Friday, September 15, 2017

The Big Questions of Philosophy by David K. Johnson

By Mathew Goldstein

David K. Johnson is a professor of philosophy at Kings College in Pennsylvania who produced a Great Courses series of videos titled The Big Questions of Philosophy that sells for about $70 dollars (less for audio, more for DVD).  Some county government library systems have contracted with a company that sponsors a web site, and also an app, called kanopy.  Kanopy makes many videos available for free to people with library cards.  At least some, if not most, of those videos do not appear to be very good.  But among the many hundreds of free videos on kanopy is the entire set of 36 half hour lectures of the aforementioned course.   

He is probably not as rich, nor as famous, as George Soros whose book features five of his philosophy lectures.  After watching Professor Johnson's first five lectures, and excerpts from a few other lectures, I will take a chance on him and recommend his videos.  This is the philosophy 101 course that should be included with everyone's basic education but not everyone receives.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Soros Lectures at the Central European University, by George Soros



Reviewed by Bill Creasy


With most intellectuals, you can ask: If they are so smart, why aren't they rich? You can't say that about George Soros. He has made a fortune by trading currencies, most famously making $1 billion in a single day. This book begins with his short biography, and Soros is also a frustrated philosopher, having studied under Karl Popper. He went into finance when the philosophy job didn't work out. Recently, he has concentrated on philanthropy and has returned to philosophy.

He claims in this short book, made up of 5 university lectures, that his understanding of philosophy gave him an edge for successful trading. The first lecture discusses the basis of his two important ideas, and the other chapters apply them to current issues. The lectures were given in Oct. 2009, so a major theme is to discuss the problems that caused the 2008 financial crisis. The audio and video of the lectures are available on his website, www.soros.org.

His two ideas are direct challenges to prevailing assumptions of economics and other social sciences. The ideas seem obvious in some ways, but are also important in trying to explain social events.

The first idea is called "fallibility" by Soros. It is based on the fact that human beings have imperfect knowledge and reasoning about reality. Classical economics assumes a state of equilibrium from participants who have enough knowledge about a situation to make rational decisions. Soros says that this assumption is false. Imperfect information affects not only decisions, but also gives rise to simplified and simplistic approximations, rules of thumb, political slogans, generalizations, and moral precepts. Peoples' use of these simple rules cause imperfect responses to uncertain situations. This doesn't justify the postmodern statement that there isn't any real objective information. Soros thinks there is valuable information, but there is usually not enough information to fully characterize economic events.

Soros discusses the idea of a "fertile fallacy." This is an idea that can be wrong or flawed but can still lead to productive actions in the correct direction. He says, “We are capable of acquiring knowledge, but we can never have enough knowledge to allow us to base all of our decisions on knowledge. It follows that if a piece of knowledge has proved useful, we are liable to overexploit it and extend it to areas where it no longer applies, so that it becomes a fallacy.” For example (my example, not his), "liberty and justice for all" is a fertile fallacy. Liberty and justice are always in tension, because one person's liberty can lead to someone else's injustice. But the slogan can still lead people towards an ideal of a freer society with a fairer legal system. He says, “Fertile fallacies are...the equivalent of bubbles in financial markets.”

Soros's other idea is called "reflexivity," and it is more complex. The purpose of social science is to observe patterns or develop hypotheses about social behavior in a passive way. But as soon as a pattern is observed, human beings immediately try to exploit the observation to their own benefit, in an active, manipulating way. The active manipulation can change or even completely destroy the pattern!

This effect can explain the 2008 financial crisis to some degree. (The following is my condensed version of an explanation, which Soros discusses in more abstract terms.) Prior to 2000, mortgage loans were considered to be extremely safe investments. The mortgages were based on real property, and people were generally conscientious about paying for their houses. However, large financial institutions saw this simple rule and exploited it. They tried to sell as many mortgages as they could and combine them into "risk-free" securities. Many new houses were built and sold to generate more mortgages. The result was that mortgages were given to people who couldn't afford to pay for them. The surplus of houses and foreclosures caused a glut of housing, making prices fall so the amounts of existing mortgages were larger than the value of the property. The actions by the financial institutions changed mortgages from a safe investment to a risky one that has cost them a lot of money.

