Saturday, 30 November 2013

Is giving advice blaming the victim?

I'm writing this because I want to understand if I my thinking is wrong, and if it is, how it's wrong.  I'm not posting any strongly-held views here, and I'm happy to be told that what I'm about to write is nonsense.  It's about violence, and I will generalise to try to avoid triggering what I realise must be terrible memories if you are a victim of specific instances of violence.

Imagine there is a certain part of town where street gangs hang out.  That area is known.  You want to go to the store urgently.  There is a short-cut through that part of town.  You are advised to avoid that part of town because it increases your risk of being a victim of violence.  Ignoring that advice, you ended up hospitalized from a stab wound.  Fortunately, you will survive.

Of course, your choice to take the short-cut doesn't in any way diminish the guilt of the attacker who stabbed you.  In a better world you would not have to worry about the choice at all.  But you did ignore the advice, and in doing so ... don't you share some of the responsibility for your situation?

The existence of those gangs is an objective fact about the world.  It's a predictable risk.  You should not have to take them into account, but if you reject their objective existence you are trying to deny the awful reality of a real danger.

My feeling is that it's a really bad idea to advise potential victims to act as if the hazards are not there, to reject any feeling of responsibility for their safety.  The world needs to be changed to remove such hazards, but also people have to be informed about the hazards while they exist, and told how to be careful.

Dangers are just as objectively real when they come from the actions of other people as when they are mindless hazards.  We have to drive carefully because we realise that other drivers can potentially kill us - one reason we put on seat belts because of the objective danger of other drivers.

I see a real problem with sacrificing the well-being of others on the altar of idealism because of the belief that warning of the dangers resulting from the behaviour of people is a form of 'victim blaming'.

People are part of the problem.  Be safe.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Science demolishes dualism

Science tells us that thoughts are the activity of cells in our brains.  Science also tell us that the activity of those cells has to have physical causes, because restrictions on physical possibilities imposed by the conservation of energy and momentum mean that there is no room for any other causes to have any direct influence on what happens in our brains.

So how do we get to have thoughts?

One is through the use of symbolic representation of abstractions combined with rules.  We can work out that 2+2=4 because we have symbolic representations of numbers and we can mentally express the rule for adding.

The other way is through input from senses and memory.  For example, we can get information from outside of our heads, such as from spoken words or things read.  These inputs result in signals within our brains that we interpret based on evolved neural functions and on experience.

Another way is through the brain combining various combinations of memories together to form imagined situation and dreams.

The key thing to realise here is that these are all completely physical processes: every thought that arises arises because of underlying physical causes no matter what that thought may represent.

This means that no thought about any aspect of our minds being non-physical can be caused by that non-physical aspect - no thoughts or feelings about our minds can be used as evidence for non-physicality.  We may have some experiences which we feel are beyond physical explanation, but we know from science that this feelings is deluding us, because all feelings must have physical explanations, otherwise we would not be able to think about them!

Monday, 11 November 2013

On-line hostility and a sense of proportion

The Internet is a big, big place.  We humans aren't used to such big places, and as a result we can get seriously misled about what is going on.  

Suppose I go onto Twitter and say something a touch controversial.  I might get quite a few heated responses.  If I'm a journalist I might get rather excited about that.  Heated responses make a good story: I can write up about how angry people get about the subject of my tweets.  I might even feel upset about the reaction to my words, and get the impression that I'm despised.  There may even be vile threats, making me feel that the Internet is not a safe place.

All of these reactions are wrong, and all arise because of a huge mistake made about the experience of being on-line:  a total lack of a sense of proportion.  "Proportion" is the right word here.  

Suppose I get a dozen angry replies.  That number is meaningless as it stands because there is no way to tell who read my tweets and did not reply.  There is no way to know what proportion of readers were angry,  because almost all reading of tweets is entirely passive.  People who aren't angry or upset usually have little motivation to reply in any way.  So what would that angry dozen mean?  I have absolutely no idea, and neither does anyone else who uses any public space on the Internet - without any idea of the total readership of a comment there is no way to know what the significance is of hostile reaction.

So, try not to get upset if you get a negative reaction - get a sense of proportion!