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Play the Ball

April 11, 2017 Leave a comment

When I engage in one of my (extremely infrequent) rants I often get a bit personal. I often describe the groups (it’s usually a group rather than an individual) under discussion in somewhat unflattering terms. Words like stupid, mindless, bureaucratic, corrupt, incompetent, and (good ol’ plain) scum tend to predominate.

If I use the search function on my blog for the word “scum” I come across criticisms of Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Martin Shkreli, Serco (a company that runs prisons in New Zealand), Alice Walton, the Genesis Energy board, the CEO of BP, a spokesman for Westpac bank, the National government, Ports of Auckland, Affco, Westboro Church, the people in charge of the global financial system in general, Fonterra, the American movie industry, the NZ Evangelistic Society, News Corp, and Theresa Gattung.

That’s quite a list, isn’t it? In my defence, I only used the word in 27 posts (out of a total of almost 2000) in almost 15 years of blogging, so I don’t over-use to quite the extent you might think, and there is a good mix there of politicians (usually of the right), corporate leaders, large businesses, and some more unpleasant examples of religious institutions.

But a basic tenet of good debating is to avoid informal logical fallacies, such as the ad hominem. So I should be criticising the idea or action, not the person involved. In other words, I should “play the ball, not the man” (or woman).

Like all informal fallacies though, the ad hominem isn’t necessarily always wrong. Sometimes an individual really does deserve severe criticism. While it might be something which has been done or said that I am most offended by, there’s still a person who who did it or said it, and I’m sure that a lot of bad things done by one person would not be done by another.

The response to criticism is often “I’m just doing my job” which is usually referred to as the “Nuremberg Defence” after the Nazis who used it at the Nuremberg war trials (it’s a real term so this is not an example of me breaking Godwin’s Law). I mentioned this subject in a post “The Nuremberg Defence” from 2014-11-20.

But people always have a choice. Given the same situation some people will make the wrong choice just because it’s easier, or they can use it for their own benefit, or they haven’t bothered checking the true consequences, or for many other reasons. In every case though, these decisions are made as a result of a character flaw in the individual.

I think a “better person” would not have done the same thing. They might not have simply refused an order, but they might have taken steps to minimise its harm, or to work “behind the scenes” to work against it, or at least to carry it out with some element of contrition.

So ad hominem attacks are OK, as long as the reason for the attack is clear. And the attack on the person should follow a reasoned critique of their behaviour, not the other way around. In other words, it is not OK to criticise something because a certain person did it (as I often see with criticisms of Donald Trump’s actions, not all of which are bad) but it is OK to say someone is a bad person because they did bad things (after why those things are bad is logically explained).

Informal logical fallacies are OK but it is important to remember that they are informal and are not infallible. Just because it looks superficially like an ad hominem has been used doesn’t mean the argument can be ignored. It does mean the argument should be looked at more carefully, but it’s important to remember that some people just aren’t as good as others.

And most importantly, it is essential to remember that often the people with the most power also have the greatest character flaws. My “scum list” above shows that very clearly!

What is Reality?

March 21, 2017 Leave a comment

You are probably reading this post on a computer, tablet, or phone with a graphical user interface. You click or tap an icon and something happens. You probably think of that icon as having some meaning, some functionality, some deeper purpose. But, of course, the icon is just a representation for the code that the device is running. Under the surface the nature of reality is vastly more complex and doesn’t bear the slightest relationship to the graphical elements you interact with.

There’s nothing too controversial in that statement, but what if the whole universe could be looked at in a similar way? In a recent podcast I heard an interview with Donald Hoffman, the professor of cognitive science at the University of California. He claims that our models of reality are just that: models. He also claims that mathematical modelling indicates tha the chance that our models are accurate is precisely zero.

There are all sorts of problems with this perspective, of course.

First, there is solipsism which tells us that the only thing we can know for sure is that we, as an individual, exist. If we didn’t then we couldn’t have the thought about existence, but the reality of anything else could be seen as a delusion. Ultimately I think this is totally undebatable. There is no way to prove that what I sense is real and not a delusion.

While I must accept this idea as being ultimately true I also have to reject on the basis that it is ultimately pointless. If solipsism is true then pursuing ideas or understanding of anything is futile. So our whole basis of reality relies on something which can’t be shown to be true, but has to be accepted anyway, just to make any sense of the world at all. That’s kind of awkward!

Then there is the fact that the same claims of zero accuracy of models of the world surely apply to his models of models of the world. So, if our models of reality are inaccurate does that not mean that the models we devise to study those models are also inaccurate?

And if the models of models are inaccurate does that mean there is a chance that the models themselves, aren’t? We really can’t know for sure.

I would also ask what does “zero accuracy” mean. If we get past solipsism and assume that there is a reality that we can access in some way, even if it isn’t perfect, how close to reality do we have to be to maintain some claim of accuracy?

And the idea of zero accuracy is surely absurd because our models of reality allow us to function predictably. I can tap keys on my computer and have words appear on the screen. That involves so much understanding of reality that it is deceptive to suggest that there is zero accuracy involved. There must be a degree of accuracy sufficient to allow a predictable outcome, at the level of my fingers making contact with the keys all the way down to the quantum effects working within the transistors in the computer’s processor.

So if my perception of reality does resemble the icon metaphor on a computer then it must be a really good metaphor that represents the underlying truth quite well.

There are areas where we have good reason to believe our models are quite inaccurate, though. Quantum physics seems to provide an example of where incredibly precise results can be gained but the underlying theory requires apparently weird and unlikely rationalisations, like the many worlds hypothesis.

So, maybe there are situations where the icons are no longer sufficient and maybe we never will see the underlying code.

What I Believe

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Just to show what a sad and annoying person I am, I have to admit to the following… On Christmas Day, between opening presents, watching bad movies, chatting with family, and drinking lots of wine, I was involved with a rather protracted and involved discussion on Christianity. Yeah a discussion (or should I say argument) about religion… on Christmas… seems perfectly appropriate to me!

The people I was debating with really had nothing. It was stuff like: believe in Christianity because it says so in the Bible. But that isn’t the subject of this post. During the discussion I was asked what I believe, and I realised that I have never really said what that is in a precise, compact form. So, without further preamble, here it is…

First, I want to know what’s true. I totally understand what solipsism is all about, and ultimately I agree that we can never know anything for certain. The whole universe, my total existence, and all the other people I know could all be an illusion. After all, many people with schizophrenia imagine they live in a world which, to me, seems delusional. And I could say something similar, to a lesser degree, regarding some people’s religious beliefs, but more of that later!

So it is more a convenience than a firm philosophical commitment when I say that I think an absolute reality exists. If it doesn’t then I really can’t see a lot of point in trying to understand anything.

The next question is, can we ever know what this reality is? Well no. I don’t think we can ever truly know if any understanding we have is ultimately correct. But I do think we can get very good approximations with a high degree of confidence regarding our theories of reality.

So how should we establish what these best explanations are? Basically, we should use the scientific method. That is, we find a way to test whether theories are right or wrong using objective, repeatable, and neutral experiments and observations.

Since there is always uncertainty I have an arbitrary point where I accept someting as true (at least in the interim). That point is is at a fairly high level. I would prefer to think that something is false when it later turns out to be true, than to accept something as true and then find it wasn’t. Believing something which is untrue leads to too many consequences which I cannot accept.

So that covers the more mechanical aspects of my philosophy, now what about the more tenuous concepts such as morality? I guess basically I am a utilitarian. I think we should aim for the greatest good for the greatest number. But it is well known that simple utilitarianism breaks down in many situations (the famous trolley problems demonstrate this quite well) so it can’t be that simple.

But humans are a social species and we have evolved a strong sense of empathy. This is both a biological and a social phenomenon and it changes over time. There seems to be clear evidence that human society is getting better. Steven Pinker has demonstrated this quite convincingly in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and I think it is clear that, despite the very real problems we face today, that human society is less violent, more tolerant, and more fair than in the past.

So when the majority of humans have an “inner feeling” for what is right and wrong I think we should take notice of that. This means that morality isn’t absolute and there is no inherent right and wrong, but I’m OK with that.

So that’s the physical and social worlds taken care of. What about the spiritual or supernatural world? Well, my thoughts on that depend on your definitions of the words. I can say that every atheist I know claims to have a spiritual aspect to their life without believing in the supernatural. So I think my connection with the beauty of music, art, and just the grandeur of the real universe is at least as significant as any religious person’s connection with their (imagined) god.

