Social Justice vs Games: “Solid Snake” on Persona 5

April 24, 2017

So, I was looking around for some information on the details of Shiho’s interaction with Kamoshida in Persona 5, and came across this thread on the Nuklear Power forums by “Solid Snake” talking about the flaws in Persona 5 and, eventually, the Persona series in general. I couldn’t register to the forums to reply, and it looks like the thread is winding down anyway, but I wanted to talk a bit about it because to me it really comes across as a combination of Social Justice vs Games with a helping of personal interpretation mixed in.

There will be spoilers past this point.

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Medical Model vs Social Model of Disability

April 21, 2017

So, this is a post where it’s not so much that I have a strong opinion on the various topics, but that in reading on the topic I can’t help but think that using philosophy and philosophical methods — specifically wrt conceptual analysis — would really help clear things up. Here Ania Onion Bula talks about the Medical and Social models of disability, and presents them as a dichotomy: either we take the Medical model, or the Social one, and she prefers the Social one.

So, to start, what are these models. First, we need to start with the idea of an impairment:

Impairment is a loss or deviation of normative physiological, psychological, or anatomical structure or function that can be caused by injury, illness, or congenital condition. It’s the description of what is happening in your body. So for example in the case of deafness, the impairment is a loss of hearing caused by x factor. Or in the case of my arthritis, it is the physical damage to my hip and the inflammation in the joint, caused by my arthritis.

Disability in turn is the restriction or inability to perform certain tasks or activities.

Under the Medical model, people have a physical or mental impairment, and that impairment itself leads them to be unable to do certain important things, and so they have a disability. Under the Social model, they may have an impairment, but it is the way that society is structured that turns that into a disability, as society is structured under the assumption that most people do not have that impairment and so there is no real need or desire to structure society to accommodate them. To put it simpler, the Medical model talks about people being disabled, while the Social model focuses on people being differently abled. Thus, the Medical model puts more focus on removing the impairment, while the Social model puts more focus on changing society to accommodate those different abilities.

The problem is that there are a lot of impairments that really do seem like they themselves are the main barrier to the life satisfaction of those who have them, like blindness, deafness, and so on, and so where the person’s life would definitely be greatly improved if the condition was simply eliminated. She tries to address that:

What about people who are disabled in more socially understood ways, like deafness, or blindness, or autism, who want a cure?

To start with, understand that many people who want a cure, want it because society makes it hard to exist otherwise. It would be like wanting a pill that would turn you straight because the world treat homosexuality as if it is something evil and not because it is evil in and of itself.

In order for it to be an ethical choice, one option cannot lead to punishment. If you punish someone for not taking a cure, how is it different from forcing them to take it?

This seems incredibly condescending to those who are blind or deaf, especially, as it seems to argue that they aren’t capable of determining whether or not, in general, they’d be better off not being blind or deaf because of some societal attitude. And this becomes even more problematic when we consider that the implication of this argument is that blind and deaf people’s lives would not be richer if their conditions were cured, which seems utterly ludicrous. There’s no societal change we can make that would allow a blind person to actually, say, really see a lovely sunset, or a deaf person to be able to experience a lovely symphony. It really does seem like their conditions deprive them of some experiences that they could have if they didn’t have it, and so curing their condition would at least give them significantly more choices of experiences and thus allow them to perhaps lead far more fulfilling lives.

It seems to me that for anything that we would generally and rightly call a “disability”, the main determining factor will be whether removing the condition, in and of itself, would greatly improve their quality of life. Let me use an example of mental conditions to highlight this, and talk about depression and introversion. Given that clinical depression, in and of itself, causes reduced affect and motivation and often leaves those people with a duller and less fulfilling inner life — for example, not being able to take pleasure in things that do give you pleasure — it would seem reasonable to suggest that simply eliminating the condition would improve their life no matter how accommodating society is to depression. Even if they could function reasonably well in society, those who have clinical depression still aren’t going to be capable of enjoying it as much as they might want. That doesn’t seem to be true for introversion, as there’s no argument that you can make that if you converted an introvert to an extrovert that therefore their life would automatically be better regardless of how society treats introverts. If society wasn’t so extrovert focused, there wouldn’t be any significant issues with being introverted. And we can thus call clinical depression a disability, and introversion simply a personality trait that is no better and no worse than any other. Thus those who are clinically depressed are disabled, and those who are introverted are, in fact, merely different.

So if we are going to talk about disabilities and have to choose either the Medical model or the Social model, it really does seem like the Medical model is the way to go for conditions where it really is the case that simply eliminating the condition would in and of itself improve the person’s quality of life, which includes her example of someone in a wheelchair. However, the dichotomy between the Medical model and the Social model is, in fact, a false one.

What we have come to understand is that there are people who have conditions, through no fault of their own, that in and of themselves limit their abilities. That means that, in some cases, they are going to be limited in what they do and what they can do based simply on the fact that they have that condition. For example, blind people are not going to be able to experience the visual sensation of a beautiful sunset. But there are, in fact, a number of cases where their condition simply makes them different, and so not fit into the standard model of the majority. Now, when people simply don’t fit the norm we tend to be less willing to accommodate them, instead asking them to accommodate so that the majority don’t have to make efforts to handle rare cases. But when someone has a medical condition, we are, in fact, more willing to make reasonable accommodations. That’s because simply being different is seen as being a choice, while being disabled is seen as not being a choice. But the long and short of it is that we can see someone as being hampered primarily by their impairment in some cases while recognizing that in some cases they are being hampered primarily by how society is structured.

Once we understand this, we ought to be see that society does need to, at least morally, accommodate these conditions. But that accommodation has to be “reasonable”. And for an accommodation to be reasonable, it seems to me that at least this condition must be met: It must be at least slightly easier for them to accommodate you than it would be for you to work around the condition.

This does lead to something she complains about:

Acting as though chronic illnesses or even just severe temporary illnesses like cancer, are not disability further plays into the ableist idea that people have to prove they’re “disabled enough”. Many people with chronic illnesses struggle with insecurities related to their own disability. We feel as though we are doing something wrong by asking for accessibility.

But I think her interpretation here is false. The whole point is to assess whether or not the proposed accommodation is the appropriate one for the situation. Let’s look at some of the things she proposes as reasonable accommodations:

When I was in university, for example, I was frequently too sick to come to class. A part of this had to do with the fact that I took the bus to and from school. The bus route did not have consistent access to restrooms. As a result, if I was having the kind of day where I’m running to the bathroom frequently, a bus trip put me in the situation of risking having a public accident. Taking the bus is also exhausting. It takes longer, is inconsistent with whether or not I will be able to sit down, involves me having to walk to the stop, and so it uses up more spoons. Some days I had to stay home, not because I didn’t have the energy for class itself but because I didn’t have the energy for the additional tasks that physically going to class would entail.

Under the medical model, there is not much I can do except maybe take so many pain meds that anything I try to learn that day will likely be gone forever before I’m even done processing the prof’s sentence.

Under the social model, however, there would be additional options – the professor could work with me to let me watch the lecture from home via skype, or pre-recorded videos. The professor could assign assignments that would make it possible for me to learn and show the work, without having to be physically there. Perhaps the university could help arrange some sort of ride share or carpooling program so that I can spend less of my energy going to class.

Now, most universities in Canada, at least, have departments dedicated to accessibility, even for temporary conditions. And that was 20 years ago, so she almost certainly had access to that if she went to a Canadian university. So there might well have been options, especially if Skype was an option. But let’s look at what options she could drive herself that might improve her situation. For example, if she needed to miss class because of her illness, there’s a time-tested method for getting what she missed, which is borrowing the notes from another student. If she made her concerns clear to the professor, that might be something that the professor could help facilitate, as well as the car pooling issue. As for assignments, that’s harder, but again I was accommodated for a broken wrist where they had a student volunteer sit with me and write things out for me, and I proctored an exam one for a student who had a condition that required that she have extra time to write it. The only issue is where you get participation marks, but again for an actual disability — as, for example, opposed to someone who is introverted — accommodation could be made for that by, say, not counting those marks.

