Archive for January, 2014

Review of “Why Evolution is True”

January 25, 2014

As I said here, I recently ordered “Why Evolution is True”, and I just finished reading it. As expected, I didn’t really disagree with a lot of it; it was fairly standard, boilerplate evolution stuff. But the big thing I wanted to look at was if it really was as easy for the average person to get the evidence for evolution simply by reading it. After reading it, I do kinda say that that’s true … but I still don’t think I can recommend it to anyone to actually read. This isn’t because the writing is bad or confusing or anything — it isn’t — but that I just can’t think of an audience that would find this book enlightening over the alternatives that are out there.

Let me break it down a bit. For audiences that don’t care much about the evolution versus creationism/ID debate, what they’d be looking for in this book is a nice, simple description of the evidence for evolution. This is the audience that I was essentially in; despite finding some potential ID theories more plausible than naturalists find them (mostly because I’m not a naturalist), I don’t deny evolution as a whole and don’t really care about the debate. What I found, personally, is that the book focused far too much on the creationism/ID debate for my liking. It didn’t go after them at length anywhere, but instead spent a lot of its time pointing out evolution’s predictive successes and then firing off a shot saying that a designer wouldn’t be expected to have done things that way, or that creationism doesn’t have an answer for a certain problem, or whatever. As someone who wasn’t that interested in the debate, the asides — sometimes a bit snarky — were uninteresting and annoying. I didn’t feel that it served the case for evolution much to keep opposing it with creationism. This only got worse when comments were made that I wasn’t certain were fair charges against design, or worked all that well. In fact, the asides only got me — and this might be just a personality/occupational hazard issue with me — constantly thinking about whether creationism or design really did have a problem with what Coyne was saying that they had a problem with, which led me to questioning whether creationism might have a point, which carried over into the cases where Coyne points out thinks evolution can’t yet explain, which somewhat weakens the effect. So the book just doesn’t deliver what someone who wants a biological/scientific presentation of evolution would want.

But I don’t think it will — or, at least, it shouldn’t — work that well against theists/creationists either, because it doesn’t really go after creationism in detail. Again, most of the counters are asides. Any creationist that has read anything from other creationists will know the standard responses to those sorts of asides, and so not only won’t be impressed, but will also be annoyed at what would look like a shallow attack on creationism backed up by, well, a bit of snark. A more detailed and thorough destruction of creationism would seem best for these people — knowing that Coyne wants people to give up creationism and adopt Darwinism — which would require more focus on it. For creationists who know anything about the debate, this book might be a nice, light snack, but it’s not a strong attack on their beliefs.

That leaves atheists and people who are Darwinists who are looking for talking points against creationists or intelligent design. The problem is that the actual talking points against creationism are, again, relatively shallow and undeveloped. Which isn’t a bad thing, but isn’t going to help them against creationists who, again, know the standard replies and are simply going to toss them at the atheists.

So, it doesn’t seem to fit any of the people who might actually want to read it. Again, that doesn’t make it a bad book, but there have to be better books for each of these purposes than this one.

Additionally, it takes a rather strange approach to the topic, where I’d say it treats creationism like a failed scientific theory. All of the asides are essentially talking about predictions that evolution makes and that creationism at least ought to make, and pointing out that evolution’s predictions came out true and creationism’s didn’t. Which is a fair approach to take when arguing against a competing scientific theory. But my understanding of the debate — as related in the stories of the various trials around intelligent design — is that Darwinists don’t consider creationism/ID to be a scientific theory at all. So they don’t treat it as a scientific theory that happened to be wrong, but as a proposal that isn’t scientific at all. And if that’s the case, treating it as one by comparing predictions seems to undermine that actual argument. Which also drives home one of my problems with Gnu Atheism: the seeming inability to distinguish between being a valid but wrong theory and being an invalid or lying theory. Honestly, saying that creationism/ID could be a scientific theory but that it’s gotten everything wrong seems to be a stronger way to go then trying to claim that it couldn’t be a scientific theory at all … and then treating it like one to refute it.

Also, in reading it I was reminded of the work of Fodor and Piatelli-Palarmini, and others that challenge the supremacy of natural selection in evolution. Coyne does indeed recognize other mechanisms than natural selection in evolution, but still does focus on natural selection and in coming up with appeals to benefit for most of the features, including the ones where it is difficult to see what advantage it had. But this is where Fodor et al seem to have a point: maybe it’s hard to imagine because it’s simply association with other factors that benefit that drove that change, explaining some of the inefficiencies. So despite Coyne railing that they just didn’t get evolution, after reading his book I see that at least the basic questions I talked about here still are valid.

This is almost certainly a book I will never read again, and I don’t think I’ll recommend it to anyone. It’s not a terrible book, and I don’t consider it an utter waste of my money, but it just doesn’t provide enough in and of itself to gain a spot on my recommended list.

The Evolutionary Argument Against Strong Determinism …

January 25, 2014

So, I’ve been reading “Why Evolution is True” by Jerry Coyne, and in reading found more support for an argument that I’ve floated before, which I’ll call the Evolutionary Argument Against Strong Determinism, or the EAASD. In chapter 3, Coyne talks about vestiges of evolution, and talks about things like eyes in animals that live underground and wings in birds that don’t fly. He notes that in a lot of these cases the features become almost if not completely non-existent, because they aren’t necessary anymore. One reason that he gives for these features shrinking and disappearing is that things like eyes, for example, use a lot of energy, which could be put to better use on things that improve the reproductive success of the individual. Thus, natural selection will weed it out in favour of more efficient features that don’t include or utilize those features, meaning that if a mutation disconnects or shrinks them the loss of the feature won’t cost the organism anything and the freed up energy might benefit them.

Now, conscious deliberation and conscious experience, it seems to me, takes up a lot of energy, much more than, say, an eye would. If this conscious experience or deliberation doesn’t do anything, then that would be a waste of energy on a massive scale. So, from the above, it seems unlikely that it would develop and even less likely that it would persist if it didn’t impact our behaviour in some way, a way that improves our chances of surviving and reproducing. But if that’s the case, conscious deliberation and experience, at least, is not a simple illusion, as it would at least have to have some impact on the action we finally take. Thus, conscious deliberation actually matters and actually does change our behaviour.

Now, this conclusion is, of course, perfectly compatible with compatiblist views, which only want to preserve the idea that deliberation changes our final behaviour in a way such that if we didn’t consciously deliberate we wouldn’t behave the same way. And some strong determinist positions can accomodate that. For example, B.F. Skinner’s behaviouristic view treats the conscious deliberation as another stimulus that we can react to, and so if we react to that internal stimulus our behaviour can change, and we can be conditioned to react to that internal stimulus in specific ways. That approach isn’t one that compatiblists would much object to either, though, so how “strong determinist” it is might be doubtful.

But this does undermine one of the main arguments for Strong Determinism: the experiments by Libet and others that purport to show that decisions are made before we are consciously aware of them. The issue is that these only work to support Strong Determinism if they work to undermine the idea that we actually make decisions consciously, through conscious deliberation. But if conscious deliberation doesn’t actually impact our decision — ie doesn’t in some interesting way determine the decision we ultimately end up making — then how did we ever evolve to make conscious decisions? Thus, what is happening when we deliberate is far more likely to be actually impacting even the subconscious decision-making processes and thus influencing where it goes next … and that’s all that’s needed for compatiblism, at least. Thus, those experiments might demonstrate that more goes on subconsciously than we are willing to acknowledge — although psychology knew that long ago — but without really strong evidence cannot demonstrate that conscious deliberation doesn’t influence our behaviour in a strong fashion. And if it does influence our behaviour in a strong fashion, then Strong Determinism is weakened, unless it retreats to a position that accepts that … and looks a lot like compatiblism.

In summary, if conscious deliberation doesn’t impact the end decision, why would we evolve to waste the time and energy doing it? And if it does impact the final decision, then it is reasonable to think that that process is doing something that captures all of what’s important about us consciously making decisions, and thus that we have free will of at least that sort.

Science/Religion Compatibility: Academic Discipline vs Worldview …

January 21, 2014

So, reading around the Internet today, I started thinking about the age-old question of whether science and religion are or can be made to be incompatible. And it seems to me that there’s a massive confusion happening in the debates, and that debate is over whether science as an academic discipline is compatible with religion or whether science as a worldview is compatible with religion. And I also think that this confusion also drives the “narrow/broad” debate over the definition of science, and also drive a large part of the scientism debate. So I think I’ll try to unpack some of that here in this post.

When I — and I submit, most people — think of science, we think of it as the academic discipline, and thus as what you’d find in a university faculty of science or even what you’d generally expect taught in a general science class. This is, paradigmatically, things like physics, chemistry and biology, which are also known — with some other fields — as the “hard sciences”. When we hear someone talking about the success of science, we automatically think of the great success these fields have had in increasing our knowledge, and when we think of the scientific method we tend to think of that as being the method that scientists in the “hard sciences” tend to use to get such results.

If, then, you ask us if science and religion are compatible, our answer is going to be, under this definition, that they are compatible precisely in the sense of whether or not someone could be a good scientist while still being religious. We understand that the academic field of science doesn’t necessarily include — or, we hope, preclude — religion, but ask if someone could be, in general, religious and yet still do science. And there are obviously ways that someone who is religious can still do at least religiously neutral science, if in no other way than parking their specific religious beliefs at the door when doing it, and not favouring scientifically solutions that align with their religion, or disfavouring solutions that contradict or risk contradicting their religious beliefs. Sure, they might end up finding scientifically facts that contradict their religion, but that doesn’t mean that religion in general is incompatible in any real sense with the academic discipline of science. After all, people doing science might find scientific facts that challenge any number of non-religious beliefs, but that wouldn’t make science incompatible with having those sorts of beliefs. For example, doing science might discover facts that invalidate any number of philosophical beliefs, but that wouldn’t make the academic discipline of science incompatible with philosophy.

What we can see, then, is that the academic discipline’s interaction with religion is, in fact, simply to produce facts, true statements about the world. As such, it isn’t the place of science to decide what a new fact it discovers means for a non-scientific theory or claim. Or, to put it better, it isn’t the job of the academic discipline of science to determine what the facts it discovers means for any particular worldview. The academic discipline of science just presents and evaluates facts — meaning physical facts — not worldviews. So it’s up to fields that do work with worldviews to determine what they mean for that. Philosophy, which studies absolutely everything studyable, can do that. For a specifically religious worldview, theology also can do that because that is indeed part of their job. And note that both can indeed conclude that the scientific facts can indeed make that specific worldview untenable; it’s just not as easy as if they were scientific theories, because worldviews are not, in fact, scientific theories.

Which leads to the second point. Many of the anti-accomodationist atheists insist that they are incompatible because they rely on different methods: science on the scientific method, religion on faith. This, they argue, those who claim they’re compatible have to reconcile the two methods, and make it so that they the methods themselves can accomodate each other. To them, this means that you have to have the scientific method accept the methodology of faith, and the methodology of faith accept the scientific method internally, so that the scientific method can give answers based on faith just as well as the methodology of faith can accept the scientific method. Otherwise, you’d have two completely different ways of coming to truths that are incompatible in your worldview, and that’s not possible. So, the argument goes, since the scientific method has no room for faith, you can’t have both. And if you have to choose one, you should choose the one that has been so massively successful, and that’s science.

Treating science as an academic discipline — the narrow definition — the argument doesn’t make sense. It would essentially be saying that unless we could find a method by which all academic disciplines could study their fields, then you couldn’t have a worldview that incorporated, say, science and philosophy. Which is absurd. The only way, then, to make this claim make any sense is to not think of science as an academic discipline, but instead to think of a scientific worldview. Essentially, an idea that one should live one’s at least epistemic life based on the scientific method espoused by the academic discipline of science. Hence, since there is no room in the scientific method for faith, then there is no room in the scientific worldview for faith. Also, hence the push to expand the definition of science beyond that of the academic discipline of science, because if you’re going to have a scientific worldview you’re going to have to deal with far more than the “hard sciences” deal with now, and so we’re going to have to know things that you couldn’t know with the formal scientific method, which is why it tends to get expanded to “empirical data and reasoning”, since it can be argued that that is fundamental to the scietnific method, even if the scientific method, in the academic discipline of science, entails more than that.

But there are a couple of issues with this move:

1) If they are advocating for a scientific worldview, they really need to suss out more of what that worldview itself is before anyone ought to be convinced to hold it, and so before anyone ought to be convinced that science and religion are incompatible according to its main principles.

2) Advocates of this worldview can’t use the success of the scientific method in the academic discipline of science to argue for the success of this worldview. The scientific method had better work for the academic discipline of science — or else, it would be irrational for it to use it — but that doesn’t mean that using it or even their expanded version is going to work as a worldview. There may be major components of human activity that just aren’t amenable to any form of the scientific method. Which is also why you have to clear about what the worldview entails and also why they keep trying to expand the definition of science to cover all human endeavours.

Note that the restrictiveness of the scientific worldview would, in fact, be part of the scientific worldview itself, and not of worldviews in general. It is easy to come up with a worldview that allows for different and incompatible methodologies, applied to the areas where they make the most sense and work. All things being equal, most human experience has taught us that we generally do need different approaches for different problems, which is probably why the scientific method in the scientific worldview keeps adding methods to it and becoming more and more general; they’re added as need arises to make their worldview make sense in the world. But that is obviously cheating.

Treated as an academic discipline, there is no interesting philosophical incompatibility between science in general and religion in general. Treated as a worldview, there is … but then we need a justification for why we should adopt that worldview. The debates on accomodationism, it seems to me, confuse those two usages, leading to very bad debates. And very bad philosophy about the question.

Hart’s New Book, Coyne’s Book, and Theology …

January 16, 2014

Jerry Coyne has been talking about David Bentley Hart’s new book “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss”. The latest thread about it is here. From this, I decided to buy that book, and also to pick up “Why Evolution is True”. Despite the fact that I argue against Coyne at lot on this blog (which is odd, since when I started the blog I thought it would be P.Z. Myers that I posted the most against, but since Coyne says things (even if often very, very incorrect things) while Myers tends to say very, very little with a lot of mocking words, Coyne gets more attention just for having content), I don’t think that I’ll have very much to say about his book. I mostly got it just to see if his claim that the average person could comprehend the evidence for evolution just by reading it. I mean, I’m certainly not the average person, as saying that I’m overeducated might be an understatement, but I’m not a biology expert so I want to see in how many places my eyes glaze over when reading the technical details just as Coyne’s probably do when reading theology. And on that, from the post:

And does Burkeman realize that I spent several years reading theology before I decided that it was mind-numbing and largely worthless exercise? It’s not like I haven’t heard their Best Arguments.

Considering the rather large number of times that I’ve commented on Coyne’s posts by showing that he didn’t really get their arguments, and for example went through his examination of Polkinghorne and ended up expressing massive frustration that he never addressed the arguments but instead simply mocked them, I think a case might be made that he heard by didn’t listen, or perhaps less confusingly looked but didn’t see. I’m also not sure where the “several years” comes into it. The post where he says that he’s now reading theology with Eric MacDonald’s help was written in July of 2011, that only counts as “several years” for very large values of “a couple of years” or perhaps “a few years”. And he only read some theology, but never really studied it, which makes any claims to his having acquired a deep understanding of the arguments about as plausible as, say, my saying that I’ll have heard and understood enough about evolution to be dismissive of it once I’ve read Coyne’s book since I read a couple of other books over a span of a few years. Essentially, just as I don’t know enough about evolution to judge it, or about biology to judge it or its writings as a whole, Coyne doesn’t know enough to really be qualified to judge theology and have us take his judgement seriously based on the amount of time he studied it. No, he’d have to make really good arguments about it … which, well, have been, in my opinion, rather lacking, probably because while Coyne tends to deny disliking philosophy and philosophical arguments, he tends to dismiss them all the time.

Case in point, when he goes to list the ways that Hart could be possibly giving the best arguments for the existence of God:

2. The philosophical argument that is most tricky, or hardest to refute: in other words, the argument for God that has the greatest degree of sophistry. This used to include the Ontological Arguments, which briefly stymied even Bertrand Russell. But we soon realized that “existence is not a quality”, and that, in fact, existence claims can be settled only by observation or testing, not by logic.

Well, see, if it is a philosophical argument, and philosophers can’t figure out how to refute it, then it just might, you know, be right. So it being hard to refute philosophically is indeed a reason to think that it’s a good argument, not just one that has the greatest degree of sophistry. And either Coyne is being really careless here or he doesn’t get the history of the debate at all, since while Russell did find it problematic, we didn’t discover that “existence is not a quality” after that point, but before … unless Kant really lived before Russell, and it isn’t like his discussion of the OA was ignored by those who studied him. So surely Russell was aware of that argument before his issues with the OA, and thus this implies — correctly — that while the Kantian argument is decent, it does have some problems with it, in that using “existence” as a predicate or quality isn’t obviously false. So, that’s probably not doing the work in minimizing Ontological Arguments. The “existence claims can be settled only by observation or testing, not by logic” is probably the idea that most drives people not finding Ontological Arguments convincing … but it’s never actually been proven true in any meaningful way, which allows for the modal logic OAs to take shape. Almost all scientists and a lot of philosophers accept that that claim is true, but none of them can prove it, so it’s still an open problem, and a specifically philosophical one.

In this short paragraph, Coyne implies that philosophers aim at arguments that are more sophistic than rational, ignores the history of philosophy, and makes an unfounded philosophical statement. I’d call that evidence of his having some issues with philosophy, consciously or not.

In discussing the “God is ground of all Being” argument that Hart is advocating, he says this:

…but I seriously doubt that. Aquinas, Luther, Augustine: none of those people saw God in such a way.

Except that Aquinas, as he followed on from Aristotlean views and invented Thomism probably does beleive that. I couldn’t find any simple quick quote that flat-out says it, but I did read Feser’s book on Aquinas, know that Feser believes in the Aristotlean “Ground of all Being” argument, and am pretty sure that Feser defends Thomism. In fact, Coyne argues that he doesn’t understand the “Ground of all Being” argument at all, but could read Feser’s book to get a decent sumamry of it, even if he doesn’t find it convincing. Thus, the “Ground of all Being” argument is not new, but has been around for arguably thousands of years, making it just as strong a contender for the way God really is as any other.

He finishes with what is rapidly becoming his most popular rhetorical flourish (for now):

So if I had to ask Hart three questions, they would be these:

1. On what basis do you know that God is a Ground-of-Being God instead of an anthropomorphic God? (In your answer, you cannot include as evidence the dubious claim that this is the kind of God that most people have accepted throughout history.)

2. How do you know that your Ground-of-Being god embodies truth, goodness, and beauty rather than lies, evil, and ugliness?

3. What would the universe look like if your God didn’t exist?

For 1 and 2, I’d have to re-read “Aquinas”, but I know it was addressed there. As for 3, the answer is simple to anyone who even has a vague idea of the argument: there’d be no universe. At all. I mean, how do you not get that from a claim that God is “The Ground of all Being”? Do you think that there is anything that exists if you take the ground of existence away? At best, it’s just a really bad question for the claim he’s addressing. Can he see, then, why so often I end up claiming that he doesn’t really understand the arguments he’s not only claiming to understand — or, at least, understand enough to call “ineffable” — but to have also evaluated and disproved?

Dumb and Dumber …

January 13, 2014

One of the biggest issues with the type of aggressive approach that the New Atheists prefer is the pressure that it puts on the person being aggressive, even though many of the New Atheists who advocate that approach don’t see that and end up being hoist on their own petard. If you are going to go after a point, or argument, or person strongly, with a sense of courageous certitude, you had better be right. Because if you aren’t right, and either get their argument wrong or make an argument that itself doesn’t work, the stronger a position you take the more embarrassing it will be for you, and the easier it will be for people to dismiss you completely. Thus, if you say that someone is saying something obviously wrong, it had better be so … and that goes double if you say that the person or the argument is stupid.

Unfortuntely, Amanda Marcotte provides an excellent example of taking a strong stance and coming out looking really bad in doing so. She decides to take on some things that S.E. Cupp has been saying lately, and starts from the position that the New Atheists are supposed to strenuously denying they take: attacking the person, and not the argument. After all, the very title of the article is “Is S.E. Cupp The Dumbest Pundit Working? An Examination.” And before you argue that maybe she didn’t choose the title, the very first line is, again, asking if she is the dumbest pundit. So, she starts by calling S.E. Cupp dumb … not her arguments. Shame, shame.

But, okay, let’s look past that rhetorical flourish and look at her examination of the arguments themselves. She starts with a comment Cupp made about Chris Christie. Now, Cupp’s comment, from the video, is that if Christie was involved in the retributive blocking of a busy bridge and if that information might come out, the best thing for Christie to do is to admit to it and resign right now, and then focus on preparing for a Presidential campaign. Marcotte thinks that this is, well, incredibly dumb:

Now, I realize part of the pressure of being a pundit is trying to come up with novel arguments that stand out from the crowd, and this certainly achieves that goal. However, novelty should always come second to not sounding like a complete idiot. I don’t want to have to explain why this is the stupidest idea ever, so here’s the short version: If you want a story to die, the last thing you want to do is make it the defining moment of your career that was so all-important it forced you out of office. You definitely don’t want it to be what every reporter asks you about every time you go out campaigning, which will happen if you resign. You absolutely do not want reporters asking you why it is that you think you can be President when you were such a failure as governor that you had to resign.

Now, look back at how I summarized the argument above: assume that Christie was directly involved, and assume that that information will come out. If he admits to it, apologizes, and resigns now, the issue will die down within a few weeks, giving plenty of time for it to fade from the public consciousness before his potential Presidential campaign. Now, imagine that people keep investigating this, and they find proof that he was directly involved right before the campaign … while he kept denying it for all of that time. Does Marcotte really think that that would be better for his Presidential hopes? Sure, if he wasn’t directly involved or is pretty confident that no one will ever be able to link him to it directly, then admitting and resigning might not be the better option, but if we assume that he will be linked to it, then admitting it and resigning now allows him to say that he made a mistake — as Cupp herself said, I think, in the video — admitted to it, paid the price, and has learned from his mistake. Which is a lot better position for him to be in than being “found out” right at the worst possible time for him.

Now, Marcotte could have made a decent argument, saying that he shouldn’t admit and resign because being linked to this sort of action is just so bad and so terrible that just being linked to it will kill any chances he has. That’s a fair argument, and one that actually has some legs. However, that wouldn’t make Cupp’s suggestion stupid even if Marcotte had made it … and Marcotte didn’t make it.

Look, he’s going to be asked about this no matter what happens. But as a number of baseball players have learned, it’s better to admit your wrongdoings and ask forgiveness — and willingly accept the consequences — than it is to deny and fight them all the way. In the end, it might not help, but that doesn’t mean it’s a stupid idea either.

And next, Marcotte goes after selections from a post Cupp made about Colorado legalizing pot. She starts with this, um, interesting analysis:

Will pot smokers become a sought-after voting demographic?

You’d think they just granted suffrage to pot smokers.

… Seriously?

Okay, let me break this down for you, although most people probably won’t need it to be broken down that much. See, Colorado didn’t legalize pot because they woke up one morning and decided that, hey, it just makes sense … even if they say that’s what they did. One of the main reasons to do something like this, and especially something that’s going to get this much attention, is because you figure that if you do it you’ll be able to point to it as something you did and get votes (if it wasn’t voted in directly; as a Canadian, I don’t spend much time researching Colorado drug laws). So, then, if they think that at the very least doing this isn’t going to cost them votes, then it’s reasonable to ask if a stance like this could become a differentiator in politics, meaning that if one party promises to legalize pot they’ll get a boost in support. Well, they might or they might not. But Marcotte herself, in her haste to attack, actually justifies the claim later:

Nearly half of Americans admit to having smoked pot. Most of the other half wisely decline to discuss their illegal drug use with strangers over the phone. I don’t know if you could create more drug users, honestly.

If most people smoke pot or at least have tried it and think it mostly harmless, then wouldn’t that be a very big block of voters that you could potentially appeal to by offering to legalize pot? After all, we do know that single issues can greatly impact elections, so could this be one of them. Probably not, because most people are likely to have much bigger concerns than legalizing pot … but that’s a counter-argument, and one that you need to make because, well, the argument isn’t inherently stupid or wrong, but might just be empirically wrong.

Now, let’s put that drug quote into context:

Will liberal supporters suffer when the law change inevitably creates more drug users?

Nearly half of Americans admit to having smoked pot. Most of the other half wisely decline to discuss their illegal drug use with strangers over the phone. I don’t know if you could create more drug users, honestly. Though, being full of derp, Cupp probably will think the inevitable spike of people admitting to pot use now that they’re less afraid of going to jail for such an admission should be treated as an actual rise in the number of “drug users”. (By the way, alcohol and caffeine are also drugs. So, really, is aspirin. But even if you limit your scope to people using drugs for their mind-altering purposes, the “problem” of “drug users” is already near-universal.)

Okay, anyone who knows anything about the War on Drugs debate knows that one of the main arguments given for keeping pot illegal is that it is a gateway drug to the harder, more addictive drugs. So, if someone was actually trying to argue against the post or, in fact, demonstrate that it itself is stupid the first thing they’d have to do to have anycredibility is accept that she probably means “hard drug users” by “drug users” here. Which makes the entire paragraph in brackets utterly pointless. As for the first part, Marcotte would have to be denying that the fear of getting caught and going to jail isn’t going to deter some people from, at least, smoking pot regularly, which seems a rather unsafe assertion. Thus, more people may try it or take it up, which even under the broader definition of “people using pot” would falsify Marcotte’s point, and if pot really can lead to the harder drugs then under the stronger definition Marcotte’s point would again be falsified. She can argue that pot doesn’t lead to the use of the harder drugs … but she didn’t.

See, and that’s the problem. I’m not sure if Marcotte realizes that that is probably what Cupp is after and just ignoring it to try to make her look stupid, or if she really did miss that. But even if I take the most charitable option — she missed it — look at how that impacts the discussion. Since Marcotte is considering this to be an indication of stupidity, the fact that she seems to be arguing a rather obvious strawman (ie not the argument Cupp was making) makes her look really, really bad. If, however, she had just said something like “If Cupp is saying that the number of pot users will increase, since over half have admitted to having at least tried it and more probably aren’t saying that’s probably not going to be all that big an increase” then if Cupp comes back with “No, I meant hard drugs” all Marcotte has to do is say “Oh, my bad …” and move on from there. But an “Oh, my bad …” is insufficient when you’ve used that misunderstanding to call them an idiot.

Moving on:

The piece goes on like this at length. The entire thesis appears to be, “As a reactionary, I know I have to be against anything that liberals are for. So, uh, yeah, pot bad. Liberals bad! Pay me!”

Um, no, that’s not what the thesis is. The thesis is that there seems, to Cupp, to be a contradiction between pushing to legalize pot and some of the other stances that liberals take. Marcotte goes on to take aim at Cupp’s point this out for gun control and for banning trans fats, and Marcotte is dismissive of the points:

She declines to offer that evidence. Maybe she means, by “reducing crime”, that Stand Your Ground laws, by legalizing cold-blooded murder in many cases, reduces the number of murders they have to bother prosecuting. Needless to say, she displays an inability to understand the difference between laying dead on the ground because of a gunshot and laying in front of your TV mindlessly watching cartoons for an hour because you hit the weed a little hard. Someone who cannot understand that difference does not need to be a paid pundit expressing opinions.

It’s a fair point to say that Cupp hasn’t given the evidence that more guns equals less crime. Unfortunately, right after that sentence Marcotte goes right off the rails in what looks more like a rant than an argument, talking about people being able to get away with cold-blooded murder — without evidence, I will note (and note that the Trayvon Martin case doesn’t count, since she says “many”) — and then heading into a comment about someone being dead because of a gunshot versus sitting in front of the TV, which is no longer an argument about legalizing pot and legalizing guns and their relation to actual crimes, but is again a rant about consequences. It’s okay to make that argument, but please admit that you are drifting from what was said in the post into other topics, huh?

And, as Marcotte says, it gets worse:

But for other Democrats who, like him, promote an expansion of the health nut state, but want to also support legal marijuana use, does it really work to rail against trans fats and restrict the smoking of cigarettes but allow pot smoking (and the sloth and munchy-induced snacking that comes with it)?

S.E. Cupp appears to believe that liberals intend to throw people in jail for possessing trans fats.

Um, they do want to ban them, which means that they want to be able to restrict what people can do to themselves because of the health impacts … and yet, one of the arguments for legalizing pot is that you shouldn’t restrict people’s choices on what they do to themselves, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. So, yeah, there’s a potential contradiction there, one that liberals might have a problem with. Her reply is a total non sequitor, dodges the point, and makes her look, well, there’s no polite way to say this … dumb. Well, either that or dishonest, as Marcotte either misses the obvious points or deliberately ignores them so that she can call Cupp an idiot and laugh. If the latter, that plays well to people who don’t, you know, actually read what the person she’s calling an idiot actually said, but not so well to those who do. Who are the people who are doing what New Atheists and skeptics are supposed to want everyone to do, right? So then how bad is it to write an article that only works if people don’t do that?

Again, if it was presented as disagreement with less rhetorical bashing, then a discussion could ensue over the things that each side gets wrong. What in the world is so hard about not saying “You’re an idiot” and saying instead “I think you’re wrong, and here’s why”?

What I Did on My Winter Vacation …

January 9, 2014

So, I just had a long vacation, in a December that was probably the most wintery that we’ve had for a long, long time. As usual, I didn’t do half the things I wanted to, but I did get some things done:

1) I finished my Sith Sorcerer’s story in TOR.

2) I wrote up my analysis of the Prime Directive, inspired by the reviews at SF Debris, which I had been thinking about for a while.

3) I wrote up my impressions of the Star Wars Mega Series, which I had been thinking about for a year.

4) I finally continued my series on Philosophy and Pop Culture.

5) I re-read the entire New Jedi Order series, short a book or two that I don’t currently own.

6) I finally read some of the outstanding books on my list, reading and commenting on Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” and starting reading Parfit’s “On What Matters”, which will take a while. I hope to comment on some of the things in it soon.

But that’s pretty much it. I started Dragon Age: Origins again, and watched all of Star Trek TNG and most of Star Trek DS9. but I didn’t really do much else … except gain some weight that I didn’t need to gain.

Now, back to the normal grind for the New Year.

The Secular End?

January 6, 2014

When I was in university, I once shared a three room suite with three other guys. That also happened to be the year that Meat Loaf came out with “Bat Out of Hell II”, and I ended up hearing and really liked “I Would Do Anything For Love”. That got me to buy the cassette — yes, that’s how long ago that was — and listen to it. Now, when I really like an album, I tend to listen to it and only it for a long period of time, from weeks to months. So I probably listened to it for pretty much an entire term. The other people in the suite, well, didn’t like the album as much as I did, and would tease me about it, even going so far as doing a request on the campus radio station dedicating it to me for not listening to it ever again. I commented that if it bothered them, I could use headphones, and they said that just knowing that I was listening to it was bad enough.

This story will relate to how a post by Jerry Coyne relates to ideas of secularism, and what religious people should think is the ultimate goal of secularism, at least as defined by those atheists or secularists who, like Coyne in that post, rail against accomodationism. Coyne says this:

I find it demeaning to try to make ourselves seem REALLY NICE to the American public. In point of fact, we are reasonably nice: at least as nice as believers. So why must we tout ourselves as “The Friendly Atheist” or “The Happy Atheist”? Not all atheists are friendly or happy, nor are all believers. We’re just normal Americans who don’t happen to believe in nonexistent gods.

Making people think we’re friendly and happy will not, I think, do the trick. Atheists are the most reviled group in America, far less likely to be elected to office than are gays, women, or blacks. We’re not going to change that by showing people that we’re “normal”.

So … if atheists act like normal people, and represent themselves as normal people, and particularly as normal people with interests other than, say, opposing religion … isn’t going to get people thinking that they are just normal people who don’t happen to believe in gods? I mean, it seems obvious to me that if you want people to get that atheists are just normal people, the best way to do that would be to represent themselves as being normal people. In fact, it’s hard to me to imagine that there’s any other way to do that. So why is going claiming that that isn’t going to change that impression?

Does anybody really think that Christians will either accept us or, more important, abandon their faith if they perceive us as real people?[emphasis added]

Ah, that’s why. His main goal, the thing that’s most important to him, isn’t, in fact, getting acceptance for atheists. It isn’t having a society where everyone can have their own beliefs about religion — and atheism is a belief about religion, even if it is going too far to call it a religion itself — and live according to them as long as they don’t infringe on anyone else. No, he wants religion gone. And that, then, is why he rails against the accomodationist notion, because while it might be more effective at getting atheists accepted, it isn’t more likely to get people to drop their religion, because it treats them and their beliefs as beliefs that are just wrong … or, at least, just wrong in the opinion of the atheist. No, to really deconvert people you have to be able to lambaste and bully them into accepting that they are stupid for believing such notions.

From this, you can see how this relates to secularism and my opening story. One of the pushes of secularists is that they don’t care if you’re religious in private, as long as it isn’t public or, more sensibly, publicly enforced. But if the goal is to eliminate religion instead, then it is just as bad for those people to know that those people who used to practice their faith in public still practice it at home. As Coyne has made clear repeatedly, he has a problem with faith itself, not just with his having to see it in public or the more reasonable charge of being forced to participate in religious practices that they don’t support.

Now, the fear that religious people have of secularism is that it isn’t just an attempt to remove religious privilege and give all beliefs about religion — including atheistic ones — a fair shot. The fear is that it’s really an attempt to eliminate religion, potentially using state power to do it despite the fact that the right to freedom of religion would preclude that. If secularists just want to eliminate religious privilege, then this is an unfounded concern. But if the same people who say that they just want to eliminate religious privilege also say that they want to eliminate religion … well, then anyone who doesn’t think it right for a secular society to eliminate religion in the name of secularism will have to look very closely at everything they propose to make sure that it doesn’t aim to eliminate religion … even if unintentionally.

It’s clear that a big part of Coyne’s dislike of accomodationist approaches is that they aren’t going to do enough to get rid of religion:

Although I’m not asking Stedman to become more militant, I think his stance on “moar amiability” is unproductive. Which books deconverted more of the faithful, Faitheist or the in-your-face books The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The God Delusion, and God is Not Great? I think you know the answer.

It can only be judged “unproductive” by appealing only to deconverting if he thinks that that is the most important goal. And he, of course, is free to prioritize things the way he wants. But since it seems obvious that to him eliminating religion and deconverting theists are more important to him than simply finding a way for atheists and theists to live together despite their differences, I am also free to treat him pretty much the same way I treat the fundamentalists who have made it their goal to convert me or others to their own religion: with an air of annoyance and suspicion. Thus, the parallel between at least some Gnu Atheists and fundamentalists seems to hold in at least one way: both of them, at the end of the day, have a main goal of everyone thinking like they do. And that’s not something that I think is a good thing.

Moral Responsibility and Punishment …

January 4, 2014

Jerry Coyne is talking about free will again. I’ve left a comment there that I’ve left in substance before, but really can’t figure out how it works in his view. Jerry Coyne thinks that we have responsibility and culpability even though we don’t have free will, but argues that we don’t have moral responsibility or culpability because we don’t have free will. But, to me, the reason that determinism challenges moral responsibility has always been because it challenges responsibility, not because it challenges morality per se. So, to me, to concede that we’d still have responsibility — and how we have that is still an open question — but that there is still a problem with moral responsibility is difficult for me to understand, and I haven’t seen Coyne defend it anywhere in any way that makes sense to me … although he or someone else can point me to a post on that in case I’ve missed it.

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about here, although it is relevant because I think Coyne is making the same mistake that I’ll outline in a minute. In another post, Coyne links to this review of a book by Bruce Waller. Waller says, essentially, that we do have free will but we still don’t have moral responsibility. I haven’t read the book, but skimmed the review and the replies, and what struck me was that the discussion is all about punishment and blame, as if you can talk about only that and be talking about moral responsibility. Waller’s main thesis, it seems to me, is to argue that punishment — either in general or specifically in moral situations — isn’t fair, and if it isn’t fair to blame or punish someone then the system of moral responsibility — as Waller refers to it — is wrong.

The problem is that this seems to be judging moral responsibility by what we can do with it and generally do with it, not by what it really is. At its heart, moral responsibility encompasses two ideas:

1) The action in question has some kind of moral implication or value to it.
2) A moral agent is responsible for the action in a way that preserves the moral implication. Meaning that they are a) reasonably responsible for the action and b) are responsible in a way that means that the moral implication follows from or attaches to their own moral agency.

That’s it. There’s nothing there that says anything about blame or praise, reward or punishment. The action has a moral implication and a moral agent is responsible for that action. So, if that’s what moral responsibility is, then we can’t talk about punishment or blame and how unfair or problematic they are and say anything really interesting about moral responsibility. So why do so many people think we can?

If we want people to act morally or not to act immorally, the most reasonable and effective approach is to reward moral actions and punish immoral ones, giving people a reason to act morally and not to act immorally. So, in a society, you are almost always going to move from moral responsibility to praise or blame, which are nothing more than saying that someone’s action is worthy of reward or punishment. So, in a sense, it is natural to think of moral responsibility as being about praise or blame, because we tend to move from responsibility — in all cases — to praise or blame, and from praise or blame to reward or punishment. But this isn’t what responsibility, itself, is about.

Think about it this way. If someone asks you who is responsible for that pile of snow at the end of the driveway, your first inclination will be to think that they are asking because they want to blame or praise the person who did it. But if you tell them and they just say “Ah”, and if you ask them if they want to praise or blame the person who did it they say “Neither. I just want to know.” you’re likely to be confused. But if we look at this closer, you’re not confused because you don’t understand how someone can be held responsible for something without them being praised or blamed, but rather that you don’t understand why that person would care about why that person was responsible for it if they weren’t going to praise or blame them for it. And it’s hard to come up with a reason for someone to care about responsibility if they weren’t going to praise or blame. But we can easily all understand that even if the action is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy, if that pile of snow being there is just a place to put snow just like pretty much all others, the person is still responsible for that pile of snow being there; it’s just that most people don’t really care about who is responsible unless they want to praise or blame.

This, then, is where the confusion sets in; punishment is conflated with responsibility in general and moral responsibility specifically. This is why, I think, Coyne saves reward and punishment and asks what’s left for morality to do. This is why Waller and Dennett talk about punishment and punishment systems and think they are saying something about moral responsibility. But they aren’t. We decide to reward and punish certain actions that we deem a person responsible for because it benefits us to, but that’s not what it means to be responsible for something. We could eliminate punishment and reward entirely and still have responsibility. And while some may protest that it isn’t interesting to do that, I’d say that it’s only uninteresting from a behavioural modification viewpoint, but not necessarily from a moral or philosophical viewpoint. At the very least, it would stop us from arguing against punishment and thinking that we’ve actually argued against responsibility in those cases.

What I Finished, What I Played in 2013 …

January 1, 2014

This year was even more of a “cup of coffee” year than what I’ve had before.  I played a number of games for brief periods and then moved on to something else.  And yet, I still managed to finish about 3 games from my list, and did a lot of finishing in one of them. So, let’s start with I finished:

The Old Republic: I finished my Sith Warrior’s personal story, and my Smuggler’s personal story. I also finished my Sith Inquisitor’s personal story, and am almost finished my Jedi Knight’s personal story, except that Belsavis is annoying me a bit with battles that can be beaten but are just being a bit annoying, especially since I’m not as incredibly overleveled as I ought to be at that point. I like TOR, and I like the personal stories. It went FtP in 2013, and with the introduction of Cartel Coins I’ve been kept in major experience boosts, helping me gain levels on the game and keep ahead without having to do Heroics or even play with people, at all.

Mass Effect: I got the PS3 compilation of all of the games, and played this one. I was creating a character based on Ivanova from Babylon 5, but while scrolling through the pre-made faces saw one that looked like Michelle Forbes, and so settled for Helena Cain. Mass Effect was a great game. While there were annoyances in it, for the most part everything worked, and it was a game that I liked playing and liked finishing.

Growlanser: Generations: A combination of two Growlanser games, I’m counting them as finished despite not finishing their final battles, but then that’s what I did originally to X-Men: Legends, eventually going back and finishing it fully. I’m not sure I’ll do that for these games; they were good and generally interesting, but can’t compare to later games in a similar style like the Suikodens and Personas. I didn’t mind the rather 2-bit representations, and in some cases the characters were really interesting, although the battle portions could be really interesting. For “The Sense of Justice’, there seemed to be a lot of grinding and the battle system made it hard to grind the characters that tended to get behind the easiest, while in “The Dual Darkness” the XP system worked better but it often was very vague about what you needed to do — and when you needed to do it — to solve the many side quests.

Now, on to what I just played:

Pangya: Very cute old PSP golf game with a story mode. I played it continually for a few weeks, got stuck on one of the stories, and then drifted away from it. I definitely found it worth buying and worth playing.

Persona 2: Innocent Sin: This wasn’t a bad game for me to play on the PSP, but it had the normal “Wander around and get jumped” style of combat and seemed to have a mix of humour and seriousness that didn’t work. I want to play it again at some point, but it gets lost in my list.

Growlanswer: Wayfarer of Time: Another PSP game, and another Growlanser game. I’d play it, but it started with my sister and father getting killed, and that’s a little dark for me, at least it was at the time. Another one that I want to play, but that has to compete with everything else I want to play.

Justice League Heroes: The DC version of the X-Men: Legends series, it’s also inferior to it, mostly because it doesn’t have any real breaks in the action, which made it a hard game to play at the times when I was actually willing to play games at that point. It’s not on my list because I may never finish it, but I keep thinking about playing it again sometime.

Nocturne: The tone was fine in this one, but I had a hard time finding save points, which meant that I ended up hiking all the way back to the starting area to hit the save point there, fighting monsters all the way in random encounters, just so that I could quit for the night. That was annoying. I’m sure there are more save points in more places, but I couldn’t find them easily, and it just made me nostalgic for Persona 3 and Persona 4.

Injustice: Gods Among Us: After having this sit in my closet for quite some time, I recently ran through the story mode on easy. It’s good, but nowhere near as good as the crossover between Mortal Kombat and Justice League was.

Mortal Kombat: The new, revamped version. Tried to do the same thing as I did for Injustice, and got stopped because I’m not used to having to hit a button to block. I might run the rest of it out at some point.

Dragon Age: Origins: The first time I played this, I missed Leiliani. This time, I haven’t. I like this game, and it’s a strong candidate for being the first game I finish this year.

Mass Effect 2: This game is a lot less fun than Mass Effect was. There seems to be more character in this game, but the rest of the game and mechanics are just annoying, from how you explore and mine planets to the fact that you actually have an ammo count now. I wanted to finish the entire series, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to unless I can stop spending all of my time mining planets dry and burning all of my fuel to get to them.

That’s essentially it; there might be one or two more that I played but they aren’t memorable and so aren’t really worth mentioning.

2013 in review

January 1, 2014

Following up from last year, here is this year’s stats.

I made a lot less posts this year, as last year I posted over 200 and this year didn’t even break 100 posts.  I’ll try to post more regularly this year.  I think that also impacted my site views, but not as much as I might have thought.

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,500 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.