Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What's getting read over winter break

Have a great break everyone, and congratulations to all of our graduates!  Here's what some of your professors are planning to read over break.

Kevin Vandergriff
The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy, by Marc Ereshefsky

Patrick Smith

Monday, November 30, 2015

Social transparency and the epistemology of tolerance

Last week I learned a new word- apotropaic -and darned if I haven't heard it three times since then!

Everyone is familiar with this sort of thing and has at least briefly experienced it as uncanny. It is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Generalized, the BMP is our inclination to mistake an increased sensitivity to P for an increase in the number or frequency of P itself.

Lately I've been thinking about the BMP in relation to social transparency. The free flow of social information is a defining characteristic of the current era, and I tend to be far more sanguine about its effects than most. But I have started to think that the BMP presents a serious challenge to my optimism.

Most of my peers tend to be very possessive about their personal information. They feel like they own their beliefs, ideas, tastes, interests and habits. Consequently, they regard those who acquire knowledge of such without their permission as thieves. They are also haunted by Orwellian metaphors, and tend to react to increasing levels of social transparency in the public sphere with alarm as well. The idea of cameras at every street corner, shop window and traffic intersection feels dirty to them, despite its obvious value for public safety.

I dislike snoops as much as they do, but I distinguish between my preferences and my rights. I see unrestricted access to information as a cornerstone of liberal democracy. For me, the most fundamental human right is the right to learn. Whenever we choose to prevent or punish learning of any kind, there has to be an excellent reason for it. For some kinds of highly sensitive information these reasons exist, but they are consequentialist by nature and do not spring from any fundamental right to control information about ourselves.

I like glass houses. I think a world in which it is nearly impossible to hide the fact that you are an abusive husband or a pederast cleric is clearly preferable to one in which what goes on behind closed doors is nobody else’s business. In a liberal society, there is no greater disincentive to such transgressions than the certainty of others finding out. My friends are all yesbut. As in yes, but this is exactly what concerns them. They follow Orwell in thinking that a socially transparent society is fundamentally an informant society, conformist by nature.

But the evidence is that they are just wrong about this. We are living in a time of unprecedented tolerance for diversity and self-regarding eccentricities. This has not been achieved in spite of increasing social transparency. As long as homosexuals, transgenders, apostates, recreational drug users and the mentally disabled were confined to the darkness of the closet we could ridicule them with impunity. But it is difficult to continue in this vein when the clear light of day reveals that many of them are people we love.

Now here is my concern.

If increasing social transparency is not managed very carefully, it could backfire spectacularly, thanks to the BMP. When social transparency increases quickly, we suddenly become aware of the many intolerable things that have been happening right under our noses. Consequently, we get the impression that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we become receptive to irrationally harsh responses.

What do I mean by careful management? Two things, at least.

First, it means creating future generations of adults who are more epistemologically sophisticated than mine. We grew up thinking that being responsible and informed citizens meant paying careful attention to reliable news sources, caring about the less fortunate and following our conscience. But that is a serious error.

The news is almost entirely about relating recent interesting events; it rarely provides a statistical context in virtue of which the general significance of these events may be responsibly evaluated. This is why it is possible to be an informed and conscientious citizen by the standards of my generation and still be completely unaware of essential global facts, such as that we are living in a period of unprecedented world peace or that the global poverty rate has been cut in half during the last 20 years.

If we aren’t aware of the role BMP plays in our reaction to constant reports of police brutality against minorities in the U.S, gang rapes of girls in India, the persecution of homosexuals in Russia, the public whipping of atheists in the Third World, and terrorism everywhere, then our reactions are likely to be intemperate and counterproductive.

Second, we are going to need to find the moral strength to punish wrongdoing less severely. What? Yes. To see why, consider that whenever someone decides whether to do wrong she makes an implicit expected value calculation in which the probability of being caught figures centrally. For this reason, the severity of the current punishment is itself a function of the probability of detection. In an increasingly transparent society, the probability of detection rises. Hence the previous levels of punishment are now intemperate and must be recalibrated.

As an example, consider new surveillance capabilities which can detect every single traffic light violation. Many people oppose the proliferation of this kind of technology, despite its obvious ability to save lives. Why? I think it is partly because they foresee an intolerable rise in the cost of innocent mistakes. In this sense, Orwellian concerns are absolutely on point. If we are unwilling to attenuate the severity of our punishments, applying the technology of transparency to crime detection is the road to the police state.

Social transparency has so far been part of the recipe for a more tolerant society, but so far it is tolerance for things that we are learning to hate less. Adopting more temperate responses to crimes we perhaps hate even more than before is a whole nother thing.

I hope future generations will be enlightened enough to do it, but in the meantime some apotropaic magic would come in real handy.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, November 23, 2015

How to stop trying to be a zombie

Samkhya is one of six orthodox schools in the Vedic tradition of Indian philosophy. It is associated with the Yoga tradition. Yoga is a meditative discipline that is not primarily concerned with attempting to bend the human body into the shape of a pretzel.

Samkhya is usually counted as a dualistic philosophy. When we think of dualism in the West we think of RenĂ© Descartes, who was a substance dualist. Descartes held that there are two kinds of things in the world: Mind and Matter. It's tempting to try to appropriate Asian philosophical notions to Western categories, but caution is warranted. For one thing, substance dualism seems to encounter a serious problem. For it seems as though our minds and bodies interact in various ways, e.g. with physical events (like hitting one's thumb with a hammer) causing mental events (like pain). But it's hard to see how a physical event can have any effect on the mind unless the mind is also a physical thing.

The dualism we find in Samkhya is a dualism between Purusha and Prakriti- between the subject of experience and all of the possible objects of experience. Purusha is the Self, which is identified with consciousness. This is not intentional consciousness- consciousness of this thing or that. It is pure consciousness. The assumption here is that, if we withdraw our attention from all objects of consciousness, a pure, or object-less, consciousness will remain. This is Self-Realization, and it is the goal of Yoga.

Prakriti, on the other hand, consists of all the possible objects of consciousness: Rocks, trees, penguins, #2 pencils, and so on. But according to Samkhya, the mind is also among the objects of consciousness. In addition to being conscious of the external world, I am also conscious of my own mind and its contents. Of course, this is not a novel claim. What is novel is that Samkhya ends up with a different division than the one we find in Descartes. It posits no distinction between mind and body; instead it distinguishes between consciousness and the body-mind. Thus Samkhya appears to be in rough agreement with the materialist tradition in Western philosophy by placing mind and body in the same category.

Samkhya takes the mind to have the ability to discriminate environmental phenomena (e.g. telling the difference between red and green light), focus attention, and control bodily movements- all of the functions normally associated with what has been called the “easy problem of consciousness.” However, according to Samkhya, the mind is not actually conscious. The body-mind, without Purusha, is what some Western philosophers have referred to as a philosophical zombie: It would be capable of performing all of the usual functions of a human being, without their being accompanied by any conscious experience. Conscious experience is made possible by Purusha.

(My reference to zombies may cause some of my readers to compare Samkhya's dualism to property dualism. Property dualism does not suppose that mind and body are separate substances; it insists instead on a distinction between mental and physical properties. There is much to be said about this comparison, but I cannot explore it here.)

Think of Prakriti, the world of experience and particularly the mind, as being like a machine that is functioning in a dark room. Now imagine a light drawing near to the machine. This light represents Purusha, the Self- it is consciousness, and it illuminates the machine of the mind. Shining in the light of consciousness, the mind appears to be conscious. It thinks, “I am the light.” But this is a mistake. At best, the mind only participates in consciousness, giving it concrete expression. Hence a Sanskrit term for mind, “citta,” which as I understand it - I am no Sanskrit scholar - refers to reified consciousness, or consciousness made concrete, as opposed to the “pure” or “root” consciousness (cit) of Purusha.

All of this is interesting theory, but problems lurk, particularly if we suppose that Samkhya's dualism is a form of substance dualism. There does not seem to be any problem here with mind-body interaction, since mind and body fall under the same category in Samkhya. But the interaction problem seems to emerge at a different level- as a problem with the interaction of consciousness and the body-mind. The analogy I have used of the light shining on the machine- which is rooted in an analogy made in the classic Yoga literature- suggests that we should understand the conscious light of Purusha as interacting causally with an otherwise-unconscious Prakriti. It seems to me that this is not possible if Purusha and Prakriti turn out to be different substances.

However, it seems to me that Samkhya need not embrace substance dualism. The distinction it makes between Purusha and Prakriti is a practical one, and the practice in which it is grounded is the practice of yoga. Samkhya, like much of Indian philosophy, is concerned to give an analysis of the human condition and in particular, of human suffering and the means to remedy it. (Its account competes with the one given by Buddhism, which insists on the nonexistence of any transcendental self.)

The cause of suffering, according to Samkhya, is the association of Purusha, the conscious Self, with the body-mind. Though we are the subjects of experience, we mistakenly identify with the objects of our experience- with our mental life, with our bodies, and to some extent with the people and things we take to be ours. We are conscious beings who are, in a sense, trying to be something that is unconscious. We are trying to be zombies, and this is painful. The dualism of Samkhya is committed to nothing more than the possibility of psychologically disassociating ourselves from mental and physical objects. This disassociation begins when we notice that there is, at least, a conceptual distinction that can be made between ourselves and the objects of our experience, and it finds its fruition in yoga practice.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Further Reading:

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, tr. Vivekananda

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Why we should lie about Santa

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”       ~1 Corinthians 13:11

I once believed that lying to children about Santa was morally wrong but I no longer do. Cynics find much good in Santa-culture, our mass media-corporate retail complex deploys the lie seasonally, it fuels the perpetual acquisitiveness a flourishing economy requires. But I seek benefits beyond the materialistic. Propagating the Santa story is among the most instructional, least harmful deceptions we can share with our kids that will teach them not to believe what people tell them on trust-alone. It is a culturally-transmitted misbelief with adaptive, epistemic, and ethical value.

I’m not talking about the Santa myth as allegory, where Santa represents loving kindness. Myths are just stories that may or may not be true and, hey, they are entertaining and connect people. But we can teach the values and limits of hope, love, and charity more clearly without help from Santa. The story to which I refer goes like this: Santa exists, not merely in concept or the imagination. He watches, judges, and visits our homes on Christmas Eve and rewards good children with gifts, etc. There isn’t a shred of evidence for Santa, in actuality, and no adult really believes in him. It is a mighty powerful myth, as besieged parents of 2 to 7 year-olds know. We present it as literally true to children so that we can manipulate their thoughts and actions.

Most Americans report believing in Santa when they were children. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey finds that one-fifth of Americans say they are the parent or guardian of a child in their household who believes in Santa, and 69% will pretend that Santa visits their home this Christmas Eve. Parents even pretend to believe this when kids are dubious: “One-in-five parents whose children do not believe in Santa (18%) say they will pretend to get a visit from Santa this year, as do 22% of those who are not the parents or guardians of minor children in their household.”

We do this because we don’t really think that telling this story is wrong, but it is a lie. Despite the cold logical consistency of deontologists who rebuke us for lying to genocidal or otherwise depraved persons, we don’t accept that all lying is wrong. In fact, lying to children is especially good for them. Much can be learned from this episode in their young lives at so little cost. The Santa story is not the worst lie we can teach children, it is also not the best. This conspiracy of elders which kids must contend with exercises their nascent rationality and autonomy. It primes them for questioning all of the stories people tell.

Children don’t have much choice about what to believe, they are poor discerners of fact from fiction. But children are future autonomous, moral agents and this is especially why we should lie to them before they are fully-fledged, so that their filters and shields emerge early as they become rational. The world is filled with deceptions, we do them a great service with this benign story. Children are well-adapted to believe that parents are looking out for their interests but need to learn that even these people are not reliable truth-tellers. People who love us and seek our best-interests will deceive us, sincerely, even if they are well-intentioned but ignorant, short-sighted, or misguided. True love and truth telling are uncorrelated.

Could we get the benefits if we told them Santa was make-believe at the outset? Perhaps, but this lie is so systematic, accessible, widespread we are fools not to take advantage of it. By age 10 most people don’t believe it, they realize and accept that they have been deceived for egotistical reasons. As parents and teachers, when we discuss the implications of Santa with mature children we can show them, rather than merely tell them, that they cannot just accept what others assert. The Santa story is corrosive to the faith and confidence we extend too readily to loved ones and authority figures. It also exemplifies the imaginative power of the human intellect in preserving the appearance of truth in a problematic story, however much we wish it were true. The Santa story as a plausible hypothesis fails when we test it. Use it to show children how to check the math. If Santa spends only 5 seconds visiting each of say 20 million homes, he spends well over 3 years delivering presents. We derive a result inconsistent with his legendary 24-hour delivery time-frame. Reindeer cannot travel that fast, etc. The story falls apart.

By the age of 10, with this one myth, children may learn much. People speak falsely, deliberately. The people whom you ought to trust most will deceive you if they believe that it benefits you or us to do so. If people who love you will lie to you, for whatever reasons, then you can’t accept that whatever they tell you is true or even that it is what they themselves believe. No people are reliably honest. All of us have had, and probably still have, widely-held beliefs regardless of whether they are true. Also from the Pew study: Roughly three-quarters of adults (73%) say they believe Jesus was born of a virgin. Among the religiously unaffiliated, 32% believe it.

Voltaire warns us:
'Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.'
Teaching a misbelief that makes children sensitive to inconsistencies in character, testimony, evidence, math and logic is morally permissible. The Santa story does all of this. Deceiving kids about Santa is prosocial. Use it to probe the limits of honesty, integrity, compassion. Once exposed, the Santa myth is an antidote to the totalitarian trap of traditional, authoritarian, faith-based thinking.

Pass it on.

Scott Merlino
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Markets fail. So what?

In welfare economics, a market failure is when the competitive price system fails to allocate resources efficiently, where this usually refers to a violation of Pareto optimality. This means there are unexploited ways to make some people better off without making anyone worse off. If, for example, the market systematically underprices a good because some of the costs associated with its provision are externalized on the public, that’s a market failure. If the market under-provides a good because there isn’t a good way to prevent free riders, that’s a market failure.

A very common strategy of argument is to identify a market failure and then suggest a government intervention designed to address it. For example, the standard microeconomic analysis of public goods provision suggests that things like lighthouses would be under-provided by the market because of people’s propensity to free ride. Someone might notice that ships need lighthouses and build with the hope of signing up paying users, but this arrangement would certainly fail because lighthouses are non-excludable and non-rivalrous. None of the ship owners would pay for the service. If we’re going to have lighthouses, we need the government to provide them.

But market processes aren’t the only kinds that fail to secure an efficient outcome. Theories of government failure developed among public choice economists in response to the assumption that in a case where a market process has failed, a government decision-making process will correct it. This is closely aligned with the assumption that government actors are genuinely benevolent and reliably motivated to pursue the common good. Public choice theory shows that you can generate better predictions of government behavior by assuming that people holding government offices are people of normal good will and largely motivated by self-interest.

Just like there are several well-theorized sources and examples of market failure (e.g., externalities and public goods), there are likewise several well-theorized sources and examples of government failure. In cases of corruption, government officials use their control of public resources to advance their private ends. An official may be in charge of some project and solicit bribes in exchange for granting the government contract supporting it. The problem here isn’t that it’s immoral, though it is. The problem is that extending a contract on the basis of someone’s willingness to provide a bribe will almost certainly violate Pareto optimality. Public choice theorists argue that ineffective monitoring regularly permits politicians to benefit themselves at the expense of the public. Individual losses among the public may be quite small. In fact, that they are small explains the ineffective monitoring since their losses escape their notice. Therefore, their ignorance about who it is best for them to vote for, what policies are best for them to support, or who might be taking advantage of them is rational. But in the aggregate, their total losses will tend to be much greater than the benefit the politician consumes in the form of rents.

This dynamic of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs also figures into accounts of regulatory capture. When political actors have a great deal of discretionary power, this generates powerful incentives for an industry to use whatever means available to influence the decision-making process. They might convince regulatory agencies to permit certain profit-enhancing externalities or provide economic protection from foreign or domestic competitors. These high stakes provide incentives to win influence that are much stronger than anything that would induce an individual citizen to organize with others to help keep the regulatory agency’s activities in line with the public interest.

So governments fail, too. We should, therefore, be on guard against committing the Nirvana fallacy. The following syllogism makes the mistake in the Nirvana fallacy pretty obvious:
 1. In a range of circumstances, markets constrained by interventionist policies administered by morally and informationally perfect people would have better outcomes than markets free of any interventions. 
2. In those circumstances, actually implementing those interventionist policies administered by morally and informationally perfect people would have better outcomes than the market free of any interventions. 
3. Therefore, we should implement the interventionist policies.
Obviously, 3 does not follow from 1 and 2.

