Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Debate with YouTube Antinatalist, Inmendham

This written response to Inmendham's (INM's) aborted response to my video "Nihilism or Transcendence?" will finish up my exchange with himfor the time being, at least. Here's his video:

And here's my point-by-point reply, written in note form (the times given from the video are approximate):

1:00 INM: Living things are merely machines competing to replicate the DNA molecule; that’s our natural function; BC: that is what animals tend to do, at some level of explanation, but there’s nothing objectively right or wrong about that function; this is why INM’s anthropomorphic game metaphor is misleading; in any case, humans are clearly unlike other animals in that we’ve gained more self-control so that we’ve partially transcended that primitive function; INM commits the genetic fallacy when he reduces all human behaviour to its evolutionary origin in some primitive function; “magic” isn’t needed for this transcendence, since natural forces and systems plainly add levels to themselves through evolution and complexification; INM fails to understand the implications of nature’s evident creativity

1:30 INM: some animals are also conscious and so they feel pleasure and pain and the ratio of those mental states is unfair; BC: here INM commits the naturalistic fallacy, since he hasn’t shown that pleasure and pain are really good or bad; his reductionistic naturalism implies only that animals subjectively care about their pleasure and pain, but that’s just another natural fact that has no normative implications; what INM needs is a normative axiom or principle that isn’t identical to any statement of mere fact, but that would be tantamount to conceding my point about how nature transcends itself—in this case by adding a normative dimension to the factual one

2:20 INM: BC says life is worth living, but he has the “right” to say that only because he’s an “arrogant optimist”; BC: INM hasn’t shown how anything in nature is right or wrong, so his talk of anyone having the right to do anything is vacuous, as far as his worldview is concerned; until he comprehends how nature transcends itself, thus falsifying his reductionism, his moralistic naturalism will be incoherent and he won’t be logically entitled to his AN (i.e. to his condemnation of procreation)

3:00 INM actually takes my advice and changes his method, by watching some of my video, taking notes and thinking, and then cutting to his response, as opposed to filming his first impressions (later on, when he loses all patience, he returns to his earlier, egregious method); but he nevertheless rejects my criticisms of that method (even though, as I just said, he temporarily adopts my recommendation); his defense of his main method mostly makes a strawman out of my argument, since he focuses on the point-by-point aspect and not on the first impression one; of course, I have nothing against fairly representing a viewpoint, by quoting the target argument; as is clear from my list of seven criticisms, the problems are with cutting back and forth so often that the quotations lose their meaning, and with giving only your first impressions, without giving yourself any time to think about the arguments and maybe engage in a more constructive dialogue

3:30, 5:30 INM says he implied that I’m a pantheist, not a theist, but that was later in his multipart reply, as I recall; earlier on, he speculated that I might be a theist and he wasted some time on that possibility; that’s only a minor example, though; a more troubling example comes up near the end of the present video, where instead of asking for me to clarify what I mean by “reductionism,” INM falls back on a strawman (see below); this is what happens when you’re in a hyper-defensive mind-frame instead of a philosophical one, when you don’t give yourself time to think much about what you’re hearing or reading before you respond; the reason I paraphrased or reconstructed INM’s argument in the first 18 minutes of my first video on INM’s radical pessimism is that I wanted to demonstrate that I understand the overall argument; also, I wasn’t aware of a video that lays out his whole world picture and I wasn’t about to delve more deeply into INM’s 2000 videos; anyway, INM agreed with most of my summary, even riffing on my formulations, so there was no red herring in that summary (as I explained in the “Nihilism or Transcendence?” video, there was arguably a red herring in my definition of “AN,” but my objections didn’t assume the slippery slope argument that informs that definition)

8:15 INM denies that he lost the forest for the trees when he filled his multipart video response with just his first impressions; I’m not saying that everything he said was irrelevant, but he did indeed miss the logic of the argument; the logic is that INM’s AN presupposes the very transcendence I talked about; INM calls that transcendence “phantasmagorical nonsense” and “leprechaun gold,” so he also fails to understand that his reductionism is opposed to the natural evidence of evolution, complexification, and emergent properties (i.e. the evidence of natural rather than magical creativity)

11:15 regarding my point that INM has no basis for speaking about consent, because he’s a determinist, he says there can still be intelligent or uninformed decisions in a deterministic world, as well as a “right” to exercise our intelligence; e.g. if someone sells you a car but lies about its condition, they take away your ability to make a correct, informed decision; I agree that misrepresentation and degrees of intelligence can exist in a deterministic world, but consent is the choice to permit something to happen; in other words, it’s the choice to withhold your ability to oppose something, given that you have that degree of self-control; in a deterministic world, though, everything that happens is forced to happen, so consent becomes impossible because there’s no such thing as self-control (instead, the self is controlled by external things); as I said, in such a world there’s only the simulation or superficial appearance of such a higher-level quality; for example, suppose a robot thinks about whether to allow someone to pick it up and move the robot to another location, and the robot eventually signals its “approval” by blinking a green light on its head; assuming the robot has no autonomy at all, but merely performs some calculations based on its perception of stimuli, it becomes a gratuitous anthropomorphism to speak of the robot’s thus having given its “consent”; again, INM must grant my point about nature’s self-transcendence (and thus give up his philosophical reductionism) before he’s entitled to his normative rhetoric, including his talk of consent

13:15 INM speaks of some behaviour as stupid, malicious, evil, cruddy, shitty, and so on, and he denies that determinism prevents him from positing those bad qualities; but as I said throughout the video, it’s determinism plus reductionism plus atheistic naturalism that together imply nihilism; INM still has to choose between nihilism or transcendence; if he wants to talk about right and wrong, he’s got to acknowledge that nature transcends itself, adding values and purposes to facts, and autonomous people to the herd of animals; once he acknowledges that, he must take seriously what I say about the potential to create a better world, as opposed to giving up on our species for fear that life will always be as dreadful as its most primitive manifestations

13:30 INM slides from making normative category judgments, saying that I’m an apologist for some “malicious and cruddy” behaviour, to saying that those judgments are merely “logical”; this is yet again the naturalistic fallacy; logical relations have no normative implications; therefore, just because some statements are illogical doesn’t mean they’re bad; illogic isn’t inherently bad as a matter of fact; science tells us the facts, so notice how in their capacity as scientists, scientists don’t posit values when they speak of natural forces and systems; INM pretends that value judgments spring from mere rationality, like Athena from the head of Zeus; all you’d have to do to see the naturalistic fallacy there is to watch INM state an explicit argument (with premises separated from the conclusion and specifying the rules of inference used), going from rationality to normativity; the fallacy is hidden because he speaks, rather, in anthropomorphic analogies; near the end of this video he loses his patience on this very point (see below)

14:30-15:45 INM says that even in a deterministic world there are wills that make decisions based on their experience, and that the more experience someone has the more skills and wisdom they have and thus the better their decisions; here INM is assuming the transcendence thesis, not determinism; this is because he stops short of tracking the causal relations outside of the individual, as though the complete explanation of a “decision” were just the psychological one that might as well posit our autonomy—for all INM’s talk of the mere internal causes of a decision; by contrast, the determinist thinks that the distinction between the inner and outer causes is arbitrary, which thus makes the talk of “will” or of “decisions” arbitrary and superficial as well; when INM calls us “machines,” he’s dehumanizing us in the deterministic manner, since machines are more obviously caused to act from outside their borders (unlike the human brain), but when pushed on the anti-normative implications of determinism, he retreats to the transcendence thesis without acknowledging as much

16:50 INM: saying that nature is divine is “idiotic”; BC: this demonstrates a churlish lack of self-awareness on INM’s part; he uses hundreds of colourful metaphors in each of his many videos; likewise, when I say that nature is divine, I’m using that word ironically but also in such a way as to get at a fundamental truth about nature’s creativity; the importance of this truth is apparent from what happens when we fail to understand this aspect of nature, such as when we resort to reductionism, like INM, and reduce personhood to animalism and psychological egoism, and normative values to the facts of pleasure and pain; to say that nature is divine is to say that nature creates itself from chaos, so that only a mindless monstrosity is the ultimate creative power rather than any person; using the theistic term in an ironic way to get theists to perceive the atheistic implications of naturalism is hardly idiotic

17:10 Likewise, INM says it’s idiotic to play with the word “undead,” since it has “mystical” connotations; again, it’s just a striking metaphor that gets at a fundamental implication of philosophical naturalism; we can see the undeadness when we look at the gray area between life and death, such as the virus; is a virus alive or dead? A virus is so simple and mindless and yet it seems to act with purpose; likewise, we’ve been fooled by all the order in nature to think that gods are behind natural processes; instead, there are just the processes that unfold themselves, and to call them undead is to call attention to the fact that nature at the fundamental level is neither inert nor animated by mind or spirit; nature is zombielike in that respect; again, zombies are popular nowadays, so this is a useful metaphor

18:00-19:30 regarding my point that most people give implicit consent to having been born, by not killing themselves after their formative years, INM says there are other reasons why they don’t kill themselves; specifically, it takes time to figure out how bad life is, people acquire attachments to friends and family, and dying is an ordeal we want to delay as long as possible; I agree there are lots of reasons why we don’t kill ourselves, but a main reason is the one I gave: people prefer to live because they get a lot out of life; a tiny minority of people, including antinatalists, may be suicidal and they don’t give their consent, but I’m talking about those who aren’t at all suicidal; the fact is that they have the option to kill themselves and they don’t; there are relatively painless ways of doing so and any personal attachments would have to be balanced against the fundamental lack of consent which the AN posits, that is, against the radical pessimism and depression which entail that life is evil; at 19:50, INM goes off on a deranged rant about how people aren’t in favour of legalizing suicide (I’m putting this as charitably as I can); this is irrelevant, since a suicidal person wouldn’t care whether the act is legal or not; an act can be morally but not legally right, but even the question of its moral right is irrelevant to the point at issue, which is just that most people implicitly give their consent to having been born, by not being suicidal; at around 20:30, INM says that I’m hypocritical for not advocating for everyone’s right to commit suicide, and that only if I advocated for that right would I have a respectable argument here; again, this personal attack is a red herring; regardless of whether I think suicide should be legal (and INM has no knowledge whatsoever of what I think on that topic), the connection between implicit consent to having been born and the fact that most people aren’t suicidal is plausible

19:45 INM slips up when he says that the reason he personally doesn’t kill himself is that he’s “here to fight” people like me or Mengele who torture animals, etc etc; again, INM shows here that he’s committed to the transcendence thesis, that he believes we can do some good in the world, in this case by fighting evil; he’ll maintain that this fight is ultimately futile, since we’re always just cleaning up part of our mess and we can never clean it all up, as he says; but I say the same thing in my articles: I say the best we can do is be tragic heroes since primitive nature wins in the end; the question is whether a partial victory is sufficiently worthy to provide a superior alternative to the effective termination of our species through AN; by holding out the option of fighting against perceived evil, INM is implying that we can do some good in the world, but this should lead him to approve of procreation as long as we ensure that our children follow in our footsteps; of course, this is what actually happens, since most parents teach their children their values; of course, the problem is that people have different ideas of noble pursuits; but is it “magical thinking” to say that one day there will be more consensus on right and wrong? Would that require a miracle? And does logic or science alone compel us to think that such a consensus is impossible or improbable, even in the distant future? Hardly

21:00 regarding what I say about nature’s self-transcendence in the metaphysical sense, INM says I should transcend my “crappy, parasitic paradigm” and “earthling bigotry,” and agree that there’s no way out of the primitive evolutionary game; this is back to psychological egoism, but culture already demonstrates that we have the potential to transcend that kind of primitive selfishness; INM himself says he chooses to live (and make videos) to fight those he regards as evil-doers, so presumably he thinks that’s a less selfish thing to do, compared to eating meat and being deluded; my point about transcendence is a metaphysical one, which is that nature adds emergent levels to itself, so we go from biology to psychology and sociology; our cultural games aren’t entirely reducible to the biological process of natural selection; our behaviour can be modeled or explained in different ways, depending on the concepts we’re working with; INM resorts to the reductionistic ones of selfishness and replication of DNA, as though those concepts could explain the difference between a Mozart concerto and the noise made from banging your head on the piano keys; the point is that once we see that nature metaphysically transcends itself through evolution and complexification, we have reason to think the norms of evolutionary life can change too; nature’s not a static or inert place, so the antinatalist should stop with the cynical eliminations and reductions of everything to the most primitive levels; at 25:00, INM says there’s no reason to think nature is going to evolve anything other than “trilobites, sea monsters, dinosaurs,” and the like; here INM contradicts what he says about the value of his being a warrior for the AN cause; INM goes back and forth between cynically reducing everything to the most primitive level, to positing emergent, transcendent levels to make room for the superiority of his life to that of the deluded, procreating masses; moreover, we can look at how anomalous our culture and technology and autonomy are, to expand our minds regarding the possible future transformations of species

22:55 INM denies that reductionism implies nihilism; actually, the point was that reductionism plus determinism plus radically pessimistic and atheistic naturalism together have that implication; but sticking just with reductionism, INM unfortunately confuses the scientific with the philosophical kind when he asks rhetorically how merely dissecting something, taking it apart to see how its parts function, implies that we can’t appreciate the whole thing’s value; that is scientific reductionism which I haven’t been taking any issue with; scientists explain things by analyzing them, reducing them to simpler mechanisms; that’s all fine, because unlike the philosophical reductionists, such as INM, scientists don’t take the extra step of eliminativism, of denying the reality of the higher-level patterns once you’ve figured out how the parts work

the problem is that INM’s reductionism amounts to eliminativism; that’s why he thinks he can get away with saying that life boils down to selfish parasitism or to the replication of DNA or, to give his most expansive account, to consumption, reproduction, cannibalism, and addiction; he thinks biology shows that that’s what’s going on at the deeper level, so therefore we can just dismiss the higher-level phenomena, such as culture, morality, autonomy, personhood, and so on; INM goes back and forth between reducing personhood to animalism and thus eliminating autonomy and personal responsibility and all other grounds for making normative distinctions, and implying nihilism, on the one hand, to committing the naturalistic fallacy and identifying the facts of sentience, pleasure, and pain as being sufficient for goodness and badness, to make room for the normative force of his AN and for his misanthropy, on the other; that is, he goes back and forth between nihilism and the transcendence thesis instead of choosing between them

25:15 just as he does at 39:25 of Part 3 of his earlier video reply, INM proves my earlier video’s point about the danger of his game metaphor; here, he says “there’s no transcending the model” and “you can’t fix the function; that’s the whole point: it’s a desire machine”; notice how obvious it is that machines are precisely those things which can be fixed—and not just fixed, but re-engineered altogether, so that the machine takes on new functions (as in our exaptations which replace our adaptations); so why would AN imply that machines must keep their old functions? I think it must be that INM is misled by his anthropomorphic interpretation of natural selection as a “game,” which leads him to think that our functions are somehow obligatory rather than just tendencies that can be physically overcome, just as a mountain can be climbed

26:15 INM speaks of AN as a failsafe, value-neutral option, since it does no harm; however, if everyone stopped having children, our species would end and that might prevent a greater good from emerging in the future; thus, there are no value-neutral options; if we kill ourselves, for example, we prevent the good we might have done from happening, and if we don’t have children, we prevent the good our children might have done from happening; I believe David Benatar tries to get around this by saying there’s an asymmetry between preventing harm and preventing good (somehow it’s fine to prevent harm, but it’s not bad to prevent the good from happening), but I hardly think his convoluted argument on that issue is transparently rational

26:45 INM rebuts my point that he commits the naturalistic fallacy when he says that pleasure and pain are good and bad, respectively, by saying that he has firsthand evidence, namely the fact that he feels the one is good and the other is bad; he says there’s nothing that can undo the “intrinsic quality” of those sensations; unfortunately for INM, scientists are the ones who tell us what’s intrinsic in our sensations, and neurologists don’t posit the rightness or the wrongness of the firing of our neurons that equals our sensations of pleasure and pain; so it looks like the normative evaluation of our factual sensations is optional; and how could it be otherwise? Just list the facts and see for yourself whether they have any normative implication

INM’s thinking here is sloppy, preoccupied as he evidently is by his unremitting hostility; what INM knows for sure isn’t that pleasure is good, but that he prefers pleasure to pain; what he knows is that some mental states feel better than others; and he might even infer that all creatures feel the same way; those are the facts, that creatures feel pleasure and pain and they prefer the one to the other; that implies subjective values; to be clear, there’s no naturalistic fallacy in inferring such subjective values, since those values are nothing more than our personal preferences; no, the fallacy is when you speak of objective or absolute right and wrong, based just on those facts of how things feel to us  

INM proceeds to a strawman, saying that I don’t agree that pleasure and pain are good and bad, respectively; the issue isn’t whether we prefer pleasure to pain; obviously we do; the issue is whether INM’s radically pessimistic naturalism logically entitles him to make his normative claims; in other words, the issue is how best to explain our evident preference for pleasure over pain; can we explain the difference between right and wrong in the world, merely with INM’s type of naturalism, which includes eliminativism and determinism? Or will we need to posit nature’s ability to add levels and properties to itself?

28:40 INM quotes my video where I say, “Let’s talk a bit more about morality” and then he points out that he already said in his multipart response that he wants nothing to do with that word “morality”; and this just demonstrates my point about the poverty of the first impressions approach to YouTube videos, because by this point INM has returned to his old method; he gives here his first impression without having watched the rest of my video, and so he’s unaware of the fact that just a few minutes later I respond directly to INM’s point that he rejects the term “morality”; but this doesn’t stop INM from accusing me of putting words in his mouth and from calling me “fuckhead” for doing so, etc etc

30:10 INM says that if pleasure and pain are only subjectively valuable, that means the values are arbitrary, like the preference for one ice cream flavour rather than another; this confuses objectivity with universality; the philosopher Kant argued that all our judgments are subjective in that they project our innate cognitive forms onto the world we sense, but he maintained that because we have the same basic forms, our judgments often have universal scope, meaning that we would all make the same judgments in the same circumstances; so subjective judgments can be universal; likewise, if our brains work the same way in terms of our ability to feel pleasure and pain, we may all agree that one is preferable to the other; those judgments wouldn’t be arbitrary since they’d be based on our common brain structures

but none of this is relevant to the point I was making, which is that INM’s version of naturalism seems to entitle him to speak only of subjective values, i.e. of our preference for pleasure; that’s all normative rightness and wrongness come to in his worldview, to that biological preference; if that makes normativity too arbitrary for him, that’s his problem, assuming I’m right that his worldview has that implication

30:30 INM adds that his value judgments are rational rather than just subjective, because they apply the Golden Rule; Kant tried to make morality rational in that way and there are few Kantians around nowadays; that’s because critics pointed out that even evil people can be consistent in their behaviour as long as they’d be OK with other people abusing them in the way they abuse others, were the circumstances reversed; for example, suppose an evil person is torturing a weaker person and the evil person is asked, “Would you want to be tortured in that way?” If the evil person says, “Yes, I’d be fine with being tortured in the possible world in which I’m this weaker fellow who can’t stop the torturer,” there would be nothing illogical in the evil person’s thinking, no violation of any law of reasoning; in any case, logic is irrelevant here, since it skips over the relevant differences between us, including the circumstances that contribute to our personal development; logic treats everything the same, which is why we can use place-holder symbols in logical arguments; but right and wrong are context-sensitive; for example, one person might deserve pleasure while someone else deserves pain, and it wouldn’t even make sense to imagine a possible world in which the two people reversed positions, since then they’d have different histories and experiences, so they wouldn’t have acted in the ways they’re actually being rewarded or punished for; so if you’re looking to logic to ground your morality, you’re scrounging in a bare cupboard

31:30 INM replies to my reference to David Hume on the is-ought gap and the naturalistic fallacy; I pointed out that, contrary to what INM says, there’s no badness that’s inherent in the physical event of pain or of murder; INM replies that we can rationally figure out that murder is bad, based on our personal experience of pain; INM is moving the goalposts here, since our cognitive faculties and experience aren’t inherent in the mental state of pain or in the event of stabbing someone; of course, I’m not denying that we can come up with arguments for the badness of various events; that’s not the point at issue; the question is whether a determinist and a reductionist/eliminativist like INM can get away with speaking of right and wrong without committing the naturalistic fallacy, by reducing right and wrong to the “inherent” or “intrinsic” facts of pleasure and pain (i.e. to neural events) and then back-peddling to what we can judge based on rationality, sentience, and experience; here again, INM is implicitly agreeing with the transcendence thesis, since rationality, sentience, and experience are already higher-level phenomena than trilobites, dinosaurs, and the replication of DNA

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