Monday, 13 October 2014

Dreams of Certainty

     Last week, I was reminded of a dream I once had, many years ago as an undergraduate in philosophy. Perhaps it was because I fell asleep while listening to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, but in my dream I had been working through a philosophical question, and suddenly had an epiphany: all the pieces of a proof suddenly fell into place. In that moment, I knew, I really knew with absolute certainty, that I had just proved with perfect logical rigour, relying only on unassailably self-evident premises, the existence and immortality of the soul!
     And then I woke up, and it evaporated. I could not remember anything about my proof, other than the conclusion, which by itself is no proof at all. I tried my best to reconstruct it, but I came up with nothing.
     There were two choices I had at this point. I could take my dream at face value, relying on that feeling of certainty to assure me that the proof actually existed and was still out there for me to rediscover, which I dearly wanted to do. Or, I could recognize that in all likelihood, what I had dreamed was not the proof itself, but the feeling of having found it, and there was no particular reason to believe any such proof actually existed. Eventually, and with some disappointment, I had to accept that the dream was just a dream.

     Although I hadn't consciously thought of this experience in many years, it seems to have played an important role in shaping the skepticism that has characterized most of my thinking since then. In particular, if you've read through the lengthy comment threads on some of my more theological postings here, it illustrates why I have never accepted the subjective claims of certainty promised by my anonymous commenters. They assure me that if I would only open my heart to Jesus, I would then know, really know with absolute certainty, The Truth. And once I had that sense of certainty, I would need no further proof.
     But I know that sense of certainty already, and I am unimpressed by it, because I am aware of the possibility that it can be mistaken. How certain you feel about something bears little relationship to how likely you are to actually be correct, and so even if you promise me that I'll feel certain and even if I believe you that I will feel certain, none of that amounts to an assurance that I'll be any closer to knowing the truth.
     Some people are really uncomfortable with uncertainty. They crave that feeling of certainty, and feel it gives them strength, and maybe it does that. I will probably never know that kind of comfort outside of a dream, but I'm okay with that. I find a different kind of comfort in being aware of my own fallibility, in knowing that while I'm very likely wrong about most of what I believe, I am wrong honestly, and willing to correct my errors when I become aware of them. In a way, it's kind of exhilarating, like taking off the training wheels or jumping in at the deep end of the pool. It isn't that I find the risk of being wrong a thrill; it's that I've learned that the apparent safety of the training wheels or the shallow end of the pool are illusions.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Misquoting and Misspeaking

     Once again, I must bring up the proper use of quotation marks. They are not to be used for emphasis. See? I just emphasized "not" with italics. And just now, I set apart "not" with quotation marks because I'm referring to the word itself, not its meaning or reference or anything else. Putting something in quotation marks means you're quoting (hence the name) what someone said, not paraphrasing or restating.

     I bring this up because another pseudoquote just crossed my Facebook feed today, this time attributed to Vice President Joe Biden.

"No ordinary American cares about their constitutional rights."

     The image circulated with this alleged quote goes on to say, "Yes, America, our Vice President said that!" Except he didn't. He did not utter this sentence.

     I watched the video, and what he does say is almost as dumb, if you take it strictly literally: "And let me say at the outset to all the press: No law-abiding citizen in the United States of America has any fear that their constitutional rights will be infringed in any way. None. Zero."
     That is obviously false. There's lots of law-abiding citizens in the U.S. who do fear that their constitutional rights will be infringed, and lots of law-abiding citizens whose constitutional rights are infringed every day. (The practice of civil forfeiture, for example, has gotten rather out of hand, which I take to be a pretty clear violation of the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment.)

     Now, you could take Mr. Biden as meaning exactly what he said, and if in fact he does believe that no law-abiding citizen does fear infringements to their rights, then statement attributed to him in the image macro would be a defensible inference about his beliefs. But it's not a quotation. You could say "Joe Biden believes that no ordinary American cares about their constitutional rights", and that'd be fine. Just don't use quotes unless you're actually quoting the actual words he actually said. (Seriously, is that so hard to understand?)

