Wednesday, 1 June 2016

'After the Dark'- film review.

A bunch of gorgeous teenagers, at an elite International School in Djakarta, are attending their last Philosophy class. Their teacher- himself a bit of a hunk- wants to teach them one final lesson- how philosophy is linked to life.

'Philosophy is to life' one bright young spark suggests, 'As masturbation is to Sex'.

Our Philosophy tutor is not amused. He is preparing his students for REAL LIFE- where ACTIONS have CONSEQUENCES and people need to take RESPONSIBILITY.
So he begins by mentioning things like the trolley problem- should you throw a switch to save five people even if by that action you condemn an innocent to death?

The teacher thinks that 'Act Utilitarianism'- hard headed realism focused only on objective outcomes- militates to the conclusion- 'Yes! You've got to be ruthless. Our Species-Being demands we take responsibility and make the hard choice.' To drive home his point, the teacher involves the students in a series of gendanken- thought experiments- involving a nuclear bunker with only a limited number of places. In order to ensure the survival of the species, the students have to turn on each other and ruthlessly discard those without utilitarian skills or endowments. Hilariously, the poet keeps getting shot in the head the moment he discloses his vocation.

The film 'After the Dark', referenced above, came out a couple of years ago and, oddly, was trashed as incoherent precisely because of its philosophical content.

 However, the fault lies with Philosophy- in particular, the doctrine of Act Utilitarianism, which is utterly nonsensical because it ignores information asymmetry- the fact that you know a lot about what's good for you but can't know as much about other people- and thus has no relevance to a species which evolved by natural selection.

Take the Trolley problem. You know what will make you happier at this moment- the prospect of claiming credit for saving five lives though feeling shitty about having killed an innocent or the prospect of walking away and pretending you saw nothing. If you act on the basis of what makes you happier- fine, you are an Act Utilitarian though all you did was act according to your nature. One might with equal justice say you acted the way God created you to act or your action was determined by your karma or conditioned by the Hegemonic methexis of the Neo-Liberal Succubi of Planet ~X.

Since you have no way to decide if the continued existence of the 5 will yield more aggregate happiness than the continued existence of the one innocent (Economists call this the impossibility of interpersonal comparisons of Utility); pure Knightian Uncertainty obtains- no statistical argument has salience unless you aren't in fact an Act Utilitarian at all but rather a Rule Utilitarian who is obliged to turn Knightian Uncertainty into a probability distribution according to some pre-existing convention.

It might be argued- and this is the gedanken used in the film- there are extreme situations where your actions critically impact the entire future of the human race and thus your own possible happiness. Under these circumstances, your happiness is predicated on the survival of your species and so you are bound to act according to the rule adopted by an omniscient (but not clairvoyant) Benthamite planner- which would be to plug in 'objectivist' statistical probabilities so as to remove Knightian Uncertainty and get a tractable constrained optimization type decision problem with a unique 'inter-subjective' solution.

Unfortunately, this argument fails immediately because constrained optimization isn't any good when dealing with existential threats or catastrophic occurrences. Instead, 'regret minimization' gains salience. As a matter of fact, Evolution uses regret minimizing strategies- which conserve diversity (as happens in the film, when the empathic heroine rejects her harsh Utilitarian tutor and chooses likable 'losers' for her bunker-mates)- not 'survival of the fittest' type constrained optimization solutions.

One other point has to do with the notion of a 'wild card'. The Utilitarian tutor, who had actually rigged the game in advance, refers to himself as the 'wild card' but is revealed, in the course of the film, as no such thing. This is because Evolution is proof against 'high impact, low probability' events encountered on the fitness landscape. A meteor hits the earth? Dinosaurs survive as birds. Neanderthals and Denisovans disappear? They are still in our DNA. Earth explodes? Some bits of R.N.A get carried to the far reaches of the Galaxy on the frozen heads of comets.

However, there is one sort of 'wild card' which Evolution has bred into our species. It is that of linking inclusive fitness to eusocial 'costly signals' or Zahavi handicaps. In the film, the unexpected heroism of an average Joe- who sacrifices himself to save the heroine- is one such 'costly signal'.

Another, according to Chomsky, who doesn't believe in God but does believe in Spider-Man, is linked to the indubitable fact that, once upon a time, a hominid was bitten by a radio-active sentient parrot which caused a mutation such that Language in a perfect 'intensional' form came into existence even before it was every actually used. How did the mutation spread?
The Babel's Dawn blog explains Chomsky's theory thus- “Language evolved, and is designed, primarily as an instrument of thought”  Communication, for Chomsky, is secondary and, therefore, there is to be no searching for social evolutionary pressures—neither in terms of group selection nor altruistic kin/gene selection.
A rewiring of the brain, “presumably the effect of some small mutation” occurred in an individual “not a group.” This individual was endowed with “complex thoughts, [superior] planning, [superior] interpretation, and so on.” Over generations this gene spread and dominated “a small breeding group.” Only then would there be a reason for “externalization” of the language capacity, i.e., only then would speech be possible or useful.
… so the [language] capacity would be linked as a secondary process to the sensorimotor system for externalization and interaction, including communication. [p. 23]
The speech that emerged was not a pidgin or protolanguage, but true language.

How does 'a small breeding group' suddenly overwhelm all others simply as result of 'exteriorizing' their perfect internal, intensional, language faculty?
Perhaps, people with the mutation told each other to rape every available female and hunt down and kill every male who lacked it- coz that's the sort of shite goes down once people start getting bit by radio-active parrots or spiders or whatever- kindly watch X Men II to see why all this is perfectly rational and scientific.
Except, there's a teensy weensy problem. If raping and killing hominids involves some risk of harm, then people with the language mutation would lie about having done so. Thus there has first to be a costly signal to make language-use a 'separating equilibrium' (i.e. multivocal) rather than just a univocal roar or noisy fad.

In fact, in any scenario involving the spread of language use, or any symbolic currency or type of information, cheap talk is just noise till a costly signal arises and a 'separating equilibrium' becomes Schelling focal.

The film makes this point explicitly. The costly-signal of altruistic self-sacrifice is rewarded with lots of sex with nubile lasses.
As a group, the teenagers have learned that Philosophy is just a wank but, since they have learned this lesson through something like the evolutionary salience of 'regret minimization', they have also learned that you can have a wank before having a shag later the same day.
Indeed, wanking removes dead or senile sperm, for men, and improves the vaginal environment, for women. But only if you come. That's a costly signal. Utilitarianism is a wank that never jizzes till it starts visualizing the deep bosom'd fitness landscape of regret minimization as opposed to the unclean arsehole of hedonic maximization.
Anyway, that's what I told my K.G class after I made the little shits watch the film with me today. Tomorrow, we will tackle 'Last Tango in Paris' as a critique of Hilary Putnam.

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