Thursday, June 18, 2009

the righteousness of null-A

The final issue of interest with null-A is the idea that genuinely logical people are moral people. This can be seen in "The Null-A Continuum" by references to evil acts as insane and various implications that the hero does the good thing because it is the sane or rational thing. But in reality logic and rationality cannot possibly produce morality. There are two reasons for this: the non-reducibility of moral propositions to non-moral propositions, and the requirement that to be morally good, one must intend to be morally good.

What I mean by the non-reducibility of moral propositions is that you cannot reason to a moral conclusion without moral premises. You cannot reason, for example
(1) Joe needs help.
(2) Ben has the ability to help Joe.
(3) Ben should help Joe.
The word "should" is the only word with moral force in the argument. The argument is not valid (as a matter of logic) as can be seen by another (clearly false) argument with the same form
(4) Joe needs heroine.
(5) Ben has the ability to give Joe heroine.
(6) Ben should give Joe heroine.
The meaning of "need" is arguably different in (4) than it is in (1), but I am just copying the form of the argument, not the meanings of the words. I could have picked words with entirely unrelated meanings, so a slight change in the meaning of one word does not matter.

You might have an intuition that the first argument is true, at least under some circumstances. Why? Well, presumably you think that if someone needs help and you have the ability to help, then you should do so. Let's call that idea GA1 for "Goodness Axiom 1" (we'll ignore all the complex qualifications that would need to be added for a really true goodness axiom). Now let's add GA1 to the original argument and see what we get:
(1) Joe needs help.
(2) Ben has the ability to help Joe.
(GA1) For all people X and Y, if X needs help and Y has the ability to help X then Y should help X.
(3) Ben should help Joe.
This is a valid argument but look at that little word "should" in GA1. That is a moral term. We have used logic to combine specific facts with a general moral judgment to get a specific moral judgment. But we did need the general moral judgment to begin with.

This is always the case. There is no way for logic to get from completely non-moral facts to moral facts --you have to start with moral facts of some sort.

But let's suppose that someone comes up with a logical theory GT that seem to have the same effect as morality. For example, suppose that the purely logical considerations of GT lead someone to GA1, and not only to GA1 but also to other goodness axioms like
(GA2) For all people X and all puppies Y, X should not kick Y.
(Ga3) For all people X and all kittens Y, X should not throw Y out the second-story window to see if Y lands feet first.
Suppose that GT actually seems to include all goodness axioms. Let's suppose that Ben wants to always be logical and so he always carefully reasons out his actions using logic and always ends up abiding by the goodness axioms because they are a part of the purely logical system, GT. Would this make Ben a good person? I'm not asking if it would Ben a good neighbor, or a nice guy to have around; I'm asking if Ben is morally good.

If someone sticks a knife in your throat, is that good? Well it depends on motivation. If the person who does it is performing a tracheotomy to save your life then it is good, but if the person does it to kill you then it is evil. And it is only the intention that counts. If a doctor slips and accidentally kills you while trying to save your life, his action in trying to save you was morally good. If someone tries to murder you and accidentally saves your life, his actions are still evil. In judging whether a person is good or not, you do not look at his actions or on their outcomes, but on his intentions.

So now you know what I'm going to say about the hyperlogical Ben. Ben is not motivated by the desire to be good; he is motivated by the desire to be logical. It does not matter what his actions are or what the consequences are. Ben only wants to be logical, so if it were logical to kidnap, kill, and eat babies then he would do that. The logical theory GT, no matter how close it is to real goodness is unlikely to be exact. At some point Ben will find a situation where logic leads one way and good leads another way, and because of his motivation, he will chose the evil act.

FOOTNOTE: By the way, "should" is not a true predicate and neither "should" nor other moral concepts can be handled by normal logic. You need a special kind of logic called deontic logic to deal with such subjects. But the issues are purely formal ones, and deontic logic is not a different form of reasoning from regular logic.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

on acting like a Leftist

Cynthia Yockey is making a name for herself (with instalinks even) by going after David Letterman for his offensive jokes about Sarah Palin and her daughters. The jokes were pretty sleazy, even if the sex jokes had been aimed at an eighteen-year-old girl instead of a fourteen-year-old, but Letterman has apologized one and a half times now (the first was only half an apology).

But that's not enough for Yockey. After the real apology she writes
This [CBS's response] is why the campaign to get CBS to fire David Letterman must continue and expand with more and more people sending letters and e-mails of protest to CBS, Letterman’s sponsors and the sponsors of Letterman’s racing team to notify them that their products will be boycotted until Letterman is fired. It also will be important to send letters and e-mails of protest to anyone who appears on Letterman’s show to impress them that doing so will put a long-term stink on their careers.

CBS is still playing the “This will all blow over” card. No. It. Won’t.

Persistent, consistent effort on our part will persuade sponsors to drop Letterman’s show and CBS to fire David Letterman.
Elsewhere Yockey tells us that conservatives should be more like the Left. When someone on the other side makes a blunder, we should go after them relentlessly until we damage them in some dramatic way. Make an example of them so other people will be afraid to challenge us.

Yes, that's the Left all right, and that's one of the big reasons that the Left sucks. Stacy McCain quotes Yockey from a phone conversation:
Republicans are too willing to take that kind of abuse, Cynthia said, but she comes out of the gay-rights movement, and they don't roll that way.

No, they don't roll that way. Gay activists get people fired for contributing to the wrong proposition campaign. They maliciously set traps for young Christian beauty pageant contestants and attack them hatefully for weeks when they don't avoid the trap. Do you really want to be associated with that kind of attitude? I don't.

Is Yockey's idea good political strategy? It pretty clearly is. The Democrats have used the strategy with enormous success, to the point where people are afraid even to hint that they may have a difference on certain issues. A large part of why Democrats are able to force their caricatures of Republicans into the public consciousness is because entertainers go along. And a large part of why Republicans can't do this is because entertainers are afraid to go along with anything the Democrats don't like. If they were similarly afraid of Republicans, it would be politically very useful.

So, yes, politically powerful but wrong. One of the reasons that I identify as a conservative is because conservatives actually seem to care about right and wrong. The Left, of course, is famous for their holier-than-thou attitudes, but their morality changes with the political winds. They were the defenders of segregation until black people started voting. They were the defenders of recreational drugs and gun control until it became a political liability. They were the defenders of smoking until the tobacco companies started donating too much money to Republicans. They were the defenders of wars to defend the victims of dictators when Clinton did it but we all saw their change of view when it was Bush. They can take self-righteous moral positions on either side of an issue, depending on what's best for them politically.

By contrast, the conservatives base their morality on principles rather than on expediency. And my moral principle is that you shouldn't go after someone's livelihood to support your political goals.

Some people who seem to agree with me: Jim Treacher, datechguy, Sarah Palin. Not a lot of people on my side, but that last one is pretty significant...

they got the bastards

yeah! The FCC has finally tracked down the assholes responsible for those "your auto warranty is about to expire" phone calls. I must have gotten thirty of those calls, and ATT was absolutely uninterested in helping me block them or even find out who it was.

Everyone involved is claiming innocence, but they were actually using software to spoof the caller-ID system. That action proves that they knew there could be negative consequences of their actions if they were identified. And it's not enough to go after the owners. The FCC needs to punish all of the operators also. Everyone of them must have been told thousands of times that what they were doing is against the law and they kept doing it.

Next question: why did it take the FCC so long to do anything?

I wonder if I can sue them myself...

citations: instapundit and slashdot

Sunday, June 14, 2009

general notes on general semantics

One of the premises of general semantics is that our thoughts are controlled by the meanings that we assign to words. I'll quote from John C. Wright's introduction to "The Null-A Continuum":
The theory of general semantics postulates that through a proper understanding of the relationship between words and the reality words allegedly represent a mind can be trained to avoid disorientation. On an emotional level, a lack of disorientation means the absence of neurotic and self-destructive behavior.
This is reminiscent of some philosophers of the early twentieth century who tried to reduce thought to symbol manipulation. Symbol manipulation is just computation, and I explained in the previous post why computation cannot expand reasoning power. In this post, I will concentrate on three points: it is implausible that our thoughts really are limited by the words (or other symbols) that we have available, symbols cannot represent without the presence of a mental act which comes before the symbol, and if our thoughts really are limited by symbols then we have no way to judge which symbols are good ones.

I sometimes think in sentences. This happens when I am formulating an argument or trying out in my head something that I may write or say. When it does happen I am fully aware of it. Other times I think in terms of diagrams or physical geometry. I do this when I am trying to solve a problem that is too complex for my bare intuition to handle; I (like most people) have a more effective grasp of spatial relationships than of abstract relationships. Again, when I am thinking this way, I am fully aware of it. Most of the time, whether I am working hard at solving a design problem or wandering idly down the beach enjoying the sound of the waves, I don't think in symbols.

Some philosophers and psychologists would say that I am thinking in symbols but am just not aware of it. This view was especially prevalent during the first half of the twentieth century. But how can I be thinking in symbols when I am not aware of the symbols? Symbols are objects of consciousness. A symbol is a symbol in virtue of what it means to someone. Awareness of meaning is a conscious mental state, and without awareness there is no meaning. Being aware of a symbol unconsciously is a contradiction in terms.

Is there a more plausible to understanding of this idea? Maybe the underlying idea is that I have mental states that are the cognitive equivalent of symbols in the sense that they are physical objects or states in my brain that represent or are about something else. But how could physical states in my brain represent something else? It can't be the normal form of representation because as I argued before, something cannot represent in the usual way without a conscious intention for it to represent. The only physical way for something to represent would be with physical properties. What physical properties and relationships go into the relationship of representing?

One proposal is that representation is the physical relationship of similarity. For example a portrait represents a face by being visually similar to the face. A map represents the terrain by having elements that are geometrically similar to the terrain. But this account fails for two reasons. First, the notion of similarity is completely arbitrary. Does a glass of water represent Lake Michigan by way of chemical similarity? Does a piece of granite represent the Hoover Damn by way of having similar hardness? Even if you restrict "similarity" to being a geometric similarity it is peculiar that the lines on a map, which are just discolored sections of the page become representation of actual physical objects on the terrain. And what if John has a portrait taken but then grows a beard so that the portrait no longer looks like him at all? Does the portrait then come to represent his twin brother James who is beardless?

Clearly similarity does not work. Even if it worked in those cases that I mentioned (maps and portraits) it would not work for arbitrary symbols such as the word "Obama". The word "Obama" is not at all similar to the person the word represents. Representation is not a physical property at all, it is a mental property. A symbol represents in virtue of a mind intending for it to represent. And if a mind intends for the symbol S to represent an object O, then the mind must be able to form the concept of O without already having the relationship of symbolizing or it would never have formed the intention to represent O. If the mind needs a symbol to entertain a concept, then there is no place to get started. It needs a symbol to have a concept, but it needs a concept to have a symbol.

Minds can grasp concepts and think about concepts without symbols. And that is a good thing because if we needed symbols to think about things then we would not be able to grasp novel situations.

But suppose, against all evidence, our thoughts actually are controlled by words and what we think that they represent. How then could we possibly judge that some semantics is better than another? After all, if you are going to tell me that this relationship is better than that one then I need to use another such relationship between words and reality to decided if you are correct. But how do I know that that prior relationship is correct?