TROLLEYS, BRIDGES AND THE WALK FROM OMELAS

SPOILER ALERT: In this post I describe the plot of The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin. If you’d like to read this short story before proceeding, you can do so here: [LINK]

This is one of those random conversations I had in my head while out and about, running errands. I thought it deserved a post of its own, because it involves some interesting ethical problems. It also ties a well-known philosophy problem to a popular piece of speculative fiction, allowing us to explore the story from different perspectives.

There are many variants of the trolley problem, which all have an ethical dilemma to be resolved. The catch is that whichever option you choose will result in someone’s death. You need to choose between inaction and action, deciding which is the least bad option. The most commonly-known version involves a trolley travelling at speed on a railway line towards a group of people on the tracks. You are able to see the disaster unfolding, and you have the ability to divert the trolley on to a secondary track, that only has one person trespassing on it. What do you do? You must make a split-second decision: do you do nothing and allow the deaths of many, or intervene and kill one person to save the others?

One choice allows you to do nothing, and allow the impending tragedy to unfold. But the decision in which you divert the wagon is an active choice to end one person’s life to save those of others. Would you be guilty of a crime in either case? I’m sure a decent prosecution lawyer could argue that. But what is the right thing to do?

Another variant is that of the fat man and the runaway truck. You and a grossly overweight person are stood on a bridge over a road. There is a group of people in the road, with no time to get them out of the way before a runaway truck collides with them. But if you were to shove the fat person off the bridge at the right moment, you could stop the truck and save the group of jaywalkers. The fat man dies in the collision, though. Which is the right choice there? You’re more involved in the process this time – it’s not as simple as pressing a lever to change the points; you would have to either allow events to take their course, or actively attack someone to take their life. There’d be little chance to wriggle out of that murder conviction in this scenario.

It has been noted that people might be biased in the way they handle the fat man problem, because of ingrained societal prejudices about fat people. That’s a fair point, and you can reformulate the problem by assuming that a person of typical weight would be sufficient to stop the truck. What will you do now?

Both of these philosophical exercises made me think of the short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin. FINAL SPOILER WARNING: If you don’t want to know the ending, look away now!

The city of Omelas sits in a bay, surrounded on all other sides by mountains. Occasionally, people are seen climbing the mountains, finding a route out of Omelas. No one knows what is on the other side of the hills, but these people are resolute in their need to get away. Omelas is a utopian city, everyone is happy, healthy and provided for. Their society is fair, just, and welcoming. Those who live there have everything they could ever desire.

But there is a place that dwellers can go to, a spectacle, where the essence of the city is kept. Without it, the city would collapse and the people could not have the perfect existence. In a cell, at the bottom of a castle, is a young child. The child has no interactions with other people, except when their keeper shoves a piece of bread and a water bowl under the door to the cell. The child has never been socialised, so it acts like a wild animal, lives in its own shit and sleeps in a corner. The child must live in this wretched state for Omelas to function (the reasons why are not explored, but this does not matter).

Those who walk away from Omelas are the ones that decide they cannot be a part of a society like that. Would you walk, or stay? And how do you feel about that society? Is one person’s suffering a price worth paying for the unfettered bliss of hundreds? What do we make of those who leave to seek an unknown fate – they have decided that anything is better than Omelas’s hidden truth.

THE GOD OF THE GAPS FALLACY FALLACY

“The God Of The Gaps” is something I hear mentioned a lot in skeptical circles. The concept is that because it has taken humans many thousands of years to develop the scientific knowledge we now collectively hold, that religion was used as a placeholder while we caught up with the facts. But I can see numerous problems with this idea – which, as I discovered while researching this article, never originally meant what skeptics take it to mean nowadays. It was actually a term used by Christian theologians to caution against the type of argument in which believers would say “well, science can’t explain this, therefore God”.  And that’s actually a pretty smart argument – if you’re a person of power within the Christian religion (or any religion), things are going to get awkward when your evidence for God’s existence is progressively overturned by advances in science.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_of_the_gaps

However, in popular modern usage, it means something rather different; a version of the argument-from-ignorance fallacy, that:

  • There is a gap in understanding of some aspect of the natural world.
  • Therefore the cause must be supernatural.

