Archive for June, 2014

God as a Gaseous Vertebrate?

June 21, 2014

A while ago, Jerry Coyne finished reading “The Experience of God” by David Bentley Hart, and made some comments on it that revealed that, yes, he didn’t really understand what a Ground of All Being actually was. I meant to respond to that as a summary, since he didn’t really post a solid review/summary, but anyone who’s been following this blog knows that I get lazy and then don’t reply. Maybe I’ll get back to it one of these days. However, , and after spending a little time listening to Christian radio compares God — either the folk God or the theological God or, well, it isn’t quite clear what — to what H.L. Mencken called “a vertebrate without substance”, which when you unpack it and unpack Coyne’s post seems to mean a God that has human traits but isn’t human, a common criticism that Coyne makes of “sophisticated theology”.

(As an aside, Coyne compliments Mencken as “…a true strident atheist, as good with mockery as was his successor Hitchens”. This leads me to ask “When did mockery become a good argument to convince rational people of your position?”)

Coyne gives this as his main example:

One show, for children, was about a girl who wanted to become a personal trainer, but had shown little talent for the job, and was frustrated because she didn’t know what to do with her life. “I want to be somebody,” she wailed. Her father, who tried to soothe her, had his own problem: he was overweight and was on a diet. Eventually he told her that God would show her the way, but it would take a while, just like the long while he’d have to wait to shed his extra pounds. Then a voice-over came on and gave the lesson: God has plans for all of us, and listens to our needs, but he will effect his plans for us in his own time. We must wait. But we should be reassured that he knows what is good for us, loves us, and will, in time, show us the way.

This God, of course, was humanoid: the emotions he evinced were love, understanding, empathy, and the desire to interfere in our lives so we could be fulfilled. And, of course, he was touted as actually listening to prayer, for the child was told to consider her options “prayerfully”.

He then compares this to Hart’s position:

Those gaseous theologians like David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong, of course, decry the concept of such a humanlike God. That’s not the real God, says Hart, and those atheists who argue against it are wasting their time. The real god is ineffable (though somehow Hart knows that He/She/Hir/It loves us); it is a Ground of Being.

Why? Because they think that God can love? Because they think that God can plan, or have emotions, or act in the world? The Ground of Being — as I explained in my review of Hart’s book — is not some completely amorphous, blob without properties. For the Thomists, the Ground of All Being is, indeed the Ground of All Being. It is not only the case that every being exists because it participates in the Ground of All Being, but every positive property only exists because the Ground of All Being has that property. So if we can be said to be capable of love, then the Ground of All Being must be capable of love. If we can plan, so can the Ground of All Being. If we can act in the world, then so can the Ground of All Being.

Now, getting this from Hart’s book would be tough; only by combining it with Feser’s posts and book was I able to get that. But Coyne should have been able to get the answer to this question from it:

What I want to know is this. If Hart and his ilk think that 99% of Christians have the wrong concept of God, why aren’t they trying to correct it? Why are they writing books aimed at fellow scholars instead of, say, the average Christian, or the average Christian child? Why are they wasting time bashing atheists instead of telling their coreligionists—or all religionists—the truth about God?

Now, here’s a quote where Coyne does seem to get the problem that Hart is trying to address:

I listened to two stations, and both of them constantly promoted the idea of God as a gaseous vertebrate—just like us, but more powerful.

Now, Hart was clear in his book that this was indeed the wrong way to look at God, and he in fact called out other theologians, including Plantinga and the modal logic attempts to prove the existence of God, as well as the Ontological Argument. So no one can validly complain that they aren’t trying to correct the misconception. So the only complaints would be that they may write more scholarly works than popular works, and that they take aim at atheists too much. For the former, it’s hardly a valid criticism that they’ve decided to work in intellectual circles instead of aiming at the rank and file, any more than it would be a valid criticism of, say, those studying global warming if they write more academic papers and books aimed at disagreeing scientists and don’t spend a lot of time talking to the mainstream press. For the latter, since Feser and Hart were taking on the New Atheists, who aimed at and still aim at the average person, aiming at them means aiming at a popular or average view as well, and in effect aims at two birds with one stone: taking out the rather weak counter-arguments against God — from their perspective — while clearly pointing out to religious people what the common view of God really is or really implies. Maybe Coyne’s right and they should promote the underlying theory more … but maybe the folk view isn’t as far off of their view as Coyne thinks it is.

At any rate, there is, in general, no gaseous vertebrate here, at least not from the perspective of Thomist theology. There’s nothing really wrong with what those stations said, other than the analogy risks anthropomorphizing God if taken too far and too literally. Which is a risk of any analogy. The contradiction that Coyne so relies on simply doesn’t exist.

NPC, Easy as 1-2-3

June 20, 2014

So, in recent video game news, Ubisoft has said that they aren’t going to provide a playable female character in Assassin’s Creed: Unity because it would be too much work. As you might imagine, there’s been a lot of discussion over whether this is true, or whether if even if it’s true that means that they shouldn’t do it, and so on and so forth. But I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I’m going to talk about this article that I saw in a tweet from Shamus Young, which he recommended as being particularly good, and takes a bit of a different take on the issue.

The article starts out talking about the deep and rich involvement of women in the actual French Revolution — the period the game is set in — in much detail. Much detail. A lot of detail. While this was interesting, this detail goes on for most of the 2 pages of the article, and while it was interesting and taught me things I never knew — not being particularly interested in the French Revolution because military history is more to my interest — by the second page I was skimming the article thinking “Great, but what’s the point?”.

This seems to me to be the point, and the argument for why it is bad that Ubisoft didn’t include a female playable character in the game:

It was wrong because presenting a French Revolution with women as NPCs rather than PCs reinforces the narrative that women were the “passive” citizens that politicians and laws painted them as. Well-written NPCs can certainly teach players about women in the revolution, but by definition an NPC is a character with a scripted routine, one who isn’t free to make her own choices. An NPC does not act – she is acted upon. In other words, by confining women to NPC roles, Ubisoft figuratively condemns its female characters to the second-class status and scripted life women in the actual French Revolution fought – and died – to escape.

In this way, playing a woman in Assassin’s Creed: Unity would in itself be a revolutionary act. To play as a historical woman taking part in political life – and in that period violence was a part of political life – upends the narrative that women were “passive” citizens. But more than that it gives the character a sense of freedom and choice that NPCs don’t have – the power to act rather than react. There is no greater act of liberation than putting a character under player control. A character under programming is an asset, but a character under a player’s hand has free will within the game’s laws. To make an oppressed character playable is to give them the tools to break their chains.

And to quote the legendary sages Hall and Oates: I can’t go for that, noooo, no can do.

The problem here is that it actually seems to conflate two things: game organization and characterization. NPCs are, of course, always in a game to support the narrative and immersion of the player, and so in that sense they aren’t agents, as their agency is, as stated, programmed and scripted. But that doesn’t mean that the characters themselves are agentless or second-class in any way. You could indeed convey all of the history — good and ill — of women in the French Revolution as NPCs even though they are there to support the story, as in any deep story in a game the NPCs are generally there to lead the player into and motivate them to experience the wider world you’re building for them. This is easier to do if the NPCs seem to be full agents, with real desires and real fears, so that then the player comes to believe them and want to help them achieve their desires, or in fact understands that what they desire is what it is right to desire and so comes to desire it themselves, and either tries to remove the threats that they fear or comes to fear those threats themselves. Done well, NPCs build and define the world that the play is immersed in, and the player chooses their path through that world. In some sense, it would be easier to tell the stories that the article tells through NPCs than PCs, because the player can always decide not to care and, if the game is not to be too linear, to work for or against these groups, but the NPCs always have to care and always have to demonstrate that they care and, indeed, why the player might want to work for their interests.

Now, it would have been interesting to have the only playable character be female, as then that would allow them to tell the story of these groups in detail, something that might be more difficult with a male lead. So that’s an opportunity lost. But the major issue in the article is that it assumes that if the role of an NPC is passive in games and is only there to support the player’s narrative, that doesn’t mean that the NPC themselves are passive or don’t have a narrative themselves. To paraphrase Kant, while all NPCs are a means to the end of the player and player character and player character narrative, that doesn’t mean that they are not also ends in themselves in the narrative, that they don’t have a story or even an active role in their own narrative, that the player can link to and drop in and out of as necessary. Women, then, in the game don’t have to be anything like the passive objects that the women of the French Revolution revolted against, even if their concerns may or may not be the main concerns of the player. Good NPCs are still, at the end of the day, characters, and if I’m to believe that the character I’m playing is a person then the same techniques can be used to make them seem like people, too.

So that, perhaps, can be the rallying cry of the NPC revolution: NPCs are people (characters), too. And to insist that not having a female or a male playable character and leaving those stories to the NPCs makes those stories passive, scripted, second-class, chained is to ignore what good story NPCs, at least, are for.

Whether Ubisoft manages to make good story NPCs is another matter, of course …

Comment on Ryan Born’s Response to the Moral Landscape Challenge …

June 14, 2014

So, I’ve read Ryan Born’s response to the Moral Landscape Challenge, and want to comment on it a bit here. But first, it must be noted that the biggest problem with attacking Sam Harris’ views is that there really isn’t any kind of central point or analogy in it, no overall moral system that you can attack at one place and bring it down. Instead, Harris has set up multiple fronts, and seems to be willing to stake his entire claim on any one of them at any time, switching between them as necessary to avoid having to address tough arguments. Well, okay, perhaps that isn’t quite fair. Perhaps it is more reasonable to say that instead of having a system that works together to build out a fully-formed moral philosophy, Harris has instead a group of independent statements about morality that he brings together under the umbrella of “morality” but which are all, for the most part, independent. No one could refute all of them in 1000 words, and so one has to pick one to attack. But even if that attack is successful, Harris is open to saying “Well, what about this? You have to refute this to refute my view”, which he does tend to do. In preparing my response, I had at least two other main points that I could have attacked:

1) Argue against his main point by arguing that just because morality may be something that you have to be conscious to have, it doesn’t mean that morality is a property of consciousness.

2) Argue against the health analogy by pointing out that health is a state, not a normative value. You can be healthy without trying to be healthy or valuing it at all, but you can’t be moral without valuing being moral or having your actions motivated by valuing morality.

Ultimately as already seen, I went with moral disagreement. Born took on a fourth principle, that of whether you can subsume morality under science, pointing out that Harris’ basic principle that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures is a philosophical/conceptual argument, not a scientific/empirical one.

This, to me, is a relatively weak counter. The first reason is that Harris’ main point ends up being essentially this: Given that morality is in at least some way critically defined by or related to the well-being of conscious beings, and given that all properties of conscious beings as conscious beings are explained by their brain, and given that explaining the brain is something that can be done scientifically, then morality is in some way critically defined by or explained by science. Born’s response that the first “given” isn’t scientific doesn’t actually touch this part of the point, and so has to aim at another angle, that the initial given is itself not scientific and needs justification from something other than science.

This leads to the second reason, which is that Harris doesn’t seem to care whether that initial given is scientific or not. First, as we’ve seen when he discusses scientism, Harris will quickly argue that saying that something must be proven philosophically and not scientifically is defining science too narrowly. So if philosophy becomes science, then that given is still justified scientifically. Yes, this isn’t a very good point, because it ends up taking the only really novel thing Harris says — although not new, since naturalization of philosophical claims has been done for at least half a century — and makes it meaningless, because it would still allow for the normal armchair philosophizing about morality to proceed and might change those discussions not one bit, leaving Harris’ view saying nothing new while attempting to imply that it does. Second, Harris has been consistent in maintaining that he doesn’t really need to actually justify the idea that morality is about maximizing well-being; all of his defenses of that, even in his latest response, end up being that he can’t see any other basis for morality and essentially challenging all comers to prove something else is right or better or else he must be right. His health and logic examples always boil down to saying “Well, we just take this as a given and we have to take these things as a given so why not take my initial given as a given?”. So given that he doesn’t seem to care about justifying that initial given, it seems unlikely that he’ll care whether that non-justification is done scientifically or not, even in the narrow or broad sense of the term “science”.

That was why I chose the specific approach I did, aiming it more at Harris himself and what you’d have to do to convince him than in creating a full, formal philosophical argument. The aim was to force Harris to take a question that he’d be sure that there was an actual, objective answer to, but demonstrate that he couldn’t do it without defining and justifying at least some sort of view of well-being, while demonstrating that no physical facts nor facts about the brain would be able to answer that question. Essentially, the only thing critical to all conceptions of his view is that initial given of morality essentially being the well-being of conscious creatures, and destroying that would destroy his view.

NHL Playoff Predictions: Summary

June 14, 2014

So, with the Los Angeles Kings winning the Stanley Cup last night, my final record is 7 – 8, just a touch under .500. A bit disappointing, but still in the same range as a coin toss.

It was a closer series than a 4 – 1 series win would make it seem, but the Kings managed to win games that were at least games that the Rangers could very well have one, if not games that they really deserved to win. 3 out of 5 games in the series went into overtime, and the Kings won all 3. Only 1 of the 5 games was settled by more than a goal. The Kings went up 2 – 0 without having led for a single second in the series. I think that you can say that the Kings were full marks for their win, but that they weren’t dominate. They just managed to come up big when they absolutely had to.

Well, that’s it for this year, and that’s it for hockey until October.

What Sam Harris Gets Wrong.

June 11, 2014

Now that the winning essay in Sam Harris’ “Moral Landscape Challenge” has been posted, and wasn’t mine, it’s time for me to post the essay I submitted. I hope to talk about the winning essay and Harris’ response more over the next few days. Anyway, here’s mine:

Sam Harris’ view of the proper morality is essentially that what is moral is what best promotes the well-being of conscious creatures. This is, in and of itself, fairly controversial, but Harris makes a few moves to sidestep some of the more obvious challenges. The first comes from a mostly off-hand comment that most if not all of the rival conceptions of morality also boil down to some form of well-being. The second is that there is room for multiple plateaus of well-being, so that we don’t all have to have the same exact idea of well-being to act morally, which is what allows for those widely differing views of well-being to all grasp at the same idea. However, if Harris is going to have a morality that can properly be called objective, there are going to have to be at least SOME outcomes that are going to be considered moral or immoral regardless of the personal preferences of the individual or culture, or else he’ll have a relativistic moral view. For example, it’s clear that he’ll consider murder and theft as being universally opposed to well-being, even if killing and seizure of property won’t always be. I propose here that we consider this question that we seem to intuitively think has a universal answer and see if a) all ideas of well-being will answer it the same way and b) if they don’t, if we can answer it by appealing to some kind of physical fact. The question is: is it morally permissible for a parent to steal bread to feed their starving children?

Under a loose Utilitarianism, barring a massive cost to the person who owns the bread, the answer is a resounding “Yes”. After all, it seems clear that more suffering will arise from those children starving and possibly starving to death than from the shopkeeper losing one loaf of bread. On the other hand, the Stoics will answer with a resounding “No”. This is because for them Virtue is what provides the most well-being for people, and pleasure, pain and even lives are indifferents, only to be preserved if it doesn’t interfere with acting virtuously. Without settling the dispute of ideas of well-being here — which would require far more than appealing to conscious creatures — it looks like we have a nasty clash between two at least potentially proper ideas of well-being. And note that neither of them disagree with all of the obvious physical facts here; it’s just the idea of what counts as well-being that’s at stake here.

Perhaps we can appeal to psychology, to what most people think is the case. Intuitively, most people side with the Utilitarians, but there is a group of people who don’t: autistics [see for details]. They tend to side with saying that it isn’t right for the parent to steal the bread, at least in part because they think the rules should not be broken. But, we can reply, they clearly have abnormal brain function, and so we can limit ourselves to those who have a properly functioning brain. Well, the problem is that while their brain does not function like everyone else’s, that doesn’t mean that their brain is functioning immorally, or is incapable of morality. Unlike psychopaths, autistics, in general, act properly morally and could certainly be seen as grasping for one of the plateaus that Harris allows for. That they have a different opinion on this topic doesn’t mean that they’re wrong; their “abnormal” brain function might even make them BETTER at answering these sorts of moral decisions than those with more “normal” brains. In order to settle that question, we’d have to know, independently of simply looking at the brain, which view of well-being is in the right or which is in the wrong. Otherwise, we’d have to allow that there is no objective answer to this question, but if we cannot answer this question it seems difficult to see what use such an “objective” morality would be as an objective morality.

The physical facts are not in dispute. The differences in brains are not in dispute. Everyone pretty much agrees with all of the facts in this case, but there is still radical disagreement. What, then, is in dispute? What well-being really means, of course, and what it implies about what you should value. Harris introduces the Moral Landscape to allow for variance in how well-being is defined, so that he doesn’t have to insist on one very specific idea of well-being that almost everyone will disagree with at some point or another. People have to be free to tailor their lives to what they themselves want and value to some extent. However, this notion cannot be stretched to cover the gaps we see here between the Utilitarians, Stoics, autistics, and so on. And yet, surely it should. Harris presents no reason to think that the Stoics or the autistics are simply wrong, but the difference is so vast and the question so important that we cannot simply allow everyone to come to their own conclusions and still have anything that looks like an objective morality.

Once one knows all of the relevant facts about a situation, and the relevant physical facts, and the facts about the brain, it is clear that there can still be major disagreements about moral decisions. These disagreements might also be about questions that cannot be left open to interpretation; they cannot be left as a plateau in the moral landscape. From this, if Harris wishes to have an objective morality, he needs a way to settle the differing ideas of well-being to come up with one overarching one … and that is what philosophy has been trying to do, empirically and conceptually, for thousands of years. Harris’ position, then, ends up not solving the problem, but instead walking itself right back into the problem of value and what it means to be truly moral.

Why do I bother?

June 2, 2014

So, last night I decided to try and stay up to watch the Chicago-L.A. hockey gamewhich I obviously had a vested interest in. However, since I still do have to get up early I was able to watch to what would have been the end of the game, but it wouldn’t have been a good idea to try to watch the overtime, especially since I had no idea when it would end. So, I ended up going to bed before I knew what the final score was, ended up dozing off during the third period, and essentially only ended up being a bit tired today because I slept less than I should have. And this seems to happen to me a fair bit when I try to stay up to watch games. So, tell me again why I bother?

NHL Playoff Predictions: Finals

June 2, 2014

Well, the third round was worse, with me going 0 – 2 leaving me at 6 – 8 for the season so far. It seems that having followed the sport over the season and knowing things about the teams actually matters when making predictions. Who knew?

So, despite my being unable to get over .500 for this year, I’m not going to throw in the towel. At least I can try to make a comeback with my final prediction. And so, in the Stanley Cup finals between the L.A. Kings and the New York Rangers, I’m going with …

the L.A. Kings. Correct

Sure, they had a very hard fought series against Chicago, and so there’s a risk that they’ll run out of gas. That being said, I predicted that they’d run out of gas in almost every other series, and they didn’t, at least in part because they get more time off than you’d expect. They don’t play until Wednesday, and after that don’t play again until Saturday, which means that they get an extra day of rest in there instead of playing every other night. L.A. has come back from being down 3 – 0 and won a hard fought series when up 3 – 1. And I really do think that they’re the better team when compared to the Rangers.

Overall recprd: 7 – 8