Sunday, April 23, 2017

Wonderfully wrong analogies

This week we asked philosophy professors to give us a  favorite example of an excellent yet mistaken analogy.

Never gonna fall in love
Garret Merriam

The idea of 'falling in love' resonates because it captures the gravitational power of the early stages of love. And because it feels so overpowering we often forgive otherwise questionable behavior. 'Can you really blame him?', we might ask. 'He was falling in love.'

But an honest look at both reveals a key difference between love and a fall. When you fall off building you have no say whatsoever in what happens next; Isaac Newton is in the driver's seat.

Compare this to when you meet someone: There is a spark of attraction. You approach them. The two of you have a conversation. You agree to meet again. And then again...

No matter how strong one's feelings, at every stage in this process you (and they) have many choices: you can walk away; you can not talk to them; you can refuse to see them again. There may or may not be any good reason for you to make these choices, but they are choices that you have.

Love, like falling, is indeed a process. But unlike falling, it is a process that happens THROUGH us, not TO us. Being in love, even in the powerful beginning stages, is constituted in part by making certain decisions and eschewing others. It is something that we do, not something that we endure. And like all things we do, we get to (and must) take responsibility for it.

In short, unlike falling, love is a choice. Or rather, a series of them.

Motion is motion
Brad Dowden

If you are driving along the road at 40 mph, and an oncoming car is traveling toward you at 40 mph, then from your perspective, you will be likely to judge that the oncoming car is traveling toward you at 40 mph + 40 mph, or 80 mph. It is clearly better for you to hit a telephone pole than collide with the oncoming car, since the relative speed at impact is so much higher. By analogy you’d expect the relative speed at impact to continue to be twice as high even when the two colliding objects are moving much faster.

If you were to send a beam of electrons down the road at 99% of the speed of light, or .99c, while at the same time someone down the road sends their beam of electrons back toward you at .99c, then from the perspective of one of your electrons, the relative speed at impact when two electrons collide is .99c + .99c or almost 2c. Or so you would think, if the analogy held.

No object can attain a speed greater than c, no matter whether the chosen perspective is from one of the electrons or from the gun producing the electron beam. Although there is an extremely slight deviation from additivity even back in the scenario with the oncoming cars, the deviation increases with speed and only becomes noticeable at significant fractions of the speed of light.

This failure of additivity is another one of the many unintuitive consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Health maintenance is like auto maintenance
G. Randolph Mayes

The best way to keep your automobile running smoothly is to have a trained mechanic regularly inspect critical parts for damage or wear. That way they can be replaced or repaired before they create catastrophic problems. Your body is just like your car. That is why it is important to have annual physical checkups and screenings for dangerous conditions, even if you feel fine. By doing so, your doctor will be able to detect and treat them early, preventing catastrophic health problems down the road.

This analogy turns out to be dead wrong. It is sensible on apriori grounds because your car and your body are machines subject to failure through abuse, neglect or bad luck. But it fails empirically because in medicine (a) the methods for detecting problems early and (b) the capacity for prophylactic intervention are unreliable.

Everyone has a story of someone who is alive today because of a routine medical exam that caught a life-threatening condition early. The vast majority of these stories are false. The patients aren’t lying, and until recently neither were the doctors. They just believed, on the strength of this analogy, that medical problems can be nipped in the bud in this way. Current data belie this faith for most conditions and interventions that we have been raised to believe in.

This analogy has created mind-boggling profits for the healthcare industry, but it has harmed the rest of us immeasurably. Sophists rejoice. Hippocrates weeps.

Marriage is a ball and chain
Chong Choe-Smith

This is more of a punchline than a serious analogy. As with most analogies, there is a hint of truth in it, but the real-life phenomenon is far more complex. Marriage generally involves a commitment to be faithful to one person, but this is about where the usefulness of the analogy ends.

Some may say many things in life are better with some rules: parental rules rather than living in a pigsty, traffic laws rather than a free for all, and a system of crime and punishment rather than insecurity.

Marriage, one can argue, also is more liberating than constraining or even that the constraints are themselves liberating! A marriage or other serious monogamous relationship should provide a safe environment for two people to be truly themselves. Two people can take off the masks they wear in public spaces and, in the privacy of their own home, they can be naked and unashamed in every way.

