“Doublethink” is the Test of a First-Rate Intelligence


Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.
George Orwell, “1984”

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

ergo

Doublethink is the test of a first-rate intelligence.

Q.E.D.

Homosexuality is Unnatural


“Homosexuality is unnatural” is the first line of defense of gay marriage opponents.  I used to think so too, just because I’m straight. But what does “unnatural” mean?  “Unnatural” is the opposite of “natural”.  Depending on the context, “natural” can mean a number of things.

“Natural” can refer to something occurring in nature, without human participation.  “Unnatural” in this context means something man-made, something that can be seen only when humans are involved, something that would never develop without human participation.  If homosexuality is unnatural in this context, one would not observe it in wild animals.  A simple search on Wikipedia on “homosexual behavior in animals” reveals this.  Oh, My God!  Just a short list of “homosexual offenders” in the animal world:

Not the bed bugs! I was particularly impressed by the documented case of homosexual necrophilia in mallards.  Here is the link to the original paper PDF.  The author, Kees Moeliker, also made a TED talk about this interesting case with a few additional details, such as an example of a frog engaging in an oral sex with a live goldfish.  This paper and this video come to my mind each time someone uses the word “unnatural”.

Bed bugs, dragonflies, and lizards having homosexual affairs also destroy the myth that homosexual behavior is a choice unless we want to claim that dragonflies have consciousness and can choose what they do.  If God created dragonflies, he must have created homosexuality too.  Can dragonflies sin?

This video in Russian called “Homo sapiens – homosexuality in humans and animals” (you can turn on English subtitles) mentions that homosexual behavior is observed in over 1500 species!  It also shows many interesting examples of the contexts and reasons of it showing that the function of sex is not only reproduction, even in the animal world.

So, it’s not just a “fluke” of nature.  A random event with a negligible probability of observing.  Homosexuality in nature is very common. So, one cannot use “not observed in nature” definition to claim that homosexuality is unnatural.

But there are other meanings of “natural” and “unnatural”.  For example, people may say that “it is natural for the sun to rise in the morning and set in the evening”.  This simply means something commonly observed.   It’s a synonym of “normal”.  So, something not commonly observed or regularly done is identified as “unnatural” or “abnormal”.  “It is unnatural for me to wake up at 3 am” simply means that I normally do not do it. Perhaps, this is what most straight people mean when they say that homosexuality is unnatural.  First of all, other people can regularly do things that I would never do and it would be natural for them.  What is commonly observed in one area or culture can be very uncommon in another.  Even the sun does not rise and set every day in summer or in winter in areas close to the poles.  “Water boils at 100C” is only true at the sea level and on Earth.  On Mars, water does not normally boil at all.  It’s too cold.  This means, we only call homosexuality “unnatural” or “abnormal” because we don’t observe it too often.  But is it a good reason to oppose homosexual marriages?  We don’t see redheads too often as well.  Shall we call red hair a “genetic abnormality” and ban them from marriage also?  Claiming that homosexuality is “abnormal”, that it’s a “genetic deviation”, a “disease” of some sort, seems bogus.  When “unnatural” is used in the sense of an uncommon behavior, opposition to gay marriage is based in mere tradition.  “It has always been this way” (followed by the quotes from Genesis).

Sometimes, “unnatural” means “immoral”.  E.g. “It is unnatural to steal and kill.”  But declaring homosexuality unnatural because it is immoral and immoral because it is unnatural does not make a lot of sense.  One of the two has to be defined using different terms to avoid circular reasoning.

Sometimes, “unnatural” means “disgusting” or “repulsive”.  In this sense, “unnatural” means something a person would not normally do (see notes about “normal” – “abnormal” above).

Bottom line.  Some definitions of “unnatural” do not hold water with respect to homosexuality.  Others lead to circular reasoning.  Those that cannot be refuted, are reduced to 1) physical disgust or 2) tradition, often based in religion.

What other meanings of “natural” and “unnatural” have you seen?  My advice: avoid using words “natural” and “unnatural” in any debates.  In my experience, the most common source of misunderstanding in discussions comes from using different, unclear, or too broad contexts for common words.  Some people claim all we see around us is nature, therefore everything is natural.  Some people believe in supernatural.  If the supernatural is not natural, i.e. unnatural, then God is unnatural too.  “Careful the things you say, children will listen.

Did Your Ears Hear What Your Mouth Just Said?


Has your own language played tricks with you recently?  I’m talking about those cases when you say something and a second later you realize that people understand something completely different.  It happened to me twice last week, and I thought it’s an interesting topic to write about.

I bought an item for $5 in a store.  Gave the cashier a $20 bill.  She gave me $10 and $5 back.  I said, “Can you, please, give me five dollar bills?”  What do you think I meant and what do you think she heard?  I needed a few one-dollar bills to give someone two dollars.  She thought, I wanted the change in five-dollar bills and gave me three five-dollar bills instead of $10 and $5.  It took me about three attempts to formulate what I wanted unambiguously: “Can you, please, give me five one-dollar bills?”

Now, what do you think is shown in this picture?

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Two couches side-by-side.  Right?  “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”

Taking fragments out of context is another interesting topic.

Negative Capability


Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason Negative capability – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Stumbled upon this quote from John Keats.  Interesting concept.  It describes the ability of the individual to perceive, think, and operate beyond any presupposition of […]

Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris


Search your mind, or pay attention to the conversations you have with other people, and you will discover that there are no real boundaries between science and philosophy—or between those disciplines and any other that attempts to make valid claims about the world on the basis of evidence and logic. When such claims and their methods of verification admit of experiment and/or mathematical description, we tend to say that our concerns are “scientific”; when they relate to matters more abstract, or to the consistency of our thinking itself, we often say that we are being “philosophical”; when we merely want to know how people behaved in the past, we dub our interests “historical” or “journalistic”; and when a person’s commitment to evidence and logic grows dangerously thin or simply snaps under the burden of fear, wishful thinking, tribalism, or ecstasy, we recognize that he is being “religious.”

via Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris.

Harris seems to rant that people interpret science too narrowly.   While at it, he reduces religion to a mere lack of commitment to evidence and logic, wishful thinking, tribalism, extacy, and inability to think coherently under fear.  But these are not defining attributes of religiosity.  Many people exhibit these attributes, religious or not (as we will see below).  Mr. Harris seems to attack a “straw man”.  It’s very unlikely that Harris is unfamiliar with this common fallacy implying that he uses it deliberately.  Twisting definitions to conform to one’s beliefs seems to be the very practice Sam Harris appears to criticize.

Confusion on this point has spawned many strange ideas about the nature of human knowledge and the limits of “science.” People who fear the encroachment of the scientific attitude—especially those who insist upon the dignity of believing in one or another Iron Age god—will often make derogatory use of words such as materialism, neo-Darwinism, and reductionism, as if those doctrines had some necessary connection to science itself.
This is the first time I hear that “materialism”, “neo-Darwinism”, and “reductionism” are “derogatory terms”.  Why does anybody need to be insulted when things are called what they are?
I, personally, do fear the encroachment of science into politics and morality, but not for religious reasons.  I am fairly convinced that moral rules cannot be established by scientific experiment, in principle.  Such view would be in gross contradiction with Harris’ own views.  If we admit that there are absolute, objective, undeniable, universal moral values, then we must admit that the physical universe has a purpose and can impose moral judgement on humans.  Essentially, such belief is belief in a weird “scientific” version of God and give scientists the status of high priests to declare moral values as “scientific truths proven with evidence”.
If we allow morality to be established by scientific experiment, we can easily demonstrate that killing sick and elderly eliminates the need and expenses for healthcare and social benefits, thus making society much healthier and wealthier (of course, if we agree that health and wealth constitute “wellbeing”, otherwise we will need to find scientific evidence that they do).
What’s the evidence for “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…”?  It’s an obvious falsity.  The evidence shows that some men are tall and some are short, some are black  and some are white, some are wise and some believe that science can prove moral values.
Regarding reductionism:
If there were evidence that complex systems produced phenomena that cannot be understood in terms of their constituent parts, it would be possible to be a neo-Darwinist without being a reductionist. For all practical purposes, that is where most scientists find themselves, because every branch of science beyond physics must resort to concepts that cannot be understood merely in terms of particles and fields. Many of us have had “philosophical” debates about what to make of this explanatory impasse. Does the fact that we cannot predict the behavior of chickens or fledgling democracies on the basis of quantum mechanics mean that those higher-level phenomena are something other than their underlying physics? I would vote “no” here, but that doesn’t mean I envision a time when we will use only the nouns and verbs of physics to describe the world.

Perhaps, trying and failing to explain large systems based on properties of constituents can be construed as evidence that reductionism is not all-powerful.  It may be useful in some cases, but not in others.  Why not expand scientific method beyond reductionism instead of trying to fit square pegs into round holes?

Can quantum mechanics predict processes in society?  May be, having some facts and examples would be beneficial to establish a belief that quantum mechanics can predict fledging democracies lest we engage in “wishful thinking” and show “lack of commitment to evidence”.  A person adhering to “the highest standards of logic and evidence” might also avoid using arguments from ignorance in his reasoning.

The remedy for all this confusion is simple: We must abandon the idea that science is distinct from the rest of human rationality.
In other words, we need to abandon the  definition of science and opt for some fuzzy “highest standards of logic and reasoning” whatever it might mean.  One can use logic to explain something other than logic.  Using logic to explain logic and define the “highest standards of logic” seems to include circular reasoning and is, therefore, unreasonable.  There is a similar problem with being conscious of one’s own consciousness and thinking about one’s own thoughts.  But it’s a fine philosophical point which seems to escape the grasp of Mr. Harris’s titanic intellect.
It occurs to me that “highest standards” would require some definition.  Otherwise, it’s hard to “adhere” to them.  Usually, standards benefit from being specific.  “Highest standards” are, usually, “strict standards”, i.e. narrowly defined.
When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.

Meaning is exclusion


language can never point out anything specifically, only eliminate sets of possibilities (“possible worlds”  for the modern philosopher or logician) from our consideration. That is, language – and therefore logic – can only say what isn’t the case. And that no matter how many possibilities were excluded by language, i.e., how specific our language, an infinite number would still remain (a now well-known property of infinite sets.) If, for example, we say that a friend of ours has red hair, someone listening to us knows that our friend doesn’t have black or light blonde colored hair, but not what precise shade, of all the infinite shades of red that are possible, their hair is. Nor do they know from what we’ve said how tall, or heavy, or witty our friend is. The possibilities are still infinite.

via Logic Tutorial

tautology

Visit the link and play with those interactive diagrams.   It appears that to “say more” or “be more specific”, we need to exclude more possibilities.  If what we say does not exclude any possibilities, our language becomes meaningless. “A or not A”  does not exclude any possibilities.  It’s a meaningless tautology.  To create meaning, we need to draw lines between concepts.  We need to separate “A” from “not A”.  When we draw the line between “I” and “not I”, we become self-aware, conscious of who we are, our identity.

A few interesting associations come to mind.  Remember Genesis?

Genesis

Sorry, wrong Genesis.  This one:

Genesis

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.

I know, this does not sound like a factual account and science tells us that things may have appeared in a slightly different order.  It does not seem to make sense that earth appeared before light and light appeared before any source of it.  But what does make sense (at least, to myself) is that there is a lot of separation going on here.  And separation of “A” from “not A” creates meaning.  This is how the universe is conceived in our mind.  Separation of concepts is the beginning of self-consciousness (realizing what is “I” and “not I”) and understanding of the universe.

But how is all this related to the physical universe?  Let me note first that all these relations and separations between ideas and concepts exist only in our mind.  What seems related to me may not seem related to you.  My idea of the universe is  different from another person’s idea.  So, if you don’t see the connection, I would not argue, to be consistent with one of my fundamental beliefs.  But, if you are interested, read on.

Georges Lemaître (credit: Wikipedia)

In 1920’s, a Belgian Catholic priest Georges Lemaître  suggested based on various observations that the universe is expanding  debunking the theory that religious people are backwards and don’t get science.  Tracing this expansion back in time, one can conclude that approximately 13.7 bln. years ago, the universe was quite small and seems to have a beginning.  How close can we get to this mysterious “0 seconds” in universal time?

Quantum mechanics tells us that space and time are not continuous.  They are discrete.  There is a smallest measurable length called Planck length

According to the generalized uncertainty principle (a concept from speculative models of quantum gravity), the Planck length is, in principle, within a factor of order unity, the shortest measurable length – and no improvement in measurement instruments could change that. — Wikipedia

There is also the smallest measurable time interval called Planck time

t_P \equiv \sqrt{\frac{\hbar G}{c^5}} ≈ 5.39106(32) × 10−44 s

Within the framework of the laws of physics as we understand them today, for times less than one Planck time apart, we can neither measure nor detect any change. — Wikipedia

It seems that within the first 10−44 s of existence of the universe, we cannot detect any changes any more. The time stops.  And when the universe was, perhaps, as small as 10−35 m, we cannot measure any distances either.   It appears that the universe did not start at “0 seconds”.  It started right after the first Planck time interval.

Graphical timeline of the Big Bang (credit: Wikipedia)

What was before Planck time?  The plot says that the Planck time is

the time before which science is unable to describe the universe.  At this point, the force of gravity separated from the electronuclear force.

In other words, before Planck time, there was a complete uncertainty.  We cannot say that time, space, and matter did not exist.  We cannot say that there was “nothing” or “vacuum” — a concept requiring space.  We cannot say if anything existed.  It was complete uncertainty.

Then there was the first “tick” of the quantum clock — the second Planck time in the history of the universe.  Why did it happen?  We cannot say, it happened according to the laws of physics.  The laws of physics appeared with the first tick.  All we can say is that, suddenly, we had all kinds of “separations”: gravity separated from electromagnetic force, “now” separated from “then”, “here” separated from “there”, “this” separated from “that”, light from darkness, etc.  Suddenly, there is meaning, there are laws of physics, there is structure, there is order.  “Creation of the universe” was not a transition from “nothing” to “everything”.  I believe, creation was a transition from uncertainty and chaos to certainty and structure.

“Meaning is exclusion” has another interesting implication: all-inclusive and all-exclusive concepts are meaningless.  “God created everything” is not a false statement.  It just does not have much meaning if we try to explain how something came into existence.  Omnipotence and omniscience have the same issue.  This may be a topic of a different discussion.