Only in Brazil

My question is how he couldn't tell...



If this is at all true...God has a sense of humor.

Weekly Review: April 22


Weekly Review: April 15

Why Conservatives Dislike Obama

Some articles explaining Obama's putative downsides:

  1. http://www.townhall.com/columnists/GeorgeWill/2008/04/15/barack_obamas_bitter_liberalism
  2. http://www.townhall.com/columnists/ThomasSowell/2008/04/15/a_living_lie?page=1
  3. http://www.townhall.com/columnists/RichLowry/2008/04/14/the_underside_of_hope
(#2, you will notice, is written by an African-American.)

And, just for good measure, another article:
  1. http://www.townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/04/15/how_liberals_lost_a_liberal?page=1

Brain Scanners and Free Will

So apparently we don't have free will anymore.

Right? I mean, how else can you interpret the data? Your brain fires up seven seconds before you consciously make a decision! How could you possibly have any control?

Unfortunately for all the die-hard monists out there, the reality is a little more complicated.

(And yes, I know the article never explicitly states that we have no free will, but since that conclusion seems foregone to the researchers mentioned, I will contest it.)

I am also, by the way, completely ignoring the fact that the predictive quality of the brain imaging data maxed out at 60%. Does that sound conclusive?

What the experiment proves - at most - is that our subconscious triggers simple, essentially random decisions (like the ones in the article) before they are consciously made.

But let's consider an even broader scope. Let's imagine neuroscientists had proved all mental processes - decisions, thoughts, feelings - were formulated subconsciously before they were formulated consciously. What would that say about free will?

Here is the underlying logical framework:
  1. Brain imaging techniques allow scientists to determine how a choice is made.
  2. These imaging techniques demonstrate that some choices are made subconsciously, not consciously.
  3. Therefore, the subconscious is in fact the originator of choice and, by extension, will.
  4. Therefore, there is no soul, free will, etc.
I don't have any lasting problem with #1-3. The dicey conclusion is #4, which links the Freudian idea of consciousness with the theological concept of the soul and with the philosophical concept of free will.

Who first linked these together? Descartes. In fact, the idea that the conscious is in fact a spiritual or non-material manifestation of the soul which controls the corporeal body is the main tenet of what is called (appropriately) Cartesian dualism.

Cartesian dualism, as you might expect, has come under severe criticism in modern times, especially from the field of neuroscience. In fact, to the modern educated layperson, Descartes' belief (derided as the "Ghost in the Machine") that the mind controlled the body can seem nonsensical.

I am not here to defend Cartesian dualism (nor do I subscribe to it). I am here, however, to point out what I think is a rather obvious but ignored fact: Descartes's dualism is not the only dualism.

Consider again claim #3, that the subconscious, not the conscious, chooses. Fine - but do we know anything about why the subconscious chose what it chose? Does the article say anything about why some people choose left and some people choose right? No.

So perhaps our free will allowed our subconscious to choose rather than our conscious. That is not too complicated an idea to consider - and yet no one seems to have considered it.

I wish they would.


Pearls Before Breakfast

This depresses me.


Fides et Scientia: Part 1

It is an objection I often hear: Can you prove God exists?

I often wonder what exactly that means. The word "proof," despite all its connotations of absolute certainty, has subtly different shades of meaning.

In mathematics or logic, for example, a proof is (ironically) fullproof - if you accept the initial postulates, which cannot themselves be proved. In law, however, "proof" is merely a measure of how convinced a judge or jury is of a certain charge. The phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt" comes to mind (begging the question of who, exactly, is reasonable).

So can we prove God exists? Probably not in the former, purely logical sense of the word; God is far too abstract, and logic far too indefinite. (I would argue, however, that there are very strong arguments for the existence of God set in a logical setting.)

There are also difficulties with the latter, "legal" sense of the word. Whether or not someone is convinced of God's existence will very much depend on how they weigh and evaluate the "evidence," which will very much depend on their emotional reactions to the idea of God. Brilliant men have both worshiped and rejected God, based much more on their predispositions than on any empirical evaluation. As Pascal said, "People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive." (That being said, after reading extensively on this issue, I have never seen any useful alternative to God proposed that was not itself God in some form. We all eventually must worship something.)

In short, there is no clean, magical proof that will supersede a person's desire not to believe in God. The Will to Disbelieve (to reference William James), as it were, can be just as powerful as any religious devotion. It is, in fact, itself a religious devotion.

But is a formal proof necessary to believe in God? Do we require formal proofs for all the propositions we accept? Not at all!

Consider this question: "Can I (Speaker for the Dead) prove that my father is not a murderer?" My response: "How could I?" When I am at school, my father could hypothetically be anywhere; when I am asleep, my father could hypothetically do anything. (If this were insufficient, he lived thirty years before I was even born!) The simple truth is that I cannot.

Does this mean I believe my father is a murderer? Does it mean that I remain "agnostic" on the issue, saying I can never know? Not at all. What it means is that absolute certainty - proof - is not necessary to accept a proposition. (If it were, we could not accept anything.)

(The argument could be made that my belief in my father's innocence is based more in emotion than in reason. But the mere fact that we are emotionally prone to accept certain ideas says nothing about the actual validity of those ideas. The truth is that we can never extricate emotion from our reasoning process, try as we might. Though it may be true that belief in God is "wishful thinking," it is also true that many non-theists "wish" God did not exist.)

Likewise, the idea of God - encompassing morality, aesthetics, metaphysics, human emotion, spirituality, fate, and many other sensitive topics - cannot be treated as a mathematical syllogism which can only be accepted if empirically proved.

Am I lowering the standards for belief? If proof is not required, can we not then believe anything?

No. That proof is unnecessary does not imply that evidence is unnecessary (or nonexistent).

Consider the commonly held proposition that all life evolved from ancient simple organisms (a keystone of Darwinism). This proposition is not merely a scientific one, but a historical one; it is a statement about past events. To prove it empirically would be impossible, requiring knowledge of every genotypic mutation of every species - ever. Nevertheless, it is almost universally accepted within the scientific community, because the extant set of data (which falls far below the standard of "proof") is sufficient for them.

Why should God's existence be held to a higher standard?

(Here, I have not addressed evidence for or against God's existence. My thesis is only that no empirical, absolute proof is required to believe in God. Such a standard, in my opinion, merely evidences the personal need of some to avoid God at any cost.)

Weekly Review: April 8

Weekly Review: April 1

Weekly Review: March 25


The Monty Hall Problem

Think about it.

The key is that the host's choice is not independent of your choice.


Obama on Babies

The quote from Obama:

"Look, I got two daughters — 9 years old and 6 years old,” he said. “I am going to teach them first about values and morals, but if they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby. I don’t want them punished with an STD at age 16, so it doesn’t make sense to not give them information."
I really can't avoid this one.
  1. First of all, is it so bad for people to be "punished" for their "mistakes"? Isn't that how they learn? Moral accountability seems nonexistent in this case. Barack Obama is basically saying, "It would be a shame if my daughters did make a mistake, but I would never hold it against them."
  2. Some people look at babies as the miracle of life. Not Obama.
  3. Barack Obama's worldview is not that of a Christian, but of a progressive humanist. His church, by focusing on issues of race and "social justice," is also very humanistic.
  4. For the record, it's not like I think McCain is a saint...

Kids Plot the Darndest Things

Should I have given this a "Humor" label?