Sunday, December 15, 2013

What was the best book you read this year?

We asked all the faculty in the Sac State  Philosophy department to name the best book (not necessarily philosophy) they read during 2013, and to say briefly what they liked about it. Here, in no particular order, is what they said.

Russell DiSilvestro recommends Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century, by Jonathan Glover

This is a selective ethical study of some of the 20th century's most morally regrettable episodes--found especially in various international conflicts (including wars) and repressive regimes (including communism in Russia and China). It's not fun reading given the first-hand accounts of these horrors. But it's sobering to read, and it's very carefully, thoughtfully, and philosophically written. Glover strives to understand how these episodes were even possible, why the episodes were morally regrettable, and how to prevent such episodes from being repeated. Interestingly, he does all this while still retaining his own skepticism about the moral law (he does not think that morality is objectively binding on us in any traditional sense) and his own sympathy with consequentialism (although he is critical of what he calls the 'hard consequentialism' of many of those he writes about).

Matt McCormick recommends: Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola

Dennett and LaScola conduct in depth interviews with a group of priests, preachers, and clergy who don't believe in God. The insight into these people who are required by their jobs to have certain beliefs, but who have lost them, is just amazing.

Kyle Swan recommends The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen

Hey political philosophers, your preoccupation with theories about the nature of perfect justice are at best an interesting bit of autobiography, but irrelevant. At their worst, they lead people to think it's ok to run rough-shod over those with rival conceptions of justice because they must be irrational or bad. Stop it. Re-focus.

Lynne Fox recommends Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein, by Mario Livio.

The book is a collection of accounts of brilliant thinkers who have made important contributions to our understanding of the world and who yet made major errors—largely due to being over-committed to their own theory.

Mike Pelletti  recommends  The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward Wilson

I was overly confident that Wilson must be wrong in his thesis defending group selection. The arguments of Hamilton (“The Genetic Evolution of Social Behavior”) and Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) had convinced me that the gene, not the group, and obviously not the individual for sexually reproducing species, was the proper unit of selection upon which natural selection acts. Chapter by chapter Wilson convinced me that group selection is a viable model to understand how evolution works and that it provides insights into tendencies missed by gene selection.

Randy Mayes recommends  Benediction, by Kent Haruf

This is the last novel of a trilogy about the residents of a fictional rural Colorado town called Holt. The books can be read independently, and in any order and they are all superb. Haruf is one of the most sensitive contemporary writers about the lives of ordinary people that I have ever encountered. This novel is about an older man who has been diagnosed with lung cancer and has only a month or two to live. He is the owner of a local hardware store who has lived a good life for the most part, but who also has some profound regrets. It doesn't sound like a fun book to read during the holidays, but it is strangely uplifting and it contains some of the most beautifully wrought chapters I have read in a very long time.

Tom Pyne recommends The Waning of Materialism, edited by Robert Koons and George Bealer

Essays by the likes of Lawrence BonJour, E.J. Lowe, Tyler Burge, Timothy O’Connor, Terry Horgan, generally arguing that physicalism regarding the mental is a thesis in philosophy, not science. Thus it is not forced on us by the acceptance of scientific developments, prominently in neuroscience. Reductivist and eliminativist programs are given an unsparing audit, and caught cheating. Some essays, like Burge’s, propose alternatives to physicalism. Others, like O’Connor show that Kim’s supervenience proposals rely on questionable assumptions.The introduction by Koons and Bealer is, all by itself, worth the cost of the book.

Brad Dowden recommends 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created,  by Charles Mann

A new history of how European settlements in the post-Colombian Americas (i.e., post 1493) shaped the world. I didn’t realize that in 1493 the Americas were so densely populated or that the Amazon river jungles were not a hodge-podge of vegetation but were the result of careful planting, or that in the 1500s so much Spanish silver went directly from the slave mines of South America through their new city of Manila to China, the world’s richest and most powerful country. Before 1493, the Americas had no earthworms, mosquitoes, cockroaches, honeybees, dandelions, African grasses, or rats.

