Friday, October 25, 2013

Shouldn’t I Agree with David Chalmers?

by Matt DeStefano

David Chalmers and I disagree about issues in philosophy of mind. Given that I believe David Chalmers is an expert, and I am not, shouldn’t I revise my belief to agree with Chalmers? After all, he probably knows better than I do.

A lot of attention in philosophy has been paid to peer disagreement, and how one ought to revise her view in light of knowing that an epistemic peer disagrees with her (an epistemic peer being someone with the same evidence and same reasoning abilities as you). There is an additional question about how we should respond when experts disagree with us.

There are some conditions under which disagreement might serve as a defeater for a position you hold. For instance, imagine that Katie and Andy are watching a horse race. Katie thinks that the horse named Ain’t Misbehavin won, while Andy thinks that Tango Goin Cash has won. (I found these names by Googling “horse names”, it was very entertaining.) Katie knows that Andy's vision is about as good as hers, was watching the race just as closely, and is her “peer” in the relevant sense. They are both equally likely to have made a mistake in declaring a winner. In this case, we might think that Andy’s belief that Tango Goin Cash won serves as a defeater for Katie’s belief that Ain’t Misbehavin won - and vice versa. At the very least, we might encourage Katie and Andy to suspend belief about what horse won (perhaps until the results are revealed by an official).

What about expert opinion? Suppose Katie is watching the race with Susan, an expert analyst, who has a proven track record of correctly guessing winners as they cross the finishing line. Susan has excellent vision, and has been watching horse races for her entire life. If Susan were to say that Tango Goin Cash has won, we might think that Katie ought to revise her view to agree with Susan, since she is an expert. At least, it seems she should be more inclined to revise her belief in this case than in her disagreement with Andy.

There are other cases where it seems we are justified in believing something based on expert opinion alone. For example, I am feeling sick and decide to go to four doctors to get different opinions about my ailment. Three of them tell me I have the flu, while one says I have allergies. Most people would say that I am justified in believing that I have the flu, based on the majority opinion of the medical professionals.

Consider philosophers who are not epistemic peers, such as David Chalmers and myself. He has been studying issues in philosophy of mind for far longer than I have, he is more knowledgeable about the relevant arguments, and more intelligent than I am. When I find out that David Chalmers disagrees with me about some important issue in the philosophy of mind, should I revise my belief according to his expertise? Intuitively, this seems like a rational course of action. However, there are plenty of experts who disagree with Chalmers. In fact, Chalmers’ positions are in some ways minority positions among relevant experts. Considering this, we might think that the proper way to decide what we are justified in believing in is to count the number of philosophers who hold each position, and whichever position the majority of philosophers believe is the one we are justified in holding. This is a truly ridiculous way to determine our beliefs, and we need a better way to understand the influence of expert opinion on our beliefs.

Philosophers have taken a number of different positions about how we ought to treat peer disagreement. Some have argued that one ought to “split the difference” between the two views, and either suspend judgment or come to a middle position. Others have argued that one should “stick to their guns”, and believe what they believe despite disagreement. These views do not easily capture how one ought to respond to expert disagreement.

One view, the Total Evidence View, presents a framework for handling disagreement as a form of evidence. Thomas Kelly has argued that peer disagreement should count as higher-order evidence, and we should revise our beliefs based on our total evidence. Roughly, this position argues that “Rather, what it is reasonable to believe depends on both the original, first-order evidence as well as on the higher-order evidence that is afforded by the fact that one’s peers believe as they do.” (p. 32 of linked paper)

We can extend this “Total Evidence View” to our own disagreement with experts. This is useful in understanding why I might be permitted to believe (and even be justified in believing) my diagnosis on the basis of a majority medical opinion, but not permitted to believe (and certainly not justified in believing) what the majority of philosophers believe. My first-order evidence in the case of my illness are my symptoms, and a very limited idea of what these symptoms might entail. My higher order evidence is that these doctors are much, much better at diagnosing illnesses (this might also be first-order evidence), and that a majority of them seem to agree that I have the flu.

On the other hand, I have much more evidence for my positions in philosophy of mind. While I do not have the same breadth of evidence, or ability to discern what position it supports as Chalmers might have, I have enough to form a reasonably justified opinion about these matters. In this case, expert opinion should not weigh nearly as heavily in determining my beliefs as it did in the diagnostic case. If we consider disagreement as higher-order evidence, we can much better decide how to handle disagreement among both peers and experts. It also eases my personal discomfort about disagreeing with Chalmers.

Matt DeStefano
Sacramento State Philosophy Alumn
Philosophy Graduate Student
University of Missouri, St. Louis

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Hate Crime: First Amendment Issue?

