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.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Senators Sanders and Van Hollen v. Russell Vought

By Mathew Goldstein

Wheaton College, a Christian school, fired a political science professor for a Facebook post intended to express solidarity with Muslims. Russell Vought, the new nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, had defended the school in an article published in January 2016 on a conservative websiteDuring the hearing, Senator Sanders repeatedly quoted one passage from that article which he found to be objectionable: "Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned."

John 3:18 depicts Jesus as saying: “Whoever believes in [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”  Senator Sanders characterized Vought's conclusion thusly: “In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world..."  Obviously, insulting under a billion people would be better.  Let's get our priorities right, Mr. Vought should pay more attention to the demographics and less attention to the anonymous author of John 3:18.  Unfortunately, Mr. Vought prioritizes John 3:18 as if it was revealed to us by an all powerful god, and some of those aforementioned billion plus people anchor their beliefs similarly on their sacred holy books, rendering both groups prone to take great offense too easily while also being confidently and callously offensive against each other.

Russell Vought replied to Senator's Sanders' implied accusation that he is bigoted by citing the doctrine known as imago dei. “As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of their religious beliefs.”  Senator Sanders responded with incredulity that Vought respected "other religions".  But Vought did not say he respected other religions, he said he believes in respecting individuals regardless of their religious beliefs.  The question here is whether Vought's grounding his support for firing the professor in Christian doctrine is inconsistent with his assertion that his Christianity respects individual dignity without regard to religious beliefs.

What was troubling about Russell Vought's responses was his repeated assertions of religious motivations and justifications.  How about a straightforward "I believe that all individuals are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs" without attaching that sentiment to his religious identity and beliefs?  But to be fair to Vought, Sanders was challenging Vought's prior religiously motivated argument, so Vought had some reason to want to defend his religious beliefs in response.

Senator Sanders' is being reasonable in not respecting Vought's reliance on John 3:18, and I share Senator Sanders' strong dislike for that religious belief.  But is Vought therefore unfit to serve as the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget?  Senator Sanders repeatedly cited "Islamophobia" in his criticism of Vought.  Yet Senator Sanders himself was arguably exhibiting "Christianity-phobia" at the hearing.  People who keep railing one-sidedly against Islamophobia as the bigotry of the day that needs to be condemned tend to overlook an important detail: Insofar as the holy books of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism promote negative, harmful, and/or destructive, beliefs among some followers of those religions a corresponding amount of Islamophobia, Christianity-phobia, or Judaism-phobia directed against those religious beliefs is properly justified.

My own Senator, Chris Van Hollen, defended Senator Sanders, saying it’s “irrefutable” that comments like Vought’s suggest to many that he’s condemning all people who aren’t Christians. Well, yes, Vought is doing that, which reflects the negative influence of the Christian bible on his beliefs.  Senator Van Hollen then defended his Christian faith by asserting that Vought’s Christianity is mistaken: “I’m a Christian, but part of being a Christian, in my view, is recognizing that there are lots of ways that people can pursue their God.” Van Hollen then said “No one is questioning your faith ... It’s your comments that suggest a violation of the public trust in what will be a very important position.”  But why must Vought share Van Hollen's view regarding what the bible directs Christians to believe to comply with "the public trust"?  Senator Van Hollen, like Senator Sanders, failed to make a good argument that Vought violates the public trust as a result of his interpretation of John 3:18.

Senators Sanders' and Van Hollen's insistence that the nominee expressed nothing other than respect for other religions in his prior publications as a criteria for being deemed worthy of serving in federal office is inappropriate.  No one fully respects the entirety of everyone else's religious beliefs.  Maybe religious beliefs are false?  Must we respect false beliefs?  Maybe different religious beliefs contradict each other?  What does it mean to respect beliefs that contradict our own beliefs?  The equating of a lack of respect for different religious beliefs with bigotry against individuals who profess those competing religious beliefs is unfair.  

