Nov 302007
There’s another point, one that I skirted around in my last post, that I feel is worth coming back to briefly. Remember that Paul Davies’ argument asserts that science relies on an assumption, and that therefore science is based on faith. I admitted that I have faith in the assumption, but not the same sort of faith that a person has in a God. What I didn’t address was the unspoken leg of Davies’ argument, namely that operating on an assumption is equivalent to operating on faith. This is not true, and it’s important to highlight this because it shines some light on the difference between science and religion.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we are engaged in a debate on some topic that is neither religious nor scientific. For instance, we are debating whether Hitler’s attack on the U.S.S.R. was a sound strategic move. I say, “Assuming Hitler hadn’t attacked Russia, he would have had more capacity to defend Europe.” You agree to this assumption, for the sake of argument, and we continue the discussion from there. Would you say you have faith in the proposition that Hitler did not attack the U.S.S.R.? Surely you know it to be counterfactual, so you do not even believe it. So assuming a proposition doesn’t necessarily mean you have faith in that proposition.

Of course, this may not be perfectly analogous—after all, the proposition about Hitler is clearly unhistorical. So suppose we were dealing with an uncertain proposition. For instance, two detectives might be attempting to solve a murder with two suspects. One way to go about it would be to assume that one of the suspects is guilty and examine the evidence to see if any of it is inconsistent with that proposition. Again, nobody would agree that the detectives have faith in a particular proposition of guilt as they are reasoning. The assumption is merely a stipulation, a point from which to begin thinking.

All right, so it’s pretty clear that making an assumption doesn’t require an act of faith, not even the modest, empirical kind of faith I was writing about yesterday. Of course, it might seem strange for a scientist to perform experiments on the assumption that the universe can be accurately described by natural laws when he does not in fact believe that it is so. It is important to realize, however, that a scientist’s actual state of belief towards the natural law assumption is irrelevant to the process of science. Science proceeds on the basis of that assumption, and I have faith in that assumption, but I do not design or perform experiments because I have faith in the assumption. Rather, I have faith in the assumption because the results of my research have always proven to be consistent with it. But even if I did not believe the assumption—for instance, if I believe that God occasionally usurps natural laws to make “miracles” occur—I could still perform science, so long as my experiments were predicated on the assumption of universal natural laws.

This is a sticky point, for religious believers and atheist scientists alike. A researcher must stipulate the truthfulness of the natural law assumption to interpret an experiment, but it is not necessary for the researcher to actually believe the natural law assumption is true, just as it is not necessary for our historical debaters to believe that Hitler did not attack the USSR, or our detectives to believe that a given suspect committed the murder. Making an assumption is not an act of belief, or of faith.

This is a significant difference between science and religion. Religious activities depend not only on the assumption of their legitimacy, but also an actual belief or faith in their central propositions. One can conduct meaningful scientific activities without believing the natural law assumption, but one cannot perform meaningful religious activities without believing the religious assumption. One can, of course, go through the motions of ritual without believing, but then the activity ceases to be religious in nature and becomes purely social or political. It is a problem in a religion, perhaps even a mortal sin, to be a hypocrite, but for science, hypocrisy (in the sense of using the natural law assumption without actually believing it) is just a personality quirk.

The only time that faith in the natural law assumption becomes relevant is when we move from the scientific process to the question of truth. Then we can object to Davies’ argument on the grounds that have been exhaustively described by myself and others.

Not that I expect anyone to actually listen. After all, more Americans believe in the Devil than believe in evolution.

Nov 282007
Initially, I didn’t want to make any comment on Paul Davies’ recent NYT column “Taking Science on Faith”. In fact, I didn’t even want to read it. News of its existence came to me through comments on scientific websites, and from these alone I knew that actually reading the damn thing would sadden and anger me. But, I was asked about it at work, and the internet clamor just kept rising, and I decided I might as well give it a read on the off chance that it would contain something interesting. This was a foolish gamble. Davies is a lesser man for having written such garbage, the New York Times is a lesser publication for having printed it, and I am less intelligent for having read it, because now that trash is in my brain. After the manner of Sherlock Holmes, I shall endeavor to forget it at once, but first I want to explain precisely why it is garbage so that you, at least, will have the benefit of the rebuttal.

