Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Alva Noe and the naturalistic cyborg fallacy

The philosopher of mind has a blog at NPR. In one post he talked about Lance Armstrong and performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Noe seems to say in the blog that doing these drugs and thus cheating is not wrong or at least blameworthy. Surely he can't be that nutty? Granted philosophers in the past have said some incredibly crazy things but they often have at least some coherent justification for their claims.

His argument that Armstrong shouldn't be blamed for cheating (granting that the mountain of evidence against him is accurate, as it appears to be) because humans have always used artificial advantages. This seems like a textbook case of the naturalistic fallacy combined with a case of false comparison.

Of course humans always have used artificial modifications (a trend Noe calls a fact about our cyborg nature).

Here I liberally quote from his original article.
For millions of years, our ancestors survived with only the crudest implements. Some 35,000 to 75,000 years ago, a technological revolution took place on an extraordinary scale. Innovation now abounds in the archeological record. Whereas before, generation after generation used the same blunt pounding tools, now we find highly refined instruments for cutting. And we find tools for making tools. We find an increased diversity of building materials and evidence of real specialization in tool use and tool making. 
The point is not just that we couldn't do what we do without tools. The point is that we couldn't think what we think or see what we see without tools. We wouldn't be what we are without tools. Making tools, changing tools, is a way of making new ways of being. Technologies are evolving patterns of human organization. 
So let us turn now to the case of Lance Armstrong. He is a trailblazer. One of the greats. He didn't win races on his own. No, like each of us in our social embeddings, he created an organization, one drawing on other people, and the creative and effective use of technology, the mastery of biochemistry, to go places and do things that most of us never will, and that no one ever had, before him.That we now attack him, and tear him down, and try to minimize his achievements.... what does this tell us about ourselves?
I was pretty surprised that a professional philosopher would make such an incredibly crude and silly argument. Even though Noe is a philosopher of mind, it's no excuse. There has to be more convincing points he made to support his argument right? Check for yourself and read the whole thing. It really seems as stupid as it appears.

Someone in the comments section pointed out that Noe seems to justify using a cannon for the shotput with this "argument" he seems to put forward. It's not that Armstrong received help from tools, "cybernetic" or otherwise that makes people (justifiably) angry and the fact that he deserves punishment, it's that he received help that is banned that is the issue. I can't understand how anyone, a philosopher no less, could have missed this vital point.

But he later posts another blog responding to all the criticisms he received in the comments section. Surely he made the clear, well-supported points in this blog that controverts the common sense intuition that cheating in sports by taking PEDs is wrong which he should have in the first blog doesn't he?

It doesn't appear that way. His second blog seems to be obdurate obfuscation. He claims he was justified because

1. the anti-doping rules are too vague to matter

2. breaking a doping rule is not blameworthy because it is a rule not "within" the game or sport itself but cheating "outside" the sport's "internal" rules.

The first justification is simply ridiculous and I will not even address it other than to say that positive drug tests (or equivalent positives) is about as clear cut as it gets. It's not that vague. So Noe's point seem to stumble and fall right out of the gates. I can't even imagine a charitable interpretation of it.

As to the second justification, how he came to see it as non trivial and not a hairsplitting distinction (and more relevantly, why it matters even if there is an interesting distinction to be made) is puzzling. Here's a quote:

Doping doesn't put you outside the game any more than sacrificing your marriage or getting up at 3:30 every morning so that you can get time at the ice rink puts you outside the game. Athletes are in it for the achievement. Athletes will not say No.

Of course, there is no rule within the all sports of cycling that says you cannot dope. Anti-doping rules are more a property of the organizing bodies that govern world cycling venues. But that just shifts the problem to that arena. Surely you can and be justifiably blamed for cheating there? And in some sense, that would also count as cheating in cycling because it would be taking an unfair advantage over non cheaters within the sport. So this "distinction" seems like hairsplitting and purposeful obfuscation.

The distinction collapses because the point of the rule against cheating is to enforce unfair advantages within the game which breaks the boundary between "outside" rules and "inside" rules. The outside rules are there for a good reason. They are not arbitrary. PEDs such as EPO and many others (and blood transfusions which the USADA also accuses Armstrong of committing) have been found to potentially be deadly. Obviously you don't want people to be encouraged to take these drugs.

On a charitable interpretation, the only point that Noe seem to be somewhat justified in arguing in defense of doping cheaters as far as I can tell is the "everyone is doing it" argument but I'm not sure Noe is making such an argument (in fact, his own words in the second blog suggests otherwise).

I suppose you can make the somewhat weakly plausible argument that other cyclists at the level Armstrong performs against are doping as well. Thus if we define "cheating" as doing something against the rules (in the sport or in the system by the governing body authorized to oversee the sport) and giving one an advantage, Armstrong didn't actually cheat because he had no artificial advantage over the other cheaters but prevailed over them with natural ability, hard work and skill.

But notice that this argument only works if everyone else he competed against were likewise cheating. But that is implausible. Surely there are a few he has competed throughout the years who weren't on PEDs? And notice that Armstrong must have competed against others at the lower levels of competition and surely there are even more of those competitors who weren't on anything at all but used hard work, determination and the rest of what supposedly makes a great American sportsman?

But in doping Armstrong took an unfair advantage over the others who choose not to use PEDs (or couldn't use them because of limited resources, etc). That's why he deserves blame (not to mention the years of public deception and monetary advantages that comes with that cheating). That's why it's cheating. That's why it's wrong.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wittgenstein and pictures

The philosopher Ray Monk has this article about Wittgenstein and his preference for pictures (as opposed to words). There is an exhibit at the London School of Economics with the theme of pictures and Wittgenstein. While I seem to have some disagreements with Monk about his interpretation of the Tractatus (but who am I to disagree with Monk?) and about his view that philosophers don't draw a distinction between propositions, thoughts and language (they do and some would assert that even pictures have propositional content), I am reminded by his article of Jaakko Hintikka's claim long ago that Wittgenstein's notorious struggles with language, his related dogged focus on illuminating the mysteries thereof and his preference for pictorial representation (which is a sensibility he kept throughout his life) was a result of dyslexia.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Understanding understanding

The recent announcement about the tentative discovery of the Higgs boson have prompted many journalists and scientists to engage in philosophical speculation of what it means to understand something. It seems that many people (even Feynman has said he and other theoretical physicists don't "understand" it) still say they don't understand the nature of quantum phenomenon despite their grasp of the equations which describe them with unprecedented precision. But why do they still think that? journalist Robert Wright has written (and here) about the Higgs boson recently and has remarked about his lack of understanding of its quantum nature after it has been repeatedly explained to him by physicists and science journalists alike. He now takes a philosophical approach to the problem evoking a passage in Wittgenstein's PI.

However, there may be other passages in W's writing that directly relate to what it means to understand something. I can't recall off the top of my head these passages but I did write one comment regarding some at least W inspired thoughts on what it means to "understand".

There are probably more relevant Wittgenstein passages in the PI or other of his works regarding what it means to "understand" something. Is it simply the ability to explain some concept with precision? Well, physicists can certainly do that with mathematical precision! So there's some other element(s) one may reason. Perhaps that other element is something like a loss of a "weird" feeling. So because experts and laymen alike still have this weird feeling when thinking about the nature of quantum phenomenon, we say that we don't completely understand it. But perhaps this recalcitrant weird feeling we have is simply a cultural relic, something that is a result of cultural (or socio-linguistic) biases. 
It would be interesting to test this out. Maybe people from other cultures, cultures that are perhaps more comfortable with things like ambiguity, vagueness, indeteterminancy, etc, such as many Asian cultures will not have this bias and see quantum mechanics as "natural" and will say that they fully understand it once they understand the mathematical descriptions. 
This understanding of understanding as it related to quantum mechanics s what I think W will endorse.

When a physicist or Robert Wright says he doesn't "understand" the nature of Higgs bosons or that it "make no sense" could it be that they only "understand" something maybe W's remarks on rule following will shed some light? One interpretation of W's ideas on rule following is that there has to be a further element other than rule following itself, that is, besides the applied ability to follow that rule to understanding rules of language. On some interpretations of W's remarks, that void is a social element. The social element, as far as I can tell, has to do with social expectations of what other people expect. So it's not enough to follow some rule (formal mathematical or informal linguistic rule e.g.) but there needs to be some expectation that society will accept your explanation of your rule following. In our culture, since quantum mechanics is so counter intuitive to so many, it may just be this element of a lack of social acceptance that is the missing piece to truly understanding quantum mechanics. But notice that this is a cultural bias contingent on the culture and times we live in. Maybe as more of society come to accept quantum mechanics, it will seem less weird and hence, at least according to this interpretation, people will be less likely to say that they don't "really understand" quantum mechanics?    

Monday, June 4, 2012

Crazy metaphysics?

Eric Schwitzgebel thinks that metaphysical theories are doomed for weirdness (he calls this "crazyism." Also see here). He gives lots of examples. Much of his examples really are of famous weird metaphysics. Some of the most famous arguments in metaphysics are for really odd conclusions (modal realism, panpsychism, ontological nihilism, unrestricted mereology, etc).

But why pick on metaphysics? It's not clear to me that metaphysics is any weirder (at least when it comes to a comparison with "common sense" assumptions than many claims in ethics and epistemology. Many utilitarians such as Singer and Unger argued that we are just as obligated to donate every last penny of expendable ready cash in our possession to the needy as we are in saving a drowning child. They even go further and argue that we may be obligated to steal for those that don't donate as much we we do to give to the needy. Kant famously argued that the moral obligation against lying is so strong that we ought not lie even to save an innocent life. That's crazy.

Many skeptics have argued that we don't know many of the things we think we know. Ratnakirti argued for solipsism based on epistemological arguments, for example. There may be many other equally famous examples from these two branches of philosophy or other non metaphysics branches that are equally or more weird. All these examples show that weirdness is common to these other areas of philosophy as well. It may be that metaphysics is a little more likely to be weird than other branches of philosophy but I don't think there's a large difference in this regard.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Is pain "intrinsically" bad?

In the last post, I mentioned that Shelly Kagan said (in passing) in his article published in the Chronicle that pain was an intrinsic bad. I've seen other philosophers say this too but I have yet to see a defense of it.

What about for very very evil people? Is pain intrinsically bad when experienced by these people? Maybe intuitions defer here but I think mine suggest that pain maybe intrinsically good for the very evil. Perhaps that's because I tend to have more retributive intuitions than most?

Why is death bad?

This question seems like it would have an obvious answer and yet philosophers have struggled to provide an adequate answer. This is because many of the answers that common sense and from traditional philosophy has supplied gives incoherent or very problematic answers.

Shelly Kagan works in this little studied area of ethics. See here for an interesting article by him published in the the Chronicle which tries to general outline the problems for the different accounts of why death is bad. He supplies and defends a deprivation account of death in his latest book but does not offer significant defense of his own views in the Chronicle article.

The deprivation account is a comparative account. It basically says that what is bad about death is all the goods that one would not get to enjoy when dead (similar to the opportunity cost of the economists).

Kagan says that unlike pain which is intrinsically bad, death is a comparative or relative bad. He then provides some challenges to this view which I think are quite damaging to that view and I am not sure how Kagan is able to surmount them in his book since he does defend it. I also think that if you are to gives such an account, you may have to also supply a calculus which includes the bads and goods of life instead of just adding up all the good one misses in death. I haven't seen anyone do that so far in talking about the badness of death which is odd. The negatives may outweigh the positives for many people in the world but it is hard to say that death is not bad for these people. The death seems to be bad even if the accounting of the positives versus the negatives in their lives would have came out in the net negative unless that net negative is so unusually bad that they themselves wish they had not gone on living. Some philosophers have argued that for almost all human lives, the bad far outweighs any good of living. So not being born is preferable but on a deprivation view, this may imply (with some additional supporting arguments of course) that death is preferable to life.

I have my own rough views on this topic which I'd like now to sketch out. It is a very tentative view and I'm not sure if people have advanced similar views before as I'm not familiar with the literature.

I will call my view the fractured-self view (I wish I was a better poet because the name sounds clumsy to me). It is similar to the deprivation view in that it is also a comparative conception of death but it does not focus on the goods that are deprived from death.

Rather it focuses on what the death does to the self. I believe that much of our conception of ourselves are grounded in our core principles and values and our most valued projects. In fact, I believe that our major life projects fundamentally encapsulate our principles and values and thus are expressions of the self.

Our major life projects are to fulfill certain roles, professional, familial, moral, artistic, spiritual, etc. When we die, these projects which reflect our principles, our values and thus expressions of our most fundamental self go unfulfilled. We have no prospects of completing them; indeed, not even the opportunity to attempt to.

That is what is tragic about death. It fractures us in a most fundamental way. Had we lived we would have sought to complete these life projects. So the reason death is bad is because it is bad compared to a counterfactual (the life had the dead individual survived). I believe this view avoids some of the major problems Kagan says have outlined and that of his own views. For example, if non existence is bad because it deprives us of the goods of living, why do we not view the nonexistence before death as just as bad as the nonexistence after? On my view, because the nature of life projects are always future oriented, non existence in the past does not matter because for the simple fact that we cannot complete a project in the past (backward causation notwithstanding) but we can for future projects if we are alive. It is not the time of our birth that prevents us from completing "projects" before we are born; it is the fundamental causal and nomological structure of the world that does that. There's no tragedy in not being able to do the impossible. That's what accounts for the temporal asymmetry. However, on Kagan's view, this objection is problematic because goods in the past are as good as goods in the future (at least ontologically there doesn't seem to be any reason to view them as different from a value perspective).

My view explains why it is often believed that death for a 90 year old is not as worse as death for a 20 year old. The 20 year old is likely to have many more life projects unfulfilled. The 90 year old, on the other hand, likely would have fulfilled many major life projects and would have very few remaining. She is nearly whole upon her death at 90 whereas the 20 year old's death fractures him in a way that leaves him less than whole. Of course, the 90 year old may still have some projects that go unfulfilled and thus that would explain why it is still somewhat tragic for that nonagenarian to die but just not as tragic as the 20 year old. In short, death prevents us from developing our full selves, being a whole.

But what about newborn babies? Isn't it tragic for them to die even though they are too young to have any projects in mind? Maybe it is the potential life projects that matters most in evaluating the tragedy of a newborn baby's life. A baby has no life projects but they do have the potential or propensity for developing lots of life-projects and the extinguishing of that potential or propensity by death is what is tragic about death for it.

There may be lots of problematic issues for this account of life but prima facie, it seems very plausible to me. I need to think more and harder about what the potential problems are and if they can be overcome. This is a very tentative view for me now. One objection may go on to ask the further question why being less than "whole" or developing into "our full selves" is really that bad? I can only think of responding with what was basically hinted at above; that it is bad because our most fundamental values cannot be realized and that is certainly bad. There's no more explaining that needs to be done to explain why things going contrary to our basic values and principles is bad (for us). We've hit philosophical rock bottom. But this may seem circular or question begging but I can't think of any further justification for my view.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


While reading a very interesting and insightful paper on the topic by J. David Velleman, I realized that the paper's insights are deeply related to the recent case of a young Rutger's student, Tyler Clementi, who had committed suicide when a roomate had spied on and live-streamed video of Clementi in a romantic tryst with another man.

Clementi was so humiliated that he committed suicide. Yet Clementi was apparently an openly gay person. The video was also not viewed many people (I believe only the roomate and some of his friends) and did not involve very explicit sexual acts. So some may wonder why he became so distraught.

Velleman's account of shame is complicated and builds on a classical account of shame first ingeniously formulated by Augustine (who used the Genesis story of Adam and Eve for support) and is also similar to the account of shame given by Sartre. The paper is densely argued and there are parts that are opaque but definitely worth reading and it is remarkably relevant, I think, to the Clementi case so if interested I suggest reading both the paper and the Clementi case since I don't want to do the paper any injustice by synopsizing the analysis.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Pragmatic worries for metametaphysics

This is an interesting video blog on metametaphysics. Here's something the two philosophers did not explicitly mention: one way to cash out grounding or the fundamentality relation may be the cutting-nature-at-its-joints talk.

Perhaps an analogy would serve an explanatory purpose here. Some paintings are abstract, like say, cubism. Cubism still represents reality but perhaps not as accurately as say, a photo or a more fine grained painting. The cubist representations don't cut nature at its joints but does manage to pick out the same structures as the photo.

But I tend to have pragmatically inspired worries. Perhaps what we determine to be fundamental may largely depend on what we have uses for. So say numbers are often posited to exist because they serve useful purposes but if we can jettison them for something else that can do the job better (or maybe we manage to abandon whatever the job they serve to describe completely) we may not view them as fundamental or even real anymore. They don't cut nature at its joints at all; nature has no number joints.

Maybe tables, chairs and even people do not cut nature at its joints or at least cut it less fundamentally than more natural objects (perhaps subatomic particles or the cosmos as a whole?).

More specifically, say, tables are posited to exist because they serve an important role in society but table-chair composites do not and thus we may not see it as fundamental or as real as the table and chair individually. The table is physically separated from the chair, of course, but we posit the existence of many things that have parts vastly spatially separate from other parts (the solar system, e.g.). That may be because the solar system plays such an important roles in our society, our sciences and so forth. Likewise, the left-half of the table is seen as less fundamental or real as the whole table perhaps because it serves a smaller function for us. But say someday we stop using whole tables for whatever reason but find major indispensable uses of half-tables and forget all about whole tables. Will we then see whole tables as we do like table-chairs?

It may be more difficult to jettison the usage of some things than others because they are so culturally and socially and personally ingrained.

But pragmatic considerations come in degrees (which may explain the fundamentality or grounding relation) and are relative to societies and times (which may undermine essentialism or neo-aristotelianism).

Perhaps the sciences offer the best analogy here. At one time, Newtonian mechanics was a model that was thought to describe reality. But when Einstein came along, his model was then seen by scientists and common folk as a more accurate model which is more fundamental in a sense than Newton's. Scientists don't want to say that Newton was wrong maybe because his model still has practical applications in society. But say, one day, a model of physics will render both Newton and Einstein's theory useless (as an explanatory or any other kinds of tool such as a handmaiden for developing new technologies, say) and posit laws and objects that are so different from anything these two physicists posited that people may forget those other theories and call them false.

Here, you can say that it is because the new theory more accurately represents reality than the former two or you can say that it has more usages that the previous theories it has supplanted does not. What reasons do we have for the former explanation than the later?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Psychopaths and Confucian moral psychology

I have little respect for the New York Times. Their quality of journalism is poor but unfortunately standard fare for much of the world's press. However, occasionally one can find gems such as this well researched article on psychopathy by Jennifer Kahn.

Psychopathy is a philosophically rich topic with clear relevance for moral psychology and meta-ethical debates on the nature of moral reasons and moral motivation. 

What has always interested me about psychopaths is not that they have little regard for other people's welfare which is obvious but that they often display very little regard for their own. They are known to be extremely brazen and do things that jeopardize their own well-being. Punishments often do not sway them from harming others (as the article nicely illustrates). Violent psychopaths have very high recidivism rates. They seem to have little to no fear and show little to no anxiety and stress.

I remember reading or hearing of a famous experiment involving psychopaths. A control group and a psychopathic group were wired up and told they were about to receive painful shocks. The control groups displayed profound stress (measured in physiological makers such as heart rate, galvanic skin response, cortisol levels, etc) between the shocks. In other words, they were anticipating the shocks and felt understandable stressed at the future prospects of the pain. But the psychopathic groups felt almost no stress.

psychopaths have often do not recognize fear in others (probably because they don't feel the emotion themselves). In one incident, a psychopath was asked to identify a collection of pics of facial expressions representing various emotions. She identified all of them correctly except the photo of a face displaying fear. She said that she didn't know what that face was expressing but she had seen such an emotion before right before she stabs her victims.

As the article illustrates, psychopaths often are carelessness and recklessness. But I am also reminded of a passage in the Analects that says roughly that one tell-tale mark of someone to be feared in a position of power or state rule is someone that have little regard for their own safety. Presumably, this is saying that if they have a history of little regard for their own well-being, they are the type that will have little regard for the well-being of others and ought not be trusted with ensuring the well-being of others. I can't remember the passage so if Carl knows which one this is, I'd really appreciate his help.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Evolution and masochism

I just finished reading a really good sci-fi novel called the Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect. The behavior of the lead protagonist, Caroline, got me thinking of the evolutionary roots of masochism. Caroline is an extreme masochist and enjoys being tortured. It got me thinking of a passage that always stuck with me after many years from the great 20th century feminist work The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvior. de Beauvior was quoting (approvingly it appears) the claims of a famous German psychoanalyst (Karen Horney) who said something like "All women are masochists". Now this seems way overstated.

But even if it is somewhat true that there are many female masochists, from an evolutionary perspective, why is that? What possible evolutionary purpose does it serve? If some psychologists are correct, certain fantasies that are extremely masochistic (even life endangering) seem to be common in women so de Beauvior and Horney seems to be on to something.

It seems to me that masochists would be more likely to be culled out of the population, that such a trait is detrimental to fitness in the genetic sense. Thus those who are genetically disposed to it should be a very small minority. de Beauvior and Horney suggest a cultural explanation for that prevalence. But mightn't there be an evolutionary answer (as well)? I am divided between the cultural and the genetic dispositional perspectives. Maybe it is a combination of both factors interacting in complex ways (like many complex traits).

What I'm about to say may be extremely unPC but it seems that one possible reason that may explain the prevalence of female masochism is that it does confer an advantage. It may be that masochistic women are more desirable to men, that more dominant women are less so and thus the masochist traits are passed down more often than otherwise. Maybe even women who resist rape are more likely to be killed by their attackers (especially from foreign barbarian hordes which I'd imagine was once quite a common threat) than those who do not resist (and presumably a masochistic disposition may go some ways to make this acquiescence more likely). Non resisters are then more likely to be then taken into the group of the invaders or attackers as a "war bride" or something like it and thus bodily survive albeit psychically and dignity wise shattered. Mightn't masochism make even psychological recovering from these kinds of incidents more likely?

But what about male masochists? After all, the term is named after a man (Sacher-Masoch). Are male masochists as common as females? If males are far less likely to be masochists then the evolutionary psychological answer I gave may have some support because it does seem that it would be detrimental for males to be masochists. After all the hypothesis is basically a "rape theory" of masochism. Of course even if it is the case that men are far less likely to have that disposition it may be as de Beauvior suggests, because of cultural factors alone which tends to inculcate masochistic tendencies through the conditioned association of certain images and narratives to normal sexual sensibilities. There may not be any sex-selective differences on this account.

I'm usually not partial to evolutionary psychology because of its common, ad hoc, just-so stories, and I realize that I am giving an evopsy answer (and like many evopsy claims, very unPC!). But I make no claims to giving a scientific answer, just some crazy speculation.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The extended mind and the self

Some philosophers of mind such as David Chalmers and Andy Clark have defended what is called an extended mind theory (actually there are many kinds of extended mind theories) which claim that our minds are not just physically located in our heads. Some theorists posit that it is a system that is a combination of subsystems such as the brain combined with the rest of the central nervous system and perhaps also combined with the rest of the body (The neuroscientists Antonio Damasio, if I remember correctly, also defended such a view in one of his books). Some others have posited that even the surrounding environment can be included in the whole system which is either identified with the mind or has properties which the mind supervenes. Chalmers and Clark defend a process view which says that the mind extends to the interactive process (not the system per se) between the central nervous system and the immediate environment mediated by the sense organs, etc.

This is troublesome for the brain view of personal identity. I like that view and I believe Jeff McMahon has defended such a view very admirably. I think it is the best view and it justifies many of the medical practices we have today in the US such as our laws regarding brain death and abortion, very important ethical issues.

I wonder if there is a way to keep the ethical benefits of a brain view taking into account the criticisms of such a view from the extended mind theory.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Of cosmologists and equivocators

I've posted many times of the arrogant, condescending and ignorant opinions many physicists such as Feynman, Weinberg, and others have about philosophy (here and here). The latest fiasco in this is Lawrence Krauss book which he explicitly claimed including in an Atlantic interview (then somewhat retracted in the same interview and in other articles) solves age-old philosophical problems such as why is there anything rather than nothing. Of course, Krauss uses the same old silly argument that when the physicist says that particles (or what appears to be particles) can come from relativistic quantum fields (RQF), the RQFs, they claim, are really "nothing" and the physical laws then generate the particles which solves the problem. Abracadabra! That's how you get something from nothing.

This despite the obvious objection that because these RQF have certain properties they are not a "nothing" but a something. Krauss and other physicists have only explained how something can come from some other thing, not out of nothing.The philosophers of science David Albert (who also has a PhD in theoretical physics!) point out to this silly error in a blistering book review in the New York Times.

Krauss did not like that review and predictably, went on a legendary tirade calling Albert a "moron philosopher" and calling philosophers in general all sorts of names and denigrating the whole discipline (he has since made somewhat of a retraction of denouncing the whole field.)

Even Krauss's friend and fellow cosmologist Sean Carroll has basically taken Albert's side (as well as other cosmologists like Lee Smolin and the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne).

On Sean Carroll's excellent cosmology blog, I posted the following replies (comment #59 and 61) which I state that despite Krauss's errors which Carroll was justified in pointing out (such as ad hom and strawman arguments), Krauss is guilty of something much worse that everyone seems to have missed: you can make a good argument that his statements were insincere, dishonest, and maybe even fraudulent because Krauss exploits an equivocations seemingly purposefully. You can also add to that list, the no true scotsman fallacy to the list of all Krauss's errors in the Atlantic interview when asked by a very informed interviewer that if philosophy is so useless why did was modern computer science born from the work of Russell and Wittgenstein? Krauss then said that they are mathematicians! This despite the facts that both Russell and Wittgenstein (not to mention many other philosophers) received their PhDs in philosophy, taught in philosophy departments all their lives, did work in other areas of philosophy, considered themselves philosophers, considered their work in logic to be extensions of Aristotle's and Leibniz's original work etc, etc.  

Saturday, April 28, 2012

What is the problem of letting die?

I'll quote in full this famous moral dilemma from the wiki

Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence ISBN 0-19-510859-0 is a philosophical book by Peter K. Unger, published in 1996. Inspired by Peter Singer's 1971 essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Unger argues that for people in the developed world to live morally, they are morally obliged to make sacrifices to help mitigate human suffering and premature death in the third world, and further that it is acceptable (and morally right) to lie, cheat, and steal to mitigate suffering. 
Unger argues that the intuitive moral judgments most people have of several hypothetical moral scenarios, The Shallow Pond, The Vintage Sedan, and The Envelope, are inconsistent.
Unger presents the hypothetical case of The Vintage Sedan
Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention, and money, you've restored to mint condition... One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly traveled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound is confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he survives but loses the wounded leg. 
Unger reports that most people respond strongly that abandoning the hitchhiker is abominable behavior, and he contrasts this near-universal harsh judgment with the lenient judgments most people give to The Envelope
In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. 
Unger argues that the factors that distinguish The Envelope from The Vintage Sedan, in which morality compels us to make a sacrifice, are not morally significant, using thought experiments such as variations on the trolley problem to illustrate his point. Unger contends that psychological factors obscure the moral questions, and that our moral intuitions about problems such as these provide an inconsistent window into our true moral values
Unger conspicuously indicates that the author's royalties from the sales of this book go to UNICEF and to Oxfam America.
I wrote a paper once outlining my objections to the basic argument Unger and Singer gives. Here's my basic argument in a nutshell.
My issue with their argument is that they seemed to me to have used a bad analogy between saving the drowning child and donating. These are not analogous cases and the argument seems to rely on an intuition pump that bridges the two cases. That bridging is what gives the bite it has. 
In the case of donating money to, say UNICEF, to save children, I believe that the reason people aren't as likely to criticize or blame others or themselves for not donating is because they understand, consciously or subconsciously, that donating commits one to far more than the case of saving the child. 
In the case of donating, the case commits one to more, because the argument can iterate itself. Say you donate 10 dollars. The argument can be applied again making an additional $10 donation morally obligatory, and so on until all of one's disposable income is gone such that a person is on the brink of destitution. The demanding obligation does not discharge itself after one donation for most people and may not do so until one is in essential poverty. Both Singer and Unger seems to bite the bullet and see that this unforgiving conclusion must be accepted. 
But now notice that there is no more analogy to be made because in the case of the saving of a drowning child, that was just a one-off, incident. The example only asks the reader to save the drowning child once. There is no stipulated or implied further commitments.  
Now a better analogy would be made between donating all one's disposable income and something like a scenario where you'd have to continuously save drowning children, say, once every hour for the rest of your life. 
I suspect that most people would still say that you are morally required to do so (if you physically can) but that we ought not blame someone for choosing to let all those children die. It is simply too harsh a requirement. It's like asking someone to be a moral saint. We cannot blame someone for their all too human weaknesses especially when we know that we may not have the moral resolve and integrity to choose such a harsh life ourselves. So even though it may be morally required to keep saving children and to donate all our disposable income, people ought not be blamed for not doing so because the demand is too harsh.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Evolution of morality and money

What does money have in common with morality? Think about money. The original purpose of money may have been as a tool. It is used symbolically and as a stand-in or proxy for more useful items, items that people desire and need. Its sole purpose was a fungible item. Its utility was instrumental. It provides ways to do things that otherwise would be difficult or impossible.

But we all know that today, many people view money as an end in itself (such as misers). Many greedy people take pleasure or utility in making money, hording it, etc. Even some regular people may value some of this money-is-a-good-in-itself trait. They have no plans to spend it, to buy things they desire but the money itself gives them pleasure and happiness. Likewise, loss of that money may constitute grief even if some people have already got all the material items and services they could ever want. Most of us, though, still primarily view money as a means to an end, that is, as a means to obtain goods and services which we directly desire.

Now consider the evolutionary purpose of morality. It may have also served an evolutionary end; that is, the propagation of our species (more specifically our genes). But we have come (and by we, I mean those of us especially concerned with morality such as philosophers and other morally conscious people) to see morality as an end in itself. In other words, we have categoricalized morality (in the sense that Kant was using "categorical"). In viewing it as such, we may have even altered the structure of morality itself. So instead of seeing morality as instrumental (whether it may be as a tool to propagate the species or to propagate our own utility or the utility of the whole human society, etc) we see it as a good in itself. But some of our intuitions about the instrumental aspects of morality are still in play which is why I suspect gives some of the appeal of consequentialist ethics. That appeal may have some evolutionary roots.

But I also suspect that the categorical appeal, perhaps newer as an evolutionary development, may also have its roots in the same way that appeal for money has for the miser, that is, it is also culturally instilled. It becomes the end in itself, the good will of Kant or his categorical imperative, is good regardless of the consequences because morality shifts its values the same way that society shifts their values for goods so that some people value money in itself instead of the things it could buy. Morality becomes categorical instead of hypothetical in the same way that money becomes a direct source of good for many people (misers) and not a means to other ends. A tension between these two different ways of looking at morality is most clearly seen when the categorical and the hypothetical comes apart in practical deliberation as infamous philosophers' examples have often focused on such as in trolley problems and other thought experiments pitting our categorical values against our hypothetical values. I wonder how much of the rift in ethics can be explained by this analogy with money?

In this way, we may feel the tug in two directions. On one hand, we feel the appeal of consequentialism because we still see the instrumental value of morality (the hypotheical imperatives) but we also see that at the other end is categorical value that some actions/character traits/motives are good in themselves the consequences not even relevant to their goodness (an extreme example of this is the famous dialogue between Kant and his friend, Benjamin Constant regarding the morality of lying to save an innocent person's life).  

In saying the things I just said, I want to make clear that I believe that both our categorical and hypothetical intuitions are a result of both evolution and culture unlike perhaps with money. The miser's value in having money is likely purely a cultivated value. He wasn't born with the disposition to value money though he probably was born with the disposition to value certain things that money could buy (food, status, power, shelter, attention from the opposite sex ,etc). But those who favor the categorical values in morality likely have their intuitions both as a result of dispositions given by evolution and culture. Evolution perhaps helped instill values that favored a categorical outlook to avoid certain kinds of rationalizations of immoral behavior (see The Myth or Morality for a defense of this evolutionary perspective on the categorical). But cultures also can instill categorical values (reading Kant can enforce one's innate dispositions to value them, e.g.). Whereas reading, say, Bentham, may enforce our hypothetical values even though we may have some of these intuitions given us by our natural dispositions from evolution.  

So in this way, we may have intuitions both natural and cultivated that pull in different directions and perhaps this may explain why meta-ethical debates are so difficult to resolve.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Critique of Brzezinski

I posted this on another blog.

Brzezinski: Dangerously Wrong

Zbigniew Brzezinski is a well known political scientist and the media often gives him opportunities to voice opinions on foreign policy. How deserving is this accorded credibility? Well, though I have not read much from him, from the looks of this article he wrote in foreignpolicy it would appear that his competence as a expert on international affairs is grossly inadequate and, moreover, because that incompetence is combined with influence, it makes him very dangerous too. 
So I will only criticize that article. It is about the dangers of a declining US and the rise of China. (Anyone who is more familiar with his writing and views, please disabuse me of my ignorance if I am shown to misunderstand him.) 
My criticisms are two fold: First a hermeneutic critique and then a theoretical one. On the one hand, he seems to have made severely deficient errors in interpreting and applying the ideas in the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. The theoretical critique relies on findings in modern social science. 
In Brzezinski’s article, he argues that the decline of the US and the rise of China posses a great threat to the security of the world. He gives almost no explicit support for this pessimistic view except for a brief reference to an ominous “Hobbessian world,” an allusion to the thoughts of the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. 
While a sudden, massive crisis of the American system — for instance, another financial crisis — would produce a fast-moving chain reaction leading to global political and economic disorder, a steady drift by America into increasingly pervasive decay or endlessly widening warfare with Islam would be unlikely to produce, even by 2025, an effective global successor. No single power will be ready by then to exercise the role that the world, upon the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, expected the United States to play: the leader of a new, globally cooperative world order. More probable would be a protracted phase of rather inconclusive realignments of both global and regional power, with no grand winners and many more losers, in a setting of international uncertainty and even of potentially fatal risks to global well-being. Rather than a world where dreams of democracy flourish, a Hobbesian world of enhanced national security based on varying fusions of authoritarianism, nationalism, and religion could ensue.Perhaps we can reconstruct the argument he has in mind from this suggestion. 
Brzezinski may be construing states as similar to what Hobbes viewed people. Hobbes thought, famously and overly pessimistically, that life was “nasty, brutish and short” in a state of nature for human beings. The only way to establish civil society was for everyone to give up much of the freedoms they have in that state of nature (such as the freedom to kill and rob one another) and to submit to an all powerful sovereign (usually a king) who will use force and coercion to enforce cooperation among all for the benefit of all. This sovereign has many powers including life and death over his subjects. Why would anyone submit to this? Because there are clear benefits to living in a civilized society. One gives up certain freedoms from the state of nature in order to achieve some peace-of-mind and more opportunities for cooperative relationships and hence mutual benefit. This is why Hobbessian political philosophy is often termed a kind of “social contract theory” (if I have misunderstood Hobbes, I hope Allen, who likely has studied him more extensively than I, will correct me). 
In order for Hobbes to get his argument off the ground, he had to rely on several criteria and premises. 1. that everyone in a state of nature is roughly equal in strength, intelligence, cunning, etc. and mostly care about themselves and thus there will be a perpetual state of “war of all against all.” 2. An absolute sovereign needs to be all powerful. 3. He or she has the implicit or explicit consent of all governed and 4. He or she is disinterested between his subjects and applies the rule of law fairly to insure the benefit of all. 
Brzezinski seems to suggest that the US is analogous to such an absolute sovereign and the other states of the world are analogous to people in Hobbes’s world. He also assumes that without an absolute sovereign the world would devolve into something analogous to people in the state of nature, a state of war of all against all. How accurate is this? 
Hobbes’s argument requires that all premises set out above are true (it’s complicated why his argument requires all these premises). Not only do states not satisfy all of Hobbes’ premises for his argument which is aimed at individual people and an absolute sovereign, they seem to satisfy none so there is a glaring disanalogy between states and people. Some non-absolute sovereign states are far more powerful than others and thus is not analogous to Hobbes’s first premise. China, for example, can obliterate the tiny state of San Marino quite literally in seconds by pressing one button. 
The US does not behave in the way an absolute sovereign behaves in a Hobbesian world. It constantly undermines international law and is itself a partisan actor. It is not impartial but unquestioningly biased for its own interests and those of its allies. Its unilateral military actions are not meant to enforce international law but constantly undermines it and it does so for its own interests to the detriment of everyone else. Besides that, other states likely would not consent to absolute rule by the US even if the US does have absolute power over everyone which, of course, is certainly untrue. There are already some world powers that are close in military might to that of the US and under the right circumstances may defeat it in a war (US wars in Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan are just a few examples). 
So there appears to be few similarities between people and states and between an absolute Hobbessian sovereign and the US in the scheme of a Hobbesian framework. Brzezinski’s analogy breaks down on those two fronts. 
But his folly does not end there. He assumes that without an absolute Hobbessian sovereign there cannot or is unlikely to evolve peaceful cooperation in a multipolar world with many roughly equally powerful states without an absolute sovereign. For the sake of argument, assume that Brzezinski is right that the US is currently such an absolute sovereign. Is he then also correct that as China matches the US in power there cannot evolve peaceful cooperation between states and that international affairs will likely devolve into a “state of nature” where all is against all because the optimal strategy would be not cooperating? 
That is pure rubbish. 
First of all, why did Hobbes think that in a state of nature people will devolve into such a state of war of all against all? Some modern philosophers have argued that Hobbes was thinking of a scenario similar to a one-off prisoner’s dilemma game. In this game, it is always rational not to cooperate with another player for defecting is the optimal choice (it strictly dominates in the jargon).

