Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Solution to coins on a table

See the original puzzle

The first player has the winning strategy.  The first move is to place right in the middle of the table.  After the second player places a quarter, the first player plays a quarter on the exact opposite side of the table.  The idea is to keep the arrangement of quarters perfectly symmetric about the center of the table.  No matter where the second player places a quarter, there will always be an empty spot on the exact opposite side of the table.  Eventually, the second player will have no place to put a quarter.

If you want a more serious version of this game (ie, one you could actually play, because the winning strategy is not at all obvious), you could try the "misère" version.  A misère game is simply a game where the win and lose conditions are switched around.  So to win the misère version, you must be unable to place a quarter during your turn.  As far as I know, there is no simple symmetry-based solution to the misère game.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Causes vs justifications of morality

Have I ever mentioned that I am in SANE, the UC Berkeley secular student group?  Anyways, in an earlier meeting there was some sort of moderator fail, and we spontaneously started talk about all the most trite atheist topics imaginable.  Case in point: "Where do your morals come from?"

Among the many answers, there were the usual ones claiming that we evolved morality.  I think this is a fairly reasonable claim (though possibly incorrect), and there are several possible mechanisms for the evolution of morality.  However, I am far from an expert on the subject, and would only offer a link to Wikipedia.

Instead, I would like to talk about why I think this answer misses the point.

It's easy to miss the point of the question, because its wording is ambiguous.  If I ask where something comes from, it's perfectly reasonable to think that I am asking what causes it.  But I think in this case the point of the question is to ask for a justification for morals.  Not, "What causes you to have morality?" but "Why should you have morality?"

I believe the question gets misinterpreted because its "correct" interpretation is kind of senseless.  When you ask why you should do something, you are asking for a moral or ethical justification.  Thus the question is asking for a moral justification for morals.  It's asking for something circular.  I don't think anyone, religious or otherwise, could possibly answer the question in a satisfactory way.

In my mind I'm imagining several fictitious conversations...

"Why should you be moral?"
"God wants us to be moral."
"Why should you do what God wants?"
"Because God created us."
"Why should you do what your creator wants you to?"
"Because it is good to honor one's creator."
"Why is it good?"
"You can't just keep asking why!  At some point you'll hit the bottom!"

(My mind's Christian is probably not very accurate, by the way.)

"Why should you be moral?"
"To go to heaven to be with God."
"Why should you try to be with God?"
"Because God will give us eternal happiness."
"Why should you try to achieve that?"
"Wouldn't you like to be happy forever?"
"Yes, but why should I try to get what I like?"
"This is pointless!  You can ask why about anything!"

I imagine many atheist answers failing for similar reasons.

"Where do your morals come from?"
"We evolved a sense of morality."
"Yeah, but why should you try to get what evolution wants?"
"It's not what evolution wants.  It's what evolution caused me to want."
"But why should you try to get what you want?"
"I misspoke: it's not what I individually want, but what we collectively want."
"There's still the same problem.  Why should you try to get what people collectively want?"
"Would you argue that something is good even though it goes against what everyone wants?"
"That's not a justification."

The evolution answer misses the point, because all straightforward answers miss the point.

And lest this post be all about tearing things down, let me suggest a better question, a pragmatic one.  If I think someone else is doing something evil, how can I convince them that it is evil?  To use persuasive moral reasoning, we must have some sort of common basis, even if it is not a fundamental basis.  So what is that basis?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Religion: Not like gender

Via Pharyngula, the JREF newsletter said the following:
We at the JREF do take diversity seriously, and it's something we strive to achieve at our events.  If the skeptics community is going to thrive and grow, it's essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.
 Of course, everyone is eying the word "religion".  There is some value in working with religious people towards common goals.  But there is also concern that in order to do this, we'd need to push aside a lot of atheist discourse.  I am not sure how I would weigh the value of these two things against each other.

However, I gotta say that the inclusion of religion is not like the inclusion of race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Whenever skeptics talk about inclusion of religion, it's common to bring up Martin Gardner as an important skeptic who was also religious.  But this feels an awful lot like tokenizing.  1) He’s the only major example most people can think of from the past 40 years. 2) Much is made of the fact that he was a fideist, as if to underscore how only the most minimal of theistic beliefs is acceptable.

Imagine if people could only name one notable female skeptic from the past 40 years, and they always made a point about how it was okay because she wasn’t hysterical or anything.  That would be inclusion of women done wrong.

