You Wish I’d Never Been Born?

kid-picWith the latest anti-abortion dust-up, I’ve noticed a resurgence of stories from people who tell us that if the pro-abortion folks had had their way, they wouldn’t here.

“I dare you to look in her eyes,” I read, “and tell her you wish she weren’t alive today.” It’s a powerful rhetorical ploy. But a little thought reveals that as an argument, it’s misleading at best.

To see this, consider all the people who are alive today who wouldn’t be if the Catholic church had had its way. Me, for one. My father was in the seminary for a while. The priests there wanted him to remain celibate for the rest of his life. If they’d gotten their way, I never would have been born. You wanna look in my eyes and tell me you wish I weren’t alive?

And I know a dozen kids who were born with the help of artificial insemination, which the Catholic church opposes. You think these wonderful kids shouldn’t exist?

And then there are all my friends who had children before they were married. That’s a big no-no according to all the anti-abortion people I’ve ever met. But would they be willing to look these children in the eye and tell them they wish they’d never been born? Are they willing to tell Bristol Palin’s kids that they shouldn’t be alive?

I expect that the anti-abortion folks will offer the obvious replies to these cases: Yes, we think that the circumstances that brought this person into existence were wrong, but now that the person is here, we embrace and celebrate his or her life.

They can’t very well deny that if they’d had their way then the kids wouldn’t be here. So they’re going to have to say that sometimes the right action would have prevented someone (who is alive and well in the actual world) from coming into existence.

And what they fail to realize (perhaps deliberately) is that the pro-choice people can and should make the exact same claims about abortion. Of course it is true that abortion prevents a human life from developing. But all sorts of choices block potential people from entering the world. Pointing at the moral worth of some actual person in no way implies that there was a moral obligation to bring that person into existence.

There are, of course, many difficult philosophical problems raised by these discussions. What are the necessary and sufficient criteria for something to be a person? What moral obligations do we have to non-actual persons? And so on.

But the emotional pull of wanting to keep an actual person alive is simply irrelevant to issues that matter here.

Still Dowsing for Bombs in Iraq

I glanced at a news story about Iraq today, and what did I see?

Dowsing rods!

I’ve discussed before the fact that the Iraqi government has spent over $85 million for these dowsing rods that are supposed to detect bombs.

I suppose once you’ve sunk that sort of money in, you might as well use them.

And, to be fair, security theater might have its uses. If the bad guys don’t know that the wands are useless hocus pocus, they might be more wary of trying to sneak through checkpoints — and the the apparent triggering of a dowsing rod might trigger a real psychological reaction that a security agent could recognize.

The problem, of course, would be if the wand wavers thinks they’re actually able to detect explosives and that leads them to let up on other reasonable security measures.

Wondering how common the dowsing rods are, I did a quick Google image search for “Iraq Checkpoint.” Looks like they’re common. A few more pics after the jump.

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Explaining Consciousness

Here’s a TED talk by David Chalmers.

I don’t have time right now to watch it, but I’ll probably assign it to my students this fall, and I imagine I’ll offer some comments at some point.

First reaction: “Whoa! Chalmers shaved and got a haircut!”

I guess he hit the 20-years-out-of-Santa-Cruz mark. That’s about the same point I cut my hair off too.

Your anti-Pi Day rant

Not everyone is excited about Pi Day:

Can “science” explain what happened to flight MH370?

Malaysia-UFOI’ve long been intrigued by psuedoscience and conspiracy theories (ever since I took an undergraduate philosophy of biology class and read some exchanges between creationists and scientists). I’m particularly fascinated by what such accounts reveal about how we assess and deal with our own ignorance.

There are lots of things we don’t know. The important question (to this philosopher, at least) is is what conclusions we draw from our lack of understanding.

One of the features of pseudoscience/conspiracy theories/denialism is the tendency to draw some positive conclusion from our ignorance of some fact. This is is a fallacy known as an “argument from ignorance,” which at root has the following form:

  1. I don’t know that P is true.
  2. Therefore P is false.

This is often coupled with a another fallacy, known a “false dilemma,” which has this form:

  1. P is false.
  2. Therefore Q is true.

Obviously this is a fallacy when and only when the implicitly assumed disjunction (“either P is true or Q is true”) doesn’t actually hold — that is, when the supposed dilemma is a false dilemma.

We find an example of this sort of bad reasoning in many current discussions of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines jet. There was a roundup of some crazy conspiracy theories about the missing plane in my local paper the other day (My favorite on that list is that it was destroyed by a mini black hole, but they didn’t notice the even juicier theories that involve a time-travel portal.) There’s another, more politically themed, list here.

As I expected as soon as I heard about this case, the alien abduction crowd sees this as decisive evidence that a flying saucer has nabbed a plane full of Earthlings. See for example, here (and you’ll want to read the comments too):

There were no reports of bad weather and no sign of why the plane would vanished from radar screens almost an hour after it took off. There are reports of two oil slicks off the coast but absolutely no wreckage has yet to be found. Where did the plane go?

There is only one possible answer. Aliens.

“There is only one possible answer.” There’s your false dilemma in a nutshell.

Let’s bring this back to questions about science and denialism. Notice that we have a genuine mystery that standard accepted processes of reason and evidence has been unable to solve. Call that “science” if you like. Here’s something that science hasn’t explained.

But the denialist needs to go further. The denialist needs to say that we have something that science cannot explain.

Now it’s undeniably true that this is a case that is unexpected for those of us who don’t think that aliens visit Earth and abduct humans. We’d have thought that if a flight didn’t land where it was supposed to, we’d find the airplane (or what’s left of it) somewhere along the flight path sooner than later.

But it’s obviously not the case that all non-alien (or non-time-portal) explanations have been ruled out. We have no reason to suppose that science can’t explain what happened, and we have every reason to suppose that science will discover what happened eventually.

And what’s true for missing airplanes is also true for so-called “missing links” in evolution, and other supposed gaps in our naturalistic account of the world. There’s much that we don’t understand, but none of the mysteries we find give us reason to suppose that there’s something paranormal, or conspiratorial, or supernatural, going on.

Should I agree to appear on Ancient Aliens?

Pyramid RocketsI’ve never seen the show Ancient Aliens on the History Channel, but I recently received an invitation to be interviewed for an episode or two.

What should I say?

On the one hand, it would probably be fun. I do like to talk, especially about science and philosophy.

But on the other hand, a quick look on the internet reveals that the show seems to be mostly about promoting pseudoscientific conspiracy theories. Which is something I probably shouldn’t associate myself with.

I guessing that the general principle of don’t support the deniers by engaging with them will apply here.

Any thoughts?

Robot Suicide

Dead RoombaThe robots may be becoming human, but they don’t seem to like it. It seems that a roomba has committed suicide.

It sounds like they won’t be giving it a funeral, though.