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