Archive for the ‘ Science ’ Category

My World View – Free Will

There are a lot of people who talk about free will. Theists say that we have free will and use this to explain why there is evil in the world, why their Satan is left loose on the world, why Jesus was murdered, why we must choose their faith. There are a few people who will argue that we do not have free will, or more subtly that we only appear to have free will.

My view is this, we do have free will. If you wish, you can choose to stop reading right now. That is a choice, an exercise of free will. If by saying that I have triggered in your brain the mechanisms which will cause you to read the rest anyway we might say that you don’t really have free will. So lets imagine we can look at the things that might have just happened in your brain, shall we?

1 – you already read so far

2 – you had made preliminary decisions about whether the writing was interesting or not

At this point we might say that you have already made the decision to read the whole post – or not read it all.  Was that really a decision then to finish reading once questioned if you would? Yes, but you had made the decision to read the entire post before being asked if  you would or not. Were you conscious of that decision? No? Well, you made it, why were you not conscious of making that decision? Did someone else make it for you? Did quantum mechanics kick in and make you decide to not do things you don’t like doing in the first place? Hey, all that sounds complicate, right? Well lets see what we can find out about that.

There is no good single spot to get the low-down on thinking about free will but Wikipedia gives you a great spot to start reading from as it always does. Everyone has a common sense understanding of it, but those that write about it go quite a bit deeper to get beyond the common sense version of it. From the Wikipedia article you can see that there are many views on free will. Certainly more views than you might want to try on if you found yourself bored one weekend.

I can still remember asking why, why, why to my parents and anyone that would listen to me ask the same question over and over again. Once my mother sent me along with a man (uncle?) as he went to repair someone’s stereo/turntable. He was a patient man and answered my why’s until I had no more, or at least did not know how to ask any more of them. I was 5 years old, maybe 6. I understood little of the answers but did understand that they were ‘real’ answers. So I tried to remember them. I still do. I still ask why.  On the question of free will, you might well ask why…

Ian Pollock gives a nice run down of some recent arguments about free will. There is a lot of talk about J.Coyne and here and of course there is Sam Harris’ take on free will that we don’t have.

Though Sam Harris has come closer than the others I disagree with just about everybody. Welcome to the machine, the meat machine.

Come on, tell us what you really think!

We human apes are machines, meat machines. The business of our brain is to make decisions. Decisions about everything. What is safe to eat, what is not, what is dangerous (we’re weak on that one) and what is not. When to duck out of the way, when to stand our ground. An immense ocean of decisions every day, every minute. We make them so fast that we don’t have time to think about them. If we had to make conscious decisions about everything we see or hear as we drive a car it would be crippling. Try it, watch someone else while they drive and try to figure out how many decisions they are making per second. You won’t be able to keep up.

So, if you can’t keep up with their decisions, how do they? That is the ‘why’ question of free will. Lets go ahead and consider the machine between our ears.  Do you imagine that it has only a single core processor? If you said yes, you’re wrong. Even though you think of your mind/brain as a single thing it is made up of many processes. When have you ever had to think about making your hear beat, or concentrate on what is in the edges of your peripheral vision? The reason that you won’t remember is that these things happen without explicit consent or command from your consciousness process, that part you normally think of as your mind. Jill Bolte-Taylor has an incredible story.

She is a brain scientist who suffered a huge stroke and tells what happened. Half her brain shut down and with half gone she did not lose conscious thought, but did lose time sequencing to all the sensory inputs. She explains all this in her book and we can only conclude that more than one processor is running in our brains.

Yep, our brains are a group of processors, a machine. Some parts analyze various parts of our visual sensory input some parts keep your heart beating and so on.

What does all that gibberish mean?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Harris argues that if our conscious process does not make the choice then we do not have free will. This is flat out wrong. He is not paying attention to how our actual brain works.

