Facts, Values, Opinions and Morality.

March 6, 2015

So, Jerry Coyne is talking about what he considers to be disturbing about naturalism:

One thing that disturbs me about naturalism is the increasingly frequent contention that there are objective moral “facts” or “truths,” which can somehow be discerned scientifically. I don’t agree with that, since at bottom I think that what one sees as “right” or “wrong” ultimately rests on a set of subjective preferences that can’t be adjudicated scientifically.

This latest post is in response to an article by Justin P. McBrayer, lamenting how grade schools are teaching that all moral and/or value claims are actually opinions, and not facts. However, they define facts as things that are true, and so the implication is that value or moral claims are not, in fact, true … or, rather that there is no truth of the matter about moral claims. This implication essentially reduces moral statements to statements of personal preference, and nothing more. This … would have rather bad consequences for even Coyne’s general view of morality, because when he argues for positions that certain things that he considers bad be eliminated his arguments will have no force if he’s just presenting it as personal opinion. Even his views on punishment that are based on his hard determinism become shaky if all he can do is say that we ought to try to “correct” things that he thinks need to be corrected based on what can only be a personal preference, and not a fact. This is the underlying contention in Coyne’s view here, and an underlying tension in any view that posits a relativistic idea: on the one hand, they want to deny that morality is objective because they can’t justify their moral values, but on the other hand they still want to insist that we can still meaningfully criticize the moral values of others, even to the extent of imposing punishments and conditions on those who don’t agree with ours. Essentially, this is like saying that music taste is only a matter of personal preference and so implying that no one’s musical taste is objectively any better than anyone else’s, but then insisting that classical music is superior to rock and roll and so no radio stations should be allowed to play rock and roll. You simply cannot accept both reasonably, as the former implies that musical taste is subjective while the latter implies that it is objective. You can’t hold views that imply that morality is both subjective and objective at the same time.

Actually, in a sense you can, as long as you avoid equivocation. It is perfectly reasonable to say that there are moral facts and so moral truths, but that those moral truths rely on subjective impressions like, say, ideas of well-being. Let’s take a look at one of Coyne’s examples to see how this can work:

…instead of subjective judgments like “my opinion is that pie is better than cake” …

It is an objective fact by pretty much all definitions whether someones likes pie better than cake. So if I say “I like pie better than cake”, I am stating an objective fact. But it is an objective fact whose truth value depends on subjective facts … subjective facts about my experiences when I eat pie or eat cake, and my own personal tastes and preferences. So if we implied — as Sam Harris might — that objective morality boils down to an analysis of the subjective experiences of conscious beings — meaning, the things that impact our subjective sense of well-being — then we’d have an objective fact about what it means to be moral but one that is still based on at least certain subjective impressions. So we’d need to figure out what morality means, which Coyne talks about:

But at bottom all discussions of right or wrong come down to what result one prefers—what you think moralty is supposed to achieve.

To translate that last part, rather we should say that all discussions of morality come down to what morality actually is … what it means for something to be moral or immoral. But since morality is a conceptual term, there are in fact objective facts about what it would mean for something to be moral. Even relativist positions insist that there is an objective fact about what it means to be moral: that morality is relativist itself. This would need to be justified just as much as a claim that morality is objective.

Even if you’re a consequentialist like I am and on those grounds am pro-choice, what do you say to someone who feels otherwise, either because they have the religious notion that embryos have souls or the consequentialist notion that it’s worse for society to allow abortions than if it prohibited them? How can you decide? Even the notion “don’t kill innocent people,” won’t resonate with a Muslim extremist if those innocents are apostates.

The interesting thing is that for a lot of the things he talks about here, he can at least discuss this on the basis of shared values. Presumably, Coyne’s consequentialism includes — and may be just about — what is better or worse for society as a while. Presumably we can come to some kind of objective determination of what is better or worse for society, and Coyne’s hard deterministic views on punishment insist that that’s true. So in that case, the debate would be over what is better for society, and so there can be a discussion that will end in an objective answer. Additionally, we can see that the debate between the Muslim extremist and Coyne is not over whether it is wrong to kill innocent people, but over whether apostates count as innocents or not … the same sort of debate that we can have over, say, self-defense (where it is generally and rightly concluded that someone attacking you is not innocent).

What we can see from this is that we can have objective debates when there are at least some shared values. Relativist positions generally would agree with this, but would argue that there is no objective way to determine what those values are; that, essentially, the values are just as personal and subjective as preferring salty or sweet snacks. This, though, cycles them back to the original tension: in any area where values differ, you can’t criticize their values or impose yours on them with any more justification than you can impose your preference of salty versus sweet snacks or pie versus cake on anyone.

And in the list of things that are considered opinions in McBrayer’s posts, there is one that highlights this issue for Coyne:

— Copying homework assignments is wrong.

Presumably, this is a rule that Coyne would impose on any class he teaches: you cannot copy assignments. But if there isn’t a moral value backing to the rule, then all Coyne would be saying is that the rules say that you can’t copy assignments, not that it is a bad thing to do, even if he tries to argue reasons for it. So someone who copies assignments has merely broken a conventional rule of the class, one that is only imposed on the class by the overwhelming authority of the professor. Essentially, this reduces all of the rules that we consider moral to be merely conventional … and as we’ve seen, the main way that psychopaths differ from others is that they consider all moral rules to be merely conventional.

At this point, McBrayer seems to have a point. Reducing morality to personal opinion means reducing moral rules to conventional rules, rules that are only followed because of the punishments applied if we don’t follow them. Given what I just noted about psychopaths, this risks turning our children into psychopaths, which is not what Coyne or anyone wants. Thus, McBrayer may have a point that this approach is dangerous, and so the only way that relativists can argue against him is to demonstrate that morality is, in fact, relative … or, in other words, they must demonstrate that it is a fact that morality is relativistic. So you cannot escape fact claims here, no matter how many relativists wish to.

