Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Death Penalty and Human Dignity II: Mercy

In an earlier post, I argued that one consequence of human dignity is that we are moral agents who can commit crimes that truly merit death.  If that were all there were to the story, it would be strange indeed that the Pope and the bishops would invoke dignity in order to keep the number of executions to a minimum.

Kazimirowski Eugeniusz, Divine Mercy, 1934

However, there is another aspect of human dignity that is entirely relevant.  Perhaps a robot could be programmed to act with perfect justice, but a robot could not actually give or receive forgiveness.  A robot could not show mercy, nor the theological virtue of charity.  Those things can be done only by persons.

But mercy is absolutely central to what should be happening from a Catholic perspective. After all, there are several other ways in which someone who deserves death may escape execution. 
  • He may escape from custody, with or without the help of his guards.
  • The official(s) who decide his punishment may 
    • be intimidated by threats of riots or violent retribution.
    • be bribed or blackmailed. 
    • be too lazy or squeamish to carry out his duty.
    • approve of the crime and become accessories to it.
By the way, none of these are new.  The same things would have been true during the reign of Caesar Augustus.  

Also, although these circumstances would secure the physical well-being of the criminal, and they may preserve for him "the possibility of redeeming himself", they would not be actual, concrete moral goods.  For a moral good, mercy is needed.  

This has consequences.  
  1. The law is not a person; it is more like a robot, or at least like a computer program.  If it is important to preserve the possibility of mercy, a responsible person has to be chosen who can act personally on behalf of the State in dispensing mercy.  In our culture, this is the governor or, at the national level, the president.  The law should not eliminate the possibility of the death penalty, because.
  2. Aside from prohibiting the grossest of abuses (for example, the selling of pardons), there should be no obstacles to the chief executive granting at least sufficient mercy to spare the criminal's life.  I understand that this is not the case in some places; I have heard that in Texas the governor cannot commute the death sentence without the recommendation of the parole board.  If this is true, it needs to be changed. 
  3. The chief executive has a responsibility to protect the public.  He will have to use prudence to determine whether it would endanger the public to spare someone whose guilt has been firmly established for a heinous crime worthy of death.  If it would not endanger the public, he should be strongly urged to show mercy, remembering that he personally, as well as the State he serves, is in constant need of mercy.
  4. Capital cases, which we have been discussing, are more extreme than other criminal cases, but the same principles apply in all cases:  
    • first determine the actual guilt and the limits that justice places on punishment, 
    • then determine how much of that punishment is demanded by prudence, 
    • then show as much mercy as possible.  

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tales from the Darkside

Here's one for Halloween:  The intro is fantastic, better than the episodes.  As for the comments over the end titles, they are simply, but disturbingly, true.

"Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality ...."

Note how this really would not have worked if it had been written in any of the "gender-inclusive" ways that are palmed off on us by the editors of so many new Bible translations and "edited" versions of familiar hymns.

"People live in the sunlit world of what they believe to be reality ...."  No.  This makes it sound like these people are all together, something not implied in the original.

"A person lives in the sunlit world of what he or she believes to be reality ...."  Please.  That one lands with a thud.  "He or she" language is not compatible with spookiness.

"We each live in the sunlit world of what we believe to be reality ...."  Better, since the each means that we do not necessarily all live together, but the "we believe" still feels too comforting.

"Humankind lives in the sunlit world of what is believed to be reality ...."  Ugh.  "Humankind" is not really a concept that feels any more important than Esperanto.  Who would care if Esperanto were to vanish over to the Darkside?

The fact is that in the English language, there really is no good substitute for the "man" (and "he") that is actually used in this clip.

Just So Stories and Hoaxes

In an earlier post, I discussed how a scientist's training to find meaning in data can sometimes lead him to find meaning where there is none.  This is bad enough when dealing with data from real, honest experiments, but it can become a real problem when dealing with forgeries and hoaxes.  There is always the risk that random variations, or artistic touches, will be interpreted as having more meaning even than the original trickster had intended.

Of course, scientific training frequently is helpful in detecting a hoax, since the scientist may notice errors and inconsistencies not obvious to the untrained eye.  The scientist may even have ideas about how he could pull off a better hoax.  That doesn't change the fact that scientists are not really trained in either producing or detecting forgeries.  On the contrary, if a scientist really trusts the data, the very flaws in the hoax may be taken as indications of behavior that is even more novel and exciting than was previously expected. 

This is exactly the mindset that prevails in pathological science:  a scientist attempting to perform a real experiment acquires a kind of "target fixation" that blinds him to the importance of serious objections and flaws in the methodology.  This happens all the time, even in science that is merely flawed, not pathological.  Remember the faster-than-light neutrinos?  That would have been a hugely exciting result, and it was not easy to find errors, so it got a lot of attention both from the media and theorists.  Scientists tend to be careful in their experiments but then to trust their data, and to expect interesting surprises.

The problem comes when the data comes from an "experiment" performed by someone else.  Case in point:  crop circles.  When the first reports (or, as some would have it, the first modern reports ... yeah, whatever) came out, there were attempts by some scientists to take the phenomenon seriously as a product of nature.  Perhaps the most visible of these was Terence Meaden, who proposed some sort of plasma whirlwinds were producing them.  As the crop circles got more and more complicated, the proposed means by which they could have been formed naturally became increasingly implausible. By the time it was admitted that many (probably all) crop circles are man-made, these ideas looked very naive.

Another reason why scientists may not be the best at detecting frauds is that the culture of science is very open.  It is not enough to say, "I have determined that this is a fraud" -- one must also explain how that determination was made.  This, notably, is something that the US Mint refuses to do regarding currency; they give several means that can be used to differentiate legitimate currency from the counterfeit, but they don't disclose all the markers they use.  Contrast that with what is said beginning 4:43 in the clip below.  "If it was faked, it was done by a human anatomist who was a real genius."  

Not necessarily.  For one thing, it is not uncommon for artists to study anatomy, but in any event, only the most casual joker would make a foot that was nothing but a bigger-than-average human foot.  Perhaps this change was made in artistic inspiration, or perhaps as as a result of anatomical considerations, but in any event there can be no certainty that this was made by an 800-lb biped.  What's worse, since this episode was aired in 1977, it has given a clue to anyone planning a sophisticated hoax of a marker that might be looked for.  Other markers have been revealed by other sources, so now someone with skill and patience who wants to make fake tracks can prepare a hoax to fool the "experts". 

But surely it is too hard for them to fake the footprints?  Not at all.  Remember, most footprints, whether of Bigfoot or of anything else, are in pretty poor condition.  That's an aspect of realism, but it certainly helps anyone planning a prank.  More importantly, people are more clever than we give them credit for.  Look at the act below.  The couple does not claim to have magic powers, and it is pretty easy to guess some of the basics of how the do these things -- but how they are able to do it so smoothly, so quickly, and so often is still amazing.  What if someone like this, or like David Copperfield, decided to fake Bigfoot prints?  Could he fool scientists who have been trained to trust their data and who have published accounts of what they are looking for?  You bet he could!

Some scientists still remember this, and that is why they are not quick to accept the idea that footprints prove the existence of Sasquatch.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Thy Resurrection, O Christ Our Savior

Thy Resurrection, O Christ our SaviorThe angels in Heaven sing;Enable us on earth To glorify Thee in purity of heart!

The second miracle -- enabling us to glorify Him with purity of heart -- is greater than the first.

As Menochius says regarding Matthew 9:5 (quoted in the Haydock Catholic Bible Commentary, 1859 ed.),
It is more difficult to remit sins than restore the health of the body. St. Augustine remarks, (tract. lxxii in Joannem) it is more difficult to justify a man than to create the heavens and the earth; but Christ speaks thus, because the Pharisees might otherwise have said, that as he could not confer visible health upon the body, he had recourse to the invisible remission of sins, and that it was easy to grant in words, what no one could discern whether it was really granted or not. In this sense, therefore, the word, "Be thou healed," is more difficult than simply to say, "Thy sins are forgiven thee;" which any one could say, though he might not effect what his word implied.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pseudoscience and Scientific "Dogma"

One often hears, "Scientists are afraid to investigate [my pet theory] because it goes against their accepted dogma."  Well, yeah -- if by "dogma" is meant that scientific claims should not be accepted without substantial evidence.  That's the true situation, but of course the speaker means that, although he may have barely made it through 9th grade general science, he is one of the few to understand science as it really is meant to be; one of the few souls brave enough to stare unblinking at a reality full of surprises. 

What such a person does is betray himself as not only arrogant, but also profoundly ignorant.  Such a claim is also a loud and clear warning: Look out for pseudoscience!

Let me give just a few examples to show that genuine science, far from fearing to question its basic assumptions and familiar ideas, is in fact continuously revisiting them on an ongoing basis.
  • The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Just a few days ago there was an announcement adding to experimental evidence that the original derivation of this principle, and part of the way it is often taught, is wrong.  The gist of it is that there are two ways of stating and thinking about the uncertainty principle, and that the original form given by Heisenberg requires potentially important correction terms, but another form, which was presented shortly afterwards and has both a solid mathematical basis and extensive experimental confirmation, remains correct.
  • The isotropy of space.  From at least Newton onward, it has been assumed that there is no preferred direction in space.  This is brought into question, though, by observations of an "Axis of Evil" in the cosmic microwave background.  There's a decent chance that more detailed subsequent observations will resolve the problem, but in the meantime, theorists are playing around with new ideas about such an axis could have come to be.
  • Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.  This has been tested many times, and so far no deviations from its predictions have been observed.  (Even "dark energy", though poorly understood and itself an example of an open-minded responsiveness to good evidence, fits in as a term Einstein first introduced, then removed.)  However, some predicted effects are difficult to test, hence Gravity Probe B.  The result:  general relativity passes again.
  • Newtonian Dynamics.  Even though quantum mechanics replaces Newtonian physics in the realm of the very small and relativity replaces it in the realm of the very fast or wherever gravity is very strong, for many astrophysical calculations Newton's 3 Laws of Dynamics and Law of Gravity work just fine.  Or do they?  The speeds of stars in galaxies appear to follow a different profile than would be expected for Newtonian gravity and dynamics.  The commonly accepted explanation is "dark matter", but an alternative known as Modified Newtonian Dynamics has been proposed that was also hoped to explain the "Pioneer anomaly", although that anomaly now appears to have a mundane explanation in terms of a thermal recoil force.
  • The rest mass of the photon.  If the rest mass is not exactly zero, then light is not really moving at the universal speed limit; like neutrinos, it is just moving so close to that limit (in our frame of reference) as to be practically indistinguishable from it.  Recent observations though, show that "the mass must be one hundred billion of billions times smaller than the present constraint on the neutrino mass, which is about two electron-volts."
All these are examples from physics, with which I am most familiar, but there are plenty of examples from biology and the other sciences.  If biologists were unwilling to accept startling new evidence, we would not have Homo floresiensis as a newly discovered, very recent close relative, nor would we have the Denisovan humans, who were identified by just a handful of bones and the associated genes, just to name two easy examples.  

How then can anyone say that scientists are stuck rigidly refusing to examine our own assumptions?  Pseudoscientists say this because they want to believe it.  It hurts too much to know that your evidence is found lame and unconvincing by people who not only have the appropriate specialized knowledge, but who also are willing to entertain all kinds of crazy ideas, so long as they are supported by sufficient evidence.

Remember, once again, the list of "defining characteristics" of pseudoscience from Gregory N. Derry: 
  • Static or Randomly Changing Ideas
  • Vague Mechanisms to Acquire Understanding 
  • Loosely Connected Thoughts 
  • Lack of Organized Skepticism 
  • Disregard for Established Results 
If one does not follow science closely enough to see that it is not dogmatic, how can he have regard for established results?  He won't even really know what they are!  How can he have organized skepticism -- he doesn't recognize the genuine article, which allows for "crazy" ideas without immediately endorsing them?  How can his thoughts be other than loosely connected, when they lack the familiarity with the field needed to tie them to each other and to established results?  And so forth. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What's All This About Theists?

Over the past few years I've noticed a marked increase in the frequency of references to "theism".  In fact, I don't think I had even seen the word a decade ago.

There are several problems with the use of the word, but the two biggest are that it casually lumps together very divergent beliefs, and that it gives the impression (which it is perhaps intended to do) that the really important divide is between "theists" and atheists.

This is something like going back in time to the American Revolution, noticing the many competing political theories, and then deciding to divide them into anarchists and "archists".  Never mind that anarchists were a very small faction that never really got off the sidelines.  Never mind also that monarchists will not be interested in refuting arguments against the merits of a republic, and republicans will not be interested in refuting arguments against the merits of a monarchy.  Neither group will really think of themselves as "archists" or dedicated to some generic "archy", the alternative to anarchy.

Elefantengott Ganesha Little India Singapur

The same thing obviously applies in religious disagreements.  It may be doubtful whether Christians, Jews, and Muslims should be lumped together as generically monotheistic, but it is clearly nonsense to lump monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, and the many other variations of "theism" together for no better reason than that they are not atheists. 

In addition, atheism needs to be defined, and then we can ask whether they are quite as distinct as they want to believe. 

If there is a main idea to "theism", it is that there exists at least one being to whom latria is due.  Atheists of course deny this.  However, it is not necessary that atheists deny the existence of beings to whom dulia is due.  An atheist might conceivably believe that Jupiter is a real being, and one that is worthy of veneration -- but not of sacrifice.  

In fact, I suspect most modern atheists actually think the universe as a whole is worthy of veneration, only not of sacrifice or outright worship.  This makes them not unlike pantheists, who think the universe as a whole is worthy of worship.  As a result, most atheists could probably be called irreligious pantheists.  I suggest that atheists and pantheists should probably be grouped together in any organizational chart of religious belief.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Just So Stories and Scientific Research

I often say that because I have  Ph.D. in physics, I can come up with a b.s. explanation for anything.  Sometimes, of course, these explanations turn out to be correct, but the scary thing is that they can sound convincing even when they are not correct.

This is well illustrated by the following story, which I was told while a postdoc in Germany.  Unfortunately, I am not sure who told me this story.  Regardless, I think this story is true, and I know the idea behind it is certainly true.

At a scientific conference in the early 1990's, a Russian researcher presented some of his recent results in polymer simulations.  His data were graphed in a standard way, so that different slopes in the data curves would indicate different kinds of motion of the polymers. The scientist explained what his data meant and their implications for polymer theory.  Then he noticed a new curve along with the others, one with which he was not familiar.  "I'm not familiar with this curve," he said, "but it must be a new run made by my postdoc."  He proceeded to explain this curve, too, in a way that was logical, persuasive, and consistent with the other curves. 

Then he moved on to the next slide.  As he did, everyone saw that the "curve" he had just "explained" was actually a crack on the projector's face plate.

This is funny, yes, but also disturbing.  The data is supposed to drive science, and in the long run, I still believe it does, but in the short run, we are still too susceptible to seeing patterns that are not really there.  This is analogous to seeing shapes in the clouds, except that the explanations will seem very real -- they will be plausible and consistent with other experimental, simulation, and theoretical results.

This is a good reason, by the way, to doubt exciting new results until they have been independently confirmed a few times.