Archive for November, 2020

Do Actualities and Potentialities Actually Work?

November 30, 2020

So, in reading Feser I noted that obviously the Scholastics make a big deal out of actualities and potentialities.  The reason is that they use this to make causation work and escape the dual seeming absurdities of Parmenides who argued that there can be no such thing as change and Heraclitus who argued that everything was in constant change and there’s no permanence in the world at all.  The Scholastics adopt, with some minor changes, Aristotle’s solution to this that argues that objects have actualities and potentialities, and so what explains their permanence is that they are actualized into the object with the actualities it has, and what explains their ability to change and allows for causation is that something can actualize their potentialities and thus cause them to indeed change how they are actualized.  So this allows for causation and for us to be able to avoid the issues Parmenides and Heraclitus raised, with issues around how we could possibly avoid having to rely on something that doesn’t exist or doesn’t exist yet to explain how things can change.  Actualities and potentialities exist as part of the objects, and since those are the things that driving the change we have clearly existent things that we can use to trigger and explain all the changes we see in the world.

But I wonder if we need them, and also wonder if the concept has some issues.

One issue that came up in the original comment thread that sent me down this path is the fact that for every distinct interaction between two objects, the cause has to have an actuality to active the potentiality in the effect, and the effect has to have a potentiality that can be triggered by the cause in order for causation to happen.  I’m not going to go and find the comment, but essentially the comment from that person was that this would result in an infinite set of potentialities and/or actualities, and that seemed rather odd.  I noted that we can split some off, so it wouldn’t be actually infinite or rather problematically infinite, in that we’d be able to essentially give a list of them and be able to derive sets of what can and can’t happen.  It wouldn’t mean that it was open season and anything could happen.  Even if that list was technically infinite — but since we likely have a finite set of types of objects and these would work more by type than by specific object — it would be a distinct set that would identify only the things those specific objects can do.

But then I thought about an issue with this, which is that the object, then, has to contain potentialities and/or actualities that relate to objects or types of objects that it may never actually interact with, and it might even have to hold potentialities and/or actualities for types of objects that don’t even exist yet.  The reason is that if the two objects suddenly come into contact, it would defeat the entire purpose of the actuality/potentiality system that once a cause comes into contact with an object that it wants to make an effect out of that the potentiality is suddenly created and then activated by the cause.  We can escape some of this by clustering potentialities and noting that a variety of types of objects can activate the same potentialities, and even insisting that the potentialities describe what the object can do and so would never align with types of objects, but then again we’d still have to have in the object all potentialities that any type of object could do, again even if those objects didn’t exist yet.  As noted, if the objects don’t exist yet we couldn’t suddenly add those potentialities to the potential effects when they come into existence, but we would need to in order to make it work.  Again, we can escape much of this by arguing that the potentialities are effect-object-specific, but since some of them do seem to be reliant on the cause object’s properties that’s not a very clean solution.  Regardless, we need the cause-object and the effect-object to have as part of them an actual set of these things that they have to have over and above their actual properties (even if they are derived by them).

Which leads to the second issue I had:  which is primary in a cause and effect relationship:  the actualities in the cause-object or the potentialities in the effect-object?  Feser tends to give the cause-object precedence, but that’s because he — problematically in my opinion — tends to talk about causation as creating ex nihilo, and so it must be the case that the thing with precedence be the thing that actually exists.  But this sort of situation is extremely rare and arguably never actually happens in the world we have, as what we see is always something that already exists being transformed by its cause.  We may create a rubber ball that never existed before, but what we are actually doing is creating it out of some rubber, and so transforming the rubber into the ball.  And the same would apply to melting the ball.  So for the most part we pretty much always have an interaction between two objects that exist, and so this would raise the question of which object is the primary one in this situation.

It’s easy to say that it’s still the cause-object.  After all, the cause-object is the one that is actually doing the work, and the effect-object is the one being transformed.  So the cause-object is active, the effect-object is passive, and if the cause-object didn’t initiate the interaction nothing would happen, so the cause-object is primary.  Except under this model it doesn’t really matter what the cause-object does if the proper potentiality doesn’t exist, so it seems like all the cause-object is doing is essentially asking the effect-object to do something or change, and it couldn’t actually do that if the effect-object didn’t give permission (by analogy).  So then the effect-object is primary.

So we have arguments that argue for the primacy of each object, and it seems like we should be able to answer the question.  I believe most Scholastics would probably simply say that neither is primary or both of them are and so it doesn’t really matter, and I’m making an issue out of nothing.

So I think that in both cases the Scholastics aren’t going to worry too much about it, especially since they will argue that there really isn’t a better solution.  But I think I have one by focusing on the properties themselves and not inventing actualities and potentialities to make this work.

What I would agree with the Scholastics on is that everything that exists has a substance.  I would also agree that every existing object has properties, which are the aspects that make that thing what it is instead of something else.  But when we start talking about causation, what I want to talk about are interactions between the objects themselves and between the properties of each objects, not about set potentialities.  I even want to add some properties that are relational that can be formed when objects start to interact and trigger what happens when those objects relate to each other.  So causation, then, would happen when two objects relate to each other in a certain way, and how those relations are formed is based on their properties.

So let me look at one of Feser’s common examples, that of a brick hitting a glass window and breaking it.  Feser would need to describe it as the brick-object having an actuality to activate the glass-object’s potentiality to break when struck, which is awkward, to say the least.  By contrast, what I’d do is say that the brick is hard, glass is fragile, and when hard things hit fragile things the fragile things tend to break.  I can derive fragility and hardness from other properties and so can make those properties purely descriptive.  I can also apply the same properties to multiple objects and thus use the same rule to describe the same changes.  So I can use the same descriptive rule to talk about stones hitting windows and bricks hitting windows.  More importantly, the rules don’t exist in the objects at all, whereas Feser’s actualities and potentialities have to exist in the objects themselves.  And if the effect fails to happen I don’t have to go around and explain away why the potentiality wasn’t activated and go looking for an actuality or something that prevented it.  I can go look at the environment itself or in this case things like the angle it was struck and create more rules to cover those exceptions and situations (for example, using a general rule about force to cover it instead of the simplistic “hard/fragile” rule).  This aligns quite well with what science does, far better than what the Scholastics would suggest, and Feser is clear that he wants and needs to preserve science while arguing for his position.

So, at a very shallow level, it looks like my option allows for causation and even talks about things that exist — in this case, the objects as they are in their bare minimum of having properties that say what they are and what state they are in — without having to invent a new set of existent things.  We don’t even really need relational properties and they and laws could be entirely descriptive and so not really real.  Feser would likely reply that leaving things as properties runs into issues with how we assign properties to objects and so the need for a formal cause, but I’d challenge that as well since I attach properties directly to the substance of the object and so the properties that are part of that substance and the ones that follow from those properties are the ones that belong to that object.  So I don’t really need a formal cause either, or a form.  Feser obviously has objections to this idea, but I’ll get into them in a later post when I defend at least my notion of conceptualism from Feser’s attacks.

So, to sum up, as with final causes to me it doesn’t seem like we really need actualities and potentialities to make causation work, and the concept adds oddities and complexities.  So I am skeptical of the move given that it doesn’t seem to be necessary and isn’t a very clean way to solve the problems.  But, again, that’s a fairly shallow analysis. 

Thoughts on “Slender Man”

November 26, 2020

So, even I had heard of this urban legend or myth or whatever it was, and so when I saw the movie for a reasonable price I pretty much thought that I had to give it a try.  As usual for the things I actually look forward to, though, it wasn’t very good.

The big issue was the same as, well, most of the flawed horror movies that I’ve been watching, which is that it for some reason has decided that it doesn’t really need to have a plot in order to scare people.  This isn’t necessarily wrong, but the problem is that if you are going to try for that you really, really need to build a movie that doesn’t rely on having a plot and consistent characters to work.  If you don’t want to explain what’s happening, you really don’t want to put parts in the movie that get us thinking about what’s happening and why.  And too many of the movies I’ve watched recently have tended to try to be more serious and so rely on a plot but haven’t bothered to put in the work to build a plot that explains things and makes sense.

