Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bernie Sanders For President 2016




If the democratic primary for the 2016 presidential nomination were today in my state, I'd vote for Bernie Sanders. Why? Bernie is authentic. He speaks the truth and tells it like it is. I agree with almost every single one of his policies, especially his central issue: income inequality.

Beating Hillary Clinton is most likely a long shot for him, but who knows. He's selling our arenas and he's got a grass roots movement behind him, not all that different from Barack Obama in 2008. I'm OK with Hillary, although I'm really not crazy about her. She's way too cozy with the corporations and big moneyed special interests and I feel that with her in the White House, it will be business as usual in Washington. We need a candidate in the White House who is committed to the following basic principles of Middle Out economics:

  • reform the tax code so that wealthy people and corporations pay a fairer share of the tax burden; 
  • get big business and big money out of politics by passing campaign finance reform; 
  • once that happens, reform Wall Street with common sense regulations; 
  • end our subsides to corporations and invest that money in education and rebuilding America; 
  • and perhaps, return to an economy where we produce real tangible goods that serve a deeper purpose beyond the novelty "wow" factor.

Bernie Sanders is the closest candidate to enter the presidential race that I've seen so far that exudes these principles. 

The republican candidates are a joke. Aside from their juvenile antics, none of them are committed to the principles and policies that will really raise millions of Americans out of poverty and help sustain and grow the middle class. They are pretty much all running on the same old debunked trickle-down economics nonsense that we've tried for 35 years that we know flattens and shrinks the middle class, and mostly enhances the rich. 

I'm pretty confident that a democrat will win the White House in 2016, as I think the republicans have pretty much lost the ability to win national elections (unless they dramatically progress on social issues, which most of them won't do). But that will mean Hillary is the likely future president. She's certainly better than president a Ted Cruz, or Scott Walker, but she ain't no Bernie Sanders. He's the only candidate that I think is really capable of really changing Washington for the better.

I just donated $10 to his campaign. If you'd like to donate to his campaign, please go here: Bernie 2016


Can Experiments Rule Out Some Interpretations Of Quantum Mechanics?


There are about a dozen or so interpretations of quantum mechanics that physicists float around, and nobody knows which one, if any, is correct. Experiments up until now have been unable to rule out different versions, as they all experimentally predict the same things, even though different interpretations lead to dramatically different ontologies.

But that all may change in the next couple months. As reported by FQXi, a new experiment might be able to falsify certain QM interpretations that fall under what are known as the psi-epistemic models. Interpretations into quantum mechanics diverge into two camps: psi-ontic models, and psi-epistemic models. Psi-ontic models are realist in the sense that they say that the wave function is real and exists independently of our observation. Psi-epistemic models say that the wave function isn't real and represents our ignorance about our state of reality.

If an experiment could rule out psi-epistemic models it would narrow the pool of candidates, and it could lend credibility to the psi-ontic models, of which the many-worlds and bohmian interpretations are a part of. But, one caveat is that the Copenhagen interpretation, which is a psi-epistemic model, can't be ruled out, as it is not able to be falsified, at least not by the pending experiment. Still, what's so great is that experimental technology has improved to such a degree that we now have the opportunity to falsify QM interpretations like we've never had the ability to before.

I certainly hope that in my lifetime we get some experiments that help us narrow down the interpretations of quantum mechanics, hopefully to one. Although I like the many world interpretation as it is the most metaphysically interesting one, the idea of other worlds does make me cringe a bit. Is there a world where I'm homeless now and begging for money on the street? Is there a world where the Nazis won World War II and succeeded in mass-slaughtering millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and those they deemed inferior? The idea of that is horrible and it would open the mind up to many disturbing realities. The pending experiment could still leave open several candidates, so narrowing the field down to one is not likely in the near future. We'll have to wait and see what the experiments show. Stay tuned.


See here:

Quantum physics: What is really real?

