Sunday, February 3, 2013

Against the Appeal to Consequences

The debate of atheism vs. theism (mainly Christianity in the United States) has been characterized by appeals to consequences on both sides. From the atheists frequent arguments that religion leads to ignorance, the oppression of women, violence and other ills are heard. Christians for their part often claim that atheism leads to immorality, meaningless, and the atrocities committed by Hitler or Stalin, among others. Advocates of both positions then make counterarguments to each of these, naturally. Many of these arguments have been false, at least in part, but that is not chiefly my concern here. All of them commit the appeal to consequences fallacy  implicitly, while some do so explicitly-namely, that because of the alleged undesirable results that atheism or theism have, they are thus false. Of course few people want to believe in something that does not comfort them, but that says nothing of its truth or falsity. I, as an atheist, find Christianity in particular undesirable, though other forms of theism are less so. This personal attitude of mine has nothing whatsoever to do with it being true or not. I am unconvinced that it is, and would be disappointed if it were, but hopefully in that case my intellectual honesty would be enough to accept the truth, even though it was undesirable to me. Our chief commitment, I feel, must be to the truth, discomforting though we may find it. That said, it is fair to make the distinction that one has been convinced of their position being true, and then critique the opposing view, but that if the other side was right, they would accept the fact. An example will serve to illustrate the disconnect often at work. Some Christians have said that atheism being true would lead them to depression, perhaps even suicide. Whether or not this would happen, the same could be said by atheists. I would, if the facts to me warranted it, admit that Christianity was true. Most Christians in general assume realizing that will then lead to love of God and devoted worship, as it did for them. However, in my case I would refuse to either love or worship such a God as that of Christianity. Belief in something does not entail love or devotion to it necessarily, as we sometimes forget in these matters. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Argumentation Ethics: An Exploration

First, let us define what argumenatation ethics is. Pioneered in 1988 by the German libertarian economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, it derives from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Argumentation ethics argues the following: that whoever engages in argument by definition must affirm life and self-ownership, as these are necessary for engaging in it, thus causing a performative contradiction if one argues against them. However, several criticisms immediately arise. People can and do act without attempting to justify themselves in argument or indeed any way at all. One person can kill another, for instance, without arguing over the rightness of their action-they simply do it. A slave and his master could engage in argument, but that would hardly shows us his master in fact respects the slave's right to his life and person. Further, we can take the case of artificial entities, for instance robots, with an ability to speak and engage in argument but that simply follow their programming.

How to address these criticisms? First, while people certainly do act without attempting to justify or explain themselves, if one retaliates or punishes them for their action, how can they object except by protesting how this is somehow "different." If one initiates coercion, how can they protest that retaliation in kind is wrong, if they committed it? What makes the retaliation wrong, if their aggression was right? This all relies on argument. With the master and slave, although the master may not overtly respect it, he does that by engaging in argument with the slave. Of course that leaves us masters who do not engage in argumentation at all, which is no doubt most. Yet again though, if the slave retaliates against what the master does, he may seek to explain what is "wrong" about this if confronted. Of course, that does not mean argumentation on the matter is going to be forthcoming. In the case of a robot that strictly follows programming, with no independent thought, it would be ludicrous to say that argumentation affirms their own existence and self-ownership; they are drones following commands, nothing more.

Another problem arises simply from what qualifies as "argumenation." Some great apes, for instance, have the capability, however limited, to use sign language. If questioned, they would no doubt object to being, say, experimented upon painfully. This does not apply to most animals, of course, for although the bovine cry of protest while being branded or shot is clear, it seems doubtful this would qualify as argumentation. Like most libertarian ethical theories, animal rights are given no recognition, although perhaps great apes which can sign might be granted an exception, though here as well the ethic is human-centered, with them being our closest relatives, and their communication ability is a result of that. Great apes may thus fall under this criteria. The issue should, I think, be further explored through study of their behavior and communications. Provisionally, it seems that argumentation ethics has some merit, at least in the context of debate where contrary arguments can be revealed as self-refuting. 

Necessary Illusions?

Free will, objective morality, religion...These are unproven to me. I understand the human need for them, how necessary they are for most people to feel good, and indeed function with others. Yet because it may be necessary for them to believe in these things, it makes them no less an illusion, when not based, as I see it, on evidence and logic. So far I have not seen any convincing proof of these. If anyone who reads this disagrees with me, I would be glad to hear their argument out. What is the purpose of existence? To exist, continue existing and perpetuate it sometimes. The last is an evolutionary drive, but does not have to be fulfilled. Hopefully we can also enjoy what existence we have, although it may not be possible to. So if one feels that existence is not enjoyable, indeed painful, they may end it.

We identify axioms of action, existence, reason, self-ownership, and the senses. One must act to argue against action (by speaking, writing, etc.) one must exist to argue they do not, one must use reasoning to argue against reason, one must have self-ownership to argue one does not own themselves, and one must use their senses to critique sense experience. However, I do not think free will can be assumed a priori in this way.

An objective morality has been sought by philosophers from the foundation of philosophy itself. Natural law theory is a common justification, one that Scottish philosopher David Hume dissected in his A Treatise of Human Nature using the famous "is/ought" problem. Simply put, to say that something is does not mean it ought to be. For instance, the Christian natural law theorists argue that homosexuality is "unnatural" as the purpose of the sex organs is for reproduction, and non-reproductive sexual activity in general also falls afoul of this. However, the fact that our sex organs purpose is to reproduce does not mean they ought to be used only for reproduction. This divide, also called fact/value or descriptive/prescriptive, is termed Hume's Law or more amusingly Hume's Guillotine, as it severs attempts to broach the chasm of the is/ought problem.

These natural law theorists do not take such reasoning to its logical conclusion. Our feet have a purpose, by the logic of natural law, that does not include pushing car pedals, nor riding horseback, or even wearing shoes. This could also be said of clothing, and virtually everything. One could even argue that going against nature in this way is "natural" for us. In any case to call it "natural law" is a misnomer. Gravity is a natural law, which no one can defy. The "natural law" against homosexuality can be defied, and denied. If engaging in homosexual acts were literally impossible, as defying gravity is, that could be called a natural law. Since this is often a theistic idea generally, natural law theorists could argue that free will granted by God precludes making "sin" impossible. Gravity is never held to deny us free will, however. So why did God not create other natural laws which preclude what they view to be sins, along with behavior virtually everyone agrees is undesirable, such as murder and theft? Of course, this assumes free will itself exists, and their answer is most likely that we can only submit to what God has enacted, not go against it.

Even if there were a moral law binding as gravity, however, that does not mean it would have any more of an objective validity. To understand why, let us suppose there were a totalitarian society which had perfected mind control to such a degree that it was impossible to disobey its wishes, on a level with defying gravity. It would thus be true to say their laws were objectively binding in a sense ones are not at present, but no more valid necessarily. If a God created moral laws that its creations were incapable of breaching, for instance every attempt to commit sin thwarted with a mental block, it would no more say God's will ought to be followed, only that it is followed, and cannot be otherwise. Indeed, Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell posits Newspeak, the attempt to make "thought crime" impossible to even conceive.

Even assuming one admits all of these are necessary for social order, and indeed an existence with meaning, again that does not, of course, make them correct by itself. A necessary illusion remains illusory. However, they may not only be incorrect, but also dangerous. To hold that people have free will, despite all contrary evidence, may hinder progress in addressing social ills such as crime or mental illness. Understanding that behavior results from prior causes, environmental and genetic, may in fact lead to crime being identified with mental illness. Regardless, greater insight on the causes would likely better our ability to address them. So, the illusion may not be a necessary one, but rather something best overcome. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Idle Society

Sometimes what seems a paradise would in fact be hell. Would it not be wonderful for your basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, medical care, entertainment) to be taken care of? Yes, many think. Various proposals are made: a basic income, from either a citizen's dividend (a payment to all citizens for the loss of property that is claimed to be theirs by right, such as land in general) or negative income tax, where people below certain income levels receive money to supplement this from the government rather than paying income tax. Funding this has been proposed through any number of ways, largely taxes, most obviously on income, but also sales, capital gains, inheritance, land, natural resources, luxury, pollution, sin or excise, and so on. Also fees derived from state monopolies such as the broadcast spectrum, roads, or utilities, a state lottery, tariffs, trust fund, repayment at death or retirement, and simply wholly collective or state ownership have all been proposed. Of course there is also the simple expedient of government printing money to pay them with.

All of it rests on the implicit assumption, that, if guaranteed this income, people will be happier and better cared for with this bit of wealth. Yet at the same time we know many of the richest people, who really do have all this assured them, are not especially happy. The "idle rich" and their problems, those derived from inheritance particularly, are well known to us. Often this is pointed out by people who at the same time advocate something like a basic income guarantee. Let us all be rich. The culmination of this was shown in the Federation of Star Trek, where, although the details were understandably, and conveniently, never shown, everyone has their material needs taken care of. Given the replicator, it might in fact be possible. However, this leaves us the question: since the replicator can produce most products, what jobs do people have left? Already we are seeing the rise of a service economy replacing industry. Could it be service jobs are the only employment left then in the Federation economy for most people, absent perhaps a very few that cannot be done with replicators (say coming up with new ideas of products to make)?

As it was put once: You can't get rid of poverty by giving people money. The real outcome is likely to be mass unemployment, with attendant social unrest. In Brave New World, the dystopia Aldous Huxley wrote in which people are born into genetically engineered castes, lulled by constant use of the drug soma, an ideology of mindless consumerism, casual sex and pornographic films whose sensations the viewer can then fully experience, called "feelies", World Controller (an ominous title) Mustapha Mond tells John the Savage the government has purposefully retarded the rate of technological progress so automation does not cause that very problem. Innovators who refuse to toe the line are exiled to isolated areas. Mond even says the world government experimented by lowering work hours in Ireland, to give people more leisure time. Rather than making them happier, it led to increased soma use with overall disorder. However, it seems that in order to provide everyone with their material needs, the replicator would be needed, which at the same time would render most industrial work obsolete.

The Federation of Star Trek differs almost wholly from the global state of Brave New World, but there may be one thing in common for them. Holodecks, in the Star Trek universe, are the virtual reality chambers which can simulate any experience practically. If citizens were provided this as entertainment, it might prevent social unrest. Star Trek only hints at it, being on prime time tv, but an obvious use of this VR would be sexual of course. One must wonder if the holodecks will be monitored to make sure pathological behavior, sexual and otherwise, is not vented, or this may be allowed when strictly virtual. It seems that a large majority of people would be permanently idle, living on the guaranteed necessities provided. A small number, at least, would have to decide what replicators will produce, unless all this is done with artificial intelligence. Government officials, civilian or military, scientists and replicator managers likely would make up this number, along with perhaps those coming up with patterns for goods that are replicated. One imagines a tiny elite might emerge, which, if human nature is unchanged, provides its membership with superior replicated products, looking down on the idle masses in contempt, giving them an equivalent of bread and circuses.

The question whether a replicator economy as in the Federation would be state-owned arises. If the central planning of replicator production occurs, no matter how advanced the computer, how does this overcome the economic calculation problem? It seems unlikely, given the information constraints of providing for everyone, but even assuming this could, the social problems remain (perhaps lowering world population would help, but that brings up other issues). Naturally, all of this assumes humans in their present form would exist at that point. For my own view, I think beings such as Data and the Borg, among others, would be very common, perhaps even having replaced humans entirely (hopefully not by forcibly assimilating them, as the latter are shown to). Now, as with the global state in Brave New World, the pace of technology could be suppressed (for instance genetic augmentation is banned in the Federation) but I'm skeptical that such bans would hold up forever. All of this is not to say we should cease attempting to alleviate poverty, or fight technological progress. Only that we must evaluate it critically, even, or perhaps especially, things which promise what so many desire. The outcome may not be that. It may even be the opposite.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Behold the Machine

We, as human beings, and indeed all living organisms, are biological machines. No doubt this is surprising, even off-putting at first hearing it. A machine is defined as "an apparatus consisting of interrelated parts with separate functions, used in the performance of some kind of work." This definition is wholly applicable to us. Our bodies are made up of many delicate interrelated parts, the organs: brain, heart, lungs, liver, esophagus, stomach, etc. that have separate functions, all of which allow us to perform the work of living when they function correctly. We are very intricate machines, fragile and more complex than any others, containing parts that are yet to be fully understood. If even the slightest part malfunctions, the consequences are grave, upsetting the body as a whole in many cases. Remarkable indeed, observing the bottom-up development this machine took with evolution by natural selection, in contrast to our top-down development of inorganic machines. Our relationship to machines, especially those which resemble us in some way that once were fictional but increasingly can be seen developing, has occupied great expanses of literature, film and other culture. While they are certainly a fascinating thing and have the potential to change our very existence, we should remember, looking in the mirror: the machines are here already. We are them, simply composed of flesh, blood, bone and genes rather than metals or artificial materials. And we are the most wondrous yet to arise.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reverse Occam's Razor

Occam's razor, also known as the law of parsimony, is the principle that generally recommends, when faced with competing hypotheses that are equal in other respects, selecting the one that makes the fewest new assumptions.  More challenging, complex explanations can also be right, of course-the principle is only a guideline. Most conspiracy theory holds the precisely reverse view, whether implicitly or not.

Before we continue, it's useful to define conspiracy. It simply means two or more people acting in concert to commit a criminal act. So by this definition conspiracies happen very often indeed. However conspiracy theories do not focus on the small, everyday, conspiracies, but rather those great and overarching. This is reasonable, since these have more importance to world affairs. Conspiracy theories with more importance will therefore be my focus.

Let us first address the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963. Obviously the "official story" that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally alone is simpler. That does not make it necessarily right of course. However, assuming one wanted the President dead, and having chosen Dallas as the location, which is simpler? Two or three gunmen, possibly more, versus one? Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, one gunmen could easily have picked off JFK from the Texas School Book Depository. Most conspiracy theories seem to view Oswald as either innocent or the fall guy of co-conspirators. None that I know of believe he could have committed the shooting alone, for good reason as this would undercut the basis of their claims. Yet this would not by itself rule out a conspiracy. For if Oswald alone shot Kennedy after plotting with accomplices, that would satisfy conditions for a conspiracy. The larger a plot, the more loose ends. After this Oswald presumably had to be silenced himself. Then his own murderer was allowed to live and potentially spill the beans for over four years, let alone the many others who might. An unacceptable risk in any conspiracy to assassinate the US President.

More recently, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center Twin Towers and the Pentagon have been claimed to be impossible if we follow "the official story." While specific claims made by so-called "9/11 Truthers" have been exhaustively answered by experts, why do people leap into the most outlandish theory yet again? If elements of the US or Israeli governments wanted to have the 9/11 attacks occur, they would merely have to sit back and let them happen. If this were done, negligence is far easier to explain (as mere incompetence) than wiring explosives in the Twin Towers undetected, or firing a cruise missile at the Pentagon, along with getting rid of all the Flight 19 passengers, as some theories allege. One must only put themselves in the mind of the would-be conspirator intent on committing such crimes for a moment to see how daunting this prospect would be, even for secret government officials. The more complex the plan, the more conspirators involved, the more there is that can and likely will go wrong. If these events were successful conspiracies (obviously, 9/11 in fact was such, but assuming others were involved than Al-Qaeda) it was because of the simplicity and relatively low number of conspirators, not the opposite. 

The Ledge Review

Directed by Matthew Chapman, a descendant of Charles Darwin, The Ledge explores issues of faith, loyalty, love and sacrifice to reach a shocking conclusion in its dramatic buildup. The film begins in a slow fade from night to day on the sky line of a city over the opening credits, reflecting its themes of light and shadow in human lives. We are first introduced to a police detective named Hollis (Terrence Howard), who is called onto a building ledge where a man is threatening to jump.
Hollis has just received the news he is sterile, but he and his wife already have two children. The man on the ledge, Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) is remarkably upbeat for someone threatening suicide. He asks Hollis what his success rate at jumpers, who replies "it's decent." Hollis asks if he's married, and Gavin says no. "So why jump?" asks Hollis, to which Gavin laughs. Hollis correctly guesses he is not up here by choice. Sobering up, Gavin says he has to stay up here until noon and jump, or someone else will die. Hollis requests that he tell him what led up to this, and the story unfolds.
Gavin met a woman named Shana (Liv Tyler) that had just moved into his apartment building with her husband. It turns out she found went to an art class with a co-worker where their assignment is to write an essay on a sacred object for them (his co-worker amusingly asks whether a large dildo counts) and gets a job at the hotel he works in through this.
Back home, Gavin laughingly dismisses his roommate Chris' mysticism, who complains that he doesn't "see meaning" in things. Joe, Shana's husband, introduces himself and invites the pair to dinner with them. After showing Shana the hotel the next day, with its quirky characters, they come to dinner. Joe, assumes they are gay (only Gavin's roommate is) prays in front of them for their souls. Instantly offended, Gavin leaves, while Chris good-naturedly brushes it off. Later they argue over what happened.
The next day, Gavin asks what sacred object Shana is writing her essay about. It turns out to be a teddy bear her father had given Shana immediately before he left the family. He was an abusive alcoholic, and she thinks he might have abandoned them to prevent him really hurting Shana or her mother. Gavin is subdued by this, and later goes to lunch with Shana, talking with her further.
Back at the ledge, Hollis flashs back to coming home after learning he is sterile. He angrily demands to know "whose kids these are" from his wife. She only replies with "it was an arrangement." Returning to the story, on the way to the bus stop the next day Joe stops Gavin, apologizing for his praying the night before. He suggests they speak again, which Gavin agrees to. While on the bus with Shana, he plants the suggestion of intimacy between them. Gavin explains to Hollis how he put the idea in her head, where it will grow. We can imagine what Hollis is thinking hearing this given his recent history.
Gavin speaks to Joe over their second dinner, having previously revealed himself as a non-believer. Joe wishes to know why he doesn't believe in God. There is no special reason, Gavin says, he simply grew out of believing it, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. No evidence exists for any of them. Joe feels evidence is everywhere, but does not actually give examples. They argue over the morality of condemning someone to eternal torment for not knowing about Christ, Gavin using the example of a good person in China. Joe says that's why spreading the Gospel is important, to save those who don't know. After this he relates visiting a terminally ill boy in the hospital, telling him his parents were in heaven. What would Gavin do in such a situation? Tell him they were dead and gone, never to be seen again? No, Gavin admits, he probably would have said the same thing, but he would be lying. Joe finally gives up and starts praying for Gavin again, at which once more leaves in frustration.
The next day, Shana tells him more of her life story. In her teens, she got involved with drugs, and became a prostitute to pay for it. One client liked to meet in churches, but no one had told her he also liked to beat up the woman afterward. She was badly injured and had crawled toward the altar, looking for help. In her state, she had forgotten the next day was Sunday. Joe found her there on the floor when he came in, and took her to a hospital. Things progressed from there. She tells Gavin he made an impression on Joe. He took them to another church which is against drinking, smoking and immodest clothing for women. They will soon go on a mission to Uganda and spread the Gospel. She tells Gavin it's best if he stays away from now on.
Gavin does try to stay away, though this only lasts briefly. Shana finds him sitting on the roof, looking at the stars. They begin talking again, and Shana tells him how she tried to fill the void with physical sensation that only made her feel more empty. She asks him what, as an atheist, he finds meaning in. He tells her that being here with the stars, seeing the vast universe, makes him feel a part of it. This also reminds him of how precious life is, finite and fragile in comparison. Shana is clearly moved by his sense of peace. Joe suspects something, seeing her gone. The next day at work, Shana simply comes up to Gavin and kisses him. Soon they arrange to meet in the hotel with an empty room. Almost at once Joe discovers this and follows Shana there, observing her leaving afterward. Shana has suspicions he knows.
Back on the ledge, Hollis' wife calls him, trying to explain what she did. He tells Gavin to keep telling his story. Shana met him in his apartment, with Joe following her again. This time his suspicion is confirmed beyond any doubt, as he listens to them through the door in agony. Lying in bed with Shana later, Gavin tells her about his daughter. She was killed in a car accident which he blames himself for. He had only moments to choose which way to turn, and chose what he feels is wrong, with the truck slamming into the rear where she was. Shana tells him it was not his, and he knows it rationally, but the guilt stays. It destroyed his marriage, and he got into the hospitality business after.
In the present, Hollis reveals what his wife told him. She had his younger brother conceive their children, for them to be close as possible to him. Gavin tells him that it shows how much she cares for him, but the news is clearly hard on Hollis. Flashing back, Joe tries to prove himself with Shana, showing more attention at her needs. By now though this is clearly too late. Shana begins planning to leave him for Gavin. Joe calls the hotel to book a room. Calling Gavin to his apartment, he tells his own story. He was once happily married with two children, but lost it all gambling and visiting prostitutes. Joe denies to Gavin that he was an addict, but rather says he loved sin. Finally, lying in the gutter, he saw light from a nearby church and went in, which he views as a sign from God. Joe threatens Gavin with a gun, reminding him of how adultery is punished in the Bible-with death. Gavin counters with the famous example of Jesus stopping an adulteress from being stoned, since no one is without sin and fit to judge. Joe says he thought of that, and challenges Gavin over being willing to die for what he believes in. Gavin says he is willing, and finally Joe dismisses him.
Hearing the story while on the ledge, Hollis notices light flashing from a window in the hotel across the street. Calling his partner, the police go into the hotel as he listens to Gavin. Joe went to the hotel room he booked, and ordered room service which Shana delivered. Then he calls Gavin, having bound and gagged her, to give him his choice. Saying that he is "more of an Old Testament Christian" Joe tells Gavin to choose between himself and Shana. He must go up to the roof of the building opposite the hotel, stay there until 12:00, and then jump, or he will shoot Shana. Hollis angrily says he should have told him this from the beginning as the police rush to the hotel room. Gavin says he couldn't, or Joe might have killed Shana before they could get to him. As the clock strikes 12:00, despite Hollis pleas, Gavin jumps, sacrificing himself. The police burst into the hotel room where Joe is holding Shana, watching from the window, and arrest him.
Back at the police station, Hollis speaks with Shana, commiserating with her over Gavin and saying how much he loved her. On her way out, she passes Joe in a holding cell, his own life destroyed, having lost everything. Hollis goes to his family, without acrimony, sitting down to dinner with them. For just this once, he says, they won't pray, to honor a good man that died. A good man, the film leaves unsaid, who died for someone he loved, without needing faith in a God.
This is one of the only films I have seen which portrays atheism and an atheist in a positive, non-stereotypical light. While the atheist character, Gavin, suffered a great personal loss, this was explicitly not shown to be the cause of his atheism, rather it came first. All of the main characters-Hollis, Gavin, Shana and Joe-have experienced severe hardships of different kinds. The way in which they address these sets them apart. Gavin, though having lost his daughter and marriage, has kept an essentially upbeat, optimistic attitude even with his lingering pain and guilt. Shana appears to have needed love from a man over anything else, given her background. It remains unclear if she ever truly believed, or simply went along with Joe. By the end of the film in any case she had gone with Gavin. Joe, given his addictive personality, simply may have swapped religion for the former addictions. His irrational furor stemming from this ends with tragedy. Hollis, on the other hand, while struggling himself with his wife, overcomes the hurdle, inspired by Gavin, as indicated with his refraining from prayer over dinner in the last scene.
The film is definitely leaning in favor of Gavin's view, but shows everyone sympathetically, as flawed human beings, including Joe. It seems clear that Joe is his own worst enemy, with the self-destructive tendencies he cannot overcome making him lose everything he wants even while seeking to hold on through any means necessary. This is in keeping with the tragic theme. While he challenges Gavin over being willing to sacrifice, Joe is not so willing in his own case. Rather, he sacrifices others, both his family before Shana, then her and Gavin later. Joe has a hole in himself that is never filled, no matter what he tries. By the end it leaves him even more empty, and likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. The film makes its messages clear: one does not need religion to be happy, nor to be good, or self-sacrificing, nor does having it make one any of those thing. This might seem obvious, but we know is sadly not to many. Thus it may be a quite simple message at heart, aside from anything else-One can be, and life can be, good without God. Simple, but earth-shattering and revolutionary at the same time for much of the world.