Anglican Samizdat

July 8, 2009

More atheist proselytising

Filed under: Atheism — David Jenkins @ 11:39 am
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The Richard Dawkins propaganda machine is at full throttle:

Every secondary school in England and Wales will receive a free DVD by renowned atheist Richard Dawkins to celebrate the anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

The speech was originally delivered as part of the professor’s 1991 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for children, and is being distributed by the British Humanist Association with funding from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

“Increasing young people’s understanding of science has never been more important,” Professor Dawkins said.

Why, I wonder, does the author of “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference” think that endeavours to spread his anti-God message have any more purpose than the purposeless universe of which he is a part?

I doubt that there will be any outcry at this attempt to infiltrate atheist dogma into the schools; there would be if it were Christian dogma, though.

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21 Comments

  1. “I doubt that there will be any outcry at this attempt to infiltrate atheist dogma into the schools; there would be if it were Christian dogma, though.”

    Actually, you’re wrong on both counts.

    First of all, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that the DVD is anything more than a speech about Darwin and evolution. In other words, science, not atheism or religion bashing.

    Secondly, this is the UK, where they have a state religion, and most schools are religious. Why would they make an outcry against religion or science, since in the UK they have classes for both?

    Comment by morsec0de — July 8, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

  2. Why, I wonder, does the author of “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference” think that endeavours to spread his anti-God message have any more purpose than the purposeless universe of which he is a part?

    Just because the universe is without purpose, that doesn’t mean that I can’t set my own purpose and follow it.

    Indeed, the purposelessness of the universe is very much the motivating factor behind my drive to purpose in the first place.

    I always find it interesting to look at the language used by believers. You don’t necessarily come out and say it, but there’s an assumption in the language you use that the purpose we humans assign to things is meaningless. I resent that a little bit; it devalues me as an individual, and only returns my sense of value if I become an obedient servant to what other people tell me is the will of God.

    So I’m resentful of that assumption you’re making; given how close beneath the surface of this assumption is the will to control others and to be controlled by others, I’m also highly suspicious.

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — July 8, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

  3. This seems to be what is referred to:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Growing_Up_in_the_Universe

    I don’t think its describable as “atheist proselytising”.

    Dan

    Comment by Dan — July 8, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

  4. [#2]
    Just because the universe is without purpose, that doesn’t mean that I can’t set my own purpose and follow it.

    If, as an atheist, you acknowledge that nothing exists outside of the material universe you have to concede that there is nothing within you that is outside of the material universe. Given that, if the universe as a whole has no purpose it’s hard to see how a small subset of it can have one even if that subset is inclined to invent one for itself.

    but there’s an assumption in the language you use that the purpose we humans assign to things is meaningless.

    I’m happy to state it explicitly: if there is no God, humanity’s invented purpose is meaningless.

    it devalues me as an individual

    If the universe has no purpose and humans are a meaningless and accidental combination of molecules, why would an individual have any more value than any other accidental clump of molecules – a toadstool, for example?

    Comment by David — July 8, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

  5. I’m happy to state it explicitly: if there is no God, humanity’s invented purpose is meaningless.

    I want to respond to this, but before I do can you please clarify your terminology?

    It seems to me that you’re using the words ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ interchangeably. Do you consider them synonyms? If not, how are they different?

    I need the answers to these before I can parse your above statement to arrive at your meaning intended communication.

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — July 9, 2009 @ 1:14 am

  6. Bugger. That should have read:

    … arrive at your meaning intended communication.

    My kingdom for a preview function.

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — July 9, 2009 @ 1:15 am

  7. Ubiquitous Che,
    ieSpell
    Peace,
    Jim

    Comment by Jim Muirhead — July 9, 2009 @ 8:44 am

  8. [#5],
    It was the Dawkins statement that introduced “purpose” and you who introduced “meaning”.

    Nevertheless, my intent was not to use “purpose” – an object towards which one strives – and “meaning” – coherently understandable – interchangeably, although in normal usage I think purpose implies meaning: not many people would be interested in pursuing a meaningless purpose.

    Comment by David — July 9, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  9. Dan [#3],

    I think Dawkins is a compulsive peddler of atheism first and science second; this, from your reference, seems to verify that his talk is in character:

    Dawkins now discusses the most popular alternative to natural selection, which is known as creationism. He explains that creationists mistakenly believe designoid objects to be designed objects created by a divine being. Quoting from William Paley’s Natural Theology, Dawkins discusses the argument from design using the example of the watch and the watchmaker. Even though designoid objects appear to be designed, Darwin proved that this is not the case. Although Darwin’s theory was discovered well after Paley developed his watchmaker argument, Dawkins explains that the argument of a divine watchmaker was still a bad argument, even in Paley’s day.

