01 September 2014

Bruce Gerencser disappeared again

So, there's that.

I've always thought Bruce was a really nice guy and an insightful writer, and I don't pretend to have the full scoop on his health problems or personal and familial issues, but I just know that as someone following his writing this is pretty disappointing. He'll blog for a while, get plenty of great content up, then disappear. It's happened enough times that it can safely be called a pattern, and I'm not sure why. Bruce, my friend, I wish you the best.

Metaphysical bigotry

In researching the previous post, I came across an old post by Ed Feser, the arguments in which I've heard parroted many times by amateur Thomists but one I'd never read directly from the mouth (or keyboard, as it were) of the sacred leader of modern Thomism himself. My gut reaction to Thomism has always been twofold: one, that it's really just an elaborate, semantically convoluted way of trying to defend the indefensible — of trying to 'prove' the existence of the Judeo-Christian god. And two, that it's really just an excuse to perpetuate bigoted and antiquated ideologies about human behavior. If you ask someone what Thomistic metaphysics have contributed to science and human progress, you'll likely get a blank stare.

In any case, Feser brings out the old antiquated canard about things having 'natures' — sophisticated-sounding shorthand for "that's how God intended it to be" — as a means to argue that things like contraception and homosexuality are bad. Let's get to the meat of it. First of all, what does this guy mean by "nature" anyway?
Everyone knows that it is in the nature of grass to require water and sunlight but not too much heat, and that for that reason it is good for grass to be watered and well lit and bad for it to lack water and sunlight or to be exposed to great heat. Everyone knows that is in the nature of a tree to require soil into which it can sink its roots and from which it can draw water and nutrients, and thus that it is good for a tree so to sink them and bad for it if it is somehow prevented from doing so. Everyone knows that it is in the nature of a squirrel to gather nuts and the like and to dart about in a way that will make it difficult for predators to catch it, and thus good for it to do these things and bad for it if for whatever reason it fails to do them. The natures of these things entail certain ends the realization of which constitutes their flourishing as the kinds of things they are. 
Feser makes it clear that he's not talking about nature in the sense of how the natural world works, but in the sense of things having a quality that, when realized, allows natural things to flourish.
... a squirrel’s being born without a leg or a tree’s having weak roots constitute failures to realize the ends that define the flourishing of these sorts of thing, and thus are failures fully to realize a thing’s nature. That is why we call them defects in a thing.
This is where the slippery semantic slope starts to take hold. Yes, we know what a healthy animal or plant must have in order to flourish optimally. We also recognize when things hamper that flourishing. But we have to be careful in conceding that this is because things have some invisible 'nature' that permeates their being, because there's no reason to think such a thing exists. Feser, of course, is operating from the view that God made everything and did so with the intention that everything should, ideally, be a certain way. Ignoring for a moment the innumerable problems with the messiness of the natural world, it's sufficient to say that we can broadly agree that things have an optimal and less optimal way of flourishing.

Of course, that also depends on how we define 'flourishing' in the first place — anyone who's kept up with Sam Harris' musings on morality knows how contentious the term can be. With humans, the issue is especially complicated, as Feser himself seems to recognize:
Now where human beings are concerned, to know in detail what our nature determines to be good for us would require a careful analysis of each of our various faculties and capacities -- reason, speech, labor, sex, and so forth.
We have to excuse Feser's dubious use of the phrase "what our nature determines to be good for us". Because not only is it not evident that we have such a 'nature' in the first place, but it's also not evident that following its supposed precepts is objectively better for us given the contentious nature of what constitutes human flourishing. Anyway, Feser doesn't waste much time in getting to the ultra-conservative position of the Catholic church:
when [natural law theorists] say that contraception is bad, they don’t mean that it’s bad because it involves the use of pills, or mechanical devices, or man-made substances like rubber. They mean that it positively frustrates the natural ends of the sexual faculties (or at least partially frustrates them, since it is not denied that sex is naturally oriented toward bonding the spouses, expressing affection, and the like, as well as toward procreation).
The use of the term "frustrates the natural ends" is particularly weird. Frustration is a human construct. Feser is cavalierly using the term to describe what he perceives as the divinely imbued ideal of human flourishing not being realized.

Hand gestures may frustrate the ends of human sexuality
But while reproduction is certainly a normal and healthy part of being human, it's not evident that it's necessary for the flourishing of individuals. For the perpetuation of human existence, obviously, but that seems tangential
because merely existing strikes me as a necessary but not sufficient criteria for 'flourishing'. Presumably, flourishing has a deeper meaning about the depth of human experience, and if there's anything that's obvious it's that procreation is not an experience that is universally valued among human beings. There are many who neither need nor want it, who are perfectly content to live out their lives without having children. Should they feel guilty because blowhards like Feser are accusing them of "frustrating the natural ends" of their humanity, as though humanity itself is some deeper property we all have that is trying to realize itself through our existence?

One could quite easily make the argument, using Feser's own idiosyncratic terminology, that procreation in many ways frustrates the natural end of a great many other deep and significant human experiences. Kids are expensive and time consuming. Couples have less time for each other, for friends, for travel, for careers, for charity, etc. How do we determine which of those many components of the human experience constitute optimal human flourishing?  What is the proper balance of experience here? And why is sacrificing certain human experiences better or worse? And again, who decides? Feser?

Nature and those pesky gays

Remember again that Feser is an ultra-conservative Catholic. He despises abortion and homosexuality. He lauds the banning of gay marriage. Why? Because homosexuality, according to him, "frustrates the natural ends" of human sexuality — y'know, reproduction. But while sex clearly evolved for reproduction, the same human flourishing dilemma rears its head here. Homosexuality is, as far as we know, epigenetic. That means, in a nutshell, that people don't choose to be gay. Just as I didn't wake up one day and decide I would get a boner when I laid eyes on an 80s issue of Playboy, gay people don't wake up and decide they're going to be sexually aroused by the same sex. So if anything, given that homosexuality is epigenetically determined, suppressing one's gay desires to fake their way through a heterosexual relationship could be construed, according to Feser's view, as frustrating the ends of that person's sexuality.

Now, maybe Feser would simply say that homosexuality, like his example of the tree with weak roots, is a defect. Sex evolved for reproduction, so when someone has some genetic or epigenetic disposition that causes them to feel repulsion toward intimacy with the opposite sex, it could be considered a type of anomaly or defect. Desmond Morris would call it a mal-imprint — a behavior that evolved for survival and reproduction being directed toward something that doesn't further survival and reproduction. But even if we take that rather clinical view, it doesn't follow that this anomaly hampers human flourishing — again because human flourishing is not so rigidly defined as Feser would like it to be.

While sex might have evolved for reproduction, it's obviously become much more than that not just to us humans, but to our primate cousins as well, like the bonobos who use sex (including gay sex) to resolve conflict and strengthen inter-group bonds. It's worth noting that Feser follows up his "frustrate the natural ends" comment with this:
(or at least partially frustrates them, since it is not denied that sex is naturally oriented toward bonding the spouses, expressing affection, and the like, as well as toward procreation)
There's the rub (no pun intended). Who is to say which of those qualities of sex should be most valued? In a world increasingly plagued by overpopulation, reproduction must be controlled. Contraception is vital to the long-term flourishing of the human species, because the planet cannot sustain indefinite population growth. And since sex has all these other deep and important qualities that we value even as we necessarily reign in population growth, are we rationally obligated to yield to Feser's view that reproduction is somehow the most natural or most important of these qualities? Of course not. The aspects of sexual intimacy to be most valued is not a matter of objective inquiry, but a subjective matter to be decided among consenting adults. If adults choose to sacrifice reproduction in order to more greatly realizing bonding and affection, how are they deficient? If they choose to reproduce and thus have less time to use sex for bonding and affection, are they objectively better or worse off, objectively flourishing more or less?

Feser's inanity isn't even internally coherent. His own views are self-defeating, and that's if we grant him the charity of adopting his convoluted metaphysical lexicon, which we're under no obligation to do. Things don't have 'natures' that get 'frustrated' if they don't 'achieve their ends'. That's just some bullshit that, like most things theologians yammer on about, Feser just made up to retroactively justify an ultra-conservative, narrow-minded and antiquated world view. And am I the only one who notices the irony of a conservative Catholic lecturing people on sexual frustration?

Essences, natures, and identies, oh my!

Ed Feser, uber-Catholic conservative philosopher extraordinaire, recommends a book by a chap named David Oderberg called Real Essentialism, in which the author argues that 'essences', 'natures', and 'identities' are literally real properties of things. The book's been recommended to me in several of my discussions with Christians who view themselves as 'Thomists', though I'm confident that given the $118 price tag, most if not all of those people are just recommending it because Ed Feser recommends it and not because they've actually been bothered to read it. But while I maintain a strict policy of "I'll read the book you're recommending if you buy it for me or loan it to me", its central thesis — that those supposedly 'metaphysical' properties are literally real, existing independently of the human mind — is a central point of contention in my many conversations with Thomists.

It can be difficult to debate Thomists, precisely because they adopt a highly esoteric lexicon and apparently idiosyncratic definitions of their key terms that are not always obvious. For example, a Thomist might tell you that you cannot so much as think about a thing without thinking about its identity — the very thing which allows us to distinguish one thing from another. And surely, we all agree that our brains can and do require us to categorize things and make distinctions between them in order to coherently think about them. But what the interlocutor may miss is that the Thomist is saying more than that — the Thomist is claiming not just that our brains organize patterns into discrete categories and objects, but that objects have, independently of the brain, the property of identity.

This is a subtle but critical distinction. Because surely, again, we all agree that if tomorrow all humans were wiped off the face of the Earth, cats (for example) would still be cats — that is, they would retain the amalgam of physical properties that our brains categorize as simply "cats", even there wouldn't be anyone around to say, "Hey, that's a cat!" But does it follow, then, that cats have a property of identity that makes them cats?

The silliness of such a proposition can possibly be illuminated by looking at things in evolutionary terms. Let's take a mountain. Mountains are formed, if I remember grade school geology correctly, when massive tectonic plates press against each other, forcing the earth to slowly rise over eons. I wonder how the Thomist might think about this, then — at what point does the earth have the property of identity of a mountain, versus just being a really big hill or a giant pile of rocks? If we were to watch a computer simulation of mountain formation, sped up so something like Everest formed in a few minutes, would the Thomist be able to pause the video at the exact right moment and say "There! Now it has the property of identity of a mountain!" Where might this property of identity have come from? Did it evolve from some lower-order property, or did God just put it there?

This line of thinking extends to other terms integral to the Thomistic view, like essence and nature. From my reading, the distinction between identity and essence seems a bit fuzzy, but to use the example of the cat again, we can say that the 'essence of cat' is whatever it is that makes it a cat. A cat has some sort of 'catness' — its material form and the properties that arise from that material form. Try to wrap your head around this convoluted explanation:
The essence of material substances is composed of substantial form and prime matter. Substantial form is the source of the specific identity or identity as a species, as a human being, as a dog, etc. Prime matter is pure potentiality to be specified, determined, activated by the form. It is the principle of individuation: it multiplies the form and accounts for diversity within the unity of the form or species by receiving and restricting the form to “this” material subject–the possibilities of the species are not exhausted by an individual. For example, “humanity”is  multiplied into “many human individuals” by matter.
This illustrates why conversing with Thomists is often confusing; the term 'prime matter' here is not being used to refer to 'matter' in the physical sense (that's the 'substantial form', or the 'form' — a cat, in this instance — that the substance takes). The IEP clarifies it a bit:
If we think of matter as without any form, we come to the notion of prime matter, and this is a type of matter that is totally unformed, pure materiality itself
This is the point when any rational person should want to say Whoa, hold up. "Pure materiality"? "Matter that is totally unformed"? What does that even mean? Suffice to say that no person has ever observed unformed matter. The IEP goes on to explain... sort of:
prime matter, as pure potency, cannot in fact express any concrete mode of being, since as pure potency is does not exist except as potency. Thus, prime matter is not a thing actually existing, since it has no principle of act rendering it actually existing.
Here we get to the central confusion that Thomists trip over — they inadvertently blur the distinction between conceptual abstractions and literally real objects. By the description here in IEP, 'prime matter' by definition doesn't exist; it's just an abstraction of the concept of matter. And yet somehow, on the Thomistic view, this 'pure potentiality', which doesn't actually exist, is somehow able to be acted upon — specified, determined, and activated by the 'form' of things that do exist. To which I have only one reaction:

How does something non-existent interact with existent things, or vice versa? Well, that's a whole other pile of confusion because, according to the Thomist, existence is just a property that something does or doesn't have. The SEP clarifies:
While [material substances] exist, their existing is not what they are. Thomas accepts from Boethius that it is self-evident that what a thing is and its existing differ (diversum est esse et id quod est).
Yes, they differ, in our minds. In reality, things cannot have properties if they do not exist, and things especially cannot interact with other things or be acted upon if they do not exist. Cognitive abstractions do not have properties, but abstractions of properties. This is how we know, for example, that unicorns are imaginary and not real. Unicorns don't have the property of being equines, of having horns, of being able to traverse rainbows, etc., because unicorns are fucking imaginary. Rather, unicorns have the conceptual properties of being equines, having horns, etc.

And that's the rub with Thomism. Thomists take things like identity, essence, nature, 'prime matter' and potentiality to be literally real properties of the external world, independently of human minds. But at every turn, we can see that we have no reason whatsoever to think that any of these 'metaphysical' properties are anything more than conceptual constructs. There's no reason for us to think that the concept of "cat" is anything more than a useful categorization of our brains for a particular arrangement of matter; we have no reason to think that there exists any such a thing as the identity, essence, or nature of a cat independently of our minds. 

To reiterate, this is of course not to say that cats don't have distinct properties, or that cats would cease to be cats if humans suddenly disappeared. But we can reject the Thomistic metaphysical gobbledygook on the principle of parsimony — the notion that cats have a distinct, non-physical property of 'catness' (their 'essence'), for example, is completely superfluous to our understanding and description of what a cat is. We can have a fully accurate, useful description of the animal simply by recognizing it as an amalgam of physical properties which our brains categorize in a particular way, and nothing more. There is no need to postulate any extra non-physical or 'metaphysical' properties to understand what a cat is, why it behaves as it does, or what it evolved from. Since the assumption of the existence of such things is not essential to our description or understanding of cats, we can discard it. We don't even have to demonstrate its falsity — i.e., somehow 'disprove' the existence of those metaphysical properties — we can simply discard them as superfluous and thus meaningless.

In fact, the whole proposition of metaphysical properties just complicates our understanding of the physical world. We know, for example, that the domestic dog evolved from wild wolves. Yes, even Binky the Pekingese is an evolutionary descendent of the mighty wolf, and even science-denying IDers and creationists will not dispute this fact. So at what point does the 'essence of wolf' become 'essence of domestic dog'? This was a gradual process, taking tens of thousands of years as wolves lived on the edges of human settlements; more docile wolves were artificially selected by humans and, over the millennia, became the companion dogs we know and love today. Where does the essence of one species end, and the other begin? How do these essences and substances interact with one another, particularly if they are (in the case of prime matter) non-existent? At what point does a population of wolves take on the metaphysical property of 'dogness'? None of this terminology illuminates anything at all about what these creatures are or the process of evolution itself; it unnecessarily complicates the issue by layering on superfluous and unjustified assumptions.

Aquinas, and his forebearer Aristotle, did not know about the evolution of species nor about the eons over which the earth slowly changed. They had no concept of quantum superposition or indeterminacy. The idea of emergent properties was foreign to them. They seemed to think that something was either this or that, clearly and completely distinct and precisely the way God made it to be. Similarly, they did not understand the mind like we do today; they did not understand that concepts are neural structures in the brain, and not necessarily representative of actual things. And that is why their metaphysical musings are irrelevant; they were a failed science, an ambitious but hopelessly hamstrung attempt to make sense of the world around them and, more importantly, backwards-rationalize the existence of the God they assumed exists. But we no longer have any reason to take their claims about reality seriously, much less take seriously any conclusions about the divine that they hoped to gleam from their metaphysics. Thomism can go to the dustbin, with the rest of metaphysics.

21 August 2014

On the meaning of life

Steven Jake had a post over at his blog The Christian Agnostic in which he quotes Thom Stark in an exchange with John Loftus on the nature of faith and the meaning of life. You can read the full post at Steven's blog, but my comment ended up being long enough that I thought I'd just repost it here.

And, just to shamelessly plug myself a bit, I discussed these issues not long ago in a post On death and dying.


Why is the alleviation of human suffering the right thing to do? If the universe is a cosmic accident (and it may very well be just that), I can’t figure out why human beings should have impetus to behave morally, other than when it helps us to preserve ourselves or our species or to make us happier in some way. When morality conflicts with self-preservation or self-gratification, I just don’t know why morality should win out. [Stark]

I confess that even in my days as a Christian, this type of view (which is pretty standard boilerplate for religion, in my estimation) didn't make much sense to me.What difference does it make whether the universe has some grand cosmic purpose? How does that change what I find meaningful in my life or what my moral imperatives are?

My life is meaningful to me in large part because it is so rare and special, an infinitesimal spec of space and time in an incomprehensibly vast universe that is almost entirely a lifeless void, one that contains more black holes than it does humans that have ever existed. Whatever this life of mine is, one thing's for sure – it is mine to live. Regardless of how I live my life, I'll almost certainly be soon forgotten, and the universe will continue on without me, just as it got along fine without me for billions of years prior to my brief existence. If there is some grand cosmic meaning, it's certainly well-hidden beneath our utter cosmic insignificance.

So, I have this time to make of my life what I can. I can try to live a good life, to enjoy life's pleasures great and small, to learn and grow, to pick myself up when I stumble. I can enjoy a twilight walk with my fiance, or wrestle with our new puppy, lose myself in guitar for hours, or expand my mind with literature or science. The world is at my fingertips waiting to be experienced and discovered, and that is enough for me. I don't need to be told I'm a special snowflake, that all this was put here with me in mind. I make my life's meaning for myself.

Why be good, then? Because I do not exist in a vacuum. I am an interdependent conscious creature living in a cooperative social hierarchy. I do not have the luxury of moral autonomy, because my actions impact the well-being of others and because, as we all are, I'm dependent on the cooperation of others for my own needs. I'll never meet the farmer whose crops have fed me or the people who logged the wood that built my house, but I can recognize that if I don't wish to respect others' needs and interests, others have no reason to respect my own. And again, that is enough for me. I do not need to be told there are eternal consequences for my actions, because I can see the consequences of them in the here and now. How many cheating spouses never felt the joy of truly loving and trusting their partner? How many oppressed and marginalized people could have been great leaders, doctors, teachers, or innovators?

To me, the finality of death or the relative brevity of my existence is not depressing; what's depressing is the thought that this life is not good enough. There can't just be the wondrous universe — there must be gods and angels and magic, too. There can't just be this life — there must be something more, something that never ends, in which I'm free from failure, from the pain and losses that have allowed me to grow and appreciate the time I have, from new beginnings and from bittersweet endings. It's like a book that never ends, or the perfect crescendo of a piece of music that goes on forever. Those things are meaningful to us precisely because they are so fleeting and precious. I don't need or want eternal life. I don't need or want the promise of eternal reward or the pithy threat of eternal torment. My life is meaningful to me because it's all I have.

The irony is that Thom seems to recognize this in his last paragraph. If there is some grand cosmic purpose to our existence, no one seems to have it figured out. Sure, some people claim they have, but really all they've done is declare meaning for themselves. So whether you believe, as I do, that death is the end and life is what we make of it, or that we are reaching for some elusive transcendent purpose that will outlive our Earthly bodies and indeed the universe itself, we're all ultimately forced to do the same thing — find meaning for ourselves. I suppose where I part ways with Thom is his phrase "and hope we get it right". I don't believe there is a "right way" for us to exist. There are better ways and worse ways, but only we can decide what is right for us both individually and collectively. I neither need nor care whether I "get it right", beyond the simplest interpretation of the phrase — that I've spent my life sharing in happiness with others, that I've appreciated the beauty and wonder of the universe, that I've done my small part to make the world a better place for the many others who are like me in our shared humanity, and that when I go, I go smiling back on a life well-lived.

You know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain! - Captain Kirk

There's a movie coming out about Stephen Hawking, and it looks fabulous

I enjoyed 2009's Creation, about Charles Darwin, quite a bit. And now another renown and influential scientist is being graced with a biopic that, by the looks of it, could end up being pretty damn good.

18 August 2014

Thoughts on the Ice Bucket Challenge

ALS is a nasty disease. Two people I greatly admire — Stephen Hawking and Jason Becker — have lived with the disease for many years. To most, it's not so kind. Years ago I trained a group of young people whose job it was to care for a wealthy man in his 50s who had ALS. I once asked one of the nurses if she thought she could live with the disease, and she bluntly said, "I would rather die".

If you're not familiar with the heavily viral "Ice Bucket Challenge", the gist is that someone gets a bucket of ice water dumped over them, pledges to donate to help ALS research, and then 'tags' several friends to repeat the challenge. Given its focus on social networking and its novelty, it's been hugely successful in raising money for ALS research. That's a good thing, right?

Yes and no. Raising money to fund treatment for a nasty disease is certainly a good thing. But as William MacAskill – a researcher in moral philosophy at Cambridge – pointed out, there's a problem of 'funding cannibalism'. He notes,
Because people on average are limited in how much they’re willing to donate to good causes, if someone donates $100 to the ALS Association, he or she will likely donate less to other charities.
It's also worth noting that in most of the videos I've seen, no reference is made to whom a charitable donation is supposed to be given, and I'd be willing to be that plenty of people participated without making any donations just for the nebulous effect of "raising awareness". Raising awareness about ALS accomplishes little without action and, more importantly, long-term commitment.

I'm not in with the cynical crowd who asks, "What does dumping a bucket of ice water over your head have to do with ALS?", because the answer is, "About as much as running a 5k has to do with breast cancer." Lots of charities create novelty events to raise money, but as MacAskill argues, this isn't a good long-term solution:
[...] competitive fundraising ultimately destroys value for the social sector as a whole. We should not reward people for minor acts of altruism, when they could have done so much more, because doing so creates a culture where the correct response to the existence of preventable death and suffering is to give some pocket change.
[...] Rather than making a small donation to a charity you’ve barely heard of, you could make a commitment to find out which charities are most cost-effective, and to set up an ongoing commitment to those charities that you conclude do the most good with your donations. Or you could publicly pledge to give a proportion of your income.
These would be meaningful behavior changes: they would be structural changes to how you live your life; and you could express them as the first step towards making altruism part of your identity. No doubt that, if we ran such campaigns, the number of people who would do these actions would be smaller, but in the long term the total impact would be far larger.

For my part, I generally decline solicitations to give to charity as I already sponsor a charity I think is important, and my donations are budgeted out of my regular income. That's not to say I can't forgo a dinner out for a one-off donation to a good cause, but I generally dislike doing that for the same reason – my charitable donations are budgeted, so if I gave every time I was solicited it'd cut into my regular charity budget.

The Ice Bucket Challenge has raised over $10 million for ALS research, and that's a good thing, but we should all take a moment to consider longer-term commitments to causes we find meaningful.

13 August 2014

The militarization of police is one of the most important civil rights issues America has ever faced

There's an old saying that when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So what happens when, despite violent crime being at a 44-year low, the Department of Defense is allowing local law enforcement agencies to acquire its surplus tactical armament? The answer is precisely what happened in Ferguson, MO — police confronted unarmed protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas while brandishing body armor and assault rifles based on the M-4 Carbine. This is a picture of police in Ferguson, from a poignant article in Business Insider:

One could be forgiven for thinking that these men do not look at all like American police officers. Indeed were it not for the "Police" sticker slapped on the front of their body armor, they could be mistaken for any arbitrary paramilitary force. Give police a soldier's armament, and you'll convince them that they are soldiers. And if they're urban soldiers, the streets become their battlefield, and everyone looks like a potential enemy combatant.

This isn't some idle, slippery-slope conjecture; it's happening. Heavily armed border police have killed 19 Mexicans for the crime of throwing rocks. The ACLU has documented seven people being killed, and 47 being injured, by unnecessary SWAT raids which, as John Stossel notes, are now being used primarily to arrest nonviolent drug offenders, with a big margin for error:
SWAT raids are dangerous, and things often go wrong. People may shoot at the police if they mistake the cops for ordinary criminals and pick up guns to defend their homes against invasion. Sometimes cops kill the frightened homeowner who raises a gun.
Stossel also argues, rightly, that this affects all of us — not just, as some conservatives would like us to believe, people behaving badly:
It took only [90 minutes] for authorities to deem [comedian Joe Lipari] a threat and authorize a raid by a dozen armed men. Yet, says Lipari, "if they took 90 seconds to Google me, they would have seen I'm teaching a yoga class in an hour, that I had a comedy show."
Lipari has no police record. If he is a threat, so are you.
But while this affects us all, in the wake of Michael Brown's death it's become clear how critical an issue this is for minorities in America. The aforementioned ACLU report found that minority communities were disproportionately targeted for these violent raids. In a sobering article for The Concourse, Greg Howard contrasts the violence against young black Americans with the hullabaloo over "open carry" laws championed by white ultra-conservatives:
There are reasons why white gun's rights activists can walk into a Chipotle restaurant with assault rifles and be seen as gauche nuisances while unarmed black men are killed for reaching for their wallets or cell phones, or carrying children's toys.
Our Constitution guarantees us the right to peaceably assemble, and the freedom of the press. This week in Ferguson, peaceful protesters and journalists alike were pelted with rubber bullets and tear gas by paramilitary police. The freedom of the press, in particular, exists to protect the interests of civilians by forcing transparency of the state. When journalists are threatened with arrest and assaulted by police, there is no one to hold police accountable for questionable actions they may take against civilians.

With surplus military gear still pouring into police departments, this trend is unlikely to change any time soon unless we stand against it. What can we do? We can call our elected officials, and partner with the ACLU. And just for the hell of it, I went ahead and created a petition at Whitehouse.gov, which you can sign here.

12 August 2014

Dan Dennett and William Lane Craig on the decline of the church

It's pure coincidence that these were released around the same time, but they both provide unique perspectives on the decline of the Christian church here in the West.

Dan Dennett: "Can churches survive the new transparency?"

William Lane Craig: "Reasons youth are leaving the church" (podcast)

11 August 2014

Update on current projects

You know how, in the past, I've said that I'm working a book (or several)? Well, I'm working on two, and they're coming along briskly. One is simply a sort of "best of", which will be called Confessions of an A-Unicornist. I've picked, with your help, my best work from the past 4½ years of this blog and I'm organizing it by topic and slightly editing the posts for flow. I honestly have no idea when it will be done, but I'm making a point to work on it a little bit every day.

The other book is on a topic that's been on my mind a lot lately, and I don't want to let out too many spoilers here but I think it's a topic that all intellectually engaged non-believers will find themselves reflecting on sooner or later. It's my primary writing project right now, which is why the blogging has been slow and will likely continue to be. It's one of those projects that started out as a very short book, but research into the subject has greatly deepened my thoughts on it.

As for the blog itself, if I can get some good content up here once a week, I'll be satisfied. Right now I want to keep focusing primarily on the books, and get 'em done! I haven't decided yet how I'll go about publishing, but one thing's for sure: they'll be dirt cheap.

09 August 2014

A brain on a chip?

In Star Trek: Voyager, the titular spaceship had computers that ran on "bio-neural circuitry" stored in gel packs. Like human bodies, the bio-neural circuity was prone to viral infection and, in one episode, is treated with a makeshift "fever" created by an "inverted warp field", because Star Trek.

How far-fetched is the idea? As it turns out, not very. Scientists at IBM have developed a chip that mimics the neural structure of a brain. Wired explains:
In a [conventional] von Neumann computer, the storage and handling of data is divvied up between the machine’s main memory and its central processing unit. To do their work, computers carry out a set of instructions, or programs, sequentially by shuttling data from memory (where it’s stored) to the CPU (where it’s crunched). Because the memory and CPU are separated, data needs to be transferred constantly.
Neuromorphic chips developed by IBM and a handful of others don’t separate the data-storage and data-crunching parts of the computer. Instead, they pack the memory, computation and communication parts into little modules that process information locally but can communicate with each other easily and quickly. This, IBM researchers say, resembles the circuits found in the brain, where the separation of computation and storage isn’t as cut and dry, and it’s what buys the thing added energy efficiency—arguably the chip’s best selling point to date.
It's an interesting concept, and as the New York Times notes, it is both power-efficient and capable of massive parallel processing:
The chip contains 5.4 billion transistors, yet draws just 70 milliwatts of power. By contrast, modern Intel processors in today’s personal computers and data centers may have 1.4 billion transistors and consume far more power — 35 to 140 watts.
Today’s conventional microprocessors and graphics processors are capable of performing billions of mathematical operations a second, yet the new chip system clock makes its calculations barely a thousand times a second. But because of the vast number of circuits working in parallel, it is still capable of performing 46 billion operations a second per watt of energy consumed, according to IBM researchers.
Large-scale applications are still a long ways off, and unlike brains and conventional computers, the new chips can't learn. So maybe we're a ways off from supercomputers bearing any resemblance to the human brain. And these new chips are a good many steps away from the Voyager computers because they just mimic an aspect of brain structure — they don't actually contain organic matter.

Still, it's kinda cool to think about. Yann LeCun, a researcher in the field, is skeptical:
“This avenue of research is not going to pan out for quite a while, if ever. They may get neural net accelerator chips in their smartphones soonish, but these chips won’t look at all like the IBM chip. They will look more like modified GPUs.”
So, like, Assassin's Creed Unity in 4k resolution on my gaming PC? I guess that'll hold me over until we build some starships.