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10/4/08

New Dawkins Interview

I though I'd share a few thoughts of mine about the new Dawkins interviews making their way around the internet. I'll treat the five videos separately, starting with part 1.



+/-

Not a lot to note in the first part, but a little nit-pick on Ben Stein's behalf. Whatever you think of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Let me suggest that the reason Stein was surprised at Richard's answer to the question of intelligence was because he was apparently allowing something like aliens to be the designer and not a god. Furthermore, I have my doubts that he was trying to extend an olive branch to the ID people. I've seen a lot of his stuff on ID in books, articles, debates, interviews and website, and nothing leads me to believe that he is ever interested in peaceable relations.

On a more positive note, Richard spends most of his time here explaining clearly and coherently the roles or the important ingredients of genetics. He admits that much of this interview will be speculative, but it is interesting to get inside the head of a wonderful geneticist and science popularizer. He is obviously very creative and explains things like he is excited by it.

(Keep an ear ready for his final words in part 1)



And here we are, Richard's (in)famous philosophical argument against God's existence. Before I comment on this argument, please note I have mentioned that an argument offered by Dawkins is successful (in the sense I outlined in the post). I don't think this argument is very good, nor ought it be persuasive to any of those who have read the chapter in The God Delusion.

I take the following as the explicit core of his argument:

C) Any complex subject must be explicable by something not as complex.

Is (C) true? It may or may not be, but I will note that Dawkins does not provide much of an argument for it. Sure, we know that algorithm of evolution moves from simple to complex (in most cases) but that alone does not support a bloated metaphysical proposition such as (C). I mean, if (C) is true, why not (G)?

G) Any living organism must have a biological equivalent to the gene.

I see the same support for (G) as I do (C) and both appear to be false, in the sense that neither (G) or (C) would dictate what kind of thing God must be. They may be good scientific principles inside the universe, but I can't make sense of Richard's claim that these or logical principles which, ostensibly, apply to everything in the universe.

Even if (C) is true, it isn't altogether clear that God is such a thing that falls into the category of a complex being. Granting the traditional attributes of God, we know he doesn't have parts, isn't extended in space and is not contained in space. In what sense would he be complex?



I have mixed feelings about this part. On one hand, much of what Richard says is undoubtedly true. On the other hand, he makes questionable statements to the effect of our being here is explained by our being here. He then moves on to the highly controversial multiverse theory which, contrary to what Richard hints at, is related to the Many Worlds Interpretation. But he ends with the curious bit of philosophy that he is satisfied with a naturalistic explanation of our existence because of the anthropic principle. I don't understand why it would satisfy him anymore than thinking that a wet sidewalk explains the rain. The fact that we exist and can muse upon existence does not help explain why we exist; it just goes to show that we can't go about questioning our existence.



His exposition of skyhooks is quite clear and spot on. However, he suggests that everything must be explained, in which case we are off to the infinite races and nothing is ever really explained. His principle is good in general, but it is another one that I'd be very careful of bloating into the class of the principles of logic. I'll post the last video, but I don't have much to say about the Q&A session that followed.



I'll just note that he apparently believes that our love of music, poetry and mathematics (and probably consciousness) was just a lucky draw. Consider me skeptical.

11 comments:

  1. Wow. Concerning aliens, did Stein et al really quote mine Dawkins like that?

    If they really did that, it's unconscionable.

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  2. Actually the reason aliens are acceptable is because they don't add any logical problems.

    Still, given the evidence, Venus in a Half Shell has the best explanation- we evolved from an alien bases waste pile.

    Stil, aliens is a cruddy explanation mostly due to he fact that Earth was a rather poor planet to visit, much less terraform when life first emerged.

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  3. Ooh that's Paula Kirby, now she's a nice gal - and a very nice interview, thanks for bringing to my attention (I hadn't seen this). Paula has been prominent over at RDF for some time, very eloquent and erudite. She wrote an article six months ago called "Fleabytes" (guess the subject) that broke some kind of record at RDF by soliciting 7760 comments (so far).

    "Whatever you think of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Let me suggest that the reason Stein was surprised at Richard's answer to the question of intelligence was because he was apparently allowing something like aliens to be the designer and not a god. Furthermore, I have my doubts that he was trying to extend an olive branch to the ID people."

    Dawkins reiterated in this interview only what he openly stated five months ago, right after an early screening of the film (from which PZ Myers so infamously was expelled): Lying for Jesus? If you want to call Dawkins a liar, no need to be sneaky about it.

    "(Keep an ear ready for his final words in part 1)"

    You mean: "Statistically improbable things don't just happen." ?

    Do you remember the part where Croath asked me why, on grounds of the HUP, we don't expect cats or shoes to spontaneously appear out of vacuum? That's the sort of improbability Dawkins is referring to by "just happen". If they exist, we ought to be able to account for their existence, or at least pick up the challenge to. If there is an algorithmic process that produces, over time, an ever increasing diversity of molecules and physical complexity, then there we have an explanation for why statistically improbable things do exist. We can understand, by chemistry, prevolution and evolution, why we (and other statistically improbable things) exist.

    I only watched Part 1 so far.

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  4. Do you remember the part where Croath asked me why, on grounds of the HUP, we don't expect cats or shoes to spontaneously appear out of vacuum?

    I was actually referring to quantum fluctuations, not the HUP directly. Quantum fluctuations are sometimes cited as evidence of matter coming into existence from nothing. Beginning to exist without cause.

    I was merely pointing out that we don't see any reason to think that there is something beginning to exist uncaused.

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  5. C) Any complex subject must be explicable by something not as complex.

    Even if (C) is true, it isn't altogether clear that God is such a thing that falls into the category of a complex being. Granting the traditional attributes of God, we know he doesn't have parts, isn't extended in space and is not contained in space. In what sense would he be complex?


    Ever struggled with a complex idea? Did its lack of parts, spatial extent, or being contained in space make it any less complex? I suspect you're using a different meaning of 'complex' (if yours requires a physical presence) than Dawkins is.

    This isn't entirely surprising: there are quite a few meanings of 'complex' available to use, some of which are almost the opposites of some others. "Informational complexity", for instance, which basically says that the complexity of a collection of symbols is determined by the question "what is the size of the smallest computer program that could output those symbols in that order", would say that a random sequence is very very complex, while a sequence of the same length that encoded a well-enginneered robot (and therefore had a lot of hierarchical structure, modularity, feature re-use, etc) would have rather low complexity. This is nearly the opposite of what people would say when looking at a pile of bits and pieces (not so complex, eh?) and comparing it to a working robot (that must be complex!).

    For purposes of (C), it might help to ask the question "How much work would it take to successfully predict the behavior of this subject?" Newtonian (classical) physics is, in that sense, not as complex as quantum physics. Accurately modeling (even probabilistically) the behavior of a fruit fly is, in that sense, more complex than doing the same for a bacterium. Working out what happens in the subject of "chemical interactions between hydrogen and oxygen" is, in that sense, not as complex as working out the interactions among all the elements in the periodic table.

    In particular, it you consider the notion of 'purity' as humorously demonstrated in this XKCD comic, you'll note that there's a chain of "X is just applied Y", which means that you can take a question about predicting the behavior of X, turn it into a question in the subject of Y, and compare it on an apples-to-apples basis to other Y questions... and in just about all cases, any Y question that was formerly an X question is more complex (in the above sense) than a "pure Y question".

    Caveat: This doesn't mean that a "less complex" subject is intuitively easier to understand. Mathematics has its place in that comic for a reason!

    So, getting back to (C), how hard is it to predict what a god is going to do? Or, in particular, how hard is it to predict, even probabilistically, what the god Josh calls "God" is going to do? Focusing in on where (C) is coming from - complexity of a supernatural creator versus the complexity of the alleged creation - you could phrase the problem as "which is more ineffable - the whole universe, or an intelligent omniscient acorporeal being able to create the whole universe?"

    Consider the XKCD comic again. If you could predict and understand everything about such a god then, as a strict subset of that, you could predict and understand everything about the universe it created and omnisciently knows everything about. The opposite (as I understand most Christian beliefs) does not hold: You could know everything there is to know about how the physical universe is and will be, and still not have the whole story... you wouldn't have souls predicted, and you certainly wouldn't have a universe-creator worked out: it's got no physical parts, so you haven't made any progress there, yet it's intelligent (at best you've only worked out intelligence for physical beings, so there's more left to explain) and omniscient (more to work out there too) and... the list goes on.

    So, even though the questions of "How complex is the universe" or "How complex is a god with such traditional attributes" would both be hard to pin down exactly, the relationship of "more complex" isn't.

    For informal meanings of complexity such as "you have to go to school for a long time to think you know what you mean when you refer to it", sure, God is pretty non-complex, and the El Gamal encryption algorithm is moderately to highly complex. God is simply The Ultimate Being, all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. That for which no greater being can be imagined. A lot of people say that uniquely specifies God, and I'll readily admit that it's a pretty simple idea.

    From the point of view of a scientist, though, "complexity" is a lot more likely to mean something like the sense I presented - how hard it is to fully account for (to the point of being able to make accurate predictions) something's interactions with the rest of the universe. In that sense, the "traditional God" you mention is complex by virtue of being the kind of being capable of both creating a universe and continually knowing all there is to know about said universe. Moreover, it's not just complex in general, but it's specifically more complex than that universe.

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  6. Hey b.a.,

    If Dawkins means "God is hard to predict", then he should make that clear. I think the usage of complexity I described originally is how complexity tends to appear, but let's play around with your definition a bit. What interesting conclusions can you draw from not being able to predict God's actions?

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  7. Josh, you ask:

    What interesting conclusions can you draw from not being able to predict God's actions?

    I don't know how b.a. would answer, but my answer would be this: in my experience, the entities whose actions are hardest to predict are either generators of randomness, such as dice or radioactive decay; or highly evolved entities, such as people or societies. In the first case, the actions are hard to predict because they depend sensitively upon material quirks that are all but impossible to measure. In the second case, the actions are hard to predict because they depend sensitively on input subjected to bouts of feedback loops and self-reference.

    So, given that God's actions are hard to predict, I would say that God is either the mother of all random number generators, or a very highly evolved being. The first doesn't fit well with traditional conceptions of God, and the second begs the question of where and when God did this evolving, and where all the other Gods and Goddesses (and divine Creatures and Trees, etc.) are, that He must have evolved with.

    My conclusion: God probably doesn't exist.

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  8. Josh "What interesting conclusions can you draw from not being able to predict God's actions?"
    1. That He is either a wildly inconsistent flake or He's insane (or a combination of the two)
    2. He means well, but He's really bad with people
    3. He's the deist god
    4. He's not there at all
    There are other possibilities, obviously. These are the four that strike me as the most probable. I lean toward the last one (or #3, which is functionally the same thing), but the others are beautiful, terrifying possibilities as well.

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  9. "So, given that God's actions are hard to predict, I would say that God is either the mother of all random number generators, or a very highly evolved being. The first doesn't fit well with traditional conceptions of God, and the second begs the question of where and when God did this evolving, and where all the other Gods and Goddesses (and divine Creatures and Trees, etc.) are, that He must have evolved with."

    Certainly it is logically possible that God is like a highly evolved being with actually having been evolved? Evolution does not describe any inherent trait of a being, it just describes the process to which it obtained those traits.

    1. That He is either a wildly inconsistent flake or He's insane (or a combination of the two)
    2. He means well, but He's really bad with people
    3. He's the deist god
    4. He's not there at all
    There are other possibilities, obviously. These are the four that strike me as the most probable. I lean toward the last one (or #3, which is functionally the same thing), but the others are beautiful, terrifying possibilities as well.


    It seems that you are substituting predictive ability of the predictors (us) with randomness on God's part. There are other reasons why we may not be able to predict God's actions- and I admit that I am unsure this possibility has escaped you all so far- and that is because we don't have enough information. I, as of now, cannot predict which lottery ticket is going to win. But ostensibly, there is nothing complex about the process- it is just that I don't have access to the means to this knowledge. In other words, this predictive paradox is epistemological on our part, not ontological on God's.

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  10. Josh, you say:

    Certainly it is logically possible that God is like a highly evolved being with[out] actually having been evolved? Evolution does not describe any inherent trait of a being, it just describes the process to which it obtained those traits.

    Certainly it is "logically possible" that a being as complex as God did not evolve to be that way, but simply always existed; that is, if you take "logically possible" to mean "not internally contradictory". We could also say, for instance, that while it's "logically possible" for Superman to fly faster than the speed of light, it's not "logically possible" for Superman to fly faster than the speed of light while staying in one place.

    Thus merely granting something the status of being "logically possible" doesn't give us any reason at all to think that it is physically possible or likely, because there are an infinity of "logically possible" scenarios, including brains in vats, the FSM, Xenu and the body thetans, etc. If we are trying to understand the way things are, mere "logical possibility" doesn't get us very far.

    If we wish to ground our reasoning in the real world, and not just set words to chase one another's tails, we must consider what we know, imperfect and incomplete though our knowledge is. And one thing that seems to be the case is this: complex entities (complex in the sense of being highly ordered, not merely random) in our Universe are all either evolved beings, or designed by evolved beings.

    That's why it seems to me that if God designed the Universe, then He must be a complex being, and thus an evolved being, or Himself the product of design by a higher being. Saying either that God needn't be complex, or that He is complex but somehow not evolved or designed, is invoking magic, or at least forces that are not demonstrably instantiated in the real world. And as soon as magic is invoked, you can toss logic out the window and go fishing until the cows come home.

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  11. If we wish to ground our reasoning in the real world, and not just set words to chase one another's tails, we must consider what we know, imperfect and incomplete though our knowledge is.

    Hallelujah. Well said.

    Zilch is saying something I tried to get across elsewhere, and that is that there are no premises that we know are absolutely true.

    So we start of with premises that we think are likely to be true, then hypothesize what those premises imply.

    But, we cannot stop there. We have to investigate and confirm the implication.

    *That is the proper use of logic.*

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