As Jill Bolte-Taylor explains, if you shut down some of the parts of the brain catastrophically, we do not stop making decisions. We simply have more trouble doing so. This means decisions are not made outside the brain as if we are puppets or have no choices. We make decisions based on all the processes happening in our brains at any given instant. We also cannot claim that this world is a simulation and thus we have no free will because the loss of brain function does not stop decision making, only our ability to make good decisions. Follow along now. If this universe were a simulation, the simulation did not stop her from making decisions when her stroke happened, just her ability to make them. Decision making is done inside the brain. Okay, you might argue that this does not refute a simulation. There are also other reasons to refute a simulation, but they are long. The world is not likely to be as it is if this were a simulation that was programmed to give us such a keen sense of self identity and agency, and we would not understand why we have made the decisions that we have.

What’s the point already.

We do have free will, but it is based on the multiple processes in our brains. Something which has not been discussed by modern philosophers or ancient ones. It has not been considered how multiple process systems make decisions, and what exactly this does to free will.

We do have free will and in the investigation of it we will find what exactly it means to think of ourselves as meat machines. This machine between our ears makes us human apes a little bit different than other animals… just the same, we are as we perceive. That is to say that we perceive ourselves as a single agent with free will. That agency is based on the interactions of several processes and we can measure the communications between them. Such times and delays are the cost of making decisions. They are the cost of free will. Decisions are not made instantly but by careful analysis of all the sensory input we have along side analysis of the previous information that we’ve stored up. These things take time… but the delay does not indicate that we do not have free will.

The deeper philosophical arguments were made before any thought that we are not alone in our heads. There are many processes here, not just one. This makes a huge difference in how to interpret thought and feeling and action. I do not believe that any argument against free will has merit.

Of course you are welcome to prove me wrong… leave a comment, thanks.

My World View – Fine Tuning Of The Universe

Some theists will argue that the universe is created by their god and that science tells us that if some of the constants of the universe were changed as little as 2% then the universe could not have formed as it has and that life as we know it would not be possible. This they refer to as fine tuning. Also called the anthropic principle

Then, there are those who do not believe the universe is fine tuned, but that life began and has adapted itself to the universe over time … so successfully that it now appears that the universe was fine tuned for life. I do not think you will find any rational thinker that thinks the universe is the perfect place for life. Most of it is so harsh and uncaring that life as we know it cannot exist there. In fact, much like Adams’ thinking puddle, we find ourselves in a small bubble which is barely stable enough for life to arise and evolve to the point that we might contemplate the beginning of the universe and of life itself.

The cure for such thinking? Education. Broad science education that will allow people to know that the universe is not fine tuned, but we who are fine tuned by evolution for this universe. We are not special, just human apes on a pale blue dot in a cold harsh vast expanse that we call the universe… or one of them.

There is no reason to think that the universe is fine tuned, never mind by a god that created it. There is every reason to think that we evolved to be compatible with this universe by virtue of evolving to be compatible with the conditions of the Earth. For the Abrahamic monotheists out there, the notion that this is fine tuned universe to hold this planet… what was the garden of Eden? Surely not a place on the Earth, because that would mean an omnipotent and omniscient god created a paradisical garden for his new little friends and placed it inside a bubble that will only last 10 billion years tops, and will probably be unable to support life for far less than that. Was he planning to move the garden to some other bubble when time ran out on Earth? Maybe he was just going to thoughtlessly let it be destroyed? Oh wait, you think he will return and take people to heaven. When was that supposed to happen again? hmmmm Time’s up on that relocation plan, and we have about 5 billion years to think of a plan B – better start supporting the space programs so we can learn out to adapt to live in some other part of this universe that is not tuned well enough that we can just go live on any planet.

Just try scaring a 3rd grader with the threat of Gamma Ray Bursts from space that would microwave all life on this planet to a crisp if one hit us and you will have some idea of what real terror is. For me hell has no fury like a death ray from a black hole that cooks everything it touches randomly spinning about in space while the Earth dances around like one of those ducks at a shooting gallery at the fair.  Why would a creator god make one of those, never mind millions of them. As a third grader I once tried to contemplate the math regarding the probability that we might get fried by death rays from space. My 8 year old self let it go for a time when the math became far more complex than I had thought…. which lead to other discoveries, but that will be other post.

Darkantics has a take on this that is breathtakingly thought provoking.

 

Douglas Adams was a staunch atheist, who famously

imagined a sentient puddle who wakes up one morning and thinks, “This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!”

From Wikipedia:

Victor Stenger argues that

… The fine-tuning argument and other recent intelligent design arguments are modern versions of God-of-the-gaps reasoning, where a God is deemed necessary whenever science has not fully explained some phenomenon”.

The argument from imperfection suggests that if the Universe were designed to be fine-tuned for life, it should be the best one possible and that evidence suggests that it is not. In fact, most of the Universe is highly hostile to life.

Additionally, Stenger argues:

We have no reason to believe that our kind of carbon-based life is all that is possible. Furthermore, modern cosmology indicates that multiple universes may exist with different constants and laws of physics. So, it is not surprising that we live in the one suited for us. The Universe is not fine-tuned to life; life is fine-tuned to the Universe.

 

So, do you think that the universe was fine tuned for human life? Let us know in the comments.

My World View – Happy Hominidae

It kind of sounds like a holiday or celebration, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not.

I was thinking that perhaps it’s time for me to write about my world view. There are so many ‘famous’ atheists out there who profess a world view that is secularist, humanist etc. and go on to tell us why all atheists should be like them or think like them. I disagree. I am me. I speak for no other and no other atheist speaks for me.

So I will start then to speak for me with a few entries about what I understand to be true about the world and universe. Who knows how many posts it will take. I guess we’ll find out. To go with the happy title, lets start with biology.

There is a post at StartledDisbelief.com where the author writes:

It’s frustrating when creationists claim that humans came from monkeys, or that evolution tells us that we are monkeys. Humans are not monkeys (they’re in a separate infraorder or parvorder, depending on which monkeys you’re talking about).

But I hear skeptics who aren’t quite as careful as they should be roundly declare that humans are not apes, when, in point of fact, we are. Here’s roughly where humans fall:

Order:Primates, which contains Prosimians (lemurs, etc.) and Simians (monkeys and apes).
Infraorder:Simiiformes (simians), which contains Platyrrhini (New World monkeys) and Catarrhini (Old World monkeys and apes).
Parvorder:Catarrhini, which contains Cercopithecoidea (Old World monkeys) and Hominoidea (apes).
Superfamily:Hominoidea (apes), which contains Hylobatidae (gibbons) and Hominidae (great apes).
Family:Hominidae (great apes), which contains Pongo (orangutans), Gorilla (gorillas), Pan (chimpanzees), and Homo (humans).
Genus:Homo (humans). That’s us!

I don’t think I could have said it as well. I am an ape. A clever one, but I am an ape. The processes of evolution have brought my species to where we are today… but we are still apes. I’m okay with that. Really, I am. It explains a lot of things to me. When I was a young inquisitive child I once wondered if the number five was somehow magical. I see my cat has basically 5 fingers on its feet as does my dog and many other animals. Just like me. We have four limbs, bilateral symmetry (didn’t know to call it that then), same basic facial structures and senses. But each of us had 5 protrusions from our torsos like starfish etc. This number 5 must somehow be magic.

I gave up on that thought of magic but never forgot the similarities. Later I was taught I am a mammal and some passable understanding of what that means. Not until much later did I really understand that I am an ape. Not just any ape… a member of the most successful and adaptable ape ever. One of the ape family that went to the moon and back. I’m somehow a very special ape, not your ordinary ‘stare through the glass at the zoo’ kind of ape. Later I learned about biology and evolution. Neither topic held much interest for me in school as I was still wanting to believe like my parents, unwilling to believe that they would lie to me, no matter how well intentioned.

I was fully adult and had served my time in the military before I began to understand exactly how wonderful it is to know that I AM AN APE! Judging by my successes thus far in life, a very special ape. Sure, not the most special ape, but a pretty damned clever ape just the same. It took me a long time to justify that enlightening fact with my understanding of the rest of the world. Being an ape, I’ve got a natural inquisitive nature. I used it to find out why other people thought I was an ape to see what proof they had. What would make them think that? As it turns out, there is a lot of evidence for evolution, an overwhelming amount of it.

Damn! My parents and church HAD lied to me. That took me years to justify or rationalize. So here I am, an ape. I know why I am, much of how and why I don’t look like or act like other apes like we see at the zoo. I understand much of biology and genetics, or enough to understand how the number 5 is not really a magic number. In fact now, I know there is no magic, but something much more wonderful – evolutionary biology. I had to start learning chemistry to understand some of that biology stuff. It’s a lot of hard work when you are learning on your own.

For some 30 years I had no real clue that I was not alone in how I thought. Then the Internet happened.  Now I could explore much more, much faster than ever before. I am a human ape and I know how to explain why that is true and why it is wonderful. For millions of years life struggled on this planet, fearful of death, not knowing how the universe works. Here I sit doing what would only be explained as magic 2000 years ago telling people that I do not know that I am happy to be an ape. I realize that I live in an important point of human history and in some way I play a part in it. This one happy ape is helping to make history that cannot be unwritten, that will push my species into a future that is both unsure and immeasurably exciting and inspiring. My cousins have walked on the moon, ripped open the atom, mapped the universe, cured diseases and many, many more wondrous things that would have been only described as magic 2000 years ago.

There is nothing in this universe that can take that away from me. Nothing. I am proud to be an ape, happy to be alive, and filled with incomprehensible awe of both what we know and what we know that we don’t know.

I hope that you too share this awe of life, of the very happy accident that we are here in this moment, that we can sniff a flower and not only swan in the scent but know almost everything about each and every cell in that flower…. and it does not diminish the wonder of the scent, the event, or the memory of that experience. I’m everything that every one of my predecessors was and so much more. I proudly stand on the backs and shoulders of giants and gardeners alike, and from here I can look out on to the world and see galaxies and stars that are so far away that their light would never have been detected without the use of tools that my cousins have created.  No monarch in history has been as fortunate as I… as you.

But then, I’m just an ape on a pale blue dot…. what do I know.

Things I Don’t Believe In (I’m looking at you Sam Harris)

I like to think that my lack of belief in gods, ghosts, the supernatural etc. does not mean that I have a specific world view. I like to think that I’m free to take knowledge from any place I find it. That said I also like to think that I don’t have to agree with every famous atheist alive in order to have a valid world view as an atheist.

To that point, I have disagreed with Sam Harris on a number of issues, and today we find one more. Mr Harris wrote that we should be profiling airline travellers to ensure our safety in his post In Defense of Profiling.

He makes quite a few good points about the ineffectual nature of the TSA and by reason Homeland Security. I’ve said as much too. The trouble is that Mr Harris goes on to state that travellers should be profiled and that we should be wasting money trying to stop what will not be stopped without far more effort than is being made. The next terrorist plot will not be with an airplane and no matter what method is chosen we will not be ready for it. More pointedly, our resources will be tied up with worrying about how to deal with airline based terrorism rather than in creating an infrastructure and citizenry that is ready to respond to any threat without regard to its method. Can any reader name more than one terrorism plot foiled by either the TSA or Homeland Security? Let me know in the comments.

Update: I just thought, profiling would not have caught the shoe bomber or the Oklahoma City bombers. In fact there are innumerable situations that the TSA and Homeland Security have failed miserably to address. Sure the TSA is limited in scope, but their budget doesn’t seem that way.

I have said just in the past week that we should shut down the TSA and Homeland security. Give 15% of that budget to the FBI and let them do their jobs – they’re good at doing that. Now take the other 85% and give it to NASA.

Stop terrorizing and traumatizing little kids and old folk and lets get our happy little asses to Mars… like yesterday!

Sam, please stop telling people to keep wasting money and resources on silly crap that is grossly ineffectual, even on its best possible day. Stop acting like the FBI doesn’t know what they are doing. Stop acting like ‘doing something’ has to mean doing something that wasn’t already being done. You cannot predict where lightning will strike, but you can do some cost effective things to prevent or minimize the damage done when it does strike. By the by, you don’t put lighting protection only in airports.

Besides, Sam, if we have no free will isn’t it likely that we aren’t going to be able to prevent terrorism?

Belief Does Not Matter

This post of thoughts comes to you via several hours working on my lawn. With my morning coffee I read a post by One World. Many Gods. In the post the author talks about the sheer inspiration at the immensity of the universe and the dumbfounding insignificance of humanity in that largest expanse of harsh uncaring existence.

To quote the post:

Every time I read this it sends chills down my spine.  I think very few people realize the significance of this fact and I don’t think I could put it in better words then Carl Sagan.  So I ask that you read this several times and let the gravity of   his words sink in.

From the video:

We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

I have had a few things to say about Neil deGrasse Tyson in the past week so it is at this moment that I can think of no better time than to try to highlight what it is that he does so very well. Where Mr Sagan has stopped, Mr Tyson continues the journey as if he is simply the next stage in the rocket that is space exploration. If there are humans that can inspire us as much as the shear immensity of the universe, I think Sagan and Tyson are those kind of humans.

He worries. I worry with him. Vote wisely people. Our future depends on it.

 

In Defense Of Neil deGrasse Tyson

… and those atheists that are not the same kind of atheist as other atheists. To start, lets look at the video that Hemant Mehta wrote at When Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Start Using the Arguments of Christian Apologists?

Hemant, you’re wrong. If all your allies must be like you and think like you, you will have few allies. Not believing in gods and the supernatural does not commit you to any particular world view, rather it means you probably can’t hold certain world views in light of that disbelief. Clearly, not believing in gods or the supernatural does not make you an ardent atheist because you can also be an agnostic.  Tyson gives the right reasons for not being concerned about atheism and the secular movement. He *IS* a very busy man who is working hard to help fix the politics of science and promote science and NASA etc. His plate is full. Just see my post I Don’t Give A Damn to get some understanding of why those are good reasons.

Hemant, I don’t particularly like all that you do either and do not feel a need to run out and support the ‘atheist cause’ at every opportunity. While I might be criticized for not doing enough you absolutely cannot criticize Tyson for not doing enough. He is fighting the battles that  you can’t and doing a damned good job of it too. If being an atheist meant I had to side with you on everything and think the way that you do I’d become an agnostic too. Yes, you are off base on this one.  Atheism is not about conformity, it’s about not believing. That’s it. Everything else is something else. Yes, Tyson is probably an atheist and might say so when thinking about it more gets high on his to-do list. In the mean time he is on the side of rational thinking and sane behavior and above ALL else he is in support of science, the natural enemy of religion. The enemy of your enemy is your friend, even if they don’t actively appear to be your ally.

I’d say ‘cut the guy some slack’ but I’m not writing to tell you how harsh to treat him, I’m writing to tell you that you are wrong. You do no one a service by trash talking natural allies to your own cause. Shame on you.

Let’s Get This Party Started

Most of my posts are about religion and atheism. Part of my atheism is believing in my fellow human apes and what we together can and have accomplished. There are no gods needed to see how through tireless effort we can accomplish mind boggling feats of engineering and human compassion. One of the great representations of this is the results of science. Thousands upon thousands of scientists are working tirelessly to find even trivial bits of new information that lead us to better understanding and better living. We owe them. All of them.

Currently I can think of no person who is a more charismatic speaker about science and space than Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. I find him inspiring in ways that I have trouble writing about. I think that perhaps if you find him uninspiring you might have something wrong with you. The collection of human apes on this planet need to get over the fear and get on with going where we are destined to go. Star Trek has laid out the guidelines, the program as it were. We need to be exploring outer planets for life, mining space bodies for fuel, and looking for Earth v2.0. We need to GET THIS PARTY STARTED. I’m not one to tell you who to vote for but you might want to rethink your voting plans after you listen to what The Neil has to say.

Seriously, send that video link to your senators and congressmen. Make a statement that means something for the future of human apes. If we do not speak up now we may never get another chance and I weep for our species.

UPDATE

To contact your senator or congressperson, try this link

All we need do is shut down the TSA and Homeland Security. Give 10-15% of that money to the FBI and the rest to NASA. That’s it. That is all that is necessary to get this party started. Do it. Write your representatives. Urge them to spend  your money wisely. If you are not from the USA, write to the President of the United States directly. It takes a few moments but I think it is worth it. Our species is worth it. You are worth it. Stop spending on fear and start spending on exploration.

Thank you

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