Of course, it is difficult to prove this using the science I have recommended above, so this is a conjecture on my part more than a statement of fact. However I feel I am missing nothing when a religious person says they “feel sorry” for me because I don’t have a connection with their particular god. I have a connection with the real universe, which I think is far more impressive.

And I totally reject the existence of the supernatural. This is more a matter of definition than anything else. If there was a god, for example, which interacted with the real world, then I would claim that is really just another part of the natural universe and could be studied by science. If that god lived in another “dimension” and never interacted with our universe then I say it doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that as an approximation, I’m saying it literally doesn’t exist.

Finally, I do use a few shortcuts when discussing aspects of the world using my philosophy. I say certain things are “facts” for example, such as evolution and the Big Bang. But I’m not trying to say those phenomena are true beyond any possible doubt. There is always room for doubt (see my first few points above) but the certainty is sufficient that using the word “fact” is a fair shortcut instead of having to say “99.9% certainty”.

Also, there is “no doubt” (again there is some doubt, but such a small amount that ignoring it is fair) that evolutionary processes happened, and that something started our universe 13.7 billion years ago, but the exact details of what really happened are not yet known. So the fact of evolution happening and the theory explaining how it happened are two very different things.

Finally I should use the philosophical points I have outlined above to answer the “god question”. Is there a god? Well, I cannot see any good reason to think so. The closest thing to actual evidence I think is the apparent fine-tuning of the universe. But even that doesn’t help much because if we accept the universe has been fine-tuned by a god that just pushes the question back to where did that fine-tuned god come from?

And as far as the big religions are concerned I find them ridiculously non-compelling. I’m confident of one thing: if there is a god it bears absolutely no resemblance at all to the vile, homicidal megalomaniac described by the Abrahamic religions! And the other religions, such as Hinduism, also seem to be using human attributes to create gods with varying levels of appeal.

So if gods don’t seem too credible, what about prophets, such as Jesus? Well, I go around in circles on Jesus a bit. Sometimes I think he didn’t even exist and others I think a person with some of his described attributes might have been the basis of the legend.

But let’s use my points from above to examine the Jesus myth. Are there any physical elements which we could check against facts? Well yes, there are. There are several events described in the Gospels which we could check, such as the star described (in just one Gospel) at the birth, the darkness at the crucifixion, not to mention the saints rising from their graves at that time.

There should be obvious historical references to these, but there’s nothing. Not a thing. And that’s just the beginning. There are ridiculous inconsistencies in the different portrayals of his alleged life. And those are just between the four gospels arbitrarily chosen as canon by the early church. If you look at the other alternatives they conveniently ignored then the situation is much worse.

So really, no sensible, honest, knowledgeable person can possibly take the Christian story seriously as a statement of fact. So why do so many, quite intelligent people do that? Well it’s simple self-delusion in most cases. These aren’t bad, or ignorant, or corrupt people in most cases, they have simply fooled themselves.

Finally, what about the philosophical and moral messages of Christianity? Well I freely admit there are some good, positive moral stories in the New Testament. But there are a lot of really horrible stories too. And there is a lot of good, positive philosophy in many other sources. So my conclusion is that we should use the Bible, along with every other source we can find, to guide us on our path to establishing our own personal morality.

In fact, I think that is what everyone does anyway. Even people who say their morality comes from a god, or a holy text, or a prophet are really fooling themselves. Their morality comes from themselves because it is they who decide which god, which holy book, or which prophet to follow. And it is they who decide how to interpret those sources. In the end, their morality is no more objective, absolute, or inspired than mine.

Well I think I’ve said enough at this point because this post is already longer than what I usually try to write. If anyone can see an error in my logic please comment. I’m more than happy to correct any errors I have made in either fact or logic.

No Answers

October 19, 2016 7 comments

It’s unusual for me to be uncertain about stuff. I mean, I am always prepared to change my opinion on anything, if I’m shown new information, but until that happens I usually have a fairly well established position on most things. Here are some examples: most climate change is caused by humans, almost certainly true; fluoride in water is overall beneficial, yes very likely; humans have been to the Moon, no reason to doubt it; the official story of the 9/11 attack is accurate, probably fairly close to being true; evolution is a fact, there is no alternative; etc.

