Dr Horrible

You like Joss Whedon?

Go watch an internet superhero musical mini-series. Dr Horrible. (Available free for a limited time only. Like until 20th July 2008. You do not have very much time.)

Freedom of speech vs. umbrage

I may not like the things you believe and, by the way, the fact that you believe them makes me think less of you as a person. I may despise you personally for what you believe, but I should be able to say it. Everybody needs to get thicker skins. There is this culture of offence, as though offending someone is the worst thing anyone can do.

-Salman Rushdie in the Guardian (via Neil Gaiman's Blog).

Rushdie's words struck a chord. It seems that more and more we're hearing people bleating about offense to their religions and blasphemy against their gods and prophets. Just as the religious cultists of the world are free to express their views in public, the rational people of the world should also be free to point out how astoundingly stupid those views are.

One thing I've found: it's not enough to let extremist views stand. People don't all see through the contradictions and falsity of religious rhetoric. When prominent preachers blame natural disasters on a country's permissive laws, silence is not a useful criticism. Silence just means that some genuinely confused listeners won't get to hear that there is an opposing view.

Freedom of speech must never result in censorship of dissenting views. You're free to talk about your invisible friend and his/her life rules. I'm free to laugh at your concept of an invisible friend.

But, how is it that such a simple freedom is being eroded? Wacky Cult Member X merely has to project a strong enough link between their wacky beliefs and their personal identity to be able to claim that ridiculing a wacky belief is ridiculing all cult members. So, either you suppress your criticism, or they claim you're vilifying the person. Simple, isn't it?

I say: here is a very stupid idea. A priest's incantation transforms a mass-produced cracker into the (completely undetectably different) essence of the body of a person who supposedly lived and died 2 millennia ago, so that religious cult members can eat it as part of their ritual.

Some Catholic says: That's not stupid. I believe it. That means you're calling me stupid. You're trying to wipe out my important cultural heritage. You're harassing me. Help. Help. I'm being repressed.

I say: I'm not criticizing you. I didn't even know you until you spoke up to align yourself with that stupidity. If you choose to believe that which appears to be stupidity in the modern world, then the burden is yours. You've willingly put on the dunce's cap and you should not expect either respect or silence.

Death threats... for threatening a cracker

"It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ."
Said Catholic League president Bill Donohue.

What must it be like to see the world through Bill Donohue's eyes?

[blinding flash]

This cracker really is the Body of Christ.
It really is.
It really, really, actually is.
It is because we Catholics say it is.
If we eat of these holy crackers, mixing them with saliva, grinding them up, moving them around with our tongues, swallowing them, digesting them, we're not desecrating the Body of Christ; we're honoring Him. (No, it doesn't count as cannibalism. Not when we do it.)
If you take a consecrated cracker (not an ordinary cracker anymore) and do anything to it other than eating it, then you're desecrating the Body of our Lord and Savior, our Creator, our Ultimate Reason For Being!
What you're doing is far, far worse than standing up and announcing that our beliefs are ridiculous delusions.
You're actually committing a repulsive physical act: desecration of a fully human body.
You really are.
Really, truly, honestly.
Because we say so.
And we're really not incredibly deluded.
It's not delusion when it's faith.

[the epiphany fades]

Meanwhile, back in the real world, PZ Myers receives death threats. I guess it could be worse. He could have allowed his biology students to name a stuffed toy "Allah".

Morality off. Check.

Eliezer Yudkowsky's been pursuing the essence of morality in his last series of blog posts. Here's a section from his most recent:

In 1966, the Israeli psychologist Georges Tamarin presented, to 1,066 schoolchildren ages 8-14, the Biblical story of Joshua's battle in Jericho:

"Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword... And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD."

After being presented with the Joshua story, the children were asked:

"Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?"

66% of the children approved, 8% partially disapproved, and 26% totally disapproved of Joshua's actions.

A control group of 168 children was presented with an isomorphic story about "General Lin" and a "Chinese Kingdom 3,000 years ago". 7% of this group approved, 18% partially disapproved, and 75% completely disapproved of General Lin.

"What a horrible thing it is, teaching religion to children," you say, "giving them an off-switch for their morality that can be flipped just by saying the word 'God'." Indeed one of the saddest aspects of the whole religious fiasco is just how little it takes to flip people's moral off-switches.

Even most Christians I know would have difficulty fully accepting Divine Command Theory and yet the essence of it seems to be built into our Judeo-Christian culture in such a way that it corrupts our children's morality. Of course, Christians aren't out there deliberately teaching children to be immoral. It just happens when the blind lead, believing themselves to be the bearers of light.

I wonder at what age it would be possible to teach empathy and anti-tribalism.

On death and deluded philosophers

Today I listened to The Philosopher's Zone The only good philosopher is a dead one, where philosophy professor Simon Critchley starts out interesting and finishes up telling us how he values death. It's an unconvincing argument, typical of those who have grown so accustomed to the inevitability of death that they create strange rationalizations in support of it.

Simon says:

"because we've bought certain myths propounded by, say, medical science, and belief in technology and things that our children and grandchildren will live forever, and the idea that, y'know we can experience a life without limitation, but a life without limitation would be awful"

He goes on to claim that immortality "would be the worst form of captivity" (and uses Gulliver's Travels, a book of fiction, to support his claim). I might agree with him if enforced immortality was something that anyone else was advocating, but he's presenting enforced immortality as the only option to our limited lifespans and then arguing against it. It's a straw man argument.

How can a philosophy professor, writing a book about death, ignore the bleedin' obvious alternative: immortality as a choice? What is wrong with having the choice of when to die? To me that would be infinitely better than what we have now.

Now we are subject to the capricious whim of mortality, knowing that at any time someone we love could be snatched away from us, or we from them. A kinder world gives me control of my own power switch. When I have no more dreams to follow and have nothing to offer my friends, then I still might not want to switch off, but that choice should be mine.

Simon says, "so to be free is to die."

Let's look even closer at that oft-used idea that it's only through constraints that we can express freedom. Does that mean that every extra constraint that we impose on a being adds to its freedom? Does every constraint that we remove make a person less free? Was the invention of flight something that made man less free by removing the vertical constraint?

This freedom through death idea is a weird distortion of the very concept of freedom. What freedoms do we get from the unmovable constraint of death that we wouldn't have if we were given the choice of when to die? None that I can see. Our very limited lifespan doesn't create interesting challenges that make life more meaningful, it just limits the scope of interesting challenges we can consider attempting. It limits our freedom.

Epicurus: "Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us."

Me: "Death is the ultimate barrier to my personal plans. It should be avoided at all costs."

Death is to be feared as one would the biggest obstacle to one's plans, hopes, and desires. Death is a catastrophic loss for those who rely on your experience. It is to be feared as a source of intense pain for those you love.

Since the potential death of a friend is a valid source of fear for me, why should I not fear my own death on behalf of my friends?

Death is an enemy. It causes pain and limits our freedom. Let's work towards controlling it. Philosophers who think it adds to our freedom have deluded themselves.

The Hard Problem

Ted couldn't tell her how he felt. He felt inferior, defective, somehow less than human. He just couldn't get it.

He'd just spent the last two hours sitting on a drum case in a rehearsal room corner, listening. Helen didn't just play the bass; she made it part of her and she made herself part of the band. They jammed. Chords modulated. Mood changed. Rhythm meshed perfectly. Like there was only one musician, not four independent minds. Like there was a score they'd polished together.

He'd known she must be tired after the jam, what with constantly having to analyze patterns, count bars, predict where the others would take it. It would have taken an immense feat of concentration just to keep searching memories for the matching riffs and devising novel variations, predicting, adapting, monitoring. Ted had told her as much as they drove away, expecting to win the prize for understanding boyfriend of the year.

Helen had looked at him quizzically and said, "No need to get all sarcastic with me, Mr Brain. If you were bored you could've played the machines out in the lounge."

"No, I meant it. Really. I just can't see how you all manage to improvise... together. Doesn't it tire you out?"

"Shit no. Tonight was easy. It just worked. I mean, Rob's only played with us once before, so he had me guessing now and then, but you can tell he's played a lot. We just played."

"But you had to be concentrating."

"No. I just knew where everyone else was going as we went. I could feel it."

That was when Ted knew for sure he was missing out. He'd studied music theory for eight years. He'd slaved away at advanced harmony and composition. He knew all the rules and when to break them. He knew the structures of all the major musical forms for the last five centuries. He could listen to music then write it down from memory. And more than that, he understood the physics of music. He could model the whole process from instrument to auditory nerve, and he'd started reading about neuroaesthetics in his spare time. Helen just knew how to play.

Ted thought about idiot savants, and wisely decided not to raise the subject. Helen had spoken about feeling it and knowing. But that didn't make sense. You feel bass frequencies if they're loud enough. Anything else you feel is just emotions you've associated with certain sounds. And you can't ever know what the other members are going to play. Well you can sort of predict it by thinking of the rhythm, pitches and harmonies as Markov processes. Maybe some people just get fast enough at predicting what they're going to hear, like tennis players learning to return fast serves.

But for Ted, music remained technical. He got it technically right, but he couldn't feel it. Helen tried, but she could never explain to Ted what music felt like.

It was a hard problem.

Restore human dignity: ban ice cream cones

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone--a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.

—Leon R. Kass, Bush's chief bioethics advisor (2002-2005), embryonic stem cell research obstructer, in past years noted for being anti-in vitro fertilization, and ethically troubled by organ transplants, autopsies, contraception, antidepressants and dissection of cadavers.

The price of freedom is tolerating behavior by others that may be undignified by our own lights. I would be happy if Britney Spears and "American Idol" would go away, but I put up with them in return for not having to worry about being arrested by the ice-cream police.

—Steven Pinker

♦ The Stupidity of Dignity

A triolet for/from Neil Gaiman

The world seems so much brighter when
you've made something that wasn't there
before. You spawn new realms and then
this world seems so much brighter. When
your offspring blaze from mind to pen
they wipe the hours of blocked despair.
The world seems so much brighter when
you've made something that wasn't there.

-Based on a Neil quotation.

I'm not in love...

But my neural correlates may testify against me. Prof Zeki says:

Fear, expectation of reward, the experience of love and of beauty - all of them thought until recently to be unverifiable, or not easily verifiable, subjective experiences - have been shown to have neural correlates specific to them.

♦ The objectivity of subjective experiences. (via)

Tapir Day

Today (well, yesterday from my Australian perspective) is World Tapir Day!

(Via Cute Overload)

Addendum: Have a tapir.

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