The Naturalistic Fallacy

Üdvözöllek skeptics,

Tonight I am going to be talking about the naturalistic fallacy. When it comes to fallacies, it doesn’t get much more fallacious than this. The naturalistic fallacy is an argument used relentlessly by naturopaths, herbalists, homeopaths, and dozens of other pseudoscientific claims. In a nut-shell, the naturalistic fallacy is the claim that something is naturally better because it is found in nature or that it contains only natural products. At almost every level, there is something wrong with the naturalistic fallacy.

The most fundamental problem with the naturalistic fallacy is that there is nothing inherently different or special about things from nature. At the chemical level, there is nothing different about the vitamin C found in oranges and vitamin C which is produced in a laboratory.
If a company creates a banana flavoured confectionery out of flavour chemicals they extracted from a banana, they can call it natural. But if they manufacture these chemicals at the factory, rather than getting the from the banana, then they can no longer call it natural. There is nothing different between the two chemicals.

Another issue with the naturalistic argument, other than the argument which says “its better because its natural”, is the one that says, “if its natural, its good.” and there is something wrong with this argument for a very basic reason. Anybody who has watched survival shows on the television knows that there are very few things you can eat in the wild. No doctor would recommend going out into the forest and eating a random plant. Most of what you find in nature is dangerous or has no benefit to eat.
Nature doesn’t care about us, there isn’t any natural selection towards plants that are safe to eat, in fact, the natural selection is towards plants which are not safe to eat.

There is no advantage to a plant for it to be safe to eat the flowers (reproductive organ) off of it. If it was tasty and safe for animals to eat the reproductive organs of a specific plant, this species would soon go extinct, because there is no way for the organisms to pass down their genes t the next generations if they cannot reproduce. Some may say “aha, what about all the plants which are safe to eat, bananas, oranges, pears, apples, strawberries, the list goes on.” and this brings up another argument against the naturalistic fallacy.

All of the foods we eat today are not the foods that were found in the wild thousands of years ago when we first started to cultivate. The banana plant which we all know and love was just a stupid, disgusting little herb thousands of years ago, not the extravagant yellow fruits we know of today. We have selectively bred our food over the years to make it tasty and safe to eat. There is cyanide in apple seeds, because thousands of years ago, before we bred them, they had a lot of cyanide on them, now they have very little in them, because of our selective breeding.
The point is that the things we think of as nature are actually our own designs, which we have sculpted over the years to be tasty, safe and look good on a plate. It’s not nature just because it comes out of the ground, and it certainly doesn’t mean we haven’t interfered with it at some time.

Food or drugs are not better because they are natural, being natural does not make them safe, and a lot of the things we thin of as natural today are not what we found in the ground thousands of years ago.

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Richard Dawkin’s Gene Analogy

përshëndetje skeptics,

I have recently started to read Richard Dawkins’ book, The Greatest Show on Earth, in Which Dawkins summates all the evidence available for evolution, and puts it in a book, trying as best as possible to explain evolution to somebody who does not agree with it. It is a very interesting book to read, with plenty of interesting examples from nature and analogies, which have enhanced my knowledge of evolution and how to explain it to others.

While I was reading, I came across an analogy which I just had to hear, which answers a question often raised in rebuttal to evolution. When talking with a creationist, the idea that genetic diversity cannot occur often comes up (in contrast to the genetic diversity of the human species from just 2 humans? But that’s another story). They say that in a population, genetic diversity cannot occur. They make an analogy with genes as paint. If you take a species, which ranges in colour from red to blue, and you go about procreating, every time you mix two animals, you will only get closer and closer to purple, and genetic diversity will shrink. Eventually, all you will be left with is purple. How can evolution happen if it works like that.

Dawkins argues that evolution does not work like this. In fact, it works quite differently. He proposes that instead of mixing paint, it is best to imagine evolution as shuffling cards. This is how evolution works, and the evidence is right in front of us.

By imagining evolution as card shuffling, it is much easier to get the idea of evolution. Instead of animals being created by mixing of paint, it is more like they are having two decks of cards shuffled together. In this way, instead of just ending up with a disgusting purple mess, you end up with the world as it is today.

This can be used to explain our tweaking of the canine species. Say for some reason a breeder wants to lengthen the tail of Labradors. When he does it, he picks the Labradors which have the most ‘long tail’ genes (cards), and goes about creating a new species. By isolating these dogs with longer tails from the dogs with shorter tails, you can ensure that more and more ‘long tail’ cards remain in the sub-species every time you shuffle the deck.

The logic behind this ‘shuffling and re-ordering’, as opposed to mixing, is actually pretty clear and is presented to us roughly every 5 seconds. When you breed a man and a woman together, one who subscribes to the ‘mixing’ analogy would expect the baby to come out as a hermaphrodite. Instead, this doesn’t happen, we get either a boy or a girl. This is just the mixing of a deck of 1 card. With one card having M on it, and one card having F on it.

Now, imagine this happening with the whole genetic code. Instead of just the one gene for gender (gender isn’t determined by genes, but it makes no difference to the analogy), you have this going on with every single gene in the code. When a baby is being ‘made’, this process will be occurring. Take a single gene in the code. If the mother has gene A, and the father has gene B, the baby will not have a mixture of A and B as their gene, they will get either ‘A’, or ‘B’. This happens all along the code.

Hopefully, I’ve done a good job at explaining this analogy, and haven’t butchered it. That’s all, by shuffling of cards, not mixing paint, with occasional cards falling out of the deck, or 2 being stuck together and coming apart due to plenty of shuffling, you get evolution.

Is God the Final Arbiter of Morality?

Ciao skeptics,

In today’s post, I am going to be talking about an argument which originally I could not find a problem with, due to the fact that it had all the bases covered. I knew there was something wrong with the argument, but I couldn’t find any holes with it. First though, some background.

In Ethics & Faith a fortnight ago, the topic for the lesson was morals, and I thought to my self how easy it would be to sweep the room, seeing how immoral the old-testament god is. I brought up the old idea asking whether or not killing 1 to save 100 is moral. He told me that killing the 1 to save 100 was immoral, and that he would do nothing, due to the fact that his bible told him to never murder. I then proposed the point that if killing 1 to save 100 is immoral, then god wiping out 2 whole cities, Sodom & Gomorrah, to stop them from a bit of rape and blasphemy must be magnitudes more moral. What he said next is the argument which stuck me up, he told me that god is the final arbiter of morality, what he says goes, and that his ways are higher than our ways.
I’d heard many Christians say before “God’s ways are higher than our ways”, but I had never heard the murder of the old-testament god justified by this cop-out. Basically telling me that god writes the rules, he can do whatever he wants because what he says goes, and that the definition of morality is god.

I immediately had to think about this one, and I could not find anything wrong with it, if you accept that god writes the rules. But both of the eventual holes I found with the argument came about during more recent discussions with the school father.

The first comes about due to a story about Jesus. When Jesus is growing up, he goes fasting in the desert for a while, and is tempted by the devil, so that he can experience the ways of humans. When I was reminded of this story, I had a light-bulb moment. If Jesus is god, and god can justify his actions due to the fact that he is god, then why doesn’t Jesus succumb to temptation and do what the devil says. I mean, it’s not a sin when Jesus does it, because god writes the rule book. Jesus can do what ever he likes, turn the stones into bread, because he can write a loop-hole in the rule book which allows him to do it. After thinking “So god can write and re-write the rules when he likes then… that reminds me of something I know” I had a second argument against this excuse of god.

The second inspirational moment I had was during school worship, when our Father told us (and god) that God is worthy of much worship and praise. Any god who can do what they want, when they want, even if it is against the rules they write, is definitely NOT worth praise!

