Saturday, September 17, 2005

the confirmation hearings

I've been watching re-runs of the confirmation hearings today. Senator Lindsey Graham is impressing the heck out of me.

Chuck Schumer tried to get Roberts to condemn conservatives that have said thing like "the out-of-control courts are a danger to Democracy". He worked pretty hard at it, asking the same thing over and over, but Roberts refused to do so.

When they pick on Roberts based on the fear that he will roll back everybody's most basic civil rights (read, the right to abortion), I wish he would just tell them that if this is a basic civil right then they should put it in the Constitution directly and literally so they don't have to rely on abortion-friendly judges to enforce the rights.

When they pick on Roberts for not answering questions about how he would decided, he always demurs based on the argument that he doesn't want people who come before him to think he has already decided. I wish he would instead stress the fact that he doesn't want to be confirmed to the Supreme Court under the impression that he has sworn under oath to decided certain issues in certain ways. It isn't the litigants that he wants to be fair to, but the Senate. He doesn't want to feel beholden to vote in a certain way due to things he said to the Senate.

This goes to the politization of the judiciary. What else could you call it when you require nominees for swear to their political positions under oath during the confirmation hearings?

drive-by snooting

I was pretty pleased with myself for making up a new phrase in the comments of this post:
a drive-by snooting: A brief snooty comment left in the comment section of a blog.
But then I had to Google it and found 16 previous examples.

There is nothing new under the sun.

physicalism and mental events

Some people think that everything can be explained by, or reduced to physics. They are called physicalists or physical reductionists. The Maverick Philosopher has an interesting discussion of a famous physicalist named Daniel Dennett here and here.

Do you realize what a remarkable claim the physicalist makes? He believes that your personal feeling of satisfaction at making ten free throws in a row is nothing but the motions and physical properties of tiny particles. He doesn't just claim that it is caused by the motions and physical properties of tiny particles, he claims that it is nothing but the motions and physical properties of tiny particles in the same way, for example, that burning is nothing but the chemical combination of oxygen with a fuel. Burning isn't caused by this chemical reaction; burning is the chemical reaction.

But how could do you possibly get from particles to feelings? What sort of explanation could possibly reduce a feeling or a thought to a molecule? No physicalist has ever been able to give us a slightest hint in this direction, but they like to give analogies.

A very common analogy is heat. Heat doesn't seem very much like the motion of tiny particles. Is the warmth you feel when you hold your cold hands to a flame similar to tiny particles? Does it share properties with particles? Is there any apparent way to explain it in terms of particles? Of course not. At first it seems completely implausible that this feeling could be nothing but the motions of tiny particles, yet modern science tells us just that: (oversimplifying) heat is the random motion of molecules. The faster the molecules are moving, the more heat you have.

But this example doesn't prove what it is intended to prove because science hasn't actually reduced the feeling of warmth to the motion of molecules. When scientists wanted to study heat, the first thing they did was abstract out the feeling. They described heat in purely physical terms: heat causes solids and liquids to expand. It causes gasses to increase in pressure. It moves from one place to another in order to equalize an abstract property called "temperature" (defined as the property for which the difference is minimized by the transfer of heat). Work produces heat according to a fixed formula. Certain chemical reactions produce or absorb heat, again according to fixed formulas.

These are the phenomena that make up the scientific view of heat. These are the phenomena that are explained by the random motion of molecules. But what is implausible with any of that? If you want to explain why materials expand or why the pressure of a gas increases, it seems quite reasonable to talk about the motions of the tiny particles that make up the material or gas. If you want to explain what happens to the energy when macroscopic motion is dissipated, it seems quite reasonable to look to microscopic motions. And if chemical reactions involve the construction and destruction of molecules, then there is nothing remarkable about the idea that the resulting molecules might be moving faster or slower than the original ones.

So heat has been reduced to something that is not heat. It has been reduced to the motion of small particles, but only because it was first defined so narrowly that the resulting reduction was nearly inevitable. Science did not reduce the feeling of warmth to physics. Science took a purely physical phenomenon that is roughly correlated with feelings of warmth and reduced that physical phenomenon to smaller physics.

How could this analogy apply to consciousness? Well, it may be that scientists will some day find a physical phenomenon that is roughly correlated with feelings, thoughts, and other mental events. The current most likely candidate is some behavior of neurons. If scientists do find such a thing, then they will probably find physical causes for those physical events and thereby "explain" the physical events. But that would not be reducing the feelings and thoughts to physical events, it would be reducing the correlated physical phenomenon to other physical phenomena. Just as the feeling of warmth is not the same as scientifically-defined heat, the thoughts and feelings will not be the same as the scientifically-discovered behavior of neurons.

