Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

How NOT to do critical thinking …

September 16, 2014

So, the whole mess that started over three years ago with Elevatorgate and that led to discussions of harassment policies, and to Atheism+, and to not Atheism+ and all sorts of other things … hasn’t died yet. The latest big issue is over something that Sam Harris said that people had a problem with, as it might have implied that women weren’t as good at critical thinking as men. Sam Harris tried to clarify it, and a number of people, including P.Z. Myers have taken it on.

I want to focus on Myers’ discussion of Harris’ comment and response, because I think it highlights a number of problems with the critical thinking skills of these people who claim to value critical thinking above all. For anyone curious, I’m going to give Harris a bit of a free pass on that because despite the fact that I think he’s not all that great at reasoning, in this case it was an off-the-cuff response and his reply, while a bit huffy, didn’t seem to be overreaching that much.

So, Myers’ first shot is about the title of Harris post, which was “I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for”. Myers’ reply:

Wrong. Right from the title, he gets it all wrong. Here’s how he could easily defuse the whole situation: acknowledge that what he said was wrong, and move on. “I spoke off the cuff, and I said things that were invalid and perpetuate the problem of sexism in atheism. I apologize, and will try to do better.” Over. No problem. We’d all be able to move on, and would appreciate that he’s trying.

This is a depressingly common statement. Essentially, it boils down to this: in a situation where people think that something you said is wrong, and are angrily denouncing you as a terrible person or as having some kind of deep personal flaw for saying it, the right thing for you to do is simply say “You’re right, I’m wrong, and I’m sorry” … even if you don’t think what you said was wrong. No, the right way to respond to people who you think are saying things that are wrong or that are interpreting you wrong and unfairly is to simply agree that they’re right, apologize, and leave your own opinions buried deep inside your mind where no one will ever have to see those ugly, ugly things again … even if you’re convinced that they’re true.

Okay, okay, this is definitely a bit of hyperbole … but only to the extent that I’d be ascribing a conscious intent to them. Arguments like this only work when a) you’re right and b) you’ve demonstrated to that person that you’re right. Once you’ve both agreed that, yes, you were right and they were wrong, then the right response is for the person to admit that they’re wrong and apologize. But before that, there is no reason for them to so meekly accept your position. This goes doubly is they think you’ve misrepresented their position, as their first duty is to say “Okay, that’s not how I meant it” and correct it. They might, if they are being excessively polite, apologize for being unclear, but that’s as far as it goes.

And no, simply angrily asserting that you’re right and posting some links isn’t demonstrating that they’re wrong.

The current fad of unconsciously building “Because I’m right” into your suggestions of what people should and shouldn’t do is a source of great annoyance to me …

Anyway, moving on. In a response to part of Harris’ post saying that he wasn’t talking about all atheists, just the active ones, Myers replies:

Yes, we know. We’re not idiots. We understood exactly what you said, which is that actively engaged atheists are men, because reasons. That’s actually the question…why do you think that is so?

Um, Dr. Myers? Greta Christina — you know her right? She blogs at your network? — accused him of doing just that:

Sam Harris is just factually wrong. Globally, there is no gender split in atheism. Globally, women and men are religious, not religious, and convinced atheists at about the same rate. In fact, globally, women are slightly more likely to be atheists than men (although that difference is small, probably too small to be significant).

It’s a really bad move to so dismissively argue that he didn’t need to clarify a point because everyone knew what he was talking about when it was a point that people had claimed he was just factually wrong about and called him out angrily over. Just an FYI.

Now, I don’t like to break up paragraphs too much when quoting, because context is actually pretty important to understanding what people are saying, but this next part just screams for doing that to really get the full impact of the issue:

Why? Why do you assume that “nurturing” is feminine? It often is …

Translation: Why do you assume that “nurturing” is feminine? You’re right that it is, but why would you argue that?

If nurturing is indeed generally associated with femininity, which it often is, and if you accept that it often is, then what’s the problem here? You look like you’re demanding proof of a point that both of you accept, for the most part.

Now, being completely fair, Myers does have another objection:

…because of early culturization and because of widespread assumptions about the nature of women, but you yourself asserted that these differences were intrinsic — “that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women” — rather than perhaps some phenomenon of social conditioning that might be corrected by men being perhaps a little less belittling.

So, the underlying complaint is not about saying that women tend towards nurturing as opposed to more aggressive postures, but instead assuming that it is innate. Okay, but there are two problems with this as a criticism of Harris:

1) He concedes that in his reply (in one of the earlier points:

3. My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general, men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there, and many for whom Hitchens at his most cutting was a favorite source of entertainment. But just as we can say that men are generally taller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former. Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture.

So, sure, it might be cultural, according to Harris, and/or partly biological, according to Harris. Who can say?

2) Whether biological or cultural, that doesn’t invalidate it as an explanation for why you don’t see as many active female atheists as active male atheists. As long as women are drawn to a less aggressive approach and atheist conferences have that more aggressive approach, less of them are going to find it appealing. Thus, the question for Myers et al is “Is this true? And if it is, how can we change it without losing the aggressive approach that we all personally — male and female — love so much?”

Myers goes on:

What you did was clearly place the blame for the situation on the essential natures of women, rather than recognizing that it’s a consequence of the social environment…in which, perhaps, the existence of male leaders who are dismissive of the capability of most women to contribute leads to more women feeling less interested in contributing. Perhaps the fault lies in people like you, rather than in the women who are reduced by your attitude?

Now, above Myers was talking about enculturation from childhood … which is obviously not something that Harris himself is going to have or have had a major influence on. Here, it looks like he’s talking about the culture or social environment of the conferences, and not in the “We’re not nurturing” way and more the “Women can’t contribute” way … which Harris never asserted and, in fact, again, denied:

Nothing in my remarks was meant to suggest that women can’t think as critically as men or that they are more likely to be taken in by bad ideas. Again, I was talking about a fondness for a perceived style of religion bashing with which I and other vocal atheists are often associated.

If Myers had simply repeated the ideas of ways to make conferences more welcoming to women, that would have been a far better approach than this seeming criticism that missed the mark entirely. The only way this can be even a reasonable criticism is if it is based on an argument that the more aggressive style is the only way to contribute, which Harris never says and Myers ought not believe.

I could continue on through the comments about “My best friend is X”, but they again aren’t much of an argument, so I won’t bother. Suffice it to say that if you want to actually address and refute what Harris said … you really ought to deal with what he actually said, with arguments and evidence … especially if you want to claim to respect “critical thinking”.

And this is the problem with arguments about women in video games …

September 6, 2014

So, here I am, looking for something to play, and browsing through my set of games, and I come across Mana Khemia and the sequel, Mana Khemia 2, and I noticed something important: the second Mana Khemia game included the ability to play as a female protagonist. The second game is only about 5 – 6 years old. So how come all of the people looking for games to at least give a choice of protagonist never mention it? Sure, it’s a console game and not necessarily a popular game, so it might be a bit obscure … but these are the same people who’ll mention indie games that I and most other players have never heard of, and also claim to actually do research on games. So how did they miss it?

And how do they miss the long list of other games that are just in my collection? Like the Fatal Frame series. Like Silent Hill 3 (which shouldn’t be obscure). Like Persona 3 PSP. Like Clocktower 3. Like Rule of Rose. Like Haunting Ground. Like Obscure. Like Final Fantasy X-2. Like Suikoden III. All of which are games that either only have a female protagonist, or which have a choice of male or female protagonist, or which has a female protagonist play an important part of the game. And that’s not even getting into the games I have on the PC that allow that.

Sure, it’s absolutely the case that male protagonists dominate games. But if one game not allowing a female playable character in multiplayer is such a big deal how come games that make an effort to make their playable characters female get absolutely no mention and no press? How come every time this topic comes up listing the games that actually did it reasonably is done grudgingly, with people finding excuses to not count the games?

Look, small companies and franchises — like a lot of them above — are the most likely to be swayed by the argument that they can increase their sales by including a female protagonist, either as an option or as the main character, because they need them more than a large company or a large franchise does (as they’ll get sales with the standard approach anyway). For them, doing this could make them stand out, and standing out will get them attention that they can’t afford to pay for. So they’re more likely to do extra work if they think it will pay off, and maybe turn them into a franchise that people will know and buy on sight (see, for example, Team Persona and the Persona series).

And that won’t work if people don’t constantly call attention to their attempts to do it!

If you want more female protagonists in video games, stop being so negative, stop ignoring games that try, and stop nitpicking the games that try and get it wrong. Give gaming companies a reason to listen to you, and stop giving them reasons to ignore you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pick a game to play … which may or may not have a female protagonist. And I’m fine with that either way.

