Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Seeing Further With Science!

Congratulations New Horizons and Pluto!  But more on those results, later.  This posting is largely about... medicine and biology. Starting with...

An epidemic of short-sightedness. No, not the all-too rampant political kind. But actual myopia, which has seen a steep rise over the last few decades. In China, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, 80 to  90% of teens are nearsighted, compared to 10 to 20% of youths sixty years ago. The same trend is seen in the U.S. and Europe, where nearly half of young adults are now myopic, twice as many as fifty years ago.

Clearly there is a genetic component to myopia, but this can't explain these rapid changes. Data does not back up a frequently-cited explanation due to reading or computer use. - though there is a pattern of increasing myopia with years of schooling. The strongest correlation is with environmental exposure, hours spent outdoors. Myopia is virtually unknown among hunter-gatherer tribes -- though some suggest that diet may also play a role. 

One hypothesis, according to a report in Nature: "light stimulates the release of dopamine in the retina, and this neurotransmitter in turn blocks the elongation of the eye during development."  Animal studies support this idea: it is possible to induce myopia in chicks by controlling the level of natural light. One study showed a 23% decrease in myopia among Chinese children who spent an additional 40 minutes outdoors. Australian researchers estimate that children need to be exposed to about three hours a day of bright light (at least 10,000 lux) to be protected against myopia. Lighting levels should be taken into account in school design -- a classroom typically offers only 500 lux. 

A new study has shown that soft lenses, worn only at night, can prevent the progressive elongation of the eye in children.

== New in  Biosciences! ==

Envisioning disease...From just a single drop of blood, VirScan can detect the remains of more than 1,000 strains of 206 viruses that are infecting or have ever infected a patient. After screening blood from 569 people on four continents, experts found people were exposed to 10 viruses on average; two had antibodies for 84 different viruses. This is important.

First steps towards developing bio-artificial replacement limbs suitable for transplantation, using an experimental approach previously used to build bioartificial organs to engineer rat forelimbs with functioning vascular and muscle tissue. Some of you saw this in my story "Chysalis," in Analog Magazine a while back -- where I took it more than a bit farther.

U.S. and Chinese scientists have developed a method to inject microelectronic devices such as wires and transistors directly into the brain (or other body parts) to measure or stimulate neural activity. 

Scientists have for the first time documented the actual formation of newly learned concepts inside thebrain. Thanks to recent advances in brain imaging technology.  

Networked monkey brains: And now they are linking animals mentally! Via electrodes, rats and monkeys can coordinate their brains to carry out such tasks as moving a simulated arm or recognizing simple patterns. In many of the trials, the networked animals performed better than individuals.

Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin have been able to successfully inhibit alcohol and drug addiction by using a drug, israpidine, that is already approved by the FDA to treat high blood pressure.  The drug is able to erase (at least for rats) the unconscious memories that may underlie addiction.  

A new view of autism? “For decades, autism has been viewed as a form of mental retardation, a brain disease that destroys children’s ability to learn, feel and empathize… A new open-access study shows that social and sensory overstimulation drives autistic behaviors and supports the unconventional view that the autistic brain is actually hyper-functional.”  This fits in with the fact that when two hyper-functional people breed together, the odds of autism in offspring go up. It suggests a drastic shift in approaching the suite of syndromes. Autistics in future may benefit from a wide range of tech-enhanced opportunities to engage with the world… as I portray in EXISTENCE.  

Oh, speaking of David Brinn books... and I spelled that correctly.  Jerusalem Post editor and journalist David Brinn has co-written a book with Alex Kerten on one of the modern trends in medicine -- using body movement to combat nerve degenerative ailments. Getting nerves and muscles practice firing together in organized ways. I cannot vouch directly for "Goodbye Parkinsons, Hello Life!" But movement-exercise systems are showing promise. May none of you need this. But get moving, anyway. 

Researchers at Dundee University have discovered a new compound which could treat malaria while protecting people from the disease and preventing its spread, all in a single dose. 

Looking toward the end... George Dvorsky on io9 presents a very interesting rundown of recent research and arguments regarding the reason life forms age and die. Alas, George does not pursue the elephant in the room… why are humans the methuselahs of mammals?  Of course, I have my own theory about that. (See: Do We Really Want Immortality?)  

== Physics & Light ==

The science of light: Scientists have now captured an image of a photon as both a wave and a particle for the first time. Moreover, this experiment shows that the future talks to the past! That later events influence earlier ones.  “Time went backwards. Cause and effect appear to be reversed. The future caused the past. The arrow of time seemed to work in reverse.”
We live in boggling times. 

There is also good evidence that quantum processes take place inside our brains and within our body cells, as reported by the Guardian last year. 

== And only somewhat less "biological"

Frequency combs on fiber optic cables could remove distortions, giving us faster, more efficient internet signals. 

These students built a (very tiny) working hyper loop. 

Researchers from MIT have developed a new algorithm that lets autonomous robots divvy upassembly tasks on the fly, an important step forward in multirobot cooperation.

Another way of looking further: Augmented Reality: I spoke at AWE 2015 the Augmented Reality Conference, in Santa Clara, in June (My interview on AWE.tv has been posted online). There I saw how very many companies are suddenly diving into augmented reality. Take a look at Epson’s “Moverio” system.

The U.S. Air Force – according to unverified reports - has developed an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) device that is analogous to the EMP version of a sniper rifle, rather than a bomb. In a single test mission in Utah, CHAMP successfully blacked out all seven of its targets in a single flight. 

The Batteriser, a new $2.50 gadget promises to bring your AA and C batteries back from the dead, by maintaining voltage levels instead of letting them decline as the battery's chemical supply depletes.  However David Jones on EEVBlog systematically disputes these claims.

Why so many science-based blog postings from me, lately?

Because we live in amazing times. And we should all be paying attention. Anyway, you'll be fed up with me and politics, by the time 2016 is over!  Hang in there. Keep up!
   

121 comments:

David Dorais said...

Regarding addiction-- There is anecdotal evidence that a herb from West Africa/Central America can end addiction. It apparently works by latching onto, staying and blocking the addiction receptors in the brain that are normally fired by caffeine, cocaine, heroin, etc. It is called Iboga and the refined substance is Ibogaine. It is used in Mexican clinics to detox and end addiction in drug users. Unfortunately it is also a Category 1 narcotic and illegal in the USA. Reports suggest that the patient, medically supervised, goes on a 24-36 hour "trip", after which coming down off of it, they are no longer addicted to anything.There is also Claudia Christian's campaign to make an alcohol addiction recovery pill more widely available, as it is now rarely used and too expensive, but does end alcoholism in studied patients. Like the vaccine for 40% of gingivitus germs that was created but not marketed; I suspect too many people make a living keeping people addicted or dependent, just like going to the dentist to "fix" their gum disease enriches dentistry. Imagine the emptying of prisons that is possible without these medical/prison industrial complex roadblocks.

Anonymous said...

90% of alcohol sales are to 10% of the population. Cure alcoholics and the booze industry loses a major customer base. Small breweries will survive as their market is targeting casual drinkers (like me) with quality libations, but big breweries and liquor producers will not want to lose "devoted" customers. -AZM

David Brin said...

DD: I believe there can be ways to interefere with addictive processes, but the overall process of addiction is probably deeply embedded as our reinforcement behavioral system for creating repetition of good and useful habits, like relentlessly taking care of our kids. What we call “addiction” today is only the subset of behaviors and substances that HIJACK that normal reinforcement process.

But yes, maintaining a “herd” of prey animals is what tobacco, gambling and so on rely upon.

Paul sb said...

To follow up a little on what Dr. Brin is saying here, what we normally think of as addiction is an extreme form of the primary mechanism all vertebrate brains use for learning. If you love a person, sports, or trees, it is because your brain has associated those things with beneficial experiences and rewards you for maintaining your relationship with them by releasing chemicals that make you feel good in their presence. Filling your belly with good food feels good because your brain releases dopamine, talking with your friends feels good because your brain releases oxytocin. But cocaine makes you feel much better than normal experience can because it traps dopamine for much longer than it normally acts.If Ibogaine permanently blocks dopamine receptors, you wouldn't be addicted to cocaine anymore, but you also would have no desire to eat and would have difficulty moving your muscles.

I read about Ibogaine for a class on drugs several years ago, when they were saying that it showed great promise. However, I would be doubtful of claims that it can cure several different addictions, as they can involve different neurotransmitters that each have chemically unique receptor molecules. Cocaine hijacks dopamine, heroine hijacks beta endorphine and caffeine hijacks adenosine, to use the examples Mr. Dorais mentions above.

Alex Tolley said...

Re: Myopia
These findings do suggest we should be designing our building to be better lit. Large windows, piped light and bright light fixtures should be used, especially in institutions like schools. Large windows were very much a mid 20th century idea, a feature that started to disappear as energy costs rose and windows became smaller. Time to reverse this trend?

VirScan is a HUGE development. How long before this test is done routinely every year? The benefits run well beyond individual analyses, but also community wide too. I can also see how this can be used as data for viral induced cancers too. Brilliant technology, and dirt cheap.

We really need our Darwin for neuroscience, particularly as applied to medical treatments. With the DSM getting larger each edition, we are stuck with a Linnaean classification system, i.e. "stamp collecting". We really need a systems approach. The good news is that there4 are encouraging signs we are getting there. Along the way, that will also help with building intelligent machines.

Re: Goodbye Parkinsons, Hello Life! I'd like to see a review in a science magazine. So far I'm not seeing that.

Re: this experiment shows that the future talks to the past! That later events influence earlier ones.

This is interesting, if the interpretation is correct. My question is whether their interpretation is correct, or even correctly reported.

Paul451 said...

First fresh images are downloading from New Horizons. Hydra is a crazy distorted asteroid shape. Charon looks very Moon-like (even though it's ice, not rock). And Pluto's surface is almost completely uncratered, which means the surface is very young. And with mountains, geologically active.

Paul451 said...

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield walks the floor at Comic-Con... dressed as a fictional astronaut, with Adam Savage. Coz that's a thing that happens.

Paul SB said...

Alex, if you don't mind a quick carry over from the last thread, you wrote that you were dubious of a claim of 90% efficiency for artificial photosynthesis. The dance of trust and distrust is a difficult line to conga. However, what I typed was 80%, not 90%. Easy mistake to make, but sometimes the more heated answers I read hear from any number of people seem to come from people misreading each other. Reminder intended for all of us.

Alfred Differ said...

Having the future talk to the past isn’t all that unusual. Feynmann’s dissertation has a version of classical electromagnetism that allows a mixing of advanced and retarded Greens functions in light propagation. If mixed right, the theory produces results that are indistinguishable from the standard taught with only retarded (causal) propagation. Just mix them symmetrically and give some kind of meaning to a ‘reflection at the edge of the universe.’

I got to see this as a grad student because my prof was interested in the foundations under QED. We were trying to geometrize the currents and fields using Clifford algebras instead of the standard tools, so we had to think carefully about what causality actually means and how one might produce quanta from a classical field (limiting case). We struggled a bit with our version of QED, but we did learn to abandon concerns about causality. It’s probably just a perception illusion.

David Brin said...

Ah Causality! You guys all look at this! Weigh in if there are aspects you think I should mention...

http://imagination.ucsd.edu/_wp/news/the-physics-of-free-will/

Alex Tolley said...

@PSB - point taken. However my general point stands, be very suspicious of high efficiencies, because they are unlikely to be true in any sense we care for. For example, if we already have 15% efficiency of solar PV cells to create electricity, and the theoretical limit is around 60 or 70%, then it is very unlikely that more complex processes can exceed this bound. In this case, it wouldn't surprise me that the high efficiency refers to just a very narrow band of wavelengths of light, rather than consider4ing the whole spectrum. But again, without reading the paper, I cannot ascertain what the efficiency value refers to.

BTW, it now looks like the 2C limit cannot possibly be met without some form of active carbon sequestration. France is apparently promoting coal burning to keep its workers employed, and carbon emissions may have been increasing at a faster rater since 2000. Our political and economic system is selling humanity down the river.

Alex Tolley said...

Re: The physics of free will. What aspects of causality are likely to be raised? AFAIK, what we know is that we just think we have free will as the mind concocts a story to rationalize our actions.

Alfred Differ said...

Free will is a neat thing to discuss. It's a good way to show that philosophy is more about the arguments and refutations than it is about being right. We weed out 'untruth' by sapping the justifications we use for belief. From this perspective, science is a collection of customs that guide us in our sapping efforts.

Popper wrote one of his later books attacking the argument that the universe was in any way deterministic. It's one of the few of his I read cover to cover. Oof. I walked away from it at the end pretty much convinced that it isn't a matter of fate and/or free will, but simply an information problem. The universe is indeterministic because the amount of information needed to determine a future time from a past time requires all the information in the universe both past and future. If causality can be broken, the information is there, but we replace that problem with the need to be omniscient if our predictions are to work. I suspect the smallest 'space' all that information can occupy is the universe itself, so we are stuck. From our perspective and finiteness, we have no option but to expect indeterminism.

Free will is mostly about the 'intention' illusion, though. Minds produce purpose by imagining the universe different than it might otherwise be and then produce causal actions to steer the future. Physicists should probably stay out of all of this since it is quite an assumption to look for purpose in Nature. Where is the mind behind the purpose?

David Brin said...

Alex & Alfred. My anticipation engine predicted you'd say that. In detail! ;-)

Alex Tolley said...

Alex & Alfred. My anticipation engine predicted you'd say that. In detail!

I'm OK with that. Now had you anticipated these comments last week, that would raise serious causality questions.

David Brin said...

I anticipate and predict that Alex with type "the" during the next few days. He will not have the free will to avoid that fate.

Joe Wagner said...

Might I suggest the very informative EEVblog #751 - How To Debunk A Product (The Batteriser) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iEshd6izgk

Tony Fisk said...

'Anticipation Engine'?

I hope you know what you're dealing with!

Paul SB said...

I anticipate and predict that Alex with type "the" during the next few days. He will not have the free will to avoid that fate.

You know, he might just not type anything at all (or very carefully avoid the definite article, a difficult task in English) just to disprove your anticipation engine. Or was that a ploy? ;]

Daniel Duffy said...

Excelent post Dr. Brin, but you could devote an entire post to just the medical advances in the treatment of Type I diabetes. As a father of a child with diabetes I have had my heart broken repeatedly over the last decade with talk of "cures" which did not pan out (it seems that we can easily cure diabetes in lab mice).

But recent advances on multiple fronts have given me reason to hope, if not for a cure then for a treatment or insluin delivery system that is the next best thing:

Viacyte
Reverse Vaccine
Verapamil
Pancreatic grafts with monoclonal antibody
Smart Insulin
SR1001
Melligan cells
Ustekinumab
Bacillus Calmette–Guerin(BCG)tuberculosis vaccine
Smart Insulin Patch
Artificial Pancrease
Inhalable Insluin

Hopefully one of these (my money is on the smart patch which reads and responds to blood glucose levels for controlled insulin delivery) will be effectively a cure.

Daniel Duffy said...

There are serious existential consequences to the death of free will, just like there are for the death of God.

At the cosmic level, atheists claim that there is no God. Therefore the universe, existence itself (including us) is merely an accidental byproduct of the big Bang. Accidents by definition can have no meaning or purpose. IOW, s**t happens. A Godless universe is one of abject nihilism at the cosmic level since the universe is without meaning, nor does it have a reason for exiting. To quote Steven Weinberg “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

But, atheists counter, we can create our own meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. Sorry, but without free will, you simply can’t. And without a Soul, free will is not possible in a purely mechanical universe. As Dawkins himself admitted, consciousness and the sense of “Self” is nothing “but a big whopping illusion” created by brain chemistry. So at the personal level, atheism again results in abject nihilism.

To quote from Tom Wolfe’s brilliant essay “Sorry but Your Soul Just Died”:

This is also known as the "ghost in the machine" fallacy, the quaint belief that there is a ghostly "self" somewhere inside the brain that interprets and directs its operations. ... This is merely an illusion created by a medley of neurological systems acting in concert. ... Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system—and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth—what makes you think you have free will? Where is it going to come from? What "ghost," what "mind," what "self," what "soul," what anything that will not be immediately grabbed by those scornful quotation marks, is going to bubble up your brain stem to give it to you? ...A hundred years ago those who worried about the death of God could console one another with the fact that they still had their own bright selves and their own inviolable souls for moral ballast and the marvels of modern science to chart the way. But what if, as seems likely, the greatest marvel of modern science turns out to be brain imaging? And what if, ten years from now, brain imaging has proved, beyond any doubt, that not only Edward O. Wilson but also the young generation are, in fact, correct?.... Thereupon, in the year 2006 or 2026, some new Nietzsche will step forward to announce: "The self is dead"—except that being prone to the poetic, like Nietzsche I, he will probably say: "The soul is dead." He will say that he is merely bringing the news, the news of the greatest event of the millennium: "The soul, that last refuge of values, is dead, because educated people no longer believe it exists." Unless the assurances of the Wilsons and the Dennetts and the Dawkinses also start rippling out, the lurid carnival that will ensue may make the phrase "the total eclipse of all values" seem tame.

tl dr: Atheism = nihilism at all levels

Tim K said...

Why the hell does the Universe have to have a meaning?

Daniel Duffy said...

It doesn't have to - if you are a nihilist.

My point is not that atheism is wrong, but that it is inherently and inescapably nihilistic.

An honest athiest would admit this nihilism - even to himself.

A courageous atheist would fully embrace this nihilism and act accordingly.

An honest/courageous atheists would not just stare into the void, he would dive in head first.

But most atheists lack the cojones to do so.

Daniel Duffy said...

You want to write a kick ass SF novel Dr. Brin, write about a future where the "the total eclipse of all values" predicted by Nietzsche has occured.

"Lurid carnival" indeed.

Alfred Differ said...

Anticipation engines are wonderful things. Hofstadter named the process we use to load ours with information about others. Love. The effort to copy another into one’s self is highly rewarded by the system that gets hijacked by other drugs, but success means the difference between mere procreation and having human children. We’ve only recently learned to externalize our thoughts, but we’ve been internalizing each other for countless generations.

Alfred Differ said...

@Daniel: Oops.

“But, atheists counter, we can create our own meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. Sorry, but without free will, you simply can’t. And without a Soul, free will is not possible in a purely mechanical universe. As Dawkins himself admitted, consciousness and the sense of “Self” is nothing “but a big whopping illusion” created by brain chemistry. So at the personal level, atheism again results in abject nihilism.”

First of all, most atheists I know do not claim there is no God. They claim there is not enough evidence to justify belief; therefore we shall operate on a working assumption that there is no God. Some go farther as you describe, but many, many of us don’t. Such an extended claim is itself a belief that is difficult to justify. Personally, I’m reluctant to trade one for the other. It is best to avoid the whole mess.

There is a non-theological definition put forward by Hofstadter for what we mean by ‘soul’, so I reject the argument that God is a necessary feature of my cosmology where I have a soul and free will. Dawkins is focused too much on world one (Popper’s language) features to see the structures in worlds two and three. The ‘self’ is no more an illusion than is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A self is a world three construct born of recursive processes in world one.

Nihilism is not the inevitable conclusion of atheism. It is one of the possibilities, but some of us have found an alternate path.

Alfred Differ said...

Sorry for the small bit of politics here, but I think it is interesting to note the recent price trend on oil and the fact that the break-even price for the Saudi's oil production is about $60/barrel while the price they have to maintain to meet their budget outlays is around $100/barrel. They are currently bleeding from their reserves and having to borrow again.

This has the potential to get political as we swing for the fences with our drive toward energy independence.

Paul451 said...

Daniel Duffy,
"But, atheists counter, we can create our own meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. Sorry, but without free will, you simply can't. And without a Soul, free will is not possible in a purely mechanical universe."

As I've pointed out before when you've repeated this argument, all you are doing is proposing a magic free-will generator, but denying anyone else the right to also suppose that such a magic free-will generator could arise within their own framework.

The difference being that our magic free-will generator must be consistent with that framework, and will likely expand that framework in a scientifically useful way. Yours is just a god-of-gaps non-explanation. You get to wave your hands and say "God did it", and it tells us absolutely nothing about free-will. Or souls. Or god. Or the universe.

As an explanation, therefore, is is worthless. Intellectually lazy. A pretend solution, whose only purpose is to allow you to put a philosophical conundrum in a box labelled "solved", even though you didn't actually solve anything.

(What is the "soul" you are supposing? What are its properties? The only requirements to solve the philosophical conundrum of free-will vs determinism is that it somehow generates "free will". How does it do that? How does it interact with our meat-brains? Does it carry your personality and memories beyond your meat-brain? Does it exist after you die (as I'm sure you want to believe)? That's not required in order to solve the free-will problem, but saying "yes" brings up much greater philosophical issues, as well as inconsistencies with what we know about how the brain functions. For example, the experiments which supposedly show that we don't have free-will in the classically understood sense, but instead manufacture free-will-arguments after the fact to explain decisions made by autonomous brain functions. So how do those experiments exclude the free-will generating function of the soul during the experiment, but still feel to the participants exactly the same as having free-will? Why does the functioning of the soul disappear when you do experiments which explore free-will, but not change people's behaviour?)

Steve O said...

@ Daniel,

Well that might work for a sophomore, but it is not a very strong argument. You are trapped by your unstated premises and word meanings. My thoughts...and I am not a philosopher but an engineer, so make of it what you will.

You say, "...without a Soul, free will is not possible in a purely mechanical universe." First, define "purely mechanical universe" in a way that is consistent with our understanding of the actual universe (I'll be interested to see how you resolve quantum physics with that). Second, please provide proof that the presence of a soul provides free will in such a defined universe (also provide a definition of "soul"). You are just making assertions about and with words here - semantic content nil. (Also, you are not really using the word "nihilism" correctly, but let's go with it.)

Next you make an assertion that without free will you can't make meaning in life. This is just silly - meaning is a subjective assessment, and even if we were to grant that free will is an illusion and the world is deterministic, it is *our* illusion, and thus meaning and free will matter to us, regardless of their objective reality. Of course Self is an illusion - so what, it is an inescapable one. It looks to us that our decisions influence our experience, so why not "act" that way?

Finally, let's presume that the many universes interpretation of quantum mechanics is a true-enough representation of reality - then free will (regardless of the existence or not of a god) becomes vitally important. The particular branch of reality that you are more likely to create/experience is dependent on the higher probability paths in your subjective future. By having "choosen" (consciously or not) paths that lead to a certain subjective present (i.e. burning certain behaviors and memories of consequences in your neurons), you narrow the range of what is likely to be in your subjective future, with certain paths that are much more likely than others. Thus if in my past I have chosen to be a nice person, my subjectively experienced future is likely to contain the consequences of having chosen such a path.

Paul451 said...

cont.

Not just intellectually lazy, but deliberately intellectually dishonest...

Daniel,
"My point is not that atheism is wrong, but that it is inherently and inescapably nihilistic.
An honest athiest would admit this nihilism - even to himself."


...Using one carefully broad definition of "nihilism": The lack of ultimate meaning/purpose in the existence of the universe itself.

But then, mid-argument...

"A courageous atheist would fully embrace this nihilism and act accordingly.
An honest/courageous atheists would not just stare into the void, he would dive in head first.
You want to write a kick ass SF novel Dr. Brin, write about a future where the "the total eclipse of all values" "


...Switching to another, completely different, extremely narrow definition of "nihilism": Rejecting all moral or ethical principles in personal behaviour, in the belief that life is personally meaningless.

(BTW, you assume that atheists aren't acting accordingly with the idea of no universal-purpose. You believe that the only way an atheist should act without God is with utter barbarism. "What stops you from raping and murdering children if you don't believe in God?" To me, this says more about the person making the argument. Do you really have no restraint on your behaviour except your belief in God? Are you really just a psychopath who believes in a omniscient cop?)

Steve O said...

The rational actor examines their past state in order to make decisions in the current state that accentuate the probability of a subjectively more appealing future state(since I experience time linearly, regardless of how it really is). By having been the type of person who is, say, truthful and nice to others, I hope to make a future that is most rewarding to me more likely. Had I chosen different paths, my future might contain very few futures that are appealing to me. I don't need a god to tell me how to behave, I can rationally choose actions that have led to better outcomes in the past for myself or others. The smarter rational actor realizes that decisions they make also influence the larger context or society in which they exist. Thus the rational basis for ethics - seeking correct behavior to optimize benefits for the individual and society becomes an exercise in quantum mechanics - making certain trends more or less likely for your subjective experience. a.k.a. teach your kids to be nice and they are more likely to take care of you when you are old. ;)

So to the atheist, being accountable for their decisions is even more important than for a religionist. The religionist of most current faiths knows that their god will forgive their terrible decisions if they ask nicely and propitiate the god. The atheist knows that their actions, past, present, and future, have repercussions for all of reality, and that those consequences, fair or not, rest solely with them.

So if a religionist comes to believe that there is no god, they might very well say, "Why behave well now, without an invisible Caucasian sky god to punish me," and thus Wolfe's lurid carnival. The ethical atheist on the other hand chooses a behavior because they understand that they do have responsibility, and that there is no way to shrug it off with a dispensation from a god. The belief or disbelief of a soul doesn't change this at all. This is the very opposite of "nihilism" as you are using it - the overwhelming understanding of the very personal responsibility one person has for all their actions, intended or not. "Nihilism" (as you are using it) is a function of a mind set that finds it logical to conclude, "If there is no god or meaning to the universe, the only thing to do is do crazy stuff." It is an expected outcome of inculcating belief in a supernatural punishment-being into people's brain.

This conclusion never occur to someone rational, since meaning isn't found for them by external imposition of a god's rules, the sudden lack thereof robbing them of meaning, but by the intrinsic desire for future attractive paths.

Steve O said...

Heh, Paul and I interspersing...

Daniel Duffy said...

"God is a necessary feature of my cosmology where I have a soul and free will."

I'm afraid you misread me.

God is necessary to avoid the macro-nihilism of an accidental, meaningless universe.

The Soul is necessary to avoid the micro-nihilism of the lack of free will and destruction of the Self.

Though it is possible to beleive in a non-material Soul while disbelieving in God, this would be a rather odd viewpoint.

"They claim there is not enough evidence to justify belief"

That would be the definition of an agnostic. Atheism is not a "working assumption" it is a definitive belief (or non-belief depending on the semantic games being played).

Daniel Duffy said...

"So to the atheist, being accountable for their decisions is even more important than for a religionist"

The atheist can imagine that he is responsible for his own decisions, but that is not physically possible in the absence of free will and the Self.

It's all a futile illlusion.

Daniel Duffy said...

"A pretend solution"

I offer no solution, only an observation.

In the absence of free will,witht he self being nothing but an illusion, we cannot create own meaning in an inherently meaningless universe.

Nihilism uber alles.

Daniel Duffy said...

"believe that the only way an atheist should act without God is with utter barbarism."

Human nature's default setting is "utter barbarism". We are not by nature a nice species, no successfuls species ever is.

It's not that we should be barbarian, we ARE barbarians.

In the absence of the restraint imposed by the fear of God we devolve very quickly into our basic nature.

Daniel Duffy said...

"Thus the rational basis for ethics - seeking correct behavior to optimize benefits for the individual and society becomes an exercise in quantum mechanics - making certain trends more or less likely for your subjective experience."

You assume humans are rational. Nothing could be further from the truth.

You further assume that self interest is a sufficient basis for morality.

http://www.arn.org/docs/johnson/pj_robotrebellion.htm

Modern Darwinists can respond that selfish genes do not always make selfish people, because it may be in the interests of the genes to encourage some forms of social cooperation, particularly within the family. For example, a mother might spread her genes most effectively by sacrificing her own life to preserve the lives of her offspring, who carry the same genes.

That's a pretty weak reassurance when contemplating the kinds of things that commissars and fuehrers tend to do. Stronger medicine is required if Darwinism is to avoid the obloquy that now attaches to "social Darwinism," and so Dawkins desperately tries to square his gene theory with some acceptable morality by proposing a robot rebellion. He writes: "Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to." (TSG, p. 3)

This is not only absurd but embarrassingly naive. If human nature is actually constructed by genes whose predominant quality is a ruthless selfishness, then pious lectures advocating qualities like generosity and altruism are probably just another strategy for furthering selfish interests. Ruthless predators are often moralistic in appearance, because that is how they disarm their intended victims. The genes who teach their robot vehicles not to take morality seriously, but to take advantage of fools who do, will have a decisive advantage in the Darwinian competition. If a man is preparing his son for a career with the Chicago mafia, he'd better not teach him to be loving and trusting. But he might teach him to feign loyalty while he is planning treachery!


Paul451 said...

Steve O,
"First, define "purely mechanical universe" in a way that is consistent with our understanding of the actual universe (I'll be interested to see how you resolve quantum physics with that)."

(Anticipating Daniel's response, and the counter-argument...)

Actually, QM is very deterministic. It is probabilistic, but incredibly deterministic within that probabilistic framework. It isn't classically "deterministic" in the sense that Newton would have understood, but it is deterministic in the sense that we use for arguments about free-will. So QM isn't the mechanism for free-will.

However, the fact that we had to redefine determinism away from the classical understanding in order to create a framework that includes QM is the counter-argument. We clearly haven't reached the end of knowledge. There's nothing to suggest that a causeless, "mechanical" universe can't have an underlying mechanism that allows free-will for beings inside it. Something underlying QM that satisfies the requirements of self-determinism without losing universal-determinism.

Me,
"Do you really have no restraint on your behaviour except your belief in God? Are you really just a psychopath who believes in a omniscient cop?"

Daniel,
"Human nature's default setting is "utter barbarism".
In the absence of the restraint imposed by the fear of God we devolve very quickly into our basic nature."


So my suggestion was correct. You are a psychopath restraining your behaviour only because your believe you are being watched?

Paul451 said...

Daniel,
Re: "Selfish gene", vs "selfish people".

Again, this is a redefinition of terms to create the illusion of an argument. Biologists are clearly not using the term "selfish" in "selfish gene" to mean the same thing that "selfish" in "selfish people". They are simply referring to its blind, unguided nature. Hence there's no reason that a gene that encodes for selfish behaviour is advantageous in a social animal. Indeed, empathy seems to be a vital part of learning and communicating, not just in functioning in a social group.

(Clearly psychopathy gives some advantages or it wouldn't be as common as it is. But only up to a point. Non-psychopaths have an obvious (and "selfish") interest in rooting out and shunning/jailing/killing psychopaths. Hence our revulsion.)

Paul451 said...

Philae has made brief contact again.

I can see why my genetic tendency for empathy would occasionally be hijacked by a story about a mere machine trying so hard to be heard... I'm just not sure why a "soul" would.

Treebeard said...

To me nihilism is a little more radical and problematic that some of you may realize. The universe revealed by science – a pointless collection of atoms acting randomly in a void, with no creator, plan or purpose – pretty much undermines all human constructs except maybe the laws of physics, doesn’t it? We might as well be living in a joke universe created by Azathoth, and prophesied by Lovecraft. Even our language becomes useless; terms like “take responsibility” and “create your own values” are just words, devoid of physical reality. No abstract values have any substance derivable from physics. Nothing is true, everything is permitted (except faster than light travel, etc.)

So maybe the Taoist and Zen masters were ahead of the curve, in realizing the Void beneath our language-constructed reality. As Ch’an master Seng-T’san said: “The struggle between good and evil is the primal disease of the mind.” Science has deconstructed the religions that gave rise to it; the next frontier is to deconstruct the bogus “progressivism” that is trying to replace them. One wonders if science will survive itself.

But maybe these are all just questions of diseased minds, infected by language and memes without substance. Back to the meditation cushion....

Alfred Differ said...

@Daniel: I know people who use the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ the way you do, but quite a few of us don’t. Atheism is about the avoidance of theistic belief. When I was first learning this stuff, my mother taught me the term ‘nontheist’ as a way to try to avoid the confusion people have created around the ‘atheist’ term. A strict definition for ‘agnostic’ should translate as ‘I don’t know’ or ‘It isn’t knowable’, but many people interpret it to imply a certain level of indecision or wishy-washy-ness. In the US, many people who self-identify as atheists (like me) are actually both. We argue that this stuff isn’t knowable and then try to avoid unjustified beliefs. Some of us who self-identify as atheists (like me) go a small step farther and point out that adopting unjustified belief when it isn’t necessary is dumb.

As for macro-nihilism, that’s also kind of dumb. The existence of God does not necessarily help us avoid a lack of meaning for the universe. One needs a particular kind of God to get that, but that’s a poor justification when the argument exists that assigning meaning to the universe is like assigning color to numbers. You can do it, but why would you? If you do it to justify a belief in God, your reasoning is circular and the whole edifice lacks justification. Feel free to assign color to numbers, but don’t be alarmed when some of us avoid this unnecessary step while continuing to justify our other beliefs other ways.

I’ll admit that I think the people who argue that ‘self’ does not exist are nutty. It’s pretty obvious they do and I think my belief is justified. Such people limit their cosmology to tangible things yet some marvel at the patterns between them. Those patterns exist without the need to adopt Plato’s Ideals and the ensuing nonsense. A ‘soul’ can be one of those patterns (David’s standing waves from Kiln People) without it being all that odd. Hofstadter’s version is like a standing wave because it is a set of attractors, but without the magical thinking.

SteveO said...

Hey Paul,

I teach stats, so I know the shortcomings of trying to use English to describe math...

QM is not "deterministic" in the sense that any individual event can be predicted. It can be bounded with likely occurrences so we can say what is likely to happen given a large enough sample. It is stable and predictable in aggregate, which allows amazing precision of predictions. But any individual occurrence cannot be predicted.

So, by the very definition of the equations, you can't tell if *that* particular photon is going to go through or bounce off of the beam splitter (one way "mechanical universe" could be defined), but we can with staggering accuracy predict how many will end up one place or the other (another way "mechanical universe" could be defined).

That is why I wanted to see how he defined a "purely mechanical universe." It is trivial and dismissable if he defines it as following probabilistic rules - duhh - but shows the limits of thinking if he doesn't understand the role that random variation plays in reality. I *believe* (note word choice) that this variation is where free will lives. It will be interesting to see if there is proof of this.

Otherwise, we are on the same page. It is interesting how we come at it from different directions. Of interest to me is a rational basis for ethical behavior. :)

Daniel Duffy said...

"First, define "purely mechanical universe" in a way that is consistent with our understanding of the actual universe (I'll be interested to see how you resolve quantum physics with that)."

Quantum physics occurs at the sub atomic level not at the real world level of brain chemistry.

To imply that quantum mechanics influences or causes thought and consicousness is borderline mystical.

It is als by its very quantum nature to be non-falsifiable and therfore a meaningess statement under the Popperian definition of science.

Daniel Duffy said...

"Atheism is about the avoidance of theistic belief."

The strident militancy of the modern atheist belies that simple statement.

Daniel Duffy said...

"You are a psychopath" =! "Mankind is not basically good or nice."

Travc said...

The digitaljournal article is pretty painful. The "reality does not exist if you are not looking at it” line is the worst IMO.
The whole "collapsing wavefunction" metaphor has done great harm to quantum physics. It is much easier to understand the double-slit (and the cooler "Quantum Eraser" variant) using measurement and entanglement.
Anyways, the article should simply be titled "Double-slit experiment done with protons". That is an experimental achievement, but the results are exactly what we expected them to be and it isn't the first double-slit experiment with a massive 'particle'.

If you're really interested in QM, I suggest reading Chris Adami's blog (about 1 post per month) http://adamilab.blogspot.com/ The latest post is about exactly this topic and even uses some of the same wikimedia images. Oh, and Chris is reasonably funny as well as wicked smart.

David Brin said...

DD: Dang that’s rough re your child. Here’s hoping/praying that good things happen for your family.

Though sorry. This is just a non-sequitur assertion: “And without a Soul, free will is not possible in a purely mechanical universe.” Likewise: “An honest athiest would admit this nihilism - even to himself.”

These are assertions. Moreover it just shifts the quandary to a different black box called the “soul.” And where does THAT box get its free will?

Look, I don’t want to gang up on Daniel. My reflex is to defend our community’s diversity and – since I am not an atheist – I can happily speak up for there still being “gaps” in which God can be hiding, covering his mouth and snickering while deliberately staying ambiguous and out of plain sight. In fact see my theology talk: "So you want to make gods. Now why would that bother anybody?" http://tinyurl.com/3lbyybv

Nevertheless I must object to this: “pious lectures advocating qualities like generosity and altruism are probably just another strategy for furthering selfish interests.”
… Um… who has delivered the vast majority of pious lectures advocating generosity and altruism? Finger wagging from pulpits, while excusing the kings and lords who robbed the people of almost everything? The vast amount of raw human PAIN only began to abate when we made religion purely voluntary and recreational ! When we made theology secondary to human-centered problem-solving modalities.

Outcomes tell all. We started getting nicer… vastly nicer… the more that religion became optional, not obligate. Now that may just be an observational correlation, with hidden and/or nonexistent cause and effect… like Republican administrations ALWAYS having negative effects on US health metrics. Still, it is significant.

You mention commissars and fueuhers – well both communism and Nazism qualify as fanatical religions, in every sense of the word, though not canonically Abrahamic ones. It was their romantic-zealous-transcendental pathologies that made them so ruthless. And it was the contingent and non-religious, diversity tolerating qualities of America that made us forgiving and generous to our enemies, after WWII.

That was a choice! And while some religious leaders played roles in that choice -- (and the later civil rights movement) -- the choice was largely and mostly made in the realm of civil and agnostic thought.

David Brin said...

But thanks Daniel, for stimulating the gang! Cool discussion! And it even provoked someone pretending to be "treebeard" to come out and offer thoughts that were cogent and well-parsed and grownup-sounding. We all wish you well.

Alfred Differ said...

@treebeard: The theories of physics don't undermine creators, plans, and purposes. They mostly ignore them as not relevant to their domain of study. If everything has to be about a creator for them to have meaning in our lives, then I suppose this is a form of undermining. It is a form of free thinking. As long as you don't mind us thinking about other stuff besides creators, plans, and purposes, though, it is just that we are preoccupied with other ideas.

David Brin said...

Alfred, what science does is it carves away realms wherein God is unneeded and irrelevant. It does not disprove Him, but it does corner Him.

Religions have backpedaled, conceding to human science and society ever larger fractions of the universe. The first concession was PHYSICALLY the largest... allowing Galileo's heirs primacy in the 99.9999999999% of the cosmos that's "out there." Then Franklin's lightning rods banished Zeus-ian instant bolt-punishment and microscopes did the same to disease. Thirty years ago it would have been HUGE and caused a fury for scientists to make life in a test tube. But that was pre-backpedaled by redefining "life" in order to eliminate the trauma.

How can I not be an atheist, faced with this seemingly endless process? Because it's exactly how IO'd arrange things, if *I* were a "god." (And I have been, for many created universes.) If we are meant to be apprentice co-creators... and almost ALL theological and scientific evidence suggests that's His plan (if He exists)... then the Great Sermon is "figure it all out for yourselves."

Think about it. Leaving us free to mess about in the Lab of Creation is consistent EITHER with His nonexistence... or with "figure it out for yourselves." So is leaving it up to us to create a more decent version of human civilization, AS-IF it were entirely up to us and not a matter of dad supervision from above.

THAT is the God of the gaps. Retreating from our science light and leaving ever-more up to us... yes, that eliminates and utterly disproves many kinds of godhead... but not all. Nonexistence is only the foremost likely theory. There is plenty of room for: "Hah! My clever children, you made me pull back again, as I hoped all along! Now keep probing and growing and learning and improving. I'll be watching and waiting."

And yes, it is even possible there might be "meddling" also. Certainly we know that prayer has one positive outcome that happens pretty often... the delivery of STRENGTH. Yes, that is likely just tapping into natural human reserves. But it MIGHT be genuine. We have no way to disprove that. Yet.

But the main thing is this. If He *is* there, backpedaling to keep out of direct sight, then the foremost possible reason is the apprentice-creator hypothesis. Why else would science be so fantastically successful! We are built for this, as if on purpose. Indeed, there's no reason to believe that evolution alone would so equip us to be scientists. Indeed, that is the strongest argument for "creation" that I have ever seen.

We are built to chase Him down.

Alfred Differ said...

@Daniel: Yah. There are certainly some strident militants out there. The problem is those are the people you are going to see easily. The rest of us aren’t so vocal, so you might be misled into thinking you know who we are and what we are like.

“Quantum physics occurs at the sub atomic level not at the real world level of brain chemistry.”

I’m not sure how you can conclude that. It probably does. The moment you use the world ‘chemistry’ you are sorta stuck with QM.

“To imply that quantum mechanics influences or causes thought and consicousness is borderline mystical.”

Yup… if you restrict yourself to ‘cause thought.’ The people who go looking for free will in QM are chasing a form of mysticism as far as I can tell. They need some place for a soul and look for it in the fuzziness of uncertainty. It ain’t there, but one can learn some interesting physics along the way.

You are on the wrong track with your statement about QM being nonfalsifiable, though. It makes some very strong predictions that can be tested to failure. Quantum theory should be described in the plural, though, as ‘quantum’ is more like a meta-theory in the same way ‘relativity’ is. Quantum theories are constructs that avoid modeling what cannot be known (e.g. infinite precision measurements).

Paul SB said...

Fun fun fun!

Seriously, there are a whole lot of assumptions here that make viewpoints seem internally logical, but those assumptions have been shown to be if not outright wrong then much more nuanced than adherents of either side get. Take this one:

- and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth. - Tom Wolfe, quoted by Daniel Duffy

Major bunk here. The whole purpose of a brain (and not just a human brain) is to make behavioral flexibility (a.k.a. learning) possible. No brain arrives fully imprinted at birth, or we would be nothing but babbling babies incapable of learning to walk, much less argue pointless debates that should have died with the Reformation. But the belief that we are nothing but products of our instincts has always had important political implications, so this obvious nonsense lives in most of our state-level cultures.

Or how about:
Human nature's default setting is "utter barbarism". We are not by nature a nice species, no successfuls species ever is.

It's not that we should be barbarian, we ARE barbarians.

In the absence of the restraint imposed by the fear of God we devolve very quickly into our basic nature. - Daniel Duffy

This is a major part of the propaganda that supports most religious institutions, that we are all evil by nature, so we must have some angry master to oversee us and force us to behave. While this notion has a very long history in Western thought, it is not supported by biology, which shows prosocial behavior among quite a few animals in addition to humans and our immediate ancestors. Neurology also fails to support this simplistic overstatement. Our brains would not be rewarding us for social behavior with neurotransmitters that make us feel good if it were in the interests of our "selfish genes" to be 100% ruthless monsters. While huge numbers of people believe this old meme, it is wrong, plain and simple. If 5 billion people are wrong, they are still wrong.

First of all, most atheists I know do not claim there is no God. They claim there is not enough evidence to justify belief; therefore we shall operate on a working assumption that there is no God - Alfred Differ

As Daniel Duffy correctly pointed out, an atheist and an agnostic are not the same thing. An atheist claims that there is no god of any kind, period, as if they had the ability to see all there is (Fallacy of Immaculate Perception). Agnostics honestly admit that they just don't know (the opposite of gnostics, who claim to have privileged knowledge). Ironically it is usually the theists who can't tell the difference, which makes attitude surveys about atheists highly questionable. (My own suspicion is that some of the atheists are as militant as they are not just because they are a tiny minority but because they feel they have to distinguish themselves from agnostics as well, who most people think are them).

Paul SB said...

Ultimately the whole debate about free will vs. determinism is an anachronism. The answers people give to it tell us more about their upbringing than anything useful about how they actually behave. I went to a Presbyterian church for many years, it was one of the most popular sects where I came from. They are a primarily Scottish offshoot of Calvinism, for whom predestination is a given, and a major point of contention with other Christian sects, for whom free will is a critical doctrinal issue.

Why not just drop the whole issue and be practical? The debate only serves the purpose of labeling people with all the social ugliness that entails. Do we have free will, or is our behavior determined by something else (God, selfish genes, Richard Dawkins?). The answer clearly is yes. Are we animals guided by instinct or men guided by reason? Yes, once again. While it is much harder to tease out the exact nature of our instincts, it is quite obvious that we make decisions, and that those decisions often contradict our instincts, so free will is at least a partial given, same with good & evil, right & wrong, right & left, masculine & feminine, emotional & logical. They are all false dichotomies, reified by our ancient, oversimplifying cultures and traditions and passed along as deep wisdom by people who want your vote, your money, and/or your admiration.

Steve O said...

Hey Daniel,

Erm...

"Quantum physics occurs at the sub atomic level not at the real world level of brain chemistry."

This shows a fundamental misunderstanding about quantum physics. Just because large numbers aggregate into something that looks like chemistry doesn't mean it isn't there and that it has no influence. It is really a distribution of reactions, with a distribution shape, location, variation, and changes through time that all have components related to QM at its most basic level. Oh, and your car's airbag works only because of a quantum-level effects. Look at a CD in the light or take two polarized lenses and rotate them - your brain is directly seeing quantum effects at a macro level.

"To imply that quantum mechanics influences or causes thought and consicousness is borderline mystical."

The influence of QM on consciousness is in principle observable, which makes it the opposite of mysticism. e.g. Del Giudice E, Doglia S, Milani M, Vitiello G (1986). "Electromagnetic field and spontaneous symmetry breaking in biological matter". Nucl. Phys. B 275: 185–199. Now I don't know if this is *true* but certainly random variation's role in consciousness can be tested. By the way, it is an explanatory mechanism for Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" many voices model. Others have made stronger claims of QMs role in consciousness - this remains to be shown, but again it is in principle testable. e.g. http://discovermagazine.com/2009/feb/13-is-quantum-mechanics-controlling-your-thoughts

"It is also by its very quantum nature to be non-falsifiable and therfore a meaningess statement under the Popperian definition of science. "

This indicates an ignorance of how the practice of science works. Science does not require falsification, though of course it is nice. Otherwise, stellar evolution and what results from tobacco inhalation would still be mysteries. See http://www.csicop.org/si/show/end_of_science http://www.lehman.edu/deanhum/philosophy/platofootnote/PlatoFootnote.org/Outreach_files/SI.pdf and Bayesian statistics. (maybe http://lesswrong.com/lw/2b0/bayes_theorem_illustrated_my_way/)

A.F. Rey said...

One point that seems to be lacking is what meant by "free will."

To me, free will simply means being able to make my own decisions.

I make these decisions based on my competing wants. For instance, I want to fly, but more importantly I don't want to be hurt. Hence I don't jump off the Torrey Pines cliffs for fun.

Part of these wants is to be fair (as shown by the innate "fairness" that chimpanzees demonstrate). From this I infer that we have a basic desire to be ethical (which is perhaps something we developed from being social "herd" animals).

When combined with a complex brain that has houses different desires, with a mechanism to weigh these desires and plan a course of actions, along with a feedback mechanism, I see no need for a consciousness outside of the body to explain our behavior.

And with our innate desire for fairness and ethics, I see no reason we cannot have morals even without a god to oversee us and/or provide them. Our morals are those behaviors that benefit our survival over the long term. You don't need a god for that.

Paul451 said...

David,
"Because it's exactly how IO'd arrange things, if *I* were a "god." (And I have been, for many created universes.)"

Of course, if a universe is created by an author-god, then the "purpose" of the universe is the needs of the narrative. I'm not sure that bodes well for us characters finding personal meaning in our lives. Especially those of us likely to be merely background characters, mentioned only en-mass to create drama for the mains.

Treebeard,
"But maybe these are all just questions of diseased minds, infected by language and memes without substance."

How is language and culture a disease for our minds, any more than food is a disease of our bodies?

Alfred Differ said...

@David: I’ve thought about your approach to deism and have no qualms with it. It has a pleasant feel to it and offers a type of consistency that should appeal to people who have passed through an enlightenment era. With that kind of Creator, I can be appreciative when I’m in the mood and blissfully ignore Him when I’m not and it won’t matter. I can be what I am without the guilt trip, so there is an appeal to it.

Still… it isn’t necessary and I’ll admit to being a bit of a minimalist. I’m just a finite human enjoying himself. I play when I construct models of the world as I’m sure you do. Your apprentice-creator hypothesis still works with no creator. We can imagine one and self-apprentice. Self-delusion is such an easy thing to do. Adam Smith described it well with our approach to self-judgment.

Essentially, I don’t feel the need to adopt unjustified belief even when it is internally consistent. Numbers don’t need colors to be useful to us and our universe doesn’t need purpose to have meaning for us. Everyone is welcome to assign their own, of course. I’ll just scratch my head in confusion and then return to model play.

Paul451 said...

Paul SB,
"An atheist claims that there is no god of any kind, period, as if they had the ability to see all there is (Fallacy of Immaculate Perception). Agnostics honestly admit that they just don't know (the opposite of gnostics, who claim to have privileged knowledge)."

No. There's not a single continuum from Strong-Believer -to- Weak-Believer -to- "Spiritual" -to- Agnostic -to- Weak-Atheist -to- Strong-Atheist. Theism and gnosticism are not on the same scale, they are two separate largely independent scales. "Belief in religious ideas", and "claimed knowledge about the nature of god". You can be anywhere on either scale.

You can be non-theistic, but strongly non-gnostic. True classical agnostic, which I suspect you see yourself as, in order to differentiate yourself from the Angry Atheists.

You can be theistic, but non-gnostic. "Spiritual". You believe there's something supernatural out there, but don't know what.

You can be strongly theistic, but weakly gnostic. I'd suggest the majority of religious people.

Strongly theistic, and strongly gnostic. Classic fundamentalists. My religion is the one-true religion. God sent his teachings to us in this book. Anything that opposes this book is a lie, and the liars my enemy.

Strongly non-theistic, but weakly gnostic. The majority of atheists, and (I suspect) the majority of people who call themselves "agnostic" in the US. I know (or am reasonably sure) there's no evidence for god, whom I do not believe in. (People who call themselves "agnostic", in the US sense, add "But I'm open minded". But that's a different scale again.)

And you can be strongly non-theistic, and strongly gnostic. The minority of "Angry Atheists". I know there's evidence for the absence of god, whom I don't believe in.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: Daniel is trying to make a fair distinction, but it is too simplistic. It is what I commonly see when a theist tries to fathom the atheist.

There are two camps among the atheists. One believes there is no God. The other does not believe there is a God. Neither is making a statement about whether it is possible to justify their position. Neither is an agnostic, but many of the second group are also agnostics because they DO believe it is not possible to know.

I’m an atheist in the sense that I do not believe in a God. There are days when I’m also an agnostic, but my belief is very weak. When pushed, I admit that I don’t know if it is possible to know and suspect it isn’t. To avoid unjustified belief, I should simply avoid it as best I can, but I don’t avoid beliefs regarding ‘self’, ‘free will’, ‘purpose’, and a number of other things. I just have to give those beliefs a different foundation from the typical ones used by theists.


Yes... this IS fun. 8)

ElitistB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alfred Differ said...

@Paul451: I like your language regarding treating them as different dimensions of belief. When I say there are two camps among the atheists, I have to qualify that with 'two camps I know from personal experience' now. 8)

David Brin said...

Alfred D, yes, the parsimonious and simplest explanation for the Great Sermon is that He’s just not there. But it’s not he ONLY answer to the GS. He may be refusing to answer pleas for direct and incontrovertible communication with us for other reasons. e.g. non-omnipotence — He’s prevented, somehow. My “figure it out for yourselves” exclusion somewhat lets him off the hook, morally.

(If he does damn folks for wrong belief… AND he refuses to just explicitly explain the rules… then he is worse than the worst human villain. We owe such an entity nothing.)

What all this shows is that the carving away of what he is NOT - and admitting our light has not yet shone into some corners, where He MIGHT be giggling and waiting - is far more interesting than making grand declarations, one way or the other.

Daniel Duffy said...

"One believes there is no God. The other does not believe there is a God."

AKA "Strong Atheism" and "Weak Atheism" (the later is not the same as agnosticism.

And then there are the militant, strident, Anti-Theists - the Fundies of atheism

Daniel Duffy said...

The existence or non-existence of God can be neither proven nor disproven either empirically or logically. All either side can do is marshal evidence in support of their claim, but proof will never be possible.

Asking whether or not God exists (using orbiting teapot or invisible pink unicorn analogies) is the wrong question from square one.

Orbiting teacups and unicorns cannot give meaning to existence. Which is why I focus on the important question, does existence have meaning and purpose?

Whether you believe God exists or not depends on how you answer this question.

A universe created by accident can have no meaning by definition. A universe created by God OTOH would have a purpose and a reason for existing. What that purpose could be is irrelevant (it could be for an evil purpose).

As such, the question of God's existence is nothing more than a Rorschach test that only reveals the inner nihilism of the atheist and can say nothing about whether God actually exists.

Mind you that "God" does not have to be a spiritual being. "God" could easily be a programmer that wrote the code to the Matrix we all live in, or the particle scientist that created a bubble universe that we live in with his particle accelerator.

Paul SB said...

Paul451,

Nice taxonomy you have going there! I like it, especially since it falls below the scalar stress number, though with my aging brain I'll still have to write it down, make flashcards and study it to put it to use. But it shows much more in-depth analysis than what I am used to hearing.

Alfred, agnostics I have known are of two minds regarding whether it is possible to know whether or not any gods or other supernatural entities exist (isn't /supernatural/ kind of an oxymoron, anyway?). Some say no way, we just aren't capable, others say it's possible but we haven't seen it yet. Once again, I prefer to be practical. There are lots of books, lots of opinions, schools of thought, whatever, but no solid proof that any specific deity has any specific intent or set of guidelines. As A.F. Rey said above, we have enough examples of moral behavior from non-human animals to show the lie in the without God you are evil argument. I am satisfied just trying to live the best life I can manage. It's fun speculating, but it is nothing to get mad about, raise our blood pressure, strap bombs to our chests, burn heretics at the stake. I'm not even sure it is worth writing dissertations on.

Dr. Brin,
(If he does damn folks for wrong belief… AND he refuses to just explicitly explain the rules… then he is worse than the worst human villain. We owe such an entity nothing.)

That kind of thinking lost me jobs, friends and respectability where I grew up. It's funny that maybe the Internet (or perhaps some corners of it) is in some ways safer than the real world.

Daniel Duffy said...

And then there is strong evidence that the brains of theists and atheists are wired differently.

http://www.uncommondescent.com/atheism/are-atheists-brains-wired-differently/

Several studies have revealed that people who practice meditation or have prayed for many years exhibit increased activity and have more brain tissue in their frontal lobes, regions associated with attention and reward, as compared with people who do not meditate or pray. A more recent study revealed that people who have had “born again” experiences have a smaller hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in emotions and memory, than atheists do. These findings, however, are difficult to interpret because they do not clarify whether having larger frontal lobes or a smaller hippocampus causes a person to become more religious or whether being pious triggers changes in these brain regions.

If are brains are differently wired, one side will never convince the other.

David Brin said...

Daniel I’d not join in ganging up on you… except you seem to be enjoying yourself. Let us know the instant (!) that stops being true!

“Asking whether or not God exists (using orbiting teapot or invisible pink unicorn analogies) is the wrong question from square one.”

Sorry… wrong. The Great Sermon is the fact — THE salient fact. An omnipotent and omniscient and judgmental being declares we’ll be punished for wrong belief, and refuses simply to open up the sky, appear as a great big hairy thunderer and TELL us what correct belief is? So unambiguously that 99% of humans would rush to believe, and thus be saved?

The Great Sermon is the fact that that never happens. And it teaches “Either I don’t exist or else I have deliberately set things up so that is the logical conclusion.”

Again, we are getting better and nicer in DIRECT proportion to the decline of strength of religion in national and daily life. I won’t do a Dennett-Hitchens-Dawkins and declare that means religion is always evil. It was sometimes how primitive men helped to control themselves. But it utterly disproves the notion that religion is the oNLY way to improve our moral behavior.

Nihilist? Hardly. If he doesn’t exist (the top explanation for the Great Sermon) then we will seek and find “meaning”… if in no other way through creative (godlike) projects of our own. If he does exist, the GS means we’re _supposed to doubt him and figure stuff out ourselves. BOTH of those possibilities are rife with plenty of “meaning.”

Jumper said...

One can separate "creator" from "godness" if one desires, so I'm with Daniel on this one. An atheist can reject the whole concept of "worship" and argue fairly well that that's the part of "religion" (at least the kind that has gods) that is the unacceptable part.

As for "purpose" no soul is required, except in the sense that maybe souls are foma (lies)which make some people happy and wise. I don't have an existential problem with acting as if my purpose is happiness of the most maudlin sort. It's a goal, and its facets are multiple, including, for example, the joy of learning new stuff, as well as seeking comfort and warmth and tasty food.

Regarding the Void, it is quite a mystery, as there is something undetermined which seems to have arisen from it. it looks like the ultimate positive sum game to me. So why would anyone equate nihilism (a strictly mechanical definition, not the emotional pit often tied to it, incorrectly) with badness?

Alex Tolley said...

While we probably don't have free will, that doesn't mean that our actions cannot be changed by learning. Whether one wishes to hurt others or is restrained from doing so by prior training, we don't have to revert to what is being called "nihilistic" behavior. As others have said, not harming others because your brain tells you not to is a lot less psychopathic than assuming you would, but don't, because of an omnipresent being who will punish you.

Paul451 said...

Daniel,
"Mind you that "God" does not have to be a spiritual being. "God" could easily be a programmer that wrote the code to the Matrix we all live in, or the particle scientist that created a bubble universe that we live in with his particle accelerator."

No, you don't believe that. I hear that kind of argument from ID proponents, but every one of them just happens, by amazing coincidence, to believe in a traditional monotheistic god.

How would the Matrix give us free-will, or the externally derived purpose you insist on being necessary?

If the purpose of this universe is to simulate another universe on a super-hyper-computer, or to explore fundamental energies of creation, how does that inform your personal sense of purpose? How is that any different to Treebeard's "We might as well be living in a joke universe created by Azathoth."

Paul SB,
"since it falls below the scalar stress number, though with my aging brain I'll still have to write it down, make flashcards and study it to put it to use."

It gets worse if you add the third dimension I alluded to. The Close-Minded -to- Skeptical -to- Gullible scale.

Alfred Differ said...

@Daniel: It’s too bad people use the ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ terminology. It implies the two are on the same spectrum. I am one of them and don’t remotely see the others as being on the same page with me. They believe much like the theists do even if the details of the belief are different. They believe.

The militant folks are about as annoying as the fundies. Fortunately, there aren’t that many of them and they tend to be self-limiting. What they want to convince people of isn’t all that appealing. I offer the soldier in a fox-hole narrative to demonstrate this. The militant atheists offer comfort only to believers of a faith that punishes them daily, but not to a sick man on his deathbed.

Anyway, getting back to the point I was trying to offer you as a defense against the militants in our camp, please understand that some of us are not nihilists and can’t be. We can imagine meaning and purpose as you do even if the way we do it is different. We aren’t all that different from you.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: Heh. The agnostics who argue we can but haven’t figured out how to do it yet are being a tad wishy-washy, don’t you think? They are closet gnostics. 8)

I’m all for writing dissertations on this stuff, though. As long as we are honest with each other and accept CITOKATE, we’ll be fine. If I borrow the language of some Christians I know, the gift of intelligence we received is powerful in the hands of individuals who choose to wield it, but it is miraculous when wielded by loving humans. If I make a good effort to copy you into my own self, any criticism you offer of my ideas will be correctly interpreted as a gift that might help me avoid self-delusion. Keep doing that for a few hundred generations and you get communities with creator-like powers and fly-bys of Pluto. Apprentices must accept criticism to improve, so the gifts of intelligence and love should be recognized as the tools of self-tutelage.

When I set aside the language of gifts given with intended purpose, the result doesn’t change. We ARE intelligent and inclined to be social. We make meaning. The same path into the future is visible and clearly marked.

Daniel Duffy said...

"Again, we are getting better and nicer in DIRECT proportion to the decline of strength of religion in national and daily life."

I think you are confusing cause and effect.

I'd dispute the "getting nicer" part, but that's another discussion.

Daniel Duffy said...

@Alfred

"The militant folks are about as annoying as the fundies."

"A fanatic is someone who can't change his mind and won't change the subject" - Winston Churchill

Alfred Differ said...

@David: If ever I was to become a believer, it would probably be of something like the idea you describe. It would be comforting and useful. I doubt it will happen, though. I’ve already been close enough to death to wonder where the dude was who spoke in all caps. I did what most of us do and avoided thoughts of my own mortality, but I didn’t feel a need for this kind of comfort. I am what I am and I’m comfortable with that. I’m actually enjoying myself.

Over the years, I’ve been coming around to the idea that our explanatory models can’t be unique. As physicists try to unify their interaction models into one framework, I’ve become more convinced that finding one implies there have to be others and not just ones that are trivial translations. For example, our research team wrote up a model of gravitation that got the perihelion shift of Mercury right and the bending of starlight around the Sun and we didn't use curvature. All we did was change the geometry of the ‘charge’ in gravity. Use momentum in four dimensions instead and you get mass in the limiting case of slow speeds. Follow the implications and you get predictions that line up fairly well with what general relativity says, but not exactly. The same appears to be even more ‘required’ of our social studies models due to the high number of ‘dimensions’ in the problems they address. So now when I hear someone say there is only one answer, I just smile and shake my head. In the language of your Great Sermon, I think we’ve been told this over and over and over and… one day it will sink in with a lot of slapping of foreheads and exclamations of D’Oh!

Paul SB said...

Okay, who saw that Alex's latest comment did not have a single instance of the definite article? I won't say I predicted that, only that it was a possibility I brought up (though I don't really know if he did it deliberately).

Alfred, "Heh. The agnostics who argue we can but haven’t figured out how to do it yet are being a tad wishy-washy, don’t you think? They are closet gnostics. 8)"

Or they are hedging their bets, like the people who lead a sinful lifestyle but donate money to churches and charities (a theme in George Orwell's first novel, "Burmese Days"). I still think it's mostly splitting hairs. I pissed a lot of people off by telling them that Jesus's love would be nice if he were here actually helping real, living people who need real love (and likely some material aid as well). We have much more important things to do with our time than put ourselves and each others in boxes and choose sides among the boxes.

I would still enjoy reading Paul451's expanded taxonomy. It's a nostalgia thing for me, though. When I was an archaeologist, cultural anthropologists liked to make fun of us for taking all their ideas and turning them into taxonomies. Some of us, at least, got that classifying is the beginning of knowledge, not the end.

But I

Jumper said...

I dislike to hear agnostics termed wishy-washy casually because it's too commonly said, and unfairly. A good man knows his limitations, and more trouble is caused by people who think they know it all than by people who know better. Perhaps agnostics are in the habit of evaluating their own knowledge of truth in a more skillful manner than those who don't have that habit.

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. Excellent work Alex.
I'll make up for you by sprinkling too many into what I write.
Oh wait. I already do that.

I should write a script that strips them from my ramblings.
I know I use 'the' like people use 'umm' when speaking.

@Paul SB: The first time someone used the 'hedge your bets' argument (essentially Pascal's wager) on my I was dumbstruck with how stupid it sounded. If God was supposed to be all-knowing, I couldn't imagine how I'd get away with such nonsense. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

@jumper: amen

David Brin said...

Secondary prediction. He'll use the letter "E" !!!

Alex Tolley said...

Do you think so? I don't. I'll pass on additional words thus falsifying your prognostication. :)

Paul SB said...

Jumper, I like your explanation. It gives them some credit not just for honesty but for that humility I hear Christians talk about but rarely exhibit. Maybe humility isn't quite the right concept, though. It's more just knowing your limitations, and being willing to admit them.

Alfred, trying to pull the wool over omniscient eyes strikes me as foolish, but the world is full of fools. But who is more foolish, the fool who makes foolish claims, or the fool who follows?

Dr. Brin, given that /e/ is the most commonly used letter in the English language, that's a much tougher challenge. Maybe he'll start responding in other languages?

Paul SB said...

Oops, looks like my last observation came just a minute late...

David Brin said...

“I'd dispute the "getting nicer" part, but that's another discussion.”

Well, Daniel, I am not responsible for your failure to study what life was like for our ancestors, whose horizons or tolerance were always much smaller than out own.

David Brin said...

The novel Gadsby was famous for having no use of the letter "e" and few reviewers caught that at first, ascribing to it "unusual style"! Nowadays it's much easier, of course.

Paul SB said...

There was something I noticed worth commenting on that I missed earlier, or worth it since I am a bit of a brain nut. Daniel mentioned an article/study on differences in brain wiring between theists and atheists. I'll paste it here:

Several studies have revealed that people who practice meditation or have prayed for many years exhibit increased activity and have more brain tissue in their frontal lobes, regions associated with attention and reward, as compared with people who do not meditate or pray. A more recent study revealed that people who have had “born again” experiences have a smaller hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in emotions and memory, than atheists do. These findings, however, are difficult to interpret because they do not clarify whether having larger frontal lobes or a smaller hippocampus causes a person to become more religious or whether being pious triggers changes in these brain regions.

There are a couple issues here that might be misleading. The increased activity inthe frontal lobes from meditation and prayer, for one. Several studies have shown this for meditation, and have even shown that the longer a person meditates the more active and myelinated their right medial region gets. This is entirely consistent with normal brain plasticity. The parts you use grow larger, stronger and more active. Since meditation requires very intense concentration, it should be no surprise that this is the region that grows stronger with years of meditative practice.

The connection with prayer, however, is not what most people think. This effect has only been shown in a very regimented form of prayer that is very similar to meditation in terms of its intensity of concentration - a practice called 'centering prayer' most commonly practiced by nuns. This is not the ordinary begging God for favors once in awhile kind of prayer that most people engage in. These facts point to an answer to the horse/cart question. It is the regular practice of concentration that wires the brain, not the wiring leading to a specific mindset. It's not about piety, it's about regular practice.

What this says about the shrunken hippocampus in people who have had a "born again" experience is not so positive. The hippocampus is the memory consolidation center. When it shrinks, as happens with age or regular marijuana use (or too much TV time) people lose IQ points. I'll let you draw your own conclusions on that one...

Duncan Cairncross said...

Myopia
I wonder if the "outside link" is simply light levels or has to do with the ability to see distant objects

Inside everything is only a few meters away - so you can't use your distance vision
Outside you can see things hundreds of meters away so you can use your distance vision

If you never extend your muscles you lose tone and range of movement

Travc said...

I think this assertion (by Daniel Duffy) is quite odd and deserves some attention:
"A universe created by accident can have no meaning by definition."

That must be a very odd definition of "meaning". Things assigned a meaning *after* they are created.
One might argue that intentional creation leads to artifacts which have an intrinsic "meaning"... But there are certainly also assigned meanings and I'd argue that there is really no such thing as intrinsic meaning (perhaps intended, but not intrinsic).

I think the universe very likely arouse from completely mechanistic events, but it certainly does have a meaning. In fact, it has many meanings, the most important one from my POV is the meaning I gave it. That isn't some wishy-washy lesser type of "meaning"... it is the way meaning (and purpose) are created for anything.

PS: Unless I'm very mistaken, this is well trodden philosophical grounds as well as being pretty central to art. I'm a scientist though, so that sort of stuff is out of my wheelhouse.

Travc said...

Dr Brin... The interpretation of Autism as "hyper-functional" is getting to be pretty mainstream. It is complicated by the fact that Autism is really a huge collection of various symptoms (Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD is term most people seem to use). There are some flavors of ASD which come along with generalized learning disabilities, but some others don't and might even be correlated with above average abilities in some areas. This is aside from Autistic-Savants, which are exceptionally rare. Also, severe autism is simply horrible.
Anyways, Temple Grandin does a good job talking about how thinking very differently (as she certainly does) has both upsides and downsides.

Saying "hyper-functional" is wrong. Hyper-sensitive is a trait common to many (probably most) autistic people. I tend to see that as a sort of mental-filter failure. The knock-on effects of that do seem to account for many autism symptoms. At least to me, it doesn't quite explain the lack of social attentiveness though.

Fortunately, early childhood intervention in the form of behavioral training (especially around social skills) appears to be quite successful in mitigating a lot of the downside for mildly autistic folks. We may eventually get to a point where being mildly autistic is not a problem if early intervention gives kids the skills needed to compensated for nearly completely. We are't nearly there yet, but that is how we're proceeding with our son who is mildly autistic.
However, I doubt mild autism will ever generally be beneficial, because a lack of social attentiveness impacts all sorts of learning. Quite simply, most of the learning humans do is by watching what other people are doing. Then again, for some autistic people and society as a whole, there certainly can be a benefit in some cases.

Travc said...

By the way...
I remember Dr Brin complaining about SF which create narrative challenges by having characters (and/or societies) reacting stupidly to problems.

I'm getting sick of press-releases which create an over-inflated sense of importance by pretending that the current state-of-the-art is much dumber than it actually is.

Batterizer: Outright false assumption; Most electronics products are dumb and require operating voltages of >1.35V. Nope... Engineers, even those quickly designing cheap product, are not normally that careless.

"Scientists show future events decide what happens in the past": The first double slit experiment was done in *1801*. The "delayed choice" / Quantum Eraser experiment was first done in 1978, though I think we've had the math to describe it for quite a bit longer than that. In other words, "Experiment shows exactly what we thought it would and has been shown many times before... though this one is a bit more clever."

The autism article: This one isn't as bad, but does open rather poorly. As noted much farther down in the article, the author's publications on this date back to 2007, and the theory is older than that. However, it paints a picture of interventionists/therapists using completely inappropriate (and actually harmful) techniques... Not so at all in my experience. Focusing structure and predictability is one of the first (if not the absolute first) course of action when treating an autistic child. I don't know how long this has been the case, but it has been long enough that the special education (public) preschool my child is attending has been doing it for about a decade.

I'm glad that these two experiments have been done, but the press-releases really do piss me off (the first more than the second). Even the batterizer is a nifty device, though it is of quite limited utility and the marketing material borders on fraud IMO.
(BTW: Integrating boost controllers into devices and/or battery packs could be transformative by allowing for new types of batteries and other energy storage tech to be mostly interchangeable. It is already happening and will happen more as the variety of battery chemistries in common use expands. The batterizer isn't that.)

Ok... Just had to get that off my chest ;)

Daniel Duffy said...

@Travc

"the most important one from my POV is the meaning I gave it."

Once again, if free will does not exist and the Self is only an illusion you can't given meaning to anything.

You're just a meat puppet.

Daniel Duffy said...

@Dr. Brin

"Well, Daniel, I am not responsible for your failure to study what life was like for our ancestors"

We've gone around on this before. From a previous thread:

Things are getting better, that much is obvious. However, where I part company with Pinker is his assertion that this somehow changes our basic nature.Millions of years of evolution won't be undone and permanently changed by a few centuries of increasing peace.

Civilization is a relatively recent software add on that conflicts with our basic operating system hard wired by evolution "red in tooth and claw". As Robert Heinlein observed, the average person is only six meals away from killing someone. That will always be true.

It would not take much for us to revert to our natural selves. To quote Durant again:
"Every vice was once a virtue, and may become respectable again, just as hatred becomes respectable in wartime."

and,

I'm afraid I have to agree with Gray on one point - the fear of nuclear annihilation and its role in deterring conflict. Dr. Brin, you don't refute his claim so much as declare that we should take advantage of this window of opportunity to make it permanent. True, but beside the point. If not for nuclear weapons we would be fighting World War V or VI by now.

and

As for Pinker's statistics, I remain skeptical. How can he claim a per capita reduction in violence over time when pre-modern population statistics are either missing entirely or not much better than guess work. We don't know the population of the Roman Empire when it fell, or how many people were killed by Genghis Khan,or how many Aztecs were wiped out by the conquistadors. Pinker's claim would have us believe that the Mongols killed fewer people per capita than the brutal Assyrians - how could we possibly know this with any certainty? And his claim that the 20th century was part of this overall peaceful trend is frankly laughable.

Daniel Duffy said...

(cont.)

From a previous thread

It wasn't any enlightenment philosophy that prevented WWIII. It was pure atavistic fear that resulted in restraint. Fear of incinerating the planet.

Even then we were lucky twice, saved on two different occasions by two Soviet officers.

During the American blockade of Cuba during the Missile crisis, Cmdr. Arkhipov prevented on his own initiative a soviet submarine from launching a nuclear torpedo against an American destroyer

Col. Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Force all by himself prevented an accidental WWII during operation Abel Archer. The sclerotic Soviet leadership mistook this resupply exercise as a preparation for a first strike on the Motherland. They were in their bunkers in the Urals when Soviet computers reported that thousands of American missiles had been launched and were about to impact Soviet military and civilian targets. Petrov asserted that it was all a mistake, and Soviet forces stood down.

We almost destroyed the world twice, one by miscalculation and again by pure accident.

If it had happened there would be no doubt that the 20th century was the bloodiest time in human history. And there would be nobody alive to make Pinker's foolish claim of ever increasing peace.

Daniel Duffy said...

Dr. Brin, your claim that violence has significantly decreased over time relies heavily on Pinker's statistics in his book "The Better Angels of Our Nature".

Pinker's statistics and methodology are both faulty.

https://foseti.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/review-of-the-better-angels-of-our-nature-by-steven-pinker/

Pinker’s basic problem is that he essentially defines “violence” in such a way that his thesis that violence is declining becomes self-fulling. “Violence” to Pinker is fundamentally synonymous with behaviors of older civilizations. On the other hand, modern practices are defined to be less violent than newer practices.

A while back, I linked to a story about a guy in my neighborhood who’s been arrested over 60 times for breaking into cars. A couple hundred years ago, this guy would have been killed for this sort of vandalism after he got caught the first time. Now, we feed him and shelter him for a while and then we let him back out to do this again. Pinker defines the new practice as a decline in violence – we don’t kill the guy anymore! Someone from a couple hundred years ago would be appalled that we let the guy continue destroying other peoples’ property without consequence. In the mind of those long dead, “violence” has in fact increased.

Daniel Duffy said...

and

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/the-better-angels-of-our-nature-why-violence-has-declined-by-steven-pinker/2011/08/17/gIQA0VNmTL_story.html

Though a gifted psychologist, Pinker is a pretty mediocre historian. Myth and anecdote are used extensively when they suit his purpose. His source on the Altamont riot is Wikipedia. But the really big problem with this book is that the complexity of the past doesn’t lend itself to bar graphs, bullet points and sweeping generalizations. Pinker’s most ludicrous assertion comes when he addresses the connection between violence and low intelligence. He measures the IQ of presidents (don’t ask how) and concludes that “for every presidential IQ point, 13,440 fewer people die in battle, though it is more accurate to say that the three smartest postwar presidents, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton, kept the country out of destructive wars.” (At that point, violence overcame me — I threw this book across the room.) Kennedy (most serious historians agree) took America into the quagmire of Vietnam, a very destructive war. And what of Eisenhower, the least bellicose of postwar presidents? Was he intelligent or just lucky?

Daniel Duffy said...

and

http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1232

Given the scattered nature of archaeological evidence, Pinker confronts the reader with graphs which suggest a level of accuracy which is simply unobtainable for pre-historic times (see p. 49). Similarly, the data for the decline in annual homicide rates in Western Europe are much less-clear cut then Pinker suggests: ‘from between 4 and 100 homicides’ [!] per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages to about 0.8 in the 1950s (p. 62). Various factors, also not comprehensively discussed by Muchembled, undermine the only-at-first-glance suggestive accuracy of these figures: population statistics for the period before 1800 are rough estimates at best, and short-term fluctuations in the local population of one town or county – from which all these calculations are derived – cannot be accounted for; most early modern homicide victims did not die immediately, while improvements in medical care have to be factored in well before the 20th century; access to stabbing weapons was a major factor for the propensity of lethal violence, and might indeed explain many of the differences between regions, countries and even more so between the USA and Europe.

Yet it is not only the degree of accuracy Pinker suggests is achievable in the calculation of rates of violence across centuries and millennia that is problematic. Equally unconvincing is his insistence that large-scale incidents of violence can be compared across time without the need to account properly for their context and for the meanings historical actors attached to them. ...But any such endeavour is bound to fail when it does not try to reconstruct the implicit rationality and the different levels of the organization and implementation of violence in the past. Practices of killing are usually connected to institutions which employ violence, and both the uses and the possible decline of violence cannot be explained without taking these institutional contexts into account. It is irritating to see that Pinker, whenever he is prompted to consider such contexts and causes of mass violence, falls for the most simplistic and superficial explanation that is on offer. Two examples must suffice to make this point: ‘No Hitler, no Holocaust’ (p. 209), and again Hitler alone ‘mostly responsible’ for the Second World War (p. 248).

Daniel Duffy said...

Summary:

Pinker is by training a psychologist not an historian. As a member of the militant new Atheists he is a polemicist with an ideological axe to grind, not an unbiased sober analyst. He seeks to spread propaganda not discover truth.

And the propaganda point he is trying to make is to show that we as a species no longer need religion to restrain our basic impulses. As an atheists his goal is to undermine the utility of religion as a foundation of social order.

As for myself, I prefer the words of another atheist, Nietzsche, who had the courage to confront the consequences of his own atheism. From Tom Wolfe's essay:

Nietzsche said that mankind would limp on through the twentieth century "on the mere pittance" of the old decaying God–based moral codes. But then, in the twenty–first, would come a period more dreadful than the great wars, a time of "the total eclipse of all values" (in The Will to Power). This would also be a frantic period of "revaluation," in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old. But you will fail, he warned, because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not."

Nietzsche is right and Pinker is wrong.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Daniel
As far as Pinker's data is concerned he has a lot more "solid" data than you give him credit for

There are large numbers of old graves that have been excavated over the years, they all show much higher levels of violence in the bones than we see nowadays.

In fact they show very definitely the pattern of reducing violence that Pinker asserts.

His later data (19th century onwards) is also pretty damn good.
As somebody who made a living using statistical data to drive improvements for many years I will also say that there is nothing wrong with any of the statistical methods he used
Yes pure mathematicians can quibble about some of them - but the quibbles are orders of magnitude less than the changes he shows in the data

"access to stabbing weapons" ??
I don't know of any period in history from ancient Greece to today when 90+% of the population did not have "access to stabbing weapons"


As far as the "Hitler alone ‘mostly responsible’ for the Second World War"
Which is the "Great Man" theory of history
It's irrelevant - WW2 is only about 2 sigma from the mean - so it's not an incredibly unlikely event
And something similar could have occurred without Hitler

His conclusion directly contradicts one of the three main ideas that I was brought up believing

But with that level of data I have been forced to change my mind

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Daniel

Just seen your latest

"But you will fail, he warned, because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not.""

Again you are on the wrong side of the data
The most secular societies are the most law abiding and least violent - we have all of the countries in the world to compare and also the effects of increasing secularization

The data is unequivocal
more religious = more violence
More secular = less violence

A fine theory slain my a multitude of facts

Jumper said...

Forget the U.S. and look at France, a very atheistic country.
It's interesting Daniel goes straight from Jesus to Hitler without passing Go.

Daniel Duffy said...

more religious = more violence
More secular = less violence

From a previous thread:

As AN Wilson rightly pointed out, all of the atheistic totalitarian regimes of the 20th century (Bolshevik, Stalinist, Nazi, Maoist, Khmer Rouge, etc.) committed mass murder, democide, on a scale that ISIS can only dream about. Look up Prof. Rummel's study on democide in the 20th century. Rummel's work can be accessed via Marginal Revolution at:

http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2005/11/democide.html

What I found most interesting was the following comparisons:

"So, the famine was intentional. What was its human cost? I had estimated that 27,000,000 Chinese starved to death or died from associated diseases. Others estimated the toll to be as high as 40,000,000. Chang and Halliday put it at 38,000,000, and given their sources, I will accept that. Now, I have to change all the world democide totals that populate my websites, blogs, and publications. The total for the communist democide before and after Mao took over the mainland is thus 3,446,000 + 35,226,000 + 38,000,000 = 76,692,000, or to round off, 77,000,000 murdered. This is now in line with the 65 million toll estimated for China in the Black Book of Communism, and Chang and Halliday's estimate of "well over 70 million." This exceeds the 61,911,000 murdered by the Soviet Union 1917-1987, with Hitler far behind at 20,946,000 wiped out 1933-1945.

Discounting the 3,446,000 killed in the Sino-Japanese war prior to the start of Mao's rule, the Maoist PRC (with these new numbers for the deliberate, man-made famine during the Great Leap Forward) killed over 73,000,000 people. Over the 38 years of Maoist rule, this comes to an average of about 1.92 million per year.

The democide rate of Hitler's 12 year Reich was about 1.75 million per year. The democide rate of the 70 year Stalinist USSR was about 0.88 million per year (about half that of the Third Reich). Stalin's (and the Stalinist system's) much greater total was the result of its much greater longevity. Hitler's democide rate was smaller, but still comparable to Mao's.

The total for the three largest atheist totalitarian regimes of the 20th century (Stalinist, Nazi and Maoist) comes to approximately 160 million over 70 years. This does not include mass murder by secondary Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the Khmer Rouge and other atheist totalitarians, which raises to total to an estimated 200 million innocents murdered by atheists. AN Wilson is correct, the horrors of the 20th century stem from atheism and were carried out by atheists.

By comparison, the religious equivalent - the Inquisition - was mild by comparison. From an Internet FAQ on the Inquisitions:

"How many were executed by the Spanish Inquisition? By most standards, the records of the Spanish Inquisition are spectacularly good and a treasure trove for social historians as they record many details about ordinary people. Nothing like all the files have been analysed but from the third looked at so far, it seems the Inquisition, operating through out the Spanish Empire, executed about 700 people between 1540 and 1700 out of a total of 49,000 cases. It is also reckoned that they probably killed about two thousand during the first fifty years of operation when persecution against Jews and Moslems was at its most severe. This would give a total figure of around 5,000 for the entire three hundred year period of its operation."

Compared to the ocean of blood spilled by the atheist totalitarians, the blood spilled by crusades, jihads, pogroms, inquisitions and persecutions is but a drop

P.S. Please don't commit the "No True Scotsman Fallacy" by claiming the atheists totalitarians of the 20th century wer some kind of religion.

Daniel Duffy said...

The analyses of violence statistics by atheists are skewed because atheists have to show that violence is declining. Given the more accurate analysis that violence remains as bad or worse, they would be forced to concede that even if religon were not true it at least has a utilitarian benifit in restraining our dark basic natures and preerving a peaceful society.

Hence their desparate need to show that huanity is basicly good and religion is not needed.

Daniel Duffy said...

Pinker's data is by its very nature incomplete.

His methodology is faulty and driven by ideolgy.

He is a poor historian and a worse statistician.

Daniel Duffy said...

Just seen your latest
"But you will fail, he warned, because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not.""
Again you are on the wrong side of the data

I beleive that Nietzsche prediction of the coming "total eclipse of all values" is accurate becasue he accurately predicted the horros of the 20th century caused by atheistic regimes. Again from Tom Wolfe's essay:

He predicted (in Ecce Homo) that the twentieth century would be a century of "wars such as have never happened on earth," wars catastrophic beyond all imagining. And why? Because human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt, since guilt is an impulse instilled in children when they are very young, before the age of reason. As a result, people would loathe not only one another but themselves. The blind and reassuring faith they formerly poured into their belief in God, said Nietzsche, they would now pour into a belief in barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods: "If the doctrines...of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal, doctrines I consider true but deadly"—he says in an allusion to Darwinism in Untimely Meditations—"are hurled into the people for another generation...then nobody should be surprised when...brotherhoods with the aim of the robbery and exploitation of the non–brothers...will appear in the arena of the future."

Why should we bother ourselves with a dire prediction that seems so far–fetched as "the total eclipse of all values"? Because of man's track record, I should think. After all, in Europe, in the peaceful decade of the 1880s, it must have seemed even more far–fetched to predict the world wars of the twentieth century and the barbaric brotherhoods of Nazism and Communism. Ecce vates! Ecce vates! Behold the prophet! How much more proof can one demand of a man's powers of prediction?

Nietzsche was a prophet.

Pinker is a sham.

Tacitus2 said...

Coming in late but had to comment on the observation that evidence from ancient graves has a predictive value regards violence levels in previous times. Uh, what percentage of people in the Roman era were actually buried in graves? Fairly small once you reckon that you had to be pretty posh to spring for a resting place that would survive to the modern era. For every nice stone sarcophagus there were quite likely a thousand peasants tossed into ditches somewhere. Heck that is not even addressing the issue of cremation or the reality that nice organized burials with the proper rites only happened in tranquil times. There were most likely a few rich merchants out there in the ditches too.

GIGO

Tacitus

Paul SB said...

It looks like someone has a really big ax to grind here. The constant picking at Pinker sounds very much like the 90's debate over Hernstein & Murray's "The Bell Curve." Too much argument by assertion, too much confirmation bias and highly selective data gathering (for example, I know from previous research that Thomas de Torquemada oversaw over 2000 executions personally, no mention is made of the Inquisition in other nations besides Spain, apparently because it is especially famous, the intense focus on 20th Century bloodshed committed mainly by Communist dictators, because that was the century we grew up in, while ignoring the bloodshed of previous centuries, like the Taiping Rebellion in China that killed more people than both world wars combined and was caused by a Baptist missionary, Tacitus' GIGO comment, which as a former archaeologist I can vouch for as well). It also neglects the possibility that the pattern we see may have little or nothing to do with religion or its absence at all and may have other causes completely, such as increased police forces to enforce law, dramatically increasing the certainty of punishment for crime, the creation of an international body to prevent crimes by nations, etc. In this case both the theists and atheists may be simply blowing a whole lot of wind and assuming that the propaganda they have been inculcated with is of primary, determinative importance here.

Social scientists divide culture into three basic realms: Infrastructure, Structure and Superstructure. Infrastructure is the environment in which a society is embedded, its resources, limitations, natural hazards, etc. Structure is how a society is organized, which mostly means relationships of power, but not entirely. Power is something males tends to focus on obsessively, missing other important relationships, but that's a different barrel of fish. Superstructure is the level of belief, morals, values, expectations, norms and customs: all the stuff that non-scientists tend to think of as "culture." This entire discussion has focused on just one of these three realms, superstructure. This is exactly the modus operandi of propagandists, which is exactly what every religious (or anti-religious) institution is. If you want to explain sweeping patterns of history, complete reliance on just one of these levels is not just foolish, it is self-blinding. Changes in patterns of violence have to be understood in terms not just of "belief" but of social institutions and their power over society (Structure) and the limitations, hazards and effects of the physical environment (Infrastructure). This whole debate seems to be trapped in 19th Century thinking. The scientific community, at least, has gone beyond this.

And this is to say nothing of the scapegoating issue.

Jumper said...

Morality is often taught with religion, but, like set theory is often taught with calculus, it's merely tradition. You can certainly learn set theory without the fundamental theorem, and humans can be taught morality, of whatever stripe, without religion.

Alex Tolley said...

This whole debate seems to be trapped in 19th Century thinking. The scientific community, at least, has gone beyond this

I concur.

Jumper said...

Far above, I said "I'm with Daniel on this one" and I should have said "I'm with Alfred on this one," regarding types of atheism.
Not that it makes much difference now, but it's bugging me, so I have noted it.

Jumper said...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=29&v=wO61D9x6lNY
Off topic brain stretching.

David Brin said...


Tacitus there were commoner mass grave pits outside every town. It was the cheapest and easiest way to dispose of dangeous waste products and those pits are the richest source of archaeological-=forensic evidence. My daughter worked on the skeletons from one of them.

=== As for Daniel==
DD’s screed are filled with interesting points… amid profound silliness. Yes, Kennedy was a macho SOB who plunged us into Vietnam – a hubristic mistake from which democrats have learned lessons and Republicans have not. http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2012/10/how-democrats-and-republicans-wage-war.html

On the other hand the “redefining violence” thing is utter bull. The car vandalizing sicko who we refuse to kill is a sign that we are getting better, but aren’t yet skilled enough to match our ambition. In 20 years we’ll know how to help cure many more poorly functioning brains like his. But first we had to become a society that WANTS to do that… that wants not to be lazy and just kill the mentally ill. Your nostalgia for that approach is disturbing…

…as is your failure to recognize the decline in ALL crime in advanced nations, across the last generation.

My daughter dissected 12th century skeletons, last summer. We know that a huge fraction of people in the past suffered violent injuries, many of them forensically clearly coming from weapons. Moreover we know that ancients themselves openly declared they would burn cities and slaughter every inhabitant. Archaeological records show how often such burnings and slaughters happened in those times. The Caananite tells in the middle east show it happening MORE often than once per generation. And that was almost every town and village.

Fer heaven’s sake. READ what Moses demanded the Israelites do to the Moabites and Edomites and people of Jericho. Um, yeah, show us religion’s moral authority. As for the NEW Testament, no document has ever been as vicious. (1) by declaring the Doctrine of Original Sin… that the DEFAULT condition of every single human baby is eternal damnation, for the silly mistake of a couple of ignorant, fruit-curious teenagers, a few thousand years earlier…

…and (2) Revelations. Actually crediting that obscenity, that horrific, drooling-bloody sadistic schizophrenic rant as anything but the raving of a vicious psychopath – (Martin Luther agreed with me) – constitutes that greatest abnegation and spurning of moral authority in the history of human literature, theology or thought.

David Brin said...


Ah, predictions! Read Spengler’s Decline of the West. The jeremaiads of Stalin and Hitler about the Decadent and declining West. Go on and rant about our decline, my friend. You’ll be crying out the same stuff when we have Star Trek. Because our position on such issues is determined not by facts, but by personality.

Sorry, this one chaps my hide. That “Bolshevik, Stalinist, Nazi, Maoist, Khmer Rouge, etc.” were somehow examples of “non-religious” societies.

They were UTTERLY religious. Their doctrines and justifications and incantations followed strict catechisms about utterly-foretold, transcendental glorification and romantic demonization of unbelievers. Critics of the incantations -- especially liberals and scientists -- were savagely repressed. So their specific dogmas were non-Abrahamic? So? They created priesthoods that interpreted holy writ, as handed down by prophets (Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler) who could not be questioned on pain of death and damnation.

They were anything but "atheistic." They had their gods.

You may not fob them off on the Western Enlightenment, which all of them hated, derided, despised and fought to destroy. A western enlightenment of liberal diversity and tolerance and competitive achievement that in turn crushed those evil movements, while classic Abrahamic religions stepped aside or watched helplessly.

Steve O said...

"You may not fob them off on the Western Enlightenment, which all of them hated, derided, despised and fought to destroy. A western enlightenment of liberal diversity and tolerance and competitive achievement that in turn crushed those evil movements, while classic Abrahamic religions stepped aside or watched helplessly."

Zowie - quoted again for truth. Dr. Brin, ever thought about writing professionally? ;-)

Tacitus2 said...

David, I am not disagreeing with you on the issue of whether we are becoming more or less violent over time, just saying that grave data is problematic.

Here, I have a treat for you. An interesting fellow who goes by the monkier "Dr. Beachcombing" has a marvelous blog on Odd History. You, or perhaps your daughter - whom I envy! - may find interesting this post on trying to interpret 12th century casualties.

http://www.strangehistory.net/2015/07/11/seventeen-bodies-in-a-well-a-norwich-mystery/

And if you tell me that Brinette got to work on that one I will envy her a great deal!

Tacitus

David Brin said...

Carry on here, if you guys want. Great argument.

But officially....

onward

Paul451 said...

Paul SB said...
Re: Pascal's Wager,
"trying to pull the wool over omniscient eyes strikes me as foolish"

Yet consistent with the God of the Old Testament. (Adam and Eve hiding from God after eating the forbidden fruit. Or someone tricking God during an offering by taking all the good cuts and putting the skin over a pile of bones and offal.)

(Maybe that's the solution to David's question, "why create a universe that looks godless?" You only get into heaven by being a strong atheist. That's what the gods are trying to breed. Because they don't need worshippers. Because CITOKATE. Progress only happens, even for gods, when children don't respect their elders.)

Duncan,
Re: Myopia and distance viewing

I think the revelation is that it's not the close-work itself (books, TV, or pre-industrial bookkeeping) that does the damage, but the lack of distance-viewing to balance the close-work. You won't get square eyes from sitting too close to the TV, but you will from not staring at the horizon occasionally.

{adjusts glasses}

Travc said...

Ok... Everybody's wrong on the religion <=> violence correlation ;p

IMO, the relevant predictor is *authoritarianism*. More authoritarian = more prone to be violent and visa versa.

I'm pretty confident there is data to back this up, so I'll go digging for it later (after I finish some work). I'd also bet that this correlation applies not just societies, but also individuals.

As for religion... Well, there is a well established correlation between authoritarianism and religion. This definitely applies to individuals (there is data) and almost certainly applies to societies. It is just a correlation, but it is a pretty strong one. There are certainly non-religious authoritarians, but if you're looking (intentionally or not) for a mass of followers you can sway to your will, religious people are a much richer environment than non-religious folks.

BTW: There is also a correlation between authoritarianism and right-wing (and self-described 'conservative') tendencies. The same dynamic applies... A demagogue spouting right-wing rhetoric has a much better chance of finding a following than a leftist. This explains the widespread success of right-wing media and failure of anyone to have even remotely comparable success in creating a left-wing version (not for lack of trying).

Travc said...

regarding "meaning", @Daniel said:
"Once again, if free will does not exist and the Self is only an illusion you can't given meaning to anything.
You're just a meat puppet."

Umm... You're moving the goalposts. I was addressing your statement:
"A universe created by accident can have no meaning by definition."
Noting about free-will in there (and even if there was, it wouldn't really matter.)

There is no reason I can see that a mere "meat puppet" can't give something meaning, at least from that lowly meat puppet's POV. I seriously doubt that you can provide an well reasoned argument to back up your assertion. Just being a meat puppet is actually pretty amazing... dumb matter and energy can do astonishing things when it is organized in particular ways.

How about starting simple. Define what you mean by "meaning". Is it subjective or objective? If it is objective, how is it created/assigned and how does somebody perceive it and create a subjective experience of it?

Personally, I find philosophy rather annoying, but I'm getting a strong sense that you're really terrified that a universe without God is a nihilistic void... and maybe clarifying your thinking about "meaning" could relieve some of that needless anxiety.

David Brin said...

Travc I disagree. I have seen plenty of leftist authoritarians. Ranging from Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot to US campus radicals who bullied everyone at the University, doing no good for the world while gathering disciplined throngs to poison and quash civil discourse. It happens today. The mad right may be our biggest problem right now. But NEVER deem the left innocuous.

David Brin said...

onward. I'll not be back here.