Archive for March, 2011

March 28, 2011

On materialism and meaninglessness

by Neil Rickert

Over at the Discovery Institute’s “Evolution News and Views” blog, David Klinghoffer has a post titled “What Intelligent Design Offers to Agnostics.”  He is, of course, referring to the tribune post with a similar title.  He spends some time talking about materialism.  For example, he says:

Materialism corrodes the confidence we might otherwise have that any search for meaning that we undertake is not necessarily in vain. Intelligent design offers the hope, by the refutation of materialist science, that “something is out there,” whatever it might be, capable of granting genuine purpose to our existence.

We often hear this kind of criticism coming from ID proponents and from creationists.  Yet I cannot find any basis for it.  Many of the people whom Klinghoffer would consider to be materialists, self included, live very meaningful lives and are not at all filled with the kind of despair that Klinghoffer describes.

Where do Klinghoffer and other ID proponents and creationists get these ideas?  Perhaps they have no good arguments, and they are trying this for want of a better argument.  Then funny thing is that our experience of designed things, whether they be puppets, mechanical toys or robots, is an experience of things that are mindless and have no meaning.  Based on the evidence, it ought to be ID that leads to meaninglessness and nihilism.

March 28, 2011

Is ID agnostic?

by Neil Rickert

There’s a recent column at the Chicago Tribune site, with the title “Creationism is biblical, Intelligent Design is agnostic.”  I find the claim puzzling.  And the argument (if it can even be called an argument) is even more puzzling.

As part of his column, James Kirk Wall writes:

If there is supernatural intelligence, then natural science is simply a study of what was already intelligently designed, and what was intelligently designed is what we now call “natural.”

Perhaps I am misunderstanding him.  But it sure seems that he is saying that an agnostic can believe in a supernatural designer, as long as he refers to that supernatural entity as “the intelligent designer” instead of using the name “god.”  That is surely a very unusual version of agnosticism.

In his column, Wall asks “Is all of life due to random and blind natural means, or is there something supernatural involved?”  Where does Wall get his ideas?  I don’t know of any evolutionary biologist who says that all of life is due to random and blind natural means.  Creationists allege that, but why would somebody claiming to be an agnostic listen to theists and ignore what evolutionists have to say?

March 23, 2011

A discussion of CSI

by Neil Rickert

There’s an interesting discussion of Complex Specified Information going on at the Uncommon Descent site.  MathGrrl, a skeptic of ID, had started the discussion in an earlier thread and in a thread at Mark Frank’s blog.  And now the UD staff have invited MathGrrl to author a guest post.  The thread, and subsequent discussion, is an attempt to come up with an actually usable definition of CSI.

My own view is that CSI is pretty much vaporware – something with a name, but which cannot be pinned down.  (Vaporware is a computer jargon term for announced software that does not exist.)  Thus far, I see the discussion of CSI as consistent with my view.  But it is an interesting discussion.  I suggest that you read it for yourself and form your own judgment.

March 23, 2011

PKI is broken

by Neil Rickert

Today, there was yet another reminder that there are problems with our current PKI system.


For those not sure what I am talking about, “PKI” stands for “Public Key Infrastructure.”  It is a term used to refer to the system of X.509 certificates, often called “security certificates” such as are used for web browsing and other functions.

The way it works, the “secure” web site uses encryption, and presents a certificate that is supposed to guarantee the authenticity of the site.  A client, such as you when you are browsing, checks the validity of the certificate by verifying the signature that certifies the certificate.  But, in order for that to work, you have to trust the signer of the certificate.

What has happened, in the recent event, is that supposedly trustworthy certifier Commodo has signed (perhaps been tricked into signing) some certificates that were created with fraudulent intent.  So Mozilla has seen fit to work around this problem by releasing a new firefox version that specifically blacklists those fraudulent certificates.

The problem with PKI

The current PKI system is based on a hierarchical trust model.  At my place of employment, a hierarchical model works well.  I trust the top management.  The top management delegates some trusted functions to lower level management.  So if I see trust assigned properly by lower level management, I know that it was implicitly approved by top management.

The real world doesn’t work that way.  There are no top authorities from whom trust can flow.  But PKI assumes that there are, and in order for the web to work with current protocols, we pretty much agree to trust those at the top who have appointed themselves as trustworthy.

To see how the real world works, we need to get out of the computing world.  We often need to document the validity of transactions such as applications for wedding licenses, loan applications, drivers license applications, etc.  We document their validity by having them signed by several witnesses.  Sometime, these witnesses are public notaries, though that is not always required.  The “web of trust” used by PGP encryption is far closer to how we handle these trust questions in ordinary non-digital life.

An example

You buy something online at, and pay for it with your VISA card.  The site use the current PKI security.  It turns out that you were ripped off by that site.  So you complain to the CA (certification authority) that signed their certificate.  But that CA tells you “tough; we only guarantee that the site really is  We don’t guarantee that they are honest.”

That’s how it currently works.  Here’s how it should work.  Your bank provides you with your VISA card, and it also provides you with an electronic version of your VISA card.  The electronic VISA card is a certificate, signed by your bank or by VISA international.  When you go to purchase online, you use your electronic VISA card.  You sign the transaction, using the public/private key pair provided with the electonic VISA (which makes forging an electronic card rather difficult).  And you check that the merchant’s security certificate is also signed by VISA international.  This checking would be done automatically by the software.  Now, if you are ripped off, you go to your bank.  They have certified the web site as trusted to accept VISA transactions.  You have a trust relation with your bank, and the bank makes sure that you are not ripped off.

