Friday, March 31, 2006

The Absolute Morality Shell Game

Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian has been hosting a discussion about absolute morality. He recently suggested that the existential effects of a claim (e.g., how we feel about living in a world where the claim is true) count as evidence for the claim itself. In the comments, Tom clarifies his original statement:
There is a connection between inconsistencies of existential import and contradictions of beliefs. The connection is that all of us, in one way or another, live according to what we think is true. If we say we believe one thing (as in my examples) and yet carry on our lives as if we didn't, that surfaces a contradiction between our beliefs on one level and our beliefs on another.
In answer to my comments defending relative morality he writes:
As regards ethics being a matter of taste, or "we just feel," that's ground we covered before, so as I wrote in my first comment, I don't see a need to go there again. I think it's an outrageous opinion that leads in all kinds of both goofy and dangerous directions, since (for just one example) it opens the door wide to tyrants doing what they feel like, with no good answer to them.
The problem with this appeal is that it hides meta-rule of morality.

The lack of an absolute morality does not imply that I have no good answer to tyrants. Relative morality does not automatically include the rule that one ought never interfere in the relative moral decisions of others. If there were such a rule, it would indeed be wrong in my own morality to complain about acts committed against me under someone else's morality. Fortunately, there is no such rule.

Does the lack of such a rule commit us to unending moral war against one another?

Cold war, perhaps.

Rules governing moral interference are part of social contract - a treaty that enables people to compromise and live together despite differences in relative morality.

Thus is deflected the thrust of the original argument that moral relativists are living life inconsistently. Not that the inconsistency invalidated the original claim, but it wouldn't have looked good.

I think that, in the end, every moral argument is a question of persuasion, not proof. Yet, the moral absolutists appear uncomfortable with this state of affairs. They appear to be re-casting moral arguments as proofs by embedding the persuasive elements into some form of absolute morality. From there, they can deduce that X or Y is wrong (tautologically), instead of directly persuading us that X or Y is wrong. However, this is just a facade. They have shifted the object of the persuasion from the practice of X and Y to their absolute morality. They then proceed to try and persuade us to accept their absolute morality by providing us with case studies and thought experiments that we might find subjectively persuasive.

Existential concerns are definitely vital in any moral debate. They are the aforementioned persuasive elements. However, I think that building a purportedly-absolute deductive framework on top of those existential effects only confuses the issue. Anyone who explores the framework in detail can see that it is no more persuasive that the existential effects that justify it, while the framework is sold to the average Joe as a fact of nature.

Monday, March 27, 2006

There Is No War

Republicans criticise the Democrats for not supporting the President during wartime. Assuming we ignore the fact that it's not the Democrat's job to let the President break the law during wartime, there's still a problem with Republican claims. There is no war going on.

The so-called War on Terror is not a war. Only Congress can declare war, and there's no nation upon which to declare it. Terrorism is a serious crime. You can only declare war on terrorism figuratively speaking (like the "War on Drugs").

As for the war in Iraq, that was over in 2003. Our current presence in Iraq is at best a peace-keeping force, and at worst an occupation that's going badly.

Referring to these conflicts as wars doesn't serve America. It serves those who want to undermine the American ideals of liberty and justice. The wars have been used as an excuse to revoke American civil liberties, lock up suspects without due process, and appeal to Americans who let fear get the better of them.

George W. Bush invented perpetual war as a perpetual excuse to escape accountability. Don't let him get away with it.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Aid and Comfort

Bush should resign for supporting war profiteers:
On yet another front, the Justice Department continues to decline to join a whistle-blower case against a security contractor called Custer Battles, despite a March 9 jury verdict that found the company had defrauded the U.S. government out of millions of dollars in Iraq. In a statement issued after the verdict, Senator Grassley noted that “war profiteering is what led President Lincoln to support the original False Claims Act,” under which the Custer Battles case was pursued. Typically, the U.S. government will back the efforts of whistle-blowers—in this case two former executives of Custer Battles who were appalled by the fraud—but the Bush administration has maintained its silence. “I remain concerned as to why the Justice Department chose not to join this case,” Grassley said. Justice Department spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson, asked to respond, said, “I don’t have anything immediately for you.”
Bush would have us believe that criticism of the war effort gives aid and comfort to the enemy. But how much aid and comfort does the enemy get from war profiteering, incompetent management of military operations, a tax on military widows, poorly equipped military forces, incompetent diplomacy, violation of the Powell Doctrine, the unilateral withdrawal from treaties like the Geneva Conventions, and the corresponding loss of U.S. credibility?

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Robots of Death

Sunday night is Doctor Who night. Has been ever since my local PBS station aired entire stories Sundays at 11pm.

Last night I watched The Robots of Death, a story about robots run amok on a traveling mine. This story features one or two instances of spectacularly bad acting by some of the minor players, but, as with many episodes of the Tom Baker era, this story has some really great dialogue.

Like this line:
Doctor: To the rational mind, nothing is inexplicable, only unexplained.
This is exactly what I've been saying for the past few months!

This TV show rocked!

One more quote for the road:
Shadow: Now, Doctor. You are completely under my power.
Doctor: Really? You mean because of this? (taking off mind control device)
Aah, why not two:
Eldrad: What is the expansion factor?
Doctor: Why don't you just punch up 7438000 WHI 1212 72729 double one E8 EX 4111309 eleven 5... and then see what happens.

Mind-Body Dualists Begging the Question

Mind-body dualists hold that mind and brain are two different things. Dualists admit that the two are connected because mind altering chemicals and surgeries appear work. However, they claim that there is some non-physical aspect to mind. The mind, they claim, must be partly magical, partly beyond scientific explanation.

One of the particularly poor ways they make this claim is by using a special definition of human thought. According to this definition, what we perceive as rational thought and decision-making are those things that alter the deterministic course of matter. For example, it is our rational thought that causes a dam to be built that deflects the natural course of a river. If there were no rational thought, the river's course would be determined only by the laws of physics.

Unfortunately, this definition begs the question. Begging the question is a kind of fallacy wherein the question beggar sets up the premises such that his conclusions are inevitable. This is done by assuming the desired conclusion in one's definitions.

In this case, the dualists have implicitly defined rational thought as being non-physical and non-deterministic. For, if rational thought were a physical process, one could not define it as that which alters the natural course of physical processes.

In begging the question this way, the dualists are losing sight of the goal. We are all familiar with the experience of decision-making. We are also familiar with the appearance of decision-making in others. The question at hand is whether or not natural laws can explain decision-making. We don't get to go back to the experimental data and re-define the class of phenomena we are trying to explain.

In my opinion, we have already established the material nature of mind. Every aspect of human thought can be altered physically or chemically. Not what you would expect from a mind that requires something more than a brain.

So, what can mind-body dualists do?

Well, the thesis of the dualists is that there can be no explanation of mind, i.e., that we will never explain thought in terms of chemistry, neuroscience or any other scientific discipline. But on what grounds could they make such a claim?

Well, scientific explanations require two things. They require natural laws and logical consistency. Thus, the dualist must sacrifice one or both of these principles.

If we assume that mind is governed by logical principles (note that this is not the same as saying that we think logically), then we can only lack explanation by there being no natural laws to govern some aspect of mind. Unfortunately, dualists are a bit hazy on what aspects of thought are physical versus magical. Obviously sleepiness, nervousness, pleasure and the like are largely physical, as pharmacists are well aware. So either the magic is subtly spread over all of mind, or else it is located in some yet to be understood phenomenon of mind like qualia (what it feels like to experience things).

This game of "hide the magic in the gaps" tries to make its case by process of elimination. They regard their claim as analogous to claiming that there's no Ace of Diamonds in a particular deck of cards. That Ace represents the explanation of mind, and, if we go through 99% of the deck without finding it, then we're 99% sure that the Ace not in there. Likewise, the dualists argue that since we understand 99% of science (99% of physics, chemistry, neuroscience and so on), the odds of there being a scientific explanation of mind are only 1%. Of course, this betrays a misunderstanding of science. The fact is that we don't understand 99% of science. We probably understand only 1% of it. I'm not even sure that science is a finite search space. Thus, the dualist cannot argue for magic on the grounds that, if mind weren't magic, we would have found the explanation by now.

That leaves consistency as the dualist's only remaining target for attack. To utilize this attack, the dualist must identify some observable aspect of human thought that leads to an inconsistency. Suppose we measure some aspect of mind, let's call this aspect "MindUnit". To measure MindUnits we use a hypothetical MindMeter. What would inconsistency imply? It would imply that two MindMeters would not agree on a measurement of MindUnits for the same individual at the same time. Yet, if this were the case, we would all consider MindMeters to be completely useless tools, like voltmeters that could never agree on a voltage. Indeed, MindUnits would never have been recognized as an observable aspect of mind in the first place. This thought experiment (no pun intended) demonstrates that inconsistencies in the universe are generally invisible because they look like random effects.

Hence, the mind-body dualist can only ever have arguments by elimination (magic in the gaps).

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Time to Change that Diaper

Now might not be such a bad time to rub the Bushies' noses in it.

Bush has disgraced this country. A stain that will last for generations. A black mark against us and our children.

Last night I was listening to This American Life on the radio. An episode entitled "Habeus Schmabeus". Men are being held without cause or due process, tortured monthly, and all in my name. I was livid. You will be too.

Talk to those you know who voted for Bush. Ask them how they think it's going. If they don't admit to any shame, tell them they should do.

Point to all of the people Bush hired solely because of their business connections or ideology. Incompetent cronies hired to fill jobs that are supposed to protect and serve the American people. People like Michael Brown, or Claude Allen, or George Deutsch. For en extended list see TNR's guide to the Hackocracy or Public Citizen.

Just search Google and see what comes up at the top of the list...

Present the fiscally conservative Bushcompoops with some charts:

(Yes, you've been mugged.)

Bush security chicken hawks? Show them this chart showing a dramatic increase in terror attacks under Bush. Support the troops... with a Widow's Tax?

What's sickening is that the enumeration of Bush scandals and debacles can go on for hours. Corruption and incompetence are common threads throughout every policy decision in this administration, from national defense to the NASA.

Bush voters should be forced to take a long hard look at what they've done to this country and to themselves. Time to change that diaper.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion

When the anti-choice choose.
"We too have seen our share of anti-choice women, ones the counselors usually grit their teeth over. Just last week a woman announced loudly enough for all to hear in the recovery room, that she thought abortion should be illegal. Amazingly, this was her second abortion within the last few months, having gotten pregnant again within a month of the first abortion. The nurse handled it by talking about all the carnage that went on before abortion was legalized and how fortunate she was to be receiving safe, professional care. However, this young woman continued to insist it was wrong and should be made illegal. Finally the nurse said, 'Well, I guess we won't be seeing you here again, not that you're not welcome.' Later on, another patient who had overheard this exchange thanked the nurse for her remarks."
(Clinic Administrator, Alberta)

Via Science & Politics.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Here we go again...

Those of you paying attention will recall that the push for war in Iraq began with Cheney's speeches in 2002.

I happen to agree that Iran should be prevented from having nukes, but it would be nice to have a coherent strategy for achieving that goal. Bush and Cheney have threatened Iran and North Korea with an invasion that can only be staved off by regime change (not the sacrifice of nuclear programs). Iran and North Korea have responded logically by building nukes as fast as possible. The Bush administration's incompetence is also responsible for the election of Iranian hard-liners like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

I wonder if these killer clowns will do any planning for the invasion of Iran. You know, like the major-urban-area evacuation planning they were supposed to have done before Katrina, or the post-war planning they were supposed to have done before the Iraq war.

A president who fails to plan for the safety of the United States is not qualified to hold office. Bush and Cheney should be impeached as soon as possible.

More Moral Persuasion

Recently, while writing about subjective morality, I came to think about moral progress. If morality is subjective (as I believe it is), then moral progress is also subjective. Yet, if this is so, how are we to identify moral progress?

Deliberate subjective moral progress at the individual level is difficult. I think most people prefer to believe that there is an objective moral code (usually a religious one) that just happens to coincide with their present tastes.

A few people try to locate objective moral principles to guide decisionmaking. However, I think that morality is more like economics than physics. Individual moral "markets" are no more ruled by objective principles than are individual economic markets. There are no perfect moral agents and no perfect consumers. If there really were an objective morality, we would not need to decide between proposed objective moral positions by the emotive strength of their respective case studies (which is what seems to be the case).

I think it is instructive to look back through history at examples of subjective moral progress (typically rejections of slavery, sexism, racism, and homophobia), and try to understand the causes of this perceived progress. The elimination of fear and the promotion of empathy have historically led to the kinds of subjective progress I presently approve of. I interpret this to mean that 1) I should promote courage and empathy in general, and 2) I should be more receptive to moral persuasion founded on these two principles.

I win no special award for spotting a connection between the fear inspired by world events and the new American tolerance for torture and prisoner abuse.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Magic Origins

I would like to introduce a new theory of origins called Magic Origins.

No more just-so stories about evolution, or intelligent aliens. In Magic Origins theory, the universe just popped into existence by magic.

Of all mechanisms, we know that magic can do this (by its very definition, anything can happen). In contrast, no one has demonstrated with certainty that any process or intelligence could have possibly engineered something on the scale of life or our universe. All we have seen so far is microengineering, not macroengineering. Microeveolution, not macroevolution.

Furthermore, there's no evidence that there is any über-designer behind ID. If there were, why don't the ID supporters go into the lab and demonstrate something simple, e.g., that humans can design and build multicellular life from scratch? We already know that the evolutionary biologists can't simulate macroevolution at the molecular level. The ID supporters are no better. Intelligence and design require immense resources, the likes of which have never been observed. Are we to suspend our gut feeling that the world is magical without an ironclad demonstration?

And, won't we all feel better once the universe has been explained as being magical in origin?