Saturday, April 04, 2015

Dawkins and 'potential people'

Richard Dawkins thinks we're better off than a very peculiar kind of abstraction. 

So here's a provocative quote from Dawkins, and not the normal "I'm-against-all-religion" kind either:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” -Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow.
This whole concept of 'potential people' having value is somewhat strange, when you think about it.  I mean, really, are we saying anything at all when we talk about potential people?  Can we really compare ourselves with an abstraction, a potential person, that, by stipulation of the claim, does not exist?

Suppose we did compare ourselves with said -- can we meaningfully say we are any better off than that which won't exist?  Couldn't we also we we are always worse off than they, since they never suffered, but all of us inevitably do? It looks equally appropriate either way -- which make me suspicious that no comparison is really going on.

Now and then I note that Kant was friendly to this sort of talk about 'potential persons', and used the notion as a claim against the morality of abortion. In short, Kant held that living things have species-specific 'anlage' or "predispositions" that express themselves appropriately in given circumstances, giving rise to different kinds.  Humans are no exception, the argument would go, especially since we must be seen as having souls from the moment of conception, and thus predispositions to humanity and personality.

So too, the pious affirm the value of potential people in an additional way: as reason to "go forth and multiply."  Apparently moving as many as one possibly can from potentiality to actuality is especially pleasing to God, as religious birth demographics show.

Potential people -- such a strange addition to one's metaphysical furniture!



[image] "Connecting with potential employers on Linked-in" (Accessed 4/4/15)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Freeman Dyson's Strange Skepticism on Climate Change

Sometimes being an out-of-the-box thinker has its downsides.

Famous physicist Freeman Dyson was recently interviewed about his climate change skepticism via email by Steve Connor, a respected science journalist for The Independent. I thought the exchange was fascinating, and highlights interesting flaws in how even an unquestionably great scientist can fail to understand the Philosophical underpinnings of how science assesses evidence for supporting (or falsifying) conclusions.

For example, I thought this was a very good question on the part of Connor:
"Isn't it a bit risky for me and the rest of the general public to dismiss this vast canon of climate science as just "fuss" about global warming when all I've got to go on is a minority opinion? "
The journalist (and I) think the answer is clearly yes -- it is risky; but, Dyson apparently thinks the answer is "no".

It was also interesting to look at Dyson's actual arguments on why experts get it wrong.  Here is one selection from Dyson:
"My impression is that the experts are deluded because they have been studying the details of climate models for 30 years and they come to believe the models are real. After 30 years they lose the ability to think outside the models. And it is normal for experts in a narrow area to think alike and develop a settled dogma. The dogma is sometimes right and sometimes wrong. In astronomy this happens all the time, and it is great fun to see new observations that prove the old dogmas wrong."
One of the unstated premises in his argument is: "The more one looks at data and models the more likely one is to become 'deluded' about the subject at hand."   So much for being able to learn by studying things carefully and at length for 30 years!   This unstated premise is false, and is easily shown to be so on empirical grounds. Contra Dyson, perhaps an alternative reason that experts come to think the models are real after much study is because of the proper way to assess the evidence at hand. Compare the following: It's hard to think outside the model that stars are self-luminous gaseous spheroidal celestial bodies of great mass which produces energy by means of nuclear fusion reactions; because, well, all the evidence at hand shows us that this is really what they are!

Elsewhere in the article, Dyson demurs he's not an expert, and will not talk about details; but, the methods of study are publicly accessible for all to review, and the details (i.e. the data) are also readily available. Compare this to a detective that decides who the murderer is, but who will not talk about the details of the crime scene when questioned by other detectives. The details are what matters!

Dyson's comments on "settled dogma" are also quite strange.  Is it just luck that sometimes the dogma is right and sometimes wrong?  Of course not.  Compare the following claim about desert climates: "Sometimes it rains and sometimes it's sunny."  Indeed, but how often it rains as compared to how often it's sunny really matters.  Likewise, how often a large consensus of scientists from multiple fields are right on a shared subject, and how often a large consensus of scientists from multiple fields are wrong on a shared subject really matters (as John Oliver points out in a very funny skit.) That is conveniently not noted by Mr. Dyson, other than to say the arguments have become heavily politicized, and thus not fairly reported in the media.  (This later reasoning of Mr Dyson is an ad hominem fallacy, by the way.)

There were other failures of evidence-based thinking on Dyson's part too, but I though I'd go after the easy ones to see. Overall, being an out-of-the-box thinker can help in generating creative insights, but it can also hamper one's ability to assess confirmatory and/or invalidating evidence, especially when someone relies on personal intuition at the expense of evidentiary thinking.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Mars and 3D Building Printing

This humble beginning of printing houses here on Earth is almost 
certainly the mechanism we'll use on Mars to print buildings. 

This company used cement, but also a mixture of recycled materials, but the recycled materials were used because they are cheap. However, the Martian soil is even cheaper, as in free, and already in a form that's easy to collect: "The dust that covers the surface of Mars is fine like talcum powder. Beneath the layer of dust, the Martian crust consists mostly of volcanic basalt rock. The soil of Mars also holds nutrients such as sodium, potassium, chloride and magnesium." [1]  And free materials with handy construction properties is just what is needed for such a giant 3D printer as seen in the video above.  Scientists have already considered this possibility, and even with some pre-plans (video) [2], but somehow seeing what this Chinese contractor is doing makes the prospect much more real, indeed fully viable, since it's already actually being done.

Although the contractor above built a giant, custom 3D printer for his needs, the sales trend of mass manufacturing of 3D printers is already going up at a geometric rate, as this graph shows [3]:

The reason for such a sales increase is that people are figuring out how to apply these printers to various tasks at hand.  Once the abilities of these "additive manufacturing" machines are understood, printers of scale will be built for large tasks, especially for buildings, since the process from CAD software to 3D printer is becoming so smooth, and since the cost factor is greatly reduced.  Such a positive cost curve is driving a huge growth in industry as this (clickable) graph shows [4]:

I remember reading about the colonization of Mars in a book some years ago, whereby lots of prepackaged buildings and supplies were dropped on Mars months before astronauts ever arrived.  At the time the book was written, it made perfect sense, though it depended on an Earth-tethered space elevator being already in place to cheaply move the materials into low earth orbit, which gets around the huge fuel problem for getting things into space at all.  Sadly, it appears that a space elevator is not practical even if, against all odds, we could build one. But 3D printers solve this problem, since much of the infrastructure can be built on site.

My belief is that a series of small 3D printers will be sent to Mars, and these small printers will build the actual large printers necessary (w/ video) to produce the final infrastructure product. Yes, it is indeed possible to print 3D printers with a 3D printer, which is the full manufacturing circle -- a device can replicate itself.  For example, The RepRap is an open source printer that does just that, and there's no reason that even larger 3D printers on Mars couldn't do the same, printing all the parts that make themselves up, and then having robots assemble the parts .



[image] "3D printers print ten houses in 24 hours" YouTube (Accessed 7/4/2014)

[1] "What is Mars Made Of?" (Accessed 7/4/2014).

[2] "3D Printing Houses on Mars" FutureScape on (Accessed 7/4/2014)

[3] "Solid Print" The Economist 4/21/2012 (Accessed 7/4/2014)

[4] "The Rise of 3D Printing in Manufacturing" Distribute: Tributes Blog for Industrial Distributors 4/7/2013 (Accessed 7/4/2014)

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Rethinking Abortion in Light of Advancing Technology

Advances in technology will eventually change how one prioritizes which ethical "rights" get invoked for or against having an abortion.

{ Audio .mp3 (7 min.)  of this essay } For my Ethics class I regularly re-read Mary Ann Warren's 1973 article, "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion."[1] Although it is well argued, I can't agree with every sub-conclusion she draws which would be required to justify her overall position -- hardly a surprise, of course, given my pious commitments.

In a postscript to the article, she attempts to show that her argument for the moral permissibility of abortion does not commit her to infanticide. Why not? Because after the infant is born, "it does mark the end of its mother's right to determine its fate." I have two points of disagreement with her on this matter of infanticide -- one minor, the other more substantial, but which is somewhat related to the minor issue.

First, I have never been clear on where alleged moral "rights" come from, at least if there is no all-knowing issuer and (eventually) absolute enforcer of those rights (otherwise known as God). In contrast, political rights are far more easy to understand and apply: Find the king, or the Constitution, or some other governmental authority, and then draw some sort of reference and subsequent enforcement from there. So my minor disagreement with Warren is that talk of moral rights only introduces further confusion into the abortion debate.

Second, even if one were to acknowledge some sort of discernible rights being affirmed or violated, I was curious about how the following aside from Warren would interplay with such rights:

"Indeed if abortion could be performed without killing the fetus, [the mother] would never possess the right to have the fetus destroyed, for the same reasons that she has no right to have an infant destroyed."

What might it mean to perform an abortion without destroying a fetus?

At first glance we might worry that just as murdering someone without killing them is impossible, so committing an abortion without destroying the fetus is likewise, for semantic reasons, impossible. But this is not quite a correct understanding of the term, because the very word "abortion" just means the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy, and does not, in addition, also mean the deliberate termination of a fetus's life. As we currently practice it, the act of abortion indeed causes the termination of a fetus's life, but that is merely an association due to our poor technology, not due to the prior logically entailing letter. Compare our use of the word "surgery" today as compared to times past. In the past, surgery always caused pain, but today we are fortunate to know that the association of these two terms is not one of logical entailment, as every anesthesiologist can attest.

With this semantic confusion behind us, we are now in a position to think about abortions, but without fetal termination. Perhaps we can imagine a specialized vat whereby we place a fetus within so as to grow it to viability. Advances in robotic surgery would allow doctors to remove the whole placenta quickly enough to
support the oxygen and nutrient environment which keeps the fetus viable, and then to reattach it to the artificial vat support system. In this case the woman would have terminated her pregnancy (accurately called an "abortion") but the fetus would still remain viable. Or again, perhaps the vat technology is too difficult a feat, but advances in biology allow a transplantation of just a small portion of the placenta, along with its accompanying fetus. Likewise, per as earlier, we would have terminated the pregnancy, but with the advantage of the fetus remaining viable.

In her postscript, Warren supplies two arguments on why infanticide is wrong (1) for reasons analogous to those which make it wrong to want to destroy natural resources or great works of art; or (2) for reasons whereby people value infants -- such as when foster parents who would want the infant would be deprived, or when greater society, valuing infants and willing to step up and support them, finance orphanages through the tax base. However, under advanced technology circumstances, these same issues would apply to the woman losing her "right" to commit an abortion, were the growth vat or the transplant biology advanced enough to remove the infant from the woman. Using Warrens own reasoning, just as the woman does not control the right to commit infanticide after the birth, neither would the woman control the right of feticide in utero.

Warren wants to say that the rights of actual people trump the rights of potential people, but I am unclear which rights are being mentioned. My suspicion is that there are conditions where the right of the woman's quality of life could very well be subordinate to the rights of a fetus to have life at all. Suppose that the surgery were no more troublesome than having a mole removed, or taking a few hours out of one's day for an anesthetic nap (for surgery), similar to colonoscopy procedure. Under these conditions there would be minimal quality of life degradation. Even if one acknowledges the presence of moral rights, there must be a hierarchy to these rights to make them workable, as both scholars and jurisprudence practitioners of legal rights have recognized.

Earlier in her article Warren wants to suggest that an actual person's rights (in this case the mother) always trump a potential person's rights (the fetus). I don't see why this should be accepted a priori. Indeed, the mother should not be presumed as the only actual person with rights in place. Instead, I suggest that it is the empirical circumstances and consequences which allow us to formulate the hierarchy of already-acknowledged rights. If one grants this suggestion, the consequences of the mother's degradation of quality of life could eventually be so low in the advanced technology cases mentioned that one should assess the fetus's right to life as super-ordinate over the mother's right to quality of life. If so, then I conclude that we shall soon be rethinking abortion in light of advancing fetal support technology.



Images: Header image taken from article, Soraya Chemaly "What Do Artificial Wombs Mean for Women?" 2/23/2012 RH Reality Check Blogsite (Accessed 4/8/2014).  Inset image taken from Green Diary - Green Living Blogsite. (Accessed 4/8/2014)

[1] Ann Warren "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion" [.pdf] The Monist: An International Quarterly Journal of General Philosophical (Peru, IL, 1973).

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Churches, Science, and "Truth" Claims

'True information' from religious prophets about the present and future affairs of human civilization hasn't been very forthcoming as of late.

While at a theology conference, I heard a well-received bible scholar claim that the mission of the church is "truth telling." Alas, if only it were true. The problems with such an optimistic view of what information churches (or religious groups in general) supposedly dispense are many.

First, as is well attested in history, churches have made empirically false claims about the present state of affairs, and these being supposedly based on some exclusive channel of information (something called, "special revelation") For example, the Roman Catholic Church during the Medieval times is well known for clashing with Galileo on the structure of the solar system. Their theologians had apparently gotten it right (via special revelation to a Pope) that the Earth, not the Sun, was at the center. But that didn't turn out to be so accurate. As a more recent example, the Seventh Day Adventists and conservative baptist churches worry themselves (unnecessarily, of course) about the earth being 6,000 years old and about why Evolution must be false, though these are (bad) deductions from certain woodenly literal ways of reading the bible. Thus, their mistake is to draw deductions from (allegedly) special revelatory information encoded into biblical manuscripts, information imparted by God to the original authors on scientific topics. Those geology and biology claims are not turning out well, either, for conservative churches.

Second, even if some churches have a set of specially revealed truths, their members do not have a trustworthy method for verifying such truths in the public arena. Unlike Science, there are no reproducible methods, nor ways to quantify evidence for the various churches' claims for truth. In fact, when empirical claims are made, such as for the efficacy of prayer for healing diseases, every well-structured study has shown no cause-effect links between these claims and disease healing rates. (The most famous and well-designed one even showed a lower than expected link for heart patients.) To be accurate, however, some prayers can have benevolent effects on people's health, since they are likely (from what we can tell) particular (and benevolent) occurrences of placebo effects, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Third, leaders of churches seem especially worried about ethical truths (even more so when these concern what people do when naked.) But ethical truths are most acutely the kinds which are controversial and nebulous everywhere; for, they are not open, or at least not obviously open, to resolution on scientific grounds. (There are no Geiger counters for goodness or wickedness, for example. This is most fortunate for politicians.) But that leaders of churches would camp on ethical issues is understandable, since churches have been embarrassed by making what turned out to be false claims about empirical truths in the past, as was noted earlier.  Happily for preachers and spiritual advisers everywhere, it's far more difficult to show that certain ethical principles are outright false (as compared to empirical claims), if such can even be shown for ethical claims at all.

Finally, in terms of actionable future information, note how in the present time that no revelation-filled prophets have arisen among various religious leaders to offer solutions to pressing contemporary problems (i.e., as regards cheap engineering techniques for world energy needs; safe methods for genetically modifying plants for plentiful food supply, etc.)  Surely a great alleviation of suffering could have already been accomplished if key aspects of (almost-here-anyway) technologies would have been revealed from a few prophets reporting information communicated from the On High.  Furthermore believers claim that in biblical times prophets often foretold dire political and economic events.   Contrast this with foretelling today -- although two or three economists were (after the fact) found on record to have been clanging a warning cymbal about the possibility of the current Great Recession, every Christian and Islamic group that I'm aware of was caught flat-footed and suffered great financial loss, as did virtually everyone else. Thus, the very religious organizations which hold the possibility and precedent of prophets appearing always seem to be fresh out of them when the need is greatest!

Therefore, as an overall assessment, it is hardly surprising that people competent in assessing evidence find such pious announcements concerning "truth telling" (whether of the present or future variety) by religious leaders unconvincing.  Granted, sometimes truths are uttered by the pious.  But holding positions, even correct positions, for non sequitur or just plain bad reasons is either an indication of 1) luck, 2) ignorance, or social or political maneuverings--and that's a truth worth noting!


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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Soon it'll be the default for everyone, and for free

Four, standard women of typical physical charisma were given a professional model shoot and then Photoshopped using industry standard techniques. The results were (not surprisingly) beautiful idealizations from what they originally looked like. (video link).

I had a couple of thoughts strike me on the process. 1) One woman asked, "Why would anyone want to do this?" -- i.e., want to present women in this idealized way. The answer is pretty straightforward: because it makes companies money -- lots of it.  As just a short summary of the fashion biz:
The global fashion industry is estimated to be worth over 1 Trillion Euro, or about 2% of the value of the world economy. To put it in context, the global pharmaceutical industry, which supplies all the medicines in the world, is valued at about €600 Billion, making it just over half the size of the fashion industry![1]

 2) What if, in the (near) future, anyone could easily download a Google glasses app that automatically and instantaneously performs this task, virtually, to everyone within the visual field of the observer?  What would be the effects on how we view beauty?  Should one actually use such an app?




[1] "Fashion and Beauty" CarreersPortal (Accessed 2/16/14)

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Uncle Philly on Indexicality




[*] Louis Doulas, "Where is Here, When is Now, Who is I: On Indexicality"

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Uncle Philly on A.I.

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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Uncle Philly on Cyborgs

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Uncle Philly

On the down side, Uncle Philly's crotchety; but, on the up side, he's worth knowing.

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