Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Richard Carrier and Logic (And Polyamory)

July 29, 2015

So, Richard Carrier has made a long post defending his polyamory against the attacks of Christians. At one point, he says this about the Christians opposing him:

… which just demonstrates Christians don’t do logic well. (That’s why they’re Christians.)


Note to Christians: Learn how logic works. Please. By all you think is holy. Because this **** is just embarrassing you.

Now, I don’t really care about polyamory, although I think there is a good debate to be had there. Carrier’s post, however, is not a good debate on the issue, or even a start to one. Carrier commits massive failures in logic and reasoning and argumentation in his post, and yet has the gall to argue that about the Christians. Which, to be honest, might be true of at least some of his Christian opponents, but what we have here is an example of what happens when you fail to remember this key phrase:

With great snark comes great responsibility.

And by that, I don’t mean that if you have great snark you must go out and ensure that you use that snark to better mankind. I mean that the more snarky and insulting you are in your posts or arguments, the more burden you have to ensure that the same snark and insults can’t be used against you. In short, if you are going to rely heavily on snark and aggressive argumentation — like saying that your opponents don’t know logic — you had better be right. Because if you’re wrong, calling them out in any way for bad arguments will only make it worse when your opponents point out how bad your arguments are. Which is one reason why I try to be as charitable as I can when posting, because that way when I’m wrong — not if, when — then at least I don’t look like someone who was dishonest or hypocritical about it, blasting others for their sins while ignoring the worse sins _I_ committed.

So, let me go through Carrier’s post and point out all of the problems with it, which also requires me to say some things about polyamory. I will stress from the beginning that I don’t have any set opinion on the matter, but will note some issues that I can see with it, and will oppose Carrier’s idea that polyamory should be the default state of relationships. How much will simply be pointing out Carrier’s foibles and how much will be serious discussion remains to be seen; there’s a lot of both here.

To start, let me start with a preamble on what I think is Carrier’s specific case, because that must be understood or else many parts of the post and the criticisms can’t be understood. So, essentially, it seems to be this: Richard Carrier was married for a long time — approximately 20 years — to his wife. At some point in this, it came out that he had had at least one if not more affairs. At this point, it seems, Carrier came to believe that he was not cut out for monogamous marriage, and instead wanted to enter in a polygamous relationship. I believe — but am not certain — that they tried this for some time, but that essentially it wasn’t working, and so eventually they divorced after 20 years of marriage. As far as I can tell, she didn’t simply divorce him for the cheating; they tried an alternative first.

(Carrier’s description of the events is here).

So, keeping that in mind, let’s move on to the first criticism that Carrier addresses:

Commonly, of course, there were calls to pray for my ex-wife. Because she must be so downtrodden. Divorce between equals that is to the best of both is not conceivable to conservo Christians. They cannot imagine a strong financially independent woman who gets to do her own thing when she wants.

Except … look, she obviously wanted to stay married to him. If she didn’t want to be married to him, she would have divorced him when she caught him cheating. But instead she was willing to try the open marriage thing to see if she could indeed give him what he said he needed, and what he now says is just part of who he really is (I expect this will come up more later, but let’s put that aside for now). And, presumably, it didn’t work for her. Given that Carrier wasn’t willing to budge on his wanting some kind of open marriage and return to the traditional marriage model that presumably she was comfortable with, there really wasn’t any other option for her. So this isn’t a case of a strong, financially independent woman getting what she really wanted, because from this what she clearly wanted was what she had originally. Or, at least, if the main issue was the polyamory that’s how it works. So while Carrier seems to be quite happy with the arrangement — although even in his post he says that “Breakups are always hard”, she probably wouldn’t be that happy with it. Is she better off divorced from him than married to him, given the situation? Probably. But that doesn’t mean that this shouldn’t be considered a tragedy, and certainly more so from her side than from his, given where it started. She was obviously very willing to compromise to keep the relationship going, and possibly even over things that were really important to her. He was definitely unwilling to compromise on at least the one big thing that was important to him, which is the very thing that Christians say is what you need to compromise on to make a marriage work.

So, yeah, it’s perfectly understandable and reasonable to feel sorry for her in this situation, as she was kinda pushed into a situation by what Carrier felt he needed. It’s also reasonable to feel sorry for her and not for Carrier because, at the end of the day, Carrier got the sorts of relationships he wanted and she didn’t get the one she wanted: the one with him. Yes, he lost her (presumably) but he wanted more anyway; there is no evidence that she really, really wanted anything more than him.

So, given the situation, Carrier’s description here is massively misleading, and ends up being used as a cheap, almost ad hominem shot at his opponents: they can’t conceive of an independent woman being happy without her man. Except that if she thought that she’d be happier without him, she wouldn’t have tried the compromise in the first place. This is definitely a small consolation prize for her at best, and it is reasonable for people to express that.

And then:

They also think prayer can make someone they never have any contact with feel better about personally sad changes in their life. Because they believe in sorcery. And third-party mind control. These are, after all, superstitious magical thinkers who believe superbeings in outer space not only listen to them, but also cast mind-altering emotion spells on random people they don’t know.

Carrier talks about ad hominem/poisoning the well fallacies later, but how is this not that in a post where he talks about bad logic, and even directly links religious ideas to an inability to do logic? Will their prayers help her? Maybe not. The theory, of course, behind doing and saying this is two-fold:

1) That it’s a way to express that you are concerned for them.

2) That they ask God to give her the support she needs, who surely — if He exists — would be able to provide that support.

Now, Carrier doesn’t think God exists, and so doesn’t think that 2) will happen. That’s fine, but since they do there’s no failure of logic or reason on their part there. And 1) occurs regardless of whether it’s expressed through prayer or “You’re in my thoughts” (which is actually more a kind of magical thinking than religion is, if one takes it literally). All in all, all Carrier does here is essentially rant about how stupid he thinks religion is by interpreting it in such a strong way that it doesn’t resemble what the people actually think … and is irrelevant anyway, because the point he’d want to make is that both are content with the situation because they were or at least have become incompatible, so going off on prayer is, well, not relevant to that. Unless he thinks that them praying for her will suddenly make her unhappy, which can’t be the case.

So, angry, snarky, irrelevant and uncharitable rant. Good start.

There have also been a slurry of ad hominem / well-poisoning fallacies, of the general form “Carrier is polyamorous, therefore his arguments about history and theology are all bollocks,” which just demonstrates Christians don’t do logic well. (That’s why they’re Christians.)

The claims don’t actually seem to be that, though (as you can see in the defense of him by Matt Dillahunty) but rather that Carrier is motivated by this to reject Christianity, because if he decided to live by the Christian lifestyle he couldn’t do this anymore (in much the way as if he stayed married to his wife he wouldn’t be able to have this). The only time these arguments are worthwhile is when they are used to point out that the person cannot be considered to be a neutral party here, so in terms of his examination of the existence of Jesus we have to note that he isn’t unbiased and so his work should not just be taken as such a work, and so should be scrutinized to ensure that his bias didn’t creep into it. Dillahunty makes the one good point — after the accusation of “well-poisoning’, which I think generally false — that Carrier outlines his work, arguments and methodology, and so people should indeed just be scrutinizing that. Carrier … does not say that. He simply calls it “well-poisoning” and leaves it at that. And then he says:

Likewise the “this proves you are only atheists because y’all just wanna sin” argument, which is funny, because Christians frequently use that argument in defense of evil (e.g. attacking homosexuality or women’s autonomy or even the freedom of speech and conscience).

Um, and claiming that they do it “in defense of evil” isn’t well-poisoning? Look, either the argument works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, point it out. Otherwise, why do you snark me (them)?

To call polyamory, which is about honesty and love and the assurance of consent, “sin” is just to expose how immoral Christianity has become as an ideology. What Christians call “sin” is all too often “being a decent, well adjusted human being minimizing harm in the world.”

Um, isn’t this what you’re supposed to demonstrate? This is way before he gets into the purportedly reasonable response, and so before he actually addresses any reasonable concerns about it. Heck, it’s before he even addresses reasonable concerns about it directly. And yet he thinks that he can claim that, hey, this thing is just really good and really great and really moral and all of these wonderful things and the people who try to use it as a “smear” against his other work — which is the most charitable interpretation of what Carrier feels the objections here are doing — is just a sign that they are really immoral, not him. Bluntly, it’s not relevant. I know that you think that Christians are terribly immoral people, Dr. Carrier, but you calling them that for the positions you don’t like isn’t any stronger an argument than when they do it to you. Simple logic, no?

I’m not going to talk about the purported bigotry Carrier goes after in point 3, because I can’t easily get access to read what the original was and, well, that there might be some bigotry is not surprising to me (although generalizing that to all Christians is a problem). But I do want to highlight this problematic passage:

Ammi also repeatedly and confusedly thinks polyamory means having “temporary sexual parterns de jour” (never mind the redundancy; he’s fond of the phrase). He didn’t get that from anything I wrote. In fact, one of the things I am enjoying now is the opposite of that: building multiple lasting relationships with my loves. And that is in fact a major credo of polyamory: having many non-temporary sexual partners. So, bigotwhocantgooglesayswhat?

Except that what traditional monogamous relationships insist on is a dedicated, lifetime commitment to your partner, not one that lasts as long as it benefits you. Carrier says later:

Similarly, because Peters is a superstitious magical thinker, he thinks contracts should be eternal—to hell with happiness (almost literally). Secular folk know better. Any contract can be dissolved. It’s not a promise “forever.” It’s a conditional arrangement: if x, then y. Which means when no longer x, no longer y.

That’s a temporary arrangement by definition. The idea seems to be that you enter into it out of convenience — ie that it works for you — and you end it when it stops being that. Marriage is not supposed to be that sort of contract. It’s supposed to be one that you don’t drop when it becomes inconvenient. For example, if Carrier, say, entered into a relationship that was primarily sexual in nature, and the person had an accident that left them scarred in a way that Carrier found unattractive, what would happen to that relationship? Under traditional monogamy, you stay married to them, because a) it’s not supposed to be primarily about sex and b) you committed to them through thick and thin. Would Carrier then abandon that person? I hope not, and I hope that he would still support that person through this troubling time … but could it still be a polyamorous relationship? Or would that person be just a friend?

Also, this causes issues overall for Carrier, because to make this argument he has to accept implicitly that temporary sexual partners is inferior, and maybe even immoral. But what reason does he have for making that divide, so that he can say that polyamory is about the somehow superior non-temporary ones as a “major credo? Who is he to say what polyamory is? Who is he to define what relationships count and what don’t? How is he not being just as closed-minded and bigoted by his own standards here?

Later, it turns out that he’ll end up denying that temporary relationships are bad. Kinda. But we’ll get into that later.

I’ll skip 4 and 5 because they are utterly irrelevant to the main issue of polyamory and criticisms of it. Whether that’s the fault of his critics, of Carrier, or of both is something I’ll let you decide.

The sixth point is where he finally gets into the criticism that he considers the most thoughtful, this one by Nick Peters. So let’s see how Carrier responds to a thoughtful response. It doesn’t start well:

Nick Peters, son-in-law of renowned Christian apologist Mike Licona, blogs at Deeper Waters. He reacted. Not surprisingly, as Licona and I have debated twice, hung out a few times, and communicate occasionally. Maybe that Kevin Bacon number was too small not to try and intervene before the floods of relationship chaos spread too far to crush Christian control.

