Archive for February, 2020

Thoughts on my recent vacation

February 28, 2020

So I’ve taken what is now my annual vacation time to watch the Scotties, and I’ve found that it worked out pretty much the same way as last year, with the first week passing at a good pace but the second week simply flying by, and with me not getting anything done in the second week. Or, at least, none of the things that I wanted to get done in the second week done. This time, not only was the lack of routine responsible for the week flying by, but also the fact that I was looking ahead to the mid-week because of the warnings about a winter snowstorm and having to plan for that seemed to make things go faster. I could be wrong about that, but it does seem reasonable.

That being said, it wasn’t a total waste of time, because I got some other things done. In about November I had found — or rather rediscovered — a bowling alley that I had gone on a group outing to — with my work group — years ago and finally managed to make it out there to do some bowling. I enjoyed it and think that I will keep to my general plan of going there about once a month, weather and work permitting. I also managed to start modding a new Arkham Horror game. I’ve almost finished “Twin Peaks” which means that my initial list of TV shows to watch from my big planning session on New Year’s Day is almost complete, which is a good accomplishment and means that very soon I’m going to be moving on to a new basic list for both new shows and old shows, which is pretty nice. And I picked up Goff’s book and am almost finished reading it (I read about half of it yesterday which was the first day I had it). And that will also make my philosophical reading seem better. I also played Steins;Gate a little and now am getting into the game proper, which is nice if a bit slow. And finally, I also kept up posting on the blog with some longer posts than normal, which is also nice.

So, I didn’t get done what I wanted to get done, but I did get some things done. So, all-in-all, not a bad vacation.

Thoughts on “A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)”

February 27, 2020

So, at about the same time as I found the “Friday the 13th” remake, I also found the remake of the first “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. A quote from that post reflects my feelings about this movie before starting to watch it:

My biggest fear was that it would end up committing the same sins that most modern remakes do: trying to be too serious and/or artistic instead of capturing what was great about the series in the first place.

And the movie pretty much went that way, making Freddy much more menacing and much less fun. From reading around, it sounds like they were trying to do that to align better with what the original movie was supposed to be, but it doesn’t work all that well. What was best about the series was that while it was horror and could be scary, the villain was more taunting and through that really seemed to be enjoying causing that sort of mayhem, which also allowed for his attacks to be more creative and taunting than simply murderous. All of that was lost, especially since the actor playing Freddy this time has a more growly and mumbly which not only makes him less taunting but also makes him hard to even understand. Thus, all of the personality of the villain was lost, and that was one of the things that really made the original movies work. Here we have an uninspired and uninteresting villain that only leave the scares and the protagonist characters to hang the movie on. And a lot of those are copied from the original movie, making them seem less inspired or creative.

The movie contains a bait-and-switch heroine, with another one starting out as the main focus but it switching to Nancy when that character is killed. Nancy here is more of a goth girl who is a bit of a social outcast, which doesn’t really add much to the movie when compared to the more “girl-next-door” Nancy from the original. It really comes across as an attempt to be cool or subversive rather than as something that is either important to the character itself or that follows from the events that spawned Freddy (Nancy was stated to be his favourite, but since none of the characters remembered it there is no indication that her attitude came from what she experienced there). So there doesn’t seem to be much purpose to the change.

The movie raised an interesting idea, which is that Freddy was accused of hurting the children — likely molesting them — but that he didn’t really do it and was killed because the parents jumped the gun and coerced the children into lying about what happened, which then was behind his revenge spree on the children — now teens — because they lied about it. This seemed interesting at first, but before the movie even ended I realized why this wasn’t going to work. If this was true, then it completely changed the idea of Freddy as a horror villain. Sure, his revenge would certainly be disproportionate especially considering that the children would have been pushed into by their parents and wouldn’t have killed him themselves anyway. So Freddy would change to a villain that needed to be appeased or to have what happened acknowledged rather than a simple sadistic killer that needed to be killed, which would be difficult to pull off and would annoy fans of the original villain. On the other hand, if it turned out that that was a lie and he really was abusing the children then we’d need an explanation for why the false leads were planted, seemingly by him. That wasn’t going to work as a simple red herring, so it would have to either lead the protagonists into some kind of trap or have their defenses lowered, or else be used for some kind of torment. Again, making that false lead pay off in a satisfying way was going to be very difficult.

Ultimately, the movie went with it being a lie, and while that might have been a part of what encouraged the protagonists to seek out the place of the final confrontation, they would have done that anyway since he was trying to kill them and the information gathered there, at least, would be necessary to doing so. So it draws them to a place that they would have gone anyway. It doesn’t really make them come unprepared or weaken them, nor is it really used to taunt them. All that happens is that they find out that he really was abusing them and then the movie proceeds normally. Thus, it doesn’t pay off enough for the prominence it gets.

Also, an oddity about it is that we find out about the abuse from photos that Freddy had taken of the abuse. Or, rather, the two protagonists look at those photos and express shock at what’s in them, and we don’t get to see what was actually being done. Since it was to a young girl and likely involved molestation, I can understand why they might not want to show anything, but as part of a specific work it really dulls the effect for them to be looking at terrible things that we don’t get to see in a modern horror movie where people get killed in relatively gory ways. We’re probably not going to be that squeamish and it’s only going to raise the questions of what exactly was going on.

While the original series was actually pretty good, this one is pretty much uninspired in all ways. I don’t think I’ll watch this one again.


Jerry Coyne, Philip Goff, and Panpsychism

February 26, 2020

So, before leaving for his trip Jerry Coyne finished reading Philip Goff’s book on panpsychism. He starts his post for the second time with this:

I was suckered by the Courtier’s Reply of panpsychists like Philip Goff, and so have finished his popular (i.e., trade) book, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness.

This puzzled me both times, although it fits in with Coyne’s curmudgeonly approach to these things. The issue is that if Coyne is going to be even remotely honest with himself, he’s going to have to admit that he doesn’t really know (or at least didn’t really know) much about panpsychism. And yet he strongly criticized it. The Courtier’s Reply, if it has any validity at all, is not to be used in a situation where you can legitimately be criticized for not understanding what you’re criticizing. It only has use in cases where you do have at least a decent understanding of an issue and are being faced by people directing you to more and more esoteric examinations by saying that those are the real discussions. At some point, you are justified in saying that you don’t feel the need to examine each and every possible defense of the position, especially if your problems with it are fundamental. But Coyne had clearly not examined panpsychism in any detail before he criticized it. He might have been able to escape by arguing that it seems fishy to him and he isn’t interested in the topic, if only he hadn’t criticized it so strongly. I could make an excuse that panpsychism seems fishy to me and I don’t have the time to examine it, but that doesn’t really work for him especially, again, since he criticized it so strongly. And even if they worked, all that that would get us is to the point where the defenders of the position would have to give us a really good argument to make it seem worth our while to examine it. It wouldn’t allow us to conclude that there’s nothing in those defenses and that the position isn’t valid.

At any rate, after skimming Coyne’s comments on it, I have decided to pick up the book and read it to see what Goff is saying here. It is quite possible that it will arrive by the time this post gets posted (I’m a couple of days ahead), but I almost certainly won’t have finished it by then. The main reason is that while Coyne has posted some images from the book and talked about it, Jerry Coyne is indeed one of the people who has inspired my general policy of making sure that I read the source post any time I’m reading and/or about to comment on a post by someone else, along with P.Z. Myers. While Myers has a strong tendency to completely misread most of the things he comments on, Coyne has a tendency to interpret pieces based on what Coyne believes rather than on what the person writing the piece believes, which can lead to huge distortions in what they’re saying. Since I’m not as well-informed on panpsychism as I am on other views when it comes to consciousness, this seems like a good opportunity to see what’s going on here.

But to fill out this post, let me comment on some things that I know about panpsychism.

One of the constant questions around this discussion is why we’d even entertain the idea of panpsychism, and demands for empirical evidence providing it true, and if that evidence can’t be provided somewhat dismissive comments about why philosophers take it even remotely seriously. The reason, it seems to me, is the argument that the other alternatives have serious issues with them and panpsychism actually avoids those problems. The main issue for dualist theories is, of course, how the non-physical can causally interact with the physical, which is not an issue for panpsychist views. Of course, it’s not an issue for materialist views either, but they run into the issue of how we can put a bunch of things that are non-conscious together and somehow get consciousness out of it. Many have pointed out the issue with life and how we can put a number of inanimate things together, and so we once posited a sort of essence that living things had that we now no longer believe in. So we don’t need to have consciousness permeate all things in order to make things conscious. The issue here, though, is with artificial consciousness. When it comes to life, even materialists are pretty willing to say that if something isn’t made of the right stuff, then it can’t come alive when you stick all that stuff together. For example, if someone made an artificial dog that looked and moved like a dog but was made out of entirely synthetic and artificial materials, we’d all pretty much concede that it’s not really alive. However, if it acted like it was in pain, materialists, at least, are not so willing to claim that because it isn’t made of neurons it can’t really be in pain. And even those that would say that would find that they don’t really have a good motivation for saying that other than to preserve their own view, and would even come under fire from other materialists for saying that. So while we’re willing to say that in order to really count as life you may well have to be organic, we aren’t quite willing to say that for consciousness yet. And what this reveals is that despite the claims, we don’t, in fact, know how to put inanimate things together to get life. We just know that you can do that with some things and get what we clearly define as life. That’s not an answer that can deter a panpsychist.

The panpsychist solution is essentially this: if all things have some portion of consciousness in them, then when we combine those things in the right way, then we can get the unified experience of consciousness that we humans seem to possess. And this then could be done for any combination of things hooked up in the right way. There have been shots taken at Goff about what it would mean for, say, a rock to be conscious, and Goff in some of the quotes seems to be trying to talk about the consciousness of things like atoms, but panpsychism does not require these things to have any meaningful consciousness whatsoever. It is entirely consistent to say that we only get the sort of consciousness that we experience if we hook a number of these things up in the right way, like they are in human brains. And materialists can’t argue too strongly against that idea, since it’s essentially Dennett’s argument from functionality, arguing that the experience of consciousness we have is nothing more than what emerges when we stick the various functionalities of consciousness together, and functionalities don’t really seem to be the sorts of things that can produce a completely new sort of thing just by being brought together. Things can, and materialists who rely on referencing the brain are going to have to argue that combining neurons does just that, while not being able to explain why neurons can do that and nothing else seems to.

So, its biggest advantage, at least according to panpsychists, is that it can explain all of the empirical evidence without having the issues of the other potential explanations. This is also why demands for extra empirical evidence are misguided, as if the other explanations are ludicrous it has more than sufficient empirical evidence in its favour, and it’s hard to see what empirical evidence there could be that couldn’t be equally subsumed under the other theories. Again, this doesn’t make it right — remember, I’m not a supporter of panpsychism — but demanding that it show what empirical evidence could support it really seems to be begging the question, as there doesn’t seem to be any existing or possible empirical evidence that can’t fit under it, and it doesn’t have the issues of the other theories.

That being said, in thinking about this if all we want is one that doesn’t have those issues, it really seems like a neutral monism is the right answer here. That one posits that the idea that we have physical and mental stuff is misguided, and all we have is one kind of stuff that can have mental and physical properties. So how that neutral stuff causally interacts with that neutral stuff is answered — it’s the same stuff, so it’s obvious — and since things can have mental properties we can explain why some things end up conscious (er, roughly, but about as well as the other explanations do). And it avoids the problem panpsychism has of having to claim that everything has some consciousness in it, since the things that don’t seem to have any mental properties just wouldn’t have them, and the things that seem to easily would. Of course, the main problem with this and panpsychism is that these moves don’t seem all that revealing, as we are solving the problems by redefining the problem away rather than meeting them head-on. This is of course always a tempting move, but not one that can stand up to any kind of close examination.

Anyway, the book is on its way, and I’ll see what Goff might mean here when I get it.

Thoughts on “V – The Second Generation”

February 25, 2020

So, after examining the TV series last week, this week I’m going to look at Kenneth Johnson’s novel that continues it from the first miniseries, ignoring the second miniseries and the TV series. The point of my doing that was to see how well Johnson’s “subversion” angle would work, so I’m going to start with that, and then go on to some comments on the work itself.

The work is set 20 years after the first miniseries, which immediately causes issues for the subversion angle. The Visitors are still clearly in a mode where they are trying to control everything through deception, but as I’ve already noted the Visitors are so different from humans and so obviously evil in their actions and plans that this becomes untenable. For example, they’ve been taking water from the Earth for those entire 20 years, so much so that large areas are dry and devoid of water, causing major climactic changes and extreme water rationing. So they’d need an excuse for this, right? Well, the excuse is that there was some sort of contamination in the oceans that was causing major issues, so they’re going to take the water and decontaminate it, but they can’t return it to the contaminated ocean beds and so will do it only when everything is clean. While this answers Shamus Young’s question about Fallout 3 and dumping clean water back into an irradiated river bed, it’s a remarkable stupid excuse that anyone with half-a-brain should be able to see through. Especially since some of the places drained seemed, to me, to be fresh water and so wouldn’t be contaminated by the ocean water. Surely most people wouldn’t fall for something that stupid, would they? Especially since doing that is imposing on people. Why aren’t there water riots? Why aren’t people calling out their elected officials to demand that more water be made available or that something needs to be done? It’s been twenty years, and while people can get used to a new order and thus not question it this was progressive and so it should definitely have reached the point where people grumbled and remembered the “good old days” without such rationing.

