Wednesday, April 21, 2010

South Park vs. Radical Islam

Cross-posted to Animated Discussions.

The South Park creators have received a death threat over last week's episode, "200". I was going to do an in-depth review of the episode, but that's unlikely now, because this news is far, far more interesting.

The episode in question was, as I mentioned in this post, an enormous pile of references to old episodes, gags, and plots. One of these references was to two past episodes dealing with the Prophet Muhammed.

Way back in the fifth season, in the episode "Super Best Friends," Muhammed was portrayed as an otherwise stereotypical Bedouin man with fire powers, a member of the titular superhero team of religious icons (the other members were Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Joseph Smith, and Sea Man (an Aquaman parody), and Moses was their computer). The primary focus of the episode was making fun of Scientology (a recurring theme in the series), and it ended with the Super Best Friends teaming up to defeat the "Blaintology" cult. This was before I started paying attention to the series, so I'm not sure if there was any backlash; if there was, I suspect it was from Scientologists, not Muslims.

Five years later came the Danish cartoon controversy, in which the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons, most of which depicted the prophet Muhammed, and at least some of which did so quite negatively. (I cannot read Danish, but one of the cartoons has no text and is obviously negative, while others have no text and appear neutral or positive). A few Danish-Muslim organizations held protests in response, which resulted in the cartoons being reprinted around the world, sparking more protests and even violence, including setting fire to the Danish embassies Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. Notably, most American media did not reprint the cartoons, even when reporting on the controversy surrounding them.

With this controversy only a few months old, the two-part South Park episode "Cartoon Wars" used the refusal of American media to print the cartoons as a jumping-off point to mock Family Guy and The Simpsons. The plot of "Cartoon Wars" is that Muhammed is going to shortly appear in an episode of Family Guy, but the Fox network is considering self-censoring and either not airing the episode, or cutting Muhammed. Kyle and Cartman travel to the Fox network, Kyle to help make sure the episode is broadcast, and Cartman to support the censorship.

In real life, Comedy Central stepped in at this point, and banned South Park from displaying Muhammed in the episode, even though he had been in the opening credits since the fifth season. As a result, even though the dialogue in "Cartoon Wars" says that the Family Guy episode aired uncensored, the scene in the South Park episode is replaced by a black screen and text explaining that Comedy Central would not allow an image of Muhammed to be broadcast.

And that brings us to last week. In "200", every celebrity South Park has made fun of teams up to sue South Park. However, this is actually a complicated gambit for them to get ahold of Muhammed, whom no one can make fun of. The celebrities (and other forces, revealed later in the episode) seek to steal this power, so they can never be mocked again. Stan is thus forced to seek out the Super Best Friends so he can trade Muhammed to the celebrities in exchange for the safety of South Park. Unfortunately, as Jesus explains, times have changed and it is no longer permissible for Muhammed to be seen. Thus, he is dressed in a bear costume, so no one can see him.

The poster at (Fox News has his name as "Abu Talhah al Amrikee", but it's Fox News, so who knows) seems to have missed the point completely. The episode isn't about making fun of Muhammed; South Park has never made fun of Muhammed. It's about making fun of American media, who cravenly bow to the fear of "controversy" and terrorist attacks, creating a culture in which the biggest bully wins. And it is, of course, about making fun of those bullies -- that'd be you, al-Amrikee.

I hope very much that tonight's South Park depicts Muhammed by the end -- and that it mocks al-Amrikee. South Park uses a frankly ridiculous level of technology to produce such crude results, and thus is able to make or alter episodes ridiculously quickly -- so it should be completely possible for them to make the change. Stone and Parker are among the few people working in television today who understand that blasphemy is one of the most important social functions of humor. By mocking the sacred -- whether it is a religious icon such as Muhammed or Jesus, or a secular sacred cow such as the innocence of children -- humor forces us to think, and reduces the ability of such images to manipulate us, while leaving us free to continue believing in them if we so choose.

Blaspheme away, Messrs. Stone and Parker. I know you know it's the right thing to do.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Positivism 101

The philosophy underlying the sciences is known as "logical positivism", and was first codified around the turn of the 20th century. At its core is a fairly simple, obvious epistemology that permits metaphysical and ethical questions to be ignored entirely, freeing the sciences to concentrate on the questions the scientific method can actually work on.

The basics of positivist epistemology are simple: All statements are either positive or normative (we'll ignore for now the possibility of completely nonsensical statements). A positive statement is a statement about the empirically measurable properties of one or more physical entities. For example, "This camel has three humps," is a positive statement, because the camel is a physical entity, and its number of humps is an empirically measurable property. "No camels have three humps," is also a positive statement; it speaks about the same empirically measurable property of a large number of different physical entities, the camels.

A positive statement can be either true or false, and indeed all positive statements are one of the two (though we can't always know which). For example, though we can never know how many times George Washington blinked on April 26, 1780, there is a correct answer to the question. George Washington is a physical entity, and the number of times he blinked is empirically measurable. Each of his blinks had an impact on the world around him -- for example, by creating tiny air currents -- and in theory, given infinitely accurate measuring devices, unlimited computing power and speed, and the right theoretical models, we could reconstruct his blinks on that day.

Sometimes a statement can be defined as positive not because it is itself about the empirically measurable properties about a physical object, but rather because it has logically necessary consequences which are positive statements. For example, the claim that a physical object exists is a positive claim because, although existence itself is not an empirically measurable property, in order for a physical object to exist it must have certain properties. For example, Russell's teapot is a hypothetical that claims that there exists a small china teapot suspended exactly opposite from the Earth in the same orbit, so that the Sun is always between us and it. If the claim is true, then the teapot, as a physical object, must have mass; this is an empirically measurable property. Thus, Russell's teapot is a positive claim.

Claims which are not positive are normative. An example of a normative claim is, "Eating kittens is wrong." Eating a kitten is a physical event, but "wrongness" is not an empirically measurable property. Normative statements are too dependent on the speaker to have a truth value; I might find eating kittens to be wrong, but you might not, despite no change in the physical event.

Any normative statement can be turned into a positive statement about Bob by adding "Bob says that..." to it. (Substitute the speaker of your choice for Bob.) For example, "Eating kittens is wrong," is a normative statement about eating kittens. "Bob says that eating kittens is wrong," is a positive statement about Bob. We can take empirical measurements (for example, asking Bob and listening to his response) to determine if this claim about Bob is true.

Some people argue that experiences such as "wrongness" or "the numinous" or "freedom" are empirical phenomena because they correspond to particular states of the brain. While probably true (certainly there is no evidence to suggest that any state of mind is anything other than a state of the brain), this is really only a variant of adding "Bob says that..." "This brain responds to kitten-eating by firing the wrongness neurons," is a statement about a particular brain; it still does not point to any inherent properties of kitten-eating.

As I mentioned above, normative statements cannot be regarded as "true" because they depend too much on the speaker. They qualitatively differ from untestable positive claims like George Washington's blinking: Even given unlimited measuring equipment and infinite computational power, I cannot detect a physical property of wrongness or justice or value because there is no such thing. The most I can accomplish is some version of "Bob says that..." There is no correct answer to the kitten-eating question, only opinions.

If no normative statement can be true, then no normative statement can be false. If a normative statement were false, then its negation would be true. For example, if we declare "Eating kittens is wrong," to be false, then we're saying "Eating kittens is not wrong," is true. But that statement is also a normative statement, and therefore cannot be true. Thus, we must conclude that normative statements have no truth value.

The founders of logical positivism went further, and declared normative statements to be meaningless. From a purely scientific perspective, that's true: science cannot work with or generate normative statements, and it's dangerous to try. From any other perspective, however, that's nonsense. Linguistically, culturally, neurologically, normative statements absolutely do have meaning -- I'd like to see someone try to get through a day without acting as if value is a meaningful concept! -- and so, except when we are considering scientific questions, it would be foolish to dismiss normative statements just for being normative.

Let's put this another way. A statement is true if it accurately models our physical reality. It is false if it contradicts physical reality. All true statements and all false statements together make up the set of positive statements; hence, all positive statements are attempts to model physical reality and vice versa. A statement which does not model physical reality is normative; since it neither accurately models nor contradicts physical reality, it is neither true nor false.

Claims of existence are a somewhat tricky case. The problem is that most people are not philosophically rigorous, and hence language is not, either. So, for example, when Russell claims his teapot exists, he is claiming that it physically exists and therefore has physical properties, such as mass and position. When someone claims that love exists, however, they are generally not saying that there is a substance called "love" that physically exists and can be detected; rather, they are saying that a particular pattern of behavior occurs in human relations. This is still a positive claim -- human behavior can be empirically observed and recorded, and we can see if it's consistent with the love hypothesis or not.

However, when someone claims that free will exists, they are using a different definition still. They are not (generally speaking) claiming that there is a "free will" substance with physical properties. Nor is the claim that free will exists something that can be tested by observing human behavior; human behavior is exactly the same whether it is caused by deterministic, but highly complex and impossible to predict, natural phenomena or free choices that "hide" in the "highly complex and impossible to predict" part. There are, in fact, no statements about physical phenomena that follow logically from "Free will exists"; thus, it is not a positive statement.

Similarly, one could claim that a teapot exists in another universe, entirely distinct from our own. Since there is no attempt here to model physical reality -- we are talking about some other, purely hypothetical, reality -- the claim is entirely normative. Depending on the context in which the claim is made and how seriously we are expected to take it, we might call such a statement fiction, myth, allegory, a thought experiment, a parable, or any of a hundred other related concepts.

So, we come to the big one: "God exists." Is this a positive or normative statement? Well, it mostly depends on what you mean by "God." If you're an animist and believe that the universe has a guiding spirit akin to the human will, that's not a positive claim any more than free will is. If you're a Christian and mean that a first-century rabbi healed sick people, revived the dead, preached, died, came back from the dead, and then left this universe (reducing its total mass-energy by a hundred kilos or so), that's very much a positive claim.

A universe in which Jesus came back from the dead is different from one in which Jesus did not come back from the dead. Given the right equipment, we could measure the universe and determine which occurred. This is not a matter of opinion; it happened or it didn't. I think it didn't, but even if we could prove it didn't, most Christians would adjust just fine. They've already adapted (except for a few vocal nutters) to viewing their creation myth in metaphorical terms, once its positive claims were shown to be false. There's no reason they couldn't do the same with their main hero-cycle myth, as well.

Most religious people, like most people, don't particularly care much about modeling physical reality. Most religious people are just fine to say "Leave it to the scientists to work out how the universe functions; God is why." Just as free will has no impact on human behavior, and thus is not a positive statement, so does the existence of this sort of God have no impact on the behavior of the physical universe. Such a God is not a positive claim. There is no difference between a universe with such a God and a universe without such a God; they are the same universe.

Since they are the same universe, neither the believer nor the atheist can be right or wrong. There are no competing models of physical reality here; only two different ways of looking at the same physical reality. Reason does not compel a position on the question; we are free to believe as we choose.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Meritocracy vs. Freedom

Secret shame time: in high school I was a libertarian. This was a pretty weird position for me to take, all things considered: My family lived on welfare, my health care was a mix of Medicaid and free clinics, and my education was courtesy of (at the time) the best public high school in America, and by a number of measures one of the best high schools, period.

But a libertarian I was, nonetheless. A lot appealed to me about libertarianism, so I will here present what I understood the ideal libertarian society to be, before I explain why I now reject both the movement and the ideal.

The ideal, at least as I understood it, was a society of maximal freedom, here understood to mean a society in which one cannot use force or the threat of force to compel the actions of others, but all other actions are entirely legal. The government exists solely as a monopoly on the use of force, which it uses only to prevent others from using force – in other words, the military and police. I recall fire departments were rarely to never mentioned, but I think the general consensus was that the government could run those, too. Nobody was very clear on how the government would go about paying for these things; generally the idea was to eliminate the progressive income tax and introduce a flat tax or a sales tax, which would be “fair.”

In such a society, the reasoning went, we would all be maximally free. True, some people would be more successful than others, but that was because they had the skills necessary to get by or achieve. People who lacked the necessary skills or were lazy would fail, and that’s as it should be. The term for this was “meritocracy.” It was regarded as vastly superior to equality or democracy, which were held in contempt – after all, the general population is an ignorant rabble who waste their time following sports and celebrities, and can at most regurgitate a couple of popular slogans, but understand nothing of science, business, or politics.

There’s not really one thing that led me to realize how entirely idiotic (not to mention inhumanly heartless and cruelly elitist) this vision was. A lot of factors played into it. One major influence was learning some history, and seeing the term “meritocracy” used in another context: the old Chinese system of public service exams. I had heard these praised as a shining example of meritocracy in action before, but it wasn’t until nearly the end of high school that I learned they tested mostly one’s ability to memorize and regurgitate classic Chinese texts, plus some general liberal arts – writing poetry, painting, calligraphy, and the like. How could that be a meritocracy? What does the ability to draw have to do with the ability to govern? It was obvious to me what happened: people who were well-versed in Chinese texts and the liberal arts, who measured a person’s worth by knowledge of Chinese texts and the liberal arts, decided to make rank in their society dependent on knowledge of Chinese texts and the liberal arts.

In my first semester of college, I read Plato’s Republic. In it, he argues for another meritocracy; in this one, philosophers rule. That seemed a little more reasonable – wouldn’t a person who studied ethics and government be the ideal person to govern? Except, of course, that Plato was a philosopher himself. Was his proposal really any less self-serving than the old Chinese civil servants? Any less self-serving than medieval nobles who, lucky enough to be born into noble families, declared that such birth was the only rightful qualification for power?

As I studied more, I began to realize that “meritocracy” was really just a form of tyranny: it is a system by which people who have power can perpetuate that power, by defining merit as whatever the powerful regard as virtuous about themselves. When the powerful are good at war and born into elite families, those are the requirements for power. When the powerful are good at the liberal arts, that becomes the requirement for power. When a philosopher proposes a meritocracy, he makes merit equivalent to knowledge of philosophy.

And when people who see themselves as more intelligent, harder working, and possessing (or, in the case of my high school self, in the process of acquiring) desirable job skills design a meritocracy, they build a capitalist one, where intelligence, hard work, and job skills lead (supposedly) to power. It’s ultimately just elitist, self-serving arrogance.

It’s idiotic, too. Figuring that out required learning a bit of economics, and in particular, the fact that wealth has gravity. The more wealth you have, the less effort it takes to acquire more. Once you get more than a certain amount of wealth, you can invest broadly and deeply enough that you turn a profit every single day – without making a single product, providing a single service, or managing a single employee. There’s a decent argument to be made that, by the act of investing itself, you are enabling others to do these things, and thus still contributing to society – but you aren’t actually demonstrating any intelligence, skill, or effort, which supposedly is the measure of merit.

In fact, in libertopia, the measure of merit is wealth, and it really doesn’t matter how you come by it. If you are wealthy, you are presumed to be intelligent, hard-working, and skilled. If you are not wealthy, you are assumed to be failing that measure in at least one respect. Wealth is power; at its core, libertarianism teaches that to have power is necessarily to deserve it. Might makes right, in other words.

Further, wealth inevitably follows a Pareto distribution. In any society with anything remotely resembling markets, the majority of the wealth will always be controlled by a minority of the population. This minority’s wealth exerts that gravitational pull, and so, in the absence of contrary forces, they get richer and richer. In libertopia, where wealth really is the only form of personal power that matters, the inevitable result is that the most powerful become more powerful every day, while everyone else becomes weaker.

What really broke libertarianism for me, at least on the meritocracy front, was the realization that by “freedom” it really meant “the freedom of the strong to oppress the weak.” In a libertopia, a worker has no recourse against any abuse. Sure, there are always strikes, but with nothing to prevent managers from bringing in scabs and no social safety net to support the strikers, such an attempt is doomed to failure, and quite likely to end in poverty and starvation.

Libertopia is not a free society at all. It is a society in which a small number of people live like kings, while the rest labor in near-slavery. A tiny segment of the population have enormous freedom to do almost anything they want, with no need of force or threat of force to control the rest; they can simply dangle the prospect of unemployment and resulting starvation, and everyone jumps to their call. Sure, in theory the unemployed could seek employment elsewhere – but if every employer is equally abusive, how will that help? And yes, the unemployed are free to try to start their own business – but with what capital?

No, there is a word for “meritocracy,” for a society where an elite few have all the power and all the freedom, and the rest must labor in their service or suffer the consequences. And that word definitely isn’t “freedom.”