Why I’m An AI Skeptic

There are lots of people who are convinced that we’re a few short years away from economic apocalypse as robots take over all of our jobs. Here’s an example from Business Insider:

Top computer scientists in the US warned over the weekend that the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and robots in the workplace could cause mass unemployment and dislocated economies

These fears are based on hype. The capabilities of real-world AI-like systems are far, far from what non-experts expect from those devices, and the gap between where we are and where people expect to be is vast and–in the short-term at least–mostly insurmountable. 

Let’s take a look at where the hype comes from, why it’s wrong, and what to expect instead. For starters, we’ll take all those voice-controlled devices (Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant) and put them in their proper context.

Voice Controls Are a Misleading Gimmick

Prologue: Voice Controls are Frustrating

A little while back I was changing my daughter’s diaper and thought, hey: my hands are occupied but I’d like to listen to my audiobook. I said, “Alexa, resume playing Ghost Rider on Audible.” Sure enough: Alexa not only started playing my audiobook, but the track picked up exactly where I’d left off on my iPhone a few hours previously. Neat!

There was one problem: I listen to my audiobooks at double speed, and Alexa was playing it at normal speed. So I said, “Alexe, double playbook speed.” Uh-oh. Not only did Alexa not increase the playback speed, but it did that annoying thing where it starts prattling on endlessly about irrelevant search results that have nothing to do with your request. I tried five or six different varieties of the command and none of them worked, so I finally said, “Alexa, shut up.” 

This is my most common command to Alexa. And also Siri. And also the Google Assistant. I hate them all.

They’re supposed to make life easier but, as a general rule, they do the exact opposite. When we got our new TV I connected it to Alexa because: why not? It was kind of neat to turn it on using a voice command, but it really wasn’t that useful because voice commands didn’t work for things like switching video inputs so you still had to find the remote anyway and because the voice command to turn it off never worked, even when the volume was pretty low. 

Then one day the TV stopped working with Alexa. Why? Who knows. I have half-heartedly tried to fix it six or seven times over the last year to no avail. I spent more time setting up and unsuccessfully debugging the connection than I ever saved. 

This isn’t a one-off exception; it’s the rule. Same thing happened with a security camera I use as a baby monitor. For a few weeks it worked with Alexa until it didn’t. I got that one working again, but then it broke again and I gave up. Watching on the Alexa screen wasn’t ever really more useful than watching on my phone anyway.  

So what’s up? Why is all this nifty voice-activated stuff so disappointing?

If you’re like me, you were probably really excited by all this voice-activation stuff when it first started to come out because it reminded you of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And if you’re like me, you also got really annoyed and jaded after actually trying to use some of this stuff when you realized it’s all basically an inconvenient, expensive, privacy-smashing gimmick.  

Before we get into that, let me give y’all one absolutely vital caveat. The one true and good application of voice control technology is accessibility. For folks who are blind or can’t use keyboards or mice or other standard input devices, this technology is not a gimmick at all. It’s potentially life-transforming. I don’t want any of my cynicism to take away from that really, really important exception.

But that’s not how this stuff is being packaged and marketed to the broad audience, and it’s that–the explicit and implicit promises and all the predictions people make based on top of them–that I want to address.


To put voice command gimmicks in their proper context, you have to go back to the beginning of popular user interfaces, and the first of those was the CLI: Command Line Interface. A CLI is a screen, a keyboard, and a system that allows you to type commands and see feedback. If you’re tech savvy then you’ve used the command line (AKA terminal) on Mac or Unix machines. If you’re not, then you’ve probably still seen the Windows command prompt at some point. All of these are different kinds of CLI. 

In the early days of the PC (note: I’m not going back to the ancient days of punch cards, etc.) the CLI was all you had. Eventually this changed with the advent of the GUI: graphical user interface.

The GUI required new technology (the mouse), better hardware (to handle the graphics) and also a whole new way of thinking about the user interaction with the computer. Instead of thinking about commands, the GUI emphasizes objects. In particular, the GUI has used a kind of visual metaphor from the very beginning. The most common of these are icons, but it goes deeper than that. Buttons to click, a “desktop” as a flat surface to organize things, etc. 

Even though you can actually do a lot of the same things in either a CLI or a GUI (like moving or renaming files), the whole interaction paradigm is different. You have concepts like clicking, double-clicking, right-clicking, dragging-and-dropping in the GUI that just don’t have any analog in the CLI.

It’s easy to think of the GUI as superior to the CLI since it came later and is what most people use most of the time, but that’s not really the case. Some things are much better suited to a GUI, including some really obvious ones like photo and video editing. But there are still plenty of tasks that make more sense in a CLI, especially related to installing and maintaining computer systems. 

The biggest difference between a GUI and a CLI is feedback. When you interact with a GUI you get constant, immediate feedback to all of your actions. This in turn aids in discoverability. What this means is that you really don’t need much training to use a GUI. By moving the mouse around on the screen, you can fairly easily see what commands are available, for example. This means you don’t need to memorize how to execute tasks in a GUI. You can memorize the shortcuts for copy and paste, but you can also click on “Edit” and find them there. (And if you forget they’re under the edit menu, you can click File, View, etc. until you find them.)

