Sunday, August 26, 2012

To Professor Roughgarden

Professor Roughgarden, the participatory experience you praise as the true meaning of religion (as opposed to superstitious faith,) includes far more than you will admit.

It includes the Sunday segregation hour.

It includes the religious schools that don't just get around segregation laws but teach creationism as science.

It includes the megachurches whose missions in Africa exorcise demons and support politicians who legislate punishment for immoral people.

It includes fraudulent Christian counseling for individuals and families, purporting to help but in fact pushing their reactionary morality.

It includes teaching parents to reject their gay children.

It includes teaching ignorant people that Palestine belongs to the Jews instead of the Palestinians.

It includes teaching that America is Chosen.

It teaches that God is not just an American Patriot but a Conservative, if not even a registered Republican.

It teaches that human nature is not just sinful but immutably sinful and that only God can change things for the better.

It teaches that the world will end at God's will and we cannot shape the future for our posterity.

And especially it teaches that if you are so depraved as to really notice what religion offers besides promises of magical rewards is the warmth of being in an in-group that is holier than the others, well, it teaches that all you have to do is use your own personal moral superiority and better taste to just pick another, better church or religion or synagogue. It teaches that it is reasonable to deny that anything other than personal preference stands as a legitimate critique of religion.

Someone I love is suffering not just from lung cancer but from the belief that God is punishing her for her sins. In despair she has missed appointments, delayed treatments, failed to comply with therapy. seeing this I'm reminded that the enemies of humanity are not just in pulpits but include people like you, who've elevated your self-regard for your own social manners to the criterion of moral principle. It is a hateful and contemptible principle.

You're not one of the good guys, you're one of the villains.

Attempted to post above at Rationally Speaking, which I keep forgetting is a fake forum.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Interview with a Naked Brain

I conducted an interview with written questions with a naked brain, this one named Massimo Piglucci, with explanatory background. This was posted previously. The replies are in! Only the questions and answers however are reprinted below.

Interviewer: Doesn't this example [of  nonscientistic objections] suggest that the attribution of the hodge podge of positions widely held by skeptics that you dislike are not attributable to scientism?

Piglucci: "     "
Translation: I don't like scientistic people but I can call anyone I don't like scientistic and I'm a professional philosopher and don't have to justify my opinion. I'm a believer in philosophical rationalism instead of realism, which puts me at odds with real scientists. Therefore I must attack scientism, a duty which far exceeds getting right piddling details about people I don't like.

I:  Is it not possible that the nature of the skeptical movement is so mixed because skepticism is undefined?

P: "     "
Translation: If I define skepticism, it would mean I couldn't criticize people for not being good skeptics on grounds they don't agree with me. Also, if I am clear about being an anti-realist, for instance, people might be able to articulate criticisms of me. If I am unclear about what I believe, I can dismiss most criticisms as misunderstandings by obtuse people.

I: Is it not possible that clarifying the metaphysical presuppositions would be more useful?
P: "     "
Translation: It would only be useful in really understanding the issues, not in supporting my position. I didn't quite understand your grammar about what is "not scientism in any ordinary sense" but I'm not interested in understanding your position. It might be reasonable criticism. It is rude to jab people with pointed questions you can't answer without admitting implicitly you might be wrong.

I: In fact, is it possible that emphasizing niceness above all else can lead to gross error?

P: "     "
Translation: Niceness is more important than truth. Niceness is what makes the world pleasant for me, and quarrelsome people who keep jabbing pointed questions at me should be ignored.

I: Since so much of this boils down to not liking people's bad manners for holding positions you disagree with, such as scientism, the final question is, why are your feelings privileged?

P: "If you think that what I have written, including links to previous posts, amount to just feelings about people I disagree with, I can only say you have missed much of the point, and I don't have the energy or time to restart from scratch."

As you should expect, none of the links in his post were relevant to the questions asked.

Obviously it is personally very aggravating to try to ask serious questions with paragraphs trying to make them perfectly clear, just to be ignored, to be insolently dismissed. It takes a lot of gall to claim I missed the point when he clearly ignored everything I asked. Particularly since his actual program did in fact boil down to attacks on people he didn't like (not naming them directly is a petty subterfuge if you ask me.) Well, I guess that's what being a philosopher is all about.

Despite the personal rudeness, naturally I still try to see what else he may be driving at that I missed. I reconsidered his point B, about "skeptics" and "atheists" and "humanists"  (not scare quotes, I have only a vague suspicion what the man could possibly mean) feeling superior. I have no doubt that this occurs, inasmuch it occurs in all voluntary groups in some degree. It seems to be a social bonding mechanism. And I am sure that a man such as himself who joins such groups regularly sees it more often. Nonetheless this is so categorical I tend to suspect projection, not even anecdotal impression. Certainly it lacks very much sensitivity to other human beings. People are so various it is on the face of it unlikely that this kind of petty judgmentalism has much chance of being right.

His phrase about a culture of insults really gives away his game I think. It's just people gettting excited, and invested in their opinions. In particular, his notion that atheists and skeptics and humanists aren't afraid of the people with the strange ideas is kind of offensive. It's like sneering at us for getting worked up over nothing. The notion that we might be angry about the crimes justified by these strange beliefs is also rather offensive. Piglucci may think this is all really sort of a game he plays as he climbs the academic ladder but some of us really have strong feelings about public affairs. Piglucci has already made it plain he considers decorum more important than reality, but honestly, the point bears repetition. Lastly, there are those of us who have a hobby of trying to put together a model of the world. As a professional philosopher, Piglucci is professionally rewarded for dissing such aspirations. No doubt it is incomprehsible to a climber whose reward is rather worldly success that the feeling of understanding is about as close to a feeling of power that many of us will ever have. We are, each of us, Gods when we play with our model of the universe. (Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator playing with the globe!) Professor Piglucci, the Public Philosopher, doesn't even want us to be permitted that much! We are to have nothing, not even dreams.

What kind of a man finds his feelings about proper decorum so important he attacks so many?

As I was saying...

The Popperazi's problem with induction keeps making them say silly stuff. Richard Dawkins posted a claim that a single fossil could refute the theory of evolution. Laurence Moran properly rebutted this. My comment follows.

Of course Prof. Moran is correct.

If, that is, you do not accept the falsificationist mantra. Dawkins' statement is scientifically wrong, grossly disrespecting the factual content of science as it really is. But it is philosophically respectable, and particularly popular with those who want to adhere to a predictivist vision of science. It seems to me that this position is held by a majority of scientists whenever they talk about science outside their professional journals.

My best judgment is that this philosophical viewpoint is so popular because of its origins in Popper's anti-Communism, which is not a dead issue. It is also adaptable to attacks on supposedly liberal viewpoints in the social sciences, as in evolutionary psychology. Consult the works of Steven Pinker for the current leader in pop science philosophizing in the US.

The thing is, errors like Dawkins' are not a simple misunderstanding of science, but outcomes of a conservative world outlook. Isn't probable that you can't make progress in refuting such nonsense without demonstrating the bias that led to it?

Prof. Moran followed up with a link to T. Ryan Gregory, which was an excellent detailed rebuttal. Being me, it seemed more could be said. My comment follows.

Pretty good article. In practice, if you look at the contemporary evidence from embryology and genetics showing common descent, the testing and exploration of the idea lead directly to writing the history of life. This is particularly true since paleontological evidence provides fossil evidence that raises a host of questions about the history of life (path, as you put it.) But, separating the fact of common descent from its history highlights the point that corrections to the science does not erase the mountain of evidence confirming the broad generalization of evolution. It is very common to talk about science as something provisional. In all everyday language something provisional is a short-term arrangement, equally liable to complete abolition as to correction. Strongly corroorated inductions like evolution are corrigible, not provisional.
Although what you say about Coyne’s version of evolution is impressively cogent and correct, might it not be possible to comment on the pattern in his recension? 1. It seems to me Coyne limits himself to microevolution rather than macroevolution because controlled experiments are possible there in a way unfeasible to macroevolution, which must rely on historical evidence. Many natural scientists (and more philosophers) deny a priori the possibility of an historical science. 2. I think he conceives gradualism as an essential component because the population genetics of natural selection requires gradual change. I think he’s making a claim that natural selection is the main driver of change, to the extent that it’s falsification would refute evolution. 3. I think that here Coyne is tacitly conceding the existence of a huge body of paleontological data demonstrating the reality of macroevolution without actually saying anything about macroevolution. Again, I think he is extremely uncomfortable about the scientificity of historical sciences, even the natural historical sciences. Certainly Popperians are, and this article is pretty explicitly Popperian. 4.What Coyne himself calls the converse of #3 is desirable because it starts from the experimentally available present instead of the suspect past. By those lights, I suppose this is not superfluous. 5. Prof. Coyne directs much of his commentary to people tempted by creationism. The real point of defining natural selection causing the appearance of design as essential to evolution is to highlight its nature as a scientific explanation.
Notably (I think) the proposed falsifications appear to imply that evolution is something even narrower than the five point list above. 1. The point about fossils may be Popperian. Occasionally, as here, I see a scientist implying that’s kind of foolish. But my powerful impression is that both the majority of scientists and the large majority of lay people adhere to predictivism and falsifiability and such Popperian folderol. If you believe this, it is in principle “reasonable” to regard evolution as a provisional hypothesis awaiting falsification by fossis etc. stuff. Hence, the importance of emphasizing the many times evolution has survived falsification, instead of simply pointing to the evidence.
2. The emphasis on the selfishness of adaptations is the selfish gene or Spencerian survival of the fittest Social Darwinism considered the essence of Darwinian theory. 3. The emphasis on genetic variety within a species is deemed essential because it is the material for intraspecific competition, key to projecting Darwinian struggle into society.Social Darwinist justifications for the social order are only as powerful as the alleged biological differences in individuals. 4.The key point for Coyne I think is the increasing fitness of adaptations. The Social Darwinist names the survivor as superior, not just lucky, not just a random variation, not just another step in a predetermined process, but inherently superior. 5. In many respects this is just #2 restatedin intraspecific rather than interspecific terms. Evidently Coyne regards selfishness as absolutely essential to his view of evolution.
#6. This restates the selfishness of genes yet again, this time in terms of behavior. This is implicitly aimed against the notion of culture, I think. All these suggest an agenda of defending evolutionary psychology’s version of evolution. I gather that Coyne would deny this. But something like this post or his absurd defense of Steven Pinker’s lame intervention against Edward O. Wilson say otherwise. His outrage at Wilson really seems to have little other ground.
7. The key term is “complete discordance” I think. This is entirely true I think. Your objection that we would rethink evolution actually concedes the point I believe. If genetic and fossil data were completely discordant, our scientific views really wouldn’t be what we would now consider “evolution.” But this is completely counterfactual. Nature has already done that experiment and the results are in. This is more or less a waste of time, unless you buy into Popperism.
Thanks for the post.