While her thoughts here might just be suggestions, what they do — and what her huge “Treat disabled people as people!” rhetoric pushes — is the idea that she has an issue and other people need to do things to accommodate that. But in any discussion of accommodation what the person themselves can do and ought to do comes into play. For missing classes, it’s a reasonable question to ask why she can’t just get the notes from someone else. Sure, it isn’t as good, but it ought to work.

What if instead we created a world that accommodated different ways of being? Imagine a classroom where students had access to both a noise room and a quiet room to work in, and they could come and go and choose as they please? Imagine having access to different styles of chair to fit what they feel most comfortable sitting in, or have the option to stand or kneel or even pace. Imagine if schools made it possible for you to learn in different ways so that you could get information in the ways that work best for you, and if you could present your gained knowledge in the way most comfortable for you.

But again here we see the very self-centered view of accommodation. There’s little thought here put into how this would impact the teacher or, well, everyone else. Being able to come and go as you please doesn’t work if the teacher wants to do a group lesson, and there are too many students in classes to do everything individually. And this also applies to, well, everything else on the list. I like to pace while I think, too, but I don’t do it in meetings because it will bother everyone else. We can’t really accommodate what everyone would want or what works best for them, as that would be too chaotic. That’s one of the reasons why having separate classrooms where things can be done more individually is a benefit, and then you can integrate for classes and conditions where accommodation isn’t as required. But the entire attitude here is indeed a “I want this, so restructure society for me!” and while that might work and benefit society in general, it might not either.

Here’s the most egregious one:

It is about teaching hearing children and adults the appropriate sign language for the region they’re in so that it isn’t up the Deaf person to have to undergo either painful treatments or go through speech therapy if they can’t or don’t want to.

So, the “reasonable accommodation” is for everyone in the world to learn sign language because they might come across someone who is deaf who can’t or won’t do things to make that less or unnecessary and thus might need to communicate with them in sign language. Also, since the region matters, they might have to relearn it, again just so that they can communicate with someone there who, again, happens to be unable to communicate any other way. That’s … kinda ridiculous. She tries later to argue that this could be a benefit for people who are not deaf, but shouldn’t that be their choice? Are we all going to have to learn to write in braille too? Ultimately, part of agency is accepting the consequences of your choices. If this deaf person chooses not to learn things that could help them, we aren’t obligated to bend over backwards to accommodate them. If we are going to have to do things and put in the effort, they are going to have to, too.

This is why my minimum condition compares the effort that the disabled person would have to make to the effort that the others would have to make. If it would be easier for the disabled person to work around their condition than it would be for us to accommodate it, it seems the height of selfishness to insist that we need to do the accommodation. But on the other hand, if us accommodating it would be easier than their working around it, what excuse do we have for not accommodating it? And all of this comes from rejecting the false dichotomy of the “Medical vs Social model”.

Diversity in Comics …

April 19, 2017

So, comic book sales aren’t going all that well. And so the question has arisen of whether that decline is being caused or helped by diversity, or if diversity is the way to solve that decline. Alex Brown at Tor.com is arguing that diversity is not, in fact, the problem. She’s responding specifically to comments from David Gabriel:

Later, Gabriel gave another interview that, in part, rehashed that hoary old proverb that diversity doesn’t sell: “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales. We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against.”

As I’ve already said, Brown thinks he’s wrong. I’ll get into her arguments later, but I think it will best frame the discussion if I give my opinion first:

Diversity doesn’t sell.

Now, when I say that, I don’t mean that a diverse cast of characters won’t sell, or that a female or black main character won’t sell, or anything like that. For the most part, if the characters and book are well-written and get noticed by readers/consumers, they’ll sell. What I mean by that is that using a claim of “This is diverse!” will not, in and of itself, drive sales, at least beyond the short-term, especially in a field that hasn’t actually been diverse. The problem is that, from the start, you are going to have some fans that are deeply resistant to anything that might be considered as diverse or deviate from the norm. Maybe those fans are indeed racist and/or sexist, or maybe they just see it as too deep an intrusion of politics into their media. These people, as soon as they hear “It’s diverse!” as a selling point, are automatically going to avoid consuming that product. Now, the argument is that those fans will be balanced out by more “diverse” fans who would buy it for the diversity, but the problem is that if that’s not a form of media that they would normally buy they aren’t likely to stay with it or even pick it up in the first place because, well, they likely don’t really like that media in the first place, and not everyone — yes, not even all nerds or geeks — like every type of “nerdy” media. So the hope to balance those who hear the word “diverse” and spit with those who hear the word “diverse” and have their ears perk up probably isn’t going to happen.

But even if it would, trying to sell on the basis of diversity has an impact on “middle-of-the-road” consumers like myself. I’m probably as middle-of-the-road as you can get here, and when the main selling point of a work is “Look how wonderfully diverse it is!” my immediate reaction is “… Really? That’s the best you can say about it?” How about talking about how great the story is? Or the characterization? But simply saying “It’s diverse!” leads me to think that that diversity is the main point of the work, and not the story or characters or whatever. And I get very skeptical about a work when the best people can say about it is that it has a diverse cast. That skepticism will get me to avoid spending my money on it, and instead to buy things that are “safer”, where I know — presumably — what I’m going to get. So trying to sell it on diversity is going to push away people who don’t care whether it is diverse or not, but are worried that diversity is the only thing it has going for it.

So, while I say that a work being diverse isn’t going to hurt its sales, promoting a work for its diversity will. Now let’s look at Brown’s view on diversity and how it isn’t the problem:

Disregarding the sugarcoated PR update Marvel made praising diverse fan favorites, Gabriel’s comments are so patently false that, without even thinking about it, I could name a dozen current titles across mediums that instantly disprove his reasoning. With its $150 million and counting in domestic earnings, Get Out is now the highest grossing original screenplay by a debut writer/director in history; meanwhile, The Great Wall, Ghost in the Shell, Gods of Egypt, and nearly every other recent whitewashed Hollywood blockbuster has tanked.

But are these really good examples? Get Out is a fairly unique take on horror, and benefited from that. Ghost in the Shell is the best known name out of the other examples, and was likely going to be a hard sell given that it is based on anime, which a lot of mainstream audiences have never heard of (as an example I, who is more tuned in to these things than the average person, had heard of the anime, but never watched it). She’s trying to do the comparison based on a movie that had some racial implications vs some movies that she calls “whitewashed”, but doesn’t compare the impact of genres and quality and what impact that might have on their sales. So it’s hard to say that it’s just “patently false” when her examples aren’t ones that would, well, prove the statement.

So let’s look at comics specifically. Maybe those examples will be better:

Even sticking strictly to comics, Black Panther #1 was Marvel’s highest selling solo comic of 2016. Before Civil War II, Marvel held seven of the top ten bestselling titles, three of which (Gwenpool, Black Panther, and Poe Dameron) were “diverse.” Take that, diversity naysayers.

Black Panther #1, which had a big following from the movie tie-in and was an established Marvel character, did well, certainly. That being said, it would be a bit odd to challenge Gabriel using that as an example, since he talked about returning to core characters instead of promoting diversity specifically and, well, Black Panther, as I just said, is a core Marvel character. So let’s look deeper at the monthly numbers, starting in April, where Black Panther, Gwenpool and Poe Dameron were all in the top ten. The thing to note here is that those were all #1s, and Marvel had another #1 in that top ten, which was C3P0, which she ignores (droids obviously not being “diverse”). #1s always get a bump due to them being the first issue, and all of these had ties to other things that would get them noticed. As I’ve already mentioned, Black Panther got a boost from the publicity from Civil War. Poe Dameron was linked to “The Force Awakens”. And Gwenpool was linked to both Deadpool and Spider-man, and was such an odd concept that people might definitely be interested in checking it out just to see what the heck was going on with it. Obviously C3P0 got the same boost.

So let’s look at what happened the next month, which had Civil War II 0 and maybe some other Civil War II crossovers. Black Panther #2 fell to 9, Poe Dameron fell to 12, and Gwenpool collapsed to 45. But that could be the influence of Civil War II, right? Not likely. Amazing Spider-Man #12 didn’t move at all compared to #10 and was only slightly 10,000 higher in sales than #11. Spider-Man Deadpool #5 sold basically the same as Spider-Man Deadpool. Star Wars and Star Wars Darth Vader didn’t lose any ground at all (Darth Vader actually sold more issues in May than in April, Star Wars had a slight decline). And Deadpool, despite releasing two issues that month (11 and 12) stayed roughly the same as well. So it’s far more reasonable that the decline came from the issues no longer getting the #1 boost than from Civil War II.

In June, more #1s flood the top ten, and so they lose even more ground (Black Panther comes in at 27, Poe Dameron at 43, and Gwenpool at 76) but Black Panther’s sales are mostly flat while both Poe Dameron and Gwenpool lost sales. For comparison, Star Wars stays flat, Darth Vader loses some — but also has two issues in the month — Amazing Spider-Man loses but has three books in that month, including the Civil War II tie-in — which didn’t lose when compared to Amazing Spider-Man in May — Spider-Man Deadpool’s sales are flat, as are Deadpool’s.

So, given these numbers … I’m not sure what “that” the diversity naysayers are supposed to “take”. It doesn’t really look like the new, diverse comics outperformed those focusing on core characters after the glow from their first issues faded, and most of them had influence from core characters or other media buttressing them in the first place. This is not a good argument that the idea that diversity doesn’t sell is just patently false.

Brown then moves on to differentiate the old school comic fans from the modern comic fans:

Comic book fans generally come in two flavors: the old school and the new. The hardcore traditionalist dudes (and they’re almost always white cishet men) are whinging in comic shops saying things like, “I don’t want you guys doing that stuff…One of my customers even said…he wants to get stories and doesn’t mind a message, but he doesn’t want to be beaten over the head with these things.” Then there are the modern geeks, the ones happy to take the classics alongside the contemporary and ready to welcome newbies into the fold.

So, technically, by this I’m both? My subscriptions included — when I still had them in force — Deadpool, Darth Vader, and Agents of Shield (with the latter clearly being “contemporary”). So I like my classics and I like my contemporary, and don’t care one way or the other about “newbies”. However, I am indeed one of those customers who says that I like stories an I don’t mind a message, but I don’t want to get beaten over the head with it. And, to be honest, I can’t see what’s wrong with that. Is Brown going to suggest that being beaten over the head with a message is a good thing? She could be trying to argue that what they see as “being beaten over the head with a message” is nothing more than being diverse period, but she’d need to a) demonstrate that and b) well, actually say that. Which she doesn’t as she moves on:

This gets to the point made by a woman retailer at the summit: “I think the mega question is, what customer do you want. Because your customer may be very different from my customer, and that’s the biggest problem in the industry is getting the balance of keeping the people who’ve been there for 40 years, and then getting new people in who have completely different ideas.” I’d argue there’s a customer between those extremes, one who follows beloved writers and artists across series and publishers and who places as much worth on who is telling the story as who the story is about. This is where I live, and there are plenty of other people here with me.

So, Brown is promoting customers who don’t care about the specific characters, and don’t care about the specific stories, but care about who is telling the story? I mean, okay, there are writers and artists that I might chose to follow to books that I might not otherwise buy, like Peter David or JMS, because I like what they do. But even then I’m not likely to pick up a work with a character that doesn’t interest me. And for artists, that’s more likely to be an exclusion list than a “Oh, I like their art but hate the character and story, so I’m going to buy it!” So … where do I fit in this paradigm? And where do the “old school” customers who do follow writers and artists around fit?

Or, does Brown really mean that she cares not about their skill, but about who they are? Does she follow them because she likes their work … or because they are themselves “diverse”? This would indeed be a difference, but I’m not sure that it’s one that we should promote as being a good way to approach comics, or that comics should try to appeal to these customers who don’t seem to care about the actual product.

Blaming readers for not buying diverse comics despite the clamor for more is a false narrative. Many of the fans attracted to “diverse” titles are newbies and engage in comics very differently from longtime fans. For a variety of reasons, they tend to wait for the trades or buy digital issues rather than print. The latter is especially true for young adults who generally share digital (and yes, often pirated) issues. Yet the comics industry derives all of its value from how many print issues Diamond Distributors shipped to stores, not from how many issues, trades, or digital copies were actually purchased by readers. Every comics publisher is struggling to walk that customer-centric tightrope, but only Marvel is dumb enough to shoot themselves in the foot, then blame the rope for their fall.

I have to agree with her, in some sense, on this. As I’ve said before, the subscription model is terrible, which stops me from subscribing. This is at least in part because they keep cancelling and rebooting books, and because they keep driving events that would require me to buy far more than I’d like just to get the entire story. Brown says more about this in the post and all of those points are reasonable. I do agree that this is probably causing more of the problems than “diversity”. But as I said above, the solution to that is not going to be promoting diversity, because that doesn’t help.

When you look at the sales figures, the only way to claim diversity doesn’t sell is to have a skewed interpretation of “diversity.” Out of Marvel’s current twenty female-led series, four series—America, Ms. Marvel, Silk, and Moon Girl—star women of color, and only America has an openly queer lead character. Only America, Gamora, Hawkeye, Hulk, Ms. Marvel, and Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat! (cancelled), are written by women. That’s not exactly a bountiful harvest of diversity.

But Brown thinks that, indeed, that’s the solution. On what evidence? What evidence does she have that ramping up the diversity is going to improve their numbers? None of her examples demonstrated that at all, and weren’t bountifully diverse themselves. And then she says this:

Plenty of comics starring or written by cishet white men get the axe over low sales, but when diversity titles are cancelled people come crawling out of the woodwork to blame diverse readers for not buying a million issues. First, we are buying titles, just usually not by the issue. Second, why should we bear the full responsibility for keeping diverse titles afloat? Non-diverse/old school fans could stand to look up from their longboxes of straight white male superheroes and subscribe to Moon Girl. Allyship is meaningless without action.

So, those who are diverse and thus would be the intended audience can’t be expected to, you know, actually buy comics in the way that keeps them afloat. Instead, those who are not the intended audience and many of whom who have no interest in being an “ally” in the first place need to belly-up to the bar and buy those comics for … reasons. Riiiiiiiiight. Or, you know, they can keep buying the comics that they, you know, actually like and let you buy the ones you like and keep them going. If you can.

Really, this is just ridiculous. If the comics can’t appeal to their own intended audience enough to get enough sales to avoid cancellation, then they should be cancelled, and appealing to those outside of that audience to save them is just … well, doomed to failure, and utterly entitled.

“Diversity” as a concept is a useful tool, but it can’t be the goal or the final product. It assumes whiteness (and/or maleness and/or heteronormitivity) as the default and everything else as a deviation from that. This is why diversity initiatives so often end up being quantitative—focused on the number of “diverse” individuals—rather than qualitative, committed to positive representation and active inclusion in all levels of creation and production. This kind of in-name-only diversity thinking is why Mayonnaise McWhitefeminism got cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi while actual Japanese person Rila Fukushima was used as nothing but a face mold for robot geishas.

So, know who “Mayonnaise McWhitefeminism” is? Scarlett Johannson. That’s a great way to encourage “allyship” by tossing an ally under the bus, and then driving the bus forward and backwards a number of times just to really drive home how loyal you are to your allies.

Also, I agree that making diversity the goal is not a good idea, because it leads to simply counting diverse characters/writers/artists instead of making sure that, for example, things are actually done with those characters and their diversity or that you are getting interesting, quality and also different narratives. So, given that … how come her examples above are all about counting the numbers? She just counts the numbers across more fields than simply the characters in the books themselves. Kinda hypocritical.

At the end of the day, using diversity as a main selling point doesn’t work. Diverse audiences won’t flock to media they don’t care for just because it happens to be diverse, those who hate diversity will avoid the titles like the plague, and everyone in between will just throw up their hands in frustration and retreat to those boxes of comics they have in their basement because, hey, at least they know what they’re getting. Brown’s arguments in favour of more diversity aren’t demonstrated and Gabriel’s comments ignore the real structural problems in comics that have nothing to do with diversity. Until people can figure out what’s really going on, comics are not likely to recover.

More Thoughts on Persona 5

April 17, 2017

So, I’ve been pushing ahead in the game, and like the other Persona games it turns out that the details of the setting tend to fade into the background as the game progresses, so I’m getting more into the game as things go along. In fact, one of the reasons for this post is that I’m 30+ hours into the game and that stopped me from sitting down and writing a different post.

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In Defense of Thought Experiments …

April 14, 2017

So, a common refrain I hear when people who are not philosophers talk about philosophy is the disdain for thought experiments. “What can we possibly learn from such artificial examples, that are so disconnected from real life?” This is one of the things that is usually used to argue that philosophers are ivory tower intellectual, more concerned with intellectual wanking than solving real-world problems, which is then used to justify ignoring philosophy and focusing on more “realistic” approaches, like science. The problem is that this is, in fact, based on a complete misunderstanding of what thought experiments are meant to do and how they work. I’m going to try to correct this misunderstanding by focusing on how important thought experiments are for determining the morality that we ought to use to guide our every day actions.

The first thing to note is that thought experiments are, in fact, very similar to scientific experiments, in both purpose and in how they work. Both aim to test out various theories, and have to do so by focusing on specific elements of the theories and filtering out all of the confounds. As such, lab scientific experiments are themselves incredibly artificial. You don’t test, for example, the ideal gas law by going out and experimenting in the middle of the part. No, you do it in a sealed container or lab where you can control the temperature, pressure and volume of gas as much as you can. This holds for all scientific experiments, and is particularly important in psychological experiments. And yet people rarely complain — well, except sometimes for psychology — that these experiments are too “artificial” and so don’t really reflect “real life”. In general, the experiments are designed to isolate the specific parts of real life that we want to study without invalidating what really happens in real life.

Thought experiments work the same way. What we want to do with a thought experiment is isolate the particular notions that we want to examine (or argue for) without the confounds that real life might introduce. Thus, in the trolley thought experiment, we wanted to isolate the “5 will die if you don’t act, and 1 will die if you don’t” aspect in order to test whether or not our intuitions lean more Utilitarian. The experiment is also designed to avoid the confound of the impact of taking a direct action to kill someone, which might have a moral status; a Stoic or Kantian, for example, won’t be allowed to take a direct action to kill someone, so if a person decides to pull the switch they would definitely be using Utilitarian reasoning. And as it turns out we still missed a confound when we change it to the “push a person in front of the train” example and find that many people change their minds on the permissibility of the action. So the examples need to be simplified and therefore “artificial” to allow us to test what needs to be tested.

Also, it is important to note that we want to get at what people really, at heart, intuitively — or even through explicit reason — think is the case. What we don’t want is them merely regurgitating an answer that their culture has specifically drilled into them for those specific cases from childhood. So, we can expect that everyone will have a ready answer for any normal, every day situation, but that answer might be one that was generated for them from what they learned about morality in their childhood, or is a conclusion that they generated from a moral viewpoint that they no longer hold. Thus, we want to give them a situation that they don’t have a ready answer for, one that they will have to think about and engage their moral reasoning or moral intuitions about. That means, then, making an “artificial” example.

Now, the objection is constantly raised that a moral system can’t be expected to handle situations outside of the experience of the person and/or of human society in general. It is, they assert, an ad-hoc system cobbled together by evolution or something to handle interacting in society, and so isn’t designed to handle things too far out of normal experience. Thus, the answers that are given when we create these artificial experiments just aren’t valid; moral systems can’t and don’t need to handle such outlandish cases.

The problem is that we, in our every day lives, may well come across cases that our moral system wasn’t originally designed to handle. Taking the “evolution” example, if we even went back 100 years — let alone the thousands or millions that evolution would cover — we couldn’t have, for example, conceived — outside of science fiction works — that we’d have to deal with the morality of stem cell research. They couldn’t have conceived of such a thing being possible, and it certainly wasn’t something their experiences in every day life could have prepared them for. If we are going to rely on a system that was developed or strongly influenced by factors so far in the past that we couldn’t have conceived most of the moral dilemmas that we are facing today, we had better have some confidence that it can actually handle those moral dilemmas. If we abandon it because it “wasn’t designed for those questions”, then what are we going to use to settle them? If we limit our moral systems to handling only those cases that we already know, understand, and have ready answers for, then what happens when we end up in a situation where we don’t? Are we just going to muddle through without using any moral system at all and hope we get the right answer? Better hope we get it right the first time, then.

This approach would make moral systems meaningless. All we would be able to do is regurgitate the answers we picked up from … somewhere, and any time we end up in a sufficiently new situation we, if we were being honest, would have to declare our moral intuitions and moral reasoning suspect. There’d be no point in talking about even an evolved moral compass or moral system because we could never trust it to be right except for those cases where we at least have declared that it worked right in the past. But, of course, even then we’d have no idea if it really worked right in the past, because those would have been new situations, too. Ultimately, to make this work means utter confidence in some overarching moral principle — like increasing happiness — that we can use to assess the results of the action to determine if it was the morally right one or not. Of course, then we can use that same principle to assess future actions as well, and from that even the artificial “thought experiment” ones to see if they work out.

So this leads to another common protest, which is essentially that the thought experiments are designed artificially in such a way to invalidly generate an “immoral” result using the basic principles or system that the person is using. Since the deck is stacked against a specific view in the first place, that the view “fails” the experiment doesn’t say anything about the moral view itself. So we can’t use these sorts of experiments for the purpose they are most commonly used, which is to support one moral view over another.

Here, the issue is that, in general, this objection is raised about cases where the person who holds that moral view concedes that they applied their view to the example and came up with an answer that they themselves consider immoral. The person who holds that moral view is always able to respond by “biting the bullet” and either simply stating that despite the intuitions of the person proposing the experiment or even despite their own intuitions that the answer is morally wrong, it really is the morally right thing to do. So if the person retreats to this objection, we can see that what they have is a contradiction in their moral system: when they apply their moral system, they come up with an answer, but then when they assess that answer against their moral intuitions, they believe strongly, nonetheless, that the answer is immoral. A moral system cannot survive having such contradictions, because that would mean that if someone tried to follow it they risk taking what they think are moral actions that, after they act, they consider horrifically immoral. Thus, any such case reveals a contradiction in their view that they need to resolve, and so cannot be dismissed so blythely.

Ultimately, thought experiments are designed for and perform a very important task: testing moral systems. As such, they need to a) engage the moral systems directly and b) challenge them. While some experiments might be too contrived or artificial to work, if you find yourself protesting that a thought experiment that challenges your own view is too artificial you really should consider whether it is the challenge that is the problem, not the experiment.

Tropes vs Women: Not Your Exotic Fantasy.

April 12, 2017

So, in this video, Sarkeesian is trying to discuss the exotification of female characters, where they are portrayed as being sexy and/or sexual on the basis of the exotic ethnicity. As she herself describes it:

For instance, when certain white men falsely view Asian women as inherently more obedient or submissive than women from other cultures, and sexually fetishize them as a result of these false notions, those women are being exotified, and their race is falsely depicted as the defining aspect of their character and personality.

And if you are going to talk about this sort of thing, Asian women are indeed the typical example, as they are often used in various works to add an exotic sexual appeal just from the fact that they are Asian.

So, then, why does Sarkeesian focus on examples of blacks and indeed have hardly any examples of Asians?

The problem is that Sarkeesian has gone on and on about how women are sexualized in video games. Thus, the implication we are to take from her works is that women, in general, are sexualized and treated as sex objects. Thus, in order to make this video work, she’s going to have to find examples where the women in the games are being treated as sex objects just because of their race and thus it can’t be the case that if you put any woman in that position she’d be equally sexualized. This, of course, is potentially very hard to do. So what Sarkeesian is going to try to do here is instead focus on another use of “exotic”, this time in terms of locale, and thus focus on the idea of a stereotypical idea of a foreign and strange culture. In doing so, she can use games that either are set in an exotic locale or that stereotype a “strange” culture and then take the examples of sexualization from those games to make her overall point about the women being an exotic fantasy.

There would be issues with focusing on Asian cases for this. First, Sarkeesian is likely far less familiar with those stereotypical representations due to the odd relationship Asians have to Social Justice; often being seen as an oppressed class but not being placed front and centre as often due to their relative success when compared to other oppressed groups. Second, Asians wouldn’t fit into the current focus of the Social Justice movement, which is definitely focusing on blacks and Latios due to the political climate. And finally — and most importantly from an argument standpoint — this would run into a real issue since a lot of the most stereotypical presentations might well be presented in Japanese games, which would make the “cultural appropriation” line Sarkeesian wants to pull at a minimum problematic and at worst ridiculous. Thus, Sarkeesian will focus on black characters — who are best known for not being considered attractive because of their race, and so those black women who best fit into the white model being considered the most attractive — instead of focusing on the group that is best known for being considered attractive because of their exotic looks.

And we can see why we have the problem in looking at her first example, that of Far Cry 3:

Ubisoft’s 2012 game Far Cry 3 casts players as Jason Brody, a young white American man vacationing in Bangkok with his brother and their white friends. But their carefree fun comes to an end when a skydiving trip goes wrong and they all end up being kidnapped by evil pirates–who, you guessed it, are not white. Jason escapes and encounters a group of island natives called the Rakyat, who enlist his help to rid their island of the pirates. Ushering Jason into his exotic and exciting new role as a tribal warrior and white savior is Citra, a young woman who is viewed among her people as a “warrior goddess.” Under her guidance, Jason’s adventure rapidly becomes an absurd hodgepodge of racist stereotypes about tribal cultures and Brown women.

At one point, Citra gives Jason a hallucination-inducing drink which leads him into battle with an imagined giant; after he defeats the monster, he’s rewarded with a topless Citra telling him that he is now part of the tribe. Citra’s strange mystical powers return later in the game when she blows a glowing dust into Jason’s face, triggering another hallucinatory sequence that culminates in the game-ending choice: to save Jason’s friends and leave the island, or to do Citra’s bidding: to savagely kill his friends, and stay on the island with her. If players choose to murder Jason’s friends and stay with Citra, a scene plays in which the two of them have sex, then she stabs him while stating that their child will become the new leader of the tribe. I guess those mystical tribal powers of hers just immediately let her know that she’s already pregnant.

Citra is, in fact, pretty much the stereotype of “Sinister Seductress”. So in order to get to “exotic fantasy”, she has to do more than that. And she tries:

On one hand, Citra is yet another example of a female character whose sexuality is presented as a motivator and reward for the presumed straight male player. But there’s something more insidious happening with Citra: Her body paint and magical powers which suggest she practices some sort of tribal mysticism, which also root her in a longstanding tradition of racist stereotypes. These elements of sexism and racism intersect, turning Citra into a stereotype of an exotic, primitive, mystical, savage, sexualized woman of color.

But all she’s doing here is linking the character to the stereotypes. She isn’t in any way establishing that we are supposed to see her as being more attractive because she’s “tribal”, just that we are supposed to find her attractive and she is stereotypically tribal. For Sarkeesian’s point to work, it can’t merely be the case that we have a black woman who happens to be sexually attractive and portrayed that way, but has to be the case that the attraction comes from their race and/or stereotypical presentation of their race and racial traits. And since Sarkeesian can’t do that, she’s hoping that simply pointing out that “intersection” will be enough. And it’s not.

This follows on from her other examples. She talks about an alternate costume in the Resident Evil games that is definitely fetishy … after talking about how all of the alternative outfits for the women in those games are fetishy. She also talks about the sexy stereotypical presentation of a character in Street Fighter … which is a game where all presentations are stereotypical and where she has commented that many of the female models are inappropriately sexualized. The examples don’t establish that the characters are being sexualized because of their race or the racial stereotypes because they are being presented in the same way as all characters are. Thus, all she has to complain about are the stereotypes, but if she just wanted to talk about that, she could, instead of trying to stuff that justification into a potentially related but in reality quite different topic.

The problem with this becomes clear as she discusses Diablo III:

In Diablo 3, there are six–soon to be seven–classes to choose from, but only one of them is represented by Black characters–the witch doctor. Employing just about every visual stereotype about tribal warriors in the book: elaborate piercings, skull masks and body paint, and carrying voodoo dolls and shrunken heads as items of power, the witch doctor is a caricature of tribal identity rooted in centuries-old racist imagery that has no place being perpetuated in the 21st century.

So, given the nature of the game, all of the characters are very stereotypical — or even archetypical — representations of their classes, as far as I can tell (I haven’t played any of the Diablo games). Given the sitting, a Witch Doctor/Shaman class seems like a good fit, and a way to provide a different style of gameplay or even of presentation in a way that everyone will get. Given that, that they’d load up on the visual stereotypes makes sense, and fits in with how the other classes are presented (they load up on the stereotypes for the others, too). So, given that they wanted to add that sort of class, would Sarkeesian have preferred that the character not be black? Would that have helped? Or is it more that Sarkeesian simply doesn’t want to see that sort of character in a game at all, whether it is black or not?

I suspect the latter, given how Sarkeesian ends with examples of non-stereotypical uses of other cultures, and ends with this:

This kind of respectful treatment of cultural history and traditions should be the norm, but instead games more often just plunder marginalized cultures with no sense of respect and no concern whatsoever about accurately reflecting the people and traditions they’re appropriating from. To put it simply, it’s not okay for games to reduce these cultures to stereotypical costumes and personality traits in an effort to add a bit of exotic flair to their worlds. It should not be too much to ask for and expect representations of people of color whose cultural backgrounds are acknowledged and woven into their characters in ways that are thoughtful, validating, and humanizing.

And so, at this point, it’s worth looking at how a lot of games tend to use “exotic” locales and characters. See, another way of looking at “exotic”, as I’ve highlighted above, is simply as “different”. A lot of games don’t delve into their settings much at all, using them as backdrops to the action and drawing on some shallow elements of them to drive things forward. This holds even for Western games in Western cultures. However, for various reasons a particular game might not want to use the typical settings of, say, a standard Western city, but instead might want to try something different, to at least give the player something new to look at. They still don’t want to go into detail on the culture and cultural details, but want some different background cultural elements to mess with player expectations and want some different landmarks to players to look at. They might, for example, want to set a horror game in someplace like, say, Canada and shallowly adopt some of the Canadian myths and legends as the background for the story. And, speaking as a Canadian, I think I’m okay with that as long as they aren’t exceedingly offensive about Canadian stereotypes (and I admit that there will be games that do that for the cultures Sarkeesian is focusing on). But Sarkeesian wants — as her examples show — a deep examination of the culture, which is what the games explicitly didn’t want to do. If they get called out for being merely shallow examinations even if they aren’t egregiously offensive — and even Sarkeesian doesn’t argue that the Far Cry 3 case, for example, is egregiously offensive, just overly and overtly sexual and stereotypical — game companies will be forced into a dilemma: do they add time and money to do this deeper research and examination of the culture for a game where no one in their expected audience really cares and where they only wanted to do something different, or do they instead simply not bother including any culture that might be problematic? I expect them to pick the latter, and I’m pretty sure that them choosing that one more of the time will reduced the “representation” of minority characters in their games, which Sarkeesian also doesn’t like.

There’s nothing wrong with games that deeply explore their cultures, even if that culture is, indeed, the Western culture that we are all immersed in. But not all games are going to want to do that, and Sarkeesian needs to find a way to allow games to set themselves in different cultures without having to make a game that a) they don’t want to make and b) most of the audience doesn’t want to play at the moment. So, in this video, Sarkeesian fails to establish her stated main point, and also fails to make clear how to achieve her actual main point in the context of games in general. That seems like a double failure to me.

NHL Playoff Predictions: Round 1

April 11, 2017

It’s that time again! Time for me to look at teams that I haven’t watched at all this season and try to figure out which of them is going to advance in the playoffs. Here are my predictions for the first round.

Eastern Conference

Washington vs Toronto: This is the year to be scared of overperforming young teams, starting from the World Cup of Hockey with Team North America and continuing through the season with young teams like Toronto and the Edmonton Oilers that did far better than anyone expected them to given where they were in their development. The problem for the Leafs is that they didn’t manage to get a point on Sunday and so have to face Washington, and Washington is certainly a harder opponent than the Senators would be, and I think is a really bad opponent for the Leafs. All season long, the Leafs have had a hard time keeping a lead, as evidenced by blowing a 2 – 0 lead on Sunday. Not being able to hold a lead is not what you want going up against Washington. But the Leafs might be able to cover up their relatively weak defense by playing run and gun, and they have the young talent to do that … but Washington has more than enough firepower to play run and gun with any team and have a pretty good shot at coming out ahead. So I think Washington takes this one.

Prediction: Washington.

Montreal vs Rangers: It was almost the case that the team with home ice advantage in this series had less points during the season, but some wins by Montreal and the Rangers struggling a bit meant that things worked out. This one will probably come down to goaltending. If Weber is healthy and Price plays well, Lundqvist will have to stand out for the Rangers to have any chance here, and Lundqvist has been inconsistent this entire season. If both goalies play at the top of their game, this could be a long series, and home ice advantage is a boon in long series.

Prediction: Montreal

Pittsburgh vs Columbus: Columbus had a great season, and in fact had a far better season than anyone expected them to. They’re certainly capable of an upset here. But the Penguins are still a very strong team, are playing better than Columbus right now, and have two capable goaltenders who have proven that they can win in the playoffs. I think Pittsburgh is just too high a mountain for Columbus to climb this year.

Prediction: Pittsburgh

Ottawa vs Boston: These teams are so close that you almost might as well flip a coin to decide who’s going to win. The health of Erik Karlsson is key to the success of the Senators here, but all of the rumblings are that his being out for the last few games of the season was more precautionary than necessary. Ottawa has two relatively reliable goaltenders, but I don’t expect either of them to steal a series, while Rask is more capable of that, but hasn’t had his best year. The key to this series, though, is that Ottawa has faced a lot of adversity throughout the season, with injuries and Anderson leaving the team for long stretches because of his wife’s cancer treatments. You can’t underestimate how important knowing that you can battle through tough circumstances is in the playoffs, as it makes your team hard to demoralize. When bad things happen — and they always do — Ottawa will not think “Oh no!” but instead think “Well, here we go again”, and soldier on. This is going to be a close series, but I give Ottawa the nod here.

Prediction: Ottawa.

Western Conference:

Chicago vs Nashville: There’s not much to say here. Nashville is a better team than you might think, but Chicago still has the team that they’ve won Cups with, for the most part. This one should go to Chicago.

Prediction: Chicago

Anaheim vs Calgary: Calgary had a bit of and up and down season but again performed better than a lot of people expected them to. Elliot struggled at the start but I think has come around a bit and at least settled in to being mostly reliable. But Anaheim has more experience and a better team, and so will likely win this series.

Prediction: Anaheim

Minnesota vs St. Louis: The Blues thought that they weren’t going to get very far this season, and so traded away some players in preparation for next season and the expansion draft. And then they made it into the playoffs. Oops. That being said, Jake Allen has been inconsistent and Minnesota has a pretty decent team. While St. Louis could certainly pull off an upset, I’ll have to give this one to Minnesota.

Prediction: Minnesota

Edmonton vs San Jose: Edmonton is another one of those young teams that are overperforming. Their defense is a bit inexperienced, which goes along with, well, most of the team. That being said, adding Milan Lucic who has lots of playoff experience ought to help settle them down, and talent wise they’re pretty strong. This is likely to be a close series, but I expect that even if San Jose manages to shut down Connor McDavid Lucic will help that second line fill in the gap, and having a productive second line is key to winning playoff series.

Prediction: Edmonton

Summary

Eastern Conference

Washington vs Toronto Correct
Montreal vs Rangers Incorrect
Pittsburgh vs Columbus Correct
Ottawa vs Boston Correct

Western Conference

Chicago vs Nashville Incorrect
Anaheim vs Calgary Correct
Minnesota vs St. Louis Incorrect
Edmonton vs San Jose Correct

Overall Record:  5 – 3
Home Ice Advantage Team Record:  5 – 3

First Thoughts on Persona 5

April 10, 2017

So, Persona 5 came out last week, and as a big fan of the Persona series, this as a game that I had pre-ordered. I’ve started playing it and am about 12 hours in, just past the first “Palace”. What do I think of it so far?

I think it doesn’t have the charm of Persona 3 and Persona 4.

As I’m going to talk about the early plot, there will likely be some spoilers, so I’m going to put it below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

Jerry Coyne’s Sense of Superiority is Tingling …

April 7, 2017

So, Jerry Coyne recently pondered the question of whether religious people are stupid (or “a bit thick”). Or, perhaps, to be totally charitable, more the question of whether someone can be religious and still be called “smart”, as that’s really the question he talks about, but his summary talks about them being in some sense stupid or a bit thick. His answer is, of course, that the religious are at least not smart, are at least partially stupid, and are a bit thick. And as you might imagine, the comments on that post are full of atheists basking in their presumed intellectual and mental superiority, talking about how flawed the reasoning of religious people is and even bringing up the old “It’s a mental illness” and “brainwashed” canards … all of which is based on, at best, them happening to get one answer — albeit potentially an important one — right. Sure, some are pointing out that everyone has potential irrational blind spots, but that hasn’t really made an impact on the atheists there.

So, why does Jerry Coyne think that theists are “a bit thick”?

And many public intellectuals—and virtually all accomplished scientists—are atheists. Why? Because there’s no credible evidence for God. It’s palpably and painfully obvious that religion is a human construct and that the tenets of different faiths are not reconcilable. The things that the faithful say they believe are simply ludicrous. I cringe, for example, when I hear a “smart” person like Rabbi Sacks or the Archbishop of Canterbury profess such stuff.

To me, this means that someone, regardless of how “smart” they seem, is at the very least irrational if they believe in God or the attendant superstitions. It is as if their brain is a jigsaw puzzle with one crucial piece missing: the piece that accepts important propositions in proportion to the evidence supporting them. And to me that kind of irrationality is a form of stupidity, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “dullness or slowness of apprehension; gross want of intelligence.” It’s not that they’re totally stupid; just partially stupid.

Hoo boy.

