Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

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.

Challenge Accepted …

July 10, 2014

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

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

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

Now, Jerry Coyne is pushing another book:

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

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

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

So, what are my issues?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So … challenge accepted.

God as a Gaseous Vertebrate?

June 21, 2014

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

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

Coyne gives this as his main example:

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

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

He then compares this to Hart’s position:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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