Archive for October, 2010

You do get something after all …

October 28, 2010

… a fanfic based on the old “Birds of Prey” TV series.  It’s not even close to finished and I had a series of them in mind, but it’s a start and it being up here gives me something to continue when I run out of time.

Hey, I never said it would be good [grin].

Check out the new page for it here:

I was going to start a BSG fanfic today …

October 28, 2010

But it crashed when I started it.  I could just reload everything and start again … but I’m tired.  I’ll post if I manage to find something at home, but if not it’ll wait until next week.  Maybe.

Back to City of Heroes, and Going Rogue …

October 27, 2010

Well, now that I have a system that can play CoH/CoV without my doing the stutter step every few seconds, I’ve resubbed.  And bought “Going Rogue”.  And last night — when I probably should have been doing other things — I started a character in Praetoria.

Before I get into what I saw, let me tell you my plan.   I want to play both the Loyalist and Resistance sides, and so need characters that will let me explore those sides in character.  Since I often work best with characters that originated somewhere else, I’m basically translating Corran Horn and Kyp Durron from the Star Wars EU into the world.  Corran’s my Loyalist and Kyp’s my Resistance person.  I’m going to walk through their stories and see if anything in the stories makes me want to switch their sides.  They’re perfect characters for that since in the books they did have traits what would make them choose the sides they started on but that they might switch:  Corran was a dedicated law officer who hated the Rebels, but did join the Alliance and hated the Empire, and Kyp was always a bit of a maverick but one that was still dedicated (more or less) to the light.  It’ll be fun to see how it works out.

I started Corran last night (I’m not using the real name, though; it’s Captain Halcyon in game) as a Dual Pistols/Mind Manipiulation Blaster.  I plan to start Kyp tonight or tomorrow night (no name yet) as a Dual Blades/Willpower Stalker.

First impressions?  I’ve hit level 5, and there are story choices and story in the game.  Corran’s walking the Protection side, and I’m about to start that quest line.  One gripe that I have is that you choose whether to be on the side of the Loyalists or Resistance in the middle of the first mission … before your character really knows anything about either side yet.  It would have been better to make the character selection for a Praetorian to be to choose a side, and then play through the first mission with no choice.  That way, you build a character with an idea of where you want them to go, and then see how it works.  As it is, the choice seems artificial, as since you have no information it’s basically what you decided at character creation anyway, shoehorned into the game.

But Dual Pistols is a fun set, and so far I’m having fun.  And Praetoria is very pretty.

As of 9:43 am, Eastern Time …

October 27, 2010

The “Star Wars:  The Old Republic” main site is down.  The English message is:

“ is temporarily unavailable as we are experiencing extremely high traffic. Please check back again soon!”

What, did they finally actually announce something about end game content [grin]?

EDIT: It’s now back … and it looks like “Open World PvP” has been confirmed, which might be generating the excitement.

Fanfic Thursday: Not again …

October 21, 2010

Too busy this week to do any writing tonight, and I don’t think I have anything ready to put up.  Try again next week.

I really need to get into the habit of doing this, but things have been a bit busy for the past couple of weeks and I need to catch up on everything first.

Coyne on Horgan on “The Moral Landscape” …

October 18, 2010

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted something from Jerry Coyne, and I have a little time today to talk about a post he just made about a review by John Horgan of Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape”:

I only briefly skimmed Horgan’s review, but it didn’t impress me that much, so I’m not going after that.  I’m also not going to go after Coyne’s comments on the book itself; I’ll wait for his review.  So I just want to talk about a couple of points Coyne raises.


“Horgan’s claim here—that if we blame religion for its misuse by bad people then we must also blame science for similar misuses—is very common. I would argue that it’s much more inherent in religion than in science to make its adherents behave badly: as Steven Weinberg said, “With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”  And codes of conduct are inherent in religion but not in science.”


Two comments here:

1) Weinberg’s comment is patently wrong.  Good people have done terrible things in the name of secular ideologies.  It doesn’t take religion at all, but simply this: a belief that the ends justify the means, and that you have sufficient ends.  Scientific knowledge itself could be seen as a sufficient end, and while Horgan ascribes the scientific lapses to greed and such, I think that in some cases finding out how to cure disease could be a sufficient end.  Milgram’s experiment on authority demonstrated that people will shock other people to death if a scientist tells them to.  And ask consequentialist morality about what it says we ought to do in some cases.  Religion is not the problem here, other than that people take it seriously.  But anything taken seriously — even secular humanism — can and probably will have the same effect.

