Monday, September 18, 2017

The high costs of cheap goods and cheap talk

Reports of price gouging have come fast and furious in the wake of the recent devastating hurricanes affecting areas to our South and Southeast. These reports have led to threats from politicians and social media outrage. You shouldn’t get behind this.

Start with this question: what should we say about the following people?
1. In response to the series of hurricanes brutalizing Gulf Coast areas, Smith rents a U-haul and fills it with bottled water, generators, pre-paid cell phones and other supplies. She drives through the ravaged areas and gives these all away to victims, free of charge. 
2. Jones also rents a U-haul and fills it with these supplies. She also drives them to these areas, but sells these supplies to victims either at cost or at their “normal,” pre-disaster prices. 
3. Johnson does the same, except she decides to sell these goods at supernormal prices considered “exorbitant or excessive.” People still readily buy them because they need them so badly.
I suggest the following ranking: Smith is extremely generous and praiseworthy. Jones is less so, though still quite generous considering the sacrifice of her time and effort; Johnson isn’t morally praiseworthy at all.

Some go further and condemn Johnson as a gouger, without any sense of conscience. And, as Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in one news conference, “price gouging is not only reprehensible, it’s illegal.”

For example, Florida law makes price gouging punishable by fine of $1000 for every violation up to $25,000 each day. Fines are bigger in Texas. There Johnson could be fined as much as $20,000 for a gouging offense. If Johnson’s Texas customer happened to be aged 65 or older, the top fine goes up to $250,000.

There are two points to make about this condemnation of Johnson. First, behold the high costs of goods artificially kept cheap.

Keeping the sticker price of something low doesn’t mean you will keep costs low. Waiting a long time for it and, worse, going without it are also costly and probably a lot less efficient way to economize on its use than allowing the price to surge. A friend during the evacuation in Florida was headed up the panhandle with ¾ of a tank of gas, but stopped to fill up “just in case.” He might have decided differently if gas prices were $6.80/gallon instead of $2.80. 

If he had, this would have meant available gas for someone with a tank at or near empty. 

Also, limiting consumption with lines or empty shelves doesn’t do enough by itself to instigate the sort of intense and focused supply efforts affected areas need. Say what you want about Johnson, but like Smith and Jones she is bringing stuff people need where they need it. Others motivated by the profit opportunity might do so as well, which is what we should want.

This leads to the second point. It’s instructive to add another point of comparison relative to Johnson:
4. When Robinson learns about the devastation brought to Gulf Coast areas, she logs into Facebook to write a heartfelt post: “Thoughts and prayers for all the victims of Harvey and Irma! 😭 ”
Comedian Anthony Jeselnik has argued that the sentiment here roughly translates into "don't forget about me today." Even if that’s not quite correct, this kind of talk is cheap and worth much less than what Johnson does. So, it’s perverse to condemn Johnson but like Robinson (or “like” his status update). Again, maybe Johnson isn’t praiseworthy, like Smith and to a lesser extent Jones are, but at least she does that without which people would be significantly worse off.

And let’s make this more personal. I didn’t rent a U-haul and deliver supplies to hurricane-affected areas. I didn’t do it free of charge or at any price. Did any of you? How much money would it have taken to inspire you to deliver needed supplies to hurricane victims? Would you have done it in exchange for the actual costs, like Jones? No, right? Would you do it in exchange for $5000 or $10,000 over your actual costs? No? Johnson (or “gougers” like him) did, despite legal threats.

In that case, even worse than Robinson is:
5. Williams condemns “price gougers” and uses her political influence to back a law punishing them.
Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A conversation about Islam

Today's post is a conversation about a difficult subject. The participants are professors from the Sacramento State Philosophy Department: Randy Mayes, Matt McCormick, Russell DiSilvestro, Kyle Swan,  Chong Choe-Smith, Saray Ayala-López, Tom Pyne, and Brad Dowden.  

Randy: Matt, one of our many shared interests is tolerance and I know we've both defended some controversial views on this subject. You have argued that religious traditions, despite doctrinal commitments to universal love and compassion actually tend to foster intolerance in the faithful. Do you think this is a general truth, or are there important distinctions to be made between different religious traditions?

Matt: I think it’s a general truth, but there is a lot of historical variation that depends on all sorts of political and economic circumstances. Right now I’m really concerned about what appears to be going on within Islam. The polling data shows that very large majorities in a large number of countries, and significant minorities of people identifying themselves as Muslims have a number of intolerant, regressive, and dangerous views. We have good empirical evidence, I think, that that large percentages, sometimes significant majorities, of Muslims in Egypt, Tunisia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Niger, Pakistan, Thailand, and many others hold these views:
  • Only one faith, Islam, can lead to heaven. 
  • Sharia law ought to be the law of the land, even for non-Muslims. 
  • Crimes such as theft should have corporal punishment such as whippings or cutting off of the hands. 
  • Adulterers should be stoned.
  • Apostates should be executed.
  • Suicide bombings are sometimes or often justified. 
  • Homosexuality is immoral and ought to be punished. 
  • Violating the edicts of Islam, such as drawing a cartoon of Mohammed, should be punished. 
  • Women should not have equal treatment politically, socially, morally, and religiously. 
  • Women, out of religious morality, should not be exposed to the view of men other than their family members or their husbands. 
  • Honor killings are justified for women who have had premarital or extramarital sex.
So, it seems clear to me that Islam is fostering intolerant and morally objectionable views that are deeply at odds with values like freedom of speech, freedom of religion and equal treatment for women and minority groups (LGBTQ). Obviously this is a pretty controversial thing to say, but if the polling data are to be trusted, it's also a pretty straightforward inference.  I think it is irresponsible for us to pretend that this is not so. It needs to be dealt with and discussed honestly.

Russell: I think, right out of the gate, you are going to get a question about whether those who hold these views are genuinely Muslims, or (setting that aside) whether they accurately speak for Islam as a whole. How do you answer those twin questions? (By the way, in a somewhat parallel case, I like the answer C.S. Lewis gave to the question: “Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?”)