In a strict sense, this is unnecessary: several blogs have already put up excellent posts knocking down Davies’ arguments. My own commentary is hardly fresh, then, but I don’t really write to impress the internet at large. All the same, there are a number of points that I feel haven’t been made, or haven’t been made clearly or forcefully enough. So I’ll try and handle those.

The foundation of Davies’ argument comes early on in the piece and, I’ll grant, does have a certain appeal. Davies writes “All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.” This is almost true, and I think it bears some elaboration. It breaks down to three ideas, which I will take up out of order.

Idea 1: Nature is ordered.

More expansively, one could say that the universe is described by laws. This is an assumption of science, but it’s important to understand that this does not mean determinism is an assumption of science. The quantum universe is probabilistic, not absolute, and though this probabilism matters most on the microscale, events at that level can have profound effects at higher levels. The scientific acceptance of randomness matters later on.

Idea 2: The order of nature is intelligible.

This is also an assumption of science. Obviously, if there were no way to identify the order of nature then there would be no reason to perform experiments.

Idea 3: The order of nature is rational.

I saved this for last because it is where Davies fundamentally goes wrong. In the most limited sense, this may be accurate: scientists resist the idea that two contradictory laws are both true. But this does not seem to be what Davies means. In fact, he’s never very clear on what this means or why it’s important, but he does seem to feel that rationality is at odds with randomness. Yet, as I’ve already pointed out, science can be perfectly comfortable with randomness, even if Paul Davies can’t. He’s not exactly in bad company: Einstein famously felt a similar discomfort with the probabilistic descriptions emerging from quantum mechanics. But the personal predilections of particular researchers do not speak to the necessary assumptions for performing science. To assemble a scientific enterprise one needs not assume anything other than that there is something to learn (idea 1) and that there is a way to learn it (idea 2). Nothing about the nature of what is learned need be assumed. Thus, we can discard idea 3 as a necessary assumption. So that leaves us with with what I’ll call for convenience the ‘natural law assumption‘:

The universe can be described by natural laws, and there exists some method whereby those laws may be learned.

It’s important to remember that the natural laws here aren’t normative, as moral laws or political laws are. A natural law is a codification of empirical observation, not a prescription of outcome. Observation of a phenomenon that violates moral or political laws results in steps being taken to alter the phenomenon, while observation of a phenomenon that violates a natural law results in steps being taken to alter the law.

Davies goes on to say that making this assumption is an act of faith, which is at best misleading, and at worst outright dishonest. I can quite honestly say that I have faith in the natural law assumption, but what I mean by this is essentially the same thing I mean by saying I have faith that my car will start tomorrow, or that I have faith that the ‘pause’ button on my remote will cause the DVD to stop playing temporarily. This relates to a faith in something that is built on repeated success, not something that I preserve for its own sake. If my car fails to start tomorrow morning, I will not continue turning the key indefinitely, my faith in the inevitability of its starting intact. Rather, I will have it towed. Similarly for the remote. If natural laws failed to describe the universe, then I would give up on them, and why not? They’re not helping my goal, which is to understand the universe. In short, my “faith” in the natural law assumption is an empirical expectation that it will be fulfilled.

This attitude would be utterly alien to a believer in a religion. Indeed, almost every religion contains admonishments not to give up on belief in hard times. The power of Job and similar works derives from the strength of a person’s faith in the face of great troubles. The “Faith” of the religious is a metaphysical belief in the existence and intent of a supernatural entity.

Davies treats these meanings as equivalent, or at the very least expects his readers to conflate the two different meanings in this way. Yet Davies is clearly aware of the distinction, as the beginning of the column shows. If he has forgotten it by this point, then he is simply leading himself down the garden path with semantic sloppiness, and dragging us with him. If he remembers, then he’s being dishonest.

Davies then goes on to describe his dissatisfaction with the idea that natural laws arose randomly. I’ve already pointed out that this is a personal problem of his, not a problem generally for science. But Davies is insistent, and points out that we really should be concerned about this because it just so happens that the natural laws were perfectly tuned for life, and it seems unlikely that this would just happen by chance. This is amazing stupidity.

The natural laws of the universe are not tuned perfectly for life, and we should suspect this, if for no other reason, because there is so little life and so much universe that is utterly, relentlessly hostile to it. If some transcendental entity was sitting at the control panel at Creation, with a mission to create a universe in which life would have a really good chance of existing, then he certainly did a terrible job. Vast, cold voids of space, impossibly hot fusion engines, a universe permeated with gamma-ray bursts sufficiently strong to burn a planet’s atmosphere right off… these are not features hospitable to life. In fact, given the natural laws of our universe, life seems so cosmically unlikely that on that basis alone an entire cottage industry of science quacks makes a living arguing that life could only have arisen with the help of an omnipotent God.

“But but but,” Davies and his ilk will argue, “if you tweaked any of the constants just a tiny bit, then life couldn’t exist!” Such a statement is staggeringly unscientific—you couldn’t possibly have any direct evidence for it. I will grant that, as a thought experiment, one might effectively argue that lifeforms such as ourselves might not survive in a universe where the gravitational constant were a little higher, or the vacuum permittivity constant were lower. Yet, to conclude from this that life is impossible is just evidence that you ignored what I said above. The universe we have is incredibly inhospitable to life, and yet here we’ve got a whole damn planet covered in it. Life, even life of our kind, might make its way in even less hospitable environments. And even if it couldn’t, who knows what alternate kinds of life or intelligence might arise in vastly different universes? In such alternative existences, energy itself might be alive, and stars might recite poems to each other. We can say with confidence what existing structures of our universe would be abolished were a particular natural law to change, but how can we predict what new opportunities for life might emerge?

It’s no surprise that we would have a hard time were the physical constants and natural laws of the universe to change. It is, however, idiotic to conclude that this is because the universe was tuned for us. We were tuned for it, because it is within this universe that we came to exist.

Davies then concisely explains why the question of where natural laws come from is not a scientific question, without realizing it. Shoved in there with the multiverse mumbo-jumbo is a brief moment of clarity when he realizes that the problem is turtles all the way down. Any explanation of the origin of natural laws necessarily requires a description of the natural laws governing that origin. Which then necessitates a description of the origin of those natural laws, and the natural laws governing them, and so on and so forth through turtle after turtle until we realize there is no bottom, or we reach the layer of elephants.

Of course, this is not a necessary consequence of assuming the existence of natural laws. Rather, it is a consequence of assuming causality. But quantum mechanics appears to be quite at home with uncaused events, and there is no special reason to believe that natural laws must be caused. Davies seems to believe this, but at this point I hope you are at least a little skeptical of his judgment in the matter.

Davies then concludes that religion and science are both founded on faith. I’ve already pointed out that the truth of this statement relies on the conflation of two totally different meanings of ‘faith’. But even if Davies is correct, this is hardly a catastrophic failing. The world abounds in demonstrations that faith in a benevolent, all-powerful God is ill-placed—the faithful of all religions suffer death, disease, and horrible agony, even in their moments of worship. The wicked are everywhere rewarded, the virtuous everywhere trampled upon, and their prayers go unanswered. Oh sure, the jock on TV thanks God for the opportunity he was given, but what about those other 100 million kids who never made it to the NFL? Didn’t they pray, too? Did God love those boys less than he loved Pacman Jones, or did he just have nothing to do with it?

The natural law assumption, by contrast, has proved to be phenomenally successful. In fact, it may be the single most successful idea in the entire history of mankind. Virtually everything that surrounds you as you read this—the clothes you wear, the treated air you breathe, the chair you sit in, the materials in your building, the computer you are looking at—is the fruit of this amazing idea. Even if we are dealing with equivalent kinds of faith, then it certainly seems you have substantially more reason to place your faith in the existence of natural laws than in the existence of God.

Davies then goes on to make much of the fact that the concept of natural law emerged from the concept of a deity. While this is quite true, it doesn’t say anything essential about science. Science existed before the first codifications of “natural laws” and has advanced substantially since. The clockwork universe of the Enlightenment died with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and on the theological side, the watchmaker God has faded as well. So Davies is technically correct here, but he’s babbling on about irrelevancies.

Until, that is, he comes to the end of the paragraph and says:

physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

I certainly hope he does not believe what he is writing here. Natural laws cannot ‘inhabit’ any ‘realm’ because they do not exist. They are not things. The representations of natural laws exist, as patterns of ink on paper, patterns of electrons on magnetic media, patterns of neural connections in human brains. But there is no thing you can point to and say “That is a natural law” any more than there is a thing you can point to and say “That is a ‘That wall is brown'”. Natural laws as we discuss them are ideas without physical existence—they are nothing more than shared descriptions of observations. Natural laws as they appear in nature are just properties of the universe—they are not separate from the matter and energy we presume them to govern. John Wilkins has a really good explication of this reification fallacy.

Once you see the mistake that Davies is making, the next paragraph evaporates, leaving a faintly unpleasant smell. His analogy is not appropriate because whereas religion imparts reality to its God, science does no such thing for its laws. Certainly the laws have no reality apart from the universe (as God supposedly does), and to claim that there is something analogous between the theological relation of God to the universe and the scientific relation of natural laws to the universe is to either completely misunderstand what natural laws are, or to engage in a willful deception.

Davies’ closing to the article tumbles out of his assumptions, and follows them into the same black pit of shame. The whole article is an embarrassment—to Davies, to his “Beyond” institute, and to Arizona State University. What I find most infuriating about it is that I will now be forced to endure endless rehashes of this sloppy, misleading mess at the hands of creationists, flat-earthers, and alterna-quacks. “Science is faith!” they’ll cry, “A scientist said so!” and then I’ll have to remember the conflations and fallacies and patiently explain them, over and over again, until the day I die. So damn you, Paul Davies! Damn you to the abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships!

Nov 262007

In the bastardized American format…

Agar will gel up,
vile gray sink-lake develops.
Next time, use trashcan.

Technically, they’re not
my Pipetmen either — that
does not make them yours.

Reducing agents,
like open sewers in lab —
put the cap back on.

Autoclaves melt agar;
now your waste is everywhere.
Remember, use trays!

It’s called a Bunsen
burner for a reason — don’t
leave unattended.

Foetid, abhorrent,
vile… your unbleached media,
or eldritch horror?

Seriously, man,
clean centrifuge after use;
it smells like a morgue.

Needles go in “Sharps
container”, not underneath
the paper towels.

Floor grabs onto shoes;
try cleaning up spills as soon
as they happen, please.

Crystals belong in
screening trays, not pumps — wash with
water every time.

No, seriously,
I meant that about needles:
dispose properly.

Beware: grad students
will eat anything left out
in your lab’s breakroom.

Water bottles and
computers — two great things that
ought not be combined.

This ain’t no disco,
You ain’t no DJ. This ain’t
no foolin’ around.

So I was a little bored today.

Nov 192007
…on November 19th 1863, one of America’s greatest presidents gave one of America’s most famous and influential speeches. Preceded by a masterful 2-hour oration—now practically forgotten—by Edward Everett, these remarks lasted a mere two minutes. The reaction at the time was muted, though some were surprised at the brevity of the speech. Of course, by the standards of the modern sound-bite, the Gettysburg Address is positively long-winded:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

This speech is justly famous. In a paltry two minutes Lincoln conveys the futility of the ceremony, the enormity of the preceding sacrifice, and the resolve to which that sacrifice ought to move the audience. The point is communicated clearly, forcefully, and with emotion. Importantly, something of substance is said.

Modern political communication, on the other hand, is almost stringently dedicated to not saying anything. Tired talking points and empty blandishments are repeatedly trotted out to an ever more disconnected and disinterested audience. Press agents and campaign materials label as “bold” and “visionary” candidates whose speeches inescapably depict them as timid and insipid. Why have so many reacted so strongly and positively to Ron Paul, even though he is undeniably one crazy motherfucker? Because he says something. Maybe it’s crazy, but at least there’s an underlying message aside from “I am trying to offend as few people as possible”. Clinton, Obama, Giuliani, and Romney are people, not robots, so they must have some actual point of view. Why not express it?

It’s fair tor criticize modern political discourse for its dedication to the 15-second sound bite, but that’s not sufficient. Brevity in moderation is not injurious to discourse per se, but it is if nothing of substance is conveyed. In just two minutes you can say something, perhaps even something that’s important and immortal. The problem with today’s politics isn’t the length of a sound-bite, it’s the emptiness of both the words and of the ideas they are meant to express.

Gamers 4 Health?

 video games  Comments Off on Gamers 4 Health?
Nov 122007
Gamasutra has reported that the Robert Wood Johnson foundation has launched a new initiative geared towards adapting video games for health purposes. Just two or three years ago this would be almost completely laughable—at that time, only games with large peripherals like Dance Dance Revolution offered a reasonable chance of improving health during play. In that era, a plan like this would either be geared towards developing purpose-built health gaming systems or creating health-education games. It’s possible that some portion of this money will in fact go to the production of cheap flash games based on eating the right number of vegetables. We may even see the long-awaited Salad Master appear. However, the advent of the reasonably-affordable Wii, which has physical activity built into its control system, puts the use of games for health improvement into the home.

But why use games for this purpose? The press announcement includes a key rationale:

Computer and video games are an increasingly powerful medium, providing engaging ways for people to learn, be entertained, and connect and communicate with each other. The industry brings in more than $7.4 billion in annual revenue; nearly 70 percent of American heads of households play computer and video games, the average age of players is 33 and more than 40 percent are women. There is enormous opportunity to apply the power of this interactive medium to pressing health and health care challenges.

There’s a lot of useful information in this little quote that suggests productive avenues. Now, games produced for the PC as yet cannot include a significant amount of real motion without costly purpose-built peripherals. “Health games” for that market will mainly consist of the flash-style games I mentioned earlier. Frankly, in my opinion there is no space in the adult market for health-education games. While I do not disagree that complex and useful information can be conveyed by a game, to effectively communicate health information to an adult audience without making them feel like they are being talked down to is a task to which most interested developers are probably unequal. Health-education messages would have to be sneaked into more mainstream games for this approach to be effective.

Moreover, PC gaming is a mostly sedate experience. You are not moving around, and to create games in this platform runs counter to the overall aim. A more focused and effective approach would be to create games that involve significant amounts of upper/lower body motion for the Wii, or for the XBox and PS3. Some of this program will hopefully go towards developing health-game peripherals for the latter consoles. However, in the near term the best bet is the Wii, for a variety of reasons. First, of course, is the built-in physicality of game control. Also, the lower price-point and the accessibility of this console make it a more attractive choice for gamers with families, which will include many of the gamers in the age bracket targeted above. Additionally the Wii (and the XBox) have a built-in way to distribute simple low-cost games directly (over their respective download systems) without the typical costs associated with game publication. Hopefully the PSN will equalize this factor.

Exercise via Wii should not be assumed to be automatic. Although I am reliably informed that doing so makes one a toolbox, one can play Wii games using only small wrist motions while sitting. This suggests that games intended to produce physical activity should also include compensation to decrease the sensitivity of the Wiimote, forcing more expansive motions.

Some fragment of this “health games” program should be dedicated to developing appropriate accessories. A weighted sheath for the Wiimote, for example, could increase the physicality of a game without interfering with control. Alternately, weighted, reinforced gaming gloves that minimize the coverage of the palm and restriction of the fingers could improve the workout and diminish the incidence of “Wii wrist”. The one thing that’s missing from the Wii is something to do with your feet. One could, however, develop peripherals to deal with this. For instance, one could make a motion-sensing ankle strap (weighted even) with a long cable to reach the Wiimote. I’m not sure there’s any reason why one couldn’t develop a game in which one person uses two Wiimotes with such peripherals to enforce full-body motions. Head-to-head would require 4 wiimotes in that case, however, which starts to increase the expense. Online play to the rescue?

As far as the design of workout games, aside from the typical quality issues, the time required to play should also be taken into account. Typical sports games typically require something like 10 minutes of continuous play. Based on the intensity of the activity, doctors and kinesiologists should calibrate gameplay so that it comes in the right duration—possibly something like 15 minutes for intense play, 30 minutes for light-to-medium intensity. The duration of a gameplay unit should also be calibrated for the intended audience: a 33-year-old father of two probably can’t sit down to play for three hours every night, or even manage that 3 times a week. Games in which 30 minutes to an hour of play are enough to actually achieve something would be optimal; people who have more time can always continue.

A really clever person could also go beyond titles that are explicitly about the activity and exercise to create a title that tells a story and simultaneously achieves a physical end. The pace of the game could be modulated to encourage the right kind of exercise behaviors. For instance, an early part of each game segment could be devoted to motions that encourage stretching, build into motions that constitute the workout, pursue those motions for a calibrated workout period, and use cutscenes and puzzle segments to enforce breaks or a post-workout cooldown. Hack-and-slash adventures or RPGs could be easily adapted to such an approach, or one could use the classic shooter as a model. Using an episodic content download distribution system would keep it fresh for the player, and ensure a continuous revenue stream. Health education could even be incorporated into such a game.

The main point I’m making is that there should be a focus here that goes beyond creating a game that’s “just” exercise. Game designers are some pretty creative people—don’t come to “health gaming” with the idea that all of it has to be Wii Sports or even Rockstar’s Table Tennis. Intense physical activity can also be built into games that tell a story. Doing so might even be an advantage, especially in reaching people who don’t like the idea of working out, or who are very busy but don’t want to have to choose between exercise and entertainment.

Again I’m talking about the Wii mostly, but there’s no reason for the initiative to limit itself to that in the long run. Because it makes use of a two-hand grip, the sixaxis isn’t as conducive to large motions as the Wiimote is, but the existing Playstation Eye could possibly be adapted to exercise use. And, of course, there are always purpose-built peripherals, though these on top of the ~$400 you need for the hi-def consoles may not be as much of a broad-based winner.

Also, of course, dedicated systems for creating exercise games could also work, but I feel they will be less effective. Creating an expensive, purpose-built whole-room video game system that pushes athletic activities may draw in a few people who otherwise wouldn’t join a gym, but mostly such a system will only reach people who are willing to go to a gym anyway. That doesn’t “grow the audience” for exercise. It’s much more important to reach people in their homes, where they feel most comfortable. Also, you don’t want to make people choose between outcomes if it’s not necessary. If you create a conflict between entertainment and exercise there’s a pretty good chance they’ll choose the former. If you create synergy between these possibilities and mix exercise and entertainment in the same machine then your audience grows.

I think an initiative of this kind is a really good idea as long as the administrators don’t tie themselves into archaic or stale game styles. A flash game about colon cancer might be informative, but it probably won’t be enjoyable or entertaining, and besides it will encourage lethargy. A tennis game for Wii might give someone a workout, but hey, they already have one. The effort here needs to be dedicated to ways to make existing games into exercise (by desensitizing the Wiimote, adding weighted accessories) and to develop new modes to make future exercise games better by calibrating their durations and taking the gameplay into directions that aren’t explicitly sports.