Sunday, April 21, 2019

Why panpsychism is likely false

By Mathew Goldstein

Philosophers David Chalmers, Galen Strawson, and Philip Goff, among others, have defended versions of panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is a basic property of our universe, like forces and matter (bosons and fermions). Some scientists, including Adam Frank, a Professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester in New York, and Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, have aligned themselves with these philosophers. They are the sophisticated authors of this recent article in Aeon magazine The Blind Spot who, along with the third author philosopher Evan Thompson, work at The Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth which is an “Aeon partner” that “receives generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation.” The John Templeton Foundation gives out millions of dollars each year and one of their priorities is funding, and thereby promoting, arguments for theism by professors within otherwise secular academic institutions. Panpsychism is not theism, but it can be construed as being consistent with theism in the sense of god being the conscious foundational precursor and basis for everything else.

We can logically derive mechanical action, such as walking and talking, from the activity of neurons based on energy and matter alone. Panpsychism deems energy and matter alone to be insufficient to explain the self-perceptions of color, of sound, etc., the feelings of hunger, pain, etc., and the ability to be consciously self-aware. We not only have no explanation for our ability to experience our own perceptions, feelings, and self identity, we also currently have no clear ideas how it could be possible to have experiences like these. Therefore, advocates for panpsychism conclude consciousness needs to be added to the lowest level description of our universe as another of its most basic components.

But is it really true that consciousness is impossible within the constraints imposed by the existing core theories of physics? There are many examples where emergence has more tricks up its sleeves than our simple and limited imaginations allow for. There are multiple theories/languages/vocabularies/ontologies that we appropriately use to describe the world at different levels of coarse-graining and precision. We now have explanations for phenomena that not only were previously unexplained, but that we also previously lacked even an ability to attempt to explain within the constraints of the information we previously had to work with.

For example thermodynamics (fluids, energy, pressure, entropy) resides at a higher level relative to the lower level kinetic theory (collections of atoms and molecules with individual positions and momenta). There are two ways of communicating how our universe functions here, each entirely valid within a domain of applicability, with the domain of one theory (thermodynamics) living strictly inside the domain of the other (kinetic theory). Crucially, the emergent higher-level theory exhibits features that are absent from the lower-level theory. Thermodynamics has an arrow of time defined by the Second Law (entropy increases in isolated systems), whereas the microscopic rules of the lower-level theory are completely time-symmetric. Directional time appears as an emergent macro level property of our universe that (to the best of our current knowledge) has no presence at the lower micro level. There is no doubt that our future understandings of how the universe functions will continue to transcend our past imaginations of what is possible.

Meanwhile, while our limited imagination fails us, while there is still no path to explaining what we observe from our current state of knowledge, it can be tempting to assign a property from a higher level description of our universe to the lowest level, basic building blocks description of our universe. This approach intuitively appears to provide us a sensible and reasonable path to explain the sudden appearance of an otherwise unexplained emergent macro level property. But human history does not support this intuitive approach for determining how the universe operates to be useful. We should not take such shortcuts to try to bypass the need for anchoring our conclusions in empirical evidence. 

We have no empirical evidence for the presence of consciousness anywhere outside the context of biology, let alone at the lowest level description of how our universe functions. Higher level phenomena often exhibit new features not found at the lower level from which they emerge and sometimes these new features are unexpected and difficult for us to account for. Accordingly, the best fit with the available empirical evidence is that consciousness and related phenomena are still mysterious macro levels emergent properties from within biological contexts. Therefore this conclusion is more likely to be true than Templeton Foundation promoted speculations like panpsychism which are built on the human discomfort with unresolved mystery.

We may continue to encounter formidable obstacles to solving this particular mystery. We do not know when we will obtain an answer. There are no guarantees that we can solve all such mysteries, including this one. An expectation that we can, and will, fully understand all phenomena of our universe, even given much more time, is itself not well justified. We lack full access to all information. Humanity is arguably like a blind person trying to describe an elephant by examining only its front side. Nevertheless, we have been remarkable successful and the slow, arduous, imperfect, and error prone effort required to obtain and follow the empirical evidence is by far more productive than idle imaginary speculations and superstitions. The Templeton Foundation money is not being well spent.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The unanswered mystery for why there is something

By Mathew Goldstein

The article Bad Theology, Bad Atheism is a recent effort by Nicholas Frankovich, the deputy managing editor of National Review to defend theism. For him, God is the answer to “the mystery that there is anything at all rather than nothing.” From this starting point he argues for Apophatic theology “which is the idea that the best we can do is specify what is not true of God.“

He acknowledges that the case against “the God of faith” is usually clear. He then dismisses that focus as reflecting “the decline of sound popular theology.” But when in the past was popular theology more sound than it is today? Knowledge about how the universe operates has increased. Popular theology may be slow to keep pace. But Mr. Frankovich offers no evidence that it has recently declined. The persistently poor quality of popular theology is a problem for advocates of theism that they tend to downplay and avoid confronting.

He complains that atheists are missing the point because, unlike theologians, they are not grappling with “the God of the philosophers”. Yet Mr. Frankovich tells us of “the inescapable truth that God and evil are simultaneously real.” So who is guilty of leaping to conclusions here? Theology is often poor quality philosophy because it tends to avoid anchoring its conclusions about how the universe operates in a best fit with the overall available empirical evidence. Theists who compare street theology with academic theology as if the latter is so much more compelling are mistaken, the latter is pervasively substantially flawed and anything but compelling.

The notion of absolute nothing is a generalization from our experience of less versus more. We should be careful about reaching conclusions regarding how the universe operates intuitively by generalizing that way. We experience slow versus fast, small versus large, but there is no such thing as absolute fastness, absolute smallness, or absolute largeness. Absolute nothingness is not a concept that has been demonstrated to be real by physics and therefore it is a concept that merits skepticism, like absolute somethingness.

In the world of our everyday experience there is an arrow of time which enables us to safely associate “causes” with subsequent “effects.” However, the arrow of time reflects a property of our universe originating with the Big Bang. The universe considered as all of reality (including the possibility of a multiverse) may not operate by the rule of cause and effect. When discussing the universe as a whole, the question “Why did this happen?” is at best premature. If there is an answer then we will have to wait for it, we are incapable of guessing the correct answer. The more meaningful question is “Could this have happened in accordance with the laws of physics?” The answer to that question in the context of the universe existing is yes. The demand for something more right now — a reason why the universe exists at all — is misdirected.

Some theists like to assert that God necessarily exists, unlike the universe which could plausibly have not. However, nothing a-priori exists necessarily and a god in particular plausibly does not exist. There is no known need for a god to explain how the universe operates. There is only one approach for reliably determining what exists that has a track record of success: Best fit with the overall available empirical evidence. Positing more than is empirically evidenced to exist is much more likely to get us to fiction than non-fiction. Philosophy alone cannot identify what exists. With or without a god, there are features of reality that have no explanation beyond “that’s just the way it is.” That is, after all, what Apophetic theology itself resorts to asserting.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Catholic university teaches humanist ethics

By Mathew Goldstein

Dr. Innes Mitchell has taught at Saint Edward’s University in Texas for twenty years. The university describes itself this way: “St. Edward’s expresses its Catholic identity by communicating the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God.” The Catholic Church is not what I would call a font of intellectualism. It promotes and endorses beliefs that are not grounded in best fit with the available evidence, such as the claim that everyone is descended from a single “Adam and Eve” pair. The story of Jesus is rooted in that first couple tainting humanity with a sin, so that claim is difficult for Christianity (in general, across denominations) to discard. Quoting Pius XII’s “Humani Generis” 1950 encyclical: “The faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that … Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which … the documents of the teaching authority of the church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam.”

It is most likely that the evolution of humanity was complicated and messy, it was a many generation, many century, many locations, gradual process. Trying to fit that into an Adam and Eve scenario sounds more like sophistry than reason. Some Catholics in particular cite Thomas Aquinas for his philosophical, sometimes non—literalist approach, but they conveniently overlook that he believed in a literal seven day = 168 hours creation, a literal Adam, and a literal Eve. Christianity is big and diverse, and at St. Edward University we find a positive example of a deeper commitment to the students and society from within a Catholic institution.

Professor Mitchell teaches a course Perspectives of Atheism. This is not a course where students are introduced to arguments for why we should be atheists. Instead, A.C. Greyling’s book “Meditations from the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age” is assigned to the students. Given the tendency for too many religions to negatively promote fear of atheism (for example, the Vatican equates atheism with Hell) instead of positively promoting understanding, it is noteworthy that every now and then some institutions with religious affiliations are better than that. We should not underestimate how significant and positive it is that we sometimes have a willingness like this to reach across differences of belief. To be flexible this way can also be good for religiously affiliated institutions that want to attract and retain religion skeptical and non-believing current and future customers.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The historical monument defense

By Mathew Goldstein

It appears that Justice Breyer may want to avoid a decision that the Bladensburg Cross violates the EC. Maybe he thinks that voters will retaliate and vote Republican in future elections. At the same time it appears that he does not want government favoring Christianity over other religions. This could explain why he argued as follows: “What about saying past is past ... but no more?” On the one hand “we’re not going to have people trying to tear down historical monuments,” but on the hand “we are a different country now” that is more pluralistic. The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act established the World War I Centennial Commission, which was given the authority to build a memorial in Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., so it’s not as if absent this particular memorial there would be no WWI memorial in this area. Nor would the expense of maintaining this old memorial likely be much different from the expense of replacing it given it’s decrepit condition.

Justice Sotomayer, to her credit, pointed out that there are few government sponsored large crosses across the nation. “We don’t have a long tradition of that. It’s sectarian.” she said. But the current Supreme Court majority was nominated by Republican presidents. And the Republican party has been ambivalent at best, antagonistic at worst, towards non-establishment of religion for as long as anyone alive today has lived. Non-establishment of religion entails refraining from citing Jesus or a God in the laws and government documents. For people who live and breath Jesus, or a God, non-establishment of their religion can easily be misperceived as being threatening or destructive.

Existing precedent favors a ruling against the Bladensburg Cross. Although the Supreme Court has allowed unequivocally sectarian Ten Commandment displays, with some assistance from Justice Breyer’s search for excuses to allow sectarian displays while denying that the concessions further weaken the already diminished EC, it has been less accommodating of crosses. This distinction between the Ten Commandments and crosses makes little sense, they are both sectarian. Allowing government sponsored Ten Commandment displays is a mistake. Mistake by mistake, the unpopular EC is being eroded by the Supreme Court.

At the same time it is necessary to consider the overall context of the displays as Justice Breyer advocates. So, for example, the frieze on the Supreme Court building that depicts multiple “historical” figures from different times, places, and religions, is about the history of the development of laws and therefore the depictions of Hammurabi, Moses, Muhammad, etc. is not an establishment of religion. There is no Babylonian or Jewish or Islamic religious iconography or any depictions of past law makers from different times and places accompanying the Bladensburg Cross. There was no proper reason for the Supreme Court to take this case.

Maybe we will get a positive ruling in this case. I hope so. The introduction of the EC was one of the big advances in human government. China has an establishment of atheism which is consistent with its authoritarianism. Non-establishment of religion is a democratic limitation on government power. It is tragic to witness the EC being attacked and weakened in its country of origin. This is a symptom of the reality that the future of democratic government has not been secured.

Yet there has been some recent progress in reducing establishments of religion in some European countries. It is encouraging to witness people pursuing this lawsuit and advocating for the EC. Our world can be a better place and the EC has a role in making it so.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Bladensburg Cross case by the American Humanist Association

The American Humanist Association argued a case in front of the Supreme Court on Feb. 26 about the Bladensburg Cross.  
A demonstration was  held in front of the Supreme Court building. Watch the video of the speakers here, and WASH president Samantha McGuire speaks at 24:00.  The case was based on the idea that the war memorial that is a cross doesn't represent non-Christian soldiers.  The cross is large and imposing, it is located on land owned by the State of Maryland, and it doesn't have any obvious or easily seen reference to a war, but rather it just looks like a big cross.

I'd like to add another argument that is actually a defense of Christians.  The cross is a symbol of the Christian religion, recognized by both Christians and non-Christians.  The argument that a cross can be a secular or historical monument, rather than a symbol of a religion, is a ridiculous, absurd statement.  I don't understand why Christians will sit by silently and allow this argument to be made into legal precedents.  It is an outrageous insult to Christianity to claim that their symbol is nothing more than a secular marker.

Naturally, non-Christians like Jews, Muslims, and Humanists have more to object to in this memorial than Christians do.  It simply doesn't represent non-Christian veterans as a war memorial.  Memorials to veterans who sacrificed to fight a war for the country are close to the most honored public art, as a tribute to their patriotism and personal sacrifice for the good of the country.  But the United States is based on the idea of cooperation between people of all national backgrounds and faiths, and memorials shouldn't be based on a symbol of only one religion.