There are two contradicting conclusions we can draw from this.  One, we are doing inclusion of religion horribly wrong.  Or two, inclusion of religion is not the same as inclusion of women.

I'll take the latter conclusion.  I think we can do inclusion of religion better, but it will never be quite like inclusion of women or people of color.

I feel like this is one of those things that is different online and offline.  Online it's very easy to make broad pronouncements about Religious People and Attempts to Silence Atheists.  But offline, the situation I usually see is quite different.  Instead, we end up having a group of atheists who suddenly discover that there is a theist in their midst.  And then they treat that person as a representative of Religious People, and give all the standard responses.  And they don't realize that if there is a theist hanging out in a skeptical group, they probably have heard all these responses before.  Also, they're probably atypical theists (who might not even be religious), and most responses don't apply to them.  I can see this being pretty annoying, not because atheists are daring to question religion, but because atheists are being stupid.

Note again the difference between inclusion of women and inclusion of theists.  If we were only inclusive of atypical women (eg, those that feel comfortable around lots of men ogling them), that would be inclusion done wrong.  But I don't feel nearly as bad about the idea of only being inclusive of atypical theists.

(The point about Martin Gardner is stolen from a comment I made on Skepticblog, which was in turn stolen from a post I wrote last year.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

What is real?

This post is a part of my ongoing series, "A few things wrong about the cosmological argument."  Previously, I gave several examples of actually infinite sets of objects in physics.  The next logical step is to argue that these objects are "real" objects, thus showing that real objects can be actually infinite.

But wow, arguing over what is real just seems like the the pinnacle of metaphysics silliness.  It belongs in the same category as questions like, "If you replace all the wood of a boat plank by plank, is it the same boat?" or, "What if you're just a brain in a vat?"

It's not clear to me that there is any consensus about the definition of "real".  Thus, I think that any argument which hinges on the details of the definition of "real" is a flawed argument, since it assumes something we don't agree on.  I'm not sure there is any point to arguing over such a thing, so I think I will just muse about physics instead.

Physicists use "real" in a number of distinct ways.

Sometimes, we simply mean "that which is not caused by instrumental artifacts and experimental errors".  For example, if we use a digital caliper to measure some lengths, we might read the numbers 0.015, 0.330, 0.845.  The lengths are discrete (in multiples of 0.005 inches), but this is only a limitation of our device.  Thus we would say that the discreteness is not real, and that lengths are really continuous.

Other times, "real" means "actualized in nature", as opposed to "maybe self-consistent, but not actualized in nature".  Neutrinos are real, but tachyons probably are not.  Minkowski space is real, classical space is not.  Stable carbon nuclei are real, stable uranium nuclei are not.  And so on.  This definition is used to talk about theories which seem self-consistent, but are nonetheless false in our universe.  Note that all these theories are basically mathematical,* so I have no problems with saying that a mathematical concept is real.  In fact, I have more problems with the claim that there is anything real which is not mathematical.

*Neutrinos and tachyons have different four-velocities, Minkowski space has a different geometry from classical space, carbon and uranium are defined by different numbers of protons.

We might also use "real" to mean "that which is most fundamental".  Of course, the most fundamental object in physics is the universal wavefunction, which specifies the state of the universe.  The universal wavefunction is a ray in Hilbert Space, which is (you're going to like this) a space with an infinite number of dimensions, each of which can take on an infinite number of values.

But what does fundamental mean?  A fundamental theory is one that is valid everywhere, and from which other theories can be derived (though it may be too difficult to actually derive them).We can also talk about theories which are more or less fundamental.  The more fundamental a theory is, the larger its range of validity, and the more things can be derived from it.  Particle physics is more fundamental than statistical physics, which only applies to systems much larger than our ability to calculate.  Statistical physics is more fundamental than biology, which only applies when there is a particular large-scale pattern of molecules.  Biology is more fundamental than psychology, which is more fundamental than sociology, and so forth, you know the deal.

We could define "real" as "that which is sufficiently fundamental", given some arbitrary threshold for fundamental-ness.  If I happen to think baseball is real, I have to say sociology, psychology, biology, and physics are real too, since they're all more fundamental than baseball.

I'm pretty sure that physicists are not using the same definitions of "real" that philosophers are.  But that's the point.  There are lots of sensible definitions of "real", and not all of them allow the cosmological argument to work.  So if we consider the premise, "Infinities may not exist in reality," we must know what definition of reality applies.

The applicable definition of "reality" is decided by how we argue for the premise!  If the argument involves instrumental artifacts in experiments, then the applicable definition is "that which is not caused by instrumental artifacts."  If the argument involves theories which are self-consistent, but not true in nature, then the applicable definition is "that which is actualized in nature".  If the argument is just hand-waving, then we don't know what the applicable definition is, and the cosmological argument is flawed.

(I will also make a weaker argument, that I cannot think of any non-pathological definition of "real" which has the qualities that the cosmological argument requires.  William Lane Craig thinks that there are a finite number of past events which are real, and that future events are not real.  But on a fundamental level, the past and future are equally real.*  And the idea of a finite number events seems contingent on what we, with all our human biases, consider to be events or not.  Incidentally, in physics, an "event" is just a point in space-time, which is a far more objective definition.  By this definition, there are an infinite number of events in the past, present, and future.  Lastly, one of my examples of real infinities was particles which are beyond our observable range.  It would take an unusual definition of "real" to exclude objects simply because we cannot see them.)

*I note that my favorite physics blogger said exactly the same thing earlier this month, and it's clear he's not even thinking about the cosmological argument.

"A few things wrong about the cosmological argument"
1. Actual and potential infinities
2. Actual infinities in physics
3. What is real?
4. The "absurdity" of Hilbert's Hotel  
5. Interlude: God is infinite
6. Forming Infinity, one by one 
7. Uncertain beginnings
8. Entropy: The unsolved problem  
9. Kalam as an inductive argument
10. Getting from First Cause to God  

Thursday, September 15, 2011


I think the first time I ever heard of the idea of "projection" was in the context of a burn.

"You're such a hypocrite!"
"Nuh-uh, you're just projecting your own hypocrisy onto me!"

Since that's excessively silly, I think it was some time before I took projection seriously as an idea.

Projection is a fallacy in which we attribute certain characteristics to others because we see them in ourselves.  Most of the time, this is a very reasonable assumption to make, and one we make very often.  If you ever want to understand other humans, the first and best place to look is in the one human whose experiences you have most access to: yourself.  But we can take this too far, and when we do it's called projection.

I feel that it's almost too clinical to call projection a mere logical fallacy or cognitive bias.  Projection is pretty much a way of life.  No, the way of life.  Everyone does it nearly every day. (I know this because I do it every day.)

This was illustrated in a recent Subnormality comic: We Assume of Others What We Know of Ourselves.

I recognize projection as a major source of my own irrationality.  For example, I believe that if people only listened to my music, they would like it as much as I do.  Never mind that even I don't like much of the music I liked in the past.  I believe that because I don't get angry, neither does anyone else.  Sometimes, my initial reaction to anger is laughter, since surely they are expressing anger ironically.  I believe that since I don't like fashion or formalities, nobody else does either (they're just playing along).  I believe that people are much less sexually active than they are.  I have been enlightened by some statistics, but they still surprise me.  The surveyor says many of his students expressed surprise at how common virginity was, but since I'm less interested in sex, my own biases are in the opposite direction.

What about you?  What sort of things do you project onto others?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Daydream: Healing Touch

Today, I underwent a very painful (but not at all risky!) medical procedure to drain an abscess.  I had a short daydream about what would happen if a nurse tried to use healing touch on me.

Nurse hovers hands above me, moves them back and forth.
"Uh, what are you doing?"
"I'm manipulating your bioenergetic field with my hands.  I'm a trained practitioner of healing touch."
"You're using healing touch?  On me?  I know the placebo effect is most effective on subjective symptoms such as pain, but do you realize that I don't even slightly believe in the effectiveness of healing touch?  The placebo effect won't do me any good."
"It's not the placebo effect.  Studies have shown..."
"Stop it already!  It's stressing me out!"

I imagine healing touch rather than any other alternative medicine because we talked about it a lot at UCLA.  I remember at the UCLA hospital, they allowed someone to give a lecture on healing touch, and we were pretty mad about this.  She also swung a pendulum with her hand to assess patients' energy fields.  I find myself wondering how this reduces patient stress, knowing that your nurse practices spiritual medicine in addition to real medicine.

Of course, my daydream is completely counterfactual, so there's no reason to think that's actually what would happen.  However, I do remember hearing that healing touch is also practiced on sleeping patients.  Why?  Even if we felt the practice was justified by the positive placebo effects, the placebo effect is not going to work unless the patients are at least aware that healing touch is being used.

(Also, part of the placebo effect, though not all, is a self-reporting bias.  Patients want their medicine to work, so they report less pain, even if they are not actually experiencing less pain.)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Atheists on asexuality

People often ask me, "What does religion have to say about asexuality?"

How should I know?  I left religion years before I even started to question my sexuality.  I didn't even have a sense for how anti-gay the Catholic Church is until quite some time after I left it.

I get Google alerts on asexuality, and every so often someone asks a Christian forum what they think about asexuality.  The results are mixed.  Christianity is old, asexuality is recent.  Expecting Christianity to have anything to say about asexuality is like expecting Christianity to have anything to say about modern science... Oh wait.  But the point is that no religious group I know of is sufficiently aware of asexuality to have an official line on it.  So on the forums, Christians simply give opinions that they've formed individually, on the spot.  Since I only have a few examples on the internet, it is hard to say how Christian reactions compare to reactions from the general populace.

But did you know?  Most people on AVEN are nonreligious.  According to a survey from 2008, 54% are not religious, and 26% are Christian.  An informal poll indicates 39% are atheist/agnostic/nontheist.  Yet another poll says 42% don't think gods exist, and 14% think gods probably don't exist.  These are all terribly unreliable polls, but they seem to converge on the fact that the internet asexual community is nonreligious-dominated.  The reasons for this are not forthcoming.  I suspect that atheists are simply more likely to discover the concept of asexuality, choose to identify that way, and then want to discuss it on the internet.

I think this raises another question, one which is more relevant to the internet asexual community, and which I'm more capable of answering: What do atheists have to say about asexuality?

A quick clarification: I'm talking specifically about atheists who participate in some way in atheist activism, atheist discourse, or the atheist movement.  Some people have hangups about trying to describe atheists' views on anything but gods (since atheism is nothing more than lack of belief in gods), but I'm going to ignore these hangups as the distractions they are.

Like with Christians, atheists as a group have no dominant view on asexuality.  When encountering asexuality for the first time, atheists form their own individual opinions on the spot.  The results are mixed.  There are some patterns though.
  1. Atheists are sex-positive.  There are good sex-positive responses, and bad sex-positive responses to asexuality, which are different from the good and bad sex-negative responses.  For instance, sex-negative people might dislike the queer associations, or dislike the alternative relationship structures.  Sex-positive people, on the other hand, might dislike the abstinence associations, or may simply be incapable of grokking asexuality.  Or they can contribute to sexual normativity (eg making fun of people who don't masturbate, insisting that sex is essential to every relationship).  Or they can dismiss the concept of sexual normativity, and dismiss the idea that there is any need for an asexual identity.  I could go on, but I'm sure this will not be the last time I blog about it (nor the first).
  2. Atheists are skeptical.  Atheists don't take things at face value.  Even if you're just talking about identity and personal experience, there is often some claim about objective reality embedded within, and atheists will find and question this claim.  Sometimes I hear asexuals (and other queers) say that no one has the right to question their personal identity because it is their personal identity.  I always shake my head, because this argument would never fly with atheists.  There are lots of groups who incorporate questionable claims into their identity.  Religious groups for starters.  9/11 Truthers.  Abductees.  Indigo children.  Hell, people identify by their astrological signs.

    Of course, I'm all in favor of the skeptical mindset, and therefore I contend that the problem is not in the skepticism, but in the execution.  The existence of asexuality is worth questioning, but let's not ignore the evidence right in front of us.  Asexuals claim that the experience of asexuality exists.  As evidence, they offer... experiences of asexuality.  The other side offers offers misunderstandings of evolution (ask me later), personal experiences that are improperly generalized, and unfounded speculations elevated to theories.  They offer the presupposition that everyone is sexual, everyone is gay or straight (or maybe bi).  And why are homosexuality and bisexuality more accepted, when the evidence for them is in pretty much the same form?

  3. Atheists are anti-religious.  Note that the atheist community is more than gay-friendly, it's actively pro-LGB.  An adoption agency shuts down in reaction to legalizing same-sex marriage?  A Christian pastor makes fun of non-conforming gender expression?  A hurricane hits a gay neighborhood?  Atheists are on it!  (Examples taken from Friendly Atheist.)  Oddly, atheists have a less admirable track record on women and people of color.  Let me advance a possible explanation: supporting LGB people is more politically expedient.

    It's quite clear, after all, that religions are systematically anti-gay.  There are a lot of dumb and hateful things said about LGB people by religious leaders.  There is also a strong human-interest aspect to it, because those religious leaders are attacking people (as opposed to just a field of science).  So there is a lot of motivation to talk this up.  And in the mean time, the atheist community gets educated on queer issues, and it develops from a political tool to a sincere concern.  No such mechanism is at work for women or people of color.  Religions often say sexist things, but this usually only trains atheists to recognize overt sexism.  Black people are, if anything, associated with churches.

    Sometimes atheists have a negative reaction to asexuality because it's assumed that religion and asexuals are pals.  This assumption does not come from any real experiences, but from an oversimplified view of religion and asexuality.  Religions don't like sex, therefore they must like asexuals, who don't have sex.  I feel at a loss as to which way to respond.  One, some asexuals do have sex, and some are LGBT.  Two, so-called "sex-negative" people are not actually against sex in that way.  Three, why should the only worthwhile causes be those that are opposed by religion?  It is a straw man atheist that thinks religion is the root of all evil, and yet some people behave like that straw man.
Of course, plenty of responses are positive too.  Especially since atheists are very educated, as a group, about queer issues.  Many atheist get it.  Queer issues are not just about same-sex marriage or opposing the religious right, they're about diversity.  In fact, I might even say that positive and neutral responses are the most prevalent.  It's hard to say, since my own experience certainly has its share of biases (and I'm keenly aware of my failure to provide specific examples).

But I focus on the negative patterns, because that is the part that needs work.  It's like, when I walk around with my boyfriend, I don't think about the hundreds of people with no adverse reactions.  I think about that one guy who called me a fag, you know?  When the results are a mixed bag, that's not good enough.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Coins on a table

This is a game for two players.  We take turns placing quarters on a round table.  The round table has five times the diameter as the quarters.  When a player cannot place their quarter fully flat on the table (not on top of any other quarters) without disturbing any of the other quarters, that player loses.

Which player has the winning strategy?  What is the winning strategy?

(This is not an original puzzle.)

See solution

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Recent reading

My reading habits have changed in the past year.  There are two major changes:
  1. I started going to the public library.  Libraries are awesome!  The books are free and I don't need to keep them afterwards.  I really don't care about keeping books on my shelf to show off; they just feel like dead weight.  Anyways, now I have goodreads to keep track of what books I read.
  2. I have a boyfriend.  I would brag about him more, only this would break my general rule of not talking about my boring life on my blog.  Anyway, I regularly take train trips to see him, which means I have more time to read.  I used to only get reading done during summer vacation, but this is no longer the case.
This past year, I read Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion.  Hyperion is hard to describe.  It is about seven pilgrims traveling to the planet Hyperion to see the Shrike, a thorny monster from the future who places its victims on a giant Tree of Pain.  Each pilgrim tells a story (like The Canterbury Tales) of their relationship to Hyperion.  It is a good book.

I also read Fiasco, by Stanislaw Lem.  It is about humans trying to make first contact with an alien planet, and failing (as the title suggests) due to anthropomorphism gone horribly wrong.  A lot of the book is taken up by the humans' fantastic theoretical models, all of which tell us more about the humans than the aliens.  I like the concept but sometimes the execution was tedious.

And I read two books by Ursula K. Le Guin: The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of DarknessThe Dispossessed is about a physicist who tries to enact social change!  That's cool, but I think now I want to read some books where the characters and plot actually matter.  In both of these books, the plots were just excuses to talk about the societies where they take place.

I think I am reading too much sci-fi.  It's not so much I'm a sci-fi fan, but that I usually only read books on recommendations, and I tend to get recommendations from sci-fi fans.  Speaking of which, what books have you read lately?  Any recommendations?

Next on my reading list is Gravity's Rainbow.  Yes, it is ambitious. The narrative style is stream of consciousness, which means that there are many sentences with indecipherable sentence structure, and others with hardly any structure at all.  My wishful thinking is that after reading this, physics papers will seem easy.  But I'm not saying the book is bad so far.  It's kind of engrossing actually.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Juxtaposed: Interfaith and Sex-positive

What's the point of having a blog with very disparate topics if I can't juxtapose them once in a while?
An Interfaith Challenge offered by an Interfaith Office can’t be fully open to and inclusive of atheists. It rejects atheists in the very language it uses.  We shouldn’t be pretending it doesn’t.
--Ophelia Benson
Even apart from what the movement's done to me, I really, really hate the word "sex-positive".
It grates, it really grates, to see people framing sex as universally positive. Because that's dismissing my experience. That's dismissing a lot of people's experience. And that that is the clear origin of a lot of the shit asexual people are putting up with now.
I make no claims as to how far this analogy holds.  This is to get you thinking, as I write a post on asexuality and atheism.