Archive for July, 2010

July 30, 2010

The Evolution / Creation wars

by Neil Rickert

In We’re doing it rong (again), Jerry Coyne rejects comments by Everett Hamner on what he (Hamner) sees as the problem, describing them as “an annoying piece ripped straight from the pages of the accommodationist playbook.”  I think the dismissal of Hamner’s views is a mistake.  I don’t doubt that I will also be labeled as “accomodationist” for my comments below.

We need to look at this pragmatically.  To say that the problem is all due to religion, is to say that there is nothing that we can do about it.  We cannot change how religious people act or think.  If we want to do anything about the evolution-creation wars, we need to see whether there are things that we can ourselves change.  Whether or not that is considered “accomodationism” is beside the point.  If we want continued never-ending war, then let’s do nothing about it.  If we want the wars to end, then we have to look toward the kind of changes that we can make, and not place all of the burden of change on religious groups that are based on resistance to change.

What biologists could do, is change the way that evolution is presented to the public.  An explanatory scientific theory serves two purposes.  As a theory, it establishes a framework that guides research in the field.  And as an explanation, it attempts to communicate to the lay public, the kind of thinking and the evidentiary basis that supports the research.

As a scientific theory, as a framework for research, the Theory of Evolution has been very successful.  However, as an explanation, it has been a dismal failure.  You don’t have to look at creationism to see that it has been a failure.  Just ask a non-scientist who is also a non-religious person, about his understanding of evolution.  There’s a good chance that what he describes will turn out to be more like the strawman version coming from creationists, than like the version coming from biologists.

What should we change?

We should stop talking about natural selection and mutation as the driving forces.  They aren’t.  Evolutionists often describe natural selection as a filter, which is appropriate.  The oil filter in my car is a passive element.  It is the oil pump that forces oil through the filter, that is the driving force of the filtration.  Similarly, it is biological reproduction that forces things through the filter of natural selection, so biological reproduction should be more emphasized as a driving force.  Likewise, mutation is often described as copying errors.  But you don’t get copying errors unless there is copying.  Once again, it is biological reproduction that drives the copying that is prerequisite for there being any copying errors.

Biologists, of course, understand that reproduction is a primary agent.  But lay people, listening to discussions of natural selection and mutation, often miss that background assumption.  Evolutionists would be better off saying that biological reproduction is the primary driving force, with natural selection and mutation acting to shape and modify what emerges.

We should stop talking about evolution as fact.  There are many facts, but they are mostly facts of natural history, facts of biology, facts of genetics, facts of biochemistry.  Many of them are known as facts because of the effectiveness of the theory of evolution.  But the theory itself is best considered a framework for research, and not as a fact.  The trouble with saying “evolution is fact” is that saying this drives the impression that evolution is itself a system of dogmas and is little more than a religion.  So keep the idea of evolution as fact to yourselves, and don’t stress it to an audience that has doubts.

We should stop saying that there is more evidence in support of evolution than in support of gravity.  That’s patent nonsense, and is recognized as obvious nonsense by the critics of evolution.  Every time I take a step while walking down the street, I am experiencing forces that are in support of gravity.  The trouble with saying that evolution has more support than gravity, is that it is seen as evidence that evolution is more dogma than science.

Scientists are usually valued more for their research than for their ability to communicate with the public.  And that’s how it should be.  However, when there is controversy and disagreement, scientists need to pay more attention to how they communicate their science to a non-technical audience.

July 28, 2010

Free will and randomness

by Neil Rickert

Free will and randomness

While we are on the “free will” topic, a few more thoughts.

Much of the belief that we don’t have free will stems from a view that the universe operates in a completely deterministic manner, so the future is already decided.  Personally, I have never seen any convincing evidence of determinism.  That the laws of physics are deterministic is not sufficient to conclude determinism.  Some of those laws are only approximate, and they might not be a complete set of laws.

One of the arguments for free will is based on the thesis of compatibilism, the view that free will is compatible with determinism.  It’s a clever argument, but many people do not find it persuasive.

In any case, the current evidence from physics, is against determinism.  Some phenomena, such as radioactive decay, seem to be random.  That shifts the argument over free will from one of whether determinism allows it, to one of whether randomness can account for the appearance of free will.

