Category Archives: Philosophy

Understanding and judgment in nature and society

In the natural world, we can attempt understanding, but not judgement. We can ask why the lion hunts the antelope, but not whether it is right or wrong. We can feel pity for the prey, but we know that while the antelope must die for the lion to live, neither can be said to be more deserving of life. They act as they must to survive, and to judge their method of survival is as irrational as criticizing the earth for going around the sun.

But with human action, it is different. Humans have the power to choose their way of life, and so affect their existence for better of worse. As fellow humans, we can observe the choices of others, understand their consequences, and apply the lessons to guide our own actions. And so, every human action that we observe has the potential for judgement: does this choice improve or worsen the actor’s life, and how would affect mine?

Some people tend to judge without understanding, by following their emotions or someone else’s edicts. Others attempt to understand without judging, viewing other humans as another kind of wildlife, and themselves as the indifferent observer. Both habits lead to disaster if pursued consistently. As mortal animals, our time and resources are limited, and so we must learn from others actions which mistakes and people to avoid, and which habits and people to value. Understanding must come first; if we judge without understanding, we fail to use our primary means of survival (our mind) and enslave ourselves to whomever’s moral edicts we happen to hear first. We must attempt understanding far more often than we judge because obtaining the evidence needed to form a conclusion is never a certainty.

The person who refuses to judge is just as much a slave to the moral edits of others as he who judges without understanding, as neither develops the ability to form his own opinions, and so both fall victim to the first preacher of right and wrong. As mortal beings, our way of life requires that we understand both the facts of nature and the facts and consequences of human action. When it comes to human choices, we must keep in mind that every action and every man-made thing carries the possibility and responsibility of moral judgment.

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Warning: relying on magic and anecdotes is bad for your health

In my post on evidence-based medicine, I said that “when valid scientific principles are not followed, no valid conclusion can be reached.”

Why not? Why don’t anecdotal claims (such as personal experience) count as evidence? Here is an example of what I mean:

A young woman who was a Christian Scientist told me that various relatives of hers have been healed by prayer. For example, her sister was revived from death by the prayer of her family. I have two comments about her story:

  • The observations that she told me about (that her sister was physiological dead, that her family prayed for her, and that she was revived) are probably true.
  • There was no dishonesty on her part: she sincerely believed her story

Despite accepting her observation, I disagreed with her conclusion about the causal relationship between prayer and health. How could I know that interpretation is wrong? For one, I was not there. Furthermore, after I expressed skepticism at this story, the young woman gave me many more examples, all from her direct personal experience of various friends and family being healed by prayer. On what basis could I reject them all without any personal experience on my own?

This was the essence of my reply:

I cannot object to the events you observed, as I was not there. But this does not mean that I must accept your causal explanation for those events. I have three reasons for this:

  • I have a certain understanding about the nature of the universe and of the means by which things happen. We call this cause and effect. In my experience, cause and effect happens according to certain rules, which we formally call the “laws of nature.” If someone presents an explanation that is inconsistent with my basic understanding of the laws of nature, they should have overwhelming evidence. Otherwise, I must conclude that their understanding of causality is wrong, even if their observations are true. This is especially true in observations regarding human health.
  • There are good reasons for scientists to reject personal experience and informal observations as sufficient basis for conclusions. There are many forms of cognitive bias can we can honestly make unless we follow strict rules to eliminate errors. In many fields (such as fixing a car) trial and error is good enough. There are no lives depending on a car working perfectly. In others, such as human physiology anecdotal evidence cannot lead to correct conclusions no matter how honest or smart you are. The forms of error take many forms: availability bias, post hoc ergo propter hoc, hasty generalization, placebo effects, selection bias, regression to the mean, bias by prior beliefs, social influence, etc. Even if you are aware of the biases, you cannot fully escape their effects; only try to structure your research to minimize them. In other words, when trial and error is not good enough, there is no substitute for proper science.
  • I categorize causal explanations into three kinds: true, false, and arbitrary. True explanations correspond with what I know. False explanations contradict what I know, but with further evidence may be proven true. Arbitrary explanations are neither true nor false because they do not refer to anything. They are “magical theories” because there is nothing that we can point to as the causal mechanism. How does prayer work? It just does – no mechanism is possible because it by definition exists outside of causality. Because arbitrary claims they cannot be proven or disproved, once identified as such, we can only dismiss them from consideration. We should be extremely skeptical of anyone who makes causal claims based on arbitrary/magical explanations. In the rare cause they point out a true causal connection, it is only by accident, and has no value to anyone as we have no more basis to believe that idea than any of their other claims.

