Sunday, 30 March 2014

Two cheers for evolutionary psychology

Content note: rape, misogyny. Some details potentially NSFW.
You guys will have figured out by now that pretty much everything I write, I write because I read something that I disagreed with and it bugged me. Well, a few months ago now I commented on a guy called Richard Carrier’s blog to tell him that yes, it’s still rape if you have sex with someone whom you’ve plied with alcohol to the point of stupor, even if it so happens that they feel aroused at the time (while being drunk to the point of stupor). He didn’t publish my reply to his reply, and the reason I’m telling you this is that ever since then, I haven’t been able to comment on dozens of blogs. I click “Submit” and the comment disappears. This means I have a lot of bottled-up rejoinders to blog posts I’ve disagreed with buzzing around in my head, and I don’t care if that’s a mixed metaphor.
And one thing that especially gets to me is when people whose politics I basically agree with, try to back them up with crappy science. Or rather, that doesn’t happen so often as when people whose politics I agree with try to back them up by denying non-crappy science. Since I’m a leftist, this generally isn’t global warming or evolution; it’s more often vaccines, fluoridation, and genetically modified food. (I don’t trust big corporations not to poison our food or the environment, but that’s because they already do; GM wouldn’t make it much worse.) But sometimes it is evolution. Especially, evolutionary psychology.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Magician’s Nephew

        
In the third region

Venus voyages...
but my voice falters;

Rude rime-making
wrongs her beauty,

Whose breasts and brow,
and her breath’s sweetness

Bewitch the worlds.
Wide-spread the reign

Of her secret sceptre,
in the sea’s caverns,

In grass growing,
and grain bursting,

Flower unfolding,
and flesh longing,

And shower falling
sharp in April.

The metal copper
in the mine reddens

With muffled brightness,
like muted gold,

By her fingers form’d.
        

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Imponderable III: The Self

I was a curious kid. I wouldn’t have been more than eight years old when I learned that green things are green because they absorb the light that isn’t green. Not that I’m claiming I understood it fully. For some time I was mystified as to why green cellophane didn’t make things look red when you looked through it, because I thought absorption was basically light going into the object while reflection was basically light bouncing off the object, so that light going through the object was more like absorption than reflection, because it didn’t bounce off, so if green objects absorbed red light then how come...?
In case you are puzzled by this yourself, absorption isn’t about light “going in”, it’s about light going in and stopping (because its energy has been captured and redirected elsewhere, always at least partly into raising the object’s temperature). The primary distinction is between light that stops and light that keeps going; the latter category is secondarily divided into light that passes through and light that bounces off.
However, at least some of my high-school chemistry classmates had evidently missed this information, because when our teacher explained how the red dyes in a plastic ANZAC Day poppy absorbed shorter wavelengths because the electrons in the iron atoms jumped up a couple of valence shells, or something, one of them exclaimed “So it’s not really red? It’s just that it absorbs the other light?”
This isn’t the Imponderable on consciousness, that’s still to come, so I won’t here speculate on why our experience of colour feels so removed from the Newtonian interpretation of light wavelength and frequency. The point here is this idea that photon absorption is somehow cheating – that there must be a “real red” somewhere which isn’t faked up out of all that physics-y stuff. Because people who have got past that, and are perhaps even now chortling at my sixteen-year-old classmate, are still susceptible to the idea that there might be “real” fear, “real” anger, or “real” love floating around in amongst their synapses and neurotransmitters.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

This is how I write when I have a word limit

Earlier this year the Labour History Project held a competition calling for essays on people’s vision for New Zealand. I entered this, but – as you can tell from the fact that I’m blogging it – I didn’t win. My title was “We Can Do Better”, because I’d spent all the time available on the essay itself and had to come up with something vaguely snappy-ish at the last minute. Because it was written for an audience of politically conscious New Zealanders, I mention quite a few things in passing which I would have had to sit down and explain for an international audience. I’ve put in links that hopefully should be helpful there. I wrote this all before the recent revelations about the Auckland rape gang and the beyond-incompetent police response to it, or that would have been the major focus of the essay.
Yes, this is how I write when there’s a word limit. When I worked at a local student magazine my style was described as “brisk”. I guess it makes for quicker reading but I hate not being able to explain all the nuances.


