Archive for January, 2011

Let’s make this difficult …

January 28, 2011

I’ve mentioned before.  I write a mostly weekly column for that site, similar to Shamus Young’s Experienced Points called “Not-So-Casual Commentary”.  So I decided to take another good idea from him and link to my work there from here.  So here’s the latest column, about DCUO:

Of course, he can generate a lot more hits for The Escapist than I can from my little blog … but, as in all things, it’s the thought that counts.

No, no panic at all …

January 28, 2011

So, I’m in the process of applying for a PhD in Philosophy.  I put my application in on Tuesday with a few oddities, but thought everything was okay.  Then, I got an E-mail Thursday morning — sent after midnight that night — saying that my application was incomplete and that I should check what I had to submit.  Now, I knew that transcripts weren’t in yet, but there were some other potential issues.  And it didn’t tell me what was actually missing.

So, after I managed to calm my heart rate, I decided to wait until the evening, since if there was an unexpected issue the admin had said that she’d E-mail me.  So if I got something from her, I’d have to run around trying to get it all straightened out, but if not then … well, I didn’t know what I’d do.

Got home, checked … no E-mail.  But quite spontaneously I decided to check the on-line status of the application to see if it had changed.  It now said that everything had been received and it would be reviewed in a few weeks.

So I was worrying for nothing.

Now, here’s the main question:  knowing that people might get at least slightly panicked over these things — since they’re important — how hard would it be to include in the E-mail what was missing, so that they could know if they needed to worry or do anything?  If the computer can detect that it is incomplete, it can print what’s missing, even if it prints everything with an “OK” or “Missing” beside it.  Instead, I was simply told to check the things I had to hand in, but if I had thought I had left something out I wouldn’t have needed the E-mail in the first place.

And it’s also odd that I never got a mail saying “It’s all okay”.  Surely the system can — and should — send that out.

Sigh.  Well, at least it’s all okay now.  I think.

‘Rica, I’m Comin’ Home …

January 27, 2011

So, one of my hobbies has been writing song parodies, so I thought I’d start putting some of my old ones up here, and any new ones that I put together.

I came up with this one while playing the Battlestar Galactica board game by PBF.  I like to get into character when playing that game, and for a time I played as Gaius Baltar and really got into it.  In the game I wrote this for, I was actually a hidden Cylon, and used this as my send-off when they finally executed me and sent me to that goo bath in the sky.  A literal goo bath in the sky, if you know the series:

Times have changed and times are strange
Here I come but I ain’t the same
‘Rica, I’m comin home
Times gone by, seems to me
They could have been better friends to me
‘Rica, I’m comin home

They took me in and they drove me out
But you have me hypnotized, yeah
Lost and found and turned around
By the fire in your eyes

You made me cry, you told me lies
But I can’t bear to stay behind
‘Rica, I’m comin home
It could be right, it could be wrong
But hurts so bad it’s been so long
‘Rica, I’m comin home

Selfish ones now they’re all alone
The rise before the fall, yeah
But I’m gonna make them soldier on
They’re just gonna get it all

I’ve seen your face a hundred times
Everyday we’ve been apart
I don’t care about the sunshine, yeah
‘Cause ‘Rica, ‘Rica, I’m comin home
I’m comin home
I’m comin home

They took me in and they drove me out
But you have me hypnotized, yeah
Lost and found and turned around
By the fire in your eyes

I’ve seen your face a thousand times
Everyday we’ve been apart
I don’t care about the sunshine, yeah
‘Cause ‘Rica, ‘Rica, I’m comin home
I’m comin home
I’m comin home

Stories, fanfic, and so on …

January 21, 2011

Okay, so let me restate my intentions on all of this stuff:

I intend to do more stories and fanfic on this blog.  It’ll be a nice break from my philosophical and theological ramblings and also give me an excuse and forum to do it.

Right now, though, I’m too busy to actually do it without driving myself insane.

So, the long and short of it is:  you’ll get some stuff, but I can’t say when.

But you’ll get one of my old short stories now, while you wait:


DCUO: much pain, little gain.

January 20, 2011

So, I picked the game up on Monday, but didn’t have time to do anything with it.  I sat down in the evening on Tuesday and installed it.  That went okay, at least in terms of time.  I then tried to create an account.  My standard id was in use, and I wondered if it might have been by me (I had Star Wars:  Galaxies for a while), but didn’t want to risk it, so I tried to create a new account.  It failed, with the quite descriptive error 1020.  I tried again a few times, and it still didn’t work.  So, in frustration, I decided to try under my standard id.  It used the password I thought it would have used.  But I wasn’t sure it was mine, so I got them to send me a password reset request.  When that went to my E-mail, the account was mine.  Excellent!

So, I have to subscribe.  After a bit of trouble figuring out when and where to put in the access key, I finally got into that.  Filled in the information, made a couple of mistakes, corrected, tried … and it failed.  Tried again, and it finally actually succeeded, though I still have no idea why it failed the first time.  Anyway, it worked without too much effort, and I went on.

Ah, then it had to download patches.  Fair enough.  I think it took, though, a couple of hours and my machine and connection aren’t exactly slow, and so that ended when it was time to go to sleep.  Ah, well, I’ll pick it up the next day.

So, last night, I settle in to play.  Log in, press the “Play” option, game starts … and dies, complaining that it can’t find dx3dsl10.dll or something like that.  It recommends I reinstall the game.  I try a couple more times, reboot, and it still has the same problem.  I’m on Windows 7, but I’m not sure that should matter.  I don’t have time to reinstall, so I quit for the night in frustration.

So far, not so good.

EDIT:  Looking at the specs, they do recommend having XP.  So that might be an issue.  I’ll have to see if I can find a fix for it.  Oddly, I’ve found this sort of problem before, with Star Trek:  Birth of the Federation, where later OSes didn’t have a system file the system required.  So it worked for me, but not for a friend of mine, and when I upgraded my OS it stopped working for me.

However, I just did a search and it looks like the error is happening to others, but it’s not really one that’s been solved.  The file is d3dx10_41.dll.  I found a recommendation to reinstall. I am not amused … in any sense of the word.

Jerry Coyne has questions; I have answers.

January 19, 2011

Too bad he’ll probably never read them.


  • The correct translation of the frequent claim that “The Bible is not a textbook of science” is this: “The Bible is not literally true, except for those places where I say it’s literally true.”
  • Why is Collins so sure that he knows what God intended when “writing” the Bible, especially since other Christian sects disagree?
  • How does Collins know exactly which parts of the Bible are “not science” (i.e., fiction) and which parts are?  If Genesis and Adam and Eve are “not science”, why is the Resurrection “science”?  There’s precisely the same amount of empirical evidence—i.e., zero—for each of these stories. “


1)  This is, in fact, not an accurate translation, since it isn’t what people mean.  I’m pretty sure it isn’t what Collins means, and it isn’t what I mean.  When I, at least, say that the Bible is not a science textbook I mean that it literally isn’t a science textbook.  The message God was trying to get across was not an in-depth and detailed scientific account, but was instead a message of who He was and how to act appropriately in the world.  That would mean putting things in terms people understand and focusing on things like morals, rituals, and histories of people that we — supposedly — should emulate.  That the Bible does focus on that cannot be disputed, so it seems that my claim of intent seems pretty fair.

2) The same way I’m sure what the Roman Stoic Seneca meant by “passion” even though there are clearly people who disagree with me about what passion means to the Stoics:  from reading it and putting it together into a package that makes the most sense, all things considered.  But what’s most interesting about this is that Collins is, I hope, willing to do what all people who interpret historical or philosophical texts do and be open to counter-arguments from things as varied as translation to historical significance in determining what the right interpretation is.  I know I am.  Again, I can argue for my view of emotion in Seneca, and so can the people who disagree with me.  That should be true of Biblical interpretation as well, and that there can be disagreement cannot mean that there is no right interpretation, or that we can’t have better ones.  All that we need is to be able to support our claims with reason and evidence, where the evidence is, well, the appropriate evidence for interpreting a work.

3)  Well, I don’t think Collins — or anyone, anyway — equates “not science” with “fiction”.  See the answer to the first point for that.  I don’t think anyone considers the Resurrection “science” except possibly in that really weird and broad definition of science that Coyne uses and no one else does.  I would consider the Resurrection “history”, an event that actually occurred.  So, not fiction, but not science either (unless history must be science, which is a rather odd claim and almost certainly not using the definition of science that Collins uses, which would make that sort of response a prime example of equivocation).  Remember, this starts from discussions of Genesis and how the world was created and how we came about and, essentially, creationism versus evolution.  Collins, it seems to me, is simply claiming that insisting that the world must be created as it was literally described in the Bible as opposed to treating it as a nice story that the people at the time could understand is not reasonable, since there’s no reason to think that anyone was ever supposed to take that message away from the Biblical story.  The Bible is not a science textbook.  But that doesn’t mean that the historical portions of it aren’t meant to be history, and the moral portions aren’t meant to be morals, and so on and so forth.

Really, the last question just isn’t a valid question as it has nothing to do with what anyone is actually saying.  In that case, Coyne should stop, reload and come back with a specific objection or claim as to how the Resurrection should have been considered science in the first place.

Harris replies to Blackford via Coyne …

January 19, 2011


I’m going to go through his responses, but before I do let me say that a lot of my replies will focus on pointing out that Harris is missing the key underlying thread of all the criticisms: that he hasn’t defined his own view of it all being dependent on well-being and how that will work well enough for anyone to understand how it is actually supposed to work.



  • How do we actually measure well being?; for that is what we must do to make moral judgments.  The metric for well being of a person, or an animal, must differ from that of groups or societies, yet they’re to be put on a single scale. In some cases, of course, it’s easy; in others, seemingly impossible.
This is simply not a problem for my thesis (recall my “answers in practice vs. answers in principle” argument). There is a difference between how we verify the truth of a proposition and what makes a proposition true. How many breaths did I take last Tuesday? I don’t know, and there is no way to find out. But there is a correct, numerical answer to this question (and you can bet the farm that it falls between 5 and 5 million).”
The issue here is that I don’t think that Coyne was, in fact, really making a comment about it being hard to figure out how well-being shakes out in all cases.  I think he was really getting at — and this is likely true of most of the points — how it’s hard to imagine even in theory how to balance all of those states of well-being.  To say that something promotes a person’s well-being and what does that is likely to be totally different from how you’d do that for society, or a group in a society, or an animal.  How to balance all of these when seemingly the scientific terms and units will completely differ?  Harris may be able to eliminate considering some of these concerns, but he would have to say that explicitly … and he never does.
To put it another way, we all know that breaths are measured in number of breaths.  The practical issue in his analogy is one of information, but we know exactly what information we need and exactly how to go about getting it in his analogy.  The complaint that Coyne is making is that he has no idea how to go about reconciling all of these things that he thinks are important to Harris’ theory into one set unified set of units so that we can do proper comparisons between the different types of well being, and is clearly asking about what information we need and how we’ll get it.  It simply isn’t an issue of “principle vs practice” as Harris asserts; the underlying concern is completely different.
Harris continues to not actually reply to criticisms in the next section:
  • Given that, how do we trade off different types of well-being? How do you determine, for example, whether torture is moral? In some case, as Harris pointed out in The End of Faith, torture may save innumerable lives, but there’s a societal effect in sanctioning it.  How do you weigh these?  How do you determine whether the well-being of animals outweighs the well-being we experience when eating meat?
These are all interesting questions. Some might admit of clear answers, while others might be impossible to resolve. But this is not my problem. The case I make in the book is that morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice). The fact that we can easily come up with questions that are hard or impossible to answer does not challenge my thesis.”
Look closely at what most of what he claims his point is:  morality depends on the existence of conscious minds,  minds are natural phenomena, and therefore moral truths exist.  While this is quite shaky — I actually disagree with the first premise, and Harris makes a poor argument for that in the book — note what you don’t see in it.  You don’t see any relation to “well-being”.  When I did my long discussion of Harris’ replies to Sean Carroll, I noted this problem:
“Harris seems to be trying to derive his entire view from a relation to consciousness.  That should mean that he takes a well-defined and fairly strong view of what it means for values to relate to consciousness.  But note that here he uses all sorts of vague words around this.  He starts from “consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value” which says nothing about what that means but seems nicely strong, and then asks what would happen if someone said “No, morality is not related to consciousness at all”.  And this just dismisses that as not being of interest to anyone, as if he doesn’t even need to argue for that.  What gives?  Does he simply mean that, say, any moral code has to be something that conscious beings can think and understand?  Well, duh, but so what?  That doesn’t mean that the properties of consciousness itself  have any relevance to what is or isn’t moral, or that we should start from consciousness as opposed to starting from, say, the definition of morality to figure out what is or isn’t moral.  In short, his last sentence isn’t supported by his claim, unless he can actually argue for and explain in what sense morals have to relate to consciousness.  Which he never does.  So I’m going to go with “Conscious beings have to be able to understand it” and then claim that that can relate to no actual consciousness at all of anything in the world, but only of rules and reason.  Which will, of course, demolish the idea that somehow “well-being” is the determining factor, but if he doesn’t like it he’s free to define his terms and argue for them.”


Which he doesn’t do here.  He tosses out “consciousness” and expects it to answer questions about well-being, but he doesn’t show how to get to well-being from consciousness and there’s no necessary reason to think you can.  And so it is a complete non-answer to try to address issues people are raising about the specifics of well-being to claim that he defined it all by consciousness, even though he’s still missing the step to well-being.


“There may be many equivalent peaks on the moral landscape: on some everyone might favor their friends and family to a degree that is compatible with universal well-being; perhaps on others everyone is truly impartial. No doubt there will be other regions lower down on the ML where people are highly biased towards their nearest and dearest, at a significant cost to everyone. Perhaps there are also regions where everyone is truly impartial, but their impartiality functions in concert with other factors so as to degrade the well-being of everyone. Every possible weighting of us-vs.-them can be represented in this space, along with all other relevant variables — and each will have consequences in terms of the well-being of everyone involved. Yes, there will be worlds in which some very selfish people make out rather well while causing great misery to others. And yes, it could be impossible to convince these people that life would be better if they behaved differently. But so what? These won’t be peaks on the landscape, and it will still be true to say that movement upwards toward a peak will be constrained by the laws of nature.”


Okay, quick question:  why won’t they be peaks on the landscape?  And another: what does it actually mean to say that movement towards a “peak” will be constrained by the laws of nature?

The objection he’s flailing at here is basically the standard question asked about Utilitarianism — which Harris is shamelessly stealing from — that asks “Is it really immoral or wrong to put the concerns of those closest to me over the global welfare?”.  Harris doesn’t answer that here.  Instead, he waxes eloquently about there being many equivalent peaks, and then about there being some things that aren’t peaks.  But he’s still casting it all in light of his insistence on global welfare and well-being being the ultimate consideration.  Unfortunately, that’s what’s being questioned here, but asking if it would be really bad to consider your own family ahead of someone else even if that would objectively cause less well-being at a global level.  Harris’s reply is a long-winded version of “Yes”, but he doesn’t justify it.  At all.  And that’s really what’s being demanded here.


“Blackford (along with everyone else) has gotten bogged down in the concepts of “should” and “ought.” We simply don’t have to think about morality in these terms. Yes, we feel certain moral imperatives — I can be overcome by remorse, for instance, and feel that I “should” apologize for something that I’ve done. But this is just a folk-psychological way of talking about my experience in relationship to others. What if my apologizing in this instance would create an immensity of suffering for everyone on earth? Well, then, I “shouldn’t” do it. And if I still felt a nagging sense that I still should apologize, I “should” ignore this very feeling. Whether we feel that we should do something, or can convince others that they should do it, is all but irrelevant to the question of whether we will be moving up or down on the ML (modulo the psychological cost of living with nagging feelings of “should”).”

Note that Harris sticks strictly to “should” after introducing “should” and “ought” in the beginning.  This unfortunately allows for an equivocation to sneak in here.  “Ought”, by philosophical definition, is not “… a folk-psychological way of talking about my experience in relationship to others.”  It, in fact, denotes the actual moral responsibility one has, as Blackford absolutely knows (and Harris doesn’t seem to understand).  Thus, if one accepts Harris’ view, Harris would be saying that they ought to not apologize if doing so would cause more suffering, and that if they thought they ought to apologize they would be wrong.   That’s the statement that he needs to defend and prove:  that these people are, in fact, wrong.  For his point to work, he must take ought in precisely the same way as Blackford takes it, and he surely does.  That, then, is not the actual problem that he needs to address, and it boggles my mind that he’s missed this so completely.
“Humans draw strong moral distinctions between different situations that have seemingly identical consequences (e.g., the trolley problem and the organ-donation problem).  But perhaps Harris would respond that our morality is simply misguided here.
I’ve discussed this a fair amount in my public talks. Yes, it is possible for our moral intuitions to be misguided — and we need to learn to ignore certain framing effects. In this case, however, it is also possible that we are responding to the fact that the situations are not actually the same. If pushing a person is just BOUND to have a much bigger effect on us than flipping a switch–well, then, we have to take this effect into account. Needless to say, we could concoct a trolley problem that made this nonequivalence undeniable: just imagine a version in which the man you were being asked to push had the opportunity to plead for his life and show you pictures of his wife and children…”
Here, though, is where Harris reveals the split in his work.  He is not using science at all to determine the underlying moral principle of well-being (he actually admits this in the book).  That he’s doing philosophically.  It’s only at the level of determining what counts as well-being that he allows science to have a role.  So … that whole “morality is natural” thing doesn’t seem all that important now, does it?  After all, if it was the trolley cases wouldn’t just be cases where our moral intuitions are wrong, because they’d relate to conscious beings and their actual conscious states wrt morality.  So he’s not looking at morality “naturally”, or at least not as a natural product of human minds.  He’s not doing an “is” for his underlying moral principle.  He’s starting straight from an ought, and putting science to the side.  And that’s not an interesting use of science in morality.
“Again, this totally misses the point of my argument. And the same annihilating claim could be made about any branch of science. There are no scientific values that command assent in the way that Blackford worries morality should. Why value human well-being? Well, why value logic, or evidence, or understanding the universe? Some people don’t, and there’s no talking to them. The fact that some people cannot be reached on the subject of physics — or use the term “physics” in ways that we cannot sanction — says absolutely nothing about the limitations of physics or about the nature of physical truth. Why should differences of opinion hold any more weight on the subject of good and evil?”
See, here’s why:  if I have a goal of understanding the universe or, in fact, doing science, it can be objectively proven that the best way to do that is, in fact, to use logic and evidence to settle that.  If I don’t have either of those two goals, then I won’t care about the entire field, and so the question of my doing science or understanding the universe is moot.  In short, I won’t be doing physics, and I won’t care about that.  At all.
Now, in the case of morality all of us — Harris, myself, Coyne, Blackford and many, many others — care about doing morality.  We want to be moral, and want to do morality the right way.  Harris is saying that the right way to do morality is to care solely about global well-being.  And the reply from all of us is a quite justified “Why?”.  Harris, then, owes us the same proofs for that principle that he has access to for logic and reason and the scientific method when doing science … that it works better.  And to do that, he needs to define “Better at doing what?”.  That means he needs to know the goal and purpose of morality.  And he doesn’t have any of those things.  Mere differences of opinion aren’t the problem, but the fact that when he faces a difference of opinion he has no way to settle it is.
As a final aside/shot, many people have been saying that his book is worth reading.  I can’t see how anyone could possibly think so.  The book doesn’t give enough detail on his own theory to make that theory clear to anyone reading it, or give them any real sense of how science fits into it and why we should buy it.  If this was done as an actual paper, I can’t imagine any other outcome than it being sent back with “Needs work”.  And he spends so much time on his own theory and ideas that he doesn’t give any sort of good overall view of the state of morality, even as he sees it.
If you want a book on the subject that’s worth reading, read Jesse J. Prinz’s “The Emotional Construction of Morals”.  He still has problems, but he has a clear theory and spends a lot of time relating it to directly opposing viewpoints.
Skip “The Moral Landscape”.

Sink the Pink …

January 19, 2011

So, over at the Agony Booth there’s a series of commentaries on a short-lived — six episodes, of which five were actually shown — variety series called “Pink Lady … and Jeff”:

The heading paragraph describes it like this:

“It was the Spring of 1980. Disco was dead. Variety shows were dying. What better time for NBC to launch Pink Lady… and Jeff, a variety show starring two average-looking Japanese pop stars who sang disco songs phonetically, and the mediocre stand-up who loved them?”

(Of course, the first recap calls them “hot” instead of “average”, so that’s what I’m gonna go with).

Now, after reading the recaps I thought “Hey, this might be good for a laugh and I like attractive Japanese pop starts in skimpy outfits as much as the next guy, so let’s see what it would cost me to get this DVD”.  And here it is:

Okay, it’s out of print, that’s not a surprise … so how much are people selling it for?

How much?

$471.48 new (Canadian, I think) and $368.18 used.  One copy a piece.

Now, again, I like watching attractive Japanese pop stars in skimpy outfits as much as the next guy, but if that’s all that this show has going for it — and the recaps make it seem like, yeah, that’s pretty much all it has going for it — I can’t imagine anyone actually paying that much for this box set.  And $400 can get you a heck of a lot more attractive Japanese women in even skimpier outfits (like they’re wearing nothing at all!).  Possibly even singing.

Now, maybe this is rare and you’d have someone who is, in fact, a rabid fan of either Pink Lady or, shudder, Jeff Altman and might pay that much.  But I can’t imagine it.  Not just because I can’t imagine someone being such a big fan of, at least, Jeff Altman that they would pay that much, but also because I can’t imagine someone being that big a fan who didn’t get that set when it was first released, since, you know, they’d have actually heard about it.  Unlike me, for example.

If that’s at all a reasonable price — meaning that past history has shown that, yes, you could actually get that price for that set — then this is crying out for the company that released it in the first place to re-release it and both undercut such sellers taking advantage of buyers who are clearly insane, but also to make more money off of this thing that clearly wasn’t successful the first time around.

As a point of comparison, the original Battlestar Galactica series — also out of print — sells for $80 new on Amazon.  Yes, it’s certainly less rare … but it’s also both a far better show and contains far more hours of entertainment.  And you get to see Lorne Greene for more than just a short segment; it’s all Lorne Greene all the time.

Pleasure, pain and sex …

January 13, 2011

So, yesterday in my response to Coyne’s list of things that make him angry, I argued in response to his anger about religions  that restrict sexuality that what reflects our humanity is not pleasure or the pleasure of sex, but in fact our ability to restrict those sorts of things, and subordinate those instincts to rationality and other goals.  This, of course, could be taken as being anti-pleasure or anti-sex, and so I thought I’d take a moment to spell out what my actual thoughts on the matter are.

