Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Apple shows its Darwin roots

A parody site a while back claimed that Apple was in league with Satan because its OS was called "Darwin". As an Apple evangelist (should that be kakangelist?), I whole-heartedly agree - and Satan has the best OS as well as the best music. [C'mon. Who doesn't really think that Microsoft is in league with Old Nick?]

Now Apple are giving their support to what looks like a lovely exhibit on dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Expect there to be a fundamentalist backlash against Apple computers and iPods soon...

Friday, May 13, 2005

William Hamilton on classification

Found and purchased a sixth edition copy of Sir William Hamilton's Lectures on Metaphysics Vol II yesterday. Previously I had only come across him from John Stuart Mill's An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy, and supposed that he was some kind of idealist. But I am interested in the 19thC philosophers because they, unlike most modern philosophers, treat classification seriously. For example, in addition to Mill's System of Logic, there's also William Jevon's The Principles of Science, with an extensive chapter on classification.

Why did this drop out of modern philosophy? I can't say for sure - in part it may have been due to the shift from the older syllogistic logic (which required a classification to commence inference) to modern set theory and formal symbolic logic. It may also be due to something else that is interesting me right now - relations. In classical logic, relata were terms that stood in a binary relation only. Locke asserted that these were in the understanding only, and Anglo philosophers seemed to accept this - relations are semantic, conceptual or logical.

But this isn't the case in science. Nobody thinks that the parent-child relationship is merely conceptual. And neither did Locke - he has a section on "natural relations", in the Essay (2.28.2) in which he names these very relations. However, our understanding of natural relations is in the mind, according to him. Here Locke and his successors part company with biology, at least. There is nothing conceptual about the birth of a foal from its dam.

So biology and philosophy became distant to each other, barely speaking, on the matter of classification. When philosophers discussed biological classification, it was in terms of the metaphysics of the empiricists or the ideals of yore. When biologists discussed the logic of classification, it was in terms of the same metaphysics and logic.

I might type some extracts of Hamilton as I travel through him. He calls classification the "elaborative faculty" (or rather it is part of that faculty), which involves Comparison, and which is "supposed in every, the simplest, act of knowledge ... our factitiously simple, our factitiously complex, and our generalised notions, are all so many products of Comparison; ... [and] Judgement ... [and] Reasoning [are] identical with Comparison." [Lect. XXXIV, p 279]

Hamilton, William, Henry Longueville Mansel, and John Veitch. 1874. Lectures on metaphysics and logic. Edinburgh: Blackwood.

Jevons, W. Stanley. 1877. The principles of science: a treatise on logic and scientific method.

Mill, John Stuart. 1865. An examination of Sir William Hamilton's philosophy and of the principal philosophical questions discussed in his writings. Boston: William V. Spencer.

Mill, John Stuart. 1867. A system of logic, ratiocinative and inductive : being a connected view of the principles of evidence and the methods of scientific investigation. New York: Harper & Brothers. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan.
First edition 1847.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The ID Know Nothing Party

One of the more quirky aspects of American political history I have come across - admittedly without really looking very hard - is the Know-Nothing Party of the 19th century, mostly in the north east states like Massachusetts.

These people had a fairly simple set of policies - basically, keep out the Irish. But they came from a set of rather disreputable and shady groups, and so when they were asked what they knew about these groups, they would say "I know nothing about it". Hence the name. Of course, they knew perfectly well what they were about; but in order to get elected, which they did for a short time, they hid their real agenda and affiliations.

Does this sound at all familiar? Intelligent Design proponents spin the line they are not really talking about God... unless they are talking to their supporters, in which case it's all about getting God into the classroom and the social debate. But to the rest of the electorate, and the media, they know nothing about the Designer...

And blow me down, but the media are swallowing it. Slate has published two Op-Ed pieces - one by Daniel Engber, who says that ID is not creationism (oh, fancy that! the Discovery Institute is one of his sources), and one by William Saletan, Slate's chief political correspondent, who gives ID unwarranted credibility in a terrible article, and who swallows the "evolutionists" line, as if it were a political position rather than a scientific stance.

Paul Myers, of course, has something to say about this, as does editor of Scientific American, John Rennie. But let us consider this in the context of American polity - they are indeed the new dissemblers, the new Know-Nothings. And all this is because they are trying to find a way around the Establishment Clause. Just don't mention "God" and you can get away with it, right?

There is another similarity with the original Know-Nothings, too. They did manage to get elected, and even held seats in Congress. What did they achieve in their time there? Nothing. What actual science has ID put forward? Nothing. No worked out cases, no experiments, just selective reviews and ersatz philosophizing, together with impressive looking (but only looking) mathematics that in the end appears to reinvent wheels, only now they are irregular shapes.

Again I note that the battle here is not for control over science, but for control over education. They want this stuff taught in schools. They want this so that people won't be informed enough to reject their religious views, so they can control public debate. This is not about science and it's not about philosophy. It's about cultural hegemony.

God help us all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Psychic nonsense

Everywhere I look on TV (yes, I watch TV. It happens when you are brought up by TV as a childminder - if there's a video screen, including a computer, in action in my field of vision I will watch it, even if I'm supposed to be listening to my wife, with predictable consequences), there's an automatic presumption of the reality of psychic phenomena.

It's ubiquitous. There's Medium (based on the true story of so and so"), Psychic Detectives, John someone or other who apparently speaks to dead people ("Why, so can I and so can any man. But do they answer when you do speak with them?), and even the apparently sensible Australian Broadcasting Corporation is getting in on the act.

What is this doing to kids? What is it doing to the population in general? It's all very well to suspend disbelief for the purpose of enjoying a horror or SF show (I really enjoyed the immensely well done and thought-provoking The Second Coming, with its surprising and clever denouement), but it's getting to the point where it is just part of the shared knowledge that these are real phenomena.

And they simply aren't. But no matter how often this is scientifically debunked or shown to be the result of trickery or fraud, people are being fed this tripe as a way of shutting them up. That's the only way I can explain its popularity. Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses, a way to deaden their pain. Well psychic phenomena appear to be the present analgesic of choice, and it can only end in a relatively stupid and uninformed electorate. Who will benefit from that, I wonder?

The immediate culprits are the media moguls, people like Rupert Murdoch of "Faux News" fame, and in my own country, Frank Packer, who put this tripe out daily. But there is a deeper question here. The loss of a reliable media, and provision of bread and psychic circuses, and so forth all tend to result in a compliant and distracted society. This means that democracy becomes the playground of those who have the weapons of mass distraction and those who both represent only them and can bring influence to bear, directly or indirectly.

I know this is not news, or original to me. I just wanted to rant. An educated society is the very last thing that those in power do want; this is why we should work hard to make it educated. Knowledge is not just power, it is the power to make your own choices.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Hack is dead

I have met many remarkable folk in my time, why, I can't rightly say. But one of the two most remarkable was Col. David Hackworth, AKA Hack. He died recently.

Hack was one of the most decorated American soldiers ever, yet he publicly declared Vietname an unwinnable war, after being in the field, and he worked against militarism whenever he could. I happened to meet him when I interviewed him for a student newspaper I was working for (even though I was not actually a student there. I also met Billy Connolly for five minutes, but that's another brush with greatness).

Read up on him - he's a big figure in the latter half of the 20th century, even if you never heard of him before. One of the stories he told me was that he left military service after returning from the Vietnam War, and being appointed to the staff advising LBJ. He heard that worthy man say that he wanted to nuke North Vietnam, because he didn't want to be the first American President to lose a war. Of such motives are policies made...

Plus ├ža change.

Oh, the other great man I met? Archbishop Janani Luwum of the Ugandan Anglican Church. He visited Australia in 1976, and I tagged along with a church guy I knew who was interviewing him. He was about to return to Uganda even though Idi Amin was in full rampage, and my mate asked him why he was returning. He simply said it was his duty. Despite my feelings now about organised religion, I was deeply impressed by that man. He was killed a few months later, as he knew he would be. Rumor had it Amin shot him personally.

The malignancy of religion

I usually defend freedom of religion and leave open its possible truth by noting that a great many people who are much cleverer than I have and do believe in a religion. Then I note that I am an agnostic, and so I cannot pronounce upon its truth one way or the other.

But the rise of religion in the politics of my own country, Australia, coupled with observation of the effects of religion in American education and so forth, and the recent abduction of one of my countrymen in Iraq, who was there to contribute to the rebuilding of that nation, by what can only be called a fanatical group, leads me to deviate from my past approach.

Yes, I am an agnostic (and an apathetic one, too, when I can be); but what that means is not only that I don't know whether there is a God or not - I don't think you do either, or can. This applies to strident atheists as much as devotees of a faith. Nobody has sufficient information to make a determination, nor is it likely they ever will.

So what triggered me off here? It is the present "hearings" of the Board of Education in Kansas against teaching only evolutionary biology in science classes. This is the latest in a long line of religion-based attacks on teaching this. Why are people so opposed to it? It is not, I think, because there really is a conflict between religion and science (there is between science that masquerades as a religion, and religion that masquerades as science, of course), but because, in short, people cannot deal with knowledge.

To be more exact, people cannot deal with new knowledge that deviates from what they learned as a child. And only most people. So if they can't handle the truth, as Nicholson might roar, what is it they would rather have? Comfortable belief, of their own devising, that's what. It is easier to believe in a shared authority or dogma than to accommodate the novel, the "shock of the new" as it has been put.

And this is symptomatic of a much broader problem. Objections to science have been around for a long time. Various people, from Wagner to Shelley to Jeremy Rivkin hate science because they are afraid of it, and because it makes them challenge their comfortable illusions. The results of retreating from science are rarely good, even if the results of science itself are sometimes not good either. We want guarantees, even if there are none on offer.

So, I mused, as I sat on the ferry this morning, what does this bode for us? The answer I fear is that human society will not long accept what some falsely call "modernity" but which I happily call knowledge. In a mob-mentality society in which the dominant cultural hegemony - religion - controls what can be said or taught, science withers. We can't handle the truth.

It is religion that manifests the tribalism of human behavior most clearly. Sports does it too, as do political affiliations, accent, vocabulary, clothing and so on, but religion is a fundamental expression of the "My mob is better than your mob" inherent tendency that all humans share.

And this is why religion needs to be restricted and constrained in a free and fair society. Not only because if one gets the upper hand all the others will suffer, though that is true too. Not only because free thinking and science will fail and die. But because in order for us to be civilised at all, we need to overcome our basic biology, to tame ourselves. What we see in Iraq, with the Taliban, with the Christian Right in the USA, with the rise of pious fraud in Australian politics, the intransigency of the past and present Papacy to deal with HIV and the other modes of expression of liberal Catholicism - it all has literally nothing to do with truth and everything to do with tribalism.

To my enlightened believing friends - I assert your right to believe anything you like, and I respect you for it. But let's face it - religion is more often than not, a malign influence on civil society. To my atheist friends - lighten up. Building a new tribalism isn't a solution either.

But I am not so naive as to ask, "Why can't we all just get along?" We can't - and the role of the pluralist democratic and free society is to make it possible for us to not get along in peace. What a pity, then, that so much of what is going on today is the exact inverse of that function.