The No-Win Situation of Violence Against Women in Video Games …

September 1, 2014

Anita Sarkeesian and her “Tropes vs Women” analysis of video games has been fairly controversial for a while now, which I suspect is an understatement on the level of saying that a thunderstorm leaves things “a little damp”. While I obviously don’t support death or rape threats or anything on that level, I do think that those things happening shouldn’t make what Sarkeesian says immune to criticism. Surely the whole point of her videos is to promote discussion of these issues, and that means the acceptance that, maybe, just maybe, she’s actually wrong in her description of what’s going on.

I’ve been wanting to go through most of her videos and analyze them in detail, but as anyone who follows this blog knows I’m pretty lazy when it comes to things like that. But I’d like to single out something in her latest video, which highlights a problem I have with most of the analysis on social justice in video games and gender in video games specifically: the idea that no matter what a game company does, it simply cannot win when it comes to criticism on that score.

Her criticism in the previous video was about women being used as objects to satisfy the sexual or violent urges of the players, and being encouraged to do so, as this is considered good or useful in the game. In this video, by the end, her criticism seems to be about violence against women being treated as a bad thing, and that it being used as a way to signal that either the villains or the player are immoral is, well, also bad. Why? Well:

What does it say about our culture when games routinely bend or break the laws of physics and no one bats an eye? When dragons, ogres and magic are inserted into historically influenced settings without objection. We are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief when it comes to multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack. But somehow the idea of a world without sexual violence and exploitation is deemed too strange and too bizarre to be believable.

The truth is that objectification and sexual violence are neither normal nor inevitable. We do not have to accept them as some kind of necessary cultural backdrop in our media stories. Contrary to popular belief, the system of patriarchy has not existed for all of history across all time and all cultures. And as such it can be changed. It is possible to imagine fictional worlds, even of the dark, twisted dystopian variety, where the oppression and exploitation of women is not framed as something expected and inevitable.

So, essentially, the criticism seems to be that portraying a world where violence against women exists — even if it’s presented as uniformly immoral — ends up normalizing violence against women and treating it as simply part of the world, which she argues impedes us considering it wrong and trying to oppose it in the real world. Which boils down to the idea that you can’t portray violence against women as something to be opposed because then people won’t be motivated to oppose it, which really doesn’t seem to make any sense. She had the glimmerings of a better argument earlier:

So when games casually use sexualized violence as a ham-fisted form of character development for the “bad guys” it reinforces a popular misconception about gendered violence by framing it as something abnormal, as a cruelty only committed by the most transparently evil strangers. In reality, however, violence against women, and sexual violence in particular, is a common everyday occurrence often perpetrated by “normal men” known and trusted by those targeted.

It is a not unreasonable criticism to say that the presentation of the violence against women is such that it’s seen as something that only evil people do, as a character trait of truly and totally evil people. But the violence of that sort isn’t done by people who are, in fact, evil in that way, and so what it does — inadvertently, we have to assume — is teach people that only really evil people are abusers, and that therefore that if someone isn’t totally evil, then they couldn’t possibly really be an abuser. The problem with the analysis is that even in the examples she gives, that’s not what’s happening. It’s not the case that the games are establishing the characters as evil first, and then assigning “violent towards women” to them as something that’s just to be expected. Instead, it’s the other way around: the violence against women is used as a “Kick the Dog” moment to establish that this person really is evil. So it’s taking violence against women as an example of something that is so evil and so immoral that the instant we see someone engaging in it, we know that they aren’t good people, and in fact are really bad people.

Which somewhat contradicts the idea that violence against women isn’t really considered “wrong” in our society. To use violence against women this way, it must be the case that the vast majority of people who play the game see that sort of violence as being utterly heinous; otherwise, it wouldn’t work to establish the person as being bad or evil. So when we see that action, we all think “That’s terrible! What a horrible person!”, based entirely on what we think about violence against women. That means that we have to think that violence against women is terrible and horrible, since that’s what drives our emotional commitment to that person being bad for having done it.