But there are a few things I’m not so certain about. I don’t even have a consistent interim position on these. Some times I will be pro and others anti. And these are some of the most interesting questions in modern society. Let’s have a look at a few of these issues…

Is abortion morally OK?

I know the arguments that abortion is about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, but it isn’t that simple, is it? There is another body involved, even though that is currently sustained by the woman. When does a fertilised egg become a foetus and when does that become an unborn child, and when does that become a unique conscious entity? There are no objective answers and any answers we might have are largely arbitrary.

It seems that in the early stages before any sort of nervous system has developed it would be hard to call the foetus a unique entity, but when does that change? It’s a difficult one and the current limits are arbitrary and could be debated either way.

I know a lot of people hold strong positions on this issue on both sides: some are anti-abortion for irrational religious reasons and some are pro- for equally irrational feminist reasons. I’m just honest enough to say I don’t know.

Does conventional economics produce good outcomes?

Clearly the answer to this question depends on the exact definition of “conventional economics” and “good” but I think most people have a fair idea of what I am talking about. I often argue for a more socialist approach to running our economies, but socialism has been conspicuously unsuccessful in its more pure forms. Of course, I would say those examples (such as the USSR) aren’t the sort of socialist principles I’m talking about, but it does weaken the argument.

On the other hand, free markets, globalisation, and unregulated labour markets seem to clearly produce poor outcomes for the majority. But many people would say that the perceived deficiencies are still less pernicious than those of other economic systems.

I have heard good arguments for greater economic freedom and equally good ones for greater state control. The problem is I trust neither government nor big business! So again, I don’t know where the best balance lies, although I tend to think we need a bit of a correction to the left from the way things are now.

Was Jesus a real person?

If Jesus actually existed and the stories about him are even mostly true then that makes a big difference to my perception of the world. I see practically no reason to believe any of the supernatural aspects of the Jesus story because they are inconsistent and totally unsupported by other sources outside of the Bible, but the question on whether he existed at all is more interesting.

A lot of the time I see the evidence for his existence as being so poor that it just isn’t worth taking seriously. But then I see that most scholars – including many who aren’t specifically Christian – do strongly support the idea he existed, even though they usually reject the religious enhancements to his story, like the virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection.

I’m currently in a phase where I say he didn’t exist in any form which would be remotely similar to the Biblical account, but who knows, tomorrow I might read another opinion and tend more to the idea that someone who was a great teacher and proponent of peace and good moral standards did exist and that the Bible stories are based on this.

Is the common interpretation of quantum mechanics real?

The deeper science probes into the inner workings of the universe the more bizarre and incomprehensible reality seems to become. Relativity, with its warped space and time, speeding up and slowing down of time, and other bizarre effects seems odd enough, but that is nothing compared with quantum theory.

Is wave particle duality a real thing? It seems to me that fundamental particles are probably not either waves or particles depending on the experiment we perform on them. More likely they are neither but can be interpreted as either as a sort of shorthand to their true form.

And what about the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics? Does the observer cause the wave function to collapse and define reality? I don’t think anyone really understands the question and certainly no one has a good answer. Like Richard Feynman said: if you think you understand quantum mechanics you obviously don’t know anything about it! (slightly paraphrased)

Do we have free will?

I have heard good arguments both ways on this one too. Usually ideas on this diverge for two reasons: either the person has a religious, philosophical, political, or other irrational worldview which requires free will to be real or an illusion; or the person has an unusual interpretation of what “free will” really is.

I generally say that, according to my defintion, we don’t have free will, but I would have no choice but to believe in free will if good enough evidence arose. There, read that last sentence again and tell me I have free will!

There’s no reason to think that all questions have an answer and maybe I have just chosen what I sometimes call “un-questions”. All I know is that even if no answers exist it’s kind of fun to try to find them.

Life’s Just a Game

July 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Is life a game? Is the whole universe just one big game or simulation? It’s an interesting question and one which might not be quite as frivolous as many people think. Before I explain why, I should revise a few of the common musings on the subject often found on the internet.