We humans are very good at coming up with solutions to our problems. Unfortunately, the solutions tend to create more problems. Plumbing means cleaner cities but dirtier oceans. Literacy means less ignorance but more squinting. The best we can hope for is that the new problems are smaller than the old ones. Then we can solve those ones, and so on.
So if you want to know what the future looks like, don’t look at the people celebrating existing ideas. Look at the naysayers, the people picking holes in them. Look at the Earth Hour people, not the “Human Achievement Hour” people. They’re where the next wave of improvements will come from.
That’s why I don’t take a Utopian approach to politics – any more than to housework. I’m never going to make the house perfectly clean, and it wouldn’t last long if I did. Instead my philosophy is what’s called meliorist, from the Latin for “better”. You see something that needs fixed, you fix it. You see something that needs cleaned up, you clean it up. You make things better than they were before.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Silver Chair

Lady Luna,
in light canoe,

By friths and shallows
of fretted cloudland

Cruises monthly;
with chrism of dews

And drench of dream,
a drizzling glamour

Enchants us – the cheat!
changing sometime

A mind to madness,
melancholy pale,

Bleached with gazing
on her blank count’nance

Orb’d and ageless.
In earth’s bosom

The shower of her rays,
sharp-feathered light

Reaching downward,
ripens silver,

Forming and fashioning
female brightness,

– Metal maidenlike.
Her moist circle

Is nearest earth.
        

Friday, 11 October 2013

How you know it’s rape culture: this is still an argument

Content note: rape, victim-blaming, misogyny, child abuse
Most of the time, I have the tremendous privilege of being able to go through life without having to think about rape or sexual assault. Lately, several things have happened that have brought it to my attention. I’m not a rape survivor, though I have experienced some very minor indecent assault as I’ll discuss below. I’m not claiming to speak on behalf of rape survivors. But I’m disgusted to the point I can no longer not say anything.
In particular, I need to speak up about one of the things that have happened because, a year ago, I wrote a pair of Facebook Notes about patriarchy, which I copied over to this blog here and here; and in the first one, I drew on an article by Michael Shermer (who, if you can’t be bothered Googling, is a well-known writer in the atheist community) for ideas on how to break male domination at the corporate executive level. And the thing that has happened is that Michael Shermer has been credibly accused of rape. I don’t want to take the patriarchy articles down, but I can’t just leave them there like nothing’s happened either, not without condemning the crime Shermer is alleged to have committed. I would love to believe he never did such a thing, but that’s frankly pretty implausible.
Another major thing is that here in New Zealand a man attacked two young women. At trial he was convicted of aggravated robbery but acquitted of indecent assault despite his lawyer agreeing that he had, in fact, indecently assaulted them. The sentencing judge speculated that “the foolishness of [the] two victims, venturing out alone at night in a park in a strange city, dressed as they were” had contributed to the jury’s decision. Put together, the verdict of a jury and the words of a judge make what we call “legal authority” – think about that. Then neoliberal icon Bob Jones wrote a grossly offensive commentary on the incident in the New Zealand Herald, which I’m not going to link you to and give him page hits, but here is a rewrite correcting Jones’ hatefulness, courtesy Marama Davidson at The Daily Blog.
And just so as not to be totally negative, a third thing was that I was in the crowd to hear this inspiring speech at the Dunedin SlutWalk.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

