Saturday, December 18, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Self-validating belief systems

Just a quick note: This paper on self validating belief systems is very interesting. More reading needed, but a quick thought that occurred to me while I am part way through it; The human mind's ability to believe things that are not true, and hang onto those beliefs, may be evolved into our way of organising our thoughts and memories to process things that are useful to us to remember and act on. We attach an importance to continuing to remember that a belief is true, otherwise we would be too forgetful, so we have to hang on until other evidence is provided. This is short-circuited by a mistake in the processing, where the importance of keeping the previous concept labeled as "valid" or "true" is mis-prioritised over the need to correct erroneous thoughts.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Christmas Myth and the rest

Andrew Sullivan adds to the controversy of the "You Know it Is a Myth?" billboard in the US. I think this entry is an excellent example of why Sullivan is so hard to read sometimes. He comes across as a lucid, thinking conservative (a rare and endangered species in the US) but then he says something that is so monumentally absurd and contradictory that I just don't know why I bother reading him. To wit:
The Christmas stories in the Bible - and they are multiple and contradictory - are obviously myths. They are obviously not to be taken literally.
So far so good. Then it goes off the rails:
They are meant as signs to the deeper, profounder truth that Christians hold to: that the force behind all that exists actually intervened in the consciousness of humankind in the form of a man so saturated in godliness that merely being near him healed people of the weight of the world's sins.
How to begin? First of all, there is no "force behind all that exists" in so far as a god or Deity is concerned. Certainly there is no evidence for one, so there is no reason to make the assumption that one exists. This "profound truth" is no truth at all, as there is no evidence to support it, which makes it Orwellian newspeak. It is only an assumption, one that is perpetuated in this 21st century by intellectual dishonesty.

It is a good thing that I am reading God is not Great at the moment, as this sort of thing is covered in chapter 10: The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell. One point in this chapter is to show how events that were considered miracles thousands of years ago are looked upon now as just cheap magic tricks that any stage conjurer could perform.
This is so enormous and radical an idea that it is not suprising that
early Christian writers told stories to bring it more firmly to life.
If the christ-the-miracle-worker and son-of-god (doncha know) incarnating on this Earth is such an enormous and radical idea, why would it need a fictional embellishment? To do so is to cheapen it and debase it. Or maybe as at that time and place "miracle workers" were to be found on every street corner and market place, to make this particular myth more outstanding it had to be given the whole special effects routine to make it stand out and give it mass-market appeal.

But they were stories, telling of a deeper more ineffable truth. If only contemporary Christians could let go of the literalism in pursuit of the far more extraordinary fact of the Incarnation.
How can a false story told as a true story tell a deeper truth?

The serious problem with this is the lack of intellectual consistency. If the Christmas story is "obviously" a myth, why does the rest of the stories about Jesus get a free pass? If part of the story is complete fabrication, the rest of the stories have to be suspect as well. At what point does the myth become fact, and how can we determine where that delineating point is? It would be more intellectually honest to acknowledge that it the more miraculous the tale, the more of a myth it becomes. This sentence "If only contemporary Christians could let go of the literalism in pursuit of the far more extraordinary fact of the Incarnation." should really read "If only contemporary Christians could let go of the literalism in pursuit of the far more extraordinary myth of the Incarnation." If that truth were told, however, the point of the whole exercise would be lost. Maybe 2000 years ago the admonisment to be nice and charitable and forgiving had to be clothed in the cheap trinkets of magic tricks and fabulous tales to get the illiterate and uneducated masses to follow it. But now we live in a more enlightened, advanced world that, I hope, has learned something new in all that time, and that we can get along and live meaningfull lives without the baggage of supersition and myth-dressed-as-fact weighing us down.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Note to self - Draft

Self: Currently reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. In reading, I recall an idea I had a little while ago, about the need for religion and salvation, and the somewhat common theme that the purpose of religion is to ultimately leave this suffering Earth behind us. There is a common theme on the suffering that one must endure in this world, and the lack of suffering in the next (nirvana, heaven or a place with grapes and lots of virgins) or if you are a "bad" person, a go to hell or return here to try again. (Respawn!)

In the modern western 21st century world it seems an anachronism to describe life as a continuous stream of suffering until our eventual, inevitable demise. This is most likely why the rise of secularism and rationalism, with its concordant fall in religiosity, is happening now. However this is only a very recent and modern event, that would require picturing what life was like 200 years ago to appreciate why religion has held on for so long. Looking at the previous post which shows life expectancy vs income over time, at the beginning of the 19th century life expectancy was only on average 40 years. This is a good indicator that life was harsh for most people all over the world, so the teaching of religion that "all of life is suffering" was evidenced all around you. There was no escaping that concept to be a truism, and the only offered salvation or release from this suffering was faith and progress after death.

