Monday, July 8, 2013

NOMA and The Right Questions (Part 2)

Link to Part 1

Picking up where I left off, I pointed out my core issue with the NOMA argument is that it fails even on its own terms even if you disregard the utter inability of theists to offer the courtesy of "live and let live" while simultaneously demanding it of others.  It argues that science and religion are separate magisteria, but it simply has no validation on the magisteria of religion.  There is no reason to think that any of the questions that religion purports to hold answers for are even valid questions in the first place.  Being literate on the topic, of course, is exactly how you get into the position of asking the right questions, which is why knowledge is so crucial, and why it is similarly important not to equivocate knowledge with belief and opinion.

But that was the logic portion of my argument in the email thread.  Then comes the science portion, and it was triggered by such responses as these.
Isn't asking "why?" a necessary ingredient to the pursuit and advancement of science? And also, a natural part of being human? I think it's largely what drives us to make new discoveries, so it's only natural that everything be questioned at some point. Including "why are we here?".You've got your answer, and your satisfied with it, that's fine. Others though... aren't.

So what then? Are people free to have differing points of view about a question so large?
I think this is where we start to see the cracks show.  First, it's making some assumptions based on a naturalistic fallacy, but more importantly, the "different points of view" issue.  This is where the person is clearly showing that he doesn't really grasp that an existence claim is a statement purported to be fact; Fact is not amenable to such things as "point of view."  The truth or falsity of a factual claim is not dependent on such things, and is strictly objective.  While there may be factual truths which are contextually limited, that context is itself not subjective in nature.

So here's my reply to that --

Who says that?  There's nothing intrinsic about science that means that asking "why" is a necessary ingredient.  The advancement of our knowledge and understanding about the universe and pursuit thereof depends on asking the *right* questions, and that can theoretically be any type of questions depending on the context.  It is indeed important to ask questions, and it is every bit as intellectually lazy to dismiss something out of hand as it is to accept it blindly.  But being literate of the topic enables you to ask the right questions.  Otherwise, you find yourself bringing a hammer and convincing yourself that everything is a nail.

You are correct to say that it is a very natural thing in human nature to ask such a question.  That doesn't make it right.  It's also very natural of us to see a face on Mars.  It's very natural for the Dow to dip on a false tweet that there was a bomb at the White House.  Heck, even the "Ancient Alien Astronaut" people are hitting their logical failings on stuff that is pretty fundamental to human nature.  That doesn't make it any less fallacious.

For all the people who ask "why are we here?"...  did any of them bother to ask "is it even a valid question to ask why?"  I'm not entirely convinced that any part of the reason for the differing points of view is really rooted in actual fact, other than in the sense of what facts to which we are each privvy.  Nonetheless, I think the bigger vehicles of dissent here are faulty assumptions, fallacious logic, and emotion.  The last of those is fair insofar as seeing disagreement, but the first two do not deal with personal matters, but universal...  and as such, are universally wrong.
I did fail to elucidate one thing in that I mentioned that emotion was "fair insofar as seeing disagreement", which makes it sound as if I welcomed emotion into the argument.  I don't, of course. What I really meant by that was to say that emotion is a fair point to bring up in the context of why there is disagreement in the first place.  More generally, it is one that is considerably less inscrutable than matters of faulty logic and false claims.  That doesn't actually make it fair in actuality, of course, since truth claims are not places where emotion should be allowed to have a say in the matter.  It's human to color reality with such filters as feeling, but it's always wrong.

I got further responses --
To respond on my second point, I'm perhaps thinking too simplistically about this, but my question is, Why do I need to experience anything?  Why can't my sensations just modify my behavior without any input from me?  And even if free will is an illusion, why do I have any experience at all, illusion or not? In fact, who is this "I" person and where did it come from?  Those seem like real questions, to me at any rate.
The above segment is not the full email, but only a partial quote.  This is by the same person who I mentioned in part 1 made a point about the null hypothesis, but gave the impression of some meaning he didn't intend.  The part I cut out was the earlier paragraph in which he clarified his meaning.  Though I responded to it, it was really off-topic, so I'm not including it here.
I don't have a problem with the asking 'why?'  For example, why does the ocean rise and fall - but when the answer comes back that it's due to the Moon's gravitational pull, I'm completely non-plussed as to why we should then throw ourselves on the ground and start praying to the Moon, and then decide that it can only be done in a certain way, in a certain building with the assistance of certain people in specific costumes.

If there is a question that has the answer 'God' (and I accept there's a chance), it seems to me to be completely bizarre that in the 21st Century our response to that is still to behave like superstitious savages and resort to organised religion.  I can see why that was the response in the past, but now?  Why don't we just shrug our shoulders and get on with living our lives, which is the natural response to most of the other answers we get about the Cosmos.  Why does 'God' require worship?
So the point here is perfectly valid in the sense that it makes an argument against one of the classical views that religious nutbars have...  The view is that if God created you, doesn't that mean that God has rights over you, and therefore deserve your devotion?  And of course, the correct response is that such a proposition a load of crap.

Only thing is that we weren't really talking about that sort of "why" question, nor is NOMA really addressing that.  Nonetheless, I included this as I used it to springboard into my final post which really only became final because it shut everybody's mouths...  or fingers, as it were.
> To respond on my second point, I'm perhaps thinking too simplistically about this, but my question is, Why do I need to
> experience anything?  Why can't my sensations just modify my behavior without any input from me?  And even if free
> will is an illusion, why do I have any experience at all, illusion or not? In fact, who is this "I" person and where did it
> come from?  Those seem like real questions, to me at any rate.


Well, based on my rather naive understanding of neuropsychology, there is a lot about "experience" which ultimately boils down to really small-scale interactions within the brain.  Fundamentally, we have neurotransmitters like serotonin, glutamates, dopamine, epinephrine, GABA, etc which evolved for fairly well-defined functions that were necessary for our survival.  We have neurotransmitters that create what we call "love" because of the fact that it is conducive to the cohesion of social units.  We do know of examples where it doesn't really take a large degree of volume of certain neurotransmitters just to create the experience of "doubt" or "second-guessing"...  It's almost poetic.  The thing is that things like our ability to find and seek out patterns had functional uses for survival...  but the downside of this is that pretty much all of our biochemistry (and the brain is no exception) is multi-functional.  So something in the anterior cingulate cortex that was needed to be able to recognize a predator in the bushes also allows us to appreciate rhythm and want to dance.  Something that was meant to increase the fidelity with which we communicate emotion in tonal inflections in our voice is also what allows us to differentiate music into various moods.  And it gets misappropriated as well.  We might see Jesus in a frying pan because the ACC is working where it really wasn't meant to work.

In any case, your awareness of your sensations are something that most all animals have because it's part of the learning process.  There are times when processing action happens before your awareness (e.g. dropping a hot object), because it's processed early in the spinal cord before it reaches the brain, but it eventually does reach the brain and you become aware.  Learning was actually quite valuable, and we're one example of a species that evolved in a way that favored it strongly.  There theoretically could have been others, but we probably reached a point that we'd killed off any potential branches before they got too smart.  Your experience of your own self is an artifact of how we tend to feed information back into our own brains in order to form new associations and thereby learn more.  In reality, as you are typing your response, the actions to move your fingers were processed well in advance of you actually being aware of the actual words you wanted to type.  It's a bit paradoxical at the face of it, but it makes a little more sense from the third person perspective.

As far as the question of free will, one thing you have to take into account is that even if we had two brains which developed identically, the experiences and memories of one rather change the end outcome such that those people are still guaranteed to have differing opinions on something.  You shouldn't expect to have the same values as I do because you don't have access to the same memories and experiences.  Furthermore, emotional state at a given moment colors the result probably more than anything else.  This is also why nobody anywhere in the world has any memories which are completely true.  Sure, they're true in their overall gist, but every single detail is really an interpolation, and how that occurs at a given reiteration is colored by emotion, general health, etc.  The result that we call "free will" is the effect of how all these extra bits of data and neurological state that are unique to your life factor into the end result of your decisions.  Unfortunately, we only have the technology to do enough to make strong inferences, but the strongest thing you can theoretically do to drive [those inferences] home would lie in full-blown brain swapping.

> I don't have a problem with the asking 'why?'  For example, why does the ocean rise and fall - but when the
> answer comes back that it's due to the Moon's gravitational pull, I'm completely non-plussed as to why we
> should then throw ourselves on the ground and start praying to the Moon, and then decide that it can only be
> done in a certain way, in a certain building with the assistance of certain people in specific costumes.


Well, a "why" question like that can just as well be rephrased as "what causes the tides to rise and fall"?  This is as compared to Bill O'Reilly's thing about the tides where he talks about "tide goes in, tide goes out; never a missed communication."  In there is a begging the question fallacy.  I'm honestly quite puzzled where he even got the idea that "communication" was even part of the picture here.  He is loading in this Earth-shatteringly peculiar notion of communication into the stream of consciousness without any sort of basis for doing so.  These are the types of questions that I was talking about as being equally nonsensical to asking what the square root of a puppy is.

When people ask questions like "why are we here?", I'm kind of making an assumption about their meaning based on the pervading culture...  the assumption is that they are not simply asking about the natural mechanisms that resulted in human beings, but asking about some sort of overarching "purpose" for their existence, and that's begging the question.  Asking it in the more religious form of "why did god put us here?" is even more loaded since it not only presumes a purpose, but an actually willful agency from whom that purpose is borne and that said purpose explicitly involves us.  That's a whole lot of unfounded assumptions in a little sentence.  But it's comforting unfounded assumptions combined with the rejection of the idea that there can exist such a thing as an inconvenient truth and going so far as to include things like a will and a personality that really just created all this nonsense.

And look at how far we've come as a result of such nonsense infecting a modern age in which they're necessarily outdated even if you were to assume they were practical at some point...  from having laws that say that a raped woman must marry her assailant to having laws that a raped woman must be raped a second time in order to get an abortion.  That's progress, right?
Progress, all right... leading in circles.
The thing is that people who are educated in the fields in question know well enough not to ask stupid questions in the first place.  There's no point in asking something that makes no sense, but you wouldn't know that if you don't learn about it in the first place.  The believers, however, see this as some sort of sign that the education programs of the world are anti-[insert religion here].  It says something when it is somehow more plausible to you that the programs designed to impart knowledge and learning in people are part of a massive conspiracy set up by evil people who control the machinations of the world through covert means ...  than the simple fact that it is you who is wrong.