Quantum Phenomena Modeled by Interactions between Many Classical Worlds

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Same Sex Marriage Legal In All 50 US States



Last week the US Supreme court legalized same sex marriage in all 50 states. While most people cheered, some fear that this was an assault on Christian values. Many of us, including me, thought the decision was inevitable, especially given the trends in recent years around the world towards legalization.

I care very little about the feelings of conservatives who don't like the decision. I care about them about as much as I care about Southern white racists who were upset over passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that forced the end of segregation. Is that to say that Christianity will be illegal, as some on the right are suggesting? Of course not. Americans are free to believe and practice whatever religion they want, so long as it doesn't violate basic equality and civil rights, like same sex marriage.

But, when ever you say that to a conservative, the usual reaction they give you is that the Supreme Court's decision will pave the way for bestiality and pedophilia, because hey, people who want to have sex with animals and children can't have their "rights" denied either, so the logic goes. But it's not a logical conclusion. The reason why we don't allow adults to have sex with children is because children are not old enough to legally consent to sex acts. This is because they are not old enough to make the decision, and they are less able to think of and handle the consequences of sex. This is why we don't allow children to drive cars: they are less capable of handing the responsibility. Children are also more easily taken advantage of by adults because their immaturity makes them more easily coerced, which opens up the greater possibility of abuse. The same basic idea applies to animals, and that's why animals cannot consent to sexual acts or marriages. So gay marriage is not going to pave the way to bestiality or pedophilia, as any proponents of those views would not be able to use the same arguments that support same sex marriage.

It's been a really bad week for conservatives. First ObamaCare survives, and now same sex marriage is legal nationwide. The court even ruled against Confederate license plates in Texas. If I were a conservative Christian, I'd feel like I just got kicked in the truck nuts. They're on the losing end of a culture war and they know it. The party that claims to represent them, the Republican party, needs to seriously evaluate itself. It simply cannot win on the socially conservative views it holds at a national level, and increasingly at a local level. But I suppose that's just one more reason for me as a liberal to celebrate.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Miracles: Humean or Leibnizian?


Every religion has miracle claims. The purpose of these claims can vary from religion to religion and from within religions. Sometimes the purpose is to demonstrate god's awesome power. Other times it's to establish the authority and validity of a prophet. Regardless of the reasons, the miracle itself is a demonstration of the natural laws of physics being violated. This view of miracles is so common that the definition of a miracle in its popular usage is "an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws."

Or is it? Miracles of this kind — the law violating type, are sometimes called Humean miracles, after the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume. In Section X in his 1748 book An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, titled Of Miracles, he defined a miracle as "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent". Though a source of great debate, this general notion of miracles violating natural law such that they could not happen without the interference of a deity or something outside nature is what we commonly think of when we claim a miracle occurred (despite the fact that colloquially we loosely throw the term around to describe anything unlikely, such as surviving a terrible car crash).

But the Humean definition is only one of many. One of its great rivals is the lesser known Leibnizian miracle, and fits into the view philosopher Kenny Pearce calls Christian naturalism. Leibniz was the 17th/18th century philosopher and mathematician known mostly to apologists as the creator of the argument from contingency. Pearce describes what a miracle is on his blog following Leibniz's insights:

A miracle is an event in which the "higher functions" of the divine consciousness, i.e. the part equivalent to the conscious functioning of the human mind, that makes plans and designs regarding human lives and the like, are more apparent than the "lower functions" which are the laws of nature. To put it more simply (but less precisely) a miracle occurs when the laws of nature conspire together to acheive [sic] some intelligent end. These sorts of miracles are a definite argument not just for the existence of a spiritual being in general, but for the existence of the God of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.

Um, what? I have to honestly say that I have no idea what he really means in his first sentence. How do the higher functions of the divine consciousness become more apparent than the laws of nature without violating them? It's not clear, especially since earlier in the post Pearce had written:

What I do mean, is the belief that every occurence [sic] in the physical world is governed by a set of fundamental laws to which there are no exceptions.

