Archive for October, 2011

The Dunning-Kruger Paradox …

October 31, 2011

Okay, someone else has to have thought of this before me, and I might even have seen it somewhere, but I can’t remember where or if, and thought of this today:

Imagine that I really think that I know how to do X. By the Dunning-Kruger effect, this suggests that I don’t know how to do X and so should doubt my abilities to do X. But if I doubt my ability to do X, then that suggests that I really do know how to do X. So I should be confident in my ability to do X … which should, then, lead me to doubt my ability to do X.

Repeat ad infinitum.

I Need to Buy a New Cape …

October 31, 2011

The latest Not-So-Casual Commentary is up.

I’m also looking at creating a Mastermind version of Kato from Shadow Hearts: Covenant using the vampire cape. I really am an alt-o-holic.

Coyne Responds …

October 30, 2011

So, Camels with Hammers picked up my post about that grant from the Templeton Foundation, responding to it favourably here. He generally agrees with me. Coyne replied to both us, and I’ll be addressing Coyne’s response in detail in this post. Camels With Hammers has already started a series of posts as a response.

So, with all the requisite links out of the way, I can jump right in to Coyne’s response:

Sometimes people become so bound up in their own career paths that they’ll defend anyone who’s walking a similar path, even if they’re doing it rong. Two philosophers have just done this, guarding their turf without realizing that some dog has deposited a large poop on that turf.

Now, at the end of my first post I commented that Coyne would not like people doing to biology what he’s doing to philosophy, and the opening paragraph here fits nicely because it carries on with that theme. I have seen in the past complaints leveled at scientists — even biologists — by, say, creationists arguing that those scientists would see how absurd their conclusions were if they weren’t trying to preserve their theories. I would expect that in response to these sorts of objections Coyne would be at best scornful and at worst apoplectic. And he’d be right; that sort of argument is the worst sort of intellectual dishonesty, as it refuses to grant the most basic level of intellectual charity to the person criticized by presuming that they do, in fact, actually hold the stance they claim to hold and hold it for reasons, reasons that need to be understood and addressed in any criticism.

And yet, this is Coyne’s opening paragraph, his opening volley as it were. And it doesn’t even work as a range finder.

So, after the summary of what has gone on before, Coyne launches into his actual critcisms, starting with whether or not this would be interesting if God didn’t exist:

The theory is NOT philosophically interesting in the absence of an omniscient being. If there isn’t one, as I presume both of these folks agree, then the project becomes an exercise in mental masturbation, musing about what something nonexistent would do if it existed.

The whole argument here turns on a one word difference, but as is so often the case in philosophy one word makes all the difference. Because, to me, the musing is about what it would mean if that omniscient being existed, not about what it would do. And when we start talking about meaning, and talking about concepts, then we can clearly see that it doesn’t really matter whether the thing exists or not, and in fact these musings may tell us interesting things about whether the thing could even exist or not. For example, presume for an instant that Ockham is right and this is the only way for omniscience to work. Now imagine that we discover that the concepts of time and dependence will simply not allow for this sort of mechanism; the mechanism is not only physically impossible, but is actually conceptually impossible. At this point, an omniscient being would be a conceptual impossibility and would be proven to not exist. Hardly uninteresting, then, if the entity actually doesn’t exist.

But it goes further than this. Again, we’re asking what it would mean if such an entity existed, and mean conceptually. If we can make a coherent concept of time and dependence that includes it, then we have to stop talking about it simply being “absurd” to think that it might be possible for past events to depend on future events. At best, then, if this can’t happen it would only be a physical impossibility for past events to depend on future ones. Which leads to two very interesting conclusions. First, since we know how to test to see if things exist in the physical world we can’t use the conceptual absurdity to stop us from doing that; if a scientific theory, then, required that to occur you’d need a scientific reason to reject that behaviour. Secondly, even if omniscient beings didn’t exist it’s then quite possible that other things do exist or could exist that make use of the concept. In both cases, we open up a whole lot of new potential theories once we’ve divested ourselves of the outdated notion that these things are conceptual absurdities … even if no omniscient being exists.

These seem, to me, to be interesting, and none of them rely in any way on any omniscient being actually existing. And it does that because we aren’t asking what this purported omniscient being would do, but what it would mean.

Why is that any more valid than wondering how an omnimalevolent God could allow good in the world, or why an omnibenevolent God allows evil?

Well, see, these are conceptually interesting. One of the reasons the “Problem of Evil” argument is so prominent and has been debated for so long is precisely because it has interesting conceptual implications, mostly by what it means to be good and what would be required to be omnibenevolent. Why are you not that likely to get grants for these issues now? Because it’s hard to find something new in them; they’ve been discussed for so long that most of the easy comments have been made. But the full resources of philosophy have been brought to bear on them, at least in part because those questions have issues for ethics. Such as the question of whether or not a completely evil being can ever actually pet the dog, or what it means to be evil — or good — in the first place. So these are, in fact, of philosophical interest, and it shocks me to think that he missed all the philosophical ink spilled on those questions.

