Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Philipse on Arguments from Order to Design

August 18, 2017

Chapters 13 and 14 focus on the Argument from Design and other inductive arguments respectively. But it is definitely the case that by this point Philipse isn’t really providing anything new, neither a new and fresh examination of the arguments nor a strong and specific refutation of Swinburne. As such, there’s not that much to say here. The stuff that’s new is Swinburne’s, which won’t be that impressive to anyone who isn’t already a fan of his, and the stuff that isn’t specific to Swinburne isn’t new.

So what I want to talk about briefly is, again, Philipse’s attempt to claim that global arguments from design are more promising than local arguments from design. Again, he appeals to this on the basis of avoiding the “God of the Gaps”, and thus the risk that later science will, in fact, find an explanation for the phenomena. But, again, this is ridiculous. If I could demonstrate that, say, by the best evidence we have the eye is irreducibly complex and so had to be produced deliberately by an intentional agent, it’s in no way a response to say “Well, science might find a way to explain that … sometime. In the future. So you can’t make that claim!”. In the previous chapter, Philipse insists that cosmological arguments need to be inductive arguments to the best explanation, while here he insists that for design inductive arguments to the best explanation aren’t promising because they run the risk of science refuting them at later date. One suspects that if Philipse found any inductive arguments for the cosmological argument that he couldn’t refute he’d be insisting that they fail because science might refute them later, a criteria that he pushes in Chapter 13 for a temporal design argument of Swinburne’s.

At this point, it seems clear that Philipse’s main focus — perhaps unconsciously — is to at all times place the burden of proof on the theistic argument, and thus insist that we must take any scientific explanation before we accept a theistic one. Thus, if we follow Philipse’s idea of “God in the Age of Science” we end up ceding all discussion on the matter to science. Which might not be a problem unless science is, in fact, explicitly naturalistic, as in that case science would accept any explanation — no matter how improbable — over a theistic or supernatural one. In fact, it might even accept “We don’t know yet” over a theistic or supernatural one. Philipse himself directly accepts both of these arguments at various times. Thus, to accept Philipse’s view of “the Age of Science” is to, essentially, concede that atheism and naturalism are true, not because they are specifically better evidenced, but merely because science implicitly and perhaps explicitly assumes them.

Fortunately, we don’t have to accept Philipse’s view. There are a number of philosophical, epistemological and even empirical and scientific issues with his views. And if we don’t accept them, then we don’t accept most of his arguments against the specific theistic arguments that he addresses either. Thus, without us accepting his starting points, we won’t accept where he ends here, and so all of this is just standard replies to the standard arguments.

Next time, Philipse, at the end, talks about religious experiences. It would seem like that would be something he would have addressed much earlier …

Philipse on Cosmological Arguments

August 11, 2017

So, in Chapter 12 Philipse examines Cosmological Arguments in an attempt to show that they aren’t going to work. He differentiates between two main types of cosmological arguments: deductive ones like the classic “First Cause” arguments, or inductive ones to the best explanation. As it turns out, Swinburne also prefers the latter sorts of arguments, so Philipse is going to start by attempting to show that deductive arguments aren’t as promising as inductive ones so that he can spend the bulk of the chapter focusing on inductive arguments and thus also on Swinburne’s arguments and explanations. This will work as long as you end up agreeing with him that deductive arguments aren’t promising avenues to take. If you don’t accept that, then the complicated arguments Swinburne advances will seem like nothing more than a waste of time when simpler and as if not more promising arguments are available.

The problem is that the meat of Philipse’s arguments against deductive arguments are nothing more than taking the two most popular deductive arguments and attempting to show that they don’t work. Sure, he brings in Swinburne’s argument that deductive cosmological arguments aren’t sound, but he — rightly — points out that it’s not easy to argue that without examining the specific arguments themselves. But Philipse then goes on to insist that the literature has done that for pretty much all of those specific cases and decides to demonstrate that by picking two examples and showing that they are not sound and so can be dismissed. Of course, this would in no way demonstrate that all possible deductive arguments are not sound, so it doesn’t even defend against the specific counter that Philipse himself raised. He could have made a decent argument if he had tried to show that having a universal premise would risk them not being sound or would at least lead us to think that establishing universal premises was too difficult a task to be considered reasonable, but he doesn’t even do that. So even if we accept that he’s right about the two arguments he addresses, we have no reason to think that deductive cosmological arguments are just a dead end.

And when it comes to the two arguments that Philipse tries to address, I find that I have to express my deepest gratitude to him, because his attempts to refute them have led me to come to the realization of why they, in fact, actually seem to work. Whether or not I can get to God from those two arguments, when it comes to establishing some kind of First Cause or First Element the arguments seem conclusive. Thus, instead of making me doubt their validity, he’s only made me even more certain that the arguments are right. That’s … probably not what he was going for.

Let me start with the first argument, which is essentially the argument from contingent causes, and I’ll quote his presentation of it here:

1. A contingent entity exists (that is, and entity of which we can suppose without contradiction that it does not exist), or a contingent event occurs.
2. Each contingent entity or event has a sufficient cause.
3. Contingent entities or events alone cannot constitute, ultimately, a sufficient cause for the existence of a contingent entity or the occurrence of a contingent event.
4. Therefore, at least one necessary entity or event exists (that is, an entity or event of which we cannot suppose without contradiction that it does not exist or occur). And because it exists necessarily, it does not stand in need of an explanation.[pg 223]

While I wouldn’t normally quote the counter argument when quoting from a book — as it’s usually not worth the effort to do so when a summary will do just as well and usually be clearer — here I have to quote what he’s saying so that everyone can check to see if my interpretation of it is correct:

What one should repudiate is premise (3), since causal explanations cannot but refer to causes that exist or occur contingently. If one explains causally an event E with reference to a cause C, what one means is that, ceteris paribus, if C had not occurred, E would not have occurred either, assuming there is no causal redundancy. Hence, it is essential to the very meaning of the word ’cause’ that we can always suppose without contradiction that a cause C did not occur.[ibid]

You would think that someone who was in fact a philosopher would do two things here. First, one would assume that in examining this they would take the concept of a necessary object, put it in the place of C, and see if the statement “If C had not occurred, E would not have occurred” still makes sense or itself produces a contradiction. Philipse doesn’t seem to have done that, because it seems pretty obvious that, yes, saying that still makes sense. What it really means to be a necessary entity or event is that it is not possible for it to not have occurred. So what we would say is that C occurred and C had to occur. And because C occurred, E occurred. Now, if C hadn’t occurred, then E wouldn’t have occurred. But, of course, C did occur, because it had to occur. Why is that case that much different from the case where we observe that a contingent C happened in the past that produced an event E? Isn’t it just as contradictory to assert that if C hadn’t happened then E wouldn’t have happened? After all, C did happen, and we can’t change that now. Once C happens or exists, then E will happen. Why C happens or exists doesn’t impact that. It seems to me that Philipse has fallen into a “If humans evolved from apes, then why are there still apes?” argument. His entire argument relies on interpreting the first part of the if as being an actual statement about C, which then implies that to make the conditional work we’d have to actually assert that C might not have occurred. But we don’t need to and don’t do that. The conditional, then, does not in any way imply that it is actually physically or conceptually possible for C to not exist or have occurred, which would be the contradiction. The statement is talking about the dependency of E on C, and not making any actual conceptual statement about C itself. So this argument fails.

The second thing a philosopher ought to do here is actually attack the logic itself, and not simply look to provide a counter-argument, which is what Philipse’s argument actually does here while in the guise of refuting premise (3). The reason to do this is that we don’t want to end up in an Antinomy, where we have two sound logical arguments that lead to the opposite conclusions. Again, Philipse claims to be attacking premise (3), but what he’s really doing — by his own words — is making an argument that the concept of cause makes necessary events — at least ones that have any causal power — incoherent. But that doesn’t attack the original logic that says that you can’t stop at a contingent event, and that by definition every contingent event must have a sufficient cause explaining it. And this argument would go as follows: for an event to be contingent, it means that its existence depends on some event or cause that causes it to happen as opposed to the alternatives. This means that for any contingent event we can ask for an explanation of it, meaning that we can ask what made it so that it happened as opposed to something else (which might be nothing). Let’s call that C. Now, C can either be contingent or non-contingent. If it is contingent, then we would say that its existence depends on another event, C’. Which we could then go and examine to see if C’ is contingent or non-contingent. And so on and so forth. Thus, for any contingent event C we could never stop there, because there would always be something left that we would need to explain, which is why C itself happened, which we can only explain by appealing to another event C’. If, however, that C is non-contingent, then it needs no further explanation for its existence and so we can stop there.

You can argue that my argument depends a lot on us needing an explanation or still having something to explain, which might not be necessary (this might be an epistemological as opposed to a conceptual argument). Fair enough, but remember that Philipse wants us to do theology like science, and science can never say that if there is still something there to be explained that we can simply stop there and claim that we’ve explained enough. Science can argue that we can’t find out that explanation, but that’s definitely an epistemological as opposed to a conceptual argument, and so can’t refute the idea that what we have is a necessary entity or event C out there that stopped our chain of explanation. So Philipse would still need a conceptual argument to refute the idea that there’d still be something out there that can’t be contingent to be the explanation for the contingent entity or event we are considering.

Let me quote the second argument:

1. This event in the universe is fully or partially caused by earlier events. The same holds for other events. They are caused by causal chains going backwards in time.
2. Infinite causal regresses are impossible.
3. Therefore, there must have been a first cause of each causal chain.[ibid]

Philipse uses the standard reply of appealing to Cantorian Set Theory to demonstrate that we can, indeed, have an infinite causal regress. The problem is that the classic examples use there are things like the set of all integers, the set of all positive integers, and so on and so forth. The problem is that these causal sets are not like those, but are more like the Fibonacci sequence, where the existence of any element in the set is determined by earlier elements in the set, except for the initial terms, which have to be stipulated by definition. So, to weaken Philipse’s logic, what he’d have to show is that dependent sets can be infinite in the same way as, say, the set of all integers. If they can’t, then you can’t use Cantorian Set Theory against the argument.

So, having weakened the argument, let me again provide a positive argument for why that isn’t the case. In generating the set of all integers, I can generate a number at random and see if it belongs to the set and add it if it ought to be in the set (and isn’t already there). So I could generate the set, then, by randomly generating 100, 350, 2, 19 and so on and doing so until I have the entire set. Sure, it’s not physically possible for me to do that, but it’s conceptually possible for me to do that. Thus, I can generate any element of the set at any time and be able to determine if that element should be in the set and, in fact, even add it to the set.

Can I do that for a simple dependent set, where, say nm is determined by nm-1 + 1, where n is a positive integer? So I generate 56. Is 56 in the set? Well, in order to determine that, I’d have to know what its m would be if it was in the set, so that I can determine if nm-1+1 = 56. So that means that there needs to be at least one other element in the set before I can determine if this element is in the set. And since that applies to every element in the set, I can’t add any element to the set until I know that another element is in the set. Except for n0, the initial term. If I stipulate that n0 is 55, then 56 is clearly in the set. But if I stipulate that n0 is 233, then it clearly isn’t in the set. Thus, no element can be added to the set until I add an element that is not dependent on any other elements in the set to the set.

And it turns out that for any dependent sets that we come across, we always specify by definition some elements that exist in the set but that aren’t dependent on any other elements in the set. And as soon as we do that, we can then generate the rest of the elements that exist in that set, by proceeding from those initial elements to the next elements down the line. So we cannot proceed infinitely past that starting point and maintain a sensible set that actually contains elements.

Since causal regressions, by (1) are dependent sets, the same thing applies to them. No element can be said to be in that causal regression unless we can specify an initial term that kicks this all off. Sure, if we see a dependent causal regression we can identify it as such and trace it backwards in time, but mathematically we’d have to expect there to be an initial term that is not dependent on any other elements in the set. Thus, mathematically it really does look like the argument holds.

There might be places where I go wrong with these arguments, but the important point is that Philipse has certainly not established that even these two deductive arguments are not fruitful, let alone that no deductive arguments are not fruitful. And since he hasn’t established that, I see no reason to follow him and Swinburne down the complicated rabbit hole of inductive arguments to the best explanation. Which makes the rest of the chapter irrelevant, and so I’m not going to bother addressing it.

Next up: Design arguments.

Philipse on the Probability of Theism

July 21, 2017

So, in Chapter 11, Philipse starts talking about whether or not theism is probable, and what it might mean to determine that. However, what we see here — and have already been seeing in previous chapters — is an odd sort of issue based on the fact that Philipse himself both seems to want to go after theism in general but focus on Swinburne specifically. Thus, Philipse ends up focusing very much on Swinburne’s specific views while still talking about what theists would do or problems they would have in general. It seems that Philipse wants to focus on Swinburne at least in part because Swinburne accepts some of the issues Philipse has with theism and so at least in general more directly addresses those concerns. In fact, we see on a number of occasions Philipse using Swinburne to argue for Philipse’s main points. The problem with this approach is that Swinburne’s view isn’t that of all or potentially even most theists, and so if someone isn’t convinced by Philipse’s arguments they aren’t likely to be convinced by Swinburne’s either, and also won’t find the discussions of the specific solutions Swinburne advances and the problems Philipse has with them all that interesting. Yes, there are solutions and issues with them, but those solutions are addressing problems that many theists think are only issues if you buy somewhat dubious premises and propose a rather odd solution to those problems. This makes chapters that claim to make general points but that focus on Swinburne specifically seem somewhat irrelevant.

Here, in this chapter, I want to ignore all of the points about Ultimate Explanations and Swinburne’s specific use of that and the problems of it. I’m not convinced that even empirically any of this matters, especially considering that I rejected the need for “immunization” of theistic belief last time. I’m also not convinced that the right way to determine which is the more reasonable theory is by using probability — I’m inclined towards Quine’s “Web of Belief” model and so think general fit is better — and am certainly not convinced that Bayesian approaches are the right ones. So most of the chapter is predicated on my accepting premises that I don’t accept, and so the specific arguments aren’t that interesting. Thus, I’m going to focus somewhat briefly on two specific points. The first is a discussion over how probable a belief must be before we are justified in accepting or believing it, and the second is a discussion over the empirical background, which is about as close as Philipse gets to actually arguing for the theistic belief being improbable.

So, let’s start with the first point. Philipse talks constantly about “religious belief” in that section, and talks about “justified” in that context. When he talks about how philosophers view “justified”, and particularly when he talks about it having to be “highly probable”, he ends up shifting definitions here, talking about justified as it is used in “justified true belief” … which is to say, in terms of knowledge. But all we’re talking about here is which theory is to be preferred given the evidence we currently have. That’s probably not a knowledge claim. Sure, if we want to claim that we know God exists based on that reasoning, we’d want a very high probability, but to merely say that it is the most probable given what we know at the moment should only require it to be more probable than all of the competing theories … and Swinburne wanting it to have a higher probability than 1/2 guarantees that. So unless Philipse wants to demand that before we can reasonably think that a theory is the best candidate we have to know that it is the true one, or else wants to insist that one cannot reasonably believe that the best candidate we have is true, he’s just confused here about what belief and justification for belief has to be, conflating belief and knowledge.

Now, the next issue is when Philipse discusses the “empirical background knowledge”, which is critical for a Bayesian analysis and, it seems to me, provides the best reasons to think that Bayesian analysis is less than useful. While Philipse points out that some Bayesians think that the analysis can be subjective, in order to work as an argument against anyone else the probability of a theory given the empirical background knowledge has to be objective enough that your opponent can’t just reject your probability and blunt your argument. Thus, it can’t depend on things that you believe but that others might not. So let’s look at a couple of possible arguments that might make theism improbable based on the empirical background knowledge.

I’ll start with Philipse’s. His main argument is that God, as defined, is a personal being with consciousness, but he argues that “… all empirical investigations suggest that mental phenomena cannot exist without neural substrata.”[pg 205] In short, his big argument here is that you can’t be conscious unless you have neurons and thus are physical, and God is a non-physical spirit. Philipse has ridden this rather dubious argument for the entire book, and it’s still dubious here. First, if we are talking about an “ultimate” consciousness, then if it exists it would have to be able to compute without any limits. But any physical implementation of consciousness would have limits. Thus, an ultimate consciousness would have to be non-physical to avoid physical limits. Philipse could reply, then, that this would mean that an ultimate consciousness is impossible, but then he’d need far more evidence than “So far, all the conscious things that we’ve found are physical!” to demonstrate that. Second, AI is not going to have a neural substratum and we think that it is at least possible that we could get a conscious AI, and there is no empirical evidence that it can’t and at least some empirical evidence that it might be able to from AI implementations. So we have good reasons to find this purported piece of empirical background knowledge a bit dubious.

Richard Carrier, in a recent post addressing Swinburne and another Bayesian theist, brought in another argument:

If we count up all the things in history we at some point couldn’t explain, or thought was explained by magic or ghosts, and then securely found out what the actual cause was (so that it is now approximately a universally accepted fact of science or history), how many of those things turned out to be magic or ghosts? If the answer is zero (and it is…and anyone who denies that, is literally insane), and the number of those things is in the millions (which have reached that degree of investigation, so that it is now a known fact of the world what causes them; not just a belief or speculation), then the prior probability the next thing you ask the cause of will have been caused by magic or ghosts is logically necessarily millions to one against. And if the number of such things is in the billions, it’s billions to one against; if in the billions of trillions, then billions of trillions to one against. There is no rational escape from this consequence.

Well, there is indeed one: call it what it is, the inductive fallacy. This is essentially like saying that you’ve examined millions and millions of swans and so if someone says they’ve seen a black swan the empirical background knowledge makes that radically improbable. The problem here is not so much in saying that it is reasonable to believe that there are no black swans given what we’ve empirically examined, but is instead in choosing to use that as an argument that black swans don’t exist when someone gives you a reason to think that they might. The same thing applies here: if we think that in this specific case that a supernatural explanation makes the most sense for other reasons, saying that we’ve never had one of those doesn’t impact that assessment because it doesn’t — and can’t — address the reasons we had for preferring the supernatural explanation.

But the point here is not to refute these two arguments, or even to say that it is unreasonably for them to hold them (although I think that these particular arguments are so bad that it is indeed unreasonable to hold them). What is important is that these are justifications for very important premises that will greatly impact the prior probability Philipse and Carrier assign to the theistic hypothesis … and are premises that someone might, at least, reasonably not accept. No one need accept Philipse’s idea that mental activity must have a neural substrata or Carrier’s idea that the success or failure of previous supernatural explanations are relevant to this one. And as soon as someone does that, the whole Bayesian analysis — at least, one using priors, and it seems like there is little reason to use Bayesian reasoning if you don’t include priors — goes out the window. All I have to do is say “I don’t think this piece of empirical background knowledge is true” or “I don’t think this piece of empirical background knowledge is relevant” and the whole analysis collapses. Thus, the empirical background knowledge, well, has to be knowledge for it to work here: things known to be true and known to be true by all parties. And the implications have to strongly follow. This is, in fact, a pretty difficult thing to achieve, and neither Philipse nor Carrier achieve it.

Now, the thing is that it’s reasonable — or at least, not unreasonable — for Philipse and Carrier to hold their beliefs. Philipse is a physicalist and denies the existence of immaterial things, and Carrier is a naturalist who denies the existence of the supernatural. As beliefs, they certainly have sufficient reason to believe those things. But others have sufficient reasons to believe otherwise, or at least to withhold judgement on those propositions. And as soon as they do, the priors falter and their arguments for why theism is improbable evaporate.

This result is consistent with my general view on belief, which is that we assess the “likelihood” of a proposition or theory being true based on how well it aligns with our current “Web of Belief” (which includes but is not limited to what we know). If someone is a naturalist, any supernatural explanation will seem incredibly unlikely. If someone is not, then that it is supernatural might count in its favour, or at least will be neutral. And I will argue that this is perfectly reasonable. Moreover, it’s all we can do. Any objective Bayesian reasoning will try to make the assessment give an initial assessment that is the only reasonable one to accept and then move by objective steps to new probabilities as new evidence is introduced, but to do so it can’t rely on anything that we don’t solidly know and so can’t account for differing beliefs. Either we can’t believe what we don’t know — which is wildly impractical — or it will splinter into subjective Bayesian as soon as there’s a belief that is in dispute that at least one party thinks is relevant. And subjective Bayesianism is nothing more than a mathematical complication of what we’d do naturally anyway, as the number it comes up with is meaningless without the context that spawned it.

This, then, is the issue with arguing that theism is “improbable”. You need an objective standard for that to have meaning, but that standard has to be based on subjective beliefs. In general, the insistence of probabilities strikes me as a way to claim objectivity while hiding the subjective premises that underlie the assessment … which explains why these arguments always devolve to arguing over those specific premises in the end.

Next up, cosmological arguments.

Seidensticker’s Spectrum Argument for Abortion

July 19, 2017

So, Bob Seidensticker over at Cross Examined recently revisited his “Spectrum Argument for Abortion” in response to a criticism of it brought up by a secular poster. However, I don’t actually feel that Seidensticker’s responses actually defend the argument at all. The best argument that isn’t in the original is the one about whether at least part of the argument is relevant or not:

Seidensticker’s point about how evangelicals thirty years ago supported abortion is simply irrelevant.

Not to people who bring up Christian arguments! If it doesn’t apply to a secular perspective, fair enough, but I was addressing more people than just you.

Actually, yes, it’s still irrelevant to bring that up, even to Christians. First, not all Christians are evangelicals. Second, that evangelicals supported it thirty years ago is irrelevant to arguments raised today. If you are going to use that, what you want to bring up is why they supported it then, to see if that argument still applies today. If it does, then you have an argument to use against them, and one that has and so potentially undercuts the religious basis they have for their stance. But simply pointing out an inconsistency in view only works if you insist that they cannot possibly ever have made mistakes in their interpretations and arguments and insist that they can never, ever change their minds about something. Since one of the main criticisms of religious arguments is that they can never change, that’d be a very odd — and potentially self-defeating — position for an atheist to take.

Anyway, onto the actual argument, which was originally raised, according to Seidensticker, here. The summary from the more recent post is this:

Consider the above figure of the blue-green spectrum. We can argue where blue ends and green begins, but it should be easy to agree that blue is not green. In other words, the two ends are quite different.

The same is true for a spectrum of personhood. Imagine a single fertilized egg cell at the left of the nine-month-long spectrum and a trillion-cell newborn on the right. The newborn is a person. And it’s far more than just 1,000,000,000,000 undifferentiated cells. These cells are organized and connected to make a person—it has arms and legs, eyes and ears, a brain and a nervous system, a stomach and digestive system, a heart and circulatory system, skin, liver, and so on.

The first problem here is this: this isn’t an argument. Seidensticker is arguing that we have a spectrum here and linking it by analogy to the visible spectrum — and a number of others if you look in the original post — but he hasn’t actually established that what we have is a spectrum and not just a set of differences of the same thing. There’s no such thing, for example, as a spectrum of vehicles, but a transport truck is quite different from a compact, which is quite different from a pick-up truck, and so on … and that’s if you don’t count boats and bicycles as vehicles. And if you don’t, then consider “modes of transportation”, which can range from walking to airplanes to trains without there being any kind of spectrum involved. So pointing out that the fertilized egg is quite a bit different from a baby does not establish that there’s even a spectrum here to consider.

The second issue is that all he establishes is that they are different, but not that they are different in the way we need to claim that the fertilized egg ought not be counted as a person for the purposes of the abortion debate. He deliberately doesn’t want to get into the debate over when it ought to be considered a person:

Yes, it’s important to get the OK/not-OK dividing line for abortion right, but that’s not my interest here. Legislators deal with tough moral issues all the time. Take the issue of the appropriate prison sentence for robbery. Six months? Five years? What mitigating circumstances are relevant? Does it matter if a gun was involved? What if the gun was used as a threat but it wasn’t loaded? What if some other weapon was used? What if someone was hurt?

It’s a person’s life we’re talking about, so the sentence must be decided carefully, and yet penalties for this and a myriad other specific crimes have been wrestled with and resolved in 50 states and hundreds of countries.

The same is true for the cutoff for abortion—it’s a tough decision, but it’s been made many times.

Now, just like in those other cases, we can indeed claim that they’ve gotten it wrong and work to change it. But that’s not actually important here. What’s important is determining that these differences between the two are sufficient to claim that the fertilized egg should not be considered a person for the purposes of the abortion debate. Otherwise, I can concede that the fertilized egg is radically different from a baby but insist that that’s not a difference that matters wrt the fertilized egg being treated like a person in this case. As seen when we look at one of Seidensticker’s more … whimsical examples:

I addressed this in the original argument, but let me illustrate the issue with a quick round of “One of these things is not like the others.” Our candidates today are an adult, a teenager, a newborn baby, and a single fertilized human egg cell. Okay, candidates, raise your hand if you have a brain. Now raise your hand if you have a pancreas. If you have skin. Eyes. Nose. Bones. Muscles.

Now raise your hand if you have hands.

The difference between newborns, teens, and adults is negligible compared to the single cell at the other end of the spectrum, which has nothing that we commonly think of as a trait of personhood. The commonality across the spectrum is that they all have eukaryotic cells with Homo sapiens DNA. That’s it. That’s not something that many of us get misty-eyed about. Very little sentimental poetry is written about the kind of DNA in the cells of one’s beloved.

So, having hands is a prerequisite for personhood? Who knew? And whether or not we get “misty-eyed” over the DNA is irrelevant. I can concede that the fertilized egg doesn’t have hands and concede that the only commonality is what Seidensticker says and still insist that that’s enough to confer personhood status on it, and Seidensticker would have, at least, no immediate reply. Especially given what he says about the naming (from the original post):

This game where pro-lifers deny names to the spectrum quickly gets tiring. I really don’t care what the spectrum is called—humanity, personhood, human development, like-me-ness, whatever—call it what you want as long as the naming acknowledges the stark difference between the newborn (with arms and legs and a circulatory system and a nervous system and eyes and ears and so on) and the single fertilized human egg cell.

But the thing is that the name of the spectrum is the important thing here, which is why pro-lifers are so careful not to concede too much wrt that name. Because the name isn’t just a name, but points to a concept. If we are forced to concede that Seidensticker’s spectrum is a spectrum of personhood or humanity, then it would be much harder to argue that personhood rights should be conferred upon the fertilized egg. If, however, Seidensticker’s spectrum is not only not personhood, but also doesn’t have any direct relation to what makes something a person, then it is irrelevant and meaningless wrt the abortion debate. Take this example of naming. I accept Seidensticker’s spectrum, and name it the Grogiland Spectrum. At the one end — where the baby is — I call it a Flugelwant, and at the other end I call it a Steinertran. I then insist, however, that both Flugelwants and Steinertrans still count as persons. I expect that Seidensticker would call this yet another pro-life game, but I would reply that Seidensticker only says that because his spectrum is always presumed to be personhood, or at least directly relevant to it. Thus, it’s only if he can establish that, at least, his spectrum tracks personhood can his argument get off the ground … which is precisely the thing that he refuses to demonstrate and argue for.

His argument also has an interesting consequence. By his argument, we have a baby — including newborns — at one end of the spectrum, and fertilized eggs at the other end. Because this is a spectrum, this means that if we presume that babies are persons and fertilized eggs are not the line between the two — and thus, the line where the entity becomes a person — is somewhere between those two endpoints. Which means that it must be at some point before birth. Many religious pro-lifers and pretty much all secular pro-lifers will gladly trade considering a fertilized egg not being a person for an acceptance that the entity becomes a person at some point before birth, and thus that at some point abortion is immoral. And Seidensticker can’t even retreat to a “bodily autonomy” argument to save those cases because if that argument works when the entity is definitely a person it works when it clearly isn’t, and so Seidensticker’s “primary focus” actually is utterly superfluous to the debate. I’m thinking that most pro-choice advocates aren’t going to be that receptive to an argument that has as a consequence that at least some abortions are immoral.

So this argument fails in a number of ways. First, it isn’t actually an argument as presented by Seidensticker: he asserts but does not demonstrate that there is even a spectrum here to be concerned with. Second, he never establishes that this is a personhood spectrum or indeed a spectrum that is at all relevant to the abortion debate, simply assuming it … and, in fact, refuses to even engage in that discussion. And, finally, his argument has a consequence that many pro-choice advocates would reject. As a “primary focus”, it seems to be superseded by far more interesting pro-choice arguments, including ones that directly try to determine what makes something a person, which Seidensticker again refuses to do. As such, it seems to add little to the abortion debate.

Philipse on the Immunization of Theism

July 14, 2017

In Chapter 10, Philipse examines the need — at least according to him — for theologians to “immunize” their theology from science, by which he means that they have to make it so that their theories cannot be disconfirmed by future scientific discoveries. The main issue that undercuts pretty much all of this chapter is, again, that natural theologians and any theologians who are attempt to approach their theology empirically and scientifically ought to be as worried about future scientific examinations disproving them as, well, scientists are … which is to say, not one bit. Philipse seems to want to put theology in general into a bind. He wants to argue that theology can’t be respectable unless it accepts the standards and methods of science, but then should theology actually attempt to do so insists that it can’t be taken seriously in science unless it meets higher standards than general scientific theories have to. In short, if theologians promote more conceptual theories, he’ll dismiss them as not being scientific, but if they promote empirical or scientific theories, if Philipse can come up with any explanation that isn’t supernatural he will claim that those are to be preferred to even the empirical and naturalistic theological theories. At which point, if theism accepts the moves, there is no way for theism to win even if it’s true. But there’s no reason for a naturalistic theologian to accept that there is a problem if it is possible for future scientific discoveries to impact their theory, nor is there any reason for a conceptual theologian to accept that their proofs need to be empirical or scientific in order to be respectable.

Here, Philipse is trying to use the argument of “God of the Gaps” to argue that natural theologians need to immunize their theories against potential future scientific refutation of their explanations. The problem is that the “God of the Gaps”, when it’s used as an argument at all, doesn’t work that way. The basic “God of the Gaps” is simply noticing that theistic explanations were used in a lot of places, and then science came along and replaced them with actually better explanations. If this is used as an argument, it’s an inductive one that says that since scientific explanations have replaced theistic explanations so often in the past, we should presume that for any phenomena where we want to use a theistic explanation we should probably just wait for a scientific one instead of doing that. This is, of course, an invalid argument that at best only means that if you want to promote a theistic explanation for a certain phenomena you need to provide a reason other than “Science can’t explain it” … which we probably should be doing anyway. And if a natural theologian has an explanation for a phenomena that requires there be a God and has reasons for thinking that God is the best or a good explanation of that phenomena, they should not be at all concerned about the possibility that science might come up with a better theory at a later date. Yes, it might … and it might not. We can only assess what is the best explanation looking at what we know now, not by what might happen later. So the need for immunizing theism from future scientific discovery seems to not be a need after all.

However, Swinburne tries to do so, arguing that there are some phenomena that are too weird or too big to be handled by science. I’m not going to talk about the “too big” argument, because that’s essentially cosmological arguments and, well, it’s better to handle that by looking at those arguments specifically and seeing if they work than by worrying over whether science could ever find an explanation for those phenomena. I will talk a bit about the “too weird”, which is basically miracles, and Philipse focuses on the Resurrection as a specific example to look at to purportedly prove his case.

Philipse’s argument is essentially this: if we accept Swinburne’s idea that miracles are too weird to fall under science, then we have to accept that they are, well, improbable given what we know about the world. That’s rather the point of a miracle. But if they really are that “weird” and improbable, then if we are told about one or see something that might suggest that it actually happened, what we probably should do is doubt that the event happened rather than proclaiming it a miracle. Thus, the very characteristics that would cause us to classify it a miracle should also cause us to be skeptical that it actually happened.

This might sound good at first, but when we put it into the context of Hume’s argument which inspires it, we can see the problems with it. Recall that Hume’s argument was, essentially, that miracles are so improbable that no matter how trustworthy we think a witness is it is always more probable that they were lying or mistaken than that the miracle actually happened. Philipse is more generous, conceding that we might be able to have a witness or set of evidence reliable enough to establish a miracle, but that that standard has to be enormously high given that we are talking about a miracle. But the problem is that these arguments smack of denying that an event occurred only or at least primarily because they don’t like the implications of that event actually happened. Sure, they talk about probabilities so as to make it sound more reasonable, but remember that for Hume he would have argued that for someone that you think is completely reliable, has no reason to lie, and who was definitely in a position to affirm that the event happened, it would still be more probable to deny that the event occurred than to accept that a miracle actually happened. Ultimately, then, the argument seems to translate to “If this event occurred, it would be a miracle, and therefore I will deny that the event occurred”. But you can’t deny that an event happened just because you don’t like the implications if it did. You can’t argue that the reliability of someone’s testimony is determined by whether or not you want to believe that the event they’ve testified to actually happened, or that someone’s senses must have been deceived just because of what they saw. Ultimately, that really seems like an argument that you will deny all possible evidence because you don’t like the conclusion that evidence leads you to.

We can see this more fully when we look at Philipse’s analysis of the Resurrection. Philipse wants to jump through all sorts of hoops to deny that the event occurred, but all he ends up doing is showing us what we ought to already know: we don’t have enough direct evidence to accept that the Resurrection actually happened. We, at least in modern times, don’t have anything like direct testimony from a reliable witness or set of witnesses that were in an appropriate position to witness the event. Instead, we have second-hand testimony passed down primarily by word of mouth until it was written down, which allows for corruption and the introduction of false and misleading testimony and evidence into the record. So we have reasons to doubt that the event happened independently of what actually happened … or, at least, to say that the evidence we have for it isn’t sufficient to establish that the event actually happened.

Now, if Philipse could argue that it is the “oddness” of the event that drives our skepticism, then he’d have a point … but that’s not what drives our skepticism. Yes, we tend to demand stronger evidence for stranger beliefs, but as it turns out a “miracle” being ascribed to a purportedly supernatural being is less improbable than if it is being ascribed to a natural being. For example, in a series like the Elenium or the Amber series we’re not going to blink an eye if someone casts a magical spell, but we’d be dragged completely out of immersion if, say, Jack Ryan did that. Since Jesus is purportedly a supernatural being, His being involved in a miracle is consistent with what we’d expect from such a being. No, what makes us skeptical about the Resurrection is less its oddness and more its importance: it is absolutely critical to Christianity that it happened, and so those skeptical of Christianity are going to peruse it in detail before accepting it. In general, it is always at least a combination of oddness and importance that drives how easily we will accept certain claims. If someone said that Jesus ate fish on a particular day, we wouldn’t subject that to any scrutiny. But if someone argued that a certain important event depended on Jesus eating fish on a particular day, we in general would want to make sure that we had really good evidence that that did, indeed, happen on that day.

And as we saw above, “oddness” isn’t really “improbable”, but is instead more “inconsistent”. If, say, someone said that I ate fish on a particular day, that would strike at the “oddness” criteria, even though people eat fish every day. The reason is that _I_ don’t like fish, and so I don’t eat it very often. So someone being told that about me would find it puzzling and would want more evidence before accepting it. And if my eating fish that day mattered for some reason, then that inconsistency might even drive them to strongly doubt that as confirming evidence. This is why Jesus performing or being part of a miracle is less odd than, say, my doing it would be; it is consistent with our expectations for a supernatural being like Jesus and inconsistent with our expectations for a natural being like myself.

So this defense of “oddness” doesn’t work. Ascribing supernatural actions to a supernatural agent won’t trigger than criteria in our skepticism. The Resurrection triggers skepticism because it is a important event that we have little solid evidence for, not because someone being raised from the dead is just that odd. And even if it was, demanding exceedingly high standards of evidence can only be seen as an attempt to set the bar so high that the atheist need never accept that a miracle or the Resurrection ever occurred, which is not a reasonable position to take, and is a position that no theist need accept. Ultimately, the best way for a theist to approach the arguments in this chapter is to simply refuse to accept the presumptions that underlie them, and thus to deny that there is any problem at all, requiring Philipse to put forward far better arguments for them than he has.

Friendzoning Myths …

July 12, 2017

So, over at Everyday Feminism, there’s a post about 5 myths about Friendzones, or 5 reasons why we need to ditch the concept entirely, depending on what parts you believe. The problem is that it fundamentally misunderstands both the original concept and how it is used in its more recent and more combative form, and so all of the myths and recommendations are, well, at best wrong and at worst damaging.

Before getting into the purported myths/reasons, let me first talk a little bit about the friendzone concept itself. Originally, this concept was nothing more than describing someone — usually a man, since they have to in general do the approaching to start a relationship — who had wanted to be in a relationship with someone that they knew well and when they finally made that clear received the “Let’s just be friends” line. Thus, while it was always seen as a negative and as a rejection — which it was, at least for a romantic relationship — it wasn’t seen as something bad that women did to men. However, with the rise of MRA attitudes, the usage changed to focus on cases where a woman knew or ought to have known that a man was interested in her and yet “strung him along”, using that attraction to get him to treat her better than he would someone that he was just friends with and had no romantic interest in, while knowing that she was never going to actually date him. This often would have to rely on her just being flirty enough to make him think that he had a chance while never following through on any of it.

Now, the new connotation describes the vast minority of friendzone cases, and that this has become a prominent view of friendzoning reflects, I think, two things. The first is an overgeneralization of those cases; they exist, certainly, but most women aren’t really doing anything like that. The second is a bitter and angry reaction to what is perceived, in general, as women using sexual attraction to get things that they don’t really deserve, often by — it is claimed — misrepresenting themselves and the situations. This also applies to “Fake Geek Girls” — women who are not really interested in geeks or geek hobbies but who can get a lot of attention being an even moderately attractive woman in those areas — and “White Knights”. Now, in all of these cases there are indeed examples where that happens, but it’s nowhere near as prevalent as the new concepts make it appear.

Thus, friendzoning as a concept ought to be considered in its original form: someone who wants a relationship with someone beyond friendship who is told that friendship is as far as the relationship will go.

I want to start with her fourth point here, to highlight why the concept is still valid and something that we need to address with more than platitudes:

When say people are ‘friendzoned’ it communicates the idea that they can’t escape being seen in a certain light. In other words, it implies that relationships don’t change – that once you are viewed as a platonic friend, you can’t be viewed as a potential partner.

But friendship doesn’t inherently prevent different relationships from developing further along the line. In fact, I’d argue that friendship is the best basis for romantic and sexual relationships.

This advice is precisely the reason why the friendzone exists and can be so devastating for both sides. The common relationship advice — generally from women — is that if you want to get into a relationship in general and into a relationship with someone in particular, the best way is to become “Friends first”, and then transition that into a romantic relationship. This is precisely the sort of behaviour that many women then call out as indicating that the man wasn’t actually interested in friendship, but was only interested in having sex with them, and so that makes him bad, somehow. Somehow, doing the commonly given advice for getting into a relationship makes them a bad person if it doesn’t succeed.

And the fact is that unless the person you have become friends with was either attracted to you originally and so was playing the “Friends to relationship” game, too, converting a friendship to a romantic relationship isn’t actually all that easy to do. Yes, it happens. Yes, sometimes people will be friends with someone and suddenly realize that they find them attractive or that they would make a good relationship partner. But in general if you start a friendship with someone that you aren’t interested in a relationship with you are far more likely to simply settle into that sort of relationship, and so if they ever make it clear that they are interested in you for more than that your initial reaction is going to be that, well, you aren’t interested in them that way. Because you, in fact, actually aren’t.

And here is where the PUA mindset actually works better. What they insist on is that you don’t do the “Friends first” approach, but that if you want a sexual relationship you start from the idea that that’s what you want. And this works out so much better because from the start he’s making his desires clear — so there’s no feeling that he was hiding that under just wanting to be friends — and she can make it clear from the start whether or not she thinks it possible. Now, since people are people nothing is set in stone and things can change — either way — but starting from what is desired makes everything a lot better. In fact, I propose that what we should be starting from is essentially “I find you attractive enough to actually date, so let’s start with casual dating to see if that still holds and if the personalities match”. And if that’s the attitude we have, then if it doesn’t work out the implication between two nice and reasonable people is “It didn’t work out because our personalities don’t align enough for a relationship”. And then that can move to friendship if that works out.

But pushing the “The best way to get a relationship is to start as friends!” line only fosters all of the things that made people bitter and angry over the friendzone in the first place. And this leads me to the second point I want to address, which is her fifth one:

Myth #5: If You’re In Love with Someone Who Doesn’t Return Your Affections, You Will Be Unhappy

Which also dovetails with her third point:

The idea of the friendzone implies that being friends with someone is inferior to dating or sleeping with someone. It implies that friendship is punishment, or at least, that it’s not as desirable as a romantic and/or sexual relationship.

The thing is, if you want to be in a romantic relationship with someone and they only want to be friends, that’s hard. First, it is a rejection. Second, one of the examples that is constantly given of how this is hard is the woman who complains that she can’t find any decent men to date … to the guy she friendzoned in order to date all of those men who are not “decent”. How should that guy feel there? While this also applies to women, too, at least in general she could console herself with the societal impression that most men are shallow and that it’s just that she isn’t attractive enough — which is cold comfort, I know, but at least she can blame him for that — while for a man in this situation since women traditionally aren’t supposed to be that shallow it has to be a judgement of him as a person. And we see this with the comments that someone who actually tries the “Friends first” approach isn’t really a “Nice Guy”, and so her dating jerks is really her dating the better people … which then would lead to the question of why she ever wanted to be friends with him in the first place.

The fact is that if you want a romantic relationship with someone, being friends with them is, in fact, an inferior relationship. The inverse is also true, but we don’t talk about that because, outside of arranged marriages and the like it never happens. Thus, a someone relegated to the friendzone might, for various reasons, find the friendship too difficult for them and decide to bow out of the friendship. And that’s perfectly acceptable. And if they do stay, we have to recognize that keeping the friendship up is hard for them, in a way that it isn’t hard for the friendzoner, unless that person keeps thinking of them as someone who is primarily interested in them for a relationship and so isn’t really a friend. Keeping the friendzone concept in its original form allows us to recognize this without insisting that the friendzonee just isn’t, in fact, a true friend merely because they are interested in more.

Which then leads to comments on what nice people should have:

Myth #1: Nice Men Deserve to Be with The Women They Desire

To return to the first point, if a man is nice and is following the accepted social rules, then he should have a better than average chance of getting the relationships he desires, just as a woman who does the same ought to. But the accepted social rule of “Friends first” actually gives him less of a chance at succeeding. Thus, those men who are less “nice” have more success, not because they are better or more deserving, but instead because they start from the context of a relationship and if that isn’t forthcoming move on to the next candidate. On the other hand, the “Nice Guys” who are trying to not come across as being primarily interested in sex and are trying to follow the social rules so that they make her more comfortable and don’t risk offending her spend a lot of time chasing people who aren’t and would never be interested in that sort of relationship with them.

So I want to keep the original friendzone concept to say “If you follow the ‘Friends first’ approach, you are likely to end up in the ‘friendzone’, where they see you only as a friend while you are interested in something more. If you are, in fact, interested in something more it is far better to just approach with that in mind.”

Let me wrap up with how the misunderstanding of the friendzone impacts her most Social Justice point, the second one which is the idea that is is heterosexist. She describes a friendship she has with a male friend of hers:

I have a really close male friend who I love and appreciate dearly. A few years ago, a couple of our friends teased us, saying that we were a textbook example of the ‘friendzone’ in action.

In reality, neither of us wanted a committed romantic relationship with one another. But because of the common idea of the friendzone, people simply assumed that my male friend wanted a sexual and romantic relationship with me.

Something our friends didn’t know at the time was that he’s asexual – he experiences very little, if any, sexual attraction to people. He did not have the capacity to be sexually attracted to me, even though our friends assumed he did.

The thing is … that’s not a case of the friendzone. Not because he’s asexual, but because neither of them are interested in a relationship with the other person. Yes, it’s a problem to simply assume it because one person is a woman and another is a man, but it might not have been an assumption and might have been based on how they acted towards each other. So example, did she act flirty towards him while making it relatively clear that they were just friends? That starts to fall into the deliberate friendzoning thing that I mentioned above which is what she claimed her friends teased her about. Maybe it’s not a heterosexist assumption, but instead an assumption based on how they interact.

Look, we do need to understand that people who might be of the appropriate genders or whatever for a relationship might not want one with each other. I myself have had cases where I got along well with someone, found her attractive, and yet figured that our personalities didn’t work for a relationship. Understanding that this happens is important, but the original concept of friendzone allows for that, as it only applies in the case where one person wants a relationship and the other person doesn’t. Thus if we follow that we can easily deal with these situations by pointing out that neither is interested in anything more, for whatever reason that actually is. Then, any “teasing” is either teasing in recognition that it doesn’t actually apply, or teasing on the basis that one of the parties might not be being honest about that. Which cycles back to “if you’re interested, be direct about that”.

Ultimately, the friendzone concept has to exist because it’s a thing that happens. Even the really negative and exploitative example happens in the real world. We need to avoid overgeneralizing the cases and need to stop assuming that any friendship between people who might be interested in each other is one of these, but it happens and we need to address it, and address the way the social rules actually create these situations. Because no matter what people assert, being in the friendzone is not fun. People might be able to take it, but it’s not going to be what they really want, and it works out badly for friendzoner and friendzonee, and so we need to find ways to minimize the instances and minimize the pain this causes. Abandoning the concept is not going to help with that one bit.

Not My Side

July 7, 2017

So, let me talk about the hypocrisy of both sides — and potentially all sides — in pretty much every debate of consequence that we’re having in the world today. I’ve already talked about this before, but let me highlight it in light of a specific comment at Pharyngula on Laci Green in the context of the VidCon mess. It’s short, so let me quote it in full first:

A useful concept, “de facto”. It’s legal if that matters.

Basically no matter what the intentions the result in reality is X. So we have two examples of one person receiving a large amount of negative and violent attention. They are not the same. The “criticism” that people like Anita receive comes from a very different source. She receives a base cultural reaction from a large group of people that resort to personal language, often violent and gendered personal language.
It’s not just Sargon. If not Sargon than some other people trying to apply social pressure about people they want to control. It’s not just Anita, it’s Brianna, it’s Chanty, it’s Hillary.

So the second person is Sargon. He got socially criticized by the first person so that is a defining characteristic. Because he triggered a focus of movement towards Anita means he’s an example of the kind of person who is going to have to be criticized of one wants to shift a society in a more moral direction. Sexed and gendered social abuse requires a response towards such abusers at multiple social levels.

It’s why we focus on Trumps awful personal habits of mind and behavior. He’s the top example. There are others below.

Let me translate this: “Look, we use the same sorts of social criticism against those we disagree with as they use against us. But, hey, they’re bad people, and immoral, and so it’s right for us to do that, because we have to stop their immorality. But when they do that against us, that’s bad, because they’re trying to promote immorality, unlike us, who are promoting morality. You must see the difference, right?”

Let me highlight one particular part:

Because he triggered a focus of movement towards Anita means he’s an example of the kind of person who is going to have to be criticized of one wants to shift a society in a more moral direction.

But who says that what you think of as a “more moral direction” really is? Why do you get to decide that? Many of those critics that she justifies this sort of “criticism” towards — remember, this is calling him a “garbage human being” and stuff like that — think that their criticisms are, at least, defending a moral society. Both sides think that their view of society is the more proper and more moral one. So if they think their criticism justified because it’s moral, and she thinks her criticism is justified because it’s moral, then don’t we just end up with both sides sniping at each other and claiming that the other side is wrong because it’s immoral? Who decides what really counts and moral and what doesn’t?

Remember, in the context of Trump we’ve had people at least marginally on Brony’s side advocating for open violence to shut down speech, with the whole “Punch a Nazi!” thing. Even if we accept that open violence to stop someone from speaking is justified, there’s the little issue of defining “Nazi!”. Even in the comment, Brony tries to justify it based on the necessity of shutting down sexed and gendered social abuse … but defining that is the problem. Does the privilege concept and using that to shut down speech — telling white, cis, men to shut up and listen because their “privilege” means that they can’t understand the issues — count as sexed and gendered social abuse? Or is it a reasonable — if potentially angry — request? If someone uses a term that is sexed or gendered and is seen as a sexed or gendered insult, does that count as social abuse? Does that count even if the person doesn’t think of the term that way? As an example, I went to high school with a literal bastard. And yet I still use the term as an insult. This is not because I see the state of being illegitimate as any sort of negative character trait or as an indication that they are a bad person in any way, but because I no longer associate the word — when I use it as an insult — with that original usage. To me, it’s just a term for a bad person, not someone who is bad like someone who is illegitimate. So, am I being abusive or not? Should we consider the term with its original connotation, or the connotation it now as which is much more neutral? And who gets to decide? The people with the most social power?

This is where the hypocrisy shines. Both sides are flat-out willing to admit that they will use the same tactics as those they hate — and the tactics that they hate being used against them — in service of what they consider “the greater good”. And as I said in my linked post, I know that I don’t see the “greater good” as being what they think of as the greater good. I disagree with both sides. And I know that as soon as I do, whichever side feels offended by my words will muster all of the social pressure they can to either make me change my ways or, at least, to get others to shun me and exclude me from society. Which for me probably isn’t that big a deal, because I don’t really like people anyway, and so if fewer people bug me that might actually be a blessing. Losing my job would be more annoying, though … and both sides are willing to try to get people to lose their jobs and/or incomes if they find their views suitably offensive.

What this results in is there being no room for any sort of moderate. Alt-Right people like Vox Day are explicit that they are opposed to moderates, but those on the Left who castigate anyone who disagrees with them on any matter they consider serious enough are at least doing that implicitly. As soon as someone breaks from what the overall group considers to be the ideology, they immediately apply the same “punishments” to that person as they did to those on the far opposing extreme in an attempt to at least quash the dissenting view, if not the dissenting viewer. This is what is happening to Laci Green right now.

And what is most interesting about these sorts of shifts is the shift in attitude towards the methods and the people who use them. Long ago, I was in a Google group talking about Atheism and Christianity, and there was one poster there who was constantly and continually abusive to the — mainly religious at first — people who opposed him. He was considered quite popular among the atheist side … and obviously less so among the theists. This lasted right up until the point where he had a disagreement with some of the more prominent atheists, and unleashed the same vitriol on them as he had towards the theists. Suddenly, those tactics weren’t so funny or so good anymore, and his posts suddenly didn’t seem like classic criticisms anymore to those atheists … and yet remained as such to those atheists who agreed with him on that topic. And we’ve seen this repeated over and over again in the Deep Rifts of the atheist movement, in the rift in feminism between white and black feminists and cis and trans feminists, in the “cucks vs conservatives” divide, and so on and so forth. Invariably, once the bullying tactics are turned against someone that person is generally far less appreciative of them than they were when they were turned against their enemies.

I really don’t know what to say or think about this. As I ponder it here while writing, for the most part I think I need to do one (or maybe two) things for my own personal sanity. First, I really need to strive to ensure that I never think of or believe that I have actual enemies, at least when it comes to positions on topics. All that exist are people I disagree with and people who are bullies or who are bullying me, and thus I need to respond accordingly. But those who hold different positions from me or even people who bully me are not out-and-out enemies; they are people who, in this instance, are perhaps antagonists that I need to address. And the potential second point is that I don’t have allies either; all I have are people who happen to agree with me on a topic and who aren’t actively bullying me right now, even though all of that will or could change on a whim. The reason for doing this is to hopefully avoid falling into the same trap of identifying people as enemies and others as allies, and cheering the bullying of the allies while decrying the bullying of the enemies. I’ve been trying for the past year or more to make sure of this, and noticing that sometimes I find insults tossed at people I disagree with “funnier” than insults tossed at people I agree with. But insults are never clever, and bullying remains bullying no matter what side it’s in favour of, and I need to make sure that I remember that.

More on the Vidcon Situation …

July 5, 2017

So, much more has come out about this — and, likely, much more will come out between the time I write this and the time it gets posted — but I want to touch on a few things after having listened to and read more on the topic. The major things I’ve seen, at least in part, are Sargon’s long response, Liana K’s take, Sarkeesian’s response, which I’ve linked to elsewhere, and another related video by Boogie2988 about his later interaction with Anita Sarkeesian. I’m probably going to flip between a number of them and may not quote them as much as I should — especially since many of them are videos and text quoting videos isn’t exactly trivial — but I’m going to talk a bit about my overall impressions of this.

I’m not as charitable, perhaps, towards Sargon and Sarkeesian as Liana K is. I don’t believe that Sargon and the others sitting in the front row was nothing more than them wanting to listen to her and/or start a dialogue, with them being clueless about how that might be intimidating to her. Heck, even Sargon’s “prediction” about what would happen if he attended VidCon pretty much reveals that he knew that these things could and would trigger a reaction. So Sargon et al are not stupid enough to think that this would be taken as just them listening to her and wanting to start a conversation. That being said, I agree with him that even being in the audience might well have triggered a reaction anyway, even if they hadn’t taken over the first two rows. But I think that, at a minimum, they really wanted to see what Sarkeesian’s reaction would be.

On the other hand, I don’t agree that Sarkeesian’s reaction was spawned by fear or by intimidation. While some will do the standard call out of my judging the reactions of victims and denying their victimhood if they don’t react the right way, I have to say that if Sarkeesian was afraid that there’d be a confrontation, the last thing she’d do is deliberately provoke one. You don’t provoke a confrontation with someone you think is harassing you unless you feel you’re secure and in a position of control or power, and Sarkeesian definitely was. It’s also not consistent with how she generally reacts to these things. Since she knew they were there before the panel started, she could have done as she had done in the past with threats at conferences and the like and talked to the organizers about the potential for there being a disruption and what would happen if there was one. For the most part, for any serious disruption the moderator, the organizers and the other panel members were almost certainly going to be on her side over this, and if she didn’t feel that they would be she could have simply walked away from the panel over those concerns.

So what I think is that Sarkeesian, instead, reacted the way she tends to react when she feels that someone is going after her in some way: she lashes out. The Boogie incident is an example of that, where she felt that his point was targeting her and she reacted angrily and lashed out at him over it. I give her credit for calming down afterwards and having a reasonable discussion with him, but her first instinct is to lash out angrily instead of looking to defuse the situation or, in fact, to just ignore it given that she has more prominence and that therefore her words carry more weight than, well, pretty much anyone who is criticizing her. You can argue that she saw what they were trying to do as an intimidation tactic and then took the angry line that she wasn’t going to be intimidated … but, then, she still responded by lashing out instead of taking the stronger tack of not letting them change how she acts or where she goes.

And I think this leads into an issue that I somewhat agree with from Liana K, where I think that Sarkeesian is often her own worst enemy. While I think it reasonable that Sargon et al at the very least knew that what they did might get to her, Sarkeesian let it get to her. And by lashing out she essentially gave up the moral high ground. Certainly we can’t hold everyone to absolutely perfect paragon standards and never, ever get angry, but Sarkeesian in general seems like someone who is incredibly easy to manipulate by pushing certain buttons. This is a weakness that she needs to address. If she can be dragged off topic and down an angry diatribe that easily, she’s going to be ineffective at presenting her message. For one thing, she has a tendency to respond with over the top arguments, which she may well believe, as we can see in her response message and in how she initially responded to Boogie, which makes her arguments less credible. Second, it becomes an easy way for opponents to drag her off message and so change the focus to something other than her core message. If she wants to get her message out, she’s going to have to stop letting people drag her off message with personal attacks. Which is hard, I know.

I think that Sargon et al ought not have either attended her panel en masse, or at least should have sat less front and centre at it, because, yeah, if she knew who they were she was going to be intimidated. But Sarkeesian ought not have forced a confrontation, and should have let them make the first move. However, I believe that she was angry and her first response when angry is to lash out, and potentially to lash out indiscriminately. Her interactions with Boogie indicate that she can have reasonable conversations with people she disagrees with, and so what I think she really needs to do — and I think it would greatly improve her image if she did do this — is to find ways to actually do that. She has an enormous platform and so there are a lot of incentives for someone to be willing to respond to or debate her on her own platform. Taking it out of her immediate and defensive reactions into a more reasonable discussion would take a lot of the wind out of the sails of her stronger opponents and could even lead to her having a more nuanced view of the whole situation, which can only help her. And there have to be more reasonable opponents that she can talk to. Liana K, for example … and Sarkeesian might want to talk to her directly considering that some of her supporters seem to have treated her very, very badly, and Sarkeesian might want to take a stand to discourage that sort of harassment.

Because Liana K has a point in her rant about the hypocrisy and lack of self-awareness of both sides. I’ll talk more about this in general in another post, but Sarkeesian and her supporters stand on arguing about how bad things are for them while ignoring the things they and people on their side do. I don’t really agree with the idea that Sarkeesian’s criticisms do or ought to traumatize Gamers, but note that a lot of the “harassment” from her opponents seems to be nothing more than criticism, which is what Sarkeesian herself is engaged in. Sarkeesian definitely presents herself and her supporters as acting more reasonably than they do. But, then, so does Sargon. For one thing, he references Boogie’s situation without, as far as I can recall, pointing out that they resolved it reasonably satisfactorily after Sarkeesian’s initial reaction. For another, he gives a number of “reasonable questions” that are trolling at best, such as the person who asked her if she really believed what she was saying. Sure, Sarkeesian could and should have just answered “Yes”, but she was right that it was a stupid question. So Sargon chastises her for ignoring and not answering — or not answering properly — “reasonable” questions that were not reasonable either in content, or tone, or both. As seems to be the norm, both sides think that they’re calmer and more reasonable and that their opponents are angrier and less reasonable than they actually are.

But what really worries me about this is that presumably these are important things to settle and deal with, and yet I can’t see any way forward to settling them. While a lot of the harassment that Sarkeesian — and Sargon, and, well, most people on Youtube, it seems — gets is utterly unacceptable and should be stopped, people aren’t going to be willing to do that for people who in general seem to at least try to give as good as they get. Sargon’s call for Sarkeesian to be uninvited from next year’s VidCon isn’t reasonable given the context, but I don’t have a lot of sympathy for someone claiming harassment when she herself forced a confrontation from a position where she had more power and influence than the person she forced the confrontation with. As someone who, well, disagrees on some points with all of them — including Liana K, who is much more feminist than I am — I want us to settle on what is true, what is right, and what is reasonable, and that requires us, in my opinion, to filter out the simple trolls and get the people who are willing to discuss things reasonably to, well, discuss things reasonably. But it seems to me that mere criticism is enough to get one branded as unreasonable, and no one really seems willing to discuss things reasonably … and those who are generally get lambasted and shunned by what is arguably their own side for having the gall to even attempt it. So how do we resolve these issues when only the extremes are acceptable, and the extremes are always almost certainly wrong? I have no idea.

Philipse on the Predictive Power of Theism

June 30, 2017

In Chapter 9 of “God in the Age of Science?”, Philipse points out that to count as a scientific theory, theism — or “bare theism” as he likes to insist he is sticking to — must have some kind of predictive power. To be fair here, this is an argument that natural theologians will have to address, so he’s off to a good start. The initial argument is that predictive power as per predicting future events is going to be problematic for theism, at least because it hasn’t really had a lot of that sort of predictive power in the past — a lot of religious assumptions were wrong in the past — and because the conception of God ends up being vague enough that without, at least, importing specific religious concepts it’s going to be hard to tie specific actions to that bare theistic conception of God. Note that this is more my overall summary of the underlying problems; I think that Philipse ultimately makes arguments of this sort, but am not certain if he makes them this explicitly and directly.

At any rate, Philipse eventually concludes that theists are likely going to want to retreat to a notion where, essentially, theism is seen as the best explanation for the evidence we have, even if we can’t use it to predict new discoveries. This becomes much more important and prominent later, but here Philipse wants to question whether we can have any background that we can use to determine the intentions and plans of the intentional being God, so that we can determine that if God existed the world and universe or that any phenomenon in particular is a confirmation or disconfirmation of the theory that God exists. And as usual Philipse attempts to show at least the problems with this — if not to provide reason to think that the theistic theory has no predictive power — by addressing a specific argument of Swinburne’s, that of moral access. The argument is essentially this: there is such a thing as objective morality, and we at least have some ability to determine what is moral and what isn’t. God is by conception ultimately moral, and so will always act in accordance with the highest standard of morality. Thus, the background we can use to assess what things God would or wouldn’t do is to appeal to objective morality as a starting point.

Philipse follows the two standard tactics here. The first is that he starts from assuming that if he can find any other alternative explanation then he’s created a serious problem for the theist, and the second is that he decides to go after and attack the idea of objective morality itself to deny it. Thus, he appeals to evolutionary biology and the assertions of some of them that morality is nothing more than evolved preferences built to promote social structure. The argument always boils down to the idea that if we have a different evolutionary path — if we were all hive creatures like bees, for example — we’d have a radically different sense of what is or isn’t moral. Thus, morality can’t be objective in the way Swinburne wants it to be to work as a background for God.

Well, first, just because some evolutionary biologists and others think this is plausible, it doesn’t mean it is. Philipse would need to do a lot more work to show that this is indeed an argument that Swinburne would have to take seriously. Second, it has serious flaws. The first is that a number of our moral decisions seem to follow more from our intellect than from our biology. For example, vegetarianism is not a moral conclusion that an evolved omnivore would just naturally adopt. Neither is the idea that sexual relations with someone who has entered puberty but is under 18 years old is immoral. As we develop new societies and new technologies, we adapt our idea of morality using our intellect, and it is reasonable to assume that intellect would apply across species. So if we put aside “ought implies can” arguments — where, for example, a carnivore cannot properly consider vegetarianism morally right — it’s certainly not clear that we can’t have a general, intellect-based objective morality. The second is that assigning morality to societal conventions doesn’t work either. Our moral intuitions make a sharp distinction between social conventions and moral claims, and this rather famously is something that psychopaths fail at. So taking that route to eliminate objective morality doesn’t seem all that plausible either.

The real issue is that trying to oppose Swinburne by opposing objective morality is taking a fairly controversial stance. It’s going to need a lot of argumentation to establish this as plausible to anyone who doesn’t already think that there is no such thing as an objective morality of the sort Swinburne holds. And Philipse, in general, seems to think that he can just drop in an alternative theory and say “You could be wrong!” and raise a serious challenge for his theistic opponents, but this isn’t the case. Taking that tack only leaves a debate where both sides — as I just demonstrated above — try to argue that their idea is more intuitively “plausible” than the other idea is. This is not likely to be productive, even if Philipse would bother giving stronger arguments for his claims than the points that he, himself, finds personally plausible.

The question of whether theism is the best explanation for the world we see will come up again and again, so this chapter lays a relatively important groundwork, even if its arguments really go nowhere and we never really have reason to think that theism has no predictive power. In the next chapter, Philipse will talk about attempts to immunize theism from scientific explanation.

Anita Sarkeesian on Sargon of Akkad’s Harassment

June 28, 2017

I’m pretty sure that this has been talked about elsewhere, but the most complete summary — if you can call it a complete summary — that I’ve seen myself is this one at Pharyyngula. P.Z. Myers has a tendency to, well, not properly interpret almost anything he actually reads, but he’s on Sarkeesian’s side here, and so I think I can probably take it as presenting her side in the most flattering light possible. Which is good, because the only quote of hers that I can find is his direct, unreferenced quote, and so I guess I can rely on him to quote her accurately and not, say, use a direct quote as a parody of what she said.

Anyway, Anita Sarkeesian was at a convention of youtubers, and had a panel. As everyone who has been paying any attention at all to the matter would know, there are a lot of youtubers who have been criticizing — she and others would call it “harassing”, but more on that later — Sarkeesian for a while now, and a bunch of them got together and deliberately say in the front row at her panel. This is almost certainly an attempt to, at least, intimidate her. And, of course, Myers takes exception to that:

They smugly took over the first couple of rows of seats, and even proudly posted videos of themselves filling the front row. Oh, boy, an opportunity for real-life harassment!

So … them doing that — and, as far as I have heard, even from Myers, doing nothing else to disrupt the panel — counts as “harassment”. Funny, but I don’t recall Myers being bent out of shape over the incident at Middlebury College during a speech by Charles Murray, where protestors loudly interrupted and drowned out Murray and then turned into a physical mob when they tried to move the speech elsewhere. The closest he gets to saying anything about it condemns them injuring the professor who organized it, but still calls those doing that “protestors” instead of “harassers”. Surely what they did was just as much an attempt to intimidate as what those youtubers did, and it certainly seemed to have much more of a disruptive impact on the event since, as Myers put it, Sarkeesian decided to “fire back” by showing an image of Sargon of Akkad and making a number of disparaging remarks about him. And the remarks are … interesting:

If you google my name on YouTube you get ****heads like this dude who are making these dumbass videos that just say the same **** over and over again. And like I hate to give you attention because you’re a garbage human. Whatever dude.

But the fact that these dudes are making endless videos going after every feminist over and over and over again I think is a part of the issue. Why do we have these conversations? We don’t just get to be online. We don’t just get to participate like everyone else.

1) But … you are participating like everyone else. It’s the way the Internet works that you get people harping on and on about things that they dislike until either they or their viewers/readers stop caring. Shamus Young, one of the most polite and respectful of commentators that I’ve ever seen, has written a novel length criticism/dissection of the first Mass Effect trilogy after going over the games in the “Let’s Play” analysis of Spoiler Warning — which he is no longer a part of — and after writing a number of posts on things like the Mass Effect 3 ending. And they were popular because many of the readers and fans still cared enough about it and wanted to talk about it. If Sarkeesian and those other feminists weren’t getting those repetitive videos making similar or the same points over and over again, it would mean just one thing: nobody cares anymore. So since Sarkeesian presumably thinks that her points are important and meaningful and things people should care about, people are going to dissect them over and over again. Thus, she is getting to participate just like everyone else, and doesn’t like it.

2) It’s also not like Sarkeesian herself has stopped talking about those issues and points and isn’t bringing them up again and again. Her “Tropes vs Women” series on video games has just wrapped up, and you can see from my analysis of it that she tends to bring up the same points over and over and over again. It’s not like Sarkeesian or the other feminists have stopped talking about all of this and people are still talking about them. Sarkeesian is still talking about her points and still wants people to take her and her ideas seriously. So if people were criticizing them before, they’ll criticize them again. That’s what happens when you want to be and stay in the public eye for your ideas.

So, at this point, it really sounds like what Sarkeesian is really tired of and what she calls them garbage human beings over is the fact that they keep criticizing her. This, according to Myers and possibly Sarkeesian, is harassment, and is terrible and needs to be stopped. If Sarkeesian, in general, had ever seemed to respond to reasonable criticism directly — which she does rarely, if at all — then we might be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and simply say that she’s tired of those repetitive criticisms and comments overwhelming all the good criticisms and productive comments that people make on her work, but since she’s never really ever tried, seemingly, to find a good criticism and respond to it directly it really looks like she just wants these people to stop criticizing her, and is trying to appeal to protection from harassment to get that to happen.

Yeah, the world doesn’t work that way. If you say things that are controversial — and she isn’t stupid enough to think that her comments aren’t controversial — people will comment on it, often angrily. They will comment on it ad nauseum, on any platform they have access to. This happens whether you are male, female, or from an invited transgender species. What Sarkeesian is getting is, at least in terms of critical videos, what you get when you do what she’s doing. If she can’t handle that, then she should stop doing what she’s doing. Since she doesn’t want to do that, she’s either going to have to learn to deal with it or else retreat into her commentless echo chamber at Feminist Frequency and keep ranting about how her critics are evil people for criticizing her in the way they criticize absolutely everyone, because they are singling her out. Somehow.

In a sense, it’s a shame, because I think Sarkessian would do better — and the Internet in general would do better — if she gave more attention to the reasonable critics than to the ones she finds unreasonable. But despite her own statement that she hates to give those evil critics attention, she’s always spent much more time talking about the purported harassers than about those who are taking her work seriously and commenting on it. If these people are being driven by attention seeking, giving attention to reasonable, non-insulting criticisms is the fastest way to ensure that they stop driving their criticisms by insults and threats, and the quality of debate will be much improved regardless. That being said, that’s hard to do for anyone; we tend to react angrily to insults and tend to be motivated to respond to the things that make us angry … which explains many of her critics, too.

At any rate, Sarkeesian seems to be conflating constant criticism with harassment and insisting that therefore the constant criticism must stop. But that’s not the case, and the world does not and ought not work that way. If Sarkeesian is getting bored of her critics, then she should simply ignore them.

(Note: Sarkeesian has responded to the events here.)