Monday, 22 April 2019

Is the world flat? Is the world round?


About two months ago I revived my Quora account.  This was, in retrospect, a mistake.  The question and answer process is quite hopeless, even when compared to Reddit, and since that time I have got a dailyish email digest of questions and answers.

The first day’s missive wasn’t too bad.  There was a nice mix of physics (what if a grain of sand at ~c hit the Earth? – not much really) and theo-scepticism (ie don’t two passages in the bible contradict each other – perish the thought that the bible might be errant!).  The second was good with some stuff about electrons, quarks and ethics.

The next day there was a trick maths question (written to imply addition, but actually leaving other operations open) and then they kept coming.  The most recent versions are of the ilk “A couple go to the movies, they have two children together, he has three children and she has four, of which two have two children each while his children only have one each.  How many people went to the movies?” – the answer (noting that I have not checked) is two.  The couple went to the movies, not the couple and all their progeny.  The answer for the latter, unasked question is 14.

Similarly, with the farmer who takes X eggs from a population of Y eggs.  He’ll have (in his immediate possession) X eggs.  If he owns all the chickens that laid the eggs and the law says ownership of a chicken means ownership of all eggs laid by that chicken, then he owns (and thus has) Y.  It’s not a maths question, it’s a vagueness of the word “has” question.

Anyways … less than two weeks in there was this question “Is The Flat Earth Society serious?”  Then I started getting more evolution denial questions (How did the Platypus come to be if evolution does not explain it?)  And the flat earth questions became more common and, frankly, more troll-like.  I have to admit that I have looked at a couple, but in the past week or so the headlining topics have been:

Have you ever met a flat-Earther who finally converted to globe Earth? What made him/her change his/her mind?

Can you show an example of some perpendicular object viewed from far away that is seemly tilted due to the curvature of the earth?

Why can't the ISS take a picture of Earth and prove to the Flat Earth Society that Earth is not really flat?

Can someone show me solid proof of the earth being a round planet and not flat, other than NASA and their photos?

Perhaps I am to blame for clicking on a couple of these topics, but I am getting pretty sick of them.  There’s the constant battle between the monkey brained part of me that does want to know what an actress that I don’t know who starred in a show that I didn’t watch looks like today and the rational brained part that knows that 1) even if I did want to see what that actress looks like, I’ll be forced to look at photos I have even less interest in before getting my endorphin reward of seeing what I was seeking, and 2) letting myself be click-baited today allows the machine hone its click-baiting skills to get me again in the future.

So, I am going to purge myself of future interest in the stupid questions by stating here and now that the Earth is flat.
In fact, it’s very, very flat with a deviation of less than 0.2% from a perfect oblate spheroid and about 0.33% from a perfect sphere.

If the Earth were entirely covered in water, and ignoring the moon, the surface would still be an oblate spheroid because that’s the shape it would assume such that the forces zero out – the combination of gravity and centripetal force due to rotation – which is another way of saying that the surface of the Earth is flat (in terms of spacetime).

What they should be saying, if they aren’t just trolls, is that the Earth is a disk – which it clearly isn’t.

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Part of the “controversy” is that a YouGov survey concluded that a ridiculously high proportion of “millennials” believe that the Earth is flat.  However, the survey was as bad as a Dolly quiz.  “Dolly” was a teenage girl’s magazine which used to have hilariously bad quizzes, so “Dolly quiz” is my go-to smackdown on any poorly worded survey – the YouGov survey is worse than usual.  These, I kid you not, were the survey question and options:

Q: Do you believe that the world is round or flat?
Option 1: I have always believed the world is round
Option 2: I always thought the world is round, but more recently I am skeptical/have doubts   
Option 3: I always thought the world is flat, but more recently I am skeptical/have doubts   
Option 4: I have always believed the world is flat
Option 5: Other/Not sure

So what does “flat” mean (they mean planar, don’t they)?  What does “world” mean (should they not have used the term “Earth”)?  Can’t the Earth be both flat and round (isn’t a standard dinner plate both flat(ish) and round(ish))?  What does “always” mean (I have no clear recollection of what I believed when I was 4 years old, but I am reasonably confident that, when I was two, I had no belief about the shape of the planet, so doesn’t that mean that I have not always believed the Earth is spherical)? Why skip between “believed” and “thought” (are not thinking and believing distinct)?

I’d have to go with Option 5.  Not only that, I think (believe?) that anyone who answered anything other than Option 5 is either lying or misunderstood the question (as asked).
Of course, you could interpret the question and give an answer based on your interpretation rathe than the question as asked, but people will interpret the question differently.  The Earth isn’t round, it’s an oblate spheroid (oh ok, it’s round if you cut it through the equator, but nowhere else – although the cuts do go from almost perfectly round to mostly round as the cuts get closer to going through both poles).  And it’s very flat.  So strictly speaking it’s more correct to say that the Earth is flat.  Sphericalish, but nevertheless flat.

And then there are the people who’d look at the stupid question and give a stupid answer.  I’d say that, hopefully, the company controlled for that, excluding obviously stupid responses (the question should have been one among many questions – and it clearly was since they were able to split the data up by age, gender, religious affiliation, political affiliation, region, etc), but then this is the same company that posed this stupid question.

What’s really odd is that the analysis implies that the more religious you are the more likely you are to believe the Earth (or world, whatever that means) is flat.  But the more Republican you are, the more likely to are to believe that the Earth is round.  I’m not an expert on American politics, but I would have put the Republicans are more religious than Democrats, so there’s something odd going on there.  Perhaps it’s just that trolls are more likely to do their trolling for the Republicans?

This all just reinforces an opinion that I developed years ago – don’t rely too heavily, if at all, on opinion polls and their like.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

The BGV Theorem Does Not Mean What You Think Means


I’ve addressed the use and misuse of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin (BGV) Theorem a number of times in the past (The Misquoting WLC, The Eternally Inflated (Multiverse and WLC) and Multiholes in WLC’s Physics Arguments).

The apologetic argument goes a bit like this:  Atheists are terrified by the idea the universe must have begun, because if the universe has not been in existence forever, something must have created it.  The BGV Theorem says that inflation must have had a beginning, so the universe has a beginning, therefore the universe has a creator.  Therefore god.  (Much leaping around fisting the air and yelling “OOH-ya” and “who da man”.)

To be brutally frank, Vilenkin (one of the authors of the theorem) seriously did not help when he wrote:

It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape: they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.

Admittedly, he did write a couple of paragraphs later:

Theologians have often welcomed any evidence for the beginning of the universe, regarding it as evidence for the existence of God… So what do we make of a proof that the beginning is unavoidable? Is it a proof of the existence of God? This view would be far too simplistic. Anyone who attempts to understand the origin of the universe should be prepared to address its logical paradoxes. In this regard, the theorem that I proved with my colleagues does not give much of an advantage to the theologian over the scientist. As evidenced by Jinasena’s remarks earlier in this chapter, religion is not immune to the paradoxes of Creation.

But the damage had already been done, there was a paragraph begging to be cherry picked by apologists and they went to town.  (A search on “There is no escape: they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning” brings up page after page of apologetic nonsense.

As an aside to very interesting video on a universe from ‘nothing’, Vilenkin makes a very clear comment to the effect that the BGV Theorem does not mean what people like WLC want it to mean.  In this part of the video, he very specifically says that the BGV Theorem does not conclude that the universe must have a beginning, it concludes only that expansion must have a beginning.

WLC will need to find a new argument for an absolute cosmic beginning.  Well, he should, but given his track record, it’s likely that he will just ignore inconvenient statements by the people whose arguments he misrepresents.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Prime Questions


For some reason I was thinking about prime numbers.  Prime numbers are numbers that have exactly two positive divisors, themselves and one.  If you can divide a number by any smaller whole number that is greater than one, it’s not a prime.  (Note that this makes one itself not a prime, since it has only one divisor, which is also itself.)

Prime numbers have some interesting characteristics:

  •        All primes greater than or equal to 5, when squared are equal to a multiple of 24 plus 1.
  •        Primes are getting hard to find, the most recently found ones are very, very big (at time of writing, it is 282,589,933 – 1).
  •        Primes are can be used for cryptography.  The bigger the prime, the more useful it is (well … potentially).
  •        If you find a new prime, you can get paid for it.  If you find a really massive one, one billion digits long (I’m guessing that’s binary digits), you’ll win a cool $250k.
Anyway, I was thinking about whether you could use the primes that we already have to identify new primes.  The current method, as far as I know, is to throw out all obvious non primes (anything divisible by 2,3,5, etc) and then just grind away on it.  This is being crowd funded using the GIMPS program, although that effort is only looking at Mersenne primes (2P-1).  I’ve just joined the program and am doing number crunching in the background.


The first idea I came up with was what I found to be the weak Goldbach conjecture, namely that all odd numbers (above a lower limit) can be constructed from three primes.  Initially I was a bit unsure as to whether one is counted as prime.  Back in Goldbach’s day one was considered prime, but since then the definition has been tightened up to remove 1 from consideration, placing it in a special category where it is neither prime nor composite.  Even earlier there was a line of thought that two is not prime, due to it being even, while all the rest are odd.   Whether one is prime or not does not affect what follows over than where the lower limit is.  The lowest of the lower limits however does exclude 2, and the highest of the lower limits excludes all primes below 11.

So, on to my question … I am wondering whether there is a name for the following two conjectures, either independently or combined:

1) For every prime P, at or above a lower limit as high as 11 or as low as 3, there are two primes A and B such that 2*A+B=P, and

2) For every prime P, there exists a prime X such that, if Y=2P+X, then Y is prime.

