Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Understanding Evolution, the Daniel Dennett Way

From Daniel C. Dennett's:
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

I'm sure he does it just as well other places, it is actually kind of fun the way he drops this whole well crafted paragraph completely parenthetically at the bottom of page 120:

(Evolution it's all about processes that almost never happened. Every birth in every lineage is a potential speciation event, but speciation almost never happens, not once in a million births. Mutation in DNA almost never happens--not once in a trillion copyings-- but evolution depends on it. Take the set of infrequent accidents--things that almost never happen--and sort them into the happy accidents, the neutral accidents, and the fatal accidents; amplify the effects of the happy accidents--which happens automatically when you have replication and competition--and you get evolution.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Evolution and reverence for Scientists

The other night while I was bathing my two small children my six year old little girl start telling her five year old little brother: "we were once monkeys." I chimed in with the typical parental correction "we were never monkeys, humans share a common ancestor with monkeys." Correcting any six year old is problematic, they are on the cusp of knowing everything and corrections just get in the way. A small intellectual scuffle ensues:

Girl6: Yes we were monkeys
Daddy: Its OK sweetheart lots of adults get that wrong, it is a tricky thing
Girl6: I'm not wrong!
Daddy: Everyone is wrong sometime, nobody knows everything...
Boy5: Scientists know everything!
Daddy: (in his best sweet Daddy voice), Oh no.... The first thing scientists have to do is figure out what they don't know so they will know what to research. And then when they think they know something they write papers and books and create experiments for their friends to check and see if they got it right.

I would have gone on here, but I have noticed that bath time lectures on the philosophy of science are best if kept short. I think it settled in a bit, won't know for sure until later. Meanwhile Jimmy Neutron and his cartoon ilk keeps confusing "science" with magic and technology. Don't know where we would be without Bill Nye the science guy.

I have a constant worry that we really should be teaching the philosophy of science first, and then facts and wonder and awe at what we have been able to learn using the method later (see my previous language rant post). Sort of like teaching children to admire calligraphy and bookbinding before teaching them to read.


Monday, July 02, 2007

Substitution phrases for "Science" and "Energy"

This is a language rant, but I hope to be concise:

Two of the most consistently abused words I see are "Science" and "Energy". I propose when you encounter these words in conversation or the media just substitute the phrases below and see if it still makes sense:

Science: "Fallible individuals interacting in an evaluating community"

Energy: "The ability to do work"


Note: the science substitution was pulled from an audible.com book I recently listened to:
William James, Charles Peirce, and American Pragmatism by James Campbell

Note: The energy substitution was suggested in the podcast quoted below:

From: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4002

Energy is a measurement of some thing's ability to perform work. Given this context, when spiritualists talk about your body's energy fields, they're really saying nothing that's even remotely meaningful. Yet this kind of talk has become so pervasive in our society that the vast majority of Americans accept that energy exists as a self-contained force, floating around in glowing clouds, and can be commanded by spiritualist adepts to do just about anything.

Doubt, the Navy, and Anna Karenina

I'm always interested in the history of my doubt, and I'm usually startled to discover reminders that it has been with me a long while. I just found this quote (slightly different translation) that I had copied into a journal in 1986 while I was on my western pacific cruise on board the Truxun (note: I was the only one reading Anna Karenina, I refused to read The Hunt for Red October while I was actually in the Navy).

Anna Karenina - Chapter 8

... he had been stricken with horror, not so much of death, as of life, without any knowledge of whence, and why, and how, and what it was. The physical organization, its decay, the indestructibility of matter, the law of the conservation of energy, evolution, were the words which usurped the place of his old belief. These words and the ideas associated with them were very well for intellectual purposes. But for life they yielded nothing, and Levin felt suddenly like a man who has changed his warm fur cloak for a muslin garment, and going for the first time into the frost is immediately convinced, not by reason, but by his whole nature that he is as good as naked, and that he must infallibly perish miserably.

(that was all I copied into the journal, seems to me it gets better a few paragraphs on)

The question was summed up for him thus: "If I do not accept the answers Christianity gives to the problems of my life, what answers do I accept?" And in the whole arsenal of his convictions, so far from finding any satisfactory answers, he was utterly unable to find anything at all like an answer. He was in the position of a man seeking food in toy-shops and tool shops.

Never forget the importance of asking the right questions. Asking: "What is the Meaning of Life?" presupposes that there is something outside of you generating and attaching this meaning to your life. Isn't a better question: "What purpose shall I give to this moment, what meaning shall I give to my life?"


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Problems and Mysteries

The debate about whether God is real misses the true nature of the question. Here’s why.

By Marc Gellman

The French existentialist Gabriel Marcel in his book "The Mystery of Being" helpfully distinguished between two types of questions: problems and mysteries. Problems are questions about things outside of us that we lay siege to. When we answer them correctly they go away forever.
Mysteries are not questions we constitute (those are problems). Mysteries are, according to Marcel, questions within which we ourselves are constituted. Mysteries are not problems that have not yet been answered.

I think this is just word play. Historically we have often thought we were constituted of different "mysteries" that turned out to be "problems" after all. Belief in a god or the supernatural is the same sort of thing. The question isn't "Is there a God?" the proper question is "Why do we think gods (or ghosts, or ESP) are real?"

Time to start reading Dan Dennett's:
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Do you have any idea what archetypal narratives are?

Perhaps a bit harsh, but the character on the receiving end of this tirade had really been asking for it:
They're the product of a few chance attractors in flesher neurophysiology. Whenever a more complex or subtle story was disseminated through an oral culture, it would eventually degenerate into an archetypal narrative. Once writing was invented, they were only ever created deliberately by fleshers who failed to understand what they were. If all of antiquity's greatest statues had been dropped into a glacier, they would have been reduced to a predictable spectrum of spheroidal pebbles by now; that does not make the spheroidal pebble the pinnacle of the artform. What you've created is not only devoid of truth, it's devoid of aesthetic merit.
From: "The Planck Dive" by Greg Egan

Gibberish does not improve the view

I like the way humor makes the point so well.

From: "The Planck Dive" by Greg Egan

Timon regarded her nervously. “Prospero was rambling on about flesher culture as the route to all knowledge.” He morphed into a perfect imitation, and replayed Prospero's voice: “‘The key to astronomy lies in the study of the great Egyptian astrologers, and the heart of mathematics is revealed in the rituals of the Pythagorean mystics … ’”

Gisela put her face in her hands; she would have been hard-pressed not to respond herself. “And you said — ?”

“I told him that if he was ever embodied in a space-suit, floating among the stars, he ought to try sneezing on the face plate to improve the view.”

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Reading Greg Egan

This is not the only great passage out of Mr. Egan's collection, just one in keeping with my theme for this blog:
We thought we were passing on everything that mattered to our children; science, history, literature, art. Vast libraries of information lay at their fingertips. But we hadn't fought hard enough to pass on the hardest-won truth of all: Morality comes only from within. Meaning comes only from within. Outside our own skulls, the universe is indifferent.
-- From Greg Egan's short story Silver Fire collected in Luminous


We know that Penn reads Dawkins

I was just noticing the similarities (below), I wonder if the connection is as clear to other people. Since right before this phrase Penn is talking about his family, it might seem like he is evaluating his good genetic health, and that of his children, instead of the improbability of his own existence:
I won the huge genetic lottery
-- from There Is No God

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
-- Richard Dawkins from Unweaving the Rainbow


I think Penn is more succinct, and Dawkins is more detailed and poetic at the same time. I think both are needed.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

At least she didn't post a picture of me :-)

indexed: A meeting at midnight? Where?

Very close to home!

This is a brilliant blog (I think she just got a book deal). One of the last things Penn Jillette brought to our attention before packing up the radio show.


My Logo

Just fooling around with blogging pictures.

Posted by Picasa

Penn has left my head

I miss him already.

Penn Jillette closed down his radio show (always a podcast for me). I cannot express how important it was for me to listen to Penn scream "There is NO GOD!" at the top of his voice.
I was well on the path to becoming vocal materialist by this time, but I was alway looking over my shoulder, to see Penn running ahead with such unbridled joy made me look forward.
He always brought a smile to my face, made me think, and warmed my heart, even when I could not agree with him.

I'm pretty sure I'm sad, still too soon to tell. I had a sense it was coming. I'm afraid watching Identity will be no replacement at all.

As a random example of the quality of Penn's discourse, I recently transcribed this quote from a show that aired a few days ago:

"You aren't supposed to deliberately misrepresent the world to your fellow human beings."
-- Penn Jillette (www.pennradio.com 2/28/2007 (26 min into the podcast version))

I hope someone with greater skill than I (and more time on their hands) puts together a few CDs with the "Best of Penn Radio". Clearly we would need "Penn Troubled by Frosty" and MANY others. I think I have them all either in my iPod or on backup DVD. Many if not all are still online somewhere.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Why do Philosophy?

I just hit on a metaphor and had to share it. Since I am not in any way a professional philosopher (and never shall be) this question of what I'm doing reading philosophy in the first place has occurred more than once. Part of the confusion is the tendency to identify with the author (who usually is a professional philosopher). It is hard to admire someone and not in some way confuse your goals with theirs.

Suddenly while getting ready for a party it occurred to me. I'm rearranging my mental furniture. Perhaps a deeper metaphor will become visible once I get the chairs against the wall? Maybe there will be enough room to dance?


Currently reading John Searle's: Mind, Language, and Society : Philosophy in the Real World

And always influenced by Ayn Rand's essay: Philosophy, Who Needs It

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Problem Solving and Memory

One of Nietzsche's Maxims has been in my notebook for a long while:
"Many a man fails to become a thinker for the sole reason that his memory is too good."
It is one of those sayings that means different things depending on recent history and what you are pondering at the moment (I think I originally captured this quote as a defense for a friend's poor long suffering husband's oft maligned memory).

For years (decades?) I have been accumulating plans and ideas for class on problem solving I will most likely never teach (I think it is the decades part that is most telling). As I accumulated articles on Scientific Method and lists of logical fallacies I gradually realized that all this thinking is not the way 99% of the problems in the world are solved. Most problems are solved by people with good memories. They don't need to think their way through a problem, they just remember how it was solved last time. And with the books and internet to give us access to what other people remember solving, bigger problems can be solved (there is another way for that thought to go, something about we don't have to think as much, but I like the bigger problems angle).

I don't think this is particularly profound, but it does point the way for future planning. Teach more of HOW to think and let the student decide WHAT to think about.

I'm starting to understand that I can think with my fingers, and the pressure of finishing up an entry can help crystallize an idea, but all that does not make it a gem.....


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Daniel Dennett Breaking the Spell with Bill Moyers

Charlie Rose - Guest Host Bill Moyers with philosopher Daniel Dennett

57 min 3 sec - Apr 3, 2006

Description: Guest host Bill Moyers talks to philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. Dennett is the director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. His latest book is “Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”.

If you're having trouble watching the video, try copying the following URL into your browser:

Friday, January 12, 2007

The nature of consciousness -- Logic vs. Pattern Recognition -- Spooky?

This is a good interview and typifies the sort of material that started me questioning dualism and got me to think more logically about the nature of consciousness (there is also a lot of reading I did on logical fallacies and critical thinking in general [more on that in another post]).

From the NPQ interview with Professor Gerald Edelman on Neural Darwinism:
I do not believe consciousness arises from spooky forces. I don’t believe in some Cartesian dualistic domain that is inaccessible to science. The brain is embodied and the body is embedded in its environment. That trio must operate in an integrated way. You can’t separate the activity and development of the brain from the environment or the body.
A religious friend of mine was surprisingly upset at the use of the word "spooky". I'm afraid I cannot excuse the usage or back away from that term. I think "spooky" is exactly the right term.

