Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ways of being religious

Earlier, I took a course on the history of religions. I thought maybe my readers would find some of this enlightening, so I'm going to discuss the "six ways of being religious. " This is a framework for thinking about religions that was invented by a Dale Cannon. My professor's framework was based on Dale's framework, with a few differences; likewise, what I write here is slightly different from what my professor said.

The basic idea is that all religious practices can be categorized as one or more of these six ways of being religious. Each way fulfills a different human need. Any successful world religion will have incorporated all of the six ways some time during its history; at any particular time and place, the religion might emphasize one way over the others.

In no particular order,

Ritual is religious practice in which the details are important. The right things must be said at the right time by the right people. The human need being fulfilled is the lack of a sense of what to do and how to feel. ("So we're getting married... I feel we should mark the occasion, but how? With a traditional ceremony!") Ritual is usually associated with some religious authority that can perform the rituals.

Morality is all about doing the morally right thing. This can mean vegetarianism, nonviolence, dietary restrictions, charity, or social justice. Whether a religion favors charity or social justice depends on whether the religion views the world as changing or unchanging. The western religions tend to favor social justice. The human need being fulfilled here is the sense that humans don't always behave right.

Devotion is about loving and being loved. This doesn't necessarily mean loving a "god," but it tends to make more sense when the object of devotion is a personal being of some sort who can love you back. It is usually thought that through the personal being's grace, worshipers attain some sort of salvation. Devotion fulfills the human need for--you guessed it--love.

Mysticism is about connecting with the "divine" or "cosmos" whatever the religion may conceive that to be. It fulfills the human need for something "beyond" the mundane, material world. Mysticism, though it is often combined with devotion, is distinct in that the emotion is less personal. Unlike devotion, the cosmos don't have to be personal or conscious in order for mysticism to make sense.

Intellectual Inquiry is the part of religion that seeks answers. Either by studying texts or by doing theology, scholars try to discern things like cosmology, meaning, morals, or the character of God/Ultimate Reality. This fulfills the human need for knowledge about why we are here, and our place in the scheme of things. Just like ritual, this way of being religious is also associated with religious authority, though it is a different kind of authority (compare priests with rabbis).

Shamanic Mediation involves a special person, only sometimes called a shaman, who mediates between the material and divine, channeling down goods. These goods can include food, rain, fertility, health, guidance, etc. This category includes faith healers. Shamans are much more common in tribal religions than in world religions. When they are part of world religions, they tend to be separate from the main religious infrastructure.

I know most of my readers are probably critical of religion in some way. Well, there's no rule that says you have to simplify that which you criticize. I encourage people to use these categories to think about religions. For example, my professor seemed to have it in for ritual, and advocated social justice above all else. What do you think?

Monday, April 28, 2008

On the skeptical identity

I was reading Skepchick, and writerdd wrote this little essay on why she does not consider herself a skeptic. Unfortunately, I've failed several times to register to comment on that site, so I have to do it here.

So Donna (aka writerdd) doesn't consider herself a skeptic? Heresy! Shun the believer! Wait, no, that reaction makes no sense.

The skeptical movement is and isn't about "evangelization". It promotes critical thinking and science literacy, but it doesn't really care about maximizing its numbers. Skepticism is not an identity movement, but rather, a certain flavor of science popularization advocacy. By contrast, the atheist movement is out there to encourage people to call themselves atheists. This is because there is a lot of social prejudice going on; people fear the word, and anyone who could possibly be described by it. However, no such thing is going on with skepticism, so why should we care?

There are a variety of definitions of "skeptical" ranging from the colloquial to the philosophical to the ones used by the skeptical movement. It's perfectly understandable that anyone would want to avoid a word with so many connotations. For example, I do not consider myself a "humanist" despite the fact that I fit under most definitions. I happen to like the word "skeptic" enough to put it in the title of my blog, but that's just me.

But I've got to nitpick with Donna's reasoning here:
While I do agree with this basic definition, it’s the nit-picky attitude of many skeptics, the tendency to turn every discussion into a debate, and the way many skeptics have to be “right” that makes me uncomfortable attaching myself to the name or the subculture. I am more interested in exploring how to think than I am in being told what to think — even about religion, homeopathy, psychics, and other topics that seem to enthrall many skeptics.
Me? Nitpick? I want a point by point defense of this allegation! What's next, skeptics are too heavy-handed with their self-referential irony?

Hey, but I'm also much more interested in "exploring how to think". I can't actually make much comment on homeopathy, psychics, cryptozoology and all the other canonical skeptical topics. Then I'd have to do research. Research is hard! When I research, I feel like I might as well simply link to my source--but that would be boring. I'd much rather consider general critical thinking skills. And I make it no secret that I occasionally disagree with the popular skeptical view on said critical thinking skills.

However, I am guilty as charged of seeing everything as a debate in which claims are put forth and defended. I'm probably also guilty of viewing everything with cold emotionless eyes. Look upon the lifeless black dots of this smiley... :-) ... That's me.

But there's no reason you have to be exactly like me in order to think critically. Have I ever mentioned how little is required to think critically? You don't need to agree with me or my approach. You don't need to be a freethinker. You don't need to call yourself a skeptic. You just need a brain. So easy, yet so important--and so fun!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Solution to many-pinned paintings

See the original puzzle

I've prepared my own picture of the double-pinned solution: see it here

Have I ever mentioned that I hand out free Technorati authority to solvers?

Susan of Intrinsically Knotted solved this puzzle by considering the Borromean rings. The Borromean rings are a set of three rings that are linked together in such a way that breaking any single ring will unlink the other two. All you need to do is transform two of the rings into pins, and you've got a solution. See her visual presentation here.

Warning: Advanced puzzle-solving to follow!

In the general case, we have the painting hung on N pins. Removing any M pins will cause the painting to fall, but removing any M-1 pins will leave it hanging.

You'll find that drawing any solution with more than two pins quickly becomes impossible. Therefore, it is essential that we have a compact naming system to describe any solution. In the solution, we will have N pins side by side. Each one will be associated with a letter. The leftmost pin is A, the next is B, and so on. We must wind the string of the painting above and below these pins. I will use a capital letter to signify going above the corresponding pin, and a small letter to signify going below the corresponding pin.

For example, the solution to the double pinned painting can be described by the following sequence: AbBAaB

I find this naming system convenient, because you can always tell when the painting will fall. For example, if you remove pin B from the above solution, we're left with "AAa" The two capital 'A's will cancel, for obvious reasons, and we'll be left with a. In other words, the entire string is below the pin, and will therefore fall down.

I will create a recursive algorithm that generates a general solution. The solution produced by this algorithm for values of N and M will be called S(N,M). The reverse of this solution will be called R(N,M). For example, S(2,1) = AbBAaB, and R(2,1) = BaABbA.

There are two trivial cases for which the solution is obvious:

S(N,0) = abcd...
S(N,N) = ABCD...

For nontrivial cases, the solution can always be given by the following (where the letter associated with the rightmost pin is X):

S(N,M) = S(N-1,M) xX R(N-1,M) S(N-1,M-1) X

We know this solution works because: (1) if we remove pin X, we're left with S(N-1,M-1), and(2) if we leave pin X, we must remove M pins, leaving us with sequence "xXX", which falls.

Here are a few instances of S(N,M):

S(3,1) = AbBAaBcCBaABbAabC [This is fun, isn't it?]
S(3,2) = ABcCBbBAaBC [I'm doing these by hand!]
S(4,2) = ABcCBbBAaBCdDCBaABbBCcBbBAaBcCBaABbAabCD [Maybe synesthesia would help?]
S(5,4) = ABCDeEDdDCcCBbBAaBCDE [Don't stop me now!]
S(6,3) = ABCdDCcCBbBAaBCDeE... [ok, maybe I should stop]

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Three views of "science"

Stereotypical Science
This is what the average non-scientist thinks of science. Scientists are a bunch of crazy-smart men (and to a lesser degree, women) who wear white lab coats and hold vials of brightly colored liquid in photogenic poses. Science produces all these cool technologies: computers, robots, death rays, etc. Science is a lot like magic, only more futuristic. When people think about science, they equate it with transhumanism: "Wow, science has given us so much power--but whether it is good or evil depends on how we use it. Is the human race truly ready for so much change?"

The obvious problem with this view is that it ignores the process of science (I'd also quibble about the transhumanism bit, but another day). Scientists don't just instantly produce shrink rays out of no where. To most people's credit, they do seem to realize that science involves curiosity, knowledge, and calculations. But there's still more to it than that.

The Scientific Method
This the view held primarily by people who lean skeptical. I would say it errs in the opposite direction of the stereotypical view--it places too much emphasis on the method, and makes it too broad.

