Thursday, January 28, 2010

Living the Bad Life

I was browsing the Barnes and Noble bookstore today and saw this book. It's got a pretty interesting product description:

Life’s not fair, but there is one sure-fire way to ease your pain–laughing at someone else who had an even worse day than you did.

It brings up a related question I thought about. People who had it bad through unlucky life experiences and such can always find some consolation in knowing that there's someone that had it worse than they have. There's a kind of kindred solace found in the suffering or misery of others if not outright Schadenfreude as well. Hence the old saw that misery loves company (or maybe only the company of those who had it equally or worse?).

But what if you're the unluckiest person in the world and knows it? Then there's no one you can "laugh at" to ease your pain. Perhaps a person in such a situation does best to adopt a theory of modal realism. That way there will always be a sadder and unluckier fella in another possible world to laugh at.

McGinn's New Book

In 2008, Colin McGinn released a book called Mindfucking: A Critique of Mental Manipulation.

Here's my Amazon review of the book:

This essay/booklet is a rather interesting little discussion of what McGinn understands by the vulgar term "MFing." Basically, MFing is like a BS or a lie in that it has an element of deception but the last two things do not necessarily have an element of emotional manipulation so characteristic of MFing.

BSing involves making the hearer falsely think the speaker is competent on some topic under discussion when the speaker really is not. The distinction between a BS and a lie is first elaborated on in Harry Frankfurt's famous essay and booklet "On BS." Truth does not even come into the equation for the BSer; it's irrelevant to the him; he doesn't even acknowledge it. His BS may or may not be true but reality is irrelevant to his purpose of BSing. Liars on the other hand purposely seek to get around the truth, thus he necessarily takes it into consideration (so as to avoid it). The liar seeks to not only make the hearer think he knows what he is talking about but seeks to make him think something that isn't true.

MFing can be a lie or a BS but it always involves an element of furtive emotional manipulation which may sometimes be lacking in cases of BSing and lies. As an example, propaganda seeks to manipulate people's emotions by using falsehoods or half-truths aimed at people's deep-seated fears, biases and prejudices. Certain kinds of advertising also can be understood as perfect examples of MFing. McGinn also gives an excellent literary example from Othello. Iago seeks to implant the seeds of mistrust and jealousy in Othello knowing full well he has a tragic flaw: he is susceptible to bouts of rage and jealousy. Iago does this using deceptive insinuations and half-truths.

Where I felt McGinn's essay was somewhat wanting and unconvincing was in the very speculative last section called, "Extending the concept." McGinn here claims that the less alternative information is available in a society, the more MFing will the people in it be subjected to and the more susceptible they will be towards its effects. While there certainly is some truth to this, McGinn makes a quantitative statement about the amount of diversity in viewpoints publically available while leaving out what, I think, matters even more. And that is the differences in effectiveness or quality (in persuasiveness) of the different viewpoints which are available. You can make two alternative competing viewpoints on some subject widely and equally available but if one of them is far better advertised i.e., is far better at persuading people through emotional manipulation, it will be the message that people take into account while they ignore/dismiss the other viewpoint.

Now McGinn might concede this point but he makes no mention of the degrees of effectiveness of the messages in competition with each other, just their relative amount. Take the D.A.R.E. anti-drug use campaign. It was widely advertised during the and D.A.R.E. programs well funded but there is no evidence they worked that well in curbing childhood substance abuse. Children are MFed by their peers, for example, into drug use many times through things like peer pressure or shaming them despite the constant din they are surrounded by at school and on TV of an alternative say-no-to-drugs message.

Overall, I'd say this booklet was entertaining and insightful though not nearly as much as its inspiration, "On BS," which is a classic. The essay is highly readable (I read its 76 pages in two sittings, quite rare in a work of philosophy), entertaining and, as you might expect, sometimes humorous.

(comments are welcome)

Hypocrisy and Tu Quoques

A tu quoque is a latin phrase that literally means "and you too!". It is also a rhetorical technique in a dialogue or debate used to shift the content of the debate to scrutiny of the other interlocutor's side(s). It can be a fallacy of reasoning when used incorrectly but I am interested in the sound usages of tu quoques.

I recently read an article by the (recently) deceased British political philosopher, Gerald Cohen titled, "Casting the First Stone: Who Can, and Who Can't, Condemn the Terrorists". Read a draft here.

Cohen talks about his experience as the father of a son who had been a victim of terrorism (a bombing had left some shrapnel in his skull).

The elder Cohen blames and condemns terrorism but tried to come to an understanding of, at first, inexplicable anger and moral outrage at the words of an Israeli ambassador to Britain. The ambassador basically said on a radio program that Palestinian terrorism is never justified as it targets the innocent who are not responsible for Israeli policies.

Cohen basically agreed with this sentiment and the content of it he thought was sound but couldn't help feel indignant at the statements. He wondered if he was holding contradictory beliefs or biased feelings against Israel or her supporters.

He thought about it for a while and eventually figured out why he was so indignant at the statements and that this bitter indignation had been justified for the following reasons.

Israel and all its representatives cannot condemn Palestinian terrorism because

1. they have been and may continue to be a state that uses terrorism themselves.

2. They are partly responsible for Palestinian terrorism through their policies in the Occupied Territories.

These are basically tu quoque charges. They are not valid whenever they are used simply as ad homs or red herrings but Cohen argues that charges of hypocrisy are a kind of legit tu quoque and are sometimes justified.

Unlike other forms of criticism that one may level at one's interlocutor, a tu quoque is not a criticism of the *content* of the interlocutor's words necessarily. Rather, it is meta-discursive, that is, it criticizes the right of the interlocutor to make those very criticisms (criticizes the right to the speech act itself or illucutionary act of criticizing by the criticizer).

Cohen offers some reasons why hypocrisy e.g., are sometimes sound as argument techniques. The second reason given above for why Cohen found the Israeli ambassador's words odious is obvious, Palestinian terrorism has a partial excuse. But why should a "and you too!" be sound on the first reason Cohen gave, that is, why should the fact that Israeli policies count as arguments against the ambassador's words?

One is that his words seem deceptive in that he condemns terrorism on behalf of his country against the terrorism it faces but does not do so for condemning his own country's brutal actions. So we get the impression that he is not really concerned about terrorism per se or moral behavior of countries, just Palestinian terrorism or when it suits his country's interests. Kind of like how it's wrong to give people impressions that you care about some issue when you really don't care at all or secretly supports the other side of the issue or when you change the topic when someone legitimately criticizes one of your wrongful behaviors to their alleged wrongful behaviors. So the reason why it's wrong may be similar to why some lies or misleading statements or behaviors are sometimes wrong.

I find that a good explanation but I find it just one among others of why charges of hypocrisy are sometimes legit and that hypocritical criticisms are wrong. Another reason, I think, is that some criticisms from those who "do not have a moral leg to stand on" are used to deplete a valuable resource and that since this resource is finite and valuable, it is subject to concerns of justice and fairness.

That resource is our collective attention or political consciousness towards political/moral issues. Unfortunately, I realize that "collective attention" or "collective political consciousness" is a clumsy way of phrasing it and there may be much more eloquent ways of putting it and there may even be well-explored studies of it in media studies, e.g. Unfortunately, I am not aware of such explorations, however, so I'll go on using the clumsy terms. It is finite because we have limited attention span, intelligence, resources, energy and time to evaluate issues. I suggest that hypocrites steal more than their fair share of that collective attention by hijacking the issue to suit their own purpose. It is clearly in demand and thus valuable in the economic sense because people want desperately to make public and get more attention for the issues they are concerned about. Hypocrites pollute that collective space with their own issues to obscure or blanket others' issues because their hypocrisy is suggestive that their criticisms are really diversion tactics or rhetorical red herrings.

What is Wisdom?

Wikipedia has this to say about the etymology of the word ‘philosophy’.

The word "Philosophy" comes from the Greek φιλοσοφία [philosophia], which literally means "love of wisdom".

But surprisingly little work has been done in the discipline to examine just what ‘wisdom’ means (one cursory search of the Philosopher’s Index shows that there has been a dearth of philosophical papers written on this subject). Just about every important concept to humans has come under the philosopher's sharp knife of analysis but it would seem that at least one important concept has been left out which is of central concern to the very understanding of the discipline of philosophy itself.

Some might say that wisdom is like porn; you can’t give a satisfactory definition of it but you’ll know it when you see it.

I’ll not take such a defeatist approach and actually attempt an examination of this concept. Most people have a fuzzy understanding of it and there may be many possible definitions but I'd like to give a definition I think reflects a philosophical import. Comments are welcome as to modifications and objections.

The dictionary defines wisdom as “knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.” This seems basically right to me but leaves much to be desired. What does it mean to have just judgment as to action and to know what’s right? The definition captures some of what we mean by the term but something essential seems lost in terms of clarity and breadth of our general understanding. Most of us have a tacit understanding of what wisdom means and can differentiate instances of it and instances of knowledgeable simpliciter. Not all knowledgeable individuals are wise; that seems obvious to me and I’d suspect to most people as well. On one internet discussion forum, I once engaged in a discussion with someone who asked me, in all seriousness, what the difference between these two things were when I had appealed to the difference to make a point. This individual was a reasonably intelligent fellow and English was his first language but he insisted that wisdom is nothing but knowledge. That strikes me as obviously wrong but I had no explicit way to defining then just what that difference was other than, perfunctorily, giving him the link to the dictionary definition which was not satisfactory neither to me, as I wanted to make my point more palpable to him, and to him seeing that he still wasn’t convinced after our discussion that there was a substantive difference.

That’s what led me to write this; to try to give more structure and clarity to where there was less; to hopefully understand the difference better myself and to draw out the consequences stemming from implications of that difference.

First, I think it obvious that wisdom is a virtue (or perhaps a set of virtues). In fact, it may be the most important virtue (or the most important collectively identifiable set of virtues). Now I take Aristotle to be correct in believing that a virtue has two basic components , namely, a dispositional/affective component and a cognitive one as well. What is meant by dispositional/affective is that there is an emotive aspect; one involving the sentiments and a certain kind of procedural knowledge that usually comes with having well refined emotive development. Cultivating such a refinement might include cultivating a sensibility to react in a certain way, emotionally and behaviorally, to the actions or speech of others and to those behaviors or thoughts and feelings of oneself, for example.

What I mean by a “cognitive” component is that wisdom contains a part that is like what normal factual knowledge. It has, what philosophers call, intentional content. There is something any particular piece of knowledge is about. There is a fact of the matter about it; whether or not it is true is determined by whether or not the state-of-affairs it represents obtains.

Normally when we talk about knowledge what we mean is what I will hence forth call first-order knowledge. This is to be distinguished from procedural knowledge (such as much of the knowledge of how to play the guitar, e.g. or how to be a good friend to someone. This kind of knowledge is not intentional, it does not represent a state-of-affairs). A Jeopardy champ, for example, will have lots of this kind of knowledge but not necessarily will be very knowledgeable in procedural knowledge (indeed, most of us can come up with many personal examples of people like this).

Our Jeopardy champ might also be a good example of someone that is both very knowledgeable but unwise. Let’s call such a philistine genius, Phil.

Like I said, I think wisdom does have a kind of component that is similar in kind to the kind of knowledge when we normally speak of someone being knowledgeable, i.e., when they have lots of first-order knowledge. To see the distinction between the cognitive component in wisdom and more humdrum notions of knowledge such as the knowledge used by Phil to win his prize money, a wise person can be said to know some things that a knowledgeable but unwise person does not know. This component of her knowledge also is intentional. But here is where the difference lies; the relevant intentional knowledge a wise person has, under my definition, is not first-order. It is best described as second-order knowledge or perhaps meta-knowledge . That is, it is literally, knowledge about knowledge (or maybe beliefs that are likely true) or knowledge about methods of reliable acquisitions of knowledge.

