Thursday, October 31, 2013

Right and Wrong

These thoughts were engendered by some readings in Robert Nozick’s book Philosophical Explanations, in particular the discussion near the end of Ch. 5, Part III on “Deontology and Teleology”, and the preceding sections on the structure of moral rules.  I do not think it is necessary to read or have read Nozick’s book in order to follow my meditations, though.

If you perform certain types of bad acts, even for a “good purpose”, you lessen the amount of good that you, and perhaps others, may do in the future.  If you torture a known (even admitted) terrorist in order to thwart his plans and save innocent lives, you become the sort of person who will more easily torture in the future, perhaps sometimes on mere suspicion, and hence, eventually, an innocent.   Also, you fill your victim’s relatives and friends with resentment, anger, hate, lessening the good they will do in the future, and making it more likely that they will do wrong.  This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that one may never do a wrong act to accomplish a good end, but it is a factor to be weighed.  I think this connects to some extent the deontological (rules-based) and teleological (ends-based) views of morals, and helping to avoid some of the worst “ends justify the means” abuses of vulgar forms of the latter.

Nozick’s ideas of the foundation of ethics have, I think, some serious flaws.  The deepest flaw, to me, is his assumption (which he never really tries to justify?) of some Platonic realm of value, right, and wrong that transcends and has no necessary relation to (at least is not in any way derived from) human ends.  I reject this view, and hope to set down some alternative speculations in some detail, in the future.

On a more technical level, his discussion of the structure of moral rules gives food for thought, but his elaborate formulation (which even he does not try to complete) is far too complex for actual application.  Surely an analysis of morality must consider the “computability” of the resulting formulas – the possibility that the answers could actually be reached by real people in “real time” – otherwise it is asking us to be better than we possibly can be.

Perhaps deontological rules are best seen as heuristics (“rules of thumb”).  Heuristics are designed for quick computations that give good (not necessarily optimal) results in many (hopefully “most”) situations.  A set of heuristic rules does not necessarily need to be internally (logically) consistent.  Judgment applies in deciding which heuristic to apply, or even whether to apply the heuristics at all, rather than opt for some more “precise” formula such as a careful, weighted analysis of the long(er)-term moral benefits and costs.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Pondering Truth – Discussion (or extended rant)

Carla, on Facebook, asked a question that led me to elaborate at length on my 10/12 post “Pondering Truth”.

“Are you asking,” she asked, “If I don't like beets, and you do like beets, is there any truth about the taste of beets in my experience of the taste of beets?”

My response: Most simple, practical questions can be resolved pretty easily by adjusting the semantics. For instance, we can say: "'David likes beets' is true; 'Carla likes beets' is not true; and, 'Beets taste good' is a subjective statement that only reflects the tastes of the speaker, and there is no objective truth in the matter."

Even this can get complicated, though. Suppose your biochemistry fluctuates so that sometimes you would like beets if you tried, them, but most of the time you wouldn't. You've tried them only seldom (because you "know" you don't like them), and the probabilities worked out so that every time you did you were in your "don't like beets" state. Or suppose you don't like beets because of some terrible beet experience in your childhood, and with the right therapeutic breakthrough, you would come to really love them. Exactly what is the truth of the statement "Carla doesn't like beets", then?

You could come up with semantic tweaks to express these thoughts, but if we have to drill down to that level in every utterance in order to reach the truth of it, exactly what is "truth"? Can we EVER really say that we've drilled down far enough to reach the absolute bottom of it?

Then there's also the question of the difference between "truth" and the data that justifies a belief. I believe I have money in the bank. I confirm that by checking my balance, asking the teller. Suppose the teller lies to me, and has embezzled my money? Suppose he has embezzled some of my money but left a lot of it. I have no direct connection to the "truth" but only to data that (I believe) confirms it. I could go on for a long time acting as though all of my money were there. If I keep depositing more money, and spending less than I deposit, I could conceivably NEVER discover the embezzlement. Truth, it seems, has the POTENTIAL for operational impact but, unlike data and belief, does not NECESSARILY have any operational impact. Doesn't this seem weird? Shouldn't TRUTH somehow be inherently MORE important than "mere" belief?

Money, actually, is an interesting example because it turns out that I "have money" ONLY because everybody involved believes I do, which is really kind of strange, isn't it?

I should point out that, relative to the "beets" example, that I am comfortable saying something like "Carla doesn't like beets". I do NOT fee that you ACTUALLY have to drill down through all the actual or potential details of complexity to say something meaningful, useful, or (yes) true. I just don't feel that I know how to understand or express exactly what this quality or relation we call "truth" truly is.

