Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Past is Never Really Gone and Done With: A Case for The Pragmatist Philosophy of History

A few of us in the department were chatting about nuclear energy the other day. I found myself pondering the following quandary: if we were to guess how often our conversations turn to the past, in some form, what would the percentage be, on average? Certainly, talking about nuclear energy requires considering, for instance, how it has functioned up until today, or comparing case studies of Chernobyl versus Fukushima—it requires, at least in part, historical study.

“History is philosophy teaching by example”—this has been repeated by many. As Collingwood described it so succinctly: “all history is the history of thought” and “philosophy is thought about thought.” It is important to also make a distinction with historiography, or the methods and results of historical study. “History” is a very complicated term, because history itself and historical writing are indeed two different concepts. But broadly, we could say that history is the events of the past; it is past time. “Historiography” is about the interpretations we then create of those events of the past; of the time that has passed—this is the written result of historical record.

The “past” is full of historical facts, the next step is for historians to both describe them and to try make sense of them—but how can the historian be certain that first the descriptions truly match the past events selected for recording? How close in time should the historian be, in regard to epistemic questions of accuracy, to the event being recorded? Hume argued that the further away in time, the less accurate; however, sometimes temporal distance can increase the possibility of some objectivity. Nonetheless, few would disagree that the general notion of complete objectivity seems impossible in historical record.

Certainly, a history book written today about Ancient Greece would be quite different than one written in the Middle Ages, for many reasons. For one, a historian is always writing with his or her “present day lens”—we must try to consider the text in and of itself while trying to see through those same lenses. Indeed, sometimes a historical text says quite a bit about the time it is being written in along withthe contents in and of themselves.

What can we really make of the historical evidence in the past? Not everything from the past survives for analysis. What is available and then selected may be value-laden. We can only know some of what happened in the past, and we cannot be absolutely certain about why or how much of it we have really gathered for record. We must ask whether historical record represents only particular instances of events, or if universals can be discovered. There are indeed fallacies committed by historians and in historical record to overcome. The language we use in historical writing can instantly categorize and conceptualize—much could be said about the term “revolution.” It helps clarify some epistemic dilemmas by placing historians into schools, such as “Cultural Historians.” This is not to mention, however, that language itself is in part historical (i.e., “I’ll Google it”). These are only a few key philosophical quandaries about history and historiography.

One area of the philosophy of history gaining prominence represents an effective approach to many of these challenges: a Pragmatist Philosophy of History and Historiography. For a historical text to be meaningful, and for it to circulate and continue to circulate, it must have utilityamong the writer and wider audience. Lack of utility results in the book collecting dust on the shelf. Certain historical events are simply unnecessary to record; what is recorded is what the historian believes is practically usefulto record, what the historian assumes the public who reads his or her book will consider useful to record, and what the public indeed does believe isuseful. Few may read Aristotle’s history of elephants (interestingly, he wrote this yet considered historical study of little importance). If we are to peruse the list of top-selling history books, we should alsoconsider what it is abouttodaythat makes those books interesting for the historian to research and write, and to the larger public. Part of the reason for this may simply be the writing style of the historian him or herself, but it can also tell us about our own time; in thisperhaps we can epistemically capture something of a metaphysical historical essence to record for the future. There is a hierarchy of utility at any moment in time of historical texts. From a pragmatist perspective, the past is never reallygone and done with; it is ongoing and helps us understand the present and the future. There is no end of inquiry to history and historiography, as what is yielded are “warranted assertions,” to use Dewey’s term, of possible historical “truths.”

Goethe wrote: “Anyone who cannot give an account to oneself of the past three thousand years remains in darkness, without experience, living from day to day.” We are truly nothing without our histories; we are historical beings. Everything is, at least in part, a historical process, all connected in a continuum of time. The Young Hegelians could not have existed without Hegel. We cannot fullyunderstand anything outside of its historical context, and an effective way to philosophize about this is with a pragmatist lens. We cannot stop time; the present becomes the past almost as quickly as we say it. We are beings always embedded in a historical moment; or, Kuhn’s notion might be useful here, in a paradigm of historical knowledge and existence. We must ask: what has practical utility to be selected for evidence, record, interpretation, and readership?

Returning to my initial quandary: what might that percentage be? It is probably higher than one might expect, because despite also being forward-looking beings, it is often in retrospect as to what is useful that we can learn about the past to apply to the future.

Marnie Binder
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

What is a problem or pseudo-problem we should do nothing to fix? Why?

We asked our faculty members, and this is what some of them think:

Dr. G. Randolph Mayes:
Death is a problem if anything is, but it is also a solution and there’s the rub. It’s a problem for individuals, but it’s nature’s solution to the survival of species. Steve Jobs said, while dying: “Death is likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent.”

On the current plan, the reason you must die is so new creatures may live. And the reason new creatures must live is that they instantiate the novel traits and ideas required for the species to survive in an ever-changing world. Currently, you are stuck with the genes you were born with. As you grow older, you become less desirous of novelty and less able to adapt to change. You instinctively see new notions, practices, technologies and behaviors as indicative of social decline, because they scare you.

Maybe you think death is a certainty, a brute fact of life that nobody is ever going to solve. You may be right, but that is not what some of the richest and smartest people on the planet believe. They are preparing to live forever.

Most of the problems we encounter today arise from solutions to the problems of yesterday. When we address them, it should be with a full appreciation of the good they are doing and the harm we may unleash in eliminating them. Mosquitoes are the most dangerous creature on the planet. What good are they? Nobody knows. But we better find out before we solve them.

Dr. Chong Choe-Smith:
A lack of evidence to prove an allegation of sexual assault? This isn’t really a problem.

In both criminal and civil cases, “the testimony of a single witness is enough to prove any fact” (CALCRIM 301; CACI 5003).

The testimony of a single witness, say, a victim of sexual assault, if credible, is sufficient to prove any fact. This testimony IS evidence—indeed, maybe sufficient evidence. So the problem is not a lack of evidence.

Maybe what people mean is that there is a lack of corroborating evidence. No DNA or testimony from other witnesses.

This too isn’t a mystery. Sexual assaults often occur when a person forces himself on another when no one else is around. Sexual assaults also often go unreported. One in six women have been victims of attempted/completed rape. Yet over two-thirds go unreported and only six in 1000 result in a conviction. Victims have their reasons for distrusting the system and not immediately subjecting themselves to being probed and prodded for biological evidence.

Imagine this. Person A is alleged to have forced himself on person B. Person A may have been too drunk to remember. Person B later describes the incident in detail and is certain that it was A who assaulted her. If credible, person B’s testimony is sufficient evidence of A’s wrongdoing. Person A categorically denies it. But it is entirely compatible for person A to have committed the act while drunk and still believe he is incapable of such behavior.

Dr. Marnie Binder:
Can we find non-problems in considering those “well, duh, sure” moments? Nozick’s “experience machine” comes to mind: “well, duh, sure” human beings seem to generally prefer to be in this world as we understand it rather than hooked up to a virtual world free of pain and full of pleasure. We invest heavily in technology, yet it seems certainly not to be (at least knowingly) fully inside it—that technological example of virtual reality, we seem to believe, would be quite problematic.

Still, could there be any instance of life inside virtual reality that we might often agree would be better, or a possible solution?

The film Upgrade comes to mind (spoiler alert): a man loses his wife to thugs, and he is left a quadriplegic. He has no will to continue living, until he is offered a computer chip implant that gives him super powers to take his revenge. Turns out, the implant is a very intelligent AI that takes over his body and leaves him in a permanent dream world where he is walking again with his wife, while this computer chip, called STEM, endeavors to take over the world. He does not know where he is, and he seems happy.

Technology is historically and circumstantially-embedded; at one time it may seem to be the solution and then become the problem, or vice-versa, depending thus on the moment of time in reference. A computer implant may one day make us super humans, and it may ultimately destroy us.

Dr. Kyle Swan:
All of them...

...are probably too costly to fix. I mean, why else would we have them?

For example, maybe we have too much pollution, but we don’t want zero pollution. We want the optimal amount. Similarly, maybe we have too many automobile deaths, but we don’t want zero automobile deaths. We want the optimal number of them.

Anything we want is like this. For example, in a competitive-enough industry, something’s (S) price will be the opportunity cost of all the resources that went into its production. So, what from everything available in the world should I use to make S? One filter is going to be technological feasibility. But after that, I want to know if what I use to make S is economically feasible — is this the optimal use for these resources?

Tough question. Because I may know a lot about S, but next to nothing about the many other somethings that S-resources could be used for. Luckily, I don’t have to know. I just look at their prices. Prices are knowledge surrogates. If they’re too high, I’ll be driven to use some cheaper alternatives.

Now consider these questions about the resources I could use to produce S:
Which ones cost less?
Which ones have higher opportunity costs?
Which ones waste fewer resources?
Which ones impose the least harm?

Different people may prioritize these questions differently. But it looks like it doesn’t matter. Any one of them gets them to move in the right direction.

Dr. Tom Pyne:
Reason has less influence than it should. But this provides little guidance on how much it should have.
Many philosophical claims are like this: Practice P is not grounded by any universal, necessary principle. Alternative practice A is conceivable and possible. Therefore, we have no reason to prefer P to A.
A stronger version: A is a universal, necessary principle itself. So we have a compelling reason to substituteA for P.
Examples abound. Utilitarian distributions don’t depend on arbitrary distinctions like egoism. Families lack the universalism required for properly moral action. Sexual jealousy should (must) give way. The Categorical Imperative. The Original Position.
Such claims are some of the strongest in philosophy. However, they derive their power from an assumption about the scope of reason.
Here’s a precept to provide guidance on how far we should press such claims: A basic substratum of human practices lies beneath the reach of reason. Therefore, attempts to apply reason there will be incoherent and self-defeating.
That stratum derives from our specific – and contingent – natural and cultural history. What we find cognitively salient; what we consider interesting; who we care about. And it is, emphatically, not a deliverance of reason.
We may think that we can prefer alternative practices, but we can’t. We can’t get below our lowest stratum.
Or, to put it another way, we are not platonic souls.
That is why attempts to extend the reach of reason (the term is ‘Utopianism’) produce the results they do.

Dr. John Park:
Given the 70 sextillion (7x1022) stars in the observable universe from Earth and countless others in the non-observed universe, many astrophysicists argue that even if the possibility of intelligent life developing on another planet is small, there is likely many intelligent alien life forms in the universe. Assuming this is so, there is likely to be many life-threatening moral problems in at least some of these alien societies if life on Earth provides an indication. A monstrously big problem spanning the universe then is to try and establish moral goodness and justice across the universe to prevent harm from occurring. For example, it very well may be physically possible for humans to right now try and build up to resolving various future galactic issues via many generations of scientific knowledge acquisition even though we cannot resolve the moral issues right now. We could spend many additional resources now to explicitly try and fix galactic problems by trying to build a weaponized space program built specifically to interfere in galactic affairs. However, we should not try to begin to fix and resolve all of these issues by enhancing our knowledge of space with the express intention of resolving outside galactic moral issues and having extra resources devoted to such specific endeavors. For, at minimum, we have too many moral issues here on Earth to expend such extra resources, inter alia. While the regular space program can remain, extra funds and energy should be spent addressing the moral issues on Earth now.

Dr. Saray Ayala-López:
For many people, lacking a romantic and/or sex partner is a problem. Let’s call the state of lacking a romantic and/or sex partner “X” (for space reasons I take them together). Seeing X as a problem triggers a desperate need to solve it, and this need both brings and reflects moral evils.

First, it assumes amatonormativity:
X is a problem when we accept that the best, happiness-guaranteed status for a person is that of a (usually exclusive) romantic relationship, and/or one that involves sex. Friendships and other social relationships (e.g. asexual romances) are diminished. This assumption impoverishes our social life and makes our romantic and sexual relationships toxic and unhealthy. It also makes many people in state X unhappy.

Second, it invites the idea of entitlement to sex and romantic affection:
A visible and disturbing case of this is the incels, or involuntary celibates: heterosexual men who think that society, and especially women, owe them sex and romantic affection. This assumption takes everything about sex and affection wrong (e.g. it confuses sex with domination), it draws on and promotes misogynistic ideas, and it leads to abusive relationships and crimes.

Third, it sets us up for a morally controversial technological future:
We’ll desperately try to solve X with robot companions(we already are), giving up on social skills, falling in love with à la carte dolls (most of them, marketed for heterosexual males, recreate an exaggerated ideal female body), and exploring all sorts of sexual (and emotional) exploitationof human-like maybe-one-day-conscious artificial organisms.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Do you and I deserve to die?

I recently read about a Pakistani Christian who was falsely accused of violating Pakistan Penal Code 295-C:

“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

I also recently read the ancient Christian account of King Herod’s death given by Luke the physician (who accompanied the apostle Paul on much of his travels) in Acts 12:21-23 (for contemporary biomedical accounts see here and here):

“On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.”

There are countless differences between the Pakistani penal code and this story of King Herod’s death. But each in their own way might raise the following question:

When, if ever, does a person deserve to die?

I recognize that “desert” is not explicitly mentioned in either text. But people in general—and believers in a God who is in some sense good and fair and just in particular—should be alert to desert-based discussions of each.

Consider four statements of how a person who believes in some desert-based explanations might explain what Herod deserved at the moment when the angel allegedly struck him down:

1. Herod deserved to live.

2. Herod did not deserve to live.

3. Herod deserved to not live.

4. Herod deserved to die. 

I think resistance to 4 is based on 1. But if 1 is overcome for 2, and 2 for 3, then 4 is a done deal.

I think the shock of being told that a person “deserved to die” for an activity is often due to our sense that death is a penalty that gets “tacked on” and utterly fails to fit the activity.

But perhaps death is not a penalty “tacked on” to certain activities, but is a reasonably expected outcome of the activities themselves. At least viewing it this way might clarify how the causing of Herod’s death does not necessarily come from an utterly different moral universe than our own.

Here’s my proposal:

A. If something is a continuous gift from one person to another, dependent on the will of the first person (the giver) at each moment, then anything the second person (the gifted) does that can reasonably change the will of the first can reasonably end the gift.

B. Herod’s life was a continuous (not one-time) gift (not entitlement) dependent on the will of the giver at each moment (not an enduring thing of its own).

C. So anything Herod did that could reasonably change the will of the giver could reasonably end his life.

An example to support A: Nun lives next door to beloved Nephew, who she gives the gift of a crisp twenty-dollar bill to each year, for each day between Christmas and Easter. But one year he turns around and makes an elaborate money shrine out of these bills and worships them. And boasts about it. Often. To her face. Even after her pleas to use the money better. Nephew can reasonably expect not to get a crisp twenty from Nun next Christmas—or even tomorrow. He certainly has no right to expect another installment of such a gift from her. If he keeps getting twenties from her, it may be that she is remarkably patient and hopeful of some good it will do him or others—but it’s not like she owes it to him.

I shall not try to support B. It does not challenge any sciences studying how we die.

Now consider: is not Herod’s offense here similar to what some politicians do during their speeches?

Or what you and I do every day?

Let me speak just for myself here. I am, to the giver of my life, much like Nephew to Nun. I practically worship my own life, even though I ought to know better, and even when the rumor’s out that I have been told better. And yet the spicket (sorry, spigot) supplying my life to me remains “on.” Why? It’s not entirely clear. But perhaps the giver is remarkably patient and hopeful of some good it will do me or others.

And yet occasionally the spigot is abruptly turned off—like with Herod.

Crucial clarification #1: we should be reluctant to invoke a desert-based explanation when someone today dies—to the point of almost never doing it.

There’s a brilliant line that the late Christopher Hitchens wrote about someone who asked the following horribly insensitive questions online:

“Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?...It’s just a “coincidence” [that] out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy?”

To which Hitchens replied (in part): “my so far uncancerous throat, let me rush to assure my Christian correspondent above, is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed.”

Nice. But Hitchens’ point actually makes my point. I give the middle finger to God all the time, even when it’s not with my middle finger. And yet he is “patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Crucial clarification #2: there are many additional ideas that one must accept before she thinks we mortals should get involved in giving a person the death they deserve—especially in the form of a law, especially like the law I quoted from Pakistan.

Russell DiSilvestro
Professor and Chair
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Friday, September 14, 2018

Spoilers vs. Keepers

There’s a certain kind of philosopher who plies the trade proving that things we believe in and care deeply about do not really exist: free will, mind, love, evil, knowledge, God, self, the external world. Stuff like that. Call them Spoilers.

The method of the Spoiler is straightforward: (1) Identify a susceptible entity and advance a definition of the term we use to refer to it. (2) Claim that this definition captures its Genuine Meaning. (3) Proceed to argue that there is, in fact, (or, better, logically could never be) anything in the world that satisfies this definition.

There’s another kind of philosopher whose mission it is to rescue these entities from the ignominy of non-existence. Call them Keepers. As I will use the term, a Keeper is not simply someone who attempts to refute a Spoiler’s argument; rather, she is someone who believes that the definition advanced misconceives the entity in question.

There are two different types of Keeper.

Keeper1, accepting the basic methodology of the Spoiler, engages him on his own terms, providing criticisms of his definition and defending an alternative Genuine Meaning. She then permits the Spoiler to respond in kind. Theoretically, this process continues until a mutually acceptable definition emerges. We call this the method of Reflective Equilibrium and it is how Analytic Philosophy gets done.

Keeper2 is someone who is disengaged from the search for Genuine Meaning, at least as a purely philosophical activity. She practices a different method known as Concept Explication. Explication typically occurs when the entity in question is the subject of ongoing scientific inquiry. Hence, when Keeper2 explicates a concept, she does so, not in an attempt to capture a quiddity, but rather in an attempt to clarify it for the purpose of further inquiry.

Consider an example: Knowledge. Most of us stipulate that knowledge is a fine thing and we humans have acquired quite a bit of it. A Spoiler might propose a definition of Genuine Knowledge that implies that to know P we must (in some sense) be certain that P is so. He may then argue that no such P could exist, since all beliefs must be based on evidence, which is inherently uncertain. Ergo, knowledge does not exist.

Whereas Keeper1 objects to the Spoiler’s definition on intuitive grounds, Keeper2 rejects it on methodological grounds. Keeper2 may allow that Spoiler’s definition accurately captures some traditional or intuitive meaning. But she knows that these often stem from immature theories of the entity in question. The failure of anything in the world to satisfy such a definition testifies to the shortcomings of the theory, not to the unreality of the entity.

In general, Keeper2 is interested only in definitions that serve some clear explanatory aim. So, if the subject is knowledge, her question will not be “What is Genuine Knowledge?” Her question will be “What notion of knowledge will best serve the attempt to explain how humans learn about the world?” (Clearly, scientific knowledge has progressed in the face of uncertainty, so the Spoiler’s definition will never do.)

Both types of Keepers should remain of interest to you, but I wish to better your acquaintance with Keeper2, whom I henceforth refer to simply as Keeper. Let’s look at a few other perennial targets of Spoiler and how Keeper might rejoin.

Free Will

Spoiler argues that everything we know about the physical world entails that free will is an illusion. For him, genuine free will involves a moment of choice between multiple options, all of which are equally available to the agent. Spoiler argues that choice, like all events leading up to it, is a purely physical process. Our feeling that it occurs in a “causal gap” is an illusion that itself must have a physical explanation.

Keeper suggests that Spoiler misconceives the nature of free will. He may be credited with accurately characterizing a traditional theory as well as its flaws, but all he has shown is that it is a poor theory. It is the theory that must be discarded, not free will itself. Keeper counters that free will just is the observable human capacity to consider various possible futures and to make decisions aimed at bringing one of them about. The important explanatory questions are how this ability evolved and how it is implemented in the human mind.

The Self

For Spoiler, the self is necessarily a Genuine Me that persists unaltered through all physical and mental change. Among other things it is supposed to explain how all of our various sensory modalities can be unified into a single coherent perspective. Spoiler argues that we have no introspective evidence for such an entity, nor any clue how such a thing could perform the functions assigned to it.

Again, Keeper’s response is to suggest that Spoiler is mistaking an inadequate theory for the thing itself. Again, she identifies the self with something that patently exists, namely a being with a self-conception, one that, as the renowned Keeper John Locke observed, “considers itself as itself, the same thing in different times and places.” For Keeper, a successful theory of the self so conceived will be one that explains, inter alia, how humans become aware of their own existence.


God, of course, is a perennial target of the Spoiler. For him, the genuine meaning of God is a traditional one: an eternal supreme person-like being who created the universe and the physical and moral laws by which it is governed. Spoilers argue for the non existence of such a being on a variety of grounds, but generally its radical implausibility, the paucity of evidence in its favor and varieties of fatal incoherence.

Keeper has no commitment to preserving an ancient theory of a creator God. Rather, she identifies God with what indisputably exists, and that is the operating principles of the universe itself. (This, of course, is the God of Spinoza and Einstein.) On the Keeper’s view a theory of God is simply a Theory of Everything.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Socialism is as socialism does

A new Gallup poll found that a majority of Democrats have a positive attitude towards socialism. This recent trend probably appeared on your radar during Bernie Sanders’ presidential run or in the wake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win. Both identify as democratic socialists. The term “democratic socialism” is confusing because it’s used in (at least) two different and incompatible ways.