In which I argue with myself about abortion

I’ve written on this subject before, but that was a couple of years ago and I’ve had time to think about it more since then. Especially since a lot of the bloggers I read are passionate about it. Mostly on one side but some, including some of those closest to me, on the other. Though – don’t get me wrong – I have firmly picked one side, I’m more convinced than ever that the two sides are talking past each other.
What I’d really like to see is for people from both sides to sit down and have a civil conversation about it, but that’s not looking likely. The last time I saw a debate on the subject, it ended with someone ragequitting Facebook. Failing that, I decided to write a dialogue between a pro-choice character and a pro-life character. It’s been done before, of course; Peter Kreeft’s The Unaborted Socrates was one of the formative books of my childhood. And that brings up the next problem, namely writing a dialogue honestly when you disagree with one side. Who gets to stand for the Wrong side and get zinged? How long will it take before they become a blatant strawman?
Well, in my case I have the perfect candidate. This is an issue on which I have changed my mind; therefore, my interlocutors will both be myself, on either side of the change. I’m not claiming that everybody – or anybody but me – on either side holds the opinion I present on their behalf here. I do promise that they both honestly represent my opinion on the subject at different times in my life. I know myself well enough to know that if I were to meet myself I would ignore any topic to hand and try to figure out how the time loop I’d obviously run into worked. Therefore, the dialogue takes place over the internet and neither side is aware that they are the same person.
TheHatMan is approximately me at age 19, but I haven’t pinned him down to an exact point in my life. Also, he’s magically clued-up on things like Google which weren’t around in 1997. However, a content note: he is even less mindful of privilege than I am and at one point makes an inappropriate rape analogy. VeryRarelyStable is obviously me now, except that wherever TheHatMan discusses things in his own life VeryRarelyStable has conveniently forgotten them (and vice versa).

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Horse and His Boy

        
Next beyond her [Luna]

Mercury marches; –
madcap rover,

Patron of pilf’rers.
Pert quicksilver

His gaze begets,
goblin mineral,

Merry multitude
of meeting selves,

Same but sundered.
From the soul’s darkness,

With wreathèd wand,
words he marshals,

Guides and gathers them –
gay bellwether

Of flocking fancies.
His flint has struck

The spark of speech
from spirit’s tinder,

Lord of language!
He leads forever

The spangle and splendour,
sport that mingles

Sound with senses,
in subtle pattern,

Words in wedlock,
and wedding also

Of thing with thought.
        

Monday, 5 August 2013

The Tao of bullshit

For some reason a lot of the traffic to this ’ere blog lately seems to be coming from a video advertising The Tao of Badass, a book by someone called Josh Pellicer. He starts out doing the RSA Animate thing of hand-drawing cartoons to illustrate what he’s talking about, but halfway through he seems to have got bored with that and switched to (badly-punctuated) text in the middle of a blank white window. This is far from the only way that Pellicer’s video is a waste of space, so I’m not linking it here. You can Google it if you must. How exactly Pellicer is sending pageviews my way I don’t know, because there’s no link to Very Rarely Stable on the video page. Either it’s on a message board which you have to sign up, presumably having bought the book, to see, or it’s some kind of spambot. Spamming people’s blog traffic stats doesn’t strike me as a terribly effective way to sell a product, but hey.
Josh Pellicer is a man on a mission. A mission to (make money by pretending he’ll) help guys get laid. You can tell it’s dodgy right from the get-go, because there are no controls on the video. You can’t stop it, pause it, or even change the volume. You can only watch. That tells you straight away, same as a telemarketer’s pitch, that this person can’t afford to let you stop and think before you commit to what he’s selling. At the beginning the voice-over tells you the video will be taken down after 24 hours. I’ve now seen it three times, weeks apart – no, I only sat right through it once, but I’d say that’s a pretty good gauge of the quality of what Pellicer has to hand out.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The right kind of equality

Nine years ago almost to the day as I write this, the Māori Party was formally established in this country. Many people, most prominently its co-founder Tariana Turia, were dissatisfied with the then-governing Labour Party’s stance on various issues affecting Māori; the final straw was the Foreshore and Seabed Act. The point is that recently, a bunch of dopey munters have set up a Facebook page and called themselves “the Pakeha Party”, because isn’t it racist to have a Māori Party and no Pākehā Party? Er, since people in other countries do occasionally seem to visit this blog, though judging by my comments filter you’re all spambots, I need to explain that “Pākehā” is the Māori word for the European-descended majority culture of New Zealand.
The other thing that happened recently has been dubbed “the Man-Ban” by the New Zealand media, because the New Zealand media is apparently a fourteen-year-old kid. The Labour Party was considering implementing a quota to ensure equal numbers of male and female MPs, and allowing some electorate offices to seek only female Parliamentary candidates. Read that again: they were considering the idea, and (had they not backed down in the face of the media) some electorates would have been allowed to seek only female candidates. Nothing had been decided for sure, and it wouldn’t have been mandatory. But that was enough to spark a nationwide whinge-storm from people who would never have dreamed of running for Parliament for Labour.
You see the common thread here, right? In both cases the complaints are about what has been called “affirmative action” and “reverse discrimination”. If it’s sexist to keep women out of office, isn’t it sexist to keep men out of office? If it’s racist to give white people special treatment just because they’re white, isn’t it racist to give Māori people special treatment just because they’re Māori?

Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”

        
Far beyond her [Venus]

The heaven’s highway
hums and trembles,

Drums and dindles,
to the driv’n thunder

Of Sol’s chariot,
whose sword of light

Hurts and humbles;
beheld only

Of eagle’s eye.
When his arrow glances

Through mortal mind,
mists are parted

And mild as morning
the mellow wisdom

Breathes o’er the breast,
broadening eastward

Clear and cloudless.
In a clos’d garden

(Unbound her burden)
his beams foster

Soul in secret,
where the soil puts forth

Paradisal palm,
and pure fountains

Turn and re-temper,
touching coolly

The uncomely common
to cordial gold;

Whose ore also,
in earth’s matrix,

Is print and pressure
of his proud signet

On the wax of the world.
He is the worshipp’d male,

The earth’s husband,
all-beholding

Arch-chemic eye.
        

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

My brother is wrong

Just in case this is the post where I pick up a reader outside of my circle of family and close friends: My brother’s name is Patrick, he’s five years younger than me, he used to have a LiveJournal but I presume he isn’t using it any more because he posted this as a Note on Facebook instead. It’s set to “public”, so you can read it here as long as you have a Facebook login, but you needn’t worry if you haven’t because I’m going to quote the whole thing in sequence through this response. (Although, as you’ll see, he does take after me to a certain extent in the general area of philosophical wibbling, he doesn’t write to quite the kind of length that I do.)
Patrick’s Note is uninformatively titled “A few ideas” and begins as follows:
In the beginning, the universe was created.
There are two things that together convince me of this:
  1. The physical law of entropy; and
  2. The philosophical ‘First Cause’ argument.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

What’s wrong with economics

When you take lecture-notes for students with disabilities, you learn all kinds of interesting things. Well, it depends on the subject, of course. Fourth-year dentistry is of limited application, given I have no intention of ever becoming a dentist. But last year I took a first-year Economics paper – OK, I only took half of the lectures for that one, the other half went to some other note-taker, but it has given me considerable insight into how and why Western society is so screwed-up. (I also took several ecology-themed papers, so now I know both what we’re doing to our food supply and why we’re not going to change course until it’s too late.)
Lots of things have been suggested to explain what’s wrong with economics, so first of all let me say what the problem isn’t. The problem isn’t that economics models complex real-world situations with mathematical abstractions. Plenty of sciences do that; simplifying complexity is how we come to understand it. The problem isn’t that economics puts a money value on everything. Money is basically a measure of how much of a crap people really give about things, as opposed to wishing other people gave a crap about them; consider the saying “put your money where your mouth is”. The problem isn’t that economists don’t recognise the “intrinsic value” of natural systems (in the landscape, the biosphere, or the body). Value is about choices, priorities, and meanings, and those are people things, not world things. The problem isn’t that the models require people to act “selfishly”. People do act selfishly quite often – that’s why moralists everywhere have always had to tell us not to – but, more to the point, the logic of making and saving money applies regardless of whether it’s for you or for someone else. The problem isn’t that economists are all bourgeois intellectuals seeking to maintain the class structure that upholds their power. That might explain why errors have been made and not corrected, but not what the errors are. And the problem isn’t that economics assumes rational actors whereas people are in fact stupid – but that’s getting closer, except for the “stupid” part. People don’t behave the way economics presupposes they should. I’m going to have to go into a bit more detail here.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Prince Caspian

        
But other country

Dark with discord
dims beyond him [Sol],

With noise of nakers,
neighing of horses,

Hammering of harness.
A haughty god

Mars mercenary,
makes there his camp

And flies his flag;
flaunts laughingly

The graceless beauty,
grey-eyed and keen,

– Blond insolence –
of his blithe visage

Which is hard and happy.
He hews the act,

The indifferent deed
with dint of his mallet

And his chisel of choice;
achievement comes not

Unhelped by him;
– hired gladiator

Of evil and good.
All’s one to Mars,

The wrong righted,
rescued meekness,

Or trouble in trenches,
with trees splintered

And birds banished,
banks fill’d with gold

And the liar made lord.
Like handiwork

He offers to all –
earns his wages

And whistles the while.
White-feathered dread

Mars has mastered.
His metal’s iron

That was hammered through hands
into holy cross,

Cruel carpentry.
He is cold and strong,

Necessity’s son.
        

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Imponderable II: Free Will

I began the first Imponderable by bagging on Jim Flynn’s ideas about free will. I’m terribly sorry to give an unbalanced impression of Flynn, who is a first-rate political theorist, but I’m going to have to do it again. Some day I will do a political blog post which pays proper tribute to Flynn’s immense positive contributions to human understanding. For now, I’m afraid Flynn’s very clarity and force of expression make him the best starting-point for exposing the confusion in the traditional Western concept of free will.
The concept of free choice is perfectly coherent and easily stated. Free choice, to the extent that it is real, would be an uncaused cause. It is the opposite of what we call an epiphenomenon. A good example of the latter is the reflection of a tree in a pond: if you cut down the tree, the reflection disappears; but if you drop a rock on the reflection, the tree is unmoved. An epiphenomenon is all effect and no cause. If free choice exists, the present self has a genuine choice between (at least) two alternatives and creates a future that would not otherwise have existed. If we decide to pick up hitchhikers as an act of charity at a greater risk to our lives, the world will be different: more hitchhikers will get to their destinations quicker and some extra lives will be lost. Free choice breaks the flow of the world from past to future and thus the result is what philosophers call “metaphysical discontinuity”.
Jim Flynn, Where Have All the Liberals Gone? p. 265

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Busting a (capitalist) myth – with tools you presumably have at home

Back before I had this blog I did a Note about this on my Facebook. It wasn’t all that clearly written, so I didn’t transfer it over to be a blog post. But I referred to that Note in another Note, the one about patriarchy, which I did transfer over, and I find I replaced said reference with a promise to do a blog post on it “soon”. So, um, I hope five months is soon enough to count as “soon”.
I wrote the original when the Occupy movement was enjoying its first wave of enthusiasm. There was a popular photo meme of people holding up placards giving some facts about their financial situation and then “I Am the 99%”. And then, of course, came the reaction; photos of people holding up things saying “I’m not the 99%, I worked to get where I am, get a job you hippie” (I’m paraphrasing, but not unfairly I think).
This narrative goes way beyond a few photos on Facebook. It is written deep into our society’s economic philosophy. Choose to work hard and exercise your talents, and you will be rewarded with wealth. Choose to complain and protest instead of knuckling down and getting things done, and you will be rewarded with poverty, for which you will have no-one to blame but yourself.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

        
Soft breathes the air

Mild, and meadowy,
as we mount further

Where rippled radiance
rolls about us

Moved with music –
measureless the waves’

Joy and jubilee.
It is Jove’s orbit,

Filled and festal,
faster turning

With arc ampler.
From the Isles of Tin

Tyrian traders,
in trouble steering

Came with his cargoes;
the Cornish treasure

That his ray ripens.
Of wrath ended

And woes mended,
of winter passed

And guilt forgiven,
and good fortune

Jove is master;
and of jocund revel,

Laughter of ladies.
The lion-hearted,

The myriad-minded,
men like the gods,

Helps and heroes,
helms of nations

Just and gentle,
are Jove’s children,

Work his wonders.
On his wide forehead

Calm and kingly,
no care darkens

Nor wrath wrinkles:
but righteous power

And leisure and largesse
their loose splendours

Have wrapped around him –
a rich mantle

Of ease and empire.
        

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

On running videos backwards

Not so easy, of course, with DVDs. You can search backwards, of course, but it skips back in little still-frames, you don’t see the action run backwards as you could with a video cassette if you rewound it without stopping it first. We didn’t have a TV at our house, let alone a video, but we got to watch a movie on the last day of school one year (I think it might have been Herbie Goes Bananas) and they ran the tape backwards when it was finished and we six-year-olds just laughed and laughed, it was all so funny.
I’ve heard, though without any titles or names that would help me Google it, that someone once actually made an entire movie that way – acted everything backwards, and also filmed everything backwards, so that when it was played things happened forwards but everything was subtly weird. But what makes it weird? What were we all laughing at when I was six?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Explaining the internet to C. S. Lewis

I always loved the Narnia series as a kid. It took a back seat when I read The Lord of the Rings, mind you, but it never fell off the bus altogether. I read the Cosmic Trilogy and the Screwtape Letters in due course. Then, as a teenager, being nerdy and a Christian, I got heavily into C. S. Lewis’s apologetic writings – I think his argument for the supernatural in Miracles (the relevant chapter is reproduced here, and I’ll deal with it in depth in an Imponderable some time) may have delayed my atheism by about five years. Lewis became one of my heroes, and I strove to emulate him. Various people have been kind enough, through the years, to praise my writing for its clarity; they have Lewis to thank.
During that time, I got into the habit of having imaginary conversations with C. S. Lewis. This isn’t so unusual. I tend to have imaginary conversations a lot with Richard Dawkins or Steven Pinker or whoever I’ve been reading lately (though mainly only non-fiction; I don’t do this with Terry Pratchett). But I read so much Lewis that it became ingrained. When I became an atheist, the conversations became distinctly more adversarial, but they continued.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Book to film

I confess. I caved. I went in to find out how long The Hobbit was sold out for, and it wasn’t. J. R. R. Tolkien was such a big part of my childhood that I’m afraid my disgust at the union-busting tactics Peter Jackson and the John Key government used him as an excuse for, didn’t beat my deep need to see more of Middle-Earth onscreen. My only (poor) defence is that I do want to support a New Zealand industry that doesn’t involve digging big holes in the wild country or fouling the rivers with excrement. However, I began writing this post before all that, and so this isn’t a post about The Hobbit, it’s a post about the Lord of the Rings movies. I’ll be able to judge The Hobbit properly when the new trilogy is complete.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Dear creationist

First of all, please note carefully that I am addressing you in the singular, Bodie Hodge, in answer to your “Dear atheists...” open letter over at Answers in Genesis. I am not assuming that all creationists are the same. I was one for four or five years, after all. Admittedly I was a teenager at the time and I think I was mostly doing it as a theologically-approvable gesture of independence from my theistic-evolutionist parents. Still, creationism got me into the habit of questioning what I read, without which I would not be an atheist today. Though, come to think about it, you’re not likely to find that a positive thing.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Which way you face

I don’t have the Discworld books handy right now, and I don’t remember which one it was, but at one point Granny Weatherwax says something along the lines of “It doesn’t matter where you stand; what matters is which way you face.”
I’m pretty sure Granny Weatherwax is speaking for her author here, and I think I have an inkling what Pratchett might have meant. And a few different things have reminded me of it recently. (Spoilers for The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series below the cut, though if you haven’t read The Lord of the Rings or the Narnia series I’m not sure what you’re doing reading my blog.)

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Imponderable I: Morality

Let’s suppose that in the year 2115 neurologists tell us that they’ve figured out how the brain actually understands things. What would that mean? Precisely that they can explain it in terms of components that do not themselves understand.
Perhaps they tell us:
Here’s how the mind understands. The mind is composed of three components, the blistis, the morosum, and the hyborebus. The blistis and the morosum have nothing to do with understanding; the part that understands is the hyborebus.
We don’t have to know what these things are to know that they’ve failed. This cannot be an explanation of understanding, because it simply transfers the problem from the “mind” to the “hyborebus”. It’s like explaining vision by saying that the optic nerve brings the image from the eye to the brain, where it’s projected on a screen that’s watched by a homunculus. How does the homunculus’s vision work?
This will be the first of a series of six or seven articles, aimed at explaining things that are fundamental to human experience (or so we think) and which boggle the mind when we try to analyse them: meaning, consciousness, knowledge, the self, free will, morality. The trouble, I believe, is not that these things have no explanation, nor even that we can’t comprehend the explanation. The trouble is drawn out by the quote above. We don’t have a problem applying it to most things: we can all accept that a car doesn’t have a smaller car under its bonnet driving on a little treadmill to make the big car go, and that if it did it wouldn’t explain anything because you’d still have to ask what makes the little car go.
But with the Imponderables, as I shall call them, our intuitions run the wrong way.

Monday, 24 September 2012

What is patriarchy?

After quite a series of Notes on my Facebook on sexuality and feminism, none of which went anywhere very much, I wrote a couple of enormously long ones to try and tie it all together.  Here's the first one, which I published as a Note on 6 August 2012.
I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature a lot, as you'll see; the central argument of this essay is owed to it, though framed differently from how Pinker would see it.  Throughout what follows, I endorse or critique various points in that book.  Exactly which points, I encourage you to find out by reading it for yourself. 
Also, I know much more about Western history than other parts of the world, which unfortunately means I've had to focus on Western patriarchy.  This doesn't mean there haven't been, or aren't still, other patriarchal civilizations; it just means I can't discuss in depth how their patriarchal systems evolved over time. Trigger warning: I discuss rape. 

Patriarchy, part 2: biology, and rape culture

After quite a series of Notes on my Facebook on sexuality and feminism, none of which went anywhere very much, I wrote a couple of enormously long ones to try and tie it all together.  Here's the second one, published as a Note on 21 September 2012.
I'm basically going to assume that you've already read Part 1 before coming here, so if you haven't, go read it first.  I argued there that patriarchy is not a war of men against women; it is a war of men against men, in which women's bodies are the spoils.  Again, if you disagree, please comment with your arguments on that Note, rather than this one.  I'll be drawing a lot of material from Steven Pinker again -- The Better Angels of our Nature, like last time, but also How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate
What I left un-dealt-with was the question of why this has happened across various cultures for such long periods of history.  Actually, there are several separate questions involved here.  Why do men compete with each other, in any sense, for women's bodies?  Why does the competition take the form of aggression, dominance, and one-up-manship?  If women's bodies are the prize, why aren't women the referees?  We must answer all these questions in order to have a shot at fixing the problems that patriarchy creates. 
Let me say up front that I do think there's reason to hope that patriarchy can be brought down.  I'm going to be delving into biology to answer some of these questions, and I'm afraid many people (especially on the Left, alas) are firmly of the opinion that once you bring in biology in human behaviour you exclude any possibility of change.  I'll have to argue against that, but I can't give it the attention it deserves or it'll take up the whole Note and the patriarchy bits will end up falling out the bottom.  Actually, I'll put the main point in bold for the benefit of skim-readers: "Biological" does not equal "deterministic".  (And "deterministic" does not equal "fatalistic", but that's an argument for another time.) 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Dawkins debate

(Originally published 20 December, 2011, as a Note on my Facebook.) 
Yes, I've been arguing on the internet again.  I guess I'll never learn. 
I try not to spend too much of my time debating other people's religion -- it's very hard to stop once you start.  In general these days I take a live-and-let-live approach: if you believe in God, that's fine, we can agree to disagree.  Provided, that is, that you aren't doing one of two things: (a) accusing others of wrongdoing on insufficient grounds, or (b) setting yourself up as a guru dispensing wisdom.  Either of those, I take as a licence to ask probing questions until the requisite evidence is forthcoming. 
And, of course, if you do want to talk about whether God exists and why I think he doesn't, then I'm ready and willing to reply.  This is more or less what happened recently, after someone I know posted a Facebook post that fit (b), above, pretty well. 

A science of morality? My thoughts on Sam Harris

(Originally published 26 July, 2011, as a Note on my Facebook.) 
After a frustrating delay, the University of Otago's library has finally got around to acquiring a copy of Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape.  Having been champing at the bit for months, reading only such excerpts as Harris has chosen to present on the internet, I can at last comment on it from a position of knowledge. 
Harris's basic thesis can be summed up as follows:
  • Moral values are synonymous with the well-being of conscious creatures.
  • Science can, in principle, determine what actions will enhance or diminish the well-being of conscious creatures. 
  • Therefore, science can, in principle, determine moral values. 
Harris's title is carefully chosen: there may, he says, be many peaks on the moral landscape, and he is not claiming to prescribe a simple formula for right living.  Most of the other criticisms of the thesis that will no doubt have occurred to you from my brief summary are covered in the book, which (I can assure you) is well worth reading. 

Saving the planet is not what's keeping us from exploring other ones

(Originally published 13 June, 2011, as a Note on my Facebook.) 
Recently one of my friends was seen to praise a politician known to seriously employ the slogan "People before the planet!"  Boggling somewhat, since my friend is an intelligent person, I mentioned the fundamental problem with this.  His reply:
...this is a positive approach to counter the anti-evolutionary madness promoted by some Greens. Evolutionarily speaking, anything that impedes or does not actually advance the human race is a toxic dead-end. Humans are no longer bound inexricably to this planet (in fact the sooner we get a viable population off it the better). The comment makes imminent [sic] sense in that context. 
My friend is wrong, for illuminating reasons. 

Take a deep breath before commenting...

(Originally published 26 April, 2011, as a Note on my Facebook.) 
I've been avoiding writing about this for years.  Because this is going to make people angry.  The topic for today is abortion. 
As most of you know, I used to be an evangelical Christian, and most of my family still are.  As most of you also know, I'm of a left-wing bent politically.  This means that unless I take a weaselly middle-of-the-road not-saying-anything-really position on abortion, I am going to be fitting myself into somebody close to me's definition of "evil". 
And that would be easy to do.  I'm male; abortion is not something I'll ever be in a position to experience personally.  I can even argue that it would be a bit presumptuous of me to take one position or the other, simply for that reason!
But that's not going to fly.  I vote.  I (occasionally) make submissions on bills before Parliament.  I intend to live alongside women for the remainder of my life, and their welfare matters to me.  I'm never personally going to experience child slavery either, but that doesn't mean I should avoid forming a strong opinion on it. 

Induction Exhumed

(Originally published 23 March, 2011, as a Note on my Facebook.)
Will the sun rise tomorrow?  Will electricity still work?  Will the next piece of bread I eat be any good as food?  Are there such things as laws of physics, or is the universe just winging it?  Since 1758 the answer to these philosophical questions has been "We can never know" -- as explained by David Hume, in what has come to be known as the Problem of Induction. 
If a body of like colour and consistence with that bread, which we have formerly eat, be presented to us, we make no scruple of repeating the experiment, and foresee, with certainty, like nourishment and support.  Now this is a process of the mind or thought, of which I would willingly know the foundation...  As to past Experience, it can be allowed to give direct and certain information of those precise objects only, and that precise period of time, which fell under its cognizance: but why this experience should be extended to future times, and to other objects, which for aught we know, may be only in appearance similar; this is the main question on which I would insist.  The bread, which I formerly eat, nourished me; that is, a body of such sensible qualities was, at that time, endued with such secret powers: but does it follow, that other bread must also nourish me at another time, and that like sensible qualities must always be attended with like secret powers?  The consequence seems nowise necessary. 
Formally, we can express inductive reasoning as follows:
  • Bread nourished me on Monday. 
  • Bread nourished me on Tuesday. 
  • Bread nourished me on Wednesday. 
  • Bread nourished me on Thursday. 
  • Bread nourished me on Friday. 
  • Therefore, bread will nourish me tomorrow. 
The conclusion is not a necessary consequence of the premises.  Hence, inductive reasoning is invalid.
Since not only all of science, but every move we make in our daily lives, is based on inductive reasoning, this is a bit of a worry.  Naturally, a number of people have proposed solutions, or at least workarounds.  To date, none have been entirely satisfactory.  The best is a position called "probabilism", which basically replaces the conclusion to the above with
  • Therefore, bread will probably nourish me tomorrow.
...which is not too bad, considering.  We have a very large historical statistical sample of incidences of people eating bread, and it correlates very strongly with nutrition; so that gives us pretty good confidence in there being a connection between the two.
Provided, that is, that we know there is some kind of underlying order which we just have to find.  If there isn't, then the probabilist is in the position of the superstitious gambler who has yet to figure out that "winning streaks" end randomly and without warning; that no matter how many times in a row a coin comes up heads, the chance of its coming up heads next time remains precisely 0.5.
I don't want to make grandiose claims... but I think I have solved this 253-year-old problem.  Not all on my lonesome, obviously; shoulders of giants, and all that.  There are three critical mental tools, all taken from much greater thinkers than myself, without which I couldn't have come near it.