Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Left Wing Intellectuals: Really?

On Newsnight last night, the Daily Mail's Stephen Glover and a philosophy professor called Barry Smith were discussing Labour MP Barry Sheerman's statement that most of those who voted Remain in June's EU referendum "were the better educated people in our country".

They discussed the fact that a high proportion of Remainers were university educated students, and that among the 'intellectual' demographic a high proportion of them are left wing - by which I assume they mean economically left wing (they never said).

Both contributors spent their time analysing why so many students are left wing, whether they are being coerced or compelled by university lecturers, whether those lecturers suffered heavily from confirmation bias, and why young people begin as lefties but end up much further to the right when they have grown up, had some more life experience, become smarter and more worldly lived a few more years.

Yet both failed to arrive at the primary and most obvious reason why young people start as lefties and undergo a gradual metamorphosis into capitalists - it's because when they are young they have no capital, and do not feel the costs of the policies they support (they might feel differently if they understood why it is their older selves that will end up paying for socialist policies anyway, but we've covered that before).

Young people are generally more fancifully idealistic too, with less life experience; are more easily driven by social conformity than older people; and still at the stage when their economic awareness aptly comes under the maxim "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing".

Consequently, whether on average the young people in London and Bristol who voted Remain are better academically educated than the older people in Lincoln and Hull who voted Leave is neither here nor there - because both groups had obvious personal incentives for voting as they did, and turkeys are never going to have a very balanced view on the topic of Christmas.

Because both groups had numerous personal incentives for how they voted, it is fairly obvious that there will be good and bad reasons why young people voted Remain, and good and bad reasons why older people voted Leave. That's one good reason why on this occasion it doesn't really matter all that much whether Remainers "were the better educated people in our country" - because what makes them better educated academically is not primarily what is behind their reasons to vote to Remain.

If there were a statistic released today that said half of the doctors in the NHS never studied medicine, then it would matter, because studying medicine is a necessary requirement of being a doctor. Studying chemistry, biology and English literature (while all excellent subjects) has no real bearing on a person's understanding of the merits and demerits of being in the EU, so it's a largely unimportant statistic to bandy around.

The only really important consideration regarding how people voted in the EU referendum is the number of voters whose main personal interests in the result are to do with what's best for the UK as a whole, whether the EU is a net force for good or not, and more long term, what's best for the other nations of Europe and the rest of the world too.

Even if that proportion of the demographic that rigorously understands all this is in the tiny minority, it hardly matters at all. Good and reliable opinion is contingent on expertise not on consensus. In a room of 500 people where only 1% of them are particle physicists, if you're looking for advice on Fermi–Dirac statistics you will very likely learn more from the minority 5 than you will the other 495 people combined - and I fancy that something similar can be said about Brexit.

For further reading, my own contributions to the EU referendum debate can be found on the right hand side bar, most comprehensive is The EU Referendum: Remain or Leave? You Might Like To Ask The Question In Another Way

I also explained why I think One Day Remainers Will Be Relieved Brexiteers

Monday, 30 October 2017

Robots, The Turing Test, Defining Life, & All That Jazz

With the rapidly increasing technological capacity of artificial intelligence, there are all sorts of thoughts and opinions doing the rounds about robot intelligence, and whether robots will ever have intelligence on a level with humans, and whether they can ever have feelings that are qualitatively comparable to the feelings we experience.

There is a sense in which things like technology are combinatorial; that is, where new technologies arise from existing ones - the constructive aspect of technology and human endeavour is an example of creating systems out of other aspects of the self-same systems. The term for this is called 'autopoietic' (it's from the Greek, it means 'self-creating'). Of course, these systems don’t create themselves on their own - they require the agency of human minds, a little like how coral reef creates itself from itself with the agency of small organisms.

Now when one thinks of nature and the huge potential with which she endows us, we see a similar situation occurring - only in the grand scheme of things the mind is a stupendously complex thing doing the creating: it builds on its neurological composition, on its innate cognition, on experiences, on receiving information, on analyticity, on processing, and it even has facilities (specifically, the dopamine neurons in our angular cingulated cortex) through which we can become aware of patterns and formations which, when conflated with memory and experience, alert us to deviations which help with perceptions like 'trust' and 'reliability'.

Some biologists define life in a similar way - as an autopoietic system - that is, one whose constituent products sustain the structural integrity in order to propagate its genetic material. But that doesn't really tell us very much, because it fails to zoom in on what is a whole ladder of vast complexity regarding sentience and consciousness.

We have often asked whether other animals have consciousness like us, and whether a machine could ever think in the same way humans think (in this blog post here I elaborate on why I think it's impossible to replicate the human brain). But here’s the fundamental problem; the trouble with consciousness is that it is so hard to define that it is all but useless to claim such a thing to be existent in something that isn't human.
In Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer gave his own version of the Turing Test by considering a man and machine. To determine whether a machine is conscious it would have to pass tests that look for the presence of the same kind of consciousness that humans exhibit.

In the past I've volunteered to interact with one or two Turing-type programs in which participants were able to engage with a 'mind' that responds to your typing, and you it, in order to see if volunteers can distinguish between a computer pretending to be a person, and an actual person on the other end of a keyboard. My conclusion was that it was quite evident that it is easy to tell a computer with its rule that transforms my comments into a reciprocated sentence. 

Just like Searle's Chinese Room experiment, a program that simulates the ability to understand Chinese is not proof that the machine understands the meaning of what it returns - it can simply be programmed to respond by use of correct symbols. The qualitative difference between this kind of rule-based response and a genuine human is immense.

Incidentally, from feedback I received, I was one of only three people to successfully *out* the computer as being non-human. I am not sure how the other two volunteers managed it, but my method was to try to use a linguistic trick that I conjectured a human would comprehend that a robot unfamiliar with subtle human nuances may not. So I asked the computer to give a view on a little syllogism I created:

Nothing is better than eternal paradise
A weekend in Great Yarmouth is better than nothing
Therefore a weekend in Great Yarmouth is better than eternal paradise

You can see what I did there with the wordplay on 'nothing'. I figured that a human would get it but a robot would not, and that turned out to be the case as I exposed the program doing the typing as being non-human.

My gut feeling is that one of the major hurdles in our ever being able to declare a robot as being alive in any meaningful sense is that the term 'life' is either subjectively definitional as a human construct, or it is far too complex to be properly defined (sometimes both).

Consider the question of whether a virus is classed as a living organism. Definitions of this kind are somewhat imprecise simply because we are relying on our own definitions of what is living and what is not. When dealing with such issues, we mustn’t ever get caught in the trap and forget that the things we are defining are done so within the definition of the languages employed, and that definitions become less fuzzy as we become more precise about where to draw the line. The chances are the question of whether a virus is a living organism or not will not apply to the science of thirty or forty years henceforward.

The notion of things like species, genetic similarity, and even in many cases ‘life’ itself, are humanly constructed notions that help us classify and categorise what we have discovered. The reason people disagree so much on abortion issues is because they can't agree on what constitutes life - it is not because they disagree on whether murder is bad. Some people argue that life begins at the point of conception because they consider life to be 'information', and they maintain that the information to create a human is already present upon fertilisation. In that case, if we copied the information onto a CD (it would fit) I assume they must then believe that the CD is alive. Further, if a cell is life, does that mean a virus is alive? Such issues show how people get into epistemic difficulties.

A virus has the genetic information necessary for its own growth and propagation, but it requires the machinery from a host cell to do so. Thus if we define ‘life’ as autonomous growth and reproduction, then by that definition a virus is not truly alive: a virus is acting in nature’s physical laws but it is not answerable to human descriptions – it is humans that have defined living organisms as being able to adapt to their surroundings, and being able to achieve homeostasis, and being able to identify with proteins, and having a characteristic genetic code, and having the ability to reproduce. 

Viruses do fit some of the criteria; they do have genetic material and they have both living and nonliving characteristics, but as we’ve already said, they do not survive without the metabolic machinery of host cells for survival and propagation.

That was the definitional ambiguities, but now to complicate matters further, consider a thought experiment I wrote a while back, which tries to cover the second part of the equation - the vast complexity of life:

Think of the notion of removing atoms one by one in the physical world, and imagine we have a method of physically doing so with ultimate computational precision and high speed capacity. If I reduce bit by bit a plane or a car or a microwave to a random aggregation of atoms and then reassemble them exactly as they were, then I would have a fully working plane or a car or a microwave, because neither of these systems is biologically alive. But if I did the same to an insect, a bird or a human (at several trillion atoms at a time), there would come a point when its being 'alive' would cease. 

If I reassembled those atoms exactly as they were I would never reconstitute life, because once a thing dies it cannot be brought back to life. At least that is our current understanding of biological systems. But do we believe this only because of our limitations in reassembling the atomic or sub-atomic structure back to full constitution?

In other words, if, when a young bird died by hitting a tree, I had the apparatus to reassemble its structure into the exact atomic form before it flew into the tree, would it be alive as it was before? I think the idea of life as being explicable in terms of matter, information and computation is interesting, because it leads to the question of whether it can be reconstituted with the ability to reassemble matter, or whether there is some law in nature that would preclude this.

To know if the bird's life can be reconstituted after death with the right retaining of atomic structure we have to know what life is. There are practical problems with this. In the first place, we are alive, but we cannot step out of this state of being alive to measure its true complexity, and we can't therefore look back in on this perspective and know whether our judgements of the relations between life's constituent parts are accurate. 

Yes, on the face of it, we know the difference between a live mouse and a dead one, but we don't know if the complex internal arrangements of substances that make up the mouse's state of being alive can be brought back once that state has ceased, or whether there are barriers unknown to us.

Our definition of ‘life’ seems to me to be far too simple to capture all the goings on. What my thought experiment indicates is two things; 1) definitions of life probably are arbitrary and humanly constructed to remain consistent with the utility of definition. And 2) the physical universe probably conceals enough complexity to render those definitions nigh on impossible to ascertain once we begin the componential process.

Consequently, then, if we do ever get to the stage where some people think they can define life sufficiently to ascribe those properties to the cognition of artificial intelligence, you can bet your bottom dollar that there'll be all sorts of quarrels and protest groups much like there are now in the abortion debates, the genetically modified food debates and the cloning debates.

Further reading -----    Why Robots Won't Make Most Of Us Unemployed

                                    Apocalyptic Chickens Coming Home To Roost

Saturday, 28 October 2017

On Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, Supply & Demand, Feminism & A Quote To Die For!!

The Harvey Weinsteins of this world may be grubby sexual opportunists, but the people calling for his head on a platter need to understand the landscape on which the likes of Harvey Weinstein operate. Not that that's any excuse for his behaviour (obviously!!) - but it does have a context, and it's a context that the people that become his victims help facilitate.

The way I usually summarise these situations is like this: When demand astronomically outweighs supply in a winner takes all market, the ground is fertile for manipulation and coercion. And that's what we are seeing here.

When consumers wanted to fill their tanks during the petrol crisis, some garages took advantage with higher prices, ditto water sellers after hurricanes hit America. When there is exceedingly high demand in a situation with very limited supply, the suppliers can have excessive power over the consumer, because power lies in the hands of those with a scarce resource in high demand.

Take any institution in which wannabe celebrities court fame - Hollywood, The X Factor, even the BBC -  and you will find my formula (demand astronomically outweighs supply in a winner takes all market) is highly prominent. Supply and demand are in extreme disequilibrium on Hollywood's yellow brick road, which means the power is skewed in favour of people like Harvey Weinstein, and heavily skewed against people wishing to carve out a career in Hollywood, and who may make themselves vulnerable if they think it will give them a leg up (pun intended).

Aspiring stars in a winner takes all market already have to fight hard to get on the ladder to stardom: usually their career begins with long hours, low pay, fringe roles and susceptibility to manipulation and coercion that wouldn't occur to anything like the same extent in other industries.

Just like how readers have to take a smidgen of responsibility for what the gutter press releases in its newspapers, would-be celebrities should be mindful that obsessive courting of wealth and fame makes them susceptible to the thrall of powerful people who will capitalise on those hopes and dreams (this does not exculpate the perpetrators {obviously!!}, but it's true that some crimes have a wider context that should be explored*).

What about the #MeToo gesture?
Here's the thing. On October 17th I made a prediction - I warned that genuine sufferers of abuse may end up being washed into similitude by floods of socially-conformist #MeToo gestures - and that is precisely what happened, I'm sorry to say.

But naturally, that isn't all that has happened - and despite some inevitable protestations to the contrary, I never said otherwise (again, obviously!! Who would?) The positive side of #MeToo is that it hopefully helped a lot of women who've been abused - to be reached out to by friends and family that otherwise might not have known, and to be supported in issues they may now feel more comfortable confronting.

Yet, alas, it also created a platform for the misandrous wing of feminism to spew out some pretty unpleasant things - and that is what I also warned against - that scores of socially awkward and intellectually inept women would take to their keyboards to paint a far too bleak picture of men, and hard-sell a worldview of women as being little more than pathetic victims in a harsh, patriarchal watered down version of The Handmaid's Tale.

To me, and I'm pleased to say, to quite a few women I know who are with me on this (pugnacious feminism is, thankfully, a minority level phenomenon), this radically departs from the well-worn wisdom that the best way to achieve progress for women and men is to be conjoined in striving for progress for both sexes, not in pitting one sex against the other in completely erroneous pursuits (like this one).

There are loads of examples I could pick, but as a couple of Facebook friends shared it, let's go with this one by a feminist called Jeni Harvey who writes a charming little piece in which she refers to people who don't agree with her as 'pus gatherers'. She divides these 'pus gatherers' into three categories, with each of her categories being as myopic as it is charmless:

1) First is blanket denial, whereby men and their cheerleaders deny that sexual abuse on such a massive scale exists at all. Women are fanciful, lying, exaggerating for effect. There is a bandwagon onto which women are joyfully leaping in an attempt to malign men and revel in their perceived victimhood.

Er…yes, damn right - we are denying that in the UK sexual abuse exists on a massive scale. It does not. Several things are getting erroneously conflated here. Of course we are all too painfully aware that every instance of sexual abuse is one instance too much - and we will always fight against it (I've done so myself in the past), but the vast majority of men are not sexual abusers, and it's a lie to say otherwise.

And on the second point, again, yes, damn right, there is a bandwagon onto which some women are joyfully leaping in an attempt to malign men and revel in their perceived victimhood. Once again, if Jeni Harvey is oblivious to this, she is ultra-selective in how she views reality.

2) Second, we have the more modern form of denial which concedes that yes, sexual abuse is a common problem, although not a gendered one. There are simply some people that abuse other people and all abuse is equally bad. The inconvenient and statistical truth that 98% of all sexual crime is committed by men, and that the overwhelming majority of their victims are female, can be pasted over with obfuscation and the politics of individualism.

This still skews the reality somewhat, and misses the point in doing so. Even if 98% of all sexual crime is committed by men, and even if the overwhelming majority of their victims are female, this still compromises a relatively small proportion of the population. Again, that doesn't trivialise all the dreadful instances of abuse that do go on, but to pretend this is a problem that indicts most men is a lie.

Moreover, even if we move away from sexual abuse onto other things that social justice warriors like to bemoan - like sexism and racism - you'll find this is greatly exaggerated.

If racism is accurately defined as:

"Unfair and unkind prejudice against someone based only on ethnicity or skin colour"

And if sexism is accurately defined as:

"Unfair and unkind prejudice against someone based only on their sex"

Then there is very little racism or sexism in the UK. Almost all prejudices (both fair and rational, and unfair and irrational) are not intrinsically about sex or ethnicity, they are about the distal factors associated with those things. I think despite all the bellowing out there, it is fairly obvious that actual racism and sexism is very miniscule in the UK.

By the way, don't be tempted to lump Internet abuse into neatly demarcated categories like sexism and racism, even when it looks very much like that is what it is. Most Internet abuse is driven from another place - a place of immature anonymity which takes the personhood out of communication. Face to face, most of these online trolls wouldn't act like as they do - social media is a mask behind which many insecure people spew out their bile because, like the experiments of Millgram and Zimbardo, they can do so under a different, morally less-culpable, persona.

3) Lastly, we have the outraged hyperbole. The shock! The fury! Whoever could have imagined such horrifying evil existed in the world?!

Oh do stop it! Look, those men that abuse women are awful, but most men would stand right behind you in a direct challenge to abuse. Men in general have done so much for women (and women for men) - men have gone to war to defend the household and toiled and sweated in hard industry to provide for their families. They do not deserve this level of misandry - and if the signposts were reversed, women would rightly be calling out misogyny.
"Do they seek to ameliorate or weaponise suffering? If it's the latter, they're fakes"

Melting socialist snowflakes
One final point and I'm done. It's no coincidence that most of the belligerent feminists that feed off female insecurity are also statist socialists who rather resemble conspiracy theorists in their distrust of markets, competition and the individual ability to act according to liberty and the free exchange of opinions and ideas.  

And I'm afraid that this is the triune responsibility of their parents, the education system and the media - all of which play their part in leaving young people thoroughly ill-equipped to deal with the society into which they will grow. Many are corralled inside a gilded cage of paranoia, and are imbued with a spirit that gravitationally pulls them towards safe spaces and an inability to encounter views and opinions that radically depart from their own.

This gets sold as society being more tolerant, sensitive and understanding - but if only that were true - it is a small subsection of society being selectively tolerant, sensitive and understanding towards views they agree with, and radically intolerant and dismissive of contra-opinions and afraid to have their ideas challenged. They are putting up walls for wallflowers, and this is a sure-fire route to an exaggerated perceived victimhood that convinces itself to look for offence, unfairness and injustice when it isn't there.

An analogy for the harm it does - when a child falls over and grazes their knee, if a parent fusses with 'Oh diddums' they will start to become cry babies every time they fall over. If a parent says 'Now come on, up you get, it's only a fall' they will habitually start to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move along. 

The biggest amnesia from which the young need to be rescued is the one whereby they have forgotten that it's the free exchange of opinions and ideas that breeds the highest levels of tolerance, progression and clarity of facts and truths.  

I am going to close with an awesome statement I read the other day from someone called Kristina Blount Guyban. I don't mind admitting it brought the vapour of a tear to my eye:

"We will not sit back and watch our husbands and sons be disrespected by women who don't know them because they are men.

We will not sit back and watch our husbands and sons be lumped into the same category as disgusting and depraved men.

We will not sit back and allow the world to become a place that is hostile to our growing sons just because they are men.

We will not allow our husbands' masculinity and manhood be dragged through the mud because some women think all men are worthless.

We will not sit back and watch our hard working husbands sacrifice blood sweat and tears for our families only to have their earnings taxed to pay for things that are against their values.

We will not sit back and watch the legacies our husbands are building be torn down. This is our proclamation: some say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, we say hell hath no fury like a woman defending her husband.

We're not here to oppress you. We are here to defend our men. Don't underestimate us. We are smart, we are brave."
Kristina Blount Guyban

Amen! And I reciprocate that wholeheartedly to all women out there, and, of course, men too!!

 * We've been here before with feminists getting the wrong end of the stick about an argument - Arguing With Feminists About Rape

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

On Giving To Beggars

The New Statesman has a provocative article out, entitled Why you should give money directly and unconditionally to homeless people - educating us about how to treat the homeless:

"Give your cash directly and unconditionally to homeless people. Don’t just buy them a sandwich from Pret. They’re not four. They have the right to spend their money as they choose – and it is their money, once given. Don’t just give to people performing, singing, or accompanied by a cute dog. Buskers deserve a wage too, of course. But homeless people are not your dancing monkey and they shouldn’t have to perform to earn your pity."

The attitude of the article writer is laudable - for of course we should treat homeless people with the utmost respect. But I have serious doubts about the reasoning - I think if, ultimately, you really want to help homeless people, suggesting we give directly to them is the opposite of good advice.

We all know that if there are concerns about giving a beggar some money because he might spend it on drink and drugs, it is easy to buy him food instead. But even that doesn't go far enough - I'm not sure that giving them anything is helping them in the long run - if you want to help the homeless it is probably better to offer a financial contribution to the agency set up to help them than it is giving them things directly.

In the long run, if giving to beggars creates a culture in which beggars know they can get money on the streets from passers by, it will only incentivise more begging. If prospective beggars can earn three or four thousand pounds a year with few opportunity costs from taking up begging, then they may well invest a lot of their time taking up begging.

Conversely, if beggars could earn only a few pounds a year from begging, they would be less inclined to spend time begging. It's almost trivially obvious: suppose God flicks a switch and, starting tomorrow, nobody in the world has even the slightest inclination to give to beggars - and beggars become aware of this transformation - how many beggars do you think there will be this next year? The answer is zero.

Alas, the problem with my optimal solution of giving to help the homeless charities rather than giving to beggars is unless it is a collective effort undertaken by everyone, it will not be enough to bring an end to street begging. That is, it will not drastically reduce the supply of givers, so it will not diminish the incentive for begging.

That being the case, to whom should you give your money on the streets? Well first you have to remember that not all struggling people on the streets are beggars, and not all beggars are struggling people - some are opportunists making cash out of people's beneficence - they don't need the money as much as other beggars.

Generally, it's pretty safe to assume that the elasticity of sleeping rough with regard to receiving financial help from passers by is probably close to zero. That is to say, the people that need our help most in terms of direct donations are the people least likely to be on the streets in the hope of expecting to receive donations - they will be on the streets whether or not they receive donations, and are probably the ones for whom we should buy food.

My advice in buying food for people on the streets is not to give them the food and walk away - it is to sit with them and talk. I have spent lots of time in life talking to people on the streets after I've bought them some food. They are frequently interesting, edifying often eye-opening conversations - but then, why wouldn't they be? - homeless people are as human as the rest of us.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Debates About Abortion Are More Than Just About Morality

There has been a lot in the news recently about the subject of abortion. Jacob-Rees-Mogg, perhaps the smartest MP in the House of Commons, received widespread criticism for his belief that abortion is always wrong under any circumstances. And last week there was a documentary on BBC 2 called Abortion on Trial in which Anne Robinson hosted a debate between nine people who held different, sometimes highly contentious, views on abortion.

Debates on abortion are seen by most to be disagreements on moral grounds, but that isn't primarily what's behind the divergences. The differences of opinion on abortion are not primarily to do with moral issues; they are to do with interpretation of facts.

They may consist of moral convictions, but moral convictions are based on evidence-based understandings of how certain acts affect human beings, which are about matters of fact and interpretation of data. Take our anti-abortion Catholic Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Mrs. Jones the pro-abortion lobbyist - what they disagree on is not so much about moral issues (not in most cases) it is a difference of opinion about facts.

Jacob Rees-Mogg believes all human life is sacred and should not be killed. Hence, he claims to believe that killing a foetus is morally equivalent (or thereabouts) to committing murder. Although she is pro-abortion, Mrs. Jones still believes that murder is wrong - it's just that she doesn't think abortion is murder. If Mrs. Jones believed that killing a foetus is morally equivalent to murder, then she would be anti-abortion too. That's why their primary difference is not a difference in morality - both of them are anti-murder - it's a difference of opinion about what constitutes murder.

But the matter doesn't stop there. In terms of epistemological consideration of abortion, there are four kinds of women:

1) Those that think abortion is not murder and would terminate a foetus
2) Those that think abortion is murder and have no qualms about terminating a foetus
3) Those that think abortion is not murder and would not terminate a foetus
4) Those that think abortion is murder and would therefore not terminate a foetus

People in group 1 will usually feel able to have an abortion and not feel like they have committed murder. People in group 2 that have an abortion are effectively doing so in spite of thinking it is murder, so they are far lower in numbers than those in group 1. People in group 3 may not think abortion is murder but they may think life is sacred and wish to preserve and protect it. People in group 4 usually would not have an abortion, and may often protest against others having abortions too.

When pro-choice people call for more tolerance, they are underestimating the strength of the opposition's belief. Tolerance is the capacity to recognise and respect the beliefs or practices of others - and of course one can do that even towards those one thinks are absurdly misjudged. I think scientology is a foolish, manipulative belief system, but in being tolerant of it, I'm saying that if you want to believe in something that I think is utter rubbish then that's up to you.

It is prohibitively difficult to call for tolerance in the abortion debate, because what remains ambiguous is the very qualification for tolerance in the first place. There is no use crying out for tolerance unless there is some agreement about what should be tolerated. Given that the two sides disagree on the definition of murder, it is unlikely that appeals for tolerance can be easily used for reconciliation.

Let's now look at the epistemological considerations regarding where people diverge on the abortion matter. If the abortion debate is primarily about whether or not abortion is murder, we have to take the problem a step back, because even if we all agreed that aborting a human life is murder, and that murder is wrong, there would still be the question of at what point does it take effect?

Just as views about whether divorce is right or wrong depend on how seriously one views marriage; views on abortion depend not just on whether it is murder, but also on whether one views a foetus as a human or a pre-human, and on whether murder can occur at the pre-human level.

There is also the little matter of what is life?
People consumed by this debate need to give a bit more consideration to the intricacies of gestation, because what goes on internally is not a simple mythological moment of conception – and that needs to be factored into this idea of denying potential human life. 

If we decide to classify ‘life’ at an exact point, we still have time over which to deliberate. The egg is responsible for 23 of the zygote's chromosomes and the spermatozoon is responsible for the other 23. What this produces is a 'life' of unique DNA structure - a unique life has been conceived, and just like a six month old child, it has metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction (albeit on a much smaller scale). 

What we have is a process lasting several days whereby the zygote enters the uterus, the cells continue to divide, until a blastocyst is formed (for those unaware, a blastocyst looks a bit like a ball of cells). Implantation is when the blastocyst attaches to the lining of the uterus (this takes a few more days).

The blastocyst has fully attached itself to the endometrium within about ten days after conception, and therefore a woman would know that taking the morning after pill would either prevent an egg from being released from the ovary, or it would facilitate the necessary biochemical changes to the womb so that any fertilised blastocyst is unable to implant and become an embryo.

Therefore, a woman who took the morning after pill a day after unprotected intercourse knows that if a pregnancy was going to occur through natural genetic algorithms then her action would prevent pregnancy. Is that abortion? Is that murder? Surely not. What about a woman who finds out she is pregnant after 10 days and takes Mifepristone on the eleventh day, terminating her pregnancy? It's the sorites paradox all over again.

Doctors have another definition of death - they define death as the point at which electrical activity in the brain ceases. Embryos do not have a brain so in legal terms a woman who takes Mifepristone to kill an embryo hasn’t killed a human life if one defines human life in terms of electrical activity in the brain.

When a loved one is in an accident and loses all cognitive capacity, it might fall upon you to choose whether or not to retract the feeding tube and end your loved one’s life. A lot of people have a hard time agreeing on whether or not assisted suicide is murder. Similarly, consider as an analogue the issue of embryonic development. There is a set of cells at the beginning, and what at some point we would call a ‘human’ collection of cells at the end.

Now imagine five countries, each differing on the their interpretation of the embryonic and foetal developmental stage. Imagine in those five countries each has a law that states it is illegal to abort after an embryo becomes a ‘human’. But when we look at each country's law book we find that each country differs in its definition of ‘human’ – one defines it as when electrical changes occur, one when the blood starts pumping, one when the brain is fully formed, one when the embryo develops a functioning nervous system, and one when fingernails begin to grow. Under those circumstances, none of the five countries can claim to be objectively correct in its constitution. 

Why is killing a sperm or an egg more immoral than killing a zygote, and why is that more immoral than killing a morula, and why is that is more immoral than killing a blastula, and why is that more immoral than killing gastrula, and why is that more immoral than killing a foetus at four months? The morals don't even begin to take a footing until the epistemological category distinctions are agreed upon - and they rarely are in this debate.

On the flawed view that abortion is wrong because all life is sacred
Quite obviously, a claim that all life is sacred and to be preserved is not only absurd, it is biologically impossible. We can't easily afford sperm and eggs the same regard for life as a five month old foetus, just as we can't easily afford microorganisms the same regard for life as sperm and eggs. It may be easy to avoid aborting a foetus if you are against abortion, but it’s impossible to live from day to day without being complicit in killing bugs and insects and microorganisms.

Every time you clean the kitchen worktops or do some gardening, living things are killed. When your house was built, millions of tiny living things had to die for that to happen. Yet I presume even the most ardent anti-abortionist is not opposed to the idea of gardening and house building. Consequently, there is no absolute sanctity of life - we commit genocide on microorganisms on a regular basis.

Moreover, even if two people agree that all pre-natal life is sacred after conception, who is going to regulate this? It takes a long time for the two nuclei to merge and form a diploid after one sperm enters the egg. At what point in this process does life become sacred? 

The earliest we could speak of 'pregnancy' would be the implantation of the embryo - although in almost every case there is a long period of time between implantation and human detection. Most women don't know they're pregnant until a few weeks after conception. Sexual intercourse produces large amounts of spermatozoa, most of which do not fuse with the ovum and produce successful fertilisation - so even the act of sexual union is an act of biological profligacy. Taken to an absurd limit, even sex can compromise the sanctity of life.

The upshot is, there is no clear cut objective point at which one can say an act of abortion is ‘murder’, because if the objection is the denying the potential of so-called sacred life then contraception and the morning after pill would indict the couple too.

Final point: Why I don't think there are many absolute anti-abortionists
I have a thought experiment to show why I think those who say they are against abortion under any circumstances are probably not telling the truth. Picture the scene – it’s 50 years in the future and a sadistic dictator has control of a large island which he uses as a closed incarceration camp for the sexual gratification of his huge army.

All the women there are captive and feel there is no chance of escape. They are ostensibly kept alive to be the sexual playthings of the sadistic army, where each woman’s daily routine is to be raped dozens of times, and this process is repeated every day.

Some of the men are perverted and like sexual perversion with children. Because of this, if a woman becomes pregnant she is still raped for as long as she can be until the baby’s birth, and then along with her daily rapes she is forced to raise a child until he or she is a few years old and can be the sexual plaything for the more perverted army men. Pregnancies are rare because the women are forced onto the pill – after all, pregnancies only impede the men’s enjoyment and it cuts short the woman’s potential for being an optimally shaped sexual slave. 

One day, one of the captives falls pregnant - knowing full well that the baby will be born, and that by the time her child is six or seven he or she will be a sexual slave for the perverted men. And then when the child is older he or she will go into the other rape camp, spending the rest of his or her life being a sexual salve raped dozens of times every day. 

Now, the woman is just 10 days pregnant when she is offered Mifepristone by another of the inmates who takes pity on her – an elderly lady who is herself a sex slave, but who still has one Mifepristone which she was keeping for herself in case she ever fell pregnant. 

To those, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who think abortion is wrong under any circumstance, I put the following question to you (or any who hold an uncompromising view). Given the woman’s choices (these are the only two choices she feels she has, having been born into this horrible set up, herself a victim all her life) – she can either take the Mifepristone, being pretty sure that she will save her future child from a life of brutal sexual slavery, or she can bring a child into a world in which she knows that from about 5 years old to death that child will have a life consisting only of being a rape victim dozens of times a day, every day.

I fancy that that majority of even the most hardline anti-abortionists would not wish to deny this poor lady the Mifepristone - and for that reason, most anti-abortionists who say they would not advocate abortion under any circumstances are probably either being dishonest with themselves, or probably capable of some pretty unpleasant emotional sadism.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

On Smacking Children

As those who know me will predict, I'm not comfortable with the Scottish government's ban on smacking children - I don't think governments running a country in loco parentis is a good thing. That said, I don't think smacking children is the best way to teach children, and even though I don't want it to be illegal, I think parents do their parenting best when they don't smack their children (in a previous Blog post I talked about an important distinction between disapproving of things and banning them).

My reasons for thinking smacking children is not a good idea are fairly straightforward:

1) I think it is entirely desirable (and entirely possible) to bring up well turned-out kids without having had to smack them. My one caveat is the possible exception of a reactionary smack on the back of the leg to warn them of the severity of dangers and hazards - such as if they'd just attempted to run into a busy road, or gone near a fire, or something like that. But that should only be a light leg slap on children not old enough and too short-term in their mentality to rationalise the utility of incentives through things like longer-term financial punishments and rewards.

2) It is obvious from watching parents who regularly scream at their kids and smack them with infuriation that the kids can easily become desensitised to it, and it therefore often fails to have the desired effect. This then increases the chances of parents losing control of their disciplining measures and further taking it out on their young ones, which increases the chances that children will grow up to be similar to how their parents were.

On that last point, the New Scientist had an article out yesterday telling us about the future harms of smacking children. They tell us how children who are smacked are more likely to misbehave, and to engage in delinquent, criminal or antisocial behaviour, more likely to go on to experience emotional and physical abuse and neglect, more likely to go on to be aggressive themselves, and that they are also at a higher risk of having low self-esteem, depression or alcohol dependency.

All this may be true, but it's quite possible that the New Scientist article writer, Jessica Hamzelou, has misunderstood the causality, or at the very least failed to ask the proper question an economist would ask: Does being smacked really have a big effect on those future harms (as Jessica Hamzelou reasons, and for which she cites evidence), or is it more so the case that people in the group that are most likely to experience those future harms are also people most likely to be brought up in environment in which smacking is common?

Or to put it more directly, the less well off you are, on average, the less educated (and possibly more frustrated, marginalised and psychologically maladapted) you are likely to be, and the more likely you are to use smacking as a form of discipline (I read research on this a few years ago, which I've dug up for you here and here

There are fairly obvious economic reasons for this. Wealthier people have on average more options available to them, a frequently less-tough and challenging time bringing up children, more ways to discipline and disincentivise children from bad behaviour (withhold generous allowances, take away the child's laptop and mobile phone, send them off to boot camp for four weeks in the summer holidays, etc), as well as stronger social and familial groups in which to parent.

I was only smacked about four or five times as a child, from what I can recall to memory, and it did no good - all it taught me was the experience of a few isolated moments (in an otherwise wonderful childhood) of my father temporarily being unable to instil any rational method of discipline - that in those snap moments he was unable to choose a more suitable method of punishment.

But on one occasion I experienced the hardest punishment of my whole childhood for something I'd done wrong. I was forced to go without my computer and television and books for a period of time and was instead sent to bed early to think about what I'd done wrong. That was agonising - the unbearable experience of childhood boredom, devoid of the things I loved to do.

So if you want to incentivise children to behave better, my advice would be, don't smack them - either hit them in the pocket by withdrawing their allowance, or take away their privileges like the Internet, computer games and television until they've learned their lesson. You'll turn them into little angels in no time!

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

How's This For A Great Piece Of Ingenuity?

There's a Mumbai suburban railway system that carries more than 6 million commuters a day, meaning the task for the authorities to check for tickets is extremely difficult. The system to discourage ticketless travel relies on random ticket checking - but with more than 6 million commuters a day, the chances are that if you travel without a ticket you will escape getting caught more often than not.

However, with everyone aware of this low probability of getting caught, this will likely increase the number of people travelling without a ticket, which then increases the number of people that will get caught in a random check.

So, the story goes, someone in Mumbai came up with a clever money-making insurance idea that seems to benefit all parties involved. It works like this - if you are a daily traveller, then you sign up to become a member of this organisation of local train travellers. You pay 500 rupees (which is about £6) to join this organisation of fellow ticketless travellers. Then, if you do get caught travelling without a ticket, you pay the fine to the authorities and then hand over your receipt to the organisation which refunds you all the money.

It's a neat little idea - however, I cannot help thinking that somewhere in Mumbai there is a ticket-collecting company in the making, to whom the train operators could outsource this work, and both parties could clean up.