The trope that changed my mind

Major spoilers for Get Out and lesser spoilers for Six Wakes follow below. This got long and warnings around topics that touch on (but don’t discuss in detail) body image.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes occupy different genres of speculative fiction. One is a contemporary horror film that examines privilege and alienation and the other is a space adventure set in the future. Such differences do not preclude similarities – both deal with violence, mistrust, secrets and the abuse of power. In both wealthy characters use their position to manipulate people into losing autonomy over themselves both in terms of their overall identity and their physical bodies.

Continue reading “The trope that changed my mind”

Ockham, the neo-Thomist right and transgender rights

Micael Gustavsson asked a good question in the previous post and my reply got so long that I thought it should be a post instead. [A caveat – I’m not an expert on Medieval philosophy or Ockham but I have been to Surrey. Any philosophy professors or expert on the theology of the middle ages feel free to correct my errors – or anybody really 🙂 ]

//Why would it have been impossible to reach todaylevel technology based on the philosphical thinking of thinking of Thomas? Or is that maybe to big a question?//

Mainly because it doesn’t work – so assuming technological and scientific thought proceeded anyway then over time then Thomism would increasingly be in conflict with advances in knowledge. It’s not so much that William O had to invent nominalism for science to happen, just that the kind of reasoning & conceptual framework that will come about in response to engaging scientifically with the world won’t match Thomism.

In reality, the most famous divergence came with Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic church but that just highlights one spot where a central authority tried to hold onto one aspect of a broader model and picked a very silly spot to make their stand.

I don’t think Ockham set these changes in Western thought in motion – I think he was an astute thinker who spotted a whole set of flaws in the Thomist consensus. The only way for these flaws to STAY overlooked would have been for the Catholic Church to somehow prevent intellectual development in Western Europe at both a philosophical and practical level.

Put a different way: the neo-Thomist right really want things (i.e. everything) to exist to serve an underlying purpose and for categories of things to reflect that purpose and deviations of things FROM those categories & purposes are therefore immoral.

A current example is the right and its reaction to transgender people. Now let me be clear the basic issue of the right is simply bigotry and ignorant prejudice but the styles of rationalisations that the right applies neatly illustrates how the view on categories works as an epistemology and a view on ethics.

So an anti-transgender rights conservative (which isn’t all of them) might claim that:

  • there are only two sexes/gender
  • that God created those two sexes for distinct purposes
  • that when a person acts in a way contrary to the purposes of their sex that is sinful (because it is ‘unnatural’/against God’s purpose)
  • that therefore they should not be encouraged or enabled to do so

These ideas are really just bigotry but if you were casting around for a reputable philosophical scheme to rationalise them then a set of ideas that join Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas look attractive. This is the idea that the reason things are similar (and hence can be lumped together in categories) even though they are different (so we can tell them apart) is because the truer, deeper, more essential reality IS the category. All women are alike (in this idea) because womaness is the underlying truth. As a way of thinking it makes sense if you are classifying quadrilaterals (all square-like things are instances of the underlying deeper truth of the Platonic ideal of a square).

Now there is a whole bunch of stuff there: a metaphysics, a theory of science, a view of God and theological truth (i.e. we can reason about categories and discover ethical truths). Why do John C Wright and Vox Day like syllogisms? Because they were a medieval/classic way of reasoning about CATEGORIES.

Now Ockham called bullshit on aspects of this. Specifically he moved (reluctantly at times) towards a position called nominalism – essentially that categories are primarily convenient ways of thinking about stuff. Things are essentially different but humans can identify similarities and lump similar things together. But that lumping together isn’t the truer deeper reality. Nominalism has its problems also obviously. However, when we look at things scientifically what do we see:

  • There are not only two human biological sexes. It is not a biological fact that humans divide neatly into two simple groupings by sex. It’s not true physically and it isn’t true genetically.

Now, the existance of inter-sex people is NOT the cornerstone of transgender rights – those rights exist regardless but I’ll get back to that. I’m highlighting it because it illustrates how the neo-Thomist scheme falls apart on a contemporary issue once we engage with the actual facts of the world. Even quite strong natural/empirical categories that we encounter empirically (such as biological genetic sex in humans) that has fairly well-understood causal (in the modern sense) basis does not form categories with zero fuzziness in the boundary. If God set up this scheme then God set up a scheme in which categorical boundaries have a tendency to get fractal.

And that’s JUST sex! Gender brings in questions or societal roles, behaviour, attitudes, dress, personality etc shows no respect for neat natural categories. Of course, the empirical evidence for this is in the ‘softer’ sciences of psychology and sociology and hence easier for the right to dismiss but essentially we have a similar issue. The neo-Thomist is claiming that the categories are a TRUTH about the universe i.e. A QUESTION OF FACT and that from those facts THEOLOGICAL truths can be established (God’s intent) and from that an ETHICAL truth can be inferred (being transgender is supposedly against God’s purpose) – and they are plain wrong.

I doubt William of Ockham had and views or perspective on the issue of transgender rights and there isn’t a coherent way of saying what he would think if he was alive today because he’d be a different person BUT! Bill-O (as I feel I should call him now) was already pulling apart most of the pieces of that argument.

  • His nominalism points to categories as being empirical observational things that will have exceptions, complications, and non-neat boundaries. We live in a world in which there is a platypus and birds are tiny singing dinosaurs.
  • His fiedism separated theological truths from logical and empirical ones. I.e. if God exists then God transcends logic (God is more powerful than logic and isn’t constrained by it) but therefore you can’t logic God.

Now, as I said I don’t want to overstate the fact that biological sex is not a neat category as a reason for transgender rights being important. That isn’t the actual positive reasoning. Rather, it is the fact that biological sex is not a neat category that demonstrates that the neo-Thomist argument CANNOT be correct. It is a metaphysical scheme that falls apart when brought into contact with OBSERVATION – which is what happened repeatedly since Plato first came up with the idea. Ironically it was Aristotle (who Thomas Aquinas venerated) who began chipping away at the scheme. It wasn’t a bad idea as such and Platonism had a good run in mathematics until at least the 19th century.

To move away from biology and sociology, you can see how this divergence works in chemistry. Neat categories of four elements gives way to a plethora of elements. The periodic table itself isn’t a fatal wound because there are lots of natural groupings but the inherent fuzziness (e.g. elements that are nearly but not quite metals) pushes against it. Atomic theory kills it dead – the commonalities between elements arise not from them all being in the same category but rather similarities at an atomic level lead to common properties. Having the quality of a metal becomes something that can be described without recourse to the quality of being a metal.

Anyway, this article on William of Ockham is a good read:

Also Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, which is a great read regardless is very much tied up in the times and ideas of William of Ockham as prototype for modern rationalism. The protagonist, William of Baskerville, shares the same first name with the addition of the allusion to Sherlock Holmes but is also an English Fransciscan and contemporary of William of Ockham. The background to the story involves a political dispute between the Pope and the real life Michael of Cesena head of the Franciscans in which William of Ockham was involved.


Meat Robot cont. Wright’s Noughts & Crosses Parable

I thought this post of John C Wright’s was quite good:

While I disagreed with a lot of it, it was thoughtful and structured. Indeed, it makes the contrast with his posts on Islam, politics or sexuality seem worse in comparison – Wright is capable of arguing on the basis of something other than appeals to fear and mangled history.

There are two elements intertwined here.

  1. An appeal to Aristotle’s concept of final causes
  2. A very interesting example of the issue of meaning.

I’ll come back to point 1. later as this is the issue on which I made comments and to which there were interesting replies.

Point 2 was this:

Suppose you had a deck, not of 52 cards, but of each move of the 255,168 possible unique tic-tac-toe games. The cards are kept in a chest of drawers. Each drawer is also marked with a diagram of a possible board. Within each drawer is every legal move that can be made in response.

Two instructions are carved into the top of the chest of drawers. The first says to compare the diagram on the drawer with the board, open the drawer, and play a card within. The second says that, as you play each game, whenever you lose, you throw away the card representing the losing move from the drawer representing the previous move. That way, next time you play the game, the move that lost is not the one among the available options to play from that drawer.

Now, suppose your grandfather avidly played tictactoe and carefully threw out every card that represents a losing move. The Naughts and Crosses chest would now only contain cards leading to victory or stalemate.

Again, suppose you inherit the chest and do not know the rules of the game, and no one ever told you the victory conditions. Nonetheless, merely by following the instructions carved in the lid of how to open the drawer and play a card taken blindly from inside that drawer, you can win or stalemate every game.

Now suppose a philosopher strolls up while you are on the last move of a winning game. There are two crosses in in the upper left and right squares, and your opponent has not placed a naught in the upper middle square to block.

You inspect the board, find the drawer that represents it, and open it. Inside is a single card showing the winning move. You follow the card’s instructions and place a third cross in the upper middle square.

The philosopher asks, “Why did you make that move? What was your aim?”

You explain the mechanisms of the chest carefully to him. You show him that your grandfather threw out all the other cards which would have you place a cross elsewhere on the board. There was only one card in this drawer.

The philosopher says, “No, you have told me the mechanics of how you select which move to play. You have not told me what the purpose, point, or aim of the move itself is.”

You look carefully over the chest of drawers. Nowhere are the rules of ticatactoe written down, nor the victory conditions.

The other player says, “The victory condition is to place three a row, either horizontally, diagonally, or vertically.”

Now, studying the chest of drawers a second time, you do notice that all the possible moves of the cards your grandfather did not throw away do, in fact, fit the pattern of being intentional moves meant to bring about the three in a row for crosses while preventing three in a row for naughts.

The word ‘pattern’ here refers to no material property of the chest or the cards, but to the model you carry in your head that you use to deduce the purpose or aim of the grandfather’s chest. The word ‘pattern’ refers to the form.

The pattern is not in the chest, but in the head of you, the gameplayer.


Firstly, it is worth pointing out that it certainly is possible to create a machine learning noughts-and-crosses machine using very basic technology. I can’t find the reference, but in one of Martin Gardener’s many books of recreational maths, he had an example that worked stochastically with marbles in matchboxes. The mechanics of Wright’s example are not at issue.

Some commenters drew comparisons between Wright’s example and John Searle’s Chinese Room analogy. Wright’s example is both stronger and weaker. It is weaker in the sense that it isn’t directly addressing an artificial intelligence and stronger for the same reason. He is using an example of something that could be built and then pointing out that even though this thing could ‘play’ tic-tac-toe very well there is no meaning to be found anywhere in it.

Wright returns to the first point at the end of the post:

Now, having gone over this argument countless times, I will point out that no materialist deigning to present an argument has ever once given even a single example of describing a why as a how, or describing a final cause in terms of mechanical cause, reducing a quality to a quantity, or defining a quality to a quantity.

I think this has a clear answer and that answer helps us start to untangle what is going on, but I’ll save that for another post.

Meat Robot 2: Omniscience & Omnipotent


At the discussion at John C Wright’s, I didn’t get to discussing my thinking about what I think free-will is. Because the discussion was couched in terms of Wright’s religious stance, I ended up at this point a lot quicker. I won’t repeat what I said there but I’ll rephrase and explain.

A divine being which is both all-knowing and all-powerful is incompatible with free-will.

I think this is obvious but there were friendly requests for explanation and it seemed to puzzle some people.

Firstly my point here is not to attempt to demonstrate the non-existence of god(s). A divine being need not be wholly omniscient or wholly omnipotent. More importantly, a divine being might be both but transcend logical inquiry. This last notion of a god being beyond logic is an old one but it is also one at odds with the perspective of Thomas Aquinas.

Of course omniscience and omnipotent create their own logical conundrums but I’m not addressing those either. My point here is just about free-will.

Firstly, while omniscience looks like a challenge to free-will, I don’t think by itself it makes free-will impossible. The first meat-robot post described some kinds of extreme knowledge from a non-theological perspective and those did not repudiate the kind of free-will I have in my mind. A god who knows everything you are going to do but NEVER TELLS YOU could be compatible with what I called free-will.

Some limited kinds of omniscience also seem compatible with free-will in general. For example, a being at the end of the universe who knows everything that happened prior could be said to be omniscient but as all our decisions are in the past our free-will could still be intact.

We can also imagine a god who is potentially omniscient – i.e. there is nothing that they cannot know – but which is not actively omniscient as there are things they choose not to know.

Likewise, omnipotence is not, by itself, at odds with free-will. An omnipotent being could make you do something against your will or even make your will something different but it does mean that they will do so. Indeed the power to override free-will implies the existence of free-will (otherwise what is being overridden?)

Put the two together in the conventional notion of god and I believe you have an issue. A being that knows everything and can do anything has by action or inaction DECIDED everything. It ceases to be a god that knows what you are going to do and becomes a god that has chosen that is what will happen.

In our lives or politics, we might make an ethical distinction between action and inaction. We may see inaction as simply not interfering in a natural course of events and hence ethically different from action. While that is an interesting discussion at a human level, it makes no sense at the level of a divine, omniscient and omnipotent being. For such a being there is no ‘natural course of events’ that is bigger than they are, there are no unintended consequence.

If we also accept that such a being is also the creator of the universe then even the distinction between action and inaction becomes moot.

NOTE: omniscience,omnipotence and creatorhood don’t all HAVE to go together. I’m discussing a straw-god here to some extent. Reader’s own gods may differ in notable ways from this one.

So where am I going with this? I can see many paths a theist can take to accommodate free-will and a belief in god. However, I don’t think any of them are simple. Of course, the atheist and the agnostic don’t have simple solutions to free-will either – and neither does this atheist meat robot. My point is simply that god, gods and faith simply change the nature of the philosophical problems around free-will. As a meat robot, I prefer the philosophical problems I have with free-will in so far as I at least have a decent entry account of what I think I’m dealing with but I can appreciate that other people may prefer a different approach which involves spirituality or theology (or both).

Meat Robot 1: Free Will

John C Wright started an interesting discussion at his blog

Let us cut to the chase.

Think back to the day when you first discovered that you were a meat robot without free will, without freedom, and without dignity. Did the discovery fill you with awe, rapture, wonder and gratitude?

For, if not, the discovery is false. Truth is majestic and majesty provokes awe; truth is sublimely beautiful and beauty provokes rapture; truth is startling, because it shatters the lies we tell ourselves, and the bright surprise leaves us blinking in wonder; truth is a gift to be prized above all price, and gifts provoke gratitude.

If the discovery of material did none of these things, either your reactions are miscalibrated and do not reflect reality, or your discovery was not a discovery at all, merely a falsehoods you have yet to test with due rigor.

So? What was your reaction?

There were two more posts and the discussion above was a follow on from previous discussions.

I hadn’t been commenting at JCW’s blog because it tended to cause more upset than discussion but this post looked like an invitation back. As it happens, things started to get weird and tense there and I opted out again. However, there were some intelligent questions asked and I said I’d try and address them.

And fair warning: this goes on a bit and involes some thought experiments about predicting other people’s behaviour which is neccesarily a bit creepy-when-you-think-about-it sort of philsophical scenario.

Free Will

I’m not going to cite anybody in this chunk but the ideas below aren’t original.

Free will is conceptually a mess but it is also something people grasp as a thing they experience. When I say it is a mess, what I mean is:

  • If you are Judeo-Christian-Islamic theist then you have to reconcile free-will with a god that can do anything and knows everything in advance.
  • If you believe in any kind of determinism (physical or theological) then you have to somehow reconcile that with the supposed choices of free-will.
  • If you believe the world is more unpredictable then you escape determinism but swap forced choices for random ones.

Free will is cognitive: it is about a person making free choices and deciding to do something. While that can encompass spontaneity or seemingly random acts, it isn’t confined to such acts. We would regard our rational and/or sensible choices to also be encompassed by free-will.

Also, we tend to see as our choices defining us – they are the kinds of things we would do. Our choices reflect our personality and our history. We can also reflect on our decision making and consider how the information we had, our emotional state, our personal goals and our personality influenced our decision.

Wright sees free-will as being particularly challenged by a physical view of reality. If I am a robot made of meat (I am – but one running a Camestros Felapton module) then I am like a clockwork machine and my thought processes are reducible to atoms moving about and hence no free-will. I’ll put aside, for the time being, the question of things being usefully reducible to physics

I’ll put aside, for the time being, the question of things being usefully reducible to physics. At a broader level, my mind is the operations of my brain and my brain operates at levels some of which I’m not conscious of. This can be alarming because it begins to sound like my brain is in charge of me rather than my mind.

Neurologically there is apparent evidence for this, with some indication of things occurring in the brain pertaining to decisions before we are conscious of having made our decision.

I think this is actually unremarkable. Whether we imagine souls, gods, quantum effects creating intelligence or computer-like brains, an unconscious process will precede conscious ones. To imagine otherwise is to assert our thought processes transcend time and that is a point where I resort to saying that is just silly.

The problem is we really don’t have a good handle on what free-will is. As a consequence, we tie ourselves into paradoxes. So I’m going to assert what free-will is – again this is not original with me but I don’t have a pointer to a specific thinker who said this.

What Free Will Is

Imagine a person, call her Sue.

We have the power to predict what Sue will do. How have we got that power? You can pick the way you feel most comfortable with:

  • Access to a parallel universe which is temporally further ahead than ours but otherwise the same (currently).
  • An extraordinary computer simulation of Sue that tracks all inputs and physical states of Sue to produce a deterministic model of Sue that predicts exactly what she will do.
  • An angel tells us what decisions Sue will make.
  • All of these choices are actually a bit disturbing when you think about it and you’d rather not pick any of them, thanks very much.

It doesn’t matter which we pick. Somehow, we can know what Sue will do next.

I believe Sue can still have free-will in this scenario.

That is important. I’m not saying she must have free-will, it could still be a contingent fact about our universe that free-will is an illusion but even with the kind of determinism I just described, I think free-will is still possible. Having said that, we need to describe it carefully.

We meet Sue for a cup of coffee. Our predestination powers tell us that Sue will order a cappuccino. Note how unremarkable a prediction this is. It is the kind we make fairly reliably about people we know, despite not having any remarkable powers. However:

  • Sue does not know about our power to see what she will do next.
  • We have not told Sue that we know she will order a cappuccino.

Sue orders a cappuccino.

Over coffee, we explain to Sue that we have this incredible power to predict her decisions. Sue is naturally aghast at this gross invasion of her privacy, demands that we smash up the computer/stop accessing a parallel universe/stop talking to messed-up angels. Still, the idea gets stuck in Sue’s head and she decides to teach us a lesson.

She uses what we told her to build her own simulation/access a parallel universe/contact an angel and now has he power to see what WE will do next.

She asks to meet us for a cup of coffee. Before we order, Sue explains what she has done and also that she knows we will order a cup of tea. Because we are somewhat infantile and cross that Sue has neatly demonstrated how messed-up it would be to gain pre-knowledge of another persons actions, we rather petuantly decide to order a cappuccino.

  • We order a cappuccino.

That is free will.

Sue asks us to check our Sue-predicting-powers and we discover that:

  • Our parallel universe Sue is now an alt-history Sue and the universe is slightly different.
  • Our computer model has diverged from Sue’s behaviour.
  • The angle is lecturing us on how god works in mysterious ways.

Of those options, the only one I can actually garuntee is the computer one. Sue’s model of us and our model of Sue must contain everything Sue knows and believes about the world. Whether that is at fundamental level of how the data is encoded in neuron’s or pulses of electrons or arrangements of atoms or whether it is at a more comprehensible level, it doesn’t matter. All of us make decisions based on what we know and believe and have been told.

Sue predicted that we would order tea but that prediction did not contain the fact that she would tell us about the prediction. Our mental state is changed by Sue telling us about the prediction (which we believe because of our past experience with such predictions).

Sue could have anticipated this and fed back into the model of us that she would tell us about ordering tea. In that case her computer model then has to take into account its own predictions. Maybe it collapses into a self-reference paradox at that point or maybe it copes and says that I’ll order a cappucinno…but then Sue has to tell me I’ll order a capuccino…so I order tea…so Sue would need to feed in double, triple, quadruple layers of prediction. Even numbered predictions would be cappuccino and odd numbered would be tea.

This isn’t just an exercise in the logic of determinism. Socially and evolutionarily, other people need our behaviour to be predictable (it is how we all get along) and we need our behaviour to have the capacity to be surprising (it’s what stops people taking each other for granted).

Even at a very fallible level of predicting another person’s behaviour, we know that telling somebody what choice they will make in advance is at best cheeky and more generally is rude. The scenario above of some supposedly infallible predictor of a person’s behaviour is worse than rude but would be downright creepy, weird and unethical.

Meat robot is quite happy thanks

As a meat robot I’m confident I have free-will. My decisions are determined in the sense that the component parts of me together make up ME and it is the interaction of those parts on what I know and believe about the world that make up my decisions. That isn’t a loss of free-will, it is just being honest about who and what I am. I’m not an abstract geometrical point or a monad. I’ve got parts.

Within that framework, I can make sense of what it means for me to have free-will. Not only that, free-will makes sense LOGICALLY and also EVOLUTIONARILY.

  • Logically because a deterministic prediction of what I will do is still something I can defy because such a prediction to be foolproof would require the capacity to model its own predictions in the event of me learning about its predictions. Heck, even decsribing the issue gets you into a self-referential nest.
  • Evolutionarily because meat-robots are social animals and that requires us to be both predictable and surprising.

I’m not saying divine or metaphysical explanations of free-will are neccesarily wrong (although they have issues and I’ll touch on some of them in other posts) but I am saying free-will makes a lot of sense for a meat robot.