Monday, May 2, 2016

The Bigger Picture of Big Data

Data is everywhere: I wake up and check my disappointing sleep patterns; monitor my sluggish steps to the kitchen; before my morning French press I’ve generated at least 3 of the 4.5 billion-plus Facebook likes for that day; and with one click I’ve warned morning commuters about the wild turkey-caused traffic jam on Russell Blvd. In the modern world, information is plentiful, and, more importantly, predictively useful.

Bing Predicts has consistently predicted NFL winners based on information about team statistics, match-up dynamics, online searches and discussion, and even facts about weather conditions and turf type. What some might take to be trifling online discussion actually increases the accuracy of Bing Predictions by 5%. Useful for spring season prediction, we can now trace allergy zones based on tree planting information; and soon, you’ll be able to plot your sprint from pollen in live time.

Forbes reported on the increasing amount of data in the world:
  • 40,000 Google search queries every second
  • By 2020, we can expect about 1.7 megabytes of new information to be created every second for every human being on the planet.
  • And this one: At the moment less than 0.5% of all data is ever analyzed and used.
Does more data mean reliable data? Modern trends in data analysis that deal with heavy volume, velocity, variety, scope, and resolution can be grouped under ‘Big Data’ (Kitchin 2014). Some views on Big Data seem to suggest that the small blunders can be tolerated because a comprehensive trend is generated in the process (Halevy et al. 2009; Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier 2013). Suppose you’re using an app that reports live-time pollen spread through user clicks. As soon as a user experiences blaring sneezes, watery eyes, observes pollen clouds, etc. that user can click different options, warning others. The problem is that a small portion of the population is subject to the nocebo effect, where sheer expectation produces real physical symptoms (even with allergic reactions), thus creating bits of false positive data that mislead others about allergy trends. The solution is if there’s more data then the “true” trend (signal) pierces through while the false positives disappear into the background noise. This is exactly what is behind aggregation effects, where averaging multiple individual guesses produces reliable results, and errors cancel out (Yi et al 2012). 

One methodological concept driving the value of Big Data seems to be that data produces notable trends, even in the presence of small blunders caused by, e.g., the malfunction of individual data measures. (As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, multiple independent pieces of data are only useful if the data is generated by independent sources.) But there is more to Big Data methodology. Big Data methods aren’t merely about analytically sitting back, generating a groundbreaking algorithm, and letting the significant relationships come to surface. Rather, Big Data is a hands-on process that consists of data gathering, classification, and analysis. One of the notable features of the Big Data process is the role of, what I call, ‘selection.’ Since Big Data doesn’t provide a comprehensive picture of a system (See Callebaut 2012), scientists have to figure out what to focus on and what to ignore at every step in the Big Data process. This means that it matters not only how much data we have, but also how we select at the data-gathering, classification, and analysis stages.

Broadly, I use ‘selection’ to refer to scientific engagement with limited system variables—whether this is at the sampling, instrumentation, or modeling level (see van Fraassen 2008). Selection in data gathering is when information about certain variables is not recorded. For example, Kaplan et al (2014) describe that social and behavioral choices—e.g., the consumption of fruits/vegetables—are only recorded 10% of the time in electronic health records (EHR’s), even though such choices are empirically linked to relevant medical conditions (343). Selection in data classification limits the type and amount of categories used to sort the data. When filling out an online survey is there an option for ‘indifferent’? When filing an insurance claim, is there a category for (unprovoked) moose attack? Information can be lost when using classificatory systems that are missing categories or contain vague/ambiguous categories (e.g., the use of ‘inconclusive’ as a category) (Berman 2013).

Selection at the analysis level requires finesse in working with data sets. The analyst engages Big Data by selecting relevant data sets and matching variables between sets to perform the proper statistical comparison. Selecting sets and matching occurs in prospective and retrospective designs, so this is not a new problem. However, methodological transparency (e.g., knowing the methods used to generate the data) is often limited in Big Data contexts because this requires that we ask “preanalytic” questions without available answers (Berman 2013, 95). Furthermore, without methodological transparency, our understanding of relationships between variables is limited. 

Suppose that scientists aim to find the parasite responsible for some physiological condition P by analyzing data from brain samples from different regions and decades. Analysts find data on brain samples with P and brain samples without P, and then compare the samples to limit possible parasite culprits. To better match our groups for confounds we can ask specific questions: What is the process of selecting the individual samples? Are all brain samples taken post-mortem? What is the process of preparing the sample for measurement analysis? At the analytic level, this information is lost. One major difficulty emerges. We have limited information about possible error sources, such as, selection bias and laboratory techniques that can potentially alter intrinsic components of the tissue. This is problematic because if the experimental and control groups have different error sources, we may mistake confound-driven frequency differences for statistically significant ones.

While transparency poses a problem, the aim of this picture is not to make us skeptical about Big Data, but rather to shift our focus on the Big Data process. Reliable results aren’t just about aggregate outcomes. They’re about careful selection at each step in the data process.


Callebaut, Werner. 2012. “Scientific perspectivism: A philosopher of science’s response
to the challenge of big data biology.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Science 43(1):69-80.

Berman, J.J. 2013. Principles of Big Data: Preparing, Sharing, and Analyzing

Complex Information (1st ed.) San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers Inc.

Halevy, A., Peter N., and Fernando P. 2009. “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data.”
IEEE Intelligent Systems 24(2):8-12.

Kaplan, R., Chambers, D., Glasgow, R. 2014. “Big Data and Large Sample Size: A

Cautionary Note on the Potential for Bias,” Clinical and Translational Science 7(4). DOI: 10.1111/cts.12178.

Kitchin, R. 2014. “Big data, new epistemologies and paradigm shifts,” Big Data and
Society 1:1-12.

Mayer-Schönberger, V., and Cukier, K. 2013. Big Data: A Revolution That Will

Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Yi, S. K. M., Steyvers, M., Lee, M. D., and Dry, M. J. 2012. "The Wisdom of the Crowd
in Combinatorial Problems," Cognitive Science 36(3). doi:10.1111/j.1551- 6709.2011.01223.x.

Vadim Keyser
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, April 25, 2016

How not to lose a small fortune

“Every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of human life.” - Adam Smith, 1776 

“Money begets money.” - Benjamin Franklin, 1748

Wealth is power. Wealth enables happiness. Squandering wealth diminishes power and happiness by reducing the ability to navigate future necessities and contingencies. Indulging current wants at the expense of our future selves deprives us of the power to live comfortably or with less pain and suffering. Wealth is a moral value and a moral outcome: It helps us endure personal and economic setbacks and empowers us to thrive. We all know that we should spend less and save more, but we just don’t. If you realize the magnitude of the loss to your future self and livelihood whenever you spend money rather than save it, then you are psychologically able to feel its loss more. Feeling loss more is sometimes good for us because it makes us avoid it. I want to use this to motivate spending less and investing more for the sake of our future prospects.

Money is a means to wealth. In every decision involving what to do with our money we should consider what we risk losing when we use it, not just what we can gain by it. Spending money or saving money is a hard choice; we want to use our money and have it too. Why save for a nebulous future good what I can spend on tangible present good? Answer: You really have more to lose than you have to gain if you do not invest more of your money, much more, than most people already do.


In “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice” (1981) Tversky and Kahneman found that people experience the pain of a loss with much greater intensity than the pleasure from a gain and that this disproportionally affects decision-making. When choosing actions leading to comparable outcomes where there is the risk of loss and an opportunity for gain, people prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains even when the likelihood of gain outweighs the likelihood of loss. Loss aversion corrupts the perceived value of our assets and our estimates of potential gains from holding such assets. However, since we care more about losses than gains, maybe we can use our loss aversion when framing decisions about how to use our wealth, i.e., money, when we consider prospects for short-term vs. long-term gain and loss. Let’s exploit loss aversion to our advantage. Instead of asking, “Would you rather spend $5000 this year or spend $10,000 ten years from now?” ask “Would you rather lose $5000 now or $10,000 ten years from now?”

Consuming less, expending less of your resources enables your money to earn money. Money grows when you invest it. Compounding interest and re-investing dividends on investments, e.g., shares of an S&P 500 index fundwork like magic but it is just math. Returns on investments are risky, where risk is the probability that an investment's actual return will be different than expected. Statistical data on U.S. stock market activity provide us information we can use to our benefit when deciding how much to spend or invest given past market returns. Here is a rough inductive argument framing the choice of comparable outcomes we face that should trigger our aversion to loss.
  1. The average annual return for the U.S. stock market since 1928 is 7%.
  2. Assume I can invest X dollars at 7% interest compounded annually in the U.S. stock market.
  3. At this interest rate, whatever I invest this year probably doubles in value ten years from now.
  4. For example, either I spend $5000 this year on things I don’t need, or I invest $5000 in a market that on average yields a 7% annual return.
  5. If I spend rather than invest $5000 this year, then I lose $10,000 ten years from now.
  6. If I invest rather than spend $5000 this year, then I gain $10,000 ten years from now.
  7. So, I either lose $10,000 ten years from now or I gain $10,000 ten years from now.
If framing the choice this way doesn’t motivate you to spend less and invest more, consider how the future loss becomes tremendous when we extend the investment time-frame and make additional, equivalent investments for ten years (or more). Would you rather lose $70,000 every year starting ten years from now or lose $5000 per year now for ten years? Extending the time horizon to twenty years is better than ten, in that period the value of your investment/savings become much larger. Investing $5000 per year for twenty years grows to over $200,000. Can you afford to lose over $200,000? I sure can't. Run the numbers with an online compound interest calculator, show yourself what you risk losing.

Don’t confuse wants with needs. We lose too much by overpaying for our present self-indulgences. Routine expenses such as bottled water, boutique coffee, fancy new smartphones with unlimited data plans, useless vitamins and herbal supplements, credit card debt, crippling auto or home payments, $25,000 weddings and private colleges are money-sucks. Instead of buying lunch at the food court, pack a PBJ.

Investing only $5000 per year as I suggest in the example above is not going to yield enough for those of us who are neither earning six-figures nor inheriting a small fortune. If you want to fund your kid's college education or live well in retirement on, say the median average income, then you must invest at least two to three times that amount annually. Most Americans are not saving enough. Further, recessions, job loss, divorce, medical emergencies happen, each erodes our future ability to meet our obligations. You need to become a millionaire, so you will have to invest 15 to 20% of your income. I'll produce an argument for that proposition later.

Scott Merlino, PhD
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, April 18, 2016

A perhaps not entirely silly argument for the existence of God

I’m fascinated with an ancient argument for the existence of God which, on the surface, seems downright silly. And perhaps it is silly- but it brings up some interesting issues. The argument is attributed to Zeno of Citium, a Stoic philosopher. Here is Zeno’s argument:
1. It is reasonable to honor the gods.
2. If the gods do not exist, it is not reasonable to honor them.
3. Therefore, the gods exist.
Let’s tinker with the argument a bit, adjusting premise (1) to explicitly refer to a particular theistic religious practice- in this case, prayer. From this let us try to infer, not the existence of the gods, but of God:
1a. It is reasonable to pray (i.e. to God).
2a. If God is not real, then it is not reasonable to pray.
3a. Therefore, God is real.
An objection is possible here, which is that if an argument of this form works as well to establish the existence of the Greek gods as it does to establish the existence of the God of Abraham, it hardly makes a compelling case for western monotheism. I concede the objection. But let’s press on and see what else we can discover about this argument.

A critic will be likely to attack premise (1a) of the revised Stoic argument. It is not reasonable to pray. But why? Prayer, she may say, is not reasonable because God does not exist. When one prays, one is talking to a nonexistent being, and it is not reasonable to talk to nonexistent beings.

I used to work in downtown San Francisco. Every evening, a man would walk by who was shouting angrily at some invisible person. I assumed that he was not shouting at a real person, and so I took him to be a lunatic— that is, unreasonable. Many would say that prayer is like that.

But this initial objection begs the question. The critic cannot rebut an argument for the existence of God by assuming that God does not exist. And here is an interesting question: Are there any grounds for assessing the reasonableness of a theistic religious practice, such as prayer, without making any assumptions regarding the existence of the being to whom these practices are directed?

Our critic may say that there are not. She may press her case, saying “I will not accept the claim that it is reasonable to pray until I have some reason to believe that God exists.” She may insist that the rationality of religious practice depends on first establishing the existence of God; it is really the Stoic argument that begs the question, because the truth of premise (1a) assumes that God is real. But if that is true, then establishing the truth of (1a) essentially established the truth of the conclusion of this argument. So what is silly about the argument is that it is trivial.

These two issues appear to be inseparable from one another:
A. Is theistic religious practice reasonable?
B. Is it reasonable to believe in God?
This becomes particularly apparent if it turns out that belief in God is a religious practice- or that, generally speaking, belief in God is to be identified with religious practice generally. But I lack the space here to do justice to these suggestions.

There are two reasons why we should not try to establish the reasonableness of religious practice by first showing that God exists.

First, we would have to adopt some method in demonstrating the existence of God. Whatever method we choose will itself be part of some practice. If our method is taken from theistic religious practice- shall we look to scripture to see whether God exists?- we beg the question, since that practice assumes the reality of God. But if our method comes from some other practice, it is not likely to support belief in God. It is futile, for example, to attempt to appeal to the scientific method to demonstrate the existence of God, since the scientific method trades in physical objects, and God is not a physical object.

Second: The case of the physical sciences makes clear just how deeply practice and ontology are related, for, I would argue, a practice brings with it its own ontology- its own scheme regarding what exists. And that ontology is at home only within that particular practice. I think the relation of (A) and (B) above is analogous to the relation of (C) and (D):

C. Is the practice of physical science reasonable?
D. Is it reasonable to believe in physical objects?

If I am right about this, then the following argument is analogous to the Stoic one:

1b. The practice of physical science is reasonable.
2b. If physical objects are not real, then the practice of physical science is not reasonable.
3b. Therefore, physical objects are real.
Few philosophers would insist that the reality of physical objects be established before supposing that physical science is a rational enterprise. (Is there a double standard at work here?) This is a good thing, since, as any survivor of Introduction to Philosophy can attest, it is far from clear how we can meet this challenge.

Unless, of course, I have just done it. I think this argument for the reality of physical objects is a good one. And while I will stop short of endorsing the Stoic argument, I confess that it strikes me as obvious that one who prays is not at all like the shouting lunatic who roamed the streets of San Francisco. Perhaps the Stoic argument is not completely silly after all.

I think this discussion gestures in the direction of an important insight. We often suppose that assertions of the form, “x exists,” are univocal. But the reality of a thing is inseparable from what we have been calling a practice. What is it for God to be real, anyway? Perhaps the reality of God is just whatever is required for God to be a proper object of religious practice.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, April 11, 2016

What's the point of a point?

I don’t know whether it is more shocking to common sense to be told there are zero-dimensional mathematical points or to be told water is mostly oxygen. Both illustrate how common sense often has to take a back seat when it conflicts with progress.

My point in this entry is to argue for the existence of points, a controversial topic in metaphysics. To put the argument very simplistically, if we can agree that geometry and calculus tell us what exists, then a straightforward examination of these theories reveals that they imply:
  • There exists a midpoint of any line segment.
  • For each real number x, there exists a point on the mathematical line that is a distance x from the origin. 
If these two statements are true, then points exist. How do we know the two statements are true? The answer is rather complicated. Part of the answer is to show that the statements are not like the statement that there exist horns on unicorns.

Someone might ask, “Given what we know about points how do we go about detecting them?” My response is, ”Given what we know about points, we should not be trying to detect them.”

Mathematicians justify their statements by proving them, by deducing them from the axioms, but this remark de-emphasizes the fact that the axioms themselves need justification. What axiomatization does is systematize claims, not justify them.

When it comes to justifying the ascription of “truth” to mathematical existence claims, we should consider mathematics to be part of science, not a parallel discipline to science. All true mathematical claims should be justified the same way other scientific claims are—by their empirical success, by how they fit into a larger network of claims that is also justified by its success. But mathematics is a very special part of science since its claims, and those of formal logic, are much less impacted by new empirical evidence.

Mathematics demonstrates its empirical success because very often when the principles of mathematics are violated in our scientific reasoning the probability soars that the bridges we design will fall down and that absurdities will be deduced.

Let’s turn now from mathematical points to physical points, points of space, of time and of spacetime. Our well accepted physical theories imply that

  • The path that Achilles takes from this point to that point has a midpoint. 
  • There is an instant, a point of time, when that uranium nucleus emitted a neutron.

If these statements are true, then non-mathematical points exist. There are no good reasons to say these are mere approximations to the way things are. There are many approximations in science—a molecule is approximately a point particle—but points themselves do not lose their ontological standing simply because molecules are not really point particles.

Nor is there an unsolvable problem of epistemic access to points, of how we know about points. We made up the theory of the points, and that’s how we know about them.

We justify points holistically by appealing to how they contribute to scientific success, that is, to how the points give our science extra power to explain, describe, predict, and enrich our understanding. But we also need confidence that our science would lose too many of these virtues without the points.

We should reject the various versions of skepticism about points, such as 

(a) conventionalism; according to which there may be other undiscovered and equally adequate mathematical systems that make no use of points;
(b) semantic instrumentalism, according to which theoretical terms such as “point” are not to be interpreted as referring to anything,  
(c) theoretical reductionism, according to which the term “point” is a disguised way of referring to observable phenomena, 
(d) constructive empiricism, according to which points may exist, but we are only justified in accepting scientific theories that refer to unobservable entities as "empirically adequate."

By contrast, we should embrace this quotation from Putnam: “The positive argument for realism is that it is the only philosophy that doesn't make the success of science a miracle.”

Let’s bet on this success. Let’s bet that the truth of point talk and the other talk with theoretical terms is integral to explaining science’s success at making predictions and producing explanations. And bet that the existence of points comes along with the truth of point talk. Point talk is not an idle or extraneous part of science, although we should agree with Kitcher that no “sensible realist should ever want to assert that the idle parts of an individual practice, past or present, are justified by the success of the whole.” We should not insist, though, that the successful reference of “point” is a necessary condition for the success of theories that incorporate the word “point.” And even though some theoretical terms of our best contemporary science will be regarded as non-referring by future generations of scientists, there is no good reason to bet that the term “point” will be one of those terms.

One last comment on the holism involved in justification. We are justified in adding points into our ontology because they are indispensable to the rest of the package that we have good reason to accept as approximately true. This package is large. In contains the lack of sufficient reasons to doubt that motion is continuous rather than discrete, the need in so many places to use the principles of geometry, calculus and logic, the need to embrace the general theory of relativity which describes the details of all motion in a background spacetime composed of points that are indiscernible one from another, the belief that quantum mechanics is approximately true and that space and time are not quantized in quantum mechanics, the recognition that the sciences have made so many varied, successful predictions, the presumption of the overall instrumental success of scientific methods across the history of science, and the assumption that we are not dreaming.

That is the point of a point.

Brad Dowden
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, April 4, 2016

Holes as natural kinds

Metaphysical questions can sound profound and stupid at the same time.*  That’s why it’s difficult to know whether a sense of humor (or at least of irony) is a useful trait for a metaphysician, or a hindrance. David Lewis, a metaphysician of the first rank with a highly developed sense of both, once authored a witty little essay on holes.

Where else but in metaphysics could you get a sustained argument about holes?

Lewis was a physicalist and a nominalist, and holes constitute an obvious problem for someone who believes that only concrete material objects exist. After all, holes are not made of matter. Yet holes have many of the other properties of material objects: size, shape, location, as well as causal powers. Thus there is a strong case for their reality, as Lewis concluded, despite the not-being-made-of-matter thing.

Since I view the prospect of non-material things with equanimity, I’m perfectly happy with a world full of holes.

My only question concerns their nature.

My answer: Holes strongly nomologically supervene on matter.

A’s supervene on B’s if the presence of A’s is rendered possible only by the presence of B’s. There can be holes only if they are holes in something.

The supervenience relation is nomological because it depends on physical law. Only in worlds in which the physical laws allow matter to form aggregations, to ‘clump’, can there be masses of matter capable of having holes in them.

The supervenience is strong: in all such physically similar worlds matter will be hole-capable.

Holes are not guaranteed even in such worlds, though: in a world whose physical law permits matter but where for some reason the possibility is not realized, or in a world where matter fills every point of space, holes will be absent.

But barring such possibilities, if certain conditions are met, the presence of matter will necessitate the presence of holes. Any aggregation of matter that is not completely homogeneous either in its surface topology or in the volume it occupies will have holes in it. A solid perfect cube or sphere has no holes. Dice and golf balls, however, have holes. Indeed golf balls are covered with them. A tennis ball, not being solid, has a great big hole in the center. It’s mostly hole, actually, by volume.

Why should we accept the reality of holes? Couldn’t a physicalist just say instead that reference to nothings like holes is absurd. Just make reference to the something, without countenancing holes at all.

There are two problems with such a reductionist program; the problems are connected.

Problem 1: Causal Powers

I once opened a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. (Actually I have done that more than once, but this particular episode was especially memorable.) I was wondering why it felt a bit light. Scooping into it I discovered a big bubble. That caused it to have the weight it did. It also caused me to be Quite Put Out.

Golf balls have dimples on them because they cause the air just above the surface to rotate with the ball. As a result the smoother air is pulled a bit more into the ball’s wake, reducing drag. (You may recognize Aristotle’s explanation of projectile motion here.) The dimples also lower the air pressure on the top of the ball, producing lift much like an airplane’s wing. A smooth golf ball would travel only about half as far as one with dimples. (Scientific American, September 2005)

To the extent that holes have causal powers, they must be countenanced in any account of What Goes On.

Problem 2: Explanations

But we are forced to attribute causal powers to holes only if we are forced to make reference to them in our explanations.

Wouldn’t it be better to explain things by appeal only to the properties and powers of somethings?

In this case the properties would presumably be shape properties of masses of matter. So don’t explain my disappointing pint of Ben & Jerry’s by saying that “it had a bubble yay big in it” (for some value of yay). Instead give a description of the shape of the mass. Don’t mention ‘voids’, ‘absences’, ‘discontinuities’ either. If you’re going to cheat, cheat smart.

A mass of ice cream with two smaller bubbles with volumes equaling the single bubble in mine would be equally disappointing. Describe the differences in the two shapes of the ice cream yielding this same result. Then describe all possible shapes that would yield the same result. Grasping that many shape properties is beyond human cognitive powers.

But counting bubbles isn’t.

Try to give the explanation of why dimpled golf balls fly farther than smooth ones without mentioning the dimples. Such an explanation will appeal only to the shape of surface. How many possible shapes of surfaces would produce the same result? How could we grasp all those shapes? Several companies have experimented with hexagonal dimples instead of round ones. Describe the difference in the surface of a golf ball with hexagonal dimples instead of round ones without mentioning the dimples or their shape.

It would seem then, that holes function in explanations as natural kinds.

But if an entity is a natural kind possessing causal powers, it has an excellent claim to be real.

This admittedly rather silly example strikes me as instructive for physicalist programs of reduction.

Since the supervenience relation that brings holes into existence is ‘physicalistically kosher’, if you’re going to compile a complete list of the physical objects in the world you’re going to have to count the holes.

Do golf balls have their dimples as parts then?

Of course not. They’re supervenient objects, not constituent objects.

What would be a reasonable motive for avoiding this conclusion?

 *This post is dedicated to my students in PHIL 181: Metaphysics this semester, who put up with a lot.

Thomas Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

How will you celebrate Cesar Chavez Day?

On Thursday, we’ll be one of ten states officially observing Cesar Chavez Day. Looking for something to do? Maybe listen to a recent Donald Trump speech!

Trump, the likely republican nominee (!), favors going further than we already do to enforce restrictions on immigration from Mexico. He favors these policies because he thinks Mexican immigrants “are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Even more often, Trump justifies his policies, which include a “huuge wall,” in terms of the economic and fiscal costs of Mexican immigration. Last year, for instance, he said, “The effects on jobseekers have been disastrous.” An ad he ran in January purported to show people “pouring across the southern border.”

During the 1960s and 70s, Chavez had a similar concern that Mexican immigrants would disadvantage American workers, mainly workers who were members of his United Farm Workers union. The typical concern is that new entrants willing to work for less will depress wages. This led Chavez to take drastic measures to restrict movement across the Mexico border. For example, he directed his union officials to investigate farms and report undocumented workers to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and to picket in front of INS offices demanding that they crack down on undocumented workers. The most controversial episode occurred in 1973 when Chavez helped organize an Arizona Minutemen-like hundred-mile “wetline” encampment of UFW workers to prevent those he sometimes referred to as “illegals” and “wetbacks” from entering the US at the Mexico border. According to reports of the incident in a New York Times story, the UFW representatives used “clubs, chains and five-foot-long flogging whips comprised of intertwined strands of barbed wire” to beat back job-seeking Mexicans.

Of course, Chavez and Trump’s concerns about the social and economic effects of immigration are silly. As reported by The Economist, violent crime has dropped over the last 30 years while immigration from Mexico was increasing (sorry, full story gated). And Brookings reports that immigration increases incomes and opportunities for Americans.

But the moral and political philosophy of Chavez and Trump’s preferred policies are even more worrisome. They advocate standing between and forcibly interfering with people who would otherwise be able to trade or work with each other. Again, I think they do this for economically dubious reasons, but let’s assume they’re right. Let’s also assume that, for some reason, it’s morally appropriate to implement policies that prioritize the economic interests of Americans over those of Mexicans. Even if it is, that’s still very different from forcibly interfering with Mexicans (as well as the Americans they would otherwise be able to trade or work with) in order to prioritize the interests of (some other) Americans. I just can’t see how to justify that.

For example, my oldest daughter is interested in getting a job at a used bookstore this summer. Now, I prioritize her interests over those of every other person who also wants to have that job. She isn’t just a fellow citizen, she’s my daughter and I love her. A lot. Still, I just can’t see how that could justify me using force to interfere with a voluntary agreement between the bookstore owner and someone else’s daughter or son who also wants that job. Surely it would be wrong of me to do that.

But why should that case be different than similar cases involving Mexican workers? If the priority I assign to my daughter’s interests doesn't justify my use of coercion to prevent others from getting the job my daughter wants, how does the priority others might assign to fellow citizens justify their use of coercion against people who were born in Mexico?

For that matter, why should it be permissible to coercively interfere with Mexican migration (as well as the Americans who want to trade or work with them) but impermissible to coercively interfere with internal migration? After all, job markets don’t care where the increased competition for scarce jobs comes from. If Chavez and Trump’s mercantilist arguments for barring migrants from Mexico work, the same considerations should apply to migrants wherever they come from. Should we build a wall to protect our economic interests from job seekers from Oregon, Nevada and Arizona, in addition to Mexico, to keep out those who want to trade, work or live with people here in California? How huuge should it be? I can’t think of a single anti-immigration argument that, in principle, couldn’t also justify restrictions on internal migration.

One more example: in the 1950s, 60s and 70s there was a massive migration into the US workforce. There was over that time, in fact, a supply shock of about 27 million women. Was this influx of, for the most part, lower-wage workers bad for domestic wages or the economy more generally? Well, of course not, but should that even matter in an evaluation of whether or not policies designed to keep women out of the work force are justified? I don’t think so. Such policies were illiberal. We should think the same thing about restrictive immigration policies.

I actually don’t recommend using your time off on Thursday to listen to a Donald Trump speech. You might instead read up on my favorite March holiday.

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Saturday, March 26, 2016

What idea, commonly regarded as a profound truth, would you most like to see exposed as false, misguided or nonsensical?

Dan Weijers:  Seeking happiness willl only get you less of it.
Many philosophers, including some sympathetic to hedonism seem to endorse an edict of what might be called “sages’ common sense for the ages”: the direct pursuit of happiness leads to unhappiness. Some, with a penchant for speaking loosely, refer to this as the paradox of happiness; even if you think happiness is the greatest good, you should, on pain of unhappiness, act as if some other thing, such as beneficence, is in fact the holder of that lofty title. So, hedonist or not, happiness should not be the foremost conscious goal of activity. 
Research on happiness, both empirical and conducted solely from within the oft-toured hallways of a beautiful mind, has borne out reasons in support of the paradox of happiness. Happiness, it seems, is fleeting, fragile, and facile – all of which decrease the value of striving for, and reveling in, happiness. 
But, as is plain as day to this unenlightened soul, the more sophisticated, specific, contextually embedded, and accurate happiness research becomes, the more we will learn how to pursue happiness effectively while holding it as our greatest and most immediate goal. Sometimes pursuing immediate pleasure will lead to the most happiness overall, such as when seemingly minor pleasurable happenstances make us momentarily more satisfied with our whole lives, and more likely to help a stranger in need. With a practical wisdom based on happiness research and personal experience, we will be able to pursue happiness in a way that increases it, both in the short and long term.

Kyle Swan: We must apply ethics.
The way many philosophers apply ethics is deeply misguided.

Don't get me wrong. Ethics is inherently practical (or normative) and so moral principles are always relevant for questions about what to do. But I see a pretense and false precision in the way philosophers often do or teach it.
Here’s the procedure: 1) think really, really hard about what’s really good or right (donning a pained, squinty face seems to help). 2) Apply it. That’s (usually) it. 
So they identify the value or principle that provides the basis for judgments of right and wrong, followed by the behavior, rules or policies to discourage people from doing the bad things. They apply the ethics. They tell us how to make things right.

But this tends to run roughshod over reasonable disagreements in people’s beliefs and values. Moral rules should be authoritative, but this smacks of authoritarianism. It ignores the wisdom of local, evolved customary rules that reflect the negotiated settlements and practices people have hit upon to lubricate social interaction. These are the rules that have currency in the sense that the relevant people have internalized them and acknowledge them to be authoritative. If the philosopher’s recommended application of the ethics is too different from local custom, it will fail and may even make things worse. The top-down imposition of rules that conflict with the values and commitments of people who are expected to implement and follow them are likely to meet with resistance and inventive, unforeseen ways around those rules.

Brad Dowden:  There is a force of gravity.
People say there is a gravitational force, and that it makes apples fall to the ground and the moon go round. It does not. There is no force of gravity. There are many forces, but gravity is not one of them. When an apple falls to the ground, it is not pulled by a force that acts in a straight line. Instead, all objects are following the shortest path they can through curved spacetime, and our space is radically curved near massive objects such as the Earth. 
Gravity does exist, but it’s not a force. It is the curvature of the field of spacetime itself. Thanks to the curvature of this field, apples fall and the moon orbits the Earth. Last month we discovered gravitational waves produced by the nasty collision of two massive black holes. The collision produced more power by a factor of 50 than all the power of all the stars in that galaxy of 100 billion stars plus the power of all the other 100 billion galaxies in our universe, but the gravitational waves of that collision didn’t travel through space to Earth. Instead they were ripples in space itself. Thankfully the ripples were very weak by the time they arrived. If we’d been near the collision, our bodies would have been stretched back and forth from 12 feet to 3 feet every thousandth of a second, but this change in height would not have been due to any force on us.

Saray Ayala: Humans are the most advanced species on earth.
The idea I would like to see exposed as false is that humans are the most advanced species on the planet. Both religion and science tell us that humans are superior to any other living thing: humans exceed all other beings on Earth in cognitive skills; humans stand out in their capacity to feel many complex emotions, their success at developing advanced technologies, their need to seek meaning in life and the ability to create it, their moral status and intrinsic value, etc. Some of these properties are sometimes predicated of other species, but humans are always at the top. Either we are the only ones who have these properties, or we have more of them, or have them in a way that matters more. 
Unfortunately, this (false) sense of superiority is combined with the sense of entitlement to subdue what we take to be inferior to us. For many, our aim on this planet is to control nature. This need to control what surrounds us is destroying the planet, exhausting its resources, annihilating biodiversity, making life impossible for other species (and many fellow humans, too). And the more we think we control nature, the more reassured we feel in our superiority, creating a vicious cycle. If we were to realize that we are not at the top, perhaps we would reconsider our relationship with other living beings and the environment. Perhaps we would change from “need to control” mode to “need to collaborate” mode. 

Thomas Pyne:  Only science can tell us what's real.

