Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, and a review of reviews

Reviewed By Bill Creasy

At a recent meeting of the Human Values Network, we used a review of Yuval Harari's book Homo Deus, called "In a robot showdown, humanity may happily surrender" by Matthew Hutson, Washington Post, March 9, 2017, as a starting point for a discussion. Harari's book is a discussion of the future of humanity in response to advances in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. The review of the book raised some interesting as well as irritating issues, so I will point out the issues from some of the other reviewers as well as from myself. The reviews of the book have interesting points by themselves. Also, it's easier for me to be critical by quoting someone else. For example, this is a comment by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker about the book: "with Harari's move from mostly prehistoric cultural history to modern cultural history, even the most complacent reader becomes uneasy encountering historical and empirical claims so coarse, bizarre, or tendentious." I wouldn't be able to top a comment like this.

To be fair, there are many ideas in the book that are sensible and justifiable. Harari's previous book, Sapiens, was a capsule description of the history of human civilization. This book continues that story with a summary of the past, consideration of the present society, and speculation about the future of humanity. According to Harari, most of human history and prehistory has been a fight against the triple problems of famine, pestilence (diseases and plagues), and warfare. To a large extent, these problems have been solved, at least to the extent that we humans decide to solve them. We know what to do to solve the problems, and we aren't at the mercy of random events that we have to attribute to a deity. This is a recent development. The author has a belief in progress and that the progress will be driven by science and technology. The principle of evolution is a starting point for his arguments. 

So the question is, what will people be concerned with in the future that will have the same importance as the struggle against famine, pestilence, and warfare? The book is an effort to ask this question, but the answers are less satisfactory. Part of the problem is the basic issue of describing the past as opposed to trying to predict the future, which is obviously more difficult. However, the book is witty and well-written, and there isn't much technical jargon, so it provides food for thought. I'm particularly interested in the way he talks about the following four issues.

I. Harari's humanism
The major issue for Humanists (with a big “H”) is Harari's ideas about, or definition of, humanism (with a small “h”). Harari wrote that "humanists worship humans" (Chap. 2) . The statement is questionable on its face, since most Humanists would disagree. But this is a statement that is hard to interpret. It appears that Harari means something new for the purpose of his argument.

According to a review by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker,
"'Humanism,' for instance, ordinarily signifies, first, the revival of classical learning in the Italian Renaissance... to place a new value on corporeal beauty, antique wisdom, and secular learning.... By 'humanism' Harari means, instead, the doctrine that only our feelings can tell us what to do--that 'we ought to give as much freedom as possible to every individual to experience the world, follow his or her inner voice and express his or her inner truth.'”
A reviewer called Flatiron John on Amazon.com is harder on Harari, saying, 
“He really dislikes humanism: he inaccurately states its tenets, and then repeatedly mocks it (for example, as promoting indulgent consumerism and sex). He claims that humanism is what is giving rise to an emerging cybernetic dystopia.... Harari is abusing the word 'humanism,' as a canvas on which to paint his caricature of modern liberal culture ('liberal' in the classical sense, not in the sense of left-wing politics). He is not really interested in what humanist writers and philosophers have actually said, and does not reference their works. He claims that humanism promotes the belief in a supernatural free will (when in fact, humanists value agency and freedom, but have differing opinions on free will). He claims that humanism believes in an indivisible self/soul (when in fact, psychologists since Freud have a different understanding). And he claims that humanism believes that individuals always know best about their own needs (when in fact, many have emphasized the importance of education in our development--he does not even reference John Dewey).”
Harari wrote in addition about humanism, 
"In fact, humanism shared the fate of every successful religion, such as Christianity and Buddhism. As it spread and evolved, it fragmented into several conflicting sects. All humanist sects believe that human experience is the supreme source of authority and meaning, yet they interpret human experience in different ways."
 According to Harari, the three rival branches of humanism are orthodox humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism. Then, even more strangely, he reinterprets the history of the 20th Century as a conflict between these three branches. Orthodox humanism represents liberal democracy, socialist humanism is Soviet communism, and evolutionary humanism is Nazism and Fascism. It goes without saying that no modern Humanist (with a capital H) would claim that communism or Nazism are part of humanist thought. Yet Harari's definition is broad enough to encompass them. 

The reviewer Rod Dreher wrote “Three Rival Humanisms” in The American Conservative (March 28, 2017) with this quote from Harari, and there is a long discussion in the letter column following his article that includes thoughtful conservative and Christian humanist points of view. 

Harari avoids jargon from terms with specialized meanings, but instead he redefines common terms to mean something that most people wouldn't agree with. He uses the term “humanism” differently than anyone in the Humanist movement would use it. No Humanist would say that humanism has “factions.” In some ways, his definition seems a little condescending, as if he is trying to distance himself from being a part of humanism. For example, he writes seriously about whether animals have real emotions, but in the chapter on humanism, he only talks about human “feelings” as the measure of importance and meaning. Rationality doesn't seem to have much impact on his humanism. Instead, he uses humanism as a kind of cultural trend to use people's happiness or suffering as measures of good or bad actions. He has some interesting ideas along the way, and he gives an unusual perspective. But he uses very general, broad overview, and avoids the specific. 

