We need more philosophy …

March 9, 2017

So, I was reading this article on the NHL GMs meeting, and one of the discussion points made me almost literally face palm, and then realize that we really need to find a way to teach people basic reasoning. Either that, or get them thinking about why things were brought in in the first place before assessing whether something fits or not.

It involves the recently instituted rule where if you ice the puck, you don’t get to change lines during the stoppage of play. However, some coaches, at key times in the game, would use their one timeout per game — which is also required if they want a video review — to rest their players. The NHL is tweaking the rule:

The other would see coaches lose the ability to call a timeout and rest players following an icing.

“I’ve sort of been thinking that way all along: Why do you not allow a change after an icing, but then you’re allowed to take a timeout?” said Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”


Okay, let’s go back to why the rule was instituted in the first place. The issue was that if a team was under huge pressure in their own end and particularly when they had a line that had been out for quite a while, simply icing the puck was seen as a good way to relieve the pressure. Sure, you ended up with a face-off in your own zone, but that’s a small price to pay if the other team was buzzing around your goal. It would also let you change lines and so if that line was either tired or a very poor match-up against the line they had out there, that was an advantage as well. And the ability to change lines meant that even the face-off might not be the big a deal because you could put your best face-off player out there and were more likely to win it. Thus, this encouraged players to break up such pressure by simply dumping it out; the worst that could happen was an icing, which wasn’t that bad.

So, the NHL decided to make there be consequences for icing the puck, and the consequence they chose was that you couldn’t change lines if you iced the puck. This means that the line you had out there had to stay on. Sure, icing the puck is still better than simply letting the other team buzz around your offensive zone, but not being able to change means that a tired line has to stay out there, and the other team — whether the home or away team — effectively gets to create the best match-up against the line you have out there. So you don’t want to ice the puck unless a) you don’t care about any of that or b) you’re desperate, which then would reduce the number of times teams ice the puck to get out of trouble.

So, keep in mind that the purpose of doing this was to discourage teams from simply dumping the puck out to relieve pressure. Now, remembering that teams only get one timeout per game, ask yourself if not allowing the coach to call a timeout if their team has iced the puck is actually going to be strong discouragement from their icing the puck. To answer this, we have to ask if having the ability to call a timeout in those situations would be a significant incentive to adopt an overall strategy of “If we’re under pressure and tired, dump the puck out and if we get an icing we can just call a timeout”. Well, since you only get to do it once per game, you’re certainly not going to adopt that as a strategy. You might consciously do it once if you were in really, really bad shape, but that’s it. But then we have to consider what doing that will cost you. Teams now use timeouts for a) video reviews, as mentioned above, b) settling down the entire team if the other team is at risk of running away with the game and thus breaking the momentum of the other team and c) resting your key players and drawing up a play if, late in the game, you find yourself down by a goal with the goaltender pulled. Are you going to risk not being able to do that just to avoid leaving a tired line on the ice after an icing? Well, not as a regular strategy. So, then, the only time a coach would do this is if they feel that this is a critical part of the game and that they really need to rest those players, and thus that the game might well turn on this situation. Which is the sort of strategy decisions that we want coaches making. If they feel — rightly or wrongly — that the game might well turn on this post-icing face-off, then why would we stop them from doing that? What does it add to the game to do that? Again, they aren’t going to adopt this as a general strategy because they don’t get enough timeouts to spend them recklessly and timeouts are needed for other things as well that might also be game changing.

So, with all due respect to the quoted GM, it doesn’t make sense to not allow a timeout there, because taking the timeout doesn’t clash with the purpose of the rule in the first place, and the change will in no way help to achieve the intent of the rule. While some may see taking the timeout as a way to “cheat” the rule, the rule wasn’t made to deal with one specific case that might come up in a game, but to deal with that being used as a general strategy. Taking the timeout there can’t be a general strategy and will never making icing the puck a general strategy. Thus, the rule change is ill-advised and poorly reasoned.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything”

March 8, 2017

Seidensticker splits this chapter into two separate parts. I’m not really sure why, since Seidensticker’s posts tend to be rather short and so he really should be able to cover it all off in one, but whatever. I’m going to deal with both parts in this one post, though, because I have no desire to use this to pad out my number of posts for this month, and it’s best to discuss the whole issue in the same context anyway.

So, starting in part 1:

To attempt to tie this to reality, Bannister quotes Nobel Prize winner Harry Kroto, “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.” But just two sentences later, Bannister bungles that into, “Science can answer any and all questions.” Yes, that is quoted accurately. And no, that’s not even close to what the scientist said.

In previous chapter critiques, I’ve defended the atheist argument against Bannister’s attacks. But I don’t defend this argument because no one makes it. No one makes it, that is, except theists who seem to be drawn to strawman arguments like flies to garbage.

Seidensticker makes a big deal out of Bannister not paraphrasing Kroto properly … but never actually goes and tells us what Kroto really means. This is really, really bad because I’m not sure why Bannister’s paraphrase is that bad. My interpretation of that statement is that it is saying that science is the only reliable method for getting truth. This implies that science not only can but should be used to answer any question that we can get a truth value for. If there are questions that we can get true answers for that are not answerable by science, then Kroto would have to be implying that only unreliable methods could get at that truth. But as we’ve seen to be reliable a method has to produce true beliefs more often than not, and so an unreliable method would at best be a coin flip as to whether it produced a true belief or a false one. Given that, we can’t — no pun intended — rely on an unreliable method, and so couldn’t answer those questions with any degree of reliability or confidence in the answer … at which point we might as well say we didn’t answer it at all.

Thus it seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable paraphrase — given the implications — to say that science can answer any question that we can reasonably answer, because there is no other way to answer any questions. From that, Bannister’s paraphrase is only oversimplified in the sense that it arguably includes questions that simply cannot be answered. Fine, but that would only be a serious problem if Bannister was going to go after atheists for claiming to be able to answer unanswerable questions. And as far as I can tell from the posts, Bannister doesn’t do that at all. So, then, where has Bannister gone so wrong? He seems pretty close to me, except for the “any and all” possibly including ones that can’t be answered. And of course Seidensticker won’t say what he thinks the statement means, and so I’m in the dark.

Fortunately, it would only be a problem if Seidensticker would directly try to defend the purported atheist argument, and as we’ve already seen he has a strong tendency not to, so let’s move on:

Bannister challenges us: “What is the value of a human life?” How would atheists answer this with science alone? A chemist might tally the value of the salvageable chemicals inside a human body. An economist could look at the net contribution to the economy of each person. But surely humans have an intrinsic value that science can’t tell you.

We all know how a human life can be given a financial value when you look at how life insurance works. Or we can weigh the cost of an improvement in food or road safety, for example, against the number of lives it will save. This computation isn’t horrifying; it’s something we’re familiar with.

Um, I dare Seidensticker to go up to someone whose loved one has just died, ask about the life insurance amount, and then when told what it is say “Well, that sounds like a reasonable assessment of the value of their life” and see what reaction he gets. I doubt he’ll get a reaction that concludes that he has actually indeed said something about the actual value of that person’s life because that’s not how life insurance works. Life insurance is insurance about the event itself, and so provides for certain things if that occurs depending on how much you want to pay. You can take out a life insurance policy with the sole intention of covering funeral costs, or with lost income for a certain number of years, or whatever. The intention is not to pay you what the person’s life is actually valued at. He’d have a better case if he had used the idea of court settlements for wrongful death … but again those lean towards monetary replacement, compensation for emotional distress, and punitive damages, meaning that they are indeed never asking “Well, what is the value of that person’s life?”. So this first example is completely off the mark.

For the second one, it’s about pragmatics: what is it worth to the organization — often a government — to prevent that amount of loss of life? Morally, it is an entirely reasonable argument to say that saving even one life, if you can, is priceless; you should do it no matter what it costs. The question here is purely pragmatic: how much is it worth to us? But again this is not the organization tallying up what those lives are really valued at; if they looked at it that way, as if they were really humans, then a lot of their decisions would not be so, let’s say, cavalier. In fact, one of the criticisms of that approach is that it unreasonably reduces humans to numbers and refuses to consider their “real” value. So, again, this isn’t going to support a contention that what we are going there is answered the question of what the value of a human life is.

But Bannister probably wants a more intangible or intuitive approach. He’d probably say that we all feel that one human life is worth more than one animal life. Or do we? When Harambe, a lowland gorilla (which, as a species, is critically endangered), was killed in 2016 to protect a four-year-old boy who had fallen into his zoo enclosure, many criticized the zoo for its actions, and the boy’s mother received torrents of online outrage for her supposed negligence.