According to the best current computational theory of vision, the visual system takes retinal stimulation and produces a ‘primal sketch’ sensitive to ‘blobs,’ ‘edges,’ and ‘boundaries’. 
Then comes a ‘2 ½ D sketch’, presenting boundaries, discontinuities, and distance as of surfaces. 
Then comes a 3-D model of surfaces and volumes. Now we’re no longer working on ‘proximal stimuli’ (stuff hitting the nerve endings) but ‘distal stimuli’: representing stuff in the real world.

Finally our cognitive system presents us a full visual experience: a barmaid behind a counter. 
If the distal stimuli were caused by a barmaid, we would be seeing the barmaid.
But there’s no barmaid.

There’s only a painting, Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergere.

Two descriptions:
1. Manet has exploited his artist’s intuitive understanding of computational theory in order:
a. to get us to see a distribution of paint on a canvas as a picture of a barmaid.
b. to put a picture of a barmaid in the painting.
2. In turn, the computational theory explains:
a. how we see a distribution of paint on a canvas as a picture of a barmaid
b. how we see the picture of the barmaid in the painting
The science of the first paragraph is, it seems to me, utterly neutral between (a) and (b) in each. Yet the question remains:  Is there a picture of a barmaid or not?

Russell DiSilvestro: God only helps those who help themselves.
Chances are you have heard or even thought this one. I first heard it, thought it, and repeated it as a kid. But Wikipedia recently taught me that Jay Leno gets folks in NYC to list it on tape more than any other idea as one of the Ten Commandments; that about 75% of teenagers recently polled claimed it was the main message of the Bible; that Ben Franklin wrote it in his Poor Richard's Almanac; and that it has precursors as ancient as Aesop’s fables and as diverse as the Quran (“Trust in God but tie your camel.”). 
Perhaps what makes it widespread is that it echoes a ring of truth. Even theists who profess to believe in divine intervention in the affairs of this life know that they must still work by the sweat of their brow for many things, even many quintessentially religious things (like prayer, and memorizing scripture, and practicing the pipe organ before Sunday morning). 
What makes this phrase pernicious, in my view, is the cluster of things that it often really conveys or implies in context: that God only helps those who help themselves; that those who are helpless (say, poor, homeless, and/or addicted to something that wrecks their life) have only themselves to blame; and that God, for lack of anything better to do, actively enjoys sitting back and watching them suffer for their laziness. Fortunately, this theological picture is as truthless as it is ruthless.

Christina Bellon: Training in ethics will make you a better person.
Philosophers like this idea because we believe it highlights the value of philosophical inquiry. Relying on common or folk ethics risks reinforcing the suspect heritage and often contradictory guidance it provides. The value of ethics training comes as clarity in reasoning about moral principles, enhanced ability to derive right action from them, and refined justification and evaluation of one’s own and others’ actions. In short – analytic skills. But do these make us better people – better friends, citizens, employees, soldiers, bankers, researchers, etc.?

Recent evidence indicates that ethics training, at least as philosophers have been conducting it, does not work. It makes us very good at arguing about ethics. But, it does not make us better at doing what is right. What these studies show is improved analytic skills and enhanced positive attitudes toward ethical behavior, but this does not translate into action. Self-reporting surveys indicate that we are no more inclined to act rightly AFTER ethics training than before. That is, we know what we ought to do, but still cannot bring ourselves to do it.

What does correlate with improved ethical behavior is modification of the action-environment – improving the responsibility practices within which individuals must act. When people not only know what they ought to do, but are enabled and encouraged to do it, then confidence and commitment come along for the ride. Confidence and commitment aren’t demonstrated in a sit down test or an essay. They are lived.

G. Randolph Mayes: People are fundamentally selfish.
This view is most commonly held by informed realists who see through the bullshit that clouds the judgment of peope who remain innocent of logic and science. At least that is how they seem to see themselves. 
Their usual argument runs as follows: At a biological level, people's actions are motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Take any example of apparently unselfish, altruistic behavior- Susan works three nights a week helping adults learn to read; George compromises his ability to get an A in helping Kevin to pass. In each case, if you look closely, you will find that they are only doing it because they are getting something out of it for themselves
Let's give them that. The clear implicit assumption here is that if I expect to derive any utility from an action, then it is purely selfishly motivated. That doesn't sound like science to me. 
For concepts like altruism and selfishness to be scientifically interesting they have to admit of degrees. If you like, you can define a purely altruistic action as one in which an agent provides benefits to others while deriving no benefit herself. Then your view amounts to the startling claim that nobody is perfect. 
Truth: Real people engage in actions that benefit others more than they benefit themselves on a day to day basis. All but the ickiest of defectors on the social contract have a strong instinctive impulse to treat others decent even at their own expense