Either Senator could have expressed concern that Vought's support for imposing religious belief mandates on a professor at a Christian college intoduces doubts about whether there would be equal treatment of the employees in the department under his leadership.  Requesting that Vought provide a yes or no response on whether it would be acceptable for the department to discriminate between prospective or current employees on the basis of particular beliefs, including atheism and Islam, or other personal characteristics that some Christians condemn, such as sex outside of marriage or same gender sex, would have provided us with a measure of the nominees commitment to the public trust.  They failed to do that.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Life, complexity, and negative entropy

By Mathew Goldstein

Our universe started in a very low entropy state and evolves toward a very high entropy state.   Any decrease of entropy on earth is more than offset by the increase in entropy on the sun.  Does life resist, or at least slow down, the universal increase in entropy?  Some people claim it does and they may then draw conclusions about human ethics from their belief that it does.  

I am skeptical that life slows down the rate of entropy increase.  I am also very skeptical that the answer to this question has any implications for human ethics.  I am wary of getting into discussions on technical topics like this.  I am not a scientist.  But for whatever it is worth, here is my explanation for my skepticism.

For each visible photon the earth absorbs from the sun the earth radiates back to space about 20 infrared photons (earth converts visible light energy absorbed from the sun to "heat" energy that it radiates back to space).  That is a net twenty fold increase in overall entropy.  The overall energy is unchanged (ignoring changes to atmospheric greenhouse gases, etc.) because the energy of one visible photon is twenty times greater than the energy of one infrared photon.  

The amount of solar radiation that is reflected back to space is referred to as the albedo.  Ocean surfaces and rain forests have low albedos, which means that they reflect only a small portion of the sun's energy. Deserts, ice, and clouds, however, have high albedos (desert sands get hot but they still reflect more sun light back into space than grasslands). Over the whole surface of the Earth, about 30 percent of incoming solar energy is reflected back to space.  Higher albedo reduces the rate that the Earth is contributing to entropy increase.  

Reflected light is a no change in entropy outcome relative to the no earth context and there is little increase in entropy overall because each photon mostly retains its preexisting concentrated energy status (although each photon becomes more separated from other photons).  A photon utilized photosynthetically by plants locally decreases entropy but it increases entropy overall because the photon itself is consumed, more than offsetting the decrease in entropy from the corresponding new plant tissue. In the short term my guess is that the entropy increases more in the latter scenario.

Entropy should not be confused with complexity.  Both low entropy and high entropy conditions are uniform and thus non-complex.  The highly lumpy, highly varied, far from equilibrium, conditions that characterize complexity reach their maximum when entropy is moderate.  Life, because it depends on complexity, is impossible in very low or high entropy conditions.  Moderate entropy is the current condition of our currently complex universe.  So life is consistent with current conditions.

How does low entropy life start given that entropy increases?   One way to try to tackle this question is to focus on metabolism.  The complex chemical pathway, catalyzed by metals such as iron, that converts carbon dioxide to methane, known as serpentinization, resembles the metabolic chemical pathways in some microbial life.  Some people speculate that life may have originated via such a pre-RNA "metabolism first" route.  

Adding hydrogen atoms to carbon is referred to as carbon hydrogenation.  Carbon dioxide molecules (one carbon and two oxygen atoms) have lower entropy than methane molecules (one carbon and four hydrogen atoms).  But all known paths from carbon dioxide to methane molecules have intermediary molecules that are lower entropy than carbon dioxide.   We can depict lower entropy as a higher elevation relative to higher entropy.  This analogy of higher entropy to lower elevation allows us to represent the pull toward higher entropy as being equivalent to the downward pull of gravity.  The overall path from carbon dioxide to methane is downhill.  But an initial uphill push that is offset by an increase in entropy overall is required to reach the peak and start the trip downhill.

No natural process, including metabolism, can occur unless it is accompanied by an increase in the overall entropy of the universe.  Life is not a substance or force.  Life is a process that is sustained by increasing entropy, it is an entropy generating machine. Life contributes to increasing entropy even though life itself is inconsistent with very high (and very low) entropy. A living organism is an open system, exchanging both matter and energy with its environment.

