The Sound of Logic …

July 31, 2014

As the regulars on FTB are taking Dawkins to task over his discussions of logic and emotion, there’s a lot of talk about logic on those sites. P.Z. Myers is the latest to get into the fray, claiming that pure logic can or does lead to things like the firing of flechette bombs at Palestinian children:

We can stand aloof from the events and carry out thought exercises, and we can carefully weigh the pros and cons of war—this side did this horrible thing, that side did that horrible thing, this side has this worthy cause, that side has that worthy cause—and we can attempt to calculate who is slightly better and who is slightly worse, although even there it’s striking how often different people seem to come up with completely different sums, as if maybe, somehow human lives resist being reduced to simple numbers. Let us reason together, you say; if only we could get everyone to look at the situation logically, if only everyone would be a dispassionate observer like me, if only everyone would sit back and coldly analyze all possible actions to arrive at an optimal conclusion that maximizes idealized outcomes…

…and then we arrive at this moment where all the brilliant science and technology of our civilization culminates in this beautifully intricate weapon, designed, machined and assembled by highly educated teams of engineers and executives and politicians, aimed at a small child. One human being, persuaded by the moral calculus of their side that this action is a logical necessity, pushes a button and turns another innocent human being into shredded meat.

We don’t need any more logic. What we need now is more appreciation for the value of life.

As you read through the comments, the justification for claiming that pure logic leads to this is one that I find disturbingly common: comments that they can make a logically valid argument that has whatever horrible or insane proposition as its conclusion and claim that therefore “pure logic” validates thinking that the conclusion is true. And while pure logic classes do spend a lot of time pointing out the importance of logical validity and how logical validity does not depend on the truth of the premises or even the conclusion, if you actually learn what logic is you’ll understand that that isn’t where logic stops.

So, then, what does it mean to say that a logical argument is valid? Simply this: if the premises are all true, then the conclusion cannot be false (ie must be true). Now, what we want from a logical argument are to know what propositions are true and what propositions are false. So, given a logically valid argument, can I say anything about the actual truth of the conclusion, just by knowing that the argument is logically valid? No. All I know is that the conclusion is true if the premises are true (it’s not even an if and only if, because it is possible in a valid argument for at least one of the premises to be false and the conclusion to still be true, based on another argument), but without knowing if the premises are all true I can’t say if the conclusion is itself true or false.

Thus, the criteria of a logical argument that everyone keeps forgetting when they talk about “pure logic”: the soundness of the argument. An argument is sound, roughly, if the argument is valid and the premises are all true. If you have an argument that is valid and sound — the conclusion is true if the premises are all true and the premises are all true — then you know that the conclusion is true. If it isn’t, then you don’t, at least not from that argument.

If I had a pure and fully logical argument that said that the moral thing to do was to use flechette bombs, meaning that the argument’s conclusion was “The moral thing to do was to use flechette bombs” and the argument followed from premises such that if all of the premises were true the conclusion had to be true and the premises were indeed known to be true, and if I was the sort of person who would indeed choose to act morally, I dearly hope that no pictures of dead children would sway me from using the “pure logic” argument and in fact using them. I can’t think of a valid and sound argument for that, because I don’t think there is one, once you include the unstated moral premises into the debate. And thank God for that. But contrary to Myers’ assertions, we don’t need less logic, but more logic. We need to remind people that simply making a valid argument logically doesn’t mean that you are reasonable in thinking the conclusion true, which is one of the first things formal logic classes teach you about logical validity. And we need to remind people that they have to include all of their hidden premises, especially when dealing with morality. It’s the failure of people to use pure logic that causes problems like Myers talks about, not the fact that people use it too much instead of their own emotional reactions.

If you can make a valid and sound argument for a conclusion, then no amount of emotion, concern, or care ought to convince anyone that that conclusion is actually false. If that happens, you are being irrational, and dangerously slow. But you cannot forget that soundness part; validity is not enough.

Reason, Emotion, Experience and the Right Answer

July 30, 2014

So, after things had settled down a very small bit between Richard Dawkins and the Gnu Atheist/FTB/Atheism+ group, it all started again over Dawkins using an example where he argued that date rape was not as serious as stranger rape in an attempt to provide an example of how saying that X > Y (ie more serious, worse, etc) doesn’t mean that that person thinks that Y is a good thing. When he did that, people jumped on him for claiming that date rape was not as serious as stranger rape — with some justification — and Dawkins replied with, essentially, a sigh and a “That wasn’t my point” type of response.

