Sunday, April 21, 2019

Some Light Reading

Do you think you spot the fake news better than the "other side"?
Liberals and Conservatives Are Both Susceptible to Fake News, but for Different Reasons

Do you think the "other side" is evil and wicked, but you got it right?
New studies suggest liberals are as blinkered and biased as conservatives
The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb

Do you think that just because you're liberal you "fucking love science"?
Liberals and low IQ believe in astrology more
Liberals Don’t Really F**king Love Science
Scientific literacy, optimism about science and conservatism
Why Everyone Believes in Magic (Even You) - Live Science
Who is More Anti-Science: Conservatives or Liberals?
(I myself have previously described the "cargo cult" understanding of science that I've observed among many of those who proclaim that they "fucking love science". They treat science as if it were magic; and worse: they treat science as if it were a person or set of conclusions instead of a process by which we evaluate data and make our own conclusions. As a result, "science" to them is no different, conceptually, to the sort of deference to authority that you'd get from any religion. You can't "fucking love science" if you don't fucking know what it fucking is.)

You don't believe those links?
The Real War on Science

Do you think your political and economic views are well reasoned?
Millennials' Political Views Don't Make Any Sense

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Do you think the "other side" is full of hypocrites, but you're ok?
Are Liberals Bigger Drug Users? 

Do you think that bias is always bad?
Editorial Bias

(Know your biases and control them. Treat them as tools. Do not be so "open minded" that your brain falls out.)

Monday, April 01, 2019

Peterson vs Hitchens. Some thoughts.

I don't usually take time to comment on a YouTube vid, but here we are:

First of all, this is NOT "Peterson vs Hitchens". For one thing, Hitchens is dead. This is a collection of clips from each of them, so as debates go, this doesn't. Neither is responding to the other. Rather, these are quotes on the same general topic, but more about that later.

The general topic is from what does an atheist derive morality? Or, can atheists be moral without God?

From here on, I'm going to assume you watched the video.

Viewing the video and reading the comments, I think it's safe to say that my impressions are quite different from many of the other commenters. When Peterson talks about morality, he's very careful to speak of archetypes and functional equivalents for religion. Hitchens' response to the base question is to state that he is offended by it. Sadly, this is a purely emotional argument, and not a rational one at all. This is deflection, not reason.

Meanwhile, Hitchens does not explain the source of his morality other than to say what it is not. He's quite sure that it's not God, but he's also quite clear that he doesn't know why he doesn't do terrible things. (at 8:36) (As an aside, it's perfectly fine to not know something and say so plainly. More people should do it.)

Peterson explains this psychologically through functional equivalence, and he takes a great deal of care in his choice of words. Regardless of what you choose to call it, there is some underlying acknowledgement that there is something of moral value that transcends purely rational choices based in self interest. Peterson is not hung up on calling it "God", preferring to set aside the cultural baggage of particular labels to focus on the psychological reality that there is something there. Hitchens does not deny that... he simply is adamant that it is not God. Hitchens addresses the psychology only briefly (at 6:00), focusing the entirety of his responses on the cultural baggage.

Both gentlemen refer to Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment is an exploration of the consequences of basing our actions on purely rational grounds... that is, using rationality itself as the only moral code. Hitchens is offended, as he contends that he isn't a rapist or a murderer despite having no religion. I do note in passing that being moral in some areas does not make one moral in general. Hitchens is quoted in A Letter to a Young Contrarian: "Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you," an inversion of the Golden Rule, which enjoins you to treat others as you would wish to be treated, not as you expect to be treated by others. The Golden rule advises you to treat others in the best possible way. Hitchens' Rule advises you to take the least beneficial action toward others consistent with what you expect to receive from them. Also among his arguments, Hitchens refers to his oft-cited "challenge" ("Name me an ethical action taken or a moral statement made by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer" (at 8:49)). This is far from unanswerable, and I have dealt with it at length elsewhere.

Meanwhile, to Peterson, those who don't act as Raskolnikov does in the novel are not truly atheists, as -- setting aside the question of what to call it -- they have some deep underlying functional equivalent for religion that provides moral grounding. This underlying function is not merely non-rational, but inexplicable using pure reason. Unfortunately, Peterson spoils it a bit by intimating there's possibly some cowardice in play that prevents atheists from using the word "religion" in reference to this inexplicable phenomenon.

Now, if you're paying close attention here, each is not addressing the other's argument. That's to be expected, as this is a collection of clips. Quite frankly, I believe that if they were in the same room, then Hitchens' offense would be waved aside by Peterson, and that Hitchens would actually not disagree with Peterson's argument re: an underlying functional equivalent. Hitchens himself states that he doesn't know why he acts in accordance with morality, even when acting immorally would be in his self interest, even when he wouldn't get caught. This is evident when he argues that he acts without fear of retribution and without expectation of reward.

Here's where Hitchens spoils it a bit, though, by mis-characterizing Judeo-Christian belief on that matter, implying that fear and reward are the guiding forces there. In fact, most Christians are adamant that works buy you nothing. To a devout Christian, there's nothing you can do to earn your way into Heaven. Rather, that is a gift of grace: works are the sign of belief, not a cover charge for entry. Devout Jews act out of a deep-seated sense of obligation. To do a mitzvah because you are obliged to do it is more noble to Jewish sensibilities than to do the exact same deed because you want to.

By the way, when Hitchens speaks of his Jewish ancestors making it all the way to Sinai without knowing that rape and pillage are wrong, this is a mis-statement of morality as depicted in near-Eastern religious tradition, which -- fairly presented -- depicts Noahide laws existent prior to the covenant on Sinai. These are simply the things that we would expect of all decent human beings, regardless of religion. Among them are the establishment of courts of justice. Since those among the audience who are religious know their own beliefs and can recognize the straw man, the statement undermines his case.

Generally, I don't think that Hitchens makes a particularly strong case unless you walk into the argument predisposed to believing that. That could be an artifact of the editor having picked those particular quotes rather than more cogent arguments Hitchens could have -- and probably would have -- made. I'm fairly certain that were these gentlemen actually talking in the same room at the same time, Hitchens' "offense" wouldn't last a minute. With that in mind, I'm a bit disappointed with the editing. I'm sure that Hitchens had much better arguments that the editor could have used. I'm dismayed that the editor didn't ferret them out and use them instead. Hitchens was no idiot. He would never have repeated invitations to speak if his core rebuttal was to whine about how offended he was. Nevertheless, that's the impression that the editor gives us here. This is a shame, as finding something offensive is the weakest possible argument in any rational discourse. Being offended by someone else's logic doesn't invalidate the logic. It's a non-response. It's also a non-response that I don't think Hitchens himself would use in direct discourse with Peterson. As Peterson is arguing as a psychologist rather than a Christian, Hitchens would find that Peterson's arguments are very different from those of the Christians that Hitchens is used to debating, and would necessarily respond with better, more rational arguments. It would be a very different conversation than what we see here.

I also suspect that those YouTube commenters who think Peterson is waffling just aren't listening very closely to what he's actually saying. They think he's talking about "God" when in fact he's talking about something (for which, to him, the label is not important) that is not consistent with pure rationally derived self-interest. Giving it another label doesn't make it go away. Being offended by someone else's label doesn't make the thing being labeled go away, either. In short, this video presents an "debate" over language that mostly ignores the key concept.