Sunday, October 23, 2016

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 5 Decent of the Modernists - Part 2: Inventing the mind-body problem)


iconInventing the mind-body problem

In this section of chapter 5 Feser begins by targeting the philosopher who seems to be his public enemy number one: Rene Descartes. It was he who rejected the Aristotelian account in favor of the "mechanistic philosophy" that we still know of today that rejects formal and final causes. But doing this inevitably results in an apparent "disaster": the complete undermining of the possibility both of moral evaluation and of reason itself. (186) Before getting there, Feser here summarizes the mechanistic view of the world for the most part accurately and notes the differences between primary and secondary qualities.

Primary qualities include solidity, extension, figure, motion, number and the like, and in particular any quality that can be mathematically quantified and which does not vary in any way from observer to observer. Secondary qualities include colors, sounds, tastes, odors, and so forth, and an object's having them amounts to nothing more than a tendency to cause us to have certain sensations. (189)

I would add that things like solidity wouldn't technically be a primary quality since solidity is nowhere to be found fundamentally, but is an emergent property of matter at higher levels. But this is not really relevant here. What is relevant is whether the secondary qualities exist in the objective world or they exist only in the mind of observers. On the "mechanistic" view the answer is no, Feser explains, and so a soul must exist that is separate from the physical body that interacts with it like a "ghost in the machine." But without this, the materialist seems to have a problem. How does the materialist explain qualia, the conscious experiences that determines what it's like to have it? A few examples would be in the experience of seeing red versus seeing green, of tasting coffee versus tasting cheese, or of feeling warm versus feeling cold. They're all different sensations, and yet "one cluster of neurons firing seems qualitatively pretty much like any other, and certainly very different from these sensations [such that] it is hard to see how any sensation could be reduced to or explained in terms of nothing but the firing of neurons." (191)

Yes it is hard, but not impossible. Here we still have the genuine mystery of qualia. Since the human brain is the most complex thing in the known universe, it's going to take a bit longer to unravel its mysteries than many other things. One underlying assumption in Feser's above understanding is that the neurons in the brain fire the same way when you see the color red versus seeing the color green. But why should we think that's true? Different neurons fire when we see different wavelengths of light.

Cells in the retina called "opponent neurons" fire when stimulated by incoming red light, and this flurry of activity tells the brain we're looking at something red. Those same opponent neurons are inhibited by green light, and the absence of activity tells the brain we're seeing green. Similarly, yellow light excites another set of opponent neurons, but blue light damps them. While most colors induce a mixture of effects in both sets of neurons, which our brains can decode to identify the component parts, red light exactly cancels the effect of green light (and yellow exactly cancels blue), so we can never perceive those colors coming from the same place.

So different physical processes are at work when we see different colors. The experience of seeing red is just another way of talking about the physical brain undergoing the electrochemical signals travelling through it when the retina received the wavelength of red and certain neurons fire. It's similar to talking about an object as solid even though fundamentally it's just made up of empty space and quantum fields. We still don't know exactly how the physical brain gives rise to qualia but I have no reason to think there is anything non-physical involved that is causal.* I'm open to the mind possibly having a non-physical ontology that is epiphenomenal in nature, meaning, it's an emergent property of physical brains that's causally impotent. But any notion of an immaterial mind having a physical force on matter (like the kind Feser claims, see my review of chapter 4) is unambiguously ruled out by science. Not only do we fully understand all the laws of physics that govern the everyday realm which includes the brain (and therefore anything having to deal with consciousness) and which leaves no room for a mind force to causally effect atoms, but all of neuroscience has repeatedly shown unconscious brain activity precedes conscious awareness, exactly what we'd expect on materialism.**

Saturday, October 22, 2016

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 5 Decent of the Modernists - Part 1: Pre-birth of the modern & Thoroughly modern metaphysics)


iconIn chapter 5, titled the Decent of the Modernists, Feser explains his discontent on how rejecting A-T metaphysics has ultimately lead to the modern preponderance among academics (and I suppose society in general) of the secular and atheistic mindsets. Public enemy number one seems to be the "father of modern philosophy" himself, Rene Descartes (1596-1650). It was he, along with his predecessors John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham, the latter of whom helped foster nominalism and conceptualism to rival Aristotle and Plato's two versions of realism, lead to the "undoing of the Scholaic tradition". (167)

Pre-birth of the modern

According to Feser, both Scotus and Ockham's views on metaphysics and god lead them to conclude that god cannot be known through reason, and must be believed on faith. In other words, god's existence cannot be proved, they contend, and since Descartes' time this general theological view which rejects A-T metaphysics in favor of a more mechanistic view of nature has dominated Western thought. This, Feser says, is what many of the New Atheists pick up on in their critique of theism in general. Feser spends several pages on Hitchens' book god is not Great, criticizing his alleged ignorance of Ockham's razor. Feser argues that versions of it previously were addressed by Aquinas himself and even Aristotle. That may be so, but it doesn't show that change, causation, and final causality necessarily entail "God" — who is dispensed by the razor. Adding god into the mix just adds more unanswerable questions and logical problems.

Scotus' skepticism, Feser says, is motivated by an emphasis on god's will over his intellect.

So radically free is God's will, in Scotus's view, that we simply cannot deduce from the natural order either His intentions or any necessary features of the things He created, since He might have created them in any number of ways, as His inscrutable will directed. Ockham pushes this emphasis on the divine will further, holding that God could by fiat have made morally obligatory all sorts of things that are actually immoral; for example, had He wanted to, He could have decided to command us to hate Him, in which case this is what would be good for us to do. Thus we are brought by Ockham to the idea that morality rests on completely arbitrary demands rather than rationally ascertainable human nature. (168)

But wait a second. If god created that human nature, couldn't he have created us with a different nature, which would rationally entail a different kind of morality? Couldn't god, for example, have made humans reproduce by laying a large amount of eggs ensuring that only a few could possibly be raised to adulthood instead of giving birth to live young? What principle prevents god from doing that? In other words, was god's choice in creating our nature the way it is at all arbitrary, or is there some logically necessary reason why he created our nature the way it is? If so, what's that logically necessary reason? If not, then our morality is ultimately arbitrary even if it logically entails from our nature, because our nature itself would be arbitrary.

Feser takes a long swipe at Hitchens' critique of Ockham's views that we cannot prove a first cause with the traits typically associated with theism—omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience, etc., and deal with the "unanswerable question of who designed the designer or created the creator." (god is not Great, p. 71) But this was answered "long before Ockham was born" Feser states. (170) This may be so, but it would make little difference to the question of god's existence if A-T metaphysics ultimately fails to make a convincing case proving a first cause with typical theistic traits must exist, as I think it does. I do agree with Feser that Hitchens does not engage deeply with the metaphysical arguments for god. God is not Great doesn't set out to disprove the existence of god, it's primary goal is to show how religion poisons everything by critiquing religious history, belief, traditions, and institutions, especially the Abrahamic religions. And I think it does a damn good job doing so. But Feser is focused on the metaphysical arguments, which you're not going to get in great detail with Hitchens, who was best at showing how absurd, stupid, and harmful religion is.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Locker Room Talk" - Some Thoughts


OK, I feel the need to weigh in on the recent comments made by Donald Trump from his Access Hollywood appearance back in 2005. If you haven't heard about it, Trump got caught on a hot mic saying that he kisses married women without their consent, and he tries to fuck them, and he likes to grab women by the pussy, also without their consent.

Aside from the fact that we've never had a presidential candidate caught on recording saying such things in the modern era, I want to talk about Trump's explanation that this was all just "locker room talk."


Now as a man I am very familiar with so-called "locker room talk," but bare in mind that it doesn't include talking about sexual assault. Yes, many men talk about women in very sexual and sometimes very degrading ways, and I too have been guilty of it, but that's different from bragging about sexual assault. In heterosexual male culture there is a kind of expectation that you're supposed to talk about women as sex objects and brag about all of your sexual exploits with them. And yes, there is an incentive to exaggerate on the juicy details whenever necessary. This has been going on probably since we've had language as a species, and it might not ever end. Not all men or boys do this, and not all the time. But generally speaking, your average male has done this at some point in his life.

For a long time this kind of behavior was chalked up simply as "boys will be boys." But now of course this excuse is increasingly not being accepted by society. Here's my view on this. First, we have to keep in mind that what Trump talked about was actual sexual assault, not just having sex with women consensually. We cannot have any tolerance for sexual assault or rape of any kind, period. Second, when it comes to talking about women in sexually degrading ways, my view is that we men should refrain from it, but I wouldn't go so far as to say two men should never talk about women in sexual terms. It's possible to talk about someone as a sex object while being able to fully recognize them as a human being. We've evolved to look at each other as sex objects. That's how nature gets us to reproduce. But you can look at a women as a sex object and as a human being without being a hypocrite, because how you see her depends on the context.

So I'm not asking that all people all the time talk and act as if they were on national television because that would make the world into a politically correct 1984 dystopia. We should be free to say what we want in private but know that it might become public and we should be prepared to deal with the potential consequences, however frightening that may be.

Most men who engage in "locker room talk" are not rapists or would ever sexually assault a woman and so they know how to understand the context. But again, remember what Donald Trump did: he bragged about having had sexually assaulted women in the past. I'm not justifying that. I'm just saying that it's OK to talk about women in sexual terms when men are together alone, so long that they treat women with respect when they're near them. That also means not referring to women as "bitches," which is still very prevalent, especially in the black community — but referring to them as "women." It almost seems like an expectation in some circles to refer to women as "bitches" to the point where if you don't you must be a pussy. We've got to stop that.

There are at least two ways that I've thought of where we can remedy the situation:

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What's Wrong With The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership)?


Hillary Clinton called it the "gold standard" for trade deals before allegedly reexamining it and finding it to be bad for the American people. Many neo-liberals and pro-business types still tout the TPP as a good trade deal but rarely acknowledge the problems with it. Here's an excellent video detailing some of the harm it will do.

The TPP would:
  • Give corporations the power to sue the governments of the countries involved in secret foreign tribunals over any law or regulation they claim affected their future profits, including laws that allow for cheap access to medicine, or protect the environment.
  • Allow you to be fined or sent to jail for downloading copyrighted material.
  • Make it so that ISPs have to monitor your internet habits.
  • Once the TPP is signed it is here forever as it is difficult for countries to withdraw and there is no expiration date.
  • And much more

Monday, October 3, 2016

Religious Leaders Pray Over Donald Trump For God To Make Him President


This is why people think religion is silly.

The faithful gathered last year to infuse Trump's campaign with the power of the lord in his luxury high rise tower. One woman even says while praying over Trump that "any tongue that rises against him will be condemned according to the word of God."

Yeah.

If Donald Trump is the man Yahweh has sent to deliver us from Satan, wow.

But hey, it looks like Yahweh has delivered. This was recorded a year ago and since then Trump has won the all the primaries and became the nominee. He's also close to tying Clinton in several key swing states but will still have difficulty in the electoral college. But who knows, as anything can change in the next month. We'll have to see what's going to happen in November to see if Yahweh's going to deliver.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Number Of Religiously Unaffiliated "Nones" In US Rises to 25%


I have good news to report from the trenches of the secular front on the ongoing secularization of the US. The number of religiously unaffiliated "nones" has risen to 25% of the US population according to a recent PPRI survey, up from the 22.8% reported in the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey.


From the report:

In 1991, only six percent of Americans identified their religious affiliation as “none,” and that number had not moved much since the early 1970s. By the end of the 1990s, 14% of the public claimed no religious affiliation. The rate of religious change accelerated further during the late 2000s and early 2010s, reaching 20% by 2012. Today, one-quarter (25%) of Americans claim no formal religious identity, making this group the single largest “religious group” in the U.S.

More young adults are unaffiliated than in the past too. While it is no surprise that younger people tend to be less religious, the percentage of young adults who are less religious is increasing over time. Thirty years ago in 1986, only 10% of 18-29 year olds were religiously unaffiliated. That doubled to 20% in 1996, and has nearly doubled since then to 39%. Interestingly, there are more seniors 65+ who are religiously unaffiliated today than there were 18-29 year olds back in 1986.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

My Question To David Chalmers And Rebecca Goldstein On Consciousness


Late last year I attended several events hosted by Robert Wright on philosophy, science, and religion and I got to see some world renowned speakers, including Lawrence Krauss and Steven Pinker. In one event, called The Weirdness of Consciousness, Wright interviewed David Chalmers and Rebecca Goldstein about how and why an understanding of consciousness still seems to allude both scientists and philosophers.

Chalmers is an NYU philosopher specializing in the philosophy of mind. He came up with the term "the hard problem of consciousness" back in the 90s. Goldstein is an author and philosopher who has written extensively about consciousness and science. During the Q&A I asked them whether there is any good evidence that the mind "causes" the brain because it seems to me that all the evidence shows the opposite. And I wasn't quite happy with their responses. (I almost had a brain fart in the middle of my question because I forgot the last part I wanted to mention, but it eventually came out.)





So Chalmers basically says that it seems prima facie that both mind and brain cause each other but that it's admittedly difficult to reckon mind causing brain with physics and neuroscience. Goldstein then jumps in and tells an anecdote about being hooked up to an fMRI while being asked to solve mathematical equations and place money on bets as part of research for one of her books and says that the latest in neuroscience is compatible with any theory on mind, including dualism. Though she admits she's a materialist, she says given all the scientific evidence that "it's still wide open."

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