The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever

2006 September


September 30, 2006 | 13 Comments

A cosmos one day being rebuked by a pessimist replied, “How can you who revile me consent to speak by my machinery? Permit me to reduce you to nothingness and then we will discuss the matter.”

Moral. You should not look a gift universe in the mouth.

G.K. Chesterton

The Blind Lockmaker

September 29, 2006 | 31 Comments

Explaining in The God Delusion where he stands on the spectrum of God-belief (see post below for numbered options) Richard Dawkins says “I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 — I am agnostic only to the extent I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” He later states that “my name for the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly does not exist is the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.” In the ensuing discussion, he seeks refute the well-known argument that the probability of life developing by chance is no greater than the odds of a hurricane sweeping through a scrapyard and creating a Boeing 747. He states that “the candidate solutions to the riddle of the improbability [of life] are not, as is falsely implied, design and chance.” Natural selection, he concludes, is the key, which he illustrates with another example:

[A] favourite metaphor for extreme improbability is the combination lock on a bank vault. Theoretically, a bank robber could get lucky and hit upon the right combination of numbers by chance. In practice, the bank’s combination lock is designed with enough improbability to make this tantamount to impossible — almost as unlikely as [the] Boeing 747. But imagine a badly designed combination lock that gave out little hints progressively — the equivalent of the “getting-warmer” of children playing Hunt the Slipper. Suppose that when each one of the dials approaches its correct setting, the vault door opens another chink, and a dribble of money trickles out. The burglar would hone in on the jackpot in no time.

Like Dawkins’ lock, I am badly DESIGNED. So rather than tell you straight out why I think Dawkin’s’ analogy is also badly DESIGNED, I am going to give you little HINTS regarding my THINKING on the matter. It has something to do with the odds of a THINKING lock naturally SELECTING HINTS to give the burglar, rather than letting him dial numbers at random forever.

P.S. The Raving Atheist didn’t write this — this is just his computer spewing out combinations of letters to hint at what he might say.

Multiple Choice

September 28, 2006 | 71 Comments

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins identifies seven “milestones” in the continuum of beliefs regarding God:

1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, “I do not believe, I know.

2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. “I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in Gd and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”

3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”

4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”

5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. “I don’t know whether God exits but I’m inclined to be sceptical.”

6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”

7. Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung “knows”there is one.”

For the purpose of his book, Dawkins defines “God” as “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” Where do you stand on this spectrum? Where do you think Dawkins places himself?


September 26, 2006 | Comments Off


Fooled By Randomness?

September 26, 2006 | 29 Comments

Option trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb bills his book Fooled by Randomness as being about “randomness disguised and perceived as non-randomness (that is, determinism).” His main theme is that people over-rely on the principle of induction and get burned when something doesn’t go according to formula. He introduces the subject as follows:

There is a problem in inference well known as the problem of induction. It is a problem that has been haunting science for a long time, but hard science has not been as harmed by it as the social sciences, particularly economics, even more the branch of financial economics. Why? Because the randomness content compounds its effects. Nowhere is the problem of induction more relevant than in the world of trading — and nowhere has it been as ignored!

Taleb places special emphasis on the “black swan problem” — the notion that no number of observations of white swans could disprove the existence of a black swan. Applying this notion to the financial context, Taleb notes that it would be an error to conclude that the market could never go down more than 20% in a three month period merely because it never has.

Taleb’s discussion confuses a number of basic concepts. First, induction is not a problem of science — in science, it’s simply the underlying assumption that the same causes will always produce the same effects. Whether there is any way of proving this assumption that the future will resemble the past is certainly a problem, but it’s one of philosophy rather than science. I think Hume had it right when he concluded that it is question that cannot be resolved through formal logic, but science isn’t concerned or “haunted” with whether Hume’s conclusion is true.

Second, it makes no sense to suggest that hard science could be “harmed” by the alleged problem. The harm would be in doubting the validity of induction at all, in expecting different effects from the same causes. In mixing hydrogen and oxygen to produce water, scientists aren’t concerned that one day a “black swan” result (say, the creation of gold) will arise. When there is a deviation from the expected outcome, it’s not attributed to a “random” suspension of the law but to a difference in the original or intervening conditions. And even with respect to black swans themselves, no one believes that they are somehow a violation of otherwise immutable genetic or biological laws.

Finally, Taleb’s conclusion that induction is less reliable in financial markets because of increased “randomness” misses the mark. As a threshold matter, in the social sciences induction is applied to a significantly different category of events than that involved in the hard sciences. The predictions do not concern the behavior of atoms and molecules and other forms of matter. Financial analysts don’t chart the position of every particle in each potential market decision-maker’s brain and employ principles of neuroscience and chemistry to forecast buy/sell orders and the resulting stock prices. Rather, they deal more broadly with the conscious reasons for buying and selling, which reasons may take into consideration the various reasons consumers may or may not buy the company’s products, as well as the perceived reasoning of the company’s management, employees, suppliers, distributors and competitors.

The reasons may vary wildly and in their totality present an impossibly complex scenario, but that there are impediments to predictability does not mean that there is randomness. Every contributing decision may be perfectly intentional and reasonable — one person might sell a stock for pressing tax reasons and another might buy based upon inside information. People may indeed overestimate their ability to account for all the decisions and calculate their effect, but this does not mean that they are mistaking randomness for determinism, or that they are confronted by any randomness at all.

Me Too

September 23, 2006 | 28 Comments

A guest blogger at The Dawn Patrol discusses the ACLU’s abandonment of its challenge to Ohio’s “Choose Life” license plate program. Among the points he makes is that in no state has the pro-choice side ever initiated a license plate drive to spread its message. Rather, proposals for such plates have always come as afterthoughts to pro-life initiatives, usually as part of a strategy to shut the plate program down altogether.

There’s a similar pattern in the atheist/theist controversphere. Atheists generally don’t erect seasonal displays promoting their metaphysics affirmatively. Instead, they wait until a religious display goes up, and then demand to insert a godless symbol or slogan in the hopes that the proposal will be so unpalatable that the project will be abandoned.

Just pointing this out.


September 21, 2006 | 23 Comments

For some reason separation of church and state is an exalted principle of American law. It’s hard to see why, given that the law is ostensibly neutral towards religion, its truth and/or benefits. You can’t really make a decision to keep something in or out unless you’ve decided whether that thing is true or false, good or bad. The official reason seems to be that everyone would fight if one religion were favored over another, but that’s not particularly convincing. After all, at the end of the day some idea, moral principle or policy is favored in law over the rest, with fights breaking out before and after its enactment. If a theocracy would be contentious, so would an ideocracy, moralocracy, or any other sort of policy-ocracy.

At any rate, I think that even most atheists would agree that no matter how much they dislike religion, it’s not so special that it’s the only thing that should be separated from state. There are certainly some non-theological principles that shouldn’t be imposed upon or by the government. If you were to broaden the “separation” concept so as to be inclusive enough to keep out everything that should be kept out, what would you change it to? Separation of _______ and state?

Hunter and Prey

September 20, 2006 | 56 Comments

I once proposed an atheist prayer-test, whereby the petitioner could prove his or her disbelief in God by requesting that grievous and painful harm come to loved ones. Few here had the courage the try it, but hedge fund energy trader Brian Hunter recently tried something similar. He wagered $5 billion that a devastating hurricane season would drive natural gas prices higher. Mild weather is now laying waste his employer, Amaranth Advisors.

Ostensibly Hunter relied on sophisticated weather forecasts and other data to conclude that a Katrina-like catastrophe would strike. But consider the mindset he must have been in once he placed his bet. Call it “wishing,” call it “hoping”; I bet he spent a considerable amount of time on his knees or otherwise trying to will the universe to comply with his desire for death and destruction, especially as his losses began mounting. And while everyone was breathing a sigh of relief as hurricane Ernesto weakened, Hunter was likely cursing.

If you are reading this, you probably laugh at those who pray. But even assuming it is ineffectual (where by virtue of God’s non-existence or dislike of tests), at least it focuses some people’s thoughts in the right direction and holds the possibility of inspiring them to help those who are the subject of their supplication. If you laugh, laugh harder at the Hunters of the world — who in pursuit of the wrong god pray for the wrong things.

Sympathy for the Devil

September 18, 2006 | 20 Comments

At first I assumed that Dawn Eden was being overgenerous in her defense of Feminsting and BushvChoice blogger Jessica Valenti. But however much I reject certain aspects of Valenti’s worldview, I must concede that the attempts to demean her efforts and flufferize her reputation are reprehensible.

I have closely followed both of Valenti’s blogs for over a year. She is as serious and intelligent a political blogger as any. However misguided I believe her to be, she is always informative and certainly conducts her blogs with more dignity than I did mine for most of its run. To dismiss what she does at Feministing as breastblogging is nonsensical. From what I can tell (particularly from listening to the podcast), that skin-deep assessment is based on little more than a review of the blog’s name and logo, and even then it makes no sense whatsoever.

For more on the controversy, read Valenti’s response and the accompanying link collection.

Good on Earth

September 15, 2006 | Comments Off

I will spend my Heaven doing good on Earth.

Saint Therese of Lisieux

Quantum Talk

September 14, 2006 | 86 Comments

Quantum mechanics and chaos theory are frequently invoked to “save” free will from the clutches of the deterministic physical laws. As a preliminary matter, I doubt that true randomness exists. That some outcome is unpredictable or uncomputable due to the complexity of the variables or the effect of the observer doesn’t mean that no laws apply, only that we are unable to discover them with the available tools. Even if you can’t pinpoint the decay of a particular nucleus, you can calculate a general probability with a bunch of them, and there’s obviously something law-like driving the probability.

In the context of free will, however, it doesn’t matter what the answer is. As Hume, Bertrand Russell, Martin Gardner and many others have pointed out, the resort to randomness in that context is futile. Even if caprice is the opposite of determinism, it’s not the same as free will. Assuming that what happens at the subatomic level could affect the behavior of our neurons, having them fire randomly would more closely resemble epilepsy than autonomy. Our brains would function like popcorn makers rather than computers. We’d act like Tourette’s-afflicted, Choobusian pornolizers. Being completely controlled by determinism may be unfree, but so is being completely out of control due to randomness.

The reason I implied yesterday that there was something mind-like about the physical laws was to see whether some atheist would invoke quantum theory to attempt to deflate the thesis. But invoking randomness isn’t particularly helpful in the God debate either. Indeed, the usual atheist strategy is to argue that natural laws account for and predict everything, that there’s no room left for the deity. Introducing quantum-talk just opens Gaps for something to be the God of. It’s like suggesting that two completely identical cloned pigs, like two decaying nuclei, could act differently due to some hidden, undetectable, immaterial force.

Random Thoughts

September 13, 2006 | 41 Comments

Throw a hundred pennies up in the air. If when they came down they formed a perfect circle, or picture of a cat, or spelled out your name, or came up all heads, or formed a straight line of head/tail pairs, you’d be terribly surprised. If it happened every time you threw them, you’d be even more surprised. You’d suspect that a trick was being played on you, that some other mind was behind what you saw. The pennies should have landed chaotically, randomly, without forming any familiar pattern.

Of course, there is no such thing as true randomness. The pennies do come down in a perfect order, an order predicted and compelled by mathematics. They do form a pattern which, while not aesthetically satisfying, is dictated by an equation as rigid as that behind a circle. And the equation applies every single time you throw them.

Why are you not surprised by the order governing the “random” arrangement in the way you would be if the arrangement were more visually ordered as the hypotheticals described in the first paragraph? What would be your basis for concluding that the hypothetical arrangement were more “mind-like” than the “random” ones?

Law-Abiding Pigs

September 11, 2006 | 17 Comments

“Past performance does not guarantee future results” is a disclaimer familiar to every investor. David Hume, in his discussion of induction in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, extended the principle to the workings of the entire universe:

[A]ll inferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past, and that similar powers will be conjoined with similar sensible qualities. If there be any suspicion that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future. all experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion. It is impossible, therefore, that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future, since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance. Let the course of things be allowed hitherto ever so regular; that alone, without some new argument or inference, proves not that, for the future, it will continue so. In vain do you pretend to have learned the nature of bodies from your past experience. Their secret nature, and consequently all their effects and influence, may change, without any change in their sensible qualities.