This lesson, and even many sources of government failure, was acknowledged by, of all people, Cambridge welfare economist A.C. Pigou, who is the patron saint of market failure theorists. As early as 1912 in Wealth and Welfare, he wrote
“It is not sufficient to contrast the imperfect adjustments of unfettered private enterprise with the best adjustments that economists in their studies can imagine. For we cannot expect that any State authority will attain, or even whole-heartedly seek, that ideal. Such authorities are liable alike to ignorance, to sectional pressure, and to personal corruption by private interest.”
Again, markets fail. But even when they do – even when real-world markets do not meet the standard modeling assumptions that ensure perfect competition and Pareto optimality – government intervention may make things worse. The government is, at best, another tool societies can sometimes use to good effect. It is not a Deus ex machina that societies can rely upon to swoop in and bring about a happy ending.

The possibility of government failure should militate against the tendency to compare the reality of unregulated markets with an idealized implementation of government control in order to argue for interventionist public policy. That isn’t the choice that’s available to us. Instead, we have to choose between the messy real-world outcomes of unregulated markets and the messy real-world outcomes of regulated markets.

Examples of messy real-world institutional arrangements might actually surprise some economists in the way outcomes sometimes do not cooperate with standard microeconomic models. Return to the lighthouses. In 1820 about 75% of lighthouses on the English coast were built and operated by private parties because they could effectively limit access to their service by tying its use to entry into harbors. There, berths were excludable and fees were easy to collect. This example may suggest a sort of market resiliency where cooperative solutions to market failures emerge without government intervention because novel solutions are incentivized by mutual gains from trade.

Government failures generally don’t have this natural self-correcting feature, which may make them more serious. To correct a government failure there must be someone with the insight to devise a solution and the benevolence, courage and skill to see it through in the face of highly motivated political opposition. But politics eats up people like this for breakfast.

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, November 2, 2015

Kant’s Dove, Neurath’s Ship, and Archimedes’ Point

Kant: The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.

Neurath: We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support.

Descartes: Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and immovable; so, also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable.

I would like to examine our capacity for ‘original’ thought in light of these three passages.

Assume that an original thought will take the form of a counterfactual.
  • If there were unicorns Amelia would be pleased.
  • If nudity were unexceptionable the world would be a better place.
Regarding the first, we get our concept of a kind of animal the same way we do our name for it, from our encounters with the animals.

But our encounters are (alas!) wholly lacking in unicorns.

So, while ‘dolphin’ is our name for dolphins, ‘unicorn’ is not our name for unicorns.

We have no name for unicorns.

Nor do we have a concept of unicorn. And since we have no concept of unicorn we cannot understand what the counterfactual expresses.

This, of course, seems manifestly nuts: “I understand what the counterfactual means perfectly well. Even Amelia understands it, and she’s only five.”

Actually, you don’t.

The concept ‘unicorn’ would be of a particular kind of animal; but that kind is over the modal horizon from us. And since our cognitive capacities are rooted in our encounters with the actual, it’s over our cognitive horizon too.

If the sentence expresses a thought, it’s a completely general one about animals vaguely like horses with a single horn in the middle of their forehead, etc. But that’s not a thought about unicorns.

The second example is where the constraints on thought really kick in.

The rationale for nudism lies in its preferred name: ‘Naturism’. Being naked, or at least not much caring whether anyone is naked or not, would be more natural to human beings. And if we acted more naturally, the evils deriving from entrenched oppressive conventions would appear less ineluctable.

As it happens, physical modesty, including the wearing of clothing, is a cultural universal. The best explanation for this universality is its presence in the cultural toolkit of that group of ‘behaviorally modern’ humans from which all present-day humans are descended.

This cultural toolkit has formed the human social world in which we live, and in which the developmental psychology of every human being for at least the last 50,000 years was formed. Clothing appears to be implicated in the control of sexual clues, and thus of sexual arousal, in the absence of a human estrus cycle.

But that’s not all. However skimpy, clothing has one universal feature: it has always been more than merely functional. Clothing involves aesthetic decisions in such a way as to make the wearer distinctive. It is self-adornment. And it is a particular kind of human person who finds a need to self-adorn.

How we dress does not just express certain facts. Our way of dressing can constitute what is expressed: facts about ourselves, our views about the world and about our relations to others. Clothing is a convention constitutive of important features of our humanity which would simply not exist without it.

While I generally disapprove of rhetorical questions, the force of these considerations demands one:

From what Archimedean point does the advocate of naturism advance his preference?

The naturist’s standpoint has to be the same as the rest of us. Thus he cannot after all be indifferent to whether people are clothed or not. Such preference is, like Amelia’s for unicorns, over the cognitive horizon.

This again seems manifestly nuts. Of course he can prefer that we be naturists.

This confuses the thought that we can be naturists with a completely general thought about creatures vaguely like us, with a different deep cultural history, different constitutive conventions, a different developmental psychology, etc. They could be naturists.

But that’s not a thought about us.

Naturism advocates commit what should be known as the ‘Kant’s Dove’ Fallacy. They pay so much attention to an unwanted feature of a state of affairs that they fail to realize that a change in that feature would not improve the state of affairs, but undermine it – and with it would go their capacity to disvalue the feature.

Suppose that behaviorally modern humans had adopted other arrangements. After all, nothing is less ‘natural’ than clothing. Likewise for other deep conventions. Then exactly the same human beings – members of the species homo sapiens – may have come to exist, the same gametes producing the same token zygotes, etc. But those individuals could not share our goals, our ways of flourishing, our values.

Nor we theirs – even though they would, in some sense, be us.

A misconceived Platonism ignores the particular, definite sort of creatures we are, and aspires to the status of bodiless pure minds. We are not bodiless pure minds but social creatures with a particular concrete history. That history sets limits to what we can think of, what we can value.

But we shouldn’t bemoan this fact, since our possessing some concrete history or other is also the condition of the possibility of our thinking, or of valuing, anything.

We’re all stuck here together on Neurath’s Ship. Don’t try to take apart too much at one time.

Take a lesson from the coherence of utopian projects of all sorts.

And for the Original Position as well.

Thomas Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, October 26, 2015

What makes people good at philosophy?

This week we asked faculty of the Sacramento State Philosophy Department the following question:

Is there such a thing as philosophical aptitude, intelligence or ability? If so, what is it? If not, what accounts for one person being a better philosopher than another?

Here's what they said.

Thomas Pyne

I’m not sure whether the ‘aptitude, intelligence, or ability’ that characterize many of the philosophers I most admire is not in fact a disability – at least in other social situations.

The philosophers I most admire seem immune to intellectual fashion and common sense.

Common sense serves no purpose in philosophy, at least in metaphysics. After all, common sense is a metaphysics – and a dubious one, given its origins in meeting our survival needs rather than truth-tracking. Or it is the superseded metaphysics of 500 years ago.

It is very difficult to swim against the tide of intellectual fashion: What All the Top Men (Top Men!) Think. But if you’re going to be a philosopher, and not just a philosophicalizing careerist, you must. (While many philosophers think that they’re Bucking Received Wisdom, they’re often just aligning with a more ‘inner circle’ thread of it.)

What I find difficult to fathom is how it is that those philosophers who, while they understand the intellectual fashions of their time (all too well!), just don’t seem to feel the pressure at all: the Leibnizes, Wittgensteins, Roderick Chisolms, David Lewises, and Elizabeth Anscombes.

This inability to ‘get’ what other people intuitively get is why philosophers are so frequently torn apart by mobs or executed by the authorities.

It’s why no one will have sex with us.

Kevin Vandergriff

At a minimum, the goals of philosophy are conceptual clarification, the disentangling of complex questions, and the careful examination of alternative approaches. Rational argumentation is the major tool used to accomplish these goals. So, the better someone is at rational argumentation, the better a philosopher they will be.

 Now, if we wanted to measure whether someone is ‘better’ than someone else at rational argumentation, then I suppose we would have to try to identify what it is about our brains; our primary tool for rational argumentation; that best explains why someone is as skilled at rational argumentation as they are. No doubt intelligence, or aptitude is in the explanatory pool of competing explanations.

