Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Hard Questions?

Here a very silly person lists 20 questions he thinks atheists are incapable of answering.

Some of them are just question-begging, such as "What caused the universe to exist?". Ignoring the fact that causality is not very well-defined, how do we even know for certain that the universe was caused? And if atheists cannot answer this question, it's not like the theist answer ("God created it") provides any more insight.

Other questions are downright strange, such as "Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?" What this has to do with theism or atheism is beyond me. Mesopotamia had cities even earlier, in 4000-3500 B.C.E. In any event, probably the development of agriculture led to the formation of cities, and once this innovation occurred, it would have spread through trade.

Question 10 asks, "How do we account for self-awareness?" This has a relatively easy answer. Through natural selection, organisms come to model their environment. Sometimes this modelling is reflected in their geometric structure: a camel has a very different body profile than a shark. But organisms also sense the natural world and react to it. Having a better model -- one that allows an organism to predict future events in the world -- clearly would contribute to better survival and reproductive success. As the model becomes more sophisticated, eventually it will have to encompass the organism itself. Self-awareness is just when your model of the world becomes so detailed that it has to include yourself.

I won't spend any more time on this silly list, but readers should feel free to chime in with their own answers.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

20. What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?

In order: removal or non-interment, hallucination or fabrication, malignancy and metastasis.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Indeed.

If you're a Mormon, you could ask, "What accounts for the golden plates?" But the answer -- that there never were any golden plates, except in Joseph Smith's fevered imagination -- is not likely to satisfy them.

If you're a Scientologist, you could ask, "What accounts for the rise of Scientology?" But the answer -- gullibility and criminal conspiracy -- is not likely to satisfy them, either.

Carsten said...

I find the answer is so easy: of course it's the FSM

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos said...

I like this one:

11. How is free will possible in a material universe?

First, please define "free will." For extra credit, explain how it is possible in an immaterial world.

~~ Paul

Takamas said...

Dr. Shallit, I'm afraid that your response to the self-awareness question answers the question: How was self-awareness retained, not how it arrived in the first place.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Takamas:

If you think that, then you didn't understand my answer.

Takamas said...

I don't think you understood your own answer.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Takamas:

Your brilliance continues to astound.

John Pieret said...

3.Why is the universe rational?

Huh? Is the question why is the universe consistent? That's fairly easy. If it wasn't we'd all be dead (imagine if water was water one day and sulphuric acid the next). Nobody would be around to ask silly questions,

The slightly more interesting question is 'why living beings developed what we call "reason"?' Well, we're not alone, as tool using chimps (for one example) prove. But it is obvious that "reason" (here, basically, the ability to understand cause and effect and predict the future) would be a pretty good survival tool.

Oh, wait! The original poster doesn't think survival is important since dying is a good thing! Never mind.

Galactor said...

"Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?"

All over the world? There were cities in North America three thousand years ago?

Settlements I can accept, but there were settlements in the UK as far back as 13000 years ago.

Of course, creationists accept archaeological evidence for anything that isn't older than their myth.

We could ask the question "why did human occupation start building up from small settlements 10,000 years ago to larger and larger villages and towns"?

Takamas said...

Dr. Shallit, look at Mr. Pierret's comment:
"The slightly more interesting question is 'why living beings developed what we call "reason"?' Well, we're not alone, as tool using chimps (for one example) prove. But it is obvious that "reason" (here, basically, the ability to understand cause and effect and predict the future) would be a pretty good survival tool. "

Do you recognize that Pieret answered the question: "How was reason retained, not how it arrived in the first place?"?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Takamas:

Do you know anything at all about evolutionary algorithms?

Anonymous said...

This person can't be a true creationist. There's no "Why are there still monkeys?" or "Why are there no transitional fossils?" Not to mention PYGMIES + DWARFS!!!!111ONE!!

cody said...

I really like this post. Professor Shallit your explanation of self-awareness is lucid & concise.

Rereading Takamas's comments it's obvious that no, she/he does not know anything at all about evolution, neither algorithmic or biological, else they would understand the clause "through natural selection, organisms come to model their environment" as answering their first question.

To be clear Takamas, natural selection is precisely how self-awareness came to be, and Professor Shallit's explanation even included the details of how natural selection works (i.e. better survival & reproductive success).

And the theory of Evolution is about as likely to be overturned as the theory that the Earth is roughly spherical, so theists and atheists alike must embrace it if they wish to make sense of the world.

Takamas said...

"natural selection is precisely how self-awareness came to be"

Assuming natural selection is the only factor leading towards self-awareness, then of course that's how self-awareness came to be.

" and Professor Shallit's explanation even included the details of how natural selection works (i.e. better survival & reproductive success)."

Wrong, Cody, there were no details, only generalities. And they weren't explanations of how self-awareness happened, but merely theories as to how it might have happened.

"theists and atheists alike must embrace (the theory of evolution) if they wish to make sense of the world."

You've really fallen for Dobzhansky's hype. An investigation of how evolution may be behind self-awareness is surely interesting, but you'd have a hard time explaining why evolution is needed to make sense of on-the-ground self-awareness. It's little more than window dressing.

cody said...

Takamas said, "...they weren't explanations of how self-awareness happened, but merely theories as to how it might have happened."

Since the original question was, "how do [atheists] account for self-awareness?" and you have acknowledged the 'mere' theory provides an explanation "as to how it might have happened," I rest my case.

Of course Evolution by natural selection not just a hypothesis/model/theory, it is a fact, as well established as the "approximately spherical Earth" model, and equally unlikely to be overturned by new evidence.

In light of genetic and radiometric evidence (as well as others), failing to accept evolutionary theory as fact appears to indicate either significant ignorance, indoctrination—or perhaps on occasion foolishness I'm sorry to say.

Would you deny that organisms pass traits to their progeny? Or that offspring are modified versions of their parents? Or that this process of organic variation has not been occurring on Earth for the last 3.5 billion years? Those are the only three facts you need to know really—though countless experiments and measurements all paint the same consistent picture, all the remaining mysteries now lie much deeper.

You imply there is a question of "why evolution is needed to make sense of on-the-ground self-awareness". I'm not sure what you mean by 'on the ground, but I can say evolution is the argument we turn to is because it is "the only game in town" so to speak. What alternative mechanisms do you propose created self-awareness? What alternative mechanisms are there? (Please don't mention the superstitious ramblings of our ignorant ancestors. And don't bother with intelligent design either—it illustrates a profound failing to comprehend the basic modus operandi of science.) I look forward to reading your proposal & supporting evidence for alternative mechanisms accounting for self-awareness.

Keep in mind Professor Shallit did explain that the benefit of self-awareness is increased survival and reproductive fitness, which combined with the three facts I outlined above suggests that given enough time, organisms can evolve self-awareness, which is exactly what we observe—indeed, it is exactly what we are.


Takamas, further rereading of your statements has me thinking: maybe you fail to understand rigor and standards of evidence in science? You think there is a difference between "how something happened" and "how something might have happened" when reality makes no such distinction. Some things are more easily believed—maybe the photons reflected directly into your eyeballs after the phenomena occurred—but the recipient still postulates the truth. Much like convicting a murderer by collecting evidence which points to one explanation of what might have happened over alternatives.

Takamas said...

"Would you deny that organisms pass traits to their progeny? Or that offspring are modified versions of their parents? Or that this process of organic variation has not been occurring on Earth for the last 3.5 billion years? Those are the only three facts you need to know really"

(I assume you didn't mean to include the word "not".)

I disagree that these are the only three facts one needs to know. Even the folks at DI believe in those three things (to various degrees), for crying out loud. You'll have to come up with something better than that.

By "on the ground", all I meant is that if one "wishes to make sense of the world" of self-awareness, he'll get 99.9 percent of his knowledge by testing it. He'll learn but a tiny amount about it by studying the evolution of it. Don't fall for the hype about what evolution is claimed to explain.

"Keep in mind Professor Shallit did explain that the benefit of self-awareness is increased survival and reproductive fitness, which combined with the three facts I outlined above suggests that given enough time, organisms can evolve self-awareness, which is exactly what we observe—indeed, it is exactly what we are. "

No assumptions there, right?

"You think there is a difference between "how something happened" and "how something might have happened" when reality makes no such distinction."

Really now? Shallit got his doctorate by hard work and brains, but he might have just bribed the officials at the school. Are you telling me there's no distinction?

Cody, further rereading of your statements has me thinking: maybe you fail to understand rigor and standards of argumentation?

cody said...

Takamas, thank you, I did not mean to include the word 'not'.

If you know those three facts, on what grounds would you not expect evolution to happen? What is your objection exactly?

