Archive for November, 2010

November 30, 2010

Jury duty

by Neil Rickert

I originally posted this elsewhere, on Oct. 18th, where it was intended for family interest.  However, I keep seeing instances where officials are failing to use ordinary common sense.  So I am posting this here to illustrate the problem.

I was called for jury duty (for the county courts), and today was when I was required to show up.

Often what happens, is that you sit around for half a day waiting to be selected for a Jury, and then you are allowed to go home.  Either the parties to the law suit reach a last minute settlement so the trial is not held.  Or you are in a jury pool but not actually selected for a jury.

As it happens, today I was actually selected for a jury.  For a while, it looked as if I would not have to serve.  But the attorneys challenged several of the earlier jury choices, and I was selected as a replacement.

The actual court case was a puzzle.  I don’t mean that it was hard to understand.  Rather, I am puzzled that this was ever a court case.  It involved two charges of “domestic battery” against a woman, resulting from an altercation between she and her husband.  During that altercation,  she had apparently thrown an aluminum frying pan and that had caused injury to the husband, though the husband did not seek medical treatment for the injury.

In the jury room, after we had heard the evidence, there appeared to be a strong consensus that it would have been better if this case had never been brought to trial.  On an initial straw vote, there were 6 votes for conviction and 6 for acquittal.  After some discussion, we unanimously voted not guilty on both charges.  I suspect that the initial votes for conviction were because she had caused an injury.  The jury discussion centered on whether the prosecution had proved beyond a reasonable doubt, that the injury was not accidental with her throwing the pan only out of frustration.

The puzzle, for me, is why the prosecutors brought this case.  There are serious domestic abuse cases, but this was not one of them.  Surely, the prosecutors could have used some discretion, and suggested anger control counseling as a better alternative to holding a trial.  That’s your taxpayer dollars at work.

November 24, 2010


by Neil Rickert

The idea for this post started when I read “Stephen Hawking’s Radical Philosophy of Science“, a post by Michael Shermer over at the Big Questions Online site.  But my thoughts soon drifted, so this post actually says as much about my own ideas of reality as it does of the ideas expressed in the Shermer post.

People reading my posts here and the things that I say elsewhere, sometimes conclude that I have weird ideas, and they wonder whether I think that the world is a creation of the human mind.  However, my position on realism, on what is the nature of the world, is actually quite close to that of naive realism.  When I look at that smooth surface of my desk, I understand that it isn’t really as smooth as it looks, so I can’t say that the world is exactly as it looks to us.  But the way it looks to us is a pretty good approximation.  So if I seem to have weird ideas, that’s for a different reason.  It is because when I see what people say and write, I can see that they are making unstated assumptions, often assumptions that they are not aware of.  So I have been looking at those unstated assumptions, and questioning them.  It seems to me that questioning unstated assumptions is something that philosophy should be doing.  Too often, philosophy seems to be failing us in that regard.

Returning briefly to the cited post, we see Shermer saying:

None of us can ever be completely sure that the world really is as it appears, or if our minds have unconsciously imposed a misleading pattern on the data. I call this belief-dependent realism.

And that’s an example of where my own realism disagrees with Shermer.  For sure, there is much in our world that is socially constructed.  Our monetary system is a social construct.  Our highway system is a social construct.  That the week is 7 days results from a social construct.  There is much that we do in our ordinary lives that is shaped by social constructs.  But, beneath all of that, there is an underlying reality that is not dependent on our beliefs.  The main point of Shermer’s post is to criticize the model dependent realism of Stephen Hawking.

November 21, 2010

The Dembski – Hitchens debate

by Neil Rickert

The videos for the recent Dembski – Hitchens debate are up.  As I compose this post, I am listening to the second of three videos.

My assessment, thus far, is that Christopher Hitchens is presenting a powerful argument.  I found William Dembski’s presentation a little disappointing, as it sounded too much like some of the apologetics arguments that I have previously heard.  Still, Dembski did make a creditable presentation of his position.

I won’t declare winners – I haven’t finished listening yet.  But I think it is up to each listener to judge that.  I will say that it is a quality debate, with both debaters giving clear and well stated presentations of their positions, and with the organizers doing an excellent job of arranging the event.

I do recommend it as worth spending the time to listen.  The three parts are 45 min, 42 min and 49 min.

November 21, 2010

The camera analogy – an index

by Neil Rickert

THis is a brief note to provide links to the four parts of my series using the camera analogy.

The camera analogy(1) – introduction

The camera analogy(2) – acquiring knowledge (learning)

The camera analogy(3) – constructing knowledge

The camera analogy(4) – conclusion

November 20, 2010

The camera analogy(4) – conclusion

by Neil Rickert

I have used the analogy with a camera to illustrate that forming representations of the world (descriptions, facts, etc) makes use of an apparatus.  In terms of the analogy, the camera is the apparatus and the photographs are the representations.  With us, the representations are the statements that we are able to make about the world, such as are often referred to as beliefs or propositions or facts.  And for us the apparatus includes our sensory system, and the various learned behaviors that we follow in order to make the most of that sensory system.  I have suggested that the apparatus includes parts of our scientific theories, particularly those parts that are really definitions that connect the data to the world.

