Saturday, December 31, 2005

Good Physicists, Bad Game Theorists

(Don't worry, this has nothing to do with evolution.) I've heard several times that the Los Alamos scientsists were a bit dark as the Trinity Test approached:

To break the tension, Fermi began offering anyone listening a wager on "whether or not the bomb would ignite the atmosphere, and if so, whether it would merely destroy New Mexico or destroy the world."

Now can anyone in the class tell us why it is a weakly dominated strategy to bet that the world will be destroyed?

New Year's Eve in Milford, PA

Click on a photo for a larger image:

The Bashful Gene

OK, folks, I promise I'll stop soon, but before the year ends I need just one more evolution fix.

I don't have the Dawkins book I've been reading with me now, so I can't quote directly, but in it he recaps the argument he made in The Selfish Gene: humans are "really" just survival machines for genes, which discard us when we have served their "purpose." He even presents a little song he penned celebrating this fact for a conference.

Now, I've gotten a few letters on my recent columns to the effect, "Leave the biology to the experts." But my point has been that the biologists have not been leaving the philosophy to the experts, and, indeed, have often not even recognized when they have left the realm of biology and entered that of philosophy. One thing philosophers are trained to do is sort out bad arguments from good ones. So let's see which category Dawkins falls into.

The form of the argument is: X and Y are closely related entities. (E.g., a human and his genes.) But while Xs come and go, Y endures through this series of new relata. (E.g., the same gene can appear in generation after generation of people.) And, somehow, the existence of Y depends on X. Therefore, the purpose of X is to maintain the existence of Y.

So, let's try out that form with some other contents. Theaters and plays are closely connected. But while plays come and go, theaters endure through scores of different shows. Obviously, theaters need plays to stay open. Therefore, the purpose of plays is to support theaters!

No, wait, let me try another: Autos and trips by motorcar are closely connected. But one auto endures through many trips. And if there were no possibility of travel by car, there would be no autos. Therefore, the purpose of car travel is to maintain the existence of automobiles!

In short, the argument is rubbish. That Y lasts through a succession of Xs says nothing at all about any purposeful relationship between them.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Linnaeus, Darwin, Callahan

Like the appearance of certain comets, once in a great while when I'm arguing with someone I realize I am wrong and change my mind. I think Gene has stumbled onto something quite brilliant (and I am not just throwing that term around flippantly) in this LRC article on Intelligent Design.

I think Gene is saying the following: The Darwinists claim that the first living cell gave rise to all terrestrial organisms through an undirected process of mutation and adaptation through natural selection. The ID people object to this and claim (a) that certain steps in the process are wildly improbable and hence (b) an intelligent designer must be controlling the whole thing.

Now Gene's point is that there is an element of truth (and hence, falsity) in both camps. For what if God set up the initial conditions of the universe such that the "improbable" steps had to occur? In that scenario, the Darwinians who watched a video of the origin of life would come away vindicated, but the ID people would also be correct in their criticisms. What's going on is that each side is making a metaphysical claim that goes beyond the natural facts.

I'm amazed that this never occurred to me before, but the most important part of Darwinian theory--the non-teleological character of evolution--is completely untestable.

Gene, have I got your views correctly?

(NOTE: When I say I changed my mind, I don't mean that I now endorse the theory of common descent. I just mean that I originally thought Gene's criticisms of ID were silly, but now I realize what Gene's saying. It's particularly ironic that I didn't see the point myself, since it's very similar to my own attempt to prove that miracles by definition don't violate natural laws.)

New Blog

My friend Sheldon Richman has a new blog -- check it out.

In other news from the blogsphere, Will Willkinson has a great quote from Anthony de Jasay on envy.

This Isn't Going Where He Wants It To...

A fundamentalist reader contends that one has to believe a literal account of Genesis or think Jesus was lying when in Mark, chapter 10, verse 6, he said: “But from the beginning of creation, God made [humans] male and female...”

What's remarkable about this is that it is does not jibe with a literal reading of Genesis 1 or 2!

In Genesis 1, we learn that on day six: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."

So that's not the beginning -- that's day six! Of course, maybe Christ didn't literally mean the beginning...

Then in Two we read:

"Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.
And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made."

"And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof.
And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man."

So this disagrees with both Christ and Genesis One! In Genesis Two, man and woman were not created together on day six (like Genesis One) or at the beginning, as Christ said, but one man was created before day seven, and sometime later a woman was created.