Matt:  Well, we're talking about extensive face-to-face interviews with 38,000 self-identifying Muslims in 39 countries. People who want to deny that the people in the survey are “true” Muslims, run the risk of the No True Scotsman fallacy. I have a nominalist view about who’s a Muslim, or Christian--they are pretty much who they say they are. While we can challenge the PEW survey, it’s one of the best, most reputable polling groups around. We should be open to methodological objections, but I’m not aware of any serious ones. It’s better to start with their attempt to get good statistical information than with people’s anecdotal evidence about Muslims that they happen to know.

Tom: We really need to try not to get trapped into tail-chasing arguments over ‘authentic’ Islam. When some objectionable feature is shown to be a core tenet, Muslim apologists raise issues of misinterpretation, fine points of Arabic, or the objectivity of sources. The Western audience is ushered into a dialectical funhouse where rational criticism is mugged and strangled. ‘Islam’ = the set of beliefs and practices that satisfies a certain homeostatic property cluster. That’s what Pew investigated.

Randy: These data are interesting, and certainly ought to factor into anyone’s overall understanding of the reality of Islam. But it’s not news that predominantly Islamic countries don’t typically aspire to Western ideals like religious pluralism, secular democracy or equal rights for women and minorities. Do you think the data are showing that people in Islamic countries are becoming increasingly committed to Islamic fundamentalism and increasingly hostile to Western values? Or perhaps that until now we have harbored the illusion that these are features of repressive governments rather that of ordinary Muslims? If neither, why does it concern you so much now?

Matt: I don’t know about a trend up or down. What seems clear is that whatever other causes of belief and behavior there might be, the religion itself--the Imams, madrassas, mosques, doctrines being promoted, believers, sermons, and so on--are fostering these ideas specifically and directly. But for fear of appearing prejudiced, we’re not acknowledging this fact, and we often attack people who do as ignorant. Part of the solution to eliminating dangerous religious beliefs and attitudes has to be to be to make intolerance, violence, and theocracy unacceptable and tolerance, equality, and democracy the norm. And to be clear, I think it is Muslims themselves who are suffering the most harm from the former.

Kyle: I think this is important, Matt. It seems relevant that Muslims here in the US are more moderate and become more moderate the longer they are here. You haven’t said anything about Muslim immigration to the US, but consider this your opportunity to do so.

Matt: The polls of Muslims, moving from the Middle East progressively further to the west, show these intolerant and severe views dropping off. British Muslims, for instance, hold many of these views at much lower rates. To me, this could suggest a moderating effect of contact with places where tolerance, separation of church and state, equal treatment, and equal protection are the norm. I’m pro-immigration; letting more, not fewer Muslims immigrate to the U.S. could facilitate understanding, tolerance, and reform. It’s also the right thing to do given the tragic conditions in the Middle East.

Chong: In these conversations, I worry about two sorts of generalizations: (1) that extremist versions of Islam held by a few are held by many and (2) that Muslims who hold certain beliefs that are objectionable to some hold every objectionable belief associated with Islam. The polling data supports that while a majority of Muslims in many states believe in theocratic rule (no sharp division between church and state), it is inaccurate to say that a majority of Muslims would condone suicide bombings or other unjustified acts of violence. This is something that careful philosophers understand, of course, but it is easily missed by others.

Matt: Chong you are completely right about the danger of misinterpretation. I worry about that a lot. But that just means we have to be clear, not fight back with a willful misinterpretation of our own. Concerning your (1), the surveys have found that many morally extreme views are quite widely held. There’s no evidence here that a majority of Muslims condone suicide bombings, but there are alarmingly high minorities of them who do in the poll. Even 5% or 2% is cause for grave concern. And my argument is that the prevalence of other less extreme, but harsh and intolerant views in the mainstream fosters those more extreme views out at the margins. Concerning (2), I agree: these polls do not imply that a Muslim who holds one belief also holds every objectionable belief associated with Islam. I argue that holding some of them makes the cultural, religious, and social environment more receptive or encouraging to holding those beliefs, and even stronger ones, all other things being equal. When many Christians in the Midwest, for example, have the view that homosexuals should not be allowed to marry, it facilitates those Christians and others in believing that HIV/AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality.

Chong: I think we agree about the importance of not perpetuating further misconceptions about Muslims around the world. But I think I’m more skeptical of the polling data than you are. I think polling data generally are unreliable and susceptible to all sorts of misinterpretations. We are rarely in a good position to know the motivations for the responses or how the respondent understood the questions/answers. For example, respondent A may have agreed that Sharia law should be the law of the land because he is a devout Muslim and does not accept a sharp division between church and state while respondent B may have selected the same response because he believes the above and that the severe corporal punishments proscribed therein still applies today. Only the latter may be regressive and dangerous (from your cultural perspective).

Saray: Another concern I have is that it’s just so easy to cherry-pick the evidence. Those PEW polls you cite also suggest that there is a widespread support among Muslims for democracy and religious freedom (e.g. an average of 72% in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 55% in Middle East-North Africa prefer democracy over a strong leader; while 94% and 95% say religious freedom is a good thing). Also, an average of 58% in Middle East-North Africa think that living things have evolved over time, a number not very different from what the PEW center found for other religious groups in the US .

Tom: I think Matt’s claims about the moral views of Muslims and Islam stem from a general view, namely, that the effect of religion on morality is at best contingent and neutral, but in many cases religion causes people to act worse. He’s been directing this critique to Christians and Christianity for years, always accompanied by argument. So this is just another instance of that view. As to the argument, Pew Research Center lives and dies on confidence in its findings. Tests for veracity can be built into instrument design. So it’s more rational to believe that they are accurate than to believe they are not.

