Thursday 12 June 2014

The dangers of 'no free will'?

The debate around free will is one of the major topics in philosophy of course, and has come to a lot of people's attention recently due to Sam Harris' book Free Will (he argues we don't have it). Many have countered his arguments, most significantly (for me at least) Daniel Dennett. In a recent workshop meeting of philosophers and scientists set up by cosmologist Sean Carroll, Dennett said a few times that he thought it was dangerous to be publicly articulating the argument that we don't have free will, because it's conceivable that people will take that as meaning no one is ever fundamentally responsible for their actions, leading to a 'social vacuum' as he calls it which is a very scary prospect.

Couldn't the same argument be made for belief in God though? As billions of people on the planet believe there is a God watching over them day and night, isn't that same danger there if all those people lose that belief? Dennett has no problem at all with saying there is no God. The ideas seem similar to me as they both suggest that there is no such thing as justice. No God, no ultimate justice, that's an obvious argument. With free will it's a bit more complicated - if there's no free will, and that is scientifically 'proven' (in the minds of the general public) then that would have to lead to people not being held accountable for their actions in the way they are today (the whole concept of retributive punishment becomes a problem) - and therefore there would be no justice.

But we don't think that of belief in God, do we? We don't think for a second that people who lose their faith in God will suddenly decide it's perfectly fine to go and steal, rape and kill because there's no ultimate justice waiting for them - any more than we believe atheists, agnostics, humanists or any non-believers somehow lack any morality. So why would we think it for losing free will?

Personally I'm undecided on free will, I'm most persuaded by the idea that even though it's not to be found in fundamental laws of physics, that it is an emergent property and no less real than anything else.


Free Will by Sam Harris

Dennet's review of Free Will and Harris' response

Sean Carroll's workshop 'Moving Naturalism Forward'

Another book called Free Will by Mark Balaguer which I enjoyed

Saturday 24 May 2014

Some further very random thoughts...

Last night Swindon Humanists had a joint meeting with Swindon Philosophical Society, and we hosted Chris Street of Humanists4Science who I'd invited to talk. It was a really interesting talk mainly around the scientific method, scientism and humanism and certainly provoked some discussion and debate, which I always enjoy!

I couldn't possibly go into all the points raised but a couple of things came up that stuck in my mind that I wanted to write some more thoughts down about, before they slip forever from my mind - so this post is really just for me to note down my meandering ideas!

The first thing I've been thinking over was a point made by one group member who asked about the definition of 'supernatural' in relation to science, saying that if it's really about things that cannot be observed or tested scientifically, then would things such as the interior of a black hole or the universe beyond the horizon that we are currently able to observe be classed as supernatural? It was a difficult point to answer at the time, and I'm not sure anyone actually did satisfactorily. Having thought about it a bit more, this point occurred to me. Supernatural things that are claimed to exist by religions, superstitions, some pseudo-science etc. are said to be separate from our familiar material universe and beyond the ability of science to investigate. However, they are also claimed to interact with our material universe in all sorts of ways, so there's a contradiction there. While it appears that scientific concepts such as regions of the universe that are forever beyond our observable horizon can never be proven to exist by observation (obviously) - no claims are made that they interact with our part of the universe in any way. Those sorts of claims are made for 'supernatural' things like a realm where souls go after death, God coming to Earth and doing all sorts of crazy stuff, etc. They are 'supernatural' because the evidence for those claims is very weak and there simply is no mechanism for a non-material realm to interact with our material one - in either direction (i.e. the dead talking to mediums, of souls leaving the body to another realm in the first place). It's not really an answer but it's a distinction between what is commonly thought of as 'supernatural' and the observationally unprovable things that science predicts, I think.

Secondly was a discussion I had with Chris Eddy, one of the philosophy society members here (which came up briefly in the meeting again). That particular exchange is a bit on the confusing side for me, but it has lead me to carry the thought process on a bit and come up with a short and simple argument of my own. Chris's argument starts with the claim that religion sets out to class some actions as absolute or unconditional - for an obvious example let's take one of the ten commandments, "Thou shalt not kill". We're talking morality, so far so good. But it seems pretty obvious also that such rules don't apply to the God of the Bible (and most other religions I would imagine, I'm just using Christianity as I'm more familiar with it), as he kills vast numbers, kills on a whim and demands others kill for him. So clearly those rules are neither absolute nor unconditional, because they don't apply to you if you're God - that's a condition! If we then consider the famous question about God and morality posed by Euthyphro:

"Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?"

The answer clearly has to be the latter, given that God is supposed to be morally perfect (and the source of all morality in the first place) - because if the moral rules were external to God, he would follow them. As he doesn't, those moral rules must be moral because they are 'commanded' by him. But then that leaves you with the situation that these moral laws are no longer absolute or unconditional, because God frequently changes him mind! One minute he's saying "Thou shalt not kill", the next he's commanding the extermination of entire races (or simply wiping them out himself). So the idea that because our moral laws come from God means that they are objective also fails. Moral laws cannot be absolute, unconditional or objective.

Some Christian theologians (I'm thinking in particular here of Douglas Wilson and William Lane Craig) do state that it is what is commanded by God that is morally good. Yet they don't seem to have a problem with him ignoring his own rules, and how that (it seems to me) shows they are not really what they think they are.

Sunday 26 January 2014

The Immaterial Beethoven's 9th

A couple of days ago I took part in a panel discussion on humanism at a local philosophical society. I was one of a panel of three representing the Swindon Humanists, a recently formed group of which I am a member. I didn't feel at all qualified to do so, but thought it would be a fun experience anyway, which indeed it was.

It was also at times very frustrating as I don't think any of us succeeded in getting important points across very well (under some quite intense questioning admittedly). This wasn't a surprise as I know next to nothing about philosophy and was sure in advance I'd miss references and arguments.

One question that came up (not directly about humanism) that baffled me was about materialism. I would consider myself a materialist, in the sense that I don't believe in an immaterial aspect to reality. After the subject had been raised, the question was asked - and I hope I'm accurately reporting it - that would we not think that some things, the example used was Beethoven's 9th symphony, had to exist in some immaterial form. I must clearly be missing some important philosophical point, because even writing that now it seems ridiculous to me. We argued that it is simply a pattern of information that can and does become encoded in all sorts of physical forms, but this didn't seem to dissuade anyone from suggesting a requirement for some sort of ephemeral existence for the composer's famous work.

Having thought about this for a while now I can only respond with a thought experiment and some more questions. Consider the complete timeline of Beethoven's 9th, from the moment the composition first formed in the composer's mind, to some imagined far-future where the Earth and humanity have long since vanished from the universe and no physical manifestation of the pattern of information that is (or was) the piece exists. So, at what point along that timeline does the symphony leave the material world and become immaterial? How and why would it do so?

This is how I imagine that timeline to look: the music begins in the composer's mind as patterns of electrical activity across the brain, which is then encoded into written form as musical notation. I don't know anything about musical notation (is it a language, a form of mathematical code? Both?) but I do know that it allows the music to be given to someone else to be decoded, or played by an orchestra. Now, would the first time the 9th was played aloud by a full orchestra have matched the pattern of information that first formed in the composer's mind? Of course not. There would be many subtle differences in how the code written down in musical notation would have been interpreted by an orchestra and conductor - and the same will be true every time it is played aloud along it's timeline. In the same way that the written code is interpreted differently when played surely every person listening to the music will experience it in a slightly different way. No one can know what anyone else's experience of it is like. So the code moves to another form (the brain activity of others) and is replayed, reheard, recorded in countless ways, every physical version having differences. Of course it can't mutate into something altogether different (although, it would have undoubtedly been adapted, reimagined, even plagiarised in parts during it's timeline) because of the original musical notation version acting as... a blueprint (Template? Formula?) that anything wishing to be know as Beethoven's 9th needs to arise from. So over time what we know as Beethoven's 9th will have taken many different types of physical form an immeasurable number of times, until in some dim and distant future, at the end of it's timeline, every copy will have disappeared, everyone who ever heard it will be dead, every physical manifestation of the pattern will have been lost.

Again I ask at what point did it leave the material world and how? If indeed it did, does it's immaterial form survive the disappearance of it's material original? Or perhaps the suggestion is that it exists eternally immaterially somehow, only to enter the physical realm via the composer? Can the immaterial form change in anyway? Do we all experience the immaterial form somehow when we hear it played? How? Why does anyone need to propose some mysterious immaterial existence to it when there would appear to me to be no need whatever to do so? As I said, I must clearly be missing some deep philosophical point somewhere along the line.

What this does remind me of is the ontological argument for god, which is basically that if we can conceive of a completely perfect being (god, of course) then a completely perfect being that actually exists is more perfect than one that doesn't, hence god exists. If only it were that easy, eh? Perhaps the whole immaterial 9th argument is somehow proposing the existence of a perfect 9th symphony that transcends the many ever so slightly different material forms it takes over time. I don't know, I hope not because it's just silly, as is the ontological argument. The example I use is of a perfect circle, which we can not only conceive of but have even developed a mathematical language with which we can represent it in several different ways. But that in no way implies the existence of a perfect circle somewhere out there in the universe. However well you can draw a circle, it will never be a perfect circle. It would seem to me that in this instance, the use of the word perfect implies the exact opposite of what it is claimed to do within the ontological argument. None of that really helps me to understand the point behind the immaterial Beethoven's 9th argument though! Please free to explain it to me in the comments. I suspect it ends up in an argument about human consciousness, as I think all arguments about materialism inevitably do.

So I really look forward to more philosophical discussions, there are lots more things to write about that came out of the panel debate to do with humanism that I may blog about, if only to write down what I should have said at the time but failed to think of on the spot!

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Should atheists now support humanism?

In reading through the arguments put by Pastor Douglas Wilson to Christopher Hitchens in their conversation "Is Christianity Good for the World?*" I was struck at how atheism is discussed there. Atheism these days is far more visible than it has been before, which is a very good thing - but I wonder if simply declaring oneself an atheist is enough to combat religious argument, or should we also say we are humanists?

'New Atheism' arose largely as a response to 9/11, with books such as Sam Harris' 'The End of Faith' becoming best sellers and provoking a huge influx of similar titles as well as an even larger number of books in reply from religious writers. The 'New Atheism' tag was not chosen by the atheists writers but instead was given to them and many have pointed out that there really isn't anything 'new' about it - many of the (successful in my opinion) arguments they employ are centuries old at least. However today there does appear to be a drive from certain areas to redefine atheism to mean more than the simple dictionary definition of "the rejection of belief in god or gods". I think that promoting humanism could be a better tactic.

Hitchens begins the debate with Wilson by quoting William F.Buckley, who said:

"I myself believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world."

I would agree it's certainly one of them, but atheism isn't a philosophy as such and it doesn't commit you to any other view of the world - you can be an atheist and still be irrational, immoral and evil (for want of a better term). Perhaps that's why now people are using the term in a different sense, using it to cover not only non-belief but things like rationality, skepticism and equality. Atheism + would appear to be the prime example of this (not that I have explored it that much).

Hitchens himself said (in a debate with another theologian, William Lane Craig) that "atheism is not a moral or political position of any kind" but then goes on to say "but there is a humanism within atheism". I think this is almost certainly correct as most if not all atheists I know have beliefs and attitudes to the world that are very recognisably humanist (whether they know it or not or choose to use the term or not).

Wilson's main line of argument against Hitchens is that, given atheism, there is no objective morality to call upon to make moral judgements, or as he puts it, no "overarching common standard for all atheists", and so challenges Hitchens to account for the moral judgements he makes. Wilson is right - there is no objective morality built into atheism (in its narrowest possible sense of simple non-belief in the supernatural) or even that follows on directly from it. But so what? Hitchens admits as much himself in the quote I used earlier. Wilson is not denying that atheists can be as moral as any religious person, what he is denying is that any objective morality can exist without a supernatural authority to hand it down to us. Hitchens simple states that morality is "derived from innate human solidarity".

I think at this point Hitchens could just as well have introduced humanism into the debate to show that there does exist a philosophy that rejects the supernatural but very much includes strong moral precepts. I think the evidence that our moral sense has evolved over time in very much the same way as other human traits is pretty clear; the fact that other species show what we would call moral behaviour just proves that it isn't solely a human concern. Hitchens quotes Darwin, who of course puts it perfectly:

"Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well- developed, or nearly as well-developed, as in man."

It also seems perfectly clear that there is no objective morality, as Wilson comments "evolution means nothing if not change", and so if morality evolved it has clearly changed over time and will continue to do so. Wilson likes to frame this fact as the possibility than anything we consider deeply moral (or immoral) today may simply not be the case tomorrow. Personally I like to think of the development of morality as very much the same as the development of scientific understanding. Very rarely does a new scientific theory totally refute or replace an old one - for example, Einstein's General Theory of Relativity went beyond Newton's theory of gravity, but Newton's theories still work perfectly well in most everyday situations. Both are simply models of reality, Einstein's being a better and more accurate model than Newton's. Relativity breaks down when faced with a black hole or the very first micro-moments of the universe - the theory that one day will be touted as proving Einstein wrong will simply be a more accurate model that extends our understanding.

I think morality progresses in a similar way, as a cumulative process (perhaps not surprisingly considering it's evolutionary nature) rather than a rule book that randomly gets re-written on a whim. It's trivially easy to look back in history and pick things that at the time were normal but now would be considered unconscionable. I personally think that people living in a 50-100 years time will look back at the way we currently treat other species as utterly barbaric.

The authoritative aspect is a core issue for Wilson. In reply to Hitchens human solidarity comment, he says: "Innate is not a synonym for authoritative." True, but again - so what? He then says: "Why does anyone have to obey any particular prompting from within?" This is where his arguments start sound a bit... well, fundamental - like someone saying if there was no God what's to stop you killing and raping all you want? Penn Jillette's answer is spot on:

"And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine."

It baffles me how this isn't obvious to people like Wilson. I could, right now, if I wanted to, go and get in my car and run down the first dozen people I see. He would say that given atheism, what's to stop me? The universe doesn't care! The answer is why on earth would I? I don't want to kill, maim or even mildly injure anyone, because I can empathise with how that would feel and I don't want anyone doing it to me. I don't need an authority figure to tell me not to. Wilson's argument that Hitchens has no authority-bestowed objective standards to refer to in making moral judgements just isn't relevant and in fact says a great deal more about how he views humanity himself I think.

So atheism, as both Wilson and Hitchens say (but for different reasons) has nothing to say on morality. But atheists are clearly as capable of contributing to the further evolution of our moral ideas as anyone else (more so than the religious authorities who tend to have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world we live in) - which is why I suggest that it is important that atheists support and even stand up and be counted as humanists. The British Humanist Association has many campaigns ongoing, commonly set directly against outdated religious attitudes that still have far more traction with those in power than they have any right to. I'm sure this is true of humanist organisations all over the world. So by supporting these campaigns and spreading the word about humanism, we can both actively take part in these important issues, help reduce the influence of religion and show people who think like Douglas Wilson that not only do we have a (non-superstition based) morality but we are always looking to improve upon it.

*Also available as a book: "Is Christianity Good for the World?", and also there is a fantastic documentary film "Collision" which follows them on a debate tour - well worth a watch to see them both debating face to face.

Monday 18 February 2013

Debating creationists

A couple of days ago I stupidly got into an online debate with a creationist. I have a general rule not to do this, as it's a futile waste of energy - but, probably once a year or so my willpower fails and I get dragged in!

After a bit of back-and-forth about the usual stuff the creationist - I'll call him "John", because that was his name - made the claim that evolution violated the 2nd law of thermodynamics. This immediately took me back about a decade in time to when I first had a debate online about these things and someone brought up the same argument. Even then, with no real scientific knowledge beyond what I didn't remember from school I felt that the argument was unlikely to be true. It's what got me interested in learning science again and I've spent some time since then reading and studying science with the Open University and generally taking an interest in religion, scepticism and atheism.

So I made my responses to "John" and of course they were dismissed as I fully expected they would be and I ended the conversation when he accused me of redefining the 2nd law to fit my purposes, when, whether he knew it or not, that was exactly what he had done. Now I'm back to thinking about this argument again, hence this post.

The definition that "John" had clearly been taught to trot out was that "natural systems break down over time, not improve" which, if you wanted to explain the concept to a six year old is probably ok (but even then a smart six year old would pretty quickly realise that it couldn't be that simple). As evolution increases complexity over time, it must violate the 2nd law. This simplified creationist definition missed out one very crucial element of the law which is present in the definition I then used: "in a closed system entropy always increases". Entropy very simply put is a measure of disorder, so the main difference between the two definitions is the part about a closed system. If a system is closed, i.e. no energy can enter it from outside, the energy inside it will eventually become evenly distributed throughout the system, or to put it another way, without energy input from outside, the system will inevitably become more and more disordered until it reaches a maximum point of disorder.

As a universal law, there are many ways of stating the 2nd law - in my studies with the OU I came across at least five or six that relate it to various physical processes. It was independently formulated nearly 200 years ago by Sadi Carnot and Rudolf Clausius, and has been restated in other ways by such scientific giants as Lord Kelvin and Ludwig Boltzmann. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is now over 150 years old. The fact these two cornerstones of science have lasted side by side for so long might make you doubt claims that they are mutually exclusive, but this doesn't seem to worry creationists.

For evolution to violate the 2nd law, it would have to be taking place in a closed system, and that is the part the creationists leave out - for pretty obvious reasons. The system within which life on Earth has evolved is, of course, the Earth. Now I think it's safe to say that the Earth as a system does receive a not inconsiderable amount of energy from an outside source - and I know now I sound like I'm making statements of the bleeding obvious here - that source is of course the Sun.

You would think that having explained that, the creationist would say "well, stone the crows, of course you're right on that one - I'll never use that argument again". Yeah, that doesn't happen. But as it is so clearly and obviously wrong, I still think it's one of the few chances of getting a creationist at least to ponder it for a moment. But, I thought, maybe I could come up with an analogy that would make it even simpler to get. So here goes.

Saying evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics is equivalent in many ways to saying a rocket launching a satellite into orbit violates the law of gravity - if that sounds ridiculous, well that's the point. Here's why. I could loosely define the law of gravity (in the same way creationists loosely define the 2nd law of thermodynamics) as something like this: "all unsupported things will fall towards the earth". Using this definition I could claim a rocket launching a satellite violates this law, hence all orbiting satellites were put there in situ by God. As before, the vague definition misses out the obvious addition of a vast supply of energy, in this case let's say it's the fuel inside a stonking great Saturn V rocket. The rocket simply uses this supply of energy to overcome the downward force of gravity. At no point does it violate the law, it simply uses energy to overcome it. The same happens with evolution - it has a vast supply of usable energy from the Sun which it uses to overcome the tendency to disorder described by the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

To push the analogy perhaps beyond useful simplicity, you could also say the creationists insistence on ignoring all the scientific evidence that supports evolution is akin to them claiming God must have put all the satellites in orbit because rockets violate the law of gravity, all the while ignoring not only rocket science itself but also the discarded "fossils" left behind by a three-stage rocket such as the Saturn V. ("Where are the transitional stages??" I hear them cry in my head).

I'd like to think that even a completely brainwashed creationist like "John" might feel a little tickle of scepticism about what they have been told if it could be explained like that - maybe put a dent in the wall of wilfull blindess or the barrage of bible verses - but I'm probably being wildly optimistic. However, next time I'm presented with the argument I'll simply say "claiming evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics is just like claiming a rocket violates the law of gravity" and leave it at that. Maybe that'll get 'em thinking. It would certainly save me some time ;)

Friday 22 June 2012

Buy a set of 5 Skeptic Magazine cover illustrations

With the permission of the lovely Skeptic Magazine, I'm able to offer A3 prints of all the cover illustrations I've done for them so far for sale. They include caricatures of Simon Singh, Richard Wiseman, Jon Ronson, Robin Ince and my portrait of Christopher Hitchens. I'm only going to run off a few of these sets and you can get one for the quite-literally-a-bargain price of £25 (+£2 p&p) - just click the PayPal button below!

Tuesday 19 June 2012

The Skeptic Magazine - Robin Ince cover

When I was asked to do a caricature illustration of Robin Ince for the latest cover of The Skeptic Magazine, I knew I was going to have to come up with something different and challenging, as I've drawn Robin a couple of times before and didn't want to feel like I was just retreading old ground.

After reading the interview that appears in the magazine, I came up with a 'multiple versions' of Robin idea - it changed a little bit in the working out, but it's close to what I had in mind. It was a tough one to do for sure. I must thank Andreas Beck for helping me out with some valuable photo reference. The initial idea was in part based on this famous pic: