Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Closing Time

I'm shutting down this blog; at this time I have no intention of continuing it.

Basically, this is because I am now blogging regularly at The Slacktiverse, more frequently than I ever posted here, covering a very similar range of topics, and with both a larger audience . There is thus no point to continuing this blog at this time.

Therefore, I have switched off commenting on all posts and will no longer be updating. I am maintaining this site as an archive, and to leave open the option of resuming posting if circumstances change.

In the meantime, I have two blogs where I post regularly and one where I post occasionally:

The Slacktiverse: A community blog to which I belong. Topics include social justice and exploring all facets of identity (culture, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and so on). Currently updates daily, though obviously only some of those posts are by me.

My Little Po-Mo: Episode-by-episode analyses of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Updates every Sunday.

Animated Discussion: Blogging about animation in all its forms. Updates irregularly and infrequently, usually just before and just after I go to an anime con.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Proselytizing, Evil, Etc Open Thread

Since a couple of people seem to want to discuss it, I am creating an open thread on my six-month-gone post on the Slacktiverse entitled The Problem of Proselytizing.

Spam, hate speech, and personal abuse, directed at anyone, will be deleted. I get to define what comprises any of those things, but I will apply the same standards to everyone regardless of position.

Edit: Adding a list of useful links to the original discussion:

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

If Aliens, then God?

Recently, I was surprised to learn that many evangelical Christians believe either that there is no other intelligent life in the universe or that any such beings would be demons, not people. Apparently, going by the comments on that article, this is because Christ died for humanity, not them, so either God is condemning countless aliens to Hell or they don't exist. (Or something like that; I am thankfully not an evangelical theologian.)

Regardless, I found it surprising because I think the one thing that could possibly get me to question my atheism is the discovery of intelligent life that did not originate on Earth.

Let me explain.

I think it is now generally accepted among the scientifically (and even science-fictionally) literate that what I call a "Star Trek universe" is absurd--that is, a universe teeming with beings that share none of our evolutionary history, and yet look enough like us to be played by human actors with rubber appliques.

The reasoning is simple. Evolution is a highly contingent process; organisms evolve in response to their environment, but one of the largest defining factors of that environment is the presence of other organisms! If most fruit did not change color when ripe, would primates have color vision, for example? Probably not, unless some other feature of our environment made it advantageous.

As Stephen J. Gould was fond of putting it, if you rewound the history of life on Earth and started from the beginning, miniscule early differences would grow rapidly to make the resulting organisms entirely unrecognizable. Take a look at the Burgess Shale fossils to see just how alien life on Earth can be, and those are organisms that shared the first 3 billion or so years of their evolution with us!

So, we have a long list of human features which were evolutionarily advantageous at one point in our ancestry, and remained non-harmful or could be adapted into something advantageous, but there is no reason to expect them to have been advantageous in the environment where a Klingon or Minbari evolved, features like:

  • DNA
  • Oxygen metabolism
  • Organelles
  • Multicellularity
  • Triptoblasty
  • Bilateral symmetry
  • Two biological sexes (as opposed to three or one or seventeen)
  • Keeping most of our sensory apparatus at one end of our body
  • Endoskeleton
  • Two pairs of limbs adapted to different purposes
  • Upright posture
  • Hair
  • Skin
  • Five-fingered hands (as opposed to twelve or three or tentacles, for that matter)
The list is unbelievably long--it would be, in fact, a complete description of a human being. The Drake equation doesn't help, here; the solution space for evolution is infinitely large, while the universe is merely very very large, and thus no matter how many Earthlike planets teeming with life there are, the probability of two of them independently evolving humanoids is still a finite number divided by infinity.

For some reason, however, while this seems to be generally accepted for physical features, people balk at accepting it is also true for our status as sophonts. Sophontry is not a single feature; it is a large number of different features, each of which occurs independently in some form in other species, that together comprise what we call a sophont. Remove even one, and the result, while interesting, is not recognizably a sophont--not a "new civilization." These features include:

  • Nth-order agency attribution: Agency attribution is the capacity to distinguish between agents (entities that act with intent) and non-agents, and respond accordingly. It is the ability to respond differently to grass rustling because a tiger is passing and grass rustling because of the wind. Most vertebrates and a handful of invertebrates possess it. Second-order agency attribution is the ability to recognize that other entities have agency attribution and respond accordingly--the ability to disguise one's intent, in other words. This is reasonably widespread among the mammals and some birds. Third-order agency attribution is the ability to recognize the possibility of deception, essentially, and has been observed in some great apes. A typical game of cops and robbers involves something like 9th-order agency attribution, and there is no known upper limit to humans knowing that you know that they know that you know that...
  • Self-awareness.
  • Ability to contemplate counterfactuals and possible futures.
  • Modeling: The ability to learn through observation, rather than conditioning.
  • Culture: Passing information both vertically to offspring, and horizontally to other individuals.
  • Language or similar.
  • Complex tool-use, including the ability to improvise tools previously not observed.
  • Problem-solving ability.
  • Pattern-recognition ability.
  • Intellectual empathy.
  • Emotional empathy.
And, of course, many others. Some of these may depend on one another in order to exist, but others can exist independently. It is possible to imagine a complex tool-using culture that has no self-awareness, empathy, or language-equivalent, for example. We thus run into the same problem as humanoids. No matter how we fiddle the Drake equation, the f(i) term is cheating; we are really asking what the probability is of a random walk in an infinite space happening to hit a predefined point (hint: it's infinitesimal). So again, we are looking at an event so unlikely as to be effectively impossible.

Now, some developments appear to actually be selected for in a wide variety of environments; they are so broadly useful that they recur again and again. Birds and bats, for example, have both hit on variants of wings, despite their common ancestor having none. Eyes operating on similar principles to our own evolved independently in mollusks (although we do likely have a common ancestor with light-sensitive spots to start the process off).

However, there is no reason to believe this is the case for most of the elements of intelligence. And there is even less reason to believe it is the case for intelligent life to develop off Earth; after all, everything with wings that we know of evolved on the same planet; maybe there is something unique about Earth that encourages wings, or some coincidental occurrence way back in the history of life on Earth that shaped the environment in such a way as to encourage wings. Equally, there may be some chance event in the history of Earth that set the stage for agency attribution to evolve multiple times (one possible candidate for that event would be the development of heterotrophs).

So really, what it would mean if we found intelligent aliens is that something about the universe is encouraging all these traits to develop in concert in many different environments. It would mean that the universe is somehow friendly to intelligence in a way that was not previously obvious. That wouldn't be enough to make me believe there was something divine at work, but it is unlikely enough to make me pause and reconsider. Even more so if said aliens follow something resembling a specific Earth religion.

Still, the way to bet is that we are the only intelligent life the universe has ever known. Sad and humbling, but perhaps that gives yet more reason to treat one another better. And at least we will always have science fiction for our alien-civilization fix...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Rape Prevention Tips

(Edit: Per anonymous comment, added the tip about alcohol and drugs.)

(Edit: Per comments from Ursula L and Kit Whitfield, added tips about witnessing/hearing about rape.)

The FBI announced a new definition of rape this week. For 80 years, the FBI has only considered rape by force, even though the weapon of choice for rapists is alcohol.(1) Suddenly the FBI will be counting the 89 percent of rapes committed without a weapon being involved. This is huge, and very good news for everyone except fans of rape.

Oh, it also now includes the 10 percent of rape victims who are male.(2) So, one of the changes affects 89 percent of rape victims, the other affects 10 percent of rape victims. Can you guess which one is showing up in more headlines?

If you said, "The one about men," you understand our media's fucked-up priorities.

Anyway, in honor of these headlines, I would like to offer some tips on what men and women alike can do to prevent rape.

  1. Don't rape anybody.

  2. No, seriously. Don't rape anybody.

  3. Don't have sex with anybody who doesn't want to have sex with you. That would be rape.

  4. Don't have sex with anybody who cannot indicate whether they want to have sex with you. That would be rape.

  5. Don't have sex with anybody who wants to have sex in general, just not with you. That would be rape.

  6. Don't have sex with anybody who wanted to have sex with you before, but now doesn't. That would be rape.

  7. If the only way to get someone to have sex with you involves alcohol or other drugs, don't do it. That would be rape.

  8. If you have to ask whether something counts as rape, it probably does. Don't do it.

  9. If you have had sex with someone who didn't want to have sex with you, regardless of circumstances or who that person is or what your relationship to them is, you are a rapist. Turn yourself in to the police before you rape again. Alternatively, there is always the option of dying in a fire.

  10. If you think any of the above would restrict your ability to have or enjoy sex, you are either already a rapist or on your way to becoming one. See number 9.

  11. If you see someone doing any of numbers 1-9, stop them if possible or call the police.

  12. If learn that someone has done any of numbers 1-9, call the police.

  13. If your response to numbers 11 and 12 is anything along the lines of "But he's my friend!" or "She deserved it because..." see number 10.
Let me know if I missed any!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Kinds of Truth

Update: Fixed an apparent contradiction on whether critical truths are isomorphic or not.

What does it mean when we say something is true? Most people are fairly confident they know what truth is when they see it, but can we actually define it? I think when pressed, many people answer something along the lines of "A statement that contains no falsehoods," but is that adequate?

Consider the statement "All meebles are foob." There are no falsehoods in that statement, but it contains no truth, either; it is meaningless.

Ah, but maybe we can get away with, "A meaningful statement that contains no falsehoods."

Alas, no. Consider "Chocolate is better than brussel spouts." As I've discussed before on this blog, normative statements are meaningful, and yet cannot be meaningfully assigned a truth-value. The statement is neither true nor false.

So, can we exclude normative statements, and define truth as "A meaningful positive claim that contains no falsehoods?"

A few weeks ago, I might have said yes, but I have come to reconsider that position. The problem is that there are certain statements which are not positive--they are not statements about the empirically measurable properties of physical entities--and yet also appear to be true. For example, "Frodo Baggins is a hobbit," or "Two plus two equals four."

And while previously I would have regarded them as a subtle type of positive statement (the first can be viewed as really being a statement about the arrangement of ink on the pages of a particular set of books, the second as a statement about how the human brain works), they actually differ from positive truths in quite important ways.

I am thus forced to conclude that there are multiple kinds of truth, and it is to those I now turn.

Positive Truths

Positive truths are the easiest category to discuss. We appear to live in a universe that is consistent--it obeys rules. We may not be entirely certain what those rules are, but so far the universe and everything in it has recognizably behaved very consistently.

We can therefore conclude that the set of positive truths is consistent: No positive truth contradicts any positive truth, including itself.

More importantly, we have defined positive statements as being about the empirically observable properties of physical entities. That means that there is an external standard against which to test positive truths; if a positive statement is true, that it means it is isomorphic to (exists in one-to-one correspondence with) some feature of physical reality. Put another way, the set of all positive truths is isomorphic to the physical universe.

Finally, as there is only one physical universe about which there can be positive truths,* and we already have the requirement of consistency, it follows that a positive truth is universally true.

Hence we have a definition for positive truth: Positive truths are consistent, universal, and isomorphic to the physical universe.

Mathematical Truths

Mathematical statements, like "Two plus two is four," alas, are not isomorphic to the physical universe. There is no physical "two" out there, and no physical entity has the property of "two-ness." We also cannot argue that it's a description of the behavior or interactions of physical entities, because there are no physical entities in the statement.

"Two elephants plus two elephants is four elephants," might be true in some circumstances, and we could argue that "Two plus two is four" is merely an abstraction and generalization of this specific case, but unfortunately it is an abstraction that does not always hold. If the elephants are violent, two plus two may equal one. If, alternatively, they are amorous, it may equal six.

Let's try a statement that seems more concrete: "The shortest distance between two points is a straight line." Simple enough, and it seems like it conforms to measurable properties of real objects. Only problem is, when we're talking about physical entities, it isn't true.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line only on a perfectly flat surface. If you are constrained to follow a curved surface, the shortest distance is a curve whose properties depend on the curvature of the surface. If you dig a tunnel straight through the Earth from New York to Paris, and compare that to the shortest path an airplane can take between them, the plane curves notably to the north of the tunnel.

Fun fact: Space is measurably curved. "The shortest distance between two points is a straight line," is not strictly true anywhere in the physical universe (though for distances short enough relative to the local curvature it is close enough for practical purposes).

So shall we discard that statement as untrue? Certainly not! There are many contexts within mathematics in which the statement must be treated as true; specifically, in Euclidean geometry.

So, can we say that mathematical truths are isomorphic to particular contexts? Unfortunately, no. Consider my favorite chair. It is a dark-brown leather recliner with some cosmetic damage, but structurally sound.

The previous sentence is isomorphic to certain properties of my chair. It would be absurd, however, to say that my chair is isomorphic to my chair. My chair is my chair; to exist in one-to-one correspondence, two things must be different. In other words, identity precludes isomorphism.

Alas, when we do geometry, we are examining and thinking about a set of statements. The set of statements to which "The shortest distance between two points is a straight line," belongs is Euclidean geometry, and thus cannot be isomorphic to it.

Euclidean geometry, to be specific, is a set of axioms--statements which do not contradict each other and are treated as self-evident--and everything which can logically be derived from those axioms. If you change an axiom (for example, the definition of "parallel"), you get a different geometry (such as elliptical or hyperbolic geometry).

Math is, in effect, a number of different sets of statements. Each set has the property of being consistent within itself, but is not necessarily consistent with other sets.

And thus a definition for mathematical truths: mathematical truths are consistent, contextual, and identical, rather than isomorphic, to their contexts.

Critical Truths

Are we done? Have we covered all true statements? We have yet to discuss normative statements; are they a kind of mathematical truth? Perhaps the context is a particular person's opinion and beliefs, and certainly it seems that the identity property is present--the set of true statements about my beliefs and opinions would be identical to my beliefs and opinions.

However, if you honestly believe that a person's beliefs and opinions are necessarily, or even often, consistent? I have a bridge to sell you.

It seems we need a new category, but what could it be? Consistency seems like it ought to be the most fundamental of all requirements for any definition of truth--how can truth possibly contradict truth?

Consider the following true statements:

"The sole author of the original Sherlock Holmes stories is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle."

"The Sherlock Holmes stories are accounts by Watson of his adventures with his friend, Sherlock Holmes."

These two statements are both true statements about the Sherlock Holmes stories, and yet they contradict--if they are accounts by Watson, Doyle cannot be the sole author, and vice versa.

Ah, says the savvy reader, but they don't contradict because they represent different perspectives on literature: In literary theory, the Doylist perspective is that from which our world is real and the story is fiction; the Watsonian perspective is that from which the story is true, and our world is irrelevent. Claims made from one perspective need not be consistent with claims made from the other--they are independent contexts.

That's all well and good, but what if I write a story which intentionally contradicts itself? Consider the Invisible Pink Unicorn. For real, physical entities, it is a contradiction to be both invisible and pink, and descriptions of the IPU make it clear it is just as contradictory for this imaginary entity. Thus, if I write a story about the IPU, true statements about that story include both "The IPU is invisible" and "The IPU is pink."

This is even more the case when we get into analysis and criticism. Art is a symbolic activity, and a given symbol may have more than one meaning in one person's mind, let alone many people's. Even the cursory analysis involved in looking at a painting, recognizing its subject, and having an immediate emotional response involves extensive interpretation of symbols(1), and these symbols may have multiple meanings. As analysis goes deeper, the number of available meanings multiplies, and likelihood that they will all be consistent drops.

However, all these meanings are true. Consider the syllable pronounced "hi." It is true that it is a greeting in English, and also true that it means the opposite of "low" in English. Both meanings are true. While we can usually identify from context which meaning is intended, the fact that the other meaning is not intended in this instance doesn't make it less true that that is a meaning of the symbol.
If we are dealing with more ambiguous symbols, and as the number and complexity of symbols increases, the number of interpretations which each correspond to the work (and yet may contradict each other) increases exponentially.

Thus it is that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is both a feminist critique of the horror-movie staple of the helpless young woman cornered in an alley, and a misogynistic celebration of woman being punched in the face. Both are true because both can be demonstrated as meaningful interpretations of the images and sounds that comprise the show, and yet the two statements contradict each other--and depending on which interpretations occur more immediately and naturally to me, I might have a very strong emotional response to one or both!

Like mathematical truths, critical truths are statements about human mental constructs(2). However, an individual critical truth is not identical to an element in these constructs(3). They are also contextual--there is a set of true statements about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it is obviously not the same as the set of true statements about Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusic.

Are critical truths isomorphic? No; the elimination of consistency means that critical truths can exist in a two-to-one (or seventeen billion-to-one) relationship to the works they describe. Some critical truths may be identical as well: if a story begins "This is a story about hope," the statement that the story is about hope would be identical to that element of the story. The common element of critical truths is that they are derived from a mental construct--they draw on elements of it, as filtered through a unique human consciousness, to create a new (possibly inconsistent) set of statements about that work which may well be larger than the original work(4).

We can therefore define critical truths as contextual and derivative, with no requirement of consistency or isomorphism.

At last we have the tools to begin to re-examine the truth value of normative statements, which I will do in a future post.
1: Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

2: One might object to calling art a mental construct, as a work of art must take some physical form in order to be shared. However, that physical form is a representation of a mental construct of the artist, and encountering the symbol creates a mental construct for the viewer. This is perhaps more obvious with storytelling forms such as literature and film, where the author creates mental settings and characters represented within the work, but still just as true of any work of art which requires the artist to first imagine or envision something (which is to say, all art).

3: The signifier-signified distinction, in other words.

4: As a college freshman, I had an assignment to write ten pages about any two lines in Hamlet that were not from the "to be, or not to be" speech.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Piss Christ Destroyed

French vandals (is four people enough to count as a mob) have destroyed the controversial art photograph Piss Christ, demonstrating clearly why blasphemy is a necessary public service and He-Who-Laughs-In-The-Temple one of the most important figures for any belief system.

Link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/18/andres-serrano-piss-christ-destroyed-christian-protesters?CMP=twt_gu

I'll have more thoughts on this later. Too upset about it right now.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Guest Post Up at The Slacktiverse

My first post in what will hopefully be a regular gig at The Slacktiverse is up!

I'm not an acommodationist: If someone says something I know to be demonstrably wrong, I will generally argue with them. If someone advocates evil, I will call them out on it, and I will not accept religion as a justification. But if somebody's religion doesn't cause them to spout falsehoods or advocate evil? I still don't accomodate them, because there's nothing to acommodate. They haven't said anything wrong--just provided another fascinating way in which others' perceptions differ from my own.