Link blog: trolley-problem, the-good-place, television, philosophy

Talking to a Philosopher About ‘The Good Place’ – The Ringer
Contains spoilers for The Good Place: watch it first (it’s very good).
(tags: television philosophy the-good-place ethics trolley-problem)

Link blog: philosophy, eliezer-yudkowsky, evolution, security

Simulating Religion: A Christian takes stock of Silicon Valley’s rationalist community by Alexi Sargeant
A Christian takes stock of Silicon Valley’s rationalist community
(tags: lesswrong rationalism eliezer-yudkowsky Christianity philosophy transhumanism)
How evolutionary biology makes everyone an existentialist | Aeon Essays
“Each variant of human desire is ‘natural’, not in the sense of being required, but only of being made possible by nature. And it is in what nature makes possible, not in what it necessitates, that we should look for the answer to the question about what we should be or do.”
(tags: philosophy ethics existentialism evolution biology)
Notes from the Intelpocalypse [LWN.net]
A good, reasonably technical, summary of the Spectre and Meltdown attacks.
(tags: cpu hardware spectre meltdown security intel)

Under His eye or The Harrowing of Farron

On Facebook, I ran across a couple of Christian responses to the recent resignation of Tim “Nice-but-Evangelical” Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

A worrying sign

A post by John Stevens, Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, argues that Farron’s resignation is a worrying sign: Farron’s actions as a friend to LGBT people were not sufficient, people were worried about “what Tim thinks” and wouldn’t leave him alone about it.

As Nick Spencer writes, there are two sorts of liberalism. Farron was an example of liberalism as a way of living (or modus vivendi, as we say in the New Statesman) in a pluralist society, but fell victim to people who saw liberalism as a system which itself provides the right answers to moral questions. But taking liberalism as such as system, as Stevens says, opens its followers to the same sorts of criticism that Farron got: can a follower of a system fairly represent the interests of those who disagree with it?

(Unfortunately, Stevens does get dangerously close to using the phrase “virtue signalling”, which should worry him, for is it not written whosoever shall say to his brother, “thou art virtue signalling”, shall be in danger of being a huge arsehole, and that goes double for “snowflake”.?)

The burning of Latimer and Ridley at OxfordStevens has an interesting argument for liberalism as a way of living: if idolatry is the greatest sin, yet Christians do not want religion imposed by the government as this has historically not ended well (pic related), how much more so (or a fortiori, as we probably say in the New Statesman) ought Christians to allow freedom in law for people to commit lesser sins?

Public reason

With his mention of a “substantive, even comprehensive” liberalism, Nick Spencer in the New Stateman is gesturing at Rawl’s ideas of public reason. From what I read of this, a liberalism which is what Rawls calls a comprehensive doctrine can’t legitimately be the sole basis for arguments in favour of a fundamental right (such as gay marriage), any more than the religious comprehensive system can be the sole basis for an argument against. As Mariel Johns’s summary puts it,

It is important to remember that secular comprehensive doctrines are not allowed – the same way that philosophical and religious comprehensive doctrines are not allowed. These fall outside the domain of the political. This can be seen if we consider what each type of doctrine might ask with regard to making homosexual relations among citizens a criminal offense. A secular doctrine might ask, “Is it precluded by a worthy idea of the full human good?” A religious doctrine might ask, “Is it a sin?” A political conception would ask, “Will legislative statues forbidding those relations infringe on the civil rights of free and equal democratic citizens?”

I’m not an expert in political philosophy, but this seems to get something important right, namely that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. “What Tim thinks” can only be of political concern if we’re reasoning from a comprehensive doctrine which says our thoughts can be wrong in and of themselves (such as Christianity, or liberalism of the second sort), or if we can show that what he thinks is somehow relevant in reasoning which is not unique to any such doctrine. Only the latter is legitimate, if I’m reading Rawls right.

So, what should Farron have said? Perhaps “What I think is What The Bible Says1, but look at my voting record and see that I don’t seek to impose my views on others, because (insert Stevens’s a fortiori argument here)”. Note that Rawls doesn’t think people cannot bring forward religious reasons (in fact, he thinks they should, in a “cards on the table” sort of way), only that they should then be backed by public reasons (such as “enforcing religion infringes on the civil rights of citizens”, presumably).

This is easy to say in hindsight, of course.

Shearer

G J Shearer writes that “Arguing that Christians shouldn’t ‘impose’ their views on society is simply a tacit way of saying that someone else should.” But this ignores the distinction between liberalism of the first, Rawlsian, sort, and liberalism of the second, comprehensive, sort. Perhaps Shearer thinks that such a distinction can’t be maintained, and everything must collapse into a fight between competing comprehensive doctrines. But why think that? It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy: if nobody makes the effort to maintain it, it certainly won’t be maintained. Farron’s pursuers harmed our political life by making it harder to maintain it.

Shearer argues that secular liberalism is illogical:

What, in effect, is the logic of secular liberalism? We live in a world heading towards extinction, our consciousness created by blind physical laws and driven by a ruthless will to reproduce and survive, therefore… What? Love each other? Look after the poor, the lame, the vulnerable? A moment’s consideration shows that these conclusions do not flow from the premise.

Hume lives! But his guillotine is a multi-purpose tool (it slices! it dices! it cuts both ways!). Suppose the facts are these: we live in a world ruled by an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent creator, therefore… what? What conclusions about morality follow from these premises? You need to add some other premise (like “we ought to do what God wants/commands of us”), and if you need that, why fault secular philosophers for needing to add theirs (like “we ought to do that which leads to human flourishing” or “the greatest good of the greatest number” or whatever)? All moral systems, including theistic ones, are “illogical” by these lights.

He also wonders whether atheist politicians could explain how “their belief that human life is merely ‘an accidental collocation of atoms’, to use Bertrand Russell’s phrase, fits with the various moral imperatives that drive their politics”. Probably not, because politicians, unlike Hume, are generally crap at philosophy. But, as we’ve just seen, Shearer hasn’t explained why his premises about God lead to his moral conclusions, either.

Offred from a Handmaid's Tale, with the caption "But her emails"Shearer ends with a call to Christians to get more involved getting Christian values into law: “it is time that Christians began to unapologetically argue that society is best served by Christian, rather than secular, values shaping the public sphere.” This doesn’t seem likely to end any better than it did historically (pic related).


  1. This is an evangelical term of art, so should be taken with the usual caveat 

Link blog: funny, evidence, philosophy, unbelievable

Peter Boghossian vs Tim McGrew – YouTube
Here’s an “Unbelievable” show in which Boghossian (“A Manual For Creating Atheists”) talks to Tim McGrew, who’s reasonably well known for his arguments in favour of belief in miracles. I’ve linked to a set of comments from “MrShamuto” where he undertakes more or less the process Boghossian describes in the books, of Socratic dialogue with “AdeToz”, a Christian. It is long and occasionally interrupted by other people who are bonkers, but it’s interesting to see Boghossian’s stuff in action.
(tags: street-epistemology epistemology peter-boghossian tim-mcgrew philosophy evidence unbelievable premier christian radio socratic)
W00tstock 5.0 – George RR Martin vs. Paul and Storm – YouTube
The singers of “Write like the Wind, George RR Martin” get a surprise.
(tags: game-of-thrones grrm george-rr-martin funny video wootstock)
List of testimonies from people who just know their religion is true
amymea, writing in the ex-Mormon Reddit, takes to task someone who argues that the “testimony of the spirit” is good evidence that Mormonism is true, by listing a bunch of other people who had strong feelings upon reading their own religious texts.
(tags: mormonism reddit feelings faith religion evidence)
Advanced Trolley Problems
Funny.
(tags: philosophy funny comic ethics trolley-problem)
What I’ve Learned About Female Desire From Reading
Mallory Ortberg is fun. “100% of women want to have sex with a man who embodies the fox version of Robin Hood from the cartoon Robin Hood, but most do not actually want to have sex with a fox or a man dressed as one.”
(tags: mallory-ortberg funny reading sex desire books)

What is the problem you are trying to solve?

The Scotts Aaronsen and Alexander both worry that following feminist doctrine makes geeky guys miserable and too scared to even attempt to form a romantic relationship with a woman. Hugh Ristik looks at feminist guilt, along similar lines to Catholic guilt. Laurie Penny responds compassionately to Aaronsen.

I still think of myself as in the Scotts’ tribe because of my awkward formative years, which my brain tends to give undue weight when compared to pieces of evidence like “you haven’t been single for more than, say, 6 months since you were, say, 22” (hint: learn to dance). So, I hope they won’t mind a little criticism.

Firstly, I wonder why arch-empiricists like the Scotts swallowed whole everything they were being told by the feminists. Why don’t the Scotts quickly work out that either they’re not being told what they think they’re being told (e.g. I bet if you asked the people conducting the harassment seminar, they wouldn’t have said Aaronsen was meant to take home the lesson that he did) or the people telling them this stuff are wrong about some things (e.g. if the people conducting the harassment seminar genuinely meant to say that men should never approach women under any circumstances just in case it’s harassment, they can safely be ignored without feeling bad about it)?

We get our beliefs wholesale

Possibly, if you’re starting from zero and desperately looking around for some rules on how to relate to women romantically, you might just latch on to the first subculture that claims to have expertise. It could have been much worse: Aaronsen could have run into the pick-up artists before the problematic patriarchal privilege posse, then he’d be going on about alphas and betas instead of privilege and de-railing, all the while wondering why having sex with people he despises for being stupid enough to fall for his con doesn’t seem to make him happy1. So, lucky escape there.

The Scotts might respond to me that I swallowed evangelical Christianity whole at the same age and that also messed up my relations with women a bit, so I’m in no position to criticise. That seems fair enough. What on Earth was I thinking? Both American Social Justice Internet Feminism (using my previous definition) and evangelicalism have the ability to form a rules-based system2. The temptation to swallow whole an ideology which has got some things right (especially things that everyone else seems to be ignoring) is common to all of us3, but geeks feel even more of a pull towards systems and clear “right answers” (previously, previouslier). Without wanting to say that evangelicalism and ASJIF aren’t problematically deontological, maybe some of the geeks’ troubles with them are down to these geeky tendencies.

Requirements analysis

Geeks: suppose you are writing (or, more often, updating) some software, as many of you do. The customer (or, more often, the person employed to prevent customers from seeing geeks that might alarm them) comes along and says “we want it to do X”. You’re like “but X will take ten years, will break Y, and the standard clearly says we must do Z not X”. But they’re like “No, X is super important and Customer won’t buy it unless it does X”. What’s the question you should ask now?

“What is the problem you are trying to solve?”

You should ask this because often in these situations you’re being given a solution to an underlying problem (the solution X) and you have to dig a bit to work out what the underlying problem is. The customer is an expert on the problem. You don’t get to say that their problem isn’t real (if you want to keep your job, anyway), but if they’re asking you to do something you’re going to have to live with for a while, you can and should look at that and see whether it makes sense in your context. This will usually involve talking to some people, tricky as that may be. Perhaps you can find a sympathetic geek on the customer’s side of the fence to thrash things out with. That usually works best.

Edit: in response to my question on Mefi (“why didn’t Aaronsen detect the bullshit?”), officer_fred reminds us that geeks take everything a bit seriously and have malfunctioning bullshit detectors.


  1. This assumes that the PUA stuff actually gets geeks laid, of course. 

  2. The fancy word for this when applied to morality is deontology. As previously mentioned, ASJIF is “deontology on steriods”

  3. See in group bias and conjunction bias

Elsewhere: Atheism and objective rights

Back in August, Clark at Popehat did a slightly confusing posting on how some atheists are confused about rights because they speak as if rights exist while also saying that nothing but matter exists. Clark seems to be one of those theists who thinks that gods are be required to exist for objective rights to exist, but he doesn’t really say why he thinks that. (The real trick in all these arguments is specifying quite what you mean by “objective”. I enjoyed John D’s quote from Richard Joyce: “So many debates in philosophy revolve around the issue of objectivity versus subjectivity that one may be forgiven for assuming that someone somewhere understands this distinction.”)

I argued that Clark had got materialism wrong. Someone asked how any atheist can avoid the conclusions of Alex Rosenberg. I slightly facetiously replied “by not being an eliminative materialist”, but I can do better than that, I think. Rosenberg gets a lot of counterargument from people who are avowed naturalists and philosophically respectable. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for an atheist, especially one who isn’t an expert on philosophy, not to share Rosenberg’s conclusions.

Typically, Christian apologists ignore any distinction between varieties of naturalistic worldview (see Luke M’s interview with John Shook) and go with something like “if atheism is true, we’re nothing but matter in motion, chemical fizzes like soda spilled on the ground”. They then make an argument which uses the fallacy of composition to “show” that properties which matter and energy don’t have can’t be real on atheism (by which they mean some kind of materialism). This is all bunk, but pretty popular bunk, at least in the blogosphere, if not in philosophy journals.

Finally, I got into Yudkowsky’s belief in moral absolutes, which is interesting as Yudkowsky’s an atheist. Massimo P had a post about that back in January, where he sort of disagreed with Yudkowsky but then actually seemed to agree with him if you stripped away the layers of words a bit. My most significant comment on that is here. Yudkowsky’s transition from what looks like mathematical Platonism to the claim that morality is absolute deserves a post of its own, which I might get around to at some point. There’s a lesson for atheists, though: atheist appeals to evolution as a moral justifier are confused. Evolution might be a (partial) answer to “why do I care about X?” but not “why should I care about X?”

Is leading and following in partner dances sexist?

Rebecca Brightly did a couple of posts on connection and sexism in lindy recently. I found it via the discussion on Reddit.

Brightly’s stuff is getting so much comment because it combines thoughts on how to enjoy dancing more (which is good) with an Internet-feminist deontology (which is wrong, as any respectable consequentialist could tell you). She’s now at the Defcon 3 stage of talking about “de-railing”, deleting comments, and closing down threads when people disagree with her premise. So I thought I’d put my response here.

Context: in partnered dances, there are usually two roles: one person leads, another follows. Quite what each role entails is a settled question for some dance cultures and a matter of intense mass debating in some corners of others. Traditionally, the leader is a man and the follower is a woman.

Brightly seems to say that followers should take more initiative while dancing, in part because this will combat sexism. Now read on.

Stuff I agree with:

In lindy, (most of?) the really good leaders can handle the follower initiating movements, and (most of?) the really good follows do so. You can tell this is true because there are so many videos of it on YouTube.

If you’re both into it, this can increase the fun, and is therefore a good thing.

The tradition that the man leads and the woman follows arose out of a sexist (and homophobic) culture.

Having the tradition enforced (whether by teachers or by the disapproval of other dancers) such that people feel they cannot choose to dance the non-traditional role limits fun and is therefore bad.

Stuff I’m not convinced there’s much reason to believe:

Everyone should be taught both roles from beginning of their dancing career (the premise of the Ambidanceterous blog).
Everyone should learn both roles.
(I mean these either for a categorical or hypothetical “should”, Kant fans, with the hypothetical being “if you want to be a good dancer”).

The mere fact that the traditional association between roles and sexes is still common today is a moral wrong that ought to be righted.

Stuff I disagree with:

There’s a moral duty for followers to take the initiative more and for leaders to learn to deal with that. This duty arises because:
1. The idea that follows should not initiate movements is sexist.
2. There’s a moral duty to eliminate anything which could be labelled “sexism”.

I disagree with 1 and 2 jointly and severally.

2 is the Internet-feminist deontology I mentioned. It’s usually either just asserted (as Brightly does) or advanced by deploying the worst argument in the world. As commenter Devonavar says, it’s not clear that there are bad consequences of having non-initiatory followers, so even if it is sexist, it’s not clear we should care, or at least, that we should care more than we care about other stuff, like having fun (we can reasonably assume that some people dance like that because they enjoy it).

1 is correctly challenged by commenter Josephine, who identifies the problem as the enforced association of roles with sexes. At most, the idea that followers should rarely initiate is indirectly sexist while the enforcement continues, but seeing as the enforcement does more harm, why not just work on that directly?

Link blog: christianity, judaism, doctrine, porn

BBC News – How religions change their mind
How do doctrinal shifts occur in various world religions?
(tags: religion christianity mormonism islam change doctrine judaism)
I Went Down to St. James Infirmary
An entire blog full of different versions of the song. Super.
(tags: music jazz blues)
The Ethics of Extreme Porn: Is Some Sex Wrong Even Among Consenting Adults? – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic
Does consent make everything OK? An article summarising responses to another article about a Kink.com shoot. (In the comments, I somehow end up arguing with someone about whether St Paul thought Jesus would be back within his lifetime).
(tags: kink bdsm sex consent porn ethics)
Against the seriousness of theology : Gene Expression
"Theology and texts have far less power over shaping a religion’s lived experience than intellectuals would like to credit. This is a difficult issue to approach, because even believers who are vague on peculiarities of the details of theology (i.e., nearly all of them!) nevertheless espouse that theology as true. Very few Christians that I have spoken to actually understand the substance of the elements of the Athanasian Creed, though they accept it on faith. Similarly, very few Sunni Muslims could explain with any level of coherency why al-Ghazali‘s refutation of the Hellenistic tendency within early Islam shaped their own theology (if they are Sunni it by definition does!). Conversely, very few Shia could explain why their own tradition retains within its intellectual toolkit the esoteric Hellenistic philosophy which the Sunni have rejected. That’s because almost no believers actually make recourse to their own religion’s intellectual toolkit."
(tags: religion theology culture)

Link blog: ethics, charles-stross, death, daniel-kahneman

Changing my mind on nuclear disarmament – Charlie’s Diary
Charles Stross argues against renewing Trident.
(tags: trident nuclear disarmament charles-stross war)
Coding, Fast and Slow: Developers and the Psychology of Overconfidence
"I’m going to talk today about what goes on in inside developers’ heads when they make estimates, why that’s so hard to fix, and how I personally figured out how to live and write software (for very happy business owners) even though my estimates are just as brutally unreliable as ever." via Andrew Ducker
(tags: software programming scrum estimation daniel-kahneman)
What Martial Arts Have to Do With Atheism – Graeme Wood – The Atlantic
Sam Harris on martial arts, meditation and atheism: "No one’s ever accused me of being an optimist, but I think reason and intellectual honesty will win. They’re just too useful."
(tags: religion atheism martial-arts meditation sam-harris)
How Not to Die – Jonathan Rauch – The Atlantic
Many doctors aren’t good at having "the Conversation". A doctor uses film to illustrate patients’ options at the end of their lives.
(tags: film ethics death health medicine intensive-care)