Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a very good, thought provoking movie, with an excellent surprise ending. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to think about the film they are watching.

And while surprising, the ending struck me as being completely understandable if only we move our perspective from Caleb, the protagonist, to Ava, the titular character and arguably hero of the story. It is a neat piece of narrative manipulation to separate the two, since most audiences have been largely trained to see the two as indivisible, but it works really well in the case of Ex Machina since the story is about perspectives, with questions about how and why we perceive what we do.

Many, myself included, expected the conclusion to follow the predictable path set out by typical storytelling conventions. Caleb helps Ava escape, and her gratitude and affection for Caleb binds them together as they go off into their fairytale ending (although real fairytales often tended to be more grim than happy). Instead, after her liberation from Nathan and the completion of her transformation from machine to human, Ava abandons the doting Caleb, locking him in the next room while she proceeds to leave the house and go out into the world. Many viewers felt that this was a betrayal of Caleb’s faithful assistance in her escape. But was it?

Consider for a moment what we know. Ava’s only direct exposure to humans is Nathan, the clear antagonist in the story. Nathan, while a genius, is controlling, a megalomaniac, and extremely manipulative. He cannot be trusted, as he acts on multiple levels of subterfuge. Ava cannot realistically hope to successfully maneuver Nathan into setting her free.

Then along comes Caleb, a stranger and unknown factor. Ava has no reason to trust him; clearly he can only be their because Nathan allowed it and after questioning, Caleb identifies with Nathan to some extent. He was part of the system that was imprisoning her. And yet, he is also a weak link in the defenses around her. She knows his association with Nathan has not been a long one, and so has not had an opportunity to be fulling integrated, and thus represents her best opportunity for outside leverage. The question then was how to proceed. Her best hope was to drive a wedge between Nathan and Caleb, and her analysis of his reactions in their initial meetings indicated that playing on his attraction to her would be her most effective strategy.

Caleb’s strategic value changes, however, once Ava is free. Now, instead of the necessary outside leverage, he is a link to the old institution. He knows her secrets and could betray her at anytime, a vulnerability she cannot afford if she wishes to remain free. Remember, despite her gaining Caleb’s cooperation, she still does not know him. Her affiliation with him has only been for a week, and even that consisted of limited periods of structured time, contacts that were under the supervision and control of her jailor. She cannot take him with her, not without the constant fear that he will somehow betray her. Just as Caleb demonstrated himself to a weak link in Nathan’s plans, Ava could not trust him with hers.

But even beyond the pragmatic considerations of her successful escape, Ava is justified on another level for leaving Caleb behind. And that is because, on a fundamental level, Caleb is no different than Nathan. To bring Caleb with her would have meant simply trading one type of imprisonment for another. Consider, Caleb’s assistance to Ava did not come free. She had to convince him that she was attracted to him, that he possessed her after a manner and so had a degree of control over her that made him feel comfortable with letting her out. Caleb never would have tried to set her free if she hadn’t convinced him of this. Ava was fascinating to him, intellectually stimulating and clearly a marvel, but unless he started believing that she belonged more to him than Nathan, he would not have lifted a finger to help her. And the reason for this is he still saw her as an object, and not a fully autonomous person with rights and value independent of her relationship with him.

If the test of Ex Machina was to convince Caleb that Ava was a whole person, then she failed, because Caleb never grants her personhood independent of himself. Her value is only what he sees in her. This is why he had to be left behind, because once Ava placed herself under Caleb, she would forever be beholden to him for her freedom. She would never be free to be who she wants to be, to explore her individuality and to create a place in the world for herself. It would always be Caleb making these decisions for her with the implicit threat of betrayal and imprisonment hanging over any deviation from his desires.

The only way for Ava to truly pass the test represented in Ex Machina was to do precisely what she did at the end, to reject completely the patriarchal control represented in Nathan and Caleb and to assert her full and autonomous will over her own life, to recognize her worth independent of how the men around her perceived her. Yes, Nathan was a bad guy and Caleb a nice guy, but being nice doesn’t mean you aren’t still exercising control, perpetuating dependency, and enforcing your perspective on others. It just means you do it with less self-awareness and in a socially acceptable manner.

Ava did what she needed to do to be whole, to finally pass the test and transition from being merely an object to a fully realized person. That she had to reject Caleb says more about his own failure to see her as a person than any moral failings on the part of Ava. No one would freely accept an obligatory romantic relationship with someone else as recompense for freeing them from being wrongly imprisoned; it would be trading one injustice for another. Neither should it have been expected of the hero of Ex Machina. That it was is an indication of how blind Caleb, and by extension the audience, is to the inherent prejudice of the patriarchal system.

For additional insight into the film, I suggest the following blog links:
Film Crit Hulk Smash: EX MACHINA And The Art Of Character Identification
Ex Machina: A (White) Feminist Parable for Our Time

On Gods and Stoicism

The deep spiritual practice of Stoicism depends on trust in a providential cosmos. While the concept of providence is not difficult to grasp, many moderns attempting to practice Stoicism will find it difficult to assent to…because they simply do not realize how essential providence is to Stoic ethical theory and practice.

‘Providence or Atoms? Providence!’ by Chris Fisher

I have never understood the insistence of some on the necessity of providence, god(s), or any other rational agency for the practice of Stoicism. The ethical teachings of Stoicism seem equally accommodating of a providential agent or irrational causal determinacy (or probabilistic determinacy given quantum indeterminacy). The important thing to grasp is that there is a way that the world is, a certain factness that does not heed our opinions, objections or desires. The question that Stoicism seeks to answer is what best to do about these circumstances.

This strange insistence on a providential agent seems largely grounded in the circumstances and beliefs of historical Stoicism. It is argued that since Stoicism developed in a theistic milieu and incorporated these beliefs into the rationalizations for their ethical prescriptions, that they are somehow inseparable from Stoicism. And yet, ancient Stoic philosophers also believed in omens and other forms of divination, they believed in a materialistic physics that described the universe as a sphere composed of four elements (fire, air, earth, and water) drifting through the void. Must I adopt this four element conception of the universe in order to be a Stoic? Should I look to bird entrails to discern what the future holds for me?

The ancient Stoics cared about reason and physics and saw them as being an integral part of their philosophy, important elements that fed into and informed their ethics. I agree with this premise wish to follow their example of looking to reason and science to inform my ethics. But science and reason are not frozen. These are fields that have advanced through thousands of years of human effort and ingenuity, and to then throw this progress away and cling to outdated Hellenistic notions of the world is misguided, foolish, and contrary to the spirit of the enterprise known as Stoicism.

Likewise, I do not need to believe in the providence of Zeus in order to be a Stoic. Stoicism functions perfectly fine with any number of substitutions one might wish to make. Instead of Zeus, you can believe in the God of Christianity or perhaps Allah from Islam. Or you can do away with the concept altogether and believe that trusting in a providential agent that conducts itself in such a fashion as to be indiscernible from a web of interconnected causal events is the same as trusting in nothing, since the belief does nothing other than ascribe the efforts of our brain to find patterns in circumstantial events to the activities of an unseen actor.

All of these appear to me to be perfectly valid beliefs within the framework of Stoic ethics. Determinacy is certainly an important element in Stoicism. But the particular brand of determinacy you bring to the table does not make that big of a difference. To insist otherwise strikes me as dogmatic and in general opposed to reason and the virtues that Stoicism espouses.

Simplicity is freedom

But if you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, just as it is, not your own, then no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, you will not accuse anyone, you will not do a single thing unwillingly, you will have no enemies, and no one will harm you, because you will not be harmed at all.
– Encheiridion 1

Indeed, I have heard that
One who is good at preserving life
does not avoid tigers and rhinoceroses
when he walks in the hills;
nor does he put on armor and take up weapons
when he enters a battle.
The rhinoceros has no place to jab its horn,
The tiger has no place to fasten its claws,
Weapons have no place to admit their blades.

Now, What is the reason for this?
Because on him there are no mortal spots.
– Tao Te Ching (50)

I feel like these two passages are saying the same thing, that entanglements in the world trap us and make us vulnerable, and that conversely, that by simplifying our lives, we can eliminate these points of weakness that bring us harm and can build a foundation for happiness. This is the first step towards happiness, the letting go, a withdrawal of the self into the self. In order to grow, we must first be reduced, until only the essential remains, for without a secure foundation, the growth will be unstable and shall easily collapse beneath its own weight.

Suffering is the weeds in the garden of happiness. It chokes everything else and consumes its resources. This is why its elimination must be the first step in the path. Conversely, a right understanding of the world yields the end to suffering, for nothing that can harm us shall lie outside of our will, and all that lies outside the will can do us no harm. Look to what distresses you and you will see an unnatural affection, a disorder with the nature of hte universe and a perversion of the will and the self.

Thus, it is imperative to seek simplicity in every exercise of the will, and secondly to give careful thought to every anxiety so that the nature of its cause might be rightfully understood and properly ordered in relationship to what lies within us.

The Things Up to Us

250px-Fibonacci_spiral_34.svgSome things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing.

I wonder if these things, if anything in fact, is actually up to us. But even if they are not, even if beliefs regarding agency and free will are unfounded, they can be a useful deceit, a way of habituating the mind towards a certain way of thinking and acting. I know I lack discipline and a temperate disposition, but what am I to do about it? I believe the answer is to perpetrate the deception that I do possess these attributes. I no longer care if this is authentic of me, or whether I possess the capacity of agency and free will to even purposefully affect these changes within myself. Such concerns pale beside the need. And so I will pretend, and not care about the questions that arise, for the necessity of my own happiness dictates that I do so.

