Wednesday, November 19, 2014

My disappointment in ways of generating electricity...

Back in my university years, I was quite amazed in electrical engineering classes at how easy it is to convert electricity to mechanical energy and vice versa. A magnetic field and a few wires moving around in almost any configuration, and you've got current flowing. This was amazing to me.

Then, I started looking at all the different ways we generate electricity. They are pretty disappointing, sorry, but nuclear energy - you think Star Trek and an anti-matter generator or the naquida reactor from Stargate, but just a bit less advanced. Somehow, we are taming the atom! This is exciting. Nope, all we do is boil water. It's the same as with coal and oil, all you do is heat some water up and pass it through a turbine and that spins some wires in a magnetic field (see paragraph 1).

What? You mean to tell me that you'd just boiling water? How iron age! How pedestrian!

There are exceptions to boiling water, and all but one use a turning turbine (see paragraph one) to produce electricity. Hydro-electric (you have to create an artificial lake and I don't like the damage), wind-turbines (I don't like the horizontal turbine's bird strike problem - vertical is ok, but not as efficient), tidal (again, it damages the environment, and lots of fish get chewed up in the mechanisms).

Then, there's solar. Solar panels directly convert the sun's energy into electricity. That's exciting. Guess what? Solar thermal (where they use mirrors to gather heat) is more efficient and cost-effective. Guess what? They boil water!

I don't know why, but the excitement just goes out of me when I hear that. It is really like the Roman empire decided to generate electricity by building a hollow, bronze statue of a cow with a turbine where the horns are.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Alvin Plantinga on the irrationality of evolutionary materialism

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/is-atheism-irrational/

A friend of mine blogged this interview with Plantinga on facebook recently. I thought - what the heck - I'm an atheist, and a material evolutionist, let's take a look.

I took a few minutes and posted a response. Comments are welcome.

"No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism."

The even stars versus odd stars is an interesting analogy, i.e. it's either even or odd. However, we KNOW that even and odd are about 50% probable (and changing all the time). Is that the case with God? Clearly, people on the theistic side think the changes are 100% for God (or close) and similarly on the atheistic side thinking there is no God. If it was always just a 50/50 shot, then belief would be completely different in both camps. Clearly, no one equates belief in God to the number of stars being an even number.

On Bertrand Russell's Cosmic Teapot:

"Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism. For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. etc..."

He is arguing to the letter of the letter of Russell's point and not to the spirit. Bertrand Russell could just have easily said, "an asteroid in the shape of a teapot" or something similar. The point is, there is no reason to think that it's there unless you have evidence. So, he misses that point, and I think deliberately.

When asked to come up with a good reason for God, Plantinga says: 

"One presently rather popular argument: fine-tuning. Scientists tell us that there are many properties our universe displays such that if they were even slightly different from what they are in fact, life, or at least our kind of life, would not be possible."

The fine tuning argument is something that gets WAY too much press. If you were examining the universe and were trying to figure out the kind of God created it, you'd get a God that really, really loves vast empty blackness with 100% of the universe instantly deadly to humans (100% rounded to a very large number of decimal places). At least Plantinga has the honesty to say, "or at least our kind of life, would not be possible" which completely negates the fine tuning argument anyway.

Discussing the imperfection of the universe leading the concept of an imperfect God, he says: "
"Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures."

I find this Plantinga argument bizarre. I don't get how it makes any sense at all. God sacrifices his son and goes through pain and suffering and death to maintain a correct relationship with humans? WHA? Can't He think of a way that doesn't involve human sacrifice? It makes no sense. Saying it produces the best possible world is even more strange. I maintain a relationship with someone by talking to them, exchanging ideas, having a rapport. Surely, that would be better than crucifixion?

On the explanatory power of God being replaced by the explanatory power of science:

I like his discussion of the explanatory power of theism, and how not needing God to explain the universe isn't an argument against His existence. Fair point. He could, if he wished, not take part in the universe at all in any way, and have no influence. This does, however, eliminate things like design and the beauty of the universe as possible arguments for God, but fair enough. I think Nagel's "I don't want there to be a God" is a ridiculous argument, on the order of "I don't want it to be true, so I choose not to believe it".

On materialism: "It’s by virtue of its material, neurophysiological properties that a belief causes the action. It’s in virtue of those electrical signals sent via efferent nerves to the relevant muscles, that the belief about the beer in the fridge causes me to go to the fridge. It is not by virtue of the content (there is a beer in the fridge) the belief has."

His argument on the content of belief as an argument against materialism is a non sequitur. Even if he were right, and beliefs due to evolution were only about 50% likely to be true (I have no idea where he pulls this number from), then it's a consequence of materialism and not a statement about its validity.

I don't quite know either, how a completely opposite belief could have "the same neurophisiolgical properties", it would have the same content. I don't know how he separates them. It's like saying "2+5 =7, but numbers can't be material, or if we used another number with the same properties as 5, we'd end up with a different answer. So, the content of 5 doesn't matter."

Clearly, neurophisiological properties carry content, for belief and for various other thoughts. They aren't somehow completely interchangeable. He talks like material content makes no different, like a rock can just roll uphill instead of down, or there's no conservation of momentum.

If material doesn't just ignore content, then evolution follows just fine, and beliefs roughly align with reality and is a useful adaptation.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

God and the Fine Tuning Argument

One of the more difficult arguments to argue against in the theist arsenal is the "fine tuning" argument, i.e. there are 20+ physical constants in the universe, and if any of them were off by even a small amount, then "life wouldn't be possible". I've most recently read this argument in a book called "God: The Evidence: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World" by Patrick Glynn, which I saw recommended somewhere and decided to buy.

It's a difficult read, since Glynn makes incorrect and blanket statements throughout when presenting the fine tuning argument, or, as he calls it, the Anthropic principle (which it actually isn't). The Anthropic Principle basically says that "of course we find ourselves in a universe that is compatible with human life, otherwise, how could we be observing it?", which is true.

Say we have a dartboard laying in the desert that is 1km by 1km square and a dart is dropped from 100km up. The dart's final resting point (assume it hits the dartboard) will be, essentially random. We can we say about where it landed? If you're a theist, you say "what are the chances that the dart ended up in this EXACT location? The changes much be billions, trillions to one!", which is true. However, you could say the same thing no matter where the dart hit. Without another dart, you can't say if someone was aiming or not. We just don't know. The same is true of the fine-tuned universe.

Glynn's presentation of the fine-tuning argument is awful. He makes statements like "the death of materialism", that one of the constants being different by even a small amount (strong force, weak force, gravity, or the relations between them etc...), then "life wouldn't be possible". He also generalizes this to say that the universe was created specifically to produce "human life", which is pretty silly. The vast majority of life is not human at all, so it's a weird statement to make. Clearly, it's not specific to humans at all, but humans can survive.

Also, I think he'd be much more honest to say that if these constants were different, then life as we know it wouldn't be possible. I can agree with that, but life wouldn't be possible? I am hardly an expert on life, but one thing that seems clear is that life is very adaptable and I couldn't count it out if gravity were slightly different. Maybe stars would have shorter or longer life-spans, or not form at all, but what does that say about what other types of life might be possible? Since we don't have any data points except our universe, and, in fact, our own planet, we have very little to say about this. We just don't know what type of life would be possible (if any is) if the 20+ constants were to be different. Maybe there is a large subset of the tunings that could produce some kind of life - we just don't know. To say otherwise, is at worst, a lie, at best, incompetent.

Not only that, but since we can't look at another universe, we have no idea if the constants can even BE different from what they are. Have we looked at millions of universes and seen that the constants vary in each and every one? No - we haven't. We don't know. It's an unknown that the fine tuning argument fails to address. We are, essentially, looking at one data point and fitting it to a curve. Something I can say to both sides of the argument, if you're making conclusions, you're probably wrong.

Now, let me put that argument aside, give ground and say that the fine-tuning argument is 100% correct. There WAS an intelligent force that shaped the constants and made them what they are. How do we conclude that the universe was made just for us, that human life is special and the tuning is what it is because God wanted humans to exist? I find this a very strange thing to say, considering that the universe is, essentially 100% lethal to humans (rounded to the nearest billion decimal places say). Only a very small portion of, one, tiny planet that we know of will support our type of life. A typical location in the universe is a hard vacuum that will kill humans instantly. It's not a friendly place for humans at all. Surely, this wasn't made for us. If we were to imagine a species that it WAS made for, I think something that could at least survive in a hard vacuum would be more likely. A space creature of some kind. If they said that their God made the universe just for them, we would have a hard time arguing that one.

So, a theist will argue their one data point, fitting the curve that they want to fit it to (NOTE: any curve fits a one-point data set), AND, the worst thing is that atheists often take this seriously. I've seen Daniel Dennett "call it a draw" in a debate against Dinesh D'Souza over the argument, and pysicist Lee Smolin suggest that universes evolve like any other life form and there may be an infinite number of them, and we just happen to find ourselves in that supports our type of life. Really? These concessions sounds like a couple of things: 1) like you are making shit up just because you are loyal to your atheistic position, think the argument has weight and are creating something equally ridiculous to counter it and 2) intellectually lazy and incompetent. The thing is, they are as scientific as science-fiction.

Where is the problem with saying "I don't know" or, better yet, "We don't know"? After all, it's the honest answer. We don't know. At best, we can show why the theistic argument is silly. BUT, this doesn't give us licence to make up stupid theories that sound scientific but are as pseudo-scientific as Intelligent Design. We can muse and even present these things in pop-science books, but to present them as scientific theories is dishonest. You need evidence for real, scientific theories and until we can see multiple universes, I think that's in short supply. Stop it. Stop it now!
 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Who is to blame for the dead in Mazar-e-Sharif?

A few days ago, in the northern Afganistan town of Mazar-i-Sharifan angry mob attacked a UN compound killing at least 9 people, some reports say as many as 12. This was a response to Pastor Terry Jones burning a Qur'an (Islam's holy book/bible) in Gainsville Florida on March 20th.

Jones had threatened to burn a Qur'an for some time, but delayed after an appeal by General David Patraeus, leader for the US forces in Afghanistan.

Who is to blame for this horrible action? I say the responsibility for these crimes rests solely on those who committed them.

Does Jones shoulder any of the blame? While I agree that Jones is a nut-case, with more than a few delusions, I say that he does NOT. I agree with Sam Harris in this blog post, that anyone suggesting that Jones be punished is off the rails. Does a free country remove freedoms from its people in response to the irrational and illegal and threatening actions from some loonies in another country?

Would we have punished Harriet Beecher Stowe for writing "Uncle Tom's Cabin" because it may have led to the American Civil War and the over 600,000 dead? The freedoms we enjoy today were earned through the deaths of many who fought for them. Should the deaths of more people remove those freedoms? That is an insult to the people who died.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Nanowrimo 2010 - here it comes again!

I am very excited about this year's National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) and another chance to write a first draft.

I can't believe that I have never thought of this before, but this year is a superhero novel. This will be my ninth first draft and I am determined to finish the 50,000 words even if I nearly missed my first four days at a management training course in Sydney and I'm behind by 6-7000 words.

I have been reading superhero novels running in the months leading up to November, and really liked "Soon, I will be Invincible" by Austin Grossman and "Karma Girl" by Jennifer Estep, but didn't like "Leaper" by Geoffrey Wood or "Hot Mama" also by Jennifer Estep.

I have also bought two other superhero novels from the Whitcoulls on-line e-book store to put on my Kobo e-book reader. I just bought "From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain" by Minister Faust about a psychologist to the world's best superhero team, and "Masked" by Lou Anders (Editor), an anthology of superhero fiction.

My novel features The Wingman, a superhero whose powers allow him to be second best at everything. He has a mimicking power that allows him to copy abilities, including super abilities from those around him. However, he let his team down years ago and they were slaughtered by a team of villains. Now, he's a pariah to the world, including other superheroes. Worse, this has spilled into his own mind and he doubts his own value.

At the beginning of the novel, the Wingman finds evidence for a serial killer who is killing aliens who live on earth. With his only remaining superhero friend, Raymond Taylor, aka "the General", leader of The Famous Five, they begin tracking down who is responsible.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

SpecFicNZ Blogging Week – Day 3, the Bible

The Bible is the greatest work of speculative fiction ever written. Greater than the Iliad or the Odyssey, greater than the Epic of Gilgamesh or any of Shakespeare's plays.

There are Gods, prophets, magicians, miracles, conflict, betrayal, love, good Samaritans, villians and so much more.

As a source for ideas, there aren't any better places than the Bible.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

SpecFicNZ Blogging Week – Day 2, superhero novels

I have recently read "Soon, I will be INVINCIBLE!" by Austin Grossman, a fun jaunt into superhero novels. I enjoyed it enough that I decided that it would be my genre for November's Nanowrimo novel.

If any genre defies Specfic boundaries and bleeds between sci-fi, fantasy and horror, it's superhero novels. A woman in a high tech battle suit teams up with an alien gladiator to fight a villain using an ancient Babylonian artifact to kill the Prime Minister of Uruguay for his own evil plans. What a lovely combination!

I think I'll enjoy November - I have never written in that genre and I am a huge comic book fan. There is so much material to choose from and so many directions it can go. I can do almost pure fantasy or pure sci-fi or a combination, introduce vampires or werewolves, have sorcerers turning the streets of New York into a replica of ancient Greece and have it all observed by an immortal alien sent to earth to observe, but who feels the need to interfere.

Indeed - very fun November. I think I'm excited enough to do the Kiwiwriters Prep-challenges in the archive before November.