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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Columnist lauds my favourite popular culture and science magazine!

In this column, column, Rebecca Hagelin has some more kind words for Salvo, a science and popular culture magazine that has kindly hosted some of my work. She writes, for example,
Take the obesity epidemic. It’s the fault of all that readily available fattening food, right? No, Salvo contributor Denyse O’Leary writes. As a child in the 1950s, she ate plenty of high-calorie food -- “greasy grilled cheese sandwiches, heaps of buttered potatoes drowned in rivers of gravy, and huge banana splits whenever we could get them.” But, O’Leary writes, she and her friends were also active -- riding bikes, swimming, running -- for hours every day. Unsupervised, at that.
The protected kids of 2007 follow a similar diet, but they exercise mainly their thumbs on the latest video games. “Today’s children will ride bikes and stay slim if their parents take them on bike trips,” O’Leary writes. “But the parents must then forego working overtime to pay for their next big purchase. Thus, our affluent society makes good health a question of choice, not chance.” Good luck finding that message in Time and Newsweek!

Good luck? You'd need a miracle, actually.

Here's the rest of my article on the bulge of pudge in our population. But don't stop there. Read all the excellent contributors, most of whom are way better than me. And subscribe! (unless you prefer to read tax-supported or billionaire-supported bilge.)

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What exactly is the "design" part of "intelligent design"?

Bill Dembski asked about design vs. mechanism over at Uncommon Descent, and quite a long thread ensued. I thought I'd post my own thoughts here, to break up the thread a bit.

Here are five things I know that may be useful to someone:

1. Design works primarily through patterns of relationship that require intelligent selection. That is why many mechanisms can achieve the same design. If the relationship works, the design is achieved.

2. Design creates mechanism but mechanism only instantiates design. Mechanism does as much as its design allows. That is why computers are not conscious. The people who are trying to make computers conscious do not understand the nature of the problem. Consciousness includes the instantiation of a series of relationships, and is not a mechanism.

3. You cannot work back from a design to identify a designer unless you already know which features of the designer are instantiated in the design AND can trace those features to a specific designer.

Hence all the controversies about Shakespeare's disputed plays. If the controversialists had fingerprints or DNA there would be no problem. As it is, they fight about WHICH features of the plays should determine the verdict (yes, they fight about a bunch of other things as well).

4. Design resists mechanistic description. Case in point: Writers find it hard to explain how to write well. We describe mechanisms, but the mechanisms do not produce the outcome directly, only indirectly. Many people try the mechanisms and produce the most awful, unreadable prose.

One cannot rule out the role of the mind. So one is reduced to saying things like, "It's easy to write well. Sit at the laptop until drops of blood form on your forehead."

But that is not what we really mean. We mean that the questioner should just go away unless he is willing to suffer as serious writers suffer. Otherwise, he is unlikely to succeed.

But that does not answer the HOW question, it only clears the no-hopers out of the way, to make time for those who have a chance at instantiating the necessary relationships. Those are the people whom the master writing teacher can usefully counsel.

5. Here is some limited-use information: When I write, I select among patterns of expression, often unconsciously, though not always so. If you believe that no mind exists and therefore no one selects and there is nothing to select, I do not have any means of describing how I write well. So we are back to mechanism, which doesn't explain anything.

Alternatively, I can explain the principles by which I select some patterns of expression and reject others. But we are still - I am afraid - solidly in the realm of the mind.

Mario Beauregard and I talked about issues related to this very subject in The Spiritual Brain (Chapter 5 - Are Mind and Brain Identical? And Chapter 6 - Toward a Non-Materialist Science of Mind). That is a critical concept to "get": There is no point looking for a mechanism in systems that do not require a mechanism. (Quantum systems, for example, do not require a mechanism, because they are governed by relationships.)

And if you end up denying that a system does not exist because it does not need a mechanism - even though it obviously does exist - that is your own fault.

A case in point is consciousness. Various worthy researchers are looking for a mechanism for consciousness. Or else they deny that consciousness exists. Thousands of researchers deny that the mind exists. All because they are looking for a mechanism that does not actually NEED to exist. What a waste of time. But, with grant money converted to mental activity, it will take a while for their Time Sink to run out of steam.

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