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Generally I appreciate how Sam Harris can express atheist ideas in novel ways that are clear and often also funny. But it also seems to me that he does better in debates than in books.

I found that The Moral Landscape didn't live up to the hype. It succeeds in showing that a morality could be developed by objective, "scientific" means, and that may be important news to some, but I think that for anyone familiar with the philosophy of morals, it just seems like slightly tweaked utilitarianism. Sure you can develop a morality based on maximum human flourishing, but Sam doesn't even attempt to justify why we should accept maximizing human flourishing to be the basis of morality. He says something like "I can't imagine anyone reasonable to disagree" which, if it was supposed to be an argument, is an incredibly weak one.

The core argument is that some lives are objectively "better" than others. He contrasts a woman in the jungle about to be murdered after a lifetime of degradation with a rich and successful philanthropist busy changing the world for the better. From this he deduces that we can objectively determine which actions are conducive to "good" lives, and he calls such actions moral.

It seems to me that just adding "during all this, her faith never wavered" to the "bad" life story would change some people's opinion on which life is preferable. So like all moralities, this one hinges on whether one accepts the initial premises.

But thinking further on this, I'm wondering if trying to "justify" morals is not doomed from the start. If, as Hume says, an "ought" cannot be derived from an "is", it follows that morals cannot be based on any aspect of reality. Moral duties can only be asserted. If not, they fail to be morals and become something else. If we pursue Plato's summum bonum because we believe it desirable , then we are pursuing desires, not acting morally. If we obey the commandments for fear of Hell or for the rewards of Heaven, we are acting on self-interest, not morals.

So in Sam Harris' scheme, I'm not clear on which is supposed to justify which; to paraphrase the Eutyphro: are actions moral because they promote human flourishing, or do actions promote human flourishing because they are moral? I don't see how the second option could possibly make sense. If an action promotes human flourishing today but did the opposite yesterday due to changing circumstances, then we can say that the action was immoral yesterday but has become moral today. We know this ONLY because we can determine that it no longer promotes human flourishing. I simply can't see how the reverse could be possible; that we determine by some non-consequentialist means that an immoral action has become moral and will now promote human flourishing. If we decide today that vaccines are immoral, they won't suddenly become harmful to human flourishing. But if we found through research that the anti-vaccine crowd is right after all, surely vaccines would then be recognized as immoral.

Sam Harris is saying that those actions are moral that promote human flourishing. In other words, "human flourishing" becomes the touch-stone of morality, which seems to become a circular argument: we should promote human flourishing because doing so is moral, and we should be moral because it promotes human flourishing. What is the added value of the concept of "morality" in this chain of reasoning? Morality is supposed to tell us how we should act. If morality is justified by something else (eg human flourishing) then isn't it really that something else that is telling us how to act? Couldn't we just call this "human ecology" or something and not link it to "morality" at all?

On a different track, I think that "morality" may be a category error, in that it covers many different categories of things. Indeed, to believe that "how we should live" can be not only independent of circumstance, but derived from a single source or principle, strikes me as stark madness. The philosophical attempts to reduce "morality" to a single source, be it virtues or categorical imperatives or socially constructed conventions or intentions or consequences, may just be a lingering superstition from an age of belief in divine law-givers, and dropping it could probably resolve many seemingly insoluble moral difficulties.
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Nice to see a software project whose instructional videos are empowering for young girls...
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Happy holidays everyone! Merry solstice festivities of your choosing!
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I keep coming across versions of the kalaam cosmological argument lately, and while there are a lot of good refutations around, most of them focus on the "cosmological" nature of the argument. I haven't seen any that address the causal basis directly.

For those who might not remember, the most common formulation (as used by both Christian and Muslim apologists) is like this:

1) Everything that has a beginning must have a cause
2) The universe has a beginning
3) Therefore; the universe has a cause
4) Therefore; Jehovah/Jesus/Allah/Flying Spaghetti monster

Most refutations focus on the following points:
- the current space/time continuum began at the big bang, but we don't know if "everything that is" had a beginning.
- quantum stuff can appear out of "nothing"
- 4 totally doesn't follow from 3

I would instead like to look at point 1 in more detail, which has nothing to do with cosmology per se.

Unlike what many philosophers seem to think, causality is not a law of nature or even a scientific theory. Real science doesn't say things like "gravity is the cause of falling apples", but rather things like a=Gm/r².

Cause-and-effect is rather a framework we use to conceptualize the world, much like "things" and "events" which are more or less arbitrary constructs our minds use to make sense of the world. Like any conceptual frameworks, it has its limitations - infinite regress being the most obvious one. What the kalaam argument tries to do is to base claims about reality on playing with the limitations of the causal conceptual model. It's a bit like insisting that, because "it rains" there really exists some entity engaged in the activity of raining, rather than allowing the "it" to be just a spook created by rules of English grammar.

We may also note that "Every thing that has a beginning must have a cause" is not the most straightforward formulation of causality. The weaselly wording is deliberate, because in step 4 the arguer wants to claim that Jesus/Allah/FSM has no beginning and therefore the argument doesn't apply to them.

But that this is not at all how normal people reason causally can be seen by simple examples like:
- Everything that has a beginning must have a cause
- Your cancer had a beginning
- Therefore; your cancer had a cause
- Therefore; smoking exists

Even a rephrasing as minor as "every event must have a cause" can be seen to throw a major wrench into the argument - because then they need to explain what caused the FSM to decide to create the universe at that specific point without being able to hide behind "but the FSM always existed". That's before we even bring in the other Aristotelian causes. If the universe is an Aristotelian "thing" then it must have:
- a material cause: it must be made of something, like a chair is made of wood.
- a formal cause: there must exist an ideal universe in the world of Platonic Ideas.
- an efficient cause: something fashioned the universe, like the carpenter fashioned the chair.
- a final cause: the universe is made for some purpose.
But "everything there is" can't be a thing in that sense, because then its causes wouldn't be. Now what?

So in short, I think the kalaam can be refuted without bringing cosmology into it, by observing that:
1. Causality is a model to organize our observations of reality (I'm wet because it rains). There is no basis to assume that the model constrains reality in the way the argument presupposes.
2. Even granting that presupposition, the argument depends crucially on obscurity through weasel words.
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I contributed 4 works to a local art exhibit around "freethought and the body", that starts this Sunday.

When I went to hang my artwork, someone crashed into my car from behind as I stopped for someone taking a left turn. Damage wasn't too bad, except for the parking sensors which are now inside the bumper, and my neck is a bit sore. But anyway.

Since I create most of my art digitally, when I want to show something, I have it printed out. This time I had 3 works printed on canvas (although the cheap prints needed heavy retouching so they're mostly "hand-made" now) and one on a coated aluminum plate, which looks quite gorgeous.

A question that invariably comes up with my art prints is "where is the original?"

So let's think about that for a moment. Why do people care about "the original" for art that looks like paintings and drawings, while I don't know anybody who turns up their nose at reading books that aren't original manuscripts, or thinks that poems written in vi are somehow less "real" than poems written on paper?

It's an attitude that seems to lack consistency, even if we stick with representational art; what about woodblock artists like Hokusai or Hiroshige? Is their work less valid because it only ever existed as a print?

I think there are several possible reasons for the "original" fetish.

First is of course the capitalist notion of market value. An original artwork has great monetary value because investors are willing to pay great sums of money for it. This value has very little to do with artistic merit, as it is just another manifestation of our tulipomania-based economic system where value is determined by what people think other people would be willing to pay.

What's also interesting in this regard is that we can see an historic reversal between the roles of the craftsman, who used to sell their work on the market, and the artist, whose work was sponsored by patronage. Today the famous, big-name artists are more like the artisan of old, creating work for sale to fill the demand of the market. An artist in this market is not supposed to be too original, but to make clearly "recognizable" works to maintain "brand-name" recognition. It could be argued that so-called hobbyists who support their creative efforts by their own or others' patronage are actually closer to the historical notion of the artist.

What is art? Is it a product on the capitalist market, or is it essentially a gift in a gift-based economy?

The second argument that occurs to me is the idea that the "original" is almost magically transformed by the touch of the artist, who arranged everything "just so" - the exact shade of the pigments, the imprint of every hair of the brush, etc. - and no reproduction could possibly capture all these subtle nuances. I feel this view casts artists as some kind of ultimate control freaks; from my own experience, creative work is much closer to a kind of controlled accident than to the meticulous physical reproduction of a super-detailed mental image.

What is art? Is it a rare object in the vault of an investor, or is it an idea that might touch people's hearts?

I don't think there's anything WRONG with people wanting to collect "original" artwork, any more than with people who collect original movie props or anime celluloid or stamps with rare production defects. But we mustn't mistake collection with the final cause of these artifacts. Like stamps, artwork is meant for communication first, not collection.
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Yesterday I discovered the musical ensemble "Kineie Nami Shachu" that plays covers of popular Nico Nico Douga songs on traditional instruments. They're quite good, but I also find it very funny. I added links to the traditional non-traditional versions.

Senbon Zakura


Bad Apple


Dancing samurai


Fires of Hokkai


Probably my favorite: Hannya Shingyou


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The trailer for Dark Dungeons, the movie version of the (in)famous Chick tract, almost makes me want to watch it; it looks like it's going to be absolutely hilarious, an instant cult classic.

Mostly because it's set in this alternate universe where D&D role play is something all the cool and popular kids are into. XD
Oh, and Cthulhu is real. Almost forgot that one.

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Every day I go to work, I drive past a giant full-color statue of a naked one-eyed bearded man. I would take a picture but it's on the highway... but I found one online (curious how long it will take photobucket to remove it):
cut for giant anatomically correct nudity )

It's a work by an Italian artist, exhibited on the terrains of a forklift company right next to the E17 highway (forklifts, of all things). The owner loves art and quirky humor, apparently.

It's been there for years. Originally it wore briefs, but those were stolen. Some vandal set it on fire in 2012, but it's been brought back.

Whenever I stop to think about it, I have to say it's really awesome. The owner of that business must have some giant balls ^_^;

The Purge

Mar. 12th, 2014 07:27 pm
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I watched some movies last weekend, one of which was "The Purge".

For a low-budget thriller it had some pretty interesting social critique. It also raised some moral questions; your home is surrounded by a bloodthirsty armed mob who threaten to kill your entire family unless you turn over the homeless black stranger that sought refuge in your house. You have a wife and teenage son and daughter to protect. What do you do?

I don't mean to spoil the movie, but Read more... )The movie also wants us to ponder (I think) about the end and what we would have done with the would-be purgers.


Jan. 19th, 2014 03:29 pm
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Temperance not only is one of the four Cardinal Virtues of Catholicism (and one of the five Precepts of Buddhism), it’s also the name of a specific movement gathering steam throughout the 19th century, mainly in anglophone countries, aiming to reduce the consumption of alcohol.

In the US, much of the Temperance Movement was religiously inspired (although by Protestantism rather than Catholicism or Buddhism), and much of it was led by women (such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1873 and still around today).

The most obvious way to ‘temper’ the consumption of alcohol is not to drink it at all; so the call for Temperance escalated into pleas for Abstinence. But the personal choice not to drink at all is much easier if there’s no temptation around. And thus the Movement moved inexorably from demanding Temperance through advocating Abstinence to pushing for Prohibition - “an intemperate denunciation of temperate drinking,” as G.K. Chesterton once derisively described it.

Temperance, now in the guise of Prohibition, was spread with a religious zeal bordering on the fanatical. In 1851, Maine became the first Prohibition state; four years later, there were already 12 ‘dry’ US states. In 1919, the 18th Amendment extended Prohibition to the entire US. Jubilant Temperance zealots were predicting the end of crime, and prepared to promote the benefits of Prohibition in other countries.

But this is where the Temperance wave crested. Far from reducing crime, Prohibition actually gave organised crime a serious boost - e.g. Al Capone and other ‘classic’ American gangsters. Prohibition was not only impopular, but eventually untenable. The 18th Amendment is the only one to have ever been rescinded (in 1933, by the 21st).
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"But an intellectual slight of hand occurs over this matter of identity--explaining oneself in this way neatly avoids dealing with the Political implications of one's identity. If identity is held as a given, it is off-limits to criticism or analysis. If, for example, I hold catholicism as my identity rather than my choice then I avoid moral accountability for the various beliefs and political stances go along with it. And if I demand that other people respect my identity as a catholic, then I demand that they accept without protest the policies that I choose along with my catholic identity, even while I pretend my catholicism is not a political choice, only a matter of identity. Identity politics is a stealth maneuver that demands, in the name of tolerance, that others do not challenge my politics."
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I got the 3-D printed bronze seals I ordered!
Read more... )

The .stl file is downloadable here. I can make the object orderable online in case anyone is interested.
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I imagine everyone has seen the amazing videos of Google's robots by now.
At 0:35 in this video, a researcher gives the robot a kick to demonstrate its ability to maintain balance. No matter how many times I watch it, it still disturbs me. It's not that I ascribe feelings to the robot. Apparently I do believe that one can be mean to insentient beings.


Nov. 11th, 2013 09:45 pm
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You're alive. The world is alive. Life is joyous. The rest are arbitrary things we make up in our heads, and then take waaay too seriously.
-- me
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Erich Fromm wrote that love is the capacity to engender love in others. I'm not sure I agree with that definition; it seems facile to say "if they don't love you back then that means you don't really love them" - so Jesus didn't really love his enemies because they nailed him to a stick anyway? It also seems wrong, somehow, to insist that love must always be returned to the point of making it part of the definition of love. Then what about love for a plant or a goldfish or a fictional character or the planet or humanity in general?

"it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"

I'd be inclined to say "depending on what's meant by 'loved and lost" - for some meanings of "lost", all love relationship will be "lost" eventually; they end sooner or by death, and even then they won't stay the same. People who've been together for a long time often say they actually had a succession of different relationships with the same person.

So one take on lost is in the sense of a love relationship that was, but ended or changed into something else. In that case the statement is fairly obviously true, like saying "it's better to live and die than never live at all".

Another sense, the one I'm personally thinking of when I hear the phrase, is not about relationships, but where "to love" is when you commit a serious part of yourself to something or someone, essentially taking a risk, making a leap of faith that the effort will contribute to their happiness. And then "to lose" in that context would be when you misleap, misjudge, like when your very existence causes suffering to the one you love, and you can do nothing to change that. I think what Tennyson is trying to say is that, even if in a particular situation it might seem that it would have been better to "not have loved at all", that doesn't mean it's better to lose courage in general, to never take the risk of reaching out and being affected by someone else. At the risk of sounding woowoo, I think avoiding love is a spiritual dead end, it's as much an extreme as becoming codependent...


Nov. 11th, 2013 09:21 pm
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"Things that a culture doesn't want to talk about, that culture makes it cumbersome to talk about. One mechanism for creating that cumbersomeness is to keep the vocabulary for talking about those things severely limited, so that when people try to talk about them they have to "go on and on and on," so that their listeners grow restless and start demanding that they "get to the point."
--Dr Elgin

I don't think the question here is one of arcane vocabulary or meanings negotiated specifically within the context of the conversation. The vocabulary can be very extensive and still make it cumbersome to talk about things society doesn't like to think about, by loading all variations and synonyms with the narrow accepted meaning. This makes it cumbersome for anyone to challenge the "accepted wisdom" or talk about alternatives. The vocabulary establishes a context of preconceived notions that is very hard to escape from, leading to elaborate and cumbersome qualifications and disclaimers that will often be met with disbelief. So a person will be forced to use constructions like "sodomy without connotations of divine wrath that ruins cities" or "romantic relationship where sexuality is not the main focus, no really" or "pedophilia that is not child abuse" or "feminism that recognizes the right of women to put their family before their career without being made to feel guilty about it" or "poor through no fault of their own nor lack of effort nor inherent personality flaw" and so on.
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I think a striving to be "a good person" often derails into rationalizing and justifying our not-so-good actions as somehow virtuous. I have the impression that often, when there is a conflict between our moral sense and some other consideration, people try to redefine their morals so as to avoid ever acting immoral in their own mind, even if such rationalisations appear blatantly self-serving to others. I think that is actually the greater evil - it's a habit that can lead people very far astray, committing atrocities that they've convinced themselves are moral.

I think the main fallacy behind this is seeing "goodness" as an attribute of a person (if we do a bad thing we're not a good person anymore) rather than a property of an action. It gets even more convoluted by bringing intentions into it - so if you do a bad deed with good intentions or a good deed with wicked intent, it's the intent that determines your "goodness". Clearly if we strive above all to be "a good person" it becomes more important to us that our intentions were "pure" than how many people were hurt by our actions. Like a Christian focus on sin, it can lead to judgmental airs of moral purity and hypocrisy - one's "stance" trumps the actual consequences of one's behavior.

I tend to think that moderation in all things (including moderation) is usually preferable to all manner of extremism. In my opinion, it is better to *not* try for "moral perfection". Because, if we think a certain course of action is "good", then being anything less than fanatical about it would mean acting less "good" than we are able to. But the moment we start investigating, the concept of absolute, objective or essential morality quickly collapses, and one is left trying to do good when "good" has no fixed meaning.

The childish answer is the negative "don't do anything bad" - don't break the rules. A more mature morality will make judgments on what a given situation requires - who will benefit, who will we harm, in which kind of world do we want to live? Even then I think perfect morality would require perfect wisdom; it's easy enough to say that, for example, minimising harm is a good thing, but it's far from easy to figure out what course of action in a given situation corresponds to minimal harm.

Since I'm only moderately wise, I think it's best if I accept that I can only be moderately moral, too. History is full of atrocities committed by people whose desire to be moral exceeded their wisdom. Or as they say; "the best is the enemy of the good." I think it's preferable to leave my morals intact even if I sometimes don't live up to them for various reasons of fallibility.

If people try to "be good" rather than "do good", they have to resolve the tension between who they are and who they think they ought to be. I think that being excessively bothered by that gap may lead one into bizarre directions. Much simpler to say that no person is "good" or "bad" as some inherent property, but rather the same people can act in ways we admire or disapprove of...
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In a conventional socialist arrangement, the one everyone thinks of when they think "socialism," a worker works but does not keep the profits from his work. The profits--the results of his labor--are distributed across the population.

In the inverted socialism that comes along with lax regulation of environmental and social practices, a business keeps the profits from its work, but the costs associated with doing business are distributed across the population. This artificially increases the business' profit; the socialization of risk means that some of what would otherwise be the business' expense are paid by the community--even those who do not work for that business--and by other businesses impacted by the first business' practice. Profit is not distributed, but cost and risk are.

This socialization of risk amounts to a subsidy paid by the people surrounding the business which inflates the business' worth and increases its profits without increasing production or efficiency. Because the risks are subsidized and the costs associated with those risks are socialized, businesses which operate in a manner that socializes risk end up at a competitive advantage over businesses which shoulder the full costs of doing business.
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