Is Holmes Really Just Lucky?

March 4, 2015

So I’ll skip the third essay in “Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy” because it deals with personal identity issues that I’ve already discussed ad nauseum, and as usual I’m passing over “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy”, mostly because it’s talking about a post-modern approach which has never appealed to me (I will eventually cover an essay from that book, I promise!). So now I’ll move on to the third essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy”, entitled “Is Holmes Really Just Lucky?” by J. Solomon Johnson, which lets me talk a bit about my favourite epistemological view: reliablism.

First, what does Johnson mean when he asks if Holmes might just be lucky? Essentially, the idea is that Holmes forms his views on the basis of deduction from his exceptional observational powers. He observes far more than anyone else does, and so has more data on which to base his deductions, and his deductions succeed because he has, presumably, all of the relevant evidence at hand when he does it, unlike those who continually observe the same scenes and come to the wrong conclusions. From my recollection of the Holmes stories, most of the time the others jumped to the wrong conclusions because they were missing important data. So Holmes has more data and gets things right, which seems to support the idea that his method works. But is he justified in thinking that it works?

As outlined in the essay, the generally accepted definition of knowledge is of justified true belief. So in order to know something you have to believe that it’s true, it has to be true, and you have to be justified in your belief that it is true. The key problem for knowledge using this definition has always been around that “justification” part. What is required to be able to say that your belief is justified to the level required for knowledge? Descartes used deductive certainty, but that left us without any knowledge at all, perhaps beyond “I think therefore I am” (and even that has been challenged). Johnson uses an idea based around safety and sensitivity, talking a lot about possible worlds and the impact, which I find interesting — and which you should read — but which seems to only encapsulate a lot of ideas that come from the view I hold, which is, to remind you, reliablism.

So what is reliablism? Well, it replaces “justified” with “was produced by a reliable truth-forming faculty”, to which I always add the rider “under the conditions where it is reliable”. This means that to the extent that you can verify the truth of any proposition, you’ve noted that this method produces beliefs that turn out to be true a significant amount of the time. Working out the precise details of how reliable it has to be still needs to be done, but this does generally capture a sense of justification that allows for strong confidence while allowing for the method to produce false beliefs at times and still be considered reliable.

For Holmes, even his deductions can be wrong if he misses something or if he’s missing data. His trust in his methodology relies on his knowing everything that he needs to know, and with him seeking out extra data and/or testing hypotheses if he isn’t sure that he knows all that he needs to know to come to the right conclusion. But in general the inspectors and Watson think they know everything that they need to know to come to conclusions when they do as well. So how can Holmes be so sure that he has all the data? And the answer, from reliablism, is that when he thinks he has all the data and that there is only one obvious answer, he’s usually right. When the others think that, they are quite often wrong. So his combination of observation and deduction turns out to be reliable more often than not, and so he is justified in thinking that when it produces a conclusion for him that he knows that that is what is true. The more cases he successfully solves using that method, the more and more confident he can be that it is in fact, a reliable method and one that produces knowledge.

So, as Holmes succeeds and the others fail, the more he can come to trust that his remarkable powers of observation are, in fact, giving him all that he needs to know to solve the cases … and so can Watson and the others. Relying on Holmes’ conclusions works sufficiently well to justify treating it as knowledge without any additional demands for proof, or any worry that Holmes will typically miss an important clue. Holmes’ method, and Holmes himself, are both reliable truth-forming faculties, and so we are justified in thinking that when Holmes says what happened that he — and we — know that that is, indeed, what happened.

We need more differentiation, not integration.

March 2, 2015

So, over at Skepchick, Olivia has put up a post talking about women’s sports and what she sees as some bad stereotypes about them. Ultimately, her push in the post is to eliminate the distinction between men’s and women’s sports through various means, an argument that strikes me as odd because for me the best women’s sports are the ones where women aren’t trying to play the game like the men do, but instead take their natural abilities into account and play according to that. To me, every woman’s sport becomes massively less interesting and exciting the instant they start being able to play/playing the game the way the men play it, but without the attributes that the men’s game was targeted for. As soon as women start being able to win with big serves or with the big weight or with the big slapshots but while still having less powerful serves, less weight, or slapshots that are not as hard as the men typically do what you have is an inferior copy of a men’s sport, and the women’s sport loses what makes it special and interesting to watch. But let’s look at what Olivia is saying. She starts talking about stereotypes about women’s sports that annoy her:

More often than not I just hear that women aren’t as good, their bodies don’t allow them to be as powerful, as strong, or excel to the extent that men do. So it’s not interesting to watch them.

This often leads to me yelling about how women are just as athletic and impressive as men, and that we need a better system for differentiating leagues in sports than “men” and “women” …

So, I’ll (mostly) agree with her here. It isn’t the case that women’s sports aren’t as exciting as men’s sports because women are less athletic or competitive. In fact, I’d argue that in general taken in isolation when you watch a sport it is the competition level that drives the excitement of the sport, which means that your enjoyment is normalized to the competitors that you are watching. So as long as they are well-matched, the game will be interesting. The problem is that we don’t really have these things in isolation, as we have a choice of what sports and what leagues to watch. So to use a completely non-gendered example, it’s clear that in general people won’t choose to watch, say, minor league baseball instead of major league baseball because the game is the same in both cases, but the overall skill level is higher in the major league game, and so if you want to maximize your sports watching entertainment you’ll go for the equally competitive but higher skilled option. And so, in general, a woman’s sport that is the same game as the men’s league but has less skill at the elements of the men’s sport won’t be as interesting to watch as the men’s version. And vice versa (more on that later).

Because there’s no absolute value that says being bigger or stronger is always better in sports. There are sports in which female athletes do beat male athletes (equestrian events are integrated and women win medals regularly, Billie Jean King beat out Bobby Riggs in tennis, and many of the top rock climbers in the world are women), and even some sports that favor women overall, such as gymnastics and volleyball. The problem is that people don’t take those sports as seriously.

No, she’s right, there isn’t anything that says that bigger or stronger produces the better sport. However, her examples are a bit weak, because tennis, for example, is not a sport where female athletes beat male athletes. As was pointed out in the comments, her example was of a female player in her prime against a male player past his prime. If you took the top male tennis player and the top female tennis player and had them play, I don’t think that there’s any doubt that the male player would win handily. The raw power of his serve would almost certainly overwhelm his opponent, while her serve would be average at best. On the other hand, gymnastics is a sport that follows my model: the women’s sport is radically different from the men’s, focusing more on flexibility and the like while the men’s version focuses a lot on upper body strength and power. And women’s gymnastics is far more popular than men’s gymnastics, and I think it is, at least in part, because of that sharp distinction. Women’s gymnastics is not just men’s gymnastics done by people with less upper body strength, but is a sport shaped and formed by the things that women’s bodies are best at doing. I’ve also talked in the past about women’s curling and how I like it better than men’s curling because it’s a completely different game, and one that I enjoy more. My excitement with women’s hockey from the Nagano Olympics turned to massive disappointment four years later when it turned from being a different game to the same game as men’s hockey, but with players that simply weren’t up to that level.

Also, she’s a bit off in talking about how those sports aren’t taken as seriously. They all fit into a category of sports that could be considered, well, generally amateur sports, and essentially include in North America everything outside of the big professional leagues. Hockey in the United States was at least at one point in the same category, while soccer in North America generally is as well while it isn’t outside of North America. I guess the best way to describe them — instead of calling them “amateur” — is to call them “Second-Tier”. They are sports that you see on your sports shows and that are popular when there are big tournaments or at the Olympics, but are generally filler most of the rest of the time. These sports include skiing, volleyball, figure skating, gymnastics, curling (in Canada), tennis, golf and a host of others. It’s hard to explain how a sport gets into that sort of role and how it gets out of it, but it seems that right now tradition has more to do with it than anything else; the First-Tier sports tend to be the sports that have been there for ages, and perhaps more importantly have had leagues built around them for ages, as opposed to simply having tournaments week in and week out. They’re also generally strongly team sports, and sports that you can associate with geographically, and so cheer for a team rather than a person. But it is somewhat mysterious how this happens, because there are more masculine sports that are clearly Second-Tier — boxing, for example — and so contrary to Olivia’s opinion that doesn’t seem to be the driving factor. Heck, baseball and soccer aren’t anywhere near the top of the heap in terms of what you’d consider “toughness” and yet outdraw the tougher hockey pretty much everywhere except Canada. So the implication that it’s a culture of masculinity doesn’t quite seem to work.

There are many similar examples, like upper body strength in swimming, or weight in football. But the sports that take advantage of women’s abilities like gymnastics, open water swimming, figure skating, or shooting, are not pushed on the media, supported, or even really considered sports in the way that the big male sports are.

Figure skating, at least in Canada, is actually given far more attention than swimming is. So is gymnastics. Shooting seems like a pretty boring spectator sport, meaning that I can’t see it gaining more attention in areas that don’t already have it as a sport of interest than, say, darts does (which is, to my mind, amazingly popular in the U.K.). It also seems like a prime masculine sport, but has never really enjoyed a lot of attention as far as I’m aware. So I don’t think “They’re just not supported” is a good explanation here; given the success and attention paid to Canadian figure skaters over the past few decades due to their success, it would seem that in Canada at least figure skating’s more than had its shot, for example.

Ultimately, she seems to want to solve this problem and bring about a host of other benefits by integrating men’s and women’s sports. And immediately runs into a problem that she tries to solve:

It also seems entirely possible that there could be leagues with slightly altered rules to make women more competitive. Some people might whine and moan about how this would destroy the sport, but all our rules are completely arbitrary anyway and the way we set up our competitions is completely arbitrary, so why not make it more accessible to women? We have rules against using steroids or against sticking a trampoline under the basket, both of which mean that players aren’t being as outstanding in their abilities as they could be. I know you all love dunks, but imagine a league in which dunks weren’t legal and how that would change the playing field for gender equality. Ok MenBA fans, stop throwing things, you can still have a dunking league too if you want.

The issue with simply integrating them, she realizes, is that if the rules are kept the same then the elite leagues would likely end up being defacto men’s leagues anyway. So then she starts talking about changing the rules. She refers back to her example of basketball and says that one way to eliminate the height issue is to remove dunking. Except that height is beneficial beyond dunking. There’s rebounding, for example. And shot blocking. And being able to pass or shoot over a defender without having to do a fade away. And all sorts of other things. If you changed the sport to allow for that that much, you’d have a radically different game … which you could achieve in some sense by just not integrating and letting women who are generally shorter play, and not providing any rule changes to adjust it for their height.

The problem with this is that it will end up being ruined as soon as you get women into the game who are tall enough to play the game the way the men play the game, because then again if the rules haven’t changed then they will be able to dunk, rebound, and shoot and pass over the smaller women just like the men would. Except that they’ll still be shorter than the men in the men’s league, and so you’ll have a league that plays the same as the men’s league but isn’t as good as it. This is what bugged me about the Williams sisters in tennis (which I don’t really watch), the Jennifer Jones rink in curling, and essentially all of women’s hockey: becoming more like the men’s game meant that you had nothing more than an inferior men’s game, which took away what made those sports interesting in their own right.

