Friday, September 15, 2017

The Big Questions of Philosophy by David K. Johnson

By Mathew Goldstein

David K. Johnson is a professor of philosophy at Kings College in Pennsylvania who produced a Great Courses series of videos titled The Big Questions of Philosophy that sells for about $70 dollars (less for audio, more for DVD).  Some county government library systems have contracted with a company that sponsors a web site, and also an app, called kanopy.  Kanopy makes many videos available for free to people with library cards.  At least some, if not most, of those videos do not appear to be very good.  But among the many hundreds of free videos on kanopy is the entire set of 36 half hour lectures of the aforementioned course.   

He is probably not as rich, nor as famous, as George Soros whose book features five of his philosophy lectures.  After watching Professor Johnson's first five lectures, and excerpts from a few other lectures, I will take a chance on him and recommend his videos.  This is the philosophy 101 course that should be included with everyone's basic education but not everyone receives.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Soros Lectures at the Central European University, by George Soros



Reviewed by Bill Creasy


With most intellectuals, you can ask: If they are so smart, why aren't they rich? You can't say that about George Soros. He has made a fortune by trading currencies, most famously making $1 billion in a single day. This book begins with his short biography, and Soros is also a frustrated philosopher, having studied under Karl Popper. He went into finance when the philosophy job didn't work out. Recently, he has concentrated on philanthropy and has returned to philosophy.

He claims in this short book, made up of 5 university lectures, that his understanding of philosophy gave him an edge for successful trading. The first lecture discusses the basis of his two important ideas, and the other chapters apply them to current issues. The lectures were given in Oct. 2009, so a major theme is to discuss the problems that caused the 2008 financial crisis. The audio and video of the lectures are available on his website, www.soros.org.

His two ideas are direct challenges to prevailing assumptions of economics and other social sciences. The ideas seem obvious in some ways, but are also important in trying to explain social events.

The first idea is called "fallibility" by Soros. It is based on the fact that human beings have imperfect knowledge and reasoning about reality. Classical economics assumes a state of equilibrium from participants who have enough knowledge about a situation to make rational decisions. Soros says that this assumption is false. Imperfect information affects not only decisions, but also gives rise to simplified and simplistic approximations, rules of thumb, political slogans, generalizations, and moral precepts. Peoples' use of these simple rules cause imperfect responses to uncertain situations. This doesn't justify the postmodern statement that there isn't any real objective information. Soros thinks there is valuable information, but there is usually not enough information to fully characterize economic events.

Soros discusses the idea of a "fertile fallacy." This is an idea that can be wrong or flawed but can still lead to productive actions in the correct direction. He says, “We are capable of acquiring knowledge, but we can never have enough knowledge to allow us to base all of our decisions on knowledge. It follows that if a piece of knowledge has proved useful, we are liable to overexploit it and extend it to areas where it no longer applies, so that it becomes a fallacy.” For example (my example, not his), "liberty and justice for all" is a fertile fallacy. Liberty and justice are always in tension, because one person's liberty can lead to someone else's injustice. But the slogan can still lead people towards an ideal of a freer society with a fairer legal system. He says, “Fertile fallacies are...the equivalent of bubbles in financial markets.”

Soros's other idea is called "reflexivity," and it is more complex. The purpose of social science is to observe patterns or develop hypotheses about social behavior in a passive way. But as soon as a pattern is observed, human beings immediately try to exploit the observation to their own benefit, in an active, manipulating way. The active manipulation can change or even completely destroy the pattern!

This effect can explain the 2008 financial crisis to some degree. (The following is my condensed version of an explanation, which Soros discusses in more abstract terms.) Prior to 2000, mortgage loans were considered to be extremely safe investments. The mortgages were based on real property, and people were generally conscientious about paying for their houses. However, large financial institutions saw this simple rule and exploited it. They tried to sell as many mortgages as they could and combine them into "risk-free" securities. Many new houses were built and sold to generate more mortgages. The result was that mortgages were given to people who couldn't afford to pay for them. The surplus of houses and foreclosures caused a glut of housing, making prices fall so the amounts of existing mortgages were larger than the value of the property. The actions by the financial institutions changed mortgages from a safe investment to a risky one that has cost them a lot of money.

It would be nice if the crisis was over. But the current European financial problem is from other "safe" loans: sovereign debt, or loans to governments to finance deficits. Again, this is a safe investment until it is taken to excess. Soros said in a Newsweek interview, "The situation is about as serious and difficult as I've experienced in my career." (Jan. 30, 2012, p. 53). The U.S. is also borrowing money to make an unprecedented national debt.

This effect shows the difference between social science and physical science. In physical science, discovery of a pattern or a natural law can be exploited and the law doesn't change. With social science, discovery of a pattern causes people to change the pattern. As a result, the pattern can cease to be true, except historically.

Soros pointed out this problem, but there is a certain irony in Soros's description of his ideas. He puts them in terms of physical science, using terms such as "equilibrium" and "feedback," and he even develops a "human uncertainty principle," in analogy to the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle. This doesn't seem to be unusual in the social sciences. Soros writes, “Economists in particular suffer from what Sigmund Freud might call 'physics envy.'” But the human uncertainty principle, as he describes it, is quite different from the physical one, because humans intentionally act to completely change the observations. Putting this effect in terms used by physics is simply misleading, because physics doesn't have such a problem. Soros comments, “The alchemists made a mistake in trying to change the nature of base metals by incantation. Instead, they should have focused their attention on the financial markets, where they could have succeeded.”

Regardless, the ideas that Soros discusses are interesting and relevant to current problems. In the second chapter, he discusses financial bubbles and the reason that government regulation is necessary to establish rules in financial markets. In the other chapters, he discusses the difference between markets and politics and why they should have different systems of operation. If you are wondering why financial deregulation doesn't work and why free market rules don't apply to politics, this small book is worth reading.