I agree that you'll learn the most about self-awareness by testing it, but the original question was to make sense of the existence of self-awareness without a supernatural force—which again, to anyone who understands the theory of Evolution by natural selection and the survival advantages of an organism capable of modeling its environment, Professor Shallit's paragraph is a fairly comprehensive answer.

If your goal is to explain the origins of self-awareness without any assumptions, good luck. In fact, if you'd like to make any statement without some assumptions, good luck.

Yes, Professor Shallit may have gotten his doctorate by hard work and brains, or by bribery, or by any of a number of alternative imaginative narratives. All such statements are 'mights'—they're all believed by rational people with weighting proportional to the evidence supporting or refuting them. Many years of reading Professor Shallit's blog has given me the opinion that he is in fact very intelligent, and honest, and that like most people with doctorates in computer science, likely earned his status. But I don't really know him at all, and I have no evidence that he didn't cheat to earn his status—I only make that assumption because to not do so is to add an extraneous requirement to the observation I am trying to explain.

And sure, in reality Professor Shallit really did follow one of our hypothesized paths, and likely knows which one it was, but there is no way for me to know for certain which one it was, I just have to accept that fact and choose which one appears to be most consistent with the evidence I get—on some level I simply trust him. If he gave me good reason to distrust him, I might revise these sorts of ideas, but the trend he's shown over the time I've read would require substantial evidence before I'd begin to doubt him on that level.

On some level this is true even of your own subjective experiences and memories—exactly how something happened always carries an inherent uncertainty that cannot be completely resolved. It is an interesting philosophical discussion, and useful to think about when considering scientific conclusions, but it's kind of over the top for talking about evolution. Again, evolution is about as likely to be overturned as the approximately spherical Earth model, not because of the simple stripped down arguments I'm making, but because of the mountains of evidence uncovered in labs and in the field.



The assumptions I made—as far as I can tell—are that our radiometric and genetic research is reasonably mature "sound science". (I suppose implicit is an assumption that reality exists in such a way that our senses can observe it with some threshold reliability.) Please let me know of any assumptions I am failing to pick up on.

It is interesting that we can both perceive one another as lacking comprehension in these various important subjects—as I should have remembered from the start, your comments seem to indicate you don't understand evolution, but you say I am failing in rigor. I'm willing to hear you out on that, so I'd appreciate if you could elaborate on where you think my arguments in favor of evolution fall apart, and what assumptions you see that I'm overlooking. I think I can offer a near-bottomless well of patience in trying to understand one another.

Getting back on topic: you disagree that Professor Shallit's statement accounts for the origins of self-awareness, could you provide a hypothetical example of a statement that would account for the origins of self-awareness? (Evolutionary or otherwise.)

Takamas said...

First, some quotes. (I don't think I'm "quotemining." I'm not trying to prove any point here; I'm just tossing out ideas from others, ideas I like. I've decided not to get into an ugly debate.) :
--- "Experiments showing there is self-recognition in mirrors by the great apes indicate that they have crossed
the threshold to self-awareness-it is me! In The Pinnacle of Life we will examine brain-mind functions in the
ascent of the evolutionary tree to this pinnacle. But it is obvious that there is a gaping void between an ape
examining otherwise -visually- inaccessible parts of its body with a mirror, or, with the aid of a mirror,
fingering a mark painted on its forehead while it was anaesthetised, and the soliloquy of Hamlet." (Denton,
D.A., "The Pinnacle of Life: Consciousness and Self-Awareness in Humans and Animals," Allen & Unwin:
St. Leonards NSW, Australia, 1993, p.xi)

-- and --

"I believe that science is in principle able to explain the existence of complexity and organization at all levels,
including human consciousness, though only by embracing the 'higher-level' laws. Such a belief might be
regarded as denying a god, or a purpose in this wonderful creative universe we inhabit. I do not see it that
way. The very fact that the universe is creative, and that the laws have permitted complex structures to
emerge and develop to the point of consciousness - in other words, that the universe has organized its own
self-awareness - is for me powerful evidence that there is 'something going on' behind it all. The impression
of design is overwhelming. Science may explain all the processes whereby the universe evolves its own
destiny, but that still leaves room for there to be a meaning behind existence." (Davies, P.C.W., "The Cosmic
Blueprint: Order and Complexity at the Edge of Chaos," [1987], Penguin: London, Reprinted, 1995, p.203.)

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Just to address the second one:

The impression
of design is overwhelming.


Good, so Davies has an overwhelming impression of design. But I don't. Whose impression wins? Where do we go from there?

That's the difference between science and religious beliefs like intelligent design. In science, claims can be rigorously tested. In intelligent design, impressions rule the day.

Obvious said...

"In science, claims can be rigorously tested."

In good science, that is.

cody said...

Takamas, I'll address the first quote.

Yes, there is an "obvious gaping void" between the apparent intelligence of humans and all other species (as exemplified by the great works of Shakespeare et al.) and we have very strong archeological evidence establishing the fact that the void has ballooned in the last 5-15 million years.

We see it in the skulls of our ancestors with increasing cranial capacity, and in their teeth which shrank as they started cooking and tenderizing their food, enabling them to absorb more energy and freeing blood up for powering their increasingly complex brains—among numerous other lines of evidence.

There is an analogous "obvious gaping void" in the technological sophistication of our species between various time periods—between say the smart phones of the early 21st century and European cave paintings of several tens of thousands of years ago, and our primitive hand-axe building ancestors of 2-3 million years ago—but it is disingenuous to compare 21st century and prehistorical technology for the same reason it's disingenuous to compare human and non-human intelligence: it ignores all the intervening steps!

Obviously we have smart phones due to numerous incremental technological & informational steps (in the 20th century alone). Likewise the gap between humans and other primates has grown (slowly) out of 5-15 million years of evolutionary adaptation (figure something like 150,000 generations). There have been other comparably intelligent species along the way (e.g. Neanderthals)—the fact that we are the sole surviving species may be mere chance. (Though with only one data point it is hard to say, there may be good reasons why only humans survived.) There is no sharp point differentiating Shakespearian intelligence from basic self-awareness—it has been a very long and very gradual progression, far too slow for anyone to even conceive of until a few hundred years ago when technology enabled someone to travel and observe and put together enough puzzle pieces to see the bigger picture. Even the bible supports this point, by illustrating the ignorance of protohistorical tribal nations immersed in superstition and completely lacking in scientific thought.


I share your aversion to 'ugly' debates, so let's stay reasonable. You wrote a "first" but no "second", so I'll repeat my question: given that radiometric and genetic evidence tell us the Earth is very old and organisms pass (varied) traits to their progeny, what exactly is your objection to the idea that evolution accounts for self-awareness? (And the more complex cognitive skills of humans?) As I said in my original comment, Professor Shallit's explanation strikes me as especially lucid while you claim it is lacking, could you try to clarify your thoughts?

(Keep in mind that declarations of incredulity concerning a scientific conclusion sound ignorant to scientists who comprehend that conclusion.)

IThinkWithMy Liver said...

3.Why is the universe rational?

That's funny. I always thought the universe was at least algebraic of degree 3 or more.

IThinkWithMy Liver said...

All these questions can be easily answered, and all unsolved mysteries of the universe easily explained, if you only invoke the following critical words (and numbers) in any random order:

Jew
Zionist
Illuminati
666
Freemasons
Bilderberger
CIA
Stupid pyramid "eye" logo
Rothchilds
Demons
Satanic

My bad. Remove the word "stupid" from that list. Can't possibly have THAT in there.
Notice how "god" didn't make the cut. That's done intentionally to fool those pesky atheists into thinking *I*'m a loyal atheist, too! HA!

IThinkWithMy Liver said...

Better question to ask:
how do theists account for... ANYTHING?

Takamas: what you are hinting at, ain't got nuttin' to do with evolution. You're really hinting at whether a self-aware consciousness can exist outside bodies, right?

Well, if that's what you REALLY want to ask, then WHY NOT ASK THAT?

But, no. Instead, your christian bias is as transparent as unpolarized glass.

It's the same thing with creationists trying to use the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics to debunk evolution. Whatever they THINK they are proving or disproving about evolution simply applies to life in general: nothing to do with evolution. The creatards' argument can be rephrased as:
"The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics implies life cannot exist."

And, yet, we know life exists!
And, we know the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics exists!

Heck, if I HAD to give up one of the two, I would GLADLY give up the latter. If I had to choose, I think we could say the evidence for life existing slightly edges out the evidence for the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. The latter is a slightly more abstract concept than life.

Well, for the same reason, I'd say the evidence for evolution through natural selection as well as genetic drift being & having been real slightly edges out the evidence for the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

IThinkWithMy Liver said...

Cody,

However, the obvious gaping voids between the cave paintings of the Neanderthals and Windows XP from 2004 and Windows 8.1 goes as:

Windows 8.1 << cave paintings < Windows XP