1) It’s a system where (a) state officials centrally plan and control how the means of production are allocated among alternative uses and production processes, and (b) the state also preserves liberal democratic freedoms. The first part (a) is what makes “democratic socialism” a kind of socialism. In market societies, the means of production are allocated by private owners responding to competitive market prices, which function as indicators of relative scarcity. But socialists don’t like markets. More specifically, they don’t like the alienation and exploitation that they think markets promote, especially in the labor market. That’s why they thought that doing (a) would promote (b).

But socialists also think markets promote economic waste. They think that using central planners — perhaps held accountable to some form of democratic decision-making — to allocate resources will out-perform a competitive system of profit and loss where private owners allocate resources in response to price signals. (By the way, a great work of historical fiction that illustrates this idea in the context of the former Soviet Union is Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford.) Collective ownership and control over the means of production, therefore, is supposed to be, according to socialists, both morally and economically better than private ownership and control over the means of production.

The problem is that countries where modes of social organization based on collective ownership and control have been attempted have done quite badly — both in terms of economic consequences and in terms of liberal democratic freedoms. I have in mind countries like the former Soviet Union (and satellites), China (especially during the Great Leap Forward), Vietnam and Cambodia (before, at least, the mid/late 80s), Laos (before, at least, the early 90s). Today, the economies of Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela are mostly state run. China still has lots of state control, but the activity in “special economic zones” is responsible for the highest percentage of its GDP.

There’s a kind of technical argument in economics for why centrally planned economies do so badly. For now I’ll just say that, as much as we know anything in the social sciences, we know that markets allocate resources better, more efficiently and in ways that promote people’s welfare better.

But it also turned out that these countries have done very poorly in terms of securing liberal democratic freedoms. States that secured and maintained control over the means of production found that, in order to do this, they needed to use lots of coercion and found themselves regularly interfering with liberal freedoms (like religion, speech and movement).

2) Alternatively, “democratic socialism” is a system where there are robust private ownership rights in the means of production, which are allocated among alternative uses according to a competitive price system, but there is also a robust system of redistribution of benefits to address the needs of those less well-off in society. In these countries, the state taxes its citizens and corporations, perhaps quite a lot, in order to provide these welfare benefits, and also targets interventions to protect the vulnerable. But, for the most part, the competitive price system, based on private ownership and control, rather than the collective or the state, determines how the means of production are allocated.

I think that this is probably what most people mean by “democratic socialism” these days, though they tend to under-appreciate how market-oriented social democratic countries are. These countries have lots of market interventions, but their markets aren’t planned centrally. Private individuals, rather than the state, own the means of production. A decentralized price system determines how owners will allocate them among competing investment projects. For the most part, profits and losses are left to impersonal market forces.

Countries that are “democratic socialist” in this sense have done quite well! I’m thinking of the Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Denmark and Finland), and countries like Germany, the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But, in the economic sense, these countries don’t have socialist systems. All of these countries do at least as well, or better, protecting market liberties as the US does on every country ranking I’ve seen (here’s one that’s very transparent about its methodology). Their governments intervene in the economy to redistribute economic benefits, but not in ways that seriously impede the functioning of the price system. Call these countries what they are: not any kind of socialism; rather, more-or-less-regulated capitalism with generous welfare systems. I understand that doesn’t roll off the tongue in the nice way “democratic socialism” does. But at least it’s accurate. How about “welfare-state capitalism” or “property-owning democracy”?

Because, I don’t understand the sense in which these countries are supposed to be socialist when the state doesn’t plan the economy. People on the left seem to like the label because they still identify ideologically with socialism’s lofty ideals (many of them, somehow, while non-ironically wearing Che t-shirts!). They give mere lip service to socialism. Meanwhile, people on the right are generally happy to paint their political opponents with the label because they want to tarnish them with the terrible history of socialist economies and their ideology tends to make them confuse cases where the state intervenes in a genuine market with cases where state decision-making substitutes for a market. But they can’t have it both ways.

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Epistemic Possibility and the Problem of Evil

An epistemic possibility is something that might be true, given the available evidence. I might see a bird tomorrow and I might not—given my evidence now, both options are epistemically possible. Not everything is epistemically possible though, as some options are ruled out by my evidence. I’m definitely not on the moon right now (if I were, I’d be suffocating!), so that’s not an epistemic possibility for me.

Epistemic possibilities feature prominently in several arguments about what we know. Suppose, for example, that you’re in a zoo. You’re standing outside the zebra enclosure, and you see an animal that looks exactly like a zebra—horse-like shape, black and white stripes, etc. But then a skeptic comes along and argues as follows:

Maybe that animal is really a mule that has been cleverly disguised to look just like a zebra. So, maybe it’s not a zebra after all. And that means that you don’t really know that it is a zebra.

‘Maybe’ here is an epistemic possibility operator, so the skeptic is pointing out that it is epistemically possible given your evidence that the animal is a mule cleverly disguised to look like a zebra. And this seems true. All of the evidence you have about how the animal looks is just the sort evidence you’d have if it were a mule cleverly disguised to look like a zebra, so that evidence can’t rule out that possibility. From this the skeptic infers that it is also epistemically possible that the animal is not a zebra, and therefore that you do not know that it is a zebra.

Both of those inferences seem sensible, but I think the first one is a mistake. Implausible as it initially sounds, I think it is epistemically possible for you that the animal is a mule cleverly disguised to look like a zebra, but it is not epistemically possible for you that the animal is not a zebra. To see why, consider the following test for epistemic possibility:

If you have a good reason to think that, if a proposition were true, you would have different evidence, then that proposition is not epistemically possible for you. Otherwise, it is.

This test handles standard cases of epistemic possibility well. It is not epistemically possible for me that I am on the moon, says the test, since I have very good reason to believe that I’d have different evidence (e.g. evidence of looking at a grey landscape through a spacesuit helmet) if I were. It is epistemically possible for me that I will see a bird tomorrow, since I have no reason to think that I’d have different evidence than I do if I were going to see a bird tomorrow.

Using this test, we can see why the skeptic’s inference is a bad one. It is epistemically possible for you that the animal is a mule cleverly disguised to look like a zebra, says the test, since you have every reason to believe that you’d have exactly the same evidence if it were. But now think about just the proposition that the animal in the pen is not a zebra. What evidence would you have if that were true? The standard way of answering that question is to think about the most similar scenarios where the animal is not a zebra and what evidence you would have in those scenarios. Plausibly, the most similar scenarios where you’re in a zoo looking at an animal that is not a zebra are just scenarios where you’re looking at some other animal, such as a giraffe or a crocodile. And in those scenarios, you would have very different evidence. So, our test actually says that, even though it is epistemically possible that the animal you’re looking at is a mule cleverly disguised to look like a zebra, it is not epistemically possible that it is not a zebra.

We can apply this thinking to other areas of philosophy with interesting results. The problem of evil is an argument that starts with all of the bad things we observe in the world and concludes that there is no morally perfect, all-powerful God. After all, such a being would surely prevent these bad things unless there was a really good reason to allow them, and there doesn’t seem to be any such reason.

There are many ways of attacking this argument, but one of them, skeptical theism, can be understood as pointing out that we cannot rule out the possibility that there is some reason we haven’t thought of that justifies the bad things we observe. So, the skeptical theist argues:

Maybe God does exist but has some reason beyond our limited understanding of good and evil for allowing all of these bad things to happen. So, God might exist after all. Which means that you don’t know that God does not exist.

This argument has the same form as the skeptic’s argument about the zebra, and it fails for the same reason. It doesn’t follow from the fact that it is epistemically possible that God exists and has a reason for allowing all of the bad things we’ve observed to happen that it is epistemically possible that God exists. We have very good reasons to think that if God existed and had reasons beyond our understanding for allowing the bad things we’ve observed, then we would have just the evidence we do. We’d see all of the same bad things happen, and we’d be just as baffled as to how a morally perfect being could allow them. But what evidence would we expect to have if God existed? That is, what evidence would we have in the most similar scenarios in which God exists? That’s a tough question, in part because scenarios can be similar or dissimilar to each other in different ways. But the answer does not follow from the epistemic possibility that there are reasons beyond our understanding for the evils we’ve observed.

Brandon Carey
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, April 23, 2018

The political economy of guns

I’m going to present a (pretty limited) analysis of the gun control debate assuming the truth of two apparently robust social scientific findings:

1. Cross-country analyses show a strong correlation between gun violence and gun availability.

2. Bans and prohibitions are particularly bad ways of dealing with problems or harms stemming from the availability of some object, substance or service.