It's not easy to know how to interpret Harari's ideas in terms of the movement of Humanism. But perhaps the lesson is simply this: humanism is a important term and an old concept, and if we want to control the term as a designation of the Humanist movement, we have to be careful about controlling the meaning and usage of the term. We have to criticize people like Harari who try to make it mean something else.
II. Religion
Harari has some clever words about religion. Again, he uses the term “religion” to mean something that most religious people wouldn't accept, to the degree that humanism can be classified by him as a religion. According to Harari, 
“religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. It legitimises human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.” (Chap. 5).
 Harari redefines religion as a general worldview, but he eliminates a lot of common features of religion, like ritual and church organization. This may be one aspect of religion, but it ignores many other aspects that people think of as belonging to religion. In addition, it implies that there is something about humanism that involves superhuman legitimacy.

There are indications that Harari looks at religion in a flippant or condescending way. Nate Hopper quotes Harari in person in his Time magazine interview,  
“How might Homo sapiens find a sense of self-worth if technology can do their work better than they? One answer from experts is that computer games will fill the void. And they sound scary and dystopian until you realize that actually for thousands of years humans have been playing virtual reality games. Up until now, we simply called them religions.” 
 So his thoughts on religion have to be interpreted cautiously, with an effort to understand whether he is talking about actual religion or his definition of religion. That makes it particularly easy to take quotes out of context.

III. Future human goals
In the last third of the book, Harari describes some future scenarios for goals that humans may have. In general, he suggests that humans will seek after “immortality, bliss, and divinity.” These represent absolutist goals to continue the fight against famine, pestilence, and warfare, where immortality is the progress against death, bliss is the search for ideal happiness and satisfaction of our material needs, and divinity represents power and control over nature. Humans may never get to the ultimate achievement of these goals, but that won't keep people from trying or from making progress.

The book is weaker when discussing the technologies to use to make the progress. These involve some extrapolation of current technologies toward speculative or science fiction ideas: genetic engineering to produce humans with biologically superior physical or mental abilities, and artificial intelligence to produce evolving computers that could surpass human intelligence. Neither of these is a particularly novel idea, and not much is contributed from this book, either in understanding the technologies or in anticipating ethical dilemmas. For example, Ray Kurzweil and Gregory Paul, among others, have advocated for the development of artificial intelligence that may surpass human intelligence. Harari refers to these superior humans as the “Homo Deus” of the title, as if they become literal gods, even if they are perhaps only analogous to the Greek pantheon. But the use of the word “god” is unspecific and misleading, to go along with his definitions of humanism and religion. He proposes that “techno-humanism” will be a new religion, with humans still the center of philosophy and values but with technologically improved humans to replace the current variety. His idea of the goal of the future humans sounds like a theistic goal of bliss, immortality, and divinity, rather than practical progress toward these ideals with real technology.

Ashutosh S. Jogalekar wrote in a customer reviewer on Amazon.com
 “The problem is that Mr. Harari is an anthropologist and social scientist, not an engineer, computer scientist or biologist, and many of the questions of AI are firmly grounded in engineering and software algorithms. There are mountains of literature written about machine learning and AI and especially their technical strengths and limitations, but Mr. Harari makes few efforts to follow them or to explicate their central arguments. Unfortunately there is a lot of hype these days about AI, and Mr. Harari dwells on some of the fanciful hype without grounding us in reality. In short, his take on AI is slim on details, and he makes sweeping and often one-sided arguments while largely skirting clear of the raw facts. The same goes for his treatment for biology. He mentions gene editing several times, and there is no doubt that this technology is going to make some significant inroads into our lives, but what is missing is a realistic discussion of what biotechnology can or cannot do. It is one thing to mention brain-machine interfaces that would allow our brains to access supercomputer-like speeds in an offhand manner; it's another to actually discuss to what extent this would be feasible and what the best science of our day has to say about it.”
 The other possible future religion that Harari proposes is “dataism”, the idea that “the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing” (Chap 11). This is an interesting idea, but it is odd to think that the quantity of data is important, rather than the way it is processed into useful information. We can consider a website like Wikipedia, which is notable not for the quantity of information (even though it is large), but for the fact that it has well-organized, well-written, and comprehensive information. I recently heard a National Capital Area Skeptics lecture by Susan Gerbic, who is organizing a group Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, that is dedicated to increasing the skeptical content of Wikipedia entries. Adding to Wikipedia is certainly a calling or perhaps even an obsession, and it takes a librarian's interest in cataloging information so it's accessible. But it doesn't seem like a religion. (It may qualify as a religion under Harari's definition, but it's hard to tell.) So it isn't clear why “dataism” would appeal to anyone in any sense of the term religion. Why would it satisfy a human need for meaning in life? 

