March 15th, 2013
It’s been over 6 weeks since I’ve posted. There were a few things like moving and not having internet for 6 weeks. But it’s made me realise that it’s about time I took a break — and maybe educate myself a bit so that I know more about what I’m talking about, as well as recharging some writing energy.
I expect to regroup some time later but at a new blog with a better focus. Thanks y’all, it’s been fun!
January 28th, 2013
Perhaps this is shooting fish in a barrel but I came across a meme on Facebook that really ticked me off — even more than the previous meme I posted about. Here it is:
If you’re getting this by email, you need to click “display images” to see. For accessibility, see a description in the alt text or by hovering your mouse over the image.
Now, where to begin? This image is misleading, condescending, racist, luddite, pseudo-intellectual and a whole bunch of other things.
To start with a minor point, this is a modified case of first world problems. For the problems with the idea of first world problems, see this post. One of the potential subtexts of the meme is that the girl has no reason to be unhappy and is simply being a spoilt brat. Because you see, she has an abundance of things so her unhappiness is not the result of real difficulties.
But that’s nothing compared to the main message of the meme. Behind the anti-consumption attitude, there is a series of stereotypes that fetishise poverty, third world poverty, African poverty and so on. Some of these stereotypes include:
- It’s more spiritual/noble to be poor
- Poor people are happier than us [all use of we/us in this post is meant to be in scare-quotes] despite (or because of) having so little
- “Simpler” things in life are superior to “complex” things (whatever that means)
- Poor people are somehow inherently wiser/more moral or they have access to some profound mystical truths that we don’t have access to.
When these come together in an image about an African child, we get an even more offensive stereotype, that of the Noble Savage as well as the Magical Negro. Because you see, we were all lost in our world of materialism and internet connections and such. How lucky are we to have met the child who uses a rock as a camera! For he has taught us and changed our life perspective and we have benefitted from him. The evidence that this kid is being othered is in the purpose of the meme itself. Its audience is people in rich Western countries and hence he is presented as someone who’s there to give us this great lesson.
The meme is also missing an entire reality-based context. There’s no attempt to look at which countries have actually-happy people. Of course the study of happiness is a hard area to get right. But the consensus seems to be that while beyond a certain amount, more money doesn’t mean more happiness when you subtract from that amount it reliably contributes to unhappiness. Which makes sense if you think about it for more than 5 minutes since the difference between having $5 and $1000 will make more impact in your life than any other gain in money/goods.
The meme, however, is happy to argue by assertion. The kid is happy because he just is. Because the photo of a split-second moment said so. It’s also important to note that the picture of the girl is presented entirely out of context. It’s a lot harder to get an image of a kid surrounded by possessions looking unhappy because it’s so specific. So they had to literally make the scenario up.
Of course, even if we granted the facts in the picture it’s still offensive in the way that it judges the luxuries it lists as unworthy. But we could have the same meme targeting other things. You could have someone middle-aged who goes to the theatre, ballet, opera and symphonies and is unhappy. Then you could have someone who plays a hand-made drum and is happy. So what? Would that really be an argument that theatre and ballet are pointless? Do things not give other benefits rather than direct hedonistic units? What will the 2 kids in the meme grow up to be? What kind of voice will they have in the world, what opportunity to follow their passions? What would you rather be — a bratty spoilt kid who gets oodles more opportunity to do what you want later in life or a happy kid who has less opportunity?
Amazingly, there are plenty of people who don’t understand what privilege is or don’t think it’s a theme. This is exactly what it’s about. As fellow blogger in arms Costa noted recently, it’s the ability to forget, or to choose. Or to choose to forget. The person who made the meme gets to wax philosophical about the emptiness of material possessions from a fucking Facebook account. They get to learn all these nifty lessons from great people and take them back to their life. They get the option to ignore (potentially) all the other problems the generic “African” kid might have. After all, they did not put the kid’s back story into the meme so they took themselves up on that choice.
I think this type of thinking does actual harm. You might know people who go travelling in an attempt to use these “profound” lessons from “the poor”. They get to create these narratives in their heads while they find themselves while the problems of poverty, lack of access to healthcare, education and, yes!, electronics are still unsolved. How might this anti-consumption message impact on people’s desire to do something to help with those problems? If we think “these poor people are spiritual and happy”, how much more likely are we ideas inside our heads (eg. authenticity) drive our actions, and not people’s actual desires or things that will actually improve the world?
The girl gets to choose whether to play with a rock camera or a digital camera. But the boy? I don’t remember anyone asking him a damn thing.
January 21st, 2013
[NOTE: the above headline is a statement of my opinion.]
I’ll admit, I’ve always disliked Alain de Botton. In a previous post, I’ve described him as a sanctimonious, pretentious, pseudointellectual asshole. That was based on a review of his latest book “How To Think More About Sex”. Now that he’s written a WSJ op ed amazingly titled Why Most Men Aren’t Man Enough to Handle Web Porn, I realise I was too tame. The article hits an impressive spectrum of fallacies so here’s just a selection.
The standard view is that people should be left to look at porn as much as they like, just as they should be left to buy guns, eat unhealthy foods, divorce and remarry eight times and make nothing of their talents: it’s a free country, after all.
This is the rhetoric of “I’m the maverick bravely dissenting from ‘standard’ orthodoxy.” More frightening though is how he lumps together buying guns and not making the most of your talents. There’s a difference between prohibiting something from the harm that it causes society vs trying to mitigate something harmful through public policy or education vs idly wondering what would happen if more people followed their dreams. The first two require evidence of direct harm and policy recommendations. His article doesn’t even try this. De Botton confuses nebulously believing something is bad (and idly wondering “what-if?”) with more tangible harm. Armchair speculation beats reality-based discussion if it’s literary enough, and has enough quips.
Consider pornography. Part of the problem is that it’s extremely tempting to some people, as alcohol and crack cocaine are. Commentators who don’t investigate the issue much, who might once have had a peek inside Playboy or caught a preview of a naughty film on the television channel of a hotel rest too easy that there’s no problem. But there is.
It’s hard to imagine such a cartoonish poisoning of the well, but crack cocaine it is. Though again, it’s the underlying attitude that’s more troubling. The claim is that (1) there are people so ignorant of online porn, they actually think it’s like the corner of a page from Playboy and (2) anyone who knows any more about porn MUST think there’s a problem. This is both ridiculously out of touch and begging the question. He thinks the mere fact of porn’s “ickiness” should be argument enough to get us to agree — if only people would see the horror!
A brain originally designed to cope with nothing more tempting than an occasional glimpse of a tribesperson across the savannah is lost with what’s now on offer on the net at the click of a button: when confronted with offers to participate continuously in scenarios outstripping any that could be dreamt up by the diseased mind of the Marquis de Sade.
There’s some extreme authoritarianism and puritanism (de Sade’s mind was “diseased”?) but the bigger problem is the ideas. Basically, it’s pop-evo-psych nonsense of the worst kind. How does he know our ancestral environment didn’t have more sexual stimulation than a glimpse across the savannah? He made it up. Let me spin another tale. Our Caveman AncestorsTM frequently went around naked. There was no concept of private property and hence of privacy. People were Purer and Simpler and had less hangups about using their “privates” in public, including sex. QED, our brains secretly yearn for free love. The fact that we’re not naked all the time is the cause of most of our ills. As far as just-so stories go, I think mine’s even more plausible and also happens to conform to our fantasies of prehistoric life more (unlike his solitary dude in the middle of a savannah). But that’s what happens when you don’t feel the need to tie your story to reality.
It is perhaps only people who haven’t felt the full power of sex over their logical selves who can remain uncensorious and liberally “modern” on the subject. Philosophies of sexual liberation appeal mostly to people who don’t have anything too destructive or weird that that they wish to do once they have been liberated.
Just when you thought he couldn’t poison the well any more, there ya go. As before, he just argues by assertion. It is fascinating how blind you’d have to be to ignore an entire industry of sex educators and sex-positive writers. Apparently Dan Savage is ‘liberally “modern”‘ because he’s unaware. Normally I wouldn’t speculate about the personal life of someone who wrote a bad article. Since he’s made a bald-faced assumption about the personal lives of perhaps hundreds of millions or more, all bets are off. It takes a special kind of projection to think that it’s the other side in this argument that’s naive. He certainly appears more naive than “proper” pro-repression religious conservatives, which is bizarre in itself.
Pornography, like alcohol and drugs, weakens our ability to endure the kinds of suffering that are necessary for us to direct our lives properly. In particular, it reduces our capacity to tolerate those two ambiguous goods, anxiety and boredom…The entire internet is in a sense pornographic, it is a deliverer of constant excitement which we have no innate capacity to resist, a system which leads us down paths many of which have nothing to do with our real needs.
It’s perfectly fine to lead your life based on a nebulous self-imposed existentialist secular angst. But stating such values as fact is just bizarre. And while I agree that people today aren’t bored often enough, why does he rail against porn and not (say) bookstores or the rich abundance of theatre, opera and ballet in his country of residence? Any form of recreation reduces our ability to tolerate boredom. Do I — gasp — detect a “judgement because naughty”?
Only religions still take sex very seriously, in the sense of appreciating the power of sex to turn us away from our sincerely-held priorities…The secular world reserves particular scorn for Islam’s promotion of the hijab and the burka. …Could a rational adult really change their life on account of the sighting of a pair of beguiling female knees or elbows? The secular world has no problems with bikinis and sexual provocation of all kinds because, among other reasons, it does not believe that sexuality and beauty have the potential to exert a momentous power over us.
The implied misogyny that often accompanies such arguments is now unmasked. He says “rational adult” to mean “rational heterosexual man” without a hint of self-awareness — for throughout this piece he was talking to and about men without bothering to check some stats on women’s consumption of porn. He even labels clothing he considers skimpy (female clothing, of course!) as “sexual provocation”. Apparently women are deliberately provoking men. He also completely misunderstands a basic aspect of secular democracies. If (say) we “mercifully” allow people to hold protests about offensive causes (eg. against some form of equality), it’s not because we as a society think that their message doesn’t exert a momentous power over people. It’s because those who are affected by the imagery have a range of options: counter-protest, criticise, sue, look away or do nothing.
Even if we no longer believe in a deity, a degree of repression is seemingly necessary to our species and to the adequate functioning of a half-way ordered and loving society. A portion of our libido has to be forced underground, repression was not just for the Catholics, the Muslims and the Victorians, it has to be with us for eternity. Because we have to go to work, commit ourselves to relationships, care for our children and explore our own minds, we cannot allow our sexual urges to express themselves without limit, online or otherwise; it would destroy us.
Thanks, Captain Obvious. I think people agree that if you see an attractive person on the street it’s inappropriate to start masturbating to them right there. Our apparently “permissive” society has both laws and social mores against some behaviour, some of it with good reason, some of it not. By pretending otherwise, he gets to lump anyone who’s not pearl-clutching over porn together with some hypothetical anarchists who want no mores whatsoever. I’m surprised he didn’t mention NAMBLA and sex with ducks.
De Botton has a profound misunderstanding of freedom in a secular democracy and an explicitly anti-science view. It’s not just that he fails to provide evidence. His arguments require some general feeling about what it “means” to have sexual thoughts that are reminiscent of the National Organisation for Marriage’s nebulous natural theology arguments about what it “means” to have marriage. He thinks that it’s sophisticated to wallow in the self-pity of neuroses that you’ve constructed for yourself. The genuine warts of the psych that we all have are reframed as utter helplessness in a manner more suited to a Church Father talking about human nature and The Fall. Porn then becomes an element in a morality play where the world is constantly becoming worse — but not in (god forbid!) any measurable way. The lack of concrete policy recommendations gives him room to backslide. He even does this in the article, saying he doesn’t want some dictator saying who should watch what — then what? Finally, even most conservatives have at least learned to dress their nonsense up as sex-positive. It’s refreshing to see something so direct. Thanks, Alain.
But the worst thing about this whole genre of Porn Is Bad articles is that they displace the conversations we should actually be having about porn. Oh well.
January 14th, 2013
In case you missed it, boy is rape in the news. I believe the increase in coverage has been happening for a few years now and started with the original SlutWalk that were a response to a police chief’s advice to women who don’t want to be raped: “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. The result, as we know, has been an institution of protests across the world.
But it’s the last 6 months where coverage has really started taking off. There were multiple controversies in the 2012 US election, to the point that they warrant a separate Wikipedia article: Rape and pregnancy controversies in United States elections, 2012. The king of them was of course Todd Akin’s claim that rape from pregnancy is very rare because “[i]f it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”.
There was the viral Reddit thread that had rapists tell things from ‘their perspective’. This was followed by a number of criticisms like this one in terms of all the problems inherent in taking the word of a rapist about his/her motivations. At the time, I linked to the thread saying that “reading a few [of these stories[ is a very valuable exercise in understanding the extent, mindset and brutality of rape”. I now know better. A similar issue was in question with the Good Men Project debacle, where they published similar stories by and about rapists (a good roundup here.
There was the gang-rape in India where a woman was raped with an iron bar to the point that a top hospital in Singapore couldn’t save her life. There was the testimony of her male friend that basically says that passers-by and police did fuck all. There were the mass protests that followed, as well as the uproar over the these comments of a spiritual guru: “The victim is as guilty as her rapists…She should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop…This could have saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap? I don’t think so.” There was also a scientist who said “Had the girl simply surrendered…when surrounded by six men, she would not have lost her intestine. Why was she out with her boyfriend at 10pm?”
Sadly a lot of the reactions to the above story involved complacency about how bad rape is “over there”. While India is a much worse place in terms of rape, there’s plenty of it in the western world. There was the Steubenville incident where a girl who had passed out at a party was repeatedly assaulted in full view and after which there surfaced a vile video of the perpetrators’ classmates joking about the gang-rape. And while we’re at it, there are about 500,000 unexamined rape kits in the US languishing in rooms because the police can’t or won’t get to them.
Just a few days ago, this infographic (about how few rapists are convicted and how few false accusations there are) went viral. The accuracy of the exact numbers and presentation have been put into question, but the basic pattern remains. Based on the best available evidence, few rapes are reported, few trials, few convictions and definitely few false accusations — compared to a large number of rapes.
Recently, a rape “prevention” message has made its rounds on Facebook. You can see the long Snopes refutation, but I’ll quote a few choice tidbits from here. It is noteworthy that even the Snopes refutation did not focus on the worst thing about this piece — by focusing on stranger rape (which is only a small percentage of rapes), it systematically misleads and shifts the conversation away from where it would be most effective. The message purports to detail a few pieces of advice from an “amazing” self defence class.
This guy is a black belt in karate and trains twice a year with Steven Segal. He and the others in this group interviewed a bunch of rapists and date rapists in prison on what they look for and here’s some interesting facts
Does the idea of prisons letting self-defence instructors interview inmates sound a bit weird to you? More importantly, let’s ignore science and research! Who needs that when you have the folksy common sense of someone who’s spoken to a few rapists (and believed them)?
The #1 thing men look for in a potential victim is hairstyle. They are most likely to go after a woman with a ponytail, bun, braid, or other hairstyle that can easily be grabbed. They are also likely to go after a woman with long hair. Women with short hair are not as common targets. The #2 thing men look for is clothing. They will look for women who’s clothing is easy to remove quickly.
Victim-blaming aside, how far does someone’s head have to be up his/her own ass to believe something like that?
The thing about these men is that they are looking to grab a woman and quickly move her to a second location where they don’t have to worry about getting caught…If you put up any kind of a fight at all, they get discouraged because it only takes a minute or two for them to realize that going after you isn’t worth it because it will be time-consuming.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get more horrible, it does. Apparently it’s very easy to discourage rapists: you just have to put up “any kind of fight at all”. Ergo, if someone gets raped, he/she didn’t fight back hard enough. The message ends with 6 self-defence tips. Now, in principle I’m not opposed to anyone learning self-defence. The way it’s usually brought up is again either victim-blaming or putting the onus on women to “not get themselves raped” or simply offsetting the expected action from society (this means all of us!) to potential victims. But also, some of the advice is just based on false really shitty and is likely to cause more harm than good. I’ll quote 2 examples:
If someone is following behind you on a street or in a garage or with you in an elevator or stairwell, look them in the face and ask them a question, like what time is it, or make general small talk, “I can’t believe it is so cold out here, we’re in for a bad winter, etc.” Now you’ve seen their face and could identify them in a lineup, you lose appeal as a target.
After the initial hit, always go for the groin. If you hit a guy’s testicles, it is extremely painful. You might think that you’ll anger the guy and make him want to hurt you more, but the thing these rapists told our instructor is that they want a woman who will not cause a lot of trouble. Start causing trouble and he’s out of there.
Again, accepting these as reasonable advice is going off to fantasy land. In this mythical land, seeing an attacker’s face makes such a difference to the attacker’s likely conviction that the attacker will back off. Because apparently the police will always just do their job AND be fortunate enough to catch the attacker AND the eyewitness testimony will be accurate after the trauma of rape AND the jury will obviously convict a man who was seen, seen by the victim, right? (Most rapists are known to the victim. Most rapists are not convicted.) In this world of make-believe, nobody wants a woman who causes trouble. Because, you see, people who go out of their way to inflict violence on others don’t actually enjoy that violence. This buys into a very large number of shitty myths including the idea that the violence is just a regrettable necessity for the rapist in order to get sex. Vomit.
So why is the rape singularity near? Because I think we’ve reached the tipping point. I’ve described a lot of stories, and most of them were just things I’ve read in the last week. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the rape stories that have made it to my news feed. Which is the tip of the iceberg of the stories floating around in the English-speaking blogosphere. Which is a fraction of all the stories out there in the media which is a tiny fraction of all the stories in people’s minds.
The fact is that worldwide levels of rape and violent crime in general are in decline. So it was likely a lot worse decades and centuries ago. And yet the stories seem to be attracting a lot more attention these days, and people are a lot more horrified. I think that’s the result of a double-whammy. The internet, mass media, research and science have given us both the factual information and the emotional investment in the horror of rape. Fifty years ago people didn’t know much about the psychology of rape. Now we do. Fifty years ago, if all your friends who have been raped did not speak up, or if they were all accused by the police of making it up, you’d have no-one to engage your empathy. Now you do.
As indefensible as rape apologism is, it’s getting more so as we get more science, and more stories out there — and as they go viral because women have had enough. And by now, the information and empathy may have gathered enough critical mass for everyone who’s not a rape apologist to collect into a big ball of Fuck You to everyone and everything that makes rape so common. Now, I’ve read a few too many blog posts to underestimate the pro-rape contingent. No matter how scummy an argument you might conceive, there are millions of people on the internet who believe far worse, and they have keyboards and opposable thumbs. And yet, perhaps if the ball keeps rolling, if the stories keep being spread then we can beat them. The reality will have become too intolerable.
January 7th, 2013
Yes. (At least for many of the most useful definitions of machines/beasts.) But I guess
there’s a lot more to it — or so a lot of bloviators would like us to believe. There are a lot of opinion pieces out there that decry the materialism/reductionism/scientism involved in thinking of people as machines (or animals). It’s not often that these are given space in the New York Times. This article by Richard Polt is therefore special enough to warrant some attention. Here are some choice quotes.
Wherever I turn, the popular media, scientists and even fellow philosophers are telling me that I’m a machine or a beast. My ethics can be illuminated by the behavior of termites. My brain is a sloppy computer with a flicker of consciousness and the illusion of free will. I’m anything but human.
Already we’re off to a terrible start. Apparently if Polt’s behaviour can be illuminated by termites and if his brain is a computer, then he’s not human. That’s like saying: “Everywhere I turn, these arrogant scientists are telling me that the thing that comes out of my tap can be illuminated by the formula H2O. In other words it’s anything but water.” Well sure, if he deliberately defines human in the most anti-scientific way possible (the creature that’s not an animal, has free will and whose consciousness has nothing to do with computers) I don’t see how it helps to blame science for being corrosive to his definition.
I have no beef with entomology or evolution, but I refuse to admit that they teach me much about ethics. Consider the fact that human action ranges to the extremes. People can perform extraordinary acts of altruism, including kindness toward other species — or they can utterly fail to be altruistic, even toward their own children. So whatever tendencies we may have inherited leave ample room for variation; our choices will determine which end of the spectrum we approach. This is where ethical discourse comes in — not in explaining how we’re “built,” but in deliberating on our own future acts.
I’m not sure who’s supposed to be suggesting that an evolutionary account of ethics should replace ethical deliberation; I don’t think I’ve seen such nonsense. But the idea that they have nothing to teach us is also a bit rich. His example of a dilemma is whether he should cheat on a test. While knowing the science doesn’t automatically tell you the answer, I’d imagine that being aware of the human biases of rationalisation and how they evolved might have something to say to someone who’s concocted a reason why cheating on the test is perfectly fine. As for biology not having enough explanatory power, he might as well say computer science has nothing to teach us about a computer’s chess-playing. Because you see, a computer’s chess-playing ranges to the extremes so the algorithm must leave ample room for variation. This is where the computer’s choices (and what pieces the opponent plays) come in…
Any understanding of human good and evil has to deal with phenomena that biology ignores or tries to explain away — such as decency, self-respect, integrity, honor, loyalty or justice.
Once again, he doesn’t simply state that currently we don’t have an adequate explanation of (say) self-respect in a way that ties it in to our biological nature. Instead, he defines his position as being right. Self-respect defined as something NOT explainable by biology so any biological explanation is “explaining it away” by definition by trying to make it into something that’s not self-respect.
Next they tell me that my brain and the ant’s brain are just wet computers…So are you and I essentially no different from the machines on which I’m writing this essay and you may be reading it?..Siri may find the nearest bar for you, but “she” neither approves nor disapproves of drinking. The word “bar” doesn’t actually mean anything to a computer: it’s a set of electrical impulses that represent nothing except to some human being who may interpret them.
The word “bar” doesn’t actually mean anything to a human: it’s just a set of electrical impulses in the brain. This is the old Chinese Room argument restated. Since the Chinese Room has generated an entire industry of debate I’ll just point the way to a resource. What’s particularly galling is that a professor of philosophy would use such a cheap rhetorical trick. It’s like he’s saying: “they think that we’re similar to rectangular plastic contraptions that run on electricity — how wackadoo and against common sense is that!” There’s no argument there, just an unashamed appeal to superficial differences and people’s prejudices.
None of these devices can think, because none of them can care; as far as we know there is no program, no matter how complicated, that can make the world matter to a machine. So computers are anything but human — in fact, they’re well below the level of an ant. Show me the computer that can feel the slightest twinge of pain or burst of pleasure; only then will I believe that our machines have started down the long road to thought.
I now see the genius of Alan Turing even more. In his seminal paper that laid the foundation for AI, he quickly turns away from trying to define thought (considering the question meaningless) and instead turns to the engineering problem of the imitation game (Turing test). Polt’s definition of thought here is completely non-standard and self-serving. Perhaps we can be charitable and interpret him as relaying the commonly-held idea that without having personal experience, machines can’t be conscious. But he gives no argument at all for this. He can say that in the end it’s all ones and zeros so of course no device can ever feel pain, but then I can reply that in the end all human thought is just molecules so of course no human ever feels pain.
Without a brain or DNA, I couldn’t write an essay, drive my daughter to school or go to the movies with my wife. But that doesn’t mean that my genes and brain structure can explain why I choose to do these things — why I affirm them as meaningful and valuable.
I understand the bit about genes since they don’t determine specific behaviour (as if anyone with appropriate scientific credentials suggested they do?). But if he’s really saying that his brain structure cannot explain what he does, he’s even more out there than the rest of his essay suggests. Just because we can’t read things off a brain scan (yet?) and make sense of it in this way doesn’t mean that it’s not all coming from the brain structure. Otherwise he’d have to say that an identical copy of him would have different motivations or behaviour, which is about anti-science as you can get.
So why have we been tempted for millenniums to explain humanity away? The culprit, I suggest, is our tendency to forget what Edmund Husserl called the “lifeworld” — the pre-scientific world of normal human experience, where science has its roots. In the lifeworld we are surrounded by valuable opportunities, good and bad choices, meaningful goals, and possibilities that we care about. Here, concepts such as virtue and vice make sense.
In other words, we should pay more attention to folk-psychology, folk-physics, the “wisdom of ages” and common sense. All of our problems have been that we’ve put too much stock in science and allowed it to challenge our pre-scientific conceptions. Yep, we’ve really taken a fall, haven’t we?
But concepts from information theory, in this restricted sense, have come to influence our notions of “information” in the broader sense, where the word suggests significance and learning. This may be deeply misleading. Why should we assume that thinking and perceiving are essentially information processing?
This is actually an interesting question and one that reflects genuine controversy among people studying consciousness, AI and cognitive science. We don’t currently know if there’s something over and above information processing because we don’t know how things fit together for perception, thinking or consciousness at a detailed-enough level. But Polt is not asking a serious question, he’s using it as a rhetorical club. He already thinks that biology doesn’t have anything to tell us about what makes him tick so the idea that thinking has nothing to do with information seems about right. A great answer is from one of the comments:
“Because form follows function, and the form of the brain strongly implies that it’s function is information processing. With its long wires, vast networks linking disparate regions together, high-speed electrical signaling, molecular scaffolding, and its circuit-like input-output dynamics, it seems clear, not only to me, but to neuroscientists in general, that the function of the brain is to process information.”
We need to recognize that nature, including human nature, is far richer than what so-called naturalism chooses to admit as natural…The same scientist who claims that behavior is a function of genes can’t give a genetic explanation of why she chose to become a scientist in the first place. The same philosopher who denies freedom freely chooses to present conference papers defending this view.
The same scientist who claims that our behaviour consists of atoms moving around can’t predict their behaviour by looking at the trajectories of atoms. They can’t write an equation of how their own atoms cause their behaviour. Therefore nature is far richer than atoms? Of course it’s true that these examples show that the best level of explanation is usually at a higher level than atoms (or genes etc.) — but Polt isn’t interested in that distinction. Instead, his reasoning is this:
- Low-level science (physics, genetics) can’t account for X → It will never account for X → There’s more to X than materialism.
- Low-level science’s account for X is not the most useful level of explanation → Science is trying to explain X away
Richard Polt is a professor of philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinnati. His books include “Heidegger: An Introduction.”
As usual, his accreditation (when compared to his essay) shows that philosophy’s in real trouble as a discipline.
December 30th, 2012
There’s a fascinating academic paper by Microsoft Research [PDF link] on the classic Nigerian advance fee fraud email scams. I’m sure you’re familiar with the basic principle but perhaps some readers might be younger than the best spam filters so here’s a quick rundown. You get an email from a supposed Nigerian prince or president’s son and so forth. They’ve had some trouble s and need to transfer a gargantuan some of money through someone in your country. If you help you’ll get a commission that works out to be in the millions. Naturally, problems arise and you need to wire them little bits of money here and there to help with paperwork and of course the money never comes.
The first interesting thing is that of course advance fee fraud is nothing new. A very similar thing called the Spanish Prisoner scam was around at the end of the 19th century. There, a wealthy aristocrat or magnate is being unjustly held as a prisoner in Spain. If you would only bail him out, oh how he would reward you!
Another thing to note is that the people who engage in these scams are often indeed from Nigeria. There are not many job opportunities, especially in the more rural areas. For someone whose English and computer skills are at a reasonable level, this presents a very strong temptation: do I struggle to scrape by to feed my family or do I go and get access to these hoards of money? This article outlines how one person has struggled with the dilemma. Also if you are very poor and there are people across the world who have so much more than you and yet are greedy enough for more to fall for the scam, it becomes very easy to rationalise that they’re privileged wankers who deserve it.
But now onto the academic paper. Have you ever asked yourself why these emails are so outlandish? Surely, you might think, they could be a little less obvious. Most of them say they are from Nigeria, a country about which most people know nothing except the scam. Why don’t they take the most basic measures and make their emails more effective by being just a bit less obvious?
The paper analyses the economics of the operation and concludes that they can only be successful if their emails are obvious and outlandish. There is a mathematical side to this but I’ll just go into the intuitive explanation which should be enough. In order to make it worthwhile, the scammer has to make a positive return on investment. But where are the costs? Because this is email spam, the cost of distribution is close to 0. There are some fixed costs in getting a computer, internet, spam server and so on. But the biggest ongoing cost would be the time in corresponding with a potential victim. A scammer has failed not if their email didn’t get a response, that’s easy to live with. A scammer has failed if they’ve spent hours corresponding with someone only to end up not getting any money from them.
Now, the email addresses number many but the victims number few. Most people have heard of similar scams. Of those who haven’t most are likely to smell a problem in the initial email. Of those who don’t, most are likely to back out at some time in the process. Not to mention that some people make sport of pretending to fall for these to waste the scammers’ time (for instance see the wonderful site 419 Eater). So, to a scammer, finding someone who will actually give money (as opposed to responding to the email) is like finding a needle in a haystack. The initial email is the only filter they have to separate those who are likely to give them money from those who will respond but back out. It is therefore in their interests to make this filter as conservative as possible. The more ridiculous the initial email is, the more likely that a response would only come from the type of person who would also complete the transaction.
So that’s the potentially-surprising answer — the scammers want fewer responses and not more. If their emails were more believable they’d go out of business.
I’ll end with a fascinating thing, an item of true con artistry, the second degree Nigerian advance fee fraud that I’ve only seen this year. It’s so wrong and yet I salute whoever came up with it. It basically targets scam victims and says “I was a victim of a Nigerian scam and thought I lost my money forever. Then I went to Nigeria and I recovered it with the help of this agency! All I had to do was pay then $200.”
December 24th, 2012
With the US election being a boon for marriage equality, Australia’s had some additional coverage. In this context, it was almost expected that an open letter to Prime Minister Giliard went viral.
Usually I avoid the comments sections of such opinion pieces, not wanting to get facepalming bruises. This time, I thought it might be interesting to get at least an anecdotal whiff of public opinion. A surprising number of comments were against marriage equality. This served as a reminder that it can be easy to underestimate how many people don’t agree with what seems to you as the obviously right answer.
What was encouraging was the almost total lack of “classic” arguments against gay marriage. There was pretty much no “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve”, “I find anal sex is icky”, “gays recruit children” and so on. I think this shows that even the bigots agree that such shit won’t fly — and will reframe their arguments.
Of course these “sophisticated” arguments aren’t much better; the veneer of respectability is pretty thin. If Intelligent Design is creationism in a cheap tuxedo, these are often a case of bigotry in a cheap tuxedo. However, they might be more damaging these days than the “classic” arguments. They don’t appear as obviously bigoted to many undecideds and hence will probably have more longevity — as it becomes more and more embarrassing to whip out your “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” in conversation. For this reason, it’s useful to take a look at some of these more closely.
Australia doesn’t want it
On the high-minded side, of course it shouldn’t matter. Basic human rights shouldn’t be subjected to the whim of popular opinion. If a white majority wanted to take away the vote from non-whites, it wouldn’t and shouldn’t matter. Getting back to realpolitik though, public opinion matter here as a matter of fact. Which makes this argument very shortsighted.
Regardless of any current quibbles with “politically correct poll skewing”, Australia will want marriage equality, and soon. Younger generations that are much likely to want it are replacing more conservative generations (see a US trendline here). To ignore such a clear trend, you’d have to be completely blinded by wishful thinking. This would therefore only be an argument to delay gay marriage by a short period. Taken at face value, it would mean someone will change their mind when support goes to (say) 60%. This is unlikely making the argument disingenuous.
This is a move by a special interest group/people with a personal stake in the outcome
Also when discussing the 1967 referendum, it would have been sooo special interest to ask the opinion of Indigenous Australians, right? It’s not like those who are denied rights have some special viewpoint on how this affects them. No, it’s the people who’ve thought about an issue in their spare time, and aren’t affected by it at all, who have the only meaningful point of view. Because, you see, they’re objective.
This is also reminiscent of recent statements by US Republicans that Obama won because too many people want ‘stuff’. It’s almost like it’s shameful to want something out of politics because that somehow “taints” your motivations. Of course this only applies to luxury items like healthcare or basic rights. If certain other people want economic policies that will benefit them to the tune of billions, or want to impose their religious beliefs on others, they’re not benefitting at all — that’s just for society’s good.
Marriage shouldn’t be controlled by the state anyway/we should all just have civil unions
Funny how people that say this aren’t actually forming their own movement to have all marriages turned into civil unions. Instead, they’re arguing against equality. Of course this wouldn’t fly in any other case. If someone said “I’m against the baby bonus so I think it’s perfectly fine for the government to deny it to Jews because then there’ll be less payouts of the baby bonus,” it would be obvious that this person’s gone wrong in a big way. The only way this argument would work is if you thought marriage was so incredibly bad that preventing any marriage was important enough to override concerns about discrimination. But even if you’re staunchly against the institution, that’s just bullshit.
Civil unions with equal legality are enough, the rest is a meaningless symbolic difference
I’d bet that very few people who think symbolic differences around discrimination are “trivial” have actually been discriminated against. In fact most forms of discrimination involve symbolic differences, and sometimes only those. The Montgomery bus boycott was certainly not about the physical or financial inconvenience of having to sit at the back of public buses.
The distinction between marriage and civil unions is also not as meaningless as this argument would have. A great example was mentioned in the legal ruling that overturned California’s Proposition 8. From the ruling: “A letter [was] sent by the California Secretary of State to registered domestic partners in 2004 informing them of upcoming changes to the law and suggesting dissolution of their partnership to avoid any unwanted financial effects.” Now, the Secretary of State thought he was doing people a favour and it’s unlikely that he intended any discrimination. Still, can you imagine a government official suggesting couples get divorced for financial benefit? Even differences that seem “only” symbolic become differences in how citizens are treated.
This issue is wasting time/resources
Marriage equality would not be expensive to implement. The biggest resource that’s being used is the time on public debate. But the only reason the debate is being drawn out is because of bigoted and illogical arguments against gay marriage. So, some people are being obstructionist and then saying “we’re wasting time on this issue”. This is very similar to the argument that children should (somehow) be made not be gay because they will face a lot of discrimination in life. Who will be discriminating against those kids? Why, the people making that very argument (and possibly their children who have caught their parents’ bigotry) of course!
There are more important things to focus on
This another example of a gambit I’ve posted about recently: the shut up about everything all the time unless what you have to say is HITLER! The people making this claim are unlikely to practice it with any consistency, making the whole thing disingenuous. If you want to give this a proper test: take an issue that someone cares about, think of something that you could argue is more pressing (world health, world hunger and food security, global warming) and tell them they should shut up and yield their issue to the one you suggested. Then, observe the results — or better yet, run like hell.
Also, if you think reducing prejudice and discrimination is not directly related to issues like global health, world hunger and global warming, you need to read the news a bit more. Either way, the argument requires accepting the values of the person making the claim as having some special position. Again, it’s easy for someone not being discriminated against to consider gay marriage a secondary matter. Especially if they also see themselves as objective.
Marriage is a coercive/patriarchal/bourgeois institution and the LGBT community shouldn’t want it
Not being a member of the LGBT community, I can’t say what it should want. What I can say is that gay marriage is probably a lot more than an issue for cookie-cutter-suburban-white-cis-able-bodied-educated-middle-class-people. A good piece arguing that marriage equality is more radical than people think is Protect Traditional Marriage!. Reed thinks the claims that nothing will be different aren’t true and it’s actually the opponents of equality who have it right. Things may change a lot more, but that’s a good thing.
Gay marriage means that people will be born into a world where relationships of any gender combination are on legally-equal footing. By the time a generation passes, opponents of equality will be seen as little different from opponents of interracial marriage. This, combined with the social value of marriage, may mean that gender might be seen quite differently. I wouldn’t be surprised if gay marriage undermines all sorts of traditional gender boundaries we wouldn’t have predicted. And that’s a good thing.
The “sophisticated” arguments may not be better but they are important. The more people take these head-on, the sooner the day will come when we need not be embarrassed for Australia.
December 17th, 2012
I’ve decided to join the 12th century and create a Twitter account. I’ll use it to post links and any other short items, leaving the main blog for longer posts.
I’m @aNadder. To see links and other related stuff, you can either:
Also in case you didn’t know, you can also sign up to get new posts by email by clicking here.
December 17th, 2012
Via Andrew Sullivan, Mother Jones has one of the most disturbing articles I’ve read in a long time: Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.. The article is by Shane Bauer, one of the US hikers detained in Iran. It sheds light on the appalling nature and scale of solitary confinement throughout the US, especially California.
The first thing to note is just how bad an experience solitary confinement is. Solitary confinement is considered by many to be a form of torture and one judge’s ruling said “[solitary confinement] units are virtual incubators of psychoses—seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities.” 77% of inmates are diagnosed with a mental illness. But these numbers don’t do justice to the experience. An anecdote that gives a better idea is Bauer’s own memory of being confined in solitary for about 4 months in Iran. It grew so bad that he hoped to be taken in for interrogation — meaning that even torture was a welcome form of human contact when compared to solitary. The human brain doesn’t do too well with a lack of stimulation (when people are blindfolded they often start hallucinating after 2-3 days). Solitary confinement is this lack of stimulation squared, and the chances of developing a mental disorder are overwhelming.
Interestingly the California penal system does not consider its solitary confinement as solitary confinement. The reason being is that the guards enter the prisoner’s room on occasion, the prisoners have access to some books, a TV, an hour’s exercise a day (by themselves in an indoor facility) and so on. This classification is incredibly self-serving, and requires you to accept some Count of Monte Cristo stereotype of the solitary prisoner who’s completely abandoned for years or decades. This reminds me of people who are invested in portraying torture as having your genitals electrocuted, in order to frame something like waterboarding as not torture.
The problem with the conditions is obvious by the fact that the suicide rate in this prison population is an astounding 557% times higher than the general prison population. (Which is likely to already be much higher than the general population.) People see a therapist but are only allowed to do so once every 30 days — an eternity if you’re in solitary. Phonecalls to the outside world are not allowed at all.
All of these are expected with solitary confinement. What I found most disturbing was the process to get into (or out of) one of these things. In California, most people in solitary are there not because of crimes commited inside the prison (eg. killing a guard which gets you 5 years). They are there because they were validated as members or associates of prison gangs (for which you can be in solitary indefinitely). This is essentially a rubber-stamp procedure with very low chance of a validation being overturned. Now, isolating the most violent prison gang members for the safety of the prison is probably a good idea. But what counts as evidence is laughable and flimsy. You can be validated if you are seen with a suspected gang member. Or if a gang member sends you correspondence (something you don’t have control of). Most frighteningly, possessing symbols the wardens consider to be relevant to one of the gangs can also get you in solitary. For example, newspaper clippings about black rights in the US have gotten people validated as Black Panther associates. And so on.
The catch 22 is that since most people are there for being gang members, the best way to get out is to give information about your gang, which is impossible if you’re not actually part of a gang. Not to mention that the system is ripe for abuse in terms of false validations and so on. One inmate in California has been in solitary for over 40 years.
Now, I’m quite sensitive to Godwin’s Law (also known as the argumentum ad Hitlerium). But having read a lot about Stalin’s purges and labour camps, the similarities are uncanny. Not in terms of the extent or severity of the punishments — although perhaps those in solitary would prefer to starve in a GULAG in the company of people — but in terms of the way you can get punished. Both systems blatantly employ thoughtcrime. In Stalin’s case you could go to jail for treason for praising anything about a capitalist country (eg. saying that the UK had good aircraft). That in itself is evidence for who but a traitor would praise UK aircraft? In California’s prisons, you can get validated as a gang member and end up in solitary for about black history. That in itself is evidence for who but a member of the Black Panthers would read about black history?
If that doesn’t make you shudder then you’re even more cynical than I am.
December 11th, 2012
There’s a pretty common view that as a society we’re inappropriately overmedicalising ourselves in terms of psychological and psychiatric disorders. Some of the reasons given include:
- We’re self-centred and whiny first worlders who all have comfortable lives and therefore invent problems.
- To give people excuses for bad behaviour (they’re not a CPOS, they’re a sex addict!)
- As a conspiracy by psychologists, psychiatrists, Big Pharma and so on.
- As a way to control people and present our social disapproval as objective.
- As a form of coddling and political “correctness gone mad”.
One of the most expressive examples of the whole attitude is a by philosopher called Tony Soprano:
Nowadays everybody’s got to go to shrinks and counselors, and go on Sally Jesse Raphael and talk about their problems. Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type? That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know is once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up. And then it’s dysfunction this and dysfunction that and dysfunction va fa culo!
It’s interesting that this attitude doesn’t just come from people who are explicitly anti-science but often can come from those who are pretty reasonable in most respects. Now, it’s true that some of the above points are true some of the time. There is a long history of diagnosing mental illness as a form of social control (for example, read about forced institutionalisation in the USSR in the 70s). And you can certainly find examples of the others. But the point is that as a whole, these are failed, anti-science explanations. Also, they betray a hidden dualist assumption.
What made this apparent was a podcast that mentioned DSM-V. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is used to catalog all the official mental diagnoses. The V is the upcoming edition which will be expanded a lot. The host them mentioned that under this edition, over 50% of the US public will be diagnosable with some condition or other.
I think he was saying this as a way to portray how ridiculous the expansion is: “look at the absurdity, it’s defining more of us as sick than well!” But the important thing is that such a comparison just wouldn’t fly for physical illness. We would not think it strange that more than 50% of the population have some physical condition. In fact that would probably be a lowball. I’m sure a much larger percentage have something that’s a condition. But a mental illness? That’s a big deal. That’s Who You Really AreTM, and if you’re diagnosed then you must be crazy. But you can’t have so many crazy people, right?
The idea that most people must be healthy is reminiscent of the mental illness denialism of Thomas Szasz, where mental illness is almost defined out of existence. Just as being physically well is not all or nothing, having a mental condition does not somehow invalidate a person’s mental health or change some essence behind the person. The only real way to make sense of such a view is if we all had souls which had essences — then the Real You would either be Sick or Well.
So if you think something to the tune of “diagnosis is making us all victims,” consider if you’d have the same attitude to physical disease. The pushback is likely to diminish once the dualistic assumptions are examined.