Archive for January, 2015

Blog Break …

January 27, 2015

So, to hopefully prepare for my new schedule, I’ve decided to not post any more posts for the rest of the month, unless something really catches my eye and needs to be said immediately. So the next post will be the first of the new schedule, starting on February 2nd.

See you then.

The Fridge (and Inadvertent) Brilliance of Save Points …

January 26, 2015

So, not long ago, I talked about how a crash when I hadn’t save caused me to stop playing a game. I’ve been thinking about this some more, and I’ve realized that most options for saving work against what a good game should be doing: engaging you in the game. Whether it be the story or the action or whatever, good games — like all forms of entertainment — should immerse you in the game so much that you forget that you’re playing a game. If you are that immersed, it’s unlikely that you’ll be thinking “I wonder how long it’s been since I last saved”. Doing that is usually a sign that you aren’t immersed in the game, or have been reminded that this is a game, often by seeing a long and tough fight coming up. You’re no longer swept along by the action or the story, but are instead thinking in game terms. Auto-saving avoids this, but has the problem that it yanks you out of the game and reminds you that this is just a game. The exceptions are games that did saving during loading screens, which already break immersion.

However, what is different about save points is that they are objects in the game world itself. Manipulating them is, in fact, manipulating an object in the world. Yes, it is an object that exists mainly to do game things, but it is part of the game world itself. Thus, it becomes an object just like any other object that is in the game, and so the impact it has on the game is generally no more than any other artificial game component that has to be there in order to play the game (using items, viewing an inventory, equipping, etc, etc). Because it’s part of the game world you can make saving simply a regular part of the game, something that you do as automatically as quaffing a potion when you’re low on health or reloading. So every time you come across a save point you just automatically save and go on, and it doesn’t take you out of the game at all, because it is an integral and constant part of it from your perspective.

This turns out to be the case for me in most of the console games I love. In “Lord of the Rings: The Third Age”, because save points also healed your HP and MP, I used to hit them every time I found one … and sometimes even backtracked to get the recharge. I was saving not to save, but essentially to rest. In Suikoden III, I so conditioned myself to save every time I came across a save point that when passing through the castle of the Zexen Knights I would save on both sides of the castle, even though all I did was pass through. I had to consciously stop myself from doing this. Because save points were spread out and often indicated that you were going to face something tough, it was generally easy to condition yourself to use them whenever you saw them, and thus make using them part of your regular practice of playing the game.

The problem with save points is, of course, that they aren’t always there when you need them, and so you can be using save points and still have to replay a lot of the game should you die or screw up. But by making saving part of the world and even trying to find in-game reasons for you to be accessing them, they remove the artificial nature of saving and so make the games more immersive. Not bad for something that consoles adopted due to technical considerations.

Compassion, Morality, Feminism and Natural Family Planning

January 25, 2015

Libby Anne over at “Love, Joy, Feminism” has made a post on the recent comments by Pope Francis in the Philippines about Natural Family Planning and contraception. Essentially, the Pope commented that a woman who had had seven C-section births who was pregnant for an eighth time was acting irresponsibly, and should use the approved methods of contraception, namely Natural Family Planning. People considered that statement compassionate, and Libby Anne’s main point in the post is that it wasn’t.

There are two main issues with her post. The first is that her assessment of how compassionate the Pope is being there is based on an assessment of morality that isn’t the one the Pope is using, and one cannot claim that someone isn’t being compassionate when they only advocate for the options that they consider moral. You have to settle the moral questions first, and insisting on claiming that they are not compassionate is an appeal to emotion, not an appeal to reason. The second is that the assessment here clashes with a feminist interpretation of sex … at least, of sex positivity in feminism and of how they treat rape and male sexual desire.

Let’s start with the first issue, but the two will intertwine a bit. The underlying philosophical basis of Catholic morality on this issue is that you ought not do things that interrupt the natural order. Artificial birth control methods do this, but NFP doesn’t, mostly I’d guess because it uses the natural powers of humans — planning and will power — to avoid pregnancy. We are all able to decide to have or not have sex; we are not slaves to our sex drives. So, under Catholic moral philosophy, artificial contraception is immoral, and NFP is not, and so the compassionate option for someone for whom pregnancy is an issue is for them to practice morally acceptable forms of contraception. Libby Anne clearly does not share that morality, but how does she object to the Pope’s views?

You know what’s interesting? Of all methods of birth control, it is NFP that is most difficult to use. NFP also only works with complete cooperation of the male partner, which prevents a woman from making independent decisions about her own reproduction.

Not only is NFP difficult to learn and use, it also doesn’t work for everyone.

The most interesting one from here is the idea that artificial forms of contraception can be used by women unilaterally, but NFP requires both partners to agree and participate. What’s interesting about it is that sex is, in general, supposed to be something between two consenting adults, as is reproduction. To object to NFP because it requires two partners in a marriage to agree to how to avoid pregnancies and when they have sex seems like a rather odd claim for a feminist to make … or, rather, it would be an odd claim if it wasn’t insisting on giving control over all of this to the woman, as she literally says that the problem with NFP is that is doesn’t let her make independent decisions about her own reproduction. Sure, there might be a case for this in single, sexually active women, but since Catholic doctrine also discourages sex outside of marriage in the context of this debate Libby Anne is arguing for a woman to be able to make independent decisions over reproduction — ie having children — in a marriage. If the two of them can’t agree, allowing the woman to unilaterally make the decision on that is not in any way going to improve the marriage … and is not a good example of what a marriage should be.

Beyond that, the other two arguments here are ones that don’t carry any weight against a moral argument. If the Catholics are right about morality, then the only moral option being harder isn’t anything you can fault them for; we all should expect to have to avoid the easy but immoral solutions. And to say that some people won’t be able to follow NFP is essentially to say that people will be incapable of following the moral option. Since ought implies can, if true this would be an objection … but all of Libby Anne’s examples are of people who simply didn’t or weren’t capable of taking the care needed to maintain, one presumes, a certain level of sexual activity while ensuring that they didn’t have that while the woman was ovulating. But unless NFP is excessively onerous — and that Libby Anne was able to follow it suggests that while it may be tough, it isn’t impossible — asking people to take that sort of care is what we’d expect from asking them to do the moral and avoid the immoral.

So without settling the morality issue, these objections hold no water. As we’ve seen so many times before, if she can prove that the Catholic moral view is incorrect, that NFP is more difficult or that some have a hard time following it is only relevant as a practical consideration. There’d be no major conflict there. However, if she can’t, then saying that NFP is harder and maybe too hard from some to follow easily in no way impacts an argument that says that it must be what you do because all other options are immoral.

We can put this into sharper focus by looking in more detail at why some people can’t follow it:

Indeed, the years I spent using NFP wreaked havoc on my sex life.

She also quotes someone frustrated with NFP that says similar things:

And there’s only so much abstinence that can reasonably be expected of a couple not in a Josephine marriage. Seven, eight months last time? I lost count. How long this time? A year, two? And how do we deal with the incredible strain that so much abstinence places on our marriage? The frustrated desires, the feelings of rejection, the guilt, the anger, the loneliness?

So, one of the main arguments on why it’s hard to follow — beyond it requiring a lot of calculation to work — is about its impact on the sex life of the participants … in general, that people can’t have sex whenever they want (this is the only benefit to one’s sex life that artificial contraception has over NFP or any abstinence-based model). This is where the contradiction with feminist attitudes towards sex comes in, because in any discussion of sex from rape to simply commenting on men who aren’t having success getting sex, the feminist attitude is that if men can’t get sex in a manner consistent with feminist principles and morality then they should abstain, and that that sort of abstinence should not bother them. Certainly, it ought not overcome a moral reason to not pursue sex in that manner — again, ranging from rape cases to simply sexist ways of pursuing sex. The underlying principle is that sex is not so important as to trump morality, and that we can indeed live and even live reasonable lives without it. Which holds right up until the point where someone is advocating that someone abstain from sex in a case where they don’t think it immoral to engage in sex there. Then, it’s one of the worst and most damaging things that anyone can do.

This highlights how the debate is moral, and not over compassion. Feminists do not think that they are not acting compassionately when they tell men that if they can’t pursue sex morally they ought not pursue sex, even doing so harshly (eg pretty much anything Amanda Marcotte says on the subject), whether or not they agree that doing so is immoral or not. Sure, we have very good reason to say that rape is immoral and one ought to abstain from sex if the only option for getting it would be to rape someone, but when we get into, say, criticizing PUAs the objections are that it is more sexist and objectifying than that it is forcing someone into it, which one could argue is not a moral problem, or at least not a moral problem that justifies forcing someone to abstain from sex rather than follow them. But insisting that that is bad and is a problem is not see as not being compassionate to feminists … but it is when the Catholic Church applies their morality and asks for abstinence.

People will protest that the difference is that the feminist moral judgements here are about what you can do to others, and about causing at least potential harm to others, and the Catholic moral judgements only impact the couple, and that moral judgements don’t apply to yourself; one cannot do anything immoral if it only impacts yourself. However, this isn’t a universally proven moral principle; there are many moral systems that do think that you can act immoral towards yourself, and so it would still apply. So again this comes down to a moral assumption that isn’t proven, and the objection is simply that they are acting badly because of their views, which implies that their views are wrong but uses emotional language, arguments and practical arguments to avoid having to address the moral differences in any way beyond a very shallow assessment, like when Libby Anne asks this:

I have to wonder, why is NFP the only method God allows? I know the justification is that artificial birth control negates the procreative purpose of sex, but doesn’t using NFP to prevent pregnancy do that as well?

As I said above, the difference is that it does so by blocking the natural process, not by a human simply using their existing natural faculties. I’m not certain that this is the justification, as I am not a Catholic theologian … but this is an answer that I came up with in about 5 seconds knowing only a bit about it and about Aristotle. If she really had to wonder that, surely she could find ways to try to figure out what the difference is. But she doesn’t try because, presumably, she doesn’t care to. She is confident in her view of morality, one that is based on Utilitarian views, feminist principles and an idea that morality only applies to relations between people. None of these are uncontroversial morally, so she can’t simply state that the Pope isn’t compassionate simply because he only recommends things based on the morality that he thinks is correct, any more than we can claim that she isn’t compassionate because she only recommends things based on the morality that she thinks is correct. Someone following their genuinely held moral principles is not a bad person simply because you don’t agree with those principles. And we should ensure that our rhetoric does not imply that, and certainly that it does not imply that because that’s what might win you the argument.

All Good Things …

January 24, 2015

So, back in October, I started posting a new blog post a day, and I’ve managed to keep that up for roughly four months. One of the reasons I could do that was because work was pretty slow, meaning that I could write posts up then and schedule them to come out later to build up a backlog. But work is likely to get busier very soon, which means that I had to seriously think about whether or not I could maintain that pace.

After some thought, I figured that, yeah, I probably could. But it risked the blog taking up a very significant portion if not all of my spare time, and turning the blog into something more like a job than like a hobby. The original purpose of this blog was to give me a medium where I could write down the things I’ve been thinking about so that I could stop thinking about them. It’s become a bit more than that, but it’s still supposed to be something that I use to write down things that I want to write down, not something that I dedicate all of my spare time to maintaining … especially since I don’t in any way get paid for write it and have no interest in making it a paid job, at least for now. Considering that my spare time is getting overbooked anyway, it just didn’t seem reasonable to dedicate that much time to the blog.

That being said, the blog isn’t ending. I’m just going to stop trying to have a post every day. Instead, starting in February, I’ll try to have a new post up Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, at the usual time. There might be a post or two on the weekend if something catches my eye and I have time, and once I have a decent backlog in place I might slide some time relevant posts on the other days, again if something catches my eye and I have time.

Now, long-time readers of the blog will note that I’ve tried this before, and it hasn’t worked. However, I’m learning from my stint of once-per-day posts and not trying to write a post on those days, but instead scheduling posts ahead for those days and writing them when I do have time. Hopefully, this will allow me to remain consistent without being overly pressured to write posts continually.

Anyway, that’s where the blog is going in the near future, hopefully.

Dev Null (Hypothesis)

January 23, 2015

So, Jason Thibeault is talking about the null hypothesis in relation to sexual assault claims, in response to Twitter comments that seemed to say that the null hypothesis wrt a claim that someone was raped is that she made it all up, or that she’s lying. I’m not going to go and try to find the specific comments and conversation to make sure that this is indeed what was said — because it being stated that boldly isn’t that likely and everyone summarizes longer conversations into soundbytes — but I do want to address Thibeault’s take on the null hypothesis, which seems to reflect an overarching problem in skepticism and in general: attempting to take a concept that applies in some specific situations and contorting it to be a concept that applies in general, even if it doesn’t really fit.

Before getting into that, I want to highlight this part of his summary:

… if you’re willing to be skeptical of a claim without evidence, be equally skeptical of a counterclaim without evidence …

What most skeptics fail to realize is that a strong atheist claim — a claim that God or a specific theist God does not exist — is, in fact, a counterclaim. By this reasoning, we should be as skeptical of a strong atheist claim as of the theist’s claim that God does exist. And yet, most atheists who subscribe to skepticism claim that the atheist, even the strong atheist, has no burden of proof, in that in some sense the “null hypothesis” of that claim is that God does not exist. So, then, most skeptics of that sort will be rejecting skepticism if they maintain that one can hold the strong atheist claim without sufficient evidence … as they do when they insist that the burden of proof is on the theists, not the atheist. Theists and strong atheists would have an equal burden of proof by this reasoning.

No, onto the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis, in its most direct and simplest form, simply says that if you are going to posit that something has an effect, then what you need to do is demonstrate that introducing that thing into the proper environment has that effect to a degree greater than can be accounted for by random chance. Control conditions on experiments provide the clearest example of how the null hypothesis works. What you do is create two experimental conditions that are identical except for the thing that you want to measure. You introduce that thing to one case, and measure for the effect you claim it will have. If the experimental case where you introduce the factor shows the effect to a significantly greater degree, then you’ve overcome the null hypothesis — where that factor isn’t present — and therefore can conclude that the thing you think has an effect likely does.

What the null hypothesis does not do is advocate between two competing hypotheses. If you want to claim that thing A will have a certain effect, and someone else claims that A will have a different effect, then there is no real relevant null hypothesis. Sure, you might want to test to see if it has any effect at all, at which point the null hypothesis might come into play. But you don’t use any sort of null hypothesis to determine which of the two hypotheses is more reasonable. When comparing them, you don’t appeal to a null hypothesis at all, but simply to what the hypotheses themselves predict. As I said, comparing to the null hypothesis might prove both wrong … but it won’t prove one of them better than the other without comparing their predicted results. Some might claim that Occam’s Razor is a version of the null hypothesis when comparing hypotheses, but you can only argue that appealing to the “additional effect” idea, to the idea of overdetermination. If two hypotheses predict the same results but one has an additional entity, then we might be able to say that the addition of the additional entity seems to have no effect, which ties right back into the null hypothesis test. But when two hypotheses predict the same effects but the one with the additional entity isn’t just adding it on, but is in fact completely different and because it is different that new theoretical entity is required, then you can’t compare the two using the null hypothesis; whether the entity is necessary or not or exists or not depends on which hypothesis is correct, and so you can’t simply say that it is not necessary. But you might still be able to use Occam’s Razor to compare them.

So the important thing to note about Thibeault’s argument is that he is, by his own admission, comparing two hypotheses. At that point, the null hypothesis doesn’t apply. Either one hypothesis or the other is adequately demonstrated … or neither of them are. So, in the case of a sexual assault case where one says that she was raped and the person she’s accusing of the rape says that he didn’t, then we don’t have a null hypothesis … a fact that Thibeault makes clear by trying to create one:

The null hypothesis here is actually something more like “we can’t get to the truth of these dueling claims but can take no action in absence of hard evidence”.

A null hypothesis is, in fact, a hypothesis, not a recommendation on how to proceed. The null hypothesis is also always something comparable to the hypotheses, which is why you can say that you can overcome it. His purported “null hypothesis” is in fact a statement of epistemic uncertainty, not a null hypothesis.

A big part of Thibeault’s post relies on comparing the new hypothesis to the expected or proven cases. This usually isn’t a null hypothesis either, unless the new hypothesis claims that in a new circumstance or with a new effect something different will occur. Otherwise, all you are doing is challenging an existing hypothesis that has been proven and demonstrated, and you do have to provide evidence sufficient to overturn it … but again, that’s because it has been demonstrated, not that it is to be treated as a null hypothesis.

So how does he apply the null hypothesis to sexual assault claims?

So, between that, and the fact that we absolutely know that rape is drastically underreported, we can then presume that the majority of rape claims are actually true (or at least true to the extent that the woman was in fact raped), because the number of rape claims is significantly lower than the number of rapes. Because this is a common occurrence, and because there are pressures against admitting that you’re a victim of such a common occurrence, the majority of such claims are true. The null hypothesis when confronted with a woman claiming to have been raped is that yes, she very probably was raped, because it is not an extraordinary claim, and ordinary claims require only ordinary evidence. Testimony absolutely counts as ordinary evidence.

It’d be hard to find a better example of how the notion of a null hypothesis can be contorted to try to fit cases where it clearly doesn’t fit. Thibeault here talks about the null hypothesis in the case where someone claims to be raped to be, in fact, that she was raped … because it is a common occurrence and so you don’t need extraordinary evidence to belief that. Essentially, all he’s claiming is that the testimony of a woman who says that she was raped is sufficient evidence to at least believe that she was. That has no relation to a null hypothesis … and even answers the question that Thibeault is trying to answer. The challenge around the null hypothesis claim was for her to give evidence, and Thibeault’s answer here is that testimony of first-person experience is evidence, that essentially that at that level we don’t need any additional evidence just to believe her.

But this isn’t enough for all claims:

That is not to say that the person claiming to have been raped knows enough of the assailant to accurately make an accusation, or has enough evidence to get that person put in jail, and those cases where the woman was indeed raped but cannot level an accusation that sticks are all often counted against the “false accusations” statistic.

I will further note here that because most individuals are not rapists, any specific claim against a specific person requires extraordinary evidence.

Now, it is obvious that in almost any case where someone is making a claim that they were raped, there is indeed a specific claim being made. So in almost all of the sorts of rape cases that Thibeault is talking about, extraordinary evidence would be required … at which point that she was raped would no longer be a null hypothesis by Thibeault’s own logic.

Essentially, this is what seems to be epistemically justified: if a woman says to you that she has been raped, then rape is common enough that you should believe her unless you have reason not to, especially considering that this is not something that people will mention casually. However, as soon as she claims that she was raped at a specific place at a specific time by a specific person, this is a claim that goes beyond that and so you have to consider the context of the claim in determining whether she should be believed or not … which includes how trustworthy she is and how trustworthy you consider the person she accused to be.

None of this makes any reference to a null hypothesis, directly or implied. And it does not support claims that by default you should believe that she was lying, which is indeed a claim in and of itself. But it is no surprise that skeptics are fighting over what actual claim should be accepted by default in these cases, since as the start of the post demonstrated many of them have been using that sort of tactic to win arguments over religion. Ultimately, the only sort of skepticism worth having is one that takes a consistent idea of how much and how objective of evidence you need in order to believe something, and the modern Internet skepticism lacks the philosophical maturity to be that consistent. Hence, contortions of valuable principles in order to fit a “one-size-fits-all” epistemology.

Loftus: Criticizing the Outsider Test (Part 2)

January 22, 2015

So the first principle of informed skepticism — which, we must remember, is supposed to be attitude that drives us as we perform the Outsider Test — is this:

[I]t assumes that one’s own religious belief has the burden of proof

Which, if we take it precisely literally, is simply another example where Loftus explicitly asks that we not treat our own religious beliefs the way we treat other religious beliefs. So I think the best way to interpret this is that we treat all religious claims as if they have an equal burden of proof, meaning that if you claim that one religious belief has insufficient evidence to meet the burden of proof, then you cannot accept any other religion that does not have more evidence and that does not meet that burden of proof.

At first blush, this does not seem unreasonable. The problem when we go deeper, though, is that we don’t really have a situation where we have some kind of set burden of proof and a clear set of evidence that either meets or fails to meet that. Science might have something like that, but philosophy raises far more skeptical doubts and everyday reasoning has so much more to consider that it can only have a rough-and-ready set of methods that produces beliefs that, generally, work out. (And one of those methods is, in fact, cultural transmission.) What we have when it comes to religion is a bunch of beliefs that as far as we can tell have some evidence and argument both for and against their truth and where that evidence is, I’d say, roughly equal: none of the remaining ones are known to be true … or known to be false. That includes the claim that no theistic God exists.

So, what we have is a belief formed by one of the mechanisms that generally works for everyday reasoning: cultural transmission. Yes, some of the beliefs that we inherit from our culture are false, but a lot of them are true or, at least, work out well enough that we need to use them to navigate our everyday lives until something better comes along. Pretty much all folk views do this, even to the point of maintaining beliefs that are at least inconsistent if not false because we don’t have a better option to get through the day. So now we turn our attention to alternative religious beliefs, and note that those who believe them got them mostly from cultural transmission like we did … and that those beliefs are no better evidenced than the ones we hold. Loftus would insist that in a case like this that we should at least abandon all religious beliefs, because none of them meet the artificial “burden of proof”. But in general, we do deal with methodologies or ways of knowing or believing, not probabilistic calculations. And so why shouldn’t we trust the transmissions of the culture that we are in and has formed the basis of so many of our beliefs? Plantinga is right here. If I trust, in general, the beliefs that I absorbed from my parents, my upbringing, and my culture, the fact that other cultures transmit different beliefs to those in them can do nothing to undercut my own confidence in my own beliefs. And if I am not confident in at least that cultural belief, then I already have reason to doubt and so have no need to consider that other cultures believe differently.

This holds at the level of everyday reasoning, the methods I use to navigate the world and that produce knowledge and beliefs, and justify each to the level where they deserve to be. Things are different at the philosophical level, and in this case at the level of philosophy of religion. There, all religious beliefs are treated equally skeptically and one cannot use a default against anyone. Sure, one can have one’s own personal preference for what will be the right answer, and work to defend it against challenges, but overall in terms of the field the one religion will not be accepted until it meets the set burden of proof that means that we know that it is the true one … and that includes us coming to know that none of them can be true. Ultimately, if we want to solve the problem of religious diversity, we don’t want to come at it at an individual level, at the level of everyday reasoning, but with the full resources of academic and intellectual reasoning … which, right now, means philosophy of religion.

And yet, so many atheists want to try to solve the problem of religious diversity by holding everyday beliefs and reasoning to academic and intellectual scrutiny … and ignoring or dismissing the work done by philosophy of religion and theology aimed precisely at that sort of scrutiny — and in answering it. They say that they want to address what the real religious believer believes and not the philosophized versions that theology and philosophy of religion produce, which is about as ridiculous as saying that we want to address the theory of evolution as understood by the common person and not by evolutionary biologists. Essentially, what they want to do is subject everyday or folk reasoning to scrutiny that it never does and is obviously not prepared for, avoid the responses of the fields that do that scrutiny and have prepared answers, and then insist that if you can’t address the challenges at that level that you must reject the beliefs as false. This seems to be a prime example of “stacking the deck”.

“The Outsider Test” is philosophy of religion. It also relies on an epistemology that applies to philosophy of religion and not to folk religion. Thus, it is at the level of philosophy of religion that this battle will be fought, and the problem of religious diversity solved. No where else.

Not Indifferent to Indifferents …

January 21, 2015

Moving on “Star Trek and Philosophy”, the next essay is called “Death and Rebirth of a Vulcan Mind” by Walter Robinson, who is a Zen Buddhist priest, and the essay focuses a lot on that, wrapped around a fictional narrative by someone who is trying to become a Vulcan, and expressing the purported Vulcan ideals. I don’t want to talk much about that, but instead want to pull out one part of it because of its relation to Stoicism, both as a common complaint about it and as something that my preferred Stoicism — that of Seneca — avoids:

A Vulcan … would not read for entertainment, or do anything that failed to serve the need for self-improvement.

This is, of course, a pretty harsh requirement, and one that someone like me could simply not fulfill. I enjoy reading too much. But Stoicism is often seen as being just as harsh in service to virtue, denying the indifferents value and so seemingly discouraging people from seeking pleasure, love and everything that is not virtue. And this does seem to be a theme in at least Greek Stoicism. But it isn’t a Stoicism I support, and not one that I think Seneca supported either.

Seneca reports that he was charged with being an inconsistent Stoic because he was rich and enjoyed the comforts of wealth. Seneca’s reply was essentially that there was nothing wrong with having and enjoying indifferents like wealth as long as one didn’t acquire them viciously. Since, he claimed, no one could demonstrate that he did that there was no inconsistency. To me, this emphasizes something that I have indeed stood on in my Stoicism, and something that does appeal to me about Stoicism: it is just as irrational to treat indifferents as vices as it is to treat them as virtues. Indifferents are just that: indifferent. They have no true moral value, but that doesn’t mean that they have no value. As they include your own life, they certainly have pragmatic value, but the key is to not let pragmatic value overwhelm moral value. This is one of my major criticisms of Utilitarian-type moral systems, that they make virtues of pragmatic values and thus make them indistinguishable, which is almost certainly false.

So while it is wrong to elevate the indifferents to the level of or above the level of virtues, it is just as wrong to avoid them as if they were vices or worse than vices. The only reason to avoid indifferents is if in pursuing them you lose control and it hurts your pursuit of virtue. Other than that, feel free to indulge in them. There is nothing wrong with wanting them or in satisfying those wants.

Some may argue that any time or resources spent in pursuing indifferents could be better spent pursuing virtue, and so they must always be avoided on that basis (this ties into the quote that talks about not serving the need for self-improvement). But for the Stoics, all you are doing is trying to live the life you’re in as rationally as you can. Self-improvement is improving yourself, and part of that is knowing when indifferents interfere and when they don’t. Unless you want to argue that one can never indulge in an indifferent without it impeding virtue, it is clear that one can indeed satisfy indifferents without impacting virtue … and can even satisfy them virtuously while avoiding vice just as one can satisfy them viciously. Thus, again, the Stoic wise man knows how to get the indifferents they seek without sacrificing virtue to them, and self-improvement, then, must be bent towards that end as well. Simply eliminating all indifferents is nothing more than giving up on this aspect and, therefore, never learning to do it. This sort of improvement, then, cannot be a waste.

I Was Having Fun … Until It Crashed.

January 20, 2015

So, I started playing “X-Men: Madness in Murderworld” last night through an emulator, and was getting into it, and working my way through it, and then I went to change to Nightcrawler to teleport up to the previous floor … and the game crashed. Despite the fact that I was getting into the game — one of the reasons that I hadn’t saved, well, ever — I then pretty much immediately turned it all off, because I didn’t feel like redoing those parts and so didn’t feel like playing the game anymore.

The reason, it seems to me, is that the crash broke immersion. While I was playing the game, I was carried along from one room and one floor to the next, with the occasional fight, but was mostly exploring and having fun doing that. When the game crashed, I was yanked out of that immersion. And at that point, I could only remember the mechanics and that they weren’t that interesting, and might be hard to manage. And because I hadn’t saved, well, ever, I had a bit of a slog to get back to where I was, I just didn’t have the motivation to keep playing the game … even though I would have kept playing if it hadn’t happened.

This, I think, drives Shamus Young’s analysis of dying in survival horror games, or probably in most games. An atmospheric or action-oriented game will drag you along just by having you have to do something or having something else happen. You get immersed in the game and allow it to lead you to the next section … and the next, and the next, and so on and so forth. When you die, that breaks, and so you aren’t following the path anymore, and without some sort of compelling mystery or goal that you want to see resolved you may not have any reason to go back, at least not immediately. This is only made worse in games where you have strong penalties to overcome after death, like replaying a significant portion of the game or some kind of handicap or even just an onerous method for restoring a save: the more work it is, the more likely you are to simply stop when your immersion is no longer pushing you along.

I think this also works for Story Collapse. In those games, it is the story that moves you along and immerses you in the world, as opposed to the atmosphere or the action. When you hit the point where the story itself breaks your immersion, you are again pulled out of the immersion and returned to, well, playing a game. If the story collapse is minor, the rest of the underlying story elements give you the incentive to carry on; even with that minor problem, you still want to see what happens next. But if it’s strong enough, you find the story either confusing, uninteresting or just plain screwed, and so you lose interest in finding out what happens next. If there is nothing else driving your fun, you’ll quit.

Ultimately for any form of entertainment, people will only watch it if it is entertaining, which means that it immerses them enough for them to focus their attention on it and not on anything else. If you break immersion, then you stop being entertaining, and you have to leave enough reasons for people to think that they will still be entertained if they continue on. Sometimes, that doesn’t work, and the things I’ve talked about in this post are examples of that happening.

All in Good Fun …

January 19, 2015

So, Michael Nugent has weighed in on the ability to make fun of religion. The big problem with the article is that it is very light on arguing for why this is something that we need to protect, and heavy on trying to demonstrate that the Catholic Church is doing the same thing and so are themselves insulting and ridiculing people and/or ideas. The problem is that the examples don’t work because they ignore the critical factor between criticism and ridicule, satire and mockery: the primary intent.

He sums up his view thusly:

We should not cause harm to actual people by infringing on their human rights, but we should always be able to robustly criticise and to ridicule ideas.

Presumably, this is because, as he says, you have rights but your beliefs don’t. However, this isn’t adequately fleshed out, meaning that it is reasonable to presume that his main thrust here is the standard notion of free speech: that we must be able to express ideas no matter how offensive some people find them. He does go on to defend that sort of line, by appealing to a possible societal benefit:

Pope Francis says “one cannot make fun of faith”. This is just silly. Of course we can make fun of faith. Faith is believing things disproportionately to the evidence. Religious faith is just one example of this folly. Making fun of silly beliefs is one important way of encouraging people to examine why they believe them, and of discouraging others from starting to believe them.

The reason that many religious beliefs need protection from ridicule is that they are ridiculous. If they could withstand scrutiny they would not need to be protected from mockery. Scientists don’t worry if somebody mocks the law of gravity, because they know that the law of gravity does not change based on whether people are laughing at it.

Reading in a bit, the idea here is that faith and religious beliefs are silly, or at least are of the sort that people ought not believe in them. People have to be free to criticize and to work to convince people to abandon them. Ridicule and mockery is an effective way to do that, so we must be free to ridicule and mock “silly” ideas to that end. Thus, he is tying it to purpose: the purpose is to make an intellectual case, and so the speech has value, and so must be protected.

The problem is that this would not hold for what I’d call “straight” ridicule or mockery, ridicule or mockery whose main purpose is to, well, ridicule or mock. Nugent’s argument provides comfort for people who just want to insult and offend others, by placing ridiculing people as a desirable thing in and of itself without assessing whether the purpose is to convince those who follow those beliefs to abandon them or instead simply to offend people without having anyone be able to hit back at them, or protest their being utter jerks about it, as they hide behind the intellectual claim that it is necessary criticism.

Also, this is an odd line for anyone who thinks that we should base our beliefs on logic and reason to take. If the beliefs really are silly, you shouldn’t need to mock or ridicule them in order to get people to stop believing in them and to not start believing in them. You should be able to simply point out, repeatedly, the arguments demonstrating that they are silly, and then people will just see that they are silly, and once they agree with that they’ll do that naturally. Sure, things are more complicated than that, but surely that should be the take that someone who wants us to base our beliefs on logic and reason should advocate. What they shouldn’t do is advocate that we use an explicitly emotional approach … one that will work whether or not they have sufficient arguments for their claims. Because that’s precisely the sort of approach he’s advocating here: make it so that people who believe those things are teased and mocked and ridiculed, and as people don’t like to be teased and mocked and ridiculed they’ll develop an emotional aversion to accepting those beliefs and so will abandon them or not accept them in the first place. But this is independent of the arguments given or the strength of the proposition; all you need to have this work is to have enough people on your side and willing to engage in the ridicule.

This is the difference between criticism/satire and ridicule/mockery. Any offense caused by legitimate criticism or satire is unintentional, and is not necessary to make the point. Those forms focus on doing what they can to make their intellectual points come across clearly and effectively, and any humour — either incidental or at the expense of their opponents — is done strictly to make the arguments stand out better intellectually and rationally. With ridicule and mockery, the opposite is true: the joking at the expense of the opponents is the entire point, and any intellectual arguments are incidental to that (and usually, in my opinion, only used to make the mocker feel better about doing it, by allowing them to appeal to the idea that they are mocking in the service of what is right).

Criticism needs to be protected, and we should not allow the censoring of criticism because it incidentally offends people. However, there is no need to protect speech whose main purpose is to mock and ridicule, as for that speech the main purpose is to offend and to convert through emotion. Society is not better off with that sort of “criticism”.

So, the claim about Charlie Hebdo is that they engaged more in ridicule than in making an actual criticism, that their primary purpose was to offend rather than to make an actual argument. How true this is might be debatable, but let’s look at what Nugent thinks compares to that:

Also, I support the right of the Pope to joke about punching people who insult his mother, even though such jokes make fun of the pacifist religious beliefs of the Amish and Quakers, and even though supporters of actual violence could misinterpret the Pope’s joke as being supportive of their behaviour. It is clear that he is not actually promoting violence, and we should support his right to make fun of violence as much as we support Charlie Hebdo’s right to make fun of racism and religion.

Except that it is clear that his intent there is not to make fun of the pacifist beliefs, and in fact it is difficult to see how one could call his statement “making fun” of them at all without using a rather non-standard definition of “making fun”. All he did there was state something that in his cultural context is an acceptable phrasing, and promote something that his cultural context might accept. He doesn’t even pass judgement on their pacifist beliefs by implying in any way that people who wouldn’t do that are somehow wrong, bad or holding wrong beliefs. So all he’s done is express something in a way that aligns with his personal beliefs, without passing judgement on what those with other personal beliefs might think. This is hardly “making fun” in any real sense because in order to “make fun” of it you have to at least express the idea that what they are thinking is wrong … and he doesn’t.

This just highlights the underlying problem with this debate. Nugent presumes in all of his examples that expressing a personally deeply held belief that others might disagree with is “making fun” in the problematic way. He adds this one later:

The Catholic Church considers homosexuality to be an objective disorder because it is ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.

But, again, this is just expressing what it believes. We do indeed need protection under free speech for expressing what we believe, even if some disagree and even if some are offended by our statement. So, I will defend Nugent’s ability to express his belief that religious beliefs are “silly”, despite the fact that that does express strong judgement and does so in a way that’s so dismissive as to be absolutely offensive to anyone who holds the belief … as long as he really does think that they are so obviously silly. However, I don’t defend an argument that says that because he thinks that it is reasonable for him to simply mock and ridicule those beliefs out of people. If he wants to convince people to abandon those “silly” beliefs, let him do that by convincing them that the beliefs are silly with reason and argument, not by making them feel bad for holding beliefs that he doesn’t agree with. If he has the arguments, this should be relatively easy to do. He can use humour. He can use satire. He can be harsh. He can incidentally offend people. But he cannot set out to offend people out of their beliefs, or offend them into saying or doing something harsh that he can then use as ammunition.

Free speech protects speech that has an intellectual, artistic, or societal benefit. This is why free speech defenses of pornography make no sense because it is not speech that has any of those benefits; a better argument would be to appeal to the idea that society cannot limit someone’s pursuit of happiness unreasonably. Ridicule and mockery have no intellectual or artistic benefit, and as they can be used to promote that which is false just as easily as that which is true they don’t have any societal benefit either. And the only happiness pursued with them is the happiness that comes from making others feel bad, which a reasonable society need not defend. While there is reason to defend criticism and satire that happens to offend — because the intellectual purpose of challenging beliefs is one worth defending — ridicule and satire aim to offend … and free speech does not defend offending people as a worthy goal in and of itself.

Coyne Gets Philosophical …

January 18, 2015

While I haven’t written any discussions of Jerry Coyne for quite some time now, mostly because the things he’s been talking about haven’t been interesting to me, this week he’s managed to provide me with two posts to comment on. If he keeps this up, it will be like old times on this blog.

This time, he has decided to point out dumb philosophical errors that he says Alvin Plantinga makes. Considering that at one point I argued that he and his commenters didn’t know philosophy, and considering that his comments on free will have often made what I’d consider basic philosophical mistakes, this attempt should definitely be … interesting.

The existence and work of Plantinga is the best argument I know against teaching the philosophy of religion. Here we have a distinguished scholar of religion, one recognized for his work on philosophy alone, at least judging by the fact that he was a regional president of the American Philosophical Association. Yet Plantinga’s work on religion, though couched in academic-y prose, modular logic, and symbolic logic, is thin, tendentious, and easily refuted by anyone with two neurons to rub together.

Considering that I’ve been unimpressed with both Coyne’s and Dennett’s attempts to refute Plantinga and haven’t seen easy refutations — although I think doubts can and have been raised against Plantinga’s work — this is an example where the overuse of rhetoric can get you in trouble … because if Coyne’s attempts either before or in this post don’t work, what does that say about his neural state?

Anyway, the main argument is based on a criticism of the arguments of Philip Kitcher that Plantinga has made. Kitcher’s main argument — or, at least, the main one that Plantinga addresses — is the typical “Argument from Religious Diversity”, that Loftus also heavily relies on. Plantinga’s first reply — actually his second, since it is his refutation of the second point of variance by culture and not to the first point of a wide variety of overall views — is that Kitcher himself would hold radically different views and philosophies if he was born in a different culture, including his skeptical beliefs about religion. But just as the fact that in a different culture he would believe differently doesn’t mean that Kitcher should accept from that fact alone that his beliefs are almost certainly false. But this is what Kitcher expects religious people to accept: that merely because they would have different beliefs if they had been born and raised in a different culture doesn’t mean that they should think that their beliefs are almost certainly false … at least, not just from that fact.

Coyne’s first “obvious” purported philosophical error from Plantinga is this:

Now you don’t have to be a sophisticated thinker to see the problem with Plantinga’s “rebuttal”. Kitcher is not making a claim about reality, but raising doubts toward other people’s claims about reality. Yes, if Kitcher had been raised in Saudi Arabia, he’d likely be a Muslim and not an atheist (there’s strong artificial selection against nonbelievers on the peninsula). But there’s no parity between holding a belief because you were brainwashed by the locals, and doubting beliefs because you’re rational.

There are a number of issues here. The most obvious one is that last sentence, because it stacks the deck and assumes his conclusion: Coyne can only say that the two sets of beliefs can’t be compared because one is rational and the other is, well, not. Coyne could make a stronger case by saying that Kitcher didn’t develop his skeptical beliefs about religion that way; he formed them against cultural expectations, not due to them. This, however, wouldn’t cover all of his beliefs, which would lead to the same sort of issues. The same problem arises with the distinction between simply doubting a belief and having an actual belief … especially if Kitcher, like Loftus, really does think that religious beliefs ought to be considered almost certainly false. If you think that the claim that God exists is almost certainly false, then you really ought to believe that God does not exist, a positive and actual belief, not merely an expression of skeptical doubts. Thus, as one of the commenters pointed out, Kitcher does make a claim about reality. Even if he didn’t, to raise skeptical doubts means that Kitcher has to be relying on some kind of claim that he wants others to think true in order to make that claim, the claim that to be rational we have to consider the religious claims almost certainly false. If he wants anyone to think it true, it means that he must think it true. That means that he must believe it. And finally, none of Coyne’s arguments really demonstrate that we indeed ought to consider our religious beliefs almost certainly false because there are other cultures that believe differently, because even if his distinction between raising doubts and believing really worked, it would be trivially easy to find beliefs that did and still do have cultural variances and again conclude that those cultural variances don’t, in and of themselves, give reason to accept that beliefs that do vary are almost certainly false. So while Plantinga’s argument is not, to my mind conclusive — as it is an argument that of the sort that doesn’t refute the argument so much as force a conclusion that the opponent doesn’t want to accept — it isn’t making any basic philosophical errors … and Coyne’s first paragraph attempting to point out errors makes a number.

On to the second paragraph:

The important thing, though, is that it’s more than the diversity of conflicting arguments that shows one’s faith to be false. It’s the point that John Loftus made with his Outsider Test for Faith: the diversity of faiths, and the fact that one’s religion is almost always the dominant religion in one’s birthplace, means that one should be suspicious of the criteria used to uphold one’s faith. If you think your faith is right and other faiths are wrong, Loftus argues, then you should apply to your own beliefs the same scrutiny you apply to other peoples’. When you do that, you must perforce see that the evidence for the veracity of your beliefs is as nonexistent as is the evidence for the many religions you reject. In other words, you must reject all faith until some evidence accrues that points to one religion as being more truthful than the others. And that—not simply the diversity of faiths and their dependence on geography—is why one should reject all religions. This is the argument Kitcher is making.

Ah, an appeal to Loftus. I’ve already talked about how Loftus’ view of how we treat religions like ours doesn’t, in fact, reflect how we actually treat other religions. We do not, generally, reject them because we subject them to a scrutiny that we won’t subject our own beliefs to, but instead because we already believe something that is incompatible with them. Whether this is rational or not is an open and complicated question, but it means that there is no reason for people to necessarily reject faith outright, or reject their faith until there is “evidence” for one over another. That’s an epistemological claim, requiring a set and strong idea of rationality, knowledge, belief, and the differences and similarities between them.

Essentially, Coyne here rejects Kitcher’s argument outright, insisting that it is all about evidence and that the religions do not have sufficient evidence to pass that marker. But it adds nothing to the argument to point out that there are other religions, and that if you grew up somewhere else you’d believe in a different religion. At best, that says that you got the belief from your culture and not from examining the evidence … but then as already pointed out all that means is that you don’t reject other religions on the basis of examining the evidence either, because you don’t examine evidence to reject a belief that conflicts with something you strongly believe. So what Coyne wants to argue here, really, is the old claim that there is insufficient belief to justify a belief in any particular religion. If there was, then it wouldn’t matter how many other religions there were or how many people believed in them; the justification itself would carry you through. This counter has been a staple of Plantinga’s rebuttals to the argument from religious diversity, and it works: if we have sufficient evidence, then competing religions are irrelevant as I would still be justified based on the evidence, and if we don’t then again it doesn’t matter if there are competing religions because we remain unjustified without considering them.

At best, this sort of analysis reduces the argument from religious diversity to not an argument, but instead a rhetorical trick or, perhaps, a thought experiment. If you consider that you’d be just as certain of a contradictory belief in another time and place, you have to ask what it is that makes you so certain now. For many theists, that will be faith. But no theist need accept that faith is an invalid methodology for accepting strong or even strong religious beliefs, and Plantinga tends to accept that you can hold as a basic belief things that he doesn’t accept. His argument defends his holding his own religious beliefs as basic; he does not argue against other people holding their religious beliefs as basic when he argues against the problem of religious diversity. So as a thought experiment, it might lead people to conclude that they have insufficient evidence for their own religious beliefs and that faith is invalid … but it doesn’t prove it.

The problem is that a lot of the philosophy limned above does not make empirical claims about reality. Existentialism, for instance, is a worldview, not a claim about what is real. Likewise for many ethical systems, like utilitarianism or Rawls’s ideal contractarianism. You can’t say that they can be dismissed simply because some conflict with others, for evidence cannot be brought to bear on the issues. And those philosophical positions that do make such claims (i.e., naturalism), should be subject to evidential scrutiny; and if they fail, they should either be shelved or considered unverified.

This is a rather bizarre counter-argument, because what it implies is that philosophical beliefs like the right ethical code or correct worldview don’t, in fact, have to be true because they can’t be proven empirically. First, many would disagree about that. Second, many would argue that the belief in God can’t be proven empirically because it also doesn’t make those sorts of strong claims — or, at least, not ones that we can justify that way — and so we could accept it just as well as we accept those. Third, these beliefs have a major impact on our actions and behaviours, and how we live our lives. To imply that it doesn’t matter if they are true is to essentially concede that we can live our lives based on ideas that we don’t know to be true. Since this would clearly conflict with any sort of rationalist stance, we need these beliefs to be justified as well, just as much if not more than strict scientific claims, even if we have to demonstrate it differently.

But the big issue here is that this is a response to Kitcher’s first point, that the diversity of religious beliefs means that we should consider them almost certainly false. The Utilitarian need not think that their ethical view is almost certainly false just because there are a number of deontological and Virtue theories that radically differ from it, or even because there are a number of differing Utilitarian views. If their view is justified, then they can believe it no matter how many other views are out there or even accepted, and if it isn’t it doesn’t become even less justified because there are other candidates.

In short, we want and need these philosophical beliefs to be true, which means we need to justify them, and the variety of philosophical beliefs is no justification for considering any of those to be almost certainly false. That’s the point that Plantinga is making … and it does stand. We need something more than Kitcher’s main arguments to conclude that.

He moves on to go after the sensus divinitatis again:

It seems. . . it seems. . . it seems. It seems, therefore it is. Is that rational? I don’t think so. For one’s desire to believe in God, which comes from brainwashing by others when one is young, doesn’t count as evidence. Those religious feelings aren’t independent, as Plantinga seems to think, of one’s desires.

Except, that’s not really what it is. Plantinga is clear in the review that he doesn’t think that the sensus divinitatis should be used as evidence that God exists:

But here, I think, he is seriously misconstruing Calvin and those who follow him. It isn’t that those who think there is a sensus divinitatis appeal to this sensus as evidence for their belief in God. It isn’t as if such people, if asked why they believe in God, if asked for evidence for their belief, will say, “Well, there is this sensus divinitatis, and it tells me that there is such a person.” Not at all. It is rather that the supporters of the sensus find themselves with belief in God; they note that the same or something similar holds for much of the rest of humanity; so they conclude that there is a faculty or process that produces this belief. Of course they think this belief on their part and the parts of these others is true; and since they do think this belief is true, they call this process a “sensus”, thus analogizing it to sense perception.

In short, people just come to believe it, just as they come to believe that there is an external world from their sense perceptions. No amount of skeptical challenge — and there is actually quite a bit — can dislodge this belief and our sense that that belief is justified. Hume rather famously formed all sorts of skeptical doubts and then discovered that when he went out into the world and acted in it he could not maintain those doubts. Bertrand Russell also noted that while the justifications for the accuracy of our sense data were not only not there but that we had good reasons — scientific reasons — to think them inaccurate we still had to assume they were to get any sort of reasoning and knowledge off the ground. In general, if a belief springs to our minds fully-formed and persists, then we might be able to be justified in thinking that it is true without evidence demonstrating it false, or it leading to a contradiction … and for sense data, perhaps even then. So if one raises doubts against the theist’s belief in God and yet, despite those doubts, they still feel that it must be true, then perhaps that it like sense data … a basic belief that we cannot justify but that we can’t doubt.

The issue here is that a basic belief and a belief formed from one’s culture will appear the same. All cultural beliefs are formed from cultural exposure — either explicit or implicit — and not from reasoned belief or deliberate learning. So they are just accepted by us. How can we tell that they are not mere cultural beliefs, and are instead properly basic? My view can accept cultural beliefs having some justification, but Plantinga’s basic belief approach can’t … not if he wants to use the comparison to sense data. Even here, though, he can argue that our sense data are impacted by culture as well, since even if our conclusions from sense data haven’t been proven to be influenced by cultural, we know that top-down processing is and that at least part of our sense data is done by top-down processing … meaning that our beliefs from sense data may be culturally impacted as well. Though that’s a pretty shaky argument.

And what, for crying out loud, are the “epistemic rights” that Plantinga touts? The right to believe whatever nonsense you want? Fine, let people so believe. But that doesn’t mean that those beliefs are rational, or should be respected by those of us who feel that strong beliefs should be supported by strong evidence.

If Coyne and others feel that strong beliefs should be supported by strong evidence, should they believe it and still call themselves rational? Is it just a feeling, or can they prove it?

To answer this, we need to answer what it means for a belief to be justified. There are a lot of issues around this view, tying in ideas about knowledge, belief, if you can believe rationally without having to know things, and all sorts of other considerations. Kitcher and Loftus and Coyne don’t seem to consider that, but simply assert it, and so can’t answer those questions.