    Comment by David — July 9, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  10. [#1],

    First, see [#9],

    Second, I was a victim of the British school system’s attempt at religious education; it is one of the things that drove me to atheism.

    Comment by David — July 9, 2009 @ 10:35 am

  11. Nevertheless, my intent was not to use “purpose” – an object towards which one strives – and “meaning” – coherently understandable – interchangeably…

    That definition of “meaning” as “coherently understandable” doesn’t seem to fit the context of this discussion.

    Are you sure that’s the definition you’re running with?

    Because if it is…

    Why must X be coherently understandable before it can assist in giving me a fulfilling life?

    Isn’t a universe founded on God not coherently understandable, because God is not coherently understandable, seemingly by definition?

    Your definition of ‘meaning’ makes little sense to me in this context.

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — July 9, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

  12. I fear that we have lost our way in this discussion: I don’t think having a purpose in life that is not understood can be fulfilling – I don’t really think you do either.

    Isn’t a universe founded on God not coherently understandable, because God is not coherently understandable, seemingly by definition?

    The reverse is true; one would expect that a designed universe with designed laws would be capable of being understood. That’s what science does. A random universe with no design and no laws stands little chance of being understood: moreover, understanding itself becomes a questionable commodity since it is merely an electro-chemical reaction in a human brain, the random product of a random universe programmed – presumably by natural selection – to find a pattern that does not exist.

    Comment by David — July 9, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

  13. Sorry if you feel we’re losing our way… I’m genuinely confused. From my past experience, you’re defining your terms as the opposite of how most believers have defined their terms when discussing these topics with me.

    The reverse is true; one would expect that a designed universe with designed laws would be capable of being understood. That’s what science does.

    First off, that’s not what science does. Science finds the best working theory we can understand based on current observations. The universe is still considerably uncomprehended by science. We’re a long shot off of a Theory of Everything just yet. The universe is not yet understood, and there is a very real chance that the fundamental nature of the universe will forever defy human understanding.

    Secondly, if a universe was designed by a God, why should that make it more likely that we could understand it? Are you proposing that we are God’s intellectual equals?

    I’m sorry that I’m so thrown by this – but I am used to believers arguing that it is the inability of science to tackle the vague and undefined ‘unknown’ that somehow validates the existence of God. This argument of yours is novel. I don’t yet see how it is sequitur, much less supported by any evidence. I’m putting that down to my unfamiliarity for now.

    A random universe with no design and no laws stands little chance of being understood…

    Interesting hypothetical – however, our universe is shown to contain both random and non-random events – wholly more non-random events than random ones. Additionally, successful descriptive laws have been devised with a demonstrable high (though not perfect) level of predictive accuracy.

    If prescriptive laws do operate on the level of nature, we are yet to find or confirm them.

    … moreover, understanding itself becomes a questionable commodity since it is merely an electro-chemical reaction in a human brain, the random product of a random universe programmed – presumably by natural selection – to find a pattern that does not exist….

    I’m on firmer ground here.

    Once again – the universe is contains both random and non-random events. Natural selection is a non-random process. Genes that produce bodies with brains that reach bad conclusions are less likely to replicate than ones that produce bodies that reach good ones. This does mean that our intuitions are often imperfect. That’s why we use reason and science to experiment and test our conclusions against reality in the first place. It works very, very well – the internet on which we are conversing is a wonderful demonstration of the efficacy of this system.

    Suffice to say your closing point is a very silly argument. There is no reason to suggest that a brain, or any other form of thinking engine, cannot learn from input and achieve sound conclusions from that input. Countless demonstrations of this capacity of both brains and other thinking engines are documented. It is an argument that is refuted.

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — July 10, 2009 @ 1:15 am

  14. Let me restate the case that the existence of natural laws exist points to a Designer this way:

    Scientific method – which is actually considerably more ambiguous than your version – rests upon the rational intelligibility of the universe. Einstein said “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”. Confidence that our human mental processes are to some degree reliable is an a priori for science. The rational intelligibility of the universe has led most classical philosophers to the conclusion that the intelligibility is itself the product of intelligence: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibnitz, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Locke, Locke, Berkeley all saw the universe as having a transcendent origin.

    Secondly, If the material universe is all there is, the human mind is merely the brain at work: it is a computational engine, a Turing machine. Your notion that a computational engine can learn in the sense that it gains more information than is originally programmed or fed into it is not provable by informational theory; the reverse is the case.

    Gregory Chaitin has demonstrated that no Turing machine can generate any information that is not part of its input or of its algorithmic programming. From the point of view of a human mind, if it is a mechanism, any scientific conclusions it may draw are not learning in the normal sense of the word, they are merely the reshuffling of data.

    Roger Penrose in An Emperor’s New Mind demonstrated the same thing: the human mind cannot be a Turing machine because a Turing machine cannot learn in the way a human mind does. He got around the problem by invoking quantum mechanics; this was a deus ex machina move in my opinion since it still does not explain how mind can exist as a mechanism.

    Comment by David — July 10, 2009 @ 9:40 am

  15. Scientific method – which is actually considerably more ambiguous than your version – rests upon the rational intelligibility of the universe.

    No, it doesn’t.

    Scientific method rests upon the ability for rationally intelligible models of the universe to produce accurate predictions. A ‘true’ scientific model only refers to its predictive accuracy. Whether or not it is a just representation of the way reality actually works is an open question – but so far, it’s given us the best results of any epistemic method humanity has ever devised.

    Einstein said “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”.

    And this blatant appeal to authority moves the conversation forward… how exactly?

    Confidence that our human mental processes are to some degree reliable is an a priori for science.

    Have you been reading Kant?

    No, confidence in our mental processes is not an a priori assumption of science. That’s why science tests the fruits of our mental processing against reality: We don’t trust pure thought alone to get us by.

    The rational intelligibility of the universe has led most classical philosophers to the conclusion that the intelligibility is itself the product of intelligence: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibnitz, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Locke, Locke, Berkeley all saw the universe as having a transcendent origin.

    I haven’t read them all – but I’ve read quite a few. The long list is unnecessary: Really, you’ve just iterated philosophers who implemented various versions and refinements of Platonism. Plato alone would have been enough.

    I concur with Nietzsche’s assessment of these philosophers, these philosophies. Freddie’s criticism of Kant was particularly eye opening.

    Secondly, If the material universe is all there is, the human mind is merely the brain at work: it is a computational engine, a Turing machine. Your notion that a computational engine can learn in the sense that it gains more information than is originally programmed or fed into it is not provable by informational theory; the reverse is the case.

    Gregory Chaitin has demonstrated that no Turing machine can generate any information that is not part of its input or of its algorithmic programming. From the point of view of a human mind, if it is a mechanism, any scientific conclusions it may draw are not learning in the normal sense of the word, they are merely the reshuffling of data.

    Short answer: So what?

    You’ll notice that I specifically said that there’s no reason to suggest that a brain, or any other form of thinking engine, cannot learn from input and achieve sound conclusions from that input. I specifically emphasized the necessity for input, the senses of touch, taste, sound, smell, sight, and even thought if we want to get technical. How does your point above in any way rebut what I originally asserted?

    Our senses provide the input, and natural selection provides the very flexible, very dynamic, and very effective (though admittedly flawed) programming.

    Turing machine!

    Roger Penrose in An Emperor’s New Mind demonstrated the same thing: the human mind cannot be a Turing machine because a Turing machine cannot learn in the way a human mind does.

    Haven’t heard of Penrose or his book (paper? essay?). I’ll add it to my wish-list. I have a degree in Computer Science, and work as a Software Developer. I have a reasonably adequate knowledge of what Turing machines can and can’t do. I can’t dismiss Penrose’s arguments out of hand until I’ve read them, but suffice to say… His evidence had better be good.

    He got around the problem by invoking quantum mechanics; this was a deus ex machina move in my opinion since it still does not explain how mind can exist as a mechanism.

    I also agree that invoking quantum mechanics as an explanation is rarely useful outside the field of particle physics.

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — July 10, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

  16. Scientific method rests upon the ability for rationally intelligible models of the universe to produce accurate predictions.

    A rationally intelligible model of a rationally unintelligible universe is of little use and would be the subject of fantasy science. Science takes for granted that the universe is rationally intelligible. Even atheist Bertrand Russell who teetered on the border of solipsism with his contention that the only meaningful data is sensory perception, believed the universe was rationally intellible – and I doubt that any sane scientist would work on the basis that the universe is rationally unintelligible.

    Short answer: So what?

    Long answer: If the mind is a Turing machine the sum of its “learning” is the combination of its programming and input; the “learning” cannot reveal anything new. This flies in the face of common human experience in the arts, science and mathematics which is why Roger Penrose (Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics, Oxford) does not believe that the mind is a Turing machine. Since you are in IT, I am sure you are familiar with the Church–Turing thesis that states that any computational device (such as a brain that is mechanism) can be simulated by a Turing machine. Also scientist and Nobel Laureate, Peter Medawar wrote “No process of logical reasoning can enlarge the information content of the axioms and premises or observational statements from which it proceeds” – the same thing said a different way but, again, contrary to human experience.

    No, confidence in our mental processes is not an a priori assumption of science. That’s why science tests the fruits of our mental processing against reality: We don’t trust pure thought alone to get us by.

    Science isn’t something that operates on its own “test[ing] the fruits of our mental processing”. You cannot perform a scientific experiment without using your mind: without the assumption that your mind is reliable, science is impossible.

    Comment by David — July 10, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

  17. A rationally intelligible model of a rationally unintelligible universe is of little use and would be the subject of fantasy science.

    Unless it is a model that yields accurate predictions. Then it is consummately useful – by leaving this out, you are deliberately and amateurishly misrepresenting my argument. Because you ignored that particular point of my argument, you missed – your entire first paragraph is responding to a straw man.

    Long answer: If the mind is a Turing machine the sum of its “learning” is the combination of its programming and input; the “learning” cannot reveal anything new.

    You’re condradicting yourself: If the sum of our learning is programming and input, then we can learn from new input.

    We’re receiving new input every waking moment – thus, we can learn from this input.

    Second paragraph is founded on a condradiction.

    Science isn’t something that operates on its own “test[ing] the fruits of our mental processing”. You cannot perform a scientific experiment without using your mind: without the assumption that your mind is reliable, science is impossible.

    I can use my mind to generate a hypothesis: That it takes more heat energy per unit of temperature to melt a solid than it does to simply heat that solid.

    I can then test that hypothesis using careful experimentation. Could my mind still be producing interference? Of course.

    So I can get other people to test this hypothesis with careful experimentation.

    I cannot be sure that my hypothesis reflects reality. I can be sure that my hypothesis reflects the data. So long as my hypothesis continues to accurately predict future data, then science is possible.

    Did you take science at high school?

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — July 11, 2009 @ 1:37 am

  18. you are deliberately and amateurishly misrepresenting my argument.

    Since I am not being paid to straighten you out, I suppose this must by definition be amateurish. But I don’t think I did misrepresent you. If scientists did not take the rational intelligibility of the universe for granted, they would explore irrational hypotheses to see if they fit reality – obviously they don’t.

    I can use my mind to generate a hypothesis:

    And the implicit assumption is that your mind works reliably enough to come up with a hypothesis.

    You’re condradicting yourself: If the sum of our learning is programming and input, then we can learn from new input.

    Not at all. For a Turing machine, the “learning” is only a different arrangement of existing data (programming and input) – there is nothing new produced just a re-shuffling of what is already there. This is why Roger Penrose claims that existing computers – Turing machines – will never be capable of AI.

    Comment by David — July 11, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  19. I’m rapidly approaching my boredom threshold in this discussion. A few final words, then I’m done.

    1) The skills required to accurately evaluate your competence in the area of scientific comprehension are mostly the same as the skills required to comprehend science. This means that someone who doesn’t comprehend science will not know that they don’t comprehend science. This is an instance of the Dunning-Kruger effect – so named after a paper by Justin Kruger and David Dunning titled Unskilled and Unaware of it.

    There is a brilliant YouTube video – Illusion of Superiority – that describes this paper.

    I suggest to you that you are incompetent in the area of scientific comprehension. Ironically, that it is due to your very incompetence that you believe yourself to be so strongly competent in the area. I say this because you are frequently reporting, with great competence, what scientists do, assume, and believe. You are reporting the actions, assumptions, and beliefs required as part of the scientific method incorrectly.

    2) On hypotheses:

    It does not take any particular reliability to generate a hypothesis. All hypotheses are considered speculative until demonstrated. 100’s of hypotheses will have to fail before we stumble upon one that stands up to testing. Much of hypothesis generation is basic trial-and-error.

    Once again – I suggest your incompetence in the field of scientific comprehension is blinding you to your incompetence in the field of scientific comprehension.

    3) On machines learning from input:

    If what you said was true, databases would not be possible.

    I create websites, applications, and web-applications for a living. All the applications I design are data-driven. Input is provided to the machine, and it suddenly knows more about the world around it. It has learned something new – for example, on receiving a properly-formatted XML file, my current application learns of a new Sales Order and a new Delivery Recipient. I personally, routinely, and without parade or fanfare do this thing you are claiming is impossible every working day, for money.

    I don’t work in AI. When you claim that machines will ‘never be capable of AI – you are incorrect. In university I created a checkers program that could kick my butt at checkers, and that was a simple zero-sum future-state game AI. There are a wide range of AI patterns and applications that can already greatly outperform humans in both speed and accuracy in a wide range of fields. Machines are capable of AI now. Have been for some time.

    Perhaps what you meant was that machines will not be capable of intelligence, as opposed to artificial intelligence, the latter of which has been a successful and functioning field of computer science for decades.

    Another point of confusion may be due to the fact that modern computers (as well as human brains) do not suffer from all the limitations of the strictest definitions of a ‘Turing Machine’.

    A Turing Machine has:

    1) A TAPE which is divided into cells, one next to the other. Each cell contains a symbol from some finite alphabet.
    2) A HEAD that can read and write symbols on the tape and move the tape left and right one (and only one) cell at a time. In some models the head moves and the tape is stationary.
    3) A finite TABLE of instructions.
    4) A STATE REGISTER that stores the state of the Turing table, one of finitely many.

    In this description of a Turing Machine, we have many examples that do not apply to either modern computers or brains.

    For example, we may process information in any order. We may even process information in parallel. Our ‘HEAD’ is not limited to one move to the left or the right, or even a single HEAD with a single TAPE. The same applies to modern Computers that may have many processes running in parallel, each with many parallel threads, and all this may run on parallel CPU’s.

    Also, in both modern computers and brains, our TABLE of instructions is not finite. In both cases, we may write our own table of instructions on the fly, and then use that new table to write a new table, and so on.

    And again, in both modern computers and brains, our STATE REGISTERs are not finite either. In the case of Computers, there are all sorts of tricks we use to establish a non-finite Virtual Memory. In the case of brains, our neurons may grow and form new connections at any time, changing the NUMBER of state REGISTERs in a dynamic and non-finite way.

    Modern computers and brains do not fit the strictest definitions of a Turing Machine. You seem to be ignorant of this fact.

    Once again, even without reading Roger Penrose’s arguments, I am beginning to suspect that you have misinterpreted him. I suggest that your incompetence in the field of Computer Science has rendered you blind to the fact that you are misrepresenting him. Dunning-Kruger again, I feel.

    That’s it from me. I’m signing off. Feel free to take the last word: This argument has now exceeded my boredom threshold.

    Keep well, all the best, and please consider my suggestions regarding the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — July 11, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

  20. I say this because you are frequently reporting, with great competence, what scientists do, assume, and believe.

    Should read:

    I say this because you are frequently reporting, with great confidence, what scientists do, assume, and believe.

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — July 11, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

  21. Well, I didn’t particularly want to get into the “who knows more about computers” contest but, you have made the invitation irresistible:

    I have been programming mainframe computers for 43 years mostly in assembler. I have worked on 360s, 370s, 390s, Z systems, BOS, DOS, VSE, MVS, VM, z/OS, programming when start/stop terminals were popular (before you were conceived, I imagine), have written software to communicate with 83B3s which were designed in the 19C and were entirely mechanical, not to mention 3270s, 2740s, 2741s, 3790s, TTYs, ASCII emulators, protocol converters, multi-sessions managers, load balancing distributors, zOS exits, TSO exits, NVAS exits, Netview exits, VTAM exits, TPX exits and VM exits – among others. I wrote what was – in its time – a well loved free Amiga program ClockDJ – I wrote others too, but it was the most well-known. I have written virus checkers, experimental viruses, hacked – for my own entertainment only – copy protection systems and disassembled more programs than I care to contemplate.

    I still write network software and design SNA, TCPIP and optical networks.

    I have also written assembler programs in 8086, 6800, in addition to C, C++ and most of the familiar interpretive languages. I have written an OS for 6800 based micro systems, high volume multi-threading online transaction processing programs in BTAM, BATS, TCAM, and VTAM, and low level – channel programming – mainframe database systems. I worked for IBM for a number of years and am familiar with the Deep Blue programming techniques, although I never specifically worked on it.

    As of today, I still work in network system programming on mainframes and in optical DWDM network design. In addition to the mathematical proof, any programmer worth his salt knows in his gut, strong AI is not going to be possible with Turing Machine based computers – and all current computers are reducible to a Turing Machine.

    And I design the odd web site here and there.

    Other than that, as you intimate, I know nothing about computers.

    Comment by David — July 11, 2009 @ 7:54 pm


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