The skeptical response is that no, randomness does not have what is required.  When we talk of people having free will, we expect that to indicate that can determine their future actions.  That seems to require something like determinism and to be contrary to randomness.  A common comment is that random behavior is not what we mean by “free will.”

That skeptical reaction is, I think, mistaken.  It is true that by “free will” we do not mean random behavior.  However, randomness in the world need not result in random behavior.  If our response to randomness in the world is linear, then our response will be as random as the events that we are responding to.  However, there is the possibility of a non-linear response, perhaps a highly non-linear response.

Take yachting, as an example.  If the wind is blowing in the direction that the yachtsman wants to go, then he just sets his sails and the wind carries him along.  If the wind blows in the opposite direction, then a linear response would he to allow the wind to carry him away from his destination.  But that is not what the yachtsman does.  Instead, he reconfigures his sails for tacking.  He cannot sail directly into the wind, but he can adjust his sails for a direction across the wind and partially into the wind.  Then he switches to going across the wind in the other direction, but still partially into the wind.  This way he sails a zigzag course that takes him, overall, in the direction of his destination.

In electronics, we can use a diode to give a non-linear response to possibly random electrical currents.  In biology, we see semipermeable membranes which can presumably give non-linear responses to random variation in the chemical constituents of the environment.

My suggestion is that randomness could indeed be sufficient to account for our apparent free will.  It’s just that we have non-linear ways of responding to randomness, and we can use those to exploit the available randomness in order to achieve our goals.

July 28, 2010

Free will madness

by Neil Rickert

A few days ago, of his own free will Jerry Coyne blogged about why he thinks that we don’t have free will.  Apparently William Eggington, in yesterday’s New York Times, said “Yes we do.”  Today, apparently of his own free will, Coyne again says “No we don’t.”  And then he comments on how we can use our free will to deal with the problem of not having free will.

It’s a mess.  Discussions of free will always turn out to be messy, generating more heat than light.

The real story, is that people do not agree on what they even mean by “free will.”

Coyne is using Anthony Cashmore’s definition:

I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.

That seems to suggest that free will implies an ability to circumvent physics or causation (or however we should describe it).  That is surely too strong a definition.  Usually, free will is associated with moral responsibility for one’s actions.  That does not seem to demand any violation of causation.

Science requires that the experimenter be able to vary conditions at will in his experiments.  Accordingly, I like to define free will as “the ability to make the kind of independent decisions that are required to do science.”  Fewer people will deny that kind of free will.

July 28, 2010

Fundie Math

by Neil Rickert

For a brief diversion, take a look at Jason’s post on fundamentalist mathematics.  (Hey, this is a blog, so I can take diversions.  Besides, nobody is reading this blog anyway).

I have long been concerned that home schooled children were getting a poor education.  If this is an example of how they teach mathematics, then the concerns are justified.

Somehow I am reminded of the saying “Those who cannot teach, teach teachers.”  Here we seem to have somebody with a very poor understanding of mathematics who is teaching home schooling parents on how to teach.

Incidentally, Jason commentary is about right.  But then Jason is a mathematician, so that is no surprise.

July 23, 2010

Evolutionary epistemology (0) – an introduction

by Neil Rickert

In a previous post I suggested that traditional epistemology, as studied within philosophy, has developed in a framework based on a creationist or intelligent design way of thinking.  Today, I want to look at what might be a way to look at knowledge from an evolutionary perspective.

It’s important to be clear, here, that I am not concerned with the question of whether knowledge evolves.  Everyone agrees that there has been a growth in knowledge, and that some old ideas (geocentrism, for example) have been discarded.  So there isn’t any important disagreement over whether our knowledge evolves.

The difference being discussed is between the ideas about knowledge that come from a creationist way of looking at things, and those that come from an evolutionist way of looking at things.

The word knowledge itself is one of those confusing words where we are not quite sure what it means.  But we need not allow that to be too great a concern.  In practice, epistemology is concerned with the question of being able to make true statements about the world.  That is, epistemology has to do with having facts, and with what is involved in having facts.