Kyle: I think the problem is that at least part of Matt’s concern doesn’t have anything to do with whether the surveys are accurate. A finding that many, or perhaps most, Muslims hold beliefs that are morally problematic is different than showing that what’s morally problematic there can be appropriately laid at the door of Islam. According to the best interpretation of Islam, does it teach those things? Does it teach that they all apply presently? In every society? Moderate Muslims argue that many of their co-religionists are wrong about a lot of that.

Matt: Kyle, yeah, that's a really good point. The “best” interpretation, as seen by the most radical and conservative Muslims, is the one that promotes the views I’ve identified as most morally objectionable. The “best” interpretation according to the moderate reformers is the one that most diminishes the emphasis on these views. I’m with them, if they are trying to moderate Islam from the inside. But this approach itself suggests that there is some other set of standards by which we can judge the interpretations than the text itself; a view that the former group, like fundamentalist Christians, flatly rejects. My fear, given the polls, is that the moderates are losing.

Saray: Matt, I’m very wary of essentialism, something we tend to do with groups of people, mostly those we see as different from us. When we inquire deep enough and with an open mind, we usually realize that there is a complex network of factors that explains their behavior, rather than a fixed essence. I wonder if you might be essentializing Muslims here. An alternative reading of the PEW results is possible, one that does not need to postulate any intrinsic wrong in Islam or those who follow it. The complex history of the relations between Western countries and the Middle East offers an explanation: given all the harm done to many countries in many different ways along history (often in the name of Christianity), and given current tensions, resistance to western culture is salient in those countries. If you look at the PEW results, the countries with higher support of suicide bombings are Tunisia, Egypt and Palestinian territories (15%, 29% and 40%, respectively). I don’t think this is by chance.

Matt: I definitely don’t want to be essentialist about the people. It’s the religious ideology that I’m singling out. There appear to be a lot of people insisting that the deepest, core values of the religious tradition are exactly those views I’ve focused on. Others say that those aren’t essential Islamic values but they do not speak for the majority. Also, we can agree that there are many other contributing factors. But that there are so many people in so many countries who espouse these views suggests that the common thread is Islam, not American imperialism, or something other than the religion altogether. It’s implausible, for example, to suggest that views in Malaysia or Indonesia about executing apostates, murdering cartoonists, and stoning adulterers are due largely to American war crimes.

Saray: I suppose I don’t think it’s as implausible as you do. For example, in 1966 the British and the Americans attempted to overthrow Sukarno in Indonesia. The real extent of the West’s role in fostering extremism isn’t that widely appreciated.

Brad: It is shocking to me that the Pew survey shows 86% of the people in Malaysia favor Sharia law as being the official law of the land, 83% in Morocco, and so forth. Do you suppose that the main reason why so many Muslims favor Sharia is that they see the institution of Islam as the only non-corrupt institution in their country? You don’t have to give a payoff to get an imam to do something, but you do need a payoff in order to get prompt police response, or a good job, or a building permit.

Saray: Brad, that actually connects to my point about resistance to Western intervention. When governments are corrupted (often aided by Western intervention) and the political scene is in general unstable (often as a result of Western intervention), religion might become the only institution to trust, and the only one reflecting some sort of national, racial or in general group identity. Islam might be for many people the only thing uncorrupted by the West. This could explain the support for Sharia law.

Randy: Matt, I think you agree with me that our beliefs, especially our normative beliefs, are not as introspectible as people assume. This is apt to be more true where believing the wrong thing can get you into trouble. Shouldn’t this weaken your confidence in the behavioral significance of the data? Members of the homeostatic property cluster we call Christianity say that they believe in the Ten Commandments, but few know what they are, and fewer live by them. Perhaps this explains why Muslims tend to assimilate so well when they immigrate. They aren’t saying what they believe so much as what they are supposed to believe.

Matt: Right, introspection isn’t very reliable. But that’s not my unique problem to address, or Islam’s special privilege to claim as a defense. The high numbers of people reporting abhorrent beliefs is evidence, I maintain, for concluding that the religion, among other things, is leading people to say and believe horrible things. If our measures of belief are off by a degree so large as to undermine that inference, then that problem is going to lay waste to all of our references to people’s beliefs. “McCormick, you’re wrong that Muslims believe bad things because of their religion because actually nobody really believes anything, or it’s impossible to measure beliefs.” That Going Nuclear objection is a bigger liability for the critic than for my argument specifically.

Randy: You’ll know when I’ve gone nuclear buster. But I just mean to build a bit on Chong’s skepticism about polls. I’m suggesting that in normatively non neutral contexts belief reports are relatively unreliable predictors of behavior. Belief reports are certainly a form of behavior, but I don’t think they are what most concerns you. I don’t want to overstate this objection, because some of those beliefs on your list are clearly reflected in traditional practices. The scariest ones, though, are harder for me to credit as predictive of individual behavior.

Saray: Right, and to further develop that concern, we could say that the fact that many Americans support the right to own guns is dangerous. Outside of the US, this support (and the belief that gun ownership protects people from crime) is really frightening. Many wonder how it is possible for a country like the US to be stuck in such an obsolete culture. We could read these results as giving us grounds to predict individual behavior, that is, individuals reporting these problematic beliefs about gun ownership will behave in problematic and dangerous ways. Or we could say that these belief reports, given the American context, are not giving us much grounds to predict individual behavior. You seem to favor the former reading for the results you report. With my example I’m trying to point out that the second reading might be a better one.

Matt: That’s a nice example, Saray.  If there’s reliable, accurate empirical evidence that a large majority has a belief, then, all other things being equal, that increases the odds of their acting in belief consistent ways. In the case of Islam, if we know that a large majority of the country condemns homosexuality on religious grounds, then we can predict that the environment will not be favorable to homosexuality. How those beliefs will come out, who will commit actions, or what they will do can’t be inferred directly. With regard to gun beliefs, we can see the results in behavior too. Americans love their guns, and it’s no accident that they have one of the highest rates of gun crimes in the world. Americans have morally objectionable beliefs about guns, in my view, and they are more dangerous as a result.

