Monday, May 27, 2024

A big picture, empirically grounded, philosophy

 By Mathew Goldstein

In his 2016 book “The Big Picture: On the Origin of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself”, theoretical cosmologist Sean Carroll skillfully elucidates a modern, empiricist anchored, philosophy of “poetic naturalism” that starts with, is guided by, and fully embraces, the relevant knowledge we have accumulated to date. Purely rationalistic philosophy is a subject without an object which is OK when the subject is mathematics but is otherwise mostly useless sophistry.  Sean Carroll, an empiricist who has studied philosophy in addition to physics, clearly recognizes this distinction.

A big picture philosophy starts with the Core Theory which is ekinological. The Core Theory consists of the Standard Model that describes quantum particles and fields plus the Theory of Relativity that adds non-quantum spacetime gravity. It can be operationally represented with a single equation for “the amplitude to undergo a transition from one configuration to another in the path-integral formalism of quantum mechanics”. The amplitude translates into a probability of transitioning to a particular next configuration. The causes and effects, reasons why, purposes, and goals of teleology are all absent from the ground level Core Theory. Yet causes and effects, reasons why, purposes, and goals have central roles in our day to day lives.  

Sean Carroll argues that we are rationally compelled on the available evidence to reconcile these discrepancies by adopting a pluralistic, multi-level, description of our universe. At the ground level is the Core Theory. The higher level phenomena emerge from, and can be mapped back to, the Core Theory. The emergent properties are distinct and real, their secondary status as higher level phenomena does not diminish the centrality of emergence as a substantial and important component of how the universe operates. The Core Theory does not by itself provide a complete description of reality. Higher level emergent properties are as essential to our understanding of the operation of our universe as the ground level Core Theory. 

Therefore, when we describe how our universe operates, the appropriate language to use depends on the “domain of applicability” where the topic being discussed resides. Terminology that describes the Core Theory ground level context should not be intermixed with language that describes the higher emergent level contexts. Nor, for example, is terminology that is applicable at the emergent levels of chemistry, or cellular biology, always appropriate when the context is the level of a multi-celled organism, etc. This overlaps with Daniel Dennett’s perspective: “First, materialism reigns, and the major philosophical problems of consciousness, meaning, and free will all have accounts that owe more to biology than to physics. The beginning of life is the beginning of reasons and meaning and information (in one of its most important senses);” [I Have Been Thinking, p. 390].

The conventional meanings and connotations of some commonly utilized words conflict with a poetic naturalism perspective. Therefore, to communicate accurately, we will sometimes be better off either avoiding some potentially misleading words or adding clarifications. In his book Sean Carroll includes clarifications, and selects words, to avoid miscommunication. Yet he does not directly discuss this general communication complication. This is a significant and unfortunate omission.

We need to be careful to ensure that our higher level context descriptions are consistent with the lower level context descriptions in the sense that we can map what happens at the higher levels back to the lower levels. At the same time, we should avoid mistakenly insisting on a one to one, bidirectional, mapping. There can be many lower level configurations that map to the same  higher level phenomena. Emergent properties that are absent at the lowest level, such as the arrow of time, can very much impact our experiences and interactions. The difference between past and future is an example of an emergent property that is too fundamental for us to ignore even though it is absent from the ground level Core Theory. 

It also needs to be said that not everyone is onboard to the notion that time is an emergent property. Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, while he recommends this book, disagrees with that and various other arguments found therein. It is worthwhile to read his counter-arguments in his review of this book For example, Smolin argues that “We know exactly how to make a robot, but have no idea how to design or construct a human being (except the old fashioned way). How can we confidently claim that they are the same? The argument seems to be that the universe is a machine, so humans and robots — as subsystems of that universe — must be machines too. This begs the question, because different machines operate by different principles, and the principles needed to make our minds comprehensible remain unknown.” On this particular point I am inclined to agree with Smolin.

Unlike Smolin, Sean Carroll rejects David Chamber’s argument that unconscious zombies that are physically identical to conscious people and that mimic the behavior of conscious people are conceivable which Chambers then claims implies consciousness is a property of the universe. Sean Carroll says consciousness is an emergent property of particular physical systems and therefore is an inevitable property of such physical systems, so such philosophical zombies are inconceivable. I am inclined to agree with Carroll’s perspective here, along with most of what Carroll argues in his book. But to be fair, I have not read a book by Smolin, if I did then maybe he would convince me otherwise.

The central disagreement appears to be whether matter has additional, fundamental, irreducible properties beyond those described by the laws of physics as they are understood today. Smolin says yes, Carroll argues no. After reading Carroll’s book, it is my opinion that Carroll has compelling arguments that the known laws of physics are incompatible with the existence of such additional, fundamental, irreducible properties. Smolin is no doubt right to point out that our current understanding is still cloudy, giving us some reason to think we may be missing significant details which, if eventually found, could substantially revise our big picture understanding. However, citing such a possibility is not a particularly strong refutation of Carroll’s arguments.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Multiple ways of knowing, the holistic approach

By Mathew Goldstein

The US Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Council on Environment Quality published the “Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Indigenous Knowledge” which states that Multiple ways of knowing or lines of evidence can improve research outcomes and improve decision making.” It describes “Indigenous Knowledge” as follows: “Indigenous Knowledge is based in ethical foundations often grounded in social, spiritual, cultural, and natural systems that are frequently intertwined and inseparable, offering a holistic perspective. Indigenous Knowledge is inherently heterogeneous due to the cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic differences from which it is derived, and is shaped by the Indigenous Peoples’ understanding of their history and the surrounding environment. Indigenous Knowledge is unique to each group of Indigenous Peoples and each may elect to utilize different terminology or express it in different ways. Indigenous Knowledge is deeply connected to the Indigenous Peoples holding that knowledge.״

Guidance for federal departments and agencies interacting with indigenous nations and tribes arguably does not need to say anything about what knowledge is and who is knowledgeable. And insofar as it does discuss knowledge that topic should not be the central focus of such a document. Yet this particular guidance almost exclusively focuses on indigenous ways of knowing and science in contrast to, and in concert with, non-indigenous ways of knowing and “western” science, as if knowledge and science come in different flavors like ice cream does and we select our ways of knowing and science on personal and social group preferences like we select our clothing. 

Much of what this document says in this regard is dubious, starting with the theme that there are multiple, coequal ways of knowing which vary by group and individual identities. While multiple lines of evidence can improve decision making - the more relevant lines of evidence taken into account the better - how does “multiple ways of knowing” also achieve that goal? This document repeatedly asserts that Native American ways of knowing are coequal to alternative ways of knowing of nonNative Americans. What about various coequal ways of knowing for different Protestant denominations? Are there coequal Confucian ways of knowing? This document does not say, but the implication is that each group has its own, equally valid, way of knowing.

Grounding knowledge in ethical foundations is a mistake common to religious beliefs. The operation of the universe may be, and as far as we can see from the available evidence actually is, ethically indifferent. Deriving knowledge from ethical foundations simultaneously results in unreliable knowledge claims and unreliable ethics. To be non-fictional ethics needs to be grounded in knowledge and knowledge needs to be derived from evidence. So the sequence is evidence first (not “social, spiritual, cultural, and natural systems”) as the foundation for knowledge second as a grounding for ethics third, not the other way around.

This White House document, while it has good intentions, is misguided. Knowledge claims need to be properly justified with evidence to be valid. Both indigenous and non-indigenous people are prone to pass on stories of their history or how the universe operates over many generations that are false. The mere fact that a group of people claim to speak about their own history or in accord with their own experience  does not suffice to establish that their understanding of their history, or of how the universe works, is true. Nor does the observation that they adopt a more holistic approach give their understandings of how the universe works additional credence. On the contrary, insofar as a more holistic approach equates with claiming knowledge outside of, and beyond the reach of, what the available evidence supports, that is a counter-productive recipe for overstating and exaggerating claims of possessing true knowledge.

This document is counter-productively slighting and denigrating the distinction between well justified knowledge claims anchored in overall best fit with available evidence and poorly evidenced or non-evidence assertions being misrepresented as knowledge. The standard for what qualifies as knowledge should not, and does not, vary by tribe, by ethnicity, by race, by culture, by location, or by any individual or group identities. This should be obvious, but sadly, as this document demonstrates, it is not, at least not for the US federal government executive branch responsible for overseeing science policy. IMO, this is a symptom of an overreaching politicization of our governments and of our institutions more generally.

