Monday, 29 June 2020

God of the Gaps

Julien Musolino in the soul fallacy says:

Thanks to Fox News celebrity Bill O’Reilly, the logic of god-of-the-gaps argument has become viral. During an interview with David Silverman, president of the American Atheists, O’Reilly challenged his baffled guest to explain how the tides so predictably and regularly go about their business. “You can't explain that!” O’Reilly told Silverman. But if you assume that God exists, as O’Reilly says he does, then everything makes perfect sense and you can understand how the tides work.
Some people (known as “pinheads” in the anchor's colorful jargon) informed O’Reilly that we do know how the tides work, and that we have known for more than three hundred years. Undaunted, O’Reilly posted a clip on YouTube in which he pushed the argument one step further. Fine, he concedes, the gravitational pull of the moon explains the tides. But where did the moon come from? (For an amusing parody demonstrating the existence of mail fairies using O’Reilly logic, YouTube is also an excellent resource—because you can't explain the superb regularity with which the mail gets delivered, and if you can, you sure can't explain where the mailman came from.)

The mail analogy is a very poor one - or at least it is if one is attempting to mock the notion that any type of "God" or metamind could be responsible for the predictability of tides. The "superb regularity with which the mail gets delivered" is, after all, due to conscious agents with an end in mind. So, if anything, the analogy suggests the regularity of the tides is also due to some conscious agency with an end in mind.

People might object that in the case of the tides that we know this is due to the existence of gravitational force. However, this buys into a certain conception of physical reality that it is constrained to behave as it does due to innate physical causes such as gravitational force. But this goes beyond what we can legitimately infer. Physical reality exhibits patterns, those patterns can be captured via mathematical equations. And, ultimately, that's all that physics deals with. I go into detail about this here. Indeed, physics has absolutely nothing to say about such a suitable conception of "God". I try and illustrate this here.

Granted this conception of God is not a God of the gaps one. But did Bill O’Reilly actually state that he was defending such a conception of "God"? I would imagine not. The God of the gaps is a silly one as I address here.





Friday, 26 June 2020

The Tabletop Illusion

I'm currently reading the soul fallacy by Julien Musolino. In it he tries to stress that we are constantly being fooled by our subjective first person perspective and in our judgements. That we need the objective third person perspective as provided by science to tell us how reality really is.

He tries to illustrate his point by the following perceptual illusion of two tables (the Roger Shepard tabletop illusion).



I think we would all agree that the two tables are different shapes. But, when we rotate the left table 90 degrees clockwise and move it over the other table, we find they are both exactly the same shape! Moreover, even when we are made aware of this fact we cannot help but see that the tables are very different shapes. Julien Musolino finds this very significant. In the the soul fallacy he says:

[This illusion] pits our first-person perspective—what our senses subjectively reveal to us—against the third-person perspective—what the result of objective measurement demonstrates. The story of the demise of the soul, to a large extent, reflects the triumph of the third-person perspective over its subjective, first-person counterpart. But there is more to Shepard's illusion than meets the eye. The analogy contains two additional virtues. After this brief demonstration, I do not know anyone who would continue to insist that one tabletop really is longer than the other because of the way they look ... The analogy's second virtue is that it reveals to us how stubborn first-person impressions can be in the face of objective evidence.

I think this is flawed reasoning. Indeed, it seems to me to be inappropriate to call this an illusion at all.

First of all, we need to draw a distinction between the image of the tables, and the actual tables themselves that they represent. The above picture is an image of two tables.

Having put that aside, let's suppose there are two tables in front of us that are in our visual field. When looking at the tables, let's also suppose that the image of the tables on our retinas closely approximates to the image of the tables we see above on our computer screens. Just as the shapes of the images of the two tables is the same on our computer screens above, so too will the shapes of the two images of the tables on our retinas be the same.

Are we fooled in the latter case? I would say not since if we approached the two tables, look at them from different angles, run our fingers over them and so on, we would definitively establish the two tables are of differing shapes. Likewise, if we are to take the drawing of the two tables above as actually depicting tables rather than arbitrary lines representing nothing, it is not fair to say we are being fooled here either. In other words, there is no illusion, as such.


We need to understand how are senses work. We don't simply passively perceive what's out there. The data we receive through our senses is hopelessly inadequate for us to see the world as it truly is in and of itself. The actual ability to see is supplied by our implicit expectations gained from our previous acquaintance with the world. That is to say, what we actually see is shaped and moulded by all of our previous visual experiences. In effect, we have an implicit unconscious theory about how the world is and this is instrumental in shaping what we actually perceive.

Without such an implicit theory, we wouldn't be able to perceive at all, at least not a 3D world of objects at various distances. We'd just see a splodge of colours in a 2-dimensional plane. In other words, we'd see the world as a computer or robot would; namely as depicted from a third person perspective shorn of any "illusions" that any minds can add.