     But I want to go a little farther and argue that this would be a silly and uncharitable inference about Mr. Biden's actual beliefs. To me, it seems far more likely that he missed a word in his written speech, and that what he was supposed to say was that no law-abiding citizen has any reason to fear infringement of their constitutional rights. If you watch the video from the beginning, you'll see a couple of similarly clumsy oratory missteps.
     Let's be fair. Public speaking is not an easy thing to do, and mistakes happen. Working from a script (which is what any written speech is going to be, even if you write it yourself) has its own difficulties; it takes time to absorb the flow of the lines and internalize their meaning, and to find your own inflections, pauses, emphases. Joe Biden may be affable and confident, but if he's a gifted orator than this was not a day that showed it. Interpreting what someone says always takes a bit of cognitive effort at the best of times, and sometimes requires us to cut the speaker some slack while we correct for errors. We should do this regardless of whether or not we agree with the speaker's views, because successful communication is a matter of trying to discern what the speaker actually means, rather than seizing upon whichever meaning reinforces our own beliefs.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Fair Warning and Photo Radar

     I've written before about speed limits, and generally argued against speeding, so it may come as a surprise that I have received seven photo radar tickets. Admittedly, six of them came over several months after I had my license plate stolen by some nitwit who apparently drove a 1985 Supra, if the images on the summonses are to be trusted. I had reported the plate stolen promptly, so I never had to pay any of the six, and needless to say, it wasn't me speeding.
     The seventh was just this past year, and it was for going 60 km/h in a 50 zone, which wouldn't have bothered me but for the fact that it was a short stretch of the road between two zones where the limit was 60. Also, it did surprise me a little, because I had always understood that there was an unwritten rule that they wouldn't issue a ticket if you were within 10 klicks of the limit, not that I have ever thought that was a valid legal argument against any actual speeding ticket. And also it was probably my wife driving.

     Now photo radar has become a hot topic again here in Edmonton, with the mayor responding on his blog to a petition of angry drivers who want photo radar abolished. They argue that it is a cash cow, that it doesn't actually make us safer, and that speed limits are too low anyway. I'll not address those again here, but instead, I wanted to consider what Mayor Iveson said (and I've said in the past myself) about speed limits, and how exceeding them at all is illegal, period, end of story. I agree with that, of course, but I want to argue here for why there ought to be a buffer as a matter of policy, and how it should be handled.

     First, the reasons for a buffer. I've read that highway engineers usually try to establish speed limits based on the 85th percentile of free traffic flow, meaning the speed at or below which 85% of vehicles are travelling. Although vehicles may vary in their performance and individual drivers vary in their skill and tolerance of risk, taken in the aggregate they can give a pretty fair idea of what people can handle safely and comfortably. I imagine they probably set the actual limit a little bit below that point (perhaps they just round down to the nearest 10 km/h), which would make sense because traffic flows most efficiently when everyone is going close to the same speed, and if only 15% of drivers feel comfortable at or above the posted limit, you'll likely have a lot of people going considerably slower and gumming up the works. So the optimum limit should be something a clear majority of drivers can confidently handle.
     But there's a curious fact about posted limits, which grocery store owners understand. Put up a sign that says "Limit 5 per customer", and people who normally would only have bought one will buy four more. To some extent, the same psychology applies to speed limits, and so drivers who might otherwise have been content at 48 km/h will feel they're missing out on something of value if they don't snap up those extra 12 klicks. So even if they do set the limit at the 85th percentile, it seems likely that the general flow of traffic will usually be at or near the speed limit, which is, after all, a good thing: we want everybody to be going approximately the same speed.
     Now, posted limits are one thing, but the facts of driving are such that sometimes you need to adjust your speed upward or downward in order to make certain maneuvers, such as getting into position to change lanes. Ideally, to avoid exceeding the limit, you'd just slow down and drop back behind the car next to you so you can change lanes, but in practice that's not aways the safest or best choice (especially given the prevalence of tailgating). So occasionally going a few klicks over the posted limit is a perfectly reasonable thing to do for certain maneuvers, and ought not to be discouraged when it's done responsibly in that kind of context. Moreover, I'd be willing to bet that traffic engineers who prescribe a speed limit are building into it assumptions that normal traffic flow will include such minor incidental variations around that value.
     As well, there's the scarcity of attention; a driver has only so much of it, and we want drivers to focus their attention where it is needed most. Although they shouldn't completely ignore the speedometer, micromanaging it is not a good investment of attention, either. A too-rigidly enforced speed limit without any buffer will begin to punish drivers for the wrong thing: watching the road. You could argue that to avoid this problem, you can just set your speed around 5 klicks below the posted limit to leave yourself some wiggle room, and of course that's true. However, remember the "Limit 5 per customer" phenomenon, and the fact that traffic engineers almost certainly take this into account when setting limits in the first place. It's likely that when they post a limit of 80 km/h, they expect and intend for traffic to comply by driving at 80 km/h and not 75 km/h.

     And yet, speed limits are legal limits; if you exceed them, you are breaking the law. If you build into it a formal buffer of 10 km/h, then in effect you're really just raising the "actual" speed limit by that amount. So what to do?

     One of the advantages to a live traffic cop pulling you over is that he or she has some discretion to let you go with a warning, when a warning is sufficient and effective. Why not have photo radar do the same thing? When it catches you exceeding the limit by 10 km/h or less, it would send you not a summons, but just a warning that you've been caught speeding. There would be no penalty, but if you get into the habit (that is, if you get too many warnings within a reasonable time period), you will start being fined.
     Mayor Iveson explained, in his blog, that the proceeds from photo radar do not go into general revenue but are used to fund traffic safety initiatives, so it seems to me that this would fall right within that mandate. The infrastructure for processing such cautions is already in place, so this would be a cost-effective way of delivering a message to exactly the people who need to hear it.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A Half-Baked Idea for Patent Extraction Rights

     I have written before about my disdain for patent law and the notion of intellectual property in general, but today I thought I'd share an idea I had a few years ago while thinking about the issue of patenting living organisms, which yesterday's post reminded me of. The idea is to create a new kind of property right which would hopefully establish an economic interest in maintaining biodiversity while encouraging basic research.

    But first, let me start with mineral rights, at least as they are handled here in Alberta. When you own land here, you do not actually own the rights to the minerals under it. Those belong to the Crown, which is one of the ways our government generates income, by charging royalties to the companies that want to drill for oil. That doesn't completely cut out the landowner, though, because to get to those minerals, you usually need to go through the landowner's property, and that often involves a fee.
     Now, this got me to thinking about a possible structure for biological patent rights. Under the current system, you go out and do some research and when you find something novel and useful about some organism, you can apply for a patent and there you go. It's as if an oil company could just go out and look for oil wherever they wanted, and then file a claim for the exclusive right to drill when they find it, without ever having to deal with landowners.
     So what if there were the genomic equivalent of a landowner, someone who owned not patents on an organism or its DNA, but the right to apply for such patents? So, for example, suppose I own the patent extraction rights for the genus Taraxacum, and the various species of dandelion. I don't necessarily own any actual dandelions, just the right to apply for patents on them. Then, if some pharmaceutical researcher discovers a medically useful protein in a dandelion leaf, and wants to patent it to bring a profitable new drug to market, they need to talk to me and work out a licensing arrangement: I will license them to apply for the patent in exchange for a flat fee, or a share of their profits, or whatever we agree on.

     What's the point of this? Well, the owner of the patent extraction rights would be economically motivated to do two important things: conservation and research. If I own the patent extraction rights for Taraxacum, I can now demonstrate an economic interest in preserving the species, which means I can have standing to sue someone who puts them at risk, and claim real damages. This internalizes an externality, as the economists say. Secondly, it's now in my interest to do and publish basic science about Taraxacum, because it boosts the chances that someone out there will recognize a patentable use for the plant, which could turn into a lucrative license arrangement for me.
     Consider also the issue of indigenous peoples and their traditional lore about the plants they've used for generations. At present, a scientist can go learn from the locals how they use this plant to treat this disease, take a few specimens back to the lab and reap the benefits of a patent on it, even though most of the actual work in discovering the plant's use was done by someone else. But if the patent extraction rights for these species were vested in the indigenous peoples themselves, they would have a way to share in the profits derived from their knowledge, as well as a justiciable property right in preserving their ecosystem.
     Arguably, the patent extraction rights to the human genome should be vested in the Crown on behalf of all humanity, and used to ensure that all patents on life-saving therapies are licensed on terms that do not exclude any humans who need the therapy.

     So there is my crazy half-baked idea, thrown out there for all the world to consider. Please accept my invitation to criticize it mercilessly in the comments below.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Ignorance of the Law is no Excuse: Refuting Another Paranoid Chain Letter

     Yet again I find myself responding to one of the inane Facebook memes that appears in my feed. The text of this one reads:

Why did the US government
invent and patent EBOLA
Patent number #CA2741523A1
Patent number #8124101
The AIDS cure
Patent number #5676977
The CANCER cure
Patent number #6630507
Seems like they are trying to
cause an epidemic, making us Ill,
then keeping us sick...

