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Journal of No. 118


May 17th, 2011

From Scientismism to Subjectivism to Good Hair to Marriage Bigotry to Fictionalism @ 01:24 pm


I really am working, but my current task is eerily similar to a pigeon pecking at a food bar at occasional intervals. So you are all hostage to the blathering that emerges from my brain, mediated through fingers and the intertubes. So I was reading Pharyngula, and a couple items caught my attention.

First up, PZ ably tackles a Psychology Today blogpost written by Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist from the London School of Economics. The blogpost has been vanished, but lives on there at Scribd. The article poses and attempts to answer the question, "Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?"

For a little background, the basic data comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). One curious element of the study is that the subjects were measured for their attractiveness on a five point scale from very unattractive to very attractive. Three different interviewers made this assessment over the 7 year course of the study. Even more curious is how Kanazawa describes this:

"Add Health measures the physical attractiveness of its respondents both objectively and subjectively. At the end of each interview, the interviewer rates the physical attractiveness of the respondent objectively on the following five-point scale" [my emphasis]

Now, I'll grant that the 1-5 written down on a sheet of paper or a scantron form or something is an objective datum, but I hardly think that we can count this as an objective measurement of physical attractiveness. And averaging together three such numbers does not somehow make it objective. This is some horrible form of scientismism -- mistaking a mark on paper for an objective measure of aesthetics. The subjective measure he refers to is a self-assessment on the same five point scale. I'm not sure why that mark on paper is subjective while the other three marks are objective.

This is not to say the data are meaningless. I think a very interesting experiment would be to allow these students to rate their peers, and then look at how different racial groups assessed themselves and others. Of course, what this scientific experiment would tell us is something about people's preferences, not objective beauty.

Coincidentally, Dr. Pookie and I saw Good Hair earlier this week. I had expected Chris Rock to make more of a joke out of the whole topic of black people's hair, but though it's often funny, it's really a very well-made documentary with a lot of insight into the intersection of hair and African American culture. It may suffer some from wanting to end with a big bang at a hairstyling competition (which is fun enough) but the better part of the documentary is just watching Raven, Salt-n-Pepa, Ice-T, the man-on-the-street, and the woman-in-the-salon just talking about their hair.

The other Pharyngula story that caught my eye centered on this anti gay marriage propaganda video. The gimmick is that it suggests that 'redefining marriage' is something as ludicrous as 'redefining gravity' to 'go both ways'. Once again, there is a confusion of objective and subjective. Yes, legislating that gravity point the other direction is stupid, because legislation cannot change the objective fact of gravity. But legislating that gay marriage be legal is not stupid, because legal things are, in fact, changed by legislation. That's what legislation is for.

The two versions of idiocy remind me of my diatribe against the scientismists and antiscientists. It is scientismism to think that subjective judgments of beauty are objective. The anti-gay marriage crowd basically took as their concept my example of antiscientism that gravity should be reversed so that penguins can fly (because clearly they ought to fly). They have confused an ought-thing (Ought gay marriage be allowed or not?) with an is-thing (Is gravity up or down?).

To step back a bit and delve into my developing philosophy, I don't consider myself a moral relativist, since that doesn't define my position unambiguously, and what most of the culture warriors sneer at when they say 'moral relativism' is indeed sneer-worthy. I think it's clearer to say that I'm a moral subjectivist. There are no objective moral facts. Morality, like aesthetics, is subjective. This does not mean that morality doesn't matter and 'anything goes'. Quite the opposite. Morality matters to subjects, i.e. people. Recognizing that my aesthetic preference for Iron Maiden over Perry Como is a subjective one does not suddenly nullify that preference. I don't suddenly like all music equally, or start committing acts of crooning. These judgments may be subjective, but more importantly (and part and parcel of their subjectivity) they are mine. I am the subject experiencing these judgments; what could matter more to me than what I sincerely think? Morality is no different. I am the subject who experiences these judgments. The universe doesn't give a rat's fart about Botticelli or rape. People care about these things. This does not mean they are unimportant; it means they are important in the only way that it makes sense for them to be important -- to people.

I've had a few loopy ideas about fiction that you will now be subjected to. True or false: "Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street." Of course, really, Holmes didn't live anywhere at all, so he couldn't have lived at 221B Baker Street. So it's objectively false. And yet we can simultaneously understand that the statement is 'fictionally true'. I find very persuasive the argument that all of mathematics should also be considered fictionally true. We do not directly observe numbers. Three rocks are three rocks; they are not 3. "Three" and "3" are not 3 either. Even 3 isn't the-idea-that-3-stands-for. 3 is a character in a play called mathematics, and 3 is odd in the same way that we know where Holmes lives. Mathematicians write their little fan-fictions with these characters. Some write Euclidean fanfics, while others write non-Euclidean fanfics, and so on, with slightly differents sets of characters and what is accepted as canon. If you follow the rules of the canon correctly, you can determine truths that are true in a particular fictional setting, just as the Baker Street Irregulars pick through the canon to discover 'new' truths about Holmes. The same would also be true of logic. Different canonical sets of logical axioms produce different logics and different truths in these different fictional settings.

I have tentatively come to the opinion that morality -- ought statements -- can also be viewed through a lens of fiction. "One ought not to murder." can be translated to "In my fanfic of the perfect world, people don't murder each other." Through a pretty shabby verbal trick, an 'ought' statement has been converted into an absolutely true statement, albeit one that's true of a fictional world. And the fact that the statement begins with 'in my fanfic' is the telltale that it is a subjective truth. But perhaps the self-evident and absolute truth of the statement in our own personal fictional world convinces us (incorrectly) that the statement has objective truth as well. And we get angry and frustrated with people who disagree, just as we would with someone who insisted that Holmes lived at 10 Downing Street.

But really these are the stories we're telling ourselves. On the plus side, collectively, we're telling better moral stories than we did 50, 500, or 5000 years ago. Or so it seems to me.
 
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From:jimkeller
Date:May 17th, 2011 10:05 pm (UTC)
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True or false: "Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street."

I like this example a lot. Thank you for it.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:May 17th, 2011 11:15 pm (UTC)
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It's hardly original with me, but I'll take any credit that comes my way!

Edited at 2011-05-17 11:17 pm (UTC)
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From:gina
Date:May 17th, 2011 10:07 pm (UTC)
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The fictional truth stuff is so interesting!
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From:ajax
Date:May 18th, 2011 12:56 am (UTC)
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Your developing philosophy is in pretty near 100% concordance with mine own. (Therefore you are objectively correct.) It bothers me that so many people are so terribly insecure about taking a moral position on their own, without the comfort of believing that Something Bigger said so first.

Many people blanch when I explain to them that if the God of Abraham really did exist as described in some versions of Christianity, our moral imperative as humans might very well be to kill Him. But consider: do we really want a jealous, narcissistic manipulator running the universe like some sort of supernatural pimp? Can those qualities exist in something we would call "good", and should we suffer ourselves to be ruled by something we wouldn't call "good"?

--- Ajax.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:May 18th, 2011 03:03 am (UTC)
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(Therefore you are objectively correct.)

Woohoo! I win!
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From:arcane_nitehawk
Date:May 18th, 2011 07:17 am (UTC)
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I disagree with the assertion that mathematics should be considered fictionally true. However it is currently 3:16 am and I am not able to coherently defend my position. I shall try again when I've had sleep.
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From:gotham_bound
Date:May 18th, 2011 08:41 am (UTC)
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I am the subject who experiences these judgments. The universe doesn't give a rat's fart about Botticelli or rape. People care about these things. This does not mean they are unimportant; it means they are important in the only way that it makes sense for them to be important -- to people.

There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so. --Hamlet


Easily my favorite Shakespeare quote. Focused a little differently this entry also reminds me of sentence or two from Herman Hesse's Siddhartha (I don't have a copy so I can only paraphrase) that went something to the gist of "I don't worry about my interaction with other things despite my inherent subject knowledge of their existence, because they exist in the same way that I do."

Both showcase the ideas that there are things that affect us, and our thoughts that tell us how we can & might affect things. The two are not the same but interplay constantly. For me it reminds me of the bits of David Hume I've studied. He came to a similar conclusion as you - or such was my take away (and I concur with the two of you, assuming my subjective judgement is based on a correct analysis of objective fact) - that every person has his or her own narrative to live in.

To an extent it's backed up by neuroscience, not a direct proof, but the idea that by the nature of our personalities we create narratives that help us apply order to our experiences and arrive at conclusions in order to proceed and build, day after day. And I don't mean that neuroscience has built a proof of this, or even gone looking for this - it's a series of connections I've drawn, my own narrative. But on looking at how vastly a personality can change when physical changes in the brain happen and how a personality seems to be an accident of so many aspects of the brain working in concert.... It's quite amazing, never mind how this means each one-in-a-million personality has a one-in-a-million (and million is clearly too small a number!) outlook on the world.

Err... that was a tangent, but a fun one so I'm leaving it. Um, what I meant was your entry was so Hume-tastic I do hope you've read some of his stuff. The only thing I note is to keep an eye on any solipsistic tendencies. We ought to be able to live by our individual narratives, philosophies, wishes and interests, but we do live in a world with other people. And in so doing, we thrive. I've come to think of our on-going communal emotional growth as moral evolution. We continue to consider our moral responsibilities to each other and elucidate needs we've always had but for one reason (or more like, no reason) regularly failed to see. E.g. we live for ourselves, we learn to live in tribes, we learn how to stratify ourselves so we identify the capable and smart, we learn stratifying also creates a class of unfortunates that the rest of us often end up exploiting, we learn that helping, rather than exploiting, the less fortunate is good, we learn how to help the less fortunate, we learn how to not be dicks about it....

Moral absolutism is the idea that a moral point may be discovered somewhere down the line, however it has always been true. Not following the morality of this revelation has previously been a mistake of ignorance, but now we know better. The subjectivity allowed by relativism says that the xenophobe who was merely a product of his time was otherwise an ok dude who loved his family and took care of his neighbors. He just said terrible things about ________men because so did everyone else. He could even rationalize his prejudice despite how it may have gone against the dictates of his professed religion, again because everyone else in his time and place did. And so which is the code against which we measure the responsibleness of a man's character? Whether it fits with his peers or whether it aligns with his supposed eternal moral commandments?
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:May 18th, 2011 05:04 pm (UTC)
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I appreciate the tangent. I considered going there, but got tired of listening to myself. Like you, I think neuroscience seems to be showing that memory is hardly an accurate recording of experience as it happens, but more like a story that I tell myself. And I think this extends to consciousness -- different subsystems in the brain all percolate away, and some sort of narrative arises to try to incorporate and harmonize it all as a character. Yet another fiction in my grand unified theory of fiction. I see what you mean about the potential danger of solipsism, but I don't see myself falling prey to it. All of you may just be figments -- and all I personally know about you is a figment of a figment -- but I'm just a figment, too. I'm not the one solitary 'real' person in my own universe.

I don't know that I've actually read any Hume, but I'm familiar with some of his ideas, and obviously the whole is/ought thing that gives me the fits from time to time comes directly from him.
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From:gotham_bound
Date:May 18th, 2011 06:49 pm (UTC)
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Cool! I wasn't sure that wasn't just late night babbling. I really can't grasp the science of neuroscience but I've really enjoyed studying its investigations and conclusions.

Solipsism - I tend to think any honest person won't fall to it, probably, because as you said if we're figments then you yourself (or me myself) are likewise figments.... Echoing Hesse. }:>

Hume is good stuff. And from there Immanuel Kant, who really set the tone for 20th century investigations of human behavior. }:>
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From:gotham_bound
Date:May 18th, 2011 08:42 am (UTC)

Part 2

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After all we don't just need our civilizations to keep us safe, in a lifestyle to which we've become accustomed; we also require the structure of the narratives we share. We need our languages - who and what we would be without language is more or less impossible to imagine. (Well, impossible objectively, you would need language to even attempt such an exercise. If you manage to do it, please report back on the square root of negative 1.) We need our histories - how else would we plan for winter and know better than to trust whitey? We need communal perceptions or we just aren't a community. A man of his time must fit into his time or risk censure or even violence against him, punishment for the sin of iconoclasm. But more to the point, a man of his time is a synecdoche. He can't be otherwise not of his time. He is his time and his time is him. He can't imagine otherwise. He doesn't appreciate what "other" there could realistically be, even if he's read about it.

What morality asks of us - relative or absolute - is that once we as individuals recognize a "better" way, more right, more proper, whatever, that we strive for it. That we reach for it with each and every action and word. It requires an internal honesty from every individual. The xenophobic man may never see how wrong he is to be cruel in his disregard for foreigners, but the second he has an inkling that there is a crack in his narrative it his responsibility to review his assumptions. It may be more comfortable to continue in action and speech to hold with his compatriots and so remain "of his time" (and likely never be judged negatively by his peers), but if he can recognize that his behavior falls short of an accepted moral truth his behavior is laid clear to him as wanting.

Whether it's the hypothetical xenophobic man or you or me, we need the civilizations that created us to provide the scaffolding from which we drape our narratives.


Long frickin response is courtesy an Internet connection that slowed to a halt so now i'm just meandering because I can't open my own LJ to pound away. and yeah I should be studying anyway, but this is more interesting.

Journal of No. 118