A Philosopher's Blog

Trump, Terror and Hope

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 14, 2016

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

After Trump’s victory, my friends who backed him rejoiced in their triumph over the liberal elite and look forward in the hope that Trump will do everything he said he would do. Many of my other friends look forward in terror at that same outcome. As one might imagine, Hitler analogies are the order of the day—both for those who love Trump and those who loath him. While my political science studies are years behind me, I thought it would be worthwhile to have a rational discussion about what Trump is likely to do within the limits of his powers. This assumes that he does not hand the office over to Pence and get to work on Trump TV when he finally finds out about what he’ll need to do as President.

One thing that will disappoint his supporters and give hope to his opponents is that politicians rarely keep all their promises. Trump also has quite a track record of failing to follow through on his promises and his ghost-written The Art of the Deal lays out how he regards hyperbole as a useful tactic. As such, his promises should be regarded with skepticism until there is evidence he is trying to keep them. If Trump plans to run in 2020 he will need to work on keeping his promises; but if plans on being a one term president, then this need not concern him very much. Then again, people voted for him once knowing what he is, so they might well do so again even if he delivers little or nothing.

Trump also faces the limits imposed by reality. He will not be able to, for example, get Mexico to pay for the wall. As another example, he will not be able to restore those lost manufacturing jobs. As such, reality will dash the hopes of his supporters in many ways. Assuming, of course, they believed him.

There are also the obvious legal limits on his power as set by the constitution and laws. His supporters will rejoice in the fact that since 9/11 the powers of the presidency have expanded dramatically. While Obama originally expressed concerns about this, he did little or nothing to rein in these powers. For example, he made extensive use of executive powers to conduct drone executions. As such, Trump will be stepping into a very powerful position and will be able to do a great deal using, for example, executive orders. While these powers are not unlimited, they are extensive.

Those who oppose Trump will certainly hope that the legal limits on the office, such as they are, will restrain Trump. They can also hope that the system of checks and balances will keep him in check. Trump’s rhetoric seems to indicate that he thinks he will be able to run the country like he runs his business, which is not the case. The legislative and judicial branches will resist incursions into their power; at least when doing so is in their interest.

There is, however, an obvious concern for those worried about Trump: his party controls the House and Senate. His party will also control the Supreme Court, assuming he appoints a conservative judge. As such, there will be no effective governmental opposition to Trump, as long as he does not interfere with the goals of his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate.

This is where matters get a bit complicated. On the one hand, the Republicans will presumably try to work together, since they are all in the same party and claim to accept the same ideology. On the other hand, Trump has said things that are contrary to traditional Republican ideology, such as his rejection of free trade and his view of American defense commitments to our allies. Trump and the Republican leadership also have had their conflicts during the primary and the campaign; these might flare up again after the honeymoon is over. So, America might see the Republican House or Senate opposing some of President Trump’s plans. This is, of course, not unprecedented in American history. A key question is, of course, how much the Republicans in congress will stick to their professed ideology and how much they will go along with Trump. There is even the possibility that some of what Trump wants to do will be opposed on the grounds of principle.

While Trump ran on the usual bullshit rhetoric of going to Washington to “blow things up” and “drain the swamp”, doing this would involve going hard against congress and the established political elites. As much as I would love to see Trump getting into a death match with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, I think we can expect Trump to settle into politics as usual. Even if he does get into it with congress, Trump has no real experience in politics and seems to lack even a basic understanding of how the system works. As such, Trump would presumably be at a huge disadvantage. Which could be a good thing for those who oppose him.

While predicting exactly what will happen is not possible, it seems reasonable to expect that the total Republican control will allow them to undo much of what Obama did. Trump can simply undo Obama’s executive orders on his own and Trump will certainly not use his veto to thwart congress to protect Obama’s legacy. So, expect Obamacare to be dismantled and expect changes to how immigration is handled.

The restoration of conservative control of the Supreme court will initially not be much of a change from before; although the advanced age of some of the judges means that Trump is likely to be able to make more appointments. Unlike Obama, he can expect the Senate to hold hearings and probably approve of his choices. That said, the Senate will probably not simply rubber stamp his choice—something that might frustrate him. However, as long the senate remains under Republican control he will have a far easier time getting judges that will rule as he wants them to rule into the court. This is, of course, what the evangelical voters hope for—a supreme court that will overturn Roe v Wade. This is also the nightmare of those who support reproductive rights.

If Trump can shape the court, he can use this court to expand his power and erode rights. Because he is thin skinned and engages in behavior that justly results in condemnation, he wants to loosen up the libel laws so he can sue people. Trump, despite being essentially a product of the media, professes to loath the news media. At least reporters who dare to criticize him. If he had the sort of supreme court he wants, we could see the First Amendment weakened significantly.

Trump has also made the promise of going up against the elites. While he certainly has a dislike of the elites that look down on him (some have described him as a peasant with lots of gold), he is one of the elites and engaging the systematic advantages of the elites would harm him. Trump does not seem like the sort to engage in an altruistic sacrifice, so this seems unlikely. There is also the fact that the elite excel at staying elite—so he would be hard pressed to defeat the elite should they in battle meet.

Trump is also limited by the people. While the president has great power, he is still just a primate in pants and needs everyone else to make things happen and go along with him. He also might need to be concerned about public opinion and this can put a check on his behavior. Or perhaps not—Trump did not seem overly worried about condemnation of his behavior during the campaign.

Citizens can, of course, oppose Trump in words and deeds. While the next presidential election is in four years, there will be other elections and people can vote for politicians who will resist Trump. Of course, if more people had voted in the actual election, this might not be something that would need doing now.  Those who back him should, of course, vote for those who will do his will.

As a rule, people tend to err significantly in their assessments of politicians—they tend to think they will do far more good or evil than these politicians deliver. For example, some hoped and others feared that Obama would radically change the country. His proponents had glorious dreams of a post-racial America with health care for all and his opponents had feverish dreams of a Muslim-socialist state taking away all their guns. Both proved to be in error: America got a centrist, competent president. In the case of Trump, there are fears and dreams that he will be an American Hitler. The reality is likely to relieve those having nightmares about and disappoint those dreaming of people in white hoods advising Trump in the White House (although the KKK is apparently planning a parade for Trump).

In closing, while I suspect that the Trump presidency will be a burning train wreck that will make America long for the golden years of Obama, it will not be as bad as some fear. That said, history shows that only fools do not keep a wary eye on those in power.

 

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How did the polls get it wrong?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 11, 2016

The pundits and polls predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency of the United States. They were, obviously enough, wrong. As would be expected, the pundits and pollsters are trying to work out how they got it wrong. While punditry and polling are generally not philosophical, the assessment of polling is part of critical thinking and this is part of philosophy. As such, it is worth considering this matter from a philosophical perspective.

One easy way to reconcile the predictions and the results is to point out the obvious fact that likelihood is not certainty. While there was considerable support for the claim that Hillary would probably win, this entailed that she could still lose. Which she did. To use the obvious analogy, when it is predicted that a sports team will win, it is obviously possible that it can lose. In one sense, the prediction would be wrong: the predicted outcome did not occur. In another sense, a prediction put in terms of probability could still be right—the predictor could get the probability right, yet the actual outcome could be the unlikely one. People who are familiar with games that explicitly involve probabilities, like Dungeons & Dragons, are well aware of this. For example, it could be true that there is a 90% chance of not getting killed by a fireball, but it would shock no experienced player if it killed their character.  There is, of course, the question about whether the estimated probabilities were accurate or not—unlike in a game, we do not get to see the actual mechanics of reality. But, I know turn to the matter of polls.

As noted above, the polls indicated that more people said they would vote for Clinton than for Trump, thus her victory was predicted. A critical look at polling indicates that things could go wrong in many ways. I will start broadly and then move on to more particular matters.

Polling involves what philosophers call an inductive generalization. It is a simple inductive argument that looks like this:

  • Premise: X% of observed Ys are F.
  • Conclusion: X% of all Ys are Fs.

In a specific argument, the Y is whatever population the argument is about; in this case it would be American voters. The observed Ys (known as the sample) would be the voters who responded to the poll. The F is whatever feature the argument is concerned with. In the election, this would be voting for a specific candidate. Naturally, a poll can address many candidates at once.

Being an inductive argument, it is assessed in terms of strength and weakness. A strong inductive argument is one such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion is probably true. A weak one is such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion is probably not true. This is a matter of logical support—whether the premises are true or not is another matter. In terms of this logic, all inductive arguments involve a logical leap from what has been observed to what has not been observed. When teaching this, I make use of an analogy to trying to jump a chasm in the dark—no matter how careful a person is, they might not make it. Likewise, no matter how good an inductive argument is, true premises do not guarantee a true conclusion. Because of this, a poll can always get things wrong—this is the nature of induction and this unavoidable possibility is known as the problem of induction. Now to some more specific matters.

In the case of an inductive generalization, the strength of the argument depends on the quality of the sample—how well it represents the whole population from which it is drawn. Without getting into statistics, there are two main concerns about the sample. The first is whether or not the sample is large enough to warrant confidence in the conclusion. If the sample is not adequate in size, accepting the conclusion is to fall victim to the classic fallacy of a hasty generalization.  To use a simple example, a person who sees two white squirrels at Ohio State and infers all Ohio squirrels are white would fall victim to a hasty generalization. In general, the professionally conducted polls were large enough; so they most likely did not fail in regards to sample size.

The second is whether or not the sample resembles the population. Roughly put, a good sample recreates the breakdown of the population in miniature (in terms of characteristics relevant to the generalization). In the case of the election polls, the samples would need to match the population in terms of qualities that impact voting behavior. These would include age, gender, religion, income and so on. A sample that is taken in a way that makes it unlikely to resemble the population results in what is known as biased generalization, which is a fallacy. As an example, if a person wanted to know what all Americans thought about gun control and they only polled NRA members, they would commit this fallacy. It must be noted that whether or not a sample is biased is relative to its purpose—if someone wanted to know what NRA members thought about gun control, polling NRA members would be what one would do.

Biased samples are avoided in various ways, but the most common approaches are to use a random sample (one in which any member of the population has the same chance of being selected for the sample as any other) and a stratified sample (taking samples from the various relevant groups within the population).

The professional pollsters presumably took steps to ensure the samples resembled the overall population; hopefully using random, stratified samples and other methods. However, things can still go wrong. In regards to a random sample, there are obviously practical factors that preclude a truly random sample. Also, even a random sample can still fail to resemble the population. For example, imagine you have a mix of 50 plain M&M and 50 peanut M&Ms. If you pulled out 25 at random, it would not be shocking to have more plain or more peanut M&Ms in your sample. So, these random samples could have gotten things wrong.

In terms of a stratified sample, there are all the usual problems of pulling out the sample members for each stratum as well as the problem of identifying all the strata that are relevant. It could be the case that the polls did not get the divisions in American voters right and this biased the sample, thus throwing off the results.

Polls involving people also obviously require that people participate, that they honestly answer the questions, and that they stick to that answer. One concern that has been raised is that since the polls are conducted by the media and people who supported Trump tend to hate and distrust the media, it could be that many Trump supporters refused to participate in the polls, thus skewing the results in Hillary’s favor. A second concern is that people sometimes lie on polls—often because they think they should give the answer they believe the pollster wants. A third concern is that people give an honest answer at the time, then change their minds later. All of these could help explain the disparity between the polls and the results.

Conspiracy theorists could also claim that the media was lying about its results in order to help Hillary, presumably reasoning that if voters thought Trump was going to lose they would either vote for Hillary to be on the winning side or simply stay home because of a lack of hope. As with all conspiracy theories, the challenge lies in presenting evidence for this.

And that is how the polls might have gone wrong in predicting Hillary’s victory.

 

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Accepting Victory/Accepting Defeat

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on November 8, 2016

I am writing this on November 7, 2016. This is the day before the United States’ presidential election. While other matters are on the ballot, the main contest is between Hillary and Trump. While the evidence seems to show that Hillary will win, Trump has a chance that vastly exceeds his competence for the position. As such, the contest could go either way.

While I do regard Trump as morally and intellectually unfit for the office, I do not have a strong emotional commitment to Hillary. As such, a “victory” for me this election would be that Trump does not win. A defeat would be that Trump becomes president. While some might suspect that my negative view of Trump would cause me to spew “Trump is not my president”, this is not the case. If Trump is elected, he will be as much my president as Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and so on were. That is how democracy works. Since I am a philosopher, I do have a philosophical justification for my approach and certainly urge others to accept a similar view.

While democracy is ancient, more recent thinkers such as John Locke have worked out many of the key details in theory and practice. As Locke saw it, government is based on a social contract resulting from the consent of the governed. Since the political body must move in one direction, Locke argued for majority rule—the numerical minority is obligated to go along with the numerical majority. Or, in terms of the usual low voter turnout in the United States, the numerical minority of the voters must go along with the numerical majority of voters, even though the voters might be a numerical minority of the eligible voters.

His justification for this was fairly practical: if the numerical minority refused to go along, the society would be torn apart. Locke did recognize that there could be matters so serious that they would warrant a split, but he believed that these would be rather unusual. While I do believe that Trump would be the worst president in history, I do not regard this as a matter so serious that it would require sundering the nation. The possibility of disaster does, however, provide a potential justification for a sundering.

John Stuart Mill developed the notion of the tyranny of the majority—that the majority (or those passing as the majority) might wish to use their numerical advantage to oppress the numerical minority. In such cases, Mill rejected the idea of majority rule and argued that the restriction of liberty can only be justified on the grounds of preventing harm to others. Since Mill was a utilitarian, all this would be worked out morally on that basis. As such, if it were true that the presidency of Trump or Clinton would be worse than the sundering caused by the rejection of the election, then it could be justified. That said, while I do expect there to be many angry people on November 8, I do not anticipate large scale social disorder. In terms of the consequences, I believe that no matter how bad Hillary or Trump would be as president, their badness would not exceed the harm of rejecting the election. As president, Trump can only do so much damage—far less than a sundering would cause. Those who think that Hillary would be a disaster as a president should also take this same view: no matter how bad she is, she cannot be as bad as the consequences of a sundering. This all assumes, of course, that the election was a proper one.

In discussing obedience in the Crito, Socrates presents the argument that he is obligated to follow the laws of the state because he agreed to do so. He does allow for two exceptions: force or fraud. If the forced him into the agreement or if the agreement were a deceit, then he would not be obligated to stick to his agreement. This seems reasonable: agreements made under duress and agreements based on deception have no merit.

Despite having no evidence, Trump has been asserting that if he loses, then the election must have been rigged. If he wins, he has graciously promised to accept that result. While Trump’s approach is morally irresponsible, there is a philosophical foundation under his spew. Going back to Socrates, if the election is such that fraud or force is used to change the outcome, then this negates the obligation of citizens to accept the results. The question then is whether or not the election is being “rigged.”

While there are clear concerns about efforts at voter suppression, such suppression targets minorities who are far more likely to vote for Hillary than Trump—as such, this “rigging” is in Trump’s favor. If voter suppression impacts the outcome, then this would provide legitimate grounds for questioning the results.

Trump has embraced the Republican myth of voter fraud, but myths provide no foundation for claims of significant fraud. While Trump has made vague claims about rigging in general, informed and rational people have pointed out the obvious: elections are run by the states and direct operations are handled locally, so rigging the election would require a conspiracy across the states, counties and localities. While this is not impossible, it would be absurd to give this any credence—especially since Trump has provided no evidence at all. However, if it could be shown that fraud impacted the election, then there would be legitimate grounds for questioning the results.

While Trump has not (as of this writing) explicitly told his supporters to engage in voter intimidation, his critics have claimed that he is suggesting this. Given the attention being paid to the election, it is unlikely that voter intimidation will occur on a significant scale, but if it did, then there would be grounds for rejecting the results of the election.

Trump’s supporters have pointed to Al Gore’s legal challenge of the 2000 election to justify Trump’s claim he won’t accept the results (unless he wins). Gore, however, did not claim the election was rigged—his concern was with the accuracy of the count and similar procedural matters. There was also the fact that my adopted state of Florida created an electoral nightmare of hanging chads and similar disasters. As such, there was a real problem to sort out. If an analogous procedural disaster occurs, it would be reasonable to contest the disaster. But this would not be a rejection of the electoral process or the legitimacy of the election—it would be a matter of sorting out a mess. Such a situation could, of course, escalate—but I do hope that the election goes smoothly. Or, failing that, that I hope neither my home state of Maine nor my adopted state of Florida play a role in any electoral disasters.

Assuming the election is not rendered invalid by fraud or force, then the results will properly determine the next legitimate president of the United States, whether this be Hillary or Trump. As citizens, we are obligated to accept the results of a properly conducted election—that is what we have agreed to by being citizens. Trump, in his dangerous, self-serving buffoonery, has assaulted this foundation of our democracy. My hope is that if he is defeated and refuses to accept the results, his supporters will take their duty as citizens seriously. If he wins, I intend to do just that and accept him as the legitimate president. Again, this is how democracy works and I have agreed, by being a citizen, to accept the results of the election. Whether I am on the winning or losing side.

 

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After the Election

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 7, 2016

The systematic efforts to demoralize American voters and to create a toxic political environment have resulted in perhaps the most vitriolic election cycle in modern memory. While some people do like their candidate, much of the electorate seems to be motivated by their loathing of the opposing candidate. As such, most voters seem to be voting against Trump or Hillary rather than for them.

The demoralizing of the electorate has proven to be an effective but ultimately destructive strategy. On the “positive” side, demotivating voters through suppression tactics (such as voter ID laws and cutting back on early voting) and fostering an attitude that voting is ineffective has proven beneficial to certain candidates—they get elected. On the negative side, the foundation of democracy is being eroded as people lose faith in the democratic process. This disinvestment on the part of citizens contributes to the decay of American society and will no doubt to prove to be a significant factor in the decline and fall of the American empire.

The creation of a toxic political environment through such means as exploiting fears of race, class and religion has also proven to be beneficial to some in the short term. There have also been sustained attacks on key institutions, ranging from the government in general to the election process in particular. The political parties have enjoyed fevered victories through poisoning the political body. Trump provides an excellent example of this—his willingness to go beyond the moral limits of other Republicans (and his free media coverage) helped h7im grope his way towards the White House. These victories come at a price in the form of divisiveness and the fanning of the fires of hate. Institutions that are essential to the functioning of the nation have also been corroded and eroded, thus weakening the United States.

The battle between Hillary and Trump is the logical result of these approaches and one of them will be president. While there is always talk of reconciliation after elections, the last eight years have revealed that the Republican Party is quite comfortable with obstruction and the Democrats have not proven strong enough to remove the blockage in the pipes of government. While some have pointed to racism as a factor in the case of Obama, the Republicans seem to be even more intent on blocking and thwarting Hillary if she wins. John McCain, once known for being willing to work with Democrats, has already vowed to block anyone Hillary nominates to the Supreme Court. While this would yield short term political advantages to some Republicans, this approach is fundamentally damaging to the country. In addition to damaging peoples’ confidence in the institutions, keeping the court at eight judges will be problematic. This would only get worse as judges die. In theory, the senate could eliminate the court in this manner, which would be disastrous.

If Trump gets elected, the Republicans might do the same to him, depending on who he selects as his nominees. If the Democrats take the senate, they might decide to block Trump’s nominees and point at the Republicans when they are criticized. Naturally, a senate controlled by Democrats would most likely approve Hillary’s nominee. From the standpoint of restoring the court to its full membership, the election of Hillary and the success of the Democrats in the senatorial races are probably the best bets. Of course, conservatives might not be happy with her choice—at least in regards to social issues. However, Hillary is essentially a moderate classic Republican, so she would probably appoint a fairly moderate judge. Who would be perceived as a radical liberal by those on the right. Of course, there is more to the presidency than just appointing judges—there is also doing the business of the executive branch. This could also prove problematic.

Trump is already scheduled for court dates, so those will presumably interfere a bit with his presidency. While Hillary is not yet scheduled for any court appearances, the Republicans are already planning out years of investigations. In addition to wasting time and millions of dollars in public money, these investigations will (as intended) most likely greatly dampen the effectiveness of her presidency. After all, spending countless hours testifying will eat up her time and the investigation will damage her reputation more and weaken America’s standing in the world. After all, foreign leaders will realize that such a divided government will be weaker, less effective and not paying as much attention to the world. But, the Republicans will gain a short term political advantage at the cost of eroding America’s power and standing in the world—which is presumably totally worth it. Of course, Hillary could have elected to forgo running for the good of the country; but she is also very focused on her own advantage. The Democrats probably will not take the House, but if they do, then Hillary will have much smoother sailing. This might be good for the country. Or not.

While Republicans have not planned years of investigations into Trump (should he be elected), some have claimed that they intend to oppose him when he goes against the party ideology. Trump is likely to do just that and Democrats will certainly oppose him, so a Trump presidency will also almost certainly result in the continuation of the standoff between the presidency and Congress. But, perhaps the next president will be able to do some things.

Hillary has, of course, many detailed plans and policies and an established track record. As such, it is easy to predict what she will do and this is business as usual. While not great for the working people of America, business as usual is not the worst option. Continued growth and increased employment seem like good trends. She will also presumably keep the Obama social programs on track, which is not the worst thing that can happen.

Trump has no track record in politics, but he does have an awful record in business—presumably he will use his business skills in office. This would seem to be a bad thing. Trump speaks in vague generalities and untruths and often makes no sense, so it is difficult to say exactly what his policies will be. Presumably he will try for the wall, try to kick out illegals, and use his secret plan on what is left of ISIS. Or whatever—one cannot really say what he will do. However, given his complete lack of experience, his temperament, and the skill set he has displayed in his reality shows, it would be reasonable to predict that he would be a disaster as a president. But, perhaps he will do shockingly well. His supporters claim he will surround himself with good people—perhaps they can run the country for him and do a good job.

Regardless of who gets elected, the next four years could be really bad. So bad, in fact, that future historians might mark this election as a key point in the decline and fall of the American Empire. If so, it is also on us—democracy gives us the government we deserve.

 

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The Murder of Truth

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 4, 2016

“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.”

-Merlin

 

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There is an old joke that asks “how do you know a politician is lying?” The answer is, of course, “you can see his lips moving.” This bit of grim humor illustrates the negative view people generally have of politicians—they are expected to lie relentlessly. However, people still condemn politicians for lying. Or when they believe the politician is lying. At least when the politician is on the other side.

In the case of their own side, people often suffer from what seems to be a cognitive malfunction: they believe politicians lie, but generally accept that their side is telling it like it is. This sort of malfunction also extends to the media and other sources of information: it is commonly claimed that the media lies and that sources are biased. That is, when media and sources express views one disagrees with. What matches a person’s world view is embraced, often without any critical consideration. This sort of thing presumably goes back to the invention of politics; but it also ebbs and flows over time.

In the United States, the 2016 election has created a high tide of lies. While there is a rough justice in saying Hillary and Trump are both liars, it is trivially true that we are all liars. As such, it is important to consider the number and severity of the lies people tell when assessing them rather than merely pointing out the obvious truth that everyone has lied. On the face of it, Trump has a commanding lead in the realm of untruth. This should not be a surprise, given that the ghostwriter of “Trump’s” Art of the Deal attributed to Trump the tactic of the “truthful hyperbole.” As I have argued before, truthful hyperbole is an impossibility because hyperbole, by definition, is not true. While Trump has told many spectacular untruths, one of his most impressive is the narrative that he was the one who finally settled the birther movement and that Hillary started it. Given Trump’s role as the point man for the birther movement, this assertion is beyond absurd; but it merely assaults truth in general, rather than being aimed at undermining institutions that are supposed to committed to the truth. Unfortunately, Trump has also engaged in such undermining. Being in a field dedicated to the truth, I find the attacks on truth and the casual acceptance of lies anathema. As should anyone who values truth and condemns lies.

While it is tempting to some to place all the blame into Trump’s hands, Trump is merely following a well-worn path to the battle against truth. A key part of this battle is the sustained attack on the media, broadly construed. In the United States, attacking the media for an alleged liberal bias goes back at least to the time of Nixon. While it is reasonable to be critical of the news media, a sweeping rejection based on alleged bias is hardly a rational approach by someone who wants to think critically.

Trump has, however, added some new twists to the attack on the media. One is that he expanded his attacks beyond the allegedly liberal media to engage any reporter who dares to be critical of him—even people normally beloved by conservatives. In this regard, he has broken outside of the usual ideological boundaries. However, this seems to be the result of his personality rather than an ideological commitment on his part—he cannot not respond to any criticism that gets his attention.

It could be replied that Trump is merely engaging a dishonest, lying media—a media that has crossed ideological lines to join forces against him. This would require accepting that these reporters are liars and that they are manufacturing the evidence they use in their reporting—such as videos of Trump saying and doing the things they claim he does and says. While this is not beyond the realm of possibility (we could, after all, be in a Twilight Zone episode in which the twist is that Trump is the only honest man facing a vast conspiracy of liars of all political stripes), the more plausible explanation is that Trump is the one saying the untrue things.

Another concern is that he has engaged in a level of vitriol against the media that has not been seen in recent presidential politics. In general, he seems to have two main tactics for dealing with claims made about him that he dislikes. The first is to simply deny the claim. The second is to engage in intense ad hominem attacks on the source. Since fact checkers like Politifact expose Trump’s untruths, he has accused them of being biased and part of the conspiracy against him. While he is willing to engage in name-calling against specific people, he also engages in sweeping insults against the press in general. His attacks are taken quite seriously, so much so that Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a statement that Trump is a threat to the freedom of the press.

It could be replied that Trump is merely giving the media what it deserves and his attacks are true—the reporters are “nasty”, “sleazy” and “not good people.” It could also be claimed that it is true the press is engaged in a conspiracy against him.

While there are no doubt some “not good” reporters, they do not seem to be as awful as Trump claims. Of course, Trump is known for his hyperbole and saying untrue things, so this should not be surprising. In fact, it would be out of character for Trump to describe things as they are. He seems to be locked permanently in hyperbole mode: everything is great or garbage, with little or nothing in between.

As someone who writes horror adventures for games, I like a good conspiracy theory and routinely work them into my fiction. However, if the media is engaged in a conspiracy to elect Hillary and defeat Trump, they would seem to need to go back to conspiracy school. The fact checkers check her and the media relentlessly cover stories that are harmful to her chances, such as the undying email scandal. The media, via its massive and free coverage of Trump, helped him win the candidacy and they unceasingly keep him in the spotlight. Ironically, this excessive coverage of Trump is a frightening sign of the media’s role in the erosion of truth—the focus on what is spectacle, rather than what is significant. There are also those in the media who do manufacture claims or present things in ways that cast shadows over the truth—they, too, should be held accountable for their role in murdering the truth. Be they on the left or the right.

Interestingly, it could also be argued that worries about the erosion of truth are overblown: while Trump seems to be going for a gold medal in untruths, this will have no real impact on the world. This claim does have some appeal. After all, doomsayers predict that so many things will lead to dire consequences and very often they are quite wrong. I certainly hope this is the case, that in the 2020 election cycle we will be back to our normal levels of untruths and the attacks on the media will be back to being a matter of rote rather than rage.

 

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Gaming & Groping II: Obligations

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on November 2, 2016

In my previous essay, I discussed some possible motivations for groping in VR games, which is now a thing. The focus of what follows is on the matter of protecting gamers from such harassment on the new frontiers of gaming.

Since virtual groping is a paradigm of a first world problem, it might be objected that addressing it is a waste of time. After all, the objection can be made that resources that might be expended on combating virtual groping should be spent on addressing real groping After all, a real grope is far worse than a virtual grope—and virtual gropes can be avoided by simply remaining outside of the virtual worlds.

This sort of objection does have some merit. After all, it is sensible to address problems in order of their seriousness. To use an analogy, if a car is skidding out of control at the same time an awful song comes on the radio, then the driver should focus on getting the car back under control and not waste time on the radio.  Unless, of course, it is “The Most Unwanted Song.”

The reasonable reply to this objection is that this is not a situation where it is one or the other, but not both. While time spent addressing virtual groping is time not spent on addressing real groping, addressing virtual groping does not preclude addressing real groping. Also, pushing this sort of objection can easily lead into absurdity: for anything a person is doing, there is almost certainly something else they could be doing that would have better moral consequences. For example, a person who spends time and money watching a movie could use that time and money to address a real problem, such as crime or drug addiction. But, as so often been argued, this would impose unreasonable expectations on people and would ultimately create more harm than good. As such, while I accept that real groping is worse than virtual groping, I am not failing morally by taking time to address the virtual rather than the real in this essay.

It could also be objected that there is no legitimate reason to be worried about virtual groping on the obvious grounds that it is virtual rather than real. After all, when people play video games, they routinely engage in virtual violence against each other—yet this is not seen as a special problem (although virtual violence does have its critics). Put roughly, if it is fine to shoot another player in a game (virtual killing) it should be equally fine to grope another player in a game. Neither the killing nor groping are real and hence should not be taken seriously.

This objection does have some merit, but can be countered by considering an analogy to sports. When people are competing in boxing or martial arts, they hit each other and this is accepted because it is the purpose of the sport. However, it is not acceptable for a competitor to start pawing away at their opponent’s groin in a sexual manner (and not just because of the no hitting below the belt rules of boxing). Punching is part of the sport, groping is not. The same holds for video games. If a person is playing a combat video game that pits players against each other, the expectation is that they will be subject to virtual violence. They know this and consent to it by playing, just as boxers know they will be punched and consent to it. But, unless the players know and consent to playing a groping game, using the game mechanics to virtually grope other players would not be acceptable—they did not agree to that game.

Another counter is that while the virtual groping is not as bad as real groping, it can still harm the target of the groping. To use an analogy, being verbally abused over game chat is not as bad as having a person physically present engaging in such abuse, but it is still unpleasant for the target. Virtual groping is a form of non-verbal harassment, intended to get a negative reaction from the target and to make the gaming experience unpleasant. There is also the fact that being the victim of such harassment can rob a player of the enjoyment of the game—which is the point of playing. While it is not as bad as groping a player in a real-world game (which would be sexual assault), it has an analogous effect on the player’s experience.

It could be replied that a player should just be tough and put up with the abuse. This reply lacks merit and is analogous to saying that people should just put up with being assaulted robbed or spit on. It is the reply of an abuser who wants to continue the abuse while shifting blame onto the target.

While players are in the wrong when they engage in virtual groping, there is the question of what gaming companies should do to protect their customers from such harassment. They do have a practical reason to address this concern—players will tend to avoid games where they are subject to harassment and abuse, thus costing the gaming company money. They also have a moral obligation, analogous to the obligation of those in the real world who host an event. For example, a casino that allowed players to grope others with impunity would be failing in its obligation to its customers; the same would seem to hold for a gaming company operating a VR game.

Companies do already operate various forms of reporting, although their enforcement tends to vary. Blizzard, for example, has policies about how players should treat each other in World of Warcraft. This same approach can and certainly will be applied to VR games that allow a broader range of harassment, such as virtual groping.

Because of factors such as controller limitations, most video games do not have the mechanics that would allow much in the way of groping—although some players do work very hard trying to make that happen. While non-VR video games could certainly support things like glove style controllers that would allow groping, VR games are far more likely to support controllers that would allow players to engage in virtual groping behavior (something that has, as noted above, already occurred).

Eliminating such controller options would help prevent VR groping, but at the cost of taking away a rather interesting and useful aspect of VR controller systems. As such, this is not a very viable option. A better approach would be to put in the software limits on how players can interact with the virtual bodies of other players. While some might suggest a punitive system for when one player’s virtual hands (or groin) contacting another player’s virtual naught bits, the obvious problem is that wily gamers would exploit this. For example, if a virtual hand contacting a virtual groin caused the character damage or filed an automatic report, then some players would be trying their best to get their virtual groins in contact with other players’ virtual hands. As such, this would be a bad idea.

A better, but less than ideal system, would be to have a personal space zone around each player’s VR body to keep other players at a distance. The challenge would be working this effectively into the game mechanics, especially for such things as hand-to-hand combat. It might also be possible to have the software recognize and prevent harassing behavior. So, for example, a player could virtually punch another player, but not make grabbing motions on the target’s groin.

It should be noted that these concerns are about contexts in which players do not want to be groped; I have no moral objection to VR applications that allow consensual groping—which, I infer, will be very popular.

 

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Gaming & Groping I: Motivations

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2016

On the positive side, online gaming allows interaction with gamers all over the world. On the negative side, some gamers are horrible. While I have been a gamer since the days of Pong, one of my early introductions to “the horrible” was on Xbox live. In a moment of deranged optimism, I hoped that chat would allow me to plan strategy with my team members and perhaps make new gamer friends. While this did sometimes happen, the dominate experience was an unrelenting spew of insults and threats between gamers. I solved this problem by clipping the wire on a damaged Xbox headset and sticking the audio plug into my controller—the spew continued, but had nowhere to go.

There is an iron law of technology that any technology that can be misused will be misused. There are also specific laws that fall under this general law. One is the iron law of gaming harassment:  any gaming medium that allows harassment will be used to harass. While there have been many failed attempts at virtual reality gaming, it seems that it might become the new gaming medium. In any case, harassment in online VR games is already a thing. Just as VR is supposed to add a new level to gaming, it also adds a new level to harassment—such as virtual groping. This is an escalation over the harassment options available in most games. Non VR games are typical limited to verbal harassment and some action harassment, such as the classic tea bagging. For those not familiar with this practice, it is when one player causes their character to rapidly repeat crouch on top of a dead character. The idea is that the players is repeatedly slapping their virtual testicles against the virtual corpse of a foe. This presumably demonstrates contempt for the opponent and dominance on the part of the bagger. As might be imagined, this act speaks clearly about a player’s mental and moral status.

Being a gamer and a philosopher, I do wonder a bit about the motivations of those that engage in harassment and how their motivation impacts the ethics of their behavior. While I will not offer a detailed definition of harassment, the basic idea is that it requires sustained abuse. This is to distinguish it from a quick expression of anger.

In some cases, harassment seems to be motivated primarily by the enjoyment the harasser gets from getting a response from their target. The harasser is not operating from a specific value system that leads them to attack certain people; they are equal opportunity in their attacks. Back when I listened to what other gamers said, it was easy to spot this sort of person—they would go after everyone and tailor their spew based on what they seemed to believe about the target’s identity. As an example, if the harasser though their target was African-American, they would spew racist comments. As another example, if the target was the then exceedingly rare female gamer, they would spew sexist remarks. As a third example, if the target was believed to be a white guy, the attack would usually involve comments about the guy’s mother or assertions that the target is homosexual.

While the above focuses on what a person says, the discussion also applies to the virtual actions in the game. As noted above, some gamers engage in tea-bagging because that is the worst gesture they can make in the game. In games that allow more elaborate interaction, the behavior will tend to be analogous to groping in the real world. This is because such behavior is the most offensive behavior possible in the game and thus will create the strongest reaction.

While a person who enjoys inflicting this sort of abuse does have some moral problems, they are probably selecting their approach based on what they think will most hurt the target rather than based on a commitment to sexism, racism or other such value systems. To use an obvious analogy, think of a politician who is not particularly racist but is willing to use this language in order to sway a target audience.

There are also those who engage in such harassment as a matter of ideology and values. While their behavior is often indistinguishable from those who engage in attacks of opportunity, their motivation is based on a hatred of specific types of people. While they might enjoy the reaction of their target, that is not their main objective. Rather, the objectives are to express their views and attack the target of their hate because of that hate. Put another way, they are sincere racists or sexists in that it matters to them who they attack. To use the analogy to a politician, they are like a demagogue who truly believes in their own hate speech.

In terms of virtual behavior, such as groping, these people are not just using groping as a tool to get a reaction. It is an attack to express their views about their target based on their hatred and contempt. The groping might also not merely be a means to an end, but a goal in itself—the groping has its own value to them.

While both sorts of harassers are morally wrong, it is an interesting question as to which is worse. It could be argued that the commitment to evil of the sincere harasser (the true racist or sexist) make them worse than the opportunist. After all, the opportunist is not committed to evil views, they just use their tools for their amusement. In contrast, the sincere harasser not only uses the tools, but believes in their actions and truly hates their target. That is, they are evil for real.

While this is very appealing, it is worth considering that the sincere harasser has the virtue of honesty; their expression of hatred is not a deceit.  To go back to the politician analogy, they are like the politician who truly believes in their professed ideology—their evil does have the tiny sparkle of the virtue of honesty.

In contrast, the opportunist is dishonest in their attacks and thus compound their other vices with that of dishonesty. To use the politician analogy, they are like the Machiavellian manipulator who has no qualms about using hate to achieve their ends.

While the moral distinctions between the types of harassers is important, they generally do not matter to their targets. After all, what matters to (for example) a female gamer who is being virtually groped while trying to enjoy a VR game is not the true motivation of the groper, but the groping. Thus, from the perspective of the target, the harasser of opportunity and the sincere harasser are on equally bad moral footing—they are both morally wrong. In the next essay, the discussion will turn to the obligations of gaming companies in regards to protecting gamers from harassment.

 

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Facebase

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2016

While you are most likely not a criminal, it is likely that the police have a digital version of your face on file. This is because most states put driver’s license photos into a database accessible to the police—and, one would assume, the federal government. The system works in conjunction with facial recognition software (like Facebook uses to identify people in your photos) to identify suspects. For example, if someone robs a convenience store and the police do not recognize them, the image from the surveillance camera can be matched against the database that could contain your face. Ideally, the software would generate a short list that includes the perpetrator. Problematically, the software could generate a list of innocent people who might then end up in unpleasant interactions with the state.

There are, of course, some practical issues with the current technology. One is that the photos the police have of suspects tend to be of low quality, thus making false matches more likely. Another is that in such a large database there will be many people who look alike, thus the chance of false matches will be high even with good photos. As anyone familiar with the DMV knows, driver’s license photos also tend to vary greatly in quality and consistency, thus making false matches likely.

The current software also has problems with people who have darker skin, thus making false matches more likely for people of color than white people. While some might suspect racism or bias at work, it has been claimed that this occurs because darker skin has less contrast than lighter skin, making accurate matches more difficult. If this technical issue cannot be solved, then it is almost certain that there will be charges of racism and bias as more dark skinned people are subject to false matches than lighter people. Even if this is purely a technical issue with no actual bias, it would certainly create the impression of bias and feed into the view that policing is biased in America. It also raises a moral concern about the use of such software in terms of its consequences: while it might have the benefit of assisting the police in finding actual criminals, it could have the harm of fanning the existing flames of mistrust and worries about police bias against people of color. These factors would need to be balanced against each other, at least until the recognition disparity is solved.

In addition to specific concerns about the recognition of darker skinned people, there is the general concern about the accuracy of the software in identifying people. Since most people with driver’s licenses will be in the database, innocent people will end up being investigated by the police because the software pegs them as adequately resembling a suspect. While most interactions with the police would presumably be quick and harmless, interactions with the state can go very badly indeed—even for innocent people. As such, due moral consideration should be paid to this fact.

There are, of course, the usual concerns about privacy and intrusion of the state. While some citizens are terrified of the idea of a national database of guns, what is being constructed is an even more invasive database—a database of our faces. A “facebase”, if you will. As such, those who are dedicated to Second Amendment rights should be worried about this “facebase.” Others who are concerned about privacy and the overreach of big government should also be worried and insist that proper controls and limitations are in place to protect the rights of citizens.

It could be countered that people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear—but this slogan fails to address the legitimate concerns about privacy. After all, no one who is worried about a national database of guns would be content with being told that if they have their guns legally, then they have nothing to fear from such a database.

A better counter is to appeal to the positive consequences. That is, by giving up privacy rights and becoming part of a “perpetual lineup” we will be safer from criminals and terrorists. This argument does have considerable appeal—but it must be assessed properly in terms of what the approach yields in benefits and what it costs in terms of intrusion and other harms. Americans have, in general, been far too quick to give away real rights and suffer real harms in return for the illusion of safety. We should stop doing this. One useful approach would be to imagine that what is being given up is a right a person has a strong emotional attachment to—this would help offset the emotional appeal to fear of criminals and terrorists. For example, a pro-gun person could imagine that the system was creating a database of his guns to match up against guns supposedly used by terrorists or criminals. This tactic obviously has no logical weight—it is merely intended as counter to emotional manipulation by means of an analogy.

A final concern, as with all such gather of data, is worry about the various potential misuses of the information. I would assume that these databases have already been hacked and the information is now being examined by foreign governments, criminals and terrorists. Because of this, we should consider the consequences of maintaining or expanding the program. After all, whatever ends up in our databases inevitably ends up around the world. There are also concerns that the data would be made available to the private sector for use in advertising, political campaigning and other purposes. This is not a concern unique to the “facebase” but it is still a matter of concern.

In closing, that bad DMV photo might prove to be a blessing or a curse. On the positive side, it might be so bad that the police will not be able to match you should you commit a crime. On the negative side, that bad photo might get you matched up often and thus subject to friendly inquiries from the police. But, you might make new friends or get to see how a taser works.

 

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The Simulation II: Escape

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2016

The cover to Wildstorm's A Nightmare on Elm St...

Elon Musk and others have advanced the idea that we exist within a simulation, thus adding a new chapter to the classic problem of the external world. When philosophers engage this problem, the usual goal is show how one can know that one’s experience correspond to an external reality. Musk takes a somewhat more practical approach: he and others are allegedly funding efforts to escape this simulation. In addition to the practical challenges of breaking out of a simulation, there are also some rather interesting philosophical concerns about whether such an escape is even possible.

In regards to the escape, there are three main areas of interest. These are the nature of the simulation itself, the nature of the world outside the simulation and the nature of the inhabitants of the simulation. These three factors determine whether or not escape from the simulation is a possibility.

Interestingly enough, determining the nature of the inhabitants involves addressing another classic philosophical problem, that of personal identity. Solving this problem involves determining what it is to be a person (the personal part of personal identity), what it is to be distinct from all other entities and what it is to be the same person across time (the identity part of personal identity). Philosophers have engaged this problem for centuries and, obviously enough, have not solved it. That said, it is easy enough to offer some speculation within the context of Musk’s simulation.

Musk and others seem to envision a virtual reality simulation as opposed to physical simulation. A physical simulation is designed to replicate a part of the real world using real entities, presumably to gather data. One science fiction example of a physical simulation is Frederik Pohl’s short story “The Tunnel under the World.” In this story the inhabitants of a recreated town are forced to relive June 15th over and over again in order to test various advertising techniques.

If we are in a physical simulation, then escape would be along the lines of escaping from a physical prison—it would be a matter of breaking through the boundary between our simulation and the outer physical world. This could be a matter of overcoming distance (travelling far enough to leave the simulation—perhaps Mars is outside the simulation) or literally breaking through a wall. If the outside world is habitable, then survival beyond the simulation would be possible—it would be just like surviving outside any other prison.

Such a simulation would differ from the usual problem of the external world—we would be in the real world; we would just be ignorant of the fact that we are in a constructed simulation. Roughly put, we would be real lab rats in a real cage, we would just not know we are in a cage. But, Musk and others seem to hold that we are (sticking with the rat analogy) rats in a simulated cage. We may even be simulated rats.

While the exact nature of this simulation is unspecified, it is supposed to be a form of virtual reality rather than a physical simulation. The question then, is whether or not we are real rats in a simulated cage or simulated rats in a simulated cage.

Being real rats in this context would be like the situation in the Matrix: we have material bodies in the real world but are jacked into a virtual reality. In this case, escape would be a matter of being unplugged from the Matrix. Presumably those in charge of the system would take better precautions than those used in the Matrix, so escape could prove rather difficult. Unless, of course, they are sporting about it and are willing to give us a chance.

Assuming we could survive in the real world beyond the simulation (that it is not, for example, on a world whose atmosphere would kill us), then existence beyond the simulation as the same person would be possible. To use an analogy, it would be like ending a video game and walking outside—you would still be you; only now you would be looking at real, physical things. Whatever personal identity might be, you would presumably still be the same metaphysical person outside the simulation as inside. We might, however, be simulated rats in a simulated cage and this would make matter even more problematic.

If it is assumed that the simulation is a sort of virtual reality and we are virtual inhabitants, then the key concern would be the nature of our virtual existence. In terms of a meaningful escape, the question would be this: is a simulated person such that they could escape, retain their personal identity and persist outside of the simulation?

It could be that our individuality is an illusion—the simulation could be rather like Spinoza envisioned the world. As Spinoza saw it, everything is God and each person is but a mode of God. To use a crude analogy, think of a bed sheet with creases. We are the creases and the sheet is God. There is actually no distinct us that can escape the sheet. Likewise, there is no us that can escape the simulation.

It could also be the case that we exist as individuals within the simulation, perhaps as programmed objects.  In this case, it might be possible for an individual to escape the simulation. This might involve getting outside of the simulation and into other systems as a sort of rogue program, sort of like in the movie Wreck-It Ralph. While the person would still not be in the physical world (if there is such a thing), they would at least have escaped the prison of the simulation.  The practical challenge would be pulling off this escape.

It might even be possible to acquire a physical body that would host the code that composes the person—this is, of course, part of the plot of the movie Virtuosity. This would require that the person make the transition from the simulation to the real world. If, for example, I were to pull off having my code copied into a physical shell that thought it was me, I would still be trapped in the simulation. I would no more be free than if I was in prison and had a twin walking around free. As far as pulling of such an escape, Virtuosity does show a way—assuming that a virtual person was able to interact with someone outside the simulation.

As a closing point, the problem of the external world would seem to haunt all efforts to escape. To be specific, even if a person seemed to have managed to determine that this is a simulation and then seemed to have broken free, the question would still arise as to whether or not they were really free. It is after all, a standard plot twist in science fiction that the escape from the virtual reality turns out to be virtual reality as well. This is nicely mocked in the “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!” episode of Rick and Morty. It also occurs in horror movies, such as Nightmare on Elm Street, —a character trapped in a nightmare believes they have finally awoken in the real world, only they have not. In the case of a simulation, the escape might merely be a simulated escape and until the problem of the external world is solved, there is no way to know if one is free or still a prisoner.

 

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The Simulation I: The Problem of the External World

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 24, 2016

Elon Musk and others have advanced the idea that we exist within a simulation. The latest twist on this is that he and others are allegedly funding efforts to escape this simulation. This is, of course, the most recent chapter in the ancient philosophical problem of the external world. Put briefly, this problem is the challenge of proving that what seems to be a real external world is, in fact, a real external world. As such, it is a problem in epistemology (the study of knowledge).

The problem is often presented in the context of metaphysical dualism. This is the view that reality is composed of two fundamental categories of stuff: mental stuff and physical stuff. The mental stuff is supposed to be what the soul or mind is composed of, while things like tables and kiwis (the fruit and the bird) are supposed to be composed of physical stuff. Using the example of a fire that I seem to be experiencing, the problem would be trying to prove that the idea of the fire in my mind is being caused by a physical fire in the external world.

Renee Descartes has probably the best known version of this problem—he proposes that he is being deceived by an evil demon that creates, in his mind, an entire fictional world. His solution to this problem was to doubt until he reached something he could not doubt: his own existence. From this, he inferred the existence of God and then, over the rest of his Meditations on First Philosophy, he established that God was not a deceiver. Going back to the fire example, if I seem to see a fire, then there probably is an external, physical fire causing that idea. Descartes did not, obviously, decisively solve the problem: otherwise Musk and his fellows would be easily refuted by using Descartes’ argument.

One often overlooked contribution Descartes made to the problem of the external world is consideration of why the deception is taking place. Descartes attributes the deception of the demon to malice—it is an evil demon (or evil genius). In contrast, God’s goodness entails he is not a deceiver. In the case of Musk’s simulation, there is the obvious question of the motivation behind it—is it malicious (like Descartes’ demon) or more benign? On the face of it, such deceit does seem morally problematic—but perhaps the simulators have excellent moral reasons for this deceit. Descartes’s evil demon does provide the best classic version of Musk’s simulation idea since it involves an imposed deception. More on this later.

John Locke took a rather more pragmatic approach to the problem. He rejected the possibility of certainty and instead argued that what matters is understanding matters enough to avoid pain and achieve pleasure. Going back to the fire, Locke would say that he could not be sure that the fire was really an external, physical entity. But, he has found that being in what appears to be fire has consistently resulted in pain and hence he understands enough to want to avoid standing in fire (whether it is real or not). This invites an obvious comparison to video games: when playing a game like World of Warcraft or Destiny, the fire is clearly not real. But, because having your character fake die in fake fire results in real annoyance, it does not really matter that the fire is not real. The game is, in terms of enjoyment, best played as if it is.

Locke does provide the basis of a response to worries about being in a simulation, namely that it would not matter if we were or were not—from the standpoint of our happiness and misery, it would make no difference if the causes of pain and pleasure were real or simulated. Locke, however, does not consider that we might be within a simulation run by others. If it were determined that we are victims of a deceit, then this would presumably matter—especially if the deceit were malicious.

George Berkeley, unlike Locke and Descartes, explicitly and passionately rejected the existence of matter—he considered it a gateway drug to atheism. Instead, he embraces what is called “idealism”, “immaterialism” and “phenomenalism.” His view was that reality is composed of metaphysical immaterial minds and these minds have ideas. As such, for him there is no external physical reality because there is nothing physical. He does, however, need to distinguish between real things and hallucinations or dreams. His approach was to claim that real things are more vivid that hallucinations and dreams. Going back to the example of fire, a real fire for him would not be a physical fire composed of matter and energy. Rather, I would have a vivid idea of fire. For Berkeley, the classic problem of the external world is sidestepped by his rejection of the external world.  However, it is interesting to speculate how a simulation would be handled by Berkeley’s view.

Since Berkeley does not accept the existence of matter, the real world outside the simulation would not be a material world—it would a world composed of minds. A possible basis for the difference is that the simulated world is less vivid than the real world (to use his distinction between hallucinations and reality). On this view, we would be minds trapped in a forced dream or hallucination. We would be denied the more vivid experiences of minds “outside” the simulation, but we would not be denied an external world in the metaphysical sense. To use an analogy, we would be watching VHS, while the minds “outside” the simulation would be watching Blu-Ray.

While Musk does not seem to have laid out a complete philosophical theory on the matter, his discussion indicates that he thinks we could be in a virtual reality style simulation. On this view, the external world would presumably be a physical world of some sort. This distinction is not a metaphysical one—presumably the simulation is being run on physical hardware and we are some sort of virtual entities in the program. Our error, then, would be to think that our experiences correspond to material entities when they, in fact, merely correspond to virtual entities. Or perhaps we are in a Matrix style situation—we do have material bodies, but receive virtual sensory input that does not correspond to the physical world.

Musk’s discussion seems to indicate that he thinks there is a purpose behind the simulation—that it has been constructed by others. He does not envision a Cartesian demon, but presumably envisions beings like what we think we are.  If they are supposed to be like us (or we like them, since we are supposed to be their creation), then speculation about their motives would be based on why we might do such a thing.

There are, of course, many reasons why we would create such a simulation. One reason would be scientific research: we already create simulations to help us understand and predict what we think is the real world. Perhaps we are in a simulation used for this purpose. Another reason would be for entertainment. We created games and simulated worlds to play in and watch; perhaps we are non-player characters in a game world or unwitting actors in a long running virtual reality show (or, more likely, shows).

One idea, which was explored in Frederik Pohl’s short story “The Tunnel under the World”, is that our virtual world exists to test advertising and marketing techniques for the real world. In Pohl’s story, the inhabitants of Tylerton are killed in the explosion of the town’s chemical plant and they are duplicated as tiny robots inhabiting a miniature reconstruction of the town. Each day for the inhabitants is June 15th and they wake up with their memories erased, ready to be subject to the advertising techniques to be tested that day.  The results of the methods are analyzed, the inhabitants are wiped, and it all starts up again the next day.

While this tale is science fiction, Google and Facebook are working very hard to collect as much data as they can about us with an end to monetize all this information. While the technology does not yet exist to duplicate us within a computer simulation, that would seem to be a logical goal of this data collection—just imagine the monetary value of being able to simulate and predict people’s behavior at the individual level. To be effective, a simulation owned by one company would need to model the influences of its competitors—so we could be in a Google World or a Facebook World now so that these companies can monetize us to exploit the real versions of us in the external world.

Given that a simulated world is likely to exist to exploit the inhabitants, it certainly makes sense to not only want to know if we are in such a world, but also to try to undertake an escape. This will be the subject of the next essay.

 

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