The feedback and discoverability of the GUI is what has made it the dominant interaction paradigm. It’s much easier to get started and much more forgiving of memory lapses. 

Enter the VUI

When you see commercials of attractive, well-dressed people interacting with voice assistants, the most impressive thing is that they use normal-sounding commands. The interactions sound conversational. This is what sets the (false) expectation that interacting with Siri is going to be like interacting with the computer on board the Enterprise (NCC 1701-D). This way leads frustration and madness, however. A better way to think of voice control is as a third user interface paradigm, the VUI or voice user interface.

There is one really cool aspect of a VUI, and that’s the ability of the computer to transcribe spoken words to written text. That’s the magic. 

However, once you account for that you realize that the rest of the VUI experience is basically a CLI… without a screen. Which means: without feedback and discoverability.

Those two traits that make the GUI so successful for everyday life are conspicuously absent from a VUI. Just like when interacting with a CLI, using a VUI successfully means that you have to memorize a bunch of commands and then invoke them just so. There is a little more leeway with a VUI than a CLI, but not much. And that leeway is at least partially offset by the fact that when you type in a command at the terminal, you can pause and re-read it to see if you got it all right before you hit enter and commit. You can’t even do that with a VUI. Once you open your  mouth and start talking, your commands are being executed (or, more often than not: failing to execute) on the fly. 

This is all bad enough, but in addition to basically being 1970s tech (except for the transcription part), the VUI faces the additional hurdle of being held up against an unrealistic expectation because it sounds like natural speech. 

No one sits down in front of a terminal window and expects to be able to type in a sentence or two of plain English and get the computer to do their bidding. Here I am, asking Bash what time it is. It doesn’t go well:

Even non-technical folks understand that you have to have a whole skillset to be able to interact with a computer using the CLI. That’s why the command line is so intimidating for so many folks.

But the thing is, if you ask Siri (or whatever), “What time is it?” you’ll get an answer. This gives the impression that–unlike a CLI–interacting with a VUI won’t require any special training. Which is to say: that a VUI is intelligent enough to understand you.

It’s not, and it doesn’t. 

A VUI is much closer to a CLI than a GUI, and our expectations for it should be set at the 1970s level instead of, like with a GUI, more around the 1990s. Aside from the transcription side of things, and with a few exceptions for special cases, a VUI is a big step backwards in useability. 

AI vs. Machine Learning

Machine Learning Algorithms are Glorified Excel Trendlines

When we zoom out to get a larger view of the tech landscape, we find basically the same thing: mismatched expectations and gimmicks that can fool people into thinking our technology is much more advanced than it really is.

As one example of this, consider the field of machine learning, which is yet another giant buzzword. Ostensibly, machine learning is a subset of artificial intelligence (the Grand High Tech Buzzword). Specifically, it’s the part related to learning. 

This is another misleading concept, though. The word “learning” carries an awful lot of hidden baggage. A better way to think of machine learning is just: statistics. 

If you’ve worked with Excel at all, you probably know that you can insert trendlines into charts. Without going into too much detail, an Excel trendline is an application of the simplest and most commonly used form of statistical analysis: ordinary least-squares regression. There are tons of guides out there to explain the concept to you, my point is just that nobody thinks the ability to click “show trendline” on an Excel chart means the computer is “learning” anything. There’s no “artificial intelligence” at play here, just a fairly simple set of steps to solve a minimization problem. 

Although the bundle of algorithms available for data scientists conducting machine learning are much broader and more interesting, they’re the same kind of thing. Random forests, support vector machines, naive Bayesian classifiers: they’re all optimization problems fundamentally the same as OLS regression (or other, slightly fancier statistical techniques like logistic regression.)

As with voice controlled devices, you’ll understand the underlying tech a lot better if you replace the cool, fancy expectations (like the Enterprise’s computer) with a much more realistic example (a command prompt). Same thing here. Don’t believe the machine learning hype. We’re talking about adding trendlines to Excel charts. Yeah, it’s fancier than that, but that example will give you the right intuition about the kind of activity that’s going on.

Last thing: don’t get me wrong knocking on machine learning. I love me some machine learning. No, really, I do. As statistical tools the algorithms are great and certainly much more capable than an Excel trendline. This is just about how to get your intuition a little more in line with what they are in a philosophical sense.

Are Robots Coming to Take Your Job?

So we’ve laid some groundwork by explaining how voice control services and machine learning aren’t as cool as the hype would lead you to believe. Now it’s time to get to the main event and address the questions I started this post with: are we on the cusp of real AI that can replace you and take your job?

You could definitely be forgiven for thinking the answer is an obvious “yes”. After all, it was a really big deal when Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov in 1997, and since then there’s been a litany of John Henry moments. So-called AI has won at Go and Jeopardy, for example. Impressive, right? Not really.

First, let me ask you this. If someone said that a computer beat the reigning world champion of competitive memorization… would you care? Like, at all? 

Because yes, competitive memorization (aka memory sport) is a thing. Players compete to see how fast they can memorize the sequence of a randomly shuffled deck of cards, for example. Thirteen seconds is a really good time. If someone bothered to build a computer to beat that (something any tinkerer could do in a long weekend with no more specialized equipment than a smartphone) we wouldn’t be impressed. We’d yawn. 