For example, an animal builds cells, tissues, ligaments, etc. This process increases order in the body and thus decreases entropy. This is the local "negative entropy" that characterizes all of life.  Animals also radiate heat into space, consume and break down energy-containing substances (i.e., food), and eliminate waste (e.g., carbon dioxide, water, etc.). When taking all these processes into account, the total entropy of the system (i.e., the animal together with the environment) increases. Although the details relevant to the calculations vary, this same result must also hold for photosynthetic plants and microorganisms.  

Life depends on, and affects, the overall increase in entropy.  Maybe the evolution of life favors a more efficient, and more entropy neutral, metabolism (for example, being sluggish and cold blooded) because that is more environmentally sustainable over the long term.  But I suspect that evolution also favors exploiting entropy increasing opportunities because that provides paths to competitive advantage (for example, active, intelligent, and warm blooded).  The more energy consumed by life the more entropy will increase because there is no possible path for life to utilize more energy without thereby also increasing overall entropy.   Increased efficiency maybe can reduce the entropy increase, but it does not alter the direction of this equation.

The decrease in albedo due to oceans, and the increase due to ice, suggests that physical features of planets, and their relationship with nearby stars, impacts the rate of entropy increase of planets independently of, and potentially more substantially than, any life that may reside on the planets.  It is not clear, at least not to me, that an overall decrease in the rate of entropy increase is an expected result, or a function, of life.  I think not. 

Honor and Group Evolution

By Bill Creasy

Honor is one of the greatest human virtues, and it is important for humanists. Everyone respects an honorable person, even if they disagree with the principle behind the honor. This is true even if the values of the person are not considered to be right, but the quality of honorableness is still respected. We might respect an honorable, patriotic Russian, if they have a reason for it, even if we disagree with the goal. A person who is dishonorable has only venal or petty motives, or perhaps motives that are inconsistent or poorly thought-out. What makes it so good to be honorable?

"Honour as a code of behaviour defines the duties of an individual within a social group," according to the Wikipedia "Honour" entry. Honor is often important for military behavior when it is difficult to write exact rules in unexpected situations. The military often has codes of honor that are strongly implanted during basic training. Military people who are trained this way will give their lives in the name of honor. There are honor codes in schools and universities to prevent cheating, without trying to specify every particular kind of cheating. The honor code is to stop cheating and to turn in other students if they are caught cheating. 

Honor is different from a rule of law in that a violation of an honor code can cause a violent or angry retribution, for example a duel, rather than a reliance on an established criminal justice system. People take honor seriously and personally, and they are willing to make a personal sacrifice to uphold it.

But honor is difficult to describe. It seems to operate in an emotional level. What is it, and how is it related to morality? Is it rational? It doesn't make sense in terms of classical evolution if an individual sacrifices themselves for honor when they should be looking out for their own survival as the primary imperative goal.

We can return to the ideas of group evolution to see if there is an explanation in human social development. I've presented the general ideas of group evolution before. A recent book by E. O. Wilson, "The Social Conquest of Earth," discusses group evolution, and some of its history going back to Darwin. There is still controversy about it among biologists.

I discussed previously in an article that we can look at morality in general as arising from interacts with groups of people. It encourages and rewards prosocial behavior (also inaccurately called altruistic behavior). The rules of group evolution indicate that prosocial actions are needed to keep groups together. But these prosocial actions can be a competitive disadvantage when individuals within a group compete. Because of morality, those people who do prosocial actions are considered to be good, admirable people. Hence, they get an advantage of a good reputation to compensate for their effort, which should also help the group according to group evolution.

In that sense, morality doesn't exist without interactions with a group of people. It makes sense in a theoretical framework of group evolution. It is the evolution of the group that supports morality so that the individual members of the group are rewarded for prosocial actions. Without group evolution, competition between individuals makes it more rational not to be moral and not to help the group. But groups made of these kinds of individuals won't persist.

The idea of honor is another facet of morality that makes sense in terms of group evolution, but doesn't make much sense without it. My explanation of honor is as follows. Humans are unusual as animals in that a lot of our behavior is centered around groups. Humans can belong to several groups at once, and they can have divided loyalties between the different groups. They have to make decisions about priorities about which group is the most important. To do this, people can't simply be thoughtless followers of one leader or members of one group. As a result of these conflicts, individuals don't just need rules about how to act morally in one group. They also need rules about rules, or perhaps "metarules." These metarules give priorities for deciding which of the groups that a person is involved with is the most important.

I propose that a person with honor has a complex, complete, well-thought-out set of priorities about what group is important. This kind of person consistently follows their own priorities and is called an honorable person. A person with honor doesn't make rash actions that have bad consequences for important groups at the expense of groups that are less important. (For this argument, an individual is a group of one, so honorable people usually don't necessarily think of their own personal benefit first.) An honorable person considers consequences and weighs the interests of different groups, and makes a decision to act to benefit the most important group.

The most common examples come from the military. An honorable soldier must weigh his or her own survival, the welfare of a small group like a platoon, and the benefit of the entire army, and the entire country. The soldier's job is to put their life on the line to defend the country. But that job involves a lot of day-to-day decisions. A soldier will act to save their own life if it is directly threatened and nothing else is at stake. But if the platoon is fighting, a soldier that just runs away to save his life is dishonorable. An honorable soldier stays with the group to help it win, even in spite of a threat to life. But if the small group does something unacceptable, like massacre civilians, the honorable soldier may abandon the small group and report its bad actions up the chain of command to a larger group. This may hurt the smaller group but maintain the honor of the larger army or country. These decisions require that the soldier choose to benefit the appropriate group.

Examples of honor as a conflict between groups come from the last election. I talked about Pres. Trump's conflicts of interest and preferences for particular groups in the previous article. Evaluating Trump's honor may still take time. He seems to be trying to keep campaign promises to people who voted for him. But he is also angering a lot of people who disagree with him. Can he find a way to work for the good of the country and unify people? Can he consider the long-term best interests of the country, or is he only able to think about short-term goals?

Another question that is currently being investigated is Trump's relationship to Russia. There are indications that he was cooperating with Russian officials, who helped him win the election. His alleged cooperation with Russia appears dishonorable, because it was done for his personal benefit to win the election and against the benefit of the U.S., the larger and more important group for a president. It is also dishonorable for him not to allow a thorough investigation to clear up the issue, including releasing his tax forms. The honorable action, which is good for the country, is to do a full investigation even if it might reflect poorly on Trump and the Republican party. The honorable action would clear up the question so that the country can be sure about whether to trust (or not trust) his ability to lead.

Another basic question of honor is loyalty to the political parties vs. loyalty to the U.S. government. The success of Republicans in winning state and federal elections reflects a long-term effort to make the party successful, even if it is at the expense of the country. This reflects the group evolution principle that selfish subgroups will succeed when they compete against more prosocial subgroups. As an example, Republicans have gerrymandered congressional districts and restricted voter access in a way that benefits themselves by allowing them to get more Congressional districts with fewer votes. Democrats have done similar things, but they tend to argue that it is done to increase minority representation in Congress in a way that benefits the country or improves democracy. Republicans claim they are helping the country by reducing voter fraud, but they haven't produced any evidence that there is any fraud, and they haven't explained why it appears that they are benefiting to get more Congressional districts. Therefore, I would argue that Republicans are being dishonorable by putting party before any benefits to the country. But this is debatable.

An example of a person who appears to have put party loyalty above country is Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. He maintained total obstruction of the Obama Administration proposals in the Senate, including the Supreme Court nominee, in order to benefit his party, without giving an explanation of why the president's proposals were bad for the country. 

Citizens are dependent on the honor of the winning candidate to at least try to govern well by putting the country's interest above his/her personal and party interests. Time will tell whether honor will win out for this president and his party, or whether their behavior will be judged as dishonorable by the voters. But the point is that honor is not an abstract, meaningless quality. Honor is an important quality that leaders should have in order to lead well. It is important that voters demand that candidates for political positions demonstrate that they have honor, and explain what issues they feel a need to be honorable about. If we elect leaders who behave honorably, the country and the government will be better. 
 
This article was previously printed in WASHline, the newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.