If personal anecdotes are not acceptable as evidence, what is? A good theory:

  • is supported by many different kinds of observations
  • is consistent with existing knowledge
  • is possible to confirm by repeating the observations
  • has high predictive value: it should predict what will happen as well as what will not happen

“A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that has only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.” (Stephen Hawking)

Further reading:

 

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Parasitism and intentionality: lessons from the cuckoo

Many species of the cuckoo and cowbird reproduce exclusively by sneaking their eggs into other birds nests, where their chicks kill or starve their nest-mates and so steal resources from the host mother, who often has to raise chicks bigger than her. So why doesn’t the host kick out the foreign eggs?

In many cases, the parasitic eggs evolve to match those of the victim species. Yet in other species, the intruder egg is clearly different yet is left alone. Why? It has been experimentally observed that the mother cuckoo regularly monitors the nests she invades and completely destroys them if she sees that her egg was rejected. According to the “Mafia hypothesis”, it is cheaper for the host birds to allow their nests to be parasitized than to have them destroyed in response to rejecting the egg.

Here is what I find interesting: neither the cuckoo nor the host bird have any notion of how to run a protection racket or make complex statistical calculations about whether it is worth rejecting the invader egg. Their minds are far too primitive for that. The host keeps the foreign egg because the gene for not rejecting the egg is reinforced by the higher survival probability of her chicks. And the cowbird destroys nests with rejected eggs because her gene for “revenge” behavior is reinforced by the higher reproductive success in the nests of victims who accept their fate. The two species interact by threats and bluffs through gene expression, without any real communication going on. The mechanism is imperfect – sometimes the parasite bird destroys innocent nests and sometimes the victim kicks the invader out and pays the price. Parasite and victim continually test each other to maximize their reproductive success.

Does this behavioral pattern have any analog in human society? Of course humans don’t need to wait for the slow pace of genes to engage in Mafia-like behavior. But whether the threats are communicated consciously or not, the behavior itself is reinforced for the same reason: because it works. In human society, money, not reproductive success is the reward mechanism which rewards and punishes certain behavior. Money is not a guarantee of reproductive success, nor can be it be exchanged for just any values. But it is the best and most universally convertible proxy for value that we have.

As with animals, activities which generate money are reinforced. And just as with animals, that reinforcement happens whether or not the participants are consciously aware of it. Socially, the majority of people disapprove of protection rackets. We teach our children to act morally and we spend resources to stop crime. Yet parasitism happens anyway, in many forms, in every society, and often without any conscious intent. It is a successful evolutionary tactic.

Is all this to suggest that humans are powerless against parasitism? Certainly not. We are only powerless to stop parasitic relationships as long as we don’t recognize them for what they are. Once they are exposed, we can do what no other animal can: replace a short-run reinforcing behavior (grab the loot and run) with a long-run rewarding behavior (we’ll all have more loot if we don’t steal from each other).

The point is this:

There are two forms of parasitism: explicit and implicit. In explicit parasitism, both parties are aware of the parasitic behavior. So it is with crooks and invading armies. They know they are criminals, but they don’t care because one of them has superior firepower. Explicit parasitism can certainly be very destructive and expensive to stop, but it is unsustainable, as human beings get better at diplomacy and policing.

But in implicit parasitism, one of the parties is not aware that they are the victim or aggressor. When our taxes pay for things such as farm aid or money to foreign countries or people on public aid or “social security”, or make-work schemes neither the parasite not the victim may be aware of the nature of their relationship. Or they may be aware, but believe that the parasitism is beneficial or morally justifiable. As we get better and better at stopping explicit parasitism, our peaceful and wealthy society becomes more and more ripe for implicit parasitism. That is the danger. But there is an upside: once implicit parasitism is recognized, it is much easier to stop than explicit parasitism, since the parasite is usually not able or willing to use superior force to continue the parasitism.

As we become more educated and form large-scale social-economic-political units, we learn to recognize and stop petty parasitism and form social taboos and laws against it. We imagine that we twitter away less funds on miracle cures, mass delusions, and Ponzi schemes. But by eliminating “simple” parasitism, we “reward” large-scale, hidden, and entrenched parasitism. The remaining parasitic relationships are able to deter their own exposition by using survival “tactics” such as very large scales (the lower the cost to individual victims, the lower the benefit to organizing against them), the spread of ethical principles defending the parasitism, and by embedding deeply in the social fabric.  Successful parasitic relationships in human society thus have two aspects: the physical act of redistributing values and the intellectual memes justifying that activity.

As with evolutionary patterns, there is no need for there to be any direct causal connection between, the act of parasitism and the formation of social structures, memes and taboos that defend it. For example, wealthy people can support the redistribution of wealth to the poor even though it does not benefit them materially. It may in fact lead to more poverty, the discovery of which feeds altruistic memes and thus encourages more wealth distribution. (This is just a hypothetical example – the cause & effect and the spread of ideas can have much more complicated relationships.)

