Monthly Archives: July 2011

Politics and Evidence

By the time anyone reads this post, it may be too late. It may already be too late.

Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C. are engaged in a high-stakes game of Made You Blink and everyone is about to lose. What bothers me most, and the reason I’m using this forum to vent, is that extreme elements in the Republican party have staked out a position that is based on ideology, not evidence.

The ideology states that restoring tax rates even to their modest levels of the Clinton years will slow economic growth.

There’s no doubt that it’s possible to tax people so heavily that they don’t want to work anymore and GDP declines. Even Communist governments have learned that lesson. But nobody is talking about 70% marginal rates. Obama is only proposing that the Bush-era tax cuts — which Bush himself said would expire in 2010 and which Obama has already extended once — would expire on schedule. In fact, he’s only proposing that the tax cuts for the 2% of Americans with incomes over $250,000 per year will expire. The rest of us would have permanent, Bush-level tax cuts. I call that pretty reasonable.

Still, extremist Republicans have an ideology that’s dead-set against any tax increases at all. Is there evidence to back up their assertion that higher taxes on those who can most afford to pay them will choke the economy?

This graph shows the top marginal income-tax rate in blue, and the percentage change in GDP in red, since the end of the Great Depression. Do you see a correlation? Neither do I. (Click on the image to see the full article.)

Top Marginal Tax Rate vs GDP Growth

I can also say that I lived through the Reagan years as a tax-paying adult. What I recall was that some sectors of the economy did indeed do well, namely the sectors based on feeding the selfishness of the rich. (Gucci shoes were hot sellers.) But I suppose that’s just anecdotal evidence and does not deserve a place in a serious article about economics. Wait! This is my blog and I can say anything I want!

So, yeah, here’s one more thing I want to say. I can’t help noticing the high correlation between people who care more about ideology than evidence in the tax wars, and people who don’t particularly care about evidence in the science wars.

A 2008 Gallup Poll found that 60% of Republicans believe “God created humans as is within the last 10,000 years.” That over 50% higher than the percentage of Democrats who believed that. (I do confess to being surprised that the Democrat percentage (38%) is as high as it is.)

Another 2008 Gallup Poll found that Republicans were much less likely to think global climate change is a real, human-caused phenomenon. Furthermore, even as the scientific evidence has continued to mount, Republicans have become less convinced that scientific consensus exists. How have they managed that? They have become more convinced that the media is exaggerating climate change’s  effects! Someday soon, I’m going to write a post on how you know your views are probably wrong: it’s when you must resort to conspiracy theories to explain away the evidence.

In the meantime, would extremist Republicans in Washington please drop the ideology and start to look at the evidence? We don’t have much time left before economic catastrophe is upon us.

Fascination with the Paranormal

ESP Cards

ESP Cards

I’m fascinated with the paranormal. As a kid, I had a set of ESP cards. My brother would concentrate on one of the cards, and I would try to guess which one it was. I wanted so badly to be able to read minds!

I’ve never told anyone this, but I remember that in elementary school I wondered whether I might be one of the fortunate, gifted few who could look into a crystal ball and see the future. (Yes, I was that gullible.)

In recent years, my “what’s out there?” streak turned its attention to UFOs. I read many books about experiences ranging from sightings to abductions. One of the most convincing accounts concerned sightings by many people in Mexico City during a solar eclipse on July 11, 1991. They reported a round object in the sky that darted to and fro at amazing speed and was able to make sharp turns while going very fast. How could so many people be making this up?

As I said, I tend to be gullible. Naturally, I thought these people really did see UFOs. So imagine my disappointment when I read this comment on time.com

…it’s hard not to wonder whether some of these people were just seeing spots because they weren’t wearing their eclipse safety glasses.

As soon as I read that, I realized just how plausible it was. It would account for everything. Now, maybe there really were UFOs over Mexico City in July of 1991 or maybe there weren’t. But I was properly humbled by the realization that I had not even looked for so obvious an explanation as people not wearing their eclipse safety glasses. As usual, I was much too eager to believe.

And that’s the problem with all paranormal phenomena. We’re much too eager to believe and we abandon skepticism much too early.

Worse, we make a less-than-thorough attempt at testing or debunking our cherished beliefs and — surprise! — decide that we have been right all along. We succeed only in inoculating ourselves to genuine critical thinking. We think we’ve already given the other side a fair shake and we only end up deeper in our original rut.

Whatever our favorite paranormal/supernatural obsession may be, experience shows that skepticism is usually the best stance.

But about those videos of UFOs over Mexico City…

Is Atheism a Faith?

Got Faith

In the couple of years since I have left the Christian faith, more than one Christian has told me, “Your atheism is based on faith just as much as Christianity is.”

What my religious friends mean is that I have no more evidence for atheism than they have for Christianity. Therefore, I must be using faith to make up the difference between “I think so” and “I know so”.

It’s true that faith is a way to bridge the gap between hope and certainty. In Hebrews 11:1, The Bible defines faith:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

In other words, someone who has faith is sure of something without having all the evidence that a more skeptical person would require. He has “assurance about what we do not see.” To the faithful, this is a good thing; an atheist thinks it is unwise.

We all know the story of the disciple, Thomas. He was told that Jesus had risen from the dead, but he wouldn’t believe it on someone’s say-so. He had to see for himself. Once he did see, he believed, but that was second-best. At the climax of the story, Jesus tells him,

Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

Christians admire faith and have made “doubting Thomas” an epithet. Atheists say Thomas’ demand for evidence was not only reasonable, but prudent.

“Whatever,” you may say. “But isn’t it still a faith-based position to say that God does not exist? After all, we’re talking about atheists, not agnostics. Atheists can’t prove there is no God, can they?”

Here in America, these conversations take place in a cultural context where God means the God of the Bible: Jehovah. Christians and atheists cheerfully agree that other gods (the Norse gods, the Greek gods, the Muslim god, etc.) do not exist. The issue is Jehovah.

So what about Jehovah? Can atheists prove he does not exist?

Some think they can, but I’d like to look at the issue from a different angle in this post. Thinking people, whether atheist or Christian, ponder the same set of questions about God. Why does God allow so many innocent people to suffer? Why don’t I see heavenly power in my own life or the life of my friends? Why didn’t God grant my prayer? And so on.

Christians are able to maintain faith in spite of those questions. In the face of suffering, they have faith that it’s all part of God’s plan. In the seeming absence of divine power to overcome besetting sins, they have faith that it’s only their lack of faith that is holding them back.When their prayers are not granted, they have faith that God has something better in mind, or is refining them through trials.

Atheists don’t have that faith. Their honest assessment is that the evidence points away from the God of the Bible, so they conclude that he does not exist. In many cases, they would like to have faith, but they just can’t.

Atheism is not a faith; it’s a lack of faith. It really is as simple as that.

A Mormon President?

US Constitution, Article VI, Section III
I just read the Tricia Erickson’s column on CNN: An Indoctrinated Mormon Should Never be Elected as President. Read it for yourself, but here are some excerpts that summarize her arguments.

Indoctrinated temple Mormons (as Romney is) have experienced years of brainwashing and indoctrination and also have made covenants and oaths that they plainly cannot disobey.

Mitt Romney and all temple Mormons have sworn to obey The Law of Consecration in the secret temple ceremonies which states “…you do consecrate yourselves, your time, talents, an everything with which the Lord … may bless you, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church), for the building up of the Kingdom of God on earth and for the establishment of Zion.”

Long story short, it would be near to impossible for an entrenched Mormon to place his allegiance to the United States of America over the Mormon Church.

Furthermore, would you trust the judgment of a man who truly believes he will become a literal God and will be given his own kingdom/planet to rule over and populate with spirit babies (and many more bizarre beliefs explained in the book) to be placed in to the highest office in the land?

To boil it down even further: she argues that Mormons have sworn to devote everything they have to building up a nutty church in whose doctrines they are thoroughly brainwashed. Therefore, a Mormon cannot be trusted to be President.

CNN devoted some space to a rebuttal by Richard Bushman, who is apparently a Mormon. He correctly states, “Catholic belief in transubstantiation and Protestant belief in the Resurrection can be made to look silly, too.” I might add that, just like Mormons, all devout Christians have also sworn to give their all to their concept of the Kingdom of God. In fact, when they don’t follow through on that commitment, we chastise them as hypocrites.

I would also add that atheists can look pretty silly, or worse, to people of faith. A recent Gallup poll found that 49% of Americans say they would never vote for an atheist. That compares to only 32% who would not vote for a homosexual, and only 22% who would not vote for a Mormon.

OK, so we all look silly to each other. How are we going to hold our wonderful democracy together? Do we only vote for people who believe the same things about unearthly realms that we do? If so, we would gravely disappoint our Founding Fathers, who enshrined this in Article VI, Clause 3 of our constitution:

…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Instead, let’s ask ourselves questions like these about any candidate:

  • Is he or she mainly a thinker or mainly a politician? Will he ponder or pander?
  • What policies has he or she advocated in the past?
  • When faced with a novel situation, does he or she show steadiness, maturity and thoughtfulness?
  • Will he or she inspire the best in others?

I don’t know yet what I think about Mitt Romney, but I do know what I think of our constitution: it has made our country great. I hope we will all follow its spirit when we enter the voting booth in 2012.

Altruism and Selfishness

Mandelbrot Set

A Very Small Portion of the Mandelbrot Set

The world is full of marvels, but among the most wondrous are those that arise mysteriously from seemingly unrelated things.A tree grows from dirt, water and sunshine. A simple equation gives birth to the infinitely complex Mandelbrot set. The varying frequencies of light-waves are perceived as colors. Perhaps the most amazing is the subject of this post: selfishness giving birth to altruism.

Several people have asked me how altruism could possibly arise in a Darwinian world of ruthless competition. The best answer I can give is to recommend Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene(You can read a Wikipedia summary here). His basic idea is that the unit of evolution — the unit that mutates and reproduces — is not the individual, but the gene. A gene that programs its host to sacrifice his own life to save the lives of ten of his close relatives who also carry that gene will be more reproductively successful than a gene that programs for survival of the individual only.

To put it in terms of the book’s title, the gene’s selfish desire to make copies of itself gives rise to unselfish behavior in the organisms that host it. What an elegant explanation of altruism! And what a marvel!

Stare it Down

Jaycee Dugard was in the news again yesterday. You may recall that she was kidnapped at age 11 and spent the next 18 years in captivity, where she bore two children of her kidnapper.

In one account I read, she said that she tried to convince herself that her mother was better off without her.

How heartbreaking!

Little Jaycee was coping as best as she could, and we all try to find the silver lining in the cloud. Even if (especially if?) the silver lining does not reflect the truth, our hearts go out to a child who is doing what she must to get through tough times.

Thankfully, Jaycee grew up, in both years and maturity. Now dealing with the aftermath of her captivity, she says of tragedy,

Why not look at it? Stare it down until it can’t scare you anymore. I didn’t want there to be any more secrets.

That’s much healthier, isn’t it?

Growing up consists of learning to face heartbreak squarely. It means having the clarity to call evil what it is and stare it down. We don’t need to find non-existent good in it, much less pretend that the good outweighs the bad. We don’t need to assert against all evidence that “everything happens for a reason.” We don’t need to blame ourselves, God or karma. We stare it down until it loses its power. Then, we pick up the pieces and move on.

Hurrah for Jaycee! She is truly free.

Artificial Consciousness: What Does It Take?

In this series (intro here), I have suggested that consciousness consists of thinking about thinking, and that thinking consists of symbol-manipulation. In the last post, I presented a case that our biological brains do not have to manipulate the symbols. Artificial brains would do.

But how advanced must those artificial brains be in order to qualify as conscious?

Because consciousness is a matter of degree, artificial brains could be specialized and still be conscious. The key ingredient, I have argued, is that a conscious being is able to think about its own thinking. Technically, this means that the input to its symbol-manipulation includes its own symbols.

Computer program can do exactly that.

For example, some chess-playing programs learn from their mistakes, in effect reprogramming themselves based on experience. To be sure, this is extremely limited consciousness, but our consciousness is also limited, is it not? We are unconscious of the earth’s magnetic field, but some migrating birds do seem to have this awareness. Would such a bird label us “unconscious” because we are unaware of something so fundamental in its world?

If a computer program that is only conscious of itself as a chess player is not good enough, consider the article in Time Magazine last February. Titled 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal, it projected that computers’ intelligence will exceed ours within 35 years. We already  have a computer program that beat two Jeopardy! champions. What will the world be like when computers beat humans at every creative pursuit?

When computers are able to process every sensory input better than we can, as well as some we can’t; when they are able to reflect on what they’ve learned faster and more accurately than we can; when they can think about their own behavior and adjust it for optimal results without even seeing a psychiatrist; when in fact they are better psychiatrists than we are — when all these things take place (and they will), will we be ready to concede that software can be conscious?

Maybe a better question is, will computers think that we are conscious?