Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reverse Occam's Razor

Occam's razor, also known as the law of parsimony, is the principle that generally recommends, when faced with competing hypotheses that are equal in other respects, selecting the one that makes the fewest new assumptions.  More challenging, complex explanations can also be right, of course-the principle is only a guideline. Most conspiracy theory holds the precisely reverse view, whether implicitly or not.

Before we continue, it's useful to define conspiracy. It simply means two or more people acting in concert to commit a criminal act. So by this definition conspiracies happen very often indeed. However conspiracy theories do not focus on the small, everyday, conspiracies, but rather those great and overarching. This is reasonable, since these have more importance to world affairs. Conspiracy theories with more importance will therefore be my focus.

Let us first address the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963. Obviously the "official story" that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally alone is simpler. That does not make it necessarily right of course. However, assuming one wanted the President dead, and having chosen Dallas as the location, which is simpler? Two or three gunmen, possibly more, versus one? Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, one gunmen could easily have picked off JFK from the Texas School Book Depository.

Most conspiracy theories seem to view Oswald as either innocent or the fall guy of co-conspirators. None that I know of believe he could have committed the shooting alone, for good reason as this would undercut the basis of their claims. Yet this would not by itself rule out a conspiracy. For if Oswald alone shot Kennedy after plotting with accomplices, that would satisfy conditions for a conspiracy. The larger a plot, the more loose ends. After this Oswald presumably had to be silenced himself. Then his own murderer was allowed to live and potentially spill the beans for over four years, let alone the many others who might. An unacceptable risk in any conspiracy to assassinate the US President.

More recently, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center Twin Towers and the Pentagon have been claimed to be impossible if we follow "the official story." While specific claims made by so-called "9/11 Truthers" have been exhaustively answered by experts, why do people leap into the most outlandish theory yet again? If elements of the US or Israeli governments wanted to have the 9/11 attacks occur, they would merely have to sit back and let them happen. If this were done, negligence is far easier to explain (as mere incompetence) than wiring explosives in the Twin Towers undetected, or firing a cruise missile at the Pentagon, along with getting rid of all the Flight 19 passengers, as some theories allege.

One must only put themselves in the mind of the would-be conspirator intent on committing such crimes for a moment to see how daunting this prospect would be, even for secret government officials. The more complex the plan, the more conspirators involved, the more there is that can and likely will go wrong. If these events were successful conspiracies (obviously, 9/11 in fact was such, but assuming others were involved than Al-Qaeda) it was because of the simplicity and relatively low number of conspirators, not the opposite. 

The Ledge Review

Directed by Matthew Chapman, a descendant of Charles Darwin, The Ledge explores issues of faith, loyalty, love and sacrifice to reach a shocking conclusion in its dramatic buildup. The film begins in a slow fade from night to day on the sky line of a city over the opening credits, reflecting its themes of light and shadow in human lives. We are first introduced to a police detective named Hollis (Terrence Howard), who is called onto a building ledge where a man is threatening to jump.

Hollis has just received the news he is sterile, but he and his wife already have two children. The man on the ledge, Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) is remarkably upbeat for someone threatening suicide. He asks Hollis what his success rate at jumpers, who replies "it's decent." Hollis asks if he's married, and Gavin says no. "So why jump?" asks Hollis, to which Gavin laughs. Hollis correctly guesses he is not up here by choice. Sobering up, Gavin says he has to stay up here until noon and jump, or someone else will die. Hollis requests that he tell him what led up to this, and the story unfolds.

Gavin met a woman named Shana (Liv Tyler) that had just moved into his apartment building with her husband. It turns out she found went to an art class with a co-worker where their assignment is to write an essay on a sacred object for them (his co-worker amusingly asks whether a large dildo counts) and gets a job at the hotel he works in through this.

Back home, Gavin laughingly dismisses his roommate Chris' mysticism, who complains that he doesn't "see meaning" in things. Joe, Shana's husband, introduces himself and invites the pair to dinner with them. After showing Shana the hotel the next day, with its quirky characters, they come to dinner. Joe, assumes they are gay (only Gavin's roommate is) prays in front of them for their souls. Instantly offended, Gavin leaves, while Chris good-naturedly brushes it off. Later they argue over what happened.

The next day, Gavin asks what sacred object Shana is writing her essay about. It turns out to be a teddy bear her father had given Shana immediately before he left the family. He was an abusive alcoholic, and she thinks he might have abandoned them to prevent him really hurting Shana or her mother. Gavin is subdued by this, and later goes to lunch with Shana, talking with her further.

Back at the ledge, Hollis flashs back to coming home after learning he is sterile. He angrily demands to know "whose kids these are" from his wife. She only replies with "it was an arrangement." Returning to the story, on the way to the bus stop the next day Joe stops Gavin, apologizing for his praying the night before. He suggests they speak again, which Gavin agrees to. While on the bus with Shana, he plants the suggestion of intimacy between them. Gavin explains to Hollis how he put the idea in her head, where it will grow. We can imagine what Hollis is thinking hearing this given his recent history.
Gavin speaks to Joe over their second dinner, having previously revealed himself as a non-believer. Joe wishes to know why he doesn't believe in God. There is no special reason, Gavin says, he simply grew out of believing it, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. No evidence exists for any of them. Joe feels evidence is everywhere, but does not actually give examples. They argue over the morality of condemning someone to eternal torment for not knowing about Christ, Gavin using the example of a good person in China. Joe says that's why spreading the Gospel is important, to save those who don't know. 

After this he relates visiting a terminally ill boy in the hospital, telling him his parents were in heaven. What would Gavin do in such a situation? Tell him they were dead and gone, never to be seen again? No, Gavin admits, he probably would have said the same thing, but he would be lying. Joe finally gives up and starts praying for Gavin again, at which once more leaves in frustration.

The next day, Shana tells him more of her life story. In her teens, she got involved with drugs, and became a prostitute to pay for it. One client liked to meet in churches, but no one had told her he also liked to beat up the woman afterward. She was badly injured and had crawled toward the altar, looking for help. In her state, she had forgotten the next day was Sunday. Joe found her there on the floor when he came in, and took her to a hospital. Things progressed from there. She tells Gavin he made an impression on Joe. He took them to another church which is against drinking, smoking and immodest clothing for women. They will soon go on a mission to Uganda and spread the Gospel. She tells Gavin it's best if he stays away from now on.

Gavin does try to stay away, though this only lasts briefly. Shana finds him sitting on the roof, looking at the stars. They begin talking again, and Shana tells him how she tried to fill the void with physical sensation that only made her feel more empty. She asks him what, as an atheist, he finds meaning in. He tells her that being here with the stars, seeing the vast universe, makes him feel a part of it. This also reminds him of how precious life is, finite and fragile in comparison. Shana is clearly moved by his sense of peace. Joe suspects something, seeing her gone. The next day at work, Shana simply comes up to Gavin and kisses him. Soon they arrange to meet in the hotel with an empty room. Almost at once Joe discovers this and follows Shana there, observing her leaving afterward. Shana has suspicions he knows.

Back on the ledge, Hollis' wife calls him, trying to explain what she did. He tells Gavin to keep telling his story. Shana met him in his apartment, with Joe following her again. This time his suspicion is confirmed beyond any doubt, as he listens to them through the door in agony. Lying in bed with Shana later, Gavin tells her about his daughter. She was killed in a car accident which he blames himself for. He had only moments to choose which way to turn, and chose what he feels is wrong, with the truck slamming into the rear where she was. Shana tells him it was not his, and he knows it rationally, but the guilt stays. It destroyed his marriage, and he got into the hospitality business after.
In the present, Hollis reveals what his wife told him. She had his younger brother conceive their children, for them to be close as possible to him. Gavin tells him that it shows how much she cares for him, but the news is clearly hard on Hollis. Flashing back, Joe tries to prove himself with Shana, showing more attention at her needs. By now though this is clearly too late. Shana begins planning to leave him for Gavin. Joe calls the hotel to book a room. Calling Gavin to his apartment, he tells his own story. He was once happily married with two children, but lost it all gambling and visiting prostitutes. Joe denies to Gavin that he was an addict, but rather says he loved sin. Finally, lying in the gutter, he saw light from a nearby church and went in, which he views as a sign from God. 

Joe threatens Gavin with a gun, reminding him of how adultery is punished in the Bible-with death. Gavin counters with the famous example of Jesus stopping an adulteress from being stoned, since no one is without sin and fit to judge. Joe says he thought of that, and challenges Gavin over being willing to die for what he believes in. Gavin says he is willing, and finally Joe dismisses him.
Hearing the story while on the ledge, Hollis notices light flashing from a window in the hotel across the street. Calling his partner, the police go into the hotel as he listens to Gavin. 

Joe went to the hotel room he booked, and ordered room service which Shana delivered. Then he calls Gavin, having bound and gagged her, to give him his choice. Saying that he is "more of an Old Testament Christian" Joe tells Gavin to choose between himself and Shana. He must go up to the roof of the building opposite the hotel, stay there until 12:00, and then jump, or he will shoot Shana. Hollis angrily says he should have told him this from the beginning as the police rush to the hotel room. Gavin says he couldn't, or Joe might have killed Shana before they could get to him. As the clock strikes 12:00, despite Hollis pleas, Gavin jumps, sacrificing himself. The police burst into the hotel room where Joe is holding Shana, watching from the window, and arrest him.

Back at the police station, Hollis speaks with Shana, commiserating with her over Gavin and saying how much he loved her. On her way out, she passes Joe in a holding cell, his own life destroyed, having lost everything. Hollis goes to his family, without acrimony, sitting down to dinner with them. For just this once, he says, they won't pray, to honor a good man that died. A good man, the film leaves unsaid, who died for someone he loved, without needing faith in a God.

This is one of the only films I have seen which portrays atheism and an atheist in a positive, non-stereotypical light. While the atheist character, Gavin, suffered a great personal loss, this was explicitly not shown to be the cause of his atheism, rather it came first. All of the main characters-Hollis, Gavin, Shana and Joe-have experienced severe hardships of different kinds. The way in which they address these sets them apart. Gavin, though having lost his daughter and marriage, has kept an essentially upbeat, optimistic attitude even with his lingering pain and guilt. 

Shana appears to have needed love from a man over anything else, given her background. It remains unclear if she ever truly believed, or simply went along with Joe. By the end of the film in any case she had gone with Gavin. Joe, given his addictive personality, simply may have swapped religion for the former addictions. His irrational furor stemming from this ends with tragedy. Hollis, on the other hand, while struggling himself with his wife, overcomes the hurdle, inspired by Gavin, as indicated with his refraining from prayer over dinner in the last scene.

The film is definitely leaning in favor of Gavin's view, but shows everyone sympathetically, as flawed human beings, including Joe. It seems clear that Joe is his own worst enemy, with the self-destructive tendencies he cannot overcome making him lose everything he wants even while seeking to hold on through any means necessary. This is in keeping with the tragic theme. While he challenges Gavin over being willing to sacrifice, Joe is not so willing in his own case. Rather, he sacrifices others, both his family before Shana, then her and Gavin later. 

Joe has a hole in himself that is never filled, no matter what he tries. By the end it leaves him even more empty, and likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. The film makes its messages clear: one does not need religion to be happy, nor to be good, or self-sacrificing, nor does having it make one any of those thing. This might seem obvious, but we know is sadly not to many. Thus it may be a quite simple message at heart, aside from anything else-One can be, and life can be, good without God. Simple, but earth-shattering and revolutionary at the same time for much of the world. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Collective Guilt

I had a long and troubling discussion online about collective guilt an hour ago. This devolved from a discussion about overpopulation and its causes, where environment was dismissed by my opponent to be a factor, since our ancestors had survived worse, along with the fact we now have far more control over it. He then complained of "you Americans" ignoring this and wrecking it, at which point my objection to this collective guilt claim followed.

Our discussion then diverged (as often happens) into whether or not Americans (or people generally) can be guilty for what others do. He asserted that as the US is a republic, the citizens are in charge and therefore personally responsible if it does anything viewed as wrong (invading Iraq for him.)

I protested this as the individual citizen does not in any sense control their government, and that if they personally opposed this action (like myself) how could they be deemed guilty? My opponent replied with the assertion even if I did not approve it, other Americans did, and so it was my responsibility. Our views were exactly opposed: he viewed a nation as some corporate entity to which all citizens belong, even if they fight amongst themselves, and I asserted that individuals were responsible only for their acts, not those of any others, especially not when they actively opposed.

Those opposing the invasion of Iraq failed, and so they were guilty along with those supporting it, he argued. Not enough fight had been put up-he felt that most Americans were apathetic. I agreed that indeed this might be the case, but did not see how a collective guilt followed. Being a republic, he felt, made us collectively responsible by default-a monarchy would be different.

My criticism of this idea that citizens in a republic automatically have control over it were repeated. If the minority votes against something, demonstrates, and tries to persuade others not to support it, they are guilty if this fails? I asked incredulously. He said yes, as they did not do enough. All citizens are responsible for their neighbors failure. He made it even plainer by comparing this to my family committing a massacre and me failing to stop them at all cost. Am I not guilty then?

So, the most ancient form of collective guilt is resurrected: that of being guilty for your relatives' crimes. The nation is the ultimate family presumably, and everyone guilty as a whole if they fail to stop any "relative" among them. I asserted this was an impossible standard. My family members that did wrong, and not I, could be held guilty. I told him my opinion of collective guilt, that it was a horrible concept. He countered with the collective guilt held on the Iraqi people, being punished for the crimes of their leader and his regime. I said that was also wrong. They were not all guilty of his crimes-indeed, many were victims.

After this, it was even more blatantly stated: "whether you supported the war or not, you are in fact guilty .. if you cannot refuse the benefits why would you not also accept the guilt that comes with the benefits?" So, by an accident of birth, original sin takes hold. I refused to accept guilt for my existence. This was called "double standard and self-righteousness." It was suggested that I should leave the US for my failure to accept "our" guilt. "That's basically having your family do the massacre, enjoy the loot brought in by them then denying your responsibility in their actions."

Of course, I had no control over my "family" doing any such thing, especially since much of it took place before my very existence. As I vehemently protested, my opponent suddenly declared it had been a "mock fight" to arouse the opposition and make them vindicated. He was taking the "terrorist view" holding every American responsible. That was the danger exactly, I told him. I was powerless, he said, both in what the government had done and that others held me guilty as their citizen. We agreed on that at least.

After my opponent revealed he was (mostly) playing devil's advocate in the discussion, the other person who took his side kept going with the same unfounded assertion. He was far less of a debater, simply repeating himself. At one point he explicitly invoked family collective guilt by comparing it to being born into the Capone family. Funny thing-Al Capone had a son, born with congenital syphilis thanks to his sexual appetites. Was that man guilty of his father's acts? No, rather the victim of them. I told him some of my ancestors owned slaves-did that make me guilty? Yes, he said, if my income came from this. I owed this back. I agree with the last part. The receiver of stolen goods is not always guilty, but must still give them back, if at all possible. I benefited, thus I'm guilty.

As no one asks to be born, they cannot help benefiting. His response: "I don't care." I said then why not kill everyone, since by this logic we're all guilty of everything. He said that was up to me. It was my world. I am a lazy God, it seems. He said to read Jefferson. Invoking a famous individualist to justify collective guilt-the irony was of course utterly lost on him. The discussion petered away with no resolution. Sometimes you just have to rant. It frightens me that people actually feel this way. Born in guilt. Original sin. Horrible ideas, to me. I just want out at these moments-to be unconceived. Too late now though.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Legitimating Confusions

I had been vaguely aware of this for some time, but it came through to me posting on a comment thread that many people believe coercion simply equals pressure. While this is not true (coercion being force or the threat of force) it seems to be a very common misapprehension. It does not seem coincidental that this issue arose in a discussion about whether taxation is violence or not. The answer I gave was "yes," regardless of whether you feel it is justified or not. Is this blurring of the line between coercion and pressure not useful to legitimate it as then "all interaction is coercive" anyway (this was in fact said in the comment thread)?

Moreover, another poster attempted to distinguish between force and violence, which revealed this even more starkly. Namely, if the police arrest you, this is force. If you resist arrest, it is violence. However, physical force is the definition of violence, and whether or not this is viewed as legitimate, this remains violent. Other terms such as "structural violence" further distort word meaning, diminishing the weighty importance of them. Structural violence refers to how a social structure or institution harms people by stopping them from meeting their needs because of prejudice against them (whether based on race, sex, nationality, age, sexuality, etc.)

While this certainly a problem and should be addressed, it does not require violence to exercise discrimination based on prejudice in every case. We all use discrimination constantly, and there is rarely, if ever, violence of any kind involved. Something that does not use violence can still be fought (though in my view by non-violence only) but the real point is that if something does not involve physical force, we should not call it so. Otherwise words lose their meanings and weight. It can serve to excuse things by the mistaken view that "all interaction is coercive" or "police actions cannot by definition be violence." These are legitimating confusions, ones that are useful to conceal what is really occurring. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Assuming the Point That Must be Proven

Otherwise known as "begging the question" (commonly misinterpreted as "leading inevitably to the question" but in fact is from begetting the question, that is, starting with your conclusion and going from this, a classic logical fallacy. I found an example of this online which encapsulates this fallacy perfectly in the article "Liberalism and the two roads to nihilism" by Fred Hutchinson, on the right-wing Renew America site. The particular section I will be analyzing is found just over the header "the closed system fallacy" (humorous, a logical fallacy being made right before the accusation of another is leveled, but then humor seems lost on the writer of this article). 

"If the mind is a hybrid entity composed of material and spiritual elements, one would expect to find links between the mind and the brain. Starting from this expectation, the claim that brain-mind links prove that the mind is entirely material is obviously absurd. Like a magician who diverts attention with one hand so the audience does not notice what the other hand is doing, the materialist con man cleverly misdirects our attention so that we do not notice the absurd premise of the argument." 

Broken down, with my emphasis added: "If the mind is a hybrid entity composed of material and spiritual elements, one would expect to find links between the mind and the brain." Yes, but that is precisely what the author is trying to prove. Instead he leaps into "Starting from this expectation, the claim that mind-brain links prove that the mind is entirely material is obviously absurd." Materialism, of course, also "would expect to find links between the mind and the brain" assuming the term "mind" is meaningful. The author assumes a difference exists between mind and brain, that require "links." Even if there is a difference, it does not by itself disprove materialism, or prove his theory. Proof or disproof in this case are entirely lacking. And he has the audacity to accuse the materialists of being con men who "misdirect" us!

Of course, this constitutes a running theme in the entire article where many other logical fallacies are used, now much less subtle-ad hominem, by persistent attacks on the character of people the author disagrees with, and assails strawmen as he distorts their ideas beyond recognition in some cases. Some of the criticisms are valid, but these in fact agree with those of materialism, as when he tears dualism to shreds. His accusation of this "closed system fallacy" in materialism I am not in a position to answer, lacking knowledge of it, but the author may not be clear on what closed systems in fact are. In any case, it would only qualify as a fallacy if false, by definition.

 The author fails as well to explain why this material-immaterial fusion universe could not itself be a closed system fallacy. Questions like these are obviously not considered, let alone answered. The author also references both emergentism and reductionism while presenting materialism as one single amorphous blob of an idea, without disagreements (this is done for the other ideas referenced as well). Yet emergentism is the main rival of reductionism in consciousness theory, and vice versa. The author seems not to know of or in any case acknowledge that any such differences or disagreements exist in materialism as he attacks it, making a convenient strawman of both. 

Appropriately, the greatest strawman is in the analysis' title itself and continued in the body throughout, i.e., by claiming "liberalism" (a much broader philosophy than it has been deemed in the contemporary US both by opponents such as the author and self-described followers of it) leads to nihilism of all kinds, then going on to assert some mind-body fusion in contrast to both dualism and materialism under an umbrella of his particular Christian theology (without proof, of course). All in a day's work I guess. 

Free the Corporate Slaves

Under the US Supreme Court's 1886 decision Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad and subsequent cases, the recent Citizens United v. FCC included, corporations are considered persons in terms of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, with all the rights stemming from that definition. Thus, a corporation is legally separate from its owners, the shareholders, with the right to sue, be sued, own property, and spend money the same way as any person on their behalf.

Yet that very concept-of a legal person being owned-is itself unconstitutional. The 13th Amendment, which preceded the 14th interpreted as giving corporations the rights of persons, states as follows: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction." Only when the corporation is convicted of a crime, therefore, can it be legally placed in servitude. Yet this is not the case. A corporation is "born" a slave, just as those of old.

Now, corporations are different from human slaves in that they are mostly owned by multiple people, but this does not change their status. In many societies, slaves could have very high status, owning property and even transacting on their master's behalf. Yet they were nonetheless slaves, and their children would be born in servitude as well. This is true of corporations as well, when they "give birth" to a subsidiary, or "marry" by merging with another. However, as with natural slaves, creating subsidiaries (having children) serves owners, giving them property to use, while marriage (a merger) happens only with the permission of their owner. 

Also like corporations, slaves were considered legally agents of their masters-unless accused of a crime. Then a slave was treated as a free person, to bear the punishment alone. Only if the master had ordered the offense were they also responsible, just as by "piercing the corporate veil" now. There is thus an incentive for shareholders, the corporate owners, to not be aware of their agent's details, or at least claim ignorance. The corporations act as one with their owners, until they must pay debts or bear punishment. Then they stand alone to face punishment and pay debts their owners had them acquire. 

Much like slavery of old, when slave families were split up, their members sold off, pieces of corporations may be sold, perhaps entirely. This may be more akin to selling organs as the corporation is a different sort of person from human beings, but in any case the result is the same-grotesque violation of a person's rights. 

Most tellingly of all, while corporations have been granted rights natural persons have, such as contributing to political campaigns etc. they are denied those means to participate fully-the right to vote and hold public office. If corporations were free citizens of the United States, they could not only cast a ballot but run themselves. Why should not Exxon Mobile be elected to the Senate, rather than going the more indirect and costly route of buying a Senator's vote through campaign contributions, promises of jobs in the private sector, or other such means? Yet they, like natural persons held as slaves, exist only to serve their owners, and cannot do this. 

Such a gross denial of the most basic political rights is a base contradiction with those granted by the courts, and we can only imagine why they have failed to point it out. This only shows that, as stated before, corporations' owners advocate their rights only as it serves them, and of course the most clear contradiction is between a person having rights when at the same time they are owned by another. It cannot stand even the most bare scrutiny before this is plainly revealed. Let us abolish this last bastion of legal slavery.

Free the Corporate Slaves!