Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

“Could Batman Have Been the Joker?”

December 2, 2022

The next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Could Batman Have Been the Joker?” by Sam Cowling and Chris Ragg.  Now, in a non-philosophical context, this question would be an introduction for a “What if?” scenario where through different circumstances Bruce Wayne takes on the criminal persona of the Joker instead of becoming Batman or forms some kind of split personality where he’s both Batman and his own nemesis the Joker.  But while Cowling and Ragg do talk a bit about that, what they want to do is focus on the idea of modal logic and possible worlds and whether what is referred to by “Batman” could ever also be referred to as “the Joker”.

The big argument is indeed about referents.  The idea is that “Batman” is a name, and a name signifies and points out a specific individual in the world, and it can’t be used to point to anything else.  This differs from descriptions which cannot be used to uniquely identify an individual since they can change between possible worlds.  So while “Batman” may not be a crime fighter — or even exist — in a possible world, it would still point out the same individual, and if “the Joker” is also a name that points to a different individual in a possible world then “Batman” can never, in fact, be “the Joker”, even if there exists a possible world where Bruce Wayne dresses up in a clown suit and commits crimes using laughing gas while the Clown Prince of Crime puts on a bat suit and opposes his criminal schemes.  We would have change the properties of those individuals, but ultimately we would have to say that they remain “Batman” and “the Joker”, which would seem odd if such possible worlds actually existed, because then whether that person is “the Joker” or is “Batman”, it would seem, would depend on which world a person started from.  Start from the normal DC comics world, and it’s “Batman” and “the Joker”.  Start from that inverted world, and it’s “the Joker” and “Batman”.  That’s not a result that seems to make sense to us.

I think the way out of this sort of mess is revealed with an issue they reveal, that of the various “Robins”.  If “Batman” picks out a unique individual, then “Robin” does as well.  But there have been multiple “Robins” with different properties, but that are all called “Robin”.  This leads to the recognition that there have been multiple “Batmans” as well.  If the name picks out a unique individual in all possible worlds, then which individual does it pick out?  And if it has to pick out all of them, then it doesn’t pick out a unique individual and we risk having it be just another description or property, leaving us no way to pick out and follow an individual across multiple possible worlds.

However, the issue here is one that I think Jonathan MS Pearce’s nominalism hits as well:  mistaking the symbol for the concept itself.  We know that there are people who share our given name.  But in no sense are we ever confused over which of us is the “real” one or which is being referred to at any given time.  A name is not a unique identifier because of the sequence of letters that make it up, but because of what it is connected to, and so what it refers to.  That sequence of letters gets its meaning by being attached to me and that same sequence of letters, in other context, gets its meaning by being attached to that other person.  It’s the combination of the name itself and what it refers to that produces the unique identity that we can follow through all possible worlds.  That also applies, then, to the “Robins” and even to the “Batmans” and the “Jokers”:  the unique individual is what that name is being used to referred to, and is not the name itself.  After all, a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, so it cannot be the name itself that creates that uniqueness.  Instead, the name is a symbol that we use to label the reference that we have to that specific individual.

That’s why a name picks out an individual in all possible worlds no matter how we shuffle the properties of that individual.  It’s not because that’s what a name does, but because the name is the label for that specific reference to that individual, and that reference stays constant across all possible worlds.  The issues listed above only happen when you treat the name as that crucial element rather than the reference that the name is merely the label or symbol for.  Once we understand this, we can see that the reference to Batman could never be a reference to the Joker, since they are distinct individuals in at least one possible world and so get their own references, and can see that the reference to Bruce Wayne and the reference to Batman are to the same individual since they are the same individual in at least one possible world.  If we find a possible world where Bruce Wayne didn’t become Batman but someone else did, we can see that the original reference is still to the same individual and it’s only the names and symbols that have changed.  In short, the new individual who becomes the crime fighter and calls himself by the name Batman is the same individual that we might reference in the DC comics world, and Bruce Wayne is also the individual that we reference by that name in the DC comics world, but the properties around becoming the crime fighter are what differs.

Once we understand this, we can understand how people and characters can change names between possible worlds without becoming completely different people, while maintaining that the person we, at least, know by that name is the individual that we can follow through all possible worlds and so one that we can look for and posit changes in without having to wonder if they are indeed the same person.  The string of letters that we call them by is another property of the individual that can change between worlds, but the reference we have to them remains constant and is what we actually use to identify them.  Like Pearce, Cowling and Rigg confuse the symbol in the English language for the concept or reference itself, and then tie themselves into knots because they try to apply the properties of the symbol to the properties of the underlying element itself, which causes ridiculous results that they need to untangle.  Separating the two resolves these issues and allows us to use these things in the way we originally wanted to use them.

“How Marriage Changed Sherlock Holmes”

November 25, 2022

The next essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” is actually “The Curious Case of the Controversial Canon” by Ivan Wolfe, but I’m not going to talk about that one since all it really does is talk about what importance an official canon has, point out that the official canon for Sherlock Holmes is mostly what Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Holmes, note that the French version of the complete works adds a couple of stories, and notes that even some things that Doyle writes aren’t included in the canon.  I don’t really have anything to say about that, so I’m going to skip it to talk about “How Marriage Changed Sherlock Holmes” by Amy Kind.  Which, rather ironically, actually has a relation to canon, since it talks about Sherlock Holmes’ marriage to Mary Russell, which never occurred in the canon and so was only ever captured in a series of books by Laurie R. King, which is meant to focus on Russell herself and not on Holmes.  The importance of canon is to established a baseline of Holmes and his world and characters so that fans can have a more or less consistent idea of the character and world to discuss, and so given that the work where he marries Russell is non-canon all we could glean from discussing how that marriage changed him is the view of Holmes that King herself imagined.  We might end up arguing that it is consistent with the character, but we might just as easily argue that it isn’t and even that he would never have married someone like Russell in the first place.  Thus, the dangers of relying on non-canon works.

While I haven’t read the works — I hadn’t even heard about the series until this essay — Kind’s description of King’s heroine makes me wonder if her first name of “Mary” is actually incredibly apropos.  Mary catches Holmes’ eye at a young age, and is explicitly called his equal in intelligence and observational skills, and meets him in a “meet cute” type of event where she doesn’t manage to observe him well enough to avoid almost running into him, but then immediately impresses him with her observational skills.  She also manages to catch Holmes, who was a confirmed bachelor in Doyle’s works and had only been impressed by one woman, Irene Adler.  Thus, the works do come across from this description as being author insert fan fiction and so it isn’t at all clear how examining this “marriage” would help us see how marriage changed Holmes himself.  It’d always be too easy to argue that any such changes were out of character for Holmes, given that the the marriage itself might be out of character for him.

So I’m not going to bother with that.  Instead, I’m going to focus on Kind’s discussion of love that takes as its inspiration the speech of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium.  The story that he tells is one where we were originally one being, but have been cleaved into two, and the purpose of love — and presumably marriage — is to reunite those two selves into a whole once more.  Now, when I first read that, my very first thought was that the story would imply that we should find not the person who is most like ourselves, but instead the person who has those parts of us that we lack, like the Captain Kirk we find in “The Enemy Within”, with the two halves split from each other and quite different from each other but also with them being unable to survive on their own.  Thus, it would seem like perhaps the best marital companion for him would be someone like Watson, who has the qualities he lacks and could thus help Holmes fill in the gaps in his personality, at least.

Kind is explicit, however, that Holmes could never have married someone like Watson because they were never really equals in their relationship and so could never have been partners, which is required for the sort of love that Aristophanes talks about.  Watson is no where near Holmes’ intellectual equal, whereas Russell is, and so she can be a partner to him in a way that Watson couldn’t.  While that idea of love does insist that the two married partners retain their own identity — Russell, for example, maintains her study of theology despite the fact that Holmes has a strong distaste for it, at least in part to establish that as something she has for herself — the idea here is that Russell is a good match for Holmes because she is quite a bit like Holmes, and a match that was more like Watson wouldn’t be because that match would be more complementary to Holmes instead of being like him.

It seems to me that both views have some merit.  In forming any kind of partnership, the best ones are ones where the two partners are indeed more complementary.  They both bring different things to the table and are masters of at least the two if not more different spheres that people would encounter in the world.  If the partners were too much alike, then they’d have the same weaknesses and wouldn’t be able to help each other overcome their struggles in the world.  We saw this in the idea of the masculine/feminine spheres that were covered traditionally by the male/female marital tradition, and we also see it in the idea that “opposites attract”.  It does seem like we might, in some way, be attracted to people who provide for and are more comfortable in the areas that we ourselves aren’t that good at, that can negotiate and can help us negotiate those areas that we would like to be in, at least at times, but aren’t really capable of moving in.

