31 October 2010

Psychic powers proved by research! Also, man flies on unicorn!

Jerry Coyne, over at his blog Why Evolution Is True, mentions the imminent publication of a study that purports to demonstrate evidence for precognition:
A respected peer-reviewed journal in psychology, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is about to publish a paper that presents scientific evidence for precognition.  The paper, by Daryl Bem of Cornell University, is called Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect,” and you can download a preprint on his webpage.  I’ve scanned the paper only briefly, and am posting about it in hopes that some of you will read it carefully and provide analyses, either here or elsewhere.
The paper purports to show that a choice that you make in a computer test can be influenced by stimuli you receive after you’ve already made the choice.  This implies you have some way, consciously or unconsciously, of detecting things that haven’t yet happened.

Ken Pulliam: In memoriam

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden loss of Dr. Ken Pulliam, who died today at the age of 50. He was an expert in theology, a keen skeptic, and an inspiration for much of my own writing. His blog was one of the first blogs of its type I found, and to this day one of the best. I've seen few who had such a thorough grasp on the often obscure minutiae of Christian theology. His knowledge allowed him to deconstruct and debunk Christianity thoroughly and incisively. My heartfelt condolences to his family in this time of grief. You'll be missed, Ken.

Ken's blog: Why I De-Converted From Evangelical Christianity 

28 October 2010

Michael Egnor (badly) answers his own quesitons

Michael Egnor over at the horribly misnamed "Discovery Institute" answered his own questions. Shockingly (can you feel the sarcasm?), he didn't allow comments on his own blog, which leaves me to believe he's not that interested in what atheists actually think. I answered his questions in the previous post, so now I just want to bat out quick* replies to the assault on logic that he's passing for answers.

26 October 2010

Michael Egnor's "8 Questions Atheists Must Answer"

Via Larry Moran at Sandwalk and Tristan D. Vick at Advocatus Atheist, I've caught wind of Michael Egnor of the *shudder* Discovery Institute posing eight questions to atheists. He says he's doing this to get a better sense of what atheists actually believe. I don't really buy that – I think, like most of these kinds of things, they're supposed to be profound questions that can only be answered with an argument from ignorance – "Golly, I can't explain that, therefor God must have done it! I'm converted!" So, because I'm a team player, I'm gonna take a stab at them.

23 October 2010

What good are philosophers?

Stephen Hawking made a rather contentious – some might say hyperbolic – statement in The Grand Design: he said, "philosophy is dead." Of course, this rattled the feathers of a great many philosophers, who subsequently accused Hawking of hypocrisy given that, shortly after making this statement, he adopts a curiously philosophical position of model-dependent realism.

I could be wrong about what exactly Hawking meant, but I think I get what he was saying, and I think he's right. I've never really been that impressed with philosophy in general; it seems like a hodgepodge of masturbatory tautologies masquerading as insight, generally undertaken by crotchety old men who probably need more constructive hobbies. Hell, we should have "National Give a Philosopher a Tuba Day", and I suspect the atonal racket that would follow would be more aurally pleasant than the inane babble of pseudo-intellectualism that pervades the field.

22 October 2010

Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design" – the review, part 5

M-Theory


String theory is considered by most physicists to be the best, if not the only, candidate for a theory that reconciles General Relativity with quantum mechanics. It's more than a little controversial, though, as it still remains completely untested. It is a grand idea, and one that seems very likely to be correct. But much remains to be decided.

String theory faced a bit of a hurdle in its early development – it seemed to be not one, but five different theories. But further research revealed that these were not distinct theories, but overlapping theories that explained the same phenomena. (If you're curious about the details, I highly recommend Brian Greene's Elegant Universe.) These five theories, together, are called M-Theory. It's such a ridiculously complex theory that it's still incomplete. In some theories, the answers to complex equations are approximations; in M-Theory, many of the equations themselves are approximations.

21 October 2010

Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design" – the review, part 4

In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking discussed in some detail his "No Boundary" proposal, which models a universe that has no beginning or end. He mentions the No Boundary model in The Grand Design, but refrains from explaining just how it works. I suppose he felt that would be somewhat redundant, and contrary to the goals of the book which, at under 200 pages with many illustrations, is designed merely to give a conceptual overview of modern physics without getting much into the mechanisms of the theories themselves.

