Friday, January 26, 2007

Betrayed by the Brain

As I have mentioned before, the human brain is an engine for believing things. All human brains, even the most rational sketpic.

Psychologists and anthropologists have typically turned to faith healers, tribal cultures or New Age spiritualists to study the underpinnings of belief in superstition or magical powers. Yet they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists. New research demonstrates that habits of so-called magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge.
These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.
The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.

In my humble opinion, this makes the technical and scientific achievements of the past 10,000 years all the more remarkable. Rationality despite the fact that the human brain is fundementally irrational.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sam Harris Responds

I think Andrew Sullivan is in over his head with Sam Harris. He demolishes 2 big pro-religion/pro-god arguments fairly quickly. The first is one of the oldest: if science can't tell me what happens after death, it must be god.

Contrary to your assertion, I have not made any claims about there being a "nothingness at the end of our mortal lives." The truth is, I don't know what happens after death. Is it dogmatic for me to doubt that you and the pope do? What reason have you given me to believe that you know that "something" happens after death, or that your something is more probable than the Muslim something, the Hindu something, or the Buddhist something? The question of what happens after death (if anything) is a question about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world. It is true that many atheists are convinced that we know what this relationship is, and that it is one of absolute dependence of the one upon the other. Those who have read the last chapters of The End of Faith know that I am not convinced of this. While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us. But this doesn't entitle religious people to imagine that all their crazy ideas about miraculous books, virgin births, and saviors ushering in the end of the world are remotely plausible.

The second is the one I didn't want to make with Nick, in part because it's kind of mean and once made , the other side usually goes for shouts of bigotry rather than answer it. The idea is, basically, any logical argument you make for god can also be made for the devil. It's impossible to construct a reasonable argument for one which precludes the other. You can then extend that to polytheism, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Arguments for their existance are essentially the same as the argument for god. In fact the Catholic church has made exactly this extention to extend divinity to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Mary and a bunch of other gods and demi-gods they call saints. It's a surprisingly polytheistic religion, all ased on the extention that if one god exists and you can prove he doesn't, other could exist too.

Needless to say, your attempt to pull theism up by its bootstraps ("since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator") could be used to justify almost any metaphysical assertion. "The Flying Spaghetti Monster who created the universe" is also "definitionally" the Creator of the universe; this doesn't mean that he exists, or that the universe had a Creator at all. Many other chains of pious reasoning could be cashed-out in the same way: "Satan is the Tempter; I find that I am tempted on a hourly basis to eat ice cream and have sex with my neighbor's wife; ergo, Satan exists." Or what if I suggested that what we know about the brain renders the idea of a human soul rather implausible, and one your brethren countered: "The immortal soul governs all the activity in a person's brain; I have no fear about what neuroscience will tell me about the brain, because the soul is definitionally the brain's operator." Would this strike you as an argument for the existence of souls? Granted, there are still many gaps in neuroscience into which a soul might still be inserted, just as there are gaps in our understanding of the cosmos into which the faithful eagerly insert God, but such maneuvers are utterly without intellectual merit. You can insert almost anything "definitionally" into those gaps. The Muslims have inserted Allah, and the Qur'an is His perfect word. The Hindus have inserted Gods of every color and flavor. Why don't these efforts persuade you?

All in all, Sam's doing well and, I think, Andrew's rather weak argument boils down to, "The truth will prove me right, you'll see. Besides people like religion so it must be true." I may be being unfair to AS though, so we'll see how he responds.

EDIT: Andrew responds here
An interesting approach, pointing out that there are kinds of truth beyond the emperical. That is certainly correct, for example, one cannot prove emperically that something is beautiful. However, in this context, what he's done is change the underlying framework of the argument, i.e. does god exist. If gods exist, they must exist within the physical confines of the universe, and hence, should be detectable. AS has changed the debate to to say god exists as a subjective reality rather than an objective one, and hence may not be subjected to the standards of emperical evidence. This is a sly bit of rhetorical slight-of-hand which pretty much ends the debate. From this point, you can claim almost anything since you've put it beyond the test of objective reality. We'll see how Sam responds, but I think Andrew has basically conceeded that god cant be objectively proven to exist and is attempting to bridge to a different set of criteria.

Cut to the Quick

Colbert gets it right:

Stephen Colbert: What made [Tuesday's State of the Union speech] so groundbreaking, I think, was all the new stuff we've never heard from the president a domestic agenda. Take his proposal to fix the whole health care mess with the only proven cure-all: tax breaks...

Bush clip: And for the millions of Americans with no health insurance at all, this deduction would help put a basic private health insurance plan within reach.

Colbert: It's so simple. Most people who couldn’t afford health insurance also are too poor to owe taxes. But...if you give them a deduction from their taxes they don’t owe, they can use the money they're not getting back from what they haven't given to buy the health care they can't afford.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

It might be true...

It might work, a friend of mine and I once snuck his underage girlfriend into a casino using this same trick.

> Garda - a classic
> From the State where drink driving is considered a sport, comes a
> true story from Carrick-on-Suir Ireland.
> Recently a routine Gardai patrol parked outside a local neighbourhood
> tavern. Late in the evening the Garda noticed a man leaving the bar
> so intoxicated that he could barely walk.
> The man stumbled around the car park for a few minutes, with the
> Garda quietly observing.
> After what seemed an eternity and trying his keys on five vehicles,
> the man managed to find his car which he fell into. He was there
> for a few
> minutes as a number of other patrons left the bar and drove off.
> Finally he started the car, switched the wipers on
> and off (it was a fine dry night), flicked the indicators on, then
> off,
> tooted the horn and then switched on the lights.
> He moved the vehicle forward a few cm, reversed a little and then
> remained stationary for a few more minutes as some more vehicles left.
> At last he pulled out of the car park and started to drive slowly
> down the road.
> The Garda, having patiently waited all this time, now started up the
> patrol car, put on the flashing lights, promptly pulled the man
> over and
> carried out a Breathalyzer test.
> To his amazement the Breathalyzer indicated no evidence of the man
> having consumed alcohol at all!
> Dumbfounded, the Garda said "I'll have to ask you to accompany me to
> the Police station this Breathalyzer equipment must be broken."
> "I doubt it," said the man, "tonight I'm the designated decoy".

Monday, January 22, 2007

What I Do At Work

part of a series. A note sent out today to the worldwide financial services crew on how I spent my weekend:

FYI: Continuous Query, the Next Big Thing in Streaming Data

In doing some research for solutions around real-time streaming data engines (e.g. Thompson, Reuters), it’s becoming clear that the next generation of quote engines is going to look quite different from the current one. Today a lot of streaming data technology is based on proprietary versions of the client/server model that we are all familiar with. Often the client side is a smart client, the server side is a highly tuned database and the transiting protocol is a web service (or it’s nearest moral variant). However, a lot of research is currently being done on Continuous Query Engines, which are vastly more efficient for processing multiple end nodes than current designs.

The basic idea behind a CQE is to identify which nodes are asking the same types of query , then group them for more efficient service, sending only deltas of information to the waiting nodes rather than long bursts of data. Clients are able to keep track of the deltas and cut down on complex query processing server side.

Below are a couple of papers I found in my research that I thought were interesting and did a good job of getting the concept across, along with at least one implementation.

I pass this along for informational purposes although, for the capital markets folks, this is something we need to really start thinking about. Many thanks to Ed Muth for suggesting this line of inquiry.


an interesting implementation

Meth Coffee!

Ah, it's only half-a-lie!