This article was previously published in WASHline, the newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Unsafe Spaces Tour panel at American University this month

By Mathew Goldstein

Spiked magazine is sponsoring a series of Unsafe Spaces Tour panels at different universities, including Rutgers and Harvard.  They claim they are trying to promote "the humanist case for free speech". Tickets are free.  On September 28, there’s a panel at American University (Washington, D.C.) on “Feminism, sex, and censorship on campus” featuring Nadine Strossen, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Ella Whelan, and Robert Shibley.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Darwin substitute for Lamarck?

By Mathew Goldstein

Why do animals and plants appear to be well adapted to their environments?  Lamarck had an answer that appears to make sense.  Environmental changes promote behavioral changes which promote corresponding structural adaptations in animals and plants that are transmitted to offspring.  However, Lamarck's hypothesis contradicts the prevailing theory that natural selection acts on random genetic mutations. The post Darwin discovery of genes defeated Lamarck's theory while simultaneously demonstrating the validity of much of Darwin's theory.  Yet there is still some wiggle room here for a superficially Lamarckian, non-random component within the prevailing, random mutation, framework.

Maybe natural selection acts on random mutations to produce outcomes that appear Lamarckian because environmental changes impact particular genes differently.  Particular genes can be stimulated by an environmental change.  Maybe the rate of mutation on stimulated genes increases relative to the rate in genes unaffected by the environmental change.   Because random mutations in that gene are more likely to occur more quickly than would otherwise be the case, the likelihood of a rare beneficial mutation also increases.  Natural selection then favors the rare beneficial mutation in the overall population.

When cells replicate their DNA, the replication by transcription mechanism sometimes stalls. Sometimes, when a stalled replication resumes, a gene sequence is deleted or extra copies of it are made.  A combination of factors could make these copying errors more likely to occur for those particular genes that are actively responding to environmental stresses, so that those particular genes are more likely to show copy number variation.

I read that there is some evidence that "adaptive mutation" of this sort could be occurring in microorganisms.  For example, there is more copy number variation of the copper-resistance gene CUP1 when it is stimulated by environmental copper.  When CUP1 was modified by a team of researchers led by Jonathan Houseley, a specialist in molecular biology and genetics at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, to react to a non-toxic sugar instead of to copper, an increase in copy number variation result was again seen after the modified CUP1 gene was stimulated by that environmental sugar.  

There is substantial skepticism that adaptive mutation plays a significant role in evolution among biologists.  More and better evidence for stimulated gene localized copy number variation, and a mechanism that translates stimulation of a gene into a higher mutation rate, will be required for this speculative hypothesis to be accepted.  Efforts to prove or disprove adaptive mutation in microorganisms may accelerate as a result of the recent positive CUP1 gene results.  If biologists one day determine that adaptive mutation is true, and probably had some role in humans being one branch on the primate tree, then will more people put aside their religious beliefs and accept that humans are ancestors of microorganisms?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Over there and over here, one difference

By Mathew Goldstein

We collectively make our history.  Human history has its ups and downs.  Our legacy is not particularly good overall, there are many ugly events to relate.  We should not be proud of our history, it is too often shameful.  We need our history, for its pains and glories, and it's ambiguities too, as lessons.  From history we can learn about what not to do, sometimes about what to do, to locate a better future.  From the past we select what history we value when we name our airports, towns, and highways, and who we honor with memorial statues in our public places.  

Having lived my youth in the northeast, I found little difference overall following my move south to the mid-Atlantic past the Mason-Dixon Line.  The Swatztikas on the local train tressle and etched into the public school desks and library cubicles, the German language "Juden" graffiti in black paint on my high school, my immediate neighbor with a pick-up truck whose rear window was covered by a Confederate battle flag, over there.  New co-workers who made a point of telling me that they supported David Duke, the Swatzikas drawn inside a cave, on a motorcyclist's helmet, drawn on the downtown street signs, and building walls, over here.  

However, there is a difference. Here, but not there, the names of Confederate generals were part of the public infrastructure.  Those Confederate generals endorsed, and fought to preserve, commercial kidnapping and enslaving of Africans, many of whom were killed as a result, and whose ancestors live among us today.  The Civil War history was not a part of my life.  My European Jewish ancestors came here during and after WW I, fleeing the anti-semitism that later morphed into the mass murder of Jews who remained in Europe.  Yet this history, both on the Nazi and Confederate sides, kept announcing itself uninvited in odd places and contexts where it did not belong, strangely introduced and repeated by people with crayons, ink, knives, paint, flags, and words.  But with the highway and place names for Confederate war heroes here only.

The people of Charlottesville, like all towns, decide for themselves what history they want to associate themselves with.  They acted reasonably and responsibly when they decided to remove a statue of a Confederate general from their town park.  Among the decisions our local governments face, whether or not that statue resides in a park is not a particularly pressing national concern.  This is primarily a concern for the people living in those towns.

The people with torches and battle flags who thought the public display of this particular statue was so important that they traveled from all over the country to demonstrate for keeping the statue in that park have misdirected priorities.  Adding or removing a statue does not establish, change, or erase the history.   The overreaction against the removal of the statue is evidence that such statues and place names are not innocent and academic placeholders for history.  They are deemed by caucasian, and some Christian, supremacists, such as David Duke and his followers, as representing a positive history that we should emulate, as endorsing traditional attitudes and policies that we should identify ourselves with today.  Instead, more towns and states should follow the positive trend of removing the Confederate war hero statues and place names.  Their essential place is in our history books.  They need not be, and should not be, the statues in our parks or our place names.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A Word for the Lower Middle Class

By Bill Creasy

The 2016 election of Pres. Trump seems to have happened because of support from lower and middle-class voters, predominantly white and religious ones. Democrats have been advised that they should try to talk to these groups, or they won't win future elections.

This kind of "conventional wisdom" changes every four years. For example, it changed dramatically since 2012 when Obama was reelected, when it looked like Democrats had a majority for the foreseeable future based on the minority voters.

But lower and middle class voters have valid reasons to worry about the current economy (and, increasingly, all classes and races should worry). But some are looking at their problems in terms of ideas that are contradictory and inconsistent. If they want to solve the problems, they need to work out these contradictions. They need to have a realistic perspective on their place in the world and who they are competing against. They need to understand what the government can and can't do for them.

People with less education than a college degree are worried that well-paying jobs are becoming less common. Some of these jobs are manufacturing jobs, and factories are moving to other countries that pay lower wages. In that way, they are competing against low-wage people in developing countries who may have less education but who are just as good at doing routine, repetitious procedures.

Many jobs are also disappearing because of automation, as specialized machines are built that can perform repetitive tasks even more cheaply and reliably than any human can. The factory owner makes a capital improvement to the factory and improves its efficiency so that fewer human workers are needed. The owner gets richer by spending less on labor and makes more products with fewer employees.

No one should be nostalgic about how great these jobs are. Many were boring, stressful, and required no creativity. Coal mining and assembly line work, for example, aren't fun. Given a choice, no one would probably choose to do them. Some of the jobs were well-paid, but only because generations of union members protested and participated in strikes against large companies in order to get better wages and benefits, like paid health insurance or paid vacation. 

Manufacturing jobs are being replaced by service jobs. Union membership is declining. It is more difficult to strike against service employers for higher wages, especially when they are small companies that are competing against other small companies down the street. Striking against one simply drives customers from one business to another. The advantage is that most of these jobs can't go to another country, because they have to be done face to face.  But they are slowly being automated by replacing people with computers or self-service terminals. So wages have stagnated and many employers don't offer benefits. 

This, in a nutshell, is the current situation, and it isn't likely to change for the better by itself. There are many exceptions, since there are specialized jobs people can learn, and there are still small businesses that are being started.  But overall, good jobs are harder to find.

Often it is necessary for a family to be supported by two wage earners, or else children are raised in poverty. If they are raised in poverty and without resources to get an education, they are likely to remain as low income and become increasingly worse off. These effects seem to be reinforcing the class and income levels in the U.S. In spite of the American Dream, rich people get richer, and poor people stay poor. Economic trends support these effects. 

Low income people are right to be concerned about these trends from recent years.  Trump made an effort during his campaign to talk to angry, low-income people. He attracted rallies full of angry people by pointing out the trends that have been developing for decades.   They responded by assuming he was sympathetic to them and would do something to address their concerns.

What can be done? Low-wage employees need enough perspective to understand what competition they are up against, or they will never make informed choices.  Some people are reacting in ways that are doomed to fail. The most obvious recent mistake was voting for Trump. It was clear from Trump's speeches that he didn't have a good understanding of the problem or any concrete plans that would work. His solutions to the problem are useless.  He suggested slogans as solutions that have been tried during the past decades and rejected as simplistic. Building a "big wall" on the Mexico border won't keep jobs in the country. There is little evidence that international trade treaties decreases the number of jobs, and they may actually create jobs. (These things can be hard to measure. There are winners and losers.) 

Ever since the Reagan Administration, low income people and people from southern states have allied with the Republican Party. There are indications that this alliance had to do with reaction against the Civil Rights Act, from which the Democratic Party became associated with politically liberal and minority groups. Perhaps the low income whites simply wanted to associate with wealthy people, hoping that the wealth and good fortune would rub off on them. But the evidence that tax benefits to help wealthy people ever "trickled down" are weak. Wealthy people behave in ways that are generally for their own benefit, as would be expected.

If low income people want assistance with their problems, government is the only entity that can reliably help. The government can set up laws and regulations that blunt the impact of pure capitalism, which is almost guaranteed to favor people who are already wealthy.  But the right kinds of well-thought-out regulations are needed, not just slogans.  Regulations are imperfect, and they will make some winners and some losers.  Low income people will need to demand the particular help that they need.

The Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") is a good example.  As fewer people receive health insurance from employers, they will need to get insurance for themselves and their families.  Otherwise, they will not receive adequate health care, and the U.S. should be able to provide health care to its citizens.  But the system to provide this insurance to low income people will require government subsidies and taxes on the wealthy.  The system won't be simple or easy to implement.  It has been encouraging to see that citizens have been willing to protest to protect this program.  Hopefully, it will be gradually improved to make it fairer and work better without being repealed. 

Experience from the past century shows that the government can create programs that are good for some things, but may not be good for others.  The government isn't particularly good at creating excess jobs to achieve full employment.  Expecting the government, or the president, to create jobs for "everyone" is probably not going to work well.

The government can create jobs for specific projects that have defined goals, like national defense or infrastructure projects.  It can implement social programs like Social Security and Medicare that private companies have trouble doing.  It can fund basic scientific research that leads to long-term benefits.  Finding the right kind of program to address job losses will be a challenge, but it can be done, as long as affected citizens ask for it in a realistic way.

For better or worse, government works by taxing to take money by force and redistribute it to try to solve social problems. It doesn't have a magical ability to generate business or make productive, meaningful employment.  But that doesn't mean that it should be rejected or dismissed by those wealthy people, like Trump, who can't understand why social problems exist, because they haven't personally experienced them.  There are times when capitalism simply doesn't provide the best mechanism for keeping society healthy and functional.  If it doesn't, then we must think and act to fix it.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

CFI opposes efforts to penalize critics of Islam

Kudos to the Center for Inquiry, and their board chair Eddie Tabash, for calling out the radio station that invited Richard Dawkins for an interview about his new book (Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist) and then obnoxiously cancelled their interview without notifying their invitee (it appears that they never even attempted to notify Dawkins that they had cancelled the interview with him).  The CFI characterizes the radio station's unbalanced accusation against Mr. Dawkins as "unfounded allegations", which comports with my understanding that the radio station did not provide support for their accusation, and notes that the radio station's "stance is like the justification nations use to defend their blasphemy laws".  The radio interviewer could have confronted Mr. Dawkins with the allegations against him during their interview, which appear to be unrelated to his book that they had agreed to discuss, to give him an opportunity to respond.

Subsequently the radio station cited this "most evil religion" quote about Islam as an example of his abusive commentary that justified their canceling the interview:

“It’s tempting to say all religions are bad, and I do say all religions are bad, but it’s a worse temptation to say all religions are equally bad because they’re not,” he added.

“If you look at the actual impact that different religions have on the world it’s quite apparent that at present the most evil religion in the world has to be Islam.

“It’s terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn’t mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it. Individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else.

“They suffer from the homophobia, the misogyny, the joylessness which is preached by extreme Islam, Isis and the Iranian regime.

“So it is a major evil in the world, we do have to combat it, but we don’t do what Trump did and say all Muslims should be shut out of the country. That’s draconian, that’s illiberal, inhumane and wicked. I am against Islam not least because of the unpleasant effects it has on the lives of Muslims.”


At the Secular Conference in London, all guests and speakers, some of whom are likely to be called "apostates" because they are secular Muslims or former Muslims, were instructed not to share the location of the event to non attendees due to security concerns.  Indiscriminate endorsement of "Islamophobia", and "abusive speech" against Islam complaints, directed against people who are interdenominational with their dislike of counter-evidenced beliefs, like Richard Dawkins, in today's world were we face these related, ongoing, threats by people who fancy themselves to be defenders of Islam, is not going to take us anyplace we want to go.  The people making these threats recognize when their threats are affective in intimidating people which is a positive outcome from their perspective.  There is no destination in the direction of endorsing such unbalanced accusations that will ultimately satisfy the people behind such accusations short of jail or violence targeting almost anyone who is judged by a theocratic standard to have insulted the "true" religious beliefs, because that is where the profoundly illiberal logic of such automatic rejection of almost any public expression of criticism of Islam takes us.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Evidence for string theory and atheism

By Mathew Goldstein

String theory posits that the particles and forces that physicists detect using machines are vibrating, string shaped units of energy embedded in a universe that is multi-dimensional.  Like most of science, this theory is non-intuitive and counter-intuitive to us.  Not in a million years would any philosopher, or theologian, or science fiction author, have invented string theory by reasoning primarily from their intuition, instead of from following the empirical evidence. It can be difficult, even for the scientists themselves, but especially for non-scientists like me, to grasp the concept.  The pervasively non-intuitive and counter-intuitive quality of modern theories regarding how our universe functions is important.  This tells us that we must rely on empirical evidence, and the consensus of experts when possible, not on our intuition, because our ignorant intuition is incompetent and more likely to be a counter-productive obstacle than a productive tool for understanding.

Electrons have a property called spin that either has the same, or opposite, direction as the direction that the electron travels.  According to string theory, the electron spin can flip directions in the presence of a strong gravitational field and magnetic field, such as near the event horizon of a black hole.  Theorists have concluded that in some contexts a temperature gradient can substitute for the gravitational field.

Recently, several IBM scientists, interested in exploring the possibility of deploying new types of materials for building future electronic devices for their employer, decided to test if they could observe a change in behavior of electrons in a semimetal that they were studying.  Semimetals are intermediate between conductive metals and semiconductors.  If string theory is true then a temperature gradient and strong magnetic field applied to the semimetal will break the spin symmetry conservation property of the electrons residing in the semimetal and produce a measureable current.  The IBM scientists succeeded in verifying this prediction, see http://m.ibm.com/https/www.ibm.com/blogs/research/2017/07/scientists-observe-gravitational-anomaly-on-earth Scientists Observe Gravitational Anomaly on Earth.

So what is the point of this post?  String theory, like most of modern knowledge about how the universe functions, is relevant to the theism versus atheism disagreement.  String theory, like all physics, chemistry, biology, etc., is thoroughly naturalistic.  String theory translates into mathematical equations that express the logic of physical, material, mechanical processes.  All of modern knowledge regarding how our universe functions is derived from naturalistic methods and reaches conclusions that are naturalistic.

Humanity did not begin the pursuit for knowledge preferring naturalistic methods and explanations.  We got pulled towards naturalism despite a long standing preference for supernaturalism.  This distinction is not binary, it is a continuum, and there is no measuring device.  Naturalism imposes constraints that reduces the options available to explain and people, wanting explanation, tend to consider the naturalism constraint to be too restrictive.  Yet the naturalism versus supernaturalism contest outcome lopsidedly favors naturalism, it is not a close call.  Time and time again, at all levels of focus from the smallest detail to the largest generality, there is opportunity for either more naturalistic oriented or more supernaturalistic oriented methods to be productive, and for either naturalistic favoring or supernaturalistic favoring conclusions to be successful.  Unrelentingly, over and over again, only the more naturalistic oriented methods are productive and only the naturalistic favoring conclusions are successful.

Several hundred years ago it was reasonable for well educated adults to endorse supernaturalism.  Science eventually abandoned supernaturalism because of its track record of total failure.  Today, theists, and non-atheist agnostics also, are downplaying, ignoring, and disregarding the pervasiveness, consistency, and diversity of the evidence for naturalism.  Many agnostics and theists who can be very good at respecting and following the empirical evidence in their professional and non-professional lives, nevertheless fail, apparently unwittingly, to apply that same rational standard to this question.  If they did apply the same rational standard of attending to the overall available evidence, as they otherwise routinely do every day, instead of myopically focusing narrowly on lack of knowledge trivialities and mysteries, and carefully avoided the mistake of placing personal preference or intuition over evidence, then they would be atheists.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Summer 2017 emails to Congress

By Mathew Goldstein

Send your emails using the forms provided by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and/or Secular Coalition for America and/or Freedom From Religion Foundation.  Or call or write letters.


The "Johnson Amendment" is the commonly utilized name for a law that prohibits nonprofit charities (religious nonprofits are automatically categorized as charities) that are financed with tax deductible contributions from endorsing political candidates.  Houses of worship (a.k.a. "churches"), their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of houses of worship, are the only nonprofits that not required to file an IRS tax form (or at least a Form 990N declaring that their income is under $50,000).  IRS Form 990 discloses basic information about a nonprofit’s expenditures and sources of revenue.  Because houses of worship are exempt from this crucial transparency requirement, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment would effectively allow houses of worship to function like invisible Super PACs and unleash a wave of religiously motivated ‘dark money’ into the political system.  Full repeal of the Johnson Amendment is the Religious Right's #1 priority.  Ask your members of Congress to safeguard this important law that acknowledges the fact that political campaigns are not a charitable activity and therefore should not be funded with tax deductible contributions (under current law, non-profits that are funded with contributions which are not tax deductible can legally support political campaigns).  Also, please ask them to eliminate the IRS Form 990 exemption for houses of worship.

The Do No Harm Act has been reintroduced in the House.  This bill would restore true religious freedom by amending the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to ensure that religion is not used as a license to deprive some people of their secular civil rights.  Privileging religious beliefs will continue to erode progress on civil rights until Congress draws a line in the sand.  Tell your members of Congress to restore the meaning of religious freedom as a shield to protect individuals of all faiths and no faith, not as a weapon for people to impose their religious beliefs on others who reject those beliefs, by co-sponsoring the Do No Harm Act, and thank Congressmen Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Joe Kennedy (D-MA) for introducing the bill. 


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, and a review of reviews


Reviewed By Bill Creasy

At a recent meeting of the Human Values Network, we used a review of Yuval Harari's book Homo Deus, called "In a robot showdown, humanity may happily surrender" by Matthew Hutson, Washington Post, March 9, 2017, as a starting point for a discussion. Harari's book is a discussion of the future of humanity in response to advances in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. The review of the book raised some interesting as well as irritating issues, so I will point out the issues from some of the other reviewers as well as from myself. The reviews of the book have interesting points by themselves. Also, it's easier for me to be critical by quoting someone else. For example, this is a comment by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker about the book: "with Harari's move from mostly prehistoric cultural history to modern cultural history, even the most complacent reader becomes uneasy encountering historical and empirical claims so coarse, bizarre, or tendentious." I wouldn't be able to top a comment like this.

To be fair, there are many ideas in the book that are sensible and justifiable. Harari's previous book, Sapiens, was a capsule description of the history of human civilization. This book continues that story with a summary of the past, consideration of the present society, and speculation about the future of humanity. According to Harari, most of human history and prehistory has been a fight against the triple problems of famine, pestilence (diseases and plagues), and warfare. To a large extent, these problems have been solved, at least to the extent that we humans decide to solve them. We know what to do to solve the problems, and we aren't at the mercy of random events that we have to attribute to a deity. This is a recent development. The author has a belief in progress and that the progress will be driven by science and technology. The principle of evolution is a starting point for his arguments. 

So the question is, what will people be concerned with in the future that will have the same importance as the struggle against famine, pestilence, and warfare? The book is an effort to ask this question, but the answers are less satisfactory. Part of the problem is the basic issue of describing the past as opposed to trying to predict the future, which is obviously more difficult. However, the book is witty and well-written, and there isn't much technical jargon, so it provides food for thought. I'm particularly interested in the way he talks about the following four issues.

I. Harari's humanism
The major issue for Humanists (with a big “H”) is Harari's ideas about, or definition of, humanism (with a small “h”). Harari wrote that "humanists worship humans" (Chap. 2) . The statement is questionable on its face, since most Humanists would disagree. But this is a statement that is hard to interpret. It appears that Harari means something new for the purpose of his argument.

According to a review by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker,
"'Humanism,' for instance, ordinarily signifies, first, the revival of classical learning in the Italian Renaissance... to place a new value on corporeal beauty, antique wisdom, and secular learning.... By 'humanism' Harari means, instead, the doctrine that only our feelings can tell us what to do--that 'we ought to give as much freedom as possible to every individual to experience the world, follow his or her inner voice and express his or her inner truth.'”
A reviewer called Flatiron John on Amazon.com is harder on Harari, saying, 
“He really dislikes humanism: he inaccurately states its tenets, and then repeatedly mocks it (for example, as promoting indulgent consumerism and sex). He claims that humanism is what is giving rise to an emerging cybernetic dystopia.... Harari is abusing the word 'humanism,' as a canvas on which to paint his caricature of modern liberal culture ('liberal' in the classical sense, not in the sense of left-wing politics). He is not really interested in what humanist writers and philosophers have actually said, and does not reference their works. He claims that humanism promotes the belief in a supernatural free will (when in fact, humanists value agency and freedom, but have differing opinions on free will). He claims that humanism believes in an indivisible self/soul (when in fact, psychologists since Freud have a different understanding). And he claims that humanism believes that individuals always know best about their own needs (when in fact, many have emphasized the importance of education in our development--he does not even reference John Dewey).”
Harari wrote in addition about humanism, 
"In fact, humanism shared the fate of every successful religion, such as Christianity and Buddhism. As it spread and evolved, it fragmented into several conflicting sects. All humanist sects believe that human experience is the supreme source of authority and meaning, yet they interpret human experience in different ways."
 According to Harari, the three rival branches of humanism are orthodox humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism. Then, even more strangely, he reinterprets the history of the 20th Century as a conflict between these three branches. Orthodox humanism represents liberal democracy, socialist humanism is Soviet communism, and evolutionary humanism is Nazism and Fascism. It goes without saying that no modern Humanist (with a capital H) would claim that communism or Nazism are part of humanist thought. Yet Harari's definition is broad enough to encompass them. 

The reviewer Rod Dreher wrote “Three Rival Humanisms” in The American Conservative (March 28, 2017) with this quote from Harari, and there is a long discussion in the letter column following his article that includes thoughtful conservative and Christian humanist points of view. 

Harari avoids jargon from terms with specialized meanings, but instead he redefines common terms to mean something that most people wouldn't agree with. He uses the term “humanism” differently than anyone in the Humanist movement would use it. No Humanist would say that humanism has “factions.” In some ways, his definition seems a little condescending, as if he is trying to distance himself from being a part of humanism. For example, he writes seriously about whether animals have real emotions, but in the chapter on humanism, he only talks about human “feelings” as the measure of importance and meaning. Rationality doesn't seem to have much impact on his humanism. Instead, he uses humanism as a kind of cultural trend to use people's happiness or suffering as measures of good or bad actions. He has some interesting ideas along the way, and he gives an unusual perspective. But he uses very general, broad overview, and avoids the specific. 

It's not easy to know how to interpret Harari's ideas in terms of the movement of Humanism. But perhaps the lesson is simply this: humanism is a important term and an old concept, and if we want to control the term as a designation of the Humanist movement, we have to be careful about controlling the meaning and usage of the term. We have to criticize people like Harari who try to make it mean something else.
 
II. Religion
Harari has some clever words about religion. Again, he uses the term “religion” to mean something that most religious people wouldn't accept, to the degree that humanism can be classified by him as a religion. According to Harari, 
“religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. It legitimises human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.” (Chap. 5).
 Harari redefines religion as a general worldview, but he eliminates a lot of common features of religion, like ritual and church organization. This may be one aspect of religion, but it ignores many other aspects that people think of as belonging to religion. In addition, it implies that there is something about humanism that involves superhuman legitimacy.

There are indications that Harari looks at religion in a flippant or condescending way. Nate Hopper quotes Harari in person in his Time magazine interview,  
“How might Homo sapiens find a sense of self-worth if technology can do their work better than they? One answer from experts is that computer games will fill the void. And they sound scary and dystopian until you realize that actually for thousands of years humans have been playing virtual reality games. Up until now, we simply called them religions.” 
 So his thoughts on religion have to be interpreted cautiously, with an effort to understand whether he is talking about actual religion or his definition of religion. That makes it particularly easy to take quotes out of context.

III. Future human goals
In the last third of the book, Harari describes some future scenarios for goals that humans may have. In general, he suggests that humans will seek after “immortality, bliss, and divinity.” These represent absolutist goals to continue the fight against famine, pestilence, and warfare, where immortality is the progress against death, bliss is the search for ideal happiness and satisfaction of our material needs, and divinity represents power and control over nature. Humans may never get to the ultimate achievement of these goals, but that won't keep people from trying or from making progress.

The book is weaker when discussing the technologies to use to make the progress. These involve some extrapolation of current technologies toward speculative or science fiction ideas: genetic engineering to produce humans with biologically superior physical or mental abilities, and artificial intelligence to produce evolving computers that could surpass human intelligence. Neither of these is a particularly novel idea, and not much is contributed from this book, either in understanding the technologies or in anticipating ethical dilemmas. For example, Ray Kurzweil and Gregory Paul, among others, have advocated for the development of artificial intelligence that may surpass human intelligence. Harari refers to these superior humans as the “Homo Deus” of the title, as if they become literal gods, even if they are perhaps only analogous to the Greek pantheon. But the use of the word “god” is unspecific and misleading, to go along with his definitions of humanism and religion. He proposes that “techno-humanism” will be a new religion, with humans still the center of philosophy and values but with technologically improved humans to replace the current variety. His idea of the goal of the future humans sounds like a theistic goal of bliss, immortality, and divinity, rather than practical progress toward these ideals with real technology.

Ashutosh S. Jogalekar wrote in a customer reviewer on Amazon.com
 “The problem is that Mr. Harari is an anthropologist and social scientist, not an engineer, computer scientist or biologist, and many of the questions of AI are firmly grounded in engineering and software algorithms. There are mountains of literature written about machine learning and AI and especially their technical strengths and limitations, but Mr. Harari makes few efforts to follow them or to explicate their central arguments. Unfortunately there is a lot of hype these days about AI, and Mr. Harari dwells on some of the fanciful hype without grounding us in reality. In short, his take on AI is slim on details, and he makes sweeping and often one-sided arguments while largely skirting clear of the raw facts. The same goes for his treatment for biology. He mentions gene editing several times, and there is no doubt that this technology is going to make some significant inroads into our lives, but what is missing is a realistic discussion of what biotechnology can or cannot do. It is one thing to mention brain-machine interfaces that would allow our brains to access supercomputer-like speeds in an offhand manner; it's another to actually discuss to what extent this would be feasible and what the best science of our day has to say about it.”
 The other possible future religion that Harari proposes is “dataism”, the idea that “the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing” (Chap 11). This is an interesting idea, but it is odd to think that the quantity of data is important, rather than the way it is processed into useful information. We can consider a website like Wikipedia, which is notable not for the quantity of information (even though it is large), but for the fact that it has well-organized, well-written, and comprehensive information. I recently heard a National Capital Area Skeptics lecture by Susan Gerbic, who is organizing a group Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, that is dedicated to increasing the skeptical content of Wikipedia entries. Adding to Wikipedia is certainly a calling or perhaps even an obsession, and it takes a librarian's interest in cataloging information so it's accessible. But it doesn't seem like a religion. (It may qualify as a religion under Harari's definition, but it's hard to tell.) So it isn't clear why “dataism” would appeal to anyone in any sense of the term religion. Why would it satisfy a human need for meaning in life? 

IV. Group Evolution 
 Group evolution can contribute to the questions that Harari addresses. Groups and organizations are important for human evolution, and they will continue to be important in the future. Large groups may become more important in determining the direction of future society than individuals. In some ways, individuals may have to tolerate inconveniences in order to keep society working well. 

Harari mentions the importance of groups and cooperation among humans in producing society. In fact, he discusses an interesting classification of information he calls “intersubjective”, in addition to objective and subjective information. Intersubjective information “depends on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans” (Chap.3). For example, items like money, language, and law are classified as intersubjective, since they don't exist unless many people use them. Harari makes the mistake of referring to these items as “fictions,” since they aren't objectively real in the same way as physically real objects. 

But this kind of information is the kind that is evolving in group evolution, so it is far from fictional. In fact, it is important to understand how this information is stored, passed along, and selected for. We probably need to know a lot more about that. 

David Runciman says in his review the The Guardian
“Harari thinks the modern belief that individuals are in charge of their fate was never much more than a leap of faith. Real power always resided with networks. Individual human beings are relatively powerless creatures, no match for lions or bears. It's what they can do as groups that has enabled them to take over the planet. These groupings - corporations, religions, states - are now part of a vast network of interconnected information flows.”
 But the importance of groups doesn't imply that individual humans are unimportant, that they don't matter, or that they are powerless to influence the future. Individuals are important, but not in the way that people may commonly think. We aren't cowboys who must fend for ourselves or our families. We are stuck with each other, whether we like it or not. We have to think of the best ways to get along, and there's nothing fictional about that. 

Individuals come up with new technologies and with new kinds of organization. More important, the new inventions only matter because a large number of people adopt them and find them useful. For example, the cell phone was developed and improved by a large number of people, and it influences current culture because almost everyone has gotten one. This doesn't indicate that individuals are powerless; it shows they have similar needs and adopted a new technology that helps to solve them. It also shows that humans pass along the “intersubjective” information that makes group evolution evolve and change. 

Group evolution indicates that the selection process will happen for many kinds of new technology. There may be new biological modifications that can be done on humans, as Harari indicates. The ones that will have the most impact will be the ones that are accepted by a lot of people, perhaps such as the ones that lengthen lifespan. But we can also imagine genetic engineering that will turn people blue or grow wings. But if these changes are not widely accepted, or if they don't solve a social problem, they won't make much difference. Some people may make the change out of vanity, or because they have a lot of money to spend on a luxury, but those with the alterations will be a small minority. This is the kind of selection criterion that group evolution can apply to a plan for the future which Harari should have tried to take into account. 

Artificial intelligence will likely make a significant difference, once the right kind of algorithms are developed. Again, the ones that will make a difference will solves a problem with the group. For example, modern economists are making an effort to understand a country's economy and how the distribution of money affects it. They try to make rules and generalizations to simplify the economy and to figure out how to understand it. However, a large enough artificial intelligence computer will not need to simplify the economy. It will simply keep track of all transactions by brute data processing. If a person loses a job because the job is obsolete, artificial intelligence can identify that person, find a related new job, and make sure the person is trained for it. Does this mean that the person is not in control? Not really, since they can refuse to do the new job. But artificial intelligence will solve a problem for them, if they want to solve it. This will be progress. 

It is likely that the artificial intelligence programs will start to evolve by themselves, since they will be too complex for human programmers. The real problem is setting up the artificial intelligence so that it will evolve toward the socially useful purpose. An AI shouldn't be designed to evolve for finding better ways to kill people; that would be a mistake. It might succeed too well. This isn't a small problem to worry about. The Department of Defense has a lot of money to spend on the problem of targeting “bad guys.” But if an AI gets smart enough, will it notice that it can be really difficult to tell the difference between good guys and bad guys? Will it decide that the bad guys are the ones asking it to kill people? Or will it just notice that there are really too many human beings alive to be supported comfortably on the planet, and things would be better with fewer people? From our perspective, these might be unfortunate conclusions for it to arrive at, if it has the power to do something about it. 

A lot of the current generation of internet technology is designed to keep people online and using the technology. Facebook is trying to keep people on, because that is the way that they make more money from advertising. Television programs, from the original ones in the 1950's to the current generation, are usually paid for by advertising, so they get paid for “eyeballs” of people watching. The programs are designed to keep people watching. Does this solve a real social problem? 

The AI may not need to be designed to act like a human being. We have enough human beings, why build more? But if robots can be built to perform jobs that humans are not really good at, they will probably be built and used. The problem is then finding things for the humans to do to earn a living. This isn't an impossible problem, as long as the robots are producing all the things that humans need. It is just a question of distributing the things, and then telling the humans that they can do whatever they want. Would that be so bad? 

V. Conclusion 
It is difficult to say that Harari's book is not good, since it has a lot of good information, it uses some good assumptions about the future, and there are a lot of interesting ideas. But it has limitations. It defines terms like humanism and religion in a way that isn't accurate and could lead to misunderstandings. The ideas “techno-humanism” and “dataism” are really odd ideas about what humans need to make life matter. Because it doesn't include group evolution, it doesn't have an important criterion for evaluating future changes. But the book provides food for thought, and that is not a bad thing. 
 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Maajid Nawaz files lawsuit against the SPLC

By Mathew Goldstein
The Quilliam Foundation is a counter-extremism think tank that was co-founded by Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz, former activists in the radical Islamist party Hizb ut-TahrirQuilliam's argument is that the government should not only tackle those advocating terrorist violence, but should also focus on those who have the same views, even if they adopt peaceful meansSupporters say this is necessary to tackle the roots of terrorist violence for the long term.  Critics of the foundation accuse it of McCarthyite smear tactics, brand its claims ridiculous, and say the foundation labels vast swathes of Muslim Britain as extremist.  It can be difficult to know who is right without knowing more about the Muslim groups that Quilliam criticized.  But based on what Nawaz says and writes in general, he sounds like a reasonable, moderate, guy and not at all like an "anti-Muslim extremist" that the Southern Poverty Law Center oddly rates him to be.

He is somewhat alarmist, using the adjective "insurgency" to describe the jihadist movement in Europe, which may describe how some jihadists see themselves.  His foundation depends on funding, so there is a self-interest for him to promote fear about the threat that his foundation focuses on.  Quilliam receives funding from the conservative leaning Templeton Foundation which spends tens of millions of dollars a year to promote the popular but dubious view that exclusively naturalistic science and supernatural theistic religions are mutually consistent and supportive.  Nawaz's estimates of the overall numbers of violence prone "jihadists", and non-violent but potentially jihad violence supporting Islamists, in Britain are somewhat high but appears to be defensible.  He says there are 23,000 extremists, which is the sum of the 3,000 currently under investigation plus the 20,000 previously under investigation and still listed by the government as people of interest (some of the people accused of participating in attacks are among those on this latter list).  He estimates there are about three times as many sympathizers out of about "4 million" British Muslims, which is between 2-3% total.  

None of this qualifies him as being an extremist of any sort. Nawaz is a secularist Muslim, his expressed views are consistently anti-extremist.  People like him do not threaten the civic equality (let alone the lives) of atheists, gays, Jews, Christians, women, music band and night club attendees, or other Muslims like extremists do.  Here is the recent video of Bill Maher's interview of Maajid Nawaz.  Free speech protection is legally favored which makes it difficult for defamation lawsuits to prevail in the United States.  Accordingly, SPLC may be exonerated under the standards set in our laws, but they are guilty of defamation regardless of the lawsuit's final outcome.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Douglas Navarick's false equivelancy

By Mathew Goldstein

Douglas J. Navarick is a Professor of Psychology at California State University.  He is sometimes published in Skeptic magazine.  His perspective is that many atheists are not skeptical, but are instead dogmatic, and thus suffer from a similar, if not identical, pathology as the hyper-religious.  His opposition to dogmatic thinking is well-grounded, but his method of identifying dogmatic thinking is mistaken.  Navarick claims that the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism —Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, share "the off putting dogmatism of the hyper-religious".  I disagree and I am going to try to explain where I think Navarick is wrong.

Navarick argues that the evidence for ESP is greater than the evidence for abiogenesis.  He says the evidence for the former is at best weak, but the evidence for the latter is non-existent.  This is one of his mistakes.  Macroevolution is evidence for abiogenesis because they are logically related to each other probabilistically.  If macroevolution was disproved then life would be more likely to be a supernaturalistic phenomena and abiogenesis, because it is the naturalistic explanation for the start of life, would be less probable.  Similarly, if the one to one relationship between chemistry and biology was disproved then life would be more likely to be a supernaturalistic phenomena and abiogenesis would be less probable.

Navarick, like many other non-atheists, has this big blind spot.  He does not acknowledge the logical connection between macroevolution being a strictly naturalistic phenomena, life being a strictly naturalistic phenomena, and life having a strictly naturalistic origin.  All evidence for one is evidence for the latter, and vica versa, yet Navarick basis his argument on a refusal to acknowledge this.  Instead, he downplays the significance of the logical connection between physics, chemistry, and biology each being exclusively naturalistic to advance his argument that life itself is supernaturalistic.

He defines God thusly: "A willful, creative, force that transcends material reality and operates both through and independently of natural laws."  Any force that operates through natural laws would appear to us as natural laws.  To justifiably conclude otherwise we would need good evidence that natural laws by themselves are insufficient.  Contrary to what Navarick tries to argue, we have no good evidence that natural laws are by themselves insufficient.  What remains are God of the gaps arguments which are weak arguments.  If that is how God operates then God is hiding from us and therefore we should disbelieve in God.

Navarick claims that his God theory makes "a strong prediction" that efforts to create living cells will fail.  This is a good example of a weak, God of the gaps argument.  This is because we can expect efforts to create living cells to fail for other reasons that are consistent with abiogenesis being true.  In particular, abiogenesis may be a rare, and slow to occur, process.  We do not have a full understanding of the physical conditions at the time and place life began and we cannot go back in time to witness it.  There was a lot of time, water, molecules, heat, comets and meteorites, minerals, solar radiation, variations in local conditions, etc. for a rare abiogenesis process to occur once naturally, and the required combinations of events may be complex and very difficult to identify and reproduce.

He also cites the lack of evidence for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe as evidence for his God theory.  But it is not clear why his God failed to fill our universe with intelligent life, why his God relied on the cruelty intrinsic to evolution as the natural law to disguise her presence, why his God first placed us humans on this particular isolated planet and Galaxy so many billions years after the universe began, why his God would create such an expansive universe beyond what we need, the origin of his God, etc.  In contrast, there are naturalistic explanations for our not yet encountering other intelligent life.  Multi-cellular life may be much slower and less likely to evolve than single celled life, intelligent life may be too fragile to usually survive for long in our frequently harsh to life universe, the tremendous distances between galaxies and stars make it less likely we will encounter intelligent life, and our searches to date may not be looking at good signals or in the best locations.

Navarick proposes that life is an independent property that catalyzes biochemical reactions without actually participating in these reactions.  Life, he argues, thus precedes the reactions, it does not result from them.  He cites as evidence cryopreservation, where "all biochemical activity ceases ... but the cells remain alive".  Yet there is nothing about cryopreservation that is inconsistent with life consisting of biochemistry alone.  Life ceases when the biochemistry ceases due to insufficient temperature.  The biochemistry, and therefore life, resume when the minimum requisite temperature returns.  We encounter a similar phenomena of non-biological chemistry stopping, and then resuming, with changes in temperature without inferring a supernatural catalyzing force.

Navarick sounds desperate to retain supernaturalism against the odds.  As many hard skeptics do, he starts with a biased commitment to retaining the viability of supernaturalism against the evidence and then homes in on whatever excuses he can find.  From there he promotes his agnostic perspective as the most reasonable conclusion.  He acknowledges that theists and atheists can be agnostic and categorizes them as being reasonable, while claiming that gnostic theists and atheists are two equally dogmatic extremes, as if rational reasonableness is a synonym for the geometric middle ground between opposing positions.  

Navarick unfairly assumes any atheist who does not explicitly cite either evidence or uncertainty, without prompting, when explaining why they are an atheist, is dogmatic.  But empiricism is not a synonym for agnosticism, defined as being "without a claim of knowledge", as Navarick claims.  Empiricism can dictate a firm conclusion.  Navarick implicitly basis his argument for characterizing many atheists as being dogmatic on denying that evidence for naturalism is pervasive, diverse, and consistent, while evidence for supernaturalism is almost non-existent.  He does not explicitly concede that his argument rests on this assumption and that his argument is therefore biased against atheism.

It is no doubt true that some atheists adopt a somewhat circular, closed minded, dogmatic approach to justifying their atheism, like Navarick claims.  Not all atheists are epistemologically sophisticated.  However, Navarick's survey results, where he catagorizes atheists as nonbelievers, agnostic atheists, or gnostic atheists, and concludes that the category that by his measure was most popular, gnostic atheists, are dogmatic, is too flawed to provide an accurate measure of the prevalence of dogmatism among atheists.