As I noted elsewhere, you can do things like that on the basis of it being necessary to fight a common enemy. But the Visitors are still proclaiming benevolence, while causing a lot of suffering with their methods. They still seem to consider scientists an enemy, as they still work but are forced to live in poverty and can’t get things like medical care because of that, as we note with the story of Charlotte, a character like I noted in “Fate of the Jedi” is just there to be an incredibly nice person that we can feel badly about dying and so characters can react to that. More on her later, but why would anyone become a scientist if doing so meant having such restrictions? And the conspiracy was about a group of scientists, not scientists in general, so why would simply “being a scientist” justify such actions? And how many of the other scientists would they have to kill due to real or imagined conspiracies? Again, the people would not consider them such a threat to justify extreme actions, nor would they accept the restrictions and rations based on benevolence, so they really should be raising far more of a fuss, even through legitimate channels, than they were.

Another issue is then raised with the structure of the work itself. So after twenty years of patient exploitation, in order to set-up a “We have to stop them now!” idea the Visitors suddenly need to drain the entire Earth and move on. Now, Johnson did have the alien signal pay off with the aliens coming to Earth — which is what necessitates the leap to twenty years — but oddly doesn’t use their arrival and the arrival of their fleet as the excuse for the Visitors accelerating their plans on Earth. There might be some handwaves at it, but for the most part the plan was for them to accelerate their exploitation before they even really knew that the other aliens were on Earth, and far before they knew that there was a fleet arriving. So why accelerate it all of a sudden? Diana lampshades it, but the explanation isn’t very compelling. The time jump also causes an issue where one of the key components of their plan to deal with the Visitors involves revealing their hidden nature and motives. This, of course, is what the second miniseries did as well, but it raises the question of why over twenty years did no one else try to do that, especially considering the footage that Mike Donovan had. And why was Diana so willing to spill the beans because she was attracted to one of their collaborators turned Resistance? And why did they let the recording device in when security should have been heightened with the Leader being present? It’s all just so contrived, which is bad enough, but it’s contrived in such a way that we have to wonder why, all of a sudden, with a much weaker Resistance, it’s managing to happen now. And a big part of the final battle is reprogramming the captured humans to fight against the Visitors, which again with a weaker Resistance seems like it would be far more of a long shot than it would have been earlier, and so seems contrived.

But not only is the Visitor response one that seems contrived to provide drama, the alien allies are also used to set up a “Now or never” situation, as the Visitors, somehow, have come up with a new chemical that will kill those aliens and are making it on Earth, and with that if the humans can’t guarantee that they’ll take over all the Motherships they are going to have to destroy the Earth. Well, that’s not true. What they’ll have to do is attack all the Motherships with weapons that will destroy the Earth as well, somehow, because they couldn’t possibly have weapons that wouldn’t be so destructive since, well, that would make sense as any battle near or on a planet shouldn’t result in wiping out that planet. But the worst problem with it is that it makes little sense for the Visitors to suddenly develop this chemical that can wipe them out and have the only place that knows about it be Earth so that the aliens have to wipe all of them out to be safe. If there was a plant unique to Earth that could be used to make the chemical, then this would make far more sense, as the aliens would be saying that either the humans take over or they would have to wipe the Earth clean to get rid of the plant. The chemical is stupid — especially since it seems they plan to use it in guns instead of as a weapon of mass destruction — but at least this would make some sense and set up for the dramatic climax that Johnson was clearly hoping for.

Ultimately, this is the issue with the subversion angle and relying on the message to the aliens for the resolution of the plot: given how evil the Visitors are, they should not have been able to maintain a structure based on them being benevolent for twenty years. And if they did manage to do so, it shouldn’t have fallen apart so suddenly at the last minute, even with things being accelerated. There’s really no way to credibly resolve that given the structure, even if the work was written as well and consistently as possible.

Which it wasn’t, which leads into the problems with the work itself. It’s not a well-written work. There are lots of things that aren’t really relevant that are focused on, and Johnson seems to be the one responsible for the perverse sexual attraction of the Visitors to humans. While the second miniseries and related works seem to at least hint that humans and Visitors are not actually reproductively compatible and so that Diana had to do some genetic manipulation to make that work, Johnson seems to make them biologically compatible so that a number of half-breeds are created from that fraternization. This is nonsensical as it strains credulity to think that the lizard-like Visitors would be, in general, sexually attracted to humans, let alone that they could produce offspring together. At least we could see the ones in the other miniseries as being those who are particularly perverted, and Diana in particular could be seen as someone whose main way of gaining power was through sex and so being willing to do so no matter who she was having sex with, but this is somewhat ridiculous.

Aside from being longer than it needed to be and kinda boring, it also doesn’t really explore the world as well as it could and, to be honest, would need to after twenty years. A lot of the things I noted above with the underlying concept are only made worse because the work doesn’t really explore how things ended up as they are. There are hints at things that happened, but these are given short-shrift to explore the details of characters and their lives that we don’t really need to know and neither build into the nostalgia from the first miniseries nor explain how things got to the way they were. While I think that the idea was flawed and needed work, the fact that the writing itself is weak certainly doesn’t help.

I think that Johnson’s model probably wasn’t going to work out, which somewhat justifies the shift that the second miniseries and the TV series made, while trying to keep some of the main ideas. As a work itself, the book isn’t very good, and justifies my long delay in reading it. I won’t read it again, even as I will likely watch the miniseries and TV series again.

The Scotties …

February 24, 2020

So, what is quickly becoming my new tradition is taking a couple of weeks of vacation in February to watch some sports. Every four years, that’s the Winter Olympics, but in the other years it’s to watch the Scotties, which is the Canadian Women’s Curling Championships. So, I suppose you could say that I always take a couple of weeks off to watch curling, except that every four years I add some hockey and other sports to it as well.

Anyway, I watched the Scotties for the past week. While the evening matches were too late for me to stay up and watch, I did make the effort to watch the 1 vs 2 page playoff game and, obviously, to watch the final, helped by the fact that they started a half-hour earlier (and I still dozed off during the games at times). In the final, Kerri Einarson’s team from Manitoba played Rachel Homan’s team from Ontario and beat them 8 – 7 in an extra end. What was notable about the game is that Einarson led for most of it, and led by four points at one point, but Homan took 2 with the hammer in nine and stole 2 in ten when Einarson’s draw went too deep, forcing an extra end where Einarson did make a draw for the single to take the game. This is similar to last year where Homan went up 5 – 1 and Chelsea Carey ended up coming back to win that game, except that Homan didn’t quite manage to make the comeback.

And the sad thing is that I’m going to talk far more about Homan than Einarson, because other than her winning the Scotties with her all-skip team and getting the first win there isn’t much to say. She’d been to the finals before with her previous team — now skipped by Tracey Fleury, who lost in the Wild Card game to Jennifer Jones — and won with her new team. But she probably could have won with her old team as well, and it took over a year for the team to get to the point where they can be this strong, and it required the skips other than Einarson to commit themselves to learning how to play that position, and for them to learn, for example, how to sweep and judge rocks for sweeping. What this means is that the idea of assembling an all-star team of the best curlers for the Olympics probably isn’t going to work, as it took a lot of work for them to get to the point where they could play this well … and they aren’t a significantly better team than the more traditional teams. Sure, they won, but the other teams definitely were in the mix here and the team was beaten once by Wild Card (Jennifer Jones).

But Homan’s team has a lot more interesting things to talk about, starting from the fact that on the Grand Slam tour they haven’t been able to make the playoffs and yet at the national events they’re right up there with the leaders and could be said to be dominant. They dominated the Canada Cup, went undefeated at their provincial qualifier, and here lost three games total including the final, two of those to Einarson’s team. Her team and Einarson’s team dominated the first and second all-star teams for the players that played the best. It would be reasonable to say that if it wasn’t for Einarson’s team Homan would have won the tournament, and they still almost managed to pull it off. This sharp contrast in performance over the course of a couple of weeks pretty much has to reflect a change in focus. It really does seem like they’re putting a priority on the national events rather than the Grand Slam events. As Rachel Homan and Joanne Courtney are new parents, this can indeed change their focus and priorities. For the two of them, it’s clearly no longer the case that curling is the thing most important to them, so they have to choose what to focus on, and it does seem like that focus is going to be on national events and getting redemption for their disappointing performance at the last Olympics. Homan might also seem to have mellowed a bit, as there was one case where she was playing Nova Scotia and one player on it — Emma Logan — is legally deaf and uses an implant to hear, and it developed some problems. Homan seemed less concerned about the delay or whether it would count as a timeout against the team and more concerned about making sure that it worked properly. Since at the Olympics she was called out for a move that was less sportsmanlike and more concerned with ensuring her own advantage, and since she is very competitive, this would be a good sign.

The other question around her team that I keep asking every time I watch them is: how much longer will Emma Miskew stay a third on this team instead of skipping her own team? The reason I keep asking this is not just that Miskew is clearly capable of skipping a team, but that in the games she often seems to be skipping the team, making recommendations and tell everyone what they’re trying for and so on and so forth. Homan used to be the dominant voice on the team, but lately I’ve noticed that she seems relatively passive while shots are being selected and that Miskew talks a lot more. The two have been together for ages and both are pretty young so it’s not like Homan might retire to give the spot to Miskew. It certainly won’t happen this Olympic cycle, and the two of them are so close that they might well simply want to keep playing together until they retire, but it’s an interesting dynamic to watch that, obviously, raises the question of whether Miskew would want to run her own team since she’s kinda doing it already.

The final four was interesting for me, since it featured three teams that I liked … and Jennifer Jones. Who ended up in first place, but ended up losing the 1 vs 2 playoff game to Einarson and the semi-final to Homan. This also meant that the final featured two teams that I liked and so I didn’t care much who wins, although I was leaning Homan because of the history of her having significant wins. The interesting thing about Jones, though, is that her team had a great record, but almost every time I watched the team play they seemed to be winning in spite of themselves, missing a lot of shots and pulling it out somehow. Their percentages were low the entire tournament, and none of them made the all-star teams. The commentators noted that their experience made a difference, and that might be the case, as they missed but seemed to know how to miss to avoid disaster most of the time. But watching them here and on the Grand Slam tour, it does seem to be the case that they aren’t playing as well as they used to. It will be interesting to see if this continues or if they can recover their previous form. To be honest, they don’t seem to be quite on form since Jill Officer left, but since they keep winning it’s hard to say how much they need to care about that.

I was starting to wonder if the women’s game was turning into what I hated about the men’s game, as there were a number of cases where there were frozen rocks and a team made triples and the like to clean everything up. The difference, though, is that most of the time the rocks were unlocked, but weren’t completely removed from the rings, which at least leaves something interesting for people to play with. It seems to me that in the women’s game it’s still the case that to make that sort of shot work they have to not only throw it hard enough, but also hit it just right to make everything go, at least out of the rings or, even, to unlock them, which also means that if you get the angles right the shot isn’t there. In the men’s game, that’s a lot harder due to how hard they throw it, and so any solid contact makes things fly.

The other thing I noticed was that there were a lot of mistakes. Some of them were issues reading the ice, but some of them seemed to be strategy errors, as evidenced by the commentators wondering why they tried that shot instead of some of the other available ones. I don’t watch the men’s game enough to know if that’s common there as well, but it didn’t seem to be in the few games I’ve watched. Other than, perhaps, level of competition, there’s no reason for the women to be less skilled tactically than the men, so I hope that it isn’t the case. But it’s something that I noted.

This is the third year for the new format, where they have two pools and a round robin between those teams, and then a championship round with the top four teams from each pool who play the teams from the other pool, with the top four making it to the playoffs. There were comments on this from the commentators, and so I want to comment on it as well. One of the issues is that the teams in each pool don’t play each other, which the commentators hand-waved at as an issue, but does seem to be a concern. I believe that most people considered Pool A to be the “Pool of Death”, with tougher teams in that one than in Pool B. The pools are seeded by the rankings on the various tournaments and the Grand Slam tour, but this can be problematic. Some teams, especially the ones from the smaller provinces, don’t play on that tour much and so might have lower rankings, or be difficult to rank. And you can get a case like with Homan this year where the team is ranked lower than they might have been otherwise due to not doing as well on the Tour. If Homan had not won the Canada Cup she would have been a lower rank but a far better teams, which could skew the results. The problem with the format is that a team in one pool could legitimately say that if they had been in the other pool they would have made the Championship Round, and that they were a better team and would have beaten a team that actually did make it into that round. This doesn’t happen if everyone has to play everyone else, but you can’t really do that and keep all the provinces and territories in the mix (before they had a small mini-tournament beforehand to determine which of the weaker provinces gets to play during the week).

Another thing commented on is that the teams keep their losses going forward into the Championship Round. As noted, this is good because it means that you can’t take it easy if you know that you’re going to make that round, as any loss can hurt you. But this can be problematic as you can have a situation like we had this year where if a few teams are dominant the Championship Round can be rather anti-climactic. We knew what four teams were going to be in after the third draw of that round, and three of the four were determined after the second, because the teams below them simply had too many losses to overtake them. Yes, they needed to keep winning, but the teams at five losses kept putting each other out. It makes the Championship Round somewhat meaningless if this happens … and even more so if the teams all end up tied — as Ontario, Wild Card and Manitoba did — and it’s the draw to the button percentage that determines what position everyone finishes in.

I can see the problems with it, but I think there are problems no matter what format you choose, so this is workable. And I do like the Wild Card concept.

Overall, I enjoyed watching it, and it made for an entertaining week off.

Carrier on Pascal’s Wager

February 21, 2020

So, while reading my normal sites to see if there’s anything interesting to talk about, I came across a post by Richard Carrier that contains what is probably the most bizarre analysis of Pascal’s Wager that I’ve ever seen. However, reading it and thinking about it has clarified some things about it for me, and sometimes it’s just nice to take apart a philosophical analysis of something. And for all his faults, Carrier does at least tend to come up with … creative arguments for his positions.

The first thing Carrier tries to do is take on the “genuine belief” argument. No, he doesn’t want to show that the Wager can’t produce a genuine belief, but instead wants to clear that argument off the table to create room for his own preferred arguments. So let’s see how that works:

It is not a problem with Pascal’s Wager, however, that “we can’t choose to believe what we do.” Despite that being often the leading objection to it voiced, it’s misguided. Yes, real belief must follow from the formation of a genuine conviction. But this can arise from recognizing the force of a bet. The IEP rightly adds further reasons to dismiss this objection to the Wager. But more salient still is that recognizing better bets can produce beliefs.

For example, suppose we were speaking instead of the following scenario: a tsunami is rising behind you on the road, and you see no traffic, but the road is heavily fogged in so you have no real way to know; you can surrender and be drowned, or attempt to drive faster than the wave in the mere hope there is no one ahead of you on the road to collide with. A simple utility equation will reveal you should attempt to outrun the wave. That option has a less than 100% probability of resulting in your death, whereas the surrendering option effectively has a 100% probability of your death. In other words, the outcome of that decision is “always death”; of the other, “sometimes survive.”

Once you fully, rationally recognized that, the very fact of doing so will indeed cause you to genuinely believe survival is more likely when you assume without evidence the road is clear. This might not be what you would normally call “a belief the road is clear,” since you would also still correctly believe that it yet might not be. But it is nevertheless a belief that “the road is more likely clear than that the tsunami will not overtake me if I remain still.” Analogously, if Pascal’s Wager is as sound as this reasoning would be about the road and the tsunami, then your recognizing that will likewise cause in you a genuine belief that “God more likely exists than that I will end up in an eternal paradise if he doesn’t or that I will avoid an eternal hell if he does.” You will therefore believe in God to some significant degree, even as you admit you are not certain that God exists. Just as you would believe to some significant degree the road is clear—which means, not wholly, but enough to motivate your every decision. Just as Pascal was arguing for Catholicism.

The problem with this analysis is that Carrier has to be rather vague about the belief that you’ll actually end up with. As he himself notes, it’s not the belief that the road is clear. It is definitely more a belief that you have a better chance of surviving if you take the road rather than waiting for the wave to hit you. Translating that to the Wager, it’s in no way a genuine belief that God exists, because you wouldn’t really have the belief, just from the Wager, that God or that God exists. What you’ll have is the belief that follows from the argument if it works: It would be, on a practical level, better for me to believe that God exists than to believe that He doesn’t or to have no belief on the matter at all. Carrier’s only way out here is to argue that that belief would be sufficient to motivate you to act as if God exists, but the gods under consideration aren’t judging you on the basis of your actions, but instead on whether or not you actually believe in them. The Christian God, in particular, has a long history of saying that actions, at least, are insufficient for salvation. You need the specific belief that God exists, then, to be saved, and Carrier has had to admit that you won’t have that simply from the wager. So the genuine belief argument still seems to be on the table.

There seem to me to be two main ways to get around this. The first is the one I tend to favour, which relies on the fact that Pascal’s Wager cannot add epistemic warrant to the question of whether God or any god exists, because it’s a blatant appeal to consequences. We have to assume that Pascal knew that, but even if he didn’t we can see that coming to understand the wager, as noted above, isn’t going to give you any epistemic reason to think that God exists. It doesn’t provide any evidence for the existence of God, nor does it in and of itself refute any evidential argument against the existence of God. Moreover, the Wager itself becomes pointless if we could know whether or not God exists, because if we did know that or could know that we could eliminate any god that we know doesn’t exist, and the details of the Wager itself show that we would always want to, because we’d want to know what God to bet on, but wouldn’t want to spend the time and effort on a specific god if we could take what is almost certainly less time and effort to know which god, if any, we should bet on. So if we can spend some time and effort on coming to know which god, if any, to bet on, that’s almost always going to be worth it instead of simply making a blind bet. Thus, we can see that the Wager only works for gods where we can’t know whether or not they exist. But since the Wager doesn’t add epistemic warrant, we can’t use it to come to believe that any of those gods exist. Thus, its best use is as a way to respond to atheistic arguments that don’t prove that the God we believe in doesn’t exist — and so aren’t arguments that would mean that we know that that God doesn’t exist — but instead either try to cast doubt on it or, more directly, point out the time and effort we are spending on a non-existent God, or at least one that we don’t know exists. The Wager gives us a pragmatic reply: as long as we can’t know whether or not the God we believe in exists, there’s still a rational bet to be made here. If the belief is correct, it pays off significantly, and relatively speaking the cost if we’re wrong is negligible. So unless the atheist can provide a strong argument with epistemic warrant or can show that my beliefs are inconsistent, Pascal’s Wager is a good practical counter-argument; the theist is better off maintaining their existing genuine belief because the returns if it’s right are so good as to make the cost nominal … especially if they get additional benefits from participating in religion.

The other argument is one that Carrier’s reference from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy mentions:

Yet a difference in degree may be significant, and it is worth noting that theists and atheists may disagree on the power of prayer to change one’s beliefs. Theists generally think that prayer tends to bring one into contact with God, in which case one is likely to notice, recognize, and believe in God’s existence. Atheists, on the other hand, have no particular reason to think that mere praying should notably effect conversion. An agnostic would do well then to try; for it would be precisely in the case where success matters that trying is likely to be most efficacious.

Essentially, the argument is that even if the Wager itself doesn’t provide epistemic warrant and so can’t in and of itself trigger a genuine belief, we might be able to work ourselves into one by taking separate actions. They use the example of praying in an attempt to connect to God and therefore to form a belief that way, but it’s possible for us to do so in other ways, such as conditioning ourselves to accept the belief (a sort of self-brainwashing, in a sense). We can also attempt to rationalize ourselves into it. To take Carrier’s tsunami example, while noting that the wave will kill us and so our only chance is to drive as fast as we can won’t give us the genuine belief that the road is clear, we might rationalize our choice to form a belief. We might reason that the weather is so bad that hardly anyone will be out on the road, and that the only reason we were was one that no one else shared. If this rationalization is successful, then we would indeed have a genuine belief that the road ahead is clear. We generally wouldn’t do it in the case Carrier describes, but if we had another option such as hiding out in a nearby building but noted that if we could get home it would benefit us and noted that the only reason not to speed down the road was the risk of hitting someone, we might well reason ourselves into thinking that that isn’t a reasonable concern. Even if the belief is less “The road is clear” and is more “The road is probably clear”, that’s a lot better than the belief Carrier says we’d have. So the same thing can be done for God in reaction to the Wager, as we can reason ourselves into the belief based on the standard arguments.

Someone in the comments argues against Carrier’s dismissal of the “insincere belief” argument:

Basically, if God accepts totally cavalier hedge-betting “belief”, then anyone can just list off any God that accepts that, say “Sure, buddy, I believe in you” and be done with it. That’s obviously not what the Christian wants. But if God demands actual belief, not just contingent or “I’ll take it as granted” belief, then your tsunami example doesn’t really apply. In the tsunami example, I am not at all convinced that there are no cars in front of me. I am convinced that it’s beneficial for me to act like there aren’t, but there is no conviction there. Not only would I not die to defend the belief that there are no cars in front of me, I wouldn’t even bet a paycheck on it. I am only taking that bet because the alternatives are worse. As you yourself note, it’s not “a belief the road is clear”.

As I interpret it, the argument here is that if you don’t need a sincere belief in God for the Wager to pay off, then there’s no real reason to pay the belief anything more than lip service. You can act as if God doesn’t exist and then, at the end, say “Oh, yeah, I totes believe in that God” and get the reward. So if all we need is the weak sort of belief that Carrier’s argument would produce, then we don’t need to make any choices at all. We don’t need to act on the belief nor do we need to choose amongst all the various gods that could fulfill the Wager. If all we need is the weak belief that Carrier’s argument would give, then it seems like most of the arguments against the Wager fail, but the Wager itself becomes meaningless.

Carrier’s response seems to miss the point:

No, that’s the “many gods” objection.

You might be confusing the two. That “just any god will do” is a separate criticism from the “insincere belief” criticism. Yes, they both apply. But they are separate criticisms, requiring separate solutions (if anyone wants to still defend this argument).

The point is that if all we need is an insincere belief, then it is the case that no matter what god — if any — it works out to be, we should be able to generate a sufficiently insincere belief at the time to meet the requirements. After all, if we don’t have a sincere belief, then we don’t have a formal belief, and so there’s no reason why we can’t hold insincere beliefs in every single god that could possibly fit into the Wager. The “many gods” objection is that we can’t know which one to bet on since there are so many that are equally justified by the Wager, but the point of the “insincere belief” counter is that if all we need is an insincere belief then whatever god that turns out to be will be one that we will believe in sufficient to meet the Wager.

Carrier continues:

But that’s all moot, since we can bypass the insincere belief objection by pointing out, quite simply, that the belief thus generated would not be relevantly insincere to warrant maintaining the objection. Hence my point is the objection is misplaced even if we could establish somehow only one God could be bet on and it just so happened to be Pascal’s. You mistake the argument as being that the belief thus generated would be sincere in some fulsome, particular sense. To the contrary, it would be sincere in a lesser but fully sufficient sense. Once one accepts the moral legitimacy of argumentum ad baculum, that is (as medieval Catholicism in fact did: it’s entire theology was based on it). In other words, any God who would use argumentum ad baculum, would reward anyone who responded to it. So the minutiae of exactly what specific belief that requires is irrelevant.

I haven’t talked about the argumentum ad baculum yet, but essentially Carrier’s counter here relies on this: a being that cares so much about being believed in that they are willing to infinitely reward those who do and infinitely punish those who don’t, and who can indeed determine whether we genuinely believe in them or not (because if they couldn’t then the Wager doesn’t pay off for them in any way as we could just profess belief at the time of judgement and “win”), isn’t going to bother determining if our belief is genuine or not. They want us to believe in them, but then when the time of judgement comes don’t care whether or not our belief is genuine. That … does not seem probable. At best, Carrier could make an argument that the gods might care more about actions than about actual belief, but that’s not true for any of the gods that we’re considering for the Wager. So the only argument he can make is that the gods we’re talking about all use the argumentum ad baculum, and that means that they’d have to not care about the belief being more than that argument can deliver. So now let’s look at that argument:

All critiques of Pascal’s Wager implicitly reveal this as its defining flaw. The most salient example being the “many-gods objection” that I’ll get to in the end. Since there are many different gods one could bet on, and all those bets cancel each other out, we are faced with asking why we are to prefer Pascal’s singular premise of Catholicism. The obvious answer is the very thing that purports to make the bet work: its implicit threat of death or, worse, hell. In Pascal’s version, you are being threatened with eternal damnation, the “infinite cost” to atheism.

If you remove that threat, what remains is only death: if God exists and you bet not, you die; if God doesn’t exist and you bet not, you die. The outcome is the same either way. So the only motivator remaining is the promise of eternal reward: if you bet God exists, you go to heaven; ergo, if God exists and you don’t bet on it, you lose out on an infinite opportunity. Which is called an opportunity cost. It therefore is a hidden threat. In this version of the bet, contrary to Pascal’s own belief, there is no hell and the unsaved simply stay dead (called annihilationism, some evidence suggests Saint Paul held to this view). But that means, now, you are simply being threatened with death: if you don’t believe, God won’t save you.

The argument ad baculum is a very specific form of an argument from consequences, where it relies on the person trying to get you to believe something making a direct and intentional threat. This is, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s more likely to be true and so doesn’t add epistemic warrant. But the key problem here is that the Wager doesn’t in fact rely on that sort of argument whatsoever, but merely on a more traditional argument from consequences. The Wager is based on the outcomes of belief vs non-belief, and the threat isn’t in fact explicit. We evaluate it based on the consequences, not based on a sense that God is threatening us. And Pascal’s Wager can work even if there is no explicit threat. Imagine that there is a god such that they will save us from the clutches of evil and eternal torment if they notice us, and give us eternal bliss. However, if we don’t believe in that god, they are incapable of perceiving us, and if they can’t perceive us they can’t save us. Thus, we would need to believe that they exist to get eternal bliss, and if we don’t believe in them we would get eternal torment. It’s clear that in this case what we have are consequences of our belief or lack thereof, and that the god in question isn’t in any way threatening us, either directly or through opportunity cost. And yet, Pascal’s Wager would work for such a god, because we are evaluating whether to bet or not on the basis of the consequences, not whether the god is directly threatening them or the direct cause of those consequences or not.

So now we can return to Carrier’s comment referenced above. Carrier would have us believe that a god that was directly threatening these consequences and could determine if our belief was genuine wouldn’t care about whether or not our belief was genuine, and would be satisfied with the weak belief that the argumentum ad baculum could generate. This doesn’t seem at all plausible, nor is it in line with the gods that we’ve been considering for the Wager, all of whom are pretty explicit that they want genuine belief and not lip service. Carrier could argue that then using an argumentum ad baculum is a bad argument to use to generate genuine belief … but we already knew that. Moreover, that’s a good reason to think that those gods are using those things as consequences and not as threats, since the threats wouldn’t work as a way to get them what they themselves clearly want. So this argument is undone by the genuine belief argument: it won’t produce a genuine belief, and a genuine belief is what they need, so that’s not what they’re doing.

Hence Pascal’s Wager depends on the ad baculum fallacy. And it does so at the step of selecting which God is to be bet upon. Only threatening gods are proposed. Universal saviors are ignored or hand waved out of existence …

Well, of course universal saviors don’t come under Pascal’s Wager. As noted, the Wager — and all wagers — are based on a cost-benefit analysis of the consequences of each option. A universal savior god doesn’t give us any consequences for not believing. Whether we believe it exists or not, we will be saved. So there’s no reason to apply the Wager to them and, in fact, no practical reason — beyond intellectual curiosity — to try to determine whether or not they exist. We already know that the Wager is based on the consequences which is why it has no epistemic warrant, so talking about the purported threat doesn’t add anything we already know. And yet Carrier presents it as a damning and defining argument.

Next, Carrier talks about the utility function — the cost-benefit analysis — itself:

That sounds superficially compelling. But it’s deeply incoherent. It’s not just that it conflates finite with transfinite arithmetic—one could reconstruct the argument without infinities; it’s that the costs or gains proposed are arbitrary. Of course we can say the expected return on an investment equals simply the difference between A, the cost of a bet times the probability of losing, and B, the payout of the bet times the probability of winning. But we don’t get to just invent costs and benefits. To allow that to change our epistemic status would be irrational.

Yes, the Wager does not add epistemic warrant. We already knew that. It was never the case that adding the greater consequences made it more likely to be true given the evidence, just that if we could believe it that option would work out better for us than the alternative. As that, again, is a classic argument from consequences, it doesn’t add epistemic warrant. So we’re going to need more than that here.

For example, consider a straightforward raffle example: we can buy a raffle ticket for $2, there’s a 1 in 1000 chance of winning the raffle, and the prize is $1000. If we disregard any fractions of a cent, then the cost of playing times the probability of losing is $2 x 0.999 = $1.99, and the payout if you win times the probability of winning is $998 (the $1000 earned minus the $2 paid) x 0.001 = 99 cents. The expected utility of buying a raffle ticket is minus one dollar ($0.99 – $1.99 = $1). In other words, you can expect to lose money buying these raffle tickets. Though the average loss is small (just a dollar), so maybe you won’t care (that’s a different equation).

But now imagine a shady carnival barker tells you the raffle’s payout is a billion dollars, or $1,000,000,000. Wow! Then everything changes. The expected utility becomes an expected gain of $1,000,000,000 x 0.001 = $1,000,000, minus only a $1.99 expected loss, or $999,998 or so. We should totally buy a ticket! But…wait a minute. Why should I buy this ticket? The only thing that’s changed is that the barker changed what they told me the prize is. All they had to do was make up a larger prize. That should in no way increase the epistemic probability that I actually will win a billion dollars. On this thinking, all I have to do to get you to believe literally anything is to just tell a bigger lie about how much it will benefit you to believe it. As that’s clearly irrational, so is Pascal’s Wager.

Carrier is relying a lot on that “shady carnival barker” line, even if he doesn’t admit it. The key here is for us to be in doubt, but to be in doubt about a very specific thing: whether or not the prize is legitimate. Carrier’s analysis shows that in the second case the expected utility is, in fact, good enough that we should buy a ticket. So that would mean that if don’t have reason to think that the raffle is illegitimate then we should indeed play. To get around this, Carrier has to make us think that the raffle is illegitimate. The person has to be lying, because if they are legit and genuine then the utility function and expected utility works out. It’s only that we have someone that is “shady” making the offer that would make us think that they are lying and so we can’t really achieve that expected utility. But Carrier’s argument is that the larger the prize we must necessarily think that, but he starts from a case where he deliberately and carefully has arranged it so that without even considering the size of the prize we have reason to doubt that we are being told the truth. We shouldn’t trust a shady carnival barker whether the prize is $2 or $1,000,000,000. Is that the case for the gods in Pascal’s Wager?

It is true that infinite quantities are always by definition infinitely larger than finite quantities, and all nonzero probabilities, no matter how absurdly small, always produce an infinite quantity when multiplied by an infinity. But Pascal is just making all these values up. He’s like the carnival barker, just inventing a larger prize, and expecting you to just “believe him” and thus update your estimate of the expected utility. But you shouldn’t believe him.

The attempt to discredit the source continues, but it fails miserably because Pascal is definitively not making the values up. When considering the Christian/Catholic God, the promise is of eternal blissful life if you believe and eternal torment if you don’t. Those are defining properties of the God-concept that we are considering. Pascal is not inventing values in an attempt to sucker us into believing, but simply looking at the properties of the God under consideration and noting their implications. Even if we argue that the idea of God rewarding us with Heaven for belief and punishing us with Hell for non-belief only gained its prominence from Pascal — which I don’t think is the case — that is an entirely reasonable extrapolation from the Bible itself. So we have absolutely no reason to think that Pascal is making it up, or that he’s some kind of fool for thinking it as if someone was lying to him. The concept of the Christian God that we are considering says that those are the consequences of belief or non-belief. That God may not exist, but again we knew that already, as the Wager only works if we don’t and can’t know if a God-concept that promises such consequences actually exists. So, no, Pascal’s not inventing it. That’s the God we’re considering. You cannot claim that the properties are “made-up” just because you don’t think the entity exists.

That’s maximally unlikely to be true. That we will live a million years is always going to be less likely no matter what Pascal says than that we will live a thousand. And so on up the line. “1,000,000 years of bliss” and “1 x 10^100 years of bliss” are not equally likely. And indeed, why should we believe any god will keep things going an infinitely long time? Since there is always a nonzero probability he’ll give up at some point and hang the whole business, and all probabilities approach 100% as eventualities approach infinity, no matter how unlikely it is that God will chuck it in, your utility function is always going to tell you it’s all but 100% certain he eventually will. Likewise if we adopt a diminishing returns theory of lifespan, such that the longer you live, the less relatively valuable adding more years becomes, such that an infinite lifespan actually tops out at a finite value. Either way, that value is still an arbitrary invention of whatever shady carnival barker like Pascal is promising it.

Carrier accuses Pascal of making things up, and yet one of his big arguments here requires … making something up. Specifically, he has to invent the idea that God is going to give up providing eternal life despite that not being part of the concept nor a consequence of it. Why would God suddenly back out of the deal? God, as understood, would have the power to do so and so isn’t likely to, say, get tired of doing so or bored with it or run out of eternal life points or whatever would normally get a moral to give up on it. The only reason to even consider that is so that Carrier can try to make a point that we shouldn’t expect an eternity or even very long time of bliss, but we have no reason to think that if the Christian/Catholic God exists that his supposition applies to that God. Carrier is inventing it to make a point, and then throwing out all sorts of other invented suppositions that don’t apply to the God we’re considering to try to make it seem like we shouldn’t think that we’re going to get that eternal reward. But even with all that, it doesn’t work because we’re still likely to get more than one lifetime’s extra blissful life which would still make the Wager work out. He can try to hang it all on his probability assessment — leaning heavily on the idea that any small probability multiplied to infinity works out to 100% — but that’s a fake assessment anyway because the probabilities he’s generating are fake and invented anyway. We don’t need to add the complexity that this adds. Either that God exists and will reward us if it does or it doesn’t. Anything else is just making things up in the worst possible way.

We can call this the Liar’s Wager. Imagine I tell you you must give me all your wealth within twenty four hours or I will cast a spell causing your soul to be irrevocably defiled and thus trapped in a hell dimension for all eternity after you die—but if you obey me, I will cast a different spell that ensures your soul will go to a heavenly dimension. Of course you would not believe me. Infinite utility functions aren’t going to change your mind, in this case any more than Pascal’s. And they shouldn’t. That’s the problem. And it’s a problem fatal to Pascal’s Wager. Because yes, there is always a nonzero chance I am not lying—indeed, even as I am here telling you I am lying, there is still a nonzero probability I am lying about that, and thus actually telling the truth! And any probability, no matter how small, multiplied by an infinite gain, remains an infinite gain. So you should either believe me, or else abandon this clearly defective utility calculus. The latter is obviously what a rational person should do.

Except the reason I don’t believe Carrier in this case is because I don’t believe that someone can cast spells to do that. Also, the cost in this world is far greater than the cost in the Wager and so I can less afford to be wrong. That’s not true for God. We know that God — as a concept — can indeed do this and know from the motivations we have for God that He will. We don’t have any reason to think can Carrier can actually do that. Moreover, God — at least in modern times — isn’t asking for all of my wealth leaving me entirely destitute and miserable in this world. The Wager, as understood currently, is based on two horns: the payoff if correct is enormous and the cost in this world isn’t particularly onerous. You can make an argument that the return would be better no matter the cost, but most people are indeed going to be rightly hesitant to take very dramatic actions for that sort of reward. They’d pretty much have to know that they are going to get it and trust the source. Otherwise, they’ll want the cost to be reduced before they’ll take the risk. So if Carrier demanded $10, it might well be worth it to do that (putting aside that people do not believe that people can do that). So Carrier needs to understand that both the reward and the cost factor in here.

And, ultimately, that’s where Carrier’s argument goes wrong: he ignores that it’s not simply the numbers that determine whether we want to make the Wager, but also the context, which is the primary determinant of whether we trust a Wager or not. Let me use this example, as I now have a game show channel that shows Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank. Imagine that you have a company selling a product, and Kevin O’Leary is going to make you an offer for 10% of your company. By Carrier’s reasoning, the more O’Leary is willing to offer you, the less you should trust his offer. Therefore, if he offers you $1000 for that 10% that’s more reasonable than if he offers you $1,000,000 for that 10%. Except it clearly isn’t. First, O’Leary and most of those sorts of investors are all about the valuation, and by those numbers O’Leary would be saying that in the first case your company is only worth $10,000. He clearly wouldn’t have faith in your business at that valuation, and having faith in the business is the main reason someone would invest in it. Second, start-ups need capital, and giving away that much equity for that little money would greatly impede its ability to raise capital. Either O’Leary has no faith in your company and just wants you to go away, or else he has such faith that he thinks you don’t need the money and is trying to sucker you. Either way, you shouldn’t take the deal. However, at $1,000,000, that gives enough working capital to get things done, and also represents a significant investment on his part. He clearly has faith in your company’s ability to succeed.

The key here is that given his access to funds, we can easily believe that O’Leary can indeed afford to give that much money as an investment. If, on the other hand, _I_ offered that much money for that 10% stake, you would have to wonder where I’m getting that money from. Either I’m lying to you and won’t actually give you the capital I’m offering, or I’m making a promise that I have no way of keeping. Either way, it would behoove you to get me to prove that I could provide that promised reward before taking the deal. None of that is required for Kevin O’Leary. Similarly, we know that the God as conceived is capable of providing the reward, and we know from the concept that it has understandable motivations for doing so. Thus, that context eliminates the reasons we have for doubting that it will provide the reward. Again, it’s not the size of the reward that determines our levels of doubt, but what the size of the reward means wrt the situation we’re in. Within reason, the more money Kevin O’Leary offers the more we should trust that he’s serious. For Pascal’s Wager, the bigger the reward the more consistent it is with it being something that a god would and could offer.

If the utility function we have to adopt as a premise in Pascal’s Wager to make that Wager work entails that all I have to do is tell a bigger lie (about “infinite” costs and rewards, or even just “absurdly large” ones, like merely “a thousand years” of bliss or hell), and you should believe me, when you wouldn’t believe me if I told a smaller lie (like that you will receive just “ten years” of riches or misery “while still living”), the Wager is clearly depending on an irrational utility function. Telling a bigger lie should not increase the probability of its truth. If you wouldn’t believe the smaller claim, you should even less believe the bigger claim. And this is because, indeed, the epistemic probability of a payoff (or cost) always declines as the claimed payoff (or cost) increases. And when you increase it infinitely, the epistemic probability is likewise infinitely decreased.

But, again, the Wager is not adding any epistemic warrant. And for all Wagers, as long as we have no reason to believe the Wager is fake and believe that the entity offering the reward can deliver it, the bigger the payoff the more reasonable it is for us to take a chance on it, as long as the cost is not overly onerous.

Carrier next moves on to the “many gods” argument:

For the same reason, Pascal’s Wager also falters on the rule of total evidence. And this many critics have long pointed out already, via the “many-gods objection.” The probability of some claim G can only ever be the converse of the sum of the probabilities of all other competing claims. In other words, P(G) must necessarily equal 1 – P(~G), and P(~G) must necessarily equal P(G1) + P(G3) + (PG4) + … P(Gn) for every n. In short, the Wager cannot be taken without taking into account all possible outcomes of the Wager—in other words, all possible Wagers. Thus to be at all rational, or indeed at all logically coherent, Pascal’s Wager must divide the total utility space among all possible Wagers. The result is no differential recommendation as to choice. There is no bet to make.

Even with his Bayesian reasoning, Carrier still cannot get the “many gods” argument to work. Or, rather, not in a way that works for atheists. Even if all of the various gods balance off against each other, at least if you pick one you have a chance of picking the right one (if one exists). But since we don’t have any even remotely credible gods that will reward you if you don’t believe in them and punish you if you do — the only such gods ever proposed tend to be proposed precisely for the Wager with nothing else to them, which means that inside the argument we know that they’re invented — the atheist has no chance of guessing correctly. So the more reasonable Wager here is to pick the one that most resonates with you and hope that either that is the right god or that there really isn’t any god. The atheist can only hope that there really isn’t any god. So, again, it doesn’t provide any epistemic warrant, but it does suggest that picking a god is better than not picking one. Thus, the “many gods” argument provides no succor for the atheist.

Carrier then tries to push his own “Wager”:

There is an equally valid “Pascal’s” Wager for atheism even on the presumption that God exists. Let’s call it Carrier’s Wager. I lay out the case in The End of Paacal’s Wager. In short, there is strong evidence to believe that if a moral God exists, that God wants us to be atheists, and will reward us for it. Therefore we should bet on atheism even if God exists. It can’t be objected to this that atheists should never bet against God if he exists, since anyone trusting Pascal’s Wager is already conceding we should be theists even if God does not exist. It’s doing the same thing either way. Thus Pascal’s Wager becomes self-refuting. Which exposes its vacuity. It was all along asking us to believe things we already know to be false (that its defective utility function is rational, that there is only one God to bet on, and that that God just conveniently happens to be a Coercive one). That those same false things can be used to prove exactly the contrary conclusion only cooks the goose further.

The argument is roughly this: a good God — or at least one worth worshipping — would only want those people in heaven who are intellectually honest and critical, as those are the only people who can be morally good. But the evidence from this world suggests that either no God exists, or else that God is evil. Thus, we should believe that God doesn’t exist and as that’s the only category that the morally good will fall into — as good people won’t sanction an evil God — God will reward us for it.

This fails because Pascal’s Wager only works if we can’t actually know whether a specific God exists or not. But Carrier’s argument here says that we do know that the Catholic God doesn’t exist, as He is defined as being good and yet as being responsible for this world, and also has belief in Him as a requirement for salvation. If Carrier knows that that sort of God exists from his reasoning, or even knows that the only kind of God that can exist is that one, then he doesn’t need the Wager. And if he doesn’t know that that sort of God exists or is the only one that can based on the evidence from this world, whence comes the concept? He clearly would be just making it up, and we have no reason to believe or make any kind of Wager on a concept that we know is made up. Either way, his Wager fails. Either it’s not a wager at all, or we have no reason to bet on his view.

In fact, we can generalize this reasoning. If we should take any Wager, and the probability of a morally good god is higher than a god who is not morally good (as anyone trusting Pascal’s Wager is committed to believing), then we should wager on a morally good god. But a morally good god would not reward or punish anyone for failing to adopt an epistemically doubtful belief. Just try to think of any scenario in which any moral person you know would do that to someone; you will be unable, because acting like that would be immoral in every moral system anyone deems credible; you would always condemn it. Yet for whatever reasons, if God exists, they have chosen to leave their existence epistemically doubtful.

This, however, is a rather dubious claim that needs far more development than Carrier does anywhere. The original argument relies critically on all morally good people being ones who are intellectually critical and so seek out truth, but even with that it is always possible to have cases where the truth can’t be found and so we have no way to know whether or not the belief is true. It would be perfectly reasonable for people who are capable of knowing what we for various reasons are not able to know to ask us to trust them and believe based on their word alone. In fact, a morally good person might well want people to demonstrate trust rather than demanding constant proof, which is a bit of a buffer against the argument that God wouldn’t hide from us. If we are demanding that we shouldn’t need to trust God and so God should be constantly demanding, that seems less like us being intellectually critical and more us being petulant. About the only argument left is the idea of there being competing gods and so God should make it obvious which one is real … but then again there are lots of theological reasons why that might not be the case. Either way, this reasoning isn’t particularly strong.

Which means, basically, a morally good god will only judge us according to our adherence to ethical naturalism. Which the natural evidence, wholly without God, already prescribes we do. Therefore, again, if a moral god is more likely than an amoral one, and Pascal’s Wager can produce any true conclusion at all, then the conclusion of Pascal’s Wager is simply, “You ought to live your life in accordance with ethical naturalism,” and in particular, “whichever ethical naturalism the evidence most clearly indicates is most conducive to our enjoying a satisfying inner life and external community.” Only an immoral God would not rescue those who live moral lives by that standard, be they atheists or believers; and since an immoral God is less likely than a moral one, Pascal’s Wager produces no sound argument that we shouldn’t be atheists. We should simply believe what the evidence evinces; and live good lives.

Well, actually, Carrier’s initial argument seems to rely on the evidence we have showing that there’s either no God or an evil one, and the Problem of Evil tries to establish that given the world we have God being immoral is more likely than the converse, so by this own reasoning it isn’t reasonable to say that an immoral God is less likely than a moral one. He could mean that under Pascal’s Wager that would have to be the case, but that also doesn’t seem to be true, as we would have to consider immoral gods there as well. About the only thing to raise doubt would be that we couldn’t trust an immoral god to keep its word about the reward, but in this case all we’d have is an immoral god in the sense that it would punish us for not having faith in a belief that we couldn’t justify, but that wouldn’t say anything about that god’s honesty. A god that would do that could be honest and always live up to its agreements, and Carrier does not derive that it would do that from some sort of general immorality, but instead derives that the god is in some sense immoral if it does that, so that gives us no strong reason to think that god immoral outside of that. So we can’t dismiss the idea that the immoral god in that sense would keep its word. Even if we think that it being immoral would mean that we can’t trust that we’ll get the reward, it being immoral would only make it more likely that it would punish us for not believing. And the eternal punishment consequence is strong enough on its own to get us to consider taking the Wager to avoid that punishment. So if we really did think that an immoral God possibly existed, then we definitely should believe in it to avoid the punishment that we know it would foist on us if it existed. We could hope that a moral God might have compassion for us, but a strongly immoral God won’t. And we could trust that we might get the reward if we have an immoral God that is not strongly so.

So, it isn’t clear that a morally good God wouldn’t ask us to believe on faith, and an immoral God is almost certainly going to punish us if we don’t believe. Thus, acting as an ethical naturalist isn’t going to help unless the God that exists is Carrier’s specific one … but Carrier doesn’t know that that God exists or is the only one that can exist. So this line doesn’t work either.

Ultimately, the key argument is indeed the genuine belief one. A genuine belief being required underpins all of the other arguments. If we simply can’t form a genuine belief based on the Wager then none of the other arguments matter, and if we can then at a minimum picking one always seems to be the best bet. Carrier oddly claims that the genuine belief argument is irrelevant and that the other ones are key, but most of his examinations of them are eccentric at best and don’t really work. Because it’s an argument from consequences, Pascal’s Wager cannot add epistemic warrant, and so no one should ever use it that way. But there are other ways to use it. Carrier’s replies miss all of those as well, and so this entire post doesn’t seem to really achieve anything wrt Pascal’s Wager.

Thoughts on the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” Series

February 20, 2020

So, if you’ve been following my posts on horror movies, you will have noted that they were pretty short for the past little while, as I talked about the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” series. Part of this is because I had watched them quite a while ago and so didn’t have them as fresh in my mind as some other works that I’ve talked about. But another part of it is that the movies themselves aren’t all that memorable. This would normally be a strong negative for a series, as the movies wouldn’t be good enough to call good but not bad enough to hate either. The series would be mediocre at best, which wouldn’t be a strong endorsement.

But I don’t think that’s the case with this series. It’s not so much that it isn’t memorable because it’s mediocre, but more that it isn’t that memorable because, for the most part, it’s just a competent horror movie. For the most part, it simply works. And I also think that this makes it hold up better for a modern audience than the “Friday the 13th” movies, as the killings are gory enough for those who like gore and creative enough for those who are looking for creative kills. The leads are interesting enough to generate sympathy and interest, the plots are serviceable, the supernatural explanations mostly work, and the one-liners and taunting also work. It’s as good as most of the movies you’d see and better than a lot of them. There’s nothing really special about it, but it works to be an entertaining enough series.

Which means that, yes, it’s a movie series that I could see myself watching again at some point. It’s biggest negative is that you pretty much have to watch three movies all together as they directly continue from each other, but they’re also among the more entertaining movies so that’s not in any way a detriment. At the end of the day, if you’re looking to watch horror, this is a series that you probably should watch.

Is the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” a Made Up Problem?

February 19, 2020

So, in the on-going renewed debate over consciousness, I came across this article on Medium by Massimo Pigliucci which is inspired by the post that made me look at Patricia Churchland’s take on panpsychism that Jerry Coyne is still talking about. Ultimately, the position is Philip Goff’s and his view of panpsychism, and Pigliucci is taking that on by taking on all non-materialistic ideas of consciousness and trying to prove them wrong. So let’s take a look at how well he succeeds.

He starts by taking on David Chalmers, Thomas Nagel, and the idea of the “Hard Problem” that qualia introduces:

“It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”

No, it doesn’t seem “objectively” unreasonable at all. It depends on one’s own metaphysical assumptions (more on this later). Now, if there is a hard problem of consciousness, surely there are “easy” problems. Sure enough, Chalmers gives us a list:

The ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
The integration of information by a cognitive system;
The reportability of mental states;
The ability of a (brain) system to access its own internal states;
The focus of attention;
The deliberate control of behavior;
The difference between wakefulness and sleep.

I have suggested elsewhere that the problem Chalmers is so concerned with is based on a category mistake, and that it dissolves into a number of sub-problems, all of which he refers to as “easy.” Once (if, really, since there is no guarantee in science!) neuroscience and evolutionary biology will have answered the easy problems of consciousness, there won’t be a hard problem left, above and beyond the easy ones.

The term “category mistake” was introduced by Gilbert Ryle in his The Concept of Mind, published in 1949. It is a type of ontological mistake, as in the following scenario, articulated by Ryle: consider someone who is visiting Oxford University. The visitor, after viewing the various colleges, the library, the administration buildings, the faculty, the students, and so forth, asks: “Right, but where is the University?” The visitor is making the mistake of presuming that a University is part of the category “units of physical infrastructure” rather than that of an “institution.” His question may seem legitimate, and even sound profound, but it is based on a misunderstanding of what universities are. Similarly, understanding consciousness means to understand the “easy” problems, which means that once/if those will be solved, there won’t be any hard problem left.

So, let’s start with the idea that if we explain all of the “easy” problems then there won’t be any “hard” problems left. The issue is that as I noted in discussing Kastrup’s view it really looks like we can do all of these things without there being any qualia at all. And if we can, then we do have to return to the question of why we would have qualia if we could do things perfectly well without it. At the very least, it’s not going to be the case that if we explain all of those things that we would necessarily explain qualia — since qualia is not necessary for those things and so doesn’t follow from them necessarily, and so any explanation of those things will at best talk about qualia as a way to implement them but not what qualia, as qualia, actually is — and so if you think that understanding qualia is critically important for understanding consciousness then we won’t be able to say that we understand consciousness until we understand qualia. Thus, Chalmers’ “Hard Problem” really is all about that: explaining and understanding qualia. And that’s what we don’t think is easy to explain.

This leads into the comment about the “category mistake”. Pigliucci is correct to say that if you are being shown the physical infrastructure and ask to be shown the “University” as part of that tour that that would be a category mistake: that’s not what a University is. But, by the same token, if someone took all of that physical infrastructure and said “That’s what a University is!”, they’d also be making a category mistake. And that means that if they tried to explain what a University is simply on the basis of that physical infrastructure, they’d be making an error. Thus, you cannot understand what a university is by looking at all of that physical infrastructure, but instead have to look outside of all of that to understand a university. If pointing at that physical infrastructure was their only argument for the idea that a university should count as a physical object, they’d be in deep trouble, because that isn’t what it means for something to be a university.

And we can see that we do, indeed, what to understand or at least have a pretty good idea of what a university is. We want to know — and think that we can know — what the difference between a university and a college is. We also want to know how to tell if that collection of buildings and people counts as a university or as something else. We also should note that a number of universities started as colleges and then became universities, and so want to know what justifies that renaming. We can’t answer these questions by looking at the physical infrastructure, but we definitely do think that we need to answer those questions to understand what a university really is.

Now, we aren’t all that worried about universities. A university itself is mostly a concept, and we all have enough of a rough idea of what makes something a university that as long as it isn’t too extreme we’re willing to go with what authorities or self-identification says. Thus, we think that we understand the concept well-enough that we don’t need to do a deep dive into what it really means to be a university, especially since the details of what makes a university really a university aren’t that important to us. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for qualia or consciousness. We don’t have a “close enough” idea of consciousness to work with — as Chalmers’ philosophical zombie example shows — and it really seems that we’d need to have an explanation or understanding of qualia to understand consciousness. So it seems to me that Pigliucci is making the category mistake here, not Chalmers, by assuming that the “easy problems” and the physical level are the right level to understand consciousness/qualia when there are good reasons to think that things that can do the things shown in the “easy problems” are not or don’t need to be conscious and that we can have things that are conscious that don’t have biological brains (like artificial consciousness). To return to the analogy, an online university would show that you can have a university without those physical buildings at all, and repurposed university buildings would show that you can have the same or at least a very similar infrastructure without having a university, which would give us good reason to think that what it means to be a university is not defined by that physical infrastructure. The same, then, would apply to consciousness and qualia.

You may have noticed that Chalmers asks two conceptually distinct questions, which will be answered (again, if at all) by two distinct fields of science: first, why does consciousness exist? Presumably, because it is advantageous for the organisms that possess it, like any other biological structure or property. So the answer to that question will come from evolutionary biology, probably along the lines of “organisms capable of conscious experience are better able to navigate their environment, thus increasing their survival and reproduction.”

Second, Chalmers asks how consciousness works. There the answer will come from neuroscience (and developmental biology). Indeed, we already have a good number of partial answers, relating to the neural bases of several aspects of conscious behaviors. We know quite a bit about the neurobiology of conscious and unconscious states, as well as of perception. We also know about a number of neurological disorders affecting consciousness, which provide us with precious clues about the phenomenon itself. Do we have a complete solution to the problem? Not even close. But that’s true in a number of other scientific fields (origin of life, fundamental physics, just to mention two), so that’s no argument to decree the problem of consciousness unsolvable by science.

The first question is not simply “Why do we have consciousness/qualia?” but is really more like “Why does qualia exist at all?”. In order to evolutionary biology to answer it, we would have to assume that it is causally efficacious, so that it can be selected for. The problem for Pigliucci here is that both the materialist theory of consciousness and the materialist objection to dualism suggest that qualia itself cannot be causally efficacious. The materialist model that, at least, Pigliucci is advocating for insists that consciousness is determined by neural activations. As Chalmers has pointed out, it seems like those activations can occur without the need for any accompanying qualia. Chalmers’ zombies can have neural activations without qualia and yet still do everything they need to do to act conscious. To suggest that qualia itself can be a distinct cause introduces a problem of over-determination, as following the causes at the neural level is sufficient to explain the effects and introducing a separate cause seems at best unnecessary. So if you think that neurology is sufficient to explain qualia, then you need to explain where the causal power of qualia itself comes into play. And the materialist argument against substance dualism, at least, uses that fact as an argument against dualism, arguing that there is no room for any other cause to come into play in determining our behaviour. But then there is also no room for qualia to come into play in determining our behaviour. And if qualia cannot play a role in determining our behaviour, then it cannot have been selected for, and so Pigliucci’s answer to the first question cannot be right. But this would then still leave the question of why we even have qualia open, and it’s a question that we think we should be able to answer.

The second question doesn’t really work out much better for Pigliucci. First, his answer would mean that we could never have anything that’s conscious and has qualia without it having a physical brain. And I don’t mean “some kind of ‘brain’ that does consciousness and qualia things”, but it would have to be a brain like ours with neurons and the like. If we can have consciousness in things that don’t have a brain like that — such as artificial consciousnesses — then studying the neurology of the brain is going to be about as useful in understanding consciousness as studying the physical infrastructure is in understanding what a university is. And we have no scientific reason to think that only human beings or biological beings like them can be conscious, even if so far the only examples we’ve seen have been those sorts of entities. Essentially, to make that move would be to say that you can never have an online university because the ones we’ve seen have had that physical infrastructure.

The second issue is that he would need to be able to explain why it is that when we stick neurons together in the right way they produce the experience of qualia they have. Why does qualia result from those interactions? This is a much tougher problem than Pigliucci seems to admit, because there is nothing at the physical/neurobiological level that can point to qualia itself. We can’t “see” qualia at that level. Qualia is not a property at that level. And yet we are going to have to show, at that level, where qualia comes from. That’s .. a monumentally difficult task. Just at that level, I’m not going to claim it impossible (there are other reasons, by appealing to the nature of qualia, to claim that), but it’s difficult enough to see a path for that that Pigliucci insisting that that’s the way to answer that question seems … optimistic, to say the least.

Sometimes Chalmers & co. seem to be asking an altogether different question, which is — so far as I can tell — equally problematic. For instance, Frank Jackson has proposed a thought experiment concerning an hypothetical neuroscientist named Mary. Here is how it goes, from Jackson’s “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” published in 1982 in Philosophical Quarterly (volume 32, pp. 127–136):

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red,” ‘blue,” and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue.’ … What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?”

This is baffling. The problem lies in the ambiguity of the last question: what does Jackson mean by “learning anything”? Mary will, obviously, have a new experience, one she had not had before. So, if experiences count as learning, the answer is a (trivial) yes. If, however, we are asking whether she is going to learn something scientifically valuable about the mechanisms of color perception by seeing color for the first time the answer (also trivially) is no.

Let me use an analogy to make the point even more clear. Suppose you study everything there is to know about the physics of bicycles and of their interaction with human riders. But you have, somehow, never actually ridden one of those contraptions. The first time you do, are you going to “learn anything”? Yes (you are going to have a new experience), and no (you aren’t going to acquire additional knowledge about the physics of bicycle riding).

Pigliucci again misses the point, mostly here by insisting on us learning something “scientifically valuable” when the whole point of the thought experiment is to show that the knowledge that science produces and wants is going to leave something important out. Let’s start with the analogy. If you study all of the scientific details of how to ride a bike, knowing how the muscles work to keep your balance and how the physics of the pedals and propulsion works, and so on, there will be one important thing that you won’t know how to do: you won’t know how to ride a bike! You will get on the bicycle and likely fall over as you try to pedal away because all of those scientific facts didn’t teach you how to actually ride a bike. Once you take the time to actually learn how to ride a bike, then you will know how to ride a bike. But no matter how much you study those physical facts, they will never teach you how to ride a bike. This is not you having a new experience. This is you learning something completely new.

The same thing, it is argued, applies to qualia. Mary can study those physical facts all she wants, but that will never teach her what it is actually like to have qualia. She will never know what it really feels like to see the colour yellow until she actually has that experience. So having that experience seems like it teaches her something new: what it is like to experience that colour. If we think that it is possible to know what it is like to experience qualia, then that’s knowledge that she would gain from actually having that experience. Since that knowledge would persist even when one is no longer experiencing that colour and even if the person is no longer able to experience that colour, it can’t be the case that Mary is merely having a new experience. She learns something about what it means to experience colour. And it seems that this knowledge is key to understanding qualia and consciousness. So she learns something non-trivially true and important, and something that she cannot learn from studying all of the physical facts about experiencing colour. So it seems like Jackson’s experiment works to show that she does learn something … and that Pigliucci’s own analogy demonstrates that instead of refuting it.

Not content of having created a problem that doesn’t exist, Chalmers & co. have been proposing a number of “solutions” to it.

So far, Pigliucci hasn’t established that the problem doesn’t exist. Even if his arguments worked, he might have gotten to the point of establishing that it isn’t as tough a problem as they think it is, but since we still don’t have answers to this by Pigliucci’s own admission it would still have to be some sort of problem. And his arguments don’t work either.

But he goes on to talk about two of the solutions: dualism and panpsychism. Let’s start with dualism:

Dualism comes in two forms: substance and property. Substance dualism has been out of fashion since the time of Descartes, who was the last champion of the idea that there are two different kinds of substance in the world: matter and mind (famously, and entirely arbitrarily, he suggested that the point of interaction between the two substances is the pineal gland of the human brain). Property dualism is the notion that there is only matter, but that it somehow acquires certain properties (consciousness) when it is arranged in a certain way.

Now, if you simply put it the way I just did, I would find the notion entirely unproblematic, though I wouldn’t call it dualism. All sorts of new physical properties “emerge” when matter is organized one way or another. For instance, the wetness of water does not exist at the level of individual molecules of H2O. It emerges only when there is a large number of such molecules, and when they interact with each other within certain ranges of pressure and temperature.

What makes property dualism a kind of dualism is the further stipulation that consciousness is ontologically irreducible to neurobiology and physics. But why? If we simply stipulate this, we are engaging in a massive instance of begging the question. If, instead, we are invoking irreducibility just on the ground that science hasn’t arrived at it yet, then we are making an argument from ignorance. Either way, things don’t look good for dualism.

First, substance dualism hasn’t been out of fashion since the time of Descartes because he was the most famous originator of the idea. There have been other champions of the idea, and it’s only the rise of extreme empiricism/materialism that has had it fall out of favour. But even as recently as twenty years ago, it was still an idea taught in Philosophy of Mind courses and one that most professors in the field will not fail you for believing, even if they disagree with it (as evidenced by my own degree).

Second, Pigliucci gets property dualism wrong, as it actually posits that we have two sorts of properties: mental and physical. Objects can have these properties in varying proportions. So, no, it’s not about emergence. Moreover, the “Water is wet” example is a bad one because we have to note that “wetness” seems to be a mental property, in the sense that we define “wetness” by how it feels to us. You can’t refute property dualism by claiming that what might be a mental property is emergent.

Finally, Pigliucci wants to make the claim that dualism is in trouble by appealing to arguments that his opponents don’t make, specifically that they are merely asserting the claim instead of arguing for it. They don’t simply stipulate it, and so aren’t begging the question. Nor are they simply saying that science hasn’t found it yet. They are arguing that the nature of these properties really doesn’t look like something that science can explain, and Pigliucci has done nothing to show that that’s not the case. This part is really, really problematic since Pigliucci has already spent some time talking about the problems they think materialism has that would require some kind of dualism, and yet here seems to completely ignore that their dualism would, rather obviously, be based on the argument that material explanations and physical phenomena can’t solve those problems. I know that Pigliucci doesn’t see those as actually being problems, but to move from that to insisting that they are simply asserting their conclusion or saying that science hasn’t solved it yet so their’s is the better solution is completely disingenuous. If they ended up convinced by Pigliucci’s arguments, then they wouldn’t be dualists anymore, and if they aren’t convinced by his arguments then that’s where the debate has to be held, not by asserting that they are being disingenuous because his arguments are clearly true and those are the only options left.

(I also wrote about yet another famous thought experiment proposed by Chalmers, arguing for dualism: the so-called philosophical zombies. He says that it is conceivable that one could encounter what looks and acts like a human being, including having a human-like brain structure and the capacity for language, and yet that this being would not have conscious experiences. The problem is that conceivability establishes nothing. For a long time it was conceivable that one could square the circle. It turns out that this is mathematically impossible. Just as it is physically impossible, in the universe in which we live, to have a living organism that is identical in structure to another and that nevertheless lacks some of the latter’s properties.)

No, it was never actually conceivable that you could square a circle. Even if we thought that you could or might be able to — which is not something I have ever encountered in either philosophy or mathematics — at most it would have turned out that we were wrong about that. We do not merely eliminate a square circle mathematically, but analytically/logically: it is conceptually impossible to have something that is both a square and a circle because their key conceptual concepts clash. That means that it’s logically impossible to do that. There is no possible world where that can happen. Pigliucci’s appeal to it being physically impossible in our universe to have a Chalmerian philosophical zombie is not the same kind of impossibility at all, and thus Chalmers might indeed be able to say that it’s still conceivable. So Pigliucci is going to need to show that either that thing isn’t actually conceivable without conceptual contradiction, or show that conceivability itself is meaningless here. For that, we need to know what Chalmers’ argument actually is. Pigliucci links to another post of his where he attempts to summarize it:

Back to Chalmers. He claimed to have revived dualism — despite the generally bad reputation the word has even among philosophers — and developed the following argument in support of his startling conclusion (this is Hanrahan’s, I think fair, formalization of if):

premise 1: We can conceive of a world populated by some zombie twins, who act exactly as we do, have our same physiology and internal structure, our brain and our psychology. But they do not have any conscious experience whatsoever.

premise 2: Conceivability provides us with a guide to possibility.

premise 3: It is possible that there is a world populated by our zombie twins.

conclusion 1: If this is possible, then materialism [the idea that everything is made of matter/energy] is false.

conclusion 2: If materialism is false, then dualism is true.

QED (Quod Erat Demonstrandum, as we wished to demonstrate)

That’s not really the full argument, though. If it is conceptually possible to have a zombie that has both our physical structure and actions and behaviour but yet nevertheless does not have qualia, then it is clearly not the case that what it means to have qualia is to have that particular physical structure, activity and behaviour. Thus, materialism about mind seems to be a non-starter, because you would never be able to demonstrate qualia by appealing to those things, either separately or in combination. Thus, you need some kind of non-physical explanatory layer, which then could lead to some sort of property dualism. Note that the last conclusion doesn’t follow because some sort of neutral monism would work as well.

So the point is conceptual, and is the one I’ve noted above: if we can validly think of qualia as being a distinct concept from the physical associations and instantiations in the brain, then what it means to be qualia is not the same thing as those physical associations and instantiations. So that conceivability seems important, at least for distinguishing the two and raising the issue. Pigliucci might argue that nevertheless they are the same, but he’d need to do one of two things: either prove that such a conceptualization actually is logically impossible (like it is for square circles) or, as he is more likely to do, to show that in this world such a thing is merely physcially impossible (which violates the idea of artificial consciousness and still wouldn’t provide an explanation for qualia). Either way, Pigliucci cannot simply ignore it.

Back to panpsychism. Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder has written an essay explaining why the notion that consciousness is elemental is incompatible with fundamental physics. Here is how she summarized the core of her argument:

“If you want a particle to be conscious, your minimum expectation should be that the particle can change. It’s hard to have an inner life with only one thought. But if electrons could have thoughts, we’d long have seen this in particle collisions because it would change the number of particles produced in collisions. In other words, electrons aren’t conscious, and neither are any other particles. It’s incompatible with data.”

I haven’t read the essay in detail, but from the quote there’s a serious problem here: Hossenfelder and Pigliucci would trying to refute panpsychism in total by appealing to a very specific presentation of it. First, if it only had one thought, it would still be reasonable to call it conscious, which would refute her entire argument as there would be no difference to be seen in particle collisions. Second, who says that if it had different thoughts that we’d have to see different particles in collisions? I mean, we can concede that humans are conscious, and yet the thoughts they are having when they bump into streetlights don’t seem to have that much impact on what happens when they do. Why would the thoughts impact that level of consciousness necessarily? To say that panpsychism is incompatible with the data is to insist on particular interpretations of what the data should be wrt panpsychism without understanding in detail what the theory actually implies. There is, as far as I can see, no necessary implication that panpsychism means different numbers of particles would appear in particle collisions, and it’s far too early for those sorts of theoretical judgements anyway. And I say that speaking as someone who is not convinced of panpsychism. Hossenfelder does not know enough about panpsychism to insist that this is what we must see, as even panpsychists don’t know enough to say that.

Pigliucci tries to deal with a response from Goff:

First off, Hossenfelder is most definitely not assuming that consciousness is a non-physical property. If it were, she wouldn’t expect it to show up in physical experiments.

She would have to be assuming that the particles are not the traditionally physical ones, at least, so that if that was there they’d have to appear differently. Otherwise, if they weren’t detectable physically the fact that we don’t see them wouldn’t count in any way against panpsychism.

Second, I simply don’t know what it means to say that “mass, charge and spin are forms of consciousness.” Notice that Goff says that this is assumed ex hypothesi, that is, a priori. Problem is: this assumption is precisely what is under scrutiny, so one cannot take it as foundational. Are there any empirical reasons to think it holds? No, by definition.

But by accepting that, Pigliucci renders her counter-argument pointless, proving my point: her counter relies on a particular conception of panpsychism that panpsychists don’t seem to hold. Thus, one can wonder why Piugliucci would rely on it at all.

First, the panpsychist has to come up with a good argument for why there should be anything to say about electrons, quarks, etc. above and beyond their physical properties. The search for essences — which is what Goff is talking about — should have ended sometime during the Middle Ages, with the demise of the Scholastics. Second, even if we entertain the possibility that particles have essences, then we need to be told what such essences would look like, and how we could discover them. Last, but not least, the panpsychist would still have to come up with a positive reason for why the essence of particles is consciousness. Oh, and after all of that, we still wouldn’t know why human beings have first person experiences and rocks don’t. Or do they?

For the first point, the problems of consciousness raise one reason to think so, as well as the fact that we don’t have any reason to claim that there can’t be anything else either. I also think Pigliucci is too dismissive of the idea of essences, and is making a sort of philosophical “argument ad hominem” against the claim, much as he does for dualism. If the explanations work and make more sense, it doesn’t matter if people had rejected them before. Second, there is no reason to think that panpsychists won’t and haven’t taken some time to examine that, even if it isn’t Pigliucci’s preferred scientific/empirical approach. For the third problem, again that’s the problems of consciousness. So, again, Pigliucci is dismissing this far too blithely based on the assumption that it is merely assertion.

There is a very basic problem with what Chalmers, Goff, and others are trying to do: they are engaging in a type of metaphysics that used to be called “first philosophy,” to employ the term used by Aristotle. The last great work in this field was published in 1641 by René Descartes: “Meditations on First Philosophy, in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated.” Descartes was alive right at the beginning of the scientific revolution. He was a contemporary of Galileo, and thought of himself as a natural philosopher, i.e., a scientist. Galileo too thought of himself as a (natural) philosopher. And there is a reason why today we look back at those two and label one a philosopher, the other a scientist.

That reason is that Descartes’ intellectual program has ran into the ground, while Galileo’s has taken flight. Science has replaced first philosophy, despite the fact that some philosophers have a hard time letting go. Does that mean that metaphysics is a thing of the past? Not at all. I’ve argued that philosophy, in part, make progress by simultaneously spinning off scientific disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology, psychology) while at the same time reinventing and repositioning itself with respect to those disciplines (philosophy of physics, of chemistry, of biology, of psychology).

The same is happening to metaphysics. While Chalmers is still practicing first philosophy, James Ladyman, Don Ross, and others are engaged in a program that they refer to as “scientific metaphysics.” This is the idea that metaphysics is not in the business of discovering new things about the world (science does that job now), but is rather tasked with making sense of the general picture that emerges from the sciences. Any individual science is not well suited for that task, because scientific research is highly specialized. To step back and see the whole, to appreciate how the disparate bits and pieces of information hang together, requires a different kind of approach, one that is best pursued by scientifically-minded metaphysicians.

Pigliucci makes a critical philosophical error here: assuming that he can define what sorts of evidence or approaches are valid by asserting that instead of arguing for it. The idea that we could demonstrate things about the world from “First Philosophy” has never gone away not because philosophers have a hard time letting go, but because the argument that it can’t be done itself always “runs aground” when we try to apply it. The big reason why empirical science works better for most questions about the world is because “First Philosophy” has an issue with connecting to the world itself. If you’re sitting in your armchair imagining things, how do you know what, say, exists in this world as opposed to simply existing in a possible world? You can’t get mere physical impossibility from the armchair, so you can’t know whether the things you are imagining can exist in this world based on the physical laws. But if something is logically impossible, you absolutely can know that that thing cannot exist in this world, because it cannot exist in any world. And if you could make the Ontological Argument work and show that something absolutely had to exist in any world, you could show that it must exist in this one. And if you have to deal with things that are not empirical or not physical, then you aren’t going to have any choice except to work from “First Philosophy”, or else simply insist for no good reason that it simply cannot be understood, which is always going to seem like defeatism without some kind of conceptual argument to appeal to. All Pigliucci is doing here is taking a default presumption of his own worldview and insisting that everyone else must follow along with his presumptions, and then redefining the phenomena and fields to align with that presumption. But the metaphysics that he proposes may not be interesting, and empirical science may not be able to solve the problems that he thinks it can solve, leaving room in both for “First Philosophy”.

What is crucial in philosophy, it seems to me, is this: philosophy says that there is always a question of whether the methodology you are using to try to solve a problem is the right one for that problem. This applies to questions where we insist that empirical science can’t solve it and some sort of First Philosophy is required just as much as it does where someone insists that empirical science is the only method by which we can gain knowledge, or that First Philosophy cannot produce knowledge about the world. Pigliucci does not have the arguments to establish that “First Philosophy” can never give us knowledge — as none that work exist, at least so far — and so is relying on the rather tired “But science has done so well!” argument. That argument works right up until someone gives a reason why it might not work for a particular question. The people Pigliucci is arguing with have given such reasons. Pigliucci needs to spend more time dealing with those reasons and less time simply asserting that there can be no such reasons.

Thoughts on “V”

February 18, 2020

So, after watching “Alien Nation”, I wanted to rewatch the V miniseries and TV series, because “Alien Nation” was done by Kenneth Johnson after being originated by someone else in the movie, while V was done originally by Kenneth Johnson but continued by others afterwards due to creative differences (which I found out about from Chuck Sonnenberg’s review of the first miniseries. Since I didn’t watch the original “Alien Nation” movie, this wasn’t going to be a comparison of how well each moved on from their starting points, but more a note on how well each series went after its starting point. But since I’ve also read “The Second Generation” which was Johnson’s novel that continued V from his original miniseries (with a 20 year gap), I can also talk a bit here and in my comments on that novel about how the miniseries did compared to Johnson’s vision.

Johnson — again I heard this from Chuck Sonnenberg — was inspired by “It Can’t Happen Here”, and was meant to be an examination of how a free society can turn into a totalitarian one, which did indeed work in the first miniseries. The second miniseries kept that basic idea, but definitely shifted more towards following an active Resistance rather than having the world itself be subverted, and ended with the Visitors being driven off the planet. Given what Johnson wanted to do and how he continued the story in “The Second Generation”, it seems that this was the main creative difference that caused him to leave. That being said, I think that this was a good move, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that that sort of model was going to be very hard to pull off for a long period of time given how it was constructed. The Visitors were completely inhuman, and were using disguises to avoid generating distrust of their real forms. All it would take was for them to be revealed as reptilian and the subversion wasn’t going to work all that well, and to maintain their disguises at all times for years. Sure, they had control of the media and so it might not get out quickly, but over time it eventually would, especially since even those in the media who were nominally on their side would probably find out and then turn on them. Moreover, the Visitors were pretty much pure evil, with incredibly evil plans. They ate and enslaved people and were going to take all of the water from the planet. It was going to be difficult to keep that under wraps for a long time, and as soon as those plans were revealed it would cause major uprisings. But the final nail in the coffin was that the Visitors came preaching benevolence and trying to rally the humans to their side on that basis. The problem is that it’s difficult to build a totalitarian system on benevolence. It’s hard to justify imposing tight restrictions on the entire populace on the basis that they’re opposing giving you stuff. Every restriction or brutality imposed would make the Visitors look less and less benevolent and more and more threatening, and thus would make them look like a threat themselves. Once that benevolent image was burst, there’d be no buttress against the inevitable Resistance. It’s far easier to justify totalitarianism on the basis of there being a threat, promising a return to normal conditions once the threat is eliminated. The miniseries did try to present scientists as that sort of threat, but that was a threat to the Visitors, not one that most humans would feel was a real threat, certainly not one justifying the reaction the Visitors had to them. If the Visitors had come claiming that an alien race was going to attack them and that they were going to upgrade their technology so that they could participate in the fight and defend themselves, they’d have an external threat to appeal to and the ability to blame Resistance on covert operations from those aliens. Even if they were revealed to be reptilian, if they could manufacture evidence that there really were covert operations on the planet then an excuse of “We wanted to make you feel more comfortable” would work, and allow them to operate more openly. But without any real threat to play against, their actions would erode the sense that they were benevolent and make their regime quite unstable.

The other reason is that when it came to the second miniseries, with no real idea that it would be continued, there needed to be some kind of resolution to the issue. It wouldn’t do to simply have it end with things in flux, and at the time downer endings, especially for shows that were aimed at a general audience, weren’t really popular. Given the power and evil of the Visitors, sharing the Earth wasn’t going to work, and it needed some kind of weapon that would chase them off and keep them away. The Red Dust worked well for that and gave an appropriately positive ending. I’m not sure how well Johnson’s idea would have worked as an ending of the series or as a lead-in to a TV series.

One thing that I noted about moving from the two miniseries to the TV series is that it’s pretty much seamless. You can indeed move from the second miniseries directly to the TV series and it seems like a direct continuation. Part of this is because it actually is, as it takes some footage that was probably from the miniseries and uses it to set the scene, but another reason is that pretty much everyone seems the same, as it has the same characters, themes and look. Because of this consistency, it really fits together as one work instead of being three different works in the same universe.

The TV series, oddly enough, returns to the roots of the first miniseries, with a focus on there being a Resistance fighting against totalitarian Visitors. However, it is far more combat based than subversion based, as the Visitors seemed to have given up on subversion for the most part. But this leads to a bit of an issue, as the news reports suggest that it’s a desperate and ad hoc Resistance when it really should be more like Harry Turtledove’s “World War” series. Because the Red Dust needs a dormant cold period to propagate, the parts of the world close to the poles were free from Visitors while the warmer parts were under siege. While initially missiles fired at the Motherships were shot down or ineffective, we know from the miniseries that their fighter craft and ground-based weapons weren’t. This would mean that things like tanks would actually be effective on them. In the two miniseries, the Visitors had enough control to forestall using those things against them, but here they wouldn’t. Just in North America, the industrial capacity of the northern United States and all of Canada could be brought to bear against them, which should make for open pitched battles, not small Resistance attacks at various places. So the premise became a bit incredible at that point.

What also caused issues was making Nathan Bates, the leader of Free Los Angeles, being, again, pretty much evil, except for a brief Heel-Face turn at the very end. Making him an ambitious man wanting to control the city but knowing that he had to keep the Visitors at least nominally satisfied to keep control while maintaining a threat to hold over them would have him as a character trying to play a complicated game to keep the balance. He should have wanted to keep Julie working for him to have a link to the Resistance and even to try to keep them in play as a threat to the Visitors, while having to make sure that they don’t become too effective so that they didn’t prompt the Visitors to take direct action. There are hints of this, but for the most part he’s a direct antagonist and pretty much an evil person, which didn’t really work and squandered an interesting opportunity.

Towards the end of the series, from what I recall money ran tight — science fiction shows cost a lot of money for special effects, and V had a pretty big cast — and so they had to strip things down a bit. This resulted in a lot of characters leaving, but most of them were kinda perfunctory. Elias was killed off by being disintegrated as part of a raid, so as an aside in an episode, and then after that Ham and Chris simply left. Nathan Bates was killed off. Robin left. But later they had an opportunity to have Mike Donovan — played by Marc Singer — leave with a good exit, and they didn’t take it. He stayed behind to help a woman and her daughter oppose the Visitors, and there was a potential romantic interest there, and while there was talk about his staying with them he returned to L.A. with a minor promise to come back again some day. This, of course, is how those stories ran in those days. But since they were shedding characters, it would have been a great time for them to subvert expectations and have him stay. He wouldn’t be abandoning the fight because that area needed a leader that they didn’t have, while the L.A. Resistance had people who could step in and fill his spot (as arguably Julie was always more the leader anyway). The romantic relationship with Julie was at best being ignored and at worst was completely over, so that wasn’t keeping him there (and they had to be ignoring it to make his flirtation not seem like betraying her). Having him leave there and keeping, say, Elias around — as his death is one that could have been had by any red shirt — would allow them to have someone like Elias have to step up to fill his role, which would have given an interesting character dynamic to carry the rest of the season beyond the simple Resistance plots. They might have felt that losing their biggest name would have hurt the numbers, but the show didn’t last the season anyway and I do think that at that point people were watching it for more than Marc Singer.

Jennifer Cooke — whom I talked about a bit while talking about the sixth “Friday the 13th” movie — played the Star Child in the series. Now, in my previous viewings of the series, I tended to think that she wasn’t a very good actress, but on this rewatch I don’t think that’s true. The problem isn’t with her acting, but with the character she’s playing and the script that she had to work with. At the start, when she transforms from the little girl to the woman, she can’t speak, and has to convey the emotions without saying a word, and she does it pretty well. However, Elizabeth is a character that’s supposed to be naive, vulnerable and decidedly human while still being strange and otherworldly. That’s very hard to pull off, and while I think that Cooke pulled it off pretty well, the dialogue often didn’t. So I’m now liking her performance a lot more than I did originally.

Anyway, I had already watched this once, and nothing in this rewatch has made me change my mind. I will almost certainly rewatch this again, even given its issues.

What Does it Mean to Be a Fan?

February 17, 2020

So, recently, Chuck Sonnenberg did a review of “Equestria Girls”. Now, that spin-off is pretty controversial in the “My Little Pony” fandom, and so Chuck felt the need to qualify his discussion of the movie (this is at about the 35 minute mark), noting that he wasn’t really a fan of the franchise and so didn’t have the emotional connection and so his comments shouldn’t be taken to in any way oppose those fans who were upset by the move. However, the impression I had from it is that he was saying that because he didn’t have the emotional connection to the franchise that they had he couldn’t be considered a fan of the series. But even if that was merely a somewhat awkward way of phrasing the more common idea that someone who is a fan will have an emotional connection to it, there’s one key element to both of those interpretations: that part and parcel of being a fan of a franchise is to have a specific sort of emotional attachment or connection to it. And this led me to ask the question: if that’s part and parcel of being a fan of a particular franchise, can I really say that I’m a fan of any franchise?

I’m only going to talk about, essentially, fiction franchises, in movies or on TV or in books or comics or whatever. I’m going to leave aside sports fandom, because things are a bit more complicated there. One could say that they’re a fan of a particular sport, but then if they said that they had an emotional attachment to that sport that would seem odd. On the other hand, one could say that they’re a fan of a particular team or player, but then saying that they didn’t have an emotional attachment to the team or player so that they are happy when they succeed and unhappy when they fail would be odd. The closest comparison would be saying that you’re a fan of a particular genre — which wouldn’t imply an emotional attachment — but then are a fan of a particular franchise. Still, the question remains if being a fan of a franchise means that you have to have a sort of emotional attachment to it. If so, it’s not being happy at its success or unhappy at its failure. It would have to be something more complicated than that.

After thinking about it, the only franchise that I could feel that I had an emotional connection to might be the “Star Wars” franchise, although I don’t consider myself a bigger fan of that franchise than others like, say, “Star Trek”. Examining that, though, it seems that that emotional connection comes from the fact that I got heavily involved with it as a kid. It’s more nostalgia, it seems to me, than any “fandom” type of emotional connection. And for the examples that Chuck has tended to use, he has the same sort of background. An interesting comparison point would be the “Transformers” series, as Chuck had the toys as a child and definitely has the nostalgic connection there, while I merely watched the series and, when I played them, played them with my “Star Wars” figures and some toy cars. I don’t have the same emotional connection as Chuck does. Does this mean that I’m not a fan?

And we can imagine that emotional connections can come from various sources. Someone might feel an emotional connection to a series or franchise because it taps into something inside them. “My Little Pony” is actually a good example of this because of how it was designed for and seems to resonate with girls more than boys, and is one of relatively few franchises to not only do that, but to be deliberately aimed at doing that. It’s unique in that way, and it’s easy to imagine girls and even women feeling connected to the franchise because of the impression that it was built just for them and, presumably (since I don’t watch that franchise), doing it well. But we can get the same sort of connections from it having themes that resonate personally with certain people. Spider-Man, for example, resonated, at least originally, with awkward teenagers, having the same sorts of problems that they have. A work that expresses a political or philosophical stance or worldview that resonates with someone will forge an emotional connection with them. The most common cases of this are ones where someone might be able to say that they feel that the work “gets them”, usually through its viewpoint character. But these sorts of emotional connections don’t seem to be the way most people will interact with works, and so would greatly limit what we can be considered to be a “fan”.

I think that what Chuck comments on just a little later gets us closer to a decent definition of what it really means to be a fan of a franchise. He seems to generally enjoy watching the episodes that he reviews, but later he notes that he watches some episodes that he needs to watch to get the context for his reviews, but what is implied by its absence is that he doesn’t seem to watch the episodes just for fun. If someone pays him to review one, he watches it, but it doesn’t sound like he seeks out the episodes or rushes to watch it when a new season comes out. So it would seem reasonable to say that Chuck isn’t a fan of the series because while he will watch the episodes in it, he won’t seek them out deliberately. And this aligns with my view of how I think of my own fandom. The things I’m a fan of, I’ll seek out things in it and make a deliberate and concerted effort to consume it, but I won’t do that for things that I’m not a fan of. So, that was certainly the case for “Star Wars” and, to some degree, “Star Trek”, but isn’t the case for “Doctor Who” (as I only watch that or purchase the DVDs when it’s convenient). In the comic realm, it’s certainly that I’m a Deadpool and X-Men fan, but not a true fan of The Incredible Hulk, as I’ll pick up some Hulk comics if they seem interesting, but haven’t watched the movies at all and will only do so if they’re interesting. So it seems to me that when it comes to fictional media, at least, the best minimal definition of a fan is someone who will seek out the media to consume instead of merely consuming it when it’s convenient.

What this also does it answer a criticism that I had encountered on forums, when I commented that it was difficult to say that I was still a “Star Wars” fan because of the Disney “Star Wars” versions. Someone responded that it seemed pretty sad to no longer be a fan of a franchise because of some works that I didn’t like, but the reason I said that is because I no longer care about the franchise anymore. While in the past I would have made any new “Star Wars” movie a must see/must purchase item, I don’t anymore (I have no idea when or if I’ll buy and watch the last one). I used to get any Expanded Universe work unless it covered topics that I didn’t care about at all; now a work has to appeal to me specifically for me to get it. At this point, I no longer seek out “Star Wars” material. I consume it only when it’s convenient or looks interesting. It seems reasonable to me, then, to claim that I’m not a fan of the franchise anymore.

And this sort of fandom can indeed work for Chuck’s examination of “Equestria Girls”. As someone who doesn’t seek out the material itself, it’s difficult for him to assess the impact that the changes might have on the franchise itself. For him, this might seem fresh and interesting, something that simple curiosity might get him to watch. And those people who would rather seen attractively drawn teenage female models — the link to the “Rule 34” point — might find it much more interesting on that level than the ponies were. And so for those outside the fandom, this might be something interesting and, in fact, might well see it as an improvement. Moving away from the ponies and toward something more human-like might be, for them, when the series “got good”. Shamus Young commented on this phenomena wrt the “Mass Effect” series. The move from deep, details-oriented science fiction to a more standard action plot definitely can appeal to a larger audience, but it isn’t what the original fans were after and, as Shamus noted, lost a unique element that didn’t exist in other works.

This, then, can show what some of the issues with “Equestria Girls” might be, to the fans. There are two broad categories of objections fans can have to the move. One is them having some interest in the change, but worrying that those making that move aren’t going to do so in a way that is consistent with the franchise itself. In this case, there may well be a number of fans who found the idea of the ponies as humans interesting, but worried that it wouldn’t be the ponies as teenage girls, but instead simply using “My Little Pony” as a veneer over top of a bog standard teenage angst cartoon. For “Equestria Girls”, those in charge of “My Little Pony” were involved in it as well, but Chuck gives multiple quotes from key figures insisting that it was done respectfully and in line with “My Little Pony”. Fans of the original franchise who were interested in that exploration still didn’t want it to be see as a mere cash grab or perfunctory attempt. If they were going to explore it, they wanted them to explore it, and not just handwave at it.

The other comes from the fans who have no interest in exploring that concept, but note that the concept is probably more popular and so fear that the concept will, in fact, prove more popular and so will replace the original concept. This only gets worse if the audience that the concept will appeal to is not the original audience, hence the complaints about “Equestria Girls” appealing to “Bronies” and not to the original audience. Like the move from “Mass Effect”‘s more details- and alien-oriented plot to the more action plot of ME2 and ME3, the fear is that the original concept will be replaced by the new one, in an attempt to appeal to the wider or new audience. Teen animated shows are pretty common, but the pony-based one was relatively unique, and those elements could be lost if “Equestria Girls” was too popular.

This is the sort of reaction that many fans have when things change in an attempt to appeal to women. The fear — and not unreasonable, as we’ve seen it happen — is that a lot of the things that they liked about the franchise are going to be removed to appeal to the new audience. While it does occur, much of the concerns are not simply sexism, but are instead concerns that the franchise is changing to appeal to an audience that wasn’t interested in it before. Even if it works to attract that audience, the original franchise will be lost. And for them, that change is not likely to be an improvement.

Anyway, this is the sort of reaction that Chuck, not being a fan, can’t really emulate in his own opinionated reviews. It’s entirely possible that he’d like the changed version more, and wouldn’t miss the original version. He wouldn’t get a sense of the loss of something that he found uniquely interesting, and interesting enough to seek out. He wouldn’t really lose anything. It would just be the academic response of what seems to work and what doesn’t. There is, as he notes, some benefit to doing that, similar to how I am not really a horror fan but comment continually on what works and doesn’t work in horror movies. Fans may find that despite the issues the works really resonate with them, but commenting on how well the works and the moves and changes are handled is beneficial and can help to make the works better without taking away what the fans like. But, no, neither of us will feel any sense of loss as what we liked is lost and replaced with something we don’t like as much. We won’t miss it because we never really paid attention to it that much in the first place. But the fans did, and they feel that sense of loss.

So I think that I can be a fan of at least some franchises and at least was a fan of some franchises in the past, and that being a fan will at least potentially trigger emotions in certain places. But I don’t think you need to have a strong emotional connection to a work or franchise to be a fan of it. All you need to be a fan is to seek it out and be interested in it, choosing to consume it over other options because it is a part of that franchise. This, then, will trigger some emotions and concerns if things change, like what happened with “Equestria Girls”. But the emotions follow from the fandom, and are not defining traits of fandom.