(BTW, a quote from the “Pet the Dog” page aptly sums up the debate:

A kitten is frequently substituted, especially in anime. No one who likes cats is totally evil, and no one who is mean to them is actually good.

The philosophical question is whether or not that’s actually true.)

Or, for that matter, how fairies would keep their wings dry in the rain, or how Santa manages to deliver all those presents to billions of kids in only one evening.

The mistake here is assuming that if the standards of philosophy are not what Coyne thinks they should be, then they have no standards at all. But philosophy does have standards, and it judges philosophically interesting on the basis of conceptually interesting. The previous suggestions do, in fact, have interest conceptually because they challenge or clarify or at least raise interesting questions about concepts specifically. These last two, well, don’t. What does it matter to the concept of a fairy — ie what it means to be a fairy — to know how they keep their wings dry? Or to the concept of Santa Claus to know how he is purported to deliver all those presents? And what other concepts — like time or dependence or good or evil — are impacted by settling this about the concept, or presuming it for the sake of investigation? Absolutely none. So it isn’t conceptually interesting, and since it isn’t conceptually interesting it isn’t philosophically interesting. End of story.

And what if you assume that God isn’t omniscient? Then the whole project is moot.

No, we just end up with two projects. The first remains the same; they simply stop calling it God. The second, then, is to examine if the purported knowledge — or lack thereof — of God has any interesting conceptual implications. If it doesn’t, then the second becomes moot, while the first may remain.

That exercise is not philosophy, it’s theology.

Philosophy of time and metaphysics of dependence are, in fact, philosophy … the first by definition. That these examinations start with a theological problem does not mean that those examinations suddenly stop being philosophy.

1. I do take philosophy seriously, but only serious philosophy. The kind of mushbrained lucubrations embodied in the Templeton proposal may be meant seriously, but they’re not to be taken seriously. They involve spinning out the consequences of a nonexistent omniscient being. What’s the point?

First, theology is examined philosophically, by philosophy of religion. Most of the atheist arguments depend entirely on spinning out the consequences of the purported omniscient being, so I fail to see why Coyne is unwilling to allow philosophy and theology to work only when he doesn’t see how it leads directly to the conclusion he wants drawn, which is that God doesn’t exist.

Second, I’m not sure that Coyne is qualified to define what “serious philosophy” is or ought to be. Would Coyne allow philosophy or theology to define what “serious biology” ought to be?

Third, we did actually talk about the point before his reply: to tease out if the concepts of time and dependence can accommodate a past event — say, belief formation — depending on a future one. Which is philosophically interesting, even if it isn’t interesting to Coyne.

The kind of philosophy I do take seriously is ethical philosophy—or any kind of philosophy that gives us logical tools to think about our beliefs, getting us to examine them closely and pointing out their fallacies.

So, only logic/critical thinking and ethics, then? Unfortunately, while that’s valuable and all, I see the critical thinking part as only being useful as tools for doing the real work of philosophy, which is conceptual analysis, which is why philosophy has interesting things to say about ethics, in my opinion. That Coyne only finds interesting philosophy that relates directly to the things he wants to use it for is perfectly all right, but he doesn’t get to go from personal whims to declarations about what philosophy ought to do and what it’s good for. He needs a philosophical argument for that … which would be more than just ethics and logic/critical thinking, but would certainly be serious philosophy.

2. I do indeed advocate scientism, if by scientism you mean “we accept no truths about the world that aren’t derived by logic, reason, and empirical observation.” That’s construing science broadly, but I think it encompasses what is meant by the term “scientism”. I’m proud to take that stand, though philosophers like Fincke and V.S. use it in a pejorative way. Philosophy alone cannot tell us what is true about the world. It gives us tools to help us find what is true about the world.

A number of issues here.

First, he didn’t need to guess about what, at least, my use of the term “scientism”. I spelled it out in some detail:

The second is that while he may not care about concepts, philosophy does, and unless he wants to take away all funding to philosophy and give it to science — which, I’m afraid, would definitely be scientism — …

So, my actual reply was that philosophy cares about concepts, and my argument previously had been that this was conceptually interesting. Unless, then, Coyne wants to claim that philosophy should only find interesting the things that science finds interesting, and so should only fund the things that science finds interesting, he’d have to allow this. If he denies it, then he really is engaging in scientism in a sense that deserves to be pejorative: he’d be essentially forcing all fields to be sciences, regardless of their history or actual areas of interest.

The second part is that no one here claimed that philosophy alone can tell us what’s true about the world. But that doesn’t mean that it must be relegated to being merely a tool for science. It has its own interests and finds out things that are interesting to it that are sometimes of interest to other fields, just like mathematics. But neither care too much if other fields find their examinations interesting; they are their own fields and have their own interests.

Which leads us to the third point: what does Coyne mean by his expanded definition of science? What’s included, first, in the term “world”? Are abstract mathematical theories and philosophical concepts included in “world”? If so, then to claim that there are not truths about the world that are not derived by logic, reason and empirical observation would seem false. Mathematics, for example, does not seem to be empirically derived, even if it may apply to the empirical world. And at least some philosophical concepts don’t seem to be empirical, such as empiricism itself (you can’t prove empiricism by empirical observation because that would be circular). So if he includes the subject matter of mathematics and philosophy in his definition of “world”, then he’s just plain wrong to think that empirical observation is required for truths about the “world”.

