Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Early Foul Trouble …

May 29, 2015

So, I received my order of atheistic books, and started reading Coyne’s “Faith vs Fact”, and in the preface and up to the first page I already have a couple of major fouls to call on Coyne.

First, in the preface, he talks about criticisms that he’s going after the folk view of religion and not the theological one (pg xvii):

For if we construe “religion” as simply “the beliefs of the average believer”, then arguing that those beliefs are incompatible with science is just as nonsensical as construing “science” as the rudimentary and often incorrect understanding of science held by the average citizen.

But this parallel is wrong in several ways. First, while many laypeople hold erroneous views of science, they neither practice science nor are considered part of the scientific community.

But Coyne holds a view that science is not just formal science, but should be construed broadly, so much so that on page xix he argues that science is the only way to produce truths, and explicitly clarifies that as construing science broadly. What the views of the average citizen would be here is at least folk science, if not everyday reasoning itself. So to make the claim that the views of the average citizen don’t count as doing science, then he has to argue that folk and everyday reasoning is not scientific. Which means that either there is another way of knowing than science that produces truths, or that everyday reasoning doesn’t produce truths or knowledge. Since most of our everyday interactions are based off of folk reasoning in general, and folk psychology is actually massively more successful than psychology is, in general, and in fact folk physics seems to work better at allowing robots to do simple things like bouncing a ball than full physics is, either way Coyne has a serious problem. Either we are doing science when we do folk reasoning, or we are doing something other than science, but it is difficult to deny that we get truths about the world from folk reasoning. Some of the conclusions of our folk reasoning clash with science, and in general when that happens we adjust our beliefs to the one that seems to provide the better claim, which is usually, but not always, science. But this is the method that liberal theists use to reconcile their faith with science as well.

In terms of this specific argument, if Coyne accepts that everyday reasoning is not science then we have to consider folk reasoning its own way of knowing, which means that folk science clashes with academic science in precisely the same way as folk religion clashes with theology; a less formal way of knowing clashing with a more formal one. If he decides to consider folk science, at least, science, then he’s right back to the argument that folk science is the less formal and less accurate version of science, and so folk religion clashing with science on those sorts of truth claims is precisely the same sort of clash as folk science with science. Either way, this argument doesn’t work.

(He handwaves later an idea that since theology doesn’t have special expertise about religion — more because it doesn’t have any set truths — folk religion is closer to expertise in religion than folk science is to science. This is like saying that folk philosophy is closer to academic philosophy because philosophers only know the history of the arguments and don’t have set answers. But knowing the details of the argument and what doesn’t work, and why it doesn’t work, is extremely important, if for no other reason than to avoid making the same old naive proofs over and over again. As I consider theology more philosophical than scientific, the parallel still holds).

On page 1, he asserts that we don’t have clashes between religion and business and religion and sport like we do between science and religion because science and religion are about finding truths and those aren’t. I cry “Foul!” again. First, religion also has as a strong component the search for a meaningful and good life, and sport and business are at least components of that. Second, the reason they don’t clash is that religion and sports and business have, in fact, reconciled, at least for the most part. No one, generally, is pushing to get religion out of sport or out of business, at least if done privately, and everyone allows for one’s religion to influence the businesses and sports that one enters into, and how one acts while doing that. That isn’t the case for science and religion, at least today. It’s essentially the difference between religion in Canada and Europe and religion in the United States, where at least generally in Europe and Canada religious tolerance rules and people are allowed to act on their religion as they see fit, while in the United States the pushback from fundamentalist religion is driven, at least in part, by a strong secular push to get religion out of the public square. And we’ve seen in Europe and Canada that when stronger secular positions — for example, against hijabs or religious displays or religious accommodation — are pushed that conflict between religion and secularism heats up again.

The same thing applies to science and religion. Right now, there are a number of potential conflicts between the two, and this causes a number of scientists and scientifically-minded people to insist that they are incompatible. Because they insist that they are incompatible, that becomes a big topic. Since both science and religion are important to people, this heats the discussion up, so you get religious people saying to abandon science and adopt religion, scientific people saying to abandon religion and adopt science, and a number of people in the middle saying “Can’t we all just get along?” While there are factual claims in religion that matter, there are also a number of “seeking the good life” claims in religion as well that would clash as much if not more with the claims of philosophy, but in general we don’t see religion and philosophy as having anywhere near as much of a conflict as we currently see religion having with science. And since philosophy is explicitly about discovering truths about the world and certainly about the domain where religion also claims to be discovering truths, there should be as much conflict there. But there isn’t. This belies Coyne’s claim that the issue is mostly about competing truth claims.

