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A rabbi’s odd relationship with morality March 26, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Evolution, Religion.

In The Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs proclaims that atheists have no basis for condemning immorality, and he doesn’t understand why they would even care:

In fact, the most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim’s purse — as it can not possibly have any meaning either way. Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes? To live a “moral” life, the atheist must choose to live a willful illusion as the true nature of the world contains, as Dawkins suggests, “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” It boggles the mind how anyone with this worldview even bothers to get up in the morning only to suffer through another bleak and meaningless day.

Oh, is that what Richard Dawkins taught us? If Jacobs had actually read The Selfish Gene, he would have come across this:

I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved… I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case… If you would extract a moral from [this book], read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature… Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.

Some of us, who prefer not to “live a willful illusion,” begin by trying to understand what is true about our world, and then we deal with reality as it is. The rabbi’s feeling that life would be “bleak and meaningless” if we aren’t part of some grand cosmic plan says absolutely nothing about whether such a plan really exists. But why would anyone think that the lack of an ultimate purpose in nature makes our lives meaningless? We are conscious beings, capable of appreciating our amazing good fortune in having the opportunity to live in this awe-inspiring universe. We can cooperate with each other in order to achieve far more than we could on our own, leaving the fruits of our efforts for future generations to enjoy and improve upon. We have the ability to understand the consequences of our actions on the happiness and suffering of ourselves and of others. So what truly boggles the mind is Jacobs’ implying that the only reason to refrain from cheating and stealing is because God said so.

But wait, the rabbi has more conclusions to draw from his deep understanding of biology:

Survival of the fittest does not suggest social harmony. Furthermore, doesn’t Darwinism suggest that certain groups within a given population will develop beneficial mutations, essentially making them “better” than other groups? It would seem that racism would again be a natural conclusion of this worldview — quite unlike the theistic approach which would suggest that people have intrinsic value do [sic] to their creation in the “image of God.”

Again, Jacobs is confusing what natural selection cares about (reproductive fitness) with what we ought to care about. But the irony here is simply breathtaking: it’s the secular worldview that is racist, while the theistic is not!? The Bible repeatedly and unequivocally supports slavery, tribalism and discrimination, and commands the destruction of entire nations including women and children. The idea that all people have intrinsic value and ought to be treated equally — regardless of race, gender, or religion — is a modern, secular value, resisted mightily (to this day) by traditional religion.

Of course, the rabbi realizes that nonreligious people are not in fact more likely to behave immorally than the religious. How does he explain the observation that most of the atheists he has met are actually “very good people”?

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine. I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Seriously!? What about all the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc. — how did they ever figure out not to steal and murder without Yahweh telling them so? And what about all those Judeo-Christian pearls of ethical wisdom that the rabbi simply ignores, like executing homosexuals, women who are not virgins on their wedding night, and disobedient children? If Jacobs were not so arrogant and ignorant, he would realize that whatever parts of his own ethics are defensible are products of human rationality and secular thinking. And if he cares more about obeying the purported will of God than about the actual well-being of people in this world, then his morality is a disgrace, and he might stand to learn a few things from some atheists.

(via Butterflies and Wheels)

The sanctuary of ignorance March 25, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Philosophy, Religion, Superstition.
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In his Ethics (1677), Baruch Spinoza criticizes the common misconceptions people hold regarding the nature of God and of the universe:

All such opinions spring from the notion commonly entertained, that all things in nature act as men themselves act, namely, with an end in view. It is accepted as certain, that God himself directs all things to a definite goal (for it is said that God made all things for man, and man that he might worship him)… Hence also it follows, that everyone thought out for himself, according to his abilities, a different way of worshipping God, so that God might love him more than his fellows, and direct the whole course of nature for the satisfaction of his blind cupidity and insatiable avarice. Thus the prejudice developed into superstition, and took deep root in the human mind… but in their endeavor to show that nature does nothing in vain, i.e. nothing which is useless to man, they only seem to have demonstrated that nature, the gods, and men are all mad together. Consider, I pray you, the result: among the many helps of nature they were bound to find some hindrances, such as storms, earthquakes, diseases, &c.: so they declared that such things happen, because the gods are angry at some wrong done to them by men, or at some fault committed in their worship. Experience day by day protested and showed by infinite examples, that good and evil fortunes fall to the lot of pious and impious alike; still they would not abandon their inveterate prejudice, for it was more easy for them to class such contradictions among other unknown things of whose use they were ignorant, and thus to retain their actual and innate condition of ignorance, than to destroy the whole fabric of their reasoning and start afresh. They therefore laid down as an axiom, that God’s judgments far transcend human understanding. Such a doctrine might well have sufficed to conceal the truth from the human race for all eternity…

We must not omit to notice that the followers of this doctrine, anxious to display their talent in assigning final causes, have imported a new method of argument in proof of their theory—namely, a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance… For example, if a stone falls from a roof on to someone’s head, and kills him, they will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God’s will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance? Perhaps you will answer that the event is due to the facts that the wind was blowing, and the man was walking that way. “But why,” they will insist, “was the wind blowing, and why was the man at that very time walking that way?” If you again answer, that the wind had then sprung up because the sea had begun to be agitated the day before, the weather being previously calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again insist: “But why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?” So they will pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God—in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance…

Hence anyone who seeks for the true causes of miracles, and strives to understand natural phenomena as an intelligent being, and not to gaze at them like a fool, is set down and denounced as an impious heretic by those, whom the masses adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. Such persons know that, with the removal of ignorance, the wonder which forms their only available means for proving and preserving their authority would vanish also.

I would just stick with ignorance as the only available means for religious authorities to preserve their authority: no honest wonder would have been satisfied by the non-explanations and non-sequiturs of religion in the first place. The only kind of wonder that vanishes with the removal of ignorance is the lazy kind — that willful bewilderment that hopes for mysteries never to be solved so as to endlessly revel in their mysteriousness, without needing to confront any inconvenient realities. Real wonder, on the other hand, is amplified by increased knowledge and understanding — as we discover again and again that the universe is far more surprising and awe-inspiring than those petty, self-centered religious authorities could ever have imagined.



The game of life and death March 19, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Game theory.

You and your sweetheart have been captured and brought before a semi-barbaric (yet game-theory-savvy) tyrant. He informs you that your fate will be decided by the outcome of a little game he invented, which he calls “The Game of Life and Death.” The tyrant produces two identical gold coins, and hands one to you. One side of the coin is engraved with a tree (i.e., Life), while the other side is engraved with a skull (i.e., Death). All you need to do is choose which side of the coin to play. The tyrant will do likewise, and your choices will be revealed simultaneously. You and your sweetheart’s fate will then be determined as follows:

Tyrant plays Life Tyrant plays Death
You play Life Only your sweetheart dies You both live
You play Death Only you die You both die

You have until the next morning to make your decision. Before you are taken away, though, you see the tyrant whispering something into your sweetheart’s ear. Later, in your cell, you ask her what he said. Your sweetheart looks into your eyes, and tells you that the tyrant promised he would play Death. If the tyrant is to be believed (and he is known for being an honest tyrant), this is good news, because then you can save both yourself and your sweetheart by playing Life. Your sweetheart encourages you to do so.

But suddenly a thought occurs to you: what if the tyrant actually told your sweetheart that he intended to play Life? In that case, she might be lying in order to get you to play Life as well, and so sacrifice her life for yours! If this is the case, you must certainly play Death, so that she will live. On the other hand, if you play Death, and it turns out that both the tyrant and your sweetheart were truthful (meaning that the tyrant plays Death as well), then both of you will be killed — even though you would both have gone free if only you had followed your sweetheart’s advice…

So what would you do? Life or Death?

Yeti or square circle? March 18, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic, Philosophy, Religion.
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Is evidence for the existence of God even possible? Biologist Jerry Coyne has published an email exchange with philosopher Anthony C. Grayling on this question. While both are atheists, Coyne maintains that the existence of God is an empirical question, and that it is conceivable (though highly unlikely) that convincing evidence for God might turn up some day. Grayling thinks not, because the very concept of God is incoherent:

on the standard definition of an infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent etc being — on inspection such a concept collapses into contradiction and absurdity; as omnipotent, god can eat himself for breakfast…as omniscient it knows the world it created will cause immense suffering through tsunamis and earthquakes, and therefore has willed that suffering, which contradicts the benevolence claim…etc etc…to say nothing of local suspension of the laws of nature for arbitrary reasons e.g. in answer to personal prayer, which makes a nonsense of the idea that the world or the deity is rationally comprehensible: and if either or both are non-rational then there is nothing to talk about anyway…

The point is that ‘god’ is not like ‘ether’ — it is not amenable to empirical investigation, and does not occupy a slot in some systematic framework of thinking about the world that might be improved on in the light of better theory or observation. It does no work because it purportedly does all work; like a contradiction it entails anything whatever; it is consistent with all evidence and none. These considerations constitute the proof that it is an empty concept. — If you treat the word ‘god’ as a name for a putative entity that might or might not exist and such that something might count as evidence for or against its existence, as you do, then you are committed to agnosticism about everything that can be given an apparent name. But ‘god’ is not like ‘yeti’ (which might — so to say: yet? — be found romping about the Himalayas), it is like ‘square circle’. Trying to explain to someone who thinks that ‘god’ is like ‘yeti’ (namely, you) let alone to someone who thinks ‘god’ is like ‘Barack Obama’ (names an actual being, as Christians and Muslims do) that it is actually not like ‘yeti’ but like ‘square circle’ and that nothing can count as evidence for square circles, is harder work for ‘god’ than ‘square circle’ only because religious folk have been squaring the circle for so long!

Coyne disagrees in principle:

I reject Anthony’s assertion that God is not amenable to empirical investigation, since one can empirically investigate claims about how God interacts with the world. The efficacy of prayer is one of these. I believe Grayling is referring here to a deistic god, since theistic gods need not be “consistent with all evidence.” The existence of earthquakes, for example, is not consistent with a benevolent theistic god. I still maintain that if one claims that a god interacts with the world in certain ways, then those claims can be investigated empirically. To me the existence of a deity is not a matter that can be ruled out by philosophy or logic from the get-go; it’s a matter for empirical observation and testing.

While I find this discussion interesting, I must admit that I don’t find it especially consequential. Even if the God concept can be made coherent, no remotely convincing evidence for the existence of a God has ever been offered, and there is no reason to expect it ever will (as Coyne would agree). The God hypothesis is dead. The existence of such an entity (certainly one that meets the description of any of our obviously man-made religions) is about as plausible as the existence of witches or the belief that suicide bombers really get 72 virgins in the afterlife.

Furthermore: religious people seem to think that if God does exist, then it’s obvious that we ought to obey his every command — but that doesn’t follow. Whether God is a yeti or a square circle, nothing can absolve us of the responsibility to think for ourselves, and to rationally decide how we ought to live our lives.

He who would not use his legs because he had no wings March 15, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Philosophy, Reason.
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In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke rejects the Cartesian doctrine of “innate ideas,” arguing that the human mind is born a “blank slate” and that all our ideas are acquired through experience. Locke thinks that in addition to being false, the belief in innate ideas is positively harmful and prone to abuse:

When men have found some general propositions that could not be doubted of as soon as understood, it was, I know, a short and easy way to conclude them innate. This being once received, it eased the lazy from the pains of search, and stopped the inquiry of the doubtful concerning all that was once styled innate. And it was of no small advantage to those who affected to be masters and teachers, to make this the principle of principles, — that principles must not be questioned. For, having once established this tenet, — that there are innate principles, it put their followers upon a necessity of receiving some doctrines as such; which was to take them off from the use of their own reason and judgment, and put them on believing and taking them upon trust without further examination: in which posture of blind credulity, they might be more easily governed by, and made useful to some sort of men, who had the skill and office to principle and guide them. Nor is it a small power it gives one man over another, to have the authority to be the dictator of principles, and teacher of unquestionable truths; and to make a man swallow that for an innate principle which may serve to his purpose who teacheth them. Whereas had they examined the ways whereby men came to the knowledge of many universal truths, they would have found them to result in the minds of men from the being of things themselves, when duly considered; and that they were discovered by the application of those faculties that were fitted by nature to receive and judge of them, when duly employed about them.

