Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Outsider Test: Treat Your Religion Like You Treat Others

December 16, 2014

So, in in keeping with my acceptance of the atheist challenge on sophisticated atheist philosophy, I picked up John W. Loftus’ “The Outsider Test for Faith”, as recommended by Jerry Coyne. I read it today, and plan to comment on a number of things over the next little while on it. Today, I’m going to start with Loftus’ central conceit: the idea that, at its heart, all he is doing is asking those who are religious to treat their own religion the same way they treat others.

Essentially, Loftus claims that people who are religious and who believe that there is only one True religion — theirs — reject all other religions on the basis of his view of reasonable skepticism, which I’ll get into more later. But suffice it to say that he claims that for the most part we all reject other religions because we don’t think that they have sufficient evidence for their claims and treat them generally skeptically. However, he says this in Chapter 4, on page 76 in the paperback edition:

Most believers argue that other religions are false simply because they take it for granted that theirs is the one true faith. … They do this based on their faith. Given that they believe the tenets of their faith are true, those other religions must therefore be false. … But this method is faulty to the core. It’s begging the question. It first presumes what they believe based on what they were raised to believe. When they argue in this fashion it is nothing short of special pleading on behalf of their own culturally adopted religious faith. What they need to show is that their own faith can be justified.

But on the very next page, he reiterates what the OTF (Outsider Test for Faith) is supposed to represent:

The OTF is simply a challenge to examine one’s adopted religious faith … with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject.

Except, he already conceded what we all already knew: religious believers don’t examine other religious faiths with that level of skepticism. Instead, they simply note that it is not their religious belief and conflicts with their religious belief, and so it must be false. So, Loftus is definitively not simply asking religious believers to treat all religious faiths the same, including their own. He is definitively positing a specific way one ought to approach religious beliefs, even though most people don’t actually do that. This has two major consequences for him:

1) Throughout the book, Loftus defends the applicability or reasonability of the test by appealing to the idea that he is merely asking religious believers to evaluate their own religion the same way they evaluate other religions. He does this over and over and over and over. But since that isn’t what religious believers do, all of those defenses fail. Loftus may want religious believers to do that, and think it’s the only rational way to evaluate religion, but that isn’t what they’re doing now. While they aren’t treating their religion — ie what they believe — the same as new potential beliefs, the method they’re actually using simply doesn’t allow for the OTF to get off the ground, as they’d be required to treat the other religion as true to make that work. That’s actually impossible since it would require accepting multiple incompatible beliefs, so Loftus needs to first get the religious to adopt that his way of evaluating religions is the right one, and then ask them to use it to determine the reasonability of their religion. Which leads to the second consequence …

2) Because he’s now making a normative claim and not just a claim about what people are currently doing, he needs to justify that his way of viewing religions and evaluating them is the one that we ought to follow. I, personally, do see some value in not re-evaluating currently held beliefs — even those that we learned at “Mama’s knee” or, rather, culturally — without having sufficient evidence to think that the belief is wrong. This is a major epistemological difference between myself and Loftus, and one that I’ll address later. But he does need to establish this view, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time doing that, and that’s really where the battle is, and where I think a lot of the challenges that he dismisses with the constant “I’m just asking you to do what you’re already doing and have already accepted!” counters are aiming at: saying that his method doesn’t work and so no one does and no one can use it.

Now, an aside about another defense that Loftus constantly uses. One of his main goals is to solve the problem of religious diversity, and therefore to converge on the one true answer, whether that is a particular religion or no religion at all, which is the view that he at least currently favours. So he constantly demands that people who challenge his method have to come up with a method that will solve the problem of religious diversity better than his. There are a few problems with this demand. The first is that just because his method might solve the problem of religious diversity, that doesn’t actually mean that it’s the right method. We definitely are able to say that his method resolves it in an invalid way if we think that it will come to the wrong final conclusion, and if that conclusion is that there is no right answer we ought to be suspicious of how easily it snips away all competing theories; Loftus needs to be able to say that his method could get the right answer if one existed. Second, just because a method resolves the conflict more efficiently and so is better at solving that problem from that perspective does not mean that it ends up with the right answer. This follows from the first point: the method may prune away the right answer instead of just the wrong answers. Third, it is possible that there is no way to solve this problem; we may not be capable of resolving which religion is the right one, or if any religion is or can be right. So, for all of these reasons, one can indeed say that his method is wrong without providing a better alternative by some arbitrary standard, acceptable to Loftus. So this defense will not save his method if it can be shown to be problematic.

I hope to pull out a few more issues over the next little while to examine in some detail, if I don’t get distracted by shinies [grin].

Philipse on Analogy: Relying on Swinburne

December 15, 2014

I haven’t given up on this one yet, but I haven’t made too much progress on reading it since October because I read Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 … and Chapter 7 is, in my opinion, a mess. It is such a mess that I feel the need to go through it in detail instead of just pulling out a few main points and addressing them. And I just didn’t have the time or energy to do that until now.

But before I do that, I want to pull out one point to talk about. When Philipse talks about analogy in Chapter 7 and 8, he brings in an argument from Swinburne where Swinburne argues that if theists make too many things about God allegorical, they’ll end up saying nothing. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, and using a theist to buttress his point about how theists cannot rely on allegory doesn’t hurt him and can help; the argument can’t be dismissed as an argument that rules out all religious positions a priori, for example, if a theist thinks that they can work around it. Where Philipse fails, however, is that while he’s still in a section dealing with general religious beliefs, he ends up focusing on Swinburne’s view and how it doesn’t escape Swinburne’s own admonishment against analogy. This results in two issues. First, it leaves a lot of the general views untouched, as they don’t have the same framework as Swinburne and so might not be vulnerable to the same attacks. The biggest example of this is with the discussions of necessity in Chapter 8, where classical theism — which is probably the view most dependent on necessity — is mostly ignored in order to focus on Swinburne’s relations with Kripke and the like. As classical theists are also very likely to use analogy and argue that they still say something, this leaves a fairly popular general religious view mostly unrefuted. The second problem is one that Philipse acknowledges: if successful, he would end up refuting Swinburne’s arguments about half-way through the book, leaving little to talk about. The main issue here, however, is that he hasn’t given us Swinburne’s full argument and a full treatment of Swinburne’s full position yet, so we don’t really know how important this is to Swinburne’s view or if he can indeed really sidestep it. So we either come away convinced that Swinburne is defeated by his own argument — but note, nothing about the Bayesian reasoning that Philipse thought was so important — or wonder if Philipse isn’t just being a little cute here, trying to refute the view before talking about it, and taking valuable time away from the general question to address a point he needed or wanted to make later.

The key is whether or not refuting Swinburne on analogy is really the important counter-argument for God in the Age of Science or not. If it is, then bringing up that argument should really have been done there, as part of the overall refutation and showing how even Swinburne’s procedure doesn’t work to establish a credible theory for the existence of God. If not, then it again should have been left there as an aside, if necessary. What Philipse, in my opinion, needed to do was use Swinburne’s argument against analogy as a framework for this own arguments, and spent a lot of time arguing why you can’t use analogy to describe God in any meaningful way without arguing that Swinburne actually ends up having to use too much analogy himself. This would have allowed for a tighter focus on the general issue without cluttering it up by talking about Swinburne’s purported problems, and would have allowed more room to discuss Swinburne’s own issues later, in the full context of Swinburne’s full position. As it was, I don’t feel that, at this point, he’s addressed either side very well, and as well as he needed to.

I’ll say more about Philipse’s issues when I talk about Chapter 7 directly.

Theory-driven vs Data-driven

December 6, 2014

So, last time, I talked about how Stephanie Zvan was at least mistaken in claiming that the rationalists she encounters are rationalists in the philosophical sense, like Descartes and Plato. Here, I’m trying to come up with a way to characterize the differences between her views and theirs without relying on the term “rationalism” and so avoiding that confusion. And I think the difference might be that they are theory-driven while Zvan is data-driven.

