Wednesday, 28 December 2016

A Weak Argument

Perhaps, like me, you have become tired of me attacking Max Andrews' thesis.  If so, good news!  Now I want to attack something Max Andrews wrote in a blogpost.  It's quite a minor element of the post, but it blossoms out quite rapidly:

Let’s look at the weak force coupling constant, gw = 1.43 x 10-62.

He hasn't even got into the argument with this statement and it's taken out of context (the specific context isn't actually important) but even so there is so much to talk about.

If you take the time to look up the value of the "weak force coupling constant" you may find that αw ≈ 10-7.  The sharp eyed among you might see that we are talking about what appears to be apples and oranges, or gw and αw.  Admittedly, at first I thought that Andrews couldn't work out how to display an α and was using g instead (which would be strange).  However, if you dig deeply enough around the net you will find that

αw = gw2 / 4π

which means that gw ≈ 1.1 x 10-3.  That's a big error margin when one is talking about how weak the weak force coupling constant is (1059 times bigger than claimed).

(There is a real difference between αw and gw.  The former, αw, is the "weak interaction coupling constant" or " weak nuclear force coupling constant" or "weak force coupling constant" or even "weak fine structure constant" and it represents the strength of the weak force in an interaction.  The latter, gw, is a less frequently mentioned value.  It is known as the "effective charge of weak interaction" or "weak gauge coupling constant" and is a measure of the strength of the interaction with the weak gauge field (in gauge field theories).

But wait … there's more.  Andrews might not be entirely wrong about this value (he is though, as we shall discover below).

Like quite a few other constants, the weak force coupling constant is not actually a constant.  It varies with distance, so it can (and should) be expressed as a function of range.  There is undoubtedly a specific range at which gw = 1.43 x 10-62 (one not terribly far off the radius of a proton at about 10-15m).  The question, however, is whether Andrews - who talks about a number of constants in the article - uses the same point of reference.  Note that he refers to the strong coupling constant this way:

gs = 15

This shares the same relationship with αs as above, so this corresponds with αs ≈ 13.7.  Note however, that an actual theoretical physicist, Matt Strassler, has this to say:

But at longer distances, the strong nuclear force gradually becomes (relatively!) stronger. [Again, remember what we mean by “weak” and “strong” here; the force is actually becoming weaker in absolute terms as r increases, but relative to, say, electromagnetic forces at the same distance r, it’s becoming stronger.]

§  αstrong = 0.3 (at r ~ 10-16 meters)

That’s quite strong indeed! And by the time r reaches 10-15 meters, the radius of a proton, αstrong is bigger than 1, and becomes impossible to define uniquely.

It's still going to fall with distance, but distance isn't the only measure against which to measure the value of the strong coupling constant.  You also need to consider the energy range, for example on the chart in this article, it can be seen that αstrong peaks at about 0.7 GeV (billions of electron volts) with a value of about 1.2 which equates to a gs ≈ 3.9.

Andrews' suggested gs of 15 seems quite unreasonable.  But at least this time he is only out by a factor of about four, rather than a factor of 1059.

Which brings us back to Andrews' claim for the value of the weak force coupling constant at 1.43x10-62.  This is, fortunately enough, a rather specific number so that when I stumbled across it again, at WikiUniversity, it leapt out at me.  But note that this value, while associated with the weak force coupling constant isn't the weak force coupling constant.  It's the Fermi coupling constant, GF, as expressed in J.m3.  To get the weak force coupling constant, you need to go a step further ("at sufficiently small distances"):

αw = GF.Mp2.c / ħ3 = 10-5

This corresponds with a gw of about 8x10-12.

Admittedly, the value of αw is directly proportional to the value of GF, so Andrews could structure his argument in terms of how the extremely low value of GF appears to be fine-tuned.  But this isn't the problem usually talked about in physics circles.  They talk about how the measured (effective or renormalised) value of GF is so much larger than might otherwise be expected (the hierarchy problem).

Interestingly, they suggest that, once normalised, GF lies very close to G (the gravitational constant).  Personally, this is what I'd expect at least in terms of natural units - furthermore, I'd expect both of them to have a value of precisely 1 (like the gravitational constant, the speed of light, the reduced Planck constant, all the Planck units - mass, length, time, charge, temperature - the Boltzmann constant and the Coulomb constant (which is related to the permittivity constant)).  If this is the case, then their values are not an instance of fine tuning at all, they would be just yet another expected reflection of the nature of the universe.


Even if this isn't the case, Andrews should be a lot more mindful when making bold claims about the values of fundamental constants and try to avoid being out by such huge factors.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Talk to Me about Life

Let's imagine that there is a god.  Let's imagine it’s a specific sort of god -  a male god who has western values and a number of superpowers.  And let's imagine that this god wanted to make intelligent life.  We're not alone in this, by the way, plenty of people imagine this on a pretty much continuous basis.

Now, when these people do all this imagining, they tend to not focus on this particular aspect - the claim that god wanted to create intelligent life.  I am of course talking about the fine-tuning argument in which it is suggested that the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life.  (Apologists go on and on about this argument, but the rank and file … not so much.)

So, what exactly is going on here?  The implication is that this god didn't have in mind the idea of making a universe so much as it had a specific goal of generating intelligent life and the method chosen just happens to have involved the creation and fine-tuning of a universe to host this intelligent life.

This leads me to ask: did this god need to create and fine-tune a universe to host intelligent life?

The short answer appears to be no.  Firstly, let's look at angels.  Angels are a bit confusing, especially to an outsider who hasn't been told what to think on a weekly basis.  There are indications in Genesis that, before the flood, angels and humans not only interacted, but they interbred … these were, however, fallen (or at least very naughty) angels.  There are mentions of the court of heaven which has a host of angels.  And there are Gabriel and Michael, who appear a few times.

Are angels the natural consequence of a universe which was sparked by god 13.7 billion years ago and left to slowly incubate the human species?  It would appear not, since the "proper abode" for angels is supposed to be heaven, which is where god apparently abides and is therefore another realm (thus being a time-LESS, space-LESS abode).

Given the very early and apparently knowledgeable appearance of Satan (or his representative) in the bible's creation story, a pivotal story that sets the scene for the key act of christianity, one could say the crux, we would have to presume that angels existed prior to or at least separately to humans.  (I'm aware that this doesn't gel with the fine-tuning argument which relies on things being "just right" at the big bang and everything evolving naturally from there with humans as the ultimate product - just overlook that for the moment and stick with me.  I'm also aware that there's some uncertainty as to what the serpent actually was.  The story specifically has a crafty serpent doing the dirty work, but there is an on-going theme of Satan being a snake and/or dragon.  But perhaps it's like the apple - people think that Eve ate an apple, but there's no mention of apples, it's a "fruit of the Tree of Knowledge".  Maybe it was an actual talking snake and it's merely a common misconception that the talking snake was Satan in another guise.  If so, it's unclear why we are being made to suffer because god messed up when creating talking snakes.)

If Satan was the being that tempted Eve, then it would appear that god does have a method for creating intelligence without the need to host that intelligence in a universe … unless god didn't create the angels and the angels appeared from nowhere along with god (or are co-eternal).  I don't think that this works since it seriously detracts from the specialness of god.  It would make all the angels "mini-gods", if not actual gods.  (If the serpent in the creation story was just another animal, then we've got the problem of hosting intelligence [more intelligence than Eve had, it would seem] in the skull of a snake.  It implies that intelligence can be hosted on a much less sophisticated substrate than the human brain, which raises the question … why go to the bother of creating the human when you can host intelligence on a reptile brain?)

Perhaps we can get around this mini-god issue by denying that angels exist.  Well, of course I have no issue with that, but I think it causes some issues for at least the christian theist.  Without the Fall, there is no origin of sin (unless it originates directly in god) and there is no need for the redemption that was provided by the crucifixion of the christ.  And without the serpent form of Satan and its corruption of Eve, there would have been no Fall.  (This is a problem with the fine-tuning argument as it pertains to christianity, because the Genesis story becomes entirely allegorical, there is no Adam and Eve, there is no talking snake and there is no Fall.  Therefore, there is no need for Jesus on a Stick.  And that is why people like William Lane Craig like to compartmentalise their arguments.  You basically have to forget the fine-tuning argument while you are contemplating the resurrection argument.)

And then, let's consider our post-death reward.  Well, I've already pointed out the issue really.  It's post-death.  The natural consequences of being in a universe which is fine-tuned for intelligent life, which includes the eventual deterioration and death of each living thing, will inevitably result in the death of each of us - and by that I mean you.  Yes, you!  You will die.  (I will die too, so please don't misconstrue this as a threat.)

So we die and, despite this - and because he, in the form of his own son, died in a moderately painful way in restitution for the failure of a mythical woman to avoid being corrupted by words of a mythical snake (which may or may not have been a mythical fallen angel) - god will apparently recreate us in some new or reconstituted form so that we can live forever.  Which means that he could have just made us in that form from the start without having to faff around with 13.7 billion years of universal evolution.  He chose not to, apparently, but he could have.

This seems to indicate that the universe itself is somehow important.  It's not just the necessary means to an end, since the end could be achieved by completely different means.

And this brings me to the germ from which this article sprang.  It's to be found in another couple of sentences from Max Andrews:

Without stars we don’t get the full range of heavy and light elements needed for complex molecular life. Without the complex molecular life formed by stars then there’s no life. That’s just a simple fact.

These statements are based on the argument that the weak force coupling constant must be just so or stars won't form and/or burn "properly".  So therefore, god set the weak force coupling constant just perfectly so that everything needed for (intelligent) life would eventually exist in this universe.

But this is pure bullshit.  The theist's argument doesn't stop there.  They go on to claim that this creator god is so fascinated with humans that there is this resurrection thing on offer and this claim works in direct opposition to the claim that the universe needs to be just so for life to exist.  No.  The universe needs to be just so for life (of the sort that we are aware) to exist, if and only if there is no god.

If a god exists, then it can magic up whatever it wants ex nihilo without the need to bugger around with the making of a vastly complicated, apparently totally natural universe like our own.

Just maybe, a creator god would make a vastly complicated, apparently totally natural universe in order to hide from us the fact that there is a creator god.  But if this were the case, then we should do our best to respect its wishes and pretend (or acknowledge) that it doesn't exist.

If there is some other reason for a god to be hiding behind this complexity (while also protesting it does actually exist via a deeply flawed book and a set of deeply flawed institutions devoted to celebrating that book), then I think it is the responsibility of the theist to explain what that reason might be.


Perhaps Max Andrews could devote some time to that rather than misrepresenting modern theoretical physics?

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

This is Brand New Information

Actually, it's not.

In his debate with Justin Schieber, (see also notes here), Max Andrews makes the claim that a mind is the best way to account for the origin of "brand new information".  In For Your Information, I discussed how for there to be information of the sort of that Andrews talks about in his thesis it is necessary to have someone who cares, for example by presupposing a god-like being external to the universe or multiverse.

Now I want to look at the "brand new information" claim, as separate from the need for a transmitter, channel medium and receiver of such information.

Remember that information in this context is an inverse measure of the probability of what is being considered, or its "surprisingness".  A linked concept is entropy, which is the lack of order and predictability.  Effectively, what creationists are arguing when they claim that the universe has information is that its current condition is surprising - in other words, this is just another way of framing the "fine-tuning" argument.  The notion that the universe has a surprising amount of information is, therefore, tautological.  (There's an endless loop in this: "The result here was more surprising than we had expected, which was a surprise in itself.  This added surprise to the result, making it even more surprising and the realisation that the result could be more surprising than we initially found it to be was another surprise.  Finding that there was one more layer of surprise was also, in itself, yet another surprise.  And this only added to the surprise.  By this point, our eyebrows had lifted so high that our heads were banging on the ceiling.  Which we hadn't expected at all.")

The other way of looking at information is to consider how many questions need to answered to fully specify what is under consideration.

These perspectives can easily lead to confusion, in much the same way as consideration of entropy can lead to confusion.  When we look at a white kitchen bench, from which all the various implements and so on have been removed, we could say that it is very ordered.  Then we put a neat pile of flour on it.  In a sense this too would be very ordered, because the flour is tightly located in its neat pile.  Say though that we compulsively spread the flour thinly over the benchtop so that it has an even covering of 1mm.  This too seems to be very ordered.

Entropy is a measure of disorder, but more strictly it’s a measure of how many states a system can be in.  And this always increases in a closed system (as expressed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics).  When we think about it this way, we can see that the pile is low entropy - because when we ask about where a particular bit of flour is, we can always be answered with "in the pile".  There are limited states in which the bit of flour can be found (it's not zero entropy, because there are different positions in the pile for the bit of flour to be found).

Compare this with the situation in which there is no flour on the bench and the bench is completely empty.  The answer to the question "where is this particular bit of flour?" is "what do you mean, what bit of flour? there is no flour!"   This might confuse things a little, but we can easily see that there are no locations in which flour might be, so entropy in this case is zero.

The same applies to space and energy.  Empty space (truly empty space) has zero entropy, presumably nothing (no space) with nothing in it would also have zero entropy.  A system involving space in which energy is clumped very tightly has low, but non-zero entropy and a system involving space in which energy is spread evenly has high entropy - and the more space there is, the more entropy there can be in the system.  (It might be tempting to think of the universe as being driven by the second law of thermodynamics but this law is more descriptive than prescriptive.  It describes the nature of the universe, it doesn't necessarily determine it.)

Entropy and information are conceptually linked.  The more order there is in a system, the less "surprisingness" there is in it.  The more disorder there is, the more "surprisingness" there is and therefore the more entropy in a system, the more information there is associated with that system.

This means that, in its initial state, the universe contained very little information - because it was in a very low entropy state, or rather because it was in a very low entropy state compared to the current entropy state of the universe (there is no upper limit for the entropy of an open or an expanding system) which means there was a much less information in the early universe than there is today.

Now this is a point on which some apologetic fine-tuning enthusiasts appear to want to have their cake and eat it too - such as the people at BioLogos.  Admittedly, it's a subtle point when one argues about the information associated with the initial conditions of the universe, including the "degree of its entropy".  Effectively, they are arguing that there was a surprisingly large amount of information in the initial conditions including the fact that there was amazingly small amount of information (ie, low entropy).  Note that Guth's argument doesn't help them particularly because even though it explains away the low entropy, it does so at the expense of suggesting that the "initial conditions" may not have been initial conditions after all ("the universe need not have a beginning").

Let's get back to the "brand new information" claim.  Well, there's more information all the time, because entropy is (as a whole) increasing all the time, as per the second law of thermodynamics.  Plus the universe is expanding, so that the Berkinstein limit for the universe is increasing, and thus the potential for entropy is also increasing.  Perhaps it could be argued that there was a sudden jump in entropy from zero (when there was nothing, including no space and no time) to non-zero (when the universe was in a hot dense state, prior to the big bang), but this was to what is considered to be an extremely low state of entropy - so this is not particularly surprising given that we've noticed that the universe tends towards increased entropy and it would be natural, if there were to be an increase from nothing, that this increase would be to "very close to nothing".  The sudden appearance of large swathes of entropy would indeed be disturbing, but that's not what the data indicates.

But perhaps this isn't what Andrews and his fellow fine-tuners mean.  I don't think it is.

I think they are thinking of the pre-universe as being a sort of tabula rasa, a clean slate, a blank page, a clear bench and then - shazam - meaningful stuff appears.  Not just an extremely low entropy concentration of energy, but also some sort of predetermined, inbuilt rule book detailing how energy and space-time should interact in order that humans should emerge about thirteen and a half billion years later.  This is akin to not only putting a pile of flour on the bench, but also precoding it miraculously form a very specific form of bread.  Which works perfectly if we consider ourselves to be as important as bread in the analogy and not something more simple, like a meaningless spot of mould in an obscure crack on the bench that would be totally invisible to the non-existent owner of the kitchen.

Consider a different sort of tabula rasa.  A white expanse on which there is one fleck of black.  Say that this expanse could be broken up into a million billion data points and the fleck covers one and only one of these.  That single fleck represents a lot of information, because it's very surprising that only one point on the grid is black - it's one in a million billion.  But can we really say that this information could only originate in a mind?  No, I don't think so.  The wind could have dropped that fleck there.  It could be a tiny bit of ant poo.  While it might take some effort to uniquely identify which spot on the expanse contains that fleck, it's not necessarily of great import.

But again, I don't think that this is what these apologists really mean.

What I think they mean is that if you sat down and decided to not only design a universe, but to design this one, specifically this one, then you would need a lot of information.  Imagine the amount of data required to accurately model the universe in all its detail!  It would be staggeringly huge amounts of information.

But this is exactly the same (in principle, if not in scope) as trying to model the state of the Earth's weather systems.  The reason our weather models fall over after a few days is because inaccuracies creep in.  We don't have enough information to adequately model weather indefinitely (and we never will), the only accurate model of the Earth's weather system is wrapped around the Earth - being the weather.  But we only try to predict the weather into the future, we don't try to design a specific set of weather conditions from first principles.  The fact that there are huge amounts of information associated with the weather at any given moment does not confer importance to that state at that time.

Similarly, you'd have to do some very impressive work if you created a universe from scratch and wanted, as a result, to have some dishevelled, rather grumpy person writing about how you didn't exist some thirteen or so billion years later.  But again, that is presupposing a creator and an intent.  Without the creator and the intent, there is no special information and nothing to get so excited about.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

For Your Information

There are arguments for the existence of god that rely on the notion that the only source of ((brand) new) information is a mind.  There are, of course, problems with these arguments, foremost of which is equivocation.  Information means different things to different people and in different contexts.  Pretending that the term means one thing only and gliding from one meaning to another permits all sorts of self-deception on the part of the apologist.

I want to try to explain (and dismiss) one example of this apologetic trickery, but to do that I have to make it quite clear what information is and isn't.

When an apologist, like Max Andrews, provides this equation:

I(m)=-logx(P(m))

or one like it, it is clear that he is talking about a different sort of information than he is when using a variation of this equation:

P(A|B)=P(B|A).P(A)/P(B)

and he talks about the evidence B in terms of "background information".  (He actually splits the "evidence" into two parts, one that he calls "evidence" (call it E) and the other that he calls "background information" (call that B).  This is something we've come across before.  The effect is, as I have argued, to make P(A|(B&E)=P(A).  In other words, you get nothing from the faffing about with impressive-looking probability equations other than some mild confusion.)

The Shannon entropy equation refers to the information content of m, which could be a message, and is basically a measure of how unlikely m is - which means you need to know what values m may take.

I'll try to make this concept a little more concrete.

Say that a father is away on a business trip and sends a message back to his teenage son: "send socks".  Even before we try to quantify the amount of information in this message, we could be safe in saying that it isn't enough.  How to send them (post, express mail, courier pigeon?) isn't detailed.  When to send them isn't detailed.  Quantity is not detailed.  And the teenager might be quite justified in asking "Which socks?" - unless of course the father only owns one type and colour of sock, all of which are of equal quality (either all with holes in them or none with holes in them).

There's a subtle linkage between how much information is in the message and how much information is required.  For example, this message could contain one single bit of information for the son, a request to transition to the "send state" after having previously been in a "no-send state".  There could have been an existing agreement as to how, when and what to send based on the receipt or non-receipt of this short message.  So the knowledge state of the recipient has an impact on the amount of information being conveyed.

If the father had written "Send one new, unused pair of ankle-high blue socks with yellow stripes, located to the left in the top-drawer of dresser, via express post, immediately" and this course of action had already been agreed, then no more information would have been conveyed than in the message "send socks".

But imagine that everything had been agreed apart from precisely which socks had to be sent.  Imagine further that the father had two types of socks, black sock and brown socks.  Adding the word "brown" to the message adds one bit of information to the message because there is a range of two possible valid messages "send black socks" and "send brown socks".  The more possible valid messages that could be sent, the more information is contained in the message "send brown socks".  We can think of that in this way, the message "send brown socks" also contains the information "don't send black socks".  If the father has a wide range of socks, then the message "send brown socks" also contains the information "don't send black socks", "don't send pink socks", "don't send orange socks", etc, etc.

And it's here that information can be thought about outside the context of sending a message.  Say we were in the father's bedroom standing in front of his dresser with the top drawer open.  We reach in and take out a pair of socks, we identify them as black.  Given that we know that he has only black and brown socks (and that we have assumed, due to the principle of indifference, that he has equal numbers of black and brown socks), then we know that the probability of having selected a pair of black socks was P(Black)=0.5 and so the information associated with that selection was I(Black)=-log2(p(Black))=1bit.  If there were 20 different types of socks in the drawer, the probability of having selected a pair of black socks would have been P(Black)=0.05 and we'd have I(Black)=-log2(p(Black))=4.3bits of information.

A standard CD can hold 847MB of data, with 110MB of that being set aside for error correction.  This is close to about 6.8 billion bits which means that the information on a CD is equivalent to uniquely identifying one pair of socks out of 102000000000 pairs (847MB is equivalent to about 2GBan).  Or one star out of 102000000000 stars (although there are only about 1021 stars in the observable universe).  Or one grain of sand out of 102000000000 grains of sand (but there are only about 7.5x1018 grains of sand on Earth, meaning that if every star had two temperate rocky planets as sandy as the Earth (I'm saying that Mars is sandy and ignoring that it's smaller than the Earth, so probably has less sand), then there'd be about 1.5x1040 grains of sand in the universe).

(This is probably why Max Tegmark feels confident enough to suggest that the initial data in the universe could have been so simple as to be contained on a single CD-ROM.  Although he immediately suggests that even the CD-ROM might not be necessary - in accordance with his suggestion that the universe (or multiverse) overall may contain hardly any information at all.)

A complicating factor here is the one that probably trips up overly excited apologists such as Max Andrews.  Selecting one specific grain of sand from the universe, using the assumptions above, represents a rather unimpressive 16.558 bytes of data (and I'm overselling it slightly since 25616.558=7.509955x1039, meaning that I am being cavalier and suggesting that it doesn't matter if I add about 1037 additional grains of sand to universe … about half the number of grains of sand that would exist on as many Earths as there are grains of sand on Earth).  But if we didn't care about the specific grain of sand and just wanted a grain of sand, the information in that grain of sand would be much, much less.  The less specified the selection is, the less information there is in that selection.  There's still some information in the selection of "grain of sand" from the range of things that could be subject to this process, but the game "20 questions" demonstrates just how many different things can be uniquely identified with a sequence of 20 carefully framed "slice questions" - a little over a million.  Double the number of questions and you can uniquely identify 1012 different items … with precisely 5 bytes of information.

Going back to the sock drawer, if the father just wanted any old pair of socks, then the probability of drawing them from the sock drawer would be Pr(socks)=1.  (Note that I am assuming here that there are socks in the sock drawer, which may not always be the case, but the point at the moment is about the probability of selecting a pair of socks from a set of existent socks, not about the probability of the socks being existent.)  The information in this is precisely zero because logx(1)=0, irrespective of the value of x.

In other words, the more you don't care about the result, the less information there is in that result.  This, hopefully, makes intuitive sense - think about the difference between the news that Khloe Kardashian has been on a new diet and the news that Prince has died (Purpleness Be Upon Him), both reported in April 2016.  One event led to widespread dismay and spontaneous demonstrations of grief on the streets of Minneapolis and the other one I only noticed because I was momentarily delayed in a supermarket checkout aisle and it was easy 2 see (it) on the cover of a magazine.  Reports of Prince (PBUH) dying contained information.  Reports of Khloe getting marginally less fat is so lacking in information that I lack the care factor necessary to

And this is where the argument of people like Max Andrews becomes circular.

We, as part of the universe, do care about the fact that we exist.  Therefore, for us, this is interesting information.  We are also part of a selection event, in so much as the universe does appear to be fine-tuned, in that were certain constants and laws slightly different then life like ours would not be possible.  We can imagine situations, or alternate universes, in which we would not exist (counterfactuals), and from this glean "information".  For example, if the strong nuclear force were stronger by more than one part in 50 (and all other constants were held at existing values), then diprotons would be stable leading to the failure of stars to form (due to the rapid consumption of all hydrogen in the first minutes after the Big Bang).  So we can posit a universe in which the strong nuclear force was stronger by one part in 20, or twice as strong, of four times as strong, or seven times as strong.  And we could keep going, infinitely, providing different multiples and then claim that just this one single fact contains infinite information.

(A problem here, of course, is that we don't know that all of these values are valid, let alone equally valid.  And there was a caveat, "all other constants were held at existing values".  There are solutions in which the strong nuclear force may be higher and other constants being at different values still allows for unstable diprotons.  The bottom line is that we don't really know how unlikely it is that the strong nuclear force lies in the convenient range that it does, and "we don't know" is equivalent to "no information".)

But when it comes to the existence of the universe, it doesn't really matter how interested the constituent elements are in it.  It's a question of how interested the universe is and, unless that is a mind, it's not a huge leap to suggest that the universe isn't interested at all.  In which case, there is no information in the universe as a whole.

What appears to be a novel argument on the part of Max Andrews is that because there is so much information in the universe, and minds are the only originators of "brand new information" (this part is a standard creationist claim, usually centred on genetic speciation), then there must have been an antecedent mind to have initiated the universe (or multiverse).  But this is circular, the universe as a whole only has information if the universe itself is a mind or there is a mind external to the universe that cares about what is inside it.  (The universe (or multiverse) would also have to be contingent, meaning only the universe/multiverse could have been different.  There's no information in a necessary thing being as it necessarily must be.)

So, unless he is suggesting that the universe itself is a mind, Andrews is presupposing that there must be a god of some sort, that therefore the universe contains a huge amount of information (presumably due to extreme contingency of it) and therefore that there must be a god as the source of that huge amount of information.


This is completely circular and therefore totally useless as an argument for what he so desperately wants to argue.  It's amazing that this got accepted as a thesis, but I guess that when both of your supervisors are dedicated god-botherers then so long as your answer is "god did it", you can get away with any old nonsense.

Friday, 25 November 2016

The Problem with Multiverses

In The Multiverse & You (& You & You & You…), Sam Harris talks about multiverses with Max 'Mad Max' Tegmark.  Sadly, Harris didn't take the opportunity to ask Tegmark about his foundation, Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi), being funded by Templeton.  To be fair, the FQXi website has a page on their finance arrangements which make huge efforts to distance the Institute from their financiers.  Even so, they are playing with Templeton money which is always disappointing when proper science is involved.

But this is about multiverses.  In their discussion Harris and Tegmark (although possibly more so Harris) make much about the idea that if there is a multiverse, noting that they only got to Level 2 Multiverses, then there will be an infinite number of Harrises and Tegmarks doing slightly different versions of the podcast.  At one point the googolplex is mentioned, a number which although not infinite is officially considered to be very big - 10 to the power of 10100.  Apparently, someone worked out that the number of possible arrangements of the original particles in the universe is in the order of a googolplex.  Not quite infinity but, you know, a lot.  The idea is that out of those arrangements, even if a relatively small fraction of them would result in us, that would still be a lot of arrangements with beings indistinguishable from us in them.

Take that one step further and say there is the possibility that there were more or fewer particles in the initial arrangement of the universe, then you get a huge number of googolplexes of possibilities.  Within that suite of possibilities, there would again be a lot of arrangements with beings indistinguishable from us in them. Then there's the possibility of duplication - which brings us to the possibility of an infinite number of replications of us in existence.  There might not only be an infinite number of universes which are very, very similar to our own, but also an infinite number of universes (albeit a "smaller infinity") that are exactly the same.

So, it's true enough that, if Tegmark is correct about multiverses, that there are an infinite number of Tegmarks and Harrises who has a discussion that was turned into a podcast.  And it's true that there is an infinite number of Tegmarks and Harrises who had very similar, but slightly different, discussions that either did or didn't get turned into a podcast.  And it's true that this infinity of variations might include discussions in which Harris suddenly began talking in Hungarian.

What concerns me, however, is that either by accident or design, the presentation of multiverses was staggeringly arrogant.  They failed to mention that there was an infinite number of universes in which their discussion didn't take place even within the infinite number of universes which contain a Max Tegmark and a Sam Harris.  It's a bit like a series of matryoshka dolls, each of which is infinite in size but, because the rubberiness of infinity, can be ranked:

The infinite number of universes in which the Harris-Tegmark discussion happened precisely as it did in ours which is a subset of:

The infinite number of universes in which the Harris-Tegmark discussion took place which is a subset of:

The infinite number of universes in which Harris and Tegmark met each other which is a subset of:

The infinite number of universes in which both Harris and Tegmark exist which is a subset of:

The infinite number of universes in which humans exist which is a subset of:

The infinite number of universes in which intelligent life is possible which is a subset of:

The infinite number of universes in which there is something rather than nothing:

The infinite number of possible universes.

Tegmark himself points out that human endeavours have been plagued by a sense of arrogance – this, our village, is the only village.  No?  But this land is the only land.  No?  But this continent is the only continent.  No? But this planet is the only planet.  No?  But this solar system is the only solar system.  No?  But this galaxy is the only galaxy.  No?  Well, the universe that we can see is certainly the only universe.  Perhaps we’ll soon be trying on “this is the only multiverse” for size.

The arrogance is inherent in the contemplation of what we are doing (right now) and the imagining of what would be changed if things were very slightly different, as if our activities were some sort of focal point for the universe.

But I think it gets a bit worse, as least in so far as the discussion that Harris and Tegmark actually did have, in our universe.  They were discussing how there could arguably be an infinite number of universes such that anything that is possible does actually happen.  Think about that for a moment.  Anything that is possible happens in some universe or another.  Really?

Is there a universe in which an analogue of me (clearly not actually me, because I live in this universe, but a version of me that would think precisely the same as me except that this other version …) buys a lottery ticket every week and wins the jackpot every time?  This is very highly unlikely, to be sure, but it's not strictly impossible.  Oh Grand Pixie, why oh why am I not that version of me?

It gets worse.  Harris and Tegmark touch on how the brain (and the suite of the processes within the brain) interacts with the outside world, implying that the common ground is mathematics.  My concern isn't so much with that, but with the concept that there are things go on inside our brains that are interpreted as interactions with an external world that really aren't.  Usually these are minor hiccups and most of us resolve them and carry on.  Some however are constantly plagued by voices in their heads and other delusions.  It's highly unlikely that we could all be affected by chemical states in our neurology that results in coherent voices that all tell us that a god is real.  But it's not strictly impossible.  And it's not strictly impossible that cloud formations could take on the appearance of an old man in the sky (or an old woman in slightly less politically incorrect alternate universes).

What I'm suggesting here is that, at least in the rather light touch on multiverses discussed by Harris and Tegmark, the odds are that in some universe there will be all the evidence that anyone could ever need to prove the existence of a god.  The vast majority of prayers would be answered in such a universe (merely on the basis of coincidence, but the supplicants don't know that).  Everyone would get visitations from what appear to be divine agents (or rather have internally generated experiences of such visitations, purely due to random chemical reactions in their brains).

Remember that we are talking about infinity here, not just a very big number.  Even if the likelihood of an apparently god-infested universe is infinitesimally remote, if there is an infinite number of universes, then there is at least one universe like that, and possibly even an infinite number of them.

Would Harris and Tegmark agree with this, as a possibility?

Either way, it seems that multiverse predictions do tell us something about the likelihood of there being a god.

Consider the difference between 1) a great being which exists and for whose existence there is clear evidence and 2) another great being for which there is no compelling evidence of its existence.  Which is the greatest?  Unless hiddenness is defined as a strength (which seems unlikely since we are repeatedly told that the god of the theists wants to have a relationship with us), the evidence based god is superior.  Some theists will argue that it's not possible to have evidence of their god.  But what multiverse theory seems to be telling us is that it actually is possible to have overwhelming evidence of a god, even their specific god, and that that applies even if such a god does not exist.  But clearly you and I don't live in a universe in which there is overwhelming evidence of anything of the sort.


On the contrary, we live in one of the universes in which it is not only possible but entirely reasonable to reject the notion of a god.  The question therefore is this: How do theists who buy into multiverses and subscribe to some sort of mandatory divine hiddenness get around this issue?

Monday, 7 November 2016

Xavier and the Queen of Hearts

Xavier sits at a card table, across from Derren Brown.  Xavier has been asked to bring with him a brand new deck of cards, which has placed on the table.  Derren opens the pack, removes the jokers, and begins shuffling the deck.  Then he hands over the deck to Xavier and encourages him to inspect it to make sure that it's the same deck he brought and that it's a fair deck, with 52 different cards in it.

Xavier confirms that it's a fair deck.  Derren then asks Xavier to continue shuffling the pack, face down until he is happy that it's thoroughly blended.  Then Xavier is asked to cut the deck, and deal himself two cards, one face up and one face down.  Xavier is instructed to throw the rest of the deck behind him, away from the table, which he does.  Derren clarified that any card on the table or in Xavier's possession belongs to Xavier.

The card that is face up is the Queen of Hearts.  Call this Card A, and the face down card Card B.

Derren asks Xavier whether he believes that he owns the Queen of Hearts, to which Xavier says "yes".  When asked why, Xavier points to Card A and says "because I can see it right there - Card A is the Queen of Hearts".

Derren then asks Xavier to flip Card A over so it is face down, he points out that the cards on the table belong and asks whether he believes that he owns a Hearts card.  Xavier says "yes" and when asked why, says "because the Queen of Hearts is a Hearts card and Card A is the Queen of Hearts.  It's just there!"

Derren pulls his sleeves up, revealing his forearms, and asks Xavier to watch very carefully.  Then he takes a piece of wrapping paper, slips it carefully under Card B, making sure not to touch it with his fingers.  Then he gets some tape and asks Xavier to fold the wrapping paper over the card.  A few folds later and the card is securely wrapped.  Neither Darren nor Xavier has no idea what the face value of Card B is and the wrapping paper is thick enough to prevent either from seeing though it.

Derren now scoops up Card B, leans over and deposits it in Xavier's top pocket.  So, Card A is on the table and Card B is in Xavier's pocket.  Xavier owns both cards.

Now Derren asks whether Xavier believes that he owns a royal card.  Xavier says "yes" and when asked why, clarifies that the Queen of Hearts is a royal card and Card A (right there) is the Queen of Hearts.

At this point, Derren casually flips over Card A, revealing that it isn't the Queen of Hearts after all, but rather the Seven of Clubs.

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This article is about a question of belief.

My position is that Xavier believed that he had the Queen of Hearts.  When prompted he assented to the notion that he believed that he owned a Hearts card, however, he didn't simply believe that he owned any old Hearts card, he believed that he owned the Queen of Hearts, which happens to be a Hearts card.  When asked about owning a royal card, he responded in the affirmative, but in reality he believed that he owned the Queen of Hearts, which happens to be a royal card.

Derren used the distraction, while putting Card B into Xavier's top pocket, to switch out the Queen of Hearts with the Four of Clubs which he had palmed earlier, during the initial shuffle.

The question revolves around Card B.  Nobody knows what that card is, not even Derren.  It could be a royal card.  If it is a royal card, noting that Xavier owns it, does this make his assent to the notion "Xavier owns a royal card" a true belief, if when asked he no longer owns the Queen of Hearts?

I don't think so, because I don't think that Xavier ever has a partially formed belief that he owns a royal card.  He very specifically believes that he owns the Queen of Hearts, which is a royal card.

Strangely enough, some people don't think this way.  They think that if Card B was, say, the Queen of Spades, then Xavier would have had a true belief that he owned a royal card, despite having a false belief that he owned the Queen of Hearts.


What do you believe?

Thursday, 3 November 2016

A Warrant Against the Gettiest of Gettiers

In Getty Gettier Gettiest, I wrote about how the Gettier problems that I have seen don't present a problem to the notion of justified true belief, because they all involve fooling the subject into false believing something specific, having that subject infer something general from the false belief and then having the general inference proved to be true.

I want to expand a little in this article, having discussed the issue over at CraigLand in terms of "warrant" (more of "warrant" a bit later).

It's generally understood that to have knowledge, one must have justified true belief.  In other words, in order to know something, you must have sufficiently good reasons for believing something that is true.  What is built into this model, but apparently overlooked, is the idea that you can have good reasons for believing something that is not true.  So, you can have justified false belief.  Let's revisit the scenario of the faux-barns as an explanation (slightly complicated per Goldman 1976, as taken from EIP).

The fake barns (Goldman 1976). Henry is driving in the countryside, looking at objects in fields. He sees what looks exactly like a barn. Accordingly, he thinks that he is seeing a barn. Now, that is indeed what he is doing. But what he does not realize is that the neighborhood contains many fake barns - mere barn facades that look like real barns when viewed from the road. And if he had been looking at one of them, he would have been deceived into believing that he was seeing a barn. Luckily, he was not doing this. Consequently, his belief is justified and true.

So what we have here is an observer, Henry, whose eyes have received a configuration of photons which is consistent with having seen a barn.  The problem is that he could have received a functionally identical configuration of photons without having seen a barn, if he had been looking at a fake barn, rather than a real one.

So the question is, given that he could just as easily as been deceived as having been correctly informed about a barn in the field, does this constitute knowledge?  My instinct tells me that it does.  Henry has a good reason to believe that there's a barn there, there is a barn there and he believes that there's a barn there.

Those arguing that there is a problem will raise a few other related scenarios.

First, Henry looks into another field and receives a configuration of photons that is consistent with there being a barn in that field and as a consequence believes that there is a barn in the field.  However, it's not a barn, it's a faux-barn.  I don't think that this introduces a problem.  Henry merely has a justified false belief; he's made a completely understandable error and this does not constitute knowledge.

Second, say that when looking into the first field, Henry is actually aware that in the region it is reasonably common for fields to have fake barns in them.  He sees what looks like a barn, it is actually a barn, but now he does not know that there is a barn there.  This seems strange.  He's been given more information about the situation but the apparent effect of that is to make less knowledge available to him.  The reduction of available knowledge, however, is not real - the total knowledge has increased but is differently distributed.  Henry now has knowledge about other things that look like barns in fields and as a consequence of having that knowledge, he now will not form a belief that what he sees is necessarily a barn.  Instead, he's forced to believe something more general, that what he is seeing is something that looks like a barn - which constitutes knowledge because it's a justified true belief.  However, this more generalised knowledge will apply when he looks in other fields.  Note that without this information about fake barns, Henry would otherwise have held false beliefs about barns when he saw faux-barns and thus had no knowledge at all.

Third, say that Henry is looking in a third field, not knowing about fake barns despite looking right at one.  Hidden behind that barn, and thus not seen by him, is a real barn.  This is a scenario that I covered in Getty Gettier Gettiest and, per that article, my position is that Henry is being fooled into believing that there is a barn in the field.  He might actually be right in the general claim that there is "a barn" in the field, but believing that to be so is not justified by the information that is available to him.  He could know that he is looking at something that looks like a barn.  If he could justify believing that he is looking at a fake barn, then he could know that there is a fake barn in the field.  But there is no relevant justification for him to believe that there is an actual barn in the field.  The fact that there actually is a barn in the field is only "serendipitously" true.

Now, in Getty Gettier Gettiest, I raised the issue of sliding between specifics and generalities.  Henry saw what he thought to be a specific barn and in order for there to be a problem with justified true belief, it would have to be valid to make an inference from a specific false belief to a general true belief.  That's not logically sound.

At CraigLand, that was not precisely the approach that I took.  Instead I pointed out that for justified true belief to constitute knowledge, the justification involved must be relevant and that the belief cannot be merely serendipitously true.  In other words, the truth of the belief cannot be decoupled from the justification for the belief.

While the invalidity of inferring a general true belief from a specific false belief covers all the Gettier problems that I am currently aware of, I think that relevance of justification and absence of serendipity may be key in addressing a more generalised Gettier-like challenge to the notion of justified true belief as a basis for knowledge.

---

Now, I did say that there would be more on "warrant".  In the discussion I was having at CraigLand, the definition of warrant was:

the quality or property that turns mere true belief into knowledge

This definition is very close to how Plantinga introduces it in Warranted Christian Belief (I have elsewhere challenged what Plantinga thinks warrant is (as opposed to what it is defined as)).

Think about it.  Warrant is being considered almost like an alchemical agent.  Not only that, it would appear that "warrant" only pertains to true beliefs.  Could you have a warranted false belief, if "warrant" is the "the quality or property that turns mere true belief into knowledge"?  Plantinga's theory is a dual plus theory of knowledge, masquerading as a tripartite theory of knowledge.

And, even worse, it's basically a theological approach to knowledge as one of the WLC fans at CraigLand wrote "I would say it has to be an actual interface with God".  Plantinga himself writes about how warrant is related to some sort of "design plan" - a cognitive system "working the way it ought to" (ie as designed).


Anyway, part of the motivation to look towards something like warrant is because some people think that the justified true belief theory of knowledge is somehow threatened by the Gettier problem.  Once it's realised that the Gettier problem doesn't affect justified true belief theory and that, at best, warrant is just a limited form of (relevant) justification for (non-serendiptiously) true belief, the justification for even considering "warrant" quickly dissipates.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Getty Gettier Gettiest

The Gettier problem is about epistemology, the philosophical consideration of knowledge and belief.  Apparently, this problem skewers understandings of knowledge justified true belief by pointing out possible holes in the notion of justifying of true beliefs.  Gettier's actual examples are quite complicated (we'll get to them in a moment), but something close to Saul Kripke's version of the problem illustrates the principle well enough to be starting with:

Say that Fred is travelling through the countryside in his car.  He looks up and sees what appears to be a barn in a field and thinks to himself, "There's a barn in that field."  However, what he saw was merely a very convincing mock-up of a barn in the middle of a field, only an inch thick, similar to what might be seen on a movie set.  Nevertheless, further back in the field, obscured by the mock-up of the barn there is in fact a real barn that Fred did not see.

Fred will believe that there is a barn in the field, he will be correct in that there actually is a barn in the field and he will have justification for this belief because he did see what he thought was a barn, even if it was a fake barn.  But that justification is false and thus, despite being right about there being a barn in the field, it would appear that his belief, in this case, could not be thought of as constituting knowledge – despite being "justified true belief" (note that this link, at the time of writing, refers to Gettier as a "significant setback").

This problem has exercised epistemologists for decades, but it's difficult to understand why (at least for someone who is not an epistemologist).  Consider an alternative scenario:

Fred is contacted on-line by someone who is asking for assistance in fencing gold.  He decides to start small, with only a couple of bars of bullion.  He is met at a foreign airport by the Magical Mr Solomon who places a briefcase on the ground between them.  Mr Solomon hands Fred two gold bars to inspect, then waves the bars in the air before tapping rapidly on the briefcase with his foot.  When Fred looks back up, the gold bars are gone from Mr Solomon's hands and he is assured that two gold bars are now in the briefcase.  Fred is not silly, he picks up the briefcase to check its weight and finds it to be convincingly heavy.  Fred then wanders off, gets picked up immediately by airport security and spends the next few hours being questioned as to why he has gold bullion bars in his briefcase.

Note that there are gold bars in the briefcase, but Mr Solomon didn't magically put the bars in the briefcase by means of tapping it with his foot.  That tapping just distracted Fred while the gold bars that Solomon was holding were slipped into a pouch behind his back.  Fred has been fooled into believing that there are gold bars in the briefcase.

The same applies with the barn.  Fred was fooled into believing there was a barn in the field and we know it (because, as "ideal observers", we know everything that is relevant to the scenario) – so we know that he does not have sufficient justification to believe what he believes, even if he may feel that he does.

The idea that the fact that the justification is insufficient and negates any associated claim to knowledge, even if the content of that claimed knowledge may in fact be true, aligns with Nozick's suggested solution to the Gettier problem – even if Nozick doesn't appear (in his paper on the issue) to have raised this particular objection.

It also aligns very well with my own epistemological position.

I believe that it may be the case that I know some things, but I do not believe that it is possible for me to reliably distinguish between things that I know to be true and those that I only believe to be true.  Until I looked at the Gettier problem in more detail, this position was predicated on my vantage point as a non-ideal observer, having no direct access to the truth value of the thing in question.   I only have access to my considered opinion on the truth value of that thing.  (This considered opinion is inclusive of received opinion and anything that I have available and consider to be relevant as evidence with respect to that thing, together with any methodology I may choose to employ in order to arrive at the opinion.)

These considerations have solidified my position somewhat, and extended its scope to include the notion that not only do I not have direct access to the truth value of the thing in question, but I may also be unable to objectively assess the validity of my justification in believing the truth of the thing in question.  For this reason, I should be sceptical about any claims to knowledge on two counts – except where it is clearly understood that "knowledge" is understood to be less than absolute.  This all said, I don't tend to talk in terms of what I know, but rather what I hold to be true.

So far as I know, no-one can reasonably argue that being fooled provides sufficient justification for believing a thing to be true (even if that thing was, by mere coincidence, actually true) – at least not to the extent that that belief could be considered to be proper knowledge.  We do talk in loose terms about people in the past "knowing" that the Earth was flat, but this is never justified true belief knowledge, merely received wisdom or general consensus knowledge.

We can, however, go a little further beyond questioning the validity of someone's belief justification and ask "What does Fred actually think he knows?  What does he actually believe?"  Is he really justified in believing a transferrable general statement to be true based on evidence in support of a specific statement?  In other words, is it meaningful to strip back what Fred believes to no more "there is a barn in that field" or "there are gold bars in the briefcase"?  I don't think so.

Beliefs exist in the context of other related (and correlated) beliefs.  Fred believes that a specific barn (the one he saw) is in a specific position in a specific field ("that field").  He probably also has a range of beliefs that impinge on his beliefs regarding the barn that he saw – barns are thicker than a few centimetres, farmers can't pick up barns and move them around by hand, barns usually contain hay and/or walkers.  Any potential knowledge that he has with respect to the existence of a barn exists in a very specific context, correlated with what he already knows about barns in general.  The error made appears to be in going from the specific to the general – something between a fallacy of composition and a hasty generalisation.

Similarly, Fred is wrong in believing that Mr Solomon magically placed into the briefcase the bars he had been mystically waving about.  Sure, there might be gold bars in the briefcase, but if so they are not the bars that Fred had inspected – this is an unjustified leap from "the specific gold bars, as inspected" to "two gold bars in general".  It might be worth noting that, in order to get this scenario to work, I had to rework a sentence to ensure that it wasn't a direct lie – "When Fred looks back up, the gold bars are gone from Mr Solomon's hands and he is assured that they (the two gold bars) are now in the briefcase".

Some might argue that my stripped-down variant of the Kripke version of the Gettier problem (the fake-barn scenario) might not pass muster so let's look at the actual Gettier problems.

Case I

Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following conjunctive proposition:

d.    Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.

Smith's evidence for (d) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would in the end be selected, and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones's pocket ten minutes ago. Proposition (d) entails:

e.    The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.

Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (d) to (e), and accepts (e) on the grounds of (d), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (e) is true.

But imagine, further, that unknown to Smith, he himself, not Jones, will get the job. And, also, unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his pocket. Proposition (e) is then true, though proposition (d), from which Smith inferred (e), is false. In our example, then, all of the following are true: (i) (e) is true, (ii) Smith believes that (e) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (e) is true. But it is equally clear that Smith does not know that (e) is true; for (e) is true in virtue of the number of coins in Smith's pocket, while Smith does not know how many coins are in Smith's pocket, and bases his belief in (e) on a count of the coins in Jones's pocket, whom he falsely believes to be the man who will get the job.

Case II

Let us suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following proposition:

f.      Jones owns a Ford.

Smith's evidence might be that Jones has at all times in the past within Smith's memory owned a car, and always a Ford, and that Jones has just offered Smith a ride while driving a Ford. Let us imagine, now, that Smith has another friend, Brown, of whose whereabouts he is totally ignorant. Smith selects three place names quite at random and constructs the following three propositions:

g.    Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Boston.

h.    Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Barcelona.

i.      Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Brest-Litovsk.

Each of these propositions is entailed by (f). Imagine that Smith realizes the entailment of each of these propositions he has constructed by (f), and proceeds to accept (g), (h), and (i) on the basis of (f). Smith has correctly inferred (g), (h), and (i) from a proposition for which he has strong evidence. Smith is therefore completely justified in believing each of these three propositions, Smith, of course, has no idea where Brown is.

But imagine now that two further conditions hold. First Jones does not own a Ford, but is at present driving a rented car. And secondly, by the sheerest coincidence, and entirely unknown to Smith, the place mentioned in proposition (h) happens really to be the place where Brown is. If these two conditions hold, then Smith does not know that (h) is true, even though (i) (h) is true, (ii) Smith does believe that (h) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (h) is true.

Well, what do you know?!  In Case I, Smith is fooled.  The president of the company told him something that was untrue (deliberate or otherwise, it doesn't matter, Smith was nevertheless fooled into believing something that was untrue).  So he's lacking justification after all, the link to the ten coins in Jones' pocket is an irrelevant coincidence since the key, specific (and false) fact was that Jones was to get the job.

(An analogue that came to mind when walking the dogs is the claim that one of my dogs, which happens to be a desexed male, would almost certainly defecate on the pavement.  I have good reason to believe that was the case because he almost always does, and I carry bags at all times because I know that.  I could go from that fact to a number of generalities: a dog would defecate on the pavement, a male would defecate on the pavement and someone would have bags in their pocket.  How amazed would someone be if I claimed to have successfully predicted the actions of that homeless guy?  Hopefully not at all, since it's a totally spurious claim.)

In Case II, Smith is fooled again – in much the same way as ducks are mistaken on their last day when they get slaughtered rather than being fed as they had expected – having presumed that past events will continue unabated into the future.  Therefore, Smith has insufficient justification with respect to any claim to knowledge related to Jones' car.  (It's actually worse than this, as I explain below/)

This all comes down to a question of scepticism.  How sceptical should we be with respect to anyone's claim to knowledge?  I would suggest that we are talking about the difference between a notional claim to "absolute" knowledge (the sort of knowledge that is only accessible to an ideal observer) and a claim to a high level of confidence with respect to a belief.  As soon as we refer to a very high level of confidence as "knowledge" and accept the possibility, no matter how remote, that our "knowledge" might be false, the whole Gettier problem goes away without, I would argue, introducing unreasonable levels of scepticism.  And anyone suggesting that they might have "absolute" knowledge is likely to run headfirst into problems because they are very much fooling themselves.

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In Gettier's paper, I think, a major problem lies in this paragraph:

I shall begin by noting two points. First, in that sense of 'justified' in which S's being justified in believing P is a necessary condition of S's knowing that P, it is possible for a person to be justified in believing a proposition that is in fact false.  Secondly, for any proposition P, if S is justified in believing P, and P entails Q, and S deduces Q from P and accepts Q as a result of this deduction, then S is justified in believing Q. Keeping these two points in mind, I shall now present two cases in which the conditions stated in (a) are true for some proposition, though it is at the same time false that the person in question knows that proposition.

It's a bit of a mess when taken out of context, but I'll try to clarify: make S a person, Smith, make P simply "a proposition" and make Q "a fact that follows from the proposition".  If (and only if) Smith is justified in believing a proposition to be true, then Smith is justified in believing any fact that follows from that proposition.   A non-controversial example is that, if Smith is justified in believing that Miss Pootles has many cats, then Smith is also justified in believing that Miss Pootles is a crazy cat lady.

(There is admittedly some subjectivity here, but the extent to which Miss Pootles is a crazy cat lady is directly related to how many cats she has, so long as Smith defines the number of cats Miss Pootles has as "many" then he can be justified in defining Miss Pootles as a crazy cat lady, even if he thinks that two is "many". For some very sad people, one might easily be defined as "(too) many".)

Note that Gettier's argument is based on a logical statement that he explicitly instructs us to kept in mind.  We can present that statement like this:

If JB(P) and P->Q, then JB(Q)

Here JB(x) means "justified belief that x is true", so this could be read as "if there is justified belief that P is true and it follows that Q is true if P is true, then there is justified belief that Q is true".  When we apply this to Gettier's first case we get:

If JB(Jones will get the job) and if follows that (a person with ten coins will get the job) is true if (Jones will get the job) is true, then JB(a person with ten coins will get the job)

We can see immediately that this falls apart.  Jones did not get the job (retrospectively making the statement "Jones will get the job" false), so the fact of his having ten coins is and was completely irrelevant.

In the second case, Gettier appears to totally ignore the requirement that Q follows from P.  Jones' car ownership has no apparent relevance to Brown's current whereabouts.  We simply cannot reasonably get from P (Jones does not own a Ford) to the suggested versions of Q (Brown is in Boston, Barcelona or Breste-Litovsk).  Even is Brown is in fact in Barcelona, Smith cannot from the facts presented, be said to "know" that.  Despite Gettier's claim to the contrary, Smith's belief (if he were to generate one in this fashion) is not at all justified.  Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing suggesting that Jones could not own a Ford while Brown is in Barcelona.  Gettier is simply wrong when he claims that "(e)ach of these propositions is entailed by (the proposition that Jones owns a Ford)".

If we turn to Kripke's example, that of the fake barn, we can see that this equates to:

If JB(a barn was observed) and it follows that (there is a barn) is true if (a barn was observed) is true, then JB(there is a barn)

But as ideal observers we know that a barn was not observed, so the argument falls apart.  Kripke's example actually goes further, including additional information to the effect that only real barns are red.  This would mean that Fred would "know" that he had observed a real barn if he observed what he took to be a red barn, but presumably he would be uncertain if the "barn" he observed was any other colour.

Some see this as "unsettling" because "there is a barn" can be inferred from "there is a red barn", but the more general "there is a barn" (which would apply to barns of all different colours) cannot necessarily be inferred directly from observing a barn.  I think that this is very much an artificial concern.

Roughly speaking, everything that falls into a particular category looks look something in that particular category (I'm going to ignore camouflage and cross-dressing).  Fake-barns and barns both look like barns.  Supposedly fake-barns and barns also look like fake-barns, to a certain extent.  However, at some arbitrarily close level of inspection, you would expect that a fake-barn would no longer look like a barn and only the barn would continue to look like a barn (for example when looked at from the side).  If this weren't the case, you could conceivably keep looking at the barn in more depth and never be able to distinguish between the "fake" barn and a "real" barn.  But if a fake barn and a real barn are indistinguishable in every possible way, then the fake barn is a real barn.  (If you consider provenance to be a distinguishing feature, as in fashion items, then provenance would merely be a feature that you would focus on.  Similarly blood diamonds are blood diamonds because of their provenance, not because of any related physical characteristic.)

I'd suggest that, strictly speaking, we don't know that, when we see things, they are what we might believe them to be.  It would be more accurate and honest to say in the example above that "there is something that looks like a barn" and/or "there is something that looks like a red barn".  The fact that fake-barns cannot be red, despite looking like a barn, would mean that we could immediately infer that something that looks like a red barn has the characteristic of looking like a real barn.  (I am ignoring red houses and horses that, due to strange tricks of the light, might look like barns – and also holograms, I'm ignoring those too.)

If that which looks like a barn is not red, we are left with the claim "there is something that looks like a barn" – which is an acceptable claim to knowledge, since such a claim doesn't stray beyond its jurisdiction, it's true irrespective of whether it's an actual barn that happens not to be painted red, or a fake-barn.  What we cannot reasonably do is make the claim "there is something that looks like a real barn".

Finally, I suppose we should think about Fred and his bullion exploits:

If JB(Mr Solomon [magically] transferred gold into the briefcase) and it follows that (there is gold in the briefcase) is true if (Solomon transferred gold into the briefcase) is true, then JB(there is gold in the briefcase)

Again, there is no justification to the key belief – the belief in Mr Solomon's magical powers – so we don't arrive at justified belief in the existence of gold in the briefcase.  (An additional clause is actually required here: "and it follows that (Mr Solomon transferred gold into the briefcase) is true if (Mr Solomon [magically] transferred gold into the briefcase) is true".)  For all Fred really knew, there could have been ordinary bricks in the briefcase, or lumps of lead.

So, in conclusion, the concerns associated with the Gettier problem do not appear to be justified.  All the examples that I have seen thus far involve fooling of the subject into believing something specific that is not true and the subject inferring something general from that which he or she has been fooled into believing.  I don't see this as presenting any real challenge whatsoever to the principle of justified true belief.


If there is a better instantiation of the Gettier problem, please feel free to present it.