Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Political Correctness and Respect

November 23, 2015

So, in the Atlantic there’s an article defending political correctness by Sally Kohn. She defines political correctness this way:

Political correctness is a good thing—the idea that we should treat our fellow human beings with equal respect, despite their race or gender or sexual orientation, and the idea that we might all learn and get better at doing so because of feedback and changing norms.

If what is commonly called “political correctness” was in fact simply doing that, then it likely wouldn’t have the negative connotations that it currently does … and, in fact, would never have been called “political correctness” at all. But what was called political correctness was never just about that, as Kohn herself goes on to admit:

And now communities of color want to end that injustice and ask white people to finally show some simple respect.

So it was never just about treating people with respect, in the sense that you try to avoid doing or saying things to offend them. It always had another connotation, a connotation of righting an injustice. And what injustice was that?

If black people offended white people—however or whatever such “offense” was determined to be—black people paid dearly. In fact, they still do.

So, from the start, the “political correctness” movment, by Kohn’s own argument, had two main goals: one reduce the idea of offense so that white people wouldn’t be offended — and punish black people and other minorities — for actions that ought not be considered offensive, and ensure that when black people and other minorities were legitimately offended that those who offended them did receive appropriate punishment.

If this had been taken as a general statement, where we worked to ensure that legitimate offense-taking was discouraged and illegitimate offense-taking was criticized, this wouldn’t have been that bad. Of course, it also wouldn’t have acquired a name like “political correctness”, and instead would have been known as “common courtesy”. But it wasn’t that general, and instead was about reducing the offense-taking of white people and increasing the punishments when minorities were offended by what, generally, white people said. This … was not a good start. And it only got worse once they decided to make this institutionalized and official, with both institutional and official — as far as they can be official — social consequences for violating “political correctness”.

Long ago, the sort of treatment of minorities was both officially institutionalized and socially acceptable. It was how society was run. Over time, both the institutional and social treatment changed, or started to change. The laws could no longer directly discriminate, and being racist, for example, wasn’t seen as being just the way things were or even reasonable, but was instead seen as a bad thing. This is why being called a racist is considered such an insult to white people, because it’s seen as them doing something very, very bad. So the laws and societies shifted away, to some extent, from the situation she describes.

The problem is that the “political correctness” movement kinda ignored all of that, and built its premises on the basis that this unequal treatment of offense was still the norm. Therefore, they didn’t need to protect white people from things that would legitimately offend them because, hey, society already did that for them; all they needed to do was extend the same protections to minorities. And they didn’t need to ensure that illegitimate offense-taking at white people was protected because, again, society already did that; all they needed to do was extend that to minorities. What this meant was that as those formal and official and sanctioned protections were being removed for white people, they were being added for minorities, which led to the impression — not always accurate — that if you were a minority you were protected by “political correctness”, but if were a member of the perceived “majority”, you weren’t. Which, honestly, the whole notion of “white tears” or “male tears” justifies, as when white people express that they are offended the reaction is not to take that seriously, but is instead to dismiss it as them not really having anything to be offended or upset about.

Kohn herself seems to buy into this:

Consider, for instance, those in the chattering class who have readily bought into the idea that police feel under attack (as the result of the Black Lives Movement) and at the same time express deep skepticism—if not outright mockery—of people of color who feel under attack by police and by society. This divergent tendency isn’t about evidentiary standards. It’s about race—and the inclination to believe in the righteousness and inherent goodness of white people while perpetually doubting and demeaning people of color.

Well, from what I’ve read, some of the rhetoric around the “Black Lives Movement” has implied both that people should shoot police officers as retaliation, and that all of the police are racist. I think that the police feeling under attack is actually fairly reasonable. However, that they may feel legitimately under attack doesn’t mean that black people aren’t also legitimately feeling under attack. It’s not a dichotomy here, where if there is a dispute between two groups one of them has to be wrong and one of them has to be right and it can’t be the case that both are attacking the other. Things can — and almost always are — more complicated than that.

So, if we want “political correctness” to have the meaning that Kohn says it has, what we have to understand is that respect is always a two-way street. This means that if we want to ensure that invalid offense-taking and giving legitimate offense is discouraged, it has to apply to everyone. So if someone is taking offense at something and people feel that they shouldn’t take offense there, we can’t reply with any notion that we have to accept that their defense is legitimate or should be taken more seriously on the basis of their race, gender or position in society. We have to be able to argue that they are wrong to be offended regardless, as long as we have an argument for that. And if someone ought to be offended cannot depend on their race, gender or position in society, but on whether the statement was, in fact, legitimately offensive to them. In the old days, minorities were expected to respect the “majorities”, but the “majorities” were not expected to respect the minorities. “Political correctness” pushed for the “majorities” to respect the minorities, but assumed that the same forces that pushed for the minorities to respect the “majorities” were still in place. They weren’t, for the most part. To fix political correctness, we have to make it so that we actually have to respect all people regardless of their race, gender or position in society. No group can get any privileged position in this whatsoever and for whatever reason. Only then will “political correctness” become what it really ought to be: common courtesy.

Philosophy of the Trinity …

November 18, 2015

So, Jerry Coyne is mocking a philosophy conference on the Trinity. He says this:

Given that philosophers are about as atheistic as academics get, it’s even more bizarre that they’re discussing the philosophical implications of a fatuous, made-up theological construct, and that someone is paying for it.

Now, Coyne is not a philosopher. In fact, his knowledge of philosophy is amateur at best. So, you’d think that he’d let philosophers decide what is and isn’t useful philosophy, or makes for a useful philosophical conference. Or, at least, that instead of himself mocking it and saying that it’s useless, he’d at least ask philosophers why they think it’s a useful exercise, and what they think they can get out of it. Surely if, say, a philosopher asked why scientists were studying fruit flies, he’d roll his eyes and expect them to ask scientists why it’s meaningful, and be annoyed if they simply declared that it was pointless based on their own expert knowledge.

That being said, the last time Coyne talked about this he dismissed the comments of two trained philosophers to insist that they were simply trying to protect their turf. So it seems that there is no field that Coyne cannot be a master of with only brief exposure, so much so that he is immune to the comments from people better trained than him on that. This is consistent with how he approaches theology, free will, philosophy of religion, morality and a host of other subjects.

I don’t know what precisely the organizers and participants expect to get out of this examination, but I know enough about philosophy to know that they expect something. And given what Coyne said above, it’s not likely to be a proof of the existence of God. But I guess Coyne’s armchair ruminations trump my over a decade of philosophical study.

V For Villain

November 2, 2015

The next essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy” is “V for Villain” by Robert Arp. Framing this all around “V for Vendetta”, Arp examines the issue of using people, as the villains and even the hero in the work constantly do. This will, of course, immediately run up against Kant’s maxim of treating people not merely as means, but always also as ends in themselves. By that standard, even the hero V is acting immorally, and we’d be acting immoral if we did so even if using those people resulted in better actions, which would be one of the main clashes between Utilitarianism and Kantianism, and also one of the main criticisms of Utilitarianism (that it would allow you to use someone merely to provide the most utility).

But this always raises the question of what happens if the person chooses to be used? What if they are perfectly willing to be used and are fully aware of what is going on, and thus choose it themselves? As Arp points out, to use them violates at least a strict reading of Kant’s principle, but to deny them the ability to choose to be used seems to violate it as well, as you end up using them as a means to fulfilling your own morality. How can we resolve this?

I think most of the controversy over this ignores the part where Kant says that the imperative applies to yourself as well. You are not allowed to use yourself merely as a means, but must also always treat yourself as an end in itself as well. This is what’s behind his rather infamous proscription against masturbation, as you use yourself merely as a means to your own sexual gratification. While that’s debatable, it’s clear that the choice to be used can only be a valid moral choice for Kant if the person isn’t even treating themself as a means to some other end, but also as an end in themselves. There’s a lot more to work out here wrt what counts as a valid end, but this ought to eliminate a lot of the cases where we immediately think that someone is consciously choosing to be used; they are, but they are still treating themselves as a means, and so even though you would be acting properly moral to accept their choice, they are acting immorally in making the choice.

Ultimately, we need to treat others as independent moral agents, but we also have to think of ourselves that way as well. While most of the focus of morality is in not using others, we do have to remember that we ought not use ourselves either.

Governing Gotham

October 28, 2015

The next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Governing Gotham” by Tony Spanakos. This essay examines the relationship between Batman and the law, as (mostly) exemplified through the relationship between Batman and Jim Gordon. Spanakos references Hobbes and Max Weber on the side of “The state must have a monopoly on the use of violence” and Nietzsche on the side that the state is not necessarily a force for good on the other. Spanakos also compares Batman to figures like “The Reaper” and Anarky to establish Batman as a figure poised between a couple of extremes, which provides insight into why Batman cannot kill.

The overall idea is this: the role of the state is to provide basic protections for its citizens. Gotham, however, in all its forms is a city that cannot provide that most basic of protections, the protection of their physical well-being. Batman is born from a Gotham that allows Thomas and Martha Wayne to be killed by some punk with a gun. This forces Bruce Wayne to acknowledge that the state can no longer protect its citizens in that very basic sense, and so he becomes Batman in order to do so. In short, society is broken, and no one can rely on the law and the state to provide its most basic guarantee, as Gordon also must acknowledge when he joins the force.

The Reaper and Anarky, however, also see that Gotham is broken and that someone other than the state has to provide what it can and will not. But there is a contrast between them and Batman. Batman does not set himself up to supplant the state and the state’s role, but instead simply to supplement it; Batman works to restore the state to a condition where it can function properly. Batman does not set himself up as judge, jury and executioner, and in fact refuses to do anything to give that impression. The others take the role of protector completely onto themselves, deciding who the villains are and how they are to be punished. They take on the role of determining how society ought to be and what it ought to become, and literally become judge, jury and executioner. They supplant the law, while Batman merely works outside of the law … or, rather, outside of its mechanisms.

This is why Batman has to, at the end of the day, turn all of those villains he stops over to the authorities if he can do so. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be working in any way with the existing authorities, but instead would be a law unto himself. While he breaks the laws that he needs to in order to provide that basic guarantee of safety, all of this is seen as upholding the basic social contract that the state provides to its citizens. You can argue that in cases like the Joker where the state isn’t even capable of judging or holding them Batman can argue that he’s just continuing on in the role of doing for the state what the state cannot do for itself (but has promised to do), but this would be a little specious and, more importantly, would be cutting the state out of the business entirely, risking Batman becoming the state himself. After all, what laws will people follow: the laws on the books, or the ones that are actually enforced?

This is why Gordon can work with Batman: Batman is not outside the law, but is rather an adjunct to it. Like other heroic vigilantes — the A-Team might be the best example — he is there for people to turn to when, for some reason, the state cannot help you … but they aren’t there to do what the state can do, and should only get involved, again, when no one else can help. The Reaper and Anarky both went out and stopped whatever offended them; Batman stops only what needs to be stopped, and only to the extent of stopping them and apprehending them. What happens after is not Batman’s responsibility … and is not something that Batman can enforce without risking becoming “Emperor Batman”.

Action Man or Dreamy Detective

October 14, 2015

The next essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” is “Action Man or Dreamy Detective” by Sami Paavola and Lauri Jarvilehto, and has to win for the most abstract title of a chapter ever because the essay itself is about Holmes’ ability to reason and what that conforms to, which doesn’t really have all that much to do with the title. The essay looks at two of Charles Peirce’s ideas on reasoning, but I’m only going to look at the first of them, which is abduction. They claim that Holmes uses abduction as opposed to either deduction or induction, and define them all thusly:

Deduction, the pattern of reasoning by clarifying logical necessities.

Induction, reasoning on the basis of what “actually is”.

Abduction, the main kind of reasoning we use for coming up with new ideas.

The first thing we can see from these definitions is that, well, they’re all pretty much useless, except for maybe the one for deduction. The other two seem more like a definition someone would espouse if they wanted to denigrate deduction … which fits in with this essay. After all, deduction clarifies “logical necessities”, but according to the other definitions it wouldn’t focus on what “actually is” — as that’s induction — and wouldn’t be what we’d use for coming up with new ideas, as that’s abduction. Both of those definitions talk much about what they can do or are used for — implicitly saying why they’re superior to deduction — but neither of them give any clarity on what that sort of reasoning actually is. So let’s redefine them:

Deduction: the form of reasoning that proceeds from premises to a conclusion following standard logical operations.

Induction: the form of reasoning that proceeds from instances and generalizes to propositions outside of the direct scope of the available data.

This leaves abduction, so let me try to summarize it as best I can from what they seem to say about it:

Abduction: the form of reasoning that proceeds from hypotheses about the given data through testing the hypotheses to see if they hold.

So, given this, does Holmes use deduction, induction, or abduction?

Holmes doesn’t really generalize outside of the data he has. Even in their example of Holmes’ assessment of Watson when they first meet, he takes things that he knows and applies them to Watson, and so instead of moving from specific instances to the general he moves from the general to the specific instance. Thus, he’s not using induction.

So, given that, I think the key to determining which he does is to ask: does Holmes form hypotheses that he then tests to see if they are accurate, or does he just operate on the data he has and sees what follows from it? Note that gathering more data — ie going back to look at the scene again, or even going to the scene — wouldn’t count in favour of abduction, because in all forms of reasoning discovering that you need more data and even what specific data you need is a key part of it; none of them must draw conclusions from insufficient data. So let’s look at the reasoning they summarized from “Silver Blaze”:

Did the dog bark? No. Why does a watchdog not back in the middle of the night, if something odd is happening? Because whatever was happening in the night-time, the perpetrator must have been someone the dog knew well enough not to be disturbed by him.

So, for this to count as abductive, Holmes would have had to come up with that hypothesis and then go out to test it, to make sure that the reasoning held. Holmes usually doesn’t do that. Also, it would have to be expressed, as the authors put it, in maybes and mights, but in the quote provided — and in general — Holmes never thinks of things that way. In fact, his main catchphrase aims more at certainty than at maybes: When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. This even strike at the Bayesian interpretation of abduction because Holmes makes it clear that he doesn’t care about probabilities if it’s the only explanation left. So it really looks like Holmes uses deduction, not abduction.

They even themselves hint at this by talking about the analytic/synthetic distinction, and claiming that Holmes’ approach is analytic. Analytic reasoning is deductive, synthetic reasoning would fit in with their definition of inductive. Neither, as it turns out, fit either their or my definitions of abductive. Well, abductive reasoning would be a form of synthetic reasoning, which doesn’t help their case at all.

I think the confusion here is the idea that deduction can only work on things that are true by definition. But deduction isn’t that way, really. Deduction simply is proceeding from the premises to a conclusion that follows logically and directly from the premises. So what Holmes does is gather lots and lots of data through his powers of observation and his experiments, and given all of those facts, he simply sees what conclusion necessarily follows given those premises. If he has all of the relevant facts and the conclusion logically follows from the premises — ie if the premises are true the conclusion cannot be false — then he has his answer. No testing required, and no room for maybes.

The problem is that too many people over-emphasize what deduction needs to work, which is that it has to know that the premises are true. Sure, you can establish that if the premises are true the conclusion must be as well, but you have to know that the premises are true before you can say that the conclusion is true. And so you can come up with logically valid arguments that are, in fact, ridiculous. This is what gets people yearning for something like induction or abduction to save the day, demanding that we actually go and look at the world, which they claim deduction can’t do. But is going out to verify the premises testing (and so abduction) or simply gathering more data (and so deduction)? I’d say that, from the perspective of deduction, it’s gathering more data: I need to know this fact, so let me go see if this fact is true. For Holmes, who starts with more facts and usually the facts that he needs, he rarely has to actually go and look to see if his premises are true, and so when he does go out and check things it’s not him forming a hypothesis and then testing it, but him merely going to find out the facts that he’s missing to fill in the blanks in his deduction.

You can decide for yourself in Holmes is a dreamy detective or action man.

Atheism: The Great Nothing

October 7, 2015

For a long time now, P.Z. Myers has been railing against “Dictionary Atheism”, the idea that atheism, in and of itself, means nothing more than a lack of belief in gods and so in and of itself entails no particular philosophical or moral viewpoint. Many of those Myers (and others as well) have complained about are people who say that if they want to promote a specific moral or philosophical view, why don’t they (say) call themselves humanists instead? If they want to promote feminism in atheism, why not do that as feminists instead of trying to argue that those ideas follow from atheism when they really don’t?

Myers has never accepted that, and in light of the shootings in Oregon he’s talking about it again. The argument he’s trying to make in light of comments that you can’t say that the shooter in Oregon was caused to do that by his atheism because atheism itself posits nothing more than that gods don’t exist is this:

Humanity is suffering under a collection of half-assed ethical and moral principles, assembled with no rational foundation but superstition, and with awful, damaging, exploitive rules mixed in with a few good ones. Religion is primitive and lacking in any tools to address deep injustices and correct errors in its formulation. I am all in favor of tearing it down and replacing it with…what? According to Harris, nothing. Atheism has nothing constructive or productive to replace the bad system most people are limping along under — rip it all out and apparently, brute reason can then be trusted to evolve something better.

We need purpose and value and meaning as well, and if a prominent Leader of atheism is saying that atheism doesn’t do that, that’s a declaration that atheism is bankrupt, and has failed totally. It has become a Great Nothing.

Well, atheism always was in that sense, a “Great Nothing”. From the start, one of the stock and standard ways atheists avoided having the burden of proof in discussions with theists was to say that atheism doesn’t have a burden of proof because it was, in fact, simply a lack of belief in the existence of gods, nothing more. The comment that babies, for example, were born atheists and educated into becoming theists relied on atheism being nothing more than a lack of belief in gods. The widely disseminated claim that religious people were just one more god away from being atheists relied on that assumption as well. Atheists, then, for the longest time based a ton of their rhetoric on atheism being, essentially, nothing more than a lack of belief in gods, implying nothing else in and of itself. Nothing morally, so you couldn’t say that atheists were simply immoral. Nothing socially, so you couldn’t lump them in with political groups. Heck, here Myers is insisting that atheists need meaning and value and purpose which has been one of the major criticisms theists raised against atheism: you can’t get to those things from atheism in and of itself. The counter to that is that atheists can get those things from other secular sources, not to insist that atheism, in and of itself, provides all of those things.

So, in a real sense, atheists have been advocating what Myers calls “the Great Nothing” for ages now, and relied on that to make their arguments. Myers himself seems to have adopted some of those arguments in the past, as have many of those who rail against “Dictionary Atheism”. So what, then, has changed? Why has atheism moved from being a perfectly acceptable and reasonable nothing, based on nothing more than a reasonable skepticism that says that you ought not believe something until you have sufficient evidence, to a “Great Nothing” if it doesn’t provide your life with meaning and purpose just from atheism?

In my opinion, it’s all about identity. They’ve formed an Atheist Community, and discovered that, horror of horrors, just having the rejection of the existence of all gods in common doesn’t mean that they agree on everything … or even, sometimes, most things. And a lot of those things are things that are really important to them. But instead of understanding that just because you agree on one thing that you think really important with someone it doesn’t mean that you agree — or need to agree — with them on everything, their response was to insist that those others were just wrong and really, really have to agree with them on that. I agree with Myers that it started from an insistence that atheists were just more rational than theists, and moved on from there … but people like Myers are just as guilty of that presumption as those who insist on the general use of reason are. To pretty much everyone, atheism followed from basic rationality, and those other positions — on all sides of all of the divides — followed from basic rationality as well, and so anyone who didn’t agree with their position was therefore not applying simply rationality.

The problem, then, was not really with atheism itself, but with the idea that skepticism and atheism were identical. They applied what they considered skepticism to various claims, came up with answers — often answers that aligned with their overall worldview, in a similar way to what they accused theists of doing — and then were convinced that those answers were just plain right. And since atheism and skepticism were aligned — which they aren’t — then atheists themselves had to come to the same rationally skeptical conclusions. And when people like Myers were met with push back from people who argued that they were applying pure reason and skepticism to the answer that Myers et al were very attached to … well, you get this:

Reason is not enough. Reason can show you the best way to achieve a goal, but if your goal is mass murder, or denigration of women, or the perpetuation of an oppressive hierarchy, it’ll help you do that, too.

The denigration of reason in favour of emotional or “empathetic” approaches. Except that while reason will help you achieve your goals no matter how horrible they are, to say this implies that you can get goals — and by extension, values and purpose and meaning — without using reason, or aiming for rational goals first. So, then, how do you determine those things? Just by how it feels to you? That’s what gives people the goal of serving God … or mass murder, or denigration of women, or the perpetuation of an oppressive hierarchy. Myers would be forced to claim that those things are not or cannot be rationally proven wrong, that it’s only something else other than reason that can push us into, well, not having those as goals anymore, but that’s, well, rather ridiculous.

From other posts of his, Myers has said something right: for most atheists in this world, becoming an atheist means that you have to find new goals, values, meanings, and purposes, because for most people those were formed intertwined with religion and with God and when you reject that, you have to find something to replace it. But where he is wrong is in insisting that atheism, in and of itself, has a preference for what those things are. Atheism equally supports many worldviews, only excluding — maybe — ones based on religion. Atheism is nothing more than a belief about the state of the world, and so Myers’ comments here are like someone insisting that evolution is a “Great Nothing” if it can’t be used to form some kind of Social Darwinism. If we can’t use evolution to create our values and goals and purposes and meaning in life, what good is it? Well, it’s a true fact about the universe; how we react to that is up to us.

The same thing applies to atheism. Assuming they are right, then they have a belief — or lack of one — about how the world is. That, in and of itself, is not nothing. How we respond to that fact does not follow from it, but is instead something that we have to work out philosophically. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t better or worse answers, but those answers do not follow from atheism itself; just like evolution, atheism itself can’t tell us how to live. It can constrain certain choices if we value the truth and living in accordance with it, but in and of itself it isn’t a worldview and doesn’t create one. There are myriad worldviews compatible with atheism, so maybe Myers needs to find one and take that one on, instead of insisting that there should be One True Atheistic Worldview and trying to force others to conform to it.

Zombies, Blade Runner, and the Mind-Body Problem

October 2, 2015

The next essay in “Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy” is “Zombies, Blade Runner, and the Mind-Body Problem” by Larry Hauser. This essay takes on the sorts of zombies famously used to discuss the mind-body problem, most commonly by David Chalmers. These zombies are creatures that act exactly like us, and are physically exactly like us, and yet they have no mental experiences at all. In other words, they have no qualia at all. So, essentially, they act like they are conscious but actually possess no conscious states at all. They act like they’re in pain, but they aren’t. They act like they love, but they can’t feel love at all. They act in every way like they have the same internal experiences as we do, but they don’t actually have them. The conclusion that is drawn from this is that they aren’t really conscious, and therefore don’t really have mental states, and this is a problem for strictly physical views of mind.

Hauser tries to take this on, but he does it in a fairly standard way. He starts with but moves a bit beyond the standard functionalist reply: if they act like they are in love or are in pain or see things or taste things or whatever, then they really do. He then seems to tie it to a cognitivist view, where he comments that you should not deny their cognitive abilities for those things if, in fact, they can reason out the proper reactions so as to act appropriately to all the inputs. Finally, he seems to make an argument based on Searle that we have to look at it from the perspective of the zombie in order to determine this … but this is what we are denying them by definition. Essentially, we can’t know what their first-person perspective is like, so we can’t know if they are a zombie or not. To take this a step further, if the zombie acts like they have subjective experiences, and even seems to believe that they have subjective experiences, who are we to deny that? At the end, he accepts that they may be missing that, but argues that if they act appropriately what does it matter if they don’t have qualia, for the relatively small number of mental events that absolutely require it?

This is very similar to the argument made by Andrew Brook that I replied to in this essay. Essentially, the argument is that if they have awareness, then that’s good enough for consciousness. If they believe that they feel pain, that’s good enough for us to say that they are in pain. But that essay demonstrates through the examples of someone wearing goggles that filter out colours but where the person can tell what colour things are using a spectrometer that we can be aware of subjective qualities without actually experiencing them. And if we can be aware of those qualities without experiencing them, then we can act as if we had them, even if we didn’t. Thus, we can have a zombie with no subjective experiences at all, but that acts as if it does have them, because, for example, it can know what colour an object is through other means than simple experience. My main theory, then, is that qualia is input level, not representation or belief level; we can form the representations and beliefs in different ways, with qualia being one of them.

So now we can answer Hauser’s last comment: does it matter if a zombie doesn’t gain any beliefs or representations through qualia or subjective experiences at all? In terms of cognitive or psychological abilities, no, probably not. But in terms of consciousness, yes, it really does. And thus when it comes to something like love — Hauser’s Blade Runner example is Rachel — it’s hard to say that someone is really in love with someone if they are only cognitively aware of the state, but don’t feel love at all. Love seems to be something that you actually feel, not something that you merely know. In short, you become aware that you’re in love when you feel that you’re in love, which is true for all emotions: you know that you are angry because you feel angry. You know that you are sad because you feel sad. You don’t look at your life and decide “I’m feeling sad”. You only feel sad when you are, in fact, feeling sad. And this holds for all qualia-essential traits … which are pretty much the ones that relate to actual consciousness. You only see colours when you are seeing colours, not merely by being aware of what colour something is. And so on.

So, the purported good zombies that Hauser talks about don’t provide any protection from the bad zombies of Chalmers and Searle, because their goal was to get at consciousness, and Hauser’s good zombies still aren’t conscious, and it still matters whether or not they’re really conscious. Thus, the zombies still eat brains … at least, the brains of those who are not, in fact, conscious or experiencing at all.

The Moral Quandary of “Tuvix”

September 28, 2015

So, as SF Debris returns to new videos in October, I found myself pondering a commentary on an older video, that of the Voyager episode “Tuvix”. Now, I’ve only ever seen anything from this episode through Chuck’s review, and can’t even watch it again to refresh my memory, but I was thinking a bit about it and want to highlight its moral quandary, and how that moral quandary would be solved by the three main ethical views: Deontological, Consequentialist, and Virtue Theory.

So, let me summarize the episode. Due to a transporter accident, the characters Tuvok and Neelix are merged — along with, it seems, a plant — into an entirely new being, with a completely new and different personality and mentality from the other two. Tuvix thinks of himself as a completely separate person, not as merely an amalgam of Tuvok and Neelix. Eventually, they discover a way to use the transporter to separate Tuvix back into Tuvok and Neelix. Tuvix doesn’t want to undergo the procedure, arguing, essentially, that the procedure is nothing more than killing him. He appeals to the rest of the crew to help him avoid the procedure, but no one helps. Eventually, they get him down to Sick Bay, where the Doctor refuses to perform the procedure as doing so would be a violation of his oath as a doctor. Janeway performs the procedure herself, with Tuvok and Neelix restored and Tuvix eliminated.

Chuck, in his review, definitely took Janeway to task for this, if I recall correctly, taking the side of Tuvix, and arguing that this was, essentially, the murder of a sentient person. However, that interpretation is valid only if one considers that Tuvok and Neelix were, in fact, actually dead. If not, then we have to consider their wishes and situation as well, and things get far more complicated. For example, while the Doctor might be said to have a duty to do no harm to Tuvix, what duty does the Doctor have to Tuvok and Neelix? Does he have a duty to cure their condition? What demand can they make on him as his patients as well? After all, again, they aren’t really dead; they in some sense exist in Tuvix. So you can’t consider Tuvix merely a separate entity, but instead as a separate entity formed from two other entities. Given that, the interests of Tuvix have to be considered, certainly, but so do the interests of Tuvok and Neelix.

Given this, let’s look at how the various moral theories might approach this question, from the perspective of both the Doctor and Janeway:

Deontological: Many deontological theories are based around duty, and the context of the decision make it easy to evaluate this from the context of what each has a duty to do. As a doctor, the Doctor has a duty to do no harm to any of his patients, so he can’t sacrifice one of them to save two others. He can perform triage in situations of limited resources, and one can argue that this is indeed one of those cases: given the resources the Doctor has, he can either save Tuvix or save Tuvok and Neelix, but not all of them. However, this would be rather shaky, as the Doctor would have to take a direct action against Tuvix to save Tuvok and Neelix, as opposed to simply not taking time or resources. It is reasonable to suggest that taking a direct action to sacrifice the life of one patient for that of two others — essentially, directly killing one to save two — is a violation of his medical ethics, as no one would expect, say, that a doctor letting someone die so that they could use their organs to save other people would be acting in line with medical ethics. So it is reasonable to think that, here, the Doctor’s decision is the one that he is indeed compelled to make by his medical ethics.

But does that make it inherently wrong for Janeway to do it? I think that many people over-interpret the universality of deontological ethics. Just because one person would be, under a deontological view, morally constrained from taking an action, that doesn’t mean that everyone is, therefore, also so constrained. If I’ve taken an oath against committing violence, then I can’t morally take any violent action because that would violate my oath. Someone who had not taken such an oath would, however, to be able to take violent actions — if moral otherwise — because they wouldn’t have an oath stopping them from doing that. Here, the Doctor’s oath as a doctor constrains him from performing the procedure on Tuvix … but Janeway has taken no such oath.

So we need to consider what Janeway is morally bound to do under a deontological view, and I think here it also returns to duty. Janeway has also made an oath, and it’s an oath to protect her crew. While you can question how well she did at that throughout the series, morally she is bound to protect the well-being of her view. Tuvix may be considered a member of her crew, but Tuvok certainly is and Neelix has more of a claim on that than Tuvix does. Even if she considers them all equal, she has to consider that performing the procedure will be sacrificing one of her crew to save two others, which is something that starship captains have to accept: sending a crew member off to die to save others, if there is no other option, which there isn’t here. And that’s if she even considers that Tuvix really is a distinct individual, as opposed to merely an amalgam of Tuvok and Neelix. In that case, she’d have no duty to save Tuvix and every obligation to save Tuvok and Neelix. So I think that, under deotological ethics, it is reasonable to say that she is morally obligated to perform the procedure. Only a very strong rule against killing — like the Doctor’s medical ethics — could change that.

Consequentialism: While things are probably more complicated, this comes down to the idea that you can sacrifice one person to save two. Under almost all views, this would result in better consequences if we are judging the morality of the action by its consequences. You can make a case for the Doctor that doctors having a strong proscription against sacrificing their patients is overall better even if there are cases where it isn’t, due to the above example of sacrificing a patient to harvest their organs, but there doesn’t seem to be even that argument for Janeway. This is one of the reasons why consequentialist theories can actually seem heartless and downright evil, at times, as they can only justify individual autonomy by appealing to the consequences of having it, not to something inherent to either the moral view or to the individual themselves.

Virtue Ethics: The most relevant virtue here, for Janeway and the Doctor, is probably also duty, and the oaths they’ve taken. As such, this probably works out the same as it does for deontological views. The difference is that, under this view, it is them as persons that is evaluated here; they act as only they can given the people they are and the commitments they’ve made, and aren’t just following the rules. If Janeway is a proper starship captain, she performs the procedure; if the Doctor is a proper doctor, he refuses. You might be able to appeal to other virtues like, say, compassion … but as soon as you start considering Tuvok and Neelix themselves in the mix and stop thinking of them as dead, they deserve compassion just as much as Tuvix does, which means that it doesn’t help (Virtue Theory does not, generally, merely sum the impacted people). Duty, however, seems to work out reasonably well.

So, contra Chuck, I think that the Doctor acted properly, as did Janeway. It’s only if you think of Tuvok and Neelix as dead or otherwise unworthy of consideration that it becomes clear that performing the procedure is morally wrong. Once their interests are considered, things get more complicated, but ultimately at the end of it all performing the procedure is probably the more reasonable option for most people.

Gothic Anxiety

September 18, 2015

The next essay in “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy” is “Gothic Anxiety” … no, really, it’s not an essay from “Batman and Philosophy”, but is from “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy”. It’s essentially uncredited, and covers off a trope used frequently in, at least, Gothic Horror: the idea of double selves, specifically doubles and dopplegangers.

The relation to the reimagined “Battlestar Galactica” series should be obvious, since it seems to contain both. You have doubles specifically when it comes to the various human Cylon models, and internal dopplegangers play a large role in Gaius Baltar and Caprica Six’s story arcs. The essay does a reasonable examination of those cases, but I think doesn’t really explain why these things are commonly used as horror tropes, per Jekyll and Hyde and variations on that theme.

For doubles, the fear is, I think, fairly obvious. There’s a fear of them taking over your life, as also seen in movies like “Single White Female” … and then killing you off so that they can live it. There are concerns about an evil twin using your face to commit evil and letting you take the blame for it. There’s also the fear of having to fight someone who pretty much has exactly your skills and abilities to stop them from doing evil, to you and to those you love.

There is a bit of this in the doppleganger as well, as there is the fear that you have this personality inside you who is not you, who might be literally trying to take over your life, through taking over your body. But I think that there’s another big fear, which is the fear that the doppleganger isn’t some foreign personality that has infected you and is trying to take over, but is, in fact, really you. A part of you that you don’t like. A part of you that you repress. A part of you that might, in fact, actually be you. Maybe that personality is who you really are, and the person you are now is the facade over top of that. That fear, the fear that you aren’t who you think you are, or that you are in fact capable of the evil that that personality is committing, drives a lot of the horror of that scenario, it seems to me.

As the essay points out, Baltar and Six’s cases are not like that. They are more complementary, providing help and benefit and supplementing their own abilities. They may, in fact, reflect ignored or buried parts of their personalities — assuming, of course, that they aren’t actually angels — but those personalities are benign and helpful. They bring good aspects of their personalities forward, generally, and reveal things that they need to worry about. The competing doppleganger is not of that sort. It either competes with the main personality, or brings forward aspects of their personality that they don’t want to face, live with, or even have. Even if they are what’s necessary, they do what the main personality doesn’t want to do, at a minimum. And that is frightening on a number of levels, from losing control to understanding that that person is who you really are.

The Argument from Theology … again.

September 16, 2015

So, Jerry Coyne posted a post from Dilbert on free will, and again retreated to the argument that those who accept free will in any sense — be they compatibilist or libertarian — are acting like theologians, presumably in that they don’t simply accept his arguments and evidence as being compelling (which, of course, isn’t under their control if Coyne is right) and thus don’t just accept his position.

Leaving out the comic, here’s pretty much all of Coyne’s post:

Dilbert tells Dogbert that doesn’t think we have any—at least of the contracausal, “libertarian” sort.

I like the last panel, which goes along with brain-scanning experiments that give the surprising result that you can predict (with 60-70% accuracy) the results of a binary decision up to ten seconds before the person who “makes” that decision is conscious of having made it. Of course, compatibilists and libertarian free-will advocates have found reasons to dismiss these experiments as evidence for free will. This is one of many ways that such people resemble theologians (another is that they think that belief in free will—even of the compatibilist sort—is, like belief in God, essential to keep society moral and harmonious.)

So, the first point thus says that Dilbert is either a hard determinist or a compatibilist, since compatibilists reject libertarian free will. Thus, what he says in theory can apply to them as well. Of course, he then goes on to strongly imply if not outright state that compatibilists and libertarians reject the Libet experiments simply because they want to dismiss them and don’t like the results, not because there are serious problems with them. He then goes on to add in the other argument about how some might argue that people believing that we don’t have free will might have a negative outcome, in line with his other arguments about how they only reject the positions because of those consequences … the “We all know that this is true, but let’s not let the rubes know because they’ll act badly” argument. All of which many people — including his commenters — have disabused him of repeatedly.

But if we want to go down that route, Coyne’s own behaviour doesn’t flatter him. First, he talks repeatedly about the importance of accepting hard determinism because of the impact he thinks that thinking that we are morally responsible for our actions has on society, especially with regards to punishment of offenders, including but not limited to reasons for the death penalty. While others have pointed out that you don’t need to be a hard determinist to come to the same conclusions about punishment and the death penalty, the big issue here is that if Coyne doesn’t think that his strong stance on those social consequences means that we ought to say that he is only accepting it for the consequences — rather than him, you know, really thinking it true and wanting people to accept that truth because knowing that truth will happen to lead to better results — then there’s no real reason for him to claim that about compatibilists either. If we ought not examine his psychology in order to determine if free will exists or not, there is no reason for him to examine the psychology of compatibilists or libertarians either.

But, even worse for Coyne, it would be quite easy to claim that Coyne’s behaviour is like that of a lot of creationists: come up with something that they think is evidence for their case, and then when people point out that the evidence doesn’t support their position the way they think it does retreat to claiming that they are dismissing that legitimate evidence. Add in a claim that the only reason they disregard the evidence is because it actually proves their view false and they don’t want it to be false, and we can see that this is exactly what Coyne does to compatibilists.

Now, I don’t claim that Coyne really is acting like a creationist. But I do claim that these sorts of arguments are counter-productive and useless. Either the evidence supports the conclusion or it doesn’t. Coyne is either right or he isn’t. Coyne reacts rather badly to people trying to dismiss his arguments on the basis of psychology, but insists on doing it to others, and then — intentionally or no — tries to win through an argument ad hominem by saying “You’re just like those really bad people that you don’t want to be like! Stop being like that! Accept my view!”. Coyne has not established his position strongly enough to insist that everyone must accept it or they just don’t want it to be true, and so are rejecting it irrationally. Some probably are, but Coyne dismisses all who reject his idea. He doesn’t have the evidence to support that strong a claim … which is a bad thing for someone so insistent that we should follow the evidence and come to our beliefs rationally.


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