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Radical, blind, fanatic, distorted May 30, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Language, Religion.

In an editorial about the San Francisco initiative to make male neonatal circumcision a misdemeanor crime, The Jerusalem Post uses (or rather, abuses) language in order to disguise bad moral argument. They begin by proclaiming that we are facing “a case study of what happens when a radical interpretation of human rights combined with hatred of tradition can blind better moral judgment.” Here, on the other hand, is their own “better moral judgment”:

By marking his most impulsive organ, man makes the unequivocal statement that he is not an animal governed by the laws of nature. Rather, man is a creation whose horizon of aspirations lies far beyond the satisfaction of his natural impulses. The right of San Francisco’s Jews to pass on this religious message to their children, in a practice that experts say does not cause undue pain, has not been proved to dull sexual enjoyment and which might have medical benefits, should be carefully safeguarded against anti-religious fanatics with a distorted conception of human rights.

Notice the contrast between the extreme, decisive words they use to characterize the other side — radical, hatred, fanatics, distorted — and the lame weasel words they use to make their own case: Does not cause undue pain? Has not been proved to dull sexual enjoyment? Might have medical benefits? That hardly sounds encouraging when considering cutting off parts of one’s body — but that is not even the point, since we’re not talking about an adult circumcising himself: we’re talking about forcing an invasive procedure on another person, without his informed consent. So pretending that the issue is about man marking himself in order to make a (silly) statement about his aspirations, or about passing religious “messages” to one’s children, is disingenuous and contemptible. Appeals to tradition are irrelevant here; and opposing the imposition of medically unnecessary surgery on infants is not radical or fanatic. The Post’s moral judgement has been blinded by religious dogmatism, and they’re using duplicitous language as a smokescreen.

Sophistry and illusion May 28, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Religion.
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In the concluding words of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume gives his opinion on the work of theologians:

The existence, therefore, of any being can only be proved by arguments from its cause or its effect; and these arguments are founded entirely on experience. If we reason a priori, anything may appear able to produce anything. The falling of a pebble may, for aught we know, extinguish the sun; or the wish of a man control the planets in their orbits. It is only experience, which teaches us the nature and bounds of cause and effect, and enables us to infer the existence of one object from that of another…

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Cast your dancing spell my way May 24, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Music.
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In honor of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, here is the great opening credits sequence from the movie Watchmen — set to “The Times They Are A-Changin'”:

And here’s my favorite verse from “Mr. Tambourine Man”:

Take me on a trip upon your magic, swirling ship
my senses have been stripped
my hands can’t feel to grip
my toes too numb to step
wait only for my boot heels to be wandering.
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
into my own parade
cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it.

Learn recursion in X steps May 21, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science.
  1. If X equals 0, congratulations! You understand recursion.
  2. Otherwise, all you have to do is learn recursion in (X-1) steps.

The formula May 13, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Religion.
1 comment so far

Good news! The religious troubles of the Mideast will soon be solved:

A delegation from Israel comprised of rabbis, sheikhs and a priest resolved in Istanbul on Thursday to form an interfaith convention — along with their Turkish hosts — that will arbitrate disputes in the Middle East and Muslim world to counter religious extremism and promote peace.

The Israeli delegation was led by Deputy Minister Ayoob Kara, and he knows what needs to be done:

“Through joint efforts, we must find the formula to cancel the legitimacy of people who use religion for religious extremism and bring disasters upon the world,” Kara said after the joint press conference wrapped up a round of meetings.

Wait, let me guess: the “formula” is to stop making unsupported claims about the nature of the universe, to take religion out of politics and public affairs, to give all children a broad scientific education free from indoctrination, to stop demanding that religion be given special privilege and respect, and to promote critical thinking instead of faith. Am I right?

“When a supreme body that will force all to act according to the Creator’s will shall be formed, the level of religious extremism will drop since God commanded us to not murder and use his name in vain. These imperatives have become vague after certain people used God’s name in vain to break the most important commandment of not murdering, and turned the world into a killing field in the name of God,” [Kara] added.

Oh, that’s definitely better — my mistake. Interfaith rules! Just remind me again, which Creator are we talking about? And what exactly is his will…?

Food for thought May 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan gives a thought-provoking account of where our food comes from, exploring the effects of modern food industry on our health, our environment, and our culture. The picture is not pretty, and it involves many thorny political and ethical issues, but Pollan provides well-reasoned arguments grounded in science, and his analyses seem fair and balanced.

I was a bit dismayed, however, by how the scientific method is represented in the chapter on organic farming. In that chapter, Pollan presents the views of English agronomist Sir Albert Howard, who provided much of the philosophical foundations for organic agriculture. Howard identified the 19th-century German chemist Baron Justus von Liebig (you can tell from his name that he’s evil) as the root of the problem. It was Liebig who

set agriculture on its industrial path when he broke down the quasi-mystical concept of fertility in soil into a straightforward inventory of the chemical elements plants require for growth. At a stroke, soil biology gave way to soil chemistry, and specifically to the three chemical nutrients Liebig highlighted as crucial to plant growth: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, or to use these elements’ initials from the periodic table, N-P-K… Much of Howard’s work is an attempt to demolish what he called the “NPK mentality.”

… In Howard’s thinking, the NPK mentality serves as a shorthand for both the powers and limitations of reductionist science. For as followers of Liebig discovered, NPK “works”: If you give plants these three elements, they will grow. From this success it was a short step to drawing the conclusion that the entire mystery of soil fertility had been solved. It fostered the wholesale reimagining of soil (and with it agriculture) from a living system to a kind of machine: Apply inputs of NPK at this end and you will get yields of wheat or corn on the other end. Since treating the soil as a machine seemed to work well enough, at least in the short term, there no longer seemed any need to worry about such quaint things as earthworms and humus [the organic matter in soil].

It turns out, however, that growing vast monocultures of synthetically fertilized crops produces plants that are less nourishing, and more vulnerable to diseases and insect pests (necessitating chemical insecticides), among other problems. Today’s food system pollutes the environment and is completely dependent on fossil fuel energy, making it unsustainable. This is certainly a bad state of affairs, and while Pollan suggests that modern “industrial organic” farming is not a very good alternative either, he goes on to present a fascinating profile of a “management-intensive rotational grazing” farm which utilizes the natural symbiosis of various plants and animals to create produce in a manner that is both sustainable and much healthier for all involved. In his discussion of the “limitations of reductionist science,” however, I think Pollan slightly misses his mark:

To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry. As Howard was not the first to point out, that method can only deal with one or two variables at a time. The problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters. When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.

The “NPK mentality” is contrasted with Howard’s holistic approach:

The notion of imitating whole natural systems stands in stark opposition to reductionist science, which works by breaking such systems down into their component parts in order to understand how they work and then manipulating them — one variable at a time. In this sense, Howard’s concept of organic agriculture is premodern, arguably even antiscientific: He’s telling us we don’t need to understand how humus works or what compost does in order to make good use of it. Our ignorance of the teeming wilderness that is soil (even the act of regarding it as a wilderness) is no impediment to nurturing it. To the contrary, a healthy sense of all we don’t know — even a sense of mystery — keeps us from reaching for oversimplifications and technological silver bullets.

Having an informed sense of all we don’t know is indeed crucial — and it is a defining characteristic of a good scientist. But that is not the same as embracing mystery and ignorance. To improve our lives we need to understand the world better, and that often involves figuring out the mechanisms at work behind complex phenomena. The charge of “reductionism” is nothing but an empty slogan: “reductionism” is an ill-defined term, mainly used to denigrate the scientific method by those who don’t understand it or who desperately don’t want science to provide a materialistic explanation of their most cherished mysteries. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett distinguishes between reductionism (which is generally a good thing) and greedy reductionism (which is not):

There is no reason to be compromising about what I call good reductionism. It is simply the commitment to non-question-begging science without any cheating by embracing mysteries or miracles at the outset… But in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers often underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation. That is the sin of greedy reductionism, but notice that it is only when overzealousness leads to falsification of the phenomena that we should condemn it… It is not wrong to yearn for simple theories, or to yearn for phenomena that no simple (or complex!) theory could ever explain; what is wrong is zealous misrepresentation, in either direction.

There is no virtue in preserving mysteries, and natural phenomena don’t become any less wonderful or beautiful when you understand them better. The fact that some scientists have made mistakes by presuming to know more than the evidence supports does not reveal any inherent limitation of the scientific method — which is merely our best honest effort to gain reliable knowledge of the world. There is no reason why the “mysteries” of soil fertility cannot in principle be completely understood by science. Of course, we must constantly be wary of oversimplification, and maintain a healthy appreciation of our areas of ignorance. But announcing in advance that certain mysteries will never be solved by science is equally arrogant. We must not mistake what we currently know for all there is to know, but as for what we can know — who knows?

I can’t believe it’s been a year May 1, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Blogging.
1 comment so far

I’m proud to announce that No Right to Believe is now one year old! What better way to celebrate than with some statistics:

In the past year I’ve written 85 posts — that’s one every 4.3 days on average. You can find a list of some of my favorite posts on the favorites page.

Here’s a breakdown of posts by category (note that most posts belong to multiple categories):

If you’re interested in posts from a certain category, use the links on the right-hand sidebar.

Any feedback regarding this blog, whether positive or negative, is always welcome and would be much appreciated. If you’d prefer not to post a public comment, my contact information can be found on the about page.

Thanks for reading, and may the coming year see many triumphs of reason over unjustified belief!