Now, he can counter that when he says “world” he means something like “material, empirical world”. If so, then he has a point. But then, of course, the subject matters of mathematics and philosophy don’t fit into Coyne’s definition of “world”, which means that if he protests that something in those fields doesn’t seem to have “real world” applications and so is useless both fields will simply roll their eyes noting that he really doesn’t understand the subject matter and interests of those fields.

The sad thing here is that my entire reply was based on presuming that he would object that it doesn’t apply to the real world, and pointing out that he didn’t know that and that at any rate philosophy is not so concerned about that. The bulk of his reply is nothing more than “It’s not relevant to the real world”, without addressing my actual comments.

And then there’s this gem:

It’s a waste of money that could be used to do something constructive, like funding scientific research.

Thus, let’s kill philosophy and fund science, because Coyne thinks it useful. The problem is that the same charge can be made against at least some science, and again to hold other fields to the standards of science for their funding is to ignore their unique contributions. No, philosophy is not a friend of Coyne’s; he doesn’t really want to have anything to do with it unless it helps his work directly, regardless of what it, in fact, actually wants to do.

Coyne (and his commenters) don’t know Philosophy …

October 27, 2011

Jerry Coyne, in an attempt to continue his campaign against the Templeton Foundation, has taken aim at a new post-doc funded by them and in the process manages to prove that neither he nor those who comment on his blog actually really understand philosophy.

First, Coyne’s objections. Here’s what he quotes as to what the thesis is about:

His postdoctoral research project, “Divine Foreknowledge, the Philosophy of Time, and the Metaphysics of Dependence: Some New Approaches to an Old Problem,” assesses a core Ockhamist thesis about foreknowledge. William of Ockham was a 13th century philosopher.

“The central contention of the Ockhamist concerns a point about the order of explanation. According to the Ockhamist, it is because of what we do that God long ago believed that we would do these things. That is, God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus, says the Ockhamist, we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs,” he explained. “The overarching goal of this project is to develop and assess this core Ockhamist thesis along two underexplored dimensions: the philosophy of time, and the metaphysics of dependence – both of which have seen an explosion of recent interest.”

Coyne retorts:

This is an area about which I’m completely ignorant, and happy to remain so, because it sounds like a godawful cesspool of theological lucubration. It of course begins with three completely unsupported premises: that there is a God, that that God has a mind that has “beliefs,” and that how we act now somehow influences God’s beliefs about our actions long before we performed them. It sounds as if what we do now, then, can go back in time and change God’s beliefs. (That, at least, is how I interpret the gobbledygook above.)

Given those three bogus assumptions, the candidate will then spend many dollars ruminating about how God’s prior beliefs relate to the philosophy of time and metaphysics of dependence, whatever that means.

In other words, all the money is going to work out the consequences of a fairy tale. So much money for so much “sophisticated” philosophy!

So, to start with, we have to note that this is based on a theory of Ockham. Yes, that Ockham. He of the Razor. Which was invented, BTW, to prove a theological point. So first, this is at least potentially as much philosophy as theology — which is Coyne’s usual target, you’ll recall — and second let us now remember anytime anyone asks what theology gave science to remind them of Ockham’s Razor.

Now, Coyne’s summation of the point seems to be fairly decent; that’s about how I take it as well. But it’s much more complicated than Coyne admits. Let me expand on my guess on it a bit, without having read any of it (so at least Coyne and I are in good company): Ockham likely argued that if we have an omniscient being — God — then that God would know what we’re doing right now. But that could mean that God knows that and can know that because He determined it, which would violate free will. So, then, if it is not pre-determined then God’s belief about what we will do must be formed as we do it right now. But God has always known it, which would mean that our decisions now have an impact on beliefs formed in the past. If conceptually coherent, this has major implications for the conceptions of time and of dependence — ie what it means for one fact or truth or action to depend on another — both of which are currently of interest in philosophical circles.

So, that’s the translation of what Coyne calls “gobbledygook”. Now, does it depend on, as he puts it, “three completely unsupported premises”? Not if one understands philosophy, it doesn’t, because the question and the theory is philosophically interesting even if God does not exist. There’s a reason I talked about concepts above. If we have the concept of an omniscient being, we have the concept of something that clearly knows (okay, okay, that’s debatable, but grant it for now) everything that we will do before we do it. If it is conceptually consistent with our notions of time and dependence that any knowledge of that sort would involve the determination of a belief in the past by an action in the future, that would have very interesting consequences for the concepts of time and dependence, even if no such entity existed.

Now, Coyne can protest that he doesn’t care about concepts at all, or at least not unless they have applications in “the real world”, but there are two replies to this. The first is that he has no idea if these concepts will have applications in “the real world” anymore than he can say what portions of abstract mathematics will. The second is that while he may not care about concepts, philosophy does, and unless he wants to take away all funding to philosophy and give it to science — which, I’m afraid, would definitely be scientism — it seems odd to protest funding given for post-doc work that’s relevant to philosophy just because he doesn’t personally care about the results … or, rather, because it uses a concept that he doesn’t like.

So, if he understood philosophy at all, he’d have an idea what “philosophy of time” means for certain. “Metaphysics of dependence” is a bit harder. But in knowing, he’d know why philosophers care. But does not know, and yet somehow will still say. He really needs to take Zathras’ advice: Saying would mean knowing. Do not know, so will not say.

There are a ton of comments to the post that would make me tear my hair out in frustration if I had enough left to tear out:

stooshie:

Holy Freakin’ Moley! I’ve never read such bunkum!. Is he really saying that if I decide to have strawberry jam on my toast tomorrow morning, rather than, say, blackcurrant, that my decision changes god’s past belief about what I would choose?

I suspect even god(if he exists)’s head hurts thinking about that one! LOL!

Quite possibly, but more likely that our present choices determined the past event of that sort of belief formation. Neither option, however, makes my head hurt, even though I’d probably agree with Coyne and others — if they knew what they were saying, mind you — that this seems far too complicated and we’re probably better off either going for a simpler solution or even dropping the God concept before accepting this. Of course, I’d have to see how it all shakes out before making a final decision. Which, of course, stooshie seems unwilling to do.

Mattapult:

According to Webster, belief is 1) An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists. 2) Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.

But if god is omnipotent, then he doesn’t have to accept things as true, he would know they are true. Looking at it that way, Templeton is funding the undermining of god’s omnipotence.

Just like you don’t go to the dictionary for definitions of technical scientific terms, you don’t go to the dictionary for definitions of technical philosophical terms like “belief”, and you also don’t do that while not even bothering to look up any definition of “know”. See, in philosophy knowledge is “justified true belief”, so to know means to believe, and so this whole analysis falls apart at that point (we can ignore that it’s omniscience that’s relevant here, not omnipotentence as that’s likely just a simple error). And right after this, stooshie is back for another round:

And further, if god knows the truth rather than believes it then our actions, by definition, cannot change god’s mind.

We have just disproved his whole argument.

As long as the actual argument isn’t that that belief in the past was not determined by the actions in the present, which since this is linked to philosophy of time and metaphysics of dependence is not likely to be the case. Interesting how they claim to have disproved a complex philosophical argument based only on a small quote and quick summary of it. That’s like saying that man could not have evolved from apes because apes still exist is a devastating rebuttal to evolution; it works against some quick summations of it, but not against the actual theory.

Parick:

Philosophy of Time means, “Given that physicists overwhelmingly endorse the B theory of time, which negates the Kalam argument by interfering with our notions of cause and effect at the boundary conditions of the universe, how can we make the Kalam argument work anyway?”

Because, obviously the philosophy of time is a) based on theology and not on independent considerations of time and b) is based on an attempt to justify the Kalam Cosmological Argument despite the fact that purely secular philosophers have talked about issues with time and things like time travel for a long time now, and before the Kalam argument came into vogue in Western philosophy.

Philosophy of time is, indeed, philosophy of time, no more, no less. Lumping it in with theology is a categorical error of the worst possible kind.

386sx:

The fellowship is part of a larger Templeton project to bring the resources of analytical philosophy to theology and philosophy of religion,

Yes, by all means, let’s bring the quite formidable resources of analytical philosophy to bear upon all that stuff. Lol.

Well, why not? Analytic philosophy has given us science (the philosophical debate between empiricism and rationalism made science what it is), Ockham’s Razor (and thus parsimony), and the Problem of Evil, things that all atheists rely heavily on. Coyne’s discussions about science and faith being incompatible are, in fact, analytic philosophy. So, in fact, is the question over whether science can study morality. Sam Harris is doing analytic philosophy when he talks about morality. Hume did it, especially when discussing God. Russell’s Teapot is analytic philosophy, and he’s absolutely an analytic philosopher. So not only has analytic philosophy done good things, it’s also something that almost all atheists do and that many great minds have done in promoting atheism.

Now, 386sx may protest that I’ve misinterpreted the point, and that 386sx really wants analytic philosophy brought to bear on it so that it can refute those things. But the claim that analytic philosophy — and philosophy in general — is useless is common enough in these contexts that I’ll make a pre-apology to 386sx if I’ve misinterpreted the view in order to address this common and commonly mistaken viewpoint.

Jer:

Except that, as every well-read reader of Science Fiction knows, there are a few fundamental things that could happen here. It could be a Predestination Loop – we can’t change God’s beliefs because whatever we do is what we were supposed to do to give him the beliefs that he already has, and if we try to do something different we’ll fail. Or it could be that our meddling with God’s beliefs manifests as a Many Worlds Scenario where the Trousers of Time branch off and some other universe has the God created by our meddling with his beliefs. I suggest that the post-doctoral student working on this brush up on his Heinlen, Piper, Bradbury, Anderson and Gerrold – among others – before embarking on this research.

Or, you know, he could just make sure he links it to philosophy of time, which has almost certainly discussed all of those concepts and more besides. Oh, wait, he has. Never mind, then …

Sally:

This could have a place in a study of medieval history and thought, but it is a grotesque idea to take it seriously now–just as you might make a legitimate study of Osiris or Marduk in the context of ancient history, but you would hardly try to apply it to modern science.

I’m actually not sure what the point is here. Since philosophy is still harkening back to problems raised by Plato, “old” is not an issue here, not is its historical context. And she seems to be linking it to myths, but conceptual examinations can work quite well and get interesting progress even when dealing with things that are not real. There just doesn’t seem to be an actual point here, unless it’s terribly mistaken.

stooshie again (glutton for punishment, it seems):

To put it another way:

GOD: [crossing fingers] He’s gonna choose the strawberry jam, strawberry, strawberry, strawberry I tell you!

ME: That looks tasty. [Leans over, picks up blackurrant jam]

[WHOOSH! – some sound effects here, suggesting magical stuff going on]

GOD: [fingers still crossed] See?! I always said you were a blackurrant jam type of guy!

Which still presumes that God didn’t always have the belief that it would be blackcurrant jam. Which by definition He would, of course, which is what raises the whole problem in the first place.

Dominic:

Surely the idea of a god, a supreme being having such a human/animal thing as a mind, is crazy? What is god supposed to believe IN? Can this god have doubts? That makes it a very ungodly god.

Why would you think that a mind is a human/animal thing? Philosophy of mind certainly doesn’t think of it that way. And whether God has doubts or not means nothing about whether God has a mind, surely.

Tulse, in reply to the above comment:

I wouldn’t think that an omniscient and omnipotent god could have “beliefs”, just “knowledge”. The standard philosophical definition of knowledge is “justified true belief”, and certainly any belief that an omniscient and omnipotent being has will be justified and true. “Belief” implies uncertainty, and surely the Christian god can never be uncertain, right?

Tulse gets the philosophical definition of knowledge right, but sadly doesn’t know what it actually means. His argument here seems to be based on a parsing of that phrase itself — again, just like “Humans evolved from apes” — to conclude that once you justify a belief and that belief is true, it’s knowledge and no longer belief. The actual definition of the term is:

S knows that p iff:

S believes that p.
S is justified in believing that p.
p is true.

Thus, to know means to believe, as stated earlier. So God would have beliefs in the philosophical sense, but they’d all also be justified and true and so all of His beliefs would be knowledge. Belief without the other two criteria is doubtful or doubted, but it’s still belief even if you don’t doubt.

But, you know, I guess I should cut him some slack, since it’s too much to ask that he know the basic definition of knowledge in epistemology — you know, the field that actually studies it — before arguing based on that simple phrase, just like creationists don’t need to know what is meant by “Humans evolved from apes” before arguing that evolution is false.

Andrew B.:

“(What makes me laugh about these “Big Questions” is that they’re always being “addressed,” but never answered.)”

Oh yes, and it’s very important that they are NEVER ANSWERED. If they were, they would lose their MYSTERY, and we can’t have that.

Of course, philosophy tries very hard to answer the Big Questions, and the value for actually solving one is the same as it would be for any revolutionary scientific theory or result. The problem is that in philosophy all of the solutions so far have turned out to have actual rational problems with them. Thus, philosophers would love to solve the mysteries but are unable to actually do it. Which is the opposite of what Andrew B. actually asserted.

I’ll stop here, but I think I’ve proven my point that there’s a lot of talk here about philosophy, but not much actual philosophy either understood or being done. They’d protest — and do — if people from other fields did that to scientific ones, so why is it okay to exhibit such ignorance — and be proud of it, as Coyne is — about fields other than scientific ones?

Why Dawkins Should Debate William Lane Craig …

October 26, 2011

I apologize for not having a clever title for this post, but I thought I’d get right to the point. By now, pretty much everyone who would possibly be interested has heard that William Lane Craig challenged Richard Dawkins to join in on a debate at Oxford, Dawkins declined, and Craig decided to place an empty chair on-stage to represent Dawkins’ “cowardice” at not attending. And so far, in my opinion no one should care. But Dawkins decided to write an article in a newspaper outlining why he wouldn’t, when I read those reasons I have to come to the conclusion that Dawkins really should debate Craig if those are the primary reasons he won’t debate him.

In the article, Dawkins spends a long time talking about Craig’s … controversial view of the genocides in the Old Testament, as Craig spends a lot of time trying to defuse them by arguing that they weren’t as bad as they might look for various reasons, none of which Dawkins finds appealing, to say the least. Thus, to Dawkins, Craig becomes an apologist for genocide, which Dawkins finds most disturbing. Because of this, Dawkins concludes:

Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn’t, and I won’t. Even if I were not engaged to be in London on the day in question, I would be proud to leave that chair in Oxford eloquently empty.

And if any of my colleagues find themselves browbeaten or inveigled into a debate with this deplorable apologist for genocide, my advice to them would be to stand up, read aloud Craig’s words as quoted above, then walk out and leave him talking not just to an empty chair but, one would hope, to a rapidly emptying hall as well.

This, of course, has led to charges that Dawkins is just afraid to debate Craig, presumably on the grounds that these aren’t Dawkins real reasons for not showing up. That charge has led to some of Dawkins’ supporters being at least slightly annoyed by such characterizations. To me, though, that objection would be actually quite charitable compared to what we get if we actually take Dawkins at his word.

So, let me start with a few similar examples so that we can get a gist of what’s at stake here: this reply is essentially, that Dawkins won’t debate with Craig because he thinks Craig’s view on the genocides is utterly heinous and so much so that he simply cannot deign to treat with Craig in any way based on it. But this is exactly like saying that someone will not debate Sam Harris because his comparing torture to collateral damage is heinous, or his view that it might be justifiable and even necessary to nuke the Islamic world to prevent them from doing it first is heinous. Or like saying that because someone supports censoring pornography and so supports censorship that that view is heinous and so they won’t debate that person. Or like saying that because someone supports pornography they support the objectification of women and so aren’t worthy of debate because that’s a heinous position. Yes, those other cases aren’t genocides and so we might be able to split hairs over the level of “heinousness” involved, but to some level all of those can be held to be heinous positions. And that’s what leads to the problem.

There are two cases to consider here. The first is to presume that the actual heinous position is indeed relevant and likely to be brought up in the debate, which means that it is directly relevant to the discussion. If it is, what should Dawkins do? There are two cases here. The first is that the viewpoint really is heinous and wrong. If it is, then presumably Dawkins could justify and prove that it is indeed heinous and wrong. If he can do that, then he has an obligation to do so, and to do so in as public and relevant an arena as possible. A direct debate under the auspices of a recognized academic institution seems an ideal way to do that, and Dawkins surely would want to tell everyone what was wrong with that view if he knows what is wrong with that view. Moreover, the “marketplace of ideas” notion demands this; Dawkins cannot merely dismiss it as being heinous and wrong, but must engage in the marketplace of ideas to demonstrate it such. Especially since we have to consider the second possible case: Dawkins cannot prove it wrong. If he cannot prove it wrong, why should our intuitions that it is so heinous or our emotional reaction to it mean that it is wrong and can be dismissed without engagement? Maybe he’s right and those really do create reasonable justifications for genocide. In both cases, by refusing to debate this relevant issue Dawkins is not doing his intellectual duty. If Craig is wrong, then Dawkins should debate him to show that it’s wrong. If Dawkins can’t show that it’s wrong, then he cannot rely on intuitions or emotions to bury the idea, since it may well be right and surely Dawkins wants to know that.

So, the other possibility is that it isn’t relevant to the actual discussion they’d be having. But then this turns into an argument ad hominem: Dawkins won’t engage Craig’s specific arguments and encourages others not to do so on the basis of a position that Dawkins and others find distasteful but isn’t, in fact, relevant to the actual argument under debate (see that advice for other atheists in the last paragraph). But even if Craig is horribly wrong about genocide, if this position isn’t relevant Dawkins would effectively be saying that we can dismiss his discussions of an argument because of something else about him that we all don’t like. None of that means that Craig is wrong about every other argument he’s making, including the one they’re actually debating. Thus, argument ad hominem, by definition.

So there’s no way out for Dawkins. Either way, he’d be letting his emotions outweigh his reason and failing in his intellectual duty. And charging him with failing his intellectual duty is far worse than simply charging him with being afraid that he might lost the debate.

Dawkins should have simply stuck with “I’m too busy”. At least that’s a credible argument.

Nice Effort, No Finish …

October 24, 2011

So, out of this list two and a half months old, I’ve finished exactly one of the games on the list.

Well, I’ve got a fair amount of vacation time coming so hopefully I’ll do better then.

Where have all the good men (and women) gone …

October 22, 2011

So, I’ve been watching the new Battlestar Galactica series, and this time paying a little more attention to it, and what’s struck me about is what always makes my choosing a character to play in the BSG board game so difficult:

Almost none of the characters are, in fact, worthy heroes.

Now, the idea of flawed heroes is not new in science fiction, and many people think that not having absolutely perfect paragons of virtue as your heroes is an improvement. And I can’t really deny that; more human heroes are a good thing. But the further you push the anti- or flawed hero concept, the closer you push it to the line between hero and jerk … and maybe even villain. While you want your heroes to be human, you don’t want them to be so flawed that the audience wonders why in the world they should want them to win.

In nBSG, almost none of the main characters have anything like a strong moral character. Helo’s main character trait seems to be this, which is why he’s one of the characters that I really do like and will play as quite willingly. Athena is a bit more of a cipher; in one episode, she is trying to stop Helo from pursuing what he thinks is a case of mass murder because of the impact it will have on them and their standing in the Fleet. The only other character with a really strong moral standing might be Apollo, and he has a very traditional morality: he will not cheat, he will not get a divorce, he will not arrest the President because his father doesn’t like her.

