It’s Tough Being a Secular Democratic Liberal Muslim

In response to a tweet by Maajid Nawaz.

Maajid Nawaz,

I wish you well, I really do, so I hope you’ll consider this criticism.

On your specific points:

1) Islam is a religious ideology with political requirements built in. How could it not be. Any religion that contains social commentary, prescriptions and proscriptions is inherently political.

2) Sharia is a law or a guide depending on how those implementing it and/or enforcing it use it.

3) Ummah is a political bloc if those building it say it is.

4) Caliphate does mean theocracy if those building it use the Caliphate as part of government – i.e. if religion is the state religion or the religious leaders have powers that control the state, and if the religious leaders determine what religion the politicians must belong to. You know this is standard stuff in Islam, regarding what posts that can be held, what taxes are imposed on non-Muslims. Have I misunderstood? Have many Muslims misunderstood too?

Your secular democratic liberal efforts are to be greatly admired, given your unfortunate history. But if you insist on going down this “Islamism isn’t Islam” route you’ll be making a rod for your own back. While it may pander to moderate and near moderate Muslims, and even dissuade some Islamists from following that path, I feel using tactics like this may well backfire.

Religions have many varieties of sects within them, and the specific intent of the originators is so lost in history and interpretation by those that follow their lead that there is no clear definitive Islam, or Christianity or any other religion. There is no true Islam, and nobody has the authority to declare one. It’s for every religious person to declare what their religion means to them.

If you say you are a Muslim and your holy book is the Quran, I accept your word. If less secular Muslims claim they are Muslims too, I accept their word. If ISIS followers are brandishing the Quran, quoting it, praying based on its teachings, believing in Allah, then they are Muslims, and evidentially so, and I accept their word that they are, even if I like their Islam far less than yours.

In your response to a tweet you said, “your words assume there’s a ‘true’ interpretation of Islam. There’s no ‘true’ interpretation of any religion”. Well, precisely. So are their several Islams, or one? Several true ones or one true one? And who decides which is the true one, or the true many?

I support your efforts to distance moderate democratic secular Islam from ISIS and other extremist ‘Islamist’ versions of Islam, but they are all versions of Islam. Obama and Cameron may be taking your lead in this narrative, but it is a dishonest one – dishonest to reason and evidence. ISIS may not be YOUR Islam, but it is THEIR Islam. Saying that ISIS are not Islamic, or that they are not following the REAL Islam, is just playing the usual takfir word games – you are playing the ISIS game, albeit from a secular democratic liberal perspective.

I read your book, Radical, and I sympathise with your early experiences that took you on your journey, and I deeply respect the role you are trying to play for us all now. I feel you are very sincere. But when you say in your book that you must use the tactics that you learned in Hizb ut-Tahrir I think you need to be careful of the extent to which you use duplicitous language when doing that. Firing up political interest and activism is a great cause, so it would be a shame to sully it with slippery language.

I’m a secular atheist and I’d happily disagree with you about your religious beliefs. But here I accept, respect and support your right to hold your Islamic beliefs. And yet I think you are making a mistake playing this game of rejecting what others claim their beliefs to be, over who gets to name it. It’s fine to say “Their Islam is not my Islam”, and “I want a reformed secular democratic liberal Islam”. I think that’s an impossible ask without a serious reform of Islam, to the point of being little more than deism.

I find it hard to imagine a ‘true’ Islam that abandons constraints on apostasy, for example, though I’d welcome such an Islam as a step in the right direction. But I think the real problem here, for you and other moderate Muslims, is this business of the inerrancy of the Quran. It contains some verses that like the Old Testament Bible are hardly suitable for modern times; but, it’s the inerrant word of God. That leaves for anyone to interpret it in either traditional terms or modern terms, and to interpret it as they please. This is a problem for all religions. It’s not as if the ultimate authority of the Roman Catholic Church has a history of only decent and good pontifications to its name; but lacking a central authority Islam is open to all comers and all interpretations. Reforming Islam is a mammoth task while this inerrancy claim persists. And yet if you drop it the Quran loses any power it has. That’s quite a challenge for you.

So, I don’t think you have a case for claiming that ISIS and Islamists generally are not Islamic. Your statements in your tweet feel very much like a fatwa: http://www.jesusandmo.net/2014/09/17/fatwa/ (In this episode I think the person of Mo is played by Maajid Nawaz).

A tweet reply by you on Twitter: “right, so instead of guiding 1.5 billion Muslims to secularism gradually, we’re expecting them all just to apostatise”

That would be nice. I do appreciate what you are trying to do, and the difficulty you face. But I can see right through this abuse of words. Should I be so disrespectful to human intelligence to think that Islamist Muslims don’t see it too? Does the takfir game ever work out? Are you not simply begging to be accused of haram practice of making a false accusation? You’re the Muslim, so I’m asking you. Should I not ask followers of ISIS too? Can you not see the futility of this particular move?

Best wishes, and I hope you can see your way to taking a clearer route, though it may be a harder one.

Consciousness – A Physicalist Perspective

There’s a Youtube video put out by the RI that sees Professor Nicholas Humphrey contemplating the nature of human consciousness.

Here’s the video: The Magic of Consciousness.

Some commenters seem to have trouble understanding how consciousness, and the mind, can be explained by physical processes when the subjective experience is screaming at them that the mind and consciousness are not physical at all. This incredulity extends so far that Deepak Chopra adds his twopenneth; and I suspect that it’s this incredulity, along with his interest in mysticism generally, that has driven his ideas that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe. So, maybe Feng Shui works because setting your grand piano facing south makes it a happy conscious piano? Are piano keys always happy to be the keys of a piano? These are the things you have to think about if Deepak Chopra is to be taken seriously.

I’ll wait for Deepak Chopra to do some science that actually demonstrates this thing consciousness that does not amount to mere subjective perception of one’s own consciousness and the subsequent presumption that others have minds too. Because our own personal experience is all that we have to indicate that consciousness is a phenomenon at all.

If you watch the video you’ll see that Nicholas uses the example of the impossible triangle optical illusion. He refers to the 3-D model of the 2-D impossible triangle, as explained and displayed in this source:

Perceptual Illusions and Brain Models (2 pages).

Gregory: “There are purely optical illusions, where light from the object to the eye is bent by reflection (mirrors) or by refraction (the bent-stick-in-water effect, and mirages).”

But some optical illusions are actually mental illusions, illusions of mental perception. Gregory: “The Poggendorff illusion figure (1860). The straight line crossing the rectangle appears displaced.” The optical properties of the figure do not change as we look at the figure with a ruler along the line, to show it is continuous, or without the ruler, when our brains perceive it as displaced.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 14.58.30

The impossible triangle was traditionally presented as a 2-D drawing of an imagined 3-D figure. Gregory: “The impossible triangle (FIG. 9) (L. S. Penrose and R. Penrose 1958) cannot be seen as an object lying in normal three-dimensional space.” But Gregory presents us with a 3-D model that can be perceived as the impossible triangle from certain positions. We’ll get back to that perception and how it relates to the illusion of consciousness. This is the model used by Nicholas in the RI video.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 14.56.23

We’ll get back to the impossible triangle and its relation to the illusion of consciousness. First, consider the nature of self-awareness, and the subjective view we have of our own minds.

The brain is a self-monitoring system – as are many animals, biological subsystems, and computer systems.

Part of a typical computer’s embedded software monitors signals that represent measures of its own CPU temperature, and if the temperature approaches a value that endangers the CPU the software can fire outputs that shut down the computer. So, if a failed computer fan, or a blocked vent, prevent the cooling system working, this self-monitoring system can protect the CPU. We have mechanisms that are similar in principle but are far more complex that cause us to pull away from hot objects, or to remove clothing when overheated, or to reason about turning down the heating in the house. Computer systems that propel themselves also have to self-monitor: the vacuum cleaners enjoyed as motor vehicles by Youtube cats; or Google’s self-drive cars. Simple brained animals are some way between these computers and humans, performing very complex tasks that integrate monitoring the environment, self-monitoring their own internal states and behaviours, and modifying those states and behaviours in order to achieve some goal – such as satisfying the demands of yet other automatic sub-systems such as the hunger mechanism.

In monitoring itself the brain cannot detect or ‘feel’ the individual neurons clicking away, or the rush of neurochemicals at synapses. It has a different higher level model of itself, that probably, for reasons of evolutionary efficiency, has no need for the fine detail of individual neuronal activity. The result is that the brain has evolved and developed to create a model of itself, which it perceives as the mind. And because it cannot detect the physical detail of its neurons it feels, to itself, as if it is just a free floating mind – it has created its own illusion of being a separate mind, free of its own physical material. The brain responds to chemical activity induced by bodily and other brain functions as emotions. Millennia of philosophy and theology that didn’t understand the neuronal nature of the brain have run with this mind model as if the mind is a real but immaterial entity.

Nicholas refers to the problem of appreciating what pain is, in physical terms. In the illusion of being a detached mind the brain perceives pain as signals. Pain signals are distinguished from non-pain signals by their frequency and not their amplitude. That the brain translates this into a subjective measure that we (or I, where ‘I’ IS the brain as a collective system) experience is no more than the brain’s self-aware ‘mind’ model of the pain stimulus.

So, that’s my basis for tying the ‘mind’ as an illusion to the physical brain that fits with everything in science that demonstrates that physical naturalism works and is therefore a reasonable model of the universe as a whole, and a reasonable model for our consciousness as a brain process.

There appears to remain the issue of this distinction, between the actual world that we perceive and our perception of it, the difference between pain neuronal signals and the perception of pain that doesn’t carry any of the detail of the pain signals – the ‘qualia’ of pain. Personally I don’t see a problem with this. The neurons process action potentials, but the whole brain decodes this as pain sensations. They are different modes, different levels of data.

What’s the alternative? What evidence is there, any scientific evidence, or anything at all other than a subjective feeling, that the mind exists as some immaterial entity, or that consciousness is not an illusion? I don’t think there is any. If you examine claims made by dualists like Chopra, and the naysayers of physicalism that have nothing but uncomfortable incredulity to go by, then you’ll find that they are referring to yet more mental gymnastics that can be incorporated into the same illusory mind model.

So, how does the impossible triangle fit in? The thing is, the impossible triangle of this video is external to the brain. We can change perspective to reveal the error of our perception. The triangle doesn’t change physically – so the ‘optical’ illusion is in the brain, as a mental perceptual illusion. When we change perspective our ‘optically stimulated’ mental illusion is broken. We cannot do this with the brain’s illusion of consciousness and mind. We are stuck with the introspective subjective perspective, of perceiving a mind at work. We cannot change our perspective to reveal the mental illusion that we think is the free mind and its conscious experience. Instead, we use science and reason to figure out that it’s an illusion.

Brain in a Vat

Coel has put up a post on one of philosophy’s favourite topics: Brain in a vat (BIV). I’ll try to get to other sources, such as the Massimo Pigliucci post Coel refers to, but for now I’ll respond to Coel’s post only.

So, “[the BIV problem] supposes that we are a brain kept alive in a vat, being fed with a stream of inputs generated by an Evil Genius. Everything that we experience as sense data is not real, but is artificially simulated and fed to us.”

First, a quick comment on the Tatsuya Ishida cartoon. There should have been one brain in a vat, and both speech bubbles should have come from the same brain: one taking the part of the brain that is supposed to be the main character, and the other is the internal auditory perception of what the brain presumes to be the other character. Of course it could be that two brains in vats are being manipulated in conversation, but that then seems too much like an actual conversation between brains, and sort of misses the main point of BIV: all perceptions, whether thoughts of the lone BIV, or stimulated auditory perceptions that convince the BIV that it has heard another speak (and visually aware of the other, etc.). But that’s just nit picking.

Back to the problem. How can you tell if you are a BIV?

You can’t. Or rather I should say that so far we don’t know if you could tell or not. The significant point is that we can’t positively know we could tell the difference, between being a real brain in a human body, situated in the physical world we perceive, or being a BIV being stimulated to so perceive the world.

Coel’s parsimony point is right, but I disagree with his use of it. Parsimony is merely a pragmatic tool in an epistemically uncertain world. It assures us of nothing. The proper use of parsimony is that if there are two explanations (or theories) that fit the same evidence then we might as well use the simplest. Since both theories fit the evidence then by definition we can’t tell which is correct, and at that point it doesn’t actually matter.

Example: Theories X and Y fit evidence A, B, C. X is simpler than Y, so use X.

New evidence D also supports X and Y, so continue to use X.

Then, new evidence E comes along that supports Y, but not X. All of a sudden Y is looking interesting. E might be so convincing that it clearly falsifies X and supports Y. Then Y is the theory to use.

Later, evidence F, G might come along, some of which shows that the experiments that affirmed E were faulty, and F and G also support X and not Y. X is back on the front foot.

That’s how it works. In the case of the BIV problem we have zero evidence either way. We have no evidence supporting BIV, and not supporting the falsity of BIV. We cannot resolve it with any evidence we have.

So, what should we do?

Well, think about the consequences of perceiving the real world and being a BIV perceiving a stimulated fictional world.

What if we really are brains in vats? Or, following my criticism of the cartoon above, what if I really am a BIV, and you and everyone else I perceive are stimulated fictions? What can I do about it?

Bear in mind that I can’t even be sure I’m an actually brain in an actual vat either. I might be merely a computer simulation: of a BIV being stimulated to perceive a real world.

This scenario is so fucked up compared to my perception of a real world that there really isn’t much I can do about it. I might want to get all revolutionary on the Evil Genius’s ass; but really, if he’s controlling my brain (or simulating the control of a brain) then he’s controlling my revolutionary thoughts too. He’s actually making my brain wonder if it’s a BIV! The cruel bastard!

In the end I’m left with the correct use of parsimony. It seems like I’m perceiving a real physical world containing other real physical people, so why not simply use that as a working conclusion? Work in progress. Just like all the rest of science.

Note that this has nothing at all to do with thinking about a finite subset of infinite possibilities, or any of that crap.

“Any statement not supported by evidence is most likely to be wrong and thus should be discarded.”

No! This is not how it is. Any statement not supported by evidence is NOT most likely to be wrong! We simply can’t say if its true or false at all. We can’t say anything much about it at all, except that if we don’t have evidence to support it then it’s indistinguishable from a statement that is false, and as such is as useless as a statement that is false. Using terms like ‘most likely’ is totally inappropriate.

Take the statement, “Praying to Jesus gets results, sometimes.” Well, people pray often, and most times they get no result. Sometimes people pray and get the result they pray for. This is true for many sports competitions, since many people seem to pray to Jesus for victory in sports. But since someone wins and someone loses (barring the anathema of US sports – a draw) the actual result is indistinguishable from coincidence. Prayer, as a determiner of sports results might actually work. Maybe Jesus really does dish out results according to prayer and some other very complicated cosmic data he uses. But to us the use of prayer is indistinguishable from useless. [Note, that's not to say there are not other psychological consequences of prayer.]

“Regardless of whether the “world” is real or simulated, the standard scientific “real-world model” gives the greatest parsimony and predictive power in describing that world.”

Not so. The BIV, if that is the state of affairs, only ‘thinks’ the real-world model gives predictive power at all. The actual laws of the universe that the Evil Genius inhabits might be quite different from the one that the BIV thinks it inhabits, with very different laws. Of course the BIV can’t imagine what those laws might be, because the BIV is only aware of the ones it is programmed to perceive. All the ‘predictions’ the BIV thought it observed never happened. Have you ever noticed in a dream how natural and obvious some of that weird shit appears to be, how convincing it is, when in the dream? Well, why should that not be the case for the BIV? If you are a BIV then you haven’t ‘woken up’ yet to observe how false all your perceptions are; you are still in the ‘dream’ believing you can make predictions.

“Any departure from that standard model would result in a worse account (one that is less parsimonious and less predictive about that stream of experiences). That’s because science’s models do work very well about our world and are the best that we have.”

Not they don’t, if you are a BIV! They only appear to work very well.

“One might object that in a “brain in vat” scenario the Evil Genius could feed us any stream of experience he liked, with no rhyme or reason to it, no regularities and no predictability. That is indeed possible, but then the stream of experiences could only be described essentially as a streamed video tape, which is the most information-hungry type of model and one that would be totally useless at predicting anything.”

It doesn’t matter how information hungry the theory is from the perspective of the brain, real or BIV. This has nothing to do with it at all. The computer simulation of rolls of a dice are more information hungry than rolling an actual device since computer simulations are built on information hungry computers. But that doesn’t mean we should make a statement, “All simulations of dice in computers are actually real dice, since simulating a dice is more information-hungry, and by the rule of parsimony we should not believe that computers are ever simulating dice.”

“In contrast the “real world” model is very compact in that all one needs are the basic laws of physics and all else follows from that. This model has a vast amount of predictive power, as we know from the fact that engineering works, and planes we build fly, and predictions we make for solar eclipses come true.”

No! You, the BIV, only THINK planes fly, if indeed you are a BIV.

“The brain-in-vat model has no capacity to make any predictions at all about the stream of experiences, unless we make all sorts of assumptions about the Evil Genius and why he is feeding us the stream of experiences.”

Well, where in the BIV notion does it require us to be able to say anything at all about the Evil Genius? If I am a BIV then any assumptions I might presume to make are untestable bollocks.

But, the BIV model does make predictions. It predicts that the brain so programmed can make predictions. It can make predictions about its imaginary world, and it can make predictions about being a brain in a vat. They simply aren’t testable predictions.

“Yet, ex hypothesis, we can never have any information about the Evil Genius or his doings.”

Exactly. Including never having the information to know that you are not a BIV.

“The only way of regaining any degree of parsimony or predictive power…”

No, no, no! If you are a BIV you get only the predictive power that the system controlling you, or simulating you, gives you; which, if you are a BIV, is this very prediction that you are or could be a BIV. And it may all be fake. As a BIV you don’t get any say in anything! You don’t get to know anything. The very fact that you are wondering if you’re a BIV is a consequence of being that very BIV, but only because the stimulations or simulations produced by the Evil Genius allow it. That you are predicting the consequences of being a BIV is predicted by being a BIV, if you are a BIV.

Even if the Evil Genius attached some physical eyes onto the brain and allowed you to see him waving at you from outside the vat, you would have not way of knowing which of the following just occurred:

1) You are a BIV and just saw the actual Evil Genius.

2) You are a BIV hallucinating.

3) You are a real embodied brain in a real physical world hallucinating.

This is just like revelations from God that some religious people report, or when some ‘crazy’ person hears the voice of Jesus and neurologists see his auditory cortex buzzing away as if hearing real voices. Religious personal revelations might be real or they might be imagined. These are indistinguishable events. We reject them only because they don’t seem convincing to us most of the time, and because there is not convincing evidence. Though remember, to many religious people, belief is the parsimonious result.

And this is how we deal with the BIV.

Imagine I am a BIV. I am stimulated to perceive a physical world. That fake physical world model results in me learning some physics (maybe fake physics) and evolution (maybe fake evolution) and I conclude that I am evolved from animals that didn’t have brains and animals that had simple brains. With all that I conclude that I am a human animal. one of many, that has a brain that has quite a fertile imagination, and imagines it might be a brain in a vat.

Or, imagine I’m a real human in a physical world. That physical world results in me learning some physics and evolution and I conclude that I am evolved from animals that didn’t have brains and animals that had simple brains. With all that I conclude that I am a human animal. one of many, that has a brain that has quite a fertile imagination, and imagines it might be a brain in a vat.

These are truly indistinguishable. Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this debate. But note that one is a subset of the other. The simpler one, the latter, seems to work in just the same way as the former, except that the former has some features (me being a BIV) that I can’t actually observe or test. So, according to the principle (i.e. suggestion, recommendation) of parsimony I might as well go along with the latter.

Note that this is almost an arbitrary choice; but not quite. I could live my life as if I’m a BIV. Suppose I did so in one of two ways:

1) I live my life as if I’m a BIV, but I keep it to myself. I never tell anyone. I even try to fool myself that I don’t believe it. Other than a few personal psychotic moments how would this be different from believing I’m a real person in a real world?

2) I live my life as if I’m a BIV, but I try to tell everyone? But hold on, why would I? Since I’m a BIV what good would it do telling my imaginary fellow humans that don’t actually exist except as figments of my BIV? But suppose I did, and those very same figments of my BIV locked me up in an asylum. Well, it’s only an imaginary asylum.

The problem with the BIV perspective is not that it’s not real, but that it’s fucked up to think it is real. It just seems to add a layer of complexity that is unevidenced and unnecessary. I might as well go along with the apparent reality I perceive, whether it’s a real reality or a stimulated one or a simulated one.