It is still impossible to imagine any way that feelings and thoughts might even in principle be reduced to physics. Mental and physical just don't have any properties that seem available to hook them together.
The only property they share is time (all events, physical or mental, happen in time), but just because two things happen at the same time, that is not enough to infer causality. You need a theory to tie them together and for that you need some other property that they share. In the case of heat, there were the properties of physical location and energy. What could there possibly be to tie physical and mental events?

Until the physicalists give us at least a potential answer to this question, their belief can be considered no more than a rather extreme leap of faith.

Friday, September 16, 2005

K9 massage

Just saw this on craigslist:
K9 Massage - Relaxation and Therapeutic

Purchase any single or package (set of 5 sessions) of Canine Pet Massage via
I wanted to make a joke about it, but nothing I can think of is as funny as the post itself.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

the scold-America right

La Shawn Barber writes that America is in deep trouble and Dean disagrees. On the factual issues, I tend to agree with Dean, but he goes overboard in suggesting that the religious right is hypocritical and that it hates America. I'll respond to those two points here.

No, it's not a wee bit hypocritical to rail against both single motherhood and against abortion. No more than it's hypocritical to rail against both begging for drug money and stealing it. Yes, begging lets you avoid stealing but that doesn't make begging OK.

The analogy can be taken further. Notice I said "begging for drug money". The problem isn't really the begging, it's drugs. If you beg because you are hungry, that's OK. If a woman is a single mother because she was raped or because she made a mistake that she now regrets (and if marrying the father is genuinely impossible or a bad idea) then these heartless conservatives will be all over each other trying to help the woman out. I'm not speculating; I've seen it.

But that doesn't mean that religious people aren't allowed to warn other women that taking this risk is a mistake. And it doesn't mean that they can't criticize women who have four different children with four different fathers and raise them all in poverty, while expecting others to bear the cost of their own irresponsible behavior. And it doesn't mean that they can't tell the man and woman that they have a responsibility to get married and raise the child that they created. Or is it heartless to expect people to do right by their own children?

People like this don't hate America. Or do you think they hate their own children? Because they say nothing about America as a whole that don't say about their own children. I've seen it: a broken-hearted mother weeping that her daughter was suffering because she had abandoned God. Oh, if only the girl would come back to God.

Whether you agree with it or not, it is simply ridiculous to call it hatred. These religious right-wingers aren't rooting for the other side like the left is. They weren't cheering when they said America deserved 9/11, they were weeping. And they didn't excuse the terrorists, or call them freedom fighters. And they don't cheer every time there is bad news from Iraq.

And they didn't make this stuff up either. If you read the Old Testament, you will see over and over how it says that God punished a nation for becoming sinful. If someone believes the Bible is true, then it doesn't take a great stretch to think that the same rules apply today as they did back then. If someone really believes that God will bless godly nations and punish ungodly, then that person is giving what they believe is good advice when they rail against a nation's ungodliness. They are trying to get the nation to do what will make the nation stronger. That means they hate the nation?

You are working a bit too hard to find symmetry here Dean. They scold America, they don't hate it. In fact, they scold it becaue they love it, just like their own children.

Every American has things about America that he doesn't approve of. Some Americans don't like the nanny state. Some Americans don't like the fact that we don't have universal healthcare. Some Americans don't like the way we are so apologetic about defending ourselves. Some Americans don't like the way America bullies the rest of the world. Some Americans don't like sexual license. Some Americans don't like the religious people that object to sexual license.

And every one of these groups can and has made the case that the thing or group that they oppose has done great harm to America. Yes, the nanny state, the lack of universal medical care, the too-cautious self defense, the over-aggressive self defense, the sexual license, and the objections to sexual license have all done great harm and caused great suffering in this country.

Picking out one of these groups and saying that they hate America is not reasonable. To find out if someone hates America, you need better evidence than just the evidence that they blame America for some of America's problems. You need to show that they blame America for everyone's problems, that they always seem to side with America's enemies, that they like to interfere with projects that will make America stronger and more self-sufficient, that they always seem to want to hinder America's self defense and reduce America's wealth. That description fits the American Left very well. It does not fit America's religious conservatives at all.

UPDATE: Rusty Shackleford at the Jawa Report thinks I was endorsing the argument that God rewards and punishes nations today based on how he treated Israel in the Old Testament. I can understand how he gets that idea, but that is not what I meant. I only wanted to point out that there is an argument behind this position and that it isn't just made up on the spur of the moment to give religious conservatives an excuse to say mean things about America.

By contrast, a lot of the "principles" that the Left appeals to when the criticize America are clearly invented for that very purpose because they only apply the principle when it can be used to browbeat America. When the principle would allow them to browbeat other countries, they aren't interested.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Tom Harrison has coined a new term to go with the Roberts hearings:
Babbleomancy — A kind of divination, performed by talking at length about your own views on Constitutional law and drawing from your own speech indications concerning how Judge Roberts will vote in the future.

Monday, September 12, 2005

the Turing Test

Angry Clam at Patterico makes an allusion to the Turing Test that I think warrants a response.

The Turing Test, proposed by Alan Turing sometime in the first half of the 20th century, is a proposed way to test a machine to see if it is intelligent. The details aren't important and the idea can be reduced to this: if the machine acts like it is intelligent, then we can assume that it is.

The problem with this test should be obvious: mimicry is not a sign of genuiness. Where else in science or in daily life do we assume that just because an X can mimic a Y very well, that therefore the X must be a Y? Just because a mime seems to be in a glass box, that means he is in a glass box? Just because a bug can look just like a leaf, that means it is a leaf? Just because a painting looks just like an original Rembrandt, that means it is an original Rembrandt?

Of course in each of these cases, a closer examination may reveal the mimicry. So let's give the Turing Test the benefit of the doubt and assume that there is no observation of the machine itself that will tell you it is not intelligent. What does this prove?

Let's go back to the analogy of the painting. If someone produced a forgery of a Rembrandt with such care that there was no possible way to tell it was a forgery just by examining the painting, would that make the forgery an original Rembrandt? Of course not. What makes a painting an original Rembrandt is not its physical properties but its history. In order to be an original Rembrandt, it must have been painted by Rembrandt.

Similar considerations apply to intelligence. What makes something truly intelligent is not just that it has effects that are indistinguishable from intelligence, but that it has thoughts and intentions. The mere appearance of thoughts and intentions does not make something intelligent any more than the appearance of being old makes something old.

But what about the benefit of the doubt? If some machine appears to be intelligent, shouldn't we give it the benefit of the doubt on the grounds that we want to err on the side of charity? I don't actually have to address that argument because there is no doubt. I know why the machine behaves the way it does: because it is programmed to behave that way. There is no reason at all to posit intelligence. The situation described by the Turing Test is analogous to a famous art forger who shows you a painting and says that he created it himself only a few days ago. He explains exactly how he did it, how he made the paints and the canvas seem older, how he copied the lines and the paint chemistry and the paint thickness exactly. He proudly tells you exactly how he forged the painting and then argues that you should accept it as an original Rembrandt because by examining the painting itself you could not possibly discern the difference.

Would you find this argument convincing? Would you give him the benefit of the doubt and pay him a million dollars for a forgery just because you agreed that you could not possibly detect it as a forgery? Would you take it home, proud of owning a piece of history, an original Rembrandt?

This argument is preposterous, but it is exactly what advocates of the Turing Test would have us accept. They posit the existence of a machine that is designed to mimic intelligence. By hypothesis, since the machine is a machine, there is a perfectly sound explanation in terms of mechanics and electronics for every action the machine takes, yet they would have us ignore these explanations and pretend instead that the machine acts out of intelligence.

I find it unnerving that so many intelligent people accept such a transparently ridiculous position. It can only be explained by some sort of black-box fallacy. We don't understand what produces intelligence, it is a black box. Some people seem to respond to this mystery by reducing it to something they can understand, behavior, but in the process throwing out whatever is interesting about it in the first place. Others seem to respond by the voodoo principle as though intelligence were a bit of magical lint that settles upon anything at all that behaves in a certain way. But just because you don't understand what makes an original Rembrandt, that doesn't mean you can define it to be a purely physical property or assume that original Rembrandtness somehow magically settles on anything that has certain physical properties.

storyblogging birthday

The Storyblogging Carnival 1st Anniversary Issue is up at Back of the Envelope.

terrorist targets

Something just occurred to me on the drive into work this morning: the terrorists must be watching the New Orleans debacle with some interest. I wonder if they are even now doing research on other damns and levees that could be destroyed to wipe out entire cities. In bang-for-the-buck terrorist dollars, damns and levees have to be pretty attractive. I wonder if anyone in the Federal government is taking counter-measures.

It also occurs to me that an attack on the Netherlands might start to seem attractive at this point. The Dutch have to be extremely vulnerable to this kind of terrorism. The purpose of the terrorists, after all, is not to attack their actual enemies, but to create terror. Killing a few thousand Dutch would do that just fine.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

more philosophy

As my episodic interest in philosophy is waxing, I'm adding Maverick Philosopher to the blogroll. He has some very good analytic philosophy (the best kind (actually, the only worthwhile kind)) over at his blog.

Also, he seems to be a fellow Arizona-ex-pat Bear-flagger. No word on whether he attended Arizona, the home of the Wildcats or Arizona State, the home of the Devil.

Also no word on whether he is related to Bret and Bart Maverick.

the great debate

Donald Crankshaw has an interesting debate on miracles at Back of the Envelope. Blog format isn't very good for sequential posts; you have to scroll down to read an entry and then scroll back up to read the next entry, so you might want to make use of Donald's helpful links at the bottom of each entry.