Believing in a single unitary religion, both Protestants and Catholics sometimes viewed non-Christians who were also neither Jewish or Muslim as suitable either for conversion to the true faith or worthy only of death or enslavement. This attitude, baked into mistaken religious beliefs, which in turn are rooted in incompetent epistemology, shaped the Europeans’ relations with Africans as well as Native Americans. This attitude also spilled over into similarly negative attitudes towards Jews and Muslims, and also contributed to warfare between different groups of self-identifying Christians. Native Americans were among those who suffered the ugly consequences of this arrogance. It is a misdirected and counterproductive mistake to try to redress and counter this history by disputing and attacking the epistemological foundation of reliable knowledge formation.

We do not know the long-term impacts

By Mathew Goldstein

Dr. Hilary Cass, former President of the Royal Colleg of Pediatrics and Child Health, recently submitted her final report and recommendations to the National Health Services (NHS) England in her role as Chair of the Independent Review of gender identity services for children and young people. The report concluded that “for most young people, a medical pathway will not be the best way to manage their gender-related distress”. Five European countries, Finland, Sweden, France, Norway, and the U.K. have recently restricted hormone treatments for adolescents and pre-adolescents with gender distress who are not intersex/hermaphroditic because of a lack of evidence of the benefits and concern about medium and long-term harms. Intersex, defined as chromosomal and phenotype inconsistency or phenotype not classifiable, characterizes about 0.018% of people [Sax L. How common is intersex? a response to Anne Fausto-Sterling. J Sex Res. 2002 Aug;39(3):174-8. doi: 10.1080/00224490209552139. PMID: 12476264.].

Additional concerns cited in the report commissioned by the NHS include that “Social justice” ideology is driving medical decision-making, and “the toxicity of the debate” has created an environment “where professionals are afraid to openly discuss their views.” That “social transition”—when children assume other gender identities—is an “active intervention” that may set youths on a path to medical transition. And that this intervention may make gender dysphoria worse. That clinicians “are unable to reliably predict which children/young people will transition successfully and which might regret or detransition at a later date.” That a disproportionate number of patients were “birth registered females presenting in adolescence. . . . a different cohort from that looked at by earlier studies.”  That many parents feared their children had been medicalized by professionals who didn’t take other difficulties into account, “such as loss of a parent, traumatic illness, diagnosis of neurodiversity, and isolation or bullying in school.” That the majority of gender-dysphoric patients in early studies found that their symptoms desisted during puberty, with most coming out as gay or bisexual later.

IMO, adolescents can be encouraged to explore without medical interventions. We do not yet understand what we are doing to the young people who are being medically transitioned. There is some evidence that sex hormones have a role in brain developmentOne concern is that the brain is among the last organs to mature.  We should accumulate sufficient evidence to confidently estimate the benefit versus harm ratio with controlled and monitored trials first, before commercializing medical gender transitioning for young people

United States medical authorities are continuing to endorse and promote unquestioning, affirmation style, commercial medicalized gender transitioning for youth. We are doing so “on shaky foundations” according to Dr. Cass and a substantial number of other experts. Sex is observed, usually at birth, by looking at genitalia, with a chromosome assessment back up when genitalia do not suffice. Like eye color, fingerprint pattern, etc., sex is an observable biological reality. A babies name is assigned at birth. Yet the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics promote the less accurate and more politicized phrase “sex assigned at birth”. IMO, we should be protecting transgender people from hate and discrimination by expressing our solidarity with them and supporting their entitlement to be themselves and freely express themselves, not by obscuring or denying the facts about biological sex.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics unanimously voted to change its policy. It now bans transgender women athletes from participating in women’s sports. IMO, that is the better policy and other sports organizations should do the same. There are some sports competitions where male puberty has no impact on performance, but the impact of male puberty on sports performance is usually substantial, lasts for years or is irreversible, and is firmly evidenced.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Do US citizens distinguish opinions from facts?

 By Mathew Goldstein

A recent study by political science professor Jeffery J. Mondak and graduate student Matthew Mettler at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign [Mettler, M., & Mondak, J. J. (2024). Fact-opinion differentiationHarvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review] found that almost half of the people quizzed on 12 statements about current events failed to correctly identify which statements were factual and which were opinion. For respondents who were no more accurate overall in categorizing the questions than a coin toss, the failures were not random. Instead, the failures were positively correlated with the respondents partisan orientation for both Democratic and Republican respondents.

Facts that were unfavorable to the partisan orientation of the respondent were more often mis-categorized as opinion while opinions favorable to the partisan orientation of the respondent were more often mis-categorized as fact. Republicans exhibited a larger partisan bias when mis-categorizing the questions than Democrats. A confounding factor is that factual statements which are false are likely to be mis-categorized as being opinion. A false factual statement was included to measure that tendency. The study did not include any statements that qualify as assumptions (speculation on a future fact). For more information see Study: Americans struggle to distinguish factual claims from opinions amid partisan bias

Monday, January 22, 2024

Robert P. Jones on the hidden roots of white supremacy

 By Mathew Goldstein

Robert P. Jones is the president and founder of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). He is the author of  The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future (published September 5, 2023). His talk at the FFRF Convention is good, if you have not yet seen it then you may want to take a listen below. Protestants inherited a religiously based supremacist attitude from the Catholic Church predating the start of Protestantism that they brought with them to America. Native Americans and Africans were guilty of not being Christian and ipso facto were disrespected as justified in the 1452-1493 Doctrine of Discovery which was repudiated by the Catholic Church last year. 

I have not read his book but I skeptical there is a strong argument that this Christian history was very influential in the writing of the constitution and laws here hundreds of years later. By the time of the Declaration of Independence there appears to have been a considerable amount of tolerance for religious pluralism, at least among the signers, who were determined to try to avoid repeating the religious rancor and warfare between Christians in Europe. They went as far as rejecting any religious test for government office and decreeing free exercise and non-establishment of religion. But this does not mean that Christian supremacist beliefs had no role in promoting the mistreatment of Native Americans and Africans.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Biologist wrongly demonized by Harvard University

 By Mathew Goldstein

Carole Hooven was a lecturer in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. She’s also the author of the popular book T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us. Her story, which she describes in her article, Why I left Harvardis one of multiple instances of various public institutions systematically promoting an intolerant, narrow, censorious, overly politicized, opinion conforming demanding, climate. In this particular example, personal attacks were deployed against Hooven by various individuals who had the authority to speak on behalf of Harvard. 

The goal of these attacks is to indiscriminately suppress any conclusion, regardless of how epistemologically valid that conclusion is, that conflicts with conclusions promoted under the misleading banner of “DEI”. Conflicting conclusions that are epistemological valid pose a bigger threat to critical social justice ideology by virtue of being epistemological valid, thus provoking a stronger counter reaction. Critical social justice promotes a fundamentally illiberal framework that prioritizes the ideology over epistemological validity and over merit.

What Hooven says that makes her a target of vitriol is absolutely true: there are just two biological sexes, defined by whether a body is set up to produce large, immobile gametes (females) or small mobile gametes (males). People who are hermaphrodites are almost invariably sterile, and they, along with intersex individuals, comprise about 0.018% of the populationThere are no intermediate gametes and thus there is no third sex across the entire animal and plant kingdoms. The English language word that most accurately characterizes this probability distribution is “binary”. This is not a matter of controversy among sensible biologists. 

In contrast, the sociocultural and mental construct known as “gender” is more of a continuum. The gender probability distribution is difficult to characterize or draw because different people self-identify with many different genders that sometimes may change year to year or even day to day. Most biological males and females match their gender with their biological sex so that the probability distribution resembles a bimodal distribution.

Some of the innocent people being tarred this way, such as Carole Hooven, are secular liberals. Some of the people demonizing innocent people are also secular liberals. The problem is not who is targeting who, although it needs to be said that the intramural aspect of this conflict between liberals is not good for liberalism. The problem is the wielding of a simplistic, dubious, and narrow conception of “social justice” with a religiously ideological and self-righteously intolerant zeal as a cudgel to excuse an ugly demonization of innocent people for the purposes of punishing those who do not self-censor and intimidating other people into selective silence. DEI initiatives can be valuable insofar as they overcome obstacles that were created from bigoted discrimination. But insofar as DEI initiatives instead focus on denigrating and abandoning merit as a tactic to promote equality of outcomes, a.k.a. equity, promoting identity based reverse discrimination, a.k.a. antiracism, defining individuals as oppressors or oppressed by their group memberships,  a.k.a. intersectionality, and the like, while also insisting that everyone pledge allegiance to, and endorse, these conclusions to qualify for admission or employment, it becomes more of a problem than an asset.

To attempt to justify this the left cites the right. The left and right are both committed to this tactic of playing off of each. They both adopt unreasonable ideology driven positions and then claim anyone who does not adopt the same unreasonable position is abetting the other side. This is a fallacious and cynical game of burdening innocent reasonable people with responsibility for the unreasonableness of others that should be rejected. So to avoid any misunderstanding, those of us who say biological sex has a binary probability distribution will also say that transgender medical technology is justified because there is evidence that it benefits some people and therefore should be legal (with restrictions when needed to reduce the risk of harm, particularly for young people). Equal opportunity is a bedrock ethical principle (unlike equality of outcome). Immutable traits that define who we are should not be grounds for denying equality of opportunity. 

Male puberty alters sports related physical capabilities, to some extent irreversibly, and this has genuine, practical implications for sports that are sex segregated. It is unfair to female athletes to allow transgender women to participate wholesale in female segregated sports. Transgender women with sexually functionally penises pose a potential real world risk to other women in some contexts (for example, shared prison cells). Insofar as the left refuses to acknowledge this, the left is wrong. Sometimes the people who are the most insane are on the left.

Two related videos and related link FIRE sues to stop California from forcing professors to teach DEI (I agree with the plaintiffs and hope they win).

Monday, January 01, 2024

Concerns about gender affirming care

By Mathew Goldstein

Dr. Riittakerttu Kaltiala was the chief psychiatrist in Finland at one of the first clinics devoted to the treatment of gender-distressed young people. She recently went public with her opposition to the gender affirming protocol where adolescents self-diagnose themselves that she claims originated in the United States and is still widely practiced in the United States with the ongoing support of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Both organizations arrogantly deny credentialed experts within the profession who are dissenters an opportunity to argue in favor of adopting more guardrails at their conferencesRead her article Gender-Affirming Care Is Dangerous. I Know Because I Helped Pioneer It. 

Scientists and public-health officials in Finland, Sweden, France, Norway, and the U.K. are warning that, for some young people, gender transition medical interventions may be doing more harm than good. Handing off the responsibility for deciding how to proceed to self-diagnosing pre-adolescents and adolescents and their parents is arguably more a self-serving shirking of responsibility than an act of benevolence by the medical establishment. Medical treatment policies should be set to match the available evidence regarding what works best regardless of the agenda of activists. To reduce the substantial risk of doing harm clinicians should adopt a more skeptical, restrained, conservative approach to gender transitioning medical interventions, including hormone blockers, when treating young people.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

U..S. Government misrepresents presidential oath history again

 By Mathew Goldstein

The United States Government Publishing Office hosts Ben’s Guide, which is self-described thusly: “Ben's Guide to the U.S. Government, a service of the Government Publishing Office (GPO), is designed to inform students, parents, and educators about the Federal Government, which issues the publications and information products disseminated by the GPO’s Federal Depository Library Program. It is our hope that Ben’s Guide to the U.S. Government fulfills that role.” They feature a web page titled Oath of Office which makes several misleading claims about presidential oath history.

Until recently they made the following statement with no qualifications: “The President-elect places the left hand on the Bible, raises the right hand, and takes the Oath as directed by the Chief Justice.“ Recognizing that this was not always true, they removed that sentence and added this short paragraph: “The Constitution does not say what the swearing-in must include. While most Presidents-elect chose a Bible, as George Washington did, John Quincy Adams used a book of law, and Teddy Roosevelt did not use any book.” While this is now arguably more accurate, it is still wrong.

First of all, George Washington’s second inauguration did not feature a Bible, so this must be referring to his first inauguration. There was no federal Chief Justice nor any applicable federal oath law (aside from the words of the presidential oath in the constitution) at that time. The oath was therefore administered in New York by the New York State chief judge, Chancellor Robert Robert Livingston, pursuant to New York State law. Swearing on, and kissing, the Bible were state legal mandates (the only legal alternative was to uplift one hand, or both hands , and swear to the “everliving God”) that were repealed in the early 1800’s. George Washington did not choose a Bible, the Bible was imposed on him.

Secondly, John Quincy Adams did not swear his oath of office on a book of laws as an alternative to doing so on a Bible as implied. He read the oath of office from the law book, see March 12, 1825 Niles Weekly Register. It is of historical significance that Chief Justice Marshall relied on a law book for the presidential oath recitations. He administered the oath of office nine times, more often than any other Chief Justice, starting with Thomas Jefferson in 1801. It is likely that most (maybe all) of those early inaugural oath recitations were read from a small law book (a Bible was added for Andrew Jackson’s inauguration). Adams wrote that he witnessed the identical oath protocol four years earlier at James Monroe inauguration, see J. Q. Adam’s diary for 6 March 1821Therefore, it is misleading to imply that John Q. Adams’ inauguration was unique in this regard by singling him out as an exception.