When I look back in my personal history to satisfy my friend's interest in what event triggered my "loss" of religion or my anger at god (since there are no gods how can I be angry at an idea with no basis in reality?), I find nothing to satisfy this assumption of an event. Like most things in my life the current state of my mind and beliefs were gradually acquired and gradually changed. Never much drama. However, I do remember being afraid. I remember fear of the supernatural and religious prophcy. From the ridiculous childhood fear that the rapture would come before the weekend trip to Disneyland, to the more teenage fear of what might be around the next corner (reading the "Amityville Horror" while working alone in a Radio Shack at night). All of it a bit, "spooky".

My current rejection of dualism has freed me from all this worry. The only residual I feel is from books and movies, where the skeptic is always the one who is killed by the thing they disbelieve. Somewhat like this fun little scene from the movie Lady in the Water:
Why you're not a dog at all. My god, this is like a moment from a horror movie. This is precisely the moment where the mutation or beast will attempt to kill an unlikable side character. But, in stories where there has been no prior cursing, violence, nudity or death, such as in a family film, the unlikable character will escape his encounter, and be referenced later in the story, having learned valuable lessons. He may even be given a humorous moment to allow the audience to feel good about him. This is where I turn to run. You will leap for me, I will shut the door, and you will land a fraction of a second too late.
[Turns to run, and is killed by the scrunt]
OK, so the character was a movie critic and not a skeptic. And clearly M. Night Shyamalan was making a slightly different point/joke, but still, I'm going to be more careful suspending my disbelief in the future.


Note: I first got excited by Professor Gerald Edelman's ideas after I heard him on the Berkeley Groks Podcast - Science of Consciousness
.. the brain is not in fact a digital computer. That the brain is in fact something that evolution has put together in terms of an incredible circuitry, which is capable of carrying out pattern recognition rather than logic. Of course, it can carry out logic in civilization after you train a person who has higher order consciousness. But, it’s not a logic machine first and foremost. It’s a pattern recognition device, and it has not been engineered it has been developed by natural selection.
I remember where I was in the car when I heard this. Pounded the steering wheel and shouted "YES!" This makes real sense, perhaps it is the computer nerd in me.

I'm finally getting around to reading his book: Wider than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The whole Religion as Metaphor thing

I have long heard "Religion is just a metaphor" (mostly from fans of Joseph Campbell). I have never been happy with it as an answer. So I thought I would try some thinking with my fingers to see if I can clarify my objections. As per usual the Wikipedia gives us a great jumping off point:

A root metaphor is the underlying association that shapes an individual's understanding of a situation. Examples would be understanding life as a dangerous journey, seeing life as a hard test, or thinking of life as a good party. A root metaphor is different from the previous types of metaphor in that it is not necessarily an explicit device in language, but a fundamental, often unconscious, assumption.

Religion provides one common source of root metaphors, since birth, marriage, death and other universal life experiences can convey a very different meaning to different people, based on their level or type of religious conditioning or otherwise. For example, some religions see life as a single arrow pointing toward a future endpoint. Others see it as part of an endlessly repeating cycle.
This seems to be the sense of metaphor we are concerned with.

As I see it calling religion a metaphor is another way to obscure the quest for knowledge and understanding.
"Jung says religion is a defense against the experience of god. I say our religions are." -- Joseph Campbell - Mythic Reflections
The problem is not getting religion out of the way so we can experience god. The problem is assuming there is a god to be experienced. The best plan is to solve the mysteries not just experience them.

However, the multiplicity of gods and religions is a very good teaching point. It does show that the ideas get confused somewhere. The error is to assume we are confused about something that is really there. Lots of people once thought disease was caused by spirits, now we know better. Dressing up the god of the gaps in lots of different metaphors does not make the idea more plausible.


Still a little rough, but it is late (not like anyone reads my stuff :-)