Sunday, March 9, 2014

What's something simple it took you too long to figure out?

Christina Bellon:  Reasonable people can disagree

For too long, I believed this was a cop-out, a rationalization to avoid the hard work of getting to the truth of the matter or about ourselves. If reasonable people disagree, it could only be because at least one of us (not me) is mistaken . You need to be better informed, clarify concepts, self-assess for biases or, worse…emotion.

I came to this simple truth after spending sustained amounts of time disagreeing with otherwise reasonable people. That disagreement, when not due to error, was due to differing commitments to important related matters. This attempt to integrate what looked, from our own points of view, to be incompatible or irrelevant is an indication of our respective efforts to be reasonable. Acknowledging these commitments is a matter of respect for each other’s intellectual and emotional dignity. Only then can we resume the shared task of building truths from disparate sources of knowledge and live together such that we can engage in the deliberative project at all.

Written into the dysfunction that characterizes Congress is the failure to appreciate that legislating, as reasonable discourse, demands respect, mutually. If I can claim that our disagreement is the result of your failure to be reasonable, I don’t have to do anything – you must change for progress to be made… and we get no gun legislation, no revision to the tax code, no marriage equality, and everyone in Florida gets to stand their ground or die trying... or while eating popcorn.

Jonathan Chen:  Philosophy actually is worthwhile

It’s always nice to remind ourselves of why we do philosophy and how it contributes to our well-being. This is perhaps the simplest truth that I often overlook, but one that I take joy in when I am reminded of it.

Authors like Arthur Clarke, Philip Dick, and Isaac Asimov have given us futuristic worlds that spark our imagination with scientific developments such as satellites, space travel, cyberspace, and a coexistence with robots. And with our rapid technological advancements, these science fiction writers seem all too prophetic. Their fictional worlds have become our reality.

As magnificent as these inventions are, however, what they entail is what really saturates me with fear and awe. In Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man,” we are given a futuristic world where anthropomorphous robots live among humans, existing solely as their instruments. When one of these robots, Andrew, acts contrary to its deterministic programming by showing a sign of creativity (entailing self-development), we are challenged with how we should identify it. Afterward, Andrew decides he wants to be free. When asked what difference it would make, he responds, “It has been said that only a human being can be free. It seems to me that only someone who wishes freedom can be free.”

This can be seen as an exercise to point out our general prejudices towards others. As Bertrand Russell suggests, sometimes the world tends to become too obvious for us, and we go through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from our habitual beliefs.

Matt McCormick:  We reason to defend the things we believe

I took an embarrassingly long time, like years, maybe decades, to realize that people, including philosophers, typically don’t gather evidence, reason carefully about it, and then draw the conclusion that is best supported. I think I sort of knew this intuitively but it took me a long time to really put my finger on it; we are all guilty of what psychologists call motivated reasoning regarding a lot more of our beliefs than we think. This is the mistake of criticizing new information that is inconsistent with our prior beliefs more severely, and then relaxing those skeptical standards when the information is “preference consistent.” Put another way, we have a belief first, and then we generate reasoning to support or defend it instead of making a better effort to gather all of the relevant information, and then accepting whatever conclusion is indicated. You’ve seen this in action when the fans of rival football teams all watch the same game and both groups are utterly convinced that the referees are making calls that are biased against their personal team. And the really deceptive thing about this cognitive quirk is that when we are doing it, it doesn’t really feel like we are doing it. When I’m defending that view that I hold dear and that I’m emotionally and psychologically invested in, it really feels like I am giving a powerful, compelling, rational argument for it. I have resolved to distrust that feeling whenever I have it.

Brad Dowden:  It is possible to go back in time

I eventually came to realize that in principle we can travel back in time and participate in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the 1940s. I once mistakenly believed that doing this is impossible.

If you want to travel to the future year of 2114, scientists know how. According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, if you travel close to the speed of light away from and back to Sacramento, then you can be gone for only a few months according to your clock that flies with you, but you can return to Sacramento in the year 2114 long after your friends have died.

The situation required for travel to the past is much more exotic than merely having a fast spaceship, but scientists do know how you could get back to Hitler’s office in Berlin in a manner consistent with the laws of science. Unfortunately, you cannot do anything that hasn’t already been done, or else there would be a contradiction. In fact, if you did go back, then you would already have been back there. So, you can participate in a Hitler assassination attempt, but you cannot change its outcome.

Since you would have participated in the assassination attempt long before you were born, we philosophers should make some changes in the usual idea of personal identity. Philosophers need to accept the physical possibility of death before birth.

Randy Mayes: The tads accrue

That's a saying I made up to obscure its embarrassingly simple meaning: Little things add up to big things. There is so much that interests me, which I have simply not pursued (or, worse, begun to pursue and then simply quit) because the time to fruition seemed so onerous. Are you, like me, still angry that your parents let you quit guitar or dance lessons? Look where I would be now if I had stayed with it, practicing just a tiny bit each day! Why did they knuckle under to that whiny brat who just wanted to play baseball and watch The Three Stooges? Yep, This Be the Verse. Of course, the tads accrue to the bad as well. Obesity, drug addiction, credit card debt, ocean acidification, extinction.  They seal our fate in painless, even soothing little baby steps.

Economists call it hyperbolic time discount. Resisting it requires us to be able to defer gratification, an ability which, in children, turns out to be a depressingly accurate predictor of life outcomes. Our inability to imagine what can be accomplished in tiny steps is the subject of timeless allegories. It is also what has made it so difficult for us to comprehend the universe, which evolves at a pace so slow that until recently we were certain that it did not evolve at all.