Memorizing the order of a deck of cards is a few bytes of data. Not really impressive for computers that store data by the terabyte and measure read and write speeds in gigabytes per second. Even the visual recognition part–while certainly tougher–is basically a solved problem. 

With a game like chess–where the rules are perfectly deterministic and the playspace is limited–it’s just not surprising or interesting for computers to beat humans. In one important sense of the word, chess is just a grandiose version of Tic-Tac-Toe. What I mean is that there are only a finite number of moves to make in either Tic-Tac-Toe or chess. The number of moves in Tic-Tac-Toe is very small, and so it is an easily solved game. That’s the basic plot of the WarGames and the reason nobody enjoys playing Tic-Tac-Toe after they learn the optimal strategy when they’re like seven years old. Chess is not solved yet, but that’s just because the number of moves is much larger. It’s only a matter of time until we brute-force the solution to chess. Given all this, it’s not surprising that computers do well at chess: it is the kind of thing computers are good at. Just like memorization is the kind of thing computers are good at.

Now, the success of computers at playing Go is much more impressive. This is a case where the one aspect of artificial intelligence with any genuine promise–machine learning–really comes to the fore. Machine learning is overhyped, but it’s not just hyped. 

On top of successfully learning to play Go better than a human, machine learning was also used to dramatically increase the power of automated language translation. So there’s some exciting stuff happening here, but Go is still a nice, clean system with orderly rules that is amenable to automation in ways that real life–or even other games, like Starcraft–are not.

So let’s talk about Starcraft for a moment.  I recently read an article that does a great job of providing a real-life example. It’s a PC Magazine article about the controversy over an AI that managed to defeat top-ranked human players in Starcraft II. Basically, a team created an AI (AlphaStar) to beat world-class Starcraft II players. Since Starcraft is a much more complex game (dozens of unit types, real-time interaction, etc.) this sounds really impressive. The problem is: they cheated. 

When a human plays Starcraft part of what they’re doing is looking at the screen and interpreting what they see. This is hard. So AlphaStar skipped it. Instead of building a system so that they could point a camera at the screen and use visual recognition to identify the units and terrain, they (1) built AlphaStar to only play on one map over and over again so the terrain never changed and (2) tapped into the Starcraft data to directly get at the exact location of all their units. Not only does this bypass the tricky visualization and interpretation problem, it also meant that AlphaStar always knew where every single unit was at every single point in time (while human players can only see what’s on the screen and have to scroll around the map). 

You could argue that Deep Blue didn’t use visual recognition either. The plays were fed into the computer directly. The difference is that human chess players use the same code to understand the game, so the playing field was even. Not so with AlphaStar. 

That’s why the “victory” of AlphaStar over world class Starcraft players was so controversial. The deck was stacked. The AI could see the entire board at the same time (which is not possible as a restriction of the way the game is played, not just human capacity) and only by playing on one map over and over again. If you moved AlphaStar to a different map, world class players could have easily beaten it. Practically anyone could have easily beaten it.  

So here’s the common theme between voice-command and AlphaStar: as soon as you take one step off the beaten path, they break. Just like a CLI, a VUI (like Alexa or Siri) breaks as soon as you enter a command it doesn’t perfectly expect. And AlphaStar goes from worldclass pro to bumbling child if you swap from a level it’s been trained on to one it hasn’t. 

The thing to realize is that his limitation isn’t just about how these programs perform today. It’s about the fundamental expectations we should have for them ever

Easy Problems and Hard Problems

This leads me to the underlying reason for all the hype around AI. It’s very, very difficult for non-experts to tell the difference between problems that are trivial and problems that are basically impossible. 

For a good overview of the concept, check out Range by David Epstein. He breaks the world into “kind problems” and “wicked problems”. Kind problems are problems like chess or playing Starcraft again and again on the same level with direct access to unit location. Wicked problems are problems like winning a live debate or playing Starcraft on a level you’ve never seen before, maybe with some new units added in for good measure.

If your job involves kind problems–if it’s repeatable with simple rules for success and failure–than a robot might steal your job. But if your job involves wicked problems–if you have to figure out a new approach to a novel situation on a regular basis–then your job is safe now and for the foreseeable future.

This doesn’t mean nobody should be worried. The story of technological progress has largely been one of automation. We used to need 95% or more of the human population to grow food just so we’d have enough to eat. Thanks to automation and labor-augmentation, that proportion is down to the single digits. Every other job that exists, other than subsistence farming, exists because of advances to farming technology (and other labor). In the long run: that’s great!

In the short run, it can be traumatic both individually and collectively. If you’ve invested decades of your life getting good at one the tasks that robots can do, then it’s devastating to suddenly be told your skills–all that effort and expertise–are obsolete. And when this happens to large numbers of people, the result is societal instability.

So it’s not that the problem doesn’t exist. It’s more that it’s not a new problem, and it’s one we should manage as opposed to “solve”. The reason for that is that the only way to solve the problem would be to halt forward progress. And, unless you think going back to subsistence farming or hunter-gathering sounds like a good idea (and nobody really believes that, no matter what they say), then we should look forward with optimism for the future developments that will free up more and more of our time and energy for work that isn’t automatable. 

But we do need to manage that progress to mitigate the personal and social costs of modernization. Because there are costs, and even if they are ultimately outweighed by the benefits, that doesn’t mean they just disappear.

Kavanaugh the Folkloric Monster of the Mid-Atlantic

In my wife’s country, there is an old folkloric story from the time of small villages and horse-trodden roads of a monstrous woman called la Cegua. She only appeared at nights on lonely roads, asking late-night travelers for a ride to the nearest village. To drunk men returning home from a night at the bar she appeared as a beautiful woman, and would ask to climb atop the horse and sit behind him. Then suddenly, midway into the ride, she would change and reveal her true form as a monstrous demon with a horse skull for a head and eyes of fire. She would then grab tight onto the man, and the startled horse would begin to gallop, until they both fell. Only those men who had innocent intentions would escape alive; the rest would die.

Obviously, no such creature as la Cegua ever existed, but you can imagine how the story came about. You can imagine older men in town swearing to God and the Virgin that they saw la Cegua on a road one night years ago, that they in fact gave her a ride and looked into the flaming eyes in her skull, and escaped only because of the purity of their hearts. You can imagine a man on his way home on a dark night atop his old slow horse, convincing himself la Cegua wasn’t going to come out, until suddenly a woman on the side of the road causes him to send his horse off in a gallop.

You can kind of imagine what he says, breathlessly, as he arrives at his door:

“I saw her, la Cegua! She was on the road, looking like a beautiful woman. She was asking for a ride, but then a cloud shifted and the moon came out to shine full on her face. In a moment she changed, and her flaming eyes pierced out of her skull straight into mine. I don’t know how I made it back, except that I ran the horse as fast as I could.  I’m sure it was her!”

Today, we are beginning to see the formation of a new folkloric monster. It is in the form of Brett Kavanaugh. Not the real Brett Kavanaugh, but the one that exists in the present leftwing imagination.

This folkloric Kavanaugh has evolved in a darker turn from the “Bill Brasky” stories. Rather than just being comically adept at drinking and picking up women, this Kavanaugh is more like a drunken ogre who emerges from a cave deep in the Mid-Atlantic woods and wanders forth into civilization, stumbling into parties, starting fights and assaulting women, before dragging a helpless victim back to his cave. Maybe he’ll show up at your boat party in Rhode Island and get into a fight while groping women.  Maybe he’ll throw ice at you in a bar in Connecticut.  Maybe he’ll drunkenly stumble out of a bar and pin you to a wall.  Or maybe he and his companion Mark Judge (of equally folkloric proportions) will drag you into a cave and take turns raping you all night.

No one can know if or when they’ll be safe from Brett Kavanaugh, or where he’ll appear next.

One thing for certain is that he only appears on dark nights when the moon is hidden, and that he only comes to places with lots of beer. Kavanaugh likes beer. And then in a moment, he’ll rear up to 8 feet tall, an angry monster with poor temperament, beer on his breath and hands that end in knives for cutting off loose clothing. Will he wag his penis at you? Will he drop qualuudes in your punch and summon a gang of rapists to take turns having their way with you? Or will he just throw beer in your face?

It’s Brett Kavanaugh! As unpredictable as he is belligerently drunk!  80’s partiers beware!

More and more sightings are beginning to appear in the press, and I expect even more and more and more as the week drags on and the FBI finishes its investigation and what passes for a press in this country struggles to print anything at all that anyone at all is willing to say to stop Kavanaugh from becoming the fifth (now much more-so) conservative on the Supreme Court.

You can almost imagine an old man in a bar swearing to God and his mother’s grave that he saw Brett Kavanaugh one night in a bar back in the 80’s. Was it ’83? ’84? He came swaggering in, drunk as a goat and mean as sin. Demanded a whole pitcher of Bud Light, which he downed in a single enormous gulp. Then he smashed the pitcher over the head of the guy next to him and just slides over the bar and starts chugging Miller straight out of the tap. Bartender tries to stop him, but Ol’ Man Kavanaugh grabbed him and in a ferocious rage hurled the bartender clean across the room. Then he grabbed the nearest woman he could find, slung her over his shoulder, and with a hideous growl of anger at everyone walked back into the night. We never saw either of ’em again. I’m sure it was him. Brett Kavanaugh.

You can almost imagine, right?

On Contraceptives vs. Abortifacients

The political outrage of the moment is the assertion that SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh thinks that contraceptives and abortifacients are the same thing. HuffPost provides a sample article with the contention that “Kavanaugh] referred to contraception as ‘abortion-inducing drugs.'” and then a quote from the EVP of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund:

Kavanaugh referred to birth control ― something more than 95 percent of women use in their lifetime ― as an ‘abortion-inducing drug,’ which is not just flat-out wrong, but is anti-woman, anti-science propaganda.

This is a convenient narrative for pro-choice activists, who routinely smear the pro-life movement as being motivated by regressive prudery or just an outright “War on Women.” They would have you believe that pro-lifers are out to control women’s reproduction, and therefore pro-lifers oppose contraception and abortion as one and the same thing.

None of this is true.

First, it’s not true that the pro-life movement conflates contraceptives and abortifacients. These are two very different things. Abortifacients act after fertilization to cause the death of an innocent human being. Opposition to this–at least, in elective cases–is the core of the pro-life cause.

Contraceptives, on the other hand, act to prevent fertilization. If there’s no fertilization then no human life is at stake. So the pro-life movement has no relevance here.

It’s true that some pro-life people view contraception as immoral. It’s also true that some pro-life people would like to bring school prayer back. But just because they do, it doesn’t make school prayer a pro-life issue. It just shows that there’s overlap between people who are pro-life and people who like school prayer. Same concept here: there’s overlap between people who are pro-life and people who view contraceptives as immoral, but opposition to contraceptives (morally or legally) has nothing to do with the pro-life cause because there isn’t a human life directly at stake. 

Second, returning to Kavanuagh specifically: he knows this. Much as Planned Parenthood would like to scare up some more donor dollars by terrifying people with the specter of a crazed misogynist who can’t tell the difference between contraception and abortion, Kavanaugh’s dissent in Priests for Life vs. HHS (which is what Ted Cruz was asking Kavanugh about) makes clear that he is perfectly aware of the difference:

By regulation, that insurance must cover all FDA-approved contraceptives, including certain methods of birth control that, some believe, operate as abortifacients and result in the destruction of embryos.

Page 1 of Kavanaugh’s dissent.

The drug that Kavanugh is talking about is levonorgestrel. In low doses, levonorgestrel is a contraceptive that acts by preventing fertilization. This raises no pro-life concerns. But levonorgestrel is also available in a much higher dosage as the emergency contraceptive Plan B. In this higher dosage–and taken after sex (which is the whole point of an emergency contraceptive)–levonorgestrel may kick in after fertilization has already occurred and prevent an embryo from implanting. This is the scenario that concerns pro-lifers, because once fertilization takes place we have a new, living human being and the entire point of the pro-life movement is that it shouldn’t be legally permissible to electively kill human beings.

So, contrary to Planned Parenthood propaganda, Kavanaugh isn’t attacking all contraceptives. He’s not even attacking all uses of levonorgestrel. In fact, he’s not attacking anything at all.  He’s merely pointing out that “some believe” (i.e. Priests for Life believe) that in this particular case, levonorgestrel may act as an abortifacient and not as a contraceptive.

Is the concern reasonable? Probably.

The question of whether or not Plan B can act as an abortifacient is incredibly controversial because it has to do with abortion, but Wikipedia (with a citation) concludes that “While it is unlikely that emergency contraception affects implantation it is impossible to completely exclude the possibility of post-fertilization effect.”

One last important thing before we wrap up. There’s a lot of sophistry surrounding the issue of whether or not Plan B is an abortifacient. WebMD is a case-in-point:

Plan B One-Step is not the same as RU-486, which is an abortion pill. It does not cause a miscarriage or abortion. In other words, it does not stop development of a fetus once the fertilized egg implants in the uterus. So it will not work if you are already pregnant when you take it.

This is misleading because they’re relying on a technical definition of pregnancy that doesn’t have anything to do with the moral issue at hand. Their argument is that pregnancy starts at implantation rather than fertilization. If Plan B stops an embryo from implanting, then it hasn’t interrupted a pregnancy because technically the pregnancy hasn’t started yet. Therefore it can’t be an abortion, because there is no pregnancy to abort. This is all technically true and yet at the same time ethically irrelevant, since the germane issue is not whether a pregnancy has ended but whether or not a human life has ended. 

Other sources, like NPR, have covered the issue much more responsibly and still conclude that Plan B is not an abortifacient because it doesn’t block implantation, only fertilization. If that is demonstrably proven (my understanding is that the jury is still out) then Plan B will no longer be a pro-life concern.

Ultimately none of this will be persuasive to people who are pro-choice because it seems self-evident that an embryo only a day or so old is not really what we mean by “a human life” even if, speaking scientifically, it is in fact a distinct, living human organism. I understand that, and I’m not going to address that aspect of the debate today.

My point is simply this: Kavanaugh in particular did not conflate all contraceptives with abortifacients and the pro-life movement in general is similarly able to tell the difference between these two very distinct things.

Jenga and the Meaning of Life

This comic from Existential Comics gave me a good laugh this morning:

As renoun philosopher Al Davis said, the meaning life is to just win, baby.

It also reminded me of how much I like Camus. I believe he’s the most authentic philosopher of his time period. And he asks a fundamental question: Why do I even bother going on living? What in my set of beliefs makes life, with all its suffering and uncertainty, few of days and full of trouble, worth living?

Image result for job suffering
I wouldn’t turn to Job’s friends for advice

Quick caveat, please don’t go out and kill yourself, but it’s a question we must face squarely and answer. And I believe whatever we answer will naturally orient us towards, as Jordan Peterson would put it, the highest possible good we can conceive. It’s kinda fun to see what your first, unscripted answer is. I said to myself, “Because the Lord has commanded I live on this earth and do good with the time I have here.”

Well how do I do good? I would answer that I become the kind of person who knows the right thing to do in any given situation. How I do become that kind of person? I’m not entirely sure, but since excellence is a habit, I’ll take some lines from virtue ethics and Jordan Peterson. I can start by telling the whole truth (which I don’t always do), being diligent in my tasks at home and at work (I’m often a ‘close enough’ kind of person), taking care of my body (which I just injured..oops), etc. And now here we are on the adventure of life, because I answered the rather macabre question of why I don’t wake up and just kill myself. Victory!

Image result for jordan peterson lobster

Speech on the Silent Sam Memorial at UNC

I was recently allowed to share my thoughts on the Silent Sam Confederate monument at UNC. Beforehand, I shared my anxiety about this.  The full transcript of my speech is available below.  My own recording can be viewed here, and perhaps an official recording if the University releases it.

The speech:

Way back when, during the America Civil War, a number of students here at UNC left their studies, left school, and went to fight in the cause of the Confederacy.

They fought out of a sense of honor,
a sense of duty,
a sense of loyalty,
a sense of service.

They believed the cause they were fighting was
a just a cause,
a noble cause,
and a worthy cause.

They would have heard from
and elected leaders
and news media
their families
and fellow students
and even their professors

— every voice in their lives that they trusted —

that this cause was a just and noble and worthy cause.

Today, we can look back and recognize that it was not.
It was not a noble cause they fought for.

Students today are also fighting.

They are LITERALLY fighting.

They are brawling in the streets,
throwing riots on campuses across the country,
setting fires
smashing in windows
and ribcages,
assaulting innocent bystanders and peaceful demonstrators for holding opinions they dislike.

They are shouting down invited guest lecturers with whom they disagree.

They are shutting down important debates and discussions that are vital to our civic life in democracy.

They are silencing through their activism
and violence
their fellow students,
their professors,
and others on campus.

Students are fighting for speech codes, restricting our first amendment rights to outlaw speech that offends them, calling it hate speech.

Students are opposed to our basic freedoms and liberties dear to our democracy.

Freedom of speech,
freedom of religion and worship,
freedom of conscience
freedom of association
freedom of self-determination

Students are fighting to overthrow free market capitalism

— which has brought us unprecedented prosperity —

and instead replace it with the economic system that all the world over has given us nothing

except Supreme Leaders and zoo meat.

Students are being told that these causes are just, and noble and worthy.

We are being told this by
our politicians
and elected leaders
By the news media
and by Hollywood actors and late night comedians who for whatever reason we listen to
By our families
and fellow students
— more than any other voice —
by our professors.

Every voice in our lives that we trust is telling us that these causes are just and noble and good.

I think the message Silent Sam has to offer UNC students is very important.

It is not the original intended message.

It is instead a call to sober reflection on the lesson of the past.

You can believe you are acting out of principles of virtue.

You can see your cause as so self-evidentially right only evil tyrants would oppose it.

You can feel Lady Justice’s hand on your shoulder, beckoning you to honor and duty.

You can hear from every voice around you that this is the noble cause.

And yet be so very wrong.

Thank you.

My speech went over about as well as you would think it would.  Looking back, I perhaps could have been more clear on what I was actually speaking about.  For anyone wishing to characterize my speech as one side or another, the full text is there.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

I got about halfway through When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. It’s a good book. I didn’t finish the book primarily because his thesis is not acceptable to me and therefore not helpful in understanding suffering from an Abrahamic perspective. Rabbi Kushner argues that, given the existence of suffering in the world, the best answer is to give up God’s omnipotence. That’s impossible, because if God isn’t omnipotent, then He isn’t what we call God. He’s some lesser deity in competition with various other forces in the world, essentially giving us dualism or polytheism.

However, what caught my attention is that Rabbi Kushner is willing to give up God’s omnipotence because it puts God clearly on our side. He wants to help us. He just doesn’t always have the power. And this notion really clarified for me the importance of Jesus in making monotheism intelligible in a world of suffering. Jesus is God With Us, Immanuel. He is the one who emptied himself, taking the form of servant, being born in the likeness of men. He is the one pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He is the one who was put to death for our trespasses. Who is more illustrative of God being on our side, with us in our suffering, than Jesus?

Granted, Jesus’ suffering does not answer the logical problem of evil, but I have thought for many years now that the problem of evil isn’t first and foremost a logical problem. It is a values problem. We don’t just feel the world doesn’t make sense when we suffer. We feel it is unjust. God on his high mountain does nothing while we suffer and die. No amount of good can make this bad right. And if this sense of injustice is our problem, the figure of Jesus is incalculably valuable. If our Lord was humbled, pierced, crushed, scourged, and killed, then why is it unfair that the same should happen to us? We have a Lord who can relate to our sufferings in every way.

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”


I want to visit this topic briefly because, while the subject never seems to leave the news, the fundamentals of the subject come up rarely. In keeping with the confusion that reigns regarding many subjects, transgenderism ultimately is not a question of science. Rather, the question lies in philosophy. I would sum up the question this way: What is the really real which defines a person’s identity? More specifically, in a mismatch between the body and the mind, is the body or the mind in error?

For this reason, the scientific facts of transgenderism only make sense in the light of choosing an answer to the above philosophical question. The possession of a penis or a vagina only proves definitive if you have answered the above question with “The physical aspects of our body define our identity.” Conversely, the fact that transgender people often possess a brain structure somewhere in between men and women definitively rules in this case only if you have first answered “The mental defines our identity.”

In other observations, the debate over transgenderism has seemingly brought gender essentialism back to circles from which it was long ago banished, because you cannot be something unless that something has fixed traits. One clever professor and journalist caught onto this trend during Caitlyn Jenner’s transition:

jenner comment

Now, what is my opinion? I identify the real with the physical body. The topic of transgenderism is, so far as I can tell, the only subject where we identify the real with the mind. When a person experiences a phantom limb, we all identify the really real with the fact that they lack a limb, not with their mind which believes the body still has that limb. On the flip side, when people profess a desire to amputate a healthy limb based on their mental image of themselves as an amputee, we do not amputate the limb because, once more, we identify the body as real and the mind as in error. We also show an abhorrence to amputating a healthy limb based on desires. I believe, in all cases except transgenderism, we unanimously identify the real with the body for good reason. Namely, a common human experience is the individual (and sometimes even the collective) mind in error compared what is real. Making the individual mind into the sole arbiter of the real cannot help but lead to conclusions both absurd and damaging.

As a final thought, I do not want to leave this subject without acknowledging that an immense amount of human suffering is bound up in this topic. We’re not just discussing abstract theories of the really real. We’re discussing people’s lives. I try to be sensitive to that fact. I doubt my opinion will change on this subject, but I am always open to people sharing their experiences because, even if no one changes their opinion, I find it helpful to know what people are experiencing.

A Primer for Understanding Conservatives

I think it’s fairly common for people to wonder “Are my conservative friends insane?”, so I’ve set out to provide a short primer on factors that influence modern conservative thought. The following points will obviously be generalizations, both of conservative and liberal thought.

Outcome, not Intention

To a conservative, the intention of a law or government program is generally meaningless. At first, that might seem odd, but think about this way: Who in their right mind intends badly with legislation? Given that almost nobody intends badly when legislating, a conservative is instead focused on the outcome: Does the law or program do what we want it to do? If it doesn’t, the legislation can be the most well-meaning program in the world, and conservatives still won’t support it.

Federal Government is not the Only Tool

Even if a federal government program is effective to one degree or another, a conservative is next going to ask: Is the federal government the most effective tool for accomplishing this goal? Could this goal be better accomplished on a local or state government level? What about with private programs? In general, the burden of proof is on the a federal government program to prove it could not be accomplished effectively on a more local or private level.

No Solutions, Only Trade-Offs

If I could frame a youtube video and put in on my wall, I would frame this youtube video.

Thomas Sowell summarizes a philosophical cornerstone of conservative thought: There are no solutions, only trade-offs. I think Sowell fairly contrasts the different paradigms underpinning modern conservative and liberal thought. For the liberal, if we could only get our institutions right, all would be well. For the conservative, no amount of institutions can ever make man right because man is inherently flawed. We can only hope to mitigate man’s negative impulses, and any attempt to mitigate one negative impulse has the possibility of encouraging another. So we have to ask of any law or program: Are the positives of this legislation going to outweigh any negatives it might introduce? Or, as Sowell puts it, “At what cost?”

How These Principles Turn Out in Practice

With these general principles in hand, one can hopefully start to understand conservative thought. A great example to test this understanding is minimum wage laws. Walker and Nathaniel have written quite a few articles on how minimum wage laws intend well but in reality only hurt the people they are meant to help. Another great example is equal pay laws. We can all agree that women deserve to be paid as much as men, but any legislation addressing the issue is going to cross every one of these principles: Does the proposed equal pay law actually work? Is federal government intervention the only or most effective means of addressing this issue? Will these equal pay laws be worth any trade-off incurred?

These examples also represent topics where conservatives are often impugned for their intentions and conversation breaks down: Do you hate poor people? Do you hate women? Of course not. We’re deeply concerned about the welfare of others. But we want to know that what we’re supporting actually works, is done at the most effective level, and is worth the cost. If legislation cannot jump over those three hurdles, we’re not going to support a program simply for the sake of its good intention.

As a final thought, one can understand conservative thought and still disagree with it. I have no problems with that. My only goal is that people first understand before they disagree. Otherwise, conversations are unproductive at best and nasty at worst. And in keeping with this thought, if you think I’ve misrepresented either conservative or liberal thought anywhere, let me know! I’ll probably still debate the comment, but as my momma came to understand, just cus I’m debating doesn’t mean I’m not listening.

Animal Cognition

The Economist recently ran a great article on the recent studies into animal cognition. The article doesn’t introduce the raging background discussions on the theories of animal cognition, but considering the topic takes up three full Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entries, I don’t blame the author. Rather, the article does an excellent job providing empirical information that can help one better pick among the myriad theories of animal minds. More than most subjects, I believe this topic continues to need more empirical information, because we have so little on account of how hard it is to study the inner workings of animals. And where information lacks, theories abound with little way to adjudicate among them.

In reading deeper into the topic on SEP, I found one particular passage enlightening:

One concern is that researchers may have a failure of imagination when it comes to hypothesis generation; they may make an inference to the best explanation argument without considering all the possible explanations. This reflects Kennedy’s worry when he claims that the following argument for attributing mental properties to animals rests on a false dichotomy: either animals are stimulus-response machines, or they are agents with beliefs and desires; since animals are not stimulus-response machines, they must be psychological agents (Kennedy 1992). According to Kennedy, the problem with this argument is that not all machines implement stimulus-response functions; some machines are complex and indeterministic, and if animals were machines, they would be machines of that sort (Barlow 1990; Kennedy 1992).

This observation seems to fit what I have read in studying animal cognition. Authors will gather a jumble of facts, and then either fit them into the box of ‘animals have minds just like human beings’ or ‘animals are completely unconscious.’ But what about a spectrum? I do not see any reason animals cannot possess mental capacity which puts them beyond pure unconscious decision-making but also doesn’t launch them to the same level of mental capability and freedom as human beings. Now, I hardly have the philosophical capability (or credentials) to give any substantive comment on what this spectrum would look like, but I think pointing out the possibility of spectrum might help break the logjam of either/or in animal cognition.

I think animal cognition also has a simmering background fight over naturalism vs. theism in the western world that encourages either/or thinking. For theists, man must remain separate from animals. For naturalists, breaking down the distinction between man and animal is a step forward. Add in sparsity of information, and what information we do have being closely tied to theory for interpretation, and we have a mess where almost anybody can get what they want with enough massaging. But I find this mess exciting! I think we have a golden opportunity to remain open to new information in a rapidly developing field, and one where careful thought on theoretical underpinnings goes a long way.

Abortion: A Legal Right or a Moral Wrong

Recently the Oregon State University Socratic Club hosted a debate on abortion between Dr. Nadine Strossen and Dr. Mike Adams. If a pro-lifer wants to learn how to effectively discuss this topic, this debate is the one to watch.

Mike made a number of great points. First and foremost, he would not let die the subject of defining what the fetus is. During his opening statement, he emphasizes repeatedly the indisputable fact that the fetus is a living, biological human being, complete with citations from textbooks. Later, when Nadine starts using the term potential life during the discussion section, he states (twice!) that dead things don’t grow. An audience member even chimes in later with a question asking whether these newly conceived, two-celled organisms have the DNA of a plant, a hippopotamus, or a human. The answer, of course, is human.  It’s a seemingly stupid question, but I’ve found asking and answering that stupid question helpful on more than one occasion because it once again centers the discussion of the humanity of the fetus.

Mike also did a great job discussing the future value argument, which I would rate one of the best arguments for the philosophical value of the fetus. I really liked his analogy, which I hadn’t heard before, of taking a photo of the Grand Canyon on an old Polaroid camera. While the picture is developing, does it not have value? If my brother takes that picture and rips it up, have I not lost something of value, even though currently no picture existed on the film? I like the analogy in particular because it’s brief, an all-important attribute for using analogies in debates and discussions.

Future Value!
Future Value!

Mike made another good point on value. Many people will express uncertainty on the moral status of the fetus. If such uncertainty is the case, doesn’t that recommend caution and erring on the side of respecting human life, rather than destroying something (or rather, someone) whose value you do not know?

Lastly, Mike brought up probably my favorite pro-choice philosopher: Peter Singer. Peter Singer is the single most helpful pro-choice philosopher. Singer illustrates that, if one argues for gradualism (i.e. an entity gains worth as it gains functions like cognizance), you have to endorse potential infanticide if you’re going to be consistent because newborns lack many key mental characteristics, such as self-recognition, just like fetuses. The only caveat I would add to Mike’s argument is that Peter Singer does argue that the love parents have for their children means infanticide would almost always be terrible, but that’s not really a comfort because underlying that statement is a very grim sentiment: newborns and infants only have value and therefore the right to live because their parents love them.

Parental kisses: now assuring moral worth

Overall, I have found that pro-lifers in debates have to keep the value of the fetus at the center of the debate. It’s not that the bodily autonomy argument isn’t also important, or that women in general don’t merit a portion of the discussion, but all too often the entire debate will proceed without a single discussion of the fetus’ value. Some pro-choice debaters actively argue that the topic isn’t relevant because bodily autonomy would win out no matter what the moral status of the fetus. My view: Don’t listen. The moral status of the fetus is of utmost importance. If we’re going to make a moral and legal assessment between two entities, we have to know what the moral and legal status of those two entities is!

Speaking of bodily autonomy, one question with which Mike did struggle was the organ donation question. He made a distinction between strangers and children, which isn’t bad, but I think a better distinction (related to the child/stranger distinction) is that you aren’t responsible for a stranger’s state of dependence, whereas the mother and father are responsible for the fetus’ state of dependence. And if a person wants to discuss whether sex entails a responsibility to any resulting children, that sets up a comparison to child support, which almost no one, pro-life or pro-choice, opposes.

Overall, an excellent debate. I apologize in advance for not giving any coverage to Nadine Strossen. I didn’t find any of her arguments particularly compelling, especially when they focused on the fact that abortion is legal or that some religious people are ok with abortion. She’s clearly a very smart women, but I just didn’t find myself moved by any of her arguments. Anyways,  if you have time to watch the full debate, I highly recommend it, and you can form your own opinions on Mike and Nadine’s arguments.