So, could you integrate? Maybe. But to do what Olivia suggests requires taking the existing frameworks and essentially making a new game, and it’s hard to see how that could be done without turning it into the gymnastics model: two completely different games, one for men and one for women. Especially since you have the issue of competition to deal with, as already mentioned. If you radically change a sport, then you essentially end up with two — or more — completely different versions of the same sport. If they compete against each other, unless you manage to hit completely different markets, one is likely to push out the others to become the dominant one. It’s not likely that dunkless basketball will outdraw “traditional” basketball. And, even worse, you might actually splinter your market and so lose out in ratings when you compete with more unified sports. So, then, trying to build a new alternative sport that could be integrated is not all that great an idea, but trying to change the existing one by taking out skill elements in order to integrate is not that great either. I’m not sure what the solution is here, but one thing that we can do right now is stop pushing women’s sports to be men’s sports, and for women to stop treating men’s sports as the major leagues, as we saw Hayley Wickenheiser, Michelle Wie, and others who strive to compete in the men’s league and get accolades for doing it. They should instead be treated as essentially traitors, people who are trying to play a different game (and generally not doing that well at it) not as people who are making it to the big time.

Simply changing the rules to integrate women isn’t going to convince people to value different athletic traits and abilities or new ways that the games might develop if women were integrated. Too many people will simply see it as artificially lowering the playing field because they value power and sheer strength over balance, flexibility, finesse, or skill.

So even if we could find a great way to integrate sports, there’s probably a lot of work to do at retraining our brains and societal expectations to appreciate new things. We have to choose as a society to care about other sports and other skills.

Well, let’s see. Darts and poker are, in fact, relatively big draws now. Women’s gymnastics focuses on all four of the things she promotes and is far more popular than men’s gymnastics, which focus on power and sheer strength. And many sports focus on both sheer power and finesse and skill (hockey and soccer being the best examples). So I don’t see that as being the problem. I see it as being the case that power and sheer strength in a lot of sports does mean greater success and better play, and so attempts to reduce that are rightfully seen as taking away from the sport. At this point, I think all I can suggest to Olivia is that she try to invent a new sport that focuses on what she wants focused on and see how it does. At the very least, then we’d know what she means by a sport that does that and, perhaps, what criteria for “popular” she’s aiming for.

Essentially, right now in order for women’s sports to succeed and take off they have to become something more than an inferior version of the men’s sport. Rolling women into the men’s sport is not in any way going to help with this. What will help with this is acknowledging the differences and maybe deliberately biasing the women’s game towards enhancing those differences and making them really stand out. If this is done, maybe more women’s sports can achieve the lofty heights of gymnastics when compared to the men’s version of the sport. And, as I’ve said on multiple occasions, those might well be the sports that I’ll decide to watch.

Shining the Light on the Dark Avengers.

February 27, 2015

So, the second essay in “The Avengers and Philosophy” is by Sarah Donovan and Nick Richardson and talks about the Dark Avengers, a replacement Avengers squad formed by Norman Osborn and staffed by rather … shady characters, to say the least. The point of the essay is that the Dark Avengers, in general gave and strove to give the impression of being moral and virtuous characters, but in actuality acted quite immorally, which can be compared to a number of times when the real Avengers did the right things despite them actually seeming like the wrong things, or when popular support turned against them. Spider-man is the ultimate example of someone who accepted the responsibility to do the right thing despite the fact that many, at least, thought he was a villain and a menace. The essay asks the question of whether it is better to be actually moral even if people don’t think that you are, or whether it is better to look moral even if you aren’t.

My focus here is going to be talking about a pretty popular new theory about morality, which is that morality is an evolved trait that is used to promote societal harmony. As we come together and work together in groups, to build a harmonious society we have to co-operate with each other. Co-operating with each other produces a more functional society, and so at the very least societal practices that promote co-operation promote more harmonious and better functioning societies, and morality is essentially just that.

The issue here is that this more supports looking moral than actually being moral. If others do not see me co-operating, I get no benefit from it. In addition, if I can cheat and yet still look moral, I get the benefits both of cheating and of looking like I’m co-operating. To return it to the framing context here, Osborn gets to both look like a hero and reap the benefits of that good P.R., while being able to take whatever measures he needs in order to get the job done and, ultimately, to get what he wants. Under such a model, even the moral need to make certain that they give the appearance of being moral, and sometimes have to put that over actually taking the moral path, because if they act morally in a way that looks immoral, they get punished for doing the morally right thing. This becomes even more of an issue when someone is trying to make it look like they are moral and you are not, because if they can convince everyone that you are in the wrong even when you’re in the right then they get the benefits and rewards and you get the punishments. Appearance matters more than actuality in such a system.

Now, a society that has all cheaters won’t prosper, so as a descriptive theory explaining our moral intuitions the idea might have some weight … and perhaps more weight given how things like politics generally works in at least democratic societies. But as a theory that gives us a justification for acting moral, it leads to the idea that it is more important to look moral than be moral … or, rather, that we should act just morally enough to get the benefits and avoid the punishments. If we think morality itself has intrinsic moral value, this story doesn’t seem to capture that at all. Which is, in fact, my major objection to that theory.

NOBODY wants Net Neutrality …

February 26, 2015

So, from The NY Times, it looks like Net Neutrality is going to go through, kinda, sorta. The FCC is going to regulate the Internet as if it was a public good, which would allow it to impose net neutrality. And the summary of what it would prevent is this:

The F.C.C. plan would let the agency regulate Internet access as if it is a public good. It would follow the concept known as net neutrality or an open Internet, banning so-called paid prioritization — or fast lanes — for willing Internet content providers.

In addition, it would ban the intentional slowing of the Internet for companies that refuse to pay broadband providers. The plan would also give the F.C.C. the power to step in if unforeseen impediments are thrown up by the handful of giant companies that run many of the country’s broadband and wireless networks.

The ability to step in and say that the providers can’t arbitrarily de-prioritize the content of companies that won’t play ball is good. However, no one wants the elimination of fast lanes. Even those who would never use a fast lane would rather there be a fee tacked on for high priority traffic than that all content providers are asked to pay for the infrastructure to provide high priority traffic. If all I’m doing is simple file transfers, I don’t need a high Quality of Service throughout the Internet or low latencies; a short delay is not going to impact my service at all. For video, however, a delay or packets coming out of order will hugely impact their service. Asking companies to pay to get access to even a priority that allows their traffic to be routed with low latency/high priority/high bandwidth routing features helps them guarantee their services work as expected, while the companies that don’t care as much about that don’t have to pay anything and get standard services, which works for their needs. No one really wants all traffic to be treated the same, because different traffic has different requirements and so needs different features to make it work to their ideal. If you try to treat them all the same, no one is happy because they aren’t getting the features they need.