Maybe this video will inspire you to believe in the power of baby steps. But that's really the problem in a nutshell: Inspiration doesn't last.

Russell DiSilvestro: Apparently atomic things can be molecular 

An example: when I was a child, for a long time I thought that the title of the movie "A Miracle on 34th Street" began with the single word "Amiracle." Eventually, someone pointed out to me (over my repeated protests) that it's actually "A"—an indefinite article—plus "Miracle"—a common noun.

I don't recall how someone figured out that I needed the lesson—"Daddy, is the Amiracle in that story like the Amiracle in the Santa Claus movie?"—but one thing it impressed me with, even then, was how an apparently simple thing (on the surface) could actually have a deeper structure that is more complex (even if its complexity went unrecognized for a long time).

The philosophical payoffs of this “simple” (!) truth took a long time for me to learn, and I am still learning. I can have a concept and use it for a long time—justice, or God, or science, and so on—without anyone noticing that it is not a simple concept but a complex concept; not an atomic (not divisible) thing but a molecular (divisible, with interlocking parts) thing. I think this explains where some of our beliefs do not fit together well, or do not agree with the beliefs of others. One small part may be to blame (or praise!) for the perplexing situation. 

By the way, I also think that apparently molecular things can be atomic. But that’s a “simple” truth for another post…

Kyle Swan: Property rules are coercive

Many like me have libertarian views because they take seriously liberalism's presumption against coercion. When you coerce others, you interfere with them and force them in ways that violate their agency. Ordinarily, and other things being equal, these are things you shouldn't do. Therefore, if coercion is legitimate, it requires special justification. Whoever is advancing a coercive policy undertakes a burden to justify their interference and, according to libertarians, this is a lot more difficult a burden to discharge than many people seem to think. "Taxation is theft," libertarians sometimes say. "How do you get to take my stuff?" But this just means that libertarians want their (rather strong) interpretation of property rules to be enforced coercively. Is the coercion of these rules justified? Well maybe not if holding everyone accountable to them would lead to some people’s ruination. For a property-rights regime to be justified as legitimate, for it to be reasonable for me to demand of everyone that they comply with the coercion of its rules, it should work out reasonably well for everyone. What kind of property regime is necessary for that in the world we live in? I’m not totally sure, but whatever it is it’s unlikely to perfectly match the libertarian ideal.

Scott Merlino:  True love and truth telling are uncorrelated

There is, probably, never a good, rational reason to believe with certainty that whatever someone tells you is true. This is not true merely because people lie or that we cannot reliably detect truth from falsehood, or because cynicism is true. Sometimes people speak falsely, unintentionally. Of course we know that people in power, figures of authority and alleged expertise, and people trying to sell us stuff will spin tales or allow us to be deceived. But these people do not have our best interests in mind, and we learn quickly that they are not to be trusted. Doubt first the veracity of what anyone tells you - especially if they love you and even if they intend genuinely to help you in some compassionate or measurably practical way, because they might be mistaken or they might be just trying to make you happy. Perhaps it is not selfishness that causes parents to lie to their children about Santa Claus, or for the lover to say to her beloved that she promises with all her heart to love him forever. Intentions are fine things, but they are useless indicators of truth. The point is that however much you love and seek the truth, without weighing evidence for yourself, you have insufficient reason to believe what people tell you. Credulity erodes in proportion to the deceptions we endure. It took me a long time to appreciate this.


  1. Chris, I'm the last person to defend DC dysfunction, but it seems to me that, at least fairly often, the fact that they aren't able to pass a law, and the fact that it can generally be hard to get something -- even something good -- passed, is a recognition of reasonable disagreement among moral equals.

  2. Kyle, isn't your point that all rules are coercive?

    1. Yes. But many libertarians talk as if property claims ("Get off my lawn!") are somehow less morally problematic than other sorts of claims. Prima facie, there's no reason to think so. And, even if they're right, that conclusion has to be the outcome of some justificatory account rather than simply assumed in some sort of flat-footed (Lockean) way (where "Lockean" bears only minimal resemblance to the much more complicated views of John Locke).

    2. Interesting. I don't think of myself as a libertarian, but I'm receptive to the view that proscriptions on killing are less morally problematic than other sorts of claims, and that depriving people of stuff they require to survive therefore are too. In some sense it's coercive to have a law that prevents you from eating me, but its not a kind of coercion that most people are apt to complain about. So is the point really that systems of property rights can become problematically coercive when they are extended to include things we don't require to survive? Not very tweetable, I know.

    3. Something like that. I would have said that systems of property rights can become problematically coercive when the rules that make it up are interpreted in such a way that, from the perspective of some, there's no point for them to observe those rules. Is that 140 characters?

  3. Kyle, yes, sometimes. And that would likely mean that there was good reason not to pass the law in question. That is, reasonable others who engage in respectful disagreement, still disagree. But that seems not to be what goes on lately. The failure to recognize that compromise might also be a possible and acceptable outcome of reasonable disagreement when all sides recognize the need to act nonetheless. Reasonable disagreement, though, doesn't have the "my way or no way" quality that characterizes so much of the legislative paralysis in DC of late.

    1. Right. Reasonable is "a way I can reasonably accept or no way" rather than "my best, most preferred way or no way".