So what do I mean by that? I’ll call “theory-driven” the idea that we ought to go about determining what propositions to accept by formulating theories about the world and fitting data into those theories. The main idea here is that data by itself has no inherent meaning, but is only given meaning when it is interpreted rationally and in the context of a well-formed theory. Theories can be changed by data or even invalidated by it, but this view would, it seems to me, deny that a useful approach to gaining knowledge would be to go out and gather as much data as one can. Instead, one should gather enough data to form an initial theory, and then add and absorb new data into the model slowly, altering the theory at each point, and using the theory to both predict what data is needed and what the data ought to be. If the data doesn’t fit the model, in a theory-driven approach one might at least initially question the data.

The “data-driven” approach, on the other hand, finds huge value in gathering as much data as possible, and only then tries to formulate a theory based on that data. This view thinks that data in and of itself can push or support an interpretation, and that one’s interpretation improves mostly with better data and not with better theorizing. If the data conflicts with the basic theory, then toss the theory out.

I think the best way to describe this is to consider it in terms of plotting a curve on a set of data points. The theory-driven approach would take a few points, build a curve, and then fit other points onto that initial curve, altering it as little as possible and only radically changing it when they had to, and would extend the curve past the last data point based on the theory behind it. The data-driven approach would generate as many data points as possible and then draw the curve, and be hesitant to go beyond that data set without good reason or more data. As such, the theory-driven approach will tend to go for more depth, while the data-driven approach will go for more breadth: the theory-driven approach will extend to and try to cover more data sets as an attempt to apply the theory to more problems and be a deeper theory, while the data-driven approach will extend to and cover more data sets simply from the fact that they just gathered more data and are trying to iterate over more varied data. As such, theory-driven approaches will adopt a more guided view of gathering data, gathering the data that the theory says they need instead of all data, while the data-driven approach will just gather lots and lots of data and worry about what really fits together later.

At this point, you should be able to see the issues with each. The theory-driven approach will tend towards rationalization, where once you’ve decided on the right interpretation for a set of data you’ll keep rationalizing the data you encounter and doing minor tweaks to the theory until you have to toss it away. The data-driven approach, on the other hand, will tend towards shallow interpretations because it isn’t easy to take a massive set of data and come up with a common interpretation that works, and a data-driven approach is loathe to toss away data if it can help it. Philosophically, the theory-driven approach aligns best with “Arm-chair” philosophizing, while the data-driven approach aligns best with naturalized philosophizing, where you gather up all of the instances of a concept that you can find and then figure out what characteristics matter, and filter out based on that.

I think that the debate that Zvan is going through reflects this fairly well. I think that a lot of those “rationalists” have a theory in mind, and point out that her interpretations don’t fit that theory, at which point she insists that they need to look at the data because it’s obvious, at which point they reply that the data does support her interpretation as obviously as she thinks it does. While some may argue that the social and political issues that she talks about are explained best by those on the social justice side formulating theories and then insisting that they be used despite the data, I see them as being best described as examples of the data-driven model, as their concepts have many potential theoretical issues that they don’t consider particularly important — intersectionality with privilege, for example, or cultural influences and their role beyond them being there — and so are generally theoretically shallow (patriarchy is not very complex theoretically), and that they constantly try to justify those theories not by appeals to the logical consistency of the theory, but by the data they have. Rape culture might be the best example if this, as it incorporates a widely diverse set of phenomena, but the exact theory of rape culture is rather vague, including how one decides if something is an example of rape culture or not.

Science, as it turns out, is neither theory-driven nor data-driven. The arguably most successful scientific field is physics, and physics explicitly incorporates both the theory-driven and data-driven approaches. Theoretical physics is explicitly theory-driven, while experimental physics is explicitly data-driven. And while they do clash at times, overall the success of physics is driven by the interaction between the two, with the theoretical work informing the experimentation and the experimental results feeding back into the theoretical work. In general, both approaches have their places, and which one get precedence in a situation depends greatly on the context of the problem. Which means that those who advocate for science can indeed actually claim that science supports theory-driven or data-driven approaches; it supports and uses both, when appropriate.

Without specific examples of the “naive errors” that Zvan’s “rationalists” are making when they “think but don’t study”, I can’t say whether this really does capture the distinction that Zvan wants to make. But it seems to fit, especially in her description of what frustrates her and if it does fit, then this is a less confusing and hopefully less judgemental way to approach the issues. Remember, neither of these views are bad, but both are required in the proper time and the proper place. There is no shame in being theory-driven or data-driven as long as you understand that you need someone else to do the other approach if you aren’t going to do it yourself if you want to get full knowledge.

Rationalism, Empiricism, Critical Thinking … and Rationalism

December 5, 2014

Stephanie Zvan is complaining about the “rationalists” among her atheist compatriots. She comes out as an empiricist in opposition to rationalism, and in her post discusses what’s wrong with rationalism and right about empiricism, with the general idea — one supposes — that everyone should choose empiricism over rationalism. In fact, she describes how she thinks of rationalists thusly:

I have friends who are rationalists. I do my best to think of it as a nice little hobby of theirs. I do cryptograms and other puzzles in my down time. They spend time hacking their thinking processes, or trying to. We’ve all got our thing.

Which is a rather odd thing to say, considering that her post seems to be trying to use the philosophical definitions of the terms, and if that’s the case then it can’t be just a hobby. Philosophically, both are meant to describe a fundamental approach to understanding the world. Neither are things you just dabble in. Adding critical thinking to the mix just makes this sort of statement all the more puzzling. So, I see her post as an example of “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”; she seems to know a little about those philosophical schools, but not enough to really understand them well-enough to understand that, ultimately, the people who call themselves “rationalists” are not rationalists in the sense that opposes empiricism, but are rationalists in the sense of insisting that all truths must be filtered through reason before they can be accepted.

In this post, I’ll go through her post and point out how it doesn’t describe the philosophical positions of rationalism and empiricism accurately, and so ascribes things to those who call themselves rationalists that they don’t have to hold and don’t hold. In the next post, I’ll introduce a new way of classifying these epistemic views that I think captures both her objections and the reasons that those “rationalists” oppose her “empiricism”.

So, first, a summary of rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism, at its heart, is a doctrine that truths about the world have to be ultimately justified by reason. Empiricism, on the other hand, is a doctrine that says that truths about the world have to be ultimately justified by sense data. The justification for rationalism is that our sense data is unreliable and doesn’t apply universally; different people experience different things, and our experiences don’t tell us what’s true about the world. Also, when we start looking at categories — ie what a dog is — we don’t seem to have enough data available to allow us to figure out what the key features of those things really are. For example, we all think that it is part of the categorization of dogs that they all have four legs. But if we find a dog with three legs, we still say it’s a dog. How do we explain that? Plato appealed to Forms for that, but it is clear that the empirical data isn’t sufficient for us to learn how to classify dogs just from what we experience in a lifetime, given the wide varieties of dogs and their characteristics that we encounter. The justification for empiricism is that if we rely on simple reason and don’t appeal to sense data, we can end up disconnected from the world. Our only access to the external world is through sense data, and if we try to reason out how the world should be when we go out into that world we often find out that it isn’t that way. Rationalism, it would seem, cuts itself off from the only data we have about the external world, while empiricism embraces it.

This can lead to what I’ll call here a “weak rationalism”, which is the idea that some propositions that are not just innate propositions and not just about fields that aren’t meant to apply to the real world can only be justified through reason, and not through sense data. Thus, not all propositions about the world are or can be justified by sense data. The common example I use of this is the existence of something that has necessary existence; there is no way to empirically examine such an entity to see if it really needs to exist. The same can be said of something that has omnipotence or any of the omni-traits; you simply can’t observe enough things to prove that true. I, personally, am a weak rationalist.