Note that this is also how I see religion: an unevidenced and unnecessary level of complexity added to our experienced life; pretending we are God’s brains in his vat of a universe. So fucked up that it’s no wonder we get the craziness. But note also that it could all be true – all of it! Islam AND Christianity – all true but we poor brains in God’s vat simply don’t get the big picture; and William Lane Craig is right that all the dead children have been done a great favour. Religion is as exactly as fucked up as imagining we’re brains in vats. Once you start adding imaginary stuff on top of evidenced stuff, anything goes.

“The in-a-vat wrapper to the real-world model is along the same lines, a vast and needless complication that doesn’t in any way improve the model’s fit to evidence. We could just as well imagine any number of other parallel meta-realities that make no difference to what we experience.”

That’s right. That’s all it boils down to. A rather arbitrary choice, made because it makes life simpler, even if only apparently so.

“Since there are an infinite number of such possibilities the chances of any random one of them being actually true is infinitesimal.”

This is totally irrelevant. It wouldn’t matter if there were only two possibilities: 1) real world, as we actually perceive it; 2) BIV, stimulated to perceive the world as we actually perceive it.

“Thus, by the adoption of the usual scientific method, invoking Occam’s razor and principles of parsimony and the need for predictive power, we can reject brain-in-a-vat scenarios.”

No. Only the principle of parsimony is necessary. Predictive power is of no use, since a BIV makes the same predictions. We cannot reject the BIV with any conviction. Instead we simply choose to reject it because that’s easier. There is no other convincing reason.

“That, of course, does not mean that they can be absolutely ruled out, any more than we can rule out any other hypothesis designed to leave no discernible trace at all on our experience of the world (apophatic theologians are particularly good at inventing these), …”

Agreed.

“… but the chances of any such suggestion being true is too low to merit taking it seriously.”

No. It’s nothing to do with chance, probability, possibilities, or anything else. It’s simply taking the simpler option that doesn’t require that we sustain belief in things (Evil Genius, vat, disembodied stimulated brain) that we cannot test.

Coel refers to Descartes and his Cartesian Doubt, whereby Descartes digs deep into a reasoned sceptical investigation to figure out what lies at the bottom when all our uncertainties are stripped away. His working conclusion is cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. From there Descartes cocks it all up, because he already believes in God and he just can’t drum up enough doubt about that.

But his Cogito is about the only place I can see we can start from. Coming up from there I can’t see any difference between our perceived reality and solipsism, or a BIV. That’s the only starting position I have, and that’s were I take it from here: Contingency of Knowledge.

Dawkins v Myers: The Slurs Continue

Rape is bad. In similar circumstances the a similar event might be worse for some victims than others. And depending on how it affects the victim what looks superficially like a worse rape, such as by a stranger at knife point, than another rape, such as by a friend on a date, may in fact not be what we expect. One victim might find the date rape far more traumatic than the attack by a stranger, because perhaps the failure of trust between them and the trusted friend might completely fuck up the victim’s capacity to trust and interact with people generally. The victim of a stranger rape might be able to put that into a box, a dreadful box not to be opened again, so that they can get on with their lives.

Dawkins makes a point that there are degrees of hurt, and points out that comparing them does not diminish them. This is complex stuff and one might expect that someone like Dawkins gets that. I’m sure he does, and that his recent Twitter set was simply a poorly made point. [See links in the Michael Nugent post for details - link to Nugent towards the end]

It’s not as if Dawkins was actually making much of a point about rape itself, but was using it to make a more general logical point:

X is bad. Y is worse. This is not an endorsement of X.

We can see why he used rape in one example, and paedophilia in another: he’s received criticism for his comments on these issues and thinks that some of the commenters missed this logical point, by concluding that saying Y was worse amounted to endorsing X. And some commenters really did do that. Fucking moronic.

But additionally PZ Myers on his blog took strips off Dawkins. And his commenters jumped on board. Some simply saw it as a crass use of rape to make the logical point, but many already had the knives thoroughly into the back of Dawkins and were in no mood to let him off with further explanation. Many who have made their minds up about Dawkins denied all possibility of even the slightest generous reading of his Tweets or his follow up explanations.

Well, the next phase in this pile of crap going on among sects of atheists has taken us in another direction. Robin Williams died today and got lots of public sympathy. But an unknown teenager is killed by the cops of Ferguson and receives far less sympathy.

PZ Myers used the death of Williams to make a point. And PZ is getting some push back for pointing out this discrepancy in public attention. The post by PZ does itself seem a bit over the top; almost conspiratorial in its rhetoric. Was there no better way of making the point? Well, maybe. But some will not leave it at that.

On that post by PZ a number of commenters weren’t at all happy.

“Disappointing, that’s quite a cheap shot.”

“Cheap shot is a perfect word for this piece.”

“[starts with a comment on Williams...] Meanwhile, yes, this piece appears to be entirely cynical. A well-liked famous person dies, but of course this is the perfect segue into racial politics!”

PZ comes back, “You are sad that Williams is dead? Good. I think it’s terrible that he suffered from depression and died. I am not saying that he was a bad person or that his death is not cause for grief. But what I’m seeing, what prompts your whining about cynicism, is that the media have lost all sense of proportion — that the death of a popular entertainer is bigger news than our loss of freedom and our slow steady drift into a police state.”

Well, as was pointed out to Dawkins and his crass point making episode: did he really need to point this out in such a callous way, as if we didn’t know that already? Don’t we know already that police in some states are highly likely to pick on black teens and occasionally kill them? This is bad. Really bad. There are many issues in the US that deserve far more publicity than they do, and celebrities get a lot more than they need, deserve, and often more than they bargained for or want. But should PZ have used the death of Williams to make this point?

Personally I think his point is fair enough. But I’m more interested in what other think, particularly commenters that inhabit atheist blogs.

But on one specific aspect of the point PZ is making, did he have to use the convenient and timely death of Williams to make a political point? Wasn’t this precisely what Myers was making a fuss about in the first place? Isn’t this hypocritical of Myers to tell us how politicians are using the death of Williams to deflect attention form other matters, while he uses it to direct attention to those matters?

PZ, like Dawkins, doesn’t help his case with suspect rhetoric, when he sees it this way: “thank God that we have a tragedy involving a wealthy white man to drag us away from the depressing news about brown people”

What the fuck? One could say that the disproportionate attention paid to Williams is down to the celebrity angle rather than a white supremacist police state racist angle. What difference would one suppose there would be if some famous and loved black celebrity died while at the same time the police somewhere killed some unknown poor white guy?

But really, the PZ post, like the Tweets from Dawkins, deserve little more than a face palm. Not everyone sees it that way.

Elsewhere PZ gets even more stick. On Jerry Coyne’s post comparing the lovely tribute from Stephen Fry with the post by PZ …

“Wow, I knew Myers could be a you-know-what, but this is terrible. How can someone post something like this? There’s something very cold and mean about that guy. I don’t understand it.”

“I hate to say this but, based on this obscene commentary and his anti-Israel fulminations, Prof. Myers is turning into a schmuck of the first order.”

“Great letter from Fry. And PZ really should be ashamed. As if Williams chose this moment for the purpose to serve government interests. Really, really awful.”

You’ll notice how in this last one the comment by PZ about the convenience of the death of Williams for politicians has been totally misunderstood. PZ wasn’t suggesting in the slightest that Williams made the choice but that the convenience, however coincidental, fell in favour of politicians.

Perhaps the critics of PZ, on his site and on Jerry’s, could learn from Dawkins:

X is bad. Y is worse. This is not an endorsement of X.

The death of Williams is bad and the public response may be deserved, but it is a worse state of public interest and of political diversion that the Ferguson killer cop issue has received less publicity. Pointing out the latter about the Ferguson case is not an endorsement of less publicity and less expression of feelings for Williams. What PZ said takes nothing away from the sentiments expressed by Fry.

It seems the divisiveness continues. And the exaggeration of the polarization stands out a mile with all the stupid comments.

It was enough to say that Dawkins made a misjudgement in each of his Tweets, and to leave it at that. He wasn’t endorsing rape of any kind and wasn’t enabling rapists. To suggest that was just plain stupid when you follow everything else the man says. And some of the comments on Jerry’s post about PZ are just as bad and just as stupid. It wasn’t enough to say simply that they thought PZ was a little too cynical in his expression of his point?

The only sane comment on the Dawkins stuff comes from Michael Nugent. His main point that’s worth taking away from this is not that Dawkins made mistakes, though Nugent thought he had, but that comment on Dawkins from people that should know better have escalated the whole thing into a personal slurfest. It is astonishing how what should be a straight forward criticism about a point of disagreement can turn into a wild dogmatic hatred. There really are extremes of rhetoric and irrationality at work that would put some of the dumbest theists in a good light.

Nugent has defended Myers before too, as he points out. Perhaps it will require the sanity of Nugent to point out the stupidity raging on this little post by Myers.

I can’t figure out why the likes of PZ takes shots of Dawkins for crass language when PZ himself has a pretty sharp tongue. But there you go, nobody’s perfect. You’d think atheists would know that from engaging with theists.

What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.

I had a conversation with an atheist friend recently and I think we surprised each other.

Though an atheist she still felt she needed to believe in ‘something’, though she didn’t quite know in what; and to some extent she envied religious believers in that they had something to turn to, some belief. This surprised me, because though I know of some atheists who feel this way this was my first opportunity to hear it first hand. What surprised me more was her surprise at the nature my atheism.

She asked me, well what do you believe in? You surely must believe in something, ‘in humanity’, for example? Her surprise was that I said that as far as I can tell I don’t believe in anything, in that religious type of ‘believing IN something’, and I don’t need to. What about life, family, your wife?

I chose to respond about my wife – one’s wife is a common subject when believers insists that surely you have ‘faith’ in in your wife’s love for you. Of course I love my wife. Along with my (adult) children she is most important to me. But I don’t ‘believe in’ her, in some all encompassing sort of way. She’s another human being. She has flaws, as do we all. It would be unfair to ‘believe’ in her in that way, and totally unnecessary. I trust her; and I’ve learned to do that with experience of not being given any reason not to. Exactly what I trust her with or about is less clear, but generally I’d say I trust her when she says she loves me; I trust her not to intentionally do anything that would hurt me in any way. But my wife and I are simply two human animals that have that type of loving bond that humans are capable of. It’s not magic. It’s not spiritual. It’s human. It’s what humans do.

I could come over all lyrical, quote lines from poems or love songs to express how deep my love is, but that seems to be rather superficial when trying to get to the bottom of this belief stuff. I need to explain it rationally. Spouting words of romantic love would express my feelings, perhaps, but wouldn’t go any way to explaining anything about belief.

