May 29, 2010

From Paley to Hawking: Design and the Anthropic Principle

Hi, I hope everyone is enjoying their Saturday and is looking forward to some light weekend reading (turned out to be not so light...) as I finish a trilogy of posts on probability. This post will be a summation of the arguments of William Paley, and its modern portrayal by Dinesh D'Souza which I am taking from his debate with Daniel Dennett. They are just two people in a long line that look at the universe and see design in the universe.

I was going to sum up William Paley in my own words, but the Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy did a fine job in doing that for me. Paley's argument from design is,

"In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer that for anything I knew to the contrary it had lain there forever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place. I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for anything I knew the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, namely, that when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive—what we could not discover in the stone—that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose … [The requisite] mechanism being observed … the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker. Every observation which was made in our first chapter concerning the watch may be repeated with strict propriety concerning the eye, concerning animals, concerning plants, concerning, indeed, all the organized parts of the works of nature. … [T]he eye … would be alone sufficient to support the conclusion which we draw from it, as to the necessity of an intelligent Creator..."

Paley is looking around the world and seeing complex things, that appear to work together to have a purpose and so he generates a view that is not outlandish, yet still doesn't hold up pasted even cursory scrutiny now. In minutes the information about the transitional states of the eye can be found, from going to simple cells being able to detect light to the eyes we have today. Two good pages for this information I found was The evolution of the mollusc eye and a15 minute video of  Richard Dawkins' explanation. This can be done just as easily to show the natural design of Birds, Whales, or even the bacterial flagellum. The designs also have major flaws that a conscious designer wouldn't include, like the vestigial legs in whales, wings in some beetles, or the blind spot in the human eye. That's right there is a blind spot that can easily be demonstrated in both your eyes. This would be enough to argue agianst Paley, but the argument from design also looks at the nature of the universe and sees design there as well.

Dinesh references Stephen Hawking and his book A Brief History of Time. The area he references is between pages 126-131, where the anthropic principle is brought up. It is shown that there are many different values that could exist for the laws of physics as we know them today, and the example of the electric charge of an electron is given. If the charge of the electron was only slightly different, stars either wouldn't have been able to burn hydrogen and helium, or else they would not have exploded. Hawking goes so far to say that,

"This means [The initial rate of expansion of the universe having to be carefully chosen] that the initial state of the universe must have been very carefully chosen indeed if the hot big bang model was correct right back to the beginning of time. It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us."

Hawking is only able to do this because he first completely writes off the 'strong anthropic principle' for two reasons. He defines the strong anthropic principle as a belief that either there are many different universes or many different regions of a single universe. The first reason he states agianst is questioning in what sense those universes exist. The fact that there are no interactions between universes means we can use the principle of economy and cut them out.

This is something I find a little troubling, because when he left the realm of out universe and started talking about the creation of the universe before the big bang or during the big bang at a level where physics doesn't work he really left the realm of science and entered the realm of philosophy and speculation. It is fine to write off other universes (some physicists might disagree) as a scientific notion, just as God can be written off in a scientific sense until there is some empirical evidence for either, but he can't rule out either option when speculating. 

There is also an objection be to had with Hawking's use of the principle of Economy. I am of the same opinion as Karl Popper when he says that,

"My point is that only after recognising the plurality of what there is in this world can we seriously begin to apply Ockham's razor. To invert a beautiful formulation of Quine's, only if Plato's beard is sufficiently tough, and tangled by many entities, can it be worth our while to use Ockham's razor. That the razor's edge will be dulled in being used for this tough job is only to be expected. The job will no doubt be painful. But it is all in a day's work."

The principle of economy, principle of parsimony, or Ockham's razor shouldn't be used to dismiss a theory or idea out of hand, which Hawking is clearly guilty of. The theory may be dismissed as something that can't explain the physics of the start of the universe, but when he moves into the realm of speculation, especially in an area where empirical evidence cannot be given, a theory cannot be written off by the pure lack of evidence.

The second reason is that is that the strong anthropic principle would claim that it would mean this whole vast construction he here for our sake and that idea would be very hard to believe and this leave Hawking believing either there are unified principles that created the universe or there was something that tuned those physical laws. Hawking evidently believes the former rather than the latter.

This is also overstated, by Hawking. If there are multiple universes with different physical laws, saying that this universe is fine tuned for humanity is akin to saying that this universe has the physical laws needed for human life to evolve. Just because there are multiple universes and this is the universe we specifically evolved doesn't necessarily entail that this universe was specially created for us. Hawking is jumping to a conclusion that I think few people would make. His 'weak anthropic principle' (which he agrees with) is really just the same as his 'strong anthropic principle' except there seems to be more bias in how he describes the stronger principle and he likes to talk about multiple universes in the strong one.

The universe does have some constants that if changed would make life as we know it impossible. This doesn't mean that God has to be postulated as the answer as Paley and Dinesh would have you believe. The physics of the universe may be completely improbable, but so is every dealing of 52 cards. When you look at something after the fact and judge the probability it is in one sense unfair (When you account for the whole context it makes anything improbable) or in another sense non-existent. The probability of the universe having the physics we have is 100%, it has already happened. Life must exist in a place where life is possible to exist by necessity. To answer why life is here or what created the big bang right now are areas that we can honestly just say, "I don't know"  and there is nothing wrong with that.

As always this was longer and more technical then I hoped it would be, so thanks for those of you who made it through it. I also only deal with the anthropic principle as defined by Hawking, so there is no need to postulate other definitions. I like Chomsky's idea of letting who you are talking about create the definitions, as it creates both understanding and fairness. Anyway, thanks for reading.

-The Moral Skeptic

May 27, 2010

A Deck of Cards Both Ways: An analysis of The Boeing 747 Argument and A Speech from The Watchmen

Welcome to the blog on a sunny Thursday afternoon. I liked my last post and thought that it covered the subject matter fairly well, but I still had a couple issues that I wanted to get to but wasn't able to in my last post. They really pick up where the last post left off, but I'm fairly sure that this post will have a couple tangents, including a look at part of The Watchmen.

The topic for this blog will be slightly different as it is peoples assessment of probability. This time I will pick on the Boeing 474 argument. I'll start off by thanking Richard Dawkins for making this post a lot easier to write, as I will end up referencing both the God Delusion and The Selfish Gene. After that I'll talk about William Paley, and his design argument. 

Anyway, so the God Delusion points out Fred Hoyle's Boeing 747 argument that amounts to this. It is an argument from the improbability for life originating on the earth. In this argument it is pointed out that the probability of life originating on Earth is akin to the to the chance that a tornado, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747 (page 113, The God Delusion). This is an interesting example, and provides an insight  into both probability and evolution. 

In the example above lets take the Boeing 747 and turn it into the process of evolution, and the scrapyard would be the earth. This is where The Selfish Gene(or other books that explain the beginning steps of evolution) really comes into play. It starts out with some chemicals joining together and remaining in a stable state. This means that, "Evolution can start with just the ordinary process of physics and chemistry. (TSG 13)" It just relies on chemicals coming together in natural states. After this all that is needed are chemicals that can make rudimentary copies of themselves, this starts evolution and can account for all life and parts of life seen today. So all that is needed in the scrapyard are chemicals coming together, and then making crude copies of themselves, so start a process where a Boeing 747 (Animal like a Cow) could be created. (I can see from here some people wanting to point out a leap I am making, in stating the transition between chemicals in a steady state and something creating a crude copy.)

Before I address that leap, I will point out  an assumption Hoyle makes and is the reason I said could be created. The assumption is that it is the Boeing 747 that must be created, and not any other complex mechanical device.  Evolution doesn't mean that anything necessarily has to be created, it happens to have created human, parrots and the platypus, but if the clock were turned back and evolution was allowed to run its course again, it might not be that any of those things would be created. So the argument should really be, the tornado creating a complex mechanical device rather than any specific device. This might just be a nitpicking error caused, by trying to create a simple example though and I wouldn't put too much weight to it.

There is a far more serious error this argument makes and it is all about looking at probability after something as happened. To show this error all one need do is shuffle and deal out a deck of 52 cards. Now after the cards are dealt judge the odds of those 52 cards being put out exactly in that order. This is a pretty difficult task, so I'll just give you the odds; The odds are 1 in 80,658,175,170,943,878,571,660,636,856,403,766,975,289,505,440,883,277,824,000,000,000,000, a pretty impressive number I got from the Huge Numbers in a Deck of Cards Page. So that makes every time a deck is shuffled and 52 cards are dealt out even more amazing than a tornado creating a 747. I think the problem can now easily be seen. Judging the odds of something after it has happened and taking into account all the information, while ignoring the process going on always leads to a result that seems unbelievable. Appreciating the odds for something happening is no where near as important as understanding the process that helped shape those odds. Trying to determine if something happened by odds after it has already happened is insane, and really doesn't say anything about the event, except perhaps adding a level of interest and appreciation. Looking at odds doesn't determine if anything happened, examining the evidence for it happening does. Odds are for the most part astronomical and misleading. 

This is why I thought this speech in The Watchman was really un-intelligently put together. Dr. Manhattan, the smartest and most powerful person in the story, states that, "Will you smile if I admit I was wrong?" The other character then asks "About what?" and Manhattan answers with a Hoyle like statement saying, "Miracles, events of astronomical odds of occurring, like, oxygen turning into gold. I've longed to witness such an event, yet I neglect that in human coupling. Millions upon millions of cells compete to create life for generation after generation until finally your mother loves a man....and out of that agianst unfathomable odds its you." The problem of this is the same as the problem with the deck of cards, if you were to take into account anything and have that much information about the event than anything is miraculous. Manhattan has longed to see an event that amounts to any event. How amazing it is that you set that pencil in that spot, the chance that that peace of wood would travel all this way to be ignored for weeks and then end up exactly on that section of the counter, agianst unfathomable odds that pencil is there! Dr. Manhattan should longed for that event as well or any other event.

When all the information is taken into account, then the odds for anything happening is agianst unfathomable odds, the sheer lunacy of that conversation should be readily apparent after the card example. People can appreciate things happening, but to only appreciate things that happen agianst all odds still means that everything should be appreciated. To define a miracle like they did in The Watchmen degenerates all actions into miracles. This means that doctor Manhattan shouldn't just appreciate the girl being there, but also the dust being in the exact position it is, or any other thing that people would consider mundane. David Hume has a much better understanding of Miracles...but that's another blog post.

That scene was had a neat relevance to what I was taking about earlier and was a good example of misunderstanding probability within pop culture, and while I would like to end here I really have to do a paragraph to talk about the leap I was making earlier.

In the part where I talk about the beginnings of evolution I talk about chemicals in steady forms and then just leap to there being a self replicating process. I want to point out that this is a necessary leap that has to be made, and would be a much better area of attack for people like Hoyle. Here I would have to just state that it doesn't seem to far to go from self organizing chemicals, to chemicals that can make crude copies. Scientists have been able to create amino acids (the building blocks of life) from simple chemicals that were available soon after the earth was formed, by adding energy to those chemicals (TSG 14-15). The problem comes up with something people are inherently bad at; Being judges of the odds that life can arise out of those building blocks. It is an interesting part of the Drake Equation and something I might blog on later.

Those waiting for Paley will have to wait until my next post, as this one ran longer than anticipated. Thanks for reading.

-The Moral Skeptic

May 25, 2010

Humans Are Naturally Poor at Gauging Probability

Hi again, I hope everyone had a good long weekend or has a good long weekend coming up. Thanks for the upvotes on Reddit, and I'll try to keep the posts coming. I still have a lot of future topics in mind, so I don't anticipate any long delays between posts. If anyone has some additional information to any of my posts that they think would be interesting for me to read, just add it in a comment and I'll check it out.

Now that those issues are out of the way, I'm going to bring up a topic that has long been on my mind, but I have yet to really talk about it. The idea for this post came to me one day when I was playing crib (a card came), with my aunt. We were dealt a hand where I got three 5's and she also got a 5 (There being 6 cards in each hand). She thought that this was miraculous and complained that the deck wasn't shuffled properly, or that something that shouldn't have happened did indeed happen. There is a mistake in this belief that, if not already apparent, will become apparent quite soon, but first I will talk about three examples I know that are semi-akin to this way of thinking, and I think it shows how people are naturally poor at judging probability.

The first one comes from a great webshow, which I will unabashedly endorse, called Scam School with Brain Brushwood.  I forget which episode it comes from (I found it on youtube), but it is a scam that involves my favorite prop, a deck of cards. The other person can shuffle the deck and you just bet them for a drink that after they are done shuffling that two of the same cards will be side by side. There is no trick to this, it is just that the odds are that two of the same card will be beside each other.

Well here is an example of my research leading me to find out my beliefs were wrong. The odds of the same card being beside each other seems to be about 48%, which while higher then I suspect people would think it would be, is actually a little too low to be betting for, although it wouldn't be a bad bet at a casino. Anyone can take my word for it or read this and find out what I did (I also verified it from other sources). So Brain was wrong here, but I still like his show.

Anyway that leads me two my second, and hopefully more correct example of the coin flip example. This one is an interesting example where a teacher asks his math students to either do their homework or fake it. The homework is to flip a coin 200 times and record heads or tails for those flips. At a glance the professor can tell whether the student faked the flips or really did their work. The reason the professor can tell is that people are poor at judging probability. In a trial of 200 coin flips there is what is described as an overwhelming chance that there will be a run of six of the same outcome. Most people, including the students that faked their tests, would think that 6 heads or tails in a row would be unlikely and created results that reflected that. Even the math students were poor a judging probability. If you want to read more about it and learn about something close to this idea named Benford's Law just click here.  

My third example is the one that you are most likely to have heard previously because recently it has been making its rounds around the internet. It is what is referred to as the Monty Hall Problem, named from the Game show Lets Make a Deal, which had the host Monty Hall. The set up is there are 3 doors to choose from and you have to pick a door. After you have picked a door you have the option of keeping the door you picked or switching to the only other unopened door. This is where peoples horrible appreciation for probability comes in. Now it seems like it is a 50/50 proposition because there is one prize and two doors, but in reality, but taking a door away and offering you a door he is giving you two doors for the price of one. The reason is that there is only one prize, and he won't revile a door where the main prize is, so you are getting the chance of the two doors combined, even though the one door has been show to have a fake prize. Switching gives you a 2/3 chance and sticking with your first choice leaves you at the 1/3 you had before a door was revealed. I know this sounds counter intuitive, and people have had many problems with this, but wikipedia does a good job in explaining why that is if you didn't understand my explanation. 

What these three examples show is how easily people error in judging the odds for something, and I don't think I'm in anyway different. I had to look up the information about 2 of the same cards (any pair) being beside each other, and even Brain Brushwood, who was putting his wallet where his mouth was, was getting the odds wrong. It just goes to show why the lottery and casino's can make so much money, people have a really hard time calculating the odds of something, and that is when they are unclouded of beliefs that would lead them to think that they are 'lucky' or that they are 'due'.

Anyone should be able to see the problem in my Aunts logic now. It is the same mistake that people were making when they were faking their coin flips, they don't judge the probability correctly and think that anything like 6 heads in a row or all the 5's being dealt out is something that shouldn't happen, no matter how many flips are done or hands are dealt out. This is the belief that something 1 in a million should never happen, even if that thing is done a million times.

I'm sure people have some interesting stories about people misreading the odds so feel free to post them in the comments, thanks for reading.

- The Moral Skeptic

May 24, 2010

Seeing Isn't Believing

This is a bit of a dedication to the previous color scheme I was using and the after images some of those previous readers experienced after reading some of my longer posts. In this post I will show some optical illusions, which are always fun to see, talk about what the human brain actually gets from the eyes, and then talk about some of the ramifications.

Those people who were unlucky enough to see my blog in its past format can stare at the picture on the right for 30 or so seconds and then look away to a white or soft colored background. This is because your retina will adapt to the unchanging stimulus and actually stop responding to it. So people who were reading my white text on the black background were inadvertently 'looking at the x', and then seeing waves of text as after images. It then takes a little while for it to start adjusting again. I got this information and picture from the sampling of Illusions page, which I found linked from Scientific American.

The winner of the the best illusion from this year actually has relevance to my home country of Canada. The winner showed how from one perspective it looks like balls are rolling up hill. This is something found in Moncton, New Brunswick in a place that is referred to as Magnetic Hill. It is called Magnetic Hill, because that was how some people explained how the cars could be 'pulled' uphill. There is even a wikipedia page on it and About has an article that shows nearly a dozen places in the US that are like it.

It is actually surprising that the brain isn't tricked by optical illusions more often  Ray Kurzweil does a great job in The Singularity is Near (pages 185 -188) pointing out some information that I will summarize here, but if you don't have the book you can find nearly the same information here. It really points out that the process of vision is a collection of stimulus, then the cortex makes guess about what it is seeing and tries to match it up with something. There is an illusion that the eyes are sending high resolution pictures, but what is really being sent is 10-12 output channels, each carrying minimal information. One group looks for the changes in contrast, another looks for uniformity in color, while another constraints solely on the background of what is of central attention. Kurzweil goes as far to say that, "[After getting those 10-12 pictures from the brain] We then essentially hallucinate the world from cortical memories that interpret a series of extremely low-resolution movies that arrive in parallel channels. There is a picture in the book that gives a general idea of what the eye see's but for the life of me I couldn't find it on the internet.

Anyway given the lack of actual information and how the brain makes up for it, and the beliefs of people I am actually surprised more ghosts and flying saucers aren't seen. Pareidolia, can be seen in how people can see what they are looking for in random visual information, and is a source of money for those who can make a Jesus like object appear on anything.  

I recently experienced some pareidolia myself. When I am fishing I am constantly looking for fish in the water, and I looked beside the boat and saw what I thought to be a huge fish. I was startled then realized that the fish wasn't moving and that it was instead a rock, but I was tricked for a few seconds.

There is no shame in being tricked, and when people are looking for a specific thing they will find it eventually. There will be stimulus that the mind will link to that thing. People are great a picking out patterns in clouds, the real skill comes in after the image is seen and distinguishing the meaning of these patterns.

Thanks for reading,
The Moral Skeptic

May 22, 2010

The Chicken Or the Egg? Part Deux! (A history and example)

Hi again,  I got some interesting and well thought out responses and general interest on my Chicken or the Egg post and thought it was worthy of a follow up. I really appreciate those who took the time to read the whole post, and thank those who commented on it. I changed around my colour scheme due do to the after images it was causing, although for my next post on optical illusions and seeing not being believing I may change it back. Anyway, I did some further research on the topic in light of the comments I got and have to say I generally agree with my first post.  That being said I do have some more information, including the historical background of the question and some responses to a couple of criticisms to post here. (Anyone who doesn't care for the history, feel free to skip the next three paragraphs.)

The question first goes back much further than  I thought it would, and I guess everything really is a footnote to Plato, because that's the era that the question first Arises. I found the quote about it from Aristotle who says that, "If there has been a first man he must have been born without father or mother -- which is repugnant to nature. For there could not have been a first egg to give a beginning to birds, or there should have been a first bird which gave a beginning to eggs; for a bird comes from an egg." The article goes on to say that, "The same he held good for all species, believing, with Plato, that everything before it appeared on earth had first its being in spirit. (Isis Unveiled I, 428.)" That article can be found here  if your interested.

This is an important pre-evolution understanding. The bird and the egg seem co-dependent, so there can be no first, so everything must be eternal. Then creationism came and in Genesis 1:20 God said that, "'Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.' 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good."

So the answer historically changed from there being no first chicken or egg, to there being birds created before the egg. God created the bird first, and I assume the chicken is one of the birds that flies above the earth and a bird according to its kind.

Then with the Origin of Species Darwin worked out (with a contribution from pigeons and finches) that animals can adapt to there surroundings; Watson and Crick found DNA and the chicken and the egg took a decidedly different look The look that I described in my first post, that had some contentions.

 I have been criticized by some posts saying that of course that is the answer, but it isn't a sexy answer to the question. While it may be boring, there are many people who, wrongly I think, postulate the egg as the answer, and in doing so really belittle the process. They elevate the individual egg over the steps that create the distinction between things.

For instance states that "MatheMagic- I think you're reasoning it out wrong: any step of rearranging the DNA takes place at the 'egg' stage. It is difficult to define the moment at which species occur, fine, but like any taxonomist you must set some arbitrary criteria (lets say the primordial "chicken" would share 99.00000000% of the DNA seen in chickens today)."

My response to this while the egg is the place of change this question isn't like a court of law that must make a sentence upon a guilty verdict (Any court sentence is an arbitrary but necessary decision). This is a question that can be fairly answered without having to put an arbitrary stick in the mud. The question as given is a false dichotomy, the answer isn't in the choice of possibilities and I think that I can make my point with the a news article.

The article is on how people in England having bird feeders (along with warm winters) has created a separate breeding population for Blackcap's. It is a pretty short and interesting article and I will try to summarize it, but you can find it here if you are interested.   Anyway, there are two populations of blackcaps have a different wintering area and the ones that go to England are able to get back earlier than the other population. This ability lets them breed earlier and has created two separate breeding populations. That is all it really takes to create a split in the species. It is noted that, "The team also observed differences in the birds' beaks, wings and plumage.", but don't get any hopes up on a new chicken coming soon as, "Dr Schaefer pointed out that the evolution of a new bird species, 'could take 100,000 to a million years'."

There are changes that take place, but no single great change is the defining thing that separates one thing from another. Darwin showed this in the Origin of Species when he himself pointed out the problems and folly's with trying to define the differences between a species and a variety and those terms may be highly contested.

What the Blackcap really shows is that no one egg can even be arbitrarily shown to be 'the first chicken.' It may take 100 000 years for there to be a chicken from the egg, that is one of the reasons why people who deny evolution are able to say that well species can change, but no new species have ever come into appearance. (Please don't make this a topic, I know that species can evolve at different rates and the populations may be some and the changes could come quickly in an evolutionary sense).

I could site literally hundreds of people, who like MatheMagic, that state that the egg is the correct answer, but all those people are really putting the individual ahead of the process. It comes up in the philosophy of mind often when trying to define where consciousness is what it is. Many people have given different answers, but the answer that I think fits best is that consciousness, like evolution, is a process of that involves different things and trying to encapsulate those things in any one term really fails to show the beauty in the inner-workings that are going on.

Thanks for reading,

The Moral Skeptic

May 21, 2010

Volvox Carterii and Death of 'Selfish' Altruism

Recently there was a study done on the Volvox Carterii (pictured to the right), that managed to isolate a gene responsible for altruism in that bacteria. I will do my best to summerize the information that will be relevant for this post, but the news article and be found HERE, and the real article can be found at Molecular Biology and Evolution 2006 23(8):1460-1464.

The Volvox has a gene called RegA that, when active, suppresses cell growth. Volvox cells need to be a larger size to reproduce, so that suppression of growth creates the situation where that cell can no longer reproduce. This can be described as that cell making an altruistic decision for the team, it sacrifices its own genetic well being for that of the other cells around it. 

What I find interesting about this and that didn't really hit me until now is the effect this might have on the psychological reasons for Altruism in people. There is a faction of people who believe that the only reason people are altruistic in situations is for there own rational personal benefit, and I think the evolutionary beginnings of altruism shows that this isn't the case. An example of the idea of selfish altruism would be someone saving a person who is drowning, because their conscious wouldn't let them sleep if they didn't. Thus the persons motivation for saving the other person is of a selfish nature, they did it for themselves rather than to save the other person.

This is generally characterized as an unfalsifiable thesis, any persons act can be rejustified as self to some degree, even when that selfishness is just feeling bad about not doing anything. This changes with the volvox. Isn't capable of foreseeing or rationalizing any actions it takes, it is simply listening to the genes tell it what to do. It can't be argued that the volvox cells are not growing because it would feel bad if the other cells weren't able to function correctly. This isn't to say there is no benefit to what those cells are doing, if there wasn't they would be selected agianst and no exist for very long, it is saying that there is no possible way that the volvox is acting altruistically with a knowingly selfish motivation.

Now the counter-argument that I know this will meet is that, the volvox is much different than a person, it is a simple bacteria, and humans are much more complex and can rationalize every action they take. Not only that there may not be a single gene for altruism in people, it is probably a plethora of different factors that leads to altruism in people.

This is alright, if the bird that fakes an injured wing to distract predators from its nest, and the volvox cells gives up its opportunity to reproduce, with no rational basis for their decisions. Even infants have been found to have an altruistic nature. If all other animals and pre-rational humans all can act altruistically without it being a selfish altruism, then why is it as soon as someone becomes rational all their altruistic actions become selfishly motivated. It is glaringly obvious that altruism can exist without rationality, so why is altruism all of the sudden dependent on rationality in humans. Just because something can have a selfish motivation doesn't entail that is has to and to characterize it that way without reason is simply naive.  

Thanks for reading,

The Moral Skeptic

May 19, 2010

A Natural Arrogance

I've been thinking of a number of topics to write about and have came up with quite a few good topics for posting, but I think this one might be the topic that I see flaunted around the most without it even being analyzed. This one refers to the common belief and appeal to something being natural is akin to something good for human consumption, or something non-harmful to people. This belief has a counter-belief that goes with it as well, the belief that something that is artificial is bad for people in some way.

It may be at first obvious that most absolutes like this are wrong in some way. There could be an artificial 'black swan' substance out there that isn't bad for people, or there could be a small minority natural things that would be harmful to people. I'm not stating that there are some exceptions to the rule, I'm saying that the rule is broken, it doesn't work.

I think this mistaken belief has came from the sheer arrogance of people and can be traced back at least to Thomas Aquinas. He created a purposeful world where, if it rained it was to water the grass and in this world people were at the center of its purpose (look at his natural law and how man alone was endowed with reason). Even natural evils have their purpose. That being said the idea that everything natural has a purpose, is meant for humans and has existed for a long time along with people are mistaken and arrogant beliefs.

It is extraordinarily arrogant to believe that the world was put here for us and that everything in the world has a purpose. It is a step further than that to say that everything that is natural is good for people. The world is abrasive.  To demonstrate this a person could just go outside, where-ever they are, and eat any random leaves or animals they run into, it wouldn't take very long before this natural world makes you extremely sick at the minimum. Natural things aren't necessarily good for people, and in many cases they are hazardous. Mold, Cyanide, Arsenic, Lead.... are all natural and all not safe at some level. The claim all natural is supposed to make it seem like the product is safer, less harmful to the environment, but that is not the case.

Eric Schlossen, in his book Fast Food Nation (pages 120-130), points out that the differences between natural and artificial flavors isn't very great, and that in fact many 'natural' flavors have to go through more processing than the artificial flavors. In fact often they use the same chemicals derived by different means. The key to food safety is not whether something is natural or not, it has to do with its testing and track record.
So when you see something that say's 'all-natural' it doesn't mean anything outside of a marketing ploy. Make choices based on food studies, not the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial. 

I was going to end with that, but I just want to make a comment of Genetically Modified Food and labeling. Many people who have fallen for the 'all natural' belief want the GMF's to have a label to say that they have been genetically modified. I actually agree with them in theory, but I disagree with them for a different reason. It is great to know what you are eating and where it comes from, but labeling something as a GMF would create a non-rational fear of that product that would bias what is really a safe and well tested food. Genetically modified foods have to go through a bunch of tests and get approved, you don't get that same level of guarantee with some natural products. If you want to know more on this issue just watch the Bullshit episode on it and look into the issue.

Looking into those food issues will change how you view 'all natural' and GMF's and you'll probably even gain a deeper understanding of the world around you, even if it doesn't have a purpose.

Thanks for reading,

The Moral Skeptic

May 13, 2010

Interview Questions and Lying in an Job Interview

I've wanted to write on this topic for a while and this post has been a topic that has been mulling around in my mind. The topic initially came to mind when I talked to two friends who were job hunting and in their search applied to Future Shop, the electronic retail giant. To start their application to work there they had to answer some questions on a computer program to determine their suitability for working at Future Shop. Now I'm not aware of the nature of the questions outside the one question they told me about, but the one they talked to me about was very interesting.

The question was a simple one, with what I think is a straightforward answer, 'Have you ever stolen something from a place where you worked?' The answer in the context of a person looking for a job, and being asked that is of course, 'No I've never stolen anything at all, let alone from a place I've worked' or something to that effect. That answer was given by one of my friends, but the other had a much different take on the question. He, being naive, thought that it would be unrealistic to never have taken anything from work before, so he stated that yes he had taken something from a former workplace, a few pens to be exact.

Needless to say that the person who said that he had never stolen anything before was given another few questions to answer and my other friend who said he stole pens (I'm pretty sure he's never stolen anything in his life) was given the message of 'thank you for your application' and no more questions were asked. With that my friend who said he never had stolen anything and myself, had a good time making fun of the naive friend. Yet in the days since then the question stuck in my mind, not because the question itself is interesting, but because of the ramifications it has in the context it is being asked.

I am reminded of the documentary The Fog of War, which is a commentary featuring Robert Mcnamara, the former Secretary of Defense, and his reflection on the life he has lived and the choices he has made. Early on in the film Robert is talking about how he went through school and is put in a position like my friends who applied for Future Shop when he had to do some tests for the Ford Motor company. The interesting question he was given by Ford was. 'What job would you work at in the summer', and there was a list of 4. If memory serves the choices included, a machinist (or something like that) and a florist. Robert knew in this context (An Application for Ford) that machinist was the correct response, despite the fact that Robert had, coincidentally,  actually been a florist in the past and really enjoyed it. He ended up saying that he and the group of fellows he did the test blew the test out of the water due to his, and his friends, ability to understand the question in the context in which those questions were given.

Anyway getting back to the Future Shop question, I can think of 2 types of people (Those who have stolen and those who have never stolen from a job site) and because of that there are 4 possible answers for the question:

1. Those who have stolen and will admit they stole.
2. Those who have stolen and will lie about having stolen anything.
3. Those who haven't stolen and say that they haven't.
4.  The rare case, to which my one friend fits, those who haven't stolen but think that they should say that they have.

From that we can understand the type of people Future Shop is eliminating from there potential employment with that question. People in types 1 and 4 are the type of people eliminated, those people who are honest enough to admit they have stolen in the past and those who have never stolen, but are really poor at judging the answer to a situational question. The people who will get through are those people who will both lie and steal and those who have never stolen in their life.

I'm not sure that this is what Future Shop had in mind when they made up this question, because I think that most people have taken something from a former workplace, probably something trivial like paper or pens or something like that, but won't admit to somewhere they are applying to work that they have ever stolen something. The people who are punished by this question are actually anyone who is really honest, or really misunderstands the question. That is why this question is so interesting. It is because of the limited responses, the implication of those responses and how people always have to take the context into consideration when being asked a question.

I think what this question really shows is how far our society has come in understanding the context of questions, because that is really what the question is about. People generally know the 'correct answer' and what you actually think/what actually occurred are two very different things. This changes the questions from being actually honestly answered to one where people are looking to give the response that is being looked for. It is a system where lying is encouraged and rewarded, a system that punishes honesty. I'm not trying to pass judgment on the system, but simply illuminate what it actually does. So as I continue my on the hunt, knowing that I will be actively looking to 'give the best response' and hope that I'm rewarded for it.

Thanks for reading,

The Moral Skeptic