And then he made a post about it, which Ophelia Benson replied to, which asks this question that Dawkins invites people to consider and that Benson is considering:

Are there kingdoms of emotion where logic is taboo, dare not show its face, zones where reason is too intimidated to speak?

After eliminating interpersonal cases, Benson goes on to bring it down to discourse:

Discourse by definition rests on at least minimal reason and logic. But does that mean emotion must be banished?

Being Stoic-leaning, I’m inclined to answer that with a simple “Yes”. But even I realize that that’s far too trite an answer. And yet, the answer depends a lot on what is meant by saying that emotion must be “banished”. A reasoned and logical decision shouldn’t be settled by emotion or an appeal to emotion, but that doesn’t mean that the facts of people’s emotional states are always going to be irrelevant. For morality, I think it should be, but others disagree. It is reasonable, however, to think that when you want to predict or influence the behaviour of people who are not Stoics that you will need to consider their emotions. So the key, I think, is this: the facts of emotions — what emotional states people are in, what emotional states they will be, and so on — will be relevant to logical and rational discourse as facts, as states of the world. But emotions are not arguments, nor should they attempt to stand in for them. So, in a rational discourse, an emotion is on the same level as, say, a colour or a solid object or a conceptual truth: things that are true and are assessed for their relevance to the argument. But an emotional state does not make an argument true in and of itself; they only affect the truth of an argument if joined to it by solid logic and reasoning.

Benson goes on to talk about how she thinks emotion can impact discourse:

But more to the point, it isn’t just random daft meaningless “emotion” that make people wary of discussions of, say, abortion. It’s emotion about things like consequences and experience and the difference between being someone vulnerable to the harm under discussion and being someone who is not vulnerable to it.
So we could have another discussion about the morality of trying to discuss moral issues that have huge impacts on one kind of people but no impact on you. Does that make a difference? Should it make a difference? Is it possible that, for instance, a very rich person who has always been very rich and has no personal experience at all of what it’s like to be poor – that such a person would have a shallow understanding of the consequences of, say, a wage cut for bottom-tier workers in a company? Should very rich people be the only people deciding what wages get paid? Is that a question about reason and logic, or emotion, or both?

They might, indeed, have a shallow view of the experiences of the very poor, and thus might be missing some of the relevant facts … particularly, those facts of the experiences of the very poor. And assuming that those experiences are relevant, then they might be missing important facets of the situation that will make for a bad logical argument. However, the flip side is this: if those facts are relevant to the argument at hand, someone ought to be able to convey them in a way that doesn’t require that very rich person to have had those experiences. The key is this: if you are making an argument that is objectively true, then it has to depend on facts that are objective as well, meaning that anyone can get access to them. If you are relying on subjective facts, then only those who have access to those facts can see the truth of the argument, and so it has now become a subjective argument. And a logical and rational argument is objective, at least for any argument that you want other people to accept using logic and reason.

So if you end up arguing that people have to have experienced what you’ve experienced to see the truth of your argument, at that point you have to consider that you have either made a bad argument, or an irrational/illogical one. (Note, sometimes you want irrational/illogical arguments, or at least subjective ones. But the case listed here is not one of those; we should be able to logically assess whether the wage cut is the right thing to do by means that are accessible to everyone.)

For an example: suppose you get a group of prosperous comfortable well-fed men having a rational logical discussion of rape. Is it excessively emotional to point out that a group like that would be simply talking over the heads of the people most vulnerable to rape? I don’t think it is. I don’t think it’s excessively emotional to point out that there’s something blood-chilling about seeing people who are safe talk calmly about the risks or tragedies faced by people who aren’t like them.

Would those people be talking over the heads of the people most vulnerable to rape … or simply possibly telling them what they don’t want to hear. And I personally think that people should be able to, in general, talk calmly about issues like this without it being considered “blood-chilling” or in any way wrong. It is indeed the rational ideal that such arguments should be made calmly and, more importantly, without bias. Those who are most impacted by the choices are clearly biased, and it’s perfectly natural that they would have a bias. But if people who have a vested interest in the outcome of a discussion are the only or main ones who can argue over it, they risk introducing bias into the arguments, even unconsciously. And a rational, logical and dare I say scientific argument wants to remove bias as much as is humanly possible. Again, it comes back to what I said above: if the argument isn’t one that’s accessible and demonstrable to everyone, then it’s at best subjective and at worst illogical/irrational.

Note again that this doesn’t mean that their concerns are irrelevant; they should be demonstrable facts. But the fact that people who are in those situations have those concerns says nothing, in and of itself, about the truth of the argument. It seems to me that hinting that there’s something wrong or something missing if a bunch of uninvolved people had a dispassionate discussion of an issue is advocating for a subjective argument: you can’t see the truth of the argument unless you’re involved. And that’s wrong. It begs for an answer of “Demonstrate these facts objectively and then we’ll incorporate them into the argument, and see where they take us.”

Also note two things:

1) Dawkins’ actual complaint was about shutting down the argument or consideration of it at all due to emotional reasons, which is about an even stronger stance than I’m talking about here.

2) My take here is a bit stronger than Benson’s phrasing would insist on; she could say that she just wants the situations considered, and not to trump discussion.

In summary, emotion is not useful as part of the method of rational discourse, and only introduces bias and gets in the way. However, facts about emotions may be necessary to produce the right argument, and so should be limited to that role in rational discourse, not banished entirely. Rational discourse has to depend on things that can be demonstrated to everyone, and emotions and personal experiences can’t. Thus, rational discourse should follow the “Just the facts” model, where sometimes the facts include personal experiences and emotional states.

God in the Age of Science, Part 1

July 26, 2014

So, I did receive “God in the Age of Science?” on July 16th, and immediately read four chapters. And then got busy and didn’t read any more since then. But I’d like to comment briefly on my very first impressions of the book and on the first couple of chapters or so. I have a more detailed commentary planned for chapters 3 and 4 … whenever I get around to it [grin].

First, on tone, the tone isn’t particularly aggressive, which is a plus, in my opinion, for a book like this. A few stylistic notes: he doesn’t seem, at least not yet, to have Prinz’s obsession with presenting all of the counter-arguments in as detailed and precise a manner as possible, although he does indeed address counter-arguments, which is nice. The second is that he seems to be fond of Derek Parfit’s style — which, to be fair, is fairly popular in philosophy in general — of stating what he sees as the obvious conclusion to an argument as if it was, well, obvious, except Philipse does it through rhetorical questions while Parfit uses out-and-out statements. Unfortunately, both of them have a tendency to do it without giving any further explanation and in cases where the conclusion is not or at least may not yet be clear, which always chafes me a bit. Philipse’s approach is a bit less annoying, leaving you wanting more rather than automatically wanting to challenge him, but still it would be better if these things were presented as the results of full arguments rather than as asides.

But that’s not all that important. The big goal in the first section is to demonstrate that you can’t have or rely on revealed knowledge or, perhaps, revelation in general to justify a belief in God, but instead even for revelation will have to rely on either empirical evidence or reasoning to justify your case, or else you’ll be irrational. This last part is actually pretty controversial, because it risk conflating rational belief and being justified in claiming to know something, and a lot of the arguments particularly against reformed revelation (in Chapters 3 and 4) do rely on that. But remember that theism is a belief in the existence of one or more theistic gods, not necessarily a knowledge claim. As someone who doesn’t make the knowledge claim, it’s going to be easy to say “Can we believe that rationally, though?” as a response to most of this. More on that when I look at chapters 3 and 4 specifically.

The biggest flaw in the first two chapters, though, is probably in his discussions of contradictions in the Bible and how they can’t be resolved through revelation, which for him seems to be “Reading the Bible and thinking really hard about it, which may include noting the contradictions and resolving them through the text”. While few people will deny that there are some at least difficult things to resolve in the Bible, for this point to work they have to be virtually impossible to resolve, and his examples aren’t that hard to resolve. For example, he cites a contradiction between Jesus and Paul over whether works or following the Laws are what is required to get to heaven, and notes that this one is unresolvable. Except it’s very easy to resolve for most Christians: if there’s a contradiction between something that Paul said and something that Jesus himself said, you go with Jesus, and Paul either got it wrong or should be taken another way. Philipse could have found a similar contradiction between the purported words of Jesus himself, but I suspect that those would be easier to reconcile on interpretation. Now, for Philipse’s point disowning Paul’s revelations might support not trusting revelation since there are times when it gets things wrong, and you don’t really know when it’s getting things wrong or not, but that isn’t the tack he’s taking in those chapters, and thus it’s about the contradictions being unresolvable … but he leaves himself open to the counter of “Says who?”.

If he took revelation as a method that had to reveal itself directly to the person in full form, then he’d have a point. But as soon as he allows for reflection, any philosopher should know that there are many, many ways to resolve seeming contradictions in a work (seeing how that’s done for, say, Kant, for example), and so his comment that taking a revelatory approach to the Bible leads to unresolvable contradictions is weaker than it needs to be to make his point. And if he takes that approach as requiring reason and so doing natural theology, then he seems to contradict his original discussions and, in fact, the reformed approach to revelation that he discusses in chapters 3 and 4 as if it really could save revelation. So contradictions, though a popular argument, don’t seem to support his case as well as he’d like them to. But this shouldn’t be a big issue for his overall thesis, and so probably isn’t worth worrying about.

My odd relationship with vacation …

July 26, 2014

In my job, I am “fortunate” to have a rather generous allotment of vacation. And, yes, for me that “fortunate” has to be in quotes, because for me personally it’s often more of a curse than a blessing. While here by law you have to receive vacation pay — which at one point was 2 weeks pay, but I think it’s a bit more now — and while many companies simply actually pay that out every year and make all leave unpaid leave, my company does the standard thing for bigger companies and gives you a number of days of vacation and you essentially don’t show up for a day, call it vacation, and then get paid as if you were there that day. Snazzy. Of course, that means that they don’t pay unused days out at the end of the year; it’s part of your regular compensation, essentially.

The biggest problem for me when it comes to vacation is that, in general, I don’t really do anything that I need to take vacation for. I don’t like to travel, and so never take a week or two to go somewhere warm or to take in Europe or, well, whatever it is that people do when they travel. I’m also not much into renovations and the like, so I don’t take a week or so off to fix something up that needs to be fixed up. All of my interests are generally the sort of thing that I can do in the evenings or on weekends, and so are most of my errands. My vacations, then, are me staying at home doing all of the things I’d do on the weekend, just during the week. Thus, I don’t have any reason to say “I need to take a week or two right now to get my stuff done”; all of my stuff will wait a week. Or a month. Or a few months, if need be.

Because of that, there are a number of times when it wouldn’t make sense for me to take vacation, which manage to align with all of the times that I’m busy at work. Because I never need to take a particular week off for anything, it never makes sense for me to work like crazy for a week, take a week off, and then work like crazy the week I get back. Either I should work like crazy all three weeks, or work all three weeks so that I don’t have to work like crazy at all. After all, anything that I was going to do I can do some other time, so better to reduce my stress level and just work. This also applies to taking individual days off; if I’m working time on the weekend because I’m under time pressure, it doesn’t make sense to then take a day off the next week. I would have been better off to just take the weekend off … or, at least, use the fact that I worked then to cover the day I took off.

Now, add to this that while I’m a fairly dedicated worker, I’m not quite a stupid one. If not using my vacation days meant that I’d end up with a little extra cash at the end of the year, I’d take the money and only use the vacation that I really wanted to use at times where it was reasonable for me to take it. But since that’s not the case, I’m not inclined to have a compensation package that will pay me to stay home for a number of days and then come in and work anyway without getting paid extra. So, I really do indeed want to use all of my vacation days, and the company wants me to use them (for various reasons), and so I try to use them all. Which usually ends up with my taking a lot of time off around Christmas, more than most people would. Which isn’t easy for my managers to, er, manage.

Thus, for me, vacation is actually something that I have to manage, like a resource in an RTS. Well, sure, that’s the way it is for most people, but for them it’s a resource that they run out of, while for me it’s something that I have to arrange to take without impeding my ability to do my work. That’s just one of the little ways where I can be very, very odd.

It’s in …

July 16, 2014

So, Amazon is telling me that my copy of “God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason.” is waiting for me at the post office, so I should get it — and start reading it — tonight. I’ll try to do my “one chapter a night” thing, although I might do a bit more than that tonight since I ought to have time. I’m considering posting thoughts on each chapter as I think of it, but I hate doing that since I think that for most works it’s important to understand the whole point before breaking it down into its parts, although for a lot of books each point is independent and so can be addressed that way. So we’ll see.

But my biggest question before starting is: is this book, how can I put this, aggressive? Coyne has a strong tendency to like and recommend books and articles that utilize snark and mockery a lot, as much if not more than they utilize arguments. The initial description didn’t sound too snarky, but is this going to be a case where Coyne’s recommendation of a good book is one that doesn’t, in fact, mock the arguments but instead focuses more on addressing them? Only time will tell.

Challenge Accepted …

July 10, 2014

There has long been a line of argumentation that many atheists like to use that relates to the traditional Courtier’s Reply, which goes something like this: you keep telling us atheists that we’re ignorant of theism and can’t dismiss it until we’ve considered all of the best arguments for theism. But what about the best arguments for atheism? Can we list off a list of books and arguments that you have to read before you can be considered credible in critcizing atheism?