IV. Group Evolution 
 Group evolution can contribute to the questions that Harari addresses. Groups and organizations are important for human evolution, and they will continue to be important in the future. Large groups may become more important in determining the direction of future society than individuals. In some ways, individuals may have to tolerate inconveniences in order to keep society working well. 

Harari mentions the importance of groups and cooperation among humans in producing society. In fact, he discusses an interesting classification of information he calls “intersubjective”, in addition to objective and subjective information. Intersubjective information “depends on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans” (Chap.3). For example, items like money, language, and law are classified as intersubjective, since they don't exist unless many people use them. Harari makes the mistake of referring to these items as “fictions,” since they aren't objectively real in the same way as physically real objects. 

But this kind of information is the kind that is evolving in group evolution, so it is far from fictional. In fact, it is important to understand how this information is stored, passed along, and selected for. We probably need to know a lot more about that. 

David Runciman says in his review the The Guardian
“Harari thinks the modern belief that individuals are in charge of their fate was never much more than a leap of faith. Real power always resided with networks. Individual human beings are relatively powerless creatures, no match for lions or bears. It's what they can do as groups that has enabled them to take over the planet. These groupings - corporations, religions, states - are now part of a vast network of interconnected information flows.”
 But the importance of groups doesn't imply that individual humans are unimportant, that they don't matter, or that they are powerless to influence the future. Individuals are important, but not in the way that people may commonly think. We aren't cowboys who must fend for ourselves or our families. We are stuck with each other, whether we like it or not. We have to think of the best ways to get along, and there's nothing fictional about that. 

Individuals come up with new technologies and with new kinds of organization. More important, the new inventions only matter because a large number of people adopt them and find them useful. For example, the cell phone was developed and improved by a large number of people, and it influences current culture because almost everyone has gotten one. This doesn't indicate that individuals are powerless; it shows they have similar needs and adopted a new technology that helps to solve them. It also shows that humans pass along the “intersubjective” information that makes group evolution evolve and change. 

Group evolution indicates that the selection process will happen for many kinds of new technology. There may be new biological modifications that can be done on humans, as Harari indicates. The ones that will have the most impact will be the ones that are accepted by a lot of people, perhaps such as the ones that lengthen lifespan. But we can also imagine genetic engineering that will turn people blue or grow wings. But if these changes are not widely accepted, or if they don't solve a social problem, they won't make much difference. Some people may make the change out of vanity, or because they have a lot of money to spend on a luxury, but those with the alterations will be a small minority. This is the kind of selection criterion that group evolution can apply to a plan for the future which Harari should have tried to take into account. 

Artificial intelligence will likely make a significant difference, once the right kind of algorithms are developed. Again, the ones that will make a difference will solves a problem with the group. For example, modern economists are making an effort to understand a country's economy and how the distribution of money affects it. They try to make rules and generalizations to simplify the economy and to figure out how to understand it. However, a large enough artificial intelligence computer will not need to simplify the economy. It will simply keep track of all transactions by brute data processing. If a person loses a job because the job is obsolete, artificial intelligence can identify that person, find a related new job, and make sure the person is trained for it. Does this mean that the person is not in control? Not really, since they can refuse to do the new job. But artificial intelligence will solve a problem for them, if they want to solve it. This will be progress. 

It is likely that the artificial intelligence programs will start to evolve by themselves, since they will be too complex for human programmers. The real problem is setting up the artificial intelligence so that it will evolve toward the socially useful purpose. An AI shouldn't be designed to evolve for finding better ways to kill people; that would be a mistake. It might succeed too well. This isn't a small problem to worry about. The Department of Defense has a lot of money to spend on the problem of targeting “bad guys.” But if an AI gets smart enough, will it notice that it can be really difficult to tell the difference between good guys and bad guys? Will it decide that the bad guys are the ones asking it to kill people? Or will it just notice that there are really too many human beings alive to be supported comfortably on the planet, and things would be better with fewer people? From our perspective, these might be unfortunate conclusions for it to arrive at, if it has the power to do something about it. 

A lot of the current generation of internet technology is designed to keep people online and using the technology. Facebook is trying to keep people on, because that is the way that they make more money from advertising. Television programs, from the original ones in the 1950's to the current generation, are usually paid for by advertising, so they get paid for “eyeballs” of people watching. The programs are designed to keep people watching. Does this solve a real social problem? 

The AI may not need to be designed to act like a human being. We have enough human beings, why build more? But if robots can be built to perform jobs that humans are not really good at, they will probably be built and used. The problem is then finding things for the humans to do to earn a living. This isn't an impossible problem, as long as the robots are producing all the things that humans need. It is just a question of distributing the things, and then telling the humans that they can do whatever they want. Would that be so bad? 

V. Conclusion 
It is difficult to say that Harari's book is not good, since it has a lot of good information, it uses some good assumptions about the future, and there are a lot of interesting ideas. But it has limitations. It defines terms like humanism and religion in a way that isn't accurate and could lead to misunderstandings. The ideas “techno-humanism” and “dataism” are really odd ideas about what humans need to make life matter. Because it doesn't include group evolution, it doesn't have an important criterion for evaluating future changes. But the book provides food for thought, and that is not a bad thing. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Maajid Nawaz files lawsuit against the SPLC

By Mathew Goldstein
The Quilliam Foundation is a counter-extremism think tank that was co-founded by Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz, former activists in the radical Islamist party Hizb ut-TahrirQuilliam's argument is that the government should not only tackle those advocating terrorist violence, but should also focus on those who have the same views, even if they adopt peaceful meansSupporters say this is necessary to tackle the roots of terrorist violence for the long term.  Critics of the foundation accuse it of McCarthyite smear tactics, brand its claims ridiculous, and say the foundation labels vast swathes of Muslim Britain as extremist.  It can be difficult to know who is right without knowing more about the Muslim groups that Quilliam criticized.  But based on what Nawaz says and writes in general, he sounds like a reasonable, moderate, guy and not at all like an "anti-Muslim extremist" that the Southern Poverty Law Center oddly rates him to be.

He is somewhat alarmist, using the adjective "insurgency" to describe the jihadist movement in Europe, which may describe how some jihadists see themselves.  His foundation depends on funding, so there is a self-interest for him to promote fear about the threat that his foundation focuses on.  Quilliam receives funding from the conservative leaning Templeton Foundation which spends tens of millions of dollars a year to promote the popular but dubious view that exclusively naturalistic science and supernatural theistic religions are mutually consistent and supportive.  Nawaz's estimates of the overall numbers of violence prone "jihadists", and non-violent but potentially jihad violence supporting Islamists, in Britain are somewhat high but appears to be defensible.  He says there are 23,000 extremists, which is the sum of the 3,000 currently under investigation plus the 20,000 previously under investigation and still listed by the government as people of interest (some of the people accused of participating in attacks are among those on this latter list).  He estimates there are about three times as many sympathizers out of about "4 million" British Muslims, which is between 2-3% total.  

None of this qualifies him as being an extremist of any sort. Nawaz is a secularist Muslim, his expressed views are consistently anti-extremist.  People like him do not threaten the civic equality (let alone the lives) of atheists, gays, Jews, Christians, women, music band and night club attendees, or other Muslims like extremists do.  Here is the recent video of Bill Maher's interview of Maajid Nawaz.  Free speech protection is legally favored which makes it difficult for defamation lawsuits to prevail in the United States.  Accordingly, SPLC may be exonerated under the standards set in our laws, but they are guilty of defamation regardless of the lawsuit's final outcome.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Douglas Navarick's false equivelancy

By Mathew Goldstein

Douglas J. Navarick is a Professor of Psychology at California State University.  He is sometimes published in Skeptic magazine.  His perspective is that many atheists are not skeptical, but are instead dogmatic, and thus suffer from a similar, if not identical, pathology as the hyper-religious.  His opposition to dogmatic thinking is well-grounded, but his method of identifying dogmatic thinking is mistaken.  Navarick claims that the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism —Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, share "the off putting dogmatism of the hyper-religious".  I disagree and I am going to try to explain where I think Navarick is wrong.

Navarick argues that the evidence for ESP is greater than the evidence for abiogenesis.  He says the evidence for the former is at best weak, but the evidence for the latter is non-existent.  This is one of his mistakes.  Macroevolution is evidence for abiogenesis because they are logically related to each other probabilistically.  If macroevolution was disproved then life would be more likely to be a supernaturalistic phenomena and abiogenesis, because it is the naturalistic explanation for the start of life, would be less probable.  Similarly, if the one to one relationship between chemistry and biology was disproved then life would be more likely to be a supernaturalistic phenomena and abiogenesis would be less probable.

Navarick, like many other non-atheists, has this big blind spot.  He does not acknowledge the logical connection between macroevolution being a strictly naturalistic phenomena, life being a strictly naturalistic phenomena, and life having a strictly naturalistic origin.  All evidence for one is evidence for the latter, and vica versa, yet Navarick basis his argument on a refusal to acknowledge this.  Instead, he downplays the significance of the logical connection between physics, chemistry, and biology each being exclusively naturalistic to advance his argument that life itself is supernaturalistic.

He defines God thusly: "A willful, creative, force that transcends material reality and operates both through and independently of natural laws."  Any force that operates through natural laws would appear to us as natural laws.  To justifiably conclude otherwise we would need good evidence that natural laws by themselves are insufficient.  Contrary to what Navarick tries to argue, we have no good evidence that natural laws are by themselves insufficient.  What remains are God of the gaps arguments which are weak arguments.  If that is how God operates then God is hiding from us and therefore we should disbelieve in God.

Navarick claims that his God theory makes "a strong prediction" that efforts to create living cells will fail.  This is a good example of a weak, God of the gaps argument.  This is because we can expect efforts to create living cells to fail for other reasons that are consistent with abiogenesis being true.  In particular, abiogenesis may be a rare, and slow to occur, process.  We do not have a full understanding of the physical conditions at the time and place life began and we cannot go back in time to witness it.  There was a lot of time, water, molecules, heat, comets and meteorites, minerals, solar radiation, variations in local conditions, etc. for a rare abiogenesis process to occur once naturally, and the required combinations of events may be complex and very difficult to identify and reproduce.

He also cites the lack of evidence for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe as evidence for his God theory.  But it is not clear why his God failed to fill our universe with intelligent life, why his God relied on the cruelty intrinsic to evolution as the natural law to disguise her presence, why his God first placed us humans on this particular isolated planet and Galaxy so many billions years after the universe began, why his God would create such an expansive universe beyond what we need, the origin of his God, etc.  In contrast, there are naturalistic explanations for our not yet encountering other intelligent life.  Multi-cellular life may be much slower and less likely to evolve than single celled life, intelligent life may be too fragile to usually survive for long in our frequently harsh to life universe, the tremendous distances between galaxies and stars make it less likely we will encounter intelligent life, and our searches to date may not be looking at good signals or in the best locations.

Navarick proposes that life is an independent property that catalyzes biochemical reactions without actually participating in these reactions.  Life, he argues, thus precedes the reactions, it does not result from them.  He cites as evidence cryopreservation, where "all biochemical activity ceases ... but the cells remain alive".  Yet there is nothing about cryopreservation that is inconsistent with life consisting of biochemistry alone.  Life ceases when the biochemistry ceases due to insufficient temperature.  The biochemistry, and therefore life, resume when the minimum requisite temperature returns.  We encounter a similar phenomena of non-biological chemistry stopping, and then resuming, with changes in temperature without inferring a supernatural catalyzing force.

Navarick sounds desperate to retain supernaturalism against the odds.  As many hard skeptics do, he starts with a biased commitment to retaining the viability of supernaturalism against the evidence and then homes in on whatever excuses he can find.  From there he promotes his agnostic perspective as the most reasonable conclusion.  He acknowledges that theists and atheists can be agnostic and categorizes them as being reasonable, while claiming that gnostic theists and atheists are two equally dogmatic extremes, as if rational reasonableness is a synonym for the geometric middle ground between opposing positions.  

Navarick unfairly assumes any atheist who does not explicitly cite either evidence or uncertainty, without prompting, when explaining why they are an atheist, is dogmatic.  But empiricism is not a synonym for agnosticism, defined as being "without a claim of knowledge", as Navarick claims.  Empiricism can dictate a firm conclusion.  Navarick implicitly basis his argument for characterizing many atheists as being dogmatic on denying that evidence for naturalism is pervasive, diverse, and consistent, while evidence for supernaturalism is almost non-existent.  He does not explicitly concede that his argument rests on this assumption and that his argument is therefore biased against atheism.

It is no doubt true that some atheists adopt a somewhat circular, closed minded, dogmatic approach to justifying their atheism, like Navarick claims.  Not all atheists are epistemologically sophisticated.  However, Navarick's survey results, where he catagorizes atheists as nonbelievers, agnostic atheists, or gnostic atheists, and concludes that the category that by his measure was most popular, gnostic atheists, are dogmatic, is too flawed to provide an accurate measure of the prevalence of dogmatism among atheists.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Senators Sanders and Van Hollen v. Russell Vought

By Mathew Goldstein

Wheaton College, a Christian school, fired a political science professor for a Facebook post intended to express solidarity with Muslims. Russell Vought, the new nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, had defended the school in an article published in January 2016 on a conservative websiteDuring the hearing, Senator Sanders repeatedly quoted one passage from that article which he found to be objectionable: "Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned."

John 3:18 depicts Jesus as saying: “Whoever believes in [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”  Senator Sanders characterized Vought's conclusion thusly: “In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world..."  Obviously, insulting under a billion people would be better.  Let's get our priorities right, Mr. Vought should pay more attention to the demographics and less attention to the anonymous author of John 3:18.  Unfortunately, Mr. Vought prioritizes John 3:18 as if it was revealed to us by an all powerful god, and some of those aforementioned billion plus people anchor their beliefs similarly on their sacred holy books, rendering both groups prone to take great offense too easily while also being confidently and callously offensive against each other.

Russell Vought replied to Senator's Sanders' implied accusation that he is bigoted by citing the doctrine known as imago dei. “As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of their religious beliefs.”  Senator Sanders responded with incredulity that Vought respected "other religions".  But Vought did not say he respected other religions, he said he believes in respecting individuals regardless of their religious beliefs.  The question here is whether Vought's grounding his support for firing the professor in Christian doctrine is inconsistent with his assertion that his Christianity respects individual dignity without regard to religious beliefs.

What was troubling about Russell Vought's responses was his repeated assertions of religious motivations and justifications.  How about a straightforward "I believe that all individuals are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs" without attaching that sentiment to his religious identity and beliefs?  But to be fair to Vought, Sanders was challenging Vought's prior religiously motivated argument, so Vought had some reason to want to defend his religious beliefs in response.

Senator Sanders' is being reasonable in not respecting Vought's reliance on John 3:18, and I share Senator Sanders' strong dislike for that religious belief.  But is Vought therefore unfit to serve as the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget?  Senator Sanders repeatedly cited "Islamophobia" in his criticism of Vought.  Yet Senator Sanders himself was arguably exhibiting "Christianity-phobia" at the hearing.  People who keep railing one-sidedly against Islamophobia as the bigotry of the day that needs to be condemned tend to overlook an important detail: Insofar as the holy books of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism promote negative, harmful, and/or destructive, beliefs among some followers of those religions a corresponding amount of Islamophobia, Christianity-phobia, or Judaism-phobia directed against those religious beliefs is properly justified.

My own Senator, Chris Van Hollen, defended Senator Sanders, saying it’s “irrefutable” that comments like Vought’s suggest to many that he’s condemning all people who aren’t Christians. Well, yes, Vought is doing that, which reflects the negative influence of the Christian bible on his beliefs.  Senator Van Hollen then defended his Christian faith by asserting that Vought’s Christianity is mistaken: “I’m a Christian, but part of being a Christian, in my view, is recognizing that there are lots of ways that people can pursue their God.” Van Hollen then said “No one is questioning your faith ... It’s your comments that suggest a violation of the public trust in what will be a very important position.”  But why must Vought share Van Hollen's view regarding what the bible directs Christians to believe to comply with "the public trust"?  Senator Van Hollen, like Senator Sanders, failed to make a good argument that Vought violates the public trust as a result of his interpretation of John 3:18.

Senators Sanders' and Van Hollen's insistence that the nominee expressed nothing other than respect for other religions in his prior publications as a criteria for being deemed worthy of serving in federal office is inappropriate.  No one fully respects the entirety of everyone else's religious beliefs.  Maybe religious beliefs are false?  Must we respect false beliefs?  Maybe different religious beliefs contradict each other?  What does it mean to respect beliefs that contradict our own beliefs?  The equating of a lack of respect for different religious beliefs with bigotry against individuals who profess those competing religious beliefs is unfair.  

Either Senator could have expressed concern that Vought's support for imposing religious belief mandates on a professor at a Christian college intoduces doubts about whether there would be equal treatment of the employees in the department under his leadership.  Requesting that Vought provide a yes or no response on whether it would be acceptable for the department to discriminate between prospective or current employees on the basis of particular beliefs, including atheism and Islam, or other personal characteristics that some Christians condemn, such as sex outside of marriage or same gender sex, would have provided us with a measure of the nominees commitment to the public trust.  They failed to do that.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Life, complexity, and negative entropy

By Mathew Goldstein

Our universe started in a very low entropy state and evolves toward a very high entropy state.   Any decrease of entropy on earth is more than offset by the increase in entropy on the sun.  Does life resist, or at least slow down, the universal increase in entropy?  Some people claim it does and they may then draw conclusions about human ethics from their belief that it does.  

I am skeptical that life slows down the rate of entropy increase.  I am also very skeptical that the answer to this question has any implications for human ethics.  I am wary of getting into discussions on technical topics like this.  I am not a scientist.  But for whatever it is worth, here is my explanation for my skepticism.

For each visible photon the earth absorbs from the sun the earth radiates back to space about 20 infrared photons (earth converts visible light energy absorbed from the sun to "heat" energy that it radiates back to space).  That is a net twenty fold increase in overall entropy.  The overall energy is unchanged (ignoring changes to atmospheric greenhouse gases, etc.) because the energy of one visible photon is twenty times greater than the energy of one infrared photon.  

The amount of solar radiation that is reflected back to space is referred to as the albedo.  Ocean surfaces and rain forests have low albedos, which means that they reflect only a small portion of the sun's energy. Deserts, ice, and clouds, however, have high albedos (desert sands get hot but they still reflect more sun light back into space than grasslands). Over the whole surface of the Earth, about 30 percent of incoming solar energy is reflected back to space.  Higher albedo reduces the rate that the Earth is contributing to entropy increase.  

Reflected light is a no change in entropy outcome relative to the no earth context and there is little increase in entropy overall because each photon mostly retains its preexisting concentrated energy status (although each photon becomes more separated from other photons).  A photon utilized photosynthetically by plants locally decreases entropy but it increases entropy overall because the photon itself is consumed, more than offsetting the decrease in entropy from the corresponding new plant tissue. In the short term my guess is that the entropy increases more in the latter scenario.

Entropy should not be confused with complexity.  Both low entropy and high entropy conditions are uniform and thus non-complex.  The highly lumpy, highly varied, far from equilibrium, conditions that characterize complexity reach their maximum when entropy is moderate.  Life, because it depends on complexity, is impossible in very low or high entropy conditions.  Moderate entropy is the current condition of our currently complex universe.  So life is consistent with current conditions.

How does low entropy life start given that entropy increases?   One way to try to tackle this question is to focus on metabolism.  The complex chemical pathway, catalyzed by metals such as iron, that converts carbon dioxide to methane, known as serpentinization, resembles the metabolic chemical pathways in some microbial life.  Some people speculate that life may have originated via such a pre-RNA "metabolism first" route.  

Adding hydrogen atoms to carbon is referred to as carbon hydrogenation.  Carbon dioxide molecules (one carbon and two oxygen atoms) have lower entropy than methane molecules (one carbon and four hydrogen atoms).  But all known paths from carbon dioxide to methane molecules have intermediary molecules that are lower entropy than carbon dioxide.   We can depict lower entropy as a higher elevation relative to higher entropy.  This analogy of higher entropy to lower elevation allows us to represent the pull toward higher entropy as being equivalent to the downward pull of gravity.  The overall path from carbon dioxide to methane is downhill.  But an initial uphill push that is offset by an increase in entropy overall is required to reach the peak and start the trip downhill.

No natural process, including metabolism, can occur unless it is accompanied by an increase in the overall entropy of the universe.  Life is not a substance or force.  Life is a process that is sustained by increasing entropy, it is an entropy generating machine. Life contributes to increasing entropy even though life itself is inconsistent with very high (and very low) entropy. A living organism is an open system, exchanging both matter and energy with its environment.

For example, an animal builds cells, tissues, ligaments, etc. This process increases order in the body and thus decreases entropy. This is the local "negative entropy" that characterizes all of life.  Animals also radiate heat into space, consume and break down energy-containing substances (i.e., food), and eliminate waste (e.g., carbon dioxide, water, etc.). When taking all these processes into account, the total entropy of the system (i.e., the animal together with the environment) increases. Although the details relevant to the calculations vary, this same result must also hold for photosynthetic plants and microorganisms.  

Life depends on, and affects, the overall increase in entropy.  Maybe the evolution of life favors a more efficient, and more entropy neutral, metabolism (for example, being sluggish and cold blooded) because that is more environmentally sustainable over the long term.  But I suspect that evolution also favors exploiting entropy increasing opportunities because that provides paths to competitive advantage (for example, active, intelligent, and warm blooded).  The more energy consumed by life the more entropy will increase because there is no possible path for life to utilize more energy without thereby also increasing overall entropy.   Increased efficiency maybe can reduce the entropy increase, but it does not alter the direction of this equation.

The decrease in albedo due to oceans, and the increase due to ice, suggests that physical features of planets, and their relationship with nearby stars, impacts the rate of entropy increase of planets independently of, and potentially more substantially than, any life that may reside on the planets.  It is not clear, at least not to me, that an overall decrease in the rate of entropy increase is an expected result, or a function, of life.  I think not. 

Honor and Group Evolution

By Bill Creasy

Honor is one of the greatest human virtues, and it is important for humanists. Everyone respects an honorable person, even if they disagree with the principle behind the honor. This is true even if the values of the person are not considered to be right, but the quality of honorableness is still respected. We might respect an honorable, patriotic Russian, if they have a reason for it, even if we disagree with the goal. A person who is dishonorable has only venal or petty motives, or perhaps motives that are inconsistent or poorly thought-out. What makes it so good to be honorable?

"Honour as a code of behaviour defines the duties of an individual within a social group," according to the Wikipedia "Honour" entry. Honor is often important for military behavior when it is difficult to write exact rules in unexpected situations. The military often has codes of honor that are strongly implanted during basic training. Military people who are trained this way will give their lives in the name of honor. There are honor codes in schools and universities to prevent cheating, without trying to specify every particular kind of cheating. The honor code is to stop cheating and to turn in other students if they are caught cheating. 

Honor is different from a rule of law in that a violation of an honor code can cause a violent or angry retribution, for example a duel, rather than a reliance on an established criminal justice system. People take honor seriously and personally, and they are willing to make a personal sacrifice to uphold it.

But honor is difficult to describe. It seems to operate in an emotional level. What is it, and how is it related to morality? Is it rational? It doesn't make sense in terms of classical evolution if an individual sacrifices themselves for honor when they should be looking out for their own survival as the primary imperative goal.

We can return to the ideas of group evolution to see if there is an explanation in human social development. I've presented the general ideas of group evolution before. A recent book by E. O. Wilson, "The Social Conquest of Earth," discusses group evolution, and some of its history going back to Darwin. There is still controversy about it among biologists.

