Thursday, September 11, 2014

Religion, ISIS, Atheist Hypocrisy, Confirmation Bias, and Tribalism

"Symbols of Religions".
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Several recent atheist commentators have rightly condemned ISIS, citing it as an example of religion gone horribly wrong. But then they go further, using the example of ISIS to condemn religion as a whole. Is this a valid move? If not, then why not? And what clues, if any, does the activity of ISIS give us about religion as a whole?

Atheists Condemning Religion via ISIS

The theologian Randal Rauser has one of a handful of Christian blogs that I find quite fascinating and worth following, if only irregularly. I haven't been following it long and though he seems to focus a bit more attention on apologetic-style arguments than I tend to appreciate, he does so in a clever and fair manner, with pleas for nuance that are often missing from most others of that ilk.

Rauser recently posted a brief article called "If we all reasoned like the atheist ideologue" which made an excellent point, but I think did so in an incredibly unilluminating way. In it, Rauser attacks the notion that ISIS's mere existence is an example of problems caused by religion:
In the last few weeks the internet has seen a flurry of armchair analysis by atheistic ideologues offering their ruminations on ISIS. Desperately short in their understanding of the geopolitical, social, cultural and historical factors at play in the Middle East, they sashay into the hornet’s nest and opine that the problem is “religion”.
Rauser doesn't link directly to any such commentary, but here's one that I saw on Lawrence Krauss' Facebook feed that I think fits the bill.
"ISIS is a barbaric reminder: no such thing as a religion of peace, certainly not in Islam today nor Judaism and Christianity throughout history." (link)
Now, I am a fan of Lawrence Krauss - in both the Facebook and more general sense. I've read (and reviewed) his books for years. I interviewed Lawrence Krauss last spring, at a showing of his film The Unbelievers, and got my first edition of The Physics of Star Trek autographed. But, as Krauss himself often points out, there are no authorities in science, only experts ... and as such I am not in any sense obligated to agree with everything he says.

So I absolutely disagree with Krauss's point that there is "no such thing as a religion of peace." First of all, it's not true as a stand-alone statement, because many examples of peaceful religions can be found (and warlike non-religious teachings).

But even in the context of ISIS - a group of people that clearly hold to a barbaric, non-peaceful religious viewpoint - the line between evidence and conclusion is tenuous here. The barbarity of ISIS is so extreme that it actually serves to highlight how benign most Islamic interpretations are. Pointing at a clearly-aberrant example as if it were normative is not something you can do!

It is this second issue that Rauser focuses on (again, in general ... he doesn't specifically cite the Krauss comment):
What if we all adopted this degree of inane, ideologically driven analysis? What would the world look like?
For starters, if a woman cut you off in traffic, you wouldn’t blame her. Instead, you would conclude that women shouldn’t drive cars, period.
And if your neighbor’s boy damaged your flower garden while attempting to earn a skateboarding badge for Boy Scouts, you’d conclude that youth organizations should be abolished.
And if your son twisted his ankle doing track and field, you’d cast a pall on all youth sporting events.
And if you had a bad dinner at the local Chinese restaurant, you’d eschew all Chinese (or better yet, all “ethnic”) food.
This is the degree of absurdity we are dealing with when folks with little-to-no understanding of ISIS and the complex geopolitical, social, cultural and historical factors at play in Syria and Iraq offer their absurdly crass analysis that the problem is intimately related to “religion”.
I have two main points about Rauser's attack.

  1. His examples are incorrect.
  2. He doesn't explain the actual problem (which is far worse, I think, than mere crassness).

The examples all show a case where a single piece of evidence leads to an extreme general conclusion. This is known as the hasty generalization fallacy, and Rauser is right that it would be a real problem ... if that were the actual fallacy being committed in these cases.

But it's not. How do we know? Because Rauser has himself identified these people as "atheist ideologues," which suggests that these are established people who have already concluded that atheism is the proper way of viewing the world and religion is problematic. They may have committed the hasty generalization fallacy at some point in the past, but having read several books by these people, it's clear that it's not nearly as hasty as Rauser's examples suggest. They didn't look at one piece of evidence against religion and arrive at a generalization that religion was a problem. Rauser just wrote a 15-part review of a biography of a man who abandoned religion for atheism, so he presumably knows there's more than one piece of evidence at work here, which means this is easily classified as a straw man fallacy.

But there is a serious problem here, although it's not actually a logical fallacy per se, so much as a methodological fallacy. It is, in my opinion, one of the worst cognitive errors that we have to deal with in our search for a better understanding of the world: Confirmation Bias.

Confirmation Bias and Religion

Confirmation bias is the tendency to give more weight or significance to results or evidence that confirm an already-established opinion than we do to evidence that contradicts that opinion.

In this case, the error that the atheists are making in pointing to ISIS is that they are being very selective in the evidence they look at. Again, go back to the Krauss quote. He points to ISIS as a barbaric reminder that there is no religion of piece, but in doing so clearly ignores the many pieces of evidence that suggest religions are peaceful. You don't even have to leave Islam to find far more peaceful Muslims - and Muslims who say that their peaceful acts are motivated by their religious faith - than Muslims who are driven by hate toward violence.

And, as a scientist, Krauss certainly knows about confirmation bias. One of the major goals of the scientific enterprise is to minimize it. And he pretty much mocked poor confirmation bias on the religious side, quite deftly, here.

This is the real irony of Rauser's attack, for me, because confirmation bias is for me the largest problem with religion.
My issue with religion is not a fundamental rejection of mystical or supernatural influences, but rather that religion adopts a methodology in which confirmation bias is not only allowed, but encouraged.
My strongest evidence for this view comes in the central role of testimony in religious life. Outside of intellectual circles, religion is largely affirmed, in day-to-day worship, by anecdotal testimonies to the role of God in one's life. As someone who has spent most of his life on the outside of religion, I cannot tell you the number of times someone has tried to explain to me how God has actively transformed their life. They were an alcoholic or an abusive husband and then they got right with God, and they felt a transformation come over them, and this is proof of God's existence.

I attended an evangelical church for a time that was particularly intriguing in this regard, with relatively common testimonies from the congregation. For some context: the minister of this church had once been a construction worker, fell off the fifth story of a building, landed face-first on cement, and despite being so bad that doctors assumed he would die, he somehow walked out of the hospital about a week later. And, during his convalescence, he had a vision of Jesus. So it's absolutely understandable that this particular church put a lot of faith in testimony. (To date, I have no reason in particular to doubt the man's claims about the series of events. Nor, though I don't agree with his explanation, can I particularly fault him for attributing miraculous significance to them.)

Testimonies from others were far less impressive, but still moving and significant. They were stories about how turning to Christianity and handing their life over to God made real differences in their lives. At one point, a man talked about how God had cured him of diabetes and helped him stop smoking. At another point, around Christmas time, a woman talked about how money was tight and she was going to have to avoid paying important bills so she could get clothes and gifts for her children. At the register, however, the scanner had some sort of malfunction, and the clothes came up much lower than expected. I don't remember the particulars, but I think the clothes came up for a few cents apiece, and the woman ended up saving over a hundred dollars all told.

If you stripped away all testimony of this kind from all religions, it's not clear to me that much religion would be left. There might be some logical arguments that would have impressed Aristotle fans, but religions wouldn't be living, breathing entities that influence lives directly in this world.

But every single one of the testimony examples above is a glaring case of confirmation bias. If you were to sit down and think, "How could I discern the real truth of religious experiences?" then you could hardly construct a worse methodology of doing it than asking people of faith when something good happened in their life that they felt was attributed to God. (I encourage you to try, in the comments section.)

The difference, of course, is that religious people do not, by and large, know about confirmation bias. As such, they can absolutely be forgiven for not taking steps to avoid it. Atheists, on the other hand - particularly active secularists, skeptics, religious critics, and "atheist ideologues" - absolutely know about confirmation bias. Using ISIS as a bludgeon to confirm your views without proper respect for the counter-argument is, either consciously or not, absolute hypocrisy.

What Can Be Said About Religion and ISIS?

It is perfectly valid, however, to point at ISIS as an example of how religion can lead someone to do horrible things. In a recent interview, even the Muslim moderate Reza Aslan admits that this is a logically valid interpretation of Islam (though not one that he agrees with).

But if an atheist is going to attack religion, they need to be sure that they are placing ISIS within a much broader context of why religions produce these sorts of negative outcomes. This is hard to do in a tweet or a Facebook status update, of course, or even in a blog post. As Rauser points out: the various non-religious factors leading to ISIS' rise are very complex.

One person who I think has a firm grasp of this nuance, though isn't always necessarily the best at getting it across, is the atheist Sam Harris. His post today, "Sleepwalking Toward Armageddon," is characteristic of his balance of respect for Islamic people together with disdain for the dogmatic extremism that he feels comes from religion:
Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.” 
[...] I would not want to create the impression that most Muslims support ISIS, nor would I want to give any shelter or inspiration to the hatred of Muslims as people. In drawing a connection between the doctrine of Islam and jihadist violence, I am talking about ideas and their consequences, not about 1.5 billion nominal Muslims, many of whom do not take their religion very seriously.
Then he launches into what I think is the absolutely proper point about religion that atheists should be making, if they are inclined to draw a larger point out of ISIS:
Religion produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut. It causes in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, even when members of one’s own group are behaving like psychopaths.
Generally speaking, I think it's safe to say that religion is one of the most persistently tribal elements of our modern world. Although religious teachings that encourage conflict don't help, my view (and, to some degree, apparently Harris') is that it is really the particular group affiliation, and self-identification that so often comes with it, that create the strife we want to avoid.

Indeed, Rauser himself seems to recognize that this is the problem. When returning to deal with criticism that religion can exacerbate conflict, he points out that so can patriotism. But isn't that precisely because patriotism often, like many religious teachings, exacerbate the "in-group loyalty and out-group hostility" that Harris is specifically condemning?

Look at the standard array of non-religious atrocities from the 20th century, which theists are so fond of justly rolling out to prove that religion isn't the sole source of atrocities: Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, forced eugenics, social darwinism. (They sometimes throw Hitler in there, but calling Hitler non-religious is a bit of a fudge.) Aren't all of these means of creating and enforcing tribalist structures? Throw in a healthy dose of authoritarianism, and you've got a recipe for disaster, even without adding supernatural religious beliefs and heavenly rewards to the mix.

My instinct is to side with Harris' statement a bit, though, that religion tends to exacerbate this situation. When your "in-group" includes God and the "out-group" rejects God, how could it do anything but exacerbate the situation? Certainly, I personally know of no individuals who want full-scale war in the Middle East more than a handful of fundamentalist evangelical Christian acquaintances who believe that it is both inevitable and will usher in the return of Jesus.

But then again, that might be confirmation bias, so I will hold off rather than make a hasty generalization fallacy.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

10 Most Personally Influential Books

First, let me say that I've done this before, back in 2008, so here's a link to that list (although please ignore all of the begging to join BookWise ... it was a clever book-oriented multi-level marketing system which, sadly, did not survive the digital age).

As you can see, the lists are a bit different. In some cases, I've found other books by the same authors which resonate on those themes with me more deeply, so I consider them a bit more influential. In other cases, I've realized that I was influenced in some different ways that weren't evident several years ago.

The books are organized in roughly the chronological order that I read them, to the best of my memory, along with a description of why I found them so influential.

It should also be noted that the most influential book in my own life would have to be String Theory For Dummies, but I assume it's ineligible.

  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov - The first science fiction novel that I can remember reading. I fell in love instantly. I read literally dozens of Asimov's fiction and non-fiction books throughout my teenage years.
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo - This novel taught me some of the best elements of theme, character, and drama in storytelling. The 40-page description of the Battle of Waterloo, just so that the last page could have a scene relevant to the plotline, also taught me some things to avoid. 
  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card - A book about brilliant youths, read at a very impressionable time in my life. For a generation of science fiction geeks, this was our version of Tom Sawyer.
  • Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension by Michio Kaku - While much of my early interest in science was cultivated by the non-fiction work of Isaac Asimov, this book introduced me to the concept of string theory and helped foster my interest in the full scope of theoretical physics. When my own book on string theory was published, I was interviewed by Dr. Kaku on his Science Fantastic radio program!
  • Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution by Michael Behe - This book introduced me to the modern culture wars surrounding science and religion, which has fascinated me ever since. I'd never encountered a scientifically-literate pro-Creation argument from an intelligent, articulate author before ... my only experience with creationists were of the very ignorant, often redneck, young-Earth variety. Though subsequent reading quickly showed that most of Behe's "challenge" was easily debunked, this set me on the road to giving these debates more serious attention.
  • Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer - In addition to being a great book, it introduced me to Robert J. Sawyer, who quickly became one of my favorite authors. Both his fiction itself and his teaching on fiction writing have helped me realize that science fiction is the literature of philosophy.
  • Five Lessons a Millionaire Taught Me About Life and Wealth by Richard Paul Evans - I was briefly involved in a book/publishing-oriented multi-level marketing business. It never took off the ground and folded within about a year, but this book by the founder really influenced how I thought about money and even my writing career.
  • Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart Ehrman - As a teenager, the idea of the Bible as a historical document was established when I read Asimov's Guide to the Bible, but then I got busy and didn't really give the Bible much thought for about a decade. In the wake of my interest in the science v. religion wars, this book was my re-introduction to the Bible. It was also the book I was reading when I met my wife. I recall discussing it (since about the only thing I knew about her was that she was a Christian) on our first date and she's indicated that I impressed her on that date, so it had influence far beyond anything expressly contained within its pages.
  • Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results by Bill Jensen & Josh Klein - Certainly the most pragmatic book on the list, this made me realize that the rules put in place in a business don't exist for the benefit of doing the work well, but so that management can manage the work. Since reading it, I have focused more on figuring out how to get work done well than how to follow the rules.
  • The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris - Made me realize that it was possible to be a secular person without being required to be a moral relativist. This was my post-college re-introduction to moral philosophy.

Honorable mentions

I tried above to list the books that set me on a new intellectual course or modified my existing course, and didn't list multiple books that had similar effects. For example, I actually found Bart Ehrman's God's Problem a more significant book than Misquoting Jesus, but not in a way that made me look at anything in a new fundamentally new way. The below books were also highly influential, but usually in a way that resonated with the influences of the earlier books. They helped propel me upon a course I was already on, rather than providing any modifications to the path:

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Asimov's Guide to the Bible by Isaac Asimov
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
Dragonlance: Legends Trilogy by Margaret Weiss & Tracy Hickman
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
The Tao of Pooh & The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff
Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse
A Mind At a Time by Mel Levine
The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis
The Science of God by Gerald Schroeder
The Language Police by Dianne Ravitch
The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer
Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card
Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative by Sir Ken Robinson
God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question - Why We Suffer by Bart Ehrman
Excuses Begone by Wayne Dyer
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife
The Predictioneer's Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future by Bruce Bueno de Mequita
The Evolution of Faith by Philip Gulley
Grace by Richard Paul Evans
What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
Lying by Sam Harris
Free Will by Sam Harris

Monday, August 25, 2014

Physicists Aren't the Only Ones Who Trash Philosophy

Buy at Amazon
So, I was reading some philosophy tonight. I finished David Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which - at the end of a book with no abstract reasoning of quantity or number or really any experimental reasoning - has the following as the final lines:
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
In other words, by the strictest interpretation of Hume's own conclusion, his own book should be committed to the flame. (One could argue that there is some generally experimental reasoning going on in the book, of course, but still ... it's an amusing contradiction.)

After finishing this book, I moved on to the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell's Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Model in Philosophy. It, in turn, starts with the following line:
Philosophy, from the earliest times, has made greater claims, and achieved fewer results, than any other branch of learning.
Russell's point, of course, is that he feels he can set the record straight and get philosophy back on course ... but still, the quote is just charming on its own.

There's been a flurry of criticism lately for some physicists - specifically Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and Neil deGrasse Tyson - who have made some outspoken (and unwise) comments against philosophy. While I generally disagree with their dismissal of the value of philosophy, I do find it amusing that similar criticisms come from prominent figures within philosophy as well ... and that I stumbled on two similar comments within a couple of minutes of each other.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My Pitch for an Aquaman Movie

So this may become a thing. I really enjoyed the mental exercise of pulling together my pitch for Ghostbusters III, and the buzz on the internet recently about the possibility of an Aquaman movie (see here, here, and here) has gotten my creative juices flowing. They have two different writers developing scripts, though, and it's very easy to see how an Aquaman movie could go wrong.

I have a fair amount of experience with Aquaman. For a while in my mid-twenties, I played on Zero Hour MUX, an online, text-based roleplaying game that was built around the DC Comics setting. Getting one of the major DC characters required an application. Green Arrow was taken ... so I applied for Aquaman, and got it. So, from one standpoint at least, I'm a bit of an Aquaman expert.

One major problem that DC has always had with their films is one that Marvel has gotten well beyond: DC seems to still think that "superhero" is a genre. It's not. Superheroes are heroes with powers, but there are a lot of different types of heroes, they have different types of adventures, and these result in different types of films.

This is obvious from the Marvel films. The first two Iron Man films, though a bit repetitive in tone, are basically industrial suspense films with a high dose of action. Iron Man 3 is a mix of mystery and techno-thriller. Captain America is a WWII period film. Captain America 2 is a political thriller. Thor is a trans-dimensional redemption story. Thor 2 is a fantasy quest. The upcoming Ant-Man film is a heist with superpowers.

The key thing is this: all of these movies (except perhaps Iron Man 2) would have been interesting stories in their own right, even if not tied to the franchise.

So, here is how I would handle the Aquaman set-up and major thematic elements:
Intro: The film begins with a man (Tom Curry) in a lighthouse, looking out into the ocean during a storm. He sees something and, racing down to the beach, finds a woman lying on the rocks. She is a beautiful blond woman, but is injured. A head injury. The man carries her into the lighthouse and tends to her wounds. As he tends to her wounds, the camera focuses in on a coral necklace around her neck. In the center is a piece of coral that is shaped in the symbol of an "A" ... which transitions into the "A" in the Aquaman logo to cue credits. 
After credits, two kids are revealed: a 10 year old blonde named Arthur and a slightly younger brunette boy named Orm. It is dawn and they are playing in the water. Arthur is waving a large trident-looking stick around, pretending he's fighting off some generic bad guys. Orm is waving around a smaller stick, pretending to be a wizard. 
Orm dares Arthur to jump off a high rock into the water. Arthur does it and vanishes into the waves. He's under water for a while. Orm gets terrified and jumps in after him. He hits the water, but panics as he swims around looking for Arthur. Orm sinks, rolled by a wave. Right as he's about to crash into a rock, Arthur darts out of the water and pulls him up out of the way. The boys run back toward the lighthouse, past their mother (a brunette, and not the woman from the intro sequence), who is watching television and making breakfast. 
Tom Curry, a decade older than pre-credits, is busy getting dressed. The kids are running around, creating havoc. The wife enters the bedroom in shock. "You've got to see ... Come here." He comes into the living room, looks at the television, and collapses onto a chair as he stares, dumbfounded, at the television. The kids run in and stop, sensing that something serious has happened. Pan to the television: images of the Twin Towers attack. Pan back to Orm, whose expression is one of fear and confusion, and Arthur, whose expression is more grim determination. 
The origin story focuses on the following or incorporates following elements: 
  • Arthur grows to believe that the society of the surface world is corrupt and destructive. Maybe he has this view from outside as an anti-government environmental terrorist or inside the system as a Navy SEAL or some other background or combination.
  • In mid-twenties, Arthur learns that his mother was an Atlantean queen (and gets her necklace from her father). He goes to Atlantis hoping for a utopia, fed up with the surface world.
  • Orm wants to go with Arthur, but can't (unable to breathe water). Establish the jealousy aspect, though Orm is not an enemy in this film.
  • Arthur discovers corruption within the Atlantis government. He leads a "man of the people" style rebellion against the Atlantean aristocracy - so the bulk of the film has a very Braveheart or Spartacus (or, you know, Conan the Barbarian) feel to it, complete with a dramatic rousing speech to unite the people of Atlantis together. In order to protect his new people, he must become the king, taking charge of the very system that he previously railed against. 
  • Arthur's powers in the film include: breathing underwater, superstrength, damage resistance, enhanced hearing/limited sonar, telepathically communicate with aquatic life, a vague "water sense," gains Atlantean trident before end of film.
  • Establish that he weakens longer away from water. Not fatally (like Kryptonite) but enough that if he got shot after being out of water for a while, he could easily die. While in water, he is virtually invincible (but so are other Atlanteans) to anything but Atlantean magical weaponry.
  • Atlantean magic plays heavily in the corrupted part of the government. At some point, Arthur needs surface help he can trust and enlists Orm, who is thus exposed to Atlantean magic. In fact, Arthur encourages him to learn enough that he can first magical bolts that can harm Atlanteans.
  • Possibly introduce Aqualad (but don't call him that). Other potential allies from Aquaman's team "The Others" can be introduced.
The one problem with this concept is that it has a lot of parallels with Thor, but they're almost inverse connections. The Arthur/Orm relationship is one where Arthur is elevated above Orm, even though Orm views himself as the "rightful" son, while the Thor/Loki relationship is one where Loki has always known that Thor was heir to the throne. Thor is banished from his kingdom; Arthur comes to his kingdom for the first time and must claim his throne. So, while there are some similarities, there are also some pretty significant differences.

Again, I want to remind Hollywood that I am more than willing to consult or perform a script doctoring role on this project. Just drop me a message.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

My Pitch for Ghostbusters III

Okay, I am really sick and tired of reboots. I've reached my limit, and the idea that there might be a reboot of the classic Ghostbusters is enough to push me over the edge.

For a while, there have been rumors of another sequel that introduced a new team. This, however, is different. It's a reboot. And, in fact, the rumors are of a reboot with an all-female team, which seems a bit gratuitous. Yes, I want a strong female presence in the show, but an all-female team? That's just going too far in the other direction, I think, for no good story-based reason that I can think of.

This article in Vanity Fair does make a fair point in favor of the move, though: an all-female team completely distances itself from the original group.

That having been said, though, here's a pitch for a new sequel that would distance itself from the original:

Pre-Credit Sequence: 
First, I would pretty much take the pre-credit sequence from the pitch offered via Twitter by Max Landis (screenwriter of Chronicle). This ties into the original film through Slimer and Ivo Shandor. As a reminder, Ivo Shandor is the architect who built Dana Barrett's building in the first film.
Post-credits, we would cut to the present day, at a funeral. I've actually got several ideas of how this funeral could go, depending on who is willing to return from the original film, but we'll go with this: it's Egon's funeral. There are very few attendees. (Landis also mentioned Egon passing away in his Twitter-pitch, but not a funeral.)
One of the attendees is a young twenty-something girl, Cassandra Tully. Cassandra wears glasses and is socially awkward, in part because she is the daughter of Janine and Louis Tully. (I'm hoping that either Rick Moranis or Annie Potts, or both, would be willing to return for a small role.)  Cassandra is a young lawyer and/or paralegal working with her parents, who are now lawyers, and are also executors of Egon's estate.
Arriving late at the funeral is Oscar Barrett. (Dana's baby from Ghostbusters 2. He would be in his late 20s.) He is there because he was contacted about an inheritance. If any of the original Ghostbusters (or Weaver) are there, they are also included in the will. 
Oscar's inheritance consists of a set of research books. They are sitting on Egon's desk in a box labeled "Print is dead." At this point, some exposition can be dropped explaining that the Ghostbusters broke up after stopping Vigo the Carpathian, in part because there just weren't enough ghosts to keep the business in operation.
Oscar has no idea why he would be left these books, but Cassandra explains that upon looking through them she found that one of the books is a notebook with Barrett's name in a geneology. On the page, the audience can see that Oscar's great-grandfather is named Ivo Shandor.
While gathering together the books, Oscar finds a black box with yellow stripes on it and a cord that has a button on the end. A ghost containment trap. He pushes the button ... thus releasing a ghost that Egon (for whatever reason) was keeping in his study. 
Cassandra and Oscar are now stuck in the position of having unleashed a ghost. Depending on who from the original cast is available to offer some tips, they might be able to trap it rather easily, or might need to figure out on their own how to use the equipment, possibly involving some research and recruiting help to get the equipment to work.
Overall Plot
In trying to figure out how the technology works, Cassandra and Oscar recruit an engineer to try to help. The science behind the equipment is a bit beyond the engineer, so they enlist the help of the engineer's theoretical physicist roommate. (At least one of these two should be female. Note that since we already have Cassandra as the research geek, neither of these characters should fit an "egghead" cliche. I once heard Eliza Dushku mentioned in reference to this project. She's too old to play Cassandra, and doesn't really fit the concept, but would be excellent in one of these roles.)
The books that Oscar inherit contain information about how Shandor completed a ritual that turned him - and his descendants - into particularly good demonic vessels. This was done with the purpose of resurrecting Gozer, but Vigo the Carpathian tried to make use of it as well. The Ghostbusters were able to stop them both times. 
Before dying, Shandor wrote a prophecy about Gozer's return. Gozer would come to this realm, but be pushed back. At that point, all "lesser spirits" would be contained within a structure that Shandor built. (Not all spirits, obviously - thus Ghostbusters 2 - but enough to explain why Ghostbusting ceased being a profitable business model after 1984.) After an appropriate amount of spiritual energy was contained within this structure, Gozer would return again. Egon's notebooks contain calculations indicating that this critical threshold should be reached soon.
The group, therefore, is not focused on building a ghostbusting business, but rather on getting just enough ghostbusting equipment and skill to prevent Gozer from returning and taking possession of Oscar. It's not their job (yet), though the film ends with them having averted Gozer's return, but destroyed Shandor's "structure" and made it so that the "lesser spirits" are freed. Thus, there is now a need for Ghostbusters ... and, after all, who ya gonna call?
Again, the key here is that this team is completely different from the original one, and thus won't be directly compared to them. My pitch doesn't even require New York City as a setting, which was pretty key in both of the original films. The group likely wouldn't even end up in their jumpsuits until about the end of the movie. There could obviously be more connections to the original film, if desired. The Ecto-1 could be cooling it in someone's garage, or they could have a new ride. The Ghostbusters business *could* even still be in operation, with the headquarters at the firehouse, and the bulk of the plot could remain intact.

Each person fulfills a distinctive necessary role, but those roles are different from in the original film:
  • Cassandra - Research expert and has probably already knew about Ghostbusters from parents
  • Oscar - Clueless, demon vessel
  • Engineer - Understands the technology
  • Theoretical Physicist - Figuring out the science, particularly the trans-dimensional aspects. At some point utters the line, "Back off man. I'm a scientist."
Thus the issues from the Vanity Fair article are dealt with, a completely revitalized franchise is established, but without the need for a reboot. (Seriously, Hollywood, feel free to use this. All I ask for is an invitation to the premiere! Although I'm willing to be a consultant!)

Thursday, July 03, 2014

5 More Patriotic Videos for Independence Day

A couple of years ago, I posted a list of 5 patriotic shows for Independence Day. Here's another 5 to add onto that list:

Johnny Tremain (Amazon)

This film is based on a classic children's novel, about a young boy who gets swept up in the American revolution. One thing I really enjoyed about this film as a boy was that it did an excellent job of depicting the day-to-day life of the colonies. I'm sure that artistic license is (as always) used, but it was the first time that I realized that businesses didn't open on Sunday (the sabbath) and just generally how different the world was back then in a variety of different ways, both large and small.

John Adams (Amazon)

This HBO mini-series provides a detailed look at one of the central figures in the American revolution and the second President of the United States. Starring Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail Adams. It's based on the comprehensive biography by David McCullough. Adams defended the British soldiers who were accused of the Boston Massacre, but later - guided by the same principles of justice - became one of the strongest voices in support of American independence. As an HBO series, it's a bit grittier than a lot of other depictions of the revolutionary period, but given how romanticized this period can be in many accounts, it's good to balance it with a dose of grit.

Captain America: The First Avenger (Amazon)

No list of patriotic movies would be complete without including Captain America. Though not set during the period of the revolution, the film drips with the most admirable patriotic qualities. The training scenes, where it becomes clear why the 90-pound-weakling named Steve Rogers is selected to become Captain America, really speak as to the importance of character.

The Crossing (Amazon)

This is a great film starring Jeff Daniels as George Washington and recounting his famous crossing of the Delaware River. What the film does an excellent job of making clear is how absolutely hopeless the situation was and how defeat was essentially guaranteed at nearly every moment along the way, but Washington continued to persevere. It contains excellent lessons in leadership.

Ben and Me (Amazon)

Based on an engaging children's book, this cartoon depicts the friendship between Benjamin Franklin and a young mouse. I learned about most of Dr. Franklin's accomplishments first through this fun story, and have subsequently found him to be one of my favorite historical figures.

In addition, here are some classic patriotic moments from the interwebs and popular culture:

And, of course, the links from the previous post:

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

My Entry in Sam Harris' Moral Landscape Challenge

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Several months ago, I submitted a piece to an essay competition put forth by neuroscientist, author, and atheist moral philosopher Sam Harris. Motivated by the anniversary of his publication of The Moral Landscape, Harris called out a challenge to readers to refute his argument. The winner would receive $200 and, if successful in convincing Harris he was wrong, would receive $2,000!

I did not win. Today, Harris has published the winning essay, by Ryan Born, and it's quite good. Far better than mine! And written by a professional philosopher, which does make me feel better about losing. I quite like Born's blog, Point of Controversy, so am happy to have discovered his work.

Here is the challenge itself, and also some responses to Harris' critics, which are informative.

My own essay is embedded later in this blog post. But first, some thoughts on the enterprise ...

Background on The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape is quite possibly one of the most significant books that I've ever read, at least as far as my personal belief system. Prior to reading it, I would have classified myself as a moral relativist. Having abandoned the idea of an absolute law-giver, passing down moral certitudes from on-high, this seemed to leave me with little other philosophical option than a post-modern dismissal of all moral systems as inherently relative.

This is not, of course, to say that I was immoral while I held this view. As with most people, I didn't need a firm philosophical grounding to run my day-to-day life. In fact, with the exception of a few faltering instances, I have always held a viewpoint that being good to others, treating them with respect and dignity, and similar actions were generally the best way to be. In short, I didn't actively reject many of the more widely-held moral truths coming from "absolute" moral systems, but I did reject the basis for those moral truths. I felt better in a world where these moral truths were the ones accepted, so I supported them as the relative moral truths to be adopted - both personally and by society at large. After all, with no definitive moral truths in place, moral relativism allows you to be selective in this way. Both its benefit and its curse.

Then I read The Moral Landscape and realized that I was not, in fact, a moral relativist! Harris describes his basic claim as follows:
Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.
This was very much in line with some of my own thinking, dating back to 2004, when I began considering whether it was reasonable to discuss "evil" with reference to objective facts about the world, rather than in reference to some set of rules passed down from a deity. (I discuss this in a previous post ... though I don't think I ever got around to the promised follow-up which fleshed out my thinking on the idea.)

Refuting The Moral Landscape

As anyone who knows me can tell you, though, I am good at picking out flaws in things, and I think that particularly applies to lines of reasoning. Since I see flaws in pretty much any line of reasoning, this isn't usually a dealbreaker, so long as the flaws are dealt with honestly. Anytime I find something I like, it's with a few side helpings of salt to deal with the parts I find problematic.

The first and most glaring flaw in The Moral Landscape is that it was immediately apparent to me that the sub-title, "How Science Can Determine Human Values," promised too much. Nothing in Harris' book actually tells you that science can, in and of itself, give you the basis of moral truths. That is to say: The decision "I want to be moral, and that means enhancing well-being" is itself outside of science.

Now, once you've made that decision, I agree with Harris that pretty much everything else that follows can be evaluated and improved, if not outright dictated, through a scientific form of investigation. His sub-title would have been more honest if it had been "How Science Can Determine Actions Properly in Accord with Human Values" ... but this is a far weaker claim and it's even weaker than Harris himself claims to make. Within the book, he says (with emphasis from the original text):
First, I want to be very clear about my general thesis: I am not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of "morality." Nor am I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. These would be quite banal claims to make--unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution, the mind's dependency on the brain, or the general utility of science. Rather I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want--and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.
The emphasis on "should" here can be taken one of two ways. If by "should" it means "if you want to be moral, then you should do this" then I think Harris well supports his claim. If by "should" it means "science can tell you that being moral is what you should do" then I do think Harris has set his goal a bit too high. These two meanings of "should" are at the heart of the "ought from is" arguments, I think, which often come into these conversations. (In his response to critics, Harris identifies this as "The Value Problem," and it is this aspect which the winning essay focuses upon.)

His comparisons to health and nutrition seem to offer help here. Strictly speaking, science doesn't tell us that we want to be healthy and well-fed. We want to be healthy and well-fed for non-scientific reasons, and then science tells us how we should behave to reach that goal. The negative aspect of these comparisons is equally compelling, though, as I see no reason to believe that a science of morality wouldn't be just as prone to senseless fads as health and nutrition have been!

Though that was the most glaring issue, it was also one that I largely considered irrelevant. For my essay, I used a different line of attack. I attempted to construct a scenario in which every seemingly objective of increasing well-being was met ... but the situation clearly violated a deeply-held moral sentiment, which is present across a wide range of moral belief systems (including, one presumes, Harris' own).

In other words, I tried to create a counter-example. Using Harris' own reasoning, I described a situation where a clear violation of morality would drive society toward an objective peak on the moral landscape. This isn't foolproof ... it can easily be refuted by just saying, "Well, then, that's not actually a violation of morality, is it?" But committing to that means abandoning the notion of personal autonomy as an inherent moral virtue, and I was gambling that would be too high a price for Harris to pay when confronted with it. So I thought it was a pretty good argument.

Here is the essay itself. Please feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments.

The core argument of The Moral Landscape is that morality and values rest upon well-being and suffering within this world, as a consequence of natural phenomena. While I largely agree with this definition, I feel that it is not fully sufficient to define moral values in this way. In other words, I argue that there are valid moral values which do extend beyond the strict facts of the situation in regard to suffering and well-being, and though they can (and should) be informed by the facts, they cannot be fully resolved by reference to those facts.

Consider this situation involving two men, Daniel and Richard1, with the following features:

  • Daniel’s kidneys are failing and he is about to die.
  • Richard has two functioning kidneys.
  • Richard is the only compatible donor for Daniel who can donate in time to save his life.
  • They are the same age and roughly similar in a variety of ways (i.e. there’s no way to deem that one is more “useful” than another)
  • Richard is healthy and the doctor indicates that donating his kidney will not diminish his well-being in any way.
  • Richard is undergoing surgery anyway, in such a way that donation of the kidney will not add any suffering or duration to his recovery, nor make his prognosis worse.
On the basis of your definition of morality (and indeed by most definitions of morality), the most moral outcome is for Richard to donate a kidney to Daniel, thus saving his life. The situation is entirely positive-sum in regard to well-being. 

Richard, however, decides not to donate the kidney, and has no moral reasoning to support this decision. He just doesn’t want to donate the kidney. By doing this, he is increasing suffering of a conscious creature in a very real, observable way. Daniel will die because of his choice. 

However, I believe that many moral systems would claim that we are morally obligated to respect Richard’s decision, despite the increase in suffering that results and our ability to potentially classify Richard’s decision as immoral. If a doctor decides to go ahead and remove the kidney during Richard’s surgery, despite his lack of consent, it would be viewed as a morally incorrect act, despite the fact that it saved Daniel’s life. 

But why? It seems to me that the moral hazard here comes from dismissing moral values of bodily ownership and consent, challenging the use of well-being/suffering as the one and only standard of morality. These would seem to be moral values that supersede the objective well-being of conscious creatures (or, at the very least, also comes into play in a scenario such as this). 

There are some similarities between this and the trolley problem. In The Moral Landscape, you mention how fMRI scans indicate emotional centers triggered in the second scenario, when the fat man is thrown in front of the trolley. The most common interpretation of these results has to do with the confrontational nature of the act, but that confrontation doesn’t take place here. The doctor is not attacking Richard, but is already performing surgery on him. The strictly positive-sum nature of the scenario I’ve outlined seems to make the morality of stealing the kidney unambiguous, from the standpoint of our thesis. 

Lest we be concerned about the possibility of an out-of-control Orwellian state (a valid consequentialist objection), let’s be clear that the doctor and everyone involved are extremely moral people, and they respect individual rights. They all swear (and brain scans indicate they’re telling the truth) that they would only ever use this method in an situation where the most advanced moral scientific investigations tell them that well-being will be objectively advanced (and/or suffering diminished). There will be careful oversight to insure that this process is never applied in any other context. 

Even with the above consideration, I would hold that there is something morally objectionable about the violation of Richard’s bodily rights, which suggests a value beyond well-being at play here. Not just a value that is difficult in practice to tie back into well-being, but rather a value that is fundamentally different in principle from that which is derived strictly from a well-being assessment. 

Now, one could argue that we hold the values of consent and bodily ownership themselves on the basis of broadly-defined principles of well-being (and I would tend to agree with this), but if well-being is in fact the basis upon which the values gain their moral credibility, we acknowledge that instances where a life is in danger, it’s okay to violate personal autonomy. For example, we are usually morally justified to restrain a person who is a danger to others. We would seem to be similarly morally justified to side with the doctor and steal Richard’s kidney, using it to save Daniel’s life.

And if the violation of consent and bodily ownership is justified in this situation, then it would seem to be justified in all other situations where well-being could be enhanced by violating another’s rights - especially in a positive-sum way, where no suffering is created at all. We of course would want to be very careful about applying this to guarantee that there is not inadvertent suffering, but in principle (if not in practice) this sort of scenario would seem a perfectly valid peak within the moral landscape … and, in fact, to the degree that moral science is successful, it would even seem to drive society up the moral landscape.

1 These names were chosen in reference to two other prominent atheist authors, Richard Dawkins & Daniel Dennett, who along with Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, comprise the "4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse," or the center of the "New Atheist" movement.