Now, the theistic point isn’t usually just “You need to read all of these authors”. Most of the initial replies are people pointing out that the atheists tend to talk about particular arguments for or conceptions of God, get it completely wrong, and so really should try to understand the arguments before criticizing and, especially, before mocking the arguments. In other cases, it’s just people pushing their own preferred arguments and conceptions, because there are indeed a number of different ones. Sometimes, it’s both. But there are times when people — whom I’d tend to call “unsophisticated” — really do just toss out books and say read them. While I never approve of such things, I can approve of the underlying sentiment that makes that seem even remotely credible: in order to criticize or reject a position, you really should be well-read in not only what others say about it, but also in what those who support it say about it.

In terms of atheism, I’m doing pretty well. I’ve read Dawkins, Dennett and Harris of the Four Horsemen (I read a debate between Hitchens and someone else once which convinced me that he wasn’t worth my time), I read Kaufmann as suggested by Jerry Coyne (and wasn’t impressed, to say the least; I really should critique the religion part more directly), I’ve read Smith’s initial book, I’ve read Grayling’s take, and some others.

Now, Jerry Coyne is pushing another book:

For a good refutation of the “God off the hook” claim of Ruse, read the philosopher Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason. It’s the best attack on theism I know, and though it’s occasionally a hard slog, it’s well worth it. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and if a theist says he/she hasn’t read it, you can rightly say, “Well, then, you can’t bash atheism, because you haven’t dealt with Its Best Arguments.”

Well, if that’s one of the “Best Arguments” … then I shall take up the challenge and deal with it, despite the fact that it really looks like this whole challenge is one that Coyne and other atheists really don’t expect someone to accept. I’ve ordered the book and will read it when it gets in. However, from reading the description on Amazon I can already predict that it will have an uphill climb:

God in the Age of Science? is a critical examination of strategies for the philosophical defence of religious belief. The main options may be presented as the end nodes of a decision tree for religious believers. The faithful can interpret a creedal statement (e.g. “God exists”) either as a truth claim, or otherwise. If it is a truth claim, they can either be warranted to endorse it without evidence, or not. Finally, if evidence is needed, should its evidential support be assessed by the same logical criteria that we use in evaluating evidence in science, or not? Each of these options has been defended by prominent analytic philosophers of religion. In part I Herman Philipse assesses these options and argues that the most promising for believers who want to be justified in accepting their creed in our scientific age is the Bayesian cumulative case strategy developed by Richard Swinburne. Parts II and III are devoted to an in-depth analysis of this case for theism. Using a “strategy of subsidiary arguments”, Philipse concludes (1) that theism cannot be stated meaningfully; (2) that if theism were meaningful, it would have no predictive power concerning existing evidence, so that Bayesian arguments cannot get started; and (3) that if the Bayesian cumulative case strategy did work, one should conclude that atheism is more probable than theism. Philipse provides a careful, rigorous, and original critique of atheism in the world today.

So, what are my issues?

1) It starts from the Bayesian cumulative case strategy of Richard Swinburne, which I’m not familiar with.

2) That uses Bayesian analysis which I don’t care for.

3) If the end of his third argument is that atheism should be considered more probable than theism, then even there I don’t think that what we believe must be that which even we consider most probable, let alone what would be considered most probable by an abstract Bayesian analysis.

4) Knowledge certainly isn’t set by probabilities of any kind, so that wouldn’t get to a knowledge claim that atheism is true, and I don’t care much about atheism until they can claim to know that God doesn’t exist.

5) His second point about it not reaching the level where a Bayesian analysis can be done is underwhelming to me and only matters if I accept that the Bayesian route is the way to go, but since my epistemology is not Bayesian that’s going to be pretty hard to do.

6) So it will come down to his first point about not being able to state the proposition meaningfully … but since Christians can point at the Bible and most religions can point at their text that seems to be precisely as meaningful, at least to most people, as, say “Sherlock Holmes”, a word that we clearly know the meaning of, so he must mean something more advanced than that … but I don’t see why that would matter.

I hate starting a book thinking that I’ll hate it, because I find that starting with that attitude almost always ensures that you will, in fact, end up hating it. But I will read it and see if it can convince me.

So … challenge accepted.

God as a Gaseous Vertebrate?

June 21, 2014

A while ago, Jerry Coyne finished reading “The Experience of God” by David Bentley Hart, and made some comments on it that revealed that, yes, he didn’t really understand what a Ground of All Being actually was. I meant to respond to that as a summary, since he didn’t really post a solid review/summary, but anyone who’s been following this blog knows that I get lazy and then don’t reply. Maybe I’ll get back to it one of these days. However, , and after spending a little time listening to Christian radio compares God — either the folk God or the theological God or, well, it isn’t quite clear what — to what H.L. Mencken called “a vertebrate without substance”, which when you unpack it and unpack Coyne’s post seems to mean a God that has human traits but isn’t human, a common criticism that Coyne makes of “sophisticated theology”.

(As an aside, Coyne compliments Mencken as “…a true strident atheist, as good with mockery as was his successor Hitchens”. This leads me to ask “When did mockery become a good argument to convince rational people of your position?”)

Coyne gives this as his main example:

One show, for children, was about a girl who wanted to become a personal trainer, but had shown little talent for the job, and was frustrated because she didn’t know what to do with her life. “I want to be somebody,” she wailed. Her father, who tried to soothe her, had his own problem: he was overweight and was on a diet. Eventually he told her that God would show her the way, but it would take a while, just like the long while he’d have to wait to shed his extra pounds. Then a voice-over came on and gave the lesson: God has plans for all of us, and listens to our needs, but he will effect his plans for us in his own time. We must wait. But we should be reassured that he knows what is good for us, loves us, and will, in time, show us the way.

This God, of course, was humanoid: the emotions he evinced were love, understanding, empathy, and the desire to interfere in our lives so we could be fulfilled. And, of course, he was touted as actually listening to prayer, for the child was told to consider her options “prayerfully”.

He then compares this to Hart’s position:

Those gaseous theologians like David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong, of course, decry the concept of such a humanlike God. That’s not the real God, says Hart, and those atheists who argue against it are wasting their time. The real god is ineffable (though somehow Hart knows that He/She/Hir/It loves us); it is a Ground of Being.

Why? Because they think that God can love? Because they think that God can plan, or have emotions, or act in the world? The Ground of Being — as I explained in my review of Hart’s book — is not some completely amorphous, blob without properties. For the Thomists, the Ground of All Being is, indeed the Ground of All Being. It is not only the case that every being exists because it participates in the Ground of All Being, but every positive property only exists because the Ground of All Being has that property. So if we can be said to be capable of love, then the Ground of All Being must be capable of love. If we can plan, so can the Ground of All Being. If we can act in the world, then so can the Ground of All Being.

Now, getting this from Hart’s book would be tough; only by combining it with Feser’s posts and book was I able to get that. But Coyne should have been able to get the answer to this question from it:

What I want to know is this. If Hart and his ilk think that 99% of Christians have the wrong concept of God, why aren’t they trying to correct it? Why are they writing books aimed at fellow scholars instead of, say, the average Christian, or the average Christian child? Why are they wasting time bashing atheists instead of telling their coreligionists—or all religionists—the truth about God?

Now, here’s a quote where Coyne does seem to get the problem that Hart is trying to address:

I listened to two stations, and both of them constantly promoted the idea of God as a gaseous vertebrate—just like us, but more powerful.

Now, Hart was clear in his book that this was indeed the wrong way to look at God, and he in fact called out other theologians, including Plantinga and the modal logic attempts to prove the existence of God, as well as the Ontological Argument. So no one can validly complain that they aren’t trying to correct the misconception. So the only complaints would be that they may write more scholarly works than popular works, and that they take aim at atheists too much. For the former, it’s hardly a valid criticism that they’ve decided to work in intellectual circles instead of aiming at the rank and file, any more than it would be a valid criticism of, say, those studying global warming if they write more academic papers and books aimed at disagreeing scientists and don’t spend a lot of time talking to the mainstream press. For the latter, since Feser and Hart were taking on the New Atheists, who aimed at and still aim at the average person, aiming at them means aiming at a popular or average view as well, and in effect aims at two birds with one stone: taking out the rather weak counter-arguments against God — from their perspective — while clearly pointing out to religious people what the common view of God really is or really implies. Maybe Coyne’s right and they should promote the underlying theory more … but maybe the folk view isn’t as far off of their view as Coyne thinks it is.

At any rate, there is, in general, no gaseous vertebrate here, at least not from the perspective of Thomist theology. There’s nothing really wrong with what those stations said, other than the analogy risks anthropomorphizing God if taken too far and too literally. Which is a risk of any analogy. The contradiction that Coyne so relies on simply doesn’t exist.

NPC, Easy as 1-2-3

June 20, 2014

So, in recent video game news, Ubisoft has said that they aren’t going to provide a playable female character in Assassin’s Creed: Unity because it would be too much work. As you might imagine, there’s been a lot of discussion over whether this is true, or whether if even if it’s true that means that they shouldn’t do it, and so on and so forth. But I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I’m going to talk about this article that I saw in a tweet from Shamus Young, which he recommended as being particularly good, and takes a bit of a different take on the issue.

The article starts out talking about the deep and rich involvement of women in the actual French Revolution — the period the game is set in — in much detail. Much detail. A lot of detail. While this was interesting, this detail goes on for most of the 2 pages of the article, and while it was interesting and taught me things I never knew — not being particularly interested in the French Revolution because military history is more to my interest — by the second page I was skimming the article thinking “Great, but what’s the point?”.

This seems to me to be the point, and the argument for why it is bad that Ubisoft didn’t include a female playable character in the game:

It was wrong because presenting a French Revolution with women as NPCs rather than PCs reinforces the narrative that women were the “passive” citizens that politicians and laws painted them as. Well-written NPCs can certainly teach players about women in the revolution, but by definition an NPC is a character with a scripted routine, one who isn’t free to make her own choices. An NPC does not act – she is acted upon. In other words, by confining women to NPC roles, Ubisoft figuratively condemns its female characters to the second-class status and scripted life women in the actual French Revolution fought – and died – to escape.

In this way, playing a woman in Assassin’s Creed: Unity would in itself be a revolutionary act. To play as a historical woman taking part in political life – and in that period violence was a part of political life – upends the narrative that women were “passive” citizens. But more than that it gives the character a sense of freedom and choice that NPCs don’t have – the power to act rather than react. There is no greater act of liberation than putting a character under player control. A character under programming is an asset, but a character under a player’s hand has free will within the game’s laws. To make an oppressed character playable is to give them the tools to break their chains.

And to quote the legendary sages Hall and Oates: I can’t go for that, noooo, no can do.

The problem here is that it actually seems to conflate two things: game organization and characterization. NPCs are, of course, always in a game to support the narrative and immersion of the player, and so in that sense they aren’t agents, as their agency is, as stated, programmed and scripted. But that doesn’t mean that the characters themselves are agentless or second-class in any way. You could indeed convey all of the history — good and ill — of women in the French Revolution as NPCs even though they are there to support the story, as in any deep story in a game the NPCs are generally there to lead the player into and motivate them to experience the wider world you’re building for them. This is easier to do if the NPCs seem to be full agents, with real desires and real fears, so that then the player comes to believe them and want to help them achieve their desires, or in fact understands that what they desire is what it is right to desire and so comes to desire it themselves, and either tries to remove the threats that they fear or comes to fear those threats themselves. Done well, NPCs build and define the world that the play is immersed in, and the player chooses their path through that world. In some sense, it would be easier to tell the stories that the article tells through NPCs than PCs, because the player can always decide not to care and, if the game is not to be too linear, to work for or against these groups, but the NPCs always have to care and always have to demonstrate that they care and, indeed, why the player might want to work for their interests.

Now, it would have been interesting to have the only playable character be female, as then that would allow them to tell the story of these groups in detail, something that might be more difficult with a male lead. So that’s an opportunity lost. But the major issue in the article is that it assumes that if the role of an NPC is passive in games and is only there to support the player’s narrative, that doesn’t mean that the NPC themselves are passive or don’t have a narrative themselves. To paraphrase Kant, while all NPCs are a means to the end of the player and player character and player character narrative, that doesn’t mean that they are not also ends in themselves in the narrative, that they don’t have a story or even an active role in their own narrative, that the player can link to and drop in and out of as necessary. Women, then, in the game don’t have to be anything like the passive objects that the women of the French Revolution revolted against, even if their concerns may or may not be the main concerns of the player. Good NPCs are still, at the end of the day, characters, and if I’m to believe that the character I’m playing is a person then the same techniques can be used to make them seem like people, too.

So that, perhaps, can be the rallying cry of the NPC revolution: NPCs are people (characters), too. And to insist that not having a female or a male playable character and leaving those stories to the NPCs makes those stories passive, scripted, second-class, chained is to ignore what good story NPCs, at least, are for.

Whether Ubisoft manages to make good story NPCs is another matter, of course …

Comment on Ryan Born’s Response to the Moral Landscape Challenge …

June 14, 2014

So, I’ve read Ryan Born’s response to the Moral Landscape Challenge, and want to comment on it a bit here. But first, it must be noted that the biggest problem with attacking Sam Harris’ views is that there really isn’t any kind of central point or analogy in it, no overall moral system that you can attack at one place and bring it down. Instead, Harris has set up multiple fronts, and seems to be willing to stake his entire claim on any one of them at any time, switching between them as necessary to avoid having to address tough arguments. Well, okay, perhaps that isn’t quite fair. Perhaps it is more reasonable to say that instead of having a system that works together to build out a fully-formed moral philosophy, Harris has instead a group of independent statements about morality that he brings together under the umbrella of “morality” but which are all, for the most part, independent. No one could refute all of them in 1000 words, and so one has to pick one to attack. But even if that attack is successful, Harris is open to saying “Well, what about this? You have to refute this to refute my view”, which he does tend to do. In preparing my response, I had at least two other main points that I could have attacked:

1) Argue against his main point by arguing that just because morality may be something that you have to be conscious to have, it doesn’t mean that morality is a property of consciousness.

2) Argue against the health analogy by pointing out that health is a state, not a normative value. You can be healthy without trying to be healthy or valuing it at all, but you can’t be moral without valuing being moral or having your actions motivated by valuing morality.

Ultimately as already seen, I went with moral disagreement. Born took on a fourth principle, that of whether you can subsume morality under science, pointing out that Harris’ basic principle that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures is a philosophical/conceptual argument, not a scientific/empirical one.

This, to me, is a relatively weak counter. The first reason is that Harris’ main point ends up being essentially this: Given that morality is in at least some way critically defined by or related to the well-being of conscious beings, and given that all properties of conscious beings as conscious beings are explained by their brain, and given that explaining the brain is something that can be done scientifically, then morality is in some way critically defined by or explained by science. Born’s response that the first “given” isn’t scientific doesn’t actually touch this part of the point, and so has to aim at another angle, that the initial given is itself not scientific and needs justification from something other than science.

This leads to the second reason, which is that Harris doesn’t seem to care whether that initial given is scientific or not. First, as we’ve seen when he discusses scientism, Harris will quickly argue that saying that something must be proven philosophically and not scientifically is defining science too narrowly. So if philosophy becomes science, then that given is still justified scientifically. Yes, this isn’t a very good point, because it ends up taking the only really novel thing Harris says — although not new, since naturalization of philosophical claims has been done for at least half a century — and makes it meaningless, because it would still allow for the normal armchair philosophizing about morality to proceed and might change those discussions not one bit, leaving Harris’ view saying nothing new while attempting to imply that it does. Second, Harris has been consistent in maintaining that he doesn’t really need to actually justify the idea that morality is about maximizing well-being; all of his defenses of that, even in his latest response, end up being that he can’t see any other basis for morality and essentially challenging all comers to prove something else is right or better or else he must be right. His health and logic examples always boil down to saying “Well, we just take this as a given and we have to take these things as a given so why not take my initial given as a given?”. So given that he doesn’t seem to care about justifying that initial given, it seems unlikely that he’ll care whether that non-justification is done scientifically or not, even in the narrow or broad sense of the term “science”.

That was why I chose the specific approach I did, aiming it more at Harris himself and what you’d have to do to convince him than in creating a full, formal philosophical argument. The aim was to force Harris to take a question that he’d be sure that there was an actual, objective answer to, but demonstrate that he couldn’t do it without defining and justifying at least some sort of view of well-being, while demonstrating that no physical facts nor facts about the brain would be able to answer that question. Essentially, the only thing critical to all conceptions of his view is that initial given of morality essentially being the well-being of conscious creatures, and destroying that would destroy his view.

NHL Playoff Predictions: Summary

June 14, 2014

So, with the Los Angeles Kings winning the Stanley Cup last night, my final record is 7 – 8, just a touch under .500. A bit disappointing, but still in the same range as a coin toss.

It was a closer series than a 4 – 1 series win would make it seem, but the Kings managed to win games that were at least games that the Rangers could very well have one, if not games that they really deserved to win. 3 out of 5 games in the series went into overtime, and the Kings won all 3. Only 1 of the 5 games was settled by more than a goal. The Kings went up 2 – 0 without having led for a single second in the series. I think that you can say that the Kings were full marks for their win, but that they weren’t dominate. They just managed to come up big when they absolutely had to.

Well, that’s it for this year, and that’s it for hockey until October.


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