The crazy train keeps a-rollin’

PZ, bless his heart, posted a bunch of the angry e-mails that Bill Donohue’s clueless masses sent his way following Crackergate. I haven’t been able to read through all of them (bring a sandwich and find a comfortable chair if you plan to), but one of them got me thinking.

Well, actually, lots of them got me thinking. Most of the thoughts were “these people are utterly clueless if they think [PZ would hesitate to insult tenets of Islam and Judaism / Insulting the Eucharist is a “hate crime” / PZ is somehow using University time or resources to blog / PZ is a math professor]” and “these people have no idea what precipitated this post.” Also, “[any God who could be threatened in cracker form / any God who would get his followers so worked up over a snack food] is clearly sillier than either the “body mutilation” or “wear these clothes” gods.”

But, back to the point, one post got me thinking about something specific:

I know you are smarter than most people and probably even God himself, if you even believe in God.

Besides the obvious (hey, check the blog header or the big red A in the sidebar for Dr. Myers’ belief-in-God status), this got me wondering about being “smarter than God.”

See, my first inclination (and a couple of commenters in the original thread said it as well) would be to say that I’m smarter than God. After all, I don’t believe that God exists, and obviously I’d be smarter than something that doesn’t exist.

But then I thought, if someone asked me “do you think you’re smarter than Batman?” I’d probably say no. And yet, my position on the existence of Batman is exactly the same as my position on the existence of God.

Which brings me to the realization that while I don’t think God or Batman exist, the fictional characters of Batman and God absolutely do exist. And those fictional characters have defined traits–in these cases, exceptional intelligence.

So, how do you respond to such a question? Do you answer in terms of reality, and declare yourself smarter than everything that doesn’t exist? Or do you answer in terms of character traits, and respond that the fictional character possesses the greater intellect?

I guess the best response is the one that clarifies the answer. “Obviously, I’d consider myself smarter than any nonexistent person, but as the character is defined, I think he’s probably more intelligent.” Or something.

And now I’m going to spend the next day or so running over these weird “one hand clapping” questions in the back of my mind–“Am I taller than Superman? Am I more muscular than the Hulk? Am I as observant as Hercule Poirot?”

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Talk amongst yourselves; I’ll give you a topic

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is full of shit.

Discuss.

Mims’ Second Treatise on Hotness

It’s scary when other people start thinking like me.

Hat tip to Jon.

An Essay Concerning My Hotness

By Mims

In my various travels across the United States, I sometimes find that my hotness is in question. In a recent trip to Chicago, for instance, I was asked how I achieved this hotness. I was taken aback by the query; after all, it seems self-evident to me. In my mind, there is no need for explanation; I see the proof of my hotness in my unfettered access to quality automobiles, in the variety of female companionship which I am able to frequently and effortlessly attain, and of course in the way that my very presence at a dance hall seems to cause the patrons to oscillate. Indeed, I have been known to suggest that my popularity is so well-assured that I could record an album in the style of John Cage’s infamous 4’33” and said album would still sell a million copies. I have yet to attempt this, however.

But, in the interest of informing those ignorant of my hotness and silencing my critics, I have drafted this treatise to explore the philosophical underpinnings of my hotness.

The first argument is simply stated:
P1: If I am fly, then I am hot.
P2: I am fly.
∴ C1: I am hot.

And, I present the inverse, as a reminder to my critics:
P3: If you are not fly, then you are not hot.
P4: You are not fly.
∴ C2: You are not hot.

I thought this would settle the matter, but some of my critics seem to require empirical proof to demonstrate my hotness (or alternatively, my flyness). The assessment of my flyness is not entirely subjective; I have had it independently confirmed. In that same recent journey to Chicago, while my compatriots complimented my choice in clothing, they too claimed that I was, in fact, fly. While I’m sure this will not satisfy some of my more hard-nosed critics, it serves to demonstrate the point that I have not merely fabricated rumors of my flyness.

But, since flyness is something of an ephemeral quality, I feel the only true measure of it is the judgment of others. So, I offer this final ontological argument, in support of the first.
P5: An observer has the idea of a quality called “flyness.”
P6: This idea is held by multiple observers
∴ C3 (P5, P6): This idea is not specific to any single observer and must originate from outside the observers.
P7: Multiple observers have determined that I possess the quality of flyness.
P8: Observers draw information from the outside world based on their senses.
∴ C4 (P7, P8): The observers must have sensed the quality of flyness in me in order to make their judgment.
∴ C5 (C4): I must possess the quality of flyness (I am fly).
∴ C6 (P1, C5): I am hot.

And that is why I’m hot.

Never go drinking with philosophers

Nietzsche Ale: God is passed out on the couch.
Rand Brewery’s “The Foamyhead”: Screw off! Buy your own!
Plato’s Pilsner: “It’s almost perfect!”–Socrates.
Locke Lite: I’ll drink you under the tabula!
Pascal’s Lager: Go ahead, have another. You’ve got nothing to lose!

When I fight authority, reality always wins

The arguments from authority and popularity are slippery, tricksy little fallacies. Sure, they seems simple enough, but as I’ve recently discovered, they’re a bit more complicated than they look at first.

The most basic, stripped-down Argument from Authority looks like this: X is true because A says it is true, where X is some proposition and A is a figure of some authority (though not necessarily in the field which governs X). I doubt you’ll ever see it stated so simply, because on its face it is patently absurd. Despite what The Secret or What the Bleep might tell you, we cannot make things true simply by saying them. No, usually it’ll be “X is true, A says so!” or “A believes in X, why don’t you?” It’s all the same, just dressed up a bit.

And, regardless of what a Mage: The Ascension handbook might tell you, reality is not democratic, and is not created by what large numbers of people believe. So, when you see someone saying “X is true because lots of people say it is true,” you ought immediately to think “only if I’m holding a handful of ten-sided dice.”

But the problem with these arguments is that sometimes, they look right. I’ve had a bit of impromptu sparring with Mr. Kirk of the God/No God blog on the subject of Global Warming, and how the primary argument for it appears to be “it’s true because all scientists say so.” Now, I know that’s not the primary argument for it (the primary argument is “because it’s happening and we can measure it, and CO2 levels are building up to cause a Greenhouse Effect,” so far as I’m aware) but I can see where it might look like that to the laity. There are many (I might even say ‘most’) cases where both parts of the argument–“X is true” and “A/lots of people say that X is true”–are true. The problem is the “because,” which misrepresents the causal relationship.

And after a bit of thinking, I figured out the root of the problem: these arguments are conversions of true statements. But not all true statements have true converse statements.

So, let’s start with a true statement: Lots of people say the sky is blue because the sky is blue. Both the red and green parts of the statement is true, and the green statement is the cause of the red one, so the whole statement is true. Now, flip the red and green portions (forming the converse of the statement), and you get The sky is blue because lots of people say the sky is blue. Both the red and green portions are true, but the cause/effect relationship is screwed up, so the whole statement is false, and is an argument from popularity besides.

See, when something is verifiably true, lots of people and authorities will claim that it is true. Everyone says that the sky is blue because the sky is blue (except when it isn’t, but we’re talking generally). Scientists say that atoms exist because the evidence heavily suggests that atoms exist. The problem is that people and authorities often make claims which are not verifiably true, or which are demonstrably false, and so cannot be considered reliable sources in all cases.

So, what of Global Warming? I know I’m not the only one who has said “all reliable scientists say that it’s happening, and that human activity is contributing to it.” Isn’t that an argument from authority?

Well, not exactly. If I were saying “it’s happening because all scientists say so,” then sure, that’s an argument from authority. But I’m not saying it’s happening because all reliable scientists say so, I’m saying you should believe it because all reliable scientists say so. It’s not much of a difference, but it’s a significant one, because it doesn’t make a causal statement. I should just make explicit the causal statement that remains: “all reliable scientists say so because the evidence says so.”

See, in evidence-based fields like science, all claims have to be supported by evidence. If you make a scientific claim that isn’t supported by evidence, you’re going to get called on it by people who know what the evidence suggests. Since evidence is the same no matter who looks at it, most people in a given field will come to the same conclusions, until new evidence forces them to change their conclusions. So, when the majority of scientists in a given field support a conclusion in that same field, chances are the evidence supports it as well.

Now, there are scientists claiming that Global Warming isn’t happening (fewer of them, now), or that while it is happening it isn’t being caused by human activity. RealClimate has a list of answers to common contrarian claims, and lower on the page a list of links that addresses Mr. Kirk’s solar suggestion, but for a moment, let’s assume that these latter scientists are correct, and that humans are not the main cause of global warming. Now, there are a few things of which we can be relatively certain, based on the evidence and the models:

  1. Carbon dioxide and other ‘greenhouse gases’ act as a natural atmospheric insulator, trapping heat from the sun so it remains close to the Earth’s surface and is not just radiated back out into space.
  2. The Earth’s temperature is rising at an unprecedented rate.
  3. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are very high.
  4. Humans, through combustion, release Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere which would not naturally be there.

So, again, let’s assume that Global Warming is mostly caused by some other condition. Shouldn’t we still try to curb our CO2 emissions? We know that excess carbon dioxide has the possibility of increasing the surface temperature; even if it isn’t the reason for the observed climate change, shouldn’t we do what we can so that we don’t exacerbate it? We have the following options:

  1. GW is not caused by humans, and we do not change our actions. Human-generated carbon dioxide does not exacerbate the situation.
  2. GW is not caused by humans, and we do not change our actions. Human-generated carbon dioxide does exacerbate the situation.
  3. GW is not caused by humans, and we do change our actions, preventing any possible exacerbation.
  4. GW is caused by humans, and we do not change our actions. Human-generated carbon dioxide does cause and exacerbate the situation.
  5. GW is caused by humans, and we do change our actions, preventing any possible exacerbation.

If we don’t change our actions, we have a 20% chance of not making things worse. Changing our actions means not only do we eliminate the chances of making things worse (at least as far as CO2 emissions are concerned) and a chance of making things better, if in fact we’re causing the climate change.

And all the reliable information, and simple logic, suggests that we are. I mean, honestly, we know that carbon dioxide acts as the planet’s thermal insulator, and we know that we’ve been pumping extra CO2 into the atmosphere for the last hundred and fifty years, all over the world. Saying that all that would have no effect, when the effects that it’s predicted to have are occurring, seems disingenuous at best.

Philosophical open thread

Randy Kirk dropped by Bronze Dog‘s place recently, inviting the microcosm of the skeptical blogging community that hangs out there to participate in a “balanced” debate between believers and nonbelievers on his site, The God vs No God Debate (the editor in me wants to attach a “[sic]” to that for a number of pedantic reasons, but I’ll resist the temptation for now). Now, anyone who knows me also knows how much I love such discussions. In fact, it’s kind of a character flaw; I’ll debate trolls and woosters long after everyone else has bowed out. In some cases (like a recent message board discussion on the supposed 9/11 conspiracy) it’s because the beliefs in question are fallacious, ridiculous, specious, and potentially dangerous, and should be corrected. In other cases (as with most trolls, including my dear friend and frequent punching bag Weapon) it’s because I have fun doing it.

To use an analogy that Akusai and Bronze Dog should appreciate, it’s like when I was playing Marvel: Ultimate Alliance over break, and I’d take the Thing or Luke Cage into a crowd of A.I.M.* soldiers or other thugs. They pose no real threat to my health, and I’m way above their strength class (“able to press 85 tons”) so I can take them out very easily, but it gives me a chance to try out new moves, hone my reactions and fighting skills, and ultimately to level up and become better, so I can take out the real dangerous targets with more ease (I realize this is true for just about every RPG, but somehow taking out Doombots never gets old and tedious in the way that taking out bugs and Bombs does). In the same way, I sharpen my rhetorical skills on the easy targets so I can expand my repertoire of attacks, defenses, and knowledge, so I can find the deficiencies in my own knowledge, and so that when I’m talking with someone who actually has some wit and valid arguments, I’m better able to deal with them.

There are, of course, things that can deaden my debate-love. And when I visited The God vs No God Debate, I saw several. I’m not going to assume without evidence that there’s no possibility of a fair and open debate on such a site, but when the owner also runs blogs dedicated favorably to fundamentalist doomsayer Tim LaHaye and bigoted asshole James Dobson, it starts looking rather unlikely. I felt further trepidation when I saw posts entitled “Proof of GOD,” which offered a false dilemma (an interesting and fairly original one, but a false dilemma nonetheless) as its titular evidence, and “Is Skepticism Good Science?” a question which, to me, seems blatantly obvious. The latter post goes on to suggest that scientists on the whole are more concerned with finding flaws in religion than in their “own dogma,” and that “common sense” and “self-evident truth” are scientifically valid sources of knowledge. I wish it were true, but once you’ve accepted that matter is made up of tiny invisible particles, that time is relative, and that an electron can move from one level to another without having ever existed in-between, “common sense” and “self-evident truth” seem a little like oxymorons.

That being said, I’ve decided to address (if not necessarily answer) the question that Bronze Dog’s readers were invited to, and I welcome others to add to the discussion in the comments. I recognize that I seem no more fair or balanced than Mr. Kirk, so I’m not going to pretend to be. But I figure that opening up the discussion on a nontheistic skeptical blog, as well as on Mr. Kirk’s more evangelical-leaning site, ought to balance things out a bit.

Let’s jump right into it. First, the question as posed on The Bronze Blog (because it does differ significantly from that on Kirk’s website; this version is less clearly loaded with ideology):

If you were absolutely certain that by sacrificing your 2 year-olds life that 10 other two years old who would otherwise die would live, would you do it? 100? 1000? 1,000,000.

This is really asking three questions:

  1. Is a sin of omission comparable in moral wrongness to a sin of commission?
  2. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
  3. Do the ends justify the means?

While I’d like to say that there are easy answers to all those questions, the construction of the question makes such moral certainty impossible. See, it’s the “two-year-old” that causes the moral quandary; if the question were about “infants,” it would be a little different. Infants are entirely dependent on their parents, and lack the mental capacity for just about everything. They must have nearly all of their choices made for them, and life-or-death choices are still just choices. Toddlers, on the other hand, are capable of making some choices of their own. They have a measure of autonomy, and can be reasonably considered sentient individuals.

So it becomes a question of “who has the right to sacrifice an individual’s life.” And the simple answer there is “that individual, provided they retain the ability to make choices.” The problem, then, is that a two-year-old lacks the intellectual capacity to understand death and altruism in any meaningful way. You could leave the choice up to them, but they wouldn’t understand what the choice meant. You could make the choice for them, but then you’re depriving them of choice, which is pretty far into morally unacceptable territory.

I suppose this would be a good point to establish the basic moral rules. Society requires two, without which it cannot function. These are not based on religion (although every religious tradition has picked up on them), but on the necessities of society. Oh, and we define society here as “any group of two or more human beings living in close proximity and interacting with one another.”

  1. It is morally wrong to kill another person: For people to interact with each other, each must be reasonably certain that the other will not try to kill them.
  2. It is morally wrong to lie: For people to interact, they must be able to communicate. Lying undermines communication; if you cannot reasonably assume that a person is telling you the truth, then you cannot communicate with them effectively.

Of course, there are arguments to be made as to the universality of these rules and the exceptions to them, but they are true and necessary in all but special cases. The first rule could be generalized out to “it is wrong to deprive another person of their personal freedoms,” but that would require further exceptions. Keep it in mind, however, and keep in mind the basic personal freedoms: choice, thought, and action (all should be allowed freely up to the point where they begin impinging on the same freedoms of others).

Okay, so, let’s tackle the big questions.
1: Is the sin of omission morally comparable to the sin of commission?
By “sin” here, I mean “doing something morally unacceptable,” not “doing something contrary to God’s law.” It simplifies the sentence structure, even if it requires a slightly different interpretation of the word’s meaning. Anyway, put more philosophically: if it is morally wrong to do X, is it equally wrong to allow X to happen if it is directly within your power to stop X? Contrary to “Batman Begins,” I’d say that it may not be equally wrong, but it is still wrong. If you know the Heimlich and someone next to you is choking, it would be wrong not to try and help. You may not be throttling them with your bare hands, but the end result is the same. The key word here is “directly;” X has to be something I can prevent alone and immediately. I can’t be blamed for not performing the Heimlich on a hundred choking people all at once, or for not doing it to a person 600 miles away.

2: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
I don’t think this can be answered in general; it has to be a case-by-case basis. What are the needs involved? What does this require? This comes back to the matter of personal freedoms; the personal freedom of one individual do not and cannot trump the freedom of another (with exceptions). I think the only way this can be decided with absolute certainty is if we leave the decision up to the few (with exceptions).

3: Do the ends justify the means?
I’m going to have to go with “no” on this one. I guess that was easier than I thought.

So, if presented with Kirk’s dilemma, is there a ‘right’ choice? I think it ends up being the lesser of two evils: do you commit a moral wrong and kill an individual, or do you commit a moral wrong and allow several individuals to die? Which is the lesser evil? Do you kill your two-year-old?

I see three different answers to this, and only one of them is morally satisfying. There’s the pragmatic, numerical, Wrath of Khan answer: Yes, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. And this would be fine if the two-year-old were making the choice, and if the child understood that choice. Unfortunately, neither of these are true, and you are forced to commit a moral wrong. There’s the pacifistic answer: No, it is wrong to kill, but the problem there is that in avoiding a moral wrong, you commit several lesser-but-similar wrongs. Do those add up to equal or surpass the wrongness of killing an individual? And there’s the superhero answer: There’s always another way. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually allowed in philosophical debates.

So, to answer this version of the question, I’d say it’s a matter of determining which is the lesser evil, and picking it. When we get to the really high numbers, I think the only logical choice would be to sacrifice the one for the good of the million.

Now, as to the post version of the question. This iteration is more clearly loaded with the trappings of Christian dogma, and so I’ll be getting a bit Biblical in response. Thankfully, it’s also easier to answer.

Now for a bit harder set of comparisons. What if someone walked in my house and threaten my children, and said that his whole family was dedicated to trying to kill my family? I think I would be justified in taking him out, and maybe his whole family.

I think not. The problem with the doctrine of pre-emption is that it is a very, very slippery slope. Let’s say your neighbor just has an odd sense of humor; you’ve gone and killed his whole family over a joke. If it is morally okay to kill just because of a perceived threat, then every paranoid kook has license to kill whoever looks at him or her cockeyed. If we accepted this, then we would find Macbeth heroic when he had Macduff’s whole family slaughtered. No, what you are justified to do in this situation is appeal to the authorities and to the protective system which exists to deal with these issues.

This is where one of the exceptions to the personal freedom infringement comes in. As a society, we have all agreed on certain precepts (laws) which limit our freedoms in certain ways in order to keep order. We have also agreed as a society that in some cases, the freedoms of individuals can be infringed upon as punishment and as a way of keeping them from infringing upon the freedoms of others. In other words, we accept that it is wrong for an individual to take another individual’s freedoms away (vigilantism), but we also agree that society as a whole can take an individual’s freedom away (law enforcement, imprisonment). There are things that we will accept as morally right when done by the aggregate society, which would be wrong if done by individuals within the society.

Furthermore, Biblical law would consider this anathema; the concept of “an eye for an eye” means that the punishment should be in proportion to the crime. If someone takes a life, their life is forfeit. However, proclaiming something and doing it are not the same, legally or morally. There’s nothing stopping you from replying “and my family will kill yours,” but there is something stopping you from attacking first; it would be just as wrong.

What if I had to allow one of my children to die so that the rest could live? I know for a fact that all will die or one will die? Get harder.

Sophie’s choice? PZ got recently accused of supporting infanticide for discussing just this possibility. If there is certain doom for one or certain doom for all, especially in a family situation, I doubt that the “one” would object to the sacrifice. If the choice must be made for the “one” for some reason, then it’s difficult emotionally, but not logically.

What if my child was 18 and he was merely going to be put in a position where he might die in order to provide a better life for the community?

Assuming that this 18-year-old is capable of making his/her own decisions, then it’s certainly not up to the parent. When a child has autonomy and the ability to understand the nature of the sacrifice, then it’s no longer up to the parent to make the choice. You cannot sacrifice something that does not belong to you, such as someone else’s life.

What if I felt that I needed to make a rule in my house that I would beat a child within an inch of his life if he raped another of my children? We will assume there is no other authority to intervene.

I’m not even sure what this means.

There’s some discussion above the questions about how God must make similar decisions regarding sacrifice and rule-making. The problem with this analogy is God himself. If we’re to believe in an omnipotent deity, one who has demonstrated the ability to raise the dead, then these questions are moot. There should be no situation in which God is forced to kill one person for the good of others. I understand that the implication is Jesus: God sacrificed his Son so that everyone else would have eternal life (the interpretation of which is different from church to church). The myriad problems with this are that Jesus was alive again after 3 days (give or take), so the sacrifice of life was temporary; Jesus ascended into Heaven to live with God (so God’s sacrifice actually brings Jesus closer to him); and the one that’s really hard to argue with: God’s sacrifice was made to change rules that he made himself. And, since he’s omnipotent, we have no reason whatsoever to believe that he could not have changed the rules in another way. This is not comparable to killing a child to save a community; even if the parent buys into the Christian afterlife, there is no guarantee that they will be reunited with the child (whether through resurrection or meeting in the afterlife), and the parent is unlikely to be the cause of the ailment which would kill the community. The analogy is flawed, and the only thing it may tell us about God is that he works in unnecessarily complicated ways, and doesn’t really understand the nature of sacrifice.

That’s all I have for now; I’ll probably end up tackling more of this site in the near future. Akusai has Christian Answers, I wouldn’t mind “God vs No God.”

*Advanced Idea Mechanics