1) That public intellectuals and scientists — presumably, people that Coyne thinks are smart — are atheists is not evidence that therefore smart people are or tend to be atheists and that that fact is related to their intelligence. There might be something specific in the nature science that makes it so that those people tend towards atheism just from that that has no relation to the purported evidence or lack thereof. Like, I don’t know, naturalism? Coyne’s comment here is like saying that if we discovered that most computer scientists were introverts, and computer scientists are smart people, therefore extroverts aren’t or can’t be smart people. So that first sentence is at best meaningless, and at worst should lead us to wonder if the scientific worldview might be unduly biasing people against theism. So we’d need to look at the evidence.

2) That there’s “no credible evidence” is a claim Coyne needs to support, starting by pointing out what counts as “credible evidence”. And since theism just means “belief in god(s)”, he can’t appeal to the idea that it isn’t convincing to him; that would require it to be a knowledge claim, which I at least don’t make.

3) To say that it is obvious that religion is a human construct implies that he has sufficient evidence of that to demonstrate it to the point of knowledge. But since atheists have made a virtue over never having to prove that God doesn’t exist, colour me skeptical that he actually has that evidence. I certainly haven’t seen evidence that rises to that level.

4) He also — as is his wont — misses that just because it is obvious to him doesn’t mean that it is obvious to everyone. If someone merely doesn’t accept that naturalism is true then they are not going to find it “obvious” that a supernatural entity like a god can’t exist, while a naturalist will.

5) Since most religious people don’t hold that the tenets of faiths other than their own are true, that you can’t reconcile different faiths is not a problem because they aren’t trying to. They think theirs is right and the others are wrong. This might get into an argument over whether the evidence is stronger for their faith than for others, but the idea that the different faiths are reconcilable is utterly irrelevant to that claim.

6) In order to claim that theists are irrational, Coyne would have to know and examine why they maintain that belief, understand their reasons, and address their reasons. Since Coyne has both spent an entire many hours long car ride with Dan Dennett and has compatibilists like Coel constantly try to correct him about what compatibilism wrt free will means and still can’t get it right, this does not seem like something Coyne is capable of doing.

7) Coyne concludes that because theists don’t agree with him on one proposition, that they must therefore be missing the entire faculty that proportions beliefs to evidence … despite the fact that psychologically it would be more likely that in that case if Coyne is right they most likely have some sort of cognitive bias that is interfering here. This would especially be the case if, in other areas, they seem to have no problem apportioning belief to evidence … which would obviously be true for those that Coyne thinks might be smart but who have this odd attachement to religion or theism.

Look at it this way: if someone spent much of their lives worshiping Santa, elves, fairies, or even Zeus, and maintained in all seriousness that Santa delivers presents to Western children at nearly the speed of light each Christmas, you’d think they weren’t playing with a full deck. But somehow it’s okay if they do the same with Allah, Jesus, Muhammad, God, Vishnu, and the like. They can profess such stuff and still be considered “smart.”

But, again, most people don’t believe that, and their cultures consider those things to be false, and so it’s not reasonable to believe them unless you have good reason to. When your culture believes that religion is true, then it’s certainly more reasonable to believe that it is true unless you have good reason not to. Can Coyne offer good reasons not to? The idea that atheists have no burden of proof suggests “No”.

Coyne, essentially, considers theists to be in some sense stupid because we, at best, are wrong about something that Coyne thinks is obviously true. Well, then if we take any position that Coyne holds that others disagree with — free will, scientism, etc — then they would be justified in believing that about him. Thus, we can all get a nice sense of superiority from considering that everyone who does not believe precisely as we do is “a little thick” while we, of course, are not. Alternatively, we can instead consider that maybe they’re wrong, and try to find out where they went wrong, and work with that. We might discover that we are, in fact, wrong. Or they might learn that they are. Or we might discover that the answers aren’t as obvious as we thought they were. At the end, someone might well learn something.

And we obviously can’t have that, right?

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “History Is Unreliable”

April 5, 2017

So, here are, finally, at the last chapter in Bannister’s book and so the last post Seidensticker will make about the book. As the posts went on, it seemed to me that Seidensticker felt more and more frustrated with Bannister’s book and that it wasn’t providing him with any real arguments to address. This is surprising since presumably before doing this he would have read most of the book to see if it was worth doing chapter by chapter. I mean, I when chapter by chapter with Philipse’s book (which I haven’t finished either commenting on or even reading yet) but there I only started it when I knew there were things that I really needed to talk about and that was one of the books that Coyne insisted all theists had to read, so there was a built in reason for me to take it somewhat seriously. Here, it really looks like Seidensticker picked up the book, thought it might say things, and then started posting on it without checking that or checking if he’d feel that each chapter needed to be looked at, and so ended up very frustrated.

On my side, I knew the posts would be bad starting it, and couldn’t read all of them to see how he’d end. My main frustration here is that Seidensticker doesn’t ever seem to actually defend the purported bad arguments … but, at least, my title is completely accurate (and that inability and/or unwillingness to defend the arguments was kinda the point of my writing these posts).

Anyway, it seems to me that the main issue here is how far one can push the line that the historical evidence we have is insufficient to claim that Christianity is true or that Jesus even existed without risking making all ancient history equally unreliable. The question, then, should turn on whether we have more evidence for other ancient historical figures or stories that we at least consider reliable enough to believe than we do for Jesus and what he did. This is, of course, only going to be a very minor part of this last post.

His complain about Islam is different: “Muslim theology is exceedingly clear that Muhammed was just an ordinary human being.” Yeah, and Mark, the first gospel, makes clear that Jesus was, too. It opens with Jesus being baptized. There’s nothing about Jesus being part of the Trinity or having existed forever. Avoid the Christian dogma, and a plain reading of Mark likewise tells of Jesus as an ordinary human being.

So, let’s go look at the opening to Mark, shall we?

1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[a] the Son of God,[b] 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”[c]—
3
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[d]

4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”
The Baptism and Testing of Jesus

9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

So, the opening explicitly states that he was the Messiah, that John the Baptist was preparing the way for him, and that Jesus was the Son of God. I’m not sure how you get “an ordinary human being” out of that, beyond the perfectly compatible with Christian dogma interpretation that Jesus became Man, on any reading, plain or otherwise. In a post where we’re talking about history, it’s not a good idea to start by pointing to a source and badly missing what it actually said.

Bannister declares that to defeat Christianity, you must address Jesus and his claims. He ignores that Jesus didn’t make claims; the gospels say that he made claims. How reliable is that record? And if history is that big a deal, you must acknowledge that historians scrub out the supernatural. Sorry, historians aren’t your friend.

Well, how reliable is that record? If you’re defending a claim that they aren’t reliable enough, you might have wanted to start or stick to that instead of adding the sidebar of the supernatural. And if historians “scrub out” the supernatural, on what grounds do they do that? If they do it simply because it is supernatural, then historians may not be Bannister’s friend, but they would be letting philosophical views dictate their interpretations of history, which is bad for history. About the only real argument that can be made here is that historically speaking we’ve found that these supernatural elements are ones that tend to get added to these sort of stories, so we ought to be skeptical of them. Sure, but that’s a) not what Seidensticker says here and b) isn’t an answer to Bannister’s argument anyway.

Dawkins uses the game of telephone (“Chinese whispers” in British parlance) to show how the Jesus story is unreliable, but Bannister isn’t buying it. He mocks this approach:

We mustn’t think of Thucydides, or Josephus, or Tacitus, or St Luke as carefully interviewing eyewitnesses, reading sources, and weighing the evidence—goodness, no, they were ignorant ancient yokels, relying on what they half-heard, whispered into their ears, after the stories had made their way through a long line of pre-school children, high on sugar and gullibility.

Seidensticker’s initial reply?

Where do you start with someone so afraid of honest skepticism that he hides behind straw man arguments like this? Josephus said nothing about Jesus, and Tacitus wrote in the early second century. Thucydides died in about 400 BCE and so is irrelevant; presumably, Bannister uses him to say that the period produced well-respected historians. So therefore all ancient documents are reliable? Nope, that doesn’t follow.

But it does imply that you can’t merely look at assembled oral histories or ancient histories and declare them unreliable. You need to do something more than merely suggest that ancient historical works are formed by the game of telephone and so distorted so much that they are useless.

Seidensticker, shockingly, actually tries to do that:

Let’s review some of the historical weaknesses of the Jesus story that follow from Dawkins’ example of the game of telephone.

  • There were decades of oral history from event to documentation in the gospels.
  • There is a centuries-long period of Dark Ages from the New Testament originals to our best copies (more here and here). We can’t be certain what was modified during that period.
  • Much of Christianity comes from Paul, who never saw Jesus in person (more).
  • We don’t even know who wrote the gospels (more).
  • The gospel of Luke promises that the author is giving a good historical analysis, but why is that believable? You wouldn’t believe an earnest supernatural account from me, so why is it more believable if it’s clouded by the mists of time?
  • Matthew and Luke copy much of Mark, something that an eyewitness would never do.

I’m not sure how these can be said to follow from Dawkins’ assertion, as these seem to be facts that Seidensticker is mustering to show that the gospels are unreliable. But let’s take these in order:

1) Sure, but that would only mean that there’s a risk that it was overly corrupted through Chinese Whispers. And I’m not sure history says that decades of oral tradition mean that the traditions ought to be considered invalid when determining what historically happened.

2) Yes, that might cause some issues, but again I don’t think enough to invalidate them as historical sources.

3) I’m again not sure why that matters that much, since while he was getting things second-hand presumably he got enough of it from eyewitnesses (I’m not a Biblical scholar and so don’t know how much Paul interacted with the disciples).

4) If Luke says that he is going to make this a historical account, then we ought to at least consider that that is what he’s trying to do, and treat his work as such. Whether we accept what it says or not, we have to treat it like a historical account or an attempted historical account until we have real reason to think otherwise.

5) But neither of them are claiming that. Seidensticker explicitly says in the previous point that Luke is giving a historical analysis, which means that he’s going to gather up various sources — including eyewitnesses if he can get them — and use them to build his account. Matthew was one of those sources. Hardly surprising. And the only gospel that even remotely claims to be an eyewitness account is John’s. So this is an utterly irrelevant point.

So, sure, there are some issues, but they seem hardly damning, and hardly enough to get us to treat them as nothing more than “Chinese Whispers”. And in fact Seidensticker falls into the trap of assuming that these can’t be historical analyses with his fourth point, so he in fact uses the argument Bannister thinks is bad without ever defending it.

He declares that the gospels are biographies. Wrong again—they’re better described as ancient biography, which is a quite different genre. An ancient biography isn’t overly concerned about giving accurate facts but with making a point. (More: Charles Talbert, What is a Gospel? p. 93–98.)

And how do we know that these are that sort of ancient biography? Again, recall that Seidensticker points out that Luke claims to be making a detailed account. In fact, let’s look at what Luke says:

1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke’s point, in his own words, is to write it all down in as accurate a way as possible so that the person reading it can be certain that the things that he has been taught are actually true. Seidensticker’s weak “why should we believe him?” counter would indeed be a universal acid of history because it can arguably be said about any work, where they could be either intentionally or unintentionally shading the truth to comport with what they already believe. Sure, we could find inaccuracies and changes that cast doubt on the account, but Seidensticker has no reason to attack the intention, and that intention alone seems to put it more in the range of “history” than of “ancient biography”.

Seidensticker then does his last set of questions and answers:

Jesus really existed; don’t believe Jesus mythicists! I don’t make that argument. I don’t care whether he was a myth or not. My point is that you have no reason to accept the supernatural claims in the gospels.

And again, Seidensticker refuses to defend the actual bad argument, and instead insists that he wouldn’t make that argument. Which pretty much means that he thinks the argument is indeed a bad one. But since some atheists make that argument, all Seidensticker is doing is agree with Bannister that it is a bad argument that atheists shouldn’t make without ever saying it, meaning that people can still deny that it’s a bad argument. Which, again, is not a defense of the argument in any way.

The gospel story isn’t fiction. If it were fiction, why invent these impossible-to-follow moral rules like looking at someone with lust equals adultery? Right—I never said the gospels were fiction. (Though fiction is still probably easier to defend than the supernatural.)

Look, the book is not called “Bad Arguments Bob Seidensticker Makes”. Thus, the book is not all about you. If you don’t want to or can’t defend the arguments, then don’t try. Instead, you damn them with the faint praise of “I don’t make that argument” when you know good and well that some atheists do.

The gospels weren’t myth. Right—they closer to legend. (Jesus probably a legend here; the differences between myth and legend here.)

So you’ll accept that any atheist who says it’s a myth is wrong? That would be very charitable of you … if you, you know, actually said that.

He says that the gospels have lots of place names with details about each, which refutes their being fiction. Right—I don’t say that it’s fiction. This is the Argument from Accurate Place Names fallacy.

Um, that fallacy is very often used to defend the idea that the work can still be fiction even if it includes real places, so that’s hardly something you’d want to mention right after pretty much saying that it’s not fiction. Of course legends and even myths include real places, but the — admittedly bad — argument is that works that put an emphasis on real places ought to be taken more seriously as historically inspired than a simple work of fiction. Which isn’t true. Now, if you find too many fictional places in a work, that’s a good sign that the work is a fiction, but the opposite is not true.

He marvels at the fluency of Jesus’s rebuttals to the bad guys. The story was honed over decades—I should hope that some compelling anecdotes would come out the other end. The stories that flopped didn’t make the cut.

This is a fair point. I’d need to see the original argument — and Seidensticker is lax in quoting or even summarizing arguments — but that the answers were good doesn’t mean that they are necessarily true. Again, fictional characters can make really good arguments, too.

He appeals to the Criterion of Embarrassment (the more embarrassing a story, the likelier it’s true) and gives as an example a passage from Mark in which a man calls Jesus “good teacher.” Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good?” Yeah, that’s embarrassing, and you’ve undercut your claims of deity. And just how is this supposed to give me confidence in the supernatural parts? He notes that Jesus died when he should’ve been a conquering hero. So much for him fulfilling the prophecy of the Messiah, eh?

For the first one, that indeed doesn’t sound all that embarrassing, so I’d go after Bannister on that tack, instead of the rather ridiculous “Jesus can’t really be a deity then!” claim, which seems to me to miss the entire point of Christianity. As for the second one, fulfilling the prophecy in a unique way suggests that it wasn’t simply manipulated to get the right answers, because if it was it would have made a more direct link. Thus, this at least implies that there was or was believed to be a real person who died that way, at least necessitating a change in the interpretation of the prophecy. But, yes, it could still be a legend.

“If we were dealing with theological fiction, one would expect the edges to be straighter, the language more doctrinally polished.” More to the point, we’d expect that if we were dealing with the words of the omniscient creator of the universe. You’ve nicely shown that it doesn’t hang together and could never have been inspired by a perfect being.

But the gospels aren’t the words of the omniscient creator of the universe, as you yourself pointed out in your discussion of Luke. So they could be inspired by a real Jesus who was the Son of God in the sense that his existence triggered the accounts without it having to be the case that God wrote the words for them, as again Luke makes very clear is his intent.

He gives Lewis’s (false) trilemma—the only possible bins to put Jesus in are Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. Wrong again. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t address the obvious genre: not fiction but legend.

Fine. I’ll grant that it could be legend. Any real reason for us to accept that? I mean, we don’t have an account of King Arthur that says that this is someone roughly contemporary trying to make a good historical account, which tends to work against it being mere legend.

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to look at here. In summary of the entire series of posts, Seidensticker is generally pretty consistent in not actually defending any of the atheist arguments that he is supposed to be defending. He consistently, in fact, ends up implying that he thinks they’re bad too. That’s … not the way to defend arguments.