Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Two Babies In The Womb: A Short Dialogue On Belief and Skepticism

I extend the afore-mentioned meme into a short fictional dialogue :

Skeptic Baby
: hey brother do you think mom was born from another mom which was born from another mom and so on ?

Believer Baby: No brother,  this would lead to the impossibility of an infinte regress , therefore the most rational thing to believe is that if mom exist then she is is eternal and uncreated. She is the ultimate reality beyond which nothing exists.

Skeptic Baby: but surely if mom can be conceived as uncreated why not this womb ?  what if there is no mom at all and only this uncreated womb ? how do we decide between these two possibilities ?

Believer Baby: In order to decide between these two alternatives we need to search for more evidence and see if the evidence is explained better by your "uncreated womb" hypothesis or by my "uncreated mom" hypothesis. So for example consider what is this voice we are hearing from outside the womb. By comparison with our voices we could infer via analogy that that this voice is that of person similar to ours. So there is atleast a third female person that is similar to ours existing outside the womb. That person is whom I identify with mom.

Skeptic Baby: Even if we concede that there is atleast a third person which exists outside the womb why should we be so certain that it is that person who is the cause of our existence ? perhaps all 3 of us are being caused by a 4th thing . or all three of us are uncreated ? moreover how can we be so certain that the voice is being generated from outside the womb ? Perhaps the inner walls of the womb are generating this voice ? after-all we don't have enough experience regarding voices and wombs to create a safe analogy that leads from us to the inference that mom exist.

Believer Baby:  well we have reached the limit of our knowledge. Given our epistemic situation the only thing we can do now do is to wait and hope that as our situation changes and more evidence emerges such that we will be in a better position to decide the truth. Until then we must stay open to all possibilities including that of a mom.

Skeptic baby: But merely to be open to a possibility is not the same as to believe in it. rather to be open is to be open to its rejection too i.e to be open to a proposition is to be neutral to the truth value of the proposition, neither affirming nor rejecting it . which means that we cannot just assert that uncreated mom hypothesis is true just because we like it. Similarly we cannot reject the uncreated womb hypothesis just because we find it counter-intuitive or depressing. Agnosticism seems to be the only rational position in this matter.

Believer Baby: Perhaps experience and observation alone cannot settle this matter however prudence might be able to do the task. Suppose mom in fact exists and we donot believe in her, in such a case mom might hate and punish us because we disbelieved in her. but if we do believe in her we will be rewarded by her love. On the other hand if mom infact doesn't exist and then it doesn't matter who was right for neither would receive any benefit nor punishment. By assessing these alternatives we can clearly see that the risk of rejecting the existence of mom is too high hence if a person is rational and care about his well-being then it is more prudent to believe in her than to not believe in her. of course this doesn't proves that she exist but it does show that whether she exist or not, it is nevertheless rational to believe in her existence.

Skeptic baby: assuming that we do have the freewill to change our beliefs as and when we want, we must ask in what sense should mom be considered as loving if something as trivial as a baby rejecting her existance is enough to justify her punishing and tormenting her own children ? Not only that but we are also assuming that we can know what criteria mom would use for punishment and reward. Perhaps mom rewards people for following the methodology of reason instead of the conclusion . so one who bases his belief on evidence would be rewarded instead of the the one who selfishly uses belief in mom as a means to an end to get reward. In such a case it would be least risky to become a skeptic rather than a believer. The only time pruidential arguments can work is when we can clearly identify all the possibilities but here the amount of possibilites are so high that it is impossible to determine which action would lead to reward and which to punishment. Given that neither prudence nor evidence is enough to justify this therefore it follows that for a rational person the most reaonable thing to do is to stay agnostic about it .

Believer baby: It seems to me that if we were to use your method of skepticism it would lead to not only the rejection of the mother but also of the womb and ourselves. so for instance why could it not be that this womb and our bodies are merely a hallucination created by an evil demon ? in reality nothing exist except our minds and the demon (Decartes skepticism). Infact lets forget the demon. lets just say that all that exist is my mind and all this the womb, the bodies, this conversation is merely a figment of my imagination (Soliphism) . what evidence can we use to rule out such possibilities? the simple answer is that we cannot. But does that mean we should be merely agnostic about these things? Certainly you would not claim that  its irrational to believe that our bodies exist and that the womb exist? it seems that at one point or another we must assume that at least some of our beliefs are true by default until we get a defeater for those believes. Since u give me no reason to think that mom  cannot existence therefore I can consider this belief as true by default.

Skeptic baby: The point you have raised is interesting. Their are certainly some similarity between radical skepticism of the kind u have mentioned and the skepticism about mom's existence. Nevertheless I must note that if this line of reasoning were to be used generally then we could justify any belief at all no matter how silly. For example we could believe that the cause of our existence was not mom but a machine and that such a belief must be taken true as default until proven false. we would destroy our only means of differentiating true from false beliefs. Given your epistemology how do we determine which belief is silly and which is to be given the status of "true-by-default" ? the simple answer is that we cannot do that. I admit the difficulty of ever refuting radical skepticism of the sort u mentioned.  The only answer I can give against your skeptical scenarios is that why should we not also be skeptical about our bodies and about the womb too? its true that my position allows very little beliefs to be justified but it is equally true that your position opens the gate fully: it allow too much beliefs to be justified.

Believer baby: It seems that both of us are on the extremes. One allowing too much. other allowing too little. we need a point of moderation. at which only the "right" beliefs would be allowed to be true-by-default and the "wrong" ones would be rejected.  but what would that point be is something we cannot settle. You would want to exclude mom from that moderation point whereas i would want to include it.

Skeptic baby: I would not want to admit it but it scares me to think what if the "point of moderation" is purely subjective , depending on the preferences of the person. which would mean that both of our positions are equally rational and irrational at the same time.

Believer Baby : well let us simply agree to disagree. that is the only thing we can conclude with this futile discussion. 

PS: this dialogue is written in response to the above mentioned meme . the original meme was intended to demonstrate the irrationality of atheism / agnosticism . One problem with the meme (among many others) is that it ignores the fact that we (the reader) have a preferential position of being outside the womb whereby we can confirm via experience whether moms exist or not. Therefore as an analogy to the theism vs atheism debate the meme fails utterly as we humans do not have such a preferential position when it comes to the question of God's existence. We are indeed like those babies in the womb and so for those babies the question would not be as straightforward as the meme makes it out to be. The key point here is to note that different beliefs can be considered justified in different epistemic situations. As i show in my dialogue  for babies in a womb a different set of beliefs would be rational than there are for us.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Objective and Subjective Meanings of Life

This post is aimed at exploring the Ultimate Question: Purpose of life. Let me begin by classifying the kind of possible purposes of life  into two broad categories : Objective and Subjective.

By Objective purpose I mean the kind purpose which are assigned to us externally i.e. "from the outside". This sort of purpose would be the one assigned by a creator to its creation e.g. god to man . Or a programmer to a robot  or to chickens by the farmer  (i.e their very purpose of life is that they can be eaten  infact the particular variety of Broilers chicken would not have existed had there been no humans with desires to eat them) .

By Subjective purpose I mean the kind of personal purpose which an individual assigns to himself  as the goal of his life. Such a purpose could be anything and could even be extremely trivial. what are various examples of such purposes ? It could be things like experiencing  a good loving family life, traveling the world to experience world culture , helping others via philanthropy and social works, seeking knowledge and truth , excelling in ones career and job, pursuing creative works such as art, obtaining power , wealth etc etc  or a combination of all of these. It could be anything.  Each one of us will decide for themselves what is it going to be our calling.

Given the aforementioned descriptions it seems obvious to me that if God doesnot exist their would no reason think that human life has any kind of objective purpose. On atheism, humans beings are just contingent unintended by-products of naturalistic processes that causes complex systems to arise . Should we rewind and replay the course of the universe,  we would have a very different sort of reality. There is no objective purpose of life if God doesn't exist.  Having conceded this point , I would argue that the atheist can still have a purpose of life. There is absolutely nothing which stops such a person from going ahead and adopting a  personal subjective meaning to what he wishes to accomplish in this life. There can still be subjective purposes to life if God doesn't exist. i.e a person can still find meaning in activities such as the knowledge and intellectual pursuits , reading books.,self-development, the company of friends, in travel, food, movies, games,  in enjoying a loving relationship, spending time with a loving family, pursuing hobby projects. Basically anything that ones find worthwhile doing.

Whats the point ? 

At this stage one might be tempted to object to subjective purposes with something like this : "what's the point?, its all useless and meaningless anyway on the grand scale , why bother seeking knowledge, helping others etc when its not going to matter on the cosmic level . the universe will exactly be the same whether one tried or not . so why even bother? " .

But i find this objection a bit puzzling . Why must a purpose count only if it effects the cosmos on some grand scale ?  Isn't the fact that the person pursing his subjective purpose is ultimately fulfilling his desires itself a reward  for that person?  what other reward could we ask for apart from desire fulfilment? even in case of objective purposes we are also ultimately working towards desire fulfillment , if not our own atleast that of the creator.  Clearly all purpose is ultimately linked to desire fulfilment whether it is subjective or objective.

Interesting thing to note  is that  even the theist use many subjective purposes as a guide to there lives in addition to there objective one. If they didn't you would think they would embrace some sort of religious monasticism becoming a astetic who wanders the roads in search of God and yet a theist would pursue wealth, power, worldly happiness, worldly knowledge, family life  as much as s/he would pursue spiritual ones. That alone demonstrates that subjective purposes aren't as useless as one might be tempted to think on first glance . Even without god we can live purposeful ,  fulfilling and satisfying lives which are free (or substantially free)  from nihilistic worries.

Isnt Objective always better than Subjective ?

No. The purpose which is assigned to us externally (i.e an objective purpose ) is not automatically and by default always preferable to any personal purpose of life which one might assign to himself and herself (i.e subjective purpose) . Ultimately it depends on the actual content of the purpose instead of whether it falls in the objective category or subjective category .

Here is a hypothetical thought experiment to demonstrate that it is possible for  subjective purposes to be  far more  preferable to objective ones :

Imagine a farm with a lot of chickens on it being born only and only for a singular purpose: to be eaten by human beings as food. Now imagine somehow one such chicken obtains self-awareness and self-reflection to the same extent as humans do. Such a chicken ponders on its purpose of life and realizes its very reason for existence is so that it could be killed by another superior species for food. The chicken escapes the farm and decides to reject this purpose which was objectively forced onto it from the outsides by its "creators" and instead decides to find its own meaning of life which might consist of activism for chicken rights, traveling the world seeking knowledge etc etc. whatever it selects as its personal purpose it seems clear that in such a scenario any subjective purpose which that chicken chooses would be million times more superior to the kind of objective purpose it was assigned by its creators

Similar situations arose in the movie The Island where clones discovered that there very purpose of existence was to be killed for organ harvesting in case their original needed the organ. They decide to reject the purpose , escape from the detention facility and ultimately choose to lead there own lives with there own purposes of life. Although the movie doesn't depicts their future but its safe to extrapolate that whatever purpose of life  they would have assigned to themselves  it would probably  have been superior to the one they were created for.

But lets get back to reality : Is it not possible for at-least some human beings to be in a similar position when it comes to objective purpose assigned to us by God ? The purpose of life in religion is somewhat close to something like obey and worship god,  or even "Enjoy" God etc. In this case , whether a person finds this objective purpose preferable over subjective ones or not  ultimately depends on the personal views and tastes of person. For example, I personally don't find much love towards the idea that  I exist  purely so that I could worship/obey the creator first on earth and then for an eternity in heaven. Given the choice I would rather pursue my own desires (and that of my loved ones) rather than some invisible deity.

I have nothing against  worshiping and obeying a  morally worthy diety but I would personally prefer the pursuit of knowledge, reflecting on various philosophical puzzle, the pleasure of the company of friends and family and even the pursuit of wealth and power over the objective purpose of mindless worshiping rituals  anyday. Perhaps it  might be that I would come to respect God and worship him on my own (thereby "enjoying" him) but I can only see that at best as just one of the underlying purposes of life. Defiantly not the most preferable one.

Therefore it seems to me that even without god a person can live a fully "purpose-driven life" which might actually be far more interesting and meaningful given the fact that we are free to choose whatever path we want to take.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Naturalistic explanations as an alternative to Design-based (teleological) explanations

The design arguments has captured the imagination of thinkers since the ancient times. The arguments attempts to conclude the existence of  a intelligent mind as the cause of the complexity and order of the universe or some aspect of the Universe (e.g life)

It is generally remarked that the progress of science has had a fatal effect on the strength of classical Design arguments. Why is that so? I believe the reason is this: when we look at the history design argument its strength has always arose from the fact that we know of only one alternative to Design :random chance. So if something is not the result of intelligent planning by a mind it must be the result of sheer coincidence. For example Epicurus an atheistic Greek poet proposed that atoms are always in motion and sometimes they collide and clump together and those chunks can accidentally take the shape of complex systems e.g. human beings. (he relied on the possibility of an infinite regress to increase his probabilistic resources). However the complexity of the world and the way things are interconnected with each other (E.g. human beings suited to their environment) is simply too much to be explained as a sheer coincidence (moreover infinite regress idea itself has some puzzling implications). Our intuitions strongly seduce us towards an intelligent planner. and I tend to agree. Infact had I lived in such a time I would have considered the design argument to be an extremely powerful demonstration of a mind.

The sentiment is understandable for when ancient humans pondered on the world they were aware of only one model of how organisation and complex systems arose and that was the model of intelligent agents making things (the Design model). Design is how humans crafted material and we were familiar with that so it was natural to extrapolate that to the natural world and assume that natural object must have also arose via design.

But with the progress of science we have discovered the concept of laws of nature. Every scientific explanation appeals to these laws (along with chance ofcourse) in order to explain natural phenomenon. What do we mean by law of nature ? We observe that mindless matter has certain attributes that gives it certain abilities e.g. the ability to attract other matter, ability to carry charges, ability to release energy and break apart etc. It is these powers , abilities and liabilities of matter that we are referring to as laws of nature. So when I throw a ball in the year its not just a coincidence that it falls down. Had it been a coincidence it could have continued moving upwards or went sideways or diagonally but rather it falls down as the natural law called gravity dictates that matter must behave such and such way.The project of science is to attempt to explain every natural phenomenon in terms of interaction of these powers and abilities of mindless matter.  Any explanation that appeals to these laws of nature as an explanation of the world is termed as a 'naturalistic explanation'.

For example given Newtonian mechanics and gravitation its very easy to explain how space dust can come together to form star.-planet systems. No intelligent designer is needed in this respect. Similarly Consider biological evolution , which is excellent example of how natural law interacts with chance to give an naturalistic explanation of a complex phenomenon. In evolution the natural selection represents a non-random (guided) selection of organisms based on their ability to survive in the environment. This guidedness arises due the organisms own attempt to survive against environments , predators, sexual selection. Natural selection work on the variation generated via random mutations which itself is a purely chance event. Hence evolution is a non-random selection (law of nature) of random mutations (chance).

Similarly Consider how how geographical features such mountains and seas and rivers arise due to the movement of tectonic plates. Look at how snow crystals are formed thru very simple laws of of geometry, symmetry and crystal formations. Look at how fractal-based natural patterns emerges via the action of very simple rules being repeated over and over. Why is intelligence needed to explain this when the powers of mindless matter are themselves enough to account for the incredible complexity of the world? 

Laws of nature can generate a sense of guidedness and an illusion of teleology(purpose) in nature even when their is no minds or intentions behind things.  Every succesful scientific theory is an empirical evidence of the power of natural laws to generate complexity and organization in the world.

But what bout the Origins of the laws themselves ? The fact that science has not yet been able to explain the existence of these laws has motivated theologians to construct a design argument asking for the very existence of these laws rather than the effects these laws can create. This is often remarked as the Finetunning argument.  The idea being that the laws of nature (or the physical constants) must be in a certain way in order for them to cause the complexity of the natural world. I plan to dedicate a separate post for discussion of finetunning but for now i will note the following 3 things:

firstly, it should be kept in mind that the laws themselves explain the other natural phenomenon e.g. planets, life etc so here we have literally less to explain. Our burden of explanation is now only limited to explaining the laws themselves. its not that we have two tasks left e.g. explain laws and also explaining the resulting complexity of the world.

Secodly,  the question of "why these attributes and not others" can be asked in respect of anything that we would invoke to explain the laws of nature. so we can ask why if god had slightly different intentions , powers , knowledge , motivations then universe as we know it would not have existed.  so its as if someone fine-tuned the attributes of god.

Thirdly, It seems hard to deny that God himself is not a form of order . Perhaps he is not a physical order but certainly a mind capable of producing 'complex' ideas and transforming them into complex 'realities' is a form of order. and so the question of "where does order and complexity comes from" is still unanswered. at one point or another we must concede that some order and complexity might just be a brute fact of nature.

Friday, 25 January 2013

The Ad Hominem Fallacy

The Ad hominem fallacy occurs when the arguer presents an argument and the opponent instead of attacking the argument attacks the arguer. Hence it is a fallacy of irrelevance because the opponent's response is irrelevant to deciding if the argument is good or bad.

Giving an openly insult towards the  arguer ("your stupid so your argument is false")is the most common but not the only form of ad hominem . Another form is veiled insults such "your not knowledgeable on this matter" , "not mature enough" , " not old enough" . All these responses EVEN if they were true would not undermine the argument ON THERE OWN.

Another very important form of ad hominem is called "ad hominem circumstantial", where the opponent asserts that since the arguer has a stake in the conclusion therefore his argument is false. for example suppose a filthy rich person presents an argument for why the tax rates should be reduced. In response the opponent says "well of course he wants taxes to be lowered thats because he want  to save his enormous wealth from excessive taxation hence his argument is false" . this response EVEN if true would be fallacious on its own.

In my view the most ideal discussion would be one where there are no persons at all only beliefs and the respective arguments and evidence interacting with each other. but since beliefs , arguments etc are ideas and ideas can exist only inside persons therefore the presence of a person in the discussion is a necessary evil . but thats the only role the person plays : to anchor the ideas . nothing more.

Notice the contrast where in ordinary discussion or those we see on the television we almost always start with an attack on the opponent ("your biased/liar/brainwashed"...) i myself have engaged in this fallacy so many times. it comes so naturally to us and for that reason one needs to be EXTRA careful.

PS : case for testimonial evidence is different.  ad hominems can be justified sometimes in that matter.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Freewill and Pascal's Wager

Most people would generally accept that we have freewill to act. i.e. we can raise our arms as and when we will. However is the same true for our beliefs? Do we have freewill to change our beliefs in the same manner we can raise our arms? i.e. merely by thinking about it ? Lets consider a thought experiment:

Suppose you and your loved ones are kidnapped by an evil psychopath (say "Jigsaw" from the "Saw" series). Jigsaw then asks you to change your beliefs about the colour of the sky i.e. to convince yourself that sky is not blue but rather yellow (like the colour of a taxi). You have a set amount of time. If you fail to do so then you along with your loved ones would meet a horrible death . On the other hand if you do succeed , you and your loved ones will be set free and in addition you will be rewarded a Billion US$ for your troubles. Lets also assume that Jigsaw can read your mind to determine if your new convictions about the colour of the sky are genuine are if your just merely  pretending to believe.

Given such a situation - where the penalty to disbelief is so fatal and reward to beleive so great - would you be able to change your beliefs merely by will ? Would you be able to convince yourself that when we look upwards towards the sky the colour we see is Yellow not Blue ? we can easily make many other examples like these e.g. convincing yourself that earth is flat,  or that  you are Hitler.

When I think of these thought experiments it seems to be very strongly that at-least in case of some beliefs we have no freewill. We cant merely will ourselves to start believing something else by our whims .Instead beliefs can only be changed either through (a) systematic brainwashing or, (b) by intellectual force : e.g. requiring the person to face up to evidence and arguments for and against his/her position. The position that we have freewill over our beliefs is referred to as Doxastic Voluntarism.

Pascals Wager

If voluntarism is false (which seems to be the case given the above thought experiments) then what implications are there for pascals wager ? Roughly speaking ,Pascal invites us to ignore the whole debate concerning arguments and evidences for God and instead calculate which position minimizes our risk and maximizes the reward. (the risk and rewards being hell and heaven etc). He then concludes that atheism is the most risky position and thus a prudent person would "bet" on  theism.

However this so-called bet requires an atheist to merely will himself to believe that God exist . But as we have seen , given the falsity of Voluntarism, such a feat  does not seems to be possible for ordinary human beings. An atheist cant choose to just believe in god no more than a theist can just choose to believe that god does not exist (assuming that he is not already in doubt on that particular question). Hence the argument is completely irrelevant from the point of view of the Atheist.

One point worth mentioning is that  Pascal himself attempts to address  this kind of objection. But it seems to me that he takes the brainwashing route: he requires the atheist to stop thinking and reading anything against theism , participate in theistic rituals and so on  and with time he expects that the atheist would come to believe genuinely. I find this unpersuasive. Firstly I still suspect whether such a brainwashing would indeed work given how important the question of God and atheism is to our lives. Secondly it raises a question: Is that really what a morally perfect God wants? that we should reject reason entirely and that we use psychological conditioning tricks to force ourselves to believe in him ? how is this kind of belief even moral let alone rational ? It seems to me that a faith that arise Through self-brainwashing is not a faith worth having.

Therefore to the list of  many other weaknesses of Pascals wager, we can add yet another entry as to why   we must reject the wager  : Because it relies on the dubious notion of Doxastic Voluntarism.