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Archive for February, 2009

Even if you’re not familiar with the name, you’ve probably heard this argument a few times before. In fact, if you’re like me, you may even have independently come up with something similar during your adolescent years of pseudo-philosophising, along with many other rather dreary insights you discovered and felt proud of at the time, without realising that people who’ve been dead for centuries have actually already thought about all of this in much greater detail. (Or, maybe you’re not that much like me, but you’ve still probably heard this before.)

17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal is one of very few people to have had a triangle named after him. This led to a bitter rivalry with a contemporary of his, the English aristocrat Sir Benjamin St. John Equilateral, which spilled out into the public arena and cast a damaging blow to Anglo-French relations. (Pascal was actually the original target of the notorious slur, “Cheese-eating geometry monkey”, when it was first coined by Sir Benjamin [citation needed].)

Anyway, when he wasn’t feuding with implausibly named Englishmen, or being all kinds of awesome in ways I’ll save for the next Happy Funtime Maths Hour, he also earned a reputation as God’s most widely quoted bookie. His most famous argument for believing in God, based on his analysis of the odds and outcomes of belief versus disbelief, is repeated more often than any twelve episodes of Friends on late-night satellite TV channels, and judging by the way it’s often used, has shown as little progress or development in the three centuries or so since it was first proposed, as Ross did over ten seasons.

It goes – to finally get to the point – a little something like this.

God may or may not exist. We can’t tell. At least, we can’t be anything close to certain, the claims of some recent bus advertisements notwithstanding. Even if we think we’ve philosophised ourselves some clever ideas, God’s all ineffable and stuff, so we can never really do any better than guesswork. But if we’re going to guess, why not hedge our bets? If we do believe in God, then what’s the worst that can happen if we turn out to be wrong? The blissful afterlife we were hoping for doesn’t show up, our soul-less, material selves will be simply snuffed out, and that’ll be the end of it. But if there is a God, and we bet the wrong way, we risk missing out on eternal rewards beyond imagining. So, on balance, surely it’s worth believing anyway, to be on the safe side. That way, what’s the worst that can happen?

Of course, there’s the odd snag.

Snag 1: YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

Or rather, this argument doesn’t handle the truth, or address it in any way. Nothing about it does anything to support the assertion that God actually exists, and in Pascal’s own formulation it relies on God’s existence (or lack thereof) being a completely unknowable proposition. He never intended to imply the conclusion “Therefore God exists”, and yet that seems to be where a lot of people want to go with it. It’s used to scare people into faithful conformity, to point out what they could be risking, but it’s an emotional appeal with no bearing on the facts. Maybe the Easter Bunny only brings chocolate ovoids to the kids who believe in him, but this doesn’t make it any more likely that he’s real. It just suggests that, if he is real, things will turn out better for you if you believe it.

So, if you’re interested in truth or reality, then the argument’s dead in the water. But even if you accept its conclusion, and do want to act in a way that’s most likely to turn out best for you:

Snag 2: You can’t choose what you think.

Well, I certainly can’t. I don’t believe in God. Any god. I can conceive of an all-powerful deity who provides everlasting splendours for anyone who reckoned he was up there somewhere while they were alive – and if it turns out that those people are right, then I want to get in on that action. But I can’t change how unconvinced I am. I just don’t think that this deity exists. I could go around acting like I do, saying the right words and going through the prescribed rigmarole to worship him as directed, but surely that’s not the same. He’d see right through that, wouldn’t he? Maybe if he had a sufficiently brainwashy following for me to sign up to, I’d eventually start to buy into it, but in general I can’t choose to change my beliefs just because it’d be useful to, any more than I could simply decide to love Michael Bay films or enjoy Limp Bizkit albums. (Also, just like some people can’t choose to be attracted to members of the opposite sex, but that’s a whole nother kettle of worms.)

And even if I could somehow don a suitable belief as it suits me, I think I’d still stumble at:

Snag 3: You presume to know the mind of GOD??

Pascal’s whole point was that there’s no way for us to apply reason and logic to deduce any facts about God’s existence. None at all. We really can’t work him out. It’s that ineffable thing again. And probably something about mysterious ways. So in a simple wager, he says, the smart bet is that God does exist, because the reward for placing your chips on that side of the coin is potentially infinite, and the risk is negligible in comparison.

But this seems to make an important assumption about God’s nature, of exactly the sort which Pascal says we can’t make. It only works at all, if you assume that God is an entity who wants us to believe in him – or at least, that this is the most likely option, and thus the most sensible one to gamble on. It depends on the idea that believing in God will endear you to him, or otherwise provide a potentially infinite reward, but that atheism closes off any such possibility. But if God is as mysterious and unfathomable as all that, and reason is truly of no use in assessing claims made on his behalf, why are we still okay with this assumption? Why is it any less likely that God will grant an infinite reward exclusively to those who don’t believe in him? Or that it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re nice to kittens?