First there’s this one: Yes, life is a game. And according to the laws of thermodynamics, there are four inviolable rules: Zeroth: You must play the game. First: You can’t win. Second: You can’t break even. Third: You can’t quit the game.

The first and second in particular do reflect the real rules of thermodynamics quite well. Very crudely put, the first says that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it can only change forms, and the second law says the entropy (simply put, the amount of disorder) in a system will increase.

Then there’s this idea from the arts: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.” – William Shakespeare

But what about more serious, scientific and philosophical thoughts on the subject?

Recently, I read that Elon Musk thinks that we are probably characters in some advanced civilisation’s video game. In other words, he thinks life is a game. This isn’t a new idea, despite some of the news outlets making it seem like Musk is onto some new, brilliant form of ontological understanding of our most basic existence. In fact, the idea goes back at least 60 years in fiction and was discussed in a serious way by philosopher Nick Bostrom in a 2003 paper called “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”

Yes, I realise that a simulation is not necessarily a game and vice versa, but many games do involve simulating of the real world (combat simulators, flight simulators, etc) and the distinction isn’t important to the main point here. Maybe Musk thought that saying we are part of a computer game just sounded a bit cooler!

So what is the simulation hypothesis all about? Well, first I will present it in my own way which seems to lead to the conclusion that the simulation exists…

The universe is a big place, perhaps the biggest (according to author, Kurt Vonnegut) so we would expect that there must be many more places in the universe, apart from the Earth, where life, and intelligent life, has arisen.

We might also expect that in many places that intelligent life has advanced to a point far beyond where we are now. After all, the universe is 13.8 billion years old and humans (in the current form) have only been around 0.001% of that time. Surely other species on other planets became intelligent and capable of advanced technology far before we did.

We would also expect that computer technology would be an important part of any technological culture’s abilities. Since computers have only been around for 70 years and have already advanced to a remarkable level, we would expect that more advanced civilisations would have computer technology billions of times more capable than ours.

We have already reached the point where some simulations are almost indistinguishable from reality so those far more advanced systems might actually be literally indistinguishable from, or at least so close to reality that it would be almost impossible to tell the difference.

These advanced races with computer systems capable of creating artificial realities would probably want to model universes which would be virtually indistinguishable from real universes.

There might be many of these artificial realities and perhaps only one real reality.

So why should we think that our reality is the real one when it is far more likely to be one of the artificial ones?

In other words, it is just common logic to accept that we really do live inside a simulation, or, to put it another way, life is just a game!

Bostrom presented the idea in a different way which lead to three possible conclusions, one of which (and the one which some people think is the most likely) was the same as mine, above…

Given all the points I have already made, he thought that one of these three conclusions must be true…

1. Either “the fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero”. In other words, there are almost no advanced civilisations capable of running these simulations.

2. Or, “the fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero”. In other words, the advanced civilisations exist, but they don’t want to run the simulations for some reason.

3. Or, “the fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one”. In other words, we live in a simulation.

Here are a few interesting points Bostrom makes about his idea…

1. He isn’t claiming we live in a simulation. He just presents that as one possibility. He has said he thinks the likelihood is about 20% (but then adds “perhaps” and maybe”). He also notes that people who hear the argument usually think that one of the three conclusions is obviously true, but that there is no consensus on which one!

2. He also notes that people who claim to have experienced odd (supernatural, for example) phenomena should not claim these as evidence of glitches or bugs in the simulation. We would expect this sort of thing occasionally, even if our universe is real, simply because of mis-reporting and misunderstandings.

3. Maybe the most important point Bostrom makes is regarding whether the idea can be tested or not. One way would be if the aliens running the simulation wanted to show us that it existed. A phenomenon impossible in the natural world might occur (but see 2 above) making it clear our universe isn’t natural. Or we could reach a stage of technology where we ourselves could create a simulation of this sort. There’s no reason why one simulation couldn’t run a second one.

And if we reached an insurmountable problem which prevented us reaching a more advanced state (total destruction in a nuclear war for example) or we realised that there are fundamental limits on simulations which can never be overcome, then this would be evidence against the simulation option being true.

4. Bostrom doesn’t see any direct connection between the hypothesis and religion but there is an undeniable indirect connection, especially in relation to intelligent design. He quotes one atheist as saying this is the best evidence for God yet!

