Archive for May, 2020

Pondering Games Again …

May 29, 2020

So, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned, right now I’m actually busier than I normally am at this time, which has curtailed my game playing. Still, I managed to finish I did manage to finish two Saint’s Row games, and also managed to finish off at least some of the rest of the endings of Steins;Gate Elite, getting about as far as I can get. I’ve still been busy, but I’m starting to try to figure out what games I’m going to play.

Because I spend all day in the bedroom that I use as an “office”, I’ve been biased against playing PC games since I can only play them in that room. It’s nice to be able to get out of that room for a while. I’ve been playing console games for a while because of that, and I have a stack of them to play, including the VNs “The Council” and “Chaos Child”. However, things have opened up a bit where I am and so I was able to finally get my long-delayed pre-order of “Persona 5: Royal”. I also was reading Shamus Young’s discussion of “Marvel’s Spider-Man” and so figured if I could get a mostly complete copy of it I would, and I did (supposedly it’s the Game of the Year edition or something like that that would contain a lot of the DLC). I also managed to get an adapter that will work with my C-64 and Classics consoles and so can revert to my original plan of playing them. And despite what I said above, I am still tempted to just try some of my GOG games.

Persona 5: Royal is the game I’m most interested in playing. However, that game requires me to spend more than an hour or two at a time on it and I don’t really have that right now, at least not on a regular basis. Spider-Man might work in the same vein as the Saint’s Row games, but I’m not sure the gameplay suits me. VNs are not a particularly good genre for me. The Classic Console games would fit in the time I have but might not keep me occupied in general — they might start boring me — and might not work for those times when I have more time to play (Saint’s Row worked very well for when I had limited time and when I had more time due to its nature). And it is very nice to be able to play on my sofa instead of on that chair I sat in all day.

I’ve managed to get those consoles hooked up, so they will stay, which gives me placeholder things to play with, so I figure I’ll start with them. Maybe I’ll have Royal as an option or something to play on weekends, or might slot a GOG game into there.

Thoughts on “Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings”

May 28, 2020

This movie is a prequel that we didn’t really need. It also ends up not really being a prequel, mostly because it hints at a mystery about their origins that it never pays off.

The movie starts with the cannibals from the previous movies in an asylum, where they break free, release the other inmates, and engage in horrific acts, particularly against one doctor. The movie then fast forwards to 20+ years later where a bunch of people get completely and totally lost and end up finding the asylum again, where the three happen to be living, which then spawns another murder spree.

The first problem with this movie is that while we did know at the beginning that the female doctor — who seemed interested in helping them, though primarily for her own benefit, it seems — was going to die, the entire real prequel part of the movie happens in the first ten minutes. This eliminates any interesting thing we might learn about their past, psychological conditions, or strange physical abilities that they seemed to have. It also makes the whole original asylum sequence perfunctory and irrelevant. So, as I noted, it’s not really a strong prequel or origin story at all. They pretty much could have excised it completely and went with a standard cannibal slasher movie and nothing would have changed, and we might have even enjoyed it more. All it really does, then, is establish the setting in the asylum and maybe some facts we find later, none of which needed to be set-up for the sort of movie we were watching.

The second problem is that if you actually stop and think about the set-up, it doesn’t make sense. Why was the asylum even still there? How did they escape from the asylum, as surely the authorities would have come to clean things up after the attacks? To quote Shamus Young’s general question, what did they eat? Why was an asylum built so far away from any kind of civilization? How come nobody knew about it? And how stupid were the people to get that lost but also just happen to stumble across it? If they had taken the general idea so common in horror movies that they had headed out there deliberately to explore the cool old asylum, that at least would have made some sense, but they didn’t, so it made little sense.

There’s also, as a minor issue, a set-up of them, after capturing the cannibals, wanting to kill the cannibals that never really pays off, making it seem like an attempt at something deeper that just falls flat.

The worst, though, is the downer ending. Look, lots of horror movies have downer endings, and it actually seems to be the norm these days. And sometimes they really work. But this one fails miserably, for two big reasons:

1) The ending is perfunctory: they set it up so that the two of them will get away and they end up killing themselves on a barbwire fence that they didn’t notice. It’s supposed to be sudden and shocking, but it comes off more as a “Oh, come on!” than anything else. Mostly because it’s so sudden, so we clearly see that they were aiming for that sort of thing, and had to arrange that just to get that moment. If the moment was great, I would forgive it, but it’s not, and so my overall thought is entirely that it exists solely for the purpose of providing that sort of ending, and so can almost imagine the writers patting themselves on the back for the great twist that I found incredibly boring and trite.

2) Worst, it was unnecessary. A lot of prequels will go for those sorts of endings because it results in a foregone conclusion: in order for the “later” movies to happen, the villains have to win in this one, or at least escape. But not only could the original movies have followed from those two escaping in this one, they arguably would have worked better if they had escaped. Obviously, in the previous movies they weren’t anywhere near that asylum. If the two of them had escaped, the cannibals might have realized that they finally had to leave that place that they had been safe and secure for twenty years, leading to them moving to the place where the first movie happened. That’s probably fair here as well — people would have searched for them — but showing the authorities coming back to the asylum, not finding the cannibals, and then showing them on the road nearing a familiar spot from the original movie — the gas station, perhaps? — would have been far more effective than what we got.

So the movie killed off characters that we probably wanted to survive for no good reason, for an ineffective shocking scene that doesn’t properly utilize the prequel ideas. If I had to sum up the movie, this would probably be it.

I can’t imagine watching this movie again.

Return to Steins;Gate

May 27, 2020

So, I might have mentioned somewhere before that after finishing the two Saint’s Row games I owned I was tempted to go back and finish more of the endings in “Steins;Gate”. So that’s what I’ve been doing the past week.

What the game very much improves on over the anime is that it focuses on Okabe and really lets us get inside his head. From this, we can see his hidden insecurities and how everything is impacting him. This really drives home the effect on him of having to undo the dreams of everyone in order to save Mayumi, and also feeds into some of the endings. At least the one with Moeka — which I’ve just gotten to — the choice to not send the cancelling D-Mail is made because he’s tired of doing it and doesn’t want to keep doing that anymore. Of course, that one isn’t really an ending, so I think I’m going to carry on from that choice because it really ramps up the angst for him and makes him a more interesting character. Whether that puts me on the True Path or not I can’t tell — and don’t really care that much, since I’m not that interested in exploring the entire game — but it just seems like what I want to do.

The endings are, again, pretty detailed considering the fact that they’re pretty obviously not the ones you’re supposed to take. Feris’ works really well for her, and so does Lukako’s. The game takes the time to give you reasons for Okabe to take them, and so it can be seen as a struggle for the character to continue on instead. Unfortunately, there’s little reason for the player to take them — as they know that the game will only continue if they don’t — which dampens it a bit. But once we past the choice and start getting into the consequences, all of that is forgotten.

As noted above, Moeka’s choice is an exception. There’s really no in-character reason not to send the mail, which is probably why the game makes you send it anyway. And the consequences of the choice really come out of nowhere, even though they were telegraphed them in advance which the game ultimately reminds you of. But it’s such a shift in the personalities of some characters that it seems out-of-place, and there is no benefit to Moeka or anyone else for taking it. As noted, it just ramps up the angst on Okabe, which is what makes it more satisfying, but also more out-of-place.

There is more of an impact on Okabe from the choices than there was in the anime, or at least it’s more obvious. While his mad scientist ranting was what annoyed me in the anime, after going through the choices and seeing the many deaths of Mayuri even he says that he’s mostly grown out of that, lamenting that at the one time where he really, really needs to trigger that side of him he simply can’t. This makes him a more sober and somber individual, which ensures that we see that he sees the seriousness of the situation, which drives home to us how serious the situation is. It also helps him in getting closer to Kurise as his seriousness, at times, helps convince her that this really, really is an issue and so gets her to help him (although they often still clash, mostly over how to approach things, with it being clear that she often doesn’t really understand things any better than Okabe does). This does so much to make him more relatable and less annoying. Thus, this is another great improvement over the anime.

I don’t know how much further I’m going to go with this, as it will depend on time and how long things go between endings. I will say that I think I’m in the part where the game is really getting good. Unfortunately, that was about 15 hours into the game, which isn’t a good thing for the game overall. I really think it would have benefited from making the intro a little shorter and adding some of the interesting parts a little earlier.

Thoughts on the “Infinity War” Comic …

May 26, 2020

Due to various events, I ended up digging up a whole bunch of my TPBs and have started re-reading them. Some of them I don’t actually remember reading, and some of them I end up getting bored of (I had a tendency to grab ones that sounded interesting, and sometimes struck out with that method). One of the ones that I did remember was “Infinity War”. I read it right after “Infinity Gauntlet” around the time the movie came out (or, rather, that I watched the movie) and … was disappointed in it. On re-reading it, though, I like it better than I did then.

I think the initial problem for me was with the beginning. I had remembered the initial battle with the dopplegangers, and have to admit that it’s an interesting introduction to the series. However, from a plot perspective it’s at a minimum underused. We don’t get to see this as an overall long-term strategy — although there is a sequence in the TPB that shows the combats in more detail — and it isn’t all that big a part of the villain’s master plan, other than generating an army for him to use. So that part ends up being a bit disappointing, and so if that was what you were interested in it will colour your impression of the book.

It didn’t help, at least originally, that for me I had no idea who the main villain as. I had never heard if Magus and didn’t even know much about Adam Warlock. That the main plot, then, focuses on the clash between the two of them, and the reintroduction of Thanos (whom I didn’t know much about either) just left me watching characters that I didn’t like all that much. Surely there had to be something more interesting to follow.

On the re-read, I knew more about Thanos, at least, so some of his sequences were more interesting. But the key was that I was able to focus more on the Magus this time, and the idea of him as a Chessmaster who had prepared for and predicted everyone move the heroes would make was actually interesting, if a bit overpowered. I found following along with the plan much more interesting this time around, and so enjoyed it more.

This did lead to a letdown at the end of the TPB, however. Magus is not outfoxed, nor is his plan overturned by something that he couldn’t really have foreseen. So at the end, his nature as a planner is ignored, and it’s mostly due to a failure of will and a purportedly stupid mistake that causes him to lose. That’s a bit disappointing, and undermines the one thing that I was really enjoying this time around.

I still like “Infinity Gauntlet” better, but this one is now more tolerable, enough so that I can see myself re-reading the two of them together now, instead of reading “Infinity Gauntlet” mainly on its own.

Is Evolutionary Psychology Impossible?

May 25, 2020

I have talked about evolutionary psychology — or, more often, its critics — before on this blog. For the most part, I’ve found that most of the criticisms of it end up criticizing it for either the failings of evolution or the failings of psychology. Obviously, evolutionary psychologists can overplay and overextend their evolutionary explanations for our psychology, but this is a failing of normal psychology as well that I’ve grumbled about in the past. It’s difficult to find criticism of the field that really takes on the combination of the two.

I’m not sure that the latest criticism going around by Subrena E. Smith really counts, but it is coming from a philosopher and is a novel approach, as it is trying to argue that we could never sufficiently justify an evolutionary explanation for our psychological traits. I will talk about the implications of that more later, but it is important to note now that, despite how some people are viewing it, this would not at all mean that we don’t have traits due to evolution. All it would mean that if there were such traits, we at a minimum couldn’t know what they are. It’s entirely possible that we could find sufficient evidence to know that at least some of our traits have evolved, but have no idea which ones. It is thus an epistemic argument, not a factual.

First, I’m going to examine some of the issues with the argument, and then follow up with what it would mean for psychology and science if the argument actually worked. Note that I don’t have access to her paper, so I’m relying on the blog post cited above and perhaps a bit from this interview with her.

Smith’s main thrust is that evolutionary psychology needs to solve what she calls the “matching problem”, but that it isn’t capable of doing so:

Evolutionary psychological claims, therefore, fail unless practitioners can show that mental structures underpinning present-day behaviors are structures that evolved in prehistory for the performance of adaptive tasks that it is still their function to perform. This is the matching problem.

Well, actually, this doesn’t seem to be the case. When it comes to evolved traits, it seems to me that the most obvious cases are in fact those where we can point to a trait that would have had a specific function in prehistory, but that don’t have that function today, and yet we still have them. If a trait seems like it would have been beneficial in the past but is actually detrimental now, it’s certainly not the case that it is being selected for now based on its having a clear use. This is only going to be more obvious for psychological traits, because as Smith notes our psychological mechanisms are more flexible than our physical ones, but what this means is that if a psychological trait is problematic now something must be maintaining it or, rather, keeping it from changing as part of normal psychological flexibility and plasticity. The two main candidates for that are that it is physically/genetically spawned, or that it is societally spawned. The former is evolutionary psychology, and the latter is an explanation that critics, rightly, say evolutionary psychology needs to be more diligent in ruling out. But at the end of the day, unchanging, detrimental psychological traits that are mostly universal and less individual are going to be the most obvious cases of them being selected for by evolution.

An example of this would be the sweet tooth, although whether that counts as a psychological trait or a more physical one is more debatable. However, seeking out sweet foods was incredibly useful in the past and in prehistory when such things were rare, but now is maladaptive when sweet foods are easy to come by. This is actually causing physical issues with us, including early deaths, and so is something that we wouldn’t have developed in modern times with the modern environment, either by evolution or our early development. And yet, we act that way anyway, and it seems remarkably resistant to attempts to change it. This is a prime candidate for something that has evolved, and as far as I am aware there is little doubt that it is an evolved trait. And yet it no longer performs the same function, and it is precisely that difference that allows us to deduce that it is an evolved trait.

That’s a big issue here. Smith is right to note that with psychology we have to be careful to and yet would have a difficult time differentiating the evolved psychological traits from societal ones or ones that we develop from our existing environment, but the real difficulty with that will be precisely those cases where the function and behaviour are the same, meaning that the current environment is similar enough to the prehistoric one for those traits to roughly work the same way. However, where the environment is sharply different, then we will be able to note all of those traits that are acting in ways that it isn’t reasonable to expect would develop from simple interaction with the environment or that we could get from society. Yet Smith demands that we can only reasonably consider the cases where the behaviour is identical, which are the ones that are the most difficult to separate from our current environment and society. This seems to do evolutionary psychology a disservice. If she was correct that the mechanisms had to have the same function, she’d have a point, but that has never been the case for evolutionary explanations, so it seems unreasonable to insist upon it here.

Another issue comes up when we realize that Smith is relying heavily on the idea of confounds. Throughout the entire piece, she bases her claims for strong required evidence on the basis that if evolutionary psychology can’t meet them, then they can’t separate themselves from the possibility of it being developed either societally or through normal development. But while I myself use confounds against psychology on occasion, what I do is point out that a specific experiment or explanation is not as definitive as those advocating it make it seem. I’m not insisting that their explanation cannot be correct because I can come up with another explanation. Smith is demanding that they demonstrate their case to the degree that she couldn’t come up with any other even semi-reasonable explanation. Confounds don’t work that way.

This also clashes with science. Smith is demanding such a high degree of evidence that we would have to be almost certain that the evolutionary psychological explanation was the correct one. She does this without even considering whether the societal or development models can offer any reasonable explanation for the trait. But science does not work that way. Science always takes the most reasonable explanation given the alternatives. So Smith cannot say that for any trait unless evolutionary psychology can eliminate the other alternatives that we would never accept it as an explanation for a trait. As long as the explanation that is most reasonable is the evolutionary psychological one, that’s the one that we would accept. So, epistemically, she seems to indeed be holding evolutionary psychology to too high a standard.

This only gets worse when we realize that some traits would seem to be more tightly tied to evolution than others. Given how important reproduction is to evolution and how subconscious it is, it would be quite unlikely if none of that was still driven by those initial and underlying evolutionary pressures. We can also see that food preferences, like the sweet tooth, are likely to be driven by those evolutionary pressures. And while Smith gives evolutionary explanations a way out that she doesn’t grant to evolutionary psychology:

Comparative methods are not reliably informative, as there are no extant species that are closely related to Homo sapiens and the relevant behaviors are not generally highly conserved.

… arguments about the secular possibility of morality do precisely that, by noting rudimentary moral behaviour in closely related animals and arguing that thus morality likely evolved. Any psychological trait that has a rudimentary or even relatively full expression in near relative animals would be a prime candidate for a trait that evolved. So Smith needs to ignore cases where we’d have to give the advantage to the evolutionary psychological explanation to insist that it would have to eliminate all the others first.

So, it seems like her argument isn’t particularly strong. But what if it worked? What would that mean for science?

Remember, nothing in Smith’s argument says that evolutionary psychology is factually false. Given what I’ve said above and adding in what we know about the brain — in particular, that we actually have older and newer areas of the brain that evolved under different conditions — it seems pretty likely that at least some of our psychological traits are the result of evolution. So the consequences of her argument are, as noted above, that if there are such traits, psychology — and by extension science — could never discover them. Thus, there are true propositions about the world that science could never discover. This … is not something that scientists should want to accept, especially following on from evolution and the difficulties of justifying those sorts of explanations. Many scientists have been struggling for ages to assure us that science can know anything that is true and that we can know all of our traits have evolved. This is in fact a driving force behind the insistence that consciousness is all in the brain and has evolved along with it. To argue that mental traits cannot be shown to have evolved in principle undercuts all of that. Ultimately, this argument undercuts all arguments from scientism or against the theological notion of the soul.

So it’s kinda surprising that P.Z. Myers likes it so much. Then again, he’s known for supporting short-sighted views if they let him mock a view or group that he really wants to mock.

Smith’s argument isn’t that strong. It especially isn’t all that strong given the strong implication that it has, of potential facts about the world forever cut off from science. If it wasn’t attacking something that many people already dislike, I suspect that more people would be critical of it. As it stands, I don’t think it can establish that evolutionary psychology is, in principle, impossible.

The good old days …

May 22, 2020

I’ve been watching a lot of older shows lately. Shows from a time when we didn’t have the 3533 channels that we can find on cable and satellite systems, and when the idea of a streaming service was something that you’d probably associate with fishing. And while watching those shows, a difference between those days and today struck me.

In those days, even with cable ramping up and there being more channels, the networks were king. And depending on where you were, you might be able to get something like three or four major networks … and if you didn’t have cable, you might not even be able to get all of them over-the-air all the time, especially if you were outside a major city. And if you were outside of a major city, you had no chance of getting cable. I lived outside of a major city/town, and the only time I had access to cable was when I went to stay with my grandparents. And they had, for the longest time, a TV that could only select 13 channels. So, for the most part, most of the best TV was on three or four channels, and that’s all that people could watch.

What this meant was that networks in the prime TV watching time wanted shows that appealed to as broad an audience as possible. Saturday mornings were generally given over to cartoons, and after the watershed hour they would aim at adults, but in “prime time” you really needed to have general appeal. So you needed a show that parents would let their kids watch, but would also be willing to watch themselves. And if you look at shows like “Buck Rogers”, “Charlie’s Angels”, and others, these tended to be shows that mixed some mild action, drama and comedy in with a bit of sex appeal for the adults to provide a show that the whole family could sit down and watch. These were mixed in with relatively safe sitcoms like “Family Ties” and “Growing Pains” that explicitly provided characters that pretty much everyone in the family could relate to in some way.

I don’t think this is true for more modern shows, although I’m not an expert. But you can compare the original Battlestar Galactica series to its reboot, and note that while parents wouldn’t have any problem with their kids watching the original, they almost certainly wouldn’t let at least younger children watch the reboot. It just wasn’t made for them. It’s also hard for me to think of a modern sitcom that the entire family could sit down and watch, although again I admit that I’m not up on modern sitcoms. But you can compare early Simpsons with later Family Guy, for example, and see that the latter would never have been considered mainstream back then.

I think the expansion of channels allows for this, as it allows for creators to make shows aimed more at specific audiences but still be able to attain an audience. We’ve expanded the number of channels and the number of devices, so you don’t have to find a show that everyone will watched. At most when I was growing up, there were two TVs in the house, and one of the reasons we had two was because I was the only person in my family who liked to watch sports, so a small, portable TV let me watch that while everyone else could watch something else. Now, there are multiple TVs and with streaming services you can use more of the devices that everyone has. Also, that allows for a broader audience than just a household and so you can appeal to individuals to get your ratings. This solves one issue the old model had which was … if different people wanted to watch different things you had to compromise. Now, some of them can just go watch what they want to watch somewhere or on something else.

There are good points and bad points to this. Being able to focus on a narrower audience doesn’t force compromises as much and so, in theory, can lead to a better overall work. However, I think this might be what’s causing my impression that modern shows just aren’t in general fun anymore (again, compare the Battlestar Galacticas). You can make the shows deeper and more complex if you don’t have to worry about keeping everyone in the loop, but that tends to sap the fun from the show. The compromise-driven, family-friendly shows really had to focus on being entertaining, since that sort of thing would appeal to everyone. And the one thing that I notice when I move between older and modern shows is that I almost always have fun with the older shows, and don’t have that anywhere near as often with the more modern shows (even if I enjoy them).

Still, I don’t watch as many modern shows as others, and my viewing of older shows suffers from some selection bias. Are my observations reasonable, or am I just missing the point?

Thoughts on “Wrong Turn 3: Left For Dead”

May 21, 2020

The next “Wrong Turn” movie is “Wrong Turn 3: Left For Dead”. Here, the main premise is that the hillbilly cannibals from the first movie end up crossing a ragtag bunch of escaped criminals trying to get away with money from a crashed armoured car, with a couple of innocents along for the ride.

One of the issues with this movie is that the main focus is on the criminals and the situations that develop between them, while the hillbillies are basically hazards that they have to face. This probably isn’t what you want for a continuation of the series. Also, the criminals aren’t exactly sympathetic, which is pretty much by design. It also has an issue at the ending where even the sympathetic characters — except for the Final Girl — end up being selfish and greedy which leads to their deaths in a somewhat anticlimactic climax.

But one of the biggest issues with the movie is that it ruins a set-up. Early on, the female police officer is taunted by a criminal who asks if she likes to be tied up, and she launches into a long description of such a scene while angrily saying that she doesn’t like to be tied up. Towards the end, she has been captured by the hillbillies and tied up with razor wire, as we see when the Final Girl is captured as well. From the scene, it’s unclear if the deputy dies from how she was tied up, or if she deliberately tried to kill herself. If the latter was true, then it would be an interesting callback to that earlier scene. But if that was the intent, they really should have made it clearer what happened. As it is, the things seem disconnected and, taken on their own, rather pointless.