Except of course that one time, an under-aged virgin girl in Palestine gave birth to a son, who walked on water and turned it into wine without technology, and he died for a few days and came back to life. Yeah, no exceptions. But anyway...

Monday, June 22, 2015

"The Homosexuals" CBS Report - Nearly 50 Years Later




Back in the year 1967, CBS ran a special on homosexuality. Nearly 50 years later, with same-sex marriage now legal in 22 countries and growing, and dramatic progression in public opinions, it is quite shocking to watch the documentary in retrospect.

1967 was the Summer of Love. It was one of the pivotal years in the counter culture, where social change was rapidly challenging ideas of normalcy. Although free love was out in the air, most homosexuals in the country were in the closet, as were I'm sure most atheists. Every state except Illinois criminalized consensual homosexual behavior.

The documentary explores the attitudes and laws surrounding homosexuality. In particular is the widespread view at that time that homosexuality is due to childhood upbringing, and not the result of biology. One voice of rationality in the documentary is the writer Gore Vidal. "It is as natural to be homosexual as it is to be heterosexual," he says. "It is a completely natural act since the beginning of time."

Think about this. In 1967 the vast majority of Americans, and indeed the vast majority of the people of the Western world, thought homosexuality was unnatural. Today, a majority of Americans, 60%, think same-sex marriage should be legal. And 51% of Americans think homosexuality is something one is born with, up from just 13% in 1977. Vidal's views, shocking then, are the way most Americans think today. Why? Because he had rationality and evidence on his side. Given enough time, the truth will eventually become realized.

What can sound crazy and shocking can sometimes become normal, and attitudes on homosexuality are a perfect example. The myths and fallacies surrounding many aspects of human sexuality that are often upheld by ignorance and religion come crumbling down once the facts can breathe.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Why Are So Many Scientists And Philosophers Atheists?


In the largest survey of philosophers ever done, it was revealed that 72.8% of philosophers are atheists and only 14.6% are theists. To me, the results of this survey never really felt surprising. I had known for quite a while that the vast majority of philosophers were atheists or leaned toward it. This survey just confirmed that suspicion.

As for scientists, a 2009 Pew survey showed that 41% of American scientists don't believe in god or a universal spirit, effectively making them atheists. And in the National Academy of Scientists, a survey showed that 93% are either atheists or agnostics. Contrast this to only 7.1% of the general American public identifying as atheist or agnostic according to the latest Pew survey.

So, one thing is for sure, scientists and philosophers are overwhelmingly more likely to be atheists. But why? Is it that people who enter these fields are already atheists, or is it that these fields expose people who are believers to new data and ways of thinking and they become atheists? I can't say for sure. Both are probably true to a degree. I know of at least one philosopher, Dan Finke (who blogs at Cammels with Hammers), who's told me that studying philosophy made him question his religious beliefs, which effectively made him an atheist.

From Pew's survey about scientists, one thing strikes me rather odd. When broken down by age, scientists who are between 18-34 are only 32% atheist, and those that are 65+ are 46% atheist. This means that as scientists get older, they're more likely to be atheists. This is the exact opposite of the surveys of belief among the general public, which show the younger generation is more likely than older generations to be atheist.

So, what gives? Why would the demographics of scientist on god be the exact opposite as the general public on age? Could it be that people go into the sciences as theists, and become atheists the longer they stay in the field, presumably because they're exposed to new data and ways of thinking that challenge their theistic beliefs? If that was the case it would make sense of the data. But I'm not sure. Being exposed to new data that challenges your religious views can definitely make you doubt them, and those doubts can lead to atheism, like a gateway drug.

