Sunday, June 26, 2022

Theism provides no how the universe functions answers

 By Mathew Goldstein

The following argument directed against atheism (“they” refers to atheists) appears in commentary recently published by the Daily News of Galveston Texas titled Atheists Can’t Answer Deepest Question With Science: “The problem they have is the following. Even perfected scientific reasoning fails to deliver a complete understanding of the most important features in our lives. Love, for instance. “ This is a common argument and I think it merits a response.

There is a tendency of religious believers to mis-sequence the steps for how we go about determining what is true about how the universe works The correct starting point is to evaluate logically what the universe itself empirically tells us about how it works. This method entails several constraints. It places limits not only on what we know, but also on what we can know. It is a method that tells us that since evidence is not always immediately and freely available therefore neither is knowledge. Instead it can be time consuming and costly to obtain. It tells us that knowledge is provisional, not absolute and permanently fixed. Our current state of knowledge sometimes can change based on new evidence or new logic derived understandings of what the available evidence implies. Over time our collective accumulation of knowledge increases.

As exemplified by the aforementioned commentary, religious believers sometime defend religious belief by arguing against the limits placed on knowledge due to the aforementioned practical epistemological constraints. They prefer to start instead with conclusions about how the universe should work to justify morality and on that basis conclude that the universe actually works that way. Or they start with whatever questions they prefer to answer and conclude the universe actually works the way that religious traditions, old books, and current day religious clerics claim provides the answers to those questions.

By that standard science appears to fall short. Science supposedly “says nothing about love, one of the most important features of our lives”. Science supposedly “doesn’t tell us the source of reasoning”. We do not yet know in detail exactly how life originated. Yet when we take empirical evidence seriously and try to stay informed about modern, empirically derived, knowledge, we find that it actually can, and does, tell us something about our experience of love, about our reasoning, about the origin of life, etc., in the form of biochemical correlates. Empirical evidence tells us that one of the underlying sources of biological structures, activities, and outcomes, including love and reasoning, is evolution by natural selection acting within biochemistry. The origin of life is also to be found in chemistry. Chemistry in turn operates within physics (it is not necessarily the case that there is always a single, monolithic, source). Whether this explanation qualifies as a “full understanding” in some ultimate sense is a philosophical question and is not as essential as some religious believers appear to claim. We are not all present and all knowing, no one is, so instant and absolute knowledge is impractical. It is unnecessary, unreasonable, and counter-productive to elevate the immediate current possession of absolute and complete knowledge, an impossibility, into something close to a requirement.

The problem here for religious beliefs is that on closer inspection religious beliefs actually provide us with *nothing* that qualifies as reliable knowledge about how the universe functions. This is true even with the more limited religious beliefs that attempt to confine themselves to filling in the gaps in our knowledge and on that basis self-claim to be compatible and consistent with science. For atheists who conclude that modern knowledge favors ontological naturalism over ontological supernaturalism, relying on the latter to fill in the knowledge gaps is already a counter-evidenced mistake, but even non-atheists can recognize the lack of evidence needed to properly justify doing that. Religion provides believers with an illusory feeling of providing instant, complete, absolute, total, comprehensive, and final answers in place of the substance of providing answers.

Religious believers who argue against the restrictions and limitations of adopting a disciplined epistemology do not recognize that their less disciplined method of determining what is true about how the universe works is so unconstrained and arbitrary that it could be utilized to simultaneously reach many different and mutually exclusive conclusions about how the universe works. Their undisciplined epistemology is too promiscuous to reliably get us to conclusions that are not fictions. This is a substantial problem, a bigger problem than some religious believers appear to be willing to acknowledge. It is a bigger problem than the problem of facing up to the reality, however uncomfortable this reality may be, that our knowledge about how the universe functions is, and probably always will be, provisional, non-absolute and incomplete, and is sometimes unavoidable slow, time consuming, and costly to obtain.

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Biological sex and gender disparities

 By Mathew Goldstein

My understanding is as follows: A female, a.k.a. a biological women, produces the larger and less mobile gamates. A male, a.k.a. a biological man, produces the smaller and more mobile gametes. Biological sex can usually be determined genetically. An analysis of chromosomes predicts which type of gamate a person produces close to, yet maybe slightly less than, 100% of the time.

People who are trans women are often, but not always, producers of male gamates, and vice versa for trans men. This renders them distinct from women who produce female gamates and men who produce male gamates. The production of gamates varies over time, but such chronological, age based, variations do not change the fact that most (but not all) trans people produce (or have produced, or will produce, or have the biological machinery to produce) the gamate type that defines their biological sex to be, at least partially, different from their self-identified gender. 

People, including trans people, usually experience puberty with either a male or a female hormone profile. Those two profiles are usually identifiably distinct. These two different puberty hormone profiles usually result in two identifiably distinct sets of physical changes which tend to be long lasting absent medical or surgical intervention.

There are relevant questions that appear to currently be difficult to properly answer without more information. To what extent, and how quickly or slowly, do the physical changes of puberty dissipate or reverse when trans people are subsequently given hormone treatments to match their preferred gender when their gender identity conflicts with their puberty? Do trans people given hormone treatments before or during puberty fare better or worse overall than those given hormone treatments after puberty? Are minors sufficiently knowledgeable and independent to opt to medically or surgically alter themselves without a substantial risk they will subsequently regret their decision? To what extent is the participation of trans women in various athletic activities that are restricted to women (because men have a substantial performance advantage) undermining the opportunity for non trans biological women to win those athletic competitions?

We can then proceed with identifying the negative facts that are antithetical to human flourishing, and what we can and should do to promote human welfare by countering those negative facts. So, for example, if the available evidence favors the conclusion that people who identify as trans gender benefit from being socially accepted with the gender they identify themselves as, then we should do that. If the available evidence favors the conclusion that various medical or surgical interventions to facilitate better matching of physical traits with gender identification are beneficial for trans gender people then we should do that. If the available evidence favors the conclusion that trans women who experienced male puberty retain similar advantages to biological men in some athletic competitions then we should favor such trans women competing with biological men in those athletic competitions. Etc.

Meanwhile, let’s not prioritize fixed conclusions over the evidence, or prematurely commit to conclusions lacking sufficient supporting evidence. It takes time and effort to collect and evaluate the evidence covering a variety of different possible better-versus-worse practice alternatives that only recently became widely available technically as a result of new medical and surgical capabilities. We should defer to the consensus of disinterested experts (people whose material well being is not changed from the results and who seek out and evaluate the relevant evidence). The evidence, even after it was obtained and evaluated, may sometimes fail to provide us with clear policy guidance. There can be trade offs without a single alternative or particular set of alternatives representing best practice. We should be willing to recognize and accept that outcome also.

Sabine Hossenfelder has commentary on her Backreaction blog Trans women in sports: Is this fair? Her article is good, but we sometimes disagree. Her conclusion is that fairness in sports competitions is illusive (in an absoluteness sense) and therefore the entertainment function has priority. I think the less fair a competition is the less entertaining it becomes insofar as the entertainment value is not sadistic, which is one of the reasons why an asterisk is placed next to the athletic achievement history of top athletes who are subsequently revealed to have taken performance enhancing drugs. She says that there is no problem when the hormone treatments began before puberty. While there may be no significant problem with that in the sports competition context, for a child who transitioned early there potentially can be life long negative side effects (such as an inability to produce offspring). She acknowledges the distinction between transgender changes associated with empirically identifiable medical conditions related to biological sex and those that are not related to such a condition, but she does not view this distinction as having good practice relevance. In contrast I think this distinction could be relevant for determining when transitioning qualifies as good practice, particularly with regard to children. She says males do not have a substantial endurance advantage. Females are better able to utilize fat stores for energy and conserve glycogen which provides them the advantage in 100 mile (and more) jogs. However, she omits mentioning that males have a larger aerobic capacity (VO2 in eighties versus low seventies for females) which gives them the advantage in marathon distance runs.