Not too long ago I believed that the idea of a 'hate crime' was, on the whole, a bad one. I was mainly persuaded be the following argument:

According to the law, we determine the nature of a crime by what was actually done. When we classify an action as a hate crime, we are punishing the criminal for the very thoughts in his head, or the content of his speech. At the very least, this is a violation of First Amendment rights. At worst, we are legitimizing the Orwellian idea of 'thoughtcrime'.

Upon reflection, however, I realized that this argument misses the point of what I think is the most important reason that some crimes should be classified as hate crimes. When the law is applied to an act to determine its criminality, we already do consider the motivations and thoughts of the actor in the case. For example, if one person causes the death of another, we ask whether the act was purposeful, whether it arose from a moment of extreme provocation or planning, and so on. In other words, intent, what was going on in the actor's mind at the time, is essential for determining the criminal nature of the act.

One of the main reasons for this consideration is how much of a threat the criminal presents to the community. This is why, for example, we consider intentional, deliberate violent crimes to be worse than accidental violent crimes or crimes of passion. A person who kills someone out of anger upon catching him cheating with a romantic partner, for example, is considered far less dangerous to a community than one who plans and then executes a shooting spree in a public place. A person who kills someone after planning the crime ahead of time also presents a larger danger to a community than the 'heat of the moment' killer, since he reveals himself to be capable of killing at least one person even after sustained reflection. While the danger is still mainly confined to a single target, the killer is still a potential threat to the wider community in this sort of case since he might become homicidally angry at someone else.

A person who commits a hate crime also presents a wider danger to the community because her intention to harm dos not have a single target. The target of her hate or anger is an entire class of people, as the evidence of her own expressed intent and beliefs reveal. The harm that she does, or intends to do is likely to be far more widespread.

The way the law determines whether or not a crime is a hate crime is nearly identical to the way it determines whether a homicide is first degree murder, second degree murder, or manslaughter. I think this sort of distinction is necessary and appropriate. Hence, I think that the separate classification of hate crime is appropriate as well.

We just need to be careful, as a society, that we don't become overzealous in applying the term to thoughts and speech alone, or to morally repulsive but relatively harmless actions.

Amy Cools
Sacramento State Philosophy Alumna

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Courageous Ostension: Or How Philosophy Can Ruin a Perfectly Good Joke

by Russell DiSilvestro

Have you heard this joke before?

A philosophy professor determined all student grades for the semester by a two-hour in-class written essay exam. On the day of the test, he strolls in and announces that there will be only one question on the test, and struts to the chalkboard to write three words in big capital letters: “What is courage?”

All students begin writing furiously, knowing that their entire grade hangs on what they can scribble on paper in the next two hours. But one student on the front row stands up, slaps his paper on the professor’s desk, and marches out of the room.

The professor picks up the paper, and on it are just two words: “This is.”

Why is it that we find this joke amusing?

It’s probably not the historical accuracy of the joke. I suspect this is a kind of academic urban legend that never actually happened.

It’s also probably not the wisdom of the joke’s hero, the student—at least not his practical wisdom or street smarts. Granted, some tellings of the story have the happy ending of the student getting an ‘A’ from the professor. But it is risky for a student to pull a stunt like that on a final exam. Like a nearly identical story—in which the relevant question-and-answer are “Why?” and “Why not?”—our original story might well include a safety disclaimer like “don’t try this at home.”

No doubt there is something attractive about the student’s bit of chutzpah: even if he’s not wise, he’s bold, and righteously so. And hence his two-word answer is true. The act is courageous. (While Aristotle would remind us to distinguish courage from recklessness—see previous paragraph—I shall set that to one side.)

But I’d like to focus on something that catches my attention about the story for a moment: the student said a lot just by pointing to something particular.

Philosophers sometimes call this pointing ‘ostension.’

You can look up ‘ostension’, but beware. When I searched ‘ostension’ in the dictionary bundled with my computer the closest word I found was ‘ostensive’ (“adjective; directly or clearly demonstrative; Linguistics-denoting a way of defining by direct demonstration, e.g. by pointing”), and Wiktionary online included among the definitions a theological one (“the showing of the sacrament on the altar so that it may be a receive the adoration of the communicants”).

Of course, the student in the story wasn’t pointing with his finger. He was using scribbled letters to point.

And he wasn’t pointing at someone else, or even at some physical point in space. He was pointing at himself. Or more precisely, at his own words on the sheet. Or, more precisely still, at his act of intentionally writing those words and then submitting them. He was pointing at a pointing. It was a kind of reflexive, self-referential pointing.

How is ostension possible to begin with? I will let my philosophy of language colleagues jump on that one.

How is human ostension similar to, or different from, the sorts of things non-human animals and/or computers do? I will let my philosophy of mind colleagues catch that one.

But I’ve been thinking a bit recently about ostension as a way of making a philosophical “point” (pun intended) in the context of moral concepts. Like courage.

I think we slip into ostension frequently when doing moral philosophy. What’s morally good? “Those are” (pointing to a pair of students helping a classmate pick up a pile of dropped books). What’s morally wrong? “That is” (pointing to a student sleeping at the front of class). And so on.

These ways of pointing to particular things in a moral context are sometimes just ways of getting the discussion going by giving examples. But they are sometimes used as a way of pushing back against a demand for a more precise definition, like Justice Stewart’s famous quote fragment about how some types of obscenity may be hard to define, but “I know it when I see it…”

Socrates would not have been satisfied with the student’s answer. The student gave a particular example of courage. But the professor’s question may have been aimed at getting a general definition of courage—the thing in common in all particular examples of courage.

Perhaps—and this may over-explain things—this is what gives the joke some of its charm. The philosophy professor asked a question that he wanted a Socratic-style definition for; the student gave an answer that, while correct, ignored Socrates. Perhaps ignored Socrates on purpose.

In my own research, I sometimes notice that ostension is used in discussions of a thing’s “moral status.” Here are a few distinct questions that each get at the “moral status” of some thing or other: What things have the sort of moral value that it’s good to have them in the world? What things have interests, and can be harmed by having those interests set back? What things have moral entitlements or rights, like the rights to life and liberty?

And such questions are often answered, at least initially, by pointing, with words or gestures (or both): ‘This thing here.’ ‘That thing there.’ ‘Me’ (pointing to myself). ‘You’ (pointing to you).

Moral status discussions sometimes happen when we are talking about the proper way of treating nonhuman animals, like those used for food (chickens, cows) or medical research (chimpanzees, guinea pigs). And they sometimes happen when we talk about human organisms at different stages of development (infants, fetuses) or states of disease (brain-damaged, comatose).

In this area and others, I think ostension can often be, not just a discussion-starter, but a game-changer. It sometimes functions like “the buck stops here.” And sometimes legitimately so. Example: “Your clever theory entails that there’s no love anywhere? But this here [pointing] is love. So too bad for your theory.”

How can philosophy ruin a perfectly good joke?

This is how.

Russell DiSilvestro
Associate Professor
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Time passes

by Brad Dowden

The essence of nowness runs like fire along the fuse of time.*

Time passes. It flows. Or so they say. Great philosophers say this.

But they are mistaken.

Fluids flow, but time flows only in a metaphorical sense. This is the sense in which future events somehow move constantly closer to our Now, while past events recede ever farther into the past, just like when a runner who approaches us, then passes us by, and then recedes. We all experience this flow, but only in the sense that we all experience optical illusions.

Physicists sometimes speak of time flowing in another sense. This is the sense in which change is continuous rather than discrete. In this sense, time may flow, but this isn’t the sense of “flow” that philosophers are usually talking about.

Physicists sometimes carelessly speak of time flowing when what they mean is that time has an arrow, a direction from the past to the future. In this sense time definitely does flow, but again this isn’t the sense of “flow” that philosophers are usually talking about.

In the sense of “flow” that too many philosophers do promote, I believe they are confusing time existing with time flowing. Here is why. Things change, so time exists. But that change doesn’t itself change; so, it’s a mistake to say the change “flows.” Let me explain this a little more. Time is what clocks measure. Time is a measure of change that puts dates on events, and tells us how long an event lasts, and says which events happen before which other events. That isn’t the same thing as the flow of time. When things change we say, “Time flows on,” or “Time stops for no one,” but these are inaccurate, poetic remarks. The changes are a sign of time existing, not time changing. When you experience change from eggs to omelets, or change from here to there, you are experiencing time itself, not a passage of time, nor a passage of the passage.

If you can place a date on an event and say it occurred, say, on Tuesday, then that same event doesn’t flow into Wednesday and then on into Thursday. It’s always an event that occurred last Tuesday. So, it is a mis-description of events to say they flow from the present into the past, yet that is what too many philosophers do say.

If time passes, what does it pass? Maybe you want to say it passes us. Hmm. Does it pass our childhood just as fast as it passes us now? Probably it passes at the same rate. OK, let’s assume it does pass at that rate. But what rate would that be? It would have to be a rate of one second per second. But that’s silly. One second divided by one second is the number one. That’s not a coherent rate.

I recommend saying the flow is subjectively real but not objectively real. The mistaken belief that time flows is due to our being misled by careless speech about time (“Time stops for no one”), but it is also due to some objective feature of our brains that makes us “feel” as if time is flowing. I suspect this objective feature is partly our having different perceptions at different times and partly our anticipating experiences before remembering those experiences.

Half the philosophers of time would accept my argument above; the other half believe the flow of time is necessary for “a literal and complete account of Everything That Is So,” to quote from last week’s posting by Professor Pyne. Half of us are mistaken. Which side of this fence are you on–the side that says time is dynamic and flows, or the side that says time is static and doesn’t flow?

Brad Dowden
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

*George Santayana, in The Realms of Being.