Against PJWs

Fiat justitia, et pereat mundus
-Ferdinand I

Epistemic status: mostly just complaining about deontologists’ constant attempts to frame arguments on their own terms.
Also, a smart person once said never to use politics as an example of more general issues. This is excellent advice and you should not emulate my total disregard of it.

Let us consider Procedural Justice. It contrasts sharply to Social Justice, which concerns itself with creating a good society through consideration of people. Procedural Justice is concerned with with creating a good society through consideration of rules.

The SJW, or “Social Justice Warrior,” has become a modern archetype. I am now convinced that, unlikable as they are, there is a brand of keyboard crusader I like equally little or potentially less: the Procedural Justice Warrior.

Consider the argument:

In a free market, all trade has to be voluntary, so you will never agree to a trade unless you believe it benefits you.
Further, you won’t make a trade unless you think it’s the best possible trade you can make. If you knew you could make a better one, you’d hold out for that. So trades in a free market are not only better than nothing in the opinion of the traders, they’re also the best possible transaction you could make at that time according to your judgment at the time.
Labor is no different from any other commercial transaction in this respect. You won’t agree to a job unless you believe it benefits you more than anything else you can do with your time, and your employer won’t hire you unless she believes it benefits her more than anything else she can do with her money. So a voluntarily agreed labor contract must benefit both parties in their opinion, and must be preferable at that moment over any other alternative.

What, exactly, makes the society that results from such actually good? Well, it’s not that the people in it are happy, fulfilled, free to pursue their dreams or generally flourishing. One can imagine this being the outcome, certainly, but it’s equally trivial to imagine how anarcho-capitalist society gives rise to misery, malcontent, and oppression. After all, this has already happened, probably more than once. Even with a magical power preventing “use of force,”  this would happen with probability near 1, unless we populate the society with robot angels. No, the reason this society is Perfect with a capital P is because it was arrived at by following the right procedure. It’s good by definition! Why should mere facts be allowed to interfere?

As Weltanschauung put it:

When it comes to social liberalism, libertarianism says “do not use the legal system to favour or disfavour any particular lifestyle”. Neoliberalism says “work to make sure society is approximately neutral between different lifestyle choices”. These are very very different! Libertarianism is, in theory, comfortable with cultural discrimination if done through “legitimate” means (i.e. respecting personal and property rights). Neoliberalism wants anti-discrimination law—whether regarding religion, race, gender, age, sexual preference—enforced on private businesses, charities and the government alike.

(emphasis mine). Libertarianism is in fact comfortable with any level of awfulness, provided it is done through “legitimate” means. It is an exact reversal of “the ends justify the means.” Instead, the means are supposed to justify the ends.

Let’s try a change of tack. What about:

Eurosceptics often claim that the EU is undemocratic. They argue that the EU’s decision-making procedures make it difficult for EU citizens to influence policy. Due to their complexity, these procedures also seem inaccessible to the ordinary voter. EU citizens do not feel that they have an effective way to change the course of EU politics and policy. Public disaffection has been expressed in the low turnouts at European elections, which reached an all-time low in 2014 with an EU average of just 42%

(Or the inverse case, Trump being defended as being Democratic and therefore Right)

The idea of being democratic has been elevated above the idea of getting things right. The heuristic has become the whole and sum of the law.

The essence of procedural justice is the implicit belief that if you perform the right ritual, goodness will happen as an automatic result. The elegance and obvious-rightness of the simple rule or rules is simply too enchanting to resist.

Just as SJWs approach arguments for conclusions they dislike by calling them racist etc, likewise PJWs have a default response. Think about the intention of calling someone a racist. They will usually hurry to disprove the accusation, noting that they have done un-racist-y things, etc. This will not save them, but it concedes the critical point that whether or not they’re a racist is important. The PJW, on the other hand, challenges someone to find ‘where the badness comes from.’ Like finding a mistake in a mathematical proof, if one step in the procedure is flawed, all that stems from it is dead at the root and cannot hold. But the trick was always in the structure of the argument. By trying to meet the challenge, just as with the SJW, the arguer walks into the trap. They implicitly concede that the structure of a mathematical proof, where goodness flows from good axioms to good theorems, is the appropriate structure for determining what is good.

I am only mostly a fool: it is probable that you, the reader, are yourself inclined towards a Procedural Justice view. It will be very tempting to say that it’s just obviously true that if you start with good axioms and can’t find anywhere for badness to come into the situation, then the outcome, whatever it may be, is obviously the best. This is exactly the same feeling the SJW has – that it’s just so obvious that good is what happens automatically when you just get rid of all the Oppression.

I really don’t know how to communicate across the inferential gap, though. I can give analogies, knowing they’re flawed:

Suppose we identify that electrons, protons and neutrons are fermions. We say these particles are “fermionic.” Then we ask whether a helium atom is fermionic. Since it has 2 protons, 2 neutrons and 2 electrons, it must be six times as fermionic as any one of those particles. But that isn’t the case, because the property “fermionic” isn’t an abstract basic quantity, but rather a specific state of affairs that can be cancelled out. Likewise, just because any one voluntary trade of property makes both parties better off, it doesn’t follow that any possible arrangement of voluntary trades of property makes all involved parties well off.

But this is hopeless. It can’t overcome the intuition. The Chasm is deep, and full of terrors.

The important part is that I’ve found a way to feel superior to both.

I am not inclined to agree with Chapman’s conception of “metarationality.” It seems like the only reason for it is to attack a straw caricature of rationality while selling something that smells strongly of the old box-outside-the-box. But maybe he has a point. His straw-rationality seems to be strongly similar to the PJW archetype. His proposed solution doesn’t seem very, uh, concretely defined, but might be a step in the right direction – away from the idea that goodness comes from having the right system, and towards the idea that you must choose the right systems to produce goodness.

The thing to remember is that systems designed to produce good outcomes aren’t guaranteed to do so. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should throw the system away every time it gives a result we don’t like – sadly, there’s no procedure to decide when to do so. Sorry about that.

Against PJWs

Code Diary 03 – AlphaVEN highlights and lowlights

The code this time is too long to reproduce here in its entirety, so check it out here if you’re interested. I’ll be going over some of the more interesting and ugly parts here.

Keyword Arguments Everywhere


    def __init__(self, **kwargs):
        """Create a new Maker."""
        self.title = kwargs["title"] if "title" in kwargs else DEFAULTOUTPUT
        self.fadetime = kwargs["fadetime"] if "fadetime" in kwargs else DEFAULTFADETIME
        self.format = kwargs["format"] if "format" in kwargs else DEFAULTFORMAT      
        #Not yet implemented functionally speaking:
        self.resolution = kwargs["res"] if "res" in kwargs else DEFAULTRES

kwargs are great! Important usage note:

    def createMakers(self):
        """Create a Maker for each of the outputs."""
        self.makers = []
        for para in self.paralist:
            #Extract the inputs and transitions
            paratitle = para.split('\n')[0]
            lines = para.split('\n')[1:]
        paramaker = maker.Maker(title=paratitle, **self.gensetdict)

If gensetdict is empty, this calls maker.Maker() without any keyword arguments. This lets me avoid having separate code for calling functions when I don’t have any arguments for them. Very convenient!

The Worst Function I’ve Written (so far)

Speaking of createMakers, it might be the worst function I’ve ever written. I won’t reproduce it here, because it’s huge, and also because it should probably be quarantined. It went through about 5 versions and used to be much worse, but is still 81 lines long and definitely not performing just a single action. It should be set on fire restructured into several functions. However, those would probably have to have a whole bundle of inputs and outputs.

Object Orientation
        if "fadein" in kws:
            if kws["fadein"]:
                self.fadein = kws["fadein"]
            elif not (kws["fadein"] == None or kws["fadein"] == 0):
                #If the fade time isn't explicitly 0
                self.fadein = self.videosegment.parentvideo.maker.fadetime
                self.fadein = None
            self.fadein = False

Man, look at that chain of objects! I have no idea if this is a good or bad idea, but it certainly looks cool. And hey, imagine if it were Java:
Ewwww. And that’s assuming you don’t need to cast the fadetime to the right type of numeric, heh.

Abusing Truthiness

Notice how in the above code, I check if kws["fadein"] is exactly equal to “None” or “0” rather than just checking if it counts as True (both None and 0 count as False in Python). This is to distinguish three cases:

  • There is a fade-in, and it has a time.
  • There is a fade-in, and it should use the default time.
  • There is a fade-in, and it has 0 duration.

(ok, maybe this is actually the worst code I’ve ever written)

Why Doesn’t This Come With The Package?
def timediff(t1, t2):
    """Find the absolute difference between two datetime Times.
    Returns a timedelta object.
    delta1 = dt.timedelta(hours=t1.hour, \
                          minutes=t1.minute, \
                          seconds=t1.second, \
    delta2 = dt.timedelta(hours=t2.hour, \
                          minutes=t2.minute, \
                          seconds=t2.second, \
    return abs(delta2 - delta1)

Seriously, why did I have to write this? Is there some reason to not define a difference between two times?

Overall Thoughts

On the one hand, AlphaVEN was hideous before this. It didn’t even assemble the videos itself, which meant rendering every video twice – a massive timesink. On the other hand, this was a pain to write, isn’t particularly impressively done, and not necessarily fully functional. There are some definite improvements to be made.

Python is 100% the right language to do this. A powerful, flexible language that still functions like a shell script when needed. (I do use other languages. Sometimes. But usually, I find myself wondering why I would want to make life hard for myself).

This ought to make assembling streams into videos really easy, if I get round to actually doing so.

Code Diary 03 – AlphaVEN highlights and lowlights

A Series Of Very Short Reviews Without Any Particular Theme

Almost all of these short stories feel too caught up in their own cleverness. Some, like Silver Fire, also seem to be struggling with the weight of a not-particularly-brilliant political message. Potentially worth reading but you can easily find better things to do.

Oh, they tried so hard. Really great serious near-future sci-fi, right up until the end where (spoilers) several character arcs derail badly and we’re left with a message of “don’t trust brown people, and keep women at home where they belong.” Yes, I am indirectly judging other people’s culture. Still recommended.

The Martian
At first I loved it, but the almost episodic storyline and weird, badly-done breaks to typical omniscient narrative perspective dragged it down. Combines both of the above in terms of originality and well-researched hard sci-fi, but lacks on the storytelling front. Flip a coin for it.

It’s exactly the right length. Definitely worth watching.

Nadia and the Secret of Blue Water
The great parts are truly great. The good parts are enjoyable. The bad parts are all too numerous. If you’ve watched every Ghibli movie twice and still need more in the same vein, give it a go, otherwise probably don’t bother.

9M9H9E9’s Narrative
When it’s weird and metaphorical, it’s good. When it’s literal, it’s still good but in a “good for a creepypasta or SCP entry” way rather than “just good literature” way. Arguably closer to an ARG than a story.

Ori and the Blind Forest
I guess if you’re really into Metroidvania games and basically only care about visual appeal, this one’s for you? But really, the two conflict too much – precision platforming doesn’t mix with pretty, hitbox-obscuring art-style. The best feature mechanically is letting you save anywhere by expending MP, except when the game decides to not allow that, which, you guessed it, is whenever things are most difficult and frustrating. The soundtrack’s good, I guess.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane
On the plus side, it is amazing on every level. On the minus side, Pratchett won’t be writing any more witches books, and Gaiman’s version is just a little short of that level of amazing while still being heartbreakingly reminiscent of it. Read this.

Log Horizon
Utterly charming, and a delight to see “taking the hypothetical seriously” done so well. It feels strange to say this, but it’s sorely let down by its aesthetic (or lack thereof). The visuals just come across as “cookie-cutter modern anime” where they could have done so much more. Still a must-see.

Persona 4
Several characters are good, but the game feels ludicrously bloated and has terrible pacing. The mechanical aspects are polished, but this is absolutely a guide-based game. At the very least, I think you’re supposed to play it twice and take notes on how to maximise your numbers rather than enjoying the plot which just seems wrong. Skip this one.

A Series Of Very Short Reviews Without Any Particular Theme

The Ten-Minute GG

Or, “World’s Most Delusionally Hopeful Support Tells Their Team To Not Give Up Yet, They Can Still Win If They Work Together :)”

I expect Brexit to happen, or at least be alarmingly close, for roughly the same reasons I expect a Trump presidency: it’s too stupid to avoid.

Consider DotA. In the game, when your team starts losing ground, there’s usually someone who gives up. They say something like “gg mid noob I afk jungle.” The Leave campaign reminds me strongly of this. Things aren’t going as well as they want, they’re not willing to coordinate on how to fix it, they sure as sugar don’t want to take the personal loss of abandoning the game outright and maybe ending up in low priority (this would be the equivalent of moving to a different country because you don’t like the one you’re in. A really awful different country where people only speak Russian swear-words and can’t last hit for beans).

Now, the quitters don’t always follow through on their promise, but even when they don’t, would you care to guess how often you win those games? It’s not very often. To be sure, DotA is a snowball game and it’s always hard to come back from a bad start, but it’s noticeably worse when morale is falling apart and people are bailing on even trying to help the team win.

This analogy is rather unfair. In DotA you are inherently, by the structure of the game, stuck trying to achieve the same goal as the rest of your team. But in the case of Brexit, the argument is that we’re not inherently on the same team and in fact don’t share the same goals. I’m not at all convinced that this is the case. It seems like the broad goals of the EU – peace in Europe, free trade and movement, the ability to compete with the likes of the US and China on things like space programs and particle physics research – are things we actually benefit from a lot. So insofar as we want these things, how is being the aggrieved carry player bitterly disappointed that his team aren’t as undeniably amazing as he is going to help us get them?

The arguments for leaving fall into roughly three categories: appeals to abstractions like Independence without any attachment to reality; arguing that immigrants are bad; and bleating that the Stay campaign are scawy fearmongerers who abuse their authority to manipulate public opinion, which is not in fact any kind of argument at all.

The argument around abstractions I find annoying. Arguing issues like, say, fishing quotas, is fine. Just trying to blend all of one side of those arguments together into a big glowy ball of positive affect with a name like Self-Governance is cheating. It doesn’t actually answer the question of any of the individual issues! “Oh but we have a right to self-govern.” No we don’t! Rights don’t exist! And even if they did, they’d relate to individuals, not groups! And if that particular right existed, you could use it to argue all the way to having Little Winchfield secede. Does any group of people (how large?) get to break off from anything any time they fancy? Gaaah.

The immigration argument I try and fail to sympathise with. I can’t seem to find any way to make it work without requiring that Brits be inherently more important to me than other humans, which they aren’t. The closest anything gets is that certain public institutions are close to breaking-point, and adding more people makes them less effective for everyone – so it’s not like an immigrant takes healthcare away from one Briton for a net change in supplied health of nothing, but rather reduces the availability of it for a hundred Britons, giving a net negative change. The problem with this is that no one saying it was previously arguing that we need to curtail all forms of population growth at all costs, and they still aren’t. This leads to the unpleasant conclusion that the people saying this don’t seriously believe it and are mostly about the nationalism. Insofar as it’s a good argument regardless of whether they believe it or not, my position is that we should try to build stronger institutions rather than trying to decide which people are and are not worthy of being allowed the use of them. If the latter appeals to you, why not just privatise everything? This would give us a very simple way to determine which people deserve to access British healthcare: the ones who can afford to. Interested?

Overall, the Leave position seems very weak, but my core reason for thinking so is that the people arguing for it remind me of people I hate playing a video game with, so my position is definitely biased.

The Ten-Minute GG

Dear Dinosaur,

So, a year late to the controversy party, I read “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” on the recommendation of Eneasz Brodski. But does this sound familiar: a tragic story about loss is presented using masterful language and receives great critical acclaim, from which follows a backlash from those who don’t consider it part of the medium it was being acclaimed in?

I can’t remember how long ago I ‘played’ Dear Esther, but it was fairly soon after it was first released as a kinda clunky mod rather than its own ‘game.’ I liked it a lot, almost entirely because of its haunting visual beauty (only gets better in the final release), great choice of soundtrack and delightful narration/writing. But note the absence of any actual video-game elements from it – apart from the random choice of narration fragments, you’d think it could be done just as well as a short animation.

In fact, Dear Esther only works when the player can treat it like a game even though it’s not. By expecting to be involved in the story in the way a game’s player is, you end up being exactly that. You have to believe that you are the story’s teller in the same way you can believe that you are Chell or DeWitt, and the absolutely minimal amount of control – just enough to walk around as you please – is necessary to achieve that.

Now compare If You Were…, which is not a SF/F story. But by believing it kinda-sorta-is, the reader can be persuaded to humour the narrator’s flights of fancy for just long enough for the author to throw out a BE SAD NOW, drop the mic and leave. As far as I know, though, If You Were… never sold itself as being SF/F, it just got a nomination for a Hugo from fans willing to push a boundary.

If You Were… is perhaps less genre-fiction than Dear Esther is a game. But the resemblance is nonetheless quite striking, especially when you take into account the reaction each received. It should come as no surprise that the “urgh who put this smug literary crap in my vidya” faction quickly allied with the “urgh who put this smug literary crap in my SF/F” faction.

Overall I liked Dear Esther a lot more. In particular, while both are well-written, Dear Esther impressed me a lot more with its focus on meter and pace. Also, it’s really pretty.

Dear Dinosaur,

Disciplined Disagreement

Not so recently now, Jason Brennan wrote on a popular “gotcha” in internet debates, and while his take on it took a beating in the comments, it got me thinking.

Is there a justification for science needing philosophy beyond “but whenever you try to argue that you don’t, that is itself an act of philosophy”?

That particular gotcha seems reminiscent of proof by contradiction. But if we formalise it, it falls apart:
Assumption: Science doesn’t need philosophy
Implication 1: No scientist would ever engage in philosophical discourse
Premise 1: The arguer is a scientist
Premise 2: This argument itself is a part of philosophy
Conclusion 1: A scientist is doing philosophy whenever they engage in this argument
Conclusion 2: Since conclusion 1 contradicts Implication 1, the Assumption must be incorrect.

Written out like this, it seems much more obvious that the ‘gotcha’ isn’t even an argument. It’s a signal for philosophers and philosophy-fans in internet comments to snicker and pat themselves on the back for being so much cleverer than those stupid self-contradicting scientismists. This is why Brennan’s counter-gotcha is likewise a signal for scientists and science-fans on the internet to giggle and raise their glasses in commemoration of how much more productive they are than those angel-counting philosophismists.

Or, to put it explicitly: Implication 1 doesn’t follow from the Assumption. Not even close. Premise 1 might not be true in any given use of the argument, since it’s mostly deployed against science-fans. Premise 2 is deeply dubious and seems to rely on mixing meta-level “discussion about philosophy” into “philosophy.” Yes, if we say “philosophy” is a field of study that includes all studies of itself, studies of studies of itself, and so on ad infinitum, that’s permissible, but that’s not what we were saying at the beginning.

Trying to prove that science doesn’t need philosophy by getting science to engage in a meta-discussion of philosophy is like trying to prove that you need to know group theory to solve a Rubik’s cube. Actually, it’s not even that good. It’s like arguing that you need to know Zermelo-Fraenkel Set Theory in order to write a diary, since every argument you make that that’s a stupid idea can be expressed using ZFC. Or that you need to carefully study human languages in order to do meaningful heart surgery, since any argument against the notion will be expressed using language.

I worry that the above is not an adequate expression of the counter-position. Let me elaborate.

When someone argues “scientists need to study philosophy” they are referring to a particular body of thought and knowledge. The most common case being ethics, but also frequently a demand that scientists should (for reasons explored below) understand the epistemological framework that underlies the scientific method, and the justifications of the idea of Knowledge that underlie that etc etc. But then when someone objects that actually that isn’t the case, their objection is not part of that same body of philosophy, but rather a broader “meta-philosophy” of ideas about philosophy itself.

How does one argue from “all objections to studying philosophy are meta-philosophical in nature” to “and therefore you should study philosophy”, without equivocating between the philosophy that was originally meant by the injunction to study philosophy, and the meta-philosophy that was introduced as part of the gotcha? Isn’t this a case of constructing a false referent class, “philosophy plus meta-philosophy (plus m2-philosophy etc)” that – while not unnatural – would not be a grouping that would be used in this discussion except to make people think they’ve already accepted that they are doing one thing when they’re actually doing the other? The original discussion, remember, was about ethics or the nature of truth or something. Proving that you can’t avoid arguments about what you can and can’t argue about doesn’t prove that you have to do any of those things. It’s a classic semantic bait-and-switch, and people need to stop using it.

To conclude this section: this gotcha stands only as long as it’s not thought about, at which point it collapses into a word-game and some shady inferences.

* – For example, you could argue that while scientists do engage in philosophical discourse, that they should never need to engage in philosophical discourse about science (which this argument is). Really, though, trying to salvage a solid argument from this rhetorical trap is a mug’s game.

Let’s examine further the question of why it’s considered necessary for scientists to justify their basic epistemological framework. One answer springs immediately to mind. I do try to resist the urge to be cynical, and fair warning: this is very cynical. But nonetheless, isn’t it possible that the reason philosophismists love to demand that scientists provide a rigorous defense of their underpinning assumptions (which usually aren’t too far from naïve falsificationism) is that the philosophy-fan in question has a really smack-bang-whiz-pop takedown of the expected reply? Something that they’re just aching to unleash on someone who never read a bunch of impenetrable books about how truth is dead? This is definitely what the scientism followers are afraid of when they’re wary, or even outright dismissive, of engaging in such discussions. Eventually (actually, very quickly) you get tired of hearing that knowledge is merely opinion and therefore you can’t know nuffin’, and of cleverer arguments to the same effect.

In fact, I would go further than this and say that there is no currently-available reply to the scientist’s philosophical justifications that is in any way worth pursuing in depth. The whole line of inquiry just leads into either an endless rabbit-hole of one or another interminable semantic and/or axiomatic argument over which assumptions are more basic**, or the inquirer says “oh okay I guess you did your research and gave exactly the answer I knew you should give in your position as a scientist, never mind.” I’ve never actually seen the latter happen, but it could. Maybe.

But it would be better to assume that the desire to have science be “grounded in (good) philosophy” is an honest one. Thus, we come to the question of what it actually means to “ground” science in good philosophy. An excellent answer to this was given by Daniel Kokotajlo, also no longer recently:

I’m not trying to say we can’t do science until we do philosophy. What I’m saying is that if we don’t do philosophy, we’re opening ourselves up to the possibility of being permanently and dramatically mistaken in our science. For example: If we think that Laws of Nature are literally Laws set down by God, as the original people who came up with the concept seem to have thought, and we don’t ever do any philosophy to question that, then the existence of God will be an unexamined assumption of science, and worse yet, people will eventually get confused and think science has actually proven it. My worry is that something similar might happen with consciousness.

This is a very good point, but I think it relies on a rather philosophy-oriented view of history. Let’s take an example. It was previously held that the universe would stand eternal, on the grounds of what seemed like rock-solid philosophical consideration. However, advances in science and engineering of steam power led to the notion of entropy, and the conclusion that everything is doomed to eventual dark and cold. The notion of an unlimited future was taken apart by this. Were there philosophers arguing for finite future extent of the world before this? Well, of course. Did some of them venture the notion of inescapably rising disorder as an a priori fact? Possibly, but not that I’ve found mention of. And this is an easy case, since you can derive the notion of entropy from any number of thought experiments once you know to think that way. But critically, even if it was voiced as an idea, it did not become widely known and lead scientists to wonder. The process seems to have been mostly the exact opposite of that, with feedback from the more abstract levels to the more concrete only occurring after reality called attention to the area and practical investigation had been done.

Even if we take the most realistic view, of side-by-side evolution – we should recall, after all, that there was no sharp distinction between ‘scientist’ and ‘philosopher’ at the time – it still seems unrealistic to say that philosophy was what took apart the eternal worldview leaving those same natural philosophers free to theorise about entropy, thereby enabling them to, in their engineering-time, design better steam engines.

Consider also the concern that people will think science has “settled” philosophy in the wrong direction. This, too, has already happened, with many thinkers of the 20th century deciding that quantum mechanics had disproved realism***. And yet we now have more interpretations of quantum mechanics than ever, including multiple realist interpretations such as Everett’s many-worlds and de Broglie/Bohm’s pilot wave. The important point here is that science didn’t become stuck after “proving” a wrong philosophical position.

Granted, it would have been better if Bohr hadn’t pushed his anti-realist interpretation so hard, and the whole philosophical question of what quantum mechanics means had just been left fallow until a broad range of ideas had been formulated. But Popper’s case wasn’t “let’s wait and see what else people think of,” but much more along the lines of “down with the anti-realist tribe!” So philosophy wasn’t exactly helping things. Also of note, Bohr was more of a philosopher than Everett or de Broglie (though a bit less than Bohm).

And consider the opposite case: people thinking science hasn’t settled philosophy when it has. The nature of time is the big one here. General Relativity might not prove Eternalism true, but it certainly wreaks a heavy toll on all non-B-theories of time. Continuing to hold to such theories seems at least as bad as the mistake that Bohr made. Especially when the people who do so don’t seem to have actually studied relativity and gained the deep understanding of it that makes it clear just how much damage the notion of a universal-now has sustained. It may be of interest to consider also William Lane Craig and his total failure to grasp the core concepts of transfinite cardinality, decades after the foundations were laid down by Cantor. But this would carry us off into mathematics, which is too useful a bridge between disciplines to trample over in this essay.

The important thing to take home is that having a state of philosophical debate on an issue isn’t sufficient to prevent scientists from thinking a result proves their own preferred philosophy to be true, but conversely scientific investigation does eventually overcome philosophical misguidedness.

** – I believe this is called “doing philosophy.”

*** – The latter of these two links is a surprisingly readable account; consider it generally recommended.

If all this has given you the impression that I am a Harris-following antiphilosophe about to propose we bulldoze the humanities department to make space for a statue of Newton standing on Descartes’ neck, then allow me to reassure you: that would be entirely too much of a good thing.

Alright, maybe that’s not reassuring.

We’re left with a few more arguments for adding philosophy to science courses. Scientists do seem to have a habit of making philosophical proclamations and getting much more respect and attention from the public than actual philosophers, which must be quite upsetting. This is bad, because…? Well, it gives the public a mistaken impression of the field. But you can imagine what would happen if we poured public scrutiny onto professional philosophy: the whole field would be seen as a bunch of overpaid bearded fellows generating an endless supply of pure hot air. Politics without the fun easy-access tribal bickering.

I’m not quite willing to endorse the further statement that this is bad because the scientists who do this are never right about anything to do with philosophy. Their contention that the existence of angels can be dismissed without first studying the supposed physiology of six-limbed endoskeletes is maybe not sufficiently elaborately phrased and carefully constructed, but fundamentally comes from the right impulse. No one can afford to make a perfect study of every field they decide is nonsense, and it’s better to be too aggressive in cutting out the useless than too merciful.

And of course, there’s the argument that studying multiple disciplines makes you a well-rounded person. Sadly, this argument is pure wishful thinking. Not to mention, it’s not really clear what “well-rounded” means. We’d all like to be wide-ranging masters of many skills, warrior-poets and New Age Renaissance People. But we can’t, and pretending that learning to regurgitate some pre-thought Deep Wisdom about Hegel is the same thing is just sad.

Or, to make a more forthright claim, people become “well-rounded” by pursuing the full breadth of their own interests. You can’t teach being an interesting person, and you certainly can’t do it by the methods employed to teach philosophy or other humanities.

Which leaves an argument about ethics. I want to say, “well, tell me about all these evil scientists who destroyed the world because they didn’t learn that Human Life Is Valuable in a classroom at some point. Oh, they’re all fictional? And the stories they take part in were pretty much universally written by humanities-fans? How convenient.” But of course, if science actually had destroyed the world, we wouldn’t know about it. And the power of science grows over time: we might not be able to generalise from a history of not-destroying-the-world if the capability only recently became available. Genetic engineering is the standout example here.

However, I think there’s an important point in the above. The conception of scientists as being inherently ethically untrustworthy is from popular perception, not any actual lack of ethics. For instance, it’s not uncommon to hear that science was willing to run the Trinity test without knowing if it would ignite self-sustaining nitrogen fusion in the atmosphere and end the world right there. Of course, they knew that couldn’t happen. The same story may be repeated nearly word-for-word with the Large Hadron Collider. The fact that the popular perception lambastes scientists for taking the risk rather than boggles at the sheer level of caution required to carefully consider such far-out possibilities in the first place says a lot.

Now, I’m confident that most people reading this don’t need to be told that it was well-known that neither of these experiments would destroy the world. But is it possible that the perceptual effect, the thinking that scientists must have been very foolish or very unethical to try, still lingers even after dismissing the original urban legend? I can’t think of any good reason to suppose that scientists are insufficiently ethical, and would be quite interested to hear one.

There are several object-level reasons to insist that scientists learn some philosophy. But to suppose that certain professions engender a lack of basic human ethics that must be corrected by education, or a lack of basic human interests that must be corrected by education, or a lack of basic human respect for others’ expertise that must be corrected by education: these are claims in desperate want of evidence.

I will use the conclusion to this piece to say that it is good for a scientist to also study philosophy. It’s good for anyone to study anything, in fact. The interested-amateur – the science-fan on the internet – is in a particularly good position to gain something, since they’re not exactly busy publishing papers about neuroscience or quantum mechanics.

And I don’t think the fields should be entirely separate and never talk except through a hole in the bedsheets. There is something quite sad about the loss of the old “Natural Philosophy” discipline. I wanted to avoid making this about who more commonly tramples whose territory, because I think that concedes too much to the idea that either discipline has any territory that is in some way sacrosanct.

The only conclusion here that I’m confident of is that people should stop using the gotcha at the top of this post. It’s trivially incorrect as well as deeply flawed, and inculcates a really poor attitude that reduces a difficult and interesting question to a moment of circlejerkery. Do not do this.

I’ll go back to Python and extended Tolkien metaphors soon, I promise.

Disciplined Disagreement

End of an Era

Exactly seven years of Homestuck found their end today. It’s been a long, crazy journey.

Normally I prefer to observe fandoms from outside, cooing over their adorable degree of love for their object of worship. This is a trick worth learning, since “urgh, but the fandom” is approximately the least meaningful objection to a work it is possible to make. However, that story is for another time.

Homestuck has consumed years of my life even as a non-fan. Even just reading along, picking up a small collection of some fanart, buying some of the albums, re-reading it to re-acquire familiarity for the ending, it is still a vast icon that is, in its own words, ensconced in my personal mythos.

What I am fumbling to say is, I really loved that webcomic.

The crazy jokes. The constant internal references. The nigh-incomprehensible plot. The charming characters and the not-so-charming characters and the “please stop adding these abominations to the story” characters. The music. Great interstellar abysses, the music.

It dragged on. It would be disingenuous to say otherwise, for sure. If it were being adapted for any other medium, the first thing to do would be to attack the plot with the kind of weedkillers kept in reserve for “invasion of genocidal plant-aliens” scenarios. I loved that, too.

There are very, very few things that I have ever wished I could forget entirely and experience for the first time again. That particular fantasy holds little appeal to me, since experiencing other new things is always an option. But Homestuck is unique, I think, in that I might choose to forget it entirely so I could read it again for the second time. To be sure, there are things in there that burn the brightest on the first iteration – the incredible flash animations stand out – but there’s just so much that simply doesn’t make sense except in the context of what comes later. This feeling, perhaps, is what people get out of “complex” literary fiction (the kind I am quick to dismiss as pretentious (because it almost always is)).

I wish I could summarise it briefly. I wish words could say how inadequate words are for this purpose. I wish a lot of things, really.

I’m not ready for it to be over. And I’m ever so glad that it is.

To Andrew Hussie and the rest of the team: my heartfelt thanks and admiration. Today, your work enters the legend. You made it happen.

To anyone reading this who somehow never read it: start here. If you don’t like it by the end of Act 2, definitely drop it. Otherwise, well. See you soon.

End of an Era