I checked the first conjecture against the first 300 or so up to 2099 and the second conjecture against the first 165 or so all up to 1019 and it seems to work.  I suspect that it would work for all primes and there might be a good equation to show why that is the case, but figuring that out will need to wait until another day.

The reason why I have the caveat against the first conjecture is that if 1 is considered to a prime (in so much as not being composite), then 3 = 1*2+1 and that counts, and if 2 is eliminated as a prime for some reason (not being an odd number), then the lower limit is 3*2+5=11.  If you only eliminate 1, then the lower limit is 2*2+3=7.  I think this is the "right" lower limit, but someone is certain to strenuously disagree with me on that.

If the conjecture holds up to scrutiny, and it’s not trivial, and naming rights have not already been claimed, then I’m priming myself to claim them!  I wonder what the prize is for that.

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I've had a look at the figures and its seemed pretty trivial to prove the first conjecture.  I really should have done that before crunching through all the primes (although it was a pleasant way to spend an otherwise boringly quite morning at work).

Then I tried to put it down on paper in order to explain my proof and ... it became less trivial, and with less "proof-ness".  Back to the drawing board.

In the process of failure I did remember that I was using another conjecture or theorem that I don't know the name of, namely that all primes greater or equal to 5 take the form 3(2n)±1, where n is an integer.  All this is saying is that a prime can be neither a multiple of 3 nor even, so they are going to sit either above or below an even multiple of 3 (since the number on either side of an odd multiple of 3 is even, and the number beyond that is one away from an even multiple of 3).  I guess I could say 6n±1, but that doesn't highlight that I'm basing the claim on how multiples of 3 are arranged.

Interestingly, composite (ie non-prime) odd numbers above 5 seem to only take the form 3(2n)±1 if and only they are the product of primes where each prime P>3 - for example 25 (5x5), 35 (5x7), 49 (7x7), 55 (5x11), 125 (5x5x5), 175 (5x5x7), etc.  Another way to state this is that, if you are given an odd number greater than or equal to 5, then you can add and subtract 1 and if either result is a multiple of 6, then that number is either a prime, or the product of two or more primes (where each prime P>3).

I’m not sure whether this is a conjecture or a proved theorem - I have a recollection that it is something that is used in cryptography, but I might be wrong.  If anyone knows, please let me know and I’ll put a link in.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Is Richard Shumack Delusional?

Peter Boghossian engaged in a rather strange debate* with a guy called Richard Shumack a few years ago in which he laid out the characteristics of delusion.  To be deluded, Boghossian maintained, using the words of Karl Jaspers, you have to sincerely hold a belief that is implausible, and that belief has to be incorrigible.  In other words, you really need to believe what you say you believe (you can’t just be mouthing a commonly held belief and you can’t be just joking with someone).  You can’t be argued out of that belief.  And the belief must not only be false, it must be unbelievable by a reasonable person or the evidence must be heavily stacked against it.

The last two criteria are very closely linked, incorrigibility and implausibility, because the more you refuse to accept evidence against your claims and more questionable the “evidence” brought forward in support of your claims, the more implausible your claims are.

To show that your belief is not a delusion you need to demonstrate two things, 1) the claims associated with that belief are plausible and 2) you are willing to change the nature of your belief in the presence of contradicting evidence.

Boghossian showed, with some technical issues, a short clip with William Lane Craig talking about the nature of “faith”.  WLC quite clearly states that if “in some historically contingent circumstances” the weight of evidence turned against christianity, then it would not affect his faith because he has “the witness of the holy spirit in (his) heart”.  Under WLC’s interpretation of the “proper relationship between faith and reason”, faith trumps reason – or perhaps we could less kindly say that, when in a “proper relationship”, faith ignores reason, at least when reason indicates that the contents of faith are wrong.  Additionally, he makes an unsubstantiated claim (at least not in this context, it can be implied that the substantiation is biblical) that if a believer has intellectual doubts, then that can be attributed to Satan who is forever trying to destroy faith thus implying that any effort of reason that speaks against faith could always due to be satanic influences and providing a theological motivation for ignoring reason.

This is very much an indication that WLC is almost all the way to delusion – his beliefs appear to be sincerely held (he’s not a televangelist, so he doesn’t appear to be in it for the money like Kenneth Copeland [net worh $760M] or even Billy Graham [net worth $25M]), his beliefs are incorrigible by his own admission and the beliefs are inherently implausible because they include (amongst other things) belief in miracles which are, by definition, implausible.

The only thing that could save WLC from delusion would be truth of his claims under theism – if his god were to exist.

The debate, however, was not Boghossian vs. WLC, it was Boghossian vs. Shumack.  Shumack appeared to do well enough against the one prong of the Boghossian attack, his attempt to explain that if we are going to “know” something then we need to bring empirical evidence – so a tape measure to obtain the dimensions of a door, not divination, or a dog’s opinion, or the ceremonial sacrifice of a goat.