People often talk of a correspondence theory of truth.  That suggests some sort of way that our representations correspond to reality.  The apparatus that we use to form our representations is then what actually establishes that correspondence.  Since the apparatus is what connects our representations to reality, then it is also involved in meaning and intentionality.

I have suggested that part of our learning is perceptual learning, the fine tuning or enhancing of the apparatus that we use to form representations.  And I have suggested that part of science is in the construction of enhanced and improved ways of forming representations.  When our learning involves enhancing that apparatus, we are not acquiring beliefs.  Rather, we are acquiring meaning and we are acquiring an enhanced ability to form true beliefs when needed, the ability to pick up “just in time facts”.

We can compare the implications of a fixed apparatus with those of a variable apparatus.

A fixed apparatus

If the apparatus by which we form beliefs is fixed, as many seem to believe, then the only knowledge that we can have of the world is knowledge in the form of beliefs or representations.  As Berkeley argued, one conclusion is there might not be a reality.  The apparatus might just be a matter of representations being piped in from God.  Moreover, with a fixed apparatus, even if idealism is false and there is a reality, our knowledge of reality is limited to what that fixed apparatus can provide.  However, logic should be a sufficient tool to explore that limited knowledge.

A variable (learnable) apparatus

If the apparatus is variable, and if part of learning involves changing the apparatus, then our knowledge of reality can consist of both the representations we form of reality, and the methods that we follow in order to form such representations.  This makes idealism far less plausible.  Moreover, we are not nearly as limited in our potential knowledge of reality.  If there are aspects of reality that we are unable to represent today, perhaps we will find ways to represent them tomorrow.

My own view is that much of the advance of knowledge over the last few centuries, has depended heavily on our enhancing the apparatus with which we form representations.  However, we can no longer be sure that logic is itself a sufficient tool for exploring that knowledge, for with a change of apparatus comes a change of the relationships between our representations and reality, and logic does not easily account for such a change.  We see these changes in the paradigm shifts that Kuhn discussed in his monograph “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”


When I started this blog, I suggested that there is a tendency for people to look at the world based on design assumptions.  The idea that we have a fixed way of forming beliefs about the world is one of those commonly held views that seems to implicitly assume some sort of design.  The alternative is to abandon design assumptions, and think of us as having an evolving relation with the world.  Our ability to change the ways in which we form representations of the world, to change the apparatus by which we form representations, is our ability to adapt to change, the ability for our civilizations to evolve and for our knowledge to evolve.

November 16, 2010

ID Insanity

by Neil Rickert

There’s a truly amazing post over at Uncommon Descent, amazing for its level of insanity.  The post is by vjtorley.

Note to accommodationists.  What you are accommodating is a suicidal pact for the human race.

The post starts off by praising the Earth as a wonderful place.  I can’t argue with that, for it is the only place we have.  But then comes the madness:

Someone who believes (as many Intelligent Design proponents do) that the Author of Nature is a supremely good Personal Being will also believe that this Being intended humans to know and love their Maker.  In other words, Intelligent Design proponents would tend to expect that the world we live in is a well-designed, resilient planet, where we don’t need to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about environmental crises.

Apparently, we need not be concerned about our planet, because God made it resilient enough to handle our abuse.  And just in case you think you might have misunderstood:

A God who made the world in such a way that the only creatures who were capable of knowing Him didn’t even have time to think about Him because they were too busy making sure that their activities didn’t destroy His fragile world, would be a pretty inept God.

There vjtorley makes it doubly clear, in case you doubted what he said in that first quoted segment.

He does not like theistic scientists who argue that God would have designed a world where species evolved without divine intervention.  But he does believe that God would have designed with world to withstand the environmental damage that humans might cause:

As an aside, I find it very curious that when discussing the question of origins, opponents of Intelligent Design insist that the world, if it had a Designer, should have been designed so as to be capable of generating new life-forms, from microbe to man, without the need for continual intervention by God. Yet these same people also argue that the world is too fragile to withstand the impact of seven billion human beings enjoying an affluent lifestyle, all by itself! My intuitions are precisely the other way round: it seems obvious to me that designing a world that can withstand the impact of seven billion people raising the atmospheric concentration of CO2 from its “natural” level of 0.03% to a level of 0.08% by the year 2100 should be a far easier engineering task than designing a world which is capable of generating ten million species of living things, including Homo sapiens, all by itself, from nothing more than a bunch of simple organic chemicals!

So what does vjtorley think about the global warming issue:

If our government tells us that there is an urgent environmental crisis that we need to fight, which imperils the very future of humanity itself, and that it will require a great deal of time, money and effort to combat this crisis, our first reaction should be one of deep suspicionWe’re probably being conned. After all, we know beyond reasonable doubt that there is a God, and God wouldn’t make the world like that.

Please read the entire post.  There is far more madness than what I have quoted here.

November 13, 2010

The camera analogy(3) – constructing knowledge

by Neil Rickert

There are some theories of knowledge that are variously known as constructionism or constructivism.  The proponents of these theories claim that knowledge is constructed.  For an introduction to some of these theories, I suggest Sociology of scientific knowledge and The Edinburgh “Strong Programme”.

In this post, I shall use the camera analogy to examine what is at issue.  The main issue that has been raised is the question of whether constructionist ideas are proposing that reality itself is constructed, which might make constructionism look similar to Berkeley’s idealism.  Some of the literature on social constructionism does use expressions such as “the social construction of reality,” which seem to suggest that reality is a construct.  Many people, including many scientists, reject such an idea as obviously wrong.

My own views of knowledge can be said to be constructionist.  However, I do not suggest that reality itself is a social construct, nor do I suggest anything similar to Berkeley’s idealism.

Using the camera analogy, we think of the camera as taking photographs and we think of those photographs as representations of the world, as something analogous to beliefs or propositions.  The camera itself is the apparatus that we use to form those representations.

If we want to consider the idea of knowledge as constructed, then we need to ask “What is it that is constructed?”  In terms of the camera analogy, we could be talking about construction of the camera, or we could be talking about construction of the photographs.  If we are talking of construction of the photographs, we can perhaps think of something like the Walt Disney studios, with artists generating the cartoon photos that we have seen in animated films.  And if that is what constructionism proposes, then it does indeed lead to concern that constructionists are suggesting that reality itself is a social construct.

If, however, we are talking about construction of the camera (or apparatus), there seems to be far less reason for concern.  It is a fact of life that cameras are human inventions.  Yet, nevertheless, those cameras seem to be able to form accurate representations of reality.  So there should be no great concern about a constructionism that is concerned only with construction of the apparatus used to form representations, and not with constructing the actual representations themselves.

The idea of construction of the apparatus is consistent with the view of learning that I discussed in the previous post in this series.  The suggestion there was that an important part of learning amounts to a kind of perceptual learning, an increase in the amount of detail in the world that we are able to express.  A constructionism of this form is a construction of the ability to access that additional detail, and a construction of language, perhaps scientific technical language, such as is required to express this increase in the detail about the world.  In science we see this with the construction of new equipment (telescopes, microscopes, various kinds of sensors), and with the new technical terminology that accompanies these instruments.

November 13, 2010

Battle of the straw men

by Neil Rickert

Over at biologos, Karl Giberson has just posted the last part of his series against alleged strawman criticisms of religion.  He begins with:

The final straw man I want to torch in this series is the claim that science uses evidence and religion uses faith, with evidence being defined as “good reasons to think something is true,” and faith being defined as “the willingness to accept truth claims with nothing to support them.”

So, there he is, using strawman definitions of “evidence” and “faith”.  Whatever happened to the idea of evidence being facts?

If you feel like a little morning amusement, wander over to biologos and take a peek.

And a question for Karl:  whatever happened to part 5 of your series?  I don’t recall seeing it, and it is not listed among the related links of your newest post.

November 10, 2010

Uncommon Dissent

by Neil Rickert

This is a brief post to draw people’s attention to Uncommon Descent Dissent (or “UDD for short), a new blog that is focused on discussing some of the issues raised at Uncommon Descent.

November 6, 2010

The camera analogy(2) – acquiring knowledge (learning)

by Neil Rickert

This continues the series that I began with “The camera analogy(1) – introduction“.  In this post, I wish to use the analogy to discuss the question of knowledge, and how we acquire it.

Typical discussions of knowledge acquisition and philosophy of science take for granted that there are many facts that we can readily pick up by observation.  They concentrate on the question of how we acquire more facts that are not so easy to find.  Let’s refer to those not-so-easy facts as “enhanced facts.”  These enhanced facts are often said to be derived by inductive inference from the easier facts, as in “All the many crows I have seen are black; therefore all crows are black.”  There is also a long history of skepticism with regard to the use of induction, though I won’t be discussing that here.  The behaviorists from psychology often describe learning in terms of conditioning.  And since conditioning is said to result from repetition and reinforcement, that is similar to the use of induction.

Using our camera analogy, the easy to find facts are like the photographs that we take with our camera.  Inductive inference is then about the same as taking a large collection of photographs, and searching them to try to find patterns that are common to many of the pictures.  Any patterns found could be said to be found by pattern induction, and would be counted as enhanced facts.