The fact is that video services are as I’ve said before both bandwidth intensive and require low latency and a high priority. This is very expensive for ISPs to provide, requiring dedicated equipment that switches at a very high rate with an exceptionally low rate of dropped packets. As these services start to dominate, ISPs will have to provide some kind of infrastructure to handle them, or else the growing congestion will make those services unusable while also flooding out the services that didn’t care about that. Someone is going to have to pay for that infrastructure growth. The end user can’t because they are paying for the line to their system, and that’s not where the infrastructure needs to be added. If ISPs try that, they will end up charging end users more for speeds that aren’t any higher and for the needs of content that they aren’t using. This will not go over well. Despite what people have claimed, the issue is not at the end user, but is in the core, and ISPs will need to find a business case to expand the infrastructure in the core. Otherwise, their capital expenditures won’t result in an increase in revenue, and so they’ll simply end up losing money on the deal. It will not do well for the Internet to drive ISPs into loss trying to provide the services that customers want.

So if sites like Netflix want their content to have the features that they need to make their customers happy, they’ll have to find some reason for ISPs to provide those features. Trying to do it by standing on the “common good” or net neutrality won’t work because ISPs will simply insist on treating everyone alike as the regulations state and so won’t treat Netflix traffic differently than anyone else’s … and Netflix wants that. They also won’t develop new features for traffic like Netflix’s because there’s no profit in them to do so. Both of these are totally consistent with Net Neutrality.

So, no, no one really wants Net Neutrality. This issue has been clouded by the reasonable desire to limit dishonest business practices so that people aren’t seeing that there are business practices that everyone wants that can’t be provided under strict Net Neutrality.

Objective Importance …

February 25, 2015

So, I read this Cracked list of eight presumably invalid things that people say in any discussion about feminism. For the most part, these things seem to mostly be things that sometimes can be reasonable arguments/replies that can also be used when they aren’t valid, so obviously the article pretty much tries to define them as being obviously wrong. I don’t want to get into that. What I do want to get into is the #1 argument, one that I’ve heard and probably talked about before:

“I’m not a feminist, I’m an equalist.” They’re not an equalist, they’re an asshole. This doesn’t bring enlightened impartiality to the problem, it smugly pretends to bring enlightened superiority to the problem while implying that silly women are being distracted from the wider picture by their own selfishness.

Even if they had a point, and they really don’t, their first priority is branding.

Feminism is gendered not because women want to be treated better in the future but because they’re being treated worse right now. Insisting on “equalism” means defining yourself by ignoring that fact. As if sexism, street harassment, pay differences, and rape threats affect genders equally.

So … what would gender equalism, as a movement, entail? Well, you’d think it would entail nothing more than striving to ensure that the genders are, in fact, treated equally, without giving any a priori privilege to any one perspective. Given this, if it really is the case that women’s concerns are objectively more important or ought to be more of a priority than men’s concerns, then an objective movement striving to eliminate all gender inequality and that doesn’t have the resources to fix all of the problems still ought to fix those first. After all, they are objectively more important, right? The only way having an equalist movement should legitimately act any differently given the argument here is if there are issues that affect men that are actually objectively of a higher priority than some of the one that affect women. But if that is the case, then that’s what we should be doing; just because women might overall have it worse wrt gender inequality does not mean that every instance where they are being treated unequally is automatically a higher priority than instances where men are being treated unequally.

Which is what strikes me as very, very odd about that argument. Given an umbrella movement/organization that is dedicated to a particular cause or issue, it’s not usually the dominant issues that splinter off into subgroups. It’s usually the ones that are objectively less important that splinter off, in order to draw in resources that only care about that particular issue and, in fact, to actually get some attention for their issues or goals. A general computing support group, for example, is likely to form a subgroup to focus on say, Linux issues if the membership is over 90% Windows users than that you’d get a Windows subgroup first. The main group would be so much a Windows group that Windows users would have no reason to form a subgroup. Given this, it would make more sense to form a masculinist group than a feminist group if the concerns of women just are so much more important when it comes to gender quality.

Now, feminists may object that this presumes a reasonable movement, but that what happens in these cases is that if they formed an equalist movement then the issues of men would dominate despite the fact that the women’s issues are more important. Well, I don’t think this is necessarily the case, and note that this has actually never really been tried, as far as I know; women have pretty much always had their own movement, and the only case where that wasn’t true was when they weren’t segmented into gender at all, and so they tended to get drowned under issues of racism and the like. So more evidence is required. At any rate, though, ultimately women should desperately want an equalist movement that works, and feel forced into having a feminist movement, as opposed to the impression that this argument gives that even a working equalist movement is somehow not the right thing, because their issues are just so important that they could never be solved by a movement dedicated to solving the most important gender inequalities. That argument just ain’t right …

It never fails …

February 23, 2015

So, I’ve decided to make a push on video games by setting up a set of eight games that I play in a round robin over a month. Four of them I play in the evenings and so have to be games that I can play for a half-hour to an hour and feel like I’ve accomplished something, while the other four are games that I play on the weekends when I have more time and so are games that are best played for long stretches.

This weekend, Planescape: Torment was up for my weekend game. But there ended up being some hockey games that I wanted to watch, and I can’t watch TV while playing that game, at least right now, so I ended up not playing it at all. This upcoming weekend, I’m supposed to play Conception II, which is a game that is ideal to play while watching TV, so much so that I’m not sure I can face playing it without having something to watch while playing. And this weekend … there’s no interesting hockey on TV.

Yep, never fails.

