Archive for May, 2012

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

May 31, 2012 Leave a comment

When we last left off in this series it was with semi-sequel: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood in which Desmond had reached the apple of Minerva below the Colloseum in Rome, Ezio had ended the last of the Borgia’s and had begun the task of rebuilding the Brotherhood. When Revelations was released it was called the end of the Ezio trilogy, which I didn’t realize that this was a thing. In November-ish, Assassin’s Creed III is going to be released taking us from the Renaissance to Pre-Revolutionary Massachussetts. Yet we’ve had three games already, but they are more like sub-games and Revelations is more AC II.3 than it is a straight up sequel. Which isn’t to say that it’s short, or that the story is hasty, or that it is at all similar to the growing number of tepid sequels that are being pumped out by the game companies. It’s a full game, that will sort of stand on its own, although one of the story lines will make absolutely no sense to those picking up this, as their first foray in the series.

Spoilers ahead: but then again you’ve had over six months.

At the end of Brotherhood, Desmond had stabbed Lucy under the control of the alien Minerva. In response to this he lapsed into something like a coma, but the animus is keeping him alive. The only trouble is that he can’t get out and his mind is stuck in the machine. In it he encounters the consciousness of the mysterious subject 16 from the previous three games. A tortured victim of Abstergo who was thought to have died in the machine. In each of the previous games Desmond as Dante has always had a Virgil to guide him to his purpose. In the previous three it has been Lucy, Shaun, and Rebecca all acting as guides. Shaun handled the historical references with his dull saracstic British wit, Rebecca doing the technical, and Lucy with the overall mission. Here none of that is present, it is only the unhinged Subject 16 that seems to be cryptic for the sake of being cryptic, but generally just points and says ‘go there now and figure it out.’

That’s the Desmond story. As I said earlier this is the final of the Ezio trilogy. Ezio, having left the Order in good standing in Rome has traveled to Masyaf, the original headquarters of the order from the very first AC game to unlock a vault to discover the purpose of the order and what he ought to do with the apple. However, it has been captured and occupied by the Templars who try and kill him. Although Ezio escapes he has lost his equipment and most now flee to Constantinople to discover the five keys to the vault of Masyaf. One of which is beneath the Sultan’s palace in the city.

In the city we meet Yusuf Tazim, the leader of the Assassin’s Order in Turkey. We also meet Suleiman, the future Sultan of the Ottaman Empire, also called Suleiman “The Magnificent,” his jealous brother Ahmet, famed explorer/pirate/inventor Piri Reis, and get to tour various famous locales such as the Hagia Sophia. In short, it’s your typical AC game. What’s impressed me in the past about the series continues here but now it’s expected, and the polish has worn off. We’re also stepping away from a period of history and location that I am familiar with so that may contribute as well, but there is a lack of historical information that populated the previous two games. When it does appear it lacks Shaun’s wit and feels almost tacked on.

What is nice is the feeling that you aren’t alone. Having an established order in the city gives more of an epic feeling to the overall historical narrative that didn’t exist in the previous games. Sure, there were other Assassins like Caterina and Machiavelli, but seemed more remnants of a thing that was, rather than a thing that is. Here Tazim represents an a group fighting a war and they need help. This should have given Ezio a few assistants like the incredibly well done system from the last game, but for some reason you still have to go around doing the recruitment. It’s kind of old to be doing this.

What is new is that Tazim has given Ezio a hook for his arm blade that Ezio can use to travel through the city by means of zip lining along the various wires that for some reason are strewn about Constantinople. It’s kind of interesting, and it gives you a bit of an added reach in combat, but that’s really it. The other addition is that of Piri Reis and his bombs. Reis instructs you on how to create a series of hand grenades and anti-personal mines by mixing different kinds of gunpowder, shells, and secondary ingredients for a variety of effects. This is more of a mix and match method of creating chaos. You can use a time delay fuse on a hard shell, to set off either a smoke bomb, or a noise bomb to distract guards, or poison/shrapnel to kill others. There are contact fuses and mine fuses, etc. There are only in, truth, about nine different bombs you will use, with the possibilities being for more novel effect (goat blood and coin bombs).

The brotherhood system has been revamped as well. Now the assassin’s have more levels and can operate strongholds overseas. You don’t choose the weapons anymore, and while the system seems a bit deeper than it was in Revelations its hampered by a ridiculous tower defense minigame that serves no other point than to be a distraction from the story. Luckily though, you don’t have to do this too often, during my first play through of the game I did it twice, failing both times because I didn’t understand the system.

Playing throught the game, the highlight is definintely the interaction of Ezio with the other characters. He’s older now, much older than Revelations, and this is a unique take on the sequel. Typically sequels track the same character but they don’t seem to age or change in anything other than abilities. While Ezio is certainly deadlier than in his Florentine adventure, he is also wiser. The characterization of Ezio has really given the players a sense of the sweep of his life. As the game ends he departs Masyaf weary, retiring from the Order.

After finding one of the keys to the vault, we are also revisiting Altair Ibn Lahad, the central character from the first AC. This was an unexpected treat, as the first game had yet to find its voice and was saddled with repetitive game play. I’m going to spoil the hell out of this so stop reading:


The last image of Altair we have is his sealing the vault with the apple inside it. Then we do something that I haven’t seen a game do in a long time, die. That seems odd doesn’t it, I die all of the time in games. But I don’t mean you die and then you have to start over, I mean that the character itself sits down to die. Sure, it’s not a Call of Duty Game unless you get shot in the face or hit by a nuclear weapon, but this is somehow different. This is the end of the character’s life, and he merely sits down to rest. It’s a surprisingly peaceful end, and is treated not for the shock that the CoD series does it for; but merely to cap off the end of the character. Imagine of a Zelda game did that? During one iteration Link just lays down on a bed and closes his eyes…and that’s it. Altair’s time has come to an end, and as an elderly man he just accepts his fate. It’s an actual touching moment in a series that does know how to tell an emotionally compelling story.


End Spoiler: Aside from the lack of innovation, or a compelling mystery to solve (the puzzles are gone), the game feels unfinished and rushed into production. There are several glitches during the game, one in the beginning that had Ezio walking off a roof over and over again as soon as he climbed atop it, which made me turn off the game and restart the whole thing because I thought my Xbox was at fault. The weapon selection system (which has always needed some improvement) has an infuriating default system that constantly forces you to draw your weapon when you just want to select one to be at ready. This can be alarming to the numerous guards and can fail a mission right then. While the previous AC games have been great excursions into conspiracy and history this game doesn’t live up the standard they have set. It’s got all of the elements, but lot of it just feels forced. I want to know more about the history of the Hagia Sophia and the grand Bazaar, I want excerpts from the obscure books I had to find (in the previous games it was art, but at least then I was able to see the paintings), I want puzzles that test my logical capacity to the straining point, all of it in this game feels dumbed down and rushed.

If you are a fan of the series than you have to get the game as it fills in some story questions but all in all, this is like the second to last season of Lost. Sure it’s essential to the plot and is better than most of the other crap out there but it’s been done better before, and by the same people.


Categories: reviews, video game review

The Road to Atheism Part VIII: The Things God Doesn’t Care About

May 26, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s probably lucky for society that I turned out the way that I am because, if I were religious, I would have to be a fundamentalist…not the idiot Evolution denying, gay hating, anti-education, pro-war kind that have currently hijacked the American Republican party; but one of those that would strictly adhere to the rules that were laid out. God says, don’t lie, I won’t lie…ever. Things like that. The rules are pretty spelled out, yet being a strict religious person (as I was in my past) is difficult when you are a child. If you see your parents doing something wrong according to your religion, and you call them out on it, it isn’t they who feel bad it’s you. Because you get yelled at for questioning authority. Or you get into one of the earliest theological debates possible. I.E. If you catch your mom lying and tell her that she should tell the truth based on Commandment 8 (or 9 depending on which numbering system you use) she fires back with Commandment 4 (or 5) to honor your parents.* So who wins? God or Family? Apparently, according to my memory Family wins. Lying, is apparently not an absolute commandment.

This is tricky, because the commandment isn’t the same as I was taught as a kid. As a kid it was always, “thou shalt not lie,” but according to the bible it is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Ex: 20:16). Some scholars, and some non-academic religious types interpret the commandment literally meaning that one should not lie in court against they neighbor, or falsely denounce them. Obviously this makes a bit more sense as lying in court can have grave consequences. Under this determination, it would seem that Kant is more an absolutist than God when it comes to the lying issue. If god however doesn’t care about the little lies then why are we taught about the lying in the first place?

Answer: to keep little kids honest, until they learn for themselves that some lies can be easily gotten away with and there are no reprecussions. There are apparerntly little sins, those that wouldn’t even be considered venial, that while bad just aren’t the things that god cares about even though he forbids them on some level. It would be wrong to say that the realization was a major hurdle to my atheism, but it certainly was a step. I realized that there weren’t any reprecussions to breaking the rules, and that sometimes I was being actively encouraged to break the rules. I should lie to family members I don’t like when I see them, according to other family members. I shouldn’t covet my neighbor’s house but when I’m in it for the first time, I should pretend that I would want to live there. I should keep holy the Sabbath and not work, but if I still have to go to church (working to get there) and do my homework. The former is probably a good excuse, but the latter? If I didn’t have the work done on Saturday I should be kind of screwed by Monday.

Then there’s the shopping. All of the stores in every place that I have lived start their sales on Sunday. Encouraging people to break the sabbath by sending one group of people to work so that the other group of people can go to the stores and buy their stuff. And this is supposedly a Christian country. Christians don’t keep the Sabbath as much as the Jews, but even they have some strange ways of finding loop holes.

The day I write this on is Shavout, this is the Jewish holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah to the people on Mt. Sinai, which is strange because I thought Moses wrote it (even though American Founding Father Thomas Paine illustrated that this simply cannot be the case) and it is their Pentecost–fifty days from Passover. It is also a Saturday which means that around sundown the Sabbath starts. The effect of these two days has been that in my Jewish neighborhood there has been an endless parade of people walking by the front of my apartment to the Jewish Temple across the street from me. I could throw a rock and hit this place, that’s how close it is, and the people walking have decided that they would park their cars a little further away down by the corner of my street even though there is ample parking in front of my place and in the bank’s parking lot once it closes around noon. Also the streets closest to the place are conspicuously empty of any cars as well.

My hypothesis is that they are parking away from  the eyesight of the temple and then walking. Which kind of destroys the point. Or does it? If thou shall do no work on the Sabbath, I would think driving a car is ok, because it is certainly less work than walking (depending on the distance of course). Sure more energy is used but the exertion necessary to drive a car is profoundly less by the person. This of course is the difference of spirit/letter of the law. Which the drive-and-parkers are violating both. What they are doing is making sure no one in their community sees them breaking the law, but still breaking the law. Sinning is internal, it’s a matter of volition not of effect. Just because the Rabbi and the Temple-ladies (I’m assuming that they exist) don’t see doesn’t mean you didn’t do.

Of course what I am seeing now is just further evidence of an idea that I developed when I was devoutly religious, and for which the examples of such greatly outnumber the exceptions. That is that religious rules and edicts are more often than not followed or broken by matters of pragmatism generally and self interest in a close second. Lying is the best example, in general I should not lie, but a white lie doesn’t count and if the lie makes things easier on everyone else it doesn’t count either. I should pretend I’m sad at a funeral for a person that I didn’t know, I should tell a relative that I’m happy to see them even if it means I’m going to have to listen to their rants about how the banks are screwing them (specifically them that is), because these lies grease the social wheel. A person who is one hundred percent truthful isn’t going to be liked, a person that refuses to do anything on a Sunday (or a Saturday night to Sunday evening) isn’t going to be popular among people that do not share their view, so these rules are broken on an almost daily basis.

And…these weren’t considered wrong by anyone, in fact, I was encouraged to tell people there stories were interesting when they weren’t because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. To work on Sunday if my job called for me to work on a Sunday. Which of course, makes sense to me. Pragmatism is probably the best form of morality, sure it runs into problems of relativism and subjectivity and is inherently non-universalizable; but it is at least honest about it. Given the choice between lying and not-lying you just judge on a case by case basis. This is certainly the case in the political realm as Machiavelli has taught us, certain secrets have to be denied if the state is to survive, sometimes you have to send an army to kill others that “turn the other cheek thing” won’t allow a state to have either a military or a criminal justice system (I should note that the Catholic Church has a work around for both but the bible literalists do not).

No one does it, Christians should not have celebrated the death of Bin Laden, or in 2003 been so ardently in favor of going to war with Iraq. Muslims are supposed to conduct war based on very specific rules (not killing women, children, or the elderly; not harming fruitful trees, or those of monastic devotion according to Abu Bakr), yet none of the devoutly fundamentalist terrorists seem to follow that. Buddhists are supposed to reject all attachment to the world yet their religious orders still maintain titles and even have a centralized leader. In all of the violations of the rules laid out by religion we see the mark of pragmatism. How can one rectify being given a set of universal rules and then be told that some of them can be broken when it makes life easier? Is the theodicy of David Griffin supposed to trump the specific laid out religious doctrines?

It would apparently be so. When the good Christians of the U.S. were frevently opposing Health care reform on the basis that they didn’t want their money to go to the poor who didn’t earn it, I rolled my eyes wondering what specific cherry picking religion they listened to (I will note that not all of them opposed the law on these grounds but enough did). The rules I was being taught were losing their authority and their cohesion. The rules were now arbitrary, and most of them were either for pragmatic reasons of state, or would be broken for such. Doubt is a powerful thing and when you realize that two different rules could run into direct conflict, or that one rule could just be broken, well the whole thing begins to look shakey.




*It’s been so long since i have even concerned myself with the ten commandments that I had to look them up. Then I remembered that this is going to be difficult. The numbering system used is either Augustinian, which I was taught being raised Catholic, or Philonic based on the writings of Philo of Alexandria which is the oldest. There is also the Talmudic numbering system but since the Talmud is only supposed to be memorized from rote and not understood I think it’s safe to reject it.

Categories: philosophy, religion

The Road To Atheism pt VII: The Pipes are Calling You…To Hell!

May 23, 2012 Leave a comment

This chapter is the exploration of a bit of a mystery that was only solved a couple of years ago for me. Mostly because I didn’t understan that there was a mystery to be solved. Although it led me to the realization that many things we do, we do only because we were taught it and just accept those things as a way of life.

The neighborhood my parents are from is a thick Irish, Catholic, working class neighborhood in the city of Buffalo. Every year, they have their own St. Patrick’s Day parade, usually on the weekend that the official city parade is not on. For as long as I can remember, if I was living in the city at the time I went to the parade. Occasionally I would be in it. It involved a five mile walk in mid March. The weather was alternatingly tolerable to something akin to the migration over the now-extinct land bridge between Alaska and Asia. It’s not so troubling to do the walk, as long as you are moving you tend to stay a bit warmer than if you were watching. The worst thing about marching in a parade is the stop and go.

A parade is an incredible feat of logistics, for the most part the beginning for the first three hours there is the waiting. Then some more waiting in which nothing happens, but soon nothing continues to happen and then you get to start moving. Then, of course, you have to stop as the curve comes and the large floats have trouble negotiating the sharper turns. Once the parade started moving things went along pretty well, except that every once in awhile the parade would come to a dead stop–it would last for a minute or two, then we would continue moving. In my youth I just figured that this was due to some jam up with the floats.

I never thought to ask what the hold up was. Several years later, we were just watching the parade from Uncle’s house drinking canned Gennessee beer on an oddly warm morning. Usually we had watched the parade from a couple of blocks over, but this time we saw one of the myriad groups of bagpipers. As they walked in front of the neighborhood church they stopped, formed a circle, and then played a song. Upon finishing the song they resumed their formation and moved on.

Ok, I thought, that was weird. I wondered why this was the case, but quickly determined that this was one of the few ceremonies of Irish-Catholic culture that I was not familiar with. No, this was not the case. Later, I looked it up. I was prompted by a funeral much later than this event in which a bagpiper was outside of the church but did not come in to play his song (or dirge).

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to come in, or that he couldn’t fit it in the building, or whatever excuse one might think of. It’s that he wasn’t allowed to, forbidden by Catholic edict. Actually, that’s not entirely true. It’s not that he couldn’t come in it’s that his instrument couldn’t come in. The bagpipes themselves were forbidden because the instrument is deemed evil. Not exactly evil, but associated with two things that the church doesn’t approve of.

The first being that it is an instrument whose specific origin is to be played during warfare. For the marching of the troops and such. The second is that it is a pagan instrument. What bothered me about this was the idea that an inaminate thing could somehow be sinful. An endurant, something that exists but has no will, thus no capability to err, can somehow be disallowed. The association with warfare seems specious to me because I have been in many churches where images of the saints, angels, and such are carrying swords. The glorification of the deeds of both Moses and David are of their works of war, both led armies both killed a whole bunch of people. The idea that being developed for war somehow makes a thing not eligible for inclusion into a Catholic church isn’t really consistent with the church’s history. The pagan assocation actually makes sense…sort of. It makes sense in that they wouldn’t want to include recognized Pagan images in their churches (note that I use the word “recognized”), but it is just an instrument.

How many musical instruments have their origins in pagan societies? How about most of them. Drums are allowed, and while drums were used for many other things aside from war, I would think that they are more easily recognized as being an instrument of warfare.

Of course, a private organization is allowed to forbid what it wants to, but when a religious organization forbids something it carries more weight than just safety concerns. The Roman Church is, in effect, saying that in inanimate object is somehow sinful. Not the use of the object, if that were the case then the bagpiper could have come in with his instrument and not played it.

I once challenged an intro to Ethics class I was teaching to name a thing by which the very ownership of that thing could be considered evil/immoral. Not the use of the item, but just possessing it. I further clarified that you couldn’t be involved in the making of the item either, you just owned it (this prevented someone from saying “human-meat” which was an odd recurrence in that class). Apparently bagpipes are one of those things.

What was more odd to me than the actual ban, was that none of my family members questioned it. The celtic people are kind of known for the bagpipes, it’s a matter of tradition along with black beer, corned beef, and sheep meat; but they all accepted that in the religion that a strong majority of all Irish people believe in, one of their instruments is forever banned from being played in their building of worship. This is treated as a mere state of affairs, something ascribed to tradition.The idea of it being tradition so therefore it’s to be accepted is what I feel characterizes a great deal of religious thinking. Not only are people not going to question it, it’s not supposed to be questioned. The critical mind is supposed to be shut off because someone at sometime decreed that this was to be the case.

This is the ultimate lesson that I could not and still cannot accept. Arguments from common practice, or from common belief, are relegated to being fallacies in Philosophy. Examples of why are numerous. The worst part, for me, goes back to those numerous times that I have been told to be quiet in religion classes, that one isn’t supposed to question certain things but rather just accept them. If this was really supposed to be the case then why do I have the desire and the ability to question things? Is it one of those tests that I used to hear about? Then I guess I failed, but I somehow feel better for it despite what I was taught.

Categories: philosophy, religion

The Road To Atheism Part VI: Clerical Difference (?)

May 18, 2012 Leave a comment

1517, Martin Luther began a series of questioning of the Catholic reiligion by mailing his theses to an Archbishop in Germany by inquiring as the religious legitimacy of certain Church practices. There were a lot of stuff about relics, the status of the wealth of the pope, and most famously the sale of indulgences (a practice, I am told, that is being reinstituted) wherein a person pays for the absolution of their sins. This led to the excommunication of Luther himself, and the split of the Christian religion into Catholic and Protestant sects. These items are historical fact, although my explanation of them is all too brief. There were many other issues that led to the various splittings of the church, but this is one of the most famous. As I have stated throughout this series, I was raised Catholic, by a family of Irish descendants, in a particularly insulated suburb where the only religious difference beween us was whether we went to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church or St. Vincent Catholic Church.

The difference was nothing, I mean it’s a Catholic mass the building itself is inconsequential. The Catholic mass is going to be the same no matter where in the world you go, the language might be different, the homily might be a bit longer or shorter, but most everything is going to be the exact same. A priest candidate friend of mine once commented to me that the best advantage of the Latin mass was that the language barrier didn’t even exist (provided you spoke Latin of course). What I am, in short, saying was that encounters with people of other religions or even sects of the same religion were extremely rare. The best we got was probably the family that didn’t go to church (for reasons unknown and undiscussed) with whom we usually looked at the kid envious that he got to sleep in two days on the weekend instead of just the one.

Of course in religion class, we knew about Protestantism, I mean we learned about the historical nature of the split and how they believe in the same thing but are just different. The ‘different’ part was always stressed. It was they who were different from us. Which is the way that it goes, “difference,” is a reflexive identity principle according to Ontology. If X is different from Y then Y is different from X. Yet, there is also another version of “different” that means “odd.” The Protestants were odd, because while they believed in almost everything they couldn’t commit fully to the doctrine. The Pope held the keys of St. Peter, and the Protestants denied this was the case. Good Catholic boy that I was, I asked one day if I was out of town could I attend one of their masses and would that count toward my church attendance. The answer I received was mixed.

While the teacher of my seventh grade class didn’t run me out of the room screaming “heretic,” she said something along the lines of “if that’s the best you can do, then do it, but you shouldn’t.” (I’m oviously paraphrasing). The worry was that I would be attracted to the Protestent way of doing things and abandon Catholicism for them. Again, though, where was this going to come up? In my old neighborhood right now, the nearest non-Catholic church can think of is in the city of Buffalo. Now, there’s a ministry a mile down the road from where the Catholic church I attended is, but I don’t think that’s a place you go for services, rather a bible study place or something.

I’m sixteen and my cousin marries a Protestant and we went to the wedding, which was exactly the same as a Catholic wedding save one thing–the seats were padded and there were no kneelers. Otherwise it still took an hour, and I was still bored. I joked that the seats were much more comfortable and I could get behind this new fangled idea of not being in pain while waiting to leave which got me a stern look from two female relatives. To this day I don’t remember what earned me the look, the remark about being comfortable or the remark about “waiting to leave.”

Around that time of my life our parish Priest decided that we were going to have an ecumenical service (or celebration as they called it) and he was going to invite a Minister to come and speak during one of the services. I had to be around 16 or 17, because my faith was wavering, and I met this news with utter ambivalence. This was not the tone of the church ladies (the older hens who gossip and bend their intellects to making themselves look good in the view of the rest of the parishoners [in their heads anyway], every church as them) who believed that this was an affront to their faith. The minister came and went, and no, the Swiss guard didn’t show up carrying the fasces of the Pope or with bales of hay, jugs of oil, and Zippos. It was a non-issue.

The next week, the priest remarked that he wished that the two religions (sects really) could mend their differences and they could come back into the fold. It was a nice sentiment if he had stopped talking about half way through. To me at the time, and for the large part still now; it’s the same shit. But somehow Luther’s desire not to be ordered around by the Pope, makes him in the wrong. Yes, of course it does, but only to the Catholics. To Luther, it was the Pope that was in the wrong selling penance and asking the poor to build the great cathedrals and such. What neither side gets, is that the other side sincerely believes what they are saying. In the end though, having the minister visit was detrimental to my Catholicism. If only because I saw that someone else could believe in something different and still be just like me (i.e. white, male, Irish, suburban). It wasn’t like they were Muslims or Buddhists, or some foreign religion (which I now look back as being a really racist and also incorrect statement); but this guy was just like me and yet somehow he was technically a heretic.

The thing about his heresy was that it probably wasn’t even his choice. He grew up in a Protestant household in a protestant village or whatever and all he has ever known was that so how could that be considered sinful? So his religion didn’t believe that a dude in Rome wearing a three tiered crown got to make all of the rules without anyone’s say so, that didn’t seem exactly wrong, but still it was against the way that I was raised. Yet that difference between him and I began the thought that being Catholic was just tribalism (although I didn’t know the word for it then). I only thought this guy was wrong because I was told he was wrong, he was a Levinasian “other” that was not a member of my tribe. Yet unlike other forms of tribalism (where I am from, heritage, favorite Hockey Team) I could just choose to walk away from this one. That’s why everyone was so afraid of bringing in the other guy, because they might lose in the numbers. No one really believed god or the Pope was going to come down on the Priest for doing this? It was about the popularity contest and those little slivers of doubt are dangerous.

I mean apparently look where I ended up. The alternative though is isolationism, like the Mormons in Utah, or those crazy cults in Texas. It’s when we see that the heretics, pagans, and blasphemers aren’t that different than us, that religion begins to lose its hold. Or else we have to continue to demonize those different from us, and in this case how would that be justified? A political difference five hundred years ago means I have to think some guy in front of me is going to hell? Can you inherent sin? Apparently, that’s the whole deal with the Western Monotheisms.

Categories: philosophy, religion

Hypothetical Consequences (in which we discover that Kant is probably full of shit)

May 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Any first year philosophy student is going to hear two names, and that battle of the those two names in ethical theory. The first name is John Stuart Mill; Englishman, member of parliament, philosopher, manager of East Indies trading company. The second name is that of Immanuel Kant; philosopher….that’s it. Their names are eponymous of two differing and complete opposites on the spectrum of ethical theory for the former we have consequentialism in which we judge an act by the outcome of the act. For the latter we have that of non-consequentialism, in which the intent of the action, irregarding (see what I did there?) of the actual outcome of the action, determines the moral worth of the action.

Mill’s consequentialism, labelled under “Utilitarianism,” has the appeal of simplicity. Action X makes more people happy or better off than harming them, it’s a good action. It’s not only simple, it has also has the appeal of common sense. How can an action be judged as bad if it helps more people than it harmed? Well that’s where Kant and his non-consequentialism step in. See Kant reasoned that under Utilitarianism, you could accidentally create moral actions. For example we can look at Thomas Edison. During the “Current War” with Nikola Tesla, Edison wanted to promote his own Direct Current as being the electricity of the modern age as opposed to Alternating Current, which the world eventually adopted. AC is superior because it doesn’t require a power plant every couple of blocks. Edison knowing this sought out to discredit AC by recommending that it be used in the new fangled “Electric Chair” for New York. This had the effect of proving that AC worked and was superior to DC thus causing the adoption of AC. Edison accidentally caused the adoption of a modern efficient electrical grid, does that mean he was moral. Of course not, claims Kant, he didn’t intend for this to be the result he just dumbassed his way into it.

Kant’s method of intent is formulated by him as the Categorial Imperative, which states that any action that you do must be done in such a way that it can be conducted as a universal maxim of action. In other words, choosing an action means that you must choose the same way in all cases where it arrives. Obviously, if the action does not apply you cannot be obligated to perform it.

So an action of moral importance must be undertaken. If it is impossible that one can undertake the action when it applies that action is immoral. The best example of this is lying. If a person lies then their maxim of action is that one ought to lie when the option avails itself. Making this universal claim is to say that everyone should lie, which means that no one can tell the truth. When someone lies they are trying to convince the other person that what is false is true. Yet, if everyone is lying and everyone knows that everyone is lying this is impossible. You can’t convince a person that a lie is the truth if they know that you are lying (bullshitting is different, when you bullshit someone you are unconcerned with what they believe). Thus lying is impossible therefore immoral.

But…Mill would reply, what about in cases where lying produces more good than harm, and in fact, the truth produces nothing but harm. Would we not then, be compelled to lie? Kant says no, Kant’s ethics are utterly devoid of circumstance. So if we Godwin the argument, we say that you own a house in 1930s France, and are hiding a Jewish family in the attic. The SS stops at the door and asks if you are hiding Jews, you being the good Kantian that you are say yes, and bid them to enter. Good moral action? I suppose so. Mill would say no, and I think most people operating under any kind of common decency would agree. So the bad Kantian but the good person would say Nope, no Jews here (possibly spitting in feigned disgust that the Nazi could even suggest such a thing).

Kant actually addresses this in a letter. He states that if a guard shows up at your house and wants to arrest someone you should tell the truth. Otherwise when you lie and your friend leaves out the back he could run into the guard and be shot on sight. Thus your lie is repsonsible for his death. Of course, in the Nazi example, the family isn’t leaving but there is a chance the SS is going to sweep the house anyway and you might get shot on your own. However, telling the truth guarantees the family’s arrest. Mill gets favored here, but is there a real difference between Kant and Mill in this example?

I say, no. In both theories consequences are considered as being evaluative of the moral question. The difference is that Mill deals with actual consequences but Kant deals with metaphysical consequences. Even in the latter the metaphysics take a back seat to a hypothetical consequence. Yes the guard might catch the person running out the back, but if the person’s death is what we are trying to avoid in each moral theory, only by lying to the guard can we at least give the person a chance. Even if we ignore the concrete situation, the metaphysical consequence is still a consequence, it still–and this is important–deals with future action. If the future action of the liar is impeded by it no longer being possible to lie based on the universalizable maxim of an initial action, it’s a consequence of the action!

Mill, himself, makes this claim in “On Utilitarianism” yet it has gone largely ignored. This is probably due to the problem in Consequentialism where it apparently justifies the sacrifice of the minority for the benefit of the majority. While this is a large problem, it must also be remembered that Bentham’s object in originally writing the theory (he was the immediate predecessor to Mill and taught him) was to evaluate legal propositions in parliament. The intention was not to give a daily guide to the daily moral problem of the average person. While it is certainly possible I’m missing something, I can’t work out the issue in my head and come to a different conclusion.

Categories: philosophy

The Road to Atheism V: Moral Certainty

May 13, 2012 1 comment

Nine years of Catholic elementary school, then it was on toward the Catholic highschool. I’m not sure what the public school students took instead of religion class, but we had it. Everyday for thirty nine minutes, for four years we were in our Catholic Religion class. The first year, I have mentioned, was bible class. For me, having gone to the elementary school, it was pretty boring and I spent most of the time flipping through the bible looking for stories of war and sex (there are a few). I don’t exactly remember what the second year religion class covered. A quick visit to Google tells me that the first year wasn’t just the bible, it was the Old Testament. Sophomore year, was the New testament and the seven sacraments. These two years are merely historical in nature, with the end of the second being more theological but not delving entirely into theology. Neither of these classes contributed much into my current status. It would be nice for me, now, to say that I somehow noticed the contradictions in the story–but that would be dishonest. I grew up with the stories, I believed them because I grew up with them. I had no reason to think that such contradictions mattered. Especially, because, Catholics are not bible literalists.

The third year was where things got heated. Third year religion began inquiries into morality, specifically Catholic morality for obvious reasons. I couldn’t really explain what my morality was prior to this class, I had some of my own ideas but for the most part I subscribed to the idea that a person was immoral if they harmed other people purposefully. For other issues I just conceded to the religious ideas that I was taught. This class was susposed to explain how the Catholic church arrived at their moral compass, and how they handled certain issues that did not appear in the bible (like abortion for instance).

I may consider the conclusions that the Catholic church arrives at to be incorrect, but I will not fault them on method. Being a Catholic priest means that the man has gone to many many classes. The people they gather to consider issues of moral worth have long debates about the topics, they even have advocates for the opposing position. Famously, the church hired super atheist Christopher Hitchens, to argue against the beautification of Mother Theresa. They do consider all points of view on these things to their great credit. This was instructed to us, I felt that this meant we were free to disagree with their ideas. This was an error.

As I must honestly credit them, I must also criticize. One thing that always stuck in my mind was the idea of infallibility. The Holy See, has this attribute that once it decrees something that decree is universally true for all people in the view of the Church. It can’t be argued with for any reason other than as an exercise in intellecutal debate. That debate must always end with agreement. This is one of the lasting contributions that the Roman Empire gave to Roman Catholicism, once the emperor has made a declaration it might as well have been coming from god himself. Upon learning this I thought it was odd that anyone could hang a cross in the same room as the American flag. Didn’t my history class down the hall teach me that this country was founded on the idea that such royal edicts wouldn’t be tolerated?

The issue we were discussing was Euthanasia, “the good death.” The Church opposes it. I disagreed. Now, I disagreed because I didn’t see the difference between refusing treatment and overdosing on pain medication, if every other circumstance was the same. To me, it seemed like the Church was splitting hairs. You can let them die on their own but you can’t do something that kills them? Letting them die was the same thing to me, it was mere rationalization to say that it was different. An act of ommission was still an “act” and to say otherwise was ridiculous. I said as much to the priest and was promptly sent out of the room. The only difference was that this time I was being sent to his office, rather than to linger in the hall. I knew I was in trouble, but again all I had done in my mind was state an objection.

I sat in his office waiting for the bell that signaled the end of class. It would be nice to write about the fear and dread of what was coming. However I possessed that youthful defiance that teenagers possessed. I knew two things: that I hadn’t done anything wrong as in breaking the code of conduct in the class. We were engaged in a debate, so that much was simple. The second thing was that he could only give me detention. Sure he could give me a week if he felt necessary but I didn’t warrant the dreaded Saturday detention, I knew the rule book enough to know that. He walked in, and the first thing I did was apologize for the manner of my position.

My reflection during that period of time, did lead me to one realization: I had yelled the part about splitting hairs. I had also called the rationalization “crap.” Bad form indeed.

The first thing he said was that it may be hard to accept a theory that conflicts with some personal event.

“Personal event.” In his view, the only way that I could be disagreeing is because I had a relative or friend that this happened to. This was not the case. I was disagreeing with the idea because it was a terrible idea. Infallibility isn’t just the notion that you were never wrong but that you are incapable of being wrong. This is of course wrong. I knew that you couldn’t split this hair, although the church wasn’t just saying that it could but that I must. This was the first moral disagreement I had and it was based entirely on theory. The person who decided that an incurable painful disease shouldn’t have to endure suffering just to postpone the inevitable wasn’t immoral. He wasn’t hurting anyone, if anything he was reducing the amount of pain in the world. To say that otherwise was objectionable to me. Not only did the morality of the church now come into question, but the whole authority of the Pope himself was now suspect. I disagreed and while that gave me a bit of trepidation it quickly passed. This was also the first time I ever seriously questioned a teacher, and came out knowing that I was right.

I realized that ecclesiastical authority was based on my consent and this time I wasn’t giving it. I was certainly on the path to freedom from religion at this point.


Oh, and I didn’t get detention either. I was just told to keep it down.

Categories: philosophy, religion

Designing an Argument (my non-Academic version of the Stoicism paper)

May 11, 2012 1 comment

Every now and again it crops back up in the news where some group tries to make sure that biology isn’t taught in biology class. That’s what the story actually is, we can get into some discussion that’s about whether or not god exists, or whether the schools are trying to make sure that their students become atheists, or however it gets spun. The real story is that Christian Fundamentalists, who take their revised edition of the bible literally, want to make sure that no one learns that the bible could not be taken literally, and thus biology cannot be taken as biology. So they come up with the idea that controversial ideas should not be taught in schools. Tennessee has recently passed a law that forbids the teachings of scientific ideas in science classes, this from the birthplace of Al Gore (as it also contains global warming–another “controversial” issue to those who make up controversy).

As readers well know, I’m an atheist, but I try really hard to not be a dick about it. It doesn’t help to be that way as it just feeds into the stereotype that already exists. The first mistake that ID people make is conflating two different definitions of the word “theory.” Scientifically a theory is a tested hypothesis that has been thus far confirmed, like gravity. Sure there may be some questions about how it works, or more importantly why, but its been tested and retested and labelled confirmed. I don’t know when the scientific community decided to do away with the word “law” but its gone. The more common use of the word theory is like “thought” or “idea.” As in “I have a theory that my pen is in my car.” The more apt word would be “hypothesis” since it can be tested.

To call a thought scientific, is to subject it to one of two standards (this is a matter of some philosophical controversy), one is to say that the idea is verifiable while the other is to say that it is falsifiable. The former means that the idea can be objectively verified, this is the standard of Wittgenstein. If I say that all crows are black, we have to come up with the process by which it could be verified–by, say, looking at crows and seeing whether they are black or not. It does not matter whether the crows are black, but that we have a standard by which we could test the truth or falsity of the statement. The latter, that of falsifiability, is to figure out if it is possible that the idea could be proven wrong. While this seems counter-intuitive it, in my opinion, is the stronger idea. The question, more succicntly put, is what would it take to show that the idea is wrong. Evolution is an idea that passes both criteria. ID or creationism does not.

The point is that one of biggest, and best, arguments for the existence of god is related to this controversy. This is the design argument which is commonly associated with what is known as Paley’s Watch. Briefly, this idea is that if the world appears to operate according to some design, and no design exists without a designer (law of causality) then there must be a universal designer. William Paley used the analogy of a watch to drive it home. He claimed that if we found a watch we would assume that someone made it and dropped it where we found it. Only a fool would think that it just randomly generated on its own. If we look at a rock, we would not make the same assumption–but why not? A rock is formed according to certain laws, it has a pattern that is seemingly not generated randomly. Almost every ID/Creationist argument I have read has alluded to Paley’s Watch in some manner, a good number have stated it outright.

It’s compelling, but is not without its errors. The irony is that in trying to prove the biblical notion of the created universe the Creationists have latched on to a pagan argument. Cicero makes this exact claim long before the bible was compiled. The only difference is that he didn’t use the example of a watch, he used an example of an armillary sphere (or orrery sphere). This device was a mechanical model of the earth, sun, and the five known planets that showed their movements. Cicero states that even a Briton or a Scythian could not look at the sphere and think that it wasn’t made (his racism not mine). So far, this is the same argument. Anti-evolutionists usually stop there, but Cicero’s argument goes on and in fact is much superior.

He continues that if we are saying that the Armilary sphere was designed, then it was the product of reason. As opposed to the randomly formed universe, which would not then be the product of reason. This would entail that the mockery of the universe, the sphere in question, is superior to the thing that it mocks. i.e. a statue would be superior to the person that it was modeled after (to use anothe analogy). Therefore the universe is a designed thing. Cicero uses the armillary sphere because it was the most complex mechanical instrument at the time, just as the watch was for Paley. The advantage of Cicero’s version is that it rests on something tangible, the heavens, as opposed to time which precludes Paley from continuing on in the same manner. You couldn’t say that it would be foolish to claim that a watch is greater than time–they are too entirely different things. Yet Paley’s watch is still asserted with little to no nod toward its Pagan ancestor.

What’s even more ironic is that the development of the idea is similar to evolution given the increased complexity of a watch over the armillary sphere.

Ultimately, no matter which argument that you subscribe to, it fails. The shortcomings of the arguments are probably what forced contemporary philosopher Van Inwagen to offer his own version. He argues that because the laws of the universe are just so, there is life. And that to claim such things are done so randomly would be like getting hit by a lightening bolt, while winning the lottery, while being eaten by a Great White Shark, in Iowa (my simile not his–because he’s not as awesome at generating random occurrances). For instance if we took the gravitational constant: 6.67300 x 10-11m3kg-1s-2 and were to change any one of those numbers, mass falls apart. If the earth were in any one of the orbits of the other nine planets it would either be too cold or too hot to sustain human life, if you….get the idea.

Van Inwagen’s argument is that these numbers are too specific to be random. Just as spherical implosion atomic weapons have to be calibrated a specifc way to ensure critical mass, the universe only exists because of a specific calibration and that calibration needs a calibrator.

Three instantiations of the same basic argument. The same basic, faulty argument. Each of these are mere appeals to common belief, argument from anecdote. Sure a watch was designed, the armillary sphere was designed, the machine was calibrated; those can all be granted. Is it impossible, however that they were not? Unlikely, but not impossible. It might not pass the judicial test of reasonable doubt, but this isn’t a court of law–it’s metaphysics and the gulf between possible and probable is as vast as that between probable and improbable. Sure I will agree that a watch was designed, but that doesn’t mean that the solar system was, in fact there is no reason to think that it was at all. The measurements that we have which give us the impression that things were designed, are measurements we created based on arbitrary numbers. For Van Inwagen’s argument to be correct it would be the same to say that since there are 1000 meters in a kilometer, that relationship is too coincidental to be random therefore there must be a god.

Sure, if gravity was slightly different there would be no matter, but also, there would be no gravity. The cart is put before the horse in this case. We already exist so the design arguers are claiming a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument. We exist therefore the world was created so that we could exist. While I can’t prove that the universe was randomly generated, I can’t accept these arguments from design either.

Categories: philosophy, religion