Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Rings of Akhaten (7.8)

Here's the problem. If the Rings of Akhaten had been a Tom Baker four-parter, we would have quite liked it at the time and now think that it was about due for a thorough critical reappraisal. It would have been the weird, sentimental month of the six months of Doctor Who we were allowed each year — in between the funny month, the gothic month, the UNIT month and the genuinely not very good month. Some of the subordinate characters would have been better developed, and some of the more obvious wrinkles in the plot would have been straightened out. This would have militated against doing such a heavily symbolic story to begin with. 


But nowadays, when we are only allowed nine episodes of Doctor Who a year, every one of them has got to be sensational, particularly when Steve Moffat spends quite so much time telling us that every one of them is going to be sensational. And it's all over and done with too quickly to be sensational. It feels...there is no other way of saying this...slight. If you are doing a story about some Victorians on a lighthouse, you can afford to feel slight. If you are doing a big epic about gods and time and religion and the nature of memory and the soul and grief, you probably can't.

Yes, I know that we are all supposed to close our eyes and pretend very hard that we are still watching Season 7. You can say that the six stories we got in 2012 and the nine stories we're getting in 2013 are all part of the same season all you like, and it will remain true that the BBC is making less Who than it used to. It will also remain true that this block of stories, while not, definitely not, being a new season, does have a new theme tune, a new title sequence, a new TARDIS design, a new costume for the Doctor and introduce a new plot "arc.". (When Hislopp printed the story about the BBC cutting back on Who, Moffat went all flouncy. It turned out to be largely true.)

And here's the problem. There is the character Matt Smith is actually actually playing, the young old schoolboy, owing almost as much to Peter Davison as William Hartnell, thrilled by the universe, but out of his depth in it, who knows he is the Doctor and knows that he can't ever quite live up to being the Doctor, always thinking that the next threat is the one he can't actually cope with. Of course he can never really be out of his depth: it will always turn out that he has a thing and that thing is the exact thing he needs to save the day. In fairness, this was also true in the olden days when the world was black and white, but the writers used to take slightly more trouble to cover their tracks. Increasingly, the Doctor has not even needed to produce a canister of Antiplastic from his Doctor Utility Belt when he is fighting the Plastic Monster. Increasingly, what he pulls out of his pocket is himself: the very fact of his Doctorness defeats the enemy. (Like everything else in New Who, this can be traced back to Curse of Fatal Death: the Doctor is finally and irrevocably dead, but rises again because the universe itself can't bear to be without him.) The Doctor doesn't have a deus ex machina: the Doctor is a deus ex machina. But Matt Smith is so much more luminous and entertaining when he's being the bumbling uberboffin than when he's trying to be the messianic god-brat. 

And that's a shame, because otherwise I rather liked the story. 

*

Last week we had the the silly one where the Doctor tries on new clothes, meets a new companion and defeats an alien invasion by typing really, really quickly. This week we had the sensible one set in the not very well lit metaphor, where there is a huge monster-shaped plot device intended to reveal the Doctorness of the Doctor. (It all turns on compassion, especially compassion to children.) I wouldn't be surprised if next week we had the one that put an iconic monster in the middle of an historical war.

I think that this kind of metaphorical fantasy is very much the thing that Doctor Who should be doing because it is very much the kind of thing that only Doctor Who does. 

I think that Doctor Who started out as a costume drama and should go back to being a costume drama from time to time. 

I think that its nice that the Doctor is actually going to wondrous alien planets instead of just talking about them. 

I liked the final cut from the defeat of the big alien monster thing to Clara's front door, without any wrap up or exposition. 

I quite liked the use of music, although honestly an alien lullaby that's been going on for a million years ought to sound more like Gregorian chant or the Muslim call to prayer and less like something that that Andrew Lloyd Weber put in the shredder in 1986. 

I even quite liked the metaphysics although I do think that allowing someone called Cross to write about the Magical Power of Stories when the week after next you've got Neil Gaiman is a little like buying a humanoid alien dog creature called Doreen and then barking yourself. 

I did not like the pre-cred about the Leaf. The idea that this leaf is the most important leaf in the universe because it caused Clara's parents to meet is quite a nice one, and sort of kind of made sense at the denouement of the story, but the idea that Clara's father should actually say "This is the most important leaf in the universe" to Clara's Mum seemed a little bit completely impossible to swallow and not at all the kind of thing people actually say, ever. I wasn't completely convinced by the "every individual human being is unique and therefore miraculous and this refutes the idea that a purely materialistic world view is ultimately value-free" when it was put forward by a giant with a big blue willy; I wasn't any more convinced when we reprised it twice in one episode of Who.

I liked the idea that the soul is made of stories, but this only works if you equivocate shamefully about what you means by "soul" and, indeed, "story". "Soul" is a sort of a metaphor — a tool of thought — for whatever makes you "you". [*] When we talk about "souls" we mostly mean "how we think about human beings when we think of them holistically, rather than as collections of atoms and organs". So when the Doctor says that the soul is made of stories he is saying that what makes you you is the sum total of your memories and experiences. But the episode only makes sense because the word "soul" can also do service as meaning "a sort of invisible ghost that hides in your body somewhere but is separate from it". Golden glowy regeneratey stuff that vampire monsters can suck out of you and feed on, in other words. 

Nothing wrong with having a religious view of the soul hanging around in scientific universe. Nothing wrong with the Doctor respecting both ways of looking at things. But no-one had thought it through. At the start, he seems to be respectful of the aliens' religious beliefs: when Clara asks him whether all life in the universe really originated on Akhaten he replies "Well, it's a nice story." But five minutes later he is proposing wobbly scientific rationalism to the girl as a better story. Which it isn't. We don't value scientific rationalism because it's a more aesthetically pleasing narrative (which is what "good story" means) but because it is truer and more useful, for certain values of truth and usefulness. People without no imagination might say that the very quality of being true make it a better story by definition, but only because they don't understand what "story" means. And that doesn't fit in with the Doctor liking alien religions because of their aesthetic beauty and any way, I don't see how Merry being unique in a Dr Manhattan sense (unrepeatable specific arrangement of atoms and chemicals) confers on her the sort of glowy floaty soul that  aliens can eat. 

It's the same cop out as in Daemons where the Doctor debunks all kinds of faith — Jo's Aquarianism, Mrs Hawthorn's wiccanism, both the Satanism and the Anglicanism of the villagers — and then says at the end, when everyone starts Morris Dancing and drinking beer, that it's okay, there is still magic in the world after all. To which the answer is "only because you've decided to use 'magic' in two different senses, you over-dressed old phony". 

I think that this contradiction in the Doctor's personality — how the ultra-scientific, ultra-rationalist is combined with the ultra-romantic and ultra-moralistic is worth thinking about. But I am not sure that "each individual leaf, each individual little girl, each individual stereotyped welsh coal miner, each individual snow flake and presumably each individual cancer cell and each individual turd is unique, unrepeatable and infinitely valuable" actually gets us very far. 

The twists are clever, but they are arbitrarily clever. They sit there being clever twists. Clara meets a little girl who is afraid: we assume that she is afraid of baddies who want to hurt her but she is actually afraid of officials who want her to give a public performance. The Doctor says "we never walk away from trouble" but it turns out that he means that sometimes they have to run. We are led to believe that the alien mummy is the god; but it's actually the whole planet that they are in orbit around. I am told that anyone with a basic knowledge of musical theory can be taught how to write a catchy tune; I suspect that if you went to a creative writing course to learn how to write a TV script, this the kind of TV script they could teach you to write. 

The solution was rather clever, sort of, a little like one of those folk tales where the only thing bigger than the very big thing turns out to be the very small thing. (Like the one about the two cafes in the bidding war: the first one puts up a notice saying "Best coffee on this street" and the second one says "Best coffee in this town" and it escalates ... the best in the state, the best in the USA, the best on earth, the best in the galaxy, the best in the Universe. The first one thinks for a bit and realise he can still win by going back to "The best coffee on this street.") It was playing off our expectations of how Doctor Who stories work nowadays. The Doctor goes from being out of his depth, having no idea how to solve the problem, but thinking he'd better have a go because he's the Doctor, to suddenly going into one of his "I am the oncoming storm, I killed the time Lords, I have a big pointy hat and I'm not afraid to use it" speeches. I cannot help feeling we have seen this once too often. In the one with the weeing angels, and the one with the big metal cube and in the one where he first met Amy. More problematically, we've seen it parodied in the Lodger. ("No violence, not while I'm around, not today, not ever. I'm the Doctor, the oncoming storm... and you just meant beat them in a football match, didn't you?") When a series starts parodying its own cliches, it needs to find another set of cliches. Unless it can come out the other side and be post-modern about it, which it appears that it can't. 

Structurally, I liked it: the soul-eating monster wakes up and wants to feed; the little girl, who knows all the stories and histories of the planet, wants to sacrifice herself, but the Doctor won't let her; he tries to sacrifice himself (with all his infinite knowledge of the whole universe) but this doesn't satiate the Monster, so instead Clara offers her mother's pressed leaf, which we have already established is the most important leaf in the universe. The trouble is that the leaf is only the most important leaf in the universe because he father once said so; and this being Doctor Who and at least nominally science fiction, we have to at least have a stab at a better explanation than that. So we claim that while the Doctor may have memories of practically everything which ever happened in the universe, which is vast, the leaf contains all the things which were lost when Clara's mother died, which is infinite. 

I get the idea that when people invest an object with significance, they somehow invest them with Psychic Energy. I get that people have Psychic Energy inside them, and people with more memories (the Doctor, the little girl) have more of the stuff than people who have led sheltered lived. I get that the leaf could be exceptionally potent because it is exceptionally important to Clara. But I don't buy that because it is of infinite importance to Clara it actually contains an infinite amount of energy. Obviously Clara's parents are the more important to her than the whole universe but only is so far as everybody's loved ones are more important to everybody than the whole universe, in which case there is so much psychic energy available that the big monster thing would have died of indigestion a long time ago. 

"But Andrew: if, as you say, the story is based on a metaphor, isn't it unfair to be complaining that it didn't make logical sense."

Well, yes and no. I would have been relatively happy if we had said that it was a magic leaf and left it at that. But the Matt Smith has to talk for several minutes on why the leaf is more powerful than his memories, or indeed the memories of an entire civilisation, and the more he talks, the more obvious it is that he is talking rubbish and the whole episode is predicated on a metaphysical cheat. 

*

Clara brings nothing to the table which Amy didn't also bring. She has a thing. You may remember that Captain Jack also had a thing. Captain Jack's thing was that he had been kicked out of the time police and lost his memory. We never found out the solution to this thing. But then he got a new thing. His new thing was being immortal. The solution to that thing was that he was immortal because he had been made immortal by an immortal-making-you-thing. Amy's thing was that she had a crack in wall. I don't think we ever heard the solution to that one, either. Clara's thing is that the Doctor keeps meeting people who look like her and have similar names. He wants very badly to find out why. It isn't quite clear whether this is a cosmic thing, because he thinks that she's important to the universe, or a personal thing, because he feels bad for not saving souffle lady and is looking for a stand-in. The solution will be plucked out of the air in the final episode of the season. That solution will be the plot of the big fiftieth anniversary story. There is no point in trying to guess it because it will be made up on the spot.

As well as a thing, Clara has a personality. Clara's personality is that she wants to see the universe but also feels that she has responsibilities on earth. This was also Amy's personality. She is spunky and wise-cracky and can do one-liners and stand up to the Doctor and give him silly nick names. This was also also Amy's personality. Clara has a book called 101 Things To See. I have a horrible terrible feeling that the solution to the book will be that a malicious fairy put a curse on it so that she cannot die before she sees all the things in her book, so the Doctor, by showing her the universe, is actually killing her, but that's okay because better is one day in the TARDIS than a thousand years elsewhere. 

In the olden days, when the companion was basically a confident for the Doctor, this would not have been that big a deal. There was the one who asked the Doctor questions and said "groovy" a lot, and the one who asked the Doctor questions and went on and on about women's lib, and the one who asked the Doctor questions and stabbed people. Now the programme is a proper serious human drama about the relationship between two equally important characters it would help if you could tell the difference between this season's supporting cast and next season's supporting cast. (Sorry,   between the first half of this season and the second half of this season.) Or maybe the format is now about the Doctor and the wisecracking spunky girl and we are intended to forget that Clara is not Amy in the same way that we were meant to forget that the second lady policemen in Juliet Bravo wasn't technically the same person as the first lady policemen in Juliet Bravo. 

*

The Doctor last visited Akhaten with his grand-daughter. The aliens call their soul sucking alien god-planet "Grandfather". Just saying.


[*] Some people don't think that there is anything which makes you "you" and pretend that when anyone says "soul" they always really mean "glowy ghosty thing that lives invisibly in you brain" even when they don't

34 comments:

  1. Surely the comment about the uniqueness of each person was meant, at least in part, ironically? The Doctor is looking at Clara - who has recurred at least three times that he's aware of - as he says it. And thus, presumably, the leaf too is important as much for being the instigator for one of these iterations as it is as a symbol.

    Which doesn't necessarily negate the problems you cite with the episode, since Moffat has made an art of delivering unsatisfying stories whose primary purpose is to deliver plot tokens to be redeemed in a story half a dozen episodes down the line (which will itself be unsatisfying because it's mainly about planting plot tokens to be redeemed later on, and so on and so forth as we've been doing for several years).

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  2. I think you may be reading too much into it.







    :)

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  3. At least one of and probably both of Russell Davies and Steven Moffat have said that they don't write for each Doctor. They write for the Doctor, and anything else is carried through by performance.

    In practice this isn't quite true. Each actor has a slightly different voice, and the writers hear and start writing to that voice. The Matt Smith who was largely indistinguishable from David Tenant in 2011 is something relatively different now, the One Who's A Bit Aspergers-y and doesn't realise girls fancy him to Tenant's unattainable romantic lead who doesn't realise you do.

    The best way to figure out if two characters are identical is to ask could one do something the other did. Would Clara do the dirty on her fiance? I suspect no, because Clara would never have a fiance--she'd consider it too selfish, I think, to have a fella all to herself when there are so many other people out there who could be relying on her.

    That said, I take and agree with your general point. Because while I don't think Clara could be swapped with Amy, there's still no real effort to craft drama around the characters revealed by those differences.

    Your point about the Doctor pulling himself out of his pocket is best observed expression of this specific criticism I've read. To take it a little further, it reflects a more general reliance on exposition to develop character, to describe stories rather than tell them. Likewise to explain characters rather than let them be observed under real-world conditions, so to speak. We must have heard half a dozen times now that Clara, like her predecessors, is brilliant and a very smart choice of travelling companion. As though the audience have to be continually commended on their decision to like her.

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  4. I think that this contradiction in the Doctor's personality — how the ultra-scientific, ultra-rationalist is combined with the ultra-romantic and ultra-moralistic is worth thinking about.

    Obviously I am going to argue that ultra-rationalist entails ultra-moralistic. On some other thread I was recently reading somewhere else about Star Trek, somebody in the thread expressed puzzlement that Spock was, in the original TV show, usually the voice of morality as well as logic (e.g. "I am frequently appalled by the low regard you Earthmen have for life" amongst many other examples). I was puzzled at his puzzlement since that's precisely how I would have written the character myself.

    I don't think the writers of Doctor Who and Star Trek were outliers. While I agree that, within the last fifty years, reason and morality seem to have become disconnected, probably due to the scientistic view of the world currently being propagated by certain types of people, it seems clear to me that this perceived disconnect is recent. Kant and many other philosophers have certainly claimed that it's irrational to act immorally and I would regard this as not only true, but obviously true. When we talk about acting morally, all we are talking about is what we ought to do. It is a mere logical tautology to say that one ought to do what one ought to do. So it would be completely irrational to argue that people shouldn't behave morally.

    I cannot, for the life of me, come up with a single example of a case where it is rational to do one thing, but moral to do something else. Any such case seems to rest on an implicit irrational premise such as "we ought to do what is in our own best interests instead of what we ought to do."

    It is quite possible, of course, that ultra-scientific is in conflict with ultra-moralistic, but, if so, then ultra-scientific is also in conflict with ultra-rationalist. Science doesn't give us reasons to do anything so presumably an "ultra-scientific" person would subside into a vegetative state or something; he wouldn't even do science.

    However, the conflict between ultra-rationalist and ultra-romantic is a much better one and is perhaps a genuine contradiction.

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  5. I think that a lot of us think that a purely rational, purely materialist, purely scientific view of the universe would come out like Dr Manhattan: it's hard to see the destruction of the world as a bad thing, because scientifically speaking there's very little difference between a living person and a dead person; my preference for the surgeon killing the cancer over the cancer killing the patient had no more validity than my preference for folk over jazz.

    I think that if someone had pointed out a child to Mr Spock and told him that that child would grow up totally evil to become a ruthless dictators who would destroy millions of lives, Mr Spock would have had no hesitation in killing that child. Dr Manhattan certainly would not. The Doctor's problem with destroying the Daleks is that he has a system of value, which is separate to, and can't be derived from, utilitarian logic. Daleks are living things and therefore have value; murder and genocide are wrong even when they are useful.

    You may very well oppose torture (for example) on the evidence-based grounds that it's an inefficient way of obtaining information from enemies. But you may also oppose it on the grounds that even when if it were an inefficient way of obtaining information, it's still wrong. The more strongly you believe that everything comes down to, and only to, things that can be weighed and measured a proved, the less likely you are to be swayed by the "it's just wrong" argument.

    Happy to concede that I was using terms inexactly in the above..."morals" and "ethics" as if they were the same, "scientific", "logical" and "materialist" as if they were all interchangeable.

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  6. Any such case seems to rest on an implicit irrational premise such as "we ought to do what is in our own best interests instead of what we ought to do."

    It appears as if you're here assuming that we already know what it is we ought to do. But the point would be, I think, that if we don't already know what we ought to do, then we can't use reason to get there. Kant tries to do just this by arguing that "what we mustn't do" always involves a contradiction and is therefore irrational.

    To put it another way, your example assumes that the premise "I ought always to do what is in my best interest" is self-evidently irrational. Kant tries to show that it is, but it's not exactly a settled matter and I wouldn't quite call it obvious.

    It's a debate that's been going on a lot longer than the last fifty years, moreover. After all, Kant was responding to Hume's view (a view reflecting the vogue in the mid eighteenth century) that reason was basically impotent and that morality grew out of a sort of intuitive sympathy with the underdog. This is an account that I think reflects (this aspect of) the Doctor much better than the coldly dutiful Kantian hero.

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  7. Thanks for this, some interesting and illuminating thoughts. As usual, I will comment only on the parts that I disagree with.

    I would have been relatively happy if we had said that it was a magic leaf and left it at that.

    I do not believe that you would have been happy with this. I know that I wouldn't, and I can't honestly imagine that anyone would. Doctor Who has to try harder than that. that they tried and failed to sell the idea of the planet-killing leaf is lamentable; but it would have been far worse had they not even tried.

    The way to sell it would have been to show in flashback some of the memories that left represented to Clara, so that we understood thas it really cost her something to yield it up. (The really tough approach would have been for the sacrifice to have killed her again, the leaf being merely a conduit from which the vampire planet was able to reach Clara's soul. That would have given the Doctor something to chew on.)

    Amy's thing was that she had a crack in wall. I don't think we ever heard the solution to that one, either.

    Oh, I thought that was straightforward enough. The cracks through space and time were caused by the explosion of the TARDIS; that one of them happened to be in Amelia's bedroom was pure happenstance. Amy became important to the Doctor because the crack happened to be in her room -- it's not that the cracked appeared there because of anything intrinsically special about Amy.

    Increasingly, the Doctor has not even needed to produce a canister of Antiplastic from his Doctor Utility Belt when he is fighting the Plastic Monster. Increasingly, what he pulls out of his pocket is himself: the very fact of his Doctorness defeats the enemy.

    This is certainly a fair criticism of the way New Who has developed over the last few years. But it seems a strange time to make it. Looking at this half-series' episodes, the resolutions have been using the enemy's technology against them (Bells of Saint John), Clara's memories proving more powerful than the Doctor's (Akhaten), Clara's appeal to the Ice Warrior's compassion when the Doctor's more confontational approach had failed and a clever recognition of the true nature of the problem (Hide). If anything, I'd say that the series is making a deliberate effort to weak itself off of I! Am! The! Doctor! solutions.

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  8. The problem here seems to be the conflation with rational and scientific. (Morals and ethics pretty much are the same thing, unless you make up your own definitions for some intellectual exercise, by the way.) It is standard in philosophy to contrast rationalism with empiricism. The rationalists claim that we gain significant concepts and knowledge independent of sense experience, which the empiricists deny. I agree that Dr. Manhattan is a logical consequence of a purely empirical philosophy. I'm fine with the common non-philosophical use of the word rational and that's how I've been using it myself so far, but I don't believe it is common use to equate rationality with empiricism.

    I think that if someone had pointed out a child to Mr Spock and told him that that child would grow up totally evil to become a ruthless dictators who would destroy millions of lives, Mr Spock would have had no hesitation in killing that child. Dr Manhattan certainly would not.

    Mr. Spock (and all the Vulcans) was clearly a Stoic in the original series. They only decided he was a utilitarian for Wrath of Khan. The Stoics were devoted to logic above all, but were not utilitarians. Stoicism is a form of virtue ethics in which one builds the correct character through repeated right action (which the Stoics believed was revealed in the universal reason and consisted of living in accord with nature). So I absolutely believe Spock would have hesitated to kill that child, since it is his long-standing habit to be non-child-killing. He may have eventually reasoned himself into doing it, but he certainly would have hesitated. Dr. Manhattan doesn't actually make any choices so he isn't even a moral agent. It's entirely unclear what he would have done.

    It is not so clear that the Doctor is not a utilitarian. The Doctor may appear to be questioning consequentialism, but in the end he seems to justify his decision on consequentialist grounds (out of their evil, something good must come).

    However I am going to argue that the Doctor in Genesis of the Daleks seems to act very much the Stoic himself. He hesitates and cannot bring himself to do it, not because he thinks it's wrong, but because that's not the sort of person he is. Indeed, he says, "But if I kill. Wipe out a whole intelligent life form, then I become like them. I'd be no better than the Daleks." He is not concerned with the Daleks or even genocide; he is concerned with himself. Will he still be the virtuous person he has made himself to be or will he become more Dalek-like?

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  9. It appears as if you're here assuming that we already know what it is we ought to do. But the point would be, I think, that if we don't already know what we ought to do, then we can't use reason to get there.

    Why not? What else are we going to use? I agree that, in most cases, it is unclear what we ought to do, but reason isn't just a tool in the toolbox and certainly not a useless one. Reason is the entire toolbox. Yes, yes, you can't derive an ought from an is. I am a rationalist, not an empiricist. I believe we have significant innate knowledge of fundamental moral premises, so I believe there are bedrock ought premises which we know. We then combine these premises with empirical knowledge about reality and our own situation to determine what we ought to do. This is difficult and it's hardly surprising that people disagree, but in my view the process is wholly a rational one.

    To put it another way, your example assumes that the premise "I ought always to do what is in my best interest" is self-evidently irrational.

    Well, yes. Selfishness is a vice, don't you know. Even the ethical egoists, who claim that we should always act in our own self-interest, go to logical contortions to show that it somehow is in our own self-interest to, for example, rescue a drowning child. This is because they cannot, in good conscience, accept the consequences of their theory.

    It's a debate that's been going on a lot longer than the last fifty years, moreover.

    Oh certainly. The wheel turns and it turns again. I'm just arguing that the wheel has only recently turned back to the idea that rationality is somehow opposed to morality. When the Doctor settled into the highly rational, highly moral character we know today, I think it was far less taken for granted that rational people would always be either selfish bastards or utilitarian calculators.

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  10. Reason is the entire toolbox.

    You're saying that as though it's a given, an axiom, something we all agree with.

    It's not.

    I think that initial assumption is the foundation of much of the disagreement in these comments.

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  11. Actually, considering it, Spock wasn't even being utilitarian in Wrath of Khan. A true utilitarian would have said, "Okay, somebody has to sacrifice themselves for the ship. Clearly it shouldn't be me since I'm the most irreplaceable person here. So it really should be someone like Uhura. How tough is it to answer phones?" Then he would have tried to talk Uhura into it. After all, he didn't do anything terribly technical.

    I concede the possibility that Spock, being half-Vulcan, was the only person on the ship capable of withstanding the radiation for long enough to carry out the repairs so he had to sacrifice himself, but this is never made explicit.

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  12. Mike, I freely grant that some people will disagree with it. However, I do not genuinely believe that this is the foundation for much of the disagreement. Say, if you like, that we obtain our moral premises from God. Nevertheless, it is reason which we use to apply them. You would not say when you are acting morally and in accordance with God's will (or whatever) that you are acting irrationally, would you?

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  13. Andrew Stevens, I mostly have in mind this part of your first comment: "... it's irrational to act immorally and I would regard this as not only true, but obviously true."

    Of course you're at liberty to think it's true. But you're in error to think it's oibviously true -- at least if by "obvious" you mean "no-one could rationally disagree".

    (And no, of course I don't say that anyone deliberately applies extra-rational impulses irrationally. The issue is the source of these impulses, not their implementation. Speaking as a paid-up and Ph.D'd scientist, I am a big fan of rationality -- I just don't accept that it's the source of anything.)

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  14. ...reason isn't just a tool in the toolbox and certainly not a useless one. Reason is the entire toolbox.


    The Humean hero comes across a beggar in the street, is overcome with sympathy and, already choked up, gives a large sum to get them back on their feet.

    (This is as opposed to the Kantian hero, who comes across the same beggar, furrows her brow and realises that it is her duty in this situation to be benevolent.)

    To go back to Andrew's original terms, I would argue that someone with the Humean hero's reaction could be described as "ultra-moralist". I think you'd probably agree. If you think that the same person could be described as an "ultra-rationalist", then I suggest that your definition of reason may be too broad.

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  15. Mike Taylor and CK: I must confess that it has always seemed obvious to me that Hume, Smith, et al. were wrong on the source of these impulses, if they are insisting the sentiments are the only source of these impulses (and Hume and Smith did so insist). I am a very unemotional man and nearly completely lacking in empathy. And yet I appear to have the same moral intuitions as everyone else (bar perhaps those who are impaired and cannot make the moral/conventional distinction). I take Hume, Smith, and the rest of you at your word that you seem to duplicate these intuitions through the use of your empathy or whatnot. I have an explanation for people like Hume, Smith, etc. (they are excessively emotional and this has clouded their ability to recognize that it is not merely emotion which is the foundation for their morality). I don't believe Hume's theory has any explanation whatsoever, short of self-deception I suppose, for people like me who, while apparently a minority, are certainly not a tiny minority. (See the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, for example.)

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  16. To clarify, I never said that ultra-moralistic entailed ultra-rational, but that ultra-rational entails ultra-moralistic (barring perhaps those people who are impaired and cannot make the moral/conventional distinction, who do seem to be a tiny minority, though perhaps Hume was one of them). I will take Mr. Hume at his word that the foundation of all his morality appears to him to be in the sentiments. He is mistaken if he believes this is true of everybody.

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  17. Or perhaps a better theory. Morality provokes emotions in people. They become angry at injustice, guilty about their own misdeeds, sad at the misfortune of others, etc. They then confuse these emotional responses with the source of the responses.

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  18. ”Reason is the entire toolbox.”

    Apologies in advance if I'm not getting you right here. But if morality comes purely from reason I don't see why it would ever change across time and place. Wouldn't it stay as constant as maths? Maybe using different nomenclatures but essentially coming up with the same number. Other societies have happily accepted things which would horrify us, like slavery or female infanticide. (Or perhaps vice versa. I walked past a beggar only tonight.) Surely environmental conditions and social context have a role as well.

    Admittedly we might not want to go entirely the other way and charge headlong into moral relitavism. That might not do a good job explaining how slavery or female infanticide ever changed in people's estimations. But the I think abstracted philosophical arguments have a tendency to the exclusive, fixating upon one cause when it's more likely to be a whole host of things. Life owes us no obligation to be neat and tidy.

    It seems almost incidental now, but nice post above! I am definitely now enjoying what some people are writing about Who more than the show itself. And you're dead right to prefer folk to jazz.That stuff just sounds like a pet shop caught fire...

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  19. I assume the bit about jazz was a joke?

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  20. Well I nicked it off a comedian (whose name I now can't remember). But I'm not so keen on jazz. It just sounds show-offy, like that kind of writing where the author seems more keen on demonstrating just what a good writer he is more than actually writing anything.

    Exceptions apply, inevitably. Miles Davis is inimitable, of course.

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  21. My point of course was not "No, actually jazz is better than folk". Only that jazz is such an extraordinarily broad category that I can't believe there's anyone would wouldn't like some of it.

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  22. Mr. Burrows: That is known as the "argument from disagreement." It is the only objection to my view which I believe a professional philosopher should not be ashamed to make. (I give laymen a lot of slack, of course. A layman shouldn't be ashamed to make any objection which might occur to him.)

    Let me see if I can sketch out your argument. Assume moral questions have true answers and that we can discover those answers using our reason. We should expect then that people would exercise their rational faculty and come to know the truth. People would then come to correct conclusions and all would more or less agree. However, we know there is great disagreement. Therefore, either there are no true answers to moral questions or else people can't discover them. Is that fair?

    My response: Well, isn't that an objection to any moral theory? Let's say you believe moral relativism is true and we can use our reason to come to that conclusion. If so, why is it then that so many people disagree with you? Or let's say you believe utilitarianism is true and the only important moral principle is the greatest happiness for the greatest number. How come so many people disagree with that? For that matter, if the "argument from disagreement" itself is true, how come I don't agree with it? Shouldn't I have exercised my rational faculty and seen that the argument is correct? If it were true, you would certainly think so. If this is a successful argument, then it seems like it could be used against anything about which people disagree (including against itself). At this rate, you'd have to admit that it's not even possible to know that folk is better than jazz!

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  23. I would also say that I believe the level of moral disagreement is exaggerated. People generally agree on moral premises; they disagree on factual premises. Slavers certainly thought it would be wrong to enslave them. You shouldn't enslave people, don't you know, but it's okay to enslave those savages. Those savages aren't really people; they don't even speak Greek! Infanticide is a clearcut case of dehumanization (and, to this day, not obviously a wrong one, quite frankly - Michael Tooley's and Peter Singer's views are both defensible and both do not condemn infanticide).

    To use my favorite example, both we and the Hindus believe it is wrong to kill and eat Grandma. Since the Hindus believe Grandma might now be a cow, they also believe it is wrong to kill and eat cows. If we agreed with their factual premise, we would probably agree with their full moral argument. So let's get a bit more basic and see if we still find disagreement. Has there ever been a society which thought courage, honesty, and compassion were vices and cowardice, dishonesty, and cruelty were virtues?

    Finally, I would argue this state of disagreement is hardly unique to moral philosophy. It is also true in religion, history, economics, psychology, and so forth. Are there no facts of the matter in any of these subjects? Is it impossible to know the truth in them?

    I think disagreement occurs for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important is that evolution has made us selfish, but morality tells us we should not be. All our instincts tell us to take care of ourselves first. This leads to a great deal of rationalization to justify our own selfishness and it's very easy for an entire culture (or social class or whatever) to do this to the detriment of other cultures (or classes or whatever).

    Also, people have different levels of intelligence, education, motivation, bias, and so forth. I don't think I ever said moral reasoning was easy, just that it was possible. There's nothing particularly easy about it any more than with religion, economics, history, or psychology.

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  24. Surely environmental conditions and social context have a role as well.

    Forgot to respond to this, but, yes, I totally agree they have a role. I am going to argue that they have a huge role in social conventions, they have a role in how morality is actually applied (especially environmental conditions), and they also have a role in how whole cultures might go wrong.

    As an example of how morality is applied, there is a slander on the Inuits that they would leave the elderly to die on ice floes. There is a grain of truth to this. In times of famine, there was a tradition that the elderly would, if necessary, sacrifice themselves for the good of the group. So a tradition of, in times of scarcity, what we would call "assisted suicide" developed. There is very little doubt that, in a culture with such a tradition, the elderly or infirm must have occasionally been pressured into "voluntary suicide" and there were probably cases when the group as a whole would kill a person without even pressured consent. (The whole village simply picking up and leaving while he/she slept, for example.) What is not true is that they ever had open season on old people or that old people were routinely killed. When younger family members killed the elderly in the normal course of events, they suffered the severest possible social sanctions. (Also, some groups of Inuits found the custom repugnant as well.) The Inuits also, again usually in times of famine, also practiced infanticide and the killing of the sick. In good times, though, infanticide was rare and the sick were nursed back to health.

    This is just an example of how morality gets "bent" depending on conditions. Life in the frozen North is hard. We can condemn the Inuits for their custom, but we should also be aware that, in our comparative luxury, we aren't compelled to make the hard moral choices that they did.

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  25. That's an interesting example. But I wonder whether in these cases the Inuits would argue that what they were doing was moral, or would accept that it wasn't but feel that there were reasons to do it anyway.

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  26. Mike: The point of the example is that they thought it was moral, given the circumstances. But, once you learn why the custom evolved, I would expect most people to at least be sympathetic to their solution, at least with the solution of the elders sacrificing themselves for the good of the tribe. Obviously, we would probably disagree with any pressuring or murdering that resulted from the custom, but the Inuit surely didn't feel great about those either. Those were just a predictable consequence of the custom, due to the ability of people to rationalize their own selfishness and the custom makes it easier for them to say, "Well, Grandpa should be sacrificing himself for us. That's what he's supposed to do." I also have no doubt that some tribes simply suffered because Grandpa didn't volunteer to die and so they just bore him as a burden.

    As I said, there were some elements even within the Inuit who found the custom repugnant. Presumably, they developed some other solution to help save the tribe (or possibly lived in somewhat more hospitable areas where the custom was less necessary).

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  27. From this moment on I will always imagine the good Mr. Steven's posts read out in the voice of Mr. Spock! “Your attachment to the revived 'Dr Who' show is illogical Captain”, and so on. Inevitably enough, my favourite character was always McCoy. But I shall refrain from referring to his arguments as “damned North Eastern logic”.

    One thing about Spock, I take the point he isn't some utilitarian calculating machine. But doesn't the show persistently present his logical thought processes as deficient? In an episode like 'Galileo Seven' Spock's unable to comprehend the minset of their tribal adversaries, something grasped by McCoy's more intuitive approach.

    I think where we differ is the use of the word “bent.” I'd see all the components as equally active. Human beings are adaptable, which can work to our benefit but also means systems of morality are adaptable as well. If our conditions change, our thinking changes too. If we had to walk through a Chinese sweatshop every time we bought a piece of clothing, would our attitudes to sweatshops then change?

    I may be guilty of confirmation bias over jazz. Certainly anything song-based I have a hard time conceiving as jazz. Of course Billie Holliday is normally considered jazz and Amy Winehouse called herself a jazz singer throughout her life. But somehow the thought never sticks in my brain.

    Just as a thought experiment, if Andrew now posted something about all this, would we suddenly revert to talking about 'Doctor Who?'

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  28. Presumably still in my "Yartek, leader of the alien Voord" costume. You're well on your way to building a complete picture of me. And, yes, Spock was easily my favorite character. Not as a character to aspire to, but simply a character who I identified with.

    But doesn't the show persistently present his logical thought processes as deficient?

    Sure. Spock's lack of empathy means he has a hard time predicting the actions of people or creatures who act out of emotion. He is also shown to be a substandard leader of emotional people because he is largely incapable of taking their emotions into account. Of course, a lot of this is quite illogical of him, but the writers had to give him some weaknesses.

    I think where we differ is the use of the word “bent.” I'd see all the components as equally active. Human beings are adaptable, which can work to our benefit but also means systems of morality are adaptable as well. If our conditions change, our thinking changes too. If we had to walk through a Chinese sweatshop every time we bought a piece of clothing, would our attitudes to sweatshops then change?

    Not even a genuine difference, since I see nothing to disagree with in this.

    Just as a thought experiment, if Andrew now posted something about all this, would we suddenly revert to talking about 'Doctor Who?'

    I didn't intend to derail nearly as much as I ended up doing. Opposing morality and rationality is a pet peeve of mine. My apologies.

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  29. see new post.

    and when the mob comes to my door saying "so what did you think of cold war" it's YOUR FAULT

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  30. …whereas all of us in England dress like the Doctor. I wear question marks on my lapels, even when I’m in a T-shirt. The celery is starting to look a little mangy by now, though.

    It actually seems a bit of an oddity about ‘Star Trek’ now I come to think of it. The structure is for Spock and McCoy to act as the two squabbling kids, and Kirk as the indulgent father perpetually saying “maybe you’re both right.” But are there actually any counter-examples to ‘Galileo Seven’ when McCoy’s overacting… sorry I mean intuitive emotional approach is found to be a worse fit than Spock’s logic? I don’t think I can think of any offhand. It's like the dice is loaded in McCoy's direction. He haas to go mad to be in the wrong.

    I’m of course equally responsible for any derailing! I think we are coming at this from different perspectives, even if we’re not ending up in vastly different places. If I follow you right, you’re giving reason some kind of a priori existence which then gets battered and bent by the weather of circumstance and events. I think I see the whole thing as more of a general dynamic. The first section here is something I wrote about how creativity works, but I don’t think I see morality as being constructed in a very different way. (You don’t need to bother with the second bit, which goes on about something else entirely. Well, you don't actually need to bother with the first bit either.)

    "See new post."

    I have. Will you let us know when we can sit down again?

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  31. New new post actually up there now.

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  32. But are there actually any counter-examples to ‘Galileo Seven’ when McCoy’s overacting… sorry I mean intuitive emotional approach is found to be a worse fit than Spock’s logic? I don’t think I can think of any offhand. It's like the dice is loaded in McCoy's direction. He haas to go mad to be in the wrong.

    Spock is actually right far more often than McCoy in the original series. There are no real examples where they rub it in that McCoy was wrong, the way they'll do with Spock. I believe this is because McCoy couldn't survive that without losing his credibility as a character. So, for example, The Tholian Web is primarily about the battle between Spock and McCoy. In the end, had Spock done what McCoy wanted him to, they'd never have saved Kirk, but this goes unacknowledged. (One can argue, though, whether Spock was really acting completely logically in that one.) Unlike Spock, it's not really McCoy's role to solve problems so blaming him for failing to solve them would rather miss the point of the character.

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  33. To put it another way: Spock is content for Kirk to command the Enterprise, but you always suspect he secretly believes he'd be better at it, so he is ripe for puncturing. McCoy knows (as does everyone else) that if you put him in command, everything would be a total mess.

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  34. "New new post actually up there now."

    I resisted the temptation to write "yes, wasn't it great to see the Ice Warriors back?"

    I presume I am now entitled to some sort of prize.

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