April 28, 2016

The way the world is

by Neil Rickert

Right now it is a cloudy, rainy April day.  And if that’s the kind of thing one means by “the way the world is” then I have no problem with that.  However, people often use that expression in a different sense.  Typically, they are talking about some metaphysical point, and they say “there’s a certain way that the world is”.  And they go on to ask questions such as whether our current science agrees with “that certain way that the world is” (whatever that is supposed to mean).

I’ll use the expression “the metaphysical way the world is” for that usage, though I’ll mostly abbreviate that as MWWI.

It seems that MWWI is supposed to refer to some presumed linguistic description of the world which is independent of personal and cultural viewpoints and is language independent.

I’m inclined to think that MWWI is incoherent.  I don’t think that there can be such a thing.  And that’s what this post is about.


Let’s start with reality.  When I deny that there could be a MWWI, some people take me as being something of an idealist.  That is, they take me to be denying that there is a human independent reality — that what we call reality is something that we make up in our heads.

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April 12, 2016

That must have been a rhetorical question

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post at his blog, Bill Dembski asks whether listening to an audio book counts as reading.

Comments are closed, so it is impossible to give an answer.  I guess that must have been a rhetorical question.


It’s been a while since I last posted.  I’m going to try to get back into the posting habit.

February 19, 2016

Apple, the FBI and cryptography

by Neil Rickert

This is about the case in the news, where Apple is refusing to comply with an FBI request to help them access an iPhone.

I side with Apple on this, and that’s the main thrust of this post.

I described what I see as the technical issues in a post on my technical blog.


When I was growing up, everybody knew everybody.  The shopkeeper knew what kind of food we normally purchased.  The neighborhood butcher knew what kind of meat we purchased.  In some sense, there wasn’t a lot of privacy.  However, what they knew was not written down.  The cash register receipt listed only the amount paid.  It did not list the items purchased.  It would have been very difficult for anybody to use that knowledge to construct a detailed dossier on our family.

Today, we are in a very different world.  Everything thing is record, and some records are archived where they will be available for long periods of time.  My relation with the shopkeeper (really, the supermarked manager) is far more impersonal.  But he has recorded data about the items that I have purchased with my credit card.  I probably should pay cash, to make it hard to identify me from the recorded data.

Today, it is far easier to build a detailed dossier.  And identity thieves do just that, as a way of stealing identities and then using the stolen identity to steal from bank accounts.

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February 5, 2016

Denton: “Evolution: still a theory in crisis” — a review

by Neil Rickert

Michael Denton has a new book, “Evolution: still a theory in crisis“.  So I picked up a copy, and will review it in this post.  I actually purchased the Kindle version of the book.

Structuralism vs functionalism

Denton outlines the main gist of his argument in chapter 1, where he explains that he is a structuralist rather than a functionalist.  He expands on that in later chapters.

Denton seems to be using “functionalism” to describe what I would call “pan-selectionism” or “pan-adaptationism”.  So he would see Dawkins, and probably Jerry Coyne, as functionalists.  Denton himself prefers structuralism, which is an emphasis on the forms or body plans (he uses the term “bauplan”) of organisms (or groups or organisms).

I’m inclined to say “a pox on both of their houses”.  I am not a pan-selectionist.  I usually say that I am not a Darwinist, for I see Darwinism as an over-emphasis on natural selection.  To me, Denton’s preference for structuralism seems strange.  Surely the structural features are their because of their functional role.

In section 1.1, Denton writes:

It is hard to imagine two scientific frameworks as diametrically opposed as structuralism and functionalism.  Whereas functionalism  suggests that function is prior and determines structure, structuralism suggests that structure is prior and constrains function.

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January 19, 2016

Understanding and the Chinese Room

by Neil Rickert

Coel has a recent post

about Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument.  My response is a bit long for a comment, so I’ll respond here.


Here’s how Coel frames the issue:

You’ve just bought the latest in personal-assistant robots. You say to it: “Please put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, then hoover the lounge, and then take the dog for a walk”. The robot is equipped with a microphone, speech-recognition software, and extensive programming on how to do tasks. It responds to your speech by doing exactly as requested, and ends up taking hold of the dog’s leash and setting off out of the house. All of this is well within current technological capability.

Did the robot understand the instructions?

My answer would be “obviously not.”  So, according to Coel, that makes me a Searlite.  If I had agreed that the robot understood, then he would say that I’m a Dennettite.

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January 10, 2016

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

by Neil Rickert

In the recent events at Wheaton College (see previous post), action toward possibly firing Hawkins is said to be based on her assertion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  Apparently, the Wheaton College president does not agree.

The view that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God, is a rather curious position for Wheaton to take.  I’ll readily grant that many conservative Christians agree with that position, but that does not alter its strangeness.

The God of Abraham

Both Christians and Muslims claim to worship the God of Abraham.  So, on the face if it, one would think that they worship the same God.

There is no doubt that the way Christians characterize and describe God is very different from the way that Muslims characterize and describe God.  For example, Christians claim that there God is a triune God, a unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Muslims reject that view of God.  But so do Jewish people.  Yet conservative Christians do believe that they worship the same God as is worshiped by the Jewish people.

It would be easy to understand Christians saying that Muslims mischaracterize God, and it would be easy to understand Muslims claiming that Christians mischaracterize God.  But to say that the Muslim God is a different entity from the Christian God — that’s what is hard to understand.

The atheist view

To say Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God, seems to imply that there is nothing more to the Christian God than the way that he is described and characterized by Christians.  But this is pretty much the atheist view — namely that man created God, rather than God creating man.

One wonders whether the president of Wheaton has thought his position through.

January 7, 2016

Wheaton College — shame on you

by Neil Rickert

Wheaton College is around a 30 minute drive from where I live.  I have long respected it as a religious college which did a pretty good job of living up to the expectation of academia.  Many years ago, as a graduate student in mathematics, one of my classmates had graduated from Wheaton, and that’s probably where I first learned something about this school.

Unfortunately, recent events at Wheaton have been disquieting.  I have lost my former respect for that school.

It is almost a month since I first heard of the problems, with a blog post by Fred Clark:

In the last couple of days, there have been many reaction to the move by Wheaton, toward firing Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor.  Here are some of the posts that I have seen:

What’s this all about?

The “problem” started when Larycia Hawkins said that she would start wearing a hijab, in support of her muslim  neighbors.  This was a reaction to the negative statements that we have been hearing about muslims from politicians (particularly in the Republican primary race) and from some evangelical Christian leaders.

To me, what Dr. Hawkins did seemed like a wonderful example the Christian teaching to “love thy neighbor”.  For Hawkins, this was not just a theoretical principle, but was something to be put into practice.

To me, the reaction of the Wheaton College administration seems very anti-Christian.  I am left wondering whether there is anything Christian about American conservative Christianity.

January 6, 2016

Respect for churches

by Neil Rickert

A recent report from Pew research shows that respect for churches is declining among millennials.  The report also suggests a decline is respect for the news media, but that seems to affect all generations.

I’ve seen comments on this by Jerry Coyne and by Hemant Mehta.  But I wanted to add my own.

What’s going on here?

It’s hard to read people’s minds.  So I’ll guess.  The millennials are very aware of global warming, and they surely realize that their lives will be significantly impacted.  Too many churches and other religious institutions are still in denial about global warming.

Respect is something that has to be earned.  And many of the churches seem to be failing at that.  Not only are they in denial about global warming, they are also far too tolerant of racism and other social ills.

It’s good to see that younger folk are noticing these failings and acting on them.

December 22, 2015

The news about Christmas — maybe not so sad after all

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post:

Jerry Coyne bemoans the fact that a high percentage of Americans believe such things as that baby Jesus was laid in a manger (81%).

But here’s the thing.  If I were asked in a poll, whether Professor Moriarty were the arch rival of Sherlock Holmes, I would assent to that belief.  I would assent even though I am fully aware that both are fictional characters.  And I suspect that many Sherlock Holmes fans would do likewise.  If you hear people talking about popular movies, you will hear them expressing beliefs that are true only in the context of the movie plot.

What we believe, and what we hold to be true, is sensitive to context.  And we often pick up the context from the way the question is asked or from earlier parts of the conversation.

I think Jerry is taking that Pew poll too seriously.  Given the time of the year, I’m inclined to see it as a “feel good about Christmas” poll.

October 9, 2015

Love, pain and chemistry

by Neil Rickert

We sometimes hear people saying that love is just chemistry.  Apparently Zach Weinersmith, the SMBC cartoonist, doesn’t agree.  He gives his ironic reaction in one of his cartoons.  I agree with the cartoonist, though I would not react in the suggested way.

Jerry Coyne thinks the cartoonist is profoundly misguided.  So I’ll have to disagree with Coyne.

Computation as an analogy

I’ll use computation as an analogy, to illustrate why I disagree with Coyne.

If you see somebody doing computation, you may see them making pencil marks on paper.  But it would be a serious mistake to say that computation is just making pencil marks on paper.

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