But that’s about it, at least among the characters that are front and centre. Starbuck seems to have no moral code at all, and is a bit of a jerk besides. Tigh is bigotted and hypocritical. Gaeta has moments, but ends up as much a bitter jerk as everyone else (although that might be justified since he becomes the butt monkey in the later seasons). Zarek seems to have principles at times until the end where he reveals he has none. Duala is mostly a background character. Cally seems nice but turns into a witch by the end of the series. Tyrol’s a jerk for most of it as well. Kat is a jerk who redeems herself by dying. And I don’t think I have to say anything about Gaius Baltar. None of these are really sympathetic characters.

And then that leaves the President and the Commander/Admiral. Those who are supposed to be the rocks that the Fleet rests on. And they both turn out to be flawed in serious ways. They turn a blind eye to the errors of those they like and strike back hard against those they don’t. Roslin is bigoted and willing to break promises to the Cylons since they aren’t really people. They both advocate genocide at one point. All in all, they aren’t all that sympathetic either.

And that’s where you cross the line. Your flawed heroes have to still be people that you can cheer for, that you want to see succeed. Under it all, they have to be at least trying to do the right thing, even if their flaws get in the way. But in the nBSG, very few of the characters are ones, at the end of the day, that we want to see win. By the end of the series, you almost find yourself wishing that they would just die, if we could stand the Cylons (although Six and D’Anna gain some sympathy during the run).

The same thing can be said for Farscape, which is probably why I couldn’t watch it. John Crichton is, well, an utter jerk. I found myself strongly disliking him and so not caring about what happened to him, which is not good since he is the character that that show turns around. At least Aeryn Sun is supposed to be a jerk by backstory, and had the good fortune of being played by Claudia Black to make up for it.

Flawed characters need to be flawed enough to be flawed, but not so much that you can’t relate to them and end up disliking them. At the heart of it, as already stated, you should always believe that they are, at heart, good people legitimately trying to do the right thing. They may be more brutal than you’d think heroes should be, or more arrogant, or more passive, but at the core, when the chips are down, they overcome those to do the unequivocably right and heroic thing.

There have been good flawed heroes. Angel from, well, Angel would count. So would most of the cast of Babylon 5, even the villains (Londo especially is sympathetic and yet could indeed have been a hero if things had happened differently … and he might be considered a hero at the end if you read the “Legions of Fire” trilogy). Yuri Hyuga is another one. These are flawed heroes but you still want them to win, even Londo or Bester (read the “Psi Corps” trilogy and I dare you to not want the series to end before he gets caught).

At best, I don’t care if John Crichton or the crew of the Galactica win, and at worst I want them to lose. That makes it hard to sympathize with them, which makes it hard to watch the show and care about the outcome. And if I don’t really care what happens, why in the world am I watching it, again?

Objects in space (and time and elevators) …

October 21, 2011

EDIT: Due to comments in the thread at Pharyngula, it’s clear that my discussions of “impossible” and “cannot” can lead people to think that either it is not possible for anyone to ever objectify in sexual contexts or that no action there could be called objectification can happen if you happen to be in those contexts. Neither of those is what I mean. When I say “impossible”, I mean mostly factually/conceptually; when I say “cannot” I usually mean “ought not” as in a moral obligation except where it’s used in the context of “impossible”.

So, over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers has been keeping his streak of discussing feminist issues alive. And it was probably a mistake, but that one interested me enough to comment on it, which exploded into a massive controversy over a contention that I’ve made before, over treating people as objects:

So what did she mean? Well, likely, she was trying to make a link to treating her as only a sexual object, as opposed to a complete human being. Now, to start with, I’m going to say something that might well offend some people, but here goes: there are going to be times when I’m going to treat a woman as nothing more than a sexual object. There are going to be — and have been — times when I’m going to treat a woman as only an intellectual object, such as when we’re working on a project for a class or any sort of academic project. And, heck, there are times when I’m going to treat a woman as a food-fetching object, like when she’s the waitress at a restaurant.

This, of course, builds out to a small argument on my part that it isn’t always wrong to treat someone as an object. And the comment thread exploded (it’s on the second page) with all sorts of argument against this, most of which was centered around a new analogy that I brought up, where I argued that when you’re hurrying down the street you aren’t thinking as complete human beings, but only as obstacles to avoid. Overall, most of the responses were aimed at distinguishing between “real objects” like lampposts and how you treated people, and thus denying that treating people as objects was what was being done in the example. Which, if you look carefully at the first sentence (which I admit I did not right there, although I did explain this once I realized the problem) is not how I was using the term “object”. Yes, we don’t quite treat them like lampposts, but does that mean that we treat them like people? One additional response was taking aim with another example, that essentially of pictures of attractive people that you only consider for the sexual attractiveness. I was intending this to imply the issue with pornography, and someone decided to claim that when you look at a picture you only see the object — the picture — and that the person was not involved. While this might be fair, completely disregarding decades of feminist theory that says that you can objectify a person in how you look at sexually explicit photographs is not a good way when you’re claiming to be on the side of feminism.

But all of these are simply asides anyway, since my main point was essentially this: there are times when treating someone as less than a complete human being — even a sexual one — is not a problem. Which to me included cases like: walking down the street, having them serve you food, reading their paper or their written work, simply admiring a stranger sexually with no actual interaction and maybe some cases of casual sex, where the interest is merely sexual and you don’t really know or care about anything else about them. Now, not finding any sort of simply casual sex all that appealing, I might have been wrong about the last, and the actual replies with something that looked like content — but which missed arguments — focused on this idea: as soon as you start interacting with someone, you can no longer treat them as objects.

So, yesterday was my class day, and as I was walking home I was thinking about this, because to me it didn’t seem to be the case. Surely I was not doing anything wrong when on a bad day I said nothing to the grocery clerk and treated that person as basically something that took my money and gave change. Surely I was not doing anything wrong when I was tired and trying to avoid all contact with people and so didn’t make any eye contact with anyone walking down the street. While cases of sexual admiration from afar and from pictures may not rise to the level of interaction, surely these cases do. So, then, could there be additional cases of interaction — like in some cases of casual sex — where there is interaction but no requirement to see them as a complete person?

So, I started pondering another interesting point that was raised — but, again, not really argued — about what it means to consider someone to be a complete human being. This actually does tie into some of the comments about the differences between how you treat people in the street and how you treat lampposts. In order for me to be able to claim that you treat people sometimes as not complete human beings, I have to be able to distinguish those cases in some way. How do I do that?

So I started looking at the cases where I thought “object” or “person/complete human being”. And I didn’t get a definition, but I noticed something quite interesting. I asked myself: in what cases do I think it impossible to treat someone as not being a person or a complete human being. And two specific examples leaped out at me:

1) Social contexts. When I’m socializing, no matter how I’m socializing, I’m socializing with people in a broad sense of the term. Yes, I might not consider all of their properties, but I must be considering the ones that are critical for personhood. Why? Because I don’t socialize with objects. Things are just not the right sort of things to socialize with. The purpose of socializing is always to socialize with people; if it isn’t with people it isn’t socializing. So a base condition of a social context, then, is that you do that with people. So you can’t, then, reduce those people to anything less than people and remain in a social context.

2) Moral contexts, because I only have moral obligations to people. I have no moral obligations to things, and the whole idea is absurd on the face of it. I don’t have a moral obigation to not destroy a lamppost because ofa moral obligation to the lamppost but because I have a moral obligation to myself or society (made up of people) or the owner of the lamppost, all of which are to people. So if I am to be said to have a moral obligation at all, that must entail a moral obligation to a person, and so I cannot in any cases where I have moral obligations treat the recipient of that moral obligation as anything other than a person.

And, from here, we can see the issue when we get to actual interaction, and specifically to interaction over sexual relations. For the most part, even the most casual of casual sex is, in fact, in a social context. It is, to some degree, socializing. That, in and of itself, would mean that you should treat the other person as a complete human being and not as an object. But that’s not the most important consideration.

The most important consideration is this: do you have any moral obligations to your partner? And the answer seems to be that if consent is introduced — and someone did claim that consent did force the change to personhood — then you do have a moral obligation: to respect their consent and, in fact, to gain it. My response to that was that you can shift contexts and consider them a person once consent is denied, and that works well against the argument that consent is not something that an object can give (as long as you’re good about switching contexts). It doesn’t work against the “moral obligation” point, since that moral obligation, it seems, is present throughout the entire event: from the first approach to the final climax, that moral obligation persists even if it is not exercised and is never required. Thus, the whole event is in a moral context, and moral contexts require treating them as people. And then the comments that treating them as an object might lead to rape get some validity, since you’d have to make sure that you switched in the recognition of the moral obligation that you wouldn’t feel you had if they were just an object and not a complete human being.

Thus, because all sex is always embedded in social and moral contexts, you cannot treat someone as less than a complete human being when you’re having sex, even when you’re having casual sex EDIT: without treading on those obligations (thanks for Dhorvath for the suggestion) .

It All Has an Impact …

October 18, 2011

The latest Not-So-Casual Commentary is up.

It’s been a while since I put one up, which was caused by the person who does the lovely images you see being busy and then when he managed to get it done I ended up being too busy to edit it and put it up.

But it is funny how small changes that you think could only be improvements cause you to change how games play and thus might have impacts that you didn’t think of when you made them. I do want to see what the new advances in MMOs do to the MMO.

What does “inherently in conflict” mean?

October 17, 2011

Well, Jerry Coyne is taking the opportunity to go after accommodationists again, but unfortunately only manages to give evidence that he doesn’t really get what a real science/faith incompatibility would really mean:

And what does not “inherently in conflict with a belief in God” mean? Doesn’t that depend on what kind of faith you hold?

If it is possible to have a belief in God or faith (hey, he interchanges the two, not me) that doesn’t conflict with evolution, then belief in God/faith is not inherently in conflict with evolution, by definition. If he concedes that whether or not the two conflict depends on the particulars of that belief or faith, then his incompatibilist argument fails and the accommodationists are at least in all important senses right when they argue that belief in God/faith and science ought to be reconciled to compatible versions.

Why doesn’t Coyne see that?


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