We cannot do that with the current PKI.  For it would require that a web site have its certificate signed by VISA, by Discover Card, by American Express, by Master Card, and by similar groups.  The current PKI system allows for only a single signature on a certificate (unlike the PGP encryption system, which allows multiple signers).

The current system does a reasonably good job of preventing “Man in the Middle” attacks.  But we should expect more than that from an internet security system.

March 17, 2011

OpenSuSE 11.4 – review

by Neil Rickert

I’ve been busy over the last few days.  Or at least that’s my excuse for not posting anything here.  The new version of openSuSE came out last week, and I have been busy installing it on three systems, and configuring it.  I first installed on an older (circa 2004) computer for testing.  Once I had determined that it was reliable enough, I installed on my newer laptop, then on my desktop.

My overall impressions are good.  For sure, there are some bugs – there always are.  I was previously using version 11.3, which had its share of bugs too.

read more »

March 10, 2011

Illinois politics – the death penalty

by Neil Rickert

Congratulations to governor Quinn, for signing the legislation that ends the death penalty in Illinois.

Quinn says that he struggled with the issue.  I, too, have struggled with it.  In a case such as that of  John Gacy, it is hard to find any reason not to support capital punishment.  However, it was the Jeanine Nicarico case that changed my mind.  It’s a sad case of sexual assault and murder of a child.  Rolando Cruz was convicted of murder three times in this case.  Yet, on the basis of information available to the public (I was following the radio reports of the investigation), it was already clear by the time of the first Cruz trial that he was probably innocent.  This was a horrible miscarriage of justice.

Supporters of the death penalty are arguing that, with the use of DNA evidence, there is less risk of a recurrence of such a case.  But the problem in the wrongful conviction of Cruz was not one of evidence.  The problem then, was that we had a broken justice system.  It was a system where it seemed that the main goal was to get a conviction, and truth was of secondary importance.

As best I can tell, our justice system is still based on the wrong motivations.  Perhaps that’s due to a failure of human psychology.  With a broken justice system, there will be wrongful convictions.  We cannot afford to have capital punishment is a system that can so easily result in convictions of innocent people.

March 9, 2011

On information

by Neil Rickert

I am writing this partly to call your attention to a recent post by John Wilkins, “Descartes before the horse – does information exist? I largely agree with John’s view of information, but while I’m about it, I’ll add a few comments of my own.

I have come to my current view of information at least in part, because of my investigations of human cognition.  I struggled with the concept, and I have changed my view during that struggle.  My early inclination was to think of information as “that which informs.”  And that led me to a semantic view that was a bit closer to Dretske’s view than to those of Shannon.  However, as I continued my studies, I eventually came to a recognition of the value of the Shannon approach.

That I have changed my view of how to think of information, ought to hint that there is some ambiguity out there, and that people use the word “information” to mean different things.

I see a tree shaking in the wind.  I turn, and say to you “I see a tree shaking in the wind.”  What I said to you is information.  However, what I saw is not information.  The ideas in my mind that resulted from my seeing it were also information (mental information).  But the physical activity that I was looking at was not itself information.

I think that’s one of the places where people disagree.  For some people, what I was looking at would count as information.  Some AI researchers seem to take that view.  The trouble with that view, is that it leads to thinking of perception as passive.  The idea that perception is passive actually seems to be a common one, but it leads to the silliness of Berkeley’s idealism.  For myself, I see perception as an active process, and I see information the product of intentional agents acting to produce an abstraction that represents something they wish to use as an idea.

March 6, 2011

The trouble with epistemology

by Neil Rickert

My view of epistemology is probably colored by the fact that I am a mathematician.  We mathematicians seem to think differently about such things.  For example, nothing could be clearer to a mathematician, than that it is possible to know the axiom of choice, yet at the same time to not believe it.  Thus mathematicians are likely to see something wrong in the “knowledge is justified true belief” that philosophers often assume.

If we go by what the epistemology literature tells us, we might conclude that “truth” is the name of an immaterial magical substance that permeates the universe and that people search for.  We might conclude that the universe is filled with immaterial objects known as propositions.  We might also conclude that perception is a magical system for picking up such propositions, and that it has a builtin magical filter that allows it to mainly pick up true propositions.

Well, okay, that was a bit overstated.  The main point is that epistemology gives a very artificial account.  It comes across as an account of what would constitute knowledge for an ideal rational agent living in an imaginary Platonic universe.  Knowledge is defined in terms true beliefs, but “true” and “belief” are never really defined.  So we are left with true beliefs as something like abstract objects.  This leaves epistemology as a kind of logical calculus of abstract objects, so it has something of the appearance of mathematical Platonism.  Because the knowledge is in terms of abstract objects, it does not relate to reality.  But never mind — the epistemologist comes up with a property of intentionality which is supposed to provide that otherwise missing connection.  But intentionality is left as unexplained, so either mysterious or magical.

By contrast, when I look at science, the scientists are very concerned with connecting their scientific statements with reality.  Epistemology has a problem with intentionality, and that problem carries over to scientific epistemology (the philosophy of science).  But science itself does not seem to have that intentionality problem, for it carefully defines its terms in ways that connects it to reality.  It should be obvious from this description, that I see a serious mismatch between scientific epistemology and the science that it is supposed to explain.

The real problem of knowledge is expressed in the question “How is it possible to have knowledge at all?”  This can be further elaborated as “How is it possible for a sequence of letters to say something about reality?” and “How is observation even possible?”  In short, the real problem of knowledge is the problem of intentionality.  That is the problem that drives science.  Epistemology massively avoids dealing with that problem.