The movie isn’t terrible, but it’s not particularly entertaining either. I’ll talk more about my feelings about it when I summarize the series, but I don’t really think I’ll watch it again.

Genuine …

May 20, 2020

So, I’ve been watching the old TV series “Beauty and the Beast”. The original one, with Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton. I also this past weekend watched all the Avengers movies, which featured Chris Evans as Captain America. Now, one of the interesting things about the Avengers and Captain America movies is that it’s easy to imagine Captain America, as a character, coming across as pretty corny. Superman also has this issue, because both of them are supposed to espouse simple and often simplistic principles and stick to them. They can seem naive to modern audiences that have become used to exploring deeper concepts. This only becomes more obvious if you’re making a team movie like the Avengers and mix them in with darker and more complicated characters. If done improperly, there’s always a risk of them seeming at best quaint, and many writers will instead try to make the character significantly darker to avoid that.

That wasn’t really the case with Evans’ Captain America. While the character did have to deal with more complicated situations than you might have expected from the stereotype of the character, they weren’t situations that were that much more deep or complicated than you might have seen in his comic at various times. The key to Captain America stories is to contrast his view of right and wrong against those who try to compromise them, and the most interesting storylines are those when his view is contrasted with those who are trying to justify compromising principles in the name of the common good, with Cap demonstrating that when you do that you tend to end up with neither your principles nor the common good. While things are more murky in the MCU movies, for the most part this does win out.

But, again, this risks Captain America coming across as preachy and cheesy. And in “Beauty and the Beast”, we get lines that are as cheesy as those you’d find in the cheesiest romance novels (since it is essentially that sort of romance). So there was a huge risk of Cap and the Beast coming across a stilted and cheesy, ruining the drama. And yet, they don’t. Why not?

I think it can be captured in this paraphrase of the old saying: What matters is being genuine. If you can fake that, you have it made.

The key to escaping sounding cornball and cheesy is to convince the audience that the sentiments are genuine. You have to convince the audience that the character, in fact, is saying that because they completely and totally believe it. If they believe it, then the words seem to come from the heart rather than from the script. And if they believe it, then the audience might start to believe it. And then it’s not cheesy dialogue or naive sentiments, but that which is obviously and completely correct, showing the flaws of the more “nuanced” positions.

I have noted before that Chris Evans brought that quality to Captain America. If you were convinced of nothing else, you were convinced that his Captain America really believed that. Ron Perlman’s abilities with his voice also bring that to his portrayal of the Beast, as he clearly believes and feels the sentiments that his flowery language is expressing. In both cases, what with another performance would seem horribly cheesy seems natural and believable.

So the important thing in at least these sorts of characters that stand on principles that may seem simplistic is to come across as completely genuine. More works might want to keep that in mind when working with those sorts of characters.

Final Thoughts on “Picard”

May 19, 2020

So, carrying on from the first half, here are my comments on the last half of the first season of “Star Trek: Picard”. There will be spoilers, so if you haven’t watched it yet and thing you might want to, you should probably stop reading now:


Concepts, Essentialism, and Nominalism …

May 18, 2020

So, Jonathan MS Pearce over a “A Tippling Philosopher” has continued to wrangle over issues about when something becomes a human being in this post, which is his last response to Clinton Wilcox. While it’s been an important theme in the series and in a lot of his other posts, this one pretty much takes it on directly, and so leaves me a fair bit to say about things.

I’m going to skip his discussion of specific religious positions, because the only reason they can be considered at all reasonable is because of his claim that they are not exhaustive and not all religious people hold them. However, I will briefly discuss his brief arguments against the idea of a soul:

I have presented, over time, many arguments against these positions. For example, the ensoulment claim suffers from arguments from IVF and monozygotic twins, which can develop weeks after an ovum becomes fertilised. For any given IVF treatment implantation, there are often some dozen or so fertilised eggs in vitro. Where are the souls? And when a zygote splits weeks after supposed ensoulment into two, what happens?

So on and so forth. There are other arguments, not least a demand for the evidence for this, and the mind-body causality issue.

The problem with these is that they might have issues for a Cartesian Dualist, addressing the issues purely philosophically. At the very least, dualists like that — of which I’m pretty much one — would want to think about them carefully and come up with some way for how they would work. However, Pearce is aiming these objections at religious concepts of the soul, and religious concepts of the soul have little problems with them because souls are not being granted by impersonal natural processes, but instead by the intelligent agency of God. Given that, it’s easy to find solutions to pretty much all of these questions except for the evidence one. For the IVF case, God can easily implant the soul directly when it is implanted. For the zygote, God can implant the soul to the new zygote when it splits. And if God says that the mind can impact the body through causation, then it can. When dealing with a purportedly omniscient and omnipotent God who is responsible for souls, these sorts of objections are nothing more than trick plays, attempting to get the religious believer to take it on with a scientific rather than theological mindset, so that they don’t see how, from their perspective, these are actually questions at all.

Yes, there are issues of evidence, but speaking as a Cartesian Dualist there are enough odd things about mind and mind-body interactions that one can’t rule it out.

But, anyway, onto the deeper philosophical issues:

Essentialism essentially (intended…) is a form of realism that states that there are properties about a human that are necessarily attributed to an entity. In this case “human being” is a very real concept that exists outside of human minds and this entity necessarily and absolutely has a core set of properties that allow it to be identified as “human being” (or “human”).

This is an issue that I ran into with Coel when talking about morality. It seems to be insisting that either what we have are subjective concepts, or else we need concepts to be “real”, as in real entities floating around somewhere to give it its objectivity. Platonic Forms — referenced later in the post — are the obvious examples of this. But it seems to me that we don’t need there to be real things floating around out there to get the sort of objectivity that we want, which is that there is a right answer that if we understood the concepts well enough we would all come to understand and agree with if we weren’t being irrational. Take “2+2=4”. We don’t need to have those numbers floating around out there to say that in base 10, that statement is always true. If we understand what 2, 4, + and = mean, we can easily see that this must be true. And if everyone in the universe believed that “2+2=5”, they would be wrong. Or else they are talking about something else, and so are using at least one of 2, 4, + or = to refer to a different concept. So either they are wrong, or are referring to other concepts where we could still evaluate whether by the concepts they are actually referring to they are right or wrong. And we can do all that without needed there to be any real objects out there.

I referred to these when talking to Coel as “conceptual truths”. And it seems to me that what we’re talking about here are precisely these sorts of things.

We love to use categories. That’s a blue flower, that’s a red car, that’s an adult, that’s a child. It’s how we navigate reality in a practical sense – it provides our conceptual map. However, you shouldn’t confuse the map with the terrain. Essentially (there it is again), we make up labels to represent a number of different properties. A cat has these properties, a dog these. Red has these properties, blue these. Often we agree on this labelling, but sometimes we don’t. What constitutes a hero? A chair? Is a tree stump a chair?

Except we don’t really do that. Or, rather, sometimes we do that, but only for things that are unimportant and generally subjective. But what we are always grasping for when we do this is, in fact, some sort of concept that we can fit these things into. When we talk about a chair, we have a concept in mind. We may loosely, at times, refer to a tree stump as a chair if we sit on it or, more likely, if we create a situation where the tree stump is fulfilling the role of a chair in a more or less permanent situation. So if we are cutting trees down and decide to sit on a stump to each lunch, we are likely to use the term “chair” to refer to the stump in a very loose and mostly humourous manner. We don’t really think that it’s a chair. If, however, we were setting up a clearing for some sort of event and deliberately cut down trees to provide stumps to provide seating, then we’d be far more likely to refer to those as “chairs”. This indicates that we aren’t just applying labels to things that merely provide a function, but are instead grasping for a concept that has essential properties. The closer the stump is to having those properties, the more likely we are to seriously consider it a chair.

Pearce is correct that our common view of the concept “chair” can be pretty vague, like most folk concepts. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an essential concept of chair. At worst, all it means is that philosophy, for good reason, hasn’t been too concerned with shaking out the details of this concept. This is not going to be the case for a concept like person.

You reach eighteen years of age. You are able to vote. You are now classed as an adult. You are allowed to buy alcoholic drinks (in the UK). But there is barely any discernible difference in you, as a person, physically and mentally, from 17 years, 364 days, 11 hours, 59 minutes, 59 seconds, and you 1 second later.

However, we decide to define that second change at midnight as differentiating the two yous and seeing you move from child (adolescent) to adult. These categories are arbitrary in where we exactly draw the line. Some countries choose sixteen, some younger, some older. These are conceptual constructs that allow us to navigate about a continuum of time. You can look at a five-year-old and the same person at twenty-eight and clearly see a difference. But that five-year-old and the same person one second later? There is no discernible difference.

Yes, those definitions are arbitrary … but this won’t be a surprise to anyone because we fully admit that, yes, they are arbitrary. But they aren’t completely arbitrary either. What we need to do is eliminate those cases where people aren’t physically, emotionally and/or mentally prepared to do those things. So what we are trying to do is select a time when most people are, at least, ready to do them. Yes, there are people who are ready before that point, and there are people who won’t be ready until long after that point. But at that point, most people are ready for it in the ways that count. That’s why we pick it.

Pearce appeals a lot to the Sorites Paradox, but this is instead a really good example of it and how we address it. There are ages where we know that they won’t be ready for it. And there are ages where we are quite sure that everyone would be ready for it. What we can’t determine — mostly because everyone is different — is exactly when even an individual person is actually fully ready. It’s difficult to find that exact moment when they are ready (if one even exists). So we pick a time where, as I noted, mostly people are in fact ready and use that as our dividing line. What we don’t do, as Pearce often uses the Sorites Paradox to argue for, is throw our hands in the air and say that there is no real meaning to the laws and it’s all just arbitrary. Again, we know what’s a heap and we know what isn’t a heap. That’s the core of the paradox. So we solve it by taking a case that is clear and making that the de facto dividing line. We may have heaps before that, but it’s clear that we have a heap by that point. The same thing applies to drinking laws and the like: there may be instances where someone is ready before that point, but it’s clear that most people are ready before that point.

So even though these things are arbitrary, there’s still an objective criteria that we are grasping for.

Speciation is exactly the same. There is no real time where a population of organisms actually transforms into a new species. Because species is a human conceptual construct that does not exist objectively. We name things homo sapiens sapiens but cannot define exactly where speciation occurred. In one sense, it does not occur. In another, if you look at vastly different places on the continuum, it does (at least in our minds).

But, again, while we may not be able to identify the first homo sapiens sapiens, we can pretty much say that those that exist today a clear cases of it. Thus, we at least have cases that we can point to if someone asks about that species, just as we can point to clear heaps if someone asks about them.

In philosophy, there is a position called (conceptual) nominalism, which is set against (Platonic) realism. This conceptual nominalism, as I adhere to, denies in some (or all) cases the existence of abstracts. These categories we invent don’t exist (a word that itself needs clear defining), at least not outside of our heads. Thus species do not exist as objective categories. We invent them, but if all people who knew about species suddenly died and information about them was lost, then so too would be lost the concept and categorisation.

This is the precise issue I identified above: we don’t care if they really “exist” or not outside of our heads. We care about whether there is really a right answer about them or not. Pearce — and many others — conflate the two, mostly from mistakes about the insistence that it has to exist “outside of our heads”. The rejection of subjectivism simply means rejecting the idea that the right answer can only be determined by referring to what is inside someone’s head. It doesn’t mean insisting that the things really must exist outside of it. If someone declares a single grain of sand a heap, they are wrong, no matter what the Sorites Paradox says.

This carries on into his oft-cited example of the text shifting from red to blue. We have a clear case of red at the top, and a clear case of blue at the bottom. In-between, it isn’t clear when it changes from red to purple to blue. But we still have clear cases of red and blue and even purple. If someone insists that the top text is really blue, or someone insists that we can’t know what red is because in the middle things are a bit vague and the lines are a bit blurry, they are clearly wrong. Pearce’s argument relies on us accepting that we can’t actually know what red is, but as noted even in his example we can point to the top of the text and say “That!”.

How do they know which entities “exist” and which are just human constructions? (i.e., I can invent forqwiblex – does this now exist objectively with set essential properties?)

Well, you’d have to tell me what that word refers to. Pearce here invents a word, not a concept or an entity.

Who gets to decide and arbitrate these categorisations?

Well, I think that philosophy is primarily in the business of conceptual analysis, so they’d be the right field to do that just like science is the right field to look at explicitly physical objects.

What happens at the “edges” of these categorisations?

We have ways to work that out and deal with that.

What happens when instantiations of these essences cease to exist or come into existence?

Under both the pure essentialist model and mine, nothing. For the essentialist, the entities exist independently of their instantiations and so aren’t impacted when the things participating in them go away. For me, all it means is that since we are using the concept that we know about to, in fact, identify what is or is not an instance of the concept, when it goes away it … merely goes away and we use one instance that we had identified.

What happens when these instantiations start to cease/begin to exist? (i.e, around the “edges”)

Actually, for the essentialists they would change, not cease and begin to exist. For me, it’s the same thing, only more explicit because the properties would be changing forcing a reclassification.

I don’t see these questions as being all that problematic for either of the positions, the one he is directly attacking or my alternative.

The simple evidence of the world around us supports conceptual nominalism over essentialism. Most everything exists on continua, and we argue about definitions and categorisations of everything. From morality to language, we argue. There is, descriptively speaking, inarguable subjectivity. The fact that morality broadly changes around the world and that we can see it in evolved forms throughout the animal world points towards this being a construct of the natural world and not some objectively existing Platonic form.

Well, continua aren’t an issue for even pure essentialism, and certainly aren’t an issue for my view. That people disagree on concepts doesn’t really mean much because people can be wrong. As an example, I had a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book as a child where you are trapped inside a video game, and if you lose you are trapped in a kind of prison with the other losers. They are arguing over whether “2+2=4”. Does the fact that they are arguing over it mean that the truth of “2+2=4” is subjective and there is no real answer. And in order to argue that we can see morality in the animal world suggests that Pearce has an idea of what he is talking about when he talks about morality, so that he can tell when it exists in an animal species and when it doesn’t. If it’s just a subjective label, then he can’t say that it exists in them. All he can say is that by his label they have it. This will have rather large consequences for his view of personhood if he wants to consider that a valid move.

What these labels require are properties to be attached to. Because there is no objective fact that a given label applies to a particular set of properties, we need to agree on what ones attach to which properties, and agree by consensus. When we agree, we write dictionaries and encyclopedias codifying that agreement.

Does Pearce have any evidence that this, in fact, actually happens in the real world? Because what we tend to do at the folk level when it comes to concepts is to point at things — either physically or with a list of properties or more often instances — and then encode what they have in common with each other and differ from other things in dictionaries and encyclopedias. We are always labeling something, and not just coming up with labels willy-nilly, or on the basis of some random set of “properties”.

But these things change. The Second Law of Thermodynamics has adapted to the needs of scientists …

If this is actually true, then this has grave ramifications for the Evolution/Creationism debate and science in general.

Remember, may Creationists argue that evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The reply from scientists has been — not unreasonably — that they misunderstand the Second Law and its implications. But this presumes that scientists are appealing to a set law with set implications. If they are instead defining it on the basis of what makes their life easier, then any such changes can be challenged. More importantly, Creationists can easily decide to define the problematic parts out of it and use it to try to refute evolution. Heck, they can even decide to redefine evolution so that it supports their argument. Without some kind of objective criteria to say that the definition is right or wrong, how can anyone criticize them for defining it as they see fit?

It also means that people in the folk views should not, in fact, actually care about the scientific definitions. When we considered them natural kinds, then we had to accept the scientific definition, but not anymore. So the argument made by many atheists that God was wrong to call whales fish when they are “really” mammals goes away. There is no reason for the Bible — which is not a scientific text — to use the scientific notion of “whale” if it is more convenient for it to call them “fish” instead. To use a non-religious example, remember the kerfuffle a few years ago when scientists decided that Pluto was not a planet? Unless science is discovering natural kinds, there is no reason for the folk to accept that change. They can be free to maintain that Pluto really is a planet and so the number of planets in the solar system did not change. In the scientific view, if they agreed to that, it wouldn’t, but in the folk view it didn’t have to.

I’m not sure that Pearce is considering all the implications of his view.

…and the word “literally” is now a contranym whose meanings also include metaphorically, the opposite to what it traditionally means. “He was literally on fire on the football pitch” has become such a common use of the word such that it can now, according to some dictionaries, be used to mean the opposite of itself.