And finally, these are my additional thoughts on the subject…

1. I put this in a similar category to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (although its scope is even greater, of course). But like SETI we are working with very little initial data. Of course, Bostrom is a philosopher, not a scientist, so we shouldn’t necessarily expect the same level of rigour as we would from science.

2. There are several major (and a few minor) assumptions we must make in order for the idea to even pass the first stage of appraisal. First, there must be life elsewhere in the universe; second, life must reach a level of intelligence where advanced technology is possible; third, computer technology must be capable of creating a simulation of sufficient accuracy that it is virtually identical to reality (whatever that is); and finally the “sims” must gain consciousness (whatever that is).

3. Most simulations have a degree of “granularity” where, if you look with sufficient precision, you will see a limit to their accuracy. You will reach a “pixel” size which cannot be divided any further. Well, I must mention the Planck length and Planck time here. These can be interpreted as the basic units of space and time in our universe, just like we would expect in a simulation!

The Planck length is 1.61 x 10^-35 meters, which means the resolution of our universe is about 4 billion trillion trillion dots per inch. Sure sounds like a simulation – and a very good one – to me.

So yes, it looks like life really is just a big computer game. Can we have a reboot?

The Morality of Machines

November 19, 2015 1 comment

I have noticed several times in the last few weeks that the subject of how “intelligent” machines will affect society has become more prevalent. This has been particularly obvious in the context of self-driving cars, like the ones which Google seem to have brought to a fairly advanced level of functionality.

Yes, Google have had self-driving cars on real roads, doing cross-country (I mean across the US, not off-road) trips, and having an accident rate far below that of cars driven by humans (in fact, the only accident reported so far was caused by a human driver in another vehicle). And other companies are getting into this area too. Some, like Tesla, are just offering automated aids to human drivers; and others, like Apple, are working on car projects but we don’t really know exactly what they are!

Now an interesting discussion is starting regarding the details of the behaviour of the AI (artificial intelligence) these cars use. First, there is the tedious legal detail of liability in the event of accidents; and second, there is the more interesting moral problem of how an AI should handle situations where decisions involving the “least bad” response should be made.

For example, if a self-driving car has a passenger (as they normally would) who is likely to be killed when the car swerves to avoid a group of pedestrians is that OK? If 2 pedestrians would die if the car continued on its current course is it OK to kill one occupant by swerving and hitting a wall? In that situation I am imagining the outcome is certain and I am swapping 2 lives for one. Many people would say that is OK.

But what about this: in the scenario above, if there was a 50% chance of the one passenger dying and a 30% chance of the pedestrians dying what do you do then? Is a higher chance of one person dying better than a somewhat lower chance of two? That is a harder decision to make but many people would still go with saving the two and sacrificing the one.

Let’s change that slightly: if there was a 90% chance for the demise of the passenger but just 10% for the pedestrians what about that? In that case most people would say the low risk of killing the pedestrians is worth it compared with the almost certain death of the passenger. But this seems to be a quantitative thing because there will be a point where the preferred action swaps. Where is that point and how can we justify it?

Here’s another thing to think about. If one manufacturer guarantees their car will always maximise the chance of survival of the passenger but another gives equal weight to survival of other road users which car should I buy? Many people will think primarily of themselves meaning most manufacturers will bias the response of the car towards saving the occupants.

And if that is the case who is to blame if some pedestrians are killed? Is it the owner who deliberately bought a car willing to sacrifice other people? Or the car company for creating a machine with that tendency? Or does the machine itself take some blame?

It has been shown quite clearly that people do not make logical decisions in these situations (see my blog entry “Would You Press the Button?” from 2013-07-16 where I discuss the famous trolley problem) so whatever a machine does it could potentially be a lot better than a human. But making a logical decision is often not seen as the best response. Will that human bias work against an intelligent machine?

I should say that using most current technology the machine isn’t really making a free decision because the outcome is entirely deterministic. On the other hand, many people (including me) would say that human thought is also deterministic – just at a much greater level of complexity. But it’s usually quite easy to follow the logic of a computer program and see what decision it will make in any situation.