This could be the case, but I'm only speculating here. It seems plausible to me that being in these academic fields can result in one being an atheist. But, there are theistic philosophers, albeit a small minority. So what explains them? Well, on the survey, the largest field of philosophy that has the most theists is—what else—the philosophy of religion, of which 72.3% are theists—the exact opposite of the overall survey. So are philosophers of religion going into the field as theists, or are they becoming theists by being exposed to new ways of thinking about religion and new data? I don't have any data showing the latter to be true, and it is suspected that many people who are already theists go into the philosophy of religion, like William Lane Craig, just as many people who are already Christian go into biblical studies.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Did Pew Project The Future Of Religion Accurately?


A few months ago Pew released a report about the population growth projections of religion from 2010 until 2050 and many atheists and secularists were a little dismayed, to put it mildly. The world's religiously "unaffiliated" were projected to only grow from 1.13 billion to 1.23 billion, and would actually drop as a percentage of the world's population from 16.4% to 13.2%. By contrast, Islam would be the fastest growing religion, going from 1.6 billion to 2.76 billion, and from 23.2% of the world's population, to 29.7%.

Holy shit.

The numbers are projected, it seems, largely from fertility rates, which Muslims have the highest of, with a rate of 3.1, compared to the unaffiliated at 1.7. But I think using fertility rates as the primary factor in projecting future growth rates of religious affiliation is faulty, if indeed that's what Pew is doing.

Total Fertility Rate by Religion, 2010-2015

It seems that they're not taking into account conversions and deconversions. Many theists are leaving their religions and becoming unaffiliated (which includes all deists, agnostics, and atheists) and this is especially true in the West, where the number of Christians is dropping precipitously. Their future projection of the percentage of the unaffiliated in the US by 2050 seems deeply suspect, and indeed, out of whack with their other data.

Religious Composition of the United States, 2010-2050Take a look at the graph to the left from the report. They projected that the percentage of unaffiliated Americans by 2050 to be only 25.6%. I say "only" because their own latest study on religion in America that came out just a month after this report shows the unaffiliated population to be at 22.8%, up almost 7 percentage points from just 2007.

Pew doesn't seriously think that the number of unaffiliated Americans will rise just 3 percentage points from now until 2050 after they just grew nearly 7 percentage points in 7 years do they? No. Rather, there is a flaw in their methodology in projecting future religious growth, which, I suspect, relies almost entirely on fertility rates. As such, they're dramatically underestimating the projected growth of the world's unaffiliated population.

I have my hopes that a large part of the Islamic world will secularize in the social sense, if not in the political sense, and religion will continue to dramatically decline as it has in the West. There was a report recently that 5% of Saudi Arabia's population is atheist. 5 percent! That's technically higher than the population of Americans who identify as atheist (3.1%), according to Pew.

American Free Market Capitalism In Action - 1960: Harvest of Shame




This is what a total unregulated free market dictates. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Should We Mock Religion?


Religion: To mock, or not to mock? That is the question.

There is wide disagreement over whether religion should be mocked and ridiculed among atheists. On the one hand, it's argued that mocking religion demystifies it. This takes away its allure and prestige and removes it from the pedestal, which makes it easier to see religion for what it really is. And that all too often is not really all that pleasant. On the other hand, it's argued that mocking religion can make atheists seem insensitive, angry, and hostile, appear unwilling or unable to engage with religion intellectually, and it can have the unintended consequence of the backfire effect.

These are all possible outcomes of religious ridicule. That's why my view on it is that we should do both. Atheists should ridicule religion, and we should engage with it intellectually. Now, here's the thing. Some of us can do both quite well, and some of us are better at one a lot more than the other. I can generally do both fairly well. But not everyone can engage in the highly complex and esoteric subject matter that is required to have the god debate. And not everyone has the sense of humor required to satire and make fun of religion.

This week's Jesus and Mo


Humor can be used to mock religion into extinction, so I think there's value in mockery. It can make the intellectual price of religious belief so costly, and give it such a bad taste that it can discourage belief. This I think has a measurable effect. For example, today in most social circles if you come out as a creationist you'll be laughed right out of the room. I know, because I pretend to be a creationist all the time with people who don't know me just to see how they react, and often they immediately laugh at me. Then of course I tell them that I was just fucking with them.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Roswell Analogy



Just about everyone is familiar with the story of what allegedly happened in Roswell New Mexico back in the summer of 1947. Historian Richard Carrier makes an interesting analogy between the Roswell UFO incident and the origin of Christianity, in what he calls the Roswell Analogy.


What really happened? A guy found a bunch of sticks and tinfoil in the desert.
What was said to have happened? Immediately afterwards people claimed it was debris from a crashed UFO.
What was said to have happened within just thirty years? A flying saucer and alien bodies crashed and the US military recovered them and they autopsied the aliens and kept it all secret from the public.


And this all happened in the 20th century, in the era of universal literacy, modern journalism, TV and radio. If such a legend can grow so fast and still have millions of believers in modern times, how easy do you think it was for a legendary Jesus to have been made up and believed in by people during antiquity, where literacy was probably 5 percent or less, there was widespread superstition, and there were no newspapers, or journalism, or mass communication?

  • The "tinfoil in the desert" is analogous to the "revelations of the archangel named Jesus."
  • The "flying saucer and alien bodies" would be analogous to the "historical Jesus of Galilee."

Now imagine if all we had were the stories written by the Roswell believers from thirty years later and information derived from them and nothing else. We would not know about the tinfoil. All we would know about was the testimony about the flying saucer and alien bodies that were recovered. Neither of which ever existed.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Why Some Countries Are Poor and Others Rich



"If there’s one generalization you can make about religion and wealth, it’s that the less people believe, the richer they stand a chance of being."



Interesting video explaining why some countries are poor and some are rich. Religion, as you can imagine, doesn't fair too well:

Why is belief quite so bad for wealth creation? Because in general, religiosity is connected up with the idea that the here and now can’t be improved, so you should focus on the spiritual and look forward to a next world instead. It makes quite a bit of sense when you live here. In the rich world on the other hand, people are generally great believers in their capacity to alter their destiny through effort and talent. 
Incidentally, to explain the anomaly of the United States, religion seems not to slow
down economic growth here because it is a particular sort of religion: an overwhelmingly Protestant and exceptionally materialistic kind. The American God doesn’t want you to think of building the new Jerusalem in the next world, he wants it here and now in Kansas or Houston.

So according to this video, a particular kind of Protestantism found here in the US enables the US to be one of the most religious countries and one of the most wealthy countries in the world. It sounds to me like he's talking about the prosperity gospel, the kind today espoused by the likes of Joel Osteen, which seems to be uniquely Protestant. It does make sense. American Protestantism tends to emphasizes a strong work ethic, economic materialism, and innovation. And similarly, it's no surprise that many Northern European nations where Protestantism dominates were leaders of the industrial revolution. But that's not to say that Protestantism cannot hinder progress. After all, many if not most of the strongest proponents of intelligent design today are Protestants, and the Amish are all Protestants.

So overall, religion is bad. As the video puts it, "If there’s one generalization you can make about religion and wealth, it’s that the less people believe, the richer they stand a chance of being." That's at least one good reason to continue fighting to end religious belief.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Evidence From Neuroscience That Free Will Is An Illusion



Starting with Benjamin Libet's experiments in 1983 which gave some of the earliest evidence that conscious decisions are preceded by unconscious neural activity, there have been numerous scientific studies recently that have confirmed this to a much higher degree. Here is a list of some of those tests:


Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain

Highlights:

  • Taken together, two specific regions in the frontal and parietal cortex of the human brain had considerable information that predicted the outcome of a motor decision the subject had not yet consciously made. This suggests that when the subject’s decision reached awareness it had been influenced by unconscious brain activity for up to 10 seconds.
  • The temporal ordering of information suggests a tentative causal model of information flow, where the earliest unconscious precursors of the motor decision originated in frontopolar cortex, from where they influenced the buildup of decision-related information in the precuneus and later in SMA, where it remained unconscious for up to a few seconds.

Tracking the Unconscious Generation of Free Decisions Using UItra-High Field fMRI

Highlights:

  • Researchers show that it was possible to decode the decision outcomes of such free motor decisions from the pole of anterior medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10) and the precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), up to 7 s before subjects were aware of their intention.
  • Taking into account the temporal delay of the BOLD signal (which is in the order of a few seconds), it is possible that these signals reflect processes up to 10 seconds before the actual decision.

Predicting free choices for abstract intentions

Highlights:

  • Researchers are able to show that the outcome of a free decision to either add or subtract numbers can already be decoded from neural activity in medial prefrontal and parietal cortex 4 s before the participant reports they are consciously making their choice.
  • Previous findings have been mostly restricted to simple motor choices.
  • In the current study, participants were not cued to make decisions at specific points in time but were allowed to make decisions spontaneously. By asking participants to report when they first consciously decided, we could investigate what happened in the brain before the decisions were consciously made. We found that both medial frontopolar cortex and posterior cingulate/precuneus started to encode the specific outcome of the abstract decisions even before they entered conscious awareness. Our results suggest that, in addition to the representation of conscious abstract decisions, the medial frontopolar cortex was also involved in the unconscious preparation of abstract decisions.

Reading My Mind

Highlights:

  • CBS 60 minutes report from 2009 showing how fMRI imaging can recognize with a high degree of accuracy the contents of thoughts about objects like a hammer, a window, an apartment etc. 
  • Report reveals there are enough similarities between different people such that once enough people's brains are measured when thinking about an object, a person who never scanned can have their thoughts predicted with 100 percent accuracy when thinking about those objects. 

Internally generated preactivation of single neurons in human medial frontal cortex predicts volition.

Highlights:

  • Recording the activity of 1019 neurons while twelve subjects performed self-initiated finger movement, this study shows progressive neuronal recruitment over ∼1500 ms before subjects report making the decision to move.
  • A population of 256 SMA (supplementary motor area) neurons is sufficient to predict in single trials the impending decision to move with accuracy greater than 80% already 700 ms prior to subjects' awareness. Furthermore, they predict, with a precision of a few hundred ms, the actual time point of this voluntary decision to move.
  • Using an SVM classifier to predict the time point at which the subject reported making the decision to move, the algorithm detected the occurrence of the decision in 98% of the trials and only missed W in 2% of the trials.

There Is No Free Won’t: Antecedent Brain Activity Predicts Decisions to Inhibit

Highlights:

  • Our main argument is as follows: Libet et al, (1983) had suggested that decisions to inhibit action have an important role in freedom of will, because, he argued, they do not have any obvious unconscious neural precursors. In Libet’s view, this makes decisions to inhibit crucially different from decisions to act, for which, he claimed, there is a clear unconscious precursor. Libet’s dualistic notion of “free won’t” has been criticised on theoretical grounds. However, in our view, a stronger rejection of “free won’t” could come from actually showing that a decision to act or not can be driven by a preceding, presumably unconscious neural activity. Our results identify, for the first time, a candidate unconscious precursor of the decision to inhibit action. These results count as evidence against Libet’s view that the decision to inhibit action may involve a form of uncaused conscious causation.
  • The dualistic view that decisions to inhibit reflect a special “conscious veto” or “free won’t” mechanism is scientifically unwarranted.

As the data keeps piling up the evidence against free will gets stronger and stronger. If mental phenomena were caused by electro-chemical brain states as the data shows, the traditional dualistic picture of mind causing physical states is empirically ruled out by the data. Libertarian free will, and dualistic interactionism have no empirical support. The question now is whether you're a compatibilist or an incompatibilist. This is not to say that this evidence alone is absolute proof free will is an illusion, or that we've resolved the hard problem of consciousness. We still don't know how the brain causes consciousness, and it is possible we may never. But, we don't need to know how the brain causes consciousness in order to know that the brain causes consciousness. 

*This list will grow as I find more studies.

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