The ball and chain comes not with marriage itself, but with the projects that marriage partners undertake (children) or with the problems that arise within a marriage (poor communication, money problems, other people—the in-laws?). We can conceptually distinguish marriage from these projects and problems (not all marriages have these things) and say that marriage itself is nothing or not much like a ball and chain.

But, then again, maybe you should ask my husband?

Brains are to thoughts as hardware is to software
Matt McCormick

The idea that brains are related to thoughts as hardware is related to software is ubiquitous, powerful, and deeply misguided. There are significant philosophical differences between the hardware/software relation and the brains/thought relation. Our continued uncritical use of the metaphor misguides our understanding of both.

Computers have Von Neumann architecture. Inputs arrive at a processing unit which has a set of instructions loaded from memory, where serial computations are performed. Results are then sent to memory or converted into an output. Neither the hardware nor the software change significantly as a result of processing. The system is deterministic and employs a formal language with discrete, modular, and symbolic units. And system failures are catastrophic.

Brains are massively parallel distributed processing (PDP) networks.  Brain activity is best described as waves of activation patterns coursing across billions of synaptic connections. Instead of a single operation being performed on a single variable which is then sent to the next function, millions or billions of signals simultaneously course across connectionist nodes each of which have thousands of connections to their neighbors. The capacities of the system are stochastic, and embedded in the constantly updated weights of these nodes, which change due to the frequency and intensity of the signals from their neighbors. There are no discrete physical structures or processes that map easily onto concepts, symbols, or logic; there is no language of thought that mirrors my thoughts in English. There is no set of instructions to access. And neural nets degrade gracefully.

Government is what we all do together
Kyle Swan

Here’s Robert Nozick in The Examined Life: “There are some things we choose to do together through government in solemn marking of our human solidarity, served by the fact that we do them together in this official fashion.”

This statement is true. Sometimes the things we do as a collective society through the institutions of government are things that are aptly comparable to projects we set and pursue through the kind of genuinely voluntary associations that we’re familiar with in our communities, like worshipping with co-religionists or running little league baseball for kids. Yes, governments are groups of people and sometimes, in a more or less similar way, these people together pursue desirable social ends. And it’s even sometimes true that there is such widespread public support for these ends that it makes sense to say that we all participate in solidarity in their pursuit.

Something like Nozick’s statement is attributed to former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, which goes, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”

This suggests a much tighter connection between our government and things we might choose to do together, and it’s nonsense. We in no way that’s recognizably analogous with the examples above chose at any time to invade Iraq, provide bailouts to failing financial institutions, spy on each other, use drone attacks to kill and maim children, target Muslims for travel bans, and literally millions of other things.

It ain't a slate and it ain't blank 
Kevin Vandergriff

Human nature is like a blank slate; that is, human psychology and behavior is mainly, or even completely shaped by environmental causes. Many have believed this picture of human nature is plausible for philosophical, social, and political reasons. But, as Stephen Pinker argues in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, human psychology and behavior is largely the result of natural selection having shaped the “selfish” genes inherited by those with the best overall chances of survival and reproduction.

In response, defenders of the blank slate view have said that our “selfish” genes would preclude significant moral progress being made by human beings during their short time on earth. Pinker says this worry is unfounded.

Even though “selfish” genes can and do construct human brains to be psychologically and behaviorally predisposed to respond selfishly in particular ways to particular stimulus events, genes do not make the moment-to-moment decisions themselves, or necessarily constitute our true selves (Pinker, 1997, 410). Moreover, as long as we have altruistic motives that can be harnesses and expanded via psychological mechanisms, moral theories, and the imitation of religious exemplars, significant moral progress can be made by human beings.

Besides, as Pinker argues, it is the belief in the blank slate that has hampered significant moral progress by resulting in the:“…persecution of the successful, intrusive social engineering, the writing off of suffering in other cultures, an incomprehension of the logic of justice, and the devaluing of human life on earth (Pinker, 2002, 193).”

That's a real painy stick you got there mister
Tom Pyne

Several examples of an analogy pervasive in early modern philosophy:
  • Perceiving heat is like being tickled (Galileo). 
  • Light, heat, whiteness, or coldness is like the nausea produced by a purgative (Locke). 
  • Perceiving intense heat or cold is a feeling of pain (Berkeley).
All propose an analogy between:
  • perceiving features of the external world, and
  • having a sensation like pleasure, pain, nausea…
The analogy is advanced in the service of two philosophical claims:
  • The contents of perceptual states are private and subjective.
  • The intrinsic nature of those contents does not reveal any feature of the external world.
Just as the ticklishness is not in the hand, nor the nausea ‘in’ the purgative, the perceived qualities are not in external things. Roses aren’t, strictly and literally, red. Fires aren’t, strictly and literally, hot.

Since sensations are immune to error through misidentification, our perceptions involve things we can’t be wrong about either. They have gone by various names over the years: ideas, sense data, qualia,…

Even in the present it is difficult to overstate the power, seductiveness – or mischievousness – of this analogy.

It generates so many gratuitous philosophical problems that a complete list starts to look like contemporary philosophy itself: The problem of other minds; anti-realism about secondary qualities; countenancing qualia as a problem in philosophy of mind. You name it.

The analogy doesn’t limp; it crawls. The tickle does not present itself as a property of the hand, but the rose looks red. The phenomenology is all wrong.

Life is like a box of chocolates
Brandon Carey

There’s something attractive about the analogy that life is like a box of chocolates. It makes your life seem full of options, each of them a (probably good) surprise. There’s also something exactly right about it. When you choose a course of action, there’s always a chance that you’ll be surprised. Things might not work out the way you planned, and the world might not be quite how it seems. Fundamentally, life is uncertain, which is a good reason to be open-minded and intellectually humble

But uncertainty comes in various degrees and kinds, and most things in your life are not like choosing from a box of chocolates. Chocolates may have various distinguishing features, but you have no idea how those features correlate with their fillings. So, based on the information you have, you have no reason to think that that next chocolate is filled with coconut rather than anything else—you never know what you’re going to get.

In life, though, you typically do have some reasons to think that certain choices will lead to certain outcomes. When you choose which bus to take, you’re not picking blindly. You take the 67 because the schedule says it will take you downtown, and you’re almost always right. There’s some chance that the driver will get confused and take you to the airport instead, but you have excellent reasons to think that you’ll end up downtown. So, unlike with a box of chocolates, you often know what you’re going to get.

Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives
Russell DiSilvestro

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

This was the opening tagline used in the American TV show Days of Our Lives from 1972-1993.

The analogy is an attractive one if you know what an hourglass is. (If not, pause your online stopwatch and Google it.)

There are conflicting prudential tips that might flow from this picture of our lives.

"Your life is gradually, relentlessly, inevitably going away, so live it up now while you still can." (An hourglass-half-empty tip.)

“Your choices build your character gradually, like grains that form a heap, so be careful how you live.” (An hourglass-half-full tip.)

In any case, I think this analogy may be misleading.

Set aside whether we have a pre-set number days to live. And whether a possible afterlife counts as part of your life. I think the analogy pushes a kind of existential reduction on us.

A philosophy professor once asked me why Sartre’s famous slogan "you are—your life and nothing else" was not obviously true. "What else are you if not your life?" He asked me.

I replied: "a traditional philosophical answer from materialists and dualists alike is that you are a stuff or a substance or a thing that has a life. But you are not literally identical to your life, since it could have gone entirely differently than it did, and yet it still would have been yours."

The axe and the lance
Jon Chen

Chinese Legalist philosopher Han Feizi writes: “Benevolence might have worked long ago in the ancient times, but it certainly does not serve us today. Shields and battle axes worked before, but they no longer worked with the invention of iron lances.”

Here, Han Feizi seems to suggest that different times require different standards, and that contemporary society has little use for benevolence in governing. In fact, benevolence isn’t just regarded as ineffective, but as positively harmful. Wielding a short-ranged axe and facing off against an opponent with a long-ranged lance is foolish and will put one in mortal danger. What the axe-wielder ought to do, then, is replace his axe with a more suitable weapon.

This foxy analogy is compelling at first, but only if benevolence were akin to the axe. I don’t think so. I think benevolence, at least in this context, more so resembles good leadership, in that it has the ability to rally others to one’s side. Thought of in this way, benevolence is at the very heart of winning any era of wars and its usefulness is not contingent to some chapter in time. This sort of leadership, it appears, is guided by an appreciation for certain principles that one deems necessary and inherently valuable to the welfare of humanity (e.g. a deep respect for goodness and uprightness). If I’m right about this, then an iron lance is as futile as a battle axe if it is not guided by benevolence.

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