Against Censorship

Censorship is a bad idea. It is the use of force or confiscation of property or money or threats thereof to stop the expression of an idea.

Censorship is a bad idea regardless of the content of the idea for a couple of reasons.

If the idea is bad, by censoring it you prevent people who know better from answering it. This, too, prevents the improvement of ideas.

Sometimes a person will think an idea is bad even though it is good. If you censor such an idea you prevent the improvement of ideas. There is no infallible way to distinguish when you are right about an idea being bad from when you’re wrong, so this is always possible.

Traditionally, there have been many objections to free speech.

First, there is the question of whether you can shout fire in the crowded theatre when there is no fire and you’re not an actor on stage. If you shout fire in a theatre then you are doing a wrong to the people who came to watch the play, and possibly also to the theatre owner. What you are saying is not the problem, the wrong that you are doing in that context is the problem.

Second, shouldn’t people be able to control the content of their blog or YouTube account? Should they not be able to prevent you from posting comments that they dislike? Yes, they should but that’s not censorship. You can start your own blog or YouTube channel or whatever. And in any case, like the theatre owner the blog or channel owner has no obligation to use his property to support your speech. If you feel bad about this that’s your responsibility, not his.

Third, what if somebody is inciting people to violence, should we not censor him? In this case, the problem isn’t the ideas the speaker is expressing, rather he is participating in a criminal conspiracy to commit assault or murder or something like that. If the police get a tip that somebody is planning an armed robbery and raid the robbers’ hideout and stop them from making further plans, they are not interested in stopping the robbers’ speech per se, but the robbery.

Recently, the British government has proposed a plan to make internet service providers require people to block porn websites unless their customer asks them not to.

Some people have said this is a bad idea, but many of them have given the wrong argument. They say: “We agree that it is laudable to deny children (under 18s) access to porn, but this is a bad way to do it.” These people are wrong, it is not at all laudable to deny children access to porn.

“But people under 18 can’t deal with porn because they don’t have the appropriate context to deal with it,” I hear you cry. This is puzzling. Whatever the appropriate interpretation of porn might be if the child can look for porn when he’s interested in it, that will give parents an opportunity to help the child the appropriate interpretation.

The people who use the “context” excuse for censorship may not understand how porn should be interpreted. They say things like: “porn should be used as a way for people in loving relationships to spice up their sex.” Many people in romantic relationships and marriages end up suffering, so at minimum there is something wrong with the way people enact such relationships. So given that people are bad at relationships perhaps they should question the idea that they’re right about all of the issues concerned, including how to use porn.

“But people under 18 can’t understand porn,” the critic objects. If a child looks at porn and doesn’t have any understanding of what he’s seeing at all then he’ll get bored and go do something else.

But what if more teenagers get pregnant as a result of watching porn? People under the age of 18 can find out about sex in ways other than looking at porn. People under 18 found out about sex even before the internet was invented. Also, people often use porn for masturbation so why would more porn lead to more teen pregnancy?

But porn degrades women doesn’t it? If that is true, that is not just a problem for people under 18 and so can’t be a reason for preventing them specifically from getting access to porn. And in any case, the stuff women do in porn is also done by men and transexuals and midgets. While it might be a good idea to have debates about porn, we should have an open debate featuring serious arguments both for and against porn.

I think an unstated reason for the opposition to people under 18 watching porn is precisely that some of them might enjoy it. They should be working hard in school and becoming badminton champions and stuff like that. In other words, people under 18 should be doing what other people want them to do, not using their own judgement. It is disgraceful that the same adults who often chide children for not using their initiative are so keen to deprive them of opportunities to exercise their own judgement about what they should think. Anybody who wants a more rational world should be appalled by the British government’s attempt at thought control.

Nicholas Maxwell’s bad moral philosophy

Nicholas Maxwell seems to like to think of himself as a great moral thinker, but actually he is has no good insights and seems to want to set himself up as a Platonic philosopher king.

Let’s start with his vision of one supposed problems in current affairs. He talks about a “long-standing problem of the rapid growth of the world’s population” (p. 4 of this paper). In other words, more people = badness. The truth is that high birth rates happen in dirt poor places that have bad institutions such as oppressive and corrupt governments, poor protection of property rights and that sort of thing. (Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist discusses this particular issue well but I don’t endorse it in general.) It is quite revealing that he claims this is a matter of population. He doesn’t see every person as a potential creative problem solver who could make the world a better place in all sorts of major or minor ways. Rather he sees their existence as problematic and acts as an apologist for their oppressors by not even mentioning the existence of said oppression.

On reading a summary of his political agenda it becomes clearer that Maxwell is even worse than this disgraceful stance makes him sound:

Natural science needs to create committees, in the public eye, and manned by scientists and non-scientists alike, concerned to highlight and discuss failures of the priorities of research to respond to the interests of those whose needs are the greatest – the poor of the earth – as a result of the inevitable tendency of research priorities to reflect the interests of those who pay for science, and the interests of scientists themselves.

This is terribly muddled. First, science can’t reflect both what the poor currently want, what scientists currently want and what the rich currently want. For example, many poor people want to use fossil fuels and Maxwell thinks this will cause some sort of catastrophe as a result of global warming. What would be needed is a serious discussion of the political economy of current scientific institutions. Maxwell apparently has no interest in this since he doesn’t discuss it.

Rather, he wants to create a world academic government and a world government:

The world’s universities need to include a virtual world government which seeks to do what an actual elected world government ought to do, if it existed. The virtual world government would also have the task of working out how an actual democratically elected world government might be created.

Democratic institutions are problematic enough in a single country where politicians can be relatively more accountable without engaging in the pretence that such an institution can work for a world government. There is also a lot of disagreement on basic issues like whether it’s a good idea to murder Jews in the world (to judge by propaganda put out by the Palestinian Authority) never mind on complex issues like global warming. Maxwell apparently has nothing to say about any of these problems.

Maxwell is not wise or insightful. He is apparently totally oblivious to many of the most serious problems facing the world and of serious problems in his own worldview.

Nicholas Maxwell’s Bad Epistemology

Nicholas Maxwell has promoted bad epistemology. As an example of this I will use his paper Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Aim-Oriented Empiricism.

Maxwell criticises Popper by saying he doesn’t take account of the use of metaphysical assumptions in science. Maxwell claims that science assumes that the real laws of science are unified and not ad hoc – let’s call this the unification principle. Popper, Maxwell claims, does not build this into his epistemology. As a result Popper’s epistemological claims are not justified. Popper has criticised justification and Maxwell doesn’t answer those criticisms so why does he keep going on about justification? Justification is not a minor theme, Maxwell bangs on about it incessantly. He doesn’t explain in what sense he is using the term or why anybody should care in the light of Popper’s refutation of the ideal of justification.

Maxwell claims that his unification principle is substantive and problematic because it constrains the laws of physics. But he provides no examples where it produces problems and so he solves no problems.

Maxwell claims that falsificationism does not account for the fact that scientists look for unified theories because it only justifies unification insofar as it is testable. But in The Logic of Scientific Discovery Popper discusses looking for universal theories at length in chapter III. This includes a discussion of universal terms and so on that explains that the whole of language except for proper names refers to things that are the same everywhere: water boils at 100 celsius at atmospheric pressure in containers of the right shape and so on.

He also explains why theories should not be ad hoc and Maxwell doesn’t really discuss this in detail. He provides a single example in which he claims that there is an ad hoc theory that Popper wouldn’t discard. But he doesn’t discuss how Popper’s prohibitions against ad hoc theories explained in chapter IV of LScD fail to exclude it. It is not good enough that a theory should just make correct and unambiguous predictions where it has been tested it has to to this in all the situations where it could be tested in principle. I doubt that there are any ad hoc propsosals that would satisfy this test. It’s hard enough to come up with any theory that matches reality never mind an ad hoc one.

For example, you couldn’t just say, as many physicists do, that quantum mechanics applies only to microscopic objects. You would have to specify the exact situations where it fails to apply and what happens in the transition from the regime where it does and the regime where it does not. They often apply the theory of decoherence to do this and then claim it shows that quantum mechanics doesn’t apply to macroscopic objects despite the fact that it is a consequence of quantum mechanics and so can hardly imply that quantum mechanics is false. Quantum mechanics actually applies to macroscopic objects too.

Maxwell also claims to synthesise the ideas of Popper, Kuhn and Lakatos. This is impossible because Popper refuted the claims of Kuhn and Lakatos: see Popper’s chapter in Criticism and the Growth of KnowledgeRealism and the Aim of Science and Popper’s discussion of Lakatos in Philosophy of Karl Popper. Kuhn and Lakatos both claimed that Popper thought it was possible to prove a theory wrong and that refutation played very little role in the history of science. Popper never claimed that it is possible to prove a theory wrong and pointed out that all refutations are conjecture from starting in LScD Chapter IV. Rather a refutation is treated like any other conjecture and can be conjecturally refuted. Popper also provided many historical instances in which theories have been discarded in the light of experimental evidence against them. To claim to mix a bunch of bad, refuted ideas with Popper’s ideas without refuting Popper’s criticisms is to mix philosophical food and philosophical  poison.

There may be some work to do on why the real laws of science allow the existence of criticism and why they seem to be comprehensible, matters that have discussed by David Deutsch in The Fabric of Reality, The Beginning of Infinity and his paper on constructor theory. Maxwell doesn’t shed any light on these problems.

Maxwell’s paper is full of bad arguments. In the next post I will refute Maxwell’s bad moral ideas.

UPDATE In this paper, Maxwell provides an example of a supposedly successful ad hoc theory: the standard laws of physics hold until a particular time like 8pm tonight after which gold spheres of mass greater than 1000 tons less than 1000 miles apart obey an Gm1m2/d^4 law rather than inverse square. This is outrageously ad hoc by Popper’s standards and is very problematic in the light of existing ideas about the laws of physics. Quite aside from anything else he doesn’t explain how to do relativistic corrections.