On ‘Transcendence’ the Movie

I’ve been seeing a lot of movies in the theaters recently (i.e., over the last couple years). I’ve never been a consistent movie watcher, and I generally don’t go to the theater to see movies. However, it has become a common date-night activity for me and my partner. This past weekend we saw Transcendence. Now, we plan our trips to the movies roughly 70% of the time, so we are prone to being forced to watch some less-than-stellar films (e.g., Skyline, Pompeii). My five word review of Transcendence: Bad, but it’s no Pompeii.

[Spoilers will definitely follow. Also, what follows is about 98% rant and 2% review.]

Transcendence wants to be a smart movie. It centers on an interesting topic, namely the risks of developing increasingly complex artificial intelligence. It wants to ask the questions about developing AI to the point where it surpasses human intelligence (the singularity); specifically, if it will have a positive or negative outcome. Instead, it insults the audience by thinking it’s smarter than it is, confusing plot twists for commentary.

Lessons about the singularity I learned from watching Transcendence:

1. Women are to blame.

1a. Seriously, ladies, the destruction of the world is your fault. Sure, it may come at the hands of men, but its because we love you. You should feel ashamed.

2. Luddites (with guns, cars, computers, satellite tracking, and the ability to develop radioactive bullets) will oppose the singularity.

3. Civilization’s downfall will start with a TEDTalk. You’ve been warned.

4. Psych! Actually, the singularity wouldn’t have been the downfall of civilization, if only those damn luddites hadn’t killed Johnny Depp.

5. Or am I lying? Maybe it isn’t actually Johnny Depp. It’s an ambiguous ending!

6. But, really, it’s his wife’s fault. If she hadn’t been so ambitious about saving the world, poor Johnny Depp wouldn’t have been cow-towed into maybe-or-maybe-not ruining everything, allowing us to maintain our slow descent into environmental catastrophe. Women are evil.

The thing I find most interesting about the film is the portrayal of the two sides.

On the one hand, we’ve got Johnny Depp (his character’s name is Dr. Will Caster) and his wife (Mrs. Avil Incarnaté-Caster – I’m kidding, but seriously, women are evil). They are in favor of super intelligence because they see it (and technology in general) as a means of making human lives better (ending disease, cleaning up the environment, etc).

On the other hand, we’ve got the luddites (and their allies in Johnny Depp’s former friends Morgan Freeman and the pretend guy from A Beautiful Mind). They seem totally cool with rather advanced technology (see, for example, their use of radioactive bullets). However, they are opposed to super intelligence – be it achieved through AI alone or with human/tech interfacing.

Johnny Depp pros: Saves the environment, cures diseases, heals people and makes them super strong, revitalizes some podunk town in no-where America, still really loves his wife.

Johnny Depp cons: Actually, maybe he doesn’t really love his wife because maybe he’s just the computer and computers can’t love because they don’t have souls or something. He manipulates markets and can spy on everyone. He mind-controls the people he heals, taking away their free will when it suits his purposes, making him akin to a dictator. He is still susceptible to the wiles of woman-kind (no, I’m not gonna drop this stupid, sexist aspect of the plot).

Luddite pros: Um…they wouldn’t allow a super-intelligence to mind-control you. If one arises, they’ll be on hand to artillery that shit to the stone age. Also, nature — ’nuff said.

Luddite cons: They’re cool with radioactive bullets? Really? Also, they’ll kidnap you and hold you against your will until you join their side to oppose Johnny Depp.

So, in conclusion, since both sides are happy to use you against your will, the debate comes down to whether you’d rather be controlled by the singularity (will make your life as perfect as possible, but it may only be an icky computer) or the luddites (who are human -phew- but probably can’t give you a near perfect life). Also, those who consider radioactive bullets a salient issue may consider that a strike against the luddites.

I’m probably being a bit unfair to the film. Overall, it touches on a number of the concerns people have with the singularity. However, it does it in a dumb way. I’m sorry, but I don’t have a more intellectually accurate way of describing it. The movie is dumb. It needed to understand that cliffhangers don’t properly convey ambiguity of an issue. I get that the film didn’t want to firmly take a side, but don’t rely on the final scene to pull a switcheroo and make us ask if it really was or was not Johnny Depp in control.

Verdict: If you want to see it, rent/netflix it. You can do far worse, but this movie suffers from being bland and dumb.



On Books Men Must Read – Part 2

Here is part 2 of my reading project:

The Professional by W.C. Heinz

My good friend, Ben, is a skilled illustrator. He is often told by others that they wished they could draw. “You can,” Ben will reply. “You just have to practice.” If there is a lesson I would fully advocate taking from this novel, this is the lesson. To accomplish something, you will need to put in the time and effort to hone that craft.

Now, this novel celebrates the aesthetics of practice. It advocates a sharp, sparse, demure honing of craft: a professionalism that strips itself of extras. It singles out that which is needed for success, and it focuses on only those things; honing them to near perfection. Professionalism is doing the craft well, and doing it well the right way.

Sometimes, I am inclined to think this correct. Other times, I find it complete bullshit. In matters of sport, where I fall tends to correlate with who I am supporting. If my team plays beautiful and loses, well, at least they play the game correctly. If my team plays ugly but wins, well, it is about winning, right?

In the end, style doesn’t matter. Why? The upset. If style mattered, we wouldn’t want an upset.

Lesson for Men: You have to practice to get good. You have to get good to taste success. You get great to minimize the vagaries of luck. But, remember, you are never fated to win.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

A couple weeks ago, at work, my coworkers and myself were discussing the youth of today (I work at a university). I was mentioning my general disdain for the “Kids these days are so… [insert negative characteristic]” when the following conversation ensued:

Director: “My friend always says ‘Don’t judge other people’s kids until your kids are dead.'”
Me: “Ha. I like that.” [Pause] “Your friend’s Catholic, isn’t she?”
Director: “Yup.”

That’s what it was like to read Flannery O’Connor. There are some great moments, and I could secularize a lot of what is expressed. However, O’Connor is unflinchingly transparent. I don’t mind a story that’s a parable; I just prefer the moral doesn’t punch me in the face again and again and again.

That being said, O’Connor has some great lines epitomized by the Misfit’s gem of a line from A Good Man is Hard to Find: “She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Lesson for Men: The minutiae of your life does not excuse you from being a decent person.

Other Thoughts:

-When I see a game where I don’t have a prior preference for either team, I tend to support the underdog. I think this is common. I like to consider this the quintessential example of Nietzsche’s slave morality.

-On the one hand, I can admire Doc’s dedication to honing Eddie into the greatest fighter of the day. Supposedly, that’s what he does. But Doc is called crusty for a reason. He complains that everything has changed such that no one recognizes that Eddie is truly the greatest fighter. Sorry, Doc, but the times have changed. You don’t recognize that Eddie is the greatest fighter for an era that no longer exists.

I will admit that I’m not one for nostalgia. I believe sport can be artistic, but I will always reject the notion that commercialism (or prima dona athletes or rule changes, or pick your poison) has ruined the game. They’ve simply changed the canvas upon which the art is displayed. There is still beauty. Stop pining for the past. Find the beauty now.

-Over all, O’Connor’s short stories were enjoyable; I just don’t think I was their intended audience.

On Science Answering Moral Questions

Sam Harris’s 2010 TED Talk about science and morality was laid out in a more formal style by Kuba at the Knowledge Guild.

I found the post because it was reblogged on My Atheist Life with an accompanying question: can you see a reason to disagree with this post?

I haven’t read Harris’s The Moral Landscape, where he gives more detail on this topic. Recognizing that the argument laid out is imprecise (e.g., taken from speech not book, is someone else conveying Harris’s words), I figure I’ll try and find reasons to disagree. I don’t think of this as a thorough critique; I’m doing it for the exercise.


First, I want to start with quibbles. These are issues I have that may simply come down to a choice of phrasing.

2.4 There is no version of human morality and human values that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.

This is obviously false. Divine Command Theories are human moralities that are not reducible to a concern about conscious experience. Deontological ethics, likewise, cannot be so reduced due to their focus on laws or duties. The list may go on.

However, we can take a more charitable reading of this line to be something like: I believe that.. [2.4] …that have not been shown inadequate. Obviously, people who champion those systems will disagree. Also, this is a weaker claim, but it gets the same point across.

10.4.C How have we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these [morally relevant] subjects worth considering?

Descriptively speaking, every culture does have a point of view on moral concerns, and there is a good amount of disagreement on many morally relevant subjects. Harris concedes that we do not already know all moral truths; hence, his desire for a moral science. Even if we know many of the points-of-view will prove false, they are worth considering for the insight to know how to structure our moral-science explorations. This is punctuated by the fact that Harris has to use silly rhetoric to try and justify this point. Yes, looking to the Taliban regarding physics is silly. However, the Taliban are very clearly relevant to morality. We may not think their policies will be morally good, but considering them can help refine the kinds of moral-science questions we ask and test. Of course, with a bit of eye-squinting, I think we can read Harris’s point charitably and assume this sort of caveat was intended.

A Non-Substantive Disagreement

I call this a non-substantive disagreement because it doesn’t engage the main substance of his argument. In his desire to elevate expert voices, Harris may have given a case for excluding his own. We can do this by rephrasing section 10.3:

10.3.A If you ask the smartest moral philosophers around who is the smartest moral philosopher around, G.E.M Anscombe or Sam Harris, probably half of them will say G.E.M Anscombe. The other half will tell you they don’t like the question.

10.3.B So, what would happen if I [Harris] showed up at a morality conference and said,”Deontology is bogus. It doesn’t resonate with me. It’s not how I chose to view the universe at a small scale. I’m not a fan.” Well, nothing would happen because I’m not a moral philosopher; I don’t understand moral philosophy. I wouldn’t want to belong to any moral theory club that would have me as a member.

10.3.C Whenever we are talking about facts certain opinions must be excluded. That is what it is to have a domain of expertise. That is what it is for knowledge to count.

The consensus among moral philosophers is that the ‘fact-value distinction‘ cannot be bridged*. Harris is not a dedicated professional moral philosopher. Since Harris’s argument hinges upon denying the crux of the fact-value distinction, his argument may be akin to going to a physics convention and denying string theory. As such, we may be able to consign Harris’s opinion to the ‘must be excluded’ bin.

One may reply that Harris’s string theory example uses justifications like “doesn’t resonate with me” and “not how I chose to view the universe” and “not a fan.” These are very different than the structured and reasoned argument Harris has provided. I am happy to concede this point and fully agree. However, Harris’s conclusion in 10.3.C is not that there are types of reasoning we should exclude. He concludes there are opinions we should exclude; specifically, opinions that lack in the domain of expertise. Per this conclusion, if we judge Harris to lack in the domain of expertise, we can safely exclude him.

 A Substantive Disagreement

Finally, I will provide a substantive disagreement. This critique boils down to how Harris tries to bridge the fact-value distinction.

Harris does this by defining a value as a factual claim:

2.1 Values are a certain kind of fact about the well-being of conscious creatures

3.2 There are truths to be known about how human communities flourish, whether or not we understand these truths.
3.3 Morality relates to these truths.
3.4 So, in talking about values we are talking about facts.

4.3.B Values can be reduced to facts about the conscious experience of conscious beings.

Harris is suggesting that moral values are those values that relate to changes in human well-being, which is reducible to the conscious experience of human beings. The ‘good’ is that which increases human well-being and the ‘bad’ is that which decreases human well-being.

Where this attempt to bridge the fact-value distinction runs into problems, morally, is its inability to rule out morally-inconvenient facts about human well-being. Let’s take Harris’s example from section 10:

10.1.B Ted Bundy was very fond of abducting and raping and torturing and killing young women.

We could do a study of how rape impacts people, and the study may well find that it has a positive correlation with well-being for the rapist and a negative correlation with well-being for the person who is raped. As such, the scientific findings would support committing rape as a method of increasing human well-being, making it a human value and a moral value, objectively. This suggests something has gone wrong.

We may want to say that the harm to others overrides the increased well-being of the rapist. However, Harris’s system doesn’t give a means for doing this. What can we discover, scientifically, that says we should forbid a gain in well-being from rape if that which is morally valuable is that which increases well-being? If our scientific inquiry cannot provide an answer, either we bite the bullet and accept rape (so long as it increases the well-being of the rapist) as a moral value, or we abandon Harris’s approach.

We may want to appeal to our moral intuitions, but this would abandon Harris’s argument. We can’t say rape is obviously immoral because our empirical data shows otherwise. We may want to exclude individuals like Ted Bundy; however, this contradicts Harris’s point in sections 8 and 9. We may want to appeal to a comparison. For example, if the harm to the victim is greater than the benefit to the perpetrator, we may be able to deem the act immoral on consequentialist grounds. Of course this could prove problematic. If the harm was ever not greater than the benefit, we’d have to deem such a situation moral.

However, even if we were to concede that the harm will always be greater than the benefit as regards rape, appealing to the consequences may produce other strange situations. For example, consider tennis matches. If losing tennis matches proved more harmful than winning them proved beneficial, winning a tennis match would be an immoral act. Again, we can bite the bullet and say winning tennis matches is immoral. However, it seems we’re biting some bitter bullets. Instead, we may want to acknowledge that the fact that something increases human well-being does not make that thing morally good.

Final Thoughts

Again, I haven’t read Sam Harris’s book, so some of this may be directly addressed, or his argument may be worded differently. Specifically, Harris needs to show how we can address morally-inconvenient facts about human well-being without expanding his definition of moral values. An answer may exist; I just don’t see what it is. As such, I’m more inclined to disagree than admit that Ted Bundy’s actions may have been morally good.



Other thoughts:

*I’ll back up this claim with this quote from the linked Wikipedia page: “Virtually all modern philosophers affirm some sort of fact-value distinction, insofar as they distinguish between science and “valued” disciplines such as ethics, aesthetics, or the fine arts.” Take the claim with the requisite amount of salt.


On ‘Noah’ the Movie

I saw Noah this weekend, and I enjoyed it. My review in five words: pretty, well-acted, humanistic, overwrought, moving.

[This will contain spoilers, but I’m not going to spell out too much of the film in detail.]

The movie has been controversial, which is unsurprising, but I find one of the controversies really strange. Throughout the movie, the characters refer to God as “the Creator.” In fact, never once is the god of the story called “God.” As far as I can tell, this controversy boils down to some Christians forgetting that Jews are not Christians.

As I understand it (and backed up by the about.com Judaism page), Jews do not say God’s name out loud. Instead, other descriptors are substituted. In the about.com page, “the Creator” is cited as an example. The story of Noah appears in Genesis, which is a part of the Hebrew Bible. I shouldn’t have to spell it out, but just in case, this means the characters taking part in the Noah story are Jews. They wouldn’t say “God,” per se. They’d say something like “the Creator.”  As such, there’s nothing controversial about that part of the film except that it doesn’t privilege a Christian reading of the story of Noah. It keeps that part of the story historically accurate, so to speak.

On Sunday, Fox & Friends interviewed Father Jonathan Morris about the film, and I find his criticisms of Noah way off the mark. In particular, these two lines stick out: (1) “[God was an] impersonal force that tells you to do crazy things” and (2) “[Noah was] borderline schizophrenic.

Regarding the first criticism, yes, commanding someone to build an ark to house their family and the animals while the rest of creation is destroyed does seem a crazy thing to tell someone to do. However, I’m pretty sure that bit is accurate to the Bible. One of the things I liked about the movie is that it doesn’t go out of its way to justify God’s actions. Yes, it uses an environmentalist message to give God a motivation to etch-a-sketch creation while preserving the innocent; however, this isn’t treated as a justification. Aside from a throw-away line from Noah about how humans broke the world, God’s actions are just presumed to be justified. This helped the story because it allowed the narrative to focus on Noah coming to terms with his role in the eradication of humanity, and it does this without getting preachy and telling the audience they shouldn’t feel a sense of injustice about the whole thing.

This leads nicely into the the second critique. Noah wasn’t “borderline schizophrenic;” he was a human tasked with saving the innocent creatures of creation while ensuring no humans survive. That is a burden to carry, and it would tax anyone. Noah has to steel himself so that he can see the task to conclusion. If he doesn’t, everyone else’s death is in vain. If Earth is not going to be cleansed of humans, why drown anyone? Noah isn’t schizophrenic. He is trying to remain steadfast in light of the suffering that surrounds him and in which he plays a role.

The climax of the film involves Noah failing in his task, and his failure is the result of human love and compassion. Noah didn’t directly kill those who died because they weren’t on the ark. However, circumstances force Noah to kill twin baby girls to guarantee humanity ends with his family, and he cannot bring himself to kill the infants. Love causes Noah to fail God. It was a fucking great scene, and it brought a tear to my eye.

My final point regarding the criticisms, though the film does not hide the suffering experienced by those drowned in the flood, it never condemns God. As I said above, God’s actions are presumed to be justified, and the movie is better off for it. Perhaps a stark portrayal of the flood is causing people to really grasp its literal implications, and this is why they think the movie portrays a heartless deity, but the movie doesn’t actually do this. God is neither judged nor condemned in this film. The audience is left to judge for themselves.

Okay, now that I’ve praised the film, my critiques. First, as the film is wrapping up, Noah’s daughter-in-law spells out the moral of the story in case we didn’t get it. That was really annoying. Come on, respect your audience. Second, the whole Tubal-cain plot line was of little value. Tubal-cain was a pantomime villain. He’s supposed to be a foil to Noah, and he works to demonstrate the level of violence found in humans, but he comes off like a one-dimensional misquote of Nietzsche. Moreover, his plot line extends the middle of the movie way more than it needs to be. It results in some decent action sequences, but I didn’t think the story of Noah needed a scene with a large army fighting rock creatures.

My two cents: see Noah. The acting is solid, the visuals are stunning, and the story’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.