The Double-Blind Newcombian Placebo Paradox

Here’s something I slopped together recently. I’m not really familiar with the literature on any of this, so maybe it’s all pretty well known (or well known to be confused).  Anyhow, comments are welcome, and I apologize in advance for my usual pile of typos, grammatical  errors, and other miscellaneous blunders.



Johnny Woulda, 45, has had chronic tendonitis in both of his elbows since he was about 30.  He’s always been told that there’s no help for it except rest and steroid injections, but the rest hasn’t worked, and he’s afraid the injections will be worse for him than the elbow pain.  He takes a bus to work every day and one day he sees a poster that says “Do you have tendonitis? We are testing a new non-steroidal oral drug, and if you are an otherwise healthy male between the ages of 18 and 48 you could earn $100 by taking part in our clinical trial.”  The drug company, Montrezl, is interested in testing the effectiveness of their experimental product, Elbowftra©.  Based on their tests on chimpanzees, which have no belief one way or the other whether they are being given a real drug, they believe that Elbowftra© drug would have at least a 50% effectiveness rate on humans people—higher if the person is credulous (the sort of person now spending a ton of money on herbal remedies).  The FDA has assured Montrezl that if they can confirm that at least 30% more human volunteers are cured by Elbowftra© than are cured by a sugar pill placebo, as determined by blind reviewers, they should have no problem getting their drug approved.  On the other hand, if there’s not much difference between Ebowftra’s effectiveness and that of a placebo, there isn’t much hope.

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Design Dissimilarity

At Uncommon Descent, Mung makes an assertion that other creationists have raised from time to time:

However, I don’t see why similarity in design necessarily implies common descent. If an architect designs two slightly dissimilar buildings one after the other, where is the common descent in this process? I am assuming that by common descent, one means that the species arose via a long sequence of sexual reproduction events acted upon by random variations.

As a software engineer, I know I don’t use any kind of sexual reproduction mechanism to derive one class of objects from another. Why could not the designers have a huge database of pre-designed genes to choose from and with which to create new species of animals and humans? And why would they need sexual reproduction to accomplish this? Beings that advanced could easily incubate newly designed species outside the womb, no?

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The ‘Hard Problem’ of Intentionality

I’m starting a new thread to discuss what I call “the hard problem of intentionality”: what is intentionality, and to what extent can intentionality be reconciled with “naturalism” (however narrowly or loosely construed)?

Here’s my most recent attempt to address these issues:

McDowell writes:

Consider this passage from Dennett, Consciousness Explained, p. 41: “Dualism, the idea that the brain cannot be a thinking thing so a thinking thing cannot be a brain, is tempting for a variety of reasons, but we must resist temptation . . . Somehow the brain must be the mind”. But a brain cannot be a thinking thing (it is, as Dennett himself remarks, just a syntactic engine). Dualism resides not in the perfectly correct thought that a brain is not a thinking thing, but in postulating some thing immaterial to be the thinking thing that the brain is not, instead of realizing that the thinking thing is the rational animal. Dennett can be comfortable with the thought that the brain must be the mind, in combination with his own awareness that the brain is just a syntactic engine, only because he thinks that in the sense in which the brain is not really a thinking thing, nothing is: the status of possessor of intentional states is conferred by adoption of the intentional stance towards it, and that is no more correct for animals than for brains, or indeed thermostats. But this is a gratuitous addition to the real insight embodied in the invocation of the intentional stance. Rational animals genuinely are “semantic engines”. (“Naturalism in Philosophy of Mind,” 2004)

Elsewhere McDowell has implied that non-rational animals are also semantic engines, and I think this is a view he ought to endorse more forthrightly and boldly than he has. But brains are, of course, syntactic engines.

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KairosFocus’ self-defeating challenge

KairosFocus, he who shall not be real-named (Henceforth KF), habitual censor over at Uncommon Descent, perpetually crows about his long-standing challenge:

provide a 6,000 word feature-length article that justifies the Darwinist tree of life from its OOL roots up through the Cambrian revo — as in Darwin’s Doubt territory — and other major formation of body plans up to and including our own origins, and we will host it here at UD, one of the leading ID blogs in the world. We are perfectly willing to host a parallel post with another site. Only, you must provide thesis and observation based evidence that solidly justifies your conclusions in light of inference to best explanation, the vera causa principle and other basic principles of sound scientific induction. Also, you must actually argue the case in outline, a summing up if you will. You must strive to avoid Lewontin’s a priori evolutionary materialism, and if you would redefine science on such terms you will have to reasonably justify why that is not a question-begging definition, in a way that is historically and philosophically soundly informed. Of course, you may link sources elsewhere, but you must engage the task of providing a coherent, non-question-begging, cogent argument in summary at the level of a feature-length serious magazine article . . . no literature bluffs in short.

[some format lost because I can’t be arsed]

KF is of course free to set the bar for his personal satisfaction at whatever pathetic level of detail he requires, but given that he’s often accused of being a massive hypocrite I’m sure he’ll be happy to provide us with a corresponding ID narrative.

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“The Advance of Knowledge Over Faith”

This post is inspired by a phrase appearing in the latest Discovery Institute essay, in which they worry about the direction being taken by the new “Cosmos” TV series.

Evolution News and Views

The DI quotes Cosmos producer, Seth MacFarlane, as promoting “…the advancement of knowledge over faith.”

This quote seems to come from an interview in Esquire Magazine.


There really isn’t much to the interview, but the phrase does kind of jump out and beg to be discussed.

Sal Cordova: Why is there no creationist Isaac Newton?

At UD, Sal asks:

When I watched the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye debate, I lamented, “Why Lord do we not have an Isaac Newton of today defending your creation?” In years gone by, Christians were at the forefront of intellectual advancement in science, technology, medicine, literature, art, music, etc. I lamented, “dear Lord, why has this happened? Why do you defend your Word and the testimony of your creation this way? Wouldn’t the world be inclined to believe if you raised up someone like Newton to defend creation in the present day?”

Adam and Eve and Jerry and Bryan and Vincent

Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee has recently added to its statement of faith, to which faculty members must subscribe, a “clarification” that

We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.

Jerry Coyne at his Why Evolution Is True blog has pointed at this with alarm here, and he linked back to the Chattanooga Times Free Press story here. Jerry cites studies showing from the amount of variability in human populations, that effective population size of the individuals leaving Africa in the Out-Of-Africa event cannot have been much less than 2250, and the effective population size in Africa cannot have been much less than 10,000.

VJTorley at Uncommon Descent has published a firm response, saying Jerry was “In a pickle about Adam and Eve” and saying that when he said that “2250 is greater than two”

Evidently math is not Professor Coyne’s forte.

Note: 2,500 isn’t the same as 2,250.

Note: 2,250 + 10,000 = 12,250.

The math lesson is over.

He also quotes a paper by Luke Harmon and Stanton Braude, which notes that effective population sizes can be larger than actual population sizes, and says

It’s rather embarrassing when a biology professor makes mistakes in his own field, isn’t it?

Has Jerry gotten himself into a pickle? I have some background in this area — I have worked on coalescent trees of ancestry of genes within a species, I wrote one of the two basic papers on effective population size of populations with overlapping generations, and I even shared a grant with Luke Harmon two years ago.

A few simple points:

1. 10,000 + 2,250 = 12,250 all right, but in fact that number is even greater than 2.

2. Effective population size can be greater than population size. It can get as much as 2 times higher. That still leaves us with a long way to go.

3. The Bryan College administration does not know how to write a Clarification. Their statement says that all humanity are descended from Adam and Eve, but does not make it clear whether there could have been other ancestors too. I suspect they meant that there weren’t any.

4. According to UD’s own statements, Intelligent Design arguments are supposedly not statements about religion, so that ID arguments do not predict anything about Adam and Eve. ID proponents are being slandered when they are called creationists, we are told repeatedly. So why the concern about Adam and Eve at UD?

So was Jerry wrong? About Adam and Eve, no. Though he is wrong when he says that his “website” is not a blog.

Nullasalus embraces the multiverse

A bizarre new post at UD had me checking the date to make sure it wasn’t April 1st.

In it, commenter ‘nullasalus’ explains that although he doesn’t think the multiverse is plausible, he nevertheless thinks “it’s a good idea, from an ID perspective, to accept and take part in multiverse speculations,” and offers these four reasons, which I have quoted verbatim:

1. If we live in an infinite multiverse, Intelligent Design is no longer a possibility – it is a certainty.

2. While Intelligent Design becomes a certainty (at least somewhere), Darwinism becomes obsolete and obscure.

3. Theism becomes true on the spot – specifically, polytheism.

4. If ID proponents embrace the multiverse, there’s a good chance the scientific community will drop it like a hot potato.

That last one is especially funny. Enjoy!

Does Atheism Entail Nihilism?

I take it that most (though not all) non-theists assume that atheism does not entail nihilism.  More specifically, most non-theists don’t believe that denying the existence of God or the immortality of the soul entails that truth, love, beauty, goodness, and justice are empty words.

But as we’ve seen in numerous discussions, the anti-materialist holds that this commitment is not one to which we are rationally entitled.  Rather, the anti-materialist seems to contend, someone who denies that there is any transcendent reality beyond this life cannot be committed to anything other than affirmation of power (or maximizing individual reproductive success) for its own sake.

The question is, why is the anti-materialist mistaken about what non-theists are rationally entitled to?   (Anti-materialists are also welcome to clarify their position if I’ve mischaracterized it.)