In short, this "illusion" is not an example of us being fooled. If we didn't experience such "illusions", then we wouldn't be able to see at all! This is why autonomous cars -- which do not have the benefit of illusions to apprehend the environment correctly -- shouldn't rely upon cameras alone. They need other instruments to effectively detect the environment, such as LIDAR. Even then, they are not as proficient as human drivers in urban environments. My personal expectations are that fully (level 5) autonomous vehicles will not be widespread for a few decades yet (back in 2014 the date I gave was 2060).


So, is the subjective first person perspective inferior to the objective third person perspective as Julien Musolino claims? Certainly not when it comes to visually apprehending the environment. So much for, as he puts it, "the triumph of the third-person perspective over its subjective, first-person counterpart". This is not to deny that we are often fooled and that the third person perspective, as provided by science, is the more accurate. But I don't think this has any relevance for deciding whether, on the one hand, our essence is a soul or, on the other hand, a sophisticated biological machine. But I'll address that issue when I come to reviewing his book.

Two other relevant similar blog posts by me are:

Are Perceptual illusions always necessarily illusions?  (essentially the same argument I make in this blog post, but I wrote it over 9 years ago).

Perceptual illusions show our minds construct reality

Friday, 19 June 2020

Is there a better alternative to capitalism?

People often say that socialism or communism don't work, that Russia and China have shown this to be true. Contrariwise, that modern democratic capitalism does work. But is it true that capitalism works?

It depends on what people mean by saying it works. Clearly, the way we live now is unsustainable. The world's escalating population, climate change, insects disappearing, rain-forests getting smaller, and a whole host of other issues regarding the degradation of the environment, are very worrying indeed. Of course, one might argue that it is modern industrial society rather than capitalism per se that is the main culprit here, but they are deeply intertwined.

Let's just consider a few other detractions of modern capitalism.

Capitalism creates gross inequalities. Indeed, in the USA, apparently the bottom 80% of people have a mere 11% of all wealth!  I find myself unable to adequately convey how utterly shocking this is. 80% (4/5ths) of people in the USA only have 1/9th of the total wealth? So just 20% (1/5th) of them have the other 89% (8/9ths) of the wealth? This is a complete disgrace beyond words. 

Capitalism has killed many millions of people, even if only indirectly. Consider the Native Americans and Africans captured to become slaves. Consider those who died as a result of poor health care, poor housing, overworking in unsafe environments. Consider those who have died from pollution caused by corporate greed and from drugs over-sold to consumers. Consider the members of the armed forces of capitalist nations that have been used as canon-fodder in wars to protect and enhance corporate interests.

The rise of modern capitalism and the introduction of the division of labour to maximise profits has resulted in many people living their lives as wage slaves, obliged to do work that is dull and repetitious. Repetitious work for five days a week taking up most of the day is surely deeply unsatisfactory and unfulfilling.  Indeed, a good proportion of the population seem to effectively clock-watch, hoping that 5 pm and the weekend quickly roll by so they can let their hair down. Thus they are effectively wishing their lives away. All this is somewhat ameliorated by the camaraderie of the workplace. But, considering they live such brief lives, is it a satisfactory state of affairs to engage in unfulfilling work wishing their time spent doing it quickly passes by?

Democracy too is deeply flawed. In order to win and keep power leaders are incentivised to pander to the electorate and avoid, as much as possible, unpopular policies. They slip and slither and slide around every issue to make sure the voters keep on voting them back into office. This often results in very bad decisions that are highly detrimental to society as a whole.

So, my conclusion is that modern democratic capitalism does not work, or at least only works extremely poorly. It is a poor show indeed if it is quite impossible to improve upon this dire state of affairs.

So, will any other system lead to even worse outcomes? One thing is for sure. Any alternative system can't just be cobbled together without a huge amount of forethought and planning that will be necessary to deal with all the immense complexities and problems engendered by millions of people interacting with each other. The most noteworthy problem is the tragedy of the commons.

In my opinion, so long as people are estranged from each other, so long as each person is an island who only cares about his or her own self-interests and of their close family, so long as prestige and adulation are measured and evoked by a person's wealth and fame, then any type of "socialism" or "communism" will be impossible. The tragedy of the commons will ensure that.

It is therefore absolutely essential that we have a feeling of connectedness, empathy, and affiliation towards others, or at least for those in our immediate community. We require, in other words, closely-knit communities that encourage co-operative and caring behaviour, that encourage empathy and a feeling of responsibility towards others. That is, we require social harmony. But it seems to me that our modern world could scarcely be more antithetical towards this ideal. For it fosters an attitude where our prestige and worthiness is measured by our wealth. Unfortunately, it seems to me that multiculturism is also antithetical to this ideal since a closely-knit community cannot be achieved when the newcomers do not integrate and assimilate.

I see the modern world, global capitalism, as being deeply antithetical to our deepest needs and what makes us happy. This constant striving for economic growth doesn't appear to be making us any happier and is destroying the planet to boot. We seriously need to find a better way to live.

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