So to finish this review, I want to talk a bit about what the No Boundary model is, what M-Theory is, and why they're compelling ideas. But I should first reiterate that contrary to many criticisms leveled at Hawking, he does not posit these models as rigorously proved facts, but rather possible answers to the biggest questions. It's important to understand why this is sufficient for Hawking to realize his aim of removing theological guesswork from our understanding of the universe, which I'll discuss in the final part of the review.

Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design" – the review, part 3

You can't throw a rock at a theistic philosopher without hitting an argument about how the universe was designed for us. You've likely heard it before: the physical laws and constants are just right for us; our planet orbits just the right sized star at just the right distance. The universe is even just the right age for us to exist, as it has existed long enough for early stars to cook light elements into heavy elements before exploding in supernovae that spread their enriched guts across the galaxies, allowing planets and carbon-based life to form – but not long enough for stars' fuel to be used up, leading to a cold and empty universe. It certainly seems miraculous.

But is it really all that miraculous? There's an old probability argument that uses the analogy of a deck of cards. If you shuffle a deck of cards, the probability of any certain order is something like 1 in 10^60 (I forget the exact number, so don't quote me – but it's astronomically improbable). But we don't think of it as a miracle every time we shuffle a deck of cards, because we knew that some order had to arise.

20 October 2010

Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design" – the review, part 2

After early chapters that espouse "model-dependent realism", The Grand Design starts doing what virtually every popular science book on physics does: it gives a brief history of physics, and explains the fundamental concepts behind Newtonian physics, Einstein's theories of Special and General Relativity, and quantum theories. It then discusses the unresolved issues plaguing modern physics, and provides a somewhat disappointingly brief overview (for me, because I'm a dork) of String Theory, and its current form in M-Theory – a network of overlapping theories.

The overview is as good as any I've seen, though I feel that Brain Greene did a bit better job explaining the weirdness of quantum mechanics and the unsolved problems it faces in his book on String Theory, The Elegant Universe. But I still learned a few new things from Hawking's description and perspective, and I find that to be the case in general with books on physics: only by reading the same ideas from different perspectives does the counter-intuitive nature of quantum physics really begin to gel.

Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design" – the review, part 1

I've been wanting to talk about Stephen Hawking's newest book for a while now, but I wasn't quite sure how to go about it. So after a few minutes of deep thought and staring blankly into space, I've settled on tackling it in small sections. I want to hit on the major key concepts of the book as well as discuss some of the theistic rebuttals to it, but I just feel like doing one huge blog would be tedious for both myself and you, my totally awesome readers. Both of you! I want something you can digest in a few minutes, not something you have to devote an afternoon to reading. So in part one, I just want to give an overview of the central concepts of the book.

But first, a quick disclaimer: there's nothing really new in this book. And it's not intended to be all that new. It's really a pretty light read compared to something like Warped Passages by Lisa Randall, which is some 450 pages of tiny text and no pictures. The Grand Design is much shorter, filled with illustrations, and essentially just gives a conceptual overview of developments in physics. It may be a bit of a disappointing read to someone who keeps abreast of developments in science, although Hawking's perspective is certainly fascinating in its own right. But at its core, this is a popular science book meant to bring some heady concepts to the most broad audience possible. And being that Hawking posits that the God hypothesis is scientifically obsolete and that philosophy is dead, he's undoubtedly rattling the feathers of stodgy academics and theologians. 

19 October 2010

The "Vibrant Dance of Faith and Science" conference

In case you haven't already sold your possessions to buy your tickets and book a hotel room and buy all the books by all the speakers so you could get plenty of autographs, there's this big Christian event happening next week called the Vibrant Dance of Science and Faith conference. The fact that it's sponsored by the creationist loons at the Discovery Institute along with the fudge-rational-inquiry-with-superstition guys over at BioLogos should tell you everything you need to know, but the speaker list is quite a doozy as well – it includes notable crackpots Steven Meyer and Dinesh D'Souza, among other creationists and whackjobs.

The tagline of this event is "How science supports Christianity and Christianity explains science". Ethnocentric hogwash like that really grinds my gears. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's read this blog... well, ever, that I hold the same position as folks like Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, and popular bloggers Hemant Mehta and Jen McCreight: I think that science and religion are inherently in conflict and ultimately irreconcilable. Science does not support faith, and faith does not support science. Sure, a lot of non-believers think we ought to play nice, lest we alienate believers who might be allies with us on important issues like evolution. And to an extent, I do agree – we don't need to rail against religion all the time. There are times when we'd do better to cool off a bit. Keeping Biblical creationism out of public schools and ensuring a rigorous science-based education is vastly more important than our more general quarrels with religious faith, and we ought to seek common ground where we can. We can be idealists sometimes, but we have to be pragmatists sometimes too.

But that doesn't mean we should keep silent about the clash between religion and faith. Exercises in foolishness like this comedically inane conference ought to be rigorously and harshly criticized. We cannot afford to sit idly by while people muddy the lines between science and superstition. We should at least, I dunno, blog about it.

Defining atheism, and why I can't believe anyone takes William Lane Craig seriously

If you follow him on YouTube (you should) or visit the various atheist/non-believer blogs, you've probably seen QualiaSoup's excellent new video "Lack of belief in gods". He describes what exactly it means to be an atheist and addresses some common objections to the position that atheism is indeed a lack of belief in a god or gods and not, as many believers seem to insist, a positive assertion that a god or gods does not or cannot exist.

One of the objections he addresses is the idea that even animals lack a belief in gods, so it's not a valid statement of (non)belief. I saw that and just thought it was ridiculous. I mean really, I thought, who would be stupid enough to use that as an argument?

I'll tell you who: William Lane Craig, the popular Christian apologist. I'm not sure if he's behind the "drcraigvideos" channel on YouTube, but like most Christian channels it has ratings and comments disabled. You wouldn't want people, you know, talking about this stuff. Anyway, in the video (link here) he really actually does make this comparison of a "lack of belief in gods" to the conscious state of animals.

Craig disappoints me time after time with his circular reasoning, his smug condescension of non-believers, and his hubris in which he presumes to be a trustworthy expert on subjects on which he has not a modicum of formal education such as evolution and cosmology. Still, some Christians eat this stuff up.

Atheism is a lack of belief in a god or gods. It is not a "lack of belief in God", because to capitalize that "G" makes the presumption that we're talking about this specific god or that specific god. It should go without saying that when we define atheism as such, we are talking about a position held by adult human beings. We don't talk about animals or infants having a "lack of belief in gods" because we recognize that they lack the cognitive capacity to form a rational judgment. When we talk about adult human beings holding to a lack of belief in gods, we are recognizing that their position is derived from a process of observation and critical analysis, and that for an adult human being to hold a lack of belief in gods is quite a different thing than for an infant or an animal to hold a lack of belief in gods.

There is also a distinction between the statement "I do not believe in a god or gods" versus "A god or gods does not or cannot exist". Craig can often be found in these circumstances to accuse atheists of not really being atheists at all, but agnostics.  But as QualiaSoup so perfectly articulated, agnosticism is not a theologically independent position, like some sort of middle ground between atheism and theism. It is not "I don't know" or "I'm not sure". Agnosticism is a belief about the nature of knowledge: it states that nothing can truly be known. You can be an atheist or a Christian and still be agnostic. In fact, I think the vast majority of Christians would identify with agnosticism since for most, belief is not a position of knowledge derived from evidence but rather taken as a matter of faith – few would claim that God's existence can be known.

I think part of the reason why William Lane Craig is more or less the butt of never ending jokes in the atheist community is because he fails to understand these basic concepts. Instead of engaging atheists on the terms they are talking about atheism, he asserts his own definition of atheism and then spends all his time rebutting his own straw man. Richard Dawkins has a chapter in The God Delusion about the non-existence of God. It's not called, Why God Doesn't Exist. It's called, Why God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist. That's an important distinction, and one that Craig and other believers of his ilk would do well to absorb if they wish to have a legitimate dialogue with non-believers. Unfortunately, I think Craig's aim is not a legitimate dialogue at all, but a showcase of smug condescension and hubris.

If the labels really put the dialogue at that much of an impasse, perhaps we ought to just do away with them. After all, with something like sixteen major branches of theology and over 30,000 denominations, I don't learn much about someone's beliefs when they tell me they are a "Christian". Perhaps instead of engaging what we think a label ought to convey, we should address what people are actually saying about their beliefs.

