Friday, November 08, 2002
"Against the unfolding events of September 11, 2001 Charley Hayes, a fifty-five year old piano bar owner, is forced to face his past.
A decorated war hero in Vietnam, Charley, a Green Beret assigned to Special Operations under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency, was a man who knew too much and posed a potential embarrassment for the Agency and the Government. The wheels began to eliminate him and the threat he posed.
However, when he is rolled in a Virginia motel by a man and woman who steal his wallet and car and are subsequently killed in a flaming automobile crash, Charley Reed escapes the sanction, ceases to exist, and assumes the identity of a comrade who was killed in action. He goes to California and begins a new life."
The book may be wonderful, my comments may be unfair, but frankly, if it's next to an offer for herbal viagra, and a notice that a hot co-ed's just got her own web-cam, I'm not interested.
The second objection is based around a lengthly discussion of ethical cynicism. For example, an elucidation of the claim being made receives the following response:
"Do you understand that or are you "clueless" like his readers that he so brilliantly refers to as being.
How wonderful it must be to have all the knowledge of the world stored up in his mind! I am sure he certainly feels god like if not some sort of equivalency."
Similarly, an argument about machine consciousness being a relevant issue in discussing ethical systems receives the response:
"What a waste of energy when so many in our world, so many human beings in our world, thirst for the civil rights he is so willing to grant, maybe only in theory, but grant it just the same, to a machine, a creation of man if not a creation of a creation of man. What a true waste of time.
But isn't that what Philosophy is anyway?
Isn't it one unanswered question followed by another unanswered question that leads you on to another, and then another that will ultimately lead you back to the point where you began in the first place?
If this is "Layman's Logic" then we all are lost.
I feel so incomplete and inept writing my bad and exploitative novel. And as true as that may be, Doctor John Ross couldn't know. He couldn't know because he hasn't read it. Nor would I expect him to sink that low. Still he has his opinion and like I said at the beginning, "Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one." And that is what I believe the good Doctor is, an asshole. But that's only my opinion and that is not rooted in any philosophical base, Objectivism or Ethical Cynicism."
The only problem, of course, is that the argument that has him so het up was written by someone else. The big clue should have come when he clicked on a link to "something [I] identified as USS Clueless." The big clue should have been when he left the web-site, going to somewhere with a completely different format Rather than being "a link to some of the letters [my] readers sent", it is, of course, a link to someone else's site. One where my name doesn't appear, for example.
I've let him know:
I'm sorry if I caused offence: of course, I have no way of knowing that your book genuinely is bad or exploitative. However, I take receiving spam mail about a product as prima facie evidence that it's worthless. I appreciate that your book may in fact have merit, but if you choose to "sell" it via spam, you're likely to have a hostile response. The description didn't fill me with confidence, and the backdrop, at this point in time, suggests that many people would view it as exploitative.
However, I will point out that the simple distinction between things I write on my own site, and things I link to on other people's sites (USS Clueless), appears to have been missed by you. Hence I didn't say ""A surprising number of people didn't really understand either the term or the meaning of "ethical cynicism".", or any of the subsequent quotes.
The big clue could have been that right next to the link you followed from my site to that of a gentleman called Steven Den Beste was a partial critique of his argument about machine consciousness that you quote and mock. Quotation and mockery are your right, but some might suggest that criticising me for saying something that I patently didn't say makes you look like an asshole, not me.
If you actually want to discuss philosophy, on the basis of things I have myself said, please feel free to let me know.
PS: I will remove this mail from my web-site if you like - it's quite up to you..."
PS: I replied to him using my real name, answering his "Who is Dr John Ross?" question. That isn't, as I occassionally mention, my real name. There's enough information around the site for people to find out if they really care, but I've moved to trying to use a pseudonym so I feel more comfortable about talking about things in my line of business. But if people really are becoming mislead, I may become solely "The Philosophical Cowboy"...
[Update: Steven Den Beste has replied in his own right...]
Wednesday, November 06, 2002
"I'm not aware of any ethical system which even provides an answer to a pernicious problem that we will face sometime in the next hundred years, to wit: which of these is murder when done to a sophisticated computer which has been granted civil rights?
1. Turning it off briefly and on again, without causing harm.
2. Turning it off and leaving it off for a hundred years, and then turning it on.
3. Turning it off and never turning it back on, but leaving it undamaged so that it could be turned on again at any time.
4. Copying its memory to a new unit and then destroying the old one.
5. Copying its memory to data archive, and then destroying the computing unit.
6. Destroying the unit without backup or duplication."
I'm not going to argue against his main claim. But I'd suggest that his argument possibly proves too much. To wit: which of these is murder simpliciter?
"1. Rendering someone briefly unconscious, without causing harm. [/Stopping someone's heart, then restarting it]
2. Rendering someone unconscious for 100 years, provided it could (e.g. maintaining "youth" though some technological means). [/Stopping someone's heart, freezing them, then bringing them back]
3. Freezing someone indefinitely, perhaps by putting them in a ship in orbit.
4. Copying someone's memory to a new body and then destroying the old one.
5. Copying someone's memory to a storage medium (perhaps allowing for continued processing in the new medium), and then destroying their body.
6. Destroying their body simpliciter."
Not all of the analogies match perfectly. But there are "science-fiction" concepts that provide the same problems of what makes someone the "same" person, and so what's murder. Many of them are classics in the history of philosophy, and there are few even partially acceptable accounts available.
Does that mean we don't know what murder is? Well, I'd borrow heavily from Wittgenstein, and say that our concepts only make sense in a world much as it is: if you change the "rules", we may lack criteria to give our concepts a "grip", and be forced into new ones. Or we might have readily easy ways to extend our concepts.
This is probably a position that backs up Den Beste's stance. But if you're not a Wittgensteinian, or think you have a good answer to "the problem of identity" (as these issues are termed), then you may feel you have a good answer to what's "murder" of a computer. If you define "murder" as (say) the intentional killing of a self-aware being, then you just use the equivalent stances you adopt towards humans.
(at last - a philosophical post...)
Tuesday, November 05, 2002
Well, notwithstanding the sports stars in the list, I doubt that any should appear at positions of any significance. I felt a few should be knocking about (and a few other examples of individual dering-do), but it's unlikely that any reasonable criteria would put them high in these lists. Steven Den Beste (below) suggests Jackie Robinson, because of his impact in the USA. Via e-mail, I replied that Jesse Owens, who he rejects, is better known outside of the US. Steven is right that fame isn't everything, but I think here there is some relevance. Jackie Robinson is well known in the US, where he had a big impact. But he isn't known elsewhere as he had virtually no impact "here". Jesse Owens, even if not impacting on society or politics in the same way, has at least stood as an emblem of the idiocy of racist idiologies across the Anglosphere.
And that, I think, gives a clue as to what a list of this sort should consider. Whilst there is a place for the hero of their time, as ably argued about Nelson by a shock real historian (and a pretty one at that) on the Beeb tonight, long-lasting impact on the shape of societies is probably what we're looking for. And, in the context of an "Anglosphere" poll, the kind of impact involved would probably be wide-ranging in scope.
The significance of a Jefferson isn't (just) in the (wide-ranging) impact of the American Revolution on the Anglosphere and the world: it's also in the role played in the marketplace of ideas, in the shaping of who we are. Thomas Paine, for example, would have made my list of additions because of the impact of his political philosophy, but the BBC fortunately managed to find space for him. I did, however, have to rescue Locke, Hobbes and Smith from the intellectual dustbin of history, but each of these has had an immense impact on the nature of the English-speaking (and wider) world.
I included some modern American scientists, on the grounds that I felt that the US should have some technological representation. Yet the scientist-inventors of the Industrial Revolution, whose work had incredible knock-on effects, lack obvious modern peers because of the co-operative nature of most of the modern scientific enterprise. Ford and Edison are obvious kindred spirits, but I can think of few other than Gates since, and he's far too recent to judge. Hopefully, voting (or suggestions for more characters of this ilk) would sort this out.
"I suspect it's hopeless to get anything remotely like a consensus on something like this, but I do have a few suggestions.
First, I would take Patton off the list. He was famous and flamboyant, but far less important in the grand scheme of things than he is often given credit for. Certainly Eisenhower was far more important given his amazing success in commanding an integrated coalition military command, and if anyone from that place and time deserves to be on your list, it's Eisenhower.
On the other hand, I would include Chester Nimitz. His military performance in the Pacific theater in the first half of 1942 is mind boggling. When he took command, his force had just suffered a major defeat and was completely disheartened, not to mention outnumbered and outclassed, and he seemed to be facing a force which was unstoppable. Within weeks he had rallied morale, and within six months he'd handed the Japanese a major defeat which stopped their offensive completely, and by August the US went on the offensive and never stopped until the war was over. He wasn't glamorous and flamboyant (he was Bradley to MacArthur's Patton) but he was far more responsible for the success in that theater than MacArthur was.
Franklin, Washington and Jefferson definitely belong on that list, but so does John Adams, who was one of the major theoreticians of the revolution.
I think there are a lot of other names on your list that don't belong there: Oppenheimer, Gehrig, Ruth, Gell-Mann, Feynmann. And I think that Jackie Robinson should replace Jesse Owens. The importance of Jackie Robinson to the process of ending apartheid in the US is usually underestimated, and
while having Owens embarass Hitler was impressive at the time, he didn't have the same kind of broad and long lasting effect that Jackie Robinson did.
What Robinson did (be the first baseball player to cross the color line and play for a major league team) was extraordinarily difficult, because he put up with a hell of a lot that no man should ever face. He was a proud man and an angry man just like we all are; he was no saint. But he took it all, passively, and proceeded to outplay them and prove his worth on the playing field, and FORCE them to acknowledge that they were glad to have him.
In many ways, he planted the seeds of the civil rights movement. It was a first, faltering step towards breaking the color barrier, but he made that step so well that the process soon became unstoppable."
So. Additions to the list are:
John Adams, and
In the next post (i.e. above), I'll add a couple of comments, and some thoughts about what I'd expect to see in a list like this.
However, it has some inconsistencies (such as the inclusion of Irish pop stars (Bono) whilst excluding other people who were born, or lived, as Britons (Washington, Jefferson…)). It strikes me that a far more interesting list would be an Anglosphere “Top 100” (or 1000…). So, here’s a suggestion. Let’s run a Blogosphere version of the contest.
I’ve made some suggestions of “non-British” English-speakers who might make the list, culled the BBC list for meritorious Brits, and added a few of my own preferences. The list has even fewer artists than before, I’m afraid. And I have far fewer women than I’d wish. I’ll be open to suggestions at my hotmail address Dr_John_Ross, and once we’ve got a reasonably inclusive list, a more prominent blogger (or bloggers) could run polling for a couple of weeks on their site. There wouldn’t be the sheer volume of votes the BBC would get, but the results could be both interesting and informative. There will be technical details to work out, but that’s part of the fun…
So, here are my suggestions (errors and shortenings in names a source of dreadful shame): I’ve kept the overseas names big, in the hopes that readers will supply useful detail on more obscure characters. The links haven’t all been checked for quality: if anyone can improve on them, I’ll make updates. Extra marks have been awarded for beating on the French. I’ll put up any I get sent in, including pen portraits if anyone wants to include them.
General Ulysses Grant
General Robert E. Lee
Martin Luther King Jr.
(joint UK and US: Watson and Crick)
Mohammed Ali Jinnah
(sorry – even using google for hints, I couldn’t come up with non-sporting greats…)
(sorry – even using google for hints, I couldn’t come up with non-sporting greats…)
Cecil Rhodes (honorary)
Working in the Anglosphere
Ludwig Wittgenstein (personal bias…)
John Maynard Keynes
William of Ockham
Bertram Russell (two links…)
W.G. Grace (just on general principle
Lord Boyd Orr
John Stuart Mill
BBC Brits (the first seven ordered by myself)
1) Sir Winston Churchill
2) Charles Darwin
3) Sir Isaac Newton
4) William Shakespeare
5) Elisabeth I
6) Lord Nelson (extra points for beating on the French)
7) Oliver Cromwell
12 Captain James Cook - BBCi History
15 Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington - BBCi History
16 Margaret Thatcher (Baroness Thatcher) - BBC News
20 Sir Alexander Fleming - BBCi History
21 Alan Turing OBE - BBC News
22 Michael Faraday - BBCi History
26 William Tyndale - BBCi Books
27 Emmeline Pankhurst - BBCi History
28 William Wilberforce - BBCi History
34 Thomas Paine - BBCi History
35 Boudicca - BBCi History
36 Sir Steve Redgrave - BBC Sport
37 Sir Thomas More - BBCi History
38 William Blake - BBCi History
40 King Henry VIII - BBCi History
41 Charles Dickens - BBCi Books
42 Sir Frank Whittle - BBCi History
44 John Logie Baird - BBCi History
49 Sir Francis Drake - BBCi History
52 Florence Nightingale - BBCi History
57 Sir Alexander Graham Bell - BBCi History
65 George Stephenson - BBCi History
68 William Caxton - BBCi History
72 King Henry V - BBCi History
76 The Unknown Soldier
78 Edward Jenner - BBCi History
80 Charles Babbage - BBCi History
81 Geoffrey Chaucer - BBCi Books
84 James Watt - BBCi History
91 James Clerk Maxwell - BBC News
92 JRR Tolkien - BBCi Books (bias again)
93 Sir Walter Raleigh - BBCi History
95 Sir Barnes Neville Wallis - BBCi History
99 Professor Tim Berners-Lee - BBC Oxford
Have fun telling me why I'm wrong, and voting later...
Monday, November 04, 2002
AFAIK, it's a yiddish saying, as I understand it. As well as I can remember it, it goes "az de bobe volt gehat betsim, volt ze geven myne (sp?) zede (sp?)", and translates as "if my grandmother had balls, she'd be my grandfather", which is a rather richer claim than one about aunts and uncles. It's in Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct", though I'm not sure what it was used as an example of.
Bruce makes the astute and correct point that just because your opponent uses a potentially fruitful tactic, that doesn't make it morally correct to use it too, and furnishes a productive counter-example: "The Germans killed their Jews. We only imprisoned our Japanese. Not to have responded in kind handed our implacable and demonic enemy a tactical advantage."
However, he arguably neglects the possibility of "hard cases" situations, where a tactic, that at least raises big moral question marks (the example of the British bombing of Dresden being a prime case), might be preferable, in a "noble cause", to less morally objectionable courses that might lead to a longer, more terrible, war overall. This isn't a circumstance where the imprisonment of the Japanese (e.g.) provides a suitable counter. The obvious example is the use of the nuclear bomb, and the question raised is to what extent the ends justify the means in war. I'm sure Bruce has a thoughtful position on this, but it's not articulated, or acknowledged, in his post.
This brings me on to the second point: Bruce says "You can argue the morality of Nagasaki if you want, but few historians now consider it "necessary," having had little impact on the Japanese decision to end the war."
But surely the relevant issue is whether Nagasaki (and similar terrible choices) were thought necessary at the time - if you don't accept the automatic immorality of nuclear weapon use (e.g. at hiroshima) then the question is whether the choice made was based upon authentic moral reflection. If, due
to circumstances that weren't known (as the inner workings of the Japanese government were unknown), it wasn't "necessary", or was counter-productive, or had effects that were not reasonably foreseeable, that doesn't prevent it from being a moral choice. Moral judgement should not, generally, be retrospective, in the sense that it should not call upon facts that could not have been known at the time. Failure to consider a course of action with appropriate thoroughness can be a cause for opprobrium, but not failure to be omniscient.
* (a site, BTW, that I, like many others, should visit more often for a rational counterpoint to some popular "blogosphere" views).