Q: when was germ theory accepted? Standards of hygine and so on?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Visualisation and animation of data

This is so very, very cool. If you want to play with the data, and more, go to the source web site: GapMinder

h/t Pharyngula

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hitchens' Razor

I get tired of having to assert in many words something that Christopher Hitchens has already stated quite well.

Hitchens' Razor: what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

This phrase is found in a Christopher Hitchens Slate article on Mother Teresa. To me it is a beautiful phrase that can be used to save a lot of time, as chasing down why someones non-supported statements are wrong is wasteful. It puts the onus back onto the asserter to give evidence to support their baseless assertion. Much less tiresome than the refuter having to argue, yet again, why it is that when there is no evidence for an assertion it is not the refuters job to find it for them.

So, when someone tries to tell you that faeries live at the bottom of the garden, just because! Just apply Hitchens' Razor.

Important Edit: The correct use should be Hitchens's Razor.  Please see my entry for the correction.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Beauty and our Humanity

This is an interesting TED talk on the human conception of beauty, and where it comes from.

Not surprisingly it comes from evolution. Any living thing that can exhibit a preference based on some form of stimulus would form the basis for the concept of beauty.

The punchline of the talk is that beauty is the appreciation of something done well. I have to agree with this, and it is not just limited to the art world. There have been quite a few instances in my life where I have observed engineering done well and it moved me to tears. When a complex project is undertaken which incorporates planning, work, effort and skilled manufacturing, and it all works as it should giving the results we expect, then it is a work of art. I have experienced the feeling of great joy when a system I have been a part of developing works. I don't know if others feel the same way, but I like a good, filled-in checklist that shows all of the tasks have been completed. There is an aesthetic to have all of the boxes filled, just so.

I have heard it argued from some that our humanity is diminished if we acknowledge that it is all a product of random chance and chemistry that is below our conscious selves. There is the sense that we don't deserve the enjoyment or appreciation we get if it is not sourced from a conscious action, be that from ourselves or from some deity that gets all of the credit.

Strangely enough, it does not lessen the joy I feel for things done well even if I do know that it is the product of evolution, and the automatic mixture of stimulus and brain electro-chemistry that gives the sense of pleasure or contentment. In fact, thinking about it that way is also a form of beauty; we are machines ourselves, so complex that we even have consciousness. Knowing the source of feelings in no way diminishes them.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Earthlings - it is who we are

I recommend viewing the movie Earthlings, which shows what most of life is like for animals that are used for human purposes. Some animals are not treated this way, but I suspect that most are. Be warned, it is not pretty, and probably NSFW. The film cannot get classification in Australia, so it cannot be publicaly broadcast.

“If I could make everyone in the world see one film, I'd make them see Earthlings” — Professor Peter Singer

Animal rights and treatment

Just posted this on Pharyngula, and reproduced here:
@Sal Bro #173
but I'm (genuinely) asking whether it's reasonable/possible to be able to grow the quantity/diversity of crops needed to sustain the population of the entire planet on a veggie diet.

Well, since you genuinely asked :) As a veg diet is more efficient (uses less resources such as deforestation, water, grains) then I would have to say that is possible. The global impact of livestock is documented in the UN FAO Livestock's Long Shadow report. Press release here.

Whether people will want to or not is another thing. In my experience most people don't think about where their food comes from, or how it got there. Or, in some cases, just don't want to know, or when they do know, use such justifications as "it tastes good" or "our ancestors did it that way, so we should do it too." The "it tastes good" seems like a poor justification for killing anything; it seems so fussy and petty that just because eating the animal gives the temporary stimulation of pleasure, that a life has to be cut short? To some that is a good enough reason, but it is not to me. My desire to enjoy a meal is not sufficient enough for me to kill something, especially as there are available alternatives. In fact, the meat-substitutes are so good these days that I know of vegans that refuse to eat them because they are too meat-like, and they really don't like that.

As for ancestors, if you go back far enough our ancestors ate raw insects too, and further back, just bacteria. Our ancestors engaged in cannibalism, ritual sacrifices, slavery and other things that we now regard as morally questionable, and there will be other practices that are common place now that will be rejected in the future (such things as DADT, bullying etc) but it takes a long time for social norms to be recognised and accepted as things that need to change by a wider population. I can hope that the eating of meat will go the same way, but I suspect it is a vain hope, as there are too many personal preferences and business interests in the way. Still, I can advocate for it, just as much as omnivores can advocate against it. However, the animals that are slaughtered have no voice that can be heard, or listened to, and they have to most to personally lose.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Just how bad can your day get?

Just to cheer up, this is just one of the ways that the world can end, at least for the vast majority of living things that are on this planet. According to my somewhat vague memory for these things, I read that this sort of event had occurred at least six times in the Earth's history. That is not as bad as it seems, as that is six times in the last four billion years.

The awesome amount of power shown is quite incredible. The asteroid diameter is larger than the depth of the atmosphere (ie: over 60km.) The impact area peels the crust off the Earth to a depth of about 10km. Note in this example that Japan is just peeled away, torn up and becomes just part of the debris cloud that falls back to Earth. The result of all of the superheated gasses and debris is a world-wide conflagration. All water is vapourised, so no liquid or solid water exists on the planet at the end. I am not sure of the last scene, as it shows the surface of the Earth with no clouds. I guess it is possible that after the fires have burnt out the atmospheric temperature may be too high for condensation, but I suspect that it is really more for dramatic effect to show no water, and the scale of the devastation is truly planet-wide.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Friday, July 16, 2010

Inflation targeting and the RBA

The targeting of inflation by the RBA has been in effect since March, 1993, as described in this address given in 1999 by Mr G.R. Stevens, Assistant Governor(Economic), to the Economic Society of Australia, Sydney, 20 April 1999.

In it he describes a bit of the history of inflation targeting as conducted by the RBA, and how the RBA uses a flexible target, rather than a fixed, legislated target. This is really in keeping with the RBA charter, which is also found on their website. The charter states:
The Reserve Bank Board sets interest rates so as to achieve the objectives set out in the Reserve Bank Act 1959 :
• the stability of the currency of Australia;
• the maintenance of full employment in Australia; and
• the economic prosperity and welfare of the people of Australia.
Since 1993, these objectives have found practical expression in a target for consumer price inflation, of 2–3 per cent per annum. Monetary policy aims to achieve this over the medium term so as to encourage strong and sustainable growth in the economy. Controlling inflation preserves the value of money. In the long run, this is the principal way in which monetary policy can help to form a sound basis for long-term growth in the economy.

It was a work of genius to be able to eventually tie the objectives of the Reserve Bank to the relativly simple, and only, mechanism of targeting inflation. As a software engineer, I have to say I am impressed that such a complex system as the Australian economy can be controlled by one variable to such a successful degree.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Furthermore, there is no free will?

I happen to be browsing through some blogs and came upon a story by a neurologist which is from a transcript from The Science Network. The transcript is of an interview with Rodolfo Llinás, and in one part (pg nine) he describes an experiment he conducted on himself using a transcranial magnetic stimulator. In the experiment, he placed the stimulator on top of his head and arranged it in such a way that, when stimulated, his right foot would move inward. So his colleague would trigger the machine, and his foot would move right. In order to be sure that Llinás was not cheating, he said

And we did it several times and I tell my colleague, I know anatomy, I know physiology, I can tell you I’m cheating. Put the stimulus and then I move, I feel it, I’m moving it. And he said well, you know, there’s no way to really know. I said, I’ll tell you how I know. I feel it, but stimulate and I’ll move the foot outwards. I am now going to do that, so I stimulate and the foot moves inwards again. So I said, well what happens? I said but I changed my mind. Do it again. So I do it half a dozen times. [...] So I said, oh my god, I can’t tell the difference between the activity from the outside and what I consider to be a voluntary movement. If I know that it is going to happen, then I think I did it, because I now understand this free will stuff and this volition stuff. Volition is what’s happening somewhere else in the brain, I know about and therefore I decide that I did it. It happens in science as well. You actually take possession of something that doesn’t belong to you.

I find this truly fascinating. When stimulated to do the opposite of what he wanted to do, it seems to me that his brain retracted the intention and then "remembered" that he changed his mind. So the brain re-wrote the past to match with the known present. His reaction is to be startled that, even though he knows it is not him moving his foot, he cannot convince himself otherwise; the brain corrects its recollection of events to square up what actually happened with the intent. So it is possible to have the brain act and perform an action against its will, which is not surprising, but the brain believes it was free will acting. So free will is not free, but retrospectively applied.

Which is why he says:
What do I mean by mind? I mean internal state of the brain. Definable. Somebody tells me you can’t define the mind. And the answer is nonsense. Now you say free will- how do you define free will? But I can tell you I define free will as those activities that happen that the brain know are about to happen.

Sleepy now, but must update tomorrow (today) with some thoughts on Dunning-Kruger given this information. Need to see if the book "The I of the Vortex" is available in libraries.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We're stupid, but not that stupid

This is a wonderful article on the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

It mentions Donald Rumsfeld's famous "unknown unknowns" which I thought, at the time, was quite profound. I don't like Mr Rumsfeld's politics, but I don't think he was stupid.

It is a mental discipline to be aware of your limitations and know that you don't know the answer to things. Without this awareness, it is very easy to reach the wrong conclusions about the answers we get to questions.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect can explain the cognitive dissonance that is required for religious belief. By substituting critical thinking on what is presented by an authority figure with "blind acceptance" may not be so wilfully blind, but more of a "built-in" blindness. Maybe a lot of the faithfull are simply, neurologically incapable of being aware of their own short-circuited logic.

(These are just notes for myself to work out something later)