Saray: Matt, it seems you are worried, among other things, about women rights and LGBTQ people not being respected in communities that adhere to Islam. I can tell you have a genuine concern, but I think we need to be careful about how we address it. Well-intentioned people in Western countries tend to paint a very simplistic picture of the evils they see in “other countries”. Many Muslim feminists and Muslim LGBTQ activists are fighting against sexism and homophobia, but also, and importantly, against Western imperialism, colonialism and globalization. We need to make sure that in denouncing “other” religions and “other” countries, we are not playing the old game of “white western scholar to the rescue of ignorant oppressed people”.

Matt: I completely concur about being careful and respectful. The situation is not simple. On the other hand, the fact that I am a white male American scholar should not prevent me from being able to talk about a real phenomenon, or in itself raise doubts about the strength of my arguments or the evidence.

Saray: I also think you should be able to talk about this. But there is more than just respect and care we need here. Elora Chowdhury warns about the “benevolent first world feminist” in the US who devotes her efforts to try alleviate oppression of women elsewhere while being “oblivious to the US government’s role in creating or exacerbating harsh conditions for the women with whom she so wanted to be in solidarity”. A cautionary tale for people in the US, specially scholars, who want to talk and theorize about “other” countries and “other” religions is: be aware of oversimplification due to ignorance of all the relevant factors, but also, once you think you have found something significant and objectionable, be aware of the role Western countries, and in particular the US, play in creating or exacerbating the problems they are pointing out, and how our denouncing these problems could actually contribute to them.

Randy: That's interesting Saray. It reminds me of something else I think we need to be careful about, namely professors taking advantage of their position in the classroom by denouncing people, practices and policies they disagree with. Besides the fact that they are abusing their authority with students, they fail to consider that the effect they are producing may be the exact opposite of the one they imagine. That's a different conversation, though. It's nice to have a voluntary forum like this one where we can have a respectful conversation about a really difficult topic and invite students to participate in kind if they are so inclined.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Why we believe

Most of us are happy to stipulate that it is best to believe only what is true. Yes, there are weird cases in which believing fantasies and falsehoods may make you happier or keep you out of trouble. But, clearly, any creature that lacks a systematic tendency to represent its umwelt accurately is not long for its world.

This is a defensible view as long as we confine the use of the term "belief" to mental representations that yield relatively precise and falsifiable predictions. My belief that there are pickles in the pantry predicts that I will find them there if I look. If I come up pickleless, yet maintain my previous degree of confidence in their existence, there is something wrong with me.

Some philosophers do use the term in this way. Quassim Cassam, e.g., characterizes belief as a mental state that is "regulated for truth in a way that other modes of acceptance are not." This is fine, too, but it is a technical usage and one that is apt to cause confusion.

For example, it weirdly implies that most people do not believe that God is good. They may sincerely avow it, but they can not believe it because they accept it on faith, and faith is not regulated for truth. This is odd, because if you ask even a pickle-laden lay person for a typical belief, she is far more likely to say that God is good than that she has pickles in her pantry.

The critical point here is that if we think it is just obviously best to believe only what is true, this may be because we are simply defining belief in that way. If there are modes of acceptance- by which I mean modes of accepting a proposition as true- other than belief, it remains an open question whether this is true of them as well.

A different way to think about the nature of belief is to ask what they make us do. Intellectualists about belief claim that we believe P only if we reflectively and sincerely endorse the truth of P. Behaviorists claim that we believe P only if we generally behave as if P were true. Their sticking point is that we often sincerely claim to believe things when our behavior suggests otherwise. Intellectualists say we do believe in such cases, behaviorists say we don't.

Eric Schwitzgebel, a behaviorist, says that the reason my belief that there are pickles in the pantry reliably causes me to behave as if this were so is that it is "normatively neutral" and "straightforwardly connected to observable behavior." On the other hand, the reason a man may sincerely claim to love his children, despite failing to provide for them, is that whether he loves his children is not normatively neutral, and behavioral departures are more easily justified.

Neither intellectualism nor behaviorism support the idea that beliefs are inherently regulated for truth. But behaviorism is the more comprehensive framework for appreciating what Cassam’s proposal may cause us to miss. For there are often good reasons why we persist in behaving as if P were true despite strong evidence of its falsehood.

To see this clearly, let’s stipulate, contra Cassam, that we believe any claim we sincerely accept as true. I suggest that the less normatively neutral a belief, the less truth-regulated it is likely to be. Forget about explicitly normative claims, since many doubt these have truth values at all. As Schwitzgebel uses this term, even patently empirical claims like:
  • Children of traditional marriages suffer the fewest mental health problems. 
  • Abstinence counseling is an ineffective means of preventing teen pregnancy. 
  • Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government. 
  • Intellectual differences between the sexes are partly due to genetic differences. 
are normatively loaded. This is because those who claim to (dis)believe them are sure to suffer the (dis)approbation of others as a result. And the reason for this is that beliefs like these reliably indicate whose side we are on; i.e., our religious, political and cultural affiliations.

Of course, informed, free thinking people can evaluate such claims on the evidence alone. But most people who think of themselves in this way are deluded. Our views on a range of disparate issues can usually be predicted from our affiliations. This is nowhere truer than in the academy itself, where viewpoint diversity has been declining for decades.

Clearly, one important reason that normatively loaded beliefs are not regulated for truth is the high cost of changing them. For the individual, the expected value of truth may be minute compared to that of remaining a member in good standing. This is true even of the scientific community, our most highly truth-regulated social institution. There, young graduate students are indoctrinated into the models and methods of their mentors, and their interests and theoretical commitments typically develop along similar lines. Scientists who change their views before a sea change of opinion requires it suffer all the costs of disloyalty that we lay folk experience in the real world.

Beyond social allegiances, our beliefs are also constitutive of our personal identities. We cling to them the way we cling to quite arbitrary preferences, because a relatively stable set of each is what helps us to maintain the feeling that we are not social suck-ups but unique individuals leading independently meaningful lives. To the extent that we identify strongly with a belief, it may be folly to give it up for one that is merely true.

These claims are easy things to believe about other people, but difficult to accept about ourselves. It is humiliating to think that I have been given the gift of Reason, and yet for the beliefs that I care most about, I use it, not to discover what is true, but what it comforts me to believe. Of course, if what I am saying is true in general, then it is a very good reason for believing it is not true of me at all.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Summer reading?

Congratulations to our graduates and to the rest of our majors for completing another year toward your degree! We asked your professors for the book they are most looking forward to reading this summer. Here's what we got. (Some of it's philosophy, some of it's not.)

Matt McCormick
Joshua Carboni
Kyle Swan
Christina Bellon
Randy Mayes
Clovis Karam
Chong Choe-Smith
Saray Ayala-López
Kevin Vandergriff
Russell DiSilvestro
Christian Bauer
Patrick Smith
Phillip Barron
Brad Dowden
Tom Pyne
Jonathan Chen
David Corner
Lynne Fox
Mathias Warnes

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

How to pray when the end (of term) is near

This post begins with some conjectures, runs through three quick stories, and ends with a philosophical question and answer (or two) about prayer.


“As long as there are final exams there will always be prayer in school.”—a popular saying of former president Ronald Reagan

It’s that time of year again—the end of the semester. Time to pray, right?

Many of you know exactly what I mean.

If you are a student, you likely have more papers, projects, and other stuff to complete and turn in than you have time for.

If you are a teacher, you likely have more papers, projects, and other stuff to grade and return than you have time for...and you know that more (many, many more) are coming soon.

Some of you may be thinking about turning to prayer for help. Or a rabbit’s foot. Or something else.

Relax. Take a deep breath. I do not write to scold. But I do write to propose a few things.


Consider three short stories:

1. In February I was in San Jose on a Sunday morning. So I drove to hear John Ortberg preach at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. That morning I heard a story of what happened when an ordinary man named Bob was offered $500 to pray “God, use me” with an eye towards somehow helping the country of Uganda (watch 26:00 to 30:20 in the video; and/or read pages 8-9 in the transcript).

2. In March I was reading an article by the late Dallas Willard (who taught philosophy at USC) titled “Jesus the Logician.” I read a story about Catherine Marshall, who “tells of a time she was trying to create a certain design with some drapes for her windows. She was unable to get the proportions right to form the design she had in mind. She gave up in exasperation and, leaving the scene, began to mull the matter over in prayer. Soon ideas as to how the design could be achieved began to come to her and before long she had the complete solution. She learned that Jesus is maestro of interior decorating.”

3. In April I happened to be putting this post together and I was reminded of a story of something that happened to me in graduate school. I was writing my dissertation proposal when I found myself facing a looming deadline. My then-current draft was for a project with eleven chapters—far too many for a dissertation, and far too logically disconnected anyway. So I dropped my family off at the in-laws for the weekend. And I began my four-hour drive back to campus with a prayer: for divine help about how on earth I might turn my current mess of a proposal into something more logical and manageable. Within ten minutes of driving, I had a new idea just pop into my head, appearing in my mind seemingly out of nowhere, about exactly how to reorganize the contents of my eleven chapters down to a more manageable, and logical, five chapters—and that idea proved stable enough to be permanent.


Several philosophical questions could emerge from all this. Here are two:
(Q1) Does prayer ever “work”? 
(Q2) More to the point, (how) should I pray right now about something I’m facing (like my academic situation at the end of this semester)?
Of course I come from a particular set of beliefs and traditions about the topic of prayer.

But I hope to convey a bit of what I think is helpful wisdom and even knowledge, no matter of what your beliefs and traditions (and wisdom and knowledge) already are.

In case it’s not obvious, I do not hold to what is sometimes called (A) “metaphysical” naturalism—the idea (very roughly) that the realities investigated by the natural sciences are the only realities there are.

Nor do I hold to what is sometimes called (B) “methodological” naturalism—the idea (very roughly) that the methods used by the natural sciences are the only useful methods for investigating or dealing with reality.

But even if I did hold (A) or (B), here’s an even weirder thought: I think an experimental approach to (Q2) is one way any person can make progress with (Q1).

In other words, investigate whether prayer works for yourself—by trial and error.

An interesting indication that I may not be alone in thinking this weirder thought: a recent Pew study (see “fact 5”) suggests that 3% of even self-identified atheists pray, at least on some occasions.

I have argued on other occasions for the reasonableness of what’s sometimes called “the skeptic’s prayer”: “God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!”

During the end of term, am I suggesting a “skeptic’s prayer lite”? “God, if there is a God, save my C, if I have a C”?

Well, sure. Why not? The underlying logic behind one prayer is supportive of the other. For what it’s worth, I recommend both.

I suggest a few concrete tips when offering academic-related prayers:
1. Be specific. (Pray in such a way that you might think the chance is higher that you might actually recognize it if you got an affirmative answer.) 
2. Be honest. (Pray with an acknowledgment of your own shortcomings and failures, academic and otherwise.) 
3. Be humble. (Pray without a sense of entitlement, and with the awareness that you are not All That, The Big Cheese, etc.) 
4. Be persistent. (Like Bob in the Uganda story above.) 
5. Be flexible. (As one of our own prophets has sung, be willing to “make that change…to the man in the mirror” as you pray.)
Oh, and one last thing: although I am no priest or pastor, if you want me to pray for you about school (or something else), I will—no strings attached.

So: what do you find works well (or not) when it comes to praying during finals week?

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Wonderfully wrong analogies

This week we asked philosophy professors to give us a  favorite example of an excellent yet mistaken analogy.

Never gonna fall in love
Garret Merriam

The idea of 'falling in love' resonates because it captures the gravitational power of the early stages of love. And because it feels so overpowering we often forgive otherwise questionable behavior. 'Can you really blame him?', we might ask. 'He was falling in love.'

