To know what is right

Here’s a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip that I’ve been silently disagreeing with for about a week:

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The part with which I disagree is “Moral standing is assigned to other creatures based on how similar they are to average human intelligence.” I’d say that the key consideration is that social life among humans involves an intricate mixture of competition and cooperation. Because a great deal is often at stake in our competitions with one another, conflicts of interest often render our judgments regarding one another unreliable.  Because the most valuable goals for which we compete can be fully attained only among people who trust each other to act charitably toward one another, excessively aggressive behavior in competitive situations is usually counterproductive at both the individual level and for society at large.

Therefore, codes governing human conduct must begin by acknowledging that no one can be the judge in his or her our own cause.  When we deal with someone who is in competition with us for the good things in life, we cannot justly demand the power to force that person to accept our decision that we should have access to these things and s/he should not. If we are not in direct competition, then perhaps one of us might be acceptable as judge over the other.

An extreme case would be selective breeding of humans.  In various societies there have from time to time been projects to establish a central authority to decide who is allowed to reproduce and who is not.  Since reproduction is one of the principal functions towards which humans and other living beings tend to be oriented, the stakes in this sort of decision are as high as they could possibly be.  For that reason, no central authority could ever be established that would be able to make such decisions in a truly rational manner.  Kinship groups compete with each other to produce offspring and to promote the interests of their offspring in the order of society; no conceivable human being could be altogether disinterested in the implications any particular a ruling for or against sterilization, for or against fertilization, for or against pairing, would have for his or her own kinfolk.  Most judges would, consciously or unconsciously, discriminate in favor of unions that are likely to produce mates for his or her future descendants, and against unions that are likely to produce rivals for them.  A few self-loathing individuals might discriminate in the opposite direction, but in no case would an altogether fair and above-board decision-making process be possible.

Compare this with the selective breeding humans conduct of other animals and of plants. We do not compete directly with any of the creatures whose breeding we direct.  Sometimes we use them to compete with other groups of humans, as a more prosperous agricultural will gain the advantage over its neighbors and gain opportunities to drive them out of their land, and sometimes we use them to compete with other creatures that we classify as pests or weeds or pathogens.  So, if we are to interact with the natural world in a healthy way, we ought to grant some form of moral standing to those pests and weeds and pathogens, inasmuch as our competition with them blinds us to the roles they play in the earth’s ecosystems.  What that form of moral standing would be, and how it would be enforced, is of course not an easy question to answer.  Religions that make particular places and particular species of animals sacrosanct may be good at doing that, though one can hardly be expected to adopt a religion in order to meet the requirements of a single argument from ethical theory.

Intelligence is not altogether irrelevant to the question of moral standing. Of course, creatures that are radically different from humans in average intelligence could not very well make a case for their interests in a way that humans could understand.  What is more, the closer creatures are to one another in their abilities, the fiercer, and therefore the more distorting to perceptions, competition between them is likely to be.  If it is difficult to imagine how a rhinovirus could gain a fair hearing for itself in a human court, it is scarcely any easier to imagine how a human struggling to save a wooden house from a termite colony could keep a clear view of that colony’s ecological role.  Indeed, that human would likely see the corporate intelligence formed by the termite colony, not as a virtue calling for protection, but as a menace to be eradicated by any means necessary.

A puzzling comic strip

I don’t get this joke:

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Why not have macaroni and cheese for breakfast? That would seem like as good a meal as any for it.

David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats”

I like the original Star Trek and I like web comics, so it should be no surprise that I like David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats,” a web comic that recapitulates the original series at the rate of one episode every Wednesday afternoon.

He’s into the third and final season of the show now, and I think he’s a bit unfair to those late episodes.  For example, the one up now is “Plato’s Stepchildren.”  Mr Morgan-Mar draws that one with wax crayons, creating the most childish image possible, and explains in the notes that when he watched the episode in preparation for the strip its childishness was the aspect of it he most wanted to bring out.

I agree there is a lot of childishness in that one, but I think it’s intentional.  The story is that a group of people who devoted themselves to the study of Plato’s works and the re-creation of the material appearance of fourth-century BCE Athens have acquired the power of telekinesis.  Plato’s works are addressed to adults, the re-creation of past times is an extremely challenging project, and if we try to imagine the social system that might develop among beings who had the power of telekinesis we might be surprised at all the ways in which the need to pick things up and move them from one place to another shapes our interactions with one another.

So, when we first hear that premise, we might imagine a story in which highly intellectual people develop unfamiliar powers, try to use Plato’s philosophy to learn how to build a society that will channel those powers in constructive ways, and through those attempts learn a variety of unexpected truths, some of them showing that Plato gave the wrong answers to his questions, some of them showing that there were important questions Plato never thought to ask, and some of them showing that there were questions Plato didn’t have to ask, because everyone in his society, unlike anyone in the world of the story, already knew the answers.

That isn’t the story that the makers of Star Trek chose to tell, however.  In the episode, the Platonians developed their telekinetic powers, along with virtual immortality, thousands of years before the Enterprise came to their planet.  Whatever the difficulties of adjustment may have been in those days, they have left no trace for us to see.  All that is visible to us is the end result of centuries of boredom and decadence, a population that has long since exhausted its creativity and spirit of inquiry and uses its powers to derive easy sadistic pleasures.  Of course their behavior is crude and childish; of course our heroes, subjected to their great powers until the end of the episode, are helpless to respond to the Platonians in any but childish ways.  The contrast between the Platonians’ elegant setting and lofty intellectualism on the one hand, and their dismally crude behavior on the other, is precisely the point of the episode.

Several other episodes of Star Trek develop the theme of beings with great powers who have lost interest in any but sadistic pleasures, and so force our heroes to engage in some crude form of physical violence.  One of these is “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” which Mr Morgan-Mar describes as “like someone took all the other episodes of Star Trek, dumped them in a blender, and hit ‘high’ for 30 seconds.”  A species consisting of three creatures have evolved into nothing but brains collects beings from various parts of the galaxy and pits them against each other in fights to the death.  In an episode Mr Morgan-Mar has not yet got round to summarizing, “The Empath,” creatures with giant heads have tortured two scientists to death and proceed to torture Kirk, Spock, and McCoy nearly to death; at the end the creatures claim that they did not do this for pleasure, but as a test to see if a woman whom they were holding prisoner in the same dungeon would volunteer to undergo torture in order to save others.  Our heroes apparently accept this explanation, but what sticks with us is the fact that hyper-intellectual, super-powered creatures resort to torture as their primary means of gathering information.

I think that this theme is the result of the frustration that writers and producers of Star Trek felt with television as a medium.  Knowing all the great high-minded ways in which television could be used to educate and challenge viewers, they were confronted by the fact that the most popular programs were often the least ambitious intellectually and artistically, that a canned laugh-track or a bare-knuckle brawl would beat a probing drama or an incisive documentary in the ratings every time.  That same frustration comes out in the episodes in which the Enterprise crew, representatives of the high ambitions of the series’ creators, find themselves at the mercy of children, episodes like “Charlie X,” “Miri,” “The Squire of Gothos,” and “And the Children Shall Lead.”  The fact that the first three of those come from early in the first season suggests that the creators of the show initially felt pressure from the studio to direct the show to a preteen audience, pressure which they resented.  Certainly that kind of resentment is at work in the other great masterpiece of 1960s American science-fiction television, The Twilight Zone, most obviously in the episode “It’s a Good Life,” in which a child with telekinetic powers turns a small rural town into an extreme nightmare.  I suppose the makers of a science fiction show on TV, in an era when science was thought of primarily as kids’ stuff, would live in fear that children would change the channel and end their careers.

New issue of Star Pilot

Issue 12 of Star Pilot is now appearing online.  Issues 1-11 are available here for the low, low price of $1.50 each, or the even lower price of $15.00 for the whole series.  It’s highly recommended.  Issue 12 gives the backstory of the mysterious Julio Clemente introduced in issue 11.

Plato’s allegory of the cave is easy to attack, hard to defend, and impossible to escape

Two recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comics:

From 9 September:

And from 14 September:

As do dystopian classics like E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” the second strip transfers the world of illusion that Plato presents as the default human condition to a certain time, a future that is presented as a possible outcome of specific present trends.

Data and “Data”

Language Log posted two comic strips today, and I mentioned one of them in a comment about the other.

Here’s today’s xkcd (Language Log post):

There's no

And here’s a recent PhD Comics (Language Log post):

And my comment:

Reading the strip panel by panel, I wondered what the “deep philosophical question” would be. My guess was that the question would be about the role of etymological information in the process of deciding which of various constructions in current use would fit best in a particular context. How exactly you get from that stylistic process to a “deep philosophical question” about the nature of language in four panels and still have room for a punchline isn’t clear to me, but hey, PhD Comics is a big enough deal that I assume Jorge Cham can pull it off.

Instead we get this claim that “It depends on whether you consider data to be facts (plural) or information (which is singular.)” To which the only appropriate response is: No, it doesn’t! English speakers treat the words “scissors” and “trousers” as grammatical plurals, from which it does not at all follow that we “consider” the things they name to be in any sense multiple. It is all too similar to today’s xkcd, which you reproduce in today’s other post, except that relatively few of the people who like to say “There is no ‘I’ in team” seriously believe that they are raising a “deep philosophical question.”

I recommend all the other comments on the Language Log thread, it’s a mix of interesting observations, erudite humor, and speculation about the love life of the robot from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Biohorror in recent web comics

Two of my favorite comic strips dealt with similar topics recently:

Robbie and Bobby, 7 May 2015:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, 21 May 2015:

Goodbye, Girls With Slingshots!

Danielle Corsetto has announced that yesterday’s installment of Girls With Slingshots is the final one.  It will be missed.

Does anyone know who the cartoonist is?

I’ve seen this cartoon several places, but nowhere have I seen an attribution.  Searching for it on Google just pulls up more unattributed copies.  So, does anyone know who did it?

I’m puzzled by today’s xkcd

Here’s today’s xkcd:

My hobby: Pretending to miss the sarcasm when people show off their lack of interest in football by talking about

It’s true that not knowing much about sports is culturally isolating, far more so than not knowing much about meteorology or space probes.  In the USA, where xkcd creator Randall Munroe and I both live, ignorance of American football* is more isolating than ignorance of meteorology and space probes even among faculty and students of universities with departments of meteorology and aerospace, as witness the relative pay scales and promotion schedules of football coaches and professors of those subjects.

Considering how much money and power are put into promoting football in the USA, it is simply absurd to claim that football fans are vulnerable to some kind of power that an individual acquires by not caring about the sport.  Whether or not you care about football, if you live in the USA you have no choice but to pay taxes that subsidize football, to seek employment in businesses managed by people whose small talk consists largely of discussions of football, to receive news and entertainment through media outlets that are saturated with football, and to be educated in schools where football is enshrined as the supreme collective experience.

Indeed, Americans are so heavily incentivized to like football, and football games are so intensively covered by US media, that I find it hard to believe that there are a great many people in the USA who haven’t tried to like football.  I suspect most Americans who dislike football simply find it impossible to overcome the stupefying tedium of watching a bunch of costumed men standing around doing nothing for hours at a time, and that most who complain about football or mock football fans resent the power that football has in American social life.

I would hasten to add that the experience of playing football isn’t dominated by the 90% of the time that players spend standing around doing nothing.  I have far more vivid memories from my high school days of the 9% of the time that players spend striking and holding poses in formation.  I remember the many times I was called off-sides, which in football means that a player is posing incorrectly.  While from the spectator’s perspective football is like staring at people milling about at a bus station, from the player’s perspective it is much more like being a fashion model.

There is so little action of any kind in an American football game that I cannot help but be suspicious of the reports one hears about the rates at which players suffer head injuries.  I find it particularly incredible that the almost perfectly immobile players of the National Football League can all suffer concussions during their games.  Perhaps they all sustain heavy blows to the head before coming onto the field, and that’s why they do so little during the game.

A blog post today by Rod Dreher reminds me of a hypothesis of mine about how football became so popular in the USA in the twentieth century.  Dreher quotes and comments on a conversation between Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis about how financial institutions and financial markets are able to exercise enormous power without much public scrutiny simply because their operations strike most people, including most reporters and certainly most politicians, as intolerably dull.  I suspect that the average American is aware of the fact that a high threshold for boredom is key to gaining wealth, power, and high status in our society, and that as this awareness grew in the last century football, the most boring of sports, crowded out boxing, horse racing, and ultimately even baseball to become not only the king of American sports, but the lingua franca of social interaction in corporate America.

*Hereinafter referred to simply as “football,” because this post is all about conditions within the USA.

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