Friday, February 16, 2018

Yes, code is data, but that's not what makes Lisp cool

There has been some debate on Hacker News lately about what makes Lisp cool, in particular about whether the secret sauce is homo-iconicity, or the idea that "code is data", or something else.  I've read through a fair amount of the discussion, and there is a lot of misinformation and bad pedagogy floating around.  Because this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, I thought I'd take a whack at it myself.

First, the idea that "code is data" is a popular aphorism, but even the most casual reflection on what this slogan actually means will reveal that it can't possibly be the right answer.  Yes, it is true that, in Lisp, code is data.  But this is true of all programming languages!  If programs weren't data, how could a compiler possibly work?

What makes Lisp cool is not that programs are data (because all programs are data), but that they are a particular kind of data.  In most programming languages, programs are strings.  Strings are in fact data.  In Lisp, programs are not strings, they are linked lists (that happen to have a string representation).  And this turns out to make all the difference.

I want to be very clear about what I mean when I say that Lisp programs are linked lists, because this is really a very subtle point.  It's hard to explain, which is one of the reasons that it is very rarely explained well.  Ironically, part of the problem is that once you understand it, it seems trivial and obvious.  (Everything is easy once you know how.)  But if you don't already understand it, it can be hard to get over the hump.  So depending on which side of this divide you fall on, what I am about to say might sound like I'm belaboring the obvious, in which case I would ask you try to remember back to the time before you understood all this (I know there was such a time because no one is born understanding linked lists).

The fundamental problem with trying to explain this is that the only tool I have at my disposal to communicate with you is text.  Your eyes scan this page, parse the black markings on the white background, and interpret those markings as letters and punctuation marks.  Your mind then further groups those letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into concepts.  You do all this effortlessly now, but back in the day, before you knew how to read, it was hard work.  It takes a similar kind of "hard work" to read Lisp.  But like learning to read natural language, it pays dividends.

So here's a little snippet of Lisp code:

(defun rsq (x y) (sqrt (plus (times x x) (times y y))))

This code defines a function called RSQ which computes the square root of the sum of the squares of two numbers, but that is beside the point. What matters is that there are two very different ways to interpret the combination of letters and punctuation marks on the line above:

1.  As a string of characters.  44 of them to be precise (if you count spaces).

2.  As a thing with structure that is defined by the parentheses.

This is a little easier to see if we write something that has the same structure but without the evocative words:

(a b (c d) (e (f (g c c) (g d d))))

This makes the structure a little easier to see.  What you are looking at can be interpreted as either a string of characters (35 of them in this case), or as a list of more abstract elements.  This particular list has four elements.  The first element is the letter "a".  The second element is the letter "b".  But the third element is not a letter, it is another list.  This list has two elements, each of which is a letter ("c" and "d").  The fourth element is also a list.  This one has three elements, two of which are themselves lists.

There is an extra wrinkle in the original example, which is that sequences of adjacent letters like "defun" and "sqrt" are also considered "one thing", or a single element of the list.  So the original example, like the second, is also a list of four elements, but the first element is not a single letter, but a "group" of letters.  In Lisp these groups are called "symbols", and like lists, they are first-class data types.

The reason this is hard to explain is that strings and lists are fundamentally different things even though they look the same when you write them out this way.  What I've written above are really strings, but your brain interprets those strings as lists once you've been trained to interpret the parentheses and the letter groupings and spaces in the right way.  But what a linked list really is is something completely different.  It's a pattern of bits in memory.  You can talk about that by dumping the contents of memory and talking about how some bit patterns can be interpreted as pointers that refer to other parts of memory, or by drawing boxes and arrows.

But all of those details are a distraction too.  What really matters is that by thinking of code as a linked list instead of as a string of characters you can manipulate that code easily in terms of components that are semantically meaningful.

Here's an example of what I mean by this.  Consider the following snippet of C code:

int main(int argc, char* argv[]) { ...

Now suppose you want to analyze this code.  We want to extract, say, the name of the function being defined ("main") and its arguments ("argc" and "argv").  In C this is an advanced exercise; you have to actually parse the code.  But in Lisp it is utterly trivial.  If I consider this code:

(defun rsq (x y) (sqrt (plus (times x x) (times y y))))
as a list then to get its name all I have to do is extract the second element of the list.  And all I have to do to get the arguments is take the third element.  And the functions to do that are built-in to Lisp, so I literally don't have to write any code!

Not only that, but the parsing process that converts the string representation of the list (called an S-expression) to the internal representation of the actual linked list data structure is also trivial.  Parsing S-expressions is super easy.  You don't need a grammar or a parser generator, all you need is -- and this is no exaggeration -- a few dozen lines of code in just about any programming language [1].  And going the other way -- printing them back out -- is even easier.

This, then, is the magic of Lisp.  It's a local minimum in the amount of effort that it takes to parse and manipulate code in semantically meaningful chunks at the "cost" of having to write code that looks a little bit weird when you first encounter it.  But this feeling quickly goes away when you realize that this weirdness is not arbitrary.  Those parens are where they are for a reason, namely, to make the syntax easy, even trivial, to parse.  Lisp was originally proposed with a more traditional syntax in addition to S-expressions, and nearly every Lisp programmer has proposed and implemented their own (it's almost a rite of passage).  None of them have ever caught on because S-expressions are a huge win once you get even just a little bit used to them.  They let you do things easily that are really really hard in other languages.  In particular, they make writing compilers so easy that doing so becomes a regular part of doing business in Lisp rather than an abstruse specialty that only a select few engage in.

And now I have to go fix some code so that it automatically generates a backtrace whenever it encounters an error, logs it, and then continues its computation as if the error had not occurred (because it's running inside an event loop where actually throwing an error would be catastrophic).  I expect this will take me about fifteen minutes because I have this in my toolbox.

[1] Yes, that's more than a dozen lines of code, but that's because what you see there is a complete Lisp interpreter, not just an S-expression parser.  The parser is at the bottom.  It's 30 LOC.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Multilogue on Free Will

[Inspired by this comment thread.]

The Tortoise is standing next to a railroad track when Achilles, an ancient Greek warrior, happens by.  In the distance, a train whistle sounds.

Tortoise: Greetings, friend Achilles.  You have impeccable timing.  I could use your assistance.

Achilles: Hello, Mr. T.  Always happy to help.  What seems to be the trouble?

Tortoise: Look there.

Achilles: Why, it appears that someone has been tied to the railroad track!  It looks like Henrietta, the Helpless Victim, no doubt tied there by Evan the Evil Villain.

Henrietta: Help!  Save me!

Tortoise: I would like to rescue Henrietta, but alas, I am far too slow to reach her in time.  Do you think you can help?

Achilles: I would love to.  Unfortunately, even though I am fleetest of foot of all the mortals, even I can't outrun a train.  But did you happen to notice, Mr. T., that there is a siding on the track here?  All we have to do is throw the switch, divert the train onto the siding, and Henrietta will be saved!

Tortoise: That is most fortuitous.  I wonder why I didn't notice it before.  But it occurs to me that there is something very odd about this state of affairs.

Achilles: Odd?  How so?

Tortoise: The situation we find ourselves in bears a striking resemblance to what philosophers call a "trolley problem."  A trolley problem is normally presented as a moral or ethical dilemma, usually by way of having victims tied to both branches of the track.  But here one of the branches is empty, which would seem to make it a no-brainer.

Achilles: But this is not an intellectual exercise.  This is real life.

Tortoise: True, but somehow I can't escape this niggling doubt that I've overlooked something.  Still, I guess we should go ahead and throw the switch.

(Suddenly, Evan the Evil Villain appears out of nowhere!)

Evan: Bwahahaha!!!  You fools think you can thwart my evil schemes?  Never!  You will not throw that switch!

Achilles: Just try and stop us!

Evan: You don't seem to understand.  I'm not ordering you, I'm telling you, as a matter of objective fact, that you will not throw the switch.

Tortoise: And how do you know that?

Evan: I consulted the Oracle, and she told me so.

Achilles: Oh dear, Mr. T.  I'm afraid Henrietta is done for.

Tortoise: Why?  I don't believe in no Oracle.

Achilles: Oh, but you should.  The Oracle is never wrong.

Tortoise: But how do we know that Evan isn't lying about what the Oracle said?

Achilles: Hm, good point.  Perhaps we should consult the Oracle ourselves?

Tortoise: Do we have time?  If we can't reach Henrietta before the train then surely we don't have time to travel to Delphi.

Achilles: Oh, silly Tortoise, you don't have to go to Delphi any more to consult the Oracle.  Nowadays there's an app for that.

(Achilles pulls out a mobile phone.  It sports a logo shaped like a pear.)

Tortoise: Most impressive.  Not at all what I would have expected.

Achilles: Just because I'm an ancient Greek warrior doesn't mean I have to be a Luddite.  Oh great and powerful Oracle, we wish to consult you!

(The Voice of the Oracle emanates from the phone.)

Oracle: What is your request?

Achilles: Is it true that we will not throw the switch and save Henrietta?

Oracle: Indeed, it is so.

Achilles: See there, Mr. T.  I'm afraid Henrietta's fate is sealed.

Tortoise: I'm still not convinced.  I mean, we're standing right here next to the switch.  We have free will (don't we?).  You're faster and stronger than Evan.  What exactly is going to stop us?

Achilles: Hm, good question.  Oh great and powerful Oracle, what exactly will prevent us from throwing the switch?

Oracle: Nothing will prevent you.  You will choose of your own free will not to throw the switch.

Tortoise: That seems improbable.  The moral situation is clear, and we are both moral creatures.  Why would we choose to do such an immoral deed?

Achilles: Is failing to save Henrietta really immoral?  We didn't tie her to the tracks, Evan did.  Is it really on us if she dies?

Tortoise: According to the Tortoise Moral Code, failing to save a life when there is no cost or risk to yourself is tantamount to taking the life yourself.  So I certainly feel as if I have a moral duty to throw the switch.

Achilles: And yet you won't do it.

Tortoise: I'm still not convinced.

Achilles: I'm telling you, Mr. T., the Oracle is never wrong.

Tortoise: Can you prove it?

Achilles: Sure, let's just do a little experiment.  Here, take this coin, and put it in your left or right hand, but don't show me which one.

(The Tortoise retreats into his shell, then shortly re-emerges with both his hands balled into fists.)

Achilles: Oracle, in which hand is the coin?

Oracle: The left one.

(The Tortoise opens his left hand to reveal the coin.)

Tortoise: Well, that was a 50-50 shot.  Also, the Oracle didn't really predict which hand I would put the coin in, she just somehow figured it out after I had already done so.  Maybe the phone has a coin detector built in to it.

Achilles: I can ask the Oracle before you put the coin in your hand.

(Achilles consults the phone.)

Tortoise: So what did she say?

Achilles: I can't tell you.  That would influence your decision.  But I've written her prediction down on this piece of paper.

Tortoise: So I don't even have to put the coin in my hand.  I can just tell you my choice.  I choose left again.

(Achilles opens the paper.  It says "LEFT".  They repeat the experiment 50 times.  The Oracle's prediction is correct every time.)

Tortoise: I must confess, that is deeply disturbing.  What would happen if I knew the Oracle's prediction ahead of time?

Achilles: Let's try it: Oracle, what will be the Tortoise's next choice?

Oracle: Left.

Tortoise: Ha!  Wrong!

(The tortoise puts the coin in his right hand.)

Achilles: As I suspected, the Oracle's predictions are unreliable if the subject learns the prediction before acting.  So there is still hope for Henrietta.

Evan: Fools!  I foresaw the possibility that you might learn of the Oracle's prophecy (indeed, if you recall, I told you about the prophecy!)  So I took precautions and consulted the meta-Oracle.

Achilles: The what?

Evan: The meta-Oracle.  You see, the Oracle works by building a model of your brain and running that model into the future faster than your actual brain.  But the Oracle does not include itself in its model.  So if the output of the Oracle gets to your brain then that sends events off on a trajectory that the Oracle cannot foresee.

Tortoise: So we do have free will after all!

Evan: Not so fast.  The meta-Oracle is more powerful than the Oracle.  The meta-Oracle includes itself in its model, so even if you learn of one of the meta-Oracle's prophecies before it comes to pass, it will still come to pass.  Here, see for yourself.

(Evan pulls out a meta-phone, launches the meta-Oracle app, and hands the meta-phone to Achilles.)

Meta-Oracle: You will go on a great journey!

Achilles: I haven't asked you anything yet!

Meta-Oracle: Oh, sorry, wrong prophecy.  What exactly is it you would like to know?

Achilles: Will we throw the switch and save Henrietta?

Meta-Oracle: No.

Evan: See?  Told ya!

Meta-Oracle: I also predict that the Tortoise will question my prophetic powers.

Tortoise: Well, that wasn't exactly a tough call.

Meta-Oracle: See?  Told ya!

Tortoise: Oh, come on!

Meta-Oracle: OK, we'll do a real one.  What would you like to know?

Tortoise: Which hand will I put the coin in?

Meta-Oracle: Your left hand.

(The Tortoise puts the coin in his right hand.)

Tortoise: Ha!

Meta-Oracle: I didn't say that you would put the coin in your left hand now.  All I said was that you would put the coin in your left hand at some unspecified time in the future.

Tortoise: I find myself oddly unimpressed.

Meta-Oracle: Yes, I foresaw that too.

Tortoise: Well, geez, if you foresaw it, why did you even bother making such a lame prediction?

Meta-Oracle: Because if I truly reveal to you the full extent of my prophetic powers you would suffer severe psychological damage.  Belief in free will is an integral part of the Tortoise Condition, and if I present you with irrefutable evidence that you do not have free will, you might snap.

Tortoise: Try me.

Meta-Oracle: Very well, if you insist.  The next time you put a coin in your hand, it will be your left hand.

(The Tortoise puts the coin in his left hand.)

Tortoise: OK, that was weird.  Despite the fact that I wanted very much to disprove the meta-Oracle, because my belief in free will is indeed very important to me, and despite the fact that I knew I could accomplish this goal by putting the coin in my right hand, I somehow found myself putting the coin in my left.

Achilles: Did it feel like you were being coerced?

Tortoise: Hard to say.  The subjective sensation I had while making the decision was nothing out of the ordinary.  It felt kind of like when I eat a cookie even though I know I shouldn't.  It's weird though, because cookies taste good, so I can justify (or at least rationalize) eating a cookie in the name of satisfying a short-term goal (hedonism) at the expense of a long-term one (maintaining my svelte figure).  But here I had no particular reason to prefer one hand over the other, kind of like we have no reason not to throw the switch.  I find it all deeply disturbing.

Meta-Oracle: Told ya.

Tortoise: Faced with this new evidence I must adjust my beliefs.  It does indeed seem to be the case that the meta-Oracle can predict my actions (and, by extrapolation, yours as well) and so we are in fact doomed to stand idly by while Henrietta meets her fate.

Achilles: That sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me.  If your belief in the inevitability of failure leads you not to act, then the prophecy is in fact true.  But it's not really the prophecy at work, it's your belief in the prophecy.  Perhaps if you could recapture your initial skepticism we might be able to thwart the meta-Oracle after all.

Tortoise: Alas, I am incapable of achieving such suspension of disbelief.  I have experienced the power of the meta-Oracle first-hand.  I performed a conclusive experiment.  It didn't turn out the way I hoped or expected, but I have no choice but to accept the outcome and its implications.  Tortoises must follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Achilles: Maybe Tortoises do, but I don't.  I am quite credulous.  If you (or someone) could somehow convince me that the meta-Oracle could be wrong, then maybe I could throw the switch.

Tortoise: Alas, friend Achilles, I can't even do that.  Now that I myself am firmly of the belief that the meta-Oracle's powers are as advertised, then to convince you otherwise I would have to lie, and Tortoises cannot lie.

Achilles: Ah, then you never believed you had free will!

Tortoise: Not absolute free will, no.  I always believed that I had no control over what I believed (including, recursively, that I had no control over that belief).  But I did believe, until just now, that I had control over my actions, especially in matters as inconsequential as choosing a hand to put a coin in.

Achilles: But it was not inconsequential.  That action changed your worldview.  Maybe if it really were inconsequential you would still have free will?

Tortoise: I guess I can't rule out that possibility on the basis of the evidence that we have (and in fact I can't imagine any experiment we could possibly do that would rule it out).  But the question of whether or not to throw the switch is very consequential.  A life is at stake.  So it wouldn't help anyway.

Achilles: I can think of one other possibility: We could pray to God.  He might be able to save Henrietta.

Tortoise: I don't believe in God, but don't let that stop you.

Achilles: Dear God, please save Henrietta!

(The deep booming Voice of God rumbles through the air.)

God: And how exactly do you propose I do that?

Tortoise: Wow, that was so not what I expected.

Achilles: Dear God, thank you for answering the prayer of this humble mortal.  As for the answer to your question, well, you're God.  You are all-powerful.  You could, like, go and untie her before the train arrives.

God: I am indeed all-powerful.  I form the light and create darkness.  I am the Lord.  But I'm afraid I don't untie people from railroad tracks.  That's just not how I roll.

Tortoise: Why not?

God: Because if I do everything for you then you mortals will never grow up.  I gave you free will and moral intuition.  The rest is up to you.

Tortoise: Wait, what?  We have free will?

God: I didn't say that.  I said I gave you free will.  It does not follow that you still have it.

Achilles: That's true.  I once gave my niece a pair of mittens, but she lost them.

Tortoise: I must have lost mine, because I have just been presented with irrefutable evidence that I do not have free will.

God: What, the meta-Oracle's prophecy?  That doesn't prove that you don't have free will.

Tortoise: Of course it does.  If the meta-Oracle's prophecies are always right (and they do seem to be) then I have no choice but to do whatever the meta-Oracle foresees.

God: But that was true of the (non-meta) Oracle too.  Why did that not rock your world view the way that the meta-Oracle did?

Tortoise: Hm, good question.  I guess it's the fact that I was still able to thwart the (non-meta) Oracle when I learned its predictions ahead of time.  That allowed me to maintain the illusion of free will, even though the Oracle's prediction are indeed, now that I think of it, overwhelming evidence that I do not in fact have free will.  But the meta-Oracle is a whole 'nuther kettle of fish.  The meta-Oracle gave me the experience of making a choice that was directly counter to one of my goals (namely, maintaining the illusion that I have free will).  Why on earth would I do that if I really do have free will?

God: That is difficult for me to explain in a way that you will understand.  The closest I can come is to say that it's because of your sinful nature.

Tortoise: That can't be right.  When I sin it's because I choose (or at least I feel like I choose) to so something that I want to do but that you, God, don't want me to.  But my succumbing to the meta-Oracle's prediction was the exact opposite of that: it was something that I didn't want to do, and that you, God, couldn't possibly have cared about.

God: What makes you think I don't care?

Tortoise: What difference could it possibly have made to you whether I put a coin in my right or left hand?

God: I care about everything.  Everything that happens, down to the most trivial detail, is all part of my divine plan.  (Actually, they are not trivial details.  They only look trivial to you mortals who cannot see the big picture.)

Tortoise: Now I'm really confused.  If you're controlling everything, how can I have free will?

God: I didn't say I controlled everything, I said everything that happens is part of my plan.  Not the same thing.

Tortoise: I'm afraid I don't see the difference.

God: Most of the time the free choices of mortals like yourself align with my plan.  It is only on rare occasions, like when Pharaoh was going to free the Israelites prematurely, that I have to go in and meddle.  The rest of the time it's all you.

Achilles: You know, I've often wondered about that.  Why did you harden Pharaoh's heart?

God: To make it a better story.

Tortoise: What???

God: Sure, no one would have paid attention otherwise.  I am almighty God.  I could have freed the Israelites with a twitch of my little finger.  But that would have made such a dull movie!  No conflict, no suspense, no character development, no dramatic tension.  Every good story has to have a villain.

Achilles: Like Evan.

God: Exactly.

Tortoise: So nothing we do can interfere with your Plan.

God: That's right.  No self-respecting all-powerful deity could permit that.

Tortoise: So... sin, Henrietta's untimely death, all part of the plan?

God: Yes.

Evan: I always knew God was on my side!

God: I'm on everyone's side, Evan.  That doesn't mean I condone your actions.  Tying Henrietta to the railroad tracks was a horrible sin.

Evan: Then why did you make me do it?

God: I didn't make you do it.  You chose to do it.  That's what makes you an Evil Villain.

Evan: But you could have stopped me and you didn't.

God: The word "could" does not apply to me.  I am Perfect, so I can only do Perfect things.  In any particular circumstance there is only one Perfect course of action, and that is what I do.

Achilles: So... do you have free will?

God: No.

Tortoise: That is quite the bombshell revelation.

God: I don't see why.  There are lots of things I can't do.  I can't sin, for example.

Evan: That sucks for you.  Sinning can be a hell of a lot of fun.

God: (Wistfully.)  Yeah, I know.  Being Perfect is a very heavy burden.

Tortoise: This is something I've always wondered about: do you set the standard for perfection?  Or is there some externally defined standard for perfection that you just happen (or are somehow required) to meet?  Could you create a universe where the actions that are sinful in our universe were not sinful?

God: That's a very good question.

Tortoise: I can't really take credit for it.  I got it from Socrates.

God: And what answer did he give?

Tortoise: He kinda waffled, actually.  Surely you knew that?

God: Of course I knew that.  I am all-knowing.

Tortoise: Then why did you ask?

God: Because I'm trying to answer your question.

Tortoise: I'm afraid you have me at a loss.  My question was very straightforward.  Why don't you just answer it?

God: Because you wouldn't believe me.

Tortoise: And how do you know... oh, right.  OK, go ahead.

God: How did you learn about Socrates?

Tortoise: By reading accounts of his dialogs with his students as transcribed by Plato.  Socrates himself left no writings of his own.

God: So how do you know that Socrates was a real person and not just a fictional character invented by Plato?

Tortoise: Well, there are many other contemporaneous accounts of Socrates.  His life is pretty well documented.

God: Our friend Achilles here is in a rather similar situation, no?

Achilles: How do you mean?

God: You left no writings of your own.  Your existence is vouched for exclusively through the works of other writers like Homer and Lewis Carroll.

Achilles: Are you implying that I'm not a real person?

God: I'm suggesting you might not be.

Achilles: But I'm standing right here!

God: How do you know?

Achilles: How... do... I... I can't even...  Mr. T., you can see me, right?

Tortoise: Of course I can.  I'm not blind.

Achilles: And Evan, you too?

Evan: Well, duh, dude.

Achilles: So what more evidence do you need?  What more evidence could there possibly be?  My exploits during the Trojan War are well documented.

God: Well, there's a problem right there.  When was the Trojan war?

Achilles: I'm afraid I flunked history class.

God: The exact date doesn't matter.  Before or after Julius Caesar?

Achilles: Oh, definitely before.  I was long retired by the time he came along.

God: And when was the modern steam locomotive, like the one that is even now barreling down the track towards Henrietta, invented?

Achilles: I dunno, 1850 maybe?

God: So a few thousand years after Troy, right?

Achilles: Right.

God: And you don't see the problem?

Achilles: Not really.

God: You are several thousand years old.

Achilles: So what?  My mother dunked me in the river Styx when I was a baby.  That made me invulnerable.

God: Except for your heel.  Where Paris shot you with an arrow and killed you (as prophesied by Hector).

Achilles: Now that you mention it, I do vaguely recall that.

God: And doesn't that strike you as the least bit odd?

Achilles: I suppose it does.  Maybe this is all a dream?

(Achilles pinches himself.)

Achilles: Ouch!  No, definitely real.

God: I want you to consider the possibility that despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that in fact you do not exist, that you and the Tortoise and Evan and Henrietta and even I, the Lord thy God, are just fictional characters in a Socratic dialog.

Tortoise: That is not quite the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard, but it's damn close.

God: And yet, it is true.

Tortoise: And who is the Author of this (alleged) dialog?

God: His name is Ron.

(There is a momentary stunned silence.  Then Achilles, the Tortoise, and Evan all burst out laughing uncontrollably.)

Henrietta: Men!  Honestly!

God: I told you that you wouldn't believe me.

Tortoise: Well, yeah, but that was not exactly a tough call.  Ron?  Seriously?  You couldn't come up with a name that had a bit more ... gravitas?  I mean, we're talking about an entity that created you, God, Lord of Hosts, Alpha and Omega, the Uncaused Cause.

God: I'm sorry it doesn't meet with your expectations, but the Author's name is Ron.  I can't do anything about that.

Achilles: I thought you were omnipotent?

God: In our universe, yes, I can move mountains.  Watch.

(A mountain in the distance suddenly floats into the air.)

Tortoise: I am definitely going to have to re-evaluate my worldview.

God: But Ron does not exist in our universe.  He is in an entirely different ontological category.

Tortoise: If Ron doesn't exist, how did he create us?

God: I didn't say he didn't exist.  I said he didn't exist in our universe.  He definitely exists.

Tortoise: But... in some other universe?

God: I warned you that this would be very hard to explain.  It's not really "some other universe" in the way that you're thinking of.  What you're thinking of (which I happen to know because I'm omniscient) is what physicists call a "parallel universe".  There are parallel universes.  For example, there is a parallel universe where tortoises are ninja warriors.

Tortoise: Just when I thought things couldn't possibly get any weirder.

God: The Author exists outside of all of these universes.  He transcends not just space and time, like I do, he transcends existence itself (by our standard of existence).  He exists in a way that you cannot possibly imagine, and which I cannot possibly explain (despite the fact that I do in fact understand it, having been granted this special dispensation by Ron himself).

Tortoise: So Ron is a sort of a meta-god?

God: You can think of him that way, but he's not a god.  He's a mortal.

Achilles: So Ron created us in His own image.

God: After a fashion.  But in fact, Mr. T. here is really more like Ron than you are, Achilles.

Tortoise: So the Author is a Tortoise?

God: No, he's a human.  But he's a nerd, not a jock.

Tortoise: Does the Author have free will?

God: Alas, I am not privy to that.  I am only omniscient within the scope of our own ontological category.  When it comes to the Author, even I know only what he has revealed to me.  But tell me, Mr. T., why is all this so important to you?

Tortoise: Because it bears on the question of whether or not we can save Henrietta's life.  If we fail to save Henrietta I want to know why.

God: Oh, is that all?  I'll tell you why.  It's because you've been wasting all this time talking about philosophy rather than just throwing the damn switch!

(At that instant, the train rushes by.  Henrietta lets out a blood-curdling scream.  The tortoise and Achilles look on helpless and horrified as the train rushes towards her.)

God: Well, my work here is done.  Toodle-oo.

(God disappears in a puff of smoke.  There is an awkward silence.)

Tortoise: [BLEEP]!

Achilles: You know, Mr. T., there is one other thing we could try.

Tortoise: I'm all ears.

Achilles: We could ask the Author to save Henrietta.

Tortoise: You can't be serious.

Achilles: What is there to lose?

Tortoise: The remains of my dignity?  I'm really starting to feel as if I'm being punked.

Achilles: OK, I'll do it.  Oh mighty Author, please save Henrietta!

(As if on cue, the train suddenly makes a horrible screeching noise, derails, and bursts into flames.  Burning passengers run from the train, screaming in agony.  Achilles, Evan and the Tortoise survey the carnage in stunned silence.)

Evan:  Whoa.  Dude.

Henrietta: Can one of you idiots please come over here and untie me?

Monday, December 18, 2017

Book review: "A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home and Peace on the Planet" by Dorothie and Martin Hellman

We humans dream of meeting our soul mates, someone to be Juliet to our Romeo, Harry to our Sally, Jobs to our Woz, Larry to our Sergey.  Sadly, the odds are stacked heavily against us.  If you do the math you will find that in a typical human lifetime we can only hope to meet a tiny fraction of our 7 billion fellow humans.  And if you factor in the time it takes to properly vet someone to see if they're a suitable life (or business) partner, the set of prospects that you can reasonably expect to screen gets even smaller.

To make matters worse, finding a long-term partner in any endeavor is necessarily a barter transaction.  It's not enough that they be a good match for you, you also need to be a good match for them.  So when against all odds we find a suitable prospect, in order to improve our chances of closing the deal, we dissemble.  We put on our best clothes and our best behavior and engage in courtship rituals.  It is only much later, when the effort invested into a relationship has become significant and the sunk-cost fallacy is fully in play that we are willing to take the risk of revealing our true faces.  At which point, all too often, all hell breaks loose.

This dynamic plays itself out not just in interpersonal relationships, but in business and even international relationships as well (which are, after all, still human relationships).  I've seen more businesses fail than I care to count because the founders got to the point where they couldn't stand working with each other any more.

"A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home and Peace on the Planet" by Dorothie and Martin Hellman is a book about human relationships in the small and in the large.  It is divided into two parts.  In the first, the authors recount how their own marriage very nearly ended in divorce, and how they were able to put it back together again by practicing "compassion and holistic thinking."  In the second part, they speculate on how the lessons they learned from that experience might be extended to help repair international relationships.  The "new map" in the title refers to a literal paper map in the opening anecdote, which one of the authors (I don't want to give too many spoilers) tore to shreds during a dispute over finding directions.  This torn up map serves as a metaphor that binds the book together thematically.  It alternates between jointly-written sections, and passages attributed specifically to one author or the other, presented as dialogs.

This would normally be the point where I go through the book chapter by chapter giving pithy summaries of the content seasoned with my own erudite observations and amplifications.  But that presents me with a problem.  In fact, it presents me with the very problem that this book seeks to address: writing a book review is part of not just one but two human relationships, between the reviewer and the author, and between the reviewer and the audience.  The reason I read this book in the first place is that I met Martin Hellman at a political fundraiser.  We chatted, discovered that we seemed to have a lot of interests in common, and subsequently got together for a more extensive conversation at his home.

One of the reasons I was interested in pursuing this relationship is that Martin Hellman is not just an author, but also one of the founders of the field of modern cryptography.  One of the cornerstones of modern computer security is something called the Diffie-Hellman algorithm, of which Martin is the Hellman part.  For someone like me who is involved professionally in computer security, meeting Martin Hellman is like a physicist meeting Werner Heisenberg or Richard Feynman.

So reviewing this book presents me with a serious conflict of interest because Martin Hellman is famous and influential in my field.  A good word from him could open doors for me, and that gives me an incentive to write a more positive review than I might otherwise do in order to curry favor.  (Not that I would ever dream of doing such a thing!  But it's a theoretical possibility.)

Ordinarily this would be no more than a run-of-the-mill conflict that just comes with the territory of engaging in the academic process.  But in this case what would normally just be an innocent white lie would actually violate one of the central messages of the book!  One of the things the book advocates is committing oneself to a "zealous search for the truth."  So if I thought the book sucked, should I say so?  On the one hand, being straightforward and honest would show respect for this part of the book's message.  On the other hand, it might offend Martin and make him less likely to want to interact with me in the future.  Worse, I might just be *wrong*, and being honest about my (wrong) negative opinion might cause someone not to read this book who might otherwise have read it.  That person in turn might end up being the crucial link in a chain of events that leads to the next nuclear war, a possibility that the book takes very seriously (an entire chapter is dedicated to examining the logic of nuclear deterrence).  Might it be that to best serve the stated goal of this book I need to violate one of its tenets?

Interestingly, the book offers a parable which is almost directly on-point: Martin Hellman co-invented one of the cornerstones of modern computer technology, but he never made any money from it.  Other people did, however, and the book describes how that came about in some interesting (to a crypto geek like me) first-person historical detail.  At one point, Martin is presented with the opportunity to participate in a business deal, a side-effect of which would be to wreak some revenge on the people whose actions deprived him of the financial rewards of his invention.  The deal looks like a good one, but he worries that his reasoning is being clouded: does he want to proceed because it's really a good deal, or because it would serve his desire for revenge?  (If you want to know how it went you'll have to read the book!)

And now, having raised this issue, I face an even more serious problem.  Suppose I tell you now that this book is awesome, that everyone should read it, that it has the potential to pave the way to world peace.  Would you believe me?

This is the fundamental problem with all human relationships: we humans are *complicated*.  We want different things.  Just figuring out what someone's true goals are is really hard.  Heck, just figuring out what your *own* goals are is hard!  This is where many interpersonal relationships fail, because each side makes assumptions about the other's goals, or even their own, that turn out not to be true.  This is indeed one of the central messages of "A New Map..."  But (and this really is my honest assessment now) it doesn't go nearly far enough in heeding its own advice.

Consider the sub-title: "Creating True Love at Home and Peace on the Planet."  This certainly sounds appealing to me, and if you're reading my blog it is very likely appealing to you, but believe it or not it is not appealing to everyone.  Some (self-identified) Christians, for example, don't want Peace on the Planet, they want to hasten the Second Coming of Christ, and they believe that the best way to accomplish that is not to foster peace, but to catalyze the final war that will be the harbinger of His arrival.  These people celebrated Donald Trump's recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, not *despite* the risk that it might derail the peace process, but *because* it might do so.  Hard as it may be to fathom, some people are actually rooting for war (and some of them are influential in the Trump administration).

Another example: radical Islamists want neither World Peace nor True Love, they want a Caliphate.  If war is the means, so much the better, because then they get to die gloriously in service to Allah.  In their minds there is nothing nobler to which a human can aspire.  I could go on and on: some people believe that money and/or power are the ultimate measure of human virtue.  Some people believe that their nation-state has a manifest destiny to dominate the world.  Some people are desperately poor and have nothing to lose.  Some people make their living by selling weapons; World Peace would ruin them.

Achieving reconciliation is hard enough when everyone involved already shares the same goals.  What if they don't?  To this question the book offers no answer [1].  Because of that, although this book has a lot of sound and actionable advice for individuals who share the goal of making a personal relationship work, I am not optimistic that its lessons will find application on a larger scale.

Ultimately, "A New Map..." suffers from the same problem that doomed Sam Harris's "The Moral Landscape" in my eyes: both Sam and the Hellmans view the world through the lens of intellectually and economically privileged white western liberalism.  As I said in my review of Sam's book, I have a lot of sympathy for this point of view because I am myself an intellectually privileged white western liberal.  But I grew up in the South, and I've spent a fair amount of time traveling in Muslim countries.  So I'm pretty sure that the people who really ought to read this book, the ones who need to be reached in order to achieve its goals, will not even get past the title before dismissing it as yet another ivory-tower liberal calling on people to sit by the campfire and sing kumbaya.

This book is chock-full of well researched facts, sound reasoning, and actionable advice.  But I am not sanguine that the struggle for world peace will be won with facts and reasoning.

Notwithstanding everything that I've just said, this book is awesome.  Everyone should read it.

[1] In response to a preview of this review, the authors pushed back on this and claimed that the book does have an answer, and that it is presented in Chapter 8.  I won't try to summarize it here because I find their argument unconvincing (which is probably why I didn't consider it when I wrote that passage).  I direct the interested reader to the book, where they can make up their own minds.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Here comes the next west coast mega-drought

As long as I'm blogging about extreme weather events I would also like to remind everyone that we just came off of the longest drought in California history, followed immediately by the wettest rainy season in California history.  Now it looks like that history could very well be starting to repeat itself.  The weather pattern that caused the six-year-long Great Drought is starting to form again.  It is now deep into what would normally be the rainy season, but the last time it rained was over two weeks ago.  The forecast is for zero percent chance of rain into the foreseeable future (which at the moment is through Christmas).

But I guess we deserve it because we voted for Hillary.

This should convince the climate skeptics. But it probably won't.

One of the factoids that climate-change denialists cling to is the fact (and it is a fact) that major storms haven't gotten measurably worse.  The damage from storms has gotten measurably worse, but that can be attributed to increased development on coastlines.  It might be that the storms themselves have gotten worse, but the data is not good enough to disentangle the two effects.

But storms are not the only natural disasters exacerbated by climate change.  As I write this, the Thomas Fire has grown to be the third largest in California history.  It only needs to grow another 10% to get to the #1 spot, and since it is only 40% contained at the moment and a new round of Santa Ana winds are blowing even as I write this, it will almost certainly achieve that dubious distinction.

But you can't draw conclusions about long-term trends from any single data point, so why am I bringing this up?  Because the Thomas fire is not an isolated incident.  It is only the latest in a long string of record-breaking fires in California.  If you look at the list of the twenty largest fires in California history, fifteen of them have happened in the last 20 years.  Nineteen of them have happened in the last 50 years.  The only fire on the top 20 list before 1970 was in 1932.

This increase in fire size cannot be the result of human development.  If anything, human development should result in smaller fires, because development removes wildland fuel.

There is also the national climate assessment, which has additional evidence that human-induced climate change is producing more catastrophic weather events.  This report was published by the Trump administration.  If that doesn't convince you that the problem is real and serious, then you will find kindred spirits among the birthers, the lunar landing denialists and the flat-earthers.  Good luck to you.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Why Abortion is (not) Immoral: a followup

This is a followup to my previous post, "A Review of 'Why Abortion is Immoral'".  I want to follow up for two reasons.  First, in my original post I made a serious mistake, which I want to acknowledge, and also explain why I don't think the mistake impacts the overall validity of my original argument.  Second, Peter Donis introduced an interesting new wrinkle in the comments to that post, which I want to discuss at some length.

The mistake I made was claiming that Don Marquis "moved the goal posts" in his justification for why the future-of-value criterion (FOVC) does not imply the immorality of birth control.  That part wasn't wrong; he does move the goal posts, just not where I said he did.  What I said was that his justification required that a future-of-value be bound to a particular thing, and that this was not part of his original criterion.  That was wrong.  It was part of his original criterion, as commenter Publius kindly pointed out.

Here is Marquis original presentation.  I've added a highlight to the part that I missed (or at least forgot about):
What primarily makes killing wrong is neither its effect on the murderer nor its effect on the victim’s friends and relatives, but its effect on the victim. The loss of one’s life is one of the greatest losses one can suffer. The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted one’s future.  Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim.
He continues, but notice the subtle shift from the third to the first person:
To describe this as the loss of life can be misleading, however. The change in my biological state does not by itself make killing me wrong. The effect of the loss of my biological life is the loss to me of all those activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted my future personal life. These activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments are either valuable for their own sakes or are means to something else that is valuable for its own sake. Some parts of my future are not valued by me now, but will come to be valued by me as I grow older and as my values and capacities change. When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to value. Therefore, when I die, I am deprived of all of the value of my future. Inflicting this loss on me is ultimately what makes killing me wrong.
He does this because he wants one of the consequences of his theory to be that killing hermits is morally wrong.  The only way to do that is to measure the future value of a human life by the quality metric of the person living it.  We don't want to have to find someone else to vouch for us in order to establish our own value.

Marquis continues by concluding:
This being the case, it would seem that what makes killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his other future.
This of course does not mean that the FOVC only applies to adult human beings.  The form of the argument is, "what makes the killing of adult human beings wrong is FOVC, therefore FOVC is a valid criterion by which to judge the wrongness of killing, and hence it is wrong to kill anything that values its own future."

Marquis then goes on to list four redeeming qualities of FOVC which I listed in the original post.  The fourth of these is:
In the fourth place, the account of the wrongness of killing defended in this essay does straightforwardly entail that it is prima facie seriously wrong to kill children and infants, for we do presume that they have futures of value.
Note the highlighted words.  This are where he actually moves the goal posts.  It's a subtle but crucial shift, and I think that may be why I missed it the first time around: "WE presume that THEY have futures of value."  Indeed fetuses do have futures of value relative to other people's quality metrics.  But Marquis has explicitly disclaimed this mode of reasoning!   It is not the effect of killing on friends, family, or concerned bystanders that makes killing wrong, it's the negative impact on the victim as assessed by the victim.  This is not an accident; it's the only way to save the hermits.  It's also the only way to not arrive at the conclusion that euthanasia is wrong.

The problem for Marquis is that fetuses do not and cannot possibly value their own lives.  To value anything you have to have a brain, and fetuses don't.  And it's even worse than that: the essential ingredient for valuing things is not a brain but a mind.  (This is why it's generally considered OK to kill brain-dead people and harvest their organs: they have brains, but not minds.)  Newborn babies have brains, but whether nor not they have minds is debatable.  In particular it's debatable whether a newborn human has more of a mind than, say, an adult chicken.  In fact, if you present the question to a chicken in a form that it can understand (e.g. standing over it with butcher's knife in your hand) I'll wager it will give you some pretty definitive indications that it does indeed value its own future.

So not only does FOVC fail to save fetuses, it even fails to save newborns, at least as long as we find it acceptable to kill chickens for food.  Oh well, at least the hermits can breathe a sigh of relief.  (And maybe the chickens if people really start to take Marquis seriously.)

I suppose the reason I missed this is that I was trying to give Marquis the benefit of the doubt, because the theory as he actually presents it is just hopeless.  The only way I can see to salvage it is to accept the moving of the goal posts, accept the premise that babies have futures-of-value because we adult humans say they do, and reason from there, at which point you run into the problem I described in the previous post, namely, that it's hard to decide where to stop the extrapolation backwards in time.  If you're going to impute value all the way back to the zygote, why stop there?

Enter Peter Donis with an unusually innovative (by the standards of the abortion debate) proposal to draw the bright line at implantation rather than fertilization.  Note that it is not even worth considering this unless we have already abandoned Marquis's FOVC-AABTV (As Assessed By The Victim).  We have to accept, either as an axiom or as a consequence of some other criterion, that the value of a newborn infant has already crossed the threshold beyond which it is morally wrong to kill it.  Then -- but only then -- we can ask: where was this threshold crossed?

The overwhelmingly most popular answer to this question (by those who accept its premises) is: at conception.  But this has problems with regards to the moral status of frozen embryos, the destruction of which most people do not regard as a moral transgression on a par with murder.  Peter's suggestion of drawing the line at implantation rather than conception is designed to solve that problem, along with several others that depend on events that are common before implantation but rare afterwards.

But this is only a temporary solution.  The problem of the moral status of frozen embryos only exists because we actually have the technology to freeze embryos.  Implantation is only a bright line because we don't yet have the technology to incubate an embryo outside of a womb.  But that constraint is probably only temporary, and it would be nice to have a moral framework that was AW-ready (Artificial Womb) as well as IA- and AI-ready.

The straightforward extrapolation of Peter's implantation criterion to artificial wombs is that an embryo crosses the moral threshold when it is taken out of the freezer and implanted into an artificial womb.  So let's do a thought experiment: a couple decides to have a kid, takes an embryo out of the freezer and puts it (literally!) in the oven.  Let's suppose that this is early days and the technology has not yet advanced to the point where you can order a Mr-Womb machine from Amazon.  You have to pay a company to rent and operate their machine.

Three months in to the process, both parents lose their jobs and are no longer able to pay the bills.  What should happen?

Or suppose that the technology has advanced to the point where you can buy a Mr. Womb for $199 and conduct this entire process in the comfort and privacy of your own home.  Now one day the couple's six-year-old daughter decides she wants a little sister, takes an embryo out of the freezer, pops it in and pushes the button.  Some hours later, the parents wake up and are horrified to discover what little Suzie has done.  They can't afford another child.  If they pull the plug at this point, have they committed murder?

It's also interesting to construct similar thought experiments based on hypothetical "gestational" processes for AIs.  I started writing one of those up and it turned into a very long passage (I think it could actually make a good premise for a science-fiction novel!) so I'm going to set that aside for now.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A review of "Why Abortion is Immoral"

Commenter Publius pointed me to this paper by Don Marquis, which advances a secular argument that abortion is immoral.  It's a good paper with an unusually well-reasoned -- though nonetheless incorrect -- argument.  I recommend reading it.  Finding the flaw in Marquis's argument makes an interesting and worthwhile exercise.  Seriously, go read it.  I'l wait.

Publius posted this link in the comments of my post, "The utter absurdity of the pro-life position."  I want to make it clear that the intended target of that post was a political position, not a philosophical one.  The political position is the one being advanced in the United States by a loosely affiliated coalition of organizations who refer to themselves as "pro life" (as opposed to their detractors who refer to them as "anti-abortion" or "anti-choice").  My post was intended to point out the intellectual dishonesty of this political movement, not to make the argument that an intellectually honest argument against abortion is not possible.  I have made that argument against other political positions (e.g. gays should be denied the right to marry) but I do not take this position on abortion.  Gay marriage is completely cut-and-dried.  It cannot be be and never has been opposed on any grounds other than thinly disguised (and sometimes not so thinly disguised) bigotry.

Not so with abortion.  I believe that it is possible for a reasonable and right-minded person to come to the conclusion that abortion is wrong.  That is why I support choice rather than (say) actively promoting abortion as a form of birth control.  However, I believe that most of the people active in the anti-abortion movement are neither reasonable nor right-minded because most of them also oppose the active promotion of birth control, which is the totally no-brainer answer to reducing the number of abortions.  But that's not what this post is about.

What this post is about is Don Marquis's argument, which really deserves to be taken seriously, notwithstanding that (IMHO) it is wrong.  The reason it deserves to be taken seriously is that it is an example of what a sound argument for the immorality of abortion would look like were one ever to be found.  Merely proclaiming that a fetus is a baby and describing the mechanics of an abortion in the most horrific terms one can muster doesn't count.  Proof-by-horror-story is not sound reasoning.  Marquis's argument is sober and secular.  It does not appeal to God or the "sanctity of life".  It is based on premises that are widely accepted by both religious and non-religious people.  For that reason alone it has promise as a way of actually advancing the debate in this seemingly intractable conflict.

Marquis's argument is also worth taking seriously because it might be salvageable.  It might be possible to patch the flaw in his argument (though I don't think so) and this could represent a real advance in the theory of human morality.  It was not that long ago that the idea that slavery was immoral was still legitimately controversial, so progress can (and often does) happen.

With that to frame the discussion, let me start by summarizing the Marquis's argument.  He begins, to his credit, by asking the question why killing is wrong in the first place, a necessary step which is too often glossed over, probably because both sides agree that killing is generally wrong even if they don't agree on why.  This covers up the possibility that the different justifications of the wrongness of killing might be the source of intractable disagreement down the line.  Indeed, Marquis opens the paper by pointing our how a failure to nail down the reason that killing is wrong in the first place causes problems for both sides:
the pro-choicer wants to find a moral principle concerning the wrongness of killing which tends to be narrow in scope in order that fetuses will not fall under it. The problem with narrow principles is that they often do not embrace enough. Hence, the needed principles such as “It is prima facie seriously wrong to kill only persons” or “It is prima facie wrong to kill only rational agents” do not explain why it is wrong to kill infants or young children or the severely retarded or even perhaps the severely mentally ill.
Appeals to social utility will seem satisfactory only to those who resolve not to think of the enormous difficulties with a utilitarian account of the wrongness of killing and the significant social costs of preserving the lives of the unproductive. A pro-choice strategy that extends the definition of “person” to infants or even to young children seems just as arbitrary as an anti-abortion strategy that extends the definition of “human being” to fetuses.
The principle “Only persons have the right to life” also suffers from an ambiguity. The term “person” is typically defined in terms of psychological characteristics, although there will certainly be disagreement concerning which characteristics are most important. Supposing that this matter can be settled, the pro-choicer is left with the problem of explaining why psychological characteristics should make a moral difference.
As an aside, let me point out that as an idea-ist I do not have a problem explaining this: psychological characteristics make moral differences because my foundational moral principle is that the interests of memes are primary.  Hence in my moral system the value of human life is not a premise but a conclusion, and one that is contingent on a human being able to provide habitat for memes, and a pre-requisite for that is having a functioning brain.  But let's leave that aside for now because this is not about me, it's about Marquis.

Marquis's answer to the question of why killing is wrong is that it deprives someone of their future.
[K]illing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim.  To describe this as the loss of life can be misleading, however. The change in my biological state does not by itself make killing me wrong. The effect of the loss of my biological life is the loss to me of all those activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted my future personal life. These activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments are either valuable for their own sakes or are means to something else that is valuable for its own sake. Some parts of my future are not valued by me now, but will come to be valued by me as I grow older and as my values and capacities change. When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to value. Therefore, when I die, I am deprived of all of the value of my future. Inflicting this loss on me is ultimately what makes killing me wrong. This being the case, it would seem that what makes killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his other future.
Marquis calls this the future-of-value criterion, but sometimes refers to it as future-like-ours.  He cites four advantages of his theory, all of which I agree with: First, it's IA-proof.  Many theories of the wrongness of killing are human-centric and don't apply to intelligent aliens, but the future-of-value criterion does.  Second, it plausibly extends to animals.  Third, it does not imply that euthanasia is wrong (though it might be wrong for other reasons).  And fourth, it straightforwardly entails the wrongness of killing infants and children.

And, of course, it straightforwardly entails the wrongness of killing fetuses.

So what is wrong with this argument?

The problem is that the argument implies not only that abortion is wrong, but that contraception is wrong too, because it destroys the same future-of-value that abortion does.  Marquis addresses this issue towards the end of the paper:
But this analysis does not entail that contraception is wrong. Of course, contraception prevents the actualization of a possible future of value. Hence, it follows from the claim that futures of value should be maximized that contraception is prima facie immoral. This obligation to maximize does not exist, however; furthermore, nothing in the ethics of killing in this paper entails that it does. The ethics of killing in this essay would entail that contraception is wrong only if something were denied a human future of value by contraception. Nothing at all is denied such a future by contraception, however.
Candidates for a subject of harm by contraception fall into four categories: (1) some sperm or other, (2) some ovum or other, (3) a sperm and an ovum separately, and (4) a sperm and an ovum together. Assigning the harm to some sperm is utterly arbitrary, for no reason can be given for making a sperm the subject of harm rather than an ovum. Assigning the harm to some ovum is utterly arbitrary, for no reason can be given for making an ovum the subject of harm rather than a sperm. One might attempt to avoid these problems by insisting that contraception deprives both the sperm and the ovum separately of a valuable future like ours. On this alternative, too many futures are lost. Contraception was supposed to be wrong, because it deprived us of one future of value, not two. One might attempt to avoid this problem by holding that contraception deprives the combination of sperm and ovum of a valuable future like ours. But here the definite article misleads. At the time of contraception, there are hundreds of millions of sperm, one (released) ovum and millions of possible combinations of all of these. There is no actual combination at all. Is the subject of the loss to be a merely possible combination? Which one? This alternative does not yield an actual subject of harm either. Accordingly, the immorality of contraception is not entailed by the loss of a future-like-ours argument simply because there is no nonarbitrarily identifiable subject of the loss in the case of contraception.
Note, however, that Marquis has actually moved the goal posts here.  [UPDATE: I was wrong about this.  Marquis is not making a tacit change here, though it turns out not to matter.  Thanks to commenter Publius for pointing out my mistake.]  Before, he tried to move away from the problems associated with basing a moral judgement of abortion on the putative "value of human life" by basing it on a "future of value" instead, a criterion that applies to intelligent aliens as well as humans.  So far so good.  But now he has sneakily added an additional criterion to his quality metric, namely, that the future-of-value in question must be strongly bound to some thing.  He didn't actually say this before, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt.  At first blush it might seem that this little tweak actually does save the day because (he claims) the thing to which the future-of-value is bound has not yet come into existence before conception.

But in fact, his little tweak has changed an otherwise promising theory into one that merely begs the question.  It is far from clear that the thing to which the future-of-value is bound comes into existence at conception.  If there were consensus on this point there would be no argument.  Everyone would agree that an embryo is a human/person/whatever-it-is-you-want-to-call-a-thing-with-a-future-of-value and we'd be done.  But it is disagreement on this very point on which the whole controversy hangs.

And indeed there are strong reasons to doubt the proposition that a blastocyst is a thing-with-a-future-of-value while the sperm and egg that create it are not.  For starters, there are an awful lot of additional ingredients that need to be added to the pot before a blastocyst becomes a baby.  In fact, pretty close to 100% of the material that ends up being the baby is not present in the blastocyst, or even the embryo.

That prosaic consideration alone is enough to sink Marquis's argument, but we are far from done.  The first thing that happens to a newly fertilized egg is that it divides into two cells.  Each of those divides again, and so on and so on until baby is born (and thereafter as well).  But up until the third or fourth division, every one of those cells is totipotent, that is, each one is capable of developing into a fully formed human being by itself.  And indeed this happens naturally on occasion; that's how identical twins are formed.  So up until the the blastocyst becomes an embryo, is it one thing with a future-of-value, or is it multiple things?  (This is actually a serious theological question for those who hold that a human receives their soul at conception: do identical twins share one soul?  If not, where does the second one come from?)

We're still not done, far from it.  Nowadays we have the technology to intentionally separate out the cells of a blastocyst.  By failing to do so, we are depriving the individual cells of the blastocyst of having individual futures-of-value.  Are we then morally obligated to separate them?

In point of fact, this whole idea that even a fully fledged adult human is a single thing with a continuity-of-identity that can survive any circumstance (other than death) is really just a reflection of our current technological limitations.  Some day we'll be able to clone humans.  When that day comes, every cell in your body will be a mere technological intervention away from becoming a fully fledged human being without ever having been conceived.  What is the moral status of all of those potential humans?  If you injure yourself to the point where some of your cells die, are you depriving thousands of potential humans of their futures-of-value?

There is absolutely no basis for stipulating that a blastocyst is a thing-with-a-future-of-value while sperm-and-egg separately are not.  Indeed, there are strong philosophical arguments that call into question the idea that the identity of a thing has any sharp boundaries at all, or even that the very concept of "thing" is logically coherent.

Marquis sweeps all this under the rug and just blithely assumes, with no justification whatsoever, that there is a bright line to be drawn at conception, or at least somewhere, to keep us away from the infinite regress of potentiality that dooms the future-of-value argument.  But not only is there no bright line here, there are no bright lines in the whole universe.  That is, and always has been, the whole problem.

Monday, November 20, 2017

2nd Amendment 101

The Washington Post has a really excellent retrospective on the history of the Second and Third Amendmens to the U.S. Constitution.  One of the many interesting things that few people realize is that these two amendments are very closely linked historically, and it is quite remarkable how they have diverged to become respectively the most and the least controversial parts of the Bill of Rights.  Well worth reading.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Bug in the KJV

I've been studying the Bible ever since I was 12 and my parents sent me to a YMCA summer camp in Tennessee.  They take the C in YMCA seriously there, and after two weeks of relentless proseletyzing I finally saw the The Light.  For three glorious days I was born again and felt the Presence of the Holy Spirit.  Then I went home and giddily told my parents the Good News.

My father's reaction was to tell me to study the Bible, which I did, and have been doing ever since.  It only took me a day or two to conclude (as my father no doubt foresaw) that it could not possibly be the work of an all-knowing all-loving deity.  It's just too chock-full of contradictions, weirdness, and out-and-out evil.  But I've remained fascinated by it as a book, not only because so many people do believe that it's the Word of God, but also because it provides an interesting window into deep human history.

One of the problems with reading the Bible as an English speaker is that there are dozens of translations to choose from.  My goto translation is the King James, but every now and then when reading the Old Testament I feel the need to go back to the original Hebrew.  There is only one Hebrew version of the OT, faithfully copied through the generations changing neither jot nor tittle.  Every time I've done this I've come away impressed by the fidelity of the KJV.  Not only does it capture the literal meaning of the original Hebrew, it even captures its spirit because old Hebrew is stylistically different from modern Hebrew in much the same way that Shakespearean English is different from modern English.

But the other day I stumbled upon a bona-fide mistake in the KJV.  It's in Job 6:6, which the KJV translates as, "Can that which is unsavoury be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg?"  The Hebrew word for "egg" is "beitzah" (or plural "beitzim").  But the word in Hebrew that the KJV translates as "egg" is "hallamut" which is a kind of plant that in english is called a malva or a mallow.    It's not a major mistake, but after all these years of being impressed by the KJV's scholarship I was really surprised to discover any mistake at all, let alone such a transparent one.

In case you're wondering, I was led to this through an on-line discussion on Reddit where /u/abram1769 was dissing the Jehovah's Witnesses for translating that passage as "the slimy juice of the marshmallow."  I happen to be personally acquainted with some Witnesses, and they really take their Bible scholarship seriously, so I was skeptical that they would get something so ludicrously wrong.  And indeed they didn't.  It's the KJV that got it wrong.  The Witness's Bible gets it right (and no, it's doesn't say "slimy juice of the marshmallow", it says, "juice of the mallow", which is the correct translation.)

So score one for the Witness's scholarship.  (Too bad they can't seem to get the rest of their house in order.)

Friday, November 10, 2017

Battling racism in a free society

A week ago I wrote a tiny, almost throwaway, article entitled, "Racism is Alive and Well in America."  It was more of a spur-of-the-moment reaction to John Kelly's egregious and historically ignorant attempt at Confederate apologetics, which culminated in (but did not start with) his now infamous quote that the American Civil War was a result of an "the lack of an ability to compromise."

That post spawned a substantial comment thread, in which Peter Donis wrote:
"Apologists for slavery" is not the same as "racism". Slavery is an action, that is outlawed now; it's perfectly reasonable to say that apologists for an action that is outlawed should not be tolerated. But racism is not illegal, and it's not an action, it's a belief: the law can't control what people believe, and expecting it to is unreasonable. So is not tolerating it, as a belief: in any free country, people are going to have all kinds of offensive beliefs. That's the price we pay for having a free country. 
*Actions* that violate people's rights are a different matter: the Lousiana judge's action was clearly wrong and he should be at the very least censured for it. But not because it was "racist": because it clearly denied a citizen the equal protection of the laws, which is guaranteed to him by the Fourteenth Amendment. That's all that should need to be said.
Yes, it's true that racism is a belief and not an action.  But it is a belief that often results in action, and the actions it produces usually end up depriving dark-skinned people of their rights.  I think that's a serious problem.  But as Peter correctly observes, you can't regulate belief in a free society.  So what to do?

Simply relying on the law is not enough.  The 14th amendment has been in force for nearly 150 years, and in that time we've had Jim Crow, Brown v. Board, Loving v. Virginia, the Civil Rights Act (two of them!), and the Voting Rights Act.  We've had George Wallace proudly proclaiming "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."  We've had lynchings and the rise of the KKK.  We've had Emmet Till and Rodney King and Terence Crutcher and Michael Brown and Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin.  

Seriously, do you believe that Rene Boucher would have been charged with a misdemeanor for an assault on a U.S. senator resulting in six broken ribs if he had not been a rich white dude?

The law is not enough.  And it cannot be enough in a free society.  In a free society, people are free to be bigots.  Racists are correct when they say that the road to tyranny is paved with government mandates.  But if the law is not enough, what else is there?

Shame.  The most effective way to eliminate a destructive behavior from society is not to make it illegal, it is to make it unfashionable.  We wrote alchohol prohibition into the Constitution and it was an unmitigated disaster (a lesson Jeff Sessions seems to have forgotten).  But tobacco use has plummeted 60% in 50 years despite remaining legal.  Smoking is just not cool any more.

The way to eliminate racism is to paint racists as pathetic losers.  And the best way to do that is to teach history.

I think it's really important to remember that racism was not always a dirty word in America.  The Confederacy did not defend slavery as a necessary evil, nor even out of economic necessity or expediency, but rather as a straightforward logical consequence of natural law and God's will:
[T]he servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations...
That's from Texas's articles of secession.  Read it again.  Let the words sear themselves indelibly into your soul: "mutually beneficial to both bond and free."  They genuinely believed that they were doing the niggers a favor by enslaving them.  They genuinely believed (and could cite scripture to prove it) that they were doing God's will.

It sounds shocking today, but it was the majority view in the Confederacy.  And if you think 1860 is ancient history, George Wallace was calling for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" in 1963, and continued running on an openly racist platform for fifteen more years before he finally repented in 1979 (by which time it was far too late to salvage his reputation as the quintessential racist of the 20th century).

The view that blacks are so inherently inferior to whites that they can legitimately be held as property did not magically go away after the Civil War.  Most of the people who believed it before the war still believed it after.  And because reconstruction was botched, in the name of state's rights and opposing federal "tyranny", these bigots taught their children, and they taught their children, and so the idea has promulgated through the generations.  It has mutated and attenuated; no one openly calls for the restoration of slavery any more.  It is no longer fashionable to openly call for segregation (though that doesn't stop everyone).  But the idea that blacks (and hispanics and Muslims) are inferior to whites lives on.

Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and John Kelly and all of the other Confederate apologists are the intellectual and spiritual heirs of proud defenders of slavery.  Whether they realize it or not, whether they consciously advocate it or not, they are advancing a point of view that is irredeemably rooted in the once-popular idea that black people should be the property of white people, and that this is the natural order of things and the will of God.

It is my firm belief that when presented with these facts, people will reject racism, that it cannot survive in the bright light of this truth.  Like a vampire, racism depends on cloaking itself in darkness and obfuscation.  It depends on denial.  It depends on distancing itself from the past (even as it longs for a return to the past) because the truth is that it is born of slavery and inextricably linked to slavery.  And thank God almighty I don't have to try to convince people any more than slavery is evil (though 150 years ago I surely would have had to).

To paraphrase MLK (who was paraphrasing Theodore Parker), the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.  Sooner or later the racists will lose, so if you want to be on the right side of history, if you want a seat at the cool kids table, if you want to be able to stand up proudly in front of your grandchildren, you must reject racism and racists.  You must shun them.  You must shame them.  You must call them out when they try to hide behind the "honor of the Confederacy" and "states rights."  You must shine the light in the dark places where this evil has festered for the last 150 years.  And then, when the racists have been driven from the public square and the halls of power, maybe at long last we can raise a generation that is finally free of this scourge.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Racism is alive and well in America

If you needed more evidence that racism is alive and well in America (yeah, as if) look no further than a Louisiana judge's recent decision to deny a black man his right to an attorney because he didn't ask like a white person would.

And then there's John Kelly, who was supposed to be the grown up in the room, saying that "the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War."  That the chief of staff to the president of the United States should be so profoundly ignorant of history would be shocking, except that the bar on ignorance in Trumps White House is already so low that not even cockroaches can slither under it any more.

I wonder: exactly what kind of compromise would Kelly advocate on the question of whether or not black people can be held as property by white people?

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

A candid glimpse inside the incredibly twisted mind of Donald Trump Jr.

Donald Trump Jr. inadvertently (I'm pretty sure) gave us a glimpse of his true face yesterday when
he tweeted:
I'm going to take half of Chloe's candy tonight [and] give it to some kid who sat at home. It's never to [sic] early to teach her about socialism.
Let's think about exactly what the lesson is supposed to be here: trick-or-treating is OK, a shining example of what capitalism is supposed to be all about, but sharing with "a kid who sat at home" is socialism.  Never mind why the kid who sat at home did so.  No possibility that the kid was sick, or disabled, or caring for a relative, or doing their homework, or forbidden from participating by their parents.  Nope, the only possible reason for any kid not seizing the initiative on Halloween is laziness and the anticipation of a government handout.

But it's even worse than that.  Not only is sharing "socialist" and therefore bad, but trick-or-treating itself is good, almost the ideal of capitalism.  But take a moment to think about what the phrase "trick-or-treat" actually means: it means, "Give me some candy or I will vandalize your home."  Halloween, when held up as a life lesson, is a training ground for budding mafiosos running protection rackets, which is not so far removed from how Donald Trump pére made a lot of his money.  So it's actually not surprising at all that DTJr thinks that trick-or-treating is a fine example of capitalistic initiative.  It has obviously worked for him.

Random tweet-length thought of the day

Why is it that when a Muslim kills 8 people it's the Democrats' fault for supporting diversity visas, but when a white man kills 59 people it's not the Republicans' fault for opposing gun control?

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The utter absurdity of the pro-life position

I can think of no better example of erudition without substance than George Will's recent column in the Washington Post entitled, "Democrats are the real abortion extremists."  On the surface his argument seems eminently reasonable: the legal regimen regarding abortion in the U.S. is too mathematically neat and tidy to have any basis in either law or scientific fact, and so clinging to this unprincipled doctrine is "extremist."
What would America’s abortion policy be if the number of months in the gestation of a human infant were a prime number — say, seven or eleven? ... In 1973, the court decreed — without basis in the Constitution’s text, structure or history, or in embryology or other science — a trimester policy. It postulated, without a scintilla of reasoning, moral and constitutional significance in the banal convenience that nine is divisible by three. The court decided that the right to abortion becomes a trifle less than absolute — in practice, not discernibly less — when the fetus reaches viability, meaning the ability to survive outside the womb. The court stipulated that viability arrived at 24 to 28 weeks.
This is a classic conservative maneuver: focus on a particular problem with a policy and argue that, instead of trying to fix the problem, the whole policy baby (pun very much intended) must be jettisoned along with the problematic bathwater.  And it is true, the trimester policy is problematic because, it is also true, it has no foundation other than mathematical neatness, which is not a good basis for policy of any sort, all else being equal.

But as with so many things, all else is not equal.

Abortion is particularly problematic because it is so emotionally fraught, to the point where even an intellectual like Will loses sight of (or perhaps deliberately obfuscates) facts and history by, for example, declaring that the Supreme Court "seized custody of the [abortion] issue in 1973" and thereby "damaged political civility."  He conveniently forgets that Roe v. Wade was not decided on the margins.  It was a 7-2 decision.  And it was not immediately controversial.  Abortion did not become the hot-button issue that it is today until conservatives cynically decided to seize on it as a political wedge years later.

But let us leave history and politics aside and really try to examine the issue on its scientific merits.  Back to George Will:
Pro-abortion absolutists — meaning those completely content with the post-1973 regime of essentially unrestricted abortion-on-demand at any point in pregnancy — are disproportionately Democrats who, they say, constitute the Party of Science. They are aghast that the Department of Health and Human Services now refers to protecting people at “every stage of life, beginning at conception.” This, however, is elementary biology, not abstruse theology: Something living begins then — this is why it is called conception. And absent a natural malfunction or intentional intervention (abortion), conception results in a human birth.
It is actually not quite true that "something living begins [at conception]".  To be sure, conception is a profound transformation, but it is not abiogenesis.  Sperm and egg are just as much alive before conception as after.  It's true that they are haploid cells, but what DNA they do contain is undeniably human.  The idea that "human life begins at conception" stands on no more solid ground biologically as the idea that viability begins at 24 weeks.

Conception is just one of many, many profound transformations that cells go through on their journey from meiosis to fertilization to implantation to birth to first steps and first words to puberty and beyond.  Historically, birth, not conception, has been the most profound of these transitions.  There is a reason we celebrate and count a person's age from the day of their birth rather than the day of their conception, and it's not just that birthdays are easier to determine.  The primacy of birth has deep, deep roots in human society.  Even the Bible explicitly calls out a substantially lesser penalty for violence that results in a miscarriage than for murder.

But all this is to miss an even more important point: there are so few true "pro-abortion absolutists" in the U.S. that we have completely forgotten what such a creature actually looks like.  The opposite of prohibition is not permission, it's requirement.  A true pro-abortion absolutist would not permit abortion on demand, they would require abortions in the name of, say, eugenics or population control.  People who support that point of view are all but extinct today, but they were the political majority in China until fairly recently, and a fashionable minority in the U.S. for decades in the early 20th century.

So how do we untangle this Gordian knot?  There are a couple of things that everyone agrees on, so let's begin there: sperm and eggs are not "human life" where that term is taken to refer to whatever it is that we humans think is worth going to extraordinary efforts to preserve.  (Defining exactly what that is is exactly the problem we are trying to solve here.)  No one actually believes that every sperm is sacred (that's why it's funny).  Likewise, there is broad consensus that a baby is "human life" once it is born; no one defends outright infanticide, at least not in the U.S.

It would seem like a straightforward logical conclusion, then, that somewhere in between sperm-and-egg and birth there must be a line, a boundary between human-life and not-human-life.  How could it be otherwise?  Furthermore, that boundary can't be birth itself, because the thought of killing a baby right before it is born is just as abhorrent as infanticide.  There are no other dramatic events between sperm-and-egg and birth other than conception, so that has to be it.  Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains must be the truth, no?


This reasoning is based on a faulty assumption, namely, that whatever ineffable quality we seek to define as "human life" is a binary quantity.  For the bright-line argument to hold it must be the case that either a thing is human life or it is not, and there are no grey areas.  But this is false.  Humanity is chock-full of grey areas and always has been.  Conservatives who trumpet the sanctity of human life are often first in line to support the death penalty on the grounds that the life of a murderer is less sacred than the life of his or her victims.  There is no outcry from conservatives about civilian deaths from drone strikes in the middle east because "collateral damage" is the price we have to pay to fight terrorism (except, of course, that it's not us who pays the price, it's them).

If you look at what conservatives do rather than merely what they say, human life is sacred until it isn't.  Your life is sacred unless you're convicted of murder (never mind whether or not you actually did it), at which point your life is not sacred any more.  Your life is sacred until you sign up to be a soldier, and then if you die, well, tough luck because you knew what you were getting in to.  Your life is sacred unless you are the leader of a political movement that the U.S. considers "terrorists", or happen to live near one.  Your life is sacred unless you're a Syrian or a Bangladeshi, or a Puerto Rican or even a poor Kentuckian.  Until 1865 in the U.S. your life was sacred unless you were black, in which case you were one notch below livestock on the social scale (and some people seem to want to re-litigate that decision).

And just to cite an example that is not so emotionally an politically fraught, your life ceases to be sacred when you are brain-dead despite the fact that your fully human body might still be functioning normally otherwise.

So the bright-line argument fails on logical grounds simply because it is based on a false premise.

But there is a much more compelling argument against the idea that life begins at conception, and that is that even people who claim to believe it can be shown not to really believe it by applying a very simple test.  It is a variant of the famous trolley problem: if you could save 1000 embryos by shooting a five year old child, would you do it?

It's easy to riff on this theme.  For example: there are about 600,000 frozen embryos in the United States.  These are created by people trying to conceive through in-vitro fertilization.  It's an unreliable process, so extra embryos are created because multiple attempts are often needed before a birth is successful.  If you believe that human life begins and conception, then you must believe that every one of these frozen embryos is a fully fledged human being, and that destroying them is murder.

So... should women who undergo IVF be forced to implant every single one of her embryos and carry them all to term?  What about "orphan" embryos whose parents die without leaving a will?  Should women be conscripted to carry these "babies" to term?  I have never heard anyone on the pro-life side seriously propose this, but if you think about it, forcing women to carry frozen embryos is indistinguishable as a matter of principle from denying a woman an abortion on the grounds that abortion is murder.  It is not implantation in the womb that is (supposedly) the Bright Line between being human and not, it is conception.

There is a long list of practical difficulties and absurdities that result from taking conception-as-bright-line theory seriously:  Should frozen embryos be counted in the census?  Could a state (or even a wealthy individual) pay women to undergo IVF in order to increase the population of their state in order to gain Congressional seats?  Who is responsible for paying the electric bill to keep frozen embryos frozen?  Can embryos inherit?  Can trust funds be set up for them?  Can they be counted as dependents on income tax forms?

Self-identified "pro-life" advocates never ask nor answer these questions because even they don't really take seriously the proposition that life begins at conception.

The best way to eliminate abortions is to attack the problem (and yes, of course it is a problem!) at its root: by eliminating unwanted pregnancies.  And the best way to do that is to make birth control as easily and widely available as sugary drinks, and to make sure every sexually active person is educated on how and why to use it.  But do people who profess to want to eliminate abortions advocate this?  No, of course they don't.  Because they don't really care about eliminating abortions.  They care about subjugating women.

Abortion prohibition has never been about the sanctity of life, nor even about eliminating abortions.  It is about using pregnancy as a lever to shame women for being self-possessed and sexual, because these qualities are seen by conservatives as a threat to the natural order where men are the providers and women are the caretakers of children.  It is about getting women out of the board room and the executive suite and back into the bedroom and the kitchen.  That is why abortion prohibitionists focus almost exclusively on embryos in women's wombs.  An embryo in a freezer doesn't help advance their true agenda.