Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wednesday Comedy: Mel Brooks (To Be or Not To Be)

I thought of using this because of the Hamlet theme in a recent post. But the Hitler Rap is pure gold. Mel reminds me of Moammar Gadhafi.

Moammar, if you read this blog: up yours!

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Descent

Alas, poor designer! I knew him, but not in the biblical sense.

Hamlet, prince of Den-blog:
To comment, or not to comment, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of SIWOTI;
Or to make Keystrokes against a Network of troubles,
And by opposing end them
GEM of TKI continues to make inane statements as he rails against a world that has thrown off the shackles of his fifteenth century religious values. Mad prince that I am, eternally lingering in Uncommon Descent's moderation prison for bad sorts, I nevertheless respond:
GEM [you say],
It is time that we expose the evolutionary materialistic, question-begging ideological straight-jacket being imposed on science, and it is time that we exposed the inexcusable, slanderous bigotry of those who are projecting what they know or should know are false accusations of theocratic tyrannical intent.
Who exactly is “we”?

And to this comment [of yours]:
FYI LT, I had to put myself on the line literally to deal with Communists, DOUBLE SHAME ON YOU for making me have to say that explicitly!
What a cheap and cowardly thing for you to write--knowing full well that whatever response I write will be moderated out and never appear here (as an earlier comment of mine seems to have done)--that I have “made” you say anything!

No, sir, I have not “made” you do anything. You are the author of your own behavior.

Don’t blame me because your watchmaker analogies ultimately fail and people generally don’t take them seriously.

Don’t blame me for the “tyrannical” perception that gets attached to religions and sects and groups.

I laid out a case for why your signs post was wrongheaded on several levels. You distort Peirce: that’s a fact. You employ a nuanced but ultimately flawed analogy: that’s a fact. You use biased language to steer the reader to the conclusion you want: that’s a fact. You consider no alternative scenarios or possible objections in your post: that’s a fact.

You say I’m tossing out red herrings, straw men, and ad hominems. Honestly, would you please grow up? Deal with the arguments instead of crying foul all the time. If you want to play basketball with me, you are occasionally going to get fouled. Deal with it and move on, maybe consider whether you want to get out of the game.

One way to deal with it is this: revise your post on signs. In over 20 years of writing and publishing, I can tell you I have learned that every criticism on a piece has value and should lead to a change.

I anticipate you will bring up that time earlier when you got offended, probably rightly, at an indirect Torquemada snipe I had made. Yes, I indeed changed a bit of what I had originally written, although I kept the central snipe [N.B. that snipe itself was but a small part of the larger point being made.] as it was for reasons I explained. I understand you didn’t and don’t like the reasons, but that’s the end of the line. I sought to understand your points, I incorporated that feedback and made the changes I felt best represented the truth.

So, instead of taking cheap shots at me when my voice will never be heard at UD (I’m tempted to dare you to publish this post in a timely manner, if ever), why don’t you revise and improve your signs post. I would really like that. I genuinely think that there’s a contribution to be made by that post of yours–it’s just not fully cooked yet.

I think you make people like me out to be the boogeyman at least as much as you think we do it to you. Perhaps we all can simmer down. I’m asking you to reconsider and revise your signs post because I think it would improve the thing. Take the advice or reject it, no problem to me.

I’m sure you have advice for me and “those of my ilk.” Well, let’s have it.

LT (Monday, 21 Feb 2011, 11:45 am EST)
I'll lay odds my comment never appears--but I have been wrong before on this subject, usually right after I post publicly about it.

But let's return to the central problem, the one that we really ought to examine. GEM says this to another commenter:
Have you a credible explanation of how not only language and algorithms, but also co-ordinated encoding, transmitting and decoding then applying mechanisms originated by chance plus necessity, backed up with empirical observational support?
Yes, we have credible explanation for how language and algorithms, et cetera, originated: evolution. Evolution explains this. Indeed, the PBS science program Nova recently aired a segment in which a chemist showed how life could have evolved from non-life, and life means language and algorithms and everything else GEM is concerned with.
Program Description
Where did the very first living thing on Earth come from? Scientists have long argued that billions of years ago, life emerged on its own--but no one knows exactly how. Now, in a landmark discovery, chemist John Sutherland has created the conditions in which the building blocks of RNA, one of the key molecules of life and the probable precursor to DNA, assemble themselves naturally.
So, GEM, I have a credible explanation that demonstrates how life, language, etc., could have originated. Now it's your turn: please show me the experiment that re-creates what the designer actually did to bring language and algorithms into existence. I trust you will simply answer my request instead of attempting to discredit Professor Sutherland's experiment.

Finally, I can hardly imagine what would divest GEM of his bad analogy:
intelligent beings:communication systems::intelligent designer:cellular communication systems
Perhaps if he sees the analogy in this form, he will begin to come to his senses. I don't doubt that he'll want to tweak what I have above, which is fine.

I truly hope UD gets some bona fide biologists, chemists, and cosmologists on their team. Lawyers, engineers, journalists, philosophers and such won't cut it forever.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wednesday Comedy: Garry Trudeau

Doonesbury should be required daily reading for most every American. While always topical and funny, it's never lost the balance between them.

Garry Trudeau recently visited The Colbert Report to pitch his 40-year anthology of the strip. He comes across as down-to-earth and certainly not overwhelmed by the popular Colbert's shtick. Colbert actually seems the one brimming with adulation for his guest.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There's Signs

Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind

Old friend GEM of TKI wonders why no one has challenged his post on signs and the design inference.
[T]his Jan 16 post was foundational, and the silence from objectors is interesting, especially given the significance of symbolic communication....
GEM leaves us to guess what he finds interesting in the “silence from objectors.” Perhaps he takes it as consent or befuddlement.  I rather think people simply shrugged their shoulders in apathy.

In the end, GEM justifies intelligent design creationism by arguing that "symbolic messages" and "physical media" for message encoding/transmitting/decoding appear in nature. Therefore, as these messages and tools support a "design inference" in human social contexts, so too do they warrant a design inference in biological and origins of life/universe contexts.

The central analogy that guides GEM's argument has been around long enough, at least in my experience. I don't share the opinion that it supports a strong case, and I'll have a bit more to say on this later. For now, however, I want to focus on some oddities in GEM's post, mostly as they relate to semiotics. One oddity is how GEM describes an observer’s actions with signs:
Signs: I observe one or more signs [in a pattern], and infer the signified object, on a warrant:

I: [si] –> O, on W
The oddity here is the term “infer," which is inappropriate to most signs. The usual term is “interpret,” and in Peircean semiotics--GEM states he is following Peirce--the interpretans is one of three fundamental parts of the sign: there’s the signifier (the sound or word), the signified object (the real-world thing), and the interpretans (the observer’s mental translation of how the object is represented by the signifier.

Now, Peirce did invoke a rule of inference for a special class of signs that he called delome signs, but the rule doesn't apply universally. Inference is a focused activity: to infer is to go from the known to the hidden or from the apparent to the latent. It is to reveal what’s implicit.

In the context of the sign, however, there’s typically no need for inference because by definition a sign already includes a signified object. The signified object is already “there,” not hidden or latent. The meaning of most signs is known and shared between speaker and auditor before communication takes place; indeed, it's an important condition that makes linguistic communication possible. This shared knowledge is the warrant that GEM mentions.

Thus, when one observes a sign or a set of signs, one normally does not need to infer the signified object. Rather, one understands or interprets the signified object--which is to say that one knows (of) the object to which the signifier is referring.

GEM's use of "infer" is most certainly rhetorical, a tactic to connect interpreting signs, on the one hand, with inferring design from the structure of living things, on the other hand. I don’t begrudge his attempt, but at this point the analogy does not hold. Interpreting the meaning of signs is not at all like reasoning that Thing ABC was created by a person or some other entity of person-like or above intelligence and capability.

But I should clarify some more because GEM’s argument has little concern with meaning per se. His real point rests on the premise that in interpreting signs, we infer that their ultimate source is a conscious being. This is, of course, proper and standard use of the term "infer." So too, in interpreting cells of living beings as machines (GEM equates cells with von Neumann self-replicators [VNSR]), we infer their ultimate source as a being of great skill and subtlety. For GEM, living cells have the added bonus of also being sign encoding, transmitting, and decoding machines. The genetic code and the processes of protein building are part of the larger cellular machine, adding further support to the idea that the ultimate source of life is an intelligent being, putatively the god of Christianity.

Now, GEM’s argument is obviously all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Cells are not actually machines, after all. People too are not machines. GEM is overly invested in his personal reading of the VNSR's significance for an inference to intelligent design creationism.

Let us remember that the VNSR is a human contrivance based on organic models. Human contraptions, generally, seek to emulate and simulate organic systems. And organic systems are often far more intricate and complex than their human-made counterparts. Thus, it does little good to point out banally that every watch has a watchmaker because watches are structurally and environmentally too unlike cells for a useful comparison. Make a watch that's more cell-like. Then we can talk.

The watchmaker analogy fails for another reason. Take a look at your own watch right now. Maybe it was assembled by a single person in China. Where did that person get the gears? Where did that person get the electronics? They each came, assembled by others, from elsewhere. And where did the raw materials come from? How were the metals obtained, smelted, forged, and shaped? Others did that, too. We might say more accurately, then, that every watch has many watchmakers and every watch has a history tied to those watchmakers and their particular environments and available resources.

I dare say that no Christian theologian is currently arguing that God and his Supernatural Friends are the designers of life and that they interacted over time to forge organic existence. Usually, the learned theologians postulate that there was only one Big Boss, one designer, who simply poofed life into existence at once. But if there was only one designer and one design moment, then the theologian needs a new analogy to use because in real life many different people in different contingent circumstances have a direct and indirect impact on the construction of machines.

We should return to the subject of oddities in GEM’s argument concerning signs.

I mentioned before that GEM departs from Peircean semiotics when he employs the loaded term “infer” and thereby both downplays and skews the role of the interpretans in sign operation.

GEM departs again from Peirce in another oddity: artificially separating symbolic signs from indexical and iconic signs. GEM previously had given us his analysis of signs, and in that analysis he discussed indexical (e.g., smoke as an index of fire) and iconic signs (e.g., a natural formation that resembles a human face). He then focuses on symbols specifically, and uses different language to discuss the semiotic operation:
Symbols: I observe a {set} of one or more symbols, and infer the/a signified meaning, on a warrant:

I: {sy} –> M, on W
But symbols are not a different species of sign. Rather, symbols lie on a continuum that encompasses indexical, iconic, and symbolic signs. As Albert Atkin reports, Peirce himself was aware of this continuity --
by 1903 Peirce was aware that it would be hard, if not impossible, to find any pure instances of icons and indices. Rather, he began to suspect that icons and indices were always partly symbolic or conventional.
Thus, it is not so easy to separate "naturally occurring" signs from "mind-made" signs. All signs are to some extent "mind made." The question is "Whose mind?"

The answer to this question is "The sign observer's mind." The observer of an indexical, iconic, or symbolic sign determines--through interpretation--the integrity of the sign and makes it meaningful. I cannot exaggerate the importance of this point: the observer makes meaning from the sign.

The idea that the observer’s understanding of signs is active and productive is critical to Peirce. His interpretans denotes how someone understands the signifier-signified relationship, and the interpretans is another sign. The interpretans is the observer's personal spin on the conventional association between the signifier and signified. As we discussed before, that association or meaning of signs is known and shared between speaker/writer and observer in advance of communication taking place. At the same time, individual observers translate signs in a way unique to their idiolect and to the situation. The idiosyncratic element of this translation is what made Peirce's interpretans so innovative in its time.

The point is, however, that part of making meaning from the sign includes making an idiosyncratic interpretation of the sign's "author." In other words: the author, the conscious mind that issues the sign, is partly a creation of the observer (cf. Michel Foucault). Thus, what GEM calls "an inference to intentionally and intelligently directed configuration"--whether the inference is made with regard to a text or an observation of the workings in a living cell--is always a personal mental construct of the observer.

From the observer's point of view, it's easy and helpful to assume an intelligent agency as a singular source of signs, messages, systems, and so on. But that assumption is interpretive, it's an interpretans. The assumption need not have any resemblance to the actual source(s), causes, and circumstances of transmission. We can therefore clearly see the error in GEM's concluding specification of a certain class of (biological) signs:
signs that are believed to warrant the conclusion that they are best explained on design rather than a spontaneous natural process tracing to undirected forces and circumstances of chance and/or mechanical necessity.
GEM here conflates two acts of interpretation. In the first act, an organic entity is taken as a sign or a set of signs. In the second, that sign or set of signs is taken to have a meaning bearing explanation. In both cases, we learn more about the observer making the interpretations than we do about the supposed "source" of the signs. Indeed, we never approach that "source" at all.

So, I personally am put off by GEM's "foundational" post. It abuses Peircean semiotics, and it fails to make its primary case. Quite simply, there is no inference to design that can be had--at least, not on a foundation of semiotics. At best, there's an interpretation of design, but we already knew that.

Monday, February 14, 2011

For Becky: Poems of War, Peace, Women, and Power by Suheir Hammad

La-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la....

Nothin' wrong with a little love on Valentine's Day.

But there's love, and life, and culture, and politics. They are all wrapped up together. Below, Suheir Hammad gives an interesting performance of two poems that trace this interrelatedness and show how love can be much deeper than the paternalistic sentimentalism that our culture usually vaunts as the romantic ideal.

To me, Hammad's performance exceeds the poems themselves, yet her articulation is strong and engaging. Her message is one of self-determining power.

More power to you, my spouse and partner. We've got a good love. La-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la, La-la-la-laaaah.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Autistic Son, Artistic Daughter

Spring 2003: Enjoying the time with my oldest girl.

I had a strange and wonderful weekend. It began on Friday afternoon, when I learned from my wife that the doctors at Children's Hospital in Boston had diagnosed our son as autistic.

I'm still reeling from this pronouncement because I hadn't expected it. My wife and I knew our son had some language delays and rigid behaviors. We understood that he was certainly on that autism spectrum. But we never thought he would be diagnosed as actual autistic. His intellectual, social, and behavioral patterns have always seemed just slightly away from where we thought they should be. And, thanks to Early Intervention, he has made great progress in the past year. So, we were surprised.

My son is now three years old. His birthday is today. I got to spend lots of one-on-one time with him yesterday, and I watched him play at his auntie's house this evening. He's a very sweet kid. He's funny and happy and adventurous. I worry about not parenting him right, about not pushing when I should or pushing too much when I should back off. But I believe in him, and I think he'll be able to continue his growth this year. And while I would never wish for anyone to be autistic, I am glad that my son is who he is. Autistic or not, it doesn't change how I feel about him. I know we all have a long and difficult road in front of us. I completely embrace the opportunity to travel it with my son, my wife, and our family.

My oldest girl turned eight on Saturday, that is, yesterday. She's a lot like my son: intense, energetic, occasionally acting inappropriately in social settings. She's become a big reader. She reads in bed every night. My wife and I worry that she perhaps has some autism spectrum disorder that's been overlooked. My son's condition is a bit more obvious and stereotypical, but perhaps in girls the signs present differently because of different social pressures and biological tendencies.

Although I won't be surprised if my daughter is confirmed to be along the autism spectrum more than most average people, I suspect that the truth is my daughter already wants more out of her life than we can give her at home. She wants attention, she wants to sing and dance, she wants to direct and lead. She has plans and schemes, and her family can't really help her realize them. She is essentially an artist struggling to find her medium and make her style. At some point in her journey, she'll have to leave her family behind.

I have an autistic son and an artistic daughter. It's a wonder, all right. It's a wonder. Hence, the title of this post.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Origins of Life: I Did Not Know That

Many miles away....

I love to learn something new. From Larry Moran's Sandwalk blog, we get a brief explanation of the Metabolism First hypothesis of the origin of life on Earth.
In this scenario, the first steps involved the establishment of simple oxidation-reduction reactions across a "membrane" using inorganic molecules. Once this supply of energy was in place the first pathways led to synthesis of simple organic molecules like acetate and glycine.
The MF hypothesis (see here also) is contrasted with the better-known but less reasonable Primordial Soup hypothesis:
According to this widely believed scenario, life originated in a soup of organic molecules that supplied most of the molecules of metabolism such as glucose and amino acids (and nucleotides?). Presumably once life got underway these molecules were used up and only then did metabolic pathways evolve to synthesize these molecules.
Moran ends with an appeal for healthy skepticism
The real problem is not that metabolism firstists such as Bill Martin are right and soupists are wrong—although that's a very real possibility. The problem is that most scientists are not thinking critically about the origin of life. There are several possibilities and none of them are particularly convincing. However, the Primordial Soup Hypothesis has a number of glaring weaknesses that need to be addressed honestly and it doesn't do anyone any good if scientists sweep these weaknesses under the rug.
And many miles away, something crawls to the surface of a dark Scottish loch, almost singing "What about 'God did it!' That's a hypothesis, too."

Get back to the lake, fucker!

NFL Playoff Predictions, Super Bowl

Sigh. Not this year.

I'll be brief: Packers over Steelers, 27-17, in a very good game.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Around the Web

Lots of great news and information around today:

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Wednesday Comedy: Jews and Sea Creatures (Myq Kaplan)

This is a funny bit from Myq Kaplan, with animation from Greg Franklin.

The idea of mixing stand-up and imaginative animation is nothing new, and there's actually plenty of it around. I remember seeing it on Comedy Central once years ago, and then more recently for a bit by Mike Birbiglia.

Kaplan's interesting because he gives a good joke and then has nice follow-up remarks, like the "too soon?" after the pyramids in Egypt line. I like that because it comes off as unassuming yet wry.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

It Takes More Than Just Having an Explanation

Old Philosopher
I am no philosopher. I don't want to be one. As I've recently indicated, I have not been impressed with the philosophical chops of Vincent Torley.

Yet there is some good philosophy of religion out there, and one philosopher who supports the theistic position is Paul Herrick. Herrick has a very interesting article defending the cosmological argument against another philosopher, Keith Parsons, who is an atheist.

Herrick argues that belief in God remains reasonable despite the apparent success of science in explaining the universe. Although I genuinely appreciate the argument and the various inroads Herrick takes to develop and support his points, I think his argument ultimately fails for three reasons:
  1. To my mind, the creator deity described by Herrick bears little resemblance to the god(s) of the Torah, the Christian Gospels, the Qur’an, Hindu texts and so on. Although Herrick argues that the God of philosophical theism created this universe out of love, his cosmological theism seems at odds with the berserker deities of holy books. The Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament both depict gods with the all-too-human fits of passion, jealously, and rage.
  2. Philosophical theism is, as Herrick admits, not a scientific explanation. But Herrick’s article attempts to use philosophical theism to explain something that is primarily within scientific jurisdiction. The best explanation will be a scientific one. Non-scientific explanations, although interesting, will always be too speculative for extended consideration.
  3. Herrick’s position rests on a simple distinction. His philosophical theism, he says, “makes rational sense of the existence of the material universe.” Atheism and scientific materialism do not provide a satisfying explanation for this existence. And yet…what if we were to ask Herrick, “Your rational explanation: is it true?” His answer would be, “I’m not sure. I don’t know.” Thus, in the end, Herrick's rational explanation is no better than the scientific explanation which does not make full and complete sense of the material universe. Plus, even the most apparently rational explanations require validation—no matter how “satisfying” some people seem to think these explanations are prima facie. The choice is, then, between a rational explanation without validation and a scientific explanation that is incomplete.
To lead me toward accepting his argument, Herrick would have had to have provided some reason to think that the Creator God of his article was the same as the God of whatever religion. I don't think we can just assume they are the same. Herrick also would have needed to justify his approach, as in explaining why a philosophical explanation would suffice for the scientific question of the origins of the universe. Finally, Herrick would have had to defend the idea that any rational explanation was better than an incomplete-yet-scientifically-justified explanation.

Although I disagree with its conclusion, I heartily recommend Herrick's article. Were I a philosopher, I would want to be able to put together an argument as well as Herrick has.