The Bullet Hole: Thoughts on the necessity of God (or lack thereof)

I have recently been rereading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and I’ve found an argument of his that, in my opinion, nicely illustrates the divide between theistic thought and atheistic thought. Here is is, from the end of chapter 3:

There is a much more powerful argument, which does not depend upon subjective judgement, and it is the argument from improbability. It really does transport us dramatically away from 50 per cent agnosticism, far towards the extreme of theism in the view of many theists, far towards the extreme of atheism in my view. I have alluded to it several times already. The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument, as I shall show in the next chapter, demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed.

Dawkins’s question here is: if life, the universe, and everything could not exist without a creator, then how can their creator exist without an even greater creator? After all, if order and complexity cannot exist on their own, then how did our universe’s creator (who must be orderly and complex in order to design such a universe) come into existence? In my opinion, it’s a good question, but a theist might see it as missing the point. I shall explain with an analogy.

You are examining a crime scene, and you discover a small hole. You examine it closely, and you conclude that it is a bullet hole. If it is, then you can strongly conclude that a gun fired that bullet, and someone pulled the trigger on that gun. Now, this conclusion actually raises more questions: What kind of gun was it? Who made the gun? Who fired that gun? Why did they fire it? Where did the shooter come from? Where did the gun maker come from? And so on. But even if we never get an answer to any of these questions, we can still conclude that a human fired a gun, because we have the bullet hole, and there’s only one way to make such a hole.

The theist position is that our existence is like that bullet hole, and the creator is the one who fired the bullet. Questions like “Where did the creator come from?” are interesting, but even if we never get an answer to such questions, we still know that there is a creator responsible for our universe. Ignorance in one area does not refute knowledge in another area. (For another example, consider abiogenesis and evolution: even if we know nothing about how life got started, we can still know that life evolved)

This is not to say that theists do not try to answer questions about the creator. Indeed, most of them are quite preoccupied with the question of the creator’s motives. Consider Rick Falkenstein, who became a creationist last month. After concluding that something created us, he asserted that created things have a purpose and set out to find that purpose, rather like a crime scene investigator trying to figure out a shooter’s motive. Both of these are smart choices, if we grant their initial assumptions. Wouldn’t it be good to know why our creator made the world, just as it is good to know why someone made a shot? Of course, even if we never get answers to these questions, that doesn’t change the conditions that prompted us to ask the questions in the first place. The bullet hole is still there.

But what if the hole was not a bullet hole?

Fake bullet holes are available for purchase. Holes that look like bullet holes can fool the untrained eye, just as this hole did (and this hole as well). Forensics textbooks insist that it takes “training and experience” to properly distinguish bullet holes from similar marks. With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine an unskilled investigator trying to determine the motives of a shooter that never existed as they examine a hole that wasn’t actually made by a bullet.

Now go back to the subject of creation, and you can see the point I’m trying to make: our reality looks like it was created, until you examine it more closely. Creationists have made many arguments, some of them quite sophisticated, and scientists have refuted them all. The design that Falkenstein sees is simply not sufficient to prove the existence of a designer. No bullet hole, no bullet, no gun, no shooter. It’s that simple.

Millions of people have looked at life, at the earth, and at the stars, and have concluded that someone must made all this. Some being, however strange, must have laid out the order we see. But our instincts fool us; great minds have sought that being, and have not found it, bringing back only evidence of order arising by itself. Many have desperately tried to prove a creator’s existence in the face of this evidence, but sound minds have rejected their offerings. It appears that our tendency to see a creator’s handiwork is simply part of our tendency to see patterns that aren’t there. Bullet holes, man… they’re everywhere.

We really shouldn’t go on like this. Endlessly looking for things that aren’t there does us no good, whether we’re looking for gods or guns. If anyone can offer sound evidence of a great creator, then let them come forth and do so, but as it is now, when I look at life, the universe, and everything, the only bullet holes I see are the ones we’ve made ourselves.

Apple vs. FBI – The Spy Draft Marches On

Apple has sent out a letter declaring the need for encryption, and lots of people are talking about it, and fortunately for us, some of those people are intelligent and moral. Check out Bruce Schneier’s post, especially all the good posts he links to, like Julian Sanchez’s editorial and the EFF’s summary of the situation. Schneier doesn’t link to Techdirt’s takedown of the DoJ, but I won’t hold that against him.

As Schneier so aptly puts it, people are seeing this as “Apple privacy vs. national security”, when really, it’s “National security vs. FBI access”. To quote Julian Sanchez:

These, then, are the high stakes of Apple’s resistance to the FBI’s order: not whether the federal government can read one dead terrorism suspect’s phone, but whether technology companies can be conscripted to undermine global trust in our computing devices. That’s a staggeringly high price to pay for any investigation.

Once again, government forces are pushing for measures that will make all of us less safe. And once again, they’re forcing people and companies to cooperate with them. It’s spy draft 2.0, in which you must not only hand over information, but also perform labor, and build a world where infiltration and surveillance are permanently easy.

This must not stand. Do whatever you can to oppose this. Support organizations like the EFF and EPIC that fight against this. If you buy Apple, let them know that you love what they’re doing, but that you and your dollars will leave them if they give up the good fight. And tell your elected officials to make the FBI (and every other three-letter agency) stop fighting against real security in our technology.

This is a fight worth fighting. Resist the spy draft.

Muchas gracias, Eliezer Yudkowsky – an open letter

Dear Eliezer Yudkowsky,

I wish to sincerely thank you for the works that you have written and published, most especially your magnificent work of fanfiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It is an enjoyable and engrossing story, and my wife and I found happiness reading and discussing it together.

But that’s not really why you wrote that story, is it? Entertainment is all well and good, but what you really want is to educate people, so that we can actually know and apply those methods of rationality you mentioned. Well, it so happens that your book worked; I did learn something from Harry’s adventures, and I used it to improve my own life.

Earlier this year, I went down to Nogales (the Mexican half) with a friend, on a mission. I was there to have a good time being a tourist, and also to obtain six bottles of Mexican vanilla (my wife wanted some for herself and some to share with family and friends). I had brought with me 20 American dollars. My wife assured me that this would be enough to cover any expenses I would encounter.

Well, as my friend parked his car in Nogales (the American half) and we approached the border, I thought about that money, and wondered if it would be enough, and I remembered Chapter 6: The Planning Fallacy when Harry gives that little lecture about being sufficiently pessimistic and reveals the gold he secretly swiped from his vault. I decided that I, too, wanted to have enough money to buy what I really wanted, and withdrew 40 more dollars from the nearest ATM. I then followed my friend to the moneychanger’s office, where we converted our dollars to pesos, and we crossed the border.

I spent every last centavo, and it was great.

I bought some chocolate in brand names that I’d never seen before. I had a strange and lovely meal in a very authentic hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I bought a locally-knitted jacket for my daughter, and I probably overpaid because I have no experience bargaining, but I could afford the loss. I bought a little silver bracelet for my wife. And I bought six of the largest vanilla bottles I could find. My trip was a complete success.

So, Mr. Yudkowsky, if you ever lie awake at night, wondering if you’ve ever actually succeeded at helping anyone be more rational, remember that you helped me, at least a little. Even now, there sits in our kitchen a vanilla bottle as long as my forearm, and it wouldn’t have been half as big if not for you.

Thank you again, and good luck to you,
Tice

Disconnected and Loving It

A few days ago, I was cut off from the Internet. I could not send or receive mail; I could not read or reply on blogs or on Facebook. I lost my favorite way of learning about the outside world and of communicating with other human beings.

I loved it.

It was a huge relief to not have so many things to stress over. No longer could I inundate myself with bad news and endlessly obsess over the feedback of strangers. I could pick up a book and contemplatively read it – or monomaniacally pore through it and finish a whole novel in an afternoon, something I hadn’t done since the last Harry Potter book. I could speak face to face with people and enjoy the whole range of feedback you get that way. Or I could be alone – truly, willfully alone – and not care about anyone’s opinion, if only for a little while. It was bliss.

Now, some of you are probably reading this and thinking, “So what? I have no problem doing all those nice things, even when I do have easy access to high-speed Internet. What’s your problem?” Well, simply put, my problem is that I am not you. You can hold your liquor, but me, I had to go dry. It wasn’t by choice at first, but I’m glad it happened, and I intend to remain this way as much as possible.

For a while, I was considering getting rid of my smart phone and getting a dumb one; I finally realized that I can dumb down my phone and call it good. I’ve turned off my phone’s Wi-fi and mobile data. As for my computer, I’m rationing my time on it. I can’t avoid the Internet forever, but I can push it away as much as possible, leaving myself free to enjoy life and humanity the way God intended.

So, if you are like me, and you spend too much time in cyberspace, I suggest that you cut yourself off and spend a little time in meatspace. Look up from your phone – you’ll be glad you did.

The Illusion of Guilt

There is a sickness in our minds, and it runs deep. It is a desire to force the facts to fit our opinions, rather than force our opinions to fit the facts. This madness is especially dangerous when the facts in question are related to crimes and justice. Our institutions have a terrible tendency to force people to appear guilty instead of determining whether or not they actually are guilty.

One area where this tendency manifests is in the way cops interrogate suspects. The Reid Technique is currently popular among American law-enforcement agencies as a way to get suspects to confess. It is a powerful technique, with a proven track record of getting people to confess to crimes that they could not possibly have committed. FalseConfessions.org describes how this can happen on this page. Here’s a typical example:

Martin Tankleff had just turned 17, when he found his mother brutally murdered and his father clinging to life after being attacked. After calling 911, he was immediately taken to police headquarters and underwent harsh interrogation by homicide investigators. He was told that his hair was found in his mother’s dead fingers and that his father awoke from his coma to identify young Martin as his attacker. Although he was never Mirandized and maintained his innocence, police finally convinced Marty that he must have blacked out. Confused and scared, Marty came to believe his interrogators that he blacked out and committed the crime. Although not one bit of forensic evidence linked Marty to the crime scene, he was convicted and sentenced to fifty years in prison. After serving close to 18 yeas, his conviction was finally overturned in 2007. (see www.Martytankleff.org)

A recent scientific study, reported here by the Star, concluded that it was extremely easy to get people to believe themselves guilty of a crime: 70 percent of participants in a study were persuaded that they were guilty of a crime, with only minimal suggestions from the researchers. To make matters worse, some of the fooled participants became so convinced of their own guilt that they could not be re-persuaded to believe themselves innocent, even when the researchers revealed the ruse! The scientists prematurely ended the study, frightened of their terrible discovery, but the techniques they used remain common practice in police departments all across America. In fact, the Reid Technique was first developed in 1942, so we have several decades’ worth of false confessions on the books. How many people have already died, wrongfully convinced of their own guilt? I can only guess.

It’s worth noting, as Brian Gallini does in this paper, that the Reid Technique was based off of polygraph techniques – the so-called “lie detector”, which happens to be based on a pack of lies. Gallini observes that the polygraph’s credibility was already in question in 1942, so the Reid technique was in trouble from the start, and yet it has become common practice, in spite of evidence that it does not work! And speaking of the polygraph, that one hasn’t gone away, either: California is now requiring paroled sex offenders to take the test. Apparently, it is too much to ask that our governments refrain from using methods that routinely incriminate innocent people.

The Reid Technique and the polygraph are not alone in the government’s arsenal of methods for conjuring up guilt. Let us not forget that our forces are fighting a War on Terror, and to fight such a war, they must sometimes use “enhanced interrogation techniques” to get critical information out of terrorist suspects. Torture, in other words. But does torture work? There is precious little evidence in its favor. There are many who claim that it is effective, but, as former FBI agent Ali Soufan notes in this op-ed, they have a track record of lying. The US Army’s own field manual on intelligence interrogation notes that “the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear”. Alas, it is that final property of torture – that it can induce someone to say whatever the interrogator wants to hear – that makes it so useful to its practitioners. When you want to force the facts to fit your opinion, waterboarding people into submission seems like a great idea. (For a good examination of this mad way of thinking, read this piece by Major Anthony Milavic.)

There is one other information-gathering technique that I wish to discuss: mass surveillance. This one stands out from the others I’ve mentioned because it’s so much less personal, and it doesn’t appear to force anyone to lie. And yet, it suffers from the same failures as torture, polygraphing, and Reid Technique: it’s terrible at getting the truth and great at creating the appearance of guilt.

In defense of the first assertion, consider this post from WashingtonsBlog, in which the author notes (among other good points) that even before the 9/11 attacks, there was plenty of mass surveillance going on, and plenty of data being gathered about the people who would eventually carry out the attacks, but none of that data was able to prevent the attack. Why not? The author quotes from this piece by Nassim Taleb: “Big data may mean more information, but it also means more false information.” Perhaps this is why the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program has failed to prevent even a single terrorist attack.

As for creating the appearance of guilt, we need look no further than the strange case of Brandon Mayfield:

But there’s another danger that Snowden didn’t mention that’s inherent in the government’s having easy access to the voluminous data we produce every day: It can imply guilt where there is none. When investigators have mountains of data on a particular target, it’s easy to see only the data points that confirm their theories — especially in counterterrorism investigations when the stakes are so high — while ignoring or downplaying the rest…

Mayfield had converted to Islam after meeting his wife, an Egyptian. He had represented one of the Portland Seven, a group of men who tried to travel to Afghanistan to fight for al Qaeda and the Taliban against U.S. and coalition forces in a child custody case. He also worshipped at the same mosque as the militants. In the aftermath of 9/11, these innocent associations and relationships, however tangential, were transformed by investigators into evidence that Mayfield wasn’t a civic-minded American, but a bloodthirsty terrorist intent on destroying the West…

FBI agents broke into Mayfield’s home and law office. They rifled through documents protected by attorney-client privilege, wiretapped his phones, analyzed his financial records and web browsing history, and went through his garbage. They followed him wherever he went. Despite all this, the FBI never found a smoking gun connecting him to Madrid. They did, however, find Internet searches of flights to Spain and learned that he once took flying lessons. To FBI agents already convinced of his guilt, this was all evidence of Mayfield’s terrorist heart…

While it may seem like there were a freakish number of coincidences here, when the FBI was confronted with evidence that demonstrated Mayfield’s innocence, they twisted it to support their original theory of his guilt. With no evidence that Mayfield had traveled internationally for years — his passport had expired, and the last record of foreign travel was during his military service in 1994 — the FBI simply concocted the theory that he must have traveled overseas as part of this terrorist conspiracy under a false identity…

Because of mistakes made by the FBI — they left shoe prints in the carpet of the Mayfields’ home and broke in one time when Mayfield’s son was home alone — Mayfield concluded he was under surveillance by federal authorities. Paranoia set in. When driving, he would look to see if someone was following him home or to the office. The FBI took his skittishness as more evidence of his guilt.

There is a saying, which some attribute to Cardinal de Richelieu: “Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre.” Translated: “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” (Hat tip to Cory Doctorow for telling me about that quote) In other words, it’s easy to make people look guilty. And if six lines aren’t enough, then collect six hundred, or maybe six million. That is what mass surveillance offers: enough noise to cherry-pick any data we want, and invent guilt in any target we choose.

This all has to stop. We have tens of thousands of people being wrongfully convicted, and millions of people being pointlessly spied on, all because our institutions refuse to admit that they can be wrong. I don’t know how to put an end to all of this, but I know we need to do it, and as soon as possible. It is time to stop supporting the illusion of guilt.

I’m Back!

Greetings, netizens! I have returned!

You might have noticed that this little blog of mine was missing for a spell. Why? Because I was trying to become a teacher, and teachers are not allowed to have personal lives. Have a picture of yourself holding a couple drinks? You’re fired. Or how about a photo of your beau touching your (clothed and covered) boob? You’re fired! And God help you if you’ve got any naked photos. In light of these and similar concerns, I thought that my frank political posts might be a real liability to my intended future career, so I hid them away.

Well, I’m not trying to be a teacher anymore (the reasons why being a story for another time) so let the posts run free! I’m here, I’m opinionated, and I want you all to know it! Let freedom (and verbosity) ring!

Hello again, world. It’s good to be back.