Dead Serious: Evil and the Ontology of the Undead

May 27, 2015

The fourth essay in “Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy” is “Dead Serious: Evil and the Ontology of the Undead” by Manuel Vargas. In it, he asks whether we ought to consider the undead as being necessarily evil, and wraps that around a consideration of what it means to be “undead” anyway. He does this by talking about the difference between a natural kind and a nominal kind, and concludes that the undead are not a natural kind, but are instead a kind generated by a loose classification or generalization. So, then, what would it mean to say that the undead are, in fact, a natural kind?

Well, a natural kind is usually seen to be a kind carved out by nature, where we classify things based on real distinctions between them and thus form real and true categories. What is important about natural kinds is that we can say that they are the correct classification for the concept that we’re talking about. For example, it is often believed that “mammals” and “fish” represent natural kinds, and so it is correct to classify whales as mammals and not as fish. On the other hand, if we were dealing with a nominal kind, then it’s just a matter of convenience whether whales are fish or are mammals, and you can’t say that someone who says that whales are fish is, in fact, wrong.

Thus, to suggest that the undead is just or even something like a nominal kind is essentially to say that there isn’t really a right answer to the question of whether a particular thing — not merely something with the same name as some other thing — is really undead or not. The problem is that “undead” seems to indicate a third category that could be said to be “between” the categories of “living” and “dead”. We certainly think that the classifications of “living” and “dead” are natural kinds, and we have no reason to think that they aren’t. If they are, then “undead” must also be a natural kind. Vargas challenges this generally by pointing out all sorts of gray area cases, like supernatural vs natural zombies and people who have been resurrected from the dead (Lazarus, for example) to say that it doesn’t look like there’s a clear conceptual division between the undead and the living or the dead, and so it is more like a nominal kind where we classify things just for convenience. The problem is that as an intermediate category, “undead” is going to be a more complicated classification, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a clear conceptual category. Some of the examples that he gives of problem cases might well turn out to be things that we shouldn’t call “undead” at all. In the case of zombies, we can see that we might have to classify the undead into subcategories of “supernatural undead” and “natural undead” … or, perhaps, we don’t, and all “undead” are supernatural and any natural “undead” creature should really be considered to be still alive. Also, people resurrected from the dead, in general, are considered to be alive, as demonstrated by the “Resurrection” type spells in AD&D which clearly result in people that are conceptually still alive, as opposed to the spells that produce undead creatures. So Vargas does not have enough evidence to say that “undead” does not reflect a natural kind.

And assuming that they are a natural kind actually gives us an easier way to get to Vargas’ final point, which is that we can’t call the “undead” evil. If “undead” reflects a natural kind, then it has a well-defined set of conceptual properties that all member of the category must have, even if they are not the only category that has one or more of those properties. For example, it is generally considered to be a defining conceptual property of mammals that they give birth to live young. This does not mean that anything that gives birth to live young is necessarily a mammal, but it will be an exceptionally rare mammal that doesn’t give birth to live young. Thus, if we want to say that all “undead” are necessarily evil, it will have to be that being evil is a conceptual property in the same way as “gives birth of live young” is for mammals, which means that if the “undead” isn’t evil, we will have good a priori reason to doubt that it is really “undead”. This means that conceiving of an “undead” that is not evil should be exceptionally difficult, and always look like a strong conceptual contradiction, and not just something that we don’t see often. I agree with his analysis of what we usually think of as evil, and then point out that it is trivially easy — as he himself demonstrates — to conceive of “undead” that don’t count as evil. Zombies might not have the mental ability to be evil, any more than the aliens in Alien count as actually evil, and we have seen lots of examples of vampires that try to do good. Thus, being evil is not a conceptual property of “undead” because we can easily conceive of “undead” that are not evil and only not that they are rare, not that they are therefore not really “undead”.

So, if we think of “undead” as a natural kind, we can see that it isn’t a defining or necessary quality of the “undead” that they be evil. This means that we are indeed wrong to think of the “undead” as being necessarily evil. That does not mean, however, that we shouldn’t assume that they are until we have reason to think that they aren’t evil, as it might be a common instance property of the “undead” … but isn’t a conceptual property of “undead”.

The incompatibilities of life …

May 25, 2015

Jerry Coyne has written a new book, “Faith vs Fact”, which is mainly an attempt to prove his view of the incompatibility of science and religion. He did a Five Books interview with Sophie Roell, and listed five important books on the purported incompatibility. Of those five, I’ve completely read one: Breaking the Spell by Dan Dennett, which I originally wanted to do an in-depth critique of but on re-reading it decided that it was really more “Let’s start thinking of thinking about religion” than something that required more criticism. I’ve also been reading Philipse’s work, and followers of this blog will know that I, well, find it lacking. And the last one is one that Coyne himself says people criticized not just because it was harsh, but because it had errors.

So, other than Coyne’s book itself, there are two that I haven’t read, although I’ve heard about Rosenberg’s. Since it was pretty likely that I’d read Coyne’s at some point — even though from reading his site I’m pretty sure I know what he’ll say and that he’ll get a lot wrong — and so what I decided to do was further my “academic honesty” creds and take on those books, which means that I’d certainly be able to use the “You don’t read/understand Sophisticated Theology” argument without fear of the “Well, have you read the ATHEIST works?” response, as I read most of them. So I have Coyne’s, Rosenberg’s and Sagan’s books on order, and will try to finish reading or possibly re-read Philipse’s (and comment on it) over the next few months. We’ll see how that works out.

Stoicism, Martyrdom, and Euthanasia

May 18, 2015

So, in reading “Stoicism in Early Christianity”, I read an essay by Nicola Denzey called “Facing the Beast: Justin, Christian Martyrdom, and Freedom of the Will”. In it, among other things, she discusses the link between Stoic ideas of determination — ie the idea that things are determined for us by Fortuna — and the acceptance of death as an indifferent, and the Christian martyrs who bravely and even joyfully embraced their martyrdom. She comments that this follows from a thread in Seneca about it being a good thing or even necessary to be able to choose when you die, and links it to his own willingness towards his own execution. And yet, as she points out, other Stoics definitely criticized at least some aspects of the Christian martyrs:

Thus, Marcus Aurelius, himself a Stoic, heaped scorn upon Christians who sought a showy and pointless death in the amphitheater. [pg 194].

As Denzey points out, most Stoics took a strong stance against suicide, on the grounds that it was fighting against nature and fate, which Stoics ought not do. Seneca, she points out, pushed back against that, arguing that it was an expression of proper freedom. However, I think that this sort of notion runs the risk of not merely declaring that death is not a bad thing, but also insisting that death, in and of itself, can be a good, which means making death a virtue in and of itself. This, I think, is where Aurelius thinks the Christian martyrs go wrong: they have decided that dying for their God is better than living for their God. We can also, then, apply that to even the cases where Seneca points out examples of noble suicides and say that, again, they’ve decided that it is better to die than to live. On what grounds do they make that determination?

If death is to be an indifferent, then it is clear that one must never choose living over doing the virtuous and rational thing. By that, it is certainly better to at least allow yourself to die in order to avoid acting viciously. Additionally, it can be said that if the only way to stop yourself from acting viciously is to kill yourself, then you probably should, in fact, kill yourself instead of acting viciously. So, then, if someone will kill you unless you act viciously, you let them kill you, and if you will act viciously unless you kill yourself, then you kill yourself. The question, then, is what happens when, for example, all you are doing is dealing with a comparison of indifferents … which includes a number of cases where your death might be humiliating or not the sort of death you find noble.

In Stoicism, we can have an idea of “preferred indifferents”, which are things that still have no real moral value in and of themselves but that all rational people are going to prefer. Food would be one of these, as would health. It seems obvious that life is indeed going to be one of these preferred indifferents, as we don’t really lose anything important if we die, but given a choice in general we ought rationally to prefer living over dying. So, in general, the idea would be that almost no matter what else we face — starvation, pain, poor health, loneliness, etc — that we’d be acting irrational if, when staring into the face of that, we decided that we really ought to die to alleviate those conditions. They are no more inherently valuable that our life is, and so we should face those conditions as no more of a loss than losing our life would be, and as long as we live we can play out the role that fate has in store for us and, for those of us less deterministic than typical Stoics, we can work to end those conditions and get back our preferred indifferents, or even enjoy other preferred indifferents regardless. So, in general, we shouldn’t give up our lives to avoid pain or humiliation … which includes the humiliation of not dying the way we might have wanted to.

This changes, however, when our fate is sealed and we are going to die no matter what we do. When our life is forfeit regardless of our actions, then we can, indeed, decide how we want to die. In a case where there is no hope for escape, taking a less humiliating or more preferred way to die is us simply choosing our own circumstances, and so does fit the sort of freedom that Seneca would espouse: we do not choose that we will die, but we may choose how. This starts from facing it with equanimity and without fear or begging and ends with choosing, as far as we are able, the circumstances of that death: to die in a way that reflects who we really are and how much of a Stoic sage we have become. But if we might well live, and be able to live without sacrificing virtue, there would seem to be a vanishingly small number of cases where simply the loss of indifferents would make it rational for us to sacrifice our lives because that loss would be too much for us to bear. We’d seem to be treating indifferents as far more important than they really are to do so.

So here’s the link with euthanasia. Given what I’ve just said, if someone has a condition where there is no reasonable chance of them surviving it — and no, you can’t use the sophistic claim that we are all guaranteed to die sometime and so we can choose death any time we want — then they do have the freedom to choose the time, manner, and circumstances of their death. So, someone with a terminal medical condition that leaves them in great pain is equally free to choose to enjoy what little life they can or to decide that they would like to leave the party now. Stoic “good” is not a case of right actions adding up, but simply a way of living, so choosing to die does not deprive anyone of virtuous goods, and no one else can dictate what indifferents a person should pursue on the basis of the impact on them. So, it would seem, Stoic ethics supports euthanasia in cases of terminal illness. But when the illness is not terminal, then it seems to me to be very difficult to justify euthanasia, unless the illness will cause you to act viciously … which some of the mental illnesses will. Thus, Stoicism provides an easy justification of euthanasia for terminal patients, but not one for those who are simply worried about having to depend on others or about not being able to do the things that they liked.

Stoicism always contains a tension on these points because when it considers death and life to be an indifferent it becomes too easy to justify committing suicide if your life is not going the way you want it to. Thus, some Stoics rule it out while some at least partially embrace it as a freedom. Stoicism always must promote you choosing suicide over acting viciously, so a blanket condemnation of suicide simply cannot work. But if we do have a notion of rationally preferred indifferents, it’s easy to see why life and death is one of them, and then easy to argue that one should at least rarely be able to rationally choose other indifferents over life and death, which then ought to resolve the tension.

Stoicism and Christianity

May 13, 2015

For a while now, I’ve been struck by the similarity between Christian concepts and Stoic ones. To the end, I recently bought the book “Stoicism in Early Christianity”, which contains a number of essays talking about potential or even presumed direct influences that Stoicism had on early Christianity. Now, of course, it’s difficult to find these because it is believed that early Christianity was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and Aristotle and the Stoics are similar in a number of ways. However, there are a few things that are more properly Stoic than Aristotlean.

In reading the second essay “Stoicism as a Key to Pauline Ethics in Romans” by Rumar M. Thorsteinsson, it seems clear that some kind of Virtue Theory view solves the whole “worship vs works” issue in Christianity. As the essay points out — referring explicitly to Stoicism — for a Virtue Theory and particularly for a Stoic Virtue Theory worshiping and revering the true source of rationality means acting in accordance with that source and emulating it. In a Virtue Theory, if asked whether you are virtuous by following the source of all rationality or by acting how that source dictates you should act would get you nothing more than a confused look, because in a Virtue Theory the two aren’t separable. So should you worship God in order to be truly good? Yes. Or should you act good in order to be truly good? The answer is, again, yes. The two are inseparable. If you strive to become one with God, you also strive to achieve the virtue that God possesses, and thus also act in accordance with that once you possess it. The closer you get to God, the better you act. This is not a coincidence, but a necessity. So, in a Virtue Theory, the distinction between worship and works doesn’t exist.

This passage from Matthew has also struck me as one that fits a Stoic mindset quite well (Matthew 19):

16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’[a] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”

20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Many interpret this and the following passages as an insistence that people leave everything behind and follow Jesus, or else they can’t be saved. Using a Stoic interpretation, though, it is more about being willing to leave behind all indifferents in order to act virtuously. Here, we can see that the man, essentially, asks what he needs to do in order to be properly virtuous, and when he says that he follows all the rules that follow from the One, Jesus asks him to give up his indifferents. And he can’t do it. He is unable to abandon the indifferents and give them up in order to become perfectly, rationally virtuous. So, in line with Seneca, it isn’t the fact that he has wealth that’s the problem, but instead the fact that he values his wealth more than he values virtue. And while rich people don’t have to be the sort of people who value wealth ahead of virtue, rich people will tend to value wealth greatly … and so will have a very difficult time giving it up in order to act virtuously. Thus, we don’t have an issue in Christianity where we all have to give up all worldly goods in order to be virtuous, but we have to be willing to … and the best way to test whether you’re willing to give them up is, indeed, to do so.

Anyway, I hope to explore this in a bit more detail once I’ve finished that book and done some more writing and thinking on my own, hence the new tag. We’ll see if I’m more successful at that than I have been at my other projects [grin].

The Avatar and the Ego

May 11, 2015

So, finally, for the first time, I’m going to cover one of the essays in “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy”, mostly because it is based on video games and how gamers associate with their digital avatars. The essay is by Luke Cuddy and is called “The Avatar and the Ego”. It focuses on Freudian psychology, and in general treats games as a way for the ego to reconcile the demands of the id and the superego, by allowing us to do things that we couldn’t do in real life. This, Cuddy thinks, explains a great deal of the anger that we feel when we fail, and when we gripe that the game is somehow unfair or unreasonable in not allowing us to play out the role that we’re trying to play out. Cuddy does comment that, of course, sometimes it is because the game isn’t fair, but the basic idea is that if we are piloting our Vipers and we are suddenly shot down, we retract from the avatar. So he argues that this is an ability that we have in games, and which is what facilitates our using them to reconcile our id and our superego.

While Cuddy admits that different people play games for different reasons, ultimately they all come down to this sort of attempt to reconcile the id and the superego. The problem is that in a lot of ways what’s really happening is the same thing that happens when you watch a TV show: you lose the suspension of disbelief. When you’re piloting a Viper, you are trying to be one of the heroes of the show, not one of the “nuggets”. When you get shot down and you see the “Game Over” screen, you aren’t a hero anymore, not a main character, not the star of the show anymore. You’re a bit player at best. And so that anger and frustration you feel is the same sort of frustration that a character who thought they were a hero but died ignominiously feels (for an example of this, see the story of the Jedi with the great destiny told by Jolee Bindo in Knights of the Old Republic). Also, there may be cases where the game elements become clear. For example, recently I started playing “Record of Agarest War Zero” again and hadn’t been keeping track of my “Fragments of Life”. Due to a nasty combo, one of my characters went down … and I didn’t have one left to revive him, which meant that I would have had to finish the battle — which I might have been able to do — and then likely have to get him revived at the infirmary, and he wouldn’t have gotten the XP for the battle and … well, the long and short of it is that after being reminded of all of the gameplay hassles that I’d have to go through, I stopped for the day. This was not due to any clash of my id and superego, but more that I generally enjoy the game and mostly enjoy following the story, and the game issues just made that that much more difficult. So when the gameplay breaks the experience and reminds you that you’re playing a game, you can’t associate yourself with the avatar anymore.

In general, people play games to, well, have fun. I have no doubt that what often appeals to people playing games is the ability, in the game, to get something that they don’t get from other hobbies or in their every day life. So, for example, people who don’t have very challenging lives might be drawn to games in order to get a challenge. People might enjoy being able to participate in a dramatic environment. Or they might enjoy being able to participate in something fantastical or imaginative. But although games do feature more participation from the player than other media, often what they give us is pretty much the same thing that they do. And, in theory, those other media then also allow for us to reconcile the id and the superego, although with other media it’s far more vicarious than it is with games. That being said, much of the time even games will be played “just for fun”, just as a way to distract us from the world and give ourselves and our minds something to do, without any deep psychological purpose at all. And it seems to me that the most anger is reserved for the times when the game ruins my fun, not when it ruins my id/superego combat.

So Why Are You Acting Like You Haven’t?

May 8, 2015

Stephanie Zvan recently wrote a post titled “We Have Always Been Here”. While she meanders a bit through what would be called “purple prose” if informative essays could have such things, the gist of the first part of it is essentially that women have been part of things like video games, Science Fiction and Fantasy, computer programming and the atheist movement for a long, long time. She then asks this key question:

So what the hell happened? How did we end up in a world where men get paid to write whiny, ahistorical media pieces about how women are presumptuously beating at the doors to their clubhouses?

Which essentially translates to “Why are we being treated as if we haven’t been a part of these things and are instead newcomers and interlopers?”. To which my answer is the title of this post: because you are, in fact, acting like you are trying to push your way into these things instead of acknowledging that, yes, you’ve been a part of it for a long time now … and just as much a part of it as those whiny men that you complain about.

So when Leigh Alexander talks about how “gamers” are dead, you should react with the same mix of anger and confusion that I reacted with, because you should see yourself as just as much of a “gamer” as the people she complains about are. When people talk about a toxic gamer culture, you should see yourself as, in fact, part of that culture as well, and just as representative of gamers as the average gamer is. And more importantly, you should see yourself as just as responsible for that culture as the gamers that they complain about. Either you’re a gamer or you aren’t. If you aren’t, then it is reasonable to treat you like someone outside the “gamer” culture who is wandering in and trying to change it to suit your own personal preferences. If you are, then you have to accept just as much responsibility for it as the gamers that you treat as somehow not at all related to you.

The same thing applies to Sarkeesian’s gripes about tropes. These are tropes that have been in video games from the beginning. If you’re a part of this, then these are tropes that you at least didn’t mind when you voraciously consumed that media, and might have even liked. You voted with your dollars to support games that, in fact, did these things, because these things have been around for ages. And there isn’t much evidence that you supported games that didn’t do these things any more than you supported the ones that did. You, then, are just as responsible for the state of games today and for the popularity of these tropes as anyone else is.

Most importantly, you can’t complain that people protesting these changes are getting upset at “being asked to share”. Because by this reasoning they’ve been sharing it with you for a long, long time, and you’ve been relatively content with the sharing. So now, all of a sudden, the same things that didn’t push you away from the area are now the things that have to be changed or else we are somehow excluded … the very groups of people who have been there from the beginning. You don’t get to start from a position where you insist that the areas are pushing away certain groups and then claim that it’s the other side making it be about those groups when they ask why they have to pander to those groups. And in this case if you insist that those groups have always been a part of that area then you simply kill your own argument, as you end up supporting the idea that the new people who are bothered by what has always been there are just too sensitive, because those groups have always been there, too, and were able to move beyond those elements to enjoy the media or enjoy the work they’re doing. Given that, then, is it really too much to ask, especially for things like video games, that if they don’t like those elements and if they dislike them so much that they won’t play the games that, well, maybe then video games are not for them?

If you consider yourself a part of the area, a “gamer” for example, then yes, you do get to advocate for things that you’d like to see changed, and there are some things that maybe could be improved. But if you want to start as an insider, you don’t want to base your argument on what outsiders would think or want, or from an outsider’s perspective, or from an argument that makes you seem like an outsider. Instead of attacking gamers, represent yourselves as just as much gamers as everyone else. Don’t advocate for the changes on the basis that outsiders don’t like the way things are now, but instead on the basis that games will be better for the insiders if these things change, even if that argument is only “More people means more money for better things”. If you want to claim to be an insider, appeal to insiders as insiders and don’t segment yourself off in an attempt to define yourself as the morally superior group. But if you as if you are not insiders or are putting outsiders ahead of insiders, don’t be surprised if people treat you like outsiders.

So, if you’ve always been here, act like it. And then you’ll be treated far more often as if you have, indeed, always been here.

The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Family

May 6, 2015

So, the third essay in “The Avengers and Philosophy” is “The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Family” by Jason Southworth and Ruth Tallman. It meanders around a bit talking about various parent/child relationships in the Avengers — mostly father to child relationships — but the most interesting discussion in it — and I think its main point — is the comparison between the relationships between Hank Pym and Ultron and Magneto and his children Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Pym is quite often blamed for Ultron turning out to be a villain, while Magneto is never given credit for his children turning out to be great heroes. Both of them were largely absent during their actual upbringing. Just being Ultron’s creator seems to confer major responsibility for Ultron’s actions on Pym, while just being Wanda and Pietro’s father doesn’t give Magneto any responsibility — which means, here, no credit — for their heroic actions. Whence the disconnect here? Are people in the Marvel Universe being unfair to Pym?

In a sense, they clearly are. Pym, when he tried to create Ultron, clearly didn’t intend for him to be a murderous, villainous creation. In one segment of West Coast Avengers, he meets an Ultron that doesn’t hate him and is in fact generally good, and he feels a great loss when that Ultron sacrifices itself to save him from an Ultron that is still evil. Ultron’s villainy, then, is not intended by Pym, and Pym in general tries to oppose his villainy whenever he can. He did nothing, at least nothing deliberately, to make him so, and due to circumstances beyond his control wasn’t there to influence Ultron one way or the other; it isn’t like Pym abandoned Ultron deliberately which is what led to him turning out the way he did. Thus, to that end, he seems to be no more responsible for how Ultron turned out than Magneto is for how Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch turned out.

But because Ultron is an artificial creation, Pym does bear some additional responsibility. Ultron could only have turned bad because Pym designed him in a way that allowed for it. If Pym had put more safeguards in — heck, even a strong version of Asimov’s Three Laws — Ultron couldn’t have turned out the way he did. Additionally, Pym used his own brainwaves as a model, and it is from those brainwaves — and, as established with the Vision, from roughly that mind — that Ultron’s evil developed. Thus, it can be argued that Ultron’s evil developed directly from some flaw in Pym, a flaw that Pym has and that under other circumstances would make him that evil as well. And since Pym gave Ultron his mind, roughly, it can be argued that, unlike Magneto, Pym had a direct impact on Ultron’s development, because he gave him his brainwaves to kick start his mind and it is that mind that, ultimately, made Ultron what he ended up being. Ultron did not develop unguided by his creator, and in fact was guided by him in far, far stronger and more direct way than any parent ever could.

As the authors conclude, a parent gets praise or blame for their children depending on how much they influenced their development into what they eventually became. The trick with Pym is that he is much more responsible for Ultron’s development than it seems at first glance, which means that those in the Marvel Universe might not be being that unfair to him when they cast blame on him for how Ultron turned out.

Myers On Evolutionary Psychology (again).

April 27, 2015

So P.Z. Myers is going on about evolutionary psychology again. The problem, though is that like so many times before the criticisms raised against evolutionary psychology are either problems with evolution, psychology, or are just the literal biological facts of life that the critics don’t seem to be able to understand or apply to the topics under discussion.

So let’s start with the first one, which is an example of the latter:

It’s all that nonsense about modules, whatever they are — they seem to be inventions by evolutionary psychologists to allow them to pretend that they can reduce behaviors to discrete regions in the genome, or the brain, or something (go ahead, try to pin one down on exactly what a “module” is — there is no clear association with anything physical).

Um, I presume that when they talk about modules they are talking about the well-known — and a commenter even points this out — fact that the brain is arranged generally into functional areas that do certain things, and that functionality is not distributed completely throughout the brain. Which means that if you damage certain parts of the brain, you will damage certain predictable functions and leave other functions unimpaired. We can even point to parts of the brain that are, in fact, older and so were developed first in humans, and what functions they have, and what functions arose in the later parts of the brain. All of which not only supports an evolutionary approach to looking at the brain — and the psychology produced by it — but in fact constitutes some fairly important evidence for those who claim that consciousness is just something produced by the brain and was produced through evolution. I doubt Myers wants to ditch that just to spite evolutionary psychology.

It’s about The Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the imaginary Garden of Eden in which our brains evolved 10,000+ years ago, which is the reference by which all adaptations must be explained…despite the fact that evolutionary psychologists know next to nothing about that environment.

Well, this is a problem for evolution as well, as any trait that can be traced back to that time period — and there are lots of those for humans, including pretty much all of our mental traits and abilities, at least in early form — is going to have been in the same environment and, if natural selection is correct, greatly shaped by that period … that evolutionary biologists also know next to nothing about. Unless evolutionary biologists are willing to limit themselves only to talking about vague selection pressures — and they usually aren’t — then they have the exact same problem, it seems.

It’s about deep methodological problems: researchers who make sweeping claims about human universals by studying just the middle class white American population attending their Psych 101 class.

Which is, uh, what psychology does, and has been criticized for. So they’re following standard (flawed) psychological practice and are being singled out for failing in that regard? It seems that this should be a call for better methodology, not an insistence that the whole field is a pseudoscience, useless, and wrong.

It’s about the focus on the status quo — somehow, every study seems to find that current social attitudes just happen to be a reflection of our evolutionary history on the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, and endorses a kind of naive biological determinism that imagines that the way people are is the way they must be.

Um, as a psychological field, no one insists on that, or at least if that’s the case then the few who do say things like that last part should be criticized by their own field harshly. But my understanding every time I read evolutionary psychology — which is, indeed, limited — is that they aren’t trying to say that this is just the way things are and will always be, or in fact in any way committing the naturalistic fallacy, but are instead simply saying that we can explain these tendencies and structures in our personal and social behaviours by the evolved innate characteristics that were developed in that time period. Now, of course, this is controversial, and to make this stick it is perfectly reasonable to demand that they show this is sufficiently cross-cultural, because cultural structures don’t follow as strictly from evolved traits as physical structures do, so you can get a lot of contamination. That being said, to insist that culture is the most important factor a priori ignores that culture comes from the behaviour of individuals, which may well be tied to evolved traits. I suspect that what we have is an intricate dance combining culture, genetic traits, and environment, and note that different cultures are often found in radically different environments … and since environment impacts evolution to a large degree, cross-cultural differences aren’t in and of themselves evidence that a trait or cultural structure has therefore not evolved. Think of even peppered moths to see how that can work.

Reading the comments, I do think that one of the main reasons that evolutionary psychology is so derided is that it potentially provides what can be seen as a justification for certain social traits that some people don’t like and want removed. If you can say that it evolved for a benefit in relation to an environment, then it looks like it is being defended as actually useful and from there, potentially, to right or, at least, not really wrong. But since they think those structures wrong, that can’t be, so the theory must be wrong. This, of course, is ignoring the whole idea that just because we have a natural instinct that evolved and was even beneficial in the past doesn’t mean that it is still beneficial today, and certainly not that it’s right. Our sweet tooth is a prime example of an uncontroversial evolved natural psychological tendency that was useful in the past but is actually detrimental now, and thinking that we ought to do something just because we naturally desire it is, in fact, the definition of the naturalistic fallacy. Now, some people may indeed point to the results and say that those instincts are justified, but they’d be committing the naturalistic fallacy and we should point that out to them, not dismiss the idea that we have that instinct because it was more beneficial to us to have that than to not have that, so those who had it reproduced more and so did better wrt natural selection. After all, the explanation for altruism relies precisely on that sort of evolutionary psychological explanation, and no atheist wants to give that up.

The extent to which the critics of evolutionary psychology often rely on the precise same sorts of flaws that they claim should make us disregard evolutionary psychology always boggles my mind. I am skeptical of evolutionary psychology … and psychology … and evolutionary explanations … but I’m at least willing to give them the chance to prove their case. The critics of evolutionary psychology tend to not even do that, while committing the precise same sins. That’s not the way to go about proving your superior scientific approach and skills …

“My Name is Peter Parker”

April 22, 2015

The third essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy” is “‘My Name is Peter Parker'” by … hey, it’s Mark D. White again! I swear this was not planned [grin].

Anyway, this essay is an examination of the conflict between the right and the good, examined in the light of Spider-man’s decision in “Civil War” to unmask. White says that Parker first decides to unmask primarily on consideration of the deontological notion of right: Peter feels that he has a duty to support Stark because of what Stark has done for him, and also due to Aunt May’s argument that he has a duty to be true to himself and to acknowledge and act as the person he truly is. This is in sharp contrast to the reason he was so protective of his identity in the first place, which is over the consequences, particularly the consequences to his loved ones. As he says earlier in the series to Susan Storm, it’s fine for the Fantastic Four to reveal their identities, but he risks his family and loved ones — who are not superheroes and so are relatively unprotected — being used by his enemies against him and killed because of that. And he knows this because it’s happened to him before, with Gwen Stacey.

Hence, the clash between the right and the good, between what is objectively the right thing to do and what has the best consequences. It can be argued that Spider-man switches from the deontological idea of the right to the consequentialist view of the good during the series, but considering what the pro-registration side is doing it can easily be argued that he merely switches to a new form of right; it is no longer right for him to support the pro-reg side, even though that will have very bad consequences for him personally. When he makes the deal with Mephisto during “One More Day”, that can be said to be him sacrificing the right for the good … except that the consequences aren’t clearly better either. That is probably best viewed as Peter having a moment of weakness and grasping at a straw instead of doing the right thing, and accepting the way life is.

Can we ever really have a true clash between the right and the good? For consequentialists, we can’t, because the morally right thing to do is always the consequentialist good. For deontologists, again it isn’t an issue because the obvious answer for a moral person is to choose the right and ignore the so-called good. It’s only when we have a clash between people from opposing viewpoints — say, Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War — that they can come into meaningful conflict. Internally, everyone with any consistent moral viewpoint will have their answer … even if they don’t like it.


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