I’m not at all equipped to evaluate 1 at any particular depth, but I’ve heard it reported and repeated by policy wonks and politicians on both sides of the political aisle. And, here’s a useful graph:

I know a little more about 2. It turns out that if you want to curb the bad social consequences associated with the use of some object, substance or service, other forms of regulation are typically better than prohibitions or bans at securing the policy goals and in ways that are less harmful and wasteful. Prohibitions and bans tend to raise prices in ways that redirect, rather than eliminate, production processes, supply chains, marketing techniques and consumer use. The ways bans do this are predictable and tend to make things worse.

So, for example, with the prohibition of drugs, we get organized criminal organizations that compete, usually violently, to monopolize markets and trade routes. This is bad. We also get drugs more concentrated and potent (like designer, synthetic or home concoctions) that are both easier to transport (smuggle) and more dangerous to consume. This is also bad.

Again, these bad social consequences associated with the war on drugs were eminently predictable as a straightforward playing out of the generalization in 2. If not, then it would mean that without a drug war, or without one as vigorously prosecuted, the social consequences of drug use would have been worse, other things being equal. This is implausible given the empirical evidence.

Say we ban assault rifles. 2 predicts that this will grow the illicit demand market and the comparable incentive for illicit suppliers and supply. The effects would be similar to those in the case of illicit drugs in the sense that the ban would redirect, rather than eliminate, the market. This is not a good way to deal with gun violence if 1 is right and the most significant factor is gun availability. If we assume that gun markets exhibit the same basic features of other markets, most of the explanation for how easy it is to access guns are things like existing supply and price levels, which are marginally impacted by various regulatory costs, like waiting periods and licensing and reporting requirements.

But 1 and 2 suggest that we should be asking things like “what would work best to affect these costs and margins in socially desirable ways?” There’s a clear and consistent convergence on the futility of bans and prohibitions. I understand that it isn’t very intuitive that availability is a (or, the most) significant factor but prohibition doesn’t work. But, first, consider the case of drugs again. It’s likely that the use of highly addictive and dangerous opioids is higher where there’s a higher availability of drugs, yet it’s still the case that drug prohibition is an utter social disaster. Second, regardless of whether you find it intuitive, this is simply what the best social science tells us about the effects of bans and prohibitions. In short, you’d find yourself in a very dubious epistemic position to deny it -- roughly the same position as you would be in if you rejected any other view that reflects a substantial scientific consensus.

To be clear: the argument here isn’t that prohibition wouldn’t affect the availability of guns; rather, it’s that prohibition wouldn’t affect their availability in socially desirable ways.

So what would work better than bans to reshape the market in guns to produce better social consequences? Yikes, I don’t know. I’m just a philosopher. But it would be surprising, I think, if the largest influence on the gun market, and so the largest influence on the mass production and relative availability of guns and the types of guns available, didn’t have something to do with the biggest spender on them. Compared to US federal and state government contracts, the private citizen market for weaponry amounts effectively to, if you’ll permit me to use a technical term, diddly squat. Imposing a ban on private ownership and exchange wouldn’t affect the supply side of the equation at all, and 1 suggests that’s what we should be concerned about.

The level of production and availability of weaponry in the US is driven by massive military, federal agency and state government spending. The impact of this spending on availability isn’t just that government surplus units can find their way into private hands. I’m sure that happens, but much more significant is the way government contracting magnitudes drive economies of scale for production, signal expansion in the industry, and incentivize both new firms and more and more units. Assault rifles are designed and produced with military and quasi-military applications in mind. This is the biggest market. The private consumer market is just spillover for producers. Second amendment enthusiasts and private protection stalwarts aren’t shaping supply. And waiting periods, registration and licensing requirements, magazine restrictions and excise taxes have little effect. Ditto buy-back programs or mandatory liability insurance. None of these measures are likely to make a significant difference on supply in the US when military spending is as high as it is.

Government expenditure on weaponry functions as a subsidy for guns. Subsidize something only if you want to get more of it. I recommend not doing this anymore (or drastically reducing this expenditure). Prohibition just makes things worse. Piecemeal regulations avoid the most significant problems associated with prohibition, but I doubt that any regulatory scheme would have an effect on reshaping the market in ways that would have a significant impact on weapons production (or tragic shootings) as long as total spending remains so high.

Kyle Swan
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State University