Archive for February, 2017

Scotties Tournament of Hearts

February 28, 2017

Those of you who read my blog and who watch curling — well, there could be someone who does that [grin] — might have been wondering why after commenting a lot on women’s curling I’ve made no mention at all of the Scott Tournament of Hearts, the Canadian Women’s Championships. Well, the reason is that I pretty much spent the week watching it — I only managed to watch Sunday’s final yesterday afternoon — and that distracted me from commenting on it … which I’m going to rectify today.

One of the first things to note — which, I suppose, I have to expect from such a tournament — is that despite my watching the Grand Slam of Curling the entire season I didn’t recognize most of the names there. Obviously, I knew Rachel Homan, but other than Michelle Englot most of the others I hadn’t seem during the season. Val Sweeting didn’t make it out of Alberta, and Jennifer Jones didn’t make it out of Manitoba. I knew the replacement Alberta team, but that was only from Scotties past, as it was Shannon Kleibrink skipping with Heather Nedohin (whom I first saw under her maiden name of Godberson) taking over as skip due to Kleibrink’s back problems. Now, the Grand Slam also takes in a lot of world teams, so it’s not all Canadian teams and not all Canadian teams make it there, but I wonder if this is a common thing. I haven’t had cable long enough to really tell.

Anyway, another interesting story that came out of it was the team from Nova Scotia. They had entered the provincial playdowns as essentially a warm up for the provincial Seniors playdowns … and ended up winning it. That was an entertaining story, but when they got off to a good start in, I think, winning their first game I started to wonder if this would be very bad for the women’s game. If a Seniors team could come in and be very successful against the best women’s teams, that didn’t say much for the development of the women’s game. Sure, experience matters, but surely physical ability — at least with sweeping — would have to matter, right? As it turns out, it ended up not being a problem because Nova Scotia only ended up winning one more game the entire tournament. But it could have been a bit embarrassing for women’s curling.

In the end, it ended up being a very young skip — Rachel Homan looking to be the youngest person to win three Canadian Championshps — versus the elder Englot at 53 (but she at least had a young team behind her). After Englot had been the only team that beat Homan throughout the tournament — and beat her once on Tour — it didn’t look that great for Homan, but she managed to squeak out a win in an extra end. I think the issue was that both Homan and Englot are very aggressive players, and so Englot wasn’t playing defense as much as Homan’s usual opponents were, so Homan didn’t have that advantage. Also, Englot was known for draws and draws are more offensive minded shots than hits are; hits tend to remove rocks and so work really well on defense. Well-placed draws, however, protect your current shots or give you the advantage, and most importantly leave rocks in play, which is important when you’re playing offense. So what we had were two offensively minded teams battling it out with each other but with Englot’s natural tendencies giving her a slight advantage. Homan saw hits that no one else would see, but hits aren’t always the best offensive tactics.

I also noted an interesting comment about Homan, which is that she played more like a men’s team. Which, I suppose, should bother me. However, what I noticed was that even though she does play the upweight shots, she usually doesn’t “blast”, which is throwing rocks really hard at frozen in rocks and hoping everything will go. She has to hit the rocks hard, but more importantly she has to hit them just right to make doubles and triples. So, she’s often making big hits to score points, but not often just blasting to get out of trouble like you see in the men’s game.

And on one final note, Amy Nixon played in what she says was her last Scotties game, thirding for Team Canada who ended up winning the bronze. She’s another player that I remember from my early days watching curling.

I won’t be able to watch much of the Women’s Worlds, and won’t watch the Briar, so there won’t be much more curling commentary until April.

Ghostbusters 2016: Only now at the end do we understand …

February 27, 2017

So, we’re almost seven months past the, uh, “event” that was Ghostbusters 2016, and all of the attendant drama tying in pretty much every pop culture debate around sex and race that we’ve had for the past few years. There were comments that the movie was terrible, that the movie was great, that the movie would flop, that the movie would soar and revitalize the franchise, and so on and so forth. So, with enough history behind us to judge, let’s look at how it did:

Ghostbusters grossed $128.3 million in North America and $100.8 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $229.1 million.[3] With a production budget of $144 million, as well as a large amount spent on marketing, the studio stated that the film would need to gross at least $300 million to break even.[74] Before the release, director Paul Feig stated “A movie like this has to at least get to like $500 million worldwide, and that’s probably low.”[75] The Hollywood Reporter estimated the film’s financial losses would be over $70 million.[74][76][77] A representative of Sony found this loss estimate to be “way off,” saying: “With multiple revenue streams […] the bottom line, even before co-financing, is not even remotely close to that number.”[74][76] According to Variety, sources familiar with the film’s financing estimate the total loss to be about $75 million, of which, due to co-financing with Village Roadshow, Sony would lose about $50 million.[78] Sony insiders have projected, along with co-financing, a total loss of about $25 million.[78] Bloomberg News estimated the film lost $58.6 million.[79] As of August 2016, sources such as Forbes and the Wall Street Journal had begun calling Ghostbusters a box office bomb.[7][80][81][82] The film’s performance contributed to Sony taking a $1 billion writedown in January 2017.[83]

Not all that well, it seems. There was originally talk about a sequel being guaranteed, and then that it was up in the air, and finally that there wouldn’t be one. Reviews, in general, were mixed. There was at least in general a sense that women reviewers rated it higher than male ones, which might still be the case. That being said, even the good reviews tended to praise the Social Justice elements and almost lament that the movie itself wasn’t that good, which might explain the gender gap: women who have always wanted to see themselves as Ghostbusters loved that part of it, while men who didn’t have that emotional connection just saw a lackluster movie. (And women who’ve always wanted to think of themselves as Ghostbusters should watch “The Real Ghostbusters” and associate with Janine).

So, for all of the discussions of it and all of the controversy … Ghostbusters 2016 turned out to be a disappointment both critically and financially. I think that the controversy hurt the financials, actually, because I know that after reading all of the debate I had no interest in seeing the movie, especially considering the defenses from the Social Justice side of how inclusive it was and how it seemed to pander to them, and while I am not a Gamergater I am clearly not them either. I imagine there are a number of people who on reading the defenses thought that it was going to be very Social Justice preachy and had no interest in going to a COMEDY of all things that was going to preach at them. That might not have been fair, but again, given what the defenders praised about it it doesn’t seem like it’s that unfair either.

At the end of the day, Feig at all and Sony went about this completely the wrong way. When they got potentially sexist push back, they embraced and fed it in, it seems, a way to generate publicity either for the Social Justice cause or for free attention and advertising. But all that that did was leave a bad taste in pretty much everyone’s mouths. Those solidly on the side of Social Justice would come out to see it anyway on defiant principle, and those on the Gamergate side would avoid it out of principle, but the people in-between — like me — would wonder why they’d even bother to go see something like that. The controversy wasn’t one of “I want to see that for myself” but instead of “Two sets of people who don’t think like I do screaming stupid things at each other”, which does not encourage people to get involved. It wasn’t the car crash, and it wasn’t the explicit sex scene. Instead, it was the author tract. Author tracts don’t get people into the seats to watch a movie.

Answering Carrier’s Premises

February 24, 2017

So, over the past few posts I’ve been using Richard Carrier’s views on objective morality as a framework, at least, for discussing objective morality and whether or not that can be linked to science in the way Carrier — and others, like Sam Harris — want to link it. However, I recall a comment on another blog a while ago that called out another philosopher for criticizing the view without dealing with the fleshed out example of the premises that Carrier had given. And, in fact, had given here, in a defense of Sam Harris. So let me attempt to address that.

Carrier, at the end of the post, lists his premises and then asks us which of those premises we disagree with. The problem is that Carrier commits one of the two major mistakes that philosophical amateurs tend to make: start from premises that at least seem reasonable if not obviously true, but then try to carry the premises far further than they can reasonably go. Having true premises is a good start, but you can’t overreach from them to conclusions that you think obvious but that the premises don’t make obvious. Carrier’s big issue is that pretty much all of his premises are true in a sense, but not in a sense that really works to support his contentions.

So let’s start with the first premise:

1. Moral truth must be based on the truth.

Well, anyone who thinks that moral propositions don’t actually have truth values will immediately disagree with this, but I suppose Carrier can claim that they don’t believe in moral truth at all, and so it’s not relevant to his premise. We only need to be concerned with those who think that moral propositions have objective truth values. But even limited to that, we have some issues. Sure, it’s obvious that true statements must be based on true premises, but Carrier wants to push it further, as he says later:

In both cases (irrational and mal-informed decisions) a decision was made in violation of our first premise (“Moral truth must be based on the truth”) generalized to all domains (“Prudential truth must be based on the truth”).

So it looks like Carrier wants to base morality not just on moral facts, but also on non-moral facts, which is how he makes the link to science. The uncontroversial interpretation of this is that once we know what it means to be moral, then non-moral facts may come into play in determining what it means to be moral. So, for Utilitarianism, the overall happiness — which may depend on things like biological facts — will matter, which it won’t for, say, Kantianism or Stocism. But for all moral systems, what it is biologically possible for us to do will matter, because of the “Ought implies can” principle: we cannot make a normative statement about someone that demands they do something it is impossible for them to do. So, that non-moral facts may be relevant in determining what action to take is uncontroversial. But that doesn’t get Carrier very far at all. And to take it any further would make it potentially a very controversial statement, as we will see.

There’s also an issue where we can ask if moral truth does, in fact, depend on what is objectively and independently true, or if instead it depends on what the individual moral agent can reasonably know. We can see this best if we move from asking questions like “Is slavery moral?” and instead ask questions like “Did that person act immorally in that instance?”. If someone is trying to act morally and reasonably believes that the action they are taking is moral, then can we say that their action is really immoral? Especially if that action is based on the best information that they can reasonably be expected to have?

We can make a reasonable — if still somewhat controversial — comment about missing moral facts, by insisting that we can’t call their action moral — because it is based on incorrect moral facts — but can’t call it immoral either — because the intent is moral — and so can call it amoral: right moral intention, wrong moral facts, overall amoral. But of course we’d still consider that sort of amorality better than an amorality based on a complete lack of concern for morality. That doesn’t seem to work as well, though, when the facts are non-moral. Imagine a case where someone has agreed to turn the heat on in someone’s house to keep the pipes from freezing. Unbeknownst to them, a serial killer has arranged their latest victim so that when the heat is turned on they will be suffocated. The person goes in, turns the heat on … and kills that person. Did they do something morally wrong? Amoral? Or morally right?

The person was acting on what we would have to consider to be a moral obligation: to fulfill their promise. Based on the best information we could expect them to have, there were no other considerations that they needed to consider. If they had known that the person would be killed by that and ignored it, then at best their action would be considered amoral — unconcerned with morality — and likely we would consider it immoral. And if they had known that a serial killer was committing murders like that it might be reasonable to claim that they were morally obligated to check. But in this case none of that seems reasonable.

The reason for this is that we run, again, into “Ought implies can”. We can only act on the beliefs that we actually have, not on the beliefs that we ought to have. For moral facts, it is reasonable to say that we can’t be said to be acting morally if we are acting on moral falsehoods — even if it would be unreasonable to believe that we could know otherwise — but for non-moral facts that doesn’t seem to be the case. And it seems to me that Carrier, in order to make the link to science that he wants to make, needs to make non-moral facts more important than that, and more determinate, arguing that if we are wrong about the non-moral facts about what, say, satisfies us then we can’t be acting morally.

To be fair, Carrier does see the issue:

(There is the question at this point of impossible knowledge or knowledge one cannot reasonably have obtained, but when we accept that all imperatives, even moral imperatives, are situational, this problem dissolves–I explain what it dissolves into in my chapter on Moral Facts).

The problem is that accepting that moral imperatives are situational doesn’t seem to solve the problem. I accepted that they were situational above, and then still noted that we have a bit of a controversy here over what to consider actions that are based on mal-informed non-moral facts. I don’t seem to have the work that has that chapter, but to me either Carrier has to accept that the actions are still moral in the case I described or that they are not moral (either amoral or immoral). If he accepts the latter, then he risks violating “Ought implies can”. If he accepts the former, then I’m not sure the non-moral facts can ever rise to the level he needs them to to make science.

So, in conclusion, this gets us as far as the rather trivial and obvious statement that morally true statements must, in fact, be true. Uncontroversial, but hardly something that we can use to do any hard work later.

The second premise:

2. The moral is that which you ought to do above all else.

At first blush, this does seem obviously true. However, Carrier makes this definitional, in short saying that the moral is defined by whatever it is that you ought to do most. But the sense in which I take this is that if one is to be a moral agent, what one ought to do most is that which is moral. Carrier wants to start from some kind of objective interpretation of what we ought to do above all else and then say that achieving that is what it means to be moral. I would, on the other hand, that the obviously true way to interpret this premise is that as a moral agent what I ought to do above all else is defined by what is moral. So, in terms of practice, what Carrier wants to do here is figure out what we ought to do above all else, and then relate morality to that, while I want to do is figure out what it means to be moral and then insist that as a moral agent that is what we ought to do more than anything else. As such, Carrier’s argument isn’t, in fact, a tautology:

It is a tautology (as all definitions are), but is valuable and meaningful precisely because of that. If you mean by “moral” something other than this, then you are wasting everyone’s time talking about nothing of any importance. Because if you mean something else by “moral,” I will have this other thing, this thing which you really ought to do above all else, which means above your thing, too, whatever it is. So I will have something even more imperative than yours, and if mine is factually true (it really is that which you ought to do above all else), yours cannot be (it cannot be that which we ought to do…because I can prove we ought to do something else instead).

The tautology gets busted by my pointing out that my interpretation is not, in fact, necessarily conceptually false. If I insist that as a moral agent what we ought to do is be moral above everything else, as I have already pointed out Carrier’s definition becomes viciously circular. Since my interpretation is a conceptually valid — if possible incorrect — idea of what we ought to do above all else, Carrier’s definition here falters. Thus, he’ll need an argument to establish that we can move from whatever it is that Carrier thinks we most ought to do above all else to that being what it means to be moral. It is, in fact, conceptually possible for it to end up that what it ought most to do is, in fact, not act morally. We couldn’t call ourselves moral for doing that, but it might in fact turn out to be the case.

In short, Carrier doesn’t seem to be using this premise in the way that most people would use it when they consider it self-evidently true. So, then, I clearly disagree with this premise as Carrier interprets it.

Third premise:

3. All imperatives (all ‘ought’ statements) are hypothetical imperatives.

I have read — and should comment on at some point — the view of Foote’s that Carrier harps on here, and admit that I haven’t dug into the Kant to the level I probably should to answer this question. However, carrying on from the above premise, my argument here is that if Carrier and Foote mean a hypothetical in the sense of “If you want to be a surgeon, do X”, and more relevantly “If you want to be moral, do X” then I agree. However, I would then claim that the work in determining what is moral — and what most of the moral theories are trying to do — is fill in what that X is. For Utiltiarians, it translates to “If you want to be moral, maximize utility”. For Virtue Theorists, it translates to “If you want to be moral, act virtuously”. For Kantians, it might be “If you want to be moral, act according to duty”. How each of these shake out depends on the moral theory in terms of the details, but the important thing to note is that if there is a hypothetical structure here, it’s only the first part, the part that the moral theories aren’t attempting to address. And this is true even if we take Carrier’s formulation, because it translates to “If you want to be moral, do whatever it is that you ought most of to above all else”. I don’t see room to insert hypothetical imperatives into the second part of the if, and in clashes with other moral theories that’s where Foote’s “hypothetical imperatives” would have to be to matter. I even suspect that Kant’s categorical imperatives can fit into that second part of the if. So, at best, Carrier and Foote might get to the point of saying that all imperatives can only be applied to a specific context or concept or domain. This is fine, as far as it goes, but isn’t as strong as Carrier portrays it. It’s certainly not a “fourth way” in philosophy, as Carrier insists it is.

Fourth premise:

4. All human decisions are made in the hopes of being as satisfied with one’s life as one can be in the circumstances they find themselves in.

Let’s grant this, despite it being absolutely meaningless without having an idea of what “satisfied” actually means (if it means pure physical pleasure, then it is clearly false, for example). Let’s take it the way Carrier seems to me mean it, in a very general sense of at best having a sense of satisfaction. The problem we run into here is that there are two ways to have that sense of satisfaction. The first is by actually satisfying our desires. The second is by conditioning our desires so that we only have the desires that we have satisfied. So, if let’s imagine that someone has a desire to play baseball in the Major Leagues that is unfulfilled. As the desire is unfulfilled, then they wouldn’t be at least ideally satisfied with their life. They can thus increase their satisfaction by making it to the Major Leagues. However, they can also increase their satisfaction by giving up the desire to make it to the Major Leagues. Carrier ignores the second option for the most part. Sure, he will later argue loosely for something like that when he argues about rationality and irrationality and being mal-informed, but my counter would be that he simply doesn’t consider how strong our ability to condition our satisfaction really is.

Because of this, we are in the same situation here as we were above when it came to “ought to do above all else”: with completely reversed interpretations. Carrier will use this to argue that we should be satisfying our desires, and doing that is what is moral. I counter that what we should be doing is figuring out what is moral, and then conditioning our desires so that we are satisfied when we act morally. But the evidence for my position is that someone can indeed desire to do things that we would generally consider to be immoral, and so couldn’t be satisfied with their lives unless they could do that as we saw with the Belkar example last time. Carrier would be forced into trying to argue why Belkar’s desires are themselves self-defeating or prevent him from achieving something that Belkar really does want more in order to make this case. However, Belkar’s can make his entire system non-contradictory by relating everything to wanting to, say, stay alive longer to be able to kill more, and so on. Because Carrier’s argument defines morality only by what the agent does or rationally would want and not as an independent concept, he has no way to say that Belkar’s desires or actions are immoral.

This, I think, highlights the main issue with Carrier’s presentation here: he defines morality — or, at least, acting moral — as only having instrumental value, while I consider morality to have intrinsic value. Starting from the second premise, he would claim that morality is only valuable if it leads you to achieve what you ought most to do, which here he defines as being to achieve a satisfying life. I, other hand, claim that morality has value in and of itself and not merely to achieve some other, non-moral end. And it is here, then, that I — and a number of other moral theories — and Carrier irreconcilably part ways.

Fifth premise:

5. What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover.

This is true if we take satisfaction as merely being what the person does want, in the first sense noted above. In the second sense, where we are in fact looking at what the person ought to be satisfied with and ought to condition themselves to want given what it means to be moral, this is clearly false. Or at least false in the sense Carrier wants it to be true.

Sixth premise:

6. There are many fundamentals of our biology, neurology, psychology, and environment that are the same for all human beings.

Sure, and this can be relevant to determining the morality of a specific action, given a specific concept of morality. But once the fundamental divide outlined above is discovered, it is irrelevant to the discussion, because none of that will determine if a) there is an independent concept of morality that we can appeal to to determine what we, as moral agents, ought to value most of all and b) if morality has intrinsic value or only instrumental value.

In conclusion:

Hence I do not believe anyone can make a valid argument against it.

Here’s the short form of my valid argument: Morality cannot be something that only has instrumental value if we are to be proper moral agents. Morality, as a concept, includes having intrinsic value. We may choose not to value morality, but that does not mean that morality, in and of itself, doesn’t have intrinsic value that we could and as moral agents ought to value. Thus, instead of using morality merely as a means to achieve life satisfaction, we instead ought to condition ourselves to be satisfied with whatever acting moral will give to us. At a minimum, Carrier’s premises are not necessarily true and, even if they were, his conclusion doesn’t follow from them. Can science deal with this? Maybe — I’m skeptical — but it is certainly the case that his views of how to use science to don’t work if I’m right. And I definitely think I’m right.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: I Just Reject One More God Than You

February 22, 2017

So, in two separate posts, Seidensticker takes on Bannister’s criticism of the “I just reject one more god than you” argument. Seidensticker characterizes it thusly:

In today’s episode, Fred is furious because something destroyed his garden. He’s considering and dismissing possible culprits—from aardvarks to zebras—while our hero points out the clues for rabbits. Fred says that it’s not rabbits, either. You’ve dismissed all those other animals? Well, he just goes one animal further.

This is obviously supposed to mimic the atheist argument used by Richard Dawkins and others that the Christian rejects hundreds or thousands of gods; why not just one god further like the atheist?

Bannister generalizes the argument: never pick something out of a collection because it leaves you open to the challenge, “Hold on! You rejected all these other ones, so why not just go one further and reject them all?”

Seidensticker tries to argue that the analogies aren’t, in fact, relevant because there’s a critical difference:

It goes too far only when you force it there. Sometimes “None of the above” is an option and sometimes not. You can suggest that a Christian believe in zero gods, but you can’t tell a vegan to adopt zero dietary regimes (they have to eat something).

Let’s return to Fred’s poor garden, ravaged the previous night by some kind of animal. The constant fight of gardeners against animals that eat their crops is well understood. You know that something trashed Fred’s garden, so “this had zero causes” isn’t an option.

And we’re supposed to see this as analogous to the religion case? Compare many animals with the many religions. We know that all these animals exist. In sharp contrast, most religions must be false and they might all be. There are one or more causes of Fred’s damaged garden, while there could be zero or more gods that actually exist. “Zero” is absolutely not an answer in the garden case, while it is a very live option in the religion case.

Why is he presuming that in the examples “None of the above” isn’t a live option? After all, imagine that Fred really believes that it was an animal that trashed the garden, and the person who is arguing with him insists that it was just natural. This would be pretty much identical to Dawkins’ argument, but we can clearly see that this would fall into the exact problem Bannister criticizes: sure, “None of the above” might be a live option, but that doesn’t mean that the person argument for it can dismiss a particular competing theory just because other similar theories were discarded.

But all of this is actually irrelevant because it in no way defends the argument as an argument. If Bannister is right that the argument depends on saying that one cannot pick any one thing out of a collection without being held to have explicitly rejected all others — presumably, even if the evidence for each thing is different — then it’s an invalid and, well, rather stupid argument. However, the general approach to it as an argument is really something like this: You rejected all of those other gods because you feel that the evidence for them is insufficient, but there is no more evidence for your god than theirs, therefore for epistemic consistency you should reject your god, too. This, at least, is an argument that might work.

Unfortunately, it fails because it presumes that most people have examined the evidence for all of the other gods and on that basis alone rejected them. This is, in general, not the case for most theists. Instead, most of them have come to the belief in a particular god in some way and then reject the others because there isn’t enough evidence to overturn the belief they already have. Thus, epistemically they can accept that their belief is no more evidenced than any of the alternatives — even “None of the above” — and still maintain that they’re sticking with what they’ve got until they get sufficient evidence one way or the other without any contradiction. There is, of course, an important difference between things you already believe — and thus are integrated into your Web of Belief — and new propositions that you are considering. This argument ignores all of that to try to insist that believers be consistent with reasons that they, in fact, aren’t actually using.

Seidensticker’s arguments don’t get any better when he tries to dismiss the idea that Christianity is different and so you can’t reject it on the same standards as other religions:

All religions have the same Achilles Heel—supernatural belief. If that single foundational assumption is wrong, then they’re all wrong—all equally wrong and all in the same way. Only if the supernatural does indeed exist are the differences interesting and worth comparing. Without the supernatural, those differences are trivia, and Bannister does nothing to argue for the existence of the supernatural.

Sure, if that’s wrong, then all religions are wrong. But religious believers don’t accept that naturalistic assumption, and so don’t reject the other religions because those insist on talking about things that are “supernatural”. Seidensticker is fine to argue that for him he rejects them all on the basis of supernatural beliefs, but that doesn’t even apply to me — who merely rejects naturalism as a worldview but does not necessarily think that implies that there really supernatural things in existence — let alone to those who actively believe in the supernatural as an existent category. Again, this is not how religious believers reason about religions, so it’s not something he can use against religious believers to show that they have an inconsistency.

Finally, he takes on another of Bannister’s arguments with a comment about invented gods:

So then make up a new character and call him the Creator. Make him outside. Now Yahweh has a competitor.

You don’t like that he was just invented? All right, then revisit this character after 2000 years has passed so that the origins of this tale are clouded and it has become legend and mythology. That’s Christianity’s advantage—not that it’s correct but that it’s venerable and uncheckable.

Sure … but that advantage is significant when it comes to the argument. If I reject the Flying Spaghetti Monster because I know that it was merely invented, but don’t know that the Christian God was merely invented due to the time lapse, you can’t argue that I ought to reject the Christian God by asserting that the Christian God was invented, too. Even bringing up the possibility that the Christian God might have been invented doesn’t, in fact, make that rise to the level of knowledge, which is what I have for those other invented gods. Again, there is no reason for me to reject the Christian God — or any god that I don’t know was invented — on the basis that I know of some other gods that were explicitly invented. Yes, I know that about them. What does that have to do with the God I do believe in and don’t know was invented?

Ultimately, this argument assumes that the reason that the believer rejects the existence of the other gods is similar to the reason the atheist all of them, which is likely false. It’s a rather poor way to get theists to understand atheism, and doesn’t work as an argument, Seidensticker’s “defenses” notwithstanding.

Star Trek Memories

February 20, 2017

So, I ended up exchanging all of my Hugo Award nominee books for, essentially, the “Star Trek Memories” books by William Shatner. I enjoyed the Star Trek books far, far more than the Hugo Award nominees.

I found the second book — which discussed the Star Trek movies — to be far more engaging than the one covering the series for some reason. However, both of them were quite entertaining reads. Shatner mixes the memories parts with a number of jokes, and often jokes at his own expense. It’s hard to say how arrogant and self-centered he really was on the show, because Shatner admits to it in discussing Nichelle Nichols’ calling him out on it, but from his own recollections he denies that it was an intent to grab the limelight and more an attempt to push for the scene to be done in a way that he thought made sense, which he says that Leonard Nimoy was also pretty insistent on. He admits, though, that often those comments didn’t take into account the other actors and their positions. Which is also a bit refreshing, as Shatner doesn’t spend as much time as you might expect justifying himself and claiming that he didn’t really do or act like that; he essentially cops to it and his big defense is that he didn’t mean it the way it was taken. He’s also pretty effusive in his comments that Nichols, Koenig and Takei, for all of the problems they had with him — only Nichols and Koenig actually told him about that in their interviews — are very, very nice people … at least in part because they were generally at least polite in telling him what they were unhappy about (and Takei didn’t mention it in the interview for that book).

Shatner was also upset that Doohan didn’t even meet with him for the book.

On Star Trek V, the one that he helmed, Shatner isn’t as dismissive of the issues with the movie nor does he blame as much of the movie on the suits as I had expected from watching SF Debris’ comments on it. Yes, he laments the thin budget and that he couldn’t do what he wanted, but for the most part he recognizes changes that made sense and his discussion of how the movie could have turned out with his original idea isn’t entirely implausible. I don’t know if his idea could have worked — the explicit God/Satan angle — but from what he says and from my own viewing of the movie his ideas weren’t terrible. I think that Nimoy and Kelley were right that them abandoning him — at least permanently — didn’t make sense, but I can kinda see what he was going for. At any rate, he blames most of the issues on the various disasters, and less on, merely, the interference from the executives. And he seems rightly bothered by Bennett seemingly accepting the ideas in the hopes of talking him out of them later.

Overall, it’s an interesting read if you are in any way a fan of Star Trek.

Discussion of Objective Morality: Moral Criticism

February 17, 2017

Carrier does attempt in his post to address moral criticism. He starts by trying to go after the facts/value distinction, but I don’t want to focus on that right now. What I want to focus on first is the idea that we can criticize someone’s values:

It can be objectively true that you ought to value certain things, when your valuing other things instead is self-defeating—because valuing things causes you to pursue them, and pursuing them might undermine things you value more. You may not know or believe that you ought to value those things, yet it remains true that you should—because you just haven’t realized how your valuing other things instead leads you to destroy the things you value even more, rather than upholding them. And once you realized that, you would agree your values were wrong, even by your own standards. So that you ought to value certain things is also an objectively true fact about you. It follows from what you value most, and how your other values either serve or thwart what you value most.

So, of course, no one in the debate — at least no one informed — disputes that. Given some kind of objective or base value or desire, we can determine what desires one ought to have if one wants to achieve that, and if someone doesn’t have those values or desires we can say that they ought to have those values or desires. The problem is that we need some kind of objective value here, and particularly one that can be said to be uniquely moral. We don’t want to appeal to a non-moral value — pragmatics, for example — to justify moral values, because then we’d have the question of why it is that those non-moral values can justify a moral claim or value. Aren’t we really just valuing that non-moral value, and using morality as an instrumental value to achieve that one? What’s particularly moral, then, about doing that? Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that morality in and of itself, to be meaningful, has to be an intrinsic value, one that we value not because it will allow us to achieve something that we value more than it, but because it is desirable in and of itself for its own sake. Given Carrier’s penchant for defining morality as trying to satisfy that which we value most above all — which then has to be an intrinsic value by definition — I can argue that being properly moral is to, in fact, value the intrinsic value of being moral more than anything else. If Carrier’s definition is correct, then, that would mean that if I value that most above all then there’s a vicious and unresolvable circle: I value being moral most, which means that morality is about trying to be moral, as that’s what I value most. At that point, I’d be stuck. But it’s hard to argue that someone could value something else more than being moral and yet be a more moral person than someone who didn’t. This suggests to me that simply judging what is moral by what someone most wants — as Carrier does in the post — is not a good way to go.

But there are other issues with values in Carrier’s post. Take his example:

Suppose you prioritize making money, and do so because you value money above all else. That you should do that, and value that, can still be false. Because even if you say it, even if you believe it, it isn’t actually true about you that you value money above all else. Because that’s impossible. If you thought about it, money actually has no value to you, except in respect to what you get with it. In other words, you only value money because you value something else more. If you could get all those things, the things you actually value most, without money—or worse, if money actually caused you to lose them, and thus not gain those things—then you would no longer value money.

Carrier isn’t clear whether he means that in that specific case it would be but that it’s not impossible for anyone anywhere to have a consistent value system where they value money above all else, or that he really thinks it’s just impossible for anyone to do that, so I’m going to argue that it’s possible for someone to have that as what they value most above all else. Carrier here is arguing that money is just an instrumental value; people only value it for what it can get them, but it is possible for someone to value making money or having money above all else and not, in fact, be willing to sacrifice money to get those things, or put making money ahead of getting some of those things. Now, most people would then try to argue that they have to value some things above money — their lives, for example — because they spend money to get them. The problem is that they can reply that what they really value is making more money, and they can’t do that if they’re not alive and don’t have shelter. So they spend as little money as possible, and all of the money they spend is calculated to provide the things they need to make more money. This might even include status symbols because it is easier for them to make more money if they present an image of someone who makes and is good at making money. So it is in fact possible for them to have a consistent view where the thing they value most is money.

Now, we’d generally try to argue that they’re wrong about that. The problem is that we may not have grounds to do so. Carrier himself advocates for the idea that we can only criticize them by appealing to what they actually value:

And yet, the question of whether money gets you the things you want most, or actually in fact gets you less of those things than other approaches to them, is an empirical question that can be answered scientifically. Thus, science can in fact tell you it is empirically false that you should value money above all else. And it would do so by simply pointing you to actual empirical facts about you (and, of course, the world) that reveal the pursuit of money is harming rather than helping you gain the things you actually value. And indeed, this is often what goes on in cognitive therapy: a scientist empirically ascertains what you actually value most, and then shows you, empirically, that your priorities are undermining your own values, and helps you adjust your priorities so that they align with your actual values.

So, first, the scientific approach works by criticizing your values, and not by arguing that, for example, money is indeed something that does not have intrinsic value but instead only has instrumental value. The scientist can only argue that you don’t really value that most, not that you ought not value that the most. And Carrier carries on with this when it comes to morality:

What you actually value most at any given moment is an objective fact of the universe in exactly the same sense that your brain and its structure is an objective fact of the universe—because the one is entirely reducible to the latter without remainder. But moral facts do not follow from what you just happen to value most at any moment, because you could be wrong about what you should value at that moment. And I don’t mean wrong by some objective standard external to you. I mean wrong even by your own subjective internal standard. Because there is also an objective fact of the world about what you would value most when fully informed and reasoning without fallacy.

For example, a fully informed and rational observer would have to agree that the moral facts that are true for you really are the moral facts that are true for you, even if they aren’t the moral facts that are true for them. In other words, the observer would have no basis for criticizing your morality based on what was true for them, as long as you were following the morality that was indeed true for you. But they could criticize your morality based on what’s true for you. And that is indeed where most people go wrong—for instance, they might fully agree the Golden Rule is true, then invent a moral system that routinely violates it (like condemning abortion or homosexuality). Even if the Golden Rule were only true for you, an outside observer (like some sociopathic space alien who had no reason to value the Golden Rule) could still validly criticize your condemnation of homosexuality as violating your own objectively true moral values.

And that’s how all actual moral criticism operates. We always criticize either of those two things: we either argue that a moral agent has the wrong idea about what the consequences of an action are (“permitting homosexuality will destroy society”), which is a straightforward matter of fact accessed empirically, or we argue that a moral agent is acting against their own values (“the Golden Rule entails treating homosexuals the same as heterosexuals”).

But this is not, in general, what moral criticism is about. We generally don’t start by appealing to their values and limiting it to what’s true for their internal moral viewpoint, but instead by appealing to what we presume are the moral absolutes. It’s only when we discover that they don’t hold those moral absolutes and are going to stick to them that we fall back on things like pragmatism and appeal to the beliefs and values that they clearly have to try to get them to stop doing the things that we think are immoral. But we wouldn’t normally conclude that if they accept this reasoning that that makes them a moral person. If someone wanted to kill someone for fun, for example, and they dismissed any suggestion that killing someone for fun is immoral, but were convinced that if they do that they’ll go to jail which would be bad for them, we wouldn’t conclude that they are now moral paragons or even made a moral choice there. We’d still consider them to have a badly flawed sense of morality that we’re trying to work around to avoid people getting hurt by it. As in this Order of the Stick comic, where Belkar saves Hinjo’s life because he isn’t sure that he can get his Mark of Justice removed without Hinjo, and the Mark of Justice stops him from killing other people. The second shoulder devil even comments that saving one life is a small price to pay for a lifetime of unfettered killing. No one would conclude that Belkar’s choice was, in fact, moral … and, in fact, the title of the strip is “Amoral Dilemma”. But Carrier’s view of what moral criticism is really about seems to argue that that’s really what we’d conclude.

And we can see why. Belkar’s moral system is roughly consistent — especially since he subordinates killing others to keeping himself alive — and yet is totally heinous. Arguably, it’s more consistent than the heroes in the strip because he just likes killing, whether they are evil or not, but the other heroes think it more justified to kill evil people than good people. There is no way to argue Belkar out of his heinous viewpoints by arguing that they are inconsistent, since they aren’t. Belkar can only be controlled by appealing to those heinously immoral viewpoints … and Carrier’s view insists that that is all we do and can ever do.

There’s a second issue, which is that proving an inconsistency may, in fact, not get you the results you wanted. Take the “Golden Rule” example. Let’s imagine that someone considers, say, abortion immoral and yet is convinced by Carrier that doing so is inconsistent with the Golden Rule, which they hold as their standard for morality. Clearly, Carrier wants them to thus re-evaluate their view on abortion and conclude that it therefore isn’t immoral. Unfortunately, there’s another option: they could decide that this therefore means that the Golden Rule does not reflect what is properly moral and abandon it in favour of a moral system that does consider abortion immoral. Without an objective standard, there’s nothing for Carrier to appeal to to stop them from doing that, which is where the worries about people simply making up what is moral come from.

So, without an objective standard, we can’t call Belkar evil and we can’t stop someone from abandoning the Golden Rule to preserve their idea that abortion is morally wrong. If this is all moral criticism is, then it hardly seems worth doing, as we have no way to justify the stronger criticisms that we want to make and really need to make at times. Carrier here seems to be making the mistake that so many make by arguing that morals are relative and yet subconsciously assuming that people will roughly hold the moral values that they think are the right or reasonable ones regardless, and from there assuming that they will be able to criticize people in some way — here, Carrier seems to want to be able to call them “irrational” for holding inconsistent beliefs — if they disagree with them. But there is no reason to think that Carrier’s views are more consistent than anyone else’s, and it might even be the case that people who disagree with him have a more consistent position than he does. This would leave him floundering to justify the moral facts that he wants them to accept, rendering either his own views as flawed if not more so than theirs or making moral criticism as pointless as criticizing someone for preferring rock to jazz. It does not seem reasonable to conclude that someone who, say, wants to kill people has just as valid a position as anyone else as long they are consistent and rational about killing other people, but that is where subjectivism and relativism — and the rejection of objective morality — always lead.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: Atheism Isn’t a Claim

February 15, 2017

So, the next set of arguments that Seidensticker takes up revolve around the idea that atheism isn’t a claim, and that theists therefore have the burden of proof. He points out what he claims is an asymmetry in the arguments that Bannister misses:

But I shouldn’t have to since I’m not making the extraordinary claim—that’s the asymmetry that Bannister ignores. In the case of an extraordinary claim (and “There is a god” is certainly one), the default position is the denial of that claim: “There is a god” vs. “there isn’t.”

The first thing to talk about here is to ask if it’s really the case that “There exists a god” counts as an “extraordinary” claim. The big problem with the whole “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” sound byte is that how reasonable that proposition is depends on what you mean by extraordinary, and potentially on avoiding equivocation between the two uses of the word. So, in order to conclude that “There exists a god” is an extraordinary claim, we need to understand in what sense “extraordinary” is used here, and once we do that we’ll be able to note if that sort of extraordinary is one that we should care about.

Now, let me start not by really examining possibilities for what “extraordinary” might mean, but instead by talking about the specific belief in god itself. The vast majority of people believe that some kind of god exists; atheism is, in fact, a minority position. If we wanted to consider naturalism itself, the percentage of people believing some sort of supernatural proposition — including ghosts, ancestor spirits, astrology, reincarnation, and so on — is even higher. So let me ask this: is it really reasonable to say that a belief that most people hold is in fact the extraordinary one, and that the belief that most people don’t believe is the one that is “mundane”, as Seidensticker puts it later? By the common meaning of the terms “extraordinary” and “mundane”, the belief that a god exists and the belief that at least one supernatural proposition is true are, in fact, mundane; they are common beliefs and ones that most people hold. So from the start we have reason to suspect that Seidensticker is using a very specific and specialized definition of “extraordinary” here to make his case.

Typically, atheists try to define “extraordinary” as “violating the laws of nature”. But from the above comment we can see that most people hold that natural laws can be violated by supernatural things and processes, and that at least one of those things does, in fact, exist. Thus, the atheist appealing to naturalism here is them appealing to what they are supposed to establish. If I’m not a naturalist — and, again, most people aren’t naturalists — why should I accept that a claim being supernatural in and of itself makes it extraordinary? It is unreasonable for atheists to appeal to a definition of “extraordinary” that requires me to accept a position they hold and I don’t.

Now, a lot of atheists will turn to science to help them out here, as science is naturalistic and discovers the natural laws, and so anything that violates — or seems to violate — current scientific knowledge would count as “extraordinary”. While this does fit well into our general trust of science, the problem with this approach is that the conclusions of science are not accepted because they are therefore not extraordinary. We trust scientific conclusions because we believe that science, in general, can and will provide the extraordinary evidence for any claim it accepts. Thus, if someone wants to challenge a scientific consensus, one would generally not try to demonstrate that the claim is extraordinary in and of itself, but simply go right for the jugular and claim that the evidence is, itself, not extraordinary enough to justify the proposition. So there is no reason to think that just because a proposition violates scientific consensus that it is therefore “extraordinary”, and that certainly applies even more so to science’s naturalistic assumption, which it doesn’t have extraordinary evidence for since all it can say is that so far it can explain things without appealing to supernatural explanations, which is both the inductive fallacy and runs into the issue that being able to find a naturalistic explanation does not in and of itself mean that the naturalistic explanation is the best one.

The final way I’ll consider here is to define it as not being part of common experience. Most people don’t experience gods, miracles or other supernatural things every day, so that would make them “extraordinary”. The problem is that we consider a number of uncommon experiences perfectly mundane all the time. So it’s not that we don’t experience it commonly that matters, but how much it clashes with what we currently believe that matters … which, then, cycles back to the original point that since most people believe some sort of supernatural proposition, most people won’t consider a proposition extraordinary just because it is supernatural.

So, with “extraordinary claim” at least weakened, there’s another issue with Seidensticker’s claim here: why is the default denial? As Seidensticker himself puts it, the idea is that if the theist can’t prove their claim, then the default reasonable position is “There are no gods”. Essentially, Seidensticker here presumes that we can only have two states wrt beliefs, either believing the proposition true or believing it false, and if we can’t prove it sufficiently true then we have to accept that it is false. But there’s another option here, which is the “mere lack of belief” that atheists often use as the basis for claiming that they don’t have the burden of proof. In short, instead of saying that I think the proposition is true or that the proposition is false, I instead say that I have no idea and no opinion on it, and instead of treating the proposition as true or false I treat it as irrelevant: I have no idea whether or not it’s true, so I don’t act as if it is true or false. Thus, if I believe it true I act as if it is true, if I believe it false I act as if it is false, and if I simply lack belief I remove it from consideration and act according to the other beliefs that I have. Seidensticker rather pointedly ignores this possibility, despite it being the main justification for the claim that atheists don’t have the burden of proof.

And we can see what this insistence that denial is the default gets Seidensticker when he asks why Bannister cares so much:

And why is the Christian making a big deal about this? He’s characterizing the burden of proof as a burden. If he demands reciprocity before he will make his case, he’s missing an opportunity. Does he want me to earn the right to hear the Good News? Why not say that he will gladly make his case and simply hope that the atheist follows his lead?

I think it’s because his defense of Christianity is weak, and he wants to improve his overall argument by having something to attack as well.

First, the same charge could be made of Seidensticker as well, especially since he claims to follow the evidence. If he does, then presumably he has sufficient evidence for his belief that gods don’t exist. So why, then, is he defending the atheist not having the burden of proof? Surely any evidence-based atheist has more than enough evidence to meet any reasonable burden of proof, so then why do they avoid trying to meet it? Maybe they know that their evidence for atheism is weak, and they want to avoid ever having to give it.

What we can see is that this argument over the burden of proof is to avoid falling into the atheist trap. If we look at what Seidensticker is advocating, he’s holding an actual positive belief — there are no gods — and is insisting that if someone wants to challenge that they must prove him wrong. In short, they must prove that a god exists, and if they can’t, then the default position is Seidensticker’s. So the game is rigged in Seidensticker’s favour: if the theist can’t prove their case to Seidensticker’s satisfaction then Seidensticker wins, and the theist might have to accept that believe that that god doesn’t exist is the most reasonable and rational decision. This works well for atheists because it is much easier to argue against a proposition than in favour of one, and so Seidensticker takes a position where only overwhelming evidence will leave him without the ability to at least cast reasonable doubt on the position and thus win. And the atheist will never have to actually support their position or give any evidence.

Now, let’s look at Bannister’s view of active and passive beliefs. Seidensticker characterizes it this way:

I’m seeing three categories of beliefs:

A, beliefs that are true (Sweden exists)
B, beliefs that are false (Atlantis exists)
C, things you could have a belief about but don’t (Bannister’s example: whether there are hippos in the bathroom).

He wants to call A an active belief, ignore B and hope no one asks him about it, and call C a passive belief. I want to focus instead on A (true beliefs) and B (false beliefs) and ignore C, since we’re both in agreement that no one cares about C.

We’re talking about the burden of proof here. Talking about false beliefs seems irrelevant since a) the point of the discussion is to establish whether or not the beliefs are true and b) no one has the burden of proof for a belief that they believe is false. So an atheist who thinks that the belief “God exists” is false doesn’t have a burden of proof to prove that God exists. They can have a burden of proof for the belief that they think is true, which is “God does not exist”. Only the person who lacks belief, who is in category C, has no burden of proof, because you could believe it true or false, but you don’t believe either. This is the category that Seidensticker claims no one cares about. He might be right, but that’s the only category of even atheists that have no actual burden of proof.

I’m going to skip the “worldview/religion” debate because atheism is clearly an explicitly religious opinion and worldviews need justifications as well, so settling the debate over the specifics isn’t going to matter much. The heart of this post is that it is a bad argument to say that atheists aren’t making a claim if they are, in fact, making a claim, and a number of them — Seidensticker included — do make claims. The attempts to avoid that always end up self-serving for the atheists, giving them a way out that they refuse to allow for theists or anyone who disagrees with them. It does seem odd that a group that so insists on evidence-based reasoning is trying so hard to avoid having to ever give evidence for their claims.

Playboy …

February 14, 2017

So, about a year ago, Playboy decided to stop including pictures of nude women.

And now, they’ve gone back to posting nudes.

It turns out that people don’t really buy it just for the articles …

(To be fair, it seems they still put in pictures of attractive women, they just weren’t completely nude. Which then would have made them the equivalent of Maxim with a slightly more recognizable name. That … probably wasn’t going to work.)

It’s Tuesday again …

February 14, 2017

… just like it was five years ago.

I’ll be watching some Star Trek: TNG this time around …

Final Thoughts on Friday the 13th, The Series

February 13, 2017

So, after finishing Charmed, I went back to and finished Friday the 13th, The Series. And it’s interesting to watch it after watching Charmed, because they take a similar premise but explore it in different ways, with Charmed being much lighter and not having the depth in the supernatural explanations, but having much better production values and acting, while Friday the 13th has a better overall premise and in general a better grasp of the supernatural elements, but has in general fairly bad production values and acting. Chris Wiggins, who plays Jack Marshak, is generally good, but Robe, who plays Mickey, is uneven. The actor who plays Ryan is generally serviceable, and the actor who plays his replacement Johnny is okay, but mostly because he’s playing a stock character that isn’t that hard to do. The worst, though, tend to be the guest stars; some performances are good, but some are just awful. The scripts often seem awkward, as is the dialogue, but the backgrounds of the cursed objects tend to be interesting. It’s almost the anti-Charmed in a lot of ways: decent backstories for the supernatural elements, a focus on them rather than on the relationships between the leads, a very dark tone, but poor production values, dialogue, and acting.

The first two seasons are better than the third one, especially the last few episodes. Towards the end, you tended to get two types of episodes: episodes that were using the supernatural element as a framework to tell another type of story, and episodes the reveled in the evil and debauchery. As an example of the former, the episode “Jack-in-the-Box” focuses more on the mother and daughter dealing — badly — with their grief over the murder of the father, but most of it could have been done and has been done in standard dramatic series; the Jack-in-the-Box and the murders the little girl does with them are an aside to the story. For the latter, in the earlier seasons, there were more where the objects seemed to corrupt those who owned and used them, and more morally ambiguous cases, while in the later seasons for the most part those who used the items tended to be evil before getting it and just used it to fulfill their evil ends. Sure, that’s an important aspect of the show, but not to be focused on. And the last episode is about the Marquis de Sade, with Mickey writing about how charismatic he is, ramping up the focus on evil and what might well be called the prurient interest, which made the episodes less interesting to watch.

That being said, it’s was still an interesting show. I’d like to see it tried again with better production values, writing and acting, but I think it would end up more like the third season than like an improved version of the first. I might watch this series again.