What Is the Best Superpower?

smbc-negative-wishes
From SMBC Comics

We often have discussions in our apartment on the most arbitrary topics. One time, we debated the question: What is the best superpower?

Despite the catchy title, this post is not really about the best superpower. Sure, it talks about that a lot, but that’s not the main point. The main point is about how messy a debate can be when the rules and terms are ill-defined.

What Is a Superpower?

From the start, it was unclear what was meant by “superpower.” It was implicitly understood that something completely all-encompassing like omnipotence is invalid because it is too broad, but this wasn’t formally forbidden. The only thing that was formally forbidden was any superpower than entailed having multiple other superpowers, like wishing for more wishes (but it gets fuzzy as to what counts as one superpower and what counts as multiple).

Being a smart-ass, instead of answering with the usual answers like telekinesis or mind control or invisibility or flying, I suggested the power to move subatomic particles. Let’s just call this particle manipulation for short.

From a naturalist perspective, i.e., physics, particle manipulation encompasses most other plausible powers (hold on for what “plausible” means):

  • To move a large object, you just make quadrillions of quadrillions of particles move in the same direction.
  • To start a fire, you make the particles move faster.
  • To create something out of thin air, or to regenerate any injury, you rearrange particles from the air into atoms and molecules to get what you want.
  • To control someone’s mind, you manipulate the neurons directly and make certain connections fire and others not fire.
  • To defuse a world war, you could just vaporize every nuke into air.
  • To become infinitely rich, you could just turn lead, or any other material, into gold, or into dollar bills.

However, my friend who initiated this discussion, and whose own answer was mind control, thought this answer I gave was “implausible” or “unrealistic.” So what is plausible and implausible? What is realistic and unrealistic?

Doesn’t the word “superpower” imply that it is NOT real? Why does moving a nearby object with your mind seem “realistic”? Does it take a lot of mental power or concentration? Are you limited in the number of objects you can control? Do I always write blog posts that have 7 questions in a row?

Much of our intuition of superpowers comes from the film industry (and thus indirectly from the comic book industry). Before getting bogged down with more philosophical questions, let’s appreciate some good old superpower usage in X-Men: First Class!

Observe the amount of concentration required in the first scene, compared to the relative ease in the second.

The second act is arguably more difficult: it requires control of a scattered collection of objects rather than just one, the control is required at far range, and the change in velocity is much greater. It’s hard to say which is more valid or realistic.

What Powers Are Valid?

Because the particle manipulation power was considered too strong, we decided to forbid it and use only well-known superpowers, to avoid some of the questions as to what was considered a superpower. But this clarification did not come at the beginning, it was more of a change of rules halfway in.

Even so, if you look at the comics, some powers are significantly stronger than portrayed in film. It’s still arguable that Jean Grey’s powers, especially as the Phoenix, are valid and are much stronger than most of the ones we talked about later in the discussion. Even so, do we count these powers separately? Are telepathy and telekinesis separate, or are they included together like in Jean’s case?

Magneto, for instance, is mostly known for him namesake, magnetism. But according to science, electricity and magnetism are really the same force, so does control of magnetism also come with control of electricity? According to Wikipedia:

The primary application of his power is control over magnetism and the manipulation of ferrous and nonferrous metal. While the maximum amount of mass he can manipulate at one time is unknown, he has moved large asteroids several times and effortlessly levitated a 30,000 ton nuclear submarine. His powers extend into the subatomic level (insofar as the electromagnetic force is responsible for chemical bonding), allowing him to manipulate chemical structures and rearrange matter, although this is often a strenuous task. He can manipulate a large number of individual objects simultaneously and has assembled complex machinery with his powers. He can also affect non-metallic and non-magnetic objects to a lesser extent and frequently levitates himself and others. He can also generate electromagnetic pulses of great strength and generate and manipulate electromagnetic energy down to photons. He can turn invisible by warping visible light around his body. […] On occasion he has altered the behavior of gravitational fields around him, which has been suggested as evidence of the existence of a unified field which he can manipulate. He has demonstrated the capacity to produce a wormhole and to safely teleport himself and others via the wormhole.

Thus, from a logical and consistency perspective, I found it difficult to reject the validity of powers such as these. We essentially watered down telekinesis to being able to move objects within X meters and within sight range.

Telekinesis vs Mind Control

Among the remaining, weaker powers, the debate ended up being between telekinesis and mind control. More and more rules were made up on the spot. Once it was established that one power was generally stronger, the other side tried to state some technicality that would limit the power, and thus bring both back to equal levels. At this point, I thought the debate was pointless because we already conceded so many of the better powers, and then kept limiting the remaining powers because of arbitrary, subjective reasons such as being “unrealistic,” which was the main counterpoint. This seems absurd, because you are debating superpowers in the first place—they’re not supposed to be realistic!

It seemed like a debate regarding “What is the highest whole number?” At first we got rid of infinity (omnipotence was not allowed). Getting rid of really strong powers turned into “What is the highest whole number less than 100?” Then when one side says 99, the other side uses a limiting argument basically saying, “The same way numbers over 100 are not allowed, 99 is absurdly high and should not allowed either.” It then becomes “What is the highest whole number less than 99?” And so on.

While there was some semblance to rational debate, it was clear that on the big picture scale, there were essentially no logical points being discussed. It was a matter of imposed fairness. “It’s unfair that your superpower gets to do X and ours does not, so yours is invalid.” But this defeats the purpose of the question in the first place, which was to determine which one was the best. It devolved into the question, “Given that a superpower does not exceed some power level N, what is the best superpower?” Of course, the answer will just be ANY sufficiently good superpower, restricted enough to be at level N. In this case, making up rules on the spot completely defeated the purpose of the question.

Conclusion

There were a bunch of other complications in the debate, but overall it was pretty fruitless. The rules of the debate, namely allowing one to make up rules spontaneously, defeated the purpose of the debate in the first place. It was not completely pointless, however, as it showed the need for setting clear guidelines at the start, and for being consistent.

More on Pride in Race, and Social Revolutions

US Capitol

This is a followup to my earlier post “Pride in Things Out of Your Control“. In that article, I argued that it does not make sense to be proud of anything that is purely random, such as your race. An even more important argument is that race should not a factor when judging anyone, since no one chose their own race. More strongly, and perhaps, race should not be a factor when making laws.

For the same reason as before, namely that no one actually chose their own race, it is strange for laws to target certain racial groups. Is that not the very definition of racial discrimination, or shall I say, racism? Now, from a utilitarian perspective, it is possible to justify temporary measures that target specific race groups in order to increase the total social utility, namely affirmative action. However, the real difference to bridge in these cases is usually not so much race as it is socioeconomic conditions. Affirmative action is defined in terms of race rather than socioeconomic status because it is easier for the common person to understand and easier to enforce.

With affirmative action aside, even though its true motivation is only indirectly related to race, there are very few possible justifications for using race in law. And while the Zimmerman case should not have been related to race, the public perception of it certainly seemed like it. The law argued in court and the racism argued outside of it were out of sync.

Yes, in my last post, I wrote about how little this case mattered, but the more time that time goes by, the more I see people talking about it, and often with completely wrong accounts.

The question is, who has failed? Are the people so ignorant of the court system and brainwashed by the media that they have no clue what the trial was actually about? Or is the court system so disconnected from reality that it failed to serve justice?

A Historical Tangent: Changing the Mindset of Other Groups

It is important to keep in mind that when groups do agitate for rights, their practical purpose is to convince whomever is in charge to give them rights. Just looking at American history, we see that every time there is a major social revolution granting rights to a previously discriminated group, the government itself contained extremely few, if any, members of that group.

Abraham Lincoln was white, and so was the rest of the US government when the Civil War occurred. When Congress granted women the right to vote, there were no women in Congress. And when the LGBT community first agitated for rights, no member of Congress of such an orientation had openly declared it.

While this is not directly related to the main topic, I wished to remind you of what protests are actually for. A discriminated group MUST convince fellow citizens who are not of that discriminated group that something must be changed. This in turn will, after a number of years, cause a change in public sentiment which will be reflected in the election, and in turn into law.

In this respect the LGBT movement is sort of a model modern movement, in that it successfully convinced a majority of straight people to accept LGBT people as equal.

So to the public who thinks that the result of the Zimmerman trial was unjust and that racism or the self-defense law should be changed, you must try to convince people who disagree with you of your position. The reason I point this out, when it seems completely obvious, is that it is not easy to do in the current world.

Yes you can announce your ideas to hundreds if not thousands of people with social media, but social media is also highly self-clustering, in that on a given social issue, discussion between the two groups is far more rare than among one group. That is, you may think that you champion good causes on Facebook, but your good intent may be useless because the only people listening are the ones who already agree with you anyway. This is especially true if you are not highly aggressive or confrontational in your posts. Unless you explicitly provoke the other side, your posts and resulting discussions will be nothing more than friendly groupthink, and which will only increase confirmation bias. An argument between people who disagree is far more useful than an argument between people who agree.

So go ahead and discuss, debate, and disagree.

On Giving Too Much Legitimacy to the Inferior Position

You find an ant mound in your house. Would you call an exterminator to remove it? Or would you treat it with “dignity” and offer to fight it in a “fair” duel?

There is something fundamentally wrong with the way arguments and debate work in modern society. Whereas the common sense choice is simply to remove the ant mound as fast as possible, the politically correct choice is to hear “both sides” of the story, run smear campaigns against the ant mound while defending against verbal insults made on yourself, and then put the ultimate decision to a referendum of not-the-most-intelligent voters, hoping they side with you and not the swarm of ants.

Debates and arguments are more focused today on winning vs. losing, not on right vs wrong, or truth vs fiction, or reason vs insanity.

The Appeal to Image

An enormous problem with this style of debate is that it gives too much legitimacy to the inferior position. A debate should focus on drawing logical conclusions from facts, not on maintaining personal reputations. For nearly all publicized debates, winning is glorified and losing is stigmatized.

Yet in the scientific disciplines, losing happens all the time, and if the loser is able to admit it, he is the one who actually learns more from the debate by discarding his outdated or incorrect theory, and progressing forward with a better one.

To quote Carl Sagan:

In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

In math, it is even better. You only need to come up with a correct proof or disproof, and every reasonable mathematician will agree with the correct side. There is literally no legitimate argument for the other side, because logically, it cannot exist.

Consider the equation 0.999… = 1. There is no ambiguity of truth to this statement. It can be proved many, many ways, though even one way is enough. We cannot pass such a statement to a referendum for a popular vote, as it is conceivable that the majority of the population will vote that the statement is false, yet among mathematicians, the vote will be unanimous for truth.

The act of even putting “False” on the ballot in the first place would be misleading to a non-mathematical voter. If I didn’t know enough math to deduce the truth of the statement, and all I saw on the ballot were “True” and “False,” I would probably think: “Well, since these positions are even on the ballot in the first place, it probably means there are some mathematicians arguing for ‘True’ and some arguing for ‘False.’ That means I need to use my own math skill. Hmm, obviously 0.9 is less than 1, 0.99 is less than 1, 0.999 is less than 1, so 0.999… is less than 1. I vote ‘False.’ ”

Yet, no one goes around protesting that the “other side” of this argument should be taught in schools, as whether 0.999… = 1 is irrelevant to their beliefs. When it comes to biology though, it becomes different.

Probably the most ridiculous instance of giving too much legitimacy to the inferior position is the evolution vs creationism “debate.” Just as among mathematicians there is no debate as whether 0.999… = 1, there is no debate among biologists as to whether evolution or creation led to where we are. By no debate, we mean that at least 99.85% of scientists in the earth and life sciences agree with evolution. Although, from just looking at the media, one might not expect this to be the case. Same with huge wastes of time and money that shouldn’t have even existed. There’s a difference between teaching true controversy and the disgrace of “Teach the Controversy,” which is just “Teach the Idiocy.”

It is much worse in religious debates, as religion somehow has a magical spell protecting it from all criticism. You’re encouraged to disagree all you want about musical taste, food, fashion, and even politics, but the moment anything remotely close to religion is debated, it is “offensive” and “disrespectful.” Other than due to an unfortunate social norm, Why? Why is it acceptable for an uneducated person to vocally disagree with scientists about matters of science and have their own article about it in the news, yet it is unacceptable for even an intellectual to disagree regarding religion?

It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anything they say must be respected, so they can make intolerant statements such as saying all people who disagree with them are fools, and as an audience we’re supposed to respect that. Just why? If an ignorant person calls you a fool, you have no responsibility to respect that opinion.

The Freedom of Speech

But we have the freedom of speech, you might say. We can say whatever we want.

Indeed, I think free speech is one of the most important features of an advanced, civilized society. (The lack of free speech is one of the reasons I despise modern China.) But there’s a difference between having the right to say whatever you want and the right to force an ignorant belief onto other people. Free speech lets you say the Earth is flat without being arrested by the government. But it sure doesn’t let you force the Flat-Earth theory into textbooks in public education. Or astrology. Or slavery. Or the 2012 doomsday.

Dissent from oppression is imperative. Dissent from authority is necessary. But dissent from truth is blindness. No matter how much one might protest the truth, the truth stays put. It is we who must adapt to the truth, not adapt the truth for us. The Freedom of Speech is not the Freedom to Brainwash.

Even the act of having to write this post deeply upsets me. Ideally this should all be Common Sense, yet Thomas Paine seems to have been all but forgotten by the inhabitants of America.

Seems like it’s about time for another Enlightenment, another Age of Reason.

People Who Agree With You for the Wrong Reasons

Yes, I’m attempting to write a post that talks about both politics AND religion. Yep, the two most heated things that always lead to flame wars on the Internet. In one post.

The Two Types of Disagreeing

We’ve all had those moments we just flat-out disagreed with everything someone said. No matter how many facts we throw at them, they never seemed to listen. And they probably thought the same about us. The argument turned into full-blown war, and we were ready to start throwing punches at each other.

But we’ve also had those debates where we disagreed with them, not in a hostile way at all, but in a calm, mature, intellectual manner. We realized some of the things we said were wrong, and so did they. And while we still had our differences in the end, we felt more connected and felt that we had uncovered some truth out of it. This is the good type of disagreement.

The Two Types of Agreeing

There’s the intellectual style of agreement as well, the good kind. You try to teach your kid about gravity, but she is skeptical, so you encourage her to try to throw a ball so high that it won’t return, to disprove gravity. She quickly learns that no matter how hard she throws it, it will always fall back down. Finally, she ends up agreeing with you, having learned a valuable lesson out of it.

Then there’s the wrong kind of agreement. The kind when once she becomes skeptical of gravity, you only assert that it’s true and don’t give any reason or evidence for it, and you say “Believe it, or else.” Of course, this example is pretty silly because no one needs to threaten someone else to get them to believe in gravity—there is overwhelming evidence for it everywhere on Earth. I’m really setting this up for matters which have no evidence or are misunderstood.

Agreeing Due to Party Alignment, Not Due to Facts

I’m going to go with politics first, and then religion. I consider myself to be a moderate liberal, but I usually don’t care about politics that much. However, sometimes when people talk about politics in stupid ways or completely misunderstand their political party, I do care. I don’t want them making misguided decisions in the ballot.

It’s common for liberals to criticize conservatives for outrageous claims, but many of these liberals don’t understand that they themselves also make outrageous claims. They say how bad conservatives are, but then when someone asks them what has Obama done in the last 4 years, they are silent. Not that Obama hasn’t done anything—he’s done quite a bit. But some of these liberals are just clueless about their own party and seem to vote Democrat just because their friends do or because they think Obama is charismatic.

These people annoy me greatly. They might agree with me, but for all the wrong reasons. For instance, I know people who like to make fun of Rush Limbaugh, despite never having read anything he wrote and never listening to anything he said, and rely instead only on what other people said of him. If you disagree with Rush Limbaugh because you disagree with his views, that’s fine. I respectfully disagree with much of what he says. But if you disagree with him just because it’s cool to disagree with him, then that is pathetic.

It seems that respect is all but forgotten in this era. I can disagree with someone but still understand what they are saying, and admit that some parts of what they say are correct. But respect doesn’t seem to be mainstream anymore. Case in point, in Obama’s 2008 election victory speech, he began in a noble manner by making a respectful statement about McCain’s campaign. But what did the crowd do? It booed him very audibly. And in McCain’s defeat speech, when he congratulated Obama, he got loudly booed by his crowd as well.

What has politics become, a spectator sport where you boo the other team, or boo anyone who says shows respect to the other team? If anything, Obama and McCain’s respect for each other in that moment of the election gives me some hope for the American political system. However, the behavior of the crowd does not.

Agreeing Due to Authority, Not Due to Evidence

Now for religion. I am an atheist. I don’t believe in god for the same reason I don’t believe in Santa or an Invisible Pink Unicorn or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or an invisible fire-breathing dragon. Simply, I believe it is childish and immature to believe in something that has zero evidence, just because other people believe in it.

That said, I am not claiming that Christianity is inherently bad. Despite its numerous provocations, injustices, and wars, I do not know where the world would be right now had Christianity not existed. Without its teaching of generosity and kindness to primitive cultures (and then enslaving them), civilization may not be as advanced as it is. However, given that we have already reached an early Space Age, where technology and the search for knowledge can unite us in place of the mass belief of ancient myths, I question whether Christianity will be of use for much longer.

So if you tell me, “I am a Christian because the moral system is wonderful,” then that is great. But if you say, “I am a Christian because there is evidence that God exists,” then I will facepalm, because that is like saying, “I believe in the Invisible Pink Unicorn because there is evidence that the Invisible Pink Unicorn exists.”

On the other side, people who believe in atheism might agree for the wrong reasons, though not usually, as they tend to be more open-minded. Saying “I am an atheist because there is no evidence of God” is perfectly fine, but saying “I am an atheist because Christianity is evil” is not a valid reason. However, I don’t know of anyone who actually believes that, so as far as I know, there are no atheist “extremists” like there are religious extremists.

So as far as this section goes, I cannot really talk about the atheist side as there are no examples of belief for the wrong reasons that I know of. Instead, I can try to empathize with the religious side and think about what they would consider to be belief in god for the wrong reasons.

The first one is probably believing in God for fear of ending up in Hell or some other divine punishment. That would be a terrible reason to believe in something, simply out of fear of threat for not believing in it. This is one reason I have a problem with Pascal’s wager (the other being that it can just be applied to other religions, forcing the player to have no good choice).

The second is argument from authority. People shouldn’t believe in God just because other people said they should; they should find it on their own. Despite how silly this sounds to me, at least I find it more noble than blindly following the will of other people. In practice, however, it seems most people are led into Christianity through authority, from their parents or community when they are young and vulnerable.

I mean, if someone is nonreligious but suffers a crisis when they are 30, and chooses to accept a religion to cope with it, that is fine. In fact, hooking people up to mythical virtual realities is a valid method these days of dealing with trauma. The real world is too harsh, so they can more easily cope in a fantasy world. But if a kid is forced to accept a religion when they wouldn’t know better, that is an entirely different thing, and is just wrong. (I agree with Bill Nye’s take on this.)

This would be entirely opposite of the gravity case presented in the “Two Types of Agreeing” section. When a kid learns about gravity, if she is skeptical she can try to disprove it by throwing a ball so high into the air that it does not come down. But the more gravity works, the more accepting she becomes. Whether she thinks gravity is true is determined by her own experiences.

However, if she is skeptical of religion, there is nothing she can do to disprove it, since anything could be justified by some made-up explanation, and this is probably very confusing for a young mind. Whether she thinks religion is true is determined solely by the statements of others, i.e. authority figures.

If this forcing of views on a child concerned any subject other than religion, it would be called brainwashing. Yet when it’s religion, it’s not considered brainwashing, and—quite disturbingly—it’s actually considered by some to be education.

My writing of this section is inspired by Carl Sagan’s skeptical philosophy and Bill Nye’s recent video that was linked above.

Disagreeing and Agreeing

I’d rather someone disagree with me using the truth, rather than have someone agree with me based on a lie. Both in politics and religion, a shallow agreement based on lies is valueless, ridiculous, and devoid of morality.

This is often why there are such heated debates in both of these subjects on the Internet, where multiple people can chime in on both sides. The “Democrat” side of a forum thread might be extremely polarized within itself, and so is the “Republican” side. Thus, instead of there being a straight back-and-forth debate, there is a jumbled web of personal insults and baseless accusations. This would be avoided if people were actually knowledgeable and knew what they were talking about and as well as what other people are talking about. This is why knowledge and respect should be taught, not whatever is causing them to resort to insults.

In the case of religion, religious people generally don’t use logic, so even the terms “agree” and “disagree” begin to lose meaning. That’s why a religious debate usually never ends up being a peaceful debate. It always becomes derailed because logic itself is missing from one side, so it isn’t really a debate at all. It is a lecture where the student is willfully ignorant. At least that’s what happens in the case of an atheist vs theist debate. I can only imagine the horror of what a theist vs theist-of-a-different-religion debate on the Internet would be like, e.g. a Christian vs Muslim debate.

In the political system of the United States, I am somewhat hopeful. But I have almost no hope at all for the current education system. Until something like “Logic for First Graders” is taught—lies, misunderstandings, and ignorance will always be the face of our country.