In this view, science is all about the scientific method. Look at the world around you, and create a hypothesis. Make predictions from the hypothesis, and test it against the real world. If the test fails, reject or modify the hypothesis. Repeat. Always repeat. Of course, science doesn't actually work that way, step by step, in exactly that order. More broadly, science is simply about combining empirical observations with reasoning, and being forever willing to reconsider previous conclusions.

The reason people like this broad definition is because science becomes a "way of knowing." And then you can compare it to religion or faith. Depending on who you ask, you might get one of these answers: (1) Religion is just another way of knowing (2) There might be other ways of knowing, but religion isn't one (3) Science is the only way of knowing.

Now, on my second day of blogging, I argued number (3). I stand by it. But I have reservations about using such a broad definition. If all of reasoning falls under science, then I would have to include lots of things that aren't normally considered science: economics, politics, certain kinds of liberal arts, philosophy, ethics, parts of theology, as well as a bunch of everyday activities. This is ultimately confusing. If politics is a science, it sure isn't much like the rest of science. At worst, I could be accused of the equivocation fallacy.

I often think that instead of saying "science" when we mean "observation plus reason", we should just say "observation plus reason".

Science: what scientists do
This is the definition used by most working scientists. I'm putting it last because I obviously think it's the most correct one. Science is what scientists do. It's what you learn when you study science. It includes both the body of knowledge resulting from science, as well as the methods and reasoning used to get there. It also includes the people themselves, and the scientific establishment.

Science isn't just about empirical investigation along with abstract reasoning--I can do that on a blog. What I won't do on a blog is publish scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. I won't conduct rigorous studies complete with control groups and statistical analysis. I couldn't do any of that here, because it would be the improper route. None of these conditions are necessary to acquire knowledge, but they are necessary for science.

That's right, I said it. Science isn't everything! *hides from killer robots*

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Secrets of a blogger

I'm anonymous, of course. But I'm not really. I don't really hide my blog from anyone I know. I just don't feel the need to disclose my boring identity to the internet. I don't really blog about the personal details of my life much anyway. Utterly unrecognizable allusions are more my style.

Though I don't hide my views from the people I know, I don't usually make them clear either. Why should I? If I were a fervent liberal blogger, I wouldn't go around talking about that either. All this doesn't really matter that much, except on the internet, where talk is cheap. What matters in real life is how well you can reference pop culture.

It makes me wonder. To what degree are we anonymous denizens of the internet like the people who send postcards to PostSecret? Living double-lives... With that thought, I present my own not-a-secret. Why yes, I do enjoy making you work to find it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Monty Hall book

Jason Rosenhouse has just put online the first draft of the first chapter of his upcoming book on the Monty Hall Problem! This is a famous probability problem that is notorious for tripping up a lot of smart people (even mathematicians) and stirring quite a bit of controversy. I explained the puzzle myself some months ago, but Rosenhouse does it much better.

I thought the history of the problem was especially interesting. I've known about the problem itself for a long time, but I never knew about the story about Marilyn vos Savant answering the problem in Parade. It's rather interesting to see how a simple math problem causes such a furor. Rosenhouse suggests that people don't recognize it as math, and therefore forget to give their socially programmed "Oh, I'm no good at math." response.

Other puzzles that tend to provoke a lot of arguments? There's the problem where you fill a container (usually an "urn") with an infinite number of balls. There's also one where you're asked if 3.99999... is equal to 4. There's also a number of problems where you're asked to resolve a paradox of some sort. Oh, and plenty of other probability problems!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The principle of least action

Earlier, I spoke of the philosophy of Lagrangian mechanics. I got at least one person interested in learning more. I guess philosophy isn't completely useless after all!

The story of Lagrangian mechanics, in a way, starts with the brachistochrone problem. In 1696, one of the Bournoulli brothers challenged the mathematicians of the world with this problem: Given two points A and B, what curve will result in an object rolling from A to B in the shortest amount of time? Hint: it's not a straight line! The story goes that Isaac Newton solved this problem within a day, and invented a whole new branch of calculus (called the calculus of variations) to do so! Newton was just that kind of guy.

I'm not going to solve the entire problem here, as it's rather difficult, but I'll outline the general idea. See, the amount of time that the object takes to roll is equal to distance divided by velocity. Of course, the velocity is not always constant, so we have to think about in calculus terms.

T = ∫ dx/v

For those who are afraid of math, don't worry. This is just a fancy way of saying time (T) is distance (dx) divided by velocity (v). The difficult part is that the velocity is a complicated function involving both the shape of the curve and how far we've gone on that curve. And there are infinitely many possible curves. How do we pick the best one? Newton's answer came from the calculus of variations. Unfortunately, this is impossible to show without assuming my readers have a ton of calculus background. I'll spare you!

Bournoulli had his own answer to the problem, and it used quite a different method. He used something called Fermat's principle, which states that the path light takes from A to B is the path that takes the least amount of time. Of course, light isn't a normal object that can roll down inclines, but it can be slowed down when it goes through certain types of materials. Just as on object can be slowed down by rolling it up a cliff, light can be slowed down by the appropriate use of materials. If you set it up right, light will travel along the solution to the brachistochrone problem!

It turns out that the solution is a cycloid, which is the same curve traced out by a nail that gets stuck in a tire.

How does this all relate to Lagrangian mechanics? Just like Fermat's principle, Lagrangian mechanics states that the path an object takes from A to B also minimizes something. That quantity which is minimized is called "action".

S = ∫ L dt

Here, S represents the action. Action is equal to the Lagrangian (L) multiplied by time (dt). The Lagrangian is a special quantity that will tell you almost everything you need to know about a physical system in order to predict its future. In a simple system, the Lagrangian is equal to the kinetic energy minus the potential energy.

Let's consider a simple example. I throw a ball up and catch it. The ball is moving from point A (my hand) to point B (my other hand). To minimize action, the ball will "try" to have a high potential energy for as long as possible. To do so, it will soar up into the air. But it will not go too high, because then it would have to move fast to come down in time to land in my other hand. The faster it moves, the higher its kinetic energy, and the higher its action. Therefore, the ball will go up high, but not too high. The result is a parabolic path.

You can see why Lagrangian mechanics seem to imbue physical laws with a sense of purpose. The ball "tries" to minimize action as it goes from here to there. It even seems to foresee into the future, carefully plotting the course that will have the least action in the long run. Well, perhaps it only has foresight because we've already told the ball exactly where it will end up--in my hand at point B.

I think this philosophical side is part of the reason that physicists originally thought up Lagrangian mechanics. Perhaps it would disappoint the original physicists to know that action is not necessarily minimized, except in the simplest of cases. Sometimes it's maximized, or it's on a "saddle point". Try philosophizing that.

When we actually work with Lagrangian mechanics, we don't use this fanciful thought process at all. We use the calculus of variations and the Euler-Lagrange equation. For a simple problem, this will result in the equation F = ma. The equations are the real motivation behind Lagrangian mechanics, not the philosophy, but the philosophy is fun to consider.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Myth: Crisis = Danger + Opportunity?

Here's a little myth-of-the-minute. It's said that the Chinese word for "crisis" is made up of symbols that mean "danger" and "opportunity". But it turns out that this is not true. The Chinese word is wēijī, which is composed of characters wēi and jī. wēi means "danger", but jī does not mean "opportunity"!
The of wēijī, in fact, means something like "incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes)." Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits.

Aside from the notion of "incipient moment" or "crucial point" discussed above, the graph for by itself indicates "quick-witted(ness); resourceful(ness)" and "machine; device."
The word for opportunity, is actually jīhuì. Huh.

Let's hope no one's been taking unnecessary risks based on the justification that the Chinese language told them to. I'm talking to you, JFK, Al Gore, and Condoleezza Rice.

Even if it were true that
jī meant opportunity, I've got to categorize this as some variation on the equivocation fallacy or etymological fallacy. The equivocation fallacy is when you switch around different definitions of a single word. The etymological fallacy is when you assume that a word or expression's historical meaning must be similar to its current meaning.

Just because some particular language gives a word two definitions doesn't mean that those definitions are the same. Similarly, the fact that some particular language joins two words to make a new one doesn't necessarily signify anything. Someone at Language Log compared such reasoning to trying to analyze "butterfly" in terms of its constituent parts, "butter" and "fly". Next, try "hangover" or "checkmate", see if that gets you anywhere.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Not religious, not spiritual

It's quite trendy these days for people to claim that they are "spiritual but not religious." This sentiment is even widespread among materialists who don't believe in any sort of supernatural spirit. On one level, I love it. It's reflective of society's individualism and disillusionment with organized religion. As for the spirituality claimed by materialists, which I will dub "secular spirituality", that's even better. Secular spirituality recognizes that spiritual experience are real, are rewarding, but are not evidence of a spiritual realm. I strongly agree with this position. The reason I reject arguments from personal experience isn't because I think that such experiences don't exist.