Entrenchment in social-intellectual structures is key to parasitic relationships which display high evolutionary fitness. It’s hard for the victim of outright robbery and fraud to justify as morally proper or necessary. Parasitism engrained in basic social functions such as schools and roads is much harder to end. It may not be necessary for government schools to be run by parasitic (in the sense of demanding above-market-rate resources) teacher’s unions, but it is much harder to reorganize educational institutions than to stop gambling or seeking fortune tellers.

I have here tried to use relevant but non-emotionally or politically laden examples, but it is impossible to speak of this topic without engaging the defensive mental mechanisms of my audience, as aspects of the parasitism tied to ethical memes and group identity politics trip mental circuit breaks as part of their defensive mechanism. As with the birds, without any grand conspiracy, malice or even conscious awareness, all of civilization organizes in a way that opposes both the anti-parasistical behavior and the very recognition that the relationships are parasitical. Even by writing these thoughts, I am acting against the parasitic memes and so both opposing my own social-educational worldview and alienating myself from the mainstream intellectual dialogue that enables the parasitic behavior.  The evolved behavior+meme entities have done their job well: the chance that I or anyone will affect the mainstream is extremely slim.

I hope the above does not sound too pessimistic. After all, as a global civilization, humanity is doing pretty well.  Parasitism is bad in the sense that it a wasteful allocation of resources, but there are many other forms of inefficiency. If you want a simple takeaway, it is that destructive relationships can develop without any malicious intent, and that by examining all our relationships, including the “voluntary” ones and those that we see as “essential,” we might discover that many of the premises we held for granted are false.

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Re-evaluating the value of religion

This essay was written on August 13th, 2003 and edited slightly for this post:

Is religion a value to mankind? Some alleged benefits which have been attributed to religion include: scientific and philosophical principles, technologies such as the printing press, the colonization of the new world, great works of art such as Michelangelo’s David and the Sistine Chapel, monasteries that preserved and carried on knowledge during the Middle Ages, social institutions such as charities, schools, and universities. It’s undeniable that all these things have benefited mankind and that religion played a part in them.

On a personal note, I have  benefited greatly from the Judaism. A Jewish organization helped my parents come to America, placed me in private school so I could learn English and Hebrew, sent me to summer camp, paid for my trip to Israel, and even helped fund my college tuition. In addition to these material benefits, I learned a lot about history, philosophy, ethics, Hebrew, and social interaction while attending Sunday school and then helping to teach it for three years. Many of my religious teachers were intelligent and inspirational people who taught me many things in the classroom and by example.

So, it is indisputable that religion has done many good things for man. Is this sufficient evidence to conclude that religion is a value to man? The fact that an institution does good is not sufficient evidence that it is good overall. Consider a profession which is not considered desirable despite doing some good for people: medical quackery. A quack who sells a fake remedy for all ailments provides some benefit to people: the placebo effect often makes people feel better, and the alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs contained in remedies were often effective and making their users feel better. However, despite the benefit he provides, the quack also defrauds people, does not fix underlying health problems, and often addicts his patients to his “medicine.” Even though the quack provides a benefit, a real doctor could provide a greater benefit to people without the accompanying harm. Thus, when evaluating religion, we must consider the total effect, not just isolated benefits, and evaluate whether the benefits religion provides are essential to its nature.

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Are philosophical claims scientifically provable?

This question makes the logical fallacy of the stolen concept.  The question of what is “scientifically provable” is derived from our metaphysics and epistemology.  We use our basic philosophy to derive the epistemological standard by which to investigate the specific aspects of reality (e.g. physics, chemistry, mathematics, and economics).  To demand that philosophical statements be scientifically validated is to demand that a derivative which depends on philosophy be used to prove philosophy.  This is like trying to build a house by assembling the roof, walls, and windows before the foundation.  It is fine to examine the whole structure of knowledge to verify that it is internal consistent and sound.  But we cannot use a higher-level deduction to prove the premise that it depends on.   The only way to validate philosophical claims is to use reason: to use logic to validate abstract ideas by reducing them to sensory evidence.

What is the difference between science and philosophy?

Science is distinguished from philosophy by subject matter: science studies the specific nature of the universe, and philosophy (of which religion is a primitive form) studies the fundamental and universal of the universe and man’s relationship to it.  Both are concerned with facts, but they differ in subject matter and the standard of evidence.  In the field of philosophy, we must be logically rigorous, but we cannot, and need not measure the physical evidence quantitatively as in the subject-specific sciences.

Science is made possible by the acceptance of certain philosophical axioms in metaphysics and epistemology. In metaphysics, science requires recognizing that all entities behave in a causal manner according to their nature. In epistemology, it recognizes that man is capable of perceiving and understanding reality by the use of his senses, and because his consciousness is fallible and not automatic, he needs to actively adhere to reason and logic to reach the right conclusions.  Science requires a systematic method to collect evidence and correctly interpret it because knowledge of how nature works is not self-evident.

Science is different in degree from informal empirical methods such as “trial and error” and in kind from non-empirical methods such as revelation, astrology, or emotionalism.   But the basic method – of rational investigation based on the evidence of reality must be used in all fields, whether philosophy, law, chemistry, mathematic, or cooking.

More:

The One Minute Case for Science.

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Faith is emotionalism, Part 1: Epistemology

(In the next few posts, I’m going to re-post selections from a Facebook debate:)

Many apologetics claim that their faith is based on reason and evidence. In fact faith is just a kind of emotionalism.

Two analogies:

Suppose you decided to base your knowledge of reality on the result of dart throws. Whenever you have some doubts about something, you write four possible answers on a dart board. You would aim the dart in the general direction of the board, turn off the lights, and throw. Whichever answer is closest to the dart becomes your conclusion.

What is wrong with this methodology? If you adhere to the correspondence theory of truth (that for a belief to be true, it must correspond to reality) then you should realize that answer “chosen” by the dart has no correspondence to reality. Why not? Because there is no causal connection between your ideas and the random path taken by the dart. The dart’s path is not a valid proof of your conclusion because it is not derived from observation or logical consideration of the ideas in question.

Frustrated, you try another methodology:

You will write down the four answers as before, and then take a large dose of hallucinogenic and amnesia-inducing drugs. You will pick the answer in your drugged state but have no memory of how you selected it when you are sober again. Is this conclusion valid? Now, you are not depending on random chance, but on a distorted version of your own mental processes. Is your method any more valid? No – there is still not causal connection between the idea and your drugged ravings. The answers are you most likely to choose will probably correspond to your existing conclusions. But it will still not be any kind of proof or evidence.

Reason means a valid epistemology:

In order for evidence to be valid, there must be a valid epistemological process. To prove that a claim is true, we must verify it by deriving a conclusion step by step from the evidence of our own senses in accordance with the laws of logic. This process is known as reason. If we fail to rely on our senses and logic, we might as well be throwing the allegorical darts in the dark. Doing so willingly is irrationality.

What is the “evidence” given for supernatural claims?

There are two possible kinds: empirical claims and non-empirical claims. Empirical claims are based on observation, such as “the universe exists, so God must have created it” or “I saw Jesus on a piece of toast I ate last week.” These claims are wrong, but they do not involve faith, since they can be proven or disproven. No one would take such arguments seriously however if it were not for claims based on non-empirical evidence – faith. This takes many forms in different religions, but generally it is a kind of “revelation.” Ultimately, all revelation can be reduced to emotionalism. How so? This requires an understanding of the nature of emotion:

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Yaron Brook: Why Unregulated Capitalism Is Moral

Watch more great videos at the Ayn Rand Institute channel on YouTube

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Three Proofs Against the Existence of God

I was feeling argumentative tonight, so I started a debate on God at the TexAgs forum. This post is mostly for my use in some future debate, but check out my arguments if you care to.

Edit: I realized that my arguments have some major flaws. While true, the background knowledge required to understand the concepts involved requires that the reader be an atheist/Objectivist before he reads them. So, I appreciate the compliments, but stand by for a rewritten version designed to respect the silly theist’s hierarchy of knowledge.
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Whos the worst dictator of all time?

Today’s blog is a reply to the following question I saw on a local forum: Who is the worst dictator of all time?
My post:
How can you answer this kind of question without first determining what makes someone evil in the first place?
And how can you possibly make such a comparison without some standard by which to judge the moral worth of a person?
So, to determine just how evil a man is, you must first find out what standard of morality one should be judged by in the first place.
Here is what I think:
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Update

David firing a gun

After going shooting this weekend, I was inspired to write an essay titled Guns and Abortions: Two Sides of the Same Coin. I just finished the first draft, and I’m looking for comments and suggestions. If you were inspired by the essay and want to learn more from groups and individuals that that support the Constitution and don’t compromise on principles, I suggest going here and here for gun rights, and here and here for abortion rights. Update: an interesting article on Hitler’s disarming of the Jews.

On a related note, Michael Moore’s website was hacked yesterday. Here is all the hacked page said:

This message is meant to be apolitical. Mr. Moore, your documentary “Bowling for Columbine” is fictitious, not factual. David Hardy’s Truth About Bowling is simply damning. You deliberately deceive your viewers, who are only expecting a slightly biased factual report. Mr. Moore, my personal hope is that you publicly apologize, not for your ideas, but for dubbing your lies the truth. Please see revoketheoscar.com Love always, NHA Crew.

I normally disapprove of hacking, but for I’ll make an exception for blatant frauds and liars. According to my sources, this lazy liberal hasn’t updated his server software in at least a year.

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