     Wow. So much wrong. Let's start, first, with ignorance of the law. Patents are a form of intellectual property designed to encourage inventors to come up with new stuff. See, the problem with inventing is that if you have a great new idea that makes people's lives better, the only way to keep other people from using that idea is by not telling anyone about it, which kind of makes it hard to make money by inventing. You can maybe make things using your idea and sell them, but if you do that there's a good chance someone else will figure out how you did it, and then who'll buy from you? And even if you do manage to keep your method a secret, when you die it's lost, which is good for nobody.
     So patents are kind of temporary legal monopoly on new ideas. In exchange for filing an application with the patent office, which includes a complete explanation of the invention and how it works, you gain the exclusive right to use the idea for twenty years. (This varies with jurisdiction and is sometimes amended by statute, but the exact length of time doesn't matter for this explanation.) If someone else uses  your idea during this time, you can sue them, and of course the fact that you've published a patent means it's fairly easy in principle to establish whether or not they actually used your method or came up with some other process. (It doesn't matter if they independently came up with your method all by themselves; the fact that you were the first to patent it gives you the legal monopoly, and too bad for them.) So you have 20 years to make as much money as you can from your brilliant idea, and then the patent expires and anyone can use it without having to pay you anything.

     What does this mean for patents on EBOLA, SWINE FLU, The AIDS cure and The CANCER cure? Well, first of all, it means that all of these patents are by definition public knowledge. When you patent something, you tell everyone else how to do it so they can do it for themselves when the patent expires. If you had a bioweapon form of Ebola virus or swine flu, the very last thing you'd want to do is patent it. You'd want to keep it as secret as secret can be. So the fact that someone has patented these things means it's completely ridiculous that they're planning on using them to make us sick. I think patents are an inefficient kludge that may cause more harm than good, but the basic principle of what a patent is kind of makes it impossible for them to be evidence of a grand plot by the evil gubmint to make us all sick.

     Okay, so maybe the author of this forward didn't know what patents are and how they work. Lots of people don't, and that's okay. But that doesn't excuse the sheer idiocy of their paranoid rantings. I mean, if you're going to make claims about patents and what they mean, the least you could do is go and look up the patent itself. Let's do that now.

Ebola: Ebola virus causes a nasty and very frequently deadly hemorrhagic fever that's killed nearly 2,000 people in the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. It's scary, to be sure, but scientists studying it tell us that it doesn't actually spread all that easily and we shouldn't be panicking. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control have managed to isolate and characterize specimens of the virus, and as often happens, they've taken out a patent on it. (A patent doesn't mean they invented the virus; it just means they claim to have discovered its genome in a meaningful way so as to make further inventions, such as a vaccine, possible.)
     A lot of labs, including those at the CDC, routinely file for patents on things they find that could be economically useful. That doesn't mean they plan to make money off it, though. Bear in mind that the job of the CDC is to control the spread of disease, a task they might find considerably harder and more costly if some big drug company manages to patent a treatment. So by pre-emptively patenting the virus itself, any cure based on the virus will be subject to the CDC's patent rights, so the CDC can negotiate with whatever private company finds a cure, in order to keep them from charging unreasonable prices for it.  So, I am not in the least bit worried about the fact that the CDC might hold a patent on the Ebola virus, although I am still more than a little uncomfortable about the idea of patenting life-forms. But more on that in another post.

Swine Flu: Swine flu was not invented by anyone, but patent 8124101 is for a genetically modified version of the naturally-occuring virus which was developed to improve the efficiency of preparing flu vaccines. I, for one, think that flu vaccines are a splendid idea, and I get mine every year, courtesy of Alberta Health Care. While I don't have to pay out of pocket for the vaccine, my government does, so I'm really rather pleased to learn that this patent was assigned by its inventors to Mount Sinai School of Medicine, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and the United States of America through the Secretary of Agriculture, and not some for-profit pharmacy corporation. 

AIDS: Another thing to remember about patents is that the invention doesn't actually have to work to be patented. Patent 5676977 is titled "Method of curing AIDS with tetrasilver tetroxide molecular crystal devices", which sounds awesome until you realize that being able to kill HIV in a test tube isn't necessarily all that helpful for curing AIDS. You can kill the virus by boiling it in chicken fat, too, but that's not a very helpful discovery when the virus you're trying to kill is lurking within the living cells of a human patient.
     Two more crucial details about this patent. First, it's not held by the U.S. government at all, but by Antelmen Technologies Ltd. of Providence, Rhode Island. Presumably Antelman hoped the discovery would be profitable, and I don't know, maybe it has been. But that's kind of moot, because the patent was filed May 31, 1996, which means that it's pretty close to expiry, at which point it becomes fair game for anyone to start making molecular crystal devices with tetrasilver tetroxide and go cure AIDS with it all they want. 

Cancer: Oh, man, this one annoys me. See, I'm not an oncologist or a microbiologist, so I'm by no means an expert, but I have undergone successful (so far) surgery and chemotherapy for a Stage III cancer, and I've learned just enough about cancer and how it's treated to be able to recognize when someone knows less than I do.  Talk about a cancer cure is dangerous nonsense, because cancer isn't a simple, single disease. It's a whole category of diseases which have one thing in common: cells dividing when they're not supposed to. The human body has hundreds of different types of cells, some of which are supposed to divide and some of which aren't, and there are thousands and thousands of ways their DNA can get screwed up to produce a cancer-type disease. Some of them can be cured, some of them cure themselves, and some of them will kill you dead. We're learning lots about how cells work, and amazing progress has been made (hey, I'm alive, in case you hadn't noticed), and maybe we'll have cures for all of them some day, but anyone who says there is "A cure for cancer!" is smoking something.
     And I mean that literally. Lately I've seen a lot of talk about cannabis as a cure for cancer, usually from people who are enthusiastic about marijuana. Now, personally, I'm all for decriminalizing pot, mainly for philosophical reasons (I've never tried the stuff, myself, and was never tempted to, even when I was on chemotherapy), and I think it's probably very useful medicinally, especially for cancer patients. It's supposed to be good for suppressing nausea, for one thing, and I can attest that chemo can really get you puking. It may even be effective for directly treating some cancers.
     But, as I said, there is almost certainly no such thing as A cure for cancer, and I strongly suspect that some people are vastly inflating the promise of cannabinoid drugs for the ulterior motive of Freeing The Weed. And indeed, that seems likely if you actually read patent 6630507, for "Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants". It's not a "cure for cancer"; it's potentially a treatment for a particular set of conditions which are sometimes associated with cancers.
     And yes, the patent is assigned to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What does this mean? Not much, as long as cannabis remains illegal, making research into its properties inconvenient at best. Maybe the evil gubmint is holding onto the patent so it can sue stoners for patent infringement if the weed is freed? Doubtful, but I have heard that one of the side effects of marijuana use is paranoia.

     Explains a lot, actually.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Government and Governance: Why We Ought To Vote

     This is part three of a series of three posts about the role of the state and the rule of law. The previous two posts have been about the claims society makes upon us, and why we shouldn't object to them. We ought to obey the law because properly constituted law makes us more, not less, free. We ought to pay taxes on our use of collectively administered assets (such as our use of the money system) because the owners of those collectively owned assets (i.e. us collectively) are entitled to collect a fair price for the benefits we enjoy from their use, and we are better off than we would be without the exchange.
     But here's the catch: it doesn't matter if you buy these arguments, because you cannot opt out of The State. You are bound by its laws whether you like it or not. I have argued that we ought to consider ourselves fortunate to have laws and taxes, but what if you don't? And what if it seems that the country you live in doesn't really adhere to these noble principles? What then?
     Well, the good news is that we live in a time when virtually every government on the planet at least pretends to a legitimacy based on some sort of democratic ideal. Yes, there are a few theocracies and the occasional monarchy that claims authority based on some sort of divine right, but for the most part, even the most repressive tyrannies at least claim to represent the people. Even the Khmer Rouge called their regime "Democratic Kampuchea", and the Kim dynasty calls itself the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea".
     To be sure, such oppressive states are just plain ol' dirty rotten liars when they say they are democratic. Mao hinted more than a bit at his true philosophy when he wrote "Political power grows from the barrel of a gun." And when dealing with raw, might-makes-right totalitarian coercion, there are really only two options: total resistance or total surrender.
     But very few regimes today are quite so brazen. Nearly everyone at least claims to respect some sort of principle of justice or right beyond "do as I say or else". And that is a start, even if it is a bluff. For now.
     What I want to suggest here is that the way to deal with government is to call that bluff, even if you believe it is a bluff. If your government tells you it respects your rights, then exercise them with confidence and good faith, even if you suspect they don't really want you to. Hold them to their word. Make them be the liars and the lawbreakers.

     This will sound naive: do I not understand that corrupt systems will simply disregard my arguments, and lock me in jail or worse regardless of the merits of my arguments? Of course I do, but it is every bit as naive to assume that corrupt systems will be nice to you if you do everything they say. Corrupt systems are corrupt, and inherently untrustworthy; you cannot rely on them to keep their word either way. They very well might just shoot you for fun, or to make an example of you, or whatever. The fact is, when you're living in a lawless tyranny, there really is no such thing as playing it safe. Some risks can be reduced, but often at a cost of accepting increasingly oppressive conditions.
     Moreover, most of the time you will not be dealing with the supreme dictator at the top, but with some lower-level functionary, and in all likelihood, that functionary will be as scared of angering the regime as you are. If the regime says it respects these rights in its citizens (whether it sincerely means it or not), then you can characterize the functionary's infringement of those rights as an act of disloyalty, at least enough to raise some doubt in the mind of your functionary and open a discussion.

     In the individual instance, it won't always work, but then, what does? If he's intent on locking up up or shooting you, there really isn't a safe way to avoid that. But in the long run, in the big picture, rights do not suddenly spring into being by a single glorious armed rebellion; they take root and grow as we collectively begin to recognize, demand, and eventually assume them. The American Revolution was, to be sure, a defining moment, but it didn't happen in a vacuum; the fundamental rights which were codified in the Bill of Rights were not invented in 1776, but had already evolved and were well established within the English common law tradition, even if they were not yet uniformly respected.
     In short, fake it 'til you make it. Whether or not you believe your legal system means what it says when it claims you have rights to a fair trial, to vote, and so on, if you (and others) take it at its word, and go out and exercise those rights as if they actually exist, then The Powers That Be will either have to start actually respecting them, or issue some sort of embarrassing retraction.

     I often hear people despair that democracy doesn't work, that the system is too corrupt and the Powers That Be are too powerful to allow us to make any difference, and that our only hope is armed rebellion. This I reject categorically, not because I reject violence generally (although I do) but because pragmatically it almost never works, and even when it succeeds in overthrowing a corrupt regime, it will almost always replace it with another tyranny. Only if there is a deep and broad commitment to the fundamental principles of law and justice can it be otherwise, but such commitment is not brought about through violence. Violence is utterly incompatible with justice. One may, on occasion, be compelled to defend against violence with violence, but one should never be under the illusion that arguments are won that way; once the fighting stops, the questions of justice and right remain unanswered, even if the ones asking them are dead.
     There are also people who feel that to cooperate with The System is to endorse it and thus become complicit in its injustices. That is a fair criticism, but an empty one, because refusing to participate in trying to improve the world is no way to keep your hands morally clean. The world we live in is the world we live in, warts and all, and we cannot absolve ourselves of its impurities by pretending we have nothing to do with them. As satisfying as the sanctimony of withdrawal can feel (and I am no stranger to such self-indulgence), it helps no one. Criticism should be constructive; if it isn't, it's merely veiled self-congratulation.

     So what I am urging, then, is to engage within the system for the change you want, even (especially) if you don't have any faith in the system. Vote. Write letters to your elected representatives. Read and consider the views of people who disagree with you, and talk with them on the assumption that they'll listen and maybe even change their minds, even if you don't think they will. If you think your rights are being violated, don't be afraid to speak up. But even more importantly, make sure to speak up when you see someone else's rights being violated, because ultimately, your rights are only effective when they are respected by other people, so fostering a culture in which people habitually consider the rights of others is more effective than one in which rights are seen as solely tools of self-interest.  Rights, and the rule of law generally, are matters of convention; the law only has power over people who believe in it and agree to be bound by it. We will always be vulnerable to the actions of other people, law or no, so it is in our interest for those other people to bind themselves to the law, and that is more likely to happen if we all act like we expect them to do so.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Defending (a little) Theistic Evolution

     Today I saw this article by Greta Christina, which offers four reasons why theistic evolution fails. As should be evident by now, I tend rather strongly to an atheist view of things, particularly explanations of the origin of the universe and humanity. However, it seems to me that the arguments in this article rather unfairly misrepresent theistic evolution, and I'd like to speak up a little in defense of that view, even though I don't actually share it.  For those who don't want to follow the link, I'll summarize very briefly. Theistic evolution is the view that evolution is just the way that God chose to make us. The article claims that this view is flawed in four ways, which I'll address in turn below.

"1. It contradicts a central principle of the theory of evolution."
     Ms. Christina argues here (correctly) that the theory of evolution is all about probabilities, and is fundamentally undirected. That's actually its chief merit as a theory; it provides an account of how such amazing complexity as we see around us could have arisen without the need to postulate any kind of deliberate intervention.
     Where she goes astray is in assuming that theistic evolution must be directed in that sense. That is, she seems to believe that the God of theistic evolution was aiming specifically at producing us, of all the beings that could have come into existence through unguided natural selection. No doubt many theistic evolutionists do believe this, but it's not at all a necessary assumption for the theory.
     The reason I think it's not necessary is because I've "created" so many undirected virtual universes myself, in roleplaying games and simulations, where I quite deliberately included random elements because I wanted to see what evolved naturally within the system I'd put in motion. Now, to be sure, I'm not deemed to be eternal and omniscient, so it's possible for me to do such a thing without knowing in advance the outcome. But even if we suppose the God of theistic evolution to be omniscient, that doesn't mean that His foreknowledge is the same as intervening at any particular step in the naturalistic evolutionary process; the sequence itself unfolds in exactly the non-deterministic fashion it would without postulating God. The problem here is not with theistic evolution per se, but the deeper philosophical problem of reconciling divine foreknowledge with our notions of randomness and uncertainty.

"2.There's not a scrap of evidence for it."
      No, of course there isn't, and there shouldn't be. The mistake Ms. Christina is making here is in thinking that theistic evolution is a scientific claim, intended to explain something about the world that atheistic evolution cannot explain alone. It isn't. Rather, it is an attempt to preserve elements of a myth with deep personal meaning, in the face of the complete triumph of scientific reasoning. The thinking theistic creationist completely surrenders to science, at least in the arena of trying to understand how the physical universe works. The evidence shows that evolution is how we got here, so that's what the theistic evolutionist accepts. God is not a part of the theory at all. God is postulated entirely outside of the reality that the theory alone governs and exhaustively explains.
     Personally, I have no need of the postulate, but as an avid player of what-if, I recognize that there may be a solid aesthetic reason for including it. But aesthetic preferences are not evidence, and as long as that's understood, I have no beef with theistic evolutionists.

"3. There's a whole lot of evidence against it."
     This is actually the same mistake as in #2 above, and related to the error of #1. Scientifically, theistic evolution is exactly the same theory as atheistic evolution, and relies upon exactly the same empirical evidence. Theistic evolution does not make any of the special predictions Ms. Christina claims it does. The God of theistic evolution may or may not have preferred for us to have sinuses or blind spots or external testicles or any of the countless engineering imperfections we evolved with, but He chose to let the laws of nature produce whatever world would come into being, and He saw that it was good, warts and all. That doesn't mean He thought we'd be better off with an appendix; it means that of all the potential beings in the multiverse, He apparently didn't prefer the perfectly engineered ones to the naturally evolved ones. If I believed in God, that'd make me feel profoundly loved, which is kind of the point of the theistic part of theistic evolution. The evolution part doesn't need God at all. He's just a bonus, a source of comfort for those who need Him.

"4. If it were true, God would either be incompetent or malicious."
     This is a completely valid criticism of the anthropocentric creationists, who assert that God made everything for our benefit, but again, it has no bearing on theistic evolution, which is just evolution-with-God. True, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that such a God is at best brutally indifferent to the suffering of the creatures in this naturalistic universe, but theistic evolution at least has something like an answer to this: the naturalistic universe is what it is, and God wanted a naturalistic universe rather than a human-centered one.
     But that's one of my chief criticisms of a lot of mainstream religion, the preposterous notion that God should care about whether we get that raise or contract this disease or get hit by that bus, and the incredibly vain superstition that God will favour us in this life if we ask Him nicely or recite the proper incantation. Such a god is demonstrably non-existent by empirical comparison with the null hypothesis, and unworthy of worship if He did exist. The God of theistic evolution is not posited to intervene in such ways, and so there's no reason to blame Him for cruelty or incompetence. Blame Him for fatalism, perhaps, or better yet ourselves for not being fatalists.