It would be nice if the crisis was over. But the current European financial problem is from other "safe" loans: sovereign debt, or loans to governments to finance deficits. Again, this is a safe investment until it is taken to excess. Soros said in a Newsweek interview, "The situation is about as serious and difficult as I've experienced in my career." (Jan. 30, 2012, p. 53). The U.S. is also borrowing money to make an unprecedented national debt.

This effect shows the difference between social science and physical science. In physical science, discovery of a pattern or a natural law can be exploited and the law doesn't change. With social science, discovery of a pattern causes people to change the pattern. As a result, the pattern can cease to be true, except historically.

Soros pointed out this problem, but there is a certain irony in Soros's description of his ideas. He puts them in terms of physical science, using terms such as "equilibrium" and "feedback," and he even develops a "human uncertainty principle," in analogy to the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle. This doesn't seem to be unusual in the social sciences. Soros writes, “Economists in particular suffer from what Sigmund Freud might call 'physics envy.'” But the human uncertainty principle, as he describes it, is quite different from the physical one, because humans intentionally act to completely change the observations. Putting this effect in terms used by physics is simply misleading, because physics doesn't have such a problem. Soros comments, “The alchemists made a mistake in trying to change the nature of base metals by incantation. Instead, they should have focused their attention on the financial markets, where they could have succeeded.”

Regardless, the ideas that Soros discusses are interesting and relevant to current problems. In the second chapter, he discusses financial bubbles and the reason that government regulation is necessary to establish rules in financial markets. In the other chapters, he discusses the difference between markets and politics and why they should have different systems of operation. If you are wondering why financial deregulation doesn't work and why free market rules don't apply to politics, this small book is worth reading.


This article was previously published in WASHline, the newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Unsafe Spaces Tour panel at American University this month

By Mathew Goldstein

Spiked magazine is sponsoring a series of Unsafe Spaces Tour panels at different universities, including Rutgers and Harvard.  They claim they are trying to promote "the humanist case for free speech". Tickets are free.  On September 28, there’s a panel at American University (Washington, D.C.) on “Feminism, sex, and censorship on campus” featuring Nadine Strossen, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Ella Whelan, and Robert Shibley.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Darwin substitute for Lamarck?

By Mathew Goldstein

Why do animals and plants appear to be well adapted to their environments?  Lamarck had an answer that appears to make sense.  Environmental changes promote behavioral changes which promote corresponding structural adaptations in animals and plants that are transmitted to offspring.  However, Lamarck's hypothesis contradicts the prevailing theory that natural selection acts on random genetic mutations. The post Darwin discovery of genes defeated Lamarck's theory while simultaneously demonstrating the validity of much of Darwin's theory.  Yet there is still some wiggle room here for a superficially Lamarckian, non-random component within the prevailing, random mutation, framework.

Maybe natural selection acts on random mutations to produce outcomes that appear Lamarckian because environmental changes impact particular genes differently.  Particular genes can be stimulated by an environmental change.  Maybe the rate of mutation on stimulated genes increases relative to the rate in genes unaffected by the environmental change.   Because random mutations in that gene are more likely to occur more quickly than would otherwise be the case, the likelihood of a rare beneficial mutation also increases.  Natural selection then favors the rare beneficial mutation in the overall population.

When cells replicate their DNA, the replication by transcription mechanism sometimes stalls. Sometimes, when a stalled replication resumes, a gene sequence is deleted or extra copies of it are made.  A combination of factors could make these copying errors more likely to occur for those particular genes that are actively responding to environmental stresses, so that those particular genes are more likely to show copy number variation.

I read that there is some evidence that "adaptive mutation" of this sort could be occurring in microorganisms.  For example, there is more copy number variation of the copper-resistance gene CUP1 when it is stimulated by environmental copper.  When CUP1 was modified by a team of researchers led by Jonathan Houseley, a specialist in molecular biology and genetics at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, to react to a non-toxic sugar instead of to copper, an increase in copy number variation result was again seen after the modified CUP1 gene was stimulated by that environmental sugar.  

There is substantial skepticism that adaptive mutation plays a significant role in evolution among biologists.  More and better evidence for stimulated gene localized copy number variation, and a mechanism that translates stimulation of a gene into a higher mutation rate, will be required for this speculative hypothesis to be accepted.  Efforts to prove or disprove adaptive mutation in microorganisms may accelerate as a result of the recent positive CUP1 gene results.  If biologists one day determine that adaptive mutation is true, and probably had some role in humans being one branch on the primate tree, then will more people put aside their religious beliefs and accept that humans are ancestors of microorganisms?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Over there and over here, one difference

By Mathew Goldstein

We collectively make our history.  Human history has its ups and downs.  Our legacy is not particularly good overall, there are many ugly events to relate.  We should not be proud of our history, it is too often shameful.  We need our history, for its pains and glories, and it's ambiguities too, as lessons.  From history we can learn about what not to do, sometimes about what to do, to locate a better future.  From the past we select what history we value when we name our airports, towns, and highways, and who we honor with memorial statues in our public places.  

Having lived my youth in the northeast, I found little difference overall following my move south to the mid-Atlantic past the Mason-Dixon Line.  The Swatztikas on the local train tressle and etched into the public school desks and library cubicles, the German language "Juden" graffiti in black paint on my high school, my immediate neighbor with a pick-up truck whose rear window was covered by a Confederate battle flag, over there.  New co-workers who made a point of telling me that they supported David Duke, the Swatzikas drawn inside a cave, on a motorcyclist's helmet, drawn on the downtown street signs, and building walls, over here.  

However, there is a difference. Here, but not there, the names of Confederate generals were part of the public infrastructure.  Those Confederate generals endorsed, and fought to preserve, commercial kidnapping and enslaving of Africans, many of whom were killed as a result, and whose ancestors live among us today.  The Civil War history was not a part of my life.  My European Jewish ancestors came here during and after WW I, fleeing the anti-semitism that later morphed into the mass murder of Jews who remained in Europe.  Yet this history, both on the Nazi and Confederate sides, kept announcing itself uninvited in odd places and contexts where it did not belong, strangely introduced and repeated by people with crayons, ink, knives, paint, flags, and words.  But with the highway and place names for Confederate war heroes here only.

The people of Charlottesville, like all towns, decide for themselves what history they want to associate themselves with.  They acted reasonably and responsibly when they decided to remove a statue of a Confederate general from their town park.  Among the decisions our local governments face, whether or not that statue resides in a park is not a particularly pressing national concern.  This is primarily a concern for the people living in those towns.

The people with torches and battle flags who thought the public display of this particular statue was so important that they traveled from all over the country to demonstrate for keeping the statue in that park have misdirected priorities.  Adding or removing a statue does not establish, change, or erase the history.   The overreaction against the removal of the statue is evidence that such statues and place names are not innocent and academic placeholders for history.  They are deemed by caucasian, and some Christian, supremacists, such as David Duke and his followers, as representing a positive history that we should emulate, as endorsing traditional attitudes and policies that we should identify ourselves with today.  Instead, more towns and states should follow the positive trend of removing the Confederate war hero statues and place names.  Their essential place is in our history books.  They need not be, and should not be, the statues in our parks or our place names.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A Word for the Lower Middle Class

By Bill Creasy

The 2016 election of Pres. Trump seems to have happened because of support from lower and middle-class voters, predominantly white and religious ones. Democrats have been advised that they should try to talk to these groups, or they won't win future elections.

