Wednesday, May 18, 2005

What to do next?

Marco’s conjuration of 1960s Italy reminds me of something I read in Scientific American some years ago about the effect of prohibition on abortion rates, which claimed the effect of prohibition was actually to increase the rate of abortion. Leaving aside for a moment how one collects accurate statistical data on an illegal procedure, the quoted figures dubiously compared countries in North America and Western Europe (no former Warsaw Pact countries) with Latin American countries (no Middle Eastern ones). So, what does this tell us? (1) As I said before with reference to Rwanda, the Catholic church is miserably ineffective. (2) Our aim should not necessarily be to make abortion illegal, so much as to reduce its incidence to as near zero as possible. I do not mind if it is legal up until the 48th trimester, so long as it hardly ever happens.

Now, as a Pirate King, there are several things I can do to bring about de facto prohibition that may or may not reduce the incidence of abortion. To drive someone out of business nowadays all you need to do is make them uninsurable, and a few high profile acts of piracy could probably achieve that in a small country like ours. I could also take out a few chests of doubloons and summon lawyers from the Deep, commanding them to go forth and litigate: disgruntled ex-patients are everywhere for every kind of medical professional, including the professional murderers, and all they need is cash and encouragement. I expect this is more likely to drive abortion, not underground, but into the public hospitals, where doctors do not need to be insured. Is this a bad thing? The principle of nihilism- not philosophical nihilism, which denies the existence of objective truth, and is ipso facto bosh, but political nihilism, as practiced by bomb-throwing wackoes in the late 19th century- is that the task of the dissident is not to mitigate the injustices of the system, but to exacerbate them, because only then will people have a big enough grievance against the system to rise up against it. As a Pirate King, I have a great attraction to nihilism as a political creed. Eris is my one true love. Forcing anti-abortion citizens to fund abortions through their taxes is something I approve of, for it will radicalise them and draw them into the struggle. All the conventional ‘practical’ activities of mainstream ‘pro-life’ organisations- lobbying against medicare-funded abortions and an earlier end to human hunting season are weak and kittenish activities, unsuitable to a Pirate King. In so far as they mitigate the injustices of the system and prolong its existence, they are to be deplored.

As a Pirate King, I am certain that a more robust Al-Zaqawi style campaign could bring about a de facto end to abortions in public hospitals as well... but this is hardly going to be a long-term solution, and is likely to lead to the introduction of Marco’s ‘home abortion kits’.

Thus, my goal both as Pirate King and as Pseudo-Intellectual Blogger is to bring about structural change in society. I have no real interest in simply changing any of its piddling laws and mucking about counting beans to see if the compliance costs are worthwhile. Like I said in the long ago, I believe the structural change I seek is inevitable, and it is driven by two things: (1) Improvements in technology that increase the chances of survival and decrease the cost of keeping alive those born at a very young age. (2) Demographic change, as the secular left-leaning population of the West fails to reproduce itself. In order to bring about my desired goal, no grand Pirate King gestures are really possible. I should try to convince people that abortion is a bad thing. I should support the kind of funding initiatives Marco mentions, into miscarriage research, and scientific and medical research in general. I should support all measures that lead to a vigorous and healthy economy capable of supporting such research. I should support high immigration from socially conservative countries. I should support the most socially conservative political parties I can find. I should support the rapid democratisation of the Middle East, as this will encourage Muslim groups in Europe and elsewhere to shift their lobbying from foreign to domestic policy. I should adopt a bipolar approach to my friends and acquaintances, attempting to convince the ones who disagree with me not to have children or go into teaching, while exhorting the ones who agree with me to do so. I should do lots of other things, but sadly there is nothing really significant that I can do by myself...

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Trading Shoes

I will make the imaginative leap suggested by Marco, to trade shoes with him, and attempt to imagine that I no longer believe in an absolute morality. To help me I will consult the immortal 'Kasidah of Haji Bdu El-Yezdi", by Sir Richard Burton:

There is no Good, there is no Bad;
these be the whims of mortal will;
What works me weal that call I 'good';
what harms and hurts I hold as 'ill':

They change with place, they shift with race;
and in the veriest span of Time,
Each Vice has won a Virtue's crown;
all Good was banned as Sin or Crime:


Do what thy manhood bids thee do,
from none but self expect applause;
He noblest lives and noblest dies
who makes and keeps his self-made laws.

All other life is living Death,
a world where none but Phantoms dwell,
A breath, a wind, a sound, a voice,
a tinkling of the camel bell.

It now appears to me that my self-made laws require me to subject all lesser mortals to my will. Thus I will no longer dabble in the shallows of logical argument, but will use all means at my disposal to enforce my will. The cloak of pseudo-intellectual blogger falls away, and I find that I have become a Pirate King. Arr!

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Eritis sicut deus, scientes bonum et malum

I will make one more attempt to explain what I mean by absolute morality, because I am still absolutely confused as to what Marco means by saying he rejects it.

There is only one question we ever need to ask ourselves, and that question is, ‘what do I do now?’

My assertion is that all possible answers to that question, at any particular spot in space-time were you ask it, can be ranked in order from best to worst in a unique way. I am not saying that order is something that you know, or anybody knows; I am asserting that you do not know it. I am not saying that in the case of someone else, faced with a similar array of possible answers, they will be ranked in the same order; I am asserting that in all probability they will be ranked in a similar order.

All of Marco’s examples seem to be examples of incomplete information, which are irrelevant to the question of how good/evil something is. Let us represent all the possible answers by cucumbers in a field, and say that instead of ranking actions in terms of goodness, we will rank cucumbers in terms of northness. Because we are standing in different positions in the field, close to some cucumbers and far away from others, and neither of us are exactly sure where north is, of course we will get different orders of northness. Of course both of our orders of northness are probably wrong. This does not mean that there is not a unique order of northness, or that our rankings are necessarily of equal validity, or that there is no such direction as north. If someone gets a particularly bad order of cucumbers because they have a dodgy compass, we can give them special consideration when we mark their Cucumber Location 101 assignment; we do not have to punish them. But if we say that their north was just as good as our north, we are throwing away a useful directional concept just to spare their feelings.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Amble, Part One

It is difficult to know exactly how to continue on from my Preamble. I guess the first thing to do might be to state the question. One way would be to ask the question in the way it has often been asked, ‘when does life begin?’ This is not a very helpful way to ask the question, since life began somewhere billions of years ago, in the primordial ooze, and ever since then the lives of individuals have been tangled together in complicated ways. What we are really arguing about is, when does a particular life become individuated enough from other life that it is worthy of moral consideration. But I don’t think that is really the question either: the question is, how much moral consideration should we pay to an individual life during the process of individuation, relative to the amount of consideration we pay to a fully individuated life? I think that is what this debate is about.

I will not attempt to justify the assertion that individuated lives are worthy of moral consideration; this is a fairly constant feature of the morality given to us by the great sages and prophets of the past.

A logical place to set ‘individuation’ would seem to be ‘when the new individual is capable of independent existence’.

This is the position argued by the philsopher A.C.Grayling in a recent essay in the New Scientist on reproductive technologies. In it he asserts that people like me are ‘moral sentimentalists’, who are more interested in the quantity of life than its quality. In my case he is correct, though in a different sense than he intends: I am not interested in life as a ‘quality’, but in life as a ‘quantity’. Saying that life is a quality that is either there or not, and that at one stage in the life cycle an entity does not have this quality, and is therefore not worthy of any moral consideration, while at another stage it does have this quality, and therefore is- that does not make sense within a scientific worldview. It only makes sense in the context of a philsophy where the value of life is associated with a ‘soul’ which is explicitly united with the body at some particular time, before which the body is only a ‘tissue of water’, as the Talmudic scholars say. It is valid for St. Thomas Aquinas to talk about life as a quality, within his set of assumptions; it is valid for Talmudic scholars to talk about life as a quality; but for a secular philosopher like A.C.Grayling, life ought to be a quantity. How much of this thing called ‘life’ is present at each particular point of the life cycle? How much moral consideration should we give an entity with this particular quantity of life? I recognise that these two things are different questions, but I will collapse them into one question. I will assert that there is a quantity, Q, which is a measure of the moral consideration we should grant an entity on the basis of the Noachian commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’, and consider the different ways in which Q might vary as a function of age. The Q(t) curve accepted by St. Thomas Aquinas and accepted (in theory) by our legal system is something like this:

Boolean/Thomistic/UK Common Law/Pre-persons Q(t) Curve

A logical place to set ‘individuation’ would seem to be ‘when the new individual is capable of independent existence’. From this assumption, it would make sense to extend it moral consideration to the extent that it is capable of independent existence.
This principle has never been followed strictly by any society that I know of, but something like it has been the practice of many societies with a high infant mortality. I think A. C. Grayling has made the implicit assumption- quite a common one- that ‘independent existence’ means ‘being able to breathe’, but this is very far from being independent existence; we would not call being able to breathe ‘independent existence’ at the other end of the life cycle; we would not call being able to eat food that is put in your mouth ‘independent existence’. Acquiring the capacity for independent existence is a continuum, and there is no rational reason for picking ‘being able to breathe’ as where it should be defined. Fully independent existence could possibly begin at an age of about four, if our system of education was radically different from what it is now. Before then- and long afterwards- we are all capable only of dependent existence.
A rational Q(t) curve based on the ‘capable of independent existence’ criterion would look something like this:

Independent Existence Q(t) Curve

Many people may never become capable of independent existence, or anything remotely like it, and yet would certainly be able to say, ‘don’t kill me’. Being able to say ‘don’t kill me’ would seem to be a more effective touchstone of whether an entity has a high Q value than whether the entity is capable of independent existence. When we were younger, we could not enunciate this sentiment; but we could express it in inarticulate noises and in actions. A rational Q(t) curve based on the ‘capable of asserting a preference for existing’ criterion would look something like this, mapping very closely onto the second Q(t) curve:

‘Don’t kill me, please!’ Q(t) curve

While I think it is more likely to be shifted toward a younger age, as shown, I will not cavil, and for practical purposes the two curves could be considered to be the same. This is a perfectly logical curve for the valuation of human life- it could be accepted without rancour in many societies. This is the stable solution to which you will inexorably be led, I believe, if you follow either the “capable of independent’ existence or “asks not to be killed” paradigms. Both of these are both continua; they are both slippery things. Collapsing them to a Boolean curve of the type shown in the first figure whether the discontinuity is at the age of three months to be consistent with Aquinas, or twelve years as in Philip K. Dick’s “The Pre-Persons”, is an arbitrary exercise. No selection that we make on a ‘practical’ basis to make the curves more consistent with our instinctive moral sentimentality will be a stable solution.
Now, the fact that I find these curves morally unacceptable- and more importantly, the fact that the great sages and prophets found these curves unacceptable- is the primary reason that I have for rejecting them. But is there anything logically wrong with the assumptions behind them?

This is what I think the logical error is:
Things that exist in space-time cannot be assessed on their properties at one particular instant alone; their probable future properties must also be taken into account.

This is something that we do all the time. The medical powers-that-be frown on smoking because of the probable future properties of lungs that may be perfectly healthy now. We do not look any more favourably on the slugs that destroy the cucumber plants just because there are no cucumbers on the vines yet. The full force of the law falls upon the smuggler who brings in ingredients for making amphetamines, chemicals which may have no physiological effect. The insurance company will charge us higher premiums for living on a flood plain even if there has not been a flood in our lifetimes.

‘Probable’ is a quantitative, not a qualitative concept; it is something that can have a number attached to it. If there is a high probability that- if we do nothing- an entity existing at this point in time will acquire the capacity for ‘independent existence’ or the ability to say ‘don’t kill me’ at a future time, we cannot treat it in the same way as an entity that does not have that potential; we must treat it with a consideration proportional to that probability. Let us pick any end point we like- rudimentary ‘independence’ at seven months gestation; full independence after the fashion of Mowgli at five or six years; ability to speak; ability to do higher algebra- in all cases, the relative Q(t) curves will be identical, and will look like this:

Probabilistic Q(t) Curve

This curve has one very sharp, very prominent discontinuity, and only one: over a few hours or days at conception, the probability of a particular person X reaching any endpoint we select, if simply left alone from that point onward, increases by a factor of about nine orders of magnitude.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Me too!

I couldn't resist doing a Film Forensics as well...

The Day After Tomorrow

State of body: Perfectly preserved, as though flash frozen in an instant. Stomach contents still intact.

Detail of inspection: I had to drive home so I only had two glasses of wine and examined the body in a state of near-complete sobriety..

Forensic Investigator: Dr. Clam

This unfortunate corpse provides a wealth of scientific information about its historical epoch.

Although some of the fun has gone out of movies in which New York is reduced to ruins, there was such a lot of fun in those movies to start with that I found this one thoroughly enjoyable. I would love to see one of the classic ‘World Meets Well Deserved Fate’ novels done with the special effects we have today- the ‘Black Cloud’ or ‘Inferno’ by Fred Hoyle, Fritz Leiber’s ‘The Wanderer’, Frank Herbert’s ‘The White Plague’- to list some examples by people whose names begin with ‘F’.

Yes, I enjoyed this film. While the science was pretty silly, the heavily pushed message: ‘Listen to the wise scientists! They know better than the politicians!’ is one I could only applaud. It is good to see a film portraying us scientists as we really are- tough action hero types, stoic and self-sacrificing under pressure, the only ones who keep our heads when the world around us descends into madness, the ones who get the girl and save the world- or at least explain convincingly why it can’t be saved.

I loved the square-jawed, cardboard-cut out, completely ineffectual President. I could vote for somebody like that. Maybe I have, oops. And even Vice President Cheney- or whatever his name was, I forget- came across as clueless and avuncular rather than as some devious right-wing conspirator covered with oil company pocket lint. I don’t remember the last time I saw such a basically nice administration portrayed in fiction or non-fiction, notwithstanding the fact that they were supposed to be the bad guys. If this film was supposed to be satire, it was about as pointed and malicious as a sponge bath.

I also found the heavy-handed preaching completely inoffensive. Because the results of global warming were portrayed in such a ludicrously over-the-top fashion, the preaching came across about as convincing as the preaching of some bucktoothed hillbilly preacher. [very badly done example of bucktoothed hillbilly preaching deleted here]

I loved the way the core of the film was a pastiche of ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ and Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ – a manly journey to somewhere for no particularly good reason; once you get there, you turn around and come back. I would not change that. I would keep that, that is archetypal and timeless.

These are things I would change:

• H.G. Wells said that the key to good science fiction set in the modern world (his modern world, of course, not ours) was to change just one thing and keep the rest as much like it is as possible. Hence, he did the invisible man thing; he did the Martians invade Earth thing; but he points out to us that he didn’t have invisible Martians invade Earth, that would be too much. The core premise of this movie was not as dumb as I was led to believe before I saw it- though it is still pretty dumb- and you could build a pretty decent film around it. The core assumption that is being made for the sake of science fictiony disaster movieness is that the failure of the North Atlantic Current could generate some wacky weather features of a kind never seen before in recorded history, with wacky cores of super-cold. So: cut all the references to weird weather in places like India and Australia. Ditto the tornadoes destroying Los Angeles, hard as I find it to condemn anything that destroys Los Angeles. The giant ice-age causing storms should take the world by surprise.

• A nastier set of bad guys. The administration could be oily and smooth and happy to say the right things and support Hero Scientist’s research, and all the time be taking trailer-loads of cash from the oil companies.

• The debate about what to do could be made much more exciting if it was more accurate. ‘But implementing the Kyoto Protocol will cost the world economy hundreds of trillions of dollars!’ ‘I’m sorry, Mr Vice President, the Kyoto Protocol isn’t enough. You must immediately begin genetically engineering super-soldier penguins to stop the flow of fresh water from the Antarctic ice shelves.’ Okay, so that isn’t more accurate, technically. Feel free to replace everything after ‘You must…’ with your own pipe-dream from your reading of New Scientist or Green Left Weekly.

• The Wolves. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Puke. Only people who have utterly forgotten what drama is could have considered putting them in.

• More panic-stricken nastiness among the citizens of New York. They were all too nice.

• A more convincing reason for Yoda and his friends to be left behind in a small group at the library. Maybe some grim-faced Men in Black types with helicopters could show up and organize things, rather than just one cop having a bright idea. This could reinforce the ‘scientist wise, politician clueless’ core message of the film.

• More sensible survival behaviour for Yoda and his friends- I get the feeling none of the writers grew up playing role playing games, so it is not surprising they didn’t think of these things immediately. For example: (1) Books make good insulation. Line the walls of the room with books. (2) There are lots of other building close by with food and stuff in them. It didn’t look hard at all to make furtive sallies to other buildings.

• If the air is below freezing already, it has hardly any moisture in it. Dropping the temperature suddenly by 10 degrees a second is not going to make frost dramatically grow all over everything. This was just more special-effects madness from people who have forgotten what drama is.

• I kept waiting for the homeless guy’s dog to be flash-frozen. I guess I just have very little self-control, but I would have flash-frozen his dog at some point.

These last two points might imperil the rating the producers were aiming for, but I would do them anyway:

• Fetching antibiotics- even if chased by wolves- does not compare with an emergency amputation under primitive conditions. Bite down on this, Laura.

• Of course, if Laura had gotten properly naked in order to effectively warm the hypothermic Yoda with her body heat, one of them could have noticed how nasty her wound was and they could start worrying about it. This could conveniently make them stop whatever else they were doing, avoiding any danger of the rating getting too out of control. The Laura’s wound subplot could then be milked all the way up to the emergency amputation, like the toe of that guy in ‘Scott of the Antarctic’.

This is one of those films that is dated almost before it appears in the cinemas, providing a flash-frozen picture of the Zeitgeist for future generations. The particular mixture of earnest preachiness about global warming, coy avoidance of its cause and cure, and timid deference to an administration that cries out for spirited mockery, could only have been created at this particular point in history.