On a personal level, I don't feel the same way. I am neither religious, nor spiritual.

Pause. I should first note that there is some degree of uncertainty when I say this. I'm very young and have a life ahead of me. Also, spiritual experiences are rather hard to define, so how would I know whether I've had them? The nearest I've ever had to a spiritual experience is the feeling I get when solving puzzles (thus why I blog about puzzles). It's when I get that "Aha!" moment. But most descriptions say that a spiritual experience is very profound. I would not describe the "Aha!" moment as profound. It's more like a little rush of pride and accomplishment. I don't think that qualifies.

So I don't consider myself spiritual in any sense of the word. Spirituality, secular or not, is not my thing. It's not what motivates me to study science. I study science because I like it, not because I feel I'm one with the universe. There's not much more I can say about it. I'm not going to wax poetic on my lack of awe of the cosmos. I guess I'm not much of a Carl Sagan.

I feel like I'm holding a minority position here. Even the most rabid atheists (ie Richard Dawkins) will declare a profound wonderment of science. And I'm okay with that. If it's a matter of personal taste, how could I possibly object?

What I do object to is when people--both theists and atheists--declare that spirituality is universal. Religious people talk about a God-shaped hole. Atheists, when prompted, will usually admit that not everyone is spiritual, but other times you can echoes of denial (and it's always from the "humanists"). Frankly, I'm hurt by the implication that I'm less human merely because I feel less of a particular emotion. Again, maybe I'm wrong, and I have a subconscious craving for spirituality. But what makes people so sure? There is variation among different people. The Pope is probably more spiritually inclined than your average person, so why can't I be less spiritually inclined?

If you want to talk about human nature, aim wider.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Double-pinned painting

Let's say you have a painting. As it happens, the painting is Magritte's Golconde. You apparently really like Magritte.

For mysterious reasons (hey, this is what you want, not me), you want to hang it up in a special way. Some string is attached to the painting, and you want to hang it on two pins that are in the wall. You want it such that removing either of the two pins will result in the string unwinding and the painting falling down. How can you do it?

After you've figured that out, there is a vastly more difficult problem to solve. See, you have Escher's Knots, and you want to hang it on the wall too...
Can you hang this on 3 pins such that removing any one will result in its fall? In a brief moment of insanity, you wonder, can you find a way to hang it on N pins such that the removal of any M pins will result in its fall?

There will, of course, be some difficulty in conveying a solution to me without pictures, but you're obviously very creative, so you can figure it out. I might add that the solution to any case with more than two pins is too hard to draw anyway.

Spoiler alert: Solution here

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Cosmic purpose and the Lagrangian

In my recent studies of physics, we learned about Lagrangian equations of motion. Now, unless you study physics, these equations would seem rather dry. They help me solve problems like the double pendulum, but they do so with purely mathematical equations. So as much as I know you'd all like to see the math, I will instead talk about the philosophy of Lagrangian dynamics.

"Philosophy?" you exclaim with bewilderment. Well, this subject was not entirely unprovoked. My text book has a paragraph, where it starts waxing metaphysical about how in Lagrangian dynamics, nature tries to achieve a certain purpose (emphasis not mine). I thought this paragraph was just hilarious.

To understand this point, I must explain what this "Lagrangian" thing is. Basically, Lagrangian mechanics is an alternative to Newtonian mechanics.

Newtonian mechanics is based on the equation F = ma. That is, force is equal to mass times acceleration. If I push something, it changes how fast it's going. So if we know exactly what forces are acting on an object, we can, in theory, determine where it will go. Of course, in practice, this is very difficult. What if the force depends on the location of the object (which is in turn affected by the force)? After some point, the math becomes hard. I don't mean this in the sense of, "Math is hard! Let's go shopping!" I mean that some of this math is impossible to solve, or near impossible. And if you're lucky, you can prove that it's impossible. That is why physicists try to simplify everything, wherever possible.

