August 22, 2022

What is intelligence?

by Neil Rickert

People often talk about intelligence, but it is hard to say what it is. We measure IQ (Intelligence Quotient), but it isn’t entirely clear what that is measuring. This is illustrated by the Flynn Effect, which shows that IQ seems to be increasing over time. Some people have suggested that IQ is sensitive to culture, and I’m inclined to agree with that.

So what is intelligence? In this post, I shall give some of my own opinions. I don’t think there is a consensus answer to the question.

Biology and intelligence

I am inclined to think of intelligence as biological.

Take a pot plant on your window sill, and rotate it around. The plant will begin to change its growth patterns toward the new direction of light. The pot plant appears to have the ability to change its behavior so as to adapt to changes in the environment. Mechanical objects don’t do this.

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July 20, 2022

Progressive Christianity

by Neil Rickert

My main intention, in this post, is to link to two recent posts that seem worth reading. Both posts were on the “Progressive Christian” channel at Patheos.

The first of those posts is by James McGrath:

When growing up as a young Christian, I saw Jesus as taking liberal and progressive positions. And James pretty much agrees with this. It always seems strange to me that most American Christians are so conservative. They could not have gotten that conservatism from reading the Gospels. Even the early church practiced a form of Christian communism. There are still modern progressive Christians, with Martin Luther King having been just one example. Yet most American Christians seem very conservative and seem hostile to the liberal ideas that Jesus taught us.

The link blog post goes into some of the history of this. Or, as the summary by James McGrath puts it:

TL; DR: The core of Christianity was progressive from its beginning, and today’s progressives continue that tradition.

The Establishment Clause

The second post I want to highlight, is by Fred Clark:

That title is weird. The post is really about the establishment clause of the first amendment to the US. Constitution, and about why it is so important.

Some people seem to think that there is a tension between the establishment clause (often described as separation of church and state), and the freedom of religion clause. Recent supreme court decisions have use the freedom of religion clause to override some decisions based on the establishment clause.

Fred argues, correctly in my opinion, that there is no tension. The establishment clause is an integral part of freedom of religion. If the state can impose religious requirements, then that imposition is against freedom of religion.

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July 6, 2022

Fred Clark on the culture war

by Neil Rickert

I was not intending another post so soon after my last one. But then I read Fred Clark’s latest post at his “Slacktivist” blog. It is brilliant.

My apologies that his actual post is on Patheos, which means that it is loaded with far too much advertising. But it is still worth reading.

Fred goes after the religious right, that grossly immoral minority that had the gall to refer to itself as “the moral majority”. To illustrate, here is a sample paragraph:

“Winning” power politics in opposition to public opinion — in opposition to the will of the majority of citizens and voters — isn’t a “culture war.” It’s simply the denial of democracy. The “Christian Right,” in other words, is exploiting the undemocratic features of our politics to impose undemocratic results on everyone else.

Please take the time to read that entire post. It hits hard, and is on target.

July 6, 2022

Marbury vs. Madison was wrongly decided

by Neil Rickert

Back in 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, I had a mixed reaction. On the one hand, I liked the idea that women should be able to make their own choices on abortion. On the other hand, it seemed to me that the court had made a mistake and that this was a serious overreach.

Part of my concern, at that time, was that the states were considering the question. And Roe v. Wade shutdown those normal political processes whereby a people can settle such hard questions. For the main part, the American people came to accept Roe v. Wade, although there was some political objection which seemed mainly religious. But now, in its recent Dobbs v. Jackson decision, the court has thrown out the original Roe v. Wade decision and has once again short circuited normal political processes. This has thrown the nation into turmoil.

I’ll note here, that I am not a lawyer. The USA was established as a system of representative government. The legislators were supposed to be ordinary citizens. It was never intended as a system of rule by lawyers. So ordinary people ought to have a say in government.

Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v. Madison was an historic case. It was not so much the question being resolved that made it historic. It was historic, because it is the case where the Supreme Court in effect claimed the right to be the final decider of what is constitutional. And it is that aspect of the case that I am questioning.

As far as I can see, the constitution does not give the supreme court the authority to decide what is constitutional.

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June 10, 2022

Human nature

by Neil Rickert

I saw this post on an Internet forum. The thread topic was about the war in Ukraine, but this post was not specifically about the war. I thought it a good description of one side of human nature:

I’ve been a commercial lawyer for over 30 years now, and in that time I’ve had a bit of exposure to the vile world of mega wealth and power. What goes on there is complex, revolting and without any degree of humanity. People only make it into that world if they are bereft of kindness and decency. Ultimately, it’s about wealth and privilege and the desire for power. That is a complex and impenetrable web of pulleys and levers.

Sadly, no revolution ever gets rid of that – it just replaces one group of dictators with another group of dictators, pulling the same pulleys and levers.

Incidentally, the author lives in England.

May 29, 2022

American Evangelicals

by Neil Rickert

I grew up in Australia, and I was a member of an evangelical church there. I later moved to USA as a graduate student in mathematics, and I left Christianity after a few months there (at around age 23). I originally saw “evangelical” as a theological term, referring to particular theologies — particularly those that arose from Luther’s reformation. At the time of my youth in Australia, that made sense.

In America, I made similar assumptions about the meaning of “evangelical”. But experience has shown me that this was a mistaken view. It turns out that it makes more sense to think of “evangelical”, at least in the USA, a referring to a political and cultural identity. For example, I often hear the news media distinguishing between “evangelicals” and “mainline protestants”. Yet many of the “mainline protestant” churches would fit my original Australian understanding of “evangelical”.

Are evangelicals Christian?

What I see coming from American evangelicals does not fit the understanding of Christianity that I had in my youth. Yes, they call themselves “Christian”. But what, exactly does that mean? To me, it meant following the teachings of Jesus, such as “love thy neighbor”. And that’s where American evangelicals seem to fall short.

Here’s a post written by Rodney Kennedy, who is apparently a progressive Christian in America:

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May 1, 2022

Nonsense about atheism at The Big Think

by Neil Rickert

A recent post at Uncommon Descent mentioned a topic at Big Think:

The title is perhaps what attracted the UD poster. But the title is already absurd. Why would anyone think that atheism is particularly rational?

For starters, atheism isn’t actually a belief system. It is merely a matter of not being committed to theism. So it doesn’t actually make sense to ask whether atheism is rational.

The post lists the author as Will Gervais in partnership with John Templeton Foundation. A google search suggests that Gervais is a professor of psychology at UKY.

Absurdities

I chose to respond to this because of the absurdities that I noticed. The post begins with a subtitle:

Many atheists think of themselves as intellectually gifted individuals, guiding humanity on the path of reason. Scientific data shows otherwise.

This already seems dubious. The first sentence is undoubtedly true, if only because “many” is an undetermined number. Six people could count as many, and I know at least that many myself who match the description. But scientific data is unlikely to counter this. The scientific data more likely reports a statistical probability, which is not the same as “many”.

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March 14, 2022

What are those things we call “laws of nature”?

by Neil Rickert

There was a recent post at Aeon by philosopher Marc Lang:

I want to discuss that, and to discuss some of my disagreements. My first disagreement, is that I don’t believe there are such things as laws of nature. But there are certainly things that people call “laws of nature”. I’m okay with calling them scientific laws. But I doubt that they come from nature. That is to say, I see these laws as human constructs. I do not see them as something that we can just read from nature itself.

In our science classes, we all learned some examples of what scientists currently believe (or once believed) to be laws of nature. Some of these putative laws are named after famous scientists (such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton). Some are generally called ‘laws’ (such as the laws of motion and gravity), while others are typically called ‘principles’ (such as Archimedes’ principle and Bernoulli’s principle), ‘rules’ (such as Born’s rule and Hund’s rule), ‘axioms’ (such as the axioms of quantum mechanics), or ‘equations’ (such as Maxwell’s equations).

It is interesting to note the expression “what scientists currently believe (or once believed) to be laws of nature” for that already suggests that scientists can change their minds as to what they take to be laws of nature. And this seems to agree with my point that these laws are actually human constructs.

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February 20, 2022

Does science require faith?

by Neil Rickert

There was a recent post at the heterodox stem substack, arguing that science requires faith. My thanks to Jerry Coyne for the reference. Coyne has already expressed his disagreement with that viewpoint. In this post, I’ll add my own disagreement.

In elementary school, after we learned to use fractions we were taught to use 22/7 for the value of \pi. We did not actually use the symbol \pi at that stage. We were not given any reason for using 22/7. We had to trust the teacher for that. This was for doing what we called “mensuration” problems — finding areas and perimeters. So, yes, you could think of that as a kind of faith. A child needs to trust teachers and parents while growing up.

The next year, we learned decimal fractions. And we began to use 3.14 or 3.1416 for \pi. I quickly worked out that this was not the same as 22/7, so by then I understood that these were approximations.

In high school, we studied physics every year. One of our first physics experiments was to find the value of \pi. We were given wooden cylinders, and wrapped a thread around the cylinder as a way of measuring the perimeter. And we directly measured the diameter. At first this seemed strange. I had done enough reading to know that the value of \pi was usually found mathematically (with an infinite series), so the physics experiment seemed bogus. But then I realized the point being made. We did not need to depend on faith. We could find these things out by ourselves. And that’s what is distinctive about science.

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January 25, 2022

A different kind of Christianity

by Neil Rickert

I don’t often post on religion. But this is one of those times. I came across this video via a post at The Skeptical Zone.

The video is a bit long — 2 hours, though the last 30 minutes is commentary. It describes a church in Oklahoma, which is very different from typical evangelical churches. It sees Christianity as all about action — working to make the world a better place — instead of being all about belief.

This is much closer to what I understood to be Christianity from my own reading of the New Testament. And, in all honesty, if I had come across churches like this, I might never have deconverted from Christianity.