It can only be a meaningful bet if you make assumptions about the likely personality traits of God – say, that he’s egotistical, or that he values skepticism and rational thinking and disapproves of mindless obedience to doctrine, or that he’s a cat person. If you want to argue that some of these characteristics are more likely to be found in God than others, and start citing scripture or the like to make your point, then you’ve got to lift the embargo on logic and reason, and we’re not talking about Pascal’s Wager anymore. If you start trying to actually construct a case – for a god who gets angry when people don’t heap sufficient praise on him, for instance – then this sidesteps the “just in case” element that makes the wager what it is, and turns the discussion into a run-of-the-mill religious one.

Pascal had the Christian God in mind, as do most proponents of modern versions of his argument, and this particular god does have something of a reputation for rewarding the faithful and punishing the rest. But then, Allah has a similar philosophy to our post-mortem fates. If I suck up to one, I’m just going to piss off the other. What to do?

Pascal decided, according to an uncited and thus highly dubious Wikipedia quote, that “if any faith is correct, it would be the Christian faith”. This would be one way of resolving things, and turning the Wager into an effective argument for Christianity, except for the fact that it doesn’t actually do any of that. A conclusion such as “if any faith is correct, it would be the Christian faith” must either be reached by some form of reasoning, or through blind faith. If you’ve reasoned your way there, then it’s clear that I’ve similarly reasoned my way to deciding that every god you can name is unlikely to the point of being negligible. If you think I’m wrong there, then we’re back to the familar arguments about evidence for God’s existence, and once again we’re no longer talking about the wager. If it’s faith, then it’s an arbitrary decision, and saying “if any faith is correct, it would be the Scientology faith” (or any other substitute) can have no less merit.

Because I can’t completely rule out the possibility of magical Jesus, who prefers that we worship him, it’s supposed to be less of a risk to gamble that he exists – but if you’re going to be that picky about my insufficiently astounding talents at disproving stuff, I can’t completely rule out anything else, either. Maybe the little model hula-dancer on my desk is actually God, and after I die she’ll judge me based solely on my foot hygeine. I can’t prove that won’t happen (I just know that if it does I’m in trouble), but if we truly cannot hope to understand God with logic or reason, then there can be no grounds for suggesting that this is any less likely than Christianity – and if reason is given any ground at all in helping us make this decision, then I can only judge for myself the plausibility of an all-powerful creator capricious enough to penalise me for not having blind, arbitrary faith in some unclear and demonstrably flawed set of principles. I’m happy with my judgment on that: it’s just as irrational and easily ignored as every other religion that disagrees with it.

So:
– Pascal’s Wager does not argue in favour of God’s existence.
– Even if it did, it’s not going to convert anyone without actually being persuasive; the fact that believing would be better for you won’t grant you the ability to believe.
– Even if it did, what to believe is an unanswerable question. Suggesting that any particular option (of the infinitely many available) is worth wagering on, just starts off a generic argument over whether there’s any good reason to believe any one religion over any other. If Yahweh is really any more credible than my hula-girl cult, surely this can be argued on its own right, without resorting to the scare tactics of “Ah, but what if you’re wrong?”

So, that’s where I stand on Pascal. Nice triangle; shame about the philosophy.

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Fred Phelps continues to be fucking hilarious. I know there’s no way, realistically, that his entire existence (and that of his whole family) is one extended joke, awaiting his eventual deathbed punchline, “… The Aristocrats!” as some people have hypothesised. And yet, there does just seem to be something unreal about him, which makes it impossible for him to be scary in the same way that plenty of other bigoted nutjobs are.

I mention him now only because my homeland is the most recent subject of God’s hatred, according to his latest video, due to consisting “almost entirely of sodomites”. He must know something about my friends that I don’t, but I can’t help but feel a kind of national pride at such an accolade. Maybe we could get some sort of ad campaign going, and get the numbers right up to 100%.

He didn’t really say anything worth recounting, but it’s good to see he’s not mellowing in his old age.

P.S. Not posting anything seems to do wonders for my hit count. I should try it more often.

P.P.S. Aw crap, did I miss Pancake Day again?

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I suck

Not dead, not forgotten about this place, just been drained of energy from so much focusing on trying to move into a new flat. Being a grown-up am difficult. Hoping to return to a regular schedule of some sort soon, in which I actually get things done, but for now I should probably acknowledge this as some sort of hiatus.

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Hey, you!

Yes, you!

Have you ever seen those clips of people doing ridiculous and dangerous things for no good reason, except to have fun and provide twisted amusement for us voyeuristic consumers?

Have you ever wished you could be the one shooting Johnny Knoxville in the crotch with a paintball gun, rather than just watching it happen?

Would you like the chance to get personally involved in exactly such an endeavour, albeit on a much, much, much smaller scale?

Well now you can!

Today is Friday 13th. Traditionally, an unlucky day. And because it’s February (and not a leap year), in four weeks’ time we’ll get another one. On that day, I want to do something fun. Specifically, I want to tempt as much fate as possible, break all the superstitious rules, and bring down the wrath of Jason upon me. Screw paraskavedekatriaphobia, I’m going to spend the day breaking mirrors with umbrellas indoors, and spilling salt on black cats.

So, all you need to do is suggest any allegedly unlucky things for me to do, which are ideally practical to do and to take interesting photos of, so that I can try and make an actual project of it a month from now. I know I’m notoriously unreliable at actually doing stuff, particularly when there’s added layers of complication involved, like having to get dressed and go outside, but if I can think of enough fun stuff to do then it’ll be something to aim for. I expect it’ll end up being more about personal achievement than constructing an especially engaging narrative for anyone else, but I could do with something that actually gets me moving.

I know I’m not the first, and I know there are plenty of lists of inauspicious activities online, but it’d be a fun project for me, and your input would be valued and motivating. So, suggest away.

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Happy Darwin Day, everyone! And happy 200th birthday to Mr Darwin himself, man of the hour. Or, I suppose, of the day. The whole internetoblogosphere is abuzz with cleverer commentary than I have any hope of providing about your legacy, your lasting contribution to science, and your magnificent Santa-beard, so I won’t go too much into all that again. You’ve probably had quite enough of people stroking your ego lately. Not to mention the beard.

In particular, the Praise Darwin billboards recently announced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation might be a bit much. Certainly the guy should be lauded, congratulated, respected, acclaimed, commended, and in many other ways embiggened for his scientific accomplishments. But it’s a common and annoying accusation, made by people unaware of the 150 years of evolutionary biology since Darwin published his seminal work, that the man is revered in science, as blindly and uncritically as the various gods tends to be by their followers. Evolutionists, they say, are just following their own “religion” of Darwinism, and this man whose facial hair engulfs every £10 note in England is our prophet, whose laws and ideas we follow unquestioningly.

Total bollocks, clearly, but it can be a hard enough notion to dispel at the best of times, and I’m not sure that a billboard like this really helps matters. I can see the point they’re trying to make, and certainly don’t disagree – it’s a neat play on “Praise God”, to be taken no more seriously as a secular vociferation than “By the beard of Randi!” – but even to me it kinda looks like they’re trying to raise him to too lofty a post.

Anyway. Yay Darwin. Happy birthday to you. Don’t get carried away. You’re good, but no more infallible than any given pope. Have some cake.

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This is an easy one to address. I haven’t seen it being seriously argued anywhere lately, which might mean that it’s finally sinking in what nonsense it is, but maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places. Either way, it doesn’t take much to understand why the theory of evolution is in no way refuted by the second law of thermodynamics.

Without getting too sciencey (because heaven forfend that this blog ever actually becomes informative), the law says that the total entropy of the universe is always increasing. Entropy, as I’m sure you all remember from your physics PhDs, is a measure of disorder, or chaos – so the law essentially states that things are always getting messier. Everything tends toward randomness, and for things to spontaneously sort themselves out into a non-random pattern – for the milk to unmix itself from my tea, for instance, and sit on the top in a separate layer, or for a dropped heap of sand to simply fall into a magnificent castle, complete with turrets and drawbridge – is impossible.

Except, not quite. Although the universe’s total entropy is increasing, that doesn’t mean that every single point in it must be getting more and more random and disordered all the time. It’s possible to decrease entropy locally, in some small system, by doing some work (adding some energy) to bring some order to the proceedings. It is possible to build a sandcastle, obviously. You just have to provide some process by which effort is expended, and the sand is arranged into an ordered pattern – such as, pick up your spade and get to work.

It’s silly to think the law means that nothing can ever become more complicated. You can see examples everywhere of complicated and intricate systems arising out of simpler ones. You can take a pile of CDs strewn haphazardly across the floor and alphabetise them; you can plant an acorn, and watch a complete oak tree grow (though only if you have a hell of a lot of spare time).

The point is that these sandcastles and acorns aren’t all there is – in each case, there’s something outside that small system, providing the work that needs to be done to put things in order. For that to happen, the entropy outside needs to increase, so overall things are more chaotic, even if a small patch of organisation breaks out somewhere.

It’s easy to see how this applies to something like evolution. Organisms do increase in complexity and orderedness (which sounds like it should be a word) over time, but like the acorn growing into an oak tree, the rest of life on the planet takes in energy from various environmental sources, particularly the Sun. We’re more complex and less disordered than our ancestors, but increased entropy levels elsewhere mean that the thermodynamics police won’t be needing to make any arrests. Chaos in the universe overall is behaving as it should.

PZ Myers has some actual numbers on roughly how much energy the Earth would need to be provided with to account for the increasing complexity of evolution, and the actual energy it’s provided with by the Sun. Guess which one’s bigger.

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Not ded

I’ve had this really bothersome condition lately, where I’m trying to write a relatively simple and straightforward article about the fundamentals of radiometric dating, but whenever I try and make there be more words in it, I suddenly and incurably take on the cognitive appearance of a functional illiterate who doesn’t even have anything interesting to say. This and other things (primarily laziness) explain the lack of activity here lately.

So, the plan was to dash off a quick entry about the second law of thermodynamics tonight to keep things ticking over at a more respectable rate, and get back to the lengthy stuff that actually requires significant research later, when I have a bit more time and/or will-power. Except now I’ve hit another slight snag, in that other things have got in the way and left me without enough time to get that done either. So, this is just going to be another rather pitiable placeholder serving only to highlight the fact that I still haven’t said anything interesting yet. So it goes.

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