Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Religious Freedom and Baking Cakes …

December 8, 2017

So, Bob Seidensticker has made two posts talking about Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado, a court case that is going to be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States. The gist of it is that a gay couple came into a cakeshop to order a wedding cake for their wedding, and the baker refused to do so on the basis that it required them to in some way participate in or advocate for same sex marriage, which opposed their religious beliefs. This, then, was seen to violate Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws, and thus we have the court case.

Let me start by talking about what the right to freedom of religion is meant to do. While there are numerous different ways to phrase it, the basic, underlying idea is that the state cannot impose an excessive legal burden on one’s religious requirements. The reason for this is that it would effectively make it illegal for someone to practice their religion, and if the government can do that then no one has freedom of religion. While people like, say, Coel insist that this only applies to making it directly illegal, all anti-discriminatory legislation makes it clear that it doesn’t become non-discriminatory if it is unintentional. Part of the reason for that is that it is too easy to cast legislation as being universal while knowing that it will disproportionately impact a specific group. Another part is that the effects of the legislation aren’t in any way ameliorated by those effects being unintentional. At the heart of the right to freedom of religion is that I must not be required to choose between following the law and following my religious beliefs.

Of course, since we are dealing with entire societies and a host of rights, things are never that simple. We always have to balance the needs of the overall society and with the rights of others, and sometimes one right or the other has to give way. The key to this discussion — and thus is something that most people on both sides refuse to acknowledge — is that this is a clash between two rights, and even of two rights to non-discrimination: does the law’s requirement that the baker bake the cake unduly burden that baker wrt religion and thus constitutes discrimination on the basis of religion, or is the baker’s refusal to bake that cake discrimination against gay people?

Seidensticker starts by summarizing and/or commenting on the baker’s case, so I’ll start there as well, mostly by looking at his comments on the arguments.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is the attorney for the baker, and it characterizes the case this way:

When a cake artist declines to design a cake for a Halloween party, the world goes about its business. But if that same cake artist declines a request for a custom cake for a same-sex wedding, he is forced to defend his decision all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

You act like this is surprising. The baker breaks no law (by refusing to serve no protected class of people) when he declines to bake a Halloween cake, but he refuses to serve homosexuals, who are protected by Colorado law, when he declines their wedding cake. When he has a place of public accommodation (like a storefront) in Colorado and refuses to serve someone in a protected class, he breaks the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.

While it’s not a strong legal or philosophical argument, the oddity here is that if the baker decided that he didn’t like those people, or thought they were ugly, or didn’t like what they were wearing, he’d have an inarguable right to refuse to bake the cake for him. However, if he decided not to bake that cake for them because of his religious beliefs, then that becomes unacceptable and has to be justified. The thing is, religious beliefs are protected, and so the law should certainly find those reasons more justifiable than the previous ones given. And yet, in this case the argument is that they don’t. Of course, the real issue here is the one that Seidensticker notes: homosexuals are also a protected group, and so you wouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against them if that was your reason. Thus, if it was any other reason that the person didn’t want to bake a case for a same sex marriage specifically because it was for a same sex marriage, it clearly wouldn’t be allowed. Thus, it is sufficient to say that we are taking the right to freedom of religion more seriously here just by being willing to ask the question if the baker’s religious beliefs here might be sufficient to allow them to discriminate in this manner.

The ADF says, “The government does not have the power to force creative professionals like Jack—or anyone for that matter—to celebrate events that violate their faith.”

You don’t want to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding? Then don’t bake wedding cakes. Problem solved—now your faith is no longer violated. But if you provide public accommodation, which in this case means declaring to the public that you will sell custom wedding cakes, you can’t discriminate against protected classes.

The argument of “If you don’t like it, then don’t provide that service at all” is a very shaky one when it comes to rights. If someone is forced to not provide a service or enter into a field of employment only because the law says that they have to do something that would violate their religious beliefs, then we really should look into this closer, because this is precisely what the right to religious freedom is supposed to prevent. Sure, required services might be justified, but you need strong reasons — and, to use Seidensticker’s terminology (from later) — strong harms to say to all members of a specific religion “If you enter X field or perform X service you will have to choose between the law and your religion”. The idea of “public accommodation” cannot be used to exclude members of a specific religion — who thus would have specific religious obligations — from the public sphere unduly. So Seidensticker cannot blithely insist that public accommodation must, by necessity and in all cases, trump religious freedom, or else he risks allowing religions to be pushed from the public sphere because of major religious obligations on their part that clash with minor freedoms on the part of other protected groups, which would violate the reason we have the right to freedom of religion.

The ADF concludes, “[Baker Jack Phillips] has taken a bold stand for his faith—and for religious freedom for all of us.”

Religious freedom for all of us? We all want to be able to discriminate based on our personal religious beliefs? Sorry, laws trump your religious preferences when they conflict.

No, they don’t. The right to religious freedom — as is true for any Constitutionally protected right — exists for the sole purpose of being able to trump laws when their effect is to violate that right. For freedom of religion, that means the right to practice one’s religion as one sees fit, and thus to fulfill all of your religious obligations and to never violate your religion’s commands. A law that makes you violate a religious command or stops you from fulfilling a religious obligation is one that the right to freedom of religion exists to overturn.

He says he would refuse to create a cake with a hateful message or one that promoted racism, but the excuse that he wants for himself would allow a lot of collateral damage. If Jack can say that his religious beliefs forbid him from making a wedding cake that supports a same-sex wedding, another Christian baker can use the same logic to refuse a cake that supports a mixed-race wedding. In fact, if you think the multi-purpose Bible can’t be used to support a case against any of the protected classes listed in that law, including Jews, Muslims, and African-Americans, you haven’t read enough of the Bible. Worse, there’s no need to invent contrary biblical arguments because the logic behind the argument is irrelevant when religious beliefs are simply whatever someone says they are.

The problem is that as soon as you have any right like the right to freedom of religion and/or have religious groups as a protected class, you have the issue of deciding both what counts as a religion and what counts and religious obligations, commitments, and practices. Unless Seidensticker wants to eliminate that entirely — like Coel does — that ship has already sailed. And as it turns out, religious beliefs, in general, are not just whatever someone says they are. For almost all religions — except exceptionally small ones — we have access to experts on what those are: the ministers themselves. Often we have explicit doctrinal statements as well. And all of this should be obvious, because all religions are certainly going to want to and actually are going to have to make it clear to their congregations what their religious practices and beliefs are so that, well, they can do them. Any religion that couldn’t state these things clearly enough to be judged in a court of law for cases like this would lose those protections, just because of the objection Seidensticker raises: the state would have no way to determine if something was a religious obligation or something invented just to allow them to perform that action. Fortunately, that isn’t the case for almost all religions.

And the key here is not to look at the Bible and see that you can justify various things, because the Bible is not what’s being protected here, nor is any specific interpretation of it being protected. No, what happens in these cases is that a person says that they are a member of an officially recognized religion and that their religion’s interpretation of whatever relevant texts and philosophies they use says that to take that action would be a violation of their religious beliefs. Then we can look at the religion and texts and interpretations in general to see if that holds water.

This brings us to the key things to argue over here. In this case, he is saying that his religious beliefs forbid him from participating in and/or advocating for same sex marriage, and that baking the cake means that he’d be participating in and/or advocating for same sex marriage. You can attack this two ways, by pointing out that his religious beliefs don’t forbid him from doing that, or that baking the cake cannot reasonably be seen as participating. Not serving same sex couples pretty much falls under the “You aren’t participating” line, but that isn’t as clear here, but in general these are thing that we can indeed judge on the basis of the logic behind the argument. Seidensticker wants to dismiss any such attempts out of hand when it comes to religion, but there isn’t a really good argument for doing so, especially since we have been doing it for hundreds of years and are required to try if we want to have any meaningful freedom of religion at all.

Note the novel part of this case. The exemption for discrimination isn’t being asked for all businesses, just those that involve “artistic expression.” Artistic expression is speech, and the first amendment protects that as well as religion.

Making a cake is artistic expression, but this claim can apply (potentially) to lots of businesses: florists, nail salons, barbers, tailors, carpenters, plumbers, or destinations for kids’ birthday parties. Maybe even guidance counselors, funeral homes, therapists, or doctors. And once the door is open a bit, other businesses that can’t claim an artistic expression exemption might push for a piece of that sweet, sweet discrimination action.

This is an argument akin to “If you allow same sex marriages, you have to allow polygamous ones as well”. First, that isn’t necessarily the case, as we can appeal back to the “participation” angle as well. To take nail salons, the reason that someone wants their nails done isn’t relevant to the service itself, and so doesn’t count as participating, nor is there likely to be anything about the nail service itself that would express a statement that might violate their religious beliefs. That may not be true of the cake, especially if they, say, want to insist on having two grooms at the top of it. Suffice it to say that we can probably distinguish the legitimate ones from the illegitimate ones, and if the case holds the legitimate ones are indeed ones where we should recognize the artistic expression angle, and the illegitimate ones are the ones where we wouldn’t.

First Amendment rights are important. When the Christian doesn’t have the right to speak freely on religion, I probably don’t, either. But religious freedom doesn’t give you the right to impose your beliefs on others.

But how is the baker, here, imposing their beliefs on others? They are refusing to do one acting that violates their own personal religious beliefs, which are protected just as much as the same sex couple’s rights are. It does seem to me that forcing someone to participate in a service or express a message that violates their religious beliefs is far more imposing beliefs than saying “You can get someone else to bake you a cake but I won’t”.

And that’s the key and why I said above that most people on both sides don’t really get the debate. The religious side tends to argue on the basis that they have a right to their religious beliefs and ignores that there is another right on the other side to consider. But as seen here the secularists like Seidensticker tend to ignore that people have a right to their religious beliefs and that other people and the law have no right to insist that they act against their religious beliefs. When we get a clash like this, we need to consider the rights of both sides and determine what action to take, or even if there is a compromise position. This is what most of the debate is studiously ignoring.

In his second post, Seidensticker summarizes the FFRF response. The first point:

The freedom of thought and belief—freedom of conscience—is absolute. But the freedom to act on religious beliefs in every circumstance of one’s life is not absolute, and religious conduct can and must be burdened by civil laws, especially those that protect the rights of others.

Yes, it is not absolute. But that doesn’t mean that it can be burdened by civil laws willy-nilly. The state must have a compelling, neutral argument for why it needs that law and why it needs to extend it to those religious practices. If it can achieve its end without burdening religious conduct, the right says that they must do so. When it comes to a clash of rights, then we must consider which violation of rights is the more severe, and choose the option that violates the rights the least severely. The right to freedom of religion ends at the rights of other citizens … but so does the right to non-discrimination or, indeed, any other right.

The baker claims that both Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cakeshop are closely held family businesses, so the conclusion in the Hobby Lobby case—that this kind of business can itself hold a religious belief that would exempt it from regulations—applies to Masterpiece Cakeshop as well.

The FFRF brief rejects this claim. The Hobby Lobby case was interpreting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal statute, and didn’t touch on First Amendment claims. Since the opposite is true in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case—it relies on a First Amendment claim and isn’t affected by RFRA—Hobby Lobby is no precedent.

