Monday, October 14, 2019

Robert George on Mill and Newman


Every so often, the Catholic Church goes through the bizarre process of elevating one of its adherents to the status of saint. This absurd spectacle demands that the wannabee-saint be responsible for at least two miracles. Now it's the turn of John Henry Newman (1801-1890), a British theologian. For some inexplicable reason, although Newman died almost 130 years ago, it's only quite recently that prayers that invoked his name have had the desired effect.

Jack Sullivan supposedly had back pain, and he claims to have been cured after praying to Newman. Well, it's not like spontaneous remission of back pain ever happens, right? It must have been a miracle!

Melissa Villalobos supposedly had internal bleeding while pregnant. She also prayed to Newman, and claimed to be healed. It must have been a miracle! No one could possibly come up with any other explanation, right?

Recently on twitter, Princeton professor Robert George celebrated this momentous event by recalling his paper on John Stuart Mill and John Henry Newman. I have to admit, I am not usually in the habit of reading papers published in obscure religious journals, but I was intrigued. So I read it.

That was a mistake.

It is pretty bad. Here, very briefly, are just a few of the things wrong with it: it's sloppily proofread; it uses private redefinitions of basic terms; it doesn't so much as argue as just make assertions; it's full of bafflegab; it doesn't adequately support its main contention; and it fails to be a scholarly contribution.

Sloppy proofreading: I'll just cite two instances (there are others): "defenses f freedom" in the very first paragraph! Then, later on, "neither to each other not to some common substance" ("not" instead of "nor"). Did anyone -- author or publisher -- make even the most cursory effort here?

Makes assertions instead of argues: "Christian philosophical anthropology ... has proved to be far more plausible and reliable than the alternative that Mill, quite uncritically, accepted". No actual argument or citation provided.

Private redefinitions of basic terms: religion is defined as "the active quest for spiritual truth and the conscientious effort to live with integrity and authenticity in line with one’s best judgments regarding the ultimate sources of meaning and value, and to fulfill one’s obligations (spiritual and moral) in both the public and private dimensions of one's life". A dishonest rhetorical ploy: define "religion" so broadly it encompasses nearly every action by an ethical person.

Bafflegab: top, p. 42: George uses 17 lines to make the trivial observation that happiness and human flourishing are functions of multiple variables with no obvious way to compare or weight them, in order to achieve a maximizing outcome everyone will agree with. Then why not just say that?

More bafflegab: "the dignity of human persons" (p. 44). "Dignity" is the ultimate weasel word; what you regard as essential to human dignity (e.g., forbidding contraception) I could just as easily regard as an example of human indignity.

Very few citations: e.g., George mentions criticism of Mill by Hart (but doesn't bother to give a citation). This is not scholarly behavior.

The main point is not adequately supported: Why exactly do duties automatically confer rights? Adherents of the religion of Christian Identity believe black people are subhuman and one has a duty to subjugate and exterminate them. How does this confer a right to do so?

Let's face it: the Christian account of morality is competely unsupported and incoherent. Some philosophers still have a medieval view of man's nature that is completely unmoored from modern discoveries of evolution and psychology.

Man is not a "rational creature" as George claims, and this absurdly bad essay is proof of that. In my field, junk as bad as this just could not get published in a reputable journal, and if it does somehow manage to, everyone would laugh.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Robert Marks - Five Years Later, Still No Answers!


Five years ago, the illustrious Baylor professor Robert Marks II made the following claim: "we all agree that a picture of Mount Rushmore with the busts of four US Presidents contains more information than a picture of Mount Fuji".

I didn't agree, so I asked the illustrious Marks for a calculation or other rationale supporting this claim.

After three months, no reply. So I asked again.

After six months, no reply. So I asked again.

After one year, no reply. So I asked again.

After two years, no reply. So I asked again.

After three years, no reply. So I asked again.

After four years, no reply. So I asked again.

Now it's been five years. I asked again. Still no reply.

This is typical behavior for advocates of intelligent design. They do not feel any scholarly obligation to produce evidence for their claims. That's one way you know that intelligent design is pseudoscience.

I wish some brave Baylor student would have the courage to ask Marks in one of his classes for why he refuses to answer.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Why Can't Creationists Do Mathematics?


I suppose it's not so remarkable that creationists can't do mathematics. After all, almost by definition, they don't understand evolution, so that alone should suggest some sort of cognitive deficit. What surprises me is that even creationists with math or related degrees often have problems with basic mathematics.

I wrote before about Marvin Bittinger, a mathematician who made up an entirely bogus "time principle" to estimate probabilities of events. And about Kirk Durston, who speaks confidently about infinity, but gets nearly everything wrong.

And here's yet another example: creationist Jonathan Bartlett, who is director of something called the Blyth Institute (which, mysteriously, lists no actual people associated with it, and seems to consist entirely of Jonathan Bartlett himself), has recently published a post about mathematics, in which he makes a number of very dubious assertions. I'll just mention two.

First, Bartlett calls polynomials the "standard algebraic functions". This is definitely nonstandard terminology, and not anything a mathematician would say. For mathematicians, an "algebraic function" is one that satisfies the analogue of an algebraic equation. For example, consider the function f(x) defined by f^2 + f + x = 0. The function (-1 + sqrt(1-4x))/2 satisfies this equation, and hence it would be called algebraic.

Second, Bartlett claims that "every calculus student learns a method for writing sine and cosine" in terms of polynomials, even though he also states this is "impossible". How can one resolve this contradiction? Easy! He explains that "If, however, we allow ourselves an infinite number of polynomial terms, we can indeed write sine and cosine in terms of polynomial functions".

This reminds me of the old joke about Lincoln: "In discussing the question, he used to liken the case to that of the boy who, when asked how many legs his calf would have if he called its tail a leg, replied, "Five," to which the prompt response was made that calling the tail a leg would not make it a leg."

If one allows "an infinite number of polynomial terms", then the result is not a polynomial! How hard can this be to understand? Such a thing is called a "power series"; it is not the same as a polynomial at all. Mathematicians even use a different notation to distinguish between these. Polynomials over a field F in one variable are written using the symbol F[x]; power series are written as F[[x]].

Moral of the story: don't learn mathematics from creationists.

P.S. Another example of Bartlett getting basic things wrong is here.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

My Lunch with Jerry Garcia


I will now tell you my Jerry Garcia story. To appreciate it, you must remember that Jerry was missing part of a finger on one hand.

I was having lunch with a close friend in a crappy Mexican place on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley, California; it must have been about 1983. The restaurant was called La Villa Hermosa, and is long gone. (There is a photo of it here.)

Sitting at the next table was a bearded man who looked familiar. I studied him carefully, while eating my refried beans. Eventually I figured it out. I nudged my mathematician friend gently under the table and said softly, "Hey, that's Jerry Garcia over there."

She looked over doubtfully, and said, "That's not Jerry Garcia."

I insisted, "Yes, it is."

So my friend, who was never one to observe social niceties despite being only a little more than five feet tall, stood up, walked over, put her hands on her hips and demanded of him, "Are you Jerry Garcia?"

He looked at her, held up one hand (clearly missing part of a finger), and said, "No, Jerry Garcia is missing a finger on the other hand."

She came back to my table, satisfied, and announced smugly, "See? I told you so. That wasn't him. Jerry Garcia is missing a finger on the other hand."

I swear it's true!

Friday, August 02, 2019

David Gelernter Makes a Fool of Himself Again


As academics age, some of them get cranky. I don't mean "cranky" in the sense of ill-tempered, although that's also true. I mean "cranky" in the sense of "being a crank", that is, being "a person who is obsessed by fringe ideas and beliefs". I've written about this before.

Some of them become 9/11-truthers. Some of them get cranky about anthropogenic global warming. One became cranky on the subject of Turing's proof of unsolvability of the halting problem.

One of the most popular crank topics is evolution, and that's the subject of today's blog. Yes, it's David Gelernter again. Prof. Gelernter, who teaches computer science at Yale, recently wrote a review for the far-right Claremont Review of Books entitled "Giving up Darwin". All the warning signs are there:

  • Gelernter is not a biologist and (to the best of my knowledge) has no advanced formal training in biology. That's typical: the crank rarely gets cranky in subjects of his own competence. (I say "his" because cranks are almost always male.)
  • Gelernter has basically done almost nothing in his own field for the last 20 years (according to DBLP, he's published only two papers in CS since 1998). That's also typical: intellectually-fulfilled academics are usually happy to contribute more to their own fields of competence, and don't have the time for bizarre detours into other fields.
  • Gelernter is also a devout theist, and has written books praising the wisdom of his particular religious sect. Nearly all the intellectual opposition to evolution comes from theists, who "find in the theory of evolution a disturbing and mysterious challenge to their values" (to quote Anthony West).
  • Gelernter pals around with other anti-evolution cranks, like Stephen Meyer and David Berlinski.
  • Gelernter, like most anti-evolutionists, is politically conservative and is obsessed with what he feels are the intellectual failings of liberals.
  • Gelernter's review was not published in a science journal, but in a politics journal run by a far-right think tank.
  • His review cites no scientific publications at all, and makes claims like "Many biologists agree" and "Most biologists think" without giving any supporting citations.
So, not surprisingly, the porcine Gelernter makes a fool of himself in his review, which resembles a "greatest hits" of creationist misconceptions and lies:
  • In the Cambrian explosion "a striking variety of new organisms—including the first-ever animals—pop up suddenly in the fossil record". Debunked here.
  • "most species enter the evolutionary order fully formed and then depart unchanged". What could it possibly mean for a species to appear not "fully formed"?
  • "no predecessors to the celebrity organisms of the Cambrian explosion": actually, some believe the Ediacaran biota were some of the ancestors of those of the Cambrian explosion, but you won't find the word "Ediacaran" anywhere in Gelernter's review.
  • the 10-77 figure of creationist Doug Axe for the improbability of obtaining a stable protein (Debunked here.)
  • the false claims of Stephen Meyer about "functionally specified digital information" (debunked here and here, among other places)
And there are lots of other problems in the review. Gelernter shows no sign of having read about, much less understood, basic facets of modern evolutionary biology, such as evo-devo and gene duplication, which are critical to understanding how it works.

Altogether, yet another embarrassing performance for Prof. Gelernter. And a cautionary note for aging professors: before you start attacking another field, make a little more effort learning about it. Unless you enjoy being a crank.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Yet More Egnorance


Michael Egnor, the man for which the term "egnorance" was coined, is at it again, sneering at experts while demonstrating he knows little about linguistics, philosophy, or ethology.

In this piece he makes a number of claims that are either flatly false, or contradict what we know, or are given without any justification at all. Why he thinks this kind of pompous tripe will convince anyone is beyond me. Maybe, in their jobs, neurosurgeons get accustomed to making pronouncements that everyone else accepts without questioning.

I lack the time to do a complete fisking here, but I'll mention a few of his bogus claims.

1. "The accepted definition of reason is simple and straightforward: it is the power to think abstractly, without concrete particulars."

Whenever Egnor talks about something being "accepted" or "simple and straightforward", you can be pretty sure that the opposite is the case. Anyone who wants to check Egnor's claim can just go to the Oxford English Dictionary and type in "reason". There are three senses for the word, two as a noun and one as a verb. The uses as a noun include 17 different subdefinitions and another 15 or so different usages in phrases. The uses as a verb include 8 different subdefinitions. The word "abstract" appears nowhere in any of these subdefinitions (it does appear in two citations, but not in the sense Egnor refers to). So Egnor is wrong twice: the "accepted definition" of the word is neither simple nor straightforward, and the meaning Egnor claims is not an "accepted" one.

2. "Only man thinks abstractly; that is the ability to reason. No animal, no matter how clever, can think abstractly or reason."

Egnor's made this claim before, and it was refuted before. He just repeats it here, with no evidence, without addressing previous objections.

Of course, if you understand the theory of evolution, you realize his claim is likely to be utter nonsense. Abstract thinking is not a black-white thing; it's a range of capabilities that, even among people, we see a huge variation in. Any capability with huge variation is subject to selection, and so it can evolve. Since people are descended from earlier ape-like creatures, it is quite believable that non-human animals would also display the ability for abstract thought, in varying degrees. And they do! Ethologists, who actually study this kind of thing, disagree with Egnor. (Also see baboons and crows, to name just a couple more examples.)

3. "Reason is an immaterial power of the mind—it is abstracted from particular things, and cannot logically be produced by a material thing."

This is vintage Egnor -- a flat assertion, made with no evidence, and contradicting what we know about (for example) machine learning. Machines can abstract from specific cases to more general concepts; that is exactly what is done routinely in machine learning. (To cite just one example, see here.)

Egnor offers no rationale for why reason has to be "immaterial", and when he says something is "logical", you can be pretty sure there's no actual logic involved.

4. "This immaterial power of the soul is precisely what makes man qualitatively different from every other living thing. And I am not “forced to lean on supernaturalism” by pointing this out. I’m merely making an observation that’s obvious to all. Man, and man alone, has the power to reason."

Souls don't exist; there's no evidence for them. There's no evidence for "immaterial powers". Egnor's claim is disputed by many, and it's a plain lie to say it's "obvious to all".

5. "We routinely ask questions that entail reasoning. Animals never do."

How does Egnor know animals never do this? He never says.

As we know from the example of Ben Carson, it is perfectly possible for a neurosurgeon to be good at their job, but incompetent when it comes to anything else. Egnor is yet another data point.

Friday, April 05, 2019