Specter of Reason

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sexism, Gender and Neuroscience

A recent Guardian article by Robin McKie attempts to undermine an allegedly sexist tendency plaguing the field of neuroscience.  I have no idea how widely or deeply sexism flows through the annals of neuroscientific research, but I'm willing to assume it's pretty wide and pretty deep.  That's not a jab at neuroscience per se.  There's compelling evidence that sexism is virtually everywhere, so why not neuroscience?

The alleged manifestation of sexism in McKie's sights is the idea that there is such a thing as a genetically determined male or female brain.  McKie's thesis is this:  Men and women think and act differently because they have been raised to think and act differently, and not because they are genetically predisposed to think and act differently.  She accuses the field of neuroscience of engaging in a cover-up: Intentionally or not, neuroscientists have been misleading us about the real causes of gender difference:  The culprit is cultural bias, not biological determinism.

Most biologists will tell you that nature and nurture go hand in hand.  All behaviours and cognitive capacities should be considered the result of both environmental factors and genetic predispositions. You would be very hard-pressed to find a neuroscientist who denied that cultural factors played any role at all in neurological development.  The question is, how much of a role does culture play?  Are there some behaviours or capacities which women or men are genetically more likely to express?

McKie's answer is clear:  There are no cognitive capacities or behaviors which men or women are genetically more likely to express.  (Obviously she's not including things like ovulation or breast-feeding.  She's talking about behaviors which are not forced or limited by our reproductive organs.)

McKie's thesis is politically attractive:  It can seem like a useful weapon to wage in the war against sexism.  However, it is not supported by the science and it runs counter to common sense.  Common sense tells us that men and women have all sorts of genetically determined differences, so why shouldn't we think there are important neurological differences as well?  It would be more than a little surprising if it turned out that of all the genetically gendered parts of our bodies, our brains were not one of them.

McKie makes two mistakes which are worth highlighting.  The first is that she falls for the line-drawing fallacy. She approvingly quotes Professor Dorothy Bishop, of Oxford University:

"They talk as if there is a typical male and a typical female brain – they even provide a diagram – but they ignore the fact that there is a great deal of variation within the sexes in terms of brain structure. You simply cannot say there is a male brain and a female brain."
Consider an analogy:  There is no such thing as a typical hurricane or a typical tropical storm.  There is a great deal of variation within hurricanes and tropical storms, in terms of wind speed, precipitation and threats to various ecosystems.  Therefore, you simply cannot say there is a hurricane and a tropical storm.

The fact that there is variation within groups, or even that there is not always a clear, dividing line between them, does not mean that there is no sense in recognizing the groups at all.  Vagueness is not always hopeless.  While Professor Bishop is surely right about the variety within male and female brains, we should not jump to the conclusion that these categories are useless--especially since there is scientific research which indicates significant differences between them.

Perhaps McKie has a point, however:  Perhaps neuroscientists are jumping to conclusions about male and female brains.  What scientific evidence is McKie discussing?  This takes us to her second error.  She is discussing a new study by a team led by Professor Ragini Verma:
Verma's results showed that the neuronal connectivity differences between the sexes increased with the age of her subjects. Such a finding is entirely consistent with the idea that cultural factors are driving changes in the brain's wiring. The longer we live, the more our intellectual biases are exaggerated and intensified by our culture, with cumulative effects on our neurons. In other words, the intellectual differences we observe between the sexes are not the result of different genetic birthrights but are a consequence of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.
There are three points to consider here.  First, the fact that a finding is consistent with McKie's view does not mean it entails her view.  There may be an entirely genetic reason why neuronal connectivity differences between the sexes increase during development.  In fact, developmental differences between genders is very often the result of delayed gene-expression.  Just as puberty is genetically determined to occur at a particular time in life, so too may neuronal differences be genetically determined to kick in at various stages of development.

Second, McKie has given a somewhat misleading presentation of the results of Verma's study.  Verma's conclusion is about key stages in neurological development, not about how the brain changes "the longer we live."  Unsurprisingly, most of the differences that Verma's team have observed appear during puberty. Verma's conclusion is that this research suggests a biologically optimized gender difference in neuroanatomical development.  That appears to be a valid conclusion.

The third point to consider is that McKie is promoting a false dilemma.  Even if we say that cultural factors lead to a greater divergence between male and female brains, there may be a genetic explanation for that.  It's not necessarily EITHER genes OR culture.  It could be genes AND culture.  It may be that men and women are genetically disposed to have brains which are different, and these differences are statistically likely to produce cultural institutions which reinforce those differences, leading to an even greater divergence between male and female neuroanatomy.  Alternately, it may be that genes are not ultimately responsible for many of the observed differences between male and female brains, but they still may be responsible for some, or even most, of them.

McKie ends by giving us a scientific basis for questioning Professor Verma's findings.  That is in the spirit of good science, but what conclusions should we draw?

The lesson I take from this situation is not that men will be men and women will be women.  Rather, it is that we don't yet know what men will be, or why, or what women will be, or why.  Not knowing is liberating.  It means nobody can tell women what they will be, and nobody can tell men what they will be.  We can enjoy not knowing, and we can stop pretending like we have more answers than we really do.

Update:  It's also worth pointing out that we should look out for the naturalistic fallacy here.  The fact that we are genetically determined to be a certain way doesn't mean we should be that way.  We can (and often do) resist genetically determined differences if we don't like them.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Leiter on Rape and Sexual Assault in Illinois Law

Professor Peter Ludlow's anti-defamation case was dismissed recently, and Professor Brian Leiter is upset about it.  He says the case should have been a "slam dunk," and argues that the dismissal is most likely the result of bias on the part of the judge.  However, Professor Leiter's argument is not sound.  He hasn't even gotten the facts straight.  In response to an argument by Professor Heidi Lockwood, he says:

"Illinois defines rape as "criminal sexual assault" involving "sexual penetration"  . . . There was never an allegation of sexual penetration against Ludlow by the undergraduate student, so there was never an allegation of criminal sexual assault, i.e., rape."
If you follow the link, you will see that Illinois does not define "rape" as "criminal sexual assault."  The word "rape" does not appear anywhere on that page.  In fact, Illinois law does not define "rape" at all.

Professor Leiter says there is a basis for claiming Professor Ludlow was accused of sexual assault, but not rape. His reasoning is that "sexual assault" is not the same as "criminal sexual assault."  He defines "rape" as "criminal sexual assault" and he says this is not the same as "sexual assault."  However, Illinois law does not distinguish between any of these categories, so Leiter's claim is questionable.  He appeals to the fact that the defendants changed the wording in their news articles as support for his contention that there is a significant difference in meaning between "rape" and "sexual assault."  However, it is reasonable to think that the articles were changed upon request in order to avoid legal problems.  The changes are not an admission of wrong-doing and cannot be used to prove any difference between "sexual assault" and "rape."

Judge Flanagan observes that the terms "rape" and "sexual assault" are sometimes used synonymously in common language, and so the word "rape" helped give a reasonably accurate summary of the charges against Professor Ludlow. As she says, Merriam-Webster, which happens to be the dictionary Professor Ludlow brought to the table, lists these terms as synonyms.  Furthermore, I've also discovered that Illinois State University claims "rape" and "sexual assault" are synonymous.   Professor Leiter disagrees, but he seems to be relying exclusively on his intuitions.

Professor Leiter does have a point:  The term "rape" can have a stricter definition which can, in some people's minds, suggest a harsher crime.   (Update:  In her reply to Professor Leiter, Professor Lockwood claims that the stricter definition shouldn't have a harsher connotation.)  However, I cannot see how this is an easy or straight-forward point to adjudicate. It does not seem like a slam dunk case.  Perhaps Judge Flanagan was erring on the side of caution in the interests of protecting the freedom of the press.  If a person who is accused of X can successfully sue a media outlet because they think the wrong word was used to describe the accusation, even though the law does not distinguish between the terms and even though there is substantial evidence that people and institutions use the words interchangeably, then the power of the press will be severely limited.

Perhaps Judge Flanagan made some mistake in her reasoning, but that is not obvious to me.  What is obvious, I think, is that the accusation of bias is unfounded.

Update:  A couple points to add.  First, The Women's Center's page on Illinois law makes it hard to distinguish between "rape" and "sexual assault" at all.  Second, after looking at the Illinois criminal code of 2012, I have to wonder if Professor Ludlow might have been more properly accused of sexual abuse, and not sexual assault.

Second Update:  Professor Lockwood has replied to Professor Leiter, offering some socio-historical explanation for why we cannot and should not presume there is a relevant distinction between "sexual assault" and "rape."  Unfortunately, Professor Leiter's latest reply to Professor Lockwood (in an update to his original post) seems to have missed the point.  Professor Lockwood also makes the same point I do about the newspaper's correction not being an admission of wrongdoing, but Professor Leiter did not respond to that point.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Deepak Chopra's Challenge

Deepak Chopra, a well-known spiritualist, does not like physicalism. Physicalism says that everything is physical and can be entirely explained in non-mental terms.  So, according to physicalism, consciousness can ultimately be explained in physical, non-mental terms.  Chopra says this view is an unreasonable dogma, and that it makes much more sense to believe that thoughts are non-physical.  When we think, he says, non-physical phenomena affect the workings of the brain.  To add muscle to his position, he has issued a challenge:  According to the New Statesman, he will award a prize of $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate, in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, that human consciousness is created by the brain.   This is not a challenge to demonstrate that Chopra has misunderstood physics, nor is it an invitation to critique his own arguments about consciousness.  The challenge is to scientifically demonstrate that brains create consciousness.  That's it.  If we cannot meet that challenge, he says, then physicalism is unreasonable.  The supposition is that, if his challenge cannot be met, then his spiritualist view is more reasonable than physicalism.  In fact, Chopra thinks it is more reasonable from a scientific point of view.  He makes two arguments to this effect, but neither of them works.

First, he makes an argument appealing to neuroscience.  He says that we have no evidence of brains creating thought, but we do have evidence of thoughts affecting our brains:  "our thoughts are creating molecules all the time - the chemical makeup of the brain is altered with every thought, feeling, and sensation. That is indisputable."  It is a given that thinking alters brain chemistry.  That does that mean that thought creates molecules.  In any case, despite Chopra's assertion to the contrary, there is evidence of neurological events affecting how we think:  Just notice the effects of drinking a few glasses of wine, or the power of anesthesia.  If anything is indisputable, it is that chemical processes affect our thoughts and can dramatically alter our ability to think clearly, or even at all.  It would be great if Chopra had evidence of non-physical stuff affecting the workings of the brain, but he doesn't.  So why not think that thinking just is electrochemical reactions in the brain?  The physicalist position seems like the simplest explanation and Chopra hasn't given any reason to think it comes up short.

Though the neurological evidence is not on Chopra's side, he also claims to have evidence from physics. His second argument for spiritualism relies on what that New Statesman article describes as "the observer effect":  'Quantum physics's observer effect - whereby observing an event at the quantum level changes the outcome of the event - is taken by Chopra to be proof that he's right about consciousness . . ."  Scientists have questioned his understanding of the physics (e.g., see the article in the link above), but that is not necessary.  Even if we suppose he has correctly understood the physics, his argument does not work.  It is inconsistent.

Chopra claims that non-physical consciousness is responsible for the observer effect.  He denies that the brain, or any other complex physical system, is responsible.  For, if some complex physical system were responsible, then the effect would not be proof of non-physical consciousness.  Chopra would need some additional evidence that it was non-physical consciousness, and not any complex physical system, which was responsible for the observer effect.  Since Chopra has no evidence, he must be assuming that complex physical systems are not necessary for the observer effect.  Thus, Chopra's argument requires the following claim:

          (1) Complex physical systems are not necessary for the observer effect.

The observer effect is the result of the role of the observer in an experimental setting.  Thus,

          (2) Experimental observation is necessary for the observer effect.

Complex physical systems are necessary to make observations in experimental settings.  In addition to the physical properties of the experimental setting, there are also the physical properties of the observer.  So (3) must also be true:

          (3) Complex physical systems are necessary for experimental observation.

From (2) and (3), we can conclude:

          (4) Complex physical systems are necessary for the observer effect.

This contradicts (1).  If we accept that the observer effect is a real phenomenon that occurs when observations are made in experimental settings, then (1) is false.  Chopra must acknowledge that complex physical systems are necessary for the observer effect.  And in that case, he has no reason to think that the observer effect is the result of non-physical causes.  Thus, the argument does not work.

The bottom line is, without evidence of non-physical causes, Chopra's view is not more scientifically reasonable than physicalism.  It is quite possible that physicalism is the simplest option on the table.  This does not prove that physicalism is true.  It does not show how brains or any other complex physical systems might create consciousness, either.  However, it does show that Chopra does not have an argumentative leg to stand on.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Calling Stupid On Winter Soldier

I've been reading reviews of Winter Soldier this morning (I watched it last night for the first time) and I've only found two that straight out call it dumb.  Here's one.  Here's another.  I agree.  It is dumb.  Prometheus levels of dumb.  But it has a complicated plot and it and touches on issues that are important to people (drone attacks, government surveillance, freedom, patriotism, friendship and even romance), so I can understand why less critical audiences might think it makes more sense than it actually does.

Not that it has to make sense.  You can enjoy it just for the spectacle.  I didn't.  I thought the first half-hour was mediocre and the rest went from bad to worse.  There wasn't much in terms of memorable action sequences and the characters are dull.  The only interesting character in the film is Sam Wilson/Falcon, but even his character ends up disappointingly.  That's my opinion, anyway, but who cares?  I don't want to judge the movie as a whole and I don't want to discuss personal tastes.  I want to discuss why I think the movie does not have an intelligent plot.  I also think it is very sexist and a bit racist, too, which I'll discuss as well.  (Oh, and see the update, where I discuss the horrifying hypocrisy in the movie's political message.)

First, the plot.  I recommend reading both of the reviews I linked to earlier.  In addition to the points they make, here's what bothered me most about the plot.

1. Project Insight involves three large "helicarriers" (floating drone warships, basically) which are coordinated and can take out something like a million targets at once.  These three helicarriers are supposed to be able to neutralize all threats all over the world.  Somehow.  Seriously, how?  Their inauguration is supposed to be a mass slaughter of close to a million people.  What is supposed to happen next?  The world will sit back and watch as those three weapons of mass destruction float from city to city, killing millions of people?  This could not possibly turn out well for HYDRA, or even come close to realizing Pierce's ultimate plans.  Project Insight is a stupid, stupid project.

2. Black Widow lifts intelligence from a ship and stores it on a MacGuffin--that is, an over-sized yet futuristic-looking pen drive.  Nick Fury cannot access the information on the drive, which raises the question:  How did Black Widow access it on the ship?

3.  Fury cannot access the information for mysterious reasons, so he tells Pierce (Robert Redford) that he wants to hold off on launching Project Insight.  Fury thinks there is something up at SHIELD and that Project Insight might be compromised.  So what does he do?  He tells the head of that project that he is concerned about it.  Remember, just a few minutes before, we got a long speech about how Fury doesn't trust anyone.  Yet, he trusts Pierce enough to let him know he's suspicious about Insight.

4. Why try to kill Fury when he is in his super car?  Why not have a sniper shoot him before he gets in the car?

5.  Fury manages to escape from the Winter Soldier because he has a nifty device that can burn holes in the ground.  Where do those holes lead?  Why doesn't the Winter Soldier follow Fury into the hole?  This isn't the last time people escape certain doom by drilling a hole in the ground.  These holes seem nothing like holes and everything like magical transportation devices.

6.  Fury goes to Captain America's apartment, knows it is bugged, but still talks.  Openly.  About the fact that he needs to stay there.  Sure, he doesn't mention the assassination attempt (though you would think every superhero would have heard about it already, since it devastated a portion of the city in broad daylight.)  But he knowingly announces to SHIELD, which he does not trust, that he is at Captain America's apartment.  Then he stands up.  Of course he's going to get shot!

7.  Let's get back to that pen drive.  Captain America hides it in a vending machine, where it is plainly visible--and where it will become even more visible if people buy one or two particular candy bars.

8.  Somehow, Black Widow (a hacker? at an Apple store???) manages to determine where the data on the drive was created. It leads them to Zola, who is "living" underneath an abandoned bunker in an abandoned military facility.  Nobody thought it might be important to, I don't know, guard Zola?  Why did HYDRA leave him for dead?

9.  Why was Zola still on that tape?  Okay, let's say a room full of tape machines could store Zola's mind. Unlikely, but okay.  All the information on that tape could have been transferred to a hand-held digital computer.  The tape could have been destroyed, or put into storage, and Zola would have been much more hi-tech.  I guess HYDRA didn't trust Zola, or didn't want him involved with HYDRA anymore.  In that case, why keep him connected to HYDRA's network?  And we know Zola is tapped into HYDRA's network, because he knows the ballistic missile is coming to kill them all.

10. Wait, what?  HYDRA destroys Zola in order to kill Captain American and Black Widow?  Like that was their best option?  And Zola actually tells them the missile is coming, giving them time to prepare and, ultimately, survive?

11.  Why does the Winter Soldier speak Russian (and with a Russian accent) up until he takes his mask off, at which point (and for the remainer of the film) he speaks English with an American accent?

12.  At the beginning of the film, Captain America has a fist fight with Batroc the Leaper, who seems impossibly strong and extremely difficult to kill, or even seriously injure.  Batroc is not supposed to have superhuman strength or powers, so how is this supposed to make sense?

13.  Pierce tries to kill Captain America because he thinks Captain America is lying about Fury. That's just a suspicion, though, and not a good reason to try to assassinate one of his strongest assets.

14.  There is surely a better way to kill Captain America than by cramming a bunch of thugs in a glass elevator with him.  Again, sniper, anyone?  Or poison?  Or just wait until Project Insight is up and running and use the helicarriers!  The elevator idea was almost as stupid as Project Insight itself.

15.  When the good superheroes finally get control of the three helicarriers, why do they have them shoot each other out of the sky?  How many lives did they endanger?  Three helicarriers exploding directly above a city center?  Seriously?

16.  Back to the pen drive again.  So we eventually find out that Fury had hired Batroc to hijack that ship.  And then had Black Widow, Captain America and Rumlow stop them, giving Black Widow the chance to access the data on the computer.  Why was the ship's computer so important?  More importantly, why not have one of the hijackers get the data for him?  Fury puts lives in danger by hijacking the ship, and then puts more lives in danger to have people fight the people he hired to hijack the ship just to get data which the hijackers could have easily gotten?  Ugh.  (Maybe Fury didn't really have the ship hijacked?  In that case, who did and why?  Remember, a high-ranking HYDRA agent was among the captives, and at least one high-ranking HYDRA agent was among the rescuers.)

17.  Here is a list of more plot holes.  Not all of them are legitimate plot holes, but several are good.  In particular, check out 3, 4, 8, 14-18, 20, 24, and 28/29.

Sexism
The only female superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Black Widow, and she is only an almost-superhero.  She doesn't have any superpowers to speak of. She's just a highly trained soldier and spy.  (In The Avengers she had an almost-super ability to manipulate people into giving up secret information, but that almost-super ability is nowhere present in Winter Soldier.)  The bigger problem is that Black Widow can't even have a leading role in a superhero movie without playing second fiddle to a male lead.  And, of course, there has to be a strong romantic element, too, or else audiences might get uncomfortable.  Yes, there is an unspoken attraction between her and Captain America.  There is romantic tension and even emotional intimacy between them.  She kisses him more than once:  the first time, he slyly admits to being aroused; the second time, she is clearly emotionally vulnerable.  Also, she cares more about hooking him up with her friend than almost anything else.  She repeatedly talks about it in the middle of a highly dangerous mission at the beginning of the film and then brings it up again at the end of the film.

Black Widow is the only even partially-developed female character in the film.  Of the other four female characters, Agent Hill is the only one necessary to the plot, and she has no personality to speak of at all.  The other two named female characters (Peggy and Kate) are only there because they are past or potential love interests for Captain America.  The fifth and nameless female character is one of the heads of SHIELD, and she disappears during the final act of the film without any explanation.

Finally, the film does not pass the Bechdel test.  It has only one scene where two women talk to each other:  Hill and Black Widow talk for all of five senconds as they watch doctors operate on Nick Fury.  However, they are only talking because they are concerned with Fury's fate, and they are only talking about the investigation into who shot him.  So, while the film does clearly pass the first part of the test (there rae at least two named women in the film), it only barely, by a tiny thread, passes the second part of the test (two women in the film do talk to each other, but only two women, and they do so for all of five seconds).  Winter Soldier does not pass the third part of the test, since the two women are talking about what happened to a man.

Racism
Nick Fury still hasn't been given a chance to show he is as much of a badass as he appears to be.  So far, he is all talk and no action. In all nine of the recent Marvel movies, why can't Nick Fury play a substantial role in the action and have a well-developed character?  His character is barely developed in this film.  He is more of a plot device than anything else.  The only character development Fury gets here is that he tells a story about his grandfather the elevator operator.  Fury has got to be over 40, which means his character was born before 1974.  His grandfather would have grown up well before the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and would have experienced Jim Crow first hand.  That might seem like an irrelevant historical detail, but consider it in context.  The writers could have given Fury a much more racially sensitive story about his grandfather.  Instead, he tells of his grandfather the badass who carried a loaded gun with him on his way home from work every day.  This gives heritage to Nick Fury's own badass persona, but it is stereotypical gangsta.  (See my Update 2 below for more on the film's gangsta narrative.)  This is arguably racist, and certainly racially insensitive.

Then there is Falcon, who describes himself as a slower version of Captain America.  He says, and I quote, "I do what he does, only slower."  As it turns out, Falcon does not think for himself.  The only decision he ever makes in the movie is to be loyal to Captain America.  This is a man who left the military and found a meaningful life helping others overcome personal tragedy and loss.  He drops all that, he says, because he can help Captain America.  I guess no deeper motivation than that is necessary.  There's also the fact that, like Black Widow and Nick Fury, Falcon is an almost-superhero.  He is just a highly trained soldier who knows how to use some top-secret gear.  Presumably other soldiers were trained, and could easily be trained, to do the same thing.  Oh, and it turns out Falcon is not going to appear in the next Avengers movie.

Looking at the non-white and non-male characters in this film, I would not say the film does a good job of diversification.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe is still extremely white and extremely male. Fortunately, the next Avengers movie will have a stronger female presence and Guardians of the Galaxy looks significantly more diverse in all respects.  As for more intelligent plots and characters, however, I'm not holding my breath.

Update:  I found another review which calls stupid on the movie.  This one has some interesting observations about the movie's racism and also gets into the hypocrisy of the movie's political message.  I was originally going to write at length about that, too, but my thoughts got too complicated and long-winded.  My basic problem is this:

Hypocrisy
The movie ends with the "good" superheroes taking orders from Captain America ("Captain's orders!") and then claiming immunity from the criminal justice system.  What is the justification?  Fear.  The American people need Captain America to be above the law, like a fascist dictator, making rash decisions, killing people, endangering countless other lives, stealing military secrets and weapons, and undermining governmental agencies, because:  fear.  That is the line that Black Widow sells.  I'm not saying Captain America or any of them deserve to go to prison, but that is something the criminal justice system is there to determine.  The superheroes are using the same logic that Alexander Pierce used, and which they killed him for.

Update2:  I've transcribed the elevator scene where Fury gives his grandfather monologue:

Captain America (C) and Fury (F) are in the elevator and F has just given C access to Project Insight.  They're riding down towards the hellicarriers.

C: You know, they used to play music.

F: Yeah.  My grandfather operated one of these things for 40 years.  My granddad worked in a nice building, got good tips. He walked home every night, a roll of ones stuffed in his lunch bag.  He’d say hi.  People would say hi back.  Time went on.  Neighborhood got rougher. He’d say hi, they’d say, “keep on steppin.”  Granddad got to grippin’ that lunchbag a little tighter.

C:  Did he ever get mugged?

F:  [laughs] Every week some punk would say, “What’s in the bag?!”

C:  What’d he do?

F: He’d show’em! A bunch of crumpled ones, and a loaded .22 Magnum.  [pause] Granddad loved people.  But he didn’t trust’em very much.

They see the hellicariers.

F: Yeah, I know.  They’re a little bit bigger than a .22.

----------------------------------

I'd forgotten that the hellicarriers were directly compared to the guns in the grandfather narrative.  The idea is that, just as a world-weary black man in the ghetto needs guns to keep his hard-earned money, SHIELD needs hellicarriers to protect the good, honest people of the world from evil.  Nick Fury isn't motivated by a desire to fight the racism that his grandfather faced at the hands of white people.  He doesn't even acknowledge that.  Instead, he's motivated by a desire to keep what's his from the violent hands of poor, black hoodlums.  He's a gangsta out to fight gangstas.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Congratulations, Ryan Born

I've been discussing things to do with Sam Harris' Moral Landscape Challenge lately, but I forgot to congratulate the winner, Ryan Born.  Though it was Harris' challenge, it was Russell Blackford who chose the winning essay.  I've only read a handful of the entries, but I don't recall reading any that were better than Ryan's.  It's a well-written and interesting essay, and I trust Russell to have found the best of the lot.

That said, I'm not thrilled with Ryan's essay.  I like the general strategy of taking up the Value Problem.  However, Ryan's primary tactic is problematic.  He takes up the idea of self-justification in a confused, or at least confusing, way.  Sam Harris has said that he would change his mind if he could be convinced that "other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be."  Ryan mistakenly takes Harris to be saying that science is self-justifying.  This allows Harris to reply:  "Contrary to what Ryan suggests, I don’t believe that the epistemic values of science are “self-justifying”—we just can’t get completely free of them."

That isn't the end of Ryan's argument, or Harris' reply, of course.  Ryan does at least hint at difficulties with Harris' approach, and Harris' lengthy reply opens the door to even more objections (some of which I'll get to momentarily).  Unfortunately, Harris has not indicated that he will engage Ryan any further, and we can no longer expect any sort of evaluation from Russell.  (Originally, Russell was going to evaluate Harris' response to the winning essay.  I guess he still might, but probably not on Harris' blog.)  So I'm a little disappointed.  I would have liked to see a winning essay that cut right to the heart of the matter without any confusion.  Not that it necessarily would have mattered.

I think the best strategy against Harris is to point out the absurdity of his interpretation of "should" and "ought." In his response to Ryan, he says, "Some intuitions are truly basic to our thinking. I claim that the conviction that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided is among them."  So we have the following, conceptually basic intuition:

(1) The worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided.

In another part of his response to Ryan, Harris says strange things about the word "should":

Ethics is prescriptive only because we tend to talk about it that way—and I believe this emphasis comes, in large part, from the stultifying influence of Abrahamic religion. We could just as well think about ethics descriptively. Certain experiences, relationships, social institutions, and technological developments are possible—and there are more or less direct ways to arrive at them. Again, we have a navigation problem. To say we “should” follow some of these paths and avoid others is just a way of saying that some lead to happiness and others to misery. “You shouldn’t lie” (prescriptive) is synonymous with “Lying needlessly complicates people’s lives, destroys reputations, and undermines trust” (descriptive). “We should defend democracy from totalitarianism” (prescriptive) is another way of saying “Democracy is far more conducive to human flourishing than the alternatives are” (descriptive). In my view, moralizing notions like “should” and “ought” are just ways of indicating that certain experiences and states of being are better than others.

If that is correct, and prescriptive "should" statements are synonymous with descriptive statements, then we can restate (1) as follows:

(1*) The worst possible misery for everyone is less conducive to human flourishing and avoiding it is more conducive to human flourishing.

We must remember that Harris is very flexible about what comprises misery and flourishing.  In fact, he defines "flourishing" and "misery" in opposing terms.  Once you realize that, it is clear that his "intuition" is a tautology.  If we accept Harris' view of morality, all (1) means is:  that which is least conducive to human flourishing is less conducive to human flourishing, and avoiding that which is least conducive to human flourishing is more conducive to human flourishing.  According to Harris, that is an intuition that is basic to our thinking.  And somehow it is supposed to sustain moral realism.

The absurdity of Harris' language games is evident.  It would have been nice if Ryan Born had pointed that out, but perhaps Harris will still see fit to respond to the challenge.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reflection on my recent encounter at Jerry Coyne's blog

There's one more facet of my recent encounter on Jerry Coyne's blog that I haven't commented on.  My first comment on the thread was a criticism of Coyne.  He was impressed by the number of people who responded to Sam Harris' Moral Landscape Challenge, saying that it shows just how many people take Sam Harris' views seriously.  Here's my criticism:

"I don’t take Sam’s views seriously, and I wouldn’t assume that most, let alone all, of the respondents did so because they take his views seriously. What they presumably take seriously is the opportunity to get published on his blog, earn $2,000 and possibly, just possibly, change his mind. What I take seriously is the fact that so many people take him Sam Harris seriously. I wrote my essay because I think his views are not worth taking seriously, and I think there is a serious problem with the way so many people follow him.
By the way, my essay was not entered into the competition, because I didn’t learn of the competition until after the deadline. But I wrote one anyway."

Here's how one commenter, GBJames, responded to that:

"Wait… Other people were only motivated by the hope of winning $2000 but you wrote a response without any possibility of a cash reward?

Sounds to me that you take his views seriously even if you don’t like them."

Note the mischaracterization:  I did not say that anybody was "only motivated by the hope of winning" money.  Also note the fact that GBJames jumped to a personal conclusion about me that explicitly contradicts the views I expressed.  That is neither charitable nor friendly.  In my response to GBJames, I did not point any of that out.  Instead, I merely explained that I did, in fact, hope to gain some monetary reward when I wrote my essay.  I wrote:

"Actually, part of me did hope that my essay would still be considered for some monetary reward–I even emailed Russell just to see if there was a chancen–but mainly, I hoped (and still hope) my essay would help people see through the bad arguments that pass for “informed” philosophy in places such as this."
Here's how GBJames responded to that comment:
"Then why not assume that other people who responded were motivated by a similar desire to make what they think is a good case to convince others of their view?"
I then pointed out that GBJames had misunderstood me.  If you reread my initial comment, I did say that we should presume people were interested in changing Sam Harris' mind.  It is obvious that anybody who responded to the Challenge was trying to change minds, and nothing I wrote implies otherwise.  Yet, GBJames continued to mischaracterize my position in an uncharitable way.  Eventually, he wrote this:

"When you demean the arguments of others by saying they are simply motivated by money (compared to your own presumably noble motives) you poison the well. Similar to telling others that they aren’t thinking carefully enough. Such comments provoke the kind of response that the roolz prohibit. I’ll disengage now."
 Now he not only repeats the same misrepresentation of my view, but claims I am poisoning the well.  That is nonsense.  If I were poisoning the well, that would mean I was trying to argue against a position by discrediting the source.  But I was not arguing against the people who responded to Sam Harris' essay, nor was I trying to discredit anyone as a reliable source.  The accusation of "poisoning the well" is ridiculous and shows a clear lack of careful thought.  In addition, GBJames claims that I was trying to put myself above the other people who responded to Harris' Challenge, even though I had already explained that I was, in fact, interested in a monetary reward.  That is simply careless.  How ironic that this all comes at the same time GBJames gets all high and mighty because I accused him of not thinking carefully enough about what I had been saying.

In sum, GBJames was arrogant, foolish, uncharitable and unfriendly, and stubbornly misrepresented my views, displaying a lack of careful thought.  Besides reasonshark (whose confusion and misunderstanding I have already documented), GBJames is the only person who expressed any displeasure at my posts before Coyne told me to leave his blog.  If that is the kind of poster that Coyne prefers to keep around, I'm happy to stay out of his playground.

What I think should be obvious is that I was not kicked off his blog for being rude or arrogant, or for breaking any rules.  I was kicked off because Jerry Coyne does not like what I have to say.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Response to Shuggy: On Morality and Personhood

There's one more post I want to respond to from Jerry Coyne's blog.  Shuggy writes:

"So what are the alternatives to well-being as a goal of ethics? I see “virtue” but how would virtue be defined without involving well-being? Isn’t the point of not raping, to quote a recent example, to maximise the well-being of those not raped?"

It's a good question:  What could be the goal of ethics, if not the maximization of well-being?  I assume the question is, what is the point of morality?  Why do people make ethical judgments at all, if not to promote well-being?

Of course, even if I cannot give a persuasive answer, it doesn't mean no answer can be given.  We should not assume that the goal of morality is to maximize well-being just because we cannot think of a different one.   That would be argumentum ad ignorantiam.   However, I do have an answer.

If we were going to approach this scientifically, we might consider an evolutionary perspective.  How might moral judgments be adaptive?  How might they increase our chances of successful reproduction?

It might be that moral judgments help solidify community bonds, establishing complex forms of reputability and trust.  The goal of ethics, then, might be to strengthen social interaction.  The goal, in that case, is not to maximize the well-being of all or even most conscious creatures.  It is not even to maximize human flourishing.  It is to maximize the chances of successful reproduction.  It may just be that moral judgments improve the chances of successful reproduction by promoting suffering.  Throughout history and even today, many moral judgments lead to suffering.  From an evolutionary point of view, this need not be considered a mistake.

I think of dignity as the fundamental moral property.  Morality, as a sociobiological process, is all about fostering dignity.  But there is no fact of the matter about how dignity can or should be fostered.  Dignity is not quantifiable.  Dignity is the property of having moral excellence, where moral excellence is a matter of social value.  It is normative, a matter of what is or is not considered just.  There is no fact of the matter about what is or is not just.  There are various reasons, and these can be agreed upon or not, but there is no metric for determining which are correct and which are incorrect.  There is no such thing as an incorrect moral judgment.  Dignity is not the sort of thing that can be scientifically measured.

You might say dignity is therefore an illusion.  If that is so, then so are the concepts of earning a living, deserving fair treatment, and being guilty or innocent of a crime.  These are concepts we live by.  You can call them illusions if you want.  You can, like the moral error theorists, claim that all moral judgments are false, and that all thought of dignity is an error.  I, however, prefer noncognitivism.  This is the view that dignity is real, but judgments about it are not truth-evaluable.  We can't talk about the elements of personhood--dignity, guilt, rewards, etc.--and expect anything to make our judgments true or false, but we should still take such talk seriously.  There is no conceivable alternative.