 Assuming intelligence is the best explanation for what makes someone as skilled at rational argumentation as they are, we still need a measuring apparatus for determining intelligence in the domain of rational argumentation. Here we can look to IQ tests, but it is controversial whether intelligence is one thing or many things. I tend to favor the view that intelligence is many things and I favor the following list of different intelligences:
Linguistic Intelligence
Logical and Mathematical Ability
Spatial Intelligence
Musical Intelligence
Bodily Kinesthetic Intelligence
Interpersonal Intelligence
Intrapersonal Intelligence
Naturalist Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence
I neither know how exactly philosophical intelligence as filtered through ones talent for rational argumentation fits into these categories, nor what different scores in each of these areas indicates about one’s own philosophical intelligence.

Daniel Gluch

I don’t believe in philosophical intelligence. However, I also don’t believe that intelligence and ability are the same thing. Often times what we consider intelligence is a mix of confidence and talkativeness, but that has little to do with one's ability to seek after truth.

There are a number of traits that make people able to do philosophy well. Everyone holds these traits in varying degrees and can get better or worse at them over time, which explains varying ability to do philosophy, both between different people and different time-slices of ourselves at one time or another.
  • Representing the argument/perspective of another in its best light, and that the truth may be found there. 
  • Acknowledging that your perspective may not be where the truth is.
  • Clearly presenting your argument in a manner that promotes its understanding, 
  • Looking at problems from new perspectives or paradigms.
While this is far from an exhaustive list, doing these well will undeniably make someone a good philosopher whether they practice analytic, continental, or unorthodox philosophy.

Vadim Keyser

Philosophers tussle with information. I don’t think this “intelligence” or “ability” is unique to philosophy. In fact, I’d argue that any discipline is about organizing and reorganizing information.

Philosophy places strong emphasis on the methods behind this “information process”. In fact, when you put away all of the philosophical perspectives, you still have the philosophical methodology, which is applicable to any discipline. When we do philosophy we re-create, re-structure, criticize, and generate information. These are all analytical skills. The methodological processes can go deeper (e.g., deductive and inductive systems). But these general skills make philosophy a careful, methodological discipline. I think that evaluating the quality of philosophical intelligence reduces to evaluating the level of analytical care taken in the methodological process.

A relevant question: When you have two philosophers side by side, how can you tell which one is a better philosopher? Simple: Have them argue and then ask a third philosopher; and then argue with that third philosopher. Continue ad infinitum.

Scott Merlino

Philosophically intelligent (PI) persons seek knowledge and are above average at acquiring it. Such people do this well by analyzing concepts and reasoning about specific issues in light of evidence and logical argument. PI is measurable, we could assess a person’s ability to frame and test arguments about specific issues by their correct use of inductive and deductive logic. The ability to make good judgments using logic, in my opinion, would be diagnostic of PI. By ‘diagnostic’ I mean whatever distinguishes PI from other forms of intelligence. PI is the above average ability and willingness in people who have it to apply deductive and inductive logic to problem-solving.

PI, like wisdom, is an effect not a cause. Factors contributing to PI are having an inquisitive personality, a disposition to seek truth, question authority and the status quo. Such people seek clarity in language and use evidence and argument rather than insight or revelation to resolve conceptual and practical issues. Is one born with PI or is it learned? Yes.

This account fails to include all and only philosophers. We should not seek to exclude the non-philosophically inclined among us who nevertheless have high PI. My description is biased towards analytical philosophy, one weakness is that some beloved philosophers won’t score well on the PI scale whom many of us would nevertheless want to call high PI individuals. Nietzsche and Sartre might come out much less philosophically intelligent than would Hume or Quine. The quality of their logical arguments distinguishes them.

Christina Bellon

Ability – that one is able to do x, entails one has the capacity or power to do x.

Aptitude – when doing x, one does x more or less proficiently, competently, effectively.

Inclination – willingness or disposition to do x.

I think there is something we might call philosophical ability for which humans demonstrate a range of aptitudes. I think this philosophical ability is the ability to think about thinking. More specifically, to think about others’ and one’s own thinking – to ask oneself, consider possible answers for, and evaluate these answers against the evidence in the world (inner and outer), “What do I believe and why do I believe it?” In other words, philosophical ability is a meta-ability. As cognition, it’s meta-cognitive. In this sense, logic is a system for thinking about thinking.

As with other capacities, the degree to which one is inclined to think philosophically, the comfort one has doing so, and the skill level one displays, are the result of several factors, not least of which include opportunity, encouragement, and practice. As with other capacities (perceptive, experiential, imaginative, linguistic, rhythmic, etc.), individuals display a range of inclination to cultivate it. Those who succeed in philosophy, just as those who succeed in dance or design, are likely those who have the right combination of aptitude and inclination to cultivate their respective ability.

Not everyone will match Kant or De Beauvoir, but everyone would benefit from a little more opportunity, encouragement, and practice doing philosophy… beginning in kindergarten.

Matthew Howery

Philosophy is the practice of humility in the face of our very existence and experiences. To the extent that we are willing to be wrong, willing to look at and carefully judge opposing viewpoints, and willing to follow where reason leads us, we are acting and living philosophically.

This love of wisdom is an active love. It is the active pursuit of wisdom and truth, often in direct opposition to some of our most strongly held beliefs. The humility of the philosopher allows us to never be too certain that we are correct in our assessment and understanding of the world. This same humility is that which allows us to approach others not like ourselves and listen to their stories, their values, and their experiences of the world.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, philosophy is the sharing of knowledge. The love of wisdom solely for oneself is indistinguishable from greed. The better philosopher is the individual who is willing to pass on what he or she has learned, to give the gift of Eudaimonia as well as the passion to pursue it to others. The extent to which we accomplish this humility and sharing is our philosophical ability.

Jonathan Chen

I have to disagree with Matthew that philosophy is a humbling experience.

First, I should say that philosophy is not for everyone (pity), and should be reserved for a superior class of individuals. It is quite obvious to me that the elite philosophers, including myself, are those holding esteemed positions at prestigious universities and who have published countless papers that only our fandom follows. As a half-human half-bologna race, we are enhanced only by our ability to forget the origin of philosophical inquiry (I can’t quite remember what this is because I have transcended such nonsense, but a layman once told me that philosophy begins with awe. She believed that philosophical ability should be a faculty of the heart, and that an eagerness to learn about the nature of our world was sufficient to becoming a philosopher. Ha! What a fool!).

We philosophers extend our research into fields so disconnected from humanity and its needs that our knowledge is no longer accessible to anyone besides other half-human half-bologna elitists. My sole purpose as a philosopher is to perpetuate this trend, and my contribution to humanity is no different. For my efforts, some of the laymen refer to me as the “armchair philosopher.” I’m not quite sure why they decided on this name for me, but given my superiority over them, I can only imagine it means, “Sovereign, beautiful sovereign!!”

Randy Mayes

Philosophers are people who are made uncomfortable by comfortableness. Their value to society is their ability to notice when we have become too satisfied with our beliefs and practices, and to provide us with a perspective from which they may be reasonably called into question. This is why Socrates remains- even for those who have little use for his views- the beau ideal of philosophical ability and intelligence.

What sort of person is this?

First, a good philosopher is more self-aware than the average human. This is what is required to be able to notice when his belief is comforting, when it feels familiar, when it satisfies his biases, when it makes it easier to get along with people he loves.

Second, a result of the first, a good philosopher is habitually skeptical of her own reasoning. She is constantly haunted by the sense that "this is too easy." Skill in reasoning is important in philosophy, but no moreso than in any other intellectual endeavor. Rationality is something else. It's the tendency to scrutinize the outputs of easy and comfortable modes of thinking. It's what Frederick Shane's Cognitive Reflection Test was designed to measure.

Third, as Tom Pyne observes, there is a kind of social and emotional retardation typical of philosophical intelligence: we are unembarrassed by the stupidity of our questions and the apparent impracticality of our concerns. In general, to be a good philosopher you can't care very much what people think about you at all, good or ill.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Meaning, happiness and the good life

Let's say you are a successful novelist. In fact, Wikipedia describes you as the author of an entire genre: the Philosopical Bodice Ripper, steamy romances that explore philosophical ideas with surprising depth and subtlety. It is a form you have entirely mastered, and it is earning you a tidy living. You have a devoted readership and you take real satisfaction in exposing the fans of romantic fiction to philosophy. Still, there is a part of you that wants more.

>>>Fast forward >>>

For the last five grueling years you have been working on the great American philosophical novel: The Rigid Designation. You care more intensely about this project than all of your previous work combined. But it is undeniably a source of enormous frustration and anxiety. You are working at the absolute limit of your creative potential and experiencing disappointment far more often and more intensely than success. You do not know if you can finish; and even if you do, you have no idea how it will be received.

One night, over a bottle of Glenlivet, you are waxing nostalgic about your previous life to your good friend Piotr, who has heard it all one too many times: Just toss that damned manuscript into the fire, delete the file, and go back to doing what what you do best!

And, perhaps surprisingly, you agree. You really would be a happier person if you were to do exactly as Piotr advised. Perhaps not immediately afterwards, but soon. You still feel that way the next morning as you log into your computer.

What do you do?


What do we want from life?

Well, lots of stuff, of course. But at a basic level, I say there are only two things: happiness and meaning.

What is happiness? Easy. Your life is happy to the extent that you are feeling good, both in it and about it. There are lots of different ways of feeling good: joy, hope, gratitude, contentment, elation, inspiration, affection, a panoply of sensual pleasures. They all count. Somehow.

What is meaning? Easy again. Your life has meaning to the extent that you are doing things you care about. Generally speaking, you care when you have a sense of purpose, commitment to personal goals, the wellbeing of family and friends, to discovery, to creation, to work, to serving a higher cause, like God or country.

Ok, clear enough so far, but not too interesting. Nobody denies that meaning and happiness are fine things, and we all agree that anyone with plenty of both is very lucky indeed.

But I said that meaning and happiness are basic. By this I mean that they are distinct ends. We desire them both, but we do not seek one simply as a means to achieving the other.

This is more interesting because it contradicts conventional wisdom, which is based on a strong and widely felt intuition that happiness is, almost by definition, the summum bonum of every self-interested person. According to this view, whatever we want in life (power, freedom, safety, love, respect, and meaning) we want because we believe it will contribute to our happiness.

Put differently, it is to deny the quite plausible view that the only reason we would ever want a more meaningful life is that we think we will be happier as a result. It is to assert that someone may rationally opt for a more meaningful life knowing full well that it will come at the expense of her personal happiness.

Now, in fact, many others disagree with the conventional view, but they typically need to play a wild card to say why. For example, one common way of arguing against it is to point to altruism: people willingly sacrifice their own happiness for the benefit of others. The problem with that gambit is that many of those we are trying to convince think of altruistic behavior either as an illusion, or as fundamentally irrational. I don’t, but I also don't want to get mired in the debate. So what I say here I mean to be understood strictly within the framework of rational self-interest.

Consider a related but slightly different implication of the conventional view:

No rational person would refuse to do something that would reduce the meaning in her life if she were convinced that doing so would result in greater personal happiness.

This is not really a strict implication of the view, as you might always have other options. But you get the gist; I won't complicate the thought with a bunch of qualifications.

This, I think, is more easily shown to be false. To see why, let's return to you.


Did you delete the file?

I don't know, but that is enough to make my point.

You might have. In this case, you would indeed be exchanging a more meaningful life for a happier one. That does not seem irrational and it is obviously consistent with the conventional view.

But, then again, you might not. You might have decided to keep toiling away in all your unhappiness and frustration, not in hope of some greater happiness to be achieved later, but simply because it is a more meaningful activity to you now. In this case you have expressed, contrary to the conventional view, a reflective preference for a less happy, but more meaningful life.

The Happiness Fundamentalist rejoins:

1. But if you decide to stay at it, it can only be because the thought of quitting makes you unhappy.

No. The thought of quitting does make you unhappy, but it is not an adequate explanation of your decision either way. For you sincerely believe this unhappiness would dissipate were you to return to your old life.

2. Well, then deciding to keep at it may be understandable, but it is surely irrational.

Maybe. But we'll need an argument. And we won't be listening if yours just stipulates that happiness is the only thing that truly matters. Because we think we just proved that it ain't.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, October 4, 2015

She ain’t no Rosa Parks

Conservative Christians would have us believe that Rowan County, KY, Clerk Kim Davis is the new Rosa Parks – the Rosa Parks for this century’s fight against the oppression of the faithful. Not only is she no Rosa Parks, she’s got much more in common with those Rosa Parks resisted. In both word and deed, but for the beard, Davis is more ayatollah than freedom rider.

Rosa Parks, for those who forgot, was an African American woman arrested for failing to give up her seat on a public transit bus to a white person. Second class citizen, pays her fare, must sit at the back, and sometimes give up her seat, standing with groceries, on tired feet, in case a white person wanted to sit. Not optional. Not “please give these seats to the disabled and elderly,” where any able young person who doesn’t is rightly judged a jerk. Rosa Parks – as a matter of law –suffered nowhere near ‘separate but equal’ service in the presence of whites. She defied the law which commanded her thus. She resisted the power of state officials to deny her equality. She rejected their abuse of authority to deny her a right equal to the whites to whom she had to yield. 

Kim Davis is no Rosa Parks. Davis is a public official, vested with the power of government to carry out vital functions for the people of Rowan County. Not for some of the people – ALL of the people. She is vested with authority to uphold county, state, and federal laws. Not some laws, at her discretion, which correspond with her personal convictions – ALL those laws. She is free to believe what she likes about gays and lesbians and homosexual marriage. The First Amendment enshrines this freedom for her as for every private citizen, as a matter of personal conscience. The First Amendment burdens government to ensure individuals are protected in the enjoyment of their civil liberties regardless of their faith or lack of it. It protects her and the people of Rowan County in the enjoyment of that same freedom. Among those civil liberties is the liberty to marry. Heterosexual residents of Rowan County have enjoyed that right for a while now. Homosexual residents of Rowan County are now able to enjoy that same civil liberty. Except for Kim Davis.

By denying same sex couples the issuance of marriage licenses, she uses the power of her office to deny them that liberty. The power to issue marriage licenses is a governmental power, not a personal power. It is an authority vested in the office, not in her person. It is a power subject to the county, state, and federal law. It is not her personal power to decide the nature of the law or the constitution. Her personal convictions are not the measure of the law. Her conduct as an official, vested with the authority of the government, is to ensure that the residents of Rowan County enjoy their civil liberties free from religious burden. Her use of this authority to enforce her personal convictions – religious or otherwise – should be rejected as resoundingly as was that of those who denied Rosa Parks.

Enter the new ayatollahs. America deeply identifies as a Christian country. Most of the citizenry identify as Christian. This leads some people – many in positions of governmental power – to believe that their faith should guide their actions, should be a basis for law and policy, and should be the basis for their discretionary use of their authority. Their faith. Creating and applying law accordingly. We must live according to their faith. Our enjoyment of our liberties, according to their faith. These are the new ayatollahs, American-style. They come professing individual rights, citing the constitution, claiming liberty for all, according to their faith. Their Jesus tells them that homosexuality is an abomination. But there’s another Jesus, who eats with the lepers and washes their dead, unafraid that his faith will be tainted by those whom he aids. That Jesus does not deny fish and bread to the hungry even as they are sinners. That Jesus bakes a wedding cake for a gay couple, unafraid that their choices define his own.

The founding constitutionalists were deeply religious. But they were near enough to the corrosive conjoining of religion with political power to recognize individual personal liberty required a strict separation of religious conviction from government authority. They crafted a nation in which it mattered not whether one had faith. Theirs was a vision wherein individuals enjoy equally the freedom to determine their own lives according to their private convictions. If it’s a Christian country, it’s also among the remarkably few to demand that religious conviction remain a matter of private conscience, not a directive of public policy. It matters not whether the entire citizenry enjoys the same faith. It matters only that county clerks, as with all public officials enacting governmental authority, not demand the rest of the citizenry conform to their conscience.

Some say Davis has a right not to be made to violate her faith. True. But she does not have a right to do it in her official capacity as county clerk. No one has a right to be a county clerk. She can adhere to and worship as she believes. In her official capacity as county clerk, it is her responsibility – yes, I said her RESPONSIBILITY – to ensure that the residents of Rowan County are not denied their civil liberties because of someone else’s – including her own – personal convictions to the contrary.