It should be noted however that this example was raised in the context of explaining that there can be better and worse ways of “knowing” things.  For measuring a door, a better way is to bring a tape measure.  If it’s a standard, unmodified door, then you can look up the standard – but to know whether it’s standard door, you need to measure it otherwise you’re just guessing.  Worse ways include guessing, using woo and asking someone who has no reason to know the dimensions of the door.

Shumack totally ignored the actual message and the motivation behind the example.  Instead, he talked about how there are other ways to “know” things that do not call upon empirical evidence – including the testimony of other people and one’s own personal anecdotal evidence – without acknowledging that some of these ways, if not all of them, are worse than empirical evidence.

He also ignored Boghossian’s follow-on from the door example, the argument that we all want to increase the number of true beliefs that we hold and reduce the number of false beliefs that we hold and that there are two processes that work against that: holding beliefs that are not based on evidence and holding beliefs based on what we believe to be evidence which is actually not evidence.  Note that I did not remove the term “empirical” from Boghossian’s argument because Boghossian didn’t use the term at this point.  Sure, he considers the tape measure to be a good device for obtaining evidence and that evidence would be empirical evidence, but he implicitly accepts that there are other kinds of evidence (not as good as empirical evidence, but evidence nonetheless).

Directly after, Boghossian approaches the meat of his presentation, in which he argues that religious belief is clearly delusional (so much so that religious belief requires an explicit exemption in the DSM-V’s definition of delusion).

Shumack did not address this at all.  Even when given time to reflect and put his words into an opinion piece, he hardly addressed the issue (and then only in passing while criticising “scientism”).

So, the key question was: Is Richard Shumack delusional?

Well, he’s a christian, so on those grounds he qualifies since christian beliefs are (when done properly) sincerely held, incorrigible and implausible.  Unless his god actually exists, of course, but Shumack didn’t make an effort to prove that his god exists.  His aim was to show that “theism can be held by reasonable or reliable epistemology“.

I’m going to look, therefore, at delusion in terms of these aims.  I’m going to assume that Shumack left that interaction with the belief that he succeeded in his aims (his article written later made no admission that he failed to do so and I am presuming that he is a sincere chap who would have acknowledged such a failure if he believed that he had suffered one).  The video is up on line, and he has probably reviewed it and even if he hasn’t the unwillingness to review evidence is problematic.  If there is evidence in the video of that debate that indicates that he failed to achieve his aim, then we can call his belief incorrigible.  All we need to do now is work out whether a belief that he achieved his aim is plausible or not.

To do so, we need to assess what he presented in light of what Boghossian had just said, specifically about better and worse types of knowledge.  Were any of the ways of coming to knowledge described by Shumack sufficiently good as to be called reasonable and/or reliable?  Note that I am going to discuss plausibility, given that believing in something plausible is reasonable and clearly (although after the fact) a belief that turns out to be reliable is thus shown to have been plausible.

Rather than relying on the video, I’m going to use his washup at Eternity News for two reasons.  First, it’s much easier to refer to than a video, and second, a piece of published writing can be polished and perfected while there is plenty of scope to misspeak while behind a speaker’s podium (Boghossian referred to Shumack as “Robert” for example, while his name is Richard).  If there is something that he said that was significantly better than in the written version, feel free to let me know.

Shumack claims that “(c)hristian belief is based on all the ordinary ways of knowing” and he lists them: intuition, second- or third-hand eyewitness testimony, personal experience and, oddly, miracles. (His words, in context: “But here there’s a great irony. Scientism is revealed to be an extraordinary and unsustainable way of thinking about knowledge, whereas Christian belief is based on all the ordinary ways of knowing. Christians sensibly ground so many of their ethical and existential beliefs in intuition. Christians put their faith in Jesus in large part based on the eyewitness testimony to the historical events of his life, death and resurrection. Christians know God personally through the presence of the Holy Spirit and they experience his power through miracles like healing and visions.”)

What he leaves out are empirical evidence (my preferred type) and logical argument (WLC’s second favourite after personal experience).

Are these, in the absence of a presupposition as to the existence of a god, sufficient to make the belief in a god plausible?

The last shall be first, and in this case that is the humble miracle. It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that this was actually in Shumack’s list of “ordinary ways” but I want to address it anyway.  A miracle, as earlier stated, is implausible by definition.  If your belief in something is based on something else that itself is implausible, you’ve got a problem right from the get go.  If I witness a miracle, I have to first consider it an aberration, a freak confluence of events or a misunderstanding or misremembering on my part.  If I am told about a miracle, I have to apply the same doubts, and add to it any doubt relating to unreliability of the witness.  Note that when we consider a miracle as the path to knowing, we must remember that that path passes through either eye-witness testimony or personal experience.

So, we really only have three truly “ordinary ways”, unless we drastically redefine the term “ordinary”: intuition, testimony and personal experience.  I have to point out here that Shumack raised these three in the context of an attack on “scientism”, not an attack on science.  If the below seems a bit too close to science, that should not be a problem per se, unless the reader wants to accuse me of scientism on the grounds of sounding too reasonable.

Let’s look at intuition.  What exactly is intuition?  According to the dictionary (well, a dictionary) it’s “the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning”.  Wikipedia says “Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning, or without understanding how the knowledge was acquired”. Well, that doesn’t augur well for Shumack’s initial aim (to show that theism can be held by reasonable or reliable epistemology), since reason itself has been jettisoned.  Is intuition reliable?  It’s certainly not 100% reliable, but perhaps it’s reliable enough for some things.  Is it reliable enough to know about what could be argued to be the most important thing you could ever know (were a god to exist)?

I would argue not.  Human advances have steamrolled over incorrect intuitions for millennia.  Logic exists to skewer intuitions and those holding them and make our thinking better and more ordered.  Consider Boghossian’s end-game regarding better and worse ways to know things.  Which is better, a) knowledge acquired without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning, and/or without understanding how the knowledge was acquired, or b) with proof, evidence and conscious reasoning, and with an understanding as to how the knowledge was acquired?

Intuition might not be the worst way to start a trip towards knowledge, but it’s far from being the whole journey.  You certainly don’t want to rely solely on intuition, you want something more substantial to get you to knowledge.

So, what about testimony?  I’m going to be outrageously fair here and consider only eye-witness testimony, rather than second and third hand eye-witness testimony and firsthand testimony to gossip and hearsay.

While eye-witness testimony has been considered the gold standard in court cases (somewhat eclipsed now by forensic evidence), it has always been dodgy.  There is an increasing body of work which shows that humans are unreliable eye-witnesses but we don’t need to trawl through the scientific literature to make the point.  The point is adequately made for us by christians who have a bible in which there are four gospels, all of which differ to some extent or another.  The very need to include four perspectives relates to the unreliability of testimony.

Perhaps considering the gospels as eye-witness testimony might be thought of as a trap, but even if we consider the works as collations of reports of people who may or may not have been eye-witnesses, we are still relying on the ability (and will) of the authors to correctly relate what they have been told and the reliability of the original eye-witnesses whose tales have passed from person to person in an oral history tradition.

Add to this the fact that when a christian is accepting the testimony of another they are treating their source as an authority for some reason.  If these authorities have arrived at their knowledge via a questionable epistemology, then you are just putting off the problem of how to arrive at knowledge rather than solving it.

And then we have personal experience.  Personal experience is really no more than zero hand (rather than firsthand) eye-witness testimony, since it only works as a form of knowing when you relate your experiences back to yourself and try to understand them and to place them in a comprehensible context.  Above I pointed to the fact that there are problems with the reliability of eye-witness testimony and this is not entirely limited to people who are eye-witnesses and who are testifying to someone else.

All people are unreliable with regard to their own personal experiences, to a greater or lesser extent.  They can be misled, confused and ignorant.  They can leap to incorrect assumptions, especially if sufficiently motivated to do so – as well they might be if life eternal is on offer.  They can misinterpret their memories, muddle them up and even construct them out of whole cloth where required (my younger brother used to clearly remember our house burning down, despite it happening three months before he was born and a work colleague often confidently reports events that no-one else in the office has any recollection of, he’s so extremely non-synoptic that we could refer to him as “John”).

As with intuition, and similarly to the eye-witness testimony of others, personal experience is an adequate starting point on the way to knowledge, but to bridge the gap between opinion and knowledge, we must accept that our memories are questionable (when they aren’t better described as feeble) and that we are plagued by confirmation and other biases.  And, especially when what we think has happened is rather odd, we must seek confirmation if we are going to transform our personal experiences into knowledge of more than a memory (we will know that we remember, but we won’t know that what we remember happened as we remember it).  To be of any use, that confirmation is going to have to be via the collation and assessment of appropriate evidence.  In other words, via a sort of scientific process – perhaps not the hardest of hard science, but at least some sort of impartial evidence gathering and assessment process.

Is Richard Shumack delusional to think that he can know anything via intuition, testimony and personal experience without taking scientific-like steps to bridge the gap between his opinions (and presuppositions) and actual knowledge?  Yes, I think he might be a tad delusional.

The only thing that might save him, allowing him to be either accidentally in possession of knowledge or even correctly in possession of knowledge (via a divine boost to the reliability a personal experience vis a vis interactions with the holy spirit), would be the existence of his god.  Unfortunately however, he made no real attempt to show that his god exists.

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* Note that I call the debate strange because of its structure – 30 minutes for Peter Boghossian, 15 minutes for Richard Shumack, 30 minutes for structured questions for clarification and then a Q&A free-for-all.  Usually a debate gives each debater equal time to present their case.  Perhaps Shumack felt that he could smash his case in less time than Boghossian needed (along with less technology).  He did, after all, have god on his side …

Monday, 11 February 2019

Ethical Structure vs. Hi-Phi Nation - Respecting the Wishes of the Dead


I have heard a bit about Hi-Phi Nation for a while, but only just recently subscribed to the podcast and started listening to their back-catalogue.  It’s really rather good and the first episode certainly got me thinking.  The key questions were what do we owe the dead, should we respect their wishes and what implication would not respecting the wishes of the dead have on the living?

An easy answer to the first question is “nothing”.  The dead are dead and if they don’t know that we are not respecting their wishes (which they can’t, due to their being dead), then our lack of compliance isn’t going to hurt them.  It’s an easy answer but it may be wrong.  You can quickly work through hypotheticals which indicate that, as a matter of fact, a person can be harmed by actions of which they are not aware and which they may never know about.

The example given was a person in a coma who is abused.  The nature of the coma (and the abuse) is that when the person awakes from the coma, they will be totally unaware of having been abused.  Our intuition is that it’s not okay to abuse such a person.  Then consider a person who is in a permanent coma.  Is it ok to abuse such a person, given that they will never awaken?  It would seem not, remembering that we stipulated that the person would never be aware of having been abused and the potential to awaken isn’t the key factor in determining whether abuse of one’s comatose body is acceptable or not.  Then consider the newly dead.  Then the recently dead.  Then the longer term dead.

There’s an element of the Sorites paradox to this sort of thinking, which might invalidate the final conclusion that the dead can in fact be harmed, but it’s certainly intuitively persuasive – as is the notion that the dead are dead and thus can’t be harmed.  They can’t both be right, can they?

Well, maybe they can.  Sort of.

It is true that the dead are dead and, for that reason, cannot be harmed.  However, a person can be considered to be more than their mere physical body and the mind generated by their brains.  In the Morality as Playing Games series of articles, I discussed Physical Survival and Legacy Survival, basically in terms of how both are important and how we might sacrifice the former for the latter.  Parents will sacrifice themselves for their offspring, people will sacrifice themselves for great causes and some would die before allowing their good name to be tarnished.  We all generate a legacy of some sort during our lives, for good or ill, and that legacy is a part of what it is to be us.  And it doesn’t necessarily disappear when our physical bodies die.  We do tend to be willing to let negative legacies lapse on death (albeit not always, which is why crowds have been known to desecrate the corpse of a tyrant from time to time) – but positive legacies are frequently maintained, often by other positive legacies … in other words the followers, friends and families of great people will keep a foundation going long after they have passed, or will maintain a mausoleum or a statue, or keep a project going, and so on and so forth.

It should be noted here that these are all the actions of the living, on behalf of the living only via veneration of the dead.  These people want to retain links to greatness, so they keep alive the legacy of the dead.  This means that those who would actually be harmed by not respecting the wishes of the dead are these followers, friends and family who are still alive.

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So, how can the Ethical Structure deal with the wishes of the dead?

Recall that an idea associated with the Ethical Structure is that our morality is built around a moral agent’s concern for self-preservation.  Each moral agent in inherently making an assessment as to whether the acts and behaviours of others are threatening to their own survival in some broader sense.  And there are layers of concern around the moral agent that indicate higher levels of threat as each layer is penetrated.

For example, there is an implicit threat when someone enacts violence against a thing – they are demonstrating a lack of control and a certain level of willingness to use violence.  There is a higher threat when the thing attacked is a living thing.  Then a higher threat when that living thing is a human being.  And an even higher threat when that human being is a human being like me in some way.  An extremely worrying threat is when that human being being harmed actually is me (because the willingness to harm is on the path towards a willingness to kill or destroy).  So, we consider the harm enacted by someone to be a moral wrong with a severity that depends on the associated threat – from petty vandalism through to murder (you might want to ignore the legal associations there).

We have a concern about our standing in our groups (ie in society), because being expelled from a group makes us vulnerable.  Harm to our status is therefore considered to be a moral wrong and we assess threats to our status in a manner quite similar to the assessment of threats to our survival.  If we see people attacking the status of other people [and maybe even things], or disrespecting them without good justification, we become concerned because we could become victims of such attacks or disrespect.

Considering other people, we need to remember that while there truly are people out there in the real world acting in accordance with motivations that we can only guess at, we do not interact directly with those people.  Instead we interact with the representations of these people that we have generated in our own heads and, as a consequence, it is these representations that are the most immediate to us rather than the people they are based on.  Representations are not necessarily discarded as soon as the represented person dies and so, in our heads, the dead live on as salient, abidingly relevant representations, together with their wishes and their legacies.  And when we see someone acting against the interests of a representation of a person, even if that person is no longer alive, we interpret that as a potential threat to our own interests because we could be next.