Yes, I'm sure fundamentalists have worked out some elaborate evasion about how these three literal readings don't "really" contradict each other. I also expect there is some fundamentalist out there somewhere explaining how it really is biologically possibly to create a woman from a man's rib!

In any case, the is a problem for a Christian here only if Christ's words were meant literally -- and to insist that they were just begs the question on the table!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Big Time

Thanks to Dick Clark (who surely must be busy as we near the New Year), I now have a Wikipedia entry.

Catching Up on LRC

Rather than clogging up the blog every other day, I've consolidated. Here are my 3 latest LRC columns:

(1) A response to Norman Podhoretz's defense of George Bush's honesty on WMD.

(2) My reaction to the Intelligent Design ruling.

(3) Some quick thoughts on the torture/domestic spying stuff.

Monday, December 26, 2005

More From the Lovers of Reason

The Passion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

From this article, where this physics graduate (so an expert in evolutionary biology) refers to Intelligent Design (ID) proponents as "nuts" and "people without scientific backgrounds," you wouldn't know that ID is endorsed by plenty of people with PhDs in relevant areas, such as chemistry, geology, etc.

Mark my words, folks: If one had to choose between the Bible thumpers and the extreme Darwinists, I think the former are closer to the truth. I'm not saying the Genesis account is a perfect description of what happened, but I believe that within 50 years, the theory of common descent will finally break under the mounting pressure. Don't listen to that old codger Gene. I hear he's an alcoholic.

Mythical Marketing

Earthlink is running an ad campaign where their employees (actors? I don't know) say things like, "I believe in an Internet without identity theft," or "I believe in an online experience without viruses." In the meantime, mythical beasts such as unicorns and giants and fairies are shown cavorting near their cubes. Doesn't this imply that these people will believe almost anything, and that we shouldn't give their beliefs any credence at all?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Dawn of the Dead

I saw a Discovery Channel show mentioning that, while we have found lots of dead giant squids, no one has ever seen one alive.

It prompted a Popper-style "bold conjecture" on my part: There never have been live giant squids! The ocean just emits giant squid corpses from time to time.

More on Evolution

I get everyone mad at

Must Read

Michael Kinsley on torture. (Hat tip to Jim Henley.)

Also, see Kinsley on Roe Vs. Wade. On this topic, the "right to privacy" angle has always struck me as disingenuous. If you really believe in a right to privacy, Roe supporters, then tell me which is more private:
1) A person who grows a pot plant in their fenced-in backyard and then smokes it in their bedroom; or
2) A person who goes into a large hospital and has an operation involving numerous medical personnel, herself, a fetus, and, to an extent, whomever got her pregnant.

Pretty obviously, 1) is a lot more private. Yet we never see the Roe defenders trying to extend the principle to that scenario.

And one more: let's hear it for the Second Vermont Republic.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Evolution of Bull

Over in Talk Origins, in their Post of the Month(!), are some seriously silly statements about science:
"If evolution was wrong, it would not be accepted by scientists."

Right, just like if geocentrism was wrong, it would not have been accepted by scientists for 2000 years, and if phlogiston theory was wrong, it would not have dominated chemistry for a century, and if there was no ether, that concept would not have been used to explain light for 100 years, and scientists never would have spent several decades ridiculing the theory that beer fermentation depended on a living organism...

Defending evolution is one thing, but the above is silly science worship. (I'll also note that the folks at Talk Origins seem to blur the difference between the theory that life evolved from a common ancestor over hundreds of millions of years, the evidence for which I find compelling, and the sub-theory that it evolved solely by natural selection of random mutations, a far shakier proposition, IMHO.)

"Or do you really think that we are smart enough to work on things like cancer treatments, while at the same time being so stupid that we can't understand a basic algebraic proof that shows the impossibility of evolution?"

The version of the above circa 1550: "Do you really think we could construct great cathedrals and castles and trebuchets and aqueducts and be so stupid we couldn't understand a simple proof that geocentrism is wrong?"

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Follow-Up To Mercer on Christian Forgiveness

For those interested, here is my follow-up (it's about 7 posts down) to Ilana Mercer's column in which she states that Christians should only forgive those who are truly sorry.

Interesting Article on Evolution/ID

I must confess I clicked on this because I thought it was going to ridicule Intelligent Design theory (and I like to get angry at writers with whom I strongly disagree). As you can see, I was pleasantly surprised. It sounds almost corny, but I really think music may contain the mysteries of the universe. I mean, what the heck is it for? What does music do?

Another point that would buttress this guy's argument is that some Christians imagine heaven to be singing the praises of God (to His face) for eternity. Now if you're a skeptic you might think, "That sounds boring." But that's because you're not really taking the theist position seriously. Imagine if you were literally in the presence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent Being. What better use of your time could you devise than announcing all of His achievements, including logic, mathematics, beauty, love, truth, the laws of Nature...Well, I could go on and on. (Ha ha, get it?)

Friday, December 16, 2005

Prove That You're Free... voting! (No, of course I'm not trying to influence your vote. Think of me as a union rep who carts busloads of immigrants to the polls and gives them cartons of cigarettes. "What's the analog of the cigarettes?" you ask. Well, if you vote for Gene or me, Gene will begin posting serious items on this blog. Promise.)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Murphy Twin Spin (or is it Double Play?)

When you're as productive as me, sometimes different articles coincidentally run on the same day...Here's a stuffy economics piece on the alleged threat from China, and here's an insolent one on Bush's foreign policy.

That Damned Global Warming!

WorldNetDaily, 13 December 2005

"A weather expert says December 2005 is on pace to become one of the 10 coldest in more than 100 years, despite claims at a global conference on climate change this week that the Earth is getting warmer."

(Hat tip to Benny Peiser.)

Shy, Sexy Robot

Patrick Hughes takes on NetFlix customer service.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Cell Phone Laws, Part II

I recently came up with the following thought experiment: In a place where driving while using a hand-held phone is illegal, get a toy cell phone. Then drive around with it held up to your ear. When you get pulled over, show the officer at your window that you weren't using a cell phone, but just playing at it. What will happen?

When I ran this idea by TT Tom, he speculated, "You'll be shot for annoying the cop that much." But seriously, what is the legal status of such behaviour? I imagine that you can do the exact same actions as if you were on the phone, but not be subject to any penalty.


On the radio today, I learned that Sharper Image is featuring a life-size, robotic, chattering chimpanzee head as a holiday gift suggestion. You know, the expression "WTF" is over-used, but some things really seem to necessitate invoking it.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Democracy at Work

The NY Times of Dec. 4 reported that the NYC council is contemplating raising the number of terms they can serve to three, after voters had declared they wanted them around for no more than two. Advocates of eliminating term limits want the council to "work together as a unified body." They criticize council president Gifford Miller is "unable to control his members"! Why, I thought there were various people on the council so that they each could represent their constituents,, nnot so that one person could control them all -- naive me.

Besides the council members who want to keep their jobs, the change is strongly supported by "union leaders and party bosses," who want to establish longer term relationships with council members. Hey, it's a real drag having to re-bribe new councilors every few years!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Big PDF on Spontaneous Order

Can't vouch for the quality of this article on spontaneous order, but if you're unaware of the term, you might give it a look...

More on national income

Kevin Carson on why increasing national income is not a proxy for increased liberty:

'But any number of things, good or bad, can cause an increase in national income. The monetization of the subsistence and barter economy, caused by expropriating the producing classes and coercing them into the labor market, can show up as an exponential increase in "national income." If somebody figures out how to suck air out of the atmosphere, bottle it up, and sell it back to workers as an alternative to suffocation, that'll probably kick the "national income" up a few notches. Not everything that increases "national income" is good (these people have heard of the broken window fallacy, right?).'

Read more.

Conservatives on drugs

We have an election in Canada. The Conservative Party has recently issued a "tough-on-crime" policy plank which supports ridiculous mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers, and promises an end to decriminalization of marijuana talk.

I've put together a compendium of conservatives on drugs. That's a double entendre, and the other entendre will come soon enough. I think you see where I'm going with this...

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Congressional Priorities

Congress has more important things to consider than the gutting of the Constution and hundreds of US casualties a month in foreign adventures, like the Bowl Championship Series.

Also, discover who reallly killed Kennedy.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Missing the Point

I entered New York state today and noted the sign saying, "No using hand-held cellphones while driving." I was struck by how odd this law is. I mean, I've always found the tricky part of using the cell in the car is dialing, because you need to look away from the road. Isn't that just as hard on a phone set in a little holder by the stick? On the other hand, the part of using the two that's different, the talking, is no problem for driving when using a hand held at all -- at least no more than holding a cup of coffee or a sandwich.

And why don't we have a law against changing the radio station or rewinding a CD while driving? (Note: If you are a New York State legislator, please be aware that the previous sentence is an example of sarcasm.)

Open Source Software and Skin In the Game

I have been tinkering in the Haskell programming language recently. Trying to up my game, I have begun reviewing and working on issues in th...