15 October 2010

On the fakeness of cyberspace

I recently caught an interview with Trent Reznor, in which he discussed the movie The Social Network and shared his thoughts on Facebook:
If you’re presenting yourself as false and you’re meeting people through the internet who are also portraying themselves not as they really are... I guess I’m just coming from an older school of: when you met people you met them. Whether you spoke to them on person or talked on the phone, when you interact with them it would be a real person and not some avatar of themselves.
I think we'd all agree that when we interact over the internet, we're acting through an avatar; the internet allows us to be more selective about how we express ourselves, and what we choose to put on display isn't always the most accurate representation of our intimate selves.

What I don't agree with is the notion that this is really any different than any other kind of social persona. We're rarely, if ever, our "true selves" in the sense that we lay bare all our flaws and insecurities. We usually reserve that kind of honestly for a select few, such as family, closely trusted friends, and romantic partners. We wear a persona in every social interaction we engage in, and we carefully monitor which aspects of ourselves we ought to reveal to which people in which situations.

There's actually a clinical term for this: self-monitoring:
Self-monitoring is a contribution to the psychology of personality, proposed by Mark Snyder in 1974. The theory refers to the process through which people regulate their own behavior in order to "look good" so that they will be perceived by others in a favorable manner. It distinguishes between high self-monitors, who monitor their behavior to fit different situations, and low self-monitors, who are more cross-situationally consistent. [Wikipedia]
What this means is that some people are exceptionally skilled at putting their "best foot forward" in a large array of dissimilar situations – they can tailor their behavior to better suit a given social encounter; others, the "low self-monitors", appear to have a more consistent social identity essentially because they are unable to adapt to different situations.

I reject the idea that there is one true "self" that defines who we are. For socially adept individuals, the aspects of themselves they choose to emphasize vary greatly depending on the situation. The personas we display on the internet aren't really any different than the innumerable other masks we wear. Who's to say which "self" we present is the "true" one?

11 October 2010

I have no life

I've got tons of stuff I've been wanting to blog about lately, but I have to honest: I'm totally absorbed in Civilization V. I'd never played a Civ game before – I've been a PC gamer for about four years, but I'm more of a bloody shooter or epic role-playing game kind of guy – but I've already put in more than 60 hours on Civilization V. I don't feel completely useless though, because since the game can be played with just the mouse, I'll sit there doing monotonous legato drills on my guitar while I click away.

One of the cool little things in Civ V is that you accrue "culture" points, which are spent on various "trees" like liberty, tradition, commerce, etc., giving your civilization various bonuses. What's awesome is that there is a culture bonus tree for "piety", and another for "rationalism". The kicker? You can't have both at the same time. Piety is available much earlier in the game (rationalism is a Renaissance-era culture bonus), and if you choose to go for rationalism, you lose your piety bonuses and spend a few turns in anarchy. Love it!

If a bunch of video game developers can get it right, why can't, I dunno, William Lane Craig?

03 October 2010

If we can't observe it, is it science?

Thanks to Bud over at Dead-Logic, I was treated to this absolutely horrible video on the scientific method by a guy who runs a podcast called "What You Ought To Know":



Now, if you don't know why this video is so appallingly awful, it's time for a crash course on what science is and how it works, because this guy doesn't have a clue.

As many people do, he confuses the colloquial definitions of "facts" and "theories" with the technical uses of the terms. To many people, a fact is something we know with absolute certainty; a theory is just sort of a guess or a hypothesis about how something might work. But that's not how it works in science.

In science, "facts" are the raw data – the massive amount of information that we can observe. A theory attempts to explain why we observe what we do. A sound scientific theory is testable – specifically, it is falsifiable. The easiest thing to do is just give an example, and I'll use the Big Bang since the clown in the video implies that it's conjectural and unscientific.

How do we know the Big Bang actually happened when no one was there to observe it? It started when Edwin Hubble observed that all the distant galaxies in space are moving away from us at an exponential rate (as determined by their redshift), and that this is the case no matter what direction we look. If space is expanding, then everything must have been closer together in the past. This is extrapolated back to a state of extreme density – when the entire universe would be unimaginably tiny. So, how do we know this is true? I mean, it seems logical to infer that everything got smaller, but we don't know that, right? Maybe the universe was at a fixed size for a long time, and something caused it to begin expanding.

It's at this point I'll digress, and borrow a page from Stephen Hawking's new book The Grand Design. We don't really know what reality is. It sounds odd, but it's true. Imagine that you were a goldfish, living in a goldfish bowl. Your perspective would be affected by the curvature of the bowl; however, assuming you were a superintelligent goldfish, you could construct mathematical models to describe and predict the movement of objects outside the bowl. Your model of reality would be perfectly valid. So the big question is... how do we know we're not in our own proverbial goldfish bowl? Why should we assume that our immediate perspective of reality is the absolutely correct one? If you've ever read anything about general relativity or quantum mechanics, you know that there are many things about the world that are counter-intuitive because they clash with our immediate frame of reference – but they are true nonetheless. Since we don't have some objective knowledge of what reality is, what we do is construct models that agree with observation and can make predictions about what we should see.

And that's how the Big Bang, and all of science, works. The Big Bang is a model that is meant to explain why the universe is expanding. Going back in time to a state of extreme density has a lot of mathematical implications. We can test the Big Bang in a couple of ways, then: we can ask what the implications are for modern observation, and we can test the behavior of subatomic particles in large particle accelerators to see if they corroborate our hypotheses about how the very early universe (far less than one second old and thus subatomic in size) would have behaved. The biggest evidence for the Big Bang came with the COBE Satellite that was designed to detect the afterglow of the Big Bang, the cosmic microwave background radiation. Scientists working on the Big Bang had for many years calculated that if the Big Bang model were correct, we should not only observe this radiation, but it should have a particular pattern of anisotropy – nonuniformities dependent on direction. And sure enough when the satellite gazed out in the deep reaches of space, it not only confirmed the existence of the cosmic microwave background, but also showed that it has the exact kind of anisotropy scientists had predicted.

And that is how all science works. We observe facts all the time, but facts are nothing but mundane data. We have to develop models that explain why we observe the facts that we do, and we can test those models by seeing if they not only account for what we observe immediately, but can make accurate predictions about what we'll observe next. Evolutionary theory is similar; the goofbag in the video apparently thinks it's unscientific because it happened in the past, thus nobody can observe it. But we know evolutionary theory is correct because it makes a litany of falsifiable predictions about what we'll observe – patterns in the distribution of species, the location of fossils of a certain geological age, variations and adaptations at the genetic level, etc. There are innumerable instances in all of these cases where the theory of evolution could have been falsified, but instead it was corroborated. 

But what about something more conjectural like String Theory and all its implications like parallel universes and 11-dimensional space? Is that scientific, or just a metaphysical grab at straws? Einstein's theory of General Relativity explains how gravity – one of the four forces of nature – works at very large scales, affecting the movement of stars, galaxies, and particles of light. Quantum theory explains how the other three forces of nature – the strong and weak nuclear forces, and the electromagnetic force – work, which we discover at subatomic scales. Quantum gravity only becomes significant at the plank scale (see the "tiny" link above), which is far too small for us to probe with modern particle accelerators. Scientists have for many decades been searching for a "theory of everything" – one theory that can accurately explain all four forces of nature at all scales. Most modern cosmologists regard String Theory, or its more evolved parent M-theory, to be the current best candidate for a theory of everything. String Theory, like anything other scientific theory, is a model, and like all models it must ultimately make falsifiable predictions. But mathematically, string theory resolves so many of the problems of modern physics that it is a very exciting prospect for future exploration. The problem is that some of the predictions String Theory makes are ones we lack the technology to test (the LHC at CERN may take us a step closer if it can confirm the existence of supersymmetry, one of the predictions of string theory), and it's so complex that not only are the answers to many of the equations mere approximations, but many of the equations themselves are approximations – meaning that as a model, it still needs more development. But I've certainly never heard any string theorist come out and suggest that we know with any certainty whether it is correct.

Science is so much more than the mere facts we can observe day to day. It's a set of tools for explaining reality, for making sense of the world around us. It not only describes what we know, but attempts to answer why we know what we know. It explains the facts we observe by developing models that not only account for the raw data we can observe, but make accurate predictions about future observations. That is what science is, and that is something "you ought to know".