Locke also recognized the inherent limitations of human knowledge, and denounced those who “demand certainty, where probability only is to be had.” On the other hand, the fact that we cannot know everything doesn’t mean we can know nothing:

We shall not have much reason to complain of the narrowness of our minds, if we will but employ them about what may be of use to us; for of that they are very capable. And it will be an unpardonable, as well as childish peevishness, if we undervalue the advantages of our knowledge, and neglect to improve it to the ends for which it was given us, because there are some things that are set out of the reach of it. It will be no excuse to an idle and untoward servant, who would not attend his business by candle light, to plead that he had not broad sunshine. The Candle that is set up in us shines bright enough for all our purposes. The discoveries we can make with this ought to satisfy us… If we will disbelieve everything, because we cannot certainly know all things, we shall do muchwhat as wisely as he who would not use his legs, but sit still and perish, because he had no wings to fly.

How to do cube roots in your head March 13, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Math.

The next time you’re at a math-friendly party (or anywhere you don’t mind not being invited back to), ask one of the people nearby to secretly choose any two-digit number, cube it (he or she may use a calculator), and tell you the result. Watch your audience’s jaws drop and their eyes fill with admiration as you immediately name the original number! The cube root of 10,648? That’s 22, of course. How about 658,503? Why, it’s 87. I can go all night.

I was taught this trick by a friend of my uncle’s, the kind of person who always has a marked deck of cards and a fake thumb in his pocket. Five minutes of practice should be enough to master it — all you need to remember are the cubes of the numbers 0 through 9:

03 = 0
13 = 1
23 = 8
33 = 27
43 = 64
53 = 125
63 = 216
73 = 343
83 = 512
93 = 729

You can deduce the tens digit of your mystery root by knocking the last three digits off of the given cube, and seeing where the remainder falls among the values above. For instance, if you’re left with something smaller than 8 (i.e., the cube is less than 8,000), then the tens digit of your mystery root is 1. If you’re left with something greater than 7 but less than 27, then the tens digit you want is 2. And so on — if you’re left with 729 or more then the tens digit you’re looking for is 9.

What about the units digit? That’s even easier: it can be deduced directly from the units digit of the given cube. Notice that the units digits of the cube values above are all different — in most cases, it’s the same as the root number itself! The four exceptions pair up nicely: 2 and 8 map to each other, as do 3 and 7.

So to put it all together: say the person you want to impress gives you the cube value 175,616. Since 175 is between 125 and 216, the first digit you’re looking for is 5; and since the cube value ends with 6, so must its root — 56 it is.

I think my work here is done.

Finding the right questions March 10, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Philosophy.

How does philosophy help us in our efforts to better understand the physical world (if indeed it does)? In an interview with Robert Kuhn at Closer To Truth, Daniel Dennett suggests that philosophers deal with questions rather than answers: “Philosophy is what you have to do until you know what the right questions are.” Once you’re clear that you have a good question, then you go off and try to answer it — and that’s not philosophy, it’s physics, or psychology, or history, etc. Back in Aristotle’s day, everything was philosophy: the boundaries between various domains of knowledge had yet to be drawn. As different questions eventually became clear and distinct, new fields branched off and came to stand on their own.

Philosophy can help you see why certain questions, which are very tempting, are going to mislead you more than help you. Dennett points out that the history of philosophy is in many regards a history of mistakes — “very tempting mistakes, mistakes that very smart people are apt to be tempted by.” Only by studying and understanding those mistakes can we avoid repeating them. Philosophy helps to clarify issues, to raise questions, to articulate underlying reasons. Philosophy can help you see the forest for the trees.

Of course, philosophers can sometimes get carried away…

Worship is immoral March 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Ethics, Religion.