One kind of second-order knowledge might be the knowledge of how far one’s own epistemic limitations extend. Hence, Socrates was wise because he claimed he didn’t really know much of anything but only came upon the truth through detailed and rigorous examination with his interlocutor(s). And Confucius claimed that a wise person must maintain that he knows when he really does know and be maintain silence when he does not know. Knowing where the boundaries of one’s ken lies must be a kind of knowledge and it can be either accurate or not; whether or not it is, is determined by some facts about the world (namely, which portion of one’s beliefs are likely true or have good reasons to believe them true and which do not). Certainly, that boundary must have fuzzy borders but just as certainly, there is distinction to be made. Some of our beliefs are surely true and we have good reasons to believe them. Some of our beliefs are not so well supported. Others may exist at some border-vague area. The point is that some people, due to too much “epistemic hubris,” say, may have inaccurate estimations of their belief system. They may not know as much as they think. Still others may underestimate themselves by quite a bit. They lack epistemic confidence or self-efficacy. Both these instances are cases that, under my conception, display a substantial lack of second-order knowledge. Both will suffer because their actions will often be imprudent due to this inaccuracy of estimation of their own knowledge.

Additionally, one displays another kind of second-order knowledge when one knows what methods are reliable to arrive at the truth and what methods are not so reliable. Those that understand that claims that have withstood the demands of scientific rigor by going through and surviving the gauntlet of the scientific journal review processes and subsequent follow-up experimentation, for example, ceteris paribus, are more reliable than, say, counter claims that have not, display a kind of second-order knowledge. A person that insists that her reliance on astrology to arrive at some claim is better than someone who denies that claim based on much more reliable means does not display wise behavior. She does not have good knowledge of reliable methods to arrive at knowledge. Even more quotidian forms of examination such as applying common sense and engaging in balanced, nonbiased, rational debate are ways far more likely to arrive at the truth than other less reasonable methods (such as unreasonable argumentation, or being dogmatic, for example).

A person who knows that arriving at genuine knowledge and understanding of some phenomenon is in many instances a difficult journey requiring lots of effort, clear thinking, and systematic investigation, may be said to display another kind of second-order knowledge. This knowledge of Truth’s demands, is the opposite of epistemic naivety, it indicates a kind of epistemic refinement, maturity or sophistication.

There may be other kinds of second-order knowledge I haven’t talked about but it should be somewhat clear by now of what I mean by second-order knowledge. Those who have quite a bit of this kind of knowledge probably also usually have certain kinds of character traits. I think it reasonable to suggest that having acquired a lot of such second-order knowledge as described above is usually done only through a life-time of persistent and conscientious pursuit of Truth. The epistemic journey I suggest engenders certain feelings and dispositions in people. Perhaps a certain amount of respect and reverence for well-supported beliefs and those individuals who hold them dear because one knows oneself how difficult it is to attain them. Perhaps a disdain for bullshit and indignation at bullshitters is also inculcated by pursuing the path of wisdom.

Another character trait of the wise person might be a certain kind of epistemic humility without a deficiency of epistemic confidence (epistemic efficacy in matters regarding one’s well supported beliefs). Knowing that one’s own beliefs are subject to the demands of fair critique and rational debate and that one should revise even a long held belief when sufficient evidence becomes available to warrant the revision, but a willingness to subject one’s beliefs despite the possibility of such revisions manifest this kind of character trait, I suggest. Not taking such criticisms personal, but even actively seeking it out and subjecting one’s own beliefs to such critical-examinations using the same standards one subjects to views contrary to one’s own, displays, also, a kind of humility, fair-mindedness, and integrity, or maybe a kind of confidence oneself without displaying an ego as well.

To sum up, I think wisdom to have two major kinds of components. One is a kind of knowledge I called ‘second-order knowledge’ or knowledge about knowledge (how it’s reliably obtained, what the limitations of one’s own ken are, etc). The other major component is a set of dispositions or sensibilities which are indicative of an intellectually mature mind with the requisite intellectual integrity required for seeking and loving the Truth. It's what a sage values most deeply.

Einstein reportedly once said: "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school." Wisdom is what I take Einstein to be talking about here by his use of "education." What one is taught directly in school is first-order knowledge about the world but once one forgets these facts, something far more valuable remains.

Addendum: there may be lots of other kinds of second-order knowledge that I haven't mentioned but still relevant to an analysis of wisdom and there may be other kinds of dispositions or sensibilities important for the non-cognitive portion of knowledge as well. If you have a suggestion, please bring it up in the comments section.