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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Atlas Shrugged as a Novel

Posted by hyperpat on December 19, 2013

Got to wondering about just what makes the Tea Party members tick after their disgraceful showing in the government shutdown debacle, so I decided to re-read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which many Tea Partiers will list, if not as their Bible, at least as their inspiration.

WARNING: There are major plot spoilers below. If you haven’t read this book yet, and don’t know what happens within it, stop reading here!

Now this is a massive tome, clocking in at near 500,000 words, and is basically Ms. Rand’s magnum opus, laying out in detail (very detailed!) her philosophy of life. I first read it when I was about 18, along with her other novels and some of her non-fiction works like The Virtues of Selfishness. Many of her points registered very well with my younger self, though even then I could see some problems with parts of her stated positions.

This post will try and tackle the merit of the book as a novel, without (as much as possible) delving into the philosophy; later posts will tackle that aspect. Now this book has, in various reader polls, been highly touted as one of the best in American literature in the 20th century, so one might expect to see a truly impressive work that delves deep into what makes people act the way the do and provides great illumination into the mysteries of life. Unfortunately this is very much not the case.

First is how Ms. Rand depicts her characters. Every character who stands on the ‘good’ side is depicted as standing straight, with forceful demeanor, with great pride in both body and mental outlook. Every character on the ‘bad’ side slouches, won’t look other people in the eye, and has either confused or poor images of themselves. This is not a realistic depiction of people in real life, but rather the type of characterization typical of melodramas. In real life you can find heroic characters who are fat and slovenly, and lowlifes who look great and have both charisma and strong positive interactive traits with other people. The constant depiction of all the characters in this manner eventually becomes quite annoying.

Then there is the aspect of her major characters on the ‘good’ side all knowing exactly what they want to do with their lives at a very early age (like 12), and who actually follow through with those initial choices. Again, not realistic. On top of this, the three major characters all work their way up through their occupation of choice, starting at the very bottom of their industries, even though they did not have to, while those characters on the ‘bad’ side either directly inherit their positions or obtain them from friends in high places. Then too, her ‘good’ characters are always superbly competent at whatever task they try and tackle, while the opposition is portrayed as remarkably incompetent and incapable of making any decision of any import. Even her minor characters follow this template, this either-or construct of being very competent at what they do or totally incompetent, not capable of doing anything constructively. This black-and-white depiction of people is more suited to an allegory than a novel about real people in a real world.

The portrayed sexual relationships of her characters are also far removed from reality. Each of them, just at the sight of someone of the opposite sex who embodies Rand’s ‘perfect’ traits, falls immediately in love with same. And if someone comes along who is even a better match for what Rand considers ideal, well, the love allegiance immediately switches to this new person, with hardly a guilty glance backward to the prior lover. Also noteworthy is that same-sex relationships are carefully not touched upon, even though there is a stated strong bond between those who respect each other. And it’s a very white world that is depicted; people of color don’t seem to be part of it, or if they do show up, it is in very minor roles.

So why do so many readers so closely identify with her protagonists, who find these characters intriguing and very much worth emulating? I think the answer to this lies in the fact that they are presented as out-and-out heroes, a thing that has become very uncommon in American literature from about the mid-20th century onward, replaced by Joe everyman, the man in the street, the psychotic, the down-and-outers, the milquetoasts and just-get-by people (as a prime example of this, and a very good one, see Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman). There is an element in most people that needs someone to look up to, someone who is much better than they are, that they can imagine themselves as possibly having some of the same traits, and Rand’s heroes certainly fit this need. Then too, Rand’s heroes actually change the world by their actions, overcoming obstacle after obstacle, and fighting a seemingly never ending battle against the forces of obvious evil. This, I think, produces the same kind of attraction that something like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings does; everyone has at least a small fantasy of being able to change things for the better.

Let’s look at the setting for this work. It imagines an America that is slowly falling apart, where industrial production of goods and services keeps falling, and company after company is failing. It is an America that is very much dependent on the railroads for essential transportation of most resources and products, which will probably strike a modern reader as a little odd. Here I have to give Ms. Rand a little slack, because at the time she starting writing this work (1946), this dependency was actually true. Like many authors trying to predict a near future world, she did not foresee certain advances such as the rise of the airlines as cargo carriers and the interstates with 18-wheel semis that made her depicted world somewhat anachronistic. And it is still true that the railroads do carry the lion’s share of natural resources and bulk items around the country, although their passenger business has declined radically. Where this becomes important is exactly in the passenger area; the ability of people to get from place to place quickly hinges in this novel almost solely on the railroads, a great odds with the world as it is today.

Also highly visible in this setting is the role of government in commerce, in taxation, in the setting of rules that companies, unions, and the working man must abide by, a stifling, omnipresent octopus invading every aspect of American life. Some may claim that this intrusion of government into everyday life has gotten far worse than what prevailed at the time this work was written, that there has been a steady erosion of individual freedom to do as they wish, but many of these things are at least intended to help the individual avoid catastrophic risks (think airport security checks). Within the confines of this work, Rand sees the government as the ultimate looter, taking from all those who are productive and giving some to those who are only looking for handouts while lining their own pockets. I will cover this aspect in greater detail in the posts on the philosophy of the book.

In terms of plot, the first two-thirds of this work mainly follows Dagny Taggert, Vice President of of the largest railroad company in America, and Hank Reardon, a self-made man who has invented a new metal considerably better than steel and who has built a large company of foundries and forges, becoming one of the preeminent suppliers of this basic construction material. Each faces opposition, Dagny from her brother James, who as President of the company takes all the credit for her successes, and is the one with so-important ‘connections’ with Washington, even though he himself never seems capable of making a decision or have an idea of his own, and Hank from his wife, who doesn’t understand his obsession with making the best structural metal in the world, who wants him to be her slave, who feels entitled to everything he does, without any effort on her part.

Both Dagny and Hank, in order to perform their job, are dependent on the products of other companies (iron, copper, coal, oil, railroad switches, diesel engines, etc). The best companies that can supply these things are headed by forceful, decisive, and forward looking people, people of the same mold and mindset as Dagny and Hank themselves. But mysteriously, one by one these company heads are disappearing, ‘retiring’, even though they have very vocally and publicly declared they would never do such a thing, that their companies were their lives. As these people disappear, their companies are taken over by incompetents, and can no longer be depended on to supply the things Hank and Dagny need. The government’s reaction to this problem in the supply chain is to declare an economic emergency that freezes pay and profits and makes it a crime to leave a job, and intellectual property must be ceded to the government for proper ‘use by all’. Seemingly as a sidelight to this, Francisco D’Ancona, head of the largest and oldest copper mining company in the world, is portrayed as a wastrel, a party-hound, out to destroy his own company, even though he is clearly highly intelligent, competent, and keeps making statements that are in direct opposition to this image.

These elements do make for a fair amount of suspense (who is making all these people disappear, and why?), and much of the middle section of the book focuses on Dagny’s search for the “Destroyer”, all the while battling the increasing problems of continuing to make her railroad operate properly. However, I have a serious problem with Rand’s assumption that companies need to have super-competent and driven people in charge in order to function, and that therefore the removal of these people would cause an economic crisis. First, there are simply too many companies producing all manner of goods, in a very complicated interweave of interdependencies and with a large amount of redundancy, for the demise of merely a few companies to seriously impact the economy. Second, many companies function quite well without having a hotshot in charge – sometimes a cautious, risk-averse company head is exactly what’s needed to keep the company producing its goods on time and on budget.

And this is the prime assumption underlying the plot – that a strike by a few main ‘producers’ of the world will eventually bring the entire world economy to its knees and force a realignment of the social order. Clearly this assumption does not have a good basis in the real world, so when this is revealed as the basis behind all the disappearances, it makes the reader feel like he has been cheated somewhat, that the entire framework of the novel as a novel is based on something that is not real.

Dialog within this work seems to go on forever, as character after character spouts multi-page discourses on morality, sex, economics, the goal of science, what constitutes ethical behavior, the value of money and the gold standard, looters and moochers, and every other part of what constitutes Rand’s philosophy. This all culminates in a 60 page (!) speech by John Galt, the person who instigated the strike. Once again, normal people do not speak like this, and the repeated statements of various parts of this philosophy become quite wearisome by the end of this work.

Given all the above, I find it remarkable that this novel is not only still read today, but is immensely popular. As a novel, this work is blatantly bad. It only really has two points going for it: its portrayal of real heroes, and a presented philosophy that seems to resonate with many people who don’t look at its underpinnings too closely.

I’ll look at those underpinnings in later posts.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy | Leave a Comment »

Blindfolding the Populace

Posted by hyperpat on July 10, 2007

Closely related to my prior post about busy-bodies sticking their noses into what is clearly other people’s business are the long running attempts to ban certain books, as can be seen from this list, which includes some of the greatest literature written, such as Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. These attempts have ranged from trying to have it removed from every possible shelf and library, to burning, to issuing death threats (and sometimes more than just threats but actual acts) not only to author, but to those who were involved in publishing and distributing the book (see the writeup of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses).

