Archive for February, 2015

Shining the Light on the Dark Avengers.

February 27, 2015

So, the second essay in “The Avengers and Philosophy” is by Sarah Donovan and Nick Richardson and talks about the Dark Avengers, a replacement Avengers squad formed by Norman Osborn and staffed by rather … shady characters, to say the least. The point of the essay is that the Dark Avengers, in general gave and strove to give the impression of being moral and virtuous characters, but in actuality acted quite immorally, which can be compared to a number of times when the real Avengers did the right things despite them actually seeming like the wrong things, or when popular support turned against them. Spider-man is the ultimate example of someone who accepted the responsibility to do the right thing despite the fact that many, at least, thought he was a villain and a menace. The essay asks the question of whether it is better to be actually moral even if people don’t think that you are, or whether it is better to look moral even if you aren’t.

My focus here is going to be talking about a pretty popular new theory about morality, which is that morality is an evolved trait that is used to promote societal harmony. As we come together and work together in groups, to build a harmonious society we have to co-operate with each other. Co-operating with each other produces a more functional society, and so at the very least societal practices that promote co-operation promote more harmonious and better functioning societies, and morality is essentially just that.

The issue here is that this more supports looking moral than actually being moral. If others do not see me co-operating, I get no benefit from it. In addition, if I can cheat and yet still look moral, I get the benefits both of cheating and of looking like I’m co-operating. To return it to the framing context here, Osborn gets to both look like a hero and reap the benefits of that good P.R., while being able to take whatever measures he needs in order to get the job done and, ultimately, to get what he wants. Under such a model, even the moral need to make certain that they give the appearance of being moral, and sometimes have to put that over actually taking the moral path, because if they act morally in a way that looks immoral, they get punished for doing the morally right thing. This becomes even more of an issue when someone is trying to make it look like they are moral and you are not, because if they can convince everyone that you are in the wrong even when you’re in the right then they get the benefits and rewards and you get the punishments. Appearance matters more than actuality in such a system.

Now, a society that has all cheaters won’t prosper, so as a descriptive theory explaining our moral intuitions the idea might have some weight … and perhaps more weight given how things like politics generally works in at least democratic societies. But as a theory that gives us a justification for acting moral, it leads to the idea that it is more important to look moral than be moral … or, rather, that we should act just morally enough to get the benefits and avoid the punishments. If we think morality itself has intrinsic moral value, this story doesn’t seem to capture that at all. Which is, in fact, my major objection to that theory.

NOBODY wants Net Neutrality …

February 26, 2015

So, from The NY Times, it looks like Net Neutrality is going to go through, kinda, sorta. The FCC is going to regulate the Internet as if it was a public good, which would allow it to impose net neutrality. And the summary of what it would prevent is this:

The F.C.C. plan would let the agency regulate Internet access as if it is a public good. It would follow the concept known as net neutrality or an open Internet, banning so-called paid prioritization — or fast lanes — for willing Internet content providers.

In addition, it would ban the intentional slowing of the Internet for companies that refuse to pay broadband providers. The plan would also give the F.C.C. the power to step in if unforeseen impediments are thrown up by the handful of giant companies that run many of the country’s broadband and wireless networks.

The ability to step in and say that the providers can’t arbitrarily de-prioritize the content of companies that won’t play ball is good. However, no one wants the elimination of fast lanes. Even those who would never use a fast lane would rather there be a fee tacked on for high priority traffic than that all content providers are asked to pay for the infrastructure to provide high priority traffic. If all I’m doing is simple file transfers, I don’t need a high Quality of Service throughout the Internet or low latencies; a short delay is not going to impact my service at all. For video, however, a delay or packets coming out of order will hugely impact their service. Asking companies to pay to get access to even a priority that allows their traffic to be routed with low latency/high priority/high bandwidth routing features helps them guarantee their services work as expected, while the companies that don’t care as much about that don’t have to pay anything and get standard services, which works for their needs. No one really wants all traffic to be treated the same, because different traffic has different requirements and so needs different features to make it work to their ideal. If you try to treat them all the same, no one is happy because they aren’t getting the features they need.

The fact is that video services are as I’ve said before both bandwidth intensive and require low latency and a high priority. This is very expensive for ISPs to provide, requiring dedicated equipment that switches at a very high rate with an exceptionally low rate of dropped packets. As these services start to dominate, ISPs will have to provide some kind of infrastructure to handle them, or else the growing congestion will make those services unusable while also flooding out the services that didn’t care about that. Someone is going to have to pay for that infrastructure growth. The end user can’t because they are paying for the line to their system, and that’s not where the infrastructure needs to be added. If ISPs try that, they will end up charging end users more for speeds that aren’t any higher and for the needs of content that they aren’t using. This will not go over well. Despite what people have claimed, the issue is not at the end user, but is in the core, and ISPs will need to find a business case to expand the infrastructure in the core. Otherwise, their capital expenditures won’t result in an increase in revenue, and so they’ll simply end up losing money on the deal. It will not do well for the Internet to drive ISPs into loss trying to provide the services that customers want.

So if sites like Netflix want their content to have the features that they need to make their customers happy, they’ll have to find some reason for ISPs to provide those features. Trying to do it by standing on the “common good” or net neutrality won’t work because ISPs will simply insist on treating everyone alike as the regulations state and so won’t treat Netflix traffic differently than anyone else’s … and Netflix wants that. They also won’t develop new features for traffic like Netflix’s because there’s no profit in them to do so. Both of these are totally consistent with Net Neutrality.

So, no, no one really wants Net Neutrality. This issue has been clouded by the reasonable desire to limit dishonest business practices so that people aren’t seeing that there are business practices that everyone wants that can’t be provided under strict Net Neutrality.

Objective Importance …

February 25, 2015

So, I read this Cracked list of eight presumably invalid things that people say in any discussion about feminism. For the most part, these things seem to mostly be things that sometimes can be reasonable arguments/replies that can also be used when they aren’t valid, so obviously the article pretty much tries to define them as being obviously wrong. I don’t want to get into that. What I do want to get into is the #1 argument, one that I’ve heard and probably talked about before:

“I’m not a feminist, I’m an equalist.” They’re not an equalist, they’re an asshole. This doesn’t bring enlightened impartiality to the problem, it smugly pretends to bring enlightened superiority to the problem while implying that silly women are being distracted from the wider picture by their own selfishness.

Even if they had a point, and they really don’t, their first priority is branding.

Feminism is gendered not because women want to be treated better in the future but because they’re being treated worse right now. Insisting on “equalism” means defining yourself by ignoring that fact. As if sexism, street harassment, pay differences, and rape threats affect genders equally.

So … what would gender equalism, as a movement, entail? Well, you’d think it would entail nothing more than striving to ensure that the genders are, in fact, treated equally, without giving any a priori privilege to any one perspective. Given this, if it really is the case that women’s concerns are objectively more important or ought to be more of a priority than men’s concerns, then an objective movement striving to eliminate all gender inequality and that doesn’t have the resources to fix all of the problems still ought to fix those first. After all, they are objectively more important, right? The only way having an equalist movement should legitimately act any differently given the argument here is if there are issues that affect men that are actually objectively of a higher priority than some of the one that affect women. But if that is the case, then that’s what we should be doing; just because women might overall have it worse wrt gender inequality does not mean that every instance where they are being treated unequally is automatically a higher priority than instances where men are being treated unequally.

Which is what strikes me as very, very odd about that argument. Given an umbrella movement/organization that is dedicated to a particular cause or issue, it’s not usually the dominant issues that splinter off into subgroups. It’s usually the ones that are objectively less important that splinter off, in order to draw in resources that only care about that particular issue and, in fact, to actually get some attention for their issues or goals. A general computing support group, for example, is likely to form a subgroup to focus on say, Linux issues if the membership is over 90% Windows users than that you’d get a Windows subgroup first. The main group would be so much a Windows group that Windows users would have no reason to form a subgroup. Given this, it would make more sense to form a masculinist group than a feminist group if the concerns of women just are so much more important when it comes to gender quality.

Now, feminists may object that this presumes a reasonable movement, but that what happens in these cases is that if they formed an equalist movement then the issues of men would dominate despite the fact that the women’s issues are more important. Well, I don’t think this is necessarily the case, and note that this has actually never really been tried, as far as I know; women have pretty much always had their own movement, and the only case where that wasn’t true was when they weren’t segmented into gender at all, and so they tended to get drowned under issues of racism and the like. So more evidence is required. At any rate, though, ultimately women should desperately want an equalist movement that works, and feel forced into having a feminist movement, as opposed to the impression that this argument gives that even a working equalist movement is somehow not the right thing, because their issues are just so important that they could never be solved by a movement dedicated to solving the most important gender inequalities. That argument just ain’t right …

It never fails …

February 23, 2015

So, I’ve decided to make a push on video games by setting up a set of eight games that I play in a round robin over a month. Four of them I play in the evenings and so have to be games that I can play for a half-hour to an hour and feel like I’ve accomplished something, while the other four are games that I play on the weekends when I have more time and so are games that are best played for long stretches.

This weekend, Planescape: Torment was up for my weekend game. But there ended up being some hockey games that I wanted to watch, and I can’t watch TV while playing that game, at least right now, so I ended up not playing it at all. This upcoming weekend, I’m supposed to play Conception II, which is a game that is ideal to play while watching TV, so much so that I’m not sure I can face playing it without having something to watch while playing. And this weekend … there’s no interesting hockey on TV.

Yep, never fails.

Multiverses, God, Belief and Knowledge …

February 23, 2015

So, I’ve been involved in a long, long discussion over at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog, in the comments of this thread. There are two people that I’m debating with at the moment: eric — whom I’ve had a lot of similar discussions with in the past — and sean samis. Rosenhouse has a policy where comments on his posts get closed after a certain amount of time, and that thread has, in fact, hit that limit. But there are things in the last couple of comments that I want to address, so I’ve decided to try to address them here. I’ll try to leave a link there, but I know that eric knows that this blog exists.

Anyway, let me give the summary of the debate so far, which will by necessity be at least a little shaded towards my perspective of the debate. This all started from a comment by Rosenhouse that multiverses were as good an explanation for the purported fine tuning argument as God was (eric continually refers to this argument as “Goddidit”), to which I started by saying that it looked like those who supported it were doing what they accused religious people were doing: inventing or adding entities to get them out of an implication that they didn’t like. Eric then said that it wasn’t like that — or, at least, it wasn’t for him — and then we started debating whether multiverses in that sense were more reasonable. Eric insisted that multiverses followed from inflationary theory, and inflationary theory was supported scientifically, so multiverses were supported scientifically and so more rational. I pointed out that it wasn’t supported scientifically by inflationary theories because there were inflationary theories that explained the evidence equally well and didn’t imply multiverses, and that even Eternal Inflation didn’t actually entail multiverses. We chased this around a bit, and turned to a discussion of what it meant for a belief to be rational, or more rational than another, mostly I guess because I was saying that his belief in multiverses or that the belief that multiverses were the explanation for fine tuning was rational, but not the only rational option. At that point, we needed to figure out what a rational belief was. Sean samis weighed in on this issue as well.

Which bring us to where we are now. Let me start with eric’s latest comment. Before we start, let me reiterate a comment that was made earlier that sent us down a bit of a rabbit hole (comment #252). After we had been debating this for a while, in 243 I pointed out that essentially when I was defending theistic belief as rational, I was doing so as a response to a charge that people who believed in God were doing so based on a belief-forming process that they shouldn’t trust to form beliefs. This traces back through most of the discussion — and previous discussions — where eric and I disagree over whether it is rational and/or acceptable to maintain a belief that you learned from your parents/culture. I told him that if he meant “rationally” in a different way, then he needed to be clear about that. His reply in 252 was this:

VS @243 re: 1) I really don’t care for purposes of our discussion whether irrational beliefs are ‘a bad thing’ or not. I would be happy with the answer that you agree that, under standard definitions of ‘rational,’ belief in God is not rational (while under your different, broader definition, it is).

Which of course led me to believe that what he was after was STRICT rationality, that it was produced by or relies directly on reason. Which isn’t a discussion that I was interested in, as I stated, since he wouldn’t be saying that beliefs formed by that process directly were invalid or that we ought to believe one over the other, which was the heart of the debate: should we not believe that God is an explanation for fine tuning, or should we believe that multiverses are a better explanation, at least? And my frustration with most of the debate is that eric consistently seems to be conflating rational in the strict sense with rational as a way of saying that one ought not hold a belief if one wants to be considered rational, whether or not that process is strictly rational. As an example, it’s possible that beliefs formed by intuition are ones that we can and ought to hold, but that intuition is not a strictly rational process. This was the example that I did use and eric never really acknowledged, and seems to be denying that there are any, as all of this examples always take processes that are both not strictly rational and ones that we think are invalid.

I think the reason for this is that eric does think that a process not being strictly rational means that beliefs produced by it are ones that we ought not hold, or at the very least that we ought not hold beliefs produced by it if we had a strictly rational process — like science — to turn to. This is probably what we should be debating, but somehow we keep running down rabbit holes.

At any rate, I don’t really want to start with that point. I want to start with the discussion of my definition of “rational belief”, which says that it is rational to hold a belief if: 1) the belief doesn’t contradict any of your other beliefs and 2) you don’t have the evidence to know that the belief is false. Eric keeps claiming that this is overly broad and that it isn’t what people mean when they say “rational”, which the above comment outlines what is really meant by rational in multiple cases. Anyway, eric said that another commenter, Gordon, didn’t think that he knew that evolution was true — ie that he hadn’t been presented with sufficient evidence to force that conclusion — and so his belief that evolution was false was therefore rational by my definition. I said that it wasn’t because knowledge was objective and could be objectively and externally determined. Eric’s reply was:

I didn’t ask about knowledge, I asked whether Gordon’s belief is rational by your definition.

But you can’t judge the rationality of a belief by my definition without talking about knowledge. I repeatedly pointed this out to eric. The main thrust is this:

1) Knowledge trumps belief.
2) Knowledge is objective: given that we both have access to the same evidence, if you are justified in saying that you know that X then _I_ have to be equally justified. If not, then you don’t know that X.

So since eric and I both accept that we know that evolution is in general true — some details of it might not be — then we can say that Gordon ought to know that evolution is in general true as well. If Gordon wants to deny that, then he has to justify a claim that we don’t really know that evolution is true, which can be done either by pointing out that we haven’t and/or can’t present the justification to him, or pointing out that our purported justification is actually wrong or doesn’t get to the level of knowledge. Beyond that, he ought to know that it’s true.

So, no, under my view Gordon’s belief that evolution is false isn’t rational, unless he can show that we don’t, in fact, have knowledge. Thus, since eric thinks that we do, for the purposes of this discussion eric has to concede that at least in reference to that example my method and his come to the same conclusion.

Gordon thinks he has been presented with no contradictory evidence, and thus his belief passes your #2 criteria. You and I think otherwise. How do we decide whether his belief has passed your #2 criteria? Do we go by G’s assessment or our own? If his own, then doesn’t your criteria for rationality allow just about everything in the door? OTOH if we go by our assessment, can I not apply the same “not his but our” standard to Gordon’s belief in God? And your belief in God?

We apply an objective perspective, one that does not depend on what we believe or think is true but on what we know is true. So it’s not a choice between what we think versus what he thinks. If that’s all it is, then neither side has knowledge and so we do have to let everyone base it on what they think. But that’s not what we have for evolution. We have much more than that. At which point, eric cannot simply say that because we can externally judge the rationality of someone else’s belief when we have knowledge and can present the justification to them that we can do that even when we don’t have knowledge. And eric does not have knowledge for multiverses, as they are considered speculative at best … and eric does not know that God doesn’t exist.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Imagine that someone shows someone a recording of their spouse having an affair. This evidence is, in general, sufficient to justify knowledge, even though recordings can be faked. So if that person refuses to believe that their spouse is having an affair, then that belief — and even mere lack of believe — is irrational; they are refusing to accept a belief that rationally they ought to accept was produced by a belief-forming faculty that produces true beliefs. In short, they ought to know that it’s true, and so ought to believe it. Now, imagine that the person showing them the recording has always been interested in them, and has been trying to break them and their spouse up for a long time now. At this point, the idea that the recording was faked becomes much more credible, and if the recording was faked then it isn’t reliable anymore. At which point, it is possible that the person would no longer be justified in knowing that their spouse had had an affair. At which point, they’d have to believe something. But what? They could decide that despite them having an ulterior motive, that the person with the recording is still credible enough to believe. Or they could show faith in their spouse and insist that they wouldn’t commit adultery. But at this point, it’s going to come down to what the person themselves believes, about their spouse, about that person, and about a lot of things. At this point, it’s going to be very difficult to decide externally what believe they ought to hold. So as long as they aren’t holding an inconsistent set of beliefs — which includes their beliefs about how to form beliefs — they ought to be considered rational for believing either … even if the method they use is more gut feeling than a full-on reasoned out response, which would be inconclusive in this case anyway.

Now, eric goes on to reiterate his definition of “rational”:

A belief based on valid reasoning from a set of well-accepted premises or observations. Since @218.

This sounds a lot like he’s saying that the belief should be valid and sound, which is pretty close to most methods that produce knowledge. Mere belief comes into play when we have evidence for conclusion, but it is either not valid, not sound, or both. And we can see that eric’s belief in multiverses is neither valid nor sound. It does not follow validly from inflation theories because it is possible for inflationary theories to be true and for multiverses to not exist. It’s also the case that not all of the premises are well-accepted, even scientifically. So by his own definition, his belief in multiverses is not a rational belief.

And interestingly by his definition conclusions based on cultural beliefs are rational. Their premises are well-accepted in society, by definition. So if someone makes a valid argument using them, then that belief is rational. And yet, eric’s big complaint is that cultural beliefs are not rational.

Now I don’t want to rely on the “well-accepted” line. There has to be room for people to reasonably believe things even though most people don’t agree. That’s the only way we can progress from wrong, but accepted ideas to right ones, from the ideas that everyone knows are true but that aren’t to the ideas that are in fact true. But if this conversation is going to go anywhere, eric needs to be clear and detailed about what he means, and not just quote a context-less dictionary definition and assume that his beliefs meet it and others don’t.

Eric believes that multiverses exist. He does not know it, even by his own definition. It does not follow directly from inflationary theories and he doesn’t have well-accepted premises to justify it. The key point of the whole debate was why his mere belief is better than the theistic mere belief, and he hasn’t shown it except as an implied “It’s scientific, so better”. But that in and of itself needs to be justified, and there is no reason to accept any scientific explanation over non-scientific explanations just because the former are scientific, since scientific beliefs are wrong all the time. I allow him to be rational in his belief while not accepting that it is the only rational belief to hold. Eric either needs to do the same or demonstrate rationality to some degree, which is what we’ve been missing in this debate.

On to sean samis. The debate between us has been more directly over whether a belief is reasonable/acceptable or not. I just want to touch on a couple of issues. From 275:

IMHO, determining whether a belief is “rational” is all about the process and the premises leading to the conclusion upon which the belief is based. The sloppier the process or the less certain the premises, the less certain the conclusion.

To my mind, saying that “belief in X is not rational” MEANS “Your belief in X was not produced by a rational process.”

I think this highlights the conflation that’s going on here. He talks a lot about the process being sloppy and the conclusion being less certain because of it, but then simply subs in “rational process” without clarifying whether he means “sloppy” — read: unreliable — or strictly rational, which is made clearer with his next statement:

VS, maybe I’m missing something but the difference you are trying to explain seems too much like hair-splitting. What is the difference between “STRICT rationality” and … whatever the alternative is? It seems the difference between someone adding numbers up in their head and someone else showing their work.

Strict rationality means that you’re just talking about whether the process relies on reason or not, as outlined above, and not judging from that whether or not the belief is reasonable to believe or that you ought to believe it. In short, when talking about strict rationality, you accept that there may be valid belief-forming process that don’t rely on reason, like perhaps intuition or emotion, even if you don’t think it’s true. As I said, unless you do try to make the link from strictly rational to what people ought to believe, rational in that sense just isn’t interesting.

And we talked a bit about proving negatives, and he replies to me in 279:

So, what you ask eric to do; to prove a negative is impossible. Science NEVER disproves explanations except in very narrow situations. Virtually every time, all science can do is say “there’s no evidence that X is true” or “the evidence does not support X”. This is why the burden falls to the proponent of the theory to prove it, or explain how it could still be true in spite of the lack of supporting evidence.

Despite my being accused of demanding certainty by eric, sean samis seems to be doing that here: saying that he can’t prove a negative because he can’t do it with certainty. But that’s not what I mean, at least, by that. I mean if you can demonstrate it to the level of knowledge. Thus, if there are alternative explanations and you hold that one of them is false, if when asked to justify that you say that you can’t prove a negative it really does sound like you’re saying that you can’t prove that your preferred alternative is true to the level of knowledge, because if you can know that one of your alternatives is true then you can know that the other alternatives are false. If we know, to take one of his examples, that the Earth is spherical, then we know that it isn’t flat, or square, or whatever.

The same thing, then, applies to the fine tuning argument. If we discovered that there were multiverses, and that the cosmological constants of the existing multiverses seems distributed in accordance with the probabilities, then we’d know that the explanation for the cosmological constant doesn’t require intelligent agency and that, therefore, it was produced by a random and natural process. This would then mean that we’d know that it wasn’t set by an intelligent creator, and so know that it wasn’t set by God. This, then, is proving a negative … at least in that part. It doesn’t require certainty or anything beyond what science already does as it produces knowledge. To do otherwise would mean that science doesn’t produce knowledge … and no one wants that.

Interactive NPC World …

February 20, 2015

So, I’ve started playing a number of games in a round robin, which include Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, and one thing that I thought of while playing Mass Effect 2 is the issue of NPCs in the world that you can interact with. Some of them will give you quests or items or other things, while some of them will just give you a little phrase or comment and then you can move on. The issue, of course, is that you usually don’t know which is which until you actually interact with them. Which means that if you want to get all of the quests and the like you have to interact with all of the NPCs, many if not most of which just say something and let you move on.

This can get very annoying if you have a lot of NPCs and the ratio of useful to colour NPCs is low. I’ve played games where I stopped interacting with NPCs because it was so annoying separating the NPC wheat from the chaff. But the flip side isn’t much better, as if you only create NPCs when they are useful the world can seem empty and unreal, only populated by quest-vending machines and the like. And filling it with people that you can’t interact with at all — like, say, most MMOs — reduces NPCs to background.

Which might, actually, be the best way to handle it. We don’t want players to have to obsessively interact with everyone, and we want populated places to seem populated, so making them non-interactive solves that, at the expense of, well, making them not seem like actual people. It’s nice to have NPCs that are people in at least some sense, but not good if we confuse them with NPCs that matter to the overall game plot and quests and so try to get them to interact with us outside of that. If you do go that route, you have to limit the number of NPCs or annoy the player by making them interact with all of them or else risk missing out on something interesting. And if there’s one thing that players hate, it’s missing out on something interesting.

Ultimately, though, this probably is a problem of balance, striking the right balance of NPCs that you can interact with in passive ways with the ones that open up interesting opportunities in the game world. It does enhance a game to be able to talk to NPCs and have them say things like jokes and give interesting tidbits about the world. It’s just that if you are getting that when you want to make sure that you’ve hit all the quests it will get annoying after a while if there are too many of those. We want to interact with people … but not all the time. Kinda like life, I think.

A Non-Religious Meaningful Lent …

February 18, 2015

So, today is the start of Lent in at least the Catholic calendar. I don’t particularly participate in Lent, for a couple of reasons. The first and most trivial one is that I’m in general non-ritualistic, which means that I don’t consider participating in the specific rituals to be the be-all-and-end-all of religious practice. It’s more about the principles and how you act in your every day life that matters to me. And, as a philosopher, I am always willing to debate and consider and argue over just what is required in your every day life, which makes me rather odd indeed when it comes to religion.

But the second one is that one of the biggest components of Lent — giving something up — doesn’t work for me, because there isn’t really anything for me to give up. I could give up playing video games, except that I’ve probably played games for something like 8 hours throughout the entire month of January. I could give up board games, but I’ve already set out games twice in two weeks and then never played them. I could give up reading fiction, but even that is something that I don’t do that often anymore, and is a far better way to spend my free time than the alternatives. I could give up TV, but on weekdays I’m only watching about an hour anyway and could easily give that up, and while weekends would be more difficult it wouldn’t be something that I’d miss that much. I could give up buying lunch, but I’m only buying lunch now because I have to due to my schedule; if I could avoid it, I would.

So, essentially, for me almost everything in my life is done because it is convenient at the time — making it easy to give up — or else because I need to do things that way at that time to make my life work at all. So there’s nothing trivial to give up as proof of my willingness to put aside my wants in service to a greater ideal, which is what I think the main point of that part of Lent is. So while I think that it is good for people to prove to themselves that they can indeed sacrifice their wants for the greater good, it’s not something I can do.

Anyone who is not religious who criticizes Lent, in my opinion, cannot do so on the basis that it is a bad thing to sacrifice your wants for the greater good, as that is a pretty basic principle that any morality ought to contain. All they can do, in my opinion, is criticize the purported end or greater good being espoused, that of, say, worshiping God. But if they could find a suitable cause, they really ought to feel that they would do that, and I would say that regular practice at doing just that is something that everyone ought to try. For me, it’s just nice that my job lets me get in regular practice at denying myself wants like “free time” in order to fulfill my commitments to my work [grin].

But I was musing about addiction today, and thought of another reason why even those who are secular might want to insert a little Lent into their lives. While some things can actually in and of themselves create a physical addiction — the body gets used to it and physically demands it if it isn’t there — pretty much anything can be what I’ll call mentally addictive, which means that you enjoy it so much that you do it a disproportionate amount of the time, and even choose it consistently when you know that you shouldn’t. The easiest way to know that you aren’t mentally addicted to something is to try to go without it for some time. If you can, then you’re fine, but if you can’t, then you have a problem. As a small example, if someone asks you what you’d do if you couldn’t play video games for a month, and you have no idea, it’s probably a good time to see what other things you might want to do in your spare time, because you clearly have put too much emphasis on that one thing.

So a Lent-style focus on giving something up for a number of weeks is a good way to help everyone assess their own lifestyle and see a) if they can go without some things in it and b) see what life is like without those things. This is good for your character and your self-awareness, religious or not. So should anyone laugh at you for giving things up, just remember that giving things up isn’t bad, and that someone who finds the idea of deliberately depriving themselves of pleasure laughable is missing a glorious opportunity to find out about themselves and the world.

Amnesia, Personal Identity, and the Many Lives of Wolverine

February 16, 2015

So, the next essay in “X-Men and Philosophy” is by Jason Southworth and actually has the same title as the title of this blog post, and is an examination of personal identity and more particularly how we know that we are the same person today that we were yesterday, or five years ago, or the day we were born. Southworth relies on two main theories to do his work, and relates them back to Wolverine specifically, since his healing factor and constant states of amnesia provide excellent foils for these two theories.

The first is that of John Locke, who takes a mental approach to identity. But the problem he runs into is that for every mental property that we have it looks like they are in flux, and constantly changing. The only thing that doesn’t really change is our memories. Except that, well, we forget things all the time, and might even develop false memories. So Locke has to quite quickly talk about some kind of core memories, and connection of memories, by which we can say that we have the same basic set of memories even though the full set of memories fluctuates a lot. Of course, we can immediately see that we could easily do something similar for our character and personality traits, and therefore avoid the problem that Wolverine becomes a completely different person every time his memory is erased, which happens fairly frequently, and more importantly the problem that if someone lose their memory and then regains it that they were a completely different person for a while but when they get them back are now the same person they were before they lost their memory, and only have a bunch of extra memories about the time when they had lost their memory attached to them again … when they were someone else, presumably. Or would it be the other way around, where they have become a new person and their “regained” memories are just new memories attached to the new person? Who can say?

The other alternative presented is that of Derek Parfit, who goes for a physical approach, insisting that it is sameness of brain that matters, and not sameness of anything specifically mental. However, since the brain is changing all the time, with old cells dying out and being replaced, this means that we actually change into a different person quite frequently, about seven years. The problem with this, though, is that it isn’t clear when we should start counting. Why is it that we should say that we have a completely different brain and so are a different person based on some fairly arbitrary starting point of when we think we had all the same brain cells, and when all of those special brain cells go away we’re suddenly a different person? Just like Locke, Parfit — at least as presented by Southworth — ignores continuity and looks for an absolute measure, but we can quite easily claim that the normal brain process of cells replacing themselves is a continuous process that happens in the same brain, and so as long as that process is proceeding we have the same brain no matter how much of that has been replaced, which would mean that brain damage in Wolverine wouldn’t in any way make him a new person any faster than the rest of us, because all it would mean is that his processes can repair his damaged brain faster than ours can. Getting the brain mostly wiped out — like what happened when he went after Nitro in Civil War — might still count.

Which leads to the two other big issues with Parfit’s physical approach. The first big issue is that his theory means that we change in a different person in a way that has no mental impact on us at all. We have all of the same mental properties, act the same way, think the same way, and don’t even notice that we’ve become a different person, and yet we have. This doesn’t seem to like to anything like what it means to be a person, which then even casts doubt on privileging the brain as opposed to the entire body. The second big issue is that when, say, Doctor Doom eliminates Captain America in Secret Wars and the Beyonder keeps using Klaw to recreate him, since that would probably be a different brain that means that we had a completely different person every time … despite the power and purpose being to recreate the precise same person that had been destroyed, which then leads to a logical contradiction (actually, Star Trek transporters would thus do the same thing, by definition). This seems odd.

Both Locke and Parfit ignore the fact that it seems like continuity of traits is what defines us as being the same person, not the precise states themselves. Locke does realize this, but tries to hack it into his memory model when it would work so much better to solve the problems with the character/personality model, especially for self-caused character changes. Parfit also ignores it in creating his brain-based model, leading to his claim that we become a different person about every seven years, whether we know it or not. Both would have much stronger theories utilizing continuity to its utmost, instead of using it as a quick patch or ignoring it entirely.

What I Don’t Like About Winter …

February 13, 2015

My two favourite seasons are fall and spring, in that order. But if I had to choose between winter and summer, in general I’d choose winter. I can handle the cold a lot better than I can handle the heat, generally. I don’t have to worry about sleeping at all in the winter, while sometimes even with air conditioning I can have trouble sleeping in the summer. I’m even potentially more likely to go for walks in winter, although it often gets too cold to do that. But at least in the winter if I did go for a walk at lunch I wouldn’t have to worry that I’d be too sweaty for my co-workers to tolerate.

But there’s one thing that really annoys me about winter, and winter weather, and that is that if you want to drive anywhere — and potentially in general — you have to worry more about the weather and plan around it than you do in the summer. If you get snow or freezing rain, you might not be able to get out anywhere until the weather changes. Even the cold means that you have to, in my case, plug in your block heater, make sure it’s working, and make sure that you warm things up enough to go anywhere. Sometimes, if it’s really cold, it’s a good idea to start your car at lunch to warm it up a bit so that it starts better when you leave, especially if you might be leaving late. There’s a lot to think about and watch, and you have to make sure that you are okay if you get a sudden change in the weather and can’t or don’t want to get out. And if it does snow, even once you get home you still have to figure out when you’re going to shovel it, and if you got enough to bother.

This just doesn’t happen in the summer. Sure, rain or heat will stop you from doing things outside, but it also ends up being a reasonable good time to drive out to the store or do some shopping or whatever, because driving in rain is not a problem. The only time you’ll have any issues is driving in a heavy downpour or in a thunderstorm, and most of the time those don’t last that long so you can wait it out. You can’t do that in a snowstorm or prolonged freezing rain, especially since when those end you still have major issues, whereas with the rain the problem is visibility, not traction.

This is one of the main reasons why I’d rather take vacation in the winter rather than the summer. Having to think about the weather all the time bugs me, but when I’m off I don’t have to think about it. There’s usually no place I have to drive to. And I can shovel any time I feel like it, from very early to very late, and not have it impact my life.

This does contribute to my feeling happy when winter ends, even though I like it better than summer. If I could have fall all year round, I’d be overjoyed.

Science on Trial (and Error)

February 11, 2015

So, P.Z. Myers is having a go at Bill Maher over various comments he’s made about science and health, particularly around vaccinations. The key annoyance Myers has is this:

But that’s not the part that had me fuming. It’s the bit around 4 minutes in, in which he pretentiously announces to us that not all science is alike, and climatology is a good science, so he accepts global warming, and he also explains that there is also consensus among climate scientists (he also argues that the earth is just a rock, so it’s simple enough to understand — but then, as he demonstrated so well on this night, Bill Maher is a goddamn idiot). And then he tells us that medical science is nothing like that, “because they’ve had to retract a million things”. “People get cancer, and doctors just don’t know why,” he says, condescendingly. His father had ulcers, and they treated it wrong when he was a kid.

So, what is Myers’ defense of science:

Science is a trial and error process. It is not an infallible track that leads invariably to correct answers, instantly and every time. When he says that climate science is completely right, that’s because he has only the most superficial knowledge — he knows a little bit about the conclusions they’ve reached now, but nothing about how they came to those answers. I guarantee you, there was a long slow gradual effort to understand climate, with false starts and dead ends and pointless detours all along the way, because that’s how science works.

When medical scientists retract something, it’s because they’re doing normal science. Of course there are errors along the way! The whole point of science is that you generate hypotheses, you make tentative conclusions, and you test them, and sometimes you’ll confirm your hypothesis (which means you’ve learned something), and sometimes you’ll falsify it (in which case you’ve learned something else). Do you know why Maher’s father got the wrong treatment? Because the cause of ulcers, the bacterium Helicobacter pyloris, was not discovered to be the causal agent until 19-****ing-84. Maher is complaining about an important medical discovery, one that won the Nobel Prize, because scientists didn’t discover it soon enough for him.

This … is not a good defense of science. It’s not a good defense of science when people point out that it’s gotten things wrong in the past — which should rationally weaken your confidence that the answer it is giving you now is correct — to say that of course it gets things wrong! That’s just part of the scientific process! Sure, science testing things, getting hypotheses wrong, and then correcting them is indeed an important part of what makes the scientific process good and something that produces knowledge, but the charge here really that we want and need to be able to tell when what science is telling us is right. And this is hard for science to do, at least credibly, because it has indeed gotten, well, pretty much every theory wrong at some point. At what point can we say that the answer that science is giving us is the right one, and the one that we should unreservedly adopt?

Scott Adams recently talked about dieting and nutrition:

What’s is science’s biggest fail of all time?

I nominate everything about diet and fitness.

Maybe science has the diet and fitness stuff mostly right by now. I hope so. But I thought the same thing twenty years ago and I was wrong.

He then goes on to list a vast number of things that people thought were accepted science about diet and nutrition that we all now don’t think is accepted, and in fact that people now think are settled in the precise opposite direction. When it comes to dieting and nutrition, beyond “Don’t eat too much of, well, anything” and “Eating clean fruits and vegetables is a good thing”, we don’t really know what sort of diet we should be eating. For now, we have issues with processed food, but given the history that might change in the future.

Adams turns this into a long discussion about why people don’t trust science, based on its history of having to adjust based on new information. The key is that we need to be able to tell when the science is settled so that we can trust and act on it, and in general science can’t tell us that the science is settled because the very nature of its process is that it pretty much never is. We can get a strong confidence in what it’s saying, but any new result might change that and, unlike other views, actually necessitate adopting a completely different theory to cover all the new cases, because science strives to generalize as far as possible. So even though we can say that Newtonian Physics works locally and you need Relativistic Physics beyond that, what that really means is that Relativistic Physics is the right theory and that you don’t need to consider the relativistic aspects at local levels, which is why we thought for so long that Newtonian Physics was right.

So if science sets out solutions as the settled and true answers and they then have to backtrack later and say that they were wrong, then science loses credibility. But if science does talk about answers as being provisional and subject to change then it doesn’t have the credibility to get off the ground in the first place; people wants answers, not answers that might be true because of a bunch of evidence that they can’t understand and evaluate and that might change later. Science needs to talk only about the science that is pretty much settled, and clearly distinguish between the parts of their theories that are settled and true and the ones that are more speculative. But often that distinction is not made, either by people who support science or by the media reporting on it. Any time that science says that something is true and not provisionally true and then has to retract that, it really looks like science just can’t figure out what’s really true and what isn’t … and defenses like “Well, science is critically trial and error” only make it look like that’s a key part of the scientific method.

Science produces knowledge, and is definitely the best method we have for figuring out truths about the natural world. What science is missing — and what philosophy of science needs to provide — is a set and solid epistemology that can set out when something is a scientifically confirmed theory that we can be confident in claiming to know, when something is “just a theory”, and when something is just a speculative hypothesis, and then needs to treat all of them in the appropriate way, from scientists themselves to those who philosophically want to use science to justify all truth claims to the media that reports on science. Without that, people will point to its failures as an indication that it is generally unreliable … and it definitely isn’t.