25 January, 2007

18 January, 2007

Mr. Deity

A series of amusing YouTube videos starring God! The first one is a take on the problem of evil.

Watch the whole series!

The American Family Association is neither American nor family-oriented. Discuss.

This disgusts and angers me more than almost anything else I can imagine. The AFA is now upset over an IKEA commercial which portrays a family with two gay parents and features a voiceover stating, "Why shouldn't sofas come in flavors, just like families?". The AFA has requested its members send letters to IKEA complaining that the idea of gay families is "offensive" and "undermines American values".

Newsflash bigots: the suggestion that you, or any other individual or group of individuals, have the moral authority to unilaterally define what "family" means is both un-American and offensive to boot.

This is nothing more or less than an attack on families and an attack on the right of every human being to self-determination. The right to self-determination is granted to every citizen via our founding documents. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are foundational principles of our republic. And like it or not, there are thousands of gay-parented families in the U.S., and millions around the world. Gay parents are the only parents thousands of children have ever known. In many cases, they represent the only parents who would choose to adopt many children with special needs. Denying the reality of these families is not only offensive, it's insane. It's not in the best interests of the children, the loving couples who desire to adopt them, or our society in general.

The reality, of course, is that the American Family Association is deeply un-American, deeply anti-family, and deeply delusional.

HT: Dispatches From the Culture Wars

17 January, 2007

New Blog Widget

See the bottom of the RH sidebar; there's a music player embedded there. The company that created this also has a version for MySpace users.

Don't anyone pretend to be surprised at my choice of music...

Funny O' The Day

16 January, 2007

09 January, 2007

Some thoughts on Consciousness I

Over the last couple of years, I've become more and more interested in the Philosophy of Mind (PoM). The question, "what is consciousness?" is one I find fascinating and as I've been able, I've been looking for and reading articles on the subject at various locations around the web.

I've become rather enamored of the work of David Chalmers, a professor in philosophy at Australian National University. Chalmers has a blog (Fragments of Consciousness, also linked in the sidebar) and has also created an online repository of papers and links to materials on the web dealing with consciousness studies.

Chalmers has written a good deal about the so-called "hard" problem of consciousness. That is, the problem that phenomenal consciousness represents to accounts of the way the world works. Here is Chalmer's description of the problem from one of his papers, Consciousness and its Place in Nature:
The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. Humans beings have subjective experience: there is something it is like to be them. We can say that a being is conscious in this sense — or is phenomenally conscious, as it is sometimes put — when there is something it is like to be that being. A mental state is conscious when there is something it is like to be in that state. Conscious states include states of perceptual experience, bodily sensation, mental imagery, emotional experience, occurrent thought, and more. There is something it is like to see a vivid green, to feel a sharp pain, to visualize the Eiffel tower, to feel a deep regret, and to think that one is late. Each of these states has a phenomenal character, with phenomenal properties (or qualia) characterizing what it is like to be in the state.

There is no question that experience is closely associated with physical processes in systems such as brains. It seems that physical processes give rise to experience, at least in the sense that producing a physical system (such as a brain) with the right physical properties inevitably yields corresponding states of experience. But how and why do physical processes give rise to experience? Why do not these processes take place "in the dark," without any accompanying states of experience? This is the central mystery of consciousness.
Historically, attempts to answer this problem have been myriad but the central issue has for some time revolved around whether or not the mind is separate from or composed by the brain. At the extremes of the philosophical spectrum are:
  1. Cartesian dualism - the mind is completely independent of the brain; a "ghost in the machine".
  2. Reductive physicalism - the mind is coterminous with the physical brain. All mental states are in isomorphic correspondence to (and are caused by) brain states.
It seems clear, to me anyway, that neither of these positions is completely tenable. Evidence from neurophysiology, biology, & physics seems to me sufficient to invalidate the first whereas the second seems to lead ineluctably either to a strong determinism (wherein the physical workings of the brain form a closed causal loop) or to epiphenomenalism (wherein the mind is largely or wholly illusory) neither of which would seem to leave any room for the mind to have any causal effect upon our decision-making process and that denies our most fundamental intuitions about our minds and ourselves as persons.

I recognize that this isn't by itself a particularly strong argument on which to base a rejection of physicalism. There are other reasons, but this is enough for my purposes, here. Chalmers goes into much greater depth regarding numerous attempts to deal with the "hard problem" in the previously cited paper and it's well worth reading as an excellent introduction to this topic in the PoM. For now, I want to note principally that the extremes of which I take note can also be categorized (broadly) as "supernatural" vs. "natural". The Cartesian view is inherent in the popular (albeit likely unbiblical) conception of the "soul" as a "spiritual" entity that inhabits the body whereas the physicalist position amounts to a denial of the soul and the wholly natural composition of the mind. Of course there are other points on the continuum between these extremes that can also be so labeled, but these two outline the contours of the PoM landscape.

So, the central issue in PoM can also be seen as a struggle between two different ways of looking at the world: supernatural vs. natural. In the next post, I want to examine the error I believe is inherent in this dichotomy and provide some reasons why I believe the true answer lies somewhere in between.

I'm a liberal!

Well...not really, but this YouTube video is just too good to pass up and a lot of the values Neal mentions therein aren't exclusively "liberal" values; Libertarians share many of them as well.

HT: Pharyngula

05 January, 2007

Dinesh D'Souza redux...

By way of Le Blogue Berube, I see that Esquire's Mark Warren has written a review of D'Souza's latest book The Enemy at Home. As I've already blogged on some other reviewers' notes on what appears to be an utter waste of wood pulp I'll add a link to this one as well. Money quote:
Here's the thing, D: We knew how much they hated America. We just didn't have a full grasp, until now, of how much you and your crazy cohort hate America. Because you have taken to heart the "Islamic critique of Western moral depravity," as you call it, and have come down on their side of things. You actually seek to blame your free-speaking moral inferiors here in America for giving bin Laden no choice but to kill us. And in nothing short of derangement, you imagine a "de facto alliance" between the American "cultural left" and Islamic fundamentalism.
There's more at at the link. Read it; it's short and sweet, and as Berube notes, is quite likely the only intellectually respectable response to D'Souza's lunacy.

03 January, 2007

Intelligent Design and the Free Market

During my daily blog perusals, I took note of the "subtitle" posted at Cafe Hayek: where orders emerge.

It put me in mind of Adam Smith's "invisible hand". The metaphor Smith used for the phenomena of emergent order in the marketplace whereby the seemingly chaotic and independent choices made by millions of individuals engaged in free trade "coalesced" into an orderly equilibrium of supply and demand for all of the various products and services involved therein. As Smith observed:
As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. (The Wealth of Nations: Book 4, Chapter 2)
Set aside for a moment any consideration of whether or not this observation is actually true (my personal belief is that is more true than not), but note that this idea continues to underlie much of classical economics today. This idea forms the basis of the theory and praxis we call "capitalism".

Now, Intelligent Design advocates, and in truth many theists generally, seem to reject the idea of emergent order. At least where biological entities are concerned. William Dembski has formulated the notion of "specified complexity", Michael Behe postulates "irreducible complexity", Alvin Plantinga argues that evolution cannot produce reliable cognitive faculties, and so on. But if it is the case that order cannot emerge spontaneously from disorder, as these theologians cum philosophers contend, then where should we expect ID theorists and their ilk to fall on the economics spectrum? In order to be consistent with their overall worldview, shouldn't they be communists, or at the very least proponents of some variant of a planned economy (sort of an "intelligently designed market")?

In reality, of course, they are very likely to be capitalistic in their economic outlook, as are most fundamentalist Christians. This would seem to me to raise the specter of a contradiction within their worldviews. If order cannot emerge from disorder, then capitalism is a non-starter. If the principle applies, then it does so equally whether we're talking biology or economics.

The likely rejoinder is going to be that the "disorder" in the economic realm is only "seeming" disorder in that as the minds of the individuals within the marketplace are actually ordered toward an end (divinely, no doubt) the market is actually arising from an order so complex as to only appear disordered (in this paradigm, I could suppose that market failures are likely to be explained as the product of "sin"). Unfortunately, naturalists have access to this hypothesis as well. In this context it must be remembered that natural selection is a teleological process. The "random" components of evolution are environment and mutation. The process itself is anything but random: the goal is survival. And so the seemingly disordered nature of the evolutionary process is actually an exceedingly complex order that only appears disordered.

It's interesting to note that Darwin's formulation of the theory of natural selection was informed in part by the writings of the English demographer and political economist Thomas Malthus whose views on population theory had great influence on Darwin. It seems to me no small coincidence that some of the most virulent attacks on Malthusian theories come from Marxists. Friederich Engels, for example, said of Malthus' theory: "...the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair..." As communitarians, Marxists advocate the necessity of a planned economy. The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin opposed Darwinian evolution, favoring instead the debunked theories of Trofim Lysenko because they were a better fit with Marxism.

Of course, this is not to say that ID theorists ARE Marxists, merely that they seem to be, at the very least, intellectual fellow-travelers. Their rejection of emergent order seems to me to necessitate it. Therefore, it seems to me that ID theorists who desire to remain intellectually consistent must abandon all support for capitalism and support instead a theory of planned economy. For if order is not emergent, then capitalism cannot hope for success.

On Notice...

Yeah...you know who you are...

HT: Pharyngula