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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Excellence in Balderdash

Lately I've been listening to talk radio whenever I'm in the car, so that means during the day I hear Maha Rushie. He was talking about the faddish health kicks etc. and how they are based on the desire to live forever. He waxed philosophical and said something like:

'Folks, we are all going to die. No one has ever disproven this.'

If you've listened to Rush, you can imagine how he said this, too. It was sort of a "let me make it 'mathematical' just as icing on the cake, because I'm both a master of wisdom and of formal argument."

But of course this is nonsense. Rush thought he was saying "there has yet to be someone who has lived forever" but the strict wording he used (which I may not have reproduced perfectly above) made a more accurate test, "Is there anyone who hasn't died?"

And of course, there are over 5 billion people who are pending counterexamples to Rush's empirical claim that everyone dies.

BTW, of course I get Rush's point. But I'm just saying that he was trying to be super anal about it and make it "scientific," when he wasn't really testing his hypothesis at all. He believes in the theory that everyone is mortal, and that's fine; so do I. But he doesn't add anything to the analysis by implicitly invoking Popper.

12 comments:

  1. I don't know, based on what you said I think it's much more fair and accurate to the spirit that it was said in to say "Folks, we are all going to die. No one has ever lived over 130, let alone approach immortality."

    Whatever you think of Popper, surely you don't think we won't die bodily deaths given current laws of physics hold, do you? The burden of proof in this case seems to lie with those trying to prove ending death is a possibility.

    A "pending counterexample" does not a counter example maketh.

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  2. I should add that if someone did live passed 130 and there was good reason for believing that health could be maintained indefinitely, then there might be grounds to suggest that such a person was a counter example, even though it cannot be proven on purely empirical grounds except by someone's actually living an infinite number of years, which is not possible given current physical laws.

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  3. John wrote:

    [I]t cannot be proven on purely empirical grounds except by someone's actually living an infinite number of years, which is not possible given current physical laws.

    I think this gets to the heart of my problem with Rush. The laws of physics have nothing to do with it; it's logically impossible for someone to be an example of living forever. We would have to wait till the end of time for that. Whether someone has lived 130, 1300, or 130,000 years, makes him no closer to demonstrating immortality.

    Unless of course you believe that some day Christ will return. But I'm assuming you don't subscribe to that theory (even though Rush I think does!).

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  4. John,

    Let me try another way to get my point across. I am claiming that if you actually listened to the context, Rush was saying:

    (1) Modern science tells us that humans are mortal.

    (2) Forget intuition, common sense, etc. Just look at the raw data and you'll agree that everyone must die.

    So I'm disagreeing with #2. It is simply not true that raw experience proves that everyone must die, since 5 billion people haven't died. In order to conclude that they will, you need to have a much more sophisticated theory (with which I agree, of course).

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  5. No physical/biological theory is strictly empirical, but it must be framed in an empirically testable way to be treated seriously.

    On (1), strictly speaking modern science doesn't "say" anything definitely. "All objects attract each other" and "All humans die within 120 yrs" are both empirical facts so well established as to be virtual laws. Of course, any good scientist would probably agree that we have a greater degree of confidence in the first law than the second, but based on current understanding of biology and physics, human degradation eventually is probably inevitable, because of entropy, the eventual demise of the sun, the possible contraction of the universe or "cold death", which seems to be an either-or proposition as I understand it.

    We are ignorant to a large degree, for all we know Teilhard de Chardin's theory of the noosphere is true and the universe itself is evolving toward greater intelligence through humanity/earth and the laws of physics and biology as we understand them are evolving, making immortality an option. I happen to think such theories are slightly ridiculous, myself, but modern science, anyway, rules them out as irrelevent, since there is no experimental basis or theoretically rigorous and precise formulation for them.

    But wasn't his point ultimately that fad diets and health fanatics will not live forever, and that these fads cannot cure you of death? Wasn't he making the point that obsession with health given the premise that you are going to die is slightly foolish? Or do you think he was trying to address those people who actually believe immortality is just a couple biological breakthroughs away from reality?

    P.S. I don't disbelieve in the second coming of Christ, though I have doubts about what it would mean.

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  6. 'But wasn't his point ultimately that fad diets and health fanatics will not live forever, and that these fads cannot cure you of death?'

    Sure -- he was just demonstrating mortality in a silly way.

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  7. Maybe so, but only if Popper is silly. "No one has ever escaped death, nor proven that such an escape is possible" is in accordance with Popper's falsifiability razor.

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  8. No, John, everyone alive has escaped death, at least so far.

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  9. In the same way someone thrown out of a plane without a parachute has escaped getting smashed by gravitational attraction? You may say that thus far someone has escaped such a fate, but the full context includes impending destruction. In the same way, all modern evidence shows that degeneration of the human body has occurred in all human beings. The fact that many people have not yet approached the terminal stage of that degeneration does not mean they can escape the terminal stage. It doesn't seem accurate to say that anyone has "escaped" death, if all evidence points to their heading straight for it.

    This is very pedantic point, but Bob started it!

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  10. 'In the same way, all modern evidence shows that degeneration of the human body has occurred in all human beings.'

    Now that's pretty anti-Popperian! (I approve of that, BTW.) You're claiming that we can make an inductive inference from 'all people so far have degenerated with age' to 'all people will continue to do so.'

    Popper would not approve! Why not prefer the 'bold conjecture' that 'the generation being born now will never die'?

    (That relates to a question of why to use induction the way we do, rather than, say, using the inductive rule 'time for a change'? Using *that* rule, the very fact that everyone in the past died means, given it's 'time for a change,' that the future *won't* be that way. You can't refute that rule by saying 'It never worked in the past,' because it's advocate only has to say, 'Time for a change there as well.)

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  11. I do claim that we can make an inductive inference, but in addition, I think what this radio guy said falls in line with what Popper says about falsifiability. If the assertion is that "human bodies die within 130 years (that is, "all humans die") has been proven over and over and over again, it is a plainly falsifiable statement, and it has never been falsified. In this sense, no one has disproven the affirmative proposition about humans being mortal.

    Perhaps it's not clear what this guy meant by what he said. To my ears, "no one has ever disproven that we will die" is a shorthand way of referencing many small and large facts about biology and physics that are again and again proven coherent when everything we know to be decomposes.

    But I guess immortality could be possible, though it would just be highly surprising and would probably accompany a paradigm shift in physics/biology.

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