On the other hand, “opposites attract” rarely seems to extend to true opposites.  We really do seem to want to have things and important things in common with the people we are attracted to.  If we didn’t have any of the same interests or moved in any of the same circles or had any of the same abilities, we wouldn’t be attracted to them at all, perhaps even as friends.  In the case of Holmes, it’s a good point that someone whose intellect lagged his too much wouldn’t be of interest to him.  He might be able to survive someone who was more supportive to his work and took care of his pragmatic needs and managed his emotions and boredom appropriately, but it does seem more credible that if he was ever to fall in love it would be with someone like Russell or Adler whose intellects matched and could challenge his own.  Perhaps she wouldn’t have to be a consulting detective, but her having some knowledge and interest in the facets that make that up would have to be a boon.  They’d have to have something in common.

But, perhaps harkening back to that comment about identity, we have to concede that the person would certainly have to have some interests in common, but would have to have her own interests as well.  No one wants to be married to someone who is exactly like themselves.  Which leads us away from complementary partners or identical partners to the idea of compatible partners, which would argue that the person we are looking for is like us in the important ways but is different enough from us to also work as a complementary partner.  They share our interests so that the two of us can share those activities and grow closer through them, but have enough of their own interests and, importantly, do not share enough of our interests that we can go off and do our own thing at times, retain our own identity, and have something that we maintain as ours and ours alone as opposed to something the two of us share.

Is Russell’s love of theology enough to make her different enough from Holmes to work as his ideal mate, given their similarities.  I can’t say.  I can’t even say if this analysis of love is correct.  But this is a way for us to be split as per Aristophanes:  in some cases, we possess two halves of the same thing, and in some cases we each possess things that the other lacks.  Considering those things is what, then, ultimately reunites us as a complete whole and thus allows us to find our “soul mate”.


November 18, 2022

So, I came across the idea of “Antinatalism” from this post by Richard Carrier.  As you can tell from the title, he’s opposed to it, not just because he thinks that it relies on incorrect premises, but also because it is itself completely incoherent and cannot fail to be incoherent.  I don’t agree with antintalism either, as it turns out, but think that it isn’t necessarily incoherent and while some arguments seem to be based on false premises the underlying issue with it is an incorrect idea of suffering and our moral commitments wrt suffering.  So relying mostly on Carrier’s post — which might be dangerous, since he has a tendency, especially in philosophy, to interpret the things he criticizes incorrectly — I’m going to examine antinatalism and show where it works in ways that Carrier doesn’t seem to see and so is a more interesting philosophical challenge than it might seem if you only read his post, but also show how it, ultimately, doesn’t seem to work.

The big reason Carrier thinks that antinatalism is incoherent is because he thinks that it entails killing off everyone, because its main argument is that the people who are living experience enough suffering that it would have been better if they had never been born than to live in such a condition.  Carrier notes that this suggests that they would be better off dead than alive and so killing everyone off — or everyone committing suicide — would be the only rational choice, despite the protests of antinatalists that this is not true:

Antinatalism holds that being alive causes suffering, such that not being alive is better. This entails killing everyone, and yourself. To try and avoid this consequence, as antinatalists do, with an equivocation fallacy, like “suicide and murdering billions causes suffering; therefore we ought not commit suicide or exterminate people,” only proves the point. They are contradicting themselves. If becoming dead is suffering, then how can being dead be better than being alive? The only reason one can ever coherently be against mass suicide is to admit that staying alive is better than being dead. But that renounces the entire premise that antinatalism is built on. What we are left with is incoherent nonsense.

As it turns out, because Carrier relies heavily on an overall utility argument — being alive is worse than being dead — this isn’t what they actually hold, but we can already see a lot of holes in his argument.  As noted in a comment — that I don’t feel Carrier really managed to address — it is proper to interpret antinatalists as insisting that one cannot cause or be responsible for suffering, and there is no way to kill people without causing at least some suffering.  Thus, while they may think that everyone should commit suicide, their own reasons for wanting that — those people suffer — mean that they themselves cannot cause or be responsible for the suffering that would be required to kill everyone off.  The same thing would actually apply to mass suicide, since that would be those people causing suffering to themselves which wouldn’t be allowed.  The original commenter Fred B-C says that a better question would be if one could simply “snap” everyone out of existence like Thanos did would the antinatalist support it.  However, as seen in the movie, his “snap” was not devoid of suffering, as the people who were snapped out of existence didn’t just suddenly cease to exist, but instead faded away and so were aware of — and horrified by — the fact that they were fading out of existence, and thus experienced great mental anguish.

But if it really was devoid of all suffering, would it be something that the antinatalist need support?  Fred himself notes that deontologically there is a duty not to harm, but if being alive is worse than being dead and one can kill everyone without adding more suffering to them, then under utilitarianism that should be allowable (although again they dodge the utility argument, as I’ll talk about later) and so it would only be deontological views that could oppose it … which they can, especially if one follows Kant.  One of Kant’s maxims is that one must always treat everyone — including yourself — always as an end in themselves and not merely as a means.  If someone doesn’t agree — for whatever reason, including that they just haven’t heard the argument yet — that they should die then doing it for them would violate that, as you would be using them as a means to an end, the end of people — them, in particular — not suffering as much, and you are not allowed to use them as merely a means to anything, including what you see as their own benefit or what is considered right morally.  As long as them choosing to remain alive is not in and of itself morally wrong, you can’t force them to not remain alive without violating their consent and so their status as ends in themselves.  Carrier does try to respond to that in that comment thread linked above:

It also can’t work on a consent model, because admitting someone isn’t giving you consent entails admitting they prefer being alive to being dead, which entails a refutation of their own premise. Whereas arguing that people aren’t competent to have a correct assessment entails concluding they aren’t competent to make decisions for themselves, an exception to consent mores widely accepted (we compel the incompetent to treatments all the time, and even deem it morally necessary).

But we could never declare someone incompetent simply for not agreeing with us.  They are allowed to be wrong, even about important things, without being incompetent to manage their own affairs.  That is, in fact, the only reason consent ever matters, and why we cannot simply decide things for everyone else based on our purportedly superior rationality.  Even if they prefer being alive to being dead, that doesn’t mean they are right about that and the antinatalist wrong, but is sufficient to stop us from simply killing them off without their consent.  We cannot simply make choices for others, especially when we ourselves aren’t impacted one way or another.

Okay, but then would it mandate mass suicide?  By Kant, again this wouldn’t work, because we must also treat ourselves as ends in ourselves, and despite Carrier’s previous comments on Kant Kant himself does not allow someone to take an action merely to give themselves pleasure or remove suffering from themselves.  This was his major objection to masturbation, after all, that it was us using ourselves as merely a means to the end of pleasure and not as ends in ourselves.  Even if one objects to that — likely on the grounds that surgery to correct a knee or hip problem that is causing pain might be immoral under that strict an interpretation — it turns out that it’s trivially easy under pretty much any moral system to justify a rule that you don’t kill other people or even yourself even if that would be in your own self-interest.  Once you have that, killing anyone in the cause of antinatalism is right out, and suicide is out as well without the idea of when suicide is morally justified (and for many deontological and virtue theories, it’s only allowed as a way to avoid doing immoral things, not just to make your life better or avoid some suffering).  So it turns out that declaring it incoherent on these grounds is no where near as secure a move as Carrier thinks it is.

It also turns out that Carrier’s expression of the antinatalist argument is also incorrect in a subtle but important way.  Their actual argument is not that we would be better off dead than alive, but that we would be better off if we had never existed than alive.  This allows them to draw a clear demarcation between agents that have never existed and ones that have existed and exist right now, which allows them to argue that we have no moral obligations towards agents or beings that have never existed, but do have moral obligations towards agents or beings that now exist.  Thus, it is trivially easy for them to argue that once these beings exist I cannot kill them for any reason, even their own benefit, but that that doesn’t apply to the beings that have never existed.  The beings that have never existed don’t need to be killed, and the beings that do exist cannot ever be morally killed (or, at least, not for such reasons).  For the individual themselves, again it isn’t difficult to come up with a rule against committing suicide, and argue that it only applies to people who exist.  If a person has never existed, there is no need for them to commit suicide, and if they do exist, they are again not allowed to commit suicide (at least for these reasons) morally.  Thus, it turns out that Carrier is equivocating here, lumping both “has never existed” and “has existed, but was killed” under “dead” and then insisting that one cannot treat the two cases differently.  But as noted, from the perspective of morality it is clear that the cases are different (and many abortion arguments could not get off the ground if there wasn’t a distinction here).

And again, as it turns out, antinatalists have another argument that follows on from this that allows them to make that distinction.  You can find it in Carrier’s sources, and it’s known as the “Asymmetry Argument”.  What it argues is that there’s an asymmetry in the moral obligations in these cases that supports antinatalism.  We have no moral obligation towards persons that have never existed, and so cannot have a moral obligation to bring them into the world, even if they would have a life that has more pleasures than sufferings.  Thus, I can never be said to be not fulfilling my moral obligations to that person who will never exist if I choose to not bring them into existence.  However, if I do choose to bring them into existence, then I have moral obligations towards them.  And the other part of the “Asymmetry Argument” points out that while I have no moral obligation to give people pleasures, I do have a moral obligation to avoid causing or being responsible for them suffering.  And for every child that I cause to come into existence by procreating, I cause them at least some suffering.  So I am morally responsible for their suffering once born and have no moral obligation to bring them into existence.  Why, then, doesn’t the moral obligation to not be responsible for suffering mean that I shouldn’t bring them into existence at all?  And if that does work, then that justifies antinatalism and dodges any utility arguments, like Carrier’s argument about the odds:

The argument of “possible outcomes opposite intention” applies to literally every act and choice every human will ever make (up to and including literally just breathing); consequently, it refutes itself. Game Theory, again. If you have two options, one leads to no positive sum outcomes, and the other leads very probably to positive sum outcomes and only improbably to negative sum outcomes, the only rational move is the second. All life consists of risk. If you are scared of all risk no matter how small or mitigable, then yeah, maybe you’d be better off dead. But the rest of us aren’t that stupid. The correct solution (as in the rational solution) to risk is not “the avoidance of all conceivable risk”; it’s taking steps to reduce or mitigate that risk. “I might die if I go outside, therefore I should never go outside” is the voice of an idiot (or literally the insane); “I might die if I go outside, therefore I should cooperate with society in making that as safe as we can” is the voice of the rational and sane.

But the question would be raised by the antinatalist:  why is it moral for you to gamble with someone else’s life and suffering, so that it is possible that they will end up in one of those cases where life is not worth living and have a negative sum outcome that they cannot escape?  Even if the odds are good, would it really be moral for Carrier to, say, start a machine that has even a 10% chance of causing everyone to spent eternity in complete agony on the grounds that 90% of the time most people will instead get their favourite dessert?  Carrier can argue that the odds of having a good life are better, but the antinatalist doesn’t argue over those odds.  Instead they note that no one has a moral obligation to bring someone into the world and if the odds are such that that person might have a life not worth living and might have to commit suicide to escape it what moral obligation can Carrier point to to justify taking that chance with someone else’s life?  He can’t use any obligations to keeping society going because that would be driven entirely by self-interest and so cannot be used to justify taking a chance with someone else’s happiness or suffering, so how can he justify taking the risk with someone else’s life?

This is a good time to bring in the thought experiment from Christopher Belshaw (I’m going to ignore the argument from animals since it seems clear that animals can have a life worth living):

Imagine we look at creatures on a distant planet. They live for ten years in agony, and thereafter sixty years in bliss. And there are no important psychological connections over this period. We probably think it better if these creatures never come to be, though of course after ten years there’s no reason at all to kill them, or wish them dead. This is, I’ve argued, more or less the picture with human lives.

Carrier, it seems to me, interprets this argument incorrectly, but in line with his mistake above, as his main objection is this:

Dude. No moral human being would think this way. What the fuck is wrong with Belshaw? Is he a sociopath? If we found a society of Martians who lived ten years in agony and sixty years in bliss, our thought would not be, “Get rid of them! Forced sterilizations!” We’d be moral monsters—and idiots. We’re neither. So that is not at all how 98% of human beings would react to this discovery, or how 100% of sane and rational human beings would. Not a single one would say “it would be better they never existed.” We’d say, “that’s a rough start they have to put up with, but it’s clearly worth it in the end.” And we’d say that because those Martians who actually live through it would say that. And that’s how empathy works.

He jumps to the idea of empathy and talks about Belshaw being a sociopath, seemingly influenced by the idea that everyone in that species would have to commit suicide or be killed, even though it’s obvious that antinatalists would at least argue that those past those ten years could stay alive, which is what he uses to try to argue that while babies are in the same situation as this species it wouldn’t justify killing off adults.  I think the flaw — as Carrier does not — is that it’s wrong to think that babies only have suffering and don’t have more pleasures than sufferings and so the thought experiment doesn’t really apply.  It seems to me, though, that Carrier’s moral outrage means that he misses the more interesting philosophical issue here by never really asking why people would say that it was worth it and how the thought experiment can be tweaked to make it more in line with the antinatalist argument and a more interesting discussion.

I believe that most people who would answer that those ten years of agony are worth it to get those sixty years of bliss are seeing it in a specific way.  I believe that they see those ten years as the cost they have to pay in order to get those sixty years of bliss, and most people would see the utility calculation working out in their favour.  So they are willing to pay that cost to get that outcome.  And this is actually a stronger objection to the antinatalists here than “Don’t you have any empathy?!?” because antinatalists cannot argue that taking a hit to acquire something to make one’s life better is necessarily morally wrong.  After all, that’s the entire notion of any kind of commerce or trade, so we indeed need to be able to morally pay in order to get things that we want.  The antinatalist can argue that we morally ought not take suffering on ourselves in exchange for less suffering later, but this would mean that we cannot morally take university courses and degrees because studying and taking exams definitely causes suffering but can improve our lives (or, as I found when I was taking courses, can be a wonderful source of entertainment).  We couldn’t diet to lose weight to improve our looks or health since being hungry is definitely suffering.  We couldn’t train for a marathon to get that sense of accomplishment after achieving it.  Heck, we couldn’t even work to get money since work usually causes some sort of suffering and using the money to get food and shelter couldn’t justify that.  Yes, antinatalists could bite the bullet and accept that but it does start to get so ridiculous as it would end up with everyone starving to death anyway with such a strict moral code.

As it turns out, the antinatalist doesn’t have to do that, and we can see that if we tweak the experiment slightly.  Instead of imaging there existing a species like this created by natural selection, imagine that what we have is a scientist creating a new species in his lab.  He is ecstatic that he can create this new species that will have sixty years of bliss, but only after suffering ten years of complete agony.  I think that a lot of people would feel that given that perhaps the scientists ought not create that species, at least not until he can reduce the agony, either in degree or in duration.  Even if he insists that there is no other way to get a species with sixty years of bliss we might still think it better that he not create the species.  Once the species exists we can see that the agony is outweighed by the bliss, and yet when thinking about creating the species we likely would balk at creating a species that has ten years of agony, no matter how much “bliss” they get in return.  From this, the antinatalist can argue that this is exactly what we do when we have children:  we create beings that will suffer, and we cannot morally say that the fact that they might and even are likely to have more happiness or pleasure in their lives can make up for us doing that.  We are responsible for their suffering and have no obligation to create them, just as the scientist has no obligation to create that species.  So just as the scientist shouldn’t create that species, we ourselves should not create children.

The real weakness in the antinatalist argument is around our moral obligations towards suffering, but viewing suffering itself as something that is necessarily a bad thing in a moral sense.  While this follows more from my Stoic leanings than from other moral systems, as we’ve seen above suffering isn’t always a bad thing.  Pointless suffering is, obviously, but while we think it morally wrong to cause needless suffering to someone else it’s not because suffering is in and of itself morally wrong (even if it’s always unpleasant).  Under pretty much any moral code, we are allowed to cause suffering to others if morality dictates that.  So we can deprive someone of something if they have acquired it unjustly, and injure and even kill someone if that is required to stop them from killing and injuring other people.  Thus, our moral obligation to not cause suffering to others follows from our morality and is not in and of itself morally wrong.  Thus, being morally responsible for bringing someone into existence who suffers is not, in and of itself, morally wrong.  Thus, we do not have a moral obligation to not create any person just because they might suffer.  We can, then, take the considerations of how likely it is that they will suffer unnecessarily primarily because of our personal decision to bring them into existence — like with agonizing genetic conditions that they could not be cured off — and decide on that basis whether or not to reproduce, but we are not responsible for the suffering that nature and life itself causes them nor for the suffering that other people might cause for them, intentionally or not.  Given this, and the fact that most people will have lives with more pleasures than suffering, the utility argument is back on the table and, in my opinion, antinatalism falls.

Antinatalism, contra Carrier, is actually an argument that is — or can be, since there is no argument in existence that is always stated in a logically coherent way — coherent but that depends entirely on the idea that it is always morally wrong to be responsible for someone else suffering.  That idea is clearly incorrect, and so it falls on the basis of it being contrafactual — and, importantly, on the basis that it contravenes moral facts as opposed to empirical ones — as opposed to be incoherent.  Once we better understand what it says, we can see that it is more interesting than it might have seemed at first, and also see where it fails to justify our strong intuitions that it is, indeed, incorrect.

“The Bloody Connection Between Vampires and Vegetarians”

November 11, 2022

The next essay in “Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy” is “The Bloody Connection Between Vampires and Vegetarians” by Wayne Yuen.  In it, he is going to argue that it would not be moral for vampires to kill humans for their blood to feed on, and then use that argument that it is also wrong for humans to raise and eat animals for food.  I don’t think his argument really works, but in order to get to that argument the first thing he needs to establish is that vampires are indeed moral agents and so can be held morally responsible for their actions.  If they were simply animals or were compelled by a strong compulsion to drink human blood, then he’d be unable to establish that vampires would be morally wrong to drink human blood and so any argument he would make for vegetarianism would have to stand on its own without the support of the analogy from vampires.  In doing so, he has to talk about the nature of morality and also free will, which is why there’s a fair bit more to talk about in this “Philosophy and Pop Culture” post than there normally is.

So he starts by arguing that in order for us to morally judge vampires, we are going to have to establish that vampires are moral agents and have moral responsibility.  He first examines whether they are rational enough to be moral agents, which means, to him, that they can evaluate what the best outcome would be among a host of possibilities and choose on that basis.  The issue is this sort of goal-directing reasoning is not sufficient to make someone moral.  As I noted in my essay on psychopaths, while they may not make the right choices they certainly seem capable of some sort of goal-based reasoning but have a notable lack in being able to understand what makes a situation a moral one or not, since they fail at the moral/conventional distinction.  Yuen tries to establish that they can judge what is and isn’t moral with a quote from one talking about how evil people taste better, but this doesn’t mean that they are able to judge or comprehend what is or isn’t moral but might only reflect that they have learned what humans consider moral or immoral and apply that classification to those people.  Since the vampire who says that — Lestat from Interview with a Vampire is not exactly a good being himself it’s far too quick an assessment from that statement that he understands what it really means for someone to be evil.  Even if he does, what Yuen would also need to establish is the one thing that we do think that vampires lack when it comes to morality:  the capacity to care about what is or isn’t moral.  Again, psychopaths can be seen as inherently amoral because they are incapable of being motivated by morality and moral considerations, and vampires in general are seen as lacking that as well.  Even if they can judge what is or isn’t moral, they in general are incapable of caring about what is moral or immoral.  In Yuen’s example, Lestat’s judgement about evil people is shallow and is unconcerned with their moral status.  He neither condemns nor praises their immorality, and seems to only note as an interesting aside or irrelevancy that has an impact on his aesthetic preferences.

So Yuen hasn’t really established that vampires are moral agents because he hasn’t established that they are capable of properly understanding or being motivated by moral considerations.  The next issue he tries to address is if they have free will and so can make proper decisions.  The big problem here is that while he does seem to get that free will is the ability for us to act on our own choices without being forced to by something outside ourselves, the example he gives is one of coercion:  if someone threatens to kill our family unless we do something, Yuen argues that in that case we no longer have the free will to not do that thing.  This is, sadly, pretty common in discussions of free will, but is also something that is a philosophical pet peeve of mine.  I would agree with Yuen that in such a case we wouldn’t have moral responsibility for taking that action, but argue that it isn’t because we would be forced to do that by something outside of ourselves.

For me, the argument follows on from general Stoic teachings, which argue that if someone threatens your life — or that of your family — in order to force you to do something what the proper Stoic is morally obligated to do is refuse to take that action and let them kill you or your family.  The reason is that a person is not morally responsible for what other people do, but is only morally responsible for what they themselves do.  So if someone faces such a threat and gives in, then they are still morally responsible for the action they take and so if the action is morally wrong then they did something morally wrong.  However, if they refuse to act immorally in the face of such a threat and the other person then kills them or their family, then they are not responsible for what that person did and so have not done anything morally wrong.  They are not, therefore, morally responsible for the deaths of their family if they refuse to take that immoral action.  All the moral responsibility rests with the person who committed the actual deed themselves.

And outside of what might be considered esoteric philosophical stances, we actually do understand that someone can indeed reasonably and morally choose an action against such strong coercion.  In the Shakespeare play “Measure for Measure” (which I just read), a main character is forced by the temporary ruler of the city to either have sex with him or else her brother would be executed.  She is adamant that she is forced by morality to choose to let her brother die, and while some people try to encourage her to go through with it to save her brother they understand her position that doing so would be immoral.  The war is over practicality vs morality, not over her warped sense of honour vs what is actually moral.  Thus, we can understand that it is indeed possible to have an external force apply strong coercive pressure and yet not only be able to choose against that pressure, but in fact to actually be moral — and the most moral — in doing so.

And yet, we also have a strong intuitive understand that if someone had, in fact, given in to that pressure they wouldn’t be held morally responsible for doing so.  We would not call such an action immoral, anymore than we generally consider someone who steals food to feed their starving children to have done something immoral.  These intuitions, then, are what I think drives the arguments that claim that we cannot be properly responsible for such actions and so can’t freely choose otherwise.  I have opined in the past that we don’t necessarily consider their actions moral, but instead consider them understandable.  We may consider them taking that action to be them still doing “the wrong thing”, but we can understand why, faced with such a choice, they took that action.  This, then, suggests that perhaps the reason we don’t want to consider them morally responsible for that action is because it’s just too much to ask of them to not take that action.  Therefore, it’s not that they couldn’t take that action, but that it’s an action that morality cannot reasonably demand they take, and so it ends up being outside of the bounds of morality.  We can see this with Utilitarianism where it constantly runs into problems with thought experiments such as you can save your child or a scientist with the cure of cancer from drowning, where utility is clearly on the side of saving the scientist but we all intuitively think that we couldn’t reasonably demand that you sacrifice your child to utility in those cases.  There are lots of attempts to patch it up and bring in rules for that and recalculate utility and so on and so forth, but the easier answer might well be that in such strong cases we could not ask someone to actually make that sacrifice.  It seems reasonable to argue that a proper moral system cannot force someone to take an action that would break them, and such sacrifices might well break the person making the decision.  This, then, might be captured best by Kant’s maxim that we must always treat moral agents as ends in themselves and not merely as a means to an end.  That includes as a means to a claim of morality or the demands of a moral system, and such sacrifices treat people as a means to the end of  maintaining a moral system.

So it does seem like coercion doesn’t mean that we aren’t morally responsible for our actions, but if the coercion is strong enough we might end up with the decision being taken out of the realm of morality entirely.   If vampires are capable of understanding morality and their desire for blood is not a true compulsion, then it does seem like we could assign moral blame to them for killing humans for their blood if that is immoral.  And both Yuen and our intuitions claim that vampires killing humans for their blood is morally wrong.  Yuen then moves on to argue that while animals are not moral agents, in all relevant respects they are the same as us wrt why we think it is wrong for vampires to kill us for food, and so we ought not kill them for food either.  And yet, there is a critical difference:  they are not moral agents.  It seems reasonable to argue that humans are sentient in a way that animals are not, and so even though animals do suffer it is that extra sentience that makes it so that killing humans for food is immoral.  I would disagree that it’s just a matter of rationality, but would argue that it’s about morality.  To return to Kant, we are moral agents and so must be treated always as an end in ourselves and not as a means to an end.  Animals are not moral agents and so need not be granted that respect.

This doesn’t mean that we can treat them badly.  Yuen makes a mistake in arguing that the animals we raise for food are treated poorly in order to make the suffering point, but one can argue that they shouldn’t be made to suffer in that way without accepting that we are not allowed to raise them for food.  For example, the above analysis lends itself to an argument that I’ve heard before — but forget the source of — that the reason it is immoral for us to mistreat animals is not because of a moral responsibility we owe to them, but instead because of one that we owe ourselves.  Someone who could mistreat animals and deliberately try to cause them to suffer or to be impassive towards their unnecessary suffering is not a good person.  They would be missing the virtue of Compassion, or at least it would be deficient in them.  Thus, we can tie the Virtue Theory of the Stoics to the deontological theory of Kant and point out that we have no moral obligations to those things that are not moral agents but a virtuous person has traits that will create such obligations internally from their own morally virtuous character.  So we would not be a properly moral person if we were apathetic to the unnecessary suffering of animals, but raising and killing them for food need not be that.

Yuen could, of course, argue from this that a moral obligation to not eat animals follows in the same way.  However, that … is another argument for another time.  So I don’t think that his argument works, mostly because it is a far more wandering path we need to take to negotiate the moral morass to get to where Yuen wants to end up.

What Does Meaning Mean?

October 28, 2022

So Jonathan MS Pearce recently wrote a post talking about how we should build our own meaning and purpose without appealing to something like religion.  One of the things he says in it is this:

Thus, meaning is, of course, whatever you want it to be. If you want to change the meaning of the word “table” to mean “chair”, go for it. You are free to do that for yourself. But be warned that it might be advisable to consider others in the process for the practicalities of navigating life.

This reminded me of the old riddle:  How many legs does a dog have, if we call a tail a leg?  Four, because no matter what you call it a tail is not a leg.  The same thing applies here, and demonstrates why Pearce’s nominalism fails.  When he talks about a person changing the “meaning” of the word “table”, he is implying that he’s talking about changing the concept through his nominalist stance, but that is precisely what he isn’t doing.  All he is doing is changing what the English word “table” refers to, by shifting it from pointing to things that we commonly place in the category of tables and instead to pointing to things that we commonly place in the category of chairs.  Thus, all he’s doing is changing the label we apply to those objects in the world.  But he isn’t changing any of the properties of those things nor what we’d generally use to determine if they fit into the category that we are applying the label to or how we use them.  And given that the label points to things in the real world, the properties we find in the world are real properties.  While there may be some leeway in what importance we place on the various properties and even on what categories we pay attention to, those categories are out there, in the world, to be discovered, making them as objective as anything we find in science.  And this is true by necessity, as for the most part what empirical science does is nothing more than create these categories and labels and concepts to describe the world and how it works.  So if Pearce can use his nominalism in a way that means that these determinations are not objective and are merely what everyone gets to make up for themselves, then the same thing is true for science as well, which would put a lot of Pearce’s positions in a bad spot.

