Paul Nelson makes a bizarre argument

| 142 Comments

Over at Uncommon Descent Paul Nelson tries to argue that because we can detect fraud, humans (or at least their actions) aren’t natural. Peculiar as that may be, the argument he uses is well, so loopy that you may be forgiven for thinking Paul has gone off the deep end.

You see these gels, and you worry. So you contact the author, and he tells you, Hey, relax I’m a natural cause, just like you are. These are all natural events. Don’t fuss. Whatever happens, happens.

I mean, this is so mind bendingly, mind numbingly wrong I don’t what to say. Paul, you do realize that you have just said that all natural events are equivalent, don’t you?

If you haven’t spotted the glaring logical flaw already, let’s try that conversation again but instead of potential fraud (1), imagine you see the gels and know from experience, that they represent obscure but well characterised artefacts that most investigators would miss. You contact the author and they reply “These are all natural events. Don’t fuss. Whatever happens, happens.” See what I mean?

Whether it is fraud perpetrated by humans using completely natural means (2), or an artefact produced by natural means without human intervention, the question here is whether a specific natural cause was involved. The claim is that the gel pattern is due to a specific process (in this case, beta actin expression in stem cells). You would be worried if the gels are consistent with a known artefact that a neophyte would not be familiar with, or an obscure physiological process that is not the ones the authors claim, let alone fraud. In any of these cases, if the author replies “These are all natural events. Don’t fuss. Whatever happens, happens.” You would be stunned, as they would be saying it doesn’t matter what process produced the result! Whereas an important function of science is to distinguish between processes!

I remember a series of experiments a colleague did when I was doing my PhD. The drug produced spectacular results…because it had been dissolved in deionized water rather than physiological saline, the results were due to water lysing the cells. A response of “it’s a natural cause” would not be acceptable (and in this case, it definitely wasn’t an intelligent cause), because it’s the wrong natural cause.

Having perpetrated the above piece of nonsense, Paul continues:

While the author of a manipulated image is of course natural, in familiar senses of that word — you can kick him, for instance — he is also intelligent, meaning that an effect he caused points back to him, as an agent, uniquely as its source.

Unfortunately for Paul, this is true in principle for all natural cause and effect systems. Otherwise, we couldn’t do science (or any evidence based enquiry) at all. If the images were the result of an artifact evidence would also point back to the source of the artifact. In this particular case, there is still no watertight evidence that actual fraud was involved. There is still a possibility that one or more people were astoundingly sloppy (3) and we are not sure who was actually resposibly for the gels in question. So despite Paul’s claims, the evidence does not uniquely point back to a given agent (who may not be a “he”) intentionally manipulating images.

Paul and his fellow DI colleagues keep trying to separate acts of intelligent agents from the natural world, even though those acts occur via natural laws using natural objects. Of course, this makes spear constructing and wielding chimps supernatural agents. However, intelligent agents (be they us or chimpanzees) and their works are firmly natural, and Paul’s imaginary story only reinforces that.

So, if you’re a journal editor, and the author tells you, “But it was a natural event…” you say “Its the wrong natural event” and bounce the paper. (1) As yet, it is only potential fraud. The New Scientist article on the potentially fraudulent results is at New Scientist, “Fresh Questions of Stem Cell Findings” March 21, 2007.

The journal article in question is available free Blood, 2001, 98, (9) 2615. The apparently copied gel images are on page 2620.

(2) Unless they used Powerpoint, I mean powerpoint is so evil it has to be supernatural.

(3) I have been involved in sleuthing weird gels before, and while the gels presented by New Scientist (and the ones in the paper) do look pretty identical, I know from experience that proving that they are copies and that intentional fraud was involved is difficult. Never undererstimate the ability of people to do monumentally silly things, and what appears to be an open and shut case sometimes isn’t. Even New Scientist is careful in its reportage of this case. The Blood paper is still available without any notices or qualifiactions attached to it, so presumably the case is still under investigation. It would be wise to wait for the investigation to finish.

142 Comments

It isn’t news that YEC’s, and Paul Nelson specifically, are dimwitted and intellectually dishonest.

he is also intelligent, meaning that an effect he caused points back to him, as an agent, uniquely as its source.

No, that’s not what “intelligent” means, and the causal chain is not restricted to some one agent and doesn’t stop at that agent – unless Paul Nelson wants to argue that a person committing fraud springs directly from God’s mind, without parents or any other source or influence.

so, if i can conclusively show that many animals can detect fraud as well (not hard - there are many published articles in animal behavior journals researching the subject), does that mean those animals are not natural?

damn aliens; planting all those weird critters.

Nelson has said he believes “intelligence” is neither natural nor supernatural - it’s some third metaphysical category. Confuse and obfuscate. Angels on pinheads, intelligences on non-pinheads, etc.

Paul is at Common Descent? Damn, why is he slumming?

Maybe Paul Nelson is saying fraud is the natural thing to do.

Well, he and his cohorts should know; they just do what comes naturally.

It is high time we solicit opinions from the closest we can get to experts on “intelligence” and see what they think of the IDers use of the term. Psychiatrists maybe? Sociologists? Evolutionary psychologists? Some sort of neuroscientists? I find it interesting that none of those groups are very well represented among creationists/IDers, and I suspect they will scoff at the way creationists/IDers toss the term around as if it were some well-understood objectively measurable trait.

I find Paul’s assertions hard to take seriously because I fail to see how intelligence as a cause of events is any different than a ‘natural’ process. One can point to intent but that is not self evident from the event, nor necessarily the chain of events without knowing more about the ‘designer’s’ intentions, motives, means and opportunities.

Assume I am traveling down the road in my car and suddenly my brakes fail and I crash, aka the event.

Does it matter if the crash was caused by an intelligent cause cutting my brake lines or a natural process cutting my brake lines. One may even envision that the means to cut the lines could have been similar, one in the hands of a ‘intelligent’ designer, the other one as an accidental cause.

In both cases the chain of events are the same, so natural and intelligent are not much different. And yet we know that intelligent causes aka intent can be determined, or we would not have courts. But do courts rely on the ‘design method’ or arguments that the cause was (un/super)natural to reach their conclusions? On the contrary, they go back to the source and determine if there is means, motives, opportunity as well as physical evidence, hearsay, eye witnesses etc. But these are exactly the aspects that ID wants to avoid and yet, a design inference (ala ID), as I have shown, would be unreliable (inherently) and thus useless.

If IDers want to insist that intelligence is somehow different from natural causes (chance and regularity) then it would help if they could give us some compelling reasons. Heck at this moment I am even willing to consider outlandish reasons.

ID’s thesis largely relies on separating intelligent causes from natural causes and yet there is no compelling reason to do so, unless one is interested in arguing that supernatural causes can be reliably detected. By equivocating between natural intelligence and supernatural intelligence, ID can pretend that both can be equally well detected. And yet we know that natural intelligence can be quite well detected by the same methods of science that detect ‘natural causes’ and that the design inference is an inherently and unpredictably unreliable approach to inferring design.

He equivocates on the term “natural” so badly that one would doubt that he even had a high school education, let alone a Ph.D (isn’t it supposed to be in philosophy even, whilee any half-ways competent freshman in philosophy class would do better than that?).

I don’t know if he’s that dishonest or just being as stupid as it takes to be a YEC/IDist. It’s certainly a warning against taking up the cudgel of pseudoscience, as if DaveTard, Dembski, and Behe weren’t counter-example enough to the “intelligence” of ID.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

Ian wrote:

Paul and his fellow DI colleagues keep trying to separate acts of intelligent agents from the natural world, even though those acts occur via natural laws using natural objects.

But not explained via such laws, without referring to agency. The history of science fraud is a history of particular (unique) agents —- persons —- having their papers withdrawn or PhDs rescinded (e.g., J. Hendrik Schön at Bell Labs). Such agents are not absolved because they are natural objects. Why?

Because some effects point back, not to natural laws —- what natural law explains the bogus diagrams in Schön’s papers? —- but to agents. Ian Musgrave’s posts here are explained causally not by any natural law, but by the existence of a biologist in Australia.

It doesn’t make the least difference to the true explanation of the character strings produced by Ian that we call him “natural,” “intelligent,” “supernatural,” or whatever. The adjectives are beside the point in the end. The causal explanation will still wind its way back to a particular person, not a natural law or regularity.

It’s funny: when I use examples like these in my public lectures, the only people who find them bothersome are those who, for philosophical reasons, are keen to deny their own agency.

True story. A little over ten years ago, in northern Michigan, I had a tavern conversation with a famous paleontologist, and asked him what we should infer about the cause of his books, if we discovered them hundreds of years from now, long after any other trace of the paleontologist was gone.

An odd expression came over his face, and he said, “Well…my experiences…the things that influenced me…” What he didn’t say was that he wrote the books, and that that would be the rational inference to draw.

In other words, rather than make an entirely sane and ordinary design inference, he started to dissolve himself into a Humean bundle. Nobody at home to write his books. No unique agent. Just a bundle of sensations and influences temporarily housed in a few dozen kilos of meat.

Dispensing with the reality of one’s own agency is a high price to pay for metaphysical consistency, but then lots of people don’t mind paying the price, I guess.

Still, the publisher’s royalty checks for Richard Dawkins, or for my paleontologist acquaintance, are not made out to the laws of physics.

the follow up by Paul is even sillier. Just calling them agents however resolves nothing

But not explained via such laws, without referring to agency.

We look at motives, means and opportunities which fall well with the category of regularities and chance.

His cute story about the paleontologist does not change much although it shows that Paul really believes that there is a distinction between natural processes and intelligent processes and yet cannot really explain why the latter one should be considered non natural. Both are causal chains of events. Of course, while ID argues that science cannot fully explain the causal steps in the evolution of the flagellum, ID has an even worse time explaining it.

The causal explanation will still wind its way back to a particular person, not a natural law or regularity.

A particular person is the outcome of natural law and regularity, combined with a healthy serving of chance.

It’s up to Paul, who wants to argue otherwise that people are somehow privileged here.

I started reading this comment (174302) and before long I thought, WTF? This is insane!

Then I looked at the poster’s name: Paul Nelson.

Paul isn’t slumming at UD. He’s a natural fit.

Repeat after me, Paul: There are no demons. There are no demons. OK?

But not explained via such laws, without referring to agency. The history of science fraud is a history of particular (unique) agents —- persons —- having their papers withdrawn or PhDs rescinded (e.g., J. Hendrik Schön at Bell Labs). Such agents are not absolved because they are natural objects. Why?

Absolved from what? You need to start dealing with what is at issue, which is not the word “natural”. Schoen is not being faulted for acting like a “natural” primate, he’s faulted for flouting the rules of a particular primate society which wishes dearly to prevent such fraud. That he’s a “natural” agent is no more important to policing his behavior as it is to police parasitical social interactions among ducks and chimps.

Because some effects point back, not to natural laws —- what natural law explains the bogus diagrams in Schön’s papers?

What natural law explains the photosphere of the sun? None. Why can’t you deal intelligently with these issues, instead of bringing in your bone-headed ID nonsense that has been refuted again and again?

Oh, that’s right, you ignore whatever is convenient for you to ignore. So the fact that you’re equivocating and using misdirection remains partially hidden from your view, for you don’t wish to see it.

—- but to agents.

Yes, and chimps are also agents that we study as “natural phenomena”. Learn some science and philosophy, and desist from meaningless chatter that is meant only to confuse the issues.

Ian Musgrave’s posts here are explained causally not by any natural law, but by the existence of a biologist in Australia.

Are you suggesting that Ian Musgrave’s posts don’t conform to the various “natural laws”? If so, just say so honestly instead of beating around the bush. And then, for once, come up with evidence for your assertions.

It doesn’t make the least difference to the true explanation of the character strings produced by Ian that we call him “natural,” “intelligent,” “supernatural,” or whatever. The adjectives are beside the point in the end.

Of course they’re beside the point. It is the fault of you and yours that idiotic terms like “supernatural” are brought up (OK, some scientists could use a philosophical education as well).

The causal explanation will still wind its way back to a particular person, not a natural law or regularity.

No it doesn’t. Only an anti-scientist would say something so wrong, so contrary to causal considerations in science.

Real science is concerned with what drives human “agents”. Pseudoscientists want to stop with “agency” and to pretend that it isn’t due to “natural laws”. Furthermore, it is misleading to say that the causal explanation doesn’t come back to a “natural law or regularity”, because as it is with complex “natural” phenomena humans act according to many “laws” and “regularities”. The misdirection in your posts is appalling.

It’s funny: when I use examples like these in my public lectures, the only people who find them bothersome are those who, for philosophical reasons, are keen to deny their own agency.

You mean scientists and honest philosophers, no doubt. Also, you ascribe false motives to many of us, who do not wish to “deny agency” (and indeed do not), but don’t wish to treat it as dishonestly as Paul does, either.

True story. A little over ten years ago, in northern Michigan, I had a tavern conversation with a famous paleontologist, and asked him what we should infer about the cause of his books, if we discovered them hundreds of years from now, long after any other trace of the paleontologist was gone.

An odd expression came over his face, and he said, “Well…my experiences…the things that influenced me…” What he didn’t say was that he wrote the books, and that that would be the rational inference to draw.

So your prejudices dictate what “rational inference” is. We weren’t unaware of this fact, Paul, nor of how distasteful it is to all honest discovery.

In other words, rather than make an entirely sane and ordinary design inference, he started to dissolve himself into a Humean bundle. Nobody at home to write his books. No unique agent. Just a bundle of sensations and influences temporarily housed in a few dozen kilos of meat.

He didn’t say that, did he? “Someone” is at home, and he is a caused and causal “agent”. Why don’t you tell us where and how humans break the laws of thermodynamics, or any other physical model of observational science?

You can’t, and you mean to do anything to avoid dealing with the actual questions involving agency and its relationship to “reality”. In fact, you can’t even give us a scientific rationale for why “all nature is akin” (as Plato said, though he failed to understand why), while evolution is a splendid fit to our apparent ability to act as agents in the world.

Dispensing with the reality of one’s own agency is a high price to pay for metaphysical consistency, but then lots of people don’t mind paying the price, I guess.

Writing falsehoods about “dispensing” with “one’s own agency” is a high price to pay for adhering to metaphysical fallacies. But you don’t mind projecting your intellectual fallacies onto others.

Still, the publisher’s royalty checks for Richard Dawkins, or for my paleontologist acquaintance, are not made out to the laws of physics.

Again the disingenuity, again the misdirection. We’re not stupid enough to believe that any of us think that dealing with humans via science means making royalty checks out to “the laws of physics,” but you can keep your royalties coming with such dishonest statements.

Some of us understand how we’re agents coming “out of nature” and know enough to be true to that “nature”. This leads to an honest treatment of phenomena, and not the dissembling nonsense and tired old cliches of the ignorant metaphysicians.

And yes, it is our honesty that leads to our recognition both of causal agency and of causal phenomena leading to such causal agents. All of the dishonest pleadings to the contrary do not change the fact that we’re comfortable in our skin and know how to deal honestly and justly with the evidence.

You couldn’t even begin to write your post on UD if you didn’t misunderstand the nature of science, philosophy, and the law. Even the fictional, but not unreal, notion of “agency” utilized in the law is not typically juxtaposed against “nature”, rather it is considered to be subject to nature, and caused by the “nature” of genes, environment, and immediate context.

You have to believe that an “agent” is not “part of nature”, which is not something you can demonstrate. Indeed, you must assume it even to assert it, for it would be impossible for you to ever demonstrate that agents are “not nature”. Yet your unevidenced metaphysical beliefs lead you to claim what you cannot demonstrate, and to equivocate on what “nature” means in order to mislead the ignorant.

We would be hard-pressed to explain your own fraudulent philosophy and “science” if we could not resort to psychology, sociology, and to primate tendencies. As such, your mendacity is hardly surprising, and not at all convincing.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

Dispensing with the reality of one’s own agency is a high price to pay for metaphysical consistency, but then lots of people don’t mind paying the price, I guess.

Its at most the same price paid to insist, against all evidence, that the earth is young or that there exists a method to reliably detect design. Metaphysical consistency you know comes in many shapes and forms.

But there is no need to dispense with metaphysical consistency in this case, one has just to understand the equivocation trick used.

Or to put Paul’s “argument” more succinctly, the evidence for the “natural” evolution of agents like humans must be ignored because we always already know that humans are not “naturally caused”.

Don’t look at the evidence. Paul doesn’t, and he has his anciently-derived belief system that tells he that he need never consider “mere evidence” of evolution. Why else would his use of “evidence” consist largely in out-of-context quote-mines?

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

While the author of a manipulated image is of course natural, in familiar senses of that word — you can kick him, for instance — he is also intelligent, meaning that an effect he caused points back to him, as an agent, uniquely as its source.

So what. Big whoopitty-doo. If it points back to the author of the manipulated image then I guess Mr. Nelson knows who the perpetrator is since it “points back to him, as an agent, uniquely as its source”.

Wow what a self-serving definition he has there. How does he know a radio didn’t fall on it or something. Creationists can be really funny sometimes. :-)

Dispensing with the reality of one’s own agency is a high price to pay for metaphysical consistency, but then lots of people don’t mind paying the price, I guess.

Yeah, too bad too many people are dispensing with the reality of their own agency. I feel really bad for those guys. Hey people, stop dispensing with the reality of your own agency.

I think I see where Nelson may be coming from. The hint is in the notion of “… the reality of one’s own agency”. I don’t see it stated explicitly, but I think it must get back to the notion of the special place of the human conscience in Creation. Chimps are natural causes, because chimps (or birds, or dogs) don’t have a Divinely created soul. Humans are in and of the world (ie “natural”), yet the unique “agency” that motivates their actions is “outside” or “beyond” that natural world. Still “real”, but distinctly different. Not “super” natural per se… maybe “divinely” natural? So, let’s see… If the human soul and intelligence are not “natural”, yet have a demonstrable effect on the natural world, then surely a God could also be “in” the natural world, but not “of” the natural world? There is no internal conflict in the argument.

Now, I’m not arguing for his perspective, just trying to understand how it might seem to be self consistent in his own mind (assuming he’s not being [self] deceptive). Of course, any well formulated conspiracy theory is also self consistent, so that doesn’t get you very far. Also, ID can’t make such claims explicitly, or it loses the legal battle. But certainly such claims wouldn’t be beyond a YEC’er.

So, I think you have to get to his core beliefs first. Two may both argue “logically”, but if the foundational assumptions are incompatible, the results may be radically different. Trying to point out a logical fallacy to him it pointless. In his mind, there is no logical inconsistency. You just have to deal with that little hurdle of knowing you’re the center of the universe.

Because some effects point back, not to natural laws —- what natural law explains the bogus diagrams in Schön’s papers?

Who cares? Even if somebody found a natural law that explains the “bogus” diagrams, in your world even the natural law itself would point back to an “agency”. Everything everywhere points back to an “agency”. Don’t you remember that you’re a creationist?

Paul Nelson Wrote:

But not explained via such laws, without referring to agency. The history of science fraud is a history of particular (unique) agents -persons - having their papers withdrawn or PhDs rescinded (e.g., J. Hendrik Schön at Bell Labs). Such agents are not absolved because they are natural objects. Why?

For the same reasons that artefacts are not absolved because they are natural objects. Artefacts and fraud misrepresent the claimed process, and are not valid. An antibody that is not specific, or a bug in analysis software is grounds for withdrawing a paper (and several have been withdrawn for just such a reason, despite complete lack of “agency”). A statement that an event was natural, due to natural laws does not get that event ignored if the event was not the one claimed in the paper.

The rest of your post is irrelevant to the issue, that you posted a laughably silly article. Read your own post again, it makes none of the points that you raise here.

Paul Nelson Wrote:

The causal explanation will still wind its way back to a particular person, not a natural law or regularity.

This is exactly the same for artefacts, “the paper was withdrawn because the antibody was not specific”, “the paper was withdrawn as the instrument was too insensitive”. We end our discussion with the causative agent (the antibody, the instrument). Similarly when we say that a village was destroyed by lava, we stop our explanation at “the volcano erupted”, rather than an exposition of the laws of fluid mechanics and heat transfer.

The simple fact is that human mental processes, and the actions they generate, are governed by (and explained by) natural laws. I am typing this string of symbols because the laws of physics allows sodium and calcium ions to enter my nerve cells in a coordinated way, which allows “me” to comprehend the screen in front of “me”, to make decisions on what to write (by the same laws allowing electrical signals to be shuffled around different centres in the brain), to send those decisions to other appropriate centres in the brain (again via the laws of chemistry and physics) that will allow my fingers to move in a coordinated way and strike the keyboard to form a symbol string. This sequence of events governed by and dependent on natural law, is more complicated but no different in principle from a chimpanzee pushing keys on a keyboard to obtain food, or a raven pecking a coloured bead to get food (the difference being I gain no calories from my symbol manipulation).

Whether the agent is a pacific island raven, a chimpanzee or a human (all tool creating agents), nothing about the fact of their agency makes that agency any less dependent on natural law. That we stop our descriptions at “The raven made a fishing hook” rather than at a 4 volume treatise on neurochemistry and neuroanatomy is more for our convenience than any reflection of reality (imagine if we had to give a full Newtonian description of a car crash, or a cup falling to the floor every time we described such an event. We would be more numerate, but we wouldn’t get much done in the day).

Of course perhaps Paul can explain how brain tumours can affect people’s moral agency (for example a tumour that turned a man into a paedophile) if our agency is not governed or explained by natural laws.

Will Paul give agent status to spear-making, cooperative hunting, fraud perpetrating chimpanzees as well as humans?

So Paul, you and the ID movement have been working on ID for 15+ years. Isn’t it about time to give us your “specific causal model” about now? In real sciences involving human agency, this is easily done (archaeology, criminal forensics, etc.). We have concepts like motive, means, and opportunity, which provide detail and specific hypotheses that can be tested. But with ID, it’s “Oh no, we’re not going to provide any specifics because [insert half-baked excuse that boils down to “we think it’s God and we’d rather protect our theology from critical scrutiny and judicial review, and pretend we’re not doing theology so as to build a big happy creationist tent”].” Pitiful.

But it’s all pointless anyway, since it’s pretty clear you guys are going to drop the ID schtick and just go for an attempt to ram your “critical analysis of evolution” junk into the public schools instead. So much for your claims last year that you thought this issue shouldn’t be fought in the political and legal arena…

Such agents are not absolved because they are natural objects. Why?

Because being a natural object doesn’t absolve anyone of anything. Guilt and responsibility aren’t physical properties, they are attributed by human beings – who are in turn natural objects. One can’t argue from an observation that one machine holds another machine responsible for its actions that one or the other of the machines isn’t “natural” – unless one is the sort of retarded and intellectually dishonest person you are, a practitioner of “apologetics”, the practice of placing value on an argument in proportion to which it reaches the conclusion one already holds, regardless of its logical or empirical validity.

The causal explanation will still wind its way back to a particular person, not a natural law or regularity.

I pointed out in my initial post why this is so idiotic – because it’s a false dichotomy. “a particular person” is a physical object that behaves according to natural law just like any other, so the causal explanation does wind its way back to natural law, just as the fact that a bullet ripping through the heart of a person can be traced back to a particular gun doesn’t mean it isn’t traceable to natural law – and if you’re going to be so stupidly dishonest as to insist that some person must have fired the gun, I’ll point out that the gun may have been blown by the wind, fallen, and fired upon hitting the ground, or any of a number of “natural” causes (as if “non-natural cause” were even coherent). Even if you think otherwise, you have to be a complete moron not to know that this is the stock naturalists’ response – that to argue for stupernaturalism by separating out persons or “agents” or “intelligence” in this way is blatant question begging.

What does it matter, Paul. If they were cleared of fraud you people would just wave your hands around and claim that their published results “smuggled information in the back door” because the experiment and the paper were intelligently designed.

Speaking of fraud, have you reconsidered your decision to sit on the editorial advisory board of a magazine promoting AIDS denial aimed at children?

what natural law explains the bogus diagrams in Schön’s papers?

The natural laws that govern the behavior of the humans (among other objects) you git. The same ones that make you scream if someone kicks you in the nuts – what, you think you’re an “agent” screaming of his own free will, independent of the laws of physics? We talk about agents, free will, and so on because it’s a powerful way to model human behavior, but these explanatory models don’t negate the underlying physical model, as Daniel Dennett has pointed out at length in his work on the physical, design, and intentional stances. Intentional agency and design are just ways of looking at things so as to predict their behavior, they aren’t separate classes from the physical.

Two may both argue “logically”, but if the foundational assumptions are incompatible, the results may be radically different. Trying to point out a logical fallacy to him it pointless. In his mind, there is no logical inconsistency.

That he’s too stupid (or too intellectually dishonest) to recognize the fallacies in his arguments doesn’t make them any less fallacies, your relativistic scare quotes notwithstanding.

Dispensing with the reality of one’s own agency is a high price to pay for metaphysical consistency, but then lots of people don’t mind paying the price, I guess.

Yet all these folks who purportedly dispense with the reality of their own agency continue to use the word “I”, and refer to their own beliefs, actions, and so on, day in and day out. So, Paul, what price do you pay for being a lying piece of crap? Or do you avoid paying a price by sticking with your fellow pieces of crap at DI and UD, and shutting your ears to what intelligent and honest people have to say about your BS?

True story. A little over ten years ago, in northern Michigan, I had a tavern conversation with a famous paleontologist, and asked him what we should infer about the cause of his books, if we discovered them hundreds of years from now, long after any other trace of the paleontologist was gone.

An odd expression came over his face, and he said, “Well…my experiences…the things that influenced me…” What he didn’t say was that he wrote the books, and that that would be the rational inference to draw.

This is like a gibbering monkey gibbering that the rational thing to do is gibber like a monkey.

Apparently, according to Paul Nelson, the rational inference to draw about the cause of the Norman invasion is that the Normans did it.

Still, the publisher’s royalty checks for Richard Dawkins, or for my paleontologist acquaintance, are not made out to the laws of physics.

Just as the Earth revolves around the Sun, not around the laws of physics, moron. Who, other than yourself, are you trying to kid?

Still, the publisher’s royalty checks for Richard Dawkins, or for my paleontologist acquaintance, are not made out to the laws of physics.

Well, yeah. The laws of physics lack the ability to cash a check, for one thing.

Glen D — Now those are excellent references! Thank you.

No problem, it wasn’t too difficult.

I will point out, however, that some of these refer to probabilistic model, which I suspect has not been well confirmed. That’s ok, it is clear that neuroscience has still a long way to go.

I referred to the view in one article as a “probabilistic model”. I am not aware of the articles having done so, though they may have. I just thought it more appropriate to write “model” when so much remains unknown.

I’m perfectly willing to consider probabilistic models of various workings of the brain, provided there is some form of confirmatory evidence. It seems to be building.

Seems that way to me.

–snip–

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

Sir TJ — The exchange between Glen D and me occurred because I asked for references for probabilistic workings of the brain. Since there seems there was some misunderstanding regarding what constitutes the brain, in the usual way of merely posted comment exchanges, it took several messages to straighten out.

I have a grandson who suffers very badly from gran mal epilepsy. If neuroscience was well advanced, there might be a decent remedy. His father, a practicing young M.D., keeps up on proposed treatments and tries several. The latest seems to be helping, somewhat.

Lets just leave it at that.

Okay, Okay Every one calm down. Lets not throw accusations of liar and other intremerate remarks around here, thank you.

David B. Benson Wrote:

I have a grandson who suffers very badly from gran mal epilepsy. If neuroscience was well advanced, there might be a decent remedy.

I am very sorry to hear about your grandson, I wish him well. But now I will put on my Pharmacologist hat here (it’s what I do for a living). Even if you perfectly understand a disease system, there may not be a remedy in the offing for some time. The drug development task may be overwhelming. Take Cystic Fibrosis, we know in great detail what is wrong, but to treat it we have to develop gene therapy, which is a non-trivial task that has taken decades (there is a research group up the road from me who are slowly grinding away on this). We know lots about lipid storage diseases, but our ability to treat them is very limited. Our limitations are not in understanding the disease process, but making suitable drugs that are non-toxic, well absorbed (etc. etc.) that will interfere with the disease process.

So the lack of any given therapy does not imply we do not have a good understanding of the system.

Oh, and as the firing of a even single neuron is a probabilistic process, there will never be a non-probabilistic description of the brain (yes, I know you patch clamp jockeys can depolarize a neuron every time, I’ve done it myself, but they release their neurotransmitters probabilistically per depolarization, check out Tom Cunnane’s work on sympathetic neurotransmission)

Paul Nelson Wrote:

Ian, spear-making chimps are agents, sure.

Good now that we have established that chimps are agents (and, by implication, the other primate that can manipulate symbols for meaningful communication, gorillas), what is your possible objection to humans and chimps (and gorillas) originating from a common ancestor, since they are all agents.

Paul Nelson Wrote:

I just saw an article about a chimp in criminal proceedings for murdering and eating a bushbaby.

I think you will find that an error (or spoof). Humans are not prosecuted for hunting and eating non-human primates, so why would chimps be? (Well, maybe in the US they are, but in large tracts of the world non-human primates are bushfood, and fair game outside of national parks and reserves). On the other hand, it might be some weird animal rights thing, animal rightists can do strange stuff.

I wrote:

I just saw an article about a chimp in criminal proceedings for murdering and eating a bushbaby.

Ian replied:

I think you will find that an error (or spoof).

No – just my lame attempt at humor. :-(

I wonder what bushbaby tastes like.

Paul Nelson Wrote:

I wonder what bushbaby tastes like.

Drum roll … tastes like chicken.

Ian: Does chickenhawk taste like chicken?

Ian,

Chimps are agents, as are crows (remarkably intelligent birds – see this week’s Science correspondence page for an amazing story), as are beavers and indeed honey bees, if we define ‘agency’ broadly enough. Recognizing the astonishing capabilities of organisms to manipulate their environments to their purposes, I’m happy to employ a broad conception of agency.

But agents have different causal capabilities (i.e., powers). I can’t build a honeycomb, but then the bees won’t be writing any PT posts. Chimps use sticks to retrieve ants from anthills; they don’t go to see humans in the zoo, Planet of the Apes nothwithstanding. Even amongst Homo sapiens, we see very wide differences in causal power. I attended art school, long ago; Ingres did as well; I will never, ever, render a human face as accurately or elegantly as Ingres.

Popper’s Ghost wrote:

Nothing of any metaphysical import follows from the fact that we have a concept of agency and assign, at times, responsibility to agents for their actions. That we sometimes recognize certain objects, such as wakeful human beings, as agents, does not mean that there’s a separate category of entities — we clearly also recognize these agents as physical objects subject to the same physical laws as any other object — why not?

When nearly the whole of human experience – of moral categories, for instance – turns out to be a convenient fiction (“well, yes, sometimes we say people are ‘responsible’ for their actions, but that’s just a manner of speaking, an attitude we happen to adopt towards what are, in fact, strictly physical systems”), I want to take a close look at the philosophical doctrine driving the analysis.

This reminds me strikingly of an exchange I once had with Jeff Shallit about related matters. In that exchange, I related an episode involving one of my graduate mentors, the philosopher of science Leonard Linsky, that may be of interest here. I apologize for the length.

Linsky found himself arguing with two acquaintances about the concept of “miracle.” A miracle, they said, is any event for which we cannot, in principle, provide a causal story in terms of known physical entities or processes. After hearing this, Linsky got up from his chair, walked around the room, and sat back down again.

Was that a miracle? Linsky asked them.

No, they replied. We can explain what you just did via known physical processes. We have an adequate physical explanation.

All right, said Linsky vehemently, let’s have it! Give me the physical explanation.

No, they replied, we meant in principle.

Well, “in principle,” they didn’t know jack. Now, Linsky wasn’t saying miracles occurred; rather, he was challenging their definition of “miracle” as analytically unsound. The point he conveyed to me on retelling this story, however, was the widespread abuse of “in principle” claims as surrogates for genuine knowledge. It was clear to me in my exchange with Shallit that he didn’t have dollar one, so to speak, to support his knowledge claims about the reducibility of agents to physics.

Nor does Popper’s Ghost. Popper’s Ghost writes his posts here: that’s the true explanation. The physical (non-Popper’s Ghost story, where he disappears on analysis) is nowhere to be found, because it doesn’t actually exist as knowledge that can be conveyed to others. To say that the physical story exists “in principle” is to hide behind a phrase.

Whereas the proposition “There is a person [an unique agent] who uses the pseudonym ‘Popper’s Ghost’ to contribute prose to the blog Panda’s Thumb” is true and causally sufficient for all the ordinary tasks of explanation and understanding. We could even call it science – knowledge – except Popper’s Ghost would go postal again.

I wrote:

I just saw an article about a chimp in criminal proceedings for murdering and eating a bushbaby.

Ian replied:

I think you will find that an error (or spoof).

No — just my lame attempt at humor. :-(

I wonder what bushbaby tastes like.

Sounds like it was a spoof, only the source was in doubt.

I rather suspected it was Paul’s joke (complete with a suggested, but inadequate, “standard” for deciding “agency” (with animals, the scare quotes are appropriate)), which was why I left it alone while addressing virtually everything else in the post. Too current, not the usual “crime” for which animals have been prosecuted.

Be that as it may, I think it’s interesting to see how animals have been prosecuted, partly because it’s somewhat humorous to we who feel enlightened (as indeed we should be at this point) and partly because it has ramifications for conceptions and “perceptions” of agency. I thought this source was good:

http://books.google.com/books?id=2K[…]EiSGUU#PPA36,M1

Most prosecutions were for offenses against humans, but offenses involving “witchcraft” (the cock laying eggs) did not directly affect humans, and a few animals are punished harshly for the deaths of animals which were property of humans.

Glen D

One final comment, and then I must leave what has been a stimulating discussion.

From criticisms above, I gather that many readers see me as opposed to, or indifferent about, the growth (deepening knowledge) of neuroscience, psychology, etc. – i.e., those sciences that illuminate how human beings work. Nothing could be further from the truth.

My wife occasionally treats patients who suffer from Angelman’s syndrome, or what it sometimes colloquially referred to as “happy puppet syndrome”:

http://www.angelman.org/angel/index.php?id=65

One day on coming home from her office, she remarked to me (after seeing an Angelman’s syndrome patient), “It’s amazing, Paul, but these kids really are more cheerful.”

Grist to my mill! – says P’s Ghost. Human being are strictly physical systems, subject to the same laws as rocks, and different from them in no way ontologically. A higher-level property such as “cheerfulness” is explained via lower-level causes (a genetic lesion).

Think about the “if, then” relations implied by Angelman’s syndrome.

Then ask yourself why we would prosecute a parent who allowed his Angelman’s syndrome child to starve to death.

When nearly the whole of human experience — of moral categories, for instance — turns out to be a convenient fiction (“well, yes, sometimes we say people are ‘responsible’ for their actions, but that’s just a manner of speaking, an attitude we happen to adopt towards what are, in fact, strictly physical systems”), I want to take a close look at the philosophical doctrine driving the analysis.

I don’t see why physical systems cannot be responsible for things. Would you say that Hurricane Katrina was not responsible for damage to New Orleans? And there is no reason why a physical system that exhibits the properties that we refer to as “intelligence” and “awareness” could not be cognizant of the relationship between its actions and its consequences and be goal-directed to regard certain outcomes as more desirable than others–and thus modify its behavior based on awareness of personal responsibility. There is nothing fictional about it.

Paul Nelson writes:

Linsky found himself arguing with two acquaintances about the concept of “miracle.” A miracle, they said, is any event for which we cannot, in principle, provide a causal story in terms of known physical entities or processes. After hearing this, Linsky got up from his chair, walked around the room, and sat back down again.

Was that a miracle? Linsky asked them. No, they replied. We can explain what you just did via known physical processes. We have an adequate physical explanation. All right, said Linsky vehemently, let’s have it! Give me the physical explanation. No, they replied, we meant in principle. Well, “in principle,” they didn’t know jack.

WTF are you talking about? Muscles flexed, knees bent, and he walked around the room. Now if he levitated around the room, THAT would have been a miracle.

Honestly, I haven’t seen such time-wasting sophistry since hearing a group of stoned college students admiring a vase and pondering “in the absence of all senses, does that vase exist?”.

When I press my gas pedal, my car moves forward. I can’t begin to explain how that happens. That doesn’t make it a “miracle of agency”. It just means I’m ignorant of how cars work. So Paul Nelson is ignorant of how brains work. So what?

This reminds me strikingly of an exchange I once had with Jeff Shallit about related matters. In that exchange, I related an episode involving one of my graduate mentors, the philosopher of science Leonard Linsky, that may be of interest here. I apologize for the length.

Why not apologize for the equivalent of, “I said to Jeffrey once.” What’s the point, except to act as if your little anecdote were more effective than it has any right to be?

Linsky found himself arguing with two acquaintances about the concept of “miracle.” A miracle, they said, is any event for which we cannot, in principle, provide a causal story in terms of known physical entities or processes.

I have no idea why people make such claims about “miracles”. It’s very easy to say that something is not explained, “miracles” involve so many assumptions, not all of which are compatible, as to be nearly meaningless at this stage.

After hearing this, Linsky got up from his chair, walked around the room, and sat back down again.

Was that a miracle? Linsky asked them.

No, they replied. We can explain what you just did via known physical processes. We have an adequate physical explanation.

All right, said Linsky vehemently, let’s have it! Give me the physical explanation.

A good deal of the process may well be explained. Of course it’s involved, action-potentials, actin and myosin, aerobic and anaerobic respiration, however partial explanation isn’t difficult at all.

No, they replied, we meant in principle.

Yes, non-biologists. And yes, your wearying point that not everything is known has been heard, and it doesn’t matter, for we have any number of evidences from which to reasonably infer that life does not “transcend” the physical.

Well, “in principle,” they didn’t know jack. Now, Linsky wasn’t saying miracles occurred; rather, he was challenging their definition of “miracle” as analytically unsound.

Of course it’s analytically unsound. What is most interesting is just how much your little anecdote and Linsky’s conclusion militates against your position, for in truth there is nothing about “physicality” which is obviously magical or unmagical, miraculous or non-miraculous, caused by God or uncaused by God. Western Christianity desacralized the world, setting up artificial distinctions like “materialism” and “non-materialism”, which mean little beyond various conventional meanings.

True, many on our side insist on tired categories like “the natural” or “the material,” but the more consistent offenders are on your side, as they continually accuse us of a ridiculous “naturalism” or “materialism” (no matter what some of us say), which is no less ridiculous for being believed by many on our side.

The point he conveyed to me on retelling this story, however, was the widespread abuse of “in principle” claims as surrogates for genuine knowledge. It was clear to me in my exchange with Shallit that he didn’t have dollar one, so to speak, to support his knowledge claims about the reducibility of agents to physics.

And you use Linsky’s point that miracles and physics aren’t analytically distinguishable (at least not by those methods) to make your claim? Indeed, the bigger point to be made is that empiricism is all that we have to explain anything that we wish to understand, “physics” being only what we call a subset of empirically-based theories.

In other words, “physics” is a subset of “what we can know”. We use physics because that’s what we call the “most basic knowledge” about our world. And we use it because it is “what we can know” at “that level”. The almost tautological fact that “what we can know” does not fully coincide with “what we do know” is not a guide to knowledge, rather the empirical methods of science are.

Empiricism was developed because it involves our capacity to know and integrate information about our world. Your only real quarrel is with the methods which may be (almost certainly are) capable of providing us with more answers. We say that the brain operates according to physics based upon the empirical method, and because many things are known about the world, including thermodynamics, “causal” factors, and the constraints of all prior knowledge.

That you would throw all of that away in certain areas to protect beliefs for which you lack emirical evidence is what makes you inconsistent and thus your protestations that you favor research probably sincere yet vacuous.

Nor does Popper’s Ghost. Popper’s Ghost writes his posts here: that’s the true explanation.

Only in the barest sense is that even an “explanation”.

“The cloud causes lightning.” Not false, quite true in a sense, but more of a mapping of causation than a genuine accounting for causation. Same with “agents”, you want to stop with mapping, but this only shows how anti-science you truly are.

The physical (non-Popper’s Ghost story, where he disappears on analysis) is nowhere to be found, because it doesn’t actually exist as knowledge that can be conveyed to others. To say that the physical story exists “in principle” is to hide behind a phrase.

I suppose that’s why we don’t say it. Why do you have to claim that we do (he does)?

You’ve been given reasons for the empiricism that we call “physics” to be considered to be the sound course to take for understanding, you just resort back to your boring old clichés in lieu of being able to discuss matters like nervous systems and muscle contraction.

Whereas the proposition “There is a person [an unique agent] who uses the pseudonym ‘Popper’s Ghost’ to contribute prose to the blog Panda’s Thumb” is true and causally sufficient for all the ordinary tasks of explanation and understanding.

You shifted goalposts again, if rather nebulously. Depending upon what is meant by “ordinary tasks”, your last sentence could be correct, but then would have little to do with scientific explanation, the “most basic” explanation.

Not even courts necessarily stop with “agents”, since their “causation” has ramifications even to the blaming of “agents” (and I’m more than aware of the antiquated assumptions upon which the judiciary rests, although those may be necessary fictions).

We could even call it science — knowledge — except Popper’s Ghost would go postal again.

It is science, of the barest and naïve sort. Any modern science worthy of its name will go well beyond such simplistic (but not untrue) ideas.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

Paul’s argument is nothing much different from Behe’s argument against Darwinian pathways that explain the flagella. Unless we know the full details, perhaps down to atomic interactions that led to the flagella, we cannot exclude the need for agency. However, agency also requires explanations as to how the flagella arose. Just because we have defined a concept called ‘agency’ to reflect our ignorance, does not mean that ID’s position should be privileged. In fact, given the success of science to infer agency using its scientific methods, and given ID’s inability to do anything in this area, we should come to the simple conclusion that ID’s approach is flawed.

Is agency reducible to laws of nature and chance? Advertising thinks so, as does Amazon. Of course regularities here mean preferences, past behavior etc and there is a sense of ‘chaos’ present which will make it harder to predict future behavior (just like weather and climate).

In fact, despite all the physics involved in weather we can only predict it reliably for a few days in the future, for anything further out we use statistical models. And the same really applies to agency.

If Paul believes that agency is somehow a different concept then it is his task to show this to be the case. Ignorance never has been a good explanation however.

This is an interesting discussion which of course would never have been allowed on UcD. What a farce, a bastion of pseudo-science.

What Paul Nelson is opposed to is generalization in science, or actually, in select areas of science.

Of course science wouldn’t work without generalization, and of course our generalizations may turn out to be wrong in part, or even in whole (for most established theories and models, like evolution or the most basic mental models, I’d have to say that “in principle” they could be wrong in whole. In fact it is difficult to see what evidence could counter the massive weight of evidence in favor of these ideas, but we have to keep the window open “in principle”).

Paul just has to wring as much as he can out of the familiar problems of induction, even as he relies on the scientific method with its generalizations when he drives a car, flies in a plane, uses a computer, etc., etc.

ID would have one accomplishment to its credit if it ever came up with even a new problem in science. That they endlessly re-hash the old ones, which are satisfactorily answered by results (you know Paul, what your side is conspicuously devoid of having) in most of science, indicates what a sorry little scam they’re actually running.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

One final comment, and then I must leave what has been a stimulating discussion.

From criticisms above, I gather that many readers see me as opposed to, or indifferent about, the growth (deepening knowledge) of neuroscience, psychology, etc. — i.e., those sciences that illuminate how human beings work. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Very big of you to be in favor of science while you try to wrest away the tools of science, and the collective sense in science that generalization does work. I’m sure that if your side wins and ‘launches’ (so to speak) a new dark age, the starving and the ignorant will be pleased that your sentiments were in favor of science.

My wife occasionally treats patients who suffer from Angelman’s syndrome, or what it sometimes colloquially referred to as “happy puppet syndrome”:

–Snip address–

One day on coming home from her office, she remarked to me (after seeing an Angelman’s syndrome patient), “It’s amazing, Paul, but these kids really are more cheerful.”

Grist to my mill! — says P’s Ghost. Human being are strictly physical systems, subject to the same laws as rocks, and different from them in no way ontologically. A higher-level property such as “cheerfulness” is explained via lower-level causes (a genetic lesion).

No Paul, it’s a matter of agency. This is what you wrote elsewhere:

“There is a person [an unique agent] who uses the pseudonym ‘Popper’s Ghost’ to contribute prose to the blog Panda’s Thumb” is true and causally sufficient for all the ordinary tasks of explanation and understanding.

Smiles and cheerfulness are explained, in a true and causally sufficient manner for all the ordinary tasks of explanation and understanding, via agency. Don’t you remember that?

Or do explanations shift from person to person, or perhaps from population subset to population subset? Or is it even more confused than the corpus of your posts here, and those with Angelman’s syndrome are in fact agents, but caused by other agents, so that agents are causal to agents but “physics” is not so causal, except, of course, when it is?

Think about the “if, then” relations implied by Angelman’s syndrome.

Huh, yeah, seems like causation is what we have to concern ourselves about after all, so that your wife cares for them even when “agency” fails to lift these agents up by their bootstraps. Maybe even have to feed them, or their “agent-caused” cheerfulness just might quit (but sure, then they’d be floating around in heaven, cheerfully).

Then ask yourself why we would prosecute a parent who allowed his Angelman’s syndrome child to starve to death.

No bloody idea from your position, if it can be called a “position” rather than merely a set of reactions.

Apparently causation isn’t sufficient to explain agents, yet you somehow think that other agents are responsible for causing their continued existence. It’s that piecemeal approach again, you’ll accept science in one case, not in another, and your whole world is fragmented, disjointed, and capable of (fictionally) hanging together only if you posit some force holding it together, as the ancient Egyptians considered it to be (hint, Israelite religion wasn’t very different from its neighbors in the “answers” it gave to life, the universe, and everything).

What, is the non-physical aspect of the Angelman child going to be affected by lack of feeding? And if so, what of that? It just has to move out of its body and go to heaven, as Plato taught (and Xianity followed). So it’s just fine, according to your metaphysics, or actually, quite a lot better as it sheds the filth and fuzziness of this lesser existence.

On the other hand, if the Angelman child is an evolved “physical” agent, what we do with and to the child is exceedingly important.

There’s one thing I do like about the medieval period, which was that the church at least held true to its beliefs. Why not kill the body to save the soul? It makes eminent sense. The soul matters, the body doesn’t, or barely anyhow.

Of course many religious folk have come to other conclusions regarding mind/soul, so I’m not saying that Xians ought to adopt the old rationale for killing the body to save the soul to be consistent with their beliefs. But all I get from Paul is a bunch of conflicting notions about causality being special in certain areas, but not where it isn’t special, of “irreducible agents” who he fears might be reduced by material effects, concern for saving the body when by all the muffled evidence it’s the soul that matters to him, plus a near-total misunderstanding of the issues of philosophy and science.

The ironic thing is that most of these religious reactionaries are concerned over losing meaning and coherence if their religious notions were to be set aside.

There is little less meaningful or coherent than Paul’s rambling contradictions and evasions.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

Elizinga wrote:

Maybe Paul Nelson is saying fraud is the natural thing to do.

Well, he and his cohorts should know; they just do what comes naturally.

You have his argument exactly backwards. Being able to detect fraud means that you can detect ID, so when Nelson and the other IDiots perpetrated the dishonest ID scam they were only producing an example of intelligent design. Switching to the lame critical analysis scam where they can’t even mention that ID ever existed just makes the intelligent design of the fraud obvious enough for even the most incompetent to see. By being dishonest frauds they were proving their poiint all along. The ID fraud was no accident, they meant to do it that way.

The omphalos guys can now take heart in this new revelation because the world looks really old even when it isn’t because the designer was just making sure that everyone knew that it was a product of intelligent design by trying to fool everyone in a very obvious manner.

The wonders of the ID intellect. You have to wonder if guys like Nelson actually think about what they are spewing or if they just take whatever sounds good at the momment and never think about what it means if you try and integrate it into the whole.

And so, faced with arguments he can’t refute, Paul Nelson vanishes in a cloud of pompous non-sequiturs…

As usual.

140 comments and nothing but Nelson fluff at the end.

Sad, really. I can’t imagine what the guy does for a job. Nelson claimed that he had evidence for design, but he’s never provided it.

Hey, I saw lights in the sky, once. It was ET. Really. You’d know it if you saw it.

A higher-level property such as “cheerfulness” is explained via lower-level causes (a genetic lesion).

there is just so much wrong with that statement it would take an entire page to clarify it.

I’ll simply state that anyone who looks at behavior and morphology as “higher” and “lower” has got some serious issues with categorization to work out for themselves.

It really is hard to take Paul seriously.

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This page contains a single entry by Ian Musgrave published on May 8, 2007 7:27 PM.

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