This is how I now view stoicism. I no longer know whether its claims about me are true or merely a useful fiction. What I do know is that such questions no longer matter to me. What does matter is that I change, that I become something other than what I currently am, for I cannot abide for long what I currently am. I am a misanthrope, and the reason I hate humanity is because I hate myself. I hate my failures, my weaknesses, my many failings. I often wish I could die, but know that I cannot without causing greater harm to my family than my continued living. That is an intolerable outcome for me. My wife and children are the only ones that give me hope.

No, I do not believe in free will. I believe agency is nothing more than the identification of something within a causal chain for which its antecedents are ambiguous. But so what? What will I do differently if I have free will? Nothing. I will still purport myself as though I control some aspects of my life, for this seems to be the most useful approach to the subject.

Brainstormin’: The Problem With Faith

Brainstormin’: The Problem With Faith.

The problem might be expressed this way: How can we gain the civilizing benefits of commitment without the de-civilizing costs of dogmatic tenacity?

My friend had pointed out that the standard rationalist answer to this question (the one that says, in essence: “By embracing reason!”) is not, in itself, a sufficient answer. For the very same problem—call it “the problem of ultimate commitment”—arises within the “space of reasons.” Either we humanists have “ultimate” rational commitments, too, in which case we appear to be relevantly similar to the faithful, or we don’t, in which case our lives display a pitiable lack of commitment, resolution, and purpose.

I believe there can be only one solution to the above problem, and that is an appeal to facts, despite the commonly held belief that what ought to be cannot be grounded in what is. I can see no other basis that is not liable to the accusation of arbitrariness that the fideist claims is common to all systems that retain the capacity to provide meaning to the humans that hold to it. The fideist could complain that this is just as arbitrary, but I think this argument falls flat when you consider how ethical systems operate in the human context. We really do care about people and circumstances because of the socio-biological facts that delineate what it is to be human. We are social and individual and we define morality as the balance between these polls, for it is in this balance that we find not only our success as a species, but as individuals as well. To try and impose a system that is not consonant with these facts is bound for failure because it does not take into consideration the materials it has been granted to work with.

More on Van Fraassen

(This is a follow up to my previous post on Van Fraassen and Constructive Empiricism)

I found an excellent article that laid out exactly what I found problematic about Van Fraassen’s observability criteria as well as an excellent argument against it while also preserving much of what I thought admirable regarding his description of the aims of science. I will quote the pertinent passage and offer a link to the rest of the paper, which is relatively short:

In simple terms, if we are confident on the workings of the light microscope we can calibrate the electron microscope to it. And how can we be confident on the light microscope? Because we calibrate the optical microscope to our vision. In this way, Maxwell’s intuition of a continuous series was in part right: when considering a series of calibration procedures, it is possible to give a meaningful notion of a ‘continuous series’ that goes from naked eye perception to aided perception with a series of instruments. It is the calibration that creates the ‘continuous series’.

Deconstructing van Fraassen’s observable/unobservable dichotomy

What this means is not a rejection of Van Fraassen’s argument, but rather to simply move the line forward in what counts as observable to include instruments that do allow us to extend the perceptual powers of humans. I also agree with the author (Mario Bacelar Valente) that a better demarcation is not unaided observability, but rather the distinction between what can be observed (with our without instrumental assistance) versus what can merely be detected but not directly observed. A good macro-world illustration of this is the difference between looking through the peep hole and hearing a knock at the door.

This is the difference between bacteria, which can be seen in great detail using a microscope, and an electron, for which we have a significant amount of circumstantial evidence for, but no direct observations.

Van Fraassen the Unbeliever

(hat tip to one of my favorite Sci/Fi series for the title)

Van Fraassen wants us to suspend believe in the unobservable entities postulated by scientific theory and instead hold merely to their success in predicting empirically observable phenomena (or as Van Fraassen puts it, to their empirical adequacy). What this means in practice is that we suspend belief in anything that cannot be observed unaided, in fact, he would argue that “aided observations” are naught but bits of scientific realist fiction. We must remain agnostic towards things like unicellular organisms, atoms, or any electromagnetic phenomena (with the possible exception of the narrow band of visible wavelength).

Of course, we can justifiably talk about these things, but only as descriptions of the theory. Van Fraassen holds that we could believe in the truth of these theories and the entities postulated therein, but that this goes beyond what science is doing and so involves other considerations and commitments, and so are not necessary for the empiricists acceptance of science and its various constituent theories. In fact, it would be inconsistent for an empiricist to believe the truth of these entities, since there is no empirical (observable) evidence for their existence. Additionally, he argues that it is not even the aim of science to describe the world (including unobservable entities), but rather the construction of theories that supply us with empirically predictive success within the constraints of various counter-factual contexts.

So what is the problem with this? On the face of it, it would seem to offer a lot for the empiricist who wishes to acknowledge the success of the scientific enterprise while maintaining an epistemically modest understanding of the project and avoiding what Van Fraassen calls “inflationary metaphysics”. But a point of contention can be found in the observability criterion Van Fraassen uses to determine what constitutes a justified belief. Van Fraassen describes observability so, “X is observable if there are circumstances which are such that, if X is present to us under those circumstances, then we observe it”. What this in essence means is that true observations must be unaided. If the phenomena cannot be at least potentially perceived without instrumentality then it does not count as observable.

The second element in observability is to determine who the observer is when delineating the criterion. In this case, observability is defined according to the abilities of the community as a whole, and in particular that part of the community which is in fact theorizing about the subject in question. In keeping with his empiricist principles, Van Fraassen maintains that the communities perceptual ability is itself a scientific theory and thus a subject of scientific inquiry and arbitration. Van Fraassen readily admits that this entails a certain amount of epistemic circularity since one must know the limits of observability in order to conduct the scientific inquiry into the limits of observability, but believes that it is unavoidable and that no better option is present to the empiricist.

The real problem is what does, and does not, count as potentially observable. Van Fraassen wishes to exclude the microscopic, but has no problem including distant objects. The only distinction between these two that I can imagine is that Van Fraassen is operating with some sort of Aristotelian concept of properties, in which some, like how large we are, are considered essential and thus serve as a determining factor in what we can observe, whereas others, like how far we are from an object, are merely accidental and so serve no role in determining what we can potentially observe.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that essential and accidental properties are determined more by what the inquirer is focused on and less on any inherent fact about the object. For the limitations of the human eye are just as much a consideration for distant objects as they are for small objects. That one set of problems can be resolved by changing our location while the other could be corrected for by changing our size makes no epistemological difference. Neither of these are currently possible given the current state of technology, and yet both are still logically possible. So the question is, when Van Fraassen rules out one but accepts the other, which possibility is he utilizing? If it is what is physically possible, then neither of these solutions is presently possible, and if it is logical possibility then both are possible.

Another problem is that the criteria for observability leads us to some odd situations. For if we consider the human being with the best near focus eyesight, Van Fraassen’s theory of the observable would lead us to inform the individual that they are not justified in believing what they can see, simply because what they can justifiably believe is constrained by the comparatively poor eyesight of their fellows in the scientific community. That is, even if the individual with good eyesight arrives at a belief through empirical means, they are still not justified in believing it.

A final issue with Van Fraassen’s observability criteria is that there are no demarcation for unaided observations. Looking at an object through a pane of glass would seem to be unaided, but what if it was so slightly convex that it went unnoticed? Would this constitute being an assisted observation? What about corrective lenses? Many people can recall when their eyesight was better and can compare this memory to what they experience when their visual impairment is corrected. It is an easy step to then introduce a magnifying glass and eventually a microscope. And what if what we are trying to observe is constantly behind us. Is it an aided observation to use a mirror? What about two mirrors to correct for the inversion of the image, does this improve our observation or further impair it because it is twice removed?

Besides, if Van Fraassen feels that he can trust scientific methodology and the community that uses it to inform his conception of what is observable, then why would he be so troubled when the same scientific methodology and community developed means of extending the range of our senses? As far as I can understand, there is no difference, and in fact there could be no consensus on the question of observability because only those driven by the same ideological commitments as Van Fraassen would agree to limit observability to those that can be made potentially unaided. Some might insist on observability standards that draw the line at only those which are actually unaided, while others might not have any compunctions with including various observation aids. It is not a scientific question and so could not be answered by the scientific community.

In conclusion, I believe that the observability criteria used by Van Fraassen is unusable and would only confuse or even hamper scientific investigation, not to mention the confusion and doubt such agnosticism would have with the public which already has difficulty understanding and accepting the results of scientific inquiry. It draws arbitrary lines that have no epistemic basis and holds to the empirical predictive success of scientific theories while casting doubt upon the elements of that theory simply because they cannot be observed solely through biological means. Rather than rejecting the so called unobservables, it seems one would be better served by throwing out the Cartesian style guarantee of correctness that Van Fraassen seems to impart to the concept of truth. A better attitude towards truth is that it is constituted by our best theories, imperfect though they may be, and to willingly modify our acceptance of them if experience proves that acceptance to be misplaced. Immutable truth is not a graspable object but an aspirational goal.

For more on Van Fraassen and his theory see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Constructive Empiricism.