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Reasons and Persons, post 1 (sections 1--6)

2020-07-25 21:19:10

Reading a serious book of philosophy is a substantial commitment, but Parfit's Reasons and Persons has been recommended to me a number of times, so I'm taking the plunge. The book is made up of four parts, containing 20 chapters consisting in total of 154 sections, each section dealing with a particular topic, like "How Consequentialism Is Indirectly Self-defeating" or "The Effects of Population Growth on Existing People". That's approximately all the introduction that Parfit gives the book, so I'll leave it at that, as well. What follows is my notes on the first six sections.

Part One: Self-Defeating Theories

Chapter 1: Theories that are Indirectly Self-Defeating

§1: The Self-interest Theory

I shall first discuss the Self-interest Theory, or S. This is a theory about rationality. S gives to each person this aim: the outcomes that would be best for himself, and that would make his life go, for him, as well as possible.

There are three 'plausible' theories, or types of theory, that tell one what is best: the Hedonistic Theory tells me that the greatest (personal) happiness is best; the Desire-Fulfilment Theory (or Success Theory) tells me to fulfil my desires, whatever they may be; and the Objective List Theory prescribes a list of good things to be sought, and bad things to be avoided.

Of note is that these theories assign weights independent of time, so events that happen later do not count for less just because they did happen later than other events.

Pafit distinguishes between ultimate and instrumental aims: the latter are only desired as a means of achieving the former.

§2: How S can be Indirectly Self-defeating

A theory is indirectly individually self-defeating if, when I attempt to achieve its aims, those aims are worse achieved.

A person who is purely self-interested, or never self-denying, never does what he believes will be worse for him.

Parfit gives the example of Kate, a writer, who works so hard on her books that she makes herself miserable. She would be happier if she worked less hard, but she would only work less hard if she cared less about the quality of her books, and in that case, she would find her work boring and be less happy overall.

Kate is a Hedonist, so she believes she should do what will make her happiest. However, aiming to be happier by changing her motivation so that she will work less hard would in fact make her less happy, i.e. it is better for her to be self-denying (accepting misery from overwork) than to be 'never self-denying' (aiming for happiness but ending up bored).

👎 I don't like this example. Parfit presents a false choice to Kate: she cannot actually be happier by working less, since she cannot achieve this with her present desire to write well, and she will not be happier if she changes her desire to be less strong. So, she is not, in my view, being self-denying by continuing to work very hard--she does not have the option of being happy while working less, even if, had she the option, she might do better to take it. One is not self-denying by failing to take an option that is not available.

Then, Parfit gives the following:

Suppose that I am driving at midnight through some desert. My car breaks down. You are a stranger, and the only other driver near. I manage to stop you, and I offer you a great reward if you rescue me. I cannot reward you now, but I promise to do so when we reach my home. Suppose next that I am transparent, unable to deceive others. I cannot lie convincingly. Either a blush, or my tone of voice, always gives me away. Suppose, finally, that I know myself to be never self-denying. If you drive me to my home, it would be worse for me if I gave you the promised reward. Since I know that I never do what will be worse for me, I know that I shall break my promise. Given my inability to lie convincingly, you know this too. You do not believe my promise, and therefore leave me stranded in the desert. This happens to me because I am never self-denying. It would have been better for me if I had been trustworthy, disposed to keep my promises even when doing so would be worse for me. You would then have rescued me.

This is much more convincing. It is the disposition of being never self-denying that is the source of the problem, and within the boundaries of the example, there's no way around it. Notice that the real, practical problem here is the inability to keep a commitment--being never self-denying means never keeping any promises that make one worse off, going forward. I know that I will change my mind later, and I can't convincingly lie, so I am worse off now.

Of course, that assumes that there is no cost to breaking a promise. If I made a promise in order to gain a benefit equal to B, and it would make me lose benefit in an amount greater than B to break that promise, then I could be trusted to keep the promise, and being never self-denying would not present a problem. Naturally, it'd be even better to gain the ability to lie convincingly--or to deceive myself!--if there were no further consequences.

In some sense, this operates as though my future breaking of the promise is retroactively causing me harm. Taken that way, being never self-denying does not prevent me from keeping a promise--but that's going a little far.

§3: Does S Tell Us to be Never Self-denying?

In short, no. If it'd be worse for me to be never self-denying, then I shouldn't be never self-denying.

§4: Why S does not Fail in Its Own Terms

S might tell you to change your beliefs, so as to believe in a theory other than S, or to change your disposition. And check back after sections 6-8 and 18.

§5: Could it be Rational to Cause Oneself to Act Irrationally?

Parfit gives the example of Schelling's Answer to Armed Robbery: a robber will torture me, and kill my children, in order to induce me to give him my gold. Even if I give him the gold, he'll probably kill us all, anyway. So, I take a drug which will cause me to be "very irrational" for a long enough time that the police will arrive. Now I am not susceptible to any threats (though, being irrational, I may cause harm to myself or my family), so the robber should simply leave to get the best chance of escaping the police.

Now Parfit says:

On any plausible theory about rationality, it would be rational for me, in this case, to cause myself to become for a period irrational. This answers the question that I asked above. S might tell us to cause ourselves to be disposed to act in ways that S claims to be irrational. This is no objection to S. As the case just given shows, an acceptable theory about rationality can tell us to cause ourselves to do what, in its own terms, is irrational. Consider next a general claim that is sometimes made:

(G1) If there is some motive that it would be both (a) rational for someone to cause himself to have, and (b) irrational for him to cause himself to lose, then (c) it cannot be irrational for this person to act upon this motive.

In the case just described, while this man is still in my house, it would be irrational for me to cause myself to cease to be irrational. During this period, I have a set of motives of which both (a) and (b) are true. But (c) is false. During this period, my acts are irrational. We should therefore reject (G1). We can claim instead that, since it was rational for me to cause myself to be like this, this is a case of rational irrationality.

👎 I'm not so sure about this hair-splitting about rational irrationality. I have two objections here.

First, I am not at all sure it's reasonable to analyze my behavior while under the influence of the drug as being rational or irrational.

What does the drug do? There are two reasonable interpretations of the drug causing me to become very irrational. One, it may cause me to do the opposite of what I should, rationally, do. This aligns somewhat with the described behavior, e.g. "I say to the man: 'Go ahead. I love my children. So please kill them.'", but it's not satisfying. A good degree of insight is ascribed to the robber, so he would simply use 'reverse psychology' and beat me that way, in this case.

An alternative interpretation seems better: the drug causes my actions to be totally disconnected from my objectives. Now I really am immune to persuasion. But is it sensible to consider my actions as irrational in that case? My state is caused by the drug, and I have no freedom to choose otherwise. As with Kate in §2, Parfit is claiming irrationality because I am not taking an alternative that does not exist. In fact, for the duration of the drug's effect, I am, effectively, making no choices whatsoever, at least with respect to S, and I am not capable of doing otherwise. This is my first objection.

Second, if we consider my actions while under the influence of the drug from the perspective of S as either working for or against my self-interest, then I do not agree with the characterization of the actions as irrational: they are, overall, acting for my self-interest. Parfit admits as much! It would be irrational for me to cause myself to lose this 'motive' precisely because it is working in my interest. It is, as Parfit says, a rational 'motive' to have. My actions, therefore, are only irrational by definition--but this is not convincing. It's not specific enough to reason about. This is my second objection.

What if the drug caused me to fall into an uninterruptable sleep for fifteen minutes, and might cause me to die. This drug is pretty well analogous to the one presented by Parfit, but it clearly isn't an example of irrationality--at worst, it is a cessation of rational action. The drugs are identical in terms of my voluntary decisions (which, in my view, are the only things properly described as rational or irrational): none are being made.

The robber presents too strong a constraint on my actions, and the drug exerts too great a control over them.

§6: How S Implies That We Cannot Avoid Acting Irrationally

A person can be rational, or at worst only very weakly irrational, even while acting irrationally, and that's okay.

Fiction catalogued

2020-07-20 19:14:26
  • Project: Library Organization

At last, I have finished (re-) cataloguing the books in the fiction section of my library. For the most part, the data that was already in the catalogue wasn't too far off, though there were lots of books with series info in the title. Most books, though, needed the page numbering cleaned up (e.g. they often had the numbering type set to roman numerals, which breaks ordering by number of pages). Anyway, lots of validation done, and a few mis-shelved books rearranged, and it's done. Now, I just have to shelve the rest of the totally uncatalogued fiction... and the children's books... and the nonfiction... well, it's progress, at least!

IFComp 1995: Uncle Zebulon's Will

2020-05-01 00:40:35

The 1995 ifcomp had two first-place winners: Andrew Plotkin's A Change in the Weather took first place in the Inform division, and the winner of the TADS division was this game, Uncle Zebulon's Will by Magnus Olsson. A more recent version is available, but I played the original comp release.

Uncle Zebulon's Will is a fantasy game: your uncle Zebulon, a wizard, has died, and named you in his will. You may remove one item from his home--which your relatives have already picked clean of anything remotely valuable. Make the best of it!

UZW is a short series of fairly simple puzzles, but it's fun. For the most part, it's clear how to proceed, and just a little thought is required to solve the puzzles, when you come to them. I did find the puzzle involving a tomato to be non-obvious; the only thing hinting at it was a conspicuously useless item.

Coming to this game after years of more modern IF, I nearly forgot to make a save before an (obviously) irrevocable action. Happily, I caught myself in time. It's differences like these that make me interested in playing though old IF, in particular, so that was not a negative experience!

We'd expect more of a game that ranks first in the ifcomp, today, but it's clear why UZW did so well. It's full of character, and the puzzles are entertaining. Sadly, the promised sequel didn't materialize.

IFComp 1995: Toonesia

2020-04-03 22:00:42

Another in my long-overdue series of ifcomp reviews, Toonesia by C. J. T. Spaulding.

This is a parody of Looney Tunes cartoons, featuring (parodies of) Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the Tasmanian Devil.

Oooh, that rascally rabbit! You were out hunting him when he somehow got the jump on you, blindfolded you, and dumped you into a cell. Well, you'll show him. He'll be hasenpfefer by dinner tonight, or your name isn't Elmo Fuld.

The puzzles proceed linearly, and the solutions work largely according to cartoon logic--if you haven't seen the classics, then, for example, it may not occur to you to draw a door on the wall to escape the first room. If you are familiar with the cartoons, then the solutions will largely be familiar, too.

The implementation isn't too deep, and there are a couple of flaws, for example:

>x cliff
Which cliff do you mean, the canyon, or the canyon?

Additionally, feeding Taz an object doesn't actually remove it from your inventory.

I got stuck for a few minutes when I needed to reach the mesa, but that's not really the game's fault--I just didn't notice obvious solution, and guessed that I was supposed to do something else first.

All in all, it's an amusing game, though not one I'm likely to turn to again in the future.

Total play time: about 40 minutes.

IFComp 1995: Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents "Detective"

2020-03-27 04:26:56

With the current global crisis, people are eager to find a silver lining--"now there's time to play all those games I've been saving!", or such. I'm fortunate enough that this isn't impacting me much (I already work from home), but in solidarity with everyone else, here's one from my backlog: Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents "Detective", an entry in IFComp 1995.

If you're familiar with MST3k, you know what to expect. It's a bad IF game, Detective, its text interspersed with jeering commentary by the characters of MST3k.

The jokes don't make the game more playable, but they are entertaining. The sheer incomprehensibility of the original game makes the despairing comments relatable. They're not just funny; they give a sense of camaraderie that is just enough to keep you going to the end.

There was a later release of this game featuring a brief interview with the author of Detective: he made the game when he was 12 years old, and he's fine with the parody. Honestly, I'm glad to know it. This parody was, apparently, written without his knowledge, and Detective is so obviously the work of a child that it seems mean-spirited to make fun of it. This story was entertaining, but I'm glad we didn't see a deluge of these in the ifcomp in the following years.

The IFDB only lists two other stories tagged 'MST3K', but MST3k was popular enough to inspire works in various media. I have an email in my archives dated 1996-03-04, Mystery Fanfic Commentary Theatre 3000 comments on "Natsumi, the Magical Girl, chapter one.", and there were plenty more like it in the succeeding months and years.

Total playtime: about 20 minutes

In which several books are finished

2020-02-29 15:58:08
  • reading

It took me seven months, but I have finally finished reading Shatner: Where No Man..., the biography of William Shatner by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath. It was an exhausting read. Besides being sheer hagiography, it is written in M&C's usual self-satisfied style, and getting through a chapter means enduring pages and pages of their self-congratulating, pseudo-philosophical mumbling. The bits that were primarily transcripts of interviews were fairly interesting, and Shatner's musing on the practice of acting was worthwhile, too, but then you also have to deal with stuff like this:

Does the concept of the "alpha" male--the dominant male of a primate group (with the second most dominant being "beta", etc.) apply to man? Do men strive for dominance in that way? Do women? Is there such a thing as an "alpha female?

If there are men who are alpha males--do they still experience the need to yield? And to whom would or could they yield? An alpha female? But in an Earth context, while that is intellectually possible, it is physically not very convincing. There is a certain issue of plain strength. Muscle.

What about an alien woman now? Say, a Romulan fleet commander? Say, a Vulcan woman? Vulcans are, after all, stronger than humans. Even alpha male starship captains.

See my notes on the book for more details, if you can stomach them.

To cleanse my palate after that mess, I read The Truth Machine, a children's picture book based on Star Trek: The Original Series. It was nothing special, but there was nothing terribly wrong with it, either. My opinion of The Prisoner of Vega, another Trek picture book, is similar.

Since I've been reading so much sf, lately, I thought I'd try one of the non-sf-related books on my reading list: Tetralogue: I'm Right, You're Wrong. It's a kind of beginner's introduction to epistemology and ethics, in the form of a dialogue. The dialogue is set off by a question of whether witchcraft is real, and whether a scientific explanation of events is really any better than an appeal to witchcraft as a cause:

You expect me to take that on faith? You don't always know best, you know. I'm actually giving you an explanation. (Mustn't talk too loud.) My neighbour's a witch. She always hated me. Bewitched my wall, cast a spell on it to collapse next time I was right beside it. It was no coincidence. Even if you had your precious scientific explanation with all its atoms and molecules, it would only be technical details. It would give no reason why the two things happened at just the same time. The only explanation that makes real sense of it is witchcraft.

Ethics are also discussed, and the question of moral relativism vs. absolutism, e.g.:

Maybe it doesn’t matter what I tell the slaveholders. There's probably nothing I can say that would ever change their minds. The slaves shouldn't have to wait in chains for the miracle of my finding an argument that convinces the slaveholders against all their prejudices.

It's very easy to follow, and entertaining enough, but also very elementary. A good pick for someone who has never read anything about philosophy, I think.

I've now finished If on a winter's night a traveler, which I've been reading on and off for the last 18 months. The drawback of reading so many books at once--individual books can take a while to get through. But how could one put off starting a book that begins like this?

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice—they won't hear you otherwise—"I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or If you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.

If on a winter's night a traveler is very interesting, and uses some literary tricks to great effect. I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half, but it was well worth reading. My review, linked above, gives a little more detail (and, unusually for me, without spoilers).

This has been a good month for finishing books. So, in the spirit of sabotaging my progress on my TBR pile, I picked up The Vine Witch using some credit Amazon gave me toward a Kindle book, and started reading The Fourth World, which was free.

Reading roundup

2020-02-22 05:43:37
  • reading

As projected, I finished up OMNI, April 1979. It was pretty slim pickings, this issue. Bester's Galatea Galante was probably the best story in the issue, for pure atmosphere, but it still wasn't great.

I also read Lemony Snicket's The Bad Beginning. Those books have been on my reading list forever, and I finally took the time to read one... and didn't like it at all. Oh well. At least that knocks its sequels off my TBR list, so it's not a total loss.

I've made some more progress with Great Themes of Science Fiction: A Study in Imagination and Evolution. I read its predecessor, Foundations of Science Fiction: A Study in Imagination and Evolution, back in 2018, and found it poor as literary criticism, but great as a sort of annotated bibliography of scifi, showing the development of various ideas through the years. So far, the sequel looks like more of the same, which is to say enjoyable, if not terribly enlightening, and tending to increase my TBR list... a dangerous book for me to read. It's full of stuff like this:

Telepathy is commonplace in the twenty-fourth century of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (1952). Still one of the all-time classic visions of its kind, Bester's novel puts others to shame in its use of inventive style and typographical trickery to convey the sensations of a world in which sharing of thoughts is taken for granted.

Great Themes of Science Fiction: A Study in Imagination and Evolution (1987-10), 59

I've begun reading Science Fiction, Second Edition, a book in The New Critical Idiom series. So far, it's devoted a few dozen pages to defining SF, and the started on trying to trace the history of sf--where does it start? Verne? Shelley? Gernsback? This is pretty unenlightening stuff, for anyone with more than a passing familiarity with sf, but the book's short enough that I'm willing to read the whole thing in hopes of it improving.

SF, new and old

2020-02-17 00:15:20
  • reading

I finished up Fool Moon. Its story is much better than Storm Front, and the writing is superior, too, but it still has plenty of room for improvement. The biggest flaw in this one is that it's predictable who the villains will turn out to be, and even the way the final showdown resolves is pretty easy to see coming.

I also finished Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1951. None of the stories was that great, but they were generally decent enough. As usual with old scifi (or anything else, I suppose), these stories are very much products of their time. Dark Interlude is a pretty good indictment of racism, while Made to Measure is positively dripping with sexism (and that story is probably meant to be at least partly anti-sexist). Rule of Three just isn't very interesting, nor is Susceptibility. The final story, The Reluctant Heroes is competent, and while it doesn't have any really big idea, it examines the idea it does have well enough.

I'll probably finish up OMNI, April 1979 before I read any more of Galaxy Science Fiction or The Dresden Files. That one's been on my 'currently reading' list since last July. OMNI has some good stories, but I hate the way they break everything up like a newspaper, 'continued on page 103'. It's annoying.

Progress on Mt. Tsundoku

2020-02-16 03:41:10
  • reading

We're well into the new year. I didn't make any resolutions other than the permanent one: work on the TBR pile. And I've even done a little of that, in the past few weeks. Links below are to my reviews.

I have finally--finally--finished reading Storm Front. I read the first fifty pages or so back in 2012, and there I left it. The story is passable, but altogether the book is average at best. If I didn't have a pretty solid belief that the series really does improve--and not just in the minds of its fans--then I'd probably break off here. But I do believe it will improve, so... I've begun the next book in the series.

I picked up ZZT in a bundle last year. I read Galaga and wasn't impressed, so I put off reading the other books. Happily, ZZT is a much better book than Galaga was.

I'm also making some progress on my project to read old scifi: I've begun reading Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1951, which begins the serialization of Asimov's The Stars, Like Dust. Having read the first installment of that... I'm not too impressed. Asimov has written much better books. Here's hoping the short stories in the issue are more rewarding.

On that note, I've also finally typed up some of my notes on stuff I've read in the past year for that project: A Stone and a Spear has some nice anti-war monologuing, and The Tunnel Under the World is almost painfully relevant.

Looking back, it was six years ago today that I finished reading Robert Frost's North of Boston. Perhaps this year I'll read New Hampshire. Can't let the TBR pile get too low, after all...

Journal: 2019-06-27 11:38:32

I've been listening to Spotify radio and it's been giving me lots of new wave stuff. A few minutes ago, it played "Chains of Luck" by Wall of Voodoo. Now, there's something! I first heard of them through a parody of their song "Mexican Radio", a Ranma songfic "Training Ground Jusenkyo". All kinds of things come together, with broad enough experience.

I listened to "Mexican Radio" again, and I liked it better than I remember liking it, last time I heard it. Maybe it's from more exposure to new wave? Or maybe I was just in a bad mood before. Who knows.

For older posts, see the archive.