Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Ontological Argument in One Easy Step

"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly disappears in a puff of logic.The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I was watching an interview with Colin McGinn where he said that he thought the ontological argument is interesting because nobody's ever managed to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with it even though it's wholly unconvincing to everybody who hears it. There are lots of ways to show it's absurd (e.g. Guanilo's Island), but none are concise and direct enough to seem like the problem with it.

Well, a line of reasoning recently occurred to me that I'd like to put forth as the problem with the ontological argument. The normal version goes something like this:
  1. God is defined as the most perfect being conceivable.
  2. If he didn't exist, he would be less perfect than a being who did exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
I think there's a two-part gimmick in the argument, and that I can simplify it down without losing any of the meaning:
  1. God is defined as a being who exists.
  2. Therefore God exists.

The trick is in confusing the levels, and losing the difference between a definition and reality. If you dream that you woke up, it doesn't mean you're awake. By the same token, a being that's defined to exist doesn't necessarily exist (nor a being that's defined as "a being defined to exist"). The part about "what it means to be perfect" just acts as misdirection from the meat of the argument enough to block your common sense.

There's no contradiction whatsoever within the definition, nothing wrong with it even, but every definition is a hypothetical of sorts, just a label to tell me what you mean when you use the word.

I did happen to notice that Kant looks to have proposed almost the same counterargument, but his version seems wordier and was one of four bullet points in his argument. I wonder if Colin McGinn is familiar with Kant's refutation...

Monday, November 1, 2010

What's in a Vote?

I'm not happy about several aspects of the way voting has been working in our country. I hate all the mudslinging, I'm irritated with all the manipulation and confusion, and I feel very powerless as an individual voter. I think there are some small steps we the people could take that could unlock the full power of our voting system in subtle ways, and stop people hijacking our intentions.

It's All About Hate
I've had to give up the TV and radio because the ads have become nothing but smear campaign after smear campaign. I've seen candidates lumped in with child molesters, all kinds of insane, childish accusations, and I'm seeing and hearing the people around me spout off outrageous insults in all directions. And you know what? I think the politicians love it.

It's hard to impress people with your diplomatic skill, and nobody pats you on the back for making the tough decisions. On the other hand, nothing could be simpler than tearing down your opponent, attacking their character, and trying to come out of the whole mess with the least stink on yourself. You'd think if all the candidates looked bad, then we'd start widening our selection, but ironically, all the mudslinging seems to rally people all the more strongly around the candidates in front of us. I think that hatred keeps us firmly entrenched in a two-party system, and I also wonder if a viable third or fourth candidate might make it less cost-effective to trash your opponent than to promote yourself.

My suggestion is to just take a deep breath, try to temper your enthusiasm, and remember that most of the insults you throw around will end up hitting someone you care about. It also wouldn't hurt to commit to explicitly dock your candidates points for mudslinging, and keep an eye out to reward other candidates politely waiting on the sidelines while their opponents behave like children.

It's Not a Game
I think "strategic voting" is one of the dumbest ideas ever. We think we're being clever and maximizing the power of our votes, but I find it about as empowering as having your tongue cut out. It makes the voting public inflexible, easy to manipulate, and doesn't really stretch your vote all that far either. (Do you really think your second-choice candidate is going to win or lose depending on your vote?) I think it's a debasement of the democratic process and we're all selling ourselves out, voting for what we think someone else wants, and afraid to be the first one to stick our neck out.

I have two suggestions:
First, notice how much your vote is actually worth. Is it really "throwing your vote away" to send a message that we're not playing games anymore, that the fuse is lit and we're ready to blow away this tired dominion of "good ol' boys"? I for one am committed to voting for the candidate I like best and letting my vote mean something, rather than betting on the off chance that my vote will be the deciding factor between bad and worse.

Second, instant runoff voting. Seriously, why aren't we doing this already? Barack Obama and McCain support it, so I doubt it's a partisan thing. So it's going to cost a little to set up. Why not start it with local elections and work our way up the chain? I'm convinced it would level the playing field and weaken the two-party stronghold, and that all voters will benefit at the expense of career politicians.

Let's Get Started
I think it's self-defeating to be encouraging everyone to get out and vote but be too lazy to fix the system and make our votes count for all they're worth.

As far as mudslinging goes, I'm thinking about starting a wiki over at Wikia to help keep track of smear campaigns and make it easier to vote on the platform of "no mudslinging" (once again I'll mention I don't think there's any such thing as "throwing away your vote"). I'm not 100% sure what the next step is for IRV, but first off you can visit and find out how to push for it, or strike up a conversation about it with somebody.