Sunday, December 25, 2005

The ID ruling, in full

Finally tracked down a PDF of the entire Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, ID versus evolution ruling. You can find it here.

When Christmas festivities are over, I plan to give it a thorough read.

There is already a nice summary of it's particularly cutting points against Intelligent Design on the Scientific American blog.

Friday, December 23, 2005

(Small) triumph of reason

Especially on the eve of the eve of what is ostensibly a religious holiday, I couldn't be more pleased with the recent ruling by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, that Intelligent Design is not to be taught in the science classes in Dover, Pennsylvania.
"Not only did Jones rule that it's unconstitutional for the Dover, Pa., public schools to present "intelligent design'' as an alternative to evolution in biology classes because it merely advances a "particular version of Christianity.'' But in a painstakingly supported and often scathing 139-page opinion Tuesday, he also debunked many of the myths surrounding the so-called debate over evolution."
- extract from the above news article, in the Mercury News
I am also especially pleased that Judge Jones took the opportunity to make broader statements about the nature of ID than were strictly necessary in this particular case. Hopefully these statements will not only serve as a precedent for any further trials by the fundamentalist religious community to reintroduce pseudoscience into the science classroom, but they will also serve as an educational tool themselves.

This judgment should be required reading in any sociology or philosophy of science (or religion) class.

I also find it telling that the respected journal Science has delcared 2005 to be the year of evolution.

I don't doubt that some of the motivation behind this decision is the controversy in the US over ID versus evolution. In fact, Science's support of evolution as the most significant field of science in 2005 also serves as a reminder that science is neither postmodern, nor democratic. Its foundations can be argued in the philosophy class, but in the science classroom or the laboratory, the scientific method is not open to interpretation. Furthermore, even if close to half of Americans believe that a supernatural entity created the universe, the Earth and humanity from nothing, it doesn't make it any more true.

I do find it sad that the postmodern angle is still mistakenly used by people who are ignorant to the nature of the issues at hand. I only hope that in the light of this judgment, these people will realise that Intelligent Design is not comparable to evolution as a scientific theory. That, in fact, ID is not science at all, and thus should not be compared to it as such. This much has now been established beyond reasonable doubt.

So, when it comes to the editorial column from the Khaleej Times:
Even if Darwin'’s followers do not accept other theories, it doesn't change the facts that are all there for everyone to see. The whole of creation is a testimony to the power that runs this whole, mind-boggling business. Whether we agree or not, whether we believe in creation or evolution, we cannot ignore the clear and intelligent design that is so obvious in everything around us. You do not have to be a believer to see there indeed exists an Intelligent Design in all life, death and the re-birth.
I couldn't disagree more. It is apparent that those of a particular religious persuasion will always choose to see the agency of an interventionist deity in the world around them. Despite the illusory nature of this impression, it is evidently, and sadly, compelling.

I fail to see any evidence of an intelligent designer in life and death, and I don't subscribe to the concept of rebirth - at least not in the sense of the return of a consciousness in future bodies, even if I do comfortably subscribe to the eternal recycling of matter an energy, including that in our bodies.

Yet, even in light of the numerous affronts to evolution and science as a whole, the last few days have seen a significant triumph of reason over dogma. I can only hope that 2006 will see more of the same, although I'm sadly doubtful. Still, we can only continue the fight...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The failure of multiculturalism

That's what it's being called: the failure of multiculturalism.

The continuing violence around Sydney's south west is nothing of the sort. However it could be considered an example of the instability inherent in multiculturalism.

By this I mean that in any multicultural society, or any society that allows or encourages a range of beliefs, opinions, cultures or subcultures or identities, will likely inevitably suffer some internal conflict as a result. This is compounded by the inevitable generalisations we in terms of culture and behaviours based on perceived race.

This is part of the argument by individuals who claim that multiculturalism is a untenable system, and is the root cause of many of society's ills.

However, this is not the case. In fact, multicultural societies are more likely to be peaceful, prosperous, less corrupt and with less crime. This is because the basis of multiculturalism is the fundamental ideology of liberalism and tolerance, which together make for a more robust society as a whole.

You only have to look at multicultural societies worldwide, such as Australia, Britain, Singapore and the United States to see that they are often leaders in their region in terms of stability, economic prosperity and standard of living.

I would never for a moment suggest that these societies are not without their problems, nor that some of these problems are not caused by multiculturalism.

What I am saying is the alternative, of monoculturism, is an inferior alternative to multiculturalism.

Furthermore, in the globalization, post colonial, world, monoculturism can only be artificially enforced. There will always be pressure from cultures nearby and around the world to influence any nation. The alternatives are to implement artificially, top-down, barriers to prevent cultural influence (called 'pollution' by anti-multiculturalists), such as restricted immigration, restricted media or more insidious means, such as violence or genocide. The other alternative is to accept multiculturalism to varying degrees, and suffer from the inherent issues in the system.

Australia is an excellent example of a modern multicultural society, and one that is for the most part a remarkable success, despite its obvious problems.

Ultimately, there can be no perfectly harmonious society, mono- or multicultural. However, the principles of tolerance, acceptance, and appreciation of the values held by other cultures, makes for a more peaceful world overall.

Now, I would never suggest we be entirely culturally or morally relativistic - I still believe that there are a broad range of fundamental human rights, many of which are summed up by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I also believe that all cultures are open to comment and criticism based on these fundamental human rights. Outside of the rights that all humans, irrespective of race or culture, possess, then cultural relativism is appropriate, as it mandates only the arbitrary elements of society and behaviour.

Those who look upon the present violence and tension in Sydney's south west, and claim that multiculturalism have failed, are letting the tail wag the dog. Those who propose that it's time to forego tolerance have already done so by abandoning multiculturalism, and it is those very attitudes that have lead to the violence.

We should not use individuals who are ignorant, violent and subscribe to an insular tribal culture, as examples of the failure of multiculturalism.

And I'm not only talking about Anglo-Celtic Australians who pursue an agenda of 'white' cultural supremacy - I'm talking about Australians from any cultural descent who forgo the grander precedence of multiculturalism. All Australians, whether they be of Anglo descent, Lebanese, Vietnamese, or any other, should consider themselves Australian first, and should subscribe to, and contribute, to the broader Australian culture.

There is clearly a dominant Anglo-Celtic culture in Australia, and that needs to be respected as a sub-culture in the same way as those who subscribe to that culture should consider it to be one of many, and not immutable.

None of this is easy. We all strive for identity, and cultural links are a primary way to do that. Few of us want to be culture-less. However, through a combination of tolerance and respect for other cultures, and an intolerance for any behaviour that is unlawful or contradicts our fundamental human rights, we can improve harmony. It'll never be perfect, but it can be a robust, peaceful and rich society.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Roots philosophy

I stumbled across an interesting blog the other day by Matt Mueller. I've already left one comment, but thought I'd follow up here, given the fairly expansive nature of this reply.

Matt kicks things off with his definition of consciousness. While it's an interesting approach, I'm not sure I entirely understand, or agree, with his definition of consciousness.

First off, he defines consciousness as:

a subjective self-awareness of one’s actions and experiences.

It seems reasonable enough to me to define consciousness as self awareness, but I'm not entirely sure this is an exhaustive definition. It really depends on what you mean by self-awareness, and whether it's an active 'being aware'-state of having a self, or a more passive acknowledgement that, if asked, you'd reply 'that action is my own' - thus being more dispositional.

There are also pitfalls in defining consciousness in terms of a 'self', as the concept of self itself is a bit vague, at best (a la Hume, Parfit and the Buddha).

Still, defining consciousness as some kind of awareness - I can live with that for now.

However, Mueller then goes on to state that this awareness is dependent on the ability to conceive of other possible actions. I'm not really sure why this step is necessary (pardon the modal pun). I can't see it being logically impossible to have a consciousness that is self aware, but doesn't actively conjure up possible actions, but just responds to the environment passively. It could still be conscious in the sense that it acknowledges it's actions are it's own, and its experiences as its own.

The next step is the distinction of two consciousness within our consciousness - an animalistic consciousness, and an 'other' consciousness. Again, I can't see why this is necessary, although I can see this as possibly tracing the dangerous path of the homunculus.

Because we seem to have a fairly compelling sensation of 'looking out' on the world, and it could feel like there is something of a pilot for our bodies, thus was born the idea (really an expanded assumption) of the homunculus. However, if there is a homunculus, what is looking out of it's eyes?

I think Dennett thoroughly disintegrates this position, as well as its more contemporary counterpart - what he calls the Cartesian Theatre - in his cheekily named book Consciousness Explained (a top read).

Mueller then moves on to the necessity of language for consciousness to exist. While I have no doubt that language is a very important part of consciousness, I wouldn't go so far as to say that without language there is no consciousness.

Mueller seems to hold language in this esteem for a couple of reasons. First is that even if we are to contemplate things that were before, or outside, language, we end up using language to do so. Secondly is that language provides the framework within which we can think.

I suspect that the first reason suffers from a very common assumption in analytical philosophy - that propositional knowledge is all knowledge simpliciter. That propositional facts are all facts. I've written about this before, including in my honours thesis, and proposed that we take abilities and non-experiential knowledge (knowledge-how, rather than knowledge-that) more seriously.

In this sense, I'd suggest that one can be conscious (and self-aware) of riding a bike, without any language being used in the process. They can even say they know how to ride a bike without needing to put that knowledge in propositional form ("depress the pedals sequentially" "apply pressure to the handlebars asymetrically to redirect the wheel" etc).

Certainly, once you describe your actions, you drop into propositional mode, and collapse the concrete experience into abstract words and concepts, but I can't see that as being a necessary condition of consciousness.

And I'm not so sure that Mueller wouldn't actually agree with me on this. He also states that by using language, we're imposing a kind of presupposed ontology, or framework, on our experience and consciousness. That's exactly the danger I was talking about when I said we give propositional knowledge too much priority.

Language gives us the gift of easy abstraction, and I think this is a critical part of developing our consciousness from basic levels to being able to manipulate concepts and communicate. However, we also hem in our understanding of the world through a necessary process of abstraction, generalisation and pigeon holing of concepts in the process.

A part of (some) Buddhist philosophy is to escape from language in some ways, and go back to the raw experience, without any limiting framework of ontology imposed upon it. You can't get terribly far in life doing only this, which is why the next step in Buddhist philosophy is to just get on with your work, but also trying not to forget the bigger picture that our language and abstract concepts are useful, but ultimately limiting factors on our raw consciousness.

Mueller does seem to acknowledge the limitations of language, and it's assumed framework, when he says:

So yes, we would need an ontology independent of consciousness but I would argue that this is a moot point, as it is impossible. As soon as we try to define it we lose exactly what we were trying to gain.

However, I think we only lose track if we are forced to hold on to language without acknowledging the non-language-based parts of consciousness.

I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect that it's through a combination of structured consciousness, with abstractions, propositions, language and factual knowledge, in league with 'raw' consciousness, with experience, qualia, abilities and free from language, that we can get a better grasp on reality - and build up a more complete ontology.

And yeah, I am somewhat of a realist, but not in a Platonic sense. I would suggest that there is a concrete world that exists independent on consciousness, perception and language. In this world, there are no 'chairs', but there is stuff that, if looked upon by a conscious mind with the concept and parameters of 'chair' in mind, would be called such. But this 'chair' thing is a vague
notion, at best. A useful generalisation, but impossible to pin down to some fundamental, realist, essence.

In ontology, I'd lean more on the discovery side, up to the point where out limited senses and subjective nature mean there's no more we can discover, and we have to create the rest. That means there is an unknowable perfect ontology, but whether it's knowable or not, well, we'll never know.

I'd also be reluctant to draw a hard distinction between ourselves and the world. We're in the world, and a part of it, after all. That, in itself, is part of my defence against skepticism. It's not all of a defence - because I don't think there is a water proof defence against skepticism. But skepticism is primarily an attack on propositional knowledge, and I think there might be a way to sneak some non-propositional knowledge (like how to ride a bike) under the skeptical radar.

Anyway, I've enjoyed reading Mueller's blog, and it's dredged up a whole lot of metaphysics that I haven't thunk on for a few years.

I also hope at least some of this post makes sense, and I'd be happy to clarify or elucidate any muggy points. I'm also always happy to hear criticism. I reckon there's a truth out there somewhere, and if I'm wrong about something, I'd sure love to be set straight!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Fit to print - part 2

In light of my grumble about the state of news reporting, it's heartening to see that at least internally the media has high standards.

It's no accident that the ABC has picked up a swathe of Walkley Awards, including sweeping the field in both the television and radio categories. I wonder what would happen if the ABC had a daily paper?

All this makes me feel a few things:

a) This primarily makes me glad that we have the ABC as an alternative to commercial media. It's a necessary and important part of our society and culture to have an institution like the ABC around - a media outlet that is not compelled by commercial considerations, but instead relies on a charter to determine its content and success.

b) It goes some way to increasing the legitimacy of the ABC in the face of criticisms of bias.

c) It lends support to the theory that commercial considerations drive media to be more mainstream, through the trend to tell people what they want to know rather than what they need to know.

Finally, congratulations should go to all winners of the Walkleys.