I believe that the criticism of the zoo was that they could have taken some other action so that both the child and the gorilla could have lived, or even built their enclosure so that this couldn’t have happened. And the criticism of the mother is more than if she had been paying attention, that tragedy would not have occurred. I don’t think there are all that many people insisting that the gorilla’s life had more value than that of the child’s, or even that they had equal value. At any rate, this is actually an odd example because in the case where a human was going to kill a child we would think it reasonable to kill the human to save the child, so killing the gorilla isn’t even a case where we would only do it because we don’t value the gorilla’s life as much as we do the human’s. A better example would be how we consider there to be a moral debate over killing animals for food but don’t even consider it moral to raise and kill humans for food, but even that has moral confounds. So again I’m not sure how Seidensticker thinks he can answer the question “What is the value of a human life?” with this example, let alone do that scientifically.

Another example is Peter Singer’s drowning child experiment: you pass a pond with a child drowning. There are no difficulties stopping you from wading out and rescuing the child except that you would ruin your $500 shoes. Would that stop you? Of course not—anyone would sacrifice an expensive pair of shoes to save a child’s life. But that means that saving a life is worth $500 to you. Now suppose a nonprofit organization that provides bed nets to protect children from malaria-carrying mosquitoes (or some similar project) shows you how a $500 donation would save one life or more. Most people would discard this appeal after a few seconds’ consideration, including those who would have sacrificed their shoes.

The issue here is that this trips over “special burden”, as in the drowning child case we are the only one who can save them while we aren’t the only ones who can provide those bed nets. Also, he ignores the fact that Singer uses this argument to show that we should feel as morally obligated to give that $500, which completely undercuts his case if Singer is correct. So again we aren’t calculating the value of a human life here, which is what Seidensticker is, well, supposed to be answering.

Admittedly, he admits that it’s a detour:

That was a detour, but I think it was relevant to Bannister’s challenge that we find the value of human life without appealing to something outside science. My point is first that we can indeed put a crass monetary value on human life. We do it all the time. And second, Bannister’s unstated supernatural valuation of human life is probably a cheery declaration that God made Man the pinnacle of his creation, QED, and yet it’s more complicated than that.

Well, for the first, as demonstrated above, we actually don’t put a crass monetary value on life. And second, if Bannister is right then it isn’t more complicated than that; we know precisely what value we ought to put on a human life even if some don’t agree. So, no, it wasn’t relevant.

Let me now directly respond to his challenge. Our moral programming tells us (in general) to value human life over other kinds of life. Why is this? It’s a product of our evolutionary path, which is explained by science. When legislators evaluate a proposed improvement to a dangerous intersection, they uncover and follow evidence and test hypotheses to make their decisions—and that’s the scientific method. What’s unexplained?

Well, is that valuation of human life over other kinds of life like the sweet tooth, at one time valid but now outdated and actually detrimental? Should we value non-human animals more than we do? Should we agree with Singer and insist that we ought to equally value the lives of those we’d save with that bed net? How does Seidensticker propose to answer these questions with science? The short answer is that he won’t, because he thinks that there are no objective answers to these questions. Which would suggest to me that these fall into those questions that can’t be answered because there are true answers to the questions, would then would mean that these are questions that science can’t answer. Which also happens to be the one thing that he could reasonably say Bannister misleadingly includes with his paraphrase of “Science can answer any and all questions”.

The sad thing here is that Seidensticker’s “detour” raises all sorts of questions that Seidensticker doesn’t answer and that philosophers haven’t answered, and yet at the end here he seems to think that those questions either are or at least can be answered by science without ever showing how, even in a link to another post where he tried to do that. In short, he asks us what’s unexplained after demonstrating in his detour all of the things that his theory can’t or hasn’t explained.

Bannister reminds me of the child who mindlessly asks “Why?” in response to every statement. He asks, “Why is the pursuit of knowledge a good thing?” and “Why is it wrong [for a scientist] to lie about [experimental] results?”

Well, little Andy, lying slows down knowledge finding, and knowledge is good because sometimes we can use it to improve life—eliminate a disease or improve food production, for example. Why is that good, you ask? Because we seek happier, healthier lives—that’s just how we’re programmed. “Good” in this case is defined by our programming, put there by evolution. There’s no need to appeal to the supernatural to explain this.

If a scientist can lie and get away with it, and thus improve their own life, then why isn’t that “Good”? After all, it seems like our programming maximizes the happiness in our lives, not the lives of others. After all, one answer to Singer’s moral discussion is that we feel the obligation to save the drowning child because of the direct emotional trigger, which we don’t feel for distant events. “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”, as Stalin purportedly said. This does seem to be part of our programming, but does that automatically make it right? Certainly we have lots of arguments that say that it isn’t right. How does Seidensticker propose to answer this using science without merely concluding that “If our evolutionary programming says it, it’s right” … which is contradicted by the sweet tooth, which is now maladaptive?

Anyway, on to part 2:

Bannister tells us that science is a great tool, but it’s only a tool. You can’t paint a portrait with a shovel—each tool has limitations. “We need more tools in our philosophical toolkit than just science if we’re going to answer all the wonderfully rich and varied questions that are out there to be explored.”

What do you have in mind? Of course I agree that physics, chemistry, and geology have limits, but show me a discipline that gives us reliable new information (say, philosophy recommending ethical standards for a new technology or economists understanding how people respond to incentives) that doesn’t use evidence and hypothesis testing—that is, scientific thinking.

Well, what do you mean by “evidence and hypothesis testing”? Because the traditional definitions of that in science — empirical observation and specific experimentation against empirical observation — aren’t used in philosophy, at least not that directly. Nor are they used in anything primarily conceptual. Nor are they used in anything inherently subjective. All Seidensticker does here is commit the typical scientistic mistake of absorbing everything into science through redefinition and then asking “What’s left?”. If your definition means that philosophy — which spawned science — is really science, you’ve probably done something wrong.

To support his position, he quotes geneticist Richard Lewontin who states that scientists “have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. . . . Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Seidensticker thinks that this isn’t fair criticism if we include more of the comment, which he proceeds to do:

. . . we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

Seidensticker’s interpretation of that:

Lewontin wasn’t saying that we must conclude beforehand that the supernatural isn’t possible but rather that using science with a God option is like blowing up a balloon with a hole in it. You can’t get anywhere since everything must have a God caveat. It’s “F = ma, God willing” or “PV = nRT, if it pleases God.” When you make a measurement in a world where God messes with reality (that is, you “allow a Divine Foot in the door”), what part of that measurement is the result of scientific laws and what part was added by some godly hanky panky?

Why? Science — at least with respect to natural laws — is just about finding regularities in empirical experience. Whether those regularities exist because they are the intentional laws or decisions of an all-powerful creator God or because they are merely regularities in nature shouldn’t matter; regularities are regularities. Which means that they, well, happen more often than not, and if they didn’t happen at a particular point in time we’d go and try to figure out what was different about that case. Now, for miracles people insist that they happen because God’s nature in that specific case meant that it at least was reasonable that God would intervene there. We argue like Durkon does here, that there is a purpose behind God’s intervention, and the Christian God is, in fact, not one who will get drunk and toss lightning storms randomly around the world. So the cases where we might expect God to intervene can be at least roughly figured out using the intentional stance, and they aren’t particularly common. So why would a scientist have to worry more about God breaking a regularity than they’d have to worry about there not really being any regularities in nature at all, a fact that we might discover at any time? At least with God, we’d have a way to determine when those breaks in regularity will occur.

So, then, why can we not let a Divine Foot in the door, again?

Seidensticker then attempts to discredit Bannister’s reliance on theology which Seidensticker considers unreliable … but this in no way defends the original claim, which is that science can answer all questions that can be answere. Bannister is listing things that he says science can’t answer, and Seidensticker’s reply is to demand what else could? But that does not defend the idea that science can answer them, and Seidensticker does not in fact argue that the questions are unanswerable. Thus, again, Seidensticker abandons defending the argument and instead tries to attack Bannister’s proposed alternative … but he’s supposed to be showing that the purportedly bad arguments aren’t. Arguing that they are no worse than Bannister’s arguments for arguments that Seidensticker clearly thinks are bad arguments only ends up conceding that, yes, the original atheist arguments are, indeed, bad arguments.

Seidensticker concludes with the “Hypothetical God Fallacy”:

When I read, “If there is a god,” I might as well have read, “If unicorns exist.” Unicorns don’t exist, so what follows must be hypothetical. And gods don’t exist—certainly not as far as Bannister has convinced us—so what follows can only be speculation about a world that isn’t ours and is therefore completely irrelevant to me. (More on the Hypothetical God Fallacy here.)

Seidensticker constantly demands evidence for the existence of God. But any argument from evidence is going to be “If there is an X, then we would expect to see E. We see E, so E is evidence for the existence of X”. If Seidensticker is going to eliminate hypothetical discussions of what things would be like if God existed, then he eliminates any possibility to even discuss the existence of God. This would also eliminate, for example, “The Problem of Evil”, because it says that if God exists, there shouldn’t be evil in the world. It would also eliminate the argument from “Hiddenness of God”, because that says that if God existed He’d make his presence better known. So Seidensticker would even eliminate his most prized atheist arguments with this. That’s … not a win for his side.

What Seidensticker wants to get at here are arguments where the theist assumes that God is equally likely to exist as anything else and so artificially — to Seidensticker — puts it into the discussion on an equal plane with non-God arguments. But that’s not what Bannister is doing here. He’s doing the perfectly reasonable move of an internal discussion: looking at what we might be able to do if a God like the one he posits exists really does exist. Seidensticker gives no quote from Bannister or any argument to show that this is an invalid use of the “If God exists” hypothetical, but instead only argues that he says “If God exists” and that that in and of itself is bad because the existence of God — according to Seidensticker — is so improbable or inconceivable. That’s not an argument, and I feel no need to take it at all seriously.

And so, again, Seidensticker spends a lot of time not actually demonstrating that the purportedly bad arguments aren’t, in fact, bad arguments after all. And there are a few more to go through, and, spoiler alert, it won’t get better.

No More Bad Ends!

March 6, 2017

So, a few comments and posts and games have gotten me thinking about Bad Ends, which are essentially where a game ends with a relatively full ending — it’s not just a “Game Over” screen — but one that is generally seen as at least an … incomplete ending. It can range from the world being destroyed to some important character dying to conditions not being what you’d like, but in general these are seen as being incomplete: you didn’t do something you should have and there are negative consequences for that across the game world.

What I ended up thinking about, though, is that in general tragic ends aren’t necessarily bad ends. In Fatal Frame, the canon ending is that Mafuyu stays with Kirei. In Shadow Hearts, the canon ending is that Alice dies. In both cases, these were used to set things up for sequel games, and both worked relatively well. And it isn’t even necessarily the case that achieving a non-canon tragic ending is bad. In Suikoden V, when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to get all 108 stars and, knowing what the endings were I decided to recruit less stars and try for the solitary ending. I was a little disappointed in it, but it seemed like the more interesting ending if I couldn’t get Lyon back.

And that really encapsulates my thinking on this matter. I don’t think I agree anymore that there even are really bad or good endings, just bad or good ways to play a character. What I want from a game is multiple endings, but where each ending follows from choices your character makes. In short, the idea is that you get the ending that your character, acting as your character would, would end up getting. What this means — and what is very hard for video games to do — is that these endings have to be predictable. Not in the sense that you necessarily have to see that specific ending coming, but that when the ending happens you say “Yep, that’s exactly what ought to happen given the character I was playing”. So, in a sense, I don’t want good or bad endings, but satisfying endings, which means that given the character I was playing and how I was playing that character, the story makes sense and is precisely what would happen.

An example of a “satisfying” ending might come from Akiba’s Trip. At the very beginning of the game, you are given the option to continually badger the Big Bad about the figurines you were promised, and can even refuse to accept the treatment because he refuses to give them to you. In frustrated rage, he kills you. Sure, this is more of a Non-Standard Game Over than a real ending, but it’s also consistent with the character and the world; the Big Bad is likely to be frustrated by that stupidity and you aren’t that important to them. Acting like an idiot to the Big Bad is indeed likely to get you killed, and I laughed when I saw that ending for the first time.

Now, some might counter that I’d find that ending less humourous if I had gotten through 20 hours of the game instead of less than 1. Which is true. But I submit that the problem isn’t so much that that sort of bad ending wasted my time, but that when those sorts of bad endings come up we feel that the game was incomplete, that I played for 20 hours and didn’t get to finish the game. Part of that can be from the game itself: the game either has the ending pop up out of nowhere — in short, it doesn’t follow from your actions — or the ending itself implies that this was incomplete. And part of that can be our expectations: we expect the game to allow us to complete everything, and if there is an ending that completes more we think that that is somehow the “True” ending, the one that we should be striving for.

I submit that we should and should be able to view each run through of a game as a separate story, and thus the ending we get should be the one we’d expect given the story we’re in. For the longest time, games weren’t really capable of giving us that, but from games like Knights of the Old Republic and into at least Dragon Age: Origins we now have the ability to change some and now significant parts of the story to make it feel like it is our story, and thus a story for our character. There is a difference in story between, say, an Elf who rejected the Dalish Elves and sided with the werewolves vs one who sided with the Elves, and Dragon Age in some sense will reflect that. I think that more endings should be thought out wrt that sort of experience rather than as punishments for not doing all the right things. Ideally, to my mind, multiple endings would follow from what the character does in the game, and so if you acted that way you’d get the ending you’d expect. We are, however, a long way from that really working out in today’s games.

Can we be justified in believing things that are false?

March 3, 2017

Let me shift away from morality for a bit and start to look at epistemology. I’m going to start by looking at this essay by Jonathan MS Pearce over at Tippling Philosopher, where he asks this question: Can there be very strong reasons for believing something although it is false? However, much of the essay is built around developing a specific idea of what is means to know something, which might be rather long and tedious for someone who just finds that question interesting. So, to start, I’m going to try to boil down his discussion here to some critical points using the standard simple philosophical definition of knowledge.

In philosophy, knowledge is generally defined as “justified true belief”. This means that you know something if you believe it to be true, you are justified in believing it to be true, and it is in fact true. So, given that, the question translates to “Is it possible for us to be justified in believing something that, nevertheless, is actually false?”. Now, of course, by that definition I certainly couldn’t be held as knowing that the belief is true; the belief is false so I can’t know it. But if I believe that I am justified in believing that it is true, then I’d certainly think I knew it, which can then be problematic. Surely, we can argue, the reason knowledge is justified true belief is because we want that justification to provide us sufficient reason to think that the belief is true. If we can be justified in believing that something is true even when it’s false it doesn’t look like that justification is doing its job.

Pearce’s big point here, it seems to me, is that the only way we can claim that if we are justified in believing that something is true then it must in fact be true is if our justification provides certainty. It would have to be the case that our justification means that the proposition cannot possibly be false. However, we don’t have access to certainty. Our senses are not, in fact, 100% reliable. We also have potential cognitive lapses and biases that might cause us to accept propositions that are not true; we might make an error in reasoning, for example. Heck, we also might not have all of the information and evidence we’d need in order to come to a proper conclusion. Thus, it seems that if we insist — as Descartes did — that we can only know something if it follows logically from propositions that we have established with certainty then there is vanishingly little that we could ever know. Thus, that definition of justification produces a definition of knowledge that is unworkable. And while it being unworkable doesn’t mean it’s wrong, we probably want some kind of workable definition of knowledge that allows us to, well, actually know things.

So we need to weaken the definition of “justified” so that it doesn’t require certainty. But, of course, as soon as we do that then it becomes possible for us to be justified in believing something that turns out to be false. This leaves us with the problem that we don’t want to make the definition of justified too strong so that we can’t actually know anything by it, but can’t make it too weak either because it would mean that we might accept a lot of false beliefs. There’s a ton of issues around this, but at base what we need out of our justification method(s) is reliability: we’re justified in accepting a method if it produces true beliefs more often than not. How more often than not — and how we determine that — varies by philosophical theory.

Anyway, Pearce sums up his entire essay at the end thusly:

Therefore, let me finally recap the method for reliably finding truth:

1) The thinking entity exists (cogito ergo sum)

2) Any other existence must assume a grounding in faith in an external reality and truth claims assume a similar correlation

3) All phenomena assumed to relate to the outside world count as evidence

4) A fact is a piece of knowledge which is a truth claim supported coherently by overwhelming evidence

5) A fact must be falsifiable

6) A truth claim cannot be supported by very strong reasons if it is unfalsifiable

7) An unfalsifiable truth claim cannot be a fact

8) In one sense, you can have very strong reasons to believe something if you have incomplete evidence. Therefore, very strong reasons fits within the context of the best available evidence.

There are a lot of things to talk about here, but I’m not going to focus on most of them. Let me briefly talk about 2 – 4), and then I’ll move on to the more interesting one — to me — which is 5 – 7). The issue here is that Pearce seems to be limiting “truth” to empirical world claims. But surely we can have truths about things that can’t really be called “external”, can’t we? Are we to infer, for example, that pain claims are really about the external world and not about the internal world of experience? Can there be true statements about my own internal thought processes and imaginations? Heck, by this can we ever claim that there are true statements about fictional realities? What does it mean, then, for something to relate to an external reality, as opposed to an internal one? Pearce admits that there are issues to work through here, but I see these as pretty fundamental … especially if we wanted to adopt this method for things other than direct empirical or scientific claims.

But 5 – 7) is the most interesting one, as it tries to pull out “unfalsifiable” claims and insist that any unfalsifiable claim cannot be a “fact”, but in light of 2 – 4) and 6) it would also imply that we can’t “know” the truth of any unfalsifiable proposition. Now, it becomes clear why Pearce does this — he’s trying to go after God claims — but he is decidedly vague about what “unfalsifiable” is actually supposed to mean. His underlying premise is that unfalsifiable claims aren’t testable, which is a condition for having strong reasons for — read: being justified in accepting — a proposition. But what does he mean by “testable”? He uses, naturally, a religious example to try to highlight that:

If we take, for example, the truth claim that “God answers prayer” we might be able to more clearly understand this point. This is where a claim is unfalsifiable. The claim involves both the empirical (testable) and the untestable. We can test, and have tested, prayer and its effects, using double blind experiments and so on. However, when the experiments (and they have[11]) have shown no positive results for intercessory prayer (when God intervenes for someone on the behest of someone else) defenders of the truth claim move the untestable, unfalsifiable agent (God) outside of the normal causal bounds. For example, a defender might claim “But God may decide not to answer those prayers because he doesn’t like being tested” or use some such device. This means that the agent, or the claim, is effectively unfalsifiable. We have seemingly empirically falsified the belief that God answers prayer using an evidential procedure. However, since God is not consistent, deterministic and testable in such a manner, one cannot reliably say whether God does or doesn’t answer prayer. Thus such a belief is not, in my opinion, supported by very strong reasons, but by unevidenced faith. If excellent and reliable evidence is forthcoming for such a claim, then belief in the claim’s truth value would be more justified. It would rely more on evidence, and less on faith.

In this way a defender of an unfalsifiable claim can move the causal factors of the claim around like a pea in the shell game, defrauding the tester of any ability to test the agent (in this case, God).

He deliberately conflates “empirical” with “testable”, but as it turns out the example isn’t really a case of something being “untestable” and thereby “unfalsifiable”. While the defender here might be accused of moving the goalposts — or, rather, of altering the theory to fit the new evidence instead of abandoning it — they haven’t necessarily moved it into the “unfalsifiable” realm. For “unfalsifiable” to have meaning, it has to be the case that the claim is in some sense unfalsifiable a priori. It can’t be the case that, for example, we could falsify it but that doing so would currently be impractical, or else pretty much all of cosmology is unfalsifiable until we develop or developed the tools to indeed observe those conditions, at which point it suddenly and miraculously became “falsifiable”. If we are to claim — as Pearce does — that unfalsifiable claims cannot be justified, it cannot be the case that those claims are only considered unfalsifiable for precisely as long as we can’t justify them. It has to be the case that they can’t be tested in principle.

And, as it turns out, we can test the case that Pearce uses here: the push to saying that God could decide not to respond to prayers if He had a reason not to, or a reason to not want to be tested. Sure, we can’t test it using the methods of simple science, because it is, in fact, a claim about an intentional agent, and such claims can’t be tested blindly. As we’ve seen in psychology, you can’t simply take intentional agents, put them in a lab, and then get them to act the way they would outside of the lab. If they know or suspect what you are testing, they might consciously or unconsciously act in abnormal ways, for a variety of reasons. So in testing intentions, you need to do less empirical analysis and more intentional analysis: in short, you need to ask questions like “Why would God not want to pass the test?”. Which is how we deal with all intentional agents; if someone wants to justify the statement “X took out some money from the bank because they wanted to buy a video game”, the first place to start is by assessing whether them doing that is consistent with their intentional character. And if we had an empirical result that contradicted that, like us finding out that they didn’t buy a video game, we’d still want to assess our evidence against what we think is true about that person and their intentions, and so might conclude, for example, that they haven’t made it to the store yet.

So it is perhaps true that the move made isn’t testable strictly scientifically, but it is testable using the intentional stance and intentional methods. Thus, it is not clear what Pearce means by “unfalsifiable”. For example, is the statement “2+2=4” unfalsifiable? We know it by definition, which many people take to be the hallmark of an unfalsifiable claim that nevertheless not only is but must be true. However, we could demonstrate that “2+2=5” is in fact false, suggesting that “2+2=4” is falsifiable. But, then again, we wouldn’t demonstrate that empirically either, which seems to clash with Pearce’s idea of “testable”.

In short, I don’t think that adding the “unfalsifiable” part does anything for us here. There are just too many issues and complexities around that term for it to have any meaning. Pearce seems to add it only to try to attack faith-based claims, but all it ends up doing is muddling his definition and confusing the discussions. However, as we’ve seen, the answer to the question he is trying to answer in the essay is “Yes, unless you require certainty for every proposition you claim to know”, and we’ve seen the problems with that.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Christianity is Child Abuse”

March 1, 2017

So despite the title, Seidensticker starts with a different argument of Bannister’s:

In today’s opening episode, we find Richard Dawkins (Bannister’s favorite atheist to dislike) in the office of his literary agent. The agent reports that things aren’t selling well. What to do? Dawkins suggests The Santa Delusion.

This is a reference to Dawkins saying, “Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are part of the charm of childhood. So is God. Some of us grow out of all three.”

Who wants to guess what Bannister thought about that? He said, “I guess a good place to begin is by illustrating what a disastrous argument this is on many levels.” So where’s the problem? “The first problem is that it’s a classic example of an ad hominem fallacy. That is when, rather than critique an argument or belief, you attack the person making it.”

Now, if I hadn’t realized it before, here is where it became clear that to really understand what Bannister was saying and what his arguments were I’d actually have to read Bannister, because Seidensticker isn’t providing sufficient quotes or information to determine that. why? Because Bannister starts here by clearly saying that the ad hominem attack is the first problem that he will address and that the argument fails on many levels, but Bannister only ever references the ad hominem argument, and nothing else. Generally, you don’t start with the strongest argument, and even if you do start with the argument that you think is the strongest that doesn’t mean that none of the other arguments work even if that first one fails. And yet Seidensticker, after explicitly quoting Bannister clearly stating that this was only one of many problems with that specific argument only addresses one of them. Did he think that we wouldn’t notice that from one of the few things that he quotes Bannister as saying? Well, maybe most people won’t really read the quotes from the primary source, but for me I was already desperate for an idea or context of what Bannister was actually saying, and so I noticed. So, then, what happened to the other arguments?

And Seidensticker doesn’t exactly do a great job of dealing with the charge of it being an ad hominem.

Yep, that’s the definition of ad hominem fallacy that I know, but Dawkins doesn’t make that fallacy. I wasted half an hour poring over the pages that precede his charge trying to see if there’s anything more offensive than Dawkins’ quote above. Nothing.

Um, except that why an ad hominem fallacy is a fallacy is not because it is insulting, or offensively so. It is when you attack the person instead of the argument. It is quite possible to commit an ad hominem fallacy by saying something that is a) true about the person you are using it against and b) something that they might even be proud of. For example, I am well known for arguing against the use of empathy in moral reasoning. Since I am also Stoic-leaning, at least, one could claim that the only reason I argue that way is because of my inherited distrust of emotion from the Stoic tradition. Thus, I only argue against empathy because I am Stoic-leaning. This would, in fact, be true, something I would admit, and I would certainly not see being called “Stoic-leaning” as an insult. But it wouldn’t in any way address any of the arguments I would be making.

So Seidensticker’s scouring of the text to see how insulting Dawkins was is utterly irrelevant here. The ad hominem, in fact, would be contained in that precise statement that Bannister referenced. So, is there an ad hominem here, where Dawkins attacks the person instead of attacking the argument?

Well, the issue here is that Dawkins is trying to attach the belief in God to immaturity, and thus argue that people who still believe in God only do so because they “haven’t grown out of it”, and so are believing childish beliefs. This would, in fact, essentially be his calling religious believers childish. That’s pretty much a shot at them as people. But if he had an argument that the belief in God really was simply a childish belief — meaning that it wasn’t true and was just one of those falsehoods that we develop as children — then that would be the only argument he would need. Thus, it adds nothing to the argument to call it — and, by extension, those who believe — childish; either he has the evidence that it is false or he doesn’t.

But this all assumes that Dawkins means it as an argument at all. Given my experience with Dawkins’ writing, it seems far more likely that he is just using it as a rhetorical potshot and not as an argument at all. But Seidensticker is supposed to be defending it as an argument. As an explicit argument, it does strike a lot closer to an ad hominem — you only believe because you haven’t grown out of that belief yet — than a real, valid argument. Seidensticker’s examinations of how offensive or insulting it is do nothing to preserve it as an argument, which is what he’s supposed to be doing here.

And he won’t actually do that, because he moves on to the next argument:

The second problem that keeps Bannister up at night is Dawkins’ concern with Christian parents. In The God Delusion (chapter 9), he says, “Horrible as sexual abuse [of children by Catholic priests in Ireland] no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.”

Seidensticker then tries to point out that Bannister doesn’t seem to support … something, here:

Bannister overflows with ridicule—remember this is from someone who hates ad hominem arguments—but he has no studies. He has no arguments. He doesn’t even search for anecdotes of people who’d experienced harm (or good) from a Catholic upbringing.

But, wait, shouldn’t the person who has to provide the evidence be Dawkins? If Dawkins can’t provide sufficient evidence to think that this is true, then this would indeed be a Bad Atheist Argument. Bannister would not have to prove the argument false to demonstrate that it is insufficiently evidenced and so a bad argument.

And what evidence does Seidensticker claim Dawkins has?

Bannister only has time for ridicule, but Dawkins actually supports his claim with evidence. Right after we read the quote above in God Delusion, Dawkins introduces a woman who experienced trauma from both sexual abuse and her Catholic upbringing. At the age of seven, she was sexually abused by her priest, and a friend from school died. What made it worse was that the friend went to hell (so she was told) because she was a Protestant.

The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, as many atheists continually assert. And we know that children may indeed be traumatized by a number of things. Take, for example (warning TV Tropes link) this page talking about “Nightmare Fuel” for the long-running children’s program “Sesame Street”. It is quite likely, from that, that there is someone out there who was more traumatized by “Sesame Street” than they were by sexual abuse. What would that say about “Sesame Street”?

This “evidence” gets even more odd when Seidensticker tries to clarify what Dawkins is really saying:

Let’s recall Dawkins’ quote to be clear what he’s saying. He’s not saying every child raised as a Catholic is psychologically damaged more than every child sexually abused by priests. He’s simply arguing that there is overlap.

But then finding one example of such a case is meaningless. What does it mean to say that someone was more damaged by their Catholic upbringing than by being sexually abused? Especially in light of the above example of “Sesame Street”.

Thus, for this to be an argument, Dawkins has to be trying to establish that in general a Catholic or religious upbringing is comparable in terms of psychological damage to being sexually abused. Yes, we would know that in all cases and in all individuals that won’t hold, but we’d have to expect that, in general and on average, children raised Catholic suffer comparable psychological damage to people who were sexually abused. And this is obviously false. And even if we didn’t know that, one example wouldn’t show that. So Dawkins has no evidence and no argument. Seidensticker can talk about “overlap” — whatever that is supposed to mean — but that wouldn’t even rise to the level of an argument.

Now that we know that the argument to be meaningful at all must be stronger than “Some people are psychologically damaged by Catholicism”, let’s go back and look at Seidensticker’s attempt to deal with Bannister’s analogy:

All he has is another invented story where he imagines Dawkins faced with two educational options for his daughter. One school is run by Catholic nuns and the other “by a group of sexually voracious convicted pedophiles.”

Bannister is too busy mocking to notice the irony. For this to be an analogy with Dawkins’ quote, both of Bannister’s options—sweet nuns and sexually voracious pedophiles—are within the Catholic Church. Sure, that accurately describes some of these priests; I’m just surprised that Bannister wants to put that sharp a focus on it.

No. Bannister’s argument is to give Dawkins a choice between sending his children somewhere where he knows that they will be taught Catholicism or somewhere where they will be sexually abused. If Dawkins really believed his own argument, he’d have to argue that neither choice is better than the other, as both are — presumably — incredibly bad because of the psychological damage that would be done to his children. But I think pretty much everyone would say that even though it isn’t an ideal choice choosing the Catholic upbringing would be far superior. Given that, it seems that Dawkins’ purported “argument” doesn’t work; no one actually believes it. And the “evidence” Seidensticker gives above wouldn’t be enough to prove Dawkins rational if he did claim that there was no difference between the two.

But Seidensticker also misses how one could go about testing this. If Bannister was presenting this as a way to test the theory, he’s more on track than Seidensticker is, because again the point is to measure the psychological damage caused by Catholicism and the psychological damage caused by sexual abuse and find them comparable. We wouldn’t want to study cases where the two “overlap” because the interaction between the two might have an impact, either positive or negative. We certainly wouldn’t want to limit our study to only Catholic children abused by priests because that interaction with the authority figure would certainly confound the results. And on top of all of that … that’s not what Dawkins complains about. He complains about the idea of Hell. Sure, Seidensticker can argue that we can get a direct comparison of the damage if both are in one person, but there are so many confounds that it would establish nothing … especially since it would be hard to untangle, in most cases, what damage was done by what.

And again, one example does nothing to establish anything here.

Dawkins is right that religious indoctrination is a problem. (Aside: I propose a thought experiment where religion is in the adults-only category, along with voting, driving, and smoking here. Religion must have access to immature minds to propagate and would vanish like the Shakers without them.)

However, I’ve never heard Dawkins demand that society ban religion or forbid parents from teaching their worldview to their children. Again, that’s my belief as well.

But let’s presume that the psychological damage done by raising a child Catholic really is comparable to that of sexually abusing them, which is the only interpretation of Dawkins’ statement that both a) makes sense and b) has any real meaning that anyone would care about in this debate. If that’s the case and you really think it is the case, then why wouldn’t you want to do that? Presumably, Dawkins’ and Seidensticker’s objections to child sexual abuse is not that other people get to have fun that they don’t get to have, but that it is incredibly psychologically damaging to the child. If raising them Catholic is comparably as bad, then it’s incredibly inconsistent to say that in the case of sexual abuse, we should step in and use the law to prevent it and punish those who do it, but in the case of Catholicism which, again, causes comparable damage well, then, it’s okay if they really want to and I’d rather that they not do it or wait until their adults but, hey, no big deal. Again, the reaction is not consistent with what they claim to believe or know. That doesn’t mean their argument is wrong, but it seems to cast doubt on it if they themselves don’t seem to actually believe it … especially when they have no evidence to support it.

I’ll end with talking about his tangent, which is a bad argument in and of itself:

Let me take a brief tangent. Bannister insists that parents be given free rein to raise their children as they think best. Society is there as a backstop to intervene as necessary, but the benefit of the doubt for how to raise children goes to their parents.

I agree, and that’s the philosophy that must govern pregnant women considering an abortion. In the same way, they are on the front line, they best understand the issues within their lives, and they must be given free rein to decide for themselves whether an abortion is the right course. (I talk more about abortion here and here.) Bannister must be consistent—if we trust parents to do the right thing, we must similarly trust pregnant women. (Let me make clear that Bannister never mentioned abortion. I’m simply drawing a parallel that religious conservatives often miss.)

They only miss it because the parallel doesn’t exist. Seidensticker never gives what Bannister’s reasoning for giving parents free rein, but the typical one — and one that somewhat fits with Seidensticker’s response — is that since children can’t decide for themselves what’s best for them, someone has to do it for them on their behalf, and the best people to do that are their parents since, well, that’s pretty much the definition of “parent”; when we recognize the legal parents of a child (or guardian) we include in that the responsibility for acting in the best interests of the child. The alternative would be for the state to decide all of these things for all children, but there are so many of these decisions and they vary so much per child that that would be a monumental undertaking unless the state regimented and universalized the experiences of all children, which we aren’t sure is all that great for them itself. Thus, we give parents the responsibility for determining what is best for their child and then stay out of the way unless we are certain that they aren’t living up to the responsibility.

None of that applies to the abortion case, at least as Seidensticker describes it. They are thinking about their own lives, not those of others. If the foetus’ interests need to be considered, Seidensticker is not arguing for them considering it. We don’t have to leave this decision up to them because the circumstances are more limited and the views of others — medical professionals, for example — is more important and useful than that of the woman. There is no reason to argue that in that specific case the right move is to let the woman decide, unless you take a strong “individual choice” or “bodily autonomy” argument … which is what the debate is about. So that purported “parallel” isn’t one; one can easily hold it for parents and not for pregnant women wrt abortion.

So far, Seidensticker steadfastly refuses to defend these Bad Atheist Arguments as actual arguments. Let’s see if that will continue, or if he will actually defend an argument as some point in this series.

Scotties Tournament of Hearts

February 28, 2017

Those of you who read my blog and who watch curling — well, there could be someone who does that [grin] — might have been wondering why after commenting a lot on women’s curling I’ve made no mention at all of the Scott Tournament of Hearts, the Canadian Women’s Championships. Well, the reason is that I pretty much spent the week watching it — I only managed to watch Sunday’s final yesterday afternoon — and that distracted me from commenting on it … which I’m going to rectify today.

One of the first things to note — which, I suppose, I have to expect from such a tournament — is that despite my watching the Grand Slam of Curling the entire season I didn’t recognize most of the names there. Obviously, I knew Rachel Homan, but other than Michelle Englot most of the others I hadn’t seem during the season. Val Sweeting didn’t make it out of Alberta, and Jennifer Jones didn’t make it out of Manitoba. I knew the replacement Alberta team, but that was only from Scotties past, as it was Shannon Kleibrink skipping with Heather Nedohin (whom I first saw under her maiden name of Godberson) taking over as skip due to Kleibrink’s back problems. Now, the Grand Slam also takes in a lot of world teams, so it’s not all Canadian teams and not all Canadian teams make it there, but I wonder if this is a common thing. I haven’t had cable long enough to really tell.

Anyway, another interesting story that came out of it was the team from Nova Scotia. They had entered the provincial playdowns as essentially a warm up for the provincial Seniors playdowns … and ended up winning it. That was an entertaining story, but when they got off to a good start in, I think, winning their first game I started to wonder if this would be very bad for the women’s game. If a Seniors team could come in and be very successful against the best women’s teams, that didn’t say much for the development of the women’s game. Sure, experience matters, but surely physical ability — at least with sweeping — would have to matter, right? As it turns out, it ended up not being a problem because Nova Scotia only ended up winning one more game the entire tournament. But it could have been a bit embarrassing for women’s curling.

In the end, it ended up being a very young skip — Rachel Homan looking to be the youngest person to win three Canadian Championshps — versus the elder Englot at 53 (but she at least had a young team behind her). After Englot had been the only team that beat Homan throughout the tournament — and beat her once on Tour — it didn’t look that great for Homan, but she managed to squeak out a win in an extra end. I think the issue was that both Homan and Englot are very aggressive players, and so Englot wasn’t playing defense as much as Homan’s usual opponents were, so Homan didn’t have that advantage. Also, Englot was known for draws and draws are more offensive minded shots than hits are; hits tend to remove rocks and so work really well on defense. Well-placed draws, however, protect your current shots or give you the advantage, and most importantly leave rocks in play, which is important when you’re playing offense. So what we had were two offensively minded teams battling it out with each other but with Englot’s natural tendencies giving her a slight advantage. Homan saw hits that no one else would see, but hits aren’t always the best offensive tactics.

I also noted an interesting comment about Homan, which is that she played more like a men’s team. Which, I suppose, should bother me. However, what I noticed was that even though she does play the upweight shots, she usually doesn’t “blast”, which is throwing rocks really hard at frozen in rocks and hoping everything will go. She has to hit the rocks hard, but more importantly she has to hit them just right to make doubles and triples. So, she’s often making big hits to score points, but not often just blasting to get out of trouble like you see in the men’s game.

And on one final note, Amy Nixon played in what she says was her last Scotties game, thirding for Team Canada who ended up winning the bronze. She’s another player that I remember from my early days watching curling.

I won’t be able to watch much of the Women’s Worlds, and won’t watch the Briar, so there won’t be much more curling commentary until April.

Ghostbusters 2016: Only now at the end do we understand …

February 27, 2017

So, we’re almost seven months past the, uh, “event” that was Ghostbusters 2016, and all of the attendant drama tying in pretty much every pop culture debate around sex and race that we’ve had for the past few years. There were comments that the movie was terrible, that the movie was great, that the movie would flop, that the movie would soar and revitalize the franchise, and so on and so forth. So, with enough history behind us to judge, let’s look at how it did:

Ghostbusters grossed $128.3 million in North America and $100.8 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $229.1 million.[3] With a production budget of $144 million, as well as a large amount spent on marketing, the studio stated that the film would need to gross at least $300 million to break even.[74] Before the release, director Paul Feig stated “A movie like this has to at least get to like $500 million worldwide, and that’s probably low.”[75] The Hollywood Reporter estimated the film’s financial losses would be over $70 million.[74][76][77] A representative of Sony found this loss estimate to be “way off,” saying: “With multiple revenue streams […] the bottom line, even before co-financing, is not even remotely close to that number.”[74][76] According to Variety, sources familiar with the film’s financing estimate the total loss to be about $75 million, of which, due to co-financing with Village Roadshow, Sony would lose about $50 million.[78] Sony insiders have projected, along with co-financing, a total loss of about $25 million.[78] Bloomberg News estimated the film lost $58.6 million.[79] As of August 2016, sources such as Forbes and the Wall Street Journal had begun calling Ghostbusters a box office bomb.[7][80][81][82] The film’s performance contributed to Sony taking a $1 billion writedown in January 2017.[83]

Not all that well, it seems. There was originally talk about a sequel being guaranteed, and then that it was up in the air, and finally that there wouldn’t be one. Reviews, in general, were mixed. There was at least in general a sense that women reviewers rated it higher than male ones, which might still be the case. That being said, even the good reviews tended to praise the Social Justice elements and almost lament that the movie itself wasn’t that good, which might explain the gender gap: women who have always wanted to see themselves as Ghostbusters loved that part of it, while men who didn’t have that emotional connection just saw a lackluster movie. (And women who’ve always wanted to think of themselves as Ghostbusters should watch “The Real Ghostbusters” and associate with Janine).

So, for all of the discussions of it and all of the controversy … Ghostbusters 2016 turned out to be a disappointment both critically and financially. I think that the controversy hurt the financials, actually, because I know that after reading all of the debate I had no interest in seeing the movie, especially considering the defenses from the Social Justice side of how inclusive it was and how it seemed to pander to them, and while I am not a Gamergater I am clearly not them either. I imagine there are a number of people who on reading the defenses thought that it was going to be very Social Justice preachy and had no interest in going to a COMEDY of all things that was going to preach at them. That might not have been fair, but again, given what the defenders praised about it it doesn’t seem like it’s that unfair either.

At the end of the day, Feig at all and Sony went about this completely the wrong way. When they got potentially sexist push back, they embraced and fed it in, it seems, a way to generate publicity either for the Social Justice cause or for free attention and advertising. But all that that did was leave a bad taste in pretty much everyone’s mouths. Those solidly on the side of Social Justice would come out to see it anyway on defiant principle, and those on the Gamergate side would avoid it out of principle, but the people in-between — like me — would wonder why they’d even bother to go see something like that. The controversy wasn’t one of “I want to see that for myself” but instead of “Two sets of people who don’t think like I do screaming stupid things at each other”, which does not encourage people to get involved. It wasn’t the car crash, and it wasn’t the explicit sex scene. Instead, it was the author tract. Author tracts don’t get people into the seats to watch a movie.

Answering Carrier’s Premises

February 24, 2017

So, over the past few posts I’ve been using Richard Carrier’s views on objective morality as a framework, at least, for discussing objective morality and whether or not that can be linked to science in the way Carrier — and others, like Sam Harris — want to link it. However, I recall a comment on another blog a while ago that called out another philosopher for criticizing the view without dealing with the fleshed out example of the premises that Carrier had given. And, in fact, had given here, in a defense of Sam Harris. So let me attempt to address that.

Carrier, at the end of the post, lists his premises and then asks us which of those premises we disagree with. The problem is that Carrier commits one of the two major mistakes that philosophical amateurs tend to make: start from premises that at least seem reasonable if not obviously true, but then try to carry the premises far further than they can reasonably go. Having true premises is a good start, but you can’t overreach from them to conclusions that you think obvious but that the premises don’t make obvious. Carrier’s big issue is that pretty much all of his premises are true in a sense, but not in a sense that really works to support his contentions.

So let’s start with the first premise:

1. Moral truth must be based on the truth.

Well, anyone who thinks that moral propositions don’t actually have truth values will immediately disagree with this, but I suppose Carrier can claim that they don’t believe in moral truth at all, and so it’s not relevant to his premise. We only need to be concerned with those who think that moral propositions have objective truth values. But even limited to that, we have some issues. Sure, it’s obvious that true statements must be based on true premises, but Carrier wants to push it further, as he says later:

In both cases (irrational and mal-informed decisions) a decision was made in violation of our first premise (“Moral truth must be based on the truth”) generalized to all domains (“Prudential truth must be based on the truth”).

So it looks like Carrier wants to base morality not just on moral facts, but also on non-moral facts, which is how he makes the link to science. The uncontroversial interpretation of this is that once we know what it means to be moral, then non-moral facts may come into play in determining what it means to be moral. So, for Utilitarianism, the overall happiness — which may depend on things like biological facts — will matter, which it won’t for, say, Kantianism or Stocism. But for all moral systems, what it is biologically possible for us to do will matter, because of the “Ought implies can” principle: we cannot make a normative statement about someone that demands they do something it is impossible for them to do. So, that non-moral facts may be relevant in determining what action to take is uncontroversial. But that doesn’t get Carrier very far at all. And to take it any further would make it potentially a very controversial statement, as we will see.

There’s also an issue where we can ask if moral truth does, in fact, depend on what is objectively and independently true, or if instead it depends on what the individual moral agent can reasonably know. We can see this best if we move from asking questions like “Is slavery moral?” and instead ask questions like “Did that person act immorally in that instance?”. If someone is trying to act morally and reasonably believes that the action they are taking is moral, then can we say that their action is really immoral? Especially if that action is based on the best information that they can reasonably be expected to have?

We can make a reasonable — if still somewhat controversial — comment about missing moral facts, by insisting that we can’t call their action moral — because it is based on incorrect moral facts — but can’t call it immoral either — because the intent is moral — and so can call it amoral: right moral intention, wrong moral facts, overall amoral. But of course we’d still consider that sort of amorality better than an amorality based on a complete lack of concern for morality. That doesn’t seem to work as well, though, when the facts are non-moral. Imagine a case where someone has agreed to turn the heat on in someone’s house to keep the pipes from freezing. Unbeknownst to them, a serial killer has arranged their latest victim so that when the heat is turned on they will be suffocated. The person goes in, turns the heat on … and kills that person. Did they do something morally wrong? Amoral? Or morally right?

The person was acting on what we would have to consider to be a moral obligation: to fulfill their promise. Based on the best information we could expect them to have, there were no other considerations that they needed to consider. If they had known that the person would be killed by that and ignored it, then at best their action would be considered amoral — unconcerned with morality — and likely we would consider it immoral. And if they had known that a serial killer was committing murders like that it might be reasonable to claim that they were morally obligated to check. But in this case none of that seems reasonable.

The reason for this is that we run, again, into “Ought implies can”. We can only act on the beliefs that we actually have, not on the beliefs that we ought to have. For moral facts, it is reasonable to say that we can’t be said to be acting morally if we are acting on moral falsehoods — even if it would be unreasonable to believe that we could know otherwise — but for non-moral facts that doesn’t seem to be the case. And it seems to me that Carrier, in order to make the link to science that he wants to make, needs to make non-moral facts more important than that, and more determinate, arguing that if we are wrong about the non-moral facts about what, say, satisfies us then we can’t be acting morally.

To be fair, Carrier does see the issue:

(There is the question at this point of impossible knowledge or knowledge one cannot reasonably have obtained, but when we accept that all imperatives, even moral imperatives, are situational, this problem dissolves–I explain what it dissolves into in my chapter on Moral Facts).

The problem is that accepting that moral imperatives are situational doesn’t seem to solve the problem. I accepted that they were situational above, and then still noted that we have a bit of a controversy here over what to consider actions that are based on mal-informed non-moral facts. I don’t seem to have the work that has that chapter, but to me either Carrier has to accept that the actions are still moral in the case I described or that they are not moral (either amoral or immoral). If he accepts the latter, then he risks violating “Ought implies can”. If he accepts the former, then I’m not sure the non-moral facts can ever rise to the level he needs them to to make science.

So, in conclusion, this gets us as far as the rather trivial and obvious statement that morally true statements must, in fact, be true. Uncontroversial, but hardly something that we can use to do any hard work later.

The second premise:

2. The moral is that which you ought to do above all else.

At first blush, this does seem obviously true. However, Carrier makes this definitional, in short saying that the moral is defined by whatever it is that you ought to do most. But the sense in which I take this is that if one is to be a moral agent, what one ought to do most is that which is moral. Carrier wants to start from some kind of objective interpretation of what we ought to do above all else and then say that achieving that is what it means to be moral. I would, on the other hand, that the obviously true way to interpret this premise is that as a moral agent what I ought to do above all else is defined by what is moral. So, in terms of practice, what Carrier wants to do here is figure out what we ought to do above all else, and then relate morality to that, while I want to do is figure out what it means to be moral and then insist that as a moral agent that is what we ought to do more than anything else. As such, Carrier’s argument isn’t, in fact, a tautology:

It is a tautology (as all definitions are), but is valuable and meaningful precisely because of that. If you mean by “moral” something other than this, then you are wasting everyone’s time talking about nothing of any importance. Because if you mean something else by “moral,” I will have this other thing, this thing which you really ought to do above all else, which means above your thing, too, whatever it is. So I will have something even more imperative than yours, and if mine is factually true (it really is that which you ought to do above all else), yours cannot be (it cannot be that which we ought to do…because I can prove we ought to do something else instead).

The tautology gets busted by my pointing out that my interpretation is not, in fact, necessarily conceptually false. If I insist that as a moral agent what we ought to do is be moral above everything else, as I have already pointed out Carrier’s definition becomes viciously circular. Since my interpretation is a conceptually valid — if possible incorrect — idea of what we ought to do above all else, Carrier’s definition here falters. Thus, he’ll need an argument to establish that we can move from whatever it is that Carrier thinks we most ought to do above all else to that being what it means to be moral. It is, in fact, conceptually possible for it to end up that what it ought most to do is, in fact, not act morally. We couldn’t call ourselves moral for doing that, but it might in fact turn out to be the case.

In short, Carrier doesn’t seem to be using this premise in the way that most people would use it when they consider it self-evidently true. So, then, I clearly disagree with this premise as Carrier interprets it.

Third premise:

3. All imperatives (all ‘ought’ statements) are hypothetical imperatives.

I have read — and should comment on at some point — the view of Foote’s that Carrier harps on here, and admit that I haven’t dug into the Kant to the level I probably should to answer this question. However, carrying on from the above premise, my argument here is that if Carrier and Foote mean a hypothetical in the sense of “If you want to be a surgeon, do X”, and more relevantly “If you want to be moral, do X” then I agree. However, I would then claim that the work in determining what is moral — and what most of the moral theories are trying to do — is fill in what that X is. For Utiltiarians, it translates to “If you want to be moral, maximize utility”. For Virtue Theorists, it translates to “If you want to be moral, act virtuously”. For Kantians, it might be “If you want to be moral, act according to duty”. How each of these shake out depends on the moral theory in terms of the details, but the important thing to note is that if there is a hypothetical structure here, it’s only the first part, the part that the moral theories aren’t attempting to address. And this is true even if we take Carrier’s formulation, because it translates to “If you want to be moral, do whatever it is that you ought most of to above all else”. I don’t see room to insert hypothetical imperatives into the second part of the if, and in clashes with other moral theories that’s where Foote’s “hypothetical imperatives” would have to be to matter. I even suspect that Kant’s categorical imperatives can fit into that second part of the if. So, at best, Carrier and Foote might get to the point of saying that all imperatives can only be applied to a specific context or concept or domain. This is fine, as far as it goes, but isn’t as strong as Carrier portrays it. It’s certainly not a “fourth way” in philosophy, as Carrier insists it is.

Fourth premise:

4. All human decisions are made in the hopes of being as satisfied with one’s life as one can be in the circumstances they find themselves in.

Let’s grant this, despite it being absolutely meaningless without having an idea of what “satisfied” actually means (if it means pure physical pleasure, then it is clearly false, for example). Let’s take it the way Carrier seems to me mean it, in a very general sense of at best having a sense of satisfaction. The problem we run into here is that there are two ways to have that sense of satisfaction. The first is by actually satisfying our desires. The second is by conditioning our desires so that we only have the desires that we have satisfied. So, if let’s imagine that someone has a desire to play baseball in the Major Leagues that is unfulfilled. As the desire is unfulfilled, then they wouldn’t be at least ideally satisfied with their life. They can thus increase their satisfaction by making it to the Major Leagues. However, they can also increase their satisfaction by giving up the desire to make it to the Major Leagues. Carrier ignores the second option for the most part. Sure, he will later argue loosely for something like that when he argues about rationality and irrationality and being mal-informed, but my counter would be that he simply doesn’t consider how strong our ability to condition our satisfaction really is.

Because of this, we are in the same situation here as we were above when it came to “ought to do above all else”: with completely reversed interpretations. Carrier will use this to argue that we should be satisfying our desires, and doing that is what is moral. I counter that what we should be doing is figuring out what is moral, and then conditioning our desires so that we are satisfied when we act morally. But the evidence for my position is that someone can indeed desire to do things that we would generally consider to be immoral, and so couldn’t be satisfied with their lives unless they could do that as we saw with the Belkar example last time. Carrier would be forced into trying to argue why Belkar’s desires are themselves self-defeating or prevent him from achieving something that Belkar really does want more in order to make this case. However, Belkar’s can make his entire system non-contradictory by relating everything to wanting to, say, stay alive longer to be able to kill more, and so on. Because Carrier’s argument defines morality only by what the agent does or rationally would want and not as an independent concept, he has no way to say that Belkar’s desires or actions are immoral.

This, I think, highlights the main issue with Carrier’s presentation here: he defines morality — or, at least, acting moral — as only having instrumental value, while I consider morality to have intrinsic value. Starting from the second premise, he would claim that morality is only valuable if it leads you to achieve what you ought most to do, which here he defines as being to achieve a satisfying life. I, other hand, claim that morality has value in and of itself and not merely to achieve some other, non-moral end. And it is here, then, that I — and a number of other moral theories — and Carrier irreconcilably part ways.

Fifth premise:

5. What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover.

This is true if we take satisfaction as merely being what the person does want, in the first sense noted above. In the second sense, where we are in fact looking at what the person ought to be satisfied with and ought to condition themselves to want given what it means to be moral, this is clearly false. Or at least false in the sense Carrier wants it to be true.

Sixth premise:

6. There are many fundamentals of our biology, neurology, psychology, and environment that are the same for all human beings.

Sure, and this can be relevant to determining the morality of a specific action, given a specific concept of morality. But once the fundamental divide outlined above is discovered, it is irrelevant to the discussion, because none of that will determine if a) there is an independent concept of morality that we can appeal to to determine what we, as moral agents, ought to value most of all and b) if morality has intrinsic value or only instrumental value.

In conclusion:

Hence I do not believe anyone can make a valid argument against it.

Here’s the short form of my valid argument: Morality cannot be something that only has instrumental value if we are to be proper moral agents. Morality, as a concept, includes having intrinsic value. We may choose not to value morality, but that does not mean that morality, in and of itself, doesn’t have intrinsic value that we could and as moral agents ought to value. Thus, instead of using morality merely as a means to achieve life satisfaction, we instead ought to condition ourselves to be satisfied with whatever acting moral will give to us. At a minimum, Carrier’s premises are not necessarily true and, even if they were, his conclusion doesn’t follow from them. Can science deal with this? Maybe — I’m skeptical — but it is certainly the case that his views of how to use science to don’t work if I’m right. And I definitely think I’m right.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: I Just Reject One More God Than You

February 22, 2017

So, in two separate posts, Seidensticker takes on Bannister’s criticism of the “I just reject one more god than you” argument. Seidensticker characterizes it thusly:

In today’s episode, Fred is furious because something destroyed his garden. He’s considering and dismissing possible culprits—from aardvarks to zebras—while our hero points out the clues for rabbits. Fred says that it’s not rabbits, either. You’ve dismissed all those other animals? Well, he just goes one animal further.

This is obviously supposed to mimic the atheist argument used by Richard Dawkins and others that the Christian rejects hundreds or thousands of gods; why not just one god further like the atheist?

Bannister generalizes the argument: never pick something out of a collection because it leaves you open to the challenge, “Hold on! You rejected all these other ones, so why not just go one further and reject them all?”

Seidensticker tries to argue that the analogies aren’t, in fact, relevant because there’s a critical difference:

It goes too far only when you force it there. Sometimes “None of the above” is an option and sometimes not. You can suggest that a Christian believe in zero gods, but you can’t tell a vegan to adopt zero dietary regimes (they have to eat something).

Let’s return to Fred’s poor garden, ravaged the previous night by some kind of animal. The constant fight of gardeners against animals that eat their crops is well understood. You know that something trashed Fred’s garden, so “this had zero causes” isn’t an option.

And we’re supposed to see this as analogous to the religion case? Compare many animals with the many religions. We know that all these animals exist. In sharp contrast, most religions must be false and they might all be. There are one or more causes of Fred’s damaged garden, while there could be zero or more gods that actually exist. “Zero” is absolutely not an answer in the garden case, while it is a very live option in the religion case.

Why is he presuming that in the examples “None of the above” isn’t a live option? After all, imagine that Fred really believes that it was an animal that trashed the garden, and the person who is arguing with him insists that it was just natural. This would be pretty much identical to Dawkins’ argument, but we can clearly see that this would fall into the exact problem Bannister criticizes: sure, “None of the above” might be a live option, but that doesn’t mean that the person argument for it can dismiss a particular competing theory just because other similar theories were discarded.

But all of this is actually irrelevant because it in no way defends the argument as an argument. If Bannister is right that the argument depends on saying that one cannot pick any one thing out of a collection without being held to have explicitly rejected all others — presumably, even if the evidence for each thing is different — then it’s an invalid and, well, rather stupid argument. However, the general approach to it as an argument is really something like this: You rejected all of those other gods because you feel that the evidence for them is insufficient, but there is no more evidence for your god than theirs, therefore for epistemic consistency you should reject your god, too. This, at least, is an argument that might work.

Unfortunately, it fails because it presumes that most people have examined the evidence for all of the other gods and on that basis alone rejected them. This is, in general, not the case for most theists. Instead, most of them have come to the belief in a particular god in some way and then reject the others because there isn’t enough evidence to overturn the belief they already have. Thus, epistemically they can accept that their belief is no more evidenced than any of the alternatives — even “None of the above” — and still maintain that they’re sticking with what they’ve got until they get sufficient evidence one way or the other without any contradiction. There is, of course, an important difference between things you already believe — and thus are integrated into your Web of Belief — and new propositions that you are considering. This argument ignores all of that to try to insist that believers be consistent with reasons that they, in fact, aren’t actually using.

Seidensticker’s arguments don’t get any better when he tries to dismiss the idea that Christianity is different and so you can’t reject it on the same standards as other religions:

All religions have the same Achilles Heel—supernatural belief. If that single foundational assumption is wrong, then they’re all wrong—all equally wrong and all in the same way. Only if the supernatural does indeed exist are the differences interesting and worth comparing. Without the supernatural, those differences are trivia, and Bannister does nothing to argue for the existence of the supernatural.

Sure, if that’s wrong, then all religions are wrong. But religious believers don’t accept that naturalistic assumption, and so don’t reject the other religions because those insist on talking about things that are “supernatural”. Seidensticker is fine to argue that for him he rejects them all on the basis of supernatural beliefs, but that doesn’t even apply to me — who merely rejects naturalism as a worldview but does not necessarily think that implies that there really supernatural things in existence — let alone to those who actively believe in the supernatural as an existent category. Again, this is not how religious believers reason about religions, so it’s not something he can use against religious believers to show that they have an inconsistency.

Finally, he takes on another of Bannister’s arguments with a comment about invented gods:

So then make up a new character and call him the Creator. Make him outside. Now Yahweh has a competitor.

You don’t like that he was just invented? All right, then revisit this character after 2000 years has passed so that the origins of this tale are clouded and it has become legend and mythology. That’s Christianity’s advantage—not that it’s correct but that it’s venerable and uncheckable.

Sure … but that advantage is significant when it comes to the argument. If I reject the Flying Spaghetti Monster because I know that it was merely invented, but don’t know that the Christian God was merely invented due to the time lapse, you can’t argue that I ought to reject the Christian God by asserting that the Christian God was invented, too. Even bringing up the possibility that the Christian God might have been invented doesn’t, in fact, make that rise to the level of knowledge, which is what I have for those other invented gods. Again, there is no reason for me to reject the Christian God — or any god that I don’t know was invented — on the basis that I know of some other gods that were explicitly invented. Yes, I know that about them. What does that have to do with the God I do believe in and don’t know was invented?

Ultimately, this argument assumes that the reason that the believer rejects the existence of the other gods is similar to the reason the atheist all of them, which is likely false. It’s a rather poor way to get theists to understand atheism, and doesn’t work as an argument, Seidensticker’s “defenses” notwithstanding.

Star Trek Memories

February 20, 2017

So, I ended up exchanging all of my Hugo Award nominee books for, essentially, the “Star Trek Memories” books by William Shatner. I enjoyed the Star Trek books far, far more than the Hugo Award nominees.

I found the second book — which discussed the Star Trek movies — to be far more engaging than the one covering the series for some reason. However, both of them were quite entertaining reads. Shatner mixes the memories parts with a number of jokes, and often jokes at his own expense. It’s hard to say how arrogant and self-centered he really was on the show, because Shatner admits to it in discussing Nichelle Nichols’ calling him out on it, but from his own recollections he denies that it was an intent to grab the limelight and more an attempt to push for the scene to be done in a way that he thought made sense, which he says that Leonard Nimoy was also pretty insistent on. He admits, though, that often those comments didn’t take into account the other actors and their positions. Which is also a bit refreshing, as Shatner doesn’t spend as much time as you might expect justifying himself and claiming that he didn’t really do or act like that; he essentially cops to it and his big defense is that he didn’t mean it the way it was taken. He’s also pretty effusive in his comments that Nichols, Koenig and Takei, for all of the problems they had with him — only Nichols and Koenig actually told him about that in their interviews — are very, very nice people … at least in part because they were generally at least polite in telling him what they were unhappy about (and Takei didn’t mention it in the interview for that book).

Shatner was also upset that Doohan didn’t even meet with him for the book.

On Star Trek V, the one that he helmed, Shatner isn’t as dismissive of the issues with the movie nor does he blame as much of the movie on the suits as I had expected from watching SF Debris’ comments on it. Yes, he laments the thin budget and that he couldn’t do what he wanted, but for the most part he recognizes changes that made sense and his discussion of how the movie could have turned out with his original idea isn’t entirely implausible. I don’t know if his idea could have worked — the explicit God/Satan angle — but from what he says and from my own viewing of the movie his ideas weren’t terrible. I think that Nimoy and Kelley were right that them abandoning him — at least permanently — didn’t make sense, but I can kinda see what he was going for. At any rate, he blames most of the issues on the various disasters, and less on, merely, the interference from the executives. And he seems rightly bothered by Bennett seemingly accepting the ideas in the hopes of talking him out of them later.

Overall, it’s an interesting read if you are in any way a fan of Star Trek.