But here is where we see the no-win situation this sort of analysis places game designers in. Reward violence against women? That’s bad and sexist. Treat violence against women as a bad thing to be opposed? That’s bad and sexist. The only move left is to leave it out completely, which Sarkeesian actually advocates … but in a crapsack world it’s utterly ridiculous to think that you’d have all forms of evil except violence against women for some unknown reason. The world doesn’t have a respect for basic human rights … but someone it got feminism. But on top of that the accusation could be made that the game is sanitizing and ignoring the real-world problem of violence against women if it leaves it out completely in a world where there should indeed be violence against women. At which point, the company can’t win: including it positively is sexist, including it negatively is sexist and not including it is sexist.

Ultimately, it seems to be the case that if you want to motivate people to work to end something, what you do is present as something that everyone should be motivated to change and present as something that can be changed. Sure, in the real-world you aren’t likely to stop domestic violence by hunting down and killing abusers, but you don’t normally get justice for your family by hunting down their killers either. If video games have any impact on society, it’s not from them being taken literally, but from the effect of the subtle messages that they convey through their medium. And Sarkeesian has to admit that in many of the examples she lists in this part that the message is “Violence against women is bad, and you should oppose it”. If this subtle message permeated society, well, I can’t see that as being a bad thing.

The Artistic Problem with Copyright …

September 1, 2014

So, when I was looking for as many episodes of “Just the Ten of Us” as I could find and enjoying all of them, and also reading comments people made about the show, and noting the critical reception that it received — which was generally good — and that it was a show cut short way before its time for business reasons that didn’t include “its ratings are too low”, a real problem with copyright became evident to me. See, from what I read Warner Brothers, who controls the rights to the show, were fairly aggressive in getting videos that were posted of the show removed from youtube through copyright appeals. Which is their right. But the problem is this: without that … no one can watch the show. There are no DVD releases of the show, and no indication that there were ever be DVD releases of the show. The cable channels that show old shows that are syndicated seem to have no interest in showing it (or, well, anything beyond a few really, really popular shows, which is another problem). Warner Brothers doesn’t seem to have any way for people who would like to watch the show and who might well be willing to pay for that privilege to actually do that.

The problem is that, in general, works like this are always in at least some sense artistic works. Acting and writing, even cheap and cheesy sitcoms, is art. Sure, the primary purpose of the work is to make money — which would make it not really “art” by my definition — but there’s no doubt that it has artistic elements, at least, in the sense that the writing is trying to tell a story and elicit certain emotions and the acting is trying to do the same thing. And when a work is simply no longer available anymore, all of that is lost. Whether worthy of praise or worthy of derision, you simply don’t get it anymore. You can’t use it to compare generations and how people thought, you can’t use it to trace progressions of, say, sitcoms from that time to now, you can’t use it to point out things that it might have done that more shows could use today … it’s gone. It’d be like refusing to allow even libraries to loan out books that are out of print, no matter how classic they might have been if they aren’t deemed “popular” enough.

Now, I completely understand the desire of companies to preserve their ability to make money on the products they own, and support them in doing so. But this always fails in cases where the product simply isn’t available for sale. If the company isn’t willing to sell me the product if I was willing to pay for it, on what grounds can they complain if I try to get it in any way possible, even if that means that I get it for free? Especially in relation to youtube videos, as almost everyone will still prefer it as a download or a DVD than as a youtube video. The focus on preserving their ability to make money even when they aren’t making money on the product and are unwilling to try to make money on the product only makes it so that some really good shows, games, and so on are lost. That seems to be somewhat tragic, and certainly frustrating.

As an aside, it seems cosmically unjust that “Pink Lady and Jeff” got a DVD release, and “Just the Ten of Us” likely never will.

So Happy Together?

August 28, 2014

So as we’ve already seen, Ophelia Benson is taking on the idea that we should take a rational and not an emotional approach towards our decisions, and particularly towards moral decisions. Unfortunately, most of the posts from her and from others don’t really seem to have a central thesis to them; they seem to be based on a strawman view of logic that says “No emotions at all” and so essentially say “Well, we don’t want to get rid of emotions completely” for various reasons like “We can’t”, “We need them”, or “Pure reason will make you a monster”.