Peters also fell for the lies and bubble of ******** promulgated by the Slymepit trolls Yeti and Shermertron. But I already covered that. Note this means Christians don’t know who the fringe atheist wingnuts are. But we can just laugh at that. And return to his more serious article…

Amusingly, Peters begins the substantive part of Along Came Poly with, “prominent internet blogger Richard Carrier, who seems to be the answer to all conservative NT scholarship in the eyes of internet atheists everywhere, wrote a post about” coming out poly. So, a well published Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University with numerous peer reviewed books and articles in major journals and presses is just an internet blogger. Whom Christians are evidently annoyed everyone keeps citing and quoting at them online. Okay.

So, informative point about the relationship between Peters and Carrier, with a potshot about “crush Christian control” (ie poisoning the well). Then a shot about Peters’ view about a completely unrelated topic (and remember, Carrier already thinks that his post is “thoughtful” on polyamory, so there’s no need for him to point out other points he’s made that Carrier will not reply to here) and that then goes on to generalize about Christians in a way that is clearly meant to imply that they are not able to properly read and discern arguments. Finally, a gripe about being described as a prominent internet blogger instead of being given his purportedly full props … in a post that doesn’t talk about history at all. As Carrier said, okay.

Let’s get into something that’s actually substantial. Please?

He then quotes a good definition of polyamory from a legit organization, and responds immediately with, “Now if you want to say as I seem to take it that this entails a desire to have sex with many people other than one’s own spouse, then I will tell you that there are many many people who I think are really polyamorous. Namely, every male on the planet, including myself.”

He missed the egalitarian part (um, your wife or girlfriend also gets to do this…and nearly as many women as men want to, BTW; and many men actually aren’t interested, either—and not just asexuals, who are in fact a thing; plus, not all of us poly folk are married, but conservo Christians balk at sex without marriage anyway, so maybe unmarried free lovers aren’t readily conceivable to them). He also missed the loving or caring about your partners part (sex isn’t just ****ing; compassionate persons regard their sexual partners as friends…and as people…and have room to be in love with more than one of them). And the honesty and negotiating what you want part (this is with the consent and approval of all involved, not on the sly or against their wishes).

First, he starts from the fact that Peters describes it from the male perspective as evidence that he doesn’t get that it’s egalitarian, when all that is is evidence that, well, he talked about it from the male perspective. It’s certainly not a criticism of his point that women get to do it, too, since that isn’t Peters’ claim (ie he’s not calling it “sexist” because it gives freedom to men that it denies to women). So that’s another pot-shot at the purported sexism of Christianity … a point that he will rely on again and again in his post, and one that’s completely irrelevant. He also tries to work around a claim that it’s just about sex … by arguing that sex is really all about love and more than just sex, but if that’s the definition he’s using then Peters’ claim there is right, but Carrier would be arguing that Peters shouldn’t think it bad then … but Peters is defending traditional monogamy and so is definitely going to think that being in love with multiple people and having sex with all of them is a bad thing, too, and for the same reason: that it’s you refusing to commit wholely to one of them. So that doesn’t work as a defense against Peters. And, again, there’s nothing in what Peters says there to indicate that he thinks that polyamory involves not being open about it; Peters likely thinks that being open about it is better than not being open about it — ie cheating — but that doesn’t mean that it’s moral or right.

So, the first salvo … misses.

So, does that describe “every male on the planet”? Nope. If only it did. The world would be a far better place. But if you obsess over just the sex part and miss all the rest, you won’t even be able to start getting why the world would be better if all of it were poly. By which I mean, all accepting poly as the baseline, and monogamy or celibacy as the rare personal choices that just suit certain people and not most of people.

This, then, is a very strong case to make. Carrier sets himself up here to defend a stronger claim than “Polyamory works for some people and so they should be allowed to do it without shame!”, but instead that we should start from polyamory, as that will somehow make the world a better place. Except that he cites the three major ethical considerations that polyamory entails, and then argues that most men don’t think that way. Are they suddenly going to start when we push monogamy out of its current position as the default? Carrier cannot assume that monogamy itself doesn’t allow for equality, caring about sexual partners, and honesty, and so monogamy can have all of those as well. Starting from the polyamorous default won’t make people any better, and so all you’ll end up with are the same morons with a different way of being a moron.

And it’s still not an objection to Peters because Peters does not oppose polyamory on those grounds. He opposes them on the grounds, essentially, that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, and that’s what polyamory wants. Carrier does disagree with that, but hasn’t even started to address it.

People should get to negotiate the relationships they want. Period. Autonomy demands no less. There is no basis, rational or scientific, for forcing on anyone a given model of monogamy. And certainly none for stigmatizing, slut shaming, belittling, or treating with bias and bigotry anyone who chooses not to use that outdated and limiting model of relationshipping. Trying to culturally manipulate people into following and norming that model is just one more way Christianity ****s up people’s lives.

But as with taking away abortion rights, women’s rights, gay rights, free speech rights, denigrating or punishing alternative sexuality, warmongering, pushing for theocracy and forcing religion on people, feigning or even denigrating actual concern for the welfare of the poor rather than preferencing the rich, bigotry against immigrants and anyone who looks even remotely maybe Muslim, and dozens of other ways Christians in actual practice fuck up the world in the name of Christ, it’s vitally necessary to defend the obsolete and damaging institution of socially compelled monogamy. So Peters has to. He has no choice.

Most of this is a rant at Christianity with no bearing on the topic. The only part that isn’t is the point at the top about people getting to negotiate the relationships they want. Fair enough, I suppose. But if you didn’t want to have a monogamous relationship, you can already do that: just don’t get married. And it isn’t clear that those sorts of relationships aren’t inferior to monogamous ones for most people. That’s what he’s supposed to be trying to establish, remember?

As one Christian apologetics clearinghouse says (see CARM on Polyamory), poly is just “another form of wife-swapping” (except that it often doesn’t involve married people, often not even at all, and not all marriages include wives, but whatever). “So,” they ask, “how is this ‘ethical nonmonogamy’?” After all, “adding the word ‘ethical’ to something doesn’t make it so.” Although adding honest and consensual and respectful does. And guess what? That’s the ethical part. So when CARM asks “Why not have such things as ethical adultery, ethical bank robbing, or ethical embezzling?” they obviously don’t know what polyamory is. Or why it is called ethical non-monogamy.

Except, as pointed out above, to be honest and consensual and respectful is not something limited to polyamory. So here all he’s doing is essentially pulling a “No True Scotsman” argument; any polyamory that is “bad” is not really polyamory, but abusive monogamous relationships are, of course, still monogamous relationships (and evidence that monogamy is bad; we’ll see that in his discussions on divorce). If you do polyamory unethically, then it isn’t polyamory. You’re doing something else. What, we don’t know, but it isn’t polyamory.

Or we could take the reasonable tack here and say that whether or not polyamory is ethical depends on how ethical the people practicing it are. Of course, that’s not a defense against those who say that polyamory itself is unethical … which is what he’s supposed to be demonstrating here. Oops.

So, “the necessary consequence is the attack and breakdown of the family” (read: it will end women’s subordination to men) and “an increase of immorality in subsequent areas” (the reader has to fill in the blanks here, because they can’t come up with anything), “and ultimately the demise of society itself.” Somehow. How? I don’t know. Neither do they. It just must, I guess. They are right that “moral integrity is the glue that holds society together” and that “without it, we can have no society.” They just don’t seem to have any clue what morality is. Honesty, compassion, respect, and reasonableness don’t seem to be moral virtues in their scheme of things. Just what objects you ****.

Leaving aside comparisons to other sexual practices, here Carrier is, well, still not responding to the point. You don’t have to be polyamorous to be honest, have compassion, respect, and reasonable, and there’s no evidence that it even helps. One can find those things morally virtuous and still say that polyamory isn’t. This is absolutely non-responsive, especially since it isn’t at all clear that Peters is even making these points (Peters talks about it damaging marriages, but uses Carrier’s as an example of that, which is a fair point). Carrier here is certainly not addressing Peters, and it’s even unclear that he’s addressing any Christian position on this … and for a post that in the title claims that’s what he’s doing, that’s pretty bad.

Thus, sexual desire has to be bad. It therefore, as Peters says, requires “self-control” to deny yourself what is obviously a natural and normal inborn desire. Because, for some unintelligible reason, “sex is meant to be between two people who make a covenant together,” even though, if that were the case, we would have been designed to only sexually desire our covenented partner. That we were built to desire many partners, as even he admits, seems to falsify his entire thesis.

Peters doesn’t say anything about sexual desire being bad. And his point about “design” can be refuted with the sweet tooth, which proves that something that works “in the wild” is not necessarily good in this society (which, bluntly, is his entire point about how monogamy is outdated). To be sexually attracted to a wide range of people is a good thing when you need to pair up to reproduce. It’s a detriment when you’re in a relationship that is committed and monogamous. But we can indeed resist our temptation to have sex with everyone we’re attracted to, just like we can resist eating sugar constantly. Peters says that, essentially, it’s natural to have those desires but that you shouldn’t move from having them to insisting that you should give into them. Carrier disagrees. Presumably at some point he’ll actually try to argue for why he disagrees.

Let me skip the digression on Biblical Studies, because it’s not relevant and is mostly just an attempt to show that the Bible supports polyamory with copious “You’re superstitious!” points tossed in, and move on.

Next Peters then lays out a standard sexist case for monogamy: polyamory is “going to a woman and saying ‘You’re not enough for me. I need more than you’,” and “That hits at the core of a woman’s identity very often.” Except when it doesn’t. Because just as often it’s the other way around: a woman going to a man and saying the same thing. Does that “hit to the core of a man’s identity?” Not evidently according to Peters, since he thinks all men want many partners. Yet these same men have to want to be the only one a woman desires? Nick Peters, meet sexism. Also, meet pseudoscience. Our identity should not be based on totally possessing another human being.

Realize that the only evidence of sexism here is that Peters talks from the male perspective and not the female or a neutral one. That’s it. And Carrier’s comment that just as often it’s the woman doing that in no way defends him from the point that it is devastating, at least to someone who is in a monogamous relationship, like Carrier was with his wife. Which, uh, happens to be the point Peters was making, and the example he was referencing. Oops. I mean, how does Carrier think his wife felt when he said that his cheating wasn’t just a failure of character on his part, but was an expression of who he really was and that it indicated that he needed something that he simply couldn’t get from her? That she turned cartwheels? Remember, they entered into a relationship where they promised that they would be dedicated to each other and would only need each other. That’s what a monogamous relationship is. How could she not take that as a sign that there was something wrong with her? Anyone, man or woman, would feel that way. So the sexism point fails.

What we’re going to need to see is what Carrier or people in polyamorous relationships are actually missing. Carrier needs it to be more than simply sex, but something more fundamental, something emotional. But if he does manage to establish that, then your one true partner not being able to satisfy that has to be problematic. Ultimately, Carrier is going to have to reject that line. Can he? We’ll find out.

Quite a lot of women want multiple partners. Quite a lot of men do. So why can’t they get together and negotiate what works for them? Indeed, shouldn’t those very people do exactly that, and not remain attached unfairly to monogamous partners? Ineed, if monogamy is the woman’s thing, and not her man’s thing, or vice versa, doesn’t that entail they shouldn’t be married? Relationships must be based on mutual consent and compatibility, not sex slavery. Right?

Peters’ point, essentially, is that most people would, ideally, want to be able to have their cake and eat it too, to have the sort of commitment that you get in monogamy while being able to have sex or relationships with other people. The question is if you can actually have that, and have that ethically. The question is if most people need that. The question is if polyamory is an unsatisfying compromise for most people instead of being able to have your cake and eat it, too. None of which Carrier has addressed.

Probably because he thinks it more important to make sterling points like this one:

Of course in all this I’m only speaking within the context of heterosexuality. Because I know Peters would not recognize the existence of loving sexual relationships between women and women, or men and men, polyamorous or monogamous. And bisexuality? That would probably blow a spring out of his head.

Which is, of course, utterly irrelevant to the debate, but is a nice ad hominem here.

Peters then goes on about monogamy being hard. Note: if you think “relationships are hard,” you are doing them wrong.

Parenting is hard. Coping with debt is hard. Being stuck in a job you hate is hard. Relationships should actually in fact be the one thing that isn’t hard. Does anyone say “gosh, friendship is hard”? No. Ask yourself why. Because if you are a mature person, adding sex to a friendship shouldn’t suddenly add a ton of hardship. It shouldn’t add even an ounce. So why do people like Peters think “marriage is hard”? What on earth are they doing wrong?

Well, you could start to look for an answer by looking at how Peters said monogamy is hard:

This is monogamous marriage? Is it hard work. You absolutely bet it is. It’s one of the greatest lessons in self-sacrifice you learn. It is indeed about dying to yourself and learning to live a life where you actually have to realize what it’s like to not only put one person’s good above your own, but you have to learn what it is to do so with one who is so radically different from you, and even if you marry someone very similar to you, their being of the opposite sex makes them really much more different than you realize.

Yes. It is hard work, but it is also worth it.

Essentially, it’s the idea that you have to put your wants aside in order to give them what they need. In fact, the idea of love is that you are willing to sacrifice your needs to give them their needs. And they are willing to do the same for you. If these relationships are ever easy, it’s because the two people are so focused on helping each other that both always get what they need. That’s not how Carrier is describing it. That also doesn’t seem to be how Carrier handled his own marriage, where she was willing to compromise to give him what he said he needed and there is no evidence that Carrier compromised in any way. She was fully within her rights to divorce him after she caught him cheating on her, and his response was to accept that but to point out that essentially that sort of relationship didn’t work for him. Her response to that was to try an open marriage as a compromise position to see if that worked. I don’t know what the ultimate reason for the break-up was, but given what Carrier talks about it’s hard to see how an open marriage didn’t give him everything he needed, or what kind of “compromise” he had to make in that arrangement. So, ultimately, she was willing to sacrifice and compromise for his happiness, and in general he was insisting — and still insists — that the relationships have to be organized to maximize his happiness.

Now, I’m just a poor bachelor (nearing the point of being a confirmed bachelor) who in some sense wants to know what love is (but I don’t want Carrier to show me), but Carrier’s view ain’t love to me. If you really love someone, you shouldn’t be looking at the relationship to see if it maximizes your own happiness, and entering into other arrangements to meet other purportedly unfulfilled needs (especially the “needs” that you knew you’d have to give up when you entered the relationship). Love is supposed to be selfless, not selfish, where once you fall in love with someone a major if not the major component of your happiness is supposed to be their happiness. This means that you have to give up things that you like in order to make them happier. And they do the same for you. “The Gift of the Magi” poignantly illustrates this attitude:

Mr. James Dillingham (“Young Jim”) and his wife, Della, are a couple living in a modest apartment. They have only two possessions between them in which they take pride: Della’s beautiful long, flowing hair, almost to her knees, and Jim’s shiny gold watch, which had belonged to his father and grandfather.

Della then admits to Jim that she sold her hair to buy him his present. Jim gives Della her present – an assortment of expensive hair accessories (referred to as “The Combs”), useless now that her hair is short. Della then shows Jim the chain she bought for him, to which Jim says he sold his watch to get the money to buy her combs. Although Jim and Della are now left with gifts that neither one can use, they realize how far they are willing to go to show their love for each other, and how priceless their love really is.

Each of them were willing to give up that which was most precious to them for the happiness of their partner, and while ironically in doing so ended up not actually achieving that with their gifts, in the end that’s exactly what they did, by demonstrating precisely how much they loved the other and proving that their love was worth more than those possessions. Carrier’s view of polyamory seems to flout that, as it seems to be about ensuring that all of your needs are met. Yes, the other person is looking out for that as well, but that hardly seems to be the sort of attitude that leads to the kind of true, selfless love that monogamy advocates and strives for … and leads to issues with negotiation.

Carrier is big on saying that everyone should be able to negotiate what relationships they have, in the name of “freedom”. But what he misses is that the sort of negotiation he wants is vulnerable to differences in bargaining position and power. For example, most of the major criticisms of Carrier are because it started from him actually cheating on his wife, but as a man it is generally assumed that being able to have sex with a lot of different women is inherently desirable for him; wanting that is generally seen as being immature for men. But for women, it’s different. For women, being married is important socially. So there are social factors that make this something that it is easier for men to pursue than for women to pursue. This is not to say that women don’t want to do it, just that it’s harder for them. Thus it’s easier for him to hold out to get that sort of open or polyamorous relationship than it is for a woman; she has to face social criticism to a level that he doesn’t, and so can be talked into dropping the requirement in the face of that.

Which also leads to the issue that given the sorts of negotiations that Carrier favours, the person with the stronger bargaining position is the person who loves the other person less, because they’re more willing to walk away from the relationship if the other person doesn’t agree to the requirements. This risks exploitative relationships where one person doesn’t really care about the other, but the other is madly in love with them, and so the first person gets everything they want and the other person allows it because they love them so much that they are willing to give up everything just to make them happy. Yes, this happens in monogamous relationships as well, but at least in those cases we’d see the first person as being selfish and exploitative. Since Carrier’s view about polyamory is about satisfying your own needs, it’s too easy under that model to argue that the first person gets what they want and the second person is getting what they want, so there’s nothing wrong with it. But consciously or no, it is exploitative in this case. In a monogamous relationship, we’d at least be able to say that the first person isn’t living up to the assumed agreement, that they ought to love, honour and cherish their partner as much as their partner loves, honours and cherishes them. In polyamory, all you have to manage expectations is the negotiation.

Additionally, you have a stronger bargaining position of you can position your “demands” as needs or as part of your identity, or at the very least if they are seen or are more important to you than their demands are to them. Take Carrier’s own comments that he “needed” to be able to have sex with multiple partners and that polyamory was who he really was. In that context, if his wife was just uncomfortable with the idea of an open marriage, then surely it would be seen as selfish for her to deny him that, and as Carrier goes on and on about in his post it might even have been bigoted of her to try to do so, as she would be attacking his identity. Given that, she’s in the tough situation of having to oppose his needs with her wants.

So any unequal position is problematic for polyamory, especially given that emotions are involved. The person who makes out the best in polyamory is the person who doesn’t really have any strong emotional attachment to the issue, and can let pragmatics decide what relationships to pursue and what terms they accept. Anyone else risks accepting an unequal arrangement and ending up at least not ideally situated, if not downright miserable. And given Carrier’s stated attitude, being shamed for being miserable as if they were just “doing polyamory wrong” as opposed to really being in a bad position.

Now, Carrier can reply that these sorts of things don’t happen in polyamory. However, it seems that that was exactly what happened between him and his ex-wife: she loved him more than he loved her because she was willing to give up more than he was, and he was able to frame his conditions as needs and as part of his identity while she likely wasn’t. Carrier can protest that I’m ignoring the “honest” part of the definition of polyamory, but I reply that the parties can be arguing in good faith and not consciously trying to exploit their relative power and this can still happen. The issue is not really with one person being honest or not, but is about the idea that the primary focus your side in these negotiations is your own ideal happiness, without overly much concern for the happiness of the other person. You should look after your own happiness, they should look after theirs, and all should work out, right? Well, wrong.

This leads to Carrier’s comments on friendship not being hard. Friendship can be hard, for the same reasons. The closer the friendship is, the more things you have to do that you don’t really want to do because your friend needs you to. The old joke of “Friends help you move; real friends help you move bodies” demonstrates this pretty well, even if it’d have to be a really close friend for you to help them hide the evidence of a crime. The closer you are to someone, the more things you ought to be willing to do that you don’t want to do to help them out. Romantic love is supposed to be the pinnacle of “closeness”, meaning that there should be a lot of things that you are willing to do that you’d rather not to preserve the relationship. Carrier, by his own admission, wasn’t willing to give up having sex with multiple partners for his relationship. It’s hard not to see that as self-centered and selfish, if not a sign that he, at least, didn’t really feel that sort of love for his wife. I would not want to be in any kind of a relationship with someone practicing Carrier’s idea of polyamory because I wouldn’t feel able to rely on that person when the chips were down and I needed them to do something for me that they didn’t want to do, as I couldn’t know at what point they’d just jettison the relationship as not making them happy anymore.

The sad irony is that Peters tries to use “people … did monogamy for centuries and found … it seems to work pretty well” as an argument in favor of it, knowing full well that that is false: cheating has been universal and rampant throughout all those centuries. As has marital misery, so common in fact it became a universal trope. Evidently, people can’t do monogamy.

So … is Carrier suggesting here that most parties in monogamous relationships cheat most of the time, and that most of them are completely and totally miserable in a monogamous marriage? Cheating happens, sure, but it’s not “rampant”, or at least not in a sense that would prove that it didn’t work. And the universal trope of marital misery is about the loss of freedom in marriage, which can be tough, but most people seem to think that overall that’s worth it. Most people who are married do not seem to live in abject misery. They seem to love their partners and are happy to be with them. Sure, some of them may stray on occasion but that’s rightly seen as a flaw and a weakness in them that they need to overcome, not as evidence that that whole marriage thing is just crap, in the same way that if people lose their temper with their kids on occasion it’s not seen as proof that this whole parenting thing is just crap.

Peters does make a strange foray into why you should put up with the things you don’t like about a spouse, although that can’t have anything to do with the case he is talking about. We didn’t divorce because my wife was too keen on collecting cats and I kept stealing the covers. We divorced each other because, given the reality (and not the lie) of who we are, we couldn’t be as happy together as apart. This wasn’t about minor annoyances of living together. This was about the fundamentals of our happiness.

Let us recall what was fundamental to Richard Carrier’s happiness and to him as a person: the ability to have sex with multiple partners. This seems to be a pretty shallow thing to base one’s happiness on, as most people don’t have that as being that fundamental to their happiness. To put it another way, it can be seem as being fundamental to my happiness to be able to play RPGs on a semi-regular basis. But if I was married and found that because she didn’t like video games or needed my help with things I wasn’t able to do that, to declare that as “fundamental to my happiness” and then divorce her because of that would seem shallow. I’d be told to “work it out”, and if we couldn’t it would seem like I considered video games more important then her.

Thus, Richard Carrier here is explicitly saying that he considered sex with multiple partners more important than his relationship with his wife. It’s really hard to see how he could be said to love her if that was true.

Peters doesn’t get that, because he thinks divorce should only be allowed in cases of adultery or abuse. Everyone else should just put up with being miserable and “make it work,” when in fact they both could be not miserable with someone else. So Peters’ recommendation is fundamentally irrational. And fundamentally destructive of human happiness on a wide social scale.

But … if you really do actually love someone, wouldn’t you be miserable without them? I have a hard time seeing any notion of love where you could say that you’d be miserable with them and happy without them. The typical romantic notion of choosing to live without the one you love is if you think that they would be happier with someone else, even though you will be miserable without them. Carrier here implies that he was miserable with her and happy without and with someone — or rather, somemultiples — else. At which point, I’d have to ask on what grounds he thinks that he actually loved her when they split.

Similarly, because Peters is a superstitious magical thinker, he thinks contracts should be eternal—to hell with happiness (almost literally). Secular folk know better. Any contract can be dissolved. It’s not a promise “forever.” It’s a conditional arrangement: if x, then y. Which means when no longer x, no longer y. Divorce is fundamentally built into the state contract for marriage. When you vow to marry someone, and sign on the dotted line, you are vowing also to allow them to divorce you whenever they want. That’s the law. The law Christians fought so damned hard in defense of just to prevent gay people from joining in. If Christians don’t like that unilateral divorce is also being promised to in secular marriage contracts, they shouldn’t be getting state marriage licenses.

Well, except that isn’t the condition of marriage, the x, nothing more than “I truly and deeply love you”? If you love them, what reason can you have for getting a divorce? The arguments for abuse and adultery are, in fact, arguments that show that they don’t really love you anymore, if they ever did. So in that case, you violate the contract. In what case can the two people really, truly love each other but still think a divorce is the best option? Only those little things that Peters says we need to work through. Are there cases where people are indeed so incompatible that they are better off separate than together even though they deeply love each other? Perhaps … but that reason isn’t usually “I want to have sex with people who are not you”.

But this indicates the flaw in the deeply contractual view of polyamory that Carrier has. Sure, we enter into business arrangements because they benefit us in some way, but even then we aren’t allowed to just drop the contract because it stops benefiting us as much. There are two main reasons for this. First, the ability to break a promise or drop a contract when it stops benefiting us would invalidate the notion of contracts and promises in the first place. We’re willing to put in effort that doesn’t benefit us up front only because we can see that over the long term because of the contract or promise we’ll get a return on that investment. If people can break contracts and promises as soon as it stops benefiting them, we can’t rely on that and so there’s no reason to ever enter into those. If someone can get a divorce for whatever reason they want at any time, what reason do I have for ever getting married, especially if a divorce would cost me? The other reason is more about respect for others, where if you break a contract that they were relying on unilaterally then you leave them in the lurch, unprepared and potentially in a very bad position. This also applies to marriage. So, no, you shouldn’t be able to get a divorce for whatever reason you want whenever you want, even if that’s what the law says. You should indeed try to work it out first, and perhaps even not get a divorce if it’s something trivial and shallow.

As for his shot at Christians, note that most of them see marriage as more than simply a legal contract. The state marriage is simply the recognition of their status, but they seem themselves as married in the eyes of God more than that. That the state, then, allows unilateral, no-fault divorce doesn’t impact their actual marriages at all. And also note that just because the law allows you to do something doesn’t mean that it’s right to do that, which is the argument that Carrier is making here.

In light of this complete disregard for human happiness, typical of Christianity, it’s particularly interesting that Peters says “Divorce … becomes a way of saying ‘I can’t love you the way you are’,” confusing not having your needs met with “not loving someone.” This may be key to a really harmful notion of love infecting Christianity.

As already pointed out, the point of getting married is to say that you love them so much that you want to live with them forever. When you get a divorce, then, it has to be saying that you don’t love them that way anymore. If the reason is that they can’t “provide for your needs”, then yeah, that sounds a lot like “I can’t love you for who you are, because who you are can’t provide for my needs”. If they could change to provide your needs, then they ought to do so and then the relationship can continue. It’s only if doing is fundamentally not them — or would make them fundamentally unhappy — that divorce is the only option.

When that “need” is “I want to have sex with different people and you don’t like that”, it’s even worse. It’s putting simple hedonic pleasure over love.

Imagine Peters saying the same of a mere friend who insisted he have no other friends but only them: that you had better do what they say, and abandon all your other friends, because otherwise you don’t love them. Or imagine a brother who insisted Peters love none other of his siblings, and not even his parents, but only him. Either scenario explodes the whole idea of love he is trying to sell.

Except that this is a bad comparison. The only thing that the traditional notion of monogamy requires is that a) the marriage be the highest level of intimacy and closeness you have and b) that you don’t have sex with another partner. It’s perfectly reasonable for a friend to demand the comparative level of commitment, so that, say, you don’t blow off their birthday party to go to a hockey game even though you hate their parties and like hockey, or else claim that you aren’t really their friend. You’d better have a pretty good reason to not act like a friend should to them, and the same thing applies to a spouse. “I’d rather do X” is not a good reason, and Carrier very much bases his polyamory on “I want X”, translating it to “need” and then pushing it on others. I don’t think I’d want to be his friend with that attitude …

See, one of the big problems here is the pursuit of what I’ll call “hedonic happiness”, the idea that we should pursue happiness by appealing to simple wants and desires, generally for pleasures and pleasurable experiences. There’s nothing wrong with going for those things, but the problem is that these things are made the highest goal. If you aren’t feeling maximally happy and pleasure-filled, then you aren’t really happy, and need to fix that. On that score, I strive for contentment, not happiness, because to me true happiness is more than simply that sort of pleasure, but is about living a good life and being a good person, striving for Stoic eudaimonia. This does involve sacrificing things, but nothing that I can’t live without, and nothing that is worth pursuing in and of itself.

Richard Carrier considers having sex with multiple partners to be such a need that he can’t be happy without it. I think that he places far too much emphasis on sex, and in doing so ignores what true happiness is. Given his attitude, I have no doubt that his ex-wife is better off without him.

Just as people differ in their hobby and other interests, so people differ in their libidos and sexual interests. With every other domain, good spouses allow their partners to explore such things with others. If they aren’t into sports but you are, they let you enjoy sports with friends who share your enthusiasm. If they are into gardening and you aren’t, you let them enjoy gardening with friends who share their enthusiasm. And even when you share interests, you are still allowed to also share them with others. So why suddenly does this generosity end when it’s sex? There isn’t any valid reason.

If you treat sex as simply another kind of activity like any other, then this argument holds. But Carrier explicitly earlier didn’t. He chided Peters for thinking of sex as just sex, and not with thinking of their partner as a person. Except … that’s what this is here, and in his discussions of swinging and other things he treats sex as casual. So does he consider sex to be something like playing sports or playing board games? Do we have to think of the others as people in the same way? Then his objection to Peters about him thinking of sex too shallowly fails, as his view is at least as shallow if not more so. But the issue with sex is that it is often seen as more than that shallow sort of thing, but as an expression of intimacy. And it’s reasonable to think that the more serious a relationship is, the more “special” the intimacy is in that relationship. If Carrier was just pursuing sex without special intimacy, then it is not unreasonable to argue that it should be treated like other activities … but then Carrier can be seen as selfish and shallow for giving up love because he couldn’t get it. But if he was pursuing intimacy, then his spouse could be reasonably upset at losing the intimacy.

Which leads to another issue with polyamory: the idea that you are splitting up your resources among multiple seemingly semi-equal relationships. In a monogamous relationship, you provide the things that you can provide to your partner, and you’re there for them when they need it. And they can rely on that. Just as my friend can rely on me to not skip their birthday party to go to a hockey game, my spouse can rely on me to not skip our anniversary dinner to go to my friend’s birthday party. There’s a hierarchy here of where my time and effort goes. Even with a so-called “primary”, is that always the case? If one person really wants sex on one day and another needs emotional support, who wins? With monogamous relationships, that choice doesn’t happen, as you’re only trying to provide for the needs — at that level of the relationship — to one person, and their needs tend to take precedence over those of friends. If these are actual relationships, which get priority? How do you choose between the needs of these people? And since these relationships are built on satisfying needs, at what point does that choice mean that you aren’t actually satisfying them as you essentially agreed to do in the negotiation?

You can, of course, reintroduce hierarchies of priorities. But at this point we start to wonder what sorts of actual “relationships” Carrier actually has here. In what way, in Carrier’s mind, is a primary-secondary relationship different than having an open marriage and a friend with benefits? Even in triads, unless they are all mutually supporting what happens when the needs clash? With one person, it’s relatively easy, but with more you will get more conflicts of needs. Carrier will argue that when this happens either one of them has to give in or they can end the relationship, but this treats these relationships as things that don’t really matter. Either their needs aren’t that important so that they can at least postpone them or else the relationship isn’t that important so they can just walk away. That’s not what Carrier wants to imply, however.

Cacheing and Intelligence

July 22, 2015

At one point in my Cognitive Science/Philosophy courses, we talked a bit about contextualism about language, which is the idea that we critically rely on various contexts to determine the meaning of a sentence. For example, if I say “I went to the bank yesterday”, the sentence itself is perfectly compatible with my going to that place where I keep my money or to the place beside the river. For the most part, we get the determination right, but most interestingly to me are the cases where we in fact get that spectacularly wrong. In the case where I first heard about this, for example, in the example everyone in the room thought that the lecturer meant that the person should get on the desk, instead of looking for something that they could use on the desk. There are entire genres of comedy built entirely around someone failing to parse the right meaning out of a sentence, and having hilarity ensue. So we find that our ability to disambiguate words is both massively successful and shockingly terrible at times. What explains this ability?

To me, the main clue starts from the psychological process of “priming”. Essentially, this is the process where if we are exposed to, say, a word that is related to another word in a list that we’ve already recently processed, we process that word faster than we would otherwise. So, for example, if you’re reading a list of words and come across the word “Doctor” and then not too much later come across the word “Nurse”, you process “Nurse” faster and easier than you would if you hadn’t come across it beforehand. This is hard to explain.

Being someone from both a philosophical and a computing background, I do have a suggestion for what could be going on here. In general, it seems to me that what we probably have is a combination of time-saving techniques that are common in computer science when loading time is an issue. First, if it is common for a bunch of things to all be referenced together, instead of loading precisely the part you need and no more and then immediately loading the other parts, you load the whole thing into memory and use it. If you don’t use all of it, you don’t lose much because the problem is the initial loading and seeking out the object you’re looking for, not loading the individual parts of it. The second thing is to store things in memory that you have recently used because you’re likely to want to use it again in a short period of time, which is often implemented by or called “cacheing”. There are a number of Cognitive Science AI theories that rely on storing and loading objects and contexts instead of, say, simply words, so all we need to do, then, is add cacheing.

I’ve written a little program to play with cacheing to show how priming could work using it. I won’t reproduce the program here because HTML wants to ignore leading spaces and Python critically depends on leading spaces, so it’s a lot of work to put a program here, but in general what the program does is set up a number of lists that contain various characters that have various traits. For my demo, I created one with David Eddings characters, one with Persona characters, and one with other characters. The lists are as follows:

[Kalten, Sparhawk, Sephrenia, Ulath, Ehlana]
[Akihiko, Dojima, Yukari, Junpei, Naoto, Adachi, Yu, Mitsuru]
[Sherlock Holmes]

I then set up some matching criteria that you can ask the system to look for. You can look to see if the character is a Knight, is Male, is a Fictional Character, Carries a Sword, is a Detective, or is a Video Game Character. And you can ask for multiple criteria to be matched. For example, this was my first criteria:

print(matchMemoryElement([“Video Game Character”,”Carries A Sword” ]))

And given the lists above, the first one that it finds is Junpei.

So what if I run that search and then run another one looking for an Eddings Character. Note that since I randomize the lists every time (to allow me to get odd results without having to plan things out), the lists on this run start as follows:

[Kalten, Ehlana, Ulath, Sparhawk, Sephrenia]
[Dojima, Akihiko, Naoto, Junpei, Yukari, Adachi, Yu, Mitsuru]
[Sherlock Holmes]

And the results are:

[Sephrenia, Dojima, Akihiko, Naoto, Junpei]
[Sephrenia, Dojima, Akihiko, Naoto, Junpei]

So we still find Junpei for the first criteria, as he’s still the first person in the lists that is both a video game character and carries a sword. But how come I found Sephrenia first for the Eddings character? She’s the last in the list; shouldn’t I have found Kalten first?

The reason is that 5 element list that is printed out before the answer. That’s a cache, where I store the last five elements I’ve processed in case I need them again so I don’t have to go back to the lists. In this case, I parsed through all of the Eddings characters list, and then only got to the fourth element in the list of Persona characters before finding one, and then when I tried to match the second set of criteria it looked in the cache, found Sephrenia, and gave me that one … which would have been embarrassing if I was really looking for Kalten.

Let’s see what happens when instead of looking for an Eddings character, I look for a detective. The lists this time are:

[Ehlana, Sparhawk, Kalten, Sephrenia, Ulath]
[Yu, Junpei, Adachi, Yukari, Akihiko, Dojima, Naoto, Mitsuru]
[Sherlock Holmes]

And the results are:

[Sparhawk, Kalten, Sephrenia, Ulath, Yu]
[Sephrenia, Ulath, Yu, Junpei, Adachi]

This time, there wasn’t a detective in the cache when it started, so it had to go back to the list to look for one, and ended up with Adachi.

Caches save loading time, because if you’ve already loaded an object and might use it again you might be able to get it from the cache without having to load any objects again. Also, despite the fact that the behaviour looks intelligent, it’s really quite simple, as all it does is store what you’ve loaded. Simple caches have no idea what you might load next, and even don’t have to intentionally cache in case that object might be needed again. All you need is a kind of white board that you just don’t erase, and a system that always looks on the white board first, and if nothing is there it erases some space and writes something else down. It’s a system that a brain could indeed implement by accident just by dealing with activation potentials. And yet, it has a lot of power to explain things like priming and contextualization of language processing. I hope to delve more into this if I have some time, but for now this ought to do to give a quick idea of the potential of cacheing for AI.

Oh, God …

July 20, 2015

I’ve just been watching the entire run of the “Blackadder” TV series — about which the only problem with it is that it’s just way too short — and I think that one of Blackadder’s common phrases is about the only way to sum up this latest post by Jerry Coyne on a “review” of his book by Michael Shermer: Oh, God …

Shermer wants to argue that science can determine moral values. Coyne’s counter to this starts rather badly here:

Well, how about using reason and philosophy, as well as innate preferences, to determine meaning and morals?

Well, first, because you concluded in your book that philosophy can’t produce truths and can’t produce knowledge. So if it’s at all important for us to determine meaning and morals, and therefore important for us to know that we have the right ones (even given innate preferences), we have to use science, and not philosophy. Second, your view on free will denies that we have moral responsibility on the basis that determinism makes morality meaningless, so you pretty much actually have to deny that morals exist by your own logic. So, essentially, if we take two views that you are deeply committed to and pretty much form the nucleus of either your book or your strongly stated positions, this question makes no sense whatsoever. Not a good start.

He then tries to challenge Shermer with this moral challenge:

Certainly science can help us determine the best ways to realize our preferences, but can Shermer tell us, for instance, whether it’s immoral to shoot coyotes that are suspected of eating livestock?

Well, presumably, if Shermer has any kind of objective moral system in mind, he surely can do so. This is an amazingly odd question because this isn’t exactly any kind of strong moral dilemma at all. I mean, is he worried that the coyotes would be killed without getting a fail trial? That perhaps the coyotes will rise up against their oppressors and protest their poor treatment? That the livestock are lying to cover up some conspiracy to murder their leaders and take over? Where’s the moral conundrum here? Coyne goes on to perhaps justify it this way:

How do you weigh the different varieties of well being (if that’s your currency for morality), and balance them against each other? How can that ever be more than a judgment call?

But I don’t really see what different varieties of “well-being” are in play here. Well, if you take it as being that of conscious entities and note that coyotes are conscious entities, then maybe you can make a case for that … but if you do that, then you have to accept that the coyotes are killing other conscious beings — livestock are surely as conscious as coyotes are — and that the only way to stop them is, in fact, to kill them (well, maybe you can move them but if there aren’t places where they can kill food then they’ll starve to death, which is hardly better) then that argument doesn’t wash. The closest you can get to an argument is an animal rights argument that they shouldn’t be killed just to preserve the property of humans … but the only way that argument sticks is if you can provide a way to prevent the killings without doing it. So since only the most rabid animal activists will argue that it is wrong to kill the coyotes when they are a demonstrable and credible threat to livestock, there’s no moral conundrum here. If Shermer reads the example, I can only imagine that his response will be similar to mine: why does he think that this is a problem that I should worry about. I suspect that Coyne had just come across this issue somewhere and so it was on his mind, which is why he used such a poor, confused and confusing example to try to hoist Shermer on.

And so, in conclusion, I repeat: oh, God …

Philipse on Psychological Terms

July 15, 2015

The main goal of Chapter 7 in “God in the Age of Science” is to reduce all descriptions or all possible descriptions of God to metaphors or analogies, so that Philipse can then argue that by Swinburne’s own logic that the word “God” is meaningless and so that you therefore can have no rational or scientific belief in the existence of God. What Philipse tries to go after first is the psychological terms, because most people willing to describe God as having certain psychological traits — loving, angry, etc — and so could move from there to something that works as a description. Philipse wants to undercut this move, and so wants to find a theory of psychological terms that lets him leave God out. In so doing, he talks about three main views of the semantics of psychological terms: Cartesian dualism, behaviourism, and one which he amazingly — and I think indicatively — doesn’t actually give a name but instead describes as being one that Wittgenstein developed in his later years.

Now, my first thought when I read this was: where’s the “mental states” theory of psychological terms? I’m a card-carrying dualist about mind, but I of course know that you can, indeed, have a “mental states” theory about psychological terms with being a Cartesian dualist. All you have to accept that a psychological term refers to a mental state — and not simply a set of behaviours, for example, or a state of the physical brain — and you have a mental state theory. So, for example, if you say that what it means for a person to be in pain is that they are having an actual sensation of pain, no matter how they are acting, then you’re holding a mental state theory. This could still be produced or even in some sense reduce to a physical brain state, as long as you don’t argue that the term “in pain” just means “My brain is in a certain state”. But it’s clear that Philipse is lumping the mental states theory in with Cartesian dualism, and then attempts to refute that theory by refuting Cartesian dualism, including by arguing that Cartesian dualism isn’t accepted philosophically anymore (which will be seen to be a bit ironic later on). But he notes that this theory implies that you can’t know what someone else’s mental states are except by analogy to yourself, which means that if we accept the mental states theory his whole project is scuttled. So he needs to eliminate it.

He never really refutes in detail the mental states theory that he lumps in with Cartesian dualism, but he does go after the idea that we learn or refer to the mental states of others through analogy, with six reasons packed into one small paragraph. First, he claims that we aren’t aware of drawing these conclusions by analogy, but since much of this is done subconsciously we aren’t aware of what we are really doing, and the discovery of mirror neurons actually suggests that, yes, this is exactly what we do: we predict the actions and therefore also the mental states that drive these actions by putting ourselves in their position and simulating it (see simulation theory for more details). At any rate, he has to accept that we may not have direct access to the source of these conclusions; we also don’t seem to be reasoning it out, and the best he can say on that point is that it “just happens” when we look at someone, which is compatible with all three theories. Second, he says that it would be bad because it would commit the fallacy of hasty generalization, but this is a bad argument considering that if the mental states theory is right it’s all we have, and it would work a significant amount of the time, and we do, in fact, get these associations wrong and can be fooled relatively easily. Sure, it might not be completely logically valid, but it’s not a reason to say that we don’t or shouldn’t do it. Third, he say that we seem more confident than that sort of argument should justify … as if we never, for example, hold beliefs in far more confidence than we actually have — including beliefs about what other people are feeling and thinking. Perhaps the answer is that we should be less confident in our ability to determine the internal mental states of other people. Fourth, he argues essentially that we don’t see our own bodily reactions — like facial expression — and so can’t derive the beliefs from their bodily reactions that way, which is countered by the fact that we don’t learn these things by looking at their faces and seeing that they have the same facial reaction as we do, but instead by looking at the situation and thinking about what feeling we’d have, and noting that they have a specific facial reaction. If we’re right, then we can recognize that in most of those sorts of cases that expression is there, and so that that must be how they indicate that. And, of course, this can be subconscious. Fifth, he argues that philosophers of language — but doesn’t say which ones — argue that we somehow couldn’t learn the uses of the mental terms from others if they were private, but since I can learn them from looking at my own internal reactions in similar circumstances to what others are in when they use that term, again this is not an argument. Finally, he tries to refute Cartesian dualism by saying that it makes our personal pronouns like “I” ambiguous — since it can refer to the mind, or the body, or both — but a) an argument against Cartesian dualism is not an argument against the mental states theory, which again just shows that he conflates the two and b) this is not an argument since when you are referring to the body that the mind is associated with it’s not a problem at all to use the mental identity, and even if it was problematic it wouldn’t be any kind of argument against the truth of Cartesian dualism (which Philipse admits in a footnote that again just harps on how discredited Cartesian dualism is).

So, Philipse has not, in fact, managed to demolish the mental states theory, except by invalidly conflating it with Cartesian dualism and then tossing that out with “Well, no one believes that anymore.” But he needs to demolish it, because if it’s even still in the running he runs into the issue that it posits at its heart that we can have knowledge and meaning only by analogy, and so if we accept that it could produce meaningful psychological terms his whole project is undermined. And he won’t in fact even attempt to refute that view any further, which only reveals the major weakness in his overall project: if you deny that you can’t have a theory where one can only understand components of it in some kind of analogical sense, then toss out the whole chapter. And anyone who holds that the mental states theory could provide the meaning of psychological terms is not going to accept that.

Now, of course, no one holds the logical positivist/behaviourist views anymore (this isn’t the ironic part yet, although for some reason Philipse does not harp as much on its lack of acceptance as he does for Cartesian dualism), and so I think it best to move on to Philipse’s preferred alternative, that of the later Wittgenstein. As far as I can tell from Philipse’s description … it’s about looking at the behaviour of human beings and ascribing psychological terms using that. Well, at least, that’s going to be the heart of how Philipse will use the argument. In short, Philipse claims that the terms describe “capacities, inclinations, states or occurrences to human beings“[pg 100, emphasis in original]. He argues later, though, that we can indeed assign psychological terms to animals, which we do by their behaviour. Now, I’m pretty sure that I came across this theory in philosophy at some point, but given his description I’m having a hard time seeing, well, what’s so good about it or what it actually says. As described, it sounds like a half-baked attempt to bridge the two theories above, by denying that the meaning of a psychological term is just the behaviour that it spawns, but also that you can’t really have the meaning of the term without at least including the behaviour it spawns. The best and most popular attempt to do that is functionalism, and it seems to me at least that one of the Wittgenstein’s views — he differs from his early work to his later work — is at least the precursor to functionalism (the other is credited for behaviourism). So it is possible that what Philipse is describing here is a cut-rate functionalism, though don’t quote me on that because it’s been a while since I did Wittgenstein. Also (and here is where the irony arrives), Philipse denies that this is functionalism:

Of course, one might reject the third view … But in that case, one has to argue that this can be done on the basis of yet another semantical doctrine concerning psychological or personal terms, such as functionalism, for example, and one has to show that this semantical doctrine is superior to the third view discussed below.

[pg 97, emphasis added].

So, not functionalism, then … or at least not in Philipse’s mind. But the ironic part is that, well, Wittgenstein’s theory is, obviously, not new. It’s obviously rather old. And yet, the theory that is the predominant theory in cognitive science is … functionalism. It’s the theory that I learned over and over again in Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science courses and that was typically presented as the best theory — generally even better than the neurological theories — of mind for Cognitive Science. On the other hand … I can’t remember the Wittgenstein theory. At all. This suggests that it isn’t anywhere near as accepted as functionalism is. Philipse’s refutation of Cartesian dualism — and even behaviourism — is that they aren’t accepted, but then he turns around and ignores the far more accepted theory and insists that it somehow has to demonstrate that it is more plausible than the theory … that most philosophers don’t find as plausible as functionalism. By relying on philosophical acceptance to make his case, he ends up undercutting his own theory, because it isn’t as accepted.

And it only gets worse when you realize why he is ignoring both the mental states theory and functionalism. The reason is that both of them are, in fact, implementation independent. For mental states, if Data is really feeling pain then he feels pain, no matter whether he has a positronic brain or not (most of the objections would be that a positronic brain cannot produce pain sensations, not that it isn’t a human brain). For functionalism, if there is a structure that fills the right functional role it is pain, regardless of how that is implemented. This is problematic for Philipse because ultimately what he wants to argue is that since God doesn’t have a physical body He can’t have any psychology and ultimately can’t be a person. For the former, that will be an indirect argument, but he makes it directly for the second part (which will be covered in the next post). Only by tying his view of psychological terms to human beings specifically can he do that, and he does that with Wittgenstein’s view. Of course, that this potentially leaves out animals — see the idea of judging them by their behaviour — or AIs or even sufficiently different aliens is not something that Philipse allows himself to be concerned with … but anyone who cares about getting the concepts right is going to have to be concerned with.

Philipse points out that Swinburne argues against the Wittgenstein conception of the meaning of psychological terms, argue essentially that we can have psychological states without expressing them outwardly and that we don’t need to limit the ascription of psychological terms only to those things that express them the way we express them, so God might express them instead, for example, by “making marks in the sand”. Philipse takes on the first objection by insisting that we have to presume that an agent has expressed some behavioural signs of psychological states before we are justified in saying that in this case they still have them even though they aren’t expressing them. However, he runs into his old nemesis the mental states theory again that would argue that if someone was, for some reason, physically incapable of expressing, say, anger that wouldn’t mean that they wouldn’t feel it, just that we might not be justified in ascribing those states to that being. And Philipse, to have his argument come off, needs to establish that such a being is not possible, that you simply could not have a being that had psychological states but couldn’t express them bodily. He wants us to accept that there is no such thing, not that if there was such a thing we’d have a really hard time figuring out what psychological state it was in at the moment. So this simply won’t work; Swinburne’s argument does, in fact, demonstrate that a being can have psychological states that they do not express, and all Philipse can do here is insist that the way these things are for us — for example, that we learn to hide our emotions by learning what the normal behaviours are — is how they must be for all beings, which would be him simply assuming what he purports to demonstrate.

It is with the second argument that Philipse indirectly argues that if you don’t have a body then you can’t have psychological states, and so that implementation matters. Unfortunately, he actually tries to do that in a really, really horrid way, as he counters the “marks in the sand” argument with, essentially, “Don’t you need a body to make marks in the sand?”, which he then uses to say “So you have to do it by metaphor!” Except … this argument assumes that God cannot interact at all with the material world! If God can interact with the material world without a body, then He can make marks in the sand. And if Philipse thinks it reasonable to say that God cannot interact with the material world without a body, then Philipse would have, in fact, pretty much refuted theism. It’s no wonder that Coyne likes Philipse, when they make the same mistake: just as Coyne tries to establish that faith and science are incompatible because faith does not produce knowledge, Philipse tries to establish that God cannot have psychological states because God can’t interact at all with the physical world without a body. But if they could establish the latter, then that’s a much more serious issue for theism than the one that they are trying to justify with that claim. Which is why, then, theists won’t simply accept that. And Philipse doesn’t establish that here, and if he’d done it earlier he really should have just quit there and ended the book.

At any rate, in the next post we’ll get to the sections that had me wondering ““Look, are you REALLY a philosopher?”

I never thought he’d PROVE it …

July 10, 2015

So, I’ve commented before that reading P.Z. Myers was one of the main motivators for my policy of with pretty much any post ensuring that I read the post they are replying to before reading what they said, because with him what he said the post was saying was generally not at all what it was actually saying (with Jerry Coyne, the issue is that he interprets it in line with his viewpoint and not theirs, but at least he’s usually in the same ballpark). Myers, in relation to the recent UCL statement on the Tim Hunt, has managed to provide absolute proof that his reading comprehension is, well, less than ideal, as he first claims that the statement clearly said things it didn’t actually say and then is surprised when people point out that it didn’t actually say that. Here’s what he says the statement says:

University College London has released a plain-spoken statement, confirming that the council unanimously found his comments entirely inappropriate for an honorary professor, and they have affirmed that his position is retracted.

Let me reproduce the statement here:

UCL Council, the university’s governing body, has today reviewed all of the circumstances of the resignation of Sir Tim Hunt as an Honorary Professor of the Faculty of Life Sciences on 10 June. Having seen the relevant correspondence, including the exchange of emails between Sir Tim and UCL, the Council is satisfied that his resignation was accepted in good faith. Council unanimously supports the decision taken by UCL’s executive to accept the resignation.

The subsequent extent of media interest was unprecedented, and Council recognises the distress caused to Sir Tim and Professor Mary Collins. Council acknowledges that all parties agree that reinstatement would be inappropriate.

Council recognises that there are lessons to be learned around the communication process. Consequently it has requested that the executive undertake a review of its communications strategy.

So, first, it doesn’t say that his position was retracted. It says he resigned, which even Tim Hunt acknowledges and which was a key point in some arguments (ie that he wasn’t fired, but instead resigned). It then says that it thinks that that acceptance was done in good faith, meaning that he resigned and that at least the resignation was valid. It doesn’t actually say that, for example, Hunt wasn’t pushed into it by some members of the executive, just that, essentially, Hunt thought that resigning was the best course when he did it and the executive accepted that reasonably. It also then says that given the circumstances, the executive was right to accept his resignation. They then say that everyone — including Hunt — thinks that reinstatement would be inappropriate. They finish by saying that the communication process didn’t work out like it should.

All of this fits in with Hunt’s complaint in a later article: people told his wife that if he didn’t resign they’d turf/try to turf him, he decided for various reasons that that would be the best thing to do and to try to end it, UCL instead of doing it mostly quietly trumpeted it in the media (I believe in a way that suggested that he had been sacked), this caused Hunt and his wife great distress, and that last part probably shouldn’t have happened. But note what it didn’t say:

It didn’t say that they thought his comments were inappropriate.

It didn’t say that they thought his comments were so inappropriate that no honourary professor should utter them.

It didn’t say that his position was retracted.

In fact, even if you read in that the comments were such that the resignation was the only appropriate action, it doesn’t say that it was because of how bad the comments were, and is in fact completely compatible with the interpretation that given the backlash resignation was the only appropriate action. Which is far, far from what Myers thinks it implies.

Moral Ambiguity in a Black-and-White Universe

July 10, 2015

Let’s just make this a “Philosophy and Pop Culture” week. Of course, everyone knows what that means, although I had been neglecting that category for a few weeks and so did want to do some posts, and it just ended up being conveniently in a week where I needed a post to round out the week.

Anyway, the next essay in “Star Wars and Philosophy” is “Moral Ambiguity in a Black-and-White Universe” by Richard H. Dees. In it he, well, tries to find moral ambiguity in the generally black-and-white Star Wars universe. Now, of course, the Star Wars EU found this in spades, but he’s relying primarily on the movies here, where it seems the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and when they try to introduce moral ambiguity into the universe they generally do it really, really badly (Dees references Anakin from the PT, for example, but even he has to concede that, ultimately, what Anakin does is so horrible that it doesn’t really work).

But what’s interesting here is his attempt to look at characters that represent certain moral codes, and how they aren’t the ones that you think. He uses Han Solo as a prime example of Egoism, and even an only semi-enlightened Egoism. And Lando Calrissian is considered a Utilitarian … mostly for his actions at Cloud City including betraying Han and Leia to Darth Vader, which most — and the movie itself — seem to consider his most morally dubious moments, not his most moral.

Dees gives an interesting argument to suggest that Han Solo is really an Egoist, concerned primarily if not exclusively with his own interest. Sure, he acts that way at the start, but surely saving Luke at the first Death Star, joining the Rebellion, and leading the ground force on Endor are all selfless as opposed to selfish acts, right? Well, Dees accepts that Egoism isn’t just simply caring about one’s direct and immediate interests, but about one’s long-term and indirect interests as well. Much of Han’s purportedly selfless actions are done to protect people that he has come to care about. He returns to the Death Star to save Luke, who it is clear that he is quite fond of, and whose anger and disappointment in him at his leaving clearly hurts Han. He goes back to rescue Leia at Hoth because he cares for her and doesn’t want her to be hurt. He falls in with the Rebellion to be with his friends, and arguably participates in the mission to end the Empire because, again, he wants them to be free. He loans Lando the most important thing in his life — the Falcon — because he wants him to come back safely, and as he says, Lando needs all the help he can get to survive. Han’s arc can be seen as the path from simple Egoism to Enlightened Egoism: Han moves from caring only about himself, to caring for Chewie (seen in the EU), to caring for Luke and Leia, to ultimately to caring about others and about the galaxy as a whole, but it can be argued that at the end of the day it is because those things have become important to him, not because he sees their importance overall.

Lando, on the other hand, is the respectable one. The deal he makes with Vader can be easily seen as him trying to protect his position, and sacrificing his friends to do it. But he is clear that the deal he made is to protect everything that he and the rest of the Bespin citizens have made when he mentions it obliquely to Han and Leia (as he’s leading them to their capture). It can be argued, then, that with Vader having arrived before them and knowing that they were coming there, Lando chose the option that he thought would best protect the most people, and the people of Bespin. Trying to resist then would just get a lot of his people killed and the colony put under Imperial control, which would be terrible for most of the people. When it becomes clear that Vader isn’t going to hold up his end of the bargain, Lando then decides to cut his losses and try to save Han. He then goes to rescue him with the others, and volunteers to lead the mission, presumably on the reasoning that he’s the best suited for the job. In all of this, it can be said that Lando is always looking out for the most happiness for the most people, and if that means that he has to sacrifice a friend — even an estranged one — then that’s what he has to do.

In keeping with the overall theme of the essay, though, these judgements aren’t unquestionable. Han certainly acts Egoistic … but he’s only traveling with Chewie because Han decided to risk his career to save him, and couldn’t bring himself to simply abandon him once he swore the Life Debt to him. And Lando could very well be trying to preserve his own position and power. But that we can consider one of the main heroes Egoistic even in his finest moments and someone who converts from antagonist to hero Utilitarian in what is considered his most dubious moment says a lot about Egoism, Utilitarianism and morality in general.

The Siren Song of Mad Science

July 8, 2015

The fourth essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy” is “The Siren Song of Mad Science” by Kirby Arinder and Joseph Milton. This essay is a very stylistic description of a villain advocating for mad science and trying to describe and determine what one has to do or what one has to believe in order to be a mad scientist. Unfortunately, the style gets in the way of it making an actual point, as it is difficult to glean from it what point they are attempting to make. Presumably, it’s something about science and the scientific method, though, but what precise point seems to be quite obscured by the style.

That being said, I think it is mainly about the idea that science is perceived as being a valueless assessment of the data, and letting the data lead you to the right conclusion, because it and it alone will, in fact, always do so. As the authors describe this as being the main mistake that mad scientists do that makes them, in fact, mad scientists, it seems reasonable that they think this not only a bad way to go, but also that it is based on a gravely mistaken idea of science. As they point out, the data does not lead incontrovertibly to any particular conclusion. Even assessments like preferring one theory to another because it is simpler or because it is more useful to use — a common assessment people like Jerry Coyne use for mathematics and philosophy — is in fact a value judgement. They argue, I think, that if you try to pretend that there are no value judgements in science and that the data leads to the one incontrovertible solution, you’ll end up choosing based on hidden values whenever you have to decide which theory to accept in those cases where the data doesn’t, in fact, settle the question, and those values will almost always be with theory that you prefer to be correct.

It would be too much to conclude — and I think they understand this — that the data itself is totally neutral when it comes to which theories are to be preferred and which aren’t. The data will certainly prune away certain theories that simply don’t make sense given the data or evidence we have. Certainly, we can adapt theories to conform to the evidence and keep on going, but at least certain theories — ie the unadapted ones — will have to be tossed and at some point you end up having to change the theory so much that it isn’t recognizable as the same theory any more; you’re using the same name but the theory is nothing like the original theory. However, it is also clear that a lot of the settled debates in science are not, in fact, that settled, or were not that settled by the evidence, and also that most of those who insist that the evidence settles everything also smuggle in these hidden value judgements, or as I like to call them these hidden philosophical commitments. Appeals to parsimony and Occam’s Razor are, if you understand what they mean, explicit recognitions that the data and evidence isn’t settling the question, as they only apply when two or more theories, in fact, explain equally well the same data. Appeals to prediction and testability are useful only because given these things it is easier for us to demonstrate that the theory is incorrect, but that hardly means that it is more likely to be right. Appealing to the theory explaining things across a broader domain is a subset of the “utility” and/or “testability” angles, and doesn’t mean that it supports the evidence in the specific domain better than the other theories do. So, even when we look at fundamental components of the scientific method, we can see that a lot of them violate the skeptical ideal that we should apportion our beliefs based on the evidence, as the evidence is not, in fact, always so accommodating and yet science has found ways to buttress their beliefs despite the evidence not, itself, being able to justify that confidence that theory A is right and theory B is wrong.

This, I think, underlies a lot of the fights between skeptics and scientismists on the one hand and theists and philosophers on the other. Scientismists and skeptics both insist that they are following the evidence, and that we ought to follow the evidence. But they include as part of their assessment of the strength of the evidence these philosophical and methodological commitments. However, these commitments are merely their own commitments, and so no one else need accept them. Thus, these commitments need to be justified, and most of them simply cannot do it. We can see how this plays out whenever anyone does challenge them. When we see skeptics and scientismists dismissing, say, theism on the basis of the evidence, and then when pushed on the evidence appealing to naturalism or parsimony to justify it being the only rational position, at that point they have moved from basing their preference solely on the evidence to bringing in philosophical commitments. When you challenge the commitments — as I often do for both naturalism and parsimony — they often retreat to weak inductive arguments and an insistence that this is what it means to be rational, or even directly to the whole “Science works!” counter. But all of these are philosophical commitments, not arguments based on evidence. Even appealing to science’s success doesn’t work unless this is a scientific question and they themselves know how they’d test the proposition.

This also applies to appeals to science to settle philosophical questions, like “How can something come from nothing?” and “Do we have free will?”. Typically, the philosophers don’t dispute the scientific evidence. They simply dispute that it does support the contention as strongly as the scientismists think it does. That many scientismists reply with “You just don’t want to admit that we’ve solved your problem!” when the philosophers a) have already thought of that solution and b) can point out why it isn’t one can be easily explained by the scientists not understanding where the demarcation line is between direct scientific questions and questions of other fields, like every day reasoning, philosophy, mathematics, and so on, and so pushing philosophical commitments as if they are entailed by the data instead of being used to filter theories in light of inconclusive data.

In fact, if people like Jerry Coyne want a definition of scientism, that would be it: attempting to apply scientific commitments beyond the demarcation point between science and another field without demonstrating that those commitments apply to that field. And yes, we can have religionism and philosophism as well, and all are equally bad.

No Man’s Land: Social Order in Gotham City

July 6, 2015

The fourth essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “No Man’s Land: Social Order in Gotham City” by Brett Chandler Patterson. In this essay, he traces the “No Man’s Land” story arc — where Gotham is abandoned by the U.S. government after a disaster causes a breakdown of the city — and compares it to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The interesting thing about it, to me, is the comparison to Hobbes and to Hobbes’s idea of the State of Nature. Essentially, the idea is that in the State of Nature, without any social controls or without any overarching authority, what we have are a bunch of individuals all trying to survive in the world. Our own survival is our paramount interest, and so we find ourselves willing to do anything in order to do so. And just as we think that way, so does everyone else. There is no person who is so strong that they can feel totally confident in being able to secure their own survival just by their own abilities. The strong person can overwhelm others physically, but can be overwhelmed if enough band together to overrun them, or can be tricked out of their spoils. The group can be tricked by someone smart enough to deceive them. The smart person can be overwhelmed physically. Given all of this, we end up with life in the State of Nature being brutish and short … and, let me add, paranoid. So, Hobbes suggests, in order to get around this we form a Social Contract, where we band together to make rules that allow us to protect our own survival and ensure that we do, and give power to some overarching authority — unlike Hobbes, to me it seems that this authority doesn’t have to be any kind of specific sovereign, as long as it has the power to enforce all of the rules — to enforce those rules and ensure that everyone plays fair. When that’s done, our lives are no longer brutish, short, and paranoid, but instead are much better, and we all live a lot longer and a lot better than we would in the State of Nature.

The issue raised by this essay is: what happens when that authority is removed? Patterson points out that Hobbes thought that this happened in cases of, say, civil war, and so we can see that that sort of situation happened, at least in part, in New Orleans and in Gotham. Order broke down, and the people splintered. Without an overarching authority to enforce the rules, those who thought themselves strong felt free to break them. People who were only interested in surviving had to either break the rules themselves or at least defend themselves from them. Life there, if even for a short time, was again paranoid.

But what we see in both cases is that with thinking, rational beings, a full-on State of Nature is unstable. Those who are weaker will automatically try to align themselves with someone stronger, if only for protection. Thus, you immediately get groups forming, like you saw in “No Man’s Land” … forming around a source of power or authority, be it villains like the Joker, the Penguin or Two-Face, or around the remnants of societal authority like the Gotham PD, or even around the image and protection of Batman himself. And while the authorities may not be benign and there may be disagreements over how to proceed, even the sane tyrants realize that they have to ensure that they have enough power on their side to remain in power. If enough of the people get fed up and rally against them, they will lose. So even the Joker has to keep enough of his henchmen happy so that they don’t, at a minimum, walk out and find a saner employer, or worse yet try to kill him and take over. This proto-Social Contract is enforced at the primitive level: the authority has the power to protect the people and make everyone’s lives better, and has the power to deal with any person or small group that tries to challenge them, but has to play at least somewhat fair with a powerful enough group because if they don’t, there’s enough power in the people to overthrow the authority, often resulting in the death of the sovereign.

If we look at societies today, the authority is generally given to an abstract “government”, not to one person. But in democracies, note that we give the people the power to kick out the sovereign at regular intervals, just by voting them out. Thus, if the sovereign wants to keep power, they have to make the people happy, which carries on to the politicians and the political parties they represent as a whole. We don’t kill the sovereign or even the political parties when we depose them — usually — but we do make their continued power and existence dependent on making sure they keep enough of the people happy to maintain their positions. It is clear, then, that a democracy is just one step up from the primitive social contract that we see in “No Man’s Land” Gotham: groups organized around specific ideas and principles battling it out against each other to win the most influence and so to become the overall sovereign of the land.

Blinded by the Light

July 3, 2015

So, there’s a new hashtag out that’s making some of the rounds of some of the usual places, and that is another battle, perhaps, in the ongoing gaming culture wars. Really, I have no idea how to refer to any of this stuff anymore without ticking someone off, and to be honest I’ve lost interest in trying to avoid ticking people off. I’m far more interested in trying to express things accurately, but since that seems impossible …

Ahem. Anyway, the hashtag is #IStandWithTauriq, aimed at defending someone who wrote an article about race in gaming, faced at times harsh criticism from people on Twitter with some comments that were unacceptable but were, well, pretty much what you commonly see from the Internet (unfortunately) and decided to leave Twitter, with this hashtag being used for people to decry this and fight against this and other sorts of unacceptable harassment that you see there.

I’m not going to talk about that part. For one, I think that excessive harassment is wrong and have said it on many occasions, so I don’t need to say it now. For another, after digging into it a bit how much of the response was harassing, how much was simple criticism — even if harsh — and how much was even directed at him is debatable, and so I can’t even tell what the story is accurately enough to write a good article about it. So I’m not going to. What I am going to do is talk about the original article. Tauriq Moosa wants reasonable criticism, discussion and debate … and I’m going to give it to him in spades.

The article starts by commenting on the recent Rust issue, which is essentially this: When the post-apocalyptic (I think) survival game was launched, the only avatars you could have were white bald men. Recently, they added the ability to have more customizable avatars, including being able to have different races … well, if you wanted your race to be white or black. That “have different races” is important, because you don’t get to choose your race; instead, it is randomly generated for you and cannot be changed. The player doesn’t get to see the avatar in-game, but other players do. And as it’s based on your Steam Id — which is what you always use to play the game — there is no way to change what race you are no matter how many times you delete and restart the game. This garnered many complaints from people who wanted to play the game, from people who didn’t want to play as a black character when they were white to people who griped about being unable to choose what race the avatar was (as I’ll explain later, these groups are not identical). At the same time, people who were interested in pushing for diversity hailed this as a wonderful social experiment, which the designers, at least publicly, embraced as the reason to do this, causing more backlash. And there was much fighting.

Moosa here summarizes this the way most of those on the “diversity” side summarized it: when people had to play as a white avatar, then that was fine, but when they’re forced to play as a black avatar, then that’s terrible. So this simply reflects how whiteness (and also maleness) is seen as the default, and how that isn’t political but that pushes for blackness or, more generally, for minority representation is seen as political when the status quo of majority representation isn’t. Thus, it’s just another reflection of racism in video games.

The problem is that Rust is a really, really bad example to hang your hat on for this. For most of the games where Moosa says that he has to play as a white male character, there is, in fact, an actual defined character. If a game is going to force me to play as Miku Hinasaki — Japanese teenaged female — I’m going to accept that, because they will define a character and then make the definition of that character matter to the story. I accept Miku just as much as I accept Yuri Hyuga as a default and don’t care about the details (note that Yuri, one of my favourite male characters and favourite characters ever, is in fact half-German half-Japanese). This is because I’m not really trying to be them, but am instead trying to guide them through their story. This is not, of course, the way I approach a game like The Old Republic, where I get to create my character. Even though the game guides them through a linear story, to a large extent I want them to be like the character I want them to be, and not just some defined character that I follow.

In Rust, you don’t get a defined character with a defined story and a defined personality. Instead, you get a blank slate. From the start, people almost certainly complained about not being able to customize the appearance of the avatar — even though they couldn’t see it themselves — and so when the designers allowed for there to be more variety in appearances players almost certainly expected to be able to choose their appearance as far as the engine would allow them to. After all, what other reason could they have for introducing it? So discovering that not only was that not the case, but that the reason for not allowing that ended up being some kind of social experiment aiming at supporting strong social justice arguments was definitely going to ruffle feathers. After all, the argument isn’t that it makes the game more fun, but that it either promotes a specific social agenda or that it’s something that lets the designers have more fun at the expense of their players. I was also shocked that this could be seen as supporting social justice when one of their big concerns is about letting players of colour play as the race they actually are … and this game introduced the ability to play as that race but then, at random, would say “No soup for you!”. Only the intense schadenfreude of forcing white players to play as black avatars could get them thinking that this was in any way a good idea.

In order to get to the point Moosa et al want to get to, you have to ask: what would the reaction be if the characters in Rust or in any game started with a black or female character and didn’t give the choice? And my answer is this: if the game doesn’t tout it as a way to introduce diversity, there likely won’t be much at all. I don’t recall much controversy over Miku in Fatal Frame, or Heather in Silent Hill 3, because what they did was put out a game that had a female protagonist, but didn’t try to express that as some great leap forward in diversity or for feminism or whatever. Thus, we believe that they did it because they thought it made the game better (with Silent Hill 3, it let them return to the story of the first game and explore the consequences from a unique and important angle). Gamers will, rightly, be at least concerned if not annoyed and maybe even outraged if they perceive that game elements are not being chosen not for what they add to the fun of the game, but for what boxes they check off on some social justice checkbox.

Or think about it this way: if the designers had started with all of the characters being green — which could be a wonderful send-up of a post-apocalyptic, radiation-drenched future — and then decided to make it so that you could have avatars of white, black or green but that you couldn’t choose which, do you really think that there wouldn’t be similar criticisms? “Why can’t I play as Hulkling anymore?” would come the cries. In fact, when I first heard about this story, one of my thoughts was “Hmmm. Post-apocalyptic world where only the strong can survive. I want to play as The Sisko. Except, I can’t, unless the random number generator code happens to come up on that race for me. When I couldn’t choose my race, I could do it because the outward appearance said nothing about the character. When the outward appearance can be changed, then it does seem to suggest, hint at, and limit what characters I can play as. And that’s a serious problem.

(As an aside, I’m now very tempted to put “The Sisko” into the Trooper slot in TOR. I originally had Jag Fel there, but thought the bounty hunter path suited him better, but that meant bumping Logan out of there, who I had there originally because of the role and the link with Mako, but I think that The Sisko works better for the Trooper anyway.)

The next thing Moosa talks about is “The Witcher 3″, where the game doesn’t contain a single human person of colour. He gives a reason for why this isn’t highlighted strongly enough to his satisfaction:

Let’s look at a few uncomfortable facts. Almost every Witcher 3 review I came across was written by a white man — excellent writers and all of whom I respect. But games media itself is, like the tech world, a very white-male dominated area. This is why we got a hundred articles confronting the Witcher 3 devs about less pretty grass physics, but not a single article asking them about no people of color.

Of course, he is actually corrected by the editor of Polygon pointing out that their article actually did that. Did he not read the review done by the site that he was writing the article for. But another reason is probably that given the setting — Slavic/European middle-age — the fact that you only see white characters is more believable. But Moosa has a reply to this:

But this misses a crucial point: Things are not equal. We are not in a medium that features predominantly Indian men, Chinese women, or focuses on stories from Africa. We’re part of an industry that frequently tells the stories of white people and stars white people.

Thus, wanting more people of color in stories that focus on mythology for a predominantly white culture doesn’t work the other way. Wanting white people in spaces dedicated to people of color ignores that stories of white people already dominate this and other creative industries.

The problem here is that, essentially, the creators of this game are from Poland and wanted to write a game that expressed things from their perspective. If you read through the comments, you’d see the quotes that say that Poland is well over 90% white, and that at the time the ratio was at least as bad. So essentially here he’d be criticizing a minority culture for wanting to express things as seen from their culture. And it’s not like the Polish were ever discriminated against for being Polish, right? Oh, wait, they were. So much for intersectionality, then. We can allow you to express things from your own minority perspective and respect diversity right up until the point that it clashes with some artificial quota of representation, at which point you can’t do that anymore.

Look, the obvious solution here is not to push representation into places where it doesn’t fit, but instead to make more diverse games. Creating new fantasy worlds based on Indian, Chinese or African history and mythology will help to break out of the same-old, same-old rut that these fantasy worlds often have, allowing for some new and fresh takes and help to extend the diversity of games. For example, the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” series is based on Chinese history/folklore, and was certainly successful, and was a series of games that I, personally, loved. We need to do more like that, and build new worlds where a diverse cast isn’t a problem, not try to shove it into a world and game just to have it.

He moves on to try to talk about how having fantasy races and dealing with racism issues through that is problematic:

It should be mentioned that The Witcher 3 deals with “racism,” but other “races” literally refers to different species: Elves, dwarves and other non-humans face bigotry.

Indeed, it shows again that humans are white humans and everyone else is non-human and oppressed. I’m not against racism being depicted; the game actually portrays racism and bigotry as bad. But even elves have the opportunity to exist. People of color don’t.

Again: This is literal dehumanizing of people of color. We are relegated to non-human species, whose treatment is supposed to mimic real-world racist policies. This sci-fi/fantasy trope of dealing with racism by showing inter-species treatment could work — if all the humans weren’t white.

Which also ties in with his previous comment on how with fantasy races and monsters the idea of being “historically accurate” goes out the window. Except it doesn’t, because as is pointed out in the comments the story is based on that time and that place, with some minor folklore elements inserted into it. Given that it is supposed to reflect in at least some way a historical time and place, what should we do if we insert PoC into that setting? Do we reflect the racism that they would experience in that setting in the game, which means that in general even our main character either should be or at least should be given the opportunity to act racist? Or do we leave human-human racism out completely, thus sanitizing the setting and thus leaving out all race issues as somehow being miraculously solved? From what I can see, either will be criticized by the same people who want to see diversity. If you do the former, then the game will be criticized for including incidents of racism. If you do the latter, then it will be criticized for sanitizing an era and showing it as being equal when it wasn’t (see The Sisko’s argument against Vic’s in DS9 for how that argument would go). The designers, then, simply cannot win.

Besides, the best way to approach racial issues through games is to cast the discussion into a metaphor that bypasses our ingrained and conditioned responses. If we can see why it is wrong to discriminate against the elves, then we ought to be able to see how it is wrong to discriminate against people who are, in fact, less different from us than the elves are from the humans in that setting. It’s not eliminating PoC to take their issues and cast them in a light that allegorizes it in order to avoid knee jerk and conditioned reactions, so this criticism seems to be way out of place … so much so that it becomes insulting to people who really aren’t trying to do — and aren’t actually doing — anything like what he assert they’re doing.

We also need to note the anger and hostility to minority concerns from those who are always catered to. We should recognize that such hostility is precisely what we do not want in a culture.

Tolerance, not toxicity, is what we should aim for. That such hostility exists at all is the problem,and it perpetuates the silencing of our concerns — leading to marginalized people leaving white-male-dominated industries altogether.

But it’s not like your approach can be called “non-hostile” itself. In Rust, you badly denigrate people who want to play as the race they are just as PoC want to play as the race they are … or so they say. You denigrate people for simply producing a game based on their own minority viewpoint, and accuse them of dehumanizing you because they wanted to avoid the hassle of trying to deal with the issues that people on your side will raise if they try to include races into that setting. You insist that the objections come from a perspective of being catered to as opposed to legitimate complaints about how this isn’t actually done in service of a fun game. While the reactions may well be more hostile than deserved, you do have to take some responsibility for taking an aggressive line with people and silencing their concerns while complaining that others are silencing yours. If you want a discussion, discuss, don’t dictate. And if you say that your opponents are dictating and not discussing, find the ones who are discussing. They exist, and you might benefit from listening to them specifically.

Awareness, Consciousness, Qualia, and Blindsight

June 26, 2015

So, as mentioned in my review of Rosenburg’s book, I want to talk a bit about the cases of blindsight that he discussed, because I think that there’s an issue there that Rosenburg doesn’t talk much about that is interesting.

Essentially, the case of blindsight is that these are people with specific brain damage where they lose the ability to have phenomenal experiences related to sight … which means that they can’t consciously see objects. But when they’re asked to, say, point to a yellow object, they do so successfully. But if they are asked about it, they always claim that they just guessed, despite having a success rate that can’t be explained by guessing. Rosenburg insists that they see without having a conscious experience of it, but this is a rather odd claim since it seems reasonable that what it means to see an object is to have a conscious experience of it, so what we can see is that they are aware of the colour of an object without having had a conscious experience of it … which might seem puzzling at first, but then I’ve already shown that this, in fact, can be the case. As a short summary, note that you can walk down a street or drive to work completely lost in thought, and yet you don’t generally spend your time running into people, running lights, and generally do so successfully. So we already know that we can react functionally towards things — ie be aware of them — without having to consciously see them. What these results, then, suggest is what we already knew: there is a distinct neural path from the centre of “vision” to simple awareness and to conscious experience. When my consciousness is engaged, the “consciousness” path gets blocked but the awareness path is not. This also, then, happens in cases of blindsight (and we can presume that there is a way to damage the brain so that you get neither, if it is damaged before the split).

So, problem solved, right? Well, this is still a bit puzzling, and it took me a bit to figure out why. See, for the most part we do accept that we can be aware of and react to things that we aren’t conscious of — by which I mean “had a phenomenal experience of” — because that happens all the time, as I just pointed out. But we do think that certain critical beliefs or actions are, in fact, caused by those experiences. Pointing to or even grabbing an object that we didn’t “see” isn’t an issue; again, we do it all the time. But pointing at an object because it is a certain colour is surprising, because we think that you don’t know what colour an object is without actually consciously experiencing a colour-qualia. The same thing applies to the Libet experiments: having subconscious mechanisms kick off a semi- or pseudo-random action isn’t unexpected, but having that kick off a “conscious decision” event is puzzling; in short, the RNG of the brain telling me that I made a conscious decision to press the button when I did no such thing without that being some kind of rationalization is definitely not what we’d expect. In that case, I suspect that they were in “decide to press the button” mode, at which point them acting as if they decided to do it at that moment even though it was caused by neural stimulation is not surprising, because in that scenario all that making the decision means is that you wait for the RNG to kick off telling you to do it. If they were in no way thinking about pressing a button, I would definitely expect them to react as if their wrist just moved, like we see in cases of Alien Limb Syndrome.

At any rate, it is easy to dismiss most of the examples as cases where our conscious deliberations and experiences aren’t normally expected to play a role, but being able to distinguish colour subconsciously seems a bit more of an issue. However, on reflection it should be obvious that we can do that; after all, we can still stop at red lights while driving while lost in thought. So in some sense we can indeed distinguish colours subconsciously. The question is: is there anything that we can’t do subconsciously, that we need to do consciously?

Fortunately, the blindsight cases themselves seem to suggest that there are. The subjects did not in any way remember consciously experiencing the colour of the object, and did not believe that the object was there or had a specific colour. So memory, at least, seem to follow from conscious experience. And since memory is required for reasoning, reasoning about the object and using the facts about the object to decide on future actions probably also requires that we be conscious of those facts, meaning that we have a conscious experience about them. So, again, the actions that we most introspectively think require conscious experience and knowledge seem to be the ones that we do, in fact, need conscious experience and knowledge for.

What these experiments do, in my opinion, is demonstrate that the subconscious is more powerful than we give it credit for, and so might be more influential than we think it is. However, they do not show that the conscious is ineffective or unnecessary, because even they show that for a lot of actions the conscious is still necessary … despite Rosenburg’s and others’ insistence that they show that.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers