Up Front by Emma Hart

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Up Front: The Up-Front Guides: The Weasel Translator

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  • Kracklite, in reply to BenWilson,

    Well, eclectic anyway.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Parks, in reply to Kracklite,

    I guess I’m strange, because I have no idea what that is, so I won’t choose whether I think it exists.

    Ben, now that would be a use of ‘agnostic’ that I get. Anyway, if you haven’t looked him up yet… Mister Myxzptlk. He's much like Q from Star Trek The Next Generation.

    Same thing, I suppose – there’s no positive evidence for either fairies in my garden or Mr Mxyzptlk nor is there an experiment that could prove their existence or nonexistent, so the hypothesis that they might exist is unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific. Therefore I don’t keep myself awake at night worrying about them.

    Kracklite,
    Sure, but in your previous answer you seemed to be shying away from calling yourself “agnostic” on all such notions – be it garden fairies or magical Imps from the 5th dimension. But as someone who therefore does not believe in such things, how are you any different from the atheist who does not believe in God?

    I guess I agree with what Ben calls ‘weak atheism’, except that I don’t consider that the same as ‘agnosticism’, and also, as Amy suggested, I’d say that would apply to just about all atheists. Atheists, for the most part, aren’t fussed about proving that God doesn’t exist.

    Here’s Bertrand Russell on this question:

    …if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.
    None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.
    Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

    Wellington • Since May 2007 • 1164 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh,

    Interesting piece by Tapu Misa, although the comments live down to their usual standard.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite, in reply to Steve Parks,

    Hi Steve,

    sorry for a late and extremely schematic reply. In fact, it’s a placeholder – I have some major workload issues at the moment.

    Um, in no particular order…

    Possibly Huxley is my touchstone.

    I want to put as much space as possible between myself and self-declared atheists such as Richard Dawkins because (A) he’s acting like a dick and I don’t want to be compared with him and (B) it’s unscientific to make definitive assertions based on information under Empirical strictures, can’t positively prove a negative and blah blah Popper blah blah.

    I’m a bit disturbed by the “we believe in what is rationally proven.” “Rational” is a subset of “true”, not its entirety. Coriolanus is “true” as a description and explication of a certain kind of personality but “rational” analysis tells us nothing worthwhile about the play or the person or dramatic character of Caius Martius. Still, I will watch the drama and say to myself, “this is true”. Now only a naive person would not say so, but say “but that’s not what I meant…” We can all agree – I hope – that Coriolanus is true in one way and not other ways, but that is itself significant. “Rational” assessment of facts, data and their significance or utility is not a useful tool for understanding the truth of that drama.

    Science, you must remember, is essentially utilitarian, hence its reticence in dealing with imps from the fifth dimension or fairies at the bottom of my garden (or damp, grassy cliff in reality). Rationality, as represented by science has nothing to say about Coriolanus , but to suggest that it should, could or would is absurd… and yet that is surely no indication of the inadequacy of science, instead it’s an assertion of its discipline. It’s truthfulness in the sense that it has discipline.

    Oddly, I’m driven very much too by hyper-rationalist writers and philosophers who argue that the brain of a creature well-adapted to the African veldt is not inherently equipped to comprehend the universe as it really is, so that even the most rigorous system of observation and interpretation must be assumed to be merely contingent. That’s not “wrong”, but “best available”.

    That’s one angle of it. The other is this. In conversation with my Christian and Muslim acquaintances, I have the impression that their experience of faith is not dependent on being able to see a distinct entity at work in cause and effect (“God exists and he made the world this way”), but as seen by a largely faithless (which is an literal translation of the word “agnostic”) person such as myself as less an expression of empirical belief so much as a way of articulating their understanding of how they sit in the world.

    One interpretation of the meaning of “Islam” for example is “submission”, while another is “safety” or “assurance”, which is not assertion, but acceptance. French revolutionaries, while denying the institution of religion (specifically the Catholic religion), used the euphemism “providence” for something that was in effect structurally everything that “God” was, but without the assumption that it was a distinct entity. A Christian friend tells me that God decides what shoes she wears – she doesn’t get emails or texts, but finds that her choices can be found to be open to interpretation not in the immediate utility of her “choice” but in what she was able to derive from it. She might not have been “told” to wear a particular pair of shoes, but she became aware that wearing certain shoes made definite sense one day.

    I can’t say that I would agree in any literal way, but I am intrigued by how she is able to function by seeing her choices and consequences of her choices in this way. This is a person who is, in psychoanalytic terms, “high functioning” i.e.., there is no obvious disability. With a record of over a dozen years as a successful aid worker in impoverished parts of the world, I have good reason to take her justifications as at least positive adaptations to her environment. Her epistemology works.

    I know that she, as a Christian, believes that there is an distinct God, and I cannot find it in myself to say the same at all, but I would go beyond simply saying that this monkey seems to have adapted well to its environment.

    Faith in this context becomes not the belief or assumption that there is a distinct entity but rather an articulation of one’s relationship with a Cosmos (Cosmos in the classical sense meaning a lawful universe). This is something between an existential and an aesthetic stance, not an empirical one.

    In practical day-to-day terms, I am always an atheist, but deeply respectful of people who are not atheists. My position could be described as a form of scrupulous reticence, combined with a kind of aestheticism.

    I’m sorry if that seems vague and rambling (it’s certainly overlong for a blog), but I insist on ambiguity as a virtue. To quote Yogi Berra, when I see a fork in the road, I take it.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Kracklite,

    I want to put as much space as possible between myself and self-declared atheists such as Richard Dawkins because (A) he’s acting like a dick and I don’t want to be compared with him and (B) it’s unscientific to make definitive assertions based on information under Empirical strictures, can’t positively prove a negative and blah blah Popper blah blah.

    I really wish people who disagree with Dawkins didn't feel the need to call him names. You disagree with him, fine, leave the personal abuse out.
    As for (b), I really don't think he is doing that. And evolutionary biology is falsifiable.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3891 posts Report Reply

  • DexterX, in reply to Kracklite,

    Well fork me, that all makes sense even down to the sensible shoes analogy.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 1224 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite, in reply to Lilith __,

    leave the personal abuse out

    I wish he would too. Unfortunately he doesn’t, and I’m human enough to think that that matters. His attacks on Edward Wilson are seriously unprofessional.

    And evolutionary biology is falsifiable.

    I’d like it to be true because it seems logical, but there’s been plenty of criticism of it as being determinist based in very scanty evidence of there being agreement on on how much biology affects human behaviour or the predominance of social organisation – er, “culture” – versus biology.

    Anyway, dropping the snark, I agree that – as I said – we’re well-adapted to comprehending the world in a certain way, as evo psych says. Too well, when we start looking beyond the veldt.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Kracklite,

    leave the personal abuse out

    I wish he would too. Unfortunately he doesn’t, and I’m human enough to think that that matters.

    You got quotes to back that up? I’ve never heard him be anything except well-mannered and a helluva lot more patient than I would be in his position.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3891 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Kracklite,

    And evolutionary biology is falsifiable

    I’d like it to be true because it seems logical, but there’s been plenty of criticism of it as being determinist based in very scanty evidence of there being agreement on on how much biology affects human behaviour or the predominance of social organisation – er, “culture” – versus biology

    What does evolutionary biology have to do with human behaviour? Except, aha, that it makes a lot of people very angry. :-)

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3891 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite, in reply to Lilith __,

    You got quotes to back that up?

    I’ll point to this. Pay attention to the comments. Several expert commentators point out that Dawkins is not only being excessively emotional, but being a bad scientist in doing so.

    There’s also this as an indication of the nature of the fervour.

    While not authored by Dawkins, this also in informative as an illustration of certain attitudes.

    Now one can say that that is how science works (it’s a myth that it’s a gentleman’s game… except that there is a hell of a lot of ingrained sexism, so yes, it is a "gentleman’s" game)

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite,

    Except, aha, that it makes a lot of people very angry. :-)

    Lilith, I think that ’d really enjoy getting drunk with you. I hope that that doesn’t seem sleazy.

    And, FYI, this blogger may interest you. Athena Andreadis is a blogger, feminist and biologist, and as such, sceptic of evo psych.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia, in reply to Lilith __,

    I really wish people who disagree with Dawkins didn’t feel the need to call him names. You disagree with him, fine, leave the personal abuse out.

    Personally, I'd like folks like Professor Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens to stop characterizing religious faith as a mental illness -- which is great for your media profile and book sales, I'm sure, but rather unedifying.

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12370 posts Report Reply

  • Stewart, in reply to Craig Ranapia,

    To some of the uber-rationalists, there is a level at which religious belief appears pathological. I haven't read/remembered enough of their (Dawkins & Hitchen's) combined output to know if they categorically state that religious faith equates to mental illness, but I can well believe that they may have implied some pathology when referencing extreme religious faith.

    Te Ika A Maui - Whakatane… • Since Oct 2008 • 577 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite, in reply to Stewart,

    extreme religious faith.

    Just a note on that - not a criticism, kinda an adjustment or footnote. "Extreme" could be applied to one of the people I mention above who see the hand of God in literally everything, practise their faith arduously, but don't run aloud loudly condemning Godless Darwinism and always seek dialogue. This description fits several of my Christian and Muslim acquaintances and friends. They're people who are quite distinct in attitude and action from a fundamentalist authoritarian like the unlamented Jerry Falwell. The former has a strong belief that could be called "extreme" because it influences every aspect of their lives but it is qualitatively different at a fundamental level from other kinds that get called "extreme" as well. "Pathology" is perhaps useful in discussing dangerous or crooked people (as Falwell was the first and possibly the second and certainly was a hypocrite), but not useful or fair with people who are devout but not compulsively antisocial.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Craig Ranapia,

    I’d like folks like Professor Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens to stop characterizing religious faith as a mental illness – which is great for your media profile and book sales, I’m sure, but rather unedifying.

    As far as Dawkins goes, we've had this conversation before, Craig. To me, he's attacking the belief not the believer, but I know you see it differently. And Why People Who Believe in a God are, In My Opinion, Mistaken was never going to be a book title, but I think that's a fair summary of his position.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3891 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Kracklite,

    Ok Kracklite, I begin to see what you're on about. Dawkins is passionate about his work, and some of the detail is hotly contested; I don't think that's a bad thing: hopefully out of the research and disputation will come new certainty.

    But evolution itself is not what's in dispute here, only some of the finer points of its mechanics.

    As a layperson I wouldn't dare take sides between Dawkins and Wilson. And obviously social conditions must intersect with biology, at some point. My problem with sociobiology is that it's almost always used in a facile way: so much supposed research takes some social norm and works backwards to try and justify it in evolutionary terms.

    Opponents of gay marriage often do this: argue that monogamous heterosexual pair bonding is somehow essential to our survival. This sort of self-serving nonsense gives social science a bad name.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3891 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Kracklite,

    in faith, Strong cf Extremist, perhaps?

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19706 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Stewart,

    Extremism is something I've been of two minds about for quite a long time. Whilst holding an unproven belief is not entirely logical, it may be the way to get to true belief - extensive forays into the irrational may be the path to the truth.

    Another analogy from computer science (well OK, technically from Ops Research), is that in solving a linear program, a good approach is to first find a feasible solution, and to then work towards the optimal solution step by step from there. But it is entirely possible to work from a totally different direction, to move through the infeasible space towards the optimal solution, breaking back into feasibility only near the end. For some kinds of spaces (the space defined by an LP is not a good example, being convex), this could be a shortcut. This is analogous to a research program that has actually got some part of it's core that is strongly disputed. But so long as its still making discoveries, homing in on interesting truth, such contradiction is tolerated. The lengthy dispute over whether light is a particle or a wave is a good example of this - in the end it really doesn't matter too much, it gets treated in the way that is most useful for the problem at hand. The idea that it can't be both shouldn't really be stopping science making progress.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10650 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to BenWilson,

    The lengthy dispute over whether light is a particle or a wave is a good example of this – in the end it really doesn’t matter too much, it gets treated in the way that is most useful for the problem at hand. The idea that it can’t be both shouldn’t really be stopping science making progress.

    I thought this issue was resolved a century ago? Light is neither a particle nor a wave, but has wave-like and particle-like properties and can be treated as one or the other depending on context, as you say.

    I think it's pretty hard to argue from "best-fit" pragmatic solutions to irrationality or extremism.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3891 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Lilith __,

    I think it's pretty hard to argue from "best-fit" pragmatic solutions to irrationality or extremism.

    Yes, that was a very incomplete post I cranked out, there, having to rush to pick up kids, and not caring to lose the thought. Which is, ironically, analogous to what I'm talking about. The thought was there, cranked out, incomplete, and needs fleshing, for sure. To get there, it needs not to be subjected to too much scrutiny at this point, argued at like it's a case put forward by a doctor of science, who has staked their entire reputation on it.

    I wasn't arguing from best fit to extremism, quite the opposite. The two are diametrically opposed approaches at the level of the individual. To go with average informed belief is very much the best fit, and what anyone who is terrified of looking like a fool will always do. But if you see the search for truth as a group activity, then it actually makes a lot of sense for the group to spread out. Not always, but sometimes. Then one can say the search has an epicenter, which is the state of the group, what the group has found. But actually nearly all of the actual discovery will be being done by people at the edges of the pack. Also, all of the time wasting blind alleys will be searched by them too, and the dangerous pitfalls.

    That's the sense of extremism I was referring to, and the choice of which direction to strike out for the individual (considering that they could spend their entire lives on it), could be a matter of "faith" in a sense. It certainly takes courage, because it is dangerous.

    Hence my point about being in two minds about extremism. One a personal level, centrism is a safe choice, rather like sticking to the middle of the herd is when there are predators around. You won't get any particularly good food to eat, but you probably won't get eaten. From an individual point of view, it's a good choice, and also the most popular choice for that reason. But from a pack point of view, there absolutely has to be a perimeter, and that is where nearly all the work of keeping the pack going comes from. The "extremists" are vital. They have to be brave because they could come a-cropper suddenly, but they also discover the new food sources.

    Essentially, I'm talking about diversity. It's a powerful response to an uncertain search. Too much, and probably you don't even have a pack. Too little, and you could have an overspecialized pack, which misses out on obvious opportunities just because it doesn't even look. I don't think there's an a priori best mix, it totally depends on the environment. I'm just noting that the average, best fit position is the least contributor to the search, on the whole.

    Also, my LP point was very hurried. Long time since I actually used one - from memory the search through infeasible space was actually built in to the most popular methods, because they have to be able to find an initial feasible solution in the first place. Infeasible means "a solution which won't do, because it violates the constraints". That's really what I meant in the analogy by "irrational". And there isn't any inviolable reason why the search can't spend a substantial time in infeasible space (although the most popular algorithms do go straight to the feasible space as the number one priority, and then proceed strictly inside that).

    On extreme points, it's worth noting that the optimal solution is always at an extreme point in an LP. Non-linear search is similar - if you can even define the optimality, then the optimal is by definition an extreme, every other solution is equal to or worse than it.