So, while on an intellectual level we can know with great certainty that the dead are not harmed by disrespect, we can still consider representations of the dead to be vulnerable and since there is an emergent moral injunction against harm, we can interpret harming of the dead as a moral wrong.

Note that we must of course be aware of something meaningful associated with the dead that can be harmed.  For example, a statue to war a hero or supposed discoverer of a land (ignoring the natives already in residence), or a legally established foundation that hands out money for various reasons (Hershey or Nobel or Pulitzer).  If an individual person is dead long enough, their desires and wishes and their legacy evaporate and we need no longer worry about them.  We do however feel a moral obligation to respect the wishes of groups of people, namely the people who make up our history and who established the mores and standards of our society – although in this case I would place this, at least in part, in the lowest tier of the Ethical Structure “obey my rules”.  Whose rules are respected relates to who is respected, which usually relates to respect of people and organisations long dead, but obeying rules without knowing specifically who established them is a fundamental (low-level but nevertheless important) method for signalling that you are not a threat.

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Should we respect the wishes of the dead?  It depends.  Are we at all invested in the legacy of the dead in question (even if we might not know who they are specifically)?  Are the wishes of the dead consistent with our current mores and standards?  If yes to these, then yes, probably.

If, as in the case of Hershey, the law is entangled with the wishes of the dead via a legal charitable foundation, then morality may no longer be operative because the law itself is not moral.  Morality only comes into sight when one is deciding whether to obey the law or not, or whether the law itself (in this case with regard to obligations with respect to foundations and trusts) ought to be changed.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

On Being a Theological Zombie


I have written about Theological Zombies a few times now, including the original eponymous article, The Logic of Theological Zombies, The How Many Problem and most recently Theological Zombies to the Rescue!  I also mentioned them in God as Utility Monster.  And that’s in addition to discussing them at the Reasonably Fallacious Forums.

I note that in The Logic of Theological Zombies, I cut straight to the chase and showed that consideration of such zombies can be used to argue that christianity is false.  I much assumed that people understand what I mean by the term “Theological Zombie”, possibly relying too much on the assumption that people will understand the concept as being akin to the concept of the “Philosophical Zombie” (without even mentioning the term “Philosophical Zombie”).  Finally, I’ve come to realise that there might be another possible form of “Theological Zombie” to that which I was originally considering.

Let’s quickly look at the reasoning behind Theological Zombies.  If god is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good and wants to save souls, then saving souls is a good thing.  It’s a sufficiently good thing to justify creating souls in the first place.  There are plenty of indications in theism that not having your soul saved is a bad thing.

Consider for a moment a soul that is apparently not going to be saved in this universe.  Given its omniscience, the god would have known, right from the moment of creation that this soul was not going to be saved.  The soul was going to go through the pain and suffering of existence, which according to various arguments is supposed to be a formative experience, without getting the payoff of salvation.  But the god set up the universe that way anyway, despite having options such as not creating any souls at all or creating the universe in a slightly different way – either so that that soul does not come into existence, or so that when that soul comes into existence the conditions are right for it to be saved.

It’s latter option, combined with the god’s omnipotence and omniscience that leads to Theological Zombies.  Omnipotence means that the god is not limited to the creation of a single universe, or the creation of each universe in a particular way, while omniscience allows it to know what conditions are right for each soul to be saved.  Then all that is required is creation of the conditions that are conducive for salvation of each possible soul.  If that means a multitude of universes tailored to small groups of souls, or even a single soul, then so be it – that’s not a big deal for an omnipotent god.

The only real beings in such a universe are those who are hosting souls that are going to be saved by such a universe, making all the same decisions, taking all the same actions as they would if the god established the universe and populated entirely with souled beings.  However, some of those souls would not be saved and others could be saved in a better universe.  The idea here is that the universe that a soul finds itself in is the best of all possible universes consistent with being saved.  A saved soul, however, will therefore find itself surrounded by Theological Zombies – beings that are indistinguishable from souled beings, but are empty.  They don’t carry out a script per se but rather do what the god can see would happen if it created a universe full of souled beings and the target soul was saved.

When I first considered this, I thought of the Theological Zombies as being akin to Philosophical Zombies, as per Wikipedia:

A philosophical zombie or p-zombie in the philosophy of mind and perception is a hypothetical being that from the outside is indistinguishable from a normal human being but lacks conscious experience, qualia, or sentience. For example, if a philosophical zombie was poked with a sharp object it would not feel any pain sensation, yet could behave exactly as if it does feel pain (it may say "ouch", recoil from the stimulus, and say that it is feeling pain).

I called them Theological Zombies to distinguish them only in intent, in that a god was creating what are effectively p-zombies to minimise suffering while allowing a difficult soul to be saved – because that soul could not be saved without an otherwise unacceptable level of pain and suffering.  Note that with a p-zombie there is nothing that it is like to be a p-zombie – because there is no there there, a p-zombie is not consciously aware of being.  This would not necessarily be the case for Theological Zombies.  A Theological Zombie could be precisely what a materialist atheist thinks herself to be, an emergent property of matter without a soul (whatever that actually is).