However, we can also see that Pearce’s argument here actually relies on equivocation.  When we talk about meaning in terms of the meaning of our lives, we are not talking about what a word signifies or “points to”, but instead are talking about what gives our lives importance or value.  Pearce can get away with saying that someone can change the meaning of the word “table” and only have to worry about whether others will understand what they’re talking about because meanings, in that sense, are absolutely unimportant in that sense.  We don’t think that what word we pick to point to and signify the things that we call tables gives it any sort of value one way or another.  It doesn’t matter to the value of those things what word is used to point to them.  So when we talk about meaning there, we are using it in a way that excludes the idea of value from the picture.  But the reason we want to find a meaning or purpose for our lives is one that inherently includes value, and is inseparable for it.  We can assign a word to something that we don’t think has any particular value, but we cannot come up with a meaning for our lives that doesn’t give our lives a value.

So the meaning and purpose to our lives exists precisely to give our lives value, which gives it a far greater importance to us than the example of what word to use to refer to a certain set of things in the world.  So when we try to build it ourselves, we can see a potential issue with how Pearce suggests we do that:

It might be useful to pose a question at this juncture: What do you want out of life?

This question is met almost universally with some variation of “To be happy, for my friends and family to be happy, for as many people as possible to be happy.” And happiness can entail pleasure, a lack of pain, and well-being in general. We could even talk in terms of fulfillment and flourishing.

But while we may not be able to achieve ultimate meaning, we may be able to achieve at least some degree of transcendence. Meaning and impact can live on past our lives, through our children or the people we know or the people and world we influence and affect, progressing into the future. Okay, we might have to admit the eventual heat death of the universe or some such scenario. Just don’t be afraid that meaning might be much more about living in the here, living in the now, and perhaps working hard for the future, even if it is not eternal.

The issue with this — and Richard Carrier makes the same mistake — is that it bases everything on the desires that we currently have and what we currently want.  We are trying to figure out by this what we want out of life and then either using that to determine our meaning or else defining our meaning so that it justifies and allows us to fulfill our desires.  But this ignores that the main reason we want to figure out our purpose and meaning in life is so that we can determine what it is we ought to want.  Ought I want to be “happy”?  Are the things that make me happy the right things or should I change so that other things are what makes me happy?  All of these approaches tend to ignore the fact that we can indeed shape to a large extent what makes us happy and what makes us have satisfying lives, and the whole point to searching for meaning and purpose is so that we can determine what shape the things that make us happy should take, and what shape we, as sentient beings, should take on in order to live the “best” lives.  This, then, means that we want an objective answer to what meaning our purpose should be, even if that ends up being a meaning and purpose that is unique for each individual.  If any meaning and purpose will do, then what is the point of having a meaning and purpose at all?  Instead, we should simply reflect on who we are and insist that, to paraphrase a great philosopher, that we yare what we yare without having to have any additional “worldview” or “meaning” or “purpose” underpinning or overarching that.  Meaning and purpose, on this model, becomes meaningless and purposeless.

And we can see this with Pearce’s example of the spade, where he asks us to consider a spade that was created by someone to dig in a garden and so would have that as its purpose, but where it might disagree with that purpose:

If the spade were sentient, and decided that it didn’t fancy being used to dig holes in my garden at my behest (I am the purposer here, the god), but wanted to take on a nobler cause of digging gardens in the community, and helping criminals rehabilitate their ways in a gardening program, then the spade is entitled to feel that its own purpose was superior (even if it was something less morally upstanding).

But we can see here that Pearce is trying to make his point here by using something that we already think follows from our existing notions of meaning and purpose in saying that the spade wants to take on the “nobler” cause of working for the community and helping criminals rehabilitate instead of just digging in our personal garden.  But why is that a nobler cause?  We would be inclined to think that that purpose is nobler because the idea we have of purpose means that helping others fits our purpose better than simple self-interest.  If the situation was reversed, we would be far more likely to consider the spade selfish instead of considering it to be pursuing something “nobler”.  Pearce can be seen, here, as arguing that the spade is justified in considering the purpose nobler mostly because it’s its own purpose, but we would not be as quick to go along with his analogy if he had had the spade rejecting a purpose that we considered more noble in order to pursue a personal purpose that we considered less noble.  Given this, again, it seems like the concept of “noble” also becomes meaningless in Pearce’s model, as it reduces to “what the individual wants”, and shortening that to “noble” implies a moral superiority that doesn’t apply to it and so is equivocation and on top of that lacks a justification for calling that “nobility” instead of “desire” or “preference”.  The only reason to call it “noble” is to make the link to superiority, but that idea of superiority only exists because we think that there is an objective moral value that we can assign to things … all of which Pearce’s view requires him to reject.

Ultimately, that is the main issue with subjectivist ideas of meaning, purpose and morality that those like Pearce advocate:  the only reason we care about them at all and the only reason they have any value to us is because we think of them as objective and so something that we can use to shape our own ideas and notions.  If we make them subjective, then they can no longer do that, and so have no use or value to us anymore, making it so that we have no reason to care about them and so no reason to spend the time Pearce advocates we spend trying to figure them out for ourselves.  Thus, if Pearce’s view is right his own approach means that he is wasting his time doing the “hard job” of figuring that out.

“The Razor’s Edge: Galactica, Pegasus and Lakoff”

October 21, 2022

The next essay in “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy” is “The Razor’s Edge:  Galactica, Pegasus and Lakoff” by Sara Livingston.  In it, Livingston tries to analyze the two main commanders and “father figures” of the revamped Battlestar Galactica series using George Lakoff’s idealized parenting strategies of the Strict Father and the Nurturant Parent, using Kendra Shaw’s experiences first with the Strict Parent of Helena Cain and then with Apollo who was taught by the Nurturant Parent of William Adama.

Immediately, we can see some issues with doing this.  The first is that Cain is far more Psychopathic Parent than Strict Father given how she acts.  Livingston might be able to make a case for it by ignoring the worst examples of Cain’s behaviour and instead only focusing on the cases where she aims for strict military discipline — such as the interesting comparison of how Cain and her crew treat the first face-to-face meeting between the crews versus how the Galactica crew treats it — but she also references the scene from Razor where Cain shoots her XO for disobedience and tortures the human-form Cylon that was her former lover.  That definitely exceeds the scope of a Strict Father and doesn’t follow from it.  But we can also note that she needs to cherrypick Adama’s actions to set him up as the Nurturant Parent.  Yes, he gives the crew more leeway at times and seems to forgive them their faults more than a Strict Father, but often this comes across as him more playing favourites than being a nurturing parent to his crew as a whole.  He certainly doesn’t seem like he was a Nurturant Parent to Zac, which is why he and Apollo are on the outs at the beginning of the series.  And while Cain executes her XO, Adama executes Gaeta for mutiny as well, and while you can certainly see that as justified Gaeta had more reason to oppose Adama than others had and other acts of mutiny went completely unpunished.  So Cain is in general more cruel than strict and Adama is more strict than nurturing much of the time.

Now, in general this reflects how things work in real-life, as you rarely get a parent that is all nurturing or all strict, and it’s probably not a good idea to adopt either of those as an overall parenting strategy.  But we can ask what it really means to be a Strict Father or Nurturant Parent.  Livingston roughly presents it as the Strict Father setting out rules and punishing those who step out of line while the Nurturant Parent lets them make their own mistakes, but obviously neither of these work in reality.  The Strict Father definitely wants their charges to learn what does and doesn’t work for them, and the Nurturant Parent can’t let their charges make all of their own mistakes since some of those are fatal.  So we can argue that the Strict Father relies on making the actions have consequences when their charges don’t understand or aren’t capable of understanding those consequences, feeling that when they get older they will be able to work out why the rules were right in the first place, while the Nurturant Parent relies less on strict rules and providing consequences because they focus on making sure that their charges understand what the consequences are.  Both ultimately want to achieve the same end, which is people who understand the consequences of those actions and make the right decisions.  The Strict Parent ingrains the behaviour first hoping that their charges will come to understand the reasons later, while the Nurturant Parent pushes the understanding first hoping that they won’t hit cases where their charges can’t understand the consequences before they need it.

Thus, Strict Father would be the right approach for cases where their charges can’t understand the consequences or don’t have the experience or information to understand them, while the Nurturant Parent approach works better where the charges can understand the consequences if it is explained to them and will chafe at rules.  So the Strict Parent approach works better for young children while the Nurturant Parent approach would work better for older children and teens, as they wouldn’t feel talked down to and would feel better about taking a more active and adult roll in their own decisions as opposed to simply following imposed rules.  And I think we’ve seen that, as many parents have moved towards the Nurturant Parent approach with younger and younger children and have discovered that they understand more than we thought … but still have issues and cases where they really need some structured rules.  So perhaps these aren’t competing strategies but instead are complementary strategies that are to be used when appropriate.  As such, Adama might then be capable of being a better parent than he was, and that anyone expected him to be.

“Fighting the Good Fight: Military Ethics and the Kree-Skrull War”

October 14, 2022

The next essay in “The Avengers and Philosophy” is “Fighting the Good Fight:  Military Ethics and the Kree-Skrull War” by Christopher Robichaud.  The basic idea here is to examine what makes for a “good” or “justified” war, and the big example from “The Avengers” is Ronan the Accuser’s plan to remove Earth from being a threat in the future by de-evolving humanity so that they could never gain enough of a technological level to steal the Kree’s technology and turn it against them.  Robichaud’s definition of a justified war is basically one where there is no other choice but to enter into the war and the war is prosecuted only to the degree necessary and no further.  So a war of self-defense, for him, would always be justified as long as the defending nation only fought as long as necessary to remove the threat the other nation presented to them.  We could also imagine that a situation like the Holocaust could also be a justified war if there was no other way to stop that heinous situation and it was, again, only fought as long as necessary to stop that sort of genocide.  But then Robichaud raises the question of a preventative war.  Could a nation be justified in starting a war to prevent a war from starting in the future?

At first glance, this seems somewhat ridiculous, as starting a war could never actually prevent a war from starting, since by definition it would start a war.  So you could justify a preventative strike, perhaps, but not a preventative war since it seems like an oxymoron.  Sure, a preventative strike would always be an act of war, but if the other side doesn’t declare war on the first nation then it really doesn’t look like there’d be any way at all, and so it wouldn’t be a preventative war.  Thus, it looks like we might have to consider Ronan’s plan to be more of a preventative strike than a preventative war, especially given that he was acting outside of the political and military structure of his nation at the time and if he had succeeded humanity would be in no position to declare war on him.  And it looks like we could use Robichaud’s definition above to determine when a preventative strike is justified:  when there is no other way to avoid the war and when the attack is the minimum necessary to avoid a war starting.  So if, for example, two sides were evenly balanced but one side was going to acquire a new superweapon or a new cache of weapons that would encourage them to start a war, a preventative strike eliminating those weapons and those weapons only might well count as a justified preventative strike, as long as it does indeed restore that balance that means that neither side is willing to declare a war that they cannot win.

Could we then justify Ronan’s plan as a preventative strike?  Probably not.  For one thing, it does seem like he could prevent a far-in-the-future war with humans by other means, including diplomacy.  For another, his only justification for a war starting is that he believes that the humans will do what the Kree — his own race — did and so are a threat to the Kree that way, but he has no reason at this time to think that this is what will happen.  So it doesn’t seem like there is no other way to avoid the war and it seems like there are other options than to devolve all of humanity to avoid that war anyway.  So Ronan’s plan is not a justified preventative strike.

But is a preventative war truly an oxymoron?  Or, at least, are there cases where we could justify one?  While it would still be a war and so wouldn’t count as a preventative war in and of itself, it seems like we could have a justified premature war, where one nation knows that another nation is preparing for a war and will almost certainly start one one their preparations are complete, and so the first nation starts the war early so that they can win the war and bring about a peace and eliminate their capacity to start that war.  The most obvious case of this is one where a neighbouring nation has a huge advantage in productivity and while they are starting from almost no military hardware they will be able to quickly catch up and, after that, will continue to outproduce their neighbour and so would be able to win any war they start after that point.  Of course, for this to work it would have to be clear that they will attack their neighbour as soon as they are strong enough, but if that was clear — like it was, for example, with Nazi Germany — then that nation that could win now but will lose later might well be justified in starting the war early, especially if their goal is not to dominate but to, say, change the government that would start the war or to take territory that would at least even the odds productivity-wise or else create a boundary that would make invasion difficult if not impossible even with the productivity advantage.  Or, if none of this is possible long-term, to buy time to even up the odds in terms of productivity.

So a preemptive strike seems like something that can be justified.  A preemptive war is an oxymoron.  But a premature war seems like something that could exist and could be justified.  Ronan’s actions, of course, fit none of these categories.

The Strategy of “Inside the Box”

October 7, 2022

I often watch game shows when there’s nothing else on, and often I’m interested in ways in which specific strategies fall out of the game rules, potentially not in ways that the creators intended.  One show that I was recently able to watch is “Inside the Box”, which has some interesting strategies to it for such a relatively simple game.

The game show is basically a “Twenty Questions” game where contestants have to go “Inside the Box” to identify a TV series, actor or character.  They have monitors that display all the “Yes/No” questions that they can ask about it.  They have two minutes to figure out the right answer and if they manage to do that they bank that time.   There are three contestants playing against each other, and the contestant at the end with the most time banked wins and moves on to play the bonus round.  To discourage random guessing, the contestant is penalized five seconds for every wrong guess they make.  However, every time they ask five questions that have a “Yes” answer the clock is stopped and they get a clue as to the answer, and also one free guess at the answer.  Time penalties are more important to the contestants outside the box, however, because the other two contestants are the ones that the contestant inside the box is asking the questions to.  They are only given the answer and have to answer the questions from their own knowledge, which means that they can get the answers wrong, and if they get the answers wrong they take a five second time penalty, which can be incredibly important in close games.

So it would seem that the obvious strategy is to scan the questions and ask questions that will help lead you to the answer.  And yet, at times contestants would ask questions that they should have obviously known was a “Yes” and so not one that they needed answered.  This, however, is actually a good strategy, as every five “Yes” answers you get a clue and while the first clue is pretty vague the remaining ones get better and better, and so getting as many “Yeses” as you can is really important.  You also get a free guess at that point which could allow you to take a guess without being penalized.  One contestant seemingly used this when they couldn’t decide between two answers and used the free guess to guess one of them and then immediately stopped the clock to give the other when the first one turned out to be incorrect.  Also, sometimes you’ll see contestants asking odd questions that don’t seem to be helping them that much — and even ones that were implied by other answers — but asking some of the more obscure questions can also be strategic because if the contestant doesn’t know the answer they take a time penalty which brings them closer or moves them further behind even if the contestant inside the box doesn’t get the right answer as quickly as they’d hoped.

And I don’t think these sorts of approaches were intentional.  It’s easy to imagine that they started with the original concept, and didn’t want to have the other contestants doing nothing at the time, and so came up with the idea to have them answer the question.  But you don’t want the contestants lying about it, so you give them a time penalty for giving incorrect answers.  And you don’t want the person inside the box guessing at random, so you give them a time penalty for random guessing.  And since the shows and questions could be obscure and so you risk most contestants simply not being able to answer get any of the right answers — along with the audience — giving clues helps with that and makes it a more interesting show to watch.

There are another couple of strategies that I’ve been pondering.  One of them is that especially for TV series there are a number of questions where if the answer is “Yes” you could, at least, have the answer right here.  For TV series this tends to be questions like whether or not a specific character is in the series, and in fact I first pondered this when one of the answers was “Saved by the Bell” and the question was “Is there a character named Lisa Turtle?”.  I knew that name from the show and so if I had been in the box and asked that first I would have had the answer very quickly.  Now, there are a number of these questions and so if someone tried them all it would take a lot of time, but even if there were 10 of them at 3s apiece that’s still a pretty good time bank.  However, if you don’t know what show some of the characters were you could ask these questions and not find out anything, and since there’s only going to be one “Yes” answer you would lose a lot of time that you could be using to get to the clues.  But if you knew all of them you’d probably solve it pretty quickly.

Another one is one that I came across while thinking that the contestants were screwing up.  A couple of contestants were firing off a lot of rapid fire questions and seemed to have hit a question that would narrow it down, but didn’t stop the clock to answer but kept going until the clue, at which point they answered.  It didn’t seem like the clue was what settled it for them, and so that they likely could have answered it earlier but didn’t.  Sure, they might not have wanted to risk a time penalty, but the extra time to get to the free guess was far more than that would have been, so they lost more if they were right than they would have if they were wrong.  But then it occurred to me that this itself was a strategy, given that they asked questions that they should have known were right and, more importantly, that at that point they should have known were wrong.  So it struck me was that their strategy was to ask a lot of questions without thinking too much about what the answer might be, and then to wait until the free guess to think about it, hoping that they would be able to review the information then and come up with it.  This is an interesting strategy.  On the one hand, it risks time ticking down for a long time after you should have been able to answer it before you can actually get around to answering it.  On the other hand, it allows you to generate a lot of information and potentially “Yes” answers in the shortest amount of time possible, even if that information might not be as relevant as it could have been.

Ultimately, it’s a simple, light game show that nevertheless has some interesting interactions that lead to some interesting strategic considerations, and even some differing strategies among the contestants.  That makes it a little more interesting than it might seem at first, even if you aren’t interested in guessing entertainment-related shows, actors and characters.  Which I am, which is why I watched and remembered it in the first place.

Jonathan MS Pearce on Representative Casting

September 30, 2022

So, there’s been a fair bit of discussion over some attempts at diverse casting in the Amazon “Lord of the Rings” show and in the “Game of Thrones” prequel show “House of the Dragon”.  In particular, “Lord of the Rings” has added black characters to all races — including the elves who, traditionally, have been presented as being pale-skinned — and “House of the Dragon” has presented a member of the Targaryen family as being black even though the family is known for having silver hair and pale skin.  The response to people arguing that this misrepresents the characters and races as per the original works or authors is, basically, that they are all just racist and that these sorts of casting decisions are things that are needed to promote diversity.  Along the same lines, Jonathan MS Pearce has chimed in with a post titled “Why a Black Targaryen makes more sense than a white Jesus” attempting to justify it as well, which will rely heavily on the argument that, hey, this is just fantasy and so this shouldn’t be that unbelievable.

Which is of course the same sort of reasoning that the creators use, as per this quote (that I got from Pearce’s post):

Defending the decision, and poking holes in the rationale of critics, Toussaint told Men’s Health. “It seems to be very hard for people to swallow. They are happy with a dragon flying. They’re happy with white hair and violet-colored eyes, but a rich Black guy? That’s beyond the pale.”

Toussaint is using the common tactic of pointing out things that are stranger than this and trying to make the racist point by saying that it’s making a claim that these people find a rich and powerful Black person incredibly unbelievable, which is then used to imply that it’s the racist implications of the character violating a “Black person’s place” that is doing the real work and causing the issue.  Pearce is more explicit about that later in the post:

With historical individuals, there is certainly a case for them to be played by appropriate actors, especially if accuracy is an important criterion. The same goes for culturally framed legends. That is where these angry internet individuals should be focusing their wrath.

But outright fantasy that is for all intents and purposes made up from whole cloth? That is a different kettle of fish. It is somewhat more difficult to argue that this must adhere to what was in the mind of the author. In one case, the author has long been dead, and in the other, he can be asked if this is an issue. George R.R. Martin has yet to make a comment, though he was intimately involved in the creation of the series.

The problem with this reasoning is that even though it is a fantasy world, a fantasy world is still one that runs on rules, and in general the things that are done in those rules, then, need to be consistent with these rules.  Some of the rules are explicit, but a number of them are implicit.  And since humans try to wring consistency out of any reality that they are confronted with, a number of those rules will be things that they derive from their own experience in this world and what seems to be the logical implications of the world as presented.  A writer can, of course, break any of these rules — especially the implied ones — but if they do so they risk breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief — to use a term coined by Tolkien himself, dragging them back into the “Primary World” — if they do so without explanation, which then would cause the audience to demand an explanation.  Shamus Young in his Mass Effect series went through an exhaustive analysis of why the production capacities of Cerberus made no sense, and ended it with this:

Okay, this is science fiction where “anything can happen”, but this is still ostensibly a universe based on rules. Unless stated otherwise, the audience will assume that the normal rules of entropy, thermodynamics, and economies of scale apply. Your job as a storyteller is to bridge the gap between what the audience intuits should happen with what does happen in your story. This “secret army” idea is so preposterous that you can’t expect the audience to swallow it without explanation.

So the fact that we have a science fiction or fantasy world that is completely different from our world doesn’t mean that you can simply do anything and the audience should just accept it since they are accepting things that are more divorced from their own common experience.  A proper work in these fields sets up a world that is consistent and that we understand, and so we can put aside how things work in the real world and immerse ourselves in this new one.  Once this is properly done, we as the audience have expectations of how things are supposed to work in that new world, and if our expectations are contradicted we are going to want an explanation to maintain that consistency, or else we will feel that this is a consistent world which means that we will have a hard time seeing as a real world, and so we will no longer be immersed in that world and taking it on its own terms but instead will be looking at it from outside the world and analyzing it as such.  And this will make us not enjoy the work as intended.

And small things can break immersion if they demand an explanation and are not explained.  For example, a recent “Fantastic Four” movie decided to recast Johnny Storm as a black character, to some criticism, but you could argue that, hey, if we can believe that he can become enshrouded in flames without burning up or hurting himself why can’t he be black?  But as I noted in discussing it myself:

Making Johnny Storm black raises the immediate question of him and Sue being siblings and how you handle that. In the comments, most people react dismissively to that by citing adoption or interracial marriage, but these are very, very risky. In the adoption case, since they are supposed to have such a close bond it developing through adoption puts that, at least, at risk. Remember, Sue is supposed to have raised him after their mother died (if I’m recalling correctly) and this way it says more about her than about their relationship. And them not being close in terms of race is something that cries out for an explanation, even if some assert that it happens.

Because of the relationship between the characters, if they aren’t the same race but are close siblings we are going to ask why that is and how that happened, and so as I noted that will cry out for an explanation.  If it isn’t explained, then it may well drag people out of that world back into the real world, and here it would do that because it violates the implied rules of the world that we are observing.  You can risk doing that for really good reason, but that is the sort of thing that should be done only when you need to.  And in the case of Johnny Storm, my comment was that if they wanted to do that, in order to avoid the issues all they needed to do was make Sue black as well.

But the “This is fantasy!” argument doesn’t wash at all, even in these cases.  In the “House of Dragons” case, the argument is that Martin never really said what the colour of the character’s skin, even though he’s a member of a family known for having pale skin.  This, then, is an implied rule of that family that the work is blithely breaking for no real reason and with no real explanation.  That will break immersion, and the response of “It’s for diversity!” is not going to satisfy anyone who, rightly, notes that the work is breaking the implied rules of the world.  For the “Lord of the Rings” cases, adding black characters to all the races breaks an implied rule about elves, raises all sorts of issues around how race is considered among all those races (is there still racism, for example) and clashes with the other and later works where there were no such characters (for example, whether they no longer exist or just weren’t there).  By just dropping them in with no explanation they make the world inconsistent in a way that they can’t be bothered to resolve.  And before anyone claims that this is only an issue for race I have one word for you:  midichlorians.

Pearce also tries to tie into the title by trying to make an argument that the people objecting to this are being hypocritical:

Jesus was Middle Eastern (if he was not himself fictional). Pharaohs were Egyptian. Tonto was a Native American. So on and so forth. And yet they have all been played time and again by white actors. With historical individuals, there is certainly a case for them to be played by appropriate actors, especially if accuracy is an important criterion. The same goes for culturally framed legends. That is where these angry internet individuals should be focusing their wrath.

But, alas, tumbleweed. Instead, it is the “woke” crew who get accusations of “do-gooding” in bringing this up.

But there are some crucial differences here.  First, Jesus is a terrible example here because the dominant cultural representation of Jesus is as white.  You can point out that that is also a reflection of racism, but presenting Jesus the way He’s always been portrayed is not at all the same thing.  There is no contradiction with how people think of Jesus and, in fact, to do anything else would, in fact, create the same inconsistency in the minds of the audience that people are complaining about.  Now, I think that in general you probably could cast a Middle Eastern Jesus without causing that great an inconsistency and, in fact, likely being more consistent, but there are two issues with doing that.  First, the main audience for works about Jesus are religious people, who can be awfully prickly about changes.  Second, it could easily come across a trying to mock those religious people by making their representation more “realistic”, and given how often atheists explicitly do things like that to mock them they might have a point.  So you’d need a good reason to violate the cultural expectations and recast Jesus, and in general we don’t have them.

As for the other cases, the big difference is that in those cases cast actors of a different race but didn’t change the race of the characters.  If you look at the images in the meme, they used makeup and other things to try to make the actors look like a member of that race.  The much derided “blackface” was the same sort of thing:  an attempt to make white actors look black so that they could portray black characters.  Thus, no matter how poorly it was done, it was at least an attempt to reduce any such inconsistencies by keeping the race of the characters consistent.  It also minimized audience pushback by trying to change things as little as possible.

That’s not what’s happening in these cases.  These cases are making clear and notable changes in the characters themselves, which thus ends up making clear and notable changes in the world itself.  Thus, they are changing the world itself in the name of representation and diversity.  As noted, this risks introducing huge inconsistencies that demand explanation.  But it also shows a lack of respect for the world that they are entering into, feeling that they can blithely change things about that world for the out-of-world considerations of diversity and, as we’ve especially seen lately without feeling the need to even explain the changes or make them consistent in any way with the world, preferring to deride critics as being racist or sexist instead.  If you aren’t going to make a work consistent with the world you are attaching yourselves to, why not just create a new world instead?  The reason, it seems to me, is that they want the boost that comes from attaching themselves to an existing and popular work but have no love or even respect for it, and so are perfectly willing to change anything about it at their own whim and then dismiss the original fans as “being behind the times”, or “not seeing their vision” or, in the case of things done for diversity and progressive values, “just racist and sexist”.  But fans are perfectly justified in being upset at newcomers are coming in and changing the things they love just to satisfy their own personal whims.

Pearce, as he has done before, then talks about why doing these things is important:

We must also recognize why some of the choices are being made. This is largely about representation. While some may argue that it is tokenism or wokeism, I don’t think they understand quite how important representation and normalization is, and how well it works. Almost to a tee, these people will be white, and part of what they implicitly see as the default.

I set out the importance and success of normalization in my recent piece “Normalizing sexual diversity: How ‘meh’ can save the world.”

While for some not used to seeing a diverse cast on their screens, these choices might seem forced. But this really isn’t for you so much as it is for the young, and for generating a society ten years down the line. In a decade, there won’t be this forced nature to make sure there is representation, there simply will be representation naturally because there will be so many diverse actors and writers inspired by positive role models, and equality of opportunity. Diversity will be baked into the system by then, representing a more obviously diverse society.

The issue I have with this is that it presumes that it is crucially important that people can only see themselves represented by people who share these sorts of characteristics, race in particular.  On the one hand, this ends up maintaining the racial divisions that we are supposed to be getting rid of with anti-racism policies.  We are supposed to stop thinking that the only people who can represent us are people of the same race, sex and gender as we are.  After all, progressives certainly criticize white men in particular who are annoyed when a character is changed from a white male to something else for holding to the outdated and racist idea that only someone of their race and sex can represent them, so why doesn’t it apply in reverse as well?  On the other hand, this also implies that as long as a character is the same race as them people should feel that they are represented.  But a lot of people may not feel that way.  I can say that despite all the “representation” I’d get as a white male I don’t feel that pretty much any character properly represents me.  The closest I get is Jeffrey Sinclair from Babylon 5.  But that’s okay.  I don’t need to feel that the characters are like me or represent me to like them.  But for people who think that they need to feel properly “represented” by the characters in the media they view, they are likely to feel unsatisfied by the characters that are the same race as them but are in general nothing like them, and wonder why because, hey, characters of the same race as them should be enough like them to have them feel that they properly represent them, right?  But as noted, that’s almost never going to be true, and we all may find that people and characters of a different race or sex or gender than ourselves are more like us than those that are of the same race or sex or gender.  That is not a bad thing.  That is not something to view with chagrin.  That is a good thing.

So, in general, I don’t buy Pearce’s arguments.  The argument that we can do anything we want in fantasy and science fiction doesn’t work because while those worlds are different than ours, to work they need to be consistent worlds and the criticism is that these moves make the worlds inconsistent.  The argument that critics are being hypocritical doesn’t work because the cases given for that aren’t ones that are changing the world and so don’t risk making the world inconsistent, which is what the cases they are criticizing are doing.  And it is dangerous to argue that we need diversity for representation because that implies that people can only be represented or like people who are of the same race, sex or gender as them which is the heart of what causes racism in the first place.  Ultimately, these blithe changes are the precise wrong way to go about doing this.

“Transhumanism, Or, is it Right to Make a Spider-Man”

September 23, 2022

The next essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy” is “Transhumanism, Or is it Right to Make a Spider-Man” by Ron Novy.  It basically tries to defend the idea of transhumanism from criticisms, mostly by Fukuyama.  Novy starts by considering technological enhancements like Aunt May’s glasses, her newspaper and her coffee as things that are similar to what transhumanism wants to do with technology to enhance humans, as a way to get us to consider what they want to do as benign and something that we will eventually see as normal.  His defenses of transhumanism against criticisms definitely tend to follow that line, as he opposes the idea that transhumanism will create inequalities as the wealthy and wealthier nations adopt the changes while poorer nations can’t by pointing out that we already have such cases now, which is a fairly weak defense, since there may be special conditions with transhumanism that will make these things worse, or will cause far more problems than the simple things we have now.  But, in general, to counter Novy what we need is to show that the simple, “normal” things that Novy appeals to differ in an important way from the sorts of things that transhumanism would be espousing.

As it turns out, we can, because there’s a crucial difference in the approaches the two take, as Novy himself notes.  With things like glasses, the intent is to restore someone to a “normal” state, to overcome a specific deficiency that those specific people have wrt everyone else and so bring them up to a base state and so on a relatively equal ground with everyone else.  For the others, for the most part those are technologies invented to change our environment to make things easier for humans as a whole.  Sure, it might not be easy to fit newspapers and coffee into the model of altering our environment, but if we look at them as part of a personal environment we can see that it enables a person to get access to more information than they could on their own and to recover from fatigue from, perhaps, not sleeping all that well the night before.  In all cases, however, the intent is a holistic one, either bringing someone up to the “normal” level or else providing options that most people if not everyone can avail themselves of as necessary.  Because of this, there’s no real consideration of “superiority” involved.  Someone with glasses is not better than someone who isn’t, and someone who doesn’t need coffee in the morning isn’t inferior to someone who does.

Transhumanism, as Novy himself notes, is not like that.  It is a philosophy built around creating “superior” humans, making humans themselves better in some way.  So we can immediately see an issue with transhumanism where in order to create “superior” human beings we need to first define what it would mean to make human beings “superior” in the first place.  With the other cases, we either have a human baseline to appeal to or can let the environment specify what things we are trying to overcome.  With transhumanism, we can’t appeal to either of those, because we are trying to redefine the human baseline and the technology we are inventing is trying to enhance humans in general, not as a reaction to a specific environmental concern.  So how do we determine if a transhumanist alteration is really making humans “superior” or not?  If we could increase the calculating ability of humans ten-fold at the cost of emotionally stunting them, is that an improvement or a regression?  By what, or more importantly whose, standards would we judge whether we’ve succeeded in making “superior” humans?  Because we’re aiming at producing “superior” humans, we need to be able to define it, but at the same time have lost all references we could use to define our goal.

Even if we could define what it means to be “superior”, the issues around equality cannot be dismissed as easily as Novy attempts to, for the same reason.  For the other examples, as noted, we have clear goals:  bring some humans up to the baseline, or alter the environment in a way to make it easier for humans to live in them or work in them.  Thus, while those benefits might be unequally distributed, in theory everyone can access them and we know the cases where someone might need to utilize them.  Thus, if someone can’t get them we can see that they are being deprived of them and those who don’t need them have no reason to grab them or hoard them for themselves.  So it becomes a distribution problem, not a philosophical one.  However, if the enhancements are seen to make a person “superior” to others, then there is a reason for wealthy people and nations to hoard the enhancements for themselves to maintain their superiority.  A person with normal sight has no reason to deny glasses to someone who needs them because they don’t need the glasses in the first place, and a person who needs glasses that work well for them has no reason to object if someone else gets glasses that help with their sight.  But with transhumanism, neither of these are true.  Someone who doesn’t need the enhancements might still want to keep them from others to maintain their natural superiority, and someone who gets the enhancements might want to deny them to others to maintain their enhanced superiority.  As noted, we don’t see someone who doesn’t need glasses or who wears glasses as being superior to each other, just different, but transhumanism’s explicit goal is to make humans superior to each other instead of just recognizing their differences.  Given that, those who can get them have reason to want to keep their superiority for themselves.

This, then, causes issues for society if transhumanism succeeds.  What happens to people who either can’t or won’t get those enhancements?  If transhumanism has succeeded in its stated goal, then those people would, by definition, be inferior to those who have the enhancements.  And if some people are clearly superior to others, then they would be preferred for, well, any role where those enhancements might matter.  Could it be the case that the people who can’t or won’t get the enhancements might find their dreams dashed simply because the “superior” people exist and take away all their opportunities simply by existing?  Could they be reduced to low or menial labour because those are the only jobs that the “superior” people don’t want?

Novy could — and likely would — argue that we have that now with genetic superiority.  But that is not deliberate and doesn’t make someone superior by definition.  Yes, if I want to be a professional hockey player but others have genetic gifts that mean that they are qualified to do that and I’m not, that’s unfortunate, but that doesn’t make them superior human beings and, in fact, there may be many other things that I do better than they do.  They’re just better at hockey due to their genetic gifts.  But it’s not the case that they are better than me and can become professional hockey players because they were able to pay for some transhumanist advantage and thus if I want to achieve that goal I have to do that as well or do without.  Novy could argue that things like special schools and training could do that for someone who is more wealthy, but that’s not an inherent advantage and applies to far fewer cases than it would here.

Ultimately, I can accept these differences because they are differences due to fortune, not design.  They, arguably, “got luckier” than I did, but that’s all it is.  And there’s something noble at tallying up what fortune has given you in the family and genetic lottery, seeing what it has given you, and forging the best life you can given that.  Transhumanism takes that away by making it so that you can become better through technology aimed specifically at making yourself better and superior.  You don’t take what you have and do the best you can, but instead try to reshape yourself to this supposed “ideal”.  That takes away from the individual and stratifies things even more.