According to the creationist perspective, God created the world based on his own principles.  And those principles are the basis for having facts.  So the creationist perspective is that there are lots of facts just laying around and waiting to be picked up.  The cognitive agent picks up these facts, and then tries to induce the creators principles, based on patterns that can be discerned from within the facts that are picked up.

From an evolutionist perspective, there is no reason that there should be any facts at all.  The world exists in its current form, due to the way that elementary parts of matter aggregated, and due to the more stable aggregations being persistent.  Thus there are no design principles, there are no laws of nature, and there are no facts that are just laying around.  Under the evolutionist’s perspective, if a cognitive agent wants to have facts about the world, then he must first invent ways of having facts (of being able to represent the world).

To illustrate this, consider a statement which we might think of as if it were a putative fact:

At 1 pm, next Wednesday, I shall take a bus trip from Illinois to Wisconsin.

We are able to express this putative fact, only on account of human conventions.  Firstly, there are the naming conventions.  We know that the words used are conventional, because other people might use French or German or Chinese words instead of the English words used here.  But the naming conventions are only part of the story.  Both Illinois and Wisconsin represent parts of the north American continent that result from political conventions in how to divide that continent into individual states.  The use of Wednesday is an implicit reference to our conventional grouping of the days into weeks, where a week is a group of seven consecutive days.  At this time of the year, 1 pm refers to a time expressed in daylight savings time, and that itself is a conventional standard for time.  Even the word bus references our conventional partitioning of kinds of transportation devices into cars, vans, truck, buses, etc.

From a creationist perspective, the problem of knowledge is one of picking up facts that just happen to be laying around, and then searching for patterns within those facts.  From an evolutionist perspective, the problem of knowledge is one of establishing useful conventions such as would make it possible to have facts in the first place.  These are two very different ways of looking at the knowledge problem.

July 20, 2010

Epistemology and Intelligent Design

by Neil Rickert

Epistemology (the theory of knowledge) is a traditional part of philosophy.  Typically, it defines knowledge as beliefs, most commonly as justified true belief.  Scientific epistemology is an important part of epistemology.

I want to suggest that epistemology seems to have some of its roots in creationist thinking, particularly the kind of thinking that we see in the intelligent design movement.  There is a tendency to think of the universe as if it were designed, and to think of scientific laws as if they were part of the blueprint on which the universe was built.  Thus scientific laws are sometimes called “laws of nature” or “natural law”, suggesting that they are part of nature.  Any suggestion that scientific laws might be human constructs is met with skepticism, and sometimes with derision.

It is often said that we come by our laws by induction.  We supposedly notice apparent patterns in our observations of reality, and we conclude that these must be instances of a general pattern or a natural law.  This is described as pattern induction.  The validity of induction, as a means to gaining knowledge, has often been questioned, most famously by philosopher David Hume.  Yet people keep returning to induction as the only plausible method by which we could hope to discover the natural laws that are the base on which our universe is said to operate.  This conflict between skeptical arguments against induction, and the need for induction to account for laws of nature, is known as the problem of induction.

There are other problems with traditional epistemology.  One of those is the Gettier problem of finding an adequate characterization of when a belief is justified.  And then there are problems with the term “belief” itself, which is not easily defined.

My suggestion is that most of the problems of epistemology are due to its basis in an intelligent design way of thinking about the world.  This suggests that there ought to be a more evolutionary way of thinking about knowledge.  But that will require a different idea as to what constitutes knowledge.  Traditional epistemology tends to think of knowledge as facts.  It won’t do to say that facts evolve – that suggestion is what leads to skepticism and some derision.  An evolutionary epistemology will require a different idea as to what constitutes knowledge.

I plan to discuss some evolutionary approaches to epistemology in one or more future posts.

July 19, 2010

Introducing myself.

by Neil Rickert

I am new to blogging, so I’m not sure how this will go.

I expect to blog on a variety of topics.  However, quite a few of them will be related to the issue of the human mind (cognitive science, philosophy of mind, Artificial Intelligence, etc).  I have approached this topic from the perspective of “how could the mind have arisen as a product of evolution?”, whereas it seems to me that most work on the mind has a more creationist (“How would I go about designing a mind?”) way of looking at things.

I am a mathematician and a semi-retired professor of computer science.  Presumably that background has influenced my perspective.