Metro State Atheists

Promoting Science, Reason, and Secular Values

A Treatise of Human Nature, by David Hume

A Treatise of Human Nature, by David Hume

David Hume is one of many great enlightenment philosophers.  Hume is a bit long winded, and hard to read, but you’ll be happy you did.

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January 28, 2009 Posted by | Epistemology, philosophy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vice President’s Commentary On Bob Enyart’s Interview Of Joel

By Chalmer Wren, VP of Metro State Atheists

Yesterday at 3:00pm Metro State Atheists’ President and co-founder, Joel Guttormson, was interviewed by Bob Enyart on AM 670 KLTT.  While I was not interviewed, I did have a great deal to say regarding the content of the interview, so I thought I would share my thoughts with all of you.  If you didn’t catch the show, check it out at http://kgov.com/bel/20090107.  Before getting into things, though, I would like to mention that I accompanied Joel to the studio and had the pleasure of meeting Bob myself.  Bob was polite and accommodating.  Joel and I both had a great time, and we are both very grateful to Bob for inviting us to appear on the show.  Also, Bob, if you read this please let me know if I misrepresented you or the points you made.

Near the beginning of the interview, Bob asked Joel why he is an Atheist.  Joel gave some information about his background, but never specifically answered the question. Firstly, we believe that there is insufficient evidence to reasonably conclude that God(s) exist.  We feel that the burden of proof is on the believer, and unless the believer can produce good evidence, we have no reason to agree with them.  Secondly, we think it is reasonable to conclude that God(s), or at least most of the ones that have been presented to us, probably do not exist.

We hold to the improbability of God(s) for several reasons.  Many of the God(s) presented to us have logically inconsistent definitions.  Epicurus first introduced what is generally referred to as the problem of evil in the following quotation:

Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?

This is only one example at an attempt to reconcile the conflicting attributes often assigned to God.  For more examples, you might try David Hume, one of my favorite philosophers.  These sort of objections to God'(s’) existence are not at all uncommon, and should not be hard to find.  Click here for more information on the problem of evil. I don’t want to get into the details of these arguments right now, but would be glad to expand on any of them if asked to do so.  I should clarify that we are not absolutely certain that no God(s) exist, we simply think that the most reasonable conclusion, given our present evidence and understanding,  is that God(s) probably does not exist.

Joel mentions that he is an empiricist; as am I.  Within the scope of epistemology,  three main groups exist which are empiricism, dualism, and rationalism.  None of these epistemological positions necessarily restrict one from or force one to believe in God(s).  Empiricism is the position that knowledge comes exclusively from the senses.  David Hume was an empiricist and, while some might disagree, I believe that Immanuel Kant was an empiricist as well.  Rationalism is the position that knowledge is is not acquired from experience, but that it is innate.  Dualism, as the name implies, sits right in the middle of the aforementioned views.  Dualism is the position that some knowledge comes from experience, and that some is innate.  Rene Descartes and Plato, for example, were dualists.  For more on dualism, click here.

Now, based on the discussion between Joel and Bob, I suspect that Bob is a dualist.  This is not at all surprising.  Though dualism does not necessarily lead to theism, or the converse, philosophical dualism is the prevailing outlook in western religion (not to say that it isn’t prevalent else were).  I can only speculate that this is becuase dualism, if presumed accurate, makes believing in God(s) a great deal easier becuase it allows for the existence of a non-physical aspect of our reality.

Joel mentions he is a theoretical math major early on, which later prompts Bob to challenge the basis of Joel’s empiricism by appealing to the non-physical nature of the principles expressed in mathematics.  The objection that I believe Bob is making  is essentially that concepts are of a non-physical nature.  He goes on to give a clever analogy, stating

“If you rubbed your hand on a  piece of paper over an equation could you feel that its valid”

Though this is a valid point, I does not refute the notion that mathematical concepts are non-physical.  We hold that concepts, ideas, notions, and other cognitive occurrences are a manifestation of physical interactions in the brain.  Though we can not observe a principle in the way we can smell flowers or hear music, principles and concepts must stem from observation.  Our concepts of depth, color, or even complexity are abstract derivations that we reach by thinking about our observations.  I challenge anyone reading this to find within themselves a concept that neither describes a direct observation or that can be abstracted from an observation.  I see no reason to conclude that conceptual understanding is not an emergent property of the natural human mind.  For more on this topic, please see The Mind Body Problem.  This particular topic is far to extensive for me to cover it in this post, but anyone interested in more details should ask.

Bob goes on to claim that reason, or rather our ability to apply reason to our observations, precede our observations.  The ability to reason can not be observed, and I agree with Bob on this.  However, the ability to reason could just as easily be attributed to the natural human mind as it could to a spirit or soul.  Reason, we believe, is an intrinsic function of the physical human brain, just as acceleration is a property of a functioning automobile.

Well that’s all for now.  I could talk about epistemology for days, so I will refrain from further elaboration unless someone asks for it.  Once again, thank you Bob Enyart and KGOV for having us.

– Chalmer Wren

January 8, 2009 Posted by | atheism, god, Interview, Mathematics, Metro State Atheists, News, Newsletter, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Artificial Intelligence

If the intelligence of the human mind is the product of the a physical mind, and thusly its actions dictated by physical laws, then it is reasonable to conclude that an artificial mind of equal physical capacity would be necessarily intelligent.  This is the principle of multiple realizability (1).  For any process that produces an affect, there is no reason to assume that said process is the only means of producing the very same affect.  That a form produces or infers a specific action does not logically imply that no other form could produce the same action.  While form must play a role in considering artificial intelligence, specific form does not need to be considered.
If the activities of the mind are not purely physical, and the emergent characteristics of the mind are not solely accounted for by said activities, then it would be unreasonable to conclude that an artificial mind would be necessarily intelligent.  If the latter case is true, it may be that, while some aspects of the mind are partly or purely immaterial, others, such as intelligence, may not be.  If the a specific causal relationship can be found between every aspect of intelligence and a physical process, then the hypothesis of the immaterial mind would be falsified.  The hypothesis is worthy of some consideration because it explains everything we have observed so far.  However, even prior to falsification the scientific community should not seriously consider the hypothesis.
If we presume existence of an immaterial mind we do so in spite of a large number of implausible, impractical, and confusing implications.  The presence of a forelife and afterlife are implied.  If the mind is, at least in part, separate from the physical realm then biological death should not eliminate it.  But once we begin to discuss the details of the nonphysical we find ourselves in the realm of pure speculation.  What parts of our mind are preserved and which are not, where did the mind come from, where will it end up, and where does it go?  These are only a few unanswerable questions.  Using the principle of Ockham’s razor we can remove rationalism and dualism from scientific inquiry because they raise more questions than they answer and most of the questions they raise can’t be answered at all (2).  So, if we disregard the idea of an immaterial mind we must acknowledge that an artificial mind is at least possible.
Humanity has created machines that can outwardly replicate many aspects of thought and reason.  For example, the chess playing Deep Blue computer observes its circumstances, the chessboard, and from a pool of all possible moves chooses the one most likely to ensure victory.  So, prompted by external circumstance, the machine acts to produce an effect.  However, this short description is as equally applicable to the rational process as it is of the falling of an anvil from the sky.  An anvil prompted by its external circumstance acts to produce an effect.  The action of the agent, i.e., of the machine, the anvil, or the person, is determined by the properties of that agent.  The machine acts to ensure victory because it is programmed to do so.  Deep Blue can no more deviate from this course of action by its own accord than an anvil can, by its own accord, deviate from descending from the sky.  In other words, the pool of potential actions for both of these non-human agents is limited by agents’ own physical form.
It is no longer appropriate to say that external circumstances determine an agents’ actions, but rather, that conditions both internal and external to the agent dictate the course of events.  However, the very same that has been said of the falling anvil and the Deep Blue computer can also be said of the human being.  So, lest we are content is saying an anvil has intelligence, further distinctions must be made in order to distinguish intellect from everything else.
I think it is important to make a distinction between indivisible and divisible properties.  Gravity, the tendency for objects of mass to accelerate towards one another, is an indivisible property of matter because the only possible alterations to it are elimination and opposition.  That objects might repel each other is the opposite of gravity, and therefore can not be termed equally.  That objects might have no affect on each other at all is a simple lack of gravity, and therefore it too can not be defines equally.  Any alteration of the anvil itself that would prevent it from acting consistently with the laws of gravity would change it so completely that it would no longer be possible to call it an anvil.  The ability to reason is also an indivisible property.  Similar to gravity, reason is process that mediates the relationship between causative conditions and resulting action or inaction.  However, the ability to reason towards survival, such as it might be in a human being, and the ability to reason towards victory, such as it is for Deep Blue, are divisible.  We can divide the application of reason with the intent of victory into two concepts.  The first concept is of invariable and indivisible reason, and the second concept is of the potentially variable intention of the act.  For the anvil, several hundred feet of this air between it and the grown can lead to only one action and only one intention, i.e., compliance with the law of gravity.  Any alteration to the intention of the act would force us to either alter the anvil so utterly that it no longer can be called an anvil, or to change or contradict the law of gravity.  The intention of the act in the context of reason, though, can be varied without altering the property of reason.  For Deep Blue, victory is the standard that the application of reason is meant to accomplish.  It is entirely possible that the intention of Deep Blue’s reason can be altered, say to the intention of loss, while simultaneously conserving its ability to apply reason and play a game of chess, however poorly.
Furthermore, the anvil’s actions determined completely by its unchanging internal characteristics.  However, Deep Blue was capable of learning by analyzing possible circumstances and altering its reactions to certain stimuli.  The programmers gave Deep Blue an intention and the potential to apply reason.  Upon analyzing numerous chess games, Deep Blue altered its strategy in order to achieve success.  With new information, Deep Blue was capable of self-directed changes to how it might react in the future.  No alteration of the properties of an anvil can alter the mechanism or the efficiency with which it succeeds in responding to gravity.  It must succeed, by virtue of its very nature, because success is the only option.  While Deep Blue might be enslaved to the goal of success, it is still realistically possible that it can fail to achieve that goal.  The anvil can’t fail or be made to fail, because gravity and matter are inseparable.
At this point, I still do not think it is reasonable to conclude that deep blue is intelligent.  Our intelligence might be an emergent byproduct of our mind’s processes, conferring no particular advantage, or it might the intended result of specific biological agents.  The latter case seems more likely because our consciousness seems to disregard the majority of our brain activity and seems restricted to certain regions of the brain.  This indicates that because deep blue has not been intentionally programmed with a conscious that it should not have one.  Until we understand the causal mechanism of consciousness, artificial intelligence will likely elude us.
Even if we can replicate all the intelligent processes of the mind, it still difficult to determine if our efforts have succeeded.  The Turing test, for example, identifies intelligence based on the symptoms of intelligence (1).  Multiple relizability, as discussed earlier, tells us that a single symptom could be causes by intelligent and non-intelligent processes.  Unless we understand the specific causal relationship responsible, we have no way of knowing if our machine is artificially intelligent.

– Chalmer

Citations
Lawhead, F. The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach, Third Edition, McGraw Hill: New York, NY, 2006, pp 197-240

September 26, 2008 Posted by | philosophy | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Mind-Body Problem

The mind-body problem deals with questions about the nature of the mind and how it is related to the physical world. Questions as to whether the mind is immaterial and distinct from the physical or an emergent property of a physical reality are of primary interest to the mind-body problem. I am of the opinion that the mind is an emergent property of a physical reality. Physical, in the context of this discussion, would include all forms of matter, energy, and the laws by which they abide.

That a causal relationship exists between the mind and body is obvious. This clearly implies that the mind can not be totally a completely nonphysical. Because the mind can be move into action by physical events, and because the mind can affect the physical body, it must be, at least in part, of a physical nature. If the mind is not subject to the physical world, events, drugs, and injury would have no affect on it. The only other possible alternative is that our immaterial mind wills itself to be subject to the laws of nature, thus creating the illusion that it is subject to them.

The minds inability to defy natural law and subconscious yielding to natural law would produce identical results. However, the latter conclusions makes additional assumption, i.e., that things are not what they appear to be. That things are not always as they seem, while true, does not justify rejecting apparent explanations and substituting them with whatever ones preference might dictate. While appearances can be deceiving, we only have reason to continually investigate the obvious, not to reject it outright and fill in the gap. It gives us a reason to question, not deny.

– Chalmer

September 25, 2008 Posted by | philosophy | , , , | 1 Comment

Critiquing Descartes

When Descartes investigated the implications of skepticism, i.e., that because we can cast doubt on any supposition, we can never be certain that our supposition is correct, he proposed that doubting ones own existence necessarily affirms it and, thus, of at least one thing a person can be certain beyond any doubt; that they exist. In order for an entity doubt anything at all, even that it exist, it must first exist to do so. Descartes proposal is immune to the skeptics doubt because the very practice of doubt confirms it to be true. Although I would not describe myself as a rationalist, as I agree with Kant’s interpretation of a priori knowledge, I do think it solves that problem of skepticism. In considering Descartes’ proposal, I find myself wondering if it is possible to contemplate ones own existence having never experienced the reality that existence must either define or be a constituent of.

I would argue that doubting, or any other form of thinking, is dependent up experience. When I think of what defines an experience, the first things that come to mind are the physical characteristics of the world that inspire my biological senses. Our biological sensations are of real, tangible qualities such as taste and smell. However, to experience such things is dependent on the passage of time. Just as active sensory perception is dependent upon time, so to is thinking. Try to imagine what it would feel like if time stopped completely. I doubt you would even notice because the beginning of a thought is not instantaneous with its end. Denying my claim would require that a thought both exist and does not exist simultaneously, thereby violating the law of non-contradiction. In fact, by that same reasoning, no beginning can occur simultaneously with and end.

The rationalist would assert that the knowledge of ones own existence can be reached by reason alone and is independent of our empirical experience. However, as I have attempted to show, it is required that we experience time if we are to apply reason at all.

So, like the empiricist and unlike the rationalist, I believe that knowledge requires us to experience our reality, even if our existence is the sum of all things logically knowable. Unlike the skeptic, though, I do not believe this dependency on experience casts doubt on certain absolutes. While my perception itself may be flawed, that I perceive at all can not be logically denied.

– Chalmer

September 25, 2008 Posted by | philosophy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment