Monday, June 30, 2014

Religious Exemptions

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby doesn't have to provide its employees with insurance that covers contraception, because that would violate Hobby Lobby's religious freedom. Legally speaking, the Supreme Court probably made the right decision. The Affordable Care Act has a religious exemption written into it.

That's the problem. Laws shouldn't have religious exemptions. I'm not just talking about this law, I'm talking about any law. Or rather, no law should have a specifically religious exemption. Laws can have exemptions that include religious reasons, but they shouldn't be exclusive to religious reasons.

There are two reasons for this. One is that religious belief shouldn't be treated any differently than any other belief. If a religious conviction is enough to exempt you from a law, then a secular conviction should be as well. Otherwise you would be elevating religious beliefs above secular beliefs.

The second reason is that it violates the separation of church and state. You might not think so, since usually religious exemptions are intended to prevent laws from hindering the free exercise of religion. But that's the problem. It forces the government to decide what is or is not a valid religious belief to qualify for an exemption.

Not only does that violate separation of church and state, it does so in a way that is biased against minority religions. Members of major religions generally won't have any problems convincing a judge that their belief is sincere. Only members of small religions will have to worry about not being allowed to practice their religion freely, which seems like exactly the kind of thing that freedom of religion is supposed to prevent.

But what about free exercise of religion then? Well, generally laws are passed for reasons. If those reasons are good, they probably apply to everyone, religious and non. You can't murder people, even if you really truly believe that the god Huitzilopochtli needs them to make the sun rise.

If a religious exemption is really necessary, it can probably be rephrased to be secular, and still apply to the religious. For example, non-profit organizations are tax-exempt, whether they're churches or not. (Though current law more or less automatically gives religious organizations non-profit status, which is the kind of thing I'm arguing against here.)

And if that's not possible, maybe the law shouldn't be a law in the first place. If "I really truly believe in " is a good enough reason to be exempt from a law, then "I really truly believe in " should be as well, based on religious beliefs not being treated differently than secular beliefs. And if that's good enough, then pretty much anyone who doesn't want to follow the law doesn't have to, which completely defeats the purpose of it being a law in the first place.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

On the internet and in newspapers, it's not uncommon to see rants about how our language is deteriorating. Words that meant one thing fifty years ago are used completely differently today. New words are made up and used as if they were cromulent. Kids these days speak grammatically uncorrectly.

And generally there will be responses to those about how that's a prescriptivist way of thinking, and prescriptivism is linguistically incorrect. Descriptivism is the only correct way of talking about language. Language is always changing, and words have no inherent meaning.

While in this context, the prescriptivists are usually completely wrong, I can't completely agree with descriptivists.

It's true that linguistics is descriptive. As a science, it has to be. The goal of linguistics is to study language to learn about how it works, and you can't learn about how something works by telling it to work differently. Kepler didn't discover the laws of planetary motion by insisting that they ought to orbit the sun in perfect circles.

But the scientific study of language is not the only way to interact with it. It's not even the most common way. The most common way of using language is the way we're using it right now - to communicate. Reading, writing, speaking, listening. And when you actually use a language, not just to study, but to communicate, you can't avoid being at least a little bit prescriptivist.

If you're trying to use words to communicate, you have to ascribe meaning to them. And if the meanings you ascribe to your words are different than the meanings the people you're trying to communicate with do, then you'll have a very hard time communicating. If you want to communicate with a large group of people, you have to get them to all use the same meanings for the same words. Words don't have inherent meaning, but it's a very useful fiction.



Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ken Ham and Evidence

A couple weeks ago Bill Nye and Ken Ham had a debate about creationism. Of course, nearly every point Ham made was factually inaccurate. But beyond having the simple facts wrong, Ham also had a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of evidence.

This was highlighted most clearly in Ham's answer to the question "What could change your mind?". His answer was, summarized, "Nothing". Now, this answer in and of itself is a serious strike against Ham's rationality. The point of changing your mind is to make your beliefs more accurate. If you don't even admit the possibility of changing your mind, you're saying that your beliefs cannot possibly be wrong, which is, well, arrogant to say the least.

But it's worse than just that. Ham also said that the Bible makes testable predictions. Alone, that's not a bad thing, quite the opposite. But when combined with his statement that nothing could change his mind, it shows that he doesn't understand the point of predictions. The point of predictions is to provide evidence, but the thing is, that evidence can go either way.

If you make a prediction and perform a test, and the results of the test match the prediction, then that is evidence that supports your beliefs. On the other hand, if you make a prediction, and perform a test, and the results don't match the prediction, then that is evidence that opposes your beliefs. If there is no such outcome that would go against your prediction, then it's not a prediction at all.

For example, suppose I held a rock, and based on my beliefs about the material it's made of, and the laws of physics, I predicted that when I let it go, it would fall down. Then, if I dropped it, and it fell down, that would be evidence in support of my beliefs. But, if I dropped it, and it didn't fall down, either falling up, or hovering in place, or anything else, that would be evidence opposing my beliefs. If I had predicted that when I let it go, either it would fall down, or it wouldn't, then I haven't actually made a prediction. I haven't, in any way, specified what the result of a test would be, which means no outcome can oppose my beliefs, but no outcome can support them either.

If Ham thinks the Bible really does make predictions, then those predictions failing to come true should change his mind. If nothing could change his mind, then his predictions can't actually provide evidence.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Folk Morality

Folk science is pre-scientific ideas about how the world works. For example, a common idea in folk physics is that an object in motion requires a constant force to stay in motion, and if the force stops being applied, the object will soon come to a halt.

Now, folk science is not always wrong. It actually tends to be very good at predicting what happens in everyday circumstances. If you're pushing a cart, the carts stops moving when you stop pushing. It's when you leave everyday circumstances that folk science fails.

I think the same idea applies to morality. Folk morality is what people generally use when making moral decisions. It doesn't have any kind of rigor or theory behind it, but in everyday circumstances, it works alright. Don't lie, don't steal, don't kill.

The biggest problem with this idea is that folk science is based on things that can be directly observed. Folk morality doesn't seem to be. As a result, it's much more prone to differ between cultures and eras. For example, two hundred years ago, slavery was common and accepted, but it isn't today.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Spherical Cows of Economics

Some conservative oppose all regulations by appealing to the free market. They say the free market is the best way of distributing goods, and any regulation makes it less free. Therefore regulations make the market less efficient, which is bad.

However, the free market is only efficient under certain conditions. For example, everyone involved has to have perfect information about the costs and benefits of their decisions. Another is that there must be no externalities, that is, all the costs and benefits of a decision must be borne by the people making the decision, not by third party bystanders.

The thing is, these conditions rarely, if ever, actually hold. They're the spherical cows of economics. And the free market is inefficient to the extent that these conditions are false.

But government regulations can help improve these conditions, and thus make the market more efficient. For example, by requiring drug manufacturers to disclose their drugs' side effects, they can help lessen information imbalance, allowing people to make more rational decisions. Further, they can use taxes and subsidies to internalize the costs and benefits of externalities.

So regulations do not make the free market less free. In fact, the free market needs regulations to be free.

Friday, December 6, 2013

De Morgan's Law and Duality

Before, I gave the challenge of replicating the boolean OR function using only NANDs (and replicating AND using only NORs). I'm going to show you the solution, using truth tables. A truth table is a table where you list out every possible combination of values of the inputs, and the corresponding value of the output. Here's a truth table showing the AND, OR, NAND and NOR functions.
XYX∧YX∨YX NAND YX NOR Y
FFFFTT
FTFTTF
TFFTTF
TTTTFF

You can show that two functions are equivalent by showing that they have the same output as each other for every possible combination of inputs. Here's a simple example to show that ¬X = X NAND X.

X¬XX NAND X
FTT
TFF

If you're not sure what one of the outputs should be, plug in the input values and evaluate it. F NAND F = T, and T NAND T = F, which you can see from the first truth table.

So, here's the solution to the first part of the challenge: X∨Y = (X NAND X) NAND (Y NAND). Here's the truth table.

XYX NAND XY NAND Y(X NAND X) NAND (Y NAND Y)
FFF NAND F = TF NAND F = TT NAND T = F
FTF NAND F = TT NAND T = FT NAND F = T
TFT NAND T = FF NAND F = TF NAND T = T
TTT NAND T = FT NAND T = FF NAND F = T

Try to figure out the second part of the challenge (That is replicate the AND function using only NOR) using a truth table now. I'll wait.

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The solution to the second part is X∧Y = (X NOR X) NOR (Y NOR Y). Interestingly, it's exactly the same as the first part, except with ∨ replaced by ∧ and NAND replaced by NOR. I'll talk about that more in a bit, but first notice that since (X NAND X) = ¬X, the solution to the first part can be rewritten as X∨Y = ¬X NAND ¬Y. Also, since (X NAND Y) = ¬(X∧Y), it can be further changed to X∨Y = ¬(¬X∧¬Y). The same way, the solution to the second part can be rewritten as X∧Y = ¬(¬X∨¬Y).

This is an example of De Morgan's Law, which says that ¬(X∧Y) = ¬X∨¬Y and ¬(X∨Y) = ¬X∧¬Y. De Morgan's Law is a very important thing to remember when doing Boolean algebra. It's a useful way of simplifying expressions, and it's vital for programmers to know.

De Morgan's Law also ties back into the other point I made. Notice that the two forms of De Morgan's Law are the same, except with ∧ and ∨ swapped? In fact, you can take any boolean expression, swap ∧ and ∨, and swap T and F, and the expression will mean the same thing.* For example, X∧T=X, swapped X∨F=X. Also, X∧F=F, swapped X∨T=T. This property is called duality.

Why does this happen? Keep in mind that the labels we use are arbitrary. It doesn't matter if we use T and F or 1 and 0, or if we use ∧ and ∨ or AND and OR. What matters is the relationships that hold between the symbols. And the way we've defined them, the relationships between T and ∧ are exactly the same as the relationships between F and ∨. That is, X AND Y is true if and only if both X and Y are true. X OR Y is false if and only if both X and Y are false. Those say exactly the same things, just with the names changed.

*If the expression contains XOR, or other functions besides ∧, ∨ and ¬, those need to be rewritten to use only ∧, ∨ and ¬. Or they can be swapped with their own dual, for example, the dual of XOR is XNOR. ¬ is it's own dual.

Monday, December 2, 2013

What Goals Should You Have?

Last time, I ended with the question, "What goals should we have?". Before, I said that "should" only makes sense in reference to goals, so how can this question be answered?

Obviously, using a goal to justify itself is circular reasoning. But you could justify a goal using other goals. If a goal helps you achieve your other goals, you should have it, in the same way you should do anything else that furthers your goals. Conversely, if a goal hinders your other goals, you shouldn't have it, in the same way you shouldn't do anything else that hinders your goals.

But then, what about the other goals? How do you determine whether or not you should have them? In the same way, referring to each other. This will form an infinite regress of self-reference, but that's not necessarily insurmountable. It could probably be represented similarly to Google's PageRank algorithm, which determines the importance of a website based on the number and importance of websites that link to it.

But doesn't that end up being just as circular as before? Well... Yes. And given two or more sets of goals which support each other equally well, and the unlimited ability to modify your goals, I don't know how you could determine which set of goals you "should" adopt. For that matter, I don't know what "should" means in that context.

But as it happens, I don't think we do have the unlimited ability to modify our goals. I think our goals are at least partially constrained by our biological nature. We need to eat. You can deliberately refrain from doing so, but I think that's more acting on a conflicting goal rather than not having the goal to eat.

And if that is the case, then the goals you can't change give you a starting point to base the goals you can change around.