    I'm talking about search because it's deeply analogous to the search for truth, with the constraints being the impossible, the disproven (either logically or experimentally). Within those constraints, the searchable space is very large. There are an infinite number of possible ways of searching, and for any interesting problem, there is no general consensus on the best way (by definition of "interesting" :-)). There are, however, a lot of very good ways, although they almost all fall down on a pathological problem, where others will succeed.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10650 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __,

    Interesting, Ben, thanks.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3891 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Lilith __,

    My pleasure. It's one way of looking at it, anyway, and I can't claim much originality. I do founder at attempting to even outline what the model would look like mathematically. It's hard enough to model one set of theories. To then show how we move to another set which has different predictions is a little beyond me - I think in the end a model never really makes sense in absence of people interpreting it. The basic inputs are human interpretations, and when science comes up with new theories, it very often involves changing the interpretations. To automate this might be impossible without fully automating human interpretation. Even then, the automated interpretation might simply be limited so that the new interpretation doesn't fit with it. Or the computer interpretation becomes incomprehensible to humans. I think this was what Feyerabend and Kuhn were getting at with the idea of incommensurability..

    So the analogy is loose. I don't feel qualified to make any statements about what kind of pack the current sciences are, and whether that is a good thing. Presumably, as a pack nears an optimal point, the width of the hunt will drop and they'll be circling around that point looking for the next improvement that can be found. But unfortunately, this search is conducted in a dense fog, so there's no way to know that the point they're circling really is the optimal. I'd like to say that the best thing to do is to always spread out, but that presumes unlimited resources, and it's simply not as efficient if they are near the actual optimum (they might as well be all going straight at it together), so it's impossible to generalize. Unfortunately, there are also usually diminishing returns when converging on a final solution - a heuristic optimization algorithm is simply terminated at some point that is "good enough", even though further improvement can usually be squeezed out, it's not worth the time spent. But is this another failing of the analogy - is there really an end to the search for truth? Is there an upper bound at all, or could knowledge just keep growing forever? Is the "speed" of knowledge growth meaningful? I don't know.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10650 posts Report Reply

  • tussock,

    There's an atheism thread here? Cool.

    People who think there's a giant invisible flying elephant following them around who will slap them with its trunk if they think bad thoughts are delusional. Everyone agrees on this.

    People who think a bearded old white guy watches them from another dimension who will burn them forever after they die if they think bad thoughts are religious. Everyone also agrees on this.

    Some people don't like it when you point out how similar those things are. Dawkins mostly just narks on people who don't read his books but like to comment on them anyway. He never called religious people insane, he just said that religion is not noticeably different to a socially acceptable delusion.

    OK, I know, most New Zealand religious folk (outside the smaller cults) don't really believe that sort of thing at all, they're only religious in the sense they don't want to say they're not in case something bad happens. Which is also a delusional thing to think, except for how your "friends" are just church friends and won't talk to you any more.

    Which means local religion is a meaningless social clique where membership demands only that no one mention the emperor has no clothes, and even the church officials don't actually believe in God as anything more than a large common mythological story you can cherry-pick to fill in a sermon.

    Religious extremists are just people who really do believe God is real, and all those old bronze-age laws about being careful and timely about who you murder for Him are His word and must be followed. Dawkins says soft-religious people are a problem precisely because they enable those true believers every time they refuse to call bullshit on the whole God being real and the ancient stories being correct thing.

    Since Nov 2006 • 609 posts Report Reply

  • andin,

    Emma's original post, seems to me, pointed out how our politicians think we are supposed to take their words at face value, but they dont ring as true (Im not having a discussion about how I use the word), they really dont. Yes, I s'ppose we can hide behind the words we utter. Its a fools refuge, it can degenerate into intellectual posturing or posturing of any kind for that matter, and has here.
    Thanks Ben & Kracklite you have not enlightened me in the least, but thanks anyway.
    And apologies to Emma I took up the challenge and derailed the thread , sorry.

    raglan • Since Mar 2007 • 1890 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to andin,

    I took up the challenge and derailed the thread

    your next is to raise the topic of copyright on any other thread :)

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19706 posts Report Reply

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