razor moves on fast leaving you lurking on a crusty blood clot.

So…matrixpunk. One movie comes out in 1999, and everyone is wearing trenchcoats, ooohing at deja vu, and talking about how deep it is that we’re just a simulation (and never mind the losers who are gaga over the red pill/blue pill idea — boy, that one sure drew in a lot of pathetic people). It might have been mind-blowing for a few months a score of years ago, but it’s time to move on and recognize that it’s very silly.

However, one of the core ideas that seems to have suckered in some physicists and philosophers is the simulation crap. As a thought experiment, sure, speculate away…it’s when people get carried away and think it might really, really be true that my hackles rise. Apparently, Sabine Hossenfelder thinks likewise.

According to the simulation hypothesis, everything we experience was coded by an intelligent being, and we are part of that computer code. That we live in some kind of computation in and by itself is not unscientific. For all we currently know, the laws of nature are mathematical, so you could say the universe is really just computing those laws. You may find this terminology a little weird, and I would agree, but it’s not controversial. The controversial bit about the simulation hypothesis is that it assumes there is another level of reality where someone or some thing controls what we believe are the laws of nature, or even interferes with those laws.

The belief in an omniscient being that can interfere with the laws of nature, but for some reason remains hidden from us, is a common element of monotheistic religions. But those who believe in the simulation hypothesis argue they arrived at their belief by reason. The philosopher Nick Boström, for example, claims it’s likely that we live in a computer simulation based on an argument that, in a nutshell, goes like this. If there are a) many civilizations, and these civilizations b) build computers that run simulations of conscious beings, then c) there are many more simulated conscious beings than real ones, so you are likely to live in a simulation.

Elon Musk is among those who have bought into it. He too has said “it’s most likely we’re in a simulation.” And even Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave the simulation hypothesis “better than 50-50 odds” of being correct.

Yeah, it’s a bunch of smart people (and a few hucksters) falling for the hammer-nail appeal. I’ve got a dazzlingly good hammer, or steam engine, or computer, and therefore the world must be made of nails, driven the piston of a very big steam engine, all under the control of a master computer. Or, more familiarly among the crackpots I have to deal with, watches are designed and manufactured, therefore the rabbits on that heath must also have been designed and manufactured. But how do you test your supposition? What would look different if the world did not operate analogously to your familiar technology, but was built on different rules? Why, what would it mean if rabbits lacked a boiler and a gear train in their guts?

Hossenfelder does a fine job of taking the whole idea to task. You should read that, not me, but here’s her conclusion.

And that’s my issue with the simulation hypothesis. Those who believe it make, maybe unknowingly, really big assumptions about what natural laws can be reproduced with computer simulations, and they don’t explain how this is supposed to work. But finding alternative explanations that match all our observations to high precision is really difficult. The simulation hypothesis, therefore, just isn’t a serious scientific argument. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it means you’d have to believe it because you have faith, not because you have logic on your side.

Right. I would add that just because you can calculate the trajectory of an object with a computer doesn’t mean its movement is controlled by a computer. Calculable does not equal calculated. The laws of thermodynamics seem to specify the behavior of atoms, for instance, but that does not imply that there is a computer somewhere chugging away to figure out what that carbon atom ought to do next, and creating virtual instantiations of every particle in the universe.

Also, Nick Bostrom is an ass.

He’s not wrong

MC Hammer (!) had to rebuke one of those anti-philosophy, science-is-all-about-truth types, and he put the hammer down.

“When you measure, include the measurer” is such a good line. He has splattered this @drewgrey character so effectively that he doesn’t even realize how thoroughly crushed his views are.

Right now I’m rethinking parachute pants. You know, they probably are pretty comfortable, and nice and loose for dancing. Could he have been right about them, too?

There’s something obvious missing from this argument…

Andrew Brown does it again, and writes another clueless screed against one of those damned atheist scientists, in this case Harry Kroto. It’s a common sort of objection, that these scientists are all mere logical positivists (or as Brown prefers to label them, “illogical positivists”), and as we all know, the philosophers have rejected logical positivism, therefore he’s wrong. But that’s only because bad philosophers and Andrew Brown only seem able to view scientists through the lens of philosophy, not as scientists, and rather consistently screw up their perceptions in odd ways. It’s like watching poets trying to interpret plumbers, criticizing them on an arcane insistence on patterns and rhythms, not noticing that the plumbers really, really don’t care, and their criteria for accomplishment is that the pipes don’t leak, not whether they fit into a neo-classical archetype or what-the-frack-ever.