But an honest look at both reveals a key difference between love and a fall. When you fall off building you have no say whatsoever in what happens next; Isaac Newton is in the driver's seat.

Compare this to when you meet someone: There is a spark of attraction. You approach them. The two of you have a conversation. You agree to meet again. And then again...

No matter how strong one's feelings, at every stage in this process you (and they) have many choices: you can walk away; you can not talk to them; you can refuse to see them again. There may or may not be any good reason for you to make these choices, but they are choices that you have.

Love, like falling, is indeed a process. But unlike falling, it is a process that happens THROUGH us, not TO us. Being in love, even in the powerful beginning stages, is constituted in part by making certain decisions and eschewing others. It is something that we do, not something that we endure. And like all things we do, we get to (and must) take responsibility for it.

In short, unlike falling, love is a choice. Or rather, a series of them.

Motion is motion
Brad Dowden

If you are driving along the road at 40 mph, and an oncoming car is traveling toward you at 40 mph, then from your perspective, you will be likely to judge that the oncoming car is traveling toward you at 40 mph + 40 mph, or 80 mph. It is clearly better for you to hit a telephone pole than collide with the oncoming car, since the relative speed at impact is so much higher. By analogy you’d expect the relative speed at impact to continue to be twice as high even when the two colliding objects are moving much faster.

If you were to send a beam of electrons down the road at 99% of the speed of light, or .99c, while at the same time someone down the road sends their beam of electrons back toward you at .99c, then from the perspective of one of your electrons, the relative speed at impact when two electrons collide is .99c + .99c or almost 2c. Or so you would think, if the analogy held.

No object can attain a speed greater than c, no matter whether the chosen perspective is from one of the electrons or from the gun producing the electron beam. Although there is an extremely slight deviation from additivity even back in the scenario with the oncoming cars, the deviation increases with speed and only becomes noticeable at significant fractions of the speed of light.

This failure of additivity is another one of the many unintuitive consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Health maintenance is like auto maintenance
G. Randolph Mayes

The best way to keep your automobile running smoothly is to have a trained mechanic regularly inspect critical parts for damage or wear. That way they can be replaced or repaired before they create catastrophic problems. Your body is just like your car. That is why it is important to have annual physical checkups and screenings for dangerous conditions, even if you feel fine. By doing so, your doctor will be able to detect and treat them early, preventing catastrophic health problems down the road.

This analogy turns out to be dead wrong. It is sensible on apriori grounds because your car and your body are machines subject to failure through abuse, neglect or bad luck. But it fails empirically because in medicine (a) the methods for detecting problems early and (b) the capacity for prophylactic intervention are unreliable.

Everyone has a story of someone who is alive today because of a routine medical exam that caught a life-threatening condition early. The vast majority of these stories are false. The patients aren’t lying, and until recently neither were the doctors. They just believed, on the strength of this analogy, that medical problems can be nipped in the bud in this way. Current data belie this faith for most conditions and interventions that we have been raised to believe in.

This analogy has created mind-boggling profits for the healthcare industry, but it has harmed the rest of us immeasurably. Sophists rejoice. Hippocrates weeps.

Marriage is a ball and chain
Chong Choe-Smith

This is more of a punchline than a serious analogy. As with most analogies, there is a hint of truth in it, but the real-life phenomenon is far more complex. Marriage generally involves a commitment to be faithful to one person, but this is about where the usefulness of the analogy ends.

Some may say many things in life are better with some rules: parental rules rather than living in a pigsty, traffic laws rather than a free for all, and a system of crime and punishment rather than insecurity.

Marriage, one can argue, also is more liberating than constraining or even that the constraints are themselves liberating! A marriage or other serious monogamous relationship should provide a safe environment for two people to be truly themselves. Two people can take off the masks they wear in public spaces and, in the privacy of their own home, they can be naked and unashamed in every way.

The ball and chain comes not with marriage itself, but with the projects that marriage partners undertake (children) or with the problems that arise within a marriage (poor communication, money problems, other people—the in-laws?). We can conceptually distinguish marriage from these projects and problems (not all marriages have these things) and say that marriage itself is nothing or not much like a ball and chain.

But, then again, maybe you should ask my husband?

Brains are to thoughts as hardware is to software
Matt McCormick

The idea that brains are related to thoughts as hardware is related to software is ubiquitous, powerful, and deeply misguided. There are significant philosophical differences between the hardware/software relation and the brains/thought relation. Our continued uncritical use of the metaphor misguides our understanding of both.

Computers have Von Neumann architecture. Inputs arrive at a processing unit which has a set of instructions loaded from memory, where serial computations are performed. Results are then sent to memory or converted into an output. Neither the hardware nor the software change significantly as a result of processing. The system is deterministic and employs a formal language with discrete, modular, and symbolic units. And system failures are catastrophic.

Brains are massively parallel distributed processing (PDP) networks.  Brain activity is best described as waves of activation patterns coursing across billions of synaptic connections. Instead of a single operation being performed on a single variable which is then sent to the next function, millions or billions of signals simultaneously course across connectionist nodes each of which have thousands of connections to their neighbors. The capacities of the system are stochastic, and embedded in the constantly updated weights of these nodes, which change due to the frequency and intensity of the signals from their neighbors. There are no discrete physical structures or processes that map easily onto concepts, symbols, or logic; there is no language of thought that mirrors my thoughts in English. There is no set of instructions to access. And neural nets degrade gracefully.

Government is what we all do together
Kyle Swan

Here’s Robert Nozick in The Examined Life: “There are some things we choose to do together through government in solemn marking of our human solidarity, served by the fact that we do them together in this official fashion.”