I discussed previously in an article that we can look at morality in general as arising from interacts with groups of people. It encourages and rewards prosocial behavior (also inaccurately called altruistic behavior). The rules of group evolution indicate that prosocial actions are needed to keep groups together. But these prosocial actions can be a competitive disadvantage when individuals within a group compete. Because of morality, those people who do prosocial actions are considered to be good, admirable people. Hence, they get an advantage of a good reputation to compensate for their effort, which should also help the group according to group evolution.

In that sense, morality doesn't exist without interactions with a group of people. It makes sense in a theoretical framework of group evolution. It is the evolution of the group that supports morality so that the individual members of the group are rewarded for prosocial actions. Without group evolution, competition between individuals makes it more rational not to be moral and not to help the group. But groups made of these kinds of individuals won't persist.

The idea of honor is another facet of morality that makes sense in terms of group evolution, but doesn't make much sense without it. My explanation of honor is as follows. Humans are unusual as animals in that a lot of our behavior is centered around groups. Humans can belong to several groups at once, and they can have divided loyalties between the different groups. They have to make decisions about priorities about which group is the most important. To do this, people can't simply be thoughtless followers of one leader or members of one group. As a result of these conflicts, individuals don't just need rules about how to act morally in one group. They also need rules about rules, or perhaps "metarules." These metarules give priorities for deciding which of the groups that a person is involved with is the most important.

I propose that a person with honor has a complex, complete, well-thought-out set of priorities about what group is important. This kind of person consistently follows their own priorities and is called an honorable person. A person with honor doesn't make rash actions that have bad consequences for important groups at the expense of groups that are less important. (For this argument, an individual is a group of one, so honorable people usually don't necessarily think of their own personal benefit first.) An honorable person considers consequences and weighs the interests of different groups, and makes a decision to act to benefit the most important group.

The most common examples come from the military. An honorable soldier must weigh his or her own survival, the welfare of a small group like a platoon, and the benefit of the entire army, and the entire country. The soldier's job is to put their life on the line to defend the country. But that job involves a lot of day-to-day decisions. A soldier will act to save their own life if it is directly threatened and nothing else is at stake. But if the platoon is fighting, a soldier that just runs away to save his life is dishonorable. An honorable soldier stays with the group to help it win, even in spite of a threat to life. But if the small group does something unacceptable, like massacre civilians, the honorable soldier may abandon the small group and report its bad actions up the chain of command to a larger group. This may hurt the smaller group but maintain the honor of the larger army or country. These decisions require that the soldier choose to benefit the appropriate group.

Examples of honor as a conflict between groups come from the last election. I talked about Pres. Trump's conflicts of interest and preferences for particular groups in the previous article. Evaluating Trump's honor may still take time. He seems to be trying to keep campaign promises to people who voted for him. But he is also angering a lot of people who disagree with him. Can he find a way to work for the good of the country and unify people? Can he consider the long-term best interests of the country, or is he only able to think about short-term goals?

Another question that is currently being investigated is Trump's relationship to Russia. There are indications that he was cooperating with Russian officials, who helped him win the election. His alleged cooperation with Russia appears dishonorable, because it was done for his personal benefit to win the election and against the benefit of the U.S., the larger and more important group for a president. It is also dishonorable for him not to allow a thorough investigation to clear up the issue, including releasing his tax forms. The honorable action, which is good for the country, is to do a full investigation even if it might reflect poorly on Trump and the Republican party. The honorable action would clear up the question so that the country can be sure about whether to trust (or not trust) his ability to lead.

Another basic question of honor is loyalty to the political parties vs. loyalty to the U.S. government. The success of Republicans in winning state and federal elections reflects a long-term effort to make the party successful, even if it is at the expense of the country. This reflects the group evolution principle that selfish subgroups will succeed when they compete against more prosocial subgroups. As an example, Republicans have gerrymandered congressional districts and restricted voter access in a way that benefits themselves by allowing them to get more Congressional districts with fewer votes. Democrats have done similar things, but they tend to argue that it is done to increase minority representation in Congress in a way that benefits the country or improves democracy. Republicans claim they are helping the country by reducing voter fraud, but they haven't produced any evidence that there is any fraud, and they haven't explained why it appears that they are benefiting to get more Congressional districts. Therefore, I would argue that Republicans are being dishonorable by putting party before any benefits to the country. But this is debatable.

An example of a person who appears to have put party loyalty above country is Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. He maintained total obstruction of the Obama Administration proposals in the Senate, including the Supreme Court nominee, in order to benefit his party, without giving an explanation of why the president's proposals were bad for the country. 

Citizens are dependent on the honor of the winning candidate to at least try to govern well by putting the country's interest above his/her personal and party interests. Time will tell whether honor will win out for this president and his party, or whether their behavior will be judged as dishonorable by the voters. But the point is that honor is not an abstract, meaningless quality. Honor is an important quality that leaders should have in order to lead well. It is important that voters demand that candidates for political positions demonstrate that they have honor, and explain what issues they feel a need to be honorable about. If we elect leaders who behave honorably, the country and the government will be better. 
This article was previously printed in WASHline, the newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.