Philosophy: October 2009 Archives

Fate Without Providence

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It's pretty common to find unlikely occurrences in fiction, where the one-in-a-million chance just happens to occur, and our heroes are saved. Terry Pratchett makes fun of this in one of his Discworld novels, where the characters assume that something that unlikely has to happen precisely because it is a one-in-a-million chance.

J.J. Abrams was recently asked about such an occurrence in the latest Star Trek movie. I think his response is revealing. Kirk ends up being beamed down to the same ice world that the future Spock from the original Trek reality happened to have been exiled on, and he happens to be beamed to a spot on that world right near where Spock happened to be, which also happened to be right near a Federation facility that Scotty was on, and Scotty just happened to have been the person doing the research Spock with his future knowledge could capitalize on to get Kirk and Scotty to the Enterprise.

Abrams accepts the radical unlikelihood. His excuse? He says it's the timeline attempting to repair itself and that the movie is about fate. The kind of friendship that these people (or rather their counterparts) in the original timeline had been part of somehow created itself again (actually not again but simply in parallel) in this other timeline.

It's hard to know how to respond to this. One the one hand, this is so ludicrous as to be unworthy of comment. Does Abrams really think it's plausible to respond to the claim that something is incredibly unlikely by asserting that his audience should just accept it as fate? If so, what mechanism of fate does he imagine here? What he seems to be saying is that the friendship itself is making itself happen, when at the time of these events there is no friendship yet. Or maybe he means the friendship in the original reality is causing the new friendship among these different individuals who are very similar, in which case it's backward causation from some future alternate reality. What he's saying just sounds crazy.

On the other hand, there is something that could make sense of this, something he's resisting bringing in. What wants is something like providence. He wants something that could only occur with intelligent guidance of events. When it's writers who have some level of intelligence who are guiding the events, you can get things like this, but Abrams seems to want to accept something like this as if it's plausible, and I have trouble seeing how that could be without a providential hand guiding things along. He apparently doesn't allow for that and has to attribute it to being caused by the friendship or something. I wonder sometimes if the desire for fate without providence is really a longing for providence or perhaps even an assumption that there is such a thing without an admission that there's any such thing.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

The 98th Philosophers' Carnival is up at kennypearce.net.

Puddleglum's Wager

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We've been listening to C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles on CD. I read them when I was about ten years old, and I never got around to re-reading them, so some of it is almost as if I'm experiencing them for the first time. When I got to the following scene from the Silver Chair, it struck me as a strange argument, sort of like Pascal's Wager, but something rubbed me the wrong way about it. The main characters were in the Green Witch's underground domain and had fallen under her influence, which was causing them to lose their belief in the above-ground world. Puddleglum the marsh-wiggle then gives the following speech:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say.

What rubbed me the wrong way was that it sounded as if he didn't care whether the world was real. He was going to believe in it anyway, because it's more pleasant to believe in it. How can the upper world be so much better than the underground world that its mere finite value of being better would be worth believing in a lie if it's not true?

When I raised this issue with a friend, he said, "But it's Pascal's Wager!" I said, "No, it's not!" He insisted that the upper world is Aslan's world, which I'd been thinking of as the place at the end of the world that they went to in the previous book, and the upper world was just Narnia, which is the analogue of Earth. But we were interrupted and never managed to finish the conversation.

I realized later, when teaching Pascal's Wager, what Lewis must have been up to, and it's actually a neat trick. If he was seeing Narnia as a placeholder for the eternal reward of Pascal's Wager and the underworld as a placeholder for this life, then you have an interesting argument that isn't quite Pascal's Wager. Pascal's Wager concedes for the sake of argument that life in this world is more pleasant if you don't believe in God but then argues that the chance of eternal reward in heaven compensates for that in terms of rational decision theory. You shouldn't even need 50% likelihood of God's existence for the wager to be worth it given that the reward is infinite and the cost merely finite if you bet wrong. But Lewis' Wager is different in exactly one way: it doesn't make the concession. It takes the finite value of life in this world to be better if you believe in God than if you don't. So life is finitely better if you believe in God, and the afterlife is infinitely better if it turns out there is one. Therefore, it's a no-brainer. You might as well believe in God. If it turns out you lose the bet (i.e. God doesn't exist), you still end up finitely better off, and if you win (i.e. God does exist) then you get an infinitely better result.

One interesting result of Puddleglum's Wager is that it easily avoids the problem Mike Almeida raises against Pascal's Wager. Mike's problem (which I'm not taking a stand on at this point) relies on its being better in this life not to believe.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

It occurred to me while teaching Nietzsche yesterday that the use of Nietzsche to motivate antisemitism by the Nazi regime is pretty much the opposite of contemporary antisemitism, at least in one key respect. Hitler's use of Nietzsche capitalized on the idea of Jewish inferiority. If it's perfectly fine for the strong to trample the weak, then all it takes is finding a group that can be taken to be weak, and then you can trample away.

The problem Nietzsche would have is that you can't really demonstrate that Jews are the weak. In fact, the history of Jews in the United States seems to demonstrate otherwise. Before Hitler's time, Jews in the United States tended to do worse on IQ tests than the majority population. After WWII, they tended to do noticeably higher than average. The best explanation for that seems to be that Jews were sidelined more often and had become mainstreamed in a way that allowed them to develop the cognitive skills that they already had potential for but hadn't been developing as strongly. Even with the problems in using IQ tests to identify intelligence plain-and-simple, it's certainly true that there are skills that IQ tests measure, and the Nazis would have been happy to accept IQ scores anyway. So it seems as if the facts are just against their claim.

Contemporary antisemitism has to take a different stance. Not only is it ludicrous to take Jews to be inferior in terms of any important skill set for success in life, but Jews have in fact been much more successful in most of the ways people who make such judgments would actually care about than the average for the non-Jewish population. So the narrative is no longer that Jews are inferior and thus need to be trampled because of some Nietzschean mission to lift oneself up by taking advantage of the weak. Now it's almost a reversal. Jews have assumed control of society in some massive conspiracy, and the rest of us are the victims who need to resist the collective strength of the Jewish conspiracy.

Now I guess the two views are compatible. Someone could think that Jewish success is merely due to conspiratorial measures implemented by idiots who succeed only because a few of the relatively smart ones have gotten enough Jews into influential positions to prevent anyone from overcoming their collective strength. But I don't think the idea of Jewish inferiority among such conspiracy theorists is really about intellectual inferiority anymore. It's not clear to me exactly what kind of inferiority it's supposed to be, though. It clearly has some normative element, but I'm not sure it's even thought-out enough for there to be a real answer to that question.

Last night I was catching up on PEA Soup, and this excellent post by Jussi Suikkanen caught my attention. It's about the harm of rape (in particular of men raping women), not just to the woman being raped or even to all women but even to all men, including the rapist himself. One thing I appreciate about the post is a pretty clear listing of ways that rape causes harm in a much broader way in society than it might seem if you just focus on the act of rape itself.

One key element is missing, though. The most significant way that a man harms himself by raping a woman is the harm caused to himself merely by doing such an immoral thing. By committing such a terrible act, he diminishes his well-being in unmeasurable ways. A crucial element of experiencing the good of this life is being a good person. Without good moral character expressed through good actions, no one can live the best life available to us in this life. It would be much better to lack all the kinds of goods that Suikkanen focuses on if having them meant being an evil person.

On a different note, I want to affirm Suikkanen's overall point and expand it a bit. I appreciate Suikkanen's resistance to the common treatment among some feminists of rape as a zero-sum game that sets up social structures to benefit men at women's expense. I have similar resistance to the parallel reasoning that treats anti-black racism as benefiting white people at the expense of black people. There certainly are social structures that harm black people in ways that few white people experience. If you want to call this white privilege, I have no objection to that, as long as it's clear that the racist structure isn't giving whites a boost. Even if there's some boost from it in one respect, the harm to everyone from the existence of such racist structures has become so obvious to me that I can't see privilege of this sort as a real privilege.

If I have an easier time getting a certain kind of job compared with black applicants because of unconscious anti-black bias on the part of the hiring committee (e.g. they have lower expectations for black applicants without having an explicit view that black people are less intelligent or less capable), then I guess there's some sense in which I can benefit from white privilege. But the existence of that sort of privilege is itself a negative, not just for the black people who have a harder time getting a job because of it. It's a harm to me too (and not just because my wife is white and my kids mixed race). It's a harm because it diminishes my interaction with those who might resent me because of my race. It's a harm because the kinds of cooperation and mutual trust among members of the same society is weakened. It's a harm because it makes it takes more work and more thought to be a good person with respect to those of other races. It's a harm because "keeping blacks down" in any sense and to any degree will weaken the good contributions of black people to society as a whole, of which I'm a part. Much will slip through (e.g. much of what some call "white culture" has been so strongly influenced by black culture over more than a century of mass media that has included black entertainers that there's really no such thing as white culture). But the fact that it's still seen as "white culture" and therefore "other" by many black Americans is not just unfortunate for people who have that attitude but for the enrichment of all Americans. I could go on and on.

This is at least one reason for resisting the narrative that paints white privilege as almost a conscious cause of all structural and institutional racism in society. It's common, especially among this influenced by Marxian analyses, to think of power structures in society that perpetuate themselves. I have no problem with this. It seems obvious to me on reflection that there are such self-perpetuating structures. The key objection I have is that many who hold such a view attribute a rational character to these structures, as if white privilege is perpetuated by deliberate choices by those in power (which in this case might not just be heads of corporations or politicians but in some cases might be every white person who benefits), with the goal simply of maintaining that power.

This was true enough with Jim Crow, and it makes the best sense of some really crazy historical moments (like the Supreme Court definition of Mexicans as white that allowed systematic exlusion of Mexican-Americans from juries even though it was already accepted as unconstitutional to exclude blacks from juries systematically). But does it explain why generational welfare inheritance is more common among blacks than whites? Did the white liberals who concocted welfare intend it to be a way to keep black people dependent on the government in order to preserve white privilege? Even my most cynical moments don't go that far. (They only go as far as suspecting that politicians knowingly put band-aids on problems that they know will not solve them in order to appear to be doing something, but the goal there isn't to keep black people down and preserve white privilege but rather a very different selfish motive -- an individual motive to maintain one's political position, completely independently of race.)

Most of the time I'm not so jaded about people's motivations, though. Welfare was never really seen as a political move to try to gain points while doing nothing. Most supporters of particular welfare policies have genuinely seen it to be a good thing, something to help those who are less fortunate and could use a leg up. It wasn't until the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reform that we had a distinction between (1) those who rely on welfare because they can't work or are temporarily needing assistance while they seek a job or seek education for a job and (2) those who seek assistance merely to avoid working. That welfare reform brough some problems with it, but it fixed something the original creation of welfare created that was probably unintentional but was an unfortunate consequence. When welfare was massively expanded in the 1960s in a way that got self-sufficient black Americans to become generationally dependent on welfare, which in turn caused many of the more serious inner city problems in many predominantly-black neighborhoods, I don't think many if any of its original supporters had any clue what kind of serious consequences the program would lead to. They just rightly saw that some people in need would be helped (and probably wrongly saw that some who didn't need help should be ushered into that help as well).

There's no need to impugn the motives of such people. But I think it's that kind of inference that the usual narrative of white privilege often involves. It doesn't follow from the facts about how these self-perpetuating social structures work, even apart from its dependence on false judgments about harm and benefit.

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