This part seems aimed to show that the religious beliefs of the baker are relevant to the service provided, and is not an argument that the two should be considered the same and so if Hobby Lobby won then the baker here should win as well. It just establishes that his connection to his business is direct enough that his beliefs are relevant to what services he provides.

What’s the difference between racial discrimination based on religious beliefs and racial discrimination not based on religious beliefs? There’s no way to distinguish them. Said another way, imagine discrimination that is falsely claimed to be based on religious belief. How could anyone reliably detect the lie?

To make such a claim, you must be able to identify what religion you are and what obligations you have because of that religion clearly enough to evaluate whether the action really would violate your religious beliefs. Once you do so, any lie could be detected reliably enough.

The baker attempts to make a distinction between refusing to sell a wedding cake that celebrates a gay wedding and refusing to sell a wedding cake to gay people. The only people having gay weddings are gay people, and you can’t discriminate against the wedding without discriminating against the people.

It is possible for someone who is not gay to be purchasing the cake for that wedding. Presumably, the baker here wouldn’t sell it to that person either, so it really is that the cake is for a specific event, and not just that the customer is gay. So, yes, you can indeed distinguish between participating in an event and selling to a specific person. That the couple is gay only comes into play here because of the fact that the event itself ties into homosexuality, but it’s not a case of people vs event here. The event is specifically homosexual and so using that reason triggers that protected group, but it’s not the people in general that we are concerned about here, but the event itself.

Bob Jones Sr., televangelist and founder of his self-named university, infamously preached in his 1960 Easter sermon, “If you are against segregation and against racial separation, then you are against God.”

The university forbade mixed-race marriages, flouting a 1970 IRS (Internal Revenue Service) regulation that prohibited tax-exempt status for private schools with racially discriminatory policies, and the IRS revoked their tax-exempt status (ah, for the good old days!). The 1983 SCOTUS decision supported the IRS and concluded, “Governmental interest substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on petitioners’ exercise of their religious beliefs.”

Which to me sounds like a specific argument that in this case losing their tax-exempt status was not a sufficient burden to their university when balanced against the need for the government to not be funding racially discriminatory practices. Here, this isn’t a clear. The harm done to a same sex couple for having to get their cake somewhere else is pretty negligible, and from the societal view not forcing people to express messages that oppose their religious beliefs seems stronger than having same sex couples mildly disadvantaged in service of that.

Seidensticker has a concluding thought:

There’s an implied asymmetry in the baker’s favor. Religious views are considered fundamental, an important part of someone’s makeup. Those views are fixed, and it’d be much easier for the customer to take his request down the street to another baker than insist that the baker compromise his religious views.

But let’s question that. Instead of the customer going down the street to another baker, why can’t the baker go down the street to another church? Christians change congregations by the thousands every day. There’s nothing inherently wrong about same-sex weddings within Christianity. The baker can drop his bias and still be a Christian.

Yes, let’s say that if the baker doesn’t want to have the law burden his religious beliefs, he really ought to just change religions. Avoiding that is the entire purpose the right to freedom of religion exists. The law cannot make some religions legally superior to others. That violates both freedom of religion and the establishment clause. And Seidensticker cannot be so obtuse as to not understand that different sects of Christianity count as different religions. Forced conversion to more state-friendly religions on pain of legal punishment is not something that you can support and still claim to have anything like freedom of religion.

Philosophically, we definitely have to consider this case as one where allowing the baker to refuse might be reasonable. The key is over whether or not it counts as participation or as expressing that view. However, neither side really seems to want to debate that, and instead wants to insist that their right trumps the rights of the other side. I wonder why that is …

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19 and I like it …

December 1, 2017

I really should stop, but it unfortunately has become a habit — and I still like Blue — and so I still read Sinfest, despite it currently being pretty much a comic dedicated to making dubious at best arguments supporting feminism. I also occasionally dip into the forums — to read, not to post — and a comment was raised on the thread about a comic talking about the future being female — whatever that means — that I wanted to talk about, because one part of it highlights some common issues with a lot of feminist arguments:

And for reference that concept of ‘Based on Merit’ is still part of the problem, ‘I shouldn’t lose out on a job that “I” am more qualified for because of some special government mandated program. ALL jobs should be based on the ‘MERIT’ of the individual applying, not their ‘categories’.’ If someone has had ALL the opportunites, all the benefits, and went from a 15 to a 19, and someone else started at a 4 and made it to a 17, by ‘MERIT’ the 19 is still better, regardless of the fact that the 17 worked longer, harder and though more **** to get where they are. But NO, because 19’s grades didn’t suffer because he didn’t need a second part time job to pay for University, he got the better Number and that’s all that should matter.

The only reason this seems like an attack on you, is because you feel like someone is trying to TAKE something that you EARNED, but how much have you EARNED? Did you EARN a safe neighborhood to live in? Did you EARN the protection of a Police Force, and the Safety of a Fire Department? Did you EARN a school filled with teachers willing to educate you towards a self sustaining future? Or were those things GIVEN to you by society? And how much of that was given to you by who you lucked into being born to?

First of all, from the perspective of a business, what they are interested is indeed the person who will be best at the job. If the 19 really is objectively better at the job than the 17 — presuming that this takes into account all relevant factors — then that’s who the company should hire. End of story. But what is missed here is that someone who has had to work harder to get where they are is almost certainly an objectively better employee, because they’ve both clearly had to develop a work ethic, and did so successfully. So instead of not hiring on the basis of “MERIT”, maybe we should include more things in our considerations of merit. And note that affirmative action programs, which seek to correct these purported imbalances, actually make things worse here, because the adjustments would mean that those people wouldn’t have to work as hard, and so would lose what should be an advantage.

Secondly, these distinctions don’t actually work for sex/gender like they might work for race. Girls grow up in the same neighbourhoods and with the same economic benefits as boys do, since girls and boys tend to be parts of the same family. So it’s rarely the case that women are disadvantaged economically with respect to boys, so they aren’t working a second part time job where a comparable boy isn’t. Where women are disadvantaged, especially today, is with respect to encouragement to enter into certain fields or to study certain subjects in school. They have the safe neighbourhoods, the police forces and fire departments, and generally teachers willing to educate them. At worst they have expectations that they need to overcome, both theirs and those of others, which is a completely different story.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly you can’t look at the race or gender of an applicant and determine that they had it harder than someone else did. I grew up in one of the poorest areas of my province. The school system, thus, used out-of-date materials and wasn’t incredibly well-equipped. It also was a rural area where, since the jobs were mostly manufacturing and labour, university schooling wasn’t encouraged for boys. I was the first to go to university or college on one side of my family and the first boy on the other side, and it took a specific guidance counselor at the school to convince my parents that this was a good idea. I was lucky enough to not have to work part-time jobs during the school year, but I did work every summer to earn my half of the costs (I paid for school related expenses, my parents paid for room and board). If you only looked at my race and gender, you could argue that I didn’t work as hard as a girl or black person who grew up in an upper class family where going to university was assumed and where all of their costs were paid by their parents, but that would be completely false. Thus, justifying any kind of affirmative action on the basis that the “minority” had to work harder or was disadvantaged with respect to the majority is basing that justification on utter falsehoods. You can argue that statistically it’s the case but all that means is that eventually, sooner or later, you will decide that someone who had all of the advantages in their life will be chosen over someone who had none and that person will be told that it was just or fair that you did so because they, despite having none of the advantages, actually had all of the advantages just because of their race or sex/gender.

This is where the objections to Bernie Sanders’ “Let’s fix poverty, which will help black people more than white people” derail, because if it is true that blacks are disproportionately poorer than whites then those programs will disproportionately help black people. Sure, there may be special issues around racism to deal with, but surely part of fixing poverty could then be seen to require addressing those issues. And even if it was a bad idea, it still wouldn’t apply to women, who do not disproportionately grow up in poverty with respect to men.

Does Science Justify Itself?

November 17, 2017

So, over at his own blog, Coel has recently posted a post taking on an article by Susan Haack arguing that science needs philosophy for justification, at least. Coel is a notorious scientismist, and so will obviously take umbrage to that argument. What is interesting is that that post of his was posted less than a week after I posted my post on how science may not be trustworthy and that it needs to do some things more philosophically in order to avoid making the mistakes it tends to make, meaning that the two posts, completely independently, take directly opposing views on science, its reliability, and how science and philosophy need to proceed. I made a comment there pointing out some of the issues I raised in my post, but here I’d like to go through Coel’s post directly and respond to some of his comments.

Let me start here:

The second claim, though, is that where science is limited in scope, other “ways of knowing”, such as philosophy, can arrive at reliable knowledge. It is this second claim, not the first, that scientism denies.

(It’s also worth pointing out that advocates of scientism intend a broad definition of science that includes rational analysis as much as empirical data, and thus encompasses modes of enquiry that others might regard as outside science.)

As I’m sure I’ve pointed out to him before, this expansion of the definition of science is essentially cheating. It’s pretty easy to justify a claim that science is the only way of knowing if anything else that ever produced any form of knowledge gets counted as science. This move is made even worse by the fact that philosophy has a far better claim to that mantle than science does, since it can do pretty much every method ever done — including strict empirical science — while science has more restrictions on its methodology, as Coel himself concedes. If the scientismist’s definition of science is so expansive that it includes philosophy and all other possible ways of knowing into it, then it’s probably not a good definition … and, in fact, doing so makes the question of whether or not philosophy is a way of knowing or can arrive at reliable knowledge as well as science does meaningless, since philosophy itself would be science by that definition, not matter what methodology it was using.

So Coel can’t “cheat” by redefining science any time anything else manages to find out something. He needs to have a solid definition of science and the scientific method and what that entails and implies, and what assumptions it makes, that we can use to distinguish other potential ways of knowing from science so we can evaluate if they exist and if they can work. If he just wants to expand the definition to include all possible ways of knowing in science, then I’ll adopt philosophism and insist that the only way of knowing is philosophy, and have the stronger justification that science was originally philosophy and that none of its methods or conclusions are ones that philosophy could not use or arrive at.

Coel’s big justification for science boils down to a claim of “it works”:

I consider it to be fundamentally wrong. Scientists don’t look to philosophers to justify their subject, they consider that science is justified because it works. And by “works” we mean that it leads to predictions of eclipses that come true, it leads to medicines that can cure people, it leads to accounts of reality that demonstrably contain understanding of the world. This is best demonstrated by technology. Computers work, iPhones work, aircraft fly, MRI scanners work.

Science can use its most esoteric theories to predict the existence of gravitational waves emitted by colliding neutron stars or black holes — both exotic concepts far beyond the world of everyday experience — and then build hugely complex machines of impressive technological mastery to detect such waves, and then use them to observe exactly what was predicted, complete with the characteristic in-spiral pattern.

Further the methods of science are not the product of philosophy but are themselves the product of science. By that, I mean that the methods of science are the product of experimentation, trying out different approaches and seeing what works best.

The problem is that if the methodology of science was really nothing more than “trying out different approaches and seeing what works best”, science would never have produced all of those wonderful things that he waxes eloquently about here. That methodology is the hallmark of what I have in the past called “everyday reasoning” but now will call “folk reasoning”, which is how most people reason most of the time. It generally takes empirical observations, forms rough and loose theories about what they mean, which is then used to make basic predictions about what will happen if you take a specific action. It tends to use a rough inductive approach as well, assuming that if something has always occurred, it will keep occurring. If its predictions turn out to be wrong, it adjusts its beliefs doing as little damage to the overall web of beliefs as possible, and continues on. It also tends to only test for confirming evidence and not disconfirming evidence, as seen in the Wason card task. As such, it can hold on to false beliefs for a long time, through being able to adjust the web of belief to accommodate it and the new data/beliefs, and through not testing the disconfirming cases to see if it really holds. However, for the most part this “works”, as we get a web of belief that we can use to navigate our every day lives and achieve our goals without too much difficulty.

So how does at least formal science differ? Science rejects the simple induction of folk reasoning in favour of the hypothetico deductive method, where instead of merely gathering empirical data and generalizing using ad hoc theories it builds an entire hypothesis that it justifies using deductive logic, insisting that if the premises of the hypothesis are true then the conclusion must be true. Thus, what it does is build not merely a hypothesis for what it has observed, but more importantly an explanation for what it has observed. And it doesn’t stop there. Since it has this deductively justified hypothesis/explanation, it can trace out the consequences of that hypothesis and then actively seek to disconfirm it (ie falsify it), which then allows it to find false beliefs or hypotheses earlier and then adjust appropriately. A good example of how the two methods differ is the old “The Sun rises in the east” example. For folk reasoning, the fact that the Sun has always risen in the east is sufficient to justify the claim that tomorrow it will rise in the east. For science, that’s not sufficient, because of the inductive fallacy; just because it has always done so doesn’t mean that it will indeed do so in the future. So science instead finds the explanation for why the Sun rises in the east: it’s because of the Earth’s rotation. Because of this, it knows that as long as the Sun exists and the Earth keeps rotating like it does, the Sun will rise in the east. Both methods work, in that they predict that the Sun will rise in the east every day, and lo and behold it does. But the scientific approach is much more robust and is more reliable.

Folk reasoning is less reliable, but is faster for simple claims, which is why it is what we use most of the time, and is reliable enough to work out. Science is more reliable, but also far slower if it’s being done properly. Philosophy is even slower because it is more skeptical and keeps challenging even the base principles that the ideas and explanations are based on. In theory, all of these methods could arrive at all true propositions eventually — putting aside certain underlying assumptions, which is more prevalent in science than the other two — but we can see that each method is best suited for certain questions. Folk reasoning works for questions that are directly empirical, where 100% reliability isn’t required, and when you need an answer quickly. Science works best for empirical questions that have consequences that extend beyond the actual question, or where being right is more important. Philosophy works best for questions where you aren’t really sure what approach to take or that are about basic underpinnings of things like experience or methodologies, because it’s not bound to any set of assumptions or methodologies. All of these are useful and can produce knowledge in their own way.

Coel, as usual, underestimates just how radically different science is and just how important those differences are to science’s success in his zeal to define science as the only way of knowing. In so doing, he ends up making science a pale shell of itself, and also imports failures into the method that he reveres for getting things mostly right.

If science necessarily adopts assumptions A, B and C, and then science built on such assumptions works in the real world (“works” in the above sense), then that demonstrates that assumptions A, B and C are real-world true. In other words, A, B and C are no longer assumptions but have now been tested and validated by the fact that adopting them works.

(If one wants to retort that, while science assumes A, B and C, it doesn’t actually test them because it could instead adopt P, Q and R, without any resulting change to observations, then this would mean that A, B and C were not necessary assumptions, and thus that they are not key underpinnings of science.)

This isn’t true, though. I’ll make a philosophical point here, and note that it may be a key underpinning of science — or, at least, scientists may assume it is such — that A, B and C are the case but that it is not necessary for science to do so. The example I’ll use here is the naturalistic assumption, the idea that all answers about the world will be natural ones. Many scientists like Coel assume this, and it is argued that this is a fundamental assumption of science. It will also be claimed that this assumption generally works, as all of the explanations science has discovered in the past have been natural, and science has had success in overturning supernatural claims and replacing them with natural explanations. But I would reply that it is unnecessary to do so, and even potentially detrimental to science as a way of knowing to do so. If the natural explanation really is the truth, then the evidence and methods of science should be able to make that clear. If it isn’t, then simply assuming a natural explanation is more likely to be true isn’t the right approach; at best, your knowledge here would be strongly, strongly provisional and dependent on future investigation and evidence, and so might be proven wrong at any time. This only gets worse if the determination is that supernatural explanations are so improbable that any natural explanation is to be preferred, like that someone is either lying or hallucinating for no other reason than that their experience would mean that the supernatural explanation is true. If all experiences of the supernatural are dismissed because they would support supernatural claims which are assumed to be false because all true explanations are assumed to be natural, then science will never accept a supernatural explanation … even if that is the one that turns out to be true. The only way around this blind spot would be to weaken the assumption of naturalism … and the best way to do that would be to eliminate it entirely.

There have been attempts to justify the naturalistic assumption, but all of them end up being philosophical arguments even by Coel’s standard, because they cannot appeal to “it works” as a justification, because science with the naturalistic assumption and science without the naturalistic assumption would, in fact, both work equally well. And, in fact, one of the problems with simply relying on “it works” as a justification is that there is no principled way to differentiate between two methods or theories that both work equally well in predicting the existing empirical data but are radically different. Even appealing to things like parsimony end up either being unjustified or requiring philosophical justifications, because “it works” can’t differentiate the claims sufficiently.

So, yes, you can have assumptions that are fundamental to science but that are not necessary for science. Unless Coel wants to drop all of those from science, he’ll need a philosophical argument to justify why science should retain them.

Thus Haack’s claim that, without philosophy, science would be “adrift with no rational anchoring” is misconceived. Science is not founded on “rational anchoring”, that is, reasoning from key axioms that can be known a priori (and nor is it founded on axioms that can only be taken on faith). Indeed, it can’t be, because philosophy has no way of arriving at a priori knowledge.

Instead, science is an iteration between a whole web of ideas and models, and the comparison of that web of ideas to the real world that we experience empirically through our senses. Science is not anchored in philosophy, it is instead anchored in the empirical world and justified by the fact that it works; that is, by the fact that the ensemble web explains the real world, enables us to make good predictions about the real world, and enables us to develop technology that works.

Well, how does Coel know that philosophy can’t arrive at any kind of a priori knowledge? Also, why does Coel assume that philosophy can’t use empirical data and “what works” as much as science can? When philosophers reject empirical approaches as a way to answer a question, they aren’t doing it because empiricism is icky or anything, but because as they analyze the question they note that empirical data’s not going to answer it. Coel continually denies philosophy any kind of method that he wants to claim works, and then chides philosophy for not being able to find out what works in the real world. This is not a reasonable move, and so philosophers ought not accept it.

To Susan Haack’s suggestion that: “none of the sciences could tell us whether, and if so, why, science has a legitimate claim to give us knowledge of the world”, the reply is that it demonstrably works, and that since it does, that shows that it has a legitimate claim on knowledge (since that’s what “knowledge of the world” ultimately means).

To quote a professor I had once: Says who? Why should we accept that “knowledge of the world” ultimately means “what works”, especially given how in at least limited circumstances false beliefs can work. And who says that we can’t derive truths about the world without having to test it against the world? Heck, what does he even mean by world here? All of these are philosophical questions that Coel is assuming answers to and then insisting that he has justified them by “it works” when all of those assumptions could be false and yet still work.

And it is a good thing that science is not anchored in philosophy, since philosophy itself has no way of justifying its tenets. Contra Haack, the problem would be if science did depend on philosophy, rather than justifying itself by a boot-strap iteration with empirical reality. Because we’d then have no way of establishing whether it had any more validity than other “ways of knowing”.

Again, who says that philosophy can’t and hasn’t use that same boot-strap of empirical reality? In fact, it already had done so, which is what led to science existing in the first place. Philosophy only rejects appealing to empirical reality when an examination of the question reveals that you can’t appeal to empirical reality to answer the question. Coel repeatedly either assumes answers to those questions and then justifies them by an appeal to empirical reality that can’t justify those answers or else dismisses the questions as at best uninteresting. But that doesn’t mean that he’s really answered them, or that his method can answer them, or that the answers to those questions can’t be known. He’d need philosophy to do that … and that’s what he continually refuses to acknowledge while still insisting that his philosophizing isn’t, and that he’s really doing science.

Whatever science is to him. Which is another philosophical question he’d probably want to answer and justify at some point …

Can we trust science?

November 3, 2017

So, you’ve been given antibiotics. I’m pretty sure everyone will know the old rule: always take all of the antibiotics, because if you don’t then you might increase resistance to antibiotics which would be bad. This was a firm rule for as long as I can remember, and so pretty much for as long as I’ve been alive. If we knew anything, we knew that taking all of the antibiotics in your prescription was the right thing to do.

Or, perhaps not.

I actually came across this earlier this week while waiting for a lunch order and watching their TV while waiting. It was on a talk show and they were talking about headaches, the expert mentioned that for some headaches antibiotics might be required, the hostess repeated the line about always finishing them, and he rather awkwardly replied that, yeah, that might not be true anymore. She was flabbergasted, as was I. This seemed so certain. We were always told that this was the way things were supposed to work. And now it might not be? Really?

What’s next? Smoking doesn’t actually cause cancer? (What a monumentally chaotic situation that be, eh?)

And medical science tends to be fraught with such examples. Recommended diets, for example, change frequently as new things are discovered. Is chocolate, alcohol, or eggs good, or bad? Is fat good, bad, or indifferent? How much should you exercise? Can you exercise in small amounts or do you need to do longer sessions to get any benefit? And so on and so forth.

And don’t even get me started on Psychology.

Now, both of those at least have the excuse that they are trying to use the perfect, third-person oriented scientific method on situations that are far more chaotic and personal than normal. Maybe all they really need to do is stop trying to universalize these principles, turn the more common ones into recommendations, and add more ways to help people determine what works for them. I even have a couple of examples of this from personal experience. In a Psychology class I was taking, the old “constant review” rule was mentioned. The problem is that constantly reviewing bores the heck out of me, and can actually make my retention worse because I stop paying attention to it. You know what surprisingly does work for me? Writing everything down, even if I have notes or slides to look at. Saying it to myself in my head seems to help me remember things even if I don’t really study or review until the end. The other example is the common “graze” advice, where you eat small meals when you’re hungry instead of having a couple of big meals. The problem for me, as I constantly tell people, is that if I tried that I’d either eat all the time or not at all, depending on what I’m doing. If I’m mentally engaged in something and not thinking about food, then I won’t even notice I’m hungry (Star Wars: Rebellion, I’m looking at you here). But if I’m sitting around just reading or watching TV, then I get bored and so at least get more inclined to eat something. So for me the best model is to have scheduled meals and even plans for what I’m going to eat. But both of these cases are ones where for others — and maybe even for most others — they would work. If I blindly followed the advice, they wouldn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work for other people.

But are these fields exceptions, or is science not really trustworthy?

Before I get into this, I probably should fire off this disclaimer. My first degree is actually a science degree. It’s a Bachelor’s of Computer Science, but that was under the Faculty of Science at my university. I took an Astrophysics course as an elective. The reason I don’t follow a former co-worker’s advice and do a Physics degree is because I can’t handle the math, not because I hate the science. I’m not an expert scientist, but I don’t dismiss any scientific discovery without at least having reasons to do so (like finding potential confounds). I oppose scientism, but don’t oppose science itself. And my main approach to clashes between science and religion or philosophy is to conform the religion or philosophy to the scientific facts (whatever they are). So I’m not some kind of anti-science crusader trying to weaken science to bolster my non-scientific claims.

And so, let me ask: should we trust a field that is most famous for getting things wrong?

There aren’t a lot of theories in the history of science that survived unaltered, and a large number of them were, in fact, overturned. As we have seen and are seeing, a lot of these upheavals have happened with theories that were considered rock solid for ages. Newtonian physics, for example, was at least found to be wanting and so predicted the wrong things at certain levels, and so had to at a minimum be supplemented by relativistic physics (it’s a major bone of contention to say that relativity replaced Newtonian, but the more I think about it the more I think that it did, because the only things that really were saved were the ones based on precise empirical measurements, and a theory that only explains what you can measure isn’t much of a scientific theory, but I digress). Depending on what you count as science in history — and even scientists and scientismists are inconsistent about this, claiming ancient philosophers and yet dismissing some medieval figures who actually claimed to be doing science — you can claim radical changes in pretty much every field being prevalent in science. And, in fact, that radical changes are more the norm in scientific history than long-standing theories that never changed.

And in fact even one of the biggest examples of science vs religion was in fact caused by a change in the science. Natural theologians adopted the design theory based on the mechanistic view that science was promoting at the time, only to have that base cut out from under them by science deciding that, no, the world wasn’t that way and that evolution was the way to go. In fact, science’s move here also caught Immanuel Kant, as many will criticize him for assuming that Newtonian physics was settled while discussing the phenomenal world and so “getting that wrong”, despite the facts that a) he was just saying what science thought at the time, b) he wasn’t making an argument that his philosophy implied or insisted on it, c) his philosophy didn’t really require that to be the case and d) his most important point there was that science was the method to figure out the phenomenal world, because that world was empirical.

Science, then, has changed its views pretty frequently throughout its history, and yet rolled along, in general, touting that it finds and corrects its mistakes. However, any other field that relies on the current understanding of science and tries to build on that very much risks science undercutting them later, and then having scientismists chortle about how those fields would be so much more accurate if they just did things the way science does.

One wonders whether anyone should, in fact, rely on science for anything important at all, or instead just rely on what seems best to them given all they know.

The problem is that there are three main aspects to science. The first is strictly empirical: taking measurements of the world and tossing those into equations that capture those measurements. These are, in general, pretty accurate, but are mostly meaningless. Science can pretty much measure, for example, what speed something will fall at if you drop it at various heights, and even write equations to allow it to predict heights that it hasn’t directly measured, but that’s not all that impressive. The second is the explanation for why that happens, which starts to get into various theories. These are more speculative, but can be not too bad when the situations are controlled and the theories add on the caveat that they are true given that the situations are the same and that nothing has changed. The third is the inductive step, where the theories try to generalize to more and more situations that we haven’t and can’t measure. It’s this step that causes the most problems, because the predictions depend on the reasoning being correct and the situations not actually varying in odd ways that they didn’t think of when they came up with the theory.

So the first is what science can do really well, but is the least interesting, while the last is the most interesting, but the more risky. Science is going to have to correct the first the least and the last the most. But to base anything interesting on science will require you to use the more interesting results, which are the ones that are the most likely to be incorrect. This will even apply to simple life choices based on medicine or psychology. Sure, you can trust the doctor when he says that if you have this condition that taking this medicine will cure it in general because there isn’t that much variance in people or that condition and they’ve tried it millions of times. You might not be able to trust him when he says that taking cholesterol medication will reduce your chances of a heart attack because there are all sorts of other factors involved, like risk factors, your reaction to the medication, whether you can improve your diet and exercise, and so on and so forth.

Maybe what we need to do, really, is be more careful about examining which of these three cases the purported scientific theory is. Scientists — and, more often, popular science media — often tend to express any scientific result as if they are all equally “supported” by the weight of science, but that isn’t true. Yes, scientists are generally better at noting when they are more or less certain about it in their papers, but if they find something really cool they generally emphasize the “coolness” and barely mention the “preliminary” parts, because they want the recognition and want to get money to keep looking at the cool things. Being more careful about this would certainly help.

That wouldn’t do a thing for cases of long-standing theories that suddenly get overturned, however. But perhaps the problem is that scientists don’t do enough philosophy. Philosophers are famous for pointing out “Your theory doesn’t have to be true because X could be the case”. I don’t think science should go full on skeptical like philosophy does, but I also note that a lot of the problems science faces tend to be ones that philosophy would, in general, point out. Potential confounds. Theories strongly overreaching the data. The logic not actually being valid. And so on. I’ve myself read scientific and psychological works and found obvious potential confounds. It might be a good idea for scientists to take more philosophy — it generally isn’t required for scientists to take any — or to have a field like Philosophy of Science produce more philosophers whose main role is to look at scientific theories and find all the places where their logic isn’t working and to advise new experiments to make or new data to gather.

Perhaps that could be a new career for me! If I could handle the math, that is …

Crude Moderation …

October 27, 2017

So, Crude wrote a comment on last week’s post about moderates that on reading it I had too much to say to just reply as a comment, so I’m turning it into a post. Crude starts by saying this:

One problem with your view: the historical (and recent) tendency for self-described ‘moderates’ to collapse and change position when the tide turns.

See: the rise and fall of the civil union position. That used to be primo ‘moderate’ territory, the sweet spot between ‘There should be no gay marriage’ and ‘gay marriage now’.

They’re all gone. And quite a number of those people – surprise, surprise – collapsed into full-on ‘gay marriage is a basic human right’ the moment the momentum seemed to be on that side.

One of the most important things to remember about moderates is that they don’t passionately support either position, and so for the most part simply want the issue to go away unless it impacts them personally. So pretty much any position they advocate for is one aimed at doing precisely that, and no more. At the end of the day, what they really want is to find a compromise that at least satisfies both sides enough that they stop talking about the issue, and ideally a way to do that before the issue hits the major conflict stage where, for the most part, one side will win and one side will lose or, at best, a compromise will be forced on them that neither of them want.

So let’s look a civil unions. The initial idea that had some traction was the idea of leaving marriage as it was and adding civil unions that gay couples could get that would give them the marital protections that they were asking for. The problem is that this quickly spawned a counter that had some merit: that this was really “separate but equal”, which had been deemed discriminatory in and of itself, and so couldn’t be used as a compromise against a claim that not allowing same-sex couples to marry was discriminatory. Add in that one benefit of this idea would be to keep certain privileges away from same-sex couples if it wasn’t deemed appropriate for society and the counter of “What you’re really proposing is separate but equal!” really started to look like a good point. And the option for civil unions that avoided this — have the government get out of marriage entirely and only issue civil unions — wasn’t a compromise that anyone would accept. It was too radical a change for moderates. Proponents of same-sex marriage disliked it because it would deny them the social recognition of marriage on an equal plain with traditional marriage, and no matter how much they talked about practical issues it was the social recognition that they were really after. And opponents of same-sex marriage felt that it gave same-sex couples too much practical and social benefits. To be fair, opponents of same-sex marriage were probably more willing to accept that than proponents of same-sex marriage were, because it would at least cause less problems for religious marriage ceremonies. But at the end of the day, the simple form of civil union seemed too discriminatory, and the more complicated form wasn’t supported by anyone.

So, with no compromise forthcoming, it had to go through the normal mechanisms, which is this case meant the legislatures and the courts. And opponents of same-sex marriage lost; the courts and legislatures, in general, ruled that same-sex marriage was a basic right. Given that it went through all of the reasonable channels and that was the conclusion, of course moderates were going to accept that, and reply to the opponents of same-sex marriage that they had pushed the issue and lost, and so it was time to shut up about it and move on to something else. Once the legitimate channels have been forced to weigh in, the issue is over, even if moderates don’t quite agree with the reasoning.

This means that once something is settled, moderates don’t like reopening it, which can be a problem for certain positions. Trying to deny something will always be at a disadvantage when compared to allowing something. Let me us the analogy of a child asking for a toy to demonstrate how.

If a child asks for a toy, and you say “No”, if someone later convinces you that you should have you would then give it to them or give them something equivalent to that later. Also, presumably you had a reason to not give it to them, but that reason depends on that context, so they can ask for it later hoping that the circumstances have changed. Thus, in this case they can just keep asking and asking and asking until they get it, either because they convince you, circumstances actually change, or you just get fed up with their asking and just give it to them to shut them up.

Now, imagine that you give the child the toy. Since they get the toy, so they stop asking for it. If someone comes along later and says that they shouldn’t have had it, unless the consequences are dire — the child will choke on it, for example — you are far more likely to just say “What’s done is done, and we can deal with the negatives later”. Moreover, it would seem to be a bit mean to take the toy away from them while they’re happy that they have it and are happily playing with it. So you’d need to have incredibly good reasons to take that toy away before you’d do it.

Thus, advocating for something will always have an advantage over advocating against something. So, for example, it’s not likely that moderates will support completely overturning Roe vs Wade, but adding in extra restrictions and protections might, in fact, gain some traction with them.

Thus, moderates don’t really have arguments, they argue for compromises, but their main goal is the settle the issue and move on to things that they, at least, think more important.

How good can moderate arguments be when their own advocates are historically known for abandoning them?

They abandon them, though, typically when convinced otherwise or when the compromise is no longer valid. For both sides, accepting the compromise might be the better option than fighting it out, because there is always the possibility that they’ll lose, and if they lose they won’t even get what that compromise would have given them. The moderate argument is that while none of the sides will find it ideal, by the compromise they should at least get enough to satisfy them, and the compromise being rejected is usually seem as intransigence, at which point the only remaining option is the winner-takes-all approach of the legitimate conflict resolution mechanisms. And if it gets this far both sides will lose trust and respect from moderates because they’ll be seen as people who have no interest in compromising and are insisting on having things only their own way, which means that their proposals aren’t likely to take everyone’s interests into account. And on top of that, the side that loses actually lost, meaning that they didn’t get want they wanted and, much of the time, had exactly what they didn’t want to see enacted.

Moderates abandon their arguments when it is clear that they won’t serve their purpose of ending the dispute. That doesn’t mean their proposals weren’t the best options, just that neither side could or were willing to see that until it was too late.

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.

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.