One of the ways to simplify Newtonian mechanics is by using Lagrangian mechanics instead. Lagrangian mechanics is more advanced (which is why they don't teach it in introductory physics), but mathematically cleaner. Instead of F = ma, Lagrangian mechanics states that action is minimized. Now, before the Daoists start jumping all over that one, I have to qualify the word "action." "Action" is a technical term for a particular quantity, the details of which are not covered in the scope of this post. To determine the path an object will take, you consider every possible path, and find the one path in which this quantity, action, is minimized. It sounds complicated, but it actually makes a variety of problems much simpler. Lagrangian mechanics is equivalent to Newtonian mechanics--it will always give you the same result, and you can prove it.

Back to my textbook. My textbook simply states that while the Newtonian and Lagrangian are mathematically equivalent, they are not philosophically equivalent. These philosophical implications have historically had profound influence on the development of mechanics.

So what are these philosophical differences? According to Newtonian mechanics, the world is viewed in terms of cause and effect. You push something, it moves. According to Lagrangian mechanics, the laws of physics are produced because nature is trying to achieve a purpose--to minimize action. An object has many possible paths, but the actual path is the one with the least action.

What are the implications for philosophy? Does it mean that the universe is governed by cause and effect? Or is it trying to fulfill a purpose? Or is it both, or neither?

If you asked me, this is an indication that such questions are irrelevant. It doesn't matter whether there is cause and effect, or whether there is a cosmic purpose. Physics behaves the same either way. If you can change the answers to these deep philosophical questions by simply moving around some mathematical equations, what meaning do these answers have?

Another layer of complication is the addition of another alternative to Newtonian mechanics: Hamiltonian Mechanics. As far as I can tell, Hamiltonian mechanics have no philosophical implications whatsoever. They're just a bunch of mathematical equations that make things simpler for physicists. Cosmic purpose is fleeting.

Has Lagrangian Mechanics piqued your interest? I wrote more.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Argument from personal experience

The argument from personal experience goes something like this:

"I know there's a lot of evidence suggesting otherwise, but I've had some experiences that prove to me that there's something out there that science doesn't know about. I realize my experience doesn't count as scientific evidence, as it is not repeatable, so I do not expect to persuade anyone. But my experience remains, and it is persuasive to me, if no one else."

This is used to argue for the existence of God, aliens, spirits, or any sort of cosmic woo-force. Well, usually, people insist that they don't intend to convince anyone else, so perhaps "argument" is the wrong word. The said experience is usually either a strange coincidence, or something like an alien abduction or Out of Body Experience.

Strange coincidences are explained through people either missing a genuine naturalistic link between events or underestimating the probabilities of coincidences. That's a topic for a future post. I'm mostly focusing on the latter type of experience.

There are two ways that the argument can be wrong. One is that the person is lying, and had no such experience. The other is that the person has somehow tricked him or herself. In my experience, the second choice is much more often the correct one. Generally, people have no motivation to lie, but are very good at fooling themselves. In other words, I think these are real experiences. People who have had these experiences really saw and felt the things they say they did. The reason I find the argument unpersuasive is because these real perceptions do not necessarily equal real spirits or aliens.

What do these real perceptions indicate, if not spirits or aliens? Generally, they indicate psychological phenomena. Alien abductions are usually explained by sleep paralysis, which is a surprisingly common phenomenon. The precise explanations for Out of Body Experiences and Near Death Experiences are sort of open questions of psychology. In a way, people are right that these experiences indicate something science doesn't yet understand. I wouldn't have expected science to have all the answers immediately, especially since such experiences are usually unrepeatable and difficult to test. But if we did find the explanation, I don't think you'd be able to understand it without a proper backing in neuropsychology. These questions are far more likely to have complicated psychological mechanisms than to have deep metaphysical ones.

Because I usually don't suspect people of lying, and because I accept the reality of the experiences, the argument from personal experience should be equally persuasive to me as it is to the person who actually had the experience. Or rather, it should be equally unpersuasive to the two of us. If I can accept that others have been fooled by tricky psychology, you can accept that you yourself have been fooled by tricky psychology. This doesn't make you crazy or deluded at all--skeptics have these experiences too. It just means that you've experienced one of the mysteries of the mind, and mistaken it for a mystery of the universe. You simply didn't realize how easily people can fool themselves.

Further reading: Testimonial evidence, as explained by the Skeptic's Dictionary.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Solution to "A bridge and a flashlight"

See the original puzzle

Amy and Brian cross, Amy returns (3 minutes)
Cassie and Drew cross, Brian returns (12 minutes)
Amy and Brian cross (2 minutes)

Total: 17 minutes

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What do the new atheists think?

I started the whole argument about "evolution does not contradict religion" on the premise that the so-called "new atheists" disagree with me. But do they actually disagree?

Let's look to PZ Myers of Pharyngula. If you haven't heard of PZ Myers, the rule of thumb is that he agrees with Richard Dawkins on everything, and is one of the biggest representatives of "new atheism". Here's a quote (from this post):
So could everyone please stop pretending that the atheists in the scientific community are all making some fatuous "Evolution, therefore god is dead" argument?
Uh oh, PZ already burned down my premise two years ago.

At this point, I'm not sure what to say. Frankly, I'm not convinced by this single quote. PZ and Dawkins sure act like evolution disproves God. Dawkins once said to beliefnet:
My personal feeling is that understanding evolution led me to atheism.
It's even worse if you look to the rest of the online atheist community.

If PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins truly think that evolution does not lead to atheism, they should bring out this message, and be a little more consistent about it! ( if I had the slightest bit of influence on them.)

Does this mean that I now agree with the "framers"? Nah, I still think that term is too unintelligible.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Serious thoughts on April Fools

Do you recall when I linked New Scientist's April Fools article on poltergeist phenomena?

When I first saw that, I was angry, because I had heard of the decline in New Scientist's quality, but I didn't know it had gone so far. Then I realized when the article was dated.

But then, the poltergeist study is a real study, published in the real pseudoscience journal called Neuroquantology! Perhaps New Scientist really has declined in standards?

It turns out that it was all a double April Fools joke. They fooled us into thinking it was made up, while simultaneously mocking pseudoscience.

I read some of the comments on the New Scientist article, and it seems a lot of people were fooled in different ways. A lot of people think that because the poltergeist study was real, that New Scientist was seriously condoning it. Others are fooled into thinking that the "poltergeist phenomena" is in some way legitimate!

So if I'm an advocate for truth, why aren't I trying to stop this evil holiday? People are celebrating misinformation! Surely, whatever fun we might derive from April Fools is outweighed by the small group of people who go on to be misinformed year-round.

But that's completely the wrong way to go about it. There will always be misinformation. Someone is always wrong on the internet. To combat it, we shouldn't just ignore misinformation in hopes that it will stop forming. We should learn how to recognize it. April Fools day teaches a valuable lesson in critical thinking: don't trust everything you read!

Oh, and I'm not just saying this because I like April Fools. I would totally be the grinch who stole April Fools if I weren't convinced that it promoted critical thinking. I'm actually a relatively serious guy (case in point: see title) who has to mooch off of New Scientist for a April Fools joke. Look at me: I am serious :-[


Ok, I'm not really serious :-)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Why evolution doesn't contradict religion (Part 2)

Earlier, I argued that evolution is a poor objection to religion. Atheists, not religious people, make up my target audience for the essay, so I skipped over a bunch of arguments. But I forgot an argument that I shouldn't have skipped. (Why didn't anyone else point it out?)

Argument 3: Evolution decentralizes humanity

This argument goes as follows: Religion views humanity as being the centerpiece of creation. Evolution views humanity as a single branch of the tree of life that is in no way special compared to all the others. These views are ultimately incompatible.

Looks easy! Let me try an analogous argument. Chemistry views chemicals as being of central importance. Physics views chemicals as being one result of many, contingent upon various accidents of particle physics, and a very narrow example of the behavior that is possible under quantum mechanics. These views are ultimately incompatible.

Of course, that's blatantly false. Different fields of inquiry can have different focuses without the slightest bit of conflict.

The same applies to religion and evolution (also religion and heliocentrism). Evolution doesn't place the human species in the center because that's not really what it's about. Evolution is about explaining the origin of species, of which we are but one. The focus of evolution needs not in any way correspond to the focus of humanity in general. Whether or not humanity is a mere speck in the cosmos, humanity is still important because that's who we are.

This is, by the way, the same argument that I would use against atheistic nihilism. Nihilism states that we don't matter in the grand scheme of things, and therefore nothing matters. But whether we matter in the grand scheme or not, we're still important to ourselves, because we are ourselves. Evolution does not lead to atheism any more than atheism leads to nihilism.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Why evolution doesn't contradict religion

Now that I've gone on record as saying that science and religion do not contradict, I should support my point. One step at a time. First step: evolutionary arguments against religion are some of the poorest arguments out there.

Argument 1: Evolution explains too much

I will start out by conceding that evolution certainly contradicts some religious beliefs. If a religion claims that evolution is not true, then obviously it is contradictory to evolution. But how widespread are these beliefs? And if they are widespread, are they really essential to the religions?

The basic conflict here is that evolution fills a gap that was previously filled with God. It's a fairly important gap, the origin of species. But there are so many ways around this.

Getting around this argument results in what is usually referred to as "theistic evolution". I know most of you mainstream new atheists out there probably think theistic evolution is silly, but you probably also think the rest of religion is also silly, and it's really a matter of whether theistic evolution is any sillier than the rest of religion. If it's no sillier than the rest of religion, then evolution is not a useful path to criticizing religion.

Theistic evolution says that God was the one who put this "natural selection" process in motion. God is like the master puppeteer of evolution, rather than a manual laborer who slowly "designs" organisms one by one. Thus, God was the creator, and yet he has no scientific consequences. You can have your cake and eat it too! All you atheists ought to be agreeing that God has no scientific consequences. After all, the reason that science rejects the "scientific theory" that God created the universe is that it makes no predictions, and is thus not scientific. Now, there is a whole line of arguments against such a non-scientific God, but we're only considering the argument from evolution. Did the argument from evolution, by itself, get us anywhere?

Of course, there are those who would reject theistic evolution for a more denialist position. Well, I guess their religion is truly reliant on ignorance. But it's not as if the only alternative is atheistic evolution. As irrational as you might think theistic evolution is, you can't deny that the view exists, and is apparently satisfying to many people.

Argument 2: Evolution is imperfect

Of course, theistic evolution kind of misses the point. The real argument from evolution is that natural selection is awfully inefficient, and involves death and suffering. If God were truly good, he would have organisms intelligently designed, rather than using this makeshift process of natural selection. Basically, the argument from evolution is a subset of the problem of evil.

Now, the reason that atheists think that evolution is a damn good argument against religion is because they don't think there's an answer to the problem of evil. In their imaginations, they bring up the problem of evil, and then the theists all start sputtering. That's certainly what it sounds like. To the atheist, none of the answers to the problem of evil are particularly satisfying, and most seem to be products of cognitive dissonance.

But it is incorrect to say there are no answers at all. Most, if not all, religions have a built in answer--Christianity blames original sin and free will; Buddhism blames ignorance, greed, and wrath; Jainism blames the bad karma that sticks to your soul when you step on ants. No, I don't think these answers are plausible (though it helps that the last two don't believe in omnibenevolent gods). But the point is that people have been thinking about this since these religions were founded. People continue to vary these answers, think up new ones, or otherwise rationalize the lack of an answer. They have enough to satisfy themselves, if not enough to satisfy the atheists, and that's sufficient to render the argument from evolution impotent.

And what does evolution add to the problem of evil anyways? Yet another example of evil. It's not even a particularly special example of evil.

The only thing special about it is that, to a scientist, it's in your face. That's why we have people like Dawkins who claim that evolution was the clinching argument against their religion. Many people don't think too much about the problem of evil, until they encounter the theory of evolution. As a result, evolution appears to conflict with religion. Really, it doesn't present much more of a conflict than does seismology.

If you've answered the problem of evil to your own satisfaction, evolution has no conflict with your religion. If you haven't answered it, then why should evolution, specifically, matter? Even if you don't believe in evolution, it's quite obvious that the world is full of death and suffering, little of which has an apparent human cause or underlying purpose.

Other conflicts?

The other major conflict between evolution and religion is that Darwinism supposedly leads to immorality. Of course, it's only the ID/Creationists who believe this, and my intended audience is on the other side of the fence. So I feel no need to argue the point.

This is a very complex debate, so perhaps I forgot some other important conflicts. Can anyone think of any others?

Edit: I decided to add one more argument in Part 2.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

New Scientist does it again

New Scientist has an article explaining the mechanism for Poltergeist phenomena.
Brovetto and Maxia hypothesise that the changes in the brain that occur at puberty involve fluctuations in electron activity that, in rare cases, can create disturbances up to a few metres around the outside of the brain.
At last, the skeptics have finally found a naturalistic explanation for all those cases of floating furniture! What will the field of neuroquantology come up with next?

(Thanks to the Quantum Pontiff for the link)

(to remove all doubt, this was an April fools joke of course)