In fact, Hume did not seriously doubt what all science assumes: that the same causes will always have the same effects, effects reducible to fixed mathematical formulae. His point was merely that we come to that conclusion through observation rather than reason, and that no a priori principle of logic compels the physical laws to remain as they always have. We could certainly imagine a world in which water feeds fire rather than quenches it; in which hydrogen and oxygen combine to form gold; in which a billiard ball bounced back after striking another rather than propelling it forward; or in which the outcomes in each of these situations was in constant flux. But what we see is rigid, predictable uniformity. So much so that we always ascribe differences in outcomes to differences in the original situations or intervening causes, not to changes in (or disappearance of) the governing laws.

Austin Cline’s defense of induction in the cloned pig scenario, discussed here, followed this reasoning. Cline impliedly rejected the notion that different pig personalities could result if the clones and their environments were truly the same, positing that something about the pigs or their experiences must have differed. He particularly objected to the expedient of attributing the differences to the workings of the pigs’ distinct but immaterial minds.

The immaterial mind hypothesis is functionally equivalent to one suggesting that each animal was controlled by a different underlying physical law. But even if we accept that the same law must control each pig, we are still confronted with the problem that the law, even if not conscious, is as immaterial as the hypothetical mind. And the fact that the law operates so uniformly from pig to pig — a result which as noted is not compelled by logic — seems militant more in favor of some sort of consciousness than against it.


September 9, 2006 | 7 Comments

Remorseful stingrays, a new confession by John Mark Karr and the predictable “crocodile tears” — all part of the tributes to Steve Irwin at Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoon Index site.

Times like this make me glad I’m out of the obituary cartoon criticism business.

In a Pig’s Mind

September 1, 2006 | 30 Comments

Are people controlled by some kind of mysterious, Immaterial Mind or Spirit? Austin Cline of About Atheism, for some reason, rebels at the idea. In particular, he’s distressed that Michael LaBossier, writing in The Philosopher’ Magazine, has analogized from cloned pigs to reach that conclusion. LaBossier notes that studies of such animals show that they exhibit distinct personalties — with differing food preferences and degrees of friendliness — despite being genetically the same and having been raised in similar environments. LaBossier suggests that if the dissimilarities persisted even after factors such as minor environmental differences, wombs and epigenetics were accounted for, the best explanation would be the effect of a non-physical mind.

Cline writes:

LaBossier seems to think that given the exact same starting conditions, any two physical systems will necessarily progress along the same path and to the same conclusion — thus any two identical genetic beings raised in an identical environment must necessarily develop the same characters. There’s so much wrong with this, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Gasp! The passage makes it sound like Cline is about to describe what’s “wrong” about induction — the bedrock foundation of all science and materialistic determinism. In fact, what follows is essentially a defense of the concept:

First, it’s difficult to say that we can ever be sure when such a large, complex system is identical to another. How do you measure the precise levels of every element of a system or its environment? Second, it’s not true that identical genetic sequences will remain identical in their function — genes might be expressed in different ways for reasons that are simply not obvious to us.

Finally, any system that is sufficient complex just can’t be predicted down to every detail. No matter how much we know about the current environment, it’s very difficult to predict the precise trajectory of our weather. Even if the conditions today are precisely the same as another day in the past, we can”t be sure that our following days will be precisely the same as the following days of the past situation. Is there any reason to think that our brains are so much less complex than the weather that its operation is more predictable?

Cline concludes by asking “[w]hy do so many people insist on trying to “explain” something by using a concept which they can’t really define or describe — [h]ow can ‘immaterial minds’ possibly explain what LaBossier describes unless we know what it means to be an ‘immaterial mind’ and how it interacts with the material universe?”

What I find most interesting about the discussion is how it touches on a number of important theological issues without actually being about God. Remember, even if LaBossier proves his thesis, all he’s established is the existence of an immaterial mind — And a pig’s mind at that.

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