I’m not against pleasure.  Pleasure is, well, pleasant.  And I’m not opposed to seeking pleasure or avoiding pain.  I do both, fairly frequently.  But, to me, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are not, in and of themselves, inherently good or useful goals.  They aren’t always what we should do, and they aren’t always the right thing to do.  It seems obvious to me that seeking pleasure isn’t always morally right; rape is an obvious case of this.  And it always seems obvious to me that sometimes we should accept pain in order to do what’s right.  If someone wanted to torture me to tell them where to find someone so that they could kill them, my fervent hope would be that I would be able to say “Go ahead; I’ll tell you nothing.”  I’m not sure I actually could do that — I’m only human, after all — but I certainly thing I ought to do that, and that it would be a weakness if I didn’t.

And, in general, most people seem to agree.  No one accepts “It makes me feel good” as an excuse when someone does something that we think is morally wrong, and most people understand but regret it when someone does something that we think is immoral to avoid pain.  So the only way to make a case that seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are in and of themselves worthy or the most worthy goals to pursue is to claim that what it means to be moral is just to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  As we’ve just seen, at the individual level that doesn’t seem to work.  We all seem to accept that individual pleasure and pain is not synonymous with right.

Enter the utilitarian view and other similar concepts, that argue that what is right is what achieves the most pleasure and the least pain for everyone.  But this has a problem.  The problem is that the biggest benefit to taking any hedonistic viewpoint is that everyone can agree that pleasure is desirable (at least in some way) and pain is undesirable.  So if you use that as the basis for your morality, you won’t have too much trouble getting people to accept — at least in principle — that your underlying principles are desirable (some will disagree, but that will usually be for other reasons or because they have other underlying principles, not because they don’t think that people want pleasure and want to avoid pain).  However, that only works at the individual level.  While even a staunch egoist will accept that their own pleasure and pain are worth desiring, they may have issues with accepting that the pleasure and pain of others matters.  Moving from the individual to everyone loses that basic agreement.  There are ways to fix that up, but they end up looking an awful lot like a Hobbesian Social Contract, where we all agree to care about the pleasure and pain of others because that impacts our own pleasure and pain.  Which leads to the quite justified stance that you’ll care about the pleasure and pain of others only to the extent that it facilitates your own pleasure and pain, and so you would quite happily rape someone if you thought you could get away with it, and have a significant net gain of pleasure.  Which, of course, is not what we wanted.

Okay, after that digression, for me pleasure and pain are indifferents, in the Stoic sense.  They are neither virtuous nor vicious, neither inherently good nor inherently bad.  Following from Seneca, then, my view is that as long as I don’t do anything vicious to get pleasure or avoid pain, I can get as much pleasure and avoid as much pain as I want.  And since for the Stoics virtue and vice are tightly tied to rationality and irrationality, as long as I seek pleasure and avoid pain rationally I’m okay.  To put it more simply, my view is that I will never do anything immoral or stupid to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are things I want, but I’ll give up pleasure when it makes sense to and take pain when it makes sense to.  This, to me, doesn’t seem like an anti-pleasure stance, but really about putting pleasure and pain in their rightful places, keeping in mind those faculties — reason and morality, for example — that make me human.

Now, onto sex.  Sex is, of course, one of the greatest pleasures we can experience.  But the pleasure it provides — being pleasure — is still an indifferent.  I still won’t do something immoral or stupid to get sex.  But sex has a little more to it because there’s more involved in sex than just pleasure.  There’s reproduction, and relationships, and love and all sorts of things.  For me, meaningful sex is preferred over casual sex; anything done with meaning is better than something done just for a pleasurable experience.  But this doesn’t mean that casual sex is bad and should never be done.  After all, sometimes having ice cream as a meal is okay.  You just shouldn’t make a habit of it.  And the same thing can be said for casual sex.

Here’s really what I don’t want to see.  I would find it very sad if the following situation could occur:  You have two people who are not in a relationship (and are just friends) who are planning on going out later that day, and have a few hours to kill.  As they kick around what to do, they suggest watching a movie, playing cards, playing a board game … or having sex.  And they decide to have sex with no more meaning or emotion or importance attached to that than they would attach to any of the other activities.  Personally, I think that sex really should mean more than that.  I could be wrong, but that’s my own personal view.

Who’s angry now?

January 12, 2011

Jerry Coyne made a fairly angry paragraph about anger, and I want to reply to it.  The post is here:

The section, basically, is a long list of the things that Coyne is mad at religion about.  And as he says ” …our anger is a good thing.”

The biggest thing to keep in mind that Coyne really is talking about anger directed directly at religion for these things.

“I’m angry that millions of Catholic kids get permanently traumatized with visions of hell, and permanently riddled with guilt about “sins” like masturbation.”

I’m not sure here if the “millions” is supposed to be a percentage or reflect just all Catholics.  I don’t think it matters though, because children get traumatized — unfortunately — while being taught things they need to learn all the time.  Take a look at and look at the long section for Public Service Announcements.  We scare kids a lot teaching them how to avoid things that are bad.  I’m not saying this is good or that we shouldn’t try to do it in a less traumatizing way.  But these parents and, in general, those priests do think that Hell is a real thing that they’re teaching their children to avoid.  The same thing applies to the guilt; we make our children quite guilty when they do wrong.

So what’s Coyne’s beef here?  That Catholics scare their kids over things that aren’t real and make them guilty over things that shouldn’t make someone feel guilty.  Thus, he’s mad at them for being wrong.  But is anger over these sorts of things “a good thing“?  Probably not, since they would quite likely think that some of the things that scare Coyne and that he’s willing to risk traumatizing his — or other — kids over are wrong, and certainly that some of the things that he thinks someone should feel guilty about are not things to feel guilty about.  In short, from other angles he’s the one traumatizing and instilling guilt for things that shouldn’t.  If they get angry at him, and he gets angry at them, aren’t we all just angry?  How does that help in figuring out which ones are right?

But this isn’t about religion, or at least it shouldn’t be … unless Coyne gets angry about religion first — it being so obviously wrong and all — and then applies it here.  That, however, would kill his idea that this is a reason to be angry at religion, which is what he’s using it to be.  Either way, he either has to include non-religious disagreements of the same sort or accept that, really, he’s just angry at religion.  Either way, it’s not ” … a good thing.

” I’m angry that priests, under cover of their own superior wisdom and spirituality, sexually victimize their flocks.”

Because no one else uses claims of authority or wisdom or position to do that, right?  Oh, wait, that’s unfortunately not uncommon.  Again, this isn’t something to get angry at religion about, except by using it to argue that religion gives these people undue authority.  And yet, we could say the same thing about rock music or movies, since celebrity seems to confer authority, at times, on those people.  So even that isn’t specific to religion.  Yet again, Coyne seems to be angry at religion first, and then tosses out reasons to support that anger.  This, it seems to me, is the prime problem with anger:  it tends to always want to justify itself.

 “I’m angry that mullahs are calling for their followers to kill innocent people, while other more “liberal” mullahs refrain from calls for murder but don’t decry those murders when they occur. ”

Ah … so he’s angry at one particular sect, and that justifies the anger against the general “religion”.  Got it.   And that doesn’t even ask whether this would be limited to religion in the first place.

” I’m angry that thousands of Africans will die because the Pope and his priests won’t sanction condoms for their flock.”

No, those thousands of Africans will die because they’ve decided to sin — ie have sex out of wedlock — but then will use the excuse of sin to avoid using condoms.  If those people stuck to committed relationships, there wouldn’t be anywhere near as much of an issue, and refusing to use condoms while participating in what is already a sin smacks far more of rationalization than of any legitimate religious belief.  If these people actually followed the tenets of their religion as a whole, there wouldn’t be a problem.  They don’t.  How is that the fault of that religion?

And, again, one religion, not all of them.

“I’m angry that many religions see, and treat, women as second-class citizens, stoning them, swathing them in burkhas, or making them sit in different places in the synagogue and purify themselves in ritual baths during menstruation. ”

Well, of course, they don’t stone women for being women but, hey, what’s a little exaggeration among friends?  And they do stone men, too, as far as I know.  So moving on to the others, the problem again comes down to disagreement.  Coyne thinks that those things injure the dignity of women; they think that those things preserve the dignity of women as women.  I disagree with all of the above things and with that reasoning, but again all that means is that I think that they’re wrong.  And I’m fairly certain that when we get into discussions of dignity as persons, I’ll disagree with Coyne on some of those (in fact, we’ll get into one later in this post; stay tuned!).  What good will anger do?  Again, we’ll all be angry at everyone else; that’s certainly not ” … a good thing.

“I’m angry at the stupid dogmatism that’s behind creationism, and behind the idea that even if evolution might have happened, God did it all.”

So, Coyne’s angry about the dogmatism, but dogmatism is not limited to religion.  He could be angry about people holding the idea of creationism or that God guided evolution … but that, again, would be anger at someone being wrong.  And it seems that it would start, again, from Coyne being angry at religion as opposed to this being a reason for him to be so.

“I’m angry at the faithful who dispute global warming, or environmental depredation, because they think God gave us stewardship over the earth.”

But if they thought that God giving us stewardship over the Earth means that we have to take care of it properly and therefore we should oppose environmental depredation and deal with global warming — as some do — that would be okay, then?

There are many non-religious philosophies that would support the anti-environmentalist stance and many religious reasons to take the environmentalist stance.  Again, he’s angry at religion, and picking out examples to justify that.  And taking my Stoic leanings into account, I’d be very tempted to just sum that up with “He’s angry”.

“I’m angry at those people who oppose abortion or stem-cell research because of the absolutely stupid idea that a ball of cells is equivalent to a sentient person.”

People disagree with you, for reasons that may not be religious.  Again, you think the idea stupid, they don’t.  You think they’re wrong; they think you’re wrong.  At this point, we’re heading straight into “blind and toothless” territory; if your anger is justified because you think them wrong they are justified in being angry with you because they think you’re wrong.  And we get nowhere.

“I’m angry at the faithful who, on religious grounds, prevent suffering and terminally ill people from deciding to end their own lives.”

But if it wasn’t on religious grounds, it would be okay?  This isn’t the example I mentioned above (it’s coming soon!) but some people do consider that to not show the proper dignity to people.  Personally, I’m more concerned with pragmatics than anything else.  But again it all comes down to either being angry at religion and searching for things to justify that anger or being angry with someone because you think they’re wrong.  Neither, again, are good.

“I’m angry that one of the greatest pleasures of being human, the act of sex, is subject to insane restrictions and prohibitions by many faiths—especially when it’s between two people of the same gender.”

Here’s where the dignity disagreement comes in:  it is ludicrous, to me, to consider sex “one of the greatest pleasures of being human”.  There’s no reason to think that we, as humans, get any more pleasure out of having sex than animals do.  There is nothing particularly human about sex.  Sex in service of love, maybe, since we might be able to have a deeper intellectual understanding that allows us to experience a deeper form of love than animals.  Or perhaps not.

But what makes us human is, in fact, our rationality and unprecedented ability to control and override our baser instincts and feelings with that rationality.  The higher brain functions are what humans have more than any other species so far and are what make us uniquely human.  In a sense, subordinating these sorts of feelings to practical advantage — only to have children — or to deeper relationships is the prime expression of us as ideal and ultimate humans.  That very thing that Coyne thinks is so critical to humans and, one presumes, to their dignity as such I consider to be the ultimate expression of our dignity as humans.

So, while sex is certainly one of our greatest pleasures, it’s not necessarily the best expression of our humanity.

Should I be angry at Coyne, or he with me?  And note that my view is far more Stoic than religious, so is he going to take them on as well, and be “angry”?  Are philosophical differences worth getting angry over?  How is he getting angry with me or me getting angry with him going to settle those differences, except by force?

(Of course, real Stoics wouldn’t get angry, or at least wouldn’t let that anger influence their actions.)

“And I’m angry that religious people try to suppress freedom of speech when it deals with religion, trying to prevent us from calling attention to all this damage.”

Of course, the fact that, say, making claims that gay marriage should not be allowed or that homosexuality is immoral has brought people before the Human Rights Commision in Canada and can be considered hate speech in Canada is completely different, right?

Of course, Coyne might think that that is as bad as what he says religions do, but that would be another nail in the anger coffin.

Ultimately, anger is not good.  It makes you act irrationally and rationalize your anger, even when the target doesn’t deserve it or other things do, too.  So why does Coyne think it good?

“Again, the proper response to religious stupidity, as it was to segregation in the South, is anger—persistent anger.  Anger that remains until the kind of religion that forces its tenets and superstitions down humanity’s throat vanishes for good.”

I’m thinking that this reflects a “By the power of Grayskull” vibe, a Popeye and his spinach vibe, a vibe of “Your anger gives you strength”.  That the anger reflects the caring and passion needed to oppose “religious stupidity” and make religion go away.  The problem is that angry is a really bad passion to do that with, since it can often lead to extreme measures being taken and an unwillingness to listen to the other side and form any sort of rational compromise.

Try it.  Get yourself all ramped up and angry, and list what “solutions” you came up with to the problem that made you angry in the first place.  I’d be willing to bet that most of the time, in the sober light of faded anger, you’ll be shocked at them and consider them to be really stupid ideas.  Anger, often, is in contradiction to reason; you don’t act rationally when angry.  But it does make you act.  And that, to me, is its greatest vice.

Say no to anger.  Don’t give in to the dark side.  It’s time to stop acting under the influence of anger.

Anger is not a good thing.  Ever.