Multiverses, God, Belief and Knowledge …

February 23, 2015

So, I’ve been involved in a long, long discussion over at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog, in the comments of this thread. There are two people that I’m debating with at the moment: eric — whom I’ve had a lot of similar discussions with in the past — and sean samis. Rosenhouse has a policy where comments on his posts get closed after a certain amount of time, and that thread has, in fact, hit that limit. But there are things in the last couple of comments that I want to address, so I’ve decided to try to address them here. I’ll try to leave a link there, but I know that eric knows that this blog exists.

Anyway, let me give the summary of the debate so far, which will by necessity be at least a little shaded towards my perspective of the debate. This all started from a comment by Rosenhouse that multiverses were as good an explanation for the purported fine tuning argument as God was (eric continually refers to this argument as “Goddidit”), to which I started by saying that it looked like those who supported it were doing what they accused religious people were doing: inventing or adding entities to get them out of an implication that they didn’t like. Eric then said that it wasn’t like that — or, at least, it wasn’t for him — and then we started debating whether multiverses in that sense were more reasonable. Eric insisted that multiverses followed from inflationary theory, and inflationary theory was supported scientifically, so multiverses were supported scientifically and so more rational. I pointed out that it wasn’t supported scientifically by inflationary theories because there were inflationary theories that explained the evidence equally well and didn’t imply multiverses, and that even Eternal Inflation didn’t actually entail multiverses. We chased this around a bit, and turned to a discussion of what it meant for a belief to be rational, or more rational than another, mostly I guess because I was saying that his belief in multiverses or that the belief that multiverses were the explanation for fine tuning was rational, but not the only rational option. At that point, we needed to figure out what a rational belief was. Sean samis weighed in on this issue as well.

Which bring us to where we are now. Let me start with eric’s latest comment. Before we start, let me reiterate a comment that was made earlier that sent us down a bit of a rabbit hole (comment #252). After we had been debating this for a while, in 243 I pointed out that essentially when I was defending theistic belief as rational, I was doing so as a response to a charge that people who believed in God were doing so based on a belief-forming process that they shouldn’t trust to form beliefs. This traces back through most of the discussion — and previous discussions — where eric and I disagree over whether it is rational and/or acceptable to maintain a belief that you learned from your parents/culture. I told him that if he meant “rationally” in a different way, then he needed to be clear about that. His reply in 252 was this:

VS @243 re: 1) I really don’t care for purposes of our discussion whether irrational beliefs are ‘a bad thing’ or not. I would be happy with the answer that you agree that, under standard definitions of ‘rational,’ belief in God is not rational (while under your different, broader definition, it is).

Which of course led me to believe that what he was after was STRICT rationality, that it was produced by or relies directly on reason. Which isn’t a discussion that I was interested in, as I stated, since he wouldn’t be saying that beliefs formed by that process directly were invalid or that we ought to believe one over the other, which was the heart of the debate: should we not believe that God is an explanation for fine tuning, or should we believe that multiverses are a better explanation, at least? And my frustration with most of the debate is that eric consistently seems to be conflating rational in the strict sense with rational as a way of saying that one ought not hold a belief if one wants to be considered rational, whether or not that process is strictly rational. As an example, it’s possible that beliefs formed by intuition are ones that we can and ought to hold, but that intuition is not a strictly rational process. This was the example that I did use and eric never really acknowledged, and seems to be denying that there are any, as all of this examples always take processes that are both not strictly rational and ones that we think are invalid.

I think the reason for this is that eric does think that a process not being strictly rational means that beliefs produced by it are ones that we ought not hold, or at the very least that we ought not hold beliefs produced by it if we had a strictly rational process — like science — to turn to. This is probably what we should be debating, but somehow we keep running down rabbit holes.

At any rate, I don’t really want to start with that point. I want to start with the discussion of my definition of “rational belief”, which says that it is rational to hold a belief if: 1) the belief doesn’t contradict any of your other beliefs and 2) you don’t have the evidence to know that the belief is false. Eric keeps claiming that this is overly broad and that it isn’t what people mean when they say “rational”, which the above comment outlines what is really meant by rational in multiple cases. Anyway, eric said that another commenter, Gordon, didn’t think that he knew that evolution was true — ie that he hadn’t been presented with sufficient evidence to force that conclusion — and so his belief that evolution was false was therefore rational by my definition. I said that it wasn’t because knowledge was objective and could be objectively and externally determined. Eric’s reply was:

I didn’t ask about knowledge, I asked whether Gordon’s belief is rational by your definition.

But you can’t judge the rationality of a belief by my definition without talking about knowledge. I repeatedly pointed this out to eric. The main thrust is this:

1) Knowledge trumps belief.
2) Knowledge is objective: given that we both have access to the same evidence, if you are justified in saying that you know that X then _I_ have to be equally justified. If not, then you don’t know that X.

So since eric and I both accept that we know that evolution is in general true — some details of it might not be — then we can say that Gordon ought to know that evolution is in general true as well. If Gordon wants to deny that, then he has to justify a claim that we don’t really know that evolution is true, which can be done either by pointing out that we haven’t and/or can’t present the justification to him, or pointing out that our purported justification is actually wrong or doesn’t get to the level of knowledge. Beyond that, he ought to know that it’s true.

So, no, under my view Gordon’s belief that evolution is false isn’t rational, unless he can show that we don’t, in fact, have knowledge. Thus, since eric thinks that we do, for the purposes of this discussion eric has to concede that at least in reference to that example my method and his come to the same conclusion.

Gordon thinks he has been presented with no contradictory evidence, and thus his belief passes your #2 criteria. You and I think otherwise. How do we decide whether his belief has passed your #2 criteria? Do we go by G’s assessment or our own? If his own, then doesn’t your criteria for rationality allow just about everything in the door? OTOH if we go by our assessment, can I not apply the same “not his but our” standard to Gordon’s belief in God? And your belief in God?

We apply an objective perspective, one that does not depend on what we believe or think is true but on what we know is true. So it’s not a choice between what we think versus what he thinks. If that’s all it is, then neither side has knowledge and so we do have to let everyone base it on what they think. But that’s not what we have for evolution. We have much more than that. At which point, eric cannot simply say that because we can externally judge the rationality of someone else’s belief when we have knowledge and can present the justification to them that we can do that even when we don’t have knowledge. And eric does not have knowledge for multiverses, as they are considered speculative at best … and eric does not know that God doesn’t exist.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Imagine that someone shows someone a recording of their spouse having an affair. This evidence is, in general, sufficient to justify knowledge, even though recordings can be faked. So if that person refuses to believe that their spouse is having an affair, then that belief — and even mere lack of believe — is irrational; they are refusing to accept a belief that rationally they ought to accept was produced by a belief-forming faculty that produces true beliefs. In short, they ought to know that it’s true, and so ought to believe it. Now, imagine that the person showing them the recording has always been interested in them, and has been trying to break them and their spouse up for a long time now. At this point, the idea that the recording was faked becomes much more credible, and if the recording was faked then it isn’t reliable anymore. At which point, it is possible that the person would no longer be justified in knowing that their spouse had had an affair. At which point, they’d have to believe something. But what? They could decide that despite them having an ulterior motive, that the person with the recording is still credible enough to believe. Or they could show faith in their spouse and insist that they wouldn’t commit adultery. But at this point, it’s going to come down to what the person themselves believes, about their spouse, about that person, and about a lot of things. At this point, it’s going to be very difficult to decide externally what believe they ought to hold. So as long as they aren’t holding an inconsistent set of beliefs — which includes their beliefs about how to form beliefs — they ought to be considered rational for believing either … even if the method they use is more gut feeling than a full-on reasoned out response, which would be inconclusive in this case anyway.

Now, eric goes on to reiterate his definition of “rational”:

A belief based on valid reasoning from a set of well-accepted premises or observations. Since @218.

This sounds a lot like he’s saying that the belief should be valid and sound, which is pretty close to most methods that produce knowledge. Mere belief comes into play when we have evidence for conclusion, but it is either not valid, not sound, or both. And we can see that eric’s belief in multiverses is neither valid nor sound. It does not follow validly from inflation theories because it is possible for inflationary theories to be true and for multiverses to not exist. It’s also the case that not all of the premises are well-accepted, even scientifically. So by his own definition, his belief in multiverses is not a rational belief.

And interestingly by his definition conclusions based on cultural beliefs are rational. Their premises are well-accepted in society, by definition. So if someone makes a valid argument using them, then that belief is rational. And yet, eric’s big complaint is that cultural beliefs are not rational.

Now I don’t want to rely on the “well-accepted” line. There has to be room for people to reasonably believe things even though most people don’t agree. That’s the only way we can progress from wrong, but accepted ideas to right ones, from the ideas that everyone knows are true but that aren’t to the ideas that are in fact true. But if this conversation is going to go anywhere, eric needs to be clear and detailed about what he means, and not just quote a context-less dictionary definition and assume that his beliefs meet it and others don’t.

Eric believes that multiverses exist. He does not know it, even by his own definition. It does not follow directly from inflationary theories and he doesn’t have well-accepted premises to justify it. The key point of the whole debate was why his mere belief is better than the theistic mere belief, and he hasn’t shown it except as an implied “It’s scientific, so better”. But that in and of itself needs to be justified, and there is no reason to accept any scientific explanation over non-scientific explanations just because the former are scientific, since scientific beliefs are wrong all the time. I allow him to be rational in his belief while not accepting that it is the only rational belief to hold. Eric either needs to do the same or demonstrate rationality to some degree, which is what we’ve been missing in this debate.

On to sean samis. The debate between us has been more directly over whether a belief is reasonable/acceptable or not. I just want to touch on a couple of issues. From 275:

IMHO, determining whether a belief is “rational” is all about the process and the premises leading to the conclusion upon which the belief is based. The sloppier the process or the less certain the premises, the less certain the conclusion.

To my mind, saying that “belief in X is not rational” MEANS “Your belief in X was not produced by a rational process.”

I think this highlights the conflation that’s going on here. He talks a lot about the process being sloppy and the conclusion being less certain because of it, but then simply subs in “rational process” without clarifying whether he means “sloppy” — read: unreliable — or strictly rational, which is made clearer with his next statement:

VS, maybe I’m missing something but the difference you are trying to explain seems too much like hair-splitting. What is the difference between “STRICT rationality” and … whatever the alternative is? It seems the difference between someone adding numbers up in their head and someone else showing their work.

Strict rationality means that you’re just talking about whether the process relies on reason or not, as outlined above, and not judging from that whether or not the belief is reasonable to believe or that you ought to believe it. In short, when talking about strict rationality, you accept that there may be valid belief-forming process that don’t rely on reason, like perhaps intuition or emotion, even if you don’t think it’s true. As I said, unless you do try to make the link from strictly rational to what people ought to believe, rational in that sense just isn’t interesting.

And we talked a bit about proving negatives, and he replies to me in 279:

So, what you ask eric to do; to prove a negative is impossible. Science NEVER disproves explanations except in very narrow situations. Virtually every time, all science can do is say “there’s no evidence that X is true” or “the evidence does not support X”. This is why the burden falls to the proponent of the theory to prove it, or explain how it could still be true in spite of the lack of supporting evidence.

Despite my being accused of demanding certainty by eric, sean samis seems to be doing that here: saying that he can’t prove a negative because he can’t do it with certainty. But that’s not what I mean, at least, by that. I mean if you can demonstrate it to the level of knowledge. Thus, if there are alternative explanations and you hold that one of them is false, if when asked to justify that you say that you can’t prove a negative it really does sound like you’re saying that you can’t prove that your preferred alternative is true to the level of knowledge, because if you can know that one of your alternatives is true then you can know that the other alternatives are false. If we know, to take one of his examples, that the Earth is spherical, then we know that it isn’t flat, or square, or whatever.

