Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why Plantinga Needs a Math Lesson on Materialism

In a recent The New York Times interview, philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga goes through an involved discussion about how evolution doesn't guarantee that our beliefs are true. This is absolutely a valid concern ... and, in fact, I know of no atheist who doesn't recognize the fallibility of our inherent beliefs and thought processes. In fact, some of the strongest arguments in favor of a rejection of theism is based on the psychological account of why people embrace theism. This YouTube series on the Psychology of Belief lays it out quite well.

So, we'll grant that we are not granted inherently true knowledge by evolution. His argument is that if you believe in both materialism (that is the viewpoint that there exists nothing that doesn't have a physical basis) and evolution, then you have to admit that you have no good reason for believing that any belief you hold is true. There's an extremely extensive dissection of the various flaws over on the Rationally Speaking blog, from Massimo Pigliucci, who has a deeper background in biology and philosophy both than I and quickly dissects the key conceptual problem with the argument.

But I'd like to take a different tactic, to really try to give Plantinga's argument enough rope to hang itself, because I just don't think it holds up on any level on its own merits. The problem is not that Plantinga misunderstands evolution, but rather that he appears to misunderstand how human beings (and materialists in particular) actually think!

Plantinga's Death Knell to Materialism

Let's consider his argument on its own merit, at least to the best of my ability. In his own words:
Evolution will select for belief-producing processes that produce beliefs with adaptive neurophysiological properties, but not for belief-producing processes that produce true beliefs. Given materialism and evolution, any particular belief is as likely to be false as true.


Here’s why. If a belief is as likely to be false as to be true, we’d have to say the probability that any particular belief is true is about 50 percent. Now suppose we had a total of 100 independent beliefs (of course, we have many more). Remember that the probability that all of a group of beliefs are true is the multiplication of all their individual probabilities. Even if we set a fairly low bar for reliability — say, that at least two-thirds (67 percent) of our beliefs are true — our overall reliability, given materialism and evolution, is exceedingly low: something like .0004. So if you accept both materialism and evolution, you have good reason to believe that your belief-producing faculties are not reliable.

But to believe that is to fall into a total skepticism, which leaves you with no reason to accept any of your beliefs (including your beliefs in materialism and evolution!). The only sensible course is to give up the claim leading to this conclusion: that both materialism and evolution are true. Maybe you can hold one or the other, but not both.

So if you’re an atheist simply because you accept materialism, maintaining your atheism means you have to give up your belief that evolution is true. Another way to put it: The belief that both materialism and evolution are true is self-refuting. It shoots itself in the foot. Therefore it can’t rationally be held.
The starting point is the valid recognition that evolution results in useful, adaptive traits rather than factually true beliefs. No argument there.

His next step is interesting. He is quite generous in assuming that perhaps 67% of our beliefs are, in fact, true, based on processes that were not optimized for truth-seeking. Using this, he then says if we have 100 beliefs (and we have many more), then we arrive at a very low overall probability of 0.004. The calculation is actually much worse than Plantinga suggests:
0.67100 = 0.0000000000000000405%
That's 16 zeroes between the decimal point and the 4.

Now, what does this number actually mean?
It means that if a single individual has 100 beliefs, then the probability (based upon these parameters) is virtually certain that not all of these beliefs will be true.
(It should be noted that the probability that all of these beliefs are false is much worse ... you then end up with 47 zeroes instead of 16. Plantinga, of course, is not arguing that all beliefs are untrue, even assuming materialism and evolution, so let's get back to his argument.)

But for any individual belief, of course, the probability is much higher: 67% according to Plantinga's estimation.

Random Belief Analysis

So let's make an even less generous estimation. Let's assume that we have an exactly 50/50 split between a given belief being true or untrue.

First, let's note that, regardless of your worldview, it's kind of unlikely and troubling to evolution, human reason, or the very concept of truth to assume that there is an absolute lack of correlation between adaptive beliefs and truth. Even a religious fundamentalist would, I think, admit that believing a true thing is going to, on average, be more adaptive than believing a false thing. So this is by far an assumption that gives Plantinga's argument the widest berth that it possibly can to prove its validity.

Second, let's then consider how one can actually approach this problem of having false beliefs. Let's make some initial assumptions that we can start from:

Round One Assumptions:
  • 50% of beliefs are true
  • 50% of beliefs are false
  • Random designation (no systemic biases in favor of or against truth)
A good first-order approach in this case is to check with other people. So we ask someone else, "Do you have this belief?" If they share this belief, there's now a 50% chance that you both have a true belief and a 50% chance that you have a false belief. And, in fact, you'll find in this situation that no amount of checking with other people will ever move the needle from a 50% probability.

Out of curiosity, what happens with Plantinga's model if we begin checking our beliefs with other people. There's a 33% chance that any given person is wrong, so if you check with 5 people, the probability that all 5 would find the same random belief to be wrong would reach the following:
Using Plantinga's model, there is a 0.391% chance that 5 people would hold the same false belief.
So, on this basis, we do see that some sort of internal cognitive bias would quickly multiply in a community to a growing factual consensus, based purely on the sort of crude mathematical argument that Plantinga offers.

But consensus by itself is not really how we check our beliefs, even at the most basic level. We check them against reality. Let's assume though that, since we're so bad at thinking in this scenario, that we are horrible at these checks. There is only a 1% chance that testing any given belief will accurately show a false belief to be false. (Ignoring any possible positive results for now, to make the math easier and also because it's easier to disprove something than to prove it.)

Again, I should note that there is also every reason to believe that this level of instinct is biologically ingrained in us through the process of evolution ... and, honestly, that it's ingrained in most animals on some level. An animal that cannot trust any "beliefs" about the world world with more than random correlation with reality would find themselves falling prey to all manner of natural selection effects. So this most basic level of analysis doesn't take much in the way of assumption beyond what we've already assumed to think that it would be implemented as a way of finding truth and falsehood.

So we implement this method. What happens then?

What we discover is that, if you check a given belief against reality a mere 10 times, and this process shows it to be false every time, then even this admittedly horrible method of distinguishing truth from falsehood results in the following:
Probability a False Belief will Survive Round One: 0.5 * (0.99)10 = 45%
And, of course, if you begin checking with other people who are also checking these beliefs in the same way, you reach the following:
Probability a False Belief will Survive Round One in a Community of 5 Checking Against Reality: 0.455 = 1.8%
So in a community of 5 people, all of whom check a false belief against reality with a 1% accuracy, there is a 1.8% chance that the false belief would pass all of these checks and look equivalent to a true belief.

Congratulations. The neurologically challenged human race has developed some method of distinguishing true beliefs from false ones. On to round two...

Round Two Assumptions:
  • 95% of beliefs are randomly assigned 50/50 between true/false
  • 5% of beliefs are biased as follow:
    • 10% are true things that we don't believe (false negatives)
    • 30% are false things we do believe (false positives)
    • 60% are true beliefs
We now move on to considering what happens if we give some credit to evolution to create even marginally reliable belief-forming pathways. Our first round analysis gives us a starting point and, again, I'll give the benefit of the doubt that we're a bit more flawed in our neuropsychology than we really have any excuse for being.

Let's again go with just checking with other people and see what we get:
Probability of Given Belief Being True: 0.95 * 0.5 + 0.05 * 0.6 = 50.5% 
Probability of 5 People Randomly Believing the Same False Thing: 0.4955 = 3%
We see that even in this rudimentary situation, there is a strong reason to go with the community consensus from a truth-generating point of view. The randomness and biases tend to get weeded out, even at this level.

Now that we have some cognitive neurology that actually works, we can assume that we're able to develop a plan for testing against reality that does a bit better than 1% at disproving a false belief. Let's assume that it is 10% effective at showing a false belief to be false. What do we then get when we conduct another 10 tests using our improved methodology?
Probability a False Belief will Survive Round Two: 0.495 * (0.90)10 = 17%
Probability a False Belief will Survive Round Two in a Community of 5 Checking Against Reality: 0.175 = 0.014%
Ideally, we will respond rationally to the above evidence and stop believing these false beliefs. We are able to eliminate 83% of our initial false beliefs! We don't have to replace them with true beliefs, either, if we're okay with uncertainty. (Replacing them with true beliefs would favor the anti-Platinga argument, so this is again giving him the benefit of the doubt.) The result is the following:
Probability of a Given Belief Being True after Round Two (individual testing): 85.7% 
Probability of a Given Belief Being True after Round Two (group testing): 99.98%
I really don't need to go much further, I don't think, to show that the process of checking a belief against physical reality - the very belief that atheists actually demand as a methodological step for knowing anything! - does work at generating true beliefs, even granting it virtually every concession that we can realistically grant.


Plantinga's criticism of materialism/evolution just does not hold up. Recall that he gave an example of 100 beliefs and the probability it would take for them all to be true. Let's compare this to the results from Round Two's extremely crude falsification methods:
Probability 100 random beliefs True using Plantinga's assumptions (individual):
Probability 100 random beliefs True using Plantinga's assumptions (group):
Probability 100 random beliefs True using Round Two falsifiability rules (individual):
Probability 100 random beliefs True using Round Two falsifiability rules (group):
The "group" numbers represent what we get if we eliminate everything that 5 people agree are false, both in Plantinga's evidence-free assumptions and my own evidence-based ones from Round Two.
First of all, we see that testing against the evidence greatly increases the truth percentage of beliefs for an individual, way beyond what Plantinga would give credit for with his original assumptions.

Second, we see that both our overall level of truth greatly increases - in fact become nearly identical for both sets of assumptions - if we work in a group and just begin throwing out anything that we all agree are false beliefs. And this does, in general, match with empirical evidence, because even the most ardent atheist and most devout theist share far more beliefs than they disagree on (though neither might be willing to admit it). (I'll confess, the high value for the Plantinga's group number surprised me. I thought the reliance on evidence would play a more important role in the methodology. However, I did make every assumption overwhelmingly in Plantinga's favor, so I shouldn't be too surprised.)

Third, let me be clear: I think Plantinga is completely flawed in his approach and thinking about how beliefs are formed ... but my point is that even if he were absolutely correct, his argument would not hold up on its own merits. I am not presenting this trying to persuade anyone into materialism because nothing above actually supports materialism in and of itself, it merely supports our ability to gain true beliefs given false beliefs.

Therefore, there is every reason for a materialist evolutionist to, in fact, believe that they have a capacity to trust their beliefs, so long as they rely on evidence and are not trying to acquire knowledge and understanding entirely on their own.

There are extremely real negative neurophysical pathways built into the brain - for entirely adaptive reasons - which can kick in, of course, meaning that a group begins being pathological in its thinking, driving away from true beliefs and toward false ones. See the video posted above. This is precisely the reason to cultivate skepticism, as it helps to short-circuit these cognitive biases.

In conclusion, the materialist is well insulated from concern about Plantinga's criticisms of his rationality and his belief in the evidence for evolution can continue unabated ... at least until some kind of actual evidence to the contrary shows up.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Two Obnoxious People (and Me) on Marriage

© Alexey Bannykh | Dreamstime Stock Photos
A week or so ago, one of my friends on Facebook shared a fascinating blog post on the subject of marriage. It was on the Matt Walsh blog, an unapologetic conservative Christian blog, and involved an exchange on the nature of marriage with an equally unapologetic polygamist college professor.

What's interesting is that (not surprisingly) I disagreed with both of them, but not for the reasons that they seemed to think the other person should be disagreed with. So I'm going to try to sort out my thinking on the disagreements here, publicly, and see if perhaps there are any useful responses.

First, let's be clear: I am a monogamist. But my monogamy is a practical consideration, based on principles that are completely at odds with those Walsh put forth. My earlier discussions of marriage probably make it clear that I don't have particularly conventional views on the institution ... but also make it clear, I think, that I feel maintaining the integrity of that institution should be viewed as important to anyone entering into it. Monogamy helps maintain the commitment at the heart of marriage, so I advocate in favor of monogamy as a means of helping to repeatedly nudge marriage participants in favor of bonding with their partner in place of bonding with other people.

Ultimately, my disagreement is that both the professor and Walsh seem to be taking their personal preconceptions about marriage and, instead of arguing for some sort of general statistically-superior trend, they are both arguing in absolute terms that their preconceptions are always the right ones, which apply (and should apply) to all marriages. The obnoxious professor explicitly calls Walsh out on this perspective ... and then commits precisely the same fallacy.

In conclusion, though, I think it's Walsh's perspective that's the more dangerous. Though he applies it only to sex, there's no reason to stop there, and extending his reasoning makes a person think their partner can give them everything they need: emotionally, physically, sexually, socially, intellectually, etc. No relationship can achieve this ... and in setting up for that, he's doing far more damage to the idea of marriage than someone who thinks that the institution can withstand some open sex.  

Disagreeing with the Professor

Disagreement 1: Authority isn't evidence

First of all, reading the polygamist college professor's introduction, my natural aversion to authority kicked in, and I really wanted to see this guy knocked down a peg or two: 
I am a college professor, author, and researcher. It was obvious to me before you ever stated it that you are a man of little education and limited intelligence. Still, I commend your newfound fame and congratulate you on the enormous amounts of money you must be making. 
[Five more sentences of insults and pretentious self-aggrandizement] 
…You have become a hot topic in some of my classes and this very much worries me. It wasn’t until your name came up for a fifth time that I decided to investigate you. Your prose are rife with fallacies and Neanderthalic musings, so I could easily disembowel and discredit any part of it. But I’d like to concentrate on what seems to be your most common themes: heterocentricism and monogamism.
Now, it's possible that the "five more sentences" deleted are mis-represented here. Perhaps the professor laid out actual credentials that are relevant, such have been a lead researcher on extensive psychological studies in human sexuality, or something like that, and that Matt Walsh has deleted these relevant comments and lied about their content. However, given the tone of the quoted part of the letter, I'm going to assume that this casual dismissal is fairly accurate, especially since the remainder of the letter contains no valid evidence or citations for any of his claims.

In other words, I get every sense that he's written to Walsh merely to express that he - a college professor, author, and researcher - has a different view and that this alone, without sufficient supporting evidence, should be the basis for proving that Walsh is wrong.

Disagreement 2: Unnaturalness = Undesirable

The supporting evidence that is offered by the professor is the anecdotal evidence of his personal relationship with his wife. While this might be sufficient to counter Walsh's stance that other relationships can't work out, it does not actually support the professor's grander claims that monogamy is fundamentally unnatural, nor his implications that it is actually undesirable and somehow detrimental to one's well-being. 

There are problems with this stance on nearly every level. First, one has to ask what is meant by "natural" here. As someone who generally subscribes to both evolutionary theory and materialism, I would say that all human behavior is, in fact, natural behavior, because I believe that all human thought and motivation is the result of natural processes. In this sense saying that something that actually happens is "unnatural" is illogical, because if it happens then it clearly has to be allowed to happen by nature. 

Example: Flying to the moon without a spaceship is "unnatural," because the laws of nature don't allow it; flying to the moon with a spaceship is "natural," because the laws of nature do allow it.

Clearly, this isn't the sense of "natural" that either the professor or Walsh are using. (Walsh specifically uses a spaceship as an example of unnatural-ness.) I think more intuitively in this case, the word "natural" is probably meant as something that happens in nature without conscious intervention from a human being. The problem with this, though, is that unless you're having sex while sleepwalking, the choice of who to have sex with is a conscious choice of a human being, so neither monogamy nor polygamy is natural in this definition.

Still, I think you can move a step further and define natural in this context in this way: "Natural" is something which is done by creatures or processes in the animal kingdoms. Human beings may also do these things. This seems to be the sort of definition where we could actually say that monogamy is "unnatural," but the problem with this is that this form of "unnatural" is not at all related to being undesirable.

Example: Taking a bath with soap is not "natural," either, but I'm rather glad that I live in a society where people do it, and am willing to do so myself as part of the rules in that society.

In fact, I would argue that one major point of society in general (or governments in particular) is to institute social and legal contracts which constrict our "natural" tendencies. (Or, as another Facebook friend recently pointed out, accentuate the aspects of human nature we want to accentuate and inhibit the aspects we want to inhibit.) So attacks against something as being "against nature" isn't sufficient to prohibit a behavior ... which is basically the argument that Walsh lays out.

Monogamy is undesirable only if there is an argument that demonstrates its undesirability, which the professor hasn't in the least presented. (Honestly, he hasn't even really demonstrated its lack of naturalness.)

Disagreement 3: People in Archaic Houses Shouldn't Throw Stones

The professor also throws out a criticism of Walsh's support of "archaic relationship models."

But, the professor's whole point is that polygamous relationship models pre-dated the more recent monogamous relationship models. As such, it seems to me that it is the professor who is advocating for "archaic relationship models. (This was actually the first criticism that occurred to me, but is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things.)

Disagreement 4: Ad hominem attack ... or completely insane generalization?

This next line is just totally uncalled for and undermines the credibility of the rest of the letter (if it actually had any):
... but when you inevitably cheat on your wife ...
Unless the professor is omniscient and we live in a deterministic universe, there's no way he has any basis to make this claim, unless he is claiming that it is somehow physically impossible for Matt Walsh to avoid cheating on his wife. (Having not met Matt Walsh's wife, I don't know if this is a realistic claim.) 

He seems to be saving that monogamy itself does not exist. Not just that there's historical trends the argue against monogamy, or that monogamy isn't the most common form of relationship structure in human history, but rather that it is not possible for anyone to actually live a monogamous life.

Disagreeing with Matt Walsh

All of the above having been said, Walsh's disagreement - while quite rhetorically impressive, and displaying a much more deft intellect than the college professor - has some major flaws of its own ... flaws that are, in their own way, exactly the sort of points which prove some of the professor's points.

Disagreement 1: Static "definition" of marriage

The professor's key point is that, historically, human unions - including marriages - have come in diverse forms. Specifically, Walsh says in his reply:
Marriages, by definition, are supposed to be closed. Actually, I’m getting rather tired of people like you trying to hijack the institution, strip it of its beauty and purpose, and convert it into some shallow little thing that suits your vices.
Here, it seems to me that Walsh is doing exactly the same error that he's accusing the professor of, just shifting by several hundred years. The institution of marriage that Walsh describes is not the institution that is described in, say, the Old Testament. The Old Testament itself prescribes extremely harsh penalties (death, as I recall) for wives who commit adultery on their husbands, but far less significant penalties (if any) on husbands who cheat on their wives, which implies that some forms of "open" relationships were, if not officially sanctioned, then at least less punished in ancient times. Marriage today is not even really the same institution that it was just a few hundred years ago, when wives and children were largely viewed as the property of their husbands, by both most religious institutions and the secular law itself. 

Not having read Walsh in depth, I suppose it's possible that he still subscribes to these views on wives and children, but I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he doesn't believe that wives are the properties of their husbands.

If you accept that ancient polygamy was a legitimate form of marriage, and the husband-as-dominant structure was a legitimate form of marriage, and the husband-and-wife-as-equals structure is a legitimate form of marriage, then you have to concede that, at least in principle, the definition of marriage evolves over time.

Disagreement 2: Yes, Marriage Is Like Geometry

Walsh makes quite a good analogy at the end ... especially if you don't really know geometry:
Personally, I like circles but I hate squares. Can I subvert the laws of geometry and suddenly decide that all squares shall henceforth be circles? No, because geometry is geometry, despite my strange square-hating quirks. Similarly, marriage is marriage, no matter how many college professors insist otherwise.
It is interesting to note that there is another geometry analogy which actually serves the exact opposite point of the one that Walsh lays out. I describe it thusly:
From the time of Euclid to the mid-1800s, it was believed that "geometry is geometry," but then mathematician Frederick Gauss developed non-Euclidean geometry by questioning one of Euclid's basic assumptions. (There were actually several others throughout the centuries who periodically questioned these assumptions, but their voices were ultimately drowned out by those arguing for the status quo.) At the time it was developed, it was seen as purely a mathematical curiosity, an intellectual game, a bit of a quirky mathematical game, with no real-world relevance. When Einstein developed his theory of relativity, however, it turned out that the mathematics of non-Euclidean geometry was crucial to understanding the underlying physical structure of the universe itself.
So, you cannot turn squares into circles but non-Euclidean space allows you to construct perfectly valid squares that do not possess exactly the same properties as squares in Euclidean space. One set of squares isn't "correct" and the other isn't "wrong" ... they're just different squares, and their properties are defined not by pure rationalist considerations, but also by the environment in which those definitions take place. (Note that I didn't say "right" and "wrong," but that's because "right" in mathematics means "90-degree angles" and one set of squares is "right" in that geometric sense.)

Disagreement 3: Assumption that Sex is a Dealbreaker

When I first read this, as a fellow monogamist, the following two comments resonated with me:
I have found a woman who will be with me until I die, even while my hair falls out and my skin shrivels and wrinkles, even when I stumble, even when I fail, even through the doldrums of daily existence, through bills and dirty diapers, through all things — joyous or miserable, pleasing or painful — through every day until death comes. Why should it be hard for me to simply refrain from tossing such a gift into the garbage? 
If you won 600 million dollars in the lottery, would you go out the next day and break into cars to steal the change from the cup holders? That’s what sleeping around is like when you’ve already found a woman who will pledge her life and her entire being to you for the remainder of her existence.
On reflection, though, I realized that there was an incredibly troubling assumption in these examples: they seem to assume that sex is, in and of itself, the most important aspect of marriage.

Look at the first paragraph quoted above, and all of the aspects of the relationship that are being praised. They are all worthy of praise, to be sure, because they are the very things that are valuable about being married. In fact, I would argue that marriage is precisely about being willing to make that sort of commitment to another person.

Why is it that a consensual open sexual relationship would negate all of those things?

I am inclined to agree with Walsh's underlying assumption that retaining this commitment is easier in the context of a monogamous relationship. This is the entire basis of my support for monogamy: if you are going to maintain commitment to someone else, you should limit the bonding behavior performed with other people. I find it extremely likely that sex with other people weakens the bonds of commitment to one's spouse.

Oddly, it occurs to me that it's precisely my naturalism that leads me to believe that monogamy is preferable if we are to maintain the "unnatural" state of marital commitment. We are constructed by nature to bond, at a neurochemical level, with our sexual partners. If we have sexual partners other than our spouse, then we are going to bond with those other people when we could be bonding with our spouse ... and that just has to have a negative impact on the bond, or to create similar bonds with other people.

But that doesn't mean that it's impossible for anyone to have an open relationship and retain this level of commitment into old age, as Walsh seems to suggest. 

The second analogy also breaks down along these lines ... Walsh is assuming that sex outside of marriage is equivalent to betraying the marriage. A better example would be you win 600 million dollars in the lottery, but you really enjoy collecting coins. Previously, you had done this by scrounging for any old coin you can get your hand on, but you now have 600 million dollars, so you can take your time, and only select the coins you really want. You aren't stealing anything, because you have 600 million dollars with which to buy coins. (It's completely okay with the 600 million dollars, and in fact it occasionally buys coins of its own ... okay, I think the analogy has broken down a bit here.)

In essence, Walsh is committing the same error that the professor committed earlier, when he said that Walsh would "inevitably" cheat on his wife. He is taking his preconception of an outcome and assuming that it is a general rule that applies in all cases, but without any hint of evidence that this outcome is, in fact, inevitable.

Disagreement 4: Sex Isn't the Most Important Thing in Marriage

Related to the above disagreement is that this argument seems to only apply to sex, but sex isn't the only thing that married people do, and arguably isn't the most important. As I mentioned above, I think that all of Walsh's other points about the things we do in marriage are far more significant in marriage:
I have found a woman who will be with me until I die, even while my hair falls out and my skin shrivels and wrinkles, even when I stumble, even when I fail, even through the doldrums of daily existence, through bills and dirty diapers, through all things — joyous or miserable, pleasing or painful — through every day until death comes.
If you have all of those but only skimp on the monogamy part (consensually), I'm personally willing to put that relationship into the "marriage" bucket without qualms.

Despite the wonderful commitments listed above, think about how "open" we make even those key commitments. If I grow old and stumble, there's absolutely no expectation that my wife is the only person I'm allowed to have help me. If I end up incontinent, having dirty diapers that need changing, then not only would it be permissible for my wife to seek help, she wouldn't even be expected to stay within the family. In fact, rather than asking my sons to help maintain my deteriorating body, it would be perfectly socially acceptable for her to hire a complete stranger to do so, in the form of a home health care nurse, if we had the means to do so!

Or even back off from something that severe. By marrying my wife, I am committing to her as one of my closest friends and confidants throughout the rest of my life. However, by doing this, I am most certainly not placing the expectation or responsibility that she can meet every single need I have in friendship throughout my life. If she were my only friend, most psychologically healthy people would recognize this as a big problem, and suggest that I needed other friends to fill other social roles. It's just unrealistic for anyone to think that their spouse can and will be everything to them as a friend.

If you're having financial trouble within the marriage, it's acceptable to get financial help or go to an accountant, and not to necessarily expect that you and your spouse are qualified to make these plans without input. (And lest this be dismissed as a trivial analogy, keep in mind that financial decisions are extremely personal ones, both Biblically and pragmatically.)

If you dance, then presumably you'll most frequently dance with your spouse, but it's considered socially acceptable to occasionally dance with other people. In fact, if one of you don't enjoy dancing, then the other person might spend most of their dancing time with other people.

Again, all of the above things are ideally something that will be primarily, if not exclusively, handled between spouses ... but if a pair of spouses don't like the same music, and dance with other partners, or if a spouse hires a nurse to help during a time of health problems, then I know of no one who would argue that they're "tossing such a gift in the garbage." 

In fact, I am genuinely curious: Is there any component of marriage (other than sex) where it's considered absolutely inappropriate to involve people outside of the marriage to help with lack of full satisfaction within the marriage?

I cannot think of any.

Disagreement 5: Walsh's View of Marriage is Mythical ... and Dangerous

The culmination, then, is with a point that Walsh even partially concedes. His perspective on marriage is supernatural. It is unrealistic. It is, to use the professor's words, mythical.
And it is dangerous.

It's dangerous because the single biggest danger for marriage is the over-idealization of the institution. People today enter into marriage with the bizarre notion that they will be completely fulfilled by the other person. 

It seems to me that this has not been the case historically. The rise of "romantic love" as a common motivation for marriage is a fairly recent invention within Western society, and love used to be far more pragmatic in its concerns. There was nothing particularly "beautiful" about young women being sold off to old men for political alliances, which has a far older pedigree than romantic love. And, honestly, the rise of "romantic love" probably had much to do with the works of playwrites such as Shakespeare than it did any legal or religious institutions. The concept of "soulmates" was largely created by Plato, but it didn't take hold in the belief system of the ancient world for quite a long time. Historically, people knew that marriage was hard work. They didn't expect everything to work out once they found the "right person."

I don't know that Walsh himself has this over-idealized view of marriage, but his argument in favor of marriage seems to lean heavily upon this worldview. Find the right person, commit to them, and everything will work out ... without needing to look outside of that relationship for anything.

Walsh applies this argument only to sex, but if you accept it, then there's no reason why it shouldn't apply to all of the other intensely personal needs we have in our life and expect our spouse to primarily fulfill. There's no reason why you shouldn't assume that your partner can fulfill every need you have, or else that if they can't (or won't) fulfill them, then you're supposed to just go without that need being fulfilled.

That is a view of marriage that's fundamentally flawed and dangerous. Marriage is a commitment ... and it's up to the two people within the marriage to decide what they need to do to make that commitment work. They can learn from their tradition (faith and/or historical traditions) or from psychological principles or whatever, but if they believe that they will somehow miraculously have things work out without facing hard decisions, they're wrong.

And if Matt Walsh thinks his solution is the only one that could ever work ... then he's just as obnoxious as that college professor.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Books Read

End of the year, so time for my annual accounting. Here are the books I read in 2013.

The Book List
  1. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
  2. Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There by Professor Richard Wiseman
  3. Edge of the Universe: A Voyage to the Cosmic Horizon and Beyond by Paul Halpern
  4. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- But Some Don't by Nate Silver
  5. The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics by Leonard Susskind and George Hrabovsky
  6. War of the Worldviews: Where Science and Spirituality Meet -- and Do Not by Leonard Mlodinow and Deepak Chopra
  7. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
  8. Save Our Science by Anissa Ramirez
  9. Existence by David Brin
  10. Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer
  11. Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin
  12. Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines
  13. The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level (In Real Life) by Chris Hardwick
  14. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich
  15. America Again: Re-discovering the Greatness We Never Weren't by Stephen Colbert
  16. Bones of the Old Ones by Howard Andrew Jones
  17. The Gospel of Falling Down: The Beauty of Failure, in an Age of Success by Mark Townsend
  18. The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose
  19. Happy This Year!: The Secret to Getting Happy Once and For All by Will Bowen
  20. Eternal Life: A New Vision by Bishop John Shelby Spong
  21. Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
  22. Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole
  23. Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking by D.Q. McInerny
  24. Popper by Frederic Raphael
  25. Logic: A Brief Insight by Graham Priest
  26. Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain by Werner R. Loewenstein
  27. What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell
  28. Writing Fantasy Heroes edited by Jason M. Waltz
  29. Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  30. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence by Ray Kurzweil
  31. Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton
  32. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
  33. Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole
  34. Redshirts by John Scalzi
  35. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  36. Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge edited by Max Brockman
  37. The Companions by R.A. Salvatore
  38. The Godborn by Paul S. Kemp
  39. The Case for God by Karen Armstrong
  40. Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson
  41. What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel
  42. Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman
  43. Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein by Mario Livio
  44. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
  45. Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson
  46. Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez & Gary S. Stager
  47. Still Foolin' 'Em by Billy Crystal
  48. The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics by David Harriman and Leonard Peikoff
  49. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
  50. What's Next: Dispatches from the Future of Science edited by Max Brockman
  51. Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn
  52. Codex Born by Jim Hines
  53. Meditations on Mystery: Science, Paradox, and Contemplative Spirituality by George W. Wolfe
  54. Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

  • Audiobooks: 22
  • Kindle: 18
    • Kindle Singles (mini-books/solo essays): 1
    • Kindle Lending Library: 5
  • Dead tree books: 14
  • Total Fiction: 15
    • Science Fiction: 4
    • Fantasy: 11
      • Urban/Modern Fantasy: 4
      • Traditional Fantasy: 4
      • Sword & Sorcery: 2
      • Young Adult: 1
      • Steampunk: 0
  • Non-Fiction: 39
    • Science: 17
      • Physics: 9
      • Psychology: 8
      • Biology: 5
      • Technology: 4
      • Math/Statistics: 3
    • Religion: 11
    • History: 5
    • Politics: 4
    • Education: 2
    • Economics: 4
    • Business: 2
    • Philosophy: 10
    • Humor: 4
    • Writing: 1
These numbers don't quite match up, because some books cover multiple areas, and so I've included them in all relevant categories. So, for example, a book on the psychological foundations of religious belief (of which I read a few this year) would fall in both Psychology and Religion categories.

The History

And for anyone who is interested in looking into the past to see some of my previous book lists...
Prior to 2008, I didn't keep a precise record, so they aren't listed anywhere.

Friday, August 30, 2013

A Child's Ontological(ish) Argument for God's Existence

It's the metal detectors.
He contains all things,
so they just go crazy when he enters the building.
This is where my mind drifts when I'm driving home from dropping my son off at school:

Peanut butter is the best thing ever.
God is the best thing ever.
Therefore, God is peanut butter.
Peanut butter exists.
Therefore, God exists.

This proof, of course, can be adapted for your favorite food of choice.

Side note: If your favorite food is spaghetti, this also serves to prove the necessary existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Ender's Empathy

With the film coming out in November, it's the season for Ender's Game promotional material ... including Wiley publishing's Ender's Game and Philosophy: The Logic Gate is Down (Amazon, B&N). Since Ender's Game is one of my favorite novels from my teenage years, it was especially a privilege to tackle some of the themes in the book as an adult. My essay in the collection has the following title:

"The Enemy's Gate is Down: 
Perspective, Empathy, and Game Theory" 

As the title indicates, my main goal in the essay is to discuss how one's perspective on a conflict determines how one responds to it.

For example, game theory requires the participants to be able to understand their opponents motivations and possible outcomes, so that they can rationally determine what the "enemy" is going to do. In Ender's Game, this manifests through Ender's empathy, wherein he often seems to be able to intuitively grasp on a very deep level what his opponents want and need. As Ender says:
In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.
In the essay, also I put forth the idea that Ender really faces four different types of conflicts within the book, which I classify as follows:
  1. Military
  2. Leadership
  3. Vendettas
  4. Rebellion
Re-reading the book as an adult, I now see that much of Card's brilliance in crafting the story is how these different conflicts play off each other. This all relates back to Graff's upon Ender's arrival at Battle School:
There’s only one thing that will make them stop hating you. And that’s being so good at what you do that they can’t ignore you. I told them you were the best. Now you damn well better be.
Ender's only way of overcoming his isolation is through victories in leadership and military battles. However, Ender's military successes also serve to escalate the vendetta conflicts. When Ender finally "resolves" the vendettas, his conflict turns into a rebellion against the school authorities, which prompts his final battle room battle.

None of Ender's victories come without an escalation in one of the other areas.

And then, of course, I do have a bit of a discussion of game theory itself and how it relates to the situations described in the book. I touched on some of these similar general themes in my essay for The Hunger Games and Philosophy, which I discussed here. Both stories feature protagonists who are in no-win situations, playing games that they don't want to play anymore ... and their final response is, in many ways, similar: to ignore the rules of the game. It is only in abandoning the construct of the game that they are able to truly find victory (although, for both Katniss and Ender, this victory carries a hefty cost).

Ender's Game and Philosophy touches on a lot of deep themes which are inherent in Ender's, from the morality of warfare to the ethical responsibilities of caring for children to global geopolitical manipulation. If you enjoyed the book and want to learn more about these and other themes, then check it out.

And if you are concerned about the moral consequences of buying this book, I guess I should say this: this is an unofficial collection of essays and, as such, no proceeds from sales of the book go to Orson Scott Card. Just in case you're boycotting.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Geek & Sundry Vlog Challenge #2: Battery Licking Fun

Around noon today, I hit 1,000 votes on the Geek & Sundry vlog contest. My science vlog is still around 20th place out of 30 (actually, out of 29, looks like).

(At least) once a day!
(Plus, you can watch the video at that link, too.)

Ten of the vloggers will get spots on the Geek & Sundry vlogger channel line-up. I spent most of the first week of the contest in 27th place, but have had a good rally since Monday, when I put a proposal out there that if we reached 1,000 votes by midnight on Friday, July 19 - that's today - then I'd record, sing, edit, and post a music video of me performing the 1980's classic "She Blinded Me With Science."

Music video coming

My initial thought upon reaching 1,000 votes was to try to record the video tonight and get it up over the weekend, in an attempt to drive more voting with a little bit of viral buzz. But, honestly, I'd like to do a good job with it and not rush things, plus give myself enough time that I can get some friends to show up in the video if they'd like. So the video will be coming ... hopefully early next week. I'm hoping to film over the weekend and have it finished up on Monday, but I'm not willing to commit to it, since I will be trying to use some video editing techniques that are new to me.

Second Challenge

In the meantime, to keep everyone motivated, I have a second offer to put out there:  If my votes reach 1,500 by the end of the contest on Monday (1:00 pm Eastern/10:00 am Pacific) then ...

I will film a video of me licking a 9-volt battery. 

If anyone's concerned that this is dangerous ... it is, but only a very little bit. I got the idea for this one from Gever Tulley's 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).

So stay motivated. Keep voting. Spread the word. If you do, then I promise ... I will do something stupid and mildly discomforting.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Geek & Sundry Vlog Contest Update

Things are going great on the Geek & Sundry vlog contest.

Okay, not so much great as ... much better than a few days ago. I've gone from 27th place in the rankings to 23rd, and am only two spots behind the other science vlog on the list! If we keep up the momentum we're gaining, and possibly get some more exposure, then great!

For background, I have a science vlog that is in the running as a finalist for inclusion on the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel as a regularly recurring slot in their schedule. Twice a month science vlogs! Very awesome.

Want to help? Vote here!

The Last Few Days ... And How You Can Help Humiliate Me

What contributed to the recent rally? I think I had a fairly good showing on the Potential Vlogger Hangouts #6 video (linked below) that I participated in on Sunday afternoon, but ...

Honestly, I watched the 5 Potential Vlogger Hangouts before mine, and pretty much everybody was awesome. I think there were maybe a couple of people who probably didn't gain a lot of supporters, but I've gotta admit that I was really hoping for some people to just really suck and lose all support, and none of them did. Even on subjects that I personally didn't find interesting, I tended to find the contestants very personable, compelling, and likable ... which just makes it all the more difficult to root for their downfall.

Anyway, here's the potential vlogger hangout that I was in, along with Nik & Mike of "Based On" and the video game fashion girl Amanda:

In this Hangout, we were asked for a theme song. I chose "She Blinded Me With Science." So on Monday morning, I was trying to think of a way to spur on a rally over the last week of voting ... and here's what I came up with:

I pledged that if I had 1,000 votes by midnight on July 19, I would record, sing, edit, and post a music video of "She Blinded Me With Science."

And as of right now, we are making progress toward hitting that goal, and I'm pretty sure the promise to humiliate myself has had a lot to do with this.

More Humiliation Needed?

I also just discovered that the voting is going to be extended beyond Friday, over the weekend (and possibly into Monday ... still awaiting clarification on that).

So, here's the question ... does anyone have any tips on techniques that I can implement in an attempt to rally even more votes over the next 5 or so days? Bribes that I can offer? Blackmail I can implement? Anything?

If we hit 1,000 by midnight on July 19 - and we may be on track for that target - then what should come next? My inclination is to offer some other tantalizing reward if we reach 2,000 votes by midnight on Friday.

Any suggestions? The floor is yours!