This kind of "conventional wisdom" changes every four years. For example, it changed dramatically since 2012 when Obama was reelected, when it looked like Democrats had a majority for the foreseeable future based on the minority voters.

But lower and middle class voters have valid reasons to worry about the current economy (and, increasingly, all classes and races should worry). But some are looking at their problems in terms of ideas that are contradictory and inconsistent. If they want to solve the problems, they need to work out these contradictions. They need to have a realistic perspective on their place in the world and who they are competing against. They need to understand what the government can and can't do for them.

People with less education than a college degree are worried that well-paying jobs are becoming less common. Some of these jobs are manufacturing jobs, and factories are moving to other countries that pay lower wages. In that way, they are competing against low-wage people in developing countries who may have less education but who are just as good at doing routine, repetitious procedures.

Many jobs are also disappearing because of automation, as specialized machines are built that can perform repetitive tasks even more cheaply and reliably than any human can. The factory owner makes a capital improvement to the factory and improves its efficiency so that fewer human workers are needed. The owner gets richer by spending less on labor and makes more products with fewer employees.

No one should be nostalgic about how great these jobs are. Many were boring, stressful, and required no creativity. Coal mining and assembly line work, for example, aren't fun. Given a choice, no one would probably choose to do them. Some of the jobs were well-paid, but only because generations of union members protested and participated in strikes against large companies in order to get better wages and benefits, like paid health insurance or paid vacation. 

Manufacturing jobs are being replaced by service jobs. Union membership is declining. It is more difficult to strike against service employers for higher wages, especially when they are small companies that are competing against other small companies down the street. Striking against one simply drives customers from one business to another. The advantage is that most of these jobs can't go to another country, because they have to be done face to face.  But they are slowly being automated by replacing people with computers or self-service terminals. So wages have stagnated and many employers don't offer benefits. 

This, in a nutshell, is the current situation, and it isn't likely to change for the better by itself. There are many exceptions, since there are specialized jobs people can learn, and there are still small businesses that are being started.  But overall, good jobs are harder to find.

Often it is necessary for a family to be supported by two wage earners, or else children are raised in poverty. If they are raised in poverty and without resources to get an education, they are likely to remain as low income and become increasingly worse off. These effects seem to be reinforcing the class and income levels in the U.S. In spite of the American Dream, rich people get richer, and poor people stay poor. Economic trends support these effects. 

Low income people are right to be concerned about these trends from recent years.  Trump made an effort during his campaign to talk to angry, low-income people. He attracted rallies full of angry people by pointing out the trends that have been developing for decades.   They responded by assuming he was sympathetic to them and would do something to address their concerns.

What can be done? Low-wage employees need enough perspective to understand what competition they are up against, or they will never make informed choices.  Some people are reacting in ways that are doomed to fail. The most obvious recent mistake was voting for Trump. It was clear from Trump's speeches that he didn't have a good understanding of the problem or any concrete plans that would work. His solutions to the problem are useless.  He suggested slogans as solutions that have been tried during the past decades and rejected as simplistic. Building a "big wall" on the Mexico border won't keep jobs in the country. There is little evidence that international trade treaties decreases the number of jobs, and they may actually create jobs. (These things can be hard to measure. There are winners and losers.) 

Ever since the Reagan Administration, low income people and people from southern states have allied with the Republican Party. There are indications that this alliance had to do with reaction against the Civil Rights Act, from which the Democratic Party became associated with politically liberal and minority groups. Perhaps the low income whites simply wanted to associate with wealthy people, hoping that the wealth and good fortune would rub off on them. But the evidence that tax benefits to help wealthy people ever "trickled down" are weak. Wealthy people behave in ways that are generally for their own benefit, as would be expected.

If low income people want assistance with their problems, government is the only entity that can reliably help. The government can set up laws and regulations that blunt the impact of pure capitalism, which is almost guaranteed to favor people who are already wealthy.  But the right kinds of well-thought-out regulations are needed, not just slogans.  Regulations are imperfect, and they will make some winners and some losers.  Low income people will need to demand the particular help that they need.

The Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") is a good example.  As fewer people receive health insurance from employers, they will need to get insurance for themselves and their families.  Otherwise, they will not receive adequate health care, and the U.S. should be able to provide health care to its citizens.  But the system to provide this insurance to low income people will require government subsidies and taxes on the wealthy.  The system won't be simple or easy to implement.  It has been encouraging to see that citizens have been willing to protest to protect this program.  Hopefully, it will be gradually improved to make it fairer and work better without being repealed. 

Experience from the past century shows that the government can create programs that are good for some things, but may not be good for others.  The government isn't particularly good at creating excess jobs to achieve full employment.  Expecting the government, or the president, to create jobs for "everyone" is probably not going to work well.

The government can create jobs for specific projects that have defined goals, like national defense or infrastructure projects.  It can implement social programs like Social Security and Medicare that private companies have trouble doing.  It can fund basic scientific research that leads to long-term benefits.  Finding the right kind of program to address job losses will be a challenge, but it can be done, as long as affected citizens ask for it in a realistic way.

For better or worse, government works by taxing to take money by force and redistribute it to try to solve social problems. It doesn't have a magical ability to generate business or make productive, meaningful employment.  But that doesn't mean that it should be rejected or dismissed by those wealthy people, like Trump, who can't understand why social problems exist, because they haven't personally experienced them.  There are times when capitalism simply doesn't provide the best mechanism for keeping society healthy and functional.  If it doesn't, then we must think and act to fix it.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

CFI opposes efforts to penalize critics of Islam

Kudos to the Center for Inquiry, and their board chair Eddie Tabash, for calling out the radio station that invited Richard Dawkins for an interview about his new book (Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist) and then obnoxiously cancelled their interview without notifying their invitee (it appears that they never even attempted to notify Dawkins that they had cancelled the interview with him).  The CFI characterizes the radio station's unbalanced accusation against Mr. Dawkins as "unfounded allegations", which comports with my understanding that the radio station did not provide support for their accusation, and notes that the radio station's "stance is like the justification nations use to defend their blasphemy laws".  The radio interviewer could have confronted Mr. Dawkins with the allegations against him during their interview, which appear to be unrelated to his book that they had agreed to discuss, to give him an opportunity to respond.

Subsequently the radio station cited this "most evil religion" quote about Islam as an example of his abusive commentary that justified their canceling the interview:

“It’s tempting to say all religions are bad, and I do say all religions are bad, but it’s a worse temptation to say all religions are equally bad because they’re not,” he added.

“If you look at the actual impact that different religions have on the world it’s quite apparent that at present the most evil religion in the world has to be Islam.

“It’s terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn’t mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it. Individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else.

“They suffer from the homophobia, the misogyny, the joylessness which is preached by extreme Islam, Isis and the Iranian regime.

“So it is a major evil in the world, we do have to combat it, but we don’t do what Trump did and say all Muslims should be shut out of the country. That’s draconian, that’s illiberal, inhumane and wicked. I am against Islam not least because of the unpleasant effects it has on the lives of Muslims.”


At the Secular Conference in London, all guests and speakers, some of whom are likely to be called "apostates" because they are secular Muslims or former Muslims, were instructed not to share the location of the event to non attendees due to security concerns.  Indiscriminate endorsement of "Islamophobia", and "abusive speech" against Islam complaints, directed against people who are interdenominational with their dislike of counter-evidenced beliefs, like Richard Dawkins, in today's world were we face these related, ongoing, threats by people who fancy themselves to be defenders of Islam, is not going to take us anyplace we want to go.  The people making these threats recognize when their threats are affective in intimidating people which is a positive outcome from their perspective.  There is no destination in the direction of endorsing such unbalanced accusations that will ultimately satisfy the people behind such accusations short of jail or violence targeting almost anyone who is judged by a theocratic standard to have insulted the "true" religious beliefs, because that is where the profoundly illiberal logic of such automatic rejection of almost any public expression of criticism of Islam takes us.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Evidence for string theory and atheism

By Mathew Goldstein

String theory posits that the particles and forces that physicists detect using machines are vibrating, string shaped units of energy embedded in a universe that is multi-dimensional.  Like most of science, this theory is non-intuitive and counter-intuitive to us.  Not in a million years would any philosopher, or theologian, or science fiction author, have invented string theory by reasoning primarily from their intuition, instead of from following the empirical evidence. It can be difficult, even for the scientists themselves, but especially for non-scientists like me, to grasp the concept.  The pervasively non-intuitive and counter-intuitive quality of modern theories regarding how our universe functions is important.  This tells us that we must rely on empirical evidence, and the consensus of experts when possible, not on our intuition, because our ignorant intuition is incompetent and more likely to be a counter-productive obstacle than a productive tool for understanding.

Electrons have a property called spin that either has the same, or opposite, direction as the direction that the electron travels.  According to string theory, the electron spin can flip directions in the presence of a strong gravitational field and magnetic field, such as near the event horizon of a black hole.  Theorists have concluded that in some contexts a temperature gradient can substitute for the gravitational field.

Recently, several IBM scientists, interested in exploring the possibility of deploying new types of materials for building future electronic devices for their employer, decided to test if they could observe a change in behavior of electrons in a semimetal that they were studying.  Semimetals are intermediate between conductive metals and semiconductors.  If string theory is true then a temperature gradient and strong magnetic field applied to the semimetal will break the spin symmetry conservation property of the electrons residing in the semimetal and produce a measureable current.  The IBM scientists succeeded in verifying this prediction, see http://m.ibm.com/https/www.ibm.com/blogs/research/2017/07/scientists-observe-gravitational-anomaly-on-earth Scientists Observe Gravitational Anomaly on Earth.

So what is the point of this post?  String theory, like most of modern knowledge about how the universe functions, is relevant to the theism versus atheism disagreement.  String theory, like all physics, chemistry, biology, etc., is thoroughly naturalistic.  String theory translates into mathematical equations that express the logic of physical, material, mechanical processes.  All of modern knowledge regarding how our universe functions is derived from naturalistic methods and reaches conclusions that are naturalistic.

Humanity did not begin the pursuit for knowledge preferring naturalistic methods and explanations.  We got pulled towards naturalism despite a long standing preference for supernaturalism.  This distinction is not binary, it is a continuum, and there is no measuring device.  Naturalism imposes constraints that reduces the options available to explain and people, wanting explanation, tend to consider the naturalism constraint to be too restrictive.  Yet the naturalism versus supernaturalism contest outcome lopsidedly favors naturalism, it is not a close call.  Time and time again, at all levels of focus from the smallest detail to the largest generality, there is opportunity for either more naturalistic oriented or more supernaturalistic oriented methods to be productive, and for either naturalistic favoring or supernaturalistic favoring conclusions to be successful.  Unrelentingly, over and over again, only the more naturalistic oriented methods are productive and only the naturalistic favoring conclusions are successful.

Several hundred years ago it was reasonable for well educated adults to endorse supernaturalism.  Science eventually abandoned supernaturalism because of its track record of total failure.  Today, theists, and non-atheist agnostics also, are downplaying, ignoring, and disregarding the pervasiveness, consistency, and diversity of the evidence for naturalism.  Many agnostics and theists who can be very good at respecting and following the empirical evidence in their professional and non-professional lives, nevertheless fail, apparently unwittingly, to apply that same rational standard to this question.  If they did apply the same rational standard of attending to the overall available evidence, as they otherwise routinely do every day, instead of myopically focusing narrowly on lack of knowledge trivialities and mysteries, and carefully avoided the mistake of placing personal preference or intuition over evidence, then they would be atheists.