Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Responding to Counterarguments--The Special Case

This is part one in a theoretically indefinitely long series of posts about how philosophers respond to counterarguments and counterexamples to their claims. This post is about the Special Case response.

Suppose you are arguing for your favored thesis, claim P. It turns out that there is a clear counterexample to your claim that, if correct, renders your claim false. For example, you claim, as Socrates did, that all virtues are wisdom, that to be good is to know how to act. In response, someone says, "I knew that it was morally wrong to have sex with that intern, but I did it anyway." Thus, there is a clear counterexample to your claim.

You might now be tempted, with your favored claim shown definitively to be false, to back off that claim, to revise your view or reject it altogether. If so, I recommend a career in accountancy for you are clearly not made of the stuff of great philosophers. Overwhelming evidence of the falsity of one's claims is not a reason to change one's mind; it is only a test of one's mettle. Don't revise, attack.

There are lots of ways to face down such a counterexample, but, before talking about them, we need to make one thing clear. Do not ignore a counterexample or pretend it does not exist. You are much better off bringing it up yourself than having some reviewer think of it. But don't worry; this doesn't mean you need a real response. All you have to do is frame something in the form of a response whether it is meaningful or correct or not.

Today's example: The Special Case.
Amie Thomasson, writing in her anthology Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Mind (edited with David Woodruff-Smith), discusses the topic of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge has often been understood on a semi-perceptual, introspectionist, model, but there are significant problems with this approach. So, an alternative account would be particularly useful. Thomasson suggests that Husserl has already presented such an account, an account she calls a Transformationist account. On this account knowledge of one's first person mental states is a logical transformation of a statement about the external world into a statement about one's internal state. So, if the original state is "I perceive a tree," the transformed state is "There is a perception of a tree."

There are some obvious problems with the account. For example, suppose I make the statement when I have no conscious experience of a tree and am looking at a fire hydrant. In this case, my statement is not true and cannot be used to justify a claim that I have knowledge of my own internal state of perceiving a tree. So, how do we know to apply the Transformation, what renders some transformations acceptable as indicating self-knowledge and others not? Some transformations are based on conscious awareness (hint, hint: knowledge) of our internal states. So her account seems to presuppose self-knowledge rather than illuminate it. But that's not my point.

My point is to discuss a counterexample she considers. Some forms of self-knowledge clearly do not fit the model of transformation of perception of external object to internal state. For example, we make statements about our experiences, such as, the claim that one's vision is blurry, that are directly about internal states not external stimuli. Thus, some self-knowledge is possible without this transformation. And, significantly, this shows that we have not avoided the problems with the quasi-perceptual account of self-knowledge.

Her response is not to deny that these cases are possible but to describe them as a special case. This response, however, is as unjustified as it is irrelevant. First, it's not relevant. One's theory of self-knowledge should not be a theory of self-knowledge except in special cases in which cases one needs another theory. A theory of X ought to include all cases of X; if it doesn't, you haven't really got a theory of X.

Second, it's not justified. We can sometimes say when something is a special case of a more general theory. One way this can happen is if you can explain how the special case follows the general theory but appears not to do so because it applies only to a limited domain or involves certain conditions. For example, Newtonian mechanics is a special case of Einsteinian, relativistic, mechanics. The case still falls under the Einsteinian theory (hence, indicating something as a special case does not relieve you of the responsibility of explaining it) but it turns out that the parameters (here, low velocity) are such that we can make adequate predictions without using the full apparatus of the theory. We have an approximation that is good enough. In any case, in order to say something is a special case, you need a theory of all the cases and show why in this case your theory appears to be violated (e.g. it does not appear to involve time dilation). You cannot identify something as a special case of X unless you have a comprehensive theory of X that is confirmed by independent means. Otherwise, how do you know that this counterexample constitutes the special case rather than the standard one whereas your examples constitute the special case? Indeed, you cannot.

It is, as I said, possible to show that some example is a special case, but you need to have an independent analysis of that case that shows that, in fact, it really does fit under your theory but appears not to do so because of some constraints or simplifications in the description of the case. In Thomasson's case there is no independent explanation that provides this. So, remember that the "Special case" response is the last desperate act of a flailing philosopher (rather than the first act of Henry the Fifth), so use it sparingly.

Also remember: my example is, of course, a special case and philosophers nearly always reason perfectly and responsibly without resort to evasions.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hugh Ross's Creator and the Cosmos, Concluding Remarks

As with most creationist literature, Ross's book consists primarily of a false dilemma. He presents problems with naturalist accounts of S (for any subject S) and concludes that God must be responsible for it. Yet he never supports his theory of divine creation with evidence. And he is quite coy about what his view even is. For example, he asserts that God created everything--anything that involves greater complexity than its not existing, presumably--since without God's creation the universe can only increase in entropy. No greater complexity can arise without God's intervention, and God has ceased to intervene after the first six periods of time indicated in Genesis (as Ross says on p. 103).

Ross, then, gets only one benefit from his supposed embrace of scientific evidence: he doesn't believe in a 6-10,000 year old universe. That's a big benefit since it's blatantly obvious for lots of independent reasons that the universe is much older than that. Still, he's got to deny the evidence for evolution just as irrationally as any other creationist. That means he's still in an evidential hole that he needs to dig himself out of. And he's still got the problem that, for example, the two Biblical creation stories are inconsistent with each other and with the evidence. (For example, the Seven Day Creation story has birds created before land animals--including reptiles--which we know, from the fossil record, did not happen.)

So Ross thinks the universe is approximately 14 billion years old, that the earth has been here for approximately 4.5 billion years and that life has existed on earth for approximately 3.5 billion of those years. And, I think, he believes the fossil record can be taken to indicate a temporal sequence of organisms. I would guess, then that this creation period from 14 billion years ago until approximately 60,000 years ago when the first homo sapiens appeared. All the evidence of a sequence of gradually developing species would then indicate only God's slow experiments with them as he alters them over time. It's not clear why God would need to spend so much time making so many creatures that are so similar to each other but most of which are now extinct. On the other hand, perhaps they could evolve during that time with God's help but they cannot evolve now. If that's the case, then it's fairly cruel of God to stop allowing evolution.

I'm not sure what's supposed to happen in that 14 billion years (less our last 60,000 years). Was there a kind of stasis in which God added his creations to the universe? If so, how could time have passed at all? Or did God add his creations at certain specified points (the various "days") and let the laws of nature govern his creations between those specific times until the next point when he would intervene again? If that were the case, one would expect new life forms to appear in the fossil record only at a few definable times, but they appear constantly throughout the fossil record. Or, most plausibly, did everything happen the way it does now except that God is somehow creating things at the same time? Were the laws of nature that now obtain also in effect and God violated them with lots of individual creations (that were not documented individually, of course)? Perhaps, but then God appears to be a tinkerer whose actions exactly mimic the development of the universe if he hadn't been there at all. So, I have no idea even when this creation is supposed to have occurred and how that could possibly fit the fossil evidence (even leaving aside the biomolecular clock evidence).

So, Ross tries to patch up one obvious problem with Young Earth Creationism, but he leaves lots of other problems in place and creates other problems for himself. However, because creationists are always free from actually providing testable claims that could be confirmed or disconfirmed by evidence, he never bothers to confront any such issues and focuses only on his own oversimplified and distorted views of his opposition's views.

In sum, Ross's book adds only a thin veneer of pseudo-sophistication to the disreputable work of the Young Earth Creationists. Nothing he has said really resolves the problems with their views. The only marginally compelling argument he presents is the cosmological argument, and that he bizarrely takes to indicate exactly the sort of God described in the Bible. He includes a smattering of other arguments, poorly explained and poorly supported, as though throwing as much at the wall in the hope that something will stick. And he considers some alternatives and counterarguments, but he does so so poorly that one could not have any idea what these other views are based solely on his explanation, and then he rejects these strawmen without seriously engaging any reasonable view or position. For variety, sometimes he seizes on totally irrelevant information (such as Hume's lack of an adequate alternative explanation for the appearance of design, or comments from Stephen Hawking's ex-wife) as though that constitutes a refutation of another's argument. Hence, The Creator and the Cosmos is only a slightly more sophisticated version of the same creationist nonsense that is as scientifically misguided as it is theologically simplistic.

At the end of this process of reviewing Ross's book, I must ask myself why I did it. I didn't really learn anything new, and, while I tried to remain open-minded about it, I don't think anything changed my mind. I can only hope that anyone who had questions about Ross, or thought there might be some substance to Ross's view has more reason for his/her own final evaluation, and, it is devoutly to be hoped, rejection, of his views.

Hugh Ross's Creator and the Cosmos, Chapter 16

Ross's chapter 16 is devoted to constructing outlandishly large numbers for the improbability of individual cells or biomolecules occurring by chance. And then he concludes that these events are so improbable that a God must have miraculously intervened to create these things. For example, he claims, following Harold Morowitz who is not a creationist, that the probability of a single cell forming randomly from its constituent parts is 1 in 10 to the 100,000,000,000. Surely a cell forming from basic constituents randomly is highly improbable, so it's a good thing that no one thinks any such thing happened. (Ross cleverly uses the phrase "under ideal natural conditions" [p. 138] as though he is not arguing from the random assembly of parts but from any possible natural assembly of parts.) Instead, those, such as Morowitz, who are interested in this issue think that smaller biomolecules formed from a prebiotic soup by small stages, and, that these molecules then formed increasingly complex molecules until a simple self-replicating molecule formed from them. This self-replicator would then provide the basis necessary for evolution to get going, and real living organisms could then result.

This is standard creationist claptrap, implying that evolution, biogenesis, or whatever could only have occurred randomly over some improbably large item. I could argue, in similar fashion, that Hugh Ross's existence requires the direct intervention of a divine being. Suppose I imagine that all Hugh Ross's constituent atoms were sitting around in a prebiotic soup and suddenly, with a flash of lightning, they spontaneously assembled themselves into Hugh Ross. I'll conservatively estimate the probability of this happening as one in a googol. (See, I can make up probabilities too.) Since this probability is so fantastically low that this could never occur randomly in the course of a billion universes, I think it's safe to say that Ross was created by a divine being in his present form. Now, I suppose Ross might say that he has a "causal history" and "genealogy", that he did not arise by random chance from a set of unrelated constituents, that his genesis resulted from a series of causal stages of earlier beings whose existence we can know from the "traces" they have left behind. Of course, there is a difference between the Spontaneous Ross Generation case and the living-cell case in that we do not as yet have any way to show directly that these causal intermediaries existed on earth before the first fossils formed. But we can make inferences about the nature of that early earth and construct laboratory experiments to test these inferences. That, of course, has been done, for example, in the case of the Stanley Miller and Harold Urey experiments. These experiments are not the end of investigation of this question, but they provide a start to such investigation, and they show conclusively that it is possible for bio-molecules to arise from some form of prebiotic soup by entirely natural means.

What can Ross say about such cases? Apparently, at some step in the process from ammonia to RNA bases, or from RNA bases on up to the cell, one or more step is physically impossible. Perhaps Miller cheated, or God intervened in Miller's (or others') laboratory. And the same thing occurred in every confirming experiment.

The point is that we have seen that complex biomolecules can arise from conditions that plausibly could have obtained on earth, yet Ross's position is that this is effectively impossible because its probability is vanishingly small. Ross's position here is simply falsified by the experimental evidence; there must be an error in his probability calculations (or, more specifically, one of his key assumptions) because in fact something he claimed to be impossible actually occurred. It is clear what the problem is. Ross assumes that large scale assembly must occur purely at random from the smallest constituents (much like our Ross arising spontaneously from his constituent atoms) when it is more likely that life arose by a series of stages each of which, plausibly, could arise from the increasingly complex molecules of the stage before. It is not really surprising, then, that Ross never mentions the Miller-Urey experiments in a chapter devoted to exactly the problem they set out to investigate. Actual evidence would undermine the point he is trying to make.

I am not asserting that there are no problems with the Miller-Urey experiments (such as the existence of both right and left-handed isomers that Ross emphasizes) or later experiments, or that no further investigation is necessary. All I am saying is that increasing complexity of macromolecules is possible given initial conditions that might have obtained on earth, so there is no compelling reason to think we could not have ultimately derived from a prebiotic soup. And Ross's claim that this is impossible is not plausible.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ross's Creator and the Cosmos, Chapters 14 and 15

Chapters 14 and 15 of The Creator and the Cosmos are probability arguments based on the supposed improbability of human life occurring in our universe. Although both chapters argue that some set of facts is incredibly improbable, and this improbability requires divine intervention in order for human life to occur. The first is Fine-Tuning Argument and the second depends on the improbability of all the contingent features Ross claims are necessary for human life. I evaluate these two chapters together, even though they are distinct and involve distinct errors, because taken together they paint a picture of an absurdly impotent God.

The fine-tuning argument is that God has to "tune" the constants and laws of nature of the universe in order for life (or life as we know it) to be possible. If these constants were slightly different, it would not be possible for life (as we know it) to exist. It is then assumed that it is highly improbable that the constants have exactly these values. Hence, Ross concludes, the probability of life occurring is so low that we have to conclude that some being deliberately set up the conditions to allow for it.

The second argument is that it is incredibly unlikely that exactly the contingent conditions, say a planet in the right temperature zone for liquid water etc., for human life would occur in our universe. So we should conclude that God must have set up our planet specifically for our life.

The absurdity in making both these arguments is that they collectively entail a God who is so incompetent or powerless that he/she/it cannot create a universe whose basic laws and constants are such that life would become likely. In other words, Ross thinks that God set up a universe so that it would allow for life, yet God did such a crappy job of creating this universe that it does not in fact allow for life but requires God to intervene and create a world for humans to occupy. Perhaps it's just unbelievably hard for God to create a universe that allows for life to exist and also allows life to arise naturally. But such a response cannot be correct if we think God is an omniscient and omnipotent being. Such a God could create conditions that would allow life to arise naturally. And if God were going to create miraculously a world for human habitation, then he would have no need of careful fine-tuning.

These two arguments are individually unsound in any case. The problem with the fine-tuning argument is that there is no way to establish the probability that the constants and laws of nature might have been different. One could reasonably argue, to take a favored example, that, if you survived a firing squad in which dozens of marksmen all missed, then there must be a conspiracy not to kill you. This argument works because the probability that each individual marksman miss is known (and is very low), and so the conjunction of them all missing can be calculated to be extraordinarily low. Since the odds that they all miss by chance is vanishingly small (let's suppose), then we can conclude that there must be a deliberate agreement not to shoot you. However, in the case of the constants and laws of nature, we have no idea what the probability is that the constants differ from their actual values. Without that probability, there is no way to calculate the improbability that life would exist. So, following our other example, we cannot estimate the probability that there is a conspiracy not to shoot you unless you have some idea how accurate the marksmen are.

For the most part these arguments rely on the mere logical possibility that the values differ, but logical possibility tells us nothing about probability. It's logically possible that I turn into a chicken in the next second (this example I get from Abe Brummett), but that does not mean I should worry about it. The probability that I turn into a chicken is vanishingly small--or zero given the laws of nature. So, one cannot rely on establishing the logical possibility that these values differ in order to prove the improbability of them all lining up perfectly for life as we know it to be possible.

The second argument differs from the fine-tuning argument because it may be possible to give some ballpark estimate of at least some of the characteristics of the earth that may be necessary for life. Any such estimate would be highly unreliable, but at least there is some possibility of making such an estimate. Since the universe is incredibly large, with billions of stars in billions of galaxies, it's quite possible that our earth, of the billions possible, could meet those requirements. The extreme improbability of an event does not mean that it is impossible. Any particular person winning the lottery is very unlikely, but it is quite probable that someone will win. The difficulties are in estimating the number of factors that are, independent of each other, necessary for life (as opposed to life as we know it) and making an accurate assessment of these probabilities. As I said, it is not necessarily impossible to do this, but we should not conclude too quickly that our existence is impossible or likely.

Ross provides estimates of the probability of various factors, but he never explains how he arrives at these probabilities, so there is no way of evaluating his estimates.

Finally, we cannot make estimates only on the probability of life like ours is possible since the exact features of our lives are not relevant to the question of whether life in general is possible. Are we to estimate the probability that life would evolve bipedalism? That would be unlikely, one would suppose, but we cannot know that God would care about bipedalism (unless God is bipedal and wanted to create us in his/her/its own image!). So, Ross's claim that there is a .001 probability of having the right surface gravity (for example) is almost certainly too low a probability since we do not need gravity to be earthlike in order for life to develop. That gravity may not even need to be great enough to maintain an atmosphere since life might develop in liquid that would not escape even with the gravity of, say, a moon. I am not expert enough to substitute my own probabilities for Ross's, but it's unlikely that his low probability estimates are accurate.

I think that Ross is interested not just in the probability of life but the probability of intelligent life, and that is certainly much less likely. So, the probability of intelligent life must be much lower than the probability of life. However, the first problem remains. We have a great deal of uncertainty about exactly what is necessary for intelligent life and how probable those factors are.

But, perhaps more importantly, we need a better reason to think that God would want intelligent life to exist. These probability estimates only make sense if we think God wants some specific, improbable outcome. But why does intelligence matter to God? Does God want intelligent people as worshipers? If God wants worshipers, then God would have to be an imperfect being who wanted worship. Perhaps God wants intelligence because God values the existence of moral beings, and only intelligent beings can have moral worth. It's not clear that only intelligent beings can have moral worth. But, in any case, it's not clear why God would want such beings. Does God want there to be suffering? If death is inevitable, wouldn't it be cruel of God to make sure that beings come into existence who have moral worth only so that they can die. The major unsupported premise is that God would want something like us to exist--otherwise our relative improbability would prove nothing--but we are not capable of predicting what God would want.

In sum, Ross makes two arguments with essentially inconsistent assumptions: the universe is perfectly designed for life yet it is impossible that life could occur in that universe. But each of the two arguments is independently unsound, and, moreover, they both rely on the unsupported claim that God, whose mind we cannot know, would want human-like intelligent beings to exist.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hugh Ross's Creator and the Cosmos, Chapter 13

In chapter 13 Ross covers the rather well-worn ground of William Paley's argument from design. The argument is an argument by analogy.
1. Watches require a designer.
2. The universe is like a watch.
3. Therefore the universe requires a designer.

The first premise we take to be obvious. The second premise is supported by the complexity and functions of organisms. The parts of an organism function to maintain the existence of the organism of which they are part. Paley's favorite example is the eye which has a large number of parts that interact in a complex way in order to allow the organism to acquire information about its environment which it acts on in order to increase its chances of survival. The conclusion follows inductively, and its strength depends on the similarity of the two things and the lack of relevant differences between the two. The main relevant difference between organisms and watches is, of course, that organisms can evolve whereas watches cannot. So how does Ross defend Paley's analogy?

Ross considers three responses, from David Hume, Charles Darwin and Stephen Jay Gould, to Paley's analogy.
Hume: Ross mentions that Hume does not think the analogy is strong, and Ross then mentions Hume's alternative account of the appearance of design: "random shuffling of matter" (p. 100) in an infinitely old universe. Ross then ridicules Hume's alternative without even addressing the many differences Hume pointed out between human artifacts and organisms.

Clearly Hume did not know that the universe was finite in time, and he did not have Darwin's theory of natural selection. But Ross commits a false dilemma fallacy here. One cannot defend a divine origin as an explanation of function and complexity in organisms by rejecting an alternative. Hume's is not the only possible alternative. Rather Ross needs to address the reasons Hume gives for the differences between the two. Ross does not even mention these objections, and it would take too long to review them here. However, one point is that we must derive a conclusion about the whole universe based on the function of a small part. Another point is that we have never seen a universe made, nor seen anything made from similar materials. These differences weaken the argument, and Ross needs a response to them, but he does not even bother.

Another point Hume makes is that if we really take the analogy seriously we should not conclude that the universe had a single, perfect designer. We should not derive a conclusion that exceeds what is necessary to explain the effect, and since the universe is not perfect, there is no reason to conclude that the designer is perfect. Given the way the universe functions it could have been designed by, for example, an immature, unwise god, or a senile, demented god. Similarly, when we look at human artifacts, we never find a single designer who controls all aspects of creation from concept to completion. Instead we find groups of people who work on pre-existing designs, making small improvements over them, and working together to construct artifacts according to those designs. Thus, if we take the design argument seriously, we would be better justified in concluding that there are many, imperfect designers working together to create the universe. Strangely, people rarely draw this conclusion.

Darwin: Ross briefly describes Darwin's view that natural selection can account for these features of organisms. Ross's rejection of Darwin is based on irrelevancies and incomplete consideration of the evidence. He claims that Darwin did not explain the origin of the first living organisms that were capable of evolving, that there is no evidence for large-scale evolutionary change, that it is impossible for species to evolve beyond a "species' norm" (p. 102), and that it is impossible for new species to appear as quickly as species become extinct. Finally, he claims that life is at all times becoming progressively less complex.

Obviously this is absurd. Ross's objection that Darwin does not explain the origin of the first living organisms is irrelevant to claims about Darwinian evolution. His rejection of evidence for large-scale evolutionary change (speciation) is simple denial of mountains of evidence. The impossibility of speciation is based only on our intuitions about breeding dogs to anything smaller than a dog. This totally misunderstands how speciation occurs; no one thinks that different species interbreed in order to produce a new species of offspring. Groups are thought to interbreed and change together to adapt to a changing environment. Finally, the evidence about extinction rates, based on current rates precipitated in part by human effects on animal habitats, are clearly irrelevant to overall extinction rates. And, in any case, he provides no reason at all to think that speciation could not occur as quickly as these long term extinction rates.

His alternative explanation, his way of trying to force the data to fit his own theory, is entertaining as well. He thinks that this purported excess of extinction supports the idea that God created all the existing species at once and time is slowly paring that number down. Why God would do such a crappy job of creating species that they would inevitably die out is never explained. Should we take Ross's theory seriously? Probably not, but let's do it anyway. If we take his low-end estimate of extinctions of one species per year, and the estimate that there are about 1.5 million species of organism currently on earth, we can conclude, given the fact that life has existed on earth for at least 3.5 billion years, that God must have created 3.5 billion species. (We can basically ignore the 1.5 million that currently exist as a roundoff error. My assumption is based on the assumption that the rate is constant, but it would probably be higher when there were more species to go extinct.) Since the earth is 197million square miles in area, we find that now each species has 131 square miles. But when God created all these species, they would have had only .056 square miles each. That's about 35 acres on average for each species. This isn't physically impossible, but it would be a tight fit.

Gould: Ross understands Gould as emphasizing bad designs in nature as evidence for natural selection rather than divine origin. Ross follows Gould's example of the panda's thumb as an limb jury-rigged from existing parts rather than something created from scratch. He gives three responses.

First, organisms are too complex for humans to draw conclusions about "the quality of the Creator's work." Aside from the obvious question-begging nature of this objection, this response is absurd. We can identify when something effectively fulfills a function. Is he seriously saying we cannot judge whether the panda's thumb is more or less effective than a human thumb?

Second, he claims that organisms might degrade over time from God's perfect design. Presumably they had a much more effective thumb and they only devolved to be less effective at eating bamboo. I would make fun of Ross for this, but I think his brain must have devolved from a state of perfection in order for him to think this, and I don't think it's nice to make fun of the devolved. Why would he think that pandas with less effective thumbs would be more likely to survive and reproduce than those whose thumbs were more effective? Perhaps he thinks that the thumb degenerated from a superior thumb by means of random mutation, but that would not explain at all why it would degenerate in a way that fit exactly with the "design" of other bears. Why, for example, would they have five fingers and a thumb rather than four fingers and a thumb as humans have? The only reasonable explanation is that the wrist bone mutated from a shorter wrist bone from related bears.

His third response is that Gould has no new explanation for this imperfect design, only "the already discredited Darwinist explanations" (p. 104). I can only laugh at this response.

Finally, his claim that organisms have become progressively less complex over time flies directly in the face of the evidence. Just to take one example, algae long preceding humans.

In sum, we can say that Ross does not exactly think through his advocacy of the argument from design. He does not make any serious attempt to describe, much less respond to, any real objection to Paley's design argument.

Blaming the Gay

An amusingly Freudian interview with moderately anti-gay Utah State Senator Chris Buttars.
BUTTARS: I meet with the gays here and there; they were at my house two weeks ago. I don't mind gays, but I don't want 'em stuffin' it down my throat all the time, and certainly in my kids' face.

Buttars continued:
I mean, in these places where I meet gays, I give back as good as I get. But if the gay community would keep hold of themselves, get a grip on themselves, pull their members back and keep them from splashing themselves all over the public, then, we may suppress our gag reflex and make no bones about our embrace of them and their private, inner selves. I have tried to reach around the aisle and get my Democratic colleagues off their thrust for public displays of homosexuality, but they continue to push no matter how hard I push back. Their rigid insistence on exposing themselves to a nation not yet open to their intrusion into the private parts of their lives leads through the back-door to hell. Yet at the same time we cannot blow this chance to come together, fill the holes in our relations with our love for our opposition, and thrust aside our disagreements. Also.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Miscellaneous Weak Humor and Nozick Comments

A belated comment on the Bill Belichick decision to go for it on 4th and 2: The problem is that Belichick didn't trust his punter!

Second point. Despite the title, the Discovery channel program Lobstermen is not nearly as interesting as one might think.

And, finally, related only to some work on Robert Nozick: I found this passage showing a problem with John Locke's requirement on resource acquisition that the person must leave "as much and as good" for others. This passage purports to show that a logical problem or something like a paradox follows from this requirement when we try justly to acquire a natural resource.

How might an initial acquisition be legitimate? Nozick appeals to the Lockean Proviso: Natural resources, such as land, come to be rightfully owned by the first person to appropriate it, as long as she left "enough and as good" for others. Suppose we are talking about a parcel of land. A may appropriate as much land as he wants only if he leaves enough and as good for others. Suppose A takes half, then. Now others come along, and each can appropriate only if she leaves enough and as good for others. So B can take half of the half left by A, C half of the half left by B, D half the half left by C, and so on through the alphabet. It is easy to see that evenutally [sic] there will not be enough left for some person, Z. Z can then complain that X did not leave enough and as good, so X's appropriation was illegitimate. But if so, then Y did not leave enough and as good for X, and so on all the way back up the alphabet to A. This seems to show that it will be impossible to meet the Lockean Proviso, since it will be impossible, no matter how little A takes, to leave "enough and as good" for others.

In fact, there is no logical problem here since Locke could require that one leave "as much and as good" for each individual who also might make use of the resource. Thus, one could only take enough that every other person who might rely on the resource could take that much as well from the remainder. So, if I pick a fruit from a tree, I have to make sure that there are at least as many remaining fruit as there are individuals who might want them. This requirement is hopelessly simplistic and impractical in our society with an indefinitely large number of people who might rely on a resource and the general impossibility, at this point, of sharing the original resource with others. However, I don't see anything paradoxical about the rule.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hugh Ross's Creator and the Cosmos, Chapter 12

In chapter 12, Hugh Ross focuses on work by Paul Davies on the idea that the universe might have arisen spontaneously by a process called "quantum tunneling", and then makes some cursory comments on quantum mechanics. I am no expert on quantum mechanics, but I believe that quantum tunneling is the odd event of quantum particles (if you like that term) spontaneously "jump" barriers or go from one side of a barrier to another without passing through the intervening space. This is related to the idea that particles and anti-particles can spontaneously come into existence from the quantum field. Then, in theory, the singularity could pop into existence from the quantum field. This singularity would then expand as a Big Bang, and then the universe would inflate rapidly. I don't pretend to understand this, but even if I do not understand it, and even if it doesn't bring a universe into existence from nothing but only from a quantum field, it's still a step in the right direction.

But of course these tentative steps towards a quantum physical understanding of the origin of the universe can be immediately rejected in favor of the theory that an intelligent, personal being who exists in some mysterious way beyond our standard time dimension who created the universe (and possibly added new creations at various points throughout the history of the universe) and whose "son", who is actually himself, was born and died in order to save us from the punishment that he levied on our ancestors for failing to remain deliberately ignorant about morality. Clearly that conclusion is so obvious that we would never need to develop an alternative that we could understand scientifically.

But, for now, I want to say a bit about Ross's discussion of quantum mechanics.

Ross tries to draw a strong distinction between the science, philosophy and religion of quantum mechanics. Doing this allows him to treat all the consequences of quantum mechanics that Ross believes are problematic as part of the philosophy or "religion" of quantum mechanics. The main problem for Ross is that quantum mechanics gives the observer an essential place in determining reality (making it the case that quantum particles have determinate properties). Ross's strawman here is the view that human observers created the universe by observing it. This would be worth discussing if anyone besides a few weirdos believed that we could cause the universe to come into existence by observing.

In reality the measurement problem in quantum mechanics is how to account for the difficulty that particles do not appear to have determinate properties until an observation is made. Moreover, it appears to be possible to describe the physical instruments that one would use in making an observation in quantum mechanical terms. Hence, the measurement devices appear also to lack determinate properties until someone reads the dial on the device. The Copenhagen interpretation stops this slippery slope with a human observer on the theory that a human cannot be described in purely quantum mechanical terms.

Ross, on the other hand, takes God to be the observer who makes it the case that particles have determinate properties. That's a great idea in many ways since it would certainly explain how there could be determinate properties before there were any living beings to observe anything. That certainly raises a problem of circularity since it should be impossible for observers to evolve without there being determinate properties.

However, the problem with Ross's solution is that it proves too much. If God is the observer for quantum events before the existence of (other) observers, then God ought to observe every quantum event since then. However, if there is an observer for all quantum events, then there should be no mysterious quantum effects in which particles do not have determinate properties until an observation is made. In other words, Ross's solution relies on God observing everything before other observers exist to do so. And if God makes these observations, then there would be no quantum effects to discover; everything would have its determinate properties even without human observations because God would make those observations. So, Ross's solution to the measurement problem would banish the phenomenon that he wishes to explain. If God does observe quantum events, one can appeal to God to solve the problem, but this would contradict the evidence that quantum indeterminacy exists.

The only response I can think that Ross could give is that God observes everything up to the existence of observers and then God stops observing (or stops observing whenever physicists are conducting experiments that exhibit this indeterminacy). Why God would observe for some time and then stop is completely mysterious. I am unsure that it is even coherent to suggest that an omniscient being could fail to observe quantum events.

Ross may simply be out of date, or he may be playing word games. Here is his claim although I've dropped a few so we can just get a flavor of his alternative models.
At last count, ten independent philosophical models have been seriously proposed:
1. A coherent reality exists independent of human thinking.
2. A common fundamental cause lies behind the cause-and-effect phenomena humans observe.
7. The only observer who counts is the conscious human observer.
10. The physical realm is the materialization of pure thought (p. 94).

I only included four of them, and there is no point in trying to refute these theories since the measurement problem remains. But I wanted to illustrate that Ross is not taking his argument seriously when he proposes these as alternatives to the Copenhagen interpretation. If, on the other hand, he is not endorsing any of these but only noting that they have been proposed, then he really hasn't advanced anything that could be considered a solution.

The problem with "model" 1 is that there are determinate properties independent of measurement/observation. If Ross is denying that a measurement is necessary for particles to take on determinate properties, then he is promoting a model that is not consistent with the evidence. Perhaps Ross means to emphasize that the observer need not be human. Perhaps so, but this does not really resolve the measurement problem at all because it would then not provide an answer to the measurement problem.

"Model" 2 is a statement of Einstein's "Hidden Variable" theory. That model has indeed been proposed but, unfortunately, refuted. I included 7 because this "model" is a specific form of the problem that Ross wants to reject as absurd. So why is he proposing it as an alternative to the supposedly problematic theory? This is a bit like rejecting the theory that Bigfoot exists on the grounds that a previously unknown primate could not exist in the US for centuries with no credible observations or remains, and instead proposing as an alternative that what people have been reporting, when they report seeing Bigfoot, is that they have actually been seeing the Yeti. And, of course, I included 10 because I have no idea what it means, and neither does Ross.

Finally, since I have clearly gone on far too long, Ross offers an explanation for these physicists hostility to Christianity. He writes,

It seems the issue for these atheists, agnostics, humanists, and freethinkers [in a random magazine to which he provides no reverence] is not so much the deficiency of evidence for the Christian faith but rather the deficiencies of Christians. They seem to be reacting to their past, holding bitterness over the wrongs or abuses they incurred in their experiences with Christians (p. 96).

Lovely ad hominem there, Ross, especially since you say that these atheists (etc.) incurred the abuses. Even if this were relevant to the truth of these theories, it's nice to see that he assumes that any unpleasant experiences atheists (etc.) have had with Christians is their fault--or at least the unpleasantness simply occurred with no one to blame. "Mistakes were made" and all that.

In sum, Ross's chapter on quantum mechanics is completely unserious. He attacks a strawman, suggests a solution that is inconsistent with the empirical evidence (unless you add ad hoc hypotheses), throws out some alternatives that he cannot take seriously, and closes with an offensive ad hominem.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rush Limbaugh's Sixth Grade Essay Found!

Through diligent research, I have discovered the long-missing 6th grade essay, "The Foundning [sic] Fathers: An Essay" written by Rush Limbaugh. This document has long been considered the Rosetta stone of Rush Limbaugh scholarship, showing the development of his political philosophy and providing insight into his later thought. Written in red crayon, the Limbaugh essay examines the history of the founding of the United States and the philosophy of the founders.

Limbaugh's statement of the thesis foreshadows his problematic views of women and minorities. "The founding fathers," he wrote, "not mothers! [sic] founded our nation to be free from the king to believe in God and keep black people as slaves." His problematic attitude towards women is further exemplified by the next paragraph titled, "Women in America: A History". He writes, "Women in America were very nice. They gave men whatever they wanted and that's the way it ought to be since women are not so smart." Limbaugh provides no evidence in support of these assertions but moves on to discuss the role of African-Americans in the founding of the United States in the next section entitled, "Black people, some of my best friends are black".

"There were no Black founding fathers eitehr [sic]. Lots of them kept slaves and how bad can they be? Jefferson maybe had sex with a slave, and he smoked pot too. My older brother says I can have sex with a girl someday, I'd like that. Maybe three of them. I think people should not smoke stuff unless maybe they really need to."

Many have criticized Limbaugh's hypocrisy given his attitude toward drug use and his own struggles with prescription drugs. His early attitude described here may explain his later appearance of inconsistency. Perhaps, the young Limbaugh might explain, Limbaugh "really need[ed]" that oxycontin.

Finally, on the subject of economics, Limbaugh included his nascent philosophy:
"The founding fathers had lots of money and that was good because money is something people need to be happy. I think if you have money you should not have to give it to anyone else no matter how much they need it because it's you're [sic] money. I am using my money to buy a car someday."

It's not clear that Limbaugh's political philosophy has advanced since this essay was written and whether he would disavow any of his earlier beliefs. It is clear that the inchoate, often ill-informed, ideas of public figures stated in their youth is far more important than the views clearly enunciated, repeated and explained in the most public possible ways. Without these intrusive, historical investigations of public figures before they had the education, interest and experience to have reasonably formed a political philosophy, how else are we to know what they think?

Monday, October 26, 2009

David Chalmers's Dancing Qualia Argument

Alas, I have little time to read actual philosophy and am now reduced to reading introductory anthologies in considering changing my textbook. Nonetheless, in one of the anthologies I am considering, there is an article by David Chalmers in which Chalmers argues that consciousness (which I will refer to as qualia for short) supervenes on the physical organization of the conscious organism. For example, my visual experience of blueness is determined by my brain's physical structure and organization, say a firing in a certain set of neurons in my visual cortex. (Let's ignore complications involving determination, dependence and supervenience for now.)

I am in complete agreement with this conclusion, but his argument for that claim seems to me deeply flawed. The argument is from a thought experiment involving what he calls 'dancing qualia'. Here's the thought experiment.

Suppose that one constructed a circuit of silicon chips that structurally and functionally mimicked perfectly the neural circuit (forgive the metaphor) underlying a visual experience of blueness. Now, in a reductio ad absurdum argument, we suppose that the experience is not determined by this physical organization but instead differed from the neural circuit in the silicon circuit. He imagines that we suppose the visual experience might be one of redness instead of blueness. I'll assume that there is no visual experience at all fixed by that silicon circuit since that appears to be more like the claims of Searle and other anti-functionalists.

Now, suppose that we could connect a human brain to this silicon circuit or to the section of the visual cortex ordinarily responsible for that experience, and this connection could be mediated by a single switch so that the brain could be switched seamlessly between brain circuitry and silicon circuitry. The result of this switching would be that the person would alternate between having a visual experience of blueness and having no visual experience at all (given our hypothesis). But, also given our hypothesis, the functional organization of the brain/silicon chips is exactly the same, so the firings fed into the rest of the brain are functionally indistinguishable. It follows that the person's inner cognitive state could be switched back and forth between blueness and nothing without anything else in the person's cognitive state changing. The person would continue to believe she had just had a blue experience, would say and believe exactly the same things about her "blue experience" and be emotionally affected in exactly the same way by this "blue experience". Chalmers thinks this result is absurd: it is not possible that one's qualia could dance in and out of one's experience without having any effect on one's other mental states.

The problem with this thought experiment is that we know that people can have various cognitive deficits which, taken together, could conceivably have something like the dancing qualia result that Chalmers thinks absurd without any change in their other mental states or cognitive processes. One relevant syndrome is blindness denial. In this state, people are blind yet unaware of their blindness; they assert and apparently believe that they are fully capable of sight despite their manifest blindness, and they confabulate impressively to account for their difficulties in using their eyesight. Similarly, we might imagine that someone had a kind of unconsciousness denial in which she did not have a conscious experience but still had all the functional equivalents. She would believe she had had conscious visual experiences but would not have had them, and the functional equivalence of her experiences would make the confabulation unnecessary. Conversely, there is the blindsight syndrome in which people are capable of some degree of visual processing without any awareness that they are in fact processing that information. So, when forced to guess whether there is a light in their supposedly blind field, they will do so at a rate much higher than chance, yet they will remain steadfastly certain that they can see nothing in that area. So, it might be possible to have functional equivalence of visual processing without any consciousness of seeing anything at all (although blindsight patients are far from functionally equivalent to fully sighted people). And, of course, the denial that they can see anything would make these patients clearly different from the imagined silicon-equivalents. The point of these examples is not that phenomena exactly like that described by Chalmers are actual but that it is conceptually possible that someone could have the functional equivalent of conscious visual processing without any realization that one's visual processing was not in fact conscious at all. So, in the case in which we switch back and forth between the conscious and the non-conscious visual processing, it is not absurd to think that the person not be aware of this difference, that the person's cognitive and other mental states not be affected at all.

I suppose one might respond that the imagined case is not one in which the person's brain is functioning abnormally or is damaged in any way, so we would have no reason to think this complex syndrome occurs. However, we might easily think that the silicon-chip circuit was in itself a kind of abnormal functioning or brain damage. The damage need not affect the rest of the brain if the circuits are, as supposed, functionally equivalent.

A better response is to suggest that if the two circuits are fully functionally equivalent, then supposing that one such circuit is conscious and the other is not is inherently an unfalsifiable claim. So, since the person believes the state to be conscious, we should suppose that it is conscious. I have some sympathy for this idea, and it is amusingly presented by Raymond Smullyan's "An Unfortunate Dualist", but it's also clearly a different argument from Chalmers's. If we supposed it was possible for the functional organization of two states to be equivalent without the consciousness being the same, then we've already made the assumption that two states can differ without falsifiable differences between them.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Hugh Ross Creator and the Cosmos, Chapter 11

It is becoming increasingly clear that Ross has no viable argument for the existence of God. However, in these chapters Ross "critiques" the views of contemporary physicists on the origin of the universe. Chapter 11 is on Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

Ross chides Hawking for failing to rely on the Bible when Hawking attempts to answer the questions, "What is the nature of the universe? What is our place in it and where did we come from? Why is it the way it is?" Yes, it's better to rely on the holy book of group of a nomadic shepherd culture from thousands of years ago than it is to rely on the results of the most advanced scientific research available. As much as I am trying to, it is sometimes hard to take Ross seriously.

What description does Ross give of Hawking's claims and arguments? And what is his specific critique of Hawking?

It's hard to know what the criticism of Hawking is because he does not really explain Hawking's position, deciding instead to quote a criticism from Hawking's ex-wife of Hawking's lack of traditional religious belief. All I could glean from Ross is that Hawking believes the universe might be bounded in time without having a beginning. Clearly if this makes sense, then Ross has no argument for the existence of God. Perhaps Hawking thinks that "Beginning" implies that one thing did not exist at some time and did exist at a later time. If that is so, then the bounded universe theory does not imply a beginning of the universe.

I'm not sure whether this is what it means for something to have a beginning. It might be that the fact that there is an earliest moment in time is enough to imply a beginning. Either way it is not the case that there could have been an antecedent cause.

Rather than try to explain or address any of this, Ross criticizes Hawking on the totally irrelevant issue that Hawking claims, apparently, that we can know eventually all the facts there are. Ross notes that Godel's incompleteness theorem (assuming we are formal systems which Ross probably does not think) and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle limit our possible knowledge. Further it is impossible to solve problems about certain physical systems. This issue is, of course, totally irrelevant to claims about God's existence. Ross is just taking a cheap shot when he cannot make any real argument against Hawking's theory. This is a bit like saying, "Yes, Mr. Einstein, that theory of relativity is intriguing, but you said that God does not play dice with the universe, and I'm fairly certain that God, being a nonphysical being, does not have any dice to play with. Booyah!" I am no expert on Stephen Hawking or physics, but I think he knows about these problems. Perhaps Hawking should be taken to mean that we can know everything within some understood theoretical limits.

In sum, Ross's chapter on Hawking is laughably thin. It's a criticism of a view that he doesn't even explain, and much of the criticism is about issues that are not relevant to the claims at issue (the need for a God to explain the existence of the universe).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hugh Ross, Creator and the Cosmos, Chapter 10

In this chapter Ross goes completely off the rails into unintentional humor. As poor a philosopher as Ross is, he is even worse as a Bible scholar. In this chapter he argues that the Bible, rather than any other religion, fits the scientific evidence because it describes a transcendent God existing outside our normal time dimension who is personal without having any ordinary physical characteristics and is a holy trinity--3 beings in 1 being. In supporting this point he selectively quotes some passages of the Bible that might be interpreted as God not being physical. It's important for his purpose that the passages be quoted very selectively because at least huge amounts of the Bible describe God in essentially the same way any other primitive religion would describe its gods. I'll give a brief selection of those later, but now we have to marvel at Ross stretching his interpretation of the Bible to make it appear as though the Bible fits his own (probably incoherent) concept of God existing outside time and space.

Here are his quotations from the Bible followed by my comments:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

Ross asserts that this supports his view because he claims the term for creation means creating something brand new or creating from nothing. He does not explain how he knows this is the correct understanding of creation in this case. Perhaps he simply is fluent in ancient Hebrew. But we don't really need help in translation since, as noted in an earlier post, the second verse is this: "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Then God said, "Let there be light." God created the heavens and the earth from a watery chaos, not from nothing. It is possible, however, one might consider the universe to be brand new. On Ross's interpretation this cannot describe God creating the universe first and then creating the earth from that original chaos because the universe was not a watery chaos before God created the earth. In any event, the first verse introduces what God is doing and the later verses explain how God does it.

By faith we understand that the universe was made at God's command, so that what is seen was not made of what was visible. (Hebrews 11:3)

Here's Hebrews 11:1-3 in the New International Edition: The heading is "Faith"
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.
By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

It's completely unclear that this means that God created the universe from nothing. Since the passage is about faith in things we cannot see, its point is that God's creating the universe is something we cannot see but must have faith in. Whether God did this from nothing or did this from things we simply do not or cannot observe, the passage does not say. Here's the next quotation:

This grace was given in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time. (2 Timothy 1:9)

There are two or three quotations along these lines. The quotation is just asserting that God has a plan for us; it's clearly not a literal claim about the nature or method of God's creation. So, it's easily possible that this is just a metaphorical way of saying that God has always had that plan for us. So, let's cut to the real evidence. Is God portrayed in the Bible as a being existing outside time and space?

Let's look at Genesis:
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2: 7)

And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (2: 8-9)

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (2: 15-17)

Adam and Eve, after eating of that fruit:
And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? (3: 8-9)

This is clearly an anthropomorphic conception of God, not a God who exists outside time and space. He speaks, walks, breathes, and makes mistakes. I only had to look in the first book of Genesis to find this, so it's obviously not hard to find evidence disconfirming Ross's claim. Just for additional evidence, I thought about other places where God is described in the Bible so I looked in Exodus where God talks to Moses.

And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet; for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God (Exodus 3: 3-8)

Here God talks from a burning bush, and Moses looks away so as not to see God's face. Clearly, if God has a face, he exists in space and time, and cannot be the transcendental figure that Ross thinks the Bible describes him as. I'm not going to bother looking for more passages; it only took a few moments to find this stuff. On the contrary, one has to search assiduously and interpret generously in order to find anything in the Bible that doesn't involve a God existing in space and time, in which God is not anthropomorphized.

It's possible that the New Testament has a more abstract concept of God, but I'm not sure if that's true given that Jesus is supposed to be the only begotten son of God. If God can have sex with Mary, he must exist in space and time.

It's clear that Ross's interpretation of the Bible is an act of pure desperation that stretches the meaning of a few ambiguous or unclear passages into a conception of God that conforms to what he takes to be the scientific evidence for God's existence while, at the same time, ignoring the vast majority of the Biblical passages involving God in which God exists in space and time rather than transcending them.

There's not much more to this chapter. Ross describes several arguments by scientists, but it is in reality a parade of strawmen. I'll only mention two examples. He says Victor Stenger's position is that self-organizing principle account for development of the universe. Then criticizes Stenger on the grounds that "Not one single example of significant self-generation or self-organization can be found in the entire realm of nature. In fact nature shows just the opposite. Without causation nothing happens and without organization by an intelligent being, systems tend toward lower and lower levels of complexity" (p. 78).

There are actually two claims being made. The first is that the Big Bang generates itself. I do not know how Stenger understands this claim because Ross does not even bother explaining it. Ross does attempt to refute the second claim. The second claim is that systems in nature self-organize; and Ross is just wrong about the existence of self-organization. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is evolution, but self-organizing systems--systems in which order arises because of energy external to the system enters it--are common in nature. I won't bore you with a list.

The second response to his Big Bang proves God argument is Adolf Grunbaum's. Grunbaum claims that Ross's view of a time before time. This, Ross quotes Grunbaum, "presupposes some completely fictitious super-time for which no evidence at all has been given" (p. 76). Ross thinks this is erroneous since Grunbaum does not understand time. Ross then refers back to his claim that God caused effects before our time dimension existed. How reasserting his claim about a second kind of time without the explanation or proof of its existence that Grunbaum demands is supposed to accomplish anything I don't know. Then, to my amusement, he claims that the atheist responses are feeble. Pot, meet kettle, as they say.

In sum, Ross expends considerable effort finding passages that might be interpreted as revealing a God who exists outside our time and space dimensions while ignoring virtually every other passage in the Bible since they do not fit his conception. Finally, he attempts to respond to arguments against his view but completely fails to give convincing counterarguments.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hugh Ross, Creator and the Cosmos, Chapters 3-9

Typically when you have a crappy argument, you need to spend a lot of time focusing on the some part of the argument that you can establish, so no one recognizes the huge flaws in the rest of your argument. Suppose you are arguing that there is an afterlife, and you have some empirical evidence for near-death experiences that cannot yet be explained in natural terms, you emphasize the failure of scientific explanations and skip quickly past the part of the argument that because we do not know why humans have some experiences, those experiences must be supernatural. Ross utilizes that argumentative strategy in the bulk of this book. He spends most of his time playing up the evidence for a Big Bang and a beginning of the universe and neglects to show how this evidence proves the existence of God. Perhaps because he thinks it is obvious, but I think this is how he thinks the argument goes.

1. Everything that has a beginning in time must have a cause ("a beginner" he says).
2. The universe had a beginning in time.
3. Therefore the universe must have a cause.

It's not clear that the first premise is true. On the quantum level, some events occur without a cause although there are probabilities that some such event will occur. However, the main problem with this premise is that since time only exists when there is matter, the universe had a beginning in time but could not have had a cause because there was no time before the beginning of the universe in which the cause could have occurred.

We can see the problem with this argument by noting that if there was a beginning in time, then God must have had a beginning in time, and, according to premise 1, must have a cause. Yet it is absurd to think that there is a cause of God's existence. Hence, the first premise of Ross's argument must be false.

Weirdly, Ross recognizes that God cannot have caused the universe by preceding it in time as we understand causation to work but "predated" the universe in a different time dimension. This is both meaningless and special pleading. It is special pleading because Ross specifically ridicules others who propose ways in which the universe might have existed before the Big Bang yet he appeals to such a "time before time" for his own hypothesis. Moreover if it is possible for there to be additional dimensions in time in which causes can occur, then there is no reason to think that the universe has a beginning in time. So, with no beginning in time, Ross's entire argument for the existence of God, based on there being a first moment in time, is unsound. In that case, the second premise in the argument above is false on Ross's understanding of this other dimension in time.

It's no wonder, then, that Ross spends most of his time on the evidence for a Big Bang. That can be supported with evidence. And, importantly, this gives Ross's argument a veneer of scientific respectability. But the further argument cannot be, and he spends almost no time discussing the argument above, and so does not address the obvious problems with such claims.

Ross does rely heavily on the authority of scientists, especially with respect to belief in God. It is always possible that his quotes are mined--taken out of context to appear to show something other than they actually mean--but it's possible that some cosmologists believe in God. However, it's not likely that Ross really wants to consider scientific authorities as counting for or against belief in God since scientists generally are much less religious, and the higher the status of the scientist the less religious they tend to be. Here's a brief description of a 1998 study of elite scientists, members of the National Academy of Sciences and their relative belief in God. They found that 7% of NAS members had a personal belief in God while 72% personally disbelieved. If Ross wants to play dualing scientists, using some potentially undistinguished scientists chosen only because they agree with him, against the survey of the most distinguished scientists in America, he will lose convincingly.

In sum, Ross spends a great deal of time reviewing the research on cosmology that supports a finite universe with a beginning in time. Then he turns around and hypothesizes that there is a time before the beginning in order to allow God to have created the universe. Thus, the argument he presents undermines the conclusion he wants to derive from it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Creationist Hugh Ross's Creator and the Cosmos Chapter 2

This post is part 2 in my excessively careful evaluation of the claims of Hugh Ross in his book, The Creator and the Cosmos. In my discussion of the first chapter I noted that Ross makes basic philosophical mistakes about meaning and morality that led him to interpret the scientific evidence in conformity with these biases.

Chapter 2: My Skeptical Journey

In this chapter Ross recounts an undoubtedly fictionalized account of his quest for knowledge in the world's philosophy and religions. I say that this must be fictionalized because he claims to have read the holy books of other, unnamed religions before he looked into Christianity (and the Judeo-Christian tradition). Perhaps Ross is a space alien visiting from some distant planet, but no person from a modern Western nation would look into Christianity last.

What did Ross find in these philosophers?
"[C]ircular arguments, inconsistencies, contradictions and evasions" (p. 15).

What did Ross find in these other holy books? He found:
"[S]tatements clearly at odds with established history and science. I also noted a writing style perhaps best described as esoteric, mysterious, and vague. My great frustration was having to read so much in these books to find something stated specifically enough to be tested. The sophistry and incongruity with established facts seems opposite to the Creator's character as suggested to me by nature" (p. 15).

These are examples of Ross's own inconsistency in his evaluation of evidence. These would be, and may be, good criticisms of some philosophers and religions but they apply as much to the Bible as any of these other sources.

Nonetheless, when Ross stumbles across a Bible, he finds to his shock that it is perfectly accurate.

I discovered the same thing when I first encountered a Bible. It read:

For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge germ springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away. And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death's inexorable decree.

Sorry, that's Bertrand Russell's A Free Man's Worship. I looked at my library again.

In the beginning there was an explosion. Not an explosion like those familiar on earth, starting from a definite center and spreading out to engulf more and more of the circumambient air, but an explosion which occurred simultaneously everywhere, filling all space from the beginning with every particle of matter rushing apart from every other particle...
At about one-hundredth of a second...the temperature of the universe was about a hundred thousand million degrees centigrade. This is much hotter than even the center of the hottest star, so hot, in fact, that none of the components of ordinary matter, molecules, or atoms, or even the nuclei of atoms, could have held together. Instead, the matter rushing apart in this explosion consisted of various types of so-called elementary particles...
As the explosion continued the temperature dropped, reaching thirty thousand million degrees Centigrade after about one-tenth of a second; ten thousand million degrees after about one second; and three thousand million degrees after about fourteen seconds. This was cool enough so that electrons and positrons began to annihilate faster than they could be recreated out of the photons and neutrinos. The energy released in this annihilation of matter temporarily slowed the rate at which the universe cooled, but the temperature continued to drop, finally reaching one thousand million degrees at the end of the first three minutes. It was then cool enough for the protons and neutrons to begin to form into complex nuclei...
This matter continued to rush apart, becoming steadily cooler and less dense. Much later, after a few thousand years, it would become cool enough to form atoms of hydrogen and helium. The resulting gas would begin under the influence of gravitation to form clumps which would ultimately condense to form the galaxies and stars of the present universe.

Oh, wait. That's Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes. And it's not very theistic. I tried again.

In the beginning God created dates. And he saw that the date was Monday, July 4, 4004 BC. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And when there was Light, God saw the Date, that it was Monday, and he got down to work; for verily, he had a Big Job to do. And God made pottery shards and Silurian mollusks and pre-Cambrian limestone strata; and flints and Jurassic Mastodon tusks and Picanthropus erectus skulls and Cretacious placentals made he; and those cave paintings at Lasceaux. And that was that for the first Work Day. And God saw that he had made many wondrous things, but that he had not wherein to put it all. And God said, Let the heavens be divided from the earth and let us bury all of these Things which we have made in the earth; but not too deep.

Well, that's at least potentially consistent with the evidence, but, unfortunately for Ross, it's not the Bible but instead Not the Bible. So what does the Bible say and is it consistent with our scientific knowledge and the concept of God and God's creation that Ross wants? Here's the first book of Genesis.

1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
6 And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

Ross asserts that the amazing things about this account is its order and coherence, and that it is the only religious account of God creating the universe from nothing. Clearly, creation from nothing is not in Genesis. Before God creates the universe "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters." Before the creation there was a formless, watery chaos (this concept of origins is actually borrowed from Babylonian mythology), and God created the universe from that chaos.

How about God saying, "Let there be light"? Isn't that God creating a big bang? Not likely, God doesn't say, "Let there be an explosion." But more important, this conception of light is a concept of light pervading the universe without the sun as the source of that light. It is not in any way comparable to an incredibly high temperature explosion. Moreover, it says that God calls the light day, but that makes a hash of the idea that God saying "Let there be light" is God creating the Big Bang since he wouldn't call the Big Bang "Day".

It's obvious that the rest of this story is not accurate, but just to emphasize the point: "And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’" Seriously, Ross thinks that there is a dome separating the land on earth from the waters around us, in the oceans, and the water above us held back by the dome? And that this claim is supported by scientific research? Maybe God only left the dome up for a while and took it down later when the water had drained away a bit. There's really no point in trying to refute Ross's claim since it so patently flies in the face of even the most basic scientific view of the world; one can only ridicule Ross's claim. Yet Ross concludes after his "skeptical" review of the Bible, "I had been unsuccessful in finding a single provable error or contradiction" (p. 16). I must suppose he did not read past the first paragraph (and even there it's not so much that there are no errors but that they are not easily provable).

One last piece of evidence cited by Ross is his calculation of the "probability of the chance fulfillment of thirteen Bible predictions about specific people and their specific actions" (p. 16). Ross does not even summarize his method or predictions but only refers to another work. This appears to be more an attempt to sell another book than to do serious scholarship. At any rate, since he says nothing about the predictions, we can say only a couple of things about how people interpret them. First, if you select the predictions you want to test and ignore others, then you can select the accurate ones and thereby make the Bible appear to be a reliable source.

Second, I have serious doubts about the accuracy of whatever his specific predictions are. The error that is most likely to occur is what psychologists call "subjective validation". One takes certain events that have happened and then interprets the prediction in a way that makes the prediction accurate. The technique called cold reading, when a psychic does it, relies on the same error. For example, John Edward might say, "I'm getting an 'M' name. . ." and the people in his audience fill that vague prediction in with a specific name, "Yes, my father was named Michael." It is this way that people make Nostradamus' basically meaningless verses into prescience. So whatever predictions Ross chose, it's most likely that he filled in a vague prediction with some event that could be understood to fit it.

Third, some of the "predictions" in the Bible are not even predictions but written after the events under the pretense that they had been written at an earlier time. It's easy to make predictions about things that have already happened. If I asserted that this post was written in 2000 and predicted a devastating terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, then that would seem like eerie accuracy but for the fact that my prediction came after the fact. Here's a source that explains this for the so-called predictions in the book of Daniel. There's no way to know what Ross has in mind as evidence, but we certainly should not take his word for these implausible claims.

In sum, the second chapter of Ross's book is supposed to explain how he was led to his fundamental commitment to Christianity. Alas, his confidence in this evidence is absurdly misguided, and his attempts to bolster it with the supposed accuracy of predictions which he does explain cannot be considered evidence.

Creationist Hugh Ross's Creator and the Cosmos, Chapter 1

One of my students lent me a book, The Creator and the Cosmos, by old-earth creationist Hugh Ross that argues that contemporary science directly supports all the claims in the Bible. Just for fun, I am going to critique Ross's claims one chapter at a time. My short take is that the book is a mix of intellectual inconsistency, willful ignorance, often bizarre misinterpretations of evidence, poor argumentation, strawmen, and wishful thinking.

Chapter 1: The Awe-Inspiring Night Sky

Ross starts off laying out his fundamentalist Christians presuppositions and biases. He claims that:
[i]f the universe not created or in some manner accidental, then it has no objective meaning, and consequently, life, including human life, has no objective meaning. A mechanical chain of events determines everything. Morality and religion may be temporarily useful but are ultimately irrelevant. The Universe (capital U) is ultimate reality.

On the other hand, if the universe is created, then there must be reality beyond the confines of the universe. The Creator is that ultimate reality and wields authority over everything else. The Creator is the source of life and establishes its meaning and purpose. The Creator's personality establishes its personality. The Creator's character defines morality (p. 10).

These claims are utter nonsense. Neither meaning of life, even objective meaning, nor morality depends on a creator. Philosophers have nearly all thought that morality does not depend on God at least since Plato's Euthyphro. Socrates asks Euthyphro whether the gods love the pious because it is pious or whether something is pious because the gods love it. Euthyphro immediately selects the first option: things are good independently of God (or the gods) or God's character or command. But why is this so obviously the best answer?

Perhaps the best argument that morality does not depend on God comes from Leibniz. If morality depends on God's command, then God can have no reason to prefer one command over any other; God's commands are arbitrary since they could be based on nothing themselves. If this were the source of morality, it could only be the morality of a bully, that one should do what the bully wants because he/she has the power to enforce it. It would make no sense to praise God for being good since God's commands would be equally good no matter what God's commands were.

These considerations basically refute the idea that morality depends on God's character just as well as they do the Divine Command theory. No one could praise God for having a good character because no matter what character God had, it would be equally good. We could not say, "God dislikes murder because it is wrong," but only "Murder is wrong because God dislikes it." But then God's preferences--indications of God's character--are arbitrary.

Two final points (from Rachels' Elements of Moral Philosophy) against the divine command (character) theory. First, it is utterly mysterious how God's character could determine morality. How could God having a murder-hating character make murder wrong? If we found out that God did not like murder, we might decide to go along with God on it from fear of punishment or hope for reward, but those are not moral reasons at all. But there is no way to make sense of the idea that God's character determines morality. Second, there are good reasons to be morally good and avoid moral evil. If we judge moral right and wrong only on the basis of God's character, we miss the important facts about benefits and harms to people.

The question about meaning is more complex question, but Ross's claim is equally wrongheaded. First, he conflates meaning and purpose. It's not clear what the meaning of life is, but it does not depend on our creation by a being with a purpose in mind for us. Nor does it depend on our having an eternal afterlife.

Having an eternal afterlife is completely irrelevant to whether this current life is meaningful. Whatever fact there is about the afterlife (e.g. it is pleasurable, it connects us to God, it provides opportunity for morally important goals that we are committed to) that would make it meaningful, could equally be available to people in this life. If an eternal life could be meaningful, then a finite life could also be meaningful.

God's purpose for our life is equally irrelevant to the meaning of our lives. Suppose a mad scientist creates a being in a laboratory with the goal of making that person a slave who cleans the scientist's lab equipment. Or suppose the scientist wants this creation to run around stupidly in circles, banging his head and chanting songs of praise for his creator. That would be a meaningless life if any life is despite the person clearly having a creator who had a purpose for his existence. So if God having a purpose for creation is to be meaningful, it must be a meaning that is independently meaningful. Just as in the morality case, God would not give us meaning by creating us, but would have to create us with an independent meaning. If God created us only to provide food for worms, then that would not make our lives meaningful. Moreover, if God is morally good, God could not treat humans only as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. But if God tried to give us meaning by creating us only for his purposes, then God would be treating humans as means only. In order for us to have meaning in our lives, God would have to create us with a meaning already.

Ross's misunderstanding of basic philosophy is not only a mistake in itself but also leads to biases in his understanding of the evidence from physics and cosmology. If one goes into an evaluation of evidence with a preconceived view of the matter. Ross knows what his interpretation must show before he even considers that evidence; he has a conclusion and is determined to find the evidence to fit it. And it is little wonder given this confession that this is what he proceeds to do in the rest of his book.

Brief Hiatus for Birth of Unpublishable Baby

The Unpublishable spouse and I have just had a child, our son Corwin, on September 29. I will try to start blogging again soon.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Andrew Sullivan on the Problem of Evil

It's always nice to see philosophy appear in popular culture. Andrew Sullivan makes brief mention of a good discussion of the problem of evil from Russell Blackford.

Russell Blackford argues that the paradox of suffering requires one to become an atheist. He writes that the "intellectually honest response, painful though it may be, is to stop believing in that God":

[M]ost of the supposed explanations of evil make sense only in a pre-scientific setting. They are now absurdly implausible even at face value. In particular, most of the suffering that there has been on this planet took place long before human beings even existed. An all-powerful God did not need any of this. It could have created the world in a desirable form without any of it just by thinking, "Let it be so!" That's what being all-powerful is about, if we take it seriously.

I have never found the theodicy argument against faith convincing. My own faith teaches me that suffering is part of a fallen creation that lives and dies - how could it not be? But it also teaches me that suffering in itself can be a means of letting go to God, of allowing Him to take over, of recognizing one's own mortality and limits. That to me is not some kind of crutch. It is simply the paradox of the cross.

This is amusingly nonsensical (including his misuse of the term "theodicy"), but the interesting point here is that we have a theological argument based on purely fictitious events. This is like making your anecdotal argument based on stories that aren't even true in the first place. (This formulation is based on Al Franken's discussion, from Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot, of Ronald Reagan and others doing this.) How can events that never happened--humanity's sin and fall from grace--justify harms to humanity that our current free choices can neither cause nor prevent?

Perhaps the snake and the Garden of Eden story is metaphorical, and that the fall is not something that happened in a mythical past, but something we are constantly experiencing as we exercise, and misuse, our free will. That might work as a justification for moral evil (evil caused by human action), but it makes no sense as a response to natural evil (evil caused by events, such as earthquakes etc. beyond the control of any human).

The appeal to faith, to belief in something even though it makes no sense--"the paradox of the cross"--is the last refuge of the incompetent.

Imagine a dialog: "Believe in me, I am God!" "If you're God, can you cure my cancer?" "No, I won't, that's the mystery of faith."

If one does not have an answer, one can always appeal to faith but such an appeal is intellectually and morally bankrupt.

I suppose the idea is that our inability to answer these questions is supposed to show not that we should doubt the existence of God, but that we are limited and imperfect beings and should put our trust in God to make decisions for us. If someone actually believed this, I'm not sure what one could say since that person would also be giving up his/her reasoning capacity. Perhaps I should convince that person that I am God? But, fortunately, no one believes this. Can one criticize Dick Cheney for sponsoring torture? Or should one put faith in God that all this is really for the best? I think the answer is obvious to everyone, but no one wants to face the consequences of this thought, so they mouth some platitude about "paradoxes" and go back to thinking of other things. This is what Socratic self-examination is all about, and why it will always be unpopular.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oklahoman Ignorance

I was prompted to write this set of responses to a survey by the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs. The point of the survey is to demonstrate the complete lack of knowledge of Oklahoma public school students. Before I do anything else, here are the questions, the correct answers and the fake Okie answers.

1. What is the supreme law of the land?
2. What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?
3. What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?
4. How many justices are on the Supreme Court?
5. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
6. What ocean is on the east coast of the United States?
7. What are the two major political parties in the United States?
8. We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?
9. Who was the first President of the United States?
10. Who is in charge of the executive branch?

The correct answers are in fact:
1. The supreme law of the land in America is the golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.
2. Not worth the paper they're printed on.
3. Two parts of US Congress are the dumbfucks and the whiny little shits.
4. This is a trick question; the correct answer is that there is no justice on the US Supreme Court.
5. This one is oversimplified but ok.
6. This is also a trick question; there are no oceans on the east coast or on any coast. Oceans abut, are beside, next-to or are adjacent to coasts but are not on top of them.
7. Same as answer #3.
8. We elect them for as long as they want to be there or until they have sex with one or more of the following: a prostitute, a farm animal, another man in a men's room, their assistant, a lobbyist, or a lover in Argentina. Just kidding, the only one that rules you out is the farm animal, and that's only if you're caught.
9. Washington is actually the correct answer here too.
10. The executive branch is run by a collection of powerful economic interests who pull the strings of someone elected from a group of nearly-identical candidates who will continue to do the bidding of exactly those interests (with some minor variation in which interests have the greatest influence).

The correct answers from the conservative Oklahoman perspective:
1. The Bible
2. The Right to Bear Arms and toilet paper
3. Us (Republicans) and Them (the Other)
4. Scalia and Thomas--the rest have already been impeached in citizen tribunals
5. God
6. Liberal, east coast elite oceans that deserve to be pumped for oil
7. Us--Republicans; there is only one political party in Oklahoma
8. Forever if they're Republicans; never if they're democRats
9. Newt Gingrich (but also God)
10. Dick Cheney (and don't forget God)

I was led to this by a discussion on Balloonjuice. Many there noted, the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs is a right-wing group committed to undermining public education in OK. That doesn't mean that their statistics are wrong, but I would not place my trust in them doing a proper survey given that they are trying to show OK students to be ignorant boobs. Also, I wouldn't be surprised if people like the OCPA are responsible for 11% of Oklahoma students thinking that the two major political parties are Communists and Republicans. The shocking and fishy nature of the results led me to look more closely at the methodology.

Fishy results
There are really two fishy parts to the results. (And these were noted several times on the Balloonjuice thread, so pardon the repetition.) First, the percentage of answers to these supposedly open-ended questions always added up to 100%. It's possible that the other answers that did not fit those categories sometimes exactly equalled a roundoff error in the other answer totals, but it's statistically unbelievable that this would happen 10 times in a row.

Second, the odds that one would not find at least one minimally competent student (who could answer 8/10 or more) are vanishingly unlikely in a true random sample of 1000 people. Can you imagine that the top 1% of high school students would not answer at least 8 of these correctly? What are the odds of not getting 1 person in the top 1%? That's .99 to the 1000th power. That's a tiny number. And no one scored more than 7. Do you think people in the top 10% could score 8/10? The odds of having none of them are .9 to the 1000th power. I've only got the crappy computer calculator, but that's gotta be getting on toward infinitesimal. So why didn't anyone score that high? And, again, there's no roundoff error. The totals equalled 100% for all the total answers. So the total who got any 8, 9 or 10 correct answers is less than .05%, and the total of those three numbers of correct answers has to be approximately that low for there to be no roundoff error in their totals.

Research methods
First, it was a telephone survey. They do not say how they acquired the names and phone numbers or how the numbers were selected. Do they know that their survey covered only Oklahoma public high school students? More importantly, what kind of incentive does anyone have to answer thoughtfully a phone survey. The last one I received was a push poll on the nutritional benefits and gustatory delights of beans. If I didn't hang up on these jokers, I might not give them much in the way of answers. A real test would give them time and an incentive to get the answers right. In fact, there are whole chunks of government that try to acquire this information about students.

Their reason for not using the NAEP is that it does not give state-by-state breakdowns. Actually, it doesn't appear to give them for civics although it does for reading, writing, science and mathematics. The main problem with their using the NAEP is that it doesn't give them easy fodder for pulling out embarrassing anecdotal data. "Look, 70% of X didn't know that . . . " is scarier than, "Look, Oklahoma is not statistically significantly below the national average on a range of questions about. . . " So, while it might be nice to get a better handle on what those scores mean, this survey is not the way to get it.

Second, the questions are vague or ambiguous. The OCPA claims that the questions came from a list of citizenship questions from the government, but it is a private "About.com" site. Many other questions on that site are poorly worded and outright baffling. The first 7 questions all relate to the flag, and only two of those are about the significance of the symbolism in the flag. Further, several of the ten questions that the OCPA claims came from that list of 100 questions is not even on the list.

The ones that are on the list are:
1. What is the supreme law of the land? (Except the original says, "What is the supreme court law. . . "--I don't really know what that means.)
2. What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?
4. How many justices are on the Supreme Court?
5. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? (Sort of--see below)
7. What are the two major political parties in the United States?
8. We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years? (Except the original says, "For how long do we elect each senator?")
9. Who was the first President of the United States?

The ones that are not on the list are:
3. What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?
6. What ocean is on the east coast of the United States?
10. Who is in charge of the executive branch?

The question about the author of the Declaration of Independence is clearer on the original list. Original: Who is the main writer of the Declaration of Independence? OCPA: Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? Of course, since Jefferson was not the sole, but only the main, author, one may reasonably say "Jefferson" for the first question and "I do not know" (there being no unique right answer) to the second.

Finally, the source doesn't look that great either since it calls the Emancipation Proclamation the Emancipation Declaration (question #69). That's not a good sign.
I do not know that this factor undermines the study, but it does not increase my confidence in the quality of the study.

"How long do we elect Senators?" That should be "What is the (constitutionally mandated) length of a senator's term in office?" Or something like that. This question assumes that "We" elect them. I never elected any Senators when I was in OK, and they served a helluva lot longer than one term most of the time, so "we" elected them for more than six years. I'm not saying this unclarity completely explains the weird answers, but it suggests that the survey was not done with the strictest of standards.

"Who is in charge of the executive branch?" is similarly unclear. Supposing this means the executive branch of the federal government, one may still have doubts about who exactly is in charge (whether it is really, or only nominally, the president). One might also think that the answer to this question ought to be the people of the U.S. whom the chief executive is supposed to represent. In any case, this question is simply not phrased precisely enough to avoid misunderstanding, and that's true of almost all the questions.

In summary, this survey is poorly done with an unknown means of selecting subjects, with poor or unclear wording on many questions, which was done over the telephone and thus provided no incentive for students to care about the questions. There is simply no way to conclude much of anything about the Oklahoma high school students' knowledge of civics from this survey. The obvious bias of those who commissioned the survey may have played some role in its poor quality, and there is even some reason to think that the results (in many ways too perfect) have been doctored. I make no claims about the intelligence or knowledge of Oklahoma high school students, but this survey does not prove anything about them.