When we talk, then, about atheist, where do they fit into this debate? Well, despite the fact that in “The God Delusion” Dawkins claims at one point to be a rationalist (I think), he’s clearly an empiricist. Almost all atheists are empiricists, as far as I can tell. A strong argument for it is that most atheists react to the Ontological Argument and Classical Theism with some variation of “You can’t simply use logic to prove the existence of something!”, but this is precisely what even weak rationalists will deny. Weak rationalists may argue that certain specific propositions have to be justified by sense data, but they will never claim that that’s how it works in general. So, then, all atheists of that sort are empiricists because they aren’t even weak rationalists, and I suspect that this includes almost everyone that Zvan is referring to in her post.

Critical thinking spans both rationalism and empiricism. Critical thinking, it seems to me, encompasses a few main principles: Figure out what type of evidence you need to demonstrate the truth of a proposition, figure out what specific evidence you need of that type, and then go see if the evidence does demonstrate the truth of the proposition. These all apply to both empiricism and rationalism, even when “reason vs sense data” is already settled, because it also applies to testimony versus observation versus expert opinion versus … well, everything else. So to ascribe critical thinking to rationalism is clearly nonsensical when considering the philosophical debate.

So with the framing out of the way, let’s look at what she says using this frame:

I’m not a rationalist because I’m an empiricist. I find no value in “logical” arguments that are based in intuition and “common sense” rather than data. Such arguments can only perpetuate ignorance by giving it a shiny veneer of reason that it hasn’t earned.

The oddest thing here is that she later ascribes critical thinking to rationalism, but it seems to me — in light of what I said above — that one of the hallmarks of critical thinking is to reject the idea that intuition and common sense are what we should base arguments on. They usually aren’t the sort of evidence that can justify a claim. Also, the most famous rationalist ever — Descartes — didn’t rely on them at all, and insisted that all propositions must be logically justified, and therefore certain. Without being able to justify logically intuition and common sense, he wouldn’t allow it to be used. So this doesn’t even apply to traditional rationalism.

Rationalism is, at heart, an individualist endeavor. It says that the path to getting things right lies in improving the self, improving the thinking of one person at a time. It’s not surprising that the ideology and movement appeal largely to the young, to men, to white people, to libertarians. It focuses primarily on individual action.

Um … no, not really. Rationalism is supposed to be about deriving universal truths, meaning truths that are certain and hold true. That’s a universalist approach, as the idea is to be able to get something that everyone can immediately accept once it is presented to them. Empiricism, on the other hand, is indeed more individualist because I don’t have direct access to anyone else’s sense data than my own, and this leads to empiricism pushing for a “I won’t believe it until I can experience it myself” line. But, ultimately, both are equally about individual action because both are about what you, as an individual, should accept as true or false … and both are equally about collective action because as they both aim for knowledge they aim for justifications that must, in the end, apply to everyone who can get access to the data or the arguments.

Critical thinking, however, might indeed be the sort of individualist endeavour that she’s talking about here, as it focuses on making sure that you, as an individual, have the tools you need to evaluate the truths of any propositions that you are considering, and ensuring that you don’t have to rely on experts or the word of others, but know how to verify it for yourself. But it’s hard to imagine any atheist thinking that this is a bad thing, as one of the main complaints about religions is that they fight too hard to get people to just accept the word of experts and not enough on figuring out the truths for themselves. And, of course, it really ought to be part of critical thinking to decide when you need or ought to rely on an expert and when you should go investigate it for yourself, and when you should trust your own experiences over those of others or vice versa. Critical thinking should not in general rely on or dismiss intuition, common sense, sense data, logic or any other source of data or reasoning. Instead, it should decide when those things are reliable and ought to be used. So the sort of individual action it espouses doesn’t seem to be the kind of action that Zvan could possibly argue against.

Scholars add to our knowledge of the world by building on the work of others. They apply tools and methods developed by others to new material and questions. They study the work of other scholars to inspire them and give them the background to ask and answer new questions. They evaluate the work of others and consolidate the best of it into larger theoretical frameworks. Without the work of scholars before them, scholars today and evermore would always be recreating basic work and basic errors.

But both rationalism and empiricism allow for that, and critical thinking at best would ask you to look to see if that work is still relevant or if there’s reason to doubt it. Only an extremely skeptical critical thinking would just toss away all of that knowledge that has previously been gained, if for no other reason than that it wouldn’t be practical to redo it all every time you wanted to know something. So it almost sounds like her problem here is not rationalism, empiricism or critical thinking, but is instead skepticism, or at least the overuse of it.

All too often, I find rationalists taking this repetitive approach. They think but they don’t study. As a consequence, they repeat the same naïve errors time and again. This is particularly noticeable when they engage in social or political theorizing by extrapolating from information they learned in secondary school and 101-level college classes, picked up in pop culture, or provided by people pushing a political cause. Their conclusions are necessarily as limited as their source material and reflect all its cultural biases.

The irony here is that those “same naive errors” are often only “revealed” by information provided by people pushing a political cause, like feminists or those advocating for social justice, which by her own reasoning would make that information suspect and would include their own biases. Critical thinking would try to ensure that one either tries to filter out the biases or gathers information from all sources to ensure that they have all the relevant data no matter the biases of those sources, providing a less limited viewpoint.

The situation is worse than that, however. Not only do these rationalists come up with poor conclusions, but they’re frequently convinced that they must be right because they know how to think better than other people do. A greater understanding of cognitive biases and traps should engender epistemic humility. It should build comfort with uncertainty and some ability to estimate how much uncertainty is likely to exist around a question. Instead, it often seems to foster arrogance, as though avoiding certain errors makes someone’s conclusions correct.

There is nothing in rationalism or empiricism that fosters epistemic arrogance or humility. They are just ways to go about learning about the world. And critical thinking would have as a prime component the notion that you should indeed always evaluated your knowledge and skills to see what you do well and what you are an expert in and what you aren’t. If she’s encountering people who are epistemologically arrogant, maybe that’s because they are just arrogant people and aren’t doing critical thinking or even skepticism right. A big problem among atheists, it seems to me, is that they often see their escape from religion as being a triumph of their own intelligence, and people who stay as either being less intelligent or less willing to use that intelligence when it comes to religion. If you think you’re smarter than most other people, you’ll start to act like it … whether rationalist or empiricist. Only proper critical thinking can get you thinking that maybe you aren’t as smart as you think you are.

Adherence to empiricism does, however, limit the topics on which people feel qualified to opine. It reminds people that their conclusions are only as good as the information and evidence on which they’re based. It reminds them that experts matter.

Rationalism doesn’t do that. It doesn’t do it in theory, with the emphasis it puts on how one thinks. Even in the modern rationalist movement, which speaks more to collecting evidence than classical rationalism, I have yet to see any emphasis on epistemic humility. In fact, I see calls to apply rationalism broadly to people’s decisions, which adds to the uninformed arrogance I see too much of.

Critical thinking place its emphasis on how one thinks … but then does include as part of it a limit on the topics people feel qualified to opine, if done properly. It reminds them that their conclusions are only as good as the information they have access to. It reminds them that experts matter but that experts are not always right either. All of these come from proper critical thinking, which suggests that the people she’s running into just aren’t doing critical thinking properly. But neither rationalism nor empiricism imply either; they are about how one gets data and what data one uses, not about epistemic humility.

It seems clear that when the people Zvan talks about call themselves “rationalists”, they do not mean rationalism in the philosophical sense that Zvan criticizes. Most of them are empiricists in that sense, and the implications that she sees are not ones that follow from a rationalist position, or from critical thinking. In the next post, I’ll try to clear up the confusion by inventing a new set of categories that I think will cover her objections better, and avoid extra implications that aren’t necessarily there.

Memory and random access lists …

December 4, 2014

When I was actively taking Cognitive Science courses, I took a course on Cognitive Psychology. Unless I’m misremembering — I’m a bit too lazy to look it up at the moment — one experiment we covered was where they were trying to determine if when given a list of numbers to iterate through to find a particular element we generally iterated through the set of numbers and stopped when we found the right one, or if we just iterated through the entire list regardless. Of course, all experience and common sense suggested that we’d stop when we found the right one, but the experiment showed that we seemed to access the entire list every time. The reasoning for this is that the experiment measured the access times it took for us to find an element, and compared the times for when it was at, say, the first element in the list and when it was at, say, the last element in the list. If we stopped when we found the element, you’d expect there to be a significant difference between the time it takes to find it if it’s the first element and the time it takes to find it when it’s the last element. You have to run it a bunch of times to avoid issues where one access might take more or less time than another due to some elements that you can’t control for, but if you run it enough times you should always get this progression. And they didn’t see that. The times were, in general, pretty much flat regardless of what element in the list you were finding. So the conclusion was that we ended up searching the entire list anyway instead of stopping when we found the right element.

Now, having a Computer Science background, I immediately saw a potential confound here. This holds if the model is to simply iterate through the list of numbers and nothing else happens. However, if the model is to first load the list into some sort of buffer and then to iterate through it looking for the right answer, then whether this test would work or not depends greatly on how long it took to load that list into the buffer. After all, anyone who works with databases will know that often in order to find a particular element you will load the instances into memory and then iterate through them, and that if you’re trying to make that process as efficient as possible it often doesn’t make sense to try to speed up the time for iterating through the list, but instead try to reduce the time it takes to load the information into the buffer.

Wanting to play a bit with Python anyway, I finally got around to writing a Python program that demonstrates this:

def memoryArrayIterateTest(initialTime, timeBetweenAccesses, timesToRun):

#This function iterates through a five element memory list and calculates the time of access

testList = [2,3,4,5,6] #Start with 2 to make the difference between number and element clear
timesList = [0,0,0,0,0]
hitsList = [0,0,0,0,0]

fudgeFactor = 0

for x in range(0, timesToRun):

number = random.randint(2,6)
# print(number)
#fudgeFactor = random.randint(1,5)
accessTime = 0
for i in range(0, 5):

if(testList[i] == number):

hitsList[i] = hitsList[i] + 1
timesList[i] = timesList[i] + initialTime + fudgeFactor + accessTime
break

else:

accessTime = accessTime + timeBetweenAccesses

for y in range(0, 5):

if(hitsList[y] != 0): #Let’s avoid dividing by 0

s = “The time average at ” + repr(y+1) + ” is: ” + repr(timesList[y]/hitsList[y])
print(s)

Essentially, what this function does is create a five element list from 2 – 6, selects an element from that list at random, and then iterates to the list. It takes in an initial loading time, a time between accesses, and how many times you want to run it. It generates the element as many times as you tell it to, and then at the end of the day calculates the average access time for each element in the list.

I’ll keep my access time at 1 and run it 1000 times. Let’s start by seeing what happens when the initial loading time is also 1:

>>> memoryArrayIterateTest(1,1,1000)
The time average at 1 is: 1.0
The time average at 2 is: 2.0
The time average at 3 is: 3.0
The time average at 4 is: 4.0
The time average at 5 is: 5.0

So here, we get the nice progression, and a significant difference between the elements. So if the initial loading time is small, then we should see this sort of progression if we’re stopping when we find the element. Since we aren’t, it looks like that’s not what we do. But what happens when we say that the initial loading time is 1000?

>>> memoryArrayIterateTest(1000,1,1000)
The time average at 1 is: 1000.0
The time average at 2 is: 1001.0
The time average at 3 is: 1002.0
The time average at 4 is: 1003.0
The time average at 5 is: 1004.0

Now the time difference is insignificant. Our numbers are almost flat, percentage wise. Now what happens if I uncomment out that fudge factor and add in that sometimes there will be other factors that come into play on each iteration, and it will be different for each iteration?

>>> memoryArrayIterateTest(1000,1,1000)
The time average at 1 is: 1002.9009900990098
The time average at 2 is: 1003.8549222797927
The time average at 3 is: 1005.135
The time average at 4 is: 1006.1785714285714
The time average at 5 is: 1006.9377990430622
>>> memoryArrayIterateTest(1000,1,1000)
The time average at 1 is: 1002.9381443298969
The time average at 2 is: 1004.1609756097561
The time average at 3 is: 1005.0904522613065
The time average at 4 is: 1005.9368932038835
The time average at 5 is: 1006.969387755102
>>> memoryArrayIterateTest(1000,1,1000)
The time average at 1 is: 1002.8676470588235
The time average at 2 is: 1004.0449438202247
The time average at 3 is: 1004.9045454545454
The time average at 4 is: 1006.004854368932
The time average at 5 is: 1006.9375

Not a smoking gun — I was hoping to get wider time variances — but we do end up with some longer gaps and some shorter gaps, which some of them being essentially equal. This is probably because the random factors do even out over more iterations, because if I run it with only 10:

>>> memoryArrayIterateTest(1000,1,10)
The time average at 1 is: 1003.25
The time average at 2 is: 1002.0
The time average at 3 is: 1004.5
The time average at 4 is: 1005.0
The time average at 5 is: 1005.0

Then I can get the first one taking longer than the second one. So if we do enough iterations, we can indeed correct for those random factors, most of the time. We won’t, however, correct for the initial loading time, and that’s still a major confound there.

We’d need to know if there is an initial loading time to conclude that we don’t generally stop when iterating through a list of elements when we find the one we want, and in my view the experience of what I do when I consciously do that trumps psychological experiments unless we don’t have any serious confounds. So I’m skeptical about those results. The biggest objection you can make is that I still do get a progression, just not a significant one, and I’d have to see if the experiment found any progression at all. Which I’m not really going to do, because this was just a minor and interesting — at least to me — demonstration of a potential confound using Python. As I hope to do more AI programming in the near future, this was a nice way to run a little experiment and see all of the potential pitfalls of doing this sort of thing.

The Professors Who Most Influenced Me Philosophically.

November 30, 2014

There have been a number of professors throughout my formal philosophical career who have in some way greatly influenced my overall philosophical views in a very profound way. And maybe it’s that Christmas is coming, maybe it’s that I’m bored, and maybe it’s just that I’d like another post to extend my “posting every day” streak, but I’m feeling an urge to list and thank them at this time. I’ll use their real names, but not their locations, to give them the ability, if asked, to say “Um, that wasn’t me! It was someone else with that name!”. These are in no particularly order (and I hope I get the spellings right):

Rob Stainton – He’s not only the reason I even HAVE a Masters’ degree in Philosophy, but he’s also responsible for my favouring dualism when it comes to mind. Which is ironic considering that he’s a staunch materialist.

Andrew Brook – Also very influential in my overall views on consciousness — despite, again, being a staunch materialist and absolutely not a qualia freak — but even more importantly was one of the main driving factors behind my developing the view of the distinction between the psychological and the phenomenal.

Paul Raymont – This may seem relatively minor, but explained to me that Kant’s Categorical Imperative refers only to consistency, not desirability, which greatly impacted my views on Kant’s moral system, which have greatly impacted my own views on morality.

Diane Debrule – Introduced me to Greek philosophy and consciousness, and also was instrumental in my examining the similarities and differences between the Virtue Theories of Aristotle and the Stoics, which has not only greatly informed my views of Stoicism, but of Virtue Theory as well.

Heidi Maibom – Introduced me to the Stoics, or at least in a sense where I found them interesting, formed my views on emotion and how it relates to morality (again, ironically she does seem to hold the exact opposite view than me), and was instrumental in my discovering the link between simulation and theory with regards to empathy. Ultimately, being Stoic-leaning and distrusting empathy-based moralities started with her, for good or for ill, although again that’s probably not her own view.

David Matheson – Probably the person who is most responsible for my interest in epistemology, and on a specific note also taught me that the “p is true” condition of knowledge does not require certainty, which I’ve just realized the importance of … which is one of the main reasons why I thought of listing these people and thanking them. So that’s something else to blame him for.

Vincent Bergeron – Again, it might seem minor, but I had never done anything on Aesthetics or Art until his course, which produced this.

There are other professors out there whose courses I’ve really enjoyed and that I’ve learned a lot in, but these are the ones that had an overall impact on my philosophical views and interests. So I owe them a debt of thanks for doing that … even if they might have wanted to have a completely different impact on my philosophical views and interests [grin].

Fee-fees. Nothing more than … fee-fees

November 29, 2014

So, over at “Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men”, Ally Fogg recently said this:

I hate to break it to you Martin, but a primary message of feminism is that the world does not (or should not) revolve around the sensitive fee-fees of middle aged, middle class, straight white men and our boners. Demanding – or even politely requesting – that feminism rebrand itself to become more palatable to men like you and me is deep, deep into the territory of waging war for peace or f***ing for virginity. If you want feminism to become more palatable to swallow or an easier cloak to don, the only course of action is not to change feminism, but to change yourself.

Now, this isn’t really a prime example of what I’m going to talk about here, and normally Fogg is actually better at this than most feminists or those who are feminist leaning, but you really should note the very, very dismissive response to a comment that the word “feminism” has certain implications that cause feelings that are a barrier to his acceptance of it. It’s suddenly that feminism isn’t about the “sensitive fee-fees” of a certain group of people, which has the implication that feminists don’t have to care about the feelings of that group … in particular, in this case, white, middle-aged, middle-class men. And as I said, this isn’t a particularly good example of this — but it’s handy — and elsewhere you can find even more dismissive comments that pretty much suggest that women, at least, don’t have to care about the feelings of men at all, and that men expressing hurt feelings over something are being overly sensitive and that their hurt feelings can not only be ignored, can not only be dismissed, but are even things to mock and make fun of.

This leads to a massive logical problem in feminism, or at least feminisms that accept this.

A major component of feminism — and from those who love to use the “fee-fees” line — is that the feelings and experiences of women are too often not taken seriously, dismissed and disregarded. Men — the argument often goes at least — need to take the feelings of women seriously. Which is perfectly fine, but if you argue that someone needs to take your feelings seriously, it’s really, really hard to get that when you then turn around and argue that you don’t have to take their feelings seriously. I’m perfectly willing to consider your feelings, but if you won’t consider mine in return then, well, I feel no obligation to care about your feelings. Caring about someone else’s feelings is a two-way street: to get people to care about yours, a good start is to show you care about theirs. A really bad start is to demonstrate that you not only don’t care about theirs, but that you will sanctimoniously defend your right to not care about theirs. People are likely to reciprocate the amount you care about their feelings to you, at which point you can do the math.

Now feminists can counter that they don’t need to care about the feelings of men because society, by default, already does. Putting aside how accurate that is — patriarchy seemed to care about the feelings men were supposed to have, not the ones they did have, just as it did for women — the issue here is that being out and out dismissive of feelings is in no way caring about them. You can make an argument that you already have considered their feelings as much as is reasonable if you don’t express that as not caring about them at all … and this also runs into the issue that those they criticize for not caring enough about the feelings of women can counter with that as well (and often do).

This leads to the next way to go: to argue that their feelings, in that case, are invalid. They are judging the world through the perspective of privilege, and while they do feel that way, they ought not feel that way. And so since their feelings are wrong and invalid, they need not be respected and considered. The issue here is that this opens up the idea that feelings don’t have to be considered if they are invalid or based on a faulty perception of the world … and there’s no reason to think that this is limited only to the “privileged”. So, then, this means that if someone thinks that what a woman or group of women are feeling is based on an incorrect perception of the world or that the feelings are invalid, then they also ought to be able to argue that … without getting accused of ignoring their perceptions or “gaslighting” them.

The conundrum, then, comes down to this: if we should respect the feelings of others just because they are the feelings of others, then the feelings of men — accurate or not — need to be respected and not dismissed. But if one introduces the idea that we can indeed judge feelings as valid or invalid, then the feelings of women are just as open to that sort of judgement as the feelings of men are. At the end of the day, this pretty much demonstrates why the Golden Rule is a very good one: if you don’t treat others the way you expect to be treated, it’s nearly impossible to avoid hypocrisy.

The Harms of Religion?

November 28, 2014

Stephanie Zvan over at Almost Diamonds recently wrote a post that claims to give at least an example of how even liberal religion is harmful. Her discussion of what the clearly harmful fundamentalist religions and what liberal religions have in common is this:

However, even religious sects and practices that are significantly looser in their scope can still cause damage. Even liberal sects still expect conformity to some rules. Even religious groups that focus on serving others still recognize a divine authority, even as they say that authority commands them to pro-social behavior.

As long as that authority exists, religion will continue to damage people. Yes, even liberal, non-fundamentalist religion.

So, essentially, she starts here by saying that even liberal religions have rules and have an authority, which is what makes them damaging. It’s a bit weird to talk about having rules as being a bad thing in and of itself. I’m guessing here that the main thrust of her objection is not that they have rules, and not that they have authorities, but that they have an absolute, unquestionable, divine authority that people are subject, and that even if that authority is telling them to do good things being subject to that overwhelming an authority is a bad thing.

Her main example is about religious-based counseling for mental illness, and how she thinks that religious authority could relate to that. Her first potential problem:

First off, I emphasized to my friend that, to the extent the patient had any “responsibility to get better” that responsibility was solely to the patient themself. I didn’t do this because of some notion that a patient has to want to get better in order for therapy to work but because the idea that a patient is responsible to someone else for the success of therapy can be toxic.

This is true in any therapy. The idea that someone with mental illness owes it to their family, for example, to get better can create unrealistic expectations for therapeutic outcomes. Instead of learning how to live with, manage, and work around their mental illness, someone may feel that the only successful therapy is the therapy that puts everything back the way it was before the onset of illness. It can induce pressure to get through therapy quickly rather than focusing on the process of therapy itself.

The idea that someone with mental illness who doesn’t get better through therapy is letting others down can also induce significant amounts of guilt. This is bad enough when the people “let down” are family or friends. When it’s God who wants to you to get better according to your therapist and your program, you’re failing at so much more if therapy doesn’t succeed. You’re failing in your duty to the divine, a divine that would not have commanded you to do the impossible.

But it seems that the toxicity of the responsibility comes from the idea that you do indeed have a duty to them to get better, and that you are letting them down if you don’t. With God, however, the idea would be that there is an entity that loves you and does love you (mostly) unconditionally. God wants you to get better, because God loves you. But I would assume that almost any religiously-based counseling program — and certainly a liberal one — won’t make it out to be a sin for you to not recover (unless your actions are a sin, of course, but even then seeking help would be seen as an unvarnished good). So without a duty to God to recover, you can indeed proceed without that sort of responsibility to recover that Zvan talks about. There is no reason to think that God doesn’t want you to be better, even if better doesn’t mean you go back to the way you were before.

And having that one loving figure constantly in your life can help, even as an authority figure, by giving you one entity that’s always supportive and loving pretty much no matter what you do. When you’re alone and feel unloved, and even feel unloved because of this mental illness, the structure of at least liberal religions is that God still loves you anyway. God wants you to get better, and would even want you to “Stop sinning”, but the liberal concept is that sin doesn’t make God stop loving you, and that God never rejects you no matter what you do. You can only be separated from God by rejecting him, and being in therapy with religious undertones is clearly not rejecting God. So, you always have support, which can be a good thing and something that might be hard to find outside of this sort of religious authority.

Which leads to the second point:

The other problem I cautioned my friend about was forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness. The relative going into therapy has legitimate reasons to be unhappy with the people around them. The way the world has treated them has contributed no small amount to their mental illness and to their capacity to work around that mental illness to have a productive life. Should they feel inclined toward forgiveness, they have a lot to forgive.

Now, there are good reasons they might want to reach a place where they can forgive the people who have injured them. There’s a small but respectable amount of psychology literature that suggests forgiveness can be therapeutic. Whether the effect comes from the exercise of empathy that forgiveness requires, from some kind of emotional relief due to forgiveness itself, or from some other factor isn’t clear, but the effect seems to exist.

However, while forgiveness is a good thing, pressure to forgive is not. As with pressure to “get better”, it adds stress and takes focus off therapy as a process rather than a pass/fail test. And again, this is only amplified when it’s a deity telling someone that they should forgive the person who hurt them.

Telling people that God wants them to forgive is still a strong element of even liberal, non-fundamentalist religion. The idea that God has a plan for you may entail more benevolent plans in a non-fundamentalist sect, but it still exists. Failing to live up to those plans still creates guilt at a time when the focus should be on improving life for someone with mental illness.

I find that a lot of challenges to the “forgiveness” portion of religion — especially Christianity — seem to somewhat misrepresent what forgiveness is, and reflect a modern or secular idea of forgiveness that’s a bit problematic. The general idea seems to be that you can only forgive someone if they didn’t do anything wrong in the first place and/or make amends for what they did. Without that, you can’t forgive them. What state you’re supposed to be in before that isn’t usually made clear, but based on experience seems to be that you stay in a state of anger, dislike and distrust until they do. In short, you stay hurt. What they did is then supposed to still bother you, and it isn’t resolved until they do that. Forgiveness is seen as resolving the issue, and it can only be resolved with exoneration or repentance. And if they are unwilling to do that, then they cannot be forgiven, and the issue cannot be resolved, even for you in your own mind.

Religious forgiveness, I think, is different. To forgive someone in the religious sense, you don’t need to decide that they didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t need to decide that they aren’t a bad person. You don’t need to decide that they’ve done sufficient repentance. Religious forgiveness is pretty much all about you. It isn’t something that they have to earn, but is something that you give. At the end of it all, it is you putting the issue behind you, and letting it go away. They did something bad. Accept that they did, accept that they are flawed as you are flawed — although they may be more flawed than you — and stop feeling hurt or expecting penance or plotting revenge or being angry at them or the incident. If they take your cloak, shrug and move on with your life. Don’t stay and harbour ill thoughts about them until they make amends. Don’t demand amends at all. Make forgiveness be a state of you instead of a state of the world.

In terms of mental illness, putting aside past wrongs and past issues can be key to many treatments. Forgiveness, in the religious sense, is essentially doing just that. So not only having that as a key virtue from the religious worldview, but having the example of the overarching authority figure who forgives unconditionally as long as we say “Sorry” — and even sometimes if we don’t — can strongly encourage that. And there is no reason to think that in the religious context these things can’t be processes. Liberal religions certainly don’t expect people to be perfect. And a good religious therapist that things that forgiveness is important will certainly structure it so that they highlight their own difficulties with forgiving while still holding onto the idea that forgiveness is something to strive for, because in all religions no one is perfect. Everyone’s a sinner — except maybe that guy — and so failing does not single you out as someone who is particularly bad. If you’re having a hard time forgiving someone or something, the typical religious response — especially for something really serious — is going to be “I can definitely see how that would be tough to forgive, but remember that God indeed forgives all of us no matter what we do”, providing the example to life up to while acknowledging that we aren’t expected to be able to do that all the time. It’s a lot harder for a secular approach to do that so clearly.

Zvan’s big push is that the authority turns the good idea into a demand, but that doesn’t follow from the examples she uses. Thus, it strikes me that the real issue is that she doesn’t like the authority and the idea of forgiveness found in religion. Which is indeed something that can be debated, but it doesn’t really work to try to use the examples she gives here as examples of the harms of religion without a) recognizing the benefits as well and b) ensuring that the harms she cites really do follow from the doctrines themselves in the way she describes. On deeper reflection, I don’t think they’re really there, and so are no better and no worse than an equivalent secular approach. Thus, not a harm from religion, specifically, at all.

Criticizing Criticizing Fiction …

November 27, 2014

So, after setting the table yesterday, let’s talk today about the specific arguments. Dadabhoy spreads this out among three posts, but even though that would stretch out the posts here and thus help my goal to make a post a day until I get sick of it or can’t anymore, I’m not going to do that. There are two reasons for this. The first is that all of the posts are relatively short so splitting it up would just be making a short commentary, and the second and more important one is that the points seem to be interrelated and often seem to call for the same sort of analysis and response, and so there’d be a lot of repetition. I’ll still try to deal with each point separately and yet still try to interweave them when reasonable, which might end up being confusing. We’ll see how it goes.

1. It’s just fiction and exists merely to entertain. There is no need to take it so seriously.

Firstly, and most importantly, this is a clearly disingenuous argument. If the person making the argument actually thought that the fiction in question weren’t to be taken seriously, then they wouldn’t be bothering to defend it. Instead, they would have quietly ignored arguments regarding the problematic elements of the fiction and resumed their mindless enjoyment of it. That they speak up at all says that they take at least their fandom of it somewhat seriously.

I think that this runs into an issue of conflation over seriousness here, which gets us right to the issue between evaluating its implications and evaluating it as a work. Clearly, someone can think quite highly of a work and yet still give this response, if they feel that someone is denigrating the work as a work by reading things into it. I think that this is what caused a lot of the outcry over Arthur Gies’ review of “Bayonetta 2″, that after spending most off the review gushing over the mechanics, he docks it for its over-sexualization:

When Platinum Games is on, it’s really, really on, and Bayonetta 2 is in almost any respect that counts a better game than the first, whose mechanics were already exemplary. But every time I’d feel on a roll, enjoying my time with Bayonetta 2 immensely, I’d be broken out of it by another cheap shot of T&A. I would be wrecking a flock of angelic or demonic enemies, sliding in and out of witch time almost at will, and then the special weapon I had picked up became a literal stripper pole for Bayonetta to dance on, because … well, because, I guess.

I won’t guess why the blatant over-sexualization is still there, often more intensely than before. But it causes an otherwise great game to require a much bigger mental compromise to enjoy.

So, a great game, but because it has an element that the reviewer doesn’t like, the score gets docked. So anyone that doesn’t mind the sexualization — because over-sexualization is actually a judgement — and loves the game is going to feel upset that the score for the game is being docked for something that, arguably, isn’t really about the game at all. At least here, the elements are so tightly interweaved into the game that, yes, it does actually impact it, but in a lot of cases the criticisms are indeed reading in. One common example of this are plot holes in some games. Are they there? Sure. But if the story is just there to move you along to the next action sequence, criticizing it for not having an epic story isn’t treating the game fairly, and is taking the game and its purpose too seriously.

Furthemore, fans who defend their favorite works with this argument are demeaning the object of their love far more than those who bother with criticisms of it. Are they saying that their treasured fiction has no effect or impact on the world whatsoever?

No. The answer is that in the work that’s being examined, it was never meant to change the world. It was meant to entertain, which they argue that it does. So criticizing it for not changing the world, or arguing that it’s bad because you argue it changes the world in bad ways, to them really is missing the point of the work, and taking it too seriously. While, for example, many episodes of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” addressed strong social issues, a lot of them and a lot of their jokes were, in fact, just goofy fun, and trying to see how they might address social issues and then criticizing them for not doing that effectively when they weren’t trying is indeed problematic … and taking them far too seriously for what they were intended to do.

If the idea that fiction could influence reality seems to absurd, then consider the flip side, where fiction reflects reality. Are fans really saying that the fiction they adore is so poor at world-building and character-development that it cannot serve as a mirror of or statement about real life? A well-built fictional universe with fully-realized characters can very much serve up insights about the societal context of both the creators and the consumers of that universe. Even poorly-conceived worlds and characters often betray the biases and preferences of their creators. The reactions and interpretation of fans, in turn, betrays their biases and preferences.

Certainly, but that in general says nothing about the work itself. You’d be doing either 2) or 3) here, not 1), but a lot of the time it looks like 1), at which point you will be challenged that your academic analysis is a reflection of you taking it too seriously and judging the work based on that. Sometimes, those criticisms will be invalid, as you will be doing 3) and they’ll take it as doing 1). Sometimes, though, it will be a valid criticism and not just disingenuous or flimsy. It will all come down to context.

As an American, I find tracing the vampires vs. zombies line against the Democrats vs. Republicans one to be a highly pleasurable pursuit. That I do so hardly demands that everyone feel that way, yet I find myself chastised by people for doing what I like. I find that more than a little hypocritical given that those people’s transparent excuse for being opposed to me doing what I enjoy is that they enjoy the thing about which I choose to think critically.

Examining those topics in light of that sort of analogy isn’t really a problem, and if you enjoy doing that then please do indulge. After all, I certainly do that with Philosophy and Popular Culture. But the problem comes in when you try to address a particular work. First, you risk trying to read that into the work. For example, if I write a zombie or vampire fiction, it’s unlikely that that is what I have in mind — not being American and all — and yet if the claim is made that that’s what my work does show, even objectively, people and I would have right to complain that you are taking that work too seriously, in the sense that you are reading massive philosophical, social and political points out of it that aren’t there. This is magnified if the claim is made that the work is somehow inferior because it doesn’t manage to tease out those particular issues well when it had no intention of doing so. So sometimes the argument works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t have any examples of when she specifically gets this argument, and so can’t say whether the argument works against her or not. But the argument is not just obviously wrong, as she at least implies here.

2. The adaptation of this fiction cannot be blamed for elements that are true to its source material.

The best recent example with which I have some familiarity comes from the new Constantine TV show. … I will turn my focus to episode three, which addresses so-called “voodoo.” In the case of “voodoo”, as with “gypsies”, so far, I’ve found that Constantine punches down in a way that cannot be explained away via loyalty to the source material.

What most people know as “voodoo” is a religion that arose out of oppression. People of African descent who were brought to the Americas against their wills used their religious practices and beliefs as a way of resisting oppression. Unless you are a Christian hell-bent on characterizing all non-Christian faiths as demonic and Satanic, you have no reason other than the racism you have been fed to consider the religious practices that came from enslaved African peoples to be more inherently evil than those of any other religion.

And how so many of us have been fed. From theme parks to Disney films to music videos, negative and Othering fictional depictions are all most people know about so-called “voodoo”. Constantine feeds into this narrative by putting forth the claim that “voodoo priests” epitomize the worst traits of humanity.

The “it’s canon!” defenses of the racism are either than Constantine is an asshole that hates everyone or that the creators of the show are bound to the negative depictions found in the comics. In either case, the excuse is that the show is merely adhering to the comics and therefore cannot be criticized for its depictions.

This criticism, I’d say, definitely slides into Activism Criticism. There’s no real criticism of the work as a work in and of itself, nor how doing that impedes the work. There’s no criticism that the adaptation is a worse adaptation because it does this, and in fact she seems to conclude that it is indeed a “better” – meaning closer — adaptation doing this. So her real objection is that the adaptation could and should have avoided this because of the social consequences, and she’s presuming that it can be done.

I’m not a Constantine fan, so I don’t really know the full context of this. But it may not be that easy to adjust the adaptation in the way she describes. Let’s assume that practitioners of voodoo are one of if not the main villains of the piece. They drive all the evil stuff that the hero fights against in the comics. If that’s true, them they do need to be presented as villains in the adaptation, and it’s reasonable to argue that the initial characterization of voodoo in the work was done to drive that villainy and make it obvious. Now, let’s put aside the not unreasonable argument that it was the other way around, and that voodoo was chosen because the common depiction made it easy for people to see them as villains, and look at what an adaptation would need to do here. In order to set up them as main villains, they have to be set up as really, really evil, especially if Constantine is not pure (and from what I know he ain’t). So him claiming that they do epitomize the worst traits of humanity establishes this: we see them as evil right from the start. If you don’t want them to reflect voodoo there, then either you have to replace them with a new villain group — which is a massive and difficult departure from the original work — or try to present them as nuanced and grey from the start … when your entire purpose here is to start them, at least, as being totally on the “immoral” side. So since those options are either difficult or risk ruining the adaptation, you start them out completely on the evil side. None of this means that you can’t add nuance later, and considering how television is going it’s certainly arguable that adding nuance to them later — with good practitioners or with more grey villains — would greatly improve the work.

Now, Dadabhoy can legitimately ask if that means that she shouldn’t raise the criticisms. After all, even if I’m right — and I concede that I might not be — I myself just pointed that the work would likely be better if they eventually added nuance to voodoo, in line with her perceptions of what real voodoo is about. Do I think that this will just be done if we don’t highlight the issue and ask or demand that they do it? Or will they simply stick with the overwhelming cultural impression if we stay silent?

I do think that these are things that can be talked about. The question is whether you talk about them as examples of 1) or as examples of 3). If as 1), you don’t actually criticize them for it, at least when talking about the adaptation. If they decided to stick to the book as written — even as they don’t for other things, like the main character’s bisexuality — then that isn’t something you can criticize the adaptation for as an adaptation, unless it really doesn’t work in this time and on the medium. Which it seems to, which seems to be what the 3) complaint is about. What you can do is point out that because they are doing an adaptation they have a wonderful opportunity here, to take villains that weren’t nuanced and add nuance to them, and you can even claim that doing this would challenge these assumptions which would be good as well. But the key is not to claim that the adaptation is necessarily bad or flawed for sticking to these tropes, as an individual work, but that the medium and the time allows it to not stick to those tropes and possibly create something even better.

Or, you can do it as 3), where you hold it up as an example of this prevailing attitude and note whether the attitude is still prevalent today — ie whether or not modern audiences really need it to be that way or would see it necessarily that way — and what the impacts of that are. But this wouldn’t be a comment on the individual work itself at all, but just use it as an example of that overarching theme. Sliding this into 4), which is where she really does seem to want to go, a criticism can be made that, say, more adaptations need to be braver with things like this, or that we need more shows of this type to represent voodoo fairly, as opposed to what’s being done here. But, in general, these arguments don’t want to imply that it’s a bad adaptation or even a bad show — in terms of its entertainment value — because of this representation. That would start mixing two very different arguments, and if I criticize anything about Activism Criticism, it is that it too easily falls into mixing those sorts of arguments.

3. It’s fiction and is not meant to be a political statement / politically correct.

This argument strikes me as being pretty much the same argument as 1), which is really summarized as “You’re reading too much into this!”, except that this one is aimed precisely at political/social statements.

Regardless, the argument is invalid for one simple reason: A lack of overt political messaging does not mean that a work of fiction has no messages and is therefore “neutral.”In the case of the messaging transmitted by fiction, a lack of intention is less than unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Well, to get this counter off the ground, you have to establish two things: a) That the messaging is really there and not just something that you find in it and b) That the work is not being evaluated as something that it isn’t, as in a political statement when it’s just supposed to be an entertaining work about robots that turn into cars. And for those, the intent of the work of fiction is far more than unimportant, and is in fact crucial. Criticizing or lauding a work for its messaging that isn’t actually there is going to get a reaction … particularly if you’re criticizing it. If the work is not attempting to give a political message, then it is indeed a neutral work. There may be implied messages, but again that’s a 2) or 3) argument. A work will reflect its social conditions, but that again isn’t something you can level against the work. Here, again, is where Activism Criticism mixes up areas, because it will often look at a specific work and judge it specifically for reflecting what are considered to be problematic political or social views instead of simply pointing out how this reflects these common views that we are trying to change and need to change. And this gets people up in arms, as in the Bayonetta 2 review; how can you say that this work is particularly bad when it just does what everyone else does? The work itself is high quality and entertaining, so that it reflects the views that people actually hold — rightly or wrongly — makes it bad?

3) type analyses will note that it reflects it, and talk about the attitudes themselves as being problematic or not. 4) type analyses will criticize the work for reflecting those attitudes. This is indeed the problem with Activism Criticism, that they attack the work for what it does.

It is the assumption that a certain type of person is the “default” that leads to the argument that fiction featuring that type is not making a “political” statement. White cis hetero male concerns are “concerns” so assumed to be so universal that they don’t even need to be framed as such, while racial/feminist/queer/economic concerns are framed as “political.”

I’ve always found that this sort of analysis shaky, and the Activism Criticism framework allows for an easy way to see why. First, let’s talk about two of those “concerns”: cis and hetero. Since most people are indeed cis and hetero, those concerns really are more universal than the concerns of those who are not, in the strict sense that they represent more people than the converse. So a show striving to be representative would still focus far more on them than on others, and so those groups will indeed be seen as the default. This isn’t a problem. A problem would be if those concerns are never represented at all, not if they aren’t seen as the “default”. But the issue is that those additional concerns are often seen as political because they are often portrayed and represented in ways that are, indeed, political. Critics often start from the political realm talking about the discrimination that the groups face, and then move from that framework to the representations in the media and in specific works. So they start from the political realm, use that as a buttress to talk about the work, and then complain when people say that they are making the work political. They are. If you look at every analysis that Dadabhoy did in the series that references political and social issues, the analysis is critically dependent on the political and social issues in the world and outside of the works themselves. It is rare that for the “default” groups that that sort of analysis is done … precisely because they are seen as the default and so no one ever considers the political and social issues surrounding that. But that still means that in general simply using the default does not have the political ramifications that adding in the non-default does. The political ramifications of such a choice exist in the politics of the world, not the politics of the work, while in general Activism Criticism purports that for non-default characters the politics is in the work itself, for good or for ill, and that a work that, say, includes a bisexual character is to be commended for making an explicit statement, whether or not the work intended to do that or just decided that it would be cool to try something different for a change.

With this real world politics wrapped around minority issues, it’s no wonder that any attempt to include minority concerns is seen as a political statement. It does not help the matter at all to insist that things that aren’t wrapped in this real world politics are somehow equally political. They aren’t. What works is to acknowledge that you don’t have to be making or be seen to be making a political statement if you unwrap the minority concerns from the real world politics and just present them as characters in your work, and treat them precisely as that. Failure to do so is to indeed claim that a work that is not political is indeed political, and open yourself up to a valid criticism of this type.

It should come as no surprise that I think that Activism Criticism is the main reason why Dadabhoy gets these criticisms, and that in that framework they might be valid. This is not to claim that she shouldn’t be an activist over these things, just that if she is going to do so she has to be very clear about what precisely she’s criticizing. And she may be. But when people aren’t, they will indeed get these responses … and they won’t be flimsy. They’ll be valid.

Criticizing Fiction …

November 26, 2014

Heina Dadabhoy has put up a three post series talking about criticizing fiction and three common arguments that she, at least, gets when she talks about doing it, three arguments that she doesn’t find particularly strong. I’d like to go through those arguments, but before doing that I want to talk a bit about criticism of fiction in general to put this into a context, because I think that in some cases those arguments aren’t flimsy at all, while in some cases they are.

There are, in my view, different focuses that one can have when criticizing fiction:

1) You can criticize a work of fiction as a work of fiction, in and of itself. This means that what you are examining the work to see how well it works as a work of fiction, what it does right, what it does wrong, what could be improved. You look at presentation, plot holes, characterization, world building, and all sorts of things like that, but you don’t go too far into the philosophical, political or social implications of all of that except in service to seeing how those implications and elements impact the work as a whole. So while you might, say, liken the world of Star Trek to a communistic society, you would only bring that up to, say, point out a contradiction in the actions of the main characters, or to show how that focus limits opportunities to advance characters or plots. I’d say that Chuck over at SF Debris does mainly that sort of analysis, as does Shamus when he talks about video games, and that’s what I do in my Philosophical Writer’s Guide. Here, the purpose is to find the elements that the work itself clearly contains and to judge the work based on that.

2) You can do a philosophical analysis of the work, and look at what the philosophical implications of it are. The Philosophy and Popular Culture works do this sort of analysis. Here, you pull out the philosophical issues, but those issues don’t have to actually be in the work themselves, and you don’t have to claim that the author meant for them to be there. Sometimes, they are explicitly there, like the discussion in Angel over whether he should have stopped Jasmine or not, or the question of whether Batman should kill the Joker or not. But sometimes they are just implied, like the question of whether it’s right to make a Robin or not. Works of fiction can raise interesting philosophical issues and provide excellent thought experiments to get people to at least understand what the issues are in a manner that is easier to grasp than a long philosophical argument. But the real key here is that if you do this analysis, you aren’t necessarily saying anything about the work at all. Even if you criticize the answer they came up with, it doesn’t say anything about how effective the work itself is. Often, it’s precisely the opposite: the work is effective because it takes the “wrong” answer, either for dramatic effect or because that’s what most people will relate best to. So, in a philosophical analysis, the work is used to highlight or clarify a philosophical issue, but the work itself isn’t really being examined in and of itself, so a philosophical analysis doesn’t say much about the work in and of itself … but that philosophical analysis itself can be used to highlight good and bad things about the work itself if the philosophical implications matter to the enjoyment of the work.

3) You can also do a political/social analysis of a work. This is similar to a philosophical analysis, except that you look more at the impact it could have or the commentary it could make on political and social issues, or the impact that political and social issues and themes had on it. Again, this sort of analysis can find things that aren’t in the work, and ultimately isn’t a comment on the work itself, overall. Dadabhoy’s example of analyzing zombies and vampires as reflections of the fears of the left and the right in her first post is an example of this sort of analysis.

To look at how these all differ, I think using the Marvel Civil War is a good example. You can criticize the Civil War for not being clear on what registration was all about and for making it so that it was hard to cheer for the side that was ultimately supposed to win because of the bad things they were doing. You can analyze it as a clash representing the three main competing philosophical positions in ethics. Or you can ask about the political and social implications superhumans would have on a society, and if a solution like the Registration Act would be the best or even a credible solution. All of these, I think, are legitimate ways to criticize fiction, but they all have radically different goals and implications … and only the first really says anything about the work itself.

There’s another way to criticize fiction, and while I’m not sure that it isn’t just a subset of the third one, I want to highlight it here: Activism criticism. This is when you take a work and analyze it in terms of what it means to a culture in terms of its social or political aspects, and judge whether the work furthers or harms certain specific political and social views. This is what I think people like Anita Sarkeesian and Dadabhoy herself often seem to focus on. The issue with this sort of analysis is that it kinda combines the aspects of all of the other kinds of criticism, in that it does talk about the work itself and in some sense passes judgement on it, but it often does so by appealing to things that aren’t necessarily in the work itself and are just implications, like the philosophical and political/social analyses do. Thus, it can end up finding that a work is “good” or “bad” from this perspective by appealing to things that were certainly not intended by the work and that are potentially more in the perspective of the critic than in the work itself.

In my mind, one of the major issues with the analysis of fiction has been judging a work not based on what is objectively and intentionally there, but on what the analyst brings to it themselves. This is not a problem for types 2 and 3, but if it bleeds over into judging the work itself people who disagree with the judgement will be frustrated that the judgement seems to be based on factors that aren’t actually in the work. How can you argue against a judgement that a work is bad or reflects harmful attitudes against someone who is reading those themes into the work? And these are often not simply expressed as opinions, but as objective criticisms of the work, especially in the case of Activism Criticism. If these things aren’t objectively demonstrable or even easily objectively demonstrable, there will be push back … and I think that some of the criticisms that Dadabhoy highlights as flimsy are, in context, just that sort of argument: you are reading things into the work that aren’t really there because they were never meant to be there, and you’re just taking the work as something that it isn’t to either judge it as bad or consider it worthy based on this invalid reading in. But we’ll see more on that next when I look at the arguments.


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