Mathematicized science gives us the notion of "true within a context". I can describe the trajectory of an object in a way that is "true within Newtonian theory" and that may adequately describe the actual trajectory of the actual object for whatever present purpose I have. But for a different object and trajectory, I may need a description that is "true within the theory of General Relativity", and the description that would be "true within Newtonian theory" may be totally inadequate for my purpose. And General Relativity may not be the ultimate end of the progression, either. This is a relatively precise concept of "truth", but it doesn't necessarily help us, for example, in trying to decide if a given theory is "true"

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Pondering Truth

When we speak of “truth” do we describe some single entity or quality in the world?  Or is “truth” hypostasized to simplify a complex of relationships between the inner and outer worlds that we do not (cannot?) understand?

Is “truth” an operational concept?  There is no operational difference “now” between a justified belief and a justified true belief (a.k.a. “knowledge”, at least in many philosophers’ systems).  I make the same choices, take the same actions either way.  But there may be an effect on the outcome (or not).  Is “truth” operational in evaluating outcomes, and therefore, perhaps improving the reasons for future beliefs?

Even in evaluating the outcome of past choices, I still don’t “possess truth”.  I only formulate, and attempt to justify, further beliefs (e.g., beliefs about my past beliefs).  In Dewey’s terminology from Experience and Nature, truth does not seem to be something we can “have directly”.

There is a state of the world, and there is a state of my mind (or yours), which is, itself, part of the state of the world.  The state of my mind includes a simplified, impressionistic “image” (in some neural/synaptic medium) of the state of the world – to the extent it is accessible to my imagination.  In that image, the state of my mind figures under such rubrics as “reasons” and “beliefs”.  Based on my state of mind (at any given time), I will make certain choices, and take certain actions.  Partly because of such actions, at some future time the state of the world, and the state of my mind, will be different.  By comparing the current state of my mind (and especially its world-image) to my memory of its prior state, I make judgments about the truth of my previously held beliefs.  I formulate (reasoned) beliefs about my prior beliefs.

Is “truth”, then, just something we invent to explain our relative satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the outcomes of our past endeavors?  The trouble with that idea is that our feeling of satisfaction may be connected to aspects of the outcome which some mythical unbiased observer would be unwilling to call “truth”.  For instance, a racist may desire to join an organization of like-minded individuals.  His belief that African Americans are genetically inferior to “Aryans” may help him in that endeavor, and thereby lead him to be satisfied, but we would not want to call his belief “true” on such grounds.  Then there is the growing body of psychological research indicating that our brains have evolved so as to readily adopt certain beliefs which are adaptive, but not (necessarily) “true”.  An example is the “confirmation bias”, where by our minds tend to disproportionally accept data that confirms what we want to believe, and reject data that disconfirms it.  Another example is the “hyperactive agent detection” that Daniel Dennett discusses in Breaking the Spell (among other places).  Other examples can be found in various papers in Naturalizing Epistemology (Hilary Kornblith, ed.)

It seems there is something actual about the relationship between our mental states and the world state that we are trying to capture with the concept “truth”, which is related to, but not simply reducible to, our degree of satisfaction with outcomes.  I admit, at this point in my life, to be still wondering (persistently) about exactly what it is.

Postscript on Confirmation.  As with many of the musings on Persistent Wondering, this one pretty much starts “where I am” and doesn’t make much of an effort to relate to an audience that may not be starting at the same place.  I apologize for that… but after all, I am portraying myself as a “wonderer”, and making no claims to be a teacher.  (Lame excuse.)

In this essay in particular, though, it seems to me that many people may wonder why I would feel – at all – that “truth” is not directly accessible.  In many (most?) of our everyday interactions with the world, confirmation of our beliefs is direct and immediate, and seems incontrovertible.  I believe I left my keys on the kitchen counter.  I go downstairs – I either find them there, or I do not.

Other “facts” are not so easily confirmed or disconfirmed, though.  There are the challenges of philosophical skepticism.  How do I know I am not dreaming?  Or hallucinating?  Or a disembodied brain kept alive in a vat, with my neural inputs manipulated by alien scientists?  Then there is the question of “modeling”.  Complex physical or social systems cannot be grasped by our minds in their complete and detailed totality.  We need to abstract from them, simplify them, in order to understand them.  Do concepts like race, class, culture, the national income “truly” conform to some real world objects, and if so exactly what and how?  How do we indubitably confirm or disconfirm them?  Theoretical physics provides examples, also.  Do the objects of modern theoretical physics – quarks, bosons, photons – “really” exist, or are they just a convenient (not necessarily unique) way of mathematizing experimental results?  Are the relatively abstract and indirect confirmations of physics experiments really of the same class as our confirming (by looking) that our keys are on the counter?

But really, ALL of our knowledge involves some such modeling (abstraction and analysis).  All the objects we conceive involve some level of abstraction – focusing on certain aspects of experience and ignoring others.  Something of this is suggested by Heraclitus’s statement thousands of years ago that “You can never step into the same river twice.”  What exactly is a river?  Is it the specific water molecules?  But they start out in a glacier and end up in the ocean.  Is it the banks?  But they shift with time as soil particles are removed and deposited.  Is it some abstract (fractal?) pattern that encompasses changes over time?  What is the “truth” of the matter?

Our mental states (beliefs and so on) consist in synaptic patterns, roughly, stable-yet-changing patterns of chemical interactions between neurons.  The state of the world consists in the interplay of forces amongst patterned matter and energy, extending strongly or weakly between the various points of the entire universe.  It is not clear that some unique and transparent correspondence can be established between those two things and unambiguously labeled “truth”.  On a conceptual, theoretical level, the question of the truth of our beliefs, their confirmation or disconfirmation, is not at all a trivial one.  Although on the pragmatic level of day-to-day actions, it very often is.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Truth, knowledge, skepticism, and stuff…

A standard philosophical definition of knowledge goes as follows:

(I know A) <=> (I have a justified belief that A) and (A is true)

As I write this essay, I’m in the middle of reading Robert Nozick’s discussion of knowledge and skepticism in Philosophical Explanations.  Nozick uses a very specific concept of “truth tracking” which leads to some very interesting results, but is essentially (it seems to me) just a particular approach to defining justification, one that leads to a coherent (I think), but sometimes quite peculiar conception of knowledge.  I find myself working around a rather different rejection of philosophical skepticism.  What follow are musings, not intended to represent a complete expression of a developed idea.

If some particular skeptical scenario (SK: SK => not-A) were true, then A would be false, and I would not know A.  However, A, so not-SK, and I do know A.  The skeptic’s objection fails, because SK is not true.

Truth is outside my direct experience.  It is not something I have direct access to.  To use Dewey’s language from Experience and Nature, it is not something I “have directly”.  All that I have directly is justification (evidence, inference rules, trusted sources, etc.)  There is no way to operationalize truth; I can only operationalize justification.  One reason that theories of knowledge remain so problematic is that knowledge, vs. justification and belief, has exactly zero influence on our behavior at time t = now().  We try to justify our beliefs, and to act on justified beliefs.  Later, we may come to believe that our prior beliefs were not (properly) justified, i.e., were false.  But at any given moment (outside of certain contexts of philosophical inquiry) the question, “Are my beliefs true, or merely justified?” is never a useful one.  The question, “Is this belief justified?”, however, is (always?) an important one.  Operationally, the question of “truth” always devolves to:  from perspective B (perhaps a later one), do the beliefs held to be justified from perspective A still appear justified?

There is no way to operationalize (general, philosophical) skepticism at all.  Skepticism places all logical possibilities on an equal footing.  All available evidence is discounted, and there is no way to distinguish one possibility from another, to prefer one over the other.  Skepticism cannot give any positive plan of action.

Philosophical skepticism of the sort I am referring to (what Hume referred to as Pyrrhonism) must not be confused with a critical evaluation of our methods of justification.  Critical evaluation of our methods of justification is completely operational and is critical to ensuring that they track truth as closely as possible.

P.S.  Nozick, I think, expresses an insight similar to mine above about truth and experience when he says (p. 232 in my paperback copy) “We have said that knowledge is a real connection of belief to the world, [which we call] tracking, and… this view is external to the viewpoint of the knower, as compared to traditional treatments, [though] it does treat the method he uses [to track truth] from the inside, to the extent it is guided by internal cues and appearances.”

