The Joe G Memorial Math Problem

Regular readers of TSZ will remember the hilarity that ensued when former commenter JoeG grappled unsuccessfully with the cardinality (loosely, the size) of various infinite sets. In honor of that amusing episode, I’m posing a new problem involving an infinite set.

Here’s the problem:

Consider the set containing every real number that can be described using a finite number of English words. For example, “thirty-three” and “two point eight” obviously qualify as members of the set, but also “pi minus six”, “the cube root of e”, and “Zero Mostel’s age in years on July seventh, nineteen sixty-three”, all of which designate specific real numbers. The set is infinite, of course.

Prove that the set of all such numbers takes up exactly zero percent of the real number line.

A dubious argument for panpsychism

At Aeon, philosopher Philip Goff argues for panpsychism:

Panpsychism is crazy, but it’s also most probably true

It’s a short essay that only takes a couple of minutes to read.

Goff’s argument is pretty weak, in my opinion, and it boils down to an appeal to Occam’s Razor:

I maintain that there is a powerful simplicity argument in favour of panpsychism…

In fact, the only thing we know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it – the stuff in brains – involves experience… The theoretical imperative to form as simple and unified a view as is consistent with the data leads us quite straightforwardly in the direction of panpsychism.

…the brains of organisms are coloured in with experience. How to colour in the rest? The most elegant, simple, sensible option is to colour in the rest of the world with the same pen.

Panpsychism is crazy. But it is also highly likely to be true.

I think Goff is misapplying Occam’s Razor here, but I’ll save my detailed criticisms for the comment thread.

Atheism doubles among Generation Z

Good news from the Barna Group, a Christian polling organization:

Atheism on the Rise

For Gen Z, “atheist” is no longer a dirty word: The percentage of teens who identify as such is double that of the general population (13% vs. 6% of all adults). The proportion that identifies as Christian likewise drops from generation to generation. Three out of four Boomers are Protestant or Catholic Christians (75%), while just three in five 13- to 18-year-olds say they are some kind of Christian (59%).

This was particularly interesting…

Teens, along with young adults, are more likely than older Americans to say the problem of evil and suffering is a deal breaker for them.

…as was this:

Nearly half of teens, on par with Millennials, say “I need factual evidence to support my beliefs” (46%)—which helps to explain their uneasiness with the relationship between science and the Bible. Significantly fewer teens and young adults (28% and 25%) than Gen X and Boomers (36% and 45%) see the two as complementary.

The Falcon Heavy in binaural sound

I was in Florida last week for the inaugural Falcon Heavy launch, and though I wish I could do a mind meld and share the memories directly with you, the technology doesn’t yet exist.

Here’s the next best thing:

Destin is right. The sights are awesome, but it’s the sound that really makes the experience. Be sure to watch through to the point where the boosters come home to roost.

(Note for the impatient: Ignition happens around 3:20 into the video.)

Thomas Metzinger on ‘mental autonomy’

An interesting article in Aeon by Thomas Metzinger:

Are you sleepwalking now?

Given how little control we have of our wandering minds, how can we cultivate real mental autonomy?

He develops a metaphor of conscious thoughts as dolphins that leap from the water of unconscious processing into the air of conscious awareness, and asks:

The really interesting question then becomes: how do various thoughts and actions ‘surface’, and what’s the mechanism by which we corral them and make them our own? We ought to probe how our organism turns different sub-personal events into thoughts or states that appear to belong to ‘us’ as a whole, and how we can learn to control them more effectively and efficiently. This capacity creates what I call mental autonomy, and I believe it is the neglected ethical responsibility of government and society to help citizens cultivate it.

PZ Myers smears Steven Pinker

Via a post by Jerry Coyne, I learned of an egregious smear by PZ Myers of Steven Pinker. PZ posted the following on his Facebook page:

He is referring to the following remarks by Pinker.  Watch this clip — the entire clip —  and ask yourself, as I did: How could any honest and rational person view this and then paint Pinker as “a lying right-wing shitweasel”?

What the hell has happened to PZ over the years?  Wasn’t he rational at one point?

The Cross: An embarrassment at the heart of Christianity

In a recent thread, I challenged Christians and other believers to explain why their supposedly loving God treats people so poorly. Toward the end of the thread, I commented:

We’re more than 1200 comments into this thread, and still none of the believers can explain why their “loving” God shits all over people, day after day.

If you loved someone, would you purposely trap them under the rubble of a collapsed building? Or drown them? Or drive them from their home and destroy their possessions? [Or stand by, doing nothing, while a maniac mowed them down using automatic weapons?]

Your supposedly loving God does that. Why?

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Remedial education for colewd

In the thread FMM throws Jesus under the bus, I had the following exchange with colewd:


Until you have an eye there is nothing to select for. You have 300k of nucleotides drifting toward a meaningless group of sequences. Until you find a group of sequences that can provide reproductive advantage (sight) it is drift drift drift.


This is just a version of the “what good is half an eye” PRATT.

Seriously, Bill, how can you possibly have missed everything that’s been written on this subject, from Darwin onward?

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Clever methodology aimed at detecting ‘stealth atheism’

From an article in Vox entitled How many American atheists are there really?

How to find “closet atheists”

So if you can’t ask people outright whether they’re atheist and get an honest response, how do you go about finding them?

Gervais and Najle set up a very subtle test. They sent a nationally representative poll to 2,000 Americans, who were randomly assigned to two conditions.

The first condition asked participants to read through a bunch of statements like, “I am a vegetarian,” “I own a dog,” and, “I have a dishwasher in my kitchen.”

All the participants had to do was simply write down the number of statements that were true for them.

The value of this method is that participants don’t have to directly say, “I am a vegetarian,” or, “I’m a dog owner” — they only have to acknowledge the number of statements that apply to them. That alone should zero out any embarrassment or hesitance to admit to a particular item.

That’s important because the other 1,000 or so participants saw the exact same list — but with one statement added: “I believe in God.”

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God loves you. Enjoy your eternity in hell.

A question for Christians, particularly those of the inerrantist stripe.

28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:28, NIV


8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.

2 Thessalonians 1:8-10, NIV

“Punished with everlasting destruction.” Is that what a perfectly merciful, perfectly benevolent Father would do to his children?


An interesting essay in Aeon by neurologist Jules Montague:

Why is the brain prone to florid forms of confabulation?

She had visited Madonna’s mansion the week before, Maggie told me during my ward round. Helped her choose outfits for the tour. The only problem was that Maggie was a seamstress in Dublin. She had never met Madonna; she had never provided her with sartorial advice on cone brassieres. Instead, an MRI scan conducted a few days earlier – when Maggie arrived at the ER febrile and agitated – revealed encephalitis, a swelling of the brain.

Now she was confabulating, conveying false memories induced by injury to her brain. Not once did Maggie doubt that she was a seamstress to the stars, no matter how incongruous those stories seemed. And that’s the essence of confabulation: the critical faculty of doubt is compromised. These honest lies were Maggie’s truth…

RNA editing in cephalopods

From Wired:

But when Stanford University geneticist Jin Billy Li heard about Joshua Rosenthal’s work on RNA editing in squid, his jaw dropped. That’s because the work, published today in the journal Cell, revealed that many cephalopods present a monumental exception to how living things use the information in DNA to make proteins. In nearly every other animal, RNA—the middleman in that process—faithfully transmits the message in the genes. But octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish (but not their dumber relatives, the nautiluses) edit their RNA, changing the message that gets read out to make proteins.

In exchange for this remarkable adaptation, it appears these squishy, mysterious, and possibly conscious creatures might have given up the ability to evolve relatively quickly. Or, as the researchers put it, “positive selection of editing events slows down genome evolution.” More simply, these cephalopods don’t evolve quite like other animals. And that could one day lead to useful tools for humans.

From the paper itself:

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You and your future self

In my final months at work, I had many conversations about retirement with friends and colleagues who asked about my plans and preparations and shared their own. I was struck by the wide range of attitudes they expressed. For some, retirement was a concrete reality, something they had visualized and thought about in detail. For others it was more abstract, as if it were going to happen to someone else entirely. You might expect this to correlate straightforwardly with age: the closer to retirement, the more concrete the thinking about it. That didn’t seem to be the case for many people.

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On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit

This 2015 paper ought to provoke provoke an interesting discussion:

On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit


Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.