Friday, 20 September 2013

Are You Taking the Right Test?

or, The Non-Participating Participant; How I Did the Ideological Turing Test All Wrong

Note: I wrote this a while ago, sometime in August. On the 19th I touched it up a bit but made no substantial changes, and scheduled it to post on the 20th.

I participated in this year's Ideological Turing Test at Unequally Yoked, or at any rate I made a submission. I am not so sure now that I truly participated.

As usual, the ideological positions were Christian and atheist (though activity in the comments made it seem as though the real lines were between Christian and non-Christian rather than atheist and non-atheist), but the topics were euthanasia and polygamy. In comments someone said that he did not think Christians and atheists would differ on the issue of polygamy: both groups would oppose it. As a Christian who supports at least the legalization of polygamy, if not its unqualified practice, I was a bit amused and intended to disagree with him, but because I wanted to write a submission I thought I should disguise the grounds for my disagreement so I wouldn't give myself away. Thus I replied that even if Christians and atheists wound up on the same side of the issue, what would be interesting is the reasons they gave for their conclusion. Indeed, it might be even harder to argue for the same conclusion with different reasons because your own reasons for that opinion would cloud your judgement. Even though this was a disguise for my actual reasons for disagreeing, I did think it was true. (Update 19 September 2013: Most atheist entries have supported polygamy while most Christian entries have opposed it.)

I'm no longer so sure it is true after all.

In writing my entries, I did what I did last year: I wrote a Christian entry that I largely agreed with, but I was conscious of adding more Christian-culture stuff than I normally would (in other words, I pretended it was something I wrote for fellowship and added more Bible stuff); and I wrote an atheist entry that was mostly what I think I would believe if I were an atheist. This last means that I write mainly my own opinion with all of the Jesus stuff excised and some stuff I stole from my atheist friends to paper over the gaps. I'm sufficiently used to doing something like the latter anyway when writing academic papers. Most of the influence Christianity has on my thinking is what I would call a deep Gospel mentality: I don't really back things up with Scripture and theology, at least aloud, so much as try to inhabit Gospel-based values enough that my reasoning and actions will be consistent with Christ's teachings. You can disagree with this method on whatever grounds, but at any rate it's where I am and that's all that matters for this post, because it means that I can generally converse on an abstract or practical level with non-Christians and the difference between my Christianity and their non-Christianity only shows rarely.

If this is what I'm doing--fiddling what I think anyway around so that it sounds atheist, or anyway doesn't sound Christian--am I really participating in a Turing Test? Whether or not it is a sound strategy for winning this particular game is something time alone can tell (I suspect it isn't, because I know perfectly well that the kind of atheist I would be does not look much like the kinds of atheists that populate Leah's blog any more than the kind of Christian I am does not resemble the kinds of Christians that populate Leah's blog) but I still wonder whether my tactics achieve the ends that the Turing Test is supposed to promote. The goal, as I understand it, is to prove that you really do understand your ideological opposition's reasoning. That's all well and good...but are atheists really my ideological opposition? I don't think reality is anything so tidy. I agree with many of my atheist friends on a lot of matters, and I disagree with many of my Christian friends on the same matters. I might also say that social conservatives are the ideological opposition to my progressive beliefs more than any religious distinction, but I don't really think "conservative" and "progressive" are coherent groups. Other, idiosyncratic distinctions are even more important to me: tentativeness/certainty, for instance, or altruism/self-interest, or capitalism/anti-capitalism.

So if I were to really participate in this Turing Test, I might be forced to write an atheist entry that opposes at least polyamory, and maybe euthanasia. That exercise would force me to really understand both social conservatism and atheisms other than the one with which I'm familiar. However, since neither winning nor discovering whether I can fake atheism is motivating me to participate, I'm not going to change my entry now. (Reasons they don't motivate me: I'm not very competitive and I don't think this test is a terribly good indicator of whether I understand atheism. What is motivating me: I think writing games are fun, and I want to make sure there are some interesting entries in the Turing Test. There always are interesting entries, but I feel like I can contribute something that many of the entrants can't/won't contribute, namely a humanities-educated leftist Protestant Christianity.)

Or perhaps I would have to write an entry that still supported euthanasia and polygamy but from strongly rational materialist and maybe probablistic grounds; I would want to use arguments from Less Wrong and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I could participate in a Turing Test by pretending to be the kind of atheist I wouldn't be were I an atheist.

And this makes me wonder what other kinds of Ideological Turing Test could be run. In the context of Leah's blog, Catholic Christian/non-Catholic Christian comes to mind (but would that be Protestant or Orthodox?), as does conservative Christian/progressive Christian and transhumanist/non-transhumanist. Other lines that might interest me would be, say, liturgical Protestant/non-liturgical Protestant, or anti-capitalist/capitalist, or environmentalist/industrialist, or what have you. I guess I just don't think that the existence or non-existence of God or the divinity of Christ or what have you is really the place where the most publicly salient differences lie, and I'm using that to cheat my way through Leah's Turing Test (to whatever degree of success).

On the topic of cheating, I must also confess that I did put a bit of effort into making the atheist entry sound less like me than normal (at which I might have failed, but I hope not, since I think the entry sounds a bit brisque) and a bit more effort into making the Christian entry sound especially like me (at which I almost certainly succeeded). Given the fact that Leah's entries in the first iteration of the Turing Test were very clearly written in her own voice and included many of her public preoccupations, yet she passed the Turing Test with flying colours, I probably don't need to worry overmuch about whether or not my efforts to disguise or reveal myself will have an effect on the outcome. tl;dr: I don't think many people will recognize me anyway.

Update 15 August 2013

My entries having now been posted and the voters having commented on them, I should say that making the atheist entry sound less like me, or at least the way I went about making it sound less like me, was a mistake. Many people note that the voice sounds forced, and while I'm not entirely sure that's true (I don't think most people have a sufficient sense of just how idiosyncratic other people's language is, or at least their understanding doesn't reflect how idiosyncratic my language is, an issue which compromised people's assessments in the Ideological Turing Tests before), I will happily concede that the more particular complaints were likely valid. Some folks noted that the forcefulness of my piece's voice was at marked odds with how a person who held these opinions would probably write, and that's probably fair. I made the voice more confident because I thought that the recent tentativism kerfuffle would alert perceptive readers that ambiguity and tentativeness are kind of my trademark. While one person (Martha O'Keefe) does seem to have figured out that the Christian entry was mine along these lines, I was probably wholely wrong in this prediction otherwise; some voters say they have been using overconfidence as an indication that an entry is fake, which has the opposite effect as I'd been worried about. In other words, I'd have been better off risking recognition and keeping an uncertain voice, because recognition isn't much of a risk. (My narcissism cripples me again.)

More generally, I think that there was a problem with trying to strip an entry of my own voice entirely, in that it then lacks any coherent voice to hold it together. If I want to sound like not-me, I should have created an entire non-me persona to hold it together. I failed to do this, which likely explains a lot of the specific complaints people made. For instance, someone pointed out that it wasn't clear where my persona stood w/r/t libertarianism, anarchism, and liberalism. That complaint reflects a difficulty in my method: I stole the basics of the pro-euthanasia argument from my more anarchist friends, but I built those basics out in a way that is more appealing to me, a person sitting on the fence between anarchism and socialism (though I don't think the two are nearly as incompatible as most people think, and the anarchist friend of mine I know best would likely agree). And for an argument against the sanctity of life I stole and inverted an argument from some pro-life Catholics who were trying to convince conservative Catholics that pro-life theology entails more than anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia politics. What I didn't do is try to work out how this corresponded with the general persona I was(n't) constructing. So it's true that I didn't think through a persona who would hold these views, and as a result the presentation was likely sloppy. Of course, it's also possible that I'd have failed anyway; if the last Turing Test is any indication, the atheists at Unequally Yoked are not bad at all at sorting the real from the fake. It's hard to see how they might be so good based on last year's individual comments, which seem to me to have very faulty methods. But they did well, so either a) my skepticism in their methods might be misplaced, or b) the things that they say influence their decisions are post-hoc rationalizations of pre-conscious criteria which are very accurate, or c) the voters who commented do not accurately represent all voters, or d) a combination of a, b, and c, or e) something I haven't thought of yet.

This being said, I'm open to the possibility that I did a bad job at the Turing Test above and beyond making a poor choice regarding the piece's voice. I remember wishing I had a proof-reader before I submitted the entries, since I'd fussed with them for so long that I was no longer able to see whether they said what I wanted them to say. There are a couple of places where having a proof-reader would really have helped, I think, since particular passages are bivalent in ways I hadn't anticipated.

No comments:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin