Thursday, August 27, 2015

Scientism

This past summer I read Alex Rosenberg's The Atheist's Guide to Reality in which he unequivocally promotes a scientistic view of knowledge. "Scientistic" does not mean "scientific," rather it describes a view based on "scientism" which is the view that science is the only guide to truth about the world and human existence. If a claim cannot be demonstrated empirically, using the tools of science, then it's not something that we can know, and in fact is not even something we should believe. In Rosenberg's view physics "fixes all the facts" about what is and what can be reasonably believed. This is sometimes called "physicalism."

Not all scientists are scientistic or "physicalists," many of them hold that there are truths about the world that science is not equipped to discover, but Rosenberg thinks this is neither good science nor good epistemology.

Rosenberg is no dummy. He's the chairman of the philosophy department at Duke University and demonstrates in his book a considerable breadth of learning. He also strives to be rigorously consistent. Given his belief that physicalism is the correct way to understand reality it follows that there is no God, no miracles, no soul or mind, no self, no real meaning or purpose to life, no meaning to history, no human rights or value, no objective moral duties - only what he calls a "nice nihilism."

By "nice nihilism" Rosenberg means that nature has fortuitously evolved in us a tendency to treat each other well despite the fact that doing so is neither a moral duty nor in any way "right." That, for the one who embraces Rosenberg's scientism, is the only glimmer of light in an unrelentingly dark world and even this little glimmer is beset with problems. Here's one:

If our niceness is the product of impersonal undirected processes then it can not have any moral purchase on us. That is, it can be neither right nor wrong to be "nice." Some people are and some aren't, and that's the end of the matter. Evolution has also evolved behaviors that are not "nice." If we are the product of evolution then there's really no way to morally discriminate between "niceness" and rape, torture, lying, racism, etc. All of these behaviors have evolved in our species just as niceness has and we have no basis for saying that we have a moral duty to avoid some behaviors and embrace others. In other words, on scientism, there are no moral obligations and nothing which is wrong to do.

Rosenberg admits all this, but he thinks that we need to face up to the fact that these are the consequences of adopting a scientistic worldview and a scientistic worldview, in his mind, is the only intelligent option in a world in which there is no God.

I think he's right about this and argue in my novel In the Absence of God (as well as my forthcoming Bridging the Abyss) that the consequences he outlines in The Atheist's Guide to Reality do indeed follow from atheism. The atheist who lives as if none of these consequences exist is living out an irrational delusion, most likely because he can't live consistently with the logical and existential entailments of what he believes about God.

A belief that leads to conclusions one cannot live with, however, stands in serious need of reexamination.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Stem Cell Triumph

There's been much debate over the past few decades about the moral propriety of stem cell research. The problem has been that researchers coveted stem cells obtained from human embryos which meant that the embryo was destroyed in order to produce the cells. This was seen by many as morally problematic and so research was begun on obtaining stem cells from other sources. There were many technical difficulties and critics were quick to point out the need to use the much more pliable embryonic cells for the research.

Nevertheless, work continued on alternatives and now comes word that an almost fully-formed human brain, albeit of the size of that of a human fetus, has been grown from stem cells harvested from skin.

Here's part of the story from The Guardian:
An almost fully-formed human brain has been grown in a lab for the first time, claim scientists from Ohio State University. The team behind the feat hope the brain could transform our understanding of neurological disease.

Though not conscious the miniature brain, which resembles that of a five-week-old foetus, could potentially be useful for scientists who want to study the progression of developmental diseases. It could also be used to test drugs for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, since the regions they affect are in place during an early stage of brain development.

The brain, which is about the size of a pencil eraser, is engineered from adult human skin cells and is the most complete human brain model yet developed, claimed Rene Anand of Ohio State University, Columbus, who presented the work today at the Military Health System Research Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Previous attempts at growing whole brains have at best achieved mini-organs that resemble those of nine-week-old foetuses, although these “cerebral organoids” were not complete and only contained certain aspects of the brain. “We have grown the entire brain from the get-go,” said Anand.

Anand and his colleagues claim to have reproduced 99% of the brain’s diverse cell types and genes. They say their brain also contains a spinal cord, signalling circuitry and even a retina.

The ethical concerns were non-existent, said Anand. “We don’t have any sensory stimuli entering the brain. This brain is not thinking in any way.”
There are more details at the link. Wesley J. Smith at Evolution News and Views comments succinctly on this development:
May it be so. Now let's analyze what this breakthrough could portend.
First, no need for unethical human cloning to derive cells for use in research and drug testing.
Second, no need for fetal farming for experimentation and organ transplants.
Finally, no need for Planned Parenthood dismemberments of fetuses killed in a "less crunchy" way.
Remember when embryonic stem cells were OUR ONLY HOPE? And how those of us who said that particular meme wasn't true were "anti-science"?
Actually, I recall worse pejoratives than "anti-science" being hurled at opponents of embryonic stem cell research. When President George W. Bush cut off federal funding for embryonic stem cell research he was called names which were much less polite. It's nice to see this vindication of those who stood for the principle that "all lives matter," even the lives of embryonic human beings.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bad Deal

Reading about the nuclear weapons deal with Iran it's easy to think that Iran must have thought they were negotiating with the most naive people in the world, or the dumbest. Not only does the deal grant Iran $100 billion to underwrite terrorism and weapons procurement, not only does it legitimize Iran's nuclear weapons program as long as they wait ten to fifteen years before starting production, it also grants to Iran the responsibility of monitoring its own compliance. As incredible as it sounds, Iran has been granted the privilege of telling us whether or not it's cheating.

As some have said, this deal is like telling pro athletes that the league will take their word for whether or not they've been using banned substances. As details of the deal negotiated by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seep into the public domain it just looks like one of the worst pieces of American diplomacy in the nation's history.

Remember when the president and others told us that the deal gives us "anytime, anywhere inspection authority"? Well, that assurance seems to be hewn from the same timber as Mr. Obama's promise that Obamacare would allow you to keep your doctor and make insurance coverage cheaper. The mullahs must be in hysterics over how they've bamboozled the Great Satan.

The flaws should make it DOA in Congress nevertheless, many Democrats will still support it on the grounds that, as Mr. Obama avers, it's a choice between either this deal or war. That's not true, of course, there are other options, but even if it were true that war is the only alternative the choice this deal forces us into is between conventional strikes on the Iranian nuclear facilities now or a nuclear war a decade from now.

One of the alleged selling points of the deal tacitly confirms this. The administration has claimed that the access we will have in Iran through IAEA inspections will provide us with a much better picture of where Iran's facilities are so that should we have to bomb them we'll be able to do a much better job of it. Put another way, this deal offers us two alternatives: If Iran cheats (which they will) and we bomb (which is highly doubtful) we can do so more effectively. If Iran doesn't cheat they're essentially free to resume nuclear weapons production in ten years.

Wouldn't it have been better to tighten sanctions to the point where Iran had to stop nuclear weapons production permanently and on our terms than to leave ourselves with the options we now seem to have?

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Wesley Experience

Helen de Cruz has been writing an interesting series of interviews with philosophers at the Philosophy of Religion blog Prosblogion. She asks these thinkers to share with readers their own religious views and there are posts from philosophers who run the gamut from Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Mormon, Anglican, agnostic, deist, evangelical protestant, and quasi-atheist. One of the most interesting to me was an interview with David McNaughton who teaches philosophy at Florida State University. Here's part of the interview:
Can you tell me something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification?

I was brought up agnostic, but my parents sent me to Methodist Sunday School (for as long as I wished) so I might find out for myself. After considerable prayer and heart-searching I joined the Methodist Church around 1960 and stayed there for ten years, including being a very active member of the Methodist Society at my undergraduate university. I did my graduate work at Magdalen College Oxford and attended College Chapel, at the end of which I was received into the Church of England.

Shortly thereafter I drifted away from Christianity, eventually becoming both sceptical and slightly hostile until my mid-30s when I began slowly to re-evaluate my position. Strong influences here were C. S. Lewis and William James, as well as teaching philosophy of religion with Richard Swinburne. I remained a highly sympathetic agnostic until 2004, when I decided to recommit to the church.

Could you say a bit more about the factors involved in your recommitting to the church in 2004 (I’m especially interested in the influence of your teaching philosophy of religion – many people allege that personal faith has an influence on one’s philosophy of religion, but here it seems the other way around!)

The immediate cause of my returning to the church was the death of my wife in July 2004. She was diagnosed with terminal secondary cancer of the lining of the lung in 2002. I had signed up to come to FSU and she was keen to be in the USA where her parents lived. As you can imagine, the move in conjunction with her illness and the medical treatment was horrendous.

During this time I prayed regularly and received much help in return. Shortly after her death some of her relatives invited us to a vacation at Port St. Joe. Walking along the beach at dawn, it seemed to me that God was reminding me that he had come through for me and now it was my turn....

In the course of my conversation with God I distinctly remember saying that I would give up my old complaint that I had never had the ‘Wesley experience’ (I was originally a Methodist). Indeed, I recall saying that I assumed He knew best, since as a philosopher I would probably regard any emotional experience with profound suspicion. The temporary priest at my church was part of a husband and wife team at Grace Mission in the most deprived part of Tallahassee, so I started going there. On my second or third visit, I suddenly had the impression that some physical weight had been removed from my shoulders. Puzzled, I thought about this, and realized that, for the first time in my life, I did not feel guilty about the many things I have done that I regret. I realized that my sins really were forgiven, i.e. The Wesley Experience. (This merely confirmed a view that I had long held: that God has a rather Puckish sense of humor).

I learned a number of things from teaching philosophy of religion.

  • Hume’s objections were nothing like as strong as I had supposed.
  • There was more to traditional arguments for theism than I thought.
  • A combination of Pascal’s Wager and William James seemed to me to make a very strong case for commitment. One objection to Pascal is that the wager only makes sense if there is only one form of religion to choose from. James, however, points out that, for the recipe to work, the option must be a live one.
Since Christianity was the only live one for me (I had tried Buddhism) then a combination of James and Pascal’s arguments was irresistible. I say ‘irresistible’ but of course I did resist, or at least, made no move, until impelled by my wife’s death.
I was glad to see that McNaughton, like many, if not most, philosophers of religion, found Hume's arguments to be less than compelling. I realized some time ago that Hume was held in much higher esteem by the free-thought skeptics than he was by philosophers who spent much of their careers studying his arguments.

Anyway, the rest of the McNaughton interview is pretty interesting, too, so you may want to check it out.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Are We a Simulation?

Robert Kuhn host and writer of the public television program Closer to Truth has an excellent column on the theory that our universe is actually a computer simulation. He writes:
I began bemused. The notion that humanity might be living in an artificial reality — a simulated universe — seemed sophomoric, at best science fiction.

But speaking with scientists and philosophers on "Closer to Truth," I realized that the notion that everything humans see and know is a gigantic computer game of sorts, the creation of supersmart hackers existing somewhere else, is not a joke. Exploring a "whole-world simulation," I discovered, is a deep probe of reality.

Philosopher Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, describes a fake universe as a "richly detailed software simulation of people, including their historical predecessors, by a very technologically advanced civilization."

It's like the movie "The Matrix," Bostrom said, except that "instead of having brains in vats that are fed by sensory inputs from a simulator, the brains themselves would also be part of the simulation. It would be one big computer program simulating everything, including human brains down to neurons and synapses."

Bostrum is not saying that humanity is living in such a simulation. Rather, his "Simulation Argument" seeks to show that one of three possible scenarios must be true (assuming there are other intelligent civilizations):
  • All civilizations become extinct before becoming technologically mature;
  • All technologically mature civilizations lose interest in creating simulations;
  • Humanity is literally living in a computer simulation.
His point is that all cosmic civilizations either disappear (e.g., destroy themselves) before becoming technologically capable, or all decide not to generate whole-world simulations (e.g., decide such creations are not ethical, or get bored with them). The operative word is "all" — because if even one civilization anywhere in the cosmos could generate such simulations, then simulated worlds would multiply rapidly and almost certainly humanity would be in one.

As technology visionary Ray Kurzweil put it, "maybe our whole universe is a science experiment of some junior high school student in another universe." (Given how things are going, he jokes, she may not get a good grade.)

Kurzweil's worldview is based on the profound implications of what happens over time when computing power grows exponentially. To Kurzweil, a precise simulation is not meaningfully different from real reality. Corroborating the evidence that this universe runs on a computer, he says, is that "physical laws are sets of computational processes" and "information is constantly changing, being manipulated, running on some computational substrate." And that would mean, he concluded, "the universe is a computer." Kurzweil said he considers himself to be a "pattern of information."

"I'm a patternist," he said. "I think patterns, which means that information is the fundamental reality."
Information, of course, is the product of minds, thus, if information is the fundamental reality in our world there must be a mind that has generated it. Many people, of course, agree with this and argue that the information which comprises this world is produced by the mind of God, but scientists, at least naturalistic scientists, argue that God is a metaphysical concept which lies outside the purview of science. Instead they advert to the existence of computer hackers in other universes which is also a metaphysical posit, but since it's not God, it's okay to speculate about it.

Kuhn goes on:
Would the simulation argument relate to theism, the existence of God? Not necessarily.

Bostrum said, "the simulation hypothesis is not an alternative to theism or atheism. It could be a version of either — it's independent of whether God exists." While the simulation argument is "not an attempt to refute theism," he said, it would "imply a weaker form of a creation hypothesis," because the creator-simulators "would have some of the attributes we traditionally associate with God in the sense that they would have created our world."

They would be superintelligent, but they "wouldn't need unlimited or infinite minds." They could "intervene in the world, our experiential world, by manipulating the simulation. So they would have some of the capabilities of omnipotence in the sense that they could change anything they wanted about our world."

So even if this universe looks like it was created, neither scientists nor philosophers nor theologians could easily distinguish between the traditional creator God and hyper-advanced creator-simulators.

But that leads to the old regress game and the question of who created the (weaker) creator-simulators. At some point, the chain of causation must end — although even this, some would dispute.
In other words, the universe displays indications of having been intelligently designed rather than having been an enormously improbable accident. This poses vexing problems for naturalists who feel constrained to account for the design without invoking you-know-who. So they theorize about a multiverse of an infinite number of worlds or speculate about extra-cosmic computer programmers who've created a world that looks real but is in fact just a computer simulation.

These extraordinary hypotheses are taken seriously by some philosophers and scientists, but if someone were to suggest that maybe this universe really is the only universe, that maybe it's real and not an illusory simulation foisted on us by some pimply extra-terrestrial, and that maybe it's instead the product of a single intelligent transcendent mind, he would suffer the ridicule and scorn of those who'd sooner believe that the universe is a science project of a seventh grader in some other more technologically advanced universe. I wonder which is the more implausible hypothesis.

Kuhn points out that the simulation hypothesis has great difficulty with the phenomenon of human consciousness:
A prime assumption of all simulation theories is that consciousness — the inner sense of awareness, like the sound of Gershwin or the smell of garlic — can be simulated; in other words, that a replication of the complete physical states of the brain will yield, ipso facto, the complete mental states of the mind. (This direct correspondence usually assumes, unknowingly, the veracity of what's known in philosophy of mind as "identity theory," one among many competing theories seeking to solve the intractable "mind-body problem".) Such a brain-only mechanism to account for consciousness, required for whole-world simulations and promulgated by physicalists, is to me not obvious.
In other words, how could the sensation of seeing blue - as opposed to blue itself - be simulated? Until there is a plausible physical explanation of consciousness, which there is not at this point, it seems unlikely that conscious beings are nothing more than a simulation.

There's more of interest in this essay at the link including how physicist Paul Davies uses the simulation argument to refute the multiverse hypothesis. Kuhn closes with this:
I find five premises to the simulation argument: (i) Other intelligent civilizations exist; (ii) their technologies grow exponentially; (iii) they do not all go extinct; (iv) there is no universal ban or barrier for running simulations; and (v) consciousness can be simulated.

If these five premises are true, I agree, humanity is likely living in a simulation. The logic seems sound, which means that if you don't accept (or don't want to accept) the conclusion, then you must reject at least one of the premises. Which to reject?
Personally, I find (i) problematic, (ii) possible but questionable (it's just as likely that technological growth reaches a ceiling or collapses altogether), and (v) highly doubtful.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Does Science Need Philosophy?

It seems to be something of a trend lately for materialists, particularly materialist scientists, to denigrate philosophy. Cosmologists Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss are two recent examples. Hawking even went so far as to pronounce philosophy dead in his book The Grand Design.

I wonder if one of the subconscious reasons for their disdain for philosophy is that these scientists and others are writing books claiming that science pretty much makes belief in God untenable, but they're finding that philosophers who critique their arguments are showing them to be embarrassingly unsophisticated. The animus against philosophy may derive from personal chagrin suffered at the hands of philosopher-critics.

Be that as it may, Hawking and Krauss, for all their brilliance, are astonishingly unaware of the philosophical faux pas that pervades their own writing.

Krauss, for example, made the claim in his book A Universe from Nothing that the universe emerged spontaneously out of a mix of energy and the laws of physics which he calls "nothing." Thus God is not necessary to account for the universe. Of course, this is a semantic sleight-of-hand since if the cosmos was produced by energy and physical laws then there was not "nothing," there was "something," and we're confronted with the mystery of how this energy and these laws came about.

Hawking declared philosophy "dead" in the early pages of his book and then spent a good part of the rest of the book philosophizing about realist and anti-realist views of the universe and the existence of a multiverse.

It's ironic that physicists like Hawking and Krauss would be so willing to deprecate philosophy since their own discipline is infused with it. Every time physicists talk about the multiverse or the nature of time or space or their own naturalistic assumptions about reality, they're doing metaphysics. When they talk about knowledge, cause and effect, the principle of sufficient reason, the principle of uniformity, or the problem of exactly what constitutes the scientific enterprise (the demarcation problem), they're doing philosophy. Whenever they discuss the ethics required of scientists in conducting and reporting their researches they're doing philosophy.

The entire discipline of science presupposes a host of philosophical assumptions like the trustworthiness of our senses and of our reason, the orderliness of the universe, the existence of a world outside our minds, etc. Yet these thinkers seem to be oblivious to the foundational role philosophy plays in their own discipline. Indeed, science would be impossible apart from axiomatic philosophical beliefs such as those listed above.

There's a bit of a joke at Uncommon Descent about this. It goes like this:
Scientist: "Why does philosophy matter?"
Philosopher: "I don't know, why does science matter?"
Scientist: "Well, because scie...."
Philosopher: "Annnnnnnd you are doing philosophy."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

What the Left Is Defending

Kirsten Powers has strong words for those of her fellow Democrats who insist on trying to defend Planned Parenthood while simultaneously trying to discredit the journalists who have exposed the butchery and inhumane callousness of the people involved in procuring body parts from aborted babies. Here's her lede:
Democrats like to talk about the importance of being on the “right side of history.” This phrase was invoked frequently during the same-sex marriage debate. Yet when faced with a series of videosdetailing grotesque human rights abuses against unborn children by Planned Parenthood Federation of America doctors, Democratic Party forces have eschewed all concern for historical or moral rightness.

Pope Francis has correctly described the unborn as “ the most defenseless and innocent among us.” But in the sordid tale of strategic crushing of the unborn to better harvest their hearts, lungs and livers, many Democrats have incredibly cast an organization with a roughly $1.3 billion annual budget in the role of the innocent and defenseless. Hillary Clinton emerged as Planned Parenthood’s highest profile protector Monday, decrying the “ assault” against her allegedly helpless campaign donors.

The Democratic Party shilling for barbarism — whether by politicians, liberal media outlets, union officials or unrestricted abortion advocates — is not likely to be viewed favorably by future generations. These Democrats will be remembered for demonizing the activists who lifted the veil on a previously sanitized process and for seeking restraining orders to silence truth tellers.

They will be remembered for publishing dehumanizing decrees — as The New Republic did — that people stop criticizing Planned Parenthood because as a medical matter, “The term baby … doesn’t apply until birth” (that thing on your sonogram is nothing more than a “product[] of conception.”) And they will be remembered for demanding investigations into citizen journalists for meticulously exposing atrocities in our midst.

I don’t use the word atrocity lightly.
Read the rest at the link. Meanwhile, another video has been released by the Center for Medical Progress and is said to be the most horrific yet. Ed Morrissey at Hot Air comments:
The Center for Medical Progress has just released a new video this morning, which continues its in-depth interview with former StemExpress procurement technician Holly O’Donnell. In this video, O’Donnell describes how she saw her supervisor tap the chest of “the most gestated fetus” O’Donnell had yet seen in her work — and the heart started beating. Nonetheless, the child was killed and dissected. In another case, O’Donnell describes being instructed to extract a brain through the face of a cadaver. “I can’t even describe what that feels like,” O’Donnell says.
Here's the video for those who doubt that human beings who seem otherwise normal can simply set aside their humanity and become completely desensitized to what they're doing. Fortunately, the young woman featured in this video hadn't lost her humanity, but the doctor she describes certainly seems to have lost hers: