Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A ridiculous conception of God.

As a preliminary readers might be interested in another blog entry by myself where I make an analogy between our minds and God's mind. 

I want to employ and extend an analogy I first used here to try and dispel some of the apparent misunderstanding between atheists and, at least some, theists.

Let's suppose that in the future the bots in a computer game become conscious. Some bots think their world (computer game environment) is designed and a creation of some intelligence, others do not (let's call them atheists).

The atheist bots assume that should there be a creator/designer of their world, then it must be some entity within their computer game environment. That is to say any designer must either equate effectively to some particularly coloured pixels, or failing this to at least influence the environment in some way. However since no such coloured pixels have ever been detected, and their world operates according to discernible rules (physical laws), they regard it as being highly unreasonable to believe in the existence of a designer.  Certainly if there is such a designer then the onus is upon those who suppose he exists to supply some evidence for his existence.

However many of the theist bots think that this concept of a designer is utterly ridiculous and think of a designer in the correct sense -- namely a computer programmer who exists outside of their reality (game world) altogether.  However they do disagree and quarrel about the name and personality of the designer (programmer).

The take home message from this analogy is that we should really try to get away from the ideas that should a "God" exist then he/it is some entity which exists within reality, and that he/it intervenes with physical laws (a so-called "God of the gaps").  It is just as ludicrous for us to entertain such a conception of "God" as it is for the bots to entertain such a conception of a designer for their game world.  Moreover, for the bots, the question of whether a designer exists, is not a question which could be answered by their science.  Their science deals with the regularities of their world and therefore could only address the concept of a designer should that designer exist within their reality.  The exact same applies to us.  The question of whether there is a creator, where that creator exists outside our physical reality, is not in principle something which could be addressed by our science. It is a purely metaphysical issue.

In addition, although the disagreements between the various religions might at some level be interesting, this really doesn't have any implications for the existence of some type of "God", at least not if we construe such a "God" in the minimal sense as a creator or designer of our world.  Compare this to the scenario where the bots disagree about the name and personality of the computer programmer.  It would be absurd to maintain that this suggests that no one created their world at all!

This conception of "God" as being wholly outside of our physical reality, or that our physical reality exists "within" God, also dispenses with the  requirement that it is
incumbent upon the theist to demonstrate that a creator exists. Why?  First of all we need to understand why the burden of proof is normally on those who claim that something exists.

In our observations of the world we note that the Universe appears to be described by physical laws.  It seems that these laws have universal applicability -- that is the very same laws apply throughout the Universe.   Hence we know what entities to expect and what not to expect -- thus our expectation is that stars will have planets orbiting them, and not flying teapots.  In short, if someone asserts that x exists, but x would be unexpected given our understanding of physical laws, then the burden of proof ought to be on the one making the assertion.  Note though that strictly speaking there is no distinction between positive and negative assertions. Hence we surmise there are galaxies beyond the cosmic horizon even though in principle we can never detect them. So, contrary to what people maintain, the burden of proof is not on the one asserting something exists, but rather it's on the one asserting something exists which we would not expect given our understanding of physical laws.

But clearly this does not apply to any existent which resides outside physical reality.  Either our physical reality came into existence through a conscious external agent --  some type of creator, although such a creator need not necessarily correspond to what we typically think of as "God" -- or the Universe, Multiverse or whole physical shebang came about as a brute fact with no cause.  Whichever hypothesis pertains arguments need to be advanced to justify ones position on this issue.

Related to this is the fact that many self-proclaimed atheists assert that they merely lack a belief in any type of "God" rather than disbelieve in a "God".   However, if one lacks a belief in whether there is a creator, then necessarily one also lacks a belief in the converse.  That is they also lack a belief in the supposition the Universe came into being as a brute fact.  This is contrary to how atheism was originally understood as being the position of supposing that most likely there is no entity or reality corresponding to what one might label "God".

Friday, 26 December 2014

An afterlife is so fanciful!

I think that many people would tend to think that the idea of an afterlife is certainly appealing, but that logic and reason compel them to conclude that the whole notion is rather implausible and totally opposed to what science tells us about the world.  Many other people might profess a belief in an afterlife, but this is in spite of, not because of their reason.  They might feel they must be something beyond this life and there must be a reason or purpose to their existence.

I am the diametric opposite to this.  It seems to me that reason and evidence very strongly supports the notion we survive the deaths of our bodies (and science most emphatically does not tell us there's no afterlife!), but my feeling is that the notion is very fanciful.  We go to sleep every night and enter deep sleep where it seems we are scarcely conscious at all.  It is hard for me to imagine that at the threshold of death, as my consciousness slowly diminishes to nothingness, I will ascend into some new reality and regain full consciousness.

A few years ago, in response to my belief in an afterlife, a friend of mine exclaimed "it's cold!"  By this I surmise he meant that the world we are experiencing now is reality.  It's cold, it's gritty and the notion that we'll ascend to some strange new world after we die is fanciful in the extreme.

Saying it's cold as a reason for disbelieving in an afterlife is of course fatuous, and yet . . and yet . . I understand perfectly where he's coming from.  It does at least feel to me to be rather implausible.  I believe in an afterlife not because of my feelings, but in spite of them. 

Friday, 28 November 2014

Science and the Afterlife

It seems to be widely believed that modern science has shown that there is no afterlife, that this life is the only one we will have, that only this physical world exists and only gullible people are disposed to question such established truths.

This is a complete travesty of what is actually the case.  What very few people seem to know, or  understand, is that science completely leaves out consciousness in its description of reality.  Indeed, so far as science is concerned, we might as well all be what has been termed philosophical zombies  -- that is to say we might as well all be entirely devoid of any conscious experiences whatsoever, even though we externally look and behave exactly like real people.

This is because it is held that we are merely very sophisticated biological machines.  Thus it is the physical events in our brains, together with the input from our 5 senses, which wholly explains everything we ever do, say, and think.  In and of itself consciousness is not regarded as having any causal efficacy.  Hence I am typing this out, not because of an intent on my part to express certain ideas, but due to physical laws playing out.

Now materialists deny this, but only by advancing a transparently false metaphysical hypothesis.  This hypothesis is that consciousness is the very same thing as the underlying neuronal activity, or it is the very same thing as what the brain does.  Note here they are not saying that such processes causes or produces consciousness, rather consciousness is one and the very same thing as some physical process.

It seems to me transparently clear that such a claim is vacuous.  Physical things and processes are characterised by mass, electric charge  and so on. They have a location, they can be measured and anyone can potentially observe them.    Conscious experience, on the other hand, is wholly defined by its qualitativeness -- the pain of a toothache, the taste of Pepsi, the experience of greenness, the feeling of contentment  -- all these are paradigmatic examples of conscious experiences, or qualia as they are sometimes referred to.  Most importantly ones consciousness can only be known by you, no one else can observe your pain, your jealousy and so on.   Since physical processes and conscious experiences have absolutely nothing in common whatsoever, then to say they are one and the very same thing is simply an abuse of language (although of course it is still possible one can cause the other, and vice versa).

The truth of the matter is that we have this philosophical problem called the mind/body problem.  It's persisted for thousands of years and we are no closer to solving it now in the 21st Century than we have ever been.  The proposed materialist solutions are acts of desperation.

The truth is that consciousness exists in its own right.  And we cannot perceive anyone else's consciousness, we can only infer it from their bodily behaviour.  So consciousness itself is invisible, we only infer its presence in other people via the voluntary movement of their bodies and their speech.  When their bodies cease to function at death nothing can be definitively concluded about the consciousness which formerly was able to move that body.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Mathematics, Education and School

I have just started watching a TV programme about peoples' numerical skills in the UK. It claims that around half the adult population has the mathematics ability of a primary school child (ages 5-11 I think).  So if half of the population has learnt nothing about maths from 11 onwards, then it seems to follow that no purpose was served in them attending maths classes from the age 11 onwards.  At least not in terms of their education.

This seems to me to be a deplorable situation when we consider that mathematics is the second most important skill that we should acquire at school; the most important of course being English Language. There again many peoples' English language skills are also equally abysmal and they don't seem to have learnt much in this subject after 11 years old either.

Yet people harp on about how incredibly important school is and claim it's disadvantageous for a child even if he or she misses a single day. Well, if we are to believe this statistic, then at least for half of us this doesn't appear to be true.

Consider also that apart from holidays children are required to attend school 5 days a week from 9am-4pm (in my day, might be 9-3 now?). It seems to me that to a significant degree we are robbed of our childhood and in engaging in childhood pleasures such as playing, or reading, or doing any one of innumerable pleasurable things. Instead we are compelled to sit in classrooms where a significant proportion of us learn very little and are presumably bored to tears. To rub it in further UK Government ministers keep proposing that children should attend school at an earlier and earlier age, and do more homework!

Although this might sound surprising to many, I actually regret not playing truant in my school days. I learnt next to nothing before the age of around 14.  In all honestly being compelled to attend school up to the age of 14 was a lamentable disgraceful waste of my childhood.

It seems to me there's something really seriously wrong with the whole system. I've asked many people what a 1/3 divided by a 1/9 equals.   A good majority of people give me the wrong answer -- most often 1/27.  This suggests that they either do not understand what a fraction is, do not understand what "divide" means, or quite possibly do not understand what either word means.  The answer is of course 3.  1/3 divided by a 1/9 means how many times does 1/9 go into 1/3.  Since 3/9 is another way of expressing 1/3, then the answer is 3.

And many people use "your" rather than "you're", loose rather than lose, "noone" rather than "no one", there instead of their or they're.  The list goes on and on.  I should hasten to add that my grammatical skills are not particular impressive, but the good majority of people have even worse skills in this area.

I don't know the methods by which children have been taught in recent years.  But clearly -- at least for mathematics and English language -- a serious rethink in how children are taught these subjects is in order.  It also seems to me that reducing the hours we attend school might be a good idea -- perhaps attending 9am- 12pm for 5 days a week.  It frees up more time for children to pursue activities of their own choosing, and possibly might ignite a greater interest, and hence a greater understanding in the subjects being taught if  they are not being continually exposed to the same subject matter.  I'm interested in the philosophy of mind, but if I were compelled to think and write about it for hours every day, then that flame of interest might well be in danger of diminishing. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

I want and I feel . .

I just feel really down when I go into a hospital, or Job Centre, or anywhere where people are studiously working and it's all quietish.

I want to be in the middle of the countryside lying deep down in the long deep grass with the glorious sunshine shining down on my face, with endless green glades and my soulmate gazing down deep into my eyes, full of endless love and compassion. I want to feel that everything is wonderful and everything will come right at the end.

I want to feel that life is one wonderful adventure. I want everything to come right at the end. I want . . I want . . an ultimate point to my beingness, to the Universe, to all things.
And yes I've been drinking a fair few pints . . . so what . .

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Meaning or Purpose?

There seems to be a lot of talking at cross purposes when people who believe in a "God" and a "life after death" argue with materialists/atheists.  Many of the former claim that if the atheists/materialists are right, then there is no meaning to life so we might as well just kill ourselves now.   Many atheists, on the other hand, seem to be genuinely bewildered by this and claim that of course there is meaning to life!  We form friendships and relationships with others, achieve various goals, experience many pleasures.  And even after death our lives might not have been in vain since we will have affected many other peoples' lives, hopefully for the better!

I want to draw a distinction between the words "purpose" and "meaning".  If there is no "God", no "life after death", and we are merely complex biological machines, then I would submit our lives have no purpose.  By this I mean that there is no ultimate goal to our lives.  There is no becoming one with "God" or whatever form that purpose might take.  That is to say that we live out our lives, and they might well be very satisfactory in terms of pleasures experienced, various satisfactions attained, but ultimately there is no reason for ones existence over and above that which we ourselves give to our lives.  On the other hand our lives certainly have meaning due to the aforementioned positive aspects to our existence.

But is having meaning, but no purpose to our lives, enough

Although I emphatically disagree with Bertrand Russell in the following quote that we are compelled to accept the conclusion he outlines, he nevertheless nicely captures the dissatisfactory consequence of accepting that our lives have no purpose.

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation be safely built.
Bertrand Russell (from A Free Man's Worship, 1903)
If we are mere biological machines, then yes, life has meaning.  And I find it absurd for people to suggest that if there is no "God" etc we might as well just kill ourselves now.   But nevertheless it remains the case that the Universe and our lives are ultimately to no avail.   Whatever goals are achieved, whatever satisfactions are attained, whatever pleasures we experience, ultimately it is all pointless in the grand scheme of things.  Eventually the last human being will die, the last sentient being on Earth will die and eventually the earth will be swallowed up by the Sun when it ends its life as a red giant. 

With the death of the Earth we might legitimately conclude that the whole history of the human race -- every thought, every action, every emotion experienced -- might as well never have occurred.

If we gravitate towards materialism perhaps it is best to put aside such thoughts and lose ourselves in our day to day lives; care about the concrete things in life such as making a living, forming relationships, and just marvel at our fortune to be priveleged to have this brief spark of sentience before the veil of forever nothingness descends upon us. 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Life before birth

"Life before birth" as well as after death?


Often when I tell people that I gravitate towards a belief in a "life after death" they say something along the lines that they didn't exist before they were born, so it is reasonable to suppose that likewise they will cease to exist when they die.

I'm in entire agreement with them.  The question which interests me is why they are implicitly supposing that I believe we all spring into being sometime between conception and birth, but then exist forevermore after that.  After all I always take great pains to stress that I have come to my beliefs from thinking through the issues and looking at the evidence, and emphatically not because I subscribe to any specific organised religion.  

There are a number of reasons why I find this hypothesis that we come into being sometime between conception and birth, and then exist forevermore, somewhat implausible.

To believe in a "life after death" -- at least in the sense of existing in some afterlife realm for some time -- entails that it cannot be our physical bodies which produces the self or consciousness.  But if my body -- specifically the brain -- doesn't produce consciousness, then there doesn't seem to be any reason why the self should come into being at the same time as the brain first forms.

Perhaps people might say that it is reasonable to suppose the self springs into being at this time since we do not have any memories prior to this.  Now there have been reports of people recalling memories before this time i.e apparent previous lives, but let's put these aside for the time being.    Although we don't typically remember any events before conception, we don't remember anything before about 5 years of age either.  In fact we only remember a very small percentage of everything that has happened to us since then too.  Hence it seems the lack of memories cannot constitute a good reason to suppose we didn't exist.

In addition if the self can be created, then this seems to make it much more reasonable that it can cease to exist too.  In other words if we come into being at some point, then it is reasonable to suppose that at some point we pass away.  The other natural alternative is to suppose we have always existed, and always will exist.  But to imagine we pop into being at some specific point, but then never cease to be, constitutes an asymmetry which I just personally find awkward and implausible.  For one thing what caused us to come into being?  Why couldn't a similar cause or power make us cease to exist? 

Another reason to doubt the hypothesis is that if now I am born I will never cease to exist, it seems somewhat implausible that I should find myself in existence a mere few years after springing into being (. . well . . OK . . maybe more than a few, but you get my drift).   Why don't I find myself, for example, a quadrillion years after coming into being?

Furthermore there's very compelling evidence for reincarnation from Ian Stevenson and other researchers. Not just children who seem to remember previous lives, but birthmarks corresponding to the injury which killed the previous personality.  There are even children who report apparent memories from their time in the afterlife in between their incarnations on Earth.  If we spring into being sometime between conception and birth, then all this evidence needs to be explained away.

Finally I feel that I existed before I was conceived.  This final reason triggered some amusement amongst 2 skeptics on 2 differing independent occasions.  I'm not sure why.  Presumably they hold the position that what I feel in this matter cannot possible have any implications about what is actually the case.   But it could be the case there are deep memories percolating in my subconscious which are finding a vague expression in my conscious mind.  And besides, this was my last and least important reason to reject the hypothesis.

Do non-human animals have a "life after death"?

I'd just like to mention another supposition that skeptics tend to make regarding what I believe and which I find equally absurd.  They tend to implicitly suppose I believe only human beings survive their deaths and no other animals.  But I do not view this as being remotely plausible.  I presume a dog's brain is very similar to a human being's, albeit less complex.  If only human beings have an afterlife this means that a dog's brain produces consciousness, but that a human being's brain does not -- the human being's brain merely "filters" the self or consciousness.  But surely the similarity between our brains and dogs brains suggests they perform a similar function, whether producing or merely "filtering" consciousness?  Moreover, if one brain produces and the other brain merely "filters" consciousness, then it seems to me that it ought to be the more complex brain which produces consciousness!

There is another consideration.  If we exist both before conception and after death, this at least opens up the possibility that there is some ultimate purpose to our existence.  By ultimate purpose I mean something over and above the meaning we ourselves bestow on our lives.  The word "purpose" connotes the idea that we have some ultimate teleological destiny.

But if only human beings survive their deaths, this means only our lives could have this ultimate purpose, and that other animals whose intelligence is not too far behind our own, for example dolphins, apes and elephants, do not have any such ultimate purpose.  But why would human beings be special in this way?   Taking both considerations into account I'm afraid I can't make much sense of this notion that only human beings survive their deaths and no other animals.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Debating with people

It's an extremely common tendency to try and justify ones position on any topic by seeking out those opponents who advance the most naive, the weakest and most ridiculous arguments. Or, when arguing with more thoughtful opponents, to attribute to them a more naive or simplistic position than the one they actually hold and attack that. 

In addition it seems that people often appear to deliberately avoid clarity and revel in being abstruse.  My suspicion is they do this in order to give the impression of winning the argument.  In reality though their words convey little, if indeed any meaning.

These tactics might rally those who subscribe to your view, but does precious little to justify your own position. What is needed is to seek out those opponents who provide the most challenging and sophisticated arguments, and to address those specific arguments. If you can outargue them and even make them appear to be foolish, then you'll have some confidence that your position might well be correct.

It is though very tempting to simply attack your weakest opponents.  Or attack the weakest arguments against your position. Or to employ other underhanded strategies in order to "win"
.  It's easy, requires little thought, makes you feel superior, and of course most importantly of all it garners support and admiration from those who share your sentiments and beliefs in the matter in hand.

Monday, 11 August 2014

God and human minds

This is a post I wrote in a discussion board 11 years ago in 2003.

There seems to be this universal misconception amongst atheists that there is no evidence for a God. I intend in this post to refute this notion. To make it really simple, throughout this post I'm going to assume a materialist perspective, or at least a materialist based perspective i.e. physical reality is primary, and minds or consciousnesses are somehow derived from this primary physical reality.

We can just use the minimal definition of "God" as a mind or consciousness, albeit a mind very large or unlimited in scope.

Now one might argue that given that God is a mind or consciousness, it might be a good idea to provisionally suppose that the nature of any evidence for God's mind may be of a similar nature to the evidence for our minds.

So what evidence do we have for the existence of other minds? I would suggest that we do not see other peoples’ minds directly. If we look into a living brain we will only ever see various physical processes operating according to physical laws. You can of course simply declare that minds are identical or are a function of these physical processes, but still that assertion itself is just a stipulation. The pertinent point here is that we could only know that other people are conscious by literally partaking in their conscious experiences. Which we don't.

Nor do we have any scientific evidence that other people are conscious. Now people might find this a very surprising assertion. After all many scientific entities are invisible, but we do not dispute their existence. This is because we can infer their existence from their effect in the world. So if minds have an effect in the world, then why can't minds play a role in some scientific theory describing the world?

The thing about invisible scientific entities like electrons is that we can infer their existence because electrons play fruitful roles in our theories describing the world. Or to put it another way, electrons are causally efficacious. They need to be supposed to exist in order to explain some aspect of reality (for the pedants out there I agree this is not strictly true, but I'm trying to make it simple!).

Being materialists we suppose that the world is physically closed. By this I simply mean that everything that ever happens is wholly explicable in terms of prior physical causes. In particular, there is no non-material mind affecting processes in the brain. Physical processes in the brain, like everything else in the Universe, can be wholly understood as an unbroken chains of physical causes and effects. In other words everything that ever occurs in our brains, and hence by extension all our behaviour, can be completely described with reference to the physical laws of nature.

This being so, minds are not required for an understanding of our behaviour. To have a scientific understanding of our behaviour it is sufficient that we have knowledge of all facts accessible from the third person perspective. By a third person perspective I mean that anyone with unimpaired sense and instruments could potentially corroborate. This would then include neurons firing in a living brain, but would not include mental states such as emotions since emotions cannot be seen, only the effects of emotions can be seen.  So the totality of our behaviour can be explained with reference to third person facts.

As an aside this is why minds can never be scientifically explained. Minds can neither be perceptually sensed nor play a fruitful role in our theories describing the world, therefore from a scientific perspective they are superfluous. Thus within any materialist based understanding of the world, it simply has to be arbitrarily stipulated that they are identical to, or are a function of, or are somehow derived from physical processes within the brain. Sort of like a faith if you will.

A couple of things to point out here. If we can neither perceptually perceive other peoples’ minds, nor scientifically prove the existence of other peoples’ minds, then what justification do we have of supposing other peoples’ minds apart from our own exist whatsoever? I would simply suggest the obvious answer here. Namely we infer other peoples’ minds by noting that other peoples’ behaviour is very similar to my own. I know in my own case that my behaviour is apparently a consequence of my internal mental states; therefore it is reasonable to assume that other people in turn possess internal mental states. Another point is that simply because minds (defined, if you like, as the phenomenal aspect of physical processes in the brain) are not required to scientifically explain our behaviour, this doesn't mean that everyday explanations of our behaviour are redundant. Sure, one could explain why I get up to make myself a cup of coffee in terms of purely physical processes occurring in my brain, but we can also provide an explanation in terms of intentions (e.g. I need something to keep me alert). These explanations are not incompatible; rather they apply at different levels.

A related point is that simply because the world is physically closed this does not necessitate we do not have free will. It’s true that our behaviour is wholly determined, or to use a better term, described by physical laws. But this need not imply at all that we are hapless puppets dancing to the tune of the physical laws of nature. To suppose this you are thinking of physical laws as somehow necessitating change in the world, where as it is more appropriate to think of physical laws as simply describing change in this world. But once we have adopted this latter view then the physical laws of nature do not compel our behaviour, rather they describe our freely chosen actions!

Now, having got all the foregoing out of the way, we can at last address the issue of the evidence for the existence of a God. The essential point is this. Just as a complete physical description of the physical processes occurring in someone’s brain, and thereby accounting for their behaviour without reference to any consciousness, doesn’t necessitate that that person is not possessed of a mental life, so does the fact that just because the Universe and all change within can be accounted for in terms of physical laws, this doesn’t mean to say that consciousness is not associated with the physical Universe as a whole. Indeed, just as we have differing levels of explanations for peoples’ behaviour in terms of either physical laws, or in terms of the intentions of minds, so it may be possible to have differing levels of explanation for processes in the Universe as a whole, either in terms of physical laws, or in terms of what we might describe as a metamind or “God”.

Notice that whether it is in fact legitimate to infer the existence of a metamind or "God" will depend upon the character of the Universe as a whole. But the assertion of every atheist I have ever met is that there is no evidence whatsoever for any “God”. They are indeed quite emphatic in this assertion. But this position simply cannot be maintained as it is clear that the characteristics of the physical Universes as a whole could have been less suggestive of an associated meta-consciousness than what we actually witness. We just simply need to consider logically possible Universes. One might imagine for example that it could have been logically possible for us to have subsisted in a Universe where no physical laws at all pertained, and we found ourselves existing in a bodiless state experiencing a stream of random perceptual experiences through our senses.

But even if we are to suppose that such a Universe were somehow not logically possible, it certainly seems that we could have subsisted in a differing Universe from the one we find ourselves in, but which didn’t exhibit the regularities exhibited by our Universe. Regularities, don’t forget, which can be captured by our scientific theories written in the language of mathematics. At least in physics these theories need not depict a literal state of affairs, and in the past have found to be limited in their scope e.g. Newtonian mechanics. Notwithstanding this, our theories still work in the sense of accurately predicting the cause of our perceptual experiences. One almost gets the impression that the Universe is contrived in such a manner that intelligent sentient beings are just to say able to do this! After all, we can easily imagine a Universe not exhibiting any patterns, or if it did exhibit patterns those patterns not being amenable to mathematical investigation or being too abstruse for us to discern.

It should be noted that I am not arguing that the existence of a “God” is proved, nor that the existence of a “God” is as likely as the existence of other people, nor even that the existence of a God is even likely. What I have just done is to demonstrate that even under a materialist interpretation of the world, it is not only possible to believe in a “God”, but that the characteristics of the world go someway towards lending some evidence for a God. If I am able to do this by assuming a materialist framework, then a fortiori I will be able to do this under any other metaphysical interpretation of the world, such as for example immaterialism.

Monday, 4 August 2014

A list of my favourite novels

How much I actually like a novel seems to bear very little relationship to how much other people like them, at least going by Amazon's customer reviews.   Most novels I start reading I just give up after the first few pages.  Also, where as the vast majority of customer reviews are 5 stars,  for the minority of novels that I actually manage to finish, I would give only an average of 3 stars.  So when I give 5 stars people can be assured I really did like the novel concerned.

The following list of books are the best novels I have read in my life and I would emphatically give them all 5 stars. A good proportion feature time travel!

I have 2 lists, the first list being novels for adults and the second list novels for children.  Clicking on the picture of the book will take you to the relevant Amazon.com page.  Clicking on the title of the book underneath the picture will take you to the relevant page on the UK version of Amazon.

PS Might have made a bit of a mess here.  I'm having to experiment with html code but desirable end results do not appear to be best served by an experimental approach.  So the pictures won't be evenly spaced etc.

Novels for Adults



James Clavell - Shogun

James Clavell - Shogun

Tim Bowler - Apocalypse
Tim Bowler - Apocalypse

Felix J.Palma The Map of Time
Felix J.Palma - The Map of Time

Robert Steele Gray Survivor

Robert Steele Gray - Survivor

Will Hubbell - Cretaceous Sea
Will Hubbell - Cretaceous Sea

Ken Grimwood -- Replay
Ken Grimwood -- Replay

Tim Powers - The Anubis Gates
Tim Powers - The Anubis Gates

John Wynham - The Day of the Triffids

John Wynham - The Day of the Triffids

Isaac Asimov - The End of Eternity
Isaac Asimov - The End of Eternity

A.J. Cronin - Hatter's Castle
A.J. Cronin - Hatter's Castle

A.J. Cronin - Grand Canary
A.J. Cronin - Grand Canary

Novels for Children 



Enid Blyton -- The Secret Island
Enid Blyton -- The Secret Island

Enid Blyton - The Magic Wishing Chair Again
Enid Blyton - The Magic Wishing Chair Again

L. Frank Baum -- The Marvelous Land of Oz
L. Frank Baum -- The Marvelous Land of Oz

Philippa Pearce - Tom's Midnight Garden
Philippa Pearce - Tom's Midnight Garden

Enid Blyton - House at the Corner
Enid Blyton - House at the Corner

Enid Blyton - The Enchanted Wood
Enid Blyton - The Enchanted Wood

C.S. Lewis - The Last Battle
C.S. Lewis - The Last Battle

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

What were the chances of me being born?

What were the chance of any specific person being born? More specifically what were the chances of me being born?  If we accept the prevailing belief, then our self or identity is determined by a specific sperm fertilizing a specific egg. A specific sperm and egg are required since it is believed that each sperm and each egg are unique. Armed with this information the blogger Ali Binazir has attempted to give an estimation of this chance.

He concludes:

Probability of your existing at all: 1 in 102,685,000

That is a one followed by 2,685,000 zeros! Undoubtedly we can quibble about this figure. But even though it might be wildly wrong in underestimating the true probability, we can nevertheless safely conclude that the probability of me being born are effectively zero. Since though I have been born it seems to me we have to reject the original stipulation that my identity is determined by a specific sperm fertilizing a specific egg.

I've never encountered anyone who actually agrees with me here. The common response is that the fact we were born is not remotely surprising. Indeed they often make the rather bizarre claim that the probability of me being born, or any specific person being born, is actually 1; that is it is certain I would be born! And when I say it's a common response, I mean it's an extremely common response. For example in the comments section of Ali Binazir's blog entry there are many who express precisely this position.

But what could it possibly mean to say that it is a probability of 1 that I would be born? If our identity is indeed tied down to a specific sperm fertilizing a specific egg, then it cannot possibly be 1! My parents might never have met for example.

The gist of their argument can be gleaned by something Richard Feynman is alleged to have once said (obtained from here):

“... I had the most remarkable experience this evening. While coming in here, I saw license plate ANZ 912. Calculate for me, please, the odds that of all the license plates in the state of Washington I should happen to see ANZ 912. Well, it’s a ridiculous thing”.

Well obviously the probability would be 1 divided by the total number of license plates in the state of Washington. However we can see his point. The fact he saw this particular license plate cannot be deemed to be surprising since whatever license plate he might have happened to glance at he could have asked the same question.

Transferring this to the probability of me being born, the point is that someone will be born, and that someone, whoever he may be, can always wonder at his own existence and argue that it is so unlikely that he were born that his existence cannot possibly be due to a specific sperm fertilizing a specific egg. But yet someone will be born and so it is certain that someone will express such astonishment. But then it might seem his conclusion -- and indeed my conclusion -- that his identity cannot possibly be determined by a specific sperm fertilizing a specific egg, is simply in error.

So as I see it that seems to be their argument. And on the surface it sounds reasonable enough. However I regard the argument to be flawed. Let us now see why.

Let's consider something like the UK National Lottery. There are 6 balls drawn (let's forget about the bonus ball) from a total of 49 balls. There are approximately 14 million combinations of numbers (the order in which they are drawn does not matter). Each of these combinations have equal likelihood of being drawn. Thus any arbitrary combination of balls has 1 chance in approximately 14 million in being drawn. A combination such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 is no less likely than any arbitrary combination such as 7, 16, 23, 29, 35, 43. This being so, then according to these people, we ought not to be any more surprised if last night's lottery numbers were 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 then if they had been a combination of numbers such as 7, 16, 23, 29, 35, 43.

But of course we would be surprised if last nights lottery numbers had have been 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and rightly so. To argue that we ought not to be surprised, or worse still to argue the probability is 1, is to fail to recognise that some combinations of numbers are special, and that 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 is the most special combination of numbers of them all. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 is special in the sense that the numbers are not arbitrary but have a pattern which draws our attention. What we ought to be doing is not comparing the probability of this special combination of numbers with any arbitrary combination of balls -- which of course are the same -- but rather comparing the probability of this special combination of numbers with the total sum of all the probabilities of all non-special combinations of balls taken as a whole. Hence we are entirely justified in being very surprised if last nights drawn balls were 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

In order to drive this point home we can consider other scenarios where the prior probability of an event is somewhat less than 1 in 14 million. Let's consider a game of Whist or Bridge. Apparently the probability of each of the 4 players being dealt all 13 cards of each suit is 1 in 2,235,197,406,895,366,368,301,559,999. Despite such an event being alleged to have actually occurred, as for example in this news article, and indeed on other occasions such as here, I think it can be safely concluded that this wasn't just happenstance and infer that either somebody fixed the cards beforehand, or the deck of cards was inadequately shuffled, or they are simply not telling the truth.

The point being that if 4 people were dealt such hands, we would regard it as either miraculous, or some shenanigans or some other factor were at play biasing the distribution of cards. I assume the vast majority of us would not declare that such an event was not remotely surprising, least of all would we declare that the chance of it happening was 1.

Is the case of me being born different? To answer this question we have to consider whether me being born is special compared to anyone else who might have been born in my place. Now from my perspective I am justified in considering me being born is special since, if anyone else had been born in my place, then I would never have existed. It is true that from an objective perspective me being born is no more likely, or less likely, than any other person who might have been born in my place. True but irrelevant. It is also the case that last night's lottery draw of 7, 16, 23, 29, 35, 43 is objectively no more, or less likely, than 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 being drawn, but it is the meaning we human beings bestow onto the latter sequence of balls which is all important. Likewise each and every one of us consider ourselves to be special compared to anyone else who might have been born in our place.

Now it might be argued by some people at this point that I'm omitting a crucial factor here.   They might entirely agree with me that certain combinations of lottery balls and certain Whist hands ought to be considered extremely surprising, but argue that the scenario of being born differs in a crucial way.  That is to say that in stark contrast to the examples of lottery balls and card hands, if I had never been born, then I would never have existed to wonder about it. I can only wonder about my existence if I had actually been born. Hence the fact I find myself in existence cannot be deemed to be remotely surprising.

Supplementing the argument in this way is, however, also flawed.  This can best be seen by the use of another slightly different analogy, an analogy used by the philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne.  He says:

"Suppose that a madman kidnaps a victim and shuts him in a room with a card-shuffling machine. The machine shuffles ten packs of cards simultaneously and then draws a card from each pack and exhibits simultaneously the ten cards. The kidnapper tells the victim that he will shortly set the machine to work and it will exhibit its first draw, but that unless the draw consists of an ace of hearts from each pack, the machine will simultaneously set off an explosion which will kill the victim, in consequence of which he will not see which cards the machine drew. The machine is then set to work, and to the amazement and relief of the victim the machine exhibits an ace of hearts drawn from each pack. The victim thinks that this extraordinary fact needs an explanation in terms of the machine having been rigged in some way. But the kidnapper, who now reappears, casts doubt on this suggestion. ‘It is hardly surprising’, he says, ‘that the machine draws only aces of hearts. You could not possibly see anything else. For you would not be here to see anything at all, if any other cards had been drawn.’ But of course the victim is right and the kidnapper is wrong. There is indeed something extraordinary in need of explanation in ten aces of hearts being drawn. The fact that this peculiar order is a necessary condition of the draw being perceived at all makes what is perceived no less extraordinary and in need of explanation".  (Obtained from here)

Now Swinburne utilized this analogy to illustrate the fact that what has been labelled the anthropic principle does nothing to explain why the Universe is such an orderly place -- a point with which I am in full agreement even though I do not concur that this necessitates the existence of a traditional concept of God (see some musings of my own here). But it also equally applies to any anthropic principle type argument that attempts to render the fact I was born as something unsurprising.   As Swinburne's argument illustrates, this simply isn't true. In fact, despite first appearances, it is no more effective than the original argument and Swinburne's analogy illustrates the fatuity of both.

In summary then, given that the chance of being born is 1 in 102,685,000, even if that is only a very rough ballpark figure, this chance is so incredibly small as to be effectively zero.  Hence any position which holds that we are both selves and that our selves are determined by a specific sperm fertilizing a specific egg, cannot realistically be maintained. 

I do not believe this conclusion is obviously problematic for materialism, at least so long as the existence of a persisting self is denied (I discuss the issue of a persisting self here).

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Self-Driving Cars

I tend to pooh pooh predictions regarding new technology and how it will utterly revolutionise our lives. And it seems to me such predictions have a very poor track record. 

But I think self-drive cars -- more specifically those that do not allow humans to take over control -- will eventually completely replace human driven cars and utterly revolutionise the world.  Which is not to deny
there will be many problems to solve before we get there. For one thing they'll initially encounter a lot of resistance due to the fact that many people -- predominantly men -- just simply love to drive.   In addition we presumably will see a mixture of self-drive and human driven cars on the roads at first, and this will create formidable problems.  And what of problems such as kids jumping out in front of the cars to see them automatically stop!  And I question whether a car which looks like one that Noddy might drive, such as the google self-drive car depicted in the photograph above, will ever become popular.

So ironing out all the problems will take a great deal of time, and we're talking here probably of a few decades.  But I'm going to be bold here. I predict that by 2060 no one will drive cars anymore on public roads. And practically no one will die anymore on the roads.

Update 23/10/14   A very negative article I've just come across:


Article says:
But the biggest issue with the Google car is one that has bedeviled computer researchers for as long as computers have been around: how to endow the machines with the sort of everyday knowledge that humans acquire and use from childhood on.
It's going to be incredibly difficult -- albeit not impossible -- to endow them with that sort of knowledge because they are not conscious and never will be.  But presumably people were aware of all these problems.  I myself hint at them above. 

I certainly
don't agree it will never happen. A mixture of normal and self-drive cars will be very problematic. But all cars being self-drive is altogether a different issue.  But how do we get to the scenario whereby all cars are self driving without going through the problematic situation of both  normal and self-drive cars being on the roads?  Perhaps in reality there will be a gradually transition with cars becoming more and more autonomous until the point where they become fully self-driving.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Free Will and the notion of "could have".

I have advanced an argument here for the reality of free will. I want to talk on this occasion a little more about free will and more specifically to address a common conception of what it means to have free will -- namely the notion that in any given situation one could have behaved differently from how one actually did behave.

American professor of biology Jerry A. Coyne has written:

I mean it [free will] simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it's your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation. A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.

In my experience this definition that stipulates one has free will if one could have chosen otherwise is a very common one. Unfortunately it is often left unstated as to the precise meaning of this -- as if its meaning were entirely unambiguous. The problem here is how the precise meaning of "could have" is to be construed. Does "could have" mean that I have the capacity to behave in a given way, even though inevitably I will not?  This would be my own position.  Or does it mean that given the precise same circumstances and the precise same physical configuration of the Universe, I need not inevitably make the same choice every time? That is to say if we keep rerunning the tape of my life a sufficiently large number of times up to the choice in question, then I will eventually make a different choice? Expressing it as Jerry Coyne does in terms of the tape of ones life, strongly suggests to me that he means the latter. From my reading around on the subject of free will I also get the impression that there are other philosophers and scientists who share this conception.  Unfortunately this interpretation seems to me to be unintelligible.

Suppose I were to spot a £20 note while I was walking around outside. I would stoop down, pick it up, and put it into my pocket. What if we were to keep replaying the tape of my life an arbitrary large number of times? Would my behaviour ever differ at this point? I can't imagine it would do. Why would it?

Let's consider another scenario. Imagine you could travel backwards in time to some famous historical event. Imagine also that you don't reveal your presence to anyone and you have no impact whatsoever on the environment. In this case these historical figures will say and behave as the history books tell us. We will know their future lives in their entirety. And however many times we revisit a specific time and place, these historical figures will say and behave precisely as they did on all previous occasions.

This also implies that if someone from the future were to covertly observe us, and if we make a mark so that our actions are recorded in the history books of the future, then that time traveller might in principle know precisely what we will do and say at a specific time and place.  And again, should our time traveller keep revisiting that specific time and place, he will not see any variation in anything that we do and say.

Now I would submit that it would be absurd to conclude that these scenarios demonstrate we do not have free will. In the £20 note scenario I would pick it up because of the obvious reason I can purchase goods and services with it. If we rerun the Universe numerous times why would I ever choose differently? Similar reasoning applies to our time travelling thought experiment. If we travel backwards in time, and we do not even disturb the motions of any molecules, then this scenario differs not at all to the one whereby we stay in the present, but we are able -- via some future technology -- to visually view past events "as they happen". Or if aliens
on some exoplanet 100 light years away -- presently viewing the earth via a colossally powerful telescope -- are currently watching events unfold on the earth as they happened 100 years ago. Clearly the events they view would not differ in any way from what we know took place 100 years ago.

So it seems to me that the words "could have" certainly ought not to mean that if I reran the Universe I might have acted differently. When I exercise my free will I deliberately choose a particular course of action. Even where my choice is simply arbitrary, for example I really do not care whether I go right or left when I'm out on a walk, that same slight disposition to turn left will still exist if we reran the Universe.

But it seems to me that Jerry Coyne -- and many other scientists and philosophers who have defined free will in the same way -- do have this meaning of "could have" in mind. But then what they're doing is advancing an unintelligible conception of free will.

At this point Jerry Coyne and others of a likewise opinion might agree with me that such a conception of free will is indeed unintelligible. But they might argue there are no other conceptions of free will which can be rendered intelligible. The arguments I have advanced merely serve to illustrate that human behaviour is as determined as any other physical process or change in the Universe. Hence our future behaviour is as fixed as, for example, the motion of the Earth as it orbits the Sun, or the motion of a boulder as it rolls down a hill.

I think though that such reasoning would be wrong. The mere predictability of someone's behaviour is not typically thought to conflict with commonsensical notions of free will. The more we get to know a friend, the more we will be able to predict his behaviour or the views he will express. However it would be absurd to suggest that this makes him less free, or that he never had any free will in the first place.

What we need to understand is that the predictability that your friend will pick up a £20 note if he spots one on the ground, and the predictability of the path of the Earth as it orbits the Sun, seem to have quite distinct different causes. We regard the behaviour of your friend as being caused by a specific intention in his mind and an end goal -- it is this conscious intent which initiates his behaviour.

But the behaviour of the earth? Well I submit that most of us won't regard that the Earth orbits the Sun because of a conscious intent on the Earth's part, or because it wants to! Typically we regard the Earth as being constrained to follow the path it does. That is it does so either because physical laws govern the Universe or because gravitation represents some force or warping of space-time which compels the Earth to follow the path it does. If the Earth were to suddenly stop in its path, or to orbit the other way, or to jig up and down, this would be considered miraculous, and indeed deeply worrying! This is in stark contrast to the case where I ignore the £20 note on the ground and simply walked on by. The latter would be irrational and it would never happen. But the impossibility of it happening seems to be of a wholly differing nature to the impossibility of the Earth suddenly stopping in it's path round the Sun and jigging up and down. Certainly my failure to pick up the £20 note would not be considered miraculous!

The important thing to bear in mind is that, in contrast to other physical objects, we are not obliged to conclude that a person's voluntary behaviour is wholly caused by physical laws or other external factors.
Given a particular physical state of the Universe, it need not be physical laws coupled with this physical state that wholly determines what we normally take to be our voluntary behaviour. Rather one's voluntary behaviour is caused by the self or consciousness, and this choice will inevitably be a specific unique one given a particular physical state of the Universe.  This also might suggest that a specific unique future exists -- not because we are hapless puppets controlled by physical laws -- but because we do not act randomly but make specific choices in a given situation.  However, as I hope I have made clear, this is entirely consistent with a full-blooded commonsensical conception of free will.

I hasten to add though that I have not shown that such a full-blooded
commonsensical conception of free will exists.  The majority of scientists and philosophers will deny that the origin of our behaviour differs in kind from the rest of the Universe. They are liable to express the view that if physical laws govern the path of the Earth as it orbits the Sun, so too do physical laws govern our behaviour, it's just that we are vastly more complex so it is not so readily apparent that they do so. This brings us to the scientific reasons for doubting we have free will. I'll take a look at this scientific evidence in my next blog entry.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Why Philosophy is important

If an individual never thinks philosophically, never questions his existence, what the world is about, what justifies certain moral stances and other philosophical questions, then what will determine his beliefs in such things?  Presumably the prevailing beliefs of his culture.  He will trust what he considers to be the most intelligent peoples' stance on such issues.  These are likely to be people in the higher echelons of academia, and especially what scientists say.

Hence, for example, he is likely to accept that he is merely a sophisticated biological robot with no free will, that science can in principle tell us everything about the world, and indeed everything else.  He might even accept that there are no objective morals -- that they are merely an expression of emotions, or they merely reflect psychological truths about the way human beings happen to be.

In that case, by not thinking for himself, he is merely absorbing the common wisdom of his culture. This is highly undesirable for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that those who rise to the top in the academic community are liable to express views consonant with the prevailing orthodoxy -- for if they do not then they will be less likely to have risen to such a position in the first place.  So certain beliefs about the world tend to be perpetuated, not necessarily because of their underlying merits, but because there are influences actively discouraging the expression of views which are at variance with generally accepted beliefs.   Since the prevailing common wisdom is both rather bleak and also, it seems to me, profoundly wrong, this surely cannot be desirable (I hope to address the question of why I believe it to be profoundly wrong with a future blog entry on scientism).

Secondly it is of benefit to be able to understand underlying philosophical issues in and of its own sake. This has the benefit not only of hopefully obtaining a greater understanding of our underlying beliefs about ourselves and the world and other philosophical issues, it also is helpful in developing our critical thinking skills which can be applied in many other aspects of our lives.

And a final brief word on the benefits of  philosophy to science.  It was Richard Feynman who is alleged to have said:  “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”   I agree that this will be true for the average scientist, certainly.  But the truly great scientist who hopes to revolutionalize the way we view reality, must break out of orthodox ways of thinking and truly understand all the philosophical ramifications of competing revolutionary scientific hypotheses. With that in mind perhaps it might be more accurate to say philosophy of science is about as useful to the average scientist as knowing about how the engine works is to the average car driver.  But what if your car keeps breaking down? What if the car accelerates when you hit the brakes? Or turns right when you steer left?

Update 26/12/14

I found this link.  The video there can also be found on youtube here.  An excellent video which I'm in entire agreement with.  In the event the links become broken in the future, here is the transcript of the video:

"From a distance, philosophy seems weird, irrelevant, boring — and yet, also, a just a little intriguing. But what are philosophers really for?
The answer is, handily, already contained in the word philosophy itself.
In Ancient Greek, philo means “love” and sophia means “wisdom” — philosophers are people devoted to wisdom. Being wise means attempting to live and die well.
In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very specific skill set — they have, over the centuries, become experts at many of the things that made people not very wise. Five stand out.
  2. There are lots of big questions: What’s the meaning of life? What’s a job for? How should society be arranged? Most of us entertain them every now and then, but we despair at trying to answer them. They are the status of almost a joke — we call them “pretentious” — but they matter deeply, because only with sound answers to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.
    They have, over the centuries, asked the very largest. They realize that these questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks, and that the only really “pretentious” thing is to think one’s above raising naive-sounding inquiries.
  4. Public opinion, or what gets called “common sense,” is sensible and reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends and neighbors — the stuff you take in without even thinking about it. But common sense is often also full of daftness and error. Philosophy gets us to admit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves. Is it really true what people say about love, money, children, travel, work?
    Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical, rather than assuming it must be right because it’s popular and long established.
  6. We are not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds. Someone we meet is very annoying but we can’t pin down what the issue is; we lose our temper but we can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about — we lack insights into our own satisfactions and dislikes. That’s why we need to examine our own minds.
    Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge and its central precept, articulated by the earliest, greatest philosopher Socrates, is just two words long: “Know yourself.”
  8. We’re not very good at making ourselves happy. We overrate the power of some things to improve our lives and underrate others — we make the wrong choices because, guided by advertising and false glamor, we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday or car or computer will make a bigger difference than it can. At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things, like going for a walk, which may have little prestige but which can contribute deeply to the character of existence.
    Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.
  10. Philosophers are good at keeping a sense of what really matters and what doesn’t. On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions to a shipwreck, the Stoic philosopher Zeno simple said, “fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.” It’s responses like these that have made the very term “philosophical” a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength of mind. In short, for perspective.
The wisdom of philosophy is in modern times mostly delivered in the form of books. But, in the past, philosophers sat in market squares and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a philosopher on your payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal, basic activity, rather than as an esoteric, optional extra. Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought, but we just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom coherently in the world.
In the future, though, when the value of philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in university departments — because the points at which our unwisdom bites and messes up our lives are multiple and urgently need attention, right now".