No typos were harmed in the making of this post.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Naked Brains Strutting the Catwalk

We are told that there is a problem of induction. Commonly it is held that David Hume is the one who articulated this devastating critique of empiricism most succinctly, but I gather the experts better like Pyrrho and Carneades and possibly other ancient Greeks. Basically, we cannot draw conclusions to causality by associating a sequence of events. Just because we have seen the passage of time end each night with day, we cannot conclude that time causes the end of night. We merely associate them. There might be an exception in the future. At best, the objection says, we can only regard this induction as provisional.

I rather tend to agree that Hume was aiming his fire more at philosophy. His famous comment about consigning works that were not about quantity (mathematics, in other words) or about matters of fact (what we would think of now as the sciences) powerfully suggests this to me, as to others. The ideal, abstract ego is only aware of a sequence of sense impressions. In popular but unphilosophical thought, from real organs providing real data about the real world. But philosophy only concerns itself with logically valid a priori arguments and an ideal abstract ego, the naked brain, has only subjective experiences. The technical term now I think is "qualia." We cannot establish by any logical a priori argument that qualia give us any reliable information about the real world. Indeed we cannot establish that any person's qualia are in any way similar to another person's qualia.

With a wonderful economy of effort, such notions lead us into error in not one, but two directions. Who says there has been no progress in philosophy? First, the tacit assumption of individualism rules out the data from the collective enterprise of science, beginning with the most basic observations. Every person who has fed an infant a bitter substance has seen the same faces that we ourselves might make upon tasting the same substance.

We could do formal experiments along the same lines with controls and such, but professional scientists have better things to do than waste time. For one thing, we know from such phenomena as Daltonism or phantom limb pain or synesthesia, as well as the homely optical illusions or less homely hallucinations that the senses do not provide a direct, complete or inarguably correct knowledge of the world. Nonetheless, the bulk of our daily experience only makes sense if other people do in some way sense the same things more or less as we do.

Much of the time it appears to be the same kind of sensation, qualia, as well. One may like bitter coffee and another like sweet tea, but they can reliably taste test for the other. Naturally, people generally agree with themselves as to the qualia. It is interesting to note that this is not perfect, as nothing ever seems to be. Still,  a true explanation should address the usual case as well as the falsifying exceptions. The insistence that qualia have mystical properties does not do this. Insofar as qualia, if such a nebulous concept can be held to be a coherent idea, are truly unknowable, insofar their relevance is questionable. The imperfections of the senses, both errors and limitations, are why measurement and comparison of different points of view (both geographically and temporally) are essential components of the collective verification process, science, broadly considered.

There is however the oft overlooked difficulty the supposed problem of induction presents for the naked brain. The naked brain is that peculiar entity that has no connections to the real world, whose sense organs, including even kinesthesia and balance, are stripped away. We might think the naked brain an unhappy organ, bereft of all contact with the outside world. We might think that this wrinkly mass might fail to learn to talk, like the stories of feral children. But the philosophers' naked brain, is by a literally convoluted logic, a beauty. It struts the catwalk invisibly adorned like a fairy tale emperor by the introverted Platonic forms called qualis. Throughout philosophy classes across the land, gorgeous cloud castles of logical apriori arguments spray out like glowing pixie dust.