2) That science has no code of conduct doesn’t count in its favour; there’s nothing that we can hold science accountable to if that’s really the case.  We can’t point out that science advocating killing any person with a genetic defect so that it doesn’t propogate is non-scientific unless we can say that that sort of suggestion is one that science can make, but we could say that doing so violates the commandments of a particular religion in at least some cases.  If science had a code of conduct, then it would be equally open to correction by appeal to that code of conduct.  But it doesn’t have one, so it can’t.

And the second thing:


“Harris’s take on burqas is that the compulsion to wear them is bad for general well-being since it oppresses women, and that’s not good for society as a whole.  What he’s objecting to is not an individual’s right to wear the garment, but religious and legal dictates that they must wear the garment—and the effect of those dictates on the health of Islamic society.”


Absolutely, but this only reveals the problem with Harris’ position.  For one thing, the reply of individual freedom does work against at least some of Harris’ objections because he wants to condemn a cultural restriction based on what he thinks of it, and how he interprets well-being and oppression of women.  But the people in that culture don’t see it that way.  Who’s right?  Second, the argument from the people in that culture is that, yes, it is in fact better for the overall well-being for that to be forced.  Harris is going to have to accept that some things have to be forced on people in order to facilitate overall well-being, so he can’t reject it on the grounds that forcing people to do things is bad, but has to in fact address well-being in those specific cases.  And so far Harris has given us no way of settling it, but is in fact convinced that forcing the burqa on women is not conducive to well-being.  But if he has no current grounds for settling this, how can he be so certain?   And if he does, why can’t he share them with us?

Fanfic Thursday: Vacation

October 14, 2010

I’m on vacation this week and completely forgot about it.  I’ll try to have something up next week.

Surveying “The Moral Landscape” …

October 13, 2010

So, it’s time for my review of “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris.  Now, I didn’t come in expecting all that much from it, and yet somehow it managed to disappoint me.  This is not a very good book.  In fact, it’s a pretty bad one.

Let me outline why.  First, this is a book ostensibly about morality, but direct discussions of morality only take up about half the book.  Chapters 1 and 2 and the introduction and conclusion do, indeed, talk about morality fairly extensively (although he does diverge into free will a bit in Chapter 2 to seemingly make a point about moral responsibility that he didn’t really have to make).  But Chapter 3 diverges into much discussion about belief, with only a minor link to morality made.  Chapter 4 focusses on religion, and I admit I didn’t read that chapter, so it might have a stronger focus on morality than Chapter 3 did.  However, Harris in the earlier chapters sketches out a rough argument for why religion in and of itself does not provide morality, and discusses why he won’t therefore consider it as a moral alternative.  What, then, could the purpose of that chapter be?  Since I already had an idea of his views of religion, it didn’t seem directly relevant to his thesis, and having no interest in another discussion of religion, I felt it safe to skip it.

Which only proves my contention above:  Harris needed to make every single chapter directly relevant to his thesis of morality.  If he felt he needed to say things about belief or religion that warranted entire chapters, he should have done that first, providing a basis for us to see how they fit into his moral system and why those discussions matter.  Not only did he not establish these questions as base questions in that manner, he didn’t really make a clear link from those questions to his moral thesis.  Thus, I came away feeling that half the book was a pointless waste of time.  That’s not a good starting point.

Now, to be fair, Harris does outline in the introduction why he has those chapters.  For belief, it seems that he wanted to use it to help collapse the distinction between facts and values, and for religion the conflict between faith and reason.  But, again, all this means is that he needs to highlight it more.  Start with the facts versus values debate, hammer it into the ground, and then move on to the details of his moral thesis.  As it was, for the most part either we were already convinced that there were facts about values or we weren’t and would find Chapter 3 unconvincing.  A clearer focus and better organization would have certainly improved this book.

And there’s a lot more to be said about his moral thesis.  Well-being is still only very vaguely defined, as Harris himself admits in several places (although he sees the role of science as filling that in).  How exactly science fits into his thesis isn’t exactly clear.  But the worst missing issue is, in fact, how to resolve moral conflicts.  For the most part, Harris settles criticisms by appealing to one of two principles: the “moral expert” principle or the “multiple maxima” principle.  In the multiple maxima principle, Harris says that there might be multiple ways of maximizing well-being, and as long as they are all at least roughly equal (I guess) there’s no conflict.  So while that’s very vague and likely to lead to major problems when we try to apply it — like the oft-raised question of conflicting ideas of well-being — it isn’t that unreasonable, if possibly vaguely relativistic (which Harris explicitly is not).

But the “moral experts” reply is hugely problematic and used far too extensively.  Harris repeats a conversation seen previously with a supposed “moral expert” that leaves him aghast.  Here is how he sums up his reaction after actually talking to her and finding that they are far apart on moral issues: “I confess that once we did speak, and I peered into the terrible gulf that separated us on these issues, I found that I could not utter another word to her.  In fact, our conversation ended with my blindly enacting two neurological cliches:  my jaw literally dropped open, and I spun on my heels before walking away.” (pg 44).

Now, this debate started with discussions of the burka, and ended with a hypothetical of blinding every third child, and her reply that Harris could not criticize it as wrong if to them it was dictated by their religion.  This might be a bit extreme, but the point is that in some sense she certainly could be considered a moral expert, and Harris’ reaction of simply walking away fits right into his idea that the moral opinions of some people should not be considered.  So, why should her opinion not be considered?

The problem, then, is that Harris never actually tells us how to identify moral experts.  Which is majorly problematic since his replies often seem to indicate that we should consider him such an expert, but we have no reason to think that he should count as a moral expert and so that his views on what well-being truly is should matter.   Note that he takes on John Rawls directly, I believe goes after Kant a little, and definitely takes on Hume’s is/ought distinction.  Why should we consider him more a moral expert than Rawls or Kant or Hume?  Can a Rawlsian simply dismiss him as a moral expert as he does the woman above?  And what about the link to religion?  Why should we consider him more a moral expert than the Catholic Church or the Anglican Church or Islamic theologians who have been studying morality for thousands of years?  He dismisses religion, but religious authorities might have a better claim to moral expertise than he does.  Why should we take him over them?

I think this point can be driven home even better by making a comparison between Sam Harris and myself.  We clearly disagree over morality, both it seems in principle — I disagree that what makes a moral code a good moral code is how it improves well-being, even as I concede that it probably would — and in specific practices — I see no major moral problem with forced/arranged marriages or the cultural requirement of the burka.  Thus, we disagree.  Now, which of us is the moral expert?  Harris has a PhD, but it is in neuroscience, not philosophy.  His degree in philosophy is reputed to be an undergraduate degree.  I, on the other hand, have no PhD — and would like to get one — but have a Master’s degree in philosophy.  Even if he actually has a Master’s in philosophy, there’s not much to choose from there.  So, which of us has done more work in moral philosophy?  It’s not my main area, but it doesn’t seem to be Harris’ either.  I do quite a bit of it, though, while Harris seems more focussed on philosophy of mind, but certainly has some experience from his discussions on religion.

So, call it a wash, in the sense that if Sam Harris can be called a moral expert, so can I, and if I can be called a moral expert, so can he (it’s possible that neither of us can be called moral experts).  And we disagree, but are equally moral experts.  How do we settle this?

Well, that’s what arguments are for, and what Sam Harris is missing.  If we are both equally qualified to discuss morality, and we disagree, we must each try to convince the other using the best methods available.  If the clash is over the base principle, he needs to justify his principle and I need to justify mine (if I am indeed advocating one as being proven).  If the clash is over specific implementations, we need to determine which best fits with the accepted principle.  But this is not done by saying that some opinions need not be considered whenever a conflict arises.  It is done by seeking out these conflicts and showing how to settle it using the principles.  Harris spends a lot of time dismissing conflicts as opposed to settling them.

Harris also walks himself into a major contradiction.  In the conclusion, he says ” … I have reviewed scientific data that, I believe, supports my argument; but I have made a more basic, philosophical case, the validity of which does not narrowly depend on current data.” (pg 179).  Now, he does go on to show how the philosophical and the scientific are related right after, but earlier he rather hilariously leaves philosophy out of the moral debate:  “I have made the case elsewhere that religion and science are in a zero-sum argument with respect to facts … Consequently, it should come s no surprise that I see very little room for compromise between faith and reason on questions of morality.” (pg24).  In this section, that talks about the conflict between science and religion exclusively, and without his actually having really mentioned moral philosophy at all even once, he assigns the position of “reason” in the morality debate to science … and science alone.  Except that, even for him, philosophy is paramount.  His view is not, in fact, necessarily scientifically based, as he says.  If the science turns out not to support his position directly, he probably won’t be all that concerned about it.   So much, then, for the role of science in moral philosophy.

Well, not quite.  Charitably translating this, I claim that his major claim is this: if well-being is the crucial and defining force in morality, science will be of key importance to morality because it can help us discover what does and doesn’t increase well-being.  Science, then, plays a secondary role, and only if his overarching philosophical principle is right.  Unfortunately, this weaker interpretation isn’t very controversial.  If we have a moral code where descriptive elements matter to determinations of how to follow that code, science will play a role.  When problems arise, it’s usually over whether such a moral code is the right one.

The Moral Landscape …

October 11, 2010

I got Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” recently — I needed something else to get free shipping from Amazon for a book I needed for my class — and started reading it yesterday.  I’m about part way through the second chapter, and I have some comments already:

1) Harris really doesn’t understand the is/ought distinction and how it’s used in philosophy.  He basically says that it leads to relativism and that it’s outdated.  He never really argues for the latter, and the former is odd since ignoring the is/ought distinction often leads to relativism, as people look at the moral views people hold and argue that there cannot be absolute moral truths because we do disagree about them so much.  Harris does, in fact, try to address that point … but since that follows from saying that is can determine ought his dismissal of the is/ought distinction seems a little hollow.

2) Harris spends little time arguing, and much time asserting his positions.  Thus, his claims are weak because much of the time he’s relying on intuitions, and even being sneaky at times by stuffing less morally objectionable things in with things that everyone pretty much agrees are morally objectionable and relying on that association to make his case.  I have no doubt that he really considers them all equally morally objectionable, but the point of the criticisms against his view is that others don’t, and he should be more explicit about that.

3)  He dismisses intutions on the one hand, and in another quote flat-out says that he thinks his view is good because it aligns with our intutions.  You can’t really have it both ways.  About the best that the “it aligns with intuitions” argument can do is reduce the number of bullets you have to bite.

4) He sets up some false dichotomies.  Either we have a morality based on faith and religion, or based on reason and science.  So, what about moral philosophy?  Hard to say that philosophy isn’t the path of reason there, chum.  He also basically claims that you have to accept his view because the world is relevant to moral decisions.  Well, yes, but that we might have to refer to science and that science might say interesting things about morality doesn’t mean that what is moral is defined by those things.  The precise same argument is made about well-being, by his arguing that most if not all moralities refer to well-being in some way.  Putting aside that he seems to be reaching for some of them, and that the Stoic view of morality overturns his “conscious beings’ welfare” ideas of well-being, it may well be the case that a good moral code will increase the well-being of conscious beings without it being the case that increasing the well-being of conscious beings is all it means to be a good moral code.

5) He’s very vague on well-being; there is a sense in which the Stoics promote well-being but it wouldn’t fit neatly with his own personal view.  But he allows this to allow multiple “peaks” so that the differing ideas don’t impact his overriding principle.  But this only raises the question of how to identify these peaks.  Harris, so far, seems to be saying that we don’t know yet.  To which the best reply must be “Get back to us when you have an idea that we can evaluate, then.”

6) It would be best before appealing to the common person to hammer it out with the educated moral experts first.  Harris does not seem to have done so.

Fanfic Thursday: A Short Smallville Conversation

October 7, 2010

This takes place at around Season 2 or 3 of Smallville (I forget which, since I’m watching all the seasons right now), right after Chloe accepts Lionel Luthor’s offer to get her a column at the Daily Planet.  The new character is one I introduced, aimed at being a foil for Lex and an ally for Clark.  I won’t go into the full background now, but to set this up he’s basically a business rival (kinda like Oliver in later Smallville seasons) except that Lex and he only associated after the horrors of Lex’s boarding school days and he and Lex actually like each other … kinda.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever write anything more with this alternate history of an alternate history, so I won’t mention the superhero angle, but a hint … snikt.

Chloe Sullivan was sitting at her desk in the classroom that hosted the “Torch”, her pride and joy school newspaper, poring over stories and information on her laptop, when the phone rang.

“Hello?” she answered.

“Ah, Ms. Sullivan, this is Christopher Worthington, ” a clipped, precise, British accent replied.  “I’ve heard about your recent good fortune and associations and wondered if you’d mind discussing it over lunch.”

“Well, Mr. Worthington, I’m not sure what business my associations are of yours, ” Chloe replied bluntly.

Worthington replied, “Well, let’s just say that I might have some advice that could help you steer your way through waters that I dare say seem quite shark invested.”

“And if I’m not interested in your advice?”

“Then you’ll get a free and quite exceptional lunch.  Say, the “Gilded Truffle”, noonish?” Worthington replied.

Chloe agreed, mostly because she was curious why he was getting involved in her life.  Did it have something to do with Clark?  And what was it that all these young, rich guys were so interested in the life of a Smallville high school farm boy, anyway?

At noon, she entered “The Gilded Truffle”, which was the fanciest restaurant in Smallville.   Considering the small town atmosphere of Smallville, that shouldn’t have been saying much … but with LuthorCorp having a big stake in the area, as well as Worthington Industries getting involved, something upscale had to be built to deal with important clients.  “The Gilded Truffle” was actually not a LuthorCorp investment, but one that had been funded by Worthington himself.  Why he’d started it, no one could say, but the prevailing rumour was that he started it up to provide himself with the sort of high class food service that he missed from when he lived in England, or the larger cities in the U.S. before coming here.

Worthington was waiting for her when she arrived, but didn’t mention anything about her relationship with Lionel Luthor, which surprised her.  Instead, they ordered and had eaten their main courses without him mentioning it at all, and limiting his comments to basic small talk.  When the dessert menus arrived, Chloe’s curiousity finally got the better of her and she said, “So, you wanted to talk to me about my ‘associations’.  Any reason why we’ve spent this entire lunch so far saying nothing about them?”

Worthington smiled, “One should never ruin an excellent meal by bringing up such serious matters too early.”

“More of the wonderful advice you’re supposed to be giving me?” Chloe replied bluntly.

Worthington’s smile didn’t fade for an instant.  “Something like that.”

But then the smile faded completely from his face.  “I’ve heard that you now have a column at the Daily Planet, thanks to the influence of one Lionel Luthor.”

“That’s right, ” Chloe replied.

“Considering that Lionel Luthor doesn’t do anything that doesn’t benefit him, I’m presuming that he’s asked for a ‘favour’ in return?”

Chloe didn’t say anything, but her silence spoke volumes.

“I’m also going to guess, ” Worthington continued, “that the favour he’s asking is something underhanded, sneaky, and chances are something that you’d rather not do.  And that it, at least in part, involves the esteemed Mr. Clark Kent.”

“I don’t know where you’d get that idea, ” Chloe replied.

“Lionel’s interest in Clark is not exactly a secret, and unlike mine or Lex’s interest there isn’t even the possibility of a friendly interest.  Lionel clearly wants something, something that will give him power, influence or control … just as he now has influence over you.”

Chloe started at him angrily.

Worthington shrugged.  “Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?  If you find out something about Clark — or anyone — and you don’t want to share it with Lionel getting out from under his thumb won’t be easy.”

“With all due respect, Mr. Worthington, I can take care of myself.”

“Ms. Sullivan, Lex Luthor is a cold, calculating, manipulative bastard.  He’s the Luthor who’s on my Christmas card list.  Lionel is the Luthor that I actually completely distrust and wouldn’t deal with even if I had no choice.  Lex is probably far too much to handle for you, and Lionel can run rings around him when he wants to.  You are, quite frankly, out of your league.”

“While I appreciate the advice, Mr. Worthington, this is too much of an opportunity for me to just turn it down because you don’t trust Lionel Luthor … or me.”

Worthington retorted,  “Some opportunities aren’t worth the cost.”

Chloe didn’t reply.

Worthington sighed, and said, “So, let me offer this piece of advice:  when this goes wrong and you get in over your head, remember that you can call on me.  I do like you, Ms. Sullivan, and I’d hate to see you get hurt.”

“I’ll remember that, ” Chloe replied, slightly sarcastically.  “Any more words of advice?”

Worthington stood and headed for the door, and said, “Just one”.

Then he leaned in close to her ear and said in a tone just slightly above a whisper, “You will regret it for the rest of your life … if you don’t try the caramel cheesecake.  It’s superb.”

Straightening, he said, “Goodbye, Ms. Sullivan” and walked out of the restaurant.

And yes, that last line pretty much is the only reason I wrote this up.  And that’s it for Fanfic Thursday this week.  Short, but at least I did something this week [grin].