Monday, August 24, 2009

Attack of the Nutria...Plus, a Rainbow

Laurie and I were out for a walk in a local park here in Lafayette this evening, and we brought some bread to feed the ducks. I'd seen nutria at this park before, but they'd never approached very close. They must be hungry, because we had a whole pack of them come up and beg for bread along with the ducks.

In case you don't know what a nutria is, here's the Wikipedia entry. They're basically big rats that live in the water.

So, I snapped a few actions shots with my G1. Enjoy.

Oh, and I found this picture on my phone that I'd forgotten about, when we had a rainbow a while back. Actually, there was a double rainbow, but it didn't show up in this pic:

Saturday, August 22, 2009

District 9

I went to see District 9 yesterday. The movie has enjoyed critical and financial success so far, and I guess my expectations were fairly high.

I can't exactly say that I enjoyed the movie, though. It was definitely an original mix of elements, though it borrowed heavily from a lot of SF source material. The plot, as many have pointed out, was similar to the movie/TV series Alien Nation. It also had influences from Cronenberg's version of The Fly, RoboCop, and others, especially the recent technique of making the unreal seem more real by employing a pseudo-documentary style, e.g. Blair Witch, and Cloverfield.

The film definitely kept you engaged. It was alternately grotesque and action-packed. But the acting was relatively poor; the plot was fragmentary and incomplete; and the characterization was pretty much 2D. The bad guys were a favorite villain of modern cinema, the multi-national corporation, and they're portrayed without even a hint of conscience. The middle-level bureaucrat at the center of the film seems to have a change of heart, literally and figuratively, but it was pretty heavy-handed, and when all was said and done, the film seemed more like a set-up for a sequel than a self-contained film.

The production values were great, though, and the aliens and their tech were interesting and well-developed. Strangely, though, a major scene from the trailer, where an alien is being interrogated about how his weapons work, was not in the film. Weird. The movie had a number of striking images, and was actually cringe-worthy in a lot of scenes. But great SF is about ideas, and even though there were parallels between the 'prawns', as the aliens are called, and other refugee populations, I didn't see their plight used as much more than a set-up for gross-outs and action. I'm not sure what the point was, and part of this was because the movie didn't really resolve anything.

I've heard people comparing the other smaller-budget SF movie that came out at the end of the summer, Moon. There are definitely parallels, especially the use of corporations as the bad guys. But Moon was a much more thoughtful picture, and was ultimately a much better film. Still, I'd marginally recommend District 9, if only because there are scenes that you simply won't see in any other movie.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Michael Ruse on the New Atheists

Michael Ruse is a philosopher of biology at Florida State University, a self-avowed atheist, and is one of the people who thinks that religion and science work just fine nestled up against each other and that vocal atheism is bad for everybody.

Here's his latest, and it's pretty bad, through and through.

He starts out by trying to establish his cred, rather than actually getting on with his point. When he finally does start in with his actual case, three paragraphs in, here's how he starts:

Which brings me to the point of what I want to say. I find myself in a peculiar position. In the past few years, we have seen the rise and growth of a group that the public sphere has labeled the "new atheists" - people who are aggressively pro-science, especially pro-Darwinism, and violently anti-religion of all kinds, especially Christianity but happy to include Islam and the rest.

Lovely. Notice the word "violently". He already lost me right there. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett are all peaceful, thoughtful individuals. It's not a good start to use such a word, even metaphorically. Just say "strongly" and avoid the loaded bullshit terminology.

Then he quickly notes the recent campaign by Sam Harris and others against Francis Collins being appointed to head the NIH:

Recently, it has been the newly appointed director of the NIH, Francis Collins, who has been incurring their hatred. Given the man's scientific and managerial credentials - completing the HGP under budget and under time for a start - this is deplorable, if understandable since Collins is a devout Christian.

Oh dear. Look, the case against Collins doesn't begin and end with the fact that he's a devout Christian. Here's Harris' thorough statement on Collins and the case for why he isn't a good choice for director of the NIH.

He then goes on to say that the level of philosophical argument and theological understanding that Richard Dawkins demonstrates in The God Delusion "would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course." But of course, he doesn't provide arguments against anything Dawkins says, or provide links to reviews or essays that do so.

Let's take a quick look at one of Dawkins' central arguments in his book. The Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit is summarized as follows:

1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.

3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a "crane" not a "skyhook," for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.

4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that – an illusion.

5. We don't yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology. This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.

6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.

What are the responses to this basic argument?

Dawkins writes about his attendance at a conference in Cambridge sponsored by the Templeton Foundation,where he challenged the theologians present to respond to the argument that a creator of a universe with such complexity would have to be complex and improbable. According to Dawkins, the strongest response was the objection that he was imposing a scientific epistemology on a question that lies beyond the realm of science. When theologians hold God to be simple, who is a scientist like Dawkins "to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex?" Dawkins writes that he didn't get the impression that those employing this "evasive" defence were being "wilfully dishonest," but were "defining themselves into an epistemological Safe Zone where rational argument could not reach them because they had declared by fiat that it could not."

This is supposed to be a serious response? And Dawkins would fail a philosophy course?

Well how about from professional philosophers?

Both Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne raise the objection that God is not complex. Swinburne gives two reasons why a God that controls every particle can be simple. First, he writes that a person is not the same as his brain, and he points to split-brain experiments that he has discussed in his previous work, thus he argues that a simple entity like our self can control our brain, which is a very complex thing. Second, he argues that simplicity is a quality that is intrinsic to a hypothesis, and not related to its empirical consequences.

Plantinga writes "So first, according to classical theology, God is simple, not complex. More remarkable, perhaps, is that according to Dawkins' own definition of complexity, God is not complex. According to his definition (set out in The Blind Watchmaker), something is complex if it has parts that are "arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone." But of course God is a spirit, not a material object at all, and hence has no parts. A fortiori (as philosophers like to say) God doesn't have parts arranged in ways unlikely to have arisen by chance. Therefore, given the definition of complexity Dawkins himself proposes, God is not complex."

You've got to be shitting me, right? A person is not the same as their brain. Okay. Then Swinburne argues that a simple thing like our self can control a complex thing like our brain? He sounds like a standard dualist, which hasn't been taken seriously for several hundred years. And that stuff about simplicity being a quality specific to a hypothesis sounds like gobbledygook.

I like Plantinga's response, though. At least it's funny. God is simply because only material things can be complex (I guess an algorithm can't be complex, right?), and god isn't made out of material parts. That's just sweet. Sure, you can claim whatever the hell you want about an imaginary entity. You can claim it's complex or simple, whatever the situation calls for...because you have absolutely zero evidence regarding its nature. This reminds me of how people make all sorts of claims about what god knows and what god feels and what god wants, and then simultaneously claim that he works in mysterious ways and that any aspect of his nature ultimately falls outside of the realm of scientific knowledge. Good stuff.

Anyway, there's more, but that's enough. You can go read it yourself if you're feeling masochistic.

Just one more thing about Ruse's article which is a particular nitpick. If you're writing on the internet, and you're talking about other stuff that is readily available on the internet, for fuck's sake, use hyperlinks. That's what they're there for.

Atheist for a Day

Last week a group of over 300 atheists visited the Creation Museum in Kentucky. I had been following the story on PZ Myers' blog (here's his initial report).

But I hadn't seen this, which my sister pointed me to. A Christian went incognito with the group, to see what it was like to be perceived as an atheist.

He says the group he was with was the target of "hateful glances" and exaggerated amens. That doesn't sound that bad, actually. Still, he says he was ashamed of his fellow Christians. There's an ongoing discussion at his blog, if anybody's interested.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Roger Ebert, Knowing, Determinism, and Randomness

I saw Knowing a while back and actually liked it, despite being pretty sure going in that it was going to suck.

Well, Roger Ebert thought the film was brilliant, which isn't that surprising, given that he gushed over Dark City, another SF film directed by Alex Proyas (I thought that one was kind of interesting, but also a bit silly).

Anyway, Ebert blogged about Knowing, and right off the bat he brings up one of the sillier moments of the film:

Is the universe deterministic, or random? Not the first question you'd expect to hear in a thriller, even a great one. But to hear this question posed soon after the opening sequence of "Knowing" gave me a particular thrill. Nicolas Cage plays Koestler, a professor of astrophysics at MIT, and as he toys with a model of the solar system, he asks that question of his students. Deterministic means that if you have a complete understanding of the laws of physics, you can predict with certainty everything that will happen after (for example) the universe is created in the Big Bang. Random means you can't predict anything. "What do you think?" a student asks Koestler, who says, "I think...shit just happens."

No, no, no, no, no.

Both the film and apparently Ebert are making a huge mistake here, confusing what we can know (epistemology) with the way things really are (ontology).

The limits of our ability to find out something about the world is directly relevant to us, and obviously important, but does not necessarily reflect the way things really are. Take a simple example: a machine holds a pair of fair dice in a shaker. Every thirty seconds, the machine shakes the dice, rolls them onto a felt surface, records the results, and scoops them back up again.

Are the actions of this system random or deterministic? That is, if before a particular roll of the dice, we knew their exact position, all the physical properties of the shaker, the algorithm the machine used, air pressure in the room, etc., would we be able to predict the outcome of the roll (e.g. 4-3). Sure we would. But that information is extremely difficult to come by, even in a small, controlled situation. Our knowledge about the outcome is limited by variables that are difficult to measure, so we use probability to describe what we can know about the outcome (e.g. there's a 1:6 chance of rolling a particular number on each die, and we can figure out distributions of outcomes when we roll both dice, and for successive trials).

So, we can't predict the outcome of this system, at least not to the precision of saying exactly what the outcome will be. We can approximate the outcome by saying which events are likelier than others. Does our knowledge about the system reflect the way the system actually is? Are the dice actually random? Of course not. They and the machine are behaving according to physical laws.

To recap: determinism does not equal predictability, and randomness does not equal unpredictability. Determinism means that what happens could not have happened any other way, whether we are able to predict it or not. Randomness means that there are things in the universe that behave probabilistically rather than behaving lawfully, e.g., a rock might sometimes drift up rather than fall in the presence of earth's gravity. If there are elements of the universe that are truly random, then it is truly impossible for us or anyone else to predict the outcomes of those systems, even in principle. But the definition of each term rests on the way things are, not our ability to measure them.