Christina Bellon recommends The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

This is a sustained thought experiment (369 pages) in which the author entices us to think about the world minus humanity. It's quite an eye opening examination of our effect on the land, water, air, and other life forms, in both the near and long terms. It's not a very cheery read, but it is well-written and well-researched. The thing I really like about it is that the impacts and effects are really well-researched in their complexity, from engineering and energy, to art and zoology. It's not a shoot from the hip thought experiment, as too many popular counterfactual analyses can be. In the end, you get a real sense for both our fragility and dependence upon our technological reconstruction of our world and on the deeply lasting modifications we have crafted, for good or ill. The book is also interestingly non-judgmental. The author prefers to lay it our for us to think about and draw our own conclusions.

David Denman recommends Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, by Mike Davis.

Not one to put you in the holiday mood, but a great book. It's an examination of how Imperial policies turned El Niño droughts into enormous famines (30-60 million deaths in 25 years) in the late 1800s.

Clifford Anderson recommends The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. 

The title refers to the massive and disproportionate incarceration in the U.S. of blacks and Latinos since the "war on drugs" was declared by Nixon and then Reagan. She does a good job of spelling out the several causes of this phenomenon. It is an institutional problem, not simply a problem of racist cops. There is an especially good chapter on a series of outrageous Supreme Court Decisions that have significantly contributed to the problem.

Joshua Carboni recommends: Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, by Russell Shorto

While the title might suggest that this book concerns an in depth look at the philosophy of Descartes, it only delves into the particular philosophy of Descartes and his contemporaries on a very basic, introductory level. Russell Shorto comes from a journalist background, and as such, the text reads like an investigative detective story detailing a treasure hunt. However, the treasure in this case is not gold but the precious remains of Rene Descartes. Shorto traces the lines of modernity alongside the fight over – and international travels of - these remains, and in so doing, he illustrates how the thought of Descartes and many of his contemporaries transformed the intellectual sphere in Europe. The most interesting aspect of the book, however, was the story of the bones themselves – their travels, mysterious locations and the various claims to ownership.

Scott Merlino recommends The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, by Ian Mortimer

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. British historian and fiction writer presents a travelogue to medieval England. For all you Middle-Earthers and Harry Potter fanatasists, here is a dose of reality without the magic. A brisk, eye-opening read.

Patrick Smith recommends Existential America, by George Cotkin.

A historical examination of existentialist themes in American literature, philosophy, art, and culture stretching back to the late 18th century up through the 1980s. Cotkin presents an engaging and entertaining narrative showing the influence of canonical existentialists like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, de Beauvoir, Sartre, and Camus in the work of figures like Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, William James, and Ralph Ellison (among many others). Cotkin's chapter on existential moods in Moby-Dick is especially interesting. Highly recommend.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

How to frame a philosopher

Almost all human beings are susceptible to what psychologists call framing effects. This means that people will reverse their preferences and choices based simply on the way information is presented. For example, a doctor who recommends surgery to a patient based on learning that the surgery has a 90% survival rate may well have cautioned against it if she had learned instead that 1 out of every 10 patients will die. 

In this example the effect is partly due to differential vividness. Information about probabilities and percentages do not typically cause strong emotional reactions in normal people.  But when the doctor reads that 1 out of every 10 patients dies, she vividly imagines the death of her own patient.

Another cause is at least as potent. The first frame focused the doctor’s mind on the potential gain, whereas the second frame emphasized the potential loss.  Human beings appear to be loss averse, which means that it hurts a great deal more to lose something than it feels good to acquire it.

You probably know that most people are naturally risk averse, but loss aversion is an entirely distinct (and slightly more contested) phenomenon. People show their risk aversion when they opt for a guaranteed gain rather than an uncertain one of higher expected value.  For example, most people would choose a guaranteed 100 dollars over an 80% chance of 150. (The expected value of the latter is .8 x 150 = 120.) The insurance industry is entirely dependent on our aversion to risk. Most of us will pay significantly more than the expected value of an insurance policy for a guaranteed outcome of lesser value.

Loss aversion, on the other hand, can actually cause people to become risk seeking. For example, if you've just lost 200 dollars you may be more than normally attracted to an opportunity to bet 50 dollars on a 10% chance to win 250.  This is a bet you'd almost certainly pass over in other contexts, and rightly so since its expected value is a  loss of 20 dollars. What's at work here is our basic inability to simply ignore sunk costs and make decisions strictly on the basis of their value for the future.

