It’s not God, but neither is God a Higgs

The big news of last week was the detection of the Higgs boson, the missing subatomic particle predicted by the Standard Model but never found until now.

It’s a big deal, despite the fact that everyone knows that the Higgs boson is not really “the God particle,” even if it does bring the mass to everything else.

OK, so that was a very bad joke. But the way that the Higgs fleshes out the predominant description of subatomic physics is no joke. It’s a primary example of the methodological differences between the rationalism of science and the metaphysics of belief.

This is not new territory, but you don’t get such a perfect case every day. There is no clearer example of the difference between postulation and presumption than what we find in the search for the Higgs. Continue reading

Fooling with infinities

Does infinity exist?

The undergraduate math major might have a minute or two of fun tossing the question around with his buddies at the campus pub. He might point out that, for example, the list of all possible integers is infinite, but so is the list of all even integers.

The philosophy major would take that factoid and spin it into an evening-long discussion of the nature of logical contradictions, or of the ways that language constrains our understanding of reality.

Undergrad philosophers love this sort of thing. That’s why you always find them off in a corner of the pub, talking to each other. No one else will bother with them.

The problem with philosophy is that in its secret heart of hearts it’s essentially a game — a logic game, a word game, or a number game. Internal consistency is the sole criterion for correctness. Continue reading

It’s hard to be rational about irrationality

Last time, I wrote a rather frustrated little piece about how hard it is for a species as habitually irrational as we are to have real democracy.

The more I thought about what I’d written, and about the many books and articles that had prompted it, the more I appreciated an article that I had read way back in April. (In online terms, that’s a couple of decades ago, not just a couple of months.)

In a Scientific American blog piece titled “The Irrationality of Irrationality: The Paradox of Popular Psychology,” Samuel McNerney cautions us to tread lightly when we draw conclusions from the recent flood of popularized psychology explanations of how and why we’re not really rational creatures at all — at least, not often, and never entirely.

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Another stab at defining free will


There was a free-for-all on free will here a while back.

But that article didn’t contain anything quite like the argument in favour of compatibilism — the notion that free will can exist in a deterministic universe — promoted by Georgia State University philosopher and psychologist Eddy Nahmias.

3:AM Magazine published “Questioning willusionism,” an interview with Nahmias, on May 25th.

Nahmias believes that some of the debate over “free will vs. determinism” arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of what “determinism” means. He argues that determinism doesn’t really mean that the Big Bang created a kind of script that the universe merely plays out by rote for eternity. Nor does he equate determinism with fatalism,  the idea that certain things will happen no matter what. To Nahmias, “determinism suggests that what happens in the future depends on what happens in the past and what we do in the present.”

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Writing artlessly about artificial intelligence

I’m usually drawn to online writing that reports good science or worthwhile social ideas. I seldom bother to respond to bad science or sloppy thinking. Today is an exception.

Browsing science digest sites, I recently ran across “Hidden Smiles and the Desire of a Conscious Machine,” by Malcolm Ramsey, published by H+ (Humanity +) on June 6th.

Intended as a thoughtful look at the possibility of artificial consciousness, “Hidden Smiles” is a muddled mash-up. It’s a good example of the bad writing wandering about out there in cyberspace.

Too harsh? Crossing the line from the critical to the uncivil? Hold your judgement until we’ve taken a look at the piece itself.
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Is neuroscience the next “great tragedy of Science”?

The great tragedy of Science —
the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Human behaviour is so complex – and feels so personal – that some thinkers believe that empirical methodologies will never be able to explain it fully, even if “explain” is correctly understood to mean understanding “what” and “how” rather than “why.”

Yet the research keeps coming, and as it does, the likelihood increases that the good kind of reductionism, the kind that uncovers the more basic structures that underlie the more complex, will someday lead to a thorough knowledge of how what we do works – including what we think and feel.
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Is religion crucial to civilization?

Some believers are like loud children, banging on their drums of faith in an insistent, unchanging, ultimately numbing rhythm.

Others, like the British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks, are more nuanced, and they can produce beautiful melodies that make their claims seem natural and desirable.

In the end, alas, the basis of the Chief Rabbi’s music, of his faith, is as vain and insubstantial as is that of the beaters and bleaters.

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Taking a closer look at religion’s role in war

While watching the “Beyond Belief” videos that prompted the previous posting, I was struck by how often anthropologist Scott Atran, a rational thinker like everyone else in the room, was isolated by his insistence that (1) things aren’t as simple as we’d like them to be and (2) we should really test our pet theories before we leap to defend them.

Why should Atran’s insistence on direct  examination of theoretical claims have made him an outsider in a room filled with fellow scientists?

Isn’t his stance one of the “sacred values” of scientific investigation about which I wrote last time? Well, it should be, but for the New Atheist dogmatists any suggestion that the world is complex seems to ramp up their aggression.

And Scott Atran seems often to be in their sights, as he will be again, now that he has published another article that suggests that things are more complicated than “religion bad, reason good.”

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A commitment to the natural and the observable

Way back, near the start of this blog more than a year and a half ago, I posted an article titled “Science: not just another religion.”

In that article I agreed with Richard Dawkins’s contention that science, unlike religion, doesn’t give unyielding precedence to tradition and authority, and it doesn’t give any credence to claims grounded in faith or revelation.

Having recently finished viewing a full 24 hours of video lectures and discussions from the 2006 and 2007 “Beyond Belief” conferences — not consecutively, in case you were curious — I’d like briefly to pursue a somewhat more nuanced version of Dawkins’s claim. This seems especially relevant in the context of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

What I won’t do is to slacken in any way my thoroughgoing commitment to the supremacy of the natural and the observable as the only true reality. What I hope to do is examine the nature of that commitment itself, as an epistemological stance — there is no other way to know — and as a heuristic — there is no other way to know.
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Are you a Diachronic, or are you an Episodic?

Daniel Dennett believes that our sense of self comes from our brains’ concocting stories, narratives that create the protagonists we call “I.”

Other psychologists and philosophers offer explanations of individual identity that agree, more or less. Antonio Damasio, for example, calls the rational, third stage of consciousness “the autobiographical self.”

Last week, Big Think published “Why Are People Drawn to Stories?” The article, written by David Berreby, features ideas from Johnathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal, a book that claims that “we live our entire lives in a web of story.”
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