Believing ‘in’ stuff always seems rather contrived; fake. I’m not disputing that people do believe like that. But I get the feeling that they’ve been busy fooling themselves into such beliefs, buying into romanticism spouted by poets, philosophers and theologians. It all seems such unnecessary nonsense. I get all the wonder and magic of living a human life, with other humans, and with other animals on this plant, and from the mysteries of the universe itself. I don’t see the need to believe ‘in’ anything.

Coincidentally Will Self has a piece in the BBC News magazine: A Point of View: Why not caring about anything is only for the young. “It is not the content of our beliefs that really matters, so much as the practice of believing itself, argues Will Self.”

Well, no, believing doesn’t matter. Or, rather, not believing ‘in’ something, avoiding such an error, is what actually matters, because it allows you to believe whatever you find to be the case. I find that believing ‘in’ something gives that something an importance that cannot then be betrayed by truth, and can lead to the denial of any truth that threatens what you happen to believe ‘in’. Religions gain their coercive authority from having people submit to belief ‘in’ them.

“Dostoevsky understood that what humans are, in terms of our moral being, is crucially tied up with what – if anything – we believe.”

As a matter observation, I guess that has been right, historically; mostly, for the thinkers that think about thought about those things. But I don’t think it’s a necessity for humans. I think it’s a habit, like one’s religion, that we have tended to fall into, or grown up into. It seems so common that I suppose it might be some quirk of the brain that makes it happen; an accident of genetics and gene expression in the environment of human brain evolution.

“In the contemporary secular era, one the lineaments of which Dostoevsky could perfectly well discern when he was writing in the 1870s, there are plenty of people keen to assert that they have no beliefs at all, if by this is meant a settled conviction about such big questions as why we are here, where we are going, and whether good and evil are ultimate realities or merely functions of a given social structure during a particular era.”

Quite right. If the enlightenment has shown us anything it’s that such convictions are foolish. It’s ironic that believers are often quick to tell us how wrong we atheist science proponents are in our belief ‘in’ science. They assume we believe ‘in’ science the way they believe ‘in’ whatever it is they believe in. And they couldn’t be more wrong. Scientific scepticism is the withholding of conviction – barring over enthusiasm in one’s pet theory now and again, but we’re quick to clarify the contingency of our apparent beliefs The contingency is what we take for granted as a lesson quickly learned in the failure to make accurate predictions when we expect to be able to make them. A failed experiment is telling us something: something unexpected about the subject of the experiment, or something unexpected about how to perform the experiment.

Learning to trust science generally, as a process of discovery, as the best process we have available to us, is not a commitment to a belief ‘in’ it. And when it comes to science in specific instances it’s usually the scientist doing the science that knows full well how contingent their very positive looking results are.

“But is it really true to say we have no beliefs? After all, if we truly believed nothing it would be difficult for us to operate in a world where everyone else behaves as if they did believe in something, that something being – by and large – the efficiency and reliability of the technologies we rely on for our daily life.”

Will Self is here failing to distinguish between belief, as expressed when we say ‘belief in’, and a learned trust.

Trust is a powerful empirical tool used throughout the animal kingdom, by animals possessing brains. We can start with it, and potentially withdraw it; or we can start without it and learn when to award it. The inquisitive nature of the young is an expression of this learning process: to dive in head first with no negative expectation, and learn from one’s mistakes, or to tread cautiously and learn what can be trusted.

Now it may well be that the human brain, with greater powers of reflection, is sometimes a little too sceptical for its own good, and often a little too trusting in invisible powers for which there is no evidence. These are issues of psychology and neuroscience that we are still trying to discover in detail. But despite our history of over indulgence in belief ‘in’ things, there is no reason to suppose this is some necessity for survival, or happiness.

“When we push button A we very much expect B to happen, when we flick a light switch we anticipate the light going on. “

Well, yes. These are learned expectations. There is no reason to believe a switch will bring forth light, and any ancient would be rightly mystified if it had. From an early age my children grew up with VHS video recorders which they could use to record and play back TV programmes. That was something I learned was possible only later in life, since I grew up with only two, then four TV channels and no means of recording. My childrens children will think it quite natural to walk down the street seemingly talking to themselves when in fact they are in intimate live conversation with someone on the other side of the world. How would that not be sorcery to people of earlier times. But these are not beliefs ‘in’ anything.

“they depend upon beliefs that we hold on trust”

Yes, in trust, not belief ‘in’. They are commitments of quite different kinds.

“This reliance on essentially occult beliefs for the smooth running of the physical aspects of our lives has engendered a further strange belief in us, a belief about our beliefs concerning those big, metaphysical questions.”

For some that don’t get the opportunity through circumstances to enlighten themselves that may be fair enough; but for anyone at all educated this amounts to wilful ignorance. I don’t know many details of physics, cosmology, chemistry, biology, and when I try to express my opinions on these subject I no doubt make mistakes, or run out explanatory steam. But I know enough to know that there will be answers there, if in fact I know that someone somewhere has taken the effort to make the appropriate discoveries. It seems to me that failing to grasp the rudiments of how things work is a failure of inquisitiveness not unrelated to the closing down of inquiry we see in many systems that require a belief ‘in’ them.

We can even go so far as to make reasonably educated estimates about as yet incomplete knowledge; not because we know that these things ‘will’ be discovered, but from a trust born of previously successful extrapolations. And tempered by previous failures too. So, as just one example, I see no principled barrier to humans discovering the nature of consciousness, as a function of a biological brain, to the extent that one day we will be able to enhance our own consciousness, encapsulate it in substrates other than evolved brains, and will be able to generate it afresh. There really is no known principle that persuades me this will not be possible. There is, however, a lot of belief ‘in’ stuff going on in some human brains that prevents them entertaining this possibility. Their belief ‘in’ some unsubstantiated specialness of human kind, often divinely created and so outside the creative reach of man himself, prevents them seeing the possibility. Believing ‘in’ things seems such a hindrance to the imagination – another irony given the flights of fancy believers often engage in without any need for evidence to support their beliefs.

“This abrupt curtailment of the Western metaphysical project has left us at the bottom of our metaphorical gardens, in our figurative garden sheds, and depending for our belief system on a series of makeshift structures we’ve knocked up ourselves.”

That’s right. We’ve invented some holy shit. And look at the price we are paying for that right now. The most profoundly religious places on earth are often the most abysmal. Of course the dogmas of religious belief are no worse than those of atheistic beliefs ‘in’ something or other – as religious believers will be only to pleased to remind us by bringing up Stalin and other wackos. But sceptical scientific atheism isn’t made of the same stuff: it’s the lack of unconditional belief ‘in’ things. If we’re going to believe something it’s going to be conditional on the evidence that supports it; and if better evidence comes along we give up the belief somewhat easily, though sometimes reluctantly, because our beliefs are contingent.

“If called to account on the gimcrack quality of our convictions, we relapse into a sort of stoicism light: “Well,” we say, “it’s true that these beliefs aren’t altogether credible, but that doesn’t matter because at root I don’t believe in anything – I’m just trying to get by like the rest of us.” But the problem with stoicism light is that it just can’t deal with the heavy stuff.”

I agree. There’s a lot of unthinking conviction going on. And ‘sophisticated theology’ is the cheapest and showiest ornament of all. And it’s all so unnecessary. But worse, it’s always poorly thought out. Supposedly sophisticated, it’s nothing but a sham.

“The problem with our contemporary secular beliefs is that they’re either makeshift, or entered into unconsciously, simply as a necessary operating system for our busy and digitised lives. The great believers in the wonder of the universe, as revealed to us by science, seem to have considerable difficulty in either galvanising us to social solidarity, or providing us with true solace.”

As for the social solidarity I defy you to give any example of solidarity that is so inclusive of people than is science. There are no bars to membership. And as unlikely as it is to find someone that is both Muslim and Christian, there is no reason a Muslim or a Christian can’t be a scientist.

And as for solace, I think the difficulty is in the minds of those expecting solace. Cast it off. You don’t need it. Or, to put it another way, there’s a natural peace and solace in the freedom from belief ‘in’ anything in particular. It’s deeply liberating.

Life throws up crap, and often this happens when you’ve taken the greatest care in your life to avoid it; and to rub salt in, you witness the most cavalier kind swanning through life happily with the least effort. When will you get it into your heads that the chaotic nature of nature defies perfect order. Shit happens, and the best you can do is try to avoid it happening to you and your loved ones, and if you can help a few others around the world avoid it too, all the better for your empathetic biology. And if you can positively create and improve, then better still.

“I’ve yet to hear of anyone going gently into that dark night on the basis that she or he is happily anticipating their dissolution into cosmic dust.”

Then you’re not listening.

That’s not to say an individual at death’s door doesn’t long to survive. We are biological survival machines. We are programmed to stay alive if we can, and barring relief from pain and suffering the human organism is programmed not to go gently. If you doubt the power of this biological force of nature then watch the beating twitching body of a mouse your cat has toyed with. For a more traumatic example make yourself witness (it’s your duty to do so) the struggling body of the victim of a beheading at the hands of those that currently take their solace from the religion of Allah. Then decide what makes stoicism so biologically unnatural, and how reliable religion is at providing solace.

It is one of the supreme powers of self control to slip away in fully conscious peace – it goes against our biological grain. And all the more incredible when not pretending we are simply crossing over to a better eternal life of bliss. Knowing you are going, right now, and this is the end, may be a challenge to our animal survival that even a contemplative brain has difficulty with. All the more virtuous then, if virtue is something you find appealing.

“nor do I witness multitudes assembling in order that they may sing the periodic table together, or recite prime numbers in plain chant.”

And what’s that got to do with the price of eggs? Do you think atheists that believe in nothing in particular cannot be stirred by the rhythms of music. Emotive religious music can be deeply moving. But then so is music by the Doors. Try Rhythms of the Brain, by Gyorgy Buzsaki if you want to know why rhythm is important – it’s nothing to do with the religious content. It’s nothing to do with believing ‘in’ something.

“By contrast, religious beliefs continue to offer many people genuine succour, and they do this, I think, as Dostoevsky realised, not because of the specific concepts they appear to enshrine – such as an afterlife or eternal judgement – but because they place the human individual in a universal context, and thereby give her life meaning.”

I can understand that, in a time of near absolute ignorance. And the irrelevance of the specific content of belief goes some way to explain the arbitrary and varied nature of it. What else could explain the success of Scientology? A trumped up religion, invented by a failed science fiction writer, and people actually believe ‘in’ that stuff? This tells us more about the gullibility of the human brain than it does about our need for succour – or it tells us it’s such a desperate need we’ll believe damned near anything other than the cold facts of life and death. It is almost as incredible that any educated intellectual falls for the religious crap, but sure enough they do. And some of them scientists too. Even biologists.

