Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nagel's Prizes

Further to my post about Tom Nagel and Intelligent Design (September 15th), and Brian Leiter's information that Nagel has won the Balzan Prize worth 885,000$, a Swedish friend informs me that he was once "awarded the Swedish Rolf Schock prize in philosophy (or "philosophy and logic", as the statutes have it - "and" to be read as "or"!)."

Monday, September 15, 2008

How I Voted in 2006

In January 2006, I voted for the Conservative Party. I did so in Vancouver East, one of the most reliable NDP ridings in the country. In Jeff Wall's celebrated photos, some of it looks like this, which may explain why:

For the very first time in six elections, I failed to vote for the winning candidate and the winning party.

Why did I vote that way?

First, I was disgusted with the Liberals. They had threatened national unity by their dirty tricks in Quebec.

By contrast, the Conservative Party had made genuinely innovative proposals vis-a-vis Quebec, which still serve them well in that province.

Third, I was horrified by Paul Martin's vindictive treatment of old Chretien supporters, for instance pushing the old warhorse Sheila Copps out of her Hamilton riding, and Stephane Dion out of cabinet.

Fourth, I didn't think that the social yahoo-ism of some Conservatives would do any harm. Harper had promised a free vote on gay marriage, just as Brian Mulroney had promised a free vote on capital punishment in 1984. (For my friends in countries that don't have a Westminster style parliamentary democracy, a free vote is one where members of parliament are freed from party discipline, and are free to vote their own conscience. Since the Government has no stake in the issue, neither result counts as its losing the confidence of the House.) Capital punishment lost in 1984, and it went out of Canadian discourse. I was convinced that gay marriage would go the same way (and it has).

In a word, I was truly tired of the Liberals, and quite ready to see a grumpy old duffer, Paul Martin, leave.

Famous Philosopher Comes Out for Intelligent Design Theory!

Neo-conservatism has been so gratingly strident of late that some liberal intellectuals seem ready to embrace anybody who just turns the volume down. How else to take celebrity philosopher Tom Nagel’s recent defence of Intelligent Design (ID) in Philosophy and Public Affairs? Nagel protests the “campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design as beyond discussion.” While he acknowledges that ID is more likely to appeal to those who already believe in God; he pleads that by contrast with “young Earth creationism” it does not rest on biblical literalism. That’s apparently enough to get it into the biology classroom as far as he is concerned.

Nagel’s central scientific observation is that one may legitimately doubt whether random mutation affords natural selection enough variation from which to generate the observed diversity of life on Earth. (“This seems on the face of it to be a scientific claim,” he says, and not “self-evidently absurd.”)

How does this make ID science? By a series of snide equivalences. For instance: “No one suggests that the theory [of natural selection] is not science, though the historical process it describes cannot be directly observed.” No indeed. But then the “purposive alternative” (ID) cannot be so dismissed either. To do so would be to hold that “Only the falsehood, and not the truth, of ID can count as a scientific claim.” Does Nagel think that the entire research program of evolution by natural selection could be summarized as – not-ID! (In passing: it is not axiomatic that if p is science, not-p must ceteris paribus be so. Popper, for example, held that universal statements were scientific because refutable by a counter-instance, but existentials not so.)

Nagel seems to allow that one cannot construct a good scientific explanation out of something so indeterminate as God’s intentions. But he thinks that nonetheless there could be good scientific evidence in support of the proposition “An intelligent designer created the world.” (Not uncontroversial: for discussion, see Elliott Sober, “What’s Wrong With Intelligent Design?”, available here.) According to Nagel, you can exclude this proposition – call it IDE – from the domain of science only if you believe that God is impossible. But if IDE is beyond the reach of science, then so is its contradictory. Though it
is “perhaps” the “nub of the issue,” the impossibility of divine intervention is “a religious assumption” and constitutionally suspect.

It is surprising that, brilliant ethicist as he is, Nagel is not more sensitive to the path-dependence and essential temporality of practical reason. He couches the entire ID question sub specie aeternitatis in terms of probability and evidence. But whether ID (or IDE, for that matter) is science or not depends not on eternal questions of the status of religious belief, but rather on what it has contributed or can contribute to science. This depends on where science is today. It may be true that in Darwin’s time, the hypothesis of divine creation had scientific standing. It is certainly true that in 1859, Darwin’s theory lacked an adequate theory of heredity and was for that reason contestable by proponents of directed mutation. (Fisher famously argued that on Darwinian blending inheritance, populations would not be able to retain enough variation to support significant evolution. This is one of the fundamental motivators for incorporating Mendelian particulate genes into the theory of evolution.) This vulnerability was not forever.

Things are very different today. We should ask: Is there a scientific problem on which ID sheds new light? Does it shed new light on mutation? Does it offer us a systematic alternative to evolutionary theory? And surely, the answer to all of these questions is: No! For a time, the notorious bacterial flagella were touted as a problem better addressed by ID – but this has been thoroughly discredited (as demonstrated in the Dover School District case). As for mutation, none of the tests of Motoo Kimura’s neutralist hypothesis or of junk DNA reveal bias suggesting divine intervention – and something should have showed up if ID is correct about this. And what perspective of scientific value does ID offer us, what prospect of new research? Admission to the biology curriculum requires more than non-infinitesimal prior probabilities; it requires scientific utility now, and utility is temporally dependent. (Remember Lorentz contraction: a theory that might have been useful in the 1890s, but one that became scientifically jejune after Special Relativity.)

Nagel quotes the Dover judgement as follows: “Professor Behe remarkably and unmistakably claims that the plausibility of the argument for ID depends upon the extent to which one believes in the existence of God.” And he objects, in yet another tu quoque, that this is no reason to exclude ID since “evolutionary theory as a complete explanation of the development of life is more plausible to someone who does not believe in God.” The question he should ask is this: would anybody today turn to ID as a scientific program except for a belief in God-as-creator? Nagel quotes a number of respectable scientists who share his scepticism concerning the sufficiency of random mutation – Stuart Kauffman, for instance. These scientists do not turn to ID; rather they try to show, by appeal to considerations of evolvability or to dynamic systems theory, that the evolution of complex systems is not as improbable as might at first appear. These are constructive proposals, and prima facie at least, they have some claim to inclusion within biology, though even here, random mutation and the bottom-up evolution of complexity are “null hypotheses” that will prevail if shown to be possible.

The scientific evaluation of theories involves much more than an enumeration of possibilities, and Nagel would be well-advised to adopt a more nuanced position on the “demarcation question” of what should count as science, and what not.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Day Five and still no improvement

Stephen Harper said yesterday that the Liberal Green Shift plan would be catastrophic, not only for the economy, but for national unity. He said that Government economic modelling has shown that meeting Kyoto commitments would cause a recession equivalent to that of the 80s.

That modelling had nothing to do with the Green Shift, which cuts income taxes and levies a carbon tax. It was about emission controls in isolation.

Of course, the Liberals have done nothing so far to explain their position. In the Green Shift brochure, a clear explanation is offered: "We will cut taxes on those things we all want more of such as income, investment and innovation. And we will shift those taxes to what we all want less of: pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and waste." Yet, Dion continues to respond to Conservative attacks with a message of sacrifice: Mr Harper "does not have faith in Canadians' ability to meet great challenges."

This morning's Globe summarizes the Liberal Plan, but fails to note that it includes personal as well as business income tax cuts. Yet, the cuts are clearly stated: "We will cut the lowest income tax rate to 13.5 per cent from 15 per cent, a 10 per cent reduction. And we will cut the middle class tax rates to 21 per cent from 22 per cent and to 25 per cent from 26 per cent."

Why doesn't Dion introduce some clarity into this debate?

In an interview yesterday, Harper said that only popular arts programmes should be publicly funded. I guess Feist can expect a grant from the Canada Council some time soon.

More than half of the arts funding story in the Globe and Mail is devoted to how well Harper plays the piano. Not clear why this is relevant (except perhaps to soothe the feelings of arts-supporters in this country).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Still No Green Shift . . .

The campaign remains idea-free. Harper has promised to leave Afghanistan by 2011. That's simply reacting -- he doesn't say why Canada's right decision to support NATO in Afghanistan will become wrong in 2011.

Meanwhile, the Liberals refuse to present the Green Shift in simple terms. The simplest way to put it is this: We're going to cut income tax. And we are going to tax carbon. We're going to take less money from your pay-cheque. If you choose to spend your money on gas, that's your business.

This simple message should be very attractive to city dwellers in particular. Granted, in Canada, they get less than one vote per person -- and so its good politics to ignore them. But remember that Harper opposed the Green Shift even in Richmond BC, a suburban riding where upwardly mobile voters hate taxes, and where carbon obscures the citizens' view of the mountains (for which they pay a lot in terms of property values).

Instead of this, Dion tells a New Brunswick crowd that "transforming to more fuel-efficient practices must start now to ensure economic viability in the future." This is almost like telling them that they have to make a sacrifice for the future. Not a sexy message, is it? (And it's all in polysyllabic words.) What's he thinking?

As for news today: Elizabeth May of the Green Party will join the debate (Good! -- now get Duceppe out of it); the NDP advances in British Columbia.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Paradox on the Campaign Trail

Bored? Don't be. Stephen Harper is playing with our minds:

"The biggest single problem we have is it's a chicken and egg problem -- it's that we are not here," he said, peering through a giant tea-cup in Toronto.

He was talking about dim Conservative prospects in Toronto -- "Once we start electing some people, it will be easier to elect some more." But what's the chicken and egg problem -- "Which came first electing more or electing some?" That doesn't sound like a problem exactly. Hmm . . . And "We are not here" -- don't you have to be?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Green Shift

Another day of vapidity. The Conservatives posted an ad on their website, which showed a puffin (behind Dion's ear above) shitting on him -- Really! -- as it flew by. Harper has apologized. Good, I guess.

In the meanwhile, Dion has a new website, which pushes him as a nice guy ("not rich"), and the papers speculate that his "music of English" statement (see Revelations post below) was sympathetic. (Sure it's sympathetic. Hell, it's almost pandering: when did
you last hear a francophone talking about the music of "the beautiful language" --- English???)

The Liberals announced today that they will reinstate the Court Challenges programme, which (before the Tories eliminated it) used to fund constitutional challenges brought by private citizens against the government. A very worthy idea. (Even Sarah Palin could get behind that, right -- private citizens suing the Government at Government expense? Don't tell her that's how we got gay marriage though.) I hope it is followed by promises of reinstating the cultural programmes recently cut by the Tories. But look: this is not really a nation-sized story. How many people are going to be swayed by the Court Challenges programme, which they have likely never heard about?

I don't get why the Liberals are not campaigning on their Green Shift programme. Yesterday, Harper told the Huangs that it is a revenue grab. (See the Harper in BC post below.) This is nonsense: the promise is to legislate revenue neutrality. For each dollar gained from the carbon tax, the proposed legislation will say one must be cut somewhere else. The Shift cuts personal income tax and taxes carbon emissions instead -- at $40 per tonne, I think. Well: isn't that a good idea? Why are the Grits acting embarrassed about it?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Harper in British Columbia

Today, Stephen Harper travelled to British Columbia to lecture the Huangs. (Those are their friends in the foreground.) I don't know whether they would have liked to say a word or two to the Great Communicator -- but it doesn't look as if they are going to get a chance.

He slammed Gordon Campbell's carbon tax at the Huang residence. He didn't say much about the environment, or what the carbon tax would do for it, or indeed anything about the effects of the tax -- on the economy, or human values, or anything else.

He said:
"Every politician in history who wants to impose a new tax claims that it's either revenue neutral or it's temporary. It's not true.” Later in the day, he said: “The reason politicians impose a new tax is they need revenue.” Thereby, he slandered one of Canada's few competent politicians, one who brought BC from Canada's worst governed to best, one who has rescued the provincial budget, and one who had always been at pains to work with Harper.

Revelations in the Canadian Election

Today is the first real day of the Canadian election, and already a lot of excitement -- of a sort. Stephen Harper tells us that he enjoys playing cards with his kids. Stephane Dion reveals that a hearing deficit keeps him from hearing "the music of English". (Actually, he has been taking speech coaching, and hearing him on the radio this morning made me wonder how he has managed to acquire a Swedish accent .)

Jack Layton should really catch up. Is there nothing he wants to tell us?

Elizabeth May of the Green Party says we should stop watching CNN and get involved in our own election. Well we would if somebody would give us something of substance to chew on -- sorry guys, the music of English doesn't count, nor does pinochle, or whatever it is that Harper plays with his kids.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Election called

Today's the 7th of September, and a federal election has been called in Canada. Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister, claims that Parliament has been unproductive -- though his party has a document on how to obstruct Parliament. (Don Martin of CanWest reported in May.) And that is what they have been doing.

The press has been agog with the news that the Liberals have leased a Boeing 737-200 from Air Inuit, which consumes more fuel than the Conservatives' Airbus 319 -- as if the Liberals had hired this plane because it was deemed more luxurious or prestigious, like a Hummer. Not a word about issues so far. Perhaps this is what will pass for an issue.

(UPDATE: Liberals will pay carbon offsets.)

On the first day of the campaign, Mr. Harper seemed to take a card from Sarah Palin's hand:

"Mr. Dion, I understand, is a father as well. I don't know Stephane Dion all that well but I presume that he's been married a long time, has children. I presume he's a family man also.

Being a family man ... a father of school age children is a big part of my life," Mr. Harper told reporters. People say it must be tough to balance your family life with being prime minister. In fact if I didn't have this family life I don't think I could stay balanced as prime minister."

This from a man who, on his first day as Prime Minister, walked his little son to primary school in front of cameras, and took his farewell by shaking the little one's hand.

The quote is from the Globe and Mail. Mr Harper really should really try to learn the difference between 'presume' and 'assume'. Already, he does far too much of the former.

Nothing about field-dressing a moose: I "presume" this is Laureen's job.

As of today, the pundits deem a Conservative win inevitable. And the polls indeed look that way -- they show the Blues at 39%. Let's see.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Dutch Vandalism in Toronto?

The other day, on my morning walk to the office, I spied this clumsy piece of signage on top of what I knew to be an elegant building:

The Ontario Power Generation building is not perhaps a landmark piece of architecture, but it is simple and impressive, and its front echoes the curve of Queen's Park crescent a little further north. Across College Street, Norman Foster pays it a compliment by continuing its lines in the University of Toronto's new Pharmacy building, which doubles OPG's colonnade with a reflection of its own.

What then did it do to deserve this?

It looks like amateur fixup by a DYI householder. I feel hurt that a Dutch bank would do this to Toronto. Aren't we supposed to be friends? Didn't Canada help liberate Holland after the war? Didn't hundreds of Dutch men and women come over here with their Canadian spouses? And then they do this?

Some of my friends remark that the ING signage is merely an expression of the Toronto craze to brand buildings. That is part of it, no doubt. But there isn't anything seriously bad about the S on top of this building, is there? (Aside from the logo itself, of course.)

The rule in Toronto is that the eye is not allowed to fall unpunished upon a pleasant thing. The Dutch, whose cities are gorgeous even though built by bankers and shippers, should have done better.

Here, by the way, is ING's world headquarters near Schiphol in the Netherlands:

Now, that's a building and a half. Note the signage.