So here’s the gist of Brown’s irrelevant complaint:

By the standards of very clever men who believe some very silly things, Harry Kroto is a quite unremarkable scientist. Unlike some other Nobel prize winners, he is not an enthusiastic Nazi, a Stalinist, a eugenicist, or even a believer in ESP. He did play a prominent, and I think disgraceful part in the agitation to have Michael Reiss sacked from a job at the Royal Society for being a priest. But the video of his speech at the Nobel laureates meeting this year in Lindau, Austria, is something else. Much of it is great stuff about working for love, not money; and about the importance of art, but around eight minutes in he goes off the rails. First there is a slide saying (his emphases): “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” Think about this for a moment. Is it a scientific statement? No. Can it therefore be relied on as true? No.

But formal paradoxes have one advantage well known to logicians, which is that you can use them to prove anything, as Kroto proceeds to demonstrate. Or, as he puts it: “Without evidence, anything goes.” Remember, he has just defined truth (or TRUTH) as something that can only be established scientifically. So nothing he says about ethics or intellectual integrity after that need be taken in the least bit seriously. It may be true, but there is no scientific way of knowing this and he doesn’t believe there is any other way of knowing anything reliably.

It is not an auspicious beginning to announce that at least your target isn’t a Nazi, and to bring up a completely irrelevant issue (on which I also disagreed with Kroto); it’s a bit of poisoning the well with a taste of ad hominem. But let’s cut straight to the statement Brown finds objectionable: “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” And there, I disagree with Brown completely: it is an eminently scientific statement. It may make philosophers gack up their breakfast, but who cares?

Science is a process of empirical rationalism that produces testable answers about the nature of the universe. We learn new knowledge, knowledge that actually holds up to critical scrutiny and testing against the real world. The pipes don’t leak — not much, anyway, and we have a method that allows us to test and tighten everything up. And yes, we have evidence that it is true: I can show you a cell phone that uses the principles of quantum physics, I can show you statistics on infant mortality that are improved by vaccinations and antibiotics and hygiene. We have progressively deeper understanding of ourselves and our environment that is produced by this powerful tool.

Science works. That is the criterion for saying it is a way “to determine truth with any degree of reliability.” That is a valid statement, and yes it can be relied on as true, in the scientist’s sense of the word: provisionally and usefully. Both of Brown’s denials were simply wrong.

But there’s another part of Kroto’s statement that bugs Brown, and that he doesn’t really address. This is the missing part of his argument, and the one he fills in by telling us that we were expected to giggle at the claim…the idea that science is the only useful tool we have.

The illogical positivism of Kroto’s talk is symptomatic of a widespread problem. Although Kroto is exceptional in his self-confidence and lack of intellectual self-awareness – few other people would state as baldly as he does that science is the only way to establish the truth – no one in the audience seems to have reacted with a healthy giggle. They may have felt there was something a bit off about the idea, but the full absurdity was veiled by layers of deference and convention. The great attraction of telling everyone else to think, to question, and to take nothing for granted is that it makes a very pleasant substitute for doing these things yourself.

You know, if someone tells me there is only one way of doing something, and I want to show that they’re wrong, the very first thing I think of is to demonstrate an alternative. If someone were to say something truly false and giggleworthy, like for instance, “all cats are black,” what I’d do is go out and find a Siamese and a white Persian and wave them in his face. Isn’t that obvious?

I have often heard apologists wax indignant at statements by scientists that science, that is this kind of objective, constantly tested, empirical rationalism, is the only way to determine the truth of a matter. Usually it’s theologians who want to insist that they have another path. But never do they actually show me something about which we have reliable knowledge that was not determined by observing, measuring, poking, testing, evaluating, verifying…all that stuff that is part of common, mundane science.

So show me something that we reliably know without testing it against consequences in the real world, and then maybe I’ll see the joke here. Of course, if you tell me “love” or “ethics”, the usual answers I get from the clueless, I’ll giggle at you, instead.

Jerry Coyne also has an opinion — we seem to be thinking alike. Also, just like me, he can’t watch the Kroto video either, because the Lindau group insists that we install some awful Microsoft abomination called “silverlight” or something.

The fascinating logic of Cosmic Pluralism

Weird ideas can flourish if enough people share a false preconception, and here’s a marvelous article on the history and philosophy of widely held certainty that other planets were inhabited by people. Not just any people, either: good Christian people.

By the 1700s, there could no longer be any doubt. Earth was just one of many worlds orbiting the Sun, which forced scientists and theologians alike to ponder a tricky question. Would God really have bothered to create empty worlds?

To many thinkers, the answer was an emphatic “no,” and so cosmic pluralism – the idea that every world is inhabited, often including the Sun – was born. And this was no fringe theory. Many of the preeminent astronomers of the 18th and 19th century, including Uranus discoverer Sir William Herschel, believed in it wholeheartedly, as did other legendary thinkers like John Locke and Benjamin Franklin. How could so many geniuses believe in something so silly?

It’s a good read. The key idea that was leading everyone to this patently false conclusion was teleology, the notion that everything in the universe had a purpose, coupled to another belief, that that purpose had to be us.

Lest you think this is just ancient history and that we’ve moved beyond it, here’s a story about a contemporary crank with peculiar ideas about alien life.

Speaking at an international forum dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life, Finkelstein said 10 percent of the known planets circling suns in the galaxy resemble Earth.

If water can be found there, then so can life, he said, adding that aliens would most likely resemble humans with two arms, two legs and a head.

“They may have different color skin, but even we have that,” he said.

Andrei Finkelstein runs a program that resembles SETI — and if I wanted to start a real argument here I’d tell you that SETI is about as quaintly absurd as Herschel’s belief that people lived on the moon. So I won’t tell you that. Yet.

I owe Nicholas Humphrey an apology

When I critized Mary Midgley the other day for her sloppy critique of Nicholas Humphrey, I also pointed out that Humphrey had apparently indulged in some unfortunate hyperbole himself, saying “So successful has it been that many scientists would now say, and even fear, that there will soon be little left for them to do.” Which is patently ridiculous, of course: every scientist I know is painfully aware of all the stuff that they don’t know.

What I didn’t take into account was that Midgley might have quote-mined him. I shouldn’t have underestimated a woman who can discern the entire content of a book from a glance at the title! Humphrey has sent a letter to the Guardian pointing out a few specific problems with Midgley’s article. It hasn’t been published yet, but here it is anyway:

Mary Midgley has been attacking me in the Guardian for twenty five years or more. But her latest piece (Face to Faith, 28th August) takes the biscuit for misrepresentation. She quotes passages from my 1994 book Soul Searching about how science has sometimes claimed to be able to provide “a sufficient explanation for everything”. What she fails to say is that in these passages I was describing how things looked to over-ambitious natural philosophers at the end of the 18th century, and how this set the stage for a romantic reaction and in particular for spiritualism and psychical research.

She goes on to say that, rather than trying to provide a scientific solution to the mind-body problem we should be trying “to understand the relation between our inner and outer life . . . and how to face life as a whole”. If she had been paying attention she might have noticed that in my own more more recent writings, such as Seeing Red (2006), I have begun to argue that the solution to the mind-body problem lies in the very mysteriousness of consciousness and how this changes our world-view. Since she has quoted at such length from a book I wrote 17 years ago, let me answer with these words from the cover of my new book Soul Dust (Quercus, forthcoming): “Humphrey returns to the front-line with a startling new theory. Consciousness, he argues, is nothing less than a magical-mystery show that we stage for ourselves inside our own heads. This self-made show lights up the world for us and makes us feel special and transcendant. Thus consciousness paves the way for spirituality, and allows us, as human beings, to reap the rewards, and anxieties, of living in what Humphrey calls the ‘soul niche’.”

I’m making a mental note to treat everything I see coming from Midgley with even more doubt and cynicism in the future.

An interesting thread tangent

The indefatigable Kurzweil threads do occasionally spawn some interesting discussion, and the latest has gone down a few odd byways thanks to this comment by Cerberus:

Creating a robotic brain to “download your consciousness” into or the “I’ll make a clone version of myself with all my memories” sci-fi fiction immortality ideas are kinda false immortalities.

It’s at best, assuming a complete successful procedure a process of ending one’s consciousness so that a puppet version of yourself can emulate your life possibly for all eternity.

Great, but what does that do for real you?

Real you is just as dead and gone and unable to be a part of and appreciate what your puppet is doing in its absence. I’m sure this has been repeatedly addressed in the various thread wars during my absence, but it seems kind of stupid.

I’d love to extend lifespans, I’d love to live forever if that was possible, but as long as we’re talking fantasies, asking for the power to fart sparkly flying unicorns seems less stupid than asking for a robot facsimile to live forever on your behalf.

I mean, if you’re going to be all cult about this, pick something that wouldn’t be completely contrary to your intended desire if you got it.

I would imagine that any ‘brain scan’ (the currently hypothesized method du jour for turning an organic brain into a digital analog in a computer) that broke it down to a sufficiently complete description of the whole state of the brain, would have to be destructive — you’d have to submit yourself to an imaginary technology that would rapidly peel you apart, molecule by molecule, to create a precisely specified copy. That’s death. That’s being disintegrated.

Now if there were a complementary technology that allowed a complete reassembly of a previously recorded state into a physical form, that would be interesting, and I’d argue that the perceived continuity of consciousness would mean you’d be disintegrated and reintegrated, and there’d be no perception of death, but there’d be no point to it unless it were used as some kind of transporter device ala Star Trek, or a way to store a person long term without the corpsicle problem.

But then, Star Trek always let me down — if they could do that, they should have made a few dozen copies of Captain Kirk and sent them out to conquer the universe.

Then there are all the followup concerns about identity and self in a world of cloned minds. I like the classic SMBC answer that ends with this punch line:


It isn’t an exclusionary filter, it’s a standard of quality

In my week long visit to Ireland, I only had one encounter that left a bad taste in my mouth. Everyone I talked to was forthright and willing to state their views clearly, even if I thought they were dead wrong and rather stupid (my radio interview with Tom McGurk comes to mind — he was an unpleasant person more interested in barking loudly than having a conversation, but his views were plain), and most of my conversations were fun and interesting. The one exception was with a creationist in Belfast.

After my talk, this one furtive fellow who hadn’t had the nerve, apparently, to ask me anything in the public Q&A, came down front to confront me with his, errm, ‘irrefutable’ argument, which came straight from Answers in Genesis. I later learned that he’s one of the leaders of a creationist organization on campus.

He first declared that creationists and evolutionists all use the same evidence, we just differ in our presuppositions. AiG makes this claim all the time, and it’s complete nonsense. The creationists deny almost all of the evidence, using their catch-all excuse: if it contradicts the Bible, it is false. It’s not just a difference in starting premises, but a willingness on the part of the faith-based crowd to stick their fingers in their ears and shout “LA-LA-LA” at the majority of the reality-based evidence.

The only way to call it merely a difference in presuppositions is if they’re willing to admit that their fundamental presupposition is an unthinking obtusity.

That was just his prelude, though. His real goal was to try and trap me. He asked me if I admitted that the scientific position demands that we reject all alternative explanations — whether we can consider supernatural causes. I’ve thought about this before, and I told him no. I am willing to consider other possibilities, if someone provides a useful, testable, confirmable means for evaluating truth claims.

Then I asked him what alternative method to science he was suggesting.

He didn’t give me one — he simply announced with a grin that he was just confirming that I automatically rejected alternative explanations, and as I repeated my simple statement, that no, I did not, but that he was obligated to explain what his alternative might be — after all, I reject tarot cards and entrails-reading as methods for interpreting the world, and it’s a bit silly to pretend that I should have blanket acceptance of just any alternative method without telling me what it is — he thanked me for confirming his opinion and the sneaky little git scuttled away.

That’s what I detest most. Lying weasels who won’t listen honestly, and especially won’t even speak honestly.

Anyway, what brought up this recollection was an interesting post on Sandwalk on methodological naturalism. It nicely points out that there is a convention in the scientific community that treats methodological naturalism as a straitjacket that arbitrarily binds us. I don’t think that’s true at all.

The principle of MN is often conceived of as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science, as something that is part and parcel of the scientific enterprise by definition. According to this view (Intrinsic MN or IMN) – which is defended by people like Eugenie Scott, Michael Ruse and Robert Pennock and has been adopted in the ruling of Judge John E. Jones III in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case – science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and therefore has no authority on the issue. It is clear that this depiction of science and MN offers some perspectives for reconciling science and religion. Not surprisingly, IMN is often embraced by those sympathetic to religion, or by those who wish to alleviate the sometimes heated opposition between the two.

However, we will argue that this view of MN does not offer a sound rationale for the rejection of supernatural explanations. Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded commitment of scientists to naturalistic causes and explanations, which is in principle revocable by future scientific findings (Qualified MN or QMN). In this view, MN is justified as a methodological guideline by virtue of the dividends of naturalistic explanation and the consistent failure of supernatural explanations in the history of science.

I think science is primarily a pragmatic approach that takes whatever tools work to build a better (as evaluated by testing against real-world observations) understanding of how the universe works. My major objection to creationism isn’t that it violates a set of dogmatic rules established by scientists playing a formal game, but that it provides no working alternative that I can use. The creationists mistake a series of assertions about history for a bank of operational methods for creating and answering new questions about the world.

Exclusion isn’t quite the right word for what we’re doing. Science’s job is to fill up the silos of the world with the grain of useful information, and we’ve found that applying the principles of the scientific method and operating under the guidelines of methodological naturalism means we’re productive: we can keep trundling up with wagonloads of corn and wheat and rice. The creationists are showing up with broken-down, essentially empty carts, containing nothing but chaff, a few dirt clods, and some fragrant manure, and they’re being turned away because they have nothing to contribute. You’re not being excluded if you have nothing to offer.

I imagine that Belfast creationist went back to his clique of ignorant pissants with a sense of triumph, and proudly announced that I had dogmaticly refused to include his offering of hot air and dust as nutritious and fit for a feast, and therefore was yet another tool of the establishment who unfairly discriminated against their way of knowing. Sorry, guy; a wealth of ignorance is no substitute for even a grain of knowledge.

Oh, cool: somebody standing there actually recorded the conversation in question.