Sunday, June 10, 2018

Philosophy in fiction

I love both fiction and philosophy. Sadly however they don't mix so well in every case. Now, all of us have a philosophy, even if it's a limited and amateur one. There is nothing wrong with adding your philosophy into a fictional work. In fact, to some degree it is likely inevitable. Most people can't just chuck their views about things out when they write (although the very skilled can present views quite different from theirs).

In some cases though the author seems to view their fiction as a vehicle to present a particular philosophy. This can be very heavy-handed and contrived. I'm going to discuss two examples, bearing in mind I've not read either series entirely. 

The first is The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind. I've seen much philosophical science fiction, and this is the only philosophical fantasy series I've come across so far. Anyone even slightly familiar with this is probably aware that Goodkind is an Objectivist, i.e. Ayn Rand's follower. 

Many have said that these Objectivist themes only came in later books. In truth though there was some of it from the start. To be sure, they were more understated. Nonetheless, we have Darken Rahl (the main villain, or couldn't you tell from his first name?) being said to live in the "People's Palace" of D'Hara. His "People's Peace Army" has conquered much of the neighboring Midlands. It is not hard to see what all this "People's" stuff references. 

More on the nose is a scene when he visits a sympathetic monarch who has a Box of Orden (there are three, and all together would allow him control over the entire world). Rahl is negotiating to get it from her. She and her guests call in a peasant imprisoned for inability to pay very high taxes. He complains about the injustice and they denounce him with very communist-sounding rhetoric. Again, hardly subtle. 

Objectivism categorically rejects realism in art, including literature, but it's hard to swallow this. Goodkind's fantasy, like most, takes place in a pseudo Medieval Europe, with the expected monarchy and other features, but adding magic. There is no justification of anyone (let alone monarchs) talking like modern communists (or at least how Goodkind imagines they talk). Not to mention that "People's Palace" absurdity. 

Darken Rahl is not called king or emperor but simply "Master", although this changes nothing. He is also a vegetarian, with no clear reason for that. It's not impossible for a vegetarian to still kill human beings (as Rahl did on occasion when people ate meat in his presence) but one suspects that socialism and vegetarianism are simply things that Goodkind dislikes, given Objectivism's condemnation of both.

Later on, a new antagonist leader/county is introduced who are even more obviously communists (though religious ones, which is at least somewhat more realistic in a medieval-type setting). Yet eventually their economy is revealed as like the American one in Atlas Shrugged (undoubtedly an Ayn Rand tribute).

It is thus difficult to imagine how they could field the massive armies we see, or even feed themselves, with a morass of red tape for every decision. Oddly this economy does not seem state-run, merely weighed down by bureaucrats having to approve every economic decision and insure it's "fair".

Goodkind seems unable to present his villains being even somewhat nuanced either. All of them are rapists, for example. In regards to their philosophy, it's empty rhetoric that even a child could see through. After all, a king claiming spreading the wealth is good isn't plausible, or calling their palace the "People's".

With the religious communists, it's even worse. It seems much is aimed against Christian beliefs like original sin (it's "spiritual guide" is a monk-like sorcerer). Yet there is only the negative, the idea that human beings are unfathomably detestable to the Creator. Original sin is a concept I too reject, but come on. There is no way Christianity (nor this fictional religion) would have thrived if it had no positive teaching, such as that human beings are sinners, but the divine likeness also.

This isn't simply a matter of whether one agrees with some philosophy presented. I'm neither a vegetarian nor socialist myself. However, it becomes obvious in a case like this that these features are simply dumped into a fantasy world and then presented as things advocated by the villains for the author to rip them apart. Many strawmen are assailed, and the plot suffers. 

My second example is David Weber's Honor Harrington series. Although far better written than Goodkind's work, in my opinion, it also can be heavy-handed in its philosophy. The series is military science fiction, with the main enemies at the start being (hmm, this one's familiar) the People's Republic of Haven. 

Most succinctly, the PRH could be described as the ultimate parody of a welfare state. The majority of people there (Haven is a multi-system polity, like most shown in the series, which Weber calls a "star nation") do not work at all, but simply live on a Basic Living Stipend, or BLS (probably not coincidental that it's close to "bullshit" also in the acronym). "Dolists" is the slang term for them. 

Although nominally a republic, like it's name says, Haven has become in practice a hereditary oligarchy. Heck, the "hereditary" is put right out there before the President's title. Not only him, but also members of Haven's Legislature. This class is called the Legislaturalists. 

It's hard to imagine how this could work, although science fiction is a genre with a lot of leeway. Weber doesn't really try to justify it any more than Goodkind however. He simply says that Haven made up for the deficits having most of its citizens living on the dole caused by conquest and plunder of other star nations. This only lasted so long however and by the series' start they are in dire straits. 

What's difficult for me to believe however is that could last this long. The books indicate that the system in Haven has been existing for centuries. A willing suspension of disbelief can only be stretched so far, even in fantasy and science fiction. It was deeply implausible to me that this would remain so long. 

Oddly, despite what the "People's Republic" name would indicate, the economy is later said to be not wholly state-owned, only some parts. When a revolution topples the regime, the new leader understandably realizes they can't go on like this, and uses a war to motivate people into voluntarily going to work again. 

It might have been justifiable to have that many people out of work if the economy were largely automated. This is not the case however, as indicated by the need for them working again. What would happen in the case of that much automation could indeed be interesting fodder for a story. Can a society have most people do nothing to earn their keep? Would it? Sadly, though, Weber seems to be just bashing welfare, without any deeper point. 

It is not only the shallowness of the philosophy which can be a problem, but where this intrudes into the story with a menace. One book has a prisoner from the good guys, the Manticorans, feign being on the Havenites' side while in their custody. He reflects internally upon his guards' sorry intellects, the product of the Havenite education system which focused more on "validating" them than teaching. 

Yes, this is clearly another of Weber's peeves. However my main problem with this was that the characters spends a page or more thinking of this. Never does he say any of it aloud. It's clearly a simple lecture from the author on a subject he feels strongly about, with his villains of course being the strawmen. 

It's difficult to have a message in fiction without becoming preachy or hurting the plot, it seems. Some would say just keep your messages out of course. I don't think that's possible, since even they all have implicit ones, it's just we don't really recognize them. Nonetheless it does appear to be something that many authors cannot do well (even when they otherwise are good writers). 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The All-Loving God of William Lane Craig

On his website, Craig answers questions posed to him by people all around the world. In one of these, asked by a Muslim from Jordan, Craig defends his Christian view of God as all loving and therefore preferable to the Muslim concept.

He cites the fact that the Quran says at times that Allah does not love everyone. I haven't myself read these verses, but I'll take their word for it. My problem, however, is with the notion that Craig's god really qualifies as "all loving".

In another post on his site, Craig infamously defends the Israelites slaughter of the Canaanites in the Bible, as commanded by God. Since he follows the divine command theory, God commanding it makes this right.

Ironically in the same post Craig mentions his moral argument for God's existence, yet does not seem to realize this theory is a good example of ethical subjectivism, even going by his own definition. I'll discuss that further in another post however.

The point: where is God "all-loving" in ordering genocide? Really, if this does not refute it, the term becomes empty. More importantly, this makes God very similar to Allah, in clearly not loving every person equally. Unless killing them is a sign of his love?

Craig seems to argue exactly that at least with regards to the Canaanite children, since he believes will be saved, being innocent. Why their adult parents and relatives could not be saved rather than killed though is another issue here.

It is notable just how little mercy a supposedly all-loving God seems to be capable of. Rather than, say, make the Canaanites infertile as punishment for their sins and simply allow them to die out, he has the Israelites simply slaughter them all, children included.

The same could be said for those millions who never heard the word of God at all. Even if God, for whatever reason, doesn't simply reveal himself, just why do they exist? So they all can go to hell out of ignorance? Yet to Craig, it seems, nothing will count against God being an all-loving deity. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Energy and Survival

Many are unsatisfied with the afterlife being a religious dogma, held without empirical evidence. Those of a more scientific bent have dubbed the belief in some afterlife "the survival hypothesis", hoping to give it such evidence.

One tack is to claim that Conservation of Energy supports the idea that some part of us remains alive eternally. The scientific principle says that energy is neither created nor destroyed, and the soul thus may be preserved.

However, this argument has many problems. First of all, claiming the soul (however that may be defined) is "energy" in this regard makes little sense. Many so misuse the term "energy", to find confusion is not surprising.

In science, energy means the capacity to do work. Now, some may define the soul as something like this (for instance the "life force") but most mean the mind or personality. To call this "energy" then does not follow. How is the sum of our thoughts, feelings etc. the "capacity to do work"?

However, as I said, the term "energy" is often used for something entirely different, more like the "life force" that was mentioned. We see this reflected even in popular culture like Star Wars, where the Force has been defined to be "an energy field created by all living things". The latter is just nonsense scientifically, though the Force is essentially like the chi or prana of the East, unsurprisingly as the Jedi are very Eastern influenced.

If by "energy" then the "life force" is meant, though, science called no longer be called to aid the hypothesis. Science long ago discarded this concept of the life force. Life is not a simple force, but a sum of many biochemical processes. In the same way, the soul as our mind is not a scientific idea either. The scientific consensus is that the mind comes from or is a part of the brain that dies along with it.

Assuming we granted that the mind is energy, however, that still does not mean it would survive death, because proponents of this idea neglect an important fact. Conservation of Energy does say that energy is not created or destroyed, true. It is, however, transformed. Death means that our energy is transformed from something animate to inanimate.

The search for an afterlife will have to rest on something else. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

An Examination of Poor Atheist Arguments

I've spent a lot of time on this blog criticizing theism and the arguments offered for its validity. That said, some arguments in favor of atheism also deserve criticism. Poor arguments in favor of the position I hold are still fallacious. A higher caliber of arguments can be made.

The first is what might be called the "single proof" fallacy. If a theist makes a cosmological argument (for instance, from causality) many atheists will respond that even if true, it really doesn't prove that the God they believe in exist. At best it proves some kind of First Cause.

Though true, unless the theist rests their case solely on this argument, the criticism is off the mark. Every case must start somewhere. To do that with where everything came from is a logical starting point. It is a rare theist that doesn't make other arguments as well in favor of the argument, assuming they actually want to convince anyone.

Many atheists, moreover, appear to be strict empiricists, even positivists, claiming that only empirical data has any weight. Therefore, they will then triumphantly declare there is no empirical data for any gods' existence, and thus atheism is validated by that alone.

However, as has long been known, this view has no ability to support itself. For how can any person use empirical data to determine that only empirical data has any validity? Moreover, theists do cite empirical data in favor of God's existence. Fine tuning is one obvious example, but also causality as mentioned earlier. This does mean one must accept it, but we can't claim none is offered either.

It has also been claimed that an argument is not evidence. Even a sound argument for God does not prove that he exists. While it's true that a sound argument can still be false, this is usually related to the empiricist claim up above. Only scientific evidence is held to be valid. Yet not every issue can be a subject of scientific investigation. In any case, many arguments are indeed based on scientific and empirical evidence, for instance both fine tuning or causality as mentioned previously.

There are more still that could be dissected, and they may be yet in a future post. At this time, though, it seems enough to caution against these sorts of fallacious arguments. Even a correct position, which I believe atheism to be, can have poor arguments made for it which should be discarded.

Eternity and Existence

Similarly to the claim of materialism being unable to support meaning, so too a finite existence is claimed as lacking this. Without eternal life, it has been said, there is no point. Everything we are will one day vanish at death, and eventually not even memory or relics of what has been made remain.

To begin with, it seems more than a bit much for any of us here to expect an eternal life for ourselves, or that our works will last forever. All things we see decay and disappear in time. Why should we find ourselves as an exception? 

Even apart from that, however, this claim that a finite existence is pointless strikes me as very odd. To take an analogy, does the fact that a play which moves people, stirring up heights of emotion, become pointless by the fact that it inevitably ends? I don't see how. Nor has anyone explained why this should be the case that I've ever seen. 

In fact, if anything the opposite seems to be true. Something lasting forever could be very bad. This is something that has been shown in many fictional depictions of immortals. They may become utterly bored by this existence, as eventually every experience has been had. Life can become a burden even to mortals. How much more could it be for those that never die? 

It is true of course that existence can be very painful, and people fail to find happiness or suffer from wrongs in this life that seem clearly quite unjust. However, eternal life, whether of reward or punishment as is taught by most religions, does not seem proportionate with our mortal existence. If our life here is finite, any eternal reward or punishment is more than any deserves. 

The very notion of any eternal reward or punishment is problematic when scrutinized. No matter how inventive people get in imagining heavens or hells, at some point every possible reward or punishment will be done. Some are far more simple, as the Bible portrays it, either praising God or burning eternally. Both of those things seem rather pointless. 

How can we appreciate something that has no end in our experience? Even in this life, it is far too easy to take things for granted. Imagine how then it would become if immortal, until as posited above we are bored to death. An eternal joy or suffering can only be a mindless state over time. 

Even an artificial immortality as some believe science promises also seems doubtful. How is any mind capable of holding the memories which would be stored up so long a time? A mind enhanced enough to overcome this would probably leave us so changed we are no longer ourselves. In any case, all the problems with boredom remain. 

So, it appears that eternal life would itself be pointless in the end. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Evolution and Reason

It is often claimed by theists that if our reason is a result of evolution, we have no reason to trust its veracity. However, this is not at all obvious. A reasoning capacity has clear adaptive usefulness, such as solving problems like finding food, determining dangers, even winning mates.

It may be argued that this does not account for its usefulness in more abstract areas like philosophy. We must remember however that most people do not turn it to such lofty areas. In any case, side effects of things can outstrip their original functions.

It seems that reason is actually more understandable on atheism. For if, as theists claim, reason is a gift of God, why make it this faulty? I do not think anyone would deny how we can be mislead. This argument against reason having a natural origin turns on the theist. For if they are right, then this is exactly what we would expect to see-an imperfect reason.

One obvious use for reason, on theism, is knowing God. This is the purpose of natural theology. While some theists deny that God can be known by reason alone, many concede it has usefulness, or natural theology would not still be a field of study. Even if they do not, it must be a tool given by God. Why, in either case, give a faulty one?

The question becomes particularly pressing with the first probable use on theism, knowing God. From the vast diversity of belief regarding God, even just within Christianity, it becomes clear that our reason is not a sure guide. On the second use, the faultiness is less problematic, but even so why give us a defective gift?

Possible responses have been that reason does tell us God exists, but we deny because we want to sin. Another is that the manifold differences in regards to religious belief are less than I have made out. On the first, it does not seem to be well supported. What evidence has there been given for this? Many people by all appearances sincerely believe in God and wish to serve him, yet their conclusions about this still can differ greatly. The second is far weaker I believe. We need simply note that polytheism is far more common historically than monetheism.

In conclusion, I believe that far from being evidence for theism, our reason and its flawed nature are far better explained on atheism.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Matter and Meaning

I came across an article on the Huffington Post expressing a view I've often seen, and want to address. Briefly, in it the author, Rabbi Adam Jacobs, claims "nonbelievers" must really at heart believe in something more than matter as their belief system isn't consistent.

Of course, saying all nonbelievers (I don't know whether he includes others besides atheists under that term) are materialists isn't true, but I'll simply ignore that, since it isn't the point of this post. Rather, even if we accepted materialism, what he claims isn't necessarily the case.

Jacobs claims that "nonbelievers" (here meaning materialists) must believe that nothing they ever do will matter, since none has any more significance than another. He says he's awaiting the person who admits this is the case. Well, there are some materialists who think this, but not all. Has he shown they must? I don't see it. How is "everything is matter" equal to "nothing means anything"?

Naturally, he suggests materialists that deny it are deluded. What follows is a brief series of basically "gotcha" questions for materialists. These include asking why materialists won't use the corpse of a loved one for dog food and suchlike. He claims any who said they wouldn't based on respect is simply in denial, with their notion being nothing more than a "subjective, non-intellectual whim" because they are simply "electrical blips in the skull". This again is not argued for, only assumed.

I'm not going to address every question, since they are much the same, but one he raises about art is good for illustrating the problem. He asks what significance on materialism a painting has, as it isn't good for food, etc. This assumes, of course, that only the most basic human urges would make sense on materialism, yet that is not shown. In any case, whether or not we accept materialism is true, aren't all paintings the arrangements of matter? Paint, wood, etc.? We might well ask where this significance comes in for it regardless. Some don't find much significance in many of the paintings out there. It is generally held to be a subjective quality.

There is also the assumption he makes that materialism is arbitrary, blind, random, etc. Again, this is not (at least entirely) the case for all materialists. There is also no reason things (like paintings) can't be composed of various matter which isn't meaningful itself, but has it over and above that, due to the specifics. After all, we can still tell the difference between a painting and jars of paint. Is that not a meaningful difference?

His article closes by saying anyone that rejects this view "may be more of a believer than you think". Assuming, of course, that only a "believer" can find meaning. What believers he does not say, but his religion would presumably be included, plus probably Christianity. So, is any religion sufficient? Even if they disagree about what the meaning is? He does not say.

This method of argument not only commits the strawman fallacy, but also an ad hominem, accusing anybody who rejects his conclusion of being in denial. Yet, as I hope I've shown, he hasn't made clear that his is the only logical conclusion on the philosophy being attacked. To make an analogy, if some gentile claimed he was in denial because his holy book commanded certain laws and Jacobs didn't act on them, I don't think he would agree that is right or fair.

In sum, be courteous to opponents. No one will be convinced by things like this. Unfortunately, it is about what I've come to expect at Huffington Post, from believers and nonbelievers alike. No doubt this is because controversy draws views. Sadly, any real depth is often lost or nonexistent.