Because of this it’s really the programmer who is making the decision, not the machine, which is just carrying out the program it has been given. But again, the same can be said of humans. The brain has been “programmed” by evolution and personal experience. Does the individual consciousness (whatever that is) really have free will? And so I get back to the old free will question again… but did I really have any choice?

Favourite Philosopher

February 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Everyone has a favourite philosopher, right? Well maybe not, especially since very few people (me included) know much about the subject, but actually I do have my favourites and one of those would certainly be Betrand Russell.

He was such a character and I think that was shown especially in his later years with his slightly dishevelled hair, the suit and tie, and of course, his pipe! But it was the way he thought about and described things that I liked the most, especially his often dismissive remarks about religion.

But instead of bashing religion yet again (and that is so easy that it often feels like picking on the poor retarded kid in the class who can’t fight back) I want to talk about some more general points he made which I find interesting, specifically his “Ten Commandments.”

So, here they are, including my commentary after each one…

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

That’s got to be good advice because it is often the people who are most certain of their beliefs (I know that psychic could read my mind, I know I saw a UFO, I know that I can talk to my god) who are really the most deluded and out of touch with reality. That doesn’t mean that when I say that I am 99% certain evolution is true that I am deluded of course because I can justify that number plus it does indicate some lack of certainty, even if it is only 1%.

2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

Evidence would normally only be concealed if the person concealing it wanted to be dishonest in some way. In an ideal world all debate and discussion would proceed with every party knowing about and giving appropriate credibility to every piece of relevant information. I do have to say that sometimes it is tempting to hide certain information when you know your opposition is going to misuse it, but I agree that in general it’s a bad idea.

3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.

There’s a common criticism of our education system which says it discourages thinking. I think it’s hard to disagree with this in general although there are a few exceptions. Most people are too lazy to think too much whether they are encouraged to or not, but surely actively discouraging it can’t be good.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

I totally, absolutely agree. Anyone who works or participates in any hierarchical organisation (which is basically them all) will probably understand what I mean here. If someone is ordered to do something there should be a good reason why, and “because I want you to” or “because that is appropriate” are not reasons, they are examples of commandment 3, the failure to think!

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

This one can be a bit dangerous because I think we should give more credibility to experts than non-experts. That’s not to say for a second that experts are always right, but the fact is that no one has the time to fully research every fact themselves so we all must rely on experts to some extent. However we should remember to keep some room for healthy skepticism too.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

I think all opinions should be considered. Unless they are examined how do we know whether they’re wrong or harmful? And if they are harmful then countering them with a better argument is better than just hiding them which might lead to the criticism that they are being hidden because they cannot be easily countered.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

Again this can be a bit dangerous because you could look at the idea of continental drift about 100 years ago and say it was eccentric even though it turned out to be right. Unfortunately you could also look at the theory that all the world leaders are really reptiles from outer space in disguise as an eccentric theory and I suspect the chances of that being true are somewhat less! Still, it’s a good idea in theory, at least.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

I don’t agree with the idea of argument for its own sake… well maybe sometimes I do, and I often like to play devil’s advocate because that can be useful to explore issues. I do welcome debate and that’s one of the reasons I write this blog. If there was more genuine debate in this world instead of people just taking a conforming view for political (in the broad sense) purposes we would be a lot better off.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

This is similar to 2. It is best to deal with the truth, but I do have to say that when people misuse the truth it is tempting to twist it slightly. For example, to say there is no debate about evolution isn’t strictly 100% true but it so close to being the truth that to say scientists are 97% sure evolution is true just invites people to attach too much credibility to the remaining 3% (who are generally the nutty fringe, not to be confused with the eccentric minority in point 7).

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

I have often heard that the penalty for being intelligent and rational is often unhappiness. There is some evidence that this is true and that people who live in a fantasy world (for example, highly religious people) are more happy. Still, this evidence is unclear and a lot of the studies involve self-reporting. Whatever the facts though I don’t think any rational, intelligent person feels envious of someone living in a fantasy world. We tend to feel more pity (and a certain amount of irritation) than envy.

So there are his Ten Commandments. I think they are a bit limited in scope because they seem to apply more to intellectual discussion and philosophy (no surprises) than to the more mundane stuff the original Commandments covered, but they’re still interesting and worth thinking about.