Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Did morality "evolve"?

I've seen several scientists answer this (ambiguous and vague inquiry) in the affirmative before such as the physicist Leonard Susskind, the evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser, and the primatologist Frans de Waal and even the philosopher Richard Joyce. But what can such a claim really mean? There is an ambiguity in the question (and its bald affirmation or denial) that is the worst form of ambiguity. It may be construed as either trivially true or outright false.

They might mean that our sense of morality or right or wrong is the way it is through evolution. Certainly that has some truth to it but just as certainly, many of our moral intuitions and sensibilities do not come from evolution but from cultural, personal or other conditioning processes. So not all of our moral senses we are imbued with are a result of evolutionary forces. So there is some truth to this claim when it is qualified to mean something like, "some moral senses have evolutionarily influences." But interpreted this (charitable) way, this is so trivial as to be not worth much attention. Yes, some of our senses of right and wrong etc (but not all) are likely the result of evolutionary forces.

Also, morality does not end when our moral intuitions give us no direction. Much of the moral problems we face extends to areas where we have no clear intuitions in any direction. But we still ponder what is the right thing to do in those situations and sometimes arrive at plausible or implausible answers which can be scrutinized by the light of of our rational faculties.

Many of the most interesting moral problems are conflicts in our moral intuitions either within some individual or between individual's of the same culture or between those of different cultures. When this occurs, we have the further question of which way is th right way to follow. Such questions can only be settled through reasoned rational deliberation. Obviously, evolutionary instilled instincts, sensibilities and intuitions will not help us here because they may be partially responsible for the conflicting problems to be resolved. So evolution cannot explain what we do when we resolve or mediate these problems.

Many moral problems today are novel. In our evolutionary history, we likely inhabited social and environmental niches which were far different than modern society and thus our evolutionary moral sense will not help us (and in many case hinder) rational moral deliberation. Thus rational deliberation takes up the slack where our natural moral sense falls short. I suspect that almost all questions in medical and business ethics extends to areas outside of anything our ancestors ever experienced but that doesn't mean that philosophers are not working to resolve these issues; they are, they are just using their rational faculties instead of their evolutionary endowed moral senses to guide them towards a resolution.

Take our likely evolutionary instincts to be distrustful of strangers and to like those more similar to ourselves. Now tens of thousands of years ago this instinct might have been advantageous and thus naturally selected for. The members of your rival tribes are competing against your tribe for valuable resources and may be trying to deceive you or take advantage of you in some other way and those who are similar to you may be more trustworthy, and since have your genes, caring about their welfare may contribute to the spread of your genes. In other words, our natural moral senses of trust, compassion, cooperation, kindness, etc may be naturally limited or attenuated outside of our own small group of similar individuals. But such relative biases and mistrust towards those of the out group in many instances are detrimental in modern global society where we all are interconnected and must cooperate. Biases may contribute to racism, xenophobia, centrism, many kinds of other isms and preferential treatment that is counter to global distributive justice. Times have changed and our evolutionary instilled moral senses may be obsolete. Again, in order to solve these problems we must rely on a guide outside of that provided by evolution.

But saying that morality evolved in this sense may be no more informative than saying that "physics evolved" because physics involves observation and since our senses have evolved through millions of years of adaptation, our sense of physical laws through observing things have "evolved." Our natural moral senses may guide us towards morality but it should not be mistaken for morality itself for it can always be itself questioned whether it has led us to the morally correct conclusions.

OTOH, morality may have "evolved" in the sense that because morality deals with the goods and bads, right and wrongs, these things are particular to humans through our evolutionary history and thus morality specific to humans have in some sense evolved. What is good and bad for our wellbeing may be particular to humans and even differ amongst individuals. Our values are species and even individual specific and part of that may be due to evolutionary forces. Perhaps other creatures (on this and maybe other planets) have different desires, needs for their wellbeing, and even rights. But this seems like a misleading and needlessly arbitrary restriction of the word 'moral.' We can certainly speak of moral behavior towards aliens or non human animals (or even inanimate things) who may have different desires, needs for their wellbeing and rights than we do. And we can speak of respect for their rights and fairness and justice towards them. We can speak of kindness, etc towards them. We can also speak of meanness and cruelty and so forth in our relations with them. These are all moral topics.

There may be other meanings of the claim which are sometimes intended but I think that these other meanings can be shown equally trivial or false. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins seems to be commendably more careful with his words and seem to only claim the first of my disambiguations here (i.e., that it is our moral sense that has evolved, not morality itself which I don't even think makes sense if that was the intended meaning).

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Does ought imply can?

Some philosophers think so. After all, what would be the point of demanding someone ought to do something if he can't? But it seems to me that the story of Sisyphus at least interpreted by Camus challenges this. There are somethings you ought to do even if it is doomed to failure. Perhaps building a perfectly just society or becoming a moral sage are two of these impossible ends.

A bit of chauvinism

Philosophers often face the peculiar position in any discussion with another academic that they will understand far more about their interlocutor's discipline than their interlocutor will understand anything about philosophy. However, I see many philosophers of science be quite diffident in dealing with scientists even when the topic is more philosophical in nature in regards to some science. I will be advocating more confidence and maybe a kind of chauvinism. I do think philosophers of science often understand their respective sciences more than the scientists themselves. Scientists do understand what they do obviously quite well, but they often are mired in the details and do not have a comparative and general overview of just exactly what the fundamental nature of what they are doing consists in. Philosophers of science do have this overview and should not feel presumptuous when talking about the more philosophical aspects of some scientific domain as they are usually well informed about the discipline itself and the body of philosophical literature about the philosophical aspects of it.

I've seen interviews with many physicists such as Feynman and Susskind who shamelessly will pontificate on all sorts of scientific matters outside of their area of specialization. Feynman talking about social science, Susskind about morality and evolution etc. They clearly have no clue. Physicists generally seem to have fewer qualms about discussing things outside of their expertise proclaiming all sorts of nutty things about them. Philosophers of science should do the same but the difference now is that at least philosophers of science are usually well-read and competent in the science they philosophize about.

Here's an interesting related story: Once Feynman supposedly said (paraphrasing) of the philosophy of physics "a physicist needs the philosophy of physics like a bird needs ornithology." A well known philosopher of science famously responded "If a bird could understand ornithology, it would come very handy to him.


Julian Assange is charged with several sex crimes in Sweden one of which is a very serious charge of rape. He allegedly had sex with a woman while she was asleep. This constitutes rape in Sweden and I believe in the US (and other civilized places). One of the debates within current feminist theory is what constitutes (informed) consent. The classical definition is that someone consents if they are capable of denying consent but does not do so or explicitly does so. If she is incapable of rendering consent such as if she is asleep, underage or drugged, e.g., and a man takes advantage of her, that is de jure rape. But there are varying degrees of capability for rendering consent. Someone may be semi-conscious etc. In such a state, the perpetrator's intent (whether he is justified in an expectation of her to consent if she had been conscious) may play a role in whether or not it is rape. His expectations may be justified on a pattern of previous behavior from from their relationship or from explicit consent such as if she willingly tells him to drug her and render her unconscious to have her way with her. Why she would do this is something altogether irrelevant; perhaps she has a weird fetish but if she chose to give consent to this, it seems to me to be not rape even though she would be unconscious and unable to stop the act before it starts or mid coitus. This is because he would be given reasonable expectations that she would consent had she been conscious. This, of course, doesn't mean he could do anything he likes to her sexually, just what he has reasonable expectations that she would consent to.

In certain cases it may be better to have an intermediate category for crimes that are not as serious as rape but still sex crimes (such as sexual assault) which border vague cases may be classified as.

I think the charges very serious and I had always been angry at the "progressives" like The Young Turks, Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann demeaning these charges and dismissing them when the facts are not yet available. If true under the right circumstances, it is rape, it wouldn't even be a vague instance of rape in this case if she had been completely asleep, and Assange need to pay for that if that had occurred.

Daily affirmation

I wonder if people would be more forgiving of each other's transgressions if they realized that some of these transgressions are an escape from some kind of misery, if only momentary, rather than an attempt at an unfair advantage.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


This debate with Roy Sorenson and David Christensen is about the topic of conciliationism which Christensen defends. This is simply the view that if you hold the belief P and you also believe that another person who is your epistemic equal holds the belief ~P, you should update your belief so that it now has half the confidence it had before. I once read another quite good paper defending this view too I think by Adam Elga.

Many philosophers found this position hard to swallow as there are many philosophical views on any subject. Philosophers may rationally (with good justification) hold the mutually exclusive views P, Q, R, S,...on the same issue. Does that mean they should dilute their confidence by as many folds since presumably all their peers are equally (or roughly so) capable?

The position is very attractive to me but it has dawned on me that there is one way to make the position in practice not as hard to swallow. One mitigating effect which in practice will not reduce one's confidence as much even in the face of contrary points of views from one's epistemic peers is especially relevant to philosophical topics.

Many philosophical points of views though prima facie contradictory are not really so under close scrutiny because it is often shown that there was a subtle difference in underlying understanding of terms. In other words, many times two (or more) opposing sides are not really at odds at all but had been "talking past one another." Both sides could have been right all along; it's just that they had been right along different lines. The debate, for example, between evidentialism and some other contradictory view on epistemology might stem from different underlying conceptions of what a belief is. Therefore, on some conception of what beliefs are, evidentialism may be more accurate a view and on another slightly different understanding (which are not first apparent to the sides arguing) the other side's version is more accurate.

It would take conceptual analysis to expose the subtle differences responsible for the confusion and pseudo-debate. In practice, I would expect that the lessening of confidence may be mitigated somewhat by this but whether enough so to satisfy many of conciliationism's criticisms is doubtful. I do think that if this is so then they would just have to lessen their confidence in their beliefs in all their philosophical ideas including their stance against conciliationism.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Zhong 忠

All this talk of moral effort and conscientiousness (忠 in classical Chinese of the Warring States period) reminded me of a story of Wittgenstein. I consider his moral views to be a weird kind of virtue ethics. His moral virtues were unconventional and much like Nietzsche who also seemed to be an unconventional virtue ethicists (his virtues were strength, courage, integrity, playfulness, and creativity), Wittgenstein seemed to value the unconventional moral virtues of not bullshitting (remaining silent when one is outside one's proper domain of knowledge), epistemic integrity, correct usages of words as they were intended (unlike how philosophers use them which caused them plenty of confusion, he thought) and "being careful". In fact once when someone asked him what he wanted as an epitaph, he responded "He was careful". To be careful is the ultimate moral compliment to Wittgenstein.

Extended discussion on the moral effort post

In an earlier post about moral effort, I said that one passage which I could not remember the cite from the Analects was a good example of the centrality Confucius put on "doing one's utmost." Carl suggested one passage (17:20) that might have been the one I was talking about. That might not have been it and I can't seem to find it but I have found the character which denotes "doing one's utmost" and other passages suggesting the centrality of the notion within classical Confucian thought.

The word that Confucius uses to mean "doing one's utmost" according to Lau's translation is Zhong (忠). Some have translated it as "conscientiousness." Today zhong means "loyalty" but not in the classical Chinese apparently.

This passage (Analects 4:15) says

"The Master said, 'Ts'an, there is a single thread binding my way together.'

Tseng Tzu assented.

After the Master had gone out, the disciple asked, 'What did he mean?'

Tseng Tzu said, 'The way of the Master consists in doing one's best and in using oneself as a measure in to gauge others. That is all.'"

Notice that it's interesting that zhong should be used together with Shu (恕 or using oneself as a measure to gauge others). There are two other passages, I believe, that puts them together again. Since moral effort is best assessed from one's own first-person perspective, we seem to be our own best moral judges in many cases, if we can be honest with ourselves. And in judging others, Confucius seems to be saying that we should judge others according to whether or not they have accomplished the ideal of zhong. Many times, this is quite difficult to attain any sort of real accuracy and sometimes nearly impossible so that Confucius seems to take an inward position to moral assessment so that he is not saying that people like some of his students are not worthy of blame but that only they can really be relatively sure of it. This is a very non judgmental stance. But there are other passages which suggest Confucius was very demanding and critical displaying the morally judgment reactive attitudes towards others. But those instances always seem to be instances where there is more clarity and thus certainty that the instance really were cases of wrongdoing even from an outside non first-person perspective. Such a case is the story of Confucius hitting a student on the head with a cane for being purposefully ignorant and flippant in a serious moral matter. It seems to me that being such is much more clear an instance of not doing one's best because almost anyone can muster enough conscientiousness and moral effort to be more serious in grave matters but it is more indeterminate whether one can suffer under the demands of a rigorous, 3 year mourning period even with substantial effort and conscientiousness.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Why is there something rather than nothing?

This question has been asked not only by children but occasionally (perhaps it should be more often) by philosophers. Wittgenstein considered it of utmost philosophical importance and spiritually importance as well. One answer I have heard a philosopher give (actually, not his answer but another philosopher's) is that since there is only one state nothingness can be in but an infinite number (in fact, uncountably infinite) of states of existence (at least something) can be in, existence is far more probable.

But my objection to this is analogous to Kant's objection to the use of existence as a property; it's not a property but a condition for having properties. Complete nonexistence or nothingness is not a "state," rather, existence is a condition for all possible states while complete nonexistence is not one of any of those possible states.

It might then be said that existence and non existence are metastates and if so, then there are just two metastates. If both are equally probable then it just so happens that there is existence.

Moral effort

One of my favorite passages in the Analects is the one where Confucius is asked whether one of his students behaved badly and against filial piety when he refused to mourn the deaths of his parents for the prescribed time and in accordance to all the ritual procedures. Confucius responded that only the student himself knew the answer and that the answer depended on his efforts to act rightly in the face of contingent circumstances. I can't remember the exact reference to this passage but if Carl or Jeremy knows I'd appreciate it if they post it in the comments section. D.C. Lau in his introduction to his translation of the Analects says that this passage is one of a few paramount o the understanding of the Analects.

Confucius seems to be making a statement about moral effort and "trying one's best" and its relationship to moral responsibility. I don't see much literature at all in moral responsibility on moral effort. I wonder why because I think it is one of the most illuminating ideas shedding light not only one responsibility conditions but offers the glimpse to a compatibilist analysis of free will.

Here are some implications of what such an analysis might look like in regards to the free will debate. Many incompatibilists think that for us to be free and responsible in our moral actions, we would need to have the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP) or the ability to do otherwise. Now some compatibilists have tried to come to a version of how this principle may be possible/coherent and true when determinism is also true. I will make a later post on this from angle but here I will focus on moral effort's contribution.

Moral effort looks at counter-factuals to analyse when someone could have done otherwise. X is responsible for some act a whenever he did a but could have done otherwise had he made more effort to. We judge our own actions and others by this kind of counter-factual all the time. Our own guilt much of the time stems from this feeling that we could have done otherwise had we made more effort but didn't do so causing some great undesirable effect one us or others. Consider that this status is both self reflective and completely made without consideration to the truth of determinism or indeterminism. Moreover, our guilt seems to have propositional content; that is, we can either be true or false regarding our guilt. Certain conditions make it appropriate to feel guilty, others not. Certain mitigating or absolving conditions make it wrong to feel guilty or not guilty when other conditions were in place.

I suggest we do this when we feel or believe that we could have done otherwise had we applied more effort but did not in fact do so. Alternative possibilities were there which we are responsible for because we did not apply more effort to make it obtain. Even if we were to find out that global determinism is true and that we in fact could not have done otherwise, we would likely still feel guilty because our inability to do otherwise says something about our moral character or moral psychological status at that time. That status is worthy of moral blame or not and is subject to normative demands to change.

Your capabilities for certain acts are within a possibility horizon. The possibilities inside are contingent on your efforts and whether or not you choose to do it. What is outside of that horizon, you cannot do not matter how much effort you put in. You are not responsible for anything falling outside.

Consider this scenario using effort to analyse doing otherwise in some other non moral way. Michael Jordan misses a slam dunk in practice. He blames himself for missing it because had he made more effort (to jump higher), he could have made the dunk. That much is obvious. He feels "guilty" and pissed at himself irrespective of the truth of determinism because his guilt is not directed at the belief of some metaphysical reality being true or false but at his own psychological status at the time which he now believes worthy of blame. It displayed indolence and a lack of care for improvement which Jordan loathes and is against his highest values (especially his work ethic and value for the sport). So he is blaming himself for not doing otherwise in some sense but that blame is has nothing to do with doing otherwise in some indeterministic sense but in a counter-factual sense which then directed at his state of mind at some time causing the miss. This state of mind is subject to choice, his values, change through future effort, etc. Notice that determinism/indeterminism is factored out of the equation here. It is elbowed out of considerations.

Notice also that this look is context sensitive. Certain obtaining conditions may make it harder (requiring more effort) than others to do the same action (a nagging ankle sprain, e.g.). But I think that context sensitivity is a desideratum here.

Now consider Danny Devito. He tries to dunk a basketball and misses by several feet. Now he does not blame himself at all (if he is honest with himself) even though he could of as well applied more effort at that time. Why? Because even if the counter-factual was true and he had applied all his little heart could muster, he would have still missed by several feet because he is short and fat, not tall and athletic like Jordan. No matter how much he values basketball and has a committed work ethic, he will never dunk a basketball. He has nothing to blame himself for even if he has these internal qualities of trying his hardest and value for playing basketball.

Our internal sense of our own capacities are prima facie accurate most of the time especially in regards to some matters. Now our accuracy is irrelevant to the truth conditions of whether we could have done otherwise had we applied more effort. One is a epistemic limitation and the other a metaphysical one. The importance for free will will be the metaphysical one while the one relevant for moral considerations will be for epistemic and metaphysical. Free will is irrelevant to whether or not we believe we could have done otherwise; we either have it or we don't. We could be mistaken in believing we have it as some philosophers and many neuroscientists scientists (mistakenly) think. Analogously, Danny Devito have an overblown sense of his own basketball prowess if he feels guilty at missing the dunk the same way Jordan feels. His guilt would be mistaken, misplaced much as someone who though he had killed someone in cold blood later found out that he was hypnotized into thinking so. His guilt stems from a deluded belief. We could be mistaken in believing we don't have it as well. Notice that I have provided with the help of Confucius the truth conditions of doing otherwise (PAP) through a moral effort analysis which may partially provide a complete look at freedom as well.

Implications of this look at moral effort. I would need to flesh out this analysis substantially and still I don't think I would have a complete analysis of free will and moral responsibility because I think these are cluster concepts. there are many things we mean by freedom and being responsible either character wise of for some particular action. But I do think that moral effort explains much of freedom and responsibility in the morally relevant cases. This is especially the case when you consider the fact that we have privileged access to our own capacity to do otherwise had we given more effort. Now sometimes we could be wrong but the fact that we could be genuinely wrong (or right depending on actual particular circumstances of the case) provide the metaphysical criterion for PAP. Morally relevantly, since our own access is privileged, that means we are more accurate in assessing our own case of when we could have done otherwise than other people from a non first person perspective in evaluating us. The possibility of moral inaccuracy in assigning blame, guilt, laudation, etc even in our own evaluations from the first person perspective is unfortunate but may be something we just have to deal with if we are ever going to attempt a just and moral society. Much as physical scientists will always have to deal with inaccuracy in their measurements, that doesn't stop them from getting at the truth and doing scientific work, neither should it stop us from doing moral judgments.

But it does show that in many cases, I think, "big cases" such as serious crimes people commit, which people are generally quick to judge, the only person that really knows that he was really responsible and whether he could have done otherwise is the person that committed it for example. We may not have the privileged access to see what the contingent and relevant contextually sensitive circumstances were such that he really could have done otherwise.

However, in other cases where people, at least in our culture are not quick to judge/condemn/blame (and I think these also morally relevant cases) such as when people have atrocious opinions (racist, sexists or violent, etc) but hold on to them despite given evidence against them doing so (they hold on to them because of prejudice and bias, etc), we should be more judgmental because in these cases, it is more accurate to judge whether someone could have done otherwise. Almost anyone could overcome their own prejudice with some (extra) effort it seems to me unless they have some psychologically weird condition (pathological it would have to be) to be prejudiced and not respond to good reasons to abandon their demonstrably falsified views in the face of counter evidence. Thus for those who believe e.g., that Iraq has WMD and links to al Qaeda despite all the facts against it, they should be blamed and appropriately sanctioned for having such an unjustified belief but our culture is loathe to blame them because (perhaps due to our liberal and post modern sensibilities) we tend to think that everyone has a right (liberal) to their opinions and that everyone's opinions are worth as much as any other's (post modern). But people don't realize how much harm irrational beliefs cause in the world. In this example, I don't think the coalition governments of the US, UK, Australia, etc would have gone to war had public opinion been against it (over 70% of Americans supported the Iraq war at the start according to almost all polls). 1.5 Million Iraqis died so far (and counting) as a result according to some respectable sources. It's reasonable that these people would have changed their views (and I think there is good psychological and sociological evidence to support this) had their friend's, family, media, etc who are not so biased and prejudiced been more condemnatory in demanding epistemic integrity from those who do hold irrational beliefs.

OTOH, in many cases where people are predisposed to blame such as in murder cases etc, we are in many times unsure not only if the person truly did it but what his or her conditions psychological or otherwise were at the time to warrant a just condemnation. He or she might not have been able to do otherwise even with more effort. It might be impossible to make an accurate judgment. Many times, we don't blame someone even if they could have done otherwise had they given more effort because such would have been too onerous on them to ask for such efforts. In such a case, I think it is community-relative whether or not blame is justified. Some communities may require more moral effort to be a part of that community than others and if the equilibrium for moral effort in that society warrants that the individual could have applied a certain degree of moral effort more and had he done so past that community relative benchmark, the desired effect would have been obtained, then that would be a justified case where the community can blame him for his actions (or omission to do something as the case may be). In other cases where no reasonable and normal individual (for that society) is expected to put that much effort in to surpass some threshold the community itself has in place from what is normally and reasonable expected of each other, people might be justifiably loathe to cast the first stone. Individuals may be excused though not exonerated for the action. OTOH, I think when someone tries their best and still cannot help doing something morally required of them (by compulsion perhaps) or omits to doing something required when they have tried their best effort then we would say that this person is exonerated from the act because it "wasn't his fault". He had no other choice, he was forced, etc.

In Confucius's case, he did not judge his student probably because he did not know or know for beyond reasonable doubt to condemn because the extenuating circumstances were not transparent and evident to him. Had the student been in dire financial straights and could not afford to take 3 years off work to mourn in accord with ritual propriety? Might there have been some other thing the student suffered through at the time that Confucius did not know and was not in the position to know which expiated or mitigated blame? Maybe, maybe not. He felt (and perhaps judiciously so) he was not in the right position to know.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Coincident objects

In an earlier post I said that I did not think it strictly correct to say that persons are or identical to their functional brains (more specifically, their cerebrums). My reasoning is as follows:

There is a principle of metaphysics that seems correct and I think most metaphysicians would agree. It is Liebniz's law of identity or the indiscernibility of identicals. Expressed in 2nd order logic, it says

Basically, it just says that an object has all the properties it has. That seems so true to be trivial and it is. There is a stronger principle of identity that is the converse of that principle which says that if objects a and b has all (both genuine and "mere-cambridge") properties in common then they are identical. This later principle is a little more controversial as a famous paper by Max Black but this last principle is not relevant to this case.

Since the first principle thus cannot be faulted. But consider this example by Gibbard: Let's say that there is a lump of clay called "Lumpl" which is created at exactly the same time as a statue which is made out of that clay. We will call this statue "Goliath." They are also destroyed at a same later time. Now both the statue and the lump of clay exists at exactly the same time and occupy the same region of space. Thus are they the very same object or alternatively, does Lumpl=Goliath?

If you say "yes" then there seems to be properties which each has that the other does not have. Lumpl, for example, has the modal property that it can survive being stepped on but if Goliath is stepped on, he will be destroyed. Goliath has the property that it can survive the loss of one of its arms but Lumpl will not survive that loss of clay. Thus this seems to be a case where we either say that they are not the same object even though they occupy the same region of space and time or we say that the Leibniz's principle is false, i.e., that something can have properties it does not have. I think the later is nonsensical and so we should accept the former.

For similar considerations, I think persons are coincident with their functional cerebrums but are not strictly speaking, identical with them much as Goliath is coincident with Lumpl but not strictly speaking identical with it. There seems to me to be good metaphysical and practical ethical reasons not to identify persons with their brains but to see them as coincident together.

But it has occurred to me that one possible way to flesh this out better is to view Lumpl and Goliath (or other coincident objects) as having different essential properties. We know that one can have different inessential properties and still be the same thing. You may have been taller or shorter than you are in some possible scenario and still be you. You might have liked the color blue instead of hating it and you'd still be you. But your essential properties will remain. Changing them will change the truth of the identity conditions.

Thus for Lumpl, called it now "l," it may have a set of essential conditions which we can express as a conjunction of sentences ascribing its essential properties: [P1(l) & P2(l) & P3(l)...] with P1, P2, P3... all being essential properties of Lumpl. This conjunction we can call "E." It will include the property of survival after being stepped on among one of its conjuncts. E will be disjunctive with some string of sentences call it "In" with In itself just a string of disjunctive sentences of its inessential properties, Q1, Q2, Q3.... Thus In=[(Q1(l) v Q2(l) v Q3(l)...]. Thus E v In will be all the properties, essential and inessential, Lumpl has and will identify it in this world and all possible worlds (complete description of Lumpl) while E by itself will identify it in all possible worlds (essential description). Some properties may be indefinite whether it is or is not essential, however.

When we look at it like this, coincident objects don't seem to be that counter-intuitive and odd. Two coincident objects have different essential properties so for Lumpl, the property of survival after getting stepped on will be in its essential sentential conjunctive string but for Goliath, it will not be. Descriptively, they are thus different. I don't see there to be any more difficulties when viewed this way than mereological objects. A car's tires are part of the car but the tires are not identical with the whole car. They share overlapping regions of space. The only difference in coincident objects is that they share all their occupied space instead of partially as in mereological objects.

Moral absolutism

Judith Jarvis Thomson has once given this example of a moral absolute truth: "It is wrong to torture babies for fun." She claims that in no possible world is this false and hence, not culturally or even possible world relative. Anyone that disagrees simply don't know what "moral" or "torture" or "babies" mean. In fact, I suspect she thinks that this is tantamount to an analytic truth much like squares have four sides is true in all possible worlds. Anyone that disagrees with that don't seem to understand "square" or "sides" or maybe "four" the intended way.

However, there may be possible but highly unlikely conditions where it is acceptable or permitted to infringe a baby's right in such a way. Consider some scenario much like that told by short story (can't remember the name) by Ursula LeGuin in which a people on some planet tortures an innocent child for fun. Now consider that these people know that by some weird set of circumstances and obtaining conditions that their fun in such a way is the only cause of their own existence. Or alternatively, by having fun in such a way, it leads to (by some weird causal mechanism in their world, say) their only way of avoiding an eternity of damnation and horrendous suffering for all of them.

Thus, it may now seem that they may torture the baby for fun if only ultimately to avoid some even far worse calamity.

But since this will be their ultimate and not immediate aim, we may be able to save that absolutist claim by tacking on to it the additional clause that the "fun" must be their ultimate aim instead of some instrumental aim or means to some further aim.

Perhaps there are other moral absolutist claims but just because there are does not mean that there are no relativist claims as well which are true only relative to some moral group and if there are some of these kinds of relativist claims, it does not mean that morality even in these cases are not objective.

Monday, December 13, 2010


I mentioned in earlier posts that two major problems with the traditional (and all non traditional definitions ASAIK) of lying are problematic when it comes to cases of equivocation and implicature. My intuition strongly tells me that equivocations are lies when they are told with the intent to deceive but I am not so sure about implicature. My intuitions does not seem to be against implicatures with the intent to deceive as being lies. It may be a case by case thing with some cases being more intuitively lies than others.

There seems to be a way to get past the problems with a slight tweak of the definition. One can define lying (a modification of the traditional definition) thus:

X lies iff X expects (or believes) his interlocuter Y to interpret X's expression "P" to be expressing a proposition which X does not actually believe (or believes to be false) and for the purpose of deceiving Y into believing that P.

This definition may be adapted mutatis mutandis to other definitions of lies such as Fallis' which does not have a deception criterion but replaces it with a (intentional) violation of a Gricean linguistic norm to speak truthfully.

Under my definition, both equivocation and implicature are classified as lies. Why? The difference is in the reflective and psychologically transparent nature of the definition because it reflects what someone expects his interlocuter to be interpreting what he said.

To see this definition in action, here is a scenario involving equivocation.

John owes Jill $800 and has no intention to pay her back. Ever. He also has no cash on him now but has enough in his bank account to pay her. Jill sees John walking down the street and asks to be remunerated for the loan. John says "I have no money on me, but I will go to the bank". Jill agrees to wait for him. Instead of going to The People's Bank of Kentucky, John's bank (qua financial institution), John goes sun-bathing by the river bank and thus reneges on his obligations to pay Jill back once again.

Has John lied? Yes according to my definition. Under the traditional definition or the non traditional ones, it is indeterminate if John lied. Other definitions focus on what proposition was expressed which is ambiguous in the case of equivocation. But since John expected and intentionally made it so that Jill would interpret "bank" as John's financial institution and not some other meaning of that term for the purpose of deception, he lies. In other words, since John believes that Jill interprets "I will go to the bank" as the proposition I will go to my financial institution [presumably to get her money] (which John does not believe he will be doing) and not "I will go to the river bank" [to sunbathe] and for the purpose of deceiving her, he has lied.

Now take implicature. Consider our scenario above with a slight twist. John goes to his bank [financial institution] but instead of withdrawing money to pay Jill, he stands around the lounge for a bit and returns home. John implied that he is going to the bank to get money to pay Jill but what he said explicitly to her did not make mention of the rest. Under my definition, John is lying because he expects Jill to interpret what he says as "I will go to the bank to get the money to pay you back" and not as "I will go to the bank and do nothing but lounge around."

I thought of this definition when I remembered the reading of David Lewis's seminal book on linguistic conventions called "Convention: A Philosophical Study". In this work, Lewis uses the work done by the theoretical economist Thomas Schelling on focal point equilibria to solve for game theoretic "coordination problems" in socio-economic conventions. Lewis used it to analyse linguistic and other kinds of social conventions. In Lewis's work, he came up with the idea of "common knowledge" which employs the kind of reflective and psychologically transparent expectations and beliefs required for establishing linguistic/social conventions. His idea of common knowledge, however, has a theoretically possible indefinite number of iterations (I expect my interlocutor to expect that I expect that he expects that I expect and so on). Theoretically this could go on forever (and nothing will thus be accomplished) but rarely in actual socio-linguistic circumstances it goes beyond a few iterations. My definition stops at the second iteration. X expects or believes that his interlocuter Y believes X to be expressing some proposition P.

There may be cases where my definition draws the line too far and includes implicature scenarios as involving lies when they intuitively clearly should not be. I can't think of any off the top of my head but I suspect it so.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

"flourishing metric"

In the previous post I suggested that what I called a "flourishing metric" be used to compare when something is over or under valued in the market outside of the value or price set by supply and demand forces in the market. I realized that one way to do with may be to work off of Martha Nussdaum's "capabilities approach" which is built on original Sen's idea. Both Nussbaum and Sen are influenced by the Aristotelian notion of flourishing.

So I decided to look up Nussbaum's capabilities approach to refresh my memory after having been years since I've read her "Frontiers of Justice." Nussbaum has a open list of ten or so "capabilities" that defines human flourishing. I wikied "capabilities approach" and it turns out that economists are actively trying to obtain such a metric.

Perhaps things like housing can be assessed to their objective quantifiable value based on the contribution they contribute to flourishing or, relatedly, our "capabilities". Any value over and above that value may be construed as over evaluation (such as due to greedy profiteering, etc)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Homo Economicus (Rational Man?) and the 2007 economic collapse

In this Nova special, economists talk about what led up to the global economic melt down. Two major economic schools of thought are at each other. One school which posits as one of its fundamental principles is that Man is essentially rational and that almost all his decisions behave as if they are rationally calculated based on the evidence given him and for the benefit of his self interests. This school of thought is most prominently associated with the Chicago School. The contending school works on 50 years of behavioral economics posits that much of human behavior and decision making is irrational.

At one point in the film, one of the Chicago School guys tried to defend the thesis in regards to the housing bubble. When that bubble burst, many economists thought that it burst because housing was over valued and it became that way when greed got a hold of individual private investors and banking professionals. There was a hysteria of greed and people bought houses or properties not based on rational deliberation of carefully calculating the risks of buying houses measured against the potential profits of the investment but on motives stemming from competition with other investors and greed.

Well, the Chicago guy basically called the collapse a "shift in value." That is, he thought that the collapse was simply a market regularity that reflected a change in interests/desire of buyers and sellers.

That seems preposterous to me. But it also seems that his justification is based on the idea that value of things like property is market relative. They lack a value outside of the supply and demand of particular markets at particular times. This is a kind of relativism. There's no such thing as being over priced or under priced in the market in such a scheme because the market always determines the proper price. Its value simply is its price as determined by such market forces.

For those like me, it seems that there is such a thing as over/under-valuation of things like houses. What determines their worth or value "objectively" outside of market forces? I think it is their relative contribution to human flourishing. This idea of flourishing is originally Aristotelian but developed also by the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen. Houses are valuable for living in but do they have any value beyond that? Some values are not potentially valuable to flourishing. Some things are desired by society and thus have high market value but do not contribute to human flourishing. Take cocaine. Or maybe IPODs. I don't know.

The basic idea behind flourishing is that human beings are embodied beings which have a natural (thus evolutionary) history. Some circumstances are good for our wellbeing and others not so. Which determines what is largely determined by our physical and psychological constitution which is largely (though not completely since some psychological elements are culturally or individually particular) fixed by our basic human nature.

Things like education has value outside of their worth in the market place. We can imagine a society of philistines who do not value education but does value fancy shoes. In their market, good shoes are very valuable but books are nearly worthless. A Chicago guy might say that books are of little value in that market and thus worth only what they are willing to pay for them which in their case means very little. But it seems to me that these philistines are paying too little for their books. That is, they have under-valued their books, both monetarily and in more familiar senses. Their shoes do not contribute much to their wellbeing but their books has tremendous potential to do so. Moreover, they have made an irrational decision to value their shoes more than their books.

I'm not an economist but it seems to me that this is the way to go but the next part will be how we could obtain a quantitative science of valuation according to the notion of flourishing so that accurate measures of value can be assessed on some flourishing metric (a flourishing dollar standard perhaps). Certainly, psychology, medical science, sociology, economics and anthropology has a thing or two to say about what contributes to human wellbeing but there needs to be something more robust and concrete so that this will be applicable in economics. I don't know how to develop this metric but it's worth thinking about.

Movie: Possible Worlds

If you haven't gotten a chance to see this movie, I highly suggest it. It concerns modal realism and the brain-in-the-vat thought experiment. How unusual is that in a fictional film?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The contingency problem

I've always thought about the contingency of my beliefs. Would I believe the things I do had I been raised differently or some other life circumstance had turned out differently? Would I deny my current beliefs? I think thinking about the contingency of one's epistemic status is a valuable exercise. It undermines the epistemic hubris from which many of us think somehow we have privileged epistemic access (whether be it from natural intellectual endowments or cultural or ethnic centricity etc) that is so common today and I think, contributes to a unbelievable amount of evil in the world.

This is a debate from Adam Elga, Joshua Schecter, and Roger White on this problem.

I liked the way that Roger White framed the problem. At times it seems that Elga is completely confused about what White and Schecter are talking about and seem to give examples that are irrelevant to the problem.

For example, Elga's proposed analogy of being hungry at some time and buying more food at the market when one is hungry does not seem to be wholly relevant to the contingency problem at all. One subjective state of not being hungry at time t does not conflict with one's status as being hungry at some later time t' however, one's belief that P is most certainly in epistemic conflict with one's belief that ~P had some contingent circumstance turned out differently in one's past upbringing. Elga seemed to have wholly missed the issue.

Elga's other example of someone telling another person who has done a math calculation that the result of said calculation is dependent on the color of the pad used in doing it is also seemingly irrelevant. Schecter I think hit it on the head when he mentioned that the correct response is not one of doubting or even lessening the degree of confidence in one's belief when that (absurd) response is given to one's belief that calculations are accurate on purely formulaic procedures and not to the color of paper used in that calculation. Rather it raises an appropriate Wittgensteinian uncertainty of the linguistic context or sanity of the person who raised the claim. If someone said that to me, I would not put into doubt my or even his belief about what determines the reliability of calculations but rather, whether or not he even understand the words "calculation" or "color" etc, as I do. His mental wellbeing is also up for questioning, not my beliefs of the reliability of calculation being independent of the color of the pad. In such a case, it may very well be, literally, crazy talk. In other words, my doubt in such cases are blocked from being epistemically transparent; it shifts its focus from judging my and his beliefs to one of a disorientation concerning the psycho-linguistic context in which I find myself. This shift in focus from that of transparency to opacity is I think wholly epistemically justified. (Wittgenstein's actual example (given in 1949) was that of someone who insists that he was "on the moon" yesterday.)

As you can see middle into the discussion when Elga raised his (objections?) points, Schecter and White seem visibly puzzled by them. Perhaps this is an instance of such epistemic opacity!

It is true that evidence can be conflicting and that contingent factors can determine whether we are given one set of evidence affirming some belief or some other set of relevant evidence denying them. I think Elga at one point makes this claim. But if P is true (when P is like most non philosophical claims which can be settled by science or other relatively definitive methods), evidence for P will more likely be found than evidence for ~P so that is not really an instance of contingency especially when you notice that the example isn't focused on people differing opinions and beliefs per se but the confidence that they hold their own belief to or their tendency to see their own views as somehow privileged.

Though I don't think the issue of contingency philosophically that interesting itself (though it does have interesting philosophical implications especially with virtue epistemology I would imagine), it is important that people contemplate that they may be wrong and should thus be open to alternative viewpoints and change their views if better supported beliefs are given. I also think that the problem does not affect philosophers's beliefs on philosophical topics as much as most people because philosophers tend to argue about issues which very often can be very well supported on a variety of perspectives at odds with each other. That's one reason why philosophy so difficult; there's plenty of evidence to support different perspectives roughly equally.

And many philosophers realize this and are comfortable in discussing with each other the issues and questioning how well supported their beliefs are and whether or not to change their own views, etc. Like Kripke's introduction to his Naming and Necessity famously said that his view expressed in the work is most certainly wrong like most views in the philosophy of language but he still believes it is the best supported view given so far. I think many philosophers have this open attitude to much of their philosophical beliefs viz a viz those of their colleagues. So I think philosophers, in general, already have this epistemic virtue of humility but that might not be so of most people who do not form, hold (sometimes in the face of overwhelming counter proof) and change their beliefs on support from evidence given them but on those irrelevant contingent factors.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Some philosophers think prepunishment makes compatibilism philosophically hard to swallow. If we know someone will commit a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, why shouldn't we be able to punish them before they commit it? A compatibilist seems to have no principled way of avoiding implementing prepunishment despite its unattractiveness to our moral sensibilities.

I once argued in a paper that it's not the fact that we have a Kantian respect someone's decision making faculties to make the choice their own (that is, until the time they actually make it) that makes prepunishing them so distastful to our moral sensibilities but our hardwired Strawsonian psychological constitution which can't help but input moral demands and capacities on them and when they violate such demands, produce the reactive attitudes on our behalf. Our hardwired reaction prevents us from assessing the thought experiments involving prepunishment the way they are intended.

But now I think there may be some other reason as well also set apart from Kantian respect for people's decision to commit the crime "up to the last moment".

Consider two people, A and B. Both are equally good at shooting a gun and have equal evil motivations at killing a rival.

A points a gun at his rival and shoots. He hits his rival and kills him.

B points and shoots in exactly the same way and for the same reasons and motivations as A and by some turn of chance, a strong wind blows his bullet a fraction of an inch off target thereby just barely missing B's rival.

Both are caught by authorities and charged with crimes. A with 1st degree murder which carries a 25 year sentence and B with attempted murder which only carries a 5 year sentence.

Both did the same thing but in A's case, he kills his rival. Why should the law and our moral sentiments treat the two cases differently when the difference (wind) was out of the control of both? A seem to deserve harsher punishment and is guilty of worse but has done nothing that was in his control worse than B. If a certain theory of action is correct, then A did the exact same thing as B but receives far harsher punishment and moral judgment. Notice that we only know what to charge the defendant after the crime takes place, not after when he has completed the action he has control over.

I'm not sure why we intuitively judge this to be the case and if such a judgment is sound.

This seems to be where the very same intuitions come into cases of prepunishment. We are hesitant to judge because we doubt that someone could so be determined or destined to commit a crime. We don't know if a crime will be commited (or what kind it will be) till after it has been. This is a bias and prejudice against the existence of determinism or perhaps our predictive abilities rather than a bias against compatibilism per se. This bias prevents us from accessing the scenarios of prepunishment as they were intended to be, I think.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I posted this on a facebook group a while ago. It's what I think about the moral status of abortion.

I think the issue isn't whether or not a fetus is a human; they clearly are in the biological sense. The issue is whether or not they are persons and have the requisite rights and obligations accorded to such moral beings. Being human and a person is the distinction that is crucial to separate and which people from both sides of the debate often confuse.

Many humans do not have obligations and rights accorded to persons. Consider those who are brain dead but whose bodies are kept alive by artificial means. The persons once inhabiting their human bodies are dead in the legal and philosophical sense because they have no higher brain activity but their human bodies are kept alive. It is the higher brain activity that distinguishes a brain-dead individual whose body (human organism) is kept alive, and a fully functional person. A human kept alive in such a way will breath, have a pulse, fight infections, grow hair and nails, regulate body temperature, etc using the function of their lower and mid brains. But since these structures have nothing to do with consciousness, the individual has ceased to be with us. They have permanently lost the structures responsible for consciousness and an inner life.

We can also think of thought experiments with brain transplants. It seems that the brain is where the seat of the soul lies and once a brain (more specifically, upper brain or cerebrum) is transplanted to a new body, the individual person becomes transplanted to a new body as well. That seems to be our intuition regarding persons. Our soul is not situated in the rest of the body but in the brain.

If the seat of the soul is in the functional cerebrum, then an individual person does not exist until a functional cerebrum exists. This occurs after the 16th week of gestation (actually of fertilization between egg and sperm more specifically which is slightly different meaning but hardly relevant). > 95% of all abortions in the developed world occurs before this point. It is only then that there is sufficient neuro-eletrical activity begins in the cerebrum. Some developmental neuroscientists say that it occurs later at around the 18-20th week (>98% of all abortions occur before the 20th week) but we may want to be cautious and give the earlier date.

Some neuroscientists say that even more specifically, the seat of consciousness is the neocortex structure which is the outer layer of the cerebrum but this is recently invalidated 9at least for some individuals) by the existence of some people such as some in "vegetative" states (though most in these states are unconscious) do not have such structures and yet seem to be (by brain imaging experiments) fully responsive and conscious persons "locked in". That is, they respond to verbal and tactile stimuli but cannot respond physically but their brains behave in ways indicative of conscious responses to said stimuli.

Some say that what matters is consciousness itself and we only become conscious not after we have a functional cerebrum alone but after integration of the functional cerebrum with the rest of the central nervous system which occurs at around the 22-26th week of gestation. However, even if this is so, I still prefer the functional cerebrum criterion since I think we may have rights qua persons even before we become conscious much as unconscious people in comas seem to have rights only accorded to persons. That is, I believe that we should take the existence of a physically functional *entity* or physical structure responsible for consciousness rather than the consciousness itself as the criterion for the existence of that person. For technical reasons, I do not believe that a person actually is (i.e., identical) with their cerebrum but they do coincide (are coincident objects) together. I think persons are phase sortals (or phase objects) rather than substance sortals (or objects) of their functional brains.

Think of it like this. If you were to run your biological development backwards and started to get younger and younger eventually turning into a fetus etc, at what point in time would you have stopped being you? I think most people would not identify with a fetus that lacks a cerebrum but only relatively simple brain structures that regulate heart rate, breathing, body temp, etc. In fact, I think most people wouldn't even identify with someone in the very advanced stages of alzheimer's when they have nearly completely lost all long term memory and ability to learn. though they may be barely conscious in the sense that they can respond to simple verbal cues and have retain some reflexes, etc, the person they once were seem to be gone in very advanced stages.

However, even if we say that a person exists after the 16th week as I think the evidence suggests, that still doesn't mean some cases (though not all) of abortion after that time shouldn't be performed. Rape is a good example because even though the fetus is a person, the person made to carry that person is not obligated to do so. The rapist though, may be argued to be obligated to prevent from dying or killing to that fetus OTOH. that raised additionally interesting problems in its own right. It is supererogatory and very nice of her if she chooses to carry through terms but she may not be morally obligated to do so if she chooses not to.

Informative and entertaining debate between Singer and Slote

Here's the debate. Peter Singer wrote a famous article about 40 years ago titled "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1972), pp. 229-243).

The basic conclusion is that we are under the same moral obligations to donate as much money, time and effort to relieve the world's desperately needy as we are in saving a drowning child in a shallow pond we happen to come across on a stroll through the park. We will ruin our nice cloths in pulling the child out of the water but will obviously not incur any further harm to ourselves as the pond is shallow. To not do the saving is a gross moral wrong. Singer argues that not donating all we can possibly afford in saving the needy of the world from starvation and preventable disease is a comparable wrong.

Slote, I think, hit it right on the head when he basically argued that evaluations of actions must take into account motivations and character traits. There is no way around that. This is (partly) why our legal system takes into consideration malice or other intentions in choosing the appropriate the kinds of crime to classify an act which violates the law and the severity of punishment in punishing that act. In no way is a person who refuses to donate money displaying as bad a character trait or motivation as someone who refuses to save a drowning child at minimal cost to himself. The later is almost certainly displaying monstrously evil motives and has a very bad character and hence, worse from a moral evaluative perspective. The moral badness comparison gives much of the original argument Singer uses much of its oomph.

OTOH, I thought Singer gave devastating arguments to Slote's reduction of the problem to the trait of empathy. Slote argues that we are justified to blame those who refuse to save the drowning child more than those who refuse to donate (which does fall into more accord with our intuitions) because the former shows a greater lack of empathy. So while I agree with Slote that motives and character evaluation must come into play here and elsewhere in moral evaluations of action, it can't possibly come down to just an evaluation of empathy. Singer's argument here is similar to the one I gave in my critical review of Slote's book, "The Ethics of Care and Empathy."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Experimental philosophy (XPhi) has received some press in the last few years. I am skeptical of its purported powers to offer insight on philosophical questions so far. Maybe in the future there will be novel and interesting ways that do offer insight into the philosophical questions but I don't see the way it is being used now doing that.

XPhi uses surveys to ask a "representative sample" ("the Folk") of the population what their philosophical intuitions are in the hypothetical thought experiments used by philosophers to generate intuitions used in philosophical debates. If the Folk's intuitions tend to lean one way, it is interpreted by XPhi proponents as some (but not conclusive) evidence that that way is the right way. In other words, XPhi philosophers are sometimes suspicious of their own intuitions and will give certain weight to the intuitions of the Folk. And there is evidence from XPhi that the intuitions of philosophers tend to run differently than the intuitions of the Folk on many issues.

An example of one instance where XPhi experiments has used to give credence for one perspective over another in contemporary debate is the debate over what are lies. Don Fallis has used experiments showing that the Folk consider bald-faced lies to be real lies. This is counter to many philosopher's claims that bald-faced lies are not lies because they don't involve an element of deception as is required with genuine lying. Experiments show that the Folk considers bald-faced lies to be lies contrary to the classical definition of lies accepted by most philosophers. Fallis has adduced this as evidence that the classical definition must thus be false. My reasons that XPhi as it currently is used is not that interesting and relevant to philosophical questions are the following:

1. Many of the samples used in XPhi experiments are not representative samples (they are the undergrad students of XPhi philosophers who are taking phil 101 type classes).

2. Much like individuals often get similar but different concepts confused, it's not that much of a stretch that sometimes, a majority of the population will similarly conflate two different but (superficially) similar concepts.

3. There may be very good reasons why philosophers have the intuitions they do. They may do so because they realize a subtle difference that the Folk do not that must be upheld in any definition. There are good reasons for including a deception criteria in lying for example as I have pointed out before and also see here.

4. It's been known for a long time by cultural psychologists and anthropologists that surveys, intra and especially inter cultural ones, can vary widely in the responses given simply by changing subtle wordings in the questions asked or the context in which they are given. The answers sometimes do not reflect true differences in cognitive thought processes and profiles but rather in "surface" linguistic differences in how words and scenarios are interpreted.

Perhaps one day XPhi will be used in a way that is insightful but the experiments so far do not seem convincing to me in settling any philosophical issues.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The philosophy of philosophy

This is an interview with professional philosophers about what is philosophy.

Here are a couple of definitions of my own.

1. Philosophy is a systematic attempt to answer the most important questions anyone can ever ask.

2. Philosophy is an attempt at extending all our common sense notions to their logical conclusion and seeing if there are any contradictions that arise. If there are, philosophy's other job is an attempt to see which side of the conflict is more plausible or whether the conflict is due to a conceptual confusion instead of a real conflict.

You're welcome to post your own definitions.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

My review of The Art of the Infinite By Robert Kaplan


Book review of Boghossian's Fear of Knowledge

This book is arguing against relativism, anti-realism and post modernist conceptions of knowledge. I found it clear but did not go far enough into the contemporary literature on the subjects in question.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My review of Computability and Logic: 5th Edition

By Boolos, Jeffrey and Burgess, here. John Burgess, the only surviving author has an errata page. I'm glad to see one minor mistake (that caused quite a bit of confusion for me initially) I noticed in chapt. 23, p. 289 included there after notifying Burgess through email of the error. I feel I have contributed something to society. Yay.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A string theorists gets his ass handed to him

Luboš Motl is a string theorist who was involved in the infamous "string wars" and a prodigious blogger. I had a debate with him on his blog about the aim of science journalism quite recently. Motl is a avowed conservative (and even more obnoxious than the average), global warming skeptic and champion of string theory. He has recently made a post regarding what he believes should be the role of science journalism in response to a Sean Carrol (also a string theorist and blogger) post. That post argued (in support of Ed Yong's article) that journalist should take an active role towards seeking scientific truth. Their goal, like the scientists they report on, should be to seek truth instead of just reporting whatever the scientists say.

Motl's response was overacting and ridiculous arguing that since journalists are too incompetent and lacking in resources to take sides in scientific disputes, they should just report whatever they are told. He relies on some pretty idiotic reasons for this claim such as anecdotal evidence of journalistic incompetence and the supposed intellectual limitations of journalists (based on a website which "converts" GRE scores to IQs). Of course, I agree with his low opinion of journalists' competency in their work but that obviously is not the issue. The issue is what should be the goal of science journalism and whether or not journalists at least have the capability to do that job (not whether most or the average can do it).

Motl doesn't seem to understand the basic mistake he is making: he assumes that all sides can be represented. The fact is that media space is a finite resource, limited by financial, energy, labor resources among journalists and public attention span, education and other cognitive resources in the public and that there is no way to represent all views due to these limitations. Some views will have to be left behind and not reported. Some views will be represented more than others and given more credibility. There's no way to avoid this. Journalists have a duty to only report those sources that are credible enough to warrant attention and give representative coverage and give credibility where its due. The only way to do that is by investigating the different sides of the story and gauging the plausibility of the sides with the available evidence. I responded with my views to his blog. Not surprisingly, Motl responds with the same irrational gibberish bordering on hysteria as usual. You can read the dialog here in the comments section.

I responded to his unfounded rants (replete with strawperson arguments and other fallacies) but he has not posted the responses. I'm not surprised as my responses completely demolishes his naive, and I would argue, fascist and extremely dangerous view of journalism. But since I have saved my responses all my posts are shown below including the ones he does not wish to display on his blog.

Nan said:
I'd never thought I defend a journalist but those advocates of truth-seeking in science journalism should be defended here. Granted, most science journalists are morons and consistently get the facts wrong or misleads the public.

On the other hand, your examples are in general, not appropriate. Of course the vast majority of journalists cannot decide the scientific merits of string theory and other complex problems. But there certainly are many kinds of issues they are or at least should be qualified to judge. Instances of scientific bias, of junk science or bad science which goes against a consensus, or instances of widely accepted misinterpretations of science, etc. That's what seems to be the kind of advocacy of a truth directed approach to science journalism Carrol is suggesting.

Not all science is good science and some are obviously bad science and a competent journalist (or even laymen) should be able to expose it as such. Cranks working at the margins of science often do so with obvious ulterior motivations or other bad reasons reasons even when they happen to be scientists. Financial, political, religious, psychological factors impact scientific integrity because scientists are also humans. A competent journalist should be able to discover many instances of scientific misconduct or bias or incompetence using the resources available to him or her.

So while controversial instances within science regarding complex matters are often outside of the scope of the resources available to journalists to make substantive criticisms and take informed sides, that's not always the case. In fact, a journalists most important job in scientific reporting may be to find the cases where there is relatively obvious bias/incompetence or the misreporting and common misconception regarding some scientific area and taking a stand. This can be done by reporting the landscape of current research in that area and offering the audience the reasons why a particular incorrect view is rejected (ID theory?). They do this with a goal towards truth. They do this with the *help* of the scientific community, by standing on the shoulders of giants, they have the resources to find the truth in many cases especially in the cases of exposing junk, biased, incompetent or misconstrued science. Many issues especially in medical or social science can be evaluated on their scientific merits using resources available to almost anyone.

Nobody is saying that journalists should do experiments etc to settle scientific controversies, including, I think, Carrol. Just that the journalist should be motivated and actively seek to find the truth, not just agree and report whatever he or she is told.

On the IQ issue of journalists, it's their educational resources that should be the issue, not their IQs.

Though I think it ironic that some of the least qualified people are the very people doing this terribly important job of bringing us the news, that doesn't mar the normative claim of Carrol and Yong that journalists *should* get the qualifications to do minimal scientific investigation and evaluation of the available data. Yes, most journalists are probably scientifically illiterate and innumerate but that is due to their lack of training in those areas. There is room for improvement there.

Besides, the data you used is from a website which uses combined GRE verbal and quantitative subtest scores. Adding raw scores like that is not very accurate to gauge intelligence simply for the fact (among others) that the two subtest are normed differently. A 700 verbal means something very different from a 700 quantitative. Due to where that norming falls on the GRE's subtests, liberal arts majors are at a decided disadvantage. You could even make a case that the verbal section is even more g-loaded than the quantitative section (because of the analogies section). Thus a deviational comparison is probably more appropriate. I once did such a comparison adding the z scores for fun and got something like

1. Physics majors
2. philosophy majors
3. math majors
4. comp science majors.
5. mechanical engineering majors

Also, be aware that the data is for those who take the GRE test, not those who have gotten their respective grad degrees. Many don't make it into grad school because they weren't accepted, etc. Many of the humanities grad departments are much more selective than the science and engineering departments (due to a lack of funding for liberal arts) in potential applicants.

Motl said:
NChen, our basic moral principles and our understandings of what is the truth and how it may be looked for are so dramatically incompatible that I don't think it's possible that we will ever agree on anything.

Hi Lubos,

I wouldn't say that they are moral principles that are at issue here; more like epistemic ones.

Motl said:
What does the consensus have to do with science or the truth? The journalists have no business to uncritically parrot a "consensus" or the official opinions of some institutions.

The consensus opinion of the scientific community is what the community considers to be true (and I think with good reason). Opinions that fall outside usually do so due to bias, incompetence, etc. Of course, that's not always the case and small minority views sometimes win out in the end and are eventually proven correct over the consensus but that is very rare.

Motl said:
The media overtaken by official institutions haven't led to anything good in the past. The tight Catholic Church's control over the communication 500 years ago or so delayed the scientific revolution by a century if not more so.

I'd probably agree with that and I never advocated for such “official institutions” to oversee either science or journalism. That would obviously be a bad idea.

Motl said:
In the modern Western society, the very kind of censorship of the scientific journalism that you have advocated has led to the support of the scientifically nonsensical hysterical waves about overpopulation, global warming, climate change, global climate disruption, and many other things that the institutions (and their mindless supporters) use to justify their thirst for more power.

What?! I never advocated censorship of anything. I advocated that journalist should

1. be more competent in science and 2. should seek the truth as opposed to just blindly report what people say. I think they have the resources to do that in many cases even in science though not in all cases. I think you have completely misunderstood my post.

Motl said:
These are no "unfortunate exceptions" in a system that otherwise work. These devastating and destructive pressures on science are pretty much the rule that follows from the dishonest standards for the science media that you defend - the framework in which you want to downgrade the journalists to uncritical parrots repeating and improving news according to the consensus of the most aggressive political movement of their era.

I think you've completely misunderstood my post. In fact, you seem to understand it in ways that are even opposite of what I intended. I think you've also misunderstood Carrol's views as well.

Motl said:
They don't have a clue about inflation, string theory, but they don't know much about the origin of species or healthy food, either. Any attempt to report something else than what the average readers would report (or find relevant) assuming their access to the same data is guaranteed to be a distortion in the longer run.

This is a blanket statement and false for all journalists. There are many science journalists who do know a thing or two about science. I simply said that all journalists should be scientifically literate and should seek the truth with what is available to them. But you seem to be against that and want them to parrot whatever is told them. I'm not sure how just by seeking the truth is making oneself an "activist".

Motl said:
You wrote: "Nobody is saying that journalists should do experiments etc to settle scientific controversies, including, I think, Carrol." Well, I surely am. Anyone who wants to "settle" empirical controversies has to do experiments (or careful theoretical work). That's my main point. If he doesn't do it, he simply cannot ever settle any controversies. Journalists can do experiments for free in their free time.

Surely you are not. Journalists cannot do those experiment because they will never have the training or equipment. But of course he can settle controversies. If a bunch of crank scientists say, e.g., that the LHC will produce small black holes which will destroy the earth and thus we should not fund such a project, a journalist does not have to do any experiments to find out the truth for him or herself. It's already there, been done. The consensus view among physicists (though I'm not a physicist but I do know that most will give you excellent reasons for why this view is absurd) is that the LHC will not cause any such disaster. Such an event is beyond what the science tells us is capable of happening. A journalist can and should find that out for himself and report it to the public why such doomsday worries are unfounded.

As for the GRE scores, all I did was subtract the respective scores of the majors from the mean and divide by the standard deviation to get the z-scores. I added the z-scores to get an additive z-score and compared them. A 700 on the verbal is far more impressive than a 700 on the quantitative subtest. It would be in the 97th percentile while a 700 on the quantitative is only in the 72nd percentile. But if you add the raw scores from the two subtests, a 700 is just a 700, no matter which subtest you get it from.

Motl said:
sorry, it's both an epistemic and moral gap that I see in between us. If someone is deliberately hiding some data that the other person would consider relevant, because of his position determined by a majority of a group or because of any other reason, then he is manipulating him, and I think it is a moral and not just epistemic defect to fool others.

That may be so but I have never advocated for “deliberately hiding data that the other person would consider relevant, because of his position determined by a majority of a group or because of any other reason”. I have no idea where you are getting this from. Maybe you have confused me with some other poster?

Motl said:
Not at all. If someone is a legitimate member of the scientific community, i.e. a scientist, then he is totally well aware of the fact that the scientific truth has nothing whatsoever to do with some majorities in polls. The scientific truth is completely independent of the humans, and if humans can get close to it, they get close to it by the amount, strength, relevance, and accuracy of the scientific arguments, not by forcing majorities to subscribe to something.

I think you have managed to say this one thing correctly. I agree that the scientific truth is “completely independent of humans.” But this has nothing whatsoever to do with what I and what Carrol and what Yong was advocating. So I think you have misunderstood what our claims are.

Motl said:
What you say may be true for political parties or advocacy groups but it is simply not true for the scientific community.

It's true of all the things above. I really think that (perhaps because of your English skills) that you have misread just about everything I mean to say. Though I think I have expressed clearly what I meant, I hope this post makes things clearer. You claim that I “advocate censorship of the statements, opinions, and findings that contradict the "scientific consensus".” Wrong. Can you quote where I alegedly said this? I simply said that the consensus is usually correct and for good reasons. I also said that that was sometimes not the case. The job of journalists should be to report why the consensus feels the way it does and why some contrary view is wrong. In other words, the journalists must give a representative overview based on where the evidence already falls. Their reporting must reflect what scientists actually say and not give obvious cranks for more than their fair share of publicity and credibility. They can only do this with a goal towards the truth. It seems that it is you that is advocating for a blind, and wholly unethical journalistic standard without such a goal. To say that journalists should only blindly accept and report whatever they are told is ridiculous and dangerous. It is fascism.

Blind acceptance by the ignorant journalistic masses is why there is so much public confusion these days regarding things like evolution. People think that the theory of evolution is controversial (“just a theory” meaning just an opinion) in biology when it is not. That's because journalist give cranks more than their fair share of time and credibility without looking into why mainstream biologists have rejected ID or creationists pseudoscience. No fair and accurate overview of the evidence for and against evolution is given, just blind testimony from whomever with a say in the matter.

On your advice, quackery like ID and creationism would be taught in schools along with the theory of eviolution. That's very dangerous and unethical. You are being agnostic about truth. I am being a realist. Journalists do have the capability, once they have been trained and scrutinized enough by the general public, experts, and their colleagues, to do competent reporting of science. They shouldn't just report whatever they are told.

Perhaps you will do better by reading more carefully what I have written or by asking someone (that learned English as a first language) what I meant.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Legal "Realism"

In a past post, I talked about the troubling issue of tense in the legal status of those who commit crimes. We "presume them innocent" until found guilty by a jury or other sanctioned legal body. But this seems like nonsense talk because it's the crime that makes them guilty, not the judgment. Also, I mentioned that the doctrine would not make sense of legal mistakes. Judges, juries, prosecutors, police, etc can make mistakes and thus on occasion, when legal rulings are overturned, it would seem that people can be exonerated in the full meaning of that term.

I just found out that the doctrine that legal rulings by legit legal institutions are what makes the legal standing (and not as opposed to actual state of affairs of events which makes the case of guilt or innocence, e.g.) is called (absurdly) 'legal realism'! This is almost the opposite of moral realism which basically says that the rights or wrongs are not determined by what people or institutions say is right or wrong but posits moral facts of the matter independent of what people say which does determine (are the "truth-makers") of moral claims.

Friday, September 24, 2010

genocide once more

I had a post earlier on the philosophical relevance of the concept of genocide a while back. But it occurred to me that the main reason why I gather genocide is so bad is because it is not only a crime against each individual in a victimized population but it is a crime against the group as such. Thus it would seem to be worse than mere democides or mass murder on a comparable scale because these other kinds of mass killings etc may be seen as nothing over and above the crimes perpetrated against each member of the group added together. Because there is the further crime against a group as well as each individual within it, genocide is a crime over and above the other kinds of -cides. Perhaps this shows that most people's intuitions on the badness of genocide shows that (or at least compels them to admit so) a group of people (which is a collection of individuals and hence an abstract object unlike a person which presumably is a concrete object) as such has certain rights. But what kind of rights do groups have other than those protecting them from genocide and how are they related to individuals' rights within groups?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My review of Zen and the Art of motorcycle Maintenance

Here. This book is like many of the philosophizing books of Ayn Rand. A whole lot of words and no substance. In case there's any ambiguity in my review, I didn't think it was very good.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I can't say I'm surprised about this. The evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser of Harvard has been implicated and found at fault on 8 counts of academic misconduct by Harvard investigators. From what the Times Higher Education has reported, it looks to be a case of academic fraud (as detailed by a letter to the Times from Hauser's research assistant) but Harvard's investigation has not publically stated yet what the misconduct was for. I wrote scathing a book review of his “Moral Minds” book at amazon two years ago.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The structure of happiness

In the previous post, I said that even thought I'd agree with many people that happiness is what gives the ultimate worth, value and significance of life (and hence one "meaning" of life), it is (or more accurately should) not be the purpose of life. But why shouldn't it be?

I think to explain this, we have to ask what is happiness. I think it is distinct from pleasure. Happiness, as I understand it, is intentional (that is, it is "about something" or has an "aboutness" property). Pleasure is not. Pleasure is just good feeling and as such, we can think of pleasure machines which think, feel, do nothing but experience a sense of pleasure. Happiness, OTOH, is always for some reason which the experiencer of that emotion or state or whatever, can tell you. It is dependent on beliefs about the world. We make ourselves care about the world by making ourselves vulnerable to its vicissitudes by adopting certain normative values about the world. Some things should be and other shouldn't. That's what it means to have values. When things that should be the case obtain, we experience a positive attitude based on our allegiance to those state of affairs being valuable. So a happy person can always tell you why she is happy but someone who experiences pleasure may not necessarily do so. Someone who lives their entire lives only for pleasure (a hedonist or wanton) does not seek happiness because they make their own pleasure the object of their desire. The person who seeks happiness, OTOH, seeks it only through the obtaining of a state of affairs which they deem of value. Thus, I think that a hedonist or wanton cannot attain happiness, only pleasure.

But think about what the hedonist does. Her life's goal is to manipulate things, however other things may be, so that she experiences pleasure. How is this from treating oneself (and others) as a means to an end (the experience of pleasure)? So at least on a Kantian note, one would be violating one's duty to self and others by making pleasure as one's ultimate goal in life. But happiness cannot be sought by itself because it is by its very nature, intentional (or perhaps being metaphorical, "transparent") thus obtained only through an indirect route, through the obtaining of the deemed valuable state of affairs.

The meaning of life

Philosophers have nearly forgotten this oldest and perhaps most important question. Other than being the title of a somewhat philosophical movie, it is worth pursuing as a topic of contemplation and it seems to be making a comeback in the discipline.

Before any deep pondering can be done, I think it is important to parse this question as it is ambiguous. By "meaning" I take that the question can really be asking two (or more relevant that I'm not aware of) very different things. So what are the meanings of 'meaning' as it is used in that question?

I suspect that one can either mean, What is the purpose or aim of life? or one may mean, What is the thing that gives life its ultimate worth, value or significance.

These are different questions and confusing them may contribute to a crude analysis of the answer to that question.

I think that the answers to these two questions are different but I suspect for most people and many philosophies they are the same. It makes some sense to say that what gives life it ultimate worth, value or significance is also what people should seek (their purpose). So many people (such as utilitarians, e.g.) may say that the answer is happiness. They may then argue that if happiness is that which gives life it ultimate worth, etc, then that is also what people should ultimately aim for in life and to achieve the greatest amount of it possible. I don't think that should be the case even though I agree that happiness is what gives life its ultimate worth, etc.

Here is where I think the distinction I made comes in handy. I think that the aim or purpose of life is something different; it is to be the best person one can be (a goal approaching a limit). Sometimes, achieving happiness comes at the price of achieving goodness of character (but the relationship is extremely complex). It's hard to imagine how someone who is very virtuous can be happy in an unjust, evil world. Someone who is very good will likely experience lots of resentment, indignation, righteous anger, etc etc, emotions that are not conducive to a happy life. If they are truly good, it is hard to see how they can easily overcome such negative emotions in the face of evil and in fact it is precisely these very emotions which partly make up their good character which block their ability to achieve that happiness. The attainment of happiness sometimes comes at the cost of good character. Some people can live happy lives oblivious or ignorant by choice to the evil surrounding them (such as a Happy German during the Nazi regime). Others, better people, cannot do so.