Archive for August, 2011

August 30, 2011

The repos: the linux secret weapon

by Neil Rickert

I considered titling this “It’s the repos, stupid,” but I wanted to get “linux” into the title.

We recently purchased a new computer for a family member who uses Windows.  And it reminded me of why Windows has so many more security problems than linux.

We unpacked the computer.  Then it was plugged in and the setup program was run.  It created a user account, prompting for an account name.  This account was automatically given administrative privileges.  There was no prompt for setting up a limited user account.  Admittedly, UAC (User Access Control) is in effect, but that is still less safe than using a non-administrative account.  There was no prompt for a password.  The setup program just assumed that login without password would be used.

After it was all setup, the Windows automatic updater kicked in.  There were periodic messages that the updates would be installed at 3am.  After a few days, the important updates seem to have all been installed.

This morning, I did a check.  The computer was running an insecure version of the Adobe Acrobat reader, and was running an insecure version of flash.  There had been no attempt to update those.

That’s the difference that the repos (software repositories) make for linux.  If this had been a linux system that handles software updates, then flash and acroread (if installed) would have been updated by now.  And, of course, with a linux system the user would have been setup as an ordinary (non-root) user and with a password.

That’s the security difference right there.  A naive Windows user, not aware of current security problems, would have been left with an insecure setup that had insecure versions of important software (flash and Acrobat reader).  By contrast, on linux a naive user would have a more secure setup with all software updated to versions that fix known security holes.  An important part of the difference is that linux software is installed from the repos, so that there is a single place to check for updates.

Incidentally, on my dual boot systems it has seem that when I reboot to Windows the main program that I use is Adobe update.  There has been a never ending stream of updates to flash.  On linux, the flash updates come through without any special effort on my part.  And when I notice them, I know it is time to reboot to windows and run Adobe update once again.

August 28, 2011

ID debunked, by an ID proponent

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post at the Uncommon Descent blog, Eric Holloway has given a clear explanation of why ID is not science.  That may not be what Eric was intending to explain, but he succeeded whether or not it was his intention.

Eric uses the Aristotlean notions of “efficient cause” and “final cause”, with efficient causes being used in answers to the “how” question and final causes being used in answers to the “why” question.  And Eric is clear on putting ID explanations in the final cause category.

Now, to relate these concepts back to the interplay between materialism and ID, materialism implies that all events only have efficient causal explanations, and any perceived final causal explanations can be reduced to efficient causal explanations.

I’m not sure what is this “materialism” that Eric speaks of.  If materialism says that, then its a good reason to not be a materialist.  Science seeks causal explanations.  But most scientists do not deny that there can also be final cause explanations.  It is just that the final cause explanation is not science.

Let’s suppose that I want to build a house.  I hire architects to design it, and a construction firm to build it.  The way that all of the parts are put together to assemble the house constitutes the efficient cause explanation.  My intention and the insight of the architect are part of the final cause explanation.  Now if somebody else wants to build a house, then the efficient cause explanation can be very useful.  The final cause explanation might make interesting history, but it isn’t of much use to those who want to build houses, because it only answers the “why” question and fails to address the “how” question.

The main issue of ID has always been on whether ID is science.  Critics of ID fully understand that people ask the “why” question, and wonder about questions of origins.  But it is the “how” question that matters to science.  The primary objection to ID has always been an objection to attempts to force the teaching of ID into the science classroom.

A recent cartoon illustrates that the “why” question is not one of concern for science.

August 21, 2011

On truth (4): Truth and language

by Neil Rickert

In the previous post in this series, I suggested that we don’t need a concept of truth for representations that we ourselves form.  Somebody living alone as a hermit would not need to be concerned about truth.  Any method of forming a useful representation will be based on some correspondence between reality and the representation so formed.  And as long as we interpret a representation using the same correspondence, we will be fine.  That consistency between forming the representation and interpreting that representation breaks down as soon as we start to use a public language.

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August 21, 2011

On truth (3): Does truth matter?

by Neil Rickert

To answer my title question, of course truth matters.  But how and why does it matter?  That’s what I want to examine.

In the previous post in this series, I already discussed photographs.  As mentioned there, we do not question the truth of a photograph that we take ourselves.  We might, however, question the truth of one that somebody gives us.  The difference is that when we take the photograph ourselves, we know that the expected correspondence between reality and photographic representation was followed by virtue of us taking the photograph in the normal way and not doctoring the image.

What this suggests, is that truth is not needed by a solitary agent who is forming his own representations.  This, roughly speaking, is why perception seems so reliable.  Your pet cat or dog probably does not need to be concerned about truth.  That is to say, truth is needed mainly for social discourse.

