Monthly Archives: November 2010

Bertrand Russell: Epistolary Philosopher.

“I stayed in a really old hotel last night. They sent me a wake up letter” – Steven Wright

I’ve been rereading Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography. It’s been twenty years since I last looked at my copy and the experience is quite discomfiting. I have to record that what I’ve read so far has revealed a man who is shallow, facile and shockingly self-absorbed…serves me right for reading the marginalia. Is there a workable notion of personal identity/continuity that would enable me to escape the charge that it wasn’t really me who wrote them? A loose psychological connectedness view perhaps? If so, then count me in.

I was motivated to look at the book again in part because of a recent conversation with a philosophical friend who remarked that Russell’s attempt to avoid the paradoxes of self-reference, his theory of types, is (and I think I quote her accurately) “shockingly ad hoc“. I must admit that I’ve long thought the same, that the attempt to eliminate the problems of self-reference by reference to the “direct introspection” of logical functions involved the identification of one ambiguity (in ordinary language) and its replacement with another, albeit another of a more respectable logical countenance. What I was hoping to find in the Autobiography was some description of his intellectual development on this specific point. Disappointingly, there is very little there. There is also not much light shed on Ayer’s point that Russell’s post-Principia philosophical techniques and subject matter are oddly discontinuous with the Russell of 1895-1910. Russell’s own claim that the energy invested in writing Principia Mathematica  afterwards left him unable to work at that intellectual altitude does not explain this completely.

Plenty of other things do stand out, however. For one thing the paperbook version is 800 pages long. It is impressive that someone who lived the life that Russell did, for the length of time that he did, could condense it all in so few words. The cast list is also impressive: were a Russell dinner party circa 1905 to have been interrupted by an unwelcome outbreak of botulism then it’s no exaggeration to suggest that the intellectual landscape of the 20th Century would have been vastly different (and not, in all ways, better). Keynes would have passed the port to Sydney Webb who would have passed it to Beatrice (who would have declined and then confiscated the bottle in the best interests of all the other guests).

But the most remarkable feature of the Autobiography to my mind is the revelation of the  sheer volume of correspondence Russell got through, a fraction of which is included in the form of appendices to the main chapters. Disappointingly few of these include those authored by the more famous protagonists in the development of mathematical logic. There is nothing from Peano (whom Russell met in Paris in 1900) and it seems that Whitehead was an indolent correspondent. Someone once remarked that whereas Russell, the grandson of a liberal Prime Minister, was undoubtedly an aristocrat he most certainly was not a gentleman. But I think these appendices show that the remark is unfair. It seems he corresponded with anyone, on almost equal terms, and there are some gems here: from Gilbert Murray’s spoof review of Russell’s The Problems of Philosophyto the lady who wrote to him to express her new found belief in solipsism and her hope that “everyone would become one”. You can’t help but suspect that had he succumbed to the raging contagion of text messaging then the logicist project might have died of natural causes without the intervention of Godel. “Alfred sorry was L8 2 seminar just spotted prob wiv class of classes lol c u l8er. B”.

One shudders to think…..

Creating Terrorists

Domestic terrorism in the United States is rather rare and, as such, it is hardly a shock that the arrest of Mohamed Osman Mohamud has gotten a lot of attention. The folks who have been backing the massive anti-terror machine can point to this one arrest and feel vindicated in their devotion to security.

I am, of course, glad that Mohamed Osman Mohamud was stopped before he could actually harm anyone. However, reading about the situation made me wonder whether he would have ended up in this plot without the active involvement of the FBI.

Based on the information currently available, Mohamed Osman Mohamud seems to have been the only actual terrorist involved in the plot. After all, the FBI provided him with the fake bomb and there has been no mention of anyone else being arrested. The background given for him (he drank beer, liked hip hop, and was reported as not being particularly devout) does not seem to fit that of someone who would mastermind a plot. As such, I do wonder how much the FBI actually motivated and guided him to the point where he was there to receive the fake bomb from the FBI. In short, I wonder how much the FBI had a hand in recruiting and shaping him into being a terrorist.

Obviously, he did make the choice to go along with the plot and hence is accountable for his choices. However, it is worth wondering whether he would have become a terrorist without the intervention of the FBI. That is, did they create the very terrorist that they arrested?

It is, of course, a reasonable and ethical tactic for law enforcement agents to pose as criminals and terrorists in order to gather information and make arrests. Those who will commit misdeeds generally prefer to remain unknown. As such, those who enforce the law often have to seek them out by employing deception. This can, of course, be justified on utilitarian grounds: they deceive to make society safer.

However, there are both ethical and practical concerns in regards to how much of a role agents of the law should take in urging people to commit crimes or acts of terror in order to gain information or to put people in situations in which they can be arrested.

On the one hand, if the person would not have committed such an act but for the involvement of law enforcement, then it would seem reasonable to hold the law enforcement personnel morally accountable. After all, they helped make the person into a criminal and if they had left the person alone, then the crime would not have been committed. As such, they would seem to be accessories to the crime. After all, they acted as corrupters and perhaps even as instigators.

Naturally, the person who goes along with such guidance is not free from blame. However, the influence of the law enforcement agents would seem to serve as a mitigating factor.

Also, law enforcement should not be about creating criminals to arrest, it should be aimed at deterring crime and arresting those who chose to become criminals. To use an analogy, doctors should cure patients who are sick. To make a patient sick and then claim an accomplishment by curing the person would clearly be unethical. Likewise, creating a criminal and then arresting him hardly seems the correct thing to do.

On the other hand, it can be argued that law enforcement needs to be proactive. They cannot wait until they learn of a plot or, even worse, for a bomb to go off. They have to go out and seek potential terrorists and see if they would be willing to become real terrorists. That way they can guide their evolution from potential terrorist to actual terrorist and then arrest the person. It is not quite as good as having precognition of a crime (as in Minority Report), but it is still rather useful to be able to actualize the criminal and thus protect society from the criminal they helped actualize. Otherwise, a potential terrorist could become an actual terrorist with an actual bomb (not a fake supplied by the FBI).

Since this method works so well in the case of terrorists, it should clearly be expanded to include other crimes as well. For example, law enforcement agents should start operating in public schools and urge kids (or as we should now call them, “pre-criminals”) to use and sell drugs. They could assist the kids in setting up drug operations, motivate them, guide them and then supply them with fake drugs. At that point, they could arrest the kids and keep the schools safe. If this works, then they could expand to other crimes as well. This pre-criminal cultivation approach could revolutionize law enforcement.

Enhanced by Zemanta


X-ray machines and metal detectors are used to...
Image via Wikipedia

Currently, the United States does not (officially)use profiling in regards to airport security. True, there is a no fly list-a list that has included people who are obviously not terrorists (like American children and a well known CNN journalist) and has generally failed as  method of providing security.

It has been claimed that profiling is not used in the United States because of political correctness. While that might be true, some reasonable arguments can be given against profiling.

One argument is that profiling could be misused in order to target people for harassment on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, nationality and so on.  For example, suppose that Arabs were flagged as higher risk. This would allow security agents (like TSA folks) who do not like Arabs to harass them under the cover of these profiles (“I didn’t pull Abdul out for a special search because I hate Arabs, I did it because he fits the profile”).  This is, of course, the argument used against racial profiling by the police: it results in certain people being targeted more and also provides a cover for harassment.

This is a legitimate concern and is supported by the history of racial profiling.

Another argument is that  profiling is inherently unfair. After all, such profiles treat a person as a suspect based on factors such as ethnicity and religion rather than on the person’s actual actions. To, for example, pull all darker skinned people out of line for special screening because they have dark skin and let white folks go on through normally would be unfair. While profiling might result in increased security, it is no more justified than allowing the police to pull people over for DWB (Driving While Black), which is still not uncommon in the States.

While these arguments are well worth considering, there are also arguments in support of profiling.

In theory, it does seem possible for profiling to be an effective means of determining threats. After all, terrorists (and other threats) do not arise out of nothing. There are causal factors and other factors that would seem to be connected to such people. Also, there are factors that would tend to indicate that a person is not likely to be a terrorist or threat. To use an obvious example, an FBI agent travelling with her infant son is probably not going to try to take the plane down. In contrast, a young man from Saudi Arabia who is flying in from Yemen who spent a few years in Pakistan is more likely to pose a threat.