The principal is greater than just one memorial.  The principal is whether the use of a religious symbol can be justified as a secular or historical marker that is independent of the religion.  Why are Christians silently sitting by when the symbol of their religion is being stolen from them and debased?  Sometimes politicians want use religion to indicate their personal piety, while at the same time they argue that legally the religious symbol is not really religious.  It is hypocritical by politicians who are not doing their job of defending the Constitution, and it is an outrageous way of coopting the religious symbol.  For example, Justice Scalia said in Supreme Court oral arguments, 
“I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead,” he said. “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.” 
I would respond that his is the outrageous conclusion.  Justice Sotomayor said in the oral arguments to the Bladensburg Cross case
"There is a brief here that says that, to deeply religious Christians, secularizing the cross is blasphemy. Christ died on the cross. He was resurrected from his grave. So those people don't view secularizing the cross as something -- it's not just Jewish people or Hindu people who might be offended.  It could be Christians as well."
The Christian cross is simply not a secular symbol that can be separated from its religious significance.  Any politician or Supreme Court justice who argues that it is should be ashamed of themselves.  If atheists must be the ones to stand up and make this defense of the Christian cross for the benefit of Christians, then bring it on! 

Sunday, February 03, 2019

End of Life Options Act is better this year

By Mathew Goldstein

This year’s End of Life Options Act bill is a significant improvement over the bill offered two years ago. The procedure for the patient and the doctors are mostly the same as before. The difference is that various omissions in the original bill have been corrected so that we now have a comprehensive law that covers most of the forseeable issues and complications, such as dispensing with unused medication, recording and reporting the implementation of the law, the insurance impact, and health care facility opt-out details. It is apparent when reading the bill that considerable effort was made to protect the interests of all involved. The End of Life Options Act provides a procedure for people who have been diagnosed to probably die within six months from a fatal illness to hasten their deaths by overdosing on barbiturates. If you agree then visit the Secular Coalition for Maryland lobby page to send an email to the committees considering this bill, and the Death with Dignity Maryland action page to send emails to your state lawmakers, requesting that they approve it.

There are a few weaknesses with the current bill. One flaw is that the provision for dispensing with unused medicine is somewhat vague, I think it can be strengthened. However, the problem of properly dispensing with unused medicine transcends this particular bill and may need a separate bill to address fully.

There is an imbalance in how this bill protects institutional level freedom of conscience. This imbalance is not unique to this bill, it is also found elsewhere in existing Maryland law. There is a right of conscience at the individual level that is overridden by the institutional right of conscience provision. Freedom of conscience is not a one way street that applies selectively only to institutions opposed to a legal medical procedure. Accordingly, when non-public institutions objecting to some medical procedures can mandate employee refusal to provide them on freedom of conscience grounds it follows that non-public institutions that support those same medical procedures should likewise be permitted to mandate employee agreement to provide them. The latter provision is missing from this bill. An institutional level right of non-refusal is also missing from HEALTH-GEN. § 20-214. That law grants health care providers in Maryland a conscience right of refusal to provide all of their customers with "artificial insemination, sterilization, or termination of pregnancy".

Although Maryland has few publicly controlled health care provider institutions, it would be better if refusal conscience law that apply to employment policies of entire institutions explicitly excludes publicly controlled institutions. There should be a legal requirement that all institutional wide right of refusal and right of non-refusal policies be publicized so that patients can easily identify which health providers have such policies. The public has a need to know what health care services will or will not be provided by particular health care providers whenever the law renders the provision of those services optional.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Some thoughts on Modern Philanthropy & Humanist Values in a Winners Take All World

by Gary Berg-Cross (WASH Board Member)
The super wealthy are meeting in Davos again and as one context Oxfam notes that the wealth gap widening. This is not a new topic for Oxfam but this year they observe that around the world wealth inequality is what they call "out of control." They observe that it is doing particular harm to women and provide a report with these stats:
billionaire fortunes increased by 12 percent last year—the equivalent of $2.5 billion a day—while the 3.8 billion people who make up the world's poorest half saw their wealth decline by 11 percent. “
So while we live in what seems a productive time all around us there is also failure (like students learning less), along with but expensive new things like American medicine and its drugs that more people are being shut out from. Sure there has been a tremendous amount of innovation over the last 40 years but still there are stats that show that half of Americans, the bottom half of Americans, 117 million Americans, literally have no more money in their weekly paycheck after this 40 years of innovation. Why?
It doesn seem to be an innovation shortage. Heard about the latest AI renovation? What we have may be a progress shortage. Meaning that in this wealthy era the wealth is not trickling down in a progressive fashion to help the common need.
As Oxfam's report suggests the poorest half of the global population is actually seeing its net worth dwindle so it is also a gap era like the 1920s & the Gilded Age. It's an argument that economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, makes and explains why is simple terms. It's about the growing inherited wealth via return on investment.

The ratio of wealth to income is rising in all developed countries and absent extraordinary interventions, we should expect that trend to continue. But if it continues, the future will look like the 19th century, where economic elites have predominantly inherited their wealth rather than working for it. Since this wealth does not rely on work, or work's values it may not even care about the quality of life of those who do the work. And that is a problem.
This point is also made by Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. Both warn of the socio-economic impacts of a widening gap. Among those problems are changes in the lives of working-class Americans, rooted in policy choices and shifts in technology as well as the world situation. Shifts include outsourcing to poor parts of the world without union protection, stagnant wages, erratic hours, defanged unions, deindustrialization, ballooning debt, nonexistent sick leave, dismal schools, predatory lending, and dynamic scheduling. All problems.

But wait. There is mitigating charity and philanthropy. Can the super-rich and their companies may save us through enlightened charity? Take Microsoft for example. Microsoft has unveiled plans to commit $500 million to advance affordable housing solutions across the city of SeattleWashington. The money, to be distributed as loans and grants, will kick-start new solutions to the city’s housing crisis, where income increases have lagged behind rising housing costs for professions like teachers. Good.
But is it good enough and the right stuff?
Some think not. Philanthropy of the super-rich may not be an inadequate substitute for a fairer world – it may actually be intentionally and unintentionally part of the system that perpetuates the gross unfairness of mass inequality. That is the argument made in Anand Giridharadas “Winners take all.” He argues that you can inspire the rich to do more good but never tell them to do less harm (such as moderating the wealth gap by imposing inheritance taxes). And he goes to argue that you can inspire the super-rich to give back in a personal charity say, but not to take less by such things as providing a living wage or keeping jobs in the US.
And you can inspire them to join a benign, light solution, but never accuse them of being part of the problem (how come you let foreign sources run free on your web site?)
As Stiglitz insists we need to ask more of the wealthy and have them understand the larger non-economic picture. A humanist picture if you will.
It starts with us all understanding that inequality is not just the result of bottom line economic forces. It is soceo-political and always has been. With current Citizens United type rulings and policies that give wealth political influence we are stuck with the problem. It isn’t inevitable that return on large capital will also be greater than overall economic growth. It is targeted political policies, processes and laws themselves currently make this so. And these policies are affected by the historical level and nature of built in status, political and economic inequality. Greater inequality entrenches greater power in the wealthy, who will reflexively use that greater power to double-down on policies (low capital-gains rates, low inheritance taxes, low barriers to campaign finance itself) that ensure greater inequality, and so on, in a vicious cycle.

So sure, economic charity may patch things up here and there, but in a wider view only an enlightened politics can correct for the depredations that the super-rich's gobbling wealth growth promises.

As a Humanist these problems trouble me. And these things are part of a rationally compassionate future that we envision (as discussed in a September – Is this a Humanist Century). They are important for all Free Thinkers to consider. Humanists need to concentrate on improving the things of this world rather than simply combating the illusions of supernaturalism. As secular humanists we may applaud some charitable efforts, but question them from a deeper look at a deeper constellation or system based on humanist values and principles. These including promoting fairness, truth and justice.
Who can we partner with us and how can be shape philanthropy to take on some of these issues we value like the separation of church and state? This would include the continued problem of the massing of wealth and power by religious and ethically religious groups.
We can also ask, “Does a notable amount of philanthropy support value free inquiry & truth, as a norm?” or
Does a notable amount of philanthropy support ethics based on critical intelligence and critical thinking to establish truth?”
And what about supporting a moral education, that the value of a person is not entirely based on their group identify?
These and other issues such as how hard a sell is it to promote action that will mitigate likely problems and advance the common good will be discussed at the January 26th meeting of the WASH Maryland-DC chapter at the Maryland Chevy Chase library (1:30 -3:30).
All are welcome.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

A good why I am atheist film

By Mathew Goldstein

John Follis was raised by religious parents and schooled by his church to be a believer. He produced a successful advertising campaign for his New York city church. Repeated mismatches between his religious beliefs, his life experiences, and new information and arguments, initially challenged and then eventually changed his beliefs. A little over three months ago he published his “why I am an atheist” story as a forty-five minute documentary film Leaving God.  His film is good, if you have the time it is worthwhile to view.