Friday, January 31, 2014

Probability, likelihood, and the evidence for the existence of oh, god, is this going to be about Bayes' Theorem?

I've been thinking about why so many otherwise reasonable people (including my former self) might view the appearance of design in the structure of the world as a manifestation of the handiwork of some deity, when it's pretty clear that scientific theories can (at least in broad strokes) account for the origins of the universe as we know it and the development of life on earth without recourse to any kind of intelligent design. Beliefs come in various degrees of certainty, and normally our assent to belief systems is at least partially guided by looking at the way those systems account for the facts around us. 

We're normally OK at doing this as people. Not great, but OK. Good enough to get around in the world without being eaten by a tiger or falling off of a cliff or something. So, the problem becomes, how is it that people who are able to get around in the world based on a set of beliefs they form as a result of the evidence around them getting this one wrong? In other words, why do people find the idea of intentional design such a satisfying way of interpreting the world around them?

Who knows of a better way to think about this issue than probability theory? 



Friday, January 17, 2014

Big Bang: The Origin of the UniverseBig Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Really good read. Gives a terrific historical account of the development of the Big Bang theory, showing how a combination of theoretical coherence and evidence led to the triumph of the Big Bang model over rival accounts. Fun stuff.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Secret Connexion: Causation, Realism, and David HumeThe Secret Connexion: Causation, Realism, and David Hume by Galen Strawson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very good book. Meticulously counters the traditional view of Hume as dogmatically denying the existence of causation. Strawson shows (by close reading of Hume's texts) that Hume's arguments about 'necessary connexion' being only in the mind are epistemological rather than ontological. Hume avoids the mistakes of the 20th century positivists who call themselves Humeans. 'Hume, then, is not a "Humean"' (p. 228).

Friday, November 30, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain

Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes, and wishes he was certain.
-Mark Twain, Notebook, 1879

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Weird World of Leibniz's God

One of the things that gets trotted out when someone argues that faith and reason are compatible is that many contributions to science or philosophy have been made by individuals who were religious. If faith and reason are incompatible, it is claimed, how can so many scientists and philosophers in history have been Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim, or...). But this quick argument--some philosophers are Christians therefore Christianity is reasonable, Q.E.D.--moves a little too quickly. Instead we need to ask questions about what role the idea of God plays in some particular thinker's philosophical system to assess whether his faith can be seen as truly consistent with his intellectual contribution: is the idea of God required for the system to be coherent? That is, is God a fundamental concept? Is the idea of God consistent with the rest of the system, but superfluous? Is the idea of God inconsistent with it? Because if God isn't required for, or consistent with, the wider system of thought, then it might be that all we really learn about the relationship of faith to reason from a religious philosopher is that people are capable of operating in spite of quite a lot of cognitive dissonance. One way to proceed with investigating the supposed compatibility of faith and reason would be to look at  thinkers who were personally religious and see what role God plays in their systems. What kind of world do we get if we start with the assumption that God exists and work from there? In this post, I'll look at the very bizarre but apparently internally consistent system that Leibniz built on some standard assumptions about God.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Happy Birthday, Daniel Dennett

Almost no one is indifferent to Darwin, and no one should be. The Darwinian theory is a scientific theory, and a great one, but that is not all it is. The creationists who oppose it so bitterly are right about one thing: Darwin's dangerous idea cuts much deeper into the fabric of our most fundamental beliefs than many of its sophisticated apologists have yet admitted, even to themselves.
--Daniel Dennet, Darwin's Dangerous Idea