Archive for December, 2013

Prime Directive Analysis: You Don’t Know the Consequences

December 30, 2013

Last time, I talked about how the warp line is a reasonable, though not perfect, line that you could use to determine when a society is ready for contact. As it turns out, this line is actually pretty strongly enforced in Star Trek; the Federation is willing to do things for post-warp planets that aren’t even Federation members with no qualms that they wouldn’t even consider doing for pre-warp planets. The “You don’t know the consequences” argument doesn’t even apply. But before getting into that, let’s look at the “You don’t know the consequences” argument, using “Time and Again” as the framework.

In that episode, what we have is a planet that is using an incredibly dangerous form of power, so dangerous that if something goes wrong the entire planet might be wiped out. Which it actually has, at the start of the episode, and the crew of Voyager beam down to investigate. But, as usual, it’s one of these strange explosions that actually can violate the laws of space-time, and Janeway and Tom Paris get tossed back into the past of the planet, before the disaster. Tom Paris wants to take this opportunity to warn the planet and stop the disaster, while Janeway insists they can’t due to the Prime Directive, and tosses out the “We don’t know the consequences” argument to justify it. Tom Paris insists that any consequences would be better than them dying. Chuck makes hay over this in his video on the episode, including that Janeway ends up ordering him not to do it and doesn’t have a counter-argument.

Fortunately, I do. Let’s look at some potential ways to solve the problem and the consequences that they might have:

What Voyager could do is invent some kind of anti-proton, gravimetric, duonetic, interferometric field that would permanently shut down anything that uses that sort of energy, meaning that none of their generators will work anymore which means, happily, that they will never cause the explosion and the planet will be saved. Of course, this would reduce a society that relied on technology that was powered by that power source suddenly unable to use any of their technology, and effectively reduce them to a pre-industrial society, where a large number of them will die simply because they can’t produce enough food to feed everyone, and there will be riots and fighting over the limited resources left, and in fact the entire society will collapse and have to be rebuilt … and it may not survive at all. If any survive, they may not be thanking Voyager for what they did.

Now the obvious objection here is that no one sane would ever try to do this as a solution to this problem, which means that it was probably a good idea that no one suggested it to Janeway. And that’s true. But it does have one main benefit: it solves the underlying problem, which is not that there is going to be an explosion tomorrow that will wipe out the society, but that this form of energy is so dangerous that it could blow up at any time. So simply stopping this explosion doesn’t solve the underlying problem; that would mean that there would be no boom today, but there’d be a boom tomorrow. There’s always a boom tomorrow. So what you have to do to solve this problem is eliminate their use of this power completely, and this is clearly one way, but is also clearly a bad way. So let’s look at some more reasonable options.

You could limit yourself to what Tom Paris suggests: just warn them about it. Tell them that this is an energy source that could go boom at any time and that it’s going to go boom tomorrow, and encourage them to switch to a safer form of energy as soon as they can. Of course, they might not believe the word of two strange people with no credentials in their world, at which point nothing will change and we’ll still have a boom. Even if they do believe them, researching a new technology and getting it into a state where it can be used on a large scale may take years, at which point the society will probably end up going boom before it can be put into place.

So what you can do, then, is give them access to a safer form of energy — say matter/anti-matter reaction — by giving them maybe one example and the schematics/theory. Unfortunately, all this will do is potentially shorten the time where they’re at risk of going boom, and since those forms of energy aren’t completely safe either and can cause disasters if not done properly just giving it to them and leaving probably isn’t actually going to save their lives.

Now, all of these solutions relied on mostly following the Prime Directive, in the sense that you don’t do anything to reveal that you are a more advanced society and are in fact very careful to do that. However, maybe you do reveal that you are from an advanced society, which might make them accept that you’re telling them the truth and give you the credibility that you’re lacking. Given that, you could do more things to help them, and take more time to explain and help set up the alternate power source. Although, since Voyager is a long way from home, how long they’d be able to stay and help is a concern; they wouldn’t want to delay their trip home by 10 years just to help this one planet. But imagine that they could get at least the basics taught in a reasonable amount of time. Great … except that you’ve now revealed to this pre-warp society that alien cultures exist, and that you have an agenda that includes them replacing their power supply with what you gave them. What if they react like the people in “First Contact” (the episode) and it sharply divides their society? There was one person willing to die to discredit what he called “aliens”; if someone is willing to die, they’re likely willing to kill, too. What if it causes a massive collapse of society like the one person in the episode with Worf’s brother thought would happen to theirs? That’s not a good outcome, either. And imagine, then, that this results in a civil war, with one side in favour of swapping out the power supply and another opposed, perhaps because they think that this “alien” group is pushing this change not because their existing supply is dangerous but because they want to introduce this supply that will give the “aliens” some advantage. So now we have a war, and the ticking time bomb is still ticking. Would it be reasonable for the Federation to give the “right” side phasers, advanced technology, and aid in stopping the civil war? Even if that side is actually just a dictatorship imposing its will on the people? After all, living under an oppressive dictator is still better than dying, right?

Now, you can argue here that at any point where you’re going to go too far in your interference, you can just stop. The problem is that by Tom’s argument that anything is better than death you can’t, and that even if you take that less stringently if you regard this as important enough to interfere in the first place and when it has such dramatic consequences as them all dying out it’s hard to justify stopping because you’re getting your hands a little dirty. Additionally, at that point at least some damage is already done, and so if you don’t actually solve the problem all you’ve done is make life a bit worse for these people, which was certainly not what you wanted to do in the first place.

Any intervention of this sort is going to risk unintended consequences, and ones that you can’t predict or prepare for in advance. But considering that even when the Enterprise has gone to rescue post-warp planets we’ve seen these unintended consequences occur and they’ve just worked around them, I don’t think the best way to analyze it is in the sense of simply not knowing what the consequences will be. I think, rather, that it is best to analyze it in terms of you don’t know what the consequences are and you aren’t prepared or aren’t able to stick around and deal with them as they arise. With post-warp societies, two things allow you to stick around and help. First, they’re part of the interstellar community, and are already likely able to work towards long term goals and have long term interactions with you. Second, following on from last time, we can see that they are prepared to judge the consequences of interacting with a more advanced society, as they prepared for it and, in these cases, likely already have been dealing with them for some time now. But pre-warp societies aren’t informed enough to make a choice about the consequences of the intervention, and also happen to be extremely vulnerable to interaction with advanced societies. So you want to limit your interaction with such societies … but being prepared for all consequences requires you to be prepared to interact with them deeply if required. So intervening gets you into this tension where on the one hand you want and need to interact with the society, while on the other hand you want to avoid it as much as possible to avoid the negatives that you might inadvertently foist upon them.

In short, it seems to me that to properly intervene in cases like these, most of the time, you want to be prepared to interact with the society as equal partners in the endeavour. You want them fully engaged with you, constantly checking in with you, letting you know how things are going, accepting help from you if needed, and so on. Except that if you do that with a less advanced society, with a pre-warp society, as seen you run the risk of them either reacting violently against you or turning you into gods. Is that better than death? Sure, you could probably argue that … but that is certainly against the spirit of the Prime Directive, and is certainly greatly changing that culture. And remember that that is a culture that has not and cannot make the informed choice to accept the change in their culture to save their lives. To tie this back to “Dear Doctor”, the Valkanians could decide to accept the consequences for their culture by getting Enterprise to help them … but the Menk couldn’t. In any case where the group can’t decide for themselves, to decide to do something is clearly a case where you decide for them (philosophically, there are arguments that deciding not to do something is the same case, but it’s not quite the same so let’s leave that long discussion for another time, maybe) what consequences you think they should accept. But that’s an overall paternalistic attitude, and leads, I think, to one of two approaches. One is the idea that you will do anything you need to to get them the outcome that you want them to have, and so continually choose how their society should go even over their objections. After all, you know better than they do what the consequences are and what’s better, and so in order to survive they just have to accept that. Alternatively, you proceed very carefully, taking only those steps that won’t have a great impact … and then end up getting in deeper and deeper — as Picard mimes in “Pen Pals” — and end up with a society that has changed, and that you might need to change too much to really solve the problem, leaving you forced to either take the first alternative and change everything you need to, or forced to abandon them in a state where they are worse off than they would have been if you had just done nothing.

Until a society can make the decision for themselves what intervention and how much intervention they are willing to accept from you, intervening in any case runs a real risk, and a real risk of leaving them in or forcing them into states that they might feel are worse than the original threat. While the arguments in this post don’t really apply to cases where you can simply save the planet without them ever knowing, those cases are actually fairly rare and always run the risk of contact, and the destruction of a society. As we saw in “Who Watches the Watchers?”, just saving the life of one inhabitant ran the risk of validating ancient religious rituals and turning a culture that had rejected the idea that the gods did everything backwards on the developmental scale (arguably). How do you do that without intervening again? What do you do with that culture when they learn that you aren’t gods, but are advanced aliens? Do you just leave them on their own, or do you try to help them and keep in contact with them? These are all serious questions that are all answered for a post-warp society, as they already know that you are aliens, and can tell you what they want you to do in the full understanding of what that means … or, at least, in as full an understanding that you have, if not more so.

To summarize, the number of cases where the Prime Directive would have you not help a planet when it is obvious that you really should help them and that any consequences from helping them will be clearly better than what you’re saving them from are, in fact, vanishingly small. Any such cases can be written into the Prime Directive itself, which means that you should indeed always follow the Prime Directive even when your conscience says that you really should intervene. Not because you don’t know the consequences, but because you aren’t and shouldn’t be prepared to address all of the consequences of your intervention in a pre-warp society. You don’t choose not to intervene because they might produce the next Hitler, but because if that society does produce that individual you aren’t going to be there to stop that society from heinous acts that would never have happened if you hadn’t intervened. Now, you can counter that just producing a Hitler isn’t reason to not intervene, but the counter to that is: what if that happens because of how you intervened? Shouldn’t you clean up the mess you directly created?

The Prime Directive, to me, can be summed up this way: you should not intervene in a society unless you are prepared to clean up your mess. This covers both the pre-warp restriction and the internal matters restriction, as both are cases where you can’t or shouldn’t do anything you possibly can to clean up your own mess. In post-warp societies, you can get involved to help them because they, as a society, can make an informed choice about your intervention, and if the society can’t agree on an option that’s an internal matter that they have to work out for themselves. While the summary isn’t how most people put the Prime Directive — and I agree with how it is normally phrased — I think it a better summary of what we conclude about the validity of the Prime Directive if we subject it to philosophical scrutiny; in short, the summary better captures why you don’t want to intervene in light of the main counter-argument, which is the one Tom Paris cites, that sometimes any consequences are better than the ones that they’ll have if you do nothing. That’s usually not true, and almost always only true if you are willing to do anything it takes to clean up your mess … which in a lot of cases you shouldn’t or won’t be.

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The Lost Mary Jane: Spider-man Casting and Looks in Movies

December 30, 2013

So, P.Z. Myers has finally noticed a controversy over a potential casting of Mary Jane in the next Spider-man movie, which from what I’m reading there has been dropped because they aren’t going to put Mary Jane in that movie. Anyway, Myers is going gung-ho over comic book fans being “sexist scum” (his words from the title) because many of them are saying that the actress tapped to play Mary Jane — Shailene Woodley — isn’t sexy enough for the role. (BTW, isn’t it a bit problematic that he refers to her as the “actor” in his post).

Anyway, hearing about this for the first time (I don’t tend to keep up with movies and didn’t like the first movie of that incarnation all that much), and looking at the images of the actress, I have to say that … I agree with those fans. As summarized in screechymonkey’s comment, Mary Jane Watson, as a character, has always been portrayed as sexy and fiery in terms of looks, at least in the mainline comic series (Ultimate has done that differently). I was worried that Kristen Dunst wouldn’t be “hot” enough to play Mary Jane in the Sam Raimi trilogy, and was pleasantly surprised when, in my opinion, she was. Woodley is definitely attractive, but she’s very pretty and very “cute”. She isn’t “hot” in the sense of being sexy, so her looks naturally bias her towards cute characters, girl-next-door characters, and more particularly “every person” characters. She’s best suited for roles, then, in my opinion, where you really have to believe that you could meet her on the street, that women could think that overall she could be them and men think that they might see her on the street.

Now, I have little doubt that Woodley can pull off sexy if she tried really hard. But even looking at the red carpet photos, her natural look is pretty rather than sexy, and that likely would always bleed through. But Mary Jane, in the main universe, was someone who’s natural look was sexy, where even dressed down the sexiness was still there. Mary Jane, dressed down, was still sexy. Woodley, dressed up, would still be cute. So Woodley’s looks, naturally, work against that sort of character.

Which, then, reveals the fear of fans, because with that contrast the fear is that either they’ll try to force Woodley into that type of role/image and fail at it, hurting our suspension of disbelief — ie everyone will wonder at her being treated as being so incredibly sexy when what we see on the screen isn’t — or that they’ll change the character into a girl next door rather than what she was. And comic book fans don’t like it when you fundamentally change the characters they love, which isn’t necessarily unreasonable. I know it annoys me when a reboot or reimagining of a series changes the things I liked about the series or characters in the name of “modernizing” it, and it can seem like a betrayal to fans if you finally make a movie about one of their beloved characters … and turn the character into something that is that character in name only.

The same sort of considerations occurred in casting Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in the upcoming Man of Steel 2. There was a lot of criticism over how slight she was, and that she didn’t look the part. And I can see the complaints. Wonder Woman is not the sort of character who fights by avoiding getting hit, but by standing in the front line as a “tank” and getting hit, taking hits for other heroes, and essentially winning fights by hitting them harder than they hit her. Thus, she really has to have a presence that says that she can take a hit and a lot of them without really flinching, and has to do that even when you compare her physically to Superman and Batman. If Batman looks more able to take a hit than Wonder Woman is, you’ve done bad casting. So either you introduce a contradiction between what the character looks like and what they do and how they act and are treated on screen, or else you change how the character acts to make how they look match the character. Neither are good.

So, then, in general discussion over how an actor or actress looks are indeed important in considering the casting of a character, and so unlike as is asserted in the comments it shouldn’t just be about acting ability. There’s a lovely discussion about the Wonder Woman controversy and casting based on physicality here, which makes this excellent point:

We should campaign for realistically written, believable and compelling female characters played by actresses who can suitably represent them in every aspect of who the character is, not just one or the other. With so many actresses out there, we shouldn’t have to sacrifice acting skill for physical credibility, or vice versa.

So acting ability doesn’t trump the argument unless you argue that you can’t find a more muscular, taller, and more physically imposing actress who is also an equally skilled actress. If you indeed can, then it’s quite right to criticize the casting of someone who doesn’t look the part into the part. I’m quite sure that we could find an actress who fits a sexy Mary Jane better than Woodley does, if that’s what they’re going for.

Another problem with the casting, BTW, is that Mary Jane is the love of Peter’s life, and she’d be going up against Emma Stone directly, where you could see both of them in the same movie. Emma Stone is just far more attractive than Woodley is, in pretty much all ways. Not only is Stone sexier than Woodley is, she’s also prettier/cuter than Woodley is. The risk with this Gwen Stacey/Mary Jane Watson competition which canonically ends with Gwen Stacey’s death is that we want this to end with Mary Jane being considered the love of Peter’s life, and not just the woman he settled for because Gwen died. If we compare these two actresses in term of looks, Mary Jane loses. And considering that the first movie gave Gwen a very ideal personality for Peter, it’ll be hard to make Mary Jane the better woman for Peter without derailing at least one of the three characters. In the comics, this worked better because there was a lot of time between Gwen’s death and Mary Jane’s introduction, and they could string the relationship out more, and Peter had the chance to date other women as well, which pushes Gwen into the background. The movie series is not going to have that time. Making it feel like the main canonical woman of Peter’s dreams is his second choice is not a good thing, as I’ve briefly mentioned before.

Now, recall at the beginning of the post I said that I find Woodley attractive. But a lot of the comments about her are saying that she’s ugly. Why are people saying that, which I consider to be uncalled for? I have two theories:

1) It’s standard Internet overstatement rhetoric: instead of saying that a movie was mediocre you say it sucked, instead of saying that an actress is average you say she’s ugly, and so on and so forth.

2) Tying back to something I’ve talked about before, they are conflating their personal standard of attractiveness with an overall or objective view of attractiveness. I can certainly see why some people wouldn’t find Woodley’s looks appealing to them. If they prefer that sexier look and attitude, then she’s going to leave them cold. I happen to like prettier looks, and so at the very least won’t find her unappealing. Objectively, she’s not ugly and is attractive, but objectively she’s also not the top of the list either. So the people who will find her incredibly attractive are those that happen to like the sort of look that she naturally has, and if you don’t like that look you may not find her attractive at all. And so the comments about ugly, under this, seem to express more that they don’t find her attractive, and think she should be.

Now, in discussing how well she’d fit the role I think calling her ugly is going way too far, and that the comments should focus more on how she doesn’t have the right sort of attractiveness for the role. But I consider those comment more a sign of the mean-spiritedness of the Internet rather than a sign of sexism. Judging her by her looks when her looks wouldn’t be relevant would be a sign of sexism … but her looks are relevant to the roll, and so that part isn’t sexist. So the meanness is, to me, just general meanness and not sexist in and of itself, and the part that would actually be sexist isn’t because looks can indeed and should be relevant to casting decisions.

Prime Directive Analysis: First Contact

December 28, 2013

Last time, I talked about “Pen Pals”, the episode that might have the most detailed and direct discussion of the Prime Directive. Today, I’m going to talk about the episode “First Contact”, which focuses on a direct, non-disastrous interaction that has Prime Directive implications. To summarize, the Enterprise has been sent to a planet to do some final observations and preparations for first contact. Riker was on the away team, and was injured in a riot, and at the hospital they notice that his similarities to them really seem to be skin deep. His being missing prompts Picard to accelerate the first contact in an attempt to find Riker and avoid too many problems. He talks a bit with the leader of the planet about their first contact protocols, and at the end Riker is recovered, but an incident during that convinces the leader of the planet that they simply aren’t ready for contact with outsiders right now, and so no first contact will be attempted, yet.

Now, that summary leaves a lot out, but it should cover enough for the point that I’m trying to make here, which is about that whole “Don’t interfere in pre-Warp societies” thing. It could seem like pre-Warp is a bit of an arbitrary divide, since a society might be open and willing to have contact with outsiders even if they don’t yet have warp drive, and if there is a culture advanced enough to participate in a Federation of Planets but who due to some idiosyncrasy in their scientific models simply can’t develop warp drive it would seem that the ideal thing to do would be to contact them and give them warp drive instead of just leaving them on their own. So even making the primary point warp drive seems a little arbitrary. One explanation for that criteria is that once they develop warp drive you are indeed going to run into them so you are going to have to deal with them one way or another, and so it’s better to do it under more controlled conditions … but that doesn’t do anything to justify never dealing with advanced societies that aren’t anywhere near achieving warp drive, and definitely casts the Federation as a group who doesn’t really ever want to interact with any other societies until they have to. Which doesn’t seem consistent with at least the principles of Starfleet.

Fortunately, I think that there’s another explanation for it that follows from Picard’s interactions with the leader of the planet in “First Contact” and fits in with the general philosophy of Starfleet and the Prime Directive. In that episode, Picard consistently allows those in the culture to decide what is best for that culture. He lets the scientist decide if they should tell the leader about Riker or not. He repeatedly says to the leader of the planet that all he is doing is letting him know the consequences of contact with the Federation, and letting the leader of the planet decide whether that is good for the planet or not. All in all, the autonomy of the planet and the ability to decide what is best for them is always in the forefront, and this follows from the Prime Directive’s admonishment to not interfere in the internal matters of a culture. Or, rather, that overarching principle that cultures must be able to decide for themselves how they evolve and proceed leads to both the interaction here and to the admonishment against internal interference in the Prime Directive.

What isn’t usually considered in such cases, though, is that in general simply giving a choice isn’t enough to let a society choose its own path. In order for a society to be able to make a real choice, they have to be able to understand what the choice entails, what the choice really means for them as a society and as a culture. A culture that has never encountered outsiders before and that has never even really considered their existence isn’t really capable of deciding what it would mean to choice a huge interstellar alliance. On the one hand, they may consider these incredibly powerful and advanced beings as gods, like the society in “Who Watches the Watchers?”, or in general the culture might think that the more advanced culture is superior, and then simply subordinate themselves to that superior culture and lose their own. On the other hand, they may be unwilling to accept that they aren’t the pinnacle of culture and react in violent and destructive ways to that, as was somewhat seen in “First Contact’ and in the episode with Worf’s brother, who made the mistake of getting Sisko’s wife pregnant. At any rate, any culture that hasn’t really been considering whether or not there are other cultures on other planets is likely in for a massive culture shock, and without that preparation are likely to jump to some sort of knee jerk reaction … and so won’t be making an informed choice about to what extent they want to get involved in the galaxy around them.

The thing is that warp drive, as a technology, pretty much only has one use: to travel to other solar systems. That’s pretty much it. Well, sure, you might want it to travel faster to the planets in your own solar system, but various impulse engines seem to be able to get sufficient speeds to do that. Matter/anti-matter reactors, phasers, impulse engines, shields, and pretty much every other technology we see in Star Trek has a use beyond simply traveling between planets. Warp drive’s pretty much just about traveling between planets. And when you find it, you start thinking about what you might find out there, and one of the first things you start to think about are finding other forms of life. And you even have an explanation for why those other forms might not have bothered showing up before now: it takes far too long to get there without warp speed, and might even take a while with basic warp speed. And as far as they would know, they might be the first life forms to actually discover warp speed.

All of these considerations naturally follow from the theory and the purpose of warp drive, and so will be things that you have to think about when you get close to having a working warp drive. At that point, you start to prepare for what will happen should you actually run into another life form, and this infests your culture. As we saw in “First Contact”, the issue was known and had been thought about by many people, and some reacted badly to it. Having seen the reactions to just the possibility of encountered other life forms, the leader of the planet can make a pretty good guess about what would happen if they actually had a first contact … and can decide if that would be a good thing or a bad thing, and can see the potential problems that might arise and look for ways to ease those problems or address them before they happen … and can at least potentially delay their travels until the society is ready for it. Starting on a warp drive project forces them to think about what it might mean to interact with other life forms, both more and less advanced, and to allow the culture to adapt to that as a fact rather than just as something they see in fiction. Thus, they are about as prepared as they are going to be to judge how they should interact with their new neighbours.

Res Corporealis: Persons, Bodies and Zombies

December 26, 2013

As I skip over Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy, I return to Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy, and to the second essay in the book by William S. Larkin entitled “Res Corporealis: Persons, Bodies and Zombies.” In this essay, Larkin is trying to examine the question of what it means to be a person or, more specifically, what it means to be the same person. He outlines two main approaches, which are psychological continuity and bodily continuity. For psychological continuity, what determines the continuance of personhood is having a continuity of psychological states — beliefs, desires, experiences, memories, and so on — in the same individual. It implies that if you could transport the psychological states from one body to another that that would still be the same person, which is what drives “Freaky Friday” type scenarios. Bodily continuity, on the other hand, insists that it is the continuance of the body that preserves identity, and so that whatever mental states are in that physical body it is still the same person if it is, in fact, the same physical body. Larkin is trying to use zombie examples to argue for that.

His main argument is an appeal to the thoughts of the people who are at risk of becoming zombified. In general, they don’t want it, and ask to be killed instead of becoming that sort of thing. But, the argument goes, the psychological states seem to be lacking; from their external behaviour, the zombies don’t seem psychologically like the people they used to be. So, then, all that’s left is the body … and it is that that they use to argue that they don’t want to be or live like that. So, if that’s the case, then those people clearly think that they will still be themselves after being zombified, and if we can relate and understand that feeling and, in fact, think that we’d feel that way ourselves, then we must intuitively be thinking of identity and personhood as bodily, not psychologically. Thus, Larkin has an intuition that he can use to buck, at least, the “Freaky Friday” sort of intuitions that many consider decisive in the psychological versus bodily identity debate.

Unfortunately, I think that this is kicking into the wrong intuition, and is kicking into an intuition that we saw in the first essay, the fear that once we become zombified, we’ll still have our own psychology, our own memories and desires, but will instead be a “locked-in” mind, able to see and observe all the terrible things “we” — meaning our body — are doing but being powerless to intervene in any way. That would be, essentially, hell, and none of us would want that. But if we could remove that intuition from the equation, if we really thought that we’d be gone and have no psychological continuity, and that even if the zombie had a psychology it would be one that aligns with those horrible desires, would we care anymore? Would we see that zombie as us? It seems unlikely, but much horror examples smuggle in the “locked-in mind” intuition inadvertently.

The main reason for this, I think, comes from his second point, about how horrifying it is for us to see, say, a little girl eat her parents. The problem we run into is, in fact, the “Other Minds” problem: since we don’t have direct access to anyone else’s mind except our own, we can only judge that they have a mind based on their external appearance and behaviour. Since human beings almost always have minds, we get used to thinking of things that look human as having minds. Zombies not only look like human beings — at least for a while — they also look like familiar human beings, and to bring out the horrifying nature of zombies it’s best if they look like familiar human beings that we’ve seen act intentional and, preferably, kindly and, well, humanely. Our natural assessment of them will be of a thinking, intentional human being, and yet they’ll act completely inhumanely and as a monster. And that shocks us. However, that’s playing on a mistaken assessment of them; they look like they have minds and personalities and we expect them to have the personalities that they’ve expressed before … but they actually don’t, which is what shocks and horrifies us.

Now, psychological versus bodily continuance of identity is one way to settle the main question, which is what constitutes our identity: having the psychology we have, or having the body we have? Of course, you can try to get at this directly, and I think Larkin’s final point inadvertently proves this. He references “Land of the Dead” and the conclusion, at the end, that zombies are people as well. He argues that since we conclude, at the end, that zombies are people too this demonstrates our preference for the bodily view over the psychological view, but he notes that at the beginning of the movie zombies are portrayed as either having or developing psychological traits: some are playing music, some are out for a “lover’s stroll”, and so on. By showing that these zombies are developing or retaining personalities, the movie is showing them as having a psychological identity, and it is this shift that allows us to see, at the end, that maybe these zombies or that zombies in general might, in fact, be people. I submit that without that “personalizing”, we wouldn’t be able to grasp the idea that zombies might be people and should be treated as such, which means that until the right psychology is presented we don’t think of zombies as people. Thus, rather than proving that the bodily hypothesis is correct, it seems to demonstrate that the psychological hypothesis is right: we cannot conceive of zombies as people unless we can conceive of them having the right sort of psychology.

Note: I started writing this post in February. I’ve broken my own record of six months. Here’s hoping that I manage to keep up with this better in the future …

Prime Directive Analysis: Pen Pals

December 26, 2013

Continuing on from yesterday’s initial post, this is the second post in my examination of sfdebris’ examination of the Prime Directive. This one will focus on the episode that might contain the most detailed examination of the Prime Directive in all of the Star Trek works, “Pen Pals”. The basic summary is this: Data starts monitoring less used channels, and receives a message from a young girl on a nearby planet. The planet is undergoing a natural disaster, and she’s scared. Data interacts with her a bit, and then appeals to Picard to intervene and save the girl. Picard points out that this would violate the Prime Directive, and then all of the senior officers get together to discuss whether they should violate the Prime Directive or not.

I’m going to stop there, because the rest of the details should comes out in the actual analysis. With all of the senior officers discussing in detail the implications and interpretations of the Prime Directive, we can examine the thinking of each side in detail, and it comes from people we have at least some reason to sympathize with. The side that, in general, we should feel the most natural sympathy for — help the people on the planet — gets one of the less sympathetic characters — Dr. Pulaski — as well as two of the most sympathetic in Data and Geordi. On the side of the Prime Directive are pretty much Picard and Worf, both of whom are sympathetic but also come across as a little rigid. And it is, I think, this rigidness that is key to understanding the stance they take and the arguments that Picard, at least, makes.

Before getting into that, in detail, I’d like to talk a little bit about an argument that Riker makes that Chuck takes him to task over, and not just in that episode. Riker argues that there might be a cosmic destiny to these events, and that this might just be fate, and that in that case we shouldn’t intervene. Geordi reacts badly to that, and they spar a little bit. Chuck takes this as an expression of what Riker really believes, and then calls that out when Riker breaks the Prime Directive in “The Outcast” to save his, um, girl? of the week. But I don’t think that this is case. Harken back both to “The Motion Picture” as well as to the episode where Picard and Riker are on the smuggling ship, and in both cases we have a hint that the obligation of a First Officer is to make sure that all alternatives are presented and heard. Riker in “The Best of Both Worlds” even bristles when Shelby suggests that he won’t present her suggestion to the captain because he disagrees with it. So one of the roles of a First Officer is to play Devil’s Advocate and present positions that they don’t personally agree with but that need to be raised. Considering that before this episode, in “Angel One”, Riker says that he’s not going to leave them behind to die even though the Prime Directive would insist they do. Given that, and given “The Outcast”, the most consistent interpretation of Riker’s character is that he would lean more towards violating the Prime Directive to save lives. But that side is abundantly represented in the debate, and so he can fulfill his duty to ensure that all important arguments are heard and considered. In fact, even his pique can be seen as less a reaction to having his beliefs challenged but as instead a reaction to the suggestion being dismissed without thought. Even his “I think it’s something to consider” is less an argument that this is right and more that this is an option or argument that needs to be brought up and thought about.

And it is. There are a number of people who might indeed feel that there is some kind of cosmic force or power that has a goal in mind for all events, and wonder if they should interfere in that purpose. At which point, you answer the question with this question: Do you think that the cosmic entity has planned for our presence here, or not? If you think that it has, then all we can do is act the way we would act normally without guessing at the purpose of the cosmic entity, because that’s what the cosmic entity expects and wants us to do, and so we should return to our deliberation and put that argument aside. If you think it hasn’t, then since we can’t know what that purpose is, again, we have no choice but to act the way we would normally. If you try to counter that the purpose is expressed in the natural order, then the reply is Chuck’s argument that people interfere in the natural order all of the time, so either you have to insist that there be no medicine or saving of lives at all, or else demonstrate why this specific case is one where you shouldn’t intervene in the natural order. The only argument left is from someone who claims to know what the cosmic entity wants … but that’s not relevant here.

One more bit of housecleaning before diving into the main arguments, with the promised reference to AD&D, as I talk about alignment. Many people have complained that they don’t find AD&D alignments to be all that realistic, but I do find them in general to be fairly apt. One that I think has been overlooked too often is the Lawful-Chaotic divide, which essentially breaks down like this: if you are Lawful, you think that people should follow the rules and laws and codes of honour and prefer doing that to following the dictates of their individual consciences, while if you are Chaotic you think that people should follow dictates of their individual consciences over rules, laws, and codes of honour. This doesn’t mean that Lawful people never break or reinterpret rules based on their own consciences, or that Chaotic people can’t follow rules. It’s more a statement of an overall principle, and those who are Neutral on this scale would deny that such a principle exists. You can think of AD&D scales with the analogy to morality: Lawful people are like deontologists, Chaotic people are like those who want to use an empathy-based morality, and Neutral are probably error theorists.

Now, inside the Lawful category we have two other categories, those who follow the spirit of the law and those who follow the letter of the law. I like to call the latter “bureaucrats” because they really do seem to conform to the stereotypical bureaucrat: they’re the sort of person who would look at the application of someone who clearly needs financial assistance and deny them because their income is above the minimum range, while those who conform to the spirit of the law would probably find a way around it. From this, it may seem like bureaucrats couldn’t really be good people, because they’d be putting the rules ahead of helping people. But this isn’t the case. To them, we shouldn’t rely on our consciences — even in the cases that seem obvious to us — because consciences can be wrong. We can give help when it isn’t needed and fail to give help when it is needed due to the capriciousness of our own personal ideas and impressions. To argue that it is acceptable to act based on our own impression instead of the rules may validate helping out the person here that we do think needs it, but it also validates the discriminatory view. For any special case that does fit the spirit of the law but that isn’t in the law, we can advocate to have the law changed to include it, but just because we think the law should say something doesn’t mean that we can act as if the law did say that. The best we can do for everyone is to act consistently and impersonally … and go through the proper channels to change laws if we think they aren’t working.

The two people who defend the Prime Directive the strongest are also probably the two most Lawful people in the crew, with Data being the exception. Worf is all about rules and codes of honour, and essentially defends the Prime Directive with an argument of “It’s the rule, so we should follow it”. Picard is someone disciplined and orderly enough to serve as mental support for a Vulcan, and most of his arguments are indeed arguments about what the Prime Directive says. Data, I think, is also following a Lawful approach, but in his case the rules are the ones of his ethical programming, not of Starfleet, and Data’s ethical programming always takes precedence.

If we interpret Picard as taking a “bureaucratic” Lawful approach, I think we can make sense of his progressive argument through consequences from “What about a plague?” to “What about a war?”. Chuck interprets this as him trying to find one case where everyone would agree that the Prime Directive doesn’t apply, and then declaring that it is therefore right in those other cases as well. I don’t think that’s the case, however. I see his argument as doing two things. The first is that it rebuts Pulaski and Geordi’s main absolutist argument of “People are suffering and dying, we can prevent that suffering and dying, so we ought to prevent that suffering and dying, Prime Directive be damned!”. Picard demonstrates that that argument isn’t sufficient, by getting them to a case where they at least agree that people suffering and dying wouldn’t trump the Prime Directive. This wouldn’t, as Chuck notes, mean that it people suffering and dying shouldn’t trump the Prime Directive in this case … but that’s where the second part of Picard’s argument comes in: the rules say that we shouldn’t intervene in this case, and you say that we should act on our consciences and break the rule. But in the case of the war, the rules say that we shouldn’t intervene, but we know that there are people whose consciences would tell them to indeed intervene. Presumably, you think that they’d be in error to do so. But what grounds do you have for saying that the dictates of their consciences are wrong but that the dictates of yours are right? They are making the same appeal you are: people are dying, and we can stop that death and suffering, so we ought to do that. On what grounds, argumentative grounds, logical grounds, Prime Directive grounds do you distinguish between the two cases? No, if this case is indeed an obvious exception to the Prime Directive, let the Prime Directive be rewritten to include it, and then all will follow the rule. But if it isn’t so obvious and so shouldn’t be in the rule as written, then to claim that your conscience trumps the rules here means that all judgements of conscience should trump it … and that way leads to Nazi planets.

How this gets resolved further supports this interpretation. Next, the question is raised about what would happen if they asked for help. Picard doesn’t immediately dismiss the idea, and everyone, including him, seems to think it valid, meaning that it’s probably in the Prime Directive that if they are aware of you and make an explicit request that you can intervene. Pulaski jumps on that to say that her initial message could be seen as a cry for help, and Picard’s reply is “Sophistry”. He doesn’t deny that a cry for help would indeed trump the Prime Directive, but instead denies that there was indeed such a cry. When Data reestablishes the connection and she is calling for Data to help her, Picard concedes that it now has become a cry, and clearly feels that now he is indeed obligated to help her … under the Prime Directive.

Thus, the argument isn’t one of finding a case that everyone would agree would be a case where you shouldn’t intervene and using that to argue for all such cases, but is rather an argument of finding a case that most people would think is a case where you shouldn’t intervene but that we all know that some people would think is a case where you should intervene, demonstrating how inconsistent and problematic relying on personal conscience instead of the rules should be. While Neutral and Chaotic people might consider rules to be nothing more than the things that make you think before you do something, for Lawful people the rules are what guarantee consistency and even serve to overcome personal biases, the idea that you might help someone that you feel that you have more in common with or that you can understand more quickly than someone you don’t understand. Following the rules without conscience exceptions guarantees that everyone is treated the same, no matter who or what they are, no matter how well their story resonates with you, no matter how well you understand their personal circumstances, and most importantly no matter who you are. And this is what the Prime Directive is supposed to do: guarantee that lack of bias.

You can still argue that it leads to bad results, and that the Prime Directive still allows civilizations to die that could have been saved, and so should at least include those cases as explicit exceptions. I’ll talk about that more in the last part. Up next, “First Contact” and the idea of being able to make a choice and understand the consequences of that choice.

Prime Directive Analysis: Dear Doctor and Observer Effect

December 25, 2013

Long time readers of this blog shouldn’t be surprised by my revealing that I really like the stuff that Chuck Sonnenberg is doing over at sfdebris. While some of the shows he does don’t appeal to me, I particularly like the Star Trek reviews … even though, sometimes, I don’t agree with all of his interpretations.

He’s talked a lot about the Prime Directive, and even did a full video analyzing it. And while I don’t think that everything he says about it is wrong, I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding in his analysis that means that he’s treating it unfairly … or, rather, that he ends up treating the characters who support it unfairly based on that misunderstanding. In thinking about this in my spare time — my brain doesn’t like to shut off, sometimes even when I’m trying to sleep, which as you might imagine would be really, really annoying — I ended up coming up with ideas for a four post series starting from Chuck’s analysis and videos to describe how I think the Prime Directive should be viewed.

This, then, is that series. The first post, this one, will look at “Dear Doctor” and “Observer Effect”, which Chuck tends to compare, and will argue that they aren’t that comparable and that neither really do reflect a proper Prime Directive example. The second will up the geek quotient by looking at “Pen Pals” and using AD&D morality to better reflect the arguments that are going on there. The third will look at “First Contact” (the episode) and discuss why warp capability is such an important and not at all arbitrary dividing line. Finally, all of this will come together to examine “Time and Again” and ask if being saved from death really is better than any other possible unknown alternative.

And now, the disclaimers. First, as Chuck says, this is just my opinion. It’s an evidenced and argued opinion, and since I do philosophy I do think that there’s a right answer and that this is the right one. But this isn’t something given from on high or proven by strictly deductive logic. There’s a lot of interpretation going on, and other people will have different interpretations. While I don’t want to fall back on “You can have whatever opinion you want” because I do think there are better and worse and more right and less right interpretations, what I want to highlight is that all of this is debatable, which means that if you think I’m getting something wrong that’s something we can debate, respectfully. We may never be able to convince the other, but we should at least debate it like reasonable people. Second, Voyageur and Enterprise are the two series that I don’t own and have never watched, and so all of my understanding of the plot and details of episodes from those series come from Chuck’s videos themselves. Thus, I might be getting things wrong, or leaving things out that are important. Finally, any discussion of Chuck’s views are my assimilated impressions across all the videos and the analysis itself, but I might be misinterpreting him, filtering his views through other views I’ve come across, or just plain forgetting things he’s said that would change the interpretation. I implore you, then, to watch any relevant videos yourselves, not just because they are very entertaining, but also to ensure that your take on them is the same as mine.

And with all of that out of the way, my analysis of “Dear Doctor” and “Observer Effect”.

The basic plot of “Dear Doctor” is this: a race called the Valkanians arrive at Enterprise in a pre-warp ship, and plead for its help. It turns out that there’s some kind of disease on their planet that’s killing them, and they believe that in a short amount of time it will wipe all of them out. The Enterprise heads to the planet, only to discover that there is another race on that planet called the Menk who are mentally behind the Valkanians and who are immune to the disease. The Valkanians and the Menk live together in harmony, even though the Valkanians tend to treat them in a way that leaves them dependent on the Valkanians. Ultimately, Phlox finds a cure, but notes that the problem seems to be genetic and that the Valkanians are a genetic dead end and that, more importantly, their continued existence is getting in the way of the evolution of the Menk. He insists that the right thing to do is to not help the Valkanians. Archer resists at first, but at the end of the episode declares that they didn’t come out here to play God and so that he won’t give them the cure, although he won’t stop them from finding someone else to give them the cure either.

Chuck interprets this as Archer taking on the big Prime Directive principle: we shouldn’t save this society from death because we don’t know what impact it will have. This is despite it being made clear in the beginning — at least from the Memory Alpha summary — that the risk of cultural contamination is pretty low. Chuck points out that what they have — as even Phlox admits — is a remarkably harmonious society where the two groups get along quite well, even when the dominant group is sick and the subordinate group isn’t, which might normally spawn violence and suspicion against the subordinate group. So he sees no reason to not help the Valkanians, and that justifying it on the basis that you don’t know what the consequences will be just ends up justifying not helping anyone ever. No one holds that, and so it’s not an excuse here either.

I want to analyze this from Archer’s perspective, which lets me ignore any potential problems with the interpretation of evolution. From Archer’s perspective, the person who really should know what the case is here is telling him that he has a choice: let the Valkanians die out or doom the Menk to this sort of mental development forever. He can question it — and does in the episode — but at the end of the day any real denial of the facts as Phlox presents them to him would be him putting is own personal emotional feeling over the cold, hard, scientific facts as presenting by a scientific expert in the field. Thus, Archer couldn’t reasonably use any doubts he has over the facts to make his decision, even if Phlox ultimately is wrong about it. So whether Phlox is right or wrong isn’t relevant to Archer making his decision. And what I will argue is that Archer is not choosing to do nothing based on not knowing what might happen if he interferes, but is instead making his choice based on knowing full well what the consequences will be, but being unable and unwilling to decide which set should come into existence.

To Archer, the situation is this: if he gives the Valkanians the cure, the Menk will never advance beyond their current mental development, but if he doesn’t, the Valkanians will almost certainly die. If you think that it is better for the Menk to live as they do than it is for an entire species to die off, the choice will be easy for you: save the Valkanians. After all, the Menk don’t have that bad a life; they aren’t really oppressed, get whatever they need, and aren’t being abused or slaughtered by the Valkanians. But recall that the Federation has a philosophy of self-improvement and self-development, and that this is considered to be the highest goal in life for them. It is not unreasonable, then, for people from the Federation to think that self-development is as important if not more important than life itself, and that it might be better to die than to be stuck at the level of the Menk. Let’s put side whether you think this reasonable or not, and just examine it as something that someone could reasonably believe. So, if that’s the case, we can see that Archer would see both sides as at least being arguably unacceptable and arguably equally unacceptable. Given the choice, Archer would see either condition or consequence as being unacceptable, and now he’s forced into a situation where he has to choose one or the other. To him, then, either choice has a nasty moral consequence, one that he doesn’t want to live with.

So … he chooses not to choose. Essentially, his “We didn’t come here to play God” line is that he didn’t come out there to make these sorts of decisions for other cultures, to determine their fates. That’s not his job; that’s their job. But because of the state the Menk are in, they themselves couldn’t choose to say “We’ll give up self-development to let the Valkanians live”, and the Valkanians can’t make that decision for the Menk because the Valkanians have a strong interest in choosing the negative option for the Menk. So, to paraphrase Jeffrey Sinclair, Archer has to be the advocate for the Menk because no one else can. He could choose what might seem like the most moral option — give up development to save the lives of the Valkanians — but if he does that he is choosing that life for them even if they wouldn’t choose it for themselves. And he’s not comfortable doing that. But he’s also not comfortable outright choosing the Menk over the Valkanians. So he decides to not choose, and let nature or fate take its course. It’s not his place to decide what life — or lack of it — these groups will have.

Now, what he forgets is what is commonly forgotten: choosing not to choose is still a choice. He effectively chooses the Menk over the Valkanians because that’s what will happen if nature takes its course, and he knows that. So if you can criticize him for anything, it’s cowardice: he’s not willing to actually make the choice based on his principles, but is instead allowing nature to decide for him, even if that decision is not the decision he would make based on his own principles. But the counter is that his doing so is indeed playing God, is his determining what course this society will take and what life these people will have — Menk and Valkanian — and that’s not something he has the moral authority to do. Even if he effectively chooses one over the other by not choosing, he simply doesn’t have the moral authority to make the choice. Thus, he is making his non-choice in full knowledge and consideration of the consequences, and it is the consequences themselves that force his non-choice. Thus, he isn’t doing it because he doesn’t know what the consequences will be, but because he does and can’t choose between them, which means that it doesn’t tie as directly to the Prime Directive. At best, it’s the “Don’t interfere in purely internal matters” part, but even that is shaky.

Chuck compares Archer’s decision in “Dear Doctor” to the actions of the Organians in “Observer Effect”, but I don’t think them the same at all. To summarize “Observer Effect”, Hoshi and Trip managed to pick up an illness on an away mission on some kind of trash planet, and there are two Organians observing them as the disease progresses by hopping in and out of the bodies of various crewmembers. They debate whether they should interfere, and one constantly espouses the idea that they shouldn’t interfere because they don’t know what the consequences will be, which is a direct link to the normal interpretation of the Prime Directive. Eventually, Archer debates with them over it, makes what seems to be a direct reference to his having had to make similar tough decisions in “Dear Doctor” — when his decision was, really, not to choose — and derides them over being heartless and wrong at least in part because they could have stopped the disease before they were infected at all. Eventually, the Organians bring Trip and Hoshi back to life and the disease on the planet is eliminated as any kind of threat.

Chuck uses this to argue that when Archer or members of his crew are likely to die, then he sees interference as a good thing, but when others are likely to die then it isn’t. That may be a valid interpretation of Archer, but it doesn’t follow from “Dear Doctor”, because “Dear Doctor” is, again, a case where interference had known negative consequences, or at least consequences that Archer could reasonably think negative. In “Observer Effect”, that’s not the case. At best, the Organians were simply arguing that some nebulous bad thing might happen if they interfered, but they didn’t have any specific consequence in mind. Archer did. Thus, Archer’s decision not to interfere is certainly more justifiable than that of the Organians, because he was forced to make a choice between two bad outcomes, while the Organians only had a vague “We shouldn’t interfere” idea to appeal to.

But note that I think that even the Organians aren’t a good representation of the Prime Directive here. They constantly compare the reactions of the humans to those of other species, and the first few times through the videos I never got that they weren’t comparing the reactions of the humans to those of the other species in similar circumstances, but were comparing the reactions in the exact same circumstances. Meaning, other species landing on this very planet and contracting this very disease. Which always kills at least some people on the ship and might kill all of them. And the Organians couldn’t be bothered to even put up a warning or actually just eliminate the source of the disease, which would have had no impact on any culture or society or had any real consequences whatsoever. Surely no one thinks that if the Federation came across a disease on a planet that they could then cure that they wouldn’t even put up a warning buoy. In fact, they’d be far more likely to simply eliminate it from the planet if they could do so without causing known harm. So why don’t the Organians do this? Well, they come across as treating the people like lab rats, caring more about seeing how they react and worrying about losing this wonderful research opportunity than about them as sentient beings at all. In general, those in the Federation do care about those that will die, and invoke the “We don’t know the consequences” as an argument in order to reveal their feelings that the interference might make things worse. At worst, then, the Federation may take the Prime Directive too dogmatically, but they don’t use it to justify ongoing research projects. The Organians, on the other had, seem to.

We will get into whether the Prime Directive, by TNG time, has turned into a simple dogmatic principle in later posts, but to summarize this one the Prime Directive doesn’t apply to “Dear Doctor” because the consequences are known and it’s a completely different moral principle that’s at work here, while the Organians in “Observer Effect” are closer to it but still violate its intentions, seemingly willingly.

The War on Christmas …

December 25, 2013

I suppose that I should be making more positive posts today, but considering that Christmas is one day where I’m around early and don’t have a lot of other things to do I think I might as well just go ahead and talk about what I want to talk about, whether positive, uplifting posts or bitter rants. This one might be more on the ranty side.

There’s been a lot of talk for a lot of years around the “War on Christmas”, and Greta Christina has reposted one of her older posts about it, on what Christmas means to her, which starts with a discussion on the “War on Christmas”:

Among all the traditions of the holiday season, one that’s becoming increasingly familiar is the War on the Supposed War On Christmas. In this tradition — one that dates back to the sweet olden days of overt anti-Semitism — the Christian Right foams at the mouth about the fact that not everyone has the same meaning of Christmas that they do, and works themselves into a dither about things like store clerks politely recognizing that not everyone is a Christian by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Because in the mind of the Christian Right, it somehow disrespects their faith and impinges on their religious freedom to share a country with people who feel and act differently than they do.

Okay. Insert rant here about how the Christian Right isn’t actually interested in religious freedom and respect for their faith. They’re trying to establish a theocracy. They don’t care about religious and cultural plurality. They don’t care about the fact that winter holidays mean different things to different people, and that different people celebrate different ones and in different ways. They don’t care about the fact that not everyone in the country is Christian, that lots of people who do call themselves Christian are actually pretty secular in both their everyday life and their celebration of the winter holidays.

No, scratch that. They do care about it. They think it’s bad.

Richard Carrier also gets into the act:

First, Craig acts like he doesn’t know (?) that many atheists actually celebrate Christmas. It is not for them “a religious sham,” as Craig claims, but a fun secular holiday entirely based on dead pagan religions. There are no Christmas trees, or day of gift-giving, or flying reindeer porting elves named Santa Clause, or mistletoe, or commands to go caroling, or to gather family on the 25th of December, anywhere in the Bible; in fact, the Bible doesn’t even say Jesus was born in Winter (and indeed Luke’s narrative renders that impossible), whereas the 25th of December was chosen to perpetuate pagan worship of the return of the sun from its wane. In short, there is literally nothing Christian about Christmas. Atheists figured this out decades ago. We’ve been celebrating it as a secular family holiday based on cheer and giving–for quite some time now.

Carrier is, in fact, actually going after Christmas here, by denying that the traditional Christmas celebrations are, in fact, not religious at all, using the rather weak argument that those traditions aren’t in the Bible. He uses this to make the very bold declaration that there is nothing Christian about Christmas, at which point I think we can suppose that Christmas should be considered a totally secular holiday that no one should worry about celebrating, and fairly arrogantly declaring that atheists figured it out decades ago. The implication being that Christmas is not, in fact, associated with Christianity at all.

So, then, no one should have a problem with a Christmas tree being called a Christmas tree, or ask that it be called a “Holiday Tree”. Or, from the same link, change the term “Christmas” to “giving” in an ad for, well, Christmas presents.

A Christian Prime Minister should never have to wonder whether he should call a Christmas wreath a Christmas wreath. Right?

Perhaps there have been many atheists who have recognized that Christmas also has a secular meaning and association in society, meaning that even those who are not Christians can accept and participate in the less directly religious traditions without having to worry about excluding people or promoting Christianity. Many if not most Christians agree with that. However, it does seem like there are a number of people, from the links above, who don’t understand that, and it is those people that the complaints about a “War on Christmas” are aimed at.

Carrier says that there is literally nothing Christian about Christmas, but this isn’t true … at least, to Christians. For Christians, even someone who is relatively loose about his Christianity like me, Christmas does, at least, have an underlying religious component, and it is fairly clear that its importance in Western culture is due in large part to that association. To deny that is, frankly, insulting. However, that Christmas has grown beyond a simple religious holiday and into a more general holiday is undeniable, and since that’s the case everyone can participate and take their own meaning from it without worrying about insulting or excluding anyone. (Note that this does not include flouting Christmas traditions, like insisting on celebrating “Saturnalia” even though they don’t actually belief in the religion that spawned that. That comes across as mocking, not as taking meaning where you find it).

Anyway, why this is important is that understanding this reveals Greta Christina’s comments as being a bit of a strawman. It’s nice to be able to point to some amorphous “Christian Right”, grab some of their extreme statements, and use that to claim that they want everyone to become Christian and that the worries over a “War on Christmas” are, in fact, just reflections of that. It may be true of those that she’d consider the “Christian Right”, but in doing so it minimizes the real concerns of those who might feel that things like we see in the links above really do constitute an attack on their religion, particularly with the idea that if you associate anything with Christianity it’s somehow bad and offensive and insulting to those who aren’t of that religion, even if the whole things started from that tradition. It also risks conflating different arguments into one and then building an overall view that doesn’t reflect anything anyone believes.

So let’s start by teasing out the different arguments, and let’s start with the concerns of the secularization of Christmas. For almost all Christians, this isn’t aimed at people of other religions at all, but is instead aimed at Christians. Vanishingly few Christians think that Jews or Hindus should celebrate the True Meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, more than they do, or make that a key part of their Christmas celebrations. What most lament, however, is the fact that the secular traditions tend to overwhelm the religious ones for most Christians; we spend far too much time thinking about the parties and gifts and shopping and the like and not enough thinking about Jesus. As Christians, we should consider the religious meaning paramount, and we don’t seem to … and it seems to be getting worse and worse. At the extreme end, you’d get Christians wanting the secular aspects to be downplayed so that the religious ones can stand out for Christians, so that Christmas isn’t as big a secular holiday in our society so that Christians can focus on the religious aspect. Since that’s not happening, most Christians who care about this just wish that we had more time and more ability to make the religious part more central to the celebrations for us … something that the links above make difficult.

So that’s one part, and the part that’s aimed at bringing more religion into the holiday, which is the part that you can use to link to any idea of theocracy. The other concern is about forcing the Christian idea out of the culture entirely. Few Christians get too upset about being wished “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, at least not in and of itself. What they get upset about is the idea that people are doing that because it is somehow considered rude or socially unacceptable to use “Merry Christmas”, that somehow them wishing people the wishes from the holiday they actually celebrate is somehow in and of itself problematic. This follows from the links above, that demonstrate politically correct attempts to expunge the very word “Christmas” from the vernacular, from the things that it has been named for and that it has traditionally been associated with. This is the “War on Christmas”, the idea that anything that might remind us that, hey, this is actually a religious holiday for the majority of the population simply cannot be tolerated, because it might offend the minority.

If, as Carrier and Christina assert, Christmas can be considered to be a secular holiday for most people, with secular traditions, then there’s no need to rename it or in any way worry about the religious tradition behind it. And if it can’t be considered that, then we should focus on and make the religious tradition clear, and drop the notion that secular considerations matter at all to it. Now, what seems to be true is that Christmas can be a general celebration of peace and goodwill and advocate ideas that all can get behind, and that it therefore can be secular. But recognizing it as that does not preclude us from recognizing its history as well, and acknowledging that to Christians it is and should be more than that, and accepting that even if for us it doesn’t mean that. And this, then, would end the “War on Christmas”, because atheists and secularists would feel no need to expunge the references or mock the Christian idea, at which point most Christians would feel that their beliefs are respected by others just as other religious beliefs are at this time, even if they aren’t followed or aren’t focused on in the general and secular Christmas traditions.

A couple of Christmas albums …

December 25, 2013

For the past couple of days, I’ve listed some Christmas songs. Today I’d like to highlight two of my favourite Christmas albums.

Loreena McKennit, “A Midwinter Night’s Dream”

Celtic Woman, “A Christmas Celebration” (which is playing right now).

Merry Christmas.

The traditional again …

December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to the reader of this blog.

Don’t you mean the readers?

Nope, WordPress still says it’s pretty much just the one.

Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”

December 24, 2013

So, I recently read Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”, and figured I should probably comment on it. The first thing that I want to say about it is that it’s far too short for the ambitions that he at least claims to have. For the most part, I really didn’t get how he was attacking the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature, since he wasn’t explicit in most cases and sometimes didn’t even seem to make the link. Either the book should have just raised the issues as puzzles or should have gone into some detail about what is meant by a materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature. Neither seems to have been done, or at least done sufficiently, and the book suffers as a result. However, I think I’ve managed to put the pieces together, and so am going to outline that here. Note that this is my take on what was said, and so is open to challenge.

First, what do people mean by the neo-Darwinian idea? There have been a number of people who are taking on a neo-Darwinian conception or theory, and the responses from the usual people seem to miss the concerns of those who are taking on Darwin. Fodor and P-P go after Darwin, as does David Dobbs, with the obligatory reply from Jerry Coyne. But it seems that those who criticize people like Fodor, Dobbs and Nagel are somewhat confused about what the actual argument is, especially since none of these people deny that natural selection occurs in nature, and often even accept that it is a very important mechanism in evolution. So what’s the complaint, then?

To me, it seems that the detractors of Darwinianism oppose it not as a descriptive theory of how the world works (in that it is a mechanism in the world that produces traits) but as an explanatory theory, where you can appeal to the Darwinian view as an explanation for the traits that we have. The simple Darwinian story that there was a mutation that was then selected for because it had a clear benefit is a nice description of a basic mechanism, but when you toss in free riders, multiple traits with benefits, and the fact that genetic predisposition does play a large roll — mutations can only produce traits that the genes will actually produce when encoded — if you are trying to look at any specific trait it is actually quite unlikely that that trait was produced by that simple mechanism, or at least directly produced by it. And if that’s the case, then if you pick out a trait and start trying to explain why we have that trait and not an opposing trait by saying “Well, let’s see what benefit it might have had … oh, well, there’s a benefit that it has, and so that must be what was selected for, and so there’s your explanation” you are likely to come up with the wrong answer.

Nagel relies on another problem with this sort of explanation, which is the “just-so” story, meaning that you end up saying that the trait either developed just because we had the right sort of mutation, or because it had some unidentified benefit (or vaguely defined one), then all you’ve said is that, essentially, it just happened. If, at any point, you have to say that something just happened, you haven’t really explained it; to Nagel, getting into this state is essentially saying “Evolution did it” which is the equivalent of “God did it” in terms of explanations, except that since God is at least seen as being an intentional being we can at least try to explain it in terms of what God wants to see happen. Which, of course, is not available for evolution.

My view, then, is that Nagel is trying to throw out three important traits or mechanisms in at least some biological beings — mostly humans — that he thinks the simple Darwinian view has to try to explain with “It just happened”. If that’s the case, then the simple Darwinian view cannot provide an explanation for those traits or mechanisms, and so there are important biological mechanisms that cannot be explained by Darwinism, and so claims that we can use the neo-Darwinian conception of nature to explain everything are false, and that we can’t even explain everything biological using it. This is what he means when he says that if he’s right this would revolutionize biology. So how does he go about showing that?

He starts with one of his biggest personal problems: consciousness. Or, more precisely, conscious/phenomenal experience; what it is to be like something. In order for consciousness to have evolved under the neo-Darwinian view, it has to provide us with an actual external benefit for natural selection to work on. However, phenomenal experience is purely subjective; no one can externally observe our internal reactions. You can’t feel my pain. So if consciousness is going to have a selectable benefit, it’s not going to be direct, but instead indirect because of its impact on our behaviour. But under the materialist view of mind, it is the physical neurons and their connections that actually produce our external behaviour; the subjective experience is at best a product of what the brain is doing. So, then, under the materialist view, subjective experience is just a side effect of what neurons are really doing, which is producing external behaviour. Therefore, the details of our subjective experiences don’t have a causal impact on our behaviour, but at best reflect different things our neurons are doing. Fine.

But then the question is: why do we have subjective phenomenal experience, and why does it have the characteristics it has? Why is pain painful? Why does the colour blue look the way it does? Because the materialist theory says that it’s just what the neurons do, and that the details of that experience aren’t selected, all it can say is “Because that’s what the neurons do”. But that’s not an explanation. So we’re going to have to go outside of natural selection to explain having subjective experiences at all, let alone the details of why we experience what we do. Since subjective experience is an important part of some biological organisms — at least the “higher” animals — that’s an important mechanism that neo-Darwinianism simply cannot explain.

Nagel moves on to cognition. I had an impossible time figuring out what he meant here until I recalled that he referenced Plantinga, and so have come to the conclusion that he is using a modified version of Plantinga to attack cognition. The main idea is this: we want to know that our cognitive faculties are reliable. The neo-Darwinian argument would be that we know that our cognitive faculties are reliable because we know they evolved, and evolution selects for utility, and cognitive faculties that produce truths about the world will be useful and more useful than once that produce falsehoods. Thus, if the theory of evolution is true, our cognitive faculties are reliable, and since we know the theory of evolution is true, we know our cognitive faculties are reliable. But since knowledge requires us to have justified true beliefs, what is it that justifies our belief that the theory of evolution is true? Well, we’d claim that it is scientifically proven using reason and evidence, of course. But those are our own cognitive faculties, and we started out being uncertain about them. If we want to justify our belief that our cognitive faculties are reliable by appealing to the theory of evolution, it had better not be the case that we justify the theory of evolution by appealing to those same cognitive faculties that we were hoping the theory of evolution would prove reliable. Thus, that answer is circular, and not acceptable.

So, one way out would be to say that our cognitive faculties just are reliable, or that we have to rely on them because that’s all we have. Both of these would be giving up on the question. The other way out would be to demonstrate that our cognitive faculties are the sort of cognitive faculties that would inherently produce true beliefs, and so then say that we developed cognitive faculties that did produce true beliefs — because these sorts of faculties are the sort that do that — and then once that occurred natural selection could solidify them in us by their benefits. In short, we got lucky and picked up the right sort of faculties to produce truths, and we know that these are the right sorts of faculties because we can prove that they are without appealing to natural selection. Putting aside some potential difficulties with making this sort of judgement with unproven cognitive faculties, either way out forces us to abandon the neo-Darwinian view as the explanation for the reliability of our cognitive faculties, and particularly as what justifies our belief that they are reliable, thus again making an important biological mechanism that cannot be explained by the Darwinian view.

Nagel ends with value. This one is far more straightforward. Value requires us to judge something as good or bad, or right or wrong. And we seem to think that these judgements are true in some interesting way. And they do seem to have an impact on our behaviour. However, the only external impact they have is to get us to move towards or away from something. So, from the external perspective, good and bad are identical to attractive and aversive. And if that’s all that natural selection can select on, then what is the use of having good or bad at all? Why not simply have attractive and aversive? If they always work out the same way — ie our calculations of value always correspond with our calculations of attractiveness and aversion — then the two really are the same thing, and if they are ever different then how did we ever select for value, or for some kind of value that isn’t just subjectively true (meaning, attractive to me)? If value isn’t just going to be subjective, then we have to be mapping it to something objective, but if evolution only selects for attractive and aversive, where is it that we can find this value or justify having this value hook up to the right things? Again, evolution comes back with “It’s just right”, which isn’t an explanation, and so we again have something important about biological organisms — pretty much only humans in this case — that can’t be explained by natural selection, and thus not by neo-Darwianian reductive views.

I’ll repeat my caution that these are my interpretations of what Nagel has said, not precisely what Nagel has said himself. I think I’m interpreting him correctly, but I could be wrong. But, to me, this is what he’s on about, and while they may not be credible they do seem, at least to me, to deserve some consideration.