7 Quick Takes (6/10/11)


It’s been a very active commenting week here, which is exciting, but a little frustrating to me, since I’m packing/organizing in preparation for my DC move, and it limits my ability to respond as much as I’d like.  Happily, commenters are frequently picking up the slack.  When I asked a question about Christian epistemology (inspired by a Yudkowsky post), Matt Shafer, Brian Green, and Kevin all graciously offered explanations of their beliefs and answered some questions.  Thanks!

Unfortunately, during a series of posts about trying to maintain an appropriate tone during interfaith dialogue, a couple conversations got ugly in the threads, so, later today, I’ll have a dedicated post on commenting expectations for the blog.  I’m still not censoring comments (unless they’re irrelevant spam), so there won’t be any threat to back up my request, but I hope it’ll calm things down a bit anyway.



Oh, and speaking of Eliezer Yudkowsky (rationality researcher and author of my favorite fanfic – Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality), I’ve been starting to catch up with the read-all-of-Yudkowsky project coordinated by Luke of Common Sense Atheism.  I’d like to recommend two linked posts for anyone who’s fond of a good thought experiment.  In Archimedes’s Chronophone, Yudkowsky asks what you would say to Archimedes, provided you were using the phone that he’s placed some strange limitations on:

Unfortunately, Archimedes’s chronophone comes with certain restrictions upon its use: It cannot transmit information that is, in a certain sense, “too anachronistic”.

You cannot suggest, for example, that women should have the vote. Maybe you could persuade Archimedes of Syracuse of the issue, and maybe not; but it is a moot point, the chronophone will not transmit the advice. Or rather, it will transmit the advice, but it will come out as: “Install a tyrant of great personal virtue, such as Hiero II, under whose rule Syracuse experienced fifty years of peace and prosperity.” That’s how the chronophone avoids transmitting overly anachronistic information – it transmits cognitive strategies rather than words. If you follow the policy of “Check my brain’s memory to see what my contemporary culture recommends as a wise form of political organization”, what comes out of the chronophone is the result of Archimedes following the same policy of looking up in his brain what his era lauds as a wise form of political organization.

You might think the next step would be to prepare a careful series of Plato-style philosophical arguments, starting from known territory, and intended to convince an impartial audience, with which to persuade Archimedes that all sentient beings should be equal before the law. Unfortunately, if you try this, what comes out on Archimedes’s end is a careful series of Plato-style philosophical analogies which argue that wealthy male landowners should have special privileges. You followed the policy of “Come up with a line of philosophical argument intended to persuade a neutral observer to my own era’s point of view on political privilege,” so what comes out of the chronophone is what Archimedes would think up if he followed the same cognitive strategy.

The goal is to think about what cognitive strategies will be most likely to let you transcend the errors of your time, and then start planning how to adopt them.  Yudkowsky has further ideas and critiques of some proposed solutions in his follow-up post.



Looking over my queued up links, it looks like this week’s Quick Takes are going to be a new looks/new information on recent posts themed.  So, to match the arguments about free will that broke out on “Sam Harris, Psychopaths, and Moral Culpability,” I’d like to offer a link to a post of the topic straight from the Horseman’s mouth.

As I have argued, however, the problem is not merely that free will makes no sense objectively (i.e. when our thoughts and actions are viewed from a third-person point of view); it makes no sense subjectively either. And it is quite possible to notice this, through introspection.

In fact, I will now perform an experiment in free will for all to see: I will write anything I want for the rest of this blog post. Whatever I write is, of course, something I have chosen to write. No one has compelled to do this. No one has assigned me a topic or demanded that I use certain words. I can be ungrammatical, if I pleased. And if I want to put a rabbit in this sentence, I am free to do it.

But paying attention to my stream of consciousness reveals that this notion of freedom does not reach very deep. Where did this “rabbit” come from? Why didn’t I put an “elephant” in that sentence? I do not know. Was I free to do otherwise? This is a strange, and strangely vacuous, question.

There’s more, but I found it to be a strange and strangely vacuous argument.



A post written in response to a First Things On the Square essay (“Christian Parents and the HPV Vaccine“) ended up shifting in the comments section from a discussion of the rhetoric surrounding sexual sin to a debate about medical ethics and informed consent.

Do y’all want a full-fledged post from me on that topic?  As you may recall, this question was at the heart of paper number four on my list of favorite papers I wrote in college.



At the end of yesterday’s post on my struggles and tactics trying to love my enemies, I mentioned a blog post in a throwaway comment about privilege, but it deserves more notice than that, so I wanted to highlight it here.  It’s a compact summary of how privilege can manifest without the person who benefits from ingrained and/or arbitrary circumstance realizing they’re victimizing someone else.  Reflecting on how privilege works can help you avoid harming others.

Notice how my explanation above was kind of stilted and confusing?   Most discussions of privilege are, but not the one I’ve linked, so please check it out.



I’m stretching for the theme here, but since I mentioned Ted Haggard’s painfully awkward cameo in the pro-abstinence, low budget film I shared in last week’s Quick Takes, I think that’s enough of an excuse to link to Kevin Roose’s profile of Haggard in GQ.

(Kevin Roose is the author of The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, which I read and enjoyed earlier this week).



And since that was two callbacks in that last take, here’s something completely new: a beautiful steampunk music video.  (h/t Steampunk Fashion)



[Seven Quick Takes is a blog carnival run by Jen of Conversion Diary]

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