Obviously people who are susceptible to framing effects are easily exploited.  What I'm curious about, though, is how susceptible philosophers are to framing. I'd love to believe we are generally less so, but it's an empirical question, and one that would not be too hard to study.  For example, you could take 500 members of the APA and divide them into two groups. Offer one group a discount for early payment of conference fees and inform the other that a penalty will be assessed for late payment. If philosophers were not at all susceptible to framing then we would see roughly the same proportion of early to later payments in each of these situations.

But until an enterprising X-phi doctoral student does the work, we're free to speculate. The obvious argument for thinking philosophers would show some resistance to framing effects is that we're supposed to be pretty good at detecting both logical equivalences and logical and performative inconsistencies. When philosophers wrestle with thought experiments and paradoxes (the Trolley Problem, Qualia Inversion, the Chinese Room, Twin Earth, the Gettier problem, the Raven Paradox) two of our central activities are determining whether descriptions of situations and outcomes are (a) logically equivalent and (b) logically coherent.

On the other hand, there are some features of the philosophical mind that could militate against this happy outcome. The one that stands out most for me is our continuing obsession with certainty. We officially denounced certainty as a criterion of knowledge in the early 20th century, but as a group we still pyne for it. We primarily speak the language of proof and necessity, not evidence and probability. Almost all professional philosophers have taken formal logic at some point in their career, but comparatively few have studied induction in a serious way. This suggests that we might be even more prone than similarly educated people to risk-based preference reversal.

I am also inclined to agree with Justin Smith that contemporary philosophers are not the most curious people in the world.  The X-phi movement may be a harbinger of change, but philosophy still seems to attract a lot of intellectual floogie birds, more interested in the comfort of justification than the thrill of discovery. Mad reasoning skills won't help with framing if your basic instinct is to keep circling until your intuitions are fully fortified. It will do the opposite.

If you are curious about your own sensitivity to framing, consider this example, which bounced off my forehead the first time I read it in Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow. The example is from the economist Thomas Schelling, and it shows how our strong moral intuitions can interfere with our ability to think clearly.

Schelling's example is this:  Consider the U.S. federal tax exemption for families with dependent children.  If you are even a slightly liberal-minded person you probably agree that this is a terrible idea:  The rich shall be given a larger exemption than the poor.

Fine, bad idea. But now consider that (just as with our discount vs. penalty example above) the tax code language is arbitrary. We can state an equivalent policy by expressing it as a surcharge that must be paid for each dependent child under a certain number you lack. (If you don't immediately see this, just consider what it is like to be a childless taxpayer not getting the exemption. You are literally being charged for not having children.)

Now consider this proposal for a system of surcharges. Rich people will pay a smaller surcharge than poor people. Well, that's obviously just as terrible an idea.  These are both policies that transparently favor the rich over the poor.  They are just stated differently.

If this point is perfectly obvious to you, then congratulations! You've just been framed.

G. Randolph Mayes
Professor, Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State University

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Holidays and the absurd: it's all about us

by Vadim Keyser

As the mild autumn approaches the soggy Sacramento winter, and the oldies radio stations, one-by-one, become clogged with the holiday spirit, I start feeling a bit uncomfortable. Around about Thanksgiving that feeling becomes more precise. I can tell you what gives me that feeling: Taking a large bite out of sweet potato casserole only to realize that it’s made out of stinking yams; seeing people lined up outside of every store like a bunch of cold turkeys and lined up in-stores to buy 45 million cold turkeys; and, television. I can tell you what that feeling is like, and I can get you to feel that feeling. All I have to do is sigh, or make you watch a Charlie Brown special. Ostension is a powerful tool for directing understanding (shout outs to Dr. DiSilvestro). But, how can I describe this feeling and the cause behind it in analytically precise terms?

Thomas Nagel gives us a working answer in his 1971 article, "The Absurd." In it, he analyzes absurdity as a phenomenon, and tries to answer two questions:
  1. What makes things absurd? 
  2. How can we solve our absurd situation? 
I think we can use Nagel’s account in a very practical way—to answer this question: What is wrong with the holidays?