Benson is semi-summarizing her thoughts on the issue in an article on “The Freethinker” entitled “Working Together”, which presumably puts forward the thesis that emotion and reason need to, well, work together. Unfortunately, like most of the posts on this subject just how they’re supposed to work together and what role each is to take isn’t well-defined and certainly isn’t well-argued. As I pointed out in my posts, there aren’t too many “Vulcanites” — ie people who insist on dispassionate reason — that would deny that emotional states can be relevant to an argument. However, they’d insist that when and if emotional states are relevant to an argument is again something that’s to be rationally determined. So, no, just because people feel things doesn’t mean that their feelings are relevant, but for certain arguments their feelings may indeed be relevant as facts about the world that have to be considered, in much the same way as the acceleration due to gravity needs to be considered. It’s not relevant to a discussion about what I want to eat for dinner tonight what the acceleration due to gravity is (for almost all people), but it would be relevant to my deciding if I can jump across that rooftop to escape an oncoming fire, or if I should wait here for rescue.

So when Vulcanites oppose emotion, it isn’t opposing emotions as states in the world. Instead, it’s opposing emotions as a combination of two things: a) a judgement about the world and about what the appropriate action to take in response to that is and b) a motivation to make and commit to that judgement and that action. If emotions are going to both judge the world and urge us to take immediate actions on the basis of that judgement, well, they’d better be right … which means that they’d better be in accordance with what a fully rational and unbiased assessment with all the available facts would judge to be the case and to be the appropriate action is. And the fact is that most of the time — especially for very strong emotions — they aren’t. When they’re right, they’re only right because a rational assessment would have come to the same conclusion, and when they’re wrong we know that because a rational assessment based on what we knew at the time says that it was indeed wrong. Add in that we’ll likely have acted without thinking if we rely on them and that emotional commitments can last longer than the first initial feeling of it and there’s lots of good reasons to distrust emotion and work to minimize its role in our decision-making.

So one counter to this is the idea that you can’t have any kind of reasonable reason without emotion, which Benson brings up early in her article:

For one thing, at the most basic level, it’s now understood that damage to parts of the brain responsible for emotion doesn’t result in a hyper-rational person but a dithering useless mess. Cognitive science is demonstrating that emotion is not the antithesis of rationality but a necessary part of it.

Now, I’m not totally up-to-date on the very latest work on emotion and reason — I’ve been out of coursework for a year or two due to work and life pressures — but as someone who is Stoic-leaning I’ve certainly paid attention to a lot of it, and it hasn’t actually managed to do that yet. The most common one that I’ve come across is the work of Antonio Damasio and his work with people who have the right sort of damage, but his examples aren’t convincing. One of the major ones is a card game that he set up with those who had this damage and those who didn’t. Essentially, there are a number of decks that give out various positive and negative values of money, and the goal is to have the most money when the game ends. One deck in particular has very large rewards, but also very large and frequent penalties. Pretty much everyone, at the start, sampled all the decks and learned what they had. The people with undamaged emotional centres tended to avoid the high-risk deck, while those that had the damage tended to go back to the high-risk deck frequently. This led to the people with the damage having a bad time of it in the game, often having to borrow money to even stay in it, while those who didn’t have the damage fared much better. On top of all of this, Damasio measured a skin capacitance reaction when considering the high-risk deck among those without the damage that was missing in those with the damage, which indicates an emotional reaction, and likely an aversive one that steered those without the damage away from the irrational and unsuccessful high-risk deck, while those without it acted on their own and continued to go to it.

The other example is simpler, and is likely what Benson is thinking of when she mentions “dithering useless mess” above. Damasio asked his patient which of two days would work better for him. He spent a lot of time thinking and reasoning about it, and Damasio, curious, let him work it out. He spent a long, long time dithering between the two options, until Damasio finally interrupted him and decided for him … at which point the patient seemed to be completely satisfied and went on with his life.

So why aren’t these good examples of how we need rationality? Well, for one thing, in the card game example it isn’t clear that those with the damage were actually acting irrationally. The game was not set-up as a game where you are given a certain amount of time or turns in order to maximize your winnings, but instead was set-up as a game that could end at any time. Sure, over the long term choosing the lower risk decks will obviously leave you further ahead, but if the game is going to end right this very minute and you need to be as high as possible — and not just “positive” — then you really ought to take the high risk deck and hope it works out. Think of it like pulling the goalie at the end of a hockey game when you’re down by a goal: you greatly increase the risk that you’ll be scored on, but you’re going to lose if you don’t, so you might as well. Now put yourself in the situation where the referee is going to end the game totally at random and, well, you can see that being rational might indeed make you do that as soon as someone scores a goal on you. The rational move is not one that always works out, but is the best one based on the situation you find yourself in.

