Monday, June 29, 2015

The undone

The other day I was home alone working on my house when I stopped to make myself lunch.  I almost never sit down to eat when it's only me; I'll just get back to doing whatever I was doing, wolfing down whatever I have slapped together as quickly as possible. I have a right to eat this way. I see sitting down to eat as a social occasion, which makes sitting down by myself to eat an absurdity. As my friend Scott Merlino once pointed out to me, men do not dine alone, they feed.

Anyway, at some point during this period the UPS truck showed up with a delivery and I went out to sign for it. Later, back at work, I suddenly remembered something: I had not finished my lunch. I thought briefly about where I had been when the truck had pulled up, and returned to find one last bite of the sandwich sitting on my miter saw. I blew off the saw dust, popped it in my mouth, and got on with my day.

Later still, back at work again my mind drifted to this question: Why did I recall with such clarity that I had not finished my sandwich?  Why did I recall it at all?  It came like a message from God. God can not be bothered to remind me where I put my coffee cup, or the measurement I had made just before the phone rang. What's so important about the last bite of my sandwich?

Here is the answer that occurred to me: I had accepted making and eating my lunch as a project, a task to be completed. Whenever we do this, the mind opens up an account, a mental line of credit, which will not be closed until it has been paid off. During the period in which the task is incomplete, there will be a nagging feeling of something owed, something left undone.

Toward the end of Philosophy 180 this spring my students and I were thinking a lot about the role of emotion in rational cognition. It's a great topic, not the least because the more you think about it the more you realize how little we understand what an emotion even is. In thinking about the sandwich question it occurred to me that the nagging feeling of the undone as well as the satisfying feeling of accomplishing a task could be emotions evolved specifically to facilitate task-oriented behavior.

I like to think about how my dog sees the world. I think it is right to describe him as engaging in goal directed behavior, like running off strangers or begging for a biscuit. He can't assign himself a task, though. If we are interrupted from playing fetch by the UPS man, the goal simply becomes to run him off the place. When the truck drives away, he will lie down feeling satisfied. But he will not hear a voice saying: You did not finish your fetch.

Imagine if our ability to recollect whether we have finished a task were no better than our recollection of other information, like the name of the person you just met or DeMorgan's rules or the capital of Delaware. Did you finish yesterday's homework? Hmmm... I can't remember. Dude....what?

Clearly this ability to set ourselves tasks, long and short term, and bring them to fruition is something very distinctive about human beings and we rightly count it as a virtue to be cultivated and admired in individuals. Indeed those who fail to develop this ability to a high degree will simply fail to thrive in this world. But this ability seems to come at a price, a dark and dangerous liability.

You are probably familiar with the idea of sunk costs. A sunk cost is just something you have spent, that can not be recovered. It can be money, time, effort, or anything else of value. In the context of a self-appointed task, it is extremely difficult to recognize sunk costs. Scores of intelligent, highly capable people have done incalculable harm through an inability to recognize them.  Everyone has said this to herself at one point or another: I have worked so hard, have come so far, invested so much, I simply can not quit now.  This is the voice of the undone.

Why is it so difficult to ignore sunk costs? Why can't we just do what is rational, which is to consider our present condition without reference to the path that got us here, and decide the best course of action from this point forward? Part of the answer is that it is very difficult for us to be objective in such circumstances. Are we changing course now because the cause is lost, or do we simply lack the courage of our convictions?  It is often not easy to know.  When we accuse ourselves or others of letting sunk costs influence our reasoning, we often do so only on the basis of another arch bias, hindsight.

But the answer I like best is provided by the Meaning Maintenance Model of human motivation, which posits that humans are essentially meaning makers, and that our decisions and actions are best understood as attempts to create and preserve meaning in our lives.  What 'meaning' actually means in this context is not at all settled, but we can at least say that it is always relative to a representational framework, one of the most common being a narrative or story.

When we say that pursuing lost causes and justifying sunk costs is irrational, we do so with respect to another framework, namely the framework of probability and expected utility. But if humans really have a fundamental need for their lives to make a kind of narrative sense, then this is too simple. From this perspective, the undone is an abomination, a story that simply

G. Randolph Mayes
Sacramento State
Department of Philosophy

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Building self aware machines

The public mood toward the prospect of artificial intelligence is dark. Increasingly, people fear the results of creating an intelligence whose abilities will far exceed our own, and who pursues goals that are not compatible with our own. I think resistance is a mistake (and futile) and I think we should be actively striving toward the construction of artificial intelligence.

When we ask “Can a machine be conscious?,” we often miss several important distinctions. With regard to the AI project, we need to distinguish at least between qualitative/phenomenal states, exterior self-modeling, interior self-modeling, information processing, attention, sentience, executive top-down control, self-awareness, and so on. Once we make a number of these distinctions, it becomes clear that we have already created systems with some of these capacities.  Others are not far off, and still others present the biggest challenges to the project. Here I will focus just on two, following Drew McDermott: interior and exterior self-modeling.

A cognitive system has a self-model if it has the capacity to represent, acknowledge, or take account of itself as an object in the world with other objects. Exterior self-modeling requires treating the self solely as a physical, spatial-temporal object among other objects. So you can easily spatially locate yourself in the room, you have a representation of where you are in relation to your mother’s house, or perhaps to the Eiffel Tower. You can also easily locate yourself temporally. You represent Napoleon as an 18th century French Emperor, and you are aware that the segment of time that you occupy is later than the segment of time that he occupied. Children swinging from one bar to another on the playground are employing an exterior self-model, as is a ground squirrel running back to its burrow.

Exterior self-modeling is relatively easy to build into an artificial system compared to many other tasks that face the AI project. Your phone is technologically advanced enough to put itself in a location in space in relationship to other objects with its GPS system. I built a CNC machine in my garage (Computer Numeric Controlled cutting system) that I ”zero” out when I start it up. I designate a location in a three dimensional coordinate system as (0, 0, 0) for the X, Y, and Z axes, then the machine keeps track of where it is in relation to that point as it cuts. When it’s finished, it returns to (0, 0, 0). The system knows where it is in space, at least in the very small segment of space that it is capable of representing (About 36” x 24” x 5”).

Interior self-modeling is the capacity of a system to represent itself as an information processing, epistemic, representational agent. That is, a system has an interior self-model if it represents the state of its own informational, cognitive capacities. Loosely, it is knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know. It is a system that is able to locate the state of its own information about the world within a range of possible states. When you recognize that watching too much Fox News might be contributing to your being negative about President Obama, you are employing an interior self-model. When you resolve to not make a decision about which car to buy until you’ve done some more research, or when you wait until after the debates to decide which candidate to vote for, you are exercising your interior self-model. You have located yourself as a thinking, believing, judging agent within a range of possible information states. Making decisions requires information. Making good decisions requires being able to assess how much information you have, how good it is, and how much more (or less) you need or how much better you need it to be in order to decide within the tolerances of your margins of error.

So in order to endow an artificial cognitive system with an interior self-model, we must build it to model itself as an information system similar to how we’d build it to model itself in space and time. Hypothetically, a system can have no information, or it can have all of the information. And the information it has can be poor quality, with a high likelihood of being false, or it can be high quality, with a high likelihood of being true. Those two dimensions are like a spatial-temporal framework, and the system must be able to locate its own information state within that range of possibilities. Then the system, if we want it to make good decisions, must be able to recognize the difference between the state it is in and the minimally acceptable information state it should be in. Then, ideally, we’d build it with the tools to close that gap.

Imagine a doctor who is presented with a patient with an unfamiliar set of symptoms. Recognizing that she doesn’t have enough information to diagnose the problem, she does a literature search so that she can responsibly address it. Now imagine an artificial system with reliable decisions heuristics that recognizes the adequacy or inadequacy of its information base, and then does a medical literature review that is far more comprehensive, consistent, and discerning than a human doctor can perform. At the first level, our AI system needs to be able to compile and process information that will produce a decision. But at the second level, our AI system must be able to judge its own fitness for making that decision and rectify the information state short coming if there is one. 

The ability to represent itself as an epistemic agent in this fashion is one of the most important and interesting ways to flesh out the notion of  something being “self-aware.” By carefully analyzing other senses of "machine consciousness" we may come to see that there is no single, deeply mysterious and inherently insoluble problem. Rather, there are many different, fascinating questions that can be framed and answered in computational terms and which will yield to computational methods.

Bostrom, Nick.  Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford University Press 2014.

McDermott, Drew. “Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness,” The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, 117-150. Zelazo, Moscovitch, and Thompson, eds. 2007.

Matt McCormick
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, June 8, 2015

Fury Road

   Max:  Here, everyone is broken.
   Furiosa: Out here, everything hurts.
                        ~ Mad Max: Fury Road

I couldn't  wait to see this movie. And then I couldn't wait to see it again. The first viewing was cathartic in all the right ways, but it was a sensory assault. In 3-D it was almost abusive. The second time allowed me to attend to the story, the characters, the art and imagery, the dance of bodies in fight and vehicles in chase. Those Pole Cats are terrifyingly beautiful swinging through the air at high speed (all done live). Now I could enjoy the artistry of this post-apocalyptic adventure. Fury Road has everything the genre demands, explosions, fights, minimal dialogue. But, there’s more.

This is a fractured world, bodily and psychically. We find two competing philosophies, that understanding of reality by which we make sense of our world. There is the dualism of Joe’s warrior-cult, expressed best in the War Boy creed, “I live. I die. I live again.” There’s the witnessing of a warrior’s meritorious death in battle, being taken to the gates of Valhalla (by Joe, himself, for those not “mediocre”), and of being reborn, “shiny and chrome.”

There’s also the non-dualism of Furiosa’s unsentimental realism, her willingness to risk everything to return home, to find redemption in this life for the unstated horrors she has committed, and of the Free Women’s matrilineal earth-centered pragmatism, where the value of living is in being with others, clean water, fertile soil, and where the dead are held close in name and memory. There is no next life. The film doesn’t decide this ultimate question for us, though. Even as Joe’s mythology shatters in the wreckage of flesh and steel, one of the freed women is praying, “to anyone who’s listening.”

Commentators have claimed this is a feminist film, or that it should really be called Furiosa rather than Mad Max. The feminist in me (well, it’s really all of me) agrees. But most of these commentators are selling it short. This is a real feminist movie, and they don't seem to know why.

If all it takes for a film to be feminist these days is for there to be a woman lead who can throw a punch and drive a truck, who isn’t a mere plot device, or isn’t there to fall in love or in bed with the leading man, then, yawn, ok, this is a feminist movie. But that’s not saying much. A genuinely feminist movie is more than not demeaning or minimizing. It is one that takes women seriously – with our strengths and weaknesses, as equals, complex, capable and vulnerable (as we all are), as worth knowing, trusting, and joining. And that's what Fury Road does so brilliantly. Here we see women, portrayed complexly, richly, and honestly. It’s still so rare. It's as refreshing as it is riveting.

Here, everyone has a price, a place, a function, and with it a value. Absent these, you’re rabble fighting for drops of precious water. In this post-apocalyptic hell, where every life-giving resource is either scarce, toxic, or gone, the human body becomes the principal resource: as meat, as breeders, as perpetually pregnant women milked for “mother’s milk," as those caged and tapped as living blood bags, and as those War Boys who are “cannon fodder.” It’s not just the women in this movie who have no bodily autonomy, without means for bodily integrity, who are exploited and abused. Everyone is. Even Joe is trapped by the mythology he creates, as his body literally rots from nuclear contamination and as he fails repeatedly to produce “perfect” sons.

There is a deeply humanist principle on offer in this movie. It’s in all the great stories and in any of the laws worth preserving. It justifies their escape. It’s what they each would die in pursuit of. It’s in our dread they will fail and our weeping for those who don’t make it. This principle reminds us that each and every one of us is valuable to her- and himself, and that we must treat each other accordingly. It tells us that people are not only not food, they are not property. This is a humanist message. It is a message which is carried by the women, and adopted by the men who help them. It’s written on the walls of their captivity, demonstrated by their willingness to share what little they have, to risk themselves for the vulnerable and like-minded, and in their rejection of war. It’s in the satchel of seeds, “heirlooms, the real thing,” which Giddy Mary protects like her life, their lives – our lives – depend on it.

We want their vision of the world to replace the one they flee, we need them to succeed and Joe to fail, because we fucked it up for them… “Who killed the world?” they ask several times. Well, we did, clearly. Whether accidentally, negligently, or intentionally, we killed it. Our misdeeds gave birth to the world where one’s choices are Gas Town, Bullet Farm, or Citadel… or being feral in the wild. We created their hell. We need that humanist message to get through, for those carrying it to be successful, for them not to falter, or die along the way. We fucked up. 

There’s so much this film makes us ask:
Why does Furiosa seek redemption? We know what haunts Max, but have few clues about what haunts her. Likely, it’s bad. She’s the only woman, an Imperator, in Joe’s hyper-masculinized war machine. That achievement would have been costly. 
What was “The Green Place”? How did it last so long, and then disappear? 
Why are there so many War Pups but no girls… anywhere?
… and, so much it asks of us:
What is the moral cost of our sources of milk and meat?

Is it inevitable that we send our young to war?

Why are we not terrified at the loss of our green places?
What value do we place on others – on those who grow and produce our food, teach our children… keep our gas flowing?

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, May 10, 2015

God and rational discourse

Before we can have a reasonable conversation about God, everyone playing has to pass the Defeasibility Test. A defeasible belief is one that is responsive to evidence, where “evidence” is used broadly to include empirical and conceptual considerations. Your belief is defeasible if you are prepared to revise it in the light of new evidence. Ask yourself this: Are there any considerations, arguments, evidence, or reasons, even hypothetically that could possibly lead me to change my mind about God? Is it a possible outcome that in carefully and thoughtfully reflecting on the broadest and most even body of evidence that I can grasp, that I would come to think that my current view about God is mistaken? If your belief isn’t defeasible, then engaging in discourse about God’s existence (or anything else) is, rationally speaking, a fruitless waste of time.

I also take something like fallibilism to be true. That is, it is possible for a person to have a fully justified but false belief. There are cases where someone has fulfilled all of his epistemic duties in gathering and considering evidence and he has drawn a reasonable conclusion from that evidence, but the conclusion still turns out to be wrong. To deny fallibilism is to claim that it is impossible to be fully justified in believing what is false. Given what we know about human cognitive systems, that’s just not plausible.

For lots of people, it turns out that even though they engage in what appears to be rational discourse about the arguments for and against God’s existence, their belief is not defeasible. So a preliminary question to having one of these discussions is: What is the relationship, as you see it, between reasoning about God and your belief in God? That is, is your belief in God more fundamental than your commitment to believe what reason and evidence indicates; or are you prepared, if the evidence, reasoning, and argument demands it, to abandon your view of God as irrational? The question is of obvious importance because you enter into a dialogue concerning the question of God's existence in bad faith if ultimately you don't really care what the evidence is. If the believer places a higher premium on believing than anything else, including being reasonable about counter evidence and arguments, then he’s just engaging in sophistry when he engages in dialogue.

Nicholas Wolterstorff says, in the remarkably titled Reason within the Bounds of Religion,
“The religious beliefs of the Christian scholar ought to function as control beliefs within his devising and weighing of theories. . . . Since his fundamental commitment to following Christ ought to be decisively ultimate in his life, the rest of his life ought to be brought into harmony with it. As control, the belief-content of his authentic commitment ought to function both negatively and positively. Negatively, the Christian scholar ought to reject certain theories on the ground that they conflict or do not comport well with the belief-content of his authentic commitment. Why is it that one must first run an evidential test on Scripture before one is justified in accepting it? Does this not fundamentally subordinate revelation to reason? What then is left of the authority of Scripture?
William Lane Craig insists that nothing could possibly counter indicate the truth of the Gospels because of a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit in his heart that gives him knowledge independent of all questions of evidence.

Believing is somehow “self-authenticating” for them. It “carries its own evidence.” As they see it, it is a mistake to think that believing itself must be held to standards of evidence or rationality. Rather, our standards of evidence and rationality must answer to our belief in God.

Alvin Plantinga has similarly denied that belief in God must be justified in terms of other more basic claims that we allege to know better or with more confidence than we know God. Belief in God is the axiomatic starting point, not the result of reasoning.

The Talbot School of Theology has this doctrinal statement:
"The Bible, consisting of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, a supernaturally given revelation from God Himself, concerning Himself, His being, nature, character, will and purposes; and concerning man, his nature, need and duty and destiny. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind."
Consider some questions about these approaches: How is it that the belief can be taken up by one of these believers in a way that 1) subordinates reason and puts the consideration of evidence as secondary, and 2) is intellectually honest and respectable? If reason and evidence are subordinated, then what can keep the belief from first being acquired in a way that is arbitrary, prejudicial, and unprincipled? If someone’s belief is adopted and sustained in this contra-rational fashion, how can anyone take that believer’s belief seriously? How can someone with this sort of belief maintain that what he’s doing has intellectual integrity and that the rest of us ought to take his rationalizations seriously?

This person has said, in effect, “I have adopted this belief without regard for reasons or evidence, and I value being intellectually responsible about the powerful argument you are making less than I value my continued belief in God, so I will continue believing as I started, unaffected.” At this point, of course, there’s really nothing left to be said for the rest of us. If someone is resolved to believe at all costs, then nothing else that any skeptic could say, no matter how thoughtful or persuasive can undermine that stubbornness. At this point, we should be prepared to conclude that someone has simply left the rational thought game and must be considered a lost cause.

Matt McCormick
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, May 3, 2015

How to get legal moralism from On Liberty with eight words (or less)

Gandalf stood up. He spoke sternly. ‘You will be a fool if you do, Bilbo,’ he said. ‘You make that clearer with every word you say. It has got far too much hold on you. Let it go! And then you can go yourself, and be free.’

                   --J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (emphasis mine)
As readers of this blog know, I sometimes make my posts connect things I’m reading with things happening in our philosophy department and/or the news.

That might be why I see links between current headlines (e.g., marijuana laws) and our department’s upcoming talks on happiness, harm, and the proper role of the state in promoting one and preventing the other.

So I hope this post can be an appetizer to our philoso-feast in the next two weeks: come enjoy our own Kyle Swan and Dan Weijers and UC’s Distinguished Professors David Brink and Gerald Dworkin.

In Mill’s Progressive Principles (OUP 2013) David Brink explains one reason why John Stuart Mill’s “perfectionistic” liberalism is preferable to John Rawls’ “political” liberalism (Rawls insists that states remain “neutral” between competing views of “the good life”):
“…whereas liberal neutrality is neutral about the good, it is not neutral about matters of rights and social justice. This presupposes a sharp line between issues about the good and issues about the right. But this distinction may be hard to draw sharply. Presumably, central among the individual rights that liberal neutrality insists on upholding are rights against harm. But harm involves the setback of important interests, making individuals worse off then they would otherwise be. But then one can’t identify harms without making some assumptions about what makes an individual’s life go better or worse. Nor should we assume that one could recognize only those harms that set back interests that are part of any reasonable conception of the good. For instance, you’ve harmed me if you’ve injured me in a way that prevents me from pursuing sports as a vocation or avocation, even though there are reasonable conceptions of the good that assign no significance to sports. You've harmed me if you rendered me impotent, even though sexual intimacy is not a part of every reasonable conception of the good. In short, it is hard to see how the state can do its job of enforcing the right without making some assumptions about the good.” (256-7)
I am sympathetic with this criticism of liberal neutrality. But I think it can go further.

That’s because I think something called “legal moralism” can be derived—in part—from Mill’s On Liberty.

Since On Liberty is widely (and correctly) regarded as a classic source of fruitful lines of argument against legal moralism (and its cousin, legal paternalism), my thought here may be of interest to both friends and foes of Mill’s project there.

First, some quick definitions:

Legal paternalism is roughly the idea that the fact that an activity harms the one doing it is a good and perhaps sufficient (though override-able) reason for making that activity illegal.

Legal moralism is roughly the idea that the fact that an activity is immoral is a good and perhaps sufficient (though override-able) reason for making that activity illegal.

So very briefly, and without many important qualifications, my argument is this.

Mill’s final chapter of On Liberty discusses many “applications” of the principles he advanced in the earlier portion of the book, but his application forbidding even “voluntary” slavery relies on an additional principle like this:
VS: the fact that an activity involves giving up one’s own freedom in a way like the voluntary slave gives his up is a sufficient reason for making that activity illegal.
Legal moralism, again, is roughly the following principle:
LM: the fact that an activity is immoral is a good and perhaps sufficient (though override-able) reason for making that activity illegal.
To get from Mill’s discussion of voluntary slavery to legal moralism, what we need is some sort of ‘bridge’ principle that states a close connection between immorality and freedom:
B: the fact that an activity is immoral is sufficient for the said activity to involve giving up one’s own freedom in a way like the voluntary slave gives his up.
Perhaps the strongest version of such a principle is the idea that immorality, as such, is slavery. Arguably something like this idea can be found in Kant, in Plato, and elsewhere. One statement of the idea is found in eight words of Jesus from the gospel of John: “…everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34).

This is not an isolated verse fragment plucked out of nowhere. The context of these eight words, what comes before and after them, is relevant. Likewise, the story in John from which these words are taken is not an isolated story plucked out of nowhere. The idea that sin, qua sin, is a form of slavery resonates with the Jewish thought-world that Jesus was born into, and it is echoed by his followers so frequently we might call it the “Peter, Paul, and Mary Principle” (with no disrespect to the musical group).

Still, since other thoughtful people, like Plato and Kant, have thought the same or similar thing, here’s a more inclusive way of putting the idea: “immorality is slavery.”

Here, I exercise my liberty to coin a new term—“oughtabeillegal” (which reflects how a New Yorker says “ought to be illegal”)—we can state the argument in less than eight words:
  1. Slavery oughtabeillegal. (This is from Mill’s On Liberty. See VS above.) 
  2. Immorality is slavery. (This is the inclusive Peter, Paul, and Mary Principle. See B above.)
  3. Immorality oughtabeillegal. (This is Legal Moralism. See LM above.)
In short, we might alter Brink’s last quoted sentence as follows: it is hard to see how the state can do its job of protecting my freedom without making some assumptions about the things that undercut my freedom.

Isaiah Berlin fans, this is your cue to pounce.

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Top 5 reasons why people distrust science

When someone asks me why so many people, especially religious people, don’t believe what scientists tell us, it is too easy to say that people are ignorant or have one standard of evidence for soul-saving preachers and another for know-it-all scientists. There are better explanations.

1. Science is awesome.

The products of science are impressive, powerful, and dangerous. Scientific knowledge and understanding inspires technology. It gives us the World Wide Web, smartphones, supercomputers, spacecraft, robots, and weapons of mass destruction. Our lives are easier and more connected than those of our ancestors. Progress costs us much in privacy, security, and freedom. Medical innovations such as vaccines, antibiotics, pain-killers, contraceptives, anti-depressants, MRIs and mammograms extend our lives while making us more dependent upon them as nostrums and panaceas. Genetic engineering in plants and animals is remarkable but provokes neophobia and paranoia. What if its ubiquitous use threatens natural resource sustainability? Science enables people to do immoral things. Drones and clones are scary.

2. Science defies common-sense and challenges established world-views.

"Seeing is believing" but collective experience tells us not to believe everything we see. Common-sense says that whatever occurs happens for a reason, but physicists say otherwise. Modern physics finds that some events are uncaused when we can't help but think that every thing and every event has a cause. Subatomic particles can come into existence and perish by virtue of spontaneous energy fluctuations in a vacuum. Even the entire universe whose present form emerged in a cosmic explosion 13.7 billion years ago may not have had an ultimate or first cause. Some scientific models continue to suggest an eternal, cyclical, or oscillatory universe rather than a single creation event. Cosmologists say that the universe doesn't have a center and doesn't have an edge.

Science progresses by upsetting and superseding old world-views. Scholars in ancient and medieval times believed Earth was the fixed center of the cosmos, that there are only as many basic, unchanging kinds of organisms as God separately created, and that there are just four elements which comprise everything: earth, air, fire, water. But the history of science is a tale of numerous rejections of old beliefs. For almost 2000 years physicians practiced blood-letting, believing that good health required the delicate balance of bodily fluids: blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile. Empirical observations revealed that bloodletting killed more people than it healed. Nobody still thinks disease is caused by angry gods or evil demons. We now treat mental illness without trepanations or exorcisms.

3. Scientists make contrary and even contradictory claims.

Researchers report that recent studies show low carbohydrate diets are healthier than low fat diets. If true, this contradicts established scientific findings and subsequent recommendations to reduce fats more than carbohydrates in one’s diet. They’ve reversed recommendations on salt and cholesterol intake as well. What are we supposed to believe when authorities change their minds?

Mainstream reports of science often distort the significance of some research, especially conclusions based on small samples or low quality, preliminary studies. Bad science makes headlines in part due to the politics of science itself. Often a specialist in one discipline, say, a cardiothoracic surgeon with a popular television show, becomes an authority on nutrition for the general public. Beware the authoritative non-expert. Physicians get the science wrong. Some doctors are scientists but most are not.

A “Referendum on Alcohol in the Practice of Medicine” prepared for the U.S. Congress in 1922 revealed that over 50% of physicians surveyed continued to prescribe “spiritus fermenti” or whisky, wine and beer as a necessary therapeutic agent for treating influenza, pneumonia, heart failure, shock, anemia, diabetes, cancer, asthma, dyspepsia, snakebite, lactation problems, and old age. So far no randomized controlled clinical trial (RCT) on even moderate alcohol consumption and mortality outcomes has been done. The medicinal benefits of alcohol have yet to be found. We must fact-check all sources of information, but when is the last time you looked at scientific literature?

4. Science is hard to do and assess, it is especially difficult for non-experts to understand.

The general public cannot easily check whether what scientist's assert is true. Scientists study complex, difficult to observe phenomena. They do so by drawing finer distinctions than common-sense and ordinary language permits. Without advanced training or at least a college course in inductive reasoning or statistics, most people who acquire a scientific conclusion from non-expert, second-hand sources cannot process it competently. We like stories not statistics. Ordinary people trust personal experiences and testimony but scientists rank types of evidence differently. In science any hypothesis is incredible if it cannot be falsified by experiment (i.e. tested with the possibility of being rejected).

Use science databases such as NCBI or PubMed. Do an online search with terms that narrow the field to higher quality sources, e.g. “low carbohydrate diet versus low fat diet meta-analysis randomized controlled”.

Here is rough guide to spotting bad science. Also, Trish Greenhalgh (1997) has a nice series of very short must read articles on "How To Read a Paper” that explain how to interpret different kinds of research papers.

5. Scientists doubt or reject what most people believe.

Most Americans believe in supernaturals (Harris Poll, 2013). People think that supernaturals explain events, but scientists don’t. Angels visit, ghosts haunt, devils make us sin, gods make and destroy worlds. For scientists, and methodological naturalists in general, supernaturals are superfluous. This is why so many are atheists (Pew Research, 2009). Science abjures faith and demands testable evidence. Its predictions are dire. All of this alienates scientists from non-scientists.

When beliefs are threatened by new facts, people grasp onto unfalsifiable justifications. Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias affects negatively our ability to evaluate scientific evidence. So when scientists tell us what we don’t want to hear we are dubious. We just don’t want to listen to people who are so negative all of the time.

Scott Merlino
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Do gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry?

Like most liberals, I strongly support the movement to legalize gay and lesbian marriage. But it is surprisingly difficult to discern what sort of argument the courts could use that would convincingly show that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry. Most of the debate tends to focus on either of two distinct lines of argument.

The first is the “born that way” argument:
  1. A person’s sexual orientation is either inborn or fixed at an early age.
  2. It is wrong to criminalize behavior that a person does not choose to engage in.
  3. Therefore, gay/lesbian sex as well as marriage should neither be prohibited nor criminalized.
This argument is open to two serious objections.

(a) Although the first premise is widely believed to be true, it is in fact an empirical claim whose supposed truth is still vigorously debated among researchers.

(b) Even if premise 1 is true, the conclusion does not follow, for even if a person has a homosexual orientation, it does not follow that his or her sexual conduct must not be freely chosen. After all, many persons who are clearly heterosexual in orientation freely choose not to marry and/or engage in any sexual activity with persons of the opposite sex. Sexual orientation alone does not determine a person’s behavior.

The second argument maintains that laws prohibiting gay/lesbian sex or marriage are sexist and therefore in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

This is a strange argument. Even if one grants that laws prohibiting gay/lesbian marriage are sexist because they deliberately deny lesbians the right to marry, states that have such laws (as well as the armed forces) have plausibly replied that the prohibition isn’t sexist because they apply to gay males as well as lesbian females. Such laws are really gender-neutral. Moreover, it is unwise to categorize such laws as sexist when it seems much closer to the truth to say they are motivated by homophobia, not sexism.

So what are the courts to do when called upon to decide the constitutionality of gay/lesbian marriage?

One possibility is they could, in effect, shift the burden of proof from the supporters of gay/lesbian marriage to the opponents. How so? They could require that the proponents of whatever anti-gay marriage law is before the court show that it satisfies the rational basis test, i.e., that the law satisfies some legitimate state purpose. This is a minimal requirement that any contested law must meet to qualify as valid law. But in this case, that wouldn’t be an easy thing to show. They can’t just say a majority of the public wants it that way, or that we have a long history of forbidding gay marriage, or that gays cannot be good parents of young children (empirically false), or that gay marriages threaten heterosexual marriages (patently false). I don’t know what they could say that would show a gay marriage ban serves a legitimate state purpose.

Clifford Anderson
Professor Emeritus
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State