Mr. Eccles Presents | Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: On Morality & Rationality


In this podcast by Sean Carroll, he gives a deep dive on the topics of morality and reason’s role in it. He also discusses the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (IDW, not to be confused with the comic book label) in a mildly critical but fair way, without taking things out of context, without straw-manning, and without being too evenhanded.

Carroll lays out his views of some of the claims, ethical stance, and moral priorities of the IDW, but he says them much more nicely than I would, and more articulately in an audio format than I’m currently practiced at.

One downside to being a snarkitudinous eldritch entity from beyond space-time like yours truly is that sometimes I can be a bit rascally in my approach, which understandably rubs some the wrong way.

My old post from 2013 on the archaic morals and whiney privileged homophobia of Orson Scott Card is a case in point. One of my snarkier, and more satisfying, moments at the keyboard. While the late Carl Sagan is one of my role models, up to a point, I have to confess that no, Virginia, I just ain’t him.

I like how Carroll measures his words without inauthenticity, and in a way that would outrage only the most easily outraged IDW fanboy. He takes the “don’t-be-a-dick” approach here, which is commendable and wise, even though it’s not a big part of my own skillset.

You can listen in stages, or in one sitting, or you can simply turn your podcatching client to and subscribe to his podcast, then listen to this episode at your leisure.

Whatever works for you.

I recommend listening to the entire show using whatever means is most convenient. The IDW discussion really gets underway at about the 58 minute mark.

Enjoy.

MetaCognitions | Cynicism: Just Another Bias


There, I said it. Cynics who view their cynicism as an asset, of course, will disagree, self-assured in believing themselves perfectly realistic and objective, completely missing the fact of their own self-deception. I will be accused of crippling naiveté. Of bias.

But that doesn’t even pass a basic prima facie, “On first face,” relevance test.

So I’m biased? So my views are skewed? So what? Who cares?

I’m biased. You’re biased. We’re all biased. Everyone is biased. To be human is to be biased. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. I’ll be up front with my biases: I’m pro-science, pro-rationality, pro-reality, pro-humanity, and anti-anything that dehumanizes or needlessly harms people.

We all view the world through a subjective lens, evaluating and passing judgment to everything and anything we come across without even knowing we’re doing it. Much of it is below the level of our conscious awareness. And there’s no way we know to step outside of our own individual brains save for the methods of science.

Complete certain knowledge about the world and perfect objectivity are impossible. Our brains and senses just don’t work that way. And to see the world and everyone and everything in it as fundamentally hopeless, ultimately futile, and irredeemably rotten is simply applying another set of value judgments, though destructively negative ones. 

I’m reasonably sure that if I had all of the same genetic contributions to my personality, all of the same upbringing, all of the same environment and life experiences of a staunch cynic, I would very likely be one now.

But I have not. Yet, I myself struggle daily with the temptation to cynicism to which our 24-7 news cycle culture subjects us. Clearly, that struggle is part of being human also. Some lose that struggle, and these deserve empathy and understanding, not the contempt they offer others, and not the loathing they often offer themselves.

If that sounds condescending or offensive, then consider this: Anything ever written or said will offend someone, and I don’t have the right to infringe on anyone’s freedom of thought to even try dictating for them what that might be. It’s out of my hands what any given person finds offensive. My point is, though, that I’m not condescending anyone. 

I’ll make the presumption here that most reading this are adults, or young and almost-adults, and should have thick skins in proportion to their own level of personal maturity. To treat others as functionally children by pandering to their feelings seems to me the epitome of condescension.

So, here’s why I’m throwing shade on cynicism as an alleged asset, virtue, or worldview: 

Cynicism means you’ve given up. Cynicism is surrender to bitterness, to an attitude of feigned superiority, and to contemptuousness. Cynicism is a cheap excuse for inaction, for fatalism, and for moral cowardice. In what universe are those anything but destructive?

All things pass, even the terrible things people sometimes do to each other. I do not have any use for a worldview that tells me that everyone by default is lying to or manipulating me and everyone else. Just because the world seems like an awful place doesn’t mean it ought to be, or that it’s useless to do something, anything, to make it less awful. Trying to make the world a better place is not a mere easily dismissed utopian faerie tale. Human effort applied unwisely causes our woes, human effort applied wisely can fix them.

I do not believe that human beings are fundamentally depraved. I view most of us as a mix of both good and evil, both right and wrong, both moral angels and devils at various times. We are all people, and people are complicated. 

I see people as having some worth, and the ability for some measure of good, skeptical thinking, a healthy blend of scientific literacy and critical thinking, though not as innately talented. It’s more of a capacity, a potentiality, and something we must learn as a skillset to do well in order to come to a more accurate, better, more useful view of the world and of ourselves. 

Good thinking ought in my view to be for everyone. It’s empowering. It’s illuminating. Good thinking is almost a kind of super-power. It’s even better than being able to throw silly comic book energy-bolts at people’s heads. It can be used for nearly everything in life. To me, it opens the gates to reality, the gates to wonder, and it’s also great fun.

Why say this? 

Because I can. Because I believe I should. To do something more useful than to merely shake my fist and simply rail and curse the night. Because I see people, even those I know and care for, fall prey some kind of pseudoscience, specious political claim, or fallacious health scare. And it’s not because they are somehow gullible, or stupid, or weak. 

Oh, no, it’s just not that simple!

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m gullible. There are times when I’m far too trusting, far too easily swayed by spurious argumentation, and I believe many things that I cannot possibly prove objectively. I have to watch myself daily, hourly, and despite this, I sometimes fail.

To blame the deceived for their own deception is to ignore the fact that we can all be fooled at a vulnerable moment by anyone who knows how to push our buttons. We are best of all at pushing our own buttons. To be human is to be vulnerable, no matter how smart we may think we are. To think ourselves immune to that is to ignore our own vulnerability, and we cannot be vigilant against a foe that we ignore. 

To blame the victim is cynical, and with the sense of false superiority that comes with it, that cynicism makes us lower our guard. Ironically, even con artists can be conned, especially by other con artists who know what hooks them. Cynicism easily leads to being used and manipulated, despite its frequently implied justification of defending the cynic from being used and manipulated.

I think that good thinking is a much better defense against the dark arts of scam artists, pandering politicians, and fraudsters than cynical thinking, which only makes you more vulnerable, not less.

And those, I think, are reasons enough.

(This post has been updated on 8/1/2019, 14:50)

Mr. Eccles Presents | Mindscape: David Chalmers on Consciousness, Etc.


Blog post with show notes, audio player, and transcript: https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/…

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/seanmcarroll

The “Easy Problems” of consciousness have to do with how the brain takes in information, thinks about it, and turns it into action. The “Hard Problem,” on the other hand, is the task of explaining our individual, subjective, first-person experiences of the world. What is it like to be me, rather than someone else? Everyone agrees that the Easy Problems are hard; some people think the Hard Problem is almost impossible, while others think it’s pretty easy.

Today’s guest, David Chalmers, is arguably the leading philosopher of consciousness working today, and the one who coined the phrase “the Hard Problem,” as well as proposing the philosophical zombie thought experiment. Recently he has been taking seriously the notion of panpsychism.

We talk about these knotty issues (about which we deeply disagree), but also spend some time on the possibility that we live in a computer simulation. Would simulated lives be “real”? (There we agree — yes they would.)

David Chalmers got his Ph.D. from Indiana University working under Douglas Hoftstadter.

He is currently University Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science at New York University and co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness.

He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Among his books are The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, The Character of Consciousness, and Constructing the World.

He and David Bourget founded the PhilPapers project.

Mr. Eccles Presents | Sci-fi and Philosophy


This is episode 87 of the Ra-Men vodcast, hosted by YouTuber Aron Ra, and here featuring his recent interview with one of my favorite philosophy professors, David Kyle Johnson. He’s the same gent who taught the Great Courses course I’ve reviewed a bit back, The Big Questions of Philosophy, and here he’s discussing the latest offering of his from the Great Courses, Sci-Phi, Science Fiction as Philosophy. He and Aron go over the outline of the course, as well as addressing a few essential points, two of which include the existence of knowable facts, and that apologetics is at best philosophy done badly, its abuse and in method its antithesis; that even if we do exist in a computer simulation, said simulation is reality for us, a reality with its own rules and its own facts, though everything would exist in digital form as bits in a server. Professor Johnson notes the importance of philosophy, how it gave rise to all other intellectual disciplines, and even now has use in the modern age.

One thing I’ve noticed about apologetics, and Johnson points this out, is that it always, without fail, operates on the basis of an agenda to defend, often religious, though I personally know at least one political apologist, have read many in my time, and have locked horns once with another (Here’s looking at you, Tobin). Apologetics is unconcerned with such niceties as a search for knowledge over error, of getting one’s facts right and using cogent reasoning, or with rigorous thinking and a deep understanding of concepts. It is instead concerned with the sowing and perpetuation of confusion over clarity, fallacies over good reasoning, and twisting the facts beyond recognition to support whatever agenda is at play, rationalizing backward from the conclusion by shoehorning the premises to support it.

That being said, I love debates and listen to or watch them often, but they are not for me to engage in personally, not yet, at least. I’m an inexperienced public speaker, tend to get emotional in an argument, and I’m easily annoyed, not thinking myself particularly kindhearted when faced with an arguer who shows that they are not willing to abide by the rules of good rhetoric, logic, or dialogue, and have nothing of any evident value to teach me from their perspective. I try to avoid arguing with anyone online, much less in meatspace, almost never to folks I don’t know, rarely with those I do, and prefer to do any argument through the medium of a blog post, or more abstractly, through my stories in published fiction. That’s good for offsetting my fight-or-flight response, and keeping my thinking clear. This is why I don’t debate apologists, including those who try to pass themselves off as philosophers. I find apologists who pull what they erroneously think to be unimpeachable philosophizing in a serious debate incredibly annoying. They argue dishonestly, as per the nature of apologetics, and I refuse to debate anyone who argues in bad faith, obviously so to anyone who is logically and rhetorically literate and not operating under the agenda to defend a presupposed conclusion.

Anyhoo, the interview lasts for about 30 minutes, and it’s quite good. Both Ra and Johnson are articulate, knowledgable, and a lot of fun to listen to. That’s something worth aspiring to in time, and with practice.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

Here are the show notes (via Aron Ra):

Interviewing Professor David Johnson of Kings College about his Great Courses–Exploring Metaphysics and The Big Questions of Philosophy and Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (buy it on DVD/CD or stream it):

http://www.thegreatcourses.com/sciphi Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (Audible Audiobook): https://www.amazon.com/Sci-Phi-Scienc…

Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (DVD from Amazon as of Jun 4th: https://www.amazon.com/Sci-Phi-Scienc…

“The Great Courses Plus” (Smartphone App: Has “The Big Questions of Philosophy” and should have “Sci-Phi” by June 25). https://www.thegreatcoursesplus.com/apps

Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (On iTunes): https://itunes.apple.com/us/audiobook… Here is the websites for my other courses (which are also available as audiobooks, etc.):

Big Questions of Philosophy: https://www.thegreatcourses.com/cours…

Exploring Metaphysics: https://www.thegreatcourses.com/cours…

Here is a link to his article on Craig: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/bl…

And here is my article on (open letter to) Bill Nye: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/bl… Writing the letter is what actually got me the opportunity to speak to him. It was my “Big Questions of Philosophy” course that convinced him to love philosophy—especially the first four lectures. He emailed me to thank me and everything.

You could also direct them to my two blogs:

Plato on Pop: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/bl…

A logical Take: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/bl…

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Project Logicality | The Argument from Ignorance


Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48One of the first things to discover when adopting a skeptical viewpoint is how vastly ignorant we all are of much of what there is to know. But ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s oblivion. And it’s evil twin, the illusion of knowledge, is downright dangerous.

Here we deal with a common mistake in thinking that exploits ignorance, trying to make it seem like knowledge, the Argument from Ignorance, also the Appeal to Ignorance or in Latin, ad ignorantiam.
Using this argument does not imply that one is ignorant in any demeaning sense, merely that the one using it isn’t making a valid argument or a reliable claim.

It attempts to make a definite claim to understanding by using what is not known rather than what is. It often takes the general form of:

I don’t know X, so I know Y.

Or put differently it goes something like this:

No one has proven X false (or true), so X must be true (or false).

Or perhaps:

I can’t explain X, so I can explain X.

A few examples follow:

No one has proven that Godzilla doesn’t exist, so Godzilla is real.

 

I’ve never seen any real, absolute, rock-solid proof that the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, so the Apollo missions were a hoax.

There’s no fallacy committed when there’s knowledge of missing evidence that should likely be found, and it’s known what the expected evidence should be. Absence of evidence in the right context is indeed evidence of absence when its lack is glaringly obvious, even if it’s not absolute proof of absence!

There’s no fallacy committed in and of itself when acting upon incomplete data for precautionary purposes, such as the threat of terrorists, who can be expected to operate in secret until they strike, if and when they do, or acting upon the threat of global warming in the absence of total certainty.

The following is a valid argument:

All of the scheduled openings of this library are listed. I don’t see a listing of it opening at this hour of the day. So it must be that the library is closed until two hours from now.

This, however, is not:

I see a strange light in the sky. I can’t think of an explanation for it off the top of my head, so it must be the aliens from Independence Day!

Or this:

There are gaps in the fossil record. I do not know of a plausible explanation as to why there are such gaps. So it must be that a Intelligent Designer has created or interceded in the creation of life.

A variation of this is Confusing the Unexplained with the Unexplainable, which is fallacious because it assumes implicitly that the current state of knowledge represents the ultimate limits of the knowable, which is just wrong on so many levels.

There’s a possibly apocryphal anecdote floating about of a patent clerk in the late 19th or early 20th century who quit his job, because he thought that everything important had already been invented.

There’s also the silly claim, still circulated, that it’s impossible for bumblebees to fly because science can’t explain it, therefore it’s magic. Well, science has explained it, and it deals with the mechanics of a bumblebee’s wings and the physics of fluid dynamics.

This is understandable, even from perfectly normal, intelligent, sane, and sincere people. It’s reasoning from psychologically available information rather than an examination of more complex and difficult data that may not come as quickly or easily to mind.

It just so happens that supernatural or paranormal explanations are among the easiest to conceive of on the spur of the moment. They are more immediately available, and we are more prone to them through the biases and mental shortcuts we take in our default thinking under whatever narrative influences our brains at any given moment, to paraphrase Dr. Steven Novella.

In informal argumentation the fallacious use of the argument from ignorance is not a violation of logical form as much as an attempt to subvert efforts toward getting at sound explanations for our claims.

It’s important not to confuse a lack of evidence for its presence, though absence of evidence can indeed be evidence for absence in the case of demonstrating the existence of entities in the real world. If the data you logically expect to see as a consequence of a phenomenon just isn’t where is should be found, that’s a good sign that it’s not real.

The prudent position, the conservative one, is to abstain from postulating unobserved and unobservable things, or those which can and should be observed but tellingly are not.

Otherwise, belief in such entities comes down to a matter of faith, and that is entirely one’s own choice to make.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update 2017.06.06)

Project Logicality | False Choice Fallacies


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Here, we discuss a common error in reasoning, the False Choice, also known as the False Dichotomy, the Bifurcation fallacy, the Either-Or fallacy, the Fallacy of Negation, the False Dilemma, and for a common variant with only three options, the False Trichotomy.

This uses informal, or language-grounded, logic, and takes the form of a Dilemma, a class of argumentation that takes its effectiveness from resemblance to a formal argument known as a Disjunction.

A Dilemma, false or not, unlike a Disjunction, has a conclusion that follows only to a degree of probability, not necessarily or with complete certainty.

As a fallacy, this argument uses a misleadingly simple choice of two or otherwise too few options, one assumed as true to the negation, discredit, or rejection of all alternatives. In all variants, this falsely constrained selection of options are presented as though they were the only ones.

It generally takes the following form:

Either X or Y.

Not X.

So Y.

In any realistic choice there is often a much greater selection of options to take than rhetorically suit the purposes of those who like to use this argument strategy.

On occasion, however there are exceptions, when there do exist a restricted selection of options, as when a prediction made by a scientific hypothesis is either provisionally validated or falsified, or with the argument against theistic moral theories from the dialogues of Plato, Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Sets of choices that reflect realistic limits would not count as a commission of this fallacy.

I’ll provide a few of examples of the False Choice below:

Either young-Earth creationism is true or we came about through blind evolution. But I declare evolution to be false as it contradicts the literal truth of scripture, which I know to be true. Since evolution is false, young-Earth creationism must be true.

You either worship my God, or you worship the Evil One. You don’t worship my God, and since everyone worships something, you must worship the Evil One.

If these are redone as false trichotomies, we get:

Either young-Earth creationism, Intelligent design, or Darwinism is true, and since Darwinism and Intelligent design are false, young-Earth creationism must be true.

This argument completely ignores the vast variety of theological systems and creation myths of all the world’s cultures, past and present, misleadingly presenting an anachronistic 19th century caricature of modern evolutionary science, the creation myths from Genesis (Both of them!) as interpreted by biblical literalists, and Intelligent design as the only possible options.

There is also:

You either worship my concept of God, the Evil One, or the fleshy gods of materialistic science.

This ignores the fact that one may in fact worship nothing at all, no gods, no masters, no devils, no objects of worship of any kind, as is usually the case with atheists.

The rest are simple (and of course, simplistic) dichotomies…

You’re either a believer and a theist, or you’re a skeptic and an atheist.

Two words suffice to refute this: Martin Gardner. Look him up.

Anyone who doesn’t support the Patriot Act supports terrorists!

Either the girl broke her ex-boyfriend’s jaw with that slugger, or it started flying around and fractured his jaw by itself!

Either your cat stole my burrito or maybe a psychic just teleported in and grabbed it? Suuure…

If you are not with us, you are against us.

You’re either pro-choice or pro-life. There’s no middle ground!

Note that realistically, not all imaginable options in a set of alternatives need to be considered, only those options that are somehow meaningfully testable, as with the rule of thumb known as Occam’s razor, or the principle of theoretical economy.

Also, there is at least one other reason that this argument is not always a fallacy, such as when it is used to further the goal of advancing a critical discussion, and not merely block further consideration or thwart attempts to resolve a controversy.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

Project Logicality | the Argument from Personal Incredulity


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Here we discuss a common flaw in reasoning, the Argument from Personal Incredulity, a variation of the Argument from Ignorance. It involves denying or asserting a claim from the standpoint of a failure to accept, understand, or imagine said claim or it’s contrary.

It’s to impose one’s own cognitive horizons on reality, and like the Argument from Ignorance, pretend to a certain conclusion that one does not have the data or perspective to correctly make.

Reality is not limited, restricted or constrained by our willingness or ability to comprehend it, by what we can personally accept as true, simply because no positive conclusions are obtainable from missing evidence or a failure to generate strong or valid explanations.

Someone with a more active imagination or greater understanding may discover a way to conceive of and comprehend what we cannot. The Argument from Incredulity could be illustrated by way of example:

‘Evolutionists’ and Origin of Life researchers (effectively one and the same to creationists) claim that life arose and reached its present form over billions of years.
Being a human with a lifetime of only decades, I can’t wrap my mind around time-scales that immense, or comprehend life arising and evolving by blind, natural processes.
So I conclude that evolution is false, as the only alternative I know of, young-Earth creationism, is easier to understand and accept.

Or by this silly example…

I can’t imagine computers working without pixies transmitting the data in them…
So I believe pixies must be responsible for the operation of my Mac.

…or further, in this way…

I don’t understand the mathematics and theory behind the Big Bang, Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and the simpler Electric Universe theory appeals more to my personal intuitions…
So orthodox astronomy and cosmology is wrong and my pet alternative cosmology is correct.

This fallacy has a minor variant of its own, the Appeal to Ridicule, in which the one making the argument attempts to portray a factual claim or statement as ludicrous, often with dishonest intent in order to influence others into disbelieving it, as is often the case with portrayals of the theory of evolution by creationists like Ray Comfort, Kirk Cameron, the late Duane Gish and Kent Hovind. The following is an example of the appeal to ridicule:

Scientists would have us believe that hydrogen, a colorless, odorless gas, given time, becomes stars, planets, animal and plant life, and ultimately, people.
Now, who in his right mind would believe anything so absurd?

…As is this:

Mainstream astronomers are always saying that most of the mass of the universe is locked up in some invisible, fairy-tale thing they call ‘dark matter,’ and the even more silly concepts of magic ‘dark energy’ and ‘inflation theory’ unicorns they need to prop up their failing model.
Therefore conventional cosmology is unbelievably comical, so my pet doctrine must be true because it’s more sensible and logical than the Big Bang with all that useless, abstract math it involves.

Never mind that no self-respecting unicorn would be caught dead in an argument like that…much less ‘inflation theory’ ones…

It is not an argument from incredulity to make more valid inferences, when what we know is complete enough that our ability to imagine or understand something applies to most reasonable situations, when the phrase ‘I can’t imagine this’ is just a figure of speech, as with this example:

We happen to know things about Quantum Mechanics that we have verified experimentally time and again…
We do not know anything of QM as it is currently understood that supports its use as a viable explanation for Psi, should Psi even truly exist as is claimed…
So I think that Psi, if it exists, cannot be adequately explained by QM.

The argument from incredulity is sometimes a tricky one to pick out, especially in one’s own arguments, as it is not always made in the form of a statement, but well worth the effort in recognizing to avoid being bamboozled in a debate, with or without creationists, electric universe proponents or parapsychologists as the opposition.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Updated as of 2017.06.06)