October 11, 2021

Review of “End this wicked marriage”

by Neil Rickert

UPDATE:

I have added a comment about what apparently happened. And that seems to clear up the puzzle.

END OF UPDATE

This started as a book review. But it has become a puzzle.

Jerry Gramckow is the author of a Kindle book “End this wicked marriage: why Evangelical Christianity needs to divorce itself from the Republican Party”. I learned about the book on Monday, from Jerry’s blog.

But here’s the puzzle. Jerry’s blog has disappeared. It now gives me a 404 (not found) when I try to pull up that page. So I searched for the book title on Amazon, and that too has disappeared.

I still have my copy of the book on my Kindle. I hope that doesn’t disappear, too. Amazon has been known to pull books, though they got many complaints when they last tried this. Perhaps they will let me keep it. I actually have a second Kindle. The one where I read this book is a paperwhite (an e-ink version). My second Kindle is a fire tablet. Checking my library there, the book did show up. And I was still able to download it. So Amazon actually still has the book in its database, but it is hiding that book. It looks as if only people who have already acquired it can access it.

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October 4, 2021

Meandering thoughts on consciousness

by Neil Rickert

This post might wander all over, as I jot down thoughts that seem relevant.

Ding an sich

Kant used the expression “Ding an sich,” which is usually translated as “the thing in itself”. Kant’s idea was that we cannot know the world in itself; we can only know the world as we experience it.

This has turned out to be a controversial view. Many people disagree with Kant about this. However, I am inclined to agree, though perhaps my reasons are different from those of Kant.

In Genesis 1:2, we read “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” I am inclined to see that as a pretty good description of the world in itself, although I doubt that I am using that in the way the author(s) of Genesis intended.

If we attempt to describe the structure or form of the world, we may find ourselves using words such as “texture”, “height”, “color”. We use these words to express human concepts. When we talk of the world in itself, we should limit ourselves to what can be said without depending on human concepts. And there isn’t much at all that can be said.

As for that “darkness” part of the Genesis text, we can reasonably assume that the earth was bathed in electromagnetic waves. But most electromagnetic waves are not visible to us. Our sight depends on a narrow range of wavelengths. That we happen to be able to sense those wavelengths is part of our biology. So we should exclude that as part of what we consider the world in itself.

Kant contrasted this with the world of appearances, or the world that we experience. It seems entirely reasonable to me, that the way we experience the world is very different from the way that an ant experiences the world, or the way that a bird experiences the world or the way that a bat experiences the world. So when we talk of the world in itself, we should consider only what is observer independent. But we cannot know anything apart from observation. Hence my agreement with Kant’s view.

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September 27, 2021

Dualism

by Neil Rickert

Most people are probably familiar with dualism. It is the claim that the mind exists as an immaterial substance. It is often called “Cartesian Dualism”, because of the way that it was formulated by Descartes. However, the idea of a spiritual soul seems to be much older.

Apparently, Descartes was familiar with the workings of a clock, and saw that the kinds of mechanisms used could possibly explain motions and other visible behaviors of animals and people. But he did not believe that it could explain thinking. So he argued for two substances. The physical motions would be explained by extended stuff (or material substance), while thought would be explained by thinking stuff (or mental substance), taken to be distinct from extended stuff.

Modern views

Since the time of Descartes, much has been learned about anatomy and about the brain. And our experience with computers shows how intricate behavior can be controlled without requiring any immaterial substance. As a result, dualism is now rejected by many people. However, many religious folk still like the idea of a spiritual soul, so continue to cling to some kind of dualism.

These days, most people of a scientific bent point to the brain as responsible for what Descartes attributed to an immaterial mind. And most academic philosophers agree, though there seem to be a few holdouts.

Passive perception

Descartes took the view that perception is passive. That is, we just perceived the world the way that it actually is. This seems a reasonable conclusion for a dualist such as Descartes. If the mind was assumed immaterial, it could do magical things.

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September 20, 2021

Conservative Christianity

by Neil Rickert

I’m taking a break from my more usual topic. So this is something of a filler.

I was a Christian from around age 11 to around age 23. I’m inclined to say that I was a liberal Christian in a conservative church. I perhaps should add that this was in Australia.

Conservative Christianity never made sense to me. I was a liberal Christian, because that made sense. My pastor encouraged me to read the Bible, so I did. I read the OT and the NT in parallel. When I got to the Adam & Eve story, my reaction was “Surely I am not expected to believe that this is true history!” It seemed so obvious that it had the genre of a fable, that I didn’t even bother to ask my pastor about that. And, of course, I had a similar reaction to the story of Noah and the flood, the story of the Tower of Babel, the story of Jonah. I guess I was already well on my way toward becoming a liberal Christian.

The Gospels

In my reading of the NT, I particularly (but not exclusively) concentrated on the gospels. After all, the religion was supposed to be about Jesus and his teachings. And I thought those teachings were pretty good. I read where Jesus taught that we should love our neighbor (Luke 10:27). And this was followed by the parable of the good Samaritan, which I took to be a lesson that we should care about all humans, even those from different ethnic backgrounds. This idea was reaffirmed in Matt. 25 — the parable of the sheep and the goats.

I guess this is what people mean by “The Social Gospel”. But the conservative churches, particularly so in America, reject that social gospel.

To me, based on what I learned during my period as a Christian, the conservative version of Christianity seems distinctly unchristian to me.

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September 13, 2021

Against mechanism

by Neil Rickert

The title might be a tad misleading, so I will need to clarify. But perhaps I should start by pointing out that we really don’t have a good definition of mechanism. So people might disagree about what the word means.

I have a car, clocks, a wrist watch, a cell phone, and many other such things. I am not against that kind of mechanism. I will note, however, that all of those kinds of mechanisms eventually fail. Mechanical things break.

And then there are our scientific laws. Newton’s laws were often described as “Newtonian mechanics”, and Einsteins newer theory is often described as relativistic mechanics. We normally do not expect scientific laws to fail. Of course, these days we normally see relativistic mechanics as having superseded Newtonian mechanics. But that wasn’t because Newton’s laws failed in the way that real mechanisms fail. Rather, it was because relativistic mechanics was better than Newtonian mechanics. And, of course, Newtonian mechanics is still very much in use, because it is easier to use than relativistic mechanics, and in most cases it works well enough.

Ideal mechanisms

Because scientific laws are not expected to fail, we might consider them to be ideal mechanisms. They are abstract, rather than composed of physical gears and levers such as we see with physical mechanisms.

Again, to be clear, I am not in any way opposed to the kind of ideal mechanisms that we see in science. They not what I am against. After all, I am a mathematician, and much of mathematics is about such ideal mechanisms.

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September 6, 2021

Subjective and objective

by Neil Rickert

I have been reading Nagel: “The view from nowhere“, where Nagel attempts to give an account of objectivity. Here’s the book summary from Wikipedia:

The View from Nowhere is a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel. Published by Oxford University Press in 1986, it contrasts passive and active points of view in how humanity interacts with the world, relying either on a subjective perspective that reflects a point of view or an objective perspective that takes a more detached perspective. Nagel describes the objective perspective as the “view from nowhere”, one where the only valuable ideas are ones derived independently.

Nagel emphasizes the idea of becoming more detached. But I did not find a good account of what it means to become detached. I’m not at all sure that one can become detached without going into clinical depression. But perhaps I misunderstand what Nagel is suggesting.

An alternative

I will suggest a different idea as to what distinguishes subjective from objective.

In my last post, I discussed the idea of standards. And I suggested that there can be several sets of standards. In particular, we can have personal stands. And, additionally, there can be community standards. Here, I considered scientific standards as being a particular case of community standards, where “community” refers to the scientific community.

My suggestion is that we make subjective judgements when we base those judgements on our personal standards. And we make objective judgements when we base them on community standards.

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August 30, 2021

The importance of standards

by Neil Rickert

A long time ago, as a teenager, I spent time reading about science. One of the things that I noticed, was that the Newtonians put some effort into giving as a unified system of weights and measures. That is to say, they established standards for the measurements that scientists make, and the attempted to unify standards internationally.

That always seemed important to me. I took it to be part of how science works, especially so when we notice that measurement is very important to scientists.

When I look at books in the philosophy of science, I do not recall ever seeing the authors mention this standardization of measurement systems. Perhaps the philosophers of science do not see it as important.

Artificial intelligence

One of the things that AI researchers have been concerned about, is learning. And one of their theories of learning has been based on the physical symbol system hypothesis. The idea seems to be that the world is full of naturally occurring physical symbols, and an AI system can pick them up and compute with them. I don’t think there are any naturally occurring physical symbols. It seems to me that symbols are human constructs, and we depend on our own standards on how to use those symbols. So there’s that word “standards” again.

