Thursday, April 12, 2012

Where I'm at

Feynman summed up my problem here

"I think that when we know that we actually do live in uncertainty, then we ought to admit it; it is of great value to realize that we do not know the answers to different questions.  This attitude of mind – this attitude of uncertainty – is vital to the scientist, and it is this attitude of mind which the student must first acquire.  It becomes a habit of thought.  Once acquired, one cannot retreat from it any more."

And thus: "The spirit of uncertainty in science is an attitude toward the metaphysical questions that is quite different from the certainty and faith that is demanded in religion."

So instead of 'trying to believe things' I finally gave up and decided to believe only things that I could not disbelieve. 
What do I mean by ‘believe’ or ‘disbelieve’? I favour the definition provided by the 19th century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce: “A belief is a habit, i.e., a readiness or disposition to respond in certain kind of ways on certain kinds of occasions.”

With this definition, it should become evident that there are some things that cannot be disbelieved. We cannot disbelieve F = GMm/r2, in that we cannot habitually behave as if it were not true: each time we behave as if it were not true, we are likely to injure ourselves, and if we attempt to make it a habit we are sure to break before the universe does. 

In the same time as we cannot disbelieve F = GMm/r2, we cannot disbelieve that life is better than death. Believing this, which means acting upon it, we cease to exist.

I think the idea that death is better than life is one of a small number of beliefs that, believed in a Peircean way, will destroy any functioning society, and so collectively cannot be believed. The antithesis of these beliefs is what C. S. Lewis called the “Tao”: the nugget of ethics common to every ethical system we know about.

So now I feel better most of the time and worse some of the time, compared to before Christmas 2007 when I was trying to be both a scientist and a Catholic.

Someone is wrong on the internet

Was tweeted a link to this informatron of  "rhetological fallacies" the other day.  The examples bugged me, and I thought some of the so-called fallacies were bogus, so I thought I would mess with it. Here is part one...

I've slightly broadened the original "Appeal to Pity" to "Appeal to Empathy" because "Pity" doesn't quite adequately cover what is a pervasive and terrible rhetological trick.

Let's talk about whaling. Whales are beautiful, majestic, intelligent, social animals that mourn their dead. This is the sort of thing that is said to make us empathise with whales - to make us say, gee, if we were whales, we wouldn't much like to cop an explosive harpoon in the head. Beautiful and majestic? Those are subjective, just things existing in our own heads. Intelligent, social, mourning their dead? All *those* things are true of magpies. Yet we don't have 'Sky Shepherd' blocking roads and lobbying for 20 kph speed limits everywhere to stop the slaughter of thousands upon thousands of roadkilled magpies.

I imagine magpies are just harder for people to empathise with than whales are.

I am very susceptible to the "Appeal to Empathy". I strongly empathised with the whales as soon as my teachers first told me about them and still strongly empathise with them. But - way back then, while we were studying whales, I thought of someone else and empathised with him too. Let me tell you about this man. His father was a whaler. His grandfather was a whaler. He is a proud, competent man about the age I am now. He has a lot of not readily-transferrable skills in a hard, dangerous, skilled, romantic occupation. When I think about the end of whaling I think of him sitting alone on the dole in a tiny apartment in Miyagi prefecture, getting on the turps far too early in the morning and dreaming of the illimitable vistas of the Southern Ocean. I still tear up thinking about that man.

The point is that these appeals to empathy are a lousy way to argue. There are questions we should be asking and trying to solve, rather than just emoting at each other.

First, the easy question. Is whaling a sustainable practice? If it is isn't, we should stop it. No one wants to lose these species.

Second, if it is sustainable, what if anything makes it worse than other ways of harvesting animal protein? *Is* there anything unique about whales that makes their suffering more significant than the suffering of pigs and magpies? Frankly, I don't think our civilisation has its philosophical shit together enough to answer this question. I think the answer is 'no'. Anybody care to mount an argument for the affirmative?

Third, how do we equate the suffering of one whale to the suffering of however many pigs or however many chickens are required to produce the same amount of animal protein? We would not think it was a terrible tragedy if one highly intelligent and personable person sacrificed their life to save a thousand Epsilon semi-morons. Why would it be so bad if a highly intelligent and personable whale sacrificed their life to save a thousand chickens?

But instead of asking these questions, we just appeal to empathy.

I guess this has sort of wandered away from a general critique of the 'Appeal to Empathy'; but the selective appeal to empathy is everywhere, poisoning arguments at the root.