The basic idea is that a group of girls get together for a night of drinking and doing very little, and hear beforehand that a group of guys that they sometimes kinda date it seems are going to try to summon Slender Man.  So they decide that it would be a good idea for them to try it, too.  They actually succeed in doing so, and then one of their friends — sadly the one who was the most sympathetic and who also seemed to be the one who knew the most about and was the most in tune with the supernatural, which would have made her a better lead — disappears, seemingly called away by Slender Man.  They read online that they might be able to bring them back if they give up something valuable to them, so they go out to the forest and sacrifice personal items of great sentimental value.  You aren’t supposed to look during this ritual, but one of them panics and does so, so it fails.  They keep disappearing, and one of the friends drags the other friend’s sister into it in a second attempt to bring the friends back, which also fails and puts the sister in danger, so after the two of them argue about betrayals and not helping to stop the events the lead — whose sister was dragged into it — eventually finds out that the original ritual was a lie and couldn’t have worked.  She then decides to sacrifice herself to save her sister, which works for some reason.

The problem is that the first ritual seemed both reasonable and interesting.  Slender Man wanting them to sacrifice things they love is so much more interesting than just wanting them themselves.  And it’s an interesting twist for it to fail because one of them did it wrong, because then they are forced to try to find another way even though they’ve already given up the things they valued most.  It also brings a bit of tragedy to the failure, as those things clearly meant a lot to them and so to have it fail as it did can make us feel for them.  The later reveal that the ritual could never have worked ruins all of that and immediately makes us wonder why they were told that it could work in the first place.  It turns out, from what I could glean from the movie, that the source was lying to them … but why was the source lying to them?  What good did it do the source?  And it was presented as if it was a lie, not as if it was simply a bit of mistaken Internet legend.  And since from what I recall the source was actually someone seemingly on the side of the Slender Man the lies are even more inexplicable.  Did the source do this on their own?  If so, why?  Or did they do it at the behest of Slender Man?  But then why did Slender Man want it?  And if that ritual was a lie, what reason did she have for thinking that Slender Man would accept her sacrifice to save her sister?  And, heck, why did Slender Man accept it?  The movie is based on a mysterious supernatural enemy, but the plot relies on us at some point understanding what it’s doing, which really doesn’t work.

The movie could have survived if the characters had been interesting and compelling, but they weren’t.  The most interesting character disappears early on in the movie, and the others mostly snipe at each other as they try to save themselves.  So, no compelling plot, no compelling horror villain, no compelling characters, and limited scares.  There’s really not much there to redeem this movie.

I won’t be watching this one again.

Most Personally Memorable/Favourite Games (Honourable Mentions)

November 25, 2020

I could just add all the games that I dropped from the list to make room for other games … but I won’t, because most of them wouldn’t really fit here, as the games here tend to be games that could have made the list but had some kind of flaw that kept them off.

Star Trek:  Birth of the Federation:

This is the Star Trek semi-reply to Star Wars:  Rebellion, but while it provides more details on the planets it loses the characters which are what made Rebellion so good.  It’s an obvious thing to do but it — and the franchise, as far as I can tell — never really took advantage of that.  Still, it’s pretty fun to play and its space combat is more interesting — and faster — than Rebellion’s.  It’s just not quite as good as it could be.


I love the concept and the advisors.  But outside of that it’s a fairly standard strategy game, and one that I’m not particularly good at.


I really like the concept of the game — playing chess and fighting over every square — but I can’t play it anymore and even then I could outplay the computer most of the time.

Space 1889:

I really liked the concept of building characters with traits that gave then virtues and vices, but I never managed to get very far in the game.  I’d play it again or the Pen and Paper version if I could find it, but it’s mostly memorable for that element and the Victorian setting than for how much I loved to play it.

Akiba’s Trip:

It actually gives you the ability to determine your own attitude to a degree that most games don’t allow.  However, beyond that it’s still a fairly shallow RPG.

Conception II:

Probably one of the best attempts at a Persona-style game, but it is a bit shallow and the combat is both too shallow and boring and, because of that, a bit too hard and too grindy.

Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Roanoke”

November 24, 2020

Roanoke is the last of the “American Horror Story” seasons that was cheap when I found them in Walmart (the next season was still new and so was still full price), and so is the last of the ones I bought to give them a try.  As you might imagine from reading my comments on the other ones so far, I was not inclined after watching them to continue the series.  I was content to let them continue on as they see fit while I studiously ignored them.

Why did the last one have to be one that I actually enjoyed?

The main reason for this is the premise.  Essentially, they focused on a Blair Witch/Ghost Documentary type of idea, where the first half of the season describes a horrific haunting that the main characters undergo, while the second half is them returning there in a quest for higher ratings where things, well, go to hell yet again.  This premise, however, forces them to do what I wanted them to do from the beginning:  focus on telling one really, really good story.  While they do add in some distractions — of course — the documentary format forces them to stay focused because such shows wouldn’t drift as much as the previous seasons have.  This greatly added to my enjoyment of the show and, in fact, seems to be a great improvement. The documentary format allows for thrills and chills and all the good stuff while focusing on character and plot development, since again that’s how those shows work.  Ultimately, by adopting the oft-despised reality show/ghost hunter format, they end up producing a better horror story.

This is not to say that there aren’t issues.  Again, the series tends to focus overmuch on their most prominent headlining star.  Here, that’s Sarah Paulson, who was with the show from pretty much the start and so steps into the spot left by Jessica Lange and Lady Gaga of being effectively the lead (she was also arguably the lead in “Asylum” and “Freakshow”, but was overshadowed by Jessica Lange).  Here, she plays the actress playing the wife while Lily Rabe plays the real-life wife.  The problem is that while Sarah Paulson is fairly attractive, Lily Rabe looks a lot more like the sort of actress an exploitative horror show would cast.  So this kept distracting me when they hopped from the interviews with Lily Rabe to the actual re-enacted scenes with Sarah Paulson, which made it distracting.

They also played around a bit with Kathy Bates’ character, who is the undead leader of the Roanoke colonists who are trying to kill everyone.  The character is not all that interesting, being for the most part a one-note killer with no real redeeming qualities.  In the second part, they have the actress — which is who Kathy Bates actually plays — become obsessed with the show and the character, and they drop the lampshade that for some reason people really liked the evil characters more than anyone else.  This might well have been true for the series — I haven’t researched it to find out — but it was incredibly risky to claim that by claiming that that character was so beloved, because if the audience didn’t agree then it would fall flat … which it did for me (although I’ve never been as impressed with their villains as the show was).  They could easily have played that up beforehand if they wanted to wink at the audience and then simply had the actress become obsessed by the character herself, even hinting at some actual corruption from the area itself.  They needed to hint at that anyway, and putting the wink in earlier would have avoided the risk of the audience not agreeing with them about that specific character.

They also again make the mistake of trying to make us feel sympathetic towards an unsympathetic character, which is mindboggling since they seem to have no clue how they always manage to sabotage their own events.  Here, the character is the sister of the husband, who lost her marriage to her being addicted to painkillers and who also because of that lost custody of her daughter to her husband.  The show is pretty clear that she did this all to herself and it is her own mistakes that led to all of this, and she even admits that on occasion.  But they end up with one of the mysteries being who killed her husband, with her being the main suspect.  It turns out that, yes, she did indeed kill her husband because he was going to get visitation denied because she let their daughter stay in a creepy house where she was in great danger.  Now, the show tries to set him up as being abusive, but never really pulls that off, and there is no reason to think that he was abusing the child, and he certainly wasn’t physically or mentally abusing her when she killed him, so that doesn’t justify her actions.  So she ends up murdering the father of her child that her child loved and lies about it for years before admitting it.

And it gets worse.  She goes on trial for murder, and it turns out that her daughter actually saw her kill her father.  The daughter then testifies at the trial — and it’s clear has been avoiding her mother because she saw her mother kill her father — and the mother is implied to tell her lawyer about the weird things the daughter did at around the same time at the house so that her testimony will be discredited.  It works, and the mother gets off, and then is devastated that her daughter wants nothing to do with her after she basically set the daughter up to be considered crazy.  While I’m willing to accept that she does love her daughter, she really does seem to love herself more.  This weakens the ending where she offers to die and fight the spirit of the colony leader to keep her from destroying a ghost girl in her daughter’s place.  I don’t find it entirely unreasonable, but don’t really care about the character to find that sacrifice all that emotionally satisfying.

And this was so easy to fix!  All you needed to do was make it clear that the mother was telling the lawyer to not use the ghost stories against the daughter and that the lawyer did it anyway.  While I don’t think that making the husband more abusive would work — as that would be making an entirely different point about how stupid the system is or unjust it is — I do think that making the murder more accidental or even making her innocent of it would have worked.  Instead, they made her come across as completely self-interested — she risks the lives of everyone at the end to retrieve the evidence that she killed her husband — and then expected us to care about her.  We don’t generally care that much about people who are clearly only interested in themselves.

But aside from all of that, this is the only season that I’ve watched that I could actually watch again, and it’s separate enough from the other seasons that I could indeed just watch it.  Ultimately, though, I think that I’ll put it with the others.  I have better things to watch than this one decent season of American Horror Story.

Do We Need Final Causes?

November 23, 2020

One of the things that Edward Feser thinks is missing from modern accounts of, well, everything is the idea of a final cause.  Roughly, this is the idea that everything has an end to which it is, in some sense, striving to achieve, which makes up a large part of what it means to be that sort of thing.  Now, this isn’t just the case for deliberately designed things nor for things with intentionality that can define ends for themselves.  He believes that everything has an end that it is striving to achieve, which explains why it has the properties it has and why it acts the way it does.  Of course, he doesn’t think that things that don’t have minds actually consciously strive towards those ends, for obvious reasons, but nevertheless we can explain what they do by appealing to their final end … and, in some ways, only by appealing to their final end.

What first got me strongly questioning this idea is something that’s going to seem like a bit of a facetious argument.  Feser commented that the final cause/end of the Moon is to orbit the Earth, which explains why it does that and doesn’t just wander off for a tour of Mars or something.  Now, at the time I had my disks of Space:  1999 out because I was planning on watching them after finishing off some documentaries (I started it but decided to switch to watching “Hunter” instead).  Anyway, the premise of that show is that a sizeable amount of nuclear waste stored on the Moon become unstable and explodes, pushing the Moon out of Earth’s orbit.  It spends the series hurtling through space away from the Earth with no way to get back.  So it’s not pushed out into a long orbit.  It breaks orbit entirely, never to return.

So, then, what is the end of the Moon in that situation?  Does it maintain its original end of orbiting the Earth?  Then that final end isn’t really in any way influencing its behaviour, because not only is it not orbiting the Earth, it can’t be said to be in any way striving to do that.  Or has the explosion changed its actual end, so that it is now striving to wander aimlessly across space?  Then the final end is not some sort of permanent part of the object, and moreover it seems to be something that we are deriving merely by looking at what it is actually doing at the moment, and not by looking at anything inherent to the object itself.  So if we are forced to maintain the original end even if the object isn’t capable of carrying that end out, then the final end might end up being useless in explaining what the object is doing and so becomes uninteresting, but if we change the end when the behaviour of the object changes sufficiently then it seems like the final end is meaningless since it is derived from the behaviour of the object.

In fact, that’s my counter-proposal to the Scholastic/Aristotlean idea of final causes:  for objects that are not designed or not not intelligent, all we do instead is look at what an object is doing and what context/system it is in and determine from that what purpose if any the object currently has.  After all, the alternative either forces objects to maintain a final cause that is completely irrelevant to their behaviour, or else reduces to same thing anyway.  So it’s either absurd or no better than my suggestion.  So why maintain final causes?

One of the most common reasons Feser gives for the need for things like final causes is that we need something solid to decide what behaviours count and which ones don’t.  After all, for any object there are behaviours that we would consider crucial to its purpose and those that are accidental, just as we have properties that are essential and properties that are accidental.  In the case of the Moon, the fact that it can be seen to rise and set over the Earth is accidental, and is in fact the result of its end to orbit the Earth.  But if there is no such thing as a real final cause, then it seems like it’s impossible for us to say which of those is actually the primary purpose of the Moon.  Each of them is equally likely and equally reasonably the primary purpose if all we have to go on is the behaviour of the object.

The obvious answer to this is, of course, that we go by how most objects of that type tend to act and so use those commonalities to define what the primary purpose is.  But this causes issues with defective objects.  We might well be able to filter out defective objects from proper objects if there are far more proper objects than defective ones, but what if it’s the other way around?  What if most of the objects of a type we encounter are defective and so are acting improperly?  We would conclude that the purpose of those objects is indeed that defective purpose.  So we can’t rely on simply the majority of the objects we’ve seen to come to the right conclusion about what its purpose is.

The defense against this, though, is that for all practical purposes Feser’s alternative of the final cause isn’t in any better shape.  We don’t have some sort of preternatural ability to suss out the final cause of something by observing it, anymore than we can ascertain its purpose that way without appealing to a final cause.  So what he is going to have to do is follow the same process as I am suggesting:  look at the object and the systems that it is in, and other objects of that type, and so determine what the final cause is from that.  This means that he would also likely misjudge the final cause of an object or type of object if most of the examples of it he encountered were defective.  So Feser is going to look at the behaviour of the object to determine the final cause in the same way as I am suggesting we do, and he is likely to make the smae mistakes in classifying that as I am.  So, then, it doesn’t seem like his final cause is all that different from my proposal.

But then Feser can say that, effectively, my view is just a final cause without calling it a final cause, and so defend himself that way.  To rebut that, I would return to the issue of the Moon from Space: 1999.  I never have to claim that any object has any set purpose.  So I can indeed conclude that the Moon here orbits the Earth and isn’t going to wander off around the other planets because, well, what it’s actually doing is orbiting the Earth.  I don’t have to give it a purpose, but if I did I could say that its purpose as part of the solar system is to orbit the Earth.  And then in the Space:  1999 I can say that what it’s doing is wandering aimlessly through space.  Again, I need not give it any kind of set purpose, and given its situation it doesn’t really make sense to give it one.  Feser, on the other hand, is committed to giving it a set purpose, which leads to the issue outlined above. 

Moreover, I can easily say that an object maintains a purpose that it was given intentionally even if it is being used for something else.  So if someone takes a bicycle wheel and uses it to drive a water pump I can easily say that its designed purpose is for use on a bicycle but that it is being used to drive a water pump and so has that purpose in that system.  I can do this even if the second purpose is not intentionally conferred upon it.  If a ship sinks and gets turned into a coral reef, I can say that the purpose of the ship was to sail the sees, but that now that it has sank in the system it is currently in it is providing a coral reef.  Feser starts to have to introduce multiple final causes or else pick one as the “real” final cause, but I have no such concern since I’m merely describing what is happening and what has happened in the past, not making a metaphysical claim.  Thus, I don’t insist that these causes are real or have to really exist in the object itself, but am merely describing the history of the object.

Which returns us to the Moon from Space:  1999.  In my view, I can easily say that the Moon used to orbit the Earth but doesn’t orbit it any longer.  This is because I’m not bound to find any kind of purpose in either situation, and can indeed just talk about what it’s doing.  If the Moon is captured by an alien race that builds a space station inside of it, then I can say that it has the purpose of being a space station.  In short, I am not at all bound to say that anything has a purpose if that purpose isn’t intentionally given.  However, I’m also not forced to deny that something like the heart has the purpose of pumping blood, because if it’s in a human body that’s what its purpose is.  But that purpose is granted to it by the system it is in, not something inherent to the heart itself.  If an alien race takes Spock’s brain out of his head and uses it to run their underground base, I can say that when the brain is part of that system its purpose is to run the base without having to say that that is inherently the purpose of the brain.  If Kirk and the others come back and insist that the brain be returned to Spock’s body, I can justify it on the sense that it was part of that system first and so is the property of that system, and so should be restored to its proper place in that system where its purpose will be to run Spock’s body.  I do not have to insist that either of those is that object’s proper purpose and so get into a debate over what would happen if Spock’s body had died and so there was no body to return to.  The debate is over property, not purpose.  Feser can make the same sort of moves, but only if he abandons proper purpose, at which point we can again wonder what a final cause is doing for us.

Ultimately, I think that abandoning final causes makes things a lot simpler, and so it seems like an unnecessary complication.  Feser and others have made cases for why it’s necessary — and I’m sure some will take a stab at showing me ones that I’ve missed — but I am unconvinced.  There, of course, does exist things like purpose but the biggest issue I have with a final cause is that it forces us to give a purpose to everything, and it really seems like there are lots of things and situations where giving those things a purpose seems nonsensical and pointless.  My alternative allows us to give things a purpose when it makes sense and talk about their purposes when it makes sense but completely ignore purposes when it doesn’t, which is ultimately why I prefer it.

Bob Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets: 23 and 24

November 20, 2020

Continuing on, Seidensticker’s first argument is based on “Shermer’s Law”:

Michael Shermer observed, “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

This … is in no way any kind of silver bullet refutation of Christianity.

First, this would imply that Christians have defenses for their “weird thing” that we would need to examine in detail before declaring Christianity false.

Second, obviously this argument thus requires that we disprove other arguments and defenses first, and so cannot stand alone as a separate argument.  It’s a psychological statement of what might be happening in the mind of Christians, not a refutation of their claims.

Third, it’s difficult to say that beliefs like gods or ghosts are, in fact, weird.  They have a long history and the belief in them is relatively wide-spread.  Those beliefs might be wrong, but something that people have believed in for thousands and thousands of years surely doesn’t count as weird.

Fourth, this argument also cuts against atheists.  While Seidensticker might retreat to the argument that atheists merely lack belief, the belief that theists lack evidence for their beliefs might well be something that Seidensticker is wrong about but that he only believes in because he can invent rationalizations for it.  Essentially, Shermer’s Law says that people can maintain beliefs that they should not believe in because they rationalize reasons why they aren’t incorrect, but that isn’t limited to theists.  So how does Seidensticker know that he’s not the one irrationally rationalizing his beliefs?

Ultimately, the problem with any attempt to disprove beliefs by appealing to psychological mechanisms is that no humans are immune to those mechanisms, and so you end up undercutting your own arguments.  It’s a bit like trying to defend a proposition by attacking reason:  even if you succeed, it will take any rational arguments you make with it.  For all of the above reasons, this does not work as a silver bullet argument.

The next argument is this:

24. Because Christianity evolves

This is a case of “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.  If Christianity doesn’t adapt to new information, then it’s seen as rigid and out of touch.  But if it does adapt to new information, then it’s seen as a sign that it can’t be true because it should have always been talking about all the things that we know now from the start, even if there was no way for anyone then to think that true and so no one then would think it was true at all.  The real key is to look at the fundamentals of the worldview and see if they have changed, and changed sufficiently to invalidate the overall worldview.  This applies to secular wordviews and philosophies and scientific theories as much as it does to religion.  So that it evolves isn’t the issue, but how it evolves, and atheists generally simply point to differences without analyzing how crucial those differences actually are.

Because all Seidensticker does here is talk about differences and resemblances, this doesn’t work as a silver bullet argument either.  Even if he has managed to outline a serious change, that would be the silver bullet argument, not this one.  As we will see after next week’s argument, all that Seidensticker is doing is listing the things that he doesn’t like and can’t get past.  Branding it as a silver bullet argument actually does these arguments a great disservice.  But, again, I’ll talk more about that after the last argument in his first block of 25 arguments.

Thoughts on “Fantasy Island”

November 19, 2020

This horror movie is jumping the queue a bit, since I watched it recently but wanted to get my thoughts down on it earlier since there are a lot of them and I didn’t want to forget them.

I have an interesting set of connections to this movie.  It’s from Blumhouse, and I have some experience with those movies, having already talked about “Get Out” and “Truth or Dare”.  There’s actually another link from that last movie, as Lucy Hale is in that one as well as in “Fantasy Island”, and as you all know she was also prominent in “Pretty Little Liars”.  It was these connections that made me decide that it might be worth giving this movie a try when I saw it for a reasonable price.

But the more important connection is that I am old enough to have watched and enjoyed the original “Fantasy Island” series, and so am among the audience who would a) recognize the name and b) be potentially interested in this revival.  What happened here, though, is that they decided to remake it as pretty much a pure horror movie.  This is a very brave move, since they also seem to want to at least keep the trappings of the show.  But the show itself was pretty much a “feel good” show.  Every fantasy had complications that led to drama, but we all knew at the end of the show that things were going to work out for the best for them.  In that sense, it was a lot like “Love Boat”, in that in both shows there would be obstacles and complications, and at times what they went in expecting would not be how things ended, but at the end their lives would be better for the experience.  This, of course, is not how a horror story works out.  While at the end of it all the ones who survive, at least, might have things work out for them — they finally manage to bond with someone they could love or they use the experience to overcome personal trauma or they reconcile with family members, and so on — this involves a bunch of people dying, usually, and at least being traumatized.  So this marks a rather sharp divergence from what the people who remember the original series fondly were used to.

This, then, is quite risky.  The very people most interested in the setting itself will be the ones who might be put off by the change in tone if it isn’t handled properly.  The best way the movie can try to deal with that is by making the new premise follow from an unanswered question or underlying issue that people might have wondered about from the original series, and then try to answer it in a dark way.  But this would still be a subversion, and there is a real risk that fans of the original show won’t like the subversion.  Additionally, if you want to appeal to new viewers who don’t remember the show, you’ll need to make it a good horror story in its own right and can’t tie it too tightly to the Fantasy Island mythos.  So you’d need to create a darker version of the original show and make it into a good horror story on top of that.

That’s a tall order.  The movie didn’t manage it.

Before I get into that, let me get this out of the way:  the replacement Mr. Roarke doesn’t have anywhere near the charisma as the original.  Since the original was Ricardo Montalban, that was pretty much a given.  But Michael Pena is significantly less charismatic, and I remembered him as the goofy sidekick in “Ant-Man”, which didn’t help.  And making this movie a horror movie meant that no matter what route was taken, he had to be incredibly charismatic.  If he was going to be an outright villain, he needed to be so charming that we wouldn’t expect it, or at least would have the dissonance between his charming exterior and the evil underneath.  If he was going to be a sympathetic character, he needed to charm to make us feel sympathy for him despite his, well, having to be involved directly in whatever evil was going on.  Given this, Pena was a rather odd choice, and one that did hurt the movie a bit, at least speaking as someone who was a fan of the original series, because it was noticeable, and I noticed even when I should be noticing other things.

As it turns out, one of the flaws in the movie is that it doesn’t really seem to know what sort of movie it wants to be.  Since this is a very recent movie and I’m going to talk about the plot in detail, I will continue this below the fold.


Most Personally Memorable/Favourite Games(1 – 10)

November 18, 2020

10:  City of Heroes

This is the best MMORPG that I’ve ever played, or at least the MMORPG that I liked the best.  As I noted when I talked about Saint’s Row IV, superhero games are my kind of game, and City of Heroes was pretty much the best superhero game period that I’ve played.  While games like X-Men Legends and Marvel Ultimate Alliance were fun, they didn’t have the personalization that I like in my games in general.  City of Heroes had it in spades.  A wide range of costume options let you create pretty much any character you wanted, and the classes and powersets were distinct enough that unlike most MMORPGs you could pick up a different class and powerset and feel like you were playing with a different character (this is why I never got into World of Warcraft past a free demo, as when I switched from my Undead Warlock to my Dwarf Paladin it really seemed like I was doing the same things in terms of gameplay and quests, which City of Heroes never felt like).  I tried out DC Universe Online, and while one of the travel powers was fun — the one where you basically climbed over things in the city — it was a bit too chaotic for me in general.  And I never tried Champions Online but from Shamus Young’s description of it  I wouldn’t care much for it either.

I keep hearing about official and unofficial attempts to reboot it, but unfortunately I don’t really have the time to keep up with them and track down the ones that are working and are reasonable legit.  Of all the MMOs I’ve liked, this is the one that died the earliest, and while I was still playing it.

9:  Star Wars:  Rebellion

This is a video game that I liked so much, I bought the board game.  As well as the remake, “Empire At War”.  But neither of them are the same as the original video game.  The game managed to capture the addictive nature of real-time and turn-based strategy games — you were always waiting for something to finish or happen so that you could implement the next step in your plan — while managing to capture the Star Wars universe better than any other game I’ve played — and I’ve played a lot of them — by making individual characters instead of units important resources.  It takes a slate of characters from the movies and expanded universe and gives you the ability to use them to command your fleets, sway planets to your side, research new ships and new ship classes, spy on your enemy, prevent enemy actions against you, and even perform specific missions to capture or kill enemy characters and destroy enemy facilities and ships.  You can even — although I’ve never tried it — sabotage and blow up the Death Star that way.  It had a number of events from the movies, and characters could even be trained in the Force which made them even more useful.  About its only weakness is that it didn’t go all in on the events and make special events a fairly constant part of the game.  Still, the characters matter and are familiar enough that you can feel for them and be happy for their successes.  Missions, then, are not “My spy gave me information about that planet” but are instead “Lando gave me information about that planet”, which makes it at least feel like more than a typical game with Star Wars skins (like, say, Galactic Battlegrounds).  That’s what makes it (almost) my favourite Star Wars game.

8:  Wing Commander IV:  The Price of Freedom

The flight simulator gameplay is good, but to be honest there are better flight sims out there (X-Wing Alliance, for example).  But this game wins out for me and even wins out over the other Wing Commander games because of its story.  Taking place after the Kilrathi war, it explores what attitude changes might come from a war that the humans almost lost and marries that to a story of an old hero who returns to the cockpit and steps into this huge mess.  It has betrayals, shifting loyalties, conspiracies, and all sorts of things like that.  And the best part about it is that it ends not in the cockpit, but in the Senate Hall.  You have to convince them that there is a conspiracy and that the man they trust is behind it.  If you select the wrong options, you can indeed lose the game at this point.  That’s a brave move and perhaps is the best example of marrying the flight sim component with the interactive movie elements that later Wing Commander games are known for.

7:  Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII

This is a strategy RPG where you can create your own character and wander the land until you join a city, and then you get to manage the city, do things, and fight battles.  My best moment was definitely when I created a character that was the son of a character that I had played as, and joined a city that then asked me to essentially betray him — he was in command of a rival city — to gain control of the city.  I ended up refusing to do so and quit their city, but what was interesting about it was that this followed not from scripted events, but just from a series of semi-random events and the overall rules of the world.  In general, that’s what the game really had for me:  an open-world that nevertheless wasn’t too open, and so where I could easily have goals and yet where goals and attitudes and events could follow from what the world provided.  So I was neither imposing a story on the world nor having the world impose a story on me, and that didn’t leave the game goal or purposeless.  The world provided the opportunity for goals and purpose and I chose the goal and purpose I wanted to pursue.  I don’t play it much anymore, but it’s still a great game and has left me with a soft spot for the series (I recently bought XIV while browsing in a store just because I remembered this game).

6:  Hardball 5

This is the only sports game to make the list, and it’s a pretty old one besides.  I think it was missing a lot of features that would be necessary in a sports game for me today — for example, I don’t think it had a proper season format — but it had the one quality that really defined for me what I like in sports games:  when I created my own personalized team and played on the default difficulty, I won pretty much every game, but it was close.  I have never been able to recapture that with any other sports game I’ve played, as it’s either been too easy or far too hard depending on what difficulty I set the game at.  And for some, just moving up to the next highest difficulty moved it from a cakewalk to a game where I was losing pretty much every game.  I know this game wasn’t trying to hit my sweet spot for games, but it managed it nonetheless.

5:  Persona 5

This is the game that everyone knew had to make the list.  After all, this is the game that I compared to Dragon Age:  Inquisition and stated that after finishing it the first time I immediately wanted to replay it, while having no interest in replaying DAI.  But, no, it’s not my favourite Persona game.  I don’t like the characters as much as I like the ones in the other games (although I like Makoto and Futaba is a generally more interesting character than most in the other games).  It feels overstuffed with activities, so I never really felt that I could give them the focus that I wanted to give them.  The new emphasis on solving dungeon puzzles could be annoying when all I wanted to do was get through the dungeon and get back to the Social Links.  For the most part, I really feel like it added too much and became kinda cluttered, especially since it dragged the time to play it out to about 80 hours, which discourages replays.  The fact that I have played it three times and intend to play Royal a couple more times, though, is a testament to how good the game is.

4:  Knights of the Old Republic

This is the first Star Wars RPG, and the best.  It combines the interesting things of the Pen and Paper experiences with what computer RPGs were able to do to give a pretty good Star Wars experience.  Starting in the Old Republic era let them reference things we saw in the movies without worrying about whether they were contradicting anything in them, and gave them the ability to carve out their own story with whatever consequences they wanted it to have, knowing that it would all be swept away by the time we reached the era of A New Hope.  The characters are interesting.  The planets work.  The story works.  It’s really the ideal mix of fanservice and new story that makes it a great Star Wars game.  I replayed it myself not too long ago, and did enjoy my time with it.

3:  Suikoden III

This was the game that started my love of JRPGs.  I loved it from it’s incredibly evocative introduction:

I still listen to that intro every so often.

In addition to that, it had a unique Tri-View system where you could view the same story from the perspective of each of the three main characters for the first part of the game, as well as some other minor characters (and one joke character in the dog).  The first part meant that your view of the story could change depending on which order you watched the story in.  It also gave you time to get to know each of them, which was important because at about the half-way point you ended up having to choose one to become the main character.  On top of that, the game had over 100 other characters to recruit and get to know.  And it had a deep, JRPG-style story, and a bunch of other things to do.  This is the best Suikoden game I’ve played, and I’ve played a number of them.

2:  Persona 4

The Persona series is my favourite game series of all-time.  I like Persona 4’s ease of dungeons better than Persona 3, but like the characters and story a bit less than I like Persona 3.  However, this is the series that at least originally got most of the spinoffs, and so the characters are the ones that are most familiar to me.  I can’t really say more about the series except that I love the S-links, love the humour and find the tactical combat interesting even when it’s on easy mode.

1:  Persona 3

About all I can say here is the story about how I came to stop worrying and love this game and this series.  I remember buying it at one point in the summer, and as sometimes happened with me I didn’t have the time to play it and so it sat I think in a closet for a while.  Then I ended up having a much longer Christmas vacation than normal and came across it, and decided to give it a try.  I loved the game, and ended up one time staying up until 5 am in the morning because I thought that I was almost done with the game (I wasn’t, as it was the fake ending).  And then when I finished the game I did something that I never, ever do with games (or almost anything):  I started playing the game over again immediately.  This started my love affair with the series and pretty much settled the way I play these games.  I have easily put thousands of hours into the Persona series — definitely over 1000 hours — making it also the most cost-effective series I’ve ever played.

So, that’s the list.  Next week are the honourable mentions and then that will do it.


Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Hotel”

November 17, 2020

Jessica Lange doesn’t appear in this season, and so they need to replace her as the headliner.  This season, she is replaced by Lady Gaga, which at least means that the heavily sexualized storyline that that character has makes a bit more sense.  And before people insist that my entire problem with the previous ones was that they had an older woman being sexual instead of a younger one, I have two responses.  First, I’ll talk more about the sexual content overall when I summarize the series at the end.  Second, while I’m not opposed to older women having sex and Jessica Lange is not unattractive, most of those roles rely on the character being seductive, and since this one is based on vampires it’s even more so.  That an older woman would have sex isn’t all that odd, but being not only generally attractive to pretty much anyone involved but also being mostly irresistible requires a bit more generic sex appeal.  Lady Gaga is attractive enough, at least for the most part, to pull that off.

But the main issue with the entire series really rears its head here.  As you might guess from the title, this season is set in a haunted hotel.  What it most reminded me of was the Hyperion Hotel segment from “Angel”, which worked really well for the one episode where it was the main story and is an idea that could easily be expanded into something really great.  The season in fact uses the song “Hotel California” at one point and having a bunch of lost souls there could have produced a wonderful season.  Instead, the season, as per normal for this series, packs in vampires, serial killers, ghosts, a transgender/transvestite man trying to reunite with his family, drugs, and all sorts of other things into one very, very loosely related set of stories.  As usual, the stories are too intertwined to be taken as separate but too separate to play off of each other effectively.

This isn’t helped by the fact that, again, the characters that are focused on aren’t exactly sympathetic.  Lady Gaga’s head vampire is, as usual, the headliner and for some reason it seems like we’re supposed to find her sympathetic — she even gets an at least neutral ending — but she really is a selfish monster.  In fact, part of the story pits her and her rival vampire against each other and it isn’t clear who the story wants us to cheer for.  Her “death” is portrayed not as justice, but as tragic.  And it doesn’t help that the vampire storyline is inconsistent and ridiculous.  At the start, they seem to have no fear of weapons, but at the end they are killed by, to be fair, a hail of bullets.  The characters in the arc aren’t sympathetic, and the vampires are just different enough from ours to make things unclear and confusing since we don’t understand the new rules and the show seems to assume that we either will understand them or else we won’t care.  Ultimately, I found this storyline rather uninteresting.

The woman behind the desk — played by Kathy Bates — could be a sympathetic character, but she was perfectly willing to go along with helping the main vampire torture and kill people and was thoroughly unpleasant.  We could have seen her taking out the head vampire — along with the transgender character — as being a badass moment of redemption for them … but they are still unpleasant and have done nothing to actually be redeemed.  And for someone who had in general a minor impact on the plot, the character is focused on a lot.  If she had been used as more of a viewpoint character, accepting the strangeness and just doing her job until the climax, this would have worked better.  But that’s not what happened.

The big problem, though, is with the detective plot, which by presentation should be the main plot except that, as usual, the season overshadows it with the plot that features their headliner.  A detective moves into the hotel to pursue a serial killer who taunted him from there.  As things go along, he seems to get more disturbed and even deranged, but we never actually see that happen.  All that happens is that we seem him looking more tired and less shaven.  The show hints that he’s obsessing over the case and that’s what’s causing his mental breakdown, but the show never actually shows that to us.  We see an evidence board sometimes, but he never really spends any time focusing on it, so we don’t really get to see the descent into madness that the show is implying that he had.

These problems continue into the main twist.  The killer is the Ten Commandments Killer, who is killing people in indicative ways who have broken the Ten Commandments.  What we eventually discover is that a serial killer who owned and died in the hotel was the original killer, but the twist is that the detective has taken over and is completing his work.  Why?  We don’t know.  The series implies that the reason he turned to it was an obsession with seeing justice done, but again that’s never really established as being part of his character.  And we don’t get anything else, and never really discover when he took it up or why.  The time spent on the arc suggests that it’s a if not the main arc of the season, but the development it gets is too shallow to pull that off.

Which really hurts the ending, as there are two main emotional events associated with it.  The first is the one I just outlined.  The second is that his son had disappeared and his wife, at least, was having trouble with that.  It turns out that the son was taken by the head vampire and turned into a vampire.  The wife finds this out and gets turned into a vampire herself (and does an incredibly stupid thing that causes a bunch of child vampires that need to be taken out and, worse, take time away from actually developing the arcs).  The detective in some ways was trying to kill people to bring them blood once he finds all this out, but he ends up being killed by the police and, worse, can’t die on the hotel grounds and so can’t stay in the hotel forever.  He ends up being able to come back once a year when the hotel owner has a dinner for serial killers, and so he ends up spending the night with his wife and son who will never age, and his daughter who does.  I will say that the scene itself is fairly effective, but it lacks the emotional charge it should have because, again, I don’t know enough about these characters to care about them.  The lack of development pretty much kills off the entire arc.

This season also made more links to previous seasons.  Neither of them work.  The first is that they bring back the voodoo witch from Coven, only to kill her off so that the rival vampire can drink her blood and get superpowered up to take on the head vampire.  If you didn’t like that character, you might be okay with her dying, but won’t care that they brought her back.  If you did like the character, you won’t be happy that her end is essentially as a power up for a relatively minor confrontation in this story.  On top of that, we know that the coven still existed and was still powerful — she notes that the Supreme magicked her ticket so that she’d get on stage on “The Price is Right” — and so the fact that she went there and was killed really should have garnered some kind of response.  Witches don’t really have power over ghosts, but with all of their abilities they could at least burn the entire hotel down, and we know they had clairvoyant abilities in a number of ways and so would find out.  But this is ignored, which makes her inclusion all the more perfunctory.

The other character is I believe a medium from “Murder House”, but again her inclusion is only to the detriment of the character if you actually cared about it.  She’s trying to expose the ghosts in the hotel and ends up being threatened by all the serial killers to stop doing it or else she’ll be killed.  This wasn’t at all necessary and again only serves as a disservice to the character if you liked her, and if you didn’t then you won’t care that she showed up.  In trying to create the shared universe, they end up, it seems sacrificing characters for no real gain.

If I want to watch horror hi-jinks around a hotel, I’ll just watch “Angel” again, and not this.  It squanders the opportunity it had and the great atmosphere that old hotels can give with too many muddled plots and arcs that, ultimately, don’t generate the emotions that they were trying to generate.

Natural Law and Sexual Ethics

November 16, 2020

As noted last time, I’m reading a number of works by Edward Feser in preparation for reading Gunther Laird’s critique of him called “The Unnecessary Science”.  As might be expected, there are a number of areas where I don’t agree with Feser, and so I want to go over those — and at least get them written down — before I finish Feser and turn to Laird, if for no other reason than to ensure that my criticisms are seen as and properly are mine without worrying about whether Laird thought of them first.  If we agree, we agree independently, and if we disagree, we also disagree independently.

As noted in this comment on the last post, Feser’s natural law view on sex isn’t simply that sex is primarily about reproduction.  That is the heart of it, but as noted there there’s more to reproducing for humans than simply producing a live birth.  Since human children are dependent for a relatively long period of time compared to other species, nature needs to ensure that they get cared for over that period of time.  Given that, Feser includes the long-term committed relationship commonly called “marriage” among the natural purposes and ends of sex for humans.  So, basically, natural law for humans says that sex is to happen in a long-term relationship that is committed to having and raising the offspring from such unions.  At a minimum, then, this is the highest natural order for humans wrt sex:  having it in a long term relationship.

Now, some interpret natural law simply and insist that this means that any time you act against natural law you are doing something immoral.  So if you, say, held nails in your teeth you’d be doing something immoral because that’s not the purpose of teeth or if you skipped dinner to eat ice cream that would be immoral because ice cream can’t provide the proper nutrition to replace a full meal.  Feser notes that his view is indeed not vulnerable to those simple objections because he doesn’t consider it to be immoral by natural law to use natural faculties in ways that they weren’t designed to be, but instead only to use them in ways that frustrate their natural functions (or ends).  So holding nails in your teeth isn’t immoral, but grinding your teeth down or knocking them out so that they can’t chew anymore would be.  Skipping one meal for ice cream isn’t immoral, but having that for every meal or being bulimic would be.  In general, you need to be doing something that impedes the ability of it to perform its natural function, generally permanently (or at least over the long term).  Feser even notes that we aren’t meant to be eating all the time so we can use our teeth for other things when we aren’t, so as long as our teeth are available when we need to eat, it’s okay to hold nails in them at those other times.

This, in my view, has some unintended consequences for Feser’s views on sexual ethics (see Chapter 4 of “The Last Superstition” for details, although as that’s a book I won’t be heavily quoting it).  I’m going to explore these a bit.  Note that these don’t reflect my views on the subject.  I’ve outlined mine in part last time, but don’t take anything I saw here as necessarily a sign that I support the acts in question.

What Feser wants to do is limit sexual activity to marriage.  Any sexual activity outside of marriage is, to him, going to be immoral in at least some way.  This, then, includes unmarried sex, masturbation and especially homosexuality.  If it isn’t inside a committed marriage, it’s clearly immoral, and there can be no such thing as a marriage if there is no chance of it producing children (note for anyone who has read Feser:  I’ll address his few of sterility a little later).  The problem is that by his own view stated above, he can only make married sex the natural ideal.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have sex at other times or that any other kind of sex is necessarily immoral, any more than holding nails in our teeth is necessarily immoral.

Let’s start with masturbation.  In line with eating above, it’s pretty clear that we aren’t supposed to be having reproductive sex inside a marriage all of the time.  When a woman is pregnant, for example, it’s pretty clear that her having sex isn’t going to make her more pregnant, so she won’t be having reproductive sex there no matter what we do.  So we can, obviously, do other things while we aren’t engaging in reproductive sex inside a marriage.  But can we do other sexual things while we aren’t engaging in reproductive sex inside a marriage?  As it turns out, Feser can’t simply insist that we couldn’t possibly do other sexual things in those circumstances, because that would force him to give up his claim above that it’s only when we act in ways to frustrate natural ends that are immoral, which would reduce him to the fairly ludicrous and overly simplistic idea of natural law.  So what he’s going to have to do, then, is show that if we masturbate we are indeed frustrating the natural function and end of our reproductive and sexual mechanisms.

How can he do that?  He could try to argue that biologically that’s the case, but that’s actually a very difficult argument to make.  There is no reason to think that masturbation impedes over the long-term anyone’s ability to have reproductive sex.  While sperm cells are lost (or killed), sperm cells if I remember my biology correctly die off anyway if unused and definitely are replaced.  Masturbation isn’t going to impede men biologically in any way as long as they don’t, say, masturbate too often too close to when they want to have reproductive sex so that they are too tired to perform.  And, of course, masturbation doesn’t waste eggs for women as they are not released by orgasms.  So, biologically, it’s not going to frustrate or impede the ability to reproduce over the long term.

Feser could make a claim that masturbation will impede us in forming a long-term relationship psychologically.  About the only argument I could see here is that we will enjoy masturbation so much that we won’t feel the need to actually have sex with someone else and so won’t be interested in a longer-term relationship.  While I have no doubt that this may have occurred for some people, I’d see that case as being as much a deviation as bulimia is when compared to people who are trying to drop a few pounds to get to a healthy weight.  The other argument I could see is that if people can masturbate to relieve sexual tension it will remove that tension from them, and so it won’t be a motivation for them to get into a long-term relationship and get married as soon as they can, thus delaying it.  However, we know that that sort of sexual tension can result in poor decision-making, and also that for a long-term relationship it would be better to delay the decision until the two people know whether or not they are compatible.  The last thing we want are people praying for the end of time because they committed to getting married only because they were so attracted to each other that they really, really wanted to have sex with each other and that was the only way.  So it seems like having some kind of sexual release is a good thing.  And, of course, it can also be beneficial inside of a marriage if one partner has a higher sex drive than the other, allowing them to satisfy their urges without having to convince the other partner to compromise on having sex more often than they’d like.  Feser might be able to argue that if they fantasize about someone else it would be adultery, but that could be solved if they instead fantasized about their own partner.

So, it’s difficult to see how masturbation wouldn’t count as being in the same category as “Hold nails in your mouth”.  Yes, it’s not reproductive sex inside a marriage, but it doesn’t seem to impede that in any significant way either.

This, then, leads to casual sex.  A lot of the same arguments for masturbation not being immoral also come into play for casual sex.  Having casual sex doesn’t mean that you won’t be looking for a permanent partner.  In fact, some might well argue that having some sexual experience with them first is a crucial part of ensuring that the two of you are sexually compatible enough to enter into a relationship where you only have sex with each other.  It would also allow people to burn off any extreme sexual passion they have for someone who might be incompatible with them for a long-term relationship.  As long as they aren’t married and aren’t in a different long-term relationship building to marriage, it wouldn’t count as adultery.

There are a couple of other arguments you can make here.  One is that sex itself often inherently builds the bonds required to make a marriage work.  If someone is having a lot of casual sex, that could have a lasting effect on how those bonds are formed.  One way is that it could cause someone to form that bond with someone or with multiple someones that they have no intention of forming a long-term relationship with, or at least that the other person has no intention of forming a long-term relationship with.  In short, the two of them now have a closer bond than they wanted, but still have no intention — or, potentially, any ability if they can’t actually love each other — of getting married.  The other way is that the person might lose the ability to form those sorts of bonds from sex, having conditioned themselves to have sex be nothing more than simple sex without any deeper meaning.  In that case, they wouldn’t be able to form the bond required for marriage and would have impeded the natural function of sex for themselves.

I would have to concede that these are possible side effects of at least too much casual sex, and these are the reasons why I’m hesitant to have sex be considered the equivalent of any other entertaining pastime (my common way of putting it is that I don’t want sex to become a pastime so that if two people are trying to kill some time before meeting friends they consider whether to play a board game or have sex as if they were equivalent).  But in order to use this Feser would indeed need to find the empirical studies to show that, and even then I’d wager that it’s only very frequent casual sex that does that, which could be counted as an abuse of it, like bulimia, rather than the diet case that it would seem to be.

The other issue is that casual sex, unlike masturbation, can result in a child, and by definition casual sex is intended to not produce a child (and certainly isn’t doing so in the way that Feser prefers).  We can deal with this a bit — as well as the first problem — by insisting that anyone who engages in casual sex has to be prepared to enter into a proper long-term relationship with that person should a child result from that.  And the other way to address that is to look at another thing that Feser will disapprove of, which is birth control.

Of all of these “casual” cases, the use of birth control is the one that most directly interferes with the natural function of the reproductive system.  However, it doesn’t necessarily do so in a way that permanently impedes those functions.  Using a condom, for example, doesn’t do any more damage that masturbation does.  Unless Feser wants to adopt the rather ludicrous “Every sperm is sacred!” line — which doesn’t seem to be justified by natural law — that wouldn’t be an issue.  Birth control pills might be more of an issue since it definitely mucks around with the system itself, and so there might be a risk of permanently making it harder for the woman to conceive, but we’d need empirical evidence to show that, which I haven’t seen.  So if both partners are willing to accept entering into a long-term relationship if the birth control fails, then it can be seen like wearing a helmet when going out to play football:  our bodies weren’t designed to smack into each other as part of a fun event, but if we wear a helmet we reduce the chances of doing permanent damage to ourselves preventing us from doing the other things we are meant to do.  In the case of birth control, it’s preventing us from creating a child before we’re ready, either due to personal circumstances or because this is the wrong partner.

So this leads to another question where I’m less certain what Feser’s opinion will be, which are the various surgeries to make it so that someone cannot have children again.  This would seem to be the biggest violation of natural law, the equivalent of mutilating oneself.  And I’d agree that someone shouldn’t do it just for the sake of doing it.  However, it does seem reasonable in a case like Shamus Young’s, where it was quite likely that if his wife Heather ever got pregnant again it would probably kill her.  The reason to raise is that while a simple “reproduction” angle would say that it was still wrong of them to get the operations, Feser’s stance including raising the children seems to make it a no-brainer:  if she got pregnant again, she’d probably die, and then half of the required partnership to properly raise their three children would be gone.  While if it happened by accident it could be dealt with, they probably shouldn’t court it.  You could argue that Shamus shouldn’t have had the operation since he could still reproduce, but he wasn’t going to reproduce with her and so given the life-long relationship of marriage he’d have to be holding out hope that she’d die before he got too old to have more children.  That … does not seem to be the sort of attitude that Feser would want to espouse [grin].  So it seems like that in at least those sorts of cases, even that direct surgery could be moral by Feser’s more advanced view of reproduction.

And the final thing to look at in the “outside of a long-term relationship” category is … casual homosexual acts.  The big argument against homosexual sex acts is that they can’t in any way produce a child naturally.  This might still strike against same-sex marriage, but it’s difficult to see it as striking against casual homosexual sex given what we saw above.  Feser may note that it disgusts him to think of it, but that in and of itself wouldn’t count against it.  After all, he might find certain foods disgusting as well, and it may even be the case that most people find them disgusting, but even if those foods were non-nutritious that wouldn’t mean that it would be immoral to eat them.  Feser might be able to make some kind of overall social point here — encouraging relations as “normal” that couldn’t produce children — but this would be fairly weak and would more suggests that the social attitudes need to be tweaked, not the acts themselves eliminated.

So by including the long-term relationship in the very definition of reproduction, Feser pretty much opens up the floor to almost any kind of casual sexual activity, as long as it doesn’t impede the search for a long-term relationship.  If he wants to close them off, he pretty much has to abandon his point about us being able to act in “artificial” ways as long as it doesn’t frustrate natural ends, or else he has to show that they do just that.  Either way, it’s a long more complicated than he presents it in the chapter in his book.

Okay, so that covers off casual sexual encounters.  But Feser’s view actually does cover him, for the most part, in his views of marriage.  If we accept that reproduction includes the long-term relationship required to raise the children, then marriage — being that relationship — clearly only includes relationships that can have children.  But it turns out that there are some additional complications there as well.

Let’s start with sterility.  Feser comments that it’s okay for someone who is sterile to marry someone who isn’t as long as the person who isn’t sterile isn’t only marrying that person specifically to avoid having children.  But if they know that the person is sterile before marrying them, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they are willingly entering into what they know is that sort of relationship, and so are knowingly ensuring that they will never have children.  Feser could try to argue that it’s okay as long as the two people really love each other, but this would have consequences for same-sex marriage since they claim to really love each other as well.  Since the main reason for Feser to not accept that they really love each other in the right way is that the two of them can’t reproduce, that would seem to apply to this case as well.  In fact, it’s hard to see how two people knowingly entering into such a relationship could be considered a marriage at all by Feser.  So in that case, it doesn’t seem like they actually have a marriage.  An exception might be made if they discovered that one of them was sterile after they got married … but then it seems reasonable to say that even though they thought they were married, they really weren’t.  As an example, if we take the stock soap opera trope of someone losing their memory and marrying someone else while forgetting that they were already married, we’d probably want to say no matter how we’re looking at it that the second marriage isn’t a real marriage, since it couldn’t be formed since the person was already married.  It seems reasonable to say that if they discovered later that one of them was sterile and was so at the time of marriage that it wouldn’t be a real marriage anyway.  If an accident or illness made one of them sterile, that likely would be different, especially if they already had children together, as seen above.  But at the start of the marriage, it’s hard to see how Feser can consider it a proper marriage.

Okay, so that case is a bit problematic.  What about sterile-sterile marriages?  I think from the above it would be hard for Feser to call it a marriage, but would it be moral for those two people to enter into a long-term relationship?  If one of them was not sterile, then we have the issue of that person having to essentially give up their ability to reproduce, but if they are both sterile, then that’s not an issue.  Neither of them would have to give up that ability to reproduce that they don’t have.  Morality follows the maxim that ought implies can, so we cannot demand that people do what they cannot do — in this case reproduce — or else be considered to be immoral.  Just as we cannot demand that a clubfoot run a marathon or else be considered immoral, we cannot demand that sterile people only participate in reproductive long-term relationships when no matter what they cannot have such relationships.  So two such people should be able to enter into long-term, committed, sexual relationships with each other without any risk of doing anything immoral, even if Feser would not call that a marriage.

This raises the point that we cannot insist that people enter into natural law marriages if there is something about them that means that it wouldn’t work for them, and that something is something that they cannot change merely through an act of will.  Sterility is an obvious example, but are there other examples where the biology is not as much what is lacking?

I’ve heard the statistics bandied around that one in six people never get married.  If two of those people are at the age where they are unlikely to be able to sire children or to be able to raise them properly (for men the age where conception is possible is longer but they still may be too old to really properly raise rambunctious children), can they enter into a long-term sexual relationship?  About the only counter you can make is that their being single was their own fault, and so reflected a moral deficiency in them before we even consider the status of such a relationship.  I’ve addressed that before.  But to turn to myself again, I am not definitely at the age where reproduction is probably not a viable option.  While one could argue that I didn’t do enough to take enough of my opportunities and so my being single is indeed my own fault, I could argue that while I did put in less effort than some I indeed put in more effort than others did who were successful.  So it’s incredibly difficult to say that I didn’t try hard enough just by looking at the fact that I failed to achieve it.  The more reasonable line is that the combination of my personality and my circumstances led me to this end.  So I can’t be considered immoral just because you can argue that I could have tried harder.

Given that, if no inherent moral failing can accrue to people who have never been married and so are at the stage of their lives where they can’t have children, then it seems these cases fall back on the same reasoning as the cases cited above:  there’s no chance of them having children, and so even if they can’t have a real marriage they can definitely enter into a long-term sexual relationship.  They aren’t depriving anyone, even themselves, of the proper relationship because they are no longer in a position to have that with anyone.

So far I’ve focused on physical issues (either directly or just getting too old to have kids).  What about mental issues?  Could we have someone who just isn’t mentally capable of such relationships or to raise children?  Obviously, I don’t just mean people who have such a diminished capacity that they couldn’t possibly enter into such relationships, but instead someone who, for example, is just too fond of wanderlust to provide a stable environment or doesn’t have the patience to deal with children.  Now, it couldn’t just be that they were afraid that they couldn’t cope with it or weren’t sure that they could cope with it.  I suspect that most parents have felt that way at one time or another.  No, we’d need someone who has had some kind of professional analysis and it has been determined that this isn’t something that they can reasonably change.  So they would know that they aren’t suited for marriage and know that it’s not a mere failure of will that makes them so.  In such cases — which I expect to be relatively rare — it would seem reasonable that they could enter into long-term sexual relationships as they were capable of with people who can’t have a full marriage, and short-term relationships with those who are in similar circumstances to them.

Which raises the issue of polyamory.  One of the main claims that many people who enter into these relationships make is that they, at least, aren’t capable of entering into monoamorous relationships.  This is the precise claim that Ricard Carrier made.  And while I’m more inclined to think that he was just using that idea as a rationalization to excuse his infidelity — one would think that if it was legitimate he would have raised the issue before he cheated on her and got caught — it is easy to imagine that there might well be people who really are mentally incapable of marriage, but could enter into multiple committed or semi-committed relationships.  Again, if this really was the case, it’s difficult to see how entering into those sorts of relationships would be inherently morally wrong.  As long as they are indeed incapable of a proper marriage, then it seems like polyamory can’t be a morally banned option.

Which, then, leads to same-sex relationships.  They could make the same reply:  as they are not sexually attracted to the opposite sex, they cannot enter into a marriage at all, and that they can’t simply change their sexual orientation through force of will.  Given that, then they should be able to enter into long-term sexual relationships with people of the same sex as them.  Feser could reasonably reply that sexual attraction isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of marriage, and so all they need to have is the ability to reproduce and the ability to have feelings for their partner, and it would work as a marriage, and so they could indeed enter into a proper marriage if they weren’t so attached to sexual attraction.  But in order for even Feser’s argument to work, we have to consider that the love that exists in a marriage is a combination of romantic love and sexual attraction.  Sexual attraction isn’t dominant, but arguably it must be present.  This, then, could lead to a better reply where they argue that it isn’t merely the sexual attraction that they lack, but romantic love.  They fall in love with members of the same sex, not with members of the opposite sex.  Thus, they could never actually have the love that is necessary for a proper marriage, and so cannot enter into one.  Therefore, it would not be immoral for them to enter into a long-term committed sexual relationship with someone of the same sex as them.

This also leads us to a distinction that isn’t made often enough on both sides:  the difference between legal marriage and “real” marriage.  Feser’s distinctions here are based on an analysis of what marriage actually is given our natures, and so is about the ontological definition of marriage.  But the same-sex marriage movement was about the legal definition of marriage.  It would be entirely reasonable for a society to say that they have an interest in recognizing any committed long-term relationship that works out to be partnership, if for no other reason than to provide rules for entangling and unentangling them.  This doesn’t mean that these things are really “marriages”, even if the state calls them such.  Perhaps they should use a different word, but even if they do that doesn’t mean that they necessarily are the same thing.  So Feser should probably stop insisting that legal marriages can’t possibly be marriages, because they can be if the law says they are.  And same-sex marriage proponents should probably stop claiming that legal recognition of marriage means that they have a “real” marriage and Feser is just plain wrong, because if the state calls a tail a leg it might legally be a leg, but in reality it’s still a tail.

And so if you’ve followed the entire discussion, you’d see that my analysis here will probably tick off both sides if they properly understand it.  Feser and those on his side will disagree with my comments that their own views mean that things like casual sex and even polyamory and homosexual acts aren’t necessarily immoral, while progressives will be upset that I accept Feser’s line that marriage between a man and a woman for the purposes of reproduction is the superior relationship and the others are just things that we can have if we can’t have that superior relationship.  However, this line of analysis does seem reasonably correct to me.  We have to allow for artificial actions and for cases where the ideal relationship cannot be achieved, but that doesn’t mean that we have to accept that it wouldn’t be best for everyone if they could get into a proper, happy marriage with the appropriate amount of children.  The issue, as I noted last week, is that both sides place too much importance on sex:  Feser in its idealized form, progressives in its “baser” form of providing pleasure.  This encourages Feser to insist that only the idealized form is moral despite his own theory insisting that no such thing is possible, and encourages progressives to insist that any sex is of equal worth.  Both, in my opinion, are wrong.

Next time, I’ll move on from sexual ethics and ethics itself into things like causation and some of the issues I have with Feser’s Aristotlean view.