Most commonly, though, these attempts have occurred at the school level. It is understandable that some parents may find objectionable things in some books, such as discussions of certain subjects, offensive language, or depictions of certain actions that they don’t feel that their little Johnny is ready for. Schools need to be sensitive to parent’s perceptions; most are, and have procedures in place to handle such problems, such as the ability to have the child in question read something else when requested. But instead of requesting that their child not read a particular work for whatever reason that the parent’s find it objectionable, they place a demand to the school board that the work be expunged from all classes and removed from all library shelves. All too often, the school board caves in to these demands, until some other parent requests the book be re-instated, at which point the frequent result is that the work is placed in advancement placement only classes and shelved in the restricted area of the library. This is not an optimum solution. Schools exist in order to educate the child in all the things he will need to know about as an adult. Making access to literary works difficult or impossible is like putting blinders on the child, and then wondering why he’s not ready to function as an adult when that time comes.

But perhaps worse than this form of censorship, which at least has an understandable motive behind it, are those attempts to ban a book from everywhere. There is only one valid reason, at least in my opinion, why something should be suppressed, and its author’s right of free speech abrogated (along with the reader’s right to read what he wishes) and that is if it would cause physical harm to someone (the famous ‘you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater’). The current Supreme Court definition of obscenity, is, in my mind, incorrect and against what is stated in the First Amendment:

  • Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Even if 99 out of 100 people in a community think something is obscene trash (thus creating a ‘community standard’) and this same group believes the work in question has no discernible literary or artistic merit, banning this work still deprives the one person in that community who doesn’t think so of his right of free speech in the form of being able to read what he wants. The problem here is that pornographic or obscene works do not physically harm anyone. Absent an overriding reason such as this, I can find no justification for this ‘abridgement of freedom of speech’.

And there is another aspect to this. An author, knowing his work may to subject to such censorship, may decide to alter or leave out certain things in his writings. This effectively constitutes ‘prior restraint’, and down this road lies “Ignorance is Strength” – from another of those books that people have tried to ban.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, Politics | 4 Comments »

Sticking Their Noses In

Posted by hyperpat on July 6, 2007

Why do people get so upset by the actions of others that don’t affect them? That man down the street has (gasp!) women coming to his door at all hours of the day! Sheila across the way is wearing a mini-skirt! Tommy in next block must be up to no good – he’s always taking flights to countries with unpronounceable names! Maybe he works for the (whisper) CIA?!

And it doesn’t stop at just the local level, as a quick perusal of nanny-ish state of our government can attest. The entire flap over same-sex marriage is a prime example – whatever others do in this regard, it doesn’t affect your marriage or your sense of what is right for you.

Laws should be the controlling rules for the interactions between people. You can’t rob or beat up others. You can’t pollute everything around you because that does affect the quality of life of others. You shouldn’t be able to cook the corporate books, because that does affect everyone who has invested in the company. These kinds of laws make sense. What doesn’t are those laws that attempt to regulate what are purely private actions. What you do in your bedroom is not the province of either law or busy-bodies. Who you live with, be it someone of different ethnicity,  color, or the same gender, is not the proper provenance of law.  If you wish to gamble away all your money, that’s your problem. The government should not be able to say that all gambling is illegal. If you wish to smoke marijuana, that should be your business (however, if, while under its influence, you go out and crash your car into someone else, that is the provenance of law).

There is a concept of the ‘public good’ that is often invoked when such laws are considered or passed. But this is a false attribution. The ‘public good’ applies to all people; only those things that actually (or at least potentially) affect all the people fall under its umbrella.  Private actions do not.

But I doubt if we’ll ever get rid of those who are so into ‘we’re just doing this for your own good’. Who think their morals are the only correct ones, and everyone needs to adhere to them. Or the religious fanatics who insist that everyone convert to their faith. Just how much of the world’s misery is caused by such attitudes? Far too much.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, religion | Leave a Comment »

The Place of Women in SF

Posted by hyperpat on June 18, 2007

There’s been a fair amount of flap over the scarcity of women authors on the current Hugo nominee list. I think this needs to be looked at with a larger perspective than just the presence or absence of women on such a list, as there has been a long history of reported ‘discrimination’ against women in this field. Such a perspective is offered by Justine Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, which I just finished reading. Within this book, she traces the impact and portrayal of women from the earliest days of sf as a separate genre (basically from 1926 onward).

Now clearly, looking at the sf produced in those early days, and continuing up to somewhere around the fifties, there was often (not always, but the exceptions were rare) both an implied and an explicit ‘niche’ that women were supposed to occupy: that of homemaker, baby factory, damsel in distress, love interest, a person that was clueless about science, and definitely not ‘hero’ (or heroine) material. As such, they were not supposed to even be interested in sf, let alone be fans or writers of a field that many rather prominent fans felt was a ‘male only’ area. But regardless of the protestations by some of these folk, in letter columns or some rather snide editorializing, clearly there were female fans, even in the early days. But portrayal of women within the actual stories almost invariably fell into the niche described (or they were left out entirely as not being germane to the story). Stories that actually developed a true romance between the characters were often panned, and female protagonists were almost unheard of (except for a few works that explicitly tried to explore gender boundaries and roles, such as those that posited an all-female world). Some editors also had a definite bias against stories that had such a ‘love interest’, or worse, actively discriminated against women writers. This is not to say that women didn’t write sf in that period. The names of Leigh Brackett, Katherine Maclean, Carol Emshmiller, C.L. Moore, Judith Merril, Zenna Henderson, along with quite a few more, are still known (and respected) today.

But it wasn’t till the late sixties that women authors and more realistic portrayals of women within the stories became a driving force within the field, a period often referred to as the ‘feminist revolution’. Joanna Russ, Ursala K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Vonda McIntyre and of course James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon, along with many others, propelled women to prominence, both as recognized authors of great skill and for their portrayal of women within their stories that were not tied down by the patriarchal attitude that had been so prevalent. As evidence of the their new prominence, the Hugo nomination lists for the period of  1968-1980 shows 41 nominations for women out of a total of 245, vs 6 out of 118 for the period of 1959-1967. Since this initial explosion of nominations, the ratio has held fairly steady at about 1/5 of all nominations, though there does seem to be a little fall off recently to about 1/6. Whether this ratio is appropriate obviously depends on just how many women authors there are versus men, a number nobody seems to have a good handle on. But perhaps the greatest marker of this change was an item that Dr. Larbalestier didn’t mention – Andre Norton, who had been writing sf since the mid-thirties (though most of it came after 1948), had almost invariably used male protagonists for her works, but in mid-sixties she switched to using female ones. The very name she wrote under (along with her other names of Andrew North and Allen Weston) is an indication of the prevailing attitude in early sf, choosing a ‘male’ name rather than her given one.

But it should also be noted that sf does not live in a vacuum, but is strongly influenced by the general cultural attitudes in which its authors and fans live. A large amount of all sf has been written by American and British authors, and at least for the period of, say, 1900 to 1960, the American/British culture was strongly patriarchal. This general attitude of considering women to be at best second-class citizens actually has a history stretching back far earlier than this (just note that America’s founding fathers didn’t think women deserved to vote). Women have been discriminated against within the ‘mainstream’ publishing area – I even hear stories today that there are some editors who tell prospective women authors to stick to ‘romance’ stories, that they’re not good enough to write ‘literary’ fiction (regardless of how many examples there are to the contrary).

SF has, for most of its history, been considered by many to be a mainly a ‘guy’ oriented type of literature. Clearly, this is not totally true. SF, as a literature of ideas, often has focused on gadgets, gee-whiz technology, and has sometimes forgotten about the social impact of those gadgets. But the best writers have always considered not just the gadgetry, but what people do and act like in whatever scenario has been envisioned, and this most definitely includes women as active parts of that society. Our society today still doesn’t quite treat women as the equal of men (note the difference in salaries and entrance rates to the corporate boardroom), but neither is it the same society of eighty years ago, where the only proper place for women was as a homemaker. SF stories have, to some degree, recognized that change. Much of the time such stories are written by women, but there are more and more stories that treat women as equal partners in life’s game where you really can’t tell if the author was male or female, and that’s as it should be.

Women authors are getting recognition for their work, though perhaps not quite in the numbers that are totally appropriate. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a SF fan today that would say women don’t belong in the field.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 3 Comments »

Creationism and the Scalzi Challenge

Posted by hyperpat on June 11, 2007

Haven’t posted for a while due to another bout of 12 hour/7days a week workitus. I’m getting too old for this kind of schedule…

But reading over on John Scalzi’s Whatever blog, I discover that the Creation Museum has just opened. John, in his typical Scalzi snarky way, has managed to stir up his readership to get him to go visit said museum, if they will just contribute enough to make it worth his while (see here). Contributions towards this educational trip will go to the Americans United for Separation of Church and State organization. For another look at what this museum offers, the folks at Ars Technica have this.

Now, if those who believe in Creationism wish to educate their children in the privacy of their homes in the tenets of this ideology, that’s their business. If they wish to advertise it via this museum, which people can go and visit based strictly on their own personal wishes to do so, that’s their business. If they wish to get this stuff put into science textbooks that will be used at public schools, that’ s not their business, it’s yours and mine. Americans already have a tough time keeping up with the rest of world in terms of scientific knowledge and investigation, and confusing students with faith-based material certainly will not help in this regard. Separation of church and state (and in this case, ‘state’ very definitely includes public schools) is a very good idea, not the least of which is that when ‘faith’ takes control of a government, there can be no opposition, as obviously those of the faith will reject (in sometimes very bloody ways) any dissension as not coming from their deity, and they have the absolutely correct answers.

How science works is not perfect. It doesn’t always look objectively at new data and theories, and sometimes advocates of new ideas are ignored or pilloried. But it does eventually get around to looking at that new data, and old ideas will get tossed out to be replaced by better ideas that fit all the known facts a bit more closely. The closer the theories match how the world really works, the better for all of us, as these theories form the basis for all the fancy technological goodies that make our lives richer and more rewarding, with less of our time spent on the mundane problems of surviving. Science is basically about asking questions, and the mindset that asks and allows for questions helps to not only keep our government healthy, but allows all of us to live our lives in the way we wish.

So go visit Scalzi’s site, and contribute to his trip if you feel so inspired. If nothing else, the end result should be some entertaining reading.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, religion, Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

Private Memories?

Posted by hyperpat on May 22, 2007

Charles Stross, author of Acclerando and Glasshouse, has posted an interesting article on what he sees as the direction of the future. He notes the continuing acceleration of developments in memory storage and bandwidth, and takes a flyer from this to the idea of completely recording every single moment of your life. Now while such a thing may be technically achievable (and he presents a good case that it not only could be done, but done quite cheaply for every single human on the planet), the question I have is would people really want to do this?

Now everyone has some memorable moment(s) in their lives that they’d like to preserve – usually what are considered ‘life markers’, the weddings, graduations, births, etc. And there is some usage for this concept as a memory aid, especially for those suffering from (or who might be prone to) Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive problems. But record everything? Other than a few extreme exhibitionists, I don’t think so. Because once recorded, it’s subject to being viewed by others, and some of those others probably don’t have your best interests at heart: the police looking for whatever crimes you may have committed (and everyone has committed some crime in their lives, even if it’s as pedestrian as jay-walking), crooks looking for ways to relieve you of your wealth, or your spouse looking for lapses in your fidelity. As Stross notes, having this capability would mean the effective end to any privacy, given that to make it happen, recording devices would need to be everywhere.

What’s frightening about this is that the beginnings of this can be seen right here and now. Almost every store you enter has surveillance cameras, more and more stop lights are being equipped with picture-taking cameras, RFID tags are being embedding in more and more products, the mobile phone cameras that everyone seems to possess nowadays, GPS trackers in cars, every key stroke and mouse click you perform on the web can already be recorded (along with complete monitoring of your PC actions at your workplace), and it’s been possible to marry up medical, financial, purchase history, web browsing, and school records to get a pretty complete profile of someone for some time. As one of the commenters to Stross’ article indicated, the US Constitution is silent on the right to privacy – the Supreme Court has often held in its rulings that there is an implied right, but such is not spelled out in the master document. With the future barreling down upon us, and what privacy we have being nibbled away by more and more gadgets, perhaps we need to start lobbying for a constitutional amendment to make this right explicit. Unless you really want everything you do visible to the whole wide world.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, Politics, Science & Engineering, science fiction, SF | 2 Comments »

The IQ Bar

Posted by hyperpat on May 7, 2007

There is a certain amount of respect that we give self-aware intelligence. People are presumed to belong to this category, and as such they are normally supposed to have certain rights: freedom, the right to choose their own course of action, the right to own property, etc, both in the courts and in daily business. This is in opposition to those considered to not meet the intelligence bar, the various animals that populate this planet, both domesticated and wild. Baboons and cows are normally not allowed, on their own initiative, to frequent the local restaurant or china shop; they have no say so in how they are quartered, nor even who their sexual partners will be (at least not for those specimens in captivity).  Then there are those humans, who for one reason or another, don’t have the normal cognitive abilities, and are saddled with caretakers, trustees, or institutions, and have their freedom to do as they please severely restricted. The question is, just where do we draw the line between those who have enough computation power and those who don’t?

Intelligence tests are something of a joke in this context. For one thing, just about all of them are highly anthropomorphic, and trying to apply them to animals is probably doing the animals a great disservice. Note that the whole concept of ‘intelligence’ is slippery: ability to learn, ability to react to changes in the environment, ability to bind time, ability to predict the consequences of actions, ability to communicate seem to be just some of its components, but as the various attempts to devise tests such as the Turing model for determining if computers are ‘intelligent’ have shown, very complex rote actions can mimic what we think of as intelligence so well that we may not be able to tell the difference. For that matter, perhaps the normal human ‘intelligence’ really is no more than this – some very complex rules that a human follows when dealing with the outside world, and nothing more.

But the few tests that have been devised specifically for animals, such as those to determine the ability of some primates to learn and use language and tools, are limited, and still subject to a certain amount of human-oriented perspective on what is important. Dolphins in their normal environment have no need of tools, so why should we expect that all intelligent beings must be tool-users? But even with these test limitations, it’s clear that some of this world’s animals do have a fairly high intelligence level, and, as many animal-rights activists keep striving for, are deserving of some rights and privileges even if they are not given full status.

So just how can we decide who or what should have what level of privileges and rights? This is not an idle question, as somewhere in the future is the prospect of computer artificial intelligences, genetically modified animals, and possible alien intelligences. How will we treat such beings? Science fiction abounds with stories where we tragically get it wrong, and relegate a life form to the category of ‘beast’, sometimes with very bad consequences (for a good example, try Robert Heinlein’s The Star Beast, and the whole concept of intelligence and the value of self awareness is questioned in Peter Watts Blindsight). Before such a scenario really comes to pass, I think we need to get cracking on when, how, and why we draw such lines. A formal document that spells out in detail what constitutes a being deserving of respect and what privileges it is endowed with within our society needs to be hammered out. It’s probable that whatever we can come up with today will have errors, omissions, and oversights, and may be laughably too human or legally-centered (at least when looked at from some far future time), but anything would be an improvement on what we have now, a mish-mash of court precedents, a few test results, and various advocacy groups crying for this or that privilege.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

The Real Web

Posted by hyperpat on April 20, 2007

My brother, who normally resides in South Carolina, has been visiting here for the last four days, courtesy of a seminar/work assignment that his wife had to do in southern California. As with the large separation we don’t get to have really extended conversations too often, these last few days have been pretty much filled with just such, on anything from family history to world politics. Which is great. It also gave my eldest son a chance to meet his uncle, which had never happened previously (which says a lot about how frequently we’ve managed to get together).

But the older I get, the more I value such family things. Back when I was a stripling and serving in the Air Force, it didn’t bother me that I was neither talking to nor visiting my father, as that relationship was very strained. But when I did finally re-contact my family, and found out that my father had died in the interim, it was a pretty large blow. There are many times today when I wish I’d been able to talk more to my father, and learn what he’d done and what he felt was important, when I was old enough to really grasp such things. Too much of my father’s life is a black hole, and that leaves something of a hole in my own life.

I suppose you can never really know everything about someone else. But life is a web of interconnections and happenstances, and when the web has gaping holes in it, it is less secure, less complete. A hermit’s life is hardly worth living.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General, Philosophy | 1 Comment »

Home, Sweet Home for Dinosaurs

Posted by hyperpat on March 21, 2007

Scientists have now discovered den-digging, burrowing dinosaurs. This news alone is not earth-shattering, and probably is of direct interest only to a very few. However, it adds one more point in what is known about dinosaurs and the environment they lived in, and with each such point that is added, it becomes clearer that during their heyday the dinosaurs occupied just about every possible ecological animal niche. To my mind, at least, this is strong evidence in support of the theory of evolution, as it is possible to track the spread of dinosaurs throughout these ecological niches over the course of time, and also shows just how competition for resources favors those new animal variants that can best take advantage of some particular feature, eventually resulting in completely new species.

This view of the world does not eliminate the possibility of the world/universe being created by some omniscient being, but it does put a severe crimp into any literal interpretation of how the world was created as presented in any of the major religious works.  As evidence keeps piling up for the basic veracity of the theory, it seems to me that the debate on whether to teach things like ‘Intelligent Design’ right alongside evolutionary theory should be ended – while such concepts may have a place in philosophy or literature classes, they do not deserve to be handed up in the same texts that cover biology. These ideas simply do not have the same evidentiary basis as evolution, and placing them on the same footing will do nothing but confuse the students about just what science is and how it is practiced.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, religion, Science & Engineering | 2 Comments »

What a Piece of Work is Man

Posted by hyperpat on March 7, 2007

Quick, now, when was the last time you thought about establishing ethical standards for the treatment of robots? Uh, never, right? But there is a group in South Korea (!) doing just this. Now perhaps the document they are attempting to create is a little ahead of its time – after all, so far there are no robots that would meet the normal definition of either intelligence or possessive of free will, at the moment they are still nothing more than machines. And it could be quite awhile before electronics and software advance to the point where something like Asimov’s Three Laws could even attempt to be implemented. So is what this group is doing a waste of time?

Not really. Somewhere along the line, humanity will be faced with other intelligences that are not ‘human’ – whether it be AI robots, aliens, genetically enhanced versions of other terrestrial  species, or even enhanced ‘super humans’. At what point do we decide to treat these types of beings of being worthy of having the same rights, privileges, and obligations of everyday people? If you have a household robot, can you order it to do whatever you want, or must you consider whether such an action would be demeaning to the robot? Would you trust it to baby-sit your child? Would you need to give it the occasional day off? Does it require a salary? When should (must) you do what the robot asks you to do?

Some of these questions have been explored in various SF stories: Heinlein’s “Jerry Was a Man” and “Gulf“, Asimov’s Bicentennial Man, Simak’s City,  Connie Willis’ “Samaritan“,  and Orson Scott Card’s Lovelock, amongst many others. The general points presented in just about all of these stories are:

‘Free Will’ – if an entity has the ability to take actions on its own, free of outside direction, a certain level of respect and dignity should entail to that entity (this includes things like cats and dogs).

“Intelligence Level” – when the intelligence level reaches the point of a) self-awareness b) ability to understand both rights and obligations, then that entity should be treated as ‘human’.

But even within these generally agreed upon points, there are graduations of treatment and privileges, and there is not a general consensus on precisely at what point on the intelligence continuum scale full ‘human’ status should be given.  Trying to work out what standards should be applied sounds like something that needs doing now, before we are faced with real beings whose status is a gray question mark – and who could end being treated just as unfairly as the ‘African Black Man’, thought to be treatable as a slave as they were ‘sub-human’.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, Science & Engineering, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

Why Are We Here?

Posted by hyperpat on March 6, 2007

Usually somewhere around late adolescence most people start asking themselves just what the purpose of life is and just what they want to do with their own lives.  This can be a very depressing period, as even a cursory look at the state of the world would indicate that there are a great many people who seem to believe that rape, torture, enslavement, mutilation, destruction, and mayhem are perfectly acceptable methods of achieving their vision of what the world should be, and another large group who seemingly would like to do absolutely nothing except live comfortably in their own little cocoon without any effort on their part. For someone looking for some reason for being, for some guiding principle(s) around which to structure their lives, this picture of the world is not very enlightening or encouraging. This is probably at least part of the reason for the high teen suicide rate.

But there are reasons to be found to not only continue existing, but to put forward major effort towards personal goals. For some, religion provides a ready made set of answers and guidelines for living. Others find an answer in humanism, in trying to better the condition of all humans. Still others find hedonism to be attractive, living only for the day and personal pleasure. The largest group, however, are more than likely those who decide that the basic question is unanswerable, that there is no real, verifiable purpose except that which each individual decides is valid for themselves. And having put this question aside, they can move forward towards whatever goal meets their interests and abilities.

It’s a tough time in most people’s lives. Weathering this period is part of the process of becoming an adult. And, unfortunately, it is very difficult to help someone going through the throws of this period, as each person must almost necessarily arrive at their own conclusions about this question. But if you should so happen to be near to someone at this stage, being a non-critical listener, a sounding board that the person can bounce ideas and questions off of, may be the best thing you can be.

Posted in General, Philosophy | 2 Comments »

What Makes the World Go Round

Posted by hyperpat on January 24, 2007

Money is the root of all evil.

Really?

Just what would we do if we didn’t have it? Go back to barter? I’ll trade you one battleship for 3000 cars – and if you can make that work, you’re a magician. Money is a concept that facilitates civilization by allowing a proper evaluation of the relative worth of resources and labor, and allows an easy transfer between parties for those things that each party wants. And it is a concept,  not the physical bills and coins that are material manifestations of it. Which is why some ninety percent of today’s transactions are actually accomplished merely by manipulation of some numbers in a computer somewhere. By having money, all the problems of barter can be avoided (just where are you going to store those 3,000,000 bushels of wheat you just traded your orange harvest for, and what do you do when you don’t have anything the other party wants?).

Now some people think that paper money must be backed up by some physical resource, such as gold, to retain its value. Not so. The only thing that really keeps ‘money’ valuable is trust by all parties involved that their paper bills can be traded at any time for the things that they really want. When a government starts printing paper bills without regard for whether the economy is actually producing goods and services, the net effect is to ‘cheapen’ the relative value of the currency. Taken to excess, this can lead to hyperinflation, and the eventual collapse of that ‘trust’ in the money’s value. Alternatively, if the bill-issuing authority doesn’t make enough new money to account for the value of new things that have been produced, we get too many goods chasing a relative declining amount cash, with deflation as the result. Also not a good thing. Somewhere in-between is the happy ground where the number of ‘markers’ (money) available matches the real value of the goods and services the economy produces.

When a government spends more than it gets in taxes, it is effectively printing money without regard to the economy’s productive output. Now a certain amount of this is actually good, if that extra money is spent on infrastructure and services that the country really needs (and often the value of what is produced by government spending is not counted in the net asset value of the government – when was the last time you saw a line item that listed the value of the interstate highway system?).  But when the money is spent on projects that do not benefit the economy but only certain small special interest groups, trouble arises, as what is now being set up is a transfer of value from the larger population to a small group – and the larger group, when they get wise to this, quite naturally object, as this is effectively theft. Many a revolution has hinged on such inequities.

But is this caused by having money? Can we say that money causes people to act in unsocial ways, causes them to be greedy and insensitive to the needs of others? I don’t think so. People are people, and even caveman Ugh could be greedy, long before money was invented. I think I prefer to live in a world where my labor can be evaluated for its worth, and compensated for in a manner that makes it easy for me to obtain what I want.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics | 1 Comment »

Social Relativity

Posted by hyperpat on January 11, 2007

Are there moral absolutes? The average person would probably say yes, and list murder, theft, rape, and incest as examples of things that are always wrong. But are they really?

Let’s take murder first. Our laws recognize ‘justifiable homicide’ for some case of this. Under certain provocations, we recognize that murder may be a reasonable and justifiable action, such as catching someone trying to rape your wife, when your own life is in danger, performing a legally sanctioned execution, killing an opposing soldier during wartime, killing one member of group to save the rest, ‘a crime of passion’ where it can be argued that you are not totally sane at that moment, and possibly a few other cases. Nor is this restricted to just US laws, but similar items are found in most countries, and historically most cultures have allowed for something like the cases mentioned. So clearly ‘murder’ is not an absolute no-no.

Theft also has cases where it may be considered justified. In general, those situations where the theft would ameliorate a worse condition, such as stealing food when starving, fall under this umbrella. At one point, theft of your enemy’s horses was considered not just OK, but an action to be strived for in some American Indian cultures.

Rape may possibly be the closest to being considered wrong in all societies and times, but even this act was at the very least condoned by many armies, and offered as part of the rewards for fighting. And in many cultures the man, as supreme power, used rape as a means of emphasizing his absolute authority, or to enhance his reputation with other men by performing such a boastable act. I will note that almost all the cases where it is considered ‘acceptable’ it is in a totally male dominated culture. I know of no cases from the female side that think this action is acceptable.

Incest really doesn’t even belong in the same category as the rest, as it does not involve non-consent by the ‘injured’ party (note I’m not talking about ‘power’ situations in some families between father and daughter – these situations fall more under the rape category than here). It’s basis for being considered ‘wrong’ is that it can often lead to deformed/crippled children due to bad gene reinforcement. But some cultures had some very prominent cases of it, most visibly in the Egyptian and Hawaiian royal lines, and these were not only socially acceptable, in some cases Egyptian royal ladies had no one else they could marry other than their brothers who were of equivalent social station.

Thus it would seem that there is little to justify the idea of a moral ‘absolute’. Different cultures and circumstances alter what actions are acceptable. This does not mean that morals have no place in the world or have no benefits. Morals are guiding principles that can allow the members of any given society to live together in relative harmony. Absolute or not, violation of them can and should lead to serious consequences in whatever society you happen to live in. And if you visit a culture that is widely different from your own, you would be well advised to find out just what differences there are in this area, and conform to whatever they are, else you’ll be fated to end up like the pink monkey thrown in with a group of brown ones.

Posted in Philosophy, Science & Engineering | 2 Comments »