Archive for September, 2011

Moderation and Tolerance.

September 17, 2011

So, I just picked up Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith”, which means that I have “The God Delusion”, “Breaking the Spell” and “The End of Faith”, and have read two and will read the third. I still refuse to read Hitchens on the grounds that in everything I’ve read and heard about him I don’t think he has much of interest to say.

Anyway, I started reading “The End of Faith” over lunch, and Harris starts right in with his attacks on moderate religion and, to an extent, the value of tolerance. This, however, has to immediately be seen as problematic, especially in light of his throwaway example of how non-Western countries act in terms of tolerance, especially towards science that might conflict with religion. Which is to say that while in the West you can do science that conflicts with religion, in those countries you generally can’t. Those countries are not tolerant of anything outside of their religious principles (says Harris).

So, here’s the problem: the reason that you can have this relatively peaceful co-existence of science and religion in Western nations (and some others) — and it is relatively peaceful when compared to the nations Harris uses as his example — is because of moderates — especially religious moderates — accepting the whole notion of tolerance and applying it. And being the majority. So the majority say “Look, let’s stop fighting over religion (or non-religion). You go your way, we go ours, and maybe we’ll go bowling on Saturday.” The secularization of Europe that Gnu or New Atheists so crow about? It was not forged through being intolerant of religion, but of religion and non-religion accepting the principle of value and tolerance and acting upon it. Sweden, for example, still has an official state religion, and yet is supposedly a paragon of secular values. You don’t get a secular state with a state religion without the adherents of the religion valuing tolerance.

But Sam Harris doesn’t want that. And he argues against it not just based an argument that moderate religion is just as wrong as fundamentalist, or just that it gives something for fundamentalist religion to hide being. No, he argues against it on the basis that it’s theologically wrong, and that moderate religious people simply do not understand their own religion or religious texts properly. Which leads to two thoughts:

The first and most immediate is to wonder where Harris gets off telling religious people that they’re interpreting their own religion wrong, especially since he has no use for religion and no respect for religion himself. It’s like someone saying this:

I really hate baseball. It’s the most boring game in the world, and I’ve only watched a couple of games and heard some people talk about it a bit. Oh, and BTW, I think that using the designated hitter rule means that you aren’t really playing baseball anymore.

See how condescending that is? Compare it with this:

I love hockey. It’s my favourite sport in the world. I watch it all the time and know all the rules, and I’ve seen some of the best games of all time. And, BTW, I think that if you settle playoff games with a shootout that’s not really hockey anymore, because you change it from benefiting the team to benefiting the team with the most superstars. It’s okay for the Olympics or an All-Star Game where all sides have about the same number of superstars, but for anything else it breaks the team aspect that’s so important to hockey.

Harris, with respect to religion, is like the former; the moderates are like the latter.

The second point is that it is this sort of attitude that probably scares the accommodationists so much … mostly because they’re deathly afraid that moderate religious people might take him up on that. Harris presents a forced choice to religious moderates: either become atheists or become fundamentalists. By his lights, their religion and the modern world forces that choice. They disagree. But if they are pushed into agreeing, then they will drop tolerance from their beliefs. If they drop tolerance and become atheists, that’s bad enough. If they drop tolerance and become fundamentalists that’s even worse. Harris, then, would eliminate the tolerant society that allows science and religion to mostly live in relative harmony and allows the religious and non-religious to not feel the need to go around killing each other … and the society that lets him publish his books and turn them into successes.

As Londo Mollari might say: “Good job!”.

Is that what Harris really wants, or is he just unaware of what he’s really advocating?

Assisted Suicide and the X-Men …

September 17, 2011

I hope to say much more about assisted suicide in the near future, but when I do it will follow the sort of argument that I’ll raise here, based on an old Uncanny X-Men story that I’ll relate here.

When Forge was introduced, he had created a gun that would take away the powers of any superbeing shot by it. Through a series of accidents, Storm was shot by it and lost her powers. Forge saved her from drowning and tried to restore her to health. She comments early that it would have been better for him to have let her drown and talks about choosing death instead of having to live without her powers.

At which point, Forge comments that living like a normal person and not a goddess must be such a tough break for her (in a much better piece of dialogue).

So, the questions that come out of that are:

How should normals — non-mutants and perhaps mutants of lower power levels or with more problematic powers like Rogue or Wolverine or the Morlocks — feel that Storm would rather die than live like them?

Can we say that Storm’s opinion that her life isn’t worth living without her powers is objectively wrong and, if we can say that, that she should not be allowed to choose to die with all the power we can reasonably muster?

Essentially, for almost all cases where someone thinks that their life is no longer worth living, someone else is living that life. It seems like an insult to think that if we considered it rationally and objectively that we could say that the person who wants to die rather than live that life is correct in any case beyond themselves. But what that seems to leave us with is leaving it entirely up to the choice of the individual, and what they think about whether that is a life worth living. But then we give up ever being able to say that they’re objectively wrong or stopping someone who is just distraught and not thinking clearly from throwing their life away needlessly, and we cannot objectively judge their reasons for deciding to die. Neither of these seem, to me, like good options, and I don’t see any third option that can compromise between the two; this seems like a legitimate dichotomy.

The Retired Heroes Home …

September 17, 2011

I recently resubscribed to City of Heroes, and was checking out my old list of characters. There are characters on the servers that I haven’t played in over 6 years! That really surprised me … especially that City of Heroes has been around that long.

Part of the issue is that I’ve always been a bit of an alt-o-holic in every single MMO I’ve ever played. I’ll come up with an idea for a concept, play it for a while, get another one, play it and so on and so on. With an MMO, there’s no story to finish so I kept dropping one story and picking up another. City of Heroes with its multiple powersets and concepts is even worse for that, so I would create a ton of characters, delete some, and keep some around for later … and then never play them.

Add in the times when I went offline for another game or MMO and, well, you can see the problem.

Maybe I’ll play some of them again … at least the ones that survived my recent purge. But they might sit in the CoH retirement home for a while longer.

Not Enough Heroes …

September 14, 2011

The latest Not-So-Casual Commentary is up.

I’d play an Age of Empires clone that featured only Marvel or DC heroes. And why haven’t the independents grabbed a studio that has a good engine and told them to make them an RPG?

One More Thing …

September 13, 2011

From Coyne’s free will post:

I believe that the vast majority of nonphilosophers and laypeople hold a consistent definition of free will: that we really do make decisions that are independent of our physical make-up at the moment of deciding.

We actually did psychological studies on this — I’d have to look them up for details — and it was proven that people didn’t have consistent definitions of free will, reacting as if one form was true in some cases and as if the other form was true in others, depending on how the question was phrased. Hence, why we need philosophy to figure it out.

My theory is that as long as we could make meaningful decisions, independence from our physical make-up wouldn’t be an issue.

80% of what?

September 13, 2011

Jerry Coyne is talking about free will again, this time in reference to an article in Nature about neuroscience and results that cast doubt on it. And he’s quite impressed by an 80% success rate and claims that that demonstrates remarkable accuracy. The problem is that what it’s accurate about isn’t really a threat to free will:

With about 700 milliseconds to go, the researchers could predict the timing of that decision with more than 80% accuracy.[emphasis added]

Coyne takes this as predicting the actual decision, but it’s about when the decision will be made, not what the decision will actually be. Hayes’ work for the finger press was right about 60% of the time, which is hardly impressive. So there really isn’t any really impressive results to show that we don’t have free will. All we get is that brain activity is involved. But in these cases, it’s quite possible that brain activity is involved without removing the notion that the conscious decision-making process is just that activity. Presuming that any decision requires mental resources, similar decisions will use the same mental resources. Fried’s results could just express that. And for Hayes, it is quite possible that simple decisions can be made mostly subconsciously, and would have to be overridden. Thus he could get his rather small prediction rate simply by tracking these factors and missing the actual conscious overriding that it seems would frequently occur.

In short, the philosophers are right to be skeptical of the neuroscientists here because the neuroscientists have rather unimpressive results that don’t address the actual issues. After all, predicting the final decision before it is consciously made has little impact if the neurons are themselves going through the actual conscious decision-making process. That’s what we need to be free and not entirely determined. If that process results in a specific decision before it is consciously recognized that’s not a problem, because it is the decision-making process that matters. We would hope that at the end of our decision-making process there is only one decision actually made. Materialist views can easily incorporate brain decision-making whose result impacts other brain functions before updating consciousness, and dualist theories can even incorporate it as well. And so far we have nothing to contradict that at all, other than an ideological commitment to the idea that the physical is deterministic and if it is deterministic then there is no free will. Compatibilists quite reasonably challenge the latter and QM proves the former false.

So, even if decision-making is all physical neural activations and as we follow the chain we can eventually predict the decision, that does not mean anything about free will. Think about it this way: If I’m deciding, say, between what I want for lunch, and I work through my decision-making process verbally, and as that progresses you can chop off potential decisions so that, say, 5 seconds before I give my answer you can say that I’ll choose the poutine because at that point in my discussions it always happens to lead to my choosing poutine, does that mean that my decision and even the remaining process is irrelevant since it is, at that point, determined? That does not seem to be the case.

Recall this: Kant declared that we had free will but argued that we could still predict anyone’s in the world of appearances, mostly — I believe, anyway — because we can appeal to the reasons and beliefs that the person expressed and holds and make a prediction from that information. Prediction in practice is not impressive; prediction in principle is what matters.

And I suppose that, in the end, that’s why neuroscience will inform but will never determine the answer to the free will problem; neuroscience gives practice, but not principle, and we need principle to settle the question.

Shamus on Religion …

September 13, 2011

I’ve linked to him before about video games and the like, but he’s been talking about his past and here he talks about his and his family’s conversion to religion when he was 10. He wasn’t pushed into it by his mother or parents or family, and in fact his environment was quite anti-religion. But he decided that something about it worked for him.

I like this paragraph:

It’s culture shock, moving between these two groups. I begin comparing them to the fancy “High Church” (large, ornate, highly ceremonial) places I visited when I was younger.

If I had only attended one of these places, I probably would have concluded, “This place is what being a Christian is all about”. But these three points form a plane, and by moving around on that plane I can view Christianity from a lot of different angles and extrapolate a lot of other kinds of churches. I’m able to separate Christian ideas (which I embrace) from Christian culture (which I will soon grow to despise) and lay the groundwork for a lot of the thinking I’ll be doing over the next thirty years. I suppose if I had to choose between the two I’d side with the Wednesday-night folks over the Sunday-morning ones, but I’m not ready to throw my lot in with either one just yet.

It’s that time of year …

September 12, 2011

I’m busy getting my coursework straightened out and setting up to finish two Arkham Horror games that found themselves moderator-less, as well as keeping up with the blog and having some time to, well, play games. So while there are lots of things to talk about, I’m a bit behind. Hopefully this will clear out in a couple of weeks.

On tap: talking about assisted suicide that’s been a topic on a number of blogs lately (Metamagician, Daylight Atheism and, of course, Choice in Dying), addressing Greta Christina’s diplomacy post, addressing how to tell if religion is the main cause of a nasty event like 9/11, taking on Rosenhouse’s criticism of original sin, and more.

I’ll Be “Fesing” Up …

September 12, 2011

I’ve ordered Edward Feser’s books “The Last Superstition” and “Introduction to Mind” (I think that’s what it’s called). So, in a little while, I’ll read and review them, and see if what people are saying about them is accurate. I’d have gotten Aquinas, but it’s a 1 – 2 month wait for that one and I wanted to get “A Critique of Practical Reason” soon to read it. Although I might read Feser’s stuff first.

As an aside, on Philosophy of Mind I recommend “Knowledge and Mind: An Introduction” by Andrew Brook and Robert J. Stainton. It’s a bit long in the tooth now, but I really enjoyed it and was taught by both of them at different points, and they’re quite good at explaining positions they don’t agree with in a way that doesn’t just dismiss it out of hand. I might dig that one out and read it to compare it to Feser’s introduction.

The DCAU …

September 11, 2011

I’ve talked a bit before about the DC comics animated universe, but I’ve been watching Teen Titans again and it really strike how good most of those have actually been. Justice League is, in my opinion, the best of the lot, but all of them have their charms. And there are a number of reasons for this.

One is that somehow they managed to get a really good set of voices. Ron Perlman plays a villain in Teen Titans. Michael Ironside is Darkseid in Justice League. And there are a number of other good and famous voices involved in the series. And yet some of the best and most definitive voices are not those of people who are really famous. Kevin Conroy has what I consider to be the definitive Batman voice. Mark Hamill does the Joker’s voice exactly how it should be done, with goofy menace. The voice work, thus, is as good as or better than anything else that’s been done.

But also, the series had a surprising story depth. Teen Titans — aimed at a younger audience — even had some surprisingly involved and deep storyline, with Terra and her betrayal and redemption, Raven’s past, and the whole Slade scenario. Justice League and Batman and Batman Beyond take that up a notch. Teen Titans and Justice League did arcs, while Batman, Superman and Batman Beyond tended to do one shot stories with sequels. But the writing is, again, surprisingly deep.

If you like comics at all, these cartoons deserve a spot on your DVD shelf.