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August 15, 2011

The improbability of ID

by Neil Rickert

ID proponents are frequently appealing to probabilistic arguments as evidence for their ID claims.  Unfortunately, most of the presented arguments are wrong.  There’s a particularly egregious example posted today at the Uncommon Descent blog.  The author of that post, JonathanM, apparently managed to get into a debate with Massimo Pigliucci.  He quotes Pigliucci as saying:

No evolutionary biologist I know…actually attaches probabilities to specific evolutionary events of the type you are talking about. There is no way to do that.

JonathanM then goes on to cite places where evolutionists have used probabilistic reasoning.  Apparently, JonathanM has no understanding of the difference between probabilities of specific events, and the use of probabilities over populations.

Here’s an illustration of the problem.  If I shuffle a deck of cards, and then deal out a bridge hand, I will have produced a highly improbable event.  If you were to list a particular hand before I had shuffled and dealt the card, then the probability calculation would show that the hand you listed was very unlikely.  If I had then dealt that actual hand, you would have reason to question whether I had been cheating.  However, once a hand has already been dealt, it makes no sense to compute the probability for that hand.  It does not tell us anything useful.

If you really wanted to look at a few hands that I had dealt, to find evidence of cheating, there is a way to do that.  You would need an alternative explanation as to how those hands were dealt.  And then you could calculate the conditional probability:  given that this hand was dealt, what is the conditional probability that it was dealt by method X (say, standard shuffling) rather than by method Y (your alternative).

It isn’t the direct probability of the hand that matters, it is that conditional probability.  And we can only use that method if we have sufficient data to realistically estimate the condition probability.

Unfortunately, the ID proponents don’t seem to understand this.  They do not use conditional probabilities in their arguments.  Perhaps this is because an estimate based on conditional probabilities would show that natural causes are far more probable than supernatural causes.

It is not just JonathanM who is confused about this.  His blog post has been made into a “sticky” and thus highlighted on the Uncommon Descent blog.  So whoever makes the decisions about such highlighting is presumably just as confused.

After citing his examples of statistics applied to population genetics, JonathanM comments “To this, I received no response.”  That, I can understand.  By this time, Pigliucci must have recognized that Jonathan was driven by ideology, and unwilling to learn anything.

August 14, 2011

On truth (2): Correspondence

by Neil Rickert

Consider a photograph.  It consists of colored marks on paper that, in some sense, represent features of that part of the world where the photo was taken.  If I have just taken that photo with my camera, I do not ask “Is it true.”  We normally take it for granted that a photograph is true.  The correspondence between the world and the representation which is the picture, results from the optical system in the camera, and the way that it focuses light on the film or other light-sensitive medium.  So the correspondence is both defined by the optical system, and followed by that optical system in forming the photograph.  The representation cannot fail to correspond, unless there was a failure of the mechanism or procedure.

If you give me a picture which you claim is a photograph, I might wonder whether that is a true picture.  The difference is that, in the first case where I took the photo, I know that the correspondence was followed.  In the second case, where you gave me the picture, I cannot be sure whether there has been some “touching up” or other manipulation of the image.  So I cannot be sure whether the picture follows the correspondence that is specified by the optics.

Multiple correspondences

Suppose that I take two photographs.  I take one using black and white film, and the other using color film.  The two resulting pictures are different, even if the same camera was used in exactly the same location and orientation.  We would normally consider both pictures to be true, even though they do not agree.  This is only possible, because we assume two different correspondence mappings, one for black and white pictures and the other for colored pictures.  So we don’t have a single correspondence.  Rather, we use many correspondences and we use context as a guide as to which correspondence is appropriate.

Any method for getting data or making observations of real world events requires that we use the correspondence appropriate for that observation when expressing it in the form of a representation.  Similarly, when science discovers a new phenomenon, it must construct a suitable correspondence so that we can express observations of that new phenomenon.


The traditional view seems to be that we judge truth in terms of correspondence, and that there is some sort of metaphysical correspondence available.  I have attempted to show that there are multiple correspondences, and that we create or modify the correspondences that we use as a way of making it possible to form representations.

August 2, 2011

ID as science

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post at the Uncommon Descent blog, we are assured that ID is not an apologetic.  Rather, it is science.  Here is how they explain it:

We find ourselves in a world of conscious beings, inventing, creating, thinking, and planning. Yet science, so far, has dealt only with the unplanned and automatic portions of it. In my view, there is a lot missing, and ID, by taking agency as a real causal force, can appropriately extend science to take into account agency as a causative force.

So there we have it.  A case has been made for the god intelligent designer of the gaps, as part of the ID apologetic science.