Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On the riddles of induction.

Induction is weird. We've got a pretty good logic of deduction -- conclusions drawn on the basis of evidence that guarantees them -- at least for sentences as wholes, and subject-predicate sentences. (Deduction involving modality -- so, possibility -- and duty, not as much.)

Induction is the process of reasoning whereby conclusions are drawn on evidence that is less than fully conclusive. In other words, there is a possibility that the conclusion is wrong, even though it has been appropriately drawn from the evidence.

As I say, it's weird. We have to use induction -- it's impossible, given our general epistemic situation (limits on cognition, time, energy) to have guaranteed conclusions always. But induction has some problems, which raise questions as to the justification for our reliance on it.

For example, there's the raven paradox. Take the sentence "All ravens are black". Obviously, seeing a black raven serves as evidence for this claim; the more ravens seen, the more evidence. But, logically, "All ravens are black" is equivalent -- that is, it means the same thing, or is true and false in the same circumstances -- to "All non-black things are non-ravens". And "All non-black things are non-ravens" is confirmed by any non-black thing which is also a non-raven -- so, for example, a white shoe. Given that the two sentences are equivalent, though, it follows that a white shoe confirms "All ravens are black". Which is crazy.

The problem here doesn't seem to be that rules of semantic or logical equivalence, but the rules governing confirmation of generalizations (the two in this case are universal generalizations, but that's not necessary). We really don't know what makes a piece of evidence serve as confirmation of a general claim, and our immediate intuitions on the issue are inadequate to the task.

Taking another example, there's Hume's riddle of induction. Consider the claim "The sun will rise tomorrow". I can draw this conclusion on the basis of another form of induction; not generalization, but enumerative induction. That is, I can enumerate a series of past events which, together, imply a statement regarding a future event. In this case, sentences like "The sun rose today", "The sun rose yesterday", and so on.

As Hume notes, though, this assumes that nature behaves in a uniform fashion, such that what was is a guide to what will be. And what guarantee do we have of that?

Just the following. Take the claim "Nature will behave in a uniform fashion". I can draw this conclusion on the basis of a set of past claims: "Nature behaved in a uniform fashion today", "Nature behaved in a uniform fashion yesterday", and so on. In other words, I can only draw the conclusion on the basis of enumerative induction, the very process I need that conclusion to support!

Hume suggests that induction is a habit, rather than something logically valid or reliable. But the lesson I tend to draw is similar to the lesson regarding generalization I draw from the raven paradox: our basic intuitions regarding enumerative induction aren't good enough to account for why enumerative induction is a good process of inference. We don't really know why enumerative induction leads us to acceptable conclusions, or when it does so -- and, to the point, when it does not.

Taking one more example, Nelson Goodman gives us the "new riddle of induction" -- or, more commonly, the grue problem. Consider the sentence "All emeralds are green". Let us define a new predicate, "grue", such that anything that is green before January 1, 2013 is grue, and anything that is blue after January 1, 2013 is grue. Thus, by definition, "All emeralds are grue" is also true. why is it, then, that our observations about emeralds lead us to conclude that "All emeralds are green" rather than "All emeralds are grue"?

The natural suggestion is that "grue" is an artifical predicate, while "green" is not. But this is arbitrary. After all, define "bleen" such that anything that is blue before January 1, 2013 is bleen, and anything that is green after January 1, 2013 is bleen. Therefore, "green" can be defined as anything that is grue before January 1, 2013, and bleen after January 1, 2013. (One could repeat the problem with "emerose" and "romerald" rather than "emerald" and "rose", in the subject place.)

So, the appearance of "natural" or "artifical" when it comes to predicates and subjects -- in other words, descriptive terms generally -- is largely historical. It's a matter of where our language starts. Which means we really have no idea why we draw the inductive inferences with the content that we do.

This isn't just idle speculation. It's fundamental to our ability to generate knowledge. If the reliability of common inferential practices -- generalization, enumerative induction, contentful inductive inferences at all -- can't be explained or justified, then how can we continue to use them?

Maybe Hume was right. Maybe it's just a habit. And there's no real basis for trusting these inferences at all.

Monday, January 30, 2012

On Rob Ford's failure.

It's been a great joy over the past few weeks to watch Rob Ford slowly losing his grip.

On Toronto, that is, not reality. (Although the latter is becoming questionable.)

During the election, nearly everyone arguing against Ford had insisted that he would find it next to impossible to get his agenda through council, given his history of being unable to work with, well, anyone and general ignorance of, well, everything. And immediately after the election, as he won vote after vote -- Transit City, gone! Vehicle Registration Tax, cut! -- Fordites were busily telling us we were all wrong and this would be a transformational mayor.

One has to wonder where all those people have gone.

We've seen Ford defeated at the budget. To be fair, a mostly cosmetic issue, as the budget is still largely shaped by his ideology. But an unusual defeat for a Toronto mayor, and a defeat that shows his inability to muster votes when he needs them.

We've also seen Ford lieutenants -- including Councillor Mammoliti, of all people! -- publicly disagreeing with his (insane, stupid, ignorant) transit plan. Even after a public backlash from the mayor's office, and Metrolinx demands a clear statement of intent, no one has recanted.

We've seen Ford back off from eliminating the job security clauses in the contracts of the city's unions, in favour of reducing their scope. Given that busting the unions is probably the only part of his agenda that he could count on any significant public support for, backing off from it is a pretty clear indication that he needs a win -- and will do anything to get it.

Ford's alienated everyone in the city, is losing reliable supporting votes on council to either the "swing" or "left" categories, and is generally doing everything his critics expected.

And all this in his second year in office. I look forward to the total implosion of his platform come year three, followed by his defeat in year four.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Weekend metal-blogging

Burzum, "Dunkelheit"

Yeah, I'm sort of amazed this was on VH1, too.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

On ethotic arguments.

Arguments that appeal to the character of the arguer -- ethotic arguments -- are generally consider poor. I say "generally" to mean the general public, including particularly those who have had some education in basic logic. I'm not sure where else people could get the idea that there's something illogical, or even irrational, about criticizing an argument by criticizing the person who has made it.

For example, the infamous ad hominem, which rejects a conclusion based on some unsavoury or unacceptable characteristic of the person defending it. (The contrast would be the pro homine, which endorses a conclusion based on some acceptable or desirable characteristic of the person defending it.) Or what we might call a "guilt by association" argument, which rejects a conclusion based on the unsavoury characteristics of people who tend to endorse it. (The contrast here we could call "honour by association".)

I've never quite grasped why people think these are necessarily bad arguments, though. They obviously have at least a use as shortcuts. When evidence is difficult to assess, either because of a lack of availability or the need for expertise in order to assess it, it makes sense to appeal to characteristics of the arguer, such as trustworthiness or sincerity, in order to assess the strength of the argument. After all, what else is there to go on?

Putting that aside, there is clearly a point to appealing to characteristics of the arguer when the argument being replied to does the same. It's one of the funny aspects of ethotic arguments. If someone makes an ethotic argument, it seems logically sensible to reply to it with another ethotic argument. If I argue that you should agree with a conclusion because I am trustworthy (pro homine), then it is reasonable for you to argue in reply that I am not trustworthy (ad hominem).

While it might be nice to pretend that arguments are devoid of arguers, coldly rational assemblies of facts that either succeed or fail, the reality is that argument is necessarily embedded in the activity of arguing. This implies that any logical system which tells us to ignore the ethos of the arguer is, to that extent, a bad system.

Monday, January 23, 2012

On controlling the internet.

For those who haven't been paying attention, the US Department of Justice inadvertently provided the best argument imaginable against passing such insane legislation as PIPA or SOPA. They took down Megaupload.com, seized millions in assets and have begun extradition proceedings against the company's principals.

I've seen some commentary to the effect that there are no serious due process issues as Kim Dotcom et al will get their "day in court" to argue their side of the case. Of course, this is nonsense. This same sort of "due process" is responsible for the destruction of [Veoh]. Despite an eventual court victory, the company no longer exists, its assets drained and its marketshare eviscerated by the expense and time of the court proceedings.

Megaupload appears to the next victim. The grand jury indictment makes for lurid reading, certainly, with references to conspiracies, money laundering, child pornography and terrorism. To be fair, this seems to be a reasonable basis for seizing millions in assets. After all, if the authorities have reason to believe that there have been illegal transfers of funds, seizing assets equivalent to the alleged amounts seems to make sense -- as is done, for example, in the case of drug cartels and weapons smugglers.

What's unreasonable, and makes all claims that due process is being followed ludicrous, is the arbitrary seizure of all Mega-related domains and taking all sites offline. There is no serious argument, even in the indictment, to the effect that all content on Mega's servers is illegal. Furthermore, there is clearly at least a legitimate angle to Mega's business, as with any cyberlocker. So, the federal government of the United States has seized millions of files, legitimately owned and uploaded, and closed a legitimate business venture. None of which was necessary; it would be a relatively simple matter to keep the servers running and allow users to access their files upon submitting proof -- such as a sworn affadavit -- that they were the copyright holders.

And all this is besides the jurisdictional issues involved. Mega is owned by Hong Kong-registered businesses. Kim Dotcom is German-born, holds citizenship in Finland and Germany, and, apparently, splits his time between Hong Kong and New Zealand. Much as with Richard O'Dwyer, and for that matter Julian Assange, the US government is attempting to impose its will on the rest of the world, regardless of whether their targets have any business or personal connection to the US. Here's another free idea for US law enforcement: if you're targetting a New Zealand resident, why not prosecute him in New Zealand under New Zealand law? (The official justification for prosecuting Dotcom in the US is that Mega leased some servers in Virginia. Seriously. That's all it takes to get, potentially, dragged into an American court to face charges under American laws.)

And the worst part is the rest of the world is going along with it. As the Australian government cheerfully abandoned Assange, despite his appeals for consular assistance (including a direct televised appeal to PM Gillard, if memory serves); as the UK courts abandoned Richard O'Dwyer, despite his total lack of any connection to the United States, for the grievious crime of linking; so, too, the New Zealand government has given up seven people to the tender mercies of the American justice system.

This is, you'll recall, the same justice system that has been censured and criticized multiple times for its practice of keeping prisoners in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. The same justice system that remains the only one in the Western world to still apply the death penalty to civilians. It is appalling that other governments will trust their citizens to its consequences.

I'm starting to think that the only way to convince our elites that they are failing in their basic responsibilities towards us is to outright rebel.

(The ripple effect is also worth noting. This past weekend, Uploaded.to blocked all US-based visitors entirely, while Filesonic.com no longer allows files to be shared by uploaders. One wonders exactly what sort of cloud storage could pass muster under even current US law. Mediafire.com is particularly worth watching, as they are a Texas-based company. The DOJ is probably smart enough to leave Google and Amazon alone. Other major cyberlockers are based outside the US -- Rapidshare in Germany, iFolder and Turbobit in Russia, and so on. I would expect that non-US lockers will either follow Uploaded's lead, or divest entirely from US servers and adopt a "user beware" policy for US-based downloaders. US-based lockers will have to drastically limit what they let their users do, which means Mediafire is probably going to shrink rapidly.)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Weekend metal-blogging

The video is lazy, and Alexi is a shadow of what he was. But CoB are still one of the best MDM bands there is.

Children of Bodom, "Was It Worth It?"

Friday, January 20, 2012

On public goods and services.

Apologies for the disjointedness of this one. This is more back of the envelope than even usual.

Who should pay for public goods? Who should provide them?

By "public goods" I mean products or services created in order to benefit the general public. The contrast would thus be to "private goods" which are created expressly to benefit a limited/specified group of people, or even a single person.

Public goods, by definition, should be within public control. This means at least that some level of our government is managing these resources in our name; and that ultimate ownership rests with the general public. Hence, for example, no public good should be sold by a government without consulting the public first. An election that results in a clear majority of support for an explicit platform of sales would count as adequate consultation.

But does it mean more than this? Does the public have to pay for the good, whether through taxes or user fees? Does provision of the service have to rest in the public sector, with direct government or public employees?

Take the first first: who pays? It seems odd to me that many public goods are paid for out of general tax revenue, plus some top-up from targeted taxes (such as Ontario's OHIP premium for healthcare) and/or user fees (transit fares are an obvious example, or tuition fees). I'm not saying these are bad as funding sources. I'm saying they aren't the only option.

Consider transit, for one. Why not let developers build, say, subway lines that attach to the currently existing system? I can see worriers regarding "premium" fares for using these lines, or cut-rate construction/safety standards, or undercutting the rights and contracts of public workers - but all these seem solvable, by devoting resources to careful inspection of the development during all stages, and regulation thereafter. All of which would cost substantially less than what it would to build the line completely. The private builder would then be responsible for the continued operation of the line, and the government would have the option to purchase it, assuming full responsibility. This isn't just a "P3", then, for in a P3 public money is at stake; in what I'm suggesting, public money is only spent to regulate and inspect.

It's also not entirely pie in the sky. Toronto-area condo developers are at least talking about building new subway out to their condo developments, in order to make them more attractive to buyers, and folding the cost into the price of the units and/or the monthly fees. Maybe the numbers wouldn't actually work, but it seems a possibility. After all, we already let developers build their own roads.

This is extendable to other public goods -- schools or hospitals, for example -- by essentially the same logic. If proximity to schools is a benefit that condo purchasers will pay for, why wouldn't the developer build a school?

Much as we need to stop looking to one level of government to solve our lacking public services -- usually the province -- and tax, then spend, to build them, I think it's time to try to tap into the amount of wealth that exists in the private sector, and use that to develop our infrastructure. Yes, w could just raise their taxes; but isn't it funnier to let them, effectively, tax themselves?

When it comes to the provision of public services, many insist that they be provided by public workers, while many others insist they be provided by contractors. Of course, neither is right -- it really depends on the benefit vs. the cost, within reasonable limits, counting all benefits and costs, not just dollar amounts. Government isn't everything, but it's also not nothing, and it is reasonable to look for alternative methods of service delivery before concluding that current methods are acceptable.

However, an idea that occurred to me -- while I was thinking through the legal fatuousness of claims that public unions could "bid" on contracted services -- was the possibility of cooperative corporations. Right now, the two options on the table are public workers, with big unions and legacy contracts, or contracted-out workers, who are generally squeezed pretty hard by their employers, who themselves rake in the dough.

But why not spin the service off? Keep the union, but reconstitute it as a cooperative corporate entity, and let them be the contractor for the service. This would transfer the risk out of government hands, and thus away from the tax rolls, but also the reward. Workers would also be free to set their own terms of employments in consultation with each other, rather than antagonistic negotiations (or "negotiations") with a government.

I'm not sure if either idea would actually work. But it's clear that governments are having difficulty maintaining, never mind improving, our public goods and services, and are unwilling to simply take private wealth through taxation or fees. So, why not at least think about getting government out of the public service game -- leaving the paying to the private sector, and the providing to former unions -- and into the public service management game?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

On belief in god.

It seems to be belief week here. Or something. Today, back to goddy questions, thus talking about the belief in god.

The phrase "belief in X" is critically ambiguous, and this ambiguity often works against the interests of the atheist/antitheist side, as it affords the religious another escape hatch for avoiding seriously facing criticism.

If I say "I believe in Bigfoot", what do I mean? I might mean one or some of three distinct things. First, that I believe, or take myself to believe, that Bigfoot exists. This is a propositional belief, if provable, a mere thought otherwise.

Second, that I commit myself to Bigfoot. The term "belief" can be used to express a sort of overall life path or life orientation, and thus an adoption of a set of unquestioned/unquestionable grounding assumptions which act as the basis for all subsequent beliefs and attitudes. Strictly, these grounding assumptions are not beliefs since they are the standard by which everything else is judged they are thus, by definition, unable to admit of proof or disproof. They can be replaced (or, more accurately, uprooted) but never shown false.

Third, that I trust Bigfoot, and consider his views or attitudes worth taking seriously, as sincere expressions of a trusted friend or worthy foe. This is "belief" as "believe in", taking someone as important.

Call the first "existential belief", the second "commitment belief", and the third "belief as trust". Atheists don't tend to get that theists could mean any one or some of these. Theists don't tend to get that all are untenable; retreating from one to another only delays this realization.

Existential belief is easiest (for me) to undermine, as it is a straightforward belief in what cannot be proven, and is thus only a thought. See previous post on belief (here) and also on rational faith (here). It won't work to ground theism.

Belief as trust is next easiest to undermine, as it depends on the first. If there is no actual god -- if the belief that there is a god is either false or impossible -- then any expression of trust towards god is empty. You may as well trust in Bigfoot -- or fairies. If, by contrast, the attitude of trust is not empty or towards some null object, it must be towards something that is masquerading as god. Some obvious possibilities include a parent, a trusted advisor (such as a priest, many of whom are morally decent people), one's internalized view of social mores, or one's own views externalized as the opinions of someone else. Regardless of the legitimacy of trusting nay of these sources, I think one should first acknowledge the real thing that one trusts, rather than cloaking it in the guise of god.

Commitment belief is the most difficult to show untenable. It's not enough to point out the practical consequences of this or that set of commitments. After all, while there are theists who are tortured by their commitments and would be better off without them, there are equally well miserable atheists who would be happier if they could believe, and happy theists who would be lost without a grounding commitment to the divine.

Similarly, it is not enough to point to theoretical inconsistencies within a set of grounding commitments, as when the Roman Catholic tries to become an evolutionary biologist. Accommodation between propositions is always possible, as a matter of logic, as long as one is sufficiently willing to make the necessary exceptions and excuses. Human cognition is also curiously resilient when it comes to accepting tension within the set of commitments, never mind the set of beliefs built on top, so it is always possible for theoretical inconsistencies to be met with a simple shrug and a smile.

To my eye, the best approach is to mount a moral argument, originating (likely accidentally) in Milton, and repeated by others, such as Christopher Hitchens. (Aside: I liked Hitchens' prose and his willingness to put himself on the line for what he believed. See, for example, the video -- it should still be online -- where he submits to being waterboarded, something no other support of the Iraq war could bring him or herself to do. Many of his opinions were odious, though, and his arguments tended to be poor. In that, he shares more with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris than I think any of them realized.) Committing oneself to God makes one a slave; and slavery is morally degrading, and thus intolerable.

Here's Milton, writing as Satan (hence, I think he didn't mean us to accept the view):
... Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.
It has been echoed again and again, by atheists like Hitchens, Satanists like LaVey, and Christians like John Stuart Mill, that no human being (in full command of his or her faculties) should tolerate being compelled to submit to another. Given that it is wrong to be compelled to submit to another human, it should be worse to be compelled to submit to a higher being, like a deity.

Anyone who disagrees with this point is, of course, defending slavery. And good luck with that.

If commitment to god can be shown to imply slavery, then it is wrong -- morally -- and should be uprooted and replaced.

One obvious objection to deal with at first is that one chooses to submit to god, and there is therefore no compulsion. Any religion that takes seriously the notion of hell, heaven, or even karma (derived from commitment to the deity or the faith) cannot advance this point, any more than a mugger could argue his victim gave over his wallet voluntarily -- after all, he could have just chosen to be shot. Being deprived of ultimate reward is also a punishment, albeit a more minor one. The mugger point still applies: even if he swears to return the money with 1000% interest in 10 years, he still forced his victim to give over his wallet. Finally, for those few believers whose religion neither punishes non-believers nor rewards believers, one has to wonder: what difference is there between commitment and non-commitment? If there are not eternal or divine consequences, aren't we once again cloaking something else -- commitment to social stability, or to a moral value, or to a rational purpose -- in the guise of god?

So: does commitment to god imply slavery or not? Any god that demands obedience is clearly a slaving god. Any god who rewards and punishes is a slaving god, as argued. And any other god doesn't really seem like god any more. So, commitment belief is untenable, too, as it places the thus committed person in the position of a slave.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On intellectual property rights.

More on the piracy issue. It's often argued that intellectual property has some sort of moral dimension. It's just wrong to infringe on intellectual property rights. I don't think this case is really very good.

Intellectual property rights get their moral weight -- or, at least, their apparent moral weight -- through the (mis) application of two separate principles: the principle of authorship and the principle of ownership.

By the principle of authorship I mean the idea that being an author is at least considered to be morally worthy. That is, the status as an author brings with it certain rights, including dissemination and control of dissemination, as well as certain duties, including special duties of sincerity in dealing with others. (To be complete, I should also add the apparent moral worthiness of the character of an author; but, for purposes here, I will bracket virtue considerations.)

By the principle of ownership, I mean the idea that owning something conveys moral worth on the owner, and reduces or eliminates the worth of the owned. Slavery is an obvious example, but treating one's children as property rather than responsibility would nicely illustrate the point as well.

Ownership as a moral endeavour is surprisingly pervasive in modern societies, including our own. John Locke, the source of many of our ideas on government, famously defines the close relationship we have to ourselves, his ground for all basic moral rights, in terms of our being owned by god, then having that ownership transferred to ourselves. The point is also nicely illustrated by Terry Pratchett's golems in his novel Feet of Clay. The golems only become liberated and self-governing people through being bought by other golems, and being given themselves (by receiving a receipt). One could also draw attention to the different moral evaluations of renters and owners, or debtors and creditors. To possess property, speaking generally, is seen as more morally worthy than not.

These two principles generate the idea of intellectual property and its attendant rights by drawing first from the moral weight of authorship -- the author of a work has superior moral status -- and then explaining that with the principle of ownership -- the author's elevated status is due to his or her owning the created work.

I'm generally willing to grant the principle of authorship. There is something worthy in the act of creation, and that does deserve some sort of response: the right to be identified as the author, and the duty to be responsible for the content of the work; the right to (within limits) control the dissemination of the work, and the duty to not withhold it unreasonably or punitively; and so on.

It's the principle of ownership I'm iffy about. Go back to Locke for a minute, and grant that I do have some special relationship with myself that differs importantly from that you have to me. Is it really ownership? Am I to myself as I am to my pen? What if my self breaks? Or I want to trade my self for a better one? These, and related, questions work well for pens, but badly for selves; and I suspect the ownership relation is to blame. (Locke apologists take note: Locke himself uses this relation to ground a full theory of property, so it is literal not metaphorical ownership at stake).

Or, consider the creditor and the debtor. The creditor owns and the debtor owes, but is this always to the debtor's moral detriment? After all, we do occasionally see the debtor as innocent and the creditor as predatory, or the debtor as needy and the creditor exploitative -- all of which are to the creditor's moral disfavour.

Overall, I'm not sure why should treat the products of one's intellect as equivalent to actual products, which are ownable. The principle of ownership is dubious as a general claim, and, as argued in an earlier post (here), the analogy between intellectual and other property is poor at best.

Insofar as law is to follow ethics, it seems that the case for any laws on strictly intellectual property is pathetically weak.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On belief and the unprovable.

I've said previously that, in my view, what is unprovable is to that extent unbelievable. I should probably explain and defend that, at least a little. I think it's a good and useful principle for skeptical thinking.

The claim amounts to saying that it is literally impossible to form a belief whose content is a proposition which cannot be shown, even on balance of probabilities, to be true or false. So, there's three parts to this: the circumstances under which belief-formation is possible, the nature of belief-contents, and the issue of proving something.

Beliefs are formed largely involuntarily. By this I mean that, while one can put oneself in circumstances that tend to create beliefs -- e.g., listening to a speech by someone one reasonably believes to be a persuasive speaker -- one cannot simply form a belief by voluntary choice. From this it follows that the contents of one's beliefs are similarly not within one's control.

A belief has, as its content, one of at least three things: an object, a person, or a sentence (technically, a "proposition"). That is, one can believe in ghosts (object), one can believe Immanuel Kant (person), or one can believe that Immanuenl Kant, if he still exists, is a ghost (proposition).

In the first two cases, it makes no sense to think of proof or disproof. I can prove or disprove that there are ghosts, that ghosts are insubstantial, that ghosts go "woogy woogy woogy", but these are all propositions about ghosts. I can't prove or disprove the object, ghosts. (One might, loosely, talk of proving or disproving ghosts when one means proving or disproving the claim that ghosts exist.) Similarly, it makes no sense to prove or disprove a person. One might prove or disprove particular sentences a person said or wrote, or prove or disprove sentences about that person (that he is or is not trustworthy, for example), but not the person as such.

So, proof and disproof properly belong to propositions. And thus the issue of the impossibility of believing in what cannot be proven relates only to those beliefs that take propositions as their contents.

Proof can be glossed, more or less, as the offering of an argument for a claim. (I say "more or less" as explicit argument is actually rare outside limited contexts; argument is more often implied than stated. So, to be entirely accurate, I should say "directly or indirectly offering".) So, to prove something is, at least, to offer an argument for it.

Of course, not just any argument will do: the argument has to be a good one. The sense of "good" here will have to be rough, to avoid getting insanely complicated, but the usual sorts of standards should apply -- premises true or at least plausible, rules of deductive/inductive/abductive inference are followed, etc.

A proposition is thus provable when a good argument for it is available, even if no one has ever thought of it, and disprovable when a good argument is available for one of its logical contraries or its logical contradictory. (A proposition is contradictory to another when the truth of one implies the falsity of the other, and vice versa; a proposition is contrary to another when the truth of one implies the falsity of the other, but not vice versa.)

Thus, to say that one cannot believe in what is unprovable is to say that one cannot, even when putting oneself in circumstances that generally produce beliefs, genuinely have a belief whose content is a proposition for which there are no good arguments (or, saying the same thing: whose content is a proposition whose contraries and contradictory as such that there are no good arguments for them). I should add that I would probably be willing to stretch "unprovable" past its definition thus far, to include those propositions for which good arguments exist which have not yet been thought of, for which good arguments could not be thought of by humans, and so on. This would create a continuum of "provability" ranging from the utterly unprovable -- no good arguments at all -- to the currently unproven. But I digress.

The problem lies in the process of being convinced. In order for me to believe some proposition, I have to be convinced that it is true. In order to be convinced of some proposition, I have to be given some kind of an argument for it -- good, bad, or mediocre. When I form a belief based on a good argument, it is (to borrow J. S. Mill's phrase) a "living truth" for me. I grasp at least some of its nuances and subtleties. I see where the proposition connects to other things I believe. I can place it in relation to the world. And so on.

However, when I form some sort of cognitive attitude based on a bad or mediocre argument, the content of that attitude is much less clear to me. Given that the argument is bad, the proposition does not connect to other things I believe, or the world, and its subtleties are more or less opaque. Now, I might believe otherwise -- I might believe that my belief is a living truth to me -- but since this is a factual matter, I can believe wrongly.

(Aside: yes, it is possible to have false beliefs even on this view, as there are good arguments for false propositions. There were good arguments for the existenc of phlogiston, for example.)

What I believe in this case is not really a complete proposition, then. Propositions are, after all, meaningful pieces of a larger meaningful system -- that is, sentences of a language. It would be impossible to believe a proposition and not have at least some kind of connection to other propositions. A bad argument fails to establish these connections, so what I believe is not really or not fully a proposition. And since belief of the relevant sort requires a proposition as its object, this cognitive attitude is not really belief. Kant refers to it as "thought", and that seems right to me. An unprovable proposition may be thought, but it cannot be believed.

In short, when I "believe" -- that is, I seem to believe -- a proposition based on a bad or mediocre argument, the fact that the proposition is based on a bad or mediocre argument implies I cannot be convinced of, and thus believe, that proposition.

Therefore, what is unprovable cannot be believed.

Monday, January 16, 2012

On this and that.

Bits and bobs because nothing all that interesting is happening.

Lise St. Denis

After 10 years as a party activist, Lise St-Denis, MP for a riding the Liberals haven't come close to holding since Chr&233;tien, crossed the floor to the Liberal benches, apparently because she didn't agree with long-standing NDP policies -- including, one supposes, its policy on floor-crossing.

When you get it all together in one sentence like that, it doesn't make the slightest bit of sense, does it? It's only when it comes out in dribs and drabs that you can fool yourself into thinking this is a sign of something greater -- the birth of the "Liberal Democrats" as Stockwell Day darkly warned us last week, or the canary in the coal mine for the NDP in Quebec. (On that last point: Libs need to wake up and realize that if the NDP drops out of first place in Quebec, it'll be the Bloc that benefits. Don't cheer too loud, or we'll call you closet separatists.)

Very Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Liberal convention

Apparently, there's some sort of Liberal policy convention thingy going on. To my knowledge, it has (as of this writing) yet to produce any interesting policy, but that may be coloured by my general opinion that nothing that a Liberal Party says is actually sincere. Say what you like about Conservatives, but at least they mean the vile and hateful things they say.

There are some rumours, to be expected given the weakness of the Liberal benches, that Bob Rae might want to become actual Liberal leader instead of interim Liberal leader. If he does, I reserve the right to revise my immediately post-election claim that the Liberal Party of Canada is not dead, in order to reflect the Liberal Party of Canada's deliberate, calculated suicide.

Seriously, folks, you're nowhere near Official Opposition, let alone government. You're on life support in Quebec, likely to come back slightly, but nowhere near enough to challenge the NDP or the BQ. You're slipping in Ontario, and likely to slip worse once McGuinty's austerity budget hammer comes crashing down. And you're not a threat to the Conservatives' dominance in the West. Without at least one of those regions -- Ontario, Quebec and the West, for those who didn't see it -- you can't be Opposition; without at least two of those regions, you can't be government.

If the Liberals are smart -- and they may not be -- they'll scour every inch of the country in search of Liberals and liberals, whether MPs, activists, or just vaguely interested, who could sit in the leader's chair for a decade or more. It will be that leader's job to rebuild the riding associations, engage the public, and provide a vision that a significant portion of the citizenry can adopt as their own.

Bob Rae is too old and has too much baggage to do any of that. He's too vulnerable to Conservative and NDP attacks, he's too embedded in the party's factionalization to try to rebuild it, and he still isn't more liked than Harper. He's a great House leader, don't get me wrong. Whoever the party leader ends up being, if it's not a sitting MP, Rae should remain the party's voice in the House. But if he's the permanent party leader, then the party just shot itself in the head.

Harper and Same-Sex Marriage

Tempest in a teapot.

Okay, fine, I'll explain it. I finally read through the documents that Kady O'Malley made available on Twitter, and they didn't suprise me in the least.

The documents submitted were pretty standard legal arguments -- a lawyer's job is to advance every possible legal argument that they can think of in order to support the view of their client. Those, in this case, included the prominent view, widely accepted in international common law, that citizens of one country may not be married in that country, despite getting married legally under the laws of another country.

No one in his or her right mind objects to lawyers throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the opposing side. That's the point. If we expect our politicians to interfere and make sure that only politically appropriate legal arguments are advanced, then we should also accept that our politicans are going to lose a lot more court cases.

The sensible objection that can be raised is that our government is falling down on the job when it allows a principle of common law -- that is, judge-made law -- to step in to a statutory gap. In this case, it would be quite possible, even easy, for the government to rewrite the relevant statutes to make clear that, as far as Canada is concerned, any couple married here is legally married, period. (And thus can legally divorce here.) You can't blame lawyers, or judges for that matter, for trying their best to argue cases and reach decisions on matters where the statutory authority has decided it just can't be bothered.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Weekend metal-blogging.

I get the feeling that this video is an obscure joke at someone's expense -- possibly the exec who paid for it.

Pain, "The Great Pretender"

Thursday, January 05, 2012

On faith.

"Faith" is an oft-cited word, particularly against atheist demands for proof of religious claims. But what does it mean?

It clearly can't just mean "this is unprovable", as what is unprovable is, to that extent, unbelievable. I can't prove, one way or the other, that there is a mind-independent reality. So, to the extent that I have no proof, I thus have no belief.

For example, I cannot prove, one way or the other, that tomorrow is going to happen. It might not -- the world might come to an end tonight, for example. And it might well -- after all, in the past, whenver I've wondered about tomorrow, it's gone ahead and happened. Can I really believe that tomorrow is going to happen? Not really; there's no particular content to that belief that I could commit myself to. If I purport to believe that tomorrow will happen, I'm playing a sort of game with myself, deceiving myself. The best I could do is believe that there is a good probability that tomorrow will happen, based on past experience.

(I should probably defend that idea at length; as it would be lengthy, take it as given for this post.)

The most defensible idea of faith I know comes from Kant. Kant argues for a notion of "rational faith", where faith picks up where reason gives out.

For Kant, reason can tell us only about things as they are experienced. This amounts to two slightly different claims. First, reason takes in information about the world through experience, principally sensory experience. Second, reason structures that information, providing a framework -- including such foundational assumptions as space and time -- within which the data of sensory experience can make sense. Together, these functions of reason generate knowledge.

Faith comes into play, in this framework, when the mind tries to go beyond reason, to reach to the limits of what can be thought.

One idea that one must have faith in is the existence of an external, mind-independent world. It's suggested by the fact that we have experiences apparently imposed upon us by something external to the mind. However, we can't know that it's there, in Kant's view, because that would require knowing something apart from the structuring function of reason, which is impossible. However, we can have faith in it, in that we can't help but think of it, and we don't know anything that contradicts it. (Simplifying a lot here, obviously.)

Freedom, in the sense of free will, is a similar idea that we must have faith in. We can't know that we are free -- it's not provable, it's not taught by experience. However, it's a background assumption we all come with which makes action possible at all. If we aren't free, then there's no such thing as real action, only caused bodily movements. So, faith is the available option.

God is a similar idea. God is suggested, not knowable, and thus is something we can have faith in.

I think this idea of faith is defensible. However, it's important to see how weak it is. It puts God outside the realm of what can be known -- permanently. It also makes belief in God optional. Faith is a choice, something that one must will oneself to do, and thus something that one can, rationally, refuse to do.

So, if this is the notion of faith that a theist wants to rely on, then the theist has to concede that atheism is just as sensible a view.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

On the ethics of piracy.

So, it seems that some version of PIPA/SOPA will become law in the United States. To no particular effect on those who can see the technical loopholes a mile away, but it's a nice illustration of the importance of having lobbyists promoting your interests in the capital. Similarly, we'll get some sort of bastardized version of same when the Conservatives revise the copyright law. Again, to no particular effect, but it's a nice illustration of the weaknesses of Westminster "majority" Parliaments. (Two different systems, two different problems. Ah, politics.)

I'm firmly in the camp of those who think there's no problem here to be solved. Media piracy exists because there's a significant underserved segment of the market. If media companies bothered to provide products and services that would suit the interests of that segment, then piracy would become a minor irritant at best.

It's often argued, though, that there's a fundamental ethical problem with piracy. Exactly what the problem is seems hard to articulate.

Sometimes, it's claimed that piracy is the same as theft, and as theft is wrong, so piracy is wrong. Two problems here. First, the analogy is obviously bad. Pirated material is copied, not taken, which makes it not equivalent to theft. Second, it's not true that theft is always wrong. Exceptions are numerous (e.g., for self-protection), so there is no general principle about the wrongness of theft that can be deployed here.

This position is sometimes revised to the claim that the real theft is the loss of income or sales due to piracy. Again, this is a terrible analogy: losing sales is in no sense like theft. If it were, then every time someone shopped around for a bargain, stores who didn't get that person's business would have been robbed.

The more interesting version of this point is that content creators are entitled to income from their endeavours. This is probably true, but true in general -- that is, everyone, including content creators, is entitled to income from their endeavours. The problems come in pointing out exactly what the creators are entitled to in return for their work. If the claim is "enough to live on", then I am sympathetic, but note that this should apply to everyone -- content creators are not special here. If the claim is "as much as possible", then the earlier point about market failure seems to come into play. In a competitive market, it's the producer's job to satisfy consumer demand, not insist that consumers consume whatever the producer feels like making.

So, there's something to the "piracy is theft" line, but only when it's elaborated to something like: "everyone is entitled to enough income to live on, which creative people try to earn through creative works, and piracy negatively impacts on that ability". And even then, it only shows that creative people need to either insist on a guaranteed minimum income, presumably from the state, or acknowledge that the market for creative work is changing, and adapt to it. There is no moral claim here against the pirates.

A different sort of claim that could be made is that copying a creative work is itself morally wrong. This is just not true. There's nothing morally wrong with reproducing a painting, song, or what have you for one's own benefit. Every time I find a comic on the web that I enjoy, and save a copy to my hard drive for future reference, I have made a copy for my own benefit. How on earth is that immoral?

The only possible justification I can see is a tragedy of the commons type argument: that when everyone is making copies for their own benefit, it leads to damaging consequences. Even granting the consequentialist frame, this doesn't put any responsibility on the shoulders of the pirates. After all, the point of the tragedy of the commons is that no one person bears responsibility for the bad outcome. It's the group as a whole -- which, in this case, would include the content creators as well as the pirates.