If you think about it deeply enough, we as materialist atheists consider ourselves to be bits of stuff reacting to other bits of stuff, not only in regard to things that are not our bodies, but also within our bodies.  Pain and suffering are reactions in the stuff that make up our brains to stuff in other parts of our bodies (or other parts of our brains, in the case of a headache).  From this perspective, it could be said that there is no “I” that is experiencing pain and suffering.  It’s possible therefore, to thread the needle and have a universe in which pain and suffering is some sense real, since there could entirely material beings like myself with no “soul” who can be under the impression that they are experiencing pain and suffering but who, without an “I” to actually have that experience, don’t really suffer.  The small number of souled beings in this universe would not therefore find themselves in the situation of being surrounded by automatons, but rather by effective atheists (even if some of them are working under the misapprehension that they are believers and are going to be saved, which maybe they sort of are, but not by virtue of their experiences in this universe).

There remains the issue of this universe being rather awful.  A maximally excellent being type of god could do better.  The argument here is that such a god does do better and has done better with as perfect a universe that can exist with humans in it and perhaps the vast majority of us qualified for salvation in it (and there were only a relatively small number of Theological Zombies, being those who could not be saved under the circumstances of near perfection).  Then god created increasingly worse universes with small numbers of souled beings and the vast majority being Theological zombies.  This universe, with its natural disasters, predators and parasites, with an almost constant state of war, poverty and widespread crime, this is still the sort of universe that is best, with the least pain and suffering commensurate with whoever the souled beings are in it.

This is actually quite consistent with my observations of some believers, they do appear to be among the worst of people and some of them surely would be, having a nature that would make it impossible for them to be saved in a better universe.  You hear some apologists on the topic of morality, claiming that if their god did not exist, they’d have no compunction about being immoral (or words to that effect) and you realise that these are truly scary people.  A gentler world is not for them.

Note that I am not saying that the Theological Zombie argument needs to have materialist zombies, rather than p-zombies.  I’m just addressing the possibility.  Either way, the people who need this universe to be saved remain true scumbags.

Monday, 28 January 2019

Theological Zombies to the Rescue!


I was listening to Skydive Phil’s debate with Randal Rauser recently and it occurred to me that I have a solution to the Problem of Evil.

I went part of the way in Theological Zombies already, but in that I was mostly aiming at the problem associated with the absence of compossibility, or to put it less abstrusely, the problem of a supposedly good, all-knowing, all-powerful god creating this universe in which many of the sentient beings with whom god apparently wants to have a loving relationship (being saved) will end up being damned (being sent to hell, being extinguished or merely being set apart depending on the type of god).

Phil and Randal were talking specifically about the suffering of animals and how that is inconsistent with the existence of a tri-omni god.  They danced around some of the standard defences, that animals are simply fleshy automatons (Descartes’ solution) or that animals don’t feel pain as we do (WLC’s solution) or that demons might be to blame (Plantinga’s silly argument, but only as a possible defeater raised in order to avoid a logical problem) or that the suffering of animals is somehow necessary to achieve a greater good (as I recall Randal tended to lean this way).

Now, in the Theological Zombies argument I present a way in which everyone can be saved.  The fact that there are worlds in which you may be saved but others are cannot is resolved by observing that god is not limited to creating one single universe.  As many universes as are needed can be created and largely populated with zombies that act precisely like other people would in the same circumstances, people who would either be saved in a universe with less suffering or who need a universe with even more suffering in it to be saved.  Therefore, the only beings in this universe who are not zombies are those for whom salvation is compossible with all the other real, non-zombie inhabitants.

If that means that god needs to create billions and billions of universes, that’s ok, because god is not limited in power, or by time, or anything (except perhaps logic).  But it does mean that anyone in this particular universe who is real and is being saved in it is a bit of a scumbag by virtue of it not being possible to be saved in any universe with less pain and suffering in it.

While I was specifically focusing on how Theological Zombies could avoid the problem with consigning so many people to hell or whatever, I can see now that the same argument applies to animals.  For those humans being saved in this universe, it is not necessary that real animals need to suffer.  All that is needed is for there to be theological zombie animals which act precisely as a real animal would if it were to suffer.  Which makes the people who are being saved in this universe even worse scumbags since they need those animals to suffer in order to be saved.

The positive thing though is that for the relatively low cost of accepting that pretty much nothing in this universe is actually real, and that you are a total scumbag who needs innocent animals to suffer, you can believe in whatever god you like and avoid the Problem of Evil altogether.

Plantinga, if he wants, is welcome to use this as one of his defeaters – at least it’s a lot less silly than pain and suffering demons.