Archive for February, 2011

Visual Art and the Aesthetic …

February 23, 2011

Despite my previously saying that I have no real interest in visual art — specifically, paintings and sculptures — as I’ve thought about it further I think that perhaps the main reason that visual art is so commonly used as examples is that it really reflects the closest thing we have to a pure aesthetic experience.

Many people think that in order to appreciate or understand the aesthetic value of something, you have to pretty much engage with it directly.  You are interacting with the, say, art object directly, with a minimum of interference from other objects.  Ideally, you’d be interacting only with the aesthetic properties, and the entertainment you feel — I’m not using the term “pleasure” deliberately because it may have some issues — when observing the object should be tied as closely as possible to the aesthetic properties.  In short, as little as possible should be coming from non-aesthetic properties (whatever that means).

But if you look at music, movies and TV shows, the overall entertainment can be derived from things other than the aesthetic properties.  All of these can tell a story, which surely is not in and of itself aesthetic.  All of them may try to make you laugh, and just tell jokes (for music, see Moxy Fruvous and Weird Al Yankovic for that).  For movies, TV shows and books, in general the main source of entertainment is supposed to be the story; the aesthetic is most often subordinate to that.  For music, it’s more complicated, as it very much can try to provide entertainment in other ways but doesn’t have to.

But there generally isn’t a story in a painting, or in a sculpture.  There may be a story behind it, or even one that’s supposed to be in it, but in general all you have is an image.  It’s not usually trying to make you laugh unless it is a comic strip relying on visual humour.  Painting and sculpture, as art, generally tend to focus on aesthetic properties, and so when you enjoy a painting you really are enjoying — most of the time — its aesthetic properties and qualities.  It, generally, is as pure an aesthetic enjoyment as we can possibly get.

Now, things like conceptual art and even some modern art may stretch that a bit, asking that the viewer get entertainment from invoking concepts or story or something other than the aesthetic properties.  But it seems to me that while these may be overall more entertaining than some purely aesthetic works, they are not more entertaining aesthetically, as enjoying learning about and invoking/understanding concepts is not in and of itself an aesthetic enjoyment, or else reading an essay would be aesthetic (making aesthetic, to my mind, a pointless category).

Perhaps, then, this might explain my ambivalence towards visual art.  With only the aesthetic, my enjoyment is lessened.  I may well be able to hit some cases where the aesthetic impresses me — as is the case with music — but in general it doesn’t.  So, with things like music, books, movies and TV shows the alternative entertainments can make me enjoy it even if the aesthetic eludes me, which is not the case with visual art.

Armchair philosophy at its best, no [grin]?

Alternative Star Wars Prequels …

February 22, 2011

Well, due to a long reply by Jim Raynor to the Red Letter Media’s very long video criticizing the Phantom Menace, the Star Wars prequels are being talked about by geeks yet again.  I’ve read the reply and would like to reply to it, but that may take me a while.  But in reading it and the various discussions around it, I had an idea of how the prequels could have gone that I’d like to outline.

So, starting in “The Phantom Menace”, instead of introducing Qui-Gon, have the new Jedi be an apprentice.  Obi-Wan’s apprentice, specifically.  He’s the Master, she’s just an apprentice (and it would be nice to have her be, well, female, since there’s a dearth of female characters in the whole prequel trilogy).  He takes the main role, and she’s merely an average Jedi, a little tentative perhaps, and certainly not impetuous.  In terms of the Force, she’d be nowhere near as strong as Anakin.

The start can proceed mostly as it did; they find out that something’s up with the Trade Federation and go down to the planet.  They try to run the blockade.  But in this case, make Anakin a little older, and say the co-pilot on the Queen’s ship.  He takes them through the blockade based on pure piloting skill, as the main pilot was killed or injured in the rush to the ship.  Perhaps the main pilot was Owen.  They can take damage and have to set down on Tatooine if required.  Obi-Wan is impressed with Anakin’s skill as a pilot, and he senses the Force in him, at a very high level (just like Vader does in Luke in “A New Hope”).  Anyway, they need to get the credits, and Amidala happens to have a swoop along — she’s rich, and it might be a form of entertainment amongst the rich people — that Anakin normally races for her.  They hear about the race, bargain their way in, Anakin wins it, and Obi-Wan is even more impressed.  They get to Coruscant, and Obi-Wan brings him before the Council.  The same conversation occurs — he’s too old, and Obi-Wan can’t take him on since he has one, he says that she’s ready — and things are put aside again.  You can even keep the “Chosen One” mythology, but have it in the mind of Obi-Wan … or even planted by the Council.

Anyway, things proceed, and they return to Naboo.  The fight with Maul occurs, and Obi-Wan’s apprentice is killed.  Obi-Wan kills Maul, and that frees him to take on Anakin as an apprentice.  Owen decides he’s had enough excitement, and settles down on Tatooine, marrying a woman there.

What does this do?  It makes sense of the line that when Obi-Wan first encountered Anakin, he was already a great pilot.  It also makes sense of the line that he thought he could train Anakin as well as Yoda, as it gives him some actual props in training him instead of it being given to someone who’s barely out of Padawan status himself.  And it sets things up for the second movie.

In the second movie, the relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin stays about the same: antagonistic.  But now we have a reason.  Obi-Wan’s first apprentice was cautious and level-headed.  She would have lacked confidence in herself, and lacked overall Jedi powers.  Anakin is the exact opposite; brimming with power and confidence.  This puts Obi-Wan off; he has no idea how to deal with that.  He keeps treating Anakin like his first apprentice, which ends up holding Anakin back from knowledge and experience, and feeling that he has to prove something to Obi-Wan … specifically, that he has to prove that he’s as good as he is.  When he takes rash chances to do so, Obi-Wan criticizes him, and he feels that he’s just pushed himself further back.

Again, things can proceed generally as they did, but at some point Anakin confronts Obi-Wan with this.  Take out the scene where Anakin kills the Tuscans — since there’s no mother to “save” anyway — and have him eventually give the “You’re holding me back!” speech to Obi-Wan, closer to the end of the movie.  Heck, after the last fight scene, maybe.  Obi-Wan admits that he was comparing Anakin to his first apprentice, and that that wasn’t fair to him.  They then settle the issues between them and move on.

This helps set the next movie up, with them genuinely good friends.  But Palpatine’s manipulations get Anakin on the Council, but not as a Master.  And so, to Anakin, this is exactly the same situation he was in before:  they are making him prove he’s as good as he is.  The frustration rises again.

Add to this that the Council isn’t really handling the civil war all that well.  They aren’t being the generals in the war, but are merely advisors.  Take a hint from Knights of the Old Republic, and note that Revan there left because they weren’t stopping the Mandalorians.  The same thing could happen here:  the Jedi are worrying about not being aggressive enough, and are even deadlocked in the Council.  Taking on from the scenes in the second movie where Anakin proclaims that sometimes you need a strong hand to get things done, he feels that the galaxy needs that.  Perhaps at both levels.  He supports Palpatine’s running the Senate — against Amidala’s wishes — and thinks that a strong leader — like him — on the Council will get the Jedi doing the right thing.

Palpatine exploits this to get Anakin opposing the Jedi.  When Windu goes after Palpatine, Anakin confronts him.  Palpatine exploits his views by showing that the Jedi way is weak.  The Sith intervened to save the galaxy, while the Jedi debated.  He did things to stop the war, while the Jedi kept out of it, debating general principles.  Aggression is power:  the power to do good.  Anakin then attacks Windu to take over the Council, and when the Jedi resist he attacks them as well.

Meanwhile, Palpatine uses the attack to promote more conventional attacks on the Jedi, and they are on the run.  Yoda confronts Palapatine, Obi-Wan confronts Anakin.  Things work out about the same, both go into hiding, as does Padme.  The end of the movie is the start of the reign of terror, as the Empire and Vader seek out the scattered Jedi to hunt them down.

This would, well, make more sense.  You can see how Anakin got to where he was, and the transitions would follow better.  And it’d be far more entertaining a progression.  It’d also fit the fallen paladin model a lot better than what we got, and allow us to feel sorry for him as opposed to considering him an annoying whiner.

I don’t need no stinkin’ visual art!

February 17, 2011

So, I’m taking a course right now on Aesthetics and Cognitive Science, where we’re looking in detail at aesthetics and linking it to Cognitive Science.  Now, I didn’t do much Aesthetics in either Philosophy or  Cognitive Science, because it isn’t that interesting to me.  But the combination sounded interesting, and hence I took that class.

Now, when doing Aesthetics, a lot of the time is spent talking about art, because it seems specifically aesthetic and so is a good test for how aesthetics works for us.  And visual art is the most commonly discussed because the visual seems to be the sense that we most easily associate with beauty.  There’s just one problem.

I don’t like visual art.  Not only that, it’s clear that I don’t get the same experiences from visual art as others do.

This leads to me basically disagreeing with, oh, everyone in my class.  Okay, okay, being me would do that, but the disagreements are often more fundamental, in the sense where it seems that I can’t grasp the views that the others agree with, and the others can’t grasp what my complaint is.  And after thinking about it, I think that a lot of my objections to what constitutes aesthetic experence — particularly when visual art is used as a primary example — is this:

1) I know that I do not get anything like the same aesthetic experience/pleasure from visual art as other people.

2) This article proposes that X is what defines or is the most important in aesthetic experience/pleasure.

3) I think I can do X as well as everyone else, even wrt visual art.

4) I cannot get the same experience as everyone else from visual art, despite having unimpaired X.

5) Therefore, X cannot be the defining/critical property in aesthetic experience/pleasure.

If the examples were mainly, say, musical in nature, I might find the ideas more palatable, since that contradiction wouldn’t be there.  But since it is, the issues just leap out at me.

This actually brings up something important for Psychology and Cognitive Science:  unlike most other sciences, the cases that don’t fit are more important for testing your theory than the ones that work.  If you have a ton of data showing a correlation between your attribute and something — like aesthetic pleasure — that’s great, but it isn’t enough.  What’s better is showing that if someone is impaired in that quality, particularly in a way that can’t corrected for, things don’t work out as well.

So, for example, if trying to determine if X is a key factor in aesthetic pleasure, your best test is to find someone who simply cannot get aesthetic pleasure in a case — or, at least, where it’s greatly impaired — and see if your quality is also impaired in them in that case.  I don’t think that’s the case for me in a lot of cases, but my aesthetic pleasure from visual art is greatly impaired overall.

And getting me a painting as a gift is not likely to be appreciated, at least not in the way you’d like.  Music, on the other hand …

R-E-S-P-E-C-T means “Find out what it means to me”.

February 17, 2011

So, this is a bit late to the party, but Greta Christina made a post entitled “No, Atheists Don’t Have to Show “Respect” for Religion” just over a week ago, and I want to talk about it since this “respect” thing is a commonly raised issue, and one where I do think that atheists don’t show proper “respect” at times.  We’re going have to settle what “respect” means — but if you’ve read the title of the post, you’ve got a pretty good hint where I’m going to go with this — but that can come later.  Let’s look at the post first:’t_have_to_show_%22respect%22_for_religion/?page=entire

(I found it through “Why Evolution is True”, so that he can get the points for referring the post through his own.  I always like helping people get free referral bonuses … as long as I don’t actually have to do anything I don’t want to do already [grin]).

So, basically, this post is against progressive or moderate religious people who, in Greta Christina’s mind, advocate respect and tolerance for other religions.  She interprets “showing respect” somehow as “not disagreeing openly”, and then builds a case against such moderates and progressives that it’s somehow hypocrtical because they do disagree with those they call extremists.  Sometimes openly.  So that must be a problem.

Well, first, there’s an issue that the definition of “progressive” or “moderate” does not, in fact, include that.  For example, I’m probably as moderate a religious person as you’re ever going to find.  I disagree with, well, everyone.  That’s almost certainly true.  I even disagree fairly openly.  So that’s probably not the real issue here.   So let’s look at the actual objection:


“Progressive and moderate religious believers absolutely have objections to religious beliefs that are different from theirs. Serious, passionate objections.”


Yes.  Yes, we do.  I suppose mine may not be passionate, but I clearly don’t think they’re right.  So?  If I make a reply like “Can’t we all just get along?”, I’m not saying that I agree with them.  I clearly disagree.  I may even disagree in a way that could be called an objection.  Even a serious one.  I’m saying something else.  So, does Greta Christina get what I’m saying?


“But it’s disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst, to say that criticism of other religious beliefs is inherently bigoted and offensive… and then make an exception for beliefs that are opposed to your own. You don’t get to speak out about how hard-line extremists are clearly getting Christ’s message wrong (or Mohammad’s, or Moses’, or Buddha’s, or whoever) — and then squawk about religious intolerance when others say you’re the one getting it wrong. That’s just not playing fair.”


Well, she gives no examples, but I’m not sure that people are calling that sort of “speaking out” religious intolerance.  Speaking just for me, I don’t even think about levelling any such claim — even the “You aren’t showing the proper respect” claim — just for disagreeing.  I think it is okay to say that, say, I believe that those who think that atheists will go to hell are getting it wrong.  And I’ll even argue for that.  But here’s what I won’t say:

– That they’re delusional for thinking otherwise.

– That they’re irrational for thinking otherwise.

– That they’re stupid for thinking otherwise.

– That they’re just following a set of superstitions and are just to afraid to give up childish things.

– That they are clearly and obviously wrong.

Now, how many of those things above do atheists actually say about religious people?

Yes, some of the moderates and progressives might be that passionate, and they’d be just as wrong.  Some of them, yes, would be hypocrites.  But, then, some of the atheists that get so upset when asked to “show respect” would be very upset and would in fact make comments about how someone was strident and disrespectful if they said the same sorts of things about atheists (and I know this because, well, lamentably some religious people do say those things, and we can see the reactions).  There are hypocrites everywhere; that’s not a surprise.

But the question is: are the above things showing any sign of reasonable respect?  Let that simmer for a while, and we’ll move on:


And, of course, it’s ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse — as so many progressive ecumenical believers do — and then expect religion to get a free pass. It’s absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc… and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.”


Well, religion may, in fact, be special.  It is a protected right.  I have the right to my religious beliefs, no matter how ludicrous they may seem to other people.  That is true in the U.S., in Canada (more relevant to me) and in most democracies.  As such, we have to strike a balance here.  Can people disagree over religious beliefs, and talk about it?  Sure.  But because it is a right, we have to watch out to make sure that there aren’t any unreasonable constrictions on practicing it.  Excessive social criticism of religion can, in fact, border on harassment, and you can’t impede someone’s ability to practice a right through harassment — morally if not legally (and I think it true legally).  So when would this public criticism turn to harassment?  It isn’t clear; the line is not a sharp one.  But it is the same thing as, say, harassing people for their sexuality (which may not be a protected right in some jurisdictions) or anything else that they practice that is protected by a right.

Now, yes, some religious people seem to come close to and even cross that line with atheists and over sexuality.  And so we need to figure out how to handle that.  But debate that’s too vigorous may indeed cross the line, which is a concern that seems to be dismissed here.

Note — since I have to note this — that I don’t necessarily think that the things I listed above, or even the standard public debate about religion cross that line.  So this is a bit of an aside, and as such is mostly filler (thank you, Willow!).


“Progressive and moderate believers who normally are all over the idea of diversity and multiculturalism will get intensely defensive of homogeny when one of the voices in the rich cultural tapestry is saying, “I don’t think God exists, and here’s why.” ”


Well, again, if that’s all she was saying I, at least, woudn’t be upset.  It’s those thngs above that I mentioned that seem far more than “I don’t think God exists, and here’s why”.


And then atheists come along, and ruin everyone’s party. Atheists come along and say, “Well, actually, we don’t think any of you are getting it right.” Atheists come along and ask hard questions, like, “You actually have important differences between your religions — how do you decide which one is true?” Or, “Religion has never once in all of human history turned out to be the right answer to any question — why would you think it’s the right answer to anything we don’t currently understand?” Or, “If there’s no way your belief can be proven wrong, how do you know that it’s right?” Or, “Why do the six blind men just give up? Why don’t they compare notes and trade places and carefully examine the elephant and actually try to figure out what it is? You know — the way we do in science? Why doesn’t this work with religion? Sure, if God existed, he/she/it/they would be vast and complex and hard to fathom… and what, the physical universe isn’t? Doesn’t the fact that this never, ever works with religion strongly suggest that it’s all made up, and there is, in fact, no elephant?” Atheists come along and make unnerving points, like, “The fact that you can’t come to any consensus about religion isn’t a point in your favor — it’s actually one of the strongest points against you.” Atheists come along, like the rain god on everyone’s parade, and say things like, “What reason do any you have to think any of this is true?”  ”


So, let’s look at these things that presumably are the sum total of, at least, what she says, and let me answer them as me:

1) Feel free to go deeply into your reasons why you think none of us are right, and that you’re right about that (and yes, she does later, but I’m taking it all in order).

2) I do philosophy and theology, and even a little science.  So far, haven’t proven any view — even the atheist one.  Personally, philosophically I think it not possible to prove (this will come up again later) and am more than willing to talk about what that means for whether or not I should believe.  Oh, you find that and philosophy/theology boring?  Oh, well.

(Note that the last is the common reaction of most common people to that progression; Greta Christina may be made of stronger stuff but you’ll all forgive me if I am skeptical).

3)  The only relevant question is “Does God exist?”.  That it doesn’t explain directly some other things doesn’t really mean that much, does it?

4) I don’t.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t still believe it, though (see 2).

5) We do try to do those sorts of examinations of the six blind men and the elephant.  It’s called theology.  And at least some of your atheist compatriots — P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne — have denigrated theology and called it pointless.  And it’s oft-cited that they care about what the man on the street believes, not what the experts believe.  Which is, in fact, precisely the opposite view we take of science.  So, if you accept that theology is valid, then you have to accept that the answer to your question is:  We already are.  We may not be doing science on it, but whether or not we can do science on God is, in fact, a theological or philosophical question, so we’d have to start there.

6)  Is the physical universe that complicated?  Even if it is, does it matter?  If God is not physical, then we can’t use physical methods anyway, and so perhaps theology just hasn’t found the right methods yet.  Certainly, finding God is likely to be more complicated than a field based primarily on “Go out and look to see what’s happening right in front of you” that then systematized that.

7) Does the fact that it doesn’t work suggest it’s made up?  My response is: how?  Please, in detail, tell me how not being able to work it out — and remember, the elephant example is strictly about subjective data — objectively right now suggests it’s all made up.  It doesn’t lend support to it, but you do need far more than that.

8 ) Possibly.  Depends on how you view God.  See theology.

9) Well, first you have to define what counts as a reason to believe.  That’s epistemology.  See 2.

Well, she may be raining on someone’s parade, but probably not mine.  Nor, I think, can it be said that I was particularly angry or insulting in my replies.  So, a moderate who thinks that atheists sometimes don’t show proper respect has just replied to the things calmly that she thinks make at least many of us really, really mad.  At least she should now decide that, perhaps, discussions with people like me are more productive than discussions with those people that bother her so much.


This idea that religion is just a matter of opinion? That the most crucial questions about how the universe works and how it came into being should be set aside, because disagreements about it might upset people? That it doesn’t really matter who actually has the correct understanding of God or the soul or whatever, and that when faced with different ideas about these questions, it’s best to just shrug it off, and agree to disagree, and go on thinking whatever makes us feel good? That figuring out what probably is and is not true about humanity and the world is a lower priority than not hurting anyone’s feelings? That reality is less important, and less interesting, than the stories people make up about it?

It drives me up a ******** tree.”


Um, well, see … there’s a difference here.  I think pretty much everyone agrees that as things stand, right now, we don’t know whether God exists or doesn’t exist, or which god might exist if one does.  None of us can prove it.  A lot of moderates and progressives, then — on all sides — say that it that’s the case all we can do is agree to disagree.  Without proof, and with different starting assumptions and things that we find important, what else can we do?  And if you continue to berate me over points that we clearly disagree on at a fundamental level, I’m going to get annoyed, and quite rightly so.  At some point, without better evidence or argumentation, debate isn’t going to be productive, and is going to turn into badgering.  And see the section on “harassment” about where that leads …


“In my debates and discussions with religious believers, there’s a question I’ve asked many times: “Do you care whether the things you believe are true?” And I’m shocked at how many times I’ve gotten the answer, “No, not really.” ”


Well, I can only answer that for me, but I can indeed say “No, not really” in a very specific sense: if a belief I have generally works out for me, and if seeking out the evidence to prove it true or false would take a lot of effort, then, no, I don’t really care if it’s “true”.  I mean, I do care if it’s true in really important senses, but not enough to dedicating my life to proving it such.  If it was proven false, then I’d abandon it, and I will abandon it at the point where it doesn’t work out for me anymore, meaning that if I act as if it’s true I will no longer generally succeed.  But that’s not a bad kind of “I don’t care”, is it?

Now, at the end she does go a bit into the third option that she thinks atheists have, and it doesn’t sound all that bad.  But I don’t really see it as being consistent with the things I listed above.  So, when I say “respect”, what do I mean?

Take the time to understand my position, understand my specific concerns, debate to my actual conception of God, and if we hit a roadblock admit it and move on.  Do not presume or state that I am delusional, irrational or stupid unless you can prove it by appealing to my actual position … and possibly not even then.

Again, find out what God means to me, and act accordingly.

I don’t think that’s asking too much.  But I do think that sometimes some atheists don’t do that.  Hence, not showing respect.

Positions on Compatibility of Science and Faith …

February 6, 2011

Well, as soon as I linked to the discussion on accomodationism … it ended, except for a little bit more on Josh Rosenau’s site.  I want to reproduce part of one of my comments at Metamagician here, since it’s something that I’ve wanted to post for a while.

So, starting from first principles, here are the broad positions that I see that someone can take towards the question of science and faith and their compatibility:

Incompatibilist: Science and faith are incompatible; if something that be properly said to be based on science and there is something else that can be properly said to be based on faith, they are incompatible.

Accomodationist: Science and faith are neither necessarily compatible nor incompatible. It is possible to make faith-based views compatible with science and vice versa, but they may not be naturally compatible (ie without effort).

Compatibilist: Science and faith just are compatible; there are no interesting ways in which they can be incompatible.

Note that the change from “religion” to “faith” was intentional.

While thinking about it, it seemed to me that both the compatibilist and incompatibilist positions were fairly implausible.  And that’s true if we use the term “religion”, since it’s clear that there can be religions that are compatible with science and religions that aren’t.  But when we use the term “faith” instead of “religion”, both positions don’t seem as ridiculous; there might be something to either position (even though I hold the “accomodationist” one currently.

We Could Be Heroes …

February 4, 2011

This week’s commentary is up:

I wanted — and still want — to like DCUO, but the action-based combat and the fighting for glowies just irritate me too much.

Wading into the accomodationist arguments …

February 3, 2011

The post that technically started it all, the one that Josh Roseneau talked about, is here:

I’m not sure if the charges of “Jerry Coyne’s becoming an accomodationist!” are fair, but I will highlight one thing:


“Before I showed up I had resolved to keep pretty mum about my views on religion—after all, I was addressing twenty religious people who were kind enough to buy and discuss my book.”


It seems to me that some accomodationists have been called out for essentially that:  for arguing that in some cases it isn’t important or necessary to bring up religion.  If they’d just talked about the book and about evolution, Coyne wouldn’t have brought it up or said anything against, say, theistic evolution.  When things like that were brought up, he did give his opinion and stuck to it, but he wasn’t going to mention it otherwise.

I think that if we can get the Gnu Atheists to accept that there are some cases where dragging the atheist/religious beliefs into the discussion isn’t a good thing to do, a lot of the animosity would go away.  Whether that’s “accomodationist” or not.

Good discussions on accomodationism …

February 3, 2011

I’ve been commenting on other sites more than posting here at the moment, mostly due to my being a bit busy to post.  But you can use Russell Blackford’s posts:

As good hubs to the discussion, started by Josh Roseneau who called out Jerry Coyne.

Maybe we’ll finally get the definitions straightened out, so I’ll know what to call myself.