The same thing, then, applies to the fine tuning argument. If we discovered that there were multiverses, and that the cosmological constants of the existing multiverses seems distributed in accordance with the probabilities, then we’d know that the explanation for the cosmological constant doesn’t require intelligent agency and that, therefore, it was produced by a random and natural process. This would then mean that we’d know that it wasn’t set by an intelligent creator, and so know that it wasn’t set by God. This, then, is proving a negative … at least in that part. It doesn’t require certainty or anything beyond what science already does as it produces knowledge. To do otherwise would mean that science doesn’t produce knowledge … and no one wants that.

Interactive NPC World …

February 20, 2015

So, I’ve started playing a number of games in a round robin, which include Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, and one thing that I thought of while playing Mass Effect 2 is the issue of NPCs in the world that you can interact with. Some of them will give you quests or items or other things, while some of them will just give you a little phrase or comment and then you can move on. The issue, of course, is that you usually don’t know which is which until you actually interact with them. Which means that if you want to get all of the quests and the like you have to interact with all of the NPCs, many if not most of which just say something and let you move on.

This can get very annoying if you have a lot of NPCs and the ratio of useful to colour NPCs is low. I’ve played games where I stopped interacting with NPCs because it was so annoying separating the NPC wheat from the chaff. But the flip side isn’t much better, as if you only create NPCs when they are useful the world can seem empty and unreal, only populated by quest-vending machines and the like. And filling it with people that you can’t interact with at all — like, say, most MMOs — reduces NPCs to background.

Which might, actually, be the best way to handle it. We don’t want players to have to obsessively interact with everyone, and we want populated places to seem populated, so making them non-interactive solves that, at the expense of, well, making them not seem like actual people. It’s nice to have NPCs that are people in at least some sense, but not good if we confuse them with NPCs that matter to the overall game plot and quests and so try to get them to interact with us outside of that. If you do go that route, you have to limit the number of NPCs or annoy the player by making them interact with all of them or else risk missing out on something interesting. And if there’s one thing that players hate, it’s missing out on something interesting.

Ultimately, though, this probably is a problem of balance, striking the right balance of NPCs that you can interact with in passive ways with the ones that open up interesting opportunities in the game world. It does enhance a game to be able to talk to NPCs and have them say things like jokes and give interesting tidbits about the world. It’s just that if you are getting that when you want to make sure that you’ve hit all the quests it will get annoying after a while if there are too many of those. We want to interact with people … but not all the time. Kinda like life, I think.

A Non-Religious Meaningful Lent …

February 18, 2015

So, today is the start of Lent in at least the Catholic calendar. I don’t particularly participate in Lent, for a couple of reasons. The first and most trivial one is that I’m in general non-ritualistic, which means that I don’t consider participating in the specific rituals to be the be-all-and-end-all of religious practice. It’s more about the principles and how you act in your every day life that matters to me. And, as a philosopher, I am always willing to debate and consider and argue over just what is required in your every day life, which makes me rather odd indeed when it comes to religion.

But the second one is that one of the biggest components of Lent — giving something up — doesn’t work for me, because there isn’t really anything for me to give up. I could give up playing video games, except that I’ve probably played games for something like 8 hours throughout the entire month of January. I could give up board games, but I’ve already set out games twice in two weeks and then never played them. I could give up reading fiction, but even that is something that I don’t do that often anymore, and is a far better way to spend my free time than the alternatives. I could give up TV, but on weekdays I’m only watching about an hour anyway and could easily give that up, and while weekends would be more difficult it wouldn’t be something that I’d miss that much. I could give up buying lunch, but I’m only buying lunch now because I have to due to my schedule; if I could avoid it, I would.

So, essentially, for me almost everything in my life is done because it is convenient at the time — making it easy to give up — or else because I need to do things that way at that time to make my life work at all. So there’s nothing trivial to give up as proof of my willingness to put aside my wants in service to a greater ideal, which is what I think the main point of that part of Lent is. So while I think that it is good for people to prove to themselves that they can indeed sacrifice their wants for the greater good, it’s not something I can do.

Anyone who is not religious who criticizes Lent, in my opinion, cannot do so on the basis that it is a bad thing to sacrifice your wants for the greater good, as that is a pretty basic principle that any morality ought to contain. All they can do, in my opinion, is criticize the purported end or greater good being espoused, that of, say, worshiping God. But if they could find a suitable cause, they really ought to feel that they would do that, and I would say that regular practice at doing just that is something that everyone ought to try. For me, it’s just nice that my job lets me get in regular practice at denying myself wants like “free time” in order to fulfill my commitments to my work [grin].

But I was musing about addiction today, and thought of another reason why even those who are secular might want to insert a little Lent into their lives. While some things can actually in and of themselves create a physical addiction — the body gets used to it and physically demands it if it isn’t there — pretty much anything can be what I’ll call mentally addictive, which means that you enjoy it so much that you do it a disproportionate amount of the time, and even choose it consistently when you know that you shouldn’t. The easiest way to know that you aren’t mentally addicted to something is to try to go without it for some time. If you can, then you’re fine, but if you can’t, then you have a problem. As a small example, if someone asks you what you’d do if you couldn’t play video games for a month, and you have no idea, it’s probably a good time to see what other things you might want to do in your spare time, because you clearly have put too much emphasis on that one thing.

So a Lent-style focus on giving something up for a number of weeks is a good way to help everyone assess their own lifestyle and see a) if they can go without some things in it and b) see what life is like without those things. This is good for your character and your self-awareness, religious or not. So should anyone laugh at you for giving things up, just remember that giving things up isn’t bad, and that someone who finds the idea of deliberately depriving themselves of pleasure laughable is missing a glorious opportunity to find out about themselves and the world.


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