Monday, August 25, 2014

Physicists Aren't the Only Ones Who Trash Philosophy

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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.
Introduction 
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.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Some Words on Net Neutrality

I've been told that this quote isn't authentic,
but I like it anyway.
There is another movement afoot to end "net neutrality." What this means is that internet service providers (ISPs) would be able to charge money not only to the person who is getting the internet access, but also to the people who are providing the content.

The argument for this seems, on the surface, perfectly reasonable. Amazon or Netflix want to stream videos, and so they should pay more money to do this. I believe that sometimes this argument may even be built in terms of a service to the customers: if Amazon and Netflix are paying the ISPs for their streaming service, then the ISPs can reduce the amounts charged to the individual customers a bit.

These arguments seem reasonable on the surface, but what they really amount to is a smokescreen to get the ISP more money out of the same transaction. Small, start-up internet companies, or individual content creators, would not have the money to afford decent access to their potential customers, clients,and audiences. It would end the free access that defines the internet, turning each ISP into a gateway that has to be bought into in order to access a base of customers. For a more detailed discussion of the logistics of this and how it can be damaging to our ability to access content, I suggest this wonderful post over at i09.

Debates over this sort of charge by the ISPs has come up in legislation before, but this time it's the FCC that is directly trying to implement policy of this type. Still, I went ahead and wrote to my Congresswoman and Senators on this issue, in case there was any action they could take on this issue. Here was the bulk of my sentiment:
I am an Indiana resident and I work remotely from home. The prospect of my ISP prioritizing certain forms of content over other forms of content has a direct impact upon my ability to complete my work effectively. In addition to working in the publishing industry and spending my day communicating and delivering files online, which requires effective, unfettered internet bandwidth, I also work as a freelance writer and am the Physics Expert for the About.com website. Rules that prioritize certain forms of content over others would place this work in jeopardy. The sites I write for would see sudden decreases in traffic, unless they are able to pay the ISPs ... in which case, presumably, they will have to lower their pay rates accordingly. Neither is an attractive proposition. 
I pay substantial amounts of money for my internet service, both at home and through my cellular plan, for high quality internet service. The idea that the government would allow these businesses to extort money from the other end of this transaction and limit my ability to access the content on the internet is unthinkable to me. 
If there is any action that can be taken to oppose this policy by the FCC, I urge you to take it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why Plantinga Needs a Math Lesson on Materialism

In a recent The New York Times interview, philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga goes through an involved discussion about how evolution doesn't guarantee that our beliefs are true. This is absolutely a valid concern ... and, in fact, I know of no atheist who doesn't recognize the fallibility of our inherent beliefs and thought processes. In fact, some of the strongest arguments in favor of a rejection of theism is based on the psychological account of why people embrace theism. This YouTube series on the Psychology of Belief lays it out quite well.



So, we'll grant that we are not granted inherently true knowledge by evolution. His argument is that if you believe in both materialism (that is the viewpoint that there exists nothing that doesn't have a physical basis) and evolution, then you have to admit that you have no good reason for believing that any belief you hold is true. There's an extremely extensive dissection of the various flaws over on the Rationally Speaking blog, from Massimo Pigliucci, who has a deeper background in biology and philosophy both than I and quickly dissects the key conceptual problem with the argument.

But I'd like to take a different tactic, to really try to give Plantinga's argument enough rope to hang itself, because I just don't think it holds up on any level on its own merits. The problem is not that Plantinga misunderstands evolution, but rather that he appears to misunderstand how human beings (and materialists in particular) actually think!

Plantinga's Death Knell to Materialism

Let's consider his argument on its own merit, at least to the best of my ability. In his own words:
Evolution will select for belief-producing processes that produce beliefs with adaptive neurophysiological properties, but not for belief-producing processes that produce true beliefs. Given materialism and evolution, any particular belief is as likely to be false as true.

...

Here’s why. If a belief is as likely to be false as to be true, we’d have to say the probability that any particular belief is true is about 50 percent. Now suppose we had a total of 100 independent beliefs (of course, we have many more). Remember that the probability that all of a group of beliefs are true is the multiplication of all their individual probabilities. Even if we set a fairly low bar for reliability — say, that at least two-thirds (67 percent) of our beliefs are true — our overall reliability, given materialism and evolution, is exceedingly low: something like .0004. So if you accept both materialism and evolution, you have good reason to believe that your belief-producing faculties are not reliable.

But to believe that is to fall into a total skepticism, which leaves you with no reason to accept any of your beliefs (including your beliefs in materialism and evolution!). The only sensible course is to give up the claim leading to this conclusion: that both materialism and evolution are true. Maybe you can hold one or the other, but not both.

So if you’re an atheist simply because you accept materialism, maintaining your atheism means you have to give up your belief that evolution is true. Another way to put it: The belief that both materialism and evolution are true is self-refuting. It shoots itself in the foot. Therefore it can’t rationally be held.
The starting point is the valid recognition that evolution results in useful, adaptive traits rather than factually true beliefs. No argument there.

His next step is interesting. He is quite generous in assuming that perhaps 67% of our beliefs are, in fact, true, based on processes that were not optimized for truth-seeking. Using this, he then says if we have 100 beliefs (and we have many more), then we arrive at a very low overall probability of 0.004. The calculation is actually much worse than Plantinga suggests:
0.67100 = 0.0000000000000000405%
That's 16 zeroes between the decimal point and the 4.

Now, what does this number actually mean?
It means that if a single individual has 100 beliefs, then the probability (based upon these parameters) is virtually certain that not all of these beliefs will be true.
(It should be noted that the probability that all of these beliefs are false is much worse ... you then end up with 47 zeroes instead of 16. Plantinga, of course, is not arguing that all beliefs are untrue, even assuming materialism and evolution, so let's get back to his argument.)

But for any individual belief, of course, the probability is much higher: 67% according to Plantinga's estimation.

Random Belief Analysis

So let's make an even less generous estimation. Let's assume that we have an exactly 50/50 split between a given belief being true or untrue.

First, let's note that, regardless of your worldview, it's kind of unlikely and troubling to evolution, human reason, or the very concept of truth to assume that there is an absolute lack of correlation between adaptive beliefs and truth. Even a religious fundamentalist would, I think, admit that believing a true thing is going to, on average, be more adaptive than believing a false thing. So this is by far an assumption that gives Plantinga's argument the widest berth that it possibly can to prove its validity.

Second, let's then consider how one can actually approach this problem of having false beliefs. Let's make some initial assumptions that we can start from:

Round One Assumptions:
  • 50% of beliefs are true
  • 50% of beliefs are false
  • Random designation (no systemic biases in favor of or against truth)
A good first-order approach in this case is to check with other people. So we ask someone else, "Do you have this belief?" If they share this belief, there's now a 50% chance that you both have a true belief and a 50% chance that you have a false belief. And, in fact, you'll find in this situation that no amount of checking with other people will ever move the needle from a 50% probability.

Out of curiosity, what happens with Plantinga's model if we begin checking our beliefs with other people. There's a 33% chance that any given person is wrong, so if you check with 5 people, the probability that all 5 would find the same random belief to be wrong would reach the following:
Using Plantinga's model, there is a 0.391% chance that 5 people would hold the same false belief.
So, on this basis, we do see that some sort of internal cognitive bias would quickly multiply in a community to a growing factual consensus, based purely on the sort of crude mathematical argument that Plantinga offers.

But consensus by itself is not really how we check our beliefs, even at the most basic level. We check them against reality. Let's assume though that, since we're so bad at thinking in this scenario, that we are horrible at these checks. There is only a 1% chance that testing any given belief will accurately show a false belief to be false. (Ignoring any possible positive results for now, to make the math easier and also because it's easier to disprove something than to prove it.)

Again, I should note that there is also every reason to believe that this level of instinct is biologically ingrained in us through the process of evolution ... and, honestly, that it's ingrained in most animals on some level. An animal that cannot trust any "beliefs" about the world world with more than random correlation with reality would find themselves falling prey to all manner of natural selection effects. So this most basic level of analysis doesn't take much in the way of assumption beyond what we've already assumed to think that it would be implemented as a way of finding truth and falsehood.

So we implement this method. What happens then?

What we discover is that, if you check a given belief against reality a mere 10 times, and this process shows it to be false every time, then even this admittedly horrible method of distinguishing truth from falsehood results in the following:
Probability a False Belief will Survive Round One: 0.5 * (0.99)10 = 45%
And, of course, if you begin checking with other people who are also checking these beliefs in the same way, you reach the following:
Probability a False Belief will Survive Round One in a Community of 5 Checking Against Reality: 0.455 = 1.8%
So in a community of 5 people, all of whom check a false belief against reality with a 1% accuracy, there is a 1.8% chance that the false belief would pass all of these checks and look equivalent to a true belief.

Congratulations. The neurologically challenged human race has developed some method of distinguishing true beliefs from false ones. On to round two...

Round Two Assumptions:
  • 95% of beliefs are randomly assigned 50/50 between true/false
  • 5% of beliefs are biased as follow:
    • 10% are true things that we don't believe (false negatives)
    • 30% are false things we do believe (false positives)
    • 60% are true beliefs
We now move on to considering what happens if we give some credit to evolution to create even marginally reliable belief-forming pathways. Our first round analysis gives us a starting point and, again, I'll give the benefit of the doubt that we're a bit more flawed in our neuropsychology than we really have any excuse for being.

Let's again go with just checking with other people and see what we get:
Probability of Given Belief Being True: 0.95 * 0.5 + 0.05 * 0.6 = 50.5% 
Probability of 5 People Randomly Believing the Same False Thing: 0.4955 = 3%
We see that even in this rudimentary situation, there is a strong reason to go with the community consensus from a truth-generating point of view. The randomness and biases tend to get weeded out, even at this level.

Now that we have some cognitive neurology that actually works, we can assume that we're able to develop a plan for testing against reality that does a bit better than 1% at disproving a false belief. Let's assume that it is 10% effective at showing a false belief to be false. What do we then get when we conduct another 10 tests using our improved methodology?
Probability a False Belief will Survive Round Two: 0.495 * (0.90)10 = 17%
Probability a False Belief will Survive Round Two in a Community of 5 Checking Against Reality: 0.175 = 0.014%
Ideally, we will respond rationally to the above evidence and stop believing these false beliefs. We are able to eliminate 83% of our initial false beliefs! We don't have to replace them with true beliefs, either, if we're okay with uncertainty. (Replacing them with true beliefs would favor the anti-Platinga argument, so this is again giving him the benefit of the doubt.) The result is the following:
Probability of a Given Belief Being True after Round Two (individual testing): 85.7% 
Probability of a Given Belief Being True after Round Two (group testing): 99.98%
I really don't need to go much further, I don't think, to show that the process of checking a belief against physical reality - the very belief that atheists actually demand as a methodological step for knowing anything! - does work at generating true beliefs, even granting it virtually every concession that we can realistically grant.

Conclusion

Plantinga's criticism of materialism/evolution just does not hold up. Recall that he gave an example of 100 beliefs and the probability it would take for them all to be true. Let's compare this to the results from Round Two's extremely crude falsification methods:
Probability 100 random beliefs True using Plantinga's assumptions (individual):
0.0000000000000000405% 
Probability 100 random beliefs True using Plantinga's assumptions (group):
99.8% 
Probability 100 random beliefs True using Round Two falsifiability rules (individual):
0.0000198647083%
Probability 100 random beliefs True using Round Two falsifiability rules (group):
98%
The "group" numbers represent what we get if we eliminate everything that 5 people agree are false, both in Plantinga's evidence-free assumptions and my own evidence-based ones from Round Two.
First of all, we see that testing against the evidence greatly increases the truth percentage of beliefs for an individual, way beyond what Plantinga would give credit for with his original assumptions.

Second, we see that both our overall level of truth greatly increases - in fact become nearly identical for both sets of assumptions - if we work in a group and just begin throwing out anything that we all agree are false beliefs. And this does, in general, match with empirical evidence, because even the most ardent atheist and most devout theist share far more beliefs than they disagree on (though neither might be willing to admit it). (I'll confess, the high value for the Plantinga's group number surprised me. I thought the reliance on evidence would play a more important role in the methodology. However, I did make every assumption overwhelmingly in Plantinga's favor, so I shouldn't be too surprised.)

Third, let me be clear: I think Plantinga is completely flawed in his approach and thinking about how beliefs are formed ... but my point is that even if he were absolutely correct, his argument would not hold up on its own merits. I am not presenting this trying to persuade anyone into materialism because nothing above actually supports materialism in and of itself, it merely supports our ability to gain true beliefs given false beliefs.

Therefore, there is every reason for a materialist evolutionist to, in fact, believe that they have a capacity to trust their beliefs, so long as they rely on evidence and are not trying to acquire knowledge and understanding entirely on their own.

There are extremely real negative neurophysical pathways built into the brain - for entirely adaptive reasons - which can kick in, of course, meaning that a group begins being pathological in its thinking, driving away from true beliefs and toward false ones. See the video posted above. This is precisely the reason to cultivate skepticism, as it helps to short-circuit these cognitive biases.

In conclusion, the materialist is well insulated from concern about Plantinga's criticisms of his rationality and his belief in the evidence for evolution can continue unabated ... at least until some kind of actual evidence to the contrary shows up.