The idea, for that AI hypothesis, was that the symbols constitute information and an information processing system can use them as the basis for artificial intelligence. But I say “no information without standards.”

The problem

Imagine a young child who has learned the word “doggy”. As he walks away, a gust of wind rustles his hair. Oh, another doggy? If the child has no standard as to what constitutes a doggy, then he cannot tell that the gust of wind isn’t a doggy. In order to make sense of the world, we need to make distinctions. And we apply some kind of criteria when making those distinctions. How we apply our criteria are, in effect, our standards for perceiving the world.

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August 23, 2021

Information

by Neil Rickert

People use the word “information” in a variety of ways, some of them mutually inconsistent. In this post, I shall describe how I prefer to use the term. My own usage is partly informed by my study of perception. And, of course, as a retired professor of computer science, my usage is partly informed by the use of information in technology.

The word “information” is used a lot in information technology. We talk about information being communicated or copied or transmitted. But we also think of newspapers as being sources of information. Likewise, human speech is normally considered to be information.

Shannon information

Claude Shannon is famous for his theory of information. He actually called it a theory of communication. People use the expression “Shannon information” in somewhat inconsistent ways. I shall try to stay close to what Shannon discussed.

Shannon was concerned with the question of transmitting information over a noisy channel, and with the problem of minimizing the errors that are due to noise in the channel. Shannon considered the use of both analog signals and digital signals. But the bulk of his work has to do with digital signals, and that will be my main emphasis in this discussion.

Shannon did much of his work at Bell Labs. And, of course, a major concern of Bell Labs was with telephone communication. These day, largely due to the work of Shannon and others, most telephone communication is done by encoding voice signals in a stream of binary digits. It turns out that this kind of digital communication can better deal with noise in the channel.

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August 16, 2021

About perception

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post, I suggested that perception is an important part of perception. One commenter disagreed, and wrote “Perception is simply raw sensory impressions”. That’s actually a common view. A lot of the literature on empiricism suggests that it starts with impressions.

I’m actually not quite sure what people mean by “impression” when they make such statements. I expect that they are probably thinking of conscious impressions — something that we can think about. However, it seems to me that much of perception is prior to conscious experience.

The expression “raw sensory impression” could also mean the forming of an image (in the visual case). I’m doubtful that we form images. I cannot see any good reason why an ability to form images would evolve, because it is hard to see much benefit from having such an ability. What really matters to an organism, is getting useful information about the immediate environment. So my own thinking about perception has tended to emphasize that information problem.

Motion

One of the problems for visual perception, is that we are moving. We move our bodies. We also move our heads relative to our bodies. And our eyes move (in saccades) relative to the position of our heads.

If you have ever tried taking a picture with a moving camera, you probably know that this can result in a blurry picture. A high shutter speed can reduce the problem. However, the response of retinal sensory cells is slower than high speed shutters, so that method is not available to the visual system.

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August 9, 2021

There are no foundations

by Neil Rickert

This post is, in part, a response to the post “In the first place …” on another blog. The author of that post writes:

It’s really strange having fallen from faith to now be starting to wonder if faith is the only way to underpin the very thing I used to push faith away with in the first place (rationality).

Here I am using “foundation” as the same as “underpinning”. So this post has to do with foundationalism in epistemology. To a first approximation, foundationalism is the idea that there is a starting set of assumptions from which all knowledge can be logically derived. And I guess that’s similar to the “presuppositional apologetics” which we see in religious circles.

Sam, the author of the post to which I am responding, goes on to write:

Does there have to be rational arguments for God? There are many rational people that believe in God. If we assume anyone who believes in God is irrational and has no root cause of belief, then we label all believers with the same brush. I’ve grown to hate this.

You can see Sam’s concern. From my point of view, there are no rational arguments for God. But that does not imply that believers are irrational.

To put this in perspective, consider the concept of mass from physics. It is a rather central concept. Yet there are no rational arguments for mass — depending, of course, on what you mean by “rational”.

I sometimes toy with the idea of writing a post “Logic is illogical; rationality is irrational.” The problem here is that both words (“logic” and “rational”) can have different meanings, and those different meanings can be in conflict. For example “logic” can be used to refer to a formal method of deductive inference. As a mathematician, that’s my preferred meaning for the term. But “logic” can also refer to using ordinary good sense in making decisions, and quite often ordinary good sense does not involve any formal inference.

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