Another thing is that these were people who were not trained to act rationally, and instead learned to act based on the mix of reason and emotion that our society is based on. There are things that reason has a harder time doing than emotion does, and we all have our built-in emotional ways to get around that. In the appointment example, reason is indeed going to have a hard time deciding between two choices that seem equal overall, but have different benefits and detriments. Think of the story of the donkey an equal distance from two bales of hay, except that one is hay and one is oats; the hay is more filling, but the oats taste better. How does reason decide that when both are equally desirable? Well, reason should ultimately decide that either choice works out equally well, and you should just pick one. And reason can do this, by, say, having the person note the time spent and deciding if that much time spent is efficient, and if not simply picking one at random. However, most of us don’t need to do this, because what we have is an emotional state — likely embarrassment at taking up so much of someone’s time — that kicks in and makes us pick one. Which works out really, really badly if the decision might actually matter, since we’d have to overcome the emotion to keep thinking about it, even inconveniencing the other person. So the only reason those people are a mess there is because we didn’t teach them how to replace their emotional coping mechanism with a rational one, and the emotional coping mechanism might actually well, screw things up. So, no, that’s not reason to think that we really need emotion after all, as the emotional component might actually be acting irrationally, and we ought to be able to replace what the emotion gives us with reason if we try hard enough.

Benson goes on:

But more than that, for the purposes of thinking about human-related subjects – moral, political, social – it’s not rational to exclude emotion from the discussion, because humans are emotional. If you try to talk about human affairs in the terms suitable for talking about machines or blueprints or chemistry, you will get a train wreck.
I don’t mean that people arguing or writing articles about moral or social issues should be in a heightened emotional state themselves; I mean they should not pretend the subject is a matter of pure logic or number-crunching or engineering.

I … I really don’t know what she means here. Does she just mean the “emotional states are useful facts” point I made above? If so, then I agree, but then we might not have a train wreck, and might actually be right. If she’s taking this further, as it seems, and arguing that the conclusions are going to be something other than that produced by logic or number-crunching … well, then, there’s a problem here. Even the moral system that’s mostly likely to both be right and take emotional states into consideration — Utilitarianism — uses emotional states only to calculate a number of utility that you should use to determine what’s right. And more reason-based views like Stoicism and Kantianism wouldn’t go that far. About the only ones that wouldn’t are emotivist views like that of, say, Jesse Prinz … which also tend towards subjectivism about morality, which isn’t all that great either. So much more argumentation would be needed to take the stronger view, and the weaker view is one that even Vulcanites can hold because Vulcanites can indeed be Utilitarians: the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, or the one.

Above all, what we should not do is claim that our argument is Pure Reason while that of our opponent is nothing but emotion. It won’t work, for a start, and it’s not likely to be true, and it’s toe-curlingly arrogant. It helps to remember that we all have enormous built-in cognitive flaws, and that it’s never safe to assume we’ve managed to correct or avoid all of them at any given time.

Fair enough; take the log out of your own eye before removing the splinter from your neighbour’s and all that. Sure, we agree on that. That being said, of course, pointing out that an argument is emotional, with facts, evidence, and reasoning is still okay; we don’t want to leave people immune to charges that they’re making an appeal to emotion when they should be making an appeal to reason, right?

It’s here that Benson starts to make a claim about where feelings come in to morality:

Morality is rooted in feelings – we want some things and want to avoid other things.

Except that “wants” aren’t “feelings”; wants are desires, and desires can be rationally assessed. In fact, we all should strive to have rational desires, and not irrational ones. While we might not be able to criticize all of someone else’s desires, it’s certainly true that we can indeed call some people’s desires “irrational”, if for no other reason than that they’re inconsistent: you want world peace and the ability to conquer other countries through war, for example. When we can’t criticize other people’s desires, it’s not because we can’t apply reason to them, but is instead because they are subjective; there are desires I have just because I have them, and they don’t lead to contradiction, and so they’re mine and mine alone. For example, that I might want to watch wrestling and not want to watch a documentary on the Etruscans doesn’t make my desire irrational or something that you can criticize because you want the opposite. As long as I have certain desires, and those desires don’t contradict more basic desires, then you can’t say that it’s wrong of me to want something that you don’t want. In fact, one of the problems with Mill’s repair work on Utilitarianism is that by introducing the concept of a quality of pleasure he starts ranking desires … even those that are, indeed, just subjective.

So where does morality come in here? Well, to me, one of the basic desires that all moral agents have is the desire to act morally, and what makes moral agents moral agents is the ability to put that desire ahead of all others. This is why I’d argue that animals can’t be moral, no matter how moral they act, because they have never demonstrated the ability to take an action because it is the moral one as opposed to being the action that they want to take that happens to be moral by our assessment of morality. So, no, morality is not rooted in feelings, as the only relevant desire is the desire to act morally, a desire that trumps all other considerations.

The goal can’t be to strip emotion out of our thinking on these subjects, but only to channel it in the right ways. That requires both reason and feeling – and as Hume pointed out, feeling has priority.

We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them – The Treatise of Human Nature 2.3.3.4

So, here we get to something that looks like a position on how reason and emotion should interact, with reason the slave of passion or emotion or, tying back to the previous quote, desire. Except that I’d argue that the opposite is true, and that all of these things not only should, but must be the slave of reason. Channeling emotion and desire in the right ways just means making our emotion and desire, above all, rational. Not necessarily objective, but at the very least rational. When I get angry, it had better only be when it is rational to be angry. When I feel depressed, it had better only be when it is rational to be depressed. When I am happy, it had better only be when it is rational to be happy. When I fall in love, it will be forever had better be when it is rational to be in love. When I act on any of these emotions, it had better be because the action is rational, and not just because the emotion says so. And all of my desires had better be rational, and all of my actions taken on the basis of my desires had better be the rational ones given all of my beliefs about the world and all of the desires I hold. And I had better always put the desire to be moral ahead of every other desire I hold. To do anything else is to give up the goal of taking the actions that are right and are based on the way the world really is, and to give up being a moral person … and I’m sure that Benson wants to take right actions based on the way the world really is and to be a moral person.

Sure, what I just said is hard. Very hard. No one, in fact, actually has managed to do that in recorded history as far as we know. But it is what we should strive for, and Benson’s view of emotion and reason working together seems to be striving to achieve the opposite … and I cannot see what good that can possibly do.

Higher Taxes Aren’t Good In and Of Themselves …

August 14, 2014

So, Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels liked part of an interview with a Swedish actor:

Mr. Skarsgård, where do you live?

I live in Sweden because the taxes are higher, nobody is starving, good health care, free schools and universities. It’s a civilized country and I like that.

You prefer paying higher taxes?

Of course. If you make a lot of money like I do you should pay higher taxes. Everybody should have the possibility to go to school, and university, and have good healthcare.

She comments on it this way:

Goodness. How reasonable, and how rare.

Well, it’s a good thing that it’s rare, because it isn’t that reasonable. The reason is that the reason for his living there isn’t, in fact, because he pays higher taxes in Sweden … or, if it is, then he’s actually being quite unreasonable. Either way, something’s missing here.

Now, I’m sure some will comment that I only say this because I’m caught up in some kind of uber-capitalist notions about what society should do and that taxes are evil, and if I only could see the light that the people in these nations have already seen this wouldn’t seem so odd or unreasonable to me. I’ll counter that with this little thought experiment:

Imagine that you have two countries. Both countries have exactly the same quality of social programs: they have excellent schools, no one is starving, they have free health care, and so on and so forth. However, country A has lower taxes than country B. Which country would you rather live in?

If you say country B, then, well, I’d like to see a good argument for why, because rationally country A is the better place to live. You get all of the social program goodies of country B, and get to keep more of your own income to pursue your own interests. How could it not be better?

The reason why someone could think that Skarsgård’s comment on preferring Sweden because he pays higher taxes isn’t just an utterly irrational statement is because of the correlation between tax rates and social programs. In general, we all understand — or at least strongly believe — that in general if you pay higher taxes then you have more social programs, and if you pay lower taxes then you have less social programs. And this is generally the case, because if a government is getting the resources it needs to provide social programs from taxes, then the higher its taxes then the more social programs it can provide, and the lower its taxes then it will be able to provide less social programs. Thus, we expect a range between 100% taxation with the government providing everything for you, and 0% taxation but you not having anything that looks like a government at all.

While many people will easily see the latter case as being bad, the former isn’t good either. Lower taxes provides people with discretionary spending, in the sense that it’s money that they can use to get what they personally want or need. If the only way to get anything is to get it free from the government, then the only things you will be able to get are the things that the government provides. You’d better hope that you want what they want to provide, because if you have non-standard desires you may find yourself out of luck. On the other hand, if the government provides nothing then you can only get what you can afford to pay for yourself, no matter how badly you need it, or how badly everyone needs it. A capitalist system may provide, but your only guarantee will be what you can afford; if you can’t, then that’s likely tough luck. And the instant people get together to pool their resources to build what they need you start to get something that looks a lot like a government … and start introducing things that look a lot like taxes to fund it. Even user fees would quickly grow into general taxation since it would be difficult and expensive to track who’s using what for how much and how much worth.

So neither extreme is actually good, so what we really want is a mix of the two: taxes to fund social programs that pretty much everyone agrees they want and/or need, but taxes kept low enough that we have room for people to spend their own money on the things they need and, also, to not have too many cases where money is taken from them and spent on things that they’ll never want, never need or that they disapprove of. Taxes, in general, are used to provide the things that we really need provided to maintain the social contract, and a functioning society; people will always take it badly — and rightly so — if they are used to fund the personal ideals of politicians or the majority or even a minority of people.

A lot of complaints about taxes and tax increases, in my opinion, comes from a cynicism or distrust that the government needs the money to provide necessary services, and is instead using that money to promote themselves or specific causes that they favour (and many taxpayers don’t). A lot of the complaints about foreign aid, for example, are complaints that the government is spending a lot of money in foreign countries while they aren’t providing sufficient social programs in their own country … you know, the one that contains the people that are paying taxes. And a lot of the complaints about funding special interest groups is the same: the ones that the government likes get money, but things that impact more people or are supported by more people don’t, and surely there are better things to do with that money than to promote a cause that, if it was worth anything at all, could be funded by people who support it instead of with general taxpayer dollars.

Ultimately, it is critical in a democratic society — or, probably, any society with taxpayers for that matter — that people feel that the money they pay in taxes is not wasted or spent on things that a government shouldn’t be providing. If the government didn’t need that money to provide the essential services that we need a government to provide, then it should return that money to the taxpayers to let them support causes they want to support and get things that they want to get. Because of this, it’s critical that taxpayers feel that they have a say in where their tax dollars go, to ensure that they aren’t giving money to a government that is using it to gain more power for themselves, enrich themselves, or support causes that they favour but won’t fund themselves. Hence, the importance of a democracy which does provide that feeling. But note that the higher taxes someone pays, the more they’re going to want to make sure that that money is used properly, because everyone feels that if the government isn’t going to use their money wisely they have uses for it that would certainly, at least, benefit them more than what the government is going to do with it.

Which, then, reveals a major problem with having the wealthy pay more taxes than everyone else. If they note that they fund the government’s activities to a disproportionate amount, they’ll want to have a say in how that funding is used — and therefore, in that government’s activities — to a degree that matches the funding they’d putting into it. This is a perfectly natural response, as in most things we think it fair that if someone is footing most of the bills they get a bigger say in what is getting bought, at least to avoid people racking up the bills because they don’t actually have to pay for it. But they can’t politically get more of a say in a democracy, and so then they’ll demand that they only pay as much as everyone else does. So the choices then are to lower their taxes, or let them have more influence in what programs get funded.

Now, one way around this is to argue that there are certain things that need to be funded, and that the government needs a certain amount of funding to do that, and that taking equal proportions from everyone would unduly burden people with lower incomes while would be less of a burden for those with higher incomes, and so we can have higher taxes on people with higher incomes. And this works perfectly well … as longer as the government is using that money to a) provide those essentials and b) only to provide those essentials. So, the deal works as long as those who have higher incomes believe that, and the government can prove that they are doing that. As soon as that is no longer the case … the deal breaks, and people with higher incomes can again rightly complain about being taken advantage of: the government justifies taking more of their earnings on the basis that it needs it to provide services that it isn’t providing while it provides services that it doesn’t need to provide. And we’re right back where we started.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, all groups, no matter what their income, need the proper and fair balance of taxation versus social programs. Where this line is drawn will depend on a society, of course, but in general the government has to offer the social programs the people need, not offer the programs that people don’t want or want to fund themselves, and then set tax rates specifically to fund the programs that the society agrees they need. Anything beyond that breaks the agreement of what taxes are for and shouldn’t be seen in a free and democratic society.

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.

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.


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