P.P.S.  Anticipating certain gleeful but misguided reactions to my rejection of “skepticism”, I want to point out a deviation between a common vernacular use of the word “skeptical” and philosophical skepticism, to wit, the phrase: “Skeptical about God.”  Disbelief in God (or even just doubt) is usually based on a belief that you can trust the evidence to lead you to true conclusions about the world.  Doubt about God stems from observing the lack of positive evidence, and disbelief from observing that the available evidence is incompatible with the God hypothesis.  These methods of justifying belief are exactly antithetical to philosophical skepticism, which holds that no amount of evidence is ever sufficient to justify a belief.  Theists, in fact, often (mis-)apply a skeptical argument when they claim that “You can’t prove a negative result,” not realizing that, if true, this argument merely puts their God on exactly the same footing as being a brain in a vat manipulated by alien scientists in the Alpha Centauri system.

P.P.P.S.  (9/7/2013)  I need to correct my statement that Nozick's concept of "tracking" is just a special case of justification.  (He is at pains to distinguish them on p. 267, by which time I was in a position to realize what he meant.)  Tracking, like truth, is external:  our methods really do track truth.  Justification is internal: we believe our methods track truth, and are therefore reliable or justified.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Madness foisted

Does anybody remember when Kleenex boxes just had a hole in the top to get the tissue out, and didn't have a slotted piece of plastic film glued around the hole to hold the next sheet in position?  Why did they change this?  Did anybody have a real problem getting the next tissue out of the old boxes?  Seriously?  The old boxes were simple, and about as cheap as they could be.  The new boxes are probably cheap, too, but making a box and gluing a sheet of plastic in it MUST be at least a little more expensive than just making the box, and it is more harmful to the environment to use the extra material, especially a non-biodegradable, petroleum-based plastic. Why?

Another of my pet peeves is coffee cup lids.  I drank coffee on the go for many years when the cups had simple, tearably-thin plastic lids with no holes to drink through.  I never had a problem getting my coffee out (improvising a sipping hole if-and-when I needed one), nor did any of the other coffee drinkers I knew.  But over time, all the coffee shops started providing (and ONLY providing) much heavier lids (more material) that couldn't easily have custom holes torn in them - but had a PERMANENT sipper hole.  The main function of these sipper holes seems to have been to dribble coffee everywhere (usually all over your clothes) while you were walking to your destination with the cup.  After several decades of this madness, some coffee shops started realizing that this was a problem for their customers.  Their solution was to provide ANOTHER thick, heavy piece of plastic to temporarily plug the unnecessary hole in the unnecessarily thick plastic lid.

The theoretical justification of the capitalist marketplace is that it "puts the consumer first" because they have sovereignty over their purchasing decisions, and producers compete to satisfy the sovereign customer.  But the only feedback is the purchasing decision, which comes LONG after the production decision has been made (and after many prior purchasing/production decisions, such as deciding on expensive retooling of factories).  But I don't think consumers were ever clamoring for plastic tissue-holders in Kleenex boxes, or thicker coffee cup lids with permanent sipping holes, and I doubt that many consumers ever made the choices of buying or not buying tissue or coffee based on these features.  These were unnecessary and irrational choices made by producers and foisted on consumers due to the inefficiency of a feedback mechanism so feeble as to be virtually non-existent.

I dream of a more rational economic system in which production decisions could me made deliberatively and collectively in a broad-based social process, and not in isolation and secret by competing cabals of producers, to be "voted on" after the fact by individual consumers acting even more in isolation and faced with limited and complexly aggregated purchasing options.

But, hey, maybe its just me that's gone mad, and not the rest of the world.  Who knows?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Choice and Determination

If we choose, and our choosing is not pure, unanalyzable magic, then there must be some mechanism, however complicated, by which we make the choice.  Logically, it seems that, either this mechanism must be “deterministic” in the sense that if the mechanism is in exactly the same state, and receives exactly the same inputs*, then it will decide in exactly the same way; or there is some purely random component (e.g. quantum uncertainty) that affects the choice.

Neither of these options “sounds like” free will.  But if this is not free will, and free will is not simply a meaningless concept, or at least irrelevant to the choices we actual can and do make, then there must exist some entity whose choices are being constrained by this process.  That is, there must be some entity that is not “free”.   But if some entity is unfree, what entity is it?  If “you” are not exercising “free will” in these conditions, who are “you”?

We, the material, biologically constructed entities that we are, do make choices, and our choices are made in an effort to further the ends that we have conceived for ourselves.  This much is manifest.  It seems meaningless to me to say that we do not have free will in these choices based on some highly abstract argument that somehow we will never make the choices we don’t end up making.  What does it even mean for us to somehow be “able” to make the choice we do not, in fact, end up making?  I don’t see how that idea can be rendered coherent, except by reference to physical/mechanical potentialities, and epistemic possibilities that are fully compatible with the “deterministic” mechanisms of choice referred to above.    

In any case, other than these organic mechanisms, which make choices in the manner that we, in fact, make them, there is no entity here that can be “unfree”.

Of course, our choices are constrained, by the materials and opportunities available in our environment, by our abilities, physical and cognitive, by our histories, including things that have happened to us and previous choices we have made.  And of course the ends and goals that we conceive are formed by similar internal and external factors.  But for this to mean that our choices, from among the options that seem epistemically possible to us at the given moment, are “unfree”, there would have to be some self, other than the selves so constructed by history, biology, and prior choice, whose freedom was constrained, whose will was being denied, by the choices the biological “we” are making.  I cannot, for the life of me, conceive of what that other self might be.

I conclude that to say that people do NOT have free will makes no sense.  All that is left is to either accept that the way we actually choose represents free will, or to take the question of free will as an ultimately meaningless “pseudo-question”.  But at this point the choice is purely “semantic” in the colloquial sense of “just a matter of words”, and it makes no real, philosophical difference which wording you pick.

*The conditions of the mechanism being in “exactly the same” state and receiving “exactly the same” inputs  are considered only to focus on the logical argument.  They are both, in practical reasoning, impossible.  The universe is far too complex for it ever to be put back in the same state twice, and as for our “mechanism”, it is altered by every experience, and therefore can never be in the same state twice.  Even settling for “highly similar” is dubious.  Most significant human choices are, neurologically, a chain (actually a highly “parallel” web) of micro decisions, each of which potentially alters decisions further down the line, possibly in a binary manner (on/off – no shades of gray).  The end result, it seems to me, must show sensitive dependence on initial conditions, whether the component steps do, or not.  (They may.)  Thus even “similar” inputs to a brain in a “similar” state can lead to widely different outcomes.

Note:  I wrote most of the above text while I was reading Ch. 2 in Daniel C. Dennett’s book “Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting”, a book which I have subsequently completed.  I think my views on this, as on many other topics, are broadly compatible with Prof. Dennett’s.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Occupy Wall Street

They re-occupied Wall Street, yesterday. The mainstream media seems to be largely blacking it out, and it's hard to tell exactly what is happening. The crowd in photos looks smaller than some Occupy internet sites have claimed. I suspect the forces of the City of New York, and possibly the Federal Government, will come down on them like a ton of bricks - certainly if they pitch tents, or seem to be assembling in too much strength. I suspect the near-certainty of this will keep a lot of prudent potential protesters away. Still, the mere fact that this is happening causes profound emotion to well up from my heart to my tearing eyes.

I love the Occupy movement with a surprising, deep intensity. It is the source of much frustration, true. But the sins of the Occupiers are those of naivete, mostly. Their strengths are hope, inclusion, solidarity, love, and pure heart. Compare this to a mainstream culture based on self-interest, greed, hypocrisy, and the exercise of naked power. Not much choice, is there?

I do not know how to go about building a better world. As U.S. and global political and economic centers grow stronger, more concentrated, and more adamantly resistant to change, I grow less and less certain that it is even possible. But I do know that whatever limited powers of intellect, knowledge, ability I may possess, I'd rather throw them on the side of love and hope than greed, aggression, and repression. I know which side I'm on.

My favorite Occupy chant expresses, I think, both the sometimes childlike innocence of the movement, and its enthusiasm and unlimited, but unselfish, ambition:

"Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Main Street.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

All the Money in the World

"If you had all the money in the world, it would be worthless." At the risk of ruining the appearance of sagacity, I will 'splain my thinking.

If "money" is defined as "gold" or "cattle" or something else which has use value as well as value as a medium of exchange, then the statement in my "status" would not be true. If you had all the gold or cattle in the world, it would be worth something. But money, qua money, has value only in its role as facilitating exchange in a functioning economy. If it became TOO concentrated, it could no longer fill this role. Most people having no money, they would have to acquire goods and services they didn't produce themselves in some other way (e.g., barter or rapine), or they would have to introduce some other medium of exchange in lieu of "money" (e.g., cigarettes in prison or post-war Europe), which of course would then technically be money, in which case the people who had concentrated the official "money" in their hands would no longer have "all the money in the world".

In any case, my thought experiment ran that IF you had "all the money in the world" its extreme scarcity would make it useless as medium of exchange, and it would no longer be "money". Of course, social disruption and change (of the political system, or economic system, or both) would happen long before that that time. The relevant questions, to our own radically unequal national and (even more) world societies are: "What kind of change?" and "When?"