We might still be early in our journey of the discovery of this universe and beyond, but the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and evolution, and latterly the brain sciences and the discoveries of our symbiotic relationship with all life on earth, and with any other life there might be in the universe, and with the rhythms in the dust of the universe – all this, it gives life far greater meaning than any trumped up imaginary fantasy.

Don’t get me wrong. Fantasy has its places, from childhood fairy tales, to adult fictions, theatres, art. We are emotionally driven intellects, and it’s often fun to lose ourselves in our imagination. And the devotional life may have its merits in personal fulfilment – it takes all sorts, and there’s no telling what one’s brain might find satisfying. And the simplicity and beauty of non-belief-in provides an exhilarating freedom of its own kind.

So, it’s not a belief ‘in’ something, the universe, and our place in it that we need. It’s the marvel of the discovery that we collectively, accumulatively, we lumps of dynamic dust, have been able to contemplate and understand what we are, what we came from, where we might yet go, that gives life its meaning. That and a good pint or a tasty dram, a hearty meal, passionate sex, holding hands, a melody, a pleasant snooze in the afternoon. Living our small short lives and marvelling at the greater universe is plenty satisfying enough. I don’t need to pretend in an afterlife or in any cosmic shepherd to watch over me and guide me. The last thing I need is the atrocious nonsense that the big religions dream up. I don’t need to believe ‘in’ something; what a chore.

Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy

Dan Dennett has provided Sam Harris with a refutation of the incompatibilist notion of free will, and support for the compatibilist view.

He fails totally. Here’s the post.

Dennett still does not get the incompatibilist perspective. In fact part of the problem is the philosophical literature. It is typically hopelessly loaded with fine-tuned and rather meaningless variations on the issues of free will.

One of the great values of good science explanations is that they can make very difficult subjects easy to understand. Sam Harris is usually crystal clear. Sadly, in spite of their claim to be the torch bearers of critical thinking, philosophers’ texts can be downright messy, obtuse, as clear as mud. Dennett’s is no exception. And it doesn’t help when he references the Nahmias et al. 2005 paper. But I’ll try to get around to that soon.

For now I want to address Dennett’s hopeless use of the sunset/free-will analogy. Dennett has used this analogy as one element of his arguments for dismissing the incompatibilism case that free will is an illusion. Here’s the analogy as expressed by Dennett.

After all, most people used to believe the sun went around the earth. … When we found out that the sun does not revolve around the earth, we didn’t then insist that there is no such thing as the sun (because what the folk mean by “sun” is “that bright thing that goes around the earth”). Now that we understand what sunsets are, we don’t call them illusions. They are real phenomena that can mislead the naive.

What point is he trying to make here? Well there are two obvious points:

1) On the existence of free will – The sunset exists, even though our understanding of what it does has changed; and therefore free will still exists, even though how we perceive it has changed.

2) On the illusory nature of free will – We have changed our understanding of sunsets, but we don’t call them illusions. Sunsets are real phenomena that can mislead the naive. Therefore we should not infer that free will is an illusion just because we have changed our perception of it.

The trouble is that he is equivocating on the term ‘sunset’, and is not clear in how the various elements of his analogy are related. He starts equating free will with a sunset, which is fine. But at the end he is equating the physical phenomenon that causes the human experience of a sunset with the human experience itself. He insists sunsets, the physical phenomenon, are obviously not illusory, and so free will is not illusory either. But the real problem is that we incompatibilists are not claiming that the physical phenomenon that causes the experience of a sunset is illusory, but that the experience is illusory – and similarly, the phenomenon that causes the experience of free will is real, but the experience, the perception of it, is illusory. The experience, as our brains perceive it, is that the small disk of the sun is moving down below the horizon, while we on our point on earth are stationary.

To make all this clearer here’s the analogy in full, with each element of the analogy stated separately, so we can see which are real phenomena and which are illusory.

Physical phenomenon:

Sunset: The earth rotates in front of the sun, causing the position of the sun and a spot on the surface of the earth to change position and direction with respect to each other.

Free will: Brain activity is caused, and by active feedback processes causes in turn actions by the brain, and these in turn cause actions of the body.

Mistaken perception (illusion):

Sunset: The first person POV, when at a point on the earth’s surface, is to perceive the motion of the sun across the sky and its descending below the horizon. It ‘feels’ like the sun is setting, rather than our point on the earth rotating away from the sun, in a changing direction caused by rotation.

Free will: The first person POV, from subjective feeling and introspection, is to perceive that willed decisions are made free of any physical cause in the brain. In fact the whole mind feels free of physical causation.

Cause of the illusion:

Sunset: Our senses that indicate our personal motion cannot detect the rotation motion of the earth – we cannot ‘feel’ the earth rotating. When we are stationary on the earth relative to all objects around us we feel we are actually stationary. So, we perceive the rotation of the earth in front of the distant sun as the sun moving across the sky, and it’s descending below the horizon at sunset.

Free will: Our senses that indicate our personal physical activity are not activated by the brain itself internally – we cannot ‘feel’ our thinking. When we are thinking and making decisions we cannot detect the brain activity involved, and so we feel as if our mind, our thinking, our decisions, our will, are all free of the physical brain that is actually performing these functions.

Persistence of the illusion:

Sunset: Even though we have an intellectually satisfying explanation, from astronomy and other sciences, that the earth does indeed rotate in front of the sun and that the sun is not a relatively small disk or ball moving across the sky, our normal POV and the available attendent lack of appropriate motion sensations prevent us subjectively feeling the reality. We succumb to the illusion that we are watching the sun move.

Free will: Even though we have an intellectually satisfying explanation, from all science, that the brain is the cause and location of our mental experiences, our normal subjective POV and the attendant lack of appropriate neuronal sensations prevent us subjectively feeling the reality. We succumb to the illusion that we have free will.

Where the illusion is experienced:

Sunset: In the brain. It’s a mental illusion. Visual illusions are so called because they are effects that reach our brains through the eyes, but the illusion occurs in the brain. In watching a sunset, or a rotating Necker cube as another example, the visual signals that reach the eyes are consistent with the physical phenomenon. The light reaching our eyes from the Necker cube is consistent with the one actual direction of rotation of the Necker cube; but the brain can perceive it rotating in either direction, and can perceive a change in direction when there isn’t one. When seeing the correct direction the brain is experiencing an accurate representation of the physical phenomenon. When the brain ‘sees’ the cube flip to the wrong direction it is experiencing the illusion. We could walk up to the Necker cube and get a better perspective, and so remove the illusion completely: we change our POV. Watching the sunset we cannot easily changed POV – without leaving the earth. We are pretty much stuck experiencing the illusion of sunsets. The mental illusion.

Free will: In the brain. It’s a mental illusion. Unlike sunsets and Necker cubes we don’t have any visual cues to aid our thinking. We have no sensory input at all. And unlike the Necker cube we can’t change our POV. We are stuck with the first person subjective and introspective POV. All we have to give us a clue that we don’t have the free will of a free floating non-physical mind is all our third person science: the total lack of any indication that there are such things as non-physical minds (or souls), and all the science that only ever shows that everything has a cause. I’m surprised philosophers put so much store in the subjective POV. I can understand why theologians do; and perhaps this common love of introspection is why they are such good bedfellows so often, and why theologians are often mistaken for philosophers (Plantinga).

What about the language? Should it change?

Sunset: When appropriate, yes. And it does. Astronomers stood on earth, or astronauts stood on the moon for that matter, will generally refer to sunsets, or earth rises, or whatever they experience, using the common terms, when they are in the first person POV. It even makes sense for Mission Control, on earth, to speak in terms of earth rise, when communicating with astronauts stood on the moon. The earth bound controllers are humans, and humans are capable of projecting their POV as appropriate, when required. But in any scientific context that involves an imaginary third person perspective of the solar system scientists will talk in terms of planetary rotations and orbits. We switch the terminology as required.

Free will: When appropriate, yes. Just as astronomers can project their imaginary POV to positions off the surface of the earth, so too scientists (and some philosophers) can shift their POV to view brains as physical objects performing functions of thinking and willing in terms of brain activity. We don’t have to be subject to the first person POV to the point that we deny that free will is an illusion. But nor do we have to abandon the first person POV whereby we succumb to the illusion of free will. Philosophers should not take the incompatibilist perspective as a denial of having the illusory experience of free will.

If the sunset or any visual illusion analogy is going to be used I can’t see how one can conclude that free will is not an illusion.

I can see that Dennett isn’t convinced. Try this:

there are mad dog reductionist neuroscientists and philosophers who insist that minds are illusions, pains are illusions, dreams are illusions, ideas are illusions-all there is is just neurons and glia and the like

Philosophers and theologians alike love their emotive language. We’re mad dogs now. This makes mockery of Dennett’s complaints about the language Harris uses.

But again Dennett mistakes the phenomena for the experience of the phenomena. It is an illusion that we have a free floating mind. It’s no good Dennett complaining “all there is is just neurons and glia and the like” if he’s not going to give any alternative explanation. That’s all there is inside our heads. What else does he think is the product of the experience? What (i.e. who) does he think is having the mental experience? Get used to Dan, it’s the brain: the neurons and glia and the like. He rules out non-physical dualism, and he rules out the brain. What magic is he supposing?

Here are some more instances of Harris’s move: We do not have the freedom we think we have. Who’s we?

We are brains. When I am thinking it is my brain doing it. When “I” say “my brain” is doing it, that’s my brain talking about itself in the first and third person, as the first person possessive of the second. I am me, the brain that refers to itself as “my brain”. We don’t have very good language for expressing this. Tough. There is no other credible possibility on the table.

So, when Harris says, “We do not have the freedom we think we have.” it means that the brain that perceives itself through thought suffers an illusion that it is a mind free of the brain. The brain is a delusional organ in this respect. This isn’t unreasonable. There are brain conditions where brains feel the are connected to their bodies either – they feel totally disembodied. There are not only specific neurological conditions that lead to this but quite common psychological experiences of being out-of-body. Why is so difficult to understand that a brain can feel itself disembodied from the brain?

So, this is what it feels like to be a massively connected bunch of neurons that have collected and contextualised masses of data about the world, encoded as active neuronal activity and neuron memory states. This is what it feels like for such a system to process data about itself, to ‘observe’ itself. It cannot ‘observe’ itself visually or with any other senses. This thinking business, this is what it feels like for a system with no external experience of its own internal operation to form concepts about itself. It feels like a free floating mind exists that is unconnected to the brain. That is the nature of the illusion of the mind. When that brain switches into action mode, this is what it feels like to will, and we call it free will because it feels free of the brain events that it consists of.

There’s a lot more wrong with the Dennett piece. But I wanted to address this particular perspective on the illusory nature of free will in terms of illusions. particularly since Dennett makes such a bad job of it.

Sceptic’s Guide to Friday 13th

Para-skevi-deka-tria-phobia! Fantastic!
Every time it comes along we hope that we get past it,
Without the loss or limb or life, our money on our plastic,
Para-skevi-deka-tria-phobia! Fantastic!

Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye,
Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye

I gave our black cat a rub. It nearly scratched my eye out,
As it ran it tripped me up, I bumped my head and passed out.
When I came around at night, I reached to switch the light on,
It seems the cat had pissed on me, I lit up like New Brighton.

Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye,
Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye

The current flowed right through my veins, boiling up my blood,
I knew that something must be wrong, I wasn’t feeling good.
I hadn’t rubbed a rabbit’s foot, I realised I should.
I’d mixed my superstitions up. I hadn’t understood.

Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye,
Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye

I heard that cricket in the house is supposed to bring you luck.
I bowled a goolgy down the lounge, but then I cried “Oh fuck!”
I’d smashed the mirror on the wall, I’d really come unstuck.
My first attempt at superstition, I’m out for a duck!

Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye,
Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye

Four-leaf clovers, right-hand hitches, horseshoes that were lost,
An itchy palm, clothes inside out, fingers that are crossed,
I don’t get this superstition stuff, I’ve found out to my cost.
It’s all a load of balls to me. It’s going to be tossed.

Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye,
Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye

I need a better look at life, something antithetic
To this superstition that makes me so apoplectic!
How anyone believes that crap, it really is pathetic!
Fuck that para-skevi-shit, I’m going to stay a sceptic!

Happy Friday the 13th!

Can Faith Ever Be Rational?

The question was posed here: Can Faith Ever Be Rational?

Rational: agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible; having or exercising reason, sound judgment, or good sense; of, pertaining to, or constituting reasoning powers: the rational faculty.

Faith: confidence or trust in a person or thing; belief that is not based on proof or evidence; belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion.

Trust

Let’s get the equivocating use of the term faith as trust out of the way first, which is what the cited Buchak paper gets into with:

Buchak characterizes faith as a commitment to acting as if some claim is true without first needing to examine additional evidence that could potentially bear on the claim.

Oh, you mean like the terrorists that act in the name of some faith, before actually checking if the foundation of their faith is supported by evidence? Right.

Trust can be rational. Trust is something you learn, as when you learn to trust your spouse. You can be wrong, or, you could be right but later turn out to be wrong because your spouse was trustworthy for some time but then changed.

And we cannot fact-check everything for ourselves. Indeed part of the scientific method works because we cannot rely on our personal fact-checking all the time, because we have biases, and fallible senses, and fallible reasoning capacity. So, when experiments are carried out and reported we come to trust a particular scientific claim. Or we come not to trust it. Either way we adapt our trust according to how the claims stand up to scrutiny. We do not trust blindly and unconditionally, but carefully, with experience.

We can come to trust a source, a scientists, an establishment, which becomes an authority – but this must always be tempered by the possibility of error or fraud, and so in turn we come to trust the other scientists who check the source. Trust in sources can be lost – and sometimes is dramatically lost, when some scientists turns out to have been fraudulent in many of his published papers. This loss of trust can be inconvenient in science. It can even be catastrophic, as when the Soviet Union put their trust in Trofim Lysenko – and it would not be unreasonable to call this an example of blind faith rather than trust.

So this isn’t a universal locked-in trust. Trust can be revoked, if evidence comes to light that that suggests we should give up that trust.

We tend to trust doctors, because we know they are well trained professionals that dedicated to maintaining or improving our wellbeing. But we can lose trust in doctors when they fail us. They are fallible humans, and so even the very best intentioned of them can make mistakes. It is unfair to have unconditional faith in doctors. They should generally be trusted, but with caution befitting of your own concern for your own wellbeing. If you have a minor ailment, trust them by all means. If it’s a life and death decision, ask for a second opinion.

So, generally, “I trust my doctor”, is a pretty reasonable and rational statement. But to be more accurate it should be stated as, “I trust my doctor, to a degree, and cautiously, being ready to adapt my trust in the face of my experiences with my doctor.” This is quite rational.

What about when a religious person says something like, “I trust the Lord Jesus.” Isn’t that the same kind of trust? The use of the word trust here is misleading. It’s the faith that has brought this believer to suppose there is actually a Jesus to trust that is the issue. If Christianity were true in all its claims then it would be rational to trust Jesus, until such time that Jesus lets you down – which of course according to the fairy tale wouldn’t happen.

A similar statement to “I trust the Lord Jesus,” is “I trust in the Lord Jesus,” and when phrased like that we start to see the way in which simple rational trust in the character of a reliable person is morphing into the faith in both the character and the existence of a divine person. This is how religious rhetoric dupes people. Vagueness, equivocation, duplicity are the tools of religious rhetoric.

Religious Faith

When the question, is it rational, is asked of faith, the method by which a belief is maintained, then no, faith is not rational at all. Faith is the antithesis of rationality. Faith is what you use when you want to believe something, or are otherwise driven to hold a belief, when there is no reason or evidence to support the belief. And faith can result in belief in spite of counter evidence and reason.

When the question is asked it may be asked of faith, the system of belief, such as Christianity or Islam. So, can Christianity be rational? Can Islam be rational? Well, they can contain elements of reason, rationality, in the arguments put forward to support them, but that does not make them consequentially rational.

It is not necessarily important how the belief is first acquired. For example, it might be that someone who starts to examine a belief is persuaded by some arguments for it. When examined thoroughly the arguments may not be at all persuasive. But it would be unfair to say that someone new to the belief or someone who has not examined it well, is acting without reason, being irrational, just because they are persuaded by a poor argument.

Many Christians may be persuaded by the arguments of someone like C. S. Lewis, or William Lane Craig, or Alvin Plantinga.

The problem for someone first persuaded by these conjurors of religious apologetics arises when they become so convinced that they stop using reason and turn to faith as the final arbiter of what they believe.

Often the arguments of the apologists contain assertions that one should use faith. The trouble is that once you do resort to faith your reasoning capacity has become limited, because faith is always supposed to override, surmount, be better than reason. This is what religions rely on. This is how they lock people in, by first infecting them and then making them resistant to reason. Religions are viral, in that the persuasively rhetorical story is coughed up verbatim in order to infect others.

The basic lock-in rhetoric can be summarised by the following Simplified Bible claims, that represents how holy books work.

Simplified Bible

God exists.

This book contains the true and inerrant word of God.

God requires that you have faith in Him, and in his words as contained in this book.

When your belief is challenged by reason and evidence, this is the work of Satan tempting you, so beware, and maintain your faith.

Of course the intelligent faithful would not usually be conned by such a simplistic book. All the elaborate stories of holy books are constructed so as to be persuasive, much more persuasive than this. They are appealing to believers, in that the nice stories suck them in, with all the hope and promise, but they also add threats of damnation just to make sure you prefer the warm and cosy message. Clever carrot and stick rhetoric. They have had thousands of years to hone their persuasive books.

But the logic of the above simplified holy book is not much different than this:

Liar’s Bible

This book was written by a truthful person and not a liar, honest.

Believe anything the author of this book tells you.

When your belief is challenged by someone using reason and evidence, that is the work of a liar tempting you, so beware, and maintain your faith in this book and its author.

So, a liar has written a book in which he claims to be honest, and this book claims that the book is true and that the liar is honest. It also warns you of naysayers, stating in fact that the naysayers are the liars. So, another person comes along and says, “I know the guy that wrote that. He’s a liar, and has written that book to con you, to control you.” Well, your Liar’s Bible has a defence for that. All it requires of you is to believe the book, and of course believe its claims about the liar that wrote it.

Even if you are intelligent and capable of understanding reason you can still be taken in by religion, by the simple presupposition that God exists, and his requirement that you have faith in his existence, and in his word.

There is no logical reason for supposing anything exists that we cannot experience directly or test for in some way. There are simply too many things that don’t exist, that I think even a religious believer would see that it would be irrational to believe them just by presupposing them: fairies, ghosts, aliens probing you neighbour, pink elephants, flying pigs, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Scientology, Russell’s Teapot, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, perpetual motion, astrology, homeopathy, … the list is endless. It would be nonsense to start presupposing all these are true, or having faith that they are true. The natural course of events for humans is to accept on trust something that is quite ordinary, but to ask for evidence and reason to support the claims about these more extraordinary other beliefs.

This isn’t a scepticism reserved for the supernatural and spiritual. Scientists are sceptical about new scientific claims, even ones that have later shown to be correct according to the evidence. Scepticism is the default mode of thought in science. In religion scepticism is anathema, and faith is what is asked for, expected.

For a believer of some religion, or homeopathy, or astrology, their particular belief becomes untouchable because they have faith in it – and yet other examples of these unevidenced beliefs they continue to dismiss as untrue and irrational. The really gullible can indeed take on more than one such belief – so some Christians also fall for homeopathy, for example. But on the whole it seems to be no trouble at all for a believer to have faith in their belief, while denying other beliefs that are just as poorly supported by evidence and reason.

So Christians, for example, are not generally Muslims, because Christians believe in the divinity of Jesus while Muslims think he was a mortal prophet. This is usually a deal breaker, and only faith allows a believer to hold one while rejecting the other – because the reason and evidence for both Christianity and Islam is roughly equally bad.

Without the history of tradition and the equivocating vague and duplicitous religious language I don’t think holy books would be so persuasive. Of course many modern believers have had to change the way they think about their holy books – well at least that’s generally true for Christians, while Muslims are more likely to insist on the inerrancy of the Qur’an. Unless you’re a Young Earth Creationist Christian you have to accept these days that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God. At best it’s a human interpretation of the revelations it is supposed to contain. Some modern theists have almost squirrelled God away out of critical reach, making their Christianity virtually atheistic Humanism – which then raises the question of what they actually have faith in, and why they continue to put such store in a book like the Bible.

What idiot presented with the Liar’s Bible would be taken in by it? You would have to presuppose it was written by an honest person, and when sceptics pointed out the potential flaw in that presupposition you would have to resort to the faith the book prescribes in order to continue to believe it.

This is the folly of faith. It is not rational but irrational. It is dangerous.

Dangerous? Really? The nice young Vicar at church on Sunday is dangerous?

Well, no, but that says more about him as a person, a normal human, rather than anything about his religion. It’s a remarkably happy state of affairs for many of us living currently that the religions are generally supported by nice people. That he relies on faith is the problem: faith, the enabler of dangerous beliefs and practices.

Not all non-believers are lucky enough to live in societies like ours in most Western democracies. There are plenty of places in the world where being among the religious ranges from minor persecution and prejudice to being life threatening. Ask the atheists in Pakistan and other countries where atheism carries a risk.

The very same faith that the nice Vicar uses is also the same type of faith that religious extremists use to explain why they do the terrible things they do. A nice Vicar might appeal to all sorts of rational explanations as to why the nasty extremist is wrong to blow up buildings and people in the name of his God, to oppress women, to kill apostates and homosexuals, to beat rape victims; but the extremist only has to appeal to his faith, his conviction that this is what his God commands, and the mild mannered Vicar is stumped. Reason and evidence don’t come into that debate, because for both of them faith trumps reason and evidence. The Vicar may appeal to reason and evidence to explain how bad terrorism is, but the extremist can ignore such an appeal to reason, because the fundamentalist can appeal to his faith, his conviction in what he believes, a conviction which is no less impressive to him than the love of Jesus is to the Vicar.

No. Religious faith is not rational. It’s pretending really hard …

UPDATE: Jesus & Mo:

Colin McGinn – Hopeless

Philosopher Colin McGinn makes a real hash of reviewing How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, by by Ray Kurzweil. I can’t comment on the book itself, because I’ve not read it. But there’s enough wrong with the content of McGinn’s to know that he isn’t the person who should be reviewing it. Well, not for a fair critical review. If the New York Review of Books merely wanted clueless philosopher to stir up some hyperbole, then fair enough.

But McGinn is one of those irritating philosophers that seems wilfully ignorant. So I’ll respond to some of the content of the review, which is here.

Let’s start with the obviously philosophically suspect:

“However, that claim seems obviously false.”

It doesn’t matter what the specific claim is of Kurzweil. When you hear that from a philosopher, that something is obvious, think ‘mind already made up’. Though his review may be critical, it contains little critical thinking. I always thought it was obvious that philosophers challenged the obvious. I’m obviously wrong in that assumption, and I’ve been shown to be wrong by several philosophers, thereby showing again that the obvious isn’t always so.

McGinn’s main gripe seems to rest on his misunderstanding of patterns and pattern recognition. From the computer science perspective I can see where Kurzweil might be coming from. McGinn starts off badly and never picks up.

“Pattern recognition pertains to perception specifically”

No it does not. Pattern recognition is about matching patterns, and they don’t even have to be in the same encoding. Patterns of visual perception need be nothing like the corresponding neural content; but nevertheless, similar visual patterns can stimulate similar neural firing patterns. There can be a correspondence between visual patterns as perceived and patterns in neural circuits, synaptic connections, firing. It’s not a simple one-to-one correspondence, because the brain has history and merges many sources of pattern.

The pattern of an image taken by a digital camera will be persisted in the camera in states of transistors, and they need have nothing like the geometric spatial correspondence of the original 2D representation of the 3D scene. In transmitting the image over the internet the image data may be compressed and encrypted beyond all recognition (by humans). The compressed encrypted pattern is still a pattern with a direct correspondence to the original geometric image (in lossless compression). And at the other end the data may be decrypted, decompressed and displayed in the same geometric pattern as the original. This would not be possible if there was no correspondence, no pattern, being preserved along the way.

The internal brain representations need not have the same lossless fidelity I’ve just described. It appears that brain memories and perceptions are very dynamic and not at all the high fidelity representations we subjectively feel they are. Nevertheless, patterns are what it’s about to a great extent.

The same can apply to audio signals. And vibrations from earthquake monitors. Things we humans can’t detect can be transformed into patterns we do recognise, so we see patterns in graphs of data that we couldn’t see just observing the original source. So, though stock market data comes in from all over the world to a computer system, and though there is no way humans could directly detect patterns in that data, it can be transformed into stock market graphs that we understand the meaning of very well: patterns.

Pattern recognition is so much at the heart of how we put contextual meaning to visual stimuli that we have the phenomenon of Pareidolia. We ascribe meaning where there is none when our pattern recognition is overly active.

You only have to watch this TED video to see the importance of patterns.

McGinn misses the big picture. In the above video the context of a pattern is in itself a greater pattern. What we perceive moment by moment is only a fraction of what we experience and learn over time. The momentary visual perceptual patterns are not the full extent of the patterns being recognised. In the video the different meanings of two identical geometric shapes only acquire their respective meaning in the context of the surrounding patterns.

“In what way does thinking involve processing a stimulus and categorizing it?”

Thinking isn’t limited to that. Thinking is the dynamic on-going processes in which many partly autonomous regions of the brain are doing their own thing, and we perceive that as thinking. The fact that I have to use the phrase “we perceive that as” is the unfortunate teleological language we have become accustomed to, which may even be evolved as part of our evolutionary development of language and its use to identify a self. That we have this limitation in language use is no excuse for McGinn to make naive claims as to what is obvious – claims to the obvious discredit the whole of philosophy.

“When I am thinking about London while in Miami I am not recognizing any presented stimulus as London-since I am not perceiving London with my senses.”

But McGinn is way off the mark here. The stimulus in this case is not coming from the eyes, but from the brain. When his brain starts to think of London (whether in London or not) it reconstructs in the visual cortex the patterns of neural activity that are activated when he sees London. When he thinks of London, and in particular Big Ben, say, then the various experiences of Big Ben he has had, directly, or on the TV News, or on post cards, have all contributed to his brain’s learning of what London means to his brain, so that just thinking about London conjures up these internal experiences again, some as pseudo-visual images.

“There is no perceptual recognition going on at all in thinking about an absent object.”

There is both perceptual reconstruction, and subsequent perceptual recognition.

“This point seems totally obvious and quite devastating…”

For heaven’s sake, stop with the ridiculous claims to the obvious. If all this was obvious there would be no debate! You want to witness devastation of an idea? Try Dennett’s 1991 review of McGinn – see later.

“The notion of “pattern” has lost its moorings in the geometric models of letters and faces: Are we seriously to suppose that dreams and thoughts have geometrical shape?”

No! This is dreadful. Geometric patterns (by which McGinn means spatially geometric) are only one type of pattern. There are non-spatial geometries, patterns.

“At best the word “pattern” is now being used loosely and metaphorically…”

No. It’s just that McGinn doesn’t get the actual broader meaning of ‘pattern’. It is McGinn’s limited knowledge that is holding him back in this respect.

“Why is remembering that I have to feed the cat itself some kind of pattern?”

Because it is a pattern of neural activity that has evoked conscious awareness of something that must be done, and with it are associated patterns of various kinds, only some of which may be related to visual experiences, of cat and food. When McGinn remembers again the next day many of the same neurons will fire again, in similar patterns!

“What has happened is that he has switched from patterns as stimuli in the external environment to patterns as mental entities, without acknowledging the switch”

Maybe because it is well known that patterns are everywhere in all this and the external patterns on the retina are just one of the many patterns. Without reading Kurzweil I couldn’t say what his intention was, but my guess would be that he didn’t feel the distinction would be necessary to make, or that he made it but McGinn missed it.

“… blithely proceeding as if everything mental involves perception”

Well yes and no. It’s not all visual perception; and it’s not even all conscious perception. Are we restricting the use of the term perception to only the external events on the retina? Or beyond and down the optic fibres? Or through the parts of the visual cortex? Or do we include the reconstructions and merging of immediately acquired and stimulated reconstructions? It’s all so complicated that McGinn’s use of the term perception is very limiting; so showing how little McGinn actually knows about any of this.

“When I see an apple as red, do I recognize the color as a pattern? No, because the color is not a geometric arrangement of shapes or anything analogous to that…”

What? Is he serious? Geometric? Colour is not a pattern system? Does he not know what spectra are? This is unbelievably ignorant. My guess is that his understanding here is based on ancient philosophical notions that he’s not been able to shake off. It’s as if 200 years of science have passed McGinn by.

“When I see an apple as red …it is simply a homogeneous sensory quality”

He’s even confusing himself now. When he sees a red apple he isn’t merely seeing ‘red’, as if the old philosophical ‘redness’ is what determines colour perception. He should watch the Beau Lotto TED talk.

“Is the sweetness of sugar or the smell of a rose a pattern?”

Yes! The nose and tongue are chemical pattern recognition components. When they detect chemical patterns they fire off neural signals. The pattern of the periodic table of elements is a representation, a model, of the physical patterns of the different elements. And more complex atomic patterns, as molecules, stimulate specific receptor patterns in nose and tongue. The whole of biology is about patterns. DNA is about patterns, pattern recognition, pattern building.

“Then there are such mental phenomena as emotion, imagination, reasoning, willing, intending, calculating, silently talking to oneself, feeling pain and pleasure, itches, and moods-the full panoply of the mind.”

Emotion is very much pattern recognition. We recognise patterns in the world and they stimulate our emotions. It’s because the stimulating patterns are different that we cry at sad events and laugh at funny ones. Imagination is the construction of patterns, of worlds, images, ideas. Reasoning is the attempt to discover and build patterns of logic. Willing (don’t get me started on free will) is the causal effect of internal patterns that drive behaviour, that make motor neurons drive muscles. Talking to one’s self is the use of language patterns internally.

This is all getting to be too much ignorance. I’m beginning to suspect wilful denialism.

“In what useful sense do all these count as “pattern recognition”?”

It’s not just recognition. It’s also pattern creation and reconstruction. We learn by both experiencing the world, but also by probing it, and it is in this way we build patterns that on the whole start to have a related contextual significance; and therein lies meaning.

Eventually McGinn moves on to the teleological languages used in neuroscience.

“There is another glaring problem with Kurzweil’s book: the relentless and unapologetic use of homunculus language.”

Three points here. First, that seems to be the language we are stuck with. Maybe it’s evolved – evolving with us, so that it is a very part of our nature to think teleologically. It certainly seems very difficult to escape. Second, coming to us so easily it’s very easy to use, and therefore convenient and efficient: evolutionary biologists that think we are physical systems and that DNA has no intellect or purpose of any kind that we might associate with agency, they still use teleological language. Third, the first two points explain why people like McgGinn find it difficult to shake off the notion of teleology, particularly with regards to humans, and why when they see teleological language used as metaphor they take it to be literal. In this case McGinn thinks Kurzweil’s use of such language is literal. There is no homunculus!

“Presumably (I am not entirely sure) Kurzweil would agree that such descriptions cannot be taken literally: individual neurons don’t say things or predict things or see things-though it is perhaps as if they do.”

He’s not entirely sure? Then he really doesn’t get it at all. He is missing the whole point of the absence of teleology that physics, chemistry, biology, evolution has been hinting at.

“People say and predict and see, not little bunches of neurons, still less bits of machines.”

Well, since people are big bunches of neurons then it is the neurons doing it, but not as some thinking homunculi. It’s the whole mass of neurons and their behaviour that gives the impression of a person, a self. This is the mental illusion that hides the physicalism of what we are! The very ‘self’, ‘I’, that we feel we are is a living metaphor – we are our own homunculus.

“First, homunculus talk can give rise to the illusion that one is nearer to accounting for the mind…”

It’s a metaphor!

“But if we strip our theoretical language of psychological content, restricting ourselves to the physics and chemistry of cells, we are far from accounting for the mental phenomena we wish to explain.”

Now I agree we are far from accounting for much. But if only the likes of McGinn, and Nagel, Chalmers and Tallis, could apply their critical scepticism to their own ideas of what conscious is; or even more, apply it to their certainty of what it cannot be, then they’d be on reasonable ground. But that isn’t what this is about. For these guys it isn’t about a fair appraisal of how far science is getting on in the understanding of consciousness, because they don’t seem interested in the science. They seem more intent on maintaining the special nature of humans as non-animals, or at least animals with minds that are some way free of the very physical constraints of the brain. Oh yes, they admit the mind has something to do with the brain, and while not being able to say what the mind has to do with the brain they are very keen to say to what extent the brain is not the mind. These guys are philosophers. They don’t spend the time covering the science to appreciate how far it goes in not finding a mind and how far it sees only evidence consistent with physicalism.

“Neurons simply emit electrical impulses when caused to do so by impinging stimuli; they don’t recognize anything in the literal sense.”

They do! In a literal sense. The problem here is that McGinn is restricting ‘recognise’ to the teleological homunculus kind that has traditionally been associated with mind. When a component, be it a neuron or computer chip, responds to some patterns and not to others then there is a real and literal physical sense in which the input pattern has been recognised.

“Recognizing is a conscious mental act.”

Only if you define it as such. And here we find the limitations of McGinn. He defines recognition as something that only conscious systems can do; and surprise: only conscious system can do recognition, when so defined! He is making it so by his own definition, his own restriction of the use of the word. Now that human teleological meaning may be the source of the word, but it is now a well-used word in many sciences, and especially in computer science. Much language has been adopted and does not retain its teleological significance. I don’t suppose McGinn has much problem with the term ‘memory’ when applied to computers.

The last bit of interest is McGinn’s understanding of signal processing and information processing. He lacks understanding.

” in sober neuroscience textbooks we are routinely told that bits of the brain “process information”, “send signals”, and “receive messages” – as if this were as uncontroversial as electrical and chemical processes occurring in the brain. “

It is uncontroversial. Well, maybe it’s as controversial to McGinn as is Evolution to Young Earth Creationists.

“It is a collection of biological cells like any bodily organ, much like the liver or the heart, which are not apt to be described in informational terms.”

You’ve got to be kidding me! First, the liver. It does process signals. Mostly chemical ones. The heart? What on earth does he think drives heart beats? And neurons? Please! Neurons are all about signal processing. Even a simplistic description has them summing input signals before they decide to fire; transmitting neurochemicals in accordance with other factors in compex signalling from one neuron to another; they process signals to learn, to habituate, inhibit, etc. Please, McGinn, learn some biology.

“It can hardly be claimed that we have observed information transmission in the brain, as we have observed certain chemicals; this is a purely theoretical description of what is going on.”

Where has McGinn been this last hundred years? Try looking up Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Better still read this.

Still not convicned? Try this list. Seriously, go down this list and just look at all the indicators of signal processing, information processing. And don’t forget it is chemical too, not just electrical.

“The answer must surely be that the brain is causally connected to the mind and the mind contains and processes information.”

What mind?!! Where is it? What is this mind he is so stuck on? He dismisses all evidence of the pattern recognition features of brains, and of their signal processing operations, but with no evidence whatsoever insists there is a mind?

“That is, a conscious subject has knowledge, memory, perception, and the power of reason – I have various kinds of information at my disposal. No doubt I have this information because of activity in my brain, but it doesn’t follow that my brain also has such information”

What is this I, this conscious subject? He looks for it but never demonstrates it.

“To create a mind one needs at a minimum to create consciousness, but Kurzweil doesn’t even attempt to describe a way for doing that.”

Well, first, that’s not true. It appears the minimum we think is necessary is a brain. We have not yet seen consciousness outside a brain that we know of. It’s quite possible that we don’t understand what consciousness is; so that it may turn out to be nothing at all but behaviour of a complex brain. There is nothing else on offer. So, it’s quite respectable to suppose that as we come to understand more about the brain we will be able to figure out how consciousness comes about, and then build non-wet conscious systems. We already attribute consciousness to many non-human animals that aren’t even close to having some of the capabilities McGinn points out in humans. The trouble for McGinn is that he doesn’t understand or cannot define consciousness either, and so is in no position to decide how close scientists have come to it. This next statement demonstrates his ignorance:

“Clearly, unconscious processes of so-called “pattern recognition” in the neocortex will not suffice for consciousness, being precisely unconscious.”

I could write another whole post on why McGinn is wrong in his assessment of physical laws and the technological limits computing power. But I’ve had enough.

Is McGinn truly a philosopher? Has he no critical skills at all? Is he so poorly out of date, still sticking to the same thinking he had way back when? Here’s Dan Dennett on McGinn back in 1991:

“I find his thesis not just incredible and ludicrous. As a fellow philosopher, I find it embarrassing. It is not that I disagree with McGinn about the possibility in principle that there are phenomena that will forever defy human understanding, but just that I find him arriving at his pessimistic verdict about consciousness after such a paltry canvassing of the opportunities.”

What was Dennett disappointed in? McGinn’s claim that human brains were never meant to understand consciousness. Well, they were never meant to understand chemistry, maths of any kind, or for that matter, philosophy. The intellectual capabilities of our brains seem to go way beyond what they were ‘meant’ to do (as if they were ‘meant’ to do anything – be as wary of ID language as of teleological language).

McGinn thinks we do not have the capacity to understand consciousness? Well then how does McGinn assure himself that he knows enough about consciousness, or human brains, to be able to make that claim. It’s a self-refuting claim. Not, note, that this makes the opposite affirmed, that we will understand consciousness. Just because McGinn’s brain is not wired for understanding consciousness, or some basic principles of critical thinking, does not mean that the subject cannot be understood.

Really, you should read the rest of Dennett’s review. I’ll give up on McGinn as a lost cause.

Arm The Teachers God Damn It!

GunOwners

BBC had a reporter in a gun store somewhere in the US. One gun happy customer or staff member said this latest shooting wasn’t a gun issue but a mental health issue.

OK, so keeping automatic rifles out of the hands of a person with issues wouldn’t have prevented the deaths?

And would that same commenter be happy to pay the taxes to solve all the mental health problems in the US, so honest decent sane folk can have their guns? As if that would be possible.

But he may have a point. It might be a mental health issue really. An issue of the mental health of these people that see their particular right to bear arms and their right not to pay taxes (that might help to improve the health of the nation) as being so essential.

The American Dream turned nightmare (again). Automatic firearms in the hands of a people steeped in religious ire, enabled by conservative greed, and libertarian I’m OK so sort yourself out because I couldn’t give a fuck and I’m not paying taxes to help you fix your shit. What could go wrong, so often?

Just in case you think the right to bear arms and religious nut-jobbery are independent carzinesses, try this: What Does the Bible Say About Gun Control?

Maybe all this lunacy is hard to avoid in a place like the US. Diversity doesn’t guarantee sanity. The UK is smaller and it’s easier to manage the craziness. Our total population is only about twice that of California; about 20% of the US as a whole. There are fewer backwaters where craziness can unfold unseen in plain sight, though we’ve had our share.

In Hungerford UK in 1987 Michale Ryan killed 16 people. How did he manage to kill so many? Semi-automatic rifles and a hand gun. Surprise. In 2010 Derek Bird killed 12. His weapons: a double-barrelled shotgun and a .22-calibre rifle with a scope and silencer. But part of the problem in this case was that he was on the move. The death toll could have been less had he tried a single location spree. Without automatic weapons there’s the opportunity to fight back at some point, or to evade the shooter. Without any firearms the nut case is even more limited in the damage he can do.

This is the armoury of James Eagan Holmes, suspect killer of 58, as reported on wiki:

On May 22, 2012, Holmes purchased a Glock 22 pistol at a Gander Mountain shop in Aurora, and six days later bought a Remington Model 870 shotgun at a Bass Pro Shops in Denver. On June 7, just hours after failing his oral exam at the university, he purchased a Smith & Wesson M&P15 semi-automatic rifle, with a second Glock 22 pistol following on July 6. All the weapons were bought legally. In the four months prior to the shooting, Holmes also bought 3000 rounds of ammunition for the pistols, 3000 rounds for the M&P15, and 350 shells for the shotgun over the Internet. On July 2, he placed an order for a Blackhawk Urban Assault Vest, two magazine holders and a knife at an online retailer.

His defence at the moment is based on his mental state. But would his mental state have enabled him to kill so many without all the firepower?

Obviously not. Surely that is obvious, right? But I’ve got it all wrong it seems. Gun control isn’t the answer!

Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, believes we should arm the teachers. This, from the New Yorker:

“Following the Newtown shooting, Larry Pratt, the Executive Director of Gun Owners for America, suggested that these massacres might be avoided in the future, if only more teachers were armed.”

Be prepared, for your next job interview:

Yes, you have a PhD in your subject, have taught at several prestigious schools and come with glowing references. But I see that you are only expert in small arms. Is there some reason why you never trained with semi-automatics? You’re not a God-damned Darwinian Evolutionary pacifist sun of a bitch are you?

The New Yorker again:

“As Pratt’s sentiment should make clear, the United States has slipped its moorings and drifted into a realm of profound national lunacy.”

Slipped? Drifted? As in dived headlong?

Anticipated teacher training: