§7.1

a blog by josef johann

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Will to Kill the Bill

Nate Silver has the kill-the-billers exactly right, I think; perhaps more right than even he thinks:

I do want to make clear, though, that I should probably have made some finer points of distinction among those who I have lumped under the broad heading of "kill-billers". There is a healthy debate to be had over the merits of the health care policy, and there's much to be said from an Overton window perspective about a world in which you're having two liberals (me and Darcy Burner) square off against one another for nearly 15 minutes on Hardball, or David Sirota writing the opposing viewpoint to USA Today's editorial position that the health care bill should be passed. Moreover, pressure from the left has been more successful than the pressure-ers might allow. The concessions that liberals won in exchange for giving up the public option are not trivial, and some further improvements will probably be made to the bill in conference.

There have also, however, been people who have been arguing the bill in what I believe to be bad faith -- recycling or inventing a grab-bag of misleading and often self-contradictory talking points against the bill's passage. The progress of the debate over the past week has perhaps been revealing; whereas some advocates, like Markos Moulitsas and Howard Dean, have tended to ratchet down their rhetoric, in some cases even explicitly calling for the bill's passage, others have tended to become more entrenched. By "others", I mean in particular two or three of the writers at the blog FireDogLake.


The arguments you are hearing at FireDogLake - they seriously suggested the Senate bill could be obliterated and successfully replaced with a better one, with the same Joe Liebermans and Ben Nelsons signing on - are just embarrassingly bad. In fact, I think a better explanation for their behavior is with referece to an overton window. The "moderates" get to appear moderate if they are opposed by "the fringe" left, and if only there was this kind of furious outrage at the death of the public option, we might still have the medicare buy-in. If they argue the bill is not good enough, that may have been just the thing to get the moderates to come together on this compromise. It was only after they demanded we "kill the bill" that the final compromises fell into place.

Would you put it past Jane Hamsher & co. to pull a tactic like this?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dennett on Postmodernism and Truth

via reddit:

What would be wrong would be that since this man didn't acknowledge the gulf, didn't even recognize that it existed, my acquiescence in his shopping spree would have contributed to the debasement of a precious commodity, the erosion of a valuable distinction. Many people, including both onlookers and participants, don't see this gulf, or actively deny its existence, and therein lies the problem. The sad fact is that in some intellectual circles, inhabited by some of our more advanced thinkers in the arts and humanities, this attitude passes as a sophisticated appreciation of the futility of proof and the relativity of all knowledge claims. In fact this opinion, far from being sophisticated, is the height of sheltered naiveté, made possible only by flatfooted ignorance of the proven methods of scientific truth-seeking and their power. Like many another naif, these thinkers, reflecting on the manifest inability of their methods of truth-seeking to achieve stable and valuable results, innocently generalize from their own cases and conclude that nobody else knows how to discover the truth either.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Abraham Maslow on the fusion of fact and value

From The Farther Reaches of Human Nature:

Too many people of limited vision define the essence of science as cautious checking, validating of hypotheses, finding out if other people's ideas are correct or not. But, insofar as science is also a technique of discovery, it will have to learn how to foster peak-experience insights and visions and then how to handle them as data. [...]

I quote a letter from Dr. A. Hoffer, dated February 8, 1963:

We have deliberately used P.E. (peak experience) as a therapeutic weapon. Our alcoholics who receive LSD or mescaline are given P.E. using music, visual stimuli, words, suggestion, anything which will give them what they say is a P.E. We have treated over five hundred alcoholics and certain general rules can be enunciated. One is that in general the majority of alcoholics who respond by sobriety after treatment have had P.E. Conversely, hardly any who have not had P.E. respond.

We also have strong data which suggest that affect is the chief component of P.E. When LSD subjects are first given penicillamine for two days they have an experience which is identical with the one normally gained from LSD, but where there is a marked dampening of affect. They observe all the visual changes, have all the changes in thinking, but they are emotionally flat and are more non-participant observers than participants. These subjects do not have P.E. In addition, only 10 per cent do well after treatment compared to our expected 60 per cent recovery on several large follow-up studies.


Now we make our big jump: This same list of described characteristics of reality, of the world, seen at certain times, is just about the same as what have been called the eternal values, the eternal verities. We see here the old familiar trinity of truth, beauty, and goodness. That is to say, this list of described characteristics is also simultaneously a list of values. These characteristics are what the great religionists and philosophers have valued, and this is practically the same list that most serious thinkers of mankind have agreed upon as the ultimate or highest value of life.

To repeat, my first statement is in the realm of science, defined as public. Anyone can do the same thing; anyone can check for himself; anyone can use the same procedure that I have used and can, objectively if he wishes, record on tape the things that are said in answer to the questions I posed and then make them public. That is, what I am reporting is public, repeatable, confirmable or not; it is even quantifiable if you wish. It is stable and reliable in the sense that when I repeat the operation I get approximately the same results. Even by the most orthodox, positivistic definitions of ninteenth-century science, this is a scientific statement. It is a cognitive statement, a description of the characteristics of reality, of the cosmos, of the world out there, outside the person who is reporting and describing, of the world as perceived. These data can be worked with in the traditional fashion of science, and their degree of truth or untruth can be determined.

Wrigley Field is a perfect copy of Wrigley Field

I'm supposed to bury this insight at the bottom of the second to last paragraph, put the magic phrase in italics, to spin a narrative that progressively unravels a mystery, but fuck it. To persuade someone, you convince them that what you are saying is an even stronger affirmation of their values than their own position (you'll see this sentence both as self-description and material to my point). This highlights, I think, the hypocrisy under which our most closely held beliefs are formed. We start with a belief, or rather a very specific prejudice, which is something like self insistence, something like what causes you to laugh which is so irreducibly personal, a truth you would kick over the Taipei 101 clear space for, if it came to that. (That's metaphorically speaking, to those FBI, CIA, and homeland security web-bots crawling the internet which probably outnumber my readers 5 to 1.) That is, a belief about what is good, about where good things come from is necessarily built from the inside out and after the fact its outward coherence is the ostensive basis for its superiority over competing explanations.

So I stopped believing in capitalism when I started believing in the internet, which is to say that what I want isn't capitalism, but that which I thought was synonymous with it: the low barriers to entry, the fact that truly anonymous people can put themselves or their kids through college with initiative and a good idea (or even stupid idea). How empowering that is! But this desirable confluence of opportunists and opportunity came along with a bureaucracy or two, and a measure of centralization, which I had previously believed antithetical to the freedom needed to "put ideas into action" (if you'll forgive my stagnantly Hillary Clintonesque phrasing). I couldn't move away from capitalism until I realized I wasn't losing anything at all.

=

This brings us to blogger Santi Tafarella, who may or may not be a dualist. Santi has responded favorably to Intelligent Design (but may or may not subscribe to it), and has been receptive to global warming skepticism (but may or may not think the skepticism warranted), and, though this last one is different, is critical of new atheism (but is himself an agnostic). In a similar spirit you'll find the title of nearly half his blog posts end in a question mark.

Santi made an admirably candid admission in justifying his own ambivalence, which, in one of its forms is essentially an ambivalence with respect to the truth of naturalism.

Josef:

I absorb your critique of me taking to hand anybody who puts forth a plausible anti-naturalist argument that keeps me in my agnostic abivalence. I like agnosticism. It gives me a space for irony and emotional range that I can’t find in theism or atheism. I like the Whitmanesque freedom of swinging all sorts of ways, and dropping into the shoes of others. It’s a personality thing. I think people who are atheists and theists also have personal motivations for their beliefs, and contingent (not just rational) reasons for arriving at their beliefs.


Santi, you use this ambivalence as an opportunity to pose questions, to occupy that space of contemplative wonder, analogous to what many of us might claim we are doing when we make music.

So, where most of us would wash our hands of (for instance) Intelligent Design and walk away, you perceive a spiritual space closing up, and come to the defense of the indefensible Michael Behe. For fear of so-called new atheists closing the debate on the truth of religion entirely (which seems to have nearly happened in analytic philosophy circles), you defend discredited ideas and regard their gangrenous creep into the philosophical establishment with sympathy.

Let me make clear that my quarrel is not with ambivalence itself, but ambivalence about truth claims, as though each next question and attempted answer is just another excercize in a normal life of spiritual creativity. There is a difference between the creative activity of imagining something to be true, and literally suggesting something is true. Naturally this same imaginative capacity must be at play in understanding new things about the world, and bringing ourselves before an open question seems always to inspire what is called a religious feeling. But many (I would say most) activities of spiritual exertion have nothing whatsoever to do with this, nor should they.

When George Will says that "God, supposedly, and Wrigley Field, actually, are perfect" what should we take to be his meaning that Wrigley Field is "perfect"? Surely the field came first and perfection grew into it. If I didn't know what baseball was, if I couldn't think that the team in some sense represented me and that their victories were mine, I would see no perfection there. But if I'm a Cubs fan it gives me a history, it gives me numerous openings for investing empathy and hope.

Not unlike a slug, we glide along a surface of our own flesh and the payoffs are reflective of that investment (though one might object that the Cubs don't offer much in the way of emotional payoff). What this should make clear is that Wrigley Field isn't actually perfect, but by spending time there and accumulating experiences, the joy spills over into every accidental association until there is no friction, and Wrigley Field appears to be the platonic form of perfection. In truth it was only a vessel.

There is nothing wrong with vessels, and it's true that they really can be fountains of spiritual wonder even when the vessels are completely artificial constructions (as I think religion is). The problem is that these must be physicalised, actualized, the word must be made flesh, as it were. If you've ever really loved dancing, for instance, you'll know that it brings out the feeling that you really have a role in creating the music, just as important, just as participatory as if you were plucking the strings yourself.

And I recall once, bringing groceries out to my car to find a church flier on my dashboard. It had started raining while I was inside, and someone had rolled up my windows for me. If no flier was left, perhaps I wouldn't have even noticed the act of compassion. But, more than an act of compassion, leaving the flier made clear that it was a religious act of compassion. I think the kind person, whoever she was, was "doing God's work" in more ways than she realized.

Unfortunately, one way of acting creatively is to insist on a truth claim, to stand for it, to in some sense defend it and live for it. "I know there are angels out there, making sure my breaks won't fail!" I wouldn't suggest that there is no exertion of passion in the preceding claim. But the kernel of inspiration motivating the truth claim is misattributed to something that really isn't there. And this entails a tornado of confusions, as you mistakenly defend angels in your car, mistaking your flaring heartstrings, and your right to them, for evidence of something else.

This class of creative acts, apart from others, must be attended with responsibility, precisely because it mingles evidence claims with the freedom and fruits of introspection, the latter of which everyone is right to defend furiously. And when an evidence claim becomes so personalized admitting you are wrong is like killing yourself. Most of us just won't do it, and couldn't.

Lukeprog of Common Sense Atheism summed up well when talking about Christian apoligist William Lane Craig's approach to evidence:

Basically, Craig defends his faith against the evidence the same way my mom does – “I know because I know that I know that I know.” And that’s it. “I know in my heart that Christianity is true, and I know my heart is right because my heart tells me it is right.”


And thus, I think, Santi misperceives his heart as being between the jaws of an atheism-theism divide. And in valiant defense of it, you get such spectacles as an embarrassingly bad defense of Michael Behe, wherein Santi implies that it is reasonable to doubt random mutation can produce macroevolutionary changes, which any casual stroll through wikipedia might easily disabuse one of. To that I say, Santi, no! Your heart is over here!

(In the four wiki links referenced above, the third one directly addresses Behe's skepticism about how random mutation works, the others deal with general arguments made by William Lane Craig.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Despicable Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen is the author of Coming out Straight, whose book has been used in speeches to justify a proposed law in Uganda to execute homosexuals. This is an absolutely repugnant person. Observe his first statement, that "since the 1950's, the Ugandan government has punished people for engaging in homosexual behavior". Then observe that, minutes later, Cohen says it's "inconceivable" that they would pass a law to execute gays. Inconceivable? If he wants to represent this Ugandan history of oppression against gays as though it were common knowledge, how on earth could he not know that his book and his message would serve as justification for continuation of what he knows to be longstanding practice of oppression of homosexuals?

Then he denies that his book portrays gays as predators against children, which Maddow promptly follows up by reading an offending passage from his book with all of the outrageous claims you might expect. He disavows knowledge of the bill and disapproves it, but defends the sponsor of the bill, who was holding up a copy of his book. He can't even use his appearance as an opportunity to just drop everything and unequivocally state that the bill is abhorrent, no, he uses his airtime to spread his message of "opportunity," seconds after conceding his book is being used to justify execution. What a terrible, terrible man.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The impolite spite of Robby Wright

Robert Wright has again attempted to other-ise new atheists. I think the best reaction by far has been Russell Blackford's:

I take no delight in the impolite spite of Robby Wright. His screed is in need of some serious mothereffin’ rigour. It’s got vigour, but I figure that it’s not worth a widow’s mite – no! It’s kind of a slow bleed of real thought. It’s caught in error. It’s trite .. a kind of thinking-lite, yeah – an unpedigreed stampede of special pleading for creeds and unholy deeds and religious terror. It’s like Wright has smoked too much weed or got too much greed, and now he’s a satellite. An acolyte. A parasite on superstition. He’s turned off the light of reason, looking for a coming season when it gets him a treasonous prize, a kind of commission. His ambition has made him unwise: so now he’s a temporiser, when he ought to be a despiser and a pulveriser. It’s a hideous sight, a benighted blight that we must fight without remission. Thank Jerry [and Ophelia] for his[her] demolition!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Responses to Ophelia Benson, Russell Blackford, and B.E.

This post is the first in a two part "series" of responses to Ophelia Benson, B.E., and Russell Blackford in a now-ancient (in internet terms) thread from Ophelia's Notes and Comments blog. This first post responds first to Ophelia, mainly to set the context, and then to B.E., who posted there in the comment section. The second post will respond to Russell Blackford, in which I will assert that you can be wrong about your own subjective likes or dislikes, and wrong in an important sense. The reason I'm responding to an old thread is that I commented in it, and then had irregular access to the internet for a while and never had a real opportunity to respond to a subject that deeply interested me.

Response to Ophelia Benson

In the post, Ophelia Benson talks about whether there is objective morality, and without exactly seeming to answer whether she believes in it (but I think coming against it), she says:

We do strongly feel that murder is wrong, but that's because we're the kind of beings we are; a different kind of being wouldn't. Imagine for instance a being with thoughts but no feelings - literally no feelings. [...] A being like that wouldn't, by definition, strongly feel that murder is wrong, because it wouldn't feel anything, but it also wouldn't because it is feeling that makes it wrong. The putative objective moral sense actually cashes out as the feeling-capacity. It depends on things mattering. Without that, murder is no more immoral than unplugging a lamp.


The above could go two ways. First, if we grounded this in a form of moral solipsism, the above would, I think obviously be false. A sociopath might not think much of killing a human, but it's still morally wrong. But I don't think she meant that. If this feeling-wrongness Ophelia is referring to is more wide ranging than that (and it seems quite possible to me that this is the case), then this makes sense. On this view a sociopath committing murder is still guilty of a moral evil, precisely because of its in some sense "feeling" wrong to the person murdered, to that person's friends and family, and all those other people who similarly feel it to be wrong (the word "feeling" is admittedly doing a lot of work here, and I wouldn't choose that word myself, but I'm operating on the principle of charity).

Benson says this "cashes out" as the feeling capacity. But this is misleading- the fact of our having what she calls a feeling-capacity is an objective fact about humans. These "putatively" objective moral wrongs are literally objective moral wrongs, because we too, are objectively out there in the world.

Response to B.E.

Anyway, a commenter criticized the notion of objective morality, saying:

It's interesting that those who claim there is an objective morality like to talk in terms of laws. They'd have you believe that morality has law-like status such as the law of Gravity. But the law of Gravity is a description of empirical nature. It's inter-subjective but could in principle be different i.e. it's contingent. Morality is not this type of law. If the law of morality says murder is wrong I can still go and murder whereas if I jump off a cliff with intent to fly, I fall all the same on Earth. So morality has no universality in nature even if we hold that it's universal amongst ourselves.

Laws, of course, are also prescriptions or regulations of behavior. Perhaps moral law means this. But then law must have been prescribed. If it is prescribed by people or societies then it is not objective and subject to changes of mores in those societies. Perhaps the law was given unto us by a god. Of course then you get into Divine command view of morality and it's nemesis the Euthryphro dilemma. If morality is just doing the bidding of a tyrant then how is that moral? (How is that doing what's right instead of doing something arbitrary?) Also, how is that objective? It's subject to the whim of the god. If as Swinburne has it, it's part of the fabric of that god, with said god unable to be bad, then it falls onto the other horn of the dilemma and that god is no more the prescriber of morality than anything else. Is morality prescribed then by the universe, a contingent thing? According to theists the fine-tuning argument suggests that it could have all been very different, what then of morality? Seems like the idea of objective morality or law of morality is pretty lame.


To which I responded:

The law like character of morality wouldn't prohibit your being able to murder. It would prohibit your murder from having a moral justification, and this it would do with law like inflexibility. [...]


To which B.E. said:

Yet there are many a moral justification for murdering or what appears to some to be murder depending on the situation. Just War, self-defense, etc. They may not float your boat, but they do others. It seems to me that saying it has law like inflexibility is a bit weird. If "Murder is never morally justified" mixed with "This is murder" then completing the syllogism we get "This is never morally justified". Sure, but what's murder? If it has law like universality, why does it have this cultural subjectivity in some cases?


First, I want to deal very briefly, too breifly, with the last question: why [murder has] this cultural subjectivity in some cases? I'm simply going to assert that it doesn't. That might be unfair, but if you are criticizing a moral objectivist, they simply won't be convinced by the conventional references to variance in opinion on murder across cultures. It just isn't the type of objection a moral objectivist would recognize as problematic. Instead I'm going to focus on whether it is internally incoherent for a moral objectivist to assert that there can be moral laws.

Going back to "Yet there are many a moral justification for murdering or what appears to some to be murder depending on the situation". In a trivial sense, a moral condemnation is built into the meaning of the world "murder." So an action is either murder or it is not, and it is morally condemned accordingly. (Now, there are species of utilitarianism which say murder can be "right" if it saves more lives than are lost. In this case murder goes from being objectively wrong, to objectively having a net negative impact on the utilitarian calculus it is a part of. This doesn't seem to me to change anything fundamentally, because it still expresses the moral condemnation of murder.)

But suppose we replace murder with kill. If killing is wrong in a given state of affairs it is always wrong in precisely that state of affairs. If it is right in some other given state of affairs it is always right in precisely that state of affairs. The only way to weedle out of this is to try and sneak in some new fact (or remove some old fact, or rearrange the existing facts) to negate the original moral prescription, while insisting it was still in some sense the same "state of affairs".

This is where one might want to plead subjectivity. Killing a stranger who walks past me on the street might be wrong, but it might not be wrong if I recognize that that person is Osama bin Laden. But in every such case, you will find that the rightness or wrongness of the act obtains because of an objective state of affairs. If you replace random stranger with Osama bin Laden, clearly the switch from wrongness to rightness coincided with this substituation, and it turns out you've replaced a subject with certain attributes for a subject with certain other attributes. Insofar as someone is similar to Osama bin Laden in the right ways the act of killing that person tends toward being morally right. Clearly, this smuggles in a fact of the matter that completely changes the nature of the example.

One might try to subjectivize it from the other direction. Killing is not wrong for me if I'm Osama bin Laden and I see Josef Johann walking down the street. But this reduces the question to one of subjectivism vs. objectivism and does not reveal any internal incoherence in objectivism with respect to moral laws unless we assume (or successfully argue), that moral objectivism is just outrightly wrong anyway.

So, on the question of killing, yes, circumstances do vary from case to case. But this doesn't mean that "the moral law" pertaining to killing, whatever it is, is wavering under our feet. It would simply mean there is no such moral law pertaining to killing in and of itself. It would be a confusion about the nature of moral law, just as it would be a confusion about the law of gravity for someone to say that things don't always really accelerate toward the earth at 9.8 m/s^2 since since objects have terminal velocity.

It might be objected that moral law is only moral law in the sense I was previously defending, if it can prescribe conduct over a wide variety of situations. If the set of circumstances is too narrow, then it should not perhaps be a law. All this is fine. (I happen think "moral law" is, in truth, just a conceptual fiction that helps us explain the rightness and wrongness of our behavior.)

So we have two basic facts- that unwavering moral rights and wrongs seem as though they only be on solid footing when the state of affairs is fairly elaborate, and that moral laws are only moral laws when they can be true of a wide range of states of affairs. These facts threaten to eat each other. And I think this is where the challenge against moral law has full force.

This may mean that there are few, or even no, moral laws in objective morality, that even if there are objective moral facts, they are only truly captured by an impossibly elaborate catalogue of specificities. So, moral laws may present a problem for moral objectivists in that a moral objectivist is bewitched by language into mistaken use of the term "law" when they really mean something more mushy, like a regularity or norm that hovers about the truth but which has exceptions.

But there is a simple solution to this- to delegate out the judgment of moral law to parts of the statement that express the moral law. So "It's never right to murder" really is a moral law, because "murder" is defined such that it is always morally wrong. Then we don't need the moral law itself to be equivalent to some description of reality- that responsibility is passed on to the term murder, and by rigging the term with moral judgment, it stays water-tight, whereas a word like "killing" might admit of exceptions because killing is not inherently wrong.

Then we can expand "murder" to mean something like the "gratuitously depriving another human being of life" (or something else). We have partially completed the description of reality, and we distribute out the rest of the job to the term "gratuitous". And finally at the bottom of the hierarchy you have statements that are nothing but descriptions of states of affairs, without any terms laden in moral value in need of elaboration. Then, moral laws truly are moral laws with no exceptions, and yet are responsive to the near-infinite complexity of detail that would threaten to present exceptions to the moral laws.

This is not circular: a law formed this way is just as vulnerable to counterexample as any other law, and it is no more circular than a statement with self evident meaning like "killing is always wrong". It is just a way a moral objectivist can make simple, wide-ranging statements that are up to the task of making true statements that grapple with the infinite complexity of the world.

The award for most insidious qualifier of the day goes to

Geoffrey Miller at The Economist:

Human geneticists have reached a private crisis of conscience, and it will become public knowledge in 2010. The crisis has depressing health implications and alarming political ones. In a nutshell: the new genetics will reveal much less than hoped about how to cure disease, and much more than feared about human evolution and inequality, including genetic differences between classes, ethnicities and races. [...]

GWAS researchers will, in public, continue trumpeting their successes to science journalists and Science magazine. [...]

In private, though, the more thoughtful GWAS researchers are troubled. They hold small, discreet conferences on the “missing heritability” problem: if all these human traits are heritable, why are GWAS studies failing so often? The DNA chips should already have identified some important genes behind physical and mental health. They simply have not been delivering the goods.


It would be a shame if anyone revealed themselves as a less thoughtful GWAS researcher by disagreeing with Geoffrey Miller.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

the impulse toward helplessness

It's just stunning to me how often people treat a hypothetical question as an invitation to think like an absolute lunatic.

A good response to a hypothetical question finds a way to faithfully continue that relationship with the unkown that makes the hypothetical question difficult to answer. I think that's the hardest part, as we tend to take the opening premise of a hypothetical as a cue that we too, should be playing a creative role in answering the question, just as the questioner did in asking the question. We should try to reinvent the question in any direction we wish for the purpose of making our own cute little counter-points.

Unfortunately, this assumption that one should be equal partners with the questioner causes many people to play calvinball with the question and completely dislodge their answer from any reality that the hypothetical could ever have hoped to shed light on. As there is little difference, at least in the form taken both by science fiction questions and abstract moral questions, it is not difficult to see why even serious questions posed in the abstract are treated with a lack of seriousness that corresponds to an overarching failure to appreciate what abstract questions can tell us.

Perhaps the single biggest source of cognitive error that exists consists in the mistaking a contingent fact about the world for an immutable truth. Understanding what it would take to change a belief tells you much about what that belief is. And your ability to specify how and in what context that belief would change, tells you what curiousity, what self awareness, what integrity lives in that belief now. I think frequently this is what happens when a great speech is given- it causes us to stand our world aside many possible worlds, to shake us out of indifference, to go over what distinguishes us and why this course of action is necessary at this moment in history.

But such exercises can be intellectually demanding, and so you find people writhing and twisting with all their might to find some way to collapse the question, with an impulse toward helplessness that disguises itself as a legitimate answer. So I'd like you to observe these statements, psychotically confident in the obviousness of their answer, taken from reddit, that serve utterly nothing except to deflate the question, and arrive at an emotionally satisfying cop-out.

On teleportation:
You don't want [teleportation] - allow me to explain.

Suppose I wanted to transport you from, say, Earth to Mars. Theoretically, I supposed you could technically break you down and send your individual particles zooming through space. Earth engineers, however, would quickly realize that it's much easier and faster to have a cache of particles at the destination, since we all share the same basic building blocks, and then send a signal representing you to Mars, and rebuilding you from scratch. Essentially it would be a long range cloning device.

However, this would leave a problem for the engineers, I mean after all we can't have two of the same person running around. The obvious solution to this is brutally murdering the original. There also might be a line for the teleporter, so they can't leave a corpse, leaving them no choice but to vaporize you.

Of course people, if they knew they were to die, and have a bastardized clone version of themselves running around they would opt out. So the engineers would tell nobody, and commit genocide of millions while stuffing their pockets with money. Supposing it became widespread, people would be committing suicide anywhere from one to 100 times a day.


Now I recognize that this represents a subset of a subset.... of a subset of possible representations of the problem of teleportation. But it doesn't seem plausible that the human race would unthinkingly frolic forward, over and through nuance, multiplying catastrophe upon catastrophe.

And yet without a blink the commenter takes it as obvious that (1) cloning is trivially similar to teleportation, which may be true but isn't necessarily so, (2) that you are for some reason supposed to "get rid of" the original person, which may be true but isn't necessarily so, (3) that the only way to get rid of them is to "brutally murder them," which may be true but isn't necessarily so. At this point the gap between this survey of the problem and what a real, settled answer would look like is wide enough to fit several solar systems through. But that doesn't stop the commenter from concluding that there cannot be teleportation.

Here is a rejection of immortality:
Sorry, but this would be the last scientific discovery I'd want to see.

First of all, overpopulation would probably reach unsustainable levels in our lifetime.

The only way to avoid our self-destruction by overpopulation would be pay or merit based immortality; we'd revert to a caste system even worse than ancient India's.

Rapid destruction of the environment, overcrowding, or a completely unequal and un-egalitarian society? No thanks.


If we harbored similar aversions to improvements in the human condition which were good in themselves, but which had the effect of contributing to overpopulation, we could with equal justification take principled stands against washing our hands, or sanitizing broken limbs in order to prevent gangrene. To suggest that immortality is impossibly and absolutely conjoined with prohibitive population growth, is at best, lacking in imagination.

This is follwed by the gentle but implausible prodding from a commenter:
Overpopulation would make colonizing the moon and Mars not just novelty projects, but goals with real immediacy. To me, that's a win-win.

And as others have said, immortality (which is probably humanity's fate anyway) can be dealt with in other ways, i.e., accepting sterilization.


Then a response:
The people who would get to be immortal would not be the people you would want to be immortal. (The rich and powerful, no matter how evil)


Of course this is treated like an inevitability, and it's supposed to be a coincidence that by answering thus she has taken the path of least intellectual resistance.

Here is another cowardly cop-out, couched in good natured love for parents:
What about adults really close to their parents? I would honestly not chose immortality if it meant I had to watch my parents die from old age and keep that memory with me for an eternity.


About finding aliens:
Either they would exterminate us, or we'd exterminate them.

We can't even get along with other people, how the hell would we get along with aliens?


This merits no response other than to note that here too, the direction is toward non-engagement with the details that would be demanded of a fuller answer.

And an absolutely nonsensical discussion of time travel, about traveling foward in time to get a cure for your mother's cancer:
You don't think outside of the box very well do you? I said "time travel". Go forward. Get cure. Go backward.
The response:
Go forward. Find burned ashes of former civilization, no survivors. Return home. Become crazy street person with sandwich boards warning of impending apocalypse. No one will listen!
Response to the response:
Just go farther forward. Evolution will create a new civilization. I'd be surprised if not one single species evolves far enough in the amount of time our sun is going to give us here on earth to cure cancer in humans


Here's a dismissal of a world with star trek like replicators, where everyone has what they want:
I actually have doubts about this utopian vision. Real society demonstrates that in a large proportion of cases, people who get more free time than they can handle do not embark and grandeous personal endeavours but rather try to satiate the senses with extravagance.

I expect this effect would become worse for people born with this comfort than those who had to learn to appreciate the good things in life the hard way.

If a technology like this became available then one would hope social development could keep up to provide an environment where the individual is still driven to achievement.


Maybe, maybe not. The only thing that is obvious in all these cases is commenters being dominated by an intellectual sleepiness that is begging them to come back to bed. This is the same impulse that causes people to say that any wish granted by a genie will be granted in the most ironical and unanticipated way possible. And any utopian vision is doomed to fail. What jars me is not that these claims are necessarily false, but the ludcrious confidence with which these scenarios, with their splinteringly miniscule plausibility are put forward.

I think this is important because this same failure of imagination (or worse: unwillingness to imagine) colors many moral positions people take on controversial issues, to the extent that we have a deeper fear of the unknown than we do of coming on the wrong side of an issue. Abortion is just wrong. We don't have to worry about the degree of suffering that may or may not be caused, we don't have to try and enter into a utilitarian calculus of whose life is worth more or under what conditions suffering should be endured. A tiredness and general lack of courage closes all of those issues up under a single refusal to engage in them whatsoever.

We should never clone anyone, ever. There should not be weapons in space. I'm going to hypothesize that the more open ended a moral question is, the more likely you are to find a faction that treats of it with an all-or-nothing prescription.