But this is a huge simplification, nay, thinking error, in terms of what’s actually happening in the minds of believers.

Categorising the argument this way is useful for understanding the history and philosophy of religion and science, as we can see the pattern of questioning and rejecting religion during the enlightenment years of scientific inquiry & discovery.  This is an important part of history that we must understand & record, but we mustn’t make the error of thinking it was a well-executed plan. We can look back and observe the changes, and learn from how the knowledge spread. But to conflate the evolution of human learning 200 years ago with the reasons that people choose faith over reason today, doesn’t make any sense.  It is effectively a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument on our part.

1. While there are some unknowns about many areas of science, we know enough about the scientific origins of just about everything now to only have gaps that would accommodate a vanishingly tiny god. There are many religious sects that keep their adherents ignorant, precisely because of the risk of them abandoning their faith if they were to hear of alternative explanations. There are no more significant gaps.

2. A common mistake skeptics make is to assume that other, ordinary, people make choices based on logic and reason. Trying to “debunk” faith with science is like arguing with the archetypal chess-playing pigeon. It is completely pointless. Both sides leave the discussion thinking that they’ve “won”, having achieved nothing. Faith in anything is just that: faith. And faith occurs independent of any knowledge to the contrary. It is powerful, illogical, and rooted in emotional needs. The devout are able to hold their strong beliefs in a world of information because of cognitive dissonance.  The gaps may get smaller, but the faith does not contract in turn.

3. Not only is it a mistake to think that one can argue on a rational basis with a fundamentalist, but it is to fall into a trap from which one cannot escape. To think that the deeply religious are less intelligent than the rest of us is naive and dangerous. Our religious debating opponent is not stupid – they are well-practised in arguing against attacks on their beliefs, and one useful tactic is to play it coy, to let us believe we have the upper hand, and then pull the rug from under our feet. Arguing against belief with science will never be successful. If someone is to leave their faith, they must arrive at that conclusion by themselves.

To summarise, The God Of The Gaps Fallacy Fallacy is one argument we really need to drop. We’ve been arguing this point for decades and have gained no ground. If anything, it’s made the faithful even more firm in their convictions. And it reinforces the stereotype of the hard-hearted, uncaring, dogmatic atheist. We need to stop picking fights that we’ll never win. It’s not a betrayal of principles; we spend much of our time firming them up and confirming our convictions anyway! If the faithful can hold such stock in their stories in the event of conflicting evidence, why can’t we trust in what we know to be fact?

FACT-CHECKING “THE ACE OF SPADES”

Ah, Lemmy, we miss you already.  Many a night of mine was spent in The Salisbury, or Jilly’s, listening to your back catalogue.  Just like Kenny Rogers, you also get the sceptical treatment from me.  Thing is, I was turning over the words in my head, and something just didn’t add up…

(lyrics courtesy of Google Play)

If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man,
You win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me,
The pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say,
I don’t share your greed, the only card I need is
The Ace Of Spades
This song is quite obviously about life being a gamble, and the desire to take risks, and have a reckless and fun time.  But dig beneath the surface, and we can turn it into a mathematical problem (“Hurrah!” I hear you cry).  There are a few specific instances in which the Ace Of Spades would be the only card you need, but I’m not sure that those instances are the ones given below.
Playing for the high one, dancing with the devil,
Going with the flow, it’s all a game to me,
Seven or Eleven, snake eyes watching you,
Double up or quit, double stake or split,
The Ace Of Spades
It sounds like we’re talking about Blackjack / Pontoon here, but it doesn’t entirely make sense. I’m unsure of the meaning of “seven or eleven” here, as in Blackjack you might talk about an Ace (of any suit!) being worth 1 or 11.  “Snake eyes” is a roll of two dice, getting a 1 on each die. So now we’re talking about the use of dice, too… I don’t know what this has to do with Blackjack, or the Ace of Spades, but I did find out about a dice-rolling drinking game called 7s, 11s & doubles, that Lemmy could be talking about.
You know I’m born to lose, and gambling’s for fools,
But that’s the way I like it baby,
I don’t wanna live forever,
And don’t forget the joker!
The joker doesn’t play a role in most casino games, although it can be a Wild Card.  Maybe that’s the point – that it’s wild and dangerous, and represents taking whatever chances you can.  We only get one go at life, and would we want more than that?
Pushing up the ante, I know you got to see me,
Read ’em and weep, the dead man’s hand again,
I see it in your eyes, take one look and die,
The only thing you see, you know it’s gonna be,
The Ace Of Spades
The Dead Man’s Hand refers to a two pair hand in poker, made up of the black eights and the black aces.  According to legend, this is the hand Wild Bill Hickok had when he was shot dead during a poker game.  “Seven or Eleven” also has a meaning related to the Dead Man’s Hand, according to an early 20th-Century superstition.

Songwriters: Clarke, Edward Alan / Kilmister, Ian / Taylor, Philip John
Ace Of Spades lyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group

So it actually seems that the song has nothing to do with Blackjack at all.  My interpretation is that it’s about living a dangerous and exciting life, much like that of Wild Bill Hickok.  Knowing that death could be around any corner, and laughing in its face anyway – sounds a bit like Lemmy: “I will be killed by death. I might be killed by too much booze, women or music, but it’s not a bad way to die.”.  Well, I’ve learnt a lot.  Mainly that there is no hidden mathematical message in the song (sorry, numerologists!).

I’m glad I put the time into figuring this out.  A song that I’ve heard thousands of times, yet never knew the tale behind it, or fully understood the metaphors.  But the reason it’s such a successful rock song is that its catchiness and appeal rely on its brevity.  Maybe some people don’t even listen to the lyrics, but the song is recognisable & powerful, and unmistakably Motorhead.  And just as per my last foray into literary analysis, here’s the track on YouTube:

 

KENNY ROGERS – THE GAMBLER

This is one of my favourite songs (I do like a bit of Kenny Rogers), mainly for the meaning I attach to it (it was part of some advice a friend gave me before I delivered a speech to a packed-out lecture theatre).  And because it’s a song I hold in high esteem, I feel it deserves the sceptical treatment.  It’s jam-packed with beautiful metaphors. So let’s take a look at it, line-by-line:

(Lyrics courtesy of lyricsfreak.com)

On a warm summer’s eve
On a train bound for nowhere
I met up with the gambler
We were both too tired to sleep
So we took turns a-starin’
Out the window at the darkness
The boredom overtook us,
And he began to speak
A nice way to set the scene.  I’ve been that person on the train many a time, awkwardly avoiding eye contact with other passengers, until one of us summons the courage to see what will happen if they break the very British taboo of engaging in conversation with a stranger.
He said, “Son, I’ve made a life
Out of readin’ people’s faces
Knowin’ what the cards were
By the way they held their eyes
So if you don’t mind me sayin’
I can see you’re out of aces
For a taste of your whiskey
I’ll give you some advice”
Our stranger has some valuable advice to impart: his experience has taught him to get the measure of other people, to suss them out and use that information to his advantage.  He can tell from our traveller’s demeanour that they are down on their luck.  He’ll pass on some information, but only as part of a fair exchange – the gambler knows which currency to use to get a good deal.
So I handed him my bottle
And he drank down my last swallow
Then he bummed a cigarette
And asked me for a light
And the night got deathly quiet
And his face lost all expression
He said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right
The trade takes place and our gambler begins his tale:

Our traveller has to take life seriously and learn to make the right decisions to get what they want in life – to game the system.

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for counting
When the dealin’s done
It’s important to recognise which risks are worth taking, which ones are not, and to realise when you’re about to get conned.

Don’t put make yourself vulnerable by revealing what assets you have, take stock of your own situation in private so that others cannot take advantage of you.

Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep
‘Cause every hand’s a winner
And every hand’s a loser
And the best that you can hope for is to die
In your sleep
Experience will teach you how to make the best of every situation.  You can use some of what life throws at you to your advantage, and some thins you have to just let go.  And sometimes that means making unpleasant and ruthless decisions.

Whatever situation you find yourself in; you can choose to make the best of it, or not.  Life’s a gamble and you have to learn the odds.

Life, and death, are uncertain and inevitable.  Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst, and play whatever hand you’re given.

And when he finished speakin’
He turned back toward the window
Crushed out his cigarette
And faded off to sleep
And somewhere in the darkness
The gambler he broke even
But in his final words
I found an ace that I could keep
The old gambler has given his advice, lived his life to his satisfaction, and now his time has come to die.  He succeeded at life, and death, and so broke even.

Our traveller takes on board the gambler’s advice, and sees a moment of purpose in the gambler’s death.  His legacy will live on in the wisdom he gifted to the traveller.

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em (when to hold ’em)
Know when to fold ’em (when to fold ’em)
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done

Songwriters: SCHLITZ, DON
The Gambler lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

And here it is, on YouTube.  I’ve had this on repeat so, so many times.  Resist it, I challenge you!

CHORLTON PHILOSOPHY GROUP

I’ve posted a couple of times before about philosophy groups that I attend, and I’ve found a new one, which I think is rather good. It’s difficult to go in to much detail about my talk in this post, because although the subject was discussed in a respectful, philosophical and sensible way, my advertisers might deem it to be NSFW.

I first went to this group about a month ago, when the discussion topic was Suicide. I found the conversations insightful and atypical, with a genuine desire to understand a difficult and sensitive topic. I really liked the dialogue and the people, so I came back for another go.

The group meets every week, which is great because I can’t wait too long for mental stimulation… Anyway, two weeks after my first visit to the group, I decided to propose my own topic, and it was a great experience, both in terms of openly discussing a controversial topic, and for public speaking experience.  If you’re a postgrad (or undergrad, for that matter), or if you’re looking to gain confidence in presenting and debating in a professional capacity, I’d heartily recommend doing something like this.  Get out there, talk in front of a group, and don’t be afraid of looking silly.  Act confident and confidence will come naturally to you.

The format of the group is as follows:

Everyone gathers in a circle and the chair introduces the topic.  Some handouts are distributed with supplementary information (links to the stimuli that I provided are on the Chorlton Philosophy Group blog, link below).

Each person is assigned a number 1, 2 or 3, and then we split off into three smaller groups according to what number we have.

The little groups discuss the topic along whatever lines they choose.  The point of this bit is to explore the ideas in the notes a little more and throw in a few ideas of one’s own, with the aim of coming up with questions for the group to vote on and discuss (this is where it gets good!).

The large group reconvenes and all of the questions are placed on the floor in the centre of the circle.  And then we are each given two chocolates (I told you this is where it gets good), and we vote by placing our empty wrappers on the question we’d like to discuss.

With the winning topic selected, people add their names to a list to make a point to the group, by making a thumbs-up gesture.  We each talk in turn, with counter-arguments permitted occasionally.

I like the format of this discussion group, because the conversation flows more naturally: people are allowed to interject, and people can talk as many times as they like, taking the discussion to wherever we want to.  The only downside is the time constraints, but loads of people usually hang around in the bar afterwards to carry on talking.

The variety of people who turn up is impressive, pretty much all ages (18 to about 80), lifestyles and occupations are represented there, and the diversity of opinions is exciting.  People tended not to hold beliefs that I expected them to have, and I think we all learn something from each other – the sign of a good debate.

Questions that were proposed at my talk were:

questions

This group is held in The Lloyds on Wilbraham Road, and they allow us the use of a room beside the main bar.

Here’s a link to the Chorlton Philosophy Group’s blog; my topic was the one debated on 13th January 2015.  I enjoy discussing censorship generally, but it is such a broad topic that I decided to make it more specific and cover a topic that’s interesting, current and provocative.

MANCHESTER ARMCHAIR PHILOSOPHERS – WHAT IS KNOWLEDGE?

I previously posted about one of my trips to Chorlton to engage the locals in debate at the Manchester Armchair Philosophers group.The group is set up for people to discuss topical (or not) matters, and while many people do have a lot of knowledge about formal philosophy, the idea is that anyone can attend, and just discuss the topic from their own viewpoint. I always learn something here, and go away with something new to consider.

Sometimes there’s a tendency to always come to the same conclusion, because many of the people who attend come from one area and have similar backgrounds, but topics like this really open up the conversation because it’s something relatively unpolitical and it draws a lot on individual experiences. We’re similar, but we’re not all the same.

So a little expansion on the question.  Here is how it was introduced to the group:

“Do we Know What Knowing is?
 What is a fact?

Socrates said “ipse se nihil scire id unum sciat”, “I know one thing: that I know nothing”.  Was this esoteric false modesty, or an insightful articulation of the human condition?

When we say we ‘know’ something are we merely expressing the strength with which we hold something to be true, or is there more to it than that?  Can we ever truly ‘know’ anything?  If there are limits to what we ‘know’, how does this affect our justification for acting on our beliefs?”

The discussion was really interesting, and we could easily have gone on past our allotted one hour.  One of the attendees wrote up our team’s findings, which you can read here on Bubblews.

An aside: I had an interesting chat with the organiser of tonight’s debate downstairs in the main bar.  This is one of the highlights of the philosophy group: after the more organised discussions, we head downstairs to chat even more.  Sometimes we continue to discuss the topic, sometimes we’ll talk about something completely different.  But it’s always interesting.  Anyway, our conversation was about my Ph.D research topic.  And through a series of random connections we came up with an idea for a new avenue of research that I could explore.  This reminds me of advice that the Associate Dean gave us during the introductory lecture for new students: that we shouldn’t only speak to people just in our research group.  We should speak to students from all over the University, because great ideas can come from unlikely connections.  Collaboration is encouraged – maybe we could solve more of the world’s problems if only we’d talk to each other.

MANCHESTER ARMCHAIR PHILOSOPHERS – CENSORSHIP

CensorshipI attend the Manchester Armchair Philosophers group, and we meet once a month at the Royal Oak in Chorlton to discuss a preselected topic. The topics are varied, and often unconventional. This month’s discussion was on a topic that is a little more commonplace, but sure to get everyone’s attention.

I introduced our talk on Censorship, which posed the questions in the handout (right). As with many of these talks, the idea isn’t strictly to adhere to the prescribed questions and wording on the crib sheet, but to discuss the topic widely, and in whatever style or vein one desires.

The way the meetings work is that we all gather in a circle and the topic is introduced by the Chair. Then we break off into groups of 4 or 5 and discuss the topic amongst ourselves. We usually talk about the subject for, say, 45 minutes, and then we gather around the table again to share our thoughts and opinions with the whole group. We usually first nominate one member of each ‘team’ to describe the whole team’s discussion, and then we go round the circle individually to talk about something we learnt or feel strongly about. It’s really interesting to hear other people’s ideas, and you can learn so much from other people’s debates, as well as your own.

Usually, people gather in the bar downstairs after the debate, sometimes to carry on the discussion, and often to talk about completely unrelated (but still stimulating) things.

I don’t have the space (or memory) to go into everything that we spoke about here, but censorship is a massive topic that everyone has a view on. Some discussions can lead to groupthink, but this one really didn’t. Despite being in a large group of people with (seemingly) similar backgrounds and political preferences, the variety of viewpoints was very wide, and all over the spectrum. I was pleasantly surprised! I also got a lot of praise for introducing this topic, which felt pretty good. I hope to do another one sometime, but we seem to have topics chosen for a good few months yet.

Previous discussions have included: “Love”, “Is there such a thing as a truly altruistic action?”, and “Is there really any poverty in the UK?”. As you can see, we really have a lot to talk about.

NB: No formal philosophy training required. Most people who turn up don’t have any formal philosophy education, but we do love to explore philosophical subjects. The group is accessible and a great night out, no matter what your training.

This book (Do You Think What You Think You Think?) is a really manageable (and rather fun) pop introduction to philosophy. You’ll probably find it infuriating at first – I wanted to yell at this book in a similar way to how I shout at Question Time – but it’s just encouraging you to think critically about what you believe and what you say you believe. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to leave much room for manoeuvre, with quite rigid and simplistic ways of looking at an argument; but it gets you thinking, right?