Religion is not only false; it’s immoral. One reason it’s immoral is because it’s false: holding beliefs for which there is no good justification is irresponsible, since actions guided by false beliefs often have disastrous consequences. Of course, even if one of our religions were true, that wouldn’t mean that all its precepts and commandments are moral: even if the Bible was authored by the creator of the universe, executing homosexuals and blasphemers and adulterers would still be wrong.

Apart from all this, however, even if some religion’s doctrines were true and all its rules were ethical, it would still be intrinsically immoral — because religion requires worship. As pointed out by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse:

The thought is frequently associated with Bertrand Russell: The worship of anything is beneath the dignity of a rational creature.  That is, we argue that worship is immoral.  Consequently, for any type of religious belief, if it requires one to worship anything, then it is intrinsically immoral.  The argument turns on the claim that any conception of worship that’s worth its salt will involve the voluntary and irrevocable submission of one’s rational faculties to those of another.

If there did exist a being vastly more intelligent, more powerful, and more moral than us (and the Biblical God certainly doesn’t meet that description), it might merit gratitude, admiration, respect — but never worship. And what kind of supreme being would want to be worshiped, anyway? Or glorified? Or obeyed blindly? The best humans we know never seek such things.

Just like religious faith, worship is inherently immoral, and encouraging it causes much evil in this world — whether the object being worshiped exists or not. There’s always some human authority happy to step in and take advantage of the religiously cultivated inclination towards submission, obedience, and servility.

(via Butterflies and Wheels)

Competence without comprehension March 4, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science, Evolution.
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Gaudi vs. termites

On the left, we have Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona; on the right, a termite mound. Both structures serve a purpose (or several purposes); and both exist, with their particular characteristics, for a reason. They are not the result of materials being thrown together randomly; it makes sense for us to ask why their features were built one way and not another. And yet, there is a crucial difference between the two.

In a recent lecture at UCLA, Daniel Dennett describes the difference this way: There is a reason why termites build mounds — but it’s not true that termites have a reason for building mounds. Human beings have reasons for the things they do, and they can represent those reasons explicitly. But no termite needs to understand the reasons behind its actions — no one needs to understand them. Complex reasons can emerge from the mindless, purposeless, automatic process of natural selection.

This idea, of course, is extremely counter-intuitive. Dennett quotes one early attack on Darwin, published anonymously in 1868:

In the theory with which we have to deal, Absolute Ignorance is the artificer; so that we may enunciate as the fundamental principle of the whole system, that, in order to make a perfect and beautiful machine, it is not requisite to know how to make it. This proposition will be found, on careful examination, to express, in condensed form, the essential purport of the Theory, and to express in a few words all Mr. Darwin’s meaning; who, by a strange inversion of reasoning, seems to think Absolute Ignorance fully qualified to take the place of Absolute Wisdom in all the achievements of creative skill.

Exactly! This “strange inversion of reasoning” was Darwin’s great insight: a new way of thinking, with profound consequences and explanatory power.

Dennett attributes a comparable “inversion of reasoning” to Alan Turing. Before modern computers, “computers” were humans who performed mathematical calculations manually. To do this, they had to understand arithmetic. But Turing realized that it’s not necessary for a computing machine to know what arithmetic is. And so we now have CPUs, spreadsheets, search engines, all performing complex tasks without understanding what they are doing: competence without comprehension.

This is the opposite of our own personal experience: our competences flow from our comprehension. But evolution shows us that comprehension can emerge as the result, not the cause, of competence. Just as life is ultimately constructed out of non-living parts, understanding can be constructed out of non-understanding parts. The individual neurons in our brain don’t understand anything — but we do.

There must be a continuum, therefore, ranging from a complete lack of understanding to the kind of understanding humans have. Do apes have reasons? Apes fall somewhere in the middle between termites and Gaudi. They have proto-reasons. The same might be said of our more complex computing machines. One day, we will reach the point when computers have full-fledged reasons of their own.

For billions of years on this planet, there was competence but no comprehension. There were reasons, but no one understood them. We have now evolved the ability to look back and see the reasons everywhere in the tree of life — reasons discovered by the same mindless process that produced us.