Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Perils of the Moderate …

October 20, 2017

Everyone hates moderates.

Whenever you have strong ideologies or even positions on any topic, you will find moderates. And those people who are passionate about any of the options will always despise and criticize moderates for many, many reasons. We, in fact, have an entire fallacy dedicated to criticizing moderates the Argument to Moderation or “Golden Mean” fallacy, that ends up casting the moderate positions as fuzzy “middle-of-the-road” positions, taken for the sake of taking a middle ground. For the most part, moderates are seen as refusing to take sides, and even as aggressively defending their right to not take either side and to sometimes engage in “bothsidesism”, where they invalidly insist that both sides are equivalent, presumably mostly to maintain their fuzzy centrism and their ability to feel superior to both sides.

It is rare that anyone considers that most moderates might, well, be moderates because that’s the position that they actually believe. And even rarer that they deign to concede that that position might actually be correct.

Here is my argument: given two or more passionately held conflicting positions on a topic, most of the time some kind of intermediate and thus moderate position is going to be the correct one.

The reason for that is this: assuming that everyone is being honest in expressing their positions, in order for them to get passionately attached to their position there must be some sort of issue that drives that. There is something they want or, most likely, some kind of problem that they at least consider to be serious that they want solved. And in order for there to be any kind of passionate conflict between these positions, it has to be the case that the solutions to those problems have to at least be seen as being mutually exclusive, where if you solve the problem that is bothering one side you either can’t fix the problems of the other side or in fact end up making them worse. Thus, in anything that becomes any kind of passionate conflict, what you have are the various sides arguing for something that the other side sees as unacceptable given what they want.

Moderates, in general, often get torn between these sides, because they can see that each of them kinda have a point, and often understand the problems of all sides in ways that their opponents don’t. And they would like to see all of the problems fixed, and don’t want to see one side “win out’ over the others. Even when it comes to “bothsidesism”, for many moderates that doesn’t come from an insistence that all sides have to be equally bad, but instead noting that their actual problem is, say, with the tactics used, not with the causes being espoused. For example, my own personal objections to the “alt-right” using what they consider SJW tactics is that I hate the tactics and see their use as being a problem, not because I consider at least their stated goal of opposing the imposition of dubious values as being necessarily problematic, just as I consider the SJW tactics problematic but don’t oppose their stated goal of aiming for equality. I see identity politics as being harmful in and of itself, and so want that stopped, no matter what reason people use to justify using them.

Now, you can say “Well, what about the cases where the other side is hiding their real motivations, which we can all see because we’re perfect and telepathic and just utterly brilliant and that you somehow can’t see because you’re caught up in all of this ‘bothsidesism” that you cling to like a life preserver?”. I’d really rather people wouldn’t say it like that, but that’s pretty much only a mild exaggeration of what people actually say, with some slight sarcasm tossed in. Anyway, the problem is that once people become passionate about an issue there is always a risk that their stated motivations and their actual motivations won’t match up. For some, they will justify being deceptive on the basis that the mild deception will help them further their cause. For some, they will be prone to rationalization if they get accused of having less noble aims than they think they actually have, and thus being deceiving unintentionally and subconsciously. The issue here is that, in my experience, the problem is in the passionate attachment, not in the cause itself. If they can present a cause that at least seems reasonable, then their position has some justification to it, and so appealing to hidden motivations doesn’t actually change that the position, as presented, needs to be considered. And if you get into accusing your opposition of having hidden motives, you probably should take some time out to look to see if you happen to have a log in your own eye, just in case.

At the end of the day, though, passion or the lack of it is irrelevant. All that matters is coming to the right or best solution. So, given an opposition between strong views and an unconvinced set of moderates, the only right approach is calm and rational reasoning, teasing out the consequences and implications of each position and figuring out which is the right approach … which is what you really need to do to convince moderates that your position is right or at least more right than the other options.

That many people who passionately hold positions seems to bristle when it becomes clear that they would have to do that and instead insist that moderates are either apathetic or secretly support their opponents is indicative, it seems to me.

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The Politicization of Games

October 16, 2017

So, in another video, Extra Credits talked about politics in gaming and, specifically, the calls to get politics out of gaming. This sentiment is opposed by the argument that it can’t be done because, as they put it, “All media is political”.

Unfortunately, there is a major problem with their argument. In an aside, they say that we shouldn’t get rid of politics in games whatever that means because of what politics in games brings to them and to other works, but by so saying they reveal that they don’t know or at least aren’t certain what those who want to get politics out of games mean when they say that. And yet they spend the entire video talking about politics in media and why it can’t be taken out of games, and making the bold statement that “All media is political”. This is an argument ripe for equivocation, where they spend their time arguing against people who don’t like politics in games by using their definition of politics, while ignoring the definition that those on the other side of the argument are using. Thus, they can insist that politics in media are good and that all media is political as if they are refuting those people, while never actually addressing the sense in which their opponents use the term to argue that politics in media are bad and that not all media are indeed political.

Which, if you watch the video, seems to pretty much be the case. They tend to argue that politics are the examination of real world issues, political concerns, philosophies, and ethical dilemmas, and that these things are part and parcel of what make up people and also provide some of the best conflicts in games, and that therefore games without politics would have to drop all of those sorts of examinations. The problem is that when most people argue against politics in a media, what they really mean is not examination of issues inspired by real life, but instead has as its primary intent an attempt to argue for a specific idea, with the aim of convincing the consumer of that media that their position is the correct one. It doesn’t examine the issue as much as it propagandizes it, setting up the world and the outcome so as to present the consumer with what they hope is a compelling argument to adopt their viewpoint. In general, such attempts are not subtle, and are often heavy-handed, because the message has to be received and understood by the consumer or else the work didn’t do what it was intended to do.

They give examples of some works that did this, and one of them is Star Trek, which I think is a good example to use to demonstrate the difference. Star Trek TOS — which is what they pictured in the video — definitely reflects the political views of Gene Roddenberry, and deliberately invokes his ideas of diversity. However, what got it acclaim is that, for the most part, it explores and examines various issues without being overly obvious about its messaging. For most of the episodes, a case can and often is made for either side of the divide. For example, in “City on the Edge of Forever”, Edith Keeler is presented as someone who preaches the ideals of Roddenberry and of the Federation as presented, and yet those ideas being listened to at that time is presented as something that creates a disaster against the Nazis. The message of the episode is not that those ideals are wrong, nor that humans at the time, at least, were just too primitive to understand how right she was and that humanity is now more evolved, but instead the message is, as I believe is directly stated “She had the right ideas at the wrong time”. This allows everyone to enjoy the episode and the exploration even if they disagree with that specific message, or with any of the issues stated or explored in the episode. This can be contrasted with the more explicit messaging in Star Trek TNG, especially in the early seasons, where it was criticized for being so heavy-handed in its messaging that anyone who disagreed at all with it — and even some who did — found the Federation to be insufferably smug, constantly preaching their message and going on about how evolved they were now over those poor humans of roughly our time, as best exemplified by the first season episode “The Neutral Zone”. TOS explored issues, while TNG preached them.

Now, I personally don’t really mind if a creator wants to preach their worldviews and so makes a work of fiction specifically to try to promote them, as long as they are up front about that and, of course, that not all works try to do that, because works that aim for messaging tend to be less entertaining than those that aim for entertainment or to explore ideas. But another issue that we’re coming across here is the issue of politicization, where games and other media are being infested with strong politics with exploration of ideas and simple entertainment being pushed out. This happens in two ways:

1) Where various sources are pushing for games to insert more explicit political messages in order to become more mature or more relevant to the real world.

2) Where various sources push that games should only express certain specific political messages, usually ones that happen to align with their own personal views.

And this video, seemingly inadvertently, supports at least the first form of politicization, by saying that games are mature enough to handle politics and that politics are good and provide the conflict while conflating the exploring real world issues and views that people hold with political messaging. Because they don’t really examine in detail what the opponents of politics in gaming mean by that, they end up arguing by implication that any examination of a real world view or even anything inspired by that is at the same level as an explicit and direct attempt to arguing for a specific political or philosophical position, and thus justifying both equally. This is only made clear in their discussion of Missile Command as an example of politics in games, looking at nuclear proliferation … despite the fact that you could easily play and enjoy that game if you didn’t make that link at all. Their argument that all media is political is also undercut by games that were contemporaries of Missile Command that didn’t even have that subtle level of messaging and were at least as good as it, like Pac-Man, Defender and Asteroids. You don’t really need to have any kind of political message to make a good game.

Thus, they justify the proliferation of specific and deliberate political message by buying into the “All media are political” message which is also exemplified by the feminist “The personal is political” philosophical argument: if all media is political, then there really is no difference between a game that references real world messages or explores a real world political and philosophical issue, and a game that sets out to promote a specific political message. This idea is then used to deflect any criticism that the creator is really propagandizing their game or message by insisting that everyone does that, while ignoring that often they really aren’t, because they aren’t presenting any of those things as a conclusion, but are either simply copying them from society in order to relate better to their audience or that explore the issues without presenting either position on the issue to be necessarily right or better than anyone else’s. Thus, a game that happens to have a damsel in distress or engage in some fanservice is suddenly just as political as a game that tries to shame people for accepting or engaging in those tropes, and a game that explores the question of privacy concerns vs security against an enemy that could be anyone is just as political as a game that deliberately tries to show that privacy concerns should always trump security concerns.

What we are seeing in our increasingly polarized society is that more and more people want to use media not to produce a great creative work for people to enjoy but instead to promote their own specific ideas, and to criticize media that promote messages that they don’t agree with. This has, of course, been common throughout history. But what we’re seeing as society gets more polarized is that even not taking a side is seen by both sides as, in fact, taking the other side in the debate. So presenting both sides in a neutral way is political messaging, and simply referencing the ideas shallowly and building off of them to create the unrelated conflict in your work is also political messaging. Doing anything is a work is now, suddenly, political messaging.

Because, after all, “All media is political”.

Rise of Dictators …

October 6, 2017

So, I just finished reading a biography of Julius Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy. Not long before that, I read a book talking about the French Revolution exploring how it turned into the Terror. I’ve also, of course, read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. All of which talk about how governments that weren’t restrictive dictatorships/tyrannies turned into far more restrictive and tyrannical nations. While reading it, it struck me that it is precisely this that is making progressives very angry and scared, the idea that the United States is moving from being more liberal and democratic to becoming a Trump-led dictatorship. And there’s one commonality in at least those three historical events that I think they are missing.

In all of those cases, the tyranny came about because the people, in general, didn’t feel that the current system and people in power were serving the people, and so were willing to accept someone, anyone, who was in a position of some power and promised to fix all of that up.

Germany had been in dire straits for a long time after WWI, and had suffered what many of the people considered to be egregious humiliations for their part in it. The Socialists were blamed — quite likely wrongly — for the surrender, and were blamed for not making things better and/or for not trying to restore German honour. Hitler, on the other hand, directly promised to restore their honour and make the country better, and when he received power he actually did both, although how much of the economic recovery was due to his policies or just a generally recovering economy is not entirely clear. Given that he at least at first seemed to be fixing things and pretty much every move he made he won in the beginning, it’s not surprising that the general German public supported him, at least until he started losing. By the time his policies started impacting the common German, he and his party were too entrenched to be easily removed. And what is also critical to note is that his opponents often spent more time attacking him than in understanding why the common German at least somewhat supported him and trying to appeal to them.

Whatever else you might say about him, Caesar actually had a lot of support from the common person in the Civil War. Throughout his entire political career, he had advocated for and enacted a number of policies to benefit the common voter. Meanwhile, the existing Senators were seen as being ineffective at best and corrupt at worst. Pompey and his supporters, fearing that he might take over, actually precipitated the conflict by essentially setting up a case where Caesar could be prosecuted for purported crimes while he was in charge of Transalpine Gaul, which Caesar felt could be used to deny him what he saw as his rightful power. Given that it was clear that political trials in Rome did not turn on truth but instead on the personal interests of the people prosecuting and voting, this left Caesar potentially taking a huge risk if he accepted it. And even as official dictator, he continued to promote the interests of the common person, and at least tried to maintain the image of being merciful and conciliatory.

But the most indicative one is the French Revolution. The government was corrupt, and so the Revolutionaries rode a wave of popular support, making strong accusations and riding mob rule to carry out punishments on those people, whether or not those accusations were really founded. And then when they got into power, they continued to splinter and to make the same sorts of accusations against each other, resulting in a tug of war where the person who could actually convince the people that one of their former leaders and comrades was really a traitor to the cause winning and gaining power through that, which led to the Terror.

You can argue that Trump is taking the Caesar/Hitler route, presenting himself as the only person who can fight the corruption in the government and “drain the swamp”. And yet you can also argue that the progressives are taking the Revolution route, attempting to muster popular support by making often dramatic and poorly founded accusations against Trump and anyone who supports him in any way, and presenting his government as the corruption that they must fight and — using the Nazi parallels and the “Punch a Nazi” rhetoric — fight with violence if necessary, which means fight with violence if they can’t win. If we take these historical parallels to their logical conclusions, you’d have the choice between an American Empire or an American Terror. Is it any wonder, then, that so many moderates don’t support either side?

Carrier on Plantinga’s Tiger …

September 22, 2017

So, lately, Richard Carrier has been posting very long and very snarky and insulting posts talking about philosophy in general, with a particular focus on ethics and religion. The problem is that those posts being long and taking lots of time out to insult the people he’s criticizing and any who might hold a similar position makes them very hard to read, and would do so even if I agreed with him … which, of course, I generally don’t. In fact, it’s worse when I disagree with him because the insults don’t add anything to the conversation for me and yet I feel that I really should read through the entire post to make sure that he doesn’t make a point that, well, makes sense or address some of my objections.

However, there are, at least on occasion, things that I want to address in them, so I’m going to try. In this post, I’m going to address his comments on Plantinga’s Tiger thought experiment and the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, that he discusses in two posts.

So, what is this thought experiment, and what is this argument? Well, Plantinga wants to argue that if accepting evolution and naturalism would provide a defeater for our belief that evolution and/or naturalism are true, then we would have reason to reject at least one of them and accept some other view, which he suggests would be a theistic view. How he tries to get there is to argue that if our cognitive faculties were selected for by evolution with no supernatural influence, then they were selected for simply on a survival basis; they were selected for because using them allowed the organism to survive longer and/or reproduce more than those who didn’t have them or didn’t use them. In general, we assume that propositions have to be true in order to provide a survival benefit; if you don’t have an accurate view of reality, you probably aren’t going to be able to survive for very long. But this is exactly what Plantinga wants to challenge with his thought experiment.

What he argues is this: our behaviour is determined, in some sense, by our beliefs and desires. We believe some facts about the world, have some desires, decide that given the facts we have about the world that a certain action will achieve our desires, take that action, and then see what happens. If it works, we assume that our reasoning was correct and we have the right facts, and if it doesn’t we assume that either our beliefs or our reasoning about what would be a good action are correct, and so try to correct one of them. But Plantinga argues that we can derive the right behaviour from the wrong beliefs, as long as the wrong beliefs are assembled in the right way. And that’s what his thought experiment is aimed at showing. It argues that if a human comes across a tiger, the right behaviour in terms of survival is to run away. So if the person believes that a tiger is a threat, and that the right behaviour to ensure their survival is to run away, then that is what they will do, and they will succeed. But if the person believes that the tiger, say, wants to play tag, they will also run away, and they will also succeed. Because Plantinga wants to make an argument that the probability of getting true beliefs just from pragmatics is low, he argues that there are many, many ways to assemble appropriate false beliefs, but only one way of assembling true ones, so a cognitive faculty that was selected for on the basis of pragmatics — the beliefs it produces works out — would be unreliable. And if our cognitive faculties are so selected and thus are unreliable, then any belief produced by them is produced by an unreliable mechanism and so cannot be trusted. But our belief in naturalism and evolution are produced, he argues, by those mechanisms, and thus would be unreliable. So we’d have a defeater for those beliefs if we accepted them, and so it’s not rational to believe them.

Now let me generalize a bit from this to make it clearer, because I believe that some of the things he assumes he doesn’t have to assume to make his point. First, I think that his view can be summed up as this: selecting for pragmatics isn’t the same as selecting for truth, and so you cannot assume that a mechanism that produces useful beliefs is also producing true ones. Second, I don’t think he needs to argue that the probability of getting true beliefs is low, just that such a system will produce false beliefs a significant amount of the time. If it does, then we’d have to doubt any belief we have since we wouldn’t know — and couldn’t tell — which of the beliefs were true and which were conveniently false, which would provide our reason to doubt evolution and naturalism.

Now, before I get into Carrier’s counters, let me briefly outline what _I_ think is the best counter to it. While it’s relatively easy to find one case where we can massage beliefs to get the right behaviour, most of our beliefs are used in a number of situations. It’s a lot harder to imagine that we can have a set of false beliefs that would work in every case where those beliefs are relevant to our behaviour. It’s a lot harder to assemble a consistent set of beliefs that work with every other belief that we have in the situations where other beliefs are relevant to our decision. You can do it, but it usually involves a lot of workarounds and patch-ups and by the end of the day it really seems like just having true beliefs is far less complicated and actually works far more of the time. In isolation, the thought experiment might seem plausible — many people, however, don’t find it plausible — but as we build out a full Web of Belief it starts to look quite implausible.

So, then, what are Carrier’s counters. The first one I’d like to look at is the idea that Plantinga’s idea of beliefs and desires producing behaviour isn’t an accurate way to describe our cognitive faculties:

He does so by simply asserting all that happens in cognitive evolution is the natural selection of belief-desire pairs (“see tiger, run”). That’s wildly false. As I already noted, it’s total bullshit, worthy of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter. You can’t explain the reliability of human vision in accessing reality (which gets us mostly to a correct basic physics of the world, like where objects are and what shapes they have and what the patterns of their geometry and movement tell us about reality, e.g. discriminating a live tiger from a dead one, or a tiger from a wildcat, or an angry tiger from a guy in a tiger-pelt cloak), and the evolution of human hypothesis-testing in accessing reality (which gets us things like “a spear will kill a tiger”), with the same selection model at all, much less Plantinga’s nonsense about “belief-desire pairs.”

The problem is that even if Plantinga insists that our cognitive faculties work entirely on “belief-desire pairs” — and it isn’t clear that he does — this doesn’t matter, because that still works as a relatively accurate description of how we act in the world based on the facts we have, which is the only thing that evolution or even pragmatics can work on. We have facts about the world, things we want to accomplish, and we use those to determine how to act in the world. Whether those facts form from reasoning into an explicit belief proposition or from an automatic parsing of sense data, at the end for everything we know beyond the instinctual — and possibly even in the instinctual — we have a fact and a desire and combining the two gives us an action that we can take to see if it works out in the world, which many people then use to conclude that the facts and reasoning are true. If Carrier is going to deny this, then he’s going to have no way to actually test any cognitive faculties, and will undercut his own pragmatic arguments. So this argument is entirely irrelevant to the debate.

His better counter is to introduce a distinction between our innate cognitive faculties and our developed ones, like logic and science. The former are clearly produced by evolution and are also, according to Carrier, actually pretty bad, as he expects given evolution. But they are good enough to allow us to develop those other cognitive faculties, and those ones work really well, and those are the ones that justify evolution and naturalism:

Plantinga is explaining the wrong thing. He thinks innate faculties have to generate scientific knowledge. False. All they have to be able to do is generate the ability to discover a technique (like the scientific method). And then the technique generates scientific knowledge. Using those underlying faculties. But it is not the faculties alone that are doing it. Those faculties have to be manipulated according to a procedure, one not evolved, and not innate in the brain (nor easily learned…remember, no human learned it for hundreds of thousands of years; and no human learns it today, unless they are taught it by someone else).

Note that we don’t even need evolved faculties that generate the techniques that can gain greater access to world knowledge. We only need evolved faculties to have the ability to generate those techniques. And observe history: that’s what happened. Our evolved faculties did not just generate those techniques (in the way they readily generate, for example, knowledge of object permanence). They failed to do so for countless thousands of years of countless millions of humans tinkering around and exploring different techniques. That that process would stumble across the cognitive tools we now use (science, math, logic) was statistically inevitable; it just would require a really long time. And lo and behold, we observe that’s exactly what it did. Evolution by natural selection is confirmed. Intelligent design is refuted.

(Note that Carrier tends to use a lot of emphasis, which doesn’t come across when I copy from his posts. I’m too lazy to put it back in, but it’s in the second link above if you want to see it).

But the problem with this view is that simply generating a technique or cognitive faculty isn’t enough. It has to be a technique that we can verify is reliable, meaning that it produces true beliefs more often than it produces false ones, and preferably that produces true beliefs almost all of the time. If our underlying faculties are in general pretty poor at doing that, we can’t use them to verify these new faculties. And since that’s all we have, there doesn’t seem to be a way that we can justify that these faculties are reliable, and so no way we can know that they are reliable. And if we can’t know that they are reliable, then Plantinga has his defeater.

Now, Carrier would argue that we test everything against survival, or rather that they work in the way outlined above: they produce beliefs that, when we act on them, actually work out as expected. Our innate faculties work well enough to be useful and to help us produce tools, but when we acted on them we found them to be insufficient as they are wrong way too often, but when we act on science or logic they work out far more often, and so are more reliable, and so we judge them reliable because, well, they do indeed work. This is probably about the only way we can go … but note that as I commented above this just retreats to justifying our cognitive faculties on the basis of pragmatics, and Plantinga’s argument is that trying to use pragmatics to justify our cognitive faculties doesn’t work because we can have a large number of sets of false beliefs that happen to produce the correct behaviour, meaning that those false beliefs happen to “work”. Thus, Carrier either gives Plantinga his defeater, or else uses the precise justification that Plantinga is attacking. Carrier hits at this attack:

It is not true that we can build consistently false beliefs about the world and still successfully navigate it. False beliefs kill you, e.g. a hungry man who runs from a tiger will starve; a hungry man who endeavors to kill the tiger, will eat. More to the point, if you don’t know you can’t hide from a tiger inside of a coconut; that objects don’t cease to exist when they move behind other objects; that you can’t summon water on a journey; that a leaf doesn’t hold enough water to drink in a day; and on and on and on, you will not do very well at survival compared to someone who does know those things.

But while a number of these things seem right, and even his attack on Reppert in the first post cited above is not unreasonable, nobody thinks that the sets of false beliefs are this trivial. Even Plantinga’s example is more complicated than this. Carrier, it seems to me, really needs an argument like the one I outlined above (which may be buried somewhere in his posts), which is that as we get into more and more complicated actions and interconnected beliefs, creating consistent false beliefs that always work is simply untenable.

So Carrier’s counters aren’t all that strong, certainly not strong enough to justify the strong tone he takes. That being said, I don’t think Plantinga’s argument works either.

Review of “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom

September 15, 2017

So, a short review here of “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom. Being someone who is in general suspicious of empathy and particularly in its use in morality, the idea of someone else arguing directly against that interested me, which is why I picked up the book, to see what his overall arguments were.

One of the things that Bloom is careful to do is to separate the various types of empathy, which I’ll talk about using my terms for them (and not his): affective empathy, which is feeling what other people are feeling, cognitive empathy, which is knowing what other people are feeling, and moral empathy, which is caring about what they are feeling beyond what benefit you get from it. Bloom thinks that many people are conflating affective empathy with the other two, which causes them to think that affective empathy is required for being moral. And it’s easy to see how that can happen, since a pretty good case can be made that a moral person a) has to care about what other people are feeling to determine what the right moral action is and thus b) has to know what someone is or will actually feel. Bloom’s argument, though, is that in general affective empathy isn’t all that great at doing that and even at lining up with our general moral intuitions. The reasons he gives are pretty much in line with my general objections to using empathy as a moral basis: empathy tends towards in-group and out-group thinking, and also causes the issue of preferring the minor pain of, say, our own child over the deaths of unknown strangers. It also encourages the idea of “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” because we simply aren’t capable of engaging in actual affective empathy for people beyond a very small number. So if we are using affective empathy to get morality, once we hit large numbers of people that we need to consider the interests of we simply aren’t going to be capable of doing that.

For me, though, while reading it I had a revelation that empathy cannot be a moral basis because it can never be a justification for a moral action. If you take an action that you think is moral and someone else insists that what you did was immoral, you are never going to be able to defend yourself by simply saying that you were right about what someone — even yourself — was feeling or would feel in that situation. At a minimum, you are going to have to outline why those feelings would mean that what you did was moral, which means that you are going to have to appeal to some other underlying moral principle, like maximizing everyone’s happiness, or maximizing your own happiness, or chasing virtue, or chasing duty, or whatever. So those feelings end up being data points that may or may not matter in determining what is the properly moral course, but don’t in and of themselves determine what is or isn’t moral. Thus, cognitive and moral empathy are tools that provide data that can be used to determine what is and isn’t moral, but don’t define it, and I think most people who argue strongly for empathy as a basis for morality treat it as something that they can just run and use to determine what is moral without appealing to other moral principles. And, shockingly, they tend to be willing to act in ways that seem quite immoral to most towards people that they don’t like or don’t understand.

Bloom’s arguments and the book itself are generally pretty good. It’s mostly a collection of essays that are turned into chapters, and as such it gets awfully repetitive, and it isn’t philosophically deep in any way, but I think he nicely captures the different types of empathy and their impact on the debate, as well as some strong arguments for why empathy isn’t the right way to approach morality. It might have been nice if he had focused on some more philosophical counters instead of merely focusing on the practical argument that empathy was generally ineffective and led to moral contradictions, but it’s an approachable book that summarizes a number of useful discussions on empathy and its relation to morality.

Reactions …

September 8, 2017

So, I was watching Chuck Sonnenburg’s review of Technobabylon and had an interesting reaction to it. At one point, the two detective characters are investigating the murder of a married couple, and a flashback shows that the couple is a same-sex couple. And I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking “Of course”, in precisely the same way that I react to clearly pandering attempts to appeal to vocal minority/special interest groups. Except … that wasn’t an obvious case of that. Sure, it’s clearly an attempt to portray that sort of relationship, but since those things happen having it just be in the story shouldn’t have been enough to trigger that sort of reaction. Now, later, Chuck talks about how one of the characters is trans, Asian, lesbian and probably one or two other things as well, which does justify that sort of reaction, but why was I reacting to that there? I’d never played the game and there wasn’t anything that really stood out before that, and my reaction to the revelation that the lesbian character was a lesbian only garnered a “Huh” reaction, so why did that jump out at me? I won’t give myself credit for having seen the obvious pattern and so came to the right conclusion from the subtle signs, so why did I react that way when, objectively, I had no reason to?

I think the reaction comes from the current context around discussions of these sorts of issues. Currently, any game that isn’t seen as being “diverse” enough is criticized, and any game or media that is seen as “inclusive” is praised for being that rarest of the rare and doing something great and modern and sticking it to the Gamergaters and all of that crap. Sure, many of the sites I read — who for the most part aren’t gaming focused, interestingly enough — take on that mindset so I see it more often than a Not-So-Casual Gamer should, but it’s still prevalent in the media and in the discourse. And thus when I see something like that appearing in a game or other work my first reaction is to think that it’s there only to appeal to that market, stifle those criticisms, or because the designers or studios are led by SJW-types who think it is important to make sure that’s in there. And that might be unfair, but more often than not, given the state we’re in, it’s also often right.

And I think this sort of backlash explains some of the public reactions to recent movies and games and the like. From what I can tell, “Wonder Woman” didn’t get the same sort of backlash that the revamped “Ghostbusters” did, and when it did it was more from the women who were going on about how “empowered” it made them feel and somehow knowing what men had been feeling all this time — when most men generally didn’t feel anything like that from the male-led movies — than criticism over it being a female-led movie. And the strongest reactions I’ve seen to “Ghost in the Shell” are from the Social Justice side criticizing it for “white-washing” a character that might well have been white originally, not from people complaining that it had a female lead. Besides Sony and the producers/directors doubling-down on the sexism claims, I think one of the main reasons for the difference in reaction is that neither of those could be seen as pandering. If DC was going to start up a DCCU and do a Justice League movie, Wonder Woman had to be there and had to get a movie of her own. And Ghost in the Shell had always had a female lead, so the adaptation doing that only made sense. But when Ghostbusters did it, there was no reason to think that it wasn’t just pandering, and given the context it seemed pretty likely that that was the reason for it … which may or may not have been the case originally. So the same thing applies to my reaction: I had no reason to think that it wasn’t pandering, so it immediately struck me as pandering given the context that pandering is seen as a good thing by so many people.

So, it seems to me that saturating the landscape with these comments and criticisms and demands is a bad thing, and so the people who actually want more diversity in games would do themselves a huge favour by being more selective when they talk about this. The problem is that if they don’t talk about these things, no one will hear about them and so no one will do anything about them. So they’d have to walk a fine line between mentioning it enough and loudly enough that people will pay attention to them and being so loud and constant that they annoy people. However, I can say that this quote from a review by Carolyn Petit of Tacoma at “Feminist Frequency” is absolutely not the way to go about it:

Tacoma feels bold not just in its speculation about technological advancements, but also in its assumption of a present in which stories with a cast of six people and nary a straight white man in sight can elevate everyone’s humanity. So often when I express the need for broader, better representations in games, I’m met with a response that’s some sarcastic variation on “Sure, why don’t we make a game about a queer black Muslim bisexual trans woman?” As if such a character is inherently less human, less deserving of being the center of a story than a straight white cis man.

Tacoma features a black woman, a Muslim woman, and a queer Asian man, among others, and the humanity of every character is incidental, fully assumed and fully granted by each of the others; the game is full of conflict but none of that conflict is rooted in the specifics of anyone’s gender, race, or sexuality. The game envisions a future in which discussions like the one I’m having right now no longer need to happen, because everyone’s humanity is fully recognized. I look forward to the day when we no longer need to praise a game, film, or TV show simply for who it dares to be about, but although Tacoma imagines such a day, and although we need visions of what that day might look like, we’re not there yet.

A review that is praising diversity in a game for deliberately excluding white men is not, in fact, going to help. First, it’s going to draw attention to that fact, which will lead people to think that it’s pandering. Second, it’s highlighting there not being any white males as a benefit, which strikes against diversity. And third, the over-the-top praise for doing gives an incentive for game companies to do it and thus pander to these interests, giving an inherent reason to think that the company really is just pandering. All in all, all this will do is get people to notice these things and roll their eyes at the shameless pandering.

And the sad thing is that I expect that if I had simply picked up and played Tacoma — which I haven’t — without reading the view I wouldn’t have noticed that there wasn’t a white male character, and if I had it wouldn’t have bothered me, and that that would hold true for a large number of gamers. After all, it didn’t bother me in Fatal Frame, or with the female characters I played in Mass Effect, Dragon Age, The Old Republic and, well, most games I play, and I don’t recall there being this reaction to those games or to Silent Hill 3, which had Heather as the main character. Outside of this context, if the game and/or characters are good few people will care if they are a white male or whatever. It’s when the context is poisoned by either the game or the media making a big deal out of it that it starts to look like pandering and the seams start to appear.

Even if they aren’t there.

Don’t Trust Skepticism!

September 1, 2017

Rebecca Watson decided to try to demonstrate her skeptical credentials by taking on an article in Jezebel on past-life regressions. Out of the gate, she turns the entire thing into the equivalent of a skeptical “pissing contest”:

This week I read an article on Jezebel about a “skeptic” who underwent past life regression and surprise! She was super convinced that it was real and an awesome experience. I’m a skeptic, too, and allow me to give you an alternative perspective: past-life regression is stupid, and occasionally dangerous, nonsense.

This would have more thrust if the author of the article — Madeleine Davies — actually was super convinced that it was real, meaning that it was a real past-life regression. The problem is that if you read the article she isn’t. She does think that it was a wonderful experience, but she says several times that she isn’t sure if this was a real past-life regression or just an invention of her psyche:

Feeling remarkably light after she and I said goodbye, I called my parents and told them what I had done. If reincarnation was real, I wanted them to know how deeply happy I was to keep experiencing life with them. If it was all a figment of my imagination, I noted, they should still feel touched that my brain chose to cast them in such significant roles.

But while I found reassurance in Barham’s interpretation of the regression, and repeated everything to my parents with verklempt enthusiasm, very little time passed before I began to doubt all that I had seen or heard while under hypnosis.

Or maybe I wasn’t. One of the chief skeptical speculations about past life regression therapy is that what’s experienced while under hypnosis is the result of cryptomnesia, the accidental plagiarism of books, TV, movies, or stories. Considering my own regression, I can certainly find enough pieces of The English Patient or The Lost City of Z (or even the survey of Africa course that I took in college) to create an exciting story. Another possibility, as some in the psychiatric community speculate, is that what I went through was the result of confabulation—the creation of false memories—a phenomenon often associated with recovered-memory therapy, a highly controversial technique that, while meant to recover memories from the past, has, on occasion, planted false (and often traumatic) memories in the patient’s mind.

I found myself impressed with the exceptional power of the human brain—my human brain!—and its ability to produce a (very gripping, if I do say so myself) story of that magnitude, seemingly out of scraps and pieces of long forgotten ephemera. My imagination was able to produce a sense of emotional freedom and solace that I’ve since been able to revisit, and it’s been useful—whether it’s based in reality or not.

Does that sound like someone that’s “super convinced” to you?

Without even getting into the specifics of the experience, Watson tries to stack the deck against Davies being a real skeptic by attacking things she said in the article as a preamble:

The writer claims that she was a skeptic, relying on the fact that she once made fun of a past-life regression, and that she doesn’t believe in an afterlife, and that she jokes about astrology. But she also admits that she is scared of ghosts and doesn’t sign “important paperwork while Mercury is in retrograde.” The ****? I honestly can’t tell if that’s a joke or not. At first I assumed it was, but then she went on to describe her past-life regression session in glowing terms so now I’m not sure. Heads up: you were not a skeptic. You were someone who made jokes about superstition because you thought it would make someone think you were smart, when you’re actually not very smart.

So, what Watson is trying to do here is poison the well, argue that Davies can’t really be skeptical because of those things. Except that those points are brought up to, in fact, acknowledge the precise sort of tension in her that Davies is acknowledging and trying to address:

This was my first time meeting Barham, but it was not my first time seeing her. I had written about her once before when she appeared on a talkshow late last year, demonstrating past life regression on one of the Real Housewives. To be frank, I wasn’t particularly kind in my write up of the segment. As I put it at the time, “It’s all bullshit, anyway.”

But bromidic though it may be, since turning 30, I’ve become more and more intent on exploring what scares me and better understanding my own paradoxical spirituality: For example, I don’t believe in an afterlife, yet I’m terrified of ghosts; I joke about horoscopes and astrology, but still try to avoid signing important paperwork while Mercury is in retrograde; I put my faith in science, but lack the certainty or courage to commit fully to atheism. In that vein, I do not reject the notion of past lives outright. Growing up, my family—not exactly new age, but not exactly not—discussed the concept frequently. My parents visited a past-life channeler when I was a child. The channeler then told my step father that power was very important to me and that I don’t do well when it’s taken away, an insight that turned out to be invaluable to him as I adapted to living with someone who was not my biological father. (He still partially credits it for our closeness and good relationship to this day.) But despite a strong familiarity, I’m still reluctant to believe anything until I experience it myself.

So, she acknowledges that while she doesn’t believe in those things, she has some leftover impulses that imply those things, and she’s trying to figure that out. For past lives specifically, she has an anecdote from someone she trusts that doing one of those things gave an insight that at least that person found accurate and useful but that they believe they couldn’t have gotten as easily otherwise. So she isn’t willing to just believe that’s the case unless she explores it herself, and isn’t willing to simply dismiss it as being obviously false … despite her doing that initially. So her response is to go out and investigate it herself.

Compare that to Watson’s response:

I’m guessing not, because no one has ever shown any proof of a past-life regression, probably because there’s no such thing as reincarnation and even if there was there’s no such thing as old memories sticking in your new brain matter and even if there was there’s no way for anyone to dig those memories up.

Watson just knows, somehow, that this stuff is all fake and can’t possibly occur. She’s done little to no investigation — or, at least, hasn’t given any here — and falls back on the really bad argument that she can’t see any method for this to occur anyway, which is a standard skeptical argument. Of course, if we could demonstrate somehow that the recollections really were a past life, we’d then go look for by what method these things carry over like we do for pretty much any new scientific discovery, but why should scientific skeptics bother to follow any of the methods of science in making their claims.

So, let’s compare the two cases to Watson’s definition of what a skeptic should be:

A skeptic, in fact, should be someone who thinks critically about everything, including and especially their own experiences. A skeptic understands that their own perspective on things can be warped. They understand that there are con artists in the world who know how to manipulate others and will do so for money or fame. Madeline Davies is not, I assure you, a skeptic.

Except that when confronted with something that she had some anecdotal evidence for but that she didn’t believe in, Davies’ response was … to go and test it out. Watson’s response, on the other hand, was to insist that it wasn’t real and so no testing was necessary and that Davies was just gullible and Barham, the therapist, was a con artist who should have her marriage and family therapist license taken away. Despite the fact that if Barham was using this as part of her regular practice, the test for whether she was doing wrong by this would be to see if her patients were getting better using this, which Watson never bothers to ask about or explore in any way. Instead, she nitpicks over certification:

As exhibit one, I present the fact that she wrote an article about seeing “a certified past life therapist” without ever asking who is certifying past-life therapists and how does one get that certification. Is it like certifying a saint, where you have to show “proof” of three verified past-life regressions?

But this doesn’t matter. Davies chose Barham because a) Davies had criticized her strongly before and b) she was at least technically certified by some organization that tries to do that. Thus, if Davies was going to test it out, Barham is at least someone where it is more difficult to simply say “Well, they didn’t know what they were doing”, and Davies it seems wanted to test if her original impression of Barham was valid. This comment about certification is nothing more than an excuse to say that you don’t even have to test out or question your initial presumptions at all. It’s no coincidence that this nitpick leads directly into Watson’s above-quoted comment about this stuff all being fake implying that there’s no need to test it.

Watson then goes after the caveats:

For instance, Barham reassures Davies that no matter what happens, Davies is not gullible. Even if it turns out that her entire “past life” is obviously just a recounting of an episode of Joanie Loves Chachi, this is just due to the “Jungian concept of synchronicity.” Instead of being skeptical about why Barham is giving her a defense against accusations of stupidity, Davies instead lists two more ways to say the same nonsense, each one more hilarious than the last: “the acausal connection of two or more psychic and physical phenomena”, and “the psychological profundity of coincidence.” Yep, you’re definitely not just super gullible. It’s Jungian!

It never seems to even occur to Davies that she is paying for Barham to make her regress into a past life, but Barham herself is already offering excuses for why what happens may not be real, and may just be her psyche offering symbolic metaphors. If you can actually make a person remember a past life, and if you are charging them for the honor of doing this, why would you need to couch your services by telling clients that even if it’s not real, it’s still beneficial?

Because for Barham it being beneficial is the point, not that it regresses you to a past life. Barham, it seems to me, believes that past lives exist and that their influences can influence the psychological state of people in the present, and that in order to address at least certain problems addressing that influence is key. But many people will doubt whether or not they are really getting past lives or are just getting invented scenes in their own mind. And if that’s the case, Barham is okay with it, because she feels that most of the time this will still result in an interesting insight that can help these people. So her main goal here is not to regress them to a past life, but to address underlying psychological problems. If the person doubts that it’s a real past life but it helps them anyway, for Barham that’s a win.

As for assuring Davies that she isn’t gullible, Barham’s point here is to argue that Barham, herself, isn’t going to guide Davies to any conclusion. She’s going to try, at least, to do nothing more than let Davies herself take an experiential journey through whatever her mind comes up with. Thus, Davies is not going to look gullible in the sense that she’s not going to look like she’s simply accepting without thought what Barham says while she’s in that state and is not just going to have an experience that Barham implants in her. Whether or not this is true will depend on the details of the session itself, as Barham might well be doing that … or might be doing what she claims and leaving it up to Davies herself.

Again, does this mean that Davies’ experience has to be a past life regression? No, but Davies herself admits that, and accepts that the alternative that Barham provides might be the case: it’s just an invention of her own mind. I don’t think Watson has a better explanation than that one handy, and Davies and Barham constantly concede it, so it seems that the skeptical approach of considering alternative explanations is in full force here. Hardly a reason to think that Davies isn’t properly skeptical.

Watson then tries to deny that Davies considers the potential harm by pointing out where Davies … uh, considers the potential harm that Watson is concerned about:

She still thinks the experience was fantastic and highly recommends it to readers, with nary a word of caution. Again, for a skeptic, it’s amazing that it doesn’t occur to her that there are inherent dangers to this. Davies’ attitude is basically “sure it may not be an actual past-life regression, but you should do it anyway because of what your psyche will reveal!” Here’s the number one problem with that: there are innumerable cases of people having incredibly dangerous false memories implanted during these kinds of “regressions.” She mentions that this has happened “on occasion,” which is a ridiculous downplaying. It’s extremely easy to plant false memories in people, and it sends people to prison, makes them think extremely horrific things happened to them, damages them psychologically, and ruins their lives.

So, Watson at best is upset that Davies downplays it … except that in past life regressions most of Watson’s objections don’t hold because in context these aren’t current or recovered memories. No one is likely to rush off and claim that they were sexually abused because this technique that isn’t supposed to recover actual current memories recovered one. I’d presume that if someone claimed that it had recovered an actual current memory Barham would be suspicious of it because, again, the process isn’t supposed to do that. If everything works out like Barham planned, the person will come out of this thinking that in a previous life they were a certain person and had a certain experience, and will remember it as a past life and not current life experience. The next best thing is that is was an invented experience that reveals something about their psyche. In no way would Barham support it being an actual memory, and thus most of the danger isn’t there.

Watson’s summary really does indicate the extent of her skepticism:

Meanwhile, there is no certification for a past-life regression therapist. It’s just a con artist who is taking your money. Sure, maybe you’ll come away with a positive experience, and maybe it won’t break your bank because some stupid blog paid for you to do it and then write about it, or maybe the con artist did it for free for the advertising. But maybe you’ll drop a few thousand dollars just to let a con artist manipulate your memories.

Instead, you could spend that money on an actual psychiatrist, therapist, or psychologist who believes in science-based healthcare and who will help you work through whatever issues you have without putting you into a vulnerable state and telling you that you were Cleopatra’s handmaiden.

For some people, even if it isn’t a past life progression, techniques like this could give insights that regular techniques can’t. But since this is supposed to be “science-based healthcare”, one would think that a science-based skeptic would want to take the obvious science-based approach and, well, test it. Watson can argue, rightly, that Davies’ approach here isn’t a proper scientific test. But Watson is using her preconceptions about things like reincarnation to dismiss this out of hand and to in fact dismiss the need to test it at all. Which includes the idea that the technique can be helpful even if it isn’t revealing a real past life. Which, of course, we have scientific approaches to test, using what is commonly referred to as psychology.

Watson, here, justifies claiming that Davies is not a proper skeptic because she deigned to try to test a proposition that she thought obviously true — reincarnation and past lives are bunk — and that Watson is indeed the proper skeptic here for insisting that it is obviously true without bothering to test that. Does that seem backwards to anyone else?

So, about Joss Whedon …

August 25, 2017

So, Joss Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, just recently wrote an article talking about how Joss Whedon is a hypocrite for claiming that he was a feminist while acting decidedly non-feminist in his marriage to her. Of course, something like this garners comment from pretty much all corners of the web, with both Vox Day and John Scalzi commenting on it, with Vox Day claiming that this is indicative of male feminists and Scalzi mostly claiming that he’s not like that. But the one that most inspired me to write this post is a video by Liana Kerzner, where she admittedly rants about the situation and then blames it all on Anita Sarkeesian. Since she’s been critical of Sarkeesian in the past, one’s first reaction might well be to tell her to lighten up a bit on Sarkeesian, because not everything is Sarkeesian’s fault. But she makes an interesting argument on the link that I think is worth exploring a bit.

Now, the issue here is that Whedon allegedly had a number of affairs while married to Cole, and hid them from her. And when she expressed concerns about how much time he was spending with attractive women, he allegedly insisted that he didn’t feel lust for them, but admired and respected them because his mother raised him as a feminist. This, of course, is what is triggering all of the complaints about Whedon’s hypocrisy about feminism, as it looks like he was using his purported feminism as a way to deflect criticism in this case and, perhaps, in many others.

Liana K’s argument is this, as best I understand it: the problem is that feminism like Anita Sarkeesian’s holds that any sort of sexual attraction on the part of men is in some sense wrong. And if all ways of thinking about sex with women are wrong, then all you have is, at best, a kind of continuum of wrong, with, say, looking at attractive women on one end and things like rape, sexual harassment and adultery on the other. But since this is a continuum, the lines get blurred. Instead of arguing whether the sexual action is right or wrong, you end up arguing over how bad the action is. But it’s wrong anyway. So being attracted to those young actresses and fans is only arguable a bit less wrong than sleeping with them. This makes it easier to rationalize away taking the arguably worse actions, by arguing that you’re already doing wrong, and this is just a bit more wrong.

I think that there’s a bit of a flaw in her argument, though, and I think it centres around, in fact, arguing strictly in terms of right and wrong, and particularly in not recognizing the idea of an action being understandable and yet still, in fact, wrong. What usually happens is that either people end up insisting that someone who succumbs to temptation is completely morally wrong, or they end up excusing them as not really having done anything wrong, because that’s a situation where most people would also succumb. And, to me, the real approach is to argue that you can understand why they failed and did the wrong thing — so they aren’t just an evil, immoral person — while insisting that, nevertheless, the action was still wrong and something that they definitely ought not have done, and ought not do in the future.

I see Whedon as being in that position. From the letter from him that Cole quoted from:

When I was running ‘Buffy,’ I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.

A lot of people are using this as a prime example of his attempts to shift the blame to the women instead of accepting it himself, including Liana K. The problem is … we should be able to see how this is, well, true. Once Whedon had wealth, power and influence in the entertainment business, he was going to attract a number of very attractive women who would want to sleep with him for various reasons, from being intoxicated by his fame and potentially his genius to hoping to influence him into helping their careers along. So suddenly he moved from being an average guy who those sorts of women wouldn’t look twice at to being a guy that they all in fact were aggressively pursuing, for whatever reason. It shouldn’t take any great feat of empathy or anything beyond simple reasoning to determine that this would be a very powerful temptation.

Let me relate to me personally here. I haven’t had a lot of success with women and women of that quality certainly wouldn’t have never have given me that sort of chance. And yet, years ago, a friend of mine who had just broken up with his girlfriend (because she cheated on him) that he had had trouble with the fact that at most events I attended with his girlfriend — we were on the same debating team in university — I spent a fair amount of time with his girlfriend — when he was busy doing other things — because I got along with her relatively well and she seemed to welcome the company. He pointed out that he figured that if I had wanted to sleep with her, I almost certainly could have. Which, I didn’t. And yet I have to concede that it would have been a temptation, not only because she was attractive, but because in terms of looks she pretty much hit my preferences, too.

I’d like to say that I made a heroic resistance to her charms, but truthfully if she was at all hinting at that I missed the signs, or at least it didn’t even cross my mind because she was dating my friend, and that tends to encourage me to, at least, not think of them that way (or at least, not seriously). And if she had been more direct, she would have certainly turned me off. But the point is that it would have been a strong temptation, and while I like to think that I could have resisted it, I’d have to concede that it wouldn’t have been easy.

So, by the same token, I’d like to think that if I was in Whedon’s position I would be able to resist inappropriate relationships, however that’s defined. But I have to concede that it wouldn’t be easy to resist that temptation. Thus, I can understand why Whedon found it overwhelming and in fact gave into that temptation, while still saying that what he did was wrong.

So I don’t buy that it’s this blurring of the rights and wrongs that’s the issue here. It’s not that he was confused about what was right or wrong here and was just shifting from the lesser wrong to the greater wrong, but instead was that he was giving in to a temptation that he seems to have known that he should resist and yet did it anyway.

Or, perhaps there was some of that. I think that feminist theory could indeed be adding something here, and that something is the idea of objectification. See, feminist theory drives its criticism of male sexuality on the notion of objectification, the idea that it reduces women to sexual objects and at that points stops treating them as people. And, thus, what makes a sexual action wrong is that objectification, and much of the feminist criticism focused on arguing that this is, in fact, what Whedon.

The problem is that the evidence doesn’t really support that idea. If Whedon was pulling the typical “casting couch” kind of relation, that might make sense, but it doesn’t really seem like that’s the case. Cole castigates him for both inappropriate sexual and emotional relationships, and the list includes friends and colleagues. It’s actually pretty reasonable to think that Whedon was in some sense seduced into thinking that his relationships didn’t really contradict his feminism because he didn’t objectify them, sticking to women that he respected and admired. As a potential example, imagine that one of his encounters was with a long-time collaborator, Felicia Day. Now I’m not saying that they did have an affair and not even insinuating it, just taking it as a good example that could have happened. Now, Felicia Day is attractive, but she’s also noted for having a unique personality that might attract some people, and Whedon has expressed how much he likes her personality in the past. It’d be pretty easy for him to justify his actions with her being willing and with him not just caring about her looks or her being needy, but instead liking her as a person, and then having sex with her out of that sort of connection. It would justify his claim that he didn’t lust after women, but instead “admired” them, because he admired and respected them for more than just their looks. So he wasn’t treating them as objects, and so was maintaining his feminism.

And, ironically, if he had been objectifying them the temptation might have been easier to resist. If the only thing he liked about them was their looks but found them annoying twits otherwise, all he would have had to do to avoid them was ignore them and never hang around with them, which if they were annoying enough would be easy. But if instead he found that he liked them and liked to be around them, that obvious move would be much, much harder, and he’d be more likely to try to rely on his own willpower which, then, failed.

So what I think we really need to recognize is that there is purely sexual attraction — which much feminist theory will consider objectification — and there is platonic respect and admiration and there is deeper love. No one should want to exchange the latter two for sexual attraction, but flashes of inappropriate sexual attraction are not a problem as long as they are not acted on. If you have those flashes, take them out and look at them for what they are, put them away, and find a way to ensure that they don’t make you act inappropriately. Too many people simply forgive them which risks them impacting future actions, and feminism demonizes them which stops people from looking at them and taking actions to limit the actions they can influence in the future, so instead they bury them deep down and repress them in the hopes that no one will find out how bad they are. Neither way is the right way to go.

Philipse on Arguments from Order to Design

August 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Philipse on Cosmological Arguments

August 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me quote the second argument:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up: Design arguments.