Cooperate3, 30, 5
Defect5, 01, 1

Thus one can argue that players ought to devolve into a Hobbessian State of Nature in situations that are modeled by this game and when there is no absolute sovereign to coerce or enforce rules to cooperate. 
But one-off prisoner dilemma games often do not model situations in the real world. Rather relevant situations in the real world are more accurately modeled by iterated prisoner dilemma games (with memory). Here many games are repeated one after another with indefinite (or unknown) number of games. That seems far more like reality because we don’t only play only a single “game” with other players (other people or other states for that matter) in the world and just “go home” afterword. Rather we are stuck with each other for good or bad, doomed to either cooperate or defect in many repeated situations. Moreover, we remember how each behaved in previous games and update our future decision accordingly to take into account that information. 
So lets say that in the future, there is relative decline of the US and that is balanced by an ascending China such that there is now a bipolar world with two roughly equally powerful superpowers and thus no one “absolute sovereign” (I’m abstracting from the more likely scenario that it will likely turn into a multipolar world with more than two equally powerful superpowers). Does that mean it is rational for both countries to not cooperate (to defect) such as in one-off prisoner’s dilemma games? No. 
The optimal strategy for iterated prisoner’s dilemma games is the famous tit-for-tat strategy. In this game, cooperation can spontaneously evolve and it is completely rational to cooperate. The best strategy is to cooperate at first then play tit-for-tat with random (or actually pseudo-random) forgiveness if the other player keeps defecting. The basic strategy is that one ought to always cooperate unless provoked (this is called a “nice” strategy) and once in a while forgiving non cooperative behavior by cooperating which stops “death spirals” that is, repeated, alternating revenge tactics. Such a strategy is optimal and do not require an absolute sovereign to enforce cooperation. 
The success of the tit for tat strategy, which is largely cooperative despite that its name emphasizes an adversarial nature, took many by surprise. In successive competitions various teams produced complex strategies which attempted to “cheat” in a variety of cunning ways, but tit for tat eventually prevailed in every competition. 
This result may give insight into how groups of animals (and particularly human societies) have come to live in largely (or entirely) cooperative societies, rather than the individualistic “red in tooth and claw” way that might be expected from individuals engaged in a Hobbesian state of nature. 
The more cooperative players are to begin with the quicker and more beneficial the strategy will work to the benefit of all players. However, as many game theorists are also quick to point out, trust is asymmetric: it is far easier to break than to build back up once it is broken. Distrust or broken trust also has multiplier effects and is contagious. Rather than consent to be ruled by an absolute sovereign, in situations modeled by iterated prisoner’s dilemma, it is most rational to instead build trust from the beginning. The US has consistently undermined trust in international affairs by its capricious unilateral actions, military, political and economic. But the faster people start building trust and cooperating, the more beneficial this strategy will be for everyone. Even the iterated prisoner’s dilemmas underscores the actual situation in the world for these games assume that all players are only interested in themselves. In the real world, interests often overlap and, moreover, there exists some instances of empathy, altruism, friendship and alliances across nations (some sense of cosmopolitanism and the brotherhood of mankind). 
We can excuse Hobbes’s ignorance for he lived 300 years before the development of modern game theory. Brzezinski cannot rely on such an excuse. His argument seems to be dependent on the assumption that states in the world takes on a Hobbessian structure with the US as absolute sovereign and furthermore the world needs such a structure to maintain peaceful cooperation. Not only is he wrong, and furthermore, wrong, but he is dangerously wrong. He has likely misunderstood and misapplied Hobbes’s ideas which is itself deeply flawed. By arguing that the world needs an absolute sovereign and, hence, presumably promoting international support for continued American hegemony instead of embracing and promoting a multipolar world with rational and trustworthy actors, Brzezinski may be undermining the possibility of peaceful global cooperation.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Is there an obligation to resurrect extinct groups?

I'm raising this question as it pertained to group rights. Some groups have been systematically exterminated such as the Aboriginal Tasmanians through the genocidal policies of the Australians. If groups have rights and one of them is not to be exterminated as many human rights advocates claim, do they also have a right to be resurrected, say, through cloning or some other means? One may obtain enough genetic material from dead people to clone them. I'd imagine that once the technology is made reliable and cost effective, maybe the Australian government and other governments that have engaged in successful genocide of an entire group of people may be obligated to resurrect from extinction some members of the whole group. Groups, unlike individual people, can be resurrected from the dead and perpetrators, institutional or individual of their extinction, (or their ancestors) may be obligated to do so at least prima facie. But there might be significant ethical problems with this. If so what are these problems? One obvious concern is how many individuals must be resurrected? One? A few or the antegenocide population?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Useful fictions

Does the evolution of our mind and our sensory faculties make it probable that our most basic intuitions about the world are true? Our basic intuitions that there are regular sized objects such as basketballs, cars, people, etc seem out of the question common sense and obviously true.

You can made an argument that evolution makes it probable that truth has survival and fitness value; that is, those creatures whose faculties track truth are able to better adapt to their environment and thus fitter than creatures whose faculties do not and thus our common intuitions about very basic metaphysical claims are true (metaphysical skepticists and nihilists notwithstanding).

However, it may be the case that evolution has not endowed us with truth tracking faculties but with faculties that give us equally useful intuitions about the world that posit useful fictions. Surely there are many useful fictions and for any truth, there are likely just as many fictions that are pragmatically equally useful but strictly speaking false. So long as there is a kind of functional isomorphism (leave that term loose and undefined for now but the basic meaning I am using should be conveyed). So from a purely probablistic standpoint, since a useful fiction is just as good as truth and useful fictions are more numerous than truth for any one intentional stance, it is far more probable that our basic metaphysical intuitions are false. So long as useful fictions "does the job" of insuring survival, even if they are inaccurate at representing reality, they may be good enough for the evolutionary filter.

Perhaps that is the basic moral we should take from quantum mechanics; that the structure of reality may be so odd that we lack the basic perceptual, conceptual faculties to even think about them in a completely truthful way. Maybe that is the reason physicists and laymen alike have such a hard time making sense of quantum mechanics, the most basic description of physical reality we have. Perhaps due to these innate limitations, we, as humans will never completely accurately have a truth conception of reality. reality is just simply too bizarre for us to grasp.

Will fundamental and common sense metaphysical intuitions go the way of moral intuitions and mathematical intuitions as some philosophical skepticists have claimed for these other domains?

Perhaps we are just digital minds in an analog world (just how metaphorical is this metaphor?).

Friday, February 10, 2012

Refilling the Liberal vacuum

Another post on my political blog:

In a previous post I talked about the Liberal tradition (that is, the explicit and formal human rights framework, not to be confused with how people often use the term to refer to a political or economic “left” or being “progressive”) as being a byproduct of religious, political and other kinds of oppression in the west. I also talked about the importance of instituting rule of law and rights protection for China in the coming years in the comments section.
However, I always have had serious reservations about the Liberal model on philosophical grounds.

Focusing on rights may actually hamper ethical or moral development in society because it focuses on bare minimum ethical standards of conduct and behavior. It detracts attention and energy from more positive accounts of ethics such as those from virtue cultivation and community-building. There’s some debate whether a Liberal framework can handle more nuanced and more positive accounts of ethics. I happen to doubt that it can. Confucius mention 2500 years ago that even in societies with well established laws, people can still find ways to treat each other like shit and make life hell for each other. That is because even in such a society, people may still not be virtuous and find ways around the law to behave despicably.

I think that the serious development of the rights framework ought only be a temporary in China so that bare minimum standards are set in place for now and into the near future so that basic rights are protected and society will have something to fall back on for protecting people’s rights. But I also think that as China gets richer, as people get more educated, China ought to progress into a more Confucian model which focuses not on what we owe each other in the form of bare minimum duty and other rights but on our virtue and on the quality of our relationships. This is a much more nuanced and robust form of ethical development but it has the drawbacks that it is more difficult to develop requiring extensive education and good, solid, development of welfare for the whole population. As Confucius mentioned, societies become immoral when two major events occur: when either the education system collapse or when the country does not have enough to feed, clothe, or build infrastructure for the whole population.

Now, I believe also that we may never get totally away from having some legal protection for individuals in society from abuses of their rights no matter how we cultivate virtue in the population because there will always be some bad apples making the whole society worse off and law may be the only way to protect people from abuses from these intractable individuals.
But it seems to be a good goal to try and build something more ethically solid. How would we build such a society that moves away from focusing on rights and starts focusing on individual virtue cultivation?

I would start with a secular moral education. I believe that students should start learning philosophy such as ethics and critical thinking as early as possible (maybe as soon as they are in the 4th or 6th grade). I think Confucius would agree to this.

Second, Confucius said that ritual is another important aspect of moral cultivation of virtue and community ties. But what rituals ought we employ to further this end in a secular 21st century China? (Note: Confucius said that rituals can be wholly secular). I think this is a crucial question that Chinese people should look to themselves and their own history for answers.

It struck me that another useful application of experimental philosophy may be to see if rituals can improve moral conduct.

The nature of democracy

At the political blog I write for, I made a long post about the nature of democracy and what that means for China. The comments section has an interesting dialogue with me and another commenter and writer for the blog. 

Here's the blog:

Rethinking Democracy

This blog will essentially be a second part to the important discussions Allen and raventhorn started about democracy. I will present a philosophical discussion so that we may better think from a different and deeper perspective about this notion than everyday people may be used to by looking at its fundamental structure.

Philosophers has always spoken of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. Arguments for its strength go back to Aristotle or maybe even before. These include the the idea that

  1. Democracies rely on the knowledge base of the many to make decisions and because collective knowledge for a large population will always be larger than any individual in it, democracies can make more informed and accurate decisions.
  1. There is also the argument that a government’s primary role is to benefit its people and the people themselves are the best experts at knowing what are in their best interests.
  1. Some philosophical arguments suggests that only a democracy is a legitimate kind of government for it has the consent of the people thereby gaining right to rule over them.
I will talk more about benefits as well as potential hazards of democracy below but first a definitional point.

Many people in the west and probably in China as well take for granted what democracy is. They have a view and think it is unproblematic and go from there in arguing the benefits or ills of this kind of government. However, the very notion of democracy is itself problematic. I think once we think more carefully on what democracy means, we will have new appreciation of not only the nuanced philosophical depth of the idea but also have a better appreciation of how modern China is run. The upshot is that China is far more democratic than many people think and that the US and many self-proclaimed western nations are far less so.

I will call the basic intuitive common conception of democracy the “naive view.” This view, as I take it, sees democracy simply as a form of government with formal institutions of voting. The system of voting is to either elect officials who make all the policies and rules thereby ruling the country or it is a system of “direct” governance where the votes are for the policies and rules themselves. The votes work by what is called “simple majoritarianism.” That is, when a majority (absolute or plural) percentage of votes are for some measure, the measure gets passed.

That is obviously not how the US government works (unless in a few select states with a few select “referendums”) nor is it for other major “democracies.” These democracies work like the former system of rule by elected officials.

But a system of voting is neither necessary nor sufficient for a democracy. That is because the fundamental idea of democracy has to do with collective decision making. Democracy on this philosophical foundational idea seeks to make more explicit just what it means for a collection (two or more) people to decide on something.

I know what it is like, from self-reflection, what it is for me to decide in favor of some action. By analogy, I know what it is like for someone else to decide in favor of some action. But the problem is, what does iteven mean for a collection of people to decide?

Simple majoritarianism is one solution. The people vote and whatever is the majority choice is the decision for the group. So the majority’s choice simply is made the group’s decision.
However, there are severe difficulties with this conception because it sometimes do not capture well what we would consider the decisions of the group even when the majority chooses it.

Why simple majoritarianist voting is not sufficient for democracy

This is most consistently seen in society where effective propaganda or implicit or explicit threats  propagated by a small group of powerful individuals influences public behavior. Often small groups can coerce or influence the masses using threat of force or other threats. In that case, even though the majority votes in some way, it may not be their choice because it is really the choice of a select powerful few who had used coercive tactics to sway the vote. Often many, self-proclaimed “democracies” in very corrupt and poor countries resemble this scenario.

A small group may also wield disproportionate power by influencing the masses and manipulating their choices using less heavy-handed means. Consider effective propaganda. In this case, propaganda, that is, false information, misleading information and effective concealment of relevant alternative information is used in place of coercion to influence the vote. People think they are voting for their and their fellow citizen’s best interests but in reality, they are voting for the interests of a small minority of powerful individuals who control the media. They have been misled in doing so. In this case, the majority may think they are voting for some measure but is it really their decision if the rationale they use to make their decisions are based on lies fed to them by a small minority? I think you can make a good case that it is not really their decision at all but the decision of that small group (does this hypothetical “democracy” sound familiar?).

So it would seem that voting either directly or indirectly for a representative is not sufficient for a true democracy. But I now argue, it may not even be necessary.

Why simple majoritarianist voting is not even necessary for a democracy

Consider a society where the rulers are a small minority of the population. They are perhaps philosopher kings, or maybe gods or maybe even very advanced computers. They are benevolent dictators, let’s say. And imagine that this group of enlightened beings often surveys the population for their opinions and needs and makes a sincere effort at investigating their welfare.

They then institute what that population most desire and what satisfies their welfare. Policies and rules are designed by those individuals in power not so as to benefit themselves specifically but to benefit the society as a whole. Their decisions are made with the welfare of everyone in mind. Sounds far-fetched? Well, in most dictatorships, this is not how things go so people have some right to incredulity. Most dictators are not benevolent, of course, but some may be.

Now the question is, how democratic is the society I just described that did involve elite decision makers who are benevolent? Remember that the basic intuitive notion of democracy is collective decision making. So if the minority of elite rulers make their decisions based on the needs, wishes and welfare of the masses and the masses agree with the major decisions of the elites, why are not those decisions as much a decision by the masses as it is by the elites? In this case, there is no formal vote but the decisions reflect the needs, wishes and welfare of the masses (does this sound familiar?).

Some people may object and say that despite the fact that the decisions reflect the views or choices of the public and responds to their welfare in this scenario, because it is the ultimate decision of the elite few and not the public, it is not the collective that is making the decision and ergo not a democracy.

But one only needs to reflect that in a representative democracy, the kind we have in almost all known democratic governments in the world today, it is the elite few that makes the decisions and not the public as well. So whatever kind of objection that is, it also must be applied to representative democracies as well but few are willing to bite the bullet and say that representative democracies are not really democracies based on the same reasoning.
I, however, think that so long as the people informatively endorse or consent to the decisions of the elites without being swayed by propaganda and the decisions from the elites are an extension of the people’s own interests and out their demands, it doesn’t matter to the democracy whether those elites are elected or gain power through some other means (meritocratic selection processes, etc).

I’ve given arguments that seems to show that voting and simple majoritarianism is not necessary nor sufficient for a democracy. But what is then a democracy?

Throughout the last 50 years and especially the last 30, many political philosophers have focused on a conception of democracy that seems to model itself on the scientific process. Science, as we are all taught from a young age, is a community-based method to gain knowledge. It works by hypothesis formation, empirical theory testing, and most relevantly, building off the knowledge of previous science and discussing findings in a public scientific forum. That way, evidence becomes objective. There is no such thing as private evidence. What is evidence for me ought to be replicable for you. Scientists do their jobs essentially by giving each other reasons. Controversies are resolved this way. Hence also why there is so much consensus on core issues in science.

In other words, the scientific community comes to have consensus through rational discourse. Hence, science is often called a discursive discipline.

Philosophers have seen this as a model for how democratic society ought ideally to work as well. Granted most people will never be scientists or mathematicians or philosophers. They simply do not have the ability or desire but it is an ideal to which to build the conceptual foundations of democracy because many philosophers realized that it is through this method that society as a whole can best avoid being coerced by propaganda from a few powerful interests groups, for example, or not doing what is in society’s best interests because of biases and misinformation. It is also through this method that we have our best chances at arriving at consensus for what to do as a society.

A society that best institutes practices most conducive to rational discourse and collective decision making is a more democratic society. Thus this makes democracy a multifaceted affair, a property of the whole society rather than some one (formal) element such as voting. It is dependent on many things such as the quality and availability of good education, how well the society protects freedom of expression and information availability, how well the actual decision-makers respond to the discourse in favor of the choices of the public, etc.

There may be many ways to institute such a conception of democracy. There is no one “right way” because this kind of democracy is so multifaceted; there are many ways to skin a discursive democratic cat. The responsibility to institute such a society is up to all the people in it applying the heuristics of critical thinking, creative problem solving, mediation and so forth.
But now we may also see some problems with this conception of a discursive democracy. First objection may be: This conception of democracy aligns itself with a method that is common among scientists. But the problems scientists deal with are often much simpler and more conducive to being resolved wholly or mostly and thus consensus better easily achieved. Society’s problems are often much more complex and difficult to resolve conclusively. Thus consensus is often very difficult if not impossible to achieve.

This much is true. But political philosophers see discursive democracy as an ideal, a point at the limit. They may argue that this conception which focuses on rational discourse is the best method we have at resolving the difficult issues that face us. Human rationality, in all its finiteness and frailty, is still better than none at all. We should also be aware that often issues in society seem intractable not because the issues are intractable but because the people discussing them are intractable. That is, they are simply not reasonable, not conducive to rational debate and evidence.

There are general ways that may make a discursive democracy more functionally efficient. One is mediation. When consensus cannot be reached, a society may engage in collective brain storming to find a middle point in which there is some degree of consensus, a modus vivendi, until a more agreeable solution is foundA unanimous agreement will never be reached in any large society but it is through the process of coming ever more closer to complete consensus in larger and larger representative group that a discursive democracy is to be understood. In that way also, it mimics the scientific ideal.

Furthermore, in a discursive democracy, we may only wish to focus on an “overlapping consensus.” That is, some have argued that in our society, we focus too much on where everyone disagrees. This causes tensions. But we do not notice all the views we have in common. Society may best be ruled if we focus on the aspects we can agree on (the overlap). Differences are “put off until a wiser generation” to resolve in the words of Deng Xiaoping when he spoke of how territorial disputes between China and its neighbors are to be resolved.
These differences are put off but then applied the same discursive methods again at some later time to be collectively discussed and reasoned. Repeat cycle if necessary. Some of the most pressing issues, of course, will require quick and decisive action and thus the cycle of discourse must be ended with a vote or some other decision procedure.

This is also a conception of democracy that is optimistic about human potential. It also sees that with education and a nurturing society, human beings are capable of achieving much more.
The second major problem I see with the discursive model is the fact that it may, in the words of the philosopher Francois Lyotard, “privilege the articulate” (as opposed to the truly wise). I take this problem to be the most serious and I do not have fast and easy answers to how it, if at all, it may be resolved or at least made less problematic other than perhaps instituting better education systems that makes better communicators and people better at critical thinking (so that they may distinguish the wise discourse from the merely persuasive and articulate).
A discursive democracy also requires a certain kind of society. One that has a highly developed education system that inculcates especially critical thinking skills and reasonableness across its population. Additionally, the culture of that society would need to be highly conducive to debate, mediation and dialogue, a culture that is tractable and reasonable and is sensible to taking responsibility for the actions and aims of themselves and their society. But such as society is rare and may only come after significant economic and cultural development.
Other deficiencies of democracies widely known also apply to this model. Democracies can often be slower than other forms of government in coming to decisive action. Again, there are ways to make this less problematic but it still remains a serious problem.

What this means for China’s future

China’s development politically and culturally seems to suggest that it is a candidate for this kind of democracy or some version of it. In fact, China may already be on its way as some of the most exciting democratic experiments in the world employing discursive procedures are now employed at both ends of society: namely at the local village, township, county levels through town-hall style meetings and elections as well as the CCP’s politburo.
I will relay a story I have heard by a western journalist telling of a Chinese village’s democratic experiment that illustrates almost perfectly how discursive democracy may work.

He told of a village that gave citizens cameras and video recorders. Whenever there was an election, if the roads the local politicians promised to fix were not fixed, if the lights in town were still broken, if there were any evidence of corruption documented, the citizens would show the tape to the town hall where the election was conducted and where the candidate is selling his or her qualifications to win their votes. The officials would be humiliated in front of his family and friends if such evidence were exposed in front of everyone.

Even his supporters may lose face as well if they had publicly supported such a candidate or is the candidates kin or friend. In such a way, in this town, there are almost always good roads, competent financial management, low corruption and solid infrastructure development. That is because politicians will go out of their way not to lose face because they know they will eventually be held accountable by the citizens.

Citizens know they will be required to take active responsibility for discussing, showing evidence and reasoning about how worthy a candidate is for election or reelection. Citizens also know they will be held responsible for their own votes so they had better make informed decisions. In this way, everyone is holding everyone else responsible. These kinds of villages will likely pop up more frequently across China’s rural and maybe even metropolitan areas in the near future.

At the other end of society is the powerful politburo. This is the body that determines how China is to be run in its major economic, social and political policies. It has 24 members. There is surprising equality in the politburo with the president (Hu) and premier (Wen) having roughly equal standing among the rest. They are all elected by other communist officials based on merit.
Any top government official is expected to go to the country’s top college designed specifically to train future leaders. The classes are described as training them for the open, rational discussion and creative problem solving they will encounter when they are elected to power.

Decisions are made not based on simple majoritarian vote but through building of consensus (see here for an interesting first-hand account of how this discursive process works in the politburo). Stubborn issues that are divisive are put off until a better solution that all can agree on is found. Only those issues that are within the overlapping consensus are agreed to be finalized as decisions for the country unless there is a pressing need to institute some decision quickly. In that case a decision is made by vote but the issue is considered “open” and may be revised later when there is more room for discussion. The Central Committee (300-400 members) is also run by this essentially democratic/discursive/consensus-building method.
I see the CCP as continuing to enlarge this political philosophy or something like it for other aspects of the Chinese political structure in the near future.


I hope to have show that there are both good and bad properties of democracies and more specifically, a certain conception of democracy. Ultimately what determines how well it functions is the more nuanced aspects of the society. Its education, culture, economic development as well as its formal legal and political institutions make it a democracy. The weighing of the potential for good vs bad is up to the citizens to decide if they are worth it in the end (I happen to think that this form of democracy is). But in so deciding, they are engaging in a kind of public democratic discourse.

There is no fast and easy conception of democracy. Democracy is not a simple byproduct of voting booths but a complex property of the society as a whole. There are many criteria that determines how democratic a society is on a spectrum. Dichotomous thinking pitting a naïve conception vs the political Other is not only harmful for the development of democracy elsewhere but for our own development along democratic lines. China is instituting many measures that may well be democratic on a very fundamental level. That sort of democratic expansion from two opposite ends of society is in the direction towards the middle, bridging the gap.

No society is ever totally democratic. But there is legitimate movement towards that direction in China.

The future is bright for a truly vibrant and responsible society where more and more Chinese citizens have more power, say and accountability in their lives. Through better education and due to its particular culture that emphasis tolerance for plurality and Confucian rational dialogue without dogmatism I believe that China can institute a truly democratic society based on sound philosophical principles (democracy with Chinese characteristics) and not mere superficial democratic packaging. It will develop according to its own pace and according to its own route. China does not need to be lectured about democracy by a country that is ruled not by “The People” but by soulless entities: multigazillion dollar corporations and bought politicians who are looking out only for the top .1%.

Addendum: Allen asked at the end of his blog if it could be fruitful to employ “scientific” methods in democratic theory or practice such as game theory. Such methods have already been applied by political philosophers to illuminate formal collective decision problems such as Condorcet problems and Arrow’s impossibility theorem. See the work of Christian List and Philip Pettit (both advocates of the discursive democratic model) for example.