According to Nagel, most people, on occasion, feel absurd but get the source of the feeling wrong. That’s because we appeal to our intuitions to figure out the cause. You might think that what makes things absurd is the realization that we are tiny in space-time. During the holidays we have a lot of time to think. We might find ourselves taking a walk through an empty city or a cold countryside. We look around (mostly up), and, oftentimes, these thoughts emerge: “How brief is my existence” and “How small I am." I once heard Bill Nye speak at the University of Nevada, Reno.  At one point he flashed a slide where the earth was pictured as a tiny jellybean among other jellybeans. He said, “We are a spec within a spec, within a spec…and that sucks.”

But according to Nagel, brevity in existence and smallness in size do not explain the feeling that life is absurd. Some thought experiments may help. Imagine yourself as immortal. You watch societies and solar systems cycle through creation and destruction. Does this take away the feeling of absurdity? Immortality seems to magnify absurdity. What about size? Imagine humans as large as galaxies (imagine a bunch of gigantic, floating baby humans). This just magnifies the feeling of absurdity as well. According to Nagel, the reason why absurdity doesn’t go away when we add more time and space is because the absurd is not due to some external condition that can be modified.  It is a property of something deeper within the human psyche. We’re like balls of cookie dough with salmonella inside of them. Adding more cookie dough isn’t going to get rid of the salmonella—in fact, the condition worsens and spreads. 

According to Nagel, what makes things absurd is a discrepancy between aspiration and reality. For example, you confess your love to an answering machine (or worse, you accidentally get Liam Neeson's line, and he’s having a very bad day). This seems to parallel Camus’s answer about what makes things absurd. Like, Sisyphus, the working human is pressed up against his/her rock—the cold reality of it, grinds against our warm faces. But Nagel says that the discrepancy isn’t between us and reality. This is because we don’t have much access to what reality really is. Rather, the discrepancy is between us and us. I think this is where Nagel’s description of the absurd becomes fascinating and surprising.
This condition is the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary or open to doubt. [178, my emphasis]
What makes things absurd is a discrepancy between perspectives. On the one hand, taking life seriously is unavoidable. On the other hand, when we step out and take a look at our situations, we’re these organisms that wear other organisms on our feet, and sit on dead trees, and tap plastic keys for extended hours and laugh at a lit box, and put mush into holes that exist on our faces. Why do we do these things? When we take a look at our habits, inclinations, norms, and justifications there is only doubt. Even if we have a divine purpose—the universe becomes a part of us, and we become part of the universe—we still can’t get rid of the annoying nephew within us, constantly asking, “Yeah, but why?” 

Nagel says that all values can only be justified by reference to themselves, and when we try to zoom out to reach a foundation, we only end up in the thin air of doubt—the view from nowhere. But the absurdity is not in the fact that humans can take the nebula’s eye view of themselves. Rather, it’s that once they do, they can go back to their daily activities as though nothing happened. This is why the holidays are a prime time for the absurd process. We reflect, we doubt, and on Monday, we wake up at 6 am to a batch of emails that make no sense, and, at the same time, a lot of sense.

According to Nagel, we can never get rid of the absurd because it’s within us. My bone to pick with Thanksgiving is really something that’s within my bones. So how do we solve our absurd situation? Nagel’s solution is that we accept our self-transcendence and have some fun with it—we use irony to be light about our being. I like this solution just fine. I think this is why Woody Allen’s films are so enjoyable. But I’ve always respected Albert Camus’s solution a bit more. You see, I think Nagel gets Camus all wrong. He says that Camus' Sisyphus is self-pitying and that that his only solution to absurdity is to shake his fist at the world. I beg to differ.

I think Camus is talking about shaking a fist at yourself. For Camus, the rock isn’t the external world; rather, it’s our response to the external world. The rock is an amalgamation of all of those anxiety-producing reactions we have to the world. The doubt that Nagel speaks of can be clumped right in there along with hope, fear, and regret. Sisyphus has a chance at happiness only because he makes a conscious choice to rebel against those aspects of himself. He is stronger than his fate because he can rebel against fear, hope, doubt, and regret. I like this solution because it’s more hands-on.  Camus doesn't just passively accept our fragmented nature.

What’s wrong with the holidays? Whether you like Nagel’s account or Camus’s account, one thing seems clear: The answer is: us. But fret not. This makes the problem easy to solve.

Vadim Keyser
Lecturer, Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State University