I myself am homely: The beautiful minds of the philosophers never look back at me from my mirror. And if I look inward for my beautiful naked brain, all I see are sensuous memories and learned abstractions. I think that there is such a thing as a solid object because I associate a sequence of sensations with what I induce to be something real. When I cannot legitimately induce the existence of an outward reality by the mere association of sensations (however imperfect and need of scientific reconstruction,) or even by the shifty qualia, then my naked brain disappears with my fatuously naive empiricism. Personally, like John Locke, I can't think of a single observation of my brain, as opposed to the outside world. It must be indecently clothed. There arealso  a pititful handful of abstractions, but honestly I can't say any of them are decently philosophical intuitions. All my abstract ideas came from pages and pixels, conversations and culture. These posts sketching out a rough and ready scientific weltanschauung may like citations but that's because they aren't scholarly papers.

We can immediately conclude that  a philosopher of science, who claims to find a problem in induction, is a figment of the imagination. If they truly believed that, they should be concerned with justifying the illusion of consciousness, not attacking scientific thinkers (great, professional and amateur.) If they don't, they are imposing their figment upon the gullible. I say this because I am going to arrogantly declare that those who are gifted with superior intuition of qualia and the naked brain are citing a personal authority I cannot find any confirmatory evidence for. I can't falsify the argument, which many seem to imagine is all they need. But a reason to disbelieve is not a reason to believe. They have no reason for us to believe there is a genuine problem of induction.

The rest of you may admire the beauties strutting the catwalk, preening for the admiration of the viewers.

Friday, August 10, 2012


Massimo Piglucci attacked the supposedly scientistic and anti-illectual thinkers in the skeptical movement and the bad manners of internet posters. Skepticism historically has been associated with a certain kind of conservatism. Like Hume, often the practitioners are trying to find a middle ground between religion and materialism, that rules out religios bigotry while also ruling out any materialist nonsense about the equality of persons. (No, science has not established any superiority of persons save the rather obvious one that the young do not possess their full powers yet.) There doesn't really seem to be any difference about the modern skeptical movement. They want to be anti-leftist without being outright superstitious reactionaries. Since this is not a principled position, you get an extraordinary variety of incompatible positions in the movement. Piglucci has been distressed apparently. On the one hand he can't help but attack people for wrong thinking but on the other he can't really object to anything but manners. I'm not altogether sure whether he wants to be the philosophical pope or just the Miss Manners. It is sad to see a professional philosopher be so confused. Philosophy doesn't concern itself with truth but it is supposed to concern itself with valid arguments and clarity of thought generally!

Here's my post at Rationally Speaking, with a sentence fragment deleted (and possible paragraphing changes due to cut-and-paste.)

As near as I can tell, the belief that the social sciences are "soft" is justified by Popperism, the belief that science can only falsify predictions. Crudely put, science is doing experiments: Ergo, no social science. Popper of course had notorious problems with the historical science of evolution. Popperism of course is philosophy, one of the most non-embalmed philosophies. It seems to be quite a stretch to accuse the Popperazis of being scientistic when one of their main goals is to deny that there is such a thing as an historical science.

Doesn't this example suggest that the attribution of the hodge podge of positions widely held by skeptics that you dislike are not attributable to scientism? Is it not possible that the nature of the skeptical movement is so mixed because skepticism is undefined?  "Skepticism" is a visceral felling of anger at unwarranted certainty, a distaste for dogmatism (defined as a pomposity.) Thus a person who feels that people ranting about science showing there is no God is arrogant notes that science cannot address religion. 

But if one objects "skepticism" is also an epistemological position, it is unclear how it is different from philosophical materialism. It must be different, because its proponents set themselves up in opposition to philosophical materialism.  One thing "skepticism" seems to say, is that "science" is, variously, not knowledge in any philosophically meaningful sense; not the only path to knowledge; that agnosticism about ontological questions is is not only coherent but reasonable; the empirical component of knowledge derived from philosophy, logic and math; a (merely?) pragmatic substitute for true knowledge which is or may be unattainable, and peculiar combinations of all. Of course none of this is scientism in any ordinary sense of the word.

As used here, "scientism" appears to shrink down to the belief that the idea of free will is absurd; that the universe is deterministic; that science cannot address morals because of the is/ought distinction. The post above is careful to define free will as the power to make decisions which is not what anybody else I know of means by free will. Nor does it make a positive affirmation that the universe is undetermined. Also it concedes that science may inform moral reasoning. My best judgment is that the power to make decisions is completely irrelevant; that the prima facie case is that the notion of an undetermined universe is incoherent even in philosophy; that saying science can "inform" moral discussion is a literally meaningless concession, leaving us with the assertion that the is/ought divide is an unbridgeable chasm, a position I'm sorry to say I think is embarrassingly wrong, no matter how popular it is.

Whether you accept the counterobjections to your skeptical propositions about scientism is kind of irrelevant. Because frankly, it seems to me that skepticism, being an, ah, eclectic opposition to materialism can still admit such positions. By the definition of skepticism as taking offense at someone's arrogance of course these positions are plainly scientistic. I suppose that explains the insistence that better skepticism boils down to better manners will lead to a better skeptical movement. Is it not possible that clarifying the metaphysical presuppositions would be more useful?

In fact, is it possible that emphasizing niceness above all else can lead to gross error? Consider your insistence that it is unreasonable to label religious education as child abuse. You asked "why a secular education wouldn’t be open to the same charge, if done as indoctrination (and if it isn’t, are you really positive that there are no religious families out there who teach doubt?" The first question equates secularism with religion, which is dubious. The answer is simple, that secular education doesn't teach superstition. As for the second, "doubt" can be and often is simply anti-intellectualism. Plenty of skeptics have that, which in other contexts offends you, as you made clear in your post, and plenty of religious too. As for the hypothetical example of a family which teaches their children the scientific arguments against religous superstitions, I can only point out that is a secular education, not a religious education.

The real problem with your complaint is that you refuse to draw a conclusion because it is unpalatable. You feel it would be rude to imply so many parents are harming their children with a religious education. And this supposed rudeness is unacceptable. As I understand it, that is a gross fallacy. What you need to show is why we should accept that a religious education might be beneficial to children. Good luck with that one.

Since so much of this boils down to not liking people's bad manners for holding positions you disagree with, such as scientism, the final question is, why are your feelings privileged?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Social Science and the Critique of Morals

The sciences have established the equality of human beings, finding no inborn differences that are causal in different life outcomes, save for the case of genetic diseases. Everything else is developmental, from the womb outwards. The sciences have also established that humans essentially reproduce in groups. Despite the occasional hermit or the more common agoraphobic (overlapping groups?) therefore human nature in general must make concessions to living in groups. The individual who wishes to make normative moral arguments that should be taken seriously by others must therefore formulate them in those terms. He or she must argue as if any person could benefit by the norms proposed. As said before, he or she must argue from what must be, what cannot be and what can be as a foundation for an argument as to what ought to be.

There are of course those humans who reject the notion that they should obtain rational consent and seek to impose their personal norms by means other than persuasion, even though they themselves would not care to suffer this. Although they have no measurable superiority, they would claim it anyway. The sciences, as well as our own amour-propre, should lead us to reject this out of hand. And it should seem inevitable that we would scorn offenders for this insolence. The people who would steal moral superiority that isn't theirs are like thieves stealing property that isn't theirs. Neither party acknowledges that, if they want to have their rights, moral or property, acknowledged by others, the same obligation is on them. The others, which we generally include the reader, can imposes this obligation because it is a necessity and a truth. Most individuals confront the social incarnation of currently accepted morality as an externality, imposed upon us by an abstract collective entity. Their various subjective discontents often are due to personal desires to claim more than their objective right as equals in the social enterprise.

But the difficulty arises when the group authority to sanction (positively or negatively) those who violate the essential requirements of being part of the group is not rational. This is not a question of why a group authority must be normative. Human groups are necessary for human life. This is normative because the vast majority of people wish to live. And the few who don't wish to live can still exercise that right, despite official or informal disapproval. The question is not the normativity, but the necessity. It was once regarded as necessary that there be slavery; that democracy threatened the social order that made life possible; that women's sexuality be closely policed, and on an on in an hideous history of oppression.

Social science examining as objectively as possible the social life of humans provides the only basis for objective critique of the morality imposed by society. That is why philosophers, led by the infamous Karl Popper, seek to deny the authority of science to the social disciplines. Their demarcation problem is how to redefine science to exclude any objective basis to critical views. Ideas lost in the morass of philosophy pose no threat. (In principle, philosophy can aim to positively justify the current order, but in practice this effort ot synthesize a complete world view seems to be limited to brief, foundational epochs. In the Western tradition, ancient Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment sought the truth about reality, instead of valid arguments.)

In the natural sciences, usually there is a narrowly practical test at some point. It may be experiment but certainly the overal progress of the natural sciences interacts with technology, giving it a straightforwardly empirical bent. The historical sciences are commonly more difficult for philosophers of science seeking to muzzle its voice, but the seamless connection to experiment of some sort provides an escape hatch. The straightforwardly empirical but nonexperimental (as in controlled experiment, the default ideal in every case I know of,) sciences like taxonomy and cartography in all its many forms are simply omitted from consideration. Apparently the feeling is that these are too base, too lacking in verbal forms that can be analogized to mathematical theorems, to be worth remembering.

It is the historical sciences of course that are most likely to confront the irrational justifications for social authority, which equally of course is mostly likely religion. Geology in the US confronts Genesis. Biology confronts not just Genesis but(religious) vanity, which forbids kinship to animals rather than angels. Cosmology confronts Genesis and wishes for kindly Providence. Quantum mechanics fosters cosmic woo, as near as I can tell, precisely because the difficult foundational questions allow those so inclined to redress old ideas of Providence and/or Spirit.

The peculiar demarcations of science intended to keep out social critique often lead to complications in defending the natural sciences against such intrusions. Predictionism and falsificationism falsely frame the questions of the nature of scientific explanation and empirical verification. Practicing scientists usually bow to the nature of the academic enterprise and accept the philosophical foundations of antirealism. Then they console their consciences by surreptitiously smuggling in realist views, hoping to have the best of both worlds, the rewards of subservience to the powers that be and the rewards of the free inquirer.

The real demarcation problem, almost never addressed by philosophers of science (Bunge is an exception that I know of,) is demarcating good social science from old, exploded ideas artificially revived to support the prevailing order; incipient sciences imperfectly conceptualized and/or insufficiently empirically based; dead ends of incoherent ideas, false facts (the greatest enemy of science!) or monastic communities sealed off from the rest of science; trivia masquerading as academic credit and fraud, simple or complex. I see that this worthy goal is far beyond my means.

The greatest reason of course is that critique of false facts involves a detailed understanding. This must be done in each scientific field by and large. In the social science unfortunately, the balkanization is such that some fields, such as evolutionary psychology or parapsychology, can insulate themselves from the rest of science. Academic courtesies then cover a multitude of sins. If a David Deutsch writes a popular science book with some good physics and some deranged social science, it is impolite to say so. If a Steven Pinker writes a whole series of books, each marred by some gross error, it is impolite to say so. The regular person, with no access to the literature, is pretty helpless. No, it is not true that everything is on the internet.

There is one obvious red flag. If social science purports to explain just how human nature or cosmic nature justifies the current state of affairs, particularly an imaginary state of affairs where this is an excellent social order, take warning. Indeed, if the purported social science takes the notion of human nature too blithely, take warning. If the purported social science ascribes ideas an independent influence, take warning. If the purported social science argues that randomness is the dominant factor in humanity, take warning. If the purported social science argues that there is a muliplicity of causal factors but refuses to attempt to rank them in importance, take warning. If the purported social science emphasizes experiments over the facts of history and anthropology, take warning. If the purported social science makes claims about history and other societies and economies without trying to outline a causal sequence, take warning. Most of all, if any purported social science tries to base itself on history or economics without proper comparisons, take warning.  This is the social science equivalent of doing an uncontrolled experiment!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Natural selection for sexual selection?

Inspired by a Moran post:

What we see in nature now is that most species either move or go extinct when their environment changes. It seems that we should apply a principle of biological uniformitarianism analogous to geological uniformitarianism, which I think then puts stasis in a different light.
Doesn't natural selection act to maintain the original overal morphology in spite of the slow changes in genome? Most species would then appear in the fossil record as more or less the same, because they are more or less well adapted. Certainly natural selection cannot continue adaptation in search of a hypothetical perfect adaptation.
When a new adaptation begins to form, because of founder effects or the slower drift due to random change, wouldn't natural selection only then act as an agent of morphological change, perfecting the adaptation? Because of back breeding of temporarily separated populations or random environmental changes reversing trends toward adaptations and the physiological constraints on adaptation, this kind of speciation driven by natural selection would be relatively uncommon. But, because of the power of natural selection, the process on a geological scale would be relatively rapid. Due to the more or less random sampling in the fossil record, the transitional forms would mostly be lost (particularly in speciation events triggered by genetic drift in founder populations,) and the appearances by a new species as it spreads would appear to be geologically sudden.
Possibly, a different situation would be radiative adaptation into a relatively empty ecosystem. Because of the lack of competition the intensity of natural selection would be minimized, resulting in a wider range of morphologies. Wouldn't the more rapid emergence of variants that could serve as new adaptations then lead natural selection to propel speciation more rapidly and more often than in the ordinary course of events? Another way of phrasing it is to say that after a mass extinction, all the environments are new, because other species are a part of the environment. And adaptation to new environments changes natural selection from a stabilizing force to a speciating force.
Also, it seems to me that a relatively unpressured population that exhibits a wide range of individual traits would have increased incidence of incompatibility between widely variant members of the species, not just in gross morphology but in more subtle changes unreflected in the fossil record. In this situation, the accidental emergence of any kind of sexual marker or isolator would be selected for, leading to more offspring between more compatible variants. Sexual selection then would also be a force for speciation.
At any rate, it seems that gross morphological changes are far commoner after mass extinctions, leading to whole new orders of species.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Science and the Is/Ought Distinction...and the Titanic

The Socratic thesis that knowledge is indispensable to virtue has never really been refuted, so far as I know. The ability to do right must entail the ability to know the right and the ability to accomplish the right. Virtue, in other words, which is a synonym for good and power. Virtue and morals and ethics are normative principles about how to deal with other people, when you consider it from the ideal ego's point of view. From a non-philosophical point of view, how other people, individually and in the form of society, treat you are also part of virtue, morals and ethics. When we remember this, the question of how we as individuals deal with the moral claims on and by others demands some sort of response. We personally can use violence or claim supernatural authority, but then, so can others. In practice, in dealing with others we make some sort of objective argument, especially when dealing with greater powers. There is an individual utility in making those arguments that others can accept, and ally with us, in dealing with yet other people and society or government at large. This usefulness is the basis for debate on morals. Every individual when dealing with morals imposed on him or her would wish to appeal to objective argument for selfish reasons.

The most important contribution science makes to the debate is the discovery that no argument from religious (or speculative philosophical) authority is valid. Another connection to science of course is that science is the only form of knowledge about the real world. As such it is essential to our ability to make objective arguments on particular issues, as well as categories of argument. In practice, much of our practical knowledge is empirical, and more is from authority.  But the sources of error in our senses and the imperfecions of unaided reason makes it imprudent to consult personal experience alone. Fullest use of scientific knowledge (broadly defined) is more an ideal than a reality, sadly.

But what has science, which tells us what is true, to tell us about what should be? Hume famously claimed that you couldn't draw a conclusion about what ought to be from what is. As popular as it is to repeat this, it is decidedly misleading. Science can tell us what cannot be, and what must be, and what can be. A moral imperative than cannot be accomplished because it is against nature cannot be meaningful. Behavior in individuals and society that are inevitable because of their natures are not moral, because we have no power to do else. What can be is the area of moral choice.

A trivial example of the first is the insistence that a parent must not sleep but watch over children. Demanding an impossibility is itself immoral, obviously. A trivial example of the second is insisting that dreaming is an expression of individuality. Demanding that people dream is obviously nothing to do with morality, they have no choice. A trivial example of the third is help sick people by nursing them. The ability to help sick people raises the moral question of whether to do so.

These trivial example show the principle at work. These are obviously true, so it should be obvious the principle is correct, no? Remember, and consider:

A serious example of the first is the discovery that popular notions of free will are contradicted by the facts of neuroscience. Punishing some behaviors as immoral choices when there are no choices is itself immoral. Punishment as deterrence usually is a different kind of punishment, after all. Many people wish to deny the obvious conclusion precisely to keep to the old standard of moral responsibility, regardless of the facts.

A serious example of the second is heterosexual passion. You cannot credit a person for wanting sex with another person of the opposite sex. Obviously, if you cannot credit this, you cannot discredit a person for wanting sex with another person of the same sex, either. Although fewer people would refuse to accept that sexual desire is not a conscious choice, this too happens.

A serious example of the third is vaccination for STDs. We can do this. If we look at it from the perspective of medical science, the question is, what benefit is there from not doing this, looking at it objectively from no specific personal view? Any person might contract a disease and benefit from a cure, and any vaccine may prevent any specific person from being infected. But when we try to see how a specific person might suffer from such vaccinations we cannot even find such people, much less weigh their harms against others' benefits. No one has yet established a harm to larger, collective entities.

We are already seeing that science narrowly construed has quite a bit of relevance to "ought," no matter what Hume says. Repeating him is refusing to consider these issues seriously.

The really tricky part comes from the refusal to grant the status of science to social sciences. There will be vested interests who pervert science for personal gain. Every fraudulent report of lab results comes from this, whether the gain is fame or money. In social sciences, vested interests have powerful influence in systematically turning would-be sciences into ideologies. Economics and evolutionary psychology are of course the great offenders of the day.

For example, the New Scientist website had an article about an economist's study of survival rates of British shipwrecks. It claimed that the record of 18 shipwrecks showed that it was every man for himself, despite the movies about the wreck of the Titanic. It also cited a claim that the story of women and children first was promoted as an argument against woman suffrage. The author of the study is an economist. When asked, he explicitly said that he was testing the economists' assumption that people are "self-interested and act to maximize their their own well-being," instead of cooperating and acting at the expense of their own survival. In other words, he was aiming pretty explicitly to shore up a specific notion of human behavior. Given this agenda of course, it is likely that he found what he wanted. This article talks of survival rates but gives no indication of what the circumstances were. The faster the shipwreck of course the more likely only the crew and the more physically fit of the passengers can survive. There could be a gross systematic error in this study, ignored because it fit a preconceived thesis. I for one will put zero stock in this report because my experience is that people like this habitually do that kind of bad science.

The thing is, the article did specifically relate the study to the desire to refute a certain view of human nature. That doesn't refute the article of course. That's the genetic fallacy. It can raise a red flag, though. It can make one analyze more carefully, as I did when I asked myself if there was any reason why captain and crew, then males, might have higher survival rates. The answer to that question, yes, then justifies dismissing the report, a posteriori. The problem of course is that the article didn't report the necessary information. Another person, who favors the sociopathic ideal of humanity the economist is defending, probably wouldn't see any problem, and wouldn't ask the right question. Not asking the question means the blindingly obvious possibility of systematic error would be overlooked.

The problem of which view is correct cannot be solved by pretending there is no such thing as social science. The problem can't be evaded because moral issues depend upon the answers. The problem can't be solved by philosophical logical a prioris because human nature is a matter of fact, not logic. Well, to be precise, a matter of many, many, many such facts. This is a nice illustration of how induction and (supposedly) simple facts are a major part of scientific knowledge, incidentally. Again, part of the problem in the social sciences is the pervasive acceptance of nonmaterialist concepts. The notion of human nature as a metaphysical entity for example seems to propel this particular person's excursion into bad science.

My guess is that women and children first is in fact a sentimental myth in the sense that it is not what automatically happens, that instead, the physical circumstances, the cultural teachings for the people involved, and random variations in personalities and other idiosyncratic factors mean sometimes it is women and children first, sometimes it's devil takes the hindmost and other times you see people in the same wreck showing both behaviors. My guess is that the small sample size makes the conclusions to be drawn uncertain, even if the study were properly conducted. My judgment is that the extremity of the circumstances limit the importance of the conclusion, no matter what, to normal societies. What I know is that categorically declaring such questions impossible to answer is obscurantism.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

In Memoriam: Gore Vidal

Eminent writer and TV personality Gore Vidal is dead at the age of 86. Although not commonly considered a genre writer, Mr. Vidal, in addition to being a mystery novelist under the pseudonym Edgar Box, was indeed a SF and fantasy writer. Also, a good proportion of his works included historical fiction, including some of his most famous, such as Julian, Burr, 1876, Creation and Lincoln.

His SF works included the remarkable fifties novel Messiah, about the rise of a new religion replacing Christianity, and the SF play (originally television, then stage, then motion picture) Visit to a Small Planet, about the visit of an alien to Earth. Mr. Vidal revisited the genre with the end of the world novel Kalki, where religious fanatics genetically engineer a genocidal strain of E. coli. He also appeared as a genre actor in Gattaca.

His fantasies included Myron, Duluth, The Smithsonian Institution, The Golden Age and Live from Golgotha. They were of the absurdist or metafictional extravaganza type of fantasy. In Myron, for instance, the protagonists is trapped in a B movie. Siren of Babylon, starring Rhonda Fleming, if I remember correctly?

Despite the large number of genre works in his oeuvre, Mr. Vidal successfully avoided being typed as a genre author, due largely to his political and social engagements. His many television appearances as commentator included a notorious public quarrel with William F. Buckley during the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. His feuds with Truman Capote and Normal Mailer were also highly publicized. His plays, the award winning The Best Man and An Evening with Richard Nixon, as well as he then contemporary political novel Washington D.C., as well as the historical novels garnered much attention. Mr. Vidal excelled as an essayist, often on political topics.

Politically Mr.Vidal came from a patrician (if personally impoverished, he always had to earn a living,) background. Coming from a more time when politics were not so narrowly constrained, Vidal harked back to old traditions that seemed in more retrograde times almost leftist. A traditional isolationism for instance carried on in an anti-imperialist politics. His militant atheism as well carried on a very old and honorable tradition in democracy dating back to the seventeenth century. The modern notion of atheism as highly antithetical to democracy is a redbaiting innovation. Very late in his life he was engaged in a notorious correspondence with Timothy McVeigh. People were somehow surprised that Mr.Vidal's old conservative politics led him to find affinities in McVeigh.

However, in his writings on sex, Mr. Vidal's homosexuality did lead him away from the old conservatism, if not entirely. His later boast of more than a thousand sexual contacts seemed to reflect more of a patrician disdain for middle class propriety, a would-be aristocratic libertinism. Still, this membership in a minority was probably what kept him from being nothing more than a Menckenesque curmudgeon from the beginning.

His novel The City and the Pillar was a milestone in gay writing. His Myra Breckinridge displayed some conservative panic at the blurring of gender identities, but Vidal's essays on sex were in the context of any time before rather progressive. It would be ungenerous to cavil at the imperfections of a pioneer, even though, as so often the advent of change left him behind. He lived with Howard Austen for some decades, mostly in Ravello, Italy, til Austen's death. He boasted once that he and Howard did not have sex. It is hard to know what would be sadder, lying about such a thing, or such a thing being true.

At the age of ten, Mr. Vidal was in the newsreels for flying a lightweight plane. His father was an aviation official in the Roosevelt administration. His grandfather was a Senator. He shared a stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss with Jacqueline Kennedy, which connection probably did more to bring him social celebrity. He ran for Congress in New York in 1960 and for the Democratic Senate nomination in California many years later as well.

As a screenwriter, Mr. Vidal argued the case for the priority of the screenplay in the movies' creative process. His line "The director is the brother-in-law" of course must be amended to "The director is the producers' man," since the decline of the studio system.

Finally, as a writer, Mr. Vidal had an unfashionable taste for dependent clauses. Even worse, Mr. Vidal had a distinct fondness for the ever contemptible adverb. Presumably these wickednesses, plus his dubious politics and damnably open sexual heterodoxy combined with the labors wasted on genre works and television placed in very low in the acceptable pantheon of literary writers. As a public novelists, he was no doubt the preeminent US writer. As such, his loss to age and the grave is a grave loss for the age.