Issue the marriage licenses. That is her responsibility. And, if she cannot reconcile her conscience with her official duty, perhaps she should follow the example of Apostle Matthew who could no longer render unto Caesar, could no longer reconcile his duty as tax collector with his faith. The burden of his faith was his to bear, not his co-workers, not his fellow citizens, not the government to accommodate his public office to his private conscience.

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, September 28, 2015

When the science of happiness meets public policy, can freedom increase?

When the science of happiness meets public policy, two things tend to happen. First, some people in the room get excited about the opportunity for our policy goals to extend beyond traditional economic indicators (e.g., income, employment), and better capture elements of the good life that cannot be explained in dollar terms (e.g., social trust, individual happiness). Second (but probably simultaneously), other people in the room begin to worry that the whole point of government policy and of the reasonable limits on what governments can legislate appear to have been forgotten (freedom anyone?). How should this scenario pan out? 

Some elements deserve more explanation before the story continues, and I conclude that, contrary to the main worries, the science of happiness can be successfully incorporated into policies in a way that increases freedom.

The science of happiness can be described as the amalgamation of the current scientific knowledge related to happiness. Happiness science is not just about measuring levels of happiness, and happiness-like concepts; it’s also in the business of explaining and predicting levels of those concepts in various contexts.

Several academics have suggested that, since we now know how to measure these aspects of the good life, and they are generally held to be important, then we should include the most accepted of them (e.g. satisfaction with life) among the explicit goals of public policy (see a review here). In some ways, this suggestion is exciting, because traditional economic indicators are often acknowledged as inadequate for guiding public policy; they are far from useless, but they don’t capture everything that is important to us. The deficiencies of focusing on only traditional economic indicators were eloquently discussed by Robert F. Kennedy in his speech at the University of Kansas in 1968:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product—if we judge the United States of America by that—that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. … It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. … Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. … It measures neither our wit nor our courage, … ; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. (Kennedy, 1968).

GNP was never intended to be a measure of the success of a nation, it was intended to be a measure of national production (England, 1998). Nevertheless, measures like GNP became the goals of many policy advisors. But, the people want to measure more. In a 2005 BBC opinion poll, 1001 participants were asked whether the government's main objective should be the "greatest happiness" or the "greatest wealth", and 81% replied, “happiness” (Easton, 2006).

Measuring is one thing, but implementing specific policies in order to increase people’s happiness is another. Many of us don’t have a lot of faith in government institutions (Stevenson & Wolfers, 2011). So, it’s no surprise some people don’t want the government “making them happy”. Shouldn’t the government just do its best to stay out of the way, and let us pursue our own vision of the good life (as long as we don’t harm others)?

For Friedrich Hayek (1960) the point of government policies is to increase freedom. We all have different interests and views of the good life. So, the government should provide us with freedom to pursue those different ends, rather than create interventionist policies that privilege (if not enforce) specific versions of the good life. Surely there is wisdom here. Policies aimed at happiness, or any other specific view of the good life, should not be coercive because some will not share the relevant view of the good life, and assuming the dominant view of the good life is correct opens the door for widespread abuses, or at least the oppression of minorities.

So, how can we use the science of happiness to inform policies that are not coercive, that do not reduce freedom, but increase it? I think policies that implement “nudges” focused on helping people overcome episodes of depression can do all this.

I’d need the following premises:
1. When a set of options exists, a policy that changes how those options are presented is not prima facie coercive. (Unless, e.g., some options are completely hidden). 
2. Policies that cost a lot of taxpayer dollars to implement are coercive unless the vast majority of those who stand to gain AND those who do not stand to gain from the policy consent to it. 
3. People with depression sometimes experience difficulty doing the things that they know they should do in order to achieve their own version of the good life. So, depressives might suffer from a temporary loss of subjective freedom during a bout of depression. 
4. Decreasing depressive symptoms, or helping people overcome a bout of depression, increases depressives’ happiness and freedom. 
5. A cheap and widely supported policy that brings about a better presentation of helpful options to people with depression would be non-coercive and would increase happiness and freedom.

And an example:

What about online adverts on relevant websites (e.g.) that take the person to a portal hosted by an AI chat bot that “listens” to them and encourages them to use helpful resources, e.g., “here is the number you need to call: …”). The initial outlay could be crowdsourced, or taxpayer funded on the understanding that depression costs “the economy” more than $210b per year (which no longer “trickles down” to the masses). There is no coercion, just better presentation of the options. We might even save enough, as a nation, to build a huge wall (if we really want to do that!).


Easton, M. (2006). Britain’s happiness in decline, BBC News, 2 May 2006. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from:

England, R. W. (1998). Alternatives to Gross Domestic Product: A critical survey. In F. Ackerman, D. Kiron, N. Goodwin, J. Harris & K. P. Gallagher (Eds.), Human wellbeing and economic goals (vol. 3) (pp. 373–402). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Hayek, F. A. (1960). The constitution of liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago

Kennedy, R. F. (1968). Speech at University of Kansas, March 18. Transcript available from:

Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2011). Trust in public institutions over the business cycle (No. w16891). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Weijers, Dan & Jarden, Aaron (2013). The Science of Happiness for Policymakers: An Overview, Journal of Social Research and Policy, 4(2). The free official version

Dan Weijers
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Of course being gay is (not) a choice

At 12:01 AM, at a quiet downtown pub, three friends meet up again, as they do this time each night, for a bit of quiet, and space, and rest.
Piotr: Hey.
Marie: Howdy.
Pablo: Hola.
Piotr: So…have you come out yet?
Marie: Heck no.
Piotr: I’m telling you, you should.
Marie: And I'm telling you to mind your own business
Piotr: Trust me, I’m your friend.
Marie: So?
Piotr: So, “it gets better.”
Marie: Easy for you to say.
Piotr: Meaning what?
Marie: Meaning, you have never walked a mile in my shoes.
Piotr: And?
Marie: Or even stood in my shoes.
Piotr: And?
Marie: And you are not me.
Piotr: Yeah, but I’m your friend.
Marie: Yeah, but not my only one.
Pablo: I’m one too, just quiet.
Marie: Thanks, Pablo. It’s not you I’m worried about.
Piotr: But I’m your friend who knows stuff. That’s why I’m not quiet.
Marie: If you know stuff, then you know what my other friends would think.
Piotr: So?
Marie: And my parents.
Piotr: So?
Marie: And my other family.
Piotr: So?
Marie: And my religious community.
Piotr: So?
Marie: Well, those folks are my people too.
Piotr: And?
Marie: And I care about them.
Piotr: And they care about you, right?
Marie: Sure.
Piotr: Then they’ll understand.
Marie: That just shows how much you know.
Piotr: They will. Just you see.
Marie: And if they don’t?
Piotr: Then they don’t.
Marie: Easy for you to say.
Piotr: Look, you can do this.
Marie: No, I can’t.
Piotr: Yes, you can.
Marie: It’s not that simple.
Piotr: Yes, it is. It’s up to you. It takes courage. But you have that. I know you do. I’ve seen it. Now just let others see it too.
Marie: I’m still saying it’s not that simple.
Piotr: Why not?
Marie: Because I still have myself to deal with.
Piotr: Yourself?
Marie: Yeah, myself. My self. It’s not just my religion, or my family, or whoever, or whatever. It’s me.
Piotr: How so?
Marie: If you know so much, then you know I’m still of two minds on this whole thing myself.
Piotr: Fine. Start with you. Look in the mirror. Listen to your thoughts.
Marie: And then what?
Piotr: You know how you feel right now? The way you feel when you take a long hard look inside?
Marie: Yes?
Piotr: That right there is who you are.
Marie: Just what makes you so sure of that?
Piotr: Like I said, I know stuff.
Marie: Ah.
Piotr: I know stuff when I hear it. I listen. I learn.
Marie: Yeah, yeah.
Piotr: What have you done with how you feel right now?
Marie: Like what?
Piotr: Have you acted on it?
Marie: We’re having this talk, aren’t we?
Piotr: Um, that’s not what I mean.
Marie: Oh.
Piotr: And I think you know what I mean.
Marie: Oh. Right. Well, in that case, no.
Piotr: Ah, I see.
Marie: What?
Piotr: Nothing.
Marie: Not nothing. “Ah, I see” is not nothing.
Piotr: No, there’s nothing to see. You haven’t acted on it.
Marie: So what? Have you acted on something?
Piotr: Well, no. I’m just like you on that.
Marie: Ah, I see.
Piotr: So it sounds like we are just the same on not having acted. But, you know, you could act on how you feel.
Marie: Sure I could.
Piotr: And maybe you should.
Marie: I do not see why.
Piotr: Look. I know that how I feel, that is just who I am.
Marie: So?
Piotr: So it’s just the same for you. How you feel is who you are. We just do not feel the same.
Marie: I thought who I am is the difference I make in the world. “Be the change you hope to see,” and all that. But I can’t change how I feel.
Piotr: Nor can I. That’s why I have to own it. That’s why you have to own it.
Marie: “Own” it? The folks I know won’t buy that line.
Piotr: But it’s true.
Marie: I don’t know I buy that line.
Piotr: But it’s right. Look. You do not have a choice in this. It’s not a choice at all
Pablo: Hmm…
Piotr: What are you humming about?
Piotr: Are you going to stay silent all night?
Pablo: That silence is the sound of me thinking. I listen. I learn.
Piotr: Ah. And what did you learn?
Pablo: That what you just said is not so.
Piotr: Oh? Which part?
Pablo: You just said Marie has no choice in this. But up till then you said she did.
Piotr: How so?
Pablo: You said she could come out. You said she could show courage. You said she could act on this. You said she could own this. If those are not choices, what are?
Piotr: So you think she should not own this, or act on this, or show courage, or come out?
Pablo: I did not say that. I just said they sound like choices. You may think them good ones. But they are choices either way.
Marie: Do you think the same about being straight?
Pablo: And about being shy. And smart. And single. And celibate. And much else. Parts of them are out of our control, and parts of them are not.
Marie: If I use “X” to pick out just those parts of some thing that are out of my control, then of course being X is not a choice.
Pablo: And if I use “X” to pick out just those parts that are not, then of course being X is.
Piotr: I got this.

At 12:51 AM, as light rain falls, three friends scatter again, as they do this time each morning, for a bit more life apart until they meet again.

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, September 14, 2015

Future Philosophers

Editor's note: Vadim Keyser was first up this semester for our Future Philosopher's series, currently at Rio Americano High School. He offers these reflections on the experience.

Parking is surprisingly simple at Rio Americano. There are plenty of spaces and the cars have a healthy layer of dust. It’s the first indicator of the time put in by the good folks at this place. While you’re walking from the lot you’ll see: a couple of pals kicking a soccer ball, adjacent to the gym; some classmates holding a long string, an old ruler that’s too short, and throwing some paper plates, quickly running to replicate the results of the experiment; everything else is empty. There’s a giant mural on the music building. The “Abbey Road” cover is included. The shading is well placed. 

While signing in at the front office you may develop an uneasy feeling. The classical conditioning associations are still strong. You’re not in trouble, though, but you are out of place (in a good way). While walking to class, the bell rings and the students burst forth, following the laws of fluid mechanics. There is a lot of energy. It’s Friday morning, and no one’s tired. You have a name tag on, and that doesn’t matter to anyone. You find room A6. The windows are blocked by posters. Walking in, everything is very small. There’s no Smartroom setup. There’s a small projector, and a matted screen. Around the room you see artifacts from the ancient world, historical and cultural posters covered in a decade of photon exposure, calls for voter responsibility, white boards heavily structured with exact future material, no podium, and Linda Reed—greeting you with the exact smile you needed to see when you were a kid, trying to think about your thinking. 

Welcome to Linda Reed’s classroom. I guarantee you've never been to a place like this.

Linda Reed structures her class by setting a framework for process. Her focus is on student autonomy. They are expected to participate, but not in the sense that we think when we hear “participation”. Students explore, structure, and thoroughly defend worldviews in the intellectual space of philosophy. They know science, international relations, and seminar-level specifics from Descartes’s argument. You are presenting for a very different kind of youth than you had inferred from the generalized results in pop-tech-science studies. They’re not distracted, they treat technology like mayonnaise—in fair servings, they don’t talk about the world unless their words are careful, and they have a strong sense of classroom order without Linda saying a word. I emphasize this point: They know their facts. If you drop a science study reference, they will know it. It’s inspirational. But be warned, these smart, gentle folks are information-grapplers. And, if you don’t come warmed up, they’ll get ahold of that ankle. More on that in a bit.

I can’t give you a complete impression of teaching in that classroom. So, instead here are some tangible things that I appreciate about Linda’s educational space. My intention here is to get you to want to open the door to A6.

1. Note-taking: When a powerpoint slide goes up, the students don’t speed through, writing every word. In fact they will only take notes on peripheral, interesting points. But they will navigate through your argument with care. They will pause you for clarification, rewind, and then internalize. I attribute it to Linda building a strong foundation for cognitive maps. The students understand how to structure information without cues from the slides. This also means that the students will look directly at you, which brings me to the second point. 
2. Critical Engagement: You will know within the first 10 seconds of the class and every second thereafter if you have lost their attention. And if you do, there is no academic need for the information that is being presented. They are not writing it down for a test. They are internalizing it precisely because it is intrinsically or relationally interesting. Think of it as presenting philosophy to appreciators of philosophy. If you’re not absorbed in the topic or if you come in with glazed attention and highly saturated slides, they will let you know. But if you bring it, they will give you large-hadron energy. The room will buzz. 
 3. Stories: One of the things I had convinced myself is that students are losing an appreciation for storytelling. In the university classroom, students enjoy the story for its entertainment. But the implicit question is always, “What’s that supposed to show us?” So, you prep a slide with the point of the story. Here, it’s a bit different. Storytelling prompts more storytelling. The students don’t yet have this pseudo-distinction between facts and figments of the imagination, where the former is more important in understanding something. They’re glad to use the figments as tools to point to some aspect of reality. I attribute this to the classroom ethic of exploring the material rather than hoarding facts/theories, which is sometimes the unfortunate trend produced by mis-calibrated accountability measures. 
4.  Handshakes: The students will stick around after, shake your hand, and will share a perspective with you. It’s beautiful. 
This is a solid collaborative group, composed of individuals who are really sharp. It’s a good thing to see firsthand. It’s a good measurement apparatus for your adaptive engagement. It’s a strong experience. 

Come on over to A6, y’all.

Vadim Keyser
Department of Philosophy 
Sacramento State

Monday, September 7, 2015

What eats at you?

Russell DiSilvestro
What eats at me is me. Here I deliberately echo a (possibly apocryphal)
story about G. K. Chesterton, in which he replied to a newspaper’s question
"What's wrong with the world today?" with the terse assertion "I am." So,
then, in my own case, while lots of things (people, puzzles, principalities
and powers) eat at me 'from the outside,' what really nibbles me numb
comes from within the fort. My own inability to live as I know I ought
to—not only morally, but also intellectually and aesthetically—gnaws at me
roughly as follows: my own internal program for detecting the good, the
true, and the beautiful says: “aim right there.” But then, like a lazy,
distracted archer, by the time the arrow is set to the string and flies, it’s not
just wide of the mark a little (like missing the bulls-eye by a millimeter), but
far of the entire target (often way short, but sometimes long or left or
right). Of course the arrow lands somewhere, at which point another
internal program kicks in: quick, start drawing concentric circles around
wherever it might have landed. If only the Texas sharpshooter’s fallacy was
limited to Texans. And if only I was typing this post earlier than normal for
reasons other than procrastinating on what I know I should be working on
right now…

Dan Weijers
What eats at me is mosquitoes. As if trying to get to sleep on a hot summer night isn’t difficult enough, it’s nearly impossible when I hear the high-pitched drone of those blood-sucking pests. Holidaying in the Netherlands during a heatwave this summer, those vicious vampires were out in force. I tried covering up. Too hot; it’s hard to sleep while swimming in sweat. I tried imbibing heavily to poison my blood. Turns out mosquitoes like a drink too. In the middle of the night on the final night of the holiday, I lost it. It didn’t worry me that everyone had to get in at 4am to get to the airport in time. I was enraged and focused on just one thing: revenge. Flip-flop in hand, I leaped around the upstairs bedroom splattering those airborne a**holes against the white walls of our cabin. Needless to say, everyone else woke up and blamed me for the interruption to their much-needed sleep. It also eats at me when heroes are misunderstood and vilified. Worst of all though, after hopping back into bed, chuffed with myself for creating a grotesque mural out of eight of those suckers, I couldn’t sleep. Another high-pitched drone told me that there was still one left.

Jonathan Chen
What eats at me are slow-walking pedestrians, people that loiter in the middle of a busy side-walk or busy steps, people who spell "a lot" as "alot," potato chips that are folded rather than flat, Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water, consuming the bottom half of a Lucky Charms cereal box (which has significantly more toasted oats than marshmallows...), warm pillows, and going to Subway® and getting a very stingy sandwich maker and leaving with a feeble Subway® sandwich. These things eat away at my soul and tear away the very fabric of my character.

Kyle Swan

What eats at me is politics. As I write this, I'm vaguely aware that a stage full of plutocratic 1-percenters are ostensibly debating the future direction of the country we live in. I understand that in October plutocratic 1-percenters on the Democratic side of the aisle will be presenting a similar show. Many think that the highest forms of civic virtue are found in political participation. I think someone coaching a community girls’ softball team exhibits more civic virtue. Most political action causes harm to some people; community softball games are at worst boring. At best what we’re witnessing are privileged elites attempting to convince others of the policies they think are best for people, but who will, regardless of whether they are successful in this attempt, then go on to attempt to implement those policies by force. (I say "at best" because it’s unlikely that they think those policies really are best for people.)

G. Randolph Mayes

What eats at me is how your faith in God or humanity can be suddenly shaken when it's you who gets the shaft; the way you developed profound sympathy for those who suffer from evil X simply because you now suffer from  evil X too; how you became an insufferable evangelist for that (very dubious) solution to said evil just because it figured so large in your own life.
My reaction is always the same: Why does the fact that you are the one under the wheel suddenly make this evil so profoundly significant? You knew this was happening all along to other people. Was it all part of a tolerable plan just as long as it wasn't happening to you? 
Of course I get that these questions make me a self-righteous jerk. We have little ability to care intensely about things that do not affect us personally. And our puny selves are just incapable of sincerely attending to more than a tiny fraction of the evil we know about. Nor do we seem have the ability to objectify our own experiences, to consider them as if they were the experiences of people we do not love. This is a version of what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. The evil that befalls others is likely their own fault; the evil that befalls us is usually someone else’s.

Scott Merlino
Right up there with complainypants blog posts such as this one, I specifically detest selfies. I mean those casual, unprofessional photos that people take of themselves and post online. Too many of these clutter social media and I just can’t appreciate them, perhaps due to latent misanthropy or my own lack of photogenicity. Why do people take these? What good reasons could there be for them? Some people want to share a cute picture of a friend or pet, maybe they want to show you a beautiful panorama or funny scene. I get it, but wouldn’t the picture show us more with your distracting mug out of the way? If you really think the photo wouldn’t be better without you posing in it, then you need to ask yourself if you are posting it for others or to satisfy a selfish craving for attention. But I am being unfair, perhaps selfies function as evidence for your having been somewhere or with someone. But such photos can’t count as good evidence of anything, because photo-editing applications exist. Photos don’t lie but people do. Selfies can’t be evidence of how good we look, since what we post is carefully filtered through the lens of our own narcissism. Those of you taking selfies in public spaces, in full view of innocent bystanders: Do you realize how silly and self-absorbed you look? Ask someone else to take a picture with you in it for a proper perspective. Keep your selfies to yourself, please.

Vadim Keyer
What eats at me is people not taking perspective: A conversation is a navigation of conceptual space. It should take place between more than one person, but when it does, we're usually forcing another to navigate our conceptual space without setting sail anywhere else. The old saying, "put yourself in someone else's shoes" rarely applies. The implication is simple: When we converse we don't take someone's perspective. Sometimes we might give someone our perspective to take as theirs. But there isn't much exploration of new territories. It's confusing because this seems like the most efficient way to have a conversation. Individuals could take turns navigating each other's spaces. And, even if they don't agree, they've explored something.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A meta is just a meta

There’s a Zen saying, “Before I became aware of Zen, the mountain was just a mountain. When I became aware of Zen, the mountain became more than just a mountain. After enlightenment, the mountain is just a mountain.”

Does self awareness add something of value or take it away? Consider some examples:

In philosophy, Harry Frankfurt gives an account of personhood that necessitates a multi-tiered awareness of desires. A person not only has desires, but also has desires about those desires. Your homeostatic existence, its torture or its ease, depends on a constant tussle between levels of desires.

The artist can become hyper-aware, such as Vermeer painting himself painting.

Characters can be hyper-aware, too. In the spirit of the times, Deadpool is the metacritic of his own modern story.

I think we’re a bit like that, too. Our life trajectories aren’t always accompanied by smooth echoing storylines. Rather, they’re collaged out of floating fragments of hashtags and selfie-referential photographs. In the future, the digi-dated content of our abandoned social media profiles will baffle alien anthropologists. And if we could see that future moment, our initial reaction might be, “Voyniched the sh*t out of that.”

There are flavors of awareness. One that’s had a curious taste for me is meta. Simply put, content that is self-referential and multiplying to no end. I’m not sure what the taste is like. My hunch is it moved from zesty to acerbic to lysergic. Let's explore that taste and try to figure out why, at certain times, we just don't like it.

In "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" David Foster Wallace presents the authentic but outdated rebel:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. 

Maybe Wallace gets at the feeling by pointing to something direct, human. Shake a hand, lock ocular nerves, reminisce for a while. That’s direct. We’ve seen that.

It’s either too contrived and superfluous, or as Wallace predicts, it’ll die before it picks up because it’s too banal.

Or maybe he hits a nerve: We’re tired of stacking entendre’s, one-upping, and potpourri-ing our inner lives with out-of-context historical quotes. We’re digesting too much meta content too often and at some point it’s time to upchuck. For example, take one consequence of meta culture, hyper-irony. Let’s look at how the self-referential layers multiply at an unbearable pace.

Situational irony is when an expectation is met with the opposite outcome. A meteorologist plans a vacation right in the eye of the storm. Modern day Don Juan never gets swiped the right way on Tinder. Your anti-meta culture quote is souped-up into a meta humor meme about your meta humor so that you can laugh at yourself laughing at others laughing about their laughing.

Dramatic irony adds another dimension: audience vs. character perspective. On stage and in film, dramatic irony works effectively by contrasting what the audience knows with what the character believes, so it’s not just the expectation, it’s whose expectation that is important. Romeo thinks Juliet is dead, Schrader isn’t aware that Heisenberg is his brother-in-law, Luke doesn’t know Darth Vader is his father; but the audience knows. The audience waits for the moment when the character replaces his falsehood with the truth, already seen by the audience. An effective irony structure for comedy is that the characters are clueless about their absurdity, even within moments of reflection. Harry and Lloyd are too stupid to know they’re stupid (Dunning-Kruger Effect). Lloyd sells the van for a scooter and, in a moment of reflection, Harry says, “…just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber…you go and do something like this, and…totally redeem yourself!” The audience expects the characters to figure out their stupidity, but they never do.

Perspective in comedy evolves and shifts. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character and the audience are aware of the eternal recurrence of the day, but no one else is. The next natural, experimental step is hyper-irony: The characters are aware of the irony and will sometimes direct the audience to it. This can be done in Annie Hall fashion where Woody talks into the camera.

The characters can also become aware of the absurdity of the situation. An absurdity occurs, the characters are aware of it, but just to reaffirm, one character responds with any of these shudder-producing words: ‘Really’,‘yikes’, ‘awkward’.

Key & Peele call it out best:

Maybe meta is tiring because it’s ineffectively hyper-ironic. Maybe it’s something else. I asked a friend about this: “Why is it annoying when people try to be meta?” “Because people don’t know sh*t.” Perhaps it’s that each layer is just flimsy, and the bottom layer is just hot air. Behind the commentary about the commentary, there’s no complete idea—just BS. Harry Frankfurt characterizes ‘bullsh*t’ by the non-commitment to truth or falsity. Bullsh*t roams in a vast indefinite space. That makes it wasteful for knowledge. But it makes it a bit of fun. Maybe that’s a function of meta, too. It’s not for anything deep, anything actually meta, but just for fun. That’s why we get tired of and annoyed at meta content. We expect it to be more than what it is. Instead, we can accept it and soup up our bullsh*t. 

If you like the rebellion and resignation route, sometimes the Zen line is best: “The mountain is just a mountain.” Or, “When you eat, eat, when you sleep, sleep.” Maybe Deadpool said it better.

Vadim Keyser
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State