Earlier, Pearce accused his opponents of confusing the map for the terrain, but there can’t be a clearer example of doing that than here. Pearce is conflating the word with the concept and so insisting, to make his point, that the concept of “literally” now includes both meanings. This is false. Instead, the word now refers to two different concepts, that in some sense have opposite connotations. But we can clearly identify when the word “literally” is being used to refer to its original concept, and when it is being used to refer to the weaker one, so we can identify the concepts themselves in their usage. Further evidence of this is that this is a peculiarity of English, but other languages would not have this issues. So that the word now means both things says nothing about the concepts themselves, and that’s what Pearce needs to get at to make his case.

Also, if sports announcers are using “literally on fire” to refer to anything other than the person being on fire, then I would accuse them of using the grammar incorrectly. The reason is that using “literally” there adds nothing and leaves there being no way to express the original concept should it happen, and they have long found other ways to emphasize skill that are less confusing. And, after all, languages and grammar are primarily about communication.

Personhood is the same. It means whatever we agree it to mean.

So if we return to Wilcox and the original discussion how, under Pearce’s view, does he propose we come to an agreement on it? How can we ever in any way argue to a conclusion if the label is just whatever we want it to mean? Given the abortion debate, it looks like it’s going to come down to whomever has sufficient power or influence to force those who disagree to agree with them … or at least pretend if they do. And if that’s not the approach, can Pearce say anything about the term if someone disagrees with him? Because Wilcox and the poster before him, at least, clearly disagree.

It seems to me that conceptual nominalism results in an inability to deal with any disagreement, as that should trump any agreement or consensus. This is not surprising, considering that Pearce referred to morality as this sort of thing and this is the precise result we see if we accept subjectivist views about morality.

Can we find agreement? Undoubtedly not, because it is wrapped up with so many other things such as abortion, euthanasia, the afterlife and other ideas that have such strong cultural, religious and contextual draw that means you cannot separate it from these other frameworks in which it is set. Thus to objectively (as in neutrally) assess its meaning is almost impossible for many people.

In this way, and for the point of this, I don’t need to establish what personhood actually constitutes (for me) here.

The problem with this move is that then personhood cannot be used as an argument by anyone for anything, not just the abortion debate.

In short, essentialism struggles to solve the problems of personhood. If personhood or human being required 10 different characteristics or properties, what happens when one or more property is lacking or not in full existence?

Neither view — or the Thomist view that he references before this quote — are required to have such a simplistic notion of a concept. It can be defined by function or we can assemble various combinations to define the concept. It also ignores that the original post had a definition that include all the properties necessary for his view of personhood — or, rather, individual rights — in the blastocyst itself. The problem was not that that definition left them out. The problem was that Pearce didn’t like that definition because it included them. So essentially Pearce leaves out the definitions because he doesn’t like their implications. If he had a solid conceptual argument — like odd implications — then he’d have a case for arguing against them. Since he precludes the existence of such arguments, then it’s just that he doesn’t like them. Well, others don’t like the definitions that exclude them. Under Pearce’s view, this can never be resolved in any objective or rational way, which begs the question of how these things should be resolved.

Therefore, for me, the abortion argument is not solved easily by personhood arguments. It suffices to say that embryos most certainly don’t have personhood. And essentialism fails for all the reasons I have so often discussed.

The problem is that he can’t say that embryos most certainly don’t have personhood in any way that matters unless some sort of essentialism is true, as people strongly disagree with that and he admits that his definition (which was given above this but that I didn’t reference) is just his (and is quite controversial). So unless his last sentence is false, his second sentence is irrelevant. And he’d need to argue for why we shouldn’t appeal to personhood arguments, and by his own logic those who came up with definitions of personhood that settled it clearly one way or another would be able to solve the argument quite easily. So he needs to rely on his argument that all of these are simply subjective and meaningless … but then, again, it becomes hard to see how we could settle this debate — or any number of other ones — in any rational way whatsoever.

But, for moral reasons, I don’t want chronically and fundamentally disabled people, infants and children to be killed under the belief that they are no more valuable than rocks or planks, or some such similar claim. I don’t want this argument to be used as ammunition to justify that. I have a whole load of other moral philosophy to add, and politics, and science. If I desire the world to be a certain way, then I set rules of thumb. Morality is, for me, goal-oriented. You need to set out what sort of world you want, first.

But if all of these concepts are just consensus-driven labels, what philosophy can he add that would matter? What science can he add given that even scientific concepts need not entail outside of the consensus of science? And the politics added can only be the politics of force and influence, because anything else would require rational argument which would require concepts that are correct or incorrect, which he effectively denies we have. So by his own position, this is not at all promising.

In terms of abortion, this line, for me, is the generally accepted line informed by science.

Pearce does not seem to realize that many pro-life positions insist on following the line informed by science and many pro-choice ones insist that there is no such line. So not only is this personal, it’s far more controversial than he seems to think.

Embryos do not have personhood (either objectively or subjectively for me). Thus the abortion debate is a case of agreeing what rights there are (autonomy and bodily rights for the mother) that we can meaningfully construct, arguing that they have greater value than the rights of a clump of cells or a developing embryo, and going from there.

By his own position, embryos cannot lack personhood objectively as there’s no objective definition of personhood to agree to. The same would apply to all rights and to value itself. So by his own position, all of these moves are invalidated.

The issue with Pearce’s conceptual nominalism, at least, is that if used consistently it would eliminate all rational debate and argument over these things. Pearce can only get away with it by only applying it in very specific situations and at least acting like an essentialist in others. But this is usually a sign that a subjectivist position is invalid. If you cannot use it universally without leading to it essentially defeating itself, then it can’t be right. And I think his view essentially defeats itself.