Tuesday, May 24, 2011

James Randi Educational Foundation: Take 2

More convenient strawmen and haughty disdain, this time on page 2:

Posted by Sophronius:
I disagree that empathy is a bias. I have always considered empathy to be a source of information: By allowing us to sympathize with others, we gain a better understanding of them. It would be much harder to predict someone's behaviour without empathy, I think.

From dictionary.com:


[em-puh-thee] Show IPA
the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.

Empathy means to live vicariously through someone else, to truly feel or imagine what it must be like to be them, temporarily. If we were to attempt this for all beings to have ever felt anything, we'd fail miserably; nevertheless, the welfare of billions of beings is important -- something that we can ascertain via logic.

Empathy and sympathy completely block any attempts to fix problems, and in fact are part of "the problem," for they cause selfishness. When we identify with those like ourselves, it feels good, but it has no rational basis, and so is entirely founded on emotion.


I'm a cripple, so when someone picks on cripples, I empathize; I get upset. However, when someone picks on an obese person, perhaps I laugh, because I'm not obese myself, and, for one reason or another, lack the ability to put myself into the shoes of the obese person.

Because I'm black, I sympathize with victims of slavery. Because I'm female, I sympathize with female rape victims. Because I'm obese, I sympathize with those who attempt to spread awareness of heart disease.

We shouldn't be limited by what we've been conditioned to be capable of empathizing with. I can't cry when I hear that a bunch of people died last night in a tornado, so if I rely on empathy alone, I'll not rationally concern myself with the event, or the fact that such events happen outside of my personal life. If I feel something for someone who's experienced a tragedy, I'm going to neglect those for whom I feel nothing who've also experienced tragedies -- especially if I'm presented with a choice between these two options, and need to make a decision per the law of opportunity cost. Is this fair? Is this unbiased?

Well, he seems to make an error in the first paragraph when he claims that we consider life intrinsically valuable due to having gotten "emotionally attached" to our ego.

Strawman. I stated that we fabricate excuses for why life needs to exist in the first place -- not for why life is valuable. Furthermore, I'm in favor of the idea that SENTIENT life is valuable; plants and bacteria can be tortured for hours for all I care.

How difficult is it to understand that something can be precious, even in spite of its lack of functionality or purpose (and thus, need to be continued on the production line)? When you perform a mercy killing on your pet, does the fact that you don't believe that it should continue to exist negate the fact that you find its life valuable?

The explanation for us valuing life seems the logical result of natural selection, and as such is intrinsic to our nature. But eh, minor point.

Completely disagree. The general goal of valuing things as a phenomenon sprung from natural selection seems to be to perpetuate genes at the individual level -- not to value life itself. Members of early human tribes were no different from members of chimpanzee troupes or lion packs in their valuing of those genotypes most closely resembling their own -- and, thus, the individual genes whose goals were to perpetuate themselves feverishly and for no good reason.

Very few humans value "life" as a concept nowadays, anyway; they value their own lives, their own personal satisfaction, their nations, and the lives of those closest to them. If you mean to say that humans value their own lives, well, the fact that people are addicted to their various desires does not make those desires functional, imbued with purpose, or somehow objectively worth perpetuating.

Valuing life requires intellectual effort -- at the expense of one's genetically motivated inclinations to scorn all life but that which is reminiscent of oneself. This is evident all throughout the animal kingdom; dogs do not value life, but their own self-satisfaction.

It's a bit odd that he suggests that life is the cause of everything negative in existence, or that "the world might be better off without you". Negative is a human concept and wouldn't exist without sapient creatures to experience it.

This is silly. When baby birds starve to death in the absence of super important humans capable of deeming such a thing negative, is it somehow less unpleasant for the baby birds? Negative is not only a concept, but a sensation. Does the fact that we've contrived the concept of sex change the fact that animals have sex?

It also doesn't make much sense that he distinguishes between creating a positive and ending a negative, since the net effect is the same.

There is no such thing as a positive derived out of thin air; all "positives" are contrived from states of deprivation. I distinguish between the two merely because the former isn't physically possible.

He then claims that having emotions is dangerous. He backs this up by citing things like genocide, which would not occur if humans had no emotions. Even if true, this completely ignores the fact that we consider genocide bad because of our emotions.

That's precisely the point, isn't it? If emotions can lead to nasty consequences, then adding more emotions to the pile is going to make things nastier than they already are.

What you're saying is akin to stating that cancer wouldn't be so bad if we were biologically like plants instead of animals. Isn't that an obvious inference?

We'd also have no genocide if there were no humans, but that is kind of missing the point.

And what point would that be? Can you justify genocide? Short of Jesus and heaven, you're going to have a tough time finding something to put on the other end of the scale that balances everything out. Are you sure that you're not as religious as the fish in a barrel that you like to shoot so often?

He actually does seem to argue that human existence is bad at some points... while simultaneously praising productivity as if it's our highest goal.

1. Suffering is bad.

2. Human existence leads to suffering, so there's certainly something bad about human existence. Whether human existence will ultimately lead to less suffering or a discovery of some metric of value far greater than what we're currently using is hard to say.

3. Even if, hypothetically, all of human existence were a bad idea, wouldn't it be productive to do something about that bad idea? You're framing "productivity" as some kind of linear initiative where positive quantities continuously increase, which is an extremely limited approach to productivity -- a word which always needs context in the first place.

He is right, however, that people will have children even when this is a bad idea (natural selection at work again), but that's nothing new.

Newness is a terrible thing to value by itself. The Nazis were new for a time.

Posted by I Am The Scum
You really need to stop reading this blog. It's absolutely terrible.

I think I'm going to start using this kind of rhetoric in my research papers. I wonder if my grade will go up or down if I start the first paragraph of a paper on nuclear fusion by referring to it as "really horrible and stuff." Hmmm.

In his computer example, he mentions that a computer would have an understanding of how others feel, and lack empathy. That's what empathy is.

2+2=4 does not require empathy; it requires logic. Understanding evolution does not require empathy; it requires empirical observation, from which logic is eventually derived by logic agents. Computers can understand these things.

Empathy is an emotional response to an imagined scenario; see above for its official definition. Empathy requires sentience -- a central nervous system designed for sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste, or some combination of these. A computer does not require a central nervous system in order to understand that 2+2=4, or that circles are round, or that things that don't feel good don't feel good (or that some organisms don't want certain sensations).

We should stop trying to make things better...


We should stop trying to solve problems...

Huh? Have you read any of this blog?

1 comment:

  1. You know who else responded to strawmen? NAZIS