This statement is true. Sometimes the things we do as a collective society through the institutions of government are things that are aptly comparable to projects we set and pursue through the kind of genuinely voluntary associations that we’re familiar with in our communities, like worshipping with co-religionists or running little league baseball for kids. Yes, governments are groups of people and sometimes, in a more or less similar way, these people together pursue desirable social ends. And it’s even sometimes true that there is such widespread public support for these ends that it makes sense to say that we all participate in solidarity in their pursuit.

Something like Nozick’s statement is attributed to former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, which goes, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”

This suggests a much tighter connection between our government and things we might choose to do together, and it’s nonsense. We in no way that’s recognizably analogous with the examples above chose at any time to invade Iraq, provide bailouts to failing financial institutions, spy on each other, use drone attacks to kill and maim children, target Muslims for travel bans, and literally millions of other things.

It ain't a slate and it ain't blank 
Kevin Vandergriff

Human nature is like a blank slate; that is, human psychology and behavior is mainly, or even completely shaped by environmental causes. Many have believed this picture of human nature is plausible for philosophical, social, and political reasons. But, as Stephen Pinker argues in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, human psychology and behavior is largely the result of natural selection having shaped the “selfish” genes inherited by those with the best overall chances of survival and reproduction.

In response, defenders of the blank slate view have said that our “selfish” genes would preclude significant moral progress being made by human beings during their short time on earth. Pinker says this worry is unfounded.

Even though “selfish” genes can and do construct human brains to be psychologically and behaviorally predisposed to respond selfishly in particular ways to particular stimulus events, genes do not make the moment-to-moment decisions themselves, or necessarily constitute our true selves (Pinker, 1997, 410). Moreover, as long as we have altruistic motives that can be harnesses and expanded via psychological mechanisms, moral theories, and the imitation of religious exemplars, significant moral progress can be made by human beings.

Besides, as Pinker argues, it is the belief in the blank slate that has hampered significant moral progress by resulting in the:“…persecution of the successful, intrusive social engineering, the writing off of suffering in other cultures, an incomprehension of the logic of justice, and the devaluing of human life on earth (Pinker, 2002, 193).”

That's a real painy stick you got there mister
Tom Pyne

Several examples of an analogy pervasive in early modern philosophy:
  • Perceiving heat is like being tickled (Galileo). 
  • Light, heat, whiteness, or coldness is like the nausea produced by a purgative (Locke). 
  • Perceiving intense heat or cold is a feeling of pain (Berkeley).
All propose an analogy between:
  • perceiving features of the external world, and
  • having a sensation like pleasure, pain, nausea…
The analogy is advanced in the service of two philosophical claims:
  • The contents of perceptual states are private and subjective.
  • The intrinsic nature of those contents does not reveal any feature of the external world.
Just as the ticklishness is not in the hand, nor the nausea ‘in’ the purgative, the perceived qualities are not in external things. Roses aren’t, strictly and literally, red. Fires aren’t, strictly and literally, hot.

Since sensations are immune to error through misidentification, our perceptions involve things we can’t be wrong about either. They have gone by various names over the years: ideas, sense data, qualia,…

Even in the present it is difficult to overstate the power, seductiveness – or mischievousness – of this analogy.

It generates so many gratuitous philosophical problems that a complete list starts to look like contemporary philosophy itself: The problem of other minds; anti-realism about secondary qualities; countenancing qualia as a problem in philosophy of mind. You name it.

The analogy doesn’t limp; it crawls. The tickle does not present itself as a property of the hand, but the rose looks red. The phenomenology is all wrong.

Life is like a box of chocolates
Brandon Carey

There’s something attractive about the analogy that life is like a box of chocolates. It makes your life seem full of options, each of them a (probably good) surprise. There’s also something exactly right about it. When you choose a course of action, there’s always a chance that you’ll be surprised. Things might not work out the way you planned, and the world might not be quite how it seems. Fundamentally, life is uncertain, which is a good reason to be open-minded and intellectually humble

But uncertainty comes in various degrees and kinds, and most things in your life are not like choosing from a box of chocolates. Chocolates may have various distinguishing features, but you have no idea how those features correlate with their fillings. So, based on the information you have, you have no reason to think that that next chocolate is filled with coconut rather than anything else—you never know what you’re going to get.

In life, though, you typically do have some reasons to think that certain choices will lead to certain outcomes. When you choose which bus to take, you’re not picking blindly. You take the 67 because the schedule says it will take you downtown, and you’re almost always right. There’s some chance that the driver will get confused and take you to the airport instead, but you have excellent reasons to think that you’ll end up downtown. So, unlike with a box of chocolates, you often know what you’re going to get.

Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives
Russell DiSilvestro

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

This was the opening tagline used in the American TV show Days of Our Lives from 1972-1993.

The analogy is an attractive one if you know what an hourglass is. (If not, pause your online stopwatch and Google it.)

There are conflicting prudential tips that might flow from this picture of our lives.

"Your life is gradually, relentlessly, inevitably going away, so live it up now while you still can." (An hourglass-half-empty tip.)

“Your choices build your character gradually, like grains that form a heap, so be careful how you live.” (An hourglass-half-full tip.)

In any case, I think this analogy may be misleading.

Set aside whether we have a pre-set number days to live. And whether a possible afterlife counts as part of your life. I think the analogy pushes a kind of existential reduction on us.

A philosophy professor once asked me why Sartre’s famous slogan "you are—your life and nothing else" was not obviously true. "What else are you if not your life?" He asked me.

I replied: "a traditional philosophical answer from materialists and dualists alike is that you are a stuff or a substance or a thing that has a life. But you are not literally identical to your life, since it could have gone entirely differently than it did, and yet it still would have been yours."

The axe and the lance
Jon Chen

Chinese Legalist philosopher Han Feizi writes: “Benevolence might have worked long ago in the ancient times, but it certainly does not serve us today. Shields and battle axes worked before, but they no longer worked with the invention of iron lances.”

Here, Han Feizi seems to suggest that different times require different standards, and that contemporary society has little use for benevolence in governing. In fact, benevolence isn’t just regarded as ineffective, but as positively harmful. Wielding a short-ranged axe and facing off against an opponent with a long-ranged lance is foolish and will put one in mortal danger. What the axe-wielder ought to do, then, is replace his axe with a more suitable weapon.

This foxy analogy is compelling at first, but only if benevolence were akin to the axe. I don’t think so. I think benevolence, at least in this context, more so resembles good leadership, in that it has the ability to rally others to one’s side. Thought of in this way, benevolence is at the very heart of winning any era of wars and its usefulness is not contingent to some chapter in time. This sort of leadership, it appears, is guided by an appreciation for certain principles that one deems necessary and inherently valuable to the welfare of humanity (e.g. a deep respect for goodness and uprightness). If I’m right about this, then an iron lance is as futile as a battle axe if it is not guided by benevolence.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Poverty or bullets?

There are many parts of immigration law and policy that are morally problematic, but one that seems to have drawn less attention than others is the distinction between political refugees and other migrants, sometimes referred to as ‘economic migrants.’

The US State Department defines a refugee as “someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, refugees are of “special humanitarian concern.”

An economic migrant can be defined as someone who has fled from his or her home state for other reasons, such as extreme economic hardship, poverty, or famine. These individuals are often perceived as foreigners who are seeking prosperity or a better life for themselves and their children. When a state has to limit the number of foreigners granted admission, priority is usually given to political refugees over other migrants. The reason for this may be that the needs of political refugees are more urgent because they lack even the basic good of membership in a state.[1] Or, the reason may be that, because political refugees are denied certain basic rights by their state of origin, a liberal state that believes that everyone should be protected by certain basic rights ought to extend these rights to those who are stateless and therefore unprotected.[2][3] Whatever the reason, many states extend to refugees special consideration and prioritize them over other migrants seeking admission.

I want to challenge this practice of giving priority to political refugees. This is not because political refugees do not deserve special consideration, but because other migrants are equally deserving. 

Here are two lines of argument.

Argument 1

Henry Shue argues that the distinction between a political refugee and an economic migrant is not as sharp and significant as it may appear. If the state is concerned about how best to use its scarce resources, it doesn’t make sense to prioritize political rights because subsistence rights are equally basic and satisfying subsistence rights do not involve any more resources than the satisfaction of political rights.

1a. Applying Shue’s argument for a basic right to subsistence rights, we can say:
(1) Everyone has a right to freedom of association.
(2) Minimum economic security is necessary to enjoy one’s freedom of association.
(3) Therefore, everyone also has rights to minimum economic security.[4] 
Shue defines subsistence or ‘minimum economic security’ to mean “unpolluted air, unpolluted water, adequate food, adequate clothing, adequate shelter, and minimum preventive public health care.”[5]  Subsistence rights are basic too.

1b. While some assume that the satisfaction of subsistence rights is more onerous or less urgent, this assumption is flawed. Some may believe that the satisfaction of subsistence rights involves positive duties, while respect for political rights, especially security rights, involves only negative duties. As Shue explains, both subsistence and security rights involve three kinds of correlative duties: not to destroy or deprive, to protect, and to provide. Sometimes all that is needed to satisfy a person’s subsistence rights is not to destroy that person’s capacity to be self-supporting. Shue discusses several cases of foreign intervention in developing countries as examples of a violation of even the duty to avoid deprivations. Contrary to the popular assumption that security rights involve only or primarily negative duties, we can think of all that is required to ensure national security or public safety: the training and maintenance of a police force; providing courts, lawyers, and prisons; and developing an entire system of criminal law and punishment. While it is easy to assume that one can satisfy another person’s security rights by simply not harming her, the reality is that this involves the provision of many costly resources. 

The deprivation of security rights is usually perceived as more urgent. Consequently, when one state deprives a person of his or her security rights, that person enjoys the right to asylum in another state. But what about a refugee who is fleeing a regime that, deliberately or otherwise, deprives him or her of economic security—i.e., subsistence? In applying Shue’s analysis, the distinction between political refugees and economic migrants is not as sharp and significant; it cannot do the work of justifying the prioritization of political refugees.

2. The second line of argument is this: Even if we accept the current definition of a refugee under US and international law, proper administration of refugee law depends crucially on fair decisions regarding who qualifies under the definition. But when it comes to economic migrants, these decisions are not fair. This is basically the argument offered by James Nickel.[6]

Writing in the mid-80’s, Nickel noted that the Reagan administration’s position on those applying for asylum from certain states in Central America was that these applicants were not motivated by fear of persecution, but merely fleeing poverty and seeking better lives for themselves and their families. Nickel specifically observed that the Reagan administration generally denied refugee status to applicants for political asylum from places such as El Salvador. Only 3% of the applications from El Salvador were granted, as compared to 14% from Nicaragua and 30% from Poland.[7] The State Department’s decisions on applications for asylum may reflect, rather than a fair application of the qualification, US foreign policy concerning the state of origin, including whether the US has sponsored or supported the regime (see Dirty Hands). Rather than a fair administration of law, the decisions are political and sometimes discriminate against Central American and Mexicanmigrants

Why do I think this is such an important part of the immigration debate? Because if we had recognized these so-called ‘economic migrants’ as entering lawfully in the first place, our current mess might have been avoided.   

Chong Choe-Smith
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[1] Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
[2] Stefan Heuser, “Is There a Right to Have Rights? The Case of the Right of Asylum,”
Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 11 (1): 3-13 (2008).
[3] The reason may be a legal one; the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1967 Refugee Protocol, and the US Refugee Act of 1980 require certain protections including the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of a refugee to his state of origin where he or she might be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular political group or political opinion.
[4] See Shue, Basic Rights (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 31.
[5] Shue, supra, p. 23.
[6] James Nickel, Sanctuary, Asylum and Civil Disobedience, In Defense of the Alien 8 (1985): 176-187.
[7] Nickel, supra, at p. 178, fn. 4.