Anybody who has ever been outside around children has met somebody who changes the rules when they like to suit them. There are people like that who still act that way into their adulthood. When you spend some time with them, you get very angry at them, and have some thoughts about them which can be summed up with “Hypocrite!”
Now imagine that this person is your god! If you knew that your god could kill you right now, as well as the rest of your family and friends, for no particular reason, and justify it by saying “Well, I write the rule book, so I can do what I want.” I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of eternity with this bloke, living by his rules, which could change at any time, whenever he wants to do something the rules don’t allow him to.

God, if he is allowed to do whatever he likes, because he writes the rules, is not going to be a very good god to live with, and is a god who I would not call god. He would be the sort of guy who would say “Do as I say, not as I do.” which is a huge sidestep on morality.

Is Democracy What people Think it is?

Hallo Skeptics,

Today’s post comes to you from a quote I read from Isaac Asimov recently which got me thinking about democracy. “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” This quote is an extremely well written way of saying what has been said for a long time by skeptics. When I saw it, it made me think about what democracy truly means. For obvious reasons, as pointed out by this quote, ignorance and knowledge are not equal in a good society.

A meme around in the religious/atheist interplay is the notion that in most cultures, the percentage of people who believe in god, and those who believe in creationism is extremely high. A study in the United States showed that 43% of Americans believe the earth was created in its current form less than 10 000 years ago. Apparently, to the religious, this points towards the truth of creationism. They say “Surely 43% of Americans can’t be wrong!”, as a good skeptic, you would immediately point this out as an argument from popularity, ad populi (latin makes you sound much smarter). No amount of belief makes something fact. The universe doesn’t care what people think, it just does what it does.

The view that many people have of democracy is that everybody has an equal say in the running of a country. However, as highlighted by Isaac Asimov’s quote,  this doesn’t seem like the right think to do. If 40% of the population believe in a talking snake, oh wait, they do, bad analogy, if 40% of  the population believe that the best thing to do in today’s evil society is flood it… Damn it, another bad analogy… if 40% of the population believes that toothpicks would be the best weapon for army soldiers, it is the job of the logical people in society to tell them that’s retarded.
A real democracy is not about having an equal say, it’s about having a fair say. And what is important about a fair say is open discussion and debate. It doesn’t matter what 40% of the population think, if they can’t defend what they think in a debate, then their fair say shouldn’t be as much of a say as those who are better at defending their position.

The ideal democracy is one with plenty of open debate and criticism of all views and opinions, and this is how society should be run.

Relative Morality and Basketball

Hello skeptics and science lovers,

Today I am going to be making an analogy between moral relativism and the NBA draft, to try to demonstrate how almost nothing can be absolutely immoral. But before I do this, I am going to have to explain the NBA draft to some of the less sporting readers.

In the NBA draft (wiki page here, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Basketball_Association_Draft), the 6 teams with the worst records for the whole season get put into a draft lottery. I’m not going to explain the exact way it happens, but the odds of a particular team getting drafted (which is determined by their win-record) happens in a descending order, with the worst team having a 25% chance of getting first pick, and the 6th worst team having a 0.5% chance of having first pick. The net total of all the odds is 100%.

I now need to talk about likeliness and unlikeliness. In mathematics, there is a scale of likelihood which ranges from ‘certain’ at 100% to ‘impossible’ at 0%, with 50% being the medium. Anything above 50% on the scale is considered ‘likely’, and anything below 50% being considered ‘unlikely’. That’s basic chance in mathematics. This is just a very crude scale though, which is important in moral relativism. Luckily though, we can apply a more knowledgeable process to find out odds. Instead of putting things into two categories, likely and unlikely, we put them on a spectrum. Once they are on this spectrum we can choose the ‘most likely’ option. It’s not necessarily ‘likely’ but it is the ‘most likely’.

Lets apply this crude chance to the NBA draft. Overall, it is ‘unlikely’ that the worst team will get the first pick, as their odds are only 25%. But it is still considered the most likely option, because it is more than any of the other possibilities. Because it is the most likely possibility, it is still considered ‘most likely’ that the worst team will get the first pick. This ‘most likely’ is important.

At this point you may be thinking “What does anything about this have to do with moral relativism?”. Well, its time to find out. If we exchange ‘likely’ with ‘moral’, and ‘unlikely’ with ‘immoral’, it is easy to see that chance and relative morality are quite similar, and it is also easy to see that absolute morality isn’t a very versatile option.

If we exchange ‘likelihood’ with ‘amount of pain caused’, you have a relative morality spectrum. at one end, you have things which are certainly moral, they cause absolutely no harm at all. At the other end, you have things which are definitely not moral, things which cause only harm.

Obviously, a lot less things fall at the ends of the spectrum in morality than they do in likelihood, but the analogy is the same. From this, we can also see that an absolute morality breaks down. In absolute morality, there is a clear division line between ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ things, which fall on either side of the spectrum.

If we apply the NBA draft to this situation, there is nothing ‘moral’ which can be done by somebody who employs absolute morality. Every single option results in something which is immoral to the absolute morality champion. If you use absolute morality, then what in the name of Zeus are you going to do? Curl up in a ball as your brain goes in to shut down? Doing nothing is the answer whenever I ask a Christian about the ‘killing 1 to save 100’ problem.

If we use moral relativism, there is an easy way out of the situation. We pick the 25% option, because it causes much less harm than the 0.5% option. In moral relativism, there is no ‘right or wrong’, like there is only ‘likely or unlikely’ in crude chance. We can apply the more knowledgeable option, and put our options onto the moral scale. By taking the 25% option, it is not necessarily ‘right’, but it is the ‘most moral’ of all the choices, so it is the choice to take.

By applying the spectrum of chance, instead of two pigeonholes, to morality, we get moral relativism. Moral relativism is a much better option than absolute morality, because it never runs into any paradoxes under any situation, there is always some way which causes less harm than another.

What do You all Think of the New Theme?

Does god see ‘absolutely’ everything?

Hi there skeptics,

Today I am going to be blogging about an issue which I originally brought up as a joke, but soon realized that it shows some serious insight into how god got started in the first place. I posted on my twitter page the following quote, “What if god saw everything including the entire EM spectrum, radio signals, gamma rays, ultraviolet and infrared light and x-rays?”. It was initially meant as a joke about god’s so-called ability to ‘see everything’, but it got me thinking… People automatically assume no, but that’s not necessarily true. Tonight I will extrapolate on this thought.

First thing I will say is this. What you see, your entire light spectrum, from red all the way through to violet, all the colours of the visible rainbow, are just a small bandwidth in the light spectrum. The colours we see all have a specific wave length, red the shortest wave length and violet the longest. But these are not the only wave lengths of light. The wave lengths shorter than red are called ‘infrared’, while the wave lengths beyond violet are called ‘ultraviolet’. Along this wave length spectrum sits everything else which is transmitted through electromagnetic waves… x-ray, gamma ray, radio waves, television signals, everything is just light that we can’t see. The reason we don’t see this light is because our eyes were not made to pick up these wave lengths.

Back to the main question.  The automatic reaction of every religious person I have asked is ‘no, of course not!’ or similar. But there is nothing special about the light we see, other than it’s the light we see. Nothing makes it different from any other light on the spectrum. It is true that it is the wavelength given off most by the sun, but the reason they correlate is because animals evolved to pick up as much light as possible from the sun. Nothing makes the light we see ‘different’ from the light we don’t see. If we ever discover other life in the universe, it is possible, most likely actually, that these lifeforms will see different wavelengths of light.

So, what does this have to do with god? Well, I think the fact that religious people straight away answer no to the question gives insight into god. I think the reason why god doesn’t see all the other light is because we created him to be just like us, but way more powerful and knowledgeable. He is just a comfort to us when we are feeling down. So of course he only sees the same light that you do, otherwise he might not get what you are talking about when you describe colours to him.

Some may respond that this is because “God created man to his own image” (Genesis 1:27). This is a weak answer because the only plausible god in today’s age is a god who has more than just an interest in humans (he has 14 billion light years of space to cater to) and would need to see more than just one tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum which happens to be visible to an insignificant planet with a few organisms on it. I think that the adverse is true, Human’s created god in their image, as comfort for them and to provide answers to unknown questions.

Could the laws of the universe be different?

Hello skeptics and other lurkers,

Today’s post again comes courtesy of a tweeter, who asked a question along the lines of this post’s title. This is a question which I have wanted to deal with for a while now, and I think that tonight is as good a time as ever for me to deal with it.

The laws of nature (as you should all know by now) are the laws which define the four fundamental forces we observe (gravity, strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetism) and the mathematical equations which describe these four forces. Most of the plight of modern particle physics is to find out as much as we can about these forces and equations, and see how it works out for the universe now, in the past and in the future, hoping to discover as much about our universe as possible, with the ultimate goal being to finish with one sum which describes all of these forces, the Theory of Everything (TOE). Last night I talked about string theory and the TOE, and this is one of the important parts in answering tonight’s question.

One of the most important ideas in particle physics is that, under extremely high energies, three of the fundamental forces (electromagnetism, strong nuclear, weak nuclear) can be united by one Grand Unified Theory (GUT) which describes all three forces. This theory has survived mathematical attempts at disproof and appears strong mathematically. This Grand Unified Theory is very important to particle physics. The hope is that, under EVEN higher temperatures and energies, this Grand Unified Theory can be combined with gravity to create the Theory of Everything. Gravity has always been a thorn in the side of physicists, and is actually the least understood and proven of all the fundamental forces, despite its obviousness in everyday life.

The hope and expectations are that gravity and the other three forces can be combined under higher temperatures to form one Theory of Everything. If it is true, as predicted by modern physics, then this has surprising implications for the four fundamental forces.

When the universe was born in the big bang, it was in a state of extreme heat, pressure and energy. Then it went under a process called ‘inflation’, where the universe expanded extremely rapidly (faster than the speed of light) and cooled extremely rapidly. There are two factors which are important in answering our question. 1. At the start, the universe was in a state of very high energy and heat, and 2. The universe expanded faster than the speed of light. Now, if there was ever a time in the history of the universe where the four fundamental forces would be combined, it would be right at the start.

Now, one hypothesis of a multiverse is extrapolated from this. If the universe went under rapid expansion while the four fundamental forces were combined, it could be true that, due to different parts of the universe being cut off from each other because of the speed of light, in different places, the universe could have cooled at different rates, meaning that the four fundamental forces could be different in those universes. Due to this hypothesis, it could be true that from one big bang, multiple universes could have been created. The definition of a universe is all of the things which can be observed, and seeing that these places are cut off from each other due to the speed of light, you have your self a multiverse, with different laws of physics.

This idea, like all multiverse hypotheses, has ramifications for the fine-tuning of the universe. It is one which is also hypothesized by accepted physics models, and is one if the easiest to accept, seeing that we know there must be much more out there than the observable universe.

String Theory – Science or Sermon?

Hello skeptics and others,

I recently came across a question on twitter which went as phrased “String Theory, Science of Philosophy?” and I thought, as I had not done much with string theory, that now would be as good a time as ever to tackle this question which comes up with string theory often. But first, a bit of background on string theory.

String theory is the name given to a set of sums which attempt to explain things about the things we observe in particle physics. It is basically the claim that the 3 spacial dimensions and 1 time dimension we observe in our universe, are the left overs and that there are possibly up to 8 other dimensions which are all just packed in very tight so that we cannot see them. To explain this to you, I will use the same method Stephen Hawking has done.
Imagine a plastic drinking straw. From up close, you can easily see that it is a three-dimensional object, with height, width, and breadth. If you back it up to a distance of a few metres, the drinking straw starts to appear as two-dimensional, with only length and breadth, you can no longer make out the depth of the straw. As you back out further to a distance of about 20 metres, you can only observe one dimension, it only has length, and you can no longer observe the width of the straw.

Now, the other 2 dimensions still exist, but you can only make out one from this resolution, so for all intents and purposes, the straw is 1 dimensional. The same is true with the hypothesized extra 8 dimensions of string theory. They still exist, but we cannot observe them because they have been compressed in so small. It is physicists belief that these extra dimensions, ‘strings’, carry along them the elementary particles which create the four fundamental forces, gravitons, photons etc. in the world of particle physics. String theory is also said to be the most favoured path for the elusive Theory Of Everything (TOE).

String theory often comes under attack for a few reasons, being that it makes no specific predictions about the universe, it is no different from other theories about observed phenomena and there is so far no test of the ‘theory’. These criticisms all have legitimate reasons behind them.

It is true that string theory makes no predictions and it is indifferent about what we are already observing in the universe. String theory has not been of any real use to us yet other than jobs for people to do the maths behind string theory. In that way (except the maths), string theory is just like creationism… it makes no predictions or offer a hypothesis to test.

However, I think that just because string theory has not provided any scientific worth so far, it is in no way something we should give up on. It is a theory which has held up to all that maths has to throw at it, so there are no real internal problems with it, but the real question is “Is this how reality really is?” and that question is a long way off. String Theory is a path worth following, as it could be of value to future scientists. At best it is still only a hypothesis… not a theory, and should be treated as such. But it is worth the time and effort to work with and who knows, it may cough up a test for us, and it is worth waiting around for.

Was I indoctrinated to Atheism?

Hello skeptics the world over,

Recently, in a discussion with my mother about whether I should be heading to church on Sunday, she made the claim that I was indoctrinated by podcasts such as ‘The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe’ and other science and skeptical podcasts and websites, and said that I am ‘just as brainwashed’ as I claim Christians to be. I will be hoping to respond to this question in-depth tonight.

The first thing I will point out is the contrast of ‘indoctrinations’ between my skepticism and Christianity as a child. When I was indoctrinated to Christianity as a child, I was given the whole nine yards, Genesis creation, the flood and Noah’s Ark, Tower of Babel, Jesus, all the bible had to offer. When I was ‘indoctrinated’ into skepticism and atheism, it was almost the exact opposite. Instead of being given a list of things I had to believe, how to believe them and a book to read it from, when I was indoctrinated by The Skeptic’s Guide, I was only given a list of things which are logical, and most importantly, a list of things which weren’t logical. That’s why I am a champion of skepticism, not atheism. yes I am an atheist, but I am an atheist because of skepticism. Skeptics don’t tell you what to believe, they just give you the package of logic and evidence.

I wasn’t told to become a skeptic and an atheist by ‘the skeptics guide’, I was just told, “Hey, some of what you believe is not very logical and has no evidence to support it, look at what we think, be logical and look at the evidence, and make your decision.” and look at where I am now.

The other main difference between my two ‘indoctrinations’ is choice. When I was indoctrinated into Christianity, I didn’t know about atheism, humanism, naturalism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, or any other amount of religions. I was just having Christianity handed to me on a silver plate, with a bit of evolution thrown into the mix, as I still had to have some science. But there wasn’t much choice for me. When I was introduced to skepticism, I had heard about all the other religions and world-views, and I chose to go with agnostic atheism, and later onto agnostic anti-theism. That’s also why I am a champion of free-thought, because giving a child the choice is the most important thing they can have. I will talk about free-thought and children in a later post.

I was not indoctrinated into atheism or skepticism like the way children born into christian homes are indoctrinated, I was given a choice and I was not forced into it, and that is the key difference… choice. That’s all for today, I’ll leave you with a quote from an anonymous author/sayer of words, “Trying to close a mind that has not yet had the chance to be opened, is the worst form of child abuse.”