The profiling I will be arguing for is not just any sort of profiling. Rather, it is profiling based on proper research and statistical models. It also needs to be subject to rigorous assessment. I do consider the possibility that proper profiling might be beyond the capacity of today’s behavioral sciences and thus that at this time profiling might not be accurate enough to be justified as a security tool. The following arguments are based on the assumption of effective profiling. Naturally, if this is not possible, then these arguments would certainly not stand up.

One argument in favor of profiling is that it enables a more effective use of resources. Rather than randomly pulling people out of line, people who are more likely to be threats can be subject to more attention. This would increase the likelihood that such threats would be caught. To use an analogy, rather than having the police just pull people over at random to check for drunk driving, it makes more sense to look for indicators of drunk driving, such as swerving about. While not all people who swerve about are driving drunk, it is a reasonable indicator.

A second argument in favor of profiling is that it reduces the violation of rights and liberties. Under the current system, everyone is treated as a likely terrorist and subject to body scans or pat downs. With profiling, people who are more likely to be threats can be subjected to the more invasive means of checking.

It might be argued that singling people out would violate their rights. However, it can be countered that the current system is a greater violation. The current system is to treat everyone from the toddler to the grandpa as an equal threat. As such, if singling people out would be a violation, then it would seem that targeting everyone would be an even greater violation. To use an analogy, having the police randomly pull over any driver seems like a greater violation of rights than having the police pull over people who are most likely to be driving drunk.

Naturally, it could be argued that it is more unfair to single people out based on their being more likely to be a threat. After all, they are being treated differently than other people even though they might have actually done nothing to warrant such suspicion-that is, they meet the profile but are not actually a threat.

So, it seems to be a matter of whether it is better to treat everyone as an equal threat or to consider some people as greater threats based on profiling.

As noted above, there is also the open question about the effectiveness of specific profiling methods. It might be the case that the behavioral sciences are not up to the challenge of creating an effective system. It might also be the case that even an effective profile method might be misused enough or employed poorly enough to make it unjust or useless. In these cases, profiling would not be a viable or just security too.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Welcome Regan Penaluna

We’re very happy to announce that we have a new blogger at Talking Philosophy.

Regan Penaluna received her PhD in philosophy from Boston University. Her primary areas of interest include ethics, social and political philosophy, and feminist philosophy. She teaches philosophy at St. John’s University in New York.

Welcome Regan!

Plato and Modern Motherhood

“I’d rather be making cupcakes!” said my sister.

She said it so many times in fact that our mother had it printed onto a t-shirt for her birthday. Cupcakes to my sister meant spending time at home with her baby. Before she gave birth, she had set out to become a scientist. Yet now that her baby was here, she wasn’t so gung-ho.

In truth, my sister did not want only to make cupcakes as much as she did not want only to be a scientist. But splitting her time between the two was not that simple. My parents raised us with the belief that we could “be anything we wanted if we only put our mind to it,” and now my sister found herself of two minds: she wanted to be a mother raising her baby but she also wanted to be a successful scientist. Like many modern mothers—myself included—she could not do one without feeling as though she were significantly shortchanging the other.

Plato would not be surprised. Even though he was writing over two-thousand years ago in ancient Greece, entirely unaware of the modern woman’s condition, he said a few things about motherhood that were interestingly spot on. Or, at least the character of Socrates did in Plato’s most famous dialog the Republic.

In this work, Socrates proposes to build a city from scratch in his mind. Many wild things come of this, such as a eugenics program and a “noble lie” told to citizens to get them to accept this program. Socrates’ willingness to vastly reconsider everything also leads him to a somewhat forward-looking take on women. Challenging Greek tradition, Plato has Socrates pitch the idea that women have the same “souls” as men, by which he means that they have the same mental capacities as men. That is, women can reason and so are capable of jobs typically reserved for men, like politics or doing philosophy.

To persuade his friends that a woman can do a man’s job, he tries to persuade them that it’s absurd to allow one’s physical appearance to determine their ability to do a job. He says that “if bald men are shoemakers, we won’t let the longhaired ones be shoemakers, or if the longhaired ones are, then the others can’t be (454c).” It’s absurd that one’s hair-length should determine one’s profession; Socrates wants us to see that and then to consider that it is also absurd to allow other physical traits, such as one’s sex, to decide one’s professional destiny. Just because women are physically different from men, he argues, doesn’t mean they should have different jobs from men. In fact, he argues that when it comes to thinking and doing politics that “men and women have the same nature” and so women should also be in the business of politics, too (456a).

But what does this all mean for motherhood? Socrates wants these women to also be mothers (smart women have smart babies, he assumes, which is good for society). But he also wants them to keep their jobs. His solution? “[T]he children…will be in common, and neither will a parent know his own offspring, nor a child his parent (457d).” He wants to break the mother-child bond “so she won’t recognize her own.” As a result, Plato presents us with women who are mothers and professionals. But the catch is that these women are not torn between these two worlds, like some of us moderns, because by teaching women to see their own children as common to all Socrates conditions the mother out of them. Literally.

Getting rid of the mother’s soul, as Socrates does, is not a solution for me or my sister or any modern woman for that matter. And Plato didn’t really seem to think it was a solution for ancient women either. There are suggestions throughout his text that he made the creation of the city so absurdly impossible that he didn’t really wish for it to exist (for example, Socrates tells us that the annihilation of all persons over age 10 is necessary for the city to come into being, since those over the age 10 are corrupted by tradition. Not only is that downright immoral, but you run into the absurdity of who will teach all of these 10 year olds how to construct this city anyway?). What we can say is that the difficulty Plato saw facing women, that they are smart like men but also by nature drawn to care deeply for their children (he didn’t seem to think the same bond could be found between babies and their fathers) is probably why every morning, as the legend goes, he thanked the gods for having made him “a philosopher, an Athenian,” and foremost, “a man.”

Before my son was born, I looked forward to the connection that I would feel for him. Everyone told me how the parent-child bond was so unique. Yet I also harbored a deep seated fear that this love would take from my professional drive. Somewhere lurked the belief that the more time I spent with him, the weaker my ambition would become. My mother liked to tease me once I was pregnant by reminding me of my proclamations that I “will never marry!” and “never have kids!” which were in a way my own self-inflicted conditioning to “get the motherliness out of my soul,” as Socrates might say.

Still a part of me didn’t totally believe myself either. I did get married, and now I have a child. Like my sister, a part of me wants to enjoy staying at home and making cupcakes, but that is quickly overcome by my desire to do other things too. There is an undeniable joy I derive from both the maternal and the professional sides of myself. Yet that doesn’t solve the pull I feel in either direction. Being a mother is rewarding, and Socrates’ attempt to remove that from women’s lives is too extreme. Nonetheless, maybe there is something a modern mother can take away from his discussion, which is that for mothers who also aspire to have a professional life, at least some sort of conditioning is necessary for them to be convinced that the balance they have struck between their professional endeavors and the caring of their children is right. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that like the people over the age of 10 in Socrates’ city, my soul is already too set in its own ways for any conditioning.

Of Body Scans & Body Pats

An image of Susan Hallowell, Director of the T...

The latest additions to America’s Security Theater are the full body scan and the full body pat down. The scanners provide images of what is under the passenger’s clothes (including the passenger) and this is regarded by some as an invasion of privacy. Concerns have also been raised about the health effects of being exposed to the radiation emitted by the scanners. Passengers who would prefer to avoid this process can elect to have a TSA agent engage in a full body pat down. Not surprisingly, some people are concerned that this violates privacy rights.

While I am not a constitutional lawyer, this does seem to be a violation of the legal rights spelled out in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Of course, the legality of this is something that the lawyers will need to hash out, perhaps before the Supreme Court. As a philosophy, my main concern is with whether these practices are justified or not.

The stock argument for these practices is to contend that they are needed to keep people safe and are thus justified. The basic principle, that rights can be set aside because of security needs, is a sound one. But, of course, whether a specific application of the principle is warranted or not is another matter. Oversimplifying things quite a bit, a good case can be made for suspending (or violating) rights by showing that this suspension is required to avoid or prevent harms. To use the stock example, the right of free expression does not apply to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Likewise it could be argued that the right to privacy does not apply when the safety of passengers is at stake. Thus, while having strangers gazing at an image of your body or running their hands over your (once) private regions might seem like violations of your privacy, they are merely legitimate means of keeping you (and others) safe when you fly.

An obvious reply to this argument is that the appeal to security is not a magical trump card that justifies setting aside rights merely because an increase in safety has been claimed. Rather, the burden of proof rests upon the state to show that the suspension of rights is justified. In short, it needs to be shown that the security gained or the harm avoided justifies suspending or violating rights. While people will disagree on this matter, it seems reasonable to expect that the defense of the body scans and pat downs should be able to show that they are likely to deter harms significant and likely enough to warrant such clear intrusions into the privacy of passengers.

This does not seem to be the case. The threats that these methods would counter seem to be rather unlikely to occur and just as likely to be caught by other less intrusive security measures that predate the new procedures. As such, there seems to be a lack of adequate justification for these practices.

When pressed, defenders of the scanner and pat downs tend to point to the infamous underwear bomber. What if, they ask with righteous indignation, an under wear bomber got on board and blew up a plane? Surely, they contend, this possibility justifies these measures.

My first reply is that there was one attempt to use the underwear bomb and it failed. There were no other attempts even before the scanners and pat downs were implemented. As such, they provide a defense against an attack that was tried once and failed. It seems odd to expend so much money and violate privacy rights to defend against such an unlikely and feeble sort of attack.

It might be countered that the procedures are based on the principle that any potential threat must be countered, even if the counter is costly and violates rights. After all, one might say, we are at war.

I have two replies to that counter. First, this principle would justify even more blatant violations of privacy. To use an obvious example, a terrorist could swallow a condom containing explosives or insert one into his rectum (drugs are smuggled this way, so why not explosives?). Since these methods of attack are possible, this principle would justify forcing people to expel the contents of their stomachs and being subject to cavity searches before flying. However, I suspect even Homeland Security would (at least for now) balk at this procedures. However, while they are more invasive than the current procedures, they are justified by the same principle that allows privacy rights to be suspended for even minuscule  gains in security. This, I think, shows that the scans and pat downs are also unjustified.

Second, consistency would seem to require that this principle be applied across the board. After all, it would be inconsistent to have such strict standards to protect people from underwear bombs while allowing other more likely dangers to remain unchecked.  While terrorists do try to kill people, they do not kill people any more dead than anything else that kills people. So, for example, people should lose their right to drive cars. After all, thousands of people are killed each year by vehicles. As another example, air and train travel should be banned. After all, if people must be protected from the incredibly unlikely threat of underwear bombs, then they must surely be protected against the dangers of plane and train crashes. Naturally, environmental threats from companies must also be dealt with on the basis of this principle. For example, since the drilling of oil could result in an explosion and oil leak, all drilling must be stopped to keep people safe.

Of course, it would probably be argued that it would be absurd to ban planes, trains and automobiles. Sure, one might argue, people are killed in accidents and even homicides involving them. But such levels of danger are tolerable because of the right of people to travel and the economic necessity of such transport.  Naturally, I would argue that if such dangers can be tolerated on this basis, then it would seem reasonable to tolerate the minuscule increase in risk that discontinuing scans and pat downs might create.

A likely reply to this is to restate that if a single underwear bomb blows up a plane or kills some people, then my argument would be shown to be horribly mistaken. However, this is on par with saying that if a single person is killed in a vehicular homicide, then the argument that cars should not be banned has been shown to be horribly mistaken. Or, to use another example, that if one oil well suffers an accident, then oil should be banned immediately. This seems absurd.

Thus, the full body scans and pat downs do not seem to be adequately justified and should be discontinued.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Would You Eat Your Cat?

No, not the book of the same name, written by some twit, but another new interactive activity at the Philosophy Experiments web site.

Would You Eat Your Cat?

This one looks at the way in which we respond to behaviour that many people would consider to be disgusting or repellent or clearly wrong, but where it isn’t obvious that these reactions are rationally justified.

As usual, feedback much appreciated. I do actually make changes to these activities on the basis of the responses I get here (and elsewhere). It’s quite difficult to get all the logic sorted out without the input of other people: I tend to miss stuff, think stuff is obvious when it isn’t, that sort of thing.

Talking of which, I’ve also improved the Euthyphro Dilemma activity. It’s now Aquinas-friendly, which has got to be good, right?

Talking with God: The Euthyphro Dilemma

(Apologies if you’ve seen a version of this post before.)

Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?

A friendly debate has come up between the atheists Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers. The question under debate is, “Can atheism be proven wrong?” On the one hand, Jerry Coyne has argued that his atheism is, and should be, capable of being defeated by evidence. On the other hand, PZ Myers has argued that religious claims are incoherent, and so it’s pointless trying to refute them in that way. Even if seemingly divine events did happen, we could explain them as hallucinations, or of the intervention of aliens — there’s no need to talk about God.

On behalf of Team Coyne, Greta Christina has argued that Myers is right to say that religious claims are bullshit, but that Coyne is right to insist that atheism can be defeated by evidence. However, on behalf of Team Myers, Diaphanitas has argued that Christina has missed the point: if you think that religious claims are incoherent, then you can’t think that they can be defeated by the evidence. In order for a claim to be capable of being defeated by evidence, it has to be a coherent claim in the first place. (Edit: Or, at least, that’s the cliff’s notes version. I’m going to be a naughty blogger by not giving more of a summary than that. If you’re interested in the full conversation, click the links above.)

I’ll argue that Christina is right, hoping to score points for Team Coyne, and hopefully be the hero to capture Team Myers’s filthy squid-adorned flag. Specifically, I’ll be arguing against some of Diaphanitas’s core claims. (I’ll avoid the stuff about NOMA, because I want to avoid complaints of tl;dr.) In other words, some interpretations of atheism and theism can both be shown to be wrong according to the evidence, and that’s the only point worth making.


The sticking point between Christina and Diaphanitas is what I’ll call “the semantic principle of bullshit”. Since religious claims on the whole do not hold themselves to common standards of evidence, we have to say that religious sentences are epistemically unstable. Hence, they’re not the sorts of things that can or should be evaluated in terms of evidence.

And it seems to me that, as a matter of fact, the principle of bullshit is correct — religious sentences, when taken on the whole, don’t know whether they’re coming or going. (It doesn’t matter to my argument if you don’t agree; you can just assume it for the sake of seeing my point.) Since atheism is the rejection of theism, endorsements of atheism have an equally small burden. As Hitchens says: “What can be asserted without evidence, can be rejected without evidence.”

Unlike Diaphanitas, I don’t think the principle of bullshit makes any difference to Christina’s point. For bullshit claims can be plausibly interpreted in a literal way, if our aim is to understand the intentions and beliefs of some mainstream religious persons. It seems to me that the only way to defeat a bullshit claim is for us to round up all of the most plausible interpretations of the claim, and then show how each interpretation is false. Hence, you have to refute every plausible use of the sentence: by treating it as a God Hypothesis, and then as an allegory, and then as an expression of self-assertion, and so on.

So that will mean that eventually atheists will have to get around to showing that the best explanation of the evidence does not include reference to any Gods, and hence theistic claims are improbable. In other words: atheists will have to make the argument that Richard Dawkins makes in the first half of the God Delusion (or something like it). And to the extent that you’re arguing in terms of facts, you must also think of yourself as open to criticism on the basis of the evidence. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t mean that atheists like Coyne and Christina are “obsessed with the evidence”. It means that they insist that the examination of the evidence is essential when you’re in the business of interpreting sober, factual claims. If that’s an obsession, it’s a healthy one, as Diaphanitas admits.


So where’s the beef? Evidently, it has something to do with paradigms.

Diaphanitas thinks that evidence plays a limited role in the history of science (and hence, presumably, an even more limited role in the history of atheism and religion). For Diaphanitas, Thomas Kuhn‘s historiography of science is the best way of understanding the relationship between evidence and scientific change.

The spectre of Thomas Kuhn rises often, but it really needs to behave itself when it does. For while it’s true that Kuhn thought that a change in worldview involved a kind of “conversion” or “theory choice”, it’s also true that Kuhn argued that “objectivity ought to analyzable in terms of criteria like accuracy and consistency”. On my reading of Kuhn, these virtues were necessary for scientific practice, though not sufficient. If this means Kuhn was “begging the doxastic question”, then let’s also blame him for getting us to care so much about accuracy.

Diaphanitas, like Kuhn, wants to say that we’re doing more than just consulting the evidence — we’re making a choice, too. That’s fine — but it’s also a very weak claim, and it is consistent with the idea that evidence has to play a central role in scientific inquiry (and factual discourse). To my knowledge, there is nothing in Kuhn that helps us to say that religious claims in the 21st century world are plausible candidate explanations of the evidence. (As survivors of the Great Lisbon Earthquake could tell us, the Argument from Design is simply not consistent with the evidence.) And when you argue in favor of the Abrahamic God using the Argument from Design, you are committing yourself to a kind of game that involves checking the facts — those are the rules that the proponents of the Watchmaker God are committed to. In that sense, contrary to Diaphanitas’s claim, the naturalist and the Watchmaker God are “in the same playing field”. They’re both responsive to the evidence.


Still, Myers and Diaphanitas are correct in the following sense. If the principle of bullshit is right, then that means that it is wrong to think that religious claims must be read as expressions of a kind of unique content. So, any theists who say “The Bible is just an allegory” are wrong, and any who say “The Bible must be taken literally” are wrong too. It’s either one, and more besides. The argumentative atheist has to use the shotgun method, taking aim at one interpretation after the other.

The moral of the story is this. Just because religious claims are unstable, doesn’t mean that the uses of the claims have to be up in the air. One use of religious claims involves the Argument from Design; and the argument from design is perfectly coherent, perfectly stable, and perfectly worthless. Hence, any atheism concerned with the Abrahamic Watchmaker God is supported on the basis of the evidence. If evidence turned the other way — e.g., if a credible argument could be made that the problem of evil was just a pseudo-problem — then the only responsible option for a Watchmaker critic would be to reconsider their atheism.

*Edited for clarity.

Enhanced by Zemanta


Robot Monster... ahora resulta que los robots ...
Image by Javier Piragauta via Flickr

One interesting phenomenon is that groups often adopt a set of stock views and arguments that are almost mechanically deployed to defend the views. In many cases, the pattern of responses seems almost robotic-in many “discussions” I can predict what stock arguments will be deployed next.

I have even found that if I can lure someone off their pre-established talking points, then they are often quite at a loss as to what to say next. This, I suspect, is a sign that a person does not really have his/her own arguments but is merely putting forth established dogmarguments (dogmatic arguments).

Apparently someone else noticed this phenomenon-specifically in the context of global warming arguments and decided to create his own argubot. Nigel Leck created a script that searches Twitter for key phrases associated with stock arguments against the view that humans have caused global warming. When the argubot finds a foe it then engages by sending a response tweet containing a counter to the argument (and relevant links).

In some cases the target of the argubot does not realize that s/he is arguing with a script and not a person. The argubot is set up to respond with a variety of “prefabricated” arguments when the target repeats an argument, thus helping to create that impression. The argubot also has a repertoire  that goes beyond global warming. For example, it is stocked with arguments about religion. This also allows it to maintain the impression that it is a person.

While the argubot is reasonably sophisticated, it is not quite up to the Turing test. For example, it cannot discern when people are joking. While it can fool people into thinking they are arguing with a person, it is important to note that the debate takes place in the context of Twitter.  As such, each tweet is limited to 140 characters. This makes it much easier for a argubot to pass itself off as a person.  Also worth considering is the fact that people tend to have rather low expectations for the contents of tweets which makes it much easier for an argubot to masquerade as a person. However, it is probably just a matter of time before a bot passes the Tweeter Test (being able to properly pass itself off as person in the context of twitter).

What I find most interesting about the argubot is not that it can often pass as a human tweeter, but that the argumentative process with its targets can be automated in this manner. This inclines me to think that the people who the argubot are arguing with are also, in effect, argubots. That is, they are also “running scripts” and presenting pre-fabricated arguments they have acquired from others. As such, it could be seen as  a case of a computer based argubot arguing against biological argubots with both sides relying on scripts and data provided by others.

It would be interesting to see the results if someone wrote another argubot to engage the current argubot in debate. Perhaps in the future argumentation will be left to the argubots and the silicon tower will replace the ivory tower. Then again, this would probably put me out of work.

One final point worth considering is the ethics of  the argubot at hand.

One concern is that it seems deceptive: it creates the impression that the target is engaged in a conversation with a person when s/he is actually just engaged with a script. Of course, the argubot does not state that it is a person nor does it make use of deception to harm the target. Given its purpose, to argue about global warming, it seems to be irrelevant whether the arguing is done by a person or a script. This contrasts with cases in which it does matter, such as a chatbot designed to trick someone into thinking that another person is romantically interested in them or to otherwise engage with the intent to deceive. As such, the argubot does not seem to be unethical in regards to fact that people might think it is a person.

Another concern is that the argubot seeks out targets and engages them (an argumentative Terminator or Berserker). This, some might claim, could be seen as a form of spamming or harassment.

As far as the spamming goes, the argubot does not deploy what would intuitively be considered spam in terms of its content. After all, it is not trying to sell a product, etc. However, it might be argued that it is sending out unsolicited bulk tweets, which might thus be regarded as spam.  Spamming is rather well established as immoral (if an argument is wanted, read “Evil Spam” in my book What Don’t You Know? ) and if the argubot is spamming, then this would be unethical.

While the argubot might seem like a spambot, one way to defend it against this charge is to note that the argubot provides what are mostly relevant responses that are comparable to what a human would legitimately  send in response to a tweet. Thus, while it is automated, it is arguing rather than spamming. This seems to be an important distinction. After all, the argubot does not try to sell male enhancement, scam people, or get people to download a virus. Rather, it responds to arguments that can be seen as inviting a response-be it from a person or a script.

In regards to the harassment charge, the argubot does not seem to be engaged in what could be legitimately considered harassment. First, the content does not seem to constitute harassment.  Second, the context of the “debate” is a public forum (Twitter) that explicitly allows such interactions to take place-whether they involve just humans or humans and bots.

Obviously, an argubot could be written that would actually be spamming or engaged in harassment. However, this argubot does not seem to cross the ethical line in regards to this behavior.

I suspect that we will see more argubots soon.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Young Women Against Abortion

I’ve been analysing some more data from the Whose Body Is It Anyway? interactive activity, and I’ve come across a result that is a little… perplexing.

So a quick recap for anybody lucky enough to have missed me going on about this before. Whose Body Is It Anyway? is about abortion; it’s been completed more than 16,000 times; and during it people are asked whether they think abortion is morally justified (and in what circumstances). I’m taking it that people who have stated it is never justified or only justified where a mother’s life is at risk are broadly against abortion (though, of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow they’ll be against abortion rights).

I’ve been looking at how people under-30 have responded, particularly those who are against abortion. This is what I’ve found that I think is interesting.

1. 29.5% (2032 out of 6892) of men under-30 are against abortion. This compares to 36.6% (1392 out of 3800) of women under-30, who are against abortion.

I’ve put together a Z-test calculator, which is here, and if you plug the figures in, you’ll see that this is easily a statistically significant difference. (The Z-Score is 7.582, which is significant at p <.01).

Okay, so I thought, well, the difference is probably because proportionately more of the under-30 women are religious compared to the under-30 men. And actually that is the case. But this is where things get a little odd.

If you look at religious people under-30, you find:

2. 55% (1269 out of 2299) of religious men under-30 are against abortion. This compares to 55% (950 out of 1719) of religious women under-30, who are against abortion.

This result is not statistically significant. Plug the results in yourself, and you’ll see. (The Z-Score is 0.042, which is not significant at p <.05).

Right, now it’s important to recognise that even though the proportion against abortion is the same for men and women in the religious under-30 category, it’s still possible that it is a preponderance of religious women that explains the overall difference between the responses of under-30 men and women. (If you can’t figure out why this is the case, have a go at this Simpson’s Paradox activity, and have a ponder!).

However, this possibility can’t explain the third, and most perplexing, result.

3. 16% (763 out of 4593) of men of no religion who are under-30 are against abortion. This compares to 21% (442 out of 2081) of women of no religion under-30, who are against abortion. This difference is easily statistically significant. (The Z-Score is 4.553, which is significant at p <.01).

So why are young women of no religion more likely to be against